On Cracking the Code

July 19, 2010

This sentence stayed with me: “A church incongruent with its code is the single greatest cause of conflict . . .” (Kevin G. Ford, Transforming Church, pg. 57)

The “single greatest cause of conflict”—well, that’s quite a claim to make. As pastors who spend a surprising amount of time managing conflict, this statement warrants pondering. Typically, in what I read, conflict is framed as heated-up differences over theological concepts or ethical issues or power struggles or misunderstandings.

Ford offers another angle. Conflict can come from changes that are inconsistent with the church’s code, that is, the church’s essence or soul. And every organization, including the church, has a code.

This is certainly true for us individually. Recall a change you were attempting that didn’t feel right. It seemed to be “going against your grain.” Finding it hard to explain, you end up saying something like, “This new look or behavior just isn’t me!” In other words, your code or essence felt violated.

Cracking the code is a right-brained sort of intuition, defying precise definition. Left-brained thinking is more reason-able, as in hammering out a mission statement to initiate and guide changes. But discerning the code calls on another side of us.

I’m reflecting on my last season of pastoral leadership with Pullen Memorial Baptist Church in Raleigh, NC. In 1992, we were deciding whether or not to bless a gay union that had been requested. You and I know this to be the most contentious, divisive issue facing congregations and denominations in our day. Yet in our process of decision-making, we experienced more conflict outside the congregation than we encountered within. Internally, the conflict was intense with about 5% to 7% of the membership choosing to leave. Yet, it was contained. Externally, Pullen was “dis-fellowshipped” from its Southern Baptist family on all levels—local, state and national. I remember wondering, and wonder still, why did our congregation not split down the middle? It was my greatest fear.

Yes, we had in place some clear left-brained statements of identity, in particular, Micah 6:8, God’s requirement of doing justice, showing mercy and walking with humility. But today, after reading Ford’s comment, I am curious if our code, like a keel, also kept us from overturning amid the “whirlwind” of controversy.

And what might be this code that validated the changes occurring? My intuition: most members of Pullen feel different, unconventional, valuing fairness, seeing themselves on the margins of mainstream institutions. Did this account for their inclusion of gays who similarly feel different, on the margins, unconventional, and desiring fairness? Were we being, mostly unconsciously, true to our soul, our essence, our code? Did this congruence keep us from splitting down the middle? I wonder.

So, as Ford suggests, there is detective work within pastoral leadership—cracking the code of your congregation. You investigate clues. You listen for favorite stories of the past. You observe behavior. You notice the architecture. You feel the personality of the congregation. This is intuitive, curious, imaginative, loving work that escapes precision.

And its important work, if indeed lasting changes must be congruent with our code. Lasting changes elicit, “Yes, that’s who we are—at our core, in our soul, from our calling.”

Other questions pop up: In what way does our personal code match or mis-match the code of the congregation? Where does the gospel affirm or challenge the code?

What would you add?

Getting to the Balcony

July 5, 2010

It’s summer, a good time to reflect on “getting to the balcony” above the “dance floor.” This provocative metaphor is Ronald Heifetz’s way of challenging leaders to balance immediate action (the dance floor) with larger/deeper perspective (the balcony).

A congregation can look like noisy activity on a “dance floor.” Some members are into “line” dancing, others dancing in two and threes, or even solo. Everyone is attempting, sometimes successfully, to dance the same tune. Some sit along the sidelines, contented or discontented observers.

And there we are, (staying with the metaphor) moving in and out of these dances, frequently not sure of next steps. The pressure to stay focused on the immediate is severe: deadlines to meet; phone calls, text messages, e-mails to answer; visits to make; tasks to complete. All apart of the dance.

The metaphor is theologically suggestive. Only the Divine Music makes dancing possible. In multiple, creative responses, we dancers seek through movement to embody (incarnate) God’s vibrations of shalom.

Heifetz laments the failure of leaders to frequent the balcony. From the balcony, you can see the big picture — notice patterns, sense discordance, detect direction, gain perspective, observe movement.

This helpful as far as it goes.

As pastors, we go farther. Once in the balcony, we look within as well. We ask, are we still able to hear the Music? Just as the pressure of immediate demands can undermine larger perspective, so can the noise of the dance floor drown out our “ear” for the Music. In these moments, we allow into ourselves again the joy and gift of our calling. The balcony is for both: other-observation, self- observation; or, external assessment, internal renewal.

You know this practice. In sermon preparation you withdraw from the dance floor and place yourself in the balcony. You ask how does the Word in this text address these people at this moment in our life together. You have the congregation in mind.

But there is more. In preparing a sermon, you are prepared. You allow the Word in the text to address your longings for approval, for brilliance, for appreciation or other ego claims on the pulpit. The sermon in formation is rightly your soul in formation. A musician without an “ear” for the Music is a “noisy gong” or “clanging cymbal.”

Then, in rising to the pulpit to preach, you return to the dance floor, the dance with God.

This is the challenge: working this rhythm—moving between balcony and dance floor—into our way of leading. Sometimes it means removing ourselves physically to a different kind of space. At other times, it means removing ourselves for a moment in the midst of the dance in order for the outer and inner work to occur. Perhaps in time a “double vision” develops, keeping one eye on what is before you and one eye on the forces within you and the larger system. I submit this is a skill worth aiming for, one I wish I had treated as priority during my years of pastoral leadership.

Your thoughts and experience?

[The metaphor, “getting to the balcony” comes from Ronald Heifetz in his books, Leadership on the Line and The Practice of Adaptive Leadership.]