Getting to the Balcony

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.]

3 Responses to Getting to the Balcony

  1. A good day to get this blog. We’re trying some contemporary music/video items in worship this summer. (We have a short-form prayer and praise fellowship at 9:00 during the school year, but not in the summer. In its absence, the “early” people asked us to include some of their forms in 11:00 worship. We don’t do it every Sunday, but we have twice.)

    The first Sunday, no negative comments. But after last Sunday, here we go. …

    Of course, every change brings complaints. But it does feel lonely in the balcony, where on this issue for me the values are inclusion and hospitality: making room, both structurally and emotionally, for different forms, and honoring people who like different things. For many of those on the dance floor the values are the opposite: exclusion, differentiation and defensiveness.

    Ah, the worship wars!


  2. Ben Wagener says:

    With my Anam Cara monthly clergy group of six interdenominational clergy plus a facilitator, we meet seven hours a day that includes a meal. I get ongoing clarity on my pastoral leadership not only from my case presentations but also from fellow clergy case presentations. We enjoy our spiritual practices and a book study within a safe and nurturing community that has met for six years.

    For example, without this terrific community I would not have moved as quickly, or as focused, to my new reduced pastoral hours by choice which was graciously approved by the church last October.

    Now I am discovering new venues to enjoy family, friends, recreation, and to explore imaginative ideas for other ministries within and beyond the church, including starting other Anam Cara groups. Thank God for this balcony of friends who steadfastly love and appropriately challenge me to be Ben.


  3. Greg Cochran says:

    Thanks Mahan for this visual metaphor. it’s all about that rhythm…and being aware of those times when I have no rhythm. With the help of the Anam Cara group that Ben mentioned in his reply (and amen Ben to all you said), I have gotten better at bringing the essence of the balcony down on the dance floor. There are some songs that I just can’t dance too…so sometimes it’s about being still on the dance floor and watching other people enjoy their dance of life. These are the times when “the bigger picture” comes to life for me and teaches me a new rhythm in which to be in the dance. Greg


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