The other day I heard Maya Lin talk about her design for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington DC. I’ve visited the wall many times, and it’s always crowded with people, many of them deeply moved by the v-shaped black granite gash in the earth.
The memorial seems brilliant, even inevitable now, as if the memorial couldn’t have possibly looked any other way. But at the time, it was controversial, scandalous. Many Vietnam veterans fought it. They wanted something more traditional. A few concessions were made—a flag, a statue of a soldier—but through it all, Lin remained convicted and steadfast to her vision and her design.
The night before the memorial was dedicated, Lin was touring the space when a Vietnam veteran walked up to her. He was a big guy, an imposing guy, and he was livid at what he saw. He lit into her, practically pinning her to the wall with his rage, asking, How dare she do this?
As I listened to this story, I imagined what it would have been like to be Maya Lin, and to be the focus of such ire. Then I realized that of course, it has happened to me, though on a more modest scale. One time in the church I used to serve, we made a decision to change the way we served communion. It was the right decision, and we communicated our purposes the best we could. But a man left that day and made a beeline for me: How could you do this? How dare you do this? I received his rancor as non-anxiously as I could, but inside my heart sank and I was flooded with doubt.
I was expecting Lin to admit to similar feelings, but she responded differently. As she listened to the veteran, and heard all of that pain tumbling out, she thought to herself, It’s working. The wall is doing exactly what I’d hoped it would do.
Pastors, leaders, and any of us in the transformation business: take heed. When you touch people emotionally, people may lash out. But that’s not necessarily a sign to stop. It can be a sign to stand firm, or if you dare, to go deeper.
After many months in the holds queue at the library, I finally got the e-copy of Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In on my Kindle.
I’ve been hearing about this book for months, and it’s possible I’ve read more words about it than there are words in it. Some of the reaction amounts to high fives and attagirls; others criticize Sandberg’s supposedly limited and naive perspective, as if centuries of patriarchy will magically evaporate if enough of us raise our hands in meetings.
I don’t think that’s Sandberg’s thesis, and it’s disingenuous to criticize a book for not being some other book. Yes, there are systemic problems that make it hard for a woman to lean in. (She addresses those, by the way.) And yes, Lean In is very socioeconomically specific. But it’s still an empowering, worthwhile read.
The research about how men and woman are perceived differently in the workplace is jaw-dropping. Both sexes will downplay a person’s achievements if you attach a female name to them; the same résumé with a man’s name at the top will be judged more favorably. An assertive woman is seen as a bitch; an assertive man is just, well, a man. I was encouraged by the changes corporations and business schools have made to their cultures that have helped give women an even playing field to compete and thrive; those stories deserve to be heard widely. (One doctor changed his approach to rounds; instead of relying on people to raise their hands, he alternated calling on men and women, and of course found that women knew their stuff as well as or better than their male colleagues.)
Her section on negotiating for yourself was useful. Research suggests a simple two-pronged approach: be scrupulously nice in a way that builds community, and back up your negotiation with strong supporting info. (I’ve often said that my formula for being taken seriously as a woman in leadership is 1. being humorously self-deprecating, 2. giving people the benefit of the doubt, and 3. really, really knowing my stuff.) And I liked the story of the woman who was seeking a job and asked her, “What’s your biggest problem, and how can I solve it?” Sandberg had never heard that approach to a job interview.
Her chapter on mentoring was of particular interest since that’s a growing passion of mine. Sandberg writes, “We have sent the wrong message to young women. We need to stop telling them, ‘Get a mentor and you will excel.’ Instead, we need to tell them, ‘Excel and you will get a mentor.’” Love that. She also urges women to be specific when asking for help. Asking for a lunch date to “catch up” is a bad approach; people are too busy for that, and it communicates that you haven’t done your homework to know what this particular mentor might be able to provide to you (and you to her, because the best mentoring relationships are mutually beneficial). She tells a few stories of young women who received mentoring advice from more senior women but didn’t consider it mentoring because they didn’t meet for an hour a week. “That’s not a mentor; that’s a therapist,” Sandberg quips.
The discrepancy in how women approach mentors makes sense in light of Deborah Tannen’s classic work on how men and women communicate. Very broadly speaking, men tend to be action and task oriented; women are relationship oriented. So it makes sense that women are going to ask for an hour-a-week, catch-up-and-be-friends kind of relationship… and then be disappointed when busy executives (or senior pastors) can’t fulfill that role. If we can be more specific and task-oriented when engaging a mentor, we’re more likely to be successful.
I’ve met so many women who’ve lamented the lack of [female] mentors. The same story gets told again and again with different names and details: [Potential Mentor] let me down, she never called me back, she wasn’t helpful at all, she saw me as a threat, etc. etc. I now wonder if part of the problem comes down to how we ask women to mentor us, and to what end.
On the complexities of leaning in when you have kids: Sandberg tells a story about one of her teams that was deadlocked on some issue. One of the men on the team spent the weekend crunching some numbers that broke the logjam on Monday. Sandberg wonders why more women don’t go and do likewise. Well, if you have kids, it’s probably because you’re running soccer carpool, buying the birthday gift, getting a long-overdue haircut, etc. etc. (Fathers who are involved with their kids’ lives will face similar challenges.) Sandberg diagnoses women’s inability or unwillingness to be that “weekend warrior” as a lack of confidence, but if you’re a parent, more often it’s the simple chaos and unpredictability of home life. Yes, we can and should lean in. But the times we can drop everything on a moment’s notice are rare. Our lives don’t turn on a dime.
I recently attended a three-day training on community organizing and congregational leadership. There were many great insights that I’ll be chewing on for a while, but one hit me right away.
Our trainer quoted Jim Collins’s book Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap… and Others Don’t. According to Collins, all leaders have to-do lists, but great leaders also have stop-doing lists. These are tasks that someone else should be doing, and/or tasks that don’t have much impact in the long run but that keep us busy and make us feel useful. They take up our time to the point that we have no energy or mental bandwidth for the deep thinking or creative work that is essential to move an organization forward.
There was a definite buzz in the room when the trainer dropped this tidbit on us. One pastor couldn’t contain herself; she stood up and said, “My name is [Kate], and I’m going to stop photocopying the bulletins!” We all erupted in cheers, applause and nods of recognition. (We also recognized that she has some calling/training/equipping work to do before she gets to that point.)
As a Sabbath-minded gal, I am totally on board with leaving stuff undone—but I’m mainly good in the short term. When break’s over I try and pick everything up again. I’ve been complaining for several days about my kids’ crazy camp and swim schedules and having no time to think. But the truth is, I bear some responsibility for that. I’ve been holding on to (and committing to) too many things.
The training gave me permission to be more intentional about letting stuff go, not because I’m a slacker or unconscientious, but because there’s a bigger goal in mind. Granted, you’ve gotta be smart about what gets delegated to another person or to the floor. But there’s something liberating about saying, “I’m gonna get to that thing… never.”
Following the training, I had a great week eliminating the low-hanging fruit. Now I feel called deeper into this practice, which is going to be tough. It’s going to mean some agonizing decisions. When you stop doing, you disappoint people. (Ugh. UGH.)
Case in point: what about newsletter articles? Virtually every pastor I know detests writing them. Most people don’t read them, and it’s a chore to come up with compelling content each month. (If only there were a lectionary for newsletter articles!) But just enough people read them that we keep on doing this thing that saps our energy.
Of course, not everything we do is going to be fun. And Jesus does call us to care for the one wandering sheep over the 99 safe in the pen. But sometimes our time and energy gets held hostage by 2-3 people.
In fact, when we’re trying to decide what to stop doing, the question isn’t whether people benefit from the activity. The question is whether the activity is central to our mission as an organization, and whether the benefit is worth the cost to us personally, given other creative options we have for our time. Remember my theology of call lately, a la Howard Thurman: the world needs people who have come alive.
And in the case of newsletter articles: could these people’s needs be served in a different way that doesn’t drain us?
The tools of community organizing are not just for engagement in the wider community; they are also helpful within the congregation, as you seek out leaders and discern a vision.
The crux of the training centered on the one-on-one “relational” meeting, in which you try to identify potential leaders through getting to know people and learning their stories—their histories, their passions, and what “keeps them up at night.”
To give us a taste of this, each presenter offered a bit of personal history before launching into his/her topic, and it was easy to connect the dots between the person’s past experiences and his or her life’s work. One person’s aunt and uncle was the victim of a predatory loan. Another saw her single working mother face discrimination and sexism and was driven to empower herself and other women in her community as a result. You get the idea.
Then we practiced one-on-one meetings, and I was struck with how many stories (mine included) were some variation of “I had a pretty comfortable life… and now I just want to give back and make the world a better place.”
Now, admittedly, many of us were brand new at this relational meeting stuff. The organizers who trained us (and whose dots were so easy to connect) have been telling their stories for a long time. And granted, it was an artificial exercise, taking place in a fishbowl, and we could only go 8-10 minutes long instead of the 30-40 minutes that is suggested.
But these rather bland, generic responses revealed to me how we find leaders and volunteers in the church, and how we talk about service. And how it’s killing us.
Here are three realizations I had:
1. We do discernment primarily around gifts rather than stories. We need to stop doing that.
Whether we’re the nominating committee trying to put forth a slate of officers, or a youth director trying to find confirmation sponsors, we think predominantly about a person’s skills and gifts. “This person is a teacher, so I bet he’d be a great Christian Education elder.” “She’s chief operating officer of her company; maybe she’d serve on the stewardship team.”
It’s not that gifts are unimportant. After all, spiritual gifts language has been with us from the very beginning. But one of the tenets of community organizing is that good leaders are made, not born. As a pastor, I can teach skills. But I cannot teach passion. Getting in touch with a person’s history allows you to find those deep hungers that will motivate and drive them even when the going gets tough. No wonder so many of our congregations are boring and lethargic—we’ve been talking about the wrong things!
2. We need to get way more concrete in our language about service.
“I want to help people because Jesus tells us to love our neighbor” doesn’t get us anywhere. Yet it’s our default response when people ask us what drives us. The content of a relational meeting is why and how. “Why do you want to help people? Why does that matter to you? How have you seen that impulse lived out? How do you see that not being lived out in your community?”
Just as we’ve relied on gifts as the primary mode of discernment, we have not taken the time to drill down past our surface responses about service. Many of the overworked pastors there (myself included) were searching for shortcuts—Can’t you do this work in group settings? Does it have to be one on one? What do you suppose the response was?
3. Anger is not the enemy. It is a resource.
Maybe you’re one of those who had a genuinely untroubled childhood. You didn’t see your aunt and uncle’s devastation at almost losing their home because of that predatory loan. But I bet there is an injustice that makes you furious. We don’t like to talk about anger, especially in the Church of Nice that so many of us belong to. Anger is bad, we tell ourselves—something to suppress. But anger, properly contextualized, is also energy. Anger is fuel for action. And there is plenty of holy anger in scripture. One of my favorite benedictions has the line, “May God bless you with anger—at injustice, oppression, and the exploitation of people, so you will work for justice, freedom and peace.”
There are plenty of injustices in the world that I worry about. But when I look back on my personal history, the key issue for me has been women and girls, again and again. The specifics of that have played out in different ways over the years, and the pivotal events that sparked that anger are for another post. But yeah. Women and girls.
My favorite quote these days is this one by Howard Thurman:
But how do we know what makes people come alive unless we ask them?
There is still a tremendous gender gap in ministry. By and large, women are the associate pastors and solo pastors. Men are the tall-steeple preachers. (Men of my generation are very sad about this, and they lament it—sincerely, I believe—but will gladly move into those prestigious and well-paying positions even as they tilt their heads sympathetically and decry the patriarchy.)
I appreciate (and am convicted by) your point about men lamenting sexism while benefitting from it. As an ally, I wonder what the image for privilege would be. Leaning back? Or, as you point out, support is key. Leaning in together? Lean, mean fighting machine?
If my comment convicted him, then his sincere question convicted me: What would I ask of my brothers who are in positions of influence and privilege? That is an excellent question. Here are the first things that come to mind:
Don’t be a jerk. I guess that’s not very useful advice, because jerks either don’t know or don’t care that they are. But basic kindness and empathy go a long way. If you see a woman “leaning in,” don’t push her over. But don’t hover around, ready to catch her if she falls either. That’s annoying. And patronizing.
Name it when you see it. That thing where a woman makes a suggestion and it gets ignored, and then a man suggests it and people fall over themselves to praise it? It’s happened to me. It’s happened to virtually every woman I know. It’s nice when women aren’t the ones to point it out.
Advocate for decent parental leave, even if you don’t need it. Maybe you aren’t planning to have kids, or maybe your kids are grown. All the more reason for you to get into the game—it’s not personal. When I was pregnant with my second child, I helped the church I was serving put together a good parental leave policy, which they didn’t have. They were great about it. There was not a lot of pushback. Even so, it’s an awkward process. Help a gal out.
Cut the macho stuff. If you are eligible for parental leave and the situation arises, take it. See also: vacation, study leave and for heaven’s sake, days off!
Recommend us for stuff, and mean it. I’m not looking to move into a new call, but I appreciate that people put my name in for pastoral positions that open up. And don’t give up just because it’s not the right time. Someday it could be. (Don’t freak out, Tiny Church. I ain’t going anywhere.)