Raymond L. Wheeler

Musings about leadership


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How the nature of relationship intersects with the organizational structure found in the local church


customersIt isn’t uncommon today to find remnants of the mindset of the industrial revolution in how the church thinks about structure. The mechanistic assumptions so predominate in business and non-commercial structures throughout the 20th century often seeped their way into church governance here in the west in the adoption of a corporate organizational authentication for tax purposes.  The emergence of the church growth movement contributed to this same mechanistic set of assumptions in that it often uncritically adopted effectiveness driven assumptions that placed relationships in a subordinate position to growth and self-preservation in the church. This propensity to mechanize organizational structures to gain efficiency and effectiveness fall short in that they stumble over the reality that people are involved. One business writer commented that a well-known shoe company’s heavy investment in TQM was undone by one guy in the order fulfillment department who purposely stuffed two right foot shoes or two left foot shoes in a single box. When asked why he was doing this he responded that his manager had treated him poorly and his actions were revenge because his manager’s bonus depended on consistently accurate order fulfillment.

Similarly, church leaders can tell their own stories about how one person’s or pastor’s vindictiveness held the entire organizational structure of a congregation hostage and leveraged a mechanistic structure to redefine reality or expectations of what the community of the church should be.

What makes the church so unique is that Jesus set the cornerstone of the church’s structure firmly in healthy relationships. Jesus said, “This is to my Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples. As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Now remain in my love. If you keep my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commands and remain in his love.” (John 15:8-10)

Jesus outlines the task (remain in love) and the outcome (bear fruit) that make up the parameters of the church’s organization. Based on what Jesus modeled, love (or the organizational structure of the local congregation) is characterized by truth-telling, forgiveness, support, instruction, insight, inquiry, missional focus, and developmental bias. Love is not an afterthought or optional component to the relationships Jesus expected of the disciples as they continued his ministry. Love and its characteristics are the core feature that determines the legitimacy of the church.

Relationships are not an intersection in the organizational structure of the church they are the constituting frame that allows for the diversity of gifting, outcomes, and methods inherent in the works of God operating through the church. Relationships define the church’s purpose and its method. For example: does the organization accept responsibility i.e., bear fruit as outlined in Luke 4:18-19? Does the organization evaluate its context and behavior with truthfulness? Does the organization generate restored relationships, maturing behavior, continuous insight into what God is doing? If relationships serve only to intersect with a structure that is built on some other foundation (e.g., mechanistic) then relationship fails to be the nucleus and becomes a secondary add-on that is not elemental to effective and efficient operational systems. Organizational structures that push relationships to a secondary status inevitably become toxic and a contradiction to missio Dei.

So, how do you functionally define the structure of your congregation? Perhaps it’s time to sit with your leadership team and review what makes the structure of your congregation really tick.

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Three questions successful people routinely ask themselves


successI had the pleasure of addressing the incoming class at Bethesda University in Anaheim, California this morning. They are a wonderfully diverse student body, many of whom are the first generation to enter college. In my time teaching there I was privileged to hear the stories of change, courage, and the desire to give back to their communities.  In thinking about what would both inspire and challenge them this morning I thought of three blunt and transformative encounters Jesus had with his disciples.

The narratives of these encounters are stacked up together in Luke 9:46-55.  In the first (v 46-48) Jesus addresses the idea of greatness. In the second (v 49-50) Jesus addresses the idea of synergy with others. In the third (v 51-56) Jesus addresses the subject of anger in the face of rejection.  These three encounters frame the questions I find successful people ask themselves to remain focused on the important rather than the urgent. This kind of focus helps them see opportunity others simply walk past. And, it is this ability to see that seems to drop new opportunity at their doors step regularly. So, let’s look at the questions and how they work to generate focus and new ways of seeing.

What is your ambition?

The disciples clearly had ambition (a drive toward a new future and a trajectory away from a past). However, their ambition had gone down the road of power acquisition and prestige. Somewhere along the way, they began to run to the goal of dominance rather than destiny.  This detour along the way doesn’t take a person toward their future – rather it reasserts the past as a diminishment to be avoided rather than a foundation on which to build a future.  Those who are running from their past have not yet made peace with their past and end up running into an ever increasing intensity of shame and denial.

Jesus redirected the disciple’s debate by pointing to a child and asking them to receive or relate to the child. I think of my grandchildren who don’t care about the fact I have an earned doctorate, or that I own a successful company, or that I am recognized as an effect adjunct professor. All they know is that I engage them at their level with attentiveness, love, and a desire to see them succeed.

Jesus reduced the question about who is the greatest to a willingness to engage life like one engages a child.  This generates a posture of learning v showmanship, curiosity v arrogance, and vulnerable v defensiveness. Refine your ambition – dream big AND do it as a learner, not an expert.

How do you see others?

Small minded people interpret knowledge as power and the means for exclusivity. Jesus redirected the disciples who shut down the effective efforts of some unnamed person flourishing in the works of God simply because that person wasn’t part of their “in-group.”

Jesus’ response had two parts. First, DON’T HINDER HIM. The success of others is not a threat – it is a point of potential synergy! If you view the success of others as a threat to your own power/prestige then you will never achieve the greatest part of your ambition. You won’t be a change agent you will be a toxic tyrant.

Second, Jesus’ lesson is powerful, listen to it. WHOEVER IS NOT AGAINST YOU IS FOR YOU! This is a significant shift in perspective and will keep you from being so afraid of loss that you fail to see friends. Highly successful people have large networks of highly successful friends. Why? They don’t view the success of others as a threat rather; they see the success of others as a potential point of synergy and momentum to their own ambition.

If you are proud about getting rid of others who threatened your own prominence, then competitors are about to eat your lunch. You got rid of the very people who would both accelerate and help sustain your own ambition.

What do you do with anger?

James and John were furious at the way the Samaritans refused to help them. They wanted revenge for the rejection and betrayal they felt.  The reality is that in life rejection and betrayal happen. The question isn’t whether one has face rejection or betrayal it is whether they will engage in the ruinous circle of revenge or the virtuous circle of forgiveness. The cycle of anger and revenge is what destroys many communities and organizations and holds them in poverty and mediocrity.

You can choose to break the cycle of revenge and anger and be a healing force in your community or organization.  If you want to transform your community or organization you won’t do it through anger and revenge – you will do it through forgiveness

Forgiveness is a process (or the result of a process) that involves a change in emotion and
attitude regarding an offender. Most scholars view this as an intentional and voluntary process, driven by a deliberate decision to forgive.  Forgiveness possesses behavioral corollaries i.e., reductions in revenge and avoidance motivations and an increased ability to wish the offender well impact behavioral intention without obliging reconciliation. Forgiveness can be a one-sided process. Johnson defines forgiveness as “A willingness to abandon one’s right to resentment, negative judgment, and indifferent behavior toward one who unjustly injured us, while fostering the undeserved qualities of compassion, generosity, and even love toward him or her…” (Craig E. Johnson. Ethics in the Workplace: Tools and Tactics for Organizational Transformation, 2007, 116).

 Conclusion

So, what are the three questions highly successful people often ask themselves?

  • What is my ambition?
  • How do I see others?
  • What will I do with anger?

How do you answer these questions?


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Discussing Social Issues as a Follower of Christ


conflict-in-recruitment“So you strain the Scriptures and mislead your reader.”  The frustration and antagonism in the writer’s voice was palpable. He wanted me to unequivocally condemn another writer for his view. I wanted the respondents to engage each other in honest communication about their biases, commitments, and background reasoning to their social commitments. I failed to draw anyone into that kind of discussion. Some were encouraged, some were enraged, some were disappointed, and some were ruthless in their proclamation of what I should have said.
The conflict among my group of friends rapidly jumped from disagreement to an ugly display of religious proclamation, fixed attitudes, hardened identities and closed hearts.
I generated an argument between people who found it easier to throw ideological stones from the safety of a fenced off belief system than engage a dialogue with real people.
One observer shared his candid observation of the discussion with me off-line. He said, “I also observe that the tone and content of some people’s words are not one of work or inner turmoil, but rather of hatred and of aggression. I believe the absence of passion in the moderator [myself] of a discussion can be a critical tool in advancing the discourse. However, the absence of passion (or decisive marginalization) in the face of persistent, willful, hateful rhetoric is, in my view, corrosive to the soul; yours, and the other participants in the discussion.”
I couldn’t disagree with that assessment. Where did I drop the ball? More importantly, am I clear about my own convictions and statement of logical starting points? In this blog, I outline ways to manage conflict with comments about how well I did or didn’t deal with the conflict I generated and make my own assumptions clear for those who wish to engage me in the future.
First, how is conflict approached?  Mark Gerzon identified three common responses to conflict: demagoguery, management, and mediation with the later being the most effective.
The demagogue addresses conflict through fear, threats, and intimidation turns opponents into scapegoats. The demagogue dehumanizes others and resorts to violence to dominate and destroy the other. I had one especially insistent demogogue in the argument. I felt like turning into a demagogue myself in the face of mounting stress. However, throwing back the same kind of rant I was being served would not do a thing.
The manager faces conflict on the basis of an exclusive or limited definition of “us”. He/she defines purpose in terms of the self-interest of his or her group and cannot or will not deal with issues, decisions, or conflicts that cross boundaries. Managers are very effective in directing and controlling resources and the activities of other people for the benefit of a particular group. Gerzon points out that this approach is limited.
I recognized a wide variety of people who served as the audience to the argument. I knew that every intransigent statement, every belief hurled in anger, every example offered as a proof text would only exacerbate the argument. I attempted to pull back the participants – to get them to listen to each other. They were not ready and I failed to provide them a bridge to get there.  Each wanted me to side with them or absolutely disagree with them. I failed to state my starting point clearly and as a result, I failed to bring the appropriate people together.
In contrast, Gerzon states that the mediator approaches conflict by striving to act on behalf of the whole (cf. John 3:16 as a definition of the church’s scope of concern).  Mediators have the capacity to discover the whole and to act in the best interest of the whole. Mediators work on the collaborative principle which Gerzon defines as:
 
If you bring the appropriate people together in constructive ways with reliable information, they will create authentic vision and strategies for addressing the shared concerns of the organization or community.
The mediator thinks systemically and is committed to ongoing learning.  The mediator builds trust by building bridges across dividing lines and seeks innovation and opportunity in order to transform conflict. I wanted to go here, I did not arrive.
In hindsight, I failed in the ability to ask questions that unlock essential information about the conflict that is vital to understanding how to transform conflict so that it becomes an opportunity. I failed to communicate that the point of inquiry is not the loss of conviction or strong beliefs but the realization that one’s views are discovered and renewed through inquiry. Mediators of conflict naturally want to learn more; “What else can I learn about this situation?” “Is there some useful, perhaps vital, information that I lack?” “Do I truly understand the way others see the situation?” “Should I consult with others before I intervene?”The rule of thumb in facing any conflict is: inquiry must precede any form of advocacy.
My other conclusion is that social media used as a discussion point requires a highly structured set of rules for engaging a discussion that participants must agree to before entering and that must be enforced aggressively to create an environment where listening to clarify positions is the goal. Clear convictions can be communicated without expressing hatred. But when participants are dehumanized and made into moral positions only, it’s easier to just shoot at them.
Will I engage another such discussion again on social media?  Yes. Why? It allows an audience who deeply wrestles with difficult questions to work through their thinking by listening to others.  I will encourage concise statements of conviction, and then encourage inquiry to dissenting views. To what end? Understanding and respect. Can my goal be achieved with every person? Here I have to agree with Machiavelli, no. Why? Because there are evil people whose only goal is the destruction of others. Additionally, there fundamentalist individuals who disallow any dissenting opinion from their own.
Religious convictions require another a short discussion about why the founding fathers of the United States wanted to limit the establishment of religion by the state? They saw in their own history the evil unleashed when political power is mixed with religious absolutism. My friends who want to legislate their Christian beliefs to the exclusion of other systems in civil society would only succeed in reducing civil society to the tyranny of their enforced moral codes. History consistently demonstrates the failure of this. Instead, civil society acknowledges the diversity of core moral conviction and allows for its influence in a discussion involving every participant. Hence it is, in my view, equally dangerous to prohibit the discussion of religion or religious convictions.
The American experiment used the foundation of compromise to create a form of government that allows for religious freedom and offers representation to a diverse populace.  I prefer this form of government over others I have seen even with its flaws and limitations. Paradoxically, fundamentalists who want to see America great again, fail to differentiate compromise as “the ability to listen to two sides in a dispute and devise concessions acceptable to both” from compromise as “the fearful abandonment of conviction in an attempt to minimize the contrast of their convictions to a perceived norm or power.” As a result, fundamentalists consistently press for an oligarchy composed of religiously acceptable candidates who state religiously acceptable convictions.  The hypocrisy and tyranny of such a system are constantly illustrated in the despotism that always results.
Paradoxically, fundamentalists who want to see America great again, fail to differentiate compromise as “the ability to listen to two sides in a dispute and devise concessions acceptable to both” from compromise as “the fearful abandonment of conviction in an attempt to blend into the perceived norm or power.”
Second, in light of what others in the argument describe as my own fuzzy commitment, I thought it a good exercise to state my own commitments as clearly as possible. I am one who follows Jesus the Christ. I have an unapologetic and inquisitive faith that informs the assumptions I begin with when it comes to moral and social issues. But, I am not fundamentalist in my perspectives. By fundamentalist I mean a religious movement characterized by a strict belief in the literal interpretation of religious texts, especially within American Protestantism and Islam. I hold to the centrality of the Christian Scriptures and recognize that given their diverse literary forms (i.e., poetry, prose, law/statutory, prophetic, historical narrative, parable, and proverbial/wisdom) that a “literal” interpretation does a disservice to a proper interpretation of the text.
In full disclosure, I also understand Jesus made an exclusive claim when he said, “I am the door; if anyone enters through me, he shall be saved, and shall go in and out, and find pasture. The thief comes only to steal, and kill, and destroy; I came that they might have life, and might have it abundantly. I am the good shepherd; the good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” (John 10:9-11)  Does this reduce me to a mindless automaton closed to learning and assuming full and complete knowledge of all that is spiritual?  No, it makes me a disciple i.e., literally one who is learning. And as one who is learning, I recognize that I live in a diverse and pluralistic society from whom I can also learn.  Has faith answered every question? No, it answered the main question e.g., about purpose and meaning and it opens new questions that I still ponder.
So, I reject fundamentalism as inherently flawed both historically and reasonably. I see a different model in the Bible particularly evident in the growth of the first-century church from a sect of Judaism to a multi-cultural entity. The rapid expansion of the church in the first century moved the faith community of the church from the comfort of a modified theocracy (often more an oligarchy of socially or religiously powerful and corrupt leaders) experienced in the history of Israel to existence as a unique community and social force in a culturally and religiously pluralistic world. Paul, the apostle most influential in teaching the fledgling church to live in a pluralistic world wrote this advice,
“Render to all what is due them: tax to whom tax is due; custom to whom custom is due; fear to whom fear; honor to whom honor. Owe nothing to anyone except to love one another; for he who loves his neighbor has fulfilled the law. For this, ‘You shall not commit adultery, you shall not murder, you shall not steal, you shall not covet,’ and if there is any other commandment, it is summed up in this saying, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ Love does no wrong to a neighbor; love therefore is the fulfillment of the law.” (Romans 13:7-10)
So, if you hang out with me I will demonstrate this commitment to loving my neighbor. I also demonstrate a commitment to faith in Jesus Christ. I am open talking about my relationship with Jesus Christ in a way that is neither in-the-face of my neighbor nor hidden from my neighbor. I understand that in loving my neighbor I fulfill the law and in fact, make its provisions clear as well as the promise inherent in the grace of God demonstrated through Jesus Christ. I practice listening skills and invite those with whom I strongly disagreed to talk while I listen. We engage a discussion rather than a diatribe.
Are you looking for a way to love your neighbor? Do you want to be heard about your faith? Start by listening especially in a day when religiously induced hatred and hostility is passed off as indicative of Christianity. Listening skills may be tested by conducting a simple exercise.  Invite someone with whom you have strongly disagreed to talk with you while you listen – take the following steps.
  • Find a good space. Choose a place to talk without distractions.
  • Take the time. Let the other person tell their story.
  • Respond (versus react). Choose your body language, tone, and intention.
  • Show interest. Make eye contact; focus on the person speaking; don’t answer your phone or look at your BlackBerry.
  • Be patient. It’s not easy for people to talk about important things.
  • Listen for content and emotion. Both carry the meaning at hand.  It’s OK sometimes to ask, “How are you doing with all this?”
  • Learn. Listen for their perspective, their view. Listen for their experience.  Discover or learn a new way of seeing something.
  • Follow their lead. See where they want to go. Ask what is important to them (rather than deciding where their story must go or how it must end).
  • Be kind. Listen with the heart as well as with the mind.
After doing this notice what difference this makes in you feel about your relationship with the other person.  Pay attention to how your act of listening often (though not always and rarely immediately) opens others’ hearts and mind to ask about your faith. The act of listening not only brings clarity for both people in the conversation it often brings items to light that have never been considered before.  One conversation does not have to resolve all issues, however; a good act of listening goes a long way in bridging seemingly unbridgeable differences.  Listening is a good step in demonstrating the love God has for the world about you.
Want to know more about faith in Jesus Christ? Contact me directly. My contact information is listed on the “About Me” tab of this blog.
Want to know more about conflict?  Read Mark Gerzon (2006).Leading Through Conflict: How Successful Leaders Transform Differences into Opportunities.  Boston, MA: Harvard University Press. 273 pages.
Want to know more about where I attend church? See http://madeforfellowship.com/.


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Beware your ascension to power


hand-fist-power1Motivations are sometimes difficult to isolate. The variety of experiences one gleans through a career of interactions with those in power has a significant shaping effect on how power is perceived. I have observed a sometimes benign and other times toxic reaction to bad leadership that sets the stage for amplified emotional impact at work.  I call this reaction, “backdoor leadership lessons.”

Backdoor leadership lessons are those insights one gains by watching leaders act in a way that contradicts constructive leadership action. Leaders who fail to manage their stress resort to manipulation, frustration, insults, or rage to force things through the system. Because they have power they have initial success as people comply out of fear. However, over time, the success are fewer and farther between as people feign compliance with a head nod, avoidance, and passive impertinence.

The benign and even constructive backdoor leadership lessons emerge from observation and an internal commitment to be a different kind of leader. If one could listen to the self-talk inside the emerging leader’s head they might hear thoughts like, “I will never treat my team like that. I will never cut innovative people off out of frustration. I will never be that headstrong.” These backdoor lessons often lead to constructive self-awareness and the development of emotional intelligence and skill. Stepping into benign or constructive backdoor leadership lessons requires the exercise of forgiveness and the rigor of critical reflection on both the actions of a toxic leader and oneself. Without forgiveness and critical reflection, a toxic backdoor lesson emerges in the life of the leader.

Toxic backdoor leadership lessons also emerge from observation but take a subtly different road when it comes to internal commitment. Instead of rendering a commitment to be a different kind of leader toxic lessons result in a commitment to expunge the influence and legacy of the toxic leader. Rather than forgiveness and self-reflection, smug self-confidence emerges that sees the eradication of a prior leader’s influence and legacy as a primary objective to the acquisition of power.  The self-talk that occurs in this emerging leader yields thoughts like, “I will destroy his/her toxicity.  I will redirect this organization to a more profitable or more effective strategy. I will pull this ship back into its rightful competitive position.”  Both forgiveness and critical self-reflection are absent in this response which yields hubris more than insight.

Hence, I state, beware your ascension to power. If you think the acquisition of power is the solution to the bad decisions, poor interpersonal skills, inadequate strategy, or abusive arrogance you are on the trajectory to be a step worse as a leader than the individual you react to. Why? Because that leader becomes the model of your leadership by an inability to step away to a different focus. I ran across this observation the first time in a heavy equipment operator in my first congregation. Jim (not his real name) was a man’s man kind of guy. He didn’t speak much but when he did he often had great insights I benefited from. I didn’t know the trauma that made up his personal life – that is until the day he dropped by my office.

Jim collapsed into one of the chairs in front of my desk and broke into sobs, the kind of sobs that men cry when they can no longer hold in the pain of their experience. “I hate my dad,” he blurted out between heaving agonizing howls of emotional pain. “And I have become him.”  Jim identified a connection that seems to me to be unyielding – the person you hate the most is the person you become because they are the target of your attention and affection.

In the words of one of my early mentors, “Ray, you will hit what you aim at.”

Beware your ascension to power. Strategy and vindictiveness are not the same. I have watched men step into roles of power with the only objective of erasing the memory and work of their predecessor. They present themselves as innovators and prophets of a new day. They tirelessly work on change. However, they don’t bring strategy, they bring destruction. They amplify the worst characteristics of their predecessors because they hit what they aim at.

Experience can teach leaders a tremendous amount of powerful lessons. But leaders gain little without the discipline of self-reflection and the exercise of forgiveness. Look in the mirror. What do you see? Do you see the dad, the boss, the mother, or the teacher that you hate?  Have you come to the revelation Jim came to?  Step back, consider your own behavior. Find a mentor or therapist who can help you walk back through the years of pain, bitterness, and the quest for revenge to get to the healing work of forgiveness. Don’t confuse vindictiveness for strategy.

If you talk with Jim today, you see a different man entirely. He emanates a grace, a wisdom, and life insight that is almost under spoken but has the effect of causing others to reflect on their own trajectory in life. He is no longer trying to not be his dad. He is discovering what it means to be himself. His ascension to power nearly broke him. Now, his ascension to power has become a source of dynamic innovation and healing. Those around him no longer give him head nods of passive impertinence. Instead, they engage each challenge with vigor, courage, and initiative – all of which they have learned from Jim. What are you aiming at?


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The Practice of Servant Leadership is an Ethical Exercise


It All Started With a New Friend

questionAn attractive young woman, Samantha, started attending Sunday services in my first congregation. I noticed her one Sunday in our second service – she appeared deeply engaged in every aspect of Sunday morning. She asked questions of those around her – exhibiting deep curiosity and deep pain.  She was searching.  She attended for several weeks and then she indicated that she wanted to meet Christ.  Those who had journeyed with her made this introduction and her response to Christ deeply moved the entire group.

Several weeks later I noticed Samantha on my appointment schedule but did not recognize who she was.  “Becky,” I called out from my office into the lobby, “who is Samantha on the appointment scheduled for ten o’clock?”

Becky walked into my office and said, “You know that attractive young woman who started attending several weeks ago and then met Christ?”

“Do you mean the woman with the long brown hair who was so earnest in her search of faith?” I asked.

“Yes,” Becky said, “that is Samantha. She has some questions about what it means now to be a Christian.”

The time came for the appointment and after introductions I asked how I could help. Samantha talked about her search for meaning, how she happened to meet some people in the congregation and arrived on a Sunday to investigate.  She described meeting Christ personally in faith and she seemed to light up with joy in talking about her new sense of purpose, release from the pain of her past, and hope for the future. I was thrilled until she came to her question – then I was dumbfounded.

“So,” she transitioned, “now that I know Christ, do I have surgery again and return to being a man or do I remain a woman?”

I was not ready for Samantha’s question. I found myself floundering in my own biases, ignorance, and convictions without a way to structure and organize a response much less find the root of my struggle.  Was I even asking the right questions in my mind?  I relate this experience in every class on servant leadership when I talk about how leaders grapple with ethical reasoning.  I ask the students what they would say to Samantha.  What would you say?  What kind of ethical reasoning would you use? Is the model you use the most effective for the issues involved?  Does the model you use result in direction for the question Samantha raised?  Does the model you use effectively bring you and Samantha closer to Christ and the image of God?  Or are you unable to even frame a model? Remember that leadership capacity directly correlates to a leader’s awareness of his or her mental/theological models, biases, experiences, and cultural points of view.

Samantha’s question illustrates the impact of the preserving and purifying effect of God’s grace – she entertain new questions about her future as a result of engaging Jesus as savior and Lord. Samantha’s question also pushed me to step up in my ethical reasoning. Leaders cannot ignore moral issues. As Northouse writes:

…leadership is not an amoral phenomenon. Leadership is a process of influencing others; it has a moral dimension that distinguishes it from other types of influence, such as coercion or despotic control.[1]

Ethical reasoning and decision-making address moral issues. Ethical reasoning and decision-making depends on the moral principles that govern a person’s behavior and define right and wrong.  Generally speaking, there are three approaches to ethical reasoning.  These approaches divide into two domains namely guidelines to conduct and guidelines to character.  Ethical models offer a way of talking about the character and conduct of leadership in something other than esoteric terms.

Guidelines to conduct include:

  1. Teleological Theories e., working from consequences or ends
    • Ethical Egoism: an individual should act to create the greatest good in himself or herself i.e., do what’s best for yourself.
    • Utilitarianism: an individual should act to create the greatest number of good for the greatest number of people.
  2. Deontological Theories, working from a sense of duty or moral law. Deontological theories subsume egoism and utilitarianism under the necessity of fulfilling moral law.

Guidelines to character includes:

  1. Virtue-based Theories focus on who the leader is as a person. The leaders strive to live out core virtues such as:
  • Courage
  • Temperance
  • Generosity
  • Self-control
  • Honesty
  • Sociability
  • Modesty
  • Fairness
  • Justice
  • Substitute Galatians 5:22-23 for this list of virtues.

I Just Do What the Bible Says – Really?

Ethical models are attempts to explain in simpler terms the complex dynamic of human behavior and thus aid in decision-making. Often students in my leadership courses reject these ethical models as though they were somehow anti-biblical. Their response to Samantha’s question is, “I simply do what the Bible says.” What becomes clear as I ask questions of what the students mean by, “doing what the Bible says,” is that they are treating complex situations through an ethical lens, but are unable to explain or define the lens they used. The problem with this is twofold.

First, an inability to show and define the basis for an opinion or decision typically results in blind spots stemming from aspects of a decision or situation rooted in the leader’s unconscious frame of reference. Blind spots contribute to poor decisions and it is poor decisions that set up inconsistent and toxic behavior by leaders.  In the Samantha story my students typically want to debate the merits of gender identification and gender surgery.  Typical, they missed Samanatha’s question because they did not hear it. Their inability to show the basis for their convictions results in tirades against moral collapse in the nation.  Such responses are not helpful nor do they give leadership.

Second, the inability to show and define the basis for an opinion or decision makes it non-reproducible. How do new leaders assess the situation to arrive at an outcome consistent to the work of God and the greatest good?  If a leader cannot train others in how to think then they will not develop leaders; they will develop super followers who do what they are told and nothing more. Leaders must have an ability to manage complexity in decision-making and in analysis. The need for ethical reasoning in a story like that of Samantha is clearly evident. But what model?

A deontological model would be like closing the gate after the cows got out. A deontological model asks her to repent for actions already committed – which by the way she had.  But now what? Is it ok to shift one’s physical attributes to match one’s gender identification? Is the way we define gender in the first place ethically and theologically sound? I often have students create a list of male and female attributes. I then have them share their lists.  I teach in a university that is broadly diverse culturally speaking. The discussions become intense at multiple levels as differing cultural views play out. But, what shakes my students up most is that I have them take that same dimorphic list and mark the characteristics that describe Christ. Consistently to their great surprise Jesus demonstrates characteristics they assign as both male and female. What is right in the discussion? Where does your answer start? Perhaps Samantha’s challenge would be completely different had she met Christ before her surgery. But even then, what kind of ethical reasoning would have helped her think about her gender identification?

A virtue model could shed light on how to live going forward. What kind of character should she show as a believer?  But this also does not answer her question about surgery. Is it possible that she could live a spirit-filled life as a woman who has come to know Christ? What is at issue in a virtue model is how she decides to move forward and the degree to which her behaviors reflect the character of Christ.

A teleological model might explain why the future held promise for Samantha. She was not rejected by Christ but grafted into the body of Christ with the gifts and talents that are hers by creation and redemption. Regardless of how she decided to act or not act on surgery she gained a purpose in life and meaning in life in her encounter with Christ. Does her existence as a woman (formerly a man) rob her of the imago Dei that makes us human? No.

Grappling with what being a disciple looked like for Samantha used all three models of ethical reasoning.

Ethical Models in Biblical Case Studies

What if we apply these models of ethical reasoning to biblical case studies? What do we learn?

Character or virtue ethics works off the notion that good people make good decisions.  The strength of this approach is its ability to consider various situational factors in determining what makes for a good decision.  The ambiguity leaders often experience requires an approach to ethical decision-making that takes account of the situation.  For example: while the Jewish Scriptures are very clear about not worshiping other gods, the prophet Elisha faced an interesting cross-cultural ethical question from Naaman after being healed of leprosy and made a confession of faith in the God of Israel. While Naaman committed himself to only worship the God of Israel, he was often required to go with the king in idolatrous state rituals. Elisha apparently recognized the shift in Naaman’s perspective and acknowledged that Naaman’s position could fulfill this role without compromise to his faith.[2]

Elisha used character ethics in sending Naaman off to live a different kind of life and leadership expression than he had prior to his meet with the living God.  Naaman’s healing from leprosy would not be unnoticed. It placed him squarely in a discussion about the reality and efficacy of God’s works. From the stand point of the law of Israel (a deontological view), there was no room for Elisha’s response.  But notice, Naaman had already committed to worship only the God of Israel. Naaman had to deal with the complexities of living in a culture that had no frame of reference to the law of Israel other than Naaman’s own character.

Elisha does not express a use teleological ethics specifically.  However, we can analyze the text from this perspective as well. The ethical end in this situation was the placement of a living witness to the power of the God of Israel in a culture in which God was not yet known as God was in Israel. From a teleological perspective Elisha’s blessing infers a teleological utilitarianism in that a concern for the impact of Naaman’s life changing encounter on the populace around the king’s court was in view.  If Naaman’s question was motivated by mere teleological egoism, Elisha certainly could have counseled against participation in idolatrous rites.

Virtue ethics allow for situational flexibility. Situational flexibility or consideration is helpful in many cases even though it can lead to relativism and subjectivity. How is this weakness avoided?  Virtue ethics requires a guide to decide vice from virtue. Aristotle first evaluated actions or virtue as the mean between excess and deficiency.  Admittedly, this does not escape the problem of subjectivity or moral relativity. Aristotle used the mores of society to anchor his definition of virtue.  Obviously, social standards slide sometimes toward excess and sometimes toward deficiency on earlier positions (just think about how we define vulgarity today versus how it was defined in the 1950s).   However, using Aristotle’s model is still helpful if we allow a relationship to God to be our starting point.  For Aristotle, a virtue expressed excessively or a virtue expressed deficiently, ceases to be a virtue and becomes a vice.  For example, what if a parent refused to discipline a child out of a claim of love?  Would we say that love ceased to be a virtue in this instance and became a vice because it became excessive?  Or we could say that discipline ceased to be a virtue and became a vice because it was deficient?

Second, Aristotle observed a variety of situational impacts by describing voluntary and involuntary acts.  Voluntary actions are those a person chooses to do.  Involuntary actions are something a person is forced to do by some outside coercion. For example; murder is a vice.  But what if an individual was forced to commit some vice to save their friends and family be killed in front of them?  Would the vice then become a virtue because it resulted in a greater good in sight as an involuntary action?

Look again at the case of Naaman – the king coerced his participation in ritual idol sacrifice yet Naaman did not compromise his faith. Contrast the situation of Naaman with that of Shadrach, Meshack and Abed-nego who faced a furnace for refusing to take part in ritual idol worship.[3]  What are the differences between the situation Naaman faced and that of Shadrach, Meshack and Abed-nego?  How did their situation impact the decisions they made?  The context of Shadrach, Meshack and Abed-nego is different. Shadrach, Meshack and Abed-nego lived within the covenant community of Israel in exile. This exile was the result of a failure to stay in relationship with God. In this situation, the test of covenant integrity summoned a deontological declaration that the core values of covenant with God cannot and would not be violated.

Shadrach, Meshack and Abed-nego used a deontological foundation for their decisions. The strength of deontological ethical decisions is that they work to simplify right and wrong – deontological perspectives help to clarify complex situations and give a starting point that avoids the slide into subjectivity. The Decalogue (e.g., the Ten Commandments) provides an illustration of a deontological foundation.  Laws and regulations for example offer a deontological starting point for decisions in business.

The law provides some guidance but cannot anticipate every situation so that even in the clarity of the law people must still make moral decisions supplemented by something more than a deontological commitment.

Aristotle noted that involuntary actions must be qualified as meeting some greater good, such as avoiding a worse evil to be considered a virtue not a vice, or if not a virtue a pardonable act and not an unpardonable one.  Before we dismiss Aristotle as being simply an ancient Greek out of touch with good biblical reasoning, we need to consider another well-known event in the Scripture.  Mordecai’s destiny words to Esther are often quoted without regard to the fact that in Esther’s case she was involuntarily placed in the Harem of Ahasuerus. Her presence in the harem and the favor bestowed on her after her courageous confrontation of Haman and his plan for ethnic cleansing is considered a virtuous act of faith and is celebrated in the feast of Purim.[4]

The case of Mordecai and Esther also illustrates a proper use of a teleological ethical egoism (an individual should act to great the greatest good in himself or herself, i.e., do what’s best for yourself). Consider that upon her entry into the harem of Ahasuerus, Mordecai counseled Esther to keep her ethnic identity secret.[5]  Had Esther not done this, it is unlikely that she would have lived to be in the place she was to expose Haman’s plot of ethnic cleansing.  Mordecai understood the banal character of evil.  Discussions of ethical decision-making are often derailed by the inability to acknowledge the reality of evil. Mordecai could have held a firm line and told Esther to reveal everything about herself out of a misguided definition of integrity. Esther never denied her identity – however it turns out that the timing of her admission meant the difference between death and salvation.   When the time came to declare her ethnic identity and act for forestall Haman’s genocidal plot Mordecai used a teleological ethic to encourage Esther’s intervention. Look at how Mordecai framed the situation,

…Do not imaging that you in the king’s palace can escape any more than all the Jews. For if you remain silent at this time, relief and deliverance will arise for the Jews from another place and you and your father’s house will perish. And who knows whether you have not attained royalty for such a time as this?[6]

Mordecai not only appeals to a teleological ethic but emphasizes the need for Esther to take responsibility as a leader to serve her people. Reviewing stories like that of Shadrach, Meshack and Abed-nego or Mordecai and Esther illustrates how the use of theological reflection.

Sound Ethical Reasoning Consists of Three Interactive Components

The point is that a model like Aristotle’s is helpful yet limited in that it does not reflect the impact of God’s revelation which serves as an anchor to limit moral decision-making from devolving into an exercise in subjectivity. The exercise of ethical reasoning by servant leaders attentive to God’s self revelation requires a leader’s self awareness in three interactive components: theological reflection, worldview, and personal experience.

Theological reflection is the anchor that continually refocuses and sharpens the moral reasoning of a servant leader so that she or he avoids the trap of subjectivity and the haze of situational overload. Theological reflection assumes that the use of the Scripture requires decisions about the mode of ethical discourse contained in Scripture. In other words, when we read the Scripture it is important to differentiate whether the text has:

  • Rules: direct commands or prohibitions (deontological approach).
  • Principles: general frameworks of moral consideration e.g., Mark 12:28-31(teleological and virtue approach).
  • Paradigms: stories or summary accounts modeling exemplary or reprehensible conduct (blend of approaches).
  • Perceptual categories: symbols by which we interpret reality e.g., nature of human condition or character of God or kingdom reign of God.

These various categories of literature each offer a different kind of biblical warrant that function authoritatively in making moral decisions. A leader’s formation as a servant leader requires utilizing a mode of appeal and sources of authority.  (A warrant is a justification for an action or a belief).

Worldview. Consciously or unconsciously people formulate a grid by which they make particular ethical decisions that blend their cultural perspectives/traditions. A worldview is how a person sees or understands the world in which he or she lives. Servant leaders work to make their worldview assumptions, allegiances, and values explicit. Servant leaders understand that the process of discipleship is a process of transformation and learning and that some of their deeply held cultural values or perceptions may in fact work against the kingdom of God. Assumptions, allegiances, and values of a worldview defined:

  • Assumptions: a fact or statement taken for granted. For example many in the western world, “…assume that the only personal beings in a given room are the ones we can see, we are following a worldview assumption taught us as we learned our culture.”[7]
  • Allegiances: the loyalties that define what is important for example: family, job, friends, country, organization, and etc.
  • Values: something intrinsically valuable or desirable and useful and important for example: freedom, loyalty, high mobility, interpersonal competitiveness or interdependence.

Personal experience generates the practice needed to refine or develop. Personal experience includes: the conceptualization of self, experience of social change, family history, and lessons learned or avoided in the consequences connected to decisions and actions. Personal experience does something with the feedback generated by action. Feedback accepted creates a learning cycle. Feedback rejected creates a gap between behavior and the consequences of behavior as illustrated in Figure 1.

Engaging ethical reasoning with a conscious awareness of the interaction between theological reflection, worldview, and personal experience expands a leader’s capacity to manage complexity. When a leader exercises awareness the possibility of change through learning occurs. The way theological reflection, worldview, and personal experience interact provides a mental model for interpreting situations. A mental model is a unique and personal generalization, mental picture, or image that influences how one understands the world and takes action. The importance of defining one’s mental model rests in the fact that learning does not take place without a conscious awareness. See Figure 1.

In Figure 1 the mental model (the interaction of theological reflection, worldview, and personal experience) results in a moral decision. When the process of ethical reasoning is conscious a person moves from decision to recognizing the outcome of their decision. The outcome allows responsible reflection to decide whether the outcome was desirable or undesirable. It is important to see that regardless of the outcome the feedback loop illustrated by the solid line process results in learning. Learning results in a realignment of theological reflection, worldview, and personal experience to account for new data.

Figure 1: Ethical Decision Making Grid

Wheeler Ethical Decision Model

Conversely if the process of ethical reasoning is unconscious, the chance of working out of bias and blind spots amplifies and the risk of becoming a toxic leader grows. Figure 1 illustrates the risk of blind or unconscious action in dotted line loop titled, “externalized loop.” This process avoids analyzing the outcome of a decision and results in a failure to learn. Instead of accepting responsibility for the outcomes generated by one’s decision or behavior this person fixates on events outside themselves as either the reason for success or failure. A leader in this situation would simply condemn Samantha and leave her with few options to move forward in her life other than existing in some second class state.

A person who lives in a disconnection between their mental model and the outcome of their own behavior and decisions creates a learning gap. This gap contributes to the process of denial and the development of a mental model that effectively insulates the leader from the consequences of his or her behaviors and decisions in their own mind. Notice the gap between the dotted line loop and the mental model in use represented by the three interactive boxes (theological reflection, personal experience, and worldview). This illustrates how a leader can insist on the same ineffective action or perspective repeatedly despite a negative result obvious to those outside that leader’s mental model.

For servant leaders the ethical decision-making process always results in reflection about the outcomes of decisions and behaviors as well as the process that generates the decisions and behaviors in the first place. As is clear in Figure 1 the outcomes of any particular decision or behavior either confirm and/or challenge our mental models. Hence, feedback is extremely important.  Feedback, whether positive or negative, is the essence of a learning process that sees the outcomes of decisions in an exercise of intentional reflection. Reflection considers how the servant leader made a decision in the first place, and the degree to which it is consistent to one’s ethical commitments and the degree to which Scripture forms one’s ethical commitments.

Feedback is also important to recognize because it represents cultural, familial or organizational norms. The summons to live together as resident aliens even within our own cultural setting is a summons to engage the world around us from the perspective of God’s working. This perspective can set up cross-currents with the moral assumptions and value choices of our own culture or of our organizational culture.  But more importantly, the summons to live as resident aliens allows us to use a wider perspective in our ethical reasoning.

Conclusion

Making moral and effective judgments based on a process of ethical decision-making is unavoidable in leadership. But more, ethical decision-making provides a means for early intervention to forestall either personal or organizational disaster.

Ethical decision-making is a process of responsible action based on explicit moral imperatives and values requiring that servant leaders be capable of explicitly defining the basis of their ethical reasoning.

Samantha did not answer the question of whether to have surgery or not in our time together. She did understand that the reconciliation she experienced with God was contagious and provided a basis for her to hope she could be reconciled to her parents. She returned home and began to work through what it meant to be a believer reconciled and transformed by the grace of God. How do you make ethical and moral decisions?

[1]Peter G. Northouse. Leadership Theory and Practice, 3rd ed. (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, 2004), 313.

[2] 2 Kings 5:1-19.

[3] Daniel 3:1-30 relates the incident of Shadrach, Meshach and Abed-nego and their refusal to worship a golden statute set up by Nebuchadnezzer.

[4] Esther 4:14.

[5] Esther 2:10.

[6] Esther 4:13-14 (NASB)

[7] Charles H. Kraft. Anthropology for Christian Witness (Maryknoll NY: Orbis Books, 2003), 11.


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Spiritual Leadership or Its Absence Affects Your Bottom Line


Spiritual leadership is the missing piece of the puzzle.

Spiritual leadership is often the missing piece of the puzzle of sustained performance.

Spiritual leadership impacts the bottom line

Most leaders understand the necessity of developing skills and leveraging their unique personality. Fewer leaders understand the antecedent of spiritual formation in the development of leaders. Fewer leaders still believe that spiritual formation has any bearing on their bottom line.  However, research begs to differ with what leaders believe or don’t believe.

So what difference does spiritual formation and spiritual leadership make according to the research?[i] Every significant metric of employee performance i.e., commitment, productivity, performance, character, and competence are positively affected by spiritual leadership. The reverse is also true; the lack of spiritual leadership exists as a drag on these same metrics. The fact is that spiritual leadership melts the impediments that keep organizations and businesses from hitting sustained bottom line performance. How?

First, spiritual leadership positively predicts calling (i.e., the experience of transcendence that defines how one makes a difference through service to others and thus derives a meaning and purpose in life). How calling is generated in followers is the concern of the spiritual leader.  Calling is that sense of meaning or purpose that makes up the triad of intrinsic motivation (competence, mastery, and purpose – see Pink).  As Fry et al describe it:

“The term calling has long been used as one of the defining characteristics of a professional. Professionals in general have expertise in a specialized body of knowledge, ethics centered on selfless service to clients/customers, an obligation to maintain quality standards within the profession, calling to their field, dedication to their work, and a strong commitment to their careers.”[ii]

Second, spiritual leadership positively predicts membership (i.e., the fundamental need to be understood and appreciated – this emerges in followers as the leader manifests the characteristics of spiritual leadership and so generates a sense of mutual care and concern so that followers gain a sense of membership). Spiritual leadership contributes to the altruistic love of each team member toward the other as they jointly develop a common vision. Altruistic love and a common vision is a prerequisite to developing hope – a characteristic that expressed in a “do what it takes” pursuit of “a vision of transcendent service to stakeholders.”[iii]

Third, the positive relationship between spiritual leadership and organizational commitment and performance is fully mediated by calling and membership.  Leaders who tap into their followers needs of calling and membership find that shared experience helps the emergence of trust, intrinsic motivation, and organizational commitment needed to enhance the team’s performance.  Researchers explain the dynamic at play in shared experience as:

“Concerning spiritual leadership, over time these individuals would begin to form shared or compatible mental models of altruistic love, vision, and hope/faith of the group, thereby increasing the group’s sense of calling and membership, and ultimately influence each other toward increasingly greater levels of commitment and performance.”[iv]

Spiritual leadership is a game changer

Clearly the exercise of spiritual leadership is a game changer. So what is spiritual leadership? It is an expression of vision, altruistic love, and faith/hope that characterizes the leader’s approach to exercising influence and power.  Spiritual leadership is a composite variable in organizational performance. It cannot be adequately deconstructed to create a reflective construct but does serve as a formative construct i.e., causal action flows from indicators to create a composite variable.  The formative indicators of spiritual leadership include:

  1. Vision – a picture of the future based on implicit or explicit commentary describing why people should work to create that future.
  2. Altruistic love – “…a sense of wholeness, harmony, and well being produced through care, concern and appreciation for both self and others.” (262)
  3. Hope/faith – hope is a want with the certainty of fulfillment; faith adds certainty to hope. People with hope and faith have clarity in where they are going and how to get there and are willing to endure hardship or setbacks along the way without losing the conviction behind their goal.

Taking care to help leaders in their spiritual formation is action designed to help them develop a clear vision, love for others, and hope/faith.  The methods of spiritual formation vary but always need a mentor who helps the emerging or existing leader frame their insight and communicate their vision and hope clearly.  Spirituality is that transcendent aspect of humanness that seeks out a sense of meaning and purpose in life. It may take on a variety of forms or expressions. Spirituality is distinct from religion. Religion is concerned with theological system of beliefs and rituals and related formalized practices and ideas. This distinction is important to keep up not only to avoid the violation of human resource law but to cut misunderstanding that wrongly equates spirituality and religion in a way that then disassociate its importance to the business goal.

In contrast to the idea of spiritual leadership, some leaders assume that the only needed tool of effective leadership is a dispassionate commitment to “the numbers”. The value of analytics is not in dispute.  What is in dispute is the assumption that analytics alone are enough to lead the sustained performance of any group. Research simply does not support the belief that a manager can be effective and stay dispassionately disengaged from the people they manage while hiding behind “the numbers.” Nor does research support the idea that the idea of meaning/purpose is secondary to the real business of making money or completing tasks. Meaning/purpose are primary factors to high employee motivation, sense of calling, and feeling of membership with the group.

Conclusion

How do you make room for the development of your own spiritual leadership?  How clear are you about your own sense of purpose or the meaning of life and work?  Do your vision, love, and hope/faith rise to the level of responsibility you now hold or did your spiritual formation arrest under the press to acquire the skill needed to master the technical aspects of your current role?  If spiritual formation has not been a conscious exercise in your professional development you may just have found the reason your team’s performance continues to lag behind the competition and your organization’s expectations.  Need help in kick starting your spiritual formation?  Then it is time to talk with a coach who gets it.

Afterward: The relationship of spiritual leadership and servant leadership

According to Fry et al, spiritual leadership addresses four key areas that research in servant leadership has not yet examined: (1) the specific cultural values that are necessary for servant leadership; (2) the role of servant leadership in achieving value congruence across organizational levels; (3) the personal outcomes of servant leadership; and (4) the apparent contradiction of placing the needs of people higher than the needs of the organization.  It must be noted on this last point that Fry observes a popular perception not a data supported by experience in servant leadership.  Servant leadership works at the level of motivation with organizational views in mind and indications are that organizational outcomes are enhanced by this perception as Fry et al also acknowledge in their definition of professionals above. What may be a more accurate statement is that a spiritual leadership perspective is the antecedent of the exercise of servant leadership.

 

[i] Louis W Fry, Sean T. Hannah, Michael Noel and Fred O. Walumbwa. “Impact of Spiritual Leadership on Unit Performance,” The Leadership Quarterly, Volume 22, Issue 2, April 2011, 259-270. 11 pages.

[ii] Fry et al 263

[iii] Ibid. 263

[iv] Ibid. 261


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God is Not Silent – Are You Listening?


Pietro_Perugino_-_Prophets_and_Sibyls_-_WGA17241I had just completed reading the second book of Chronicles in the Jewish scriptures.  The conclusion of the author caught my attention.  It reads,

The Lord, the God of their ancestors , sent persistently to them by his messengers, because he had compassion on his people and on his dwelling place; but they kept mocking the messengers of God, despising his words, and scoffing at this prophets, until the wrath of Lord against his people became so great that there was no remedy. (2 Chron. 36:16-16, NRSV)

I reflected on the persistent disregard the king’s of Israel had toward God’s personal communication.  My response is not uncommon, “How can people who have so many clear interventions from God so completely miss God’s attempt to communicate?”

My ruminations about transition emerge from the context of my own experience.  There have recently been times were I felt at the end of my most important contribution.  Oddly, opportunities for which I am amply qualified have closed in front of me. Ageism?  Perhaps. Diversity goals? Perhaps. Cost reduction? Perhaps. The reasons were insignificant compared to the questions I face at this stage in life. I am part of the Boomer generation and I look forward to the convergence of experience, learning, and opportunity. Yet, I sometimes feel convergence slipping from my grasp.  Fear assails my thoughts, resignation like a mental rigor-mortise has tried to rob my creativity and resilience.

In the midst of these fairly common emotions I am reminded to embrace yet another metamorphosis as I learn to apply my knowledge and experience in new ways. Reading the historical lessons of Chronicles has been encouraging – a reminder that God is not silent and that the shaping of destiny and purpose continues through a life time. Decisions made today are as significant as decisions made a decade ago spiritually. Look at faithful men and women in Chronicles who live an entire life of faithful and powerful relationship with God who then fail to finish well in the end through hubris or some other arrogance that leads to a wreckage of faith and not a flourishing of faith.

Hence my rumination, “How can people who have so many clear interventions from God so completely miss God’s attempts at communicating?” And hence, my commitment to remain attentive to that still small voice of God – God’s communication that is clear in the scriptures read and reflected upon or in those intuitive thoughts that emerge from prayer that bear the stamp of God’s own voice.

I went about my day and was preparing to leave my office and run some errands when I heard a knock at the door. A young man in a lime green logo shirt with iPad in hand was conducting an energy survey to find out who in our neighborhood qualifies for alternative energy projects. Janice and I have already explored these alternatives so I was closing the conversation when the young man surprised me with a request, “May I pray for you?” he said.

“Sure, what congregation are you a part of?” I asked.

He told me, we prayed and then he looked at me and said, “A man your age sometimes thinks their time of fruitfulness is over.  Your greatest time of fruitfulness is about to begin. God has you in this time of transition not to forsake you but to complete the equipping and preparation you need for what is next.  The end of your life will see the greatest of God’s work in scope and in impact.  You have been faithful in little, God will make you faithful over much more.”

He said several others things too personal to share in this format that spoke to the deepest parts of my being.

Ok, that was different. Some might even say it was weird.

After he left, I considered my reflection about the kings of Israel and their response to the prophets.  I am separated from their experience by thousands of years and yet the God of Abraham still speaks to me like the God I read about in the Bible.  I remembered something Dallas Willard once wrote:

In the last analysis nothing is more central to the practical life of the Christian than confidence in God’s individual dealings with each person.  The individual care of the shepherd for his sheep, of the parent for the child and of the lover for the beloved are all biblical images that have passed into the fundamental consciousness of Western humanity….The biblical record always presents the relationship between God and the believer as more like a friendship or family tie than like merely one person’s arranging to take care of the needs of another.(1)

I take the young prophet’s words to heart. I listen for the voice of God who is also my friend.

In case some wonder; I am not lost in the pursuit of the next episodic thrill of existential phenomenon. I am attentive to what God says in the scriptures, in prayer, and through the voices of others. I have specific goals and I work toward the convergence I want to see also recognizing that opportunities I have not thought of may well land in my lap as a result of the guidance and grace of God.

Is it a surprise that the prophetic (a gift of the Holy Spirit according to 1 Corinthians 12-14) still finds expression through and in the church?  Not at all. This is the promise of God at work to guide, restore, heal, comfort, and develop God’s people. Are you listening for the voice of God?  What do you do with what God has said or is saying now?  How do you test the validity of what you hear to decide its reliability?  If you are a follower of God through faith in Jesus Christ then be ready to see God act today just like you see God acting in history.

If you are not familiar with God acting in this way then contact me, I am happy to talk with you. Or, pray, ask God to show God’s self to you in a way you can’t miss. Walk the journey of faith with expectation, hope, and joy; one greater than you walks with you.

 

(1) Dallas Willard. Hearing God: Developing a Conversational Relationship with God. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1999), 22-23.