For Those Who See . . . or Want to See

July 13, 2011

This provocative metaphor, “getting to the balcony,” I carry around with me, and suggest you do as well. It is a way of naming the leader’s challenge to balance immediate action (the dance floor) with a larger/deeper perspective (the balcony).

A congregation, our any system, looks like the activity on a dance floor. Some members are into “line” dancing, other dancing in twos, or even solo. Everyone is attempting, sometimes successfully, to follow the music. Some sit along the sidelines, contented or discontented observers.

And as leader, you move in and out of these dances, frequently uncertain of next steps. Sometimes you lead, sometimes you follow. Regardless, you are expected to stay focussed on immediate action: deadlines to meet; phones calls, text messages, e-mails to answer; visits to make; always another task to complete. I’m guessing that you feel on your own to “get to the balcony,” where you can see the “big picture,” noticing patterns, observing discordance, detecting direction, gaining perspective, looking for the Spirit’s movement toward mercy and justice—in other words, the work of discerning.

This is more than seeing the larger sense of your congregation. In our day, with commentators of our times saying we are experiencing major paradigm shifts, we are left asking, “Where is the Spirit moving within the Western church . . . within religions . . . within humanity , . . within creation?” You and I have assumptions that profoundly influence our active leadership. But how clear and conscious are they?

This summer I am savoring a recent biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, by Eric Metaxas.

I’m curious, what made it possible for him to see so early the demonic thread of anti-Semitism, so skillfully understated, in early Nazism? What enabled him to perceive so clearly the existential choice before the German church—either Hitler or Christ? No one seemed to see so perceptively as Bonhoeffer.

What were the “balconies” from which Bonhoeffer gained such prophetic perspectives? These are the balcony places in his life that stand out to me: his regular, daily practice of meditating on Scripture, asking, “What is God saying to me and the church? To what is God calling me?”; his ongoing reflections on “the signs of the time,” usually in dialogue with close friends (sometimes in retreat settings); his love of solitude, prayer and music; his preparations for teaching and especially preaching; and his international and ecumenical relationships which gave him the distance and perspective that other German pastors did not have. All of these were disciplined occasions for him to drop back from the disorienting chaos of his environment and the constant press for immediate action. From these places he seemed able to see beyond the moment, beyond his fear, beyond the German church, and beyond even Germany. Paradoxically, his imprisonment while awaiting execution (which was intended to neutralize Bonhoeffer) became the final “balcony” from which he could see the post-war re-shaping of the Christian witness. We are still unpacking his words from the prison at Tegel.

Take with you the example of Bonhoeffer and the provoking questions, “What helps you see? What balconies are places from which you attempt to discern the movment of Spirit in your life, congregation, and larger church and world?

Having those balcony places located, and regularly visiting them, just may be the most important discipline of your pastoral leadership. And, likely, this practice will be the least supported, rewarded, and understood by others. It’s up to you.

I always value your responses.

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