What does it cost to pay attention?

Posted Nov 14, 2013 | Pastoral Excellence Network

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By Lawrence Peers


French fries

“I went into a McDonald’s yesterday and said, ’I’d like some fries.’ The girl at the counter said, ’Would you like some fries with that?’” – Jay Leno

The humor in this joke points to an increasingly serious challenge for many of us: to pay attention. More and more we are distracted and torn in so many directions that our responses can be as automatic and as mindless as the server in this joke.

Daniel Goleman, in his latest book, Focus, examines this increasingly widespread phenomenon that he calls an “impoverishment of attention” impacting individuals, work teams, and organizations—in fact, our culture as a whole. Even the church is not exempt. In his book, Paying Attention: Focusing Your Congregation on What Matters (Alban Institute, 2005), Gary Peluso-Verdend wonders whether churches can have “institutional attention deficit disorder”—as they lack focus, get easily distracted and seem to lose sight of their central purpose. Maybe you’ve actually experienced this?

Certainly, many pastors also feel the challenge of the “impoverishment of attention.” Again and again, I hear stories of pastors who struggle not just with their capacities to respond but also to attend. Indeed, there is a collective sigh among many of us as we struggle to find the practices and the disciplines to catch up, stay focused, and be more present to our life and our ministry.

One of the values of clergy peer learning groups is the opportunity that they provide to focus one’s attention on what is at the heart of one’s ministry. Often times, we can lose that sense of what really matters. We can put our call “on hold” while we are doing other—sometimes non-essential—things. In the company of clergy colleagues, we can be reminded to listen to what we are called to do in the midst of all that is possible for us to do. As we are present to one another, perhaps we can also cultivate a Presence that strengthens us for inspired, in-Spirit-ed action.

In our clergy groups, we often don’t have the absolute answers for one another, but we can offer the questions that open up perspectives and possibilities. Here are some questions adapted from various sources that we can offer—to help ourselves or our colleagues focus on what matters:

1. What question, if answered, would make the most difference to your ministry and/or life right now?
2. How often do you hit the “snooze alarm” on what matters? What would happen if that came to the forefront rather than the backdrop of your ministry?
3. What big, unexamined assumptions have you made about what’s possible or not possible in your ministry? How might you test out these assumptions in your actual actions over a period of time?
4. What is the legacy (or impact) that you want to create in your ministry or life? What do you need to do more of or less of in order to create that legacy (or impact)?
5. What is it “costing” your soul and/or your ministry to not focus on what really matters?

What are some re-focusing questions that you would you add to this list?

The image displayed in this post is "French fries by freefotouk, on Flickr" and is used in accordance with Creative Commons licensing.

Lawrence Peers is the director of learning of the Pastoral Excellence Network at Christian Theological Seminary.

The Pastoral Excellence Network at CTS seeks to connect and nurture groups for clergy at all stages of ministry. To request permission to repost this content, please contact wsordillo@cts.edu.

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