A white issue

Two years ago I was asked to join the Seminary Consortium for Urban Pastoral Education (SCUPE) advisory board. SCUPE is a ministry committed to educating leaders to revitalize congregations and community organizations to transform cities towards becoming just, inclusive and peaceful communities in accordance with God’s vision for the world. This particular board gathers twice a year to hear reports and dream about future possibilities. During the Advanced Latino/a Theological Education (ALTE) Program report a person made the thought-provoking comment that fundamentalism is a white person issue. Normally I would have just ignored the statement but Martin Marty, a well know writer on the subject of fundamentalism, was in the room and he didn’t raise any objections. For those of you who have heard the term but are not really sure what fundamentalism is, here is a quick refresher. It stresses the infallibility of Scripture in matters of faith and morals and as a historical record. These are the people who get stressed out about the theory of evolution.

I am not sure that I grew up as a strict fundamentalist, but it certainly shaped my view of God, the Bible, and the kind of choices I needed to make in life. It is never fun to discover that deeply held commitments are more a matter of culture than a universal Christian understanding. Facing this reality is uncomfortable and has the potential to be disruptive. We all want to believe that our Christian understandings are culturally neutral. Quite simply this is not the case, and never has been the case.

Our understandings of God are always culturally influenced. One of the only ways I know of moving beyond my particular culture is to put myself in places where other cultures and understandings have a voice. This isn’t easy. For many of us difference has and continues to equal sin. Allowing for difference can very quickly become uncomfortable. How do people who believe in a literal six day creation worship together with those who understand evolution to be true? Evolution versus creation is child’s play when put alongside questions of sexual orientation. Difference is not easy.

Can you imagine a church where difference is celebrated? Being with a group of believers who hold wildly different understandings of who God is and how God works? Potentially uncomfortable, certainly messy but also freeing.

Entitlement and the young adult

I have been working with youth and young adults for well over two decades now.  During this time I have also become a parent of two young adult boys (men).  I say this because I am not innocent of the issues I want to raise. 2013-12-27 12.59.34

We live in an era when parents are more involved in the lives of their emerging adult children than ever.  This didn’t just happen. Concerned parents have been there at every step, from planned play dates and selecting the right pre-school to hiring tutors and college prep coaches; we have wanted nothing but the best for our children.  Smart phones and social media have allowed instant and continuous access to literally everything our children do and are engaged in.  It might even be an understatement to say that parents have embraced these tools fully.  The jury is still out as to the benefits and costs of this level of social media.  It is not a stretch to suggest that these instantaneous connections slow down the “letting go” process.

It makes sense that letting go is not easy for either the parents or the young adult children.  What we sometimes fail to recognize is the cost to this extended and intense connection.  A grown child’s dependence on the parent to always be present, always come through, and always be available delays adulthood and creates a level of personal entitlement that stunts social development.

In the last few years I have seen this play out in all kinds of unhealthy ways.  Parents have inserted themselves into the crises and stresses of their young adult’s experiences in our Dwell program.  At DOOR, Dwell is a program that invites young adults to spend a year living in intentional community exploring the call of God on their lives.  During their year all kinds of issues and stresses arise from the mundane, like deciding who will cook dinner and how to keep the house clean, to the serious, like how to deal with health concerns or a co-worker who is acting inappropriate.

In the last few years it has become increasingly common for parents to insert themselves into the “crisis.”  Their reasoning is always good, “I am just looking out for the well-being of my child.”  As a parent I understand these fears and concerns all too well, so I am also speaking to myself. Our young adult children will never become mature functioning adults if we, the parents, keep inserting ourselves in their crises, attempting to be the hero and fix everything.

Deep down all of us know that failure and stress are the things that develop character.  Rescuing only creates dependence and immaturity.  It is a natural impulse for parents to protect their children, but there also comes a time when we need to let our children fight their own battles, even when they beg us to fight on their behalf.

Gray

I am the kind of person who desires clarity because it provides things like answers and direction.  It allows one to move forward with confidence and the assurance that “I am leading in the right direction.”  I have been brought up to believe that it is important to know some things, for example, the difference between right and wrong. There is a lurking danger when some in leadership claim to have divine clarity or direction.  More often than not it is simply arrogance parading as morality.  As I am writing this blog our nation is watching our federal leaders bring us to the brink of economic meltdown all in the name of their political “clarity.”  Everyone thinks they are absolutely right and this absoluteness leads to arrogance and a complete unwillingness to compromise.

This kind of misplaced clarity also shows up in the church.  From the benign - think of the worship style wars; to the sinister – consider how many in the church have treated those who are gay.  All of these struggles emerge from a false position of clarity.

As much as I desire clarity, both personally and professionally, I am slowly coming to realize how dangerous and destructive certainty and clarity can be, I am thinking particularly about a kind of certainly that emerges out of a desire to control, manipulate or rule the other.  The simple truth is that we live in a world which is mostly gray.  And it is not easy or comfortable living in the gray.

In politics, living in the gray means valuing and working with those who do not hold to your particular position.  It means owning the silliness of absolute viewpoints and assuming a position of humility that allows space to be wrong.

From a theological perspective we must own that black and white makes God small and manageable.  It removes the mystery and wonder.  It makes God easy to follow.  It allows us to shape God into our image rather opening ourselves to the possibility of being formed in God’s image.

Living in the gray opens us to the possibility of living in the tension of not knowing.  As strange as it might sound this is good and freeing.

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.

Power

I am the Executive Director of a national ministry. I oversee 13 staff across six cities. Annually we host 3,000 participants; some come for a week while others stay for a year. It would be easy to assume that my role grants me a lot of power. There is a sense in which this is true. My commitment to face-to-face relationships has earned me a certain measure of influence and this can be powerful. This past weekend our Atlanta board held its annual retreat. I was once again reminded of the unique organization that DOOR is. Top down leadership has never been part of the DNA. Organizationally DOOR is committed to local leadership and local control. The implications of this are quite significant. Our national board only makes decisions that it absolutely must make. The result of this is that I work with six local boards, one for each DOOR location. Each of these boards is responsible for the local program, budget, and vision.

As the Executive Director I am tasked with the responsibility of working with each of these local boards. My primary responsibility is to remind members of our philosophy of ministry and common core commitments and to share best practices between the locations. Unlike some of my counterparts in other ministries I do not have the power to hire and fire staff. I cannot come in and get rid of board members because they have offended me. I am given a voice to share concerns and make recommendations but I cannot act unilaterally.

My term for how DOOR does leadership is “distributed power.” There is no one person, denominational partner, or local board that carries a power trump card. Decision making is always shared.

When I think back to 1994 when I first started working for DOOR I had dreams about what it meant to be the “top dog.” Most of these dreams put me in the role of “benevolent dictator.” The idea of being wise, nice, and unquestioned was intoxicating. This is not how DOOR turned out.

Years ago Garth Brooks sang a song about thanking God for unanswered prayers. Today I find myself in that place. I am the Executive Director. My ideas are constantly questioned and my recommendations are not always followed. Volunteers, Dwellers, board members, and staff regularly wonder about my “wise” counsel.

The implications of this? I do not stand alone. When decisions are made, whether good or bad, there is a community that stands behind them. Even more significant is that distributed power makes space for everyone. It is way of doing leadership that has allowed DOOR to become a wonderful expression of the diversity of the kingdom of God. It is energizing to share power between men and women; people of color and Anglos; US citizens, documented and undocumented immigrants; straight and gay; Liberal and conservative; Pentecostals, Mennonites, non-denominational, Presbyterian, Four-square and 18 other denominational traditions.

Power is dangerous, especially when it is held by one person or group. The only way I know how to tame the destructive nature of power is to share it.

Control

One of my projects this year is to co-lead an Urban Ministry Tour for Mennonite Church USA (MCUSA). Our purpose and goal is to listen to urban church leaders and make recommendations that will help to shape the future of urban Mennonite Church. As we go around to various locations we are asking a common set of questions:

· Who are you? · How are you? · What are the things that you do well? · How can Mennonite Church USA be helpful? · What is of spiritual importance to you in your community? · What is important to know about ministry in the urban context?

These questions have sparked some vigorous discussions.

Last week in Minneapolis, in response to the question,”How can MCUSA be helpful?” Mark Van Steenwyk, a local church leader responded with his own question. “Is it possible for Mennonite Church USA to engage the space without trying to control the space?”

This question has been gnawing at me ever since. The need to control seems to be a universal desire.

I know that this craving impacts every area of my life. As a parent, I want to control my boys; who their friends are, what movies the watch, where they go to school and what they eat. As the National Director of DOOR, I want control over our image, the finances and the program.

Some control seems appropriate. Too often my (our) need to control becomes destructive and manipulative. I am reminded of Paul’s words in Philippians 2:7, “But (Jesus) emptied himself…”

If there ever was a person who had the right to control, it was Jesus. But Jesus, the son of God, emptied himself. Or to think of it another way, Jesus chose to engage humanity without trying to control humanity.

Why is it that we so willingly accept the freedom given to us while still hankering to control?

The temptation to control is something which must be resisted at every level, from the individual to the institution.