Are you a whirlwind? Do coworkers beg you to slow down? Are you viewed as the second coming of the old Tasmanian Devil cartoon, stirring up everything in your path? Do you have plans to change the world only to be opposed by those whose favorite words seem to be, “We’ve never done it that way”?
A younger colleague recently called to ask about lasting in a vocation that exasperates those who think outside of boxes and beyond status quo’s. Here are a few thoughts…
First, the bad news: Stasis and institutionalism are everywhere. I have experienced it in the mainline, the mega-church, the parachurch, education and mental health. Erwin McManus in his book, The Barbarian Way, tells of being at the trendiest Christian leadership conference in the country while the gurus of the big-box movement implored a generation of idealistic young youth pastors and church planters, “Don’t be an innovator, they get chewed up. Be an early adopter!” Not taking risks seems to be an inherent, and horribly sick, part of American church culture. How anyone can grow without risk is a mystery. Risk and faith and trust are the crucible where growth happens. Safety, security and a God who can be contained in our 5″x 7″ heads should sound like soul-death to those with a pulse. We may think we want safety and security, but don’t we really crave to stand on the edge of an abyss, fascinated by what might be on the other side and figuring out how to get the team across? Safety and security might be the “red sky at morning” of the dead religion Jesus came to free us from. Jesus came to “seek and to save the lost” and “give his life as a ransom for many” (Luke 19:10, Mark 10:45), not create an institution to function as packing material to insulate ourselves from life.
But what of you? If you are a change agent in a structure that values stability, the chances are good that frustration has become a friend. Perhaps you understand and appreciate accountability, value structure, permanence, and many of the other positives of being connected to an organization with a history. But the chances are also good that, if you have a holy fire in your belly, you want to try some things and nudge the “negotiables” in order to open new avenues and to make the Gospel accessible to new audiences. So how does one thrive as a change agent in a change averse world? 1. Rebroadcast the mission. Your ideas will get a hearing if they clearly drive your institution’s mission and vision. Andy Stanley says, “Vision is leaky. It has to be restated every two weeks.” So repeat the organizational mission/vision regularly. Then say, “We exist to _______. Therefore I want to ________.” Your ideas will both be more mission-advancing and make more sense to people.
2. Be aware of personality differences. Established organizations tend to attract introverts and “feeler” types. Whirlwinds are usually extroverts and an entrepreneurial “doers.” Those are core differences in wiring and personality. Some personality types tend to put the brakes on things – usually lawyers and accountants. By nature and training they, as a rule, work to mitigate risk. Realtors, marketers, and CEO’s tend to balance the lawyers and accountants out. Have some of both on your committee. As in marriage, your differences are probably what attracted your organization to you and vice-versa. Those differences are a beautiful thing. Maintain that perspective when frustration comes.
3. Know what is negotiable. Some things are not on the table. I am an Episcopal priest. Dropping the Book of Common Prayer in the main Sunday service is NOT on the table. What instruments we use in worship and the song list? Those could be. Suggestion: Don’t mess with the words of the faith. (That has been trendy in mainline circles. Research says that the young tend to like the old words anyway…I am told there is a rite one renaissance with college students, and young Catholics are flocking to Latin rite masses.) Mess with the packaging of the faith, rather than the substance. Leave the darn words alone!
4. Pick one battle a year. As Atlanta youth minister, Tara McMurdy, says: “Find your Zen” on the rest.
5. Spread good ideas around. Help others think of the innovative plan. “Idea people” have so many ideas that it makes others on the team feel dumb. That works against change. If you “seed” others with good ideas, they often become visionary themselves-now you have multiplied leadership!
6. Work for your boss’s success. Some will probably still undermine you, either out of intimidation or competition, but you can sleep at night knowing you “ride for the brand.” …And do let your boss know you are a loyal follower.
7. Finish what you start. That ought to go without saying. Many fear that “whirlwinds” don’t follow through…that we start things that others will have to run. Or worse, balls will get dropped when the idea person moves on to another bigger dream in a bigger pond. 8. Know when you are part of the problem! Everyone likes a whirlwind if they are clearing land ahead of where everyone else wants to go. When a whirlwind goes sideways we threaten to suck the entire community off the path with us. Often what your organization fears in you isn’t the change, but what happens if the change doesn’t work…or if it does work and you leave. Check your motivations. What happens if a high-capacity leader is successful and builds a program that is dependent on the leader’s personality to maintain it? Manhattan pastor and author, Tim Keller, resists the video-venue movement because he is smart enough to know that his church needs to be bigger than his one face.
9. Develop situational awareness. Know when you are too far out on a limb. Not all ideas work in all contexts. Sometimes the people that resist your good idea have really, really good reasons for doing so. Hear them out. If the opportunities outweigh the risks, push them in private, not public. Learn the “one standard deviation” principle: a little different is interesting, too different makes us scary.
10. Keep moving forward. Some ideas will fail. Let them go. In the old movie, Night Shift, Michael Keaton was also “an idea man.” Not all of his ideas were good. Some were really goofy. In thinking about improving the old standard tunafish sandwich lunch, Keaton opined into his recorder, “Mayonnaise in the can. Check that, feed the fish mayonnaise!” Don’t let an occasional goofy idea take the wind out of your sails. Drop them and move on. And… Bonus: Slow down. Breathe. Pray. You have time. Trust God. Nudge the process along…but trust it too.
When it moves as a group, almost any organization can change on the “negotiables.” And we whirlwinds can become more patient. All of which will help both us and the body grow in width, and depth. The good news is that when you apply gentle pressure and refuse to go away, things will change for the better. As the prophet Hosea wrote, “They have sown the wind, and they shall reap the whirlwind” (Hosea 8:7).
When change agents stick it out, things change, the organization and its’ people are blessed…and what you once fought so hard for becomes the new normal.
Blessings as you walk in the integrity of how God wired you – a whirlwind…and as you learn to accept the integrity of others who are also walking as they were wired.