Monday, November 29, 2010

Gleek Leadership

I finally got around to catching up on the latest Glee episode last night. If you aren't a Gleek, check out the the wiki article on it.  Basically, it is about extraordinarily talented high school youth trying to do something a bit out of the box (be in Show Choir) while still navigating the difficult world of fitting in to with the drama of high school.

Of all the characters on the show, I am intrigued by Finn.  Some (my wife) say that is because he is the most like me, but I think it is that Finn has been pushed to be a leader of the group. 

This past episode, this challenge of leadership was made explicit when the bullying of Finn's future step-brother Kurt (also the only openly gay student at their high school) came to a boiling point.  In that moment Finn was challenged by his girlfriend, classmates, future step-father and teacher to "be a leader" and stand up for Kurt.

This to me was where the leadership rubber hit the road in the series.  While it certainly would be noble and expected for Finn to stand up for Kurt boldly in this time of need, we also need to think about the hits he has already taken for Kurt and the entire Glee club. 

In the series Finn has gone from being the starting quarterback with the head cheerleader as his girlfriend to being betrayed by that girlfriend (who pretended he was the father of her child) and best friend (the actual father).  He lost his starting quarterback position by advocating for his friend Artie (who happens to be in a wheelchair) to be on the football team, a move assumed to undermine the football teams new coach.  He dressed up in red vinyl sheeting to demonstrate his "theatricality" and stand in solidarity with his Glee friends against the neanderthal football players who were harassing them.  He recruited Sam to be on the Glee club knowing that it might not only cost him his male lead, but also his quarterback spot.  His future step-father blew up on him for being mean to Kurt when Finn finally blew a gasket and called Kurt a very mean name because Kurt was being inappropriate and pushing boundaries because he had a crush on Finn.  The list goes on...

And after all this, Finn is told he should "be a leader" and stand up once more for his friend and future step-brother. Man, that is a lot to ask of a 17 year old kid, isn't it?

Of course that is exactly what is asked of leaders everyday.  Leaders take the hits, are betrayed by "friends" and are often forced to make tough calls and choose a side only to be misunderstood by others who don't know the whole story.  This is what being a leader 24/7 is about, and Finn lives that.  But Finn also lives another reality, in the moment, Finn fell short.

If you haven't seen the episode, spoiler alert.  When the physical moment of truth comes, Finn isn't there.  The other guys on the club confront Kurt's bully and take him on, with Finn's biggest rival coming away as the leader and the sympathetic champion.  When they all gather, the question is put to Finn, "where were you?"

Certainly Finn missed an opportunity there, he should have been with his teammates, standing up for his step-brother.  He missed that as leaders sometimes do. You cannot always be present, you will miss some major "crises" moment and be challenged because of it.  "Where were you?" is a question every leader will have to one day confront whether that of a team of 3 people at a factory, pastor of a church, ceo of a company, president of a nation.

But the question he might ask back is "will you be there?"   Will you be there tomorrow, next week, a month from now, a year?  When the heat of battle has simmered and the glory to be gained isn't immediate, will you be there?  Finn has and one could argue that what Finn has done is model leadership for the others in the group.  I like how Finn is growing into a leader, because I see him growing and multiplying himself.

Leadership isn't always about being "there" in the moment of intensity, sometimes it is about keeping a slow burn, an eye on the vision of what is to come and ensuring that is keep forefront.  It is also about replicating yourself so you don't always have to be there.  So that when crucible times come for your organization, and you aren't there, you have multiplied leaders to ensure that what must be done, is done. 

I know many leaders who open and close their shop every night, who know everything that happens within that boundary.  They are faithful and do everything in their power to "be there" whenever they are needed.  I admire those leaders.  But perhaps we can learn something from Finn's leadership.  His leadership empowered Artie, Sam, Mike and ultimately even the lovably deviant Puck, to stand up for Kurt when he wasn't there.  Sure he missed the moment of glory, but in the world of high school, as in our world, no doubt there will be future opportunities.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

PIcking up leaves with a 2.5 year old

As Nika and I were trying to pick up leaves the other day in our yard, me sweeping and raking and stuffing into bags, her attempting to help.  I realized that leadership and picking up leaves with her had much in common.

In theory, she was willing to help and with instruction she could be useful, helping to sweep and pile the leaves.  But every so often, she would get distracted, bored or decide that while nice piles of leaves were good and orderly, that was a bit too much order in her life and she needed to shake things up.  At that point, out would come her Care Bears car and BOOM, my carefully stacked leaf pile was now all over the yard again. 

How many times has a leader gotten a team together, begun working on a project, see initial success and progress, only to have one member (or a cadre of saboteurs) decide they needed to drive their proverbial car into the leaf pile? With a 2.5 year old, you get it.  She wants to put the leaves in the bag, and then take the leaves out of the bag.  She is learning in and out, boundaries, etc...  But with "big kids" what it is in them that makes them decide to tip over the bag and dump out out all those leaves we worked together so hard to sort or to just blow the whole thing up before they even make it in the bag?

Do these "big kids" just get bored?  Do they not understand the goal completely?  Has it not been communicated to them what the goal is?  Do they doubt the ability of the leader?  Or are they just acting out because order threatens the chaos that allows them to thrive and keeps the status quo in force?  Or perhaps to think more positively, are they just trying to inject some fun into the whole thing?  I mean, raking leaves isn't the most exciting task in the world.  And neither is much of life.

Eventually, I was able to get all the leaves into the bag.  It took a lot longer than I thought it would, required much more patience than I thought I had and a lot of communication with her about the goal.  But finally, we accomplished the goal and even had some fun along the way.  So did I learn anything from this? Well, I might have learned not to include the 2.5 year old in the process if the goal is speed.  But also, perhaps there is something in the journey that jumping in the leaf pile and starting over again allows us to enjoy and might even produce a better result.  Not sure I have the personality type to always be picking up leaves with a 2.5 year old, but it can be fun.

Friday, November 19, 2010


Recently a facebook "friend" posted about how he was tired of the use of the term "brokenness" as a descriptor or potential substitute for the term sin.  He, and many of those who agreed with him on the thread of conversation thought this was a watering down of the theological term sin and one more example of how we are "accommodating" the modern world. At the end of the day, I think what he really meant is that folks like myself, who use the term brokenness regularly to help folks understand the concept of sin, are really just kinda wussing out.

So am I just wussing out?  Am I and others who find real meaning and a point of connection with folks, especially those who are unchurched in explaining the concept of sin by using the terminology of being broken, just not courageous enough to use the term sin?  Or perhaps, is there another way of thinking of this?  FYI, my wife K, will be most likely writing about this in her next column on Working Preacher if you want some real theological substance, instead of just my ramblings.

But to give some credence to my ramblings, I just want to establish a couple things.  I have been a pastor, student learner or intern in four congregations, with 6 years as the solo or lead pastor in 2.  In addition to this, I have the experience of being a pastor's kid for approximately 33 years.  Why do I state this? Just letting you know, I have been around a bit.

In that getting around, I have found that frankly, sin manifests itself constantly in "brokenness".  Much of the good of what we try to do in our families, communities, workplaces and the church is thwarted by "brokenness".  Dis functional families, teams, committees, city councils, school boards, work groups, bosses, subordinates, church councils, etc... are a constant in our lives.  Not always because people set out to do so, but because they are just broken.  They can't get it right.

The ingrained patterns of learning, manifesting themselves in behavior, experiences of loss, ignorance, prejudice, sexism, homophobia, inability to perform, racism, class warfare, misrepresentation of credentials, laziness, you name it...have left us incapable of actually working together without courageous conversation and an acknowledgment about how messed up we are.  We are broken, busted, can't get it right!  Just take a look at our political process, this grand ideal of government for and by the people, of open and fair political process and justice, how is that working these days?

If we start the conversation there, with the fact that we are broken, we have something to work with.  That conversation, once begun based on why we are so broken we can't make any decisions or do anything that doesn't hurt others, exude power over those who are powerless or shows disregard for the 10 commandments and Jesus' commandment of love and service, allows us an entry point into a conversation about sin.

Sin!  Please understand, I am not a wuss on this. Sin is real and is the cause of so much sadness and pain in this world there are days I wonder why we try to get up.  Sin is the cause of our brokenness.  Yet if we start with that theologically loaded term, one that has been used constantly throughout history to degrade, subjugate and demean human beings, and especially those who are of lower class, gender or sexuality, we aren't going to get very far with our mission to proclaim to them the good news of Jesus.

Jesus was no wuss on sin.  He called out the religious leaders for their hypocrisy and pride.  He confronted the woman at the well with the truth of her life.  Yet he didn't spend a lot of time beating them up for being "sinful".  He pointed out how their lives were broken, he offered a different way, encouraged them and trusted them to follow.  Brokenness is not a synonym for sin, but it is the condition brought on by our condition and an entry point into conversation.  Although many may think I am a wuss, I will keep using the term.  It is an entry point, it is a conversation starter and as our church is challenged to reach out and bring the gospel to a culture that finds us increasingly irrelevant and pointless, I will not apologize for using any terminology that opens up a door to preach Christ.

I confess that I am in bondage to sin, and I am broken.  Christ help me.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Fractals Revised

Last week I posted about Fractals and leadership, how seemingly messy structures can in fact be quite beautiful and orderly.  Many expressed appreciation, but one reader (who happens to be a math guy) corrected me that my interpretation of fractals was in fact a bit off.  After spending a few hours researching fractals, (thanks largely to this helpful site from Rice University), I agree his critique (that they would look differently based on perspective, they wouldn't) yet think their are leadership lessons to gain from fractals.

On closer reading I realized that Mack (from the Shack) was calling "a mess" not the fractal itself, but the light streaming through the prism of the fractal.  As we know, light can be separated into many colors and the image there presented (as I interpret it) is not so much that the fractal is a mess but the light shining through it.  Seeing that cacophony of light our minds do not see beautiful order but a mess with little to no order.

So what might this have to do with our communities?  I have often encountered situations in leadership where a process has been undertook, a system put into place, that seems completely orderly.  The layers of leadership accountability and structure have been carefully put in place so that good decisions can be made quickly in real time by leaders empowered to do the work they are assigned faithfully.

Invested in getting these structures in place we are convinced that if only you look closer (as my mathematician friend encouraged me) you would be amazed at the intricate and beautifully complex order of the thing.  Yet to the outsider who hasn't been through the process, who only sees the results of the process coming fast and furious (like the many colored light through the prism), the decisions seem too quick, disorderly and even exclusionary.

In a fast moving world, where you are punished for slow decision making it is essential that you have orderly structures in place to make decisions well and quickly. Yet despite your hard work the leader should also be prepared to realize that to those outside, or used to the "traditional" linear structures of leadership, these decisions might seem to be like the light through the fractal, disorderly and "a mess."

This is what makes this work so challenging.  Many of our congregations, cities, civic organizations are weighed down both explicitly and implicitly but structures that discourage change and dis-empower leaders.   These are structures in which those involved are used to taking 2 months to decide how many times a month to cut the grass.

So what is a leader to do? I believe you must first be faithful in building real relationships within your community.  These relationships build trust as you work with your leadership team to construct a new structure that is both contextual and also pushes the context to change.  Then you must train and multiply your leaders to operate within that structure while having flexibility to regularly revise this structure to adapt to this fast changing world.  Finally, you will need patience upon patience to deal with the inevitable charges that, at best, you have created a mess and at worst, that you have been unfaithful and misleading of the community for your own gain.

Ultimately, courage and stamina are needed to sustain the faith that the work you are about, this work that seems so messy to others, is in fact creating that beautiful fractal of a community that is pleasing to God.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Messy Fractal Leadership

Trinity has a Men's breakfast/book study group that gets together the 1st and 3rd Thursdays of every month to eat, pray and discuss a book of mutual interest.  This fall, the group has been reading The Shack and discussing about three chapters at a time each Thursday we gather.  Although I have to honestly say I wasn't terribly fired up to read The Shack (it seemed a little too pop-culture religion for me) the conversations these men of faith are having by the issues raised are fascinating.  Certainly worth my time and the energy it takes for me to get up before sunrise (which if you know me is a LOT).

This week we got together to discuss chapters 6-9, which (for those who know the book) is when Mack encounters and has conversations with the three persons who represent the persons of the Holy Trinity.  Papa, Jesus and Sarayu (the Spirit) have many conversations with Mack about their internal relationships, human structures of authority and power and the human choice of individualism over relationship.  If you can get over the Sabellian heresy within the structure of the conversation to listen to what they are saying, there is some real insights to begin to think about leadership, the church and our life together.

What was most impressive was how this group of men (mostly senior age) could take on and think critically about Papa and Sarayu's critic of human authority and power.  Although certainly challenging to their world view, a view shaped by time in the military and being raised in an era valuing conformity and following of authority, they could critically think about how power is used and can get in the way of community and relationships.

Most interesting to me was our conversation brought up by chapter 9 when Sarayu and Mack are in the garden.  Mack is stunned by the colors of the garden and Sarayu goes on to explain that when viewed from above, the garden is actually a fractal.  Which she/he describes as "something considered simple and orderly that is actually composed of repeated patterns no matter how magnified.  A fractal is almost infinitely complex." (page 129)

Yet while beautiful, Mack calls this garden a "mess."  For when viewed from his perspective, not above but within it, the colors and shapes seemed to go in no apparent order or structure.  He was confused and frustrated by it even as he admired its beauty.  Ultimately, of course, he learns that this garden is his own heart, which has been made more and more complex by the world and the experiences he has had, to the point where when viewed from one perspective could only be referred to as a mess, but from God's, is a beautiful and orderly fractal.

So what does this have to do with leadership.  Almost without knowing it, the men in the group began to tease out of this conversation that their family systems, communities, even their church, is just like these fractals.  In the midst of them they seem messy and painful.  To do relationship, to be in many relationships that aren't completely ordered by power and straight line authority, will be messy and sometimes chaotic.  Yet, if we can step back, we can also see that it is beautiful and pleasing to God.

Leadership from this perspective is certainly a post-modern ideal.  It isn't about creating power structures of councils and committee heads and elected officials and priests who utilize power to control and structure things linearly, top down.  But instead is about creating systems in which tangency can take place, in which relationships build upon each other over and over again, creating a multi-layered fractal structure that  creates beautiful and often chaotic results.

To modern ears and sensibilities, this is strange if not dangerous.  But as we see structures breaking down, power utilized not to build up the kingdom but to keep the status quo, I wonder if we don't need to be more fractal in our leadership.  To get a little messy in relationship so that a beautifully chaotic kingdom building structure that is pleasing to God can be created.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

New Link and Resource

For the past couple years I have been engaging in a training program through to become a certified coach.  Not only for ministry, but certainly focused on ministry and for use in leadership in my congregation and denomination.  One of the leaders of Coachnet is a guy named Bob Logan.  He has a new blog which I have linked to here on my page.

Certainly some good stuff to connect to there.  Would encourage you all to check it out.