Leadership

Two Secrets of Good Leadership: Learning to Live with Other People's Pain and with Your Own Mistakes

By Derek Penwell

Two Keys to Good Leadership

Thesis: You can’t be a good leader until you get comfortable with other people’s pain and with your own mistakes.

Learning to Live with Other People’s Pain

I know about a church that developed some bad habits over the years. They had worked with a paradigm of ministry in which the minister was responsible for virtually everything. If a light bulb burned out in the exit sign, they dropped a note to the minister. When the lady who was supposed to bring the grape jello to Vacation Bible School forgot, everything stopped while they called the minister to let him know. When the garbage cans didn’t get put back, somebody would leave a message on the answering machine to apprise the minister of this crucial oversight.

And, as if by magic, new light bulbs and purple jello would appear. The garbage cans mysteriously found their homes. The minister made sure complaints were addressed and problems were solved. He did most of it himself.

The arrangement suited everybody—the minister had a compelling need to feel needed, and the congregation had a capacious reservoir of need. Everybody wins![1]

Except when the minister left, the arrangement was no longer viable. Now there was a congregation trained to be needy, but no longer anyone to meet those needs. How do you handle a situation like that?

What will the next minister have to do if she doesn’t want to continue this co-dependent relationship?

She’s going to have to develop an extraordinarily high tolerance for pain.

“What?”

Any minister who wants to make changes to a system that depends on the minister to make changes is going to have to get comfortable watching people suffer.

“How can you possibly say that? Isn’t suffering part of what ministers are supposed to be in the business of alleviating?”

No. Where did you get that idea? Ministers are in the business of helping equip people for the reign of God. Sometimes that means being intensely and pastorally present when people suffer. But pastoral ministry is almost never about fixing people’s suffering, about doing away with people’s anxieties, about slaying everyone’s dragons for them.

Pastoral ministry is about helping people discover a new story that makes sense of their suffering and anxiety (and hope, doubt, aspirations, needs, etc.) in light of God’s reconciling love manifested in Jesus Christ.

In the case I’ve been describing the new pastor, if she is going to be faithful to her vocation, is going to have to get comfortable with the pain caused when people see burned-out light bulbs, jello-less VBS extravaganzas, empty garbage cans by the side of the road, and mistakenly believe that the only person responsible for them is the minister.

“So, you’re saying the minister should just be lazy and let everybody else do everything?”

No. I’m saying that if everybody else believes the only person who needs to do anything is the one getting paid, you haven’t hired a minister; you’ve hired domestic help.[2] The minister isn’t doing anybody any favors by constantly rescuing the congregation from those situations for which other people need to be taking some responsibility.

Authentic, Jesus-centered ministry that seeks to enable growth rather than merely enable, requires learning to have a high threshold for other people’s pain.

It’s tough, but there aren’t any shortcuts.

Learning to Love Your Own Mistakes

I just took a group of people down to San Luis Potosí, México. We work in a children’s home there, started by Ted and Wanda Murray. I’ve been taking groups down for over 20 years now. The trip is one of my favorite things to do.

Anyway, I took my two oldest children again this year. My daughter wants to speak Spanish better to be able to communicate with the kids down there. So, I started her on a language series, The Pimsleur Method (It’s the best language learning system I’ve found, for whatever that’s worth).

So, I've been talking to my daughter about how her Spanish is progressing. She said she really likes the lessons. So, I gave her some tricks about learning a language.

“The nice thing about the Pimsleur method,” I said, “is that, if you do it daily, you wind up having to hear yourself speak the language out loud over and over again—which is important, because one of the biggest obstacles to speaking a foreign language when you travel is overcoming your fear of speaking out loud in front of other people.”

She said, “Yeah, that’s the scariest part, because you don’t want to goof up and have people laugh at you.”

“That’s the trick to learning a language, though—being able to withstand the embarrassment of getting it wrong. If you can’t stand being laughed at, you’ll never learn another language.”

Why is that?

Because the process of mastering a language requires making mistakes. Lots of mistakes. Tons of mistakes. Painful, embarrassing mistakes.

Learning a language is just as much about learning what not to say. There are no shortcuts to the hours of practice or the patience to endure the humiliation of doing it incorrectly.

I also think that’s another secret to good leadership.

Much of what passes for conventional wisdom about good leadership has to do with always making good decisions.

When presented with a choice, the good leader will choose X; the poor leader will choose Y—where X is eventually shown to be a wise decision, and Y a poor one.

I want to suggest, however, that making good decisions isn’t the best indicator of leadership. Instead, I think the sign of excellence in leadership is the desire to learn from mistakes.

If you’re going to learn to pound nails, you’re going to have to make peace with mashing your thumb every once in a while.

On this reading of leadership, excellence requires not only a willingness to be wrong, but an enthusiasm about being shown where you went wrong. Good leadership values being shown where things went wrong.

You can’t be a good leader without risking mistakes and embracing the humiliation of getting it wrong.

Here’s the secret: Ministry isn’t about being right; it’s about getting it right.

And if you want to get it right, you’d better learn to love your mistakes, because they’re your friends on the path to good leadership.

Good leadership is often counter-intuitive. But if it were easy, great leaders would be everywhere. They’re not. So, we have to work at it.

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  1. Before I get a whole bunch of email arguing either that I’m being unfair to to needy congregations or needy ministers, I’m willing to spread the blame across the clergy/laity spectrum.  ↩
  2. Again, prior to emailing me, let me hasten to say that I know there are lazy ministers out there. If that’s your problem, then this post won’t help you address your situation.  ↩

"Meeting the Challenge of this Decisive Hour" --Honoring MLK's Legacy

By Rev. Mindi

I never knew Martin Luther King, Jr. was controversial until my senior year of high school. Until that point, all I had learned about Martin Luther King, Jr. was that he was a civil rights leader, that he had called for the end of segregation, that he had spoken up for blacks in the South and that he was assassinated and when I was in elementary school in the 1980’s he was given a holiday. That was what I knew.

What changed during my senior year? In our Government class, we were asked to name some of our heroes of the United States, and I raised my hand and said, “Martin Luther King, Jr.” Other students scoffed, some said, “he’s not my hero.” I explained that he had led a peaceful revolution and my teacher corrected me: “they weren’t exactly peaceful.” I still remember those exact words.

I was taken aback at the age of seventeen because what I had learned in school so far was a tidy, very white viewpoint of Martin Luther King, Jr. I had read the “I Have A Dream” speech. I had read about the Civil Rights Act of 1964. I did not know about the March to Selma, or the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church, or the violence that erupted in the South at polling locations when African-Americans showed up to vote. I also didn’t know that people could still be racist. I knew of a few people who were, but overall, I thought we were in a post-racial America. I had believed it, until that day, when I realized that either we bought the version taught in school of a gentle, meek and mild Martin Luther King, Jr. who had a dream for all children, or we bought into the racist view that MLK had started violence and riots because people were equal and that if you talked about race, you were the racist. While many of us reject the latter, we have swallowed the pill of the former.

The problem is, almost twenty-one years after I have graduated high school, white churches for the most part still buy into the first viewpoint. Especially on Martin Luther King, Jr. Sunday, in the liberal-leaning traditional congregations, we read quotes here and there from MLK about peace and justice that doesn’t challenge us, but makes us feel better about ourselves. We sing “Lift Every Voice and Sing” or “We Shall Overcome” only on this Sunday and no others. We join in community celebrations and we say we are working for racial justice, but are we just swallowing the pill we have been giving ourselves since his assassination almost fifty years ago?

My white kindred, I urge you to read Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” I urge you to take seriously the challenges that MLK lays out, in a very Pauline way, of how we have acted towards our kindred of color. And we must examine ourselves—are we putting ourselves in the same position as many of the white clergy leaders MLK was writing to? “I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate,” writes King in his letter. White leaders condemned the actions of King and others, despite them being peaceful, but “because they precipitate violence.” Because white supremacy still exists, and the reaction to black lives protesting, even peacefully, is violence. However, over the past year, since the protests in Ferguson began, and in later New York and Baltimore condemning police brutality, the silence of white church leaders has been louder than the condemnation. 

We need to read all of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s words, especially the “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” and remember Dr. King’s call. It is all too easy for those of us in the white church to pick a quote here and there, to sing the songs and believe that it’s all better now, but it is not. We must not only speak but act for racial justice, and most of all, we must listen to our African-American kindred who are still struggling for equality and justice, and listen to their call, all of it, even the parts that make us uncomfortable. 

Forced Adaptation

By Rev. Mindi

In 2009, the world changed as we knew it.

We went from analog to digital TV.

Remember the concerns, the worries and concerns for senior citizens that would no longer be able to watch TV, that people wouldn’t be able to find the digital converter boxes (even though you could sign up for one for free) and that people would have to buy new TV’s?

We survived. The world didn’t end. Chaos didn’t erupt in the streets. And now, six years later, we’ve almost forgotten about that transition. Few of us have the big box TV’s anymore. When I asked my congregation a couple of weeks ago (using this change from analog to digital as my sermon illustration about change), only a couple of people still had a box TV. Everyone else had a flat TV, including the senior members of the church. Six years ago, there were concerns that senior citizens wouldn’t be able to accept the change from analog to digital, and that was the main argument against the change.

Turns out, senior citizens adapt pretty well, as do most of us.

What happens when the church is resistant to change and uses the excuse that our senior members can’t make the shift and change? One, we are telling ourselves a lie about a group of people, and two, at some point the change is inevitable and we either adapt, or our message is no longer received. Because it is almost always the very people who are afraid of a generation or group not being able to adapt to change that are unable to make the change. It is almost always the ones worried about others that cannot make the shift themselves. The results after the 2009 switch from analog to digital show that the largest group not ready for the shift were ages 35-54.  Not senior citizens.

I went out to lunch today and at the table was a tablet with card reader. This is now the third restaurant chain that I have been to in the last month that is switching over to this practice, where you pay right at the table when you are finished. The menu is even loaded and you can order your food from your table, but for now, the wait staff still come to your table and take your order the old fashioned way, but who knows for how long? More and more chains are having options of ordering online through an app and you pick your food up ready to go.  How many churches are still only taking check or cash for pledges and donations? How many church websites still do not have a mobile option? How many congregations still do not use social media? And how many times will we make the excuse that it is senior citizens who are not ready? 

1440 was the year technology changed the church forever, the year the printing press was invented. In the next one hundred years, Bibles would be mass produced and printed in languages other than Latin. The church was eventually forced to change. The next big shift is already happening, in both the ways technology is used within the church, but also the church itself, in how we organize, gather, and do mission and ministry. We are shifting from creating community to finding God already at work in the community. We are shifting from doing mission to help others to partnering with others in their God-given work. But some of us are adapting faster than others. Some of us are handling this shift better. 

As those of us that have congregational budgets operating on a calendar year know, this is Stewardship season. This is the time when we mail out the pledge cards and stewardship letters and invite people to give. However, unless we being to embrace technology, we are going to be left behind, or out completely, if we are still expecting people to carry cash or check. And unless we embrace the shift of partnering with our community that already exists, to do the work God is already doing, we are going to be shutting the doors of many churches that still think their mission is to share the message of Christ’s love but have no idea how to do it in today’s world.

There are hundreds of books out there about this shift happening in our church and culture, with authors who can state this far better than me. However, if we cannot admit that it's not senior citizens that have a problem of adapting, but ourselves, those of us in leadership, we are fooling ourselves and shutting the doors on our face.

Church, Go Back to School!

By Rev. Mindi

We checked in over coffee, talking about the start of the year, about what hadn’t been done over the summer. We shared our frustrations about things that were still the same, and celebrated the changes that have been made and places where we saw hope and opportunity.

We weren’t talking about church; we were talking about school.

Over the course of the conversation, as we talked about our admiration for the younger teachers who seemed to be able to adapt and adjust better, who could multitask and understand the differing needs of today’s children, of all abilities, I couldn’t help but think about church and how so many of the conversations we are having in the public education sphere are almost the same conversations we are having in the church world. While a younger age does not guarantee someone is open to change and adaptation, these observations came from parents at this gathering about younger teachers and administrators:

-Technology is seen as a necessity, not a luxury, especially for students with disabilities, and all students benefit from access to technology.

-They use social media as a teaching tool in the classroom, to share the accomplishments of the school with the public, and to connect with parents and families.

-They are able to multitask and maintain their presence of authority in the classroom, even when there are disruptions and distractions.

-They want to know about students’ lives outside of the classroom—culture, family, interests, progress they are making academically and socially.

 

In contrast, teachers and administrators that are “old school” tend to be:

-Unfamiliar with technology or supports for students with different and unique needs.

-Unfamiliar with social media—even afraid to use it for fear of privacy concerns.

-Using one-size-fits-all models of classroom instruction and behavior expectation.

-Unable to adapt to major changes—want to use same curriculum or method of teaching.

-Struggle with cultures that are different or new to them.

Of course, these are generalizations. Of course, every school is different, every administrator and teacher is different. However, public education in the United States is changing, and these conversations are eerily similar to the conversations I have with my colleagues in ministry.

There are plenty of factors that make a comparison between the church and public school a different one. However, in this conversation with parents, I heard many familiar themes:

-Struggle of an institution stuck in patterns of the past.

-Administrators unable to think outside of the box and try new ideas, or even see the reason for doing something in a different way.

-Teachers not being paid enough to live even near the communities they teach in.

-Not enough resources to go around.

-Access to technology lacking.

-Buildings in dire need of updating, but can’t due to lack of funds.

-Struggle of educating students in a rapidly changing multi-cultural community.

-The number of students on free and reduced lunch rapidly on the rise.

Change “Administrators” to “Administration Board” or whatever your governing body is, change “teachers” to pastors, etc. You get the idea. Our communities are changing with new immigrants and cultures and the number of families at or near the poverty level is on the rise.

What I see that is helpful in this comparison is that change is possible. As part of this group of parents, I am seeing significant change in our school district towards inclusion of students with disabilities. Younger teachers are being hired who are able to multitask and maintain their presence of authority in the classroom. More resources are being invested in technology, including an app for parents to keep up with what is going on at their child’s school and in the district.

At the same time, teacher salaries are low. Teacher turnover is high in the state of Washington, where I live, and more and more teachers are leaving public education altogether. Bonds are not passing at the local level and so buildings are falling into disrepair, and resources are stretched thin. Every year, there are teacher positions that are unfilled by a permanent teacher and instead filled by a substitute, sometimes for the entire year.

The conversation is all too familiar. All too close to home. What can we learn, and what can we do differently?

An Open Letter to Church Shoppers

By Rev. Mindi


Dear Church Shopper,

I hate the term “church shopping.”  Shopping implies casual browsing, sampling, purchasing, consuming, returning and exchanging, etc. I know that you have been brought up in a consumer culture, and this is the language you are used to. You want to find the right church like you want to find the right pair of shoes: you want to make sure they are a good fit, and that they feel on the inside as good as they look on the outside. You want to find the church that feeds your needs, your desires, what you imagine church should be. And if your desires are not being met, if you are not being filled, you will move along.

The church is the body of Christ, as Paul states in 1 Corinthians 12. It is a body. It is an organism. It is something you become part of and participate in, not sample and browse, consume and leave behind. Church is something you belong to, become part of, and it becomes essential and integral to your life. As Paul says, the hand cannot say to the foot, “I have no need of you.”

Unfortunately, for many churches in the United States, they have also bought into the consumer culture. They try to put on a good show to feed your entertainment needs as well as your spiritual needs, but often the spiritual need they fill is to make you feel good about yourself. We all like to feel good. But at times we also need to be challenged and have a kick in the pants when we are not doing our part to help the poor and the oppressed around us.

Sometimes the mainline liberal church has bought into the consumer culture as well. Sometimes we use phrases like “social justice” and “missional” as catch phrases to lure you in to doing work in the community to help others, but we aren’t always good about it. Sometimes we are helping ourselves. Sometimes we don’t listen to the needs of the community and continue to do the same things we have always done rather than meeting the needs of those around us.  Sometimes what we are doing is not social, is not justice, and is not about serving others. Sometimes the church has used bait and switch tactics, without realizing it.


Church is not the pastor. Church is not the building. Church is the people, the body of Christ, coming together to be one. We shouldn’t be church because the building is pretty. We shouldn’t be church because the pastor is inspiring. We should be church because we recognize that we are the body, together, and we have need of each other. And our money shouldn’t be the most important thing—whether it is our individual giving or the church budget. Sometimes, I think the real problem in all of this is that we have given money power over all of us. That is consumer culture in a nutshell.

So please, stop shopping. Join a church community and belong. Of course that might take a little time finding—there is something to be said about theology and mission that connects you—but don’t go for a while and then leave because you hope to find something better elsewhere. Become part of the community. Belong to one another. Be the church. 

(And churches, let’s be the church, too. Let’s stop trying to show up one another. Let’s actually focus outward to do that social justice thing in being part of God’s beloved community on earth. Let’s worry less about entertaining and feeling good, and more about being the church together, beyond our building’s walls).

Be the body. Belong. Become.

The Mysterious Magic Pill

By Colton Lott

 

This is going to seem like an article about politics, but it’s not. Promise. Just keep with me. How folks feel about one issue/item/thing often reflects how they view another issue/item/thing—like how our views of the church influence our views of politics and vice versa. For example, this week Derek Penwell (one of the senior writers for [D]mergent) wrote a fantastic article about Donald Trump and evangelicals, which you can read here: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/derek-penwell/evangelicals-love-donald_b_8058518.html. For all of you who won’t read the article, he says that evangelicals crave a cultural relevance that Donald Trump seemingly has.

But Rev. Penwell isn’t the only one talking about the GOP nomination and the takeover by non-political candidates, such as Ben Carson and Carly Fiorina. Virtually every news source has article after article asking “Why are voters gravitating towards these unconventional candidates?” The peculiar rise of these candidates is not only a topic of the talking heads on the national level, but one that is happening in my own intimate world, as I have  family members who favor some of these dark horse candidates. On the whole, I am intrigued with their support of folks who, in the eyes of every savvy political strategist, should properly be considered “losers.” So I, too, keep gnawing on that why.

When I conduct my informal research, the responses are something like, “we need someone who knows what they’re doing,” or, “we need an outsider to fix Washington,” or “I want someone who has a business background to fix the financial mess.”

I don’t mean to de-legitimize the benefit of fresh ideas to any corporate body or diminish the way that different forms of knowledge come together to make a more powerful whole. But where did we come to believe that any one person possesses a secret knowledge that will somehow “save” this entire country?

Because at the root of many of these conversations, the subtext of what I keep hearing is: “we desperately need a magic pill that will shock our system into working like it did ‘in the good ole days.’”

In truth, I don’t have much interest in using my weekly article for political analysis. But this style of thinking/wishing/hoping is not isolated to the political sphere; indeed, these unsaid-but-ever-near desires show up far too often in the church. In the parking lots comes the whispers of:

“If we just had a young pastor, we could get young families.”

 Or in those fraught moments we may let say something like:

“Our pastor doesn’t have a clear vision or leadership. If we just had someone who would tell us what to do, we would be successful.”

The list goes on and on about the good fruit that follows the “if we just had…”

Are leaders and leadership important to institutional vitality and success? You bet. Can poor leadership disrupt and seriously injure religious communities? Absolutely. Can a pastor make everything good and smell like roses? Definitely not.

When churches decide to pin all their hopes on a minister they are trying to swallow the elephantine magic pill that will solve the problems that come with being church in this time and in this place.

A new president nor a new pastor will fix all the problems that plague life as we know it. Just as running a successful government takes a sincere congress and prudent courts, a healthy church takes praying elders, service-oriented deacons, and loving members. Perhaps we would be well to remember that revolutions are lengthy affairs; that turning around lives and culture are like steering a large ship with an undersized rudder; that churches are successful in how they are faithful to God, how they work alongside what the holy is doing within their community. We can’t wish a better time into being. We can’t hire solutions. We can’t elect a savior. But we can stop reaching for the opiates, stop begging for the magic pills of wonderfulness. By breaking free from our addiction to dreams unobtainable we can start to be authentic and earnest no matter what conditions we find ourselves to be in.

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Clip art used can be found at: http://www.clker.com/cliparts/b/e/I/U/t/B/pill-md.png

UnCommon Acceptance

By Rev. Mindi

Two years ago, I sat in a breakout session at my first UNCO—The UnConference for pastors and church leaders—and in the first fifteen minutes of the session titled “Show Me The Money,” I learned more about fundraising and stewardship campaigns than I had in seminary—and I had taken an entire January term course on stewardship and church finances. I listened as church leaders shared what had worked in their congregation, ways of talking about stewardship, and focusing on the positives (“Look what ministries we participated in last year”) rather than the negatives (“Our budget shortfall means we will have to cut programs unless we raise enough money”). 

Two years ago, I connected with pastors and church leaders that I still go to regularly for ideas, support, and encouragement, as did my husband who was planting a new church. But more importantly for us, it was the first church conference that not only provided space and childcare for children (called KidUNCO), but fully welcomed our child AJ, who has autism, into the full life of the UnConference.

Last year, when we returned to UNCO, not only did we receive our warm welcome again, but as AJ ran across the gathering space, where we livestream our worship services and large group “brain-dump” sessions, people who knew AJ from the previous years but could not attend tweeted their greetings to AJ.

UNCO has created a community of church leaders who are connected not only after UNCO meets via Twitter and Facebook, but a way of connecting those who are physically present and those who participate via Twitter and livestream. And following last year’s UNCO, those of us involved in new church communities and the challenges of raising funds for our new ministries began using Google Hangout on a monthly basis—not only to share ideas and knowledge, but also to check in, and lift up one another and our ministries in prayer. The networks created within the larger UNCO gathering, including a writer’s group and synchroblog, provide support and encouragement for creativity in leadership.

UNCO has given me and my husband the opportunity to attend a leadership gathering together—and to bring our child with special needs to an inclusive and welcoming environment. Because of KidUNCO, my husband and I have been able to attend breakout sessions without one of us having to care for our child while we are learning and sharing.

More importantly, UNCO has provided close friendships with colleagues facing similar challenges in ministry. UNCO is not a conference you attend and take back with you what you learn—UNCO is the UnConference, in which you are participating all year long and in person for three days, if you are able to be there.

UNCO West is October 26-28 at San Francisco Theological Seminary. Click here for more information and to register. You won’t find a more affordable continuing education event that will benefit you throughout the year. You can also read Carol Howard Merritt’s excellent article on UNCO in the Christian Century.