Newsletter 635 – Helping People Wherever They Are

Jean-Christophe in robeJean-Christophe Bieselaar is one of my closest friends (shown here with his son Paul). Born, raised and currently living in Paris,  Jean-Christophe is consulting pastor of one Parisian church, Parish Associate at The American Church in Paris, and a chaplain at five hospitals. We kept in contact during the night of the recent terrorist attacks and I was impressed (but not surprised) at how he responded as the events unfolded. The following principles are well known but sometimes forgotten when crises arise in our own environments.

  • Try to remain calm. Jean-Christophe wrote that there was no chaos in the hospitals. The professional staff was “calm, focused and organized”. Calmness in caregivers tends to spread, especially to people who are afraid and agitated.
  • Resist the urge to rush to the location of the crises. Have you heard about counselors, medical people, or church groups who rush to the places of tragedy, including trips overseas in times of national disasters? These people go with good intentions, but they don’t know what is needed and get in the way of local responders who understand the situation better.
  • Be alert to the place where you’ve been planted. Jean-Christophe went to two churches where he normally serves. One is a young adult congregation. “They were all speechless and shocked. They had never faced anything like that. I encouraged them to turn their eyes from TV and their mobile devices. We read some Psalms particularly Ps 121 and I asked them to focus on John 14.1. Then we spent a long time praying. And the peace of God came upon us all like a healing water”. After this, my friend went to the E.R. at a hospital where he is known and works.
  • Notice the recommendation to turn off media broadcasts. Watching endless media reruns or commentary can arouse, rather than reduce anxiety. In addition, media consumption can lead to fear-inspiring addiction. This stuff is fascinating to watch.
  • Do what you do best in the setting where you’ve been planted. Jean-Christophe worked in the places and with the people where he is known. Few of us can do much in Paris right now, but what about the nervous people in our churches or workplaces? Do you have neighbors with friends or relatives in Paris? Could they benefit from your support, encouragement and prayers?
  • Keep focused on the peace and hope that comes from God and on empowerment from the Holy Spirit.

What would you add? Please comment.

Newsletter 634 – Wisdom from a 40-Year-Old Seminarian


The current issue of Leadership Journal (Fall, 2015) includes a short article by Josh Harris. Well-known as an author and megachurch pastor, Harris recently left his thriving ministry and went to seminary for the first time at age 40.

“I think Jesus still calls people, even pastors, to drop their nets and follow him,” Harris wrote. But why did he move his family across the continent to attend a trans denominational seminary focused on more than “merely churning out pastors.” His answers will not apply to every leader but they’re worth considering. The following words in italics are quotations from the Harris article.

  • It’s hard to evaluate and change while you’re leading. It’s hard to step back and ask questions when you’re supposed to be the guy with the answers. Can we be fresh and relevant when we’ve spent years in the same company, teaching role, retirement community, or church? We need to get outside of our bubbles, at least on occasion, to get our thinking and perspectives stretched.
  • I needed significant retooling and recalibration. Time to stop talking and to listen. Time to relearn how to abide with Jesus. Time to unlearn professional busyness…. a place to discover who you are apart from what you do. Pulling away is not available to everybody, but we can get some recharging from what we read and from the people we spend time with. My closest friends are younger than me, multicultural,  and some in professions different from mine.
  • Everything I’d learned about leadership and pastoral ministry had been in one context. While I’m grateful for many aspects of that, there are things that need to be evaluated and changed. Recently I (Gary) have realized that one way of thinking has shaped my views about leadership and building people. I devour what I can about setting goals, career planning, business leadership or getting through transitions. This can be valuable but most is very secular, focused on what we do ourselves, and ignoring how God leads when we let him show the way. The Bible affirms planning for the future. But this also can be addictive and completely deaf to divine guidance. In seminary I hope Josh Harris finds time to escape the academic busywork, getting opportunities to be still and to let God show the way.

I’ve learned a lot from students and from others who remind me to listen to Jesus. You too? Please comment.

Newsletter 633 – Practical Tactics for Working Simply

Work SimplyWork Simply is a great book title. It is short, understandable, easily remembered, and hinting at a solution to the busyness that rules so many of our lives. Author Carson Tate is sensitive to the needs and frustrations of her readers, self-revealing, and consistently practical. She summarizes the essence of her book: as “an array of tools and strategies related to every aspect of your life.”

The author avoids the hype and unproven generalizations of many self-help books. In addition to writing well, Tate serves as a consultant, coach, and executive trainer for various Fortune 500 companies. She is familiar with published research, including basic brain physiology, relating to driven, productivity-focused lifestyles. She points to Internet tools and shares other aids for helping overwhelmed people control their busy lives.

Often we “try popular productivity solutions and tools only to find ourselves falling further behind and more frustrated than ever. We end up spending more time managing our calendars and to-do lists than doing actual work.” This failure of time management and other programs is because their authors assume that all brains are the same and that one approach fits all. In contrast, Tate proposes an assessment device that helps people discover their individual productivity styles as Prioritizers, Planners, Arrangers or Visualizers. Some research shows that work and lifestyle management is most effective when we adapt the programs to the style that fits us best. I took the test and scored about equally in each of the categories so this didn’t help. But the book was useful in other ways.

For example, Tate describes how to tame your inbox, control your to-do list, and lead better meetings. Also:

  • Carefully determine and clear away whatever clouds your vision or holds you back. These hurdles include fuzziness about what you want to accomplish, distractions that sidetrack you, or uncontrolled beliefs about what you should be doing. Shoulds lead us to overcommit–then the quality and impact of work suffers.
  • At any time, decide what to work at by considering three issues: how much time do I need and have at present for an item in the to-do list, what resources are available, and what is my current energy level? Avoid the magnetic pull of email unless or until responding is a top priority.

Tate’s book can be overwhelming in spots but it’s worth checking out. How do you tame your busyness? Please comment.

Newsletter 632 – The Practical Side of Face-to-Face Contact


sisan pinker 2Should you take time to read Susan Pinker’s book The Village Effect: How Face-to-Face Contact Can Make us Healthier, Happier, and Smarter? For me, Pinker’s book isn’t a “must read” but fits the “recommended reading” category if you work with people. Last week’s newsletter (#631) introduced the book but here are several subjectively-selected, potentially-practical conclusions. Like most of the book, each is documented by easily-understood research summaries and the author’s face-to-face interviews.

  • Internet training programs can be useful but contact with a skilled teacher is better. Consider this: “Policy-makers get a lot more from parent and teacher training programs than from investing in expensive—highly perishable—classroom technology.” Does this apply to on-line training or college courses? Surely the best distance learning includes conversations with instructors and peers as opposed to watching video lectures passively. [Personal perspective: I have taught both approaches. The interactive courses involve more engagement, more active participation, and undoubtedly more effective learning for both teacher and student.]
  • “Even though we all need face-to-face contact, one approach does not fit all.” What does this say about church programs that expect everyone to grow equally in identical pre-programed small groups?
  • Live human contact has major business implications. There are benefits to letting employees work from home on individual schedules but this needs to be limited. Without face-to-face interaction at work, productivity and creativity go down. Even Google has designed a headquarters where workers have opportunity to ‘bump into colleagues and have real conversations [because without this] innovation and social cohesion take a hit.”
  • When companies cut costs by reducing the number of employees, eliminating training, paying “basement-level wages,” or blocking benefits and opportunities for advancement, profits can drop and customers often move elsewhere. Same with companies where cost-cutting involves “deploying robots or foreign call centers whose agents know nothing about the business and are paid per call so they try to make it fast by passing you off to someone else.” There’s a price to be paid for replacing human contact.

The book has implications for counseling, leadership, education at all levels, marketing, family therapy, ministry, health, stress management and the ability to recover from disasters. You get the point. “Despite the clear advantages of the Internet, if we want to be happy, healthy, long-lived, [productive] and clever, then we need to find ways to spend more time with each other face-to-face.” How does this apply to you? Please comment.


Newsletter 631 – Why Face-to-Face Contact Matters

Susan PinkerIn 2004 following my only experience as a surgery patient, the doctor made a prediction that proved to be accurate. He said that I’d make a complete and relatively speedy recovery. In addition to good medical care he commented on several positive signs, including my overall good physical shape based on consistent exercise, the “spirituality” that he saw, a determination to get better, my sense of humor (it beats complaining), and the social support that came from family and friends. At times I thought of this while reading psychologist Susan Pinker’s fascinating book, The Village Effect: How Face-to-Face Contact Can Make us Healthier, Happier, and Smarter.

This is not a self-help book built on inspiration and subjective opinions. Pinker does include captivating illustrative stories but, in addition, she reports on her interviews with a variety of experts and ordinary people, plus references to an impressive body of scholarly research. For example, the book documents ways in which face-to-face contact contribute to athletic success, language learning, brain development, overall health, longer life, stronger marriage, spiritual growth and better recovery from surgery like mine over ten years ago. Pinker’s work demonstrates her wide knowledge of brain functioning and neurophysiology as these relate to everyday behavior, stress-management and life fulfillment. The Village Effect is written by one of those rare scholars who is able to engage readers, write clearly, and make empirical evidence interesting and relevant.

Here are summary conclusions adapted from comments on the book’s cover:

  • People with tight circles of friends who gather regularly are likely to live an average of fifteen years longer than loners.
  • Social contact at the beginning of life helps us cope with stress later on.
  • The lowest rate of dementia appears in people with extensive face-to-face social networks.
  • A hug or a pat on the back lowers one’s physiological stress response, which in turn helps the body fight infections.
  • Women with breast cancer who have large networks of friends are four times as likely to survive as those with sparser social connections.

This is an impressive summary of what most of us suspect or know. But in what practical ways does this book’s message relate to your work, career, relationships and lifestyle? We’ll have more on this next week. Meantime, please feel free to leave a comment.

Newsletter 630 – Look-Around Learning

During my years as a public speaker, I got into the habit of listening to preachers and other speakers with two questions in my mind: what were they saying (their message) and how were they communicating (their methods)? I looked at how some speakers connected effectively with the audience and why other speakers rarely connected at all. Later I started doing something similar with writers. Why are some better than others? Maybe you have developed the practice of observing academic, business, political and pastoral leaders in the similar ways. If you want to be better in what you do, open your eyes, look, and learn from what others are doing well–or not so well.

Francis 1Pope Francis is an example. This week a blogger critiqued the Pope’s leadership style as demonstrated on his recent North American trip. Francis had prepared well for his speaking, using illustrations and quoting leaders who would be known and admired by his audiences. Wherever he went, the Pope modeled his stated values. Away from the crowds, Francis apparently maintains a disciplined schedule, takes short rest periods to preserve his strength during each day, resists trying to do everything, and avoids pointless activity that drains his energy. And he’s not afraid to tackle difficult issues even if they are unpopular.

OscarEverybody knows about the Pope but have you heard of Oscar Muñoz? His name appeared in the news last month when he was appointed new CEO of United Airlines. Last week Muñoz was interviewed about his new leadership role. He observed that United employees have become disenchanted, disenfranchised, and disengaged. These “three D’s” need to be acknowledged openly, then fixed. But United customers also need attention because they have been forgotten in a business that claims to be service-oriented. Muñoz added that “the key is not always improvement, which suggests doing things better, but innovation which means doing things altogether differently.” And like Pope Francis, Muñoz seems to be operating in accordance with his values.

Both of these leaders are working to change a culture: one changing the culture of an international church, the other changing an international corporation. Sometimes we learn from reading accounts from or about turn-around leaders like Howard Schultz at Starbucks or Steve Jobs at Apple. But there is much to be learned simply by looking around at leaders in front of our eyes. Please comment on this and share other examples.

Newsletter 629 – The Positive Side of What We Do

Last week’s newsletter (#628) left me unsettled even though I wrote it. Looking back, it seems that the tone was too negative, presenting only one side of the book-publishing story. That newsletter was stimulated by comments in a business magazine that correctly pointed out the small and disappointing payoffs for the time and energy invested by most authors. This extends beyond books and includes the writing of blogs, newsletters, magazine articles and contributions to professional journals. We noted the difficulties of producing writing that is clear, unique and interesting. The newsletter alluded to the challenge of getting one’s written work published, marketed and then purchased.

LISTSBut last week’s newsletter pushed me to re-evaluate my reasons for writing books at all, looking for the positives as well as what’s negative. From there I moved to doing something similar for my coaching and teaching. These were helpful exercises, building on a belief that periodically we all need to look critically at our work and calling. The negatives are easy to remember but a written list of the positives can be good to review whenever we are tired, discouraged, or tempted to quit.

Here’s a personal example. I continue writing because this:

  • Provides the most effective way for me to impact others and to fulfill my life mission,
  • Is an area of competence for me, a God-given ability, seemingly one of my spiritual gifts,
  • Is one of the best ways for me to keep learning and be able to make decisions,
  • Lets me be innovative and creative,
  • Is something that I feel compelled to do, like some of you who are artists, teachers, or mentors and know in your hearts what you need to be doing.

In contrast to these reasons for writing, my thinking about teaching and coaching is producing different lists. If your work involves counseling, ministry, running a business or leading an organization, your lists would be different. But each list can help you decide whether to stay the course, change direction or refine what you are doing.

There is much in life that can’t or shouldn’t be changed. But reflective re-evaluations can increase our effectiveness and sense of fulfillment as we rethink our motives, abilities, competencies and circumstances. The same applies to our clients. Without ignoring the negatives, what is good about what you do in your life or career? Please leave a comment.


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