In -Sight: Radical Unity

Jesus’s prayer “that they may all be one” (John 17:21) is Interpretations have their role to play in the theological task, but they are not the starting point.  Affirmation of faith always precedes the interpretations of it.  The early Christians were wise enough to recognize that in their development of the creeds.  We need to recognize it today (better than we do) in our representation of Christ and Christianity.

The fallen world views Christians as those who are divided by a hopeless array of differences.  There is no attraction to a loving God through people who seem to dislike each other and perpetually try to “one up” them.  We have greatly failed to calculate the damage done to the evangelistic task by our sectarianism and theological arrogance.

The fact is, the world does not know all our interpretations, and they are not trying to learn them.  But everyone is made in the image of God–an image which creates a longing–one of which is to find a place where Christians really love each other. the most radical idea on the earth today.  It is ignored in the fallen world, where division, conflict, prejudice, and pluralism have gone to seed at the hands of egotism.  It is misunderstood even by those who mouth the words, but represent it in limited, superficial, ceremonial, occasional, and inconsistent ways.
 
But Jesus meant what he said, meant it profoundly, and intended that those of us who follow him should not only experience it, but also be at work to bring it to pass in whatever ways we can.  In the Book of Acts and the Epistles, we can see how the first Christians sought to do it by studying the passages where the word “one” is used.  In Christian history we can study the lives of saints and faith communities who manifested ecumenical and cultural unity.

In God’s new pentecost, we are the benefactors of the fresh wind of the Holy Spirit that is blowing “oneness” back into our lives and our cultures.  If we have eyes to see and ears to hear, we can discern a grand reunion that has the potential to heal our divisions and create a unity that enables us to say and do things we could never do in isolation and competitiveness.

But like every visionary prayer, it must be enacted in specific ways and in concrete situations.  We begin right where we are to ask what things we might be able to do together that we might not be able to do alone.  This means abandoning “who gets the credit” and realizing we might even lose people to other churches in the process (we might gain some too), but our response to Jesus’ prayer is a sign that we are Kingdom people, not religious sectarians. 

And in the end, our enactment of Jesus’ prayer creates lives and actions that reflect the heart and will of God to a world that has come to believe that Christians delight in their differences and are more intent on being separated than together.

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Lumen Fidei: A Light for Life in Society

As we learn to get along in the family unit, we are given the will and means to get along with the human family.  Faith is carried into the world as naturally as it was held in the home.

The basis for this transmission is not a exclusively a sense of universal community, but additionally our belief in salvation history–that is, God’s desire for us all to dwell together as sisters and brothers.

This vision brings many blessings into our life, but at the same time it makes our life a blessing to others.  In this receiving and giving, life is truly good.  This is because the light of faith always reveals love.

If we remove love from the world, we all die.

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Ministry Musings: Toxic Leadership

Like many others, I have grown increasingly concerned about the neo-fundamentalism that is dominating and caricaturing too much Christianity these days. It is a theology and resultant mindset that is antithetical to the Gospel and destructive to the Christian witness in the world.

 In recent days, Mars Hill Church in Seattle, and the ministry of Mark Driscoll, its senior pastor, has resurfaced as an Exhibit A for this kind of deformative Christianity. The church and Driscoll’s ministry are collapsing under the weight of narcissism, bad theology, and manipulative tactics. A website has been created to more-fully describe and document the abuse and sadness that the Mars Hill situation has created: http://www.joyfulexiles.com.

A revealing document on the website is written by Jonna Petry, the wife of one of the fired associate ministers. Written in 2012, My Story, was her attempt to bring freedom and new life into an otherwise devastating experience. I distributed her article back in 2012, but I now believe it is time to refer to it again. The toxic leadership which she described at Mars Hill is now infecting other leaders, churches, and institutions.

Below, I have listed and briefly commented on the major points she makes in My Story. We must be aware of the symptoms of toxic leadership and how it grows, no matter where it occurs. And we must be gripped by the sickness toxic leadership represents and the destruction it produces in the Body of Christ. What she describes is a spiritual virus that is now spreading through the Christian community,

(1) In the beginning, a winsome, forthright person is chosen as the central leader of the organization. The early days are ones of excitement and hope, as this person inspires and envisions a new day.

(2) The early days are defined as a time of shared governance, and the leadership style appears to be broad-based and conversational. But in retrospect, it is seen as a time when the central leader sizes up the situation and begins to form impressions about who will later be valuable or expendable. The central leader also takes small steps that will later become the operational platform for dominance.

(3) Within a year or two, the central leader actually establishes a non-relational (regulatory) leadership style, complete with a hierarchical structure that follows a clearly defined chain of command. Everyone is expected to follow the system as it is laid out in that structure. The “unpardonable sin” is disagreement with the central leader.

(4) Within the system, the central leader builds a team of second-level leaders (elders at Mars Hill) who are unwaveringly supportive of the central leader and who unquestioningly carry out the bidding of the central leader. In the corporate world they are called yes men. What the business world calls group think takes precedence over individual opinions and alternative options put forward by others. The team exists to do the bidding of the central leader.

(5) The central leader has an inner circle of confidants, but it is difficult to know who they are; all that can be determined is that the central leader talks with a few golden children. There is a small group of people who actually call the shots.

(6) The administrative model also manifests perfectionistic tendencies, with a low tolerance for error, including excessive discipline due to minor mistakes. People can get into big trouble for little things. The work environment is no longer pleasant or perceived as safe. Morale plummets as toeing the mark becomes the modus operandi. Employees feel scrutinized, criticized, generally unappreciated, manipulated, and expendable.

(7) On a deeper level, firing becomes a means of cleansing the organization; people are fired swiftly and decisively when they are no longer needed or congruent with the central leader’s vision. Dead-wood people are replaced by those who will fit into the yes men environment. At this point, we have entered the world of spiritual abuse, but with a long way to go before we see how it actually plays itself out.

(8) The central leader capitalizes on the organization’s original desire for a new day by developing a comprehensive re-structuring plan (at Mars Hill it was a new set of by-laws), designed to take the organization to the next level. This plan becomes the law of the land, and everyone is expected to pledge allegiance to it. In fact, people are asked to actually sign the document.

(9) As this operational style becomes normative and powerful, a spirit of heaviness begins to drape the organization. People notice that things are changing, and there is a sense that the changes are not all for the better. Morale plummets even further.

(10) Avenues for talking about concerns and opportunities to raise questions about what is happening are severely reduced (managed by the administrative structure) or eliminated altogether. There’s no way to critique what’s going on without getting in trouble.

(11) People with concerns are viewed as disloyal, and they are often removed, being replaced by people who keep quiet and are passively compliant. The new team becomes a puppet show simply carrying out the will of the central leader.

(12) Those who continue to exercise integrity are shunned (personally by the central leader and eventually at the organizational level), and veiled threats are used as an attempt to maintain control. Concerned persons are encouraged (publicly) and required (privately) to look for exciting opportunities elsewhere. Their moves are defined as good for them.

(13) There is a growing sense that the core values and missional purposes of the organization are being eroded, replaced by attitudes and practices which continue to use the historic language, but separated from the meanings which make the language authentic. This leads to the organization being driven more by image (e.g. branding and slogans) and less by substance. Ironically, this is a period when outsiders often think the organization is great. But insiders know differently. A performance orientation has replaced a character base.

(14) Truth is now what the central leader says it is, and everything (including the leader’s preaching and teaching) revolves around his vision which, due to his narcissism, he declares to be God’s vision as well.

(15) As this mechanistic, unilateral style becomes normative, friendships break down and are replaced by policies and procedures that erode relationships and elevate regulations. Trust evaporates. Serious conversations cease, because no one knows who to talk to anymore.

(16) Calls for attention begin to arise, but they go unheeded by the central leader and those whom he has put around him. In fact, those who raise concerns are viewed as impediments to the new vision and are no longer deemed useful. They no longer fit. People with organizational experience, devotion, loyalty, and competence are removed.

(17) The central leader becomes increasingly entrenched (an early sign of desperation), isolated, and resistive to counsel. In public, he continues to project himself as the champion of the organization, even though his attitude, action, and leadership style is undermining it. The central leader is now afraid, but adopts a “never let them see you sweat” public persona.

(18) Attempts are made to give the central leader wise counsel–sometimes by outside experts, but the central leader shuns them too. Everyone in the organization knows there is trouble in River City, but it has publicly surfaced too late to do much about it, other than to let it play itself out.

(19) Along the way, people lose hope, and when they do, they also lose a sense of how and where they might still exercise redemptive influence in the organization they deeply lon some cases, they actually end up contributing to the problem by going along while things get worse and worse.

(20) But eventually, everything is exposed–even to the outside world, and the original charisma and competence of the central leader is not enough to sustain the charade. His narcissistic tendencies drive him further and further into attitudes and actions that eventually lead him to fall on his own sword.

It is a very tragic tale that has unfolded over the years at Mars Hill Church. And whenever it is repeated, it is equally devastating. Unfortunately, by the time things come to the light, a trail of tears has watered the path, and a pile of broken people has strewn the walkway.

Toxic leadership is almost always the result of putting too much power in the hands of one person. When that person happens to be a narcissist, a “narcissystem” (a term coined by my wife, Jeannie) is the result.   By the time this destruction runs its course and everything is exposed, the ego-driven leader has no option but to defend himself (herself) to the bitter end. Their only option (to save any “face” at all) is to protect the house of cards to the death. And that’s what it all eventually becomes—-Death.

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In-Sight: Affirmations that Bind

The classical creeds of Christianity (Apostles, Nicean, Athanasian) are illustrations of ecumenism–not exclusively in terms of their content, but also in terms of their reminder that we come together in our affirmations, not in our interpretations.  God’s new pentecost is about uniting around our affirmations, rather than separating because of our interpretations.  The world is saved by affirmations (e.g. “Jesus is Lord”), not by interpretations (e.g. how he is Lord in every conceivable circumstance). 

Interpretations have their role to play in the theological task, but they are not the starting point.  Affirmation of faith always precedes the interpretations of it.  The early Christians were wise enough to recognize that in their development of the creeds.  We need to recognize it today (better than we do) in our representation of Christ and Christianity.

The fallen world views Christians as those who are divided by a hopeless array of differences.  There is no attraction to a loving God through people who seem to dislike each other and perpetually try to “one up” them.  We have greatly failed to calculate the damage done to the evangelistic task by our sectarianism and theological arrogance.

     The fact is, the world does not know all our interpretations, and they are not trying to learn them.  But everyone is made in the image of God–an image which creates a longing–one of which is to find a place where Christians really love each other.

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Lumen Fidei: Faith and the Family

Pope Francis rightly notes that the family unit is the first waystation on the journey to transmit faith in the world.  Beginning with marriage and then possibly with children, people learn how to trust, form relationships, forgive, cooperate, and love.

A family faith is intended to follow us as we move into adulthood, and in some ways even to the time of our death.  Family is an all-encompassing word.

That’s why the disolution of the family is so detrimental to the shining of the light of faith.  That’s why single parents must be heralded for their courage and struggle to keep a sense of family alive.  Family is one way we continue to believe and bear witness that faith is stronger than any weakness life can hurl our way.

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In-Sight: A Holy Mix

We expend large amounts of time and energy trying to find our “it”–our theological position, our political stance, our church affiliation, our personality profile, etc, etc.  Only later do we realize that God is more concerned about our “mix.” 

On some things we are liberal, on others conservative.  On some issues we prefer the Republican view, on others the Democratic.  On some topics, we side with our chosen church, on others we find greater light outside our tradition.  And in our general approach to life, we discover that no single personality type fully defines us. 

The point is, God does everything possible to reveal the richness of our lives, showing us how we are a blend of beliefs, perspectives, and qualities.  We are the ones who want to “camp out” in one place with one group.  We are the ones who mistakenly believe that “middle C” and “piano” are the same thing.

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Lumen Fidei: God Prepares a City

As I have re-read Pope Francis’ first encyclical, I see not only its content, but also the way it serves as a model for doing theology about anything.  The Pope moves from a consideration of the selected topic itself (the light of faith), to a look at how the Church is meant to embrace it  (sacraments, prayer, morality, unity)–and now, to the indispensable need to manifest it in the world.

Chapter Four moves us into the world–into what Eugene Peterson and others are calling today “lived theology.”  And the very first thing Pope Francis says about the light of faith is that it is meant to create “a place in which human beings can dwell together with one another.”

And so, the first sub-theme is “Faith and the Common Good.”  As the Pope notes, faith does not only grant us interior firmness, it also enriches life for everyone.  When it fails to do that, a profession of faith deteriorates into a “club membership” that requires allegiance for those who want to join.

But as Pope Francis rightly notes, the light of faith also shines into the world to dispel darkness–not only to strengthen the faithful, but also to strengthen the common good.

Faith does not move us away from the world into a religious community, it creates life together that stirs us to vocational discipleship–using our everyday roles and responsibilities to represent the way of Christ.

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