Instead of seeing leadership as a hierarchy, we need to see it as a stream. People up stream and people downstream matter, but they have different roles. The folks upstream may be in charge of decision making, but if they don’t consider those downstream, they can put up dams and stop the river up with rocks. Those downstream talk to each other and create all sorts of havoc.
A guy went to the teller at his bank and he noticed she was standing and fidgeting. She said her feet were hurting. He asked, “Why don’t you sit down and grab a chair?” She said, “Somebody with a chair upstairs decided we didn’t need a chair.”
The folks upstream decided the folks downstream didn’t need chairs, and now there are disgruntled employees.
It’s a rule of thumb that the decisions upstream leaders make affect them the least. We need to understand that the collective wisdom of the group makes some of the best decisions.
Wendell Berry is quoted as saying, “Do unto those downstream as you would have those upstream do unto you.” Jesus said, “Do to others as you would have them do to you” (Luke 6:31).
For discussion: how does this apply to those you lead in ministry, to your staff? Where have you seen the people you lead put up dams? What are the benefits of decision making that considers “the collective wisdom of the group?”
Alps from Above is a documentary with aerial views of breath taking mountain ranges in Austria. One scene highlights Regis Borg Castle, a magnificent structure that dates back to the 17th century and perched high on a hill where the mountains run out into the plains.
Since the 1980’s the castle has served as a lodging place for birds of prey (falcons, owls, vultures, and eagles). In the episode, a young intern is interviewed. He talks about what it’s like to work with birds of prey and describes their wild, undomesticated nature.
Each day he follows the same routine, taking one of the magnificent birds onto his arm and releasing it to fly high into the sky. The amazing thing is that for all of their wildness and the daily opportunity to fly away, the birds always come back.
I found his explanation quite intriguing:
“They never actually listen to a command. It only works if you build up trust over time. It is a great feeling when you’ve won the trust of a bird, and that it keeps coming back to you.”
Those words sound a lot like effective ministry: “trust over time.”
They sound like the relationship of a young armor bearer to Jonathan, when Jonathan said to him:
“Come, let’s go over to the outpost of those uncircumcised men. Perhaps the Lord will act in our behalf. Nothing can hinder the Lord from saving, whether by many or by few.”“Do all that you have in mind,” his armor-bearer said. “Go ahead; I am with you heart and soul” (1 Samuel 14:6-7).
Erwin McManus writes, “This is the essence of influence, to win the heart and soul of another person through the strength of your own character and personhood. This is why influence is always more powerful than authority. Authority can [determine] what a person does, but influence shapes what a person becomes. Influence is born out of trust, and finds its strength in the connection of heart and soul” (Seizing Your Divine Moment).
“Trust over time” sounds a lot like a relationship with Jesus. His sheep “follow him because they know his voice. But they will never follow a stranger; in fact, they will run away from him because they do not recognize a stranger’s voice” (John 10:4-5).
Birds of prey do not respond to a command, they respond to influence. Apparently, according to Jesus, sheep do as well.
In working with young people over the years, I’ve learned an important lesson: when it comes to changing a life, it’s the “heart and soul” connection that really counts. Or, to quote Parker J. Palmer,
“The soul is like a wild animal – tough, resilient, savvy, self-sufficient, and yet exceedingly shy. If we want to see a wild animal, the last thing we should do is to go crashing through the woods, shouting for the creature to come out. But if we are willing to walk quietly into the woods and sit silently for an hour or two at the base of a tree, the creature we are waiting for may well emerge” (Let your Life Speak).
One of the blessings of long-term ministry is to visit with students once they have moved on from their adolescent years, graduated and moved away. During those brief moments when they return, it is most rewarding to hear the stories that are etched into their minds from youth group days. I’ve never heard a student talk much about “the program.” It’s the stories of human connection they remember. So maybe it would be helpful to think about it this way:
“What converted you to Christ? Was it a person, or a program?”
The temptation of ministry is getting consumed with creating the best programs. And while programs have value, we must never forget the all-important need for human connection, for loving like Jesus loved, for memories made together, for “trust over time.”
Royal Robbins is a professional mountain climber. Writing in Sports Illustrated, he describes the one great essential of the sport. It is not physical strength or having the safest and best equipment, or even the proper training. It is the ability to see things as they really are. He writes:
“If we are keenly alert and aware of the rock and what we are doing on it, if we are honest with ourselves and our capabilities and weaknesses, if we avoid committing ourselves beyond what we know is safe, then we will climb safely. For climbing is an exercise in reality. He who sees it clearly is on safe ground regardless of his experience or skill. But he who sees reality as he would like it to be may have his illusions rudely stripped away from his eyes as the ground comes up fast.”
Royal Robbins illustrates a crucial leadership principle: Wise leaders resist seeing life as they would like to see it. They are honest with themselves regarding their capabilities and weaknesses. They seek to accurately assess the situation before them.
In Leadership is the Key, Herb Miller identifies twelve traits of effective leaders. One of the traits is “Objectivity: The ability to accurately assess reality.” He writes that ministers who frequently “fail to accurately define reality walk up stairs of sand in their journey toward effectiveness.” He suggests that objectivity does not come from a high IQ or high levels of specialized knowledge, but from a leader’s willingness to be self-aware and sensitive to the feelings and opinions of others.
Perhaps we could learn something about perception from Jesus’ extended stay at the temple as a child. After three days, his parents found him in the temple courts, “sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions” (Luke 2:46). Jesus took time to listen and seek understanding.
Based on research, John Savage (Calling and Caring) contends that 90% of the time, when we try to guess why a person dropped out of church, we guess wrong. He suggests that the only real way to know why is to humbly ask the person. Unless a person tells you their story, you really do not accurately know.
The problem we often have in ministry is the tendency to project our own conclusions into difficult situations based on our insecurities. We have a tendency to attribute one cause to one effect. To do so is to have an overly simplistic view and live under an illusion of understanding that is not connected to reality.
A much better approach is to follow Jesus in the way listening and honest seeking, or even to heed James’ guidance that we be “Quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to become angry” (James 1:19). Reverse these, and you have a distorted view of reality, as well as guaranteed conflict. Put them into practice in ministry and you have understanding and a more accurate perception. So, if rock climbing is an “exercise in reality,” then ministry (with all of its potential pitfalls) certainly fits that bill. I believe Stephen Covey has it right: “Seek to understand, then to be understood.” Seeing reality accurately will make you a more perceptive and effective leader.
Leadership really is about the one. Not the crowd. Not the masses. But about how you treat the one.
Jesus repeatedly demonstrated this in his ministry.
To those who murmured at Jesus for welcoming sinners and eating with them, he told this parable:
“Suppose one of you has a hundred sheep and loses one of them. Doesn’t he leave the ninety-nine in the open country and go after the lost sheep until he finds it? And when he finds it, he joyfully puts it on his shoulders and goes home. Then he calls his friends and neighbors together and says, ‘Rejoice with me; I have found my lost sheep.’ I tell you that in the same way there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent” (Luke 15:4-7).
From this parable, Kenneth E. Baily makes a keen observation:
“It is the shepherd’s willingness to go after the one that gives the ninety-nine their real security. If the one is sacrificed in the name of the larger group, then each individual in the group is insecure, knowing that he or she will be left to die. When the shepherd pays a high price to find the one, he thereby offers the profoundest security to the many.”
Having been in the secular workplace for the past few years, I have observed this to be true time and time again. The way management treats the one filters throughout the entire organization. The treatment of the one becomes the dominate narrative for employees. It becomes the story of how anyone in the organization will be treated given similar circumstances. It has the power to create employee trust and allegiance to the company, or dissatisfaction and a desire for greener pastures.
I have found this to be true in the classroom. The way a teacher responds to one honest seeker–or even the critic–communicates to class members whether it is safe to ask questions and engage in the teaching moment. When a teacher responds to the one, she is really responding to the whole and sending powerful signals to students as they make decisions to engage or not. (After all, nobody wants to be made to look dumb!)
It is true in ministry. I learned early on as a youth minister how many students vie for your attention, especially after church services. Often young people are lined up seeking your counsel. I learned to always focus my eyes on the one who got there first, then focus on the next, and then the next. I learned that five minutes of focused attention with the person before you is one of the most powerful gifts you can ever offer. It is the gift of yourself.
Jesus embodied concern for the one. Today we read the stories of Jesus and how he stopped and engaged with men and women. He fogged out the crowd when the woman in adultery was cast down before him. Neither do I condemn you! He gave Nicodemus time and understanding when he could have been sleeping one night. When a woman with an issue of blood touched him, he set aside his agenda to focus on her physical needs. He spoke with compassion to the thief on the cross. Time and again Jesus said, “YOU are the most important thing to me.” Today we read with delight the stories of Christ’s compassion for those who came into his path.
As leaders, the way we treat the one – the broken, the hungry, the critic, the sincere questioner, the thief – communicates a strong message to all those we lead. “When the shepherd pays a high price to find the one, he thereby offers the profoundest security to the many.” Maybe it’s time we adjusted our ministry glasses to see that the most important person is the one who stands before us at any given time. Effective leadership always reduces itself to how we treat the one.
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