To A Colleague and Friend, A Short Tribute

November 2012, Art of Hosting Faith Based Communities, Salt Lake City, Utah

I have been fortunate to have some outstanding friends and colleagues over the last twenty years. Together we have wandered, and charged, our way into important work that has been impactful. Together we have dared to listen well for what our hearts called us too, which included going against a norm or two. Together we lended, and received, courage to be in some of the meaningful work of our times.

One of those outstanding friends and colleagues is a person I spoke with yesterday, Kathleen Masters. She’s in the picture above at the event we first met at (black sweater, glasses) — The Art of Hosting Faith Based Communities, from 2012. Kathleen reached out to me in 2012 first asking about bringing 3-4 people. She called back again asking about 5-6 people — would it be OK? She did the same again and asked about bringing 10-12 people. It was awesome — we made it work, which I didn’t know in 2012, but “making it work” would become a cornerstone for our good efforts together over then next seven years.

I want to underline “outstanding” with Kathleen (and Kathleen, I ask for your patience as I write a bit about you —  just enjoy a tea as you read, and know that there are many of us that celebrate you!).

Our context for speaking yesterday was a continuation of coaching sessions that have now taken place over the last seven years. That and several significant projects that brought some of the participative leadership set of frameworks and practices to Kathleen’s work with The United Methodist Church, Church and Community Ministries.

It’s a challenging time for the UMC. Soon they convene to vote on splitting their denomination. Kathleen and I spoke a bit about that yesterday, with some heartache, and reiterated a principle that we discovered and practiced together — “don’t blame each other for complexity (when it is a property of a system that has emerged from much more than any individual action. Rather, remain awake and in relationship.”)

Kathleen is winding down her formal job with UMC. She’ll transition to retirement soon. I have to name that it has been utterly fulfilling to offer some accompaniment to Kathleen as she has offered her gifts with her colleagues. I have to name that it was really something to write The Participatory Leadership Journal with her a few years back. It is a primary resource that I continue to offer to people in faith communities seeking to improve their leadership and hosting skills.

Kathleen is a very thoughtful and kind person — this is how I’ve known her over these many years. She’s generous in spirit and deed. I’ve seen her stand for those marginalized and underrepresented. I’ve seen her do so with notable cleverness, skill, and big heart.

In yesterday’s conversation, this dear friend and colleague named a bit of what was important learning for her. I could say, “these days,” knowing that there is particular challenge and heartbreak in the UMC tradition. But Kathleen was speaking a bit more broadly.

“In times of tumult, it is important that we speak honestly and openly about that. We must speak truth to one another. We must do out best together, everything from drafting off of each other in support to sharing the burden. We must acknowledge a lack of external control, but do all that we can, despite this, to cultivate internal peace, kindness, and generous spirit.”

Kathleen — your gifts are many. I’m grateful for these years of journey together.

From a Few Questions

It has always been important to ask good questions, hasn’t it. The questions that reach deeper into what is really going on. The questions that add just enough clarity that they move us just a little. The questions that stop us in our tracks and that reshape everything.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about good questions. Actually, that’s not completely true. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what might help the people that I’m with (and me) in the circumstances that they find themselves in. These are work contexts in which teams are trying to stay healthy. These are some more personal contexts in which individuals are trying to make sense of very raw material.

Perhaps it is all raw. The check-ins that I’ve been a part of lately have all had a noticeable amount of sorrow in them — because of the shootings in New Zealand, or the unrest in Paris, or animated disputes that are national and local politics, or the shooting without cause of another black man, or the fires that burn in Australia, or the continued revelations of abuse within church systems that lay covered for decades. Or, or, or. There is rawness.

There are two particular questions that I’ve been noticing are helpful for these intense times — again, in my search for what helps. And these questions, though they can be very useful at scale and in more formal program within organizational systems, are what I’m thinking about that can help in a more horizontal way. These are questions that can be asked more vitally with one another, even in casual circumstances.

  1. What do you feel is the essence of what is happening here? The key word in this is “essence.” Well, that and, “you feel.” The layers of complexity that continue to grow, the layers of interconnectedness, the layers of soundbites and manipulated communications — these are all leading us to an even more paramount layer of reclaiming essence. What is at the core of this? What is most central? What is at the crux of it? The “you feel” is important in that it’s welcoming the subjective — because complexity requires us to expect the subjective. It’s not “the truth” that can be manipulated and marketed that matters. It’s “a truth” that comes from awareness that matters and from good listening together.
  2. Are there improvements your can offer or suggest? The key word in this one is “improvements.” And, “offer.” Improvements aren’t about a complete fix. They aren’t about magically taking on the whole dragon with single-handed bravado, expecting to conquer. That’s good mythological material, and I suppose, some imprinted DNA of expected story. But what seems to matter more these days is some of the incremental movement, and from a chosen value. Is there something that you feel we could do slightly better here? Is there an essence to your improvement? The “offering” here is about a needed capacity to experiment. It’s giving us all something to try and to work from a spirit of proposals.

These questions aren’t that complicated. I’m not even trying to wordsmith them too much. The questions are simple. The values — essence and improvements — are deliberate. The simple questions are often what helps us move, any of us as individuals and in teams, in some rather complex, intense, raw, and shock-filled domains. In my most simple impulses, I imagine that these questions asked with some deliberateness — whether in the coffee room, the staff meeting, or in the company-wide — these questions animate an energy that brings some wisdom and aliveness back to our endeavors. They are life-lines to help in what feels like drowning in complexity.

It was my friend and colleague, Toke Moeller, that I most remember speaking a simple principle from our work together in the early 2000s. “Purpose is the invisible leader.”  Toke was pointing to the clarity of purpose needed, that if animated, has a way of guiding all of us. It is my sense, as I think it was for Toke and many of us back then, that a focus on first, essence, and then, improvements, get us to more of a shared purpose these days. And, well, with that, perhaps some hope too.

All from a few questions.

Thanks in particular to colleague and friend Kathleen Masters, and a recent conversation in which some of these points of awareness became a bit more clear.

The Importance of Questions

Thanks HSD for sharing this Chinese proverb (and many other insights I enjoyed through their newsletter).

A man who asks is a fool for five minutes.
A man who never asks is a fool for life.

I learned a similar principle when I was learning to speak Korean in my twenties, and living in South Korea. I learned that I was “going to make 1000 mistakes anyway — might as well get through them.” Those people that were with me that were afraid of making mistakes never learned nearly as well as those willing to make the mistakes and feel a bit stupid.

Many people I know are keenly interested in good questions. For lots of good reasons. Among them, the Albert Einstein quote, “if I had an hour to solve a problem, I’d spend the first 55 minutes trying to determine what is the right question…”

In this article, written with my friend and colleague, Kathleen Masters, we take on these aspects of good questions:

  • Is it meaningful?
  • Does it invite curiosity and reflective thinking?
  • Does it challenge assumptions?
  • Does it lead to other questions?
  • Is it simple?
  • Does it lead to possibility?
  • Does it welcome a quality of caring together?
  • Does it look for more than “yes or no?”
  • Is it well-sequenced?

What I continue to learn and encourage with others, is that if they want to become better at questions, to become radically curious. To embody a stance of radical curiosity is to open ourselves to the many subtle and intricate ways that life, and people, and projects, are deliciously interconnected. Behind questions is always genuine curiosity.



Important Planning Questions

The Chaordic Stepping Stones is a planning tool that I really love and is widely used in The Art of Hosting community of practitioners. It’s the tool that I most go to to help make sense of complex thinking that needs to be moved into the specificity of planning. It is also the tool that I use to create a longer arc for the way that a team honors its work together.

This version is an adaptation from Chris Corrigan that shapes some of the questions and description to work with people in faith communities. And it is a version that originally appeared in a larger resource book, that I wrote with Kathleen Masters for Global Ministries of The United Methodist Church.