Leadership

Last night I saw Selma for the second time. The movie tells the story of the 1965 Selma to Montgomery voting rights marches. For those who have not taken the time to see this movie, please go. It is worth the price of admission. This movie is a stark reminder of a past that many would like to forget. 1965 was a time when Jim Crow laws shaped the daily lives of our brothers and sisters of color by instituting various racially motivated economic, education, and social hardships. These laws mandated the segregation of public schools, public places, and public transportation including restrooms, restaurants, and drinking fountains.

In the midst of all of this a leader and prophet emerges, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. I had always assumed that leadership came easily to King. Hearing his sermons still takes the listener to a higher place. Who doesn’t resonate with “I have a dream” or “He’s allowed me to go to the mountain. And I’ve looked over, and I have seen the Promised Land”? King had a way of rallying people to his cause, of stirring people to action. I imagine that just being in his presence made you a better person.

The movie dared to expose a more personal side of King; a side that questioned, doubted, and wondered. Sometimes it is easy to assume that leadership is about confidence and strength. It was good to be reminded that leaders are human beings as well. King found ways to overcome his fears and questions. In doing this he became the prophet, pastor, and spiritual leader we needed and continue to need.

Today we still need people who can move beyond their fears, questions, and weaknesses to find the courage to speak truth to power. We need people to dream, to go to the mountain and see not what is but what can be.

Memorial Day

Yesterday my pastor spoke from Psalm 77, specifically focusing on verse 11 where the writer declares, “I will remember the deeds of the Lord.” Today is Memorial Day. More often than not I think of this as the first day of summer, not as a day to remember. It may have something to do with my Mennonite upbringing. As a pacifist I have struggled with the “war” holidays while admiring anyone who is willing to sacrifice their life for something greater than themselves. So, regardless of my personal beliefs these acts of courage and sacrifice need to be remembered.

As my pastor reminded the congregation heroic acts are not limited to times of war. There are civil rights heroes; just last week we lost Dr. Vincent Harding, probably best known for drafting Dr. King’s “Beyond Vietnam” speech. I am also reminded that we have ordinary heroes who don’t always make the headlines, but do make a difference. Something is lost when we forget to remember those who help us to live in a better and more just world. In my work life I am surrounded by these every day heroes. It seems appropriate to remember and recognize them on this day.

Staff 2013 Chicago Cropped medium size file

It has become increasing clear to me that I benefit from the past and current (and future) cloud of witnesses that has cleared the road before me and continues to walk beside me. This group of women and men has helped me to experience a Christian faith that is much more than male, white, conservative, and privileged. It is has been their constant nudging, pushing, and prophetic vision that has pushed the ministry I lead beyond “Anglo.”

Today, in 2014, our staff and boards are made up of young and old; men and women; Anglos and persons of color; single and married; straight and gay; Americans and immigrants; the theologically conservative and liberal. Without this cloud of witnesses, transformation could not have happened.

It was Dr. Cornel West who said, “If your success is defined as being well adjusted to injustice and well adapted to indifference, then we don’t want successful leaders. We want great leaders – who love the people enough and respect the people enough to be unbought, unbound, unafraid and unintimidated to tell the truth.”

It has been the gentle and not-so-gentle questions, proddings, and pleas that have prevented DOOR, the organization I lead, from entering into a well-adjusted indifference. Prophetic presence comes with a high personal cost and sacrifice, which I have not always acknowledged. To my board and staff I apologize for the times DOOR has failed to live up to its calling as the Beloved Community.

Please accept my sincere thanks and gratitude for the work you continue to do to help me live in a world where inclusion, justice and equality are in simple terms “normal.”

 

An Eternal Moment

Every once in a while I find myself participating in an important moment. These moments rarely arise because of planning. They just happen. Last evening I was part of one of these moments. It took place after the DOOR Atlanta board meeting at Manuel’s Tavern. I like going there because they have two prime parking spots reserved for clergy. There were eight of us around the table. Two board members, our Atlanta City Director, my friend Anton, me and three Discern staff representing three of our DOOR cities. These2013-08-12 22.48.07 Discerners were in Atlanta for a Fund for Theological (FTE) event. Chris is from the west side of Chicago and has worked for DOOR every summer for the past 10 years. Today he is a confident 20 something about to complete his Master of Communication Studies, but I remember the high school freshman who was so skinny the wind could blow him over. Manny just completed his third summer in Denver. He likes to claim Los Angeles as his home town, but he spent most of his teen years in Denver and is a member of the church our family attends. Kelli spent one summer in both Denver and Hollywood. She came to DOOR through a more “traditional path;” she came as a Discover participant, liked the program and applied for a summer staff position. Here were these three young adults – a Hispanic, an African American and an Anglo.

For two hours we sat at that table. The waiter could hardly get a word in to take our order. The conversation was animated, passionate and emotional. We began with the “simplest” of topics, how should we think about sexual orientation? This went on for about 45 minutes. Once we had come to a general consensus we moved on to talking about how working for DOOR has impacted each of their lives. For each of them working with a diverse staff had helped them to better understand who they were and the radical breadth of the kingdom of God. The concept of “For God so loved the world” had taken on new meaning.

One of our hiring commitments is to find people who are different from one another and ask them to work together in unity. Our staff comes to us from urban, rural and suburban settings. Some have been raised in the church while others are new to the Sunday thing. They are young adults of color and they are Anglo. Some are progressive while others hold a more conservative theology. All of this diversity could be viewed as a prescription for disaster. I am constantly surprised that this doesn’t blow up in our face. Every year these young adults choose to define themselves first by what they hold in common. When this happens everyone is given a glimpse of what the church can be.

Diversity, Culture and Christianity

Several weeks ago I wrote about diversity in our Sunday morning churches. I acknowledge this is one of those ideas that sound good on paper. The notion of us putting aside ideas, convictions and beliefs which divide us seems to be a reasonable request, at least initially. The struggle for many is that church also represents a significant source of cultural identity. It is this connection to identity that creates a rub. The way I view the world, understand God, and work out my moral convictions are deeply personal. Being told to simply ignore this for the greater good is not an easy pill to swallow. For some, laying aside differences that divide means admitting that deeply held convictions may be wrong, misguided or no longer helpful. For others it means giving up theological comfort. I do not know of many people who go to church to engage in theological debate with their pew-mates. They may be critical of the church down the street, but fellow church members are seen as co-laborers in the fight for ‘our version’ of who God is and what is right.

At what first might appear to be a more benign level church, is often a place of social comfort. The potlucks overflow with ‘known’ comfort food, or an agreed upon ‘newness’. The style of worship fits within a commonly held set of norms. The congregation knows when to stand up, the appropriateness of clapping, and when to use ‘amen’. When people get invited over to each other’s homes for Sunday dinner the host knows if serving alcohol is appropriate.

I travel a lot, and as a result I have the privilege of attending many kinds of different churches. In some it is customary to be welcomed with a kiss on the cheek, while others find a handshake provides more than enough intimacy. When I preach some congregations ‘require’ a suit and tie, while at another jeans and a polo shirt are more than formal enough. Some congregations believe the Holy Spirit works best through an 18 minute scripted sermon, while others expect a 45 -60 minute spontaneous Spirit-filled sermon.

Making space for diversity, especially in the local church, will not be easy thing to achieve. 2000 years ago the Apostle Paul in his letter to the Galatians laid out a vision for the church, “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” This dream may require a reimagining of culture and convistions.

10 years

Have you ever experienced a moment when your perspective changes forever? The birth of my children and death of my mother fit into this category. Another similar moment happened on my first day at this job. We were at one of the helping agencies DOOR partners with, almost 20 years ago, and I was being introduced as the new DOOR city director. It was a time when I was full of all kinds of "creative" ideas for making DOOR a more effective urban program. Then one of the ladies, we will call her Christine, to whom I was being introduced stood up, walked around her desk, came right up to me, looked me up and down and said, "so you are the new DOOR director (long pause), don't tell us anything until you have been here 10 years." After which she turned around, walked back to her desk and went back to the work. Later on we became good friends, but that first day and the advice she gave have haunted me ever since. In one sentence Christine put me in my place and began a process that reshaped my understanding of mission, service and the role of people who come to participate in these acts. I can best explain it this way. On my first days of work I believed that I had been called to urban Denver to make a difference. Children were going to be tutored, the hungry were going to be fed, houses would be repaired, the homeless would be loved and everyone would be grateful for the changes I was engineering. Until I met Christine those dreams and visions seemed God ordained. What I had forgotten is that Christianity is about relationship. Relationship, in its purest form, is always mutual. My “day one” vision wasn’t mutual; it was paternalistic. At best paternalism stinks; at its worst it destroys communities.

What Christine was trying to tell me on that first day in her own special way was that mission, service and ministry don’t make much sense apart from relationship. In her mind it would take at least 10 years for me to understand the community and at least 10 years for the community to learn to trust me.

I realize that we live in a world where everything happens quickly from overnight shipping of goods across the world to fast food. Telling people that patience and time are needed to accomplish anything almost sounds antiquated. So I will risk it and sound antiquated – if you want to serve then hang out a bit, get to know us, earn the right to speak into our lives and together we will make a difference.

Why DOOR?

If you are a leader of a group or the person charge of finding a service/learning opportunity for 2013, then this blog is for you! Here are my top 10 reasons for considering DOOR:

  1. We are an “asset based” organization.  We believe that God is alive and well and working our cities.  Yes there are needs, issues and problems in the city, but the hope, resourcefulness and life in the city far outweigh the negatives.  Another way to think about this is that the biblical story starts in a garden, but ends in a city.  If you want to know what heaven is going to be like, come to the city!
  1. There are 6 great locations to come and witness what God is doing - Atlanta, Chicago, Denver,      Hollywood, Miami, and San Antonio.
  1. The $305.00 per person cost covers meals, staffing, lodging and reflection.  This frees leaders to spend time getting to know the members of their group – doing the pastoral stuff without      having to sweat the logistics.
  1. 2013 marks our 26th year, we began in 1986.  We have the experience and knowhow.
  1. We hire local City Directors; these are folks who know the city and who call it their home.  If you break down, it’s their mechanic you’re calling.  When you leave, the relationships with agencies, speakers and neighborhoods remain and grow  year to year.
  1. Our relationship to local      helping agencies, ministries and churches is grounded in authentic      relationships.  On average each of      our cities we work with 30-50 agencies, ministries and churches.  That’s a potential national network of      300.
  1. The fee you pay helps DOOR hire local staff and purchases food and materials at local businesses.  You are not only getting a good value for your money, but it is spent in such a way as to benefit the local community.
  1. Our commitment to “partnership.”  We partner with other organizations and institutions because we believe that we have much to learn from others and the combination of DOOR with our partners creates a better experience for participants.  We believe that service minded learning is best accomplished collaboratively.  Listening and learning from various voices serves to enhance one’s understanding of God and God’s call.  We believe in hearing God's call within community at both the individual level as well as our organizational level. This commitment to partnership extends to all levels of DOOR’s programming.  Nationally, we are a network of cities and denominations partnering with each other to provide learning. Locally we work with various faith based and non-faith based service agencies. We are committed to connecting participants to local urban congregations representing various denominational and cultural traditions.
  1. Our commitments to reconciliation peace, non-violence and justice.  From race to nationality and from denomination to local church our programming, our training and our philosophies challenge us to reconcile the sins and hurts of the past and to move forward together with God.
  1. Finally, take home new energy, focus, and ideas for ministry in your home congregation and neighborhood. Interacting with urban service agencies, local congregations, and DOOR staff can help your group consider how to live out the Gospel in new ways at home.

Creative Leadership

Last fall I attended a meeting where Stephen Lewis of the Fund for Theological Education spoke about creative leadership.  Early on he claimed that “creative leaders are people who convene gatherings of diverse people because innovation only happens at the collision of diverse ideas.”   I had mostly forgotten about this comment until this week when I read a post from Duke Divinity School where the author references some research by Randall Collins. He asserts that “all intellectual breakthroughs across the history of the world, across cultures around the world, consistently have depended upon sustained relationships of people from diverse backgrounds interacting with one another over time.”

This makes sense to me.  Hanging out with people who see the world differently than I do pushes my assumptions and challenges my beliefs.  When I am pushed, I grow, change and mature.  I become a better, more tolerant person.

So, why do I spend so much time and effort avoiding being pushed?  If I am going to be honest it is my secret desire that everyone just agrees with me and accepts my perspectives.  Being confronted with my own short-sightedness, prejudices and incomplete worldview is embarrassing.  It is much more comfortable and easy to simply be right, or at least believe that I am right. 

Innovative leadership and creative ministry require space for diversity, at every conceivable level.  Those who have the courage and humility to allow for diversity will find themselves not only on the cutting edge but creating the edge itself.

Partnership

As I reflect on the last 15 years of urban ministry with DOOR, a primary learning comes to mind: Do not do ministry alone – ever.

Someday I will write a book. I will name the book, “Words I Wish I Had Never Heard.” The first chapter will be named “The Fallacy of Independence.” In my early 20s, I became convinced of the importance of the word- Independence. To be successful, I needed to think independently. I thought that living this way would free me to do ministry, but somewhere along the way this word, this idea, became a prison.

I am slowly discovering freedom from the need to independent. Collaboration and partnership are much better guides. I would even go so far as to suggest that collaboration, partnership and mutuality allow for health, creativity and innovation in ministry.

Prior to my time at DOOR, I worked as a youth minister and I spent much of my time trying to figure out how I could develop a more exciting ministry that would attract youth to my program – notice the personal pronouns! When I moved, form the suburbs to the city one of the first things I noticed was how people, churches and agencies worked together. Issues like homelessness, hunger, poverty and teen pregnancy are simply too overwhelming for any one person, church or organization to handle on their own (I would also guess that these are overwhelming issues for the suburbs as well). For me, the city had a way of forcing diverse people and groups to come together. On Denver’s west side the liberal, conservative, Catholic and Pentecostal pastor’s meet regularly to plan combined events that work on shared concerns like gang violence or hunger.

At DOOR, “partnership” has become the method of operation. We collaborate with other organizations and institutions because we believe that we have much to learn from others and the combination of DOOR with our partners creates a better experience for participants. Service and learning is best accomplished through collaboration. Listening to and learning from various voices serves only to enhance one’s understanding of God and God’s call. We believe in hearing God's call within community at both the individual level as well as our organizational level.

Attempting to do ministry alone is quite simply - unhealthy.