Five Habits of a Moderately Successful Minister
Let me tell you a story about my childhood. I have mentioned before that I grew up in an alcoholic home. My father, older brother and sister are all in AA and have been through recovery work for some time now. But back when I was a child growing up, our lives were very different. As the youngest in the family, I was lowest on the pecking order and my best defense was to hide from the chaos and unpredictability. I think that as a child my psyche must have circled the wagons. I was quiet and sullen. I avoided situations in which I would be vulnerable by spending most of my time alone in my room. I don’t think many of you would have recognized me from that time.
Now, I am very comfortable being at the center and being in the middle of what is going on. Then, I did everything I could to go unnoticed. This was the tactic I used at school as well as at home. I sat in the back of the class, squeaked by with C’s, and had no friends at the school until high school. I failed 9th grade history and had to take summer school. I almost failed my senior year of English. And high school is when things were improving for me. Someone reminded me this week about the time I told the story of growing up at the church and one of the elders had admitted to me only recently, “We were not so sure you were going to make it.” I wasn’t so sure I was going to make it. I was unhappy, isolated, sullen and unmotivated to participate in much of anything. I was intensely wrapped up inside myself.
It is sometimes hard for me today to believe that it was really like that. I function as a very different person now. The change did not happen overnight, but gradually as I eased into adulthood things changed. The reasons are legion. My father and my older siblings went into recovery. I went to college and experiencing life at my own pace. I started a family of my own. I discovered theater and music as outlets for my otherwise overwhelming shyness and unease around people. But let me lift up one thing in particular that changed in me; one thing that resulted in a significant shift in my perspective: advice my father offered to me one day. This is fitting, perhaps, as it is Father’s Day today.
My father’s advice came during my years in later elementary school. He and my mother had separated when I was four-years-old, but he lived one town away so we spoke nearly every day. It was around fifth or sixth grade that I had developed the habit of being sick on Wednesdays. I hated school at that point. I was regularly the target of ridicule and pranks. I particularly loathed gym class. There was not anything particularly awful about my schedule on Wednesdays I just felt I needed a break after a few days. So I would fake an illness. Stomachaches and headaches were the easiest to get away with.
One day my dad said to me, “There are days when I have gone to bed very late and when the alarm clock rings I may have only gotten a few hours of sleep. But I tell myself that I am waking up after a full night’s sleep. It’s enough to get me out of bed and moving.”
This statement, at the time, did not really sink in. Before too long I did shift that Wednesday off habit, but it was years later with my father’s voice echoing in my mind that I really began to appreciate what he was offering. Basically, what I came to hear in his words was this: you have more control over your body in particular (and your life in general) than you are taking credit for. You are more powerful than you are letting on.
This is the crux of what I want to offer this morning. There are people who go through life with a fair assessment of their strengths and gifts, a realistic sense of themselves in the world. They do what they do with their lives and don’t need to worry about being out of balance or overly self-critical or out of touch with some aspect of themselves. There really are people like this in the world. I am sure, if you are one of them, you could still use some improvement; you could still use some advice on how to be a better person or to improve your life. I am not sure I know what that advice might be, but don’t give up on it. Stay curious and something will open up, I am sure.
There are others, however, for whom life is not so clear. Others, such as myself, who have doubts or who struggle to be in balance. There are those who even may have an accurate sense of their gifts and strengths yet manage to stymie themselves and sabotage their own good sense. If you are like me, perhaps my father’s perspective may be of help. You are more powerful than you are letting on; you have more control of your life than you are taking credit for.
Now, there is a whole section in the bookstores devoted to helping people improve their lives. Of the “self-help” books, there are a few classics that have stood a test of time to still be useful. The Stephen Covey book Seven Habits of Highly Successful People is one such book. Looking through his list of habits, I see a lot of very sound advice. Know the difference between important work and urgent work. ‘Win-win’ scenarios are possible and more desirable in the long run than the competitive model of winners and losers. But at its core, Stephen Covey’s book is about developing habits, behaviors rather than abstract ideas.
So I thought perhaps there are spiritual parallels. Covey’s “Seven Habits” are based out of psychology and leadership theories. Would there be similar habits based on spirituality? What are the habits I have stumbled into in my ministry that have served me well? And might those habits translate into other aspects of living such as parenting or work-relations?
OK, confession time: the title of my sermon suggests I have five habits to offer rather than having a perfect parallel with Covey’s seven. Over this past week I discovered two things. First, the wayside pulpit sign put the number of habits I would be preaching on back up to seven, and the facebook announcement echoed that promise of “Seven habits of a moderately successful minister.” The second thing I discovered along these lines around midweek was that I really could only think of three. So really, this sermon is about Three Habits of a Moderately Successful Minister. Perhaps if I have seven or even five I would be more than moderately successful, but there you are. I’ve got three to offer.
The first habit is borne initially from the advice I heard and eventually took from my father. “Offer the best you have in every situation.” I realize there is some irony in stating my first habit as one in which I seek to offer excellence right after I admitted to doing only half of what I promised to do. But let me tell you my second habit which may serve to ameliorate this apparent contradiction. “Laugh and learn” is my second habit. Life is messy and mistakes happen. Don’t dwell on it, don’t waste energy and time lamenting or beating yourself up. Mistakes happen; laugh at the absurdity of life and see what there is you can learn from the mistakes. This second habit is a habit of acceptance. And it leads to my third habit which is to trust. “Trust yourself, trust the process, and trust the good people you are with.”
Offer the best you have in every situation
Laugh and learn
When my father reflected to me his habit to push himself to get moving in the morning, to trick himself really, to get moving in the morning, he was sharing a technique as well as a basic outlook: The technique is a form of self-talk or self-motivation which really does work. I’ve learned to use it myself. I have learned to tell myself that what I am feeling is really excitement not nervousness, for example. But that is just a technique, talking yourself into doing what you know you need to do. The deeper habit is to always offer the best of what you have in every situation.
Seek to offer the best within you for whatever you have before you. I remember a professor I had in seminary, he taught New Testament. Because I had done very well in his class I asked him for a letter of recommendation. In the letter he said he knew UUs to be free to critique and even ignore passages in the bible, particularly some passages that perhaps deserved to be ignored. But he found that I had not done that in his class. Instead I had tackled the biblical passages I had been assigned and uncovered worthwhile insights from them. My professor claimed to see in me not a particular passion for bible but instead a habit to always approach the work before me with my whole heart.
Of the three habits I am offering up this morning, I suspect this is the one that will translate easiest for you in any situation. I commend to you this habit to always offer the best within you for whatever is before you. This habit serves not only for tasks and projects but for people as well. As it says in Fred Small’s song Everything Possible, “If you give your friends the best part of yourself, they’ll give the same back to you.”
Of course, life is messy and complicated. What we think of as our best may not be quite what is needed, may not fit the situation. What we expect to be able to offer may at times fall apart by circumstance (or intention). Mistakes happen. I make many mistakes. This leads me to my second habit. If I did not have a decent habit for responding to my mistakes I would be in a lot of trouble because I make a lot of mistakes. So I laugh and I learn.
Perfection is over-rated I say. Mistakes and imperfection are some of the juiciest things in life. Mistakes and imperfections are, in many ways, what makes life beautiful and full of grace. By all means aim for excellence, aim to give the best within you for whatever you have before you. But when it gets messy or it all starts to fall apart then see if you can find a way to laugh. I don’t mean to say you should not take it seriously. I mean to say you should not make it worse with worry.
Once during my internship I botched up a small moment in worship. It was the custom of this particular church to share some context before offering the reading. I stood to do the reading and realized I had not taken the time to gather a sentence worth of context for the reading. I said, “Our reading this morning is from A. Powell Davies who …” and I stopped because I should have known who Davies was and I thought I had known but here I was standing up front and I didn’t have a clue what to say next. So I laughed and said, “Well, I am not sure who he was, but I really like what he wrote here and I think you will all like it too.” Later a member of the congregation said “Hey, if that kid can make a little mistake like that and keep going then I think any of us can do the same.” I suspect this wise elder already knew well enough the art of making mistakes but he clearly also knew the art of giving a student minister a shot in the arm.
But in fairness I did not only laugh and move on. I also learned. I learned I can role with a mistake like that but I also made sure to learn pretty quickly just who A. Powell Davies was. (And you don’t know, you should go find out. Davies was a rather remarkable minister!) So go ahead and make mistakes, accept imperfections – so long as you can learn from it. Aim for excellence but be ok with “good enough.” Then pick yourself up and aim for excellence again.
This leads us to Trust. At least it leads me to trust. Offer the best you have in every situation. Laugh at and learn from mistakes and imperfections. And trust.
Trust and faith share a lot of meanings together and in many ways are interchangeable worlds. While today is father’s day I must admit I learned a great deal about a behavior of trust by watching my mother at work. My mom served as the Director of Religious Education at the First Unitarian Church of Rochester when I was young, and she was ordained into the ministry there when I was a young teenager. Watching her in that setting was very illuminating. She taught me about trust through her example.
Things would be moving along there in the life of the church and something would come up – as something always does. And while others would get very anxious or would get worked up or upset or even panicked, my mother would calmly continue to do the next thing that needed to be done and move through all that anxiety with grace and calm. She would say, ‘we will get through this and it will work out.’ And then we would get through it and it would work out. Not always perfectly, but see habit number two for my answer to that.
Trust is not just a condition of believing that everything will work out. It is that, but it is more. It is also a behavior and can be a habit of dealing with situations. The habit of trust is to proceed on the assumption that things will work out. The habit of trust is to treat other people around us as though they also want the best outcome. The habit of trust is to accept that a sound process will bring us to a good solution – perhaps not the solution I want, but a good solution all the same.
When I think back on what I was like as a child I think the advice my father offered about my own power was invaluable. But at the root, my trouble was that I had no trust or faith. I did not trust the alcoholics in my family. I did not trust potential friends at school. I did not trust myself. In learning more about my own power I have also learned to trust myself and others. And that – I believe – is the basis of every good thing I have to offer as a minister and perhaps as a father and husband and friend and colleague as well. Not just trust, but the behavior and habit of trust – that is the heart of any success to which I might boast.
It is less about what you believe or about the principles you may espouse, and all about what habits and behaviors you have that guide your living. I commend to you to look at your life, to examine the habits that serve you well and bring ‘success’ in the many ways that word can be understood.
In a world without end,
May it be so.