Leadership 2016

One of the great permissions of the New Year is the opportunity to hit a reset button, to start over with a clean slate. For the past 21 years I have given leadership to DOOR. I must admit that in the early years I was the only employee. Being in charge of myself had its share of complications and frustrations, but ultimately it was a manageable situation. Today DOOR is an organization spread across five states employing 11 full-time staff. We host participants from 20+ denominational traditions as well as non-denomination and non-faith backgrounds. We are accountable to two denominational partners – Mennonite Church USA and Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).  Beyond this each DOOR city has its own local board responsible for developing a unique vision for ministry in its particular location. A little over 10 years ago we formed a Beloved Community Council which was charged with expanding our understanding of diversity.

In my early 20’s I dreamed about being a leader. For me leadership had something to do with other people getting behind me and supporting my great ideas, thoughts, and plans. Somehow leadership and benevolent dictatorship were related. Just writing this paragraph makes me laugh, mostly with embarrassment.

Below are four lessons I have learned about leadership in 2016. None of these lessons have come easily or without pain. (It is important to note that I have never been a leader in the political, for-profit, or secular world.  However I still suspect that some of this will apply.)

  1. A leader is someone who is willing to be wrong. I came to DOOR with my ideas about urban ministry, poverty, racism, sexism, etc. In almost every case my initial prejudices were wrong. 20 years ago urban ministry was about helping people become “better.” It has taken years to understand that for ministry to be authentic it must be mutual.
  2. A leader is someone who is willing to flip-flop on issues. In certain Christian circles people like to talk about serving a God who is the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow. Quite often this idea is used as a reason for not changing personal beliefs. I agree that God is unchanging, but I humbly suggest that our understanding of who God is needs to be more flexible. I came to DOOR out of a particular tradition and context. These things shaped my understanding of God, ministry, and leadership. As I started meeting people who came out of different traditions and contexts it quickly became apparent that my understanding of God needed to change.
  3. A leader is someone who is willing to work in chaos. Bringing together people with diverse experiences and ideas can be very unsettling. In Christian circles when someone doesn’t believe the same as me then it is easiest to declare the difference as sin. This creates division. Allowing space for difference can feel very chaotic. Those who can work and live within great difference are the kind of leaders we need in 2016.
  4. Finally, leaders are people who inspire and create space for those around them to be the people God created them to be. This requires a willingness to be wrong, flip-flop, and become comfortable with chaos.

A new Church

I have always been fascinated with new church starts.  There is something special about individuals and groups of people who feel called to birth a new faith community.  Last week on my way to church I noticed a sign advertising the location, website and worship times for a new church start.  By the time I arrived at church I was checking out the website on my phone.  The first place I always go is to the staffing section.  In this particular case there was a team of four couples.  Everyone was young and had a real cool bio.  Each of them was called by God to serve in the inner city.  They were committed to racial and economic diversity.  Just based on the web site this new church was full of possibility. Every year I meet with folks who feel called by God to serve the city.  I have been around just long enough that occasionally I get asked for advice.  If I were to give the leaders of this new church some advice here are two things I would tell them:

1.  Be present. The best advice I ever received came during my first week at DOOR.  “Don’t tell us how to do anything until you have been here 10 years.”  I have a friend who likes to tell visitors that when he first came to Denver’s Westside in 1965 he figured it would take two, maybe three, years to “fix” the poverty issue and then he would move on to another poor community.  It is 2012 and he is still on the Westside.  You see, when we choose to stay in a neighborhood the “issues” quickly fade into the background and the people become important.  When people trump issues it becomes very difficult to impose institutional solutions on friends.

I very rarely find myself thinking about the poverty on Denver’s Westside.  It is true that my friends have less financial resources than many suburbanites but their commitments to family, food, and fellowship have changed how I view poverty.  This would have never happened if I had not been told to “hang out for 10 years and get to know us.”

Church leaders would do well to spend more time hanging out and less time preaching sermons!

2.  If it isn’t mutual it isn’t ministry.  I was first drawn to urban ministry because I wanted to make a difference.  Secretly I really wanted to be the urban hero.  Over the years I have spoken to countless people who feel called to urban ministry.  In every one of these conversations we eventually end up talking about the “needs” of the city and how they feel called to help make a difference.

I am the first one to admit that there are needs in the city.  Violence and drugs are but two obvious concerns.  What is so often overlooked in many people’s rush into urban ministry is the call of God on the lives of the people from the city.  I am so grateful to the urban men and women who have invested into the lives of my boys.  They have helped to guide my wife and me through the difficult maze of parenting.  They have stood by us and offered encouragement, love and acceptance even when we have felt like failures.

It’s Evaluation Time

I am a runner and hider.  When I think something is not going to work out or that I will be criticized, then I run.  I realize that this is not a mature way to deal with problems, nor does it fix anything, but it is comforting to hide when the going gets tough. This is that time of year when summer evaluations start rolling into my office.  The vast majority of folks are very happy with their DOOR experience, but there are always a few people who have something critical to say.   To be honest DOOR has chosen to approach urban ministry in a way that sets us up for criticism.  This is not helpful in reducing the stress in my life!

One of the ways we have set ourselves up has to do with our summer staff hiring preferences and philosophy.  The majority of our summer staff comes from the communities in which we serve.  For the most part our “competition” hires predominantly college students who want to serve in an “urban location” for the summer.

It is important to understand these are two very different groups of people.  College students who come to serve for the summer tend to be people of privilege.  They come to the city with the same wide-eyed wonderment and stereotypes that many of our Discover participants come with.   The result is that both the staff and participants have similar world views, prejudices and solutions to the “urban problems.”  In other words they come to the issues of poverty, faith and appropriate behavior from generally the same perspective.  This keeps everything comfortable.

By choosing to hire local staff, who also happen to be mostly persons of color, Discover participants’ level of discomfort increases.  Bringing different folks together challenges faith, behavior and moral assumptions.  When long held beliefs and world views are challenged, negative evaluations are certain to follow.  When this happens, I choose to run and hide, not very mature, but comforting!

Short-term Mission

In a typical year at DOOR we host about 3,200 youth, young adults and adults.  The vast majority, 3,100, of these people come through our week-long Discover program.  The remaining folks participate in our longer term Discern (three months) and Dwell (one year) programs.  One of the more interesting internal debates at DOOR centers on the potential dangers, both real and imagined, of short-term mission experiences. There are those who argue that our Discover program is the most dangerous.  Bringing youth into the city for a week to do mission has all kinds of potential to hurt neighborhoods and ministries.  In my mind this is an interesting theory that can seem to be true.  It has two fatal flaws; first, it completely underestimates the strength of urban communities and second, it vastly over estimates the power of incoming groups.  After almost two decades of living and working in urban communities I can testify to the strength of urban people.  At the same time I have given witness to the false assumptions visiting groups, mostly people of power and privilege, have of themselves.

In 1992 I lead a group of high schoolers to South Central Los Angeles about a month after the riots.  The theme for our trip was “Impact 92.”  In my naiveté I believed that we were going to have a positive impact on South Central.  Impact 92 did happen, but it was us who traveled to Los Angeles who were impacted.

The real danger in short-term missions is with those who come for a year.  They stay just long enough to build relationships.  Leaving not only severs their relationships but is a reminder that people of power and privilege always have the option to move on.

I believe that there is a place for short-term mission in the faith community.  Introducing people to each other who would not otherwise take the time to know each other is a kingdom building work.  Like any ministry, those of us in leadership positions must know what the dangers are.  It is our responsibility to create contexts where mission, ministry and relationship are mutually empowering and eye opening.

Safety revisited

A few weeks ago I wrote about safety.  It was written from the perspective of people who go on short-term mission trips.  This week I want to think about safety from the perspective of our Discern staff.  These are the people who give leadership to and host the incoming participants. It is important to note that about 60% of our Discern staff come from the neighborhoods in which we serve.   As a result they are local and they are people of color.  As a program DOOR is asking our Discern staff to give leadership to visiting groups.  It I also important to note that our Discover visitors are majority people of privilege and majority Anglo.  For a whole host of reasons placing local young adults in leadership roles over visiting groups is a very good thing.  It provides a level of authenticity that imported staff alone could never achieve.  To be honest I cannot imagine our summer program operating without local young adults.

This week I was reminded that there is a cost associated with asking locals to serve as staff.  After 18 years and literally thousands of participants, I can say that it is very rare for visiting groups to experience the chaos and dysfunction sometimes associated with the city directly.  They hear stories from speakers, see things in agencies and sometimes get hassled by the police.  For the most part their DOOR experience is educational, faith stretching, eye opening, and safe.  This is good.

Our staff of color encounter a whole series of other issues and concerns.  For the most part visiting groups remain unaware of and protected from these stresses.  At the more benign level there are the “sell-out” anxieties.  When their friends and acquaintances see someone from the neighborhood leading groups of white people they risk being thought of a sell-outs or trying to escape by becoming white.  It is interesting to think of this as “more benign;” in comparison it is.  At the other end of the spectrum are the encounters with authority.   In spite of the fact that we live in a country with an African American President, authority (and culture) still assumes that a person of color hanging around white people is up to no good.  I know what it is like to find out that one of my staff has been thrown down, beat and hand-cuffed in front of the church where the DOOR group is staying simply because he was black.

The next time you pray the safety prayer for you mission trip, please include the staff who will be hosting you.  In many ways they are the ones who are risking everything.

The DOOR-Cloud

Apple has the I-Cloud, but my place of employment has an even more impressive cloud! This past week the DOOR summer kicked off.  The 10-12 weeks following the Memorial Day holiday, DOOR hosts approximately 2,500 Discover participants in 6 cities.

After almost 18 years it is tempting to fall into a “look what I have accomplished” mentality.  More than 30,000 people have participated; many have made significant faith commitments as a result of a week with us; leaders have been empowered.   Claiming all of this as my own not only leads to arrogance, but is dangerously wrong.

Hebrews 12 talks about a cloud of witnesses.   These are people who have gone before us and walk with us, offering wisdom, correction and encouragement.  Without this cloud of witnesses effective authentic ministry is not possible.  If I am going to brag about anything, it is the “DOOR-Cloud.”  This cloud includes the visionaries who first began thinking about structured service trips in 1985, years before youth mission trips were on anyone’s radar screens.  Then there are the gatherings of 2005 and 2006 when we brought together all our local board members of color and asked them to help DOOR be less racist.  These were not easy meetings.  It is never fun to confront individual and institutional racism, but the courageous work of these men and women helped us to better understand the radical inclusiveness of the gospel.

This cloud also includes former and current staff.  There are the women of DOOR who have fearlessly and compassionately lead even when men have questioned the legitimacy of their call.  We have immigrants who have endured insults and unwelcoming attitudes, yet they have loved and cared for participants in ways that mirror Jesus’ love for us.  We have gay staff members that have been told that they are somehow outside the reach of God’s grace yet in spite of this they have loved and cared for the very people who are condemning them.  We have staff of color who have endured both subtle and blatant racism and still they have not let this ignorance and mean-spiritedness stop them from reaching across racial barriers and seeking places of understanding and friendship.

For 18 years I have been surrounded by the DOOR-Cloud.  If you count yourself as part of this group, thank you!

Disruptions

For years I have been asking God for the perfect year.  In this year there would be enough money to pay all the bills; staff conflict and misunderstanding would be non-existent; DOOR evaluations would be excellent; my boys would get perfect grades while at the same time never skip a class; I would get enough sleep every night; every airplane flight would come with a complementary upgrade; and my car would never breakdown.  So far God hasn’t come through! This past week I participated in a “Consultation on Cultivating a New Generation of Christian Leaders” put on by The Fund for Theological Education.  During the opening session one of the speakers emphasized the importance on “disruptive experiences;” those moments when the best laid plans seem to fall apart.  Then she went on to say that smooth sailing through life does not produce people of depth and grit.  More significantly it is failure and pain that produce people and leaders of substance.

This reality produces an interesting conflict.  I have no desire to go out and intentionally fail.  As a parent I work hard at sheltering my boys from pain.  When I write my end of year reports for DOOR, it is much easier to talk about success.  Currently we are in the process of hiring a new City Director for Atlanta. When we look a resumes we prioritize folks with a successful track-record.

Years ago I had a college professor who claimed that 3.0 students made the best leaders.  They knew something about success but more importantly were all too aware of their own short-comings.

As a 16 year-old I was hired by a local rancher to help during haying season.  He immediately put me on a tractor and had me bailing.  Halfway through the day he sent me to the fuel tank to fill up.  When I arrived I noticed there were two caps on the tractor, not sure which one to open, I guessed.  To my embossment I ended up filling the radiator with diesel fuel – not a smart thing to do.  As I was finishing the owner came by and noticed my error; he was not happy.  It was one of those moments when I should have been fired.  Instead he had me fix the problem which involved about two hours of work.  Once we were done he walked away and muttering, “It’s not worth firing you now, because you will never make that mistake again.”

I don’t think I will ever intentionally put people into situations simply to help them fail.  That said, I cannot help but wonder what it means to create space for failure and disruption, to appreciate these moments as opportunities for growth and development.

Attitude

I have two teenaged boys.  Every once in a while they develop what can best be described as an “attitude.”  Please do not read this as a positive thing!  Their negative attitudes can be quite diverse.   One moment I am a lousy incredibly unfair parent and the next they see no reason to participate in family activities.  They argue about the importance of homework, getting enough sleep, going to church, and the friends they hang out with.  During every one of these discussions they spend a significant amount of time ranting about how uninformed and out of touch I am.  None of this is good for my self-esteem. I cannot help but wonder how often I cop an attitude with God.  For example, I am the Executive Director of DOOR.  In my mind this means I need to be powerful.  For me, power has something to do with an ability to control.  Then I read Scripture and Jesus seems to contradict this idea.  For Him power is about service and self-sacrifice.  On paper this sounds almost idyllic, but in reality service and sacrifice can be view as indicators of weakness.

Can you imagine living life as a servant?  Servants are people who need to figure out how to survive under the power of a master.  What happens if the master is evil?  Aren’t Christians called to defeat evil?  If we are going to win this battle then we need to be people of power.

Donald Kraybill is credited with coining the term “Upside-Down Kingdom.”  This is another way of thinking about what Jesus was called his followers to.  In this kingdom everything we know about leadership and power is reversed.  Enemies are to be viewed as future friends.  Non-violence is always the response to violence, even when terrorists attack.  Service to others, regardless of social position, is always the starting point for relationship.

Living and acting this way is counter-cultural.  Living counter-culturally is not easy; sometimes it leads to copping an attitude with God.

Effective

Every once in a while I decide to organize my life.   I file all the papers scattered around my office, delete old emails, reorganize my inbox folders, and sort the books on the bookshelf.  For a day or two I feel better about myself and slightly more efficient.  Within a week I am back to my old ways and feeling like I should reorganize my life. What is it that makes for effective ministry at the personal and institutional level?  I have been to seminars that proclaim the virtues of time management.  There are the books and charts I have poured over outlining healthy organizational structures.  Well-meaning friends have advised me develop comprehensive policies and procedures.  All of this is good, but I sometimes wonder if all of this is a smoke screen designed to keep people and programs committed to ministry from following their call.

Some of the best advice I ever received was from a stranger.  It was his belief that we show value to others by choosing to waste time with them.  It is not surprising that potential employers shy away from hiring people who value wasting time and hanging out.  On one hand I understand this; effectiveness and efficiency are seen as opposite sides of the same coin.  This is too bad.

Hanging out or wasting time with other people are the activities that develop understanding and respect for the other.  When we understand and respect each other it becomes much simpler to work with each other.  In a world that is religiously pluralist, culturally diverse, and ideologically separated - understanding, compassion, and empathy will only emerge if we take the time to simply be with each other.  Wasting time together and hanging out without an agenda.

I cannot help but wonder what the impact would be if we started to value time together just hanging out over developing programs and structures?  I am not sure that Jesus ever started a program, but his time on earth just hanging out changed everything.

Ministry 101

I have a friend who likes to talk about his decision to come to Denver’s Westside.  It was 1965; his thought was that he would stick around 3-5 years, because that was the commitment needed to fix poverty, violence, and poor education.  It is 2012 and he is still there. There is a popular idea among church and ministry leaders that goes something like this: “I will stay around just long enough to work myself out of a job.”  On the surface this sounds noble, empowering, and a little romantic.  However, the more I think about this notion the more I dislike it.

Authentic ministry always includes things like presence, community, mutuality, and walking alongside the other.  When leaders stand behind statements like “I am going to work myself out of a job,” it often becomes permission to stand apart from those we have been called to work with.  Standing apart is not terribly Christian.

A number of years ago John Perkins wrote about ministry in and among at-risk communities. For Perkins ministry needed to be done together and it needed to be done right. Perkins proposed three “R’s” for ministry – reconciliation, redistribution and relocation.  Anyone who has taken these ideas seriously knows that it isn’t about working yourself out of a job. It is about becoming a part of a community.  When you join a community their issues become your issues.  People cease to be ministry projects that require fixing or guidance and instead become family and friends who need a hand to hold.  When we become family, walking away becomes unimaginable.