The Ministry of Your Presence

When I was a young minister, I often felt awkward making hospital visits because I didn’t know what to say. I asked my senior pastor’s advice and he said, “Don, you don’t need to say much. The most important thing is the ministry of your presence. Just being there is enough.”

Never underestimate the power of being present with someone, particularly when they realize you don’t have to be there.

Two members of my staff spend many weekends watching their kids play sports, sometimes 8-10 hours a day. Sometimes in the rain or cold. Their presence is a profound act of love and devotion.

In his must-read book, How to Know a Person, political writer David Brooks shares this story: “I recently read about a professor named Nancy Abernathy who was teaching first-year med students when her husband, at age fifty, died of a heart attack while cross-country skiing. With some difficulty, she managed to make it through the semester and carried on with her teaching. One day she mentioned to the class that she was dreading teaching the same course the next year, because each year, during one of the first sessions of the course, she asks everybody to bring in family photos so they can get to know one another. She wasn’t sure if she could share a photo of her late husband during that session without weeping.

“The course ended. Summer came and went, and fall arrived and, with it, the day she dreaded. The professor entered the lecture hall, full of trepidation, and sensed something strange. The room was too full. Sitting there, along with her current class, were the second-year students, the ones who had taken her class the year before. They had come simply to lend their presence during this hard session. They knew what she needed, and didn’t need to offer anything more.” 

“This is compassion,” Abernathy later remarked. “A simple human connection between the one who suffers and one who would heal.” (Brooks, pgs 52-53)

I want to do more of this. I want to sense when someone feels the pain of being alone and alleviate their discomfort with my presence. Not to teach or coach, but simply to be with them.

Before making major life-decisions, solicit input from other people. 

One of my favorite leadership mantras is: All of us are smarter than one of us. There’s wisdom in a multitude of counselors. Any idea, plan, or decision will be improved upon when we get multiple opinions. It’s good advice for leaders and it also applies to our personal lives. 

As a leader, I always try to follow this advice, but in my personal life I have failed miserably. I’ve made major career moves without seeking advice. On my own, I decided which colleges to attend and what to study. When Mary and I were considering marriage we didn’t ask for input. I’m not proud of my Lone Ranger approach to life and I’m trying to figure out why that has been my default setting. I suspect at least two reasons. In the early stages of my life I was emotionally alone, and I am self-reliant and over-confident. 

How about you—do you struggle with this issue?

The Quakers have a wonderful solution to this problem: the Clearness Committee. They have a well-structured approach to allowing others to have input into major decisions. This article by Parker Palmer, “The Clearness Committee: A Communal Approach to Discernment,” is worth the five minutes it takes to read.

Proverbs 11:14 teaches: “Without wise leadership, a nation falls; there is safety in having many advisers” (NLT). Personalize this verse by substituting “a person” for “a nation.” When making decisions, ask for advice. There’s no downside to doing so. 

Get the monkey off your back. Who is responsible for the next move?

In a now-famous article titled “Management Time: Who’s Got the Monkey?” (Harvard Business Review, November, 1974), authors Oncken and Wass created a clever and memorable illustration on how a person can unwittingly accept responsibility for activities that should be handled by others.

In the illustration, the “monkey” is simply the next move. It is not the problem, or the project, or the goal, or the desired result; it is the next step.

Read the three scenarios below and picture a monkey leaping from the back of the direct report, teenager, and repairman to the shoulders of the boss, mom, and homeowner. Once you visualize the long-tailed primate jumping from one person to another, you’ll never forget the illustration. Since becoming aware of this phenomenon, sometimes in conversations I can almost feel the weight of a monkey as it jumps from my back onto someone else’s or from their back to mine.

    • Imagine that you’re walking toward your office when one of your direct reports approaches and says, “I’m not sure how to handle a problem we’re having on a project.” You reply, “Let me think about it and I’ll get back with you.” The monkey is now on your back.
    • Imagine that your teenager approaches you and says, “Mom, I can’t find my baseball shirt.” You reply, “I may have put it in the washing machine, let me check.” The monkey is now on your back.
    • Imagine that you’re having some repair work done at your house and the repairman says, “I’m not sure this repair will meet city code.” You reply, “I’ll call the city and ask.” The monkey is now on your back.

I fall into this monkey-on-my-back trap often because 1) I like to do things myself, 2) sometimes I think I can do a better job at certain things than others can, and 3) I’m a people pleaser so I’m inclined to do people’s jobs for them.

When we allow employees, children, workers, and friends to handle their own monkeys, they will grow, acquire new skills, become more responsible, and more work will get done. And we’ll have more time to do those things that only we should do and more discretionary time to enjoy life.

Here’s a copy of the article.

Last impressions can be lasting impressions

Two cabins available for the August trip to Northern Europe

We’ve often heard that first impressions are important…and they are. But don’t neglect final impressions because we humans are highly influenced by endings. Regardless of how an experience started and played out, we remember most how it ended. 

There’s probably a more tactful example of this idea, but this anecdote—involving colonoscopies—is telling. The experiment was conducted by Psychologists Redelmeier and Kahneman. 

“In the late 1980s, colonoscopies were painful, and not merely dreaded. The discomfort of the procedure dissuaded people from returning for another one. By 1990, colon cancer was killing sixty thousand people every year in the United States. Many of its victims would have survived had their cancer been detected at an early stage. Was it possible to alter their memory of the experience so that they might forget how unpleasant it was?

“To answer the question, Redelmeier ran an experiment on roughly seven hundred people over a period of a year. One group of patients had the colonoscope yanked out of their rear ends at the end of their colonoscopy without ceremony; the other group felt the tip of the scope lingering in their rectums for an extra three minutes. Those extra three minutes were not pleasant. They were merely less unpleasant than the other procedure. The patients in the first group were on the receiving end of an old-fashioned wham-bam-thank-you-ma’am colonoscopy; those in the second group enjoyed a more gentle, less painful, ending. The sum total of pain experienced by the second group was, however, greater.

“An hour after the procedure, the researchers entered the recovery room and asked the patients to rate their experience. Those who had the more pleasant ending remembered less pain than did the patients who had not. Human beings who had never imagined that they might prefer more pain to less could nearly all be fooled into doing so. As Redelmeier put it, ‘Last impressions can be lasting impressions’” (from The Undoing Project, Michael Lewis, page 235). 

How can we take advantage of this insight? 

When planning an event, end with a nice, feel-good experience.

Several years ago I took 36 friends on a trip to Europe. On the last night of the trip we were staying in a convent in Rome. I had arranged for a professional tenor to sing a concert—just for our group—in the chapel prior to a four-course meal. It was an incredible ending to the trip; people are still talking about it. No one mentions the fact that it rained that last day in Rome, which made touring difficult. The nice ending of the trip trumped previous inconveniences.  

When an unfortunate event occurs, its impact can be minimized by orchestrating a positive ending. 

In 1989 Lexus introduced its first car, the flagship LS400. Their slogan was “the relentless pursuit of perfection.” But the car had flaws and all 8,000 vehicles were recalled. The cruise control failed to disengage, the plastic cover around the high-mounted rear brake light warped, and a poor connection between the alternator and battery could cause the battery to run down. 

This could have rendered Lexus stillborn—it’s first car was flawed. But the company took full responsibility for the problems and its dealers did the repair work at no charge to the customer. But here’s what made the big difference: An older couple had bought their LS400 in a major city and drove it to their small town which was 500 miles from the nearest dealership. When Lexus heard about the dilemma they sent mechanics to the small town and repaired the car at the couple’s home. The story went viral and became a memorable legend—“Lexus will always take care of their customers.”  

Think carefully about how you end all relational encounters: a conversation with a co-worker; a lunch meeting; a consulting contract; a worship service; an athletic event; a planning retreat, a dinner party. A well-orchestrated ending can make a significant difference

Travel with Friends trip to Northern Europe – August 13-29

On the 2024 Travel with Friends trip, we’ll circumnavigate the Baltic Sea. Northern Europe is one of the most pristine areas of the world. The scenery is spectacular and the cultures are interesting and accommodating.

Together, we’ll explore: Amsterdam (one of the great cities in the world), Berlin, Gdansk-Poland (where WW2 started), Stockholm (including the place where Nobel Prizes are given), Tallin-Estonia (one of the best preserved medieval cities in Europe), Copenhagen-Denmark (awarded 2023 World Capital of Architecture by UNESCO), and other places.

Here’s the brochure. Baltic-Sea-Trip-2024-Brochure-110823-Fillable

Contact me if you’re interested. [email protected] – 214.783.4414