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Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Hell Indeed

Some "self-centered" items from our devotions this morning:

"The true value of a human being is determined primarily by the measure and sense in which he has attained liberation from the self"--Albert Einstein (a fairly well-known introvert, by the way).

"Being overly preoccupied with ourselves stunts our spiritual growth just as it limits all we do.  We cannot realize our full potential when we are concentrating on our desires or fears.  We cannot hear the voice of our Inner Guide when we are listening to the voice of our anxiety.  Our recovery can be measured by our progress in getting out of ourselves."  In God's Care: Daily Meditations on Spirituality and Recovery, July 31.

To which voice did the Rich Fool actually listen--the voice of the Lord or the whispers of anxiety? Regardless how confident his self-dialogue might sound, it is the whisper of anxiety that turns into the howl of greed.

"Our addictions are only symptoms of our underlying disease--the disease of self-centeredness.  Surrendering the self automatically puts us in touch with the power of the universe--our Creator."  In God's Care: Daily Meditations on Spirituality and Recovery, July 31.

Unless we die to self and take up our cross, we cannot make room for all that our Lord wishes to do with us, in us and through us.

"One of the most serious consequences of the me-me-me syndrome is that we lose touch with practically everyone around us--not to mention reality itself...I pray that my preoccupation with self, which is wound up tight as a Maypole, may unwind itself and let its streamers fly again for others to catch and hold.  May the thin, familiar wail of me-me-me become a chorus of us-us-us..."  A Day at a Time: Daily Reflections for Recovering People, July 31.

This is a powerful image and a powerful prayer.  As Lewis describes in The Great Divorce, hell is that place so full of me that there is no room left for anyone else--especially for God.  I love how he describes the need of the lost souls to move further and further from one another and from heaven for all eternity.  When I am at the center of existence, there simply is room for no one else.

And that is hell indeed.

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Powerlessly Powerful

The Parable of the Rich Fool offers a platform for describing the debilitating dangers of self-sufficiency.  After all, is there any more definitive conversation about self-sufficiency than one that begins, "Self!"?

Adam Grant describes, for example, David Walton--a successful attorney who stutters.  Grant points to this example to discuss the difference between "powerful" and "powerless" communication.  Our culture expects powerful communication--loud, fast, dominating and articulate speech.  At the beginning of a relationship, we reward such communication with attention and deference.  But that response is often short-lived.  Powerful communication is likely to generate resistance rather than respect over the long haul.

Grant says, "Powerless communicators tend to speak less assertively, expressing plenty of doubt and relying heavily on advice from others.  They talk in ways that signal vulnerability, revealing their weaknesses and making use of disclaimers, hedges and hesitations" (Give and Take, page 130).  These communicators tend to be givers rather than takers.  Grant reminds us that there is no substitute for knowing your stuff, but after that vulnerability is often a more effective way to exercise influence.  And it would seem that Walton is one powerlessly powerful communicator in the courtroom.

The self-sufficient Rich Fool didn't need anyone else, it would seem.  And that's a good thing  People had probably stopped listening to him a long time ago.

In fact, the best salespeople are almost always givers rather than takers.  It's not that giving is required to be a losing proposition for those who give of themselves to others.  In fact, giving is one of the primary ways of receiving personal satisfaction in this life.  The catch is that we cannot give in order to get.  That is, if we treat others as means to our ends, they will catch on fairly quickly and that will be the end of that game.  But givers have surrendered by and large both self-absorption and self-sufficiency.  So they are of all people the happiest and the most productive.

"It's the givers," Adam Grant notes, "by virtue of their interest in getting to know us, who ask us the questions that enable us to experience the joy of learning from ourselves.  And by giving us the floor, givers are actually learning about us and from us, which helps them figure out how to sell us things we already value" (page 137).

I see this in mediation practice as well.  The parties most focused on their own interests and positions often end up getting the least out of the process in the end.  Those gentle-spirited givers--the ones who both know their own bottom lines and are willing to be open to the needs of the other--these are the parties that on average get more in mediation than anyone else.  They walk away with much of what they hoped to gain.  More than that, they walk away with hearts and spirits more whole and less drained than the combative takers and the cautious matchers.

What if the Rich Fool had been wise?  Perhaps his dialogue would have gone like this.  "Wow, do I have a lot of stuff--way more than I could ever use!  I wonder who else might benefit from all these blessings.  I'm going to call a meeting of the village elders and see how we might manage these gifts for the good of all.  I have some ideas, but I'd really like to hear what some other folks have to say."  

One's life does not consist in an abundance of possessions.  But that abundance could surely give a lot of life away.

Two Way Traffic

More reflections on the Parable of the Rich Fool in Luke 12...

All life-giving spiritual processes travel on two-way streets.  I can receive forgiveness only if I can also forgive.  I can accept love only to the degree that I can give love.  If I am unwilling to benefit from the help of others, I will be fundamentally unable to give help unconditionally.  If I cannot give without expectation of benefit or return, I will be unable to receive anything without condition of repayment in kind.

Miroslav Volf makes the connection, for example, between giving and forgiving in his great book, Free of Charge.  It was surprising to me at first to find a book that combined the themes of forgiveness and generosity.  Then it became clear.  These are both "parallel processes" in an emotional and spiritual sense.  More than that, giving and forgiving emanate from the same emotional and spiritual centers of our beings.  Both are rooted in the grace of God in Christ.

The Rich Fool has blocked the spiritual road marked "Giving and Receiving."  His life is not taken from him in order to punish him for his greed.  It is the practical outcome of a lifetime of keeping things to oneself.  Since he is unwilling and now unable to give of himself to others, he is unable to receive himself again.  So he comes to a point in his journey where there is no self left.  When he has his interior dialogue, he is talking into a great void that echoes with futility.  He has refused to give for so long, that his "self" has atrophied to nothing.

People involved in twelve-step recovery programs know that helping others is critical to the ongoing journey of recovery.  "Helping others is the foundation stone of your recovery," notes the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous, "A kindly act once in a while isn’t enough. You have to act the Good Samaritan every day, if need be."  This is not to prove one's personal worth or to demonstrate the power of recovery.  Giving help opens the path to receiving help.  Generosity of self is always the path to healing.

The Rich Fool keeps all things to himself.  Most important, he keeps himself to himself.  He can't build big enough barns to make room for that selfishness because it adds nothing to him.  Instead, that cramped spirit depletes him to the point of utter emptiness.  The Hebrew for fool ("nabal") has about it the sense of emptiness and futility rather than stupidity.  The Rich Fool has, in existential terms, bet on the wrong horse.  And that wrong horse was the Self.

The prayer attributed to St. Francis of Assisi captures well the reality of the two-way spiritual path.  "For it is in giving that we receive," the prayer reminds us, "it is in pardoning that we are pardoned, it is in dying that we are born to eternal life."  It is not that in giving we are rewarded with gifts or that in pardoning we pay for our pardon or that in dying we merit eternal life.  It is, instead, that without those actions we simply cannot access the the goodness, the reconciliation, and the resurrection offered to us in Jesus Christ.

We can give and receive, or we can dry up and die.  Will I live today on that two-way street?

Monday, July 29, 2013

Rich and Foolish

Upcoming for many of us preachers is one of those great gospel texts--the Parable of the Rich Fool (Luke 12:13-21).  You may recall that I discussed a bit of Adam Grant's fine book, Give and Take, in some previous posts.  I want to return to that in the next day or two as I pray over this gospel text in preparation for Sunday.

I am struck by Grant's distinction between givers and takers.  "Takers have a distinctive signature," Grant writes, "they like to get more than they give.  They tilt reciprocity in their own favor, putting their own interests ahead of other's needs" (page 4).  Givers are wired in another way.  "They tilt reciprocity in the other  direction," Grant continues, "preferring to give more than they get.  Whereas takers tend to be self-focused, evaluating what other people can offer them, givers are other-focused, paying more attention to what other people need from them" (page 4).

The rich fool completes his building renovation and expansion project.  All his crops are safely stored away.  He then has a conversation with...himself.  "Self," he says, (that's a better translation of psyche than 'soul' in this context), "you are set for years to come.  Eat, drink and be merry."  This internal dialogue is remarkable in a culture where most people didn't even read to themselves, much less talk to themselves.  In Grant's schema, the Rich Fool is a taker par excellence.  He is self-focused rather than other-focused.

Eat, drink and be merry--of course, there is the last part of that statement as well.  For tomorrow we die.  In the case of the Rich Fool, that is precisely what happens.  "This very night your life will be required of you."  Of course, Jesus doesn't tell this parable in order to illustrate how the greedy will be punished in the end.  Instead, the punch line is that our lives do not consist of possessions.  Or, if they do, there is no life left.

It is another example of the idolatry principle: we become what we worship.  If we worship our stuff, we will be "stuffed" in the end.  

Grant describes how different life is for the giver.  For the giver life does not consist of possessions. Life consists of relationships.  And relationships are sustained and deepened through giving.  I try to remind people often that Jesus wants from us only what is good for us.  If something is not good for us, Jesus doesn't want it from us.  And, according to Grant, giving is definitely good for us.

In the long run and on average, givers end up earning more than takers.  Givers make room for the views and opinions of others and engage in the powerful strategy of vulnerability.  Givers report more happiness, less depression, more joy and less anxiety than takers.  "It seems that giving adds meaning to our lives," Grant writes, "distracts us from our own problems, and helps us feel valued by others" (page 183).  In the church, we too often urge people to give on the basis of obligation.  In fact, giving is good for us, and it's irresponsible not to urge people to give.

The worst part of the Rich Fool's life is his isolation.  He has only himself as a dialogue partner.  It may be that he has no idea how generous other people are.  Like other privileged people, he may be cut off from the generosity of others since he is self-sufficient.  So he has no idea how compassionate others are or how much fun giving can be.  In fact, we are surrounded by generous people who simply don't make a lot of noise about it.  

So if you feel that generous impulse, you're not alone.  In fact, you're in good and numerous company. Keep on giving!


Let's think together for a bit about motivational styles and techniques.  I'm not talking about how I get motivated.  I want to reflect together on the ways we as leaders motivate others.

In her book, Quiet, Susan Cain describes research into the ways in which extroverts and introverts relate to one another.  The results of several studies indicate that "introverts like people they meet in friendly contexts; extroverts prefer those they compete with" (page 231). 

This has particular significance for how introverts and extroverts respond to encouragement.  Introverts do better with coaches and trainers and bosses who speak in gentle and soothing tones.  Extroverts produce more when they are pushed harder with more challenging and confrontational language.  

I think that the same holds true for delivering motivational language.  I would much prefer to encourage people with gentle nudges, with moderate humor, and with positive reinforcement.  With groups of people, such as congregations, this soft approach is generally ineffective.  Once in awhile I get impatient or tired and I sound--at least to myself--like a Marine Drill instructor.

This happened yesterday during announcements.  I strongly encouraged volunteering for a congregational task.  Afterwards I thought I had been too harsh and that I had probably offended more than a few people in the crowd.  

My fears seemed to be confirmed when I learned that the leader of that effort had sent an email.  I was already composing the apology in my head when I heard the rest of the message.  Response to my peremptory orders had been quite good.  Thanks for making the announcement.

Of course, the majority of the crowd were thick-skinned extroverts who simply needed to have their...priorities adjusted.  If I had heard the same message, I would have been slightly offended by the tone and my motivation to comply would have been reduced.  So now I think that perhaps I need to adjust my apology and target it to the gentler souls in the crowd.  

Well, probably not.  Because then I would have to apologize for my apology since I would make all of us highly sensitive introverts feel worse for having been singled out.  I can testify from a lifetime of experience that I am nearly impossible to please when it comes to motivational style (and oh so many other things as well).  But since I am an introvert, you would never know this to be the case.

It is an always growing edge in my leadership development.  I will never be comfortable making demands of people--or at least what I would experience as demands.  So, as Cain points out, I have to act comfortable even when I don't feel it.  This is necessary if I am to do my job effectively as a leader.  
I know that if I don't go ahead and establish some organizational order, then I will be resentful of those who have not complied with my kinder, gentler and softer entreaties.  That resentment will accumulate until I move from Teddy Bear Lowell to the Godzilla Pastor.  So I am better off living with my anxieties about being too mean in small doses rather than having to pick up the pieces when I have let the accumulating irritation get the best of me.

One of the saving graces is having someone with whom to check this all out.  Was I too harsh?  Did I sound like I was giving orders to the inmates?  Was I too snide or snarky by half?  I am blessed with a spouse who listens carefully and gives good feedback.  I think that is the best tool we introverts can have in dealing with our own inner critics--someone we trust to speak the truth to us with love.

So, here's the deal.  You know what you need to do today.  Get off your butts and get out there and do it!  Oh, I hope I didn't say that too strongly.  Are you feeling OK?

Saturday, July 27, 2013

Brainstorms and Headaches

Where I wanted to be when brainstorming
How many of you have participated in so many brainstorming sessions that it makes your head spin? 

Go ahead, raise your hands.  You won't be alone.  Now, how many of you have thought those sessions were a colossal waste of time and little more than a pooling of shared ignorance?  Come on, you introverts, you know who you are.  

All right, I'll go first...

And, of course, you were correct.  I am embarrassed to say this out loud, since in my various facilitative guises I have led more brainstorming sessions than I care to remember.  Organizational psychologists have known for over fifty years that such sessions tend to produce lower quality ideas and fewer of them besides.  We often do better generating and developing our own ideas.

So why is brainstorming so popular and so revered?  Susan Cain notes that it is a wonderful tool for strengthening the social glue of a group (Quiet, page 89).  If that's the goal of a brainstorming exercise, then it will be a success--at least for all the extroverts who get energy from such communal bonding experiences.  And it's usually the extroverts who write the reports.  But if the goal is producing a large volume of quality ideas, then such processes are usually dismal failures.

Why is that that?  Cain points to three psychological explanations for such failures:

  • social loafing: some group members will sit as freeloaders in the process;
  • production blocking: only one person can talk at a time while the others listen.  Thus the process works by addition rather logarithmically;
  • evaluation apprehension: we fear looking stupid in front of others.
The third explanation, Cain notes, runs so deep that it is difficult to defeat.  One of the results of this apprehension is the "false consensus" effect.  Those who speak first, loudly and with conviction will have an inordinate impact on the outcome.  Cain reminds us of the conformity experiment performed by Solomon Asch and associates (  

The assertive extroverts can take a brainstorming process any direction they wish while the introverts sit and steam.  The anxious introverts will wonder if their noisy colleagues are in fact correct.  The calm introverts will simply be irritated because there is no room for introspective processing.  The false consensus effect will therefore reduce the number of quality ideas, increase the underlying tension in the group and disenfranchise the quiet group members.

So, what's a facilitator to do?  I have adjusted my practice to always make room first of all for the introverts.  For example, before we begin an idea-generating conversation, I ask participants to write down--without discussion--any and all ideas they can come up with individually.  I assure them that they only need share aloud the ones they want to share.  However, I will include in the written summary of the process any and all ideas shared aloud or in writing.  That begins to open the door for the less verbal in the group.

If it is a process that needs to produce a result at the meeting, I distribute pads of sticky notes.  I ask participants to write each idea on a separate slip of paper.  If you are familiar with the "Great Permission" process, you will recognize this tactic.  Then I ask the participants to stick their ideas up on the wall.  After that, group members can spend some time collating the ideas into categories or relationships of some kind.  There's a bit of anonymity in this process and some safety in numbers.  In addition, the sheer volume of ideas typically quadruples compared to traditional brainstorming sessions.

We need floods of wisdom in our processes not storms in the brain.  Introverts of the world arise! Well, that's asking too much.  But at least we can feel a little less defective in the extroverted mayhem of our daily life.

Clay Pots and Quiet Conversations

On to a new book--I'm reading this one out of self-defense and for increased mental health.  The book is Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking, written by introvert and author, Susan Cain.  Every time I take the Myers-Briggs, I come out as an introvert.  And every time I share that with folks, those who don't know me well are surprised.  

Like so many introverts in this noisy culture, I have learned to do the extrovert dance in order to get along.  It's like being left-handed in a right-handed world (that's me too).  We learn to make allowances and adjustments.  Of course, left-handers are statistically at a higher risk for accident and injury in this right-handed world.  And introverts are often penalized for being quiet.  We are mistaken for those who are slow, not so bright, less creative, shy, and not very interesting.

Let me think about that for minute.  No, just give me a second, I'll get there...I believe, upon reflection, that such an analysis is incorrect.

As an interim pastor, I get to watch congregations as they seek out candidates for pastoral leadership.  The cultural liabilities of introversion impact, I believe this process in precisely the same ways that corporate recruitment is skewed toward extroverts.  

First, there is the way that congregations describe themselves to prospective candidates.  I have read descriptions that would make make any local chamber of commerce blush with envy.  These congregations are poised for the future, vibrating with energy, humming with activity and coiled to spring into action.  I read these descriptions and am exhausted by the second sentence.  Worse yet, I simply don't believe them.  I can't speak for other readers, but I want to see the heart of a congregation not the hype of a promotional ad.

Second, there is the extroversion bias built into our organizational cultures.  Many of us are attracted by big personalities with loud voices who talk a great deal.  We want people of action and decision.  We are attracted to people who exude confidence and harbor no doubts.  Those candidates who speak more softly, who might hesitate a bit, who have some measure of humility, and who can see multiple perspectives--many times these folks won't make the first cut.

This is particularly true for larger congregations, at least in our tradition.  The real problem is that this may well lead to a classic triumph of style over substance and chutzpa over character.  We often love the attractive and high-energy narcissist at the beginning and often hate such a personality in the end.

Cain tracks this tendency in the world of business leadership.  There is the "Winner's Curse" where the combination of fast talking, decisive action and a big ego can lead a company to spend way too much money winning a deal that isn't all that good in the end--simply because winning matters and speed is of the essence.

Putting a premium on talking can lead us to ignore the ideas of the quiet people.  That will be a problem in leadership selection, in congregational life, and in mediation or negotiation.  Cain quotes Jim Collins in Good to Great, who notes that many of the most successful business leaders in this generation are introverts.  "We don't need giant personalities to transform companies," Cain writes.  "We need leaders who build not their own egos but the institutions they run" (page 55).

I think I read somewhere that "the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve..."  and I seem to recall something about having this treasure in earthen vessels in order to show that the power comes from God and not from us.

How about that...(by the way, I can tell you where to get a pot like the one in the picture!)

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Meerkats and Puppies

"There is simply more of a market for statements about potential dread events"--Nicholas DiFonzo, The Watercooler Effect, page 32.

We are wired to be far more sensitive to threats than to opportunities.  Anyone in leadership must take this into account at all times and behave accordingly.  It takes about six times as much effort to move a positive proposal forward in an organization as it does to get a negative idea rolling.  

I am not a behavioral psychologist, so my ratio is a rough estimate at best. However I know that it takes about five or six positive statements to dispel or counteract every negative statement.  That ratio is true in marriages, for example.  Healthy marriages depend on partners who work at giving each other positive strokes far more often than negative ones.  The same is true in organizations.

For a while the television show, Meerkat Manor, was wildly popular.  The meerkats are cute critters, but there was far more to it than that.  We humans love to look at anything or anyone that resembles us.  Every time those meerkats popped up on their hind legs and scanned the horizon, millennia-old instincts were activated inside of us.  They were looking for any potential threats, ready at a moment's notice to sound the alarm.

We are creatures of the savanna as well.  We recognized that behavior without a conscious thought.  There is more of a market for threat information because that's how we've made it this far.

We have limited cognitive capacity, of course.  If we spend all our time, energy and attention on our hind legs scanning the area for danger, we have very little time left to respond to potential opportunities.  Anyone who has ever done a SWOT analysis with a congregation knows this.  It is always easy to populate the "Threat" quadrant with dozens of items.  The "Opportunity" quadrant is often woefully empty.

So, what to do as a leader?  I must always remind myself first to expect resistance.  Every new idea, suggestion or plan will be regarded to some degree as a potential threat that requires further examination.  I must still be disciplined as I roll out a proposal.  I can't let myself be deterred or depressed by the first six negative responses.  Working my way through those reactions is just part of doing my job.  I need to affirm the concerns I hear without ratifying the fear underneath.

I have to remember, second, that threats are real.  I am an optimist and an early adopter.  I have met very few new ideas that I didn't like.  So sometimes I minimize or even ignore the very real threats that new proposals might contain or engender.  Those who respond with caution serve a key function in an organization.  While I wouldn't want a board of directors filled with naysayers, a few wisely cautious folks keep the train from derailing.

And then I have to embrace my leadership role as the one who is always ready to play.  Our Viszla puppy, Bella, is my role model for that.  She is the eternal optimist, always inviting a game of fetch or tug.  Every time she comes in, she heads for the treat closet on the off chance that someone might notice her obedience and reward her.  She is ever vigilant for opportunities.

There are plenty of meerkats in any organization.  Welcome them, but be on the lookout for the puppies. They are the real treasures.

Monday, July 22, 2013

How to Rumor Well

"Understanding rumors means...engaging in the basic human activity of making sense together in a way that is at once more difficult and more deeply gratifying..  It means having a greater appreciation for truth.  Rumor is something that we do as humans together; my hope is this book will help us to rumor well."  (Nicholas DiFonzo, The Watercooler Effect, page 221).
This is a refreshing take on the whole business of rumors in organizations and communities.  I have spent so much time encouraging people to refrain from secondhand communication.  I have noted that such communication is destructive, unproductive, irritating, unethical and unspiritual.  And so in my little parts of the world, people no longer spread rumors.

Right.  It is like spitting upwind in a hurricane.

DiFonzo has a less ambitious and more achievable goal--that we might "rumor well."  In my last post I described his notes about being effective rumor consumers.  In the final chapter of his book, DiFonzo offers his best insights on how to be effective rumor managers.  A brief summary is worth the time for any leader of an organization.

1. Good general communication in the organization serves to moderate uncertainty, reduce anxiety and thus to decrease the volume and temperature of the rumor mill.  "We might say that better formal communication displaces a group's informal efforts to understand a situation" (page 193).

2. When rumors are true, confirm them insofar as they are true.

3. As change happens to an organization, try to predict where the rumors will rise and what concerns they seek to address.  Preparation can make for better and quicker official responses.

4. Develop a norm of transparency.  Ask people in the know, "Are there any rumors floating that you've heard lately?"  Then be willing to address the rumors with honesty, facts and detail.  Larger organizations may need a structure, system or department to collect, process and respond to rumors.  This may be a hotline, web site, or suggestion box.

5. No matter how attractive the "no comment" response is, resist the temptation to use it.  People will make up bad information rather than to settle for no information at all.  This response "tends to heighten uncertainty and is therefore generally counterproductive if the goal is to squelch the scuttlebutt" (page 197).

6. Allow people places, spaces and processes for expressing and working through the normal anxieties of life together.  Create a culture that is tender toward the anxious and shares information without making people feel stupid.

7. DiFonzo advocates "rumor workshops" as a way to train people as responsible rumor consumers and managers.  One of the main emphases of such workshops is to create a fact-checking culture in the constituency and to let members know that most folks will be checking the facts most of the time.  "A rumor manager can lessen the likelihood that potential and actual rumor participants will place faith in a rumor because they have fostered a checking norm and have helped people become more aware of how rumors can be false.  The checking norm," DiFonzo concludes, "goes a long way to making rumor soil less fertile for rumor weeds" (page 204).

8. Refutation is important and can be done well.  First, it must be the truth.  Second, the refutation must be uttered by a trusted source.  Third, the refutation must come early in the life of the rumor in order to be most effective.  Fourth, the refutation has a context that makes the explanation anxiety reducing instead of anxiety producing.  Fifth, the refutation has a clear, detailed explanation with solid evidence.  Sixth, the refutation will give direction as to how the rumor should be dealt with now.

Rumor management is not about information suppression, DiFonzo concludes.  It is about "how we help people make good sense in a situation" (page 192).

I wonder if church judicatory meetings ought to include a rumor workshop as one of the annual breakout sessions?

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Becoming Better Rumor Consumers

I serve a congregation in the midst of calling a new pastor.  It is a highly anxious time and thus a time when rumors can fly at the speed of light.  For example, some rumors assume that someone is manipulating the process for sinister ends.  That someone might be our judicatory staff or the larger denomination, take your pick (no sinister purposes are at work--just the normal operations of a church system).  These conversations are understandable responses to passing time, limited information and a desire for leadership stability.  So I don't get too worked up about them.  This is all so very natural.

In such situations we can become more intelligent rumor consumers.  DiFonzo describes factors that increase the prevalence and virulence of rumors in an organization.  Awareness of these factors can equip us to be more self-critical as we listen to rumors and to ask more critical questions as we process them.

Poorly organized descriptions of events and responses to rumors tend to increase the credibility of a rumor.  If people have a hard time following a presentation about an issue, they will likely recall the most negative and threatening material and skate over the more positive information.  We are wired for threat-detection.

The limits of memory and information processing capacity will limit how much rumor detail can be transmitted.  The things that allow us to process more information and remember it longer--familiarity, coherence, simplicity, consonance with our existing beliefs, relationship with the speaker--will all limit and influence what elements of the rumor we are able to pass on to others.  DiFonzo refers to these processes as "leveling" and "sharpening."  "Leveling" means that some details are simply obliterated in memory.  "Sharpening" means that some salient details will accentuated at the expense of others.

Human memory is not, of course, a neutral information recording device.  Remembering is a constructive process far more than it is a notation process.  Every time we remember, we are rebuilding that "file" in light of our experiences, assumptions, and priorities.  This process can be called memory "assimilation."  DiFonzo notes that "rumor is therefore like a Rorschach test in which the personality--or some other aspect of the participant--gets projected onto the tale in its retelling" The Watercooler Effect, Kindle Location 2397).  So our reception of a rumor reveals more about us than about the rumor itself.

That rumor-driven inkblot is formed by a number of factors.  

  • Does rumor transmission affect my relationship with the transmitter or the recipient?
  • Does rumor transmission affect my status or position in my family or community?
  • Does the rumor reflect in some way on my self-image or my projected image?
  • Does the rumor cohere with or contradict my understanding of the world?
  • Does the rumor enhance or detract from my self-interested projects?
  • Is the subject of the rumor a friend or enemy?
The list could be extended for quite a while.  Self-interest, cognitive sloth, and the desire to be liked--all these are powerful (mis)shapers of rumors as they are passed along the gossip network.  As I receive information in an organization, I can do a better job of assessing the rumors if I remember these realities.

One responsible way to deal with rumors is to become a more intelligent rumor consumer.  Coming next are some of DiFonzo's insights on rumor mill management.

Saturday, July 20, 2013

Psst! Did You Hear About...?

I am working my way through The Watercooler Effect, Nicholas DiFonzo's study of the nature and management of rumors.  This is a useful essay for every manager of an organization, and especially useful for parish pastors.  We pastors help to lead some of the most anxious organizations on the planet.

DiFonzo notes that "a reliable rule is that rumors nearly always result from change in an organization..."  He suggests that these are major organizational changes.  However, he doesn't spend much time, perhaps, in religious congregations.  I had not, for example, taken the time to get a haircut as soon as some folks would like (not now, of course, but at some time in the past).  Soon there was the suggestion that I had gotten a body piercing that I was now trying to hide from the congregation.

Nothing dispelled the rumor except for an unusually severe hair trimming.

I was a bit absent-minded in trimming my beard and mustache one morning.  I made a grievous error in the trimming.  Suddenly I was faced with the prospect of (1) sporting a mustache that would make Adolph Hitler proud, or (2) shaving off the sad remainder and starting over.  I chose the latter option. Soon I was destined--according to the rumor factory--either (1) to be seeking a new call or (2) in trouble with my wife.  The latter notion was partially true, since she never cared for me without a mustache.  

That wife, by the way, was Anne of blessed memory.  You will have to ask Brenda on your own time about her views on my naked upper lip.

The fact that such rumors arose with so little stimulus probably illustrates what rumor experts call the "law of rumor."  That law states that "Rumors abound in proportion to the ambiguity or uncertainty inherent in a situation, and the importance of the topic."  Congregations, for the most part, are organizations with highly ambiguous daily lives.  So it takes little to generate a new rumor.  And, of course, things that might seem small to the outsider can achieve astonishing significance in the eyes of the insider.

A neighbor of a church I know complained that the electronic carillon was too loud.  As a courtesy, we turned it down.  The neighbor happened to be a single woman who had complained about other things in the past.  The pastor had made a few recent enemies by criticizing how tight the congregation was with money for the larger church and other benevolent causes.  It wasn't long before a minority of the congregation had the pastor and the neighbor consorting during afternoon romantic trysts.

This illustrates a couple of facts.  There is, in most Christian congregations, a small but unhealthy fascination with the sexual behavior of the pastor.  There are those who, for a variety of reasons, want that behavior to be sinister in some way.  

It also illustrates the fact that people will believe less credible rumors when they already disapprove of the subject of the rumor.  "When an individual is hostile toward something, or toward somebody, he is the more ready to believe unfounded statements to the discredit of that object or person," DiFonzo quotes from a study done in 1943.  "He seizes upon something he can use as a 'justifiable reason' for his hostility..."

So public figures have to be aware of whom they have irritated.  Public figures have to know what fascinations the general public have toward them and what preconceptions will fit with the rumors that are inevitably generated.  Most of all, we must remember that the volume of rumor in an organization is both a metric of the anxiety of that organization and a way to increase that anxiety level.

I'm getting to the author's recommendations for rumor management.  More on that soon...

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Check it out!

The new blog from the owner and manager of the Beans, Books and Bull Fair Trade gift store (my lovely spouse, Brenda)!  News is forthcoming about some awesome new partners in the adventure.  Watch for it!

A Readers' Poll

I'd like some input on the direction for The Saga of the Web-Surfing Squatter.

Would you like it to go in the direction of
a) a murder mystery
b) a slapstick comedy
c) a psychological thriller
d) the wastebasket

If there is to be a villain/ness, would you like it to be
a) Phil
b) Bill's wife
c) the pastor
d) the pastor's wife
e) a total surprise

If there is to be a hero in the end, would you like it to be
a) Martha
b) Jack
c) the pastor's wife
d) some random idiot
e) the congregation

What shall we name the pastor?
a) the same humbly anonymous name as now
b) Pastor Handsome
c) Reverend Rumble
d) His Holiness
e) the clumsy cleric

Thanks for the input!

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Our Truck Gets 40 MPG and Other False Hypotheses

Rumor is first of all a response to randomness.  It is an effort at sense-making, as DiFonzo points out in his fine little book.  Let me illustrate.

Our truck has a miles per gallon calculator built into the digital odometer display.  The calculator can be reset with each new tank of gas, if we wish.  We often do that.  It is interesting to see what happens in the first few miles of a new tank.  Mileage estimates range from nine miles per gallon to forty miles per gallon.  The calculator has insufficient data for an accurate conclusion.  So it simply does the best it can and produces erroneous results.

It is only at the end of the tank of gas that we get an accurate figure.  But we still look at the indicator periodically and say, "Well, that's pretty good for this old beast!" or "Better not use the air conditioner quite so much!"  Like the calculator we draw conclusions on insufficient data and take action based on those conclusions.

This is the nature of many rumors.  A person makes a few observations which may or may not be related.  Then that person draws conclusions that might be accurate, but likely the conclusions are off-target.  This is typically not the result of malice.  Instead, it is our anxiety to make sense out of things that drives the process.

Randomness is frightening.  If we don't know how things work, then we can't predict where the next threat or opportunity might arise.  If we can't connect the data points, we are lost in the tumbling darkness of disconnected events.  That is, for most of us most of the time, just too bitter to contemplate.

It is not a bad thing to produce tentative hypotheses.  We have to do that or sit paralyzed in fear.  The problem is that once we form those hypotheses, we invest in them.  The longer we hold these fragile figments of our imagination, the more real they become to us.  Hypothesis moves to theory, and theory morphs into fact.  

Our confirmation bias accelerates this process as we sort information according to our existing prejudices.  Information that doesn't fit our hypothesis is excluded.  Information that supports it is retained and magnified.  Our old truck really does get forty miles to the gallon.  After all, I saw that for a few seconds on the gauge.  And it seems like this last tank of gas carried us farther than normal.  Hallelujah!

Most of our explanations are barely accurate and rarely tested.  Then we inject malicious intent into places where things have happened randomly or as a result of incompetence.  This process is the beginning of numerous organizational conflicts in churches and elsewhere.  It is the organizational equivalent of the butterfly effect.  A random event at one end of the system generates a sense-making rumor that leads to gossip that produces division and conflict at the other end of the system.

People who live at the nodes of information systems need to develop high skill levels to gently test rumors.  We need to believe that coincidence does not create causality.  Some things just happen.  Many of our explanations are inaccurate.  Our anxiety fills in the blanks--usually with the wrong answer.

Wait and see...wait and see...wait and see.  At some point the gas mileage will find its way to 23.4 mpg.  And, after all, that's pretty good.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Thanks for the clicks!!! Every little bit helps!

Saying a little more...

Top ten motivators for pastors (in no particular order)...

10. People who support time for study, reflection and personal growth.

9. Members who want their pastor to be a person.

8. People who are more interested in doing than talking (or complaining).

7. Members more interested in being in relationship than in being right.

6. Shared passion for mission and service.

5. Openness to new ideas and willingness to build on them.

4. Real partners in mission.

3. Leaders who will take the flack without ducking.

2. Generous people.

1. Self-giving rather than self-serving.

Just Saying...

Top Ten Ways to Demotivate a no particular order.

10.  Tell her that theology is a fine thing in church but it doesn't really matter in the real world.

9.  Make your church involvement second to everything else.

8.  Have conversations about the pastor but not with the pastor.

7.  Do everything possible to keep everyone happy--except the pastor.  You will succeed in your task.  And please be prepared to volunteer for the next pastoral search committee which will be organized in about six months.

6.  Make jokes about how pastors only work one hour per week.  Before long, the pastor will be tempted to do just that.

5.  Ignore the pastor until there is a perceived emergency.  Then complain that the pastor wasn't immediately available.

4.  Demand that the church does the same things over and over every year.  After all, what the church does is not all that important.  What matters is that it looks like the church is doing something.

3.  Penalize the pastor for pursuing connections with people outside the church.  Of course, the pastor should only spend time on the people who hired him.

2.  Make the pastor ask for vacation and continuing education time and require such requests to be approved by a formal vote.  After all, these things are privileges and the pastor ought to be grateful to get anything at all.

1.  Walk into the parsonage without prior appointment.  Call with non-emergency church business at 11 p.m. or 6 a.m.  That's what "on-call" means, right?

Treat the pastor as a means to an end without any larger purpose or goal...if you like turnover in pastors and pastries, it's a good formula.

Saturday, July 13, 2013


Thanks for the click on an ad!  Helps to pay a few bills while I write...

Back to rumors and gossip for another post.  What are behaviors that can be taught to reduce the prevalence and power of rumors in a congregation or other organizational system?  There are no complicated answers to that question.  The behaviors, however, require institutional buy-in and repeated practice.

Resist the negativity bias.  All human communication will favor information that is negative, threatening, destabilizing and juicy.  Bad reports crowd out good ones.  We are defensive communicators--always on the lookout for information that might save us from a fall, a mistake, a wreck of some kind.  But that bias leads us to believe bad reports far more often than good ones.  Assume the best until you hear otherwise.

Always seek authentication before sharing or passing on information.  Even the most reliable sources are routinely wrong.  Have you ever played the "telephone" game?  When you hear a rumor, you're in the game.  Your choice is about whether to pass on the information uncritically and to become complicit in the dysfunction--OR NOT.

Issue friendly challenges to possible rumors.  You don't have to say to your friends, "Well, are you sure that's true?"  We tend not to do that to people we value.  Instead, engage in a learning conversation.  "I'm wondering where that information came from?  Help me understand some of the background of this conversation?  Is this something you got from the source or secondhand?" Unchallenged statements become authenticated rumors--especially when they contain threatening information.

Consider the information, not the source.  If we receive information from people we know and like, we tend to authenticate that information without question.  If we receive information from people we don't know or dislike, we tend to discount that information.  If we receive negative information about people we value, we tend to discount that information.  If we receive negative information about people we dislike, we tend to authenticate that information.  Instead, focus on the content of the information itself and ask whether it is verified AND true.

Do not ask rumor-generating questions of third parties.  For example, refrain from asking, "What have you heard about (fill in a name)?  If you want to know something, ask the person in question.  If you don't wish to do that, you are--by definition--not that interested.  This is often morbid curiosity masquerading as compassion.  This is often the energy that drives so-called "prayer chains" in many congregations.  Many of these chains are in fact gossip networks baptized with a patina of prayer.

Never, never, NEVER say, "Someone told me...Someone asked me...Someone was saying..."  If a communication is confidential keep your mouth shut, unless there is danger of abuse or injury.  Attribute all information to your source.  If it is obvious to you that your source is transmitting secondhand information, keep quiet.  Stop the chain.  Find some other way to have influence in the system, to maintain control over strangers, and to relieve your own anxiety.

Live with ambiguity and uncertainty.  Don't make someone else pay a price so that you can pretend that all is well, understood and resolved.  That is the function of rumor and gossip in an emotional system.  We are meaning-making critters.  We will create bad information rather than to deal with the lack of information.  We will create chains of cause and effect where none exist.  We will assume bad things rather to wait for the real story.

Resist...resist...resist...and this is especially true for leaders in a system.  One of our chief jobs as leaders is to intercept anxiety and to derail it.  Failed leaders transmit anxiety and give it a push downhill.  As leaders we can and should tell the truth at all times.  The truth is that things are rarely as bad as the gossip network would have us believe.

This is quite simple...and exceedingly difficult.  We can only do this together and with God's help.

Choosing the Better Part

I am looking at the Gospel reading in our church tradition for Sunday, July 21st.  It's the well-known story of Martha and Mary.  Martha is working away in the kitchen.  Mary is sitting at Jesus' feet, soaking in his teaching.  Martha comes to Jesus with a complaint disguised as a request: "Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me" (Luke 10:40 NRSV).

Brian Stoffregen takes the opportunity to reflect a bit on emotional triangulation in this text.  Be sure to look at his "Gospel Notes for Next Sunday" (you'll find a link on if you don't receive these notes already).  Stoffregen quotes from several locations in Edwin Friedman's Generation to Generation on the realities of emotional triangles.
"An emotional triangle is formed by any three persons or issues...The basic law of emotional triangles is that when any two parts of a system become uncomfortable with one another, they will ‘triangle in’ or focus upon a third person, or issue, as a way of stabilizing their own relationship with one another...In the concept of an emotional triangle, 'What Peter says to you about his relationship with Paul has to do with his relationship with you.'"
Stoffregen is quite right in identifying Martha's behavior as, at least in part, triangulation.  That sort of dynamic relies on partial or even inaccurate information.  Usually that information comes through the Fundamental Attribution Error--ascribing bad motives to you and good motives to me.  When that partial or inaccurate information enters to the social network, it becomes rumor, which fuels the often destructive activity of gossip.

Martha assumes that she knows what Mary is thinking.  It may be that Mary has shared something about her motives with her sister.  We don't know.  But Martha puts the least flattering spin on it--a spin that makes Martha look exceedingly good by contrast.  This is the social comparison function of gossip.  We will come back to that in future posts.

I have used this text to read up on the social psychology of rumor and gossip in Nicholas DiFonzo's book, The Watercooler Effect: An Indispensable Guide to Understanding and Harnessing the Power of Rumors.  He defines rumors this way.  "Rumors are unverified information statements that circulate about topics that people perceive as important; arise in situations of ambiguity, threat, or potential threat; and are used by people attempting to make sense or to manage risk" (page 38).

DiFonzo notes that these statements do not become gossip until they are shared in an unchallenged manner.  A personal anxiety doesn't become a rumor until I share it with someone else.  It may not become a rumor unless that person receives the information without challenge.  Unchallenged information becomes verified simply by being unchallenged.  In a breaths, a personal anxiety has become a fact that begins to circulate in a community.

I will share more from DiFonzo's work as I move through the book.  For today's purposes, we can look at the healthy behavior Jesus exhibits in this little vignette.  First he listens to Martha's complaint.  Then he challenges the factual information contained in it.  Then he turns the conversation back on to Martha and how she comes to the situation.  The rumor is cut off at the source.  The gossip system is deprived of additional fuel.  Mary gets to be who she is.  Martha needs to reflect on who she is and not to assume that she knows what Mary is doing.

Perhaps the "better part" that Mary has chosen is to listen for the truth rather than to speak out of her anxiety.

Rumor, gossip and social comparison are often dynamics that drive dysfunctional systems.  That is especially true of Christian congregations.  A pastoral colleague, Scott Musselman, wrote a wonderful article for the Net Results Magazine that described one congregation's efforts to overcome these dynamics and to live more like Jesus followers.  The article was entitled "Successful Guest Retention and Integration Practices," and you can find it in the May-June 2012 issue.  

We think that people outside the church stay away because we haven't marketed well enough.  In fact, they stay in large part because they know how we treat one another.  Who would want to sign up to be part of most Christian congregations these days?  Most of us have enough stress in our lives already.  Working to make our congregational systems healthier may be the most welcoming thing we can do in this missional age.

How can your congregation choose "the better part"?

Friday, July 12, 2013

The Accusation

Back to The Saga of the Web-Surfing Squatter...

The meeting of the Personnel Committee had been scheduled to happen in the upstairs conference room.  However, the crowd began to collect at 6:15.  Jack made an executive decision and moved the meeting to the fellowship hall.  He also set up a microphone, seeing the number of hearing aids in the crowd.

The pastor got to the church building at 6:30 and saw the accumulating numbers.  He went to his office rather than risking engagement in debates before everyone arrived.  He could hear the buzz of the gathering gallery as he tried one last time to relax and to gather his thoughts.  At about five minutes before the hour, he picked up a few notes and headed into the lion’s den.

The Personnel Committee sat at a head table.  All the members wore terrified expressions and spent a great deal of time inspecting their cuticle.  The committee chair was intently examining a stack of papers in front of him.  Bill was in a seat next to the committee chair, drumming the fingers of his left hand on the table.  There was a vacant seat next to Bill.

The pastor wanted to sit anywhere but in that seat.  He remembered, however, a rule of thumb from the Ancient Source of Solace.  “When your every bone is screaming for you to flee from a conflictor, go toward that person.  In a conflict situation, distance is dangerous.  Stay close in, and don’t look like you’re running or avoiding.”

So the pastor sat down next to the man who was intent on having him removed from office.  Bill smiled with the right side of his face and nodded as the pastor sat down.  The pastor looked out at the crowd.  He saw Phil just a few seats away, twisting the hem of his t-shirt into a rumpled knot.  Jack and Martha were a few rows back, sitting next to one another.  His wife, bless her, had just slipped into a seat in the very back row, but in a place where she could catch his eye with a smile.

About forty folks were there who had received his emergency invitation.  They were engaged in animated conversation, and many shot him looks of concerned curiosity.  The pastor could sense that Bill was surprised by this gathering but not really troubled by it.

The committee chair cleared his throat and rapped on the table.  “Thank you for coming to this meeting.  It is, may I say, unusual to have such an audience for a meeting of the Personnel Committee.”  He shot an accusing stare at the pastor.  “But we will do our best to accommodate all our guests.  The subject of this meeting is a charge of misconduct lodged against our pastor.  I will call upon our congregational president to speak regarding that charge.”

It was clear that this part of the meeting had been scripted.  Thus it was even clearer that the chair of the Personnel Committee was somehow in league with Bill.  The congregational president launched into his indictment.

“I take no pleasure in what I am about to say,” Bill declared.  Of course, he could not really hide that hint of a smile he flashed as he spoke.  “I have nothing but respect for the office of ministry in the church.  And it is because of that high respect that I must bring to light certain unfortunate realities.”

The pastor took a deep breath and waited.  There was no telling where this was headed.

“First, the pastor has knowingly continued the employment relationship with our custodian, when our custodian is five years beyond the mandatory retirement age for that position.  I have advised against this practice, but that advice was rejected.”  A disapproving murmur ran through the crowd, but Bill was undeterred.

“Second, the pastor has willingly opened our church facility to persons with known criminal records without consulting the church council leadership or taking appropriate security precautions.”  The pastor noticed that Lil was sitting near the back of the room, dabbing tears from her cheeks.

“Third, and most seriously, I have reason to believe that the pastor has been carrying out an extra-marital affair with one of those convicted felons in the church building.  And he has been doing so under the cover of my own brother’s unfortunate sexual orientation.  For these reasons, I must request that the Personnel Committee consider disciplining and even removing the pastor from his office.”

There was a moment of stunned silence.  Then every person in the room began talking at once.  Everyone, that is, except for the pastor.  He sat and waited for the initial storm to pass.  He had expected there would be some sort of outburst, and he had mentally rehearsed his calm pose.

He hadn’t prepared for the loud and lengthy laughing from the back row.

The crowd quieted down as the pastor’s wife continued to chuckle.  She stood up.  “May I say something?”

The chair of the Personnel Committee rapped his knuckles on the table.  “Quiet, please.  Quiet!  Thank you, madam, for your interest and concern.  But this is a committee meeting, and only committee members and invited guests will be allowed to speak.”  With that last comment he shot a glare at the pastor.  It was clear the chair didn’t appreciate the gathering of the gallery for this meeting.

“No, no!” many in the crowd shouted.  “Let her talk!  We want to hear what she has to say!”  This went on for over a minute.  The motivations in the crowd were as mixed as the members.  It was a combination of righteous indignation and morbid curiosity.  Finally, the chair relented.

“Very well,” he sighed.  “It is clearly the will of the people that we hear from you, madam.  But please keep it short and on topic.”

The pastor’s wife straightened up and looked at Bill.  “That’s the best you’ve got, Bill?  Accusations of marital infidelity?  I’ve lived with this man for thirty years.  I’ve never known him to stray.  Not that he hasn’t been given opportunity.  Women in churches have this fascination with male pastors that is not always healthy.”  At that moment several women in the crowd blushed before they could recover.

“Besides, my husband is no Brad Pitt,” she smiled.  “No offense, honey.”

“None taken,” he replied with half a grin.  What a woman he had married!

“I know you don’t have to be a movie star to get in difficulties with the opposite sex.  But really!  He spends more time with theology books than he does with any woman most days of the week.  This is just a silly conversation.  In addition, we have known this and have always been careful to be appropriate and discrete.  So I can tell you without question that this accusation is without basis and beneath contempt.  Of course, you could simply ask the woman in question.” 

The crowd drew in a breath in unison.  “She’s sitting over there in the corner.”  The pastor’s wife pointed to Lillian, who was cowering in fear.

“Yes!  Yes!” the crowd replied.  “What does she have to say?”

Lillian shook with anxiety and refused to speak.  The pastor’s wife walked over to her and invited her to stand.  Then she embraced the terrified woman and said, “It’s all right, dear.  You can say whatever you need to say.  I’ll stand right here beside you.”

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

The Conversion of the Taker

I'm still deciding just how far out on a limb to put "The Pastor" in my fictional saga before I saw that limb off in plot development terms.  In the meantime, here are more questions about giving, taking and congregational stewardship.

In Give and Take, Adam Grant thinks about how to turn "takers" into "givers."  He writes,
"...change people's behaviors first, and their attitudes often follow.  To turn takers into givers, it's often necessary to convince them to start giving.  Over time, if the conditions are right, they'll come to see themselves as givers." (page 247)
I think about my own giving story.  We came to our first parish, and we were giving at about the same rate as members of the congregation.  We gave about 1.75% of our income to the church.  I saw myself as a person of some integrity.  So I reasoned that if I were going to invite others to give more, I had better do so myself.  

Most of all, however, I knew that someone in the congregation--namely, the congregational treasurer--would know both how much I earned and how much I gave.  In truth, I was afraid that the treasurer would do the math and spill the beans.

We engaged in growth giving, increasing our giving one percent of our income per year.  It didn't take all that long to become tithers.  More to the point, I find that Grant's description is spot on.  It was the behavior that changed not only my attitude but also my self-understanding.  Because I was giving, I could see myself as a giver.  I'm not sure I would have qualified for that designation prior to giving to the church for a number of years.

So, how does that translate into concrete stewardship strategies and tactics in the church?  How do we create giving opportunities that will turn takers into givers?  We aren't going to publish the financial giving records of members (as we once did in another era).  So we deprive ourselves of one of the ways that takers are most likely to engage in giving.  

"Research shows that givers usually contribute regardless of whether it's public or private," Adam Grant writes, "but takers are more likely to contribute when it's public" (page 244).   The system of publishing annual giving in church reports was destructive and emotionally violent.  But it did likely induce takers and matchers to give more.  Short of that draconian approach, what can we do to bring about some behavioral conversion on the part of the takers?

Grant makes some suggestions.  One is a church version of the "Reciprocity Ring."  I described that in an earlier post when I suggested that we engage in a random draw for anonymous helping acts in the congregation.  The secret is to get takers into the habit of giving with no reward connected and no public recognition offered.

Grant points to research that shows how volunteering one's time can convert a taker's self-concept over the long run.  This is the "toss your hat over the fence" strategy.  Once people have invested time in a giving behavior, they must see themselves as givers or manage a significant cognitive dissonance.  If people give themselves away enough, they will resolve the dissonance in favor of self-identifying as givers.  So encourage selfless volunteering in every way possible in and out of the congregation.

Can we find "painless" ways to begin giving?  I have joined and become a lender to micr-businesses in the developing world.  I love the concept.  But the thing that tipped me into membership was the fact that I could lend twenty-five dollars just by inviting a friend to join.  The friend would get twenty-five dollars to lend as well.  It is a brilliant strategy.  I joined.  I invited someone else.  Now we both really feel obliged to repay the "gift" we got.  So I invite others, and I am investing my own funds.

Can congregations engage in Kiva-like initiatives for mission projects?  In fact, we do that all the time. Foundations and endowments offer matching fund to support various projects.  We all like to get more bang for our bucks.  Our larger church offers sponsored initiatives that do much the same thing in digging wells and buying livestock.  Right now you can buy fairly-traded "Sisters Blend" coffee and participate in the Lutheran World Relief quilt project as a by-product.

We know how to do this.

I am going to discuss this with my stewardship folks.  I think it will make all sorts of sense to them.  I'd be interested in your thoughts.

Tuesday, July 9, 2013


“And as far as I’m concerned, pastors cannot be trusted.  It’s time for you to go before you hurt somebody.”  After his tirade, Bill stopped in embarrassment.  This was far more of his hand than he had intended to show before the meeting.  But there it was.  Bill stormed out of Martha’s office before anyone could respond.

Martha and the pastor sat in stunned silence for a few moments.  Then the clock on Martha’s wall chirped.  That’s not a metaphor.  Martha was a lover of all birds, and she had a bird clock in her office.  Each hour the clock struck a different bird call.  At 5 p.m. it was a tufted titmouse.

The chirp shook the pastor out of his torpor.  “It’s five o’clock!” he groaned in disbelief.  “In two hours I have the meeting of my life.  What am I going to do in less than two hours to prepare?”

Martha pursed her lips into a pout.  Then she pointed her finger at the pastor.  “First,” she said, “you are not going to give up now.  Some of us have lived with that terrible little man our whole lives.  You’ve only had to deal with him for a few years.  So don’t you dare think about bailing out on us now!  We need you.”

“I’m not going anywhere, Martha,” the pastor smiled.  “But what am I going to do?”

Martha scratched her forehead.  “I don’t know.  But I know you’ll think of something.  Now go home and get some supper.  You can’t do this on an empty stomach.”

The pastor walked home, deep in thought.  What to do?  Then it dawned on him. 

Get help.

This was one of the hard lessons of pastoral ministry.  He routinely underestimated how willing people were to help him when he needed it.  At first, he didn’t even notice this fact.  After all, he was a pastor.  He was supposed to help everyone else.  He wasn’t supposed to ask for help.  That was a sign of weakness.  And if he was honest with himself (something that happened with distressing infrequency in those early years) he would admit that he had ended up in the pastor business in part in order to be the strong one in charge.

Then there was that terrible quarter in his last call.  Offerings were down for a variety of reasons.  The options were few.  The church council could terminate a staff position.  They could withhold their gifts for mission projects.  Or they could institute an across the board cut of ten percent of expenditures, including compensation.  That’s what they chose, with the pastor’s distressed agreement.  Then they sent a letter informing the congregation of their decision.

The explosions began as the letters were opened.  They all sounded the same.  “Why didn’t you tell us there was a problem?” members asked.  “Why didn’t you just ask us for help?” they protested.  “We would have done something.”

The result was a special congregational meeting.  The budget rollback was rescinded.  The shortfall was recovered in three weeks.  And the pastor and council learned a valuable lesson.  When you need help, ask for it.

A few years ago, the Bulldog had shared an article with the pastor.  It was called, “If You need Help, Just Ask: Underestimating Compliance with Direct Requests for Help.”  The researchers found that those who request help are focused on the costs to the potential helper of saying “yes.”  And the requesters thus fear that response.  

Those being asked, however, have a higher sense of the costs of saying “no” in addition to the price of an affirmative response.  They made this hypothesis: “we would expect there to be a trend toward underestimating a person’s willingness to offer compliance because most help seekers would not fully appreciate that person’s motivation to avoid a loss of face…”

They conducted several studies involving direct requests for help to strangers.  The levels of compliance were far higher than the requesters might have estimated.  The authors concluded, “The findings from the present research suggest that this fear of rejection is somewhat unfounded.  Instead, people are more willing to help than others assume, although their interest in helping may be driven by face-saving needs rather than altruistic motives.”  People have all sorts of reasons for saying yes that may not be obvious to the requester but that are powerful for the respondent.

The pastor had learned to overcome both his hubris and his fears of rejection.  More than that, he had learned to appreciate the good and willing hearts of many church folks.  Those driven purely by self-interest may often have had the loudest voices, but they were never in the majority.  We live in places where winner-take-all is the implicit rule: in school, in business, in sports and in politics.  That implicit rule is not really the rule of life.  Our culture leads us to believe that people are rationally self-interested choice machines.  Instead, people are often broadly other-interested compassion engines who really do want to help.

So he asked for help.

He hit the door at a run.  “What did you make for dinner?” his wife asked as he trotted into the study.

“Would you mind putting together a sandwich and some milk, dear?  I need to do some things before the meeting tonight.”

At other times that response might evoke some good-humored howls of protest.  But his spouse knew the stakes for this evening.  So she let him work.

The pastor composed a simple message to go out on all his electronic venues.  “Dear friends in Christ, I would like to invite you to attend the meeting of the Personnel Committee this evening.  That meeting may determine whether I continue as the pastor of this congregation or not.  This may come as a surprise to you.  I do not wish to bias you one way or another as to the content of this meeting.  I ask you to come with an open mind.  Most of all, I ask you to come.  Prayerfully yours…”

He hit the “Send” button and took a deep breath.  He had asked for help.  Had he also launched a bloody civil war?

(Two articles are worth reading in connection with this episode: Dale T. Miller, “The Norm of Self-Interest,” American Psychologist 54 (1999): 1053-1060; Francis J. Flynn and Vanessa K. B. Lake, “If You Need Help, Just Ask: Underestimating Compliance with Direct Requests for Help,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 95 (2008), 128-143.  PDF’s of both articles are available online by search author and title.)