Leadership in a Culture of Cowardice (part twenty four)
In this series, I’m challenging pastors to reacquaint themselves with the adventurous life. Biblical Christianity, I’ve argued, can be nothing else.
It demands that we continuously trust God and leap.
Jesus modeled this. The New Testament is full of examples. Consider this situation: Jesus is about to send the disciples out two-by-two. He gives them these instructions: “We gotta be wise here. Talk as long as you need to save up for your journey. Be sure to take plenty of money with you and arrange your lodgings well in advance. When you enter into a new village, if they’re happy you’re there, stay briefly, so you don’t wear out your welcome. And, if there’s any resistance at all, leave quickly and quietly.
For goodness sake, don’t stir anything up!
Peter and John are hurrying to the temple past a crippled person who is begging. They avoid eye contact and, as they pass, simply shrug their shoulders. One is overheard telling the other: “So sad that the government doesn’t take care of the indigent, isn’t it?”
Sure enough, a storm does arise!
Alarmed, they awaken a terrified Jesus. He screams out: “Quick, hand me a lifejacket! We’ve got to get to shore right away! These waves will probably capsize us! Luke, make a note of this: we must never travel by boat again. It is just too dangerous!”
Read through the Gospels, the Book of Acts, the Epistles and the entire Old Testament. You’ll see God’s people continually in peril.
Sometimes, God tells them to do the impossible—like instructing Gideon to shrink his armed forces before going to war against a far more formidable foe.
Other times, God’s people find themselves in circumstances where they’ve no hope but for a miracle. The Egyptian army chasing the Israelite slaves to the shores of the Red Sea, for example.
God keeps putting his people in unreasonable situations. They keep finding themselves in circumstances where they have to trust God. Where they can’t rely on themselves.
They’re living the adventurous life.
What about you?
Leadership in a Culture of Cowardice (part seventeen)
We’re indebted to Edwin Friedman’s remarkably insightful examination of leadership in Failure of Nerve, for this fifth leadership essential: You can’t push on a rope: the unmotivated are invulnerable to insight.
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.
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.
What Dan said to me next has changed my life.Hungry enough, they were no longer unmotivated. Motivated, they were vulnerable to insight.
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?
Leadership in a Culture of Cowardice (part fourteen)
In this blog, we’re considering the fourth of nine traits of healthy leadership:
Stand, as an exemplar, in the sabotage and backlash that must come.
When confronted by opposition, this kind of leader will be swift to embrace the reality of God’s sovereign control and grasp the security provided by God’s unconditional love. She then leans into resistance with a posture of confident curiosity. “God has this!” she might remind herself while stepping toward those who, unnerved by fear, have turned against her.
A leader’s humility creates the opening to presence herself so resourcefully amid conflict.
In John Chapter 7, Jesus is teaching in the temple courts. When those who hear him speak begin to gush with affirmation, applauding his brilliance, he rebuffs them.
Jesus’ response: “My teaching is not my own. It comes from him who sent me. If anyone chooses to do God’s will, he will find out whether my teaching comes from God or whether I speak on my own. He who speaks on his own does so to gain honor for himself, but he who works for the honor of the one who sent him is a man of truth…”
The leader recognizes that he is not powerful enough to have caused the upset nor the circumstances that many say upset them. Aware that each person connected to the disappointment has a contribution, he faces small temptation to assume he’s solely responsible for the unwelcomed turn of events. He has grounded himself in the understanding that he is not significant enough to have produced the organization’s successes … nor its failures all by himself.
Yes, he has a part.
His colleagues have a part.
The system has a part.
And, factors beyond everyone’s control have also contributed to the outcome.
Rather than encouraging carelessness, the leader’s decision to interpret life this way empowers responsibility to one another and to the ministry’s mission and goals.
Scapegoating, so common in an anxious, immature culture is antithetical to the stand of the leader and the developing ethos of the organization. Even when the less-mature succumb to its pull, the leader is not provoked to respond in kind.
Keeping in mind how consequential it is to shift the culture of any church, the leader has developed stamina to live into Paul’s charge in 1 Cor 16:13-14: “Be on your guard; stand firm in the faith; be men of courage; be strong…”.
I find stunning the King James Version’s ancient rendering: “Quit ye like men.”
Leadership in a Culture of Cowardice (part eleven)
What does it mean to live and lead courageously, particularly amidst a culture of cowardice?
Here’s a quick overview of what we’ve covered so far:
One: 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.
Two: Take full responsibility for your own emotional being and destiny.
Three: Promote healthy differentiation within the church or system you lead.
Four: Stand, as an exemplar, in the sabotage and backlash that must come.
Edwin Friedman, in A Failure of Nerve does a masterful job illuminating several stunning characteristics of effective leadership. I am indebted to him for sparking the perspectives written about in this Series. We’ve been looking at the way Jesus embodied these traits—not for intellectual edification, but to challenge Christian leaders to change.
As a minister of the Gospel of Christ you are an exemplar. Your way of life is a model.
It must be so.
It is ridiculous to serve in Christian ministry and to shrink from the exposure and vulnerability befitting your station.
A leader stands.
My invitation is to embrace the reality and necessity of standing up, of standing out, and of standing alone—
or get out of Christian ministry.
There is an anxiety, common to American culture, about being alone. It seems that only raving narcissists are immune from this. I disagree. There is another kind of person who has calmed her own disquiet when coming under scrutiny – or fire. It is the kind of leader we’re examining in this Series.
Consider the accounts that are chronicled in John Chapter 6: the 5,000 witness the miracle of the loaves & fish, Jesus walks on the Galilee, and a sizeable crowd follows him to the other side of the Sea. He calls them out! ‘You’re only here for the show; because of the miracles!’ This is how he greets them.
Then he exposes their shallowness with his seldom-repeated “sermon in the synagogue” about eating his body and drinking his blood. [Jn 6:53f] The crowd scatters and many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him—ever.
Does Jesus explain that it was just hyperbole, a figure of speech?
Does he beg them to come back?
Does he soften the message, lower the bar, or ease their distress?
Read it, and see.
Leadership in a Culture of Cowardice (part four)
After illuminating characteristics of a Culture of Cowardice and making sobering observations about how appropriately it applies to the Church in North America today, we’ve turned our attention to the kind of leadership that can serve to restore the Church to a place of redemptive influence in society.
Edwin Friedman, in Generation to Generation defines a leader as a self-defined person with a non-anxious presence. Last week, we unpacked some of what it means to be self-defined, or as my CRM teammates prefer: “God-defined”.
Today, a non-anxious presence.
A non-anxious presence does not mean carefree, laid-back, detached, or disengaged.
As a powerful squall threatens to swamp their boat, the disciples are a mess. Nervous. Fearful. Panicked. Jesus is … asleep. [Mk 4:38]
After benefiting from the miracle of the loaves and fish the crowd wants Jesus to seize political control, overthrow the Romans, declare himself King. His response was simply to withdraw to a solitary place, alone.
A non-anxious presence is easy to carry off when your leadership is well received, when people are saying great things about you, when folks are happy and grateful for you.
A non-anxious presence is essential when anxiety appears omnipresent.
Recall the phrase: “Poor planning on your part does not constitute a crisis on my part.” The less mature are always attempting to enroll others in their disquiet, their “crisis du jour”. A perceived catastrophe on the part of certain members of the congregation does not constitute a calamity for a well-defined leader.
Do you think for one minute that God, in Heaven, is wringing his hands over that leaky roof, or the lawsuit brought against the church, or the lousy turnout at the society meeting?
I often remind my coaching clients that God is not looking down at them stunned, saying: “Oh my goodness, I didn’t see that coming!”
And, since God is fully aware of your predicament, what do you suppose God wants to do in you as a result?
You who are in ministry are in “the people development business”.
And so is God.
What do you suppose that God is working to develop in you, through your present difficulties?
Leadership in a Culture of Cowardice (part three)
We’re considering how consistently Jesus modeled the first of nine leadership postures and practices necessary for pastors today. And in doing so, I’m indebted to Edwin Friedman for his stellar work: A Failure of Nerve.
One: 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.
In John chapter four, when Jesus’ buddies encouraged him to take a break, have a good meal, relax a bit, after his encounter with the Samaritan, he said: “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to finish his work.” [Jn 4:34]
Now, self-defined does not mean workaholic. Friedman notes that the mature leader takes full responsibility for her wellbeing and destiny.
Like Jesus, she trusts the Father’s goodness, love, and sovereign plan. She does not look to other people or for her circumstances to define her. Responsible for her own being and destiny, she lives responsibly—even amid a culture that seems committed to promote irresponsibility at every turn.
Recall Jesus’ practice of withdrawing himself from the press of people and ministry to commune with the Father, get perspective, and to sleep.
Responsible for his own being and destiny, Jesus chose to get away from the very people who needed him: those he could’ve healed, delivered, taught, and built a bigger, stronger, more powerful ministry around.
Maybe Jesus understood that more than skill, technique, or knowledge, courageous leadership is, most of all, about the presence of the leader as the leader moves through life.
To presence himself well with people, Jesus recognized that a vital relationship with the Father, clarity, perspective, and attending to his very appropriate, very human need for rest and refreshing were necessary.
Self-definition, like Jesus modeled for us, was the result of his commitment to maturity. And one hallmark of maturity is standing responsible for one’s own wellbeing and destiny.
A Culture of Cowardice (part nine)
In this series, we’re examining a culture of cowardice that, in my view, seems to saturate much of the American Church—contributing to our diminishing influence in society.
Consider how often we cover up truth when a Christian leader falls.
For several decades now, we in the Church routinely sweep these humiliations under the rug: the priest is relocated to a new parish, the pastor takes a seminary position, the missionary goes on furlough, and the youth leader enrolls in graduate school.
Those close enough to the transgression to have been among the collateral damage just leave…the church…the faith…and our stand for liberating truth. [John 8:32]
Paul counsels Timothy against favoritism in leading the church and administering discipline.
And yet, isn’t that exactly what we’re doing?
Years ago, I learned about an egregious ethical compromise by a nationally visible leader with whom I worked. My attempts to influence a correction were thwarted, so I resigned. The public explanation the leader provided was typical of the positive-sounding pablum of most such announcements. It said … nothing.
And, saying nothing, it succeeded in communicating one clear message: “You are not getting the truth.”
So, when people close to the situation asked why I’d resigned, I told them. I shared my errors in judgment, my failure to act years before when prompted by God: the ways my cowardice contributed to the leader’s collapse. And, I shared, honestly as I know, what this respected leader had done.
No cover up.
When we claim to be “children of light” and switch off the light when what it reveals is unpleasant or uncomely or uncomfortable… are we not hypocrites?
In a way, aren’t we strengthening the darkness? Doesn’t the darkness thicken when the Church fails to stand as light in life?
Paul, to the church in Ephesus wrote: “For you were once darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Live as children of light (for the fruit of the light consists in all goodness, righteousness and truth) and find out what pleases the Lord. Have nothing to do with the fruitless deeds of darkness, but rather expose them… But everything exposed by the light becomes visible, for it is light that makes everything visible.” [Eph 5:8-14]
Living in a Culture of Cowardice, we find it awkward to expose darkness the way Paul instructs. Orienting ourselves around the least mature, our response to moral failure is to go easy on the fallen leader. We tell ourselves that the “restoration” of the fallen leader is most important. So we keep the indiscretion secret. We keep it in the dark.
Paul didn’t see it that way.
In the business of making mature disciples, courageous leaders will mourn with those who fall and warn everyone else, lest we disavow the truth we profess by the way we lead…and undermine Christ’s message to the world.
A Culture of Cowardice (part four)
I’m a leadership coach to pastors. We’re nine segments into a series on Leadership Courage. This is our fourth pass exposing a Culture of Cowardice that I believe has dominated much of the Church in North America.
These observations are confined to North America because I have very little exposure to non-Western churches and leaders. Since the US has been exporting what we call “the Gospel” in earnest since WWII, no doubt we’ve packaged and shipped our cultural preferences along with it.
Regrettably, we may have exported a Culture of Cowardice, to the foreign field. You who minister cross-culturally can offer your observations from around the globe, by commenting below.
In A Failure of Nerve Edwin Friedman identifies characteristics of chronically anxious families, communities, and societies. While I see ample evidence of these features in American society it’s stunning to consider how these traits apply to Christian churches today.
Recently, I suggested that the insipid capacity of the typical congregation to tolerate discomfort has accelerated our orientation away from bold, courageous leadership and centered it on the most needy and emotionally-regressed among us. Two segments ago, I opined that religious political-correctness has become so toxic to courageous leadership that Jesus – not the “Flannelgraph Jesus”, but the historical Jesus of the New Testament – would embarrass many in church today.
Do you find this stunning?
I work with pastors in dozens of denominations—each with their peculiar polity and priorities. Some systems locate leadership responsibility and authority with the pastor. Others load the pastor with responsibility and deny her or him the authority to lead. Still others withhold both leadership responsibility and authority from their ministers. Regardless of denominational polity, no one has as great an opportunity to influence the culture and values of a local church than the Senior Minister. That is why I’ve dedicated my life to standing with and strengthening them.
You who stand in pulpits determine – more than anyone else – what your congregants talk about. To the degree that you choose your title or topic or text when you preach, you inject that into the “congregational conversation” that takes place in cars and restaurants and kitchens of those who hear. You don’t determine what they say about your topic, but you do get to decide what that topic is.
Think about it.
Does your preaching provoke people?
Do your sermons unsettle them?
Do your messages undermine the mediocrity of most of your members’ lives?
Do you challenge your congregation to change?
If not, why not?
A Culture of Cowardice (part two)
- Courageous leadership is, by nature, decisive.
And, the Latin root of decisive means “to cut”. But, it is not nice to cut anything away, to cut anything off, to cut anything out—even a toxic presence – like a parasite – that survives by sucking the life out of those who are healthy.
To lead with heart is to stand for what’s best, simply because it is best—even when unpopular. Even when it provokes opposition from misguided stakeholders within the Church…draining its vitality.
- Courageous leadership, by nature, is clear.
Such a leader is unapologetically clear about who she is, the difference she is committed to make in the world, her values and priorities.
The clearer you are as a leader, the clearer people around you will become.
And, therein lies the problem. As pastors, we don’t always like what that clarity reveals. As you become more and more clear as a leader, more and more people will decide they’re not “up” for going where you’re going. Stay foggy and many will stick around, wandering in impotent ambiguity.
But, those who get behind a leader who is clear will be a powerful force for good—the good to which that leader’s been called.
- Courageous leadership, by nature, is disruptive.
Courageous leaders routinely disrupt dysfunction. They regularly challenge their own preference for comfort—and that of those they lead.
Many interpret their leadership as crisis-inducing.
Edwin Friedman notes that crises are normative in leaders’ lives. These crises come from two sources: those that just arise, imposed upon the leader from forces outside that leader’s control and crises that are initiated by the leader doing exactly what she should be doing. Jesus did this all the time. But, notice the reluctance of anyone in church leadership to lead in a way that invites a crisis for long-standing church members.
As a leadership coach and consultant to pastors, my life’s work is to champion Christian influencers to find their hearts and to fully re-engage them in this great, important struggle to stir the Church from its slumber.
There is no altogether “nice” way to do this.
Just five verses into his story, Jonah is asleep below decks, aboard a ship imperiled in a brutal storm. The terrified captain races below, stunned to find Jonah asleep — in so critical a moment. Waking Jonah, he demands: “How can you sleep? Get up and call on your God! Maybe he will take notice of us, and we will not perish.” [Jon1:6]
Get this, folks: it was not a follower of Yahweh who stirred Jonah from slumber—calling him to take action with God lest the “community” they were part of be plunged to ruin.
Look around you.
Is not the community around your church caught in a destructive storm?
A moral, ethical, and spiritual hurricane that wills to destroy the fabric of American society? Don’t you see the storm buffeting the Christian faith—driving it to the very edges of the culture?
To awaken the Church, her leaders must first rouse themselves.
Then, embracing the opportunity provided by this life, they can stand clearly, decisively, and disruptively to awaken their churches to enter the glorious and dangerous fight for the redemption of the community around them.
What else would a Christ-follower do?
The Responsibility Riddle
QUESTION: Pastor, who is responsible for your spiritual maturity and vitality?
ANSWER: I am, of course!
Ok, fine. Now answer this…
QUESTION: Pastor, who is responsible for the spiritual maturity and vitality of your congregation?
ANSWER: Again, I am!
Really? Are you sure?
If you are responsible for your congregation’s spiritual maturity, what are they responsible for?
Ask me that again??
There’s a troubling trend in the Church these days. We, in ministry, see the evidence of this all the time.
It can be found in a complaint that, more often than not, sounds like this:
“I’m just not getting fed, here…”
“I don’t experience the presence of God here…”
“The worship no longer ministers to me…”.
And then off they go, out the door, on to another church, … or maybe to no church at all.
The thinking, both of the pastor and the complaining congregants flows from the same fallacy: that the pastor, the church, the elders are somehow responsible for the spiritual condition of those they serve.
Thinking like this, it’s no wonder the Church is diapered in perpetual spiritual infancy.
So, who is responsible for your spiritual maturity and vitality?
The responsibility riddle can be solved in this important, seldom recognized distinction: Your pastor is responsible to you, but is never responsible for you.
Think about it. A pastor is responsible to the congregation to model mature faith in action, to proclaim God’s Word faithfully, to represent Christ ethically.
Each believer is responsible for what they do with the Word of God: both the preached Word and the Word that sits in their lap, on the bookshelf, or on the coffee table gathering dust.
Are you responsible for your spouse’s happiness?
Of course not!
How could you be?
When you notice that someone has tried to make you responsible for whatever it is that God has made them responsible for – their attitudes, their behavior, their “stress”, their decisions, their depression, their optimism – invite them to embrace this reality: you bear responsibility to them, but are never responsible for them.
Do I have a responsibility to my wife? Absolutely!
I am responsible to keep my promises to her. I’ve promised to value her above every breathing human being. I’ve promised to honor her whether she deserves it or not. I’ve promised to pray for her. I’ve promised to champion her toward all God’s called her to be. I’ve promised to be faithful sexually and emotionally. I’ve promised to walk with God and to submit my life to Jesus and his Word. And, I promised to treat her better than she deserves.
And, she is responsible for herself.
When our kids were small and unable to take responsibility for themselves, as parents we bore the responsibility for them. When our pre-teen had a friend over, and they snuck out at night and lit a porta-potty on fire, we were legally responsible—because they were minors and under our supervision.
Now in his twenties, it would be foolish for us to take responsibility for his decisions.
In fact, it would be irresponsible for us to do so.
To take responsibility for another adult is a violation of his or her autonomy.
An invasion of their sovereignty.
It represents a kind of abuse.
When you are with an otherwise capable adult as if they were incapable of adult choices and incapable of bearing the adult consequences for those choices, what is your impact – really – on that person?
What is the “fruit” that is produced when you persuade another to live irresponsibly?
The distinction of being ‘responsible to’ vs. ‘responsible for’ is central for everyone in leadership.
There’s great freedom when you’re clear about this distinction, and lead in such a way that those you influence are clear about it too.
To stand in life responsible to others and responsible for your own emotional being and destiny may require courage you’ve not been willing to summon, until now.
Time to call it up!