A couple of years ago I wrote a post entitled “The Gift Our Fish Gave Us” as a reflection on how navigating the death of their fish after two years was developmental and formational for our kids. Well, we got another fish….and it died this week. It too gave us the gift of grieving. But it was quite the day with my 5 year old son Colin – the subject of many of these “pre-school theology” posts.
It all started with a little fumigation. Daddy thought he had safely contained the fish to avoid the gas chamber experience. But Daddy was wrong. Dorothy the fish was belly up and good ole Dad was public enemy #1 for awhile.
It was amazing that during the course of a whole day I watched my son go through like all 5 stages of the grief process.
First – he was angry with me. He blamed me. Direct quote, “You did it on purpose!” He attributed evil intentions to the mistake that caused him to experience loss. He even came close to trying to hit me, but he held back at the last minute. But the pain of his loss was funneled toward anger and blaming.
Second – I took him on some errands to reconnect and work through the tension. At one point he began to try to convince me that Dorothy really was in fact not dead, but sleeping. She was just really tired from holding her breath during all the gas. He had a strong rationalization for how his loss was all a mistake. Denial at work.
Third – After realizing that the fish was dead and his rationalization broke down and wasn’t doing the job, he looked for other ways to deal with his loss. He came up to me and said, “Dad, I have an idea! We can pretend to be happy!” I see this as a combo of rationalization, denial, and bargaining. I couldn’t believe he said it. “We don’t have to feel sad if we just pretend we’re happy!” (Lot of people living their lives with this philosophy! Amazing how early that thought can set in)
My son’s creative solution “to pretend” is a diabolical lie and there’s not much greater of a disservice I can do as a parent than reinforce such a lie that “pretending” is a valid life approach to facing loss and pain. It’s our job as parents to help our kids embrace a vision of life that is so much bigger and so much deeper and powerful than….pretending. But it’s so tempting to pretend!
Fourth – We had our funeral as a family. Everyone had done artwork as in the case of Fish #1. Everyone shared what they drew (Including 2 year old Kaelyn who was experiencing grieving for the first time in this way). Then they shared what they appreciated about the fish. It is so amazing to hear what little kids share about what was meaningful to them – even as it relates to a fish. But the funeral had much sadness, much crying, even some wailing. We prayed and then flushed Dorothy to Great Beyond. My favorite memory was Kaelyn blowing kisses into the fishbowl as Dorothy was circling, saying, “Bye Bye Dorothy!”
Fifth – We did reach a point of acceptance. Dad got forgiven. Order was restored. Yet sadness still lingered as kids shared throughout the week random feelings of sadness. Even Kaelyn would randomly just walk around saying every once in a while, “Sad…Dorothy…Jesus.”
These moments are always wild, but so thankful for the fruit produced when we go through it together and don’t settle for the alternatives to grieving: denial, pretending, blaming.
This weekend we had some of our kids cousins’ in from out of town and they all had a great weekend together. They left for the airport this afternoon and said goodbye. Afterward Kaelyn was eating dinner and she shared on her own, “Mama I sad.” We both shared back, “Us too Kaelyn, we’re sad too.” Later after we began packing up pictures and wall decorations for our move she also said, “Mama I sad. Pictures Gone.”
I love that my two year old sees sadness as normal, as something that can be articulated and shared. My kids still fight loss just like the rest of us, but we’re glad they are learning to talk about it!
There’s no shortage of human dysfunction that flows from the unwillingness or inability to grieve loss and pain and limitation. I speak from experience. I fight it in all the ways my son tried to fight feeling the loss of his fish. I look for ways around it.
We’re all in process. But I find myself resonating and even using the very words of my toddler in moments where I’m feeling very non-toddler types of loss…..”I sad.”
It’s amazing how simple a phrase can trigger such a sense of freedom, honesty, and intimacy in relationship. Reminds me of a similar phrase in Scripture, “Jesus wept.” Such simple language that penetrates all of the complexities surrounding those moments when we’re most aware that we’re fallen people living in a fallen world.
What potential leaders have “the right stuff” and what informs your assessment of what makes for “right stuff” in the first place?
The world I serve in has had a nice strategic sounding phrase that has succinctly defined much of the leadership selection mindset as well as some of the general ministry philosophy in the history of our ministry. That phrase is “Move with the movers.”
Move with the movers. Influence the influencers. Win the winners. Align the aligners. Lead the leaders…and you get the picture.
I don’t think such a commitment to the movers and influencers is a bad thing because everyone needs Jesus and it is important to be strategic about mobilizing people with capacity to shape culture. But doing college ministry (or any other kind) where you primarily relate to a certain class of people with certain capacities can impact whether or not we see the broader formational consequences of putting so much emphasis on who we see as the movers and shakers. Strategic thinking is important and well…strategic, but what happens when one day we wake up and realize that we’ve built our entire philosophy of leadership or ministry around who we see as the beautiful people?
I’ve done college ministry at a church, I’ve served at an Ivy League level university, and I’ve worked in organizational leadership capacities in different ways. I know what it’s like to want to build Sunday morning or a weekly meeting or a conference around people who will draw people in, who will impress, and essentially who are….”cool.” Conventional wisdom is to get the coolest, most popular, and most impressive people to draw in others ”strategically” all the while subconsciously communicating in some way that this is the picture of who we think we are or who what we want to be like.
Athletes? Fraternity men? Sorority women? Wealthy? Charismatic? Funny? Tall? Well Dressed? Powerful? All can represent “Above” and tap into people’s subconscious desires to elevate their own sense of worth and significance through association. Is it wrong to “target” or focus on such people? Not necessarily. But how often do we even think about it? Has it ever crossed our minds that “coolness” is a power and status endorsed label for what’s desirable and ideal? It comes back to the question of how do we assess who has the “right stuff” to build around and platform as representative of who you’re called to be as a community and what you’re called to as a community.
I liked this tongue in cheek thought from Pastor Jonathan Martin in his recently published book Prototype:
“I wish Jesus had read Jim Collins’s Good to Great so He could have gotten the right people on the bus and then the right people in the right seats on the bus. At the very least, He should have run the Myers-Briggs profile on them to ensure that everyone had the right gift mix and He wasn’t accidentally putting an ESTJ together with an INFP and causing a personality conflict.”
I have a strategic orientation. It’s one of my strengthfinders themes so I can get with the right people on the bus philosophy. I still think it holds. It may be more of a question of what kind of bus we’re all on so we understand who the right people really are. Though the bus analogy may get old, think about this. If all the “right people on the bus” look a certain way, are impressive in the same ways, or are at a certain “status” or “above” then one of the realities will be that in no time at all there’s going to be a lot of people who look at the bus and realize that there’s either no room on that bus for them or worse, believe that they aren’t enough in who they are to be on the bus in the first place. And maybe the “right people in the right seats” is more a reflection of what’s most comfortable for leaders and those with power than a true reflection of who should be sitting where (Luke 12:12-14).
So winning winners and moving with movers ends up reproducing winners and movers who in turn move with more movers and win more winners. Sounds strategic right? What’s the problem?
Most of us aren’t winners. Not that most people are losers. But most of us aren’t winners in the sense that we can’t be the package of charisma, ideal physical presence, looks, and whatever other status builders exist today. Sometimes it’s social limitations, sometimes it’s marginalization based on gender, sometimes it’s marginalization based on ethnicity, sometimes it’s financial, and sometimes it’s character or life capacity – frankly few people can consistently claim they aren’t a mess in one way or another.
Jonathan Martin finishes his “Good to Great” thought saying,
Yet is seems as if everywhere Jesus went, the same people show up: those who had nowhere else to go and nothing better to do. In the Gospels, Jesus is called to be the light of the world. Apparently, whores and thieves and the sick and demon-possessed are the moths He attracts.”
-Prototype, page 69
Why did these people flock to Jesus? The Scriptures are clear that there wasn’t “beauty or majesty to attract us to him.” (Isaiah 53:2) The light of the world evoked this response from Simon Peter when asked if he would leave others after a hard teaching, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and to know that you are the Holy One of God.” (John 6:68-69)
They didn’t follow Jesus because he had “the right stuff” but because they saw the source of life, the power of God, and the fulfillment of Scripture clearly in Jesus and the community He was mobilizing and shaping. When I think about the calling of the disciples I think of the great line from the movie Armaggedon when the trained and polished Astronaught played by William Fichtner sees Bruce Willis and his rag tag group of oil drillers and says condescendingly, “Talk about the wrong the stuff!”
I wonder how frequently we make “wrong stuff” assessments or the thoughts come across our minds. I know I’ve been more than guilty over the course of my ministry years. My criteria, while strategic, has often primarily been about what it takes to “grow” and I’ve been slow at points to realize that I’m skipping the questions about what it takes to “be” the type of place where people when asked if they would leave would say, “To whom shall we go?”
The thing about building things around “buzz” and entertainment or beautiful people or “coolness” is that it’s hard to sustain. Do our ministries reflect older celebrities or the many older women I see in this wonderful land of Orange County, California fighting what’s real and what’s authentic in favor of sustaining image and youth through botox and God knows what else in the effort of maintaining status as one of the “beautiful” people? Some ministries and church services seem to be relying on “botox” metaphorically to keep drawing people and “growing” while failing to move deeper into what type of place and community reflects “the light of the world” and “the words of life.” That’s not a call towards just “right doctrine” though it helps to be theologically sound! It’s a call to make sure that the words of Jesus and ministry of the Holy Spirit are concretely displayed in and through community.
It’s a “wrong stuff” judgment of condescension to believe that if you just focus on the cool and beautiful people then “everybody else” will just fall in line. It betrays the fundamental assumption, “Don’t you know that influence is all about power and status?” “Don’t you know that influence is earned through having superficial beauty and majesty to attract people to us?”
If you’ve read this and your thought at this point is, “Well then who am I supposed to have as my emcee at my weekly meeting or youth group?” or “Then how are we going to make our community the place to be?” then you haven’t connected with what I’m getting at. Meetings need capable people to make them work and I’m a fan of gifted people serving out of their gifts and this is a way. The question is about our assumptions about how we see power as a vehicle for achieving ministry results and the impact of that on who we reach and who we don’t reach with our message. It affects who feels welcome and who feels unwelcome…or worse, invisible. Power and status are only assets for the Kingdom through God’s sovereignty and when they are being used in “power-giving” types of ways. Yet we find a lot of ways to justify “strategic” ways to grow our ministries or even “brands” without taking hard and consistent inventory about what we are growing and who we are including or excluding in that process.
Visible and platformed individuals in community contexts can be quite charismatic, but Jesus himself and His mission calls us to at least think about how to ensure that Jesus’ accessibility and significance to the marginalized and powerless is platformed somehow even more so that people experience the light of the world…and also grow in their ability to recognize just what the “right stuff” for the Kingdom really is.
There’s times, because I work almost exclusively with college graduates and highly capable people – leaders, all the time, that when I find myself in other environments I end up with a wake up call that I’ve slowly developed an elitist paradigm of “the right stuff” because I’ve worked so often with “the best of the best” as it relates to skills and motivation. And even within that “class” there is often a more narrow class that is more closely associated with the “ideal.” Those wake up calls are important for me to stay in reality of what it means to be part of a larger, global Church. Kingdom leadership doesn’t get to be defined just by the best and the brightest. That’s what happens time and time again, yet the words and example of Jesus subvert that system every time.
In God’s economy He can make winners losers, and losers winners. So as I dream and envision the future, if there is to be a thriving future of any ministry and especially my own, I believe there will necessarily be greater focus on being people and movements that are both accessible to and powerful sources of life through Christ for those whom power and status has passed by in this world.
Frankly, we’ll have to become a movement that is known for that accessibility and the honoring of those that “coolness” labels the wrong stuff. And maybe we’ll discover what the first century Christians discovered – that maybe the rejects of society, the low status and low “buzz” people can be the ones with “the right stuff” after all when transformed by and infused with the power and love of Christ.
So whether you’ve been viewed as “the wrong stuff” or “the right stuff” in your life (or both!), what are you reproducing in your own leadership and ministry? Are you on a trajectory to only honor and include the beautiful people because it’s the fastest way to relevance and ‘growth?’ Are average men and women, or who you may see as “below average”, afterthoughts in your “strategy?” How do you keep the vision and ethics of the Kingdom and the person of Jesus central to your community when the temptations are there to primarily build around “cool?”
It seems truly a counter cultural perspective that a sign that we are on the right track is perhaps reaching the point that we can celebrate as a community that fact that we “have no beauty or majesty to attract” others to us. But is that too hard too stomach for us? Maybe “dying to self” means dying to “cool” or “image” in ways we are too afraid to face. Because at the end of the day, in our first world church context we seem to rely heavily on power and status for legitimacy – and maybe that’s why some ministries still fail to include others outside their “status” and thus fail to give proper and powerful witness to the One who sent them.
At the end of the day if we’re thinking we need to build around and focus on people with status and power for “growth” then maybe we have to face the hard truth that maybe we ourselves are not the right people to have Kingdom ministry built around.
I’m returning to my blog series called “The Future of Cru” which is essentially some of my reflections and thoughts about some of the things I see that either need to change for the future or things I see glimmers of in terms of helpful change that I think will be significant to its future. This blog I’ll simply entitle, “Organizational Stuff.”
I love organizational “stuff.” I read, study, and generate tons of “organizational stuff.” That means content, policies, strategy, and structures. I like it. I think I’m good at it. And I’m in a world that’s good at it, perhaps prolific at it. I’ve written before on the ways in which organizational structures can function in idolatrous ways and how “those who build them become like them.” I’m not going to hate on organizational efficiency because it’s important, but it’s not the future. It’s not what will bring about a compelling vision into contemporary reality.
Efficiency in some cases can be an idol as can be some traditions and some structures. I see one thing in common is that all of these things can be used to control people. And that’s not the future of any ministry or any endeavor. So organizational stuff that lacks something else, something deeper, to give it parameters and shape is not the future. Organizational “stuff” requires a deeper identity to it that allows you the capacity to see where and when your organizational “stuff” violates the very deep identity of what you hope to be and what you are called to. Disconnects here are even more glaring in the ministry or church world than they would be in secular companies or organizations.
There are great tools and organizational wisdom I like…but without a greater context and identity these things can end up moving towards creating an altogether different reality and community life than what was originally hoped and what might be more true to the hidden deep identity of Christians. An example is when teams are in conflict. I so often see organizational people so quick to make teams read Patrick Lencioni’s Five Dysfunctions of a Team and work on “trusting” each other so that they could have the kind of communication needed for healthy functioning. Sometimes it “works”. But ministry or church teams, while benefiting from this book or others, primarily need to be reminded of who they are and what that means for how they will relate to one another. People can be told to “trust” one another all day long but if they aren’t developing an understanding of “how” to trust and “why” things like trust and vulnerability are important for deeper reasons than this kind of “team development” is just a crapshoot.
Organizational stuff gets after symptoms. It keeps things moving. It maintains order. It insures ‘quality’ in some measure. It serves…the organization in many cases and the question of whether something serves actual people is something more fluid and dynamic.
It does not shape the future, though it will shape the future in the absence of intentional and identity based leadership. What does shape the future? Living out identity. Who we are. Who we were meant to be. What fruit we want to produce.
Tools must be used in context and consistently with identity and purpose. Otherwise we give them too much power.
So why put this in the context of my ministry organization. We’re big. We’re a behemoth organization where over time there’s just layer upon layer of “organizational stuff” that affects organizational culture and the ability to adapt and change in needed ways.
The future is not more organizational stuff. It probably means less “stuff” and a renewed commitment to who we are and what we are wanting to see happen and the organizational identity and calling. This doesn’t just mean “back to the basics” which sometimes is just code (and sometimes even propaganda) for just returning to the first layer of the “stuff” of a particular time and era. It means remembering the deep identity and ultimate purpose and working through how each of those things impact how we lead in a given moment and season.
So how do you guard against “stuff” and keep your tools in context of who you are and who you must be in light of your ultimate purpose?
It has occurred to me over time that very often the person in a given emotional system or community or organization with the most power is frequently and probably even consistently
THE LAST TO KNOW.
By “last to know” I mean they are frequently the last to know just how bad things are…how difficult the experience for the average joe is in that context or system. And while this train of thought applies to leaders in different contexts, it applies to all of life really – husbands, fathers, coaches and anyone else who has some measure of power or authority.
How many times have wives left their husbands and the husbands had no idea what was coming? How many kids are acting out in pain and angst while their dad’s have no idea or don’t seem to grasp the significance of it? How many bosses have employees quit because the environment has much to be desired, yet the boss never saw it coming? I think there’s a pattern – often people with the most power are the last to know about what it’s really like to live in that environment.
And you know what – being “the last to know” is totally something within our control to fix. To quote the x-files –> “The Truth is Out There” so why do so many find themselves blindsided by it when it finally breaks through? Maybe part of it is that they don’t recognize the ways that truth and reality can elude people in power.
Here’s some observations of why this is the case. Some of these reasons can function in isolation as the source of someone’s ignorance related to what’s happening under their watch, yet often there are more than one reason that is at work to affect someone’s perspective. I’ve recognized these in my own leadership at times too – so I share them out of self-reflection as well as general observation of others.
Distance & Disconnects: People with the most power are often physically or emotionally removed from the realities in which their power and authority shapes and influences. Fathers and husbands are physically absent through work and long hours and the hours they are around they frequently don’t want to attend to the emotional climate. Leaders are often not around – whether they are leading from a distance geographically or leading from an office somewhere which can be equally isolating. So leaders can find that their power and authority still impact environments even when the reality of life in those environments isn’t anywhere on their minds or scope of awareness. That happens because of the “out of sight, out of mind” phenomenon. Yet – just because you’re out of sight doesn’t mean that your power and authority isn’t impacting people in unfortunate ways. And it’s a bad thing when your awareness, which is increased through presence, doesn’t match the degree of power you have in a given context.
Other People’s Fears: Another reality, equally true whether a leader is disconnected through distance or even connected and presence, is that people are afraid to speak the truth to people with power. People with put up with a lot of junk and tolerate a lot before they start initiating hard and honest conversations with the person who may have some measure of power over them. People often withhold their reality from their bosses because they don’t want to bite the hands that feed them. They don’t want to put their employment at risk. Maybe more obviously – they don’t want to make life harder on themselves by getting on a leader’s bad side. Sometimes it’s a worse alternative to stay in one’s role with a boss that resents or punishes you for speaking your mind than it would be to leave your job. Similarly, many wives don’t speak up to their husbands out of a variety of fears and anxieties related to power and fear. Kids often speak up inappropriately, but they often don’t speak up really honestly because of a fear of getting punished as well.Leaders don’t often hear the truth because most people are afraid to communicate hard truths to power because there are no shortage of possibilities of what could happen if that person doesn’t take it well. So that leaves leaders in the dark unless they have mastered being able to foster trusting relationships with their teams or families if that be the situation. But make no mistake – people fear power and as a result, the person with the most power may be “the last to know.”
The Fear of the Powerful: The last main factor in why powerful people are often the last to know is their own character and courage. Sometimes people with power don’t WANT to know because of anxiety and insecurity about what it means for them as a leader to have to lead or face challenges. So denial and selective listening insure that they are the last to really know what the reality and ethos of the environment under them is. They are the last to know because they don’t want to know because of leadership insecurity. Sometimes leaders don’t know because they refuse to be wrong – they choose pride and stubbornness over the humility of facing reality. They fear failure, they fear correction so they dig their heels in to maintain their own perspective and punish the people that are providing alternative narratives of reality – especially when those narratives are true and provide feedback. Leaders who don’t want to know out of insecurity or that refuse to know out of pride end up making it very difficult for them to enter into the reality under them and thus – they remain the last to know.
And you know what – leaders in this category at certain extremes never do end up “knowing.” They blame their spouse when they’ve driven them to acts of desperation. They blame their kids for acting out the climate, pain, and issues of their own family environment. And these leaders may never take responsibility for the ways in which they have crushed other people – even unintentionally. They make themselves the victims because the pain of facing ways in which they have victimized others is too great to face. This is why leadership and power on any level requires character and courage – failure of nerve or immoral, unethical character will all insure that while great injustices or great pain may be taking place under your watch (or because of your watch), that you will be the last to know.
This is why servant leadership is not a cliche or something that can be assumed. It takes great effort, intentionality, awareness, and relational investment to lead in and through the honest realities that everyone under your influence and power experience. And it is rather easy, amazingly easy actually, to lead out of your own version of reality because 1) you’re too disconnected to know better, 2) people around you are too afraid to tell you differently, and 3) because it’s easy, because of your power, to lead in ways to protect yourself from truths that are painful, inconvenient, or threatening to you at the cost of the well-being of those under your watch.
So, if you’re the last to know – maybe it’s time to take a look at why that may be the case. And I should clarify here – leaders with power often are the FIRST to know things like statistics and easy measurables that impact funding and image. Such measurables often blind leaders to the rest of the picture and leadership equation and raise issues in the third area listed above.
And if you find yourself not really knowing what’s happening around you or under your authority – then maybe these three areas of self-reflection may point you the right direction in increasing your access to truth….which is pretty much increasing your access to reality.
And as I’ve heard from my mom all my life……
So let’s lead like it and steward our power with a view towards living and leading in reality. Here’s a few questions that you can ask that correspond to the above barriers to leading with a view of people’s realities:
Am I present enough to see people’s realities and know what is going on? It doesn’t always mean physical presence, but am I relationally connected to all the key people enough to know what the environment is and where people are at?
Am I approachable enough for people to speak truth and reality to me? Am I making it easier and leveling the playing field and minimizing power enough for people to safely show me the truth of the situation and/or community and/or my role in it?
Am I truly open to face reality and what are the ways I protect myself from facing reality? Chances are that is being felt by people under and around you – family, marriage, or corporate contexts.
Just finished the novel Wicked: The Life & Times of the Wicked Witch of the West by Gregory Maguire, the inspiration for the musical/broadway play of the same name which is no doubt more popular or more recognized in pop culture.
I’ll be honest – I like the narrative of the play far better, but there was much here that was interesting. I did not really “like” the book as a whole maybe because I already had been exposed to the play’s narrative which is substantially different. The book comes off a bit fatalistic and is a little too crass at some points. But I do love the premise of the book – that what we judge and blame in society or as communities may be more a product of systemic dynamics, power, and anxiety in some cases than true evil, sin, or wickedness. The novel turns the Wizard of Oz narrative on its head and in the premise alone forces you to rethink the question of narrative authority – who gets to determine what narrative is real?
Can we trust the historical narrative when there are so many influences that affect what story gets told after a conflict of values?
So I enjoyed those questions that were throughout the novel as well as the many ways in which the origins of evil were explored. The origins or source of “wickedness” is the dominant theme throughout and covers a variety of influences and ways in which mankind becomes, is labeled, or acts wicked. So the nature versus nurture debate, power dynamics, systemic injustice, and other phenomenon are explored through the narrative.
I found it engaging and I’ve started a project with a friend related to Wicked that hopefully we’ll get to in the coming months because I find it to illustrate how emotional systems function really well. There’s a more happy ending in the play so I enjoy that one a bit better, but the novel goes deeper into some of the bigger questions of sin in society and questions of evil.
So the novel by in large was ok, but I really did enjoy the questions raised and the premise of the book despite being somewhat disappointed by some of the directions it took – maybe that was part of the point though.
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Last week I attended a gathering of leaders from different ethnic minority ministries within my organization as well as a handful of other organizational leaders. I presented briefly on one of the days one of my learnings as a white/majority culture leader working in multi-ethnic contexts. The theme related to being a servant leader in [...]
The last month has been a challenging one to say the least. Some of it circumstantial, but really it’s been a challenging month internally. I aim to share more of some of that, but a small ebook I found has really been ministering to me over the last few weeks. It’s called Deepening the Soul for [...]
Not too long ago I finished When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty Without Hurting the Poor…and Yourself by Steve Corbett & Brian Fikkert. If you aren’t familiar – it’s an exploration of how various missions or relief efforts done by wealthy or more powerful countries can actually do more long term damage than good – [...]