Working (in church) without fear

“To internalize the transformational paradigm, the leader must become free of the organization’s most powerful expectations, see it from a self-authorized perspective, and still care enough to be willing to be punished for doing whatever it takes to save the organization.”

—Robert E. Quinn, Deep Change, p. 127

I’ve been living with this quote for several days now. At first, it intrigued me. Now, it nags at me. I hope it doesn’t end up haunting me.

I first read Deep Change three years ago, at the insistence of my friend John Crawford. What I thought was a business book turned out to be more spiritual than any church leadership book I’d read to that point. I took notes and made applications to my own life. When some of our conference leadership started reading it, I applauded, even though I wasn’t sure they quite got the point of the book.

And now, with the United Methodist General Conference and the kickoff of the ARUMC appointment season looming ahead, Quinn is back in my head.

For United Methodist pastors, this is a season of fear—much of it legitimate. The bishop has the power to appoint us anywhere he or she likes, and for any reason. Even though the appointive process is usually a bit more compassionate in reality than it looks on paper, it still leaves us vulnerable.

Add to that the unfair accusations of fear that get thrown our way. Change, we are told, is always uncomfortable. If we speak out in favor of a different vision than the one set forth by upper management, we are labeled as foes of progress, afraid of the future. We get pressure to get in step. We doubt ourselves, or we wall ourselves off. Either way, we give up far too easily.

But what would we do if we decided to live without fear? What if we remade the church from within without worrying about how we might be punished by an institution desperately trying to preserve itself?

If there is any hope for the United Methodist Church going forward, it rests in those of us who are willing to give our lives to the service of God and neighbor without worrying about the professional costs. Perhaps by refusing to play the political games that define our bureaucracy, we will get “called on the carpet.” Believe me, I’ve been there. And I’ll be there again, I’m sure.

But if we truly love our church, we cannot give up. We have to resist the pressure to bend to her neuroses. We have to lovingly but firmly defy the institutional lunacy she harbors.

We have to do it patiently. We have to do it gently. We have to do it together.

We. Can. Not. Give. Up.





It’s been a Harry Potter weekend in my house. Denise and I are latecomers to the series, but we’ve nonetheless been drawn in by its combination of captivating characters and clever storytelling. And at the risk of sounding completely yonkers, I have to say by something else as well.

Namely, it just seems so real.

I don’t mean the business of witches and wizards, or even the movie trickery (which is wonderful in its own right). I simply mean that it fits with so much of life, or at least life as we wish it.

Not that any of us relishes the thought of being targeted by a vile egomaniac, or of battling a sixty-foot snake to the death. But the grown-ups among us know that such things do have parallels in the real world, whether mean bosses or toxic relatives or addictions or…the list seems endless.

And we want to know that, when those things face us, we can respond with courage. We want to know that we won’t run away when our friends are in danger or cower when our lives are on the line. We want to know that inside of us is a person who is special, who doesn’t wilt under pressure, who has what it takes to conquer our foes.

Still, we know from experience it’s far easier to swim with the current, to go along with the flow no matter where it might lead. The shores are littered with would-be heroes who washed out in the effort. People who show both the courage to swim upstream and the stamina to stick with it are rare.

Or are they?

The truth is that none of us really knows what we are capable of until we find ourselves in a struggle. And we are very good at avoiding the struggles. We–and I especially mean my church comrades here–have gotten very good at avoiding any kind of conflict in the name of unity or peace, sometimes even invoking the name of Christ himself as an excuse for inaction.

But our heritage is not one of acquiescence to the odds. We don’t even need to resort to American Methodism or John Wesley. Let’s go all the way back to Jacob, who wrestled with God and won. The foundation of our identity is built on our willingness to accept a challenge to a worthy fight, regardless of how unclear the outcome may be.

I suspect that, if we feared struggle less, we would find within ourselves more courage than we realized. We might really be able to push back against the things we complain about: unnecessary suffering, treatable diseases, ludicrous church corporatization, unfair politics, and so on.

We might find the courage to let go of the church as we’ve loved it, trusting that it will rise again. We might even be privileged enough to help rebuild it.

I envy Harry Potter and his friends. The struggle forced upon him was clear in both its aims and its nobility. There was a question of who would win the fight, but never a question of who deserved to.

The real world may not be so simple. But I believe this much to be true: we can be courageous. We can endure what is necessary for the sake of a worthy struggle. We are stronger than we think.

But, if our stories are ever going to be worth telling (much less writing), we have to do more than talk about the hero we want to be. We have to be that hero. Starting now.


A Different Competition

Competition makes almost anything interesting.

Case #1: Last month, I came downstairs to tell my son it was bedtime. He said, “Wait, Daddy! I have to find out who wins. He was riveted by a show about decorating cakes.

Case #2: At our boys’ birthday party this weekend, the kids played “Will it float?” with an old fish tank full of water and a grab bag of items. Each correct guess brought with it fist pumping, and occasionally some taunting. Wrong guesses produced tears at times.

Case #3: Even though i woke up at 5:00 Sunday morning and had to work 13 hours, I still stayed up late to watch the Westminster dog show.

As I write these examples, it’s clear to me that none of them sounds particularly worth the effort of changing the channel. And none of them would be, were not something on the line, whether money or bragging rights or a trophy. But when any endeavor becomes a competition, I’ll almost always pay attention to it.

Which is why I was awake at 5:00 in the morning in the first place. I’d spend a good chunk of the week thinking about competition in light of a Bible passage, 1: Corinthians 9:24-27. It goes like this:

Don’t you realize that in a race everyone runs, but only one person gets the prize? So run to win! 25 All athletes are disciplined in their training. They do it to win a prize that will fade away, but we do it for an eternal prize. 26 So I run with purpose in every step. I am not just shadowboxing. 27 I discipline my body like an athlete, training it to do what it should. Otherwise, I fear that after preaching to others I myself might be disqualified.

There is is. Competition. Faith is about winning!

But that bothers me–particularly with the current market-share mindset of American churches. We need something to measure ourselves against, so we compare ourselves to one another and try to build a better church. Better than what? Than the competition, of course. Our goal is to attract and cultivate adherents who will serve our organization. If we do that, we win.

Surely that’s not what the kingdom of God is all about, right? But if not that, then what?

That’s the question that kept me up in the we hours of the morning. My suspicions tell me that the prize Paul talks about is not personal conquest or even organizational success. I have a hunch that it has more to do with self-sacrifice and a relentless pursuit for a fairer and more love-filled world.

The problem is that the most formidable opponents in such a race are internal–things like selfishness and the need for acquisition that we have to overcome in ourselves before we can even define the prize, much less claim it. That’s a more difficult race, to be sure, and also a more costly one.

But, as with so many things, the value of the prize is directly proportional to the difficulty of the challenge. Perhaps the kingdom of God is worth the struggle to overcome our own self-interests for the sake of others. For the sake of our own souls.

It’s an exciting prospect, to think that the establishment of God’s dreams on earth is attainable, and in fact is already happening. Maybe even worth losing some sleep over.

Days into Years, and Pressing On

File this one under “It’s not like me to do this, but…”

I have Feb. 28 marked on my digital calendar. That’s the expected U.S. release date of “Days into Year,” the latest album by Canadian band Elliott Brood. It will mark the first complete album I’ve purchased in years, and the only one in my lifetime I’ve purchased on the release date.

Crazy I know. This isn’t Justin Bieber. And regardless of how I may have acted during the spider scene in “Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets,” I am not a twelve year old girl. I am not a giddy groupie looking for autographs. I wouldn’t even recognize the band members if they showed up on my doorstep.

Then why am I so excited? Partly because I love Elliott Brood’s sound, which their facebook page describes as “death country” and “frontier rock.” In other words, no one really knows how to describe it.

But music is only part of my excitement. The story is the other.

The album itself was inspired by a European tour that took the band to the D-Day beach heads in France. As they traveled, they settled in to what it might mean to leave family and go to war—especially as a teenager being thrown into such a brutal conflict as World War II. This mood inspired “Days into Years,” a meditation on loss, uncertainty, and the courage to live.

That’s not a perspective you get from twenty-two year-olds playing nightclubs for the thrill of it. Rather, this album is only possible because the band members are older (late thirties). They’ve had time to reflect on more than just youthful energy or personal success. At this stage of life, they can put their lives in the larger context of history, and see the paradox that comes with their art.

In a manner of thinking, they are like the D-Day soldiers, sometimes forgotten and unnamed, but significant for their actions in a limited sphere. Who knows how many individual soldiers acted bravely, but without recognition? Who knows how much heroism was lost in the fighting, left only to echo in the saved life of a comrade who may never have known.

Who knows how many songs have touched someone at a core level and made life a little more beautiful because of that touch?

Most of us artistic types—musicians, writers, painters, etc.—will never be famous, much less rich. But we don’t have to be. If our art conveys something true about life—even if it’s only to a few who share the path with us—then what we do matters. Maybe even more than the next platinum pop single.

May you find and create music that matters this week.