Tag Archives: servant leadership

The Problem of Paternalism

This entry is part 4 of 6 in the series Multi Ethnic Learnings

Prior to serving cross-culturally in ethnic minority ministry, I never thought much about paternalism. Now after a decade of ethnic minority and cross-cultural experience, I think about it and talk about it almost daily.

As a student of servant leadership and now a professor who teaches servant leadership, it became clear many years ago that many Christians and ministry leaders often articulate and live out their leadership approach in ways that are actually paternalistic in contrast to truly empowering.  I’ve come across many who seem to think that the main choice in leadership styles is the choice between the authoritarian or dictatorial leader on one hand and the “nice” leader on the other hand – the “nice” and serving leader that in reality better fits paternalism than any notion of empowering leadership.

Paternalism tends to look and feel “good” to those seeking to help or influence, yet it often is not “good” in the ways we are tempted to think it is.  That’s why we need to learn what it is.  Paternalism is a dynamic that demands attention. Ethical leadership requires that we identify it and cultivate awareness of it. Courage is required because paternalism remains one of the greatest barriers to empowering others and raising up leaders in a different context.

Paternalism shows up frequently in partnering scenarios with majority culture as well in majority culture decision making. Well-meaning efforts that are executed outside of deep learning and mutuality usually end up reinforcing dependence on one hand or just a reinforcement of the status quo power dynamics.

Paternalism often involves decisions related to significant resources (money, people) that can put leaders in ethnic communities in hard spots given that resources and money often come with inherent or implicit expectations or “strings” attached.   It’s a frequent occurrence that majority leaders with positions and power will make decisions “for” ethnic minority leaders or strategies without really being in ongoing dialogue with those people or listening to a broad sampling of their voices.

Paternalism also shows up especially within different ethnic communities as it can be more embedded in the relational fabric of leaders and staff members or followers.  Paternalism still resides in cultures that still experience the historical influence of patron-client dynamics and the honor – shame systems that drive them.  But paternalism can flow from individual character dynamics – one example being the “sugar daddy leader” who uses their abundant resources or budget to appease or keep people happy with an unspoken expectation for loyalty (essentially a modern version of patron-client relationship).

It takes great clarity of vision and character organizationally to relate in non-paternalistic, but empowering ways. Likewise, the same type of leadership is needed within multi-ethnic and ethnic minority ministry to empower leaders as well as lead collectively towards a new and different future.

If you’ve ever read the book When Helping Hurts, then you have some framework for some of how good intentions can reinforce dependence rather than empower others. See here some of my overall thoughts on that book that pertain to paternalism.  The authors highlight multiple dimensions of paternalism ranging from resource driven paternalism, to spiritual paternalism, to managerial.  All of these are constant threats to empowering leaders from other ethnic communities and to cultivating an empowering multi-ethnic ministry environment.

Another series here that explores the same themes related to leadership ethics and paternalism jumped off from the book that inspired the movie the Green Zone.  There are several posts that explore the American occupation of Iraq through the lens of resource, knowledge, and managerial paternalism and the resultant failures that such perspectives led to.

What is easier is not always what is better.

There are many today who love to read and talk about ministry leadership with a focus on how to get things done, but fewer who spend time thinking about leadership ethics.  Yet, for every multi-ethnic context or cross-cultural ministry situation there are corresponding ethical tensions that must be wrestled over with humility and integrity for the sake of truly serving and empowering results.

Will we be leaders who demand trust and focus only on our own perceived “good” intentions?  Or will we choose the harder path of working for what is truly good for another community?

In multi-ethnic contexts, I’ve learned that there are often only so many chances to build trust and succeed because of the complexity, history, and pain involved. Paternalism can undermine the precious few chances or only chance you may have to establish a partnering dynamic of mutuality, respect, dignity, and love. 

Lack of Response and Invisibility

So one of the hot facebook threads for my wife and I recently involved an unfortunate case of invisibility and exclusion.

For well over a year my wife has made passing references to how no one “likes” or comments on anything she posts.  I didn’t really understand the magnitude of it and thought maybe it was because she didn’t post a lot.  But it became apparent that something was wrong in that NO ONE liked or commented on anything she posted for over a year.  Just immediate family alone should provide at least ONE “like” right?

So we looked in and turns out privacy settings were set so that pretty much no one would ever see anything my wife posted.  Ever.  While on one level social media struggles are hardly on the level of world news, this ended up being a big deal – almost like a psychology experiment.   Picture it – commenting and liking hundreds of other people’s posts meanwhile getting no response, no feedback whatsoever for your posts.  That takes its toll!

Here’s some of the natural pyschological impact of seeing all the interaction of facebook but never being seen:

  • Insecurity. The questions of, “Do people not like what I’m posting?” and how that easy goes to “Do people not like me?”
  • Defeatest thoughts. At some point my wife just stopped doing updates because it both felt pointless and discouraging to get another experience of not being seen.  To her credit – she never stopped responding and engaging others though.

But just to clarify – my wife handled it quite well and never became unglued at her reality. While she lost confidence in her posting, she was secure enough to not let her whole identity come under fire.

What this got me thinking about was just about the nature of responsiveness.  We all have those people in our lives that don’t seem to ever call us back or ever respond.  Some of us for a variety of reasons routinely fly under the radar and experience invisibility as a big part of their life experience.  Most of us can relate to the horror of not being seen or being left in invisibility and irrelevance. Maybe that’s why so many were click to “like” or respond

on the post when we shared what happened.

There seems to be a baseline need for “being seen” for us that brings a security that helps guard us away from the dark psychological reflections of being alone and without value.  It’s amazing how a few “likes” eases the existential anxiety most of us are vulnerable to at points.

It doesn’t mean we should live our lives based on the feedback and response we get – but it does give tangible insight into how easy it can be sometimes to show value to other people.  It’s finding ways to let them know you “see” them, especially in situations where people are vulnerable to feeling alone or invisible.

This is a simple building block of healthy community – seeking out and showing those who feel alone and rallying around them letting them know you see them and are there for them.

It should not be a surprise to any of us then that God himself in the Scriptures is identified as “the God who sees” at points.   What an amazing thing that when we seek Christ, even when we feel invisible and alone that we are never “unseen.”

Responding to people, providing tangible expressions of positive feedback to people’s presence and contribution, is necessary to helping people move past their invisibility angst or trauma.   It’s a reminder to me that it’s not good enough to just “not treat people badly.” In the absence of positive response, we all have critical voices because of family issues, or the media, or personal issues that leads us to places of self-hate.  It’s probably wise we assume people are living with a strong self-critical voice so that we recognize the opportunity and responsibility we have to counter that voice and replace it with something that communicates value and God forbid….love!

It’s probably worth noting that this is at work in multi-ethnic contexts frequently.  Everyone wants to retain ethnic minority leaders, yet how much initiative is taken organizationally to communicate to these leaders, “We see you!” “We value you!” “We want to benefit from your contribution!”  From my experience those moments are surprisingly rare – instead majority culture leadership seems to be content with just being polite.  I call it the passive and polite approach to leadership, which in reality is just another expression of a lack of responsiveness and a lack of truly acknowledging the presence of some people within the community as a whole.  If we’re a majority culture leader it’s worth reflecting from time to time about whether we are unintentionally or passively contributing to the invisibility of some very valuable people.

When I think about where I go wrong and many leadership cultures – it’s assuming that people are thinking truly and accurately about themselves both as you see them and even how God may see them.  I forget that others are just as vulnerable to the critical voice and deep feelings of aloneness.  I’m thankful for the people in my life that “see” me and help me live in a larger truth than just my own critical voices.

Responsiveness counters invisibility. Lack of responsiveness accelerates the experience of invisibility. I want to be a responsive person and a responsive leader.

How about you?


The Right Stuff

This entry is part 7 of 7 in the series Future of Cru

Who are the right people to build around?

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.

Organizational “Stuff”

This entry is part 6 of 7 in the series Future of Cru

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?

Last to Know

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



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:

  1. 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?
  2. 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?
  3. 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.


Servant Leading Through Absorbing Pain

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 situations where one is serving and empowering through absorbing ethnic minority anger and pain for the sake of building trust, safety, and consistency in those relationships.

This session is my twenty minute presentation as well as about 9-10 minutes of interaction over the topic which was valuable and instructive.  If you’re interested, feel free to have a listen here:

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I also captured some of these thoughts and the primary illustration of “paper towel” leadership in the following blog posts a few years ago:




God Is First On the Scene

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 Justice by Bethany Hoang.

This has been a season where I believe I’ve been entering a new place of sensitivity and awareness to the depths of just how broken we are, how marred and wounded we are, and how corrupt and dehumanizing many of our worldly systems and structures are. Frankly, it’s been crushing me as I reflect on life for many who are vulnerable and powerless (especially so many women)in the world, my community, and even in my own organizational ministry.

It’s been a specific season of being shown more of what truly is the reality despite what I would want to or choose to believe.  And you know what – I have never been more aware of the fact that my character and soul is totally unable and unprepared to take in the degree of pain, struggle, and even evil that is around me every day. I believe God has shown me more to show me what is required to truly live in this world as a servant without letting the darkness overwhelm, crush, and stomp out a life of hope and abundance that is part of truly following Christ. And he’s showing me I have to let Him do a lot more in me if I’m going to be a part of serving in greater ways and being part of His world to bring justice and reconciliation to the oppressed and alienated.

Here’s a perspective that has been a great reminder and encouragement as I seek to allow God to build my spiritual capacity, to deepen my soul to handle the reality of the world I live in and the places I do life in.

    “Put simply, we are never first on the scene of anything in our world today, be it our personal lives or the lives of people across the globe.  When we encounter injustice, whether in story or face to face, we are encountering a reality that God knows to its deepest depths. And when God invites us to act in the face of injustice, God is inviting us to join the work he is already doing.

Our God is always first on the scene, but he chooses to draw us in and use us as his vessels. We serve a God who has already seen, already heard; God who is ready to send us. Above all, we serve a God whose glory cannot be quenched. Hope in our God, hope in God’s glory will never disappoint (Romans 5:1-5).” (pg 27)

God is first on the scene – every scene.  That’s something that helps me hope and keep going, keep serving without feeling the immense weight and burden of aloneness that injustice inspires in us.

God is there. And He was there first.


*This only about a 40-45 page ebook that you can get for a dollar or two. It’s not a resource to motivate you towards justice ministries, but rather one designed to help encourage you to anchor yourselves spiritually in the Lord and allow him to build the capacity needed as you are facing the overwhelming realities of trying to serve in an unjust world without burning out or other psychological affects of serving in these realities.



Paternalism and When Helping Hurts

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 – particularly when there is significant material poverty involved.  The book shows the way various assumptions or common attitudes ultimately end up to be more self serving as opposed to truly making a difference for a community that may be in need.

I chose to read this book because it was recommended highly and because I was told it expounds on the dynamic of paternalism in a number of ways.  And instead of doing an overall review here, I wanted to highlight some of the categories of paternalism that they identify and illustrate through many case studies and accounts.  The book or something like it is needed reading for anyone who is involved in short-term missions especially  (primarily if those trips are focused on service in poorer locations domestically or internationally).

In a section the authors highlight as “The Poison of Paternalism” they boil it down to a simple truth – don’t do things for people that they can do for themselves. You likely are doing damage to them, yourself, or both if you do. But here’s ways you can possibly identify the poison of paternalism at work.  These are all clues that we need to take a step back and repent of our assumptions and seek a renewed perspective.

Resource Paternalism

When wealthy entities or organizations with large resources view the solutions as requiring merely the addition of new financial or material resources while the real solutions require helping a community steward their own resources.

Spiritual Paternalism

When missionaries aim to go “do” missions “to” people, assuming that they are the experts and failing to recognize that people in poverty often have great spiritual depth.  There’s much to listen to and learn from.

Knowledge Paternalism

When we think we have all the best ideas about how to do things.  We assume we know best.  It never occurs to us to ask people who are likely the best experts of their own communities what we can learn from them. Brief note – this is rampant everywhere in the missions and business world.

Labor Paternalism

Doing work that people could and should do for themselves. Doing work for people that they should be doing themselves robs them of ownership, participation, dignity, and other important things important to development and healthy community.

Managerial Paternalism

Basically when entities or organizations of power enter into a different context or community with less power and take over.  Integrated with some of the above elements, it’s when people of power just take over, control, and end up being in charge of various works or decisions or projects that affect another community as if they are the experts.

The book is primarily targeted towards international relief missions.  However, there’s substantial content also about affluent majority culture churches partnering with urban poorer churches.  So there’s helpful challenges about how to think about a variety of ministry partnering.

When I look at the above five types of paternalism, I’ve seen all of them in church contexts. I’ve seen all of them in my own organization. I’ve seen them in a variety of ministries.  And you know what – I’ve exhibited every one of the five at one point or another!  So this is an important book about how to partner with people and serve without hijacking dignity and doing damage long-term for the sake of short-term good feelings.

My last thought is that in the last chapter they highlight what maybe the most important ingredient to “healthy helping” that contributes to dignity. That ingredient is “repentance.” Paternalism continues in different forms because of blind spots as well as a failure to learn and especially to repent of the ways that our best of intentions are hurting others or doing damage.  We have to repent when we learn we are doing damage to people, otherwise a new future is not possible.  I thought that was an important point of the book because I don’t see many leaders who are faced with the feedback of paternalism respond with repentance. I think many choose to shoot the messenger instead.  But paternalism is something we have to aggressively look for as we seek to empower others because it probably is the number one reason why efforts may fail over the long haul.



Structural Idolatry: Breaking Rules to Serve Part 2

I thought I’d post this because of how this post is intimately related to my last Green Zone post on breaking rules to serve and bureaucracy.  Most comfortably throw out the phrase “sacred cow” because we all know how hard it is to see change happen, but fewer have thought about how structures and bureaucratic mindsets and perspectives can reflect a subtle idolatry.  In short – somehow the structures created deserve eventually become our masters and we began to serve them. Some people become guardians and “priests” of said structures and processes, working to ensure tradition and their place in it.  These are subtle yet deep realities to any organizational culture, especial religious cultures. And they have ethical and spiritual implications.  So here is the post I originally titled “Those Who Make Them Become Like Them.”


One of my unique interests is observing the impact on organizations and systems upon personal and leadership formation.  That’s a lot of fancy words for saying I pay a lot of attention to and I think a lot about what kind of impact the environments or cultures people are in have on those individual and community senses of identity and meaning among other things.

I’ve been studying the whole book of the Psalms over the past three months and there’s a brief excerpt that caught my attention in Psalm 115 related to idolatry.  I’ll pull out a section, but the Psalmist is contrasting the one true God of Israel with the false gods of the surrounding peoples. He compares the true hope that the Israelites have in the their God to the false hope that the surrounding idol worshiping people have to fabricate for themselves.  Here’s vs. 4-8 speaking of the idols of the surrounding nations hostile to Israel.

4Their idols are silver and gold,
the work of human hands.
5They have mouths, but do not speak;
eyes, but do not see.
6They have ears, but do not hear;
noses, but do not smell.
7They have hands, but do not feel;
feet, but do not walk;
and they do not make a sound in their throat.
8Those who make them become like them;
so do all who trust in them.

If you’ve been in leadership for any period of time, you’ve had to have entered into a discussion about structures and systems and the relationship between form and function.  If not, maybe you know the phrase “sacred cow” as it speaks to the phenomena of things or structures or processes that were established that now have taken on a life of their own to the point where there is great difficulty allowing for any change to take place.  In fact, this is so common it’s probably impossible for you not to have encountered it.

But check out Psalm 115: 8 and let it sit with you a bit:   “Those who make them become like them; so do all who trust in them.”

As people who long for safety, security, comfort, and control – we just can’t seem to help but default to trying to create a working order that allows for us to try to feel like we somehow have a handle on our lives.  In ancient times, while idols were crafted into images of creatures and other things they were connected to and were symbols of things that are not so far off of what we put our hope and trust in today:  financial provision, sexual fulfillment, national security, military dominance, and many other things.   The Psalmist observes the phenomena that what we put our hope in and what we try to control, in ways that reject God’s centrality in our lives, those very creations made in our own image end up turning the tables and begin shaping us in their image. It’s a very deep thought and observation.

While all of this might be more sermon type content thus far, have you ever thought about how organizations and the structures therein function like idols at times?

People lean on tradition and resist change when it is needed.  Tradition, instead of being something that was a progressive working out of mission and values over time, it becomes something like a living entity that holds power over people and many find themselves ending up being defined by the past.

Methodologies and strategies that are once upon a time quite successful for a particular context and time end up almost taking on a larger life force than ever and end up overshadowing driving values and fundamental affirmations that reflect human reality and changing cultures.

Positions and structures that are established to serve the mission and vision end up fueling and shaping people who cannot resist the trappings of being defined by status, position, and power.

There’s idol making going on everywhere, but most of the time we’re immune to it because it’s so normal to our lives and our world.  But organizational idolatry can be quite insidious as it can overtake you as the author of your own values that you choose to live your life out of. You start doing things and making decisions according to “the way things are done” with little self reflection as to what greater truths those decisions are anchored in.

It is true – we shape our organizations and any system we enter.  But they shape us too.  If those systems have a strong dependence on mechanisms for control, conformity, and efficiency – then in the absence of great character, resolve, and involvement in alternative communities you will slowly (or quickly) lose the battle over self and you will be increasingly shaped in your organization’s image.

This is no less true for churches and ministries as it is secular companies.  We can be serving God and proclaiming from the mountaintops the beauty of His intentions for creation and humankind, all the while we go about our business trusting the hierarchies and structures and strategies and tools that “get things done.” If we fail to live in ways keeping with core values and a larger story, we doom ourselves to live shallow and desperate lives that are at the mercy of the faceless power that is at work in the culture and structures of our organizational life.

So are we left to be depressed by the reality that there are active forces seeking to shape us into cogs in a wheel or excel sheets or line items in a budget or high production machines?

By no means!  The tone of the Psalm above in whole is incredibly hopeful. While the pagan nations are left to fabricate hope, all the while being shaped and formed by the images they have created by their own hands and imaginations – Israel is connected to a true hope and a true power that anchors people in a bigger story and reality.  They can stay anchored in larger truths, larger stories, and deeper and more authentic ways of doing life because they are a part of the true story (as opposed to a fabricated one) and they are connected to the author of that story.

Knowing the author of the story doesn’t guarantee that you won’t at points fall to the temptation of the idols called pragmatism, hierarchy, control, and production – but there is always a way out when we repent and seek to once again anchor our ways in the true story that transcends any organizational mission or culture.

One of the great challenges of spiritual (not just servant) leadership is to anchor people in the larger story and continue to point out the false promises that come with allowing structures to inform values and not the other way around.

Where do you recognize the forces of culture or organizational life shaping your identity, person, and values?  How do you stay value driven when structures routinely threaten to take over?

This was originally posted June 17th, 2011.