Leadership in a Culture of Cowardice (part seven)

What kind of pastor will lead the Church in our day to salt and light the world?  Pastor, what can you do to arouse your church from its slumber and stand in the storm of insolence and juvenility that such a stirring will provoke?

For several weeks, we’ve been examining what it means to live and lead courageously amidst a culture of cowardice that appears to have captured the Church in North America, leaving American society rudderless in a tsunami of sensuality, secularism, and self-centeredness.

Thus far, we’ve suggested:

  • Courageous leadership is not about skill, technique, or knowledge.  It is, most of all, about the presence of the leader as he or she moves through life.
  • Take full responsibility for your own emotional being and destiny.
  • Promote healthy differentiation within the church or system you lead.
  • Stand, as an exemplar, in the sabotage and backlash that must come.

I am indebted to Edwin Friedman’s remarkable examination of leadership: Failure of Nerve, for this concept: Don’t “push on the rope”: the unmotivated are invulnerable to insight.

I’ve done a little boating.  Last summer in Leland, Michigan, you’d have seen me standing on a dock, tugging on a line endeavoring to center the hull of our friends’ Boston Whaler over the submerged bunks of a small boat lift.  Without thinking, I “push” my hand out, as if the boat will somehow move away from me.  It’s as if I’ve imagined that the rope has somehow stiffened so that it can propel the boat away from the dock and over the lift.  Of course, it doesn’t.  It can’t.  You cannot provoke change by pushing on a rope.

Friedman offers this: the unmotivated are invulnerable to insight.  Yet, Sunday after Sunday, good hearted, well intentioned ministers stand in pulpits all over the land, bringing scintillating insights from God’s Word, trusting that learning will motivate life change.  Statistics, sadly, illuminate the truth of the matter.  People, by and large, are not changed—at least, not much.

Too many of our listeners are invulnerable to insight.

Without compelling motivation, there is insufficient hunger to embrace the price and pain of change. Even change that sounds good, that would be preferable to what is, or that could propel the listener toward an honorable outcome will elicit mental agreement, without igniting action.

What’s the key?

Think about Jesus’ parable of the farmer.  [Mark 4:3-20] The key to fruitfulness was the soil …not the seed. Yet, we in pastoral ministry devote hundreds of our very valuable hours fussing over the seed—while ignoring the soil.

Does that make sense to you?

Look at it again: “Some people are like seed along the path, where the word is sown. As soon as they hear it, Satan comes and takes away the word that was sown in them. Others, like seed sown on rocky places, hear the word and at once receive it with joy. But since they have no root, they last only a short time. When trouble or persecution comes because of the word, they quickly fall away. Still others, like seed sown among thorns, hear the word; but the worries of this life, the deceitfulness of wealth and the desires for other things come in and choke the word, making it unfruitful. Others, like seed sown on good soil, hear the word, accept it, and produce a crop—some thirty, some sixty, some a hundred times what was sown.” [Mark 4:15-20]

Jesus’ directs our attention to the condition of the soil.  “Some people are…” he begins.  The unmotivated are invulnerable to insight.

So, why is it that we devote ourselves to sifting, sorting, cleaning, massaging, and  polishing the seed—in post Enlightenment Christendom, the largest portion of an Evangelical pastor’s work week—and give so little attention to tilling the soil of our hearer’s hearts?

Could it be that we’ve forgotten what business we’re in?

Maybe we’ve inadvertently supplanted the make-mature-disciples-who-live-like-Jesus-business with the faithfully-proclaim-the-Word-of-God-business.  We’re commissioned to faithfully proclaim God’s Word so that people around us live like Jesus.

Aren’t we?

Could it be that to distill the ministry of the Gospel down to faithful proclamation without equal regard to the life-change taking place in those we lead is akin to straining gnats and swallowing camels?  If the unmotivated are invulnerable to insight and if the key to fruitfulness is the condition of the soil, would it be wise to get great at soil preparation?

Several years ago I was in Honolulu, in training with a catalytic character development ministry.  I’d been “an apprentice” for what seemed like an eternity.  It was late at night, and Dan, my trainer walked with me.  I was feeling defeated… confused… perplexed.  I’d been given the opportunity to facilitate a number of crucial conversations with seminar participants, and they hadn’t gone well.  I clearly had missed it, and I didn’t know why.

What Dan said to me next has changed my life.  I recount it in the hope that it will change yours as well. He said:  “Kirk, you keep handing people fish!”  “We are not here to give people fish.  We are not here to teach people how to fish.  We are here to provoke their hunger.”

When a man is hungry enough, he will feed himself. If fish is the way, he will teach himself to fish, find someone to show him how, or find a way to get fish out of the lake and onto his family’s dinner plate.  In study after study in Western Europe, welfare recipients did not find jobs until after the government’s assistance ran out.  Then, almost immediately they found work.

Hungry enough, they were no longer unmotivated. Motivated, they were vulnerable to insight.  They discovered.  They learned.  They changed.  They took risks.  They found work.  And, they kept on working in the jobs they got.  They fed themselves and their families.  Starvation did not skyrocket.  Neither, according to what I’ve read, did crime.  The unmotivated are invulnerable to insight.

What might occur if you got great at provoking your parishioners’ hunger for God’s Word?  What if, this coming year, you devoted yourself to provoking their hunger for maturity? What if your parish became a more uncomfortable place to remain spiritually and emotionally immature?  You might get to reinvent yourself in the process.  Trusting Jesus in ways you haven’t in a long time, you could trade familiar patterns and skills for fresh, provocative, people-changing ones.

Why wouldn’t you?

Tick, tock…