Bikers, Church Chairs, Community and Diversity

The unmistakable rumble of three dozen Harley Davidson choppers rolling into the church parking lot sent a shiver down my spine and resonated over the church chairs in the sanctuary – it had only been three weeks since the leader of an outlaw gang had threatened to show up on a Sunday morning and kill me because his girl friend had accepted Christ.  I was still the new guy in town and new to my first congregational assignment.
My pastoral experience up to that point consisted of four years in campus ministry. In those four years working with youth and their parents I had framed a clear view of what I thought a congregation could become.  I envisioned a cross-generational, cross-cultural community that expressed contagious love for their neighbor because of the deep transformation they experienced by engaging Christ.  I assumed that transformation would lead to a contagious love and growth in the character and numbers of people who would connect to Christ and to one another.  However, the realities of stepping into leadership of a congregation forty years past its prime were jolting.

I may as well have used Greek in my sermons – as much as I tried to explain my vision I felt I was making zero progress.  I asked the congregation one Sunday to kneel and pray together for the community only to discover in the lukewarm response and angry visitors that marched through my office the following week that such “radical” expressions of religion were unappreciated and cause for the congregation to reconsider acceptance of my appointment as their pastor!  It did not take long for me to understand that what I assumed was normal Christianity was a radical divergence from the pattern of my congregation’s nearly fifty year existence.  The gap between my vision and reality felt like the distance from wall to wall of the Grand Canyon.

So what lead up to the day I watched three dozen choppers pull into the church parking lot causing me to calculate escape routes to the nearest phone if things became uncomfortable?  It was discouragement with the status quo I could not break in the early months of being the new guy.  So one day I left the church office to walk around the downtown area of our small western Washington city.  I had noticed a Harley Davidson motorcycle shop downtown and decided that I would browse around as an escape from the discouragement of the church office.

Shorty, the proprietor of the shop offered a lukewarm greeting (apparently my khaki slacks, golf shirt and flip-flops failed to exude the right look for a Harley Davidson shop).  I told Shorty I had seen the sign on the shop and was curious about motor cycles. When Shorty found out I was a local pastor the conversation turned surly. I wasn’t put off, four years in campus ministry on high school and college campuses had given me plenty of experience conversing with surly people who had both suspicions of religion and open hostilities toward any one associated with religion. I still love to converse with people suspicious of religion.  I too tend to be suspicious of religion. I would rather spend time talking about knowing Jesus Christ at a deep personal level.

Shorty and I became friends and my wife and I ended up meeting many of Shorty’s friends.  That series of introductions and time spent together is how the girlfriend of the club leader ended up receiving Christ.  About that same time we discovered that the bike shop was a suspected cover for an outlaw gang – the club was actually an outlaw gang and conduit of illegal drugs into the state.  So, we had been in the community by this point for several years.  I had succeeded in offending the congregation resulting in an exodus of a dozen families, leading a few people to Christ and ticking off one of the most notorious outlaw leaders in the state.  The usher team was not thrilled with the prospect of having to deal with a mad outlaw on a Sunday morning.

But this was a Tuesday morning and no one was around.  My part-time secretary did not work on Tuesdays.  Most the neighbors around the church property had gone to work for the day.  I stood face to face with three dozen gnarly looking Harley Davidson riders and I was still dressed in khakis, a golf shirt and flip-flops.  I decided I had a better chance in the open than in the building if things became uncivil.  I walked out the front door of the church office.

“Hey man, we are looking for pastor Ray is he here?” The spokesman for the group in front of me threw out the query with a voice that boomed with intimidating firmness.

“Why do you ask?” I answered still calculating the nearest escape route.

“We heard he had a ministry to bikers and was working with the outlaw gang in this area, we came to help him.”

“I am pastor Ray” I said nearly giddy with relief. I was jubilant to have Christians in front of me and not outlaws.

The next exclamation surprised me and taught me a deep lesson about ministry.

“You can’t have a ministry to bikers man…look at you…you don’t even look like a biker.” The warmth I initially felt for this man cooled a bit.  My jubilation melted to astonishment and humor.

After convincing the group that there was no other pastor Ray in the area we talked about what God was doing in them and through them in the biker community and how I had become involved in that community.  They decided to visit that Sunday. When I looked out on the church chairs that weekend I saw more diversity than I had ever seen in that congregation – uncomfortable diversity yet undeniable unity in the Holy Spirit.  We had two significant breakthroughs that day.

The first was that I realized that being a leader and a catalyst to a church movement could only happen if I was simply and authentically myself knowing God through Jesus Christ.  I still don’t look like a biker. I could never pull off trying to look like a biker – I am too…well I leave the descriptors to others who know me. But, the relief of knowing that all I had to be was myself…that was huge.  God called and summoned me to be myself not a farce.  God asked me to follow God with my own warts and all.  That is why and when ministry is more fun than wearying. I still don’t look like all the people I reach, but there is something about being authentic and a learner that works to bridge differences.

The second was that the congregation saw what I had tried to describe.  It made more sense to them to see the gospel in action than to hear me describe the action.  No wonder Jesus first asked people to follow then explained what was happening.  Explanations of God’s love and power doesn’t make much sense until people experience God’s love and power in their context.  For example; when the 6 foot 2 inch 280 pound leather clad bearded spokesman for bike club walked over to the chairman of the board and smothered him in a bear hug that lifted him right out of his church chair and expressed deep appreciation for what the congregation was doing to minister to bikers in the area – the chairman began to grasp what transformation felt and looked like.  He changed after that and became as “radical” as he accused me of being.

It has been almost thirty years since those three dozen Harley Davidson motorcycles rumbled into the church parking lot.  But the lessons for me are just as poignant today as they were then.  When I hear Thom Rainer talk about the diversity represented in the Millennials, when I look at the changing demographics of my community, when I meet customs and languages I don’t comprehend at the local neighborhood gas-mart I take comfort in the fact that authentic love that engages people in the context in which they live still reduces suspicion and hostility. Authenticity still opens the door to see God do powerful things in the lives of others.  I am still learning. To hear some people I am still radical. I still wear flip-flops although the rest of my wardrobe has morphed.  I still go exploring when I am discouraged…only now there is an expectation in the wandering.  I expect God to bring people across my path who will deepen my understanding of grace like Shorty and the outlaws did by their own encounter with the grace of God.

The expectation makes me wonder – what is the next great rumble I will hear resonate across the church chairs in the sanctuary?  I can’t wait to find out.

When Leadership Requires the Power of Forgiveness

I recently experienced a painful betrayal. It reminded me of this article I wrote some time back.  Reviewing it was cathartic to me.  I hope it is to you as well.

Painful betrayal whether it occurs at work or in a leader’s personal life has the potential of distorting personal interactions and the leader’s interpretation of events.  Because a leader’s primary work is with people and because a leader depends on others to execute critical components of strategy the potential of distance and distortion in interpersonal relationships compounds with the scope of responsibility a leader carries. It behooves a leader to keep relationships as well as tactics and strategies current.

Place a leader’s scope of interpersonal relationships into a global corporation and add the challenges of cross-cultural communication and multinational socio-political realities and possibility of experiencing evil grows exponentially.   For example my friend who lost a trusted manager to terrorist activity faced evil.  The CEO, whose daughter is kidnapped, tortured and killed under the auspices of terrorist activity faces evil. The manager who is held until a bribe is paid faces evil.  The director whose trusted friend engages in a Machiavellian manipulation of political allies to oust him or her from their position faces evil.

There are times every leader find themselves in the middle of difficult conversations filled with accusations and counter accusations, angry words, hurt feelings and painful betrayals.  Leaders who face distorted interpersonal relationships and evil face tangible offenses and real pain.  It is not a matter of being tough enough to anticipate betrayal, loss, or risk – this all comes with the territory of leadership.  It is a matter of how a leader or person facing the aftermath of evil recovers from their experience in a way that strengthens rather than destroys them.

Facing Conflict with Piercing Honesty

I was lecturing on leadership ethics to graduate students in Kenya the year following their disputed presidential election.  As part of these lectures I include a section on the research on forgiveness as a means of combating evil and bridging across distorted relationships.  As the lecture unfolded painful stories of loss emerged from the class (made up by the way of the two primary parties in the dispute). These leaders had lost family in the turmoil that ensued following the election.  They sat in the same room with those who by association were responsible for their loss.  There are times when the need to vent pain requires a place in which leaders can be vulnerable enough to describe their pain and find both a safe place to unload and a strategy to replace the reaction of revenge. Knowing how to work through conflict is not a common skill. Two inadequate alternatives often manifest themselves when I talk with leaders.

On the one hand the motivation and skill needed to have a tumultuous conversation is often lost in the morass of pain and anger. Somehow a mis-belief enters common thinking that to be civil (or in the church world to be Christian) is to be nice in a Pollyanna sense rather than in the true definition of the word.  Civility (good character and reputation; sensitive discernment) must include the skill to engage tumultuous conversations that refuse to avoid the issues or behaviors that minimize or damage the common good.  The fact is that without the commitment to the civility that presses for the common good one may fall to the entrapment of evil’s banality.  The term banality of evil was framed by Hannah Arendt whose analysis of Adolf Eichmann trial in 1961 showed that while a dozen psychiatrists had certified Eichmann as “normal” only showed that the source of evil may be commonplace.  Eichmann had sent millions of Jews to concentration camps during World War II.

On the other hand it is easier in our mobile society to simply disengage the source of discomfort or pain and simply move on.  The question I ponder is how does a person engage in a bifurcation of moral judgment so as to assume that the attitudes and behaviors that person exhibits in one context escape moral scrutiny in another?  The fact is that unresolved conflict and pain follows us to every new context and creates a lens or bias in how we view the actions of others.  Soon even the new context exhibits the failings of the original experience. Does this mean that deep violations in relationships are always reconcilable?  No. I could not engage a class on ethical decision making without also facing my own potential to engage in the kinds of behaviors my students decried as victims – there were victims on both sides.

The challenges of evil; ordinary evil, dreadful pleasure of hurting others, deception, bureaucracy or sanctioned destruction is not simply a problem elsewhere it is a potential of human behavior that every leader must consider.

Let’s Talk about Accountability for a Moment

Wherever people are involved the choice to do good or evil exists. People do not always choose the good. I have experienced the pain of betrayal by leaders, I have comforted those who experienced the trauma of sexual abuse, I have sat in the hospital with women beaten by their boyfriends or spouses, I have cried with children whose father killed their mother, I have wept with spouses betrayed by the sexual affairs of their partner and I have stood in the grief and pain of my students in Africa whose entire families were massacred in political rivalry.  I have experienced the betrayal of insecurity and banal evil myself as a leader. There are victims of evil. There are victims of poor choices.

So, what does accountability look like?  What does the quest for justice look like?  Does it look like a quest for admission of guilt? Does it look like a quest for apology?  I affirm all of these as desirable. But each of these quests for justice or righteousness or an admission of guilt will not occur when one is silent or simply slinks away.  The strongest confrontation of evil or poor behavior is to call it for what it is.  The Apostle Paul’s encouragement to the Romans is instructive;

14 I myself am convinced, my brothers and sisters, that you yourselves are full of goodness, filled with knowledge and competent to instruct one another.  (Romans 15:14, NIV)

So who is accountable to make the first move toward change?  Paul simply leaves it in the second person, “you” and lets the reader feel the full force of responsibility to act differently. Regardless of whether you are the victim or the perpetrator, you are responsible to make the first move toward actions that identify injustice and pursue justice.

I understand the pain I hear when talking to leaders who have suffered evil.  I was once caught in the court case and needed to secure my own attorney to protect myself from a third party and my own organization.  These parties were engaged in legal action over an insurance claim on property damage.  I had initiated the original claim as an act of stewardship for the property.  When my organization refused to pay the full insurance claim I was told by my boss to secure my own attorney.  I found myself in a defensive position against an organization I had helped build. My rage and sense of betrayal festered into bitterness.  I figured that if a fight was what was desired that I would oblige and adopt a scorched earth policy toward the organization’s other leadership.

I met with an attorney who listened to my story of betrayal and mismanaged insurance funds. She agreed that I had been horribly aggrieved then said she would take my case if I could answer one question.  It was nice to be affirmed in my pain and my sense of revenge was encouraged by her expressed willingness to take up my cause.  “What is the question?” I asked.

“What is God doing in this situation?”

The attorney may as well have hit me between the eyes with a bat – the response would have been the same.  I was stunned. I sat there in silence. I was a spiritual leader of a national program, a professor of leadership, a trusted friend and mentor of other leaders and all I could think in that moment was how I wanted revenge.  Since I had no answer the attorney suggested we meet again when I could answer the question and then we would map out a legal strategy together.

I was still reeling from the meeting with the attorney when I met with one of my graduate school mentors.  I repeated the painful details of my experience and Bobby listened attentively.  He interrupted before I could complete the saga and said, “I have seen this before Ray.  Leaders work in imperfect organizations. That is why we need effective and godly (morally aware) leaders. You have a choice as a leader – you are at a boundary time. You can choose to grow or to plateau in your potential and capacity development.  If you are going to grow you must choose to identify the boundary and then forgive those who have injured you.”

“I need to forgive? They need to provide restitution for my lost wages and legal defense!”  I respected Bobby but I was a little miffed at his suggestion that my response to others actions was the critical key to identifying what God was doing.  Bobby didn’t flinch at my intensity.

“I am not suggesting you forget or ignore the pain of what has occurred Ray.”

“Well what are you suggesting?” I asked.

“I am suggesting that in your present state you won’t see how this event can positively shape your future and your effectiveness as a leader until you choose to forgive and begin to see things from God’s perspective.”

As we talked I discovered that I did not understand either the process of forgiveness or its power.

What Forgiveness Is Not and What it Is

Craig Johnson, professor of leadership studies at George Fox University notes that forgiveness is not:

  • Forgetting past wrongs to move on
  • Excusing or condoning bad, damaging behavior
  • Reconciliation or coming together again (forgiveness opens the way to reconciliation, but the other person much change or desire to reconcile)
  • Reducing the severity of the offenses
  • Offering legal pardon
  • Pretending to forgive in order to wield power over another person
  • Ignoring the offender
  • Dropping our anger and becoming emotionally neutral

I wrestled with these misconceptions about forgiveness and I see others wrestle with them as well. Johnson quotes Robert Enright of the University of Wisconsin to define forgiveness as;

…a willingness to abandon one’s resentment, negative judgment, and indifferent behavior toward one who unjustly injured us, while fostering the undeserved qualities of compassion, generosity, and even love toward him or her.[1]

The definition carries all the biblical aspects of forgiveness I was familiar with in a theological sense.  Forgiveness includes the recognition that the victim has suffered a real injustice; that forgiveness is a choice that involves emotions, thoughts and behaviors and that forgiveness can be offered regardless of the offender’s response.  The fact is that forgiveness is a process that identifies a real problem.  Forgiveness recognizes the high price of carrying resentment and bitterness, works to understand (not condone) the actions of the offender in order to break the cycle of evil rather than pass it on.  Finally forgiveness renders the outcome of seeing a deeper meaning in the events that have occurred and the realization on the part of the victim of their own need for forgiveness in life.  Knowing this as a detached concept and living it as a leader in the middle of the fight is not the same thing.

Working at a Crossroad

Leaders work at the crossroad of moral decision daily.  We listen, we empathize and we try to point those in our organizations in the direction of legal, ethical and moral justice.  How powerful would it be if more and more leaders caught in the painful throes of interpersonal conflict and the experience of evil would exercise the power of forgiveness?  How revolutionary could a company or organization become in today’s global environment if we lay hold of the dynamic of staying in tumultuous conversations rather than running from them?

Walking through the pain of my own forgiveness journey and walking with other leaders through their journey encourages me about the powerful potential for deep personal and social change forgiveness can bring. So how does forgiveness break the retaliatory cycle of evil?  Enright, Freedman and Rique (1998) suggest that forgiveness unfolds in four phases.

Uncovering Phase

The attorney with whom I talked skillfully led me through an evaluation of my own psychological defenses evident in my desire for revenge.  I was so enraged that I could barely articulate the reasons why.  I had to confront my anger and release rather than harbor my rage.  I was ashamed at my apparent helplessness in the face of the organization’s concerted attempt to railroad my position in an effort to save a few bucks (odd that the cost of the legal fees eventually exceeded by 4 times the amount of the original insurance claim).   The confrontation I engaged with the attorney and my mentor helped me see that I was living in a rehearsal of my pain rather than engaging my own future as a leader. While the event permanently altered the course of my career the reality was that forgiveness alone could open my eyes to the potential opportunities the irrevocable change would in fact provide.

Decision Phase

Bobby challenged me to look at my situation with different eyes (a different perspective).  In his taxonomy of leadership development my situation was a common means of expanding capacity in leaders who exercised forgiveness.  The same was true for my students in Kenya.  As they moved from a quest for revenge to an admission of their loss and a query about their future they experienced the same change of heart I had that day in Bobby’s office. They became willing to consider forgiveness as an option and determined to forgive the offenders of the atrocity they had experienced.   Remember this is not the same as excusing or condoning the behavior of the offender.

Work Phase

That day in the classroom we worked to reframe the experience of those leaders who had faced such horrendous loss – many of them were exposed to the other side of the political rivalry and the losses incurred by enemies in the conflict for the very first time. They began to see the wrongdoer (i.e., each other) in a new light.  They saw each other from the perspective of their unique context.  For the first time they experienced a twinge of compassion for the offenders (i.e., each other).

I remember encountering a regional vice president from my organization during my own work phase in the act of forgiveness.  We saw each other for the first time since the initiation of court action months after I had left the organization.  We embraced in a bear hug – each having seen the pain faced by the other.  It was one of the most startling and moving experiences I have ever had. We talked about mistakes both sides had made, the injuries those mistakes and intentional posturing had inflicted and then we offered forgiveness to one another.

The work phase is a process of acceptance and absorption of the pain.  It is significant because up to this point pain is fought against or denied and suppressed so that it sneaks out in unconscious actions of revenge and retaliation.  Without forgiveness the experience of evil typically reproduces itself so that the victim becomes a perpetrator.

Deepening Phase

The question of the attorney (what is God doing) was not an attempt to sidestep real issues in the guise of religious pompousness – it was a catalytic question that forced me to find meaning in what I had suffered and in the process of forgiveness I was then willing to engage.  This is the essence of a deepen phase it is the final step in leaving a boundary time with a clear idea of a new future.

As I described the process of forgiveness for my students that week in Africa they realized that they were not alone in their suffering.  This realization is part of the deepening phase and it set the stage for their own transition from a primarily negative affect to the realization of a new purpose in life because of the injury they faced as leaders.


The social-scientific study of forgiveness is a relatively new field.  But so far it shows great promise in helping leaders absorb and diffuse evil.  Global leaders in today’s highly interdependent economies have ample opportunity to experience evil. The reality is that all of us face the choice daily in our operations to be people who act as perpetrators of evil (either by our practiced distance from the sources of evil we see but do not address or by the pain we inflict on those we consider enemies).  If our organizations are really going to thrive, if they have impact for the common good then forgiveness is a skill and discipline every leader must engage as part of achieving their full potential.

[1] Craig E. Johnson. Meeting the Ethical Challenges of Leadership: Casting Light or Shadow, 3rd ed. (Los Angeles, CA: Sage Publishing, 2009), 116.