This week I have read a blog post from TheMillennialPastor and hearing the newest Soundcloud stream from the guys at Technicolor Jesus. For different reasons and in different ways each have touched on church(y) issues that are on my mind this week.

Sunday we will be celebrating Pentecost, the Christian Church’s birthday and a signifier of the continued presence (and challenge) of God in our lives. Erik Parker, of TheMillennialPastor, wrote a wonderful reflection on why nothing seems to get people back in church, advocating his view – shared by yours truly – that millennial Christians are concerned less with the Church as church and more with following Christ. What is more, millennials have impressive BS sensors and can tell when they’re being sold something. Work to “attract” them only drives them away.

Parker’s point, stop trying so hard and simply be a community of people struggling to follow Christ into the world to love the unlovable and fill the cracks of humanity with its presence. It is to be a community open to following without regard for its own survival. This idea is trusting, faithful, and powerful.

In a similar/related vein, Technicolor Jesus this week reviewed the 1995 movie Clueless. The two hosts were busy listening to grunge music at the time and missed it on release; I was listening to the same music, but have to admit this movie was a guilty pleasure from day one. Clueless is an adaptation of Jane Austen’s Emma and plays off of common literary devices such as satire, comedic misperception, and coming of age tales.

What grabbed me in their conversation has to do with the idea of knowing our truest self. Matt, one of the co-hosts and a friend, mentioned a scene where the heroine is trapped in a awkward moment whilst being carpooled by an older stepbrother. His girlfriend, a college girl and insufferable know-it-all, misquotes Shakespeare; Cher, the heroine, calls her out and corrects her. The quote being used was Polonius’s, “to thine own self be true,” a phrase of sheer beauty and wisdom being purported by Hamlet’s fool. Cher, for all her ditziness, commercialism, and Valley-girl talk is slowly revealed as a person of deep character. But in order to get there, she finds that she must let go of the more superficial attributes she uses to “dress herself up.”

Both the blog and the Soundcloud stream are hitting on a common theme. In order to be, or become, our truest self, we must shed our masks. As the church continues to lose social cache, we must admit that no one must come to church anymore because it is socially expected; the good news here is that those who come actually mean to be there. As individuals we also have this opportunity to turn and follow a humanity that lies deeper at our core than the identities we wear like so many layers of clothing.

At Pentecost we celebrate the arrival of the advocate Jesus promises in John’s gospel, the one who stays with us, who breathes new life into us, and who challenges us along the way. None of this comes or is sustained easily, there is a cost. Pentecost costs us the life we chase after to impress ourselves and others, but what is gained on the other side is a new life.

The Way Things Are

I have noticed that I, and frankly, a lot of us in the world, are always nudging for things to move forward, or get a little better, or a little more developed. We sit and look at something (a situation, an organization, a product – in my case, church) and we think, “this is good, but if we did this, then…”

It’s not all bad. In fact, I would say it is exactly because of this tendency that humans have moved across continents, sailed the seas, reached to the stars, and remade our world. The question I am struggling with today is, “when is it ok to appreciate the way things are, today?”

I suppose for me the question is coming up because I am facing a great deal of change right now, and with such a monumental shift looming in my personal life I am trying to come to grips with what I will be needing to let go of. My wife and I are expecting our second and it is a weird thing to realize that in just a few weeks it will no longer be the two of us with our first – that family will cease to be and something new will emerge.

Throughout our lives we face death. Sometimes it is in the form of terminal death when lose a loved one. That said, we face a form of metaphorical death anytime one mode of living ends and another begins. We leave one job for another, and there is a sort of death. A couple has a child and the couple’s relationship as they have known it, dies. A second child arrives, and there is a death, of sorts; perhaps toddlers are more wise than we give them credit, they recognize all too well the threat of that new baby. The new life is only possible because it represents the end of what preceded.

There is grief, whether we choose to admit or accept it, there is grief. Even the happiest of changes bring with them the closure of one reality; and grief lies in the weeds. So the question is on my mind and as I face certain levels of denial about what it means to be a father of two, and face potentially even a little anger at the new responsibilities I will be facing, and face the my attempts to make deals that will lessen the impact of this massive change – right up to the point I face the full reality and accept it, as I turn to face this I wonder, “can I really accept the way things are?”

This means knowing that the future is about to arrive. It means knowing that the past is truly the past and that there is nothing I can do to fix past problems. It also means trying to take in, and I mean fully take in, every moment of the way things are right now. It means letting go of my instinct to push on and improve and rather to sit back and dwell in the beauty of the life I have with my wife and daughter, with all the warts life brings.

Facing change in your life, can you accept the way things are?

Over the Hump

There’s always a tipping point.

Throughout our lives we have moments that we can look back to and recognize, “that moment, that moment was the threshold moment, the tipping point, that led to…” We encounter tipping points every day, the choice to make one comment over another in a conversation (for better or ill), the choice to say yes to one engagement over another, the choice to make peace instead of instigating conflict. There are so many choices in life and each one carries a tipping point that pushes our decision one direction over another.

When we are making a big decision these tipping points can be more obvious. Some decisions, I would say many, really, are easy to make. We can weigh pros and cons and see a clear path forward. Other choices are not so clear. Both potential outcomes of a decision can be excellent, or terrible, or a mix of both good and unpleasant. Our hearts and our minds can be in different places and lead us to some real inner turmoil – and then the tipping point.

For the last decade or so my professional life has been dedicated largely to the Church, specifically the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). I have served nonprofit organizations within this denomination as well as churches, I attended a Presbyterian seminary, and now serve as a pastor in a Presbyterian congregation. Over the past 10 years I have seen congregations and individuals struggle with the choice: stay or leave? There are long-standing church leaders who have served so long they now struggle with letting new voices come to the table; there is that choice: stay or leave? I’ve also known many pastors who struggle with burn out, who struggle with the choice: stay or leave?

I see this same thing at work with friends.

One of my mentors recently reminded me of a quote on the providence of God, “there is no where that you can go that God is not.” Life is full of choices. There are directions and perhaps even plans made for us and we may choose a different road. The grace I see lying at the heart of it is that God is in the midst of our lives regardless of the choices we make. We carry such anxiety over making every right decision and we torment ourselves when the going gets tough that we are somehow worthy of punishment and hard times for having gone down the wrong or more difficult path.

Life is full of choices, some are easy and others excruciatingly difficult. There is always a tipping point that leads us one direction over another. Many would have us believe that choosing the right path is what makes the difference, for me it is a little different. I trust that God is with me regardless of the choice I make and the road I take, and that, friends, has made all the difference.

The Fox Trap

Leaders have got to lead. Whether they are laser-focused on one agenda or are able to see the whole field at once, leaders have got to lead. Today I wrap up a brief series of pieces on leadership and pluralism; the other two can be found in prior posts The Hedgehog and the Fox and The Hedgehog’s Dilemma.

I don’t want to spend time on the detailed and really particular nuances of the philosophical debate, but if the hedgehog is the one who can get too entrenched or rigid in their assertion of one point of view, then the fox can have the opposite problem; foxes can get distracted by all the options. But first, let’s revisit the difference between hedgehogs and foxes and why these differences matter.

Isaiah Berlin, who wrote the original essay The Hedgehog and the Fox, was trying to offer a third way in philosophical discourse between the polar opposites of “moral absolutism” and “moral relativism.” He was trying to say that sometimes there can, in fact, be two values who are equal, but still fundamentally different. One of the basic differences is that value-pluralism (the fancy name) allows for certain limits to be placed on difference where human rights and needs are concerned.

Many people see the world as a struggle between good and evil.The fox can see this possibility, but also sees the world as struggles between competing goods – and even competing evils. Choices sometimes have to be made between two or more bad choices and the lesser evil is not readily apparent or even possible.

In some profound ways this is a more realistic place to exist, and yet, when people are scared or anxious, and therefore more reactive, this is a profoundly dangerous place to sit. The pluralist enters into dispute looking for fairness with a desire to promote the humanity of all involved. The fox resides between the hammer of relativism and the anvil of moral absolutism. Where the world wants only black and white, the poor fox sees almost constant gray.

I think that “foxy” leaders are often very good at handling what Ronald Heifetz called  “adaptive change.” That said, there is more to threaten and trap the fox than just false dichotomies. The very ability to see so much gray might lead the less differentiated fox to lose their own identity.

If a pluralist loses their own footing on values, awash in an ocean of change, there are real consequences where leadership is concerned. A leader who is not grounded (even if their grounding is not to a single value) is at risk of becoming distracted. The “death spirals” of the business world are most often the result of well-meaning leaders chasing the next fix.

Foxy leaders have the advantage that they can see many more options than the hedgehog; the risk lies in becoming unmoored and distracted by the sheer number of possibilities, because at the end of the day leaders have to make decisions. Leaders have got to lead.

The Hedgehog’s Dilemma

I have some comments about our political climate today. I hope to be respectful and bipartisan (really, nonpartisan). That said, there is an uncomfortable truth that our culture is trying to ignore even as we talk about it all the time. We are a polarized nation.

As the political season continues to ramp up we’ve seen rhetoric become more and more divisive. Each constituency is pitted against the others. Each candidate paints a doomsday scenario if anyone but they are elected. To a degree this is politics as usual, but most of us sense that this round something is different. The debates are uncouth, to say the least. The presence of protesters and demonstrators is more reported, the rallies are more violent. In some significant ways there are many perspectives on where our country should go, and none can tolerate any other view.

As mentioned in a post last week, Isaiah Berlin once wrote an essay called, The Fox and the Hedgehog. The essay reflects on an old Greek adage and applies it to how historic writers – especially Tolstoy – perceive the world. In some important ways, this essay lays out some of the logic behind Berlin’s theory of pluralism. Foxes are the pluralists who are able to see new realities in each situation while hedgehogs are monists who stick to one central sense of truth that is applied to all circumstances. Berlin later regretted this metaphor, feeling that it was too reductionist.

Wall Street Journal contributor, Alison Gopnik, wrote back in 2014 that for most of the latter 20th century the political culture of America was dominated by “hedgehogs.” If we reflect on this for a moment it makes sense. During the early part of the century there was a continual battle between “us” and “them.” Even the way we think of the world was shaped by this image. There is the First World and Third World, but what about the Second World?

Well, the West and its allies were the First World and the Second World were the Soviets and their allies. The Third World included those who were unaligned with either superpower. To live in this political reality meant understanding, at a deep level, the central “yes” of one ideology and the wholesale rejection of the other. The Third World, who did not play this game, was left out in the cold.

Gopnik notes in her article that this began to shift at the end of the 20th century. The foxes, political scientists and politicians alike, have been more flexible and therefore have been more capable of meeting the new challenges of a global economy and decentralized international relations.

If we read Berlin’s understanding of the hedgehog in political terms we might see a philosophy that tends toward certainty in a particular idea, perhaps even a rigidity in this thought. When challenged our hedgehog may back up and head another way. When overwhelmed our hedgehog may even decide to isolated themselves from those others and their wrong ideas. When feeling backed into a corner our hedgehog may fight or lash out, with such core beliefs under attack, their very identity is being questioned.

I think that part of what we are facing in this political cycle is something akin to The Hedgehog Empire Strikes Back. Those who hold that there is a single reality, or a single truth, or a single answer and way forward have spent nearly twenty years losing influence and that frustration seems to be boiling over.

And this is a problem. When we find ourselves unable to listen to those with whom we disagree, we divide into self-selected groups; our news come from segregated sources and we create little worlds that protect us from others. It is a lonely and scary place to be so isolated.

Women in Ministry Initiative

WIM_site_banner2-1024-299If not for women, I would not be here.

This is not a snarky comment and hopefully there are no misogynistic undertones. I have accomplished what I have in my life because of the direct love, guidance, mentoring, and teaching of powerful females in my life. Were I to sit down and ‘count the ways’ women have shaped who I am, we’d be here all day, I would tell stories I shouldn’t, and I would still somehow forget someone who’s life crafted my own.

And yet… when I am asked who my mentors are in ministry, they are almost (emphasis on the almost!) all men. I’ll say it right now; Nancy Lammers Gross, Elsie McKee, Sally Brown, and Janice Smith Ammon each made a significant impact on who I’ve become as a pastor.

That said, too few female pastors today sit in the pulpits of influence. Among the notable (who are all profound preachers) are Pam Driesell, Shannon Kershner, Agnes Norfleet, Cynthia Campbell, and Fairfax Fair. Among the rising stars, Mary Anne McKibben Dana, Mindy Douglas, Carla Pratt Keyes and this list is growing rapidly, but the gap is still too large.

I have heard too many of my female contemporaries bemoan the paucity of female role models and mentors in ministry. In the coming years I believe this will change. Part of the change is taking place at Princeton Theological Seminary through its Women in Ministry Initiative. As we approach this year’s reunion I see this as one of the big attractions for coming back to see what the school is doing. I am proud of the seminary and hope to see many of my classmates return to check out the exciting things happening there.

If you’d like to support the Women in Ministry Initiative and the work being done to honor and support the leadership of women to the Church, gifts can be made here.


Hedgehog or Fox?

IsaiahBerlinIn perhaps his most famous essay, The Hedgehog and the Fox philosopher Isaiah Berlin ponders a phrase by the ancient Greek philosopher, Archilochus, “a fox knows many things, but a hedgehog one important thing.”

He starts by placing great writers of history into one of the two categories, and then comes upon Tolstoy. Berlin perceives that Tolstoy is a fox by talent, but a hedgehog by conviction. While he focuses on Tolstoy’s perception of human history in his essay, I find the biggest take-away to be this – some people see immense diversity (shades of gray, if you will) in the world, while others believe everything is related to some central, unique truth or system of belief.

While I don’t want to boil down Berlin’s work into some burnt and acrid reduction, I do want to play with this idea of the hedgehog and fox to see it at work in leadership, too. Berlin was using the idea to talk about what would be called value pluralism, the idea that there are, or are not, multiple valid truths. I’m more interested in this moment to focus on the idea of the fox as the one who can hold multiple interests and perspectives together at once, and the hedgehog as the one who can hold a single-minded attention and passion for the ‘big-idea’.

Some leaders need to be the vision person. Their role needs to be one of helping to set the sights, stay on message, and be there for the followers to keep things on target. Other leaders need to be the foxes who help see the prismatic refraction of this vision as it gets played out in reality. Forgive the gender specific language for a moment – it is only for rhetorical effect, but one needs to be the pitch-man, the other a hatchet-man.

A couple weeks ago I was in Atlanta, GA (one of the coolest cities in the country) for a church leaders’ event called NEXT Church. It seems like every event like this, for all professions, folks get together and sing the praises of their job along with the laments. One common theme stuck out to me this year. I noticed how so many church leaders felt pulled between these two roles. One the one hand there is an expectation that we be the pastor, studying, praying, writing, visiting people, showing up to potlucks, teaching Bible studies, developing volunteers and new leaders, and running meetings. One the other hand there is this expectation that we should be out ahead of the congregation, trying to sense where the Holy Spirit is blowing next. Ronald Heifetz, the Harvard Kennedy School  lecturer, would say that church leaders are expected to be on the dance floor and getting the balcony view at the very same time.

Berlin remarks that Tolstoy was a fox by talent, but a hedgehog by conviction; he also believed that this nearly tore the Russian author apart. I am seeing too many of my colleagues playing the hedgehog when they are really a fox, and vice-versa. Playing a role we are not built for can tear us apart; an ill fit can destroy one’s sense of call.

My parting question (for leadership models or values alike): a you a fox or a hedgehog?