West Wing Leadership Wisdom: S1E2 Post Hoc Ergo Propter Hoc

Series 1, Episode 2

1. Jokes can backfire – use humour wisely.
2. Your strengths (in this episode, look how Bartlet’s intelligence, specifically his Latin, alientates CJ) can alienate people if you get too absorbed in them rather than using them to the ends you’re called to use them for.
3. All of us have a past which accompanies us everywhere and could trip us up or affect how we see people (even someone as intelligent as Bartlet feels insecure with the Joint Chiefs); get to know how your past dogs you – and get help with it.
4. Personal involvement in a decision – especially in a crisis – can affect you for better or worse. To get to know which, involve people who know you well and whom you trust.

IMDB.com Plot Summary

Josh trumps a potential Democratic challenger in a masterful political move and then hires the challenger’s chief of staff and ex-girlfriend Mandy Hampton. Toby tries to warn Sam away from his friendship with the call girl, but to Toby’s horror, Sam seems intent on reforming her. CJ tries to spin the latest clash between President Bartlet and Vice President Hoynes. After an American plane is shot down carrying Bartlet’s physician, Bartlet’s response leaves Leo worried about the President’s response.

A series of blog posts in which, after listening to The West Wing Weekly Podcast and then watching the relevant West Wing episode, I suggest some mutually beneficial leadership insights from the episode

West Wing Leadership Wisdom S1E1 – Pilot

A series of blog posts in which, after listening to The West Wing Weekly Podcast and then watching the relevant West Wing episode, I suggest some mutually beneficial leadership insights from the episode. 

Series 1, Episode 1

1. When handling news about yourself as a leader, even embarrassing news, honesty and truth is best – especially once the gossip starts. Truth – even about a bike accident – robs embarrassment of some of its power.

2. If you’re in a heated interaction, don’t say what you’re dying to say. It may feel good in the moment, but it may also cost you everything – Josh comes very close to losing his job.

3. Know your audience; Sam looks for Leo’s daughter in the class rather than in front of the class – leading to yet more embarrassment for him.

IMDB.com Plot Summary 

The West Wing staffers are introduced as each learns via phone or pager that the President was in a cycling accident. Josh faces the possible loss of his job after an on-air insult of a political opponent, which Toby tries to prevent by having Josh make a personal apology. Sam’s fling the previous night with Laurie, who unbeknownst to Sam is a call girl, puts him in hot water, which he compounds when ineptly lecturing a class of 4th-graders about the White House and then asking their teacher which child is Leo’s daughter. Leo must deal with the fallout from Josh’s blunder, as well as 137 Cuban refugees who escaped on rafts and are seeking asylum. The president walks in during Josh’s apology, recites the First Commandment, and lambastes three Christian pols for not denouncing a fringe group.

After getting called in early in the morning due to President Bartlet having a bicycle wreck, the staff deals with the problems of the day. Josh faces losing his job after infuriating millions of Christians on a Sunday morning talk show. Sam learns he accidentally slept with a call girl the night before and then accidentally tells Leo’s daughter about it, placing his career in possible jeopardy. Leo works to convince the President to let Josh keep his job as Leo tries to make peace with infuriated Christian leaders.

 

Shadow sides 1: Frustrated and angry Moses

The first in a series of posts adapted from sermons about some great characters from the pages of the Bible, with weaknesses and frailties that we might find all too familiar. 

Anger and frustration are frightening. They suggest being out of control – either ourselves, or at the hands of others. They speak of abuse and violence, fear and quaking in the corner. Good Christians shouldn’t get angry or frustrated. They should let go and let God.

Or should they? What if anger and frustration, rightly handled, take us closer to Jesus, mean we’re more like Him, not less?

Take Moses, for example.

We know about Moses. Performing signs and wonders in the courts of a despotic ruler; courageously leading a fear-stricken people; not afraid to lead a wander through the wilderness; parting seas and bringing water from a rock; receiving stone tablets of law in the handwriting of God. We know about Moses. Murderer with a speech impediment; often angry and frustrated, dying on the doorstep of his destination. Despite his successes, hardly a model leader. Or is he?

Let’s focus in on Moses, for the time being doing what he should be doing. At the end of Exodus 24, we read about him heading up a mountain with Joshua. For 6 days he watches; on the 7th day God speaks; for 40 days he’s on top of the mountain, enveloped by cloud which signifies the very presence of God, receiving the law which will shape the worshipping life of God’s people. It’s written on stone tablets, apparently by the hand of God Himself (Exodus 31:18).

While he’s doing what a leader of God’s people should be doing – spending time with God, listening to Him, paying attention to Him, God’s people are getting impatient.

Where is he?

This is taking far too long (32:1); let’s do something instead of just wait.

Aaron, left in charge by Moses, is pressured into collecting golden jewellery; it’s melted down and shaped into the image of a calf. This is what the people choose to worship; this, they say, took them out of Egypt. It’s ludicrous, but no less offensive for that.

God can see what’s going on, so He tells Moses. God’s less than happy, on the brink of wiping them out when Moses intervenes and tells Him it would be better for His reputation not to do so, to remain true to His word to make a great nation out of them. Moses’ self-control is all well and good, until he comes down the mountain himself. He sees and hears the chaos around him; in his anger he smashes the stone tablets of the law in pieces; burns the golden calf and grinds it dust, scattering the dust on water which the people are then forced to drink. Stand in leader Aaron shifts the blame to the people in a ducking of responsibility reminiscent of Adam and Eve; Moses allows those still for God to show themselves, and the rest are slaughtered. Even so, there’s still a plague to come as a reminder of such a naked act of disobedience and idolatry.

Where does this leave us? It leaves us, first, with the reality of frustration and anger. Leadership of God’s people is no easy task. Any attempt to do something under God’s authority – especially an act of leadership – will likely be laced with anger and frustration. You  might even say it’s part of the calling; you can see where you, your church, your people, your project is and where they should be – and the distance is great, the blindness of the people on the ground so rebellious, so wilful, that you might just snap. God feels it, Moses feels it, so you and I will feel it.

Even so, in your anger and frustration do not sin (Ephesians 4:26). Do not go on a crusade that God has not given you; in your anger, do not run ahead of God and try to fix His problems for Him. He is more than capable – and just as angry, but not prone to sin.

Jesus does the ultimate Moses: He sees the sin, bears the consequences in terms of the isolation of people and the wrath of God – death, and provides a way beyond it in the shape of resurrection. Now He lives at the right of God, interceding, praying for His people.

So you feel angry and frustrated at the state of God’s people? Well you might; maybe you’re becoming more like Jesus. So leave the crusading and the fixing to Him, the perfect intercessor.

So often we think anger and frustration are marks of weakness. Too often they lead us into sin. Rightly managed they catapult us headlong to the arms of a God who knows only too well how we feel, yet still acts in love towards the objects of His anger and frustration – you, me.

We must be careful; anger and frustration can be corrosive and destructive. But in themselves they are not wrong. One way or another, they will carry us away. It’s up to us whether we let that be away or towards the one whose image we are made.

 

 

 

 

 

Lessons On The Way 9: The Beginning and Ending of Spiritual Warfare

I just spent a few minutes praying. That’s what I’m paid to do, right? Isn’t at least part of the point of a church pastor that he prays? I mean, if the pastor doesn’t, then what hope for the rest of us?

If only it were so simple. One of the most important lessons you learn when you’re in ‘the ministry’, leading a church, is that work is never done. There’s always another person you could be calling or visiting to see how they’re doing; there’s always emails you could be answering or composing; there’s always administration that could be being done. Church work is done at the interaction between the eternal and the temporal, so it’s never, ever finished. (Which is why I like cooking. Because it always reaches an end point.)

Add to that the fact that people always have an opinion on what you should be doing. More of the admin that you’re trying to hand-off to others (note: the fact that you’ve handed off admin to others doesn’t mean you have less admin to do as pastor, it just means you have different admin to do as pastor); serving; visiting; preparing a talk; cleaning; listening to someone; talking to someone; solving a problem; educating yourself about something. So virulent is this that one clergy person I worked with once told me that taking time out to pray and retreat regularly was a lazy excuse for non-productivity.

There are so many voices insisting on air time, so many of them claiming, usually not unreasonably, that what they have to say is good and important. That clergy person to whom I just referred was  – and despite the fact that it’s years since I’ve spoken with him, still is  – a loud and haunting voice in my ear. I get so much – I’m paid more than some in the congregation, I get a house with the job; I get a sabbatical; and other things I could (should?) mention. I should show I’m worth it. I should be a servant. I should produce. I should have something to justify it all. One of the areas I’m really wrestling with this in regard to is my upcoming sabbatical. It’s my first one, and it’s a hard battle to push back at the tide of inward noise that shouts I must having something to show for it at its end. No matter that by this stage of ordained life I should be onto at least my second, or possibly third. I should show I’m worth it and that it’s worthwhile.

Some of that is true. Much of it isn’t. But allowing those voices to be mastered, controlled and where necessary muted, is one of the most important tasks of Christian leadership. As a great writer once said, ‘my people’s [I don’t like that phrase, but you get the point] greatest need is my personal holiness’.

The demons of productivity and worthiness and proving myself are insistent ones. They will only come out through their opposite – prayer and fasting, about which you say little and to which you draw no attention. The problem is that they keep coming back to see if the house is empty.

Is there a more demonic voice than that – one that would draw me away from conversation with God to activity with a sheen of goodness?

Spiritual warfare starts, and (if it ever does) ends in my soul.

Also in this series:

1: I don’t have to do it all

2: How to make sure your church leader doesn’t turn into a psychopath

3: The dangers and offensiveness of grace

4: Tables and chairs are spiritual

5: I’m (a bit) like St Paul

6: Nothing’s That Important

7: It’s probably me

8: The Hero Trap – what if I’m Goliath?

Scars and hopes 3: Listen

I’m not the sort of person who ‘just asks God’ and readily downloads the answer. That being said, God is a missionary and if we’re doing missionary type of things then we should expect God to have something to say to us about it. Not that life will be an unbroken journey of “God said this” devoid of doubt and colour; but He wouldn’t be much of a leader if He invited us to a journey and only gave us a two-thousand year old map.

I’d had an idea in the back of my mind for a while, which I hadn’t mentioned to others but others were starting to coincidentally mention to me. It was the idea to take church to the pub, which I’ve mentioned before. Aware of the work, stress and money this would involve as well as the fact that to some this would sound at best barmy or at worst offensive, I prayed. I prayed a simple prayer that went along the lines of “God, if there’s something in this, please make it clear. Amen”.  I knew the church needed to be more open and available to the average person, but I wasn’t sure this was the way. I kept the prayer simple … and went to the pub.

Photo from Bev Meldrum Photography

My friend and I were meeting there to discuss an unrelated church issue; pints in hand, we took our seats at a table for two. As we did so I noticed two women at the table next to us. I didn’t know them, but they were engaged in animated conversation. As I made contact with the seat I heard one say to the other “The problem with that church is that it just needs to be more available”. 

That’s me told, then. God’s a missionary. He says we’re missionaries too. If we’re to make church a missionary endeavour, it only makes sense to ask Him what He’s got to say about it and if there’s any guidance He wants to give. My experience suggests that you get more opportunity to use ‘the gifts of the Spirit’ when we’re doing missionary type of things, because that’s exactly where God is and wants us to be. And just because missionaries have to go somewhere, that doesn’t always mean you’ve had to move.

Ears open?

Also in this series:

Introduction

Soup

Time

Lessons On The Way 5: I’m (a bit) like St Paul

And that’s not the half of it, when you throw in the daily pressures and anxieties of all the churches. When someone gets to the end of his rope, I feel the desperation in my bones. When someone is duped into sin, an angry fire burns in my gut. 

2 Corinthians 11:28-29 (The Message)

Church leaders are controllers. Any of you who have been around churches for a while and neither heard that said nor felt it yourself? No? Exactly.

That those of us who lead churches are prone to excessive levels of control is a statement uttered so often that it’s taken on the status of indisputable truth. For good reason. I’ve been close enough to church leaders and seen enough of myself in this role to know that this is a real problem. Maybe it’s manipulating sound levels on the music to ensure worship ‘takes off’; dressing (or not dressing) a certain way; insisting on a certain title being used; micromanaging staff or volunteers; coming into the church office most days of a 3-month sabbatical; bullying of staff and volunteers … and so many other symptoms. If a church leader won’t admit control isn’t an issue or temptation for them, then they are either ignorant or untruthful.

There are many reasons for this. There’s always going to be some of the leader’s own brokenness at play. In addition there’s the strange dynamics of spiritual and ecclesial power, the projection of other people’s father/mother/brother/sister/power/church/god issues onto the leaders, the stress of working with volunteers, levels of pay that when can seem low compared to people with similar skills and qualifications in other sectors, the hours, the obligation to work when others are relaxing and partying.

These, and other reasons, are all real – and ultimately not an excuse, but an explanation as to why factors of control can enter into a leader’s life. However there’s a fine line between control and natural concern. One of the manifestations of control I often get told about is leaders checking in with the church when they are away on holiday. Text messages or emails to those handling things while the leaders are away are often taken as examples of control. Leave it be and relax! Trust us! Let go and let God! Stop controlling! I’ve heard them all.

There’s a fine line though, and it’s one that is hard to explain but that I see referenced in that quotation above from 2 Corinthians 11:28-29. The simple fact is that going away and doing something fun for a bit doesn’t help you switch off. Not totally. We talk of this role as church leader as a vocation, a calling. We do the same with doctors; I learned recently that the Hippocratic Oath compels an off-duty medic to take action if she happens to find herself around a medical emergency. Now we leaders don’t have a legal compulsion like that, but it seems to me to be similar. We view this not simply as a job, but a life (that doesn’t mean you can pay leader pittance because ‘they aren’t in it for the money’ … think how much some medics are paid …  but that’s the subject of a future post). It is a job, but it’s also not. It’s something which consumes and shapes and draws on everything we do and are. Leading a church means your whole life is lived in public; it means that you allow people with less expertise than yourself in relevant areas know details of your pay, your benefits, your working patterns and then they have some kind of ‘right’ to tell you what they think of how you’re getting on. It’s why in many countries employment law just doesn’t apply to clergy because, quite simply, it would be impossible to justify the levels of pay against the hours worked in a legal setting. On a quiet week I’ll work 50 or so hours, and I don’t begrudge that all; but it’s not a legal arrangement if viewed in the ‘normal’ way.

The job of leading a church is not a ‘normal’ one. That’s what Paul is getting at there. You pour your life and soul and blood and sweat and tears  – all quite literally as well as metaphorically – into something that most people never see or understand but about which they are very happy to have strong opinions, often very strongly articulated when the leader is feeling most vulnerable. Turn it off whilst you’re on holiday? You might as well try to turn off the wind. It may die down or become strangely becalmed for a while. You can’t, simply can’t forget it or not think about it. It’s impossible. It’s not control. It’s love, and the reminder that this is of eternal significance.

Granted there’s a dividing line, which ultimately only an individual leader can answer for herself, often best judged in accountability to honest friends, counsellors, medical professionals or spiritual directors. Coming into the office most days  – or even at all  – on a sabbatical  is not good. Checking in with people looking after things when on holiday? Maybe controlling; or maybe just showing love and prayer and support. Only one person can answer that.

If you’re a church leader be honest with yourself about when you’re controlling and when you’re not. Get counselling or therapy – we all need it. It will help us be less of what we shouldn’t be and more of what we should.

If you’re not a church leader, please remember this. Your leader is a bit like St Paul. That’s sometimes delusional. Sometimes unhelpful. Sometimes just a fact of the life to which she’s called. What you experience as control may just be love speaking, refracted through your own brokenness or assumptions. Be kind. They will, after all, be judged more strictly than you will. If we don’t do our job properly we will be held to account. So by all means challenge examples of control, but do it thoughtfully and prayerfully. Disagree, vehemently. Get angry. But do it all in the consideration that they will be judged, no matter what; and do it all remembering they carry something so dear to them that it can’t be properly expressed. Your church leader is indeed a bit like St Paul.

Question. I wrote this on holiday. Is that wrong?

Also in this series: 

4: Tables and chairs are spiritual

3: The dangers and offensiveness of grace

2: How to make sure your church leader doesn’t turn into a psychopath

1: I don’t have to do it all

Lessons On The Way 4: Tables and chairs are spiritual

“When do you discuss the drains?”

It’s a strange question to lodge in my mind a good few years later.

It was voiced in a room full of us who were training for full-time for ministry in the church. The class in question was, I think, supposed to be teaching us about the nuts-and-bolts aspects of leadership. A local minister was leading the session, and the questioner (not me) was asking a perfectly reasonable and sensible question. When and how do you take decisions to do with buildings and maintenance and technicalities?

There lies behind that question a strong and often verbalised feeling, one with which I fully identify. Namely that those of us who are chosen from within the church to lead churches are usually neither able to address, nor enjoy dealing with, such things.  So when and how do I deal with these parts of church life which are unavoidable but in relation to which I am neither passionate nor gifted?

One way we’ve tried to deal with this at the church I currently lead (a small-medium sized church in urban Cape Town, South Africa) is to do something that first seems to be counter-intuitive: we’ve created more committees. These are all sub-committees of the church council with at least one member of the council on them. Anyone who’s interested in or able in these areas can join them. I am on three or four of them. I don’t touch finance or buildings and maintenance. I just stay in touch as I need to. The result is that I’m much less stressed, more gets done and more members of the church are involved with different parts of the church’s life. It’s by no means a perfect system, but it’s working well for us now in this season.

We can’t, though, avoid everything we don’t enjoy. As our church council meeting came up last week, I glanced at the agenda and realised with a sinking heart that we’d be most likely spending a long time discussing things like tables and chairs. I sighed. I don’t lead council meetings (another decision that has been good for all of us; the woman who leads the meeting is really good at doing so) and I knew we needed to talk about these things. I could just see, however, the tedium coming down the track towards me.

So much for that. What I got was a deep and rich experience of the Holy Spirit; the chairs and tables put us on holy ground.

Our church is located in one of those areas of Cape Town which was affected by the Group Areas Act, one of the legal planks of apartheid which zoned cities by skin colour and forcibly moved black and coloured people to less desirable areas exposed to the elements and with less access to basic amenities. White people had the pick of what remained. One of the few things those removed could still do was travel to their parish church, even if they’d been forcibly removed long distances. So they did that  – taking unreliable public transport every Sunday morning to the place of worship of their choice. Apartheid may be long dead, but the symptoms remain. Still these people and their descendants travel to their family’s church. Apartheid couldn’t stop them, so nothing else will.

There was no great resistance to replacing the tables and chairs. They’re heavy and unwieldy, recognised as impractical for our needs. The chairs have been there longer than a parishioner who’s been worshipping in this church for over 50 years. What was an issue was what to do with the chairs – made from fine quality wood, they’re in good condition even now. There was talk of selling them for scrap for the price of the wood; the response to that was that we need to make sure they went somewhere they were wanted or needed  – or if we couldn’t find such a place, sell them for scrap and donate the receipts to a church or project with which we are in relationship.

Throughout the meeting stories were told and barriers broken through – people talked about the past and the future, with hope and expectation as well as holy trepidation. It was only after the meeting, in conversation with one person, that the penny finally dropped for me. People who had experienced forced removal from their homes were now rightly seeking to ensure that the chairs and tables, part of their church throughout much of apartheid, were not also forcibly removed. Their removal needed to be positive – not just to make way for an incomer. In the course of the conversation lights went on throughout my mind, scanning the history of our 4 years here, seeing the same theme pop up. Forced removals – named or not – remain a scar which is still visible.

A while back a tentative plan was made to have some days of story-telling in the church; getting the saints young and old to relate the joys and sorrows of life, capturing the triumphs of grace that make up our church’s life. Two weeks ago we had arranged a date for the first of these days; no sooner is it in the church diary then this happens. Chairs, tables, drains and bank balances in 2014 merging with the first-time expressions of hurts and injustices long since past but very  much alive.

Few of us who lead and work around churches decided to do so because we are interested in or capable in relation to tables and chairs, spreadsheets and budgets, drains and kitchens. We were set aside for the divine, devoted to the spiritual. Or so we like to think. Much to our embarrassment, it turns out that everything is spiritual, that as one theologian put it:

Oh, no single piece of our mental world is to be hermetically sealed off from the rest, and there is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry: ‘Mine!’ (Abraham Kuyper)

Christ is all in all; everything, everywhere. He is unavoidable, inescapable. Even in the tables and chairs and spreadsheets and drains.

It’s not wrong to encourage those who are good at these things to deal with such matters; if they suck the life from you, don’t do them if it all possible. They’ll get done better and quicker if I’m not involved. Never assume, though, that where you are is spiritual. It is spiritual, of course. So is everything and everywhere else. Even if we don’t like it, even if the very thought of it makes my heart heavy. It’s still spiritual, and touching it may be the gateway for Christ’s good work.

It shouldn’t surprise us that tables and chairs lead us to be seated on holy ground. After all, our central act of worship is a meal.

Are you on holy ground?

Also in this series: 

3: The dangers and offensiveness of grace

2: How to make sure you church leader doesn’t turn into a psychopath

1: I don’t have to do it all