Tag Archives: leadership

On Leaders Who Disappoint and How Real Change Happens

francis.jpgIn his speech before Congress Pope Francis managed to rise above the fray.  With no histrionics, he spoke directly and simply, yet profoundly. The speech surprised me; he managed to address the divisive issues that have become occasions for the two parties to shout across the aisle at each other. He spoke in such a way that all of us in this divided house could listen.

Not forty-eight hours later came the report that Pope Francis met with Kim Davis, the Rowan County, Kentucky county clerk who has refused to issue marriage licenses to anyone as a way to make a stand for her opposition to gay marriage. Since the news came out, there have been as many interpretations of that visit as there are positions to take. And regardless of the Pope’s awareness and degree of complicity, that meeting has enormous symbolism. I’m not ready to make a personal judgment; however, for the symbolic impact of that visit, I am disappointed.

It’s disappointing to me because Kim Davis is the icon for a brand of Christianity that is disdainful to me. It’s a brand of Christianity that makes our faith more about the rules than about relationship, and especially rules about sex. I wish we could just get off of that. Every time I turn around, someone else is reinforcing the ridiculous notion that the Christianity is mostly about rules, and we’re concerned about the sex rules more than any others. It’s maddening.

While I’m disappointed that the meeting happened, I’m not losing much sleep over it. While I was impressed with the pope’s speech before Congress, I never went over the moon about it. He represents a change of tone from the Vatican, but perhaps not much else. A friend, who is a good Roman Catholic and an astute observer of all things Catholic, often reminds me that nothing of substance has changed.

Leaders inspire us. Leaders disappoint us. Sometimes leaders just downright make us mad. Just ask the members of my congregation.

The whole back and forth saga of the pope’s visit to America — and I have to imagine that it feels the same for both conservatives and progressives — is a reminder that while leaders have influence, real change is not going to happen from the top down. Bernie Sanders (another leader who inspires me and who I’m sure will disappoint me and enrage me) reminded students at the University of Chicago this week that real change, deep change never happens from the top down. It always happens from the bottom up, beginning at the margins and moving towards the center.

Earlier this week, I facilitated a bible study with a group of about 20 women. Part of our study was about the gospel lesson for this coming Sunday (Mark 10:2-16, if you want to read it), a difficult text where Jesus pits scripture against scripture. On the one hand he holds up the inviolability of the marriage covenant; on the other, he cites the Mosaic law which allows for divorce in certain occasions, a legal move which was only available to the man.

The study led us into conversation about marriage, about the difficulty and hard work of relationships, especially relationships like marriage. And it led us into the tall grass of a conversation about same sex marriage.

I fully celebrate that our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters can now be legally married. The sealing of their covenantal love is just as holy and just as wonderful a relationship and covenant as heterosexual marriage. I also know that not everyone in the congregation I serve shares that opinion.

The conversation we had yesterday would not have happened a dozen years ago in this place. Partially, it’s a sign of the rapid change that has happened in the larger society.

But I’d like to think that the priority we’ve placed on having deep and meaningful conversation in our congregation has contributed to the change. Over the past dozen years, we have created space for lots of conversations about lots of things. Forty or fifty people meet every week for bible study. We host conversations about the intersection of faith and life. We talk a lot these days about the rapid changes in our society and their impact on the church. Every council and team meeting includes time for conversation and prayer. At any given moment in time several groups, including our staff, are reading and discussing a book together. We have hosted authors to lead us in conversation about things that matter. When space is created for people to listen to one another, space is also created for the Spirit to soften our hearts.

It’s not the kind of change that happens rapidly; it’s not always even visible. But it’s the kind of work that forms and shapes us as the body of Christ, forming us as individuals, and more importantly, forming us as a corporate body, so that our thoughts, words, and deeds are in greater alignment with the work God is doing in the world, so that we are participating with God in bringing about the kingdom.

Save It for Monday

As I sat in a sticky booth at IHOP, talking with a pastoral colleague over pancakes and scrambled eggs, I heard a familiar story. A Sunday morning service just finished. Pastors standing at the door greeting parishioners. Some folks always have comments about the service, usually good, mostly generic. And then comes the occasional verbal hand grenade, set to detonate right there in the line out of church, just after the service.  In this case, my colleague had done the prayers of the church and had prayed for peace, for an end to the war in Afghanistan and Israel/Palestine, Syria, and other places around the world. And one of the congregants assailed him in what my colleague characterized as harsh language and a harsh tone of voice, “Why aren’t you praying for our troops? We’re working trying to bring democracy in places that have only known tyranny, and you’re praying for peace. Why don’t you try praying for. . .”

For now, I’m not interested in the substance of the comments. But I do have something to say about that kind of harsh criticism immediately after a service, even when the message has a modicum of truth.

Years ago, I heard a seasoned and highly respected pastor say at a workshop about building a cohesive church staff, “On Sunday everything is perfect. Not until Monday do you even think about addressing what went wrong or what could be improved.”

The truth that stands behind his sound bite is this: every professional church leader and every lay volunteer who is involved in Sunday morning worship pours his heart and soul into what he does. There is no professional detachment. It’s personal. What she does and what she says comes from a deep place of her own calling, her picture of God and how God has called her, and her best efforts at using her gifts and talents in God’s service. Because it comes from such a deep place and is expressive of something so closely tied to our very identity, and because we’ve worked hard and are just now taking a relaxing breath, any criticism, even if constructive, will likely be heard as a personal attack in the few minutes after a service. Those few moments are moments of vulnerability.

I have tried to follow my wise colleague’s principle in my own ministry with both staff and volunteers. In those moments immediately after the service, I try be effusive in sharing my gratitude for those who have contributed to Sunday morning. I try every week to thank my professional colleagues, trying to mention something specific they have done that I have appreciated. I have attempted to thank all the volunteers, from ushers to altar guild to lectors to assisting ministers to acolytes. “Thank you for your service” or “Thanks for sharing your gifts” or “I really appreciated the way you read that second lesson this morning.”

Because worship always involves human beings and always is messy and always includes mistakes and other distractions, it’s never perfect. So, there are always things to address that could be improved. And I always, I mean ALWAYS, refuse to even mention them on Sunday, but address them during the week that follows. When both staff and volunteers have had a chance to sleep on it and are a little more detached, they are much more able to hear criticism as constructive and not personal. We can acknowledge the good things they did. And we can talk much more calmly about what went wrong or what was a little weak and how to make it better next time.

So, if you are a person sitting in the pew Sunday after Sunday, and you have some thoughts about what went wrong or what could be improved, file it away. Don’t lose track of it. Make sure you make time to offer your feedback. Just don’t do it on Sunday. On the way out of the service, you have no idea what a world of good you will do even if all you can say is “Thank you for sharing your gifts today. I’m grateful for you.”