Why Not Take Risks: Old First E-pistle 01.19.18

Why Not Take Risks: Old First E-pistle 01.19.18

I spent Tuesday and Wednesday this past week with the New Jersey UCC Clergy, leading them in what they call PastorLab, an annual retreat (and a series of lunches in between) to support their pastors in their ministry. The retreat was held at St. Maurgerite’s Retreat House of the Community of St. John, a community of Episcopal Women Religious, in Mendham.

Because I was the retreat leader, I got to stay in the Prophet’s Chamber — it had its own private (instead of shared) bathroom and a sitting room as well as the bedroom. I felt more like a king than a prophet. The snow up in the hills of horse country was also beautiful when we woke up Wednesday morning.

Harkening back to my conference ministry days, I had forgotten how much I like affirming pastors in their work: that it is not only difficult, but incredibly important (even if often misunderstood and undervalued.). My colleagues across the river were delightfully human and honest — willing to share the struggles they find in their various settings for ministry as they recognized and welcomed the importance of peer support. And I was reminded of an experience I first had in seminary and experience over and over: finding myself honored to be among my peers in ministry.

I led their retreat on the vision and theory of leadership presented in Edwin Friedman’s A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix. When I first came to Old First in 2009, I asked the Elders to read Friedman with me. I hoped it would help us be clearer about the kind of leadership that the church needs these days. God help us if we are too dependent on the leadership I can muster. A church like ours needs a host of motivated, trained and effective leaders.

It was interesting rereading Friedman now, 9 years into Old First and in the midst of the chaos that is Trump and his Republican cronies’ Washington. I still find Friedman incredibly helpful, highlighting the importance — necessity — of leaders these days, in families, faith communities, government, business, etc.

According to Friedman, all groups need leaders who:

~ Manage their own anxiety towards maintaining a non-anxious presence for the community, rather than absorbing and focusing all the agita around them. Friedman calls this the ‘ability to separate or self-differeniate without losing connection.’

~ Take well-defined, even challenging positions. No community, not even a faith community, can promise that all of its members will always be comfortable. That would only work if the whole community were held to the limits of the most sensitive or fragile, and the community would never grow or mature.

~ Take responsibility for themselves, rather than ducking into the increasingly popular, contemporary role of victim — with all the blame displacement that entails. Focusing less on outside agents and forces that may be affecting their community, instead leaders must concentrate on their responses.

~ Play to strengths in the community / work with the most motivated members, rather than getting consumed trying to address the community’s pathologies. (In a faith community, this doesn’t mean ignoring pastoral duties or fringe folks, the sick, recalictrant or symptiomatic people; but it reminds clergy that the most needy, anxious, weakest should not take all their focus and thereby inadvertently set the agenda for the community.

~ Choose to reframe questions (without any expectation of immediate answers) over quick answers, short-term solutions, black & white certainties, remedies that provide comfort, but not growth. The problem facing communities in emotional gridlock is not that they do not have the answers, so much as they are not even asking the right questions.

~ Instead of relying on the best data and the latest technique, or waiting on the final, definitive bit of information, recognize that the capacity to make decisions and live accountabily with their outcomes promises more and better results.

~ Give themselves permission to make mistakes. And understand sabotage for what it is — a sign of success. If they are not pushing hard enough to get some push back, then they are not pushing hard enough. (I would add, however, that there are few issues worth totally blowing a community up over (because a total meltdown is always too hard to recover from), so one has to find a pace at which a community can stretch, grow and deal with some discomfort.)

~ Understand that the only way out of chronic conditions is through an acute, temporarily more painful transition or phase.

~ Aim for playfulness, creativity, and adventure, in part because they will open you to taking advantage of serendipity.

Friedman’s is a sophisticated argument built on the interpersonal dynamic between all people… he’d probably say ‘between all matter’ — this tension between individuality and togetherness. So, maybe it wasn’t a total surprise that my greatest takeaway came not from Friedman, but from one of the clergy participants. We were talking about how church in our time is sort of like finding one’s way in the dark. And we were remembering that even the dark is as day to God. In other words, even with our hands out in front of ourselves feeling carefully in a world where we cannot see, we are not alone.

Then the clergy colleague said, “When you think about it, it’s not just church where we cannot even imagine what’s going to happen or what’s next. Suddenly, all of life feels like that. Once you realize that, you come to understand that right now there’s no way to play it safe. The future is too open and unclear. We might as well take risks.”


See you in church,