Leading in Troubled Times

I’ve realized that perhaps the best way for me to approach the blog isn’t to wait for others to raise questions or comments, but simply write or respond to those things that come up for me.  Of course, if anyone sends in a question, I will be happy to respond to their question.  By being more attentive to those things welling up inside my soul, however, it will give me a more regular opportunity to write.

So what am I thinking about today?

I’m thinking about what it means to lead – in these unprecedented time when we are dealing with both a global pandemic and deep pain in our nation concerning systemic racial injustice.  Let me tell you specifically what I’m chewing on.

This morning I had a breakthrough in my weekly Codependents Anonymous group.  My breakthrough had to do with the challenge of what it means to lead from a non-codependent place.  Let me tell you why that’s such a challenge for me.

I have always been a natural leader.  When I was a child, my mother and sister found a t-shirt they said was made for me.  It read: “Where are they?  I must find them.  I am their leader”.  I was elected to my first leadership position when I was just 12 when I was voted student body treasurer for my junior high. 

The hard part about leading from such a young age was that I developed some unhealthy ideas of what it meant to lead.  I thought, for instance, that leading meant fixing other people’s problems for them.  I also that the mark of a good leader was that she or he must be liked.  Those were just a couple unhealthy ideas I embraced about leading.

As I moved into adulthood, I carried those early beliefs with me.  That’s primarily how I got to the point last year where I decided I MUST leave parish ministry.  I got to that place because I truly believed that the only way I could lead a church was if I continued to live a life dominated by those unhealthy ways of being.

In the past year, however, I have realized that’s not the case.  It IS possible to be an effective leader while acknowledging I can’t fix everyone’s problems.   I also realized (in a VERY deep way) that it’s okay if others have different perceptions than I do about what needs to be done and how that work needs to be accomplished.  Most importantly, I got – for the first time in my life – that it’s okay if other people are unhappy with me.  I can still love myself in the midst of these challenges.  Once I “got” these things, I realized I COULD continue to lead a faith community. I’m grateful that God – and my church – was so patient with me during this learning process.

I’ve really been challenged to hold onto these insights past week as our country has been wrestling with the deeply-entrenched systemic racism that has once again reared its ugly head through the recent deaths of Breeona Taylor, George Floyd, and Ahmaud Arbery.

There are some, for instance, who believe that the events have revealed clear battle lines in the struggle for racial equality.  There are “good people” and “bad people”.  They believe a good leader’s job is to rally folks in their camp to lash out at those on the other side.

That’s one way to lead.

My call to lead, however, is built on a VERY different approach.  My call is about working to obliterate the whole notion of camps and begin to build bridges between those who would otherwise define themselves as enemies – in hopes of identifying areas of common vision and values as we move forward together.

While some might affirm my sense of call in an abstract way, they can be very critical when my call is put into action.  For my call to lead means creating room in the conversation for people some would demand NOT be included.  My call to lead means allowing situations to unfold where tension can be palpable – in order to expose the work that needs to be done (not just within one’s opponent, but within one’s self).  In other words, my call to lead means letting go of my codependent desire to fix things for others in a way that avoids confrontation at all costs.  That – I’m learning – will be a life-long struggle for me.

The good news I can share with you today is that I’ve come a long way on my road to recovery. I am increasingly able to be okay with folks who are frustrated with me because I’m not doing what they want – or in the way they think things need to be done.  I’m increasingly able to use those differences as an opportunity to build first a dialogue and then a relationship.  And that (the building of relationships, or bridges) is what my call to lead is all about.

Thanks for listening.  And let me close by saying this.  I believe that we are all called to lead in some arena – be that among your family, your friends, or your community.  I hope you will embrace your call – and lead in a way that honors both the uniqueness of your call as well as the uniqueness of the call of other’s as well.  I believe that each of us must play an important role in moving the world forward as we seek healing for a troubled world.

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To Prove or Not to Prove? That is the Question …

Today’s comment comes from Stevie. She wrote: “Pastor Craig… I’m reading a book about a man named Anselmo, born in Italy in 1033. Having spoken with God in a dream as a child he dedicated the rest of his days to proving to mankind the existence of God. In the end he went mad. I’m thinking you get that. Even I do.”

I can definitely relate to Anselmo! As a pastor, I am blessed to have dozens and dozens of opportunities every day to engage people in meaningful theological conversation. One thing I’ve learned about trying to “prove” God’s existence is most often those efforts are bound to failed.

That’s because most of us enter into such a conversation with a bias that profoundly affects the outcome. Those, for instance, who deny God’s existence often try to disprove God’s existence by pointing to all of the bad things in the world and concluding, “How can there be a God if these things happen.” In the next breath, they will almost always point to the good things that happen in the world and credit humanity for those things.
Those who try to prove God’s existence take the opposite tact. They point to all the bad things in the world and blame humanity. Then they point to all the good things in the world and credit God alone.

Because of radically different jumping-off points, it’s nearly impossible to move folks from either camp even an inch.

How did we get so polarized in our ways of thinking about God?

I suppose there are a lot of different answers to that question. I’ll share just one of the possible answers and then let others jump in.

One of the greatest challenges monotheistic traditions such as Judaism and Christianity face is explaining the existence of evil. “If there is really only one God?” opponents of monotheism argue, “then God either causes or allows evil. Neither option is acceptable to me,” opponents counter. “So therefore, I reject the notion of God outright.”

When some of our Jewish ancestors were in exile, they were exposed to Zoroastrianism. Zoroastrianism portrayed a world that represented a cosmic clash between the forces of light and darkness; good and evil, if you will. Our spiritual ancestors were drawn to the notion that those dark forces could be blamed for evil – so upon their return, their sacred writings in the Hebrew Scriptures (or Old Testament) began to develop the source of evil.
Later this theological development of evil bled over into the emerging Christian tradition – and orthodox Christians began embracing the notion of Satan – or the devil. If you would like to explore a much more developed explanation of this theological evolution, I would strongly recommend Elaine Pagels’ book The Origin of Satan.

While the embrace of an oppositional force for God was convenient in the short-term (i.e. it let God off the hook for the bad things that happened), it complicated things in the long run. And for many, it moved Christianity closer to the development of a form of polytheism. I have met many Christians over the years, for instance, who speak of Satan – or the Devil – in ways that make it sound as if the Devil is nearly as strong as God!

As a radical monotheism who balks at any form of polytheism, my challenge is to live in a world that both acknowledges God as the Ground of Being (as Paul Tilich would say).

How do I do it?

The best way to explain how I do that is to use an example of a television show I grew up with. When I was a child, I was transfixed by the show Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom. As someone who lived in a rather non-descript small town, the show exposed me to the beauty and majesty of the natural world in exotic places: placed that looked NOTHING like where I lived. I loved the natural beauty that was depicted.

Every once in awhile, however, Wild Kingdom would show things that I found very jarring. There would be taped images of a cheetah racing down an antelope, catching it, and devouring it. Those images were incredibly difficult to watch and process.

Over the years, however, I learned something very powerful – and even humbling – from the show. I learned that the beauty and power of nature was all-inclusive. I couldn’t just pick and choose the bits that I found appealing and call it “nature”. If I really wanted to explore nature, I had to see it all (including the disturbing pieces).

I gradually began to learn that there was tremendous wisdom in the natural world. I learned that what I might see in one moment and call “disturbing” was actually part of a much larger scheme of things. If I hung in there long enough, I could arrive at an awareness for the whole. In order to do that, however, I had to hang in there through the challenging moments (moments when I wanted to cover my eyes and look away) and trust that something bigger was going on than I could comprehend in any one moment.

It was my experience of the natural world via Wild Kingdom that prepared the way for my radical monotheism. I have a way of being in the world where I believe God permeates the world. While God pervades all of creation, we human beings have the ability to make choice. Some of these reflect the life-giving Light of God’s being; others do not. I believe that God is more powerful than any expression of “darkness”, or “evil” that we can manifest: individually or collectively. My spiritual challenge, then, is to hang in there – live in the strongest connection/relationship with God that I can – and trust that the “good” will ultimately prevail.

Of course, I don’t try to argue with those who are locked into either of the two camps I mentioned at the outset. I am comfortable letting them be where they are. And I rest easy where I am. That has been the way I’ve avoided the fate of Anselm and kept a few remnants of sanity.  At least on my good days …

So how about you? What thoughts do you have in relation to Stevie’s comments?

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Are We Having the Same Experience?

Today I had a conversation with a friend a while ago about an aspect of the COVID-19 situation that raised another issue I care about deeply. First, let me first tell you about the conversation, and then I’ll share the issue that came up for me.

The person with whom I was speaking was from a mid-sized city. The person was talking about a conversation with another where the other person (from a rural area) talked about a COVID-related death in the person’s community. The other person talked about the loss in very personal ways. “It was confusing,” the person I spoke with said, “because the other person didn’t know the deceased that well.”

Here’s what that conversation raised for me: the issue of geographical cultural diversity.
You see I was born and raised in a small town of less than 2,000 people. Because of this, I developed a pretty good understanding of how folks in Western small towns and rural areas think. I then went off to college and spent my twenties in cities that had populations of roughly 200,000. Then, in my thirties, I moved to a town of nearly 2 million. I’ve then spent my forties and early 50’s in the second largest city in the United States – Los Angeles – that has a population of roughly 4 million.

These years spent in communities of radically different sizes have developed within me the passionate conviction that where one lives (one’s “geographical orientation”, if you will) is every bit as real as other recognized categories such as age, race, gender, religious affiliation, sexual orientation, or gender identity. The conversation above is a perfect example of this. Let me tell you why I say that.

In small towns, virtually everyone in the community knows each other. That’s both a good thing and a bad thing – but I digress … So if something happens to ANYONE in the community, regardless of how much time and energy you invested in the relationship, you feel VERY affected by the event.

When I lived in the big cities and would call home each week, for instance, my parents would often ask if I knew so-and-so. I would pause for a moment, wrack my brain, and then say something like, “Sort of. I think we were in 8th grade math class together, but I haven’t seen them in nearly 40 years.” Then my parents would let go with a torrent of information about either a great joy or tragedy that happened to my “classmate” – assuming I would be deeply affected by the information. That is the way many small towns and rural areas operate.

Things don’t work that way in the big city. It is not uncommon for folks to be next door neighbors for 20 years in the big city, and barely know each other’s names. In the part of the city where I live, for instance, many know the gardeners of their neighbors better than their actual neighbors – since they occasionally see and interact with the gardeners.
So when something big happens in the big city and a person learns the joy or tragedy happened to someone in their neighborhood, there is a general shrug given – or a “that’s too bad”. Events don’t register on the same level – due to the cultural differences between small towns/rural areas and urban centers.

I have had this conversation a LOT with my friends in politics. Lots of people know, for instance, that for decades suburbs and rural areas have gone “red” while big cities tend to go “blue”. Usually, those differences are reported with a sneer. Those in “red areas” for instance, talk about the big-city liberals who think they are better than everyone else; while those in “blue areas” often talk about the rednecks in rural areas – or the self-centered voters in the suburbs – who don’t care about others.

We get stuck with that tired old narrative election, after election, after election, after election … And as someone who has lived in each setting for decades and has gotten to know and love people of all geographical orientations, I know neither of these characterizations are true. Sigh ☹

I wonder what would happen if we as a country began to take geographical orientation seriously – and extended ourselves to learn about those who live geographically different lives than we do. Perhaps there would be less stereotyping and name-calling, and more bridge-building and relationship nurturing.

Sadly, the COVID-19 experience is providing a common experience that folks in rural, suburban, and urban areas are all dealing with. But are they dealing with the same experience in the same ways? I think not. I would encourage you in coming days to watch and listen very closely to HOW folks in different areas of the country are dealing with it. For while the event may be the same on the surface, if you dig deeper, their experience of it is different.

And you know what? For this rural/suburban/urban boy, that’s okay. I will work on keeping talking less about my urban/suburban-ish experience and listening more to the experience of others. At least on my good days …

So what does the topic of geographical orientation raise for you?

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Types of Change

In working in local churches for nearly 20 years, I’ve noticed that there are general two types of change that occur within institutions: changes in policy, and changes in culture.

Changes in policy are the easiest type of change to affect.  That’s because they usually don’t involve many feelings.  You might, for instance, announce, “The Bible study will move from Thursday night at 7:00 PM to Wednesday night at 7:00 PM.”  Of course, there may be some grumbling among the crowd that occurs among those who preferred Thursday night.  But overall, those policy change happens pretty easily because the change doesn’t trigger people.

Changes in culture, however, can be brutally hard to affect.  That’s because the change gets at the group’s core values and can be perceived as a personal affront.  When I started to introduce technology at the church I serve – through things like a new website, an online Participant Directory, an online giving option, and the use of Google Docs and Google Sheets several years ago – the change was met with fierce resistance.  Not fierce ACTIVE resistance.  Fierce passive resistance.  No matter what I tried, most folks simply wouldn’t use it.

There were a couple of ways of thinking that contributed to the resistance.  Some long-time church members felt threated by the shift to technology.  Because we were a friendly, warm family church – they thought that technology was, by definition, cold and distant.  There was no reason to offer classes, meetings, or services on line – because the sole purpose of those things was to get us together face to face.  And no matter what I tried, I wasn’t very successful in putting a dent in their cultural resistance.

It wasn’t just the long-time members who were resistant to the technology, either.  Some of the younger folks were resistant as well.  “I use technology at work.  I use technology to communicate with friends on social media sites.  Why would I use it for church, too?”

No matter how carefully I tried to be in introducing online church stuff, I failed miserably.  I was beginning to think cultural change in this area was impossible.

But then the COVID-19 crisis hit – and suddenly people’s thinking about technology and church changed overnight.  Those whose previously thought technology was cold and distant – now experienced it as the ONE thing left that might hold us together.  And those who compartmentalized technology – thinking it was only helpful for work or social media connections – now started to realize technology could benefit them spiritually as well.  Clearly, the cultural grounds were shifting under our feet.  Hallelujah!

So one question remains.  Will this warming to the use of technology be a fad that disappears when the threat of the COVID-19 virus goes away; or will it become a trend that opens people of all ages to the continued merger of spirituality and technology?

I wish I could answer that question with certainty right now.  Unfortunately, I can’t.  There are two things that give me hope.  First, the longer the “stay at home” order stays in effect, the more likely the cultural change might become permanent.  Behavioral researchers say it takes at least 3 weeks to create a new habit.  We here in California will pass the three week timeline this week.  Fingers crossed!

Second, technologically oriented people are recognizing we have a window of opportunity right now to introduce technology to new parts of the church.  Tomorrow afternoon, for instance, I’ll gather a small group to talk about how we might broaden the use of technology.  You can rest assured that I’m doing everything within my power to make this cultural change stick.

I offer this model of change (policy vs. cultural change) simply as a tool to help you think about change in your own life.  If there is an area of your life where you’ve tried to implement a change you considered small (policy) that triggered huge backlash, that’s an indicator that the change is a cultural one.  If that’s the case, you need to slam on the breaks, adjust your expectations, and become as patient as possible.  If you demonstrate to folks that you care about them through the VERY slow process of cultural change, then something might suddenly come along (I don’t know, say, a global pandemic) that overcomes the resistance when you least expect it.

Best of luck as you negotiate change in your own personal and collective lives.

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The Great Divider: Fear

I’ve spent a LOT of time doing pastoral care work the past 3 weeks – both individually and collectively – on the phone, via text, email, and Zoom. And what that time has shown me is that once again the world is dividing itself into primarily two camps: those whose days are dominated by fear (this time of the COVID-19), and those whose days are not dominated by fear.

Lots of folks in the second camp I’ve talked with have said some variation of this to me: “I am so frustrated! I understand that my loved ones have a right to feel the way they do (i.e. afraid). That’s okay. These are scary times. What frustrates me is that they won’t give me the right to feel the way I do (i.e. at peace with the knowledge that I’ve done everything I can to protect myself and my loved ones and I’m not going to worry about what I can’t control). I’ve turned it over to God/my Higher Power. So why won’t my fear-based friends quit hounding me until they get me as freaked out as they are?!”

I have a theory about that. I want to try it out on you.

Those whose days are dominated by fear tend to believe that those whose daily lives aren’t dominated by fear are putting them, their families, and the world at greater risk. They think the only way a person could be at peace these days is because they are living in denial. They assume these folks haven’t educated themselves about the situation and are therefore taking dangerous risks.

That is where an important break in logic occurs.

I’ve found that many of the folks I know who are least worried, are the most educated about the virus. I could give you many, many examples, but for the sake of brevity I’ll give you one.

I’m thinking of my friend Joe who is a doctor. Joe quit his practice due to cardiac issues a year ago. Because of the medical situation at hand, however, Joe is on the cusp of getting activated to help during the crisis.

If anyone has a right to live in fear, it would be Joe, right? He’s a person that would not only be working in a high-risk occupation – he also has underlying medical issues that might place him at greater risk than his fellow doctors! And if those circumstances aren’t enough, Joe also parents two teenagers: one of whom has special needs.

And yet Joe has used his medical knowledge to keep him grounded and calm. He is also working a 12-Step program and is very grounded in the importance of letting go of what you can’t control. Joe has taught me a lot about how to respond to challenges!

I often try to leave my postings balanced so they don’t tilt toward a particular side or viewpoint. Today, however, I want to clearly tilt my comments in one direction.

If you are a person who days are filled with fear, please know I honor that that is where you are. All I ask is that you realize not everyone will choose to land in that same spot as you. Some individuals – who are well-educated people who are very informed about what is risky behavior and what is not – have made a decision to live their days in a non-fear based place. Please don’t try to change them and force them to live in your world. To do so would crush their spirits. Instead, return the grace many of them have extended toward you and allow them to handle the crisis in the way that works best for them.

If you do that – if you allow people to live in non-fear based ways – I promise I will return the favor.  If I encounter someone from the non-fear based camp who mocks or dismisses those on “the other side”, I will forcefully defend you by saying something like, “Back off!  Their way of processing the information they’ve encountered makes them understandably concerned.  They are deeply invested in taking every possible precaution while encouraging others to care of themselves as well.  They’re doing it not because they are bossy or controlling (though – cough, cough – for some that might be the case), but because they care.”

If we do that, maybe our tendency to divide ourselves into camps based upon our degree of fear will begin to disappear. And maybe the world which we enter post COVID-19 will be a little less divided. Let’s hope so.

So how about you? What thoughts does my reflection raise for you.

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Silver Lining #1

Now that we are nearly 10 days into our “Stay at Home” order from Governor Newsom, I’ve had some time to reflect on some of the positive things I’ve learned as a result of this experience. I like to call those positive learnings “silver linings”. I could list many, many, many silver linings I’ve stumbled upon the past 10 days. I think what I will do is list one now. In future days, I’ll list others as well.

One of the most important silver linings is that this situation has helped reveal a dynamic in our church that needed to be revealed. Our church is a small church that has moved out from being a family church to what’s called a pastoral church. We have about 94 households (or participants) who are active in our community.

In family (and small pastoral) churches, there is a dynamic whereby communications and relationships tend to be VERY limited. Many tend to talk to the small group of people; they rarely if ever engage those outside their circle of comfort. This tends to create an environment in church that feels cliquish.

So when the “Stay at Home” order was put into effect, I pulled together a Google spreadsheet that I shared with those who volunteered to make calls to church participants. The spreadsheet simply lists the names of participants in the church; the name of the person who reached out and called/contacted the participant; the way the individual contacted the person (i.e. call/text/email); and the date the contact was made.

That’s it.

Originally, I thought I would make a new call/contact list either daily or weekly. But what I’ve noticed is that in the first 4 days of our effort is that we have contact about 25% of the church participants.

In order to help shift the dynamic away from the current way of being (where a group of people contact the same people over and over) to a new way of being (where a group of people contact everyone), I told our list of callers that I would leave the call/contact list in place until all 94 households have been contacted. Once that has happened, then – and only THEN – will I create a new call sheet.

I would have NEVER been as aware of the communication patterns of the community had it not been for the issuance of the “Stay at Home” order. An even greater benefit is that if we use these sheets for the next month or so during the lock down order, the lay leaders can continue to use the sheet once I depart the church and they move into a time of pastoral transition. The sheet will keep the church connected at a delicate time of its history in ways that would have NEVER happened had it not been for this “Stay at Home” order. What a tremendous silver lining that is!

So how about you? Name one silver lining that has come out of this experience for you? I would ask that you limit yourself to one – as I will be writing about more silver linings in the future.

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Which Wolf Will You Feed?

This morning I found a copy of an old Cherokee story whose culminating line has guided my life for a long time. The story was shared by Dean Yeong. It reads as follows:

“An old Cherokee is teaching his grandson about life:

“A fight is going on inside me,” he said to the boy.

“It is a terrible fight and it is between two wolves. One is evil–he is anger, envy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, and ego.”

He continued, “The other is good – he is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion, and faith. The same fight is going on inside you–and inside every other person, too.”

The grandson thought about it for a minute and then asked his grandfather: “Which wolf will win?”

The old Cherokee simply replied, “The one you feed.”

I thought of that parable this morning because of what happened to me and the church community I serve last night. Let me tell you what happened.

After a long day of working virtually at home, I had just sat down and to call one of my brothers. Shortly after the conversation began, the church secretary called. When I switched calls, she spoke to me in an understandably panicked mode. She said the security cameras on the church grounds were showing a few people on campus who were cutting the wires of other security cameras and taking them down!

It was still light outside. I couldn’t believe people would do such a thing in daylight!

I hung up and raced for the church campus. I knew my secretary had called the police, but I wasn’t sure how long it would take them to react. I was more than a little nervous about what situation I was walking into alone.

On my way, I saw the police had pulled someone over. I pulled ahead and parked awkwardly on the street. I approached the police officers and told them a break-in was occurring at our church just up the street about a mile.

“We already have officers on the scene,” one of the officers said.

With that I got back into my care and raced to the campus. When I arrived at church, I found 3 police officers already there. Not only were there multiple police officers there (just 10-15 minutes after the images were captured on film): one of the Dad’s from the church – whose family lived close by – was there as well. I was so glad I wasn’t facing the situation alone as I had feared!

Thankfully, because of the great coverage of the security cameras we were able to interrupt the individuals before they broke into the facility. Even better, we got clear video images of the perpetrators. Thank goodness we had installed video cameras 3.5 years earlier!

In the moments following the episode, I realized I had a choice. To use the imagery from the old Cherokee story above, I had to decide which wolf I would feed. Would I feed the wolf that represented the abhorrent acts a few individuals tried to commit against a church during one of its most vulnerable times; or would I feed the wolf that represented the incredibly positive and responsive police officers who looked out for us and the web of individuals connected to the church who responded with renewed commitment to look out for the church?

I decided to choose the latter wolf. If I had focused on the first wolf, these challenging days would have become even more anxiety-ridden. Even more fearful. Even more frustrated. Even more angry.

By focusing on the latter wolf, these challenging days have become filled with the assurance that I’m not in this alone. There are many good-hearted individual out there who are committed to looking out for one another – and protecting the community that embodies our values and way of being in the world. That knowledge brings me a sense of peace of which no burglar or circumstance can rob.

I shared this story because I know during these days of uncertainty and stress, every single one of us is faced with a question: which wolf will I feed? Every day. Every moment.

I hope you will be conscious of the choice before you and – no matter what happens! – choose to feed the wolf that will help heal our broken world and bring it the hope it so desperately needs.

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