Tag Archives: Family Systems

Quick Review: Braving the Wilderness

It’s been a month or two since I read Brene Brown’s Braving the Wilderness. I’ve delayed writing something up on it because I’ve had mixed feelings about it. It’s both the book of hers I’ve liked least, but it’s also the most intriguing related to some of my areas of research and study.

A lot of the book is similar to her other works – shame, worthiness, and vulnerability. I recently reviewed Rising Strong and there’s some overlap. It’s good stuff and there’s several stories and anecdotes from other books. However, there’s also a lot that is new and there is a different emphasis on this book. This focus, as I would describe it, is the connection between identity and belonging in a reactionary and tribalistic society.

What I liked was that at the core of this book, it really is a tackling of identity between individuality and community. Essentially, Brown is unpacking what family systems theorists call self-differentiation, the grounded identity that is both connected and separate even in the midst of an anxious and reactive society.  I kept thinking of one of my favorite authors, Edwin Friedman and his book Failure of Nerve as I read this. If you want to take a look see my post linking to a couple summaries here and also here.  It is one of my top 5 books of all time and has profoundly impacted my views on leadership and leadership formation.

Anyway – back to the wilderness. Braving the Wilderness is really a metaphor for self-differentiation. It’s living in between the polar extremes of reactivity and anxiety. Friedman calls one extreme emotional fusion. Christian psychologist PaulTripp calls this immersion. Harvard negotiation expert Daniel Shapiro calls this defaulting to affiliation.  It’s the surrendering of individual identity to the group out of fear of rejection, judgment, or shame. It’s compromising the integrity of personhood to belong – belonging becomes being part of a tribe.

Friedman calls the other extreme cutting off. Tripp calls it isolation. Shapiro calls it defaulting to autonomy for the sake of identity.  It’s surrendering community and relationship to preserve personhood. It’s to some degree distancing from those that provide a threat or challenge to be able to feel secure again in one’s self.

Brown is unpacking these dynamics. I think initially I was irritated because it felt like it was being unpacked as new data or phenomena, but these concepts have been out there getting discussed in a lot of places. But I like that she connected shame and vulnerability what can lead people towards surrendering their identity for either reactive extreme. People feeling anxiety and shame tend to seek security and certainty and if they cannot stand on their own and hold their ground for their higher values and their integrity – the emotional forces of society will bounce them around.  Thus Brown is directly addressing in this book how to foster civility and empathy in a society that is looking to dehumanize others and where everyone is trying to strengthen their tribe at the expense of the other.

Worthiness is at the heart of Brown’s books – that people who feel and act worthy and like the belong, actually believe that they belong.  The elephant in the room is the question, “Where does that worthiness come from?” I do not believe Brown offers an answer for this, but to describe that we need to do our best to be civil and understanding and do our part to help extend hospitality across difference.   Added to this though, Brown also discusses a lot about curiosity and civility as key to fostering civil discourse and belonging across difference.

Brown is advocating for people to connect as humans, fighting the tendency of people to dehumanize for the sake of certainty and tribal belonging. As I read this, it’s a perfect apologetic for the Christian worldview as the image of God, loving your neighbor, and the call to grace and truth are core foundational pieces. It’s a shame that Christians tend to be just as tribal, if not more, than others. It’s a sign that the gospel has not taken root. But Brown is pointing to a question that is theological in nature. Can we achieve our own worthiness? Or do we have to receive it from someone else?  Can we get it from other people or does it have to come from a higher authority?

So there’ s a lot that I like and it’s the most I’ve thought about any of her books so it’s a sign that it maybe it ranks higher than I initially thought. But there are things that are hard. I understand why some reviews complain about her being too political, but I didn’t think it was that bad – but an example of tribalism in the reviews.  There’s also a stronger tone of anger and “screw you, I gotta keep it real” to this book that wasn’t as evident in her other books.  On one level – I get it – I think Brown has to have some of that edge to play the role she is playing.

However, I’ve seen too many applications of her work where people are rejecting shame and community accountability to defend their positions (an ironic example of what Brown is speaking against). People can find justification through some of the concepts to defend their personal choices.  Not all shame is bad – when people reject the voice of community completely to “keep it real” they then run the risk of cutting off and getting lost in a myopic view of life. This connects to a series I did many moons ago called “Prophets vs. Posers.”

All in all – it’s a good book and I’m still thinking about a lot of it. But it is a clear reminder that there are deep solutions to questions of shame and belonging and vulnerability. Will people humble themselves to really find those solutions outside of themselves and receive the dignity, belonging, security, and love that can anchor one firmly in that identity so they can freely love and serve others across difference?  This is the Christian life.  Now more than ever, followers of Christ need to embody this self-differentiation in Christ so they can brave the wilderness where is increasingly anxious, hostile, reactionary, and tribal.

So I recommend it, but I recommend Friedman’s A Failure of Nerve even more.

Stats Lie Pt. 10 -Quick Thots From The Movie Moneyball

I am re-posting this blog in preparation for my next few posts that will relate to the book Moneyball and because I think this post and those to come belong in my “Stats Lie” series. This was originally posted on October 8th, 2011.


My wife and I pulled off a miracle and actually went to a movie together this weekend. We hit Moneyball which came on the recommendation of several folks.

I really enjoyed the movie.  I’m a baseball fan and I lived in the Bay Area during the time frame in which this movie covers so I saw some games and first hand lived through a lot of the media coverage of the events.  One of the best part of the movie was seeing its portrayal of the dramatic 20th win in the record breaking win streak.  I watched that game and Hatteberg’s game winning home run after blowing a monstrous lead was one of my more memorable sports moments to watch or live through.

But here’s some systems insights that I thought the movie illustrates through the baseball context so as to connect the movie to the themes I often post on..

First, cultures adapt certain ways of measuring greatness or effectiveness.  It doesn’t mean that people who don’t fit that grid or standard aren’t effective or successful.  It means there’s an accepted criteria for what’s successful and to go outside of that threatens the establishment and generates a lot of anxiety for folks in the “system” whatever type of system it might be. People want the “sure thing” when evaluating talent and doing leadership or talent selection, but often they settle for what feels safest to them – which leans often on tradition and cultural norms.

Second, if you do step outside the criteria endorsed by the establishment and manage to endure the ridicule, resistance, or even hostility, and actually succeed….then many of those people who made life hard for you when you were trying to be original and think differently and meet the demands of reality will come full circle and want your help or start copying what you are doing.  Beane started a revolution in the baseball world and changed the landscape of his profession, but it took a lot of nerve and passion and maybe some desperation too in order to do it.

But this is a cycle that comes with creativity and cutting edge leadership efforts. You either get honored in the end, or people indirectly affirm what you’ve done by hijacking your stuff and copy you with or without giving you credit, or you fail and you get hung out to dry.  Not a lot of middle ground here when trying to boldly lead outside of the norm.   No matter what happens – it’s still worth leading towards reality in new and innovative ways.

Third, as one of the key lines of the movie illustrates, “It’s gotta mean something.” I think the movie captures one of the tensions often experienced.  Do you keep chasing numbers and goals?  That’s a bottomless pit, even when one considers a ministry context.  What we do and how we go about it reflects a lot about who we are and who we want to be.  Meaning is often assumed in leadership and in ministry, but something that we continually have to enter into and not just assume that because our goals and objectives are significant that meaning will be embedded in our experience of what we’re doing.

On a personal note, my wife paid me a compliment after the movie. She said the main character reminded her of me.  I appreciated that because I value courage in leadership and honest assessments of reality and bold efforts to go to the heart of the issue. What I do has to be meaningful in terms of its impact on people and not just in the cliche or standards that are reflected in traditional metrics.  But if I’m honest I personally relate more to the assistant GM in the movie who is the awkward and insecure, yet smart and innovative guy behind the scenes who people don’t always listen to.  He sees the landscape with different eyes, but the landscape doesn’t see him.  I enjoyed watching his story illustrated in the movie. It doesn’t mean that’s who in fact I am in reality, it’s just that there are elements to his experience I relate to at times (but without the genius piece).

One of my values has been to try to identify folks who I think see the landscape they are in for what it is and not for what people want it to be.  Those are the people I want to platform and invest my time in as a leader.  Moneyball is a lot about metrics, but what got the ball rolling was one leader finding the right person to listen to and partner with in a time where radical change was needed.

If you saw it – what did you think? About the movie in general? About leading innovative change?


Jay Cutler and Wanting Something That’s Just Not There

So after last night’s debacle and the media and social media aftermath last night and today, I find it to be incredibly appropriate to re-post this on Jay Cutler and his affect on people.


So my wife after reading my blog post on Jay Cutler yesterday and after reading some of what’s out there online said the following line to me today, “It’s pretty evident that a lot of people really want something from him that he’s not able to give.”  She’s genius always, but really loved her assessment of what’s been blowing up in the sports world the last couple of days.

When I think about the most intense conflict situations on teams that I’ve been a part of or on teams that I’ve mediated, this same dynamic is almost always at work.  People are wanting something from some one and often what people are wanting is just not there to be experienced.   What someone is wanting is just not a part of the skill set or capacity of the person that it is wanted from.  This creates a tough dynamic and actually a more reactionary cycle.

Here’s how it goes.  There’s some type of legitimate need or desire.  It doesn’t get met or reciprocated.  The original desire transforms into a demand through lack of reflection and self-control amidst increasing anxiety.  Resistance increases in defensiveness and anxiety-in-kind.  Demands with more anxiety and lack of response or solution turn into demonization and everything becomes personal and so on and so on.

If one steps back from the Jay Cutler saga you see millions of people, fans, athletes all fairly strongly demanding certain types of behavior from Jay Cutler:  smile more, be more encouraging, be more involved, be nicer in public, be more passionate on the sidelines, be tougher, be more skilled, be more clutch, be more available, be more authentic…basically, be somebody else.

If you are in a anxious situation on your team or in your family or in your community, maybe somebody is doing this to you or maybe you’re doing this to someone else.  I’ve wanted things from people that they didn’t have it in them to give before.  Other people have wanted things from me before that I didn’t have it in me to give them.  So what do you do?  Talk louder?  Ask more clearly?  Demand stronger?

Communication can be a beautiful thing so healthy interactions always start with open and honest attempts at dialogue.  But sometimes you run into brick walls and limitations.  Sometimes people want things that just aren’t there to be given back to them.

My suggestion – after trying to communicate through it as adults and honestly expressing desires and preferences and if it’s still not working – just be sad about it and figure out what you need to do next to steward what you do have control of.  To keep demanding what’s not there is insane and only ends up fueling an increasingly toxic environment.  So learn to be sad and accept people’s limitations, while also learning how to own your own feelings and disappointments.

That is one of the top 2 or 3 leadership and life lessons that I’ve learned in the past 15 years of ministry and leadership.

The more people try to get Jay Cutler to be someone he is not or be at a certain level of maturity or relational capacity that he is not at yet, the more anxiety will build and result in more extreme reactions.  Certain people will sucked into Jay being scapegoated and become unabashed Jay supporters defending him from the world.  Others will be unable to see Jay’s humanity or give him the benefit of the doubt or see his positive attributes.  For systems fans, this would the be fusion / cut-off dynamic.

Differentiated people can critique Jay for what he does not do well (and there are several things here) and they can also maintain an open mind to see positives when they are there (and there are several positives).   They can be learners too.  It’s the same on teams, families, and whatever system you might be in.  Differentiated people can recognize limitations without demonizing and placing demands.  They can see a greater range of choices for themselves, while immature and anxious people typically feel bound to their situation and feel trapped without choices.

So think about a relationship that you might have that you are demanding something that just might not be there.  What are your choices?  What are the limitations?  How might you respond in a way that focuses on your own mature functioning rather than trying to change someone that might not have the capacity to change (or change fast enough for you)?

Stemming the Tide of Scapegoating

In the Systems & Power Leadership Community I facilitate yearly, one of the dynamics we explore relates to anxiety in groups and emotional systems and one of the things that we explore is scapegoating.   Last weekend, we had an epic NFL championship Sunday in which two games came down to the wire and ended amidst dramatic circumstances.  They had something in common:  they both featured horrible mistakes that led to a couple players becoming scapegoats for the loss.

In the aftermath of the 49ers v. Giants game, the scapegoat Kyle Williams even received death threats towards himself and his family.  A game suddenly is no longer a game and toxic anger takes over on a wide level.

The question our leadership community has been tossing around these last couple of weeks has been, “What is needed to stem the tide of anxiety when scapegoating is set in motion – in a family, in a team, or in any emotional system?”

Then a friend tweeted this article out and I was struck by it’s relevance to these discussions and it was a powerful example of how a father stemmed the tide of scapegoating in his own family and then how his 7 year old son has begun to stem the tide of scapegoating in the larger sports world.

Here’s the article here: http://sports.yahoo.com/blogs/nfl-shutdown-corner/awwww-read-seven-old-heart-melting-letter-kyle-214810120.html

Observations about diffusing anxiety in systems that starts to get over-focused on an individual that are reinforced in this example:

  • There’s a needed capacity to be sad, to grieve, to let go after dealing with hurt and loss honestly
  • There’s a needed capacity to be able to think about, empathize with, and move towards others even while we are hurt or angry ourselves
  • There’s a needed capacity to ask questions to those who are wrapped up in anxiety to the point where they are lost and help them refocus or reframe all of the emotion and anxiety they are feeling
  • There’s a need to maintain a larger perspective as best as we can

Those are just a few of the things that diffuse scapegoating systems – that help guard against toxic anxiety coping and pain relief and that can free us up to function in loving and peacemaking types of ways.

Don’t be a party to scapegoating and don’t let others become scapegoated.  Make this a key part of your leadership convictions and be a part of redemptive and forgiving community. Let’s guard our own hearts and help guard others from unjust blame and judgment.

What other observations might you have about what it takes to stem the tide of scapegoating?

**Addendum – Since posting this, I’ve heard a couple different interviews in which Kyle Williams did.  I think this was a smart decision on his part and he came off really well.  By staying silent or being defensive he feeds into the dynamic.  But facing the music, he infused the discussion with a reminder of his (and all of our) humanity.  It’s harder to treat someone like dirt when they are humbly and courageously owning up to their mistakes.


Advent and the Most Pernicious Program of All

Here’s the third post in my Advent and Star Trek series where we actually get to the advent part! This was originally posted on December, 3, 2011

So have you ever thought of Star Trek’s “Borg” and Advent in the same thought and discussion?  Probably not.  But here it goes.  Of course context helps as this is part three of a three part mini-blog series entitled “collective fusion” so you can get part one here (Collective Fusion: Resistance is Not Futile) and part two here (Self: The Most Pernicious Program of All). This won’t have the same meaning or coherence without that backdrop 🙂

In part two, I mentioned the quote from the Stark Trek episode I stumbled upon while hanging out late night with my infant daughter.  In response to a crisis about whether to return a lost Borg to its collective with its memory or erase it, the captain says, “Perhaps that’s the most pernicious program of all – the knowledge of self being spread throughout the collective in that brief moment might alter them forever.”

As I’ve been thinking about the incarnation of Christ now that it’s the beginning of Advent, I see some connections with the role Jesus played when he, to use The Message’s version of John 1, “moved into the neighborhood.”

Even a person without faith should marvel at the life of Christ – particularly as it relates to his ability from the age of 12 and during the course of his public ministry to live out of His true self and His true identity and conversely his capacity to not let others define him or co-opt him.

Jesus entered into a volatile political climate with a lot of intensity and anxiety about religion and the law as well as in local politics.  Much of what does not get discussed frequently about Jesus is just how many forces there were that consistently sought to hijack who Jesus was and what He was about for their own purposes.  The Pharisees, the Sadducees, the Romans, and even the disciples and the masses all directed hopes and expectations at times towards him in an effort to get Him to conform to their agenda and paradigm of religion and spirituality.

Jesus never conformed or compromised.  For clarity – he was uncompromising as it relates to his identity and his values and vision of what God intended for people to live out and experience as opposed to being uncompromising related to doctrinal debates.

Jesus’ presence as a real human in real human community and social/political/economic life altered the entire system into which he was born.  Jesus didn’t alter, compromise, or surrender his identity or self for the many anxious folk around him.   And as a result, lives were transformed and the world was changed forever.

As you think about this holiday season – think about some of those moments in which Jesus was being tempted to surrender himself (His very self!) to others to eliminate their anxiety and fear.  How about when Peter rebukes Jesus when Jesus decides it’s time to go to Jerusalem?  How about when Jesus is being questioned by Pontius Pilate?  How about even when Jesus is 12 and is questioned by his parents when they left Jerusalem without him?  How about when Jesus he is a target of political and religious scheming in many of the debates between the Pharisees and Sadducees?  How about when the demands of the poor and the sick never cease to come to him?  Or when he is being tortured and killed?

Jesus never conformed or forfeited his own self and identity.  And he ultimately was killed as a result.  But that was the plan wasn’t it?  To reveal in flesh the image of God and the will and heart of God?  He no doubt knew what was coming and the price that comes with such a revolution.  Yet he had the character and integrity of self to forge through the anxiety and the pain that stood between Him and fulfilling His calling.Never before or since has such a self transformed people’s lives and the world in which He lived.  It was the perfect execution of “the most pernicious program of all” and the power at work then is the same power at work today.

So this Advent season, you may not think of the Borg naturally, but at least think of Jesus as the one who’s presence and power can move into any “neighborhood” (family, community, workplace…) and change it forever.  But for any of us to see that happen, we first and foremost need that presence and power to change us – shaping and conforming us into the type of “self” that can engage in transformational and redemptive ways with those around us without getting co-opted for the sake of alleviating others’ anxiety, insecurity, or fear.

Where do you hope to embody that same power and presence that comes from God this Christmas season?

And with that I can say I’ll probably go another 700 posts before hitting anything Star Trek related again 🙂

Collective Fusion – Resistance is not Futile

I’m re-posting an advent series as we approach Christmas. These posts sparked a lot of discussion last year for me so I’m excited to re-release them. This post was first posted on November 30th, 2010.


All right…Here’s one for you trekkies! Actually three since this is part one of three posts on the theme I’m calling “collective fusion.”

I haven’t watched anything in the Star Trek genre in about 15 years.  Never saw the new movie.  Don’t watch any of the shows.  But given that my new infant daughter likes to hang out and party late at night because she’s got the day night cycle backwards I randomly came across this old episode of Star Trek Next Generation.  I watched an occasional Star Trek in college and would pretty much only was intrigued by episodes that involved either “Q” or the “Borg.”  Nothing else really did it for me, but those two subjects intrigued me then and intrigue me now.

The episode I saw was about the Borg.  Not sure how to describe them because I wasn’t a show watcher really, but it’s basically a race of part human, part machines in which any sense of individuality is completely erased and so the only consciousness of identity is known as “We” and they belong to the “collective.”  Their mission is to “assimilate” all humanity and life into their collective – and by so doing eliminate individual identity in the process.

Since getting into family & congregational systems theory about 7 years ago I quickly thought of the Borg as a perfect metaphor for “fusion” and I’ve thought of a blog like this as early as 3 or 4 years ago. Kaelyn was a great catalyst to bring it to fruition.  Fusion is a term that captures what many psychologists call co-dependence, but it’s more than that.  Fusion is where one’s identity and something else become “fused” to where individuality is forfeited and an external force drives and shapes, even defines, one’s identity. So for a person, they could be “fused” to a spouse, a child, a boss, a friend, an enemy, an organization, a project, a pet, and even an idea or an issue in one’s life.  Essentially their sense of self is completely powered and driven by something else other than who they are and who they were made to be or from an internal set of values that are part of who one really is at heart.

A society of fused beings with no sense of self.  This is the Borg.

People were terrified of the Borg.  They could not be reasoned with and were extremely dangerous.  Perhaps they were the most dangerous enemy in the universe on the show and they generated great fear.  I think the prospects of having your sense of self co-opted adds a fairly deep layer of psychological fear.

The mantra they are famous for represents their self-understanding and their perceived mission.

“We are Borg.  You will be assimilated.  Resistance is futile.”

From a systemic standpoint, the collective identity tends to seek out the individual voice and consciousness and communicate the same thing, “You will be assimilated.  Resistance is futile.”  In the face of immense emotional and psychological pressures and indoctrination, individuals become defined by the collective rather than by their capacity to maintain the tension of being a unique self in the context of community and relationships.

Any emotional system that develops over time develops mechanisms to preserve itself and a corporate or collective identity naturally begins to trump individual spirit and identity.  The biological term which system theorists have adopted is “homeostasis” – where the body works to maintain stability above all else.  The Borg is a symbol of that force at work in an unregulated and inhumane fashion.

There’s a great scene where a character played by Whoopi Goldberg of all people confronts a Borg that has been taken on board the ship.  She’s angry and hostile because her people were almost wiped out by the Borg.  She defiantly tells the Borg, “Resistance is not futile!”

For once, Whoopi and I agree on something.  Resistance to having your voice and individual identity assimilated into the group, the collective, the organization, the family is not futile.  However, if you are immature – your resistance might not be futile, but it might not be fruitful either.  More on that in the next couple days.

It’s all too easy today to passively (or even actively) surrender your self (your sense of self, your voice, your gifts, your contribution) to the unspoken momentum of what is going on around you on a day to day basis.  Self is not something that is nurtured by others very often.  It requires maturity, intentionality, reflection, and I believe a greater power than ourselves to build and shape.

How do you resist identity assimilation?  The first step to resistance is knowing that there is an unspoken (and sometimes spoken) effort in your various systems to assimilate you  in various way (though not with the genocide type of vision of the Borg) – to override your uniqueness and perhaps values for the sake of an unknown greater good or an undefined view of “harmony.”

You may never have realized it, but your true self might be getting silenced by the dynamics that go on around you.  To resist, you must know what you are resisting.  In a metaphoric way you are resisting the Borg.  In more practical terms, you are resisting the co-opting of your sense of self due to community pressures and anxious agendas.  You are resisting being silenced.  You are resisting only being permitted or encouraged to live with a “we” perspective at the cost of your “I.”  So resistance is not futile only as long as you know what you are resisting.

So where do you see the “Borg”?  Do you see forces of the collective at work on your team?  In your organization?  In your ministry?  In your family?

Have you surrendered your sense of self because you’ve bought into the lie that resistance is futile?

How do you nurture your own identity formation without degenerating into selfishness and narcissism?

Come back tomorrow to read about influencing the collective and the most pernicious program of them all!

Anxiety in Systems

I’ve been out of commission for a while which I’ll let you in on soon, but figured it would be good to re-post an early blog from back in the day when no one was reading 🙂  So here’s a post from 4 years ago (Sept 2007) on anxiety in systems, which I’ve been thinking about since that’s what the Systems & Power Leadership Community is discussing this month. So here’s some thoughts from Peter Steinke on the role of anxiety in systems and in ministry and in families.


Peter Steinke writes in Congregational Leadership in Anxious Times,

“Anxiety affects human functioning by tightening thinking or restraining behavior. Look at what anxiety does to repress a person:

  • decreases our capacity to learn
  • replaces curiosity with a demand for certainty
  • stiffens our position over against another’s
  • interrupts concentration
  • floods the nervous system, so that we cannot hear what is said without distortion or cannot respond with clarity
  • simplifies ways of thinking (yes/no; either/or)
  • prompts a desire for a quick fix
  • arouses feelings of helplessness and self-doubt
  • leads to an array of defensive behaviors
  • diminishes flexibility in response to life’s challenges
  • creates imaginative gridlock (not being able to think of alternatives, options, or new perspectives)”

Steinke writes, “How anxiety is addressed will determine outcome more than anything. your responsible and enlightened behavior will influence the situation more than any other action.”

The first third of Steinke’s book is focused on the Leader’s “Presence” as one of the key components to leadership. He identifies the primary enemy to healthy group life as anxiety. This has impacted me a lot over the past few months as I’ve continued to reflect on the dynamics that anxiety sets in motion in any group system. Recognizing this is key for the leader because the leader has more influence over the environment of a group system than anyone else.

Some leaders complain that they end up the object of the systems “anxiety,” but a wise leader recognizes that this is par for the course and is able to inject a calm and non-anxious presence into the community. This is easier said than done, but the first step is the leader taking responsibility for the reality that the way he or she responds to anxiety is one of the primary keys to creating a healthy team or community culture. Leaders who just blame others for having too high of expectations or whatever else may be the expression of anxiety only perpetuate the cycle of reactivity as opposed to leading towards healthy group life.

How Transferability Undermines Transformation

This is the fourth in a series of posts from Peter Steinke’s A Door Set OpenThe previous post relates to “Movement.”

Steinke references the work of William Bridges, a consultant, in The Way of Transition: Embracing Life’s Most Difficult Moments and has a series of thoughts that could have been ripped right from my personal journal and from the minutes of my team’s staff meetings.  And it involves the concept of transferability.

Bridges is quoted as saying,

“If there is one thing that the way of transition and the path of the life-journey teach, it is that…when we neglect the process and try instead to copy the outcome, we fail completely to get what we were after.  Copying always creates something that is dead, because it simplifies the original and does not arise from the real creativity that is always present when real people are in an actual neutral zone.”

Actually this is a similar insight as is found in Gordon Mackenzie’s “Orbiting the Giant Hairball” who creatively describes the tension as rote versus grope.

But Steinke dives into the insights that my team and I have been pretty passionate about the last few years. He writes,

“Anxious people look outside of themselves for relief. They may hanker for a technique that will bring about results they want to achieve; they want to replicate what has been discovered by someone else: “Give me a copy of the wonderful plans.” Seeing what those plans have done for others, they want the same result–but without going through the process that got the others to that point. The shortcut of imitation certainly bypasses a lot of pain. How churches hunger for precisely this situation! No tumbling.” (102)

He continues,

“Meaningful, lasting outcomes are the result of the journey and the learning that takes place. Maybe a word of caution should be stamped on all programs: “Not transferable.” Transition time, especially the neutral zone experience, is life’s curriculum. Being on the path opens new insight; being on the path, not the steps one takes, is the very condition necessary for learning. Tumbling is disruptive but equally instructive.” (103)

I’m relying on more quotes than I usually do in my posts, but I think he captures the problem so well.  But I’ve had a growing number of experiences related to this tension – of people wanting to copy or take techniques that were birthed in struggle and search and pain, without an effort to understand the process that birthed the final product.  People often want the polished results without experiencing the transformation that comes through the process. They don’t want to tumble. 

One of the things that makes me cringe organizationally is when people hear about something I or someone else has created or done that was a labor of love and birthed from deep personal experience and passion.  And we’re inevitably asked, “Hey, can you send me your stuff?”  Yet even when we share “our stuff”, the percentage of times the questions are asked in return, “Why did you go about this in the way you did?” or “What were your values and the things you really felt were most important in this?” or “How do you see this being used transformationally?” is extremely low. People generally want to use your stuff, but they don’t often want to learn from the process and context that shaped its ultimate form.

People don’t want to reinvent the wheel, and I don’t either, but transferability of resources and programs undermines meaning and transformation when we fail to look at the context of their origins as well as the context of their re-application in different situations.  These are fundamental truths foundational to the concept of “contextualization” which is a vital concept for ministry and in particular cross-cultural ministry.  People frequently want to mass produce results in ministry and those tools, approaches, and programs often are not transferable outside of a particular context or setting. The more cultural diversity or significant difference of any kind that is involved, the less transferable approaches or programs will likely be.

Pragmatism continues to rule the day and Steinke makes the point that one of the main reasons is anxiety. People want easy answers that they don’t have to think hard about, feel deeply, or suffer for.  So we keep cranking out information that sometimes ends up a long ways away from the context that made it powerful, deep, and meaningful in the first place.

Context matters more than transferability. We often get it backwards.

Here’s a final thought from Steinke that connects to the previous post on movement that summarizes the tension between searching for meaning and copying final products,

“The process of thinking, testing, and exploring contains the lessons. Churches need to remember that no handbook is available on freelancing mission. Only by going out, being there, and seeing from a fresh angle will the process lead to learning. Discovering how to respond to shifts and changes is the learning. Self-confidence is a byproduct. But growth is in the struggle, the push, and the journey. Churches in decline need to look beyond the BIG RESULT and become the people of the way–tumble and all.”

 Where do you find transferability falling short? How do you approach developing tools and programs that are anchored in your context and serving your people and community?

Movements, Mission, and Motion

Here’s my third post related to Peter Steinke’s A Door Set Open.  My last post is here entitled “Growth Doesn’t Define Mission.”

This post relates to Movement.  Steinke references Sydney Carter who authored a hymn a few decades ago called “Lord of the Dance” (apparently not connected to Michael Flatley and the Riverdance) and who did some writing about life and ways of living in fullness – from the vantage point of movement.

He writes,

“As Carter proposes, we can live our Christian lives in one of three ways: inertly, reluctantly, or freely. Our lives can be inert, uninspired, a passive going-through-the-motions with no thought or choice of our own that thrusts us forward. Or we can move reluctantly; that is, only if we are nudged or badgered. Our heart either is not in it or less than half of it is. The third movement is freedom, being a willing and engaged participant. We dance with the stars.”(99)

I found this fascinating because ministries or missional communities in my world and in many places are referred to as “movements.” The language indicates that there is something transformational and directional – they are going somewhere. They are in motion. They are not static, not inert.

The language and vision of movements is appealing because it has a connotation of freedom – the organic and willing motion towards the desired direction.  Though sometimes there is “motion,” Carter notes it can be “reluctant” motion. It lacks life, spirit, and freedom. Reluctant motion to me is usually performance driven or guilt based motion, which is often reinforced by the lived out values of leadership that places motion at any cost ahead of free and inspired motion.

Steinke though adds something to Carter’s framework that I think is helpful and instructive for the modern leader and minister.  He writes,

“In addition to the three movements Carter lists, I propose a fourth movement related to bacteria that I referred to earlier–tumbling.

….We need to remember that tumbling, though it is not directed, is the very condition necessary to adjust course.” (99)

 Steinke connects his observation to a larger metaphor related to the human body and biology, but he notes that there are times where proper “movement” means a season of disorientation (to use the term in the way Brueggemann uses it).  Tumbling, as he calls it, means there are times where organizations must enter into disorientation and feel the reality, ask the hard questions, and through struggle and search, renew its sense of self and purpose – all so it can “re-orient” itself towards an authentic and true future reality or vision.

Steinke, in context, is addressing leadership failures and insecurities in times of transition, tumbling, or disorientation.  People so often want to fix things quick that they rob themselves of the potential wisdom and vision gained amidst seasons of disorientation that can fuel an alternative future reality. They simply refuse to tumble.

In my own history and observation, leaders who refuse to tumble immediately go back to the tried and true practices of the past and try to recreate the past instead of lead authentically into a truly new future that resonates with reality.  Yet the number of leaders who can lean into the tumbling and lead people through it with humility and connection are very, very, VERY few. Most try to get out of tumbling ASAP or deny that any tumbling is taking place.

There’s a lot of people trained to get stuff done, but not many have been or are equipped to be the type of people who can lead people through seasons of tumbling that result in a hopeful, alternative reality.

Tumbling can be fruitless if we can’t manage our anxiety and lead community well through it.  But tumbling, when viewed from a larger perspective, is a time that can include incredibly purposeful and deep motion that ultimately will result in what Steinke captures as “dancing with the stars.”

I’ve seen this in my own life and in others who have navigated periods of depression.  Some people try to escape it and numb it and ignore the silent or hidden truths calling out for attention. The result is inert or reluctant living.  Those who enter into it, entering into the hard questions with God’s grace, frequently find themselves restored with a new clarity of who they are (identity) and purpose and vision for their lives.  I believe the same process holds true for teams and organizations, yet it’s much harder to lead a group into tumbling that perhaps just one’s self.

How does the metaphor of “motion” speak to you about your approach to life and how you view times of uncertainty, transition, or confusion in ministry?

What is required of you to lead yourself and others through seasons of “Tumbling”?