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Leading joyfully and being led by joy

In a room full of Christian leaders, no one made eye contact when the convener asked, “Why does leadership so often feel joyless?”

A few folks chuckled nervously and shifted in their seats. “Is sustained joy possible for leaders?” he continued.

Conviction fell heavy in the space — reality juxtaposed with expectation. I could imagine the other attendees’ thoughts swirling through the air, because I shared a number of them.

Leadership is hard enough as it is; now I need to have joy while leading?

I’m lucky to feel sparks of joy every once in a while, but sustained joy is pushing it.

“I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete” (John 15:11 NRSV). Ugh. Please don’t bring Jesus into this. It is so much more comfortable to sit in my personal pity party of busyness as a Christian leader. I don’t have time to cultivate joy while I lead. I can’t do one more thing.

As I was making a list of all the ways other people were stealing my joy, the convener asked another question: “What are you doing to block your own joy?”

Now it is my fault? I like joy! I want joy! As a leader, I teach people how to live into their joy all the time. I would never block my own jo… Oh.

I thought about the people and activities that help me experience joy in my work. With little effort, I made a list of 10 people who always prompt joy for me when I work with them, no matter what the topic or task. I made a list of tasks that bring joy — emails I like to send, calls I enjoy making, projects that are fun to plan or execute.

Then I looked at my calendar from the past year. The names and activities from those lists were glaringly sparse among meetings and tasks I recall avoiding, dreading and not wanting to repeat. I had been blocking my own joy.

The convener was asking what Ron Heifetz refers to as “balcony” questions. Heifetz espouses the need for leaders to spend time metaphorically on both the “dance floor” and the “balcony” of their work.

Out on the dance floor, our vision is confined to what is immediately in front of us. It is a challenge to get a sense of what else might be happening in the space and among the dancers. Reflecting on our work from the balcony allows us to see trends, patterns and collaborative possibilities, as well as larger and long-term challenges and opportunities.

Time on the balcony enables leaders to consider how our gifts and goals intersect with those of our organization. We may notice shifts in our vocation and where God might be leading. We can take stock of what work brings personal and professional joy, as well as what activities block our joy.

Getting on the balcony looks different for every leader. Depending on what I need from my balcony time, I might go to a beautiful, quiet, secluded space for a few days. Sometimes, my balcony companion is more important than the setting. Certain friends and colleagues are trusted conversation partners who will challenge as well as affirm my thoughts and questions, help me listen to God in new ways, and help me discern creative paths forward.

While a day or two on the balcony a few times a year is optimal for me, sometimes that isn’t possible. Yet even stealing away for a few hours or an afternoon to think big thoughts and ask long-term questions is worthwhile, because I know that my joy depends on it.

I’ve learned that joy is hard to find when I feel relentlessly overwhelmed, burned out or unable to articulate my priorities because everything seems urgent and important. That is when the balcony beckons me to climb above the fray to spend time in conversation with God, reflecting on my past, present and future.

Prioritizing time on the balcony can be a challenge. Unreasonable and unachievable societal expectations lure us into believing that our time is best spent producing something that can be monetized and scaled. Initially, balcony time might feel selfish, frivolous or indulgent, regardless of how necessary it is for clear and effective leadership. But in fact, ironically, few feelings are easier to scale in leadership than joy.

We can take stock of what work brings personal and professional joy, as well as what activities block our joy.

Clearly articulating sources of joy is a fundamental step toward experiencing more of it. Getting on the balcony to prioritize the people and activities that bring joy follows. An effective next step is a conversation with supervisors and colleagues, discerning how we can do more work that brings joy to us and delegate or share other work that might bring joy to others.

When our vision, values and vocation are rooted in joy, and specifically God’s joy made complete in us, our charisma as leaders is contagious. Creative, talented, resourceful and motivated people want to work with such leaders, because everyone wants to experience joy in their work. Knowing what it feels like to lead with joy makes it really challenging to lead without it.

It is easy to blame others for our lack of joy. Too often, though, we are the ones blocking it, through how we spend our time or with whom. Prioritizing balcony time to get clear about what work needs to be done, what work only we can do and what work sparks joy, enabling us to lead others into worthwhile work that is not only done joyfully in the short term but sustained with joy in the long term.

“The Lord will guide you continually, and satisfy your needs in parched places, and make your bones strong; and you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters never fail.” Isaiah 58:11 (NRSV)

Having grown up in Texas, I am accustomed to parched land. When the weather radar gets colorful, I recognize the conditions that cause flash flooding. And now that I live in North Carolina, every year I expect a hurricane or two to dump inches of rain hundreds of miles inland, causing massive flooding and sinkholes and toppling trees older than I am.

When the ground is dry, you might think that a lot of rain would be a blessing. But the opposite can also be true.

The first half an inch or so might have time to soak into the dry earth, but when the rain falls faster than the land can absorb it, the water begins to accumulate, and gravity quickly pulls it to the lowest available spots. This process creates mudslides and erosion, robbing the land of its healthy topsoil; it overwhelms storm drains, floods buildings and stalls cars in swamped roads.

It is logical to think that water will fix or bring health to dry land. But the conditions of the water and the land determine whether it will bring nourishment or ruin.

The same is true for grants and institutions.

When an institution is operating in a scarcity mindset, it is logical to think that a windfall of money will bring immediate health, creating the conditions for growth and sustainability.

But Robert C. Saler, the executive director of the Center for Pastoral Excellence at Christian Theological Seminary, which administers Lilly Endowment’s Clergy Renewal Programs, notes the importance of giving “the right grant to the right institution at the right time.” These three markers are helpful in determining when and whether the conditions are present for a grant to promote health within an institution.

The right grant. Many funders have specific criteria — usually outlined clearly in their RFP (Request for Proposals) documents — that guide their decision making. These criteria, clues to the funders’ priorities, are developed from years of research, pilot programs and best practices. If you are looking for seed money for a startup, a grant program for writing one’s first book will not be the right fit. Similarly, if your organization needs a grant for strategic planning work, an application for a sabbatical grant will not be successful.

To discern whether a grant is right for you, consider the impact it might have. How might crafting the proposal and (eventually) administrating the grant project help move your organization toward health, sustainability and collaborative partnerships?

The right institution. Is your institution positioned to manage a grant? Is your church new, or do you have a long history? Do you have effective leadership in place so that the grant would contribute to the ongoing stability of your organization, or would a grant interrupt the balance of power and cause conflict? What makes your church, organization or community unique? In a stack of grant proposals, what details about your institution would heighten funders’ curiosity about your work?

Researching other institutions who have received similar grants, including reaching out to them directly, can be enlightening. Is your organization similar to or different from previous grantees? How might this information help you craft an application?

The right time. Is this the right time for a grant for your organization? Is there a major staff transition in the works? Is your institution experiencing growth or decline? Does your denominational status affect your sustainability? Writing a grant proposal is not an easy task. It requires research, time, reflection, planning, partnerships, vulnerability and patience. Finding an open application window that fits within your calendar is not the same as finding the right proposal to pursue.

Consult multiple calendars when considering submitting a grant proposal. Does your organization have the administrative and financial services professionals to handle the details of the funding? Is your staff in a position to take on the additional work of a grant program? Who has the time to maintain the relationship with the funder and complete the evaluations?

Let’s return to the image of rain and parched land.

Those who care for the land are intentional about cultivating the conditions for health in dry as well as rainy seasons. Healthy land contains multiple layers of soil capable of absorbing rain and storing it in underground wells for use in drier seasons. In an ecosystem of trees, grasses, weeds, flowers and shrubs, the roots intertwine to keep the soil in place and prevent erosion.

Funders pay particular attention to the potential impact, the institutional circumstances and the timing, because a grant is an investment. Much like in medicine, funders operate with a “first do no harm” mentality. Funders do not want to disrupt a community or organizational system. Typically, they want to come alongside institutions already doing good work and help them do it better. They are looking for grantees who are prepared for the next season of work.

What steps does your organization need to take to be like Isaiah’s “watered garden” so that it can perpetuate health and flourishing when an opportunity springs forth?