Engaging Diversity: Take a long look at how we act

One of the most poignant experiences I had with the interaction of culture and organizational culture occurred in my third pastorate. In the mid-nineties, California was abuzz with debate on a bill that sat before the United States Congress designating English as the federal government’s sole language of official business. There was talk of an initiative to make English the official language of the state and to cease production of state documents in all other languages.

The “English only” campaign caught on in many white evangelical churches as a popular way to deal with their own cultural disequilibrium. People promoting the campaign felt infringed upon culturally and supplanted from their familiar social landmarks. They were uncomfortable in encounters with ethnicities, languages, and cultures they did not understand. In a time of disequilibrium a culture suffers a loss or diminished capacity to psychologically reinforce its members. Its ability to interpret and explain reality or maintain its adaptation capability then diminishes.

I was new in my third pastorate during this time. I had arrived in my city after leading our denomination’s short-term missions department. I wanted to see a congregation emerge as a multiethnic and multicultural church. The cultural changes in our neighborhood in the ten years preceding my arrival had been rapid. The old neighborhoods suffered from white-flight (or economic flight as the case may be) as people moved to escape having to cope with change.

Because the demographics of our community had changed so radically, I suggested that we purchase Bibles for use on Sunday mornings that contained Spanish and English. Uproar of objection and anxiety to my suggestion brought out the less-loving parts of my congregation. People are not fully rational when they experience a situation that causes cultural disequilibrium—they are angry, fearful, and suspicious. My suggestion had undermined the trust that I had built up to that point with a significant part of the congregation. These emotions threatened to undo the work that we had accomplished in reaching the neighborhood around us.

The majority culture group in the congregation openly expressed disgust at smells, food, clothing, work habits that were not classic 1950s, white suburban America. I watched the other half of my congregation begin to pull back in their participation.

One of the most active and evangelistic leaders we had told me he was afraid of what was occurring socially and was disheartened that the wider social unrest had made its way into his family’s daily experience. His children had overheard disparaging and biased social commentary about their family’s cultural background at church. This professional and his family had recently bought a new home in one of the new subdivisions. He told me that one day he pulled into the driveway of his new home to inspect the progress of the landscaping.

One of his neighbors yelled from across the street, “Hey, you can’t park there.”

“What,” he said, “not in my driveway? Why?”

“Gardeners are required to park down the street at the guest parking,” the neighbor reportedly said with disgust.

“Great,” my friend replied, “I will let my gardener know. It’s good to meet you I am Juan Garcia your new neighbor.” At that, Juan reported that his neighbor turned his back and hastily retreated into his house.

“Pastor Ray,” Juan said, “this is not right.” I agreed. I called together some of our house church leaders. By that point, we had started house churches in English, Spanish, Tagalog, Arabic, and Mandarin—the languages of the neighborhood. I asked them to pray with me about how to address this issue with the congregation. I felt that I needed to make a commitment to a direction that reflected the servant approach to cultural differences and knew that it would not be universally accepted.

The house church pastors agreed and committed themselves to pray. We talked potential strategies and how we planned to follow up the direction I was to frame. A few Sundays later, I determined to address the “English only” proposition.

“Church,” I began, “I know you are aware of the controversy that the English-only proposition has generated. I am concerned that it has the potential of warping our presentation of who God is. We are a multicultural and multiethnic church, and it is this identity that presents the work and love of God to all of our neighbors. Let me remind you of several realities about our faith and the faith of our fathers that I think are important to make explicit.”

“First, we who are white, Anglo-Saxons are the foreigners to the faith. We are the Goyim whom the first century church hesitated to approach because we were considered unclean. Our food had strange aromas, our clothing was odd and unfamiliar, and our religious views were alien and odd. Yet through God’s grace, they loved us and ultimately, over the centuries of outreach, many of our ancestors finally heard the gospel in their own languages all of which were foreign to the church: English, German, French, and Spanish.”

“Second, the Jesus we know as Lord was not white or European. He was Israeli, a Middle Easterner. Our pride in our respective European heritages is fine. Like you, I share a rich heritage in my family from our European background. Our pride however becomes a problem when it becomes exclusive. We make Jesus look like us, and then we are shocked with other cultures or ethnicities when they do the same.”

“Third, and perhaps most shocking—the Jesus you know as Lord and Savior never learned English. If these things are true about us, white European believers, then we can offer understanding and support to those who are different than us and invite them into the kingdom of God, not on the basis of our cultural norms or language but on the basis of their faith in Jesus Christ just as they are and in the languages, customs, foods, and clothing that they bring.”

Grins of relief and comfort slowly grew across the faces of part of the congregation that day. The other part of the congregation grew somber—some thoughtfully and others angrily. Some left the congregation that day and never returned. In their minds I had ruined and destroyed their church, and in many ways they were correct.

The new perspective I introduced altered the way the congregation was culturally defined. I was saddened by the departure of some of these people. However, I knew we were on the way to establishing the kind of organizational culture we needed to remain effective in our culturally diverse city.

Organizational culture is manifest at three levels: artifacts, values, and basic assumptions. Understanding these levels of organizational culture gives the servant leader the ability to quickly assess whether or not their conviction regarding servant leadership is evidenced in the behavior of their organization.”

— Change the Paradigm: How to Lead Like Jesus in Today’s World by Raymond L. Wheeler
https://a.co/9rdI76F

Social Disruption and Isolation – opportunities for a new depth

The COVID-19 virus intrusion is what Nicholas Taleb called a black swan event. Black swan events are a rare and unpredictable shock to a system with extensive consequences throughout the system. For example, the COVID-19 virus has already changed the way churches meet, the way food is secured, the way social interaction occurs, and has had a growing negative economic impact as businesses close and scale back their cost structures. Black swan events are defined by periods of high uncertainty and volatility.[1] It is the uncertainty of a black swan event that makes the recovery of “normal” a difficult target. This black swan event has imposed the social distancing strategy designed to limit the transfer of the COVID-19 virus from person to person. This has imposed a time of isolation for many people.

I have wondered about how to leverage the disruption and the isolation and what my horizon should be as a leader looking forward. Should I take a short view assuming the current disruptions are short term and the propensity toward stasis will nudge our experience back to a known sense of normal? Or do I take a long view and look at the current disruption and isolation as a push toward innovation? In my reflection, I was reminded of the work of Dr. Bobby Clinton, one of my mentors, on the way leaders develop. Specifically, how leaders mature. He identified several maturation processes one of which was isolation processing.

By maturation, Bobby meant the deep process that forces leaders to evaluate life and ministry for its deeper meaning. This evaluation reflects on what life is about and what ministry accomplishes. The purpose seems to be to shape one’s focus toward a whole lifetime of effect around what is ultimately important.[2]

Bobby recognized that isolation is the process by which a leader is set aside from normal activity so that the leader has an extended time in which to experience God in a new or deeper way. The isolation process in Bobby’s heuristic may be initiated voluntarily or involuntarily. Regardless of the way an isolation period is initiated the potential for experiencing a call to a deeper relationship and experience of God is possible. The lessons a person may experience in isolation times include dependence on God, learning about the supernatural, an urgency to accomplish their life purpose, deepening of one’s inner life, especially intercessory prayer, and lessons on spiritual authority.

The benefits of isolation are not automatic. They are dependent upon two variables, the amount of time spent in isolation and the response of the person in isolation.[3]

Among other things, this time of isolation exposes what Bolsinger describes as being imaginatively gridlocked in a pattern of trying harder at things that are not making an impact.[4] The challenge presented by the COVID-19 virus is an opportunity but to see the opportunity we must develop an adaptive capacity. Adaptive capacity starts with the recognition that we don’t know and forces us to reevaluate what our core values are i.e., to strip away the traditions that have developed initially as support but now impediments to our mission or purpose. Are you willing to let go of “expertise” and learn as you go? Many of us conceptually recognize the need for adaptive capacity, now we are forced to step into it.

So, what is the time horizon you are using to evaluate the new normal? Is it just getting through the immediate crisis to go back to business as usual? Or, are you using the isolation to ask God to help you completely rethink how we do things, how to get at our real contribution of the truly important things? According to Bobby time and your response are the two variables that will determine whether you enter a new adaptive innovation or simply fall back into whatever normal was before the crisis.

[1] Source: https://thehill.com/opinion/finance/487579-coronavirus-and-price-discovery-during-black-swan-events. Accessed; 17 Mar 2020.

[2] J. Robert Clinton. Leadership Emergence Theory. Pasadena, CA: Barnabas Resources, 1989, 273.

[3] Clinton 273-386.

[4] Todd Bolsinger. Canoeing The Mountains: Christian leadership in uncharted territory. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2015.

Why do I Write?

I am working on a new book on management. One of my readers, a business professor, called to ask a few questions. “Why are you writing this book?” he inquired. “Is it a vanity project now that you have retired or do you have an audience in mind?”

I found the question interesting. “I have an audience in mind,” I replied. “New or frustrated managers who may or may not have the benefit of an MBA often find that they need help not with ratios or business acumen but now to turn their insight or their mandate into action. One of management’s core tasks is to humanize the work people engage in and to turn ratios and business goals into developmental coaching that respects others.”

“That’s interesting,” he replied, “humanizing work.”

Our conversation continued, he asked questions about the kind of feedback I wanted and how candid I wanted him to be.

But, as I left the conversation I pondered his initial question. “Why?”

I don’t need a vanity project. My wife, a financial planner, made sure that when we retired we had defined the kind of financial future we wanted and had put the money away to live it. I find a new sense of purpose and relax in retirement. The relax rests on the fact that I don’t need to turn down potential coaching/mentoring clients because they cannot pay my fee. I am not keeping a pipeline full or working to keep a business thriving. The purpose comes from the drive I have internally to help emerging leaders develop spiritually, emotionally/psychologically, and in skill. My life’s purpose is to help leaders and others develop.

Why wouldn’t I write at this stage of my life? I have time, I still engage a wide variety of leaders i.e., younger, cross-cultural, peers, men, women, non-binary, native English speakers, non-native English speakers, ex-pats, non-profit, business, and public sector. I have experience.

That got me thinking. I have a tripartite opportunity to invest in emerging leaders in time, engagement, and experience.

Time. I could use my time to simply meander aimlessly through my twilight years focused entirely on myself – augh, that sounds awful. Time is a powerful aspect of the stewardship I have been given. It is the easiest part of life to give.

Engagement. This is being present, seeking out relationships with those who are not my peers, those who are emerging, those who are thriving and who are looking for mentors. This is a more difficult aspect of stewarding my generative years. Why? Engagement requires work to absorb new perspectives, new gender expectations, and definitions, new questions about the validity of my insights in light of the rapid pace of technological change. I am an older white male – I face stereotypes that may be well earned among my generation. I have to overcome suspicion, dismissive condescension, and social blindness (I am not always seen). It is a weird experience to walk into a room and be invisible – it is an experience my wife reminds me she faced often as a woman in business. The discomfort of my experience is in direct contrast to the fact I held power positions for so many years that demanded attention when I showed up. I became accustomed to the props of power even though my goal was to serve others as a leader. All of this means that engaging others is a simple choice of loving them and gaining an audience when the only motivation for them to engage me is their own goals.

Experience. During my developmental years, I observed the pitfall of experience in older leaders who expressed a desire to shape me as a leader. Experience fell into two categories. The first was, “let me tell you how I did this” category. Conversations that started this way ended as monologues and harangues by chronologically older leaders who (a) were unaware of the nuances of my context and (b) were excited to have an audience to boast to about their accomplishments. The second was leaders who asked me the kinds of questions that exposed incomplete and biased thinking on my part. They didn’t tell me how until I asked and then they only offered measured principles not platitudinal “steps to success.” I choose to be the latter, not the former kind of experienced leader in those I approach.

So, I continue to write. I have three books I want to get out in the next 36 months. I have something to say that will encourage, challenge, and support emerging leaders. Do I need the legacy of books to feel good about myself? No, I have a legacy already of transformed lives and successful leaders in whom I have invested time, engagement, and experience. I write because being a servant leader didn’t stop when I retired, it amplified and I am having fun between seeing grandchildren and rowing the river investing in emerging leaders who see the benefit of attentive mentors.

Why Developers Also Need Coaching

(A Guest Blog Article)

Across the board, career coaching has shown to have remarkable benefits for an individual’s career. The Institute of Coaching reports that over 70% of those who receive coaching see improvements in their work performance, communication skills, and relationships. 

Executive and senior managers routinely get coaching from consultants hired to help them develop their leadership skills. CEOs including Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, and Eric Schmidt have all worked with career coaches to hone their communication, develop new concepts, and get feedback on their visions. 

By working with a coach, developers and programmers can cultivate new skills, receive feedback on their career trajectory, and learn how to future-proof their resume. Coaching can take different forms: from informal coaching, like a coffee chat with experienced peers, to semi-formal mentoring or joining an organization/team that provides mentorship, to formally hiring are all valuable ways to get career feedback. Coaching is critical to freelance developers seeking to stay ahead of the competition. Here’s why every developer needs career coaching along the way. 

Develop your soft skills

Tech and coding skills dominate LinkedIn’s 2019 list of skills on employers’ wishlists. Most developers have a relatively easy time finding work: in the job market, 90% of developers have at least part-time work. Very few developers are unemployed and actively seeking a new job. It’s a great position to be in, but it does mean competition for work at top companies will be steep. How can a developer stand out from the crowd? 

Soft skills are among the most in-demand qualifications any employee can have, yet many developers and programmers ignore this area of professional development. Linkedin’s list of most-needed skills includes creativity, persuasion, collaboration, adaptability and time management. These are things that can make a freelancer stand out to Silicon Valley CTOs and recruiters who view dozens of coding challenges for one open position. 

 “In general, people from the technology sector tend to focus on hard skills but are not as focused on the soft skills currently in high demand. Once an employer has figured out they have the hard-techy skills, what will make them stand out beyond that?” says one expert.  

Coaching can help developers by simulating real-world projects that hone communication skills, teach candidates to use agile methodologies, and prepare to work in collaborative teams. Companies are seeking to hire: and you can command a better position in the job market by becoming a well-rounded candidate with more than one skillset. 

Get guidance on your career path

Because there’s always a demand for developers, it’s easy to set your career on autopilot. When one opportunity ends, inevitably a few others pop up. A tech career coach can help freelance developers and tech professionals undergoing a transition navigate which opportunities are worthwhile. 

“A tech career coach can help you figure out how you can get from working on small projects to large projects. They can assist you in planning which types of companies to work at in order to work on large-scale projects. If you are a freelancer, career coaching can help you design a plan to turn small opportunities into larger ones,” writes one software developer blog

Get your questions about freelancing or consulting answered by someone with experience in the tech industry. A career coach can connect you with a larger network of professionals to help you proactively approach your career path. 

Future-proof your skillset 

The tech industry is constantly evolving, and as AI, VR, and IoT trends grow, developers must add new skills to their arsenal. However, when you’re in the weeds of work every day, it can be hard to zoom out and predict what skills you will need to develop next. 

One example? Take the growing demand for JavaScript. In 2018, reports Hackerrank, 73% of developers said they knew JavaScript. This number is a marked increase from 67% in 2017 – and it makes JavaScript 2018’s most well-known language. 

However, students graduating from computer science programs aren’t learning JavaScript. Only 42% of student developers are learning JavaScript – it’s simply not taught at most universities. That means most developers are having to teach themselves JavaScript to stay competitive in the current job market. 

Coaching can help flag discrepancies like this for developers seeking to future-proof their knowledge and skillsets. “Coaches can use assessments to identify strengths and weaknesses, both in terms of personality and skillsets. They can also help job seekers understand how a skill can be applied in a different way to a new job,” writes TechRepublic

Coaches keep tabs on macro-trends in the tech world to tell you where you’re falling behind. Some tech coaches will also take it a step further and place a developer in a job. These coaches know IT recruiters and can help you study for the technical portion of an interview. Developers can take advantage of coaching to stay competitive in the job market, grow their soft skills, and ensure the longevity of their professional status.

This post originally appeared in the JetCake blog https://jetcake.com/why-developers-need-career-coaching/ . Dr. Ray Wheeler is a certified executive coach who shares content with JetCake.

Facebook, Defamation, and the Gospel

If the title of this post seems paradoxical you have caught my intention. I weary of the voluminous number of untruths, speculations, and libel that I read in Facebook and other social media when I am simply trying to catch up with friends and colleagues. I am particularly distressed when I read posts that fall into the category of Social Media Defamation that come from my former students.

I taught leadership and pastoral ministry courses at three well known Christian Universities in Southern California. My students span decades of my experience. I enjoy seeing the posts of my former students on Facebook or other social media when they share significant life events (marriage, birth of children, personal accomplishments) and career development (pursuit of graduate degrees, appointment to a new pastoral assignment, or new job).

I cringe however when they post unexamined social media nonsense and rubbish. It is not that I want to see uniformity in my student’s theological or political thinking. I cherish well thought out policy discussions and disagreements. I am delighted in theological reflection that challenges assumptions and bias. Either kind of discussion renders a larger perspective for me typically bringing insights I had not considered. My angst is rooted in thoughtless reposts of patently unverified opinion, half-truths, and outright libel. When Social Media Defamation regarding any political leader or any political party or any other person posting on social media is promoted by a former student who identifies with faith in Jesus Christ I cringe. When someone insists that to hold an opposing political view is the equivalent to forsaking faith I cringe. When a post is so filled with vitriol that it is censored by Facebook’s community standards on harassment and bullying and the censored party boasts as though this is some sort of moral or political accomplishment I cringe.

Actual I do more than recoil in the repugnance I find in such posts. I pray and I repent and where I can engage in a discussion I do so.  It is repugnant to me to find students behaving on social media in ways that undermine the good news of Jesus Christ. If there were no reference to knowing Jesus Christ, if having studied theology wasn’t prominently listed in the individual’s profile, I still would pray but I wouldn’t feel the anguish of having another layer of bias to work through in my relationship with people who are struggling to define themselves spiritually, who are working through their own life crisis and who de facto reject the suggestion of God because of the behavior of those who have called themselves Christian but behave no differently than their peers.

So, for my former students (and friends) who take the time to read my posts, I offer some reminders. Social Media Defamation is wrong. One group of attorneys define Social Media Defamation as, “a comprehensive term governing the communication, publication, or act of disseminating a false statement of fact to a third-party, which subsequently causes damage or injury to another party’s reputation.  Social media defamation refers to a libelous or slanderous statement which is made on a social media platform.”[1]  Libel and slander are two types of defamation that may be defined as:

Libel: a written or published (think media, photographs, signs, print, etc.) false assertion of fact to a third-party or audience, which subsequently causes damage or injury to another party’s reputation.

Slander: a spoken communication or dissemination of a false assertion of fact to a third-party, which subsequently causes damage or injury to another party’s reputation.

Before you post, critically assess your sources. Does the post develop a logical case for the conclusion it promotes, or does it fall into the trap of logical fallacies? Does it come from reliable sources that depend on evidence, testimony, facts, or is it rooted in mere opinion? Does the post draw people to the promise of God or does it vilify others who are different? Does the post engage others who may hold different views offering a reason for the conviction held and asking for input that may challenge it?  Does the post respect and values others? Is the post honest about your own questions, fears, or biases?

Please discontinue (repent) the practice of either compartmentalizing faith or expressing a syncretistic faith (remember your lectures in evangelism and cross-cultural ministry). Critically assess your own practice and assumptions by prayerfully reflecting on who Jesus said he was and what he said the kingdom of God was meant to accomplish. Jesus was always clear to differentiate the power of God set to redeem, reconcile, and deliver and political power when it came to the authenticity of what he did and the methods he employed. This doesn’t mean he minimized the influence the kingdom of God has on political power and practice; he never conflated the two.

I am thankful for you. I delight in you. I pray for you. As I said often in class, I am watching you as I know you are watching me. Let’s encourage one another in faith and show the world also watching us that the power and love of God is not wishful thinking or mere fiction but the reality on which our lives are building.

[1] Source: https://www.minclaw.com/review-social-media-defamation-libel/; accessed 25 November 2019.

why I almost left the evangelicals

I have had a growing discomfort with the label “evangelical” particularly in the current environment of its more nationalistic, right leaning, personality cult here in the United States that issues propositions that overtly contradict the message of Jesus Christ. I have struggled with how closely the current western evangelical world reflects the world of German Christianity pre-World War II as described by Bonhoeffer. Bonhoeffer, and others more recently, decried the church’s inability to adequately address the abuses and distortions of hyper-nationalism he labeled rooted in static thinking.

“…static thinking is, theologically speaking, legalistic thinking….Where the worldly establishes itself as an autonomous sector, this denies the fact of the world’s being accepted in Christ, the grounding of the reality of the world in revelations reality, and there by the validity of the gospel for the whole world. The world is not perceived as reconciled by God in Christ but as a domain that is still completely subject to the demands of Christianity, or, in turn, as a sector that opposes its own law against the law of Christ. Where, on the other hand, what is Christian comes on the scene as an autonomous sector, the world is denied the community God has formed with it in Christ. A Christian law that condemns the law of the world is established here, and is led, unreconciled into battle against the world that God has reconciled to himself. As ever legalism flows into lawlessness, every nomism into antinomianism, every perfection into libertinism, So here as well. A world existing on its own, withdrawn from the law of Christ, falls prey to the severing of all bonds and to arbitrariness. A Christianity that withdraws from the world falls prey to unnaturalness, irrationality, triumphalism, and arbitrariness.”[1] (Emphasis mine.)

The so called culture wars engaged by evangelicalism has launched a battle against the world God has reconciled to God’s self with the result that evangelicals are often at a loss as to how to love their neighbor, demonstrate deliverance and healing, or walk with the wounded toward Christ because they are too busy decrying the world’s moral turpitude while ignoring their own moral impieties. There are times I have wanted to simply stop the evangelical merry go round and disembark to find a faith that exercises a practice of grace, intellectual reflection, repentance, and effective community engagement. I’m done with calls to support a particular political party or policy stands as authentication of my evangelical credentials, silence in the face of absurd parallelisms between our current president and biblical characters. I overtly reject the premise that recognizes the current president of the United States as the most Godly and biblical president I can expect to see in my life time.[2]

I ran across a book by Richard J. Mouw, former president of Fuller Theological Seminary (my alma mater) titled, Restless Faith: holding evangelical beliefs in a world of contested labels. Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2019. Dr. Mouw asserts there are good reasons for keeping the label and not allowing rightist forces to co-opt it. My respect for Dr. Mouw’s scholarship and faith gave me pause to consider an alternative to leaving the evangelical fold and to work toward a revitalization of how we think. What follows is a summary of his main points.

Mouw grounds his definition of evangelical in David Bebbington’s four-part definition;

  • we believe in the need for conversion – making a personal commitment to Christ as Savior and Lord;
  • we hold to the Bible’s supreme authority – the sola scripture theme of the reformation;
  • we emphasize a cross-centered theology – at the heart of the gospel is the atoning work of Jesus on the cross of Calvary;
  • we insist on an active faith – not just Sunday worship, but daily discipleship

However, these four distinguishing marks need to be qualified. Mouw sees the need for a common theological label that differentiates the essential distinguishing marks from other branches of Christianity. Diagnosing the root of the challenge of how evangelicalism has been co-opted by right wing political agendas results in several hypotheses. Mouw quotes New York Times columnist Ross Douthat who sees the evangelical community is breaking apart in part because of a gap between evangelical intellectuals and the millions who worship in evangelical churches. Douthat writes,

“It could be that the views and attitudes on display in the recent support for rightist causes has really been there all along, without much of an interest in the kinds of intellectual-theological matters that have preoccupied the elites. If so, the elites will eventually go off on their own, leaving behind an evangelicalism that is ‘less intellectual, more partisan, more racially segregated’ – a movement that is in reality ‘not all that greatly changed’ from what it has actually been in the past.”[3]

Mouw doubts Douthat’s scenario. I don’t agree per se with Douthat’s characterization of thoughtful evangelicals as elites but I do agree that anti-intellectual and isolationist influences in evangelicalism have often diluted our effectiveness and placed us on the wrong side of social justice issues and in contradiction of missio Dei. The proponents of a cultural interpretation of evangelicalism (evidenced in the so-called culture wars) has made segments of the evangelical world more like syncretism than contextualism here in the west.

With an implied nod to the potential of syncretism, Mouw notes that none of us can claim to rightly have a Christian worldview. Rather he moves from a noun to a gerund i.e., the practice of Christian “worldviewing”. He commends the process of reflection as the Word illumines our way. In a proper sense evangelicalism has been in a slow process of deliberate and implied deconstruction of its assumptions about church life, community engagement, appropriate lifestyles etc., in response to the work of the Holy Spirit.

Mouw amplifies Bebbington’s concise definition through his own history of development as an evangelical. The main points that follow emerge from a combination of chapters which center around his major themes. Mouw’s insights provide a much clearer demarcation for defining evangelical over against either fundamentalism (which he doesn’t overtly define) and right leaning political persuasions.

  1. Evangelical means critically engaging faith. Raised in a fundamentalist setting that was heavy in anti-intellectualism, Mouw’s first engagement with exercising careful theological reflection was a book by Bernard Ram, A Christian View of Science and the Scripture the book spoke to his intellectual curiosity based on reason and faithHis exploration of Ram, Henry, and others in an emerging cadre of intellectuals of faith set the stage for his conclusion that he didn’t have to choose between intellect and faith. He engages a restless faith i.e., one that is willing to explore precritical ideas through the lens of a postcritical set of data and careful thinking.[4]
  2. Evangelical means believing the authority of the Scripture and doing the hermeneutical work needed to understand what it says. Mouw’s hermeneutics follows that proposed by Edward John Carnell (1959) and his presentation of the progressive revelation of the scriptures i.e., “…first the New Testament interprets the Old Testament; secondly, the Epistles interpret the gospels; thirdly, systematic passages interpret the incidental; fourthly, universal passages interpret the local; fifthly, didactic passages interpret the symbolic.” (32) A recent work by Volf and Croasmun add depth to what proper hermeneutical work is for me. They note that productive theological integration of various disciplines relies on a biblically rooted, patristically guided, ecclesially located, and publicly engaged theology, done in critical conversation with the sciences and the various disciplines of the humanities, at the center of which is the question of the flourishing life. In my observation many evangelicals do not know how to think theologically hence the move toward a fundamentalist populism that has conflated culture and the gospel.[5]
  3. Evangelical means possessing a historical grounding. “We evangelicals have inherited much from believers who ‘over time and across circumstances’ have been faithful to the gospel. When we fail to nurture those memories we can easily get caught up in ‘skimming over surfaces.’”(38) Mouw doesn’t recommend pure nostalgia, it is important to remember mistakes as well as successes – to be honest and transparent in our reflection of history so that the lessons we should carry forward are not lost in the tyranny of the urgent nor the tyranny of success and its pursuit. I add that it is helpful to read outside reflections on evangelical history as well. I found Frances Fitzgerald’s book, The Evangelicals: the struggle to shape America (2017) a helpful historical lens.
  4. Evangelicals are clear about sin in a way that avoids the trap of our self-actualization culture that sidesteps the work of the Holy Spirit on one hand and dwelling on guilty self-hood in a way that is inimical to spiritual flourishing on the other. How to engage this tension is a function of contextualization that takes seriously Hiebert’s concept of the excluded middle i.e., those issues about how we live out faith in the face of the systemic issues and challenges such as the sickness of a child, hunger, life threatening natural disasters etc. Hiebert’s concept makes room for the supernatural in facing these challenges and deals honestly with the limitations of the west’s scientific worldview in understanding the full scope of the good news of Jesus Christ.
  5. Evangelicals sing in worship and express reverence and mystery in lyrics and physical response such as the raising of hands. Communal worship is a hall mark of evangelicalism and serves as a collective theological memory in poetry and affirmation of faith. The hymnody (past and present) of evangelicalism is a significant part of theology as a mystery discerning exercise rather than a problem-solving exercise. (96) It is here that some of the messiness of theological reflection occurs. Evangelicals are not comfortable with messiness although an emerging cadre of theologians (men and women) are helping bridge the conversations we need to have on mystery. I have found it helpful to retain relationships with the liturgical traditions I grew up in who often have a much better handle on mystery.
  6. Evangelicals approach the communication of faith in a neighborly dialogue that reflects an outworking of Hiebert’s bounded and centered sets that simultaneously summons others to faith in Christ (belief as a boundary) while also observing the direction of their search (towards or away from Christ) regardless of their cultural and personal distance from Christ. This does not minimize careful accounts of doctrine but does so in a posture of empathetic learning. Hiebert’s conceptualization of centered and bounded sets was revolutionary for me. It gave me a way to reflect theologically on why I don’t approach the world with expectations that they behave like Christians before they meet Christ. I start with where they are and help and encourage their movement toward Christ and toward faith. The bounded set approach (read legalistic approach) that makes the world an enemy to be defeated only shows up the hypocrisy of withdrawal from the community around us. In every case I have see evangelicals withdraw from their community to avoid “sin” I have seen them ultimate end up in a concentrated expression of sins that nullify their calls for morality.
  7. Evangelicals expect “…regenerated hearts and minds to be clear about the truth. Confused theology – to say nothing of outright theological error – can cause serious damage in the life and mission of the church.” (116) Mouw finds challenges in both the Religious Right and conciliar ecumenism. There are issues that need fierce conversations (to borrow a phrase from Susan Scott) because they are core to the mission of God, in these evangelicals cannot be content to simply agree to disagree. But evangelicals cannot be content with division as usual, the priestly prayer of Jesus that we would be one summons us to find areas of common ground, to remnants engaged in relationships that require fierce conversations and to do so in the Character of Christ. “We need to be perplexed together. We need to rediscover the humility to be puzzled, the courage to engage the ambiguities and conundrums in our texts and look to each other to find the flashes and refractions of answers in places we least expect them.” (123)
  8. Evangelicals engage the public sphere as an active presence embodying biblical flourishing. The challenge in the rise of the religious right is that its engagement in social-political life is not particularly clear about what it means to be biblically faithful in its approach. Culture war mentality is a wrong-headed tactic. Much of evangelicalism has lost (or never had) Neo-Calvinist perspective of common grace i.e., that in the thoughts of pagan thinkers there is a strain of truth from God rooted in imago Dei. That the human mind though fallen is gifted by God and to refuse to accept truth produced by such minds is to dishonor the Spirit of God. (131) This recognizes that God never ceases God’s work among people – God’s Providence is active toward all people. In recognizing that the depravity of sin “…is total – it affects all aspects of our lives…is not the same as affirming absolute depravity – the teaching that every thought and deed of the sinful heart and mind is worthless in the sight of God.”[6] (142) In discussing the relationship of activism to government Mouw rejects the notion that all government authority is de facto faithful to its biblical mandate and ergo to be passively or actively supported. Evil, such as demonstrated by Hitler and the Nazis is to be rightly opposed. Mouw takes Paul’s words in Romans 13 as normative behavior for government, but where this norm fails resistance to evil is appropriate. In following Christ, we neither need to withdraw from or take over in exercising our influence.
  9. Evangelicals are committed to the importance of a personal (individual) faith in Jesus Christ. Though we recognize that individual salvation is not enough; the church must collectively address issues of injustice and public morality. Every person lives life coram deo e., before the face of God. This sobering reality of knowing and being known by God is not reducible to individualism but is a call to responsible community so that as God loves us, we love one another. It is also a call to confront evil expressed in “isms” which are already defeated in Christ e.g., racism, sexism, legalism etc.

Mouw takes up the work of wresting the name, “evangelical” away from those who have co-opted it in order to amplify the best theological heritage it represents. He is committed in the process to the reformed moto of ecclesia reformata semper reformanda. He does not propose a passive stasis or nostalgia, but active pursuit of God in fullness and truth.

I see the deconstruction about church life, community engagement, and appropriate lifestyles mentioned by Mouw as emanating from two forces. The first is a syncretism with the context of the United States. In this direction the evangelical assumptions about itself have become more and more comfortable with its equivalence to American exceptionalism and nationalism.  The second is a deconstruction emanating from the work of the Holy Spirit challenging culture assumptions that draws the church into a clearer reflection of the ministry of Christ. The later is where I place the discussion of Mouw who himself reflects a maturing of perspective that results from his engagement with the word and the spirit of God.

I found a heuristic in Mouw’s book that gives me direction on how to retain a personal integrity in claiming to be evangelical and a basis on which to challenge the misuse of the word by those who co-opt “evangelical” for their political agenda. May God grant us the grace and love to be the church Jesus calls us to be in the world.

[1] Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. (2009) Ethics: Dietrich Bonhoeffer works volume 6. Clifford J. Green ed. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 60-61.

[2] Source: https://www.minnpost.com/eric-black-ink/2019/04/on-michele-bachmann-and-her-view-of-trumps-godliness/; Accessed 26 June 2019.

[3] Mouw 2019:10.

[4] Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. (2009) Ethics: Dietrich Bonhoeffer works volume 6. Clifford J. Green ed. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press. Bonhoeffer again makes a important contribution. The opposite of a critically engaged faith is any one of the inadequate options identified by Bonhoeffer that oppose formation: Reason which cannot grasp the abyss of holiness or the abyss of evil; Fanaticism which assumes that the power of evil can be faced with purity of the will and principle; Conscience which attempts to fend off the power of superior predicaments only to be torn apart and settle for an assuaged versus good conscience to keep from despairing; Personal freedom that values necessary action over untarnished conscience, fruitful compromise over barren principle, or radicalism over barren wisdom of a middle way consent to bad to avoid the worse unable to recognize that the worse they seek to avoid may be the better one; Private virtuousness that does good according to abilities but necessarily renounces public life in the self-deception necessary to remain lean from the stain of responsible action in the world. “In all that they do, what they fail to do will not let them rest.” (80)

[5] Miroslav Wolf and Matthew Coasmun. (2019) For the Life of the World: theology that makes a difference. Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 82.

[6] Miroslav Wolf and Matthew Croasmun. (2019) For the Life of the World: theology that makes a difference. Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 69. “The image of the home of God as an abiding relation between God and the world fits well with two great images bookend the Bible. Both are images of the creations’ wholeness and flourishing. …the verdant garden (Gen. 2:4-3:22)…the thriving (and verdant) city (Rev. 21:1-22:7).” This integration and the point of human flourishing as a result of relationship with God is a theme amplified by Wolf and Croasmun that illustrates integration and common grace.

spider web theology

It is known in my family, who find it simultaneously comical and comforting, that I don’t tolerate spiders or their webs. I even have a special broom that allows me to circumnavigate the house outside and inside destroying the vestiges of arachnid existence. I don’t mind the existence of spiders in the woods around our home, but I do mind when they invade my space. If I see a spider, I immediately dispatch it to its heavenly home.

On one afternoon after I had washed the windows, I lay down on the couch with a cool drink to relish the beauty around me now made more visible by the clean windows. Our home has a 360-degree view and that means a lot of windows some of which are on the wall near the top of our vaulted ceiling.

Movement caught my eye in the highest window. There, in plain sight and apparent disregard for the work I had just completed in removing all webs prior to washing the windows, an orb spider was busy re-spinning its lunch ticket. I watched it work, a painstaking and exacting process and it started me thinking.

I routinely destroy webs and spiders routinely re-spin them. Yet, I have never heard a complaint by said spiders. Re-spinning damaged or destroyed webs is part of their process of survival – stuff happens. I thought about my own responses to setbacks, as losing a web is surely a setback for arachnid survival. I often expended far more emotional energy than is needed when I face setbacks. Rather than simply rebuilding my “web” I complain, bemoan my misfortune, lament the added workload, and on occasion engage in passionate “intercessory” prayer. My eight-legged friend simply does the work of re-spinning.

Jesus once said,

I have said this to you, so that in me you may have peace. In the world you face persecution, affliction, distress, pressure. But take courage; I have conquered the world! (John 16:33, Wheeler expanded NIV)

The fact of the matter is that affliction, distress, pressure, and even persecution, sabotage, and setbacks are a normal course. Jesus gives a frame of reference regarding distress that is: the perspective from which we assess life events determines (a) whether they can serve a positive formative purpose and (b) the degree to which we recognize the working of God who is given to contradicting injustice, hurt, despair, oppression, and the afflictions of the human condition.

In a spider’s world, Murphy was right. If anything can go wrong, it will. In our world, the same is true. In fact, I have determined a corollary to Murphy i.e., if its bad it can get worse. In light of this, perspective is important. Given the very real suffering, sabotage, setbacks, and even persecution we may face we are promised peace. Peace is that security or tranquility that is the foundation for flourishing that comes from the reality that the systemic roots of evil and corruption are already defeated in the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. Jesus has overcome the systemic roots (the world in a systems sense). We are therefore called upon to engage behavior that contradicts the hurt of set-backs. I like the summary of womanist theologian Karen Baker-Fletcher;

The significance of Christ’s response to weapons of evil is not a passive bearing of it all, but is God’s profound “NO” to evil. In following Jesus, we participate in the divine “no” to evil and suffering. For these reasons, it makes sense to follow Jesus while also challenging an adulterous relationship with world power, greed, and violence.[1]

In watching that spider rebuild its web that day I realized it served as an eight-legged evangelist to me reminding me that things I see as a setback are not only predictable but powerful in that they serve to form and shape my development as a person who flourished in life not because I live in an artificial environment but because I have a sense of well-being and purpose that sees what God is up to even in the mundane and enjoys that fellowship with the Almighty that says “No” to evil and suffering and “Yes” to a flourishing and abundant life.

[1] Karen Baker-Fletcher. (2006) Dancing with God: The Trinity from a Womanist Perspective. St. Louis, MO: Chalice Press.

Are You a High-Capacity or High-Activity Leader?

iStock_000056636476_LargeI sat with friends of mine, both of whom are highly capable leaders in an international non-profit organization. Over the course of our conversation, they described their weariness and exhaustion as it relates to the demands of their current assignment. I listened to their story and noted that they danced around the subject of their director. They were careful to express their respect for their director whom they described as a high-capacity leader. What intrigued me in the conversation was the mixed messages I heard. On the one hand, they expressed frustration with their director over his consistent micro-management and unfinished initiatives. Every couple of weeks seemed to render a new “strategic” initiative that demanded everyone’s attention. Each new initiative had little connection to the one before it and never took into account the expenditure of financial and human resources needed to accomplish it. I could not make out a grand plan or objective in any of the initiatives they described.  On the other hand, they praised his high capacity for vision and initiative. They spoke in lofty terms about how he worked on a minimum of three devices at once and endured a grueling seven day a week schedule. They described him as warm and caring and committed. Then they described him as manipulative and domineering.
I began to ask what made this person a high-capacity leader in their minds. They described him as a man who:

  • Possesses high energy that engages a wide scope of tasks and generates a never-ending list of assignments and expectations for his team. He texts each of them numerous times every hour and after hours with ideas and assignments.
  • Demonstrates low awareness of other’s emotional needs. In fact, they described a person who minimizes others’ feelings and the challenges they face.
  • Exhibits a highly imaginative yet episodic vision casting. They described an imagination that bordered on fantasy – ideas were disconnected from the context and the challenges inherent in them.
  • Generates a trail of burned out senior leaders who leave the organization disillusioned and hurt.
  • Engenders high turnover among junior staff and leaders.
  • Manipulates calls to action through questions of loyalty frequently expressed in the question, “Will you support me?”
  • Task focused recruitment filling existing jobs and seeing people through the lens of their task contribution rather than their entire contribution to the organization.
  • Creates a culture of shame and guilt.
  • Is a gifted communicator.
  • Rarely debriefs with his senior staff and when this does occur it is expressed with minimal transparency.
  • Exercises defensive reasoning – problems and consequences are not his responsibility, instead, blame is assigned to staff and the quality of their loyalty.
  • Episodically warm and affirming – when he is not demanding performance and loyalty.
  • Has lost connection to his wife and family.

As we talked I wrote out the list above and then read it back to my friends.
“Oh no,” they said, “he is a godly spirit-filled man. One of the highest capacity leaders we have ever met.”
“Do you mean high capacity or high activity?” I asked. “The two are not the same” I suggested.
One of the most damaging kinds of leaders I come across is high-activity leaders who mistakenly assume that the more tasks they generate the more leader-like they appear. This kind of leader assumes that long hours are the same as effectiveness in leading. They expect others to work like they do and to be constantly available for the leader’s needs. I suggested to my friends that their director was in fact addicted to his own adrenaline and that the cost to their organization would not only be the talent drain they described but the woundedness the organization would ultimately generate when people saw outcomes that contradicted the mission of the organization.
“Let me contrast a high-capacity leader for you,” I said. “If capacity is the ability and power to do or understand something, then a high-capacity leader is a person who assists her organization in accomplishing a greater scope of outcomes that align with the mission of the organization. The high-capacity leaders I know have the impact of not only increasing outcomes but also of attracting greater resources.”
I started writing out the following list of characteristics I’d observed in high-capacity leaders:

  • A strategic focus on the kinds of tasks that must be engaged to achieve the desired outcomes. A high-capacity leader defines delegation and exhibits energy management. They have an enormous capacity for output that they follow-up with time for rejuvenation and they make room for both output and rejuvenation in all their team.
  • They demonstrate self-awareness in their emotions, self-confidence, and self-assessment and they exhibit social awareness in consideration of others’ emotional well-being.
  • They are highly imaginative and ground their imagination with a thorough awareness of the facts of their situation. They don’t deny challenges they recognize them and help their team generate strategies to address them.
  • They bring focus and inspirational purpose to their organization.
  • They have a history of producing high-capacity talent around them. This is in part a function of recruitment and more a deliberate investment in the capabilities and development of others. They attract the best and they openly appreciate them.
  • Their teams are characterized by low turnover and deliberate turnover. By that I mean they routinely give up their best people to take wider responsibilities in the organization.
  • They are motivational – they know what their people’s personal goals and ambitions are and they have a knack for integrating those ambitions into the organization’s objectives.
  • They are people focused when recruiting – they know that if they get the right people the tasks of the organization will be maximized creatively.
  • They develop a learning culture in which people are not afraid to make mistakes and take a risk.
  • They routinely debrief with their staff engaging them in a broader analysis of the organization and its context. Transparency is king for this leader because he wants his team to know the score.
  • They may not be a warm person but they are consistently appreciative of others and recognize jobs well done.
  • Their families are intact – they tend to have long-term marriages and share abiding intimacy with their spouse.

“Hmm,” my friends pondered my list and the contrast to the characteristics they described in their director. “We never saw this before,” they finally uttered.
I put the two lists side by side and the contrast between a high-task and a high-capacity leader jumped off the page.
“I’m not sure your definitions are reliable,” they suggested.
“I am open to rearranging the list and changing definitions,” I responded. “However, let’s start with outcomes, do you disagree in the outcomes I have listed for a high-task leader in that they damage their family, exhibit high turn-over, are abandoned by disillusioned senior leaders?” I queried.
“No,” they responded, “when we look at our director’s life and outcomes we can’t disagree with the description.”
The question that resonated with my friends was what kind of leader they would choose to be and whether there was a way to help their director see the contrast. Change, especially where high-task leaders have framed their identity around what they do rather than who they are, is difficult. It is part of what drives them to reaffirm their identity by adding more tasks. The sad part is that they often don’t see how toxic they have become to those around them.
What question resonates in your mind? Are you a high-capacity leader? Or, have you somehow exchanged true effectiveness for busy-work?  Look honestly at the outcomes your life is generating – what do you see?

Engage Diverse Populations – Be a Learner

Engaging diverse populations in the church both locally and globally predictably generates conflict. This is true from the first day of the church’s existence in Acts and remains so to this day. “In those days when the number of disciples was increasing, the Hellenistic Jews among them complained against the Hebraic Jews because their widows were being overlooked in the daily distribution of food.” (Acts 6:1 NIV) Such conflict arises out of competing loyalties, divergent assumptions, and contending values. Hence, I engage diverse populations with three primary commitments.
First, I have a commitment to remain present and curious. It is easy to withdraw at the first tension felt in engaging cultures that differ or even regional differences within the same culture. I have learned along the way to take a deep breath and stay in the discomfort long enough to learn what the other’s perspective is. Routinely I enter such situations, whether the classroom, a local congregation, or denominational or organizational governance body with a verbal commitment to be a learner. Typically the statement sounds something like this, “I see that we come to this meeting (or class) from a variety of perspectives. Given that, I make two commitments to you. First, I will be as clear as possible in my communication, please ask questions if I am unclear. Second, when it comes to understanding cultural or gender differences that exist between us I am your student. I can only know your perspective if you teach me. So, if I offend you, it is not intentional. It is ignorance that only you can help me understand and be aware of.”
Second, I have a commitment to recognize and encourage the capacity of the group I am meeting with to address their context and think through their challenges and solutions as a facilitator not a dictator. The apostles asked the Hellenistic Jews to identify their solution givers. The apostles did not select the deacons. They did provide a parameter that got the process of selection and then solution development going. Likewise in facing diverse populations I attempt to limit my input to helpful parameters or possibilities that the group must work through using their own assumptions, values, and allegiances. Assuming the capacity and capability of the group to engage the realities of the gospel in the context of their frame of reference works similarly to The Pygmalion Effect – the group rises to the occasion of my belief in them.
Third, and this is where I have experienced the best bonding and trust, I eat with them. It sounds amazingly simple – and it is. When I demonstrate respect for their culture by eating their food I join their social/familial network. I was once invited by my Pakistani neighbor to enjoy a meal with him and his family, all of whom were visiting from Pakistan. I faced predictable scrutiny and suspicion as a Christian among Muslims. Other than my host, everyone was very reserved until I dished up a serving of every course. I sat with the men who waited to see my response to the spiciest yogurt like dish. I took a big scoop with bread and meat (as I had seen them do) while an audible gasp rushed across the room. I opened my mouth popped the mixture in and munched with a smile of delight. The room broke into applause, smiles, and conversations started from every direction. 
The church is always diverse where people live out authentic faith – encountering cultural and ethnic diversity is unavoidable around the God who loves the world. Perhaps the best overall advise? Be child-like in your approach to learning. You don’t have to “have it all together.” You just have to be easily approachable and engaging.

A theology of leadership: it always has a cultural context

cropped-addis-ababa-week-1-0581.jpgWhen thinking about leadership through a theological lens it helps to be aware of the impact of one’s worldview on the process. We don’t think in a vacuum but in the context of the values, allegiances, and assumptions that make up the core of our worldview. So, approaching a theological reflection on what constitutes leadership is a process that requires both self-awareness and humility.
A culture’s view of power distance, certainty/uncertainty, masculinity/femininity, time orientation, and individualism/collectivism represent the factors that make up cultural constructs of what constitutes leadership.[1] These cultural factors are implicit. A practical theology of leadership recognizes (1) the cultural differences that go into defining what appropriate leadership looks like and (2) the dissonance in perspective that is certain to follow the transformative work of the gospel. This transformative work in collaborating across worldviews works both ways necessitating the need for a strong self-awareness and willingness to learn about and from others prior to making generalizations about leadership effectiveness or ineffectiveness.
The New Testament often utilizes metaphors to lay a foundation for defining leadership. Peter, for example, writes, “I exhort the elders among you to tend the flock of God that is in your charge, exercising the oversight, not under compulsion but willingly, as God would have you do it – not for sordid gain but eagerly. Do not lord it over those in your charge, but be examples to the flock.” (1 Peter 5:1-3 NIV)
The use of the shepherd metaphor quickly identifies leadership as a servant role. Sure, a shepherd is in charge of sheep but her primary assignment is the care of sheep. Peter draws a picture that can challenge or affirm cultural factors that define leadership.
Some cultures maintain a strict hierarchical relationship or high power distance between follower and leader. Peter doesn’t argue the extent to which leaders and followers should relate in a peer or subordinate/superior relationship. He does insist that leaders not repress or deride their followers. I can walk onto a Korean campus and observe congregants bowing to their pastor. Is this appropriate from my cultural perspective? No, it’s surprising – even off-putting. However, in paying attention to the relationship I see the deep care and respect that is mutually given in this act. At issue isn’t the form but the transformation of values that inform the form.
Femininity/masculinity is also addressed. Who should lead? Can women lead men? The imagery of a shepherd is not restricted to male or female. Even in the Bible cultures varied in whether men or women cared for sheep. The point is that the imagery of Peter plays well to either male or female leadership roles and calls for the same approach to servant leadership in submission to God.
Good practical theology utilizes imagery as a starting point for insight amplified through cultural lenses that are both sufficient and incomplete. When cultures, even distinctly different cultures, approach the scripture with a heart to learning (the essence of discipleship), both can learn from the other and both will experience the affirmation and challenge of their cultural assumptions.
[1] Geert Hofstede. Culture’s Consequences: Comparing Values, Behaviors, Institutions, and Organizations Across Nations 2nd ed. Thousand Oaks, California: Sage Publications, 2001