As Jesus followers we are called into the Kingdom Life. This blog will help us converse and learn what that means. It will contain thoughts on Scripture, Sermon Reflection, Leadership Training and interesting reads. -Pastor Jeff

Friday, February 12, 2021

Critical Conversation Non-Starters

Critical Conversations are necessary within organizations, corporations, churches, among leaders, and even with friends. They are the conversations where something is at stake: assessments, critique, evaluations, correction, analysis, and reconciliation.

 As crucial as these critical conversations are and as often as they must happen, few of us are equipped to know how to enter into that space well. Below you will find a short list of "non-starters." If you attempt to launch into a conversation with any of the following, you sabotage the possibilities even before you've made any headway. Likewise, these "non-starters" push your dialogue partner into positions of defensiveness, threat, insult, or a need to prove themselves over an against the threat you pose.
1.) Assigning Motives: When having a critical conversation, we must be careful in assigning motives to someone's actions. This operates under the assumption that "I know why you did what you did." Though we might be tempted to surmise or deduce the motive, we must focus on the action itself, giving the person the opportunity to name their own "why." Studies have shown we have a tendency to assign a far more derogatory motive to someone else's actions than we might ourselves in the given situation.

2.) Unfounded or Unconfirmed Accusations: Critical conversations will inevitably include moments of accountability whereby you might have to go to someone else and challenge them on an impropriety or indiscretion. However, we are all prone to rumors, bad days, insecurities, or misinterpretations. Rash conversations that start with, "YOU DID...(fill in the blank)" without access to the whole story, critical evaluation of the subsequent details, or acknowledgement of limited perspectives can immediately sabotage trust in the face of innocence.
3.) Dismissing and Discrediting Allegiance: Critical conversations can leave us vulnerable to dualisms, especially, "us" and "them." It's easier to have a critical conversation with someone I've deemed as enemy than one who might (amid the disagreement) still remain friend. Instead of recognizing the space of conversation as a space of understanding, growth, and ideological exchange, we come loaded with an arsenal of evidence that threatens the other person's "belonging." If you don't think like "us," you must then be a "them. "You aren't one of us. You aren't committed to the mission. You aren't a true (fill in the identity marker - American, Republican, Christian, etc.)
4.) Assigning Pejorative Labels: Dualisms lead to the marking of identities. Labeling people as members of a "different camp," one easily dismissed because of their failure to meet the demands of ever-narrowing and arbitrary litmus tests of inclusion lead to immediate breakdowns. We weaponize labels for the sake of dismissal. Attacks against identity and belonging immediately sabotage the possibilities for meaningful engagement.
So where might we go from here?

1.) When critiquing, focus on the outcomes and not one's character. If character conversations are necessary, start with an interest in personal growth rather than invalidation of personhood and defense of your personhood in the wake of a threat you assign them.
2.) Critique the Arguments and Claims, not the person behind the arguments and claims. This provides emotional distance when evaluating the legitimacy of an argument. We all make statements, write posts, and make claims that aren't complete or fully indicative of who we are. See the argument and claim as the product of the person and not the person themselves.
3.) Ask open ended questions that enable a person to speak to their concerns, desires, agendas, and motives. Listen carefully and follow-up with additional questions. This is not an interrogation but a demonstration of interest.
4.) Own your own perspective before assigning someone else motive. It's better to say, "this is how I heard what you said and this is how I felt about what happen" than to say "this is why you said it and why you did it."

5.) Attempt to identify underlying issues that might be contributing to problematic behavior. Oftentimes, we see only the action, not the heartache, struggle, exhaustion or woundedness that gave rise to the action.

Thursday, January 28, 2021

Character: The Bedrock of Leadership Legitimacy

When identifying an effective leader, the question arises, “what legitimizes someone as a leader?” I understand that this question depends on scope and field of leadership. However, for the sake of this brief article, allow me to speak broadly of leadership within a variety of fields, whereby leadership is at least remotely defined as someone with the express responsibility of directing those connected to an organization, institution, or cause toward a purpose larger than themselves.

What legitimizes someone with that responsibility? How do we know if that person has what it takes to be a leader? Unfortunately, here’s where I feel that in an image conscious world, we get a bit derailed in our assessments.

When assessing a leader’s legitimacy, we are often prone to point to three externally available criteria:
  1. Competency: How good are they at what they do? Being good at something should make someone worth following...right?
  2. Capacity: What position, role, title, success, or esteem have they held in the past? What is their future ceiling? Are they a star awaiting the right opportunity? 
  3. Charisma: How much relational “woo” do they possess? Is there a gravitational force around their personality? Do they have the capacity to excite, motivate and move people? 
Each of those elements is an important factor in assessing one’s possibilities of leadership, though none alone legitimizes a leader. When any of these elements alone, outside a more robust criteria, are used as justification for choosing, promoting, or following a leader, we build our organization’s, institution’s, or cause’s future on a very flimsy platform.
  • Leadership based on competency alone creates celebrities not servants.
  • Leadership based on capacity alone leads to egocentric positional authority not collaborative empowerment. 
  • Leadership built on charisma alone is fluff, shaped by a cult of personality, instead of substantive vision around which all of us cohere. 
Though easily accessible as external criteria, leadership legitimacy isn’t one’s sole possession of any one element or the sum total of all three. Leadership legitimacy demands a more robust criteria. That criteria is “character.” Character is the bedrock on which one’s leadership legitimacy is built. Though it’s impossible to lead a group without some measure of each of the above elements, any leadership without character comes crumbling to the ground. 

So how do we define character? Well, because I’m a preacher at heart...I’ll forge on with the alliteration. This episode is sponsored by the letter “C.” I would suggest that character has everything to do with a life lived in consistent alignment (and in humble realignment) to a governing set of principles that renders one credible, courageous, compassionate, convicted, conscious, and confessional.

Briefly, character is expressed in a life that is:
  1. Credible – A leader of character lives a life that is genuine, authentic, vulnerable and consistent. Credibility refuses to put on a façade, but demonstrates a predictability based on one’s self-possession.

  2. Courageous – Leaders without character are often opportunistic or complicit. Characterless leaders will seize opportunity by placating to the demands and expectations of others and complicit in corruption for personal gain. Leaders of character will make courageous decisions, especially when costly, because it is right.

  3. Compassionate – Leaders of character, having reckoned with themselves, are open to the struggles, trials, and pain of others. They refuse to treat others as cogs in their machine and instead value them as vital contributors to the pursuit of purpose. When people suffer, the leader feels with them. 

  4. Convicted – Leaders of character are committed to a higher sense of ideals. They don’t live an ad hoc life where they determine what is right (advantageous) in an any given moment depending on which way the wind blows. Their conviction about the right, good, true and noble runs deep and they’ve distilled that in an organization so deeply that in their absence those they lead can make decisions in their stead. 

  5. Conscious – Leaders of character are self-aware. They are conscious of the impact they have, the words they speak, their emotional well-being, and they steward this influence for the sake of others not self-promotion. 

  6. Confessional – Leaders of character screw up. However, instead of spineless cowards that attempt to cover up, double down, or justify their misdeeds, they confess their culpability, seek forgiveness, adopt a growth mentality, and seek to do better in the future. 
Only leaders of character are legitimate leaders. Many have the title, but the title alone doesn’t legitimize a leader. Without character, posers ascend flimsy platforms in pursuit of self-promotion, wrecking the work of those they lead.

Thursday, September 3, 2020

Church in America: "We Must Not Grow Weary!"

 A Word of Encouragement to my Predominantly White Brothers and Sisters in Christ:

It feels as though my title alone might cause a pause. As I speak to the church of Jesus followers, and primarily to the church of Jesus followers whose racial category is predominately white, I feel the need to assert three disclaimers: 

  • The call to Racial Justice and Reconciliation is wrapped up not in a political platform but as the evidence of a “Kingdom Come” on earth as it is in heaven. When those who’ve been historically denied the dignity of bearers of the Image of God, who’ve born the burden of historical oppression, marginalization, injustice, and violence are affirmed, advocated for, allied with, and amplified, this is evidence of God’s Redemptive Reign. It’s a picture, a foretaste of what is to come when we collectively gather before the throne of our Lord in the splendor of our mosaic beauty.
  • The admonition to “not grow weary” is in fact a low bar for the church. We should run with boldness, passion, and zeal to be our “brother’s and sister’s keeper,” to be neighbor to those in need of someone to stand with them and to be neighbored by those different from us, for in being neighbored and loved, we are grown and sanctified. 
  • This call to the predominately “white church” in the U.S. must take in account the weariness of our sisters and brothers of color who’ve been enduring this fight for a lot longer than many of us have. When we say, “don’t grow weary,” it’s possible we might hear from our brothers and sisters of color, “how are you tired already?” This is something that we must account for in our words and actions. 
Those disclaimers established, I now proceed. 

In the wake of George Floyd’s murder, there was a moment, a collective outrage. For most, it was the first time they’d ever watched a life snuffed out in front of their eyes. It was cruel. It was undeniable. It couldn’t easily be shucked off as an over-reaction or perhaps as “we don’t know the whole story.” It was excruciating to watch an 8 minute and 46 second modern day lynching. In the early 20th century, lynchings were a part of the civic story, a public spectacle complete with dinner on the grounds. They were the weapons of domestic terrorism, evoking fear in the marginalized, a gruesome deterrent of deviant behavior or any arbitrary slight of an uppity negro. 

But since those days, such terror-inspiring acts had gone under the cover of words like “law and order.” They were actions out and away from the public, a civic population that publicly wouldn’t tolerate such behavior but privately would simply wish not to know. Then the handheld video. It’s too easy to capture and disseminate evidence of actions that had never stopped but remained hidden from the eyes of respectable individuals. No matter how often and how regularly those voices from the margins, the vulnerable and oppressed, cried out that it was happening, we, whites, could turn blind eye and deaf ear to a problem we’d ensured ourselves “wasn’t that bad.” 

Then George Floyd. 

And for a moment, there was outrage. It appeared for a moment that a new day had dawned. It appeared that this would be the moment that would inspire not only a collective catharsis but a systemic change. It appeared that this would be the moment that as a country, we would take seriously naming and confessing America’s original sin, the racialization of America and marginalization, oppression, and victimization of black and brown bodies. It appeared for a moment that the church might lead the way, a church that had long been complicit in both the implicit and explicit defense of racial prejudice, inequality, and injustice. 

Pastors reached out to sisters and brothers of color. An extraordinary pressure was placed upon BIPOC (black, indigenous, people of color) Christians to educate, explain, correct, and at times comfort white guilt and shame. They did this publicly from platforms, on zoom calls, through writing, and in interviews. They did this all the while navigating the pain of personal hurt and an outrage of feeling responsible to fix that which was broken by the hands of power and privilege. They did this while “code-switching,” assessing the room and adjusting their tone and temperament to meet the expectations of the crowd. 

For a moment it felt as though the tide was shifting. 

We must not grow weary! 

This is my fear. In the wake of a crisis that has now raged for months, I fear white Christians are becoming weary. In the wake of a crisis that has been increasingly politicized, white Christians, initially shocked and sympathetic, have waned in enthusiasm coming up just short of true empathy, an empathy that wades into the historic pain and inherited traumas of racism and lingers there. It’s that discomfort that has proved to be too inconvenient, too disempowering, too confusing to linger there long. That initial outrage is slowing giving way to the collective “enough already” that has consistently dotted the landscape of American apathy. 

It is this apathy, this inability to endure and fight the good fight for justice, that has prolonged the bending of the arc of history toward justice and led to the persistent impact of systemic evils. It is this apathy, a distancing ourselves from the plight of our family of color, that reveals the “privilege” we decry when someone tosses out that word. We must recognize that it is always privilege that governs one’s capacity to opt out of the pain and suffering of others. It is always privilege that deploys tactics to discredit voices of critique and challenge, hurry the conversation along, and find convenient exit ramps from legitimizing the need to act justly. 

But we must not grow weary. 

It is too easy to see this moment in history as anomaly, an unfortunate episode that should have ended when the police officer was arrested. It’s too easy to give voice to a moment of outrage but then immediately point to “how far we’ve come.” It’s too easy to avoid the historic evidence that points to the systemic injustices that continue to produce the poor outcomes in our communities of color that we would prefer to simply insulate ourselves from. 

It is too easy to point to the looting and rioting as reason to abandon the fight, using this “deviant” behavior as an exit ramp from concern. It’s too easy to do so without doing the hard work of looking into the long history of agitators and opportunists infiltrating the cause of racial justice to discredit the movement in the eyes of “respectable citizens” that might have otherwise gotten involved. 

It’s too easy to get caught up in false dichotomies and false equivalencies. It’s too easy to allow the polarized politicism of the infotainment industry to lead us down paths where to suggest “police reform” must mean we “hate the police.” To suggest that to kneel at the anthem as a peaceful form of protest, both a means of ensuring the longstanding legacy of democratic participation and the leveraging of influence for something bigger than sport’s success, means “they hate the US and disrespect the military.” To suggest that to be concerned for a more equitable and just society means we must be “Marxists.” These are tired, lazy, apathetic responses of privilege. 

It’s too easy to make this about semantics. It’s too easy to be offended at the mantra for a social movement, #blacklivesmatter, because it is also the designated formal identity of a political activist organization that holds positions incompatible with the Christian faith. It’s too easy to discredit the spirit of the moment, further wounding our brothers and sisters of color by dismissing a call to be concerned with the marginalized crying out. Instead, flippantly suggesting “all lives matter,” or “there is only one race we need to be talking about, the human race.” It’s too easy to be concerned with equality at the expense of the hard work of reconciliation. 

It’s too easy to find the voice of the person of color that says what we wanted them to say so we can bow out of our responsibility. It’s too easy to say, “See this black person says it’s not that bad.” It’s too much work to understand that throughout the history of civil rights there have been a myriad of perspectives held by people of color and no one voice has ever spoken for all voices. Likewise, it’s too easy to find the statistics of black on black crime and suggest that we are paying attention to the wrong problems instead of doing the deep dive into the long history of inequality in housing, education, employment, opportunity, and hope that have plagued communities of color, becoming seedbeds for survivalist and nihilistic behavior. 

It’s too easy to let this moment pass on by. 

But...We must not grow weary of doing good. 

We must see this as a moment, a divine moment, a moment when the Spirit of God is drawing us into the heart of God. We must see this as a moment to be thrust into the heart of Scripture, a sacred text that seeks to identify those who have been denied their rightful place as bearers of the Image of God, and join God in God’s redemptive and reconciliatory purposes. We mustn’t grow weary. We must instead take a deep dive into this sacred text, taking our cues from a Jesus that crosses the boundaries to meet the dismissed and dignity-dismantled woman at the well, offering her a place of full-inclusion as a child of God. We must turn our attention to the erratic, uncontrollable blind beggar on the side of the road named Bartimaeus who refuses to be quieted down by the “respectable citizenry,” bothered by his incessant pleas for help. We must take the journey with Peter, down from the rooftop in Joppa and into the house of Cornelius, one for whom the markers of his ethnicity would have once exempted him from Peter’s concern. We must then continue with Peter to the point of his stern rebuke from Paul when he grew weary of the risky, messy reconciliatory work in Galatia. 

We can't grow weary of listening in. We must value our sisters and brothers of color enough to linger there in their pain with them. We must listen to their voice of anger, frustration, and disappointment. We must be willing to join them in that pain, recognizing that for every moment they’ve been denied a place at the table, discredited, dismissed, taken for granted, left unheard, intentionally or unintentionally sent the message that they didn’t matter or were merely the token in the group, that we are all worse for it. We must listen to the telling of history that cuts against the grain of the history with which we are too comfortable. We must listen to the voices of our CHRISTIAN brothers and sisters of color who remind us that the story of a nation’s exceptionalism that was born of chattel slavery isn’t as exceptional for as many as we might have believed. In fact, we must lock arms with those same brothers and sisters, recognizing that the only exceptional space is the Kingdom of God, a Kingdom that has come and is coming. 

We can’t grow weary of speaking up. Justice is an inconvenient challenge to the principalities and powers of this world. To speak up is to be marked as target for attacks and slights. However, silence is again the symptom of privilege. Speaking up means naming injustice. It means leveraging our voices to amplify the voices that have been speaking from the margins for a long time without a crowd willing to take note. It means refusing to be ok with the status quo and instead calling humanity to its higher, God-given calling. It means using our voices to first ask questions, meaningful reflective questions, instead of immediately trying to discredit those with whom we disagree or justifying our already entrenched positions. 

We must not grow weary of doing good. The road ahead is long. The fight for justice will not pass away when this summer of unrest ends. The long, prolonged fight for injustice will require a sustained commitment from those who call themselves the people of God. It’s a long road of discomfort, pain, lament, learning, and resolve. It’s inconvenient. It's demanding. It’s taxing. It’s a road that our sisters and brothers of color have been on for a long time, often without the companionship of the white church as traveling partners. 

This is the moment when we say, “Sorry we are late. We are here now. We will be here tomorrow and the tomorrow after that.” We must lean in, press in, and make an unwavering commitment to dismantle strongholds of oppression and injustice, taking every thought captive in Christ Jesus and a concern for His Kingdom. 

We must not grow weary.   

Tuesday, May 26, 2020

Your Brother's Blood Cries Out: Racism and the Body

“Your brother’s blood cries out to me from the ground.” Genesis 4:10

Racism is not an idea or a concept, though for some it has become an ideology. Racism isn’t a “cultural issue” among others to be bantered about on social media with an air of detached curiosity or self-exempting privilege. Racism is a spiritual perversion rooted in the way in which we treat certain bodies. Racism is a deep spiritual sickness in humanity that manifests itself in the endlessly uncreative forms of mistreatment, oppression, neglect, exploitation, and violence.

Racism is rooted in the sin of Cain, the denial of “brother keeping.”

This sin, though spiritual, is directly connected to the way bodies are treated. Racism is about the body. When we speak of George Floyd, we speak of a body, a black body gasping for breath as the knee of another body presses down on the neck, cutting off from that black body the necessary lifeline of oxygen. It’s a clear picture of bodies, a white body suffocating the life from a black body, the replay of the primeval story of two brothers, one mistreating the body of the other.

The history of racism is a history of mistreating bodies, the bodies of real men, women, and children. It’s the history of enslaving bodies, selling bodies, ripping bodies from the ties of their kin, binding bodies to forced labor, a labor that produces a fruit their bodies will never enjoy. It’s a history of raped bodies at the hands of those who exert power over bodies they’ve claimed as property. It’s a history of bodies denied rights, simply because they have the wrong bodies. It’s a history of lynched bodies, threatened bodies, and terrorized bodies. It’s the history of bodies crammed into close quarters in substandard housing as the bodies of the privileged point in superiority at the ways those historically mistreated bodies act.

It’s a history that continues to deny bodies adequate healthcare.
It’s a history that continues to lock bodies away in prison at disproportionate rates.
It’s a history that continues to pay certain bodies lower wages.
It’s a history that continues to perpetuate scarcity in nutrition, access to education, and housing to certain communities where those bodies are located.
It’s a history that denies it’s history by suggesting, “That was then, and this is now. All bodies are equal.”

But all bodies are not equal. Some bodies have historically been and continue to be cut off, left out, abused, and in the case of George Floyd (and the countless others) made victim to the carnage of the violence this spiritual sickness produces.

Not only is racism about bodies. It is embodied. Racism lives on in the bodies of those historically mistreated because of their bodies. It lives on in the inherited traumas passed down from one generation to the next. It lives on in the presumption of guilt because of the color of the body. It lives on in the societal truth that certain bodies are often considered expendable. It lives on when certain bodies are considered threatening simply because the color of their body. It lives on in the body of every young man who leaves the house wondering, “if today will find me in an occasion that might cost me my life simply because my body was in the wrong place at the wrong time.”

Racism isn’t an unfortunate “idea” easily changed or a historic problem easily legislated. Racism is about broken bodies, rooted in a deep spiritual sickness, one that watches on as bodies like George Floyd cry out,

“I’m through.”

Those haunting words, not unlike the words that God speaks to Cain, “Your brother’s blood cries out to me from the ground,” demand a response. Yes, to confession. Yes, to lament. Yes, to prayer. But a meme won’t suffice. A hashtag isn’t adequate. This is a spiritual sickness manifested in the body and requires bodily action. It was what Cain did to the body of Abel, denying it, that set us on this trajectory of historic fratricide. It’s what the Good Samaritan does with his body to the broken body of the beaten traveler that makes him a merciful neighbor. It’s what Jesus does with His body that makes possible the reconciliation of our bodies to His and the making of One Body that traverses the perverted divisions that sow the seeds of violence.

We must act bodily.
We must bring our bodies into solidarity with the bodies of our brothers and sisters of color.
We must bind our bodies in proximity, a loving, faithful presence to those we too often encourage from afar.
We must leverage the privilege our bodies afford us for the sake of making lasting change.
We must be willing to lay aside the power our bodies afford us and instead take up the role of servant.
We must pause our bodies and wait to be given guidance from the bodies most affected by racism.
We must be willing to lay down our bodies for the sake of others as a true act of Christ-like love.
We must manifest in The Body of Christ, the kind of community that unites in pursuit of BOTH justice and reconciliation, dignity restoration and peace-making.

Instead of waiting for the next “I’m through” from another George Floyd, as the last gasping breath, we must hear the words from Jesus’ broken body, “It is finished.” The spiritual forces that bind us to violence, to division, to injustice, they have been defeated. The long history of scapegoating and the tyranny of the powerful and privileged, “It is finished.” It is now to us to manifest in our bodies the holy self-giving love of Jesus that bears out that victory in real, redemptive, reconciling ways.

May God have mercy upon us.

Wednesday, May 13, 2020

Optimism Fatigue: 5 Practices to Avoid Leadership Burnout in Crisis

I write this for the sake of leaders. You are paying an emotional toll amid this crisis that perhaps you are unaware. It’s insidious cost that sneaks up on us, catches us off guard, and amplifies the intensity of nearly every public action we take, every post, every public word we speak. It looms in the background of nearly every meeting, conversation, phone call and email. It’s born of the expectations that come with our roles. It’s the unspoken expectation of those we lead.

The emotional cost...optimism fatigue.

Leadership doesn’t afford one the luxury of losing their bearing amid a crisis. Leaders don’t run around shouting like Chicken Little that the “sky is falling.” Leaders can’t bounce between the latest conspiracy theories, or publicly vent and rail about things they’ve no control over. What’s the adage, “cooler heads will prevail?”

Leadership is about meeting challenges head on. It’s about being calm in the face of chaos, deliberate in the face of the deluge of uncertainty, and measured in the mayhem. Leaders don’t bury their heads in the sand to avoid the bad news nor do they wallow in “woe is us” mud of broken moments. Leaders authentically embrace the real news (even when its bad news), name the challenges, but then seek to help the people they lead envision the possibilities and opportunities emerging from the crisis.

It’s born of the expectations that come with our roles. It’s the unspoken expectation of those we lead.

Leaders have the capacity to reframe reality for the people they lead, boldly challenging those they lead to meet the opportunities with resilience and hope. Leaders remain optimistic for the sake of their people and their organization. Leaders carry a profound weight amid crisis.

The longer the crisis remains, the greater the emotional toll of mustering optimism.

Being a leader doesn’t exempt you from the same insecurities and anxieties others experience. It doesn’t exempt you from the mornings you wake up and think, “This ship is going down and if the people knew who was at the helm they would be lowering the life rafts right this moment.” Leadership doesn’t exempt one from self-doubt, fears, and even the internal battle of despair. Leadership doesn’t mean we aren’t asking the same questions everyone else is, frustrated by the same lack of information, and the wish that we could just wave a magic wand and make it all go away. Being a leader doesn’t exempt us from the human condition.

It’s that tension, the longer the crisis remains, that exhausts us.

We know how we feel, but we know what’s expected of us, because let’s face it, “cooler heads will prevail.”

Optimism fatigue is real. It makes the normal workday seem absurdly exhausting. It tempts us to become resentful of our organizations and those we lead, wishing we didn’t have to constantly talk them into remaining hopeful. We ask, “why do I carry the entire load.” It erodes our energy and leaves us bankrupt of emotions for those we care most about. But what must we do about that?

Here are 5 things that might be helpful:

1.) Reclaim Safe Space: Find other leaders who are carrying a similar weight and allow that to be a safe space to vent, share, and articulate the deep fears and concern.

2.) Restore Margin: Crisis is all-consuming...Or at least it can feel as though it is. When’s the last time you took a real day off? I mean a full day without responding to the demands of others. If that is impossible in this current season, find some margin of disconnection and clearly communicate it to your organization. “Every Friday from 3 until Saturday morning I’m unavailable.”

3.) Resist the Urge to React: In a crisis, you will see some stuff on Social Media. Not every post requires a reaction from you. Sometimes people are just saying stuff. They are venting their fears because they don’t know where else to say it. Let it be. PM them and tell them you are praying for them or thinking of them in these difficult times. Avoid the useless arguments.

4.) Retain Authenticity: Nothing I’ve stated in this article suggests that leaders should be inauthentic. Know thyself as a leader. Allow the people you lead to know you as well. Authenticity doesn’t mean we verbally vomit on the people we lead. However, a leader can state, “Like you, I too have deep concerns and questions about our future.” One can name emotional proximity to the people. Empathy connects us and keeps us grounded in our true self.

5.) Recognize the Warning Signs: As a leader, you aren’t, in the face of crisis, exempt from depression, burnout, and anxiety. Stay aware and be honest with yourself and with others. Do you have a therapist/counselor? Do your loved ones understand the emotional toll? Are you isolating? Are you coping with some form of compulsive behavior? When’s the last time you’ve seen your physician?

Optimism fatigue in the face of crisis is real. You are carrying a burden. You are not alone. It is time to take action.

Friday, April 17, 2020

Don’t Return to Normal: Routinizing New Behaviors Learned from Disruption

Recently, I read a Facebook post that suggested weariness with the word “unprecedented.” Can I get a witness? It appears to be the en vogue word since perhaps 2016. This word suggests that the times we live in, what we’ve witnessed, the struggles we’ve been forced to endure, that within history (or at least immediate history) no one has ever navigated these waters. They are unchartered. If you too are weary of “unprecedented,” perhaps you might at least agree that these are “remarkable” times.

Regardless of your adjective, the moment we find ourselves has collectively forced us, individually, families, neighborhoods, communities, organizations, churches, corporations to reckon with disruption, to evaluate, assess, and adapt in ways that months prior would have seemed far-fetched and unnecessary.

And we don’t like it. Who would?

Outside of the traumatic toll of this growing pandemic, the loss of life, the fear of death, and shrinking of resources, everything has changed. Nothing seems the same. Activities that we once would have taken for granted seem foreign to us. As humans, we prefer stasis over seismic shifts, equilibrium over and against disruption. We should. Life seems to work better when the world feels relatively certain, predictable, and at least nominally stable. We appear to flourish in seasons of equilibrium.

Though I am no fan of random and substantial change, I am also increasingly aware of the dangers of equilibrium (especially within organizations).

Equilibrium creates comfort. Comfort breeds Apathy. Apathy leads to Atrophy. Atrophy weakens an organization’s capacity for adaptability and innovation.

Our longing to exist in equilibrium means that we typically build systems and organizations that seek to sustain stability and stave off disruption. The harder we work to insulate ourselves from disruption, the more bureaucratic, top-heavy, capital-intensive our systems and institutions become. We develop a “taken for granted” mode of operation, unquestioned, increasingly outdated, unwittingly self-sabotaging, and often unable to meet the challenges of subtle shifts, let alone major change.

The more insulated we believe we are, the more comfortable we become.

And then...Then a radical disruption, unexpected, unavoidable, and outside the control of the organization tosses the organization into a situation where all held dear is now called into question. Please understand many organizations will simply attempt to wait out the disruption. Many organizations will hunker down and hope the storm blows over leaving them to return to business as usual.

However, for other organizations, disruptive moments become catalysts for a creative change of operations, perhaps rarely possible in seasons of equilibrium. Disruptions force organizations to assess, to adjust, and to innovate. Creativity is fueled, often out of necessity, amid disruption. While many organizations hunker down, others will lean courageously and faithfully into the prevailing winds, recognizing the risks they face, but understanding the greater risks of refusing to adapt. In seasons of disruptions, programs are evaluated, fat is trimmed, status quo is questioned, lessons are learned, and experiments are instituted.

Disruption bears a fruit that would have never bloomed in seasons of equilibrium.

I continually hear leaders say things like, “I would have never tried this prior to the crisis.” “Why haven’t I been doing this the whole time?” “How do I keep my people as engaged in the vision of the organization after this passes?” There is a recognition that amazing lessons are learned amid disruption.

But here’s the problem...Default.

Human beings and organizations have deeply embedded default systems. We have this pernicious tendency to “go back to what we know.” Once the disruptive season passes, once the storm blows by, no matter how adaptable, creative, and innovative we were, there is a tendency for organizations to return to their comfortable equilibrium, abandoning much of what was done during the crisis. There may be some cause for that. Perhaps what we’ve done in the past worked well in seasons of stability and the innovations were temporary adjustments to stave off the ill-effects of a crisis.

However, what if the lessons learned in disruption created discoveries, reallocation of resources, and new practices that ought not be easily forgotten or dismissed? What if the disruption was what was needed to shift the organization’s visionary imagination toward health, sustainability, and growth moving into the post-disruptive unchartered future?

If equilibrium is the draw, disruption a gift, and default the temptation then the “routinization of behavior” is the necessary mitigation against the lure of default and the abandonment of lessons learned.

This doesn’t just happen. We can’t, in the midst of crisis, innovate and simply hope that the lessons learned carry forward when the storm passes. Those lessons only translate into the ongoing activities of the organization if the organization begins to routinize behaviors by organizing institutional life and building systems and expectations that sustain those behaviors. Those lessons learned and practices implemented must be built into the fabric of the organization’s life. Without this intentionality there will be a drift to the default practices.

This means that beyond simply “getting through the crisis,” the leader’s responsibility is to have meaningful conversations with other leaders ensuring that each discovery is evaluated, implemented, and routinized through adapted (adaptive) systems and structures.

To conclude I would like to give a few short examples.

During seasons of disruption, gaps in impact, value-added, and expectations for staffing are exposed. During seasons of equilibrium the tendency is to over staff based on the assumed demands of maintaining status quo systems, often creating roles and finding people to fill those roles. Disruption forces us to ask questions not only about the people on the bus but about the types and numbers of seats on the bus. Is it possible that we have certain staff members that are so specialized in their tasks that they lack the capacity to add-value in disruptive and innovative experiments? Is the organization served better by those who have diverse skills and can train and equip others, delegating the work, versus those whose skill set is limited to a specialization? During disruption it may be necessary to begin to rewrite job descriptions, hold evaluations, receive input from the staff members, and reflect on the needs of the organization moving forward.

During seasons of disruption, organizations begin to evaluate how capital heavy the organization is. Those organizations that operate consistently at their max capacity on the revenue side of budget are more prone to crisis in the face of disruption because there is little leeway to operate when the revenue drops. Disruption often reveals that what we spend money on isn’t always necessary. We tighten up, cut waste, and trim fat. Unfortunately, the default is strong. When the money begins to flow, spending immediately increases. It may be during the disruption that the budget is evaluated and adjusted, not only to meet the needs of the crisis but to set a new trend moving through post-crisis season. By creating margin in a budget through the reduction of expenses, an organization is able to fuel value-added impact into community engagement and intentional connections with shareholders, both of which became a priority in the crisis.

Disruption, though painful, and in the case of the pandemic, utterly traumatic, often forces organizations into adaptive, creative, and innovative postures. Paradigm shifting lessons are often learned in the midst of disruption. However, to avoid the defaults of equilibrium, an organization must now begin to routinize new behaviors into the fabric of the organization’s life and systems to benefit from the opportunities provided by disruption.

What are you learning and what must you now routinize?

Saturday, April 4, 2020

Preaching Fear and Confusion at the Resurrection

Two weeks ago, many were hoping that the United States would be open for business on Easter Sunday. Many longed that the church might be able to once again hold large gatherings celebrating Resurrection Hope. I was among those that held out for that hope. That has come and gone like many predictions, advisories, and restrictions. Truth be told, it will be right around Easter Sunday that cities across the US will begin to move toward peak mortality rate due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Can you feel the dissonance? At a time when the country will be moving toward peak grief, fear, and despair, the church is called to proclaim the hope of Resurrection and the cosmological defeat of both sin and death. But how can we do so, in Tony Morgan’s words, without being “tone deaf.”

As a preacher, Resurrection Sunday was my favorite Sunday to preach. It’s the moment of victory. It’s the moment when the vain attempts of the powers and principalities of evil to snuff out the redemptive reign of God are overcome by love and faithfulness. It’s the moment when we proclaim power, hope, and triumph. It’s a moment that signifies that the new age has begun, one that will be consummated at Christ’s return.
And to be honest...when I preached, it wasn’t uncommon for me to get a little worked up.

Perhaps it’s an act of faith to speak that message with that fervor and zeal again this year. Perhaps it’s the reminder that this “ole world” needs to know that “death has been swallowed up in victory.” Perhaps the reorientation of people from the despair of the moment toward the glorious victory that is coming is precisely what Doctor Jesus has prescribed. Perhaps.

But as a preacher, if you can’t bring yourself to do’s ok. The story is with you as well.

To preach with the zeal of a triumphant voice has a place. However, that place isn’t always tomb side (depending which of the gospel writers you read). When we begin to look at the first Resurrection Sunday, we begin to realize that there were no mass celebrations, victorious speeches, or frenzied preachers. Tomb side, there was fear, doubt, uncertainty, and giving up.

It’s ok to preach the whole story. It’s ok to invite the people of God into a story where the first characters weren’t be-bopping around singing “victory in Jesus.” The first characters, still on the backside of Friday, still wrestling with the heartache of death and crushed dreams, received the Resurrection as a little too much to handle. In Mark 16, after coming face to face with an empty tomb, vs. 8 states, “The women fled the tomb, trembling and bewildered, and they said nothing to anyone because they were too frightened.” Fear plays a part in Resurrection Sunday.

Mark would ask, “Dare they hope again? Would they once again be disappointed?” This is just too much to take in! Fear.

In Luke’s Gospel, he tells the story of grief. A couple disciples, overwhelmed and overcome by the news of Jesus’ death and the subsequent message that His body was no longer in the tomb, trudged back home, eyes still wet with tears and hearts still filled with uncertain sorrow. It wasn’t with triumphant shouts that Jesus awakened them, but with the grace-filled, compassionate, holy presence at a table where they shared in the meal with Jesus that their eyes began to be opened, even if they were yet to understand the full implications of what they would see.
And in John’s Gospel, Thomas flat out can’t believe it and the fishermen go back to their prior vocation. Again, how much of the world had really changed with an empty tomb? Thomas was still wrestling. Rome still reigned. Their lives were still in danger. Their futures were still unsure. Victory seemed a long way off. And Thomas doubted.

Resurrection wasn’t a rebuke of doubt, instead it was an invitation by Jesus to embrace doubt as a pathway to faith. “Stick your fingers in the holes,” Jesus said to Thomas. Stay close and you will see.

The others, by John 21, they’d gone fishing. Enough was enough. Despair and uncertainty got the best of them and in a real human way, they opted to leave behind the 3 years of intensive Rabbinic training for their little bit of certainty and comfort. They went fishing!

It’s all there, the gamut of human emotion. The Resurrection embraces the human condition. It doesn’t force feelings of victory and triumph onto people. It invites them to navigate their fear, doubt, and uncertainty, under the assumption that the Resurrected One is with them all along the way.

So this year, as you preach, feel free to preach the “rest of the story,” texts in ways you might have never preached before. In this moment, it might be that “whole gamut of human emotion,” that avoids a “tone deaf” message.

Friday, March 27, 2020

Road to Relapse

HALT! Hungry, Angry, Lonely, Tired!
It’s the acronym I was introduced to throughout my recovery journey. It’s the acronym that invites a person to recognize the warning signs that might lead to a relapse. HALT! Don’t allow yourself to get too Hungry, Angry, Lonely, or Tired.

Well, this season isn’t the easiest to self-regulate for a lot of people. This morning in my quiet time I found myself praying fervently for my friends still navigating their recovery journey. As I prayed, I was reminded of the ten moves I learned throughout my recovery journey.

To those of you that are struggling right now, tempted to act on your addiction, to succumb to both the impulsivity and compulsivity of your hurt, habit, and hang-up, I share these thoughts with you.

  1. DRAW NEAR: Shame isolates. When we feel weak or perhaps we’ve already stumbled shame settles in. When it does it pushes us from the grace-filled healing presence of Jesus. Remember what James writes, 4:7 Submit yourselves, then, to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. 8 Draw near to God and he will draw near to you. This is not a moment to run from, but to run towards Jesus.
  2. TURN OVER: Stop white-knuckling your pain and addiction. You are trying to will your way out of your struggle and you are becoming weary. Turn it over to the Lord right now. Open up the palms of your hands, put it on display, confess, and give it to Jesus.
  3. STAY ALERT: Know your triggers. What are the danger signs? Where are you starting to flirt with temptation or nurse a justification to act out? It’s time to pause, self-reflect, take note and CALL YOUR SPONSOR!!
  4. GET UP: Too late Jeff, I’ve already stumbled. Well, don’t just lay there in the mess of shame and failure. Get up! Today is a new day. Recovery is one day at a time. So you lost your 6 month coin, there’s another one waiting for you. Get up and lean into this day!
  5. GET OUT: If you are in a situation or moment that you know you shouldn’t be. If you are facing a temptation that will take you past your breaking point, get out! Get out of the house and go for a walk. Get out of that group and CALL YOUR SPONSOR! Get out of the liquor store and did I mention...CALL YOUR SPONSOR.
  6. BE COURAGEOUS: Recovery is not for the weak of heart. You know the difference between people in recovery and everyone else, people in recovery had the courage to admit they had an issue. Most others just hide their hurt, habit, and hang-up. You are bold and courageous. That’s why you are in recovery. Live in the grace of the strength and power the Lord has given you.
  7. TURN AROUND: Otherwise known as repent. If you are doing it, stop! about face, and go the other way. Repentance isn’t a one time affair. Do it over and over again, anytime you find yourself walking toward destruction instead of toward the life giving-grace of Jesus.
  8. BE HONEST: Feeling aren’t facts. We know this. Survey your situation honestly. Take inventory. Write down what you are feeling. Rehearse it with someone you trust or CALL YOUR SPONSOR. Ask for faithful feedback. Don’t deny to others when you are struggling. Don’t make excuses for the missteps. Bring it to light. There is freedom in the light.
  9. SELF-CARE MATTERS: You and I both know this pandemic has thrown off any semblance of routine. That’s not always good for us going through recovery. Take care of yourself. Watch what you are eating. Get out for a walk. Maintain a day off from the stresses of work. Get up at the same time each morning. Don’t scroll late into the evening. Take care of yourself.
  10. LOVE FIERCELY: The best way out of the mess, love someone else. Turn the attention away from yourself and toward others. Call someone. Email someone. Go get groceries for someone. Pray for someone. Turn the attention away from your pain and toward the need of someone else.

Thursday, March 19, 2020

Breaking the Dependency Addiction

As pastors scramble to figure out new and creative ways to deliver content and keep the momentum of the church going amid the pandemic crisis, internally I feel two very contradictory emotions. First, as a pastor for 17 years, I empathize with the mounting pressures, the need to communicate to the people clearly, the desire to see the church move forward with as little disruption possible, the care for those who will be lonely and isolated, and the financial pressures that congregational (not to mention the pastoral) families must feel. Having been on multiple calls over the last several days, I’ve heard and felt all of this. (If you are an enneagram fan, I’m a 1 Wing 2).  

Secondly, I felt something else. Pause with me for a moment...little context. I’m a missional theologian by academic trade. What this means is that I spend the better part of my academic and professional life thinking about, teaching, and writing about the church’s posture toward the world. Who are we as the church in this world of the sake of the Kingdom of God?  This is the question that I ask constantly!  

Now...back to that second something I felt. I felt like shouting, “Wait!! NOT SO FAST! There is an opportunity here.” God has a way of providentially showing up in the most disruptive seasons to reveal himself in ways that in seasons of equilibrium we might have missed. We can’t take disruption and simply try to adjust the chaos to our sense of equilibrium. We must go through the disruption. We must go through the chaos, allowing the Lord to take our hand and lead us faithfully.  

Friends, this is an opportunity. This is an opportunity to stop feeding decades worth of dependency addiction in the church. For too long, the church has been criticized as being consumeristic, marketing for and catering to the “spiritual needs” of a market base. This insidious culture of consumerism has placed all the weight on the church to operate as distributor of spiritual goods and services and on pastors to be the content delivery systems. We've over-programmed and created popularity platforms for pastors. We’ve created systems that enable Christians to move from week to week dependent on the product packaged and delivered for them.  We've cheated the church in the creation of these systems. 

What if this disruption is the inflection point the breaks the addiction on dependency?  

What if as churches we seized this as an opportunity for empowerment? 
  1. What if in this season we were less concerned about packaging content and more intentional about training our people to engage the content of the Scriptures faithfully and on their own or in technologically connected groups?   
  2. What if instead of finding ways to apologize for the goods and services out of commission, we turn our attention to helping our people think of creative ways they can love and bless their neighbors?   
  3. Pastors, what if instead of feeling responsible to provide care for every single person in your congregation, you identified some people in your congregation that have the shepherding gift (that aren’t pastors) and empower them to begin to extend that care in creative ways.  
  4. What if we spent less energy of packaged content in this time and more about connecting with our communities and agencies, funneling finances that might have been used for shut down programs toward those in need?  
  5. What if the church that emerges from this looks nothing like the church that entered into this time of disruption?  
  6. What if the church that emerges is less dependency-based and more empowered and equipped across the congregation to bear witness to the goodness and grace of God wherever they find themselves?  
What if instead of attempting to conduct “business as usual” (as much as possible), you instead asked... "What if this is an opportunity for business to change?” Take advantage of this disruption. It is in the disruption that, if allowed, the Spirit of God will transform our missional imaginations.  

Your friend and servant in Christ... 

Jeff Stark 

Thursday, February 20, 2020

I Am Privilege: A Spiritual Reckoning

Gated Communities are for Me 
“I was in my own neighborhood Jeff. I was on the hood of a police car for running through my own neighborhood.” As he said it, I could hear two competing voices in one sentiment. The first was the frustration and disbelief of having to again tell that story, to again relive that moment in that particular setting. The second voice was one of compassion and graciousness as he sought to explain an incident to a person for whom it would make little sense.  
 Let me back up to the moments that led to this conversation, to the moments when something shifted for me. Let me back up to the moments in which everything changed.  

I was taking a class at Vanderbilt Divinity School in Racial studies. It was a course within a series of courses that was requisite for the degree I was pursuing. I had to check the box on the “race thing” before I could get to the classes I really wanted to take. I’m not overexaggerating here to say that I was less than convinced that I needed such a class. I had never considered myself a racist. I embodied the progressive ideal. I loved “everyone.” I tried not to “see color.” I made friends easily. Though I grew up in a 99% rural Ohio area (a story to which I’ll return later), I’d also attended college and successfully navigated military life, spending hours with women and men of different nationalities, races, and backgrounds.  

I was convinced that race was a problem. I just wasn’t convinced that I was part of the problem. 

I attended the course and did what I’d been trained to do. I spoke up. I had something to say. I was contributing to the conversation, or so I thought. (I’d later come to realize that my contribution was really domination.) We read books that spoke to the nature of “white normativity,” which speaks to the reality that whiteness and the prevailing cultures of whiteness are the normative expectation for full participation and acceptance in our Euro-centric, white male dominated systems in America. I found it academically stimulating but lacked the necessary existential connection with the material that often elicited emotions from my classmates that I couldn’t understand.  

And my contributions, i.e. conversational domination, wasn’t appreciated or affirmed. No one congratulated me on my astute observations. In fact, more than once I’d hear, “Jeff, can you just sit there and listen for a moment and let us talk?”  

I was appalled at the gall of people who spoke so passionately about the inclusion of voice in the conversation to so blatantly exclude my voice. The hypocrisy…I chuckle writing this even now. To make matters worse, the professor didn’t like me at all. (In his defense, as a professor now I don’t think I would have liked 2009 Jeff – especially in a class on racial issues.) Dr. Forrest Harris was an adjunct at Vanderbilt and was currently serving as the President of American Baptist College in Nashville. A distinguished scholar, proven leader, valued educator, and champion for social justice, Harris was less than impressed with my espoused expertise on a subject to which I’d just been introduced. Harris was tolerant at first, aggravated midway through, and annoyed nearly every time I opened my mouth. I felt discouraged, devalued, and dismissed.  

I was in the minority in the class and felt treated as such. I felt it was unfair. Notably, this was the first time in my life I’d been in the position where my “being in the world” didn’t afford me the privilege of speaking first, often, and last. It was perhaps one of the most important moments in my life (though the weight of it would take time to negotiate.)  

It was in that setting, probably after one of my naïve comments shaped by an unrealized, unconfessed privilege that my classmate told his story. It was a story I will do my best to relate as factually as I remember and one that continues to exercise an impact on my life in nearly every new scenario I find myself.  

“Jeff,” he said, “one time I’d come home from college. Now let me give you a little background. My father is a physician and we live in a gated community. I grew up in that community and at the time was attending a private university. I’d come home to visit my parents and made a terrible mistake. You know the mistake I made, Jeff?” I shook my head. “Jeff, the mistake I made was thinking that I, a physically fit black man with dreads could run through my own neighborhood in the daylight for exercise and expect to be treated as though I belonged there. Instead, as I ran a police car came up alongside of me, pulled up and cut me off. The officer jumped out of the car and demanded that I tell him why I was there. When I tried to tell him that I lived in the neighborhood, I was met by utter disbelief. There was no way someone who looks like me could possibly live or belong in a place that looks like this. He put me up against the car to frisk me. This went on until I could prove to him by taking him to my house that I lived in that neighborhood. I was in my own neighborhood Jeff. I was on the hood of a police car for running through my own neighborhood. I was the son of a physician who lived in a gated community going to a private university and still I was reminded that I don’t fit, this world isn’t for me. Jeff, do you think you’d ever have that problem, no matter what neighborhood you ran through. Truth is Jeff, the only time you’d have a run in with the cops running through a neighborhood is if you were running through the “wrong neighborhood” and cops stopped you to tell you, you are unsafe.”  

This was the moment, a moment when I heard two voices speak, the voice of heartache and the voice of compassion that something shifted within me. I can’t fully articulate all that changed that day. But in that moment, I shut up. I listened. At the end, there was no rebuttal. There was no defense. There was no justifying my place in the world. Maybe, had this experience been the anomaly for a young black man in the United States I could have validated his experience and yet refuted its implications. But I couldn’t.  

I’ve never been stopped and frisked. 
I’ve never been followed through a department store to ensure I didn’t steal anything. 
I’ve never had someone lock their car doors when I walked past their car in a parking lot. 
I’ve never had to shrink so as to look less scary or intimidating.  
I’ve never had to wonder if my hoodie would be viewed as a threat. 
I’ve never had someone cross the street as I approached.  
I never had to have “the talk” with my father nor with my sons 
I’ve never been dismissed from a conversation because of my color or my gender. 
I’ve never had someone look at me shocked when I told them I attended a private university. 
I’ve never been forced to carry the burden of invalidation either because of the pigment of my skin, my anatomy, my sexual preference, or my ethnic background.  
I have never once had an anxious moment when I had to decide if the sign outside locker room I was entering matched my internalized gender identity 
I’ve never had someone automatically defer to my spouse because they thought she was the professional and I was the stay at home parent.  

There are many, “I’ve nevers” that I could share because who I am means that I don’t have to deal with much of what others are forced to deal with. I am privilege.  

Gluten Free Apple Pie Anyone?  

I am privilege. This means I am in fact the iconic American Emblem. I couldn’t be any more American than Apple Pie. Of course, as a celiac sufferer that apple pie would have to be gluten free. But even there my privilege comes through. I’m privileged to shop at stores and frequent restaurants that can cater to my peculiar dietary needs. That aside, how about a bit of a biographical picture as a set up for  our discussion as to what I mean when I say “privilege.” 

I was born a white male, to a middle class family, who would have loosely associated with the term Protestant in semi-rural Ohio. I say semi-rural because I lived in the bustling metropolis of Bolivar – a community made up of neighborhoods, people who often drove 10 miles north to Canton for work or 10 miles south to Dover and New Philadelphia. I wasn’t rural, but I knew many. We were at the heart of WHITE America. I mean we had a black family, soooo…that made us diverse right? And we all loved them, soooo that means we weren’t racist right? Race wasn’t a problem for us because race wasn’t our problem. Likewise, we didn’t deal with pesky immigration issues and the homosexuals stayed firmly locked in their closets to stay safe from the ensuing mistreatment and teasing that would have been their lot.  

And I was one of the “us.” Shoot, I was our poster child. 

I’m going to do this quickly. I will share how my experiences, accomplishments, and associations shaped my perspectives, formed my implicit biases, and served my privilege, because I believe confession matters. For the White American Male Christian, confession matters. When I say confession, I don’t mean confessing to the culpability of societal ills and systemic brutality and domination that came long before I was born. What I mean by confession is an act of recognition, acknowledgementConfession means coming to terms with my “white privilege,” a term often weaponized or misunderstood, but that simply means that like the wake left in the water long after a speed boat passes, white privilege is the wake left in the water after centuries of intentionally created, supported, and defended public policies of systemic racism. Confession recognizes that the wake doesn’t disappear in a few decades, especially when the injustice has moved places of inherited traumas, social inequalities in education, criminal justice, and housing, and sustained implicit biases sustained by unconfessed undercurrents of racialized thinking. Confession is the means by which we come to terms with the “taken for grantedness” of our existence. Confession is the spirit-led conviction that I right now am both participant in and benefactor of systems designed for me, that have and continue to privilege me over others. Confession acknowledges privilege, not as a misnomer that I’ve not had to work hard for what I have, but that I’ve had less arbitrary and unjust obstructions than those who do not share my place in the world, had less obstacles to cross, less barriers impeding my movement, less threats to the fruit of my laborSo first I say, confession matters. What I share now is the confession that I am the emblem of the White America.  

  • I am a white American male. 
  • I grew up in Rural America. 
  • I rode my bikes up and down safe streets from sun up to sun down every day we weren’t in school. 
  • We lived in a four bedroom, 2 bath home with a large yard and 2 dogs.  
  • I was surrounded by other white kids. We left our bikes out overnight, didn’t pick up our basketballs after a good game, traded baseball cards. 
  • We vacationed nearly every summer. 
  • My parents both worked…very hard.  
  • We had wealth but weren’t rich (a distinction necessary to make.)  
  • We were a common sense family. You paid for what you bought. You paid bills on time. You drove cars until you couldn’t drive them any longer. You avoided debt. And you worked really hard.  
  • I can’t remember my parents ever missing a ballgame, choir concert, or play. 
  • Oh yeah. I played football, wrestled, sang in the choir and was in all the musicals. Again, this is no joke, I was literally Curly in Oklahoma, Professor Harold Hill in the Music Man, and Danny Zucko in Grease.  
  • I was salutatorian of my High School class. 
  • I was recruited to play Division 3 football at a private university that was made possible through a half-tuition scholarship for my academics. We took out loans for the rest (loans the Army would pay for me later – but I’ll get there.)  
  • I was an All-American football player in college. 
  • I was an English Literature major, binge-drinking, fraternity joining, football player. Ok. Pause…get the stereotypical image in your mind. Yep – that was me.  
  • I joined the Army after graduation (of course I did.) I served honorably in the United States Army as an Arabic Linguist for almost 5 years before exiting due to a severe back issue. 
  • I’d married my college sweetheart two weeks after graduation from college and two weeks before Basic Training.  
  • I became a Christian while in the Army. 
  • I’m starting to feel like a cliché…a straw man that is a real man.  
  • We have two boys (both of whom attend a primarily white, private institution that I teach at.) 
  • I was called to the pastorate as I was leaving the Army. I’ve served churches in a military town in Tennessee, a small rural town in Tennessee (when I say small, I mean the town was 2000, the county 8000), and a 98.7% white lower middle class community in Illinois.  
  • I now live in the heart of Chicago in one of the wealthiest communities in the Chicagoland area. (NOTE: Not because I am rich, far from it, but because I work for an organization that has owned a condo in that area for nearly 30 years that pays me with a place to live. My monthly salary from teaching is probably the weekly salary of many of my neighbors.) 
  • I write this sipping on coffee in a chic coffee shop in Lincoln Park.  
  • Currently, I’ve been married for 21 years to the same woman. I have two sons, two dogs, 3 vehicles (none of which work well), live paycheck to paycheck (though I’ve little fear the next one won’t come) and benefits (for the first time in a really long time – which is a game changer). I stand 6’3, weigh about 280 pounds and dress like a dad that tries way too hard to be trendy.  
 I am privilege. I’m the emblem of the American assumptions. This country was designed for people just like me. I carry in my body the constant affirmation that my white, protestant, straight, successful, middle class, married, educated self belongs. I fit. I belong. I don’t have to fight to affirm my place. I am privilege.  

Confession Matters 
To say that I’m the American emblem is not to suggest this is what should be or what could be, but unfortunately a confession of what is. Throughout much of my life, I didn’t realize or understand the implicit and explicit benefits of my “being” in this world. By “being” I mean the affirmation of existence. I know, I know…we all “are,” right? Are we? I know that physically we occupy space. However, from a place of identity, we live in a world and specifically a country where that “being,” the affirmation of existence, the “taken for grantedness of who we are,” the right to live into the identity that is most natural to a person often falls on a spectrum. I sit at the extreme end of the spectrum of “being.”  

I am without question.  

My “being” is taken for granted, anytime I walk into a room, lead an organization, or sit at a table. My “I am-ness” is never called into question. Now, I realize given the current political landscape, there are some that would suggest that the “white male’s” right to “be” has been called into question or is threatened, but that is absurd. That very statement and the political power to insist on the continuance of that being is a sign of tenacity of this perverse ideal. In her helpful book, White Fragility, Robin Diangelo compellingly offers significant statistical evidence of the while male’s place at the head of most tables of influence. From her research, I’d say we are doing pretty well, hardly a marginalized, threatened minority. “I” as a participant in a collective group of “We” are doing pretty well.  

Quick note: We ought not equate privilege with success. The ongoing nature of white privilege doesn’t mean that I’ve risen above in success, education, or financial prosperity those that don’t share in that privilege, for there has historically been success stories that break through the ceilings the system has established. Instead of an individualist approach, it’s collective recognition that generally speaking whites (especially white males) in America fair better in terms of opportunity and access to opportunity than those who don’t share in that privilege.  

Further along that spectrum, there are those who have being but with caveats. White women have being, as long as they still recognize their place in the work force, in the pay structures, in the church, or in families. Racial identity and socio-economic status impact one’s place on the continuum of being. Sexual orientation is a great determiner of one’s place. Then there are those for whom our country is in no way designed, those whose “being,” affirmation of existence, is always threatened or dismissed. Imagine being a poor, gay, dreamer trying to live in the affirmation of existence. They are the opposite of privilege. Their existence is the locus of a constant battle for validation and affirmation.  

The field isn’t level.  

The assumptions are limiting.  

Affirmation is denied. There are those that are often considered an unfortunate problem rather than recognized as the “taken for granted” bearers of the Image of God.  

But it MUST go Further… 
Confession as a necessary spiritual discipline can only take the White Christian Male in America so far. And it is a spiritual discipline. In some respects this act of confession serves as a form of breath prayer, that Ancient Monastic practice that repeated a single phrase literally hundreds of times a day until it becomes subconsciously present in one’s life. “I am privilege,” is that breath prayer. It orients, or maybe reorients me, in every setting I find myself, in every conversation I have, in every role I lead through, in every neighborhood I travel, and in every interpretation of news story and statistic that I hear. This breath prayer goes a long way to make me aware of the implicit biases already operative in the way I carry my “being” into the space of others and the ways in which I receive them into my space.  

However, confession is by no means an end. It is only a beginning. Living out this privilege has also afforded a well-constructed narrative of self-efficacy, self-sufficiency and self-actualization. Who I am is by no means a gift from any one or any group. I am not who I am as a result of any one’s welfare or any form of entitlement. Who I am and who I am becoming is through the exertion of will, tenacity, hard work, and determination. Privilege affords the illusion that we are self-made individuals who through some heroic fortitude build our own lives, only politely and disingenuously tipping our hats to those to whom we are thankful. Privilege affords us the illusion that we all start on a relatively common ground and that anyone who works hard enough can succeed.  

However, for the Christian male, this hubris is met head on each and every time we come to the table of the Lord, as participants in Communion, the meal of our Lord. It’s at this table, and not as a quarterly – make sure we fit this in kind of practice, but as a regular act of spiritual formation, that the charade of my rugged individualism is revealed for what it actually is, a denial of God, a refusal to live in the absolute and utter fragility, need, and dependence that according to Genesis is the constitutive ground of my being. It is at that table, a table at which I arrive and am reminded that I can never “take” the elements. As someone who suffers from privilege, I’m used to taking what I will and what I want. Instead, at the table we can do nothing but receive. I’m forced to live in a posture of reception, receiving the gift of my life, my being, as an extension of God’s grace afforded to me through His sheer benevolence, charity, and compassion. At the table I am reminded, humbled, by the truth that my life, my being, my hope is the result of the body and blood of a poor person of color from Middle Eastern descent shattered and emptied for me.  

In addition, if I would take heed of the Apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 11 and refuse to eat of this meal unworthily, I must through confession as recognition, acknowledge my sister and brother at the table, acknowledge my sister and brother not at the table, and refuse to wield my privilege as entitlement to a place at the front of that table. I must learn to see us earnestly and honestly. I must acknowledge that the field is not level, the assumptions are limiting for many, and the affirmation of existence if often hard to come by. Yet, it’s at that table, stripped of my bravado, that I, coming off my culturally constructed high horse can look my sister and brother, as well as those who fall on the spectrum of those gender binaries,  in the eye and recognize that we are only, ever, the Image of God if everyone and anyone is afforded the grace-infused gift and validation of our “being.” 

Just Stop Talking…or at least Learn to Listen First 
In that class, my fellow classmates had asked me to “let them speak.” Though offended by what I felt was unfair exclusion and the bracketing out of my voice, I’ve actually come to understand that what they were teaching me was an essential spiritual practice that emerges from both confession and communion. Though each of these are essential in the journey of living into the collective image of God for the white, American, male, Christian, neither of them quite go far enough. Both confession and communion can be done and yet still leave the concrete realities of the privileged status quo untouched. They are prone to both privatization and spiritualism. The formative practice my classmates taught me was a way of enacting the fruit of these discoveries in concrete ways. They were teaching me that as privileged, I must learn to live kenotically.  Deriving this from Paul’s great hymn in Philippians chapter 2, kenosis is the self-emptying posture of Jesus toward the world he sought to redeem, refusing the privileges legitimately to be afforded the One who was in very nature one with God, vacating the powers of coercion, manipulation, domination and exploitation, and taking on the role of Servant.  

Kenotic living will demand that the privileged not only come off their high horse but that they would be willing to step aside, away from the head of the line or the front of the table, and faithfully take up a basin as an act of intentionally seeking to level the field. It will mean refusing the assumed role of speaking first, often, and last. It will mean ensuring that contributions from across the wide spectrum of “being” are valued, affirmed, and respected. It will require an act of self-suspension, one’s capacity to listen intently to the voice of the “other” for whom I am “other” and embracing empathy as imperfect erasure of dividing lines. It will require one’s willingness to defer to those who have often been disregarded. It will mean recognizing that though privilege will trail us, especially for the time being, that privilege is not something to leveraged for our own self-interest, but to be leveraged for the sake of others, on behalf of others, as empowerment to others. It will require sacrifice, yes. It will require less concern that I will be pushed out from public spaces but instead that would give that energy to the work of building bigger spaces more inclusive of all voices.  

I understand that as I write this that I am using the first person, often to be avoided in academic settings. However, for the context of this article it is entirely appropriate. I am not speaking abstractly. I am not theorizing. I am not pointing fingers or shaming a group of people. I am speaking plainly, an art that bigots, racists, and xenophobic populists and pundits have perfected but that as academics we often lose. I am speaking for me. I am part of the privileging problem. I am the one who lives in the socially constructed blessing of my taken for grantedness. I am the one that requires a formative set of practices that will reorient me in ways in which I can participate faithfully in the collective Imago Dei 

I am privilege.