5 Mistakes Pastors Make when Planning Staff Retreats

Dave Berry, one of the funniest guys on the planet once wrote, “If you had to identify, in one word, the reason why the human race has not achieved, and never will achieve, its full potential, that word would be: meetings.” I’m not sure if he’s 100% right, but he’s close. Meetings, and extended ones like retreats, often don’t achieve their intended purpose. Why? Because we make significant mistakes when we plan them. Consider these five mistakes and potential corrective measures.

Here are some dumb mistakes I’ve made when planning and holding retreats.

  1. Packing too much into a retreat (which have ranged from 1-3 days). I once handed out about 20 different documents for review and study.
  2. Talking too much. At times I’ve talked/taught so much that I left little time for thorough interaction.
  3. Going too long. As the adage goes, “The brain will absorb only what the rear can endure.”
  4. Not including R&R.
  5. Including other leaders too late into the planning process. In one church I asked our elders to join us after we had completed our planning. They ended up not being on the same page and the pastors felt like our retreat was a waste of time.

As I’ve grown in my retreat leading and planning, these factors have contributed to better success.

  1. Narrow your discussion to a fewer number of topics.
  2. Create a “talk about later” list of subjects that surface during the retreat.
  3. Hold your retreat off-site rather than at the office.
  4. Begin and end at a reasonable hour. Don’t wear people out.
  5. Do something fun like watch a movie together.
  6. Listen more that you talk. Remember the acronym, WAIT, which means Why Am I Talking?
What tips can you share that have helped make your retreats effective?
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5 Ways to Gracefully Say “No”

As a pastor, I’m constantly faced with more time demands placed upon me than I could ever possibly fulfill. As a result, I must make choices. Those demands sometimes are self-imposed (totally my choice) and sometimes they come from others. Often people in the church will ask pastors to do something that takes their time or they want to meet with them on some issue. In many cases we know deep inside that we should respond with a “No.” However, because we don’t want to disappoint, we often say, “Yes,” and later regret it. In this post I suggest 5 ways to gracefully say, “No.”

How to Gracefully Say, “No.”

  1. Say “No” without using the word, “No.” 
    • In some settings the word no itself can come across too harsh. Sometimes using other phrases like these can soften your response and yet still convey a no.
      • “My schedule simply won’t permit it now. I don’t have the bandwidth. Thanks for thinking about me though.”
      • “I’d love to, but right now I can’t. Can you ask me again next week (or whatever timeframe seems appropriate)?”
      • “I’m sorry but it won’t work now.”
  2. Pause a few seconds before giving an answer to someone.
    • Because we don’t want to disappoint people, we often allow our default response to be yes. To avoid this, learn to pause a few seconds before responding to someone who asks you for a commitment. That short pause will buy you some time to frame your response, whether it is a yes or a no. Pausing can also give you time to consider what you’d have to give up were you to say yes.
  3. Delay your response when you honestly aren’t sure how to respond.
    • Sometimes the ask is a valid one and you should give more time before making a decision. In that case, tell the person that you can’t give him a decision now but that would like to check your calendar and think more about it. If it does become a no you will have created sufficient time to consider the pros and cons and then to frame a gracious no. And if a boss asks you for something that will cause you to push other important projects aside, explain the situation and your willingness to say yes. Then ask for his or her advice on how to re-prioritize your current commitments so that you can follow through on your yes.
  4. Ask them to email you with their request.
    • I’ve found that when someone wants me to make a decision on the spot, putting the onus back on him or her potentially creates a default no. I will often ask them to email me their request. Often they never do which becomes the default no.
  5. Simply and kindly say, “No” and if possible explain why.
    • Sometimes you immediately know you should say no. In that case, a firm but gracious no is appropriate. It may feel awkward, but that uncomfortable emotion will quickly pass. However, if you say yes when you should have said no, the feelings of regret last much longer and take a much greater toll, notwithstanding the extra time you’ve now committed yourself to.

Some time back I read the book by Greg McKeown, Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less. I highly recommend it. In a chapter where he writes about saying no, he describes how Peter Drucker once said no. It’s a great example of the graceful no. I’ve quoted it here.

Peter Drucker, in my view the father of modern management thinking, was also a master of the art of the graceful no. When Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, the Hungarian professor most well known for his work on “flow,” reached out to interview a series of creative individuals for a book he was writing on creativity, Drucker’s response was interesting enough to Mihaly that he quoted it verbatim: “I am greatly honored and flattered by your kind letter of February 14th— for I have admired you and your work for many years, and I have learned much from it. But, my dear Professor Csikszentmihalyi, I am afraid I have to disappoint you. I could not possibly answer your questions. I am told I am creative— I don’t know what that means.… I just keep on plodding.… I hope you will not think me presumptuous or rude if I say that one of the secrets of productivity (in which I believe whereas I do not believe in creativity) is to have a VERY BIG waste paper basket to take care of ALL invitations such as yours— productivity in my experience consists of NOT doing anything that helps the work of other people but to spend all one’s time on the work the Good Lord has fitted one to do, and to do well.”

A true Essentialist, Peter Drucker believed that “people are effective because they say no.”

[Mckeown, Greg (2014-04-15). Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less (pp. 135-136). Crown Religion/Business/Forum. Kindle Edition.]

What insights have you learned about giving a graceful, “No”?

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5 Nuggets of Wisdom I Learned from a Ministry Coach

I strongly believe in coaching, a process that intentionally invites a wise person to speak truth into another. I’ve been coached by Lance Witt, founder of Replenish Ministries and author of two great books, High Impact Teams and Replenish. We met via FaceTime each month and that hour was worth gold. One week we discussed several topics and these gems of wisdom rose to the top. I’ve put them into my own words.

  1. Overworked schedules lead to underwhelmed souls. 
    • When we don’t keep healthy margin in our lives, our souls will shrink.
  2. When we pastors get wounded, we must own those wounds and not let them get infected through bitterness and unforgiveness.
    • You will get hurt in ministry and as an old saying goes, “If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen.” What we do with our wounds is our responsibility. Wounds need healing and to a great degree we control that healing process. We can encourage the healing or we can allow those wounds to fester. Given time, as we cooperate with the Holy Spirit, He will heal us. The scars may remain but the wounds get healed.
  3. Our current church culture sets up 100’s of pastors to struggle with pride and 10,000 pastors to struggle with failure.
    • This insight refers to the challenge pastors face when they realize they won’t pastor a large church. Speakers at most church conferences are pastors of large churches and it’s tempting to feel like a failure when we compare our smaller church to the really big ones.
  4. When you finish a staff meeting, make sure everyone understands what decisions you made and what are still discussions.
    • Often staff meetings end with fuzziness about decisions. This practice, however, can help us intentionally keep clear about actual decisions we make in contrast to ongoing discussions.
  5. When you finish a staff meeting, make clear who needs to know the decisions you made.
    • Related to number 4, this practice reinforces our need to communicate, communicate, communicate.

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3 Essentials to Resolving Conflict Well

Nobody likes conflict. Yet, it’s inevitable in life. As I’ve served as a pastor for over 30 years sometimes I’ve handled conflict well. Sometimes I’ve not. However, I’ve learned more about how to solve it Biblically from Ken Sande, author of The Peacemaker, a book I’d recommend every ministry leader read. His book is filled with pure gold and I’ve modified below some of his insights with these three essentials necessary to resolving conflict well. I call them the 3-R’s of conflict resolution.

The 3-R’s of Conflict Resolution.

  1. Recognize your autopilot response to conflict.
    • When a pilot flies a jet at high altitude on autopilot, he is passively piloting it. The computers take over with automatic non-thinking responses.  In the same way, when we feel pressured or threatened by another in a conflict, we tend to act on autopilot without even thinking.  Below I list eight F’s that describe unhealthy ways to resolve conflict. In this post I unpack these responses in more detail.
      • Fight-Flee-Freeze-Fuse-Fixate-Fix-Flounder-Feed/ fornicate/ finances
  2. Recast conflict as an opportunity to…
    • ..honor God. 1 Corinthians 10.31 tell us to do everything for God’s glory and honor. Conflict provides a moment in time when we can honor or dishonor Him by our responses. The next time you face conflict, ask yourself if how you plan to respond will honor Him.
    • …help others. Conflict can position us to be God’s healing agent toward another. If we respond well, we can model true grace to the other person.
  3. Realize the ultimate source of conflict: the human heart.
    • James 4.1 says, “What causes fights and quarrels among you? Don’t they come from your desires that battle within you?” The word desires is the word we get hedonism from. It’s conflict that comes from our drive to satisfy ourselves at the expense of others. So, ultimately conflict is a heart issue. In the heart of us all is a drive to order our lives around ourselves and to do and get what we want.  It is called sin. So since conflict is ultimately a heart issue, it takes a heart/spiritual solution, the power of the Holy Spirit to change us so that we handle conflict in a redemptive way.

Resolving conflict is never easy, but it’s not impossible.

Whether you are a leader or not, conflict will come your way. When it does, consider the 3 R’s as you seek to resolve it.

What has helped you resolve conflict?

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Should you get Closer to your Critics?

What’s happening in this picture? I used this in a recent talk and asked the church audience to give me their answers. Their responses included… two people are angry, they are upset, they aren’t talking, they disagree about something. One lady came up to me afterwards and said, “I think it means that she was right and he was wrong.” I chuckled at that one. In a phrase, this is what I see: two people, for whatever reasons, have cut themselves off from each other, both physical and emotionally. Leaders do that sometimes to their critics and naysayers. Here’s why that’s not a good idea and how we can stay closer to our critics.

One of the greatest survival stories ever began in August 1914 when the famous explorer, Sir Ernest Shackleton, sailed with twenty-seven men on his ship the Endurance. He planned to lead the first expedition across the Antarctic continent. However, his ship got stuck in heavy sea ice which eventually crushed it off the coast of Antarctica. Stuck on four feet of ice over mile-deep water, Shackleton and his crew survived 635 days and nights with poor shelter and limited rations in some of the harshest conditions known. Amazingly, on foot and by small boat he eventually got to safety and then rescued his entire crew. You can read the full story in the great book, Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage.

What was the key to this amazing story of survival? It was a quality of Shackleton’s leadership presence. The ship’s surgeon, Alexander Macklin, captured one of the most important characteristics Shackleton embodied that contributed to the men’s survival. He wrote in his diary, “Shackleton at this time showed one of his sparks of real greatness. He did not rage at all, or show outwardly the slightest sign of disappointment; he told us simply and calmly (my emphasis) that we must winter in the Pack, explained its dangers and possibilities; he never lost his optimism.”[1]

Shackleton illustrates a quality I believe leaders need: to maintain a calm presence with their critics, dissidents, and naysayers. In his time of crisis, he calmly connected to his men, especially the dissidents and potential troublemakers. It made the difference between life and death.

It’s a counter intuitive approach. Staying reasonably and calmly connected is the better way to lower the relational tension and personal anxiety we feel toward our critics. It can improve those relationships and it doesn’t mean that we become their best friends or that we let them run over us.

So, who in your ministry is your biggest detractor today?

  • An old-timer who has been in the church 40 years?
  • A board member who seems to always take a contrarian view?
  • A staff person who isn’t performing?
  • A volunteer who doesn’t like you?
  • Or?

Shackleton’s secret was that instead of pushing away his detractors he actually drew closer to those men. He made two of his troublmakers his bunkmates in his tent. And when he left on a lifeboat to assemble a rescue party, he took 3 men whom he felt might cause trouble with the men who were left.

Here’s what I suggest to maintain a calm presence with such people.

  1. Recognize the power of emotional and relational force fields.
    • Just as magnets have force fields around them, leaders carry emotional force fields as well. Our demeanor, words, and vocal tone all carry power. We can draw people to us or push them away (like the same poles on a magnet do). Great leaders monitor and control their emotional force fields because others will sense our tone. It’s a social neuroscience concept theory of mind that states that we can somewhat intuit the emotions, intentions, and thoughts of another. Although it’s not mind reading and we often misread other’s intentions, it is what some call our sixth sense. Great leaders recognize this and create welcoming rather than repelling emotional force fields, especially toward their critics.
  2. Take the initiative.
    • With our critics and naysayers, it’s easier to keep our distance even though we know relationship tension exists. A good leader, however, will take the initiative to reach out to a critic, even though he’d prefer that if, “they have a problem, they should come to me.” A simple conversation like this can potentially ease tension… “Hi, John, just wanted to check in with you. How are things going?”
  3. Practice empathy.
    • Empathy is the ability to step inside another’s shoes and see life from their perspective. Try stepping into your critic’s shoes to see you from their perspective. You might gain new understanding about what lies at the root of their resistance. Daniel Golemen (the emotional intelligence guy) believes there are three kinds of empathy. I describe them in this way: knowing empathy (we cognitively know our critic’s distress), feeling empathy (we feel our critic’s distress), and doing empathy (we are moved to help relieve our critic’s distress). Which kind do you need to express toward your critic?
  4. Become more self-aware.
    • Related to number 1 above, becoming more self aware refers to recognizing the power of emotional contagion, the concept that explains how others catch our emotions. If you act distant or cold toward someone, they tend to mirror your behavior. If you act friendly and open toward others, they tend to respond in like kind. Neuroscientists have discovered a unique set of brain cells called mirror neurons that play a role in emotional contagion. These brain circuits prompt us to subconsciously mimic goal directed behavior we see in others. Ask yourself how you come across to your critics. Would you want them to relate to you as you do to them?

Again, who’s the person in your life or ministry that criticizes or hassles you the most? Which of these four suggestions if applied might make that relationship better?

Even though we may not feel we have the strength or emotional reserve to relate in a positive way toward our critics, the Bible tells us that every follower of Jesus has the Holy Spirit. He promises to give us everything we need to relate in wise and healthy ways toward our critics. The Apostle Paul reminded us of this when he wrote these words.

You, however, are controlled not by the sinful nature but by the Spirit, if the Spirit of God lives in you (Rom. 8.9, NIV)

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[1] Marcuson, Leaders Who Last, kindleKloc. 1117.