Vocational Discernment — It’s about WE, not ME

adult chill computer connection

Photo by rawpixel.com on Pexels.com

I enjoyed time at a conference on the intersection of faith and work earlier this month (see: Karam Forum).

One of the themes that arose multiple times was the importance of community in flourishing economies and in the lives of flourishing individuals. The concept of human flourishing is about growth and development. The best flourishing, however, does not happen in isolation—it happens within the context of a community where we are able to use our gifts, skills, and abilities in service of others.

It is tempting to think of our careers, jobs, and vocations through an individualistic lens, though. Consider such questions:

  • What do I want to do with my life?
  • What type of work do I most enjoy?
  • What are my passions, interests, and desires?
  • How can my passions, interests, and desired be most fulfilled in the context of my work?

These are not bad questions, they are simply incomplete. Vocation is not primarily about “I”, “my”, and “me.” Vocation—the most fulfilling and meaningful forms of vocational stewardship—is more about “we” than “me.”

Certainly, we need to reflect on vocation from a personal perspective, but the most fulfilling forms of vocational stewardship that lead to human flourishing involve deep reflection on how our work will serve others, not just ourselves. Tom Nelson referred to this as the “we-ness” of our work.

When vocation is primarily about me—what will be most enjoyable to me or what will most quickly build my wealth—work becomes merely functional and utilitarian.

We work is about we—how I can use my gifts and skills to contribute to the benefit of others—work becomes fulfilling and infused with great meaning.

In their book Practicing the King’s Economy, Rhodes, Holt and Fikkert remind us that “Every road to the economy of the kingdom runs through the creation of community.” Our work and vocation do not find their meaning and fulfillment in isolation. Vocation becomes rewarding when we consider how we utilize who we are and what we are able to do in service of others. In diverse expressions of work, we find the most fulfillment in our vocation when we see how our work connects to and meaningfully serves others.

How will your unique gifts, skills, and abilities in this life best contribute to the flourishing of both your own life and to the lives of others? The best vocational choices in life come when we thinking about “we” rather than just thinking about “me” in the context of our work.

………………….

What are your thoughts on vocational discernment? Take a moment to share your perspectives below.

The Myth of Perfection

church_up.jpg_elyktra

Photo Credit: church_up.jpg, by Elyktra, Flickr

I saw a great quote on a wall while visiting a business in Dallas this week:

Continuous improvement is better than delayed perfection.” – Mark Twain

I love this quote. Although I can’t speak to whether or not this is actually something Mark Twain wrote, the heart of its message captures so many important themes.

However, perfection—even delayed perfection—really is just a myth.

This side of eternity, whether we are thinking about growth and improvement individually, as a team, or as an organization, if we are waiting for perfection, we will always be waiting. Rather than waiting for something—perfection in this life—that will not come in the pursuit of excellence, we rather need to work toward ongoing growth.

Remember, excellence and perfection are not the same thing. If we are striving for excellence, growth, and improvement, the best path forward is not waiting for some unattainable moment of perfection, but rather starting the journey and then learning and growing along the way.

Another way of talking about this dynamic is to contrast linear growth and iterative growth.

Linear Growth

Traditional wisdom invites those starting a work project or large journey to engage in a process of extensive planning. The goal in this linear mindset is to do all of the planning for the project up front. Those involved with this first step must foresee all possible needs, opportunities, and obstacles, and then solidify a plan before proceeding.

Linear Growth

Image Credit: Abigail J. Irving

After this “perfect” plan is in place, it is time to move on to the second step—executing on the plan.

Iterative Growth

Experience has a way of revealing the limits in such a linear model. Once a plan is executed, reality begins to confront and challenge our plans. John Steinbeck pointed to this in his novel Of Mice and Men—the best-laid plans of mice and men often go awry.

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Image Credit: Abigail J. Irving

In contrast to linear models of growth, many fields—like software development and design—are now emphasizing the power of iterative processes. Rather than one discrete step of planning followed by another discrete step of implementation, an iterative approach embraces a path of ongoing improvement. The process of planning and implementing is repeated again and again as ongoing learning takes place, continually informing planning and improved practice in an ongoing manner.

As you consider your own process of personal growth, and as you consider growth as a team or organization, don’t put all of your proverbial eggs in the basket of a single plan. Instead, lean into iterative learning. Make a plan; implement the plan; learn from this implementation; adjust your plan; implement this learning; and continue this cycle of learning in an ongoing plan of growth and improvement.

Since perfection is ultimately a myth, learn to embrace the reality that “continuous improvement is better than delayed perfection.

I’d love to read some of your reflections; take a moment to share them below.

Reflective Leadership

Photo Credit: Reflection, By Susanne Nilsson, Flickr

It’s January 1st as I write this reflection.

I took about three hours yesterday to reflect again on what I want to prioritize in the year to come. I don’t think there is anything inherently important about the transition from December 31 to January 1, but this moment in our calendars provides space to pause and hit reset on the things that matter in our lives.

I note elsewhere that I’m not a big fan of New Year’s Resolutions (see “Rethinking Resolutions). I am, however, a fan of using this season as a time to reflect and prioritize (or perhaps re-prioritize is a better term…returning to what has already been prioritized in our lives previously).

As I look back on the past two years, one of the items that has slipped more than I would like is the prioritization of reflection. There are practical reasons for this, so I’m not overly focused on “beating myself” up for the past. This is more about the future than the past.

The past two years have been full of wonderful opportunities—increased administrative leadership needs at my institution and the privilege of working on a book project that is scheduled for release in the summer of 2019. While I’m grateful for these opportunities, they did take away from a pattern of intentional reflection in my life and leadership. One evidence of this is the break from actively posting on this platform.

As I look to the year ahead, there are many new opportunities to which I’m looking forward. One of these is reprioritizing reflective leadership.

Perhaps a new emphasis on reflective leadership will be of help for you as well.

Here’s a sample from my upcoming book written with Mark Strauss. It captures some of the heart behind what I’ve raised above regarding the need for reflection in life and leadership:

Schedule Time to Rest and Reflect

While effective leadership includes honest self-evaluation, nurturing a rhythm of self-awareness and evaluation is difficult without a simple feature: time to reflect.

Do you intentionally create time in your schedule to think and reflect? In our day of continual connection to the world around us through technology, it is increasingly difficult for leaders to find time and space for deep reflection. Consider the ready access people have to you through smartphones, text messaging, a regular flow of emails, and meetings that are scheduled for us on shared calendars. While technology creates efficiencies in our work, this same technology also fills our lives in such a way that intentional reflection can be difficult.

On top of technology in the work environment, consider how technology in our personal lives also can work against time alone for reflection. For example, while there are many ways social media has the capacity to enrich our lives, social media also adds to already full schedules in ways that work against a reflective approach to life.

These realities mean that leaders need to be intentional in finding time and space in their lives to think and reflect. On this point, John Baldoni notes that organizations need leaders who first know themselves—leaders who “have an inner compass that points them in the right direction.” According to Baldoni, clarifying these dimensions of the inner life “begins with sound thinking—with taking time to think before we do.”

For Christians, time for reflection does not need to be an isolated activity. Through the practices of Sabbath and prayer, we are reminded that we are not alone in our work as leaders. Taking time for rest and prayer is a declaration of our trust in and dependency on God. Timothy Keller and Kathrine Leary Alsdorf remind us that the practice of Sabbath is an act of trust, a reminder that God is at work even in the midst of our rest, and that ultimately, God is there—we are not alone in our work.  As we recognize that we are not alone in our work, we also may receive the invitation to seek out wisdom from God: “If any of you lacks wisdom, you should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to you” (James 1:5). In our times of rest and reflection, we are able to not only lean into our own thoughts and convictions but we are also able to lean into God’s wisdom.

So, are you making time to think and reflect in your life? Are you taking time for Sabbath rest and prayer? For those who have full calendars and high demands in their roles, this often means there is a need for scheduling time on their calendars for this important work. Remember, being busy does not always translate into being productive. As Keller and Leary-Alsdorf remind us, “a deeply rested people are far more productive.” Sometimes pulling back from the intense pace of work is just the answer we need to the most demanding questions and challenges we face. Take time to rest, think, reflect, pray, and nurture a regular pattern of self-evaluation. Consider when this specifically will take place. When will it take place in the week ahead? When will it take place next month?

May you engage the year ahead with deep reflection on the things that matter most to you!

Take a moment to share your reflections and priorities below.

#9 … Top Posts from 2015 — Remembering A Life Well-Lived

 

C. Mervin Russell

In a previous post I shared some observations on my top blogs posts from 2015 [link]. In the coming weeks I will be taking time both to share new content and to share some of the top viewed posts from the past year.

The #9 post from 2015 was …

A Life Well-Lived:
Remembering My Grandfather, Dr. Charles Mervin Russell

My grandfather, Dr. Charles Mervin Russell, passed away at 93 years of age in January of 2015. On the heels of our family’s memorial service remember Grandpa’s life, I wanted to take some time to think about what his life meant to me and so many others.

These reflections led me to reflect on a passage from the Bible in Hebrews 13:7

Remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the word of God.
Consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith
.”

Grandpa Russell’s life was indeed a life well-lived. Grandpa’s life was a gift to me. And, based on the number of individuals that took time to engage with this post, there are many others who were blessed by him as well — both directly and indirectly.

I invite you to join me, one year later, in reflecting again on a life well lived, and then considering how his life may be an example for us in the days ahead.

Here’s a link to the Purpose in Leadership #9 post from 2015:

A Life Well-Lived:
Remembering My Grandfather, Dr. Charles Mervin Russell

Leading on Gratitude Road

Gratitude Road, by Bart Maguire, Flickr

Gratitude Road, by Bart Maguire, Flickr

This past week I had the opportunity to share briefly in a chapel service at our school. The theme was thankfulness and gratitude. Whether in the Thanksgiving season or beyond, learning the art of gratitude is important for leaders and followers alike.

The Good and the Bad of Future Focus

But nurturing a spirit of gratitude comes more naturally for some.

As I consider my personal tendencies and strengths, one of the tendencies that can work against a spirit of gratitude is an orientation toward the future.

Future focus has many benefits. As leaders, a focus on the future is important for planning and strategic thinking. I take up the importance of this theme in another post (see Strategic Foresight).

But future focus has a down side as well. At times, this future orientation can work against nurturing a spirit of gratitude. Sometimes gratitude and thanksgiving are not primarily about looking to the future, but rather reflecting on the past and being present in the moment.

Thankfulness through Remembering

The Bible affirms the value of remembering throughout the pages of Scripture. Remembering what God has done in your life and in the lives of those around you is often the seedbed from which thanksgiving and gratitude arise.

One example of this is in Psalm 105 where the author calls the reader to give thanks to God by remembering well:

Oh give thanks to the LORD; call upon his name….
Remember the wondrous works that he has done

(Psalm 105: 1 & 5).

If you are like many leaders, it is easy to have your sights set on the future and where your team and organization are headed. But are you taking time to pause for gratitude? Are you taking time to pause and be present in the moment and to look to the past with thankfulness?

Walking Down Gratitude Road

As you consider nurturing a spirit of gratitude, perhaps you may need to join with me in taking time to pause and look at the present and the past. In this act we have the opportunity to see the faithfulness of God in our lives. As we look back and remember well, we begin to see that through both the joy-filled and difficult days, we have much for which to be thankful.

I hope you will be able to take some time in this season to nurture a spirit of gratitude in your life and leadership. Learn to remember well; learn to remember with gratitude.

How to Pray for Your Work

the prayer continued, Flickr

the prayer continued, Flickr

Do you pray? Do you pray about and for your work?

For some, your work may be in a church, school, or organization where prayer is encouraged. For others, your work may be in a place where prayer is simply for personal and private expression.

Regardless of your work context, it is important for us to remember that we are not alone in our work. God cares about you. God cares about the challenges you face in your work.

I’d like to provide some brief reflections on prayer and work

Prayer for Work

First, it is important to recognize that the Bible encourages us to pray for our work. Consider for a moment the example of Moses’ prayer in Psalm 90:16-17. In these verses, both the work of God and our work is addressed. Moses prays:

Let your work be shown to your servants, and your glorious power to their children. Let the favor of the Lord our God be upon us, and establish the work of our hands upon us; yes, establish the work of our hands!

This is a verse I frequently return to as I begin and go throughout my work days. As I put my hands to the work of my day, I want to be mindful of where God is at work (“Let your work be shown to your servant”), and I want to ask for God’s favor and presence to bless, guide, and establish my work (“let the favor of the Lord our God be upon us, and establish the work of our hands”).

A friend of mine who served as the director of a major international airport would often use his commute time at the start his day to pray about his work. He looked to verses such as James 1:5 to guide him:

If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him.

If you are like most people, you have concerns and challenges in your work. The Bible invites you to bring these concerns and challenges to the Lord in prayer. Ask for God to give you wisdom for the work of your day. Ask to be mindful of His presence with you in your work. Ask for his guidance and favor to establish and make successful the work of your hands.

Why Prayer for Your Work Matters

As you bring your work and your prayer together, here are some final thoughts on why prayer matters:

  • Prayer reminds us that we are not alone
  • Prayer provides a place for us to bring our worries and concerns
  • Prayer reminds us that while our work matters, our work is not the final word (God is at work even when we are not … see my previous reflections on this theme here)
  • Prayer provides a moment of pause to reflect on core needs and what matters most in our work and in our life
  • Prayer helps to align our will and desire with the will and desire of God
  • Prayer helps to align the resources of heaven with the needs of this world

Enjoy the journey of praying in and for your work. God cares about you. God cares about your work. He wants to hear what’s on your heart and mind in prayer.

Whether for the first time or the thousandth time, share your heart and thoughts with God in prayer. No special words are required. Share with Him what you are thinking in your own words. Ask for his guidance and direction where you are confused. Bring your concerns and challenges to God in prayer.

Easter, The Gospel, & Virtuous Leadership

black and white cemetery christ church

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Easter week is just around the corner as I write this post. At the heart of Easter is the message of the gospel. In this brief post, I’d like to make some connections between the core message of Easter and leadership practice.

Ethics matter for those working at diverse organizational levels. But ethics especially matter for leaders.

We want to know that what our leaders say is true. We want to see that the actions of our leaders are consistent with what they say as leaders.

General Ethical Approaches

Though certainly an oversimplification of ethical theory, we can argue that there are three primary approaches to ethics:

  • Virtue Ethics
  • Duty Ethics
  • Utilitarian Ethics

Here is a brief overview of these approaches drawn from an article I wrote with a colleague:

  Virtue Ethics Duty Ethics Utilitarian Ethics
Key operational question Who ought I to be? What ought I to do? What brings the greatest happiness to the greatest number?
Definition of Happiness Fulfilling one’s purpose or function Adherence to moral absolutes Maximization of pleasure, absence of pain
Focus Character of the individual Rules and resulting obligations of the individual Outcomes and consequences
  • A utilitarian approach to ethics bases decisions on what brings the greatest happiness to the greatest number.
  • A duty-based approach (or deontological approach) to ethics bases decisions on what one ought to do.
  • A virtue-based approach to ethics bases decisions on who one ought to be.

The Priority of Virtue Ethics

While there are supporting arguments for each of these ethical paths, I find that the most effective form of ethical practice is grounded in virtue-oriented approaches. Why is this?

In times of crisis and ethically challenging circumstances, people will tend to do what is natural to them. They will act in accordance with who they are. Because of this, the most powerful approach to ethics is one that takes seriously the formation of ethical people at a level of virtues and character.

Though we need moral guidance (a deontological and duty-based approach), the capacity to act on this comes from moral fortitude (an ontological and virtue-based approach).

Virtuous leadership requires virtuous leaders. Ethical leadership requires ethical leaders.

Because of this, a foundational question in this discussion is how does one become a virtuous person/leader?

The Gospel and Virtue Ethics

I don’t want to imply that only Christians may be virtuous leaders. Certainly, we can all think of Christians we know who have not acted virtuously and those of other non-Christian commitments who do act virtuously.

I do want to emphasize that the Christian gospel provides a powerful answer to the question of how one becomes a virtuous person/leader.

At the heart of Easter is the gospel. The gospel centers on the person and work of Jesus Christ. Jesus’ death on the cross, remembered in the heart of Holy Week, is at the center of the Christian faith. Jesus died on a cross to pay the penalty for sinful people and to restore wholeness to our broken world. Those who trust in Jesus’ work on their behalf are offered forgiveness for their sins and are welcomed into both God’s family and God’s mission of restoring and healing a broken world. At Easter, we celebrate not only Jesus’ death, but also his being raised to life three days later to demonstrate His power over sin and death.

So How Does this Relate to Virtue-Based Leadership?

The gospel is not about good, moral, or virtuous people offering themselves to God. The gospel is about sinful, immoral, and broken people being made new by Christ’s work in their lives.

We can never be good enough, moral enough, or righteous enough to make ourselves right before God. Only God’s work in us by the gospel can do that.

What does this mean for a Christian approach to virtue ethics?

Rather than seeking to be virtuous in order to make ourselves right before God, in the gospel we yield to the God who is able to make us right before him.

The gospel does not lower the ethical bar. The gospel does not say that sin and unethical leader behavior doesn’t matter. Rather, the gospel gives us a pathway for changing us from the inside out. The gospel gives us a hopeful path on which we can start to see change. The gospel gives us a credible answer to the question of how one may become a virtuous person/leader.

The answer is not in our own virtuous behavior, but rather in looking to the God of Easter who is able to do in us what we are not able to do ourselves.

We Are All in This Together — Reflections on the National Prayer Breakfast

Ethiopia: Innocent Prayers of a Young Child, By Steve Evans, Flickr

Ethiopia: Innocent Prayers of a Young Child, By Steve Evans, Flickr

This past week I had the pleasure of attending the 63rd National Prayer Breakfast in Washington, DC. The National Prayer Breakfast has a long history representing the important role that faith plays in American life. Engaging the breadth of the United States, delegates were present from all 50 states.

Global Presence

But the National Prayer Breakfast is not limited to delegates from the United States. Representatives were present from 130 nations. This group of nearly 5,000 gathered together with members of Congress and President Barack Obama to do something quite unique in public life in our day—to reflect together on the person of Jesus of Nazareth and His teaching and also to ask God’s blessing and favor in the affairs of our world.

Diverse Sectors

In addition to representation from around the globe, the composition of the group also drew upon a diversity of sectors. Flourishing societies are built upon a foundation of multiple sectors working together in productive and meaningful ways. Key sectors in the United States are government, the market economy, and private/voluntary organizations.

A healthy and balancing relationship among government, market economy, and private sectors is vital for our future vitality and health as a society, and I’m reminded afresh that we are all in this together. The National Prayer Breakfast provides a place to come together from these multiple sectors to reflect on how Jesus and His teaching shape the manner in which we engage our work in each of these areas of society. Additionally, the National Prayer Breakfast represents a unique context in which people build relationships and pursue pathways for serving the people of our nation and world as we ask for God’s favor in this vital journey together.

The Experience

The experience of the National Prayer Breakfast is unlike any I’ve had previously. We heard from a wide range of speakers including President Obama, world-champion boxer Manny Pacquiao, NASCAR legend Darrell Waltrip, former Mayor and Ambassador to the United Nations Andrew Young, and many others. We heard written remarks shared from voices as diverse as Pope Francis and King Abdullah of Jordon. And I had the opportunity to share personal interactions with a unique and wide range of individuals such as Manny Pacquiao’s friend and pastor, actor Stephen Baldwin, a best-selling author, and an elected official from my home state.

Perhaps the most meaningful personal interaction was with Doug Coe, the man who sought out President Eisenhower over 60 years ago to paint a vision for leaders around the world praying together around a focus on the person of Jesus and His teachings. Doug’s vision, persistence, and trust in Jesus has led to 63 national prayer breakfast gatherings and pointing thousands of lives around the world to gather in the name of Jesus even though coming from a wide range of religious, political, and national backgrounds.

From Global to Local

Although it was amazing to hear from and interact with such a unique group of people in this global gathering, the key takeaway for me was sharing this experience with individuals from my home state and home city. The experience was deeply meaningful and was a call to pursue, foster, and engage in deeper relationship with my neighbors around the person of Jesus Christ. This provides great hope for our region as we engage very real challenges and pray, work, and collaborate together toward the aim of serving and blessing the world in Jesus’ name.

A Joyful Heart is Good Medicine … it also increases productivity!

Joy, by Alice Popkorn, Flickr

Photo Credit: Joy, by Alice Popkorn, Flickr

“A joyful heart is good medicine,
but a crushed spirit dries up the bones.”

– Proverbs 17:22

In a recent edition of Harvard Business Review, the title of a sidebar mini-article caught my attention … “Start Your Next Meeting with a Joke.”

In the highlighted research, teams with at least one person in a good mood were more than twice as likely to solve a puzzle as teams whose members were all in neutral moods. The article explains, “people in good moods are more likely to share knowledge and seek information from others, which cues the rest of the group to follow suit.”

As noted above, Proverbs 17:22 reads:

“A joyful heart is good medicine,
but a crushed spirit dries up the bones.”

Not only is a joyful heart good medicine at the individual level, joy is also contagious. And, according to researcher Kyle Emich, this positive spirit also leads to greater productivity in teams. In other words, joy is not only pleasant, it is also productive.

What are you bringing to your team today? Are you bringing a negative or neutral mood, or are you bringing joy and positivity?

You Are Not Alone — Interdependence and Dependence in Leadership

Steering Wheel from a Vessel, Wilderness Kev, Flickr

Photo Credit: Steering Wheel from a Vessel, by Wilderness Kev, Flickr

How do you begin your day as a leader? I recently heard a friend share his leadership challenge of “waking up with the steering wheel in his hands.” Perhaps you can identify with this metaphor.

As leaders, it is all too easy to mentally and emotionally dive into our daily to-do list the moment we wake up. This level of all-in leadership engagement often continues throughout the workday and beyond. While understandable, such engagement can adversely effect us on multiple levels — our personal well-being, our interpersonal availability, and our team/organizational productivity.

In light of this challenge, we need to be intentional in finding time for pause, perspective, and refreshment in our day-to-day leadership responsibilities. I plan to write on several pathways for this intentionality in future posts, but I begin with this point — Remember You are Not Alone

Awareness of Our Finitude

Leaders are often wired toward independence … toward going it alone in the task of leadership. Thankfully, the practical nature of human limitation reminds us that we cannot do it all on our own. Leaders are reminded daily that there are only 24 hours with which to work. Leaders are reminded daily that our bodies need food to eat and the rest of sleep. Our finitude reminds us that going it alone is neither practical nor beneficial within the context of leadership.

You Are Not Able to Do it Alone”

Moses faced such limitations multiple times in his life and leadership. At one point, Moses’ father-in-law Jethro stepped in and challenged Moses’ independent approach to leading: “What you are doing is not good. You and the people with you will certainly wear yourselves out, for the thing is too heavy for you. You are not able to do it alone” (Exodus 18:17-18).

Thousands of years later, leaders are still battling this reality Moses faced. So how can we work against this tendency? A quick answer to this is we need to remember that we are not alone.

Interdependence and Dependence

First, as with Moses, we have other people within our communities with whom we are able to partner in meeting the goals that matter to our organizations. As with Moses, we need to learn healthy interdependency in our leadership. We rise to greet the day with a community of people who are likely much more willing to partner with us than we think. We rise to family, friends, and associates with whom we may link arms and work toward the goals that matter most to our organizations.

For some communities, cultivating this interdependency means that leaders need to equip and empower volunteers. For other communities, this means equipping and empowering staff and coworkers with whom we serve on a common mission. As with Moses, we need to resist our tendency to go it alone. We must look for authentic partners with whom we may work and serve.

Second, as with Moses, we may rise to greet the day with a heavenly father who is ready to lead and guide us. As with Moses, we may learn our healthy dependency on God in life and leadership. Although leaders have a tendency to “wake up with the steering wheel in their hands,” leaders who are mindful of God’s presence recognize that they are not alone even when no one else is around.

On this point of remembering God’s presence, I appreciate a prayer of St. Patrick. Here are some excerpts from this prayer:

I arise today through the strength of heaven….

I arise today through
God’s strength to pilot me,
God’s might to uphold me,
God’s wisdom to guide me….

Christ shield me today against wounding.
Christ with me, Christ before me, Christ behind me….

I arise today
through the mighty strength of the Lord of creation”

Though sometimes drawn toward independence, leaders need to remind themselves early in the day that they are not alone.

  • I arise and awake to a God who is ready to “pilot me,” “uphold me,” and “guide me” through the demands of my day.
  • I arise to a day where there are opportunities to partner with others in work that matters.
  • I arise, and I remember that I am not alone in my leadership journey.