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Thinking Out Loud
  • Lenten Days BC

    by Michael Jinkins | Dec 01, 2014

    Lenten Days BCAdvent is Lenten Land. Days before God's rescue. Shadowland.


    We hardly see this Lent anymore. Not with Christmas aisles sprouting like rows of tinseled corn as soon as the Halloween candy disappears. Not with Christmas lights strung before we roast the Thanksgiving turkey.

    Yet Advent is another Lent. That's why the minister dons purple and the chancel guild decks out the church in Lent's gaudy glory.

    We do so love to rush to a kind of good news that denies the bad. When I was a child, we had only three holy days: Christmas, Easter and Mother's Day. So we skipped like rocks over the Lenten days of Advent - the long, long wait, the centuries-mimicking endurance run of faith, the dark-shuttered-shadowed days of "O Come, O Come, Emmanuel" that culminate finally, at long last in candlelit "O Come All Ye Faithful."

    We argue that it is a shame not to get to sing Christmas carols longer. They are so bright, so cheerful, so soaked in childhood's sheltered view of the world (or so we hope). But there is wisdom in singing the dirge-like waiting songs of Advent for a long, long while before that night when we do at last break out "O Little Town of Bethlehem" and place the baby Jesus in his crèche.

    Advent prepares us for the life of faith in which we spend much more time waiting for God than basking in epiphanies. Four weeks on the trail to God knows where and twelve days of Christmas before we have to start hiding our babies from Herod. That's about right.

    Rush if we must for the sake of Macy's and Target and whatever other markets lure us into their shrines with tinsel and Bing Crosby. I won't play Scrooge to this. It is all such good fun. And if there's not a child in us whose heart leaps at Christmas's approach, then it is a tragedy. But let's withhold a part of ourselves from the mercantile fakeries, and let's also embrace the sacredness of the wait, the long wait, the painfully long wait, that prepares us to wait some more for a deliverance long-promised and worth waiting for.

  • Humanity 101

    by Michael Jinkins | Nov 24, 2014

    Thank You GodIf there’s a class somewhere that teaches us what it means to be human, the centerpiece of the curriculum surely is the study of gratitude. Learning to be thankful is basic to being a person. It’s “Humanity 101.” Thankfulness is the natural impulse of the healthy heart. It is the appropriate reciprocal response of the person who is fully alive. We are never too young to enter this course of study.

    In his new book for children, Dr. Brad Wigger, the Second Presbyterian Church Professor of Christian Education here at Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary, teaches this course. And, along with Jago, the illustrator of this wonderful book, Brad teaches the course, not from the sometimes isolating heights of a lecturer’s desk, but sitting on the floor surrounded by children. Thank You, God (Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2014) ushers us into the sanity and wisdom of being grateful for all of life. There could hardly be a better preparation for Thanksgiving.

    “Thank you, God,” we read, while our eyes are dazzled with visions of sun, space, earth and stars. “Thank you, God, for the sun smiling on our earth to wake up the day, for the light opening my eyes to see all you have made.”

    “Thank you, God, for family and friends, … for home, … for meals together.” Thank you, God, for learning, and stories, and singing, and love, for all that lies outside and in, for activities and rest, and everything in between.

    There have been a lot of debates over the years about what makes humans human. Even the Psalmist feels compelled to ask of God, “What are human beings that you are mindful of them?” (Psalm 8:4) Many answers to this question are really pretty reductionistic. While Shakespeare’s response in Hamlet soars (“What a piece of work is a man! How noble in reason! how infinite in faculty! in form, in moving, how express and admirable! in action, how like an angel! In apprehension, how like a god!”), other answers to the question veer to the ridiculous. One college textbook, tongue in cheek, describes the human being as “an ingenious assembly of portable plumbing.”

    I would venture to say, however, that beyond the tool-making and ability to speak and reason, that which makes us truly human is our capacity for gratitude. Thankfulness flows from a right understanding of our indebtedness to God for breath, and love, and life itself. Thankfulness is evidence of a human being fully aware of his or her dependence on another (an Other). In other words, thankfulness is a concrete demonstration of genuine humility, and humility is the essence of humanness.

    This week I hope we will all go “back to school” and enroll with children of all ages in “Humanity 101,” and with Brad learn to say, “Thank you, God … for this day, for life, for your love holding us together. Amen.”

  • Leadership Notebook 6: Leadership and Change (Part 1)

    by Michael Jinkins | Nov 20, 2014

    Leadership and ChangeSeveral years ago, in a now classic essay in the Harvard Business Review, Charles F. Knight, then chairman and CEO of the Emerson Electric Company in St. Louis, Missouri, discussed the primary reason most business ventures fail. His comments, written specifically for a business audience, are worth hearing in the churchly and academic worlds. Knight writes: “We … believe that companies fail primarily for nonanalytical reasons: management knows what to do but, for some reason, doesn’t do it.”1

    If we were to boil down the principles that Knight elaborates in this essay, they’d go something like the following:

    • Do the best analysis of your data that you can do.
    • Devote significant time to planning, planning and more planning.
    • Think strategically for the long term while paying attention to your short-term results.
    • Don’t fail to act; i.e., do what you know you need to do.
    • Repeat the cycle, making necessary changes based on new data.

    Sounds simple, doesn’t it? But there’s a lot to think about and a lot to understand between the bullets when and where change occurs or doesn’t occur. There’s just no getting away from the fact that change is at the heart of the leader’s distinctive role in an organization.

    Why is that?

    Because leaders and leadership teams are responsible not only for the smooth operation of an organization in the present, but for the organization’s future ability to meet new sometimes unprecedented and unpredictable emerging challenges and demands in the surrounding environment. To put it in a slightly different way: leadership is future-oriented or it isn’t leadership; it’s just management. And as important as good management is, it cannot substitute for leadership. Inevitably management devolves into the sustaining of the status quo unless it is held in tension with the future-orientation of good leadership.

    I don’t remember where I first heard this story (and if someone out there comes across the source on it, I would be very grateful to know so I can give credit where credit is due), but the story goes that the head of a family-owned drill bit company died, leaving the leadership of his corporation to a son who had more of a reputation for good times than for hard work. When the son arrived at the first meeting of his leadership team, his reception was cold, to say the least.

    “What does this kid know about our business?” seemed to be the consensus attitude.

    Sitting down in his father’s chair, the young man started the meeting with his own question: “What do we make?”

    The chill in the room dropped a few degrees cooler.

    “We make drills,” someone said with a sneer, incredulous that the prodigal didn’t even know the company’s product.

    “No,” the young man said, “We make holes.”

    The short version of what was a long story is that this company emerged within just a few years as the industry leader in laser technology.

    Leadership leans into the future imaginatively. It has to do this because the leader or leadership team is responsible not only for the organization’s health in the present moment, but also for its thriving in the future.

    Obviously this means that leaders need to be good at reading tea leaves and cultures, within and beyond their organizations. They must be good at discerning the difference between a trend and a fad. And they must be good teachers and communicators who can help their organizations gain interpretive skills. But leaders also need to know what to do to position their organizations to make the necessary changes so they can continue to accomplish their missions in the future, even if their products change.

    Good strategic thinking often requires tactical shifts. Notice, for example, that the new CEO of the “drill” company didn’t say that they were abandoning their mission and were going to start manufacturing laptop computers. He knew his company’s mission. He recognized and blessed its mission. But he also had the imagination necessary to shift and redefine the company’s strategic vision, to translate that vision into a new vernacular. The only thing that changed, really, was the technology, but that change was crucial. The new product was a logical extension of the old products, and it engaged a potentially much larger market. In one sense nothing had changed. In another sense, everything changed.

    Leadership is about change, but we all know disastrous stories of leaders whose boats cracked up on the rocks of change, either by leading an organization in a direction that constituents could not or would not accept, or by leading a group into some sort of dead end or cul-de-sac from which it never again emerged, or by leading an organization in so many different directions (read here “mission creep”) that no one really knew which way to go or how to prioritize tasks.

    When I reflect on the leader’s role as a change agent, I often think of a great New Yorker cartoon. Two mathematicians are standing before a chalkboard on which a long complicated equation is written. On the left side of the equation there are mathematical symbols shooting in every direction; on the right side more mathematical symbols apparently resolving the problem; but in the middle of the blackboard, there are the words “then a miracle occurs.” Pointing at the middle of the equation, one mathematician says to the other, “I think you’re going to need to be more explicit here.”

    In our next blog, I plan to be a bit more explicit here about the leader’s role in change, drawing on a theoretical model first presented almost forty years ago in a paper in Training and Development Journal (1972) by two, then, relatively obscure researchers in organizational behavior: Paul Hersey and Kenneth H. Blanchard. It is the best model for understanding change and leadership I’ve ever found.

    1Charles F. Knight, “Emerson Electric: Consistent Profits, Consistently,” Harvard Business Review, January-February 1992, 57.

  • Radio-Reactive Correspondence

    by Michael Jinkins | Nov 17, 2014

    Thinking OUt Lous 111814One of the best pieces of advice I ever got as a young pastor was this:

    When something happens that causes you to blow your top and you feel that you just have to respond with an angry letter, write the letter. Next, put it in a drawer for a day or so. Then, after you’ve cooled down, throw it away.

    People don’t write many letters these days, but we really could use a “cooling off drawer” function on our computers for a lot of email. I hear the concern raised often by pastors, church members and the population at large.

    The ease with which people are able to blast the virtual community with their furiously unfiltered opinions is really a problem. Someone recently said to me, “You know, pressing the 'reply all' button on my email is an ethical decision.”

    It is also a decision fraught with implications for the sender’s reputation, especially when it comes to ministry and leadership.

    Among the key indicators of a person’s leadership readiness is a person’s level of reactivity. Whereas some letters that were dropped into mail slots a generation ago were referred to as “radioactive” in their fallout, the level of “radio-reactivity” in electronic correspondence is comparatively the difference between a stick of dynamite and a nuclear bomb. And the fallout can go on for years, especially if the sender makes a habit of launching missives.

    So, if we were to revise the advice some of us got back in the days when we wrought our damage with an ink pen or a typewriter so that the advice corresponds better to the way most of us communicate today via emails, texts and tweets:

    When something happens that causes you to blow your top and you feel that you just have to respond with an angry reply, write it, by all means. Then hit “delete.”

    It might just save your reputation.

  • The Triple Threat

    by Michael Jinkins | Nov 10, 2014

    Triple ThreatA recent report out of Russia brought to mind lessons about a dangerous mixture of politics, religion and nationalism. The story, which originally appeared in the Sunday edition of The New York Times (August 3, 2014) under the title "Putin Strives to Harness Energy of Russian Pilgrims for Political Profit," reports not only the cynical strategies of a political tyrant, but also (and perhaps more significantly) the capacity of the "faithful" of any nation to buttress their religious beliefs with what would otherwise be described as a craven, narrow, tribal, ethnic, racial and nationalistic ideology.

    The specific lessons this report brought to my mind were taught by Professor James Torrance in the Ph.D. seminars he once led on the history of Scottish theology and politics. Professor Torrance warned those of us in his seminars to be on the lookout for the toxic conjunction of romantic nationalism, racism and religion wherever they emerge.

    This triple threat, Torrance observed, has surfaced in various historical contexts, but always it manifests a self-confirming and self-serving identity that provides the justification of the most terrible violence in the name of God. He had personally witnessed the fierce and terrible face of this unholy triumvirate in the Troubles of Northern Ireland and in Apartheid-era South Africa. He had served courageously the causes of peace and justice in both contexts. Incidentally, the Belhar Confession which our church recently affirmed (of which Professor Torrance was an early and consistent champion) lends theological force in opposition to the powerful ideology linking religion with nationalistic and racist causes.

    It may surprise many Reformed Christians that our own faith has played into and provided support for certain versions of this triple threat, especially, but not only, in European history. The hyper-Calvinism that emerged in the generations after John Calvin's death held that God eternally hates the damned. The terrible logic of this theology proceeded: If the elect could just figure out who the damned are, they wouldn't have to love them either. It was only a short hop, skip and jump from this extension of the doctrine of predestination to the political situations that cursed Europe with unholy holy wars for generations, that continues to undercut Protestant and Catholic relationships in Northern Ireland, and that fuels all sorts of interfaith hatred.

    Sadly this is only one version of the triple threat. The twentieth century witnessed the emergence of others, arguably the most tragic of which was the Nazi coupling of race, nationalism and its own crypto-religious cult. But there were other outbreaks of such tribalism. It is important to add that the triple threat is not an exclusively Christian phenomenon. It infects other faiths as well with a particularly virulent form of religious chauvinism.

    Of course, it is always easiest to see the pernicious face of the triple threat in others (for example, in the recent stories reported from Putin's Russia), and seldom to notice it in the features looking back at us in the mirror. Jesus' admonition regarding specks in others' eyes and logs in our own applies here. But this particular threat is dangerous wherever it emerges, and we would do well to be on guard against it in ourselves.

  • Leadership Notebook 5: Organizational Archaeology

    by Michael Jinkins | Nov 06, 2014

    Editor’s note: Periodically throughout the 2014-2015 academic year, “Thinking Out Loud” readers will receive blog posts that address the idea of leadership. Best practices, challenges, rewards and lessons learned from different models of leadership are the focus of these special blog posts. We’d love to hear what you have written in your “leadership notebook.” E-mail us!

    Theoretical models help us understand our practices from a variety of angles. Edwin Friedman’s family systems theory helps us see the emotional processes at work within organizational systems, while Isaiah Berlin’s take on “incommensurable values” helps us understand that the negotiation of conflicts is not an evil to be avoided, but just a necessary aspect of lives rich in values. This week our theoretical model takes us deep into the inner life of the groups we inhabit.

    Leadership Notebook 5Many people have taken a stab at differentiating between leaders and managers. Edgar Schein, the MIT professor whose study, Organizational Culture and Leadership (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2nd edition, 1992) has become a classic in the field, says: “If one wishes to distinguish leadership from management or administration, one can argue that leaders create and change cultures, while managers and administrators live within them.”1

    While we would want to be careful drawing too stark a contrast between administrators or managers and leaders – after all, leaders do not live suspended above culture, and no leader has ever successfully effected long-term change in a culture without coming to some level of an insider’s appreciation for that culture – nevertheless there is considerable truth in Schein’s statement. Leaders serve organizations by mobilizing them to change in ways necessary to meet the challenges they face, a task that managers are not really called upon to make. And meeting the challenges of a changing environment almost inevitably means that leaders must also challenge and sometimes innovate changes in a culture’s values and goals, its mores and deep assumptions.

    Schein continues:

    “By defining leadership in this manner, I am not implying that culture is easy to create or change or that leaders are the only determiners of culture. On the contrary … culture refers to those elements of a group or organization that are most stable and least malleable. Culture is the result of a complex group learning process that is only partially influenced by leader behavior. But if the group’s survival is threatened because elements of its culture have become maladapted, it is ultimately the function of leadership to recognize and do something about the situation. It is in this sense that leadership and culture are conceptually intertwined.”2

    Another way to say this: Leadership is basically a matter of helping one’s organization adapt to its changing environment so that the organization can fulfill its purposes and achieve its mission. But, in order for a leader to do this work, the leader has to understand the organization at its deepest levels. “The leader,” as Garry Wills once observed, “needs to understand followers far more than they need to understand him.”3

    No one has done more to help leaders understand the culture of their organizations than Edgar Schein. A veritable Indiana Jones of organizational behavior, Schein teaches us to conduct archeology on living organizations, taking us deep through the various subterranean strata, layer by layer, so that we can see why a group values this and not that, why an organization clings to these beliefs but rejects those. He invites the leader to work with shovels and trowels and brushes carefully and lovingly excavating the human history that shapes a group’s self-understanding.

    Leaders who are dedicated to making sure their organizations thrive in the midst of a changing environment should be prepared to engage in this kind of work. And never has it been more necessary for leaders to help their organizations adapt and adapt quickly. But Schein warns, “The bottom line for leaders is that if they do not become conscious of the cultures in which they are embedded, those cultures will manage them.”4 Which means, in turn, that the leader will become subject to the same enervating inertia that afflicts those organizations that simply go with the flow until at last they cascade down the rapids and over the falls of oblivion and irrelevance.

    Obviously there’s no way we can glean the riches of Schein’s theoretical model in a single blog, but I can suggest the archeological movement of his approach.

    The leader begins on the surface, the level of “the very tangible overt manifestations that one can see and feel,” moving step by step toward “the deeply embedded, unconscious basic assumptions” that represent the very essence of a culture. “In between,” Schein explains, “we have the various espoused values, norms and rules of behavior that members of the culture use as a way of depicting the culture to themselves and others.”5 As the group engages in their rituals and conducts ordinary business, as they attempt to solve problems, make adjustments to various challenges, set goals, resolve conflicts, negotiate priorities, and so forth, the leader looks and listens for clues as to what guides the group members in their choices. It is at the deepest level of a culture that the leader must ultimately operate if changes are to be made that will help the organization adapt to meet new environment challenges.

    The three sub-strata through which the leader must dig are: artifacts, espoused values and basic assumptions. Perhaps the most interesting of the three are the espoused values. These are the values the group members say they hold dearest. But in virtually every organization the espoused values are not perfectly aligned with (and may actually contradict) the values that really guide their actions. Many leaders get distracted at the level of espoused values or take them at face value and do not come to an understanding of the real values and deep basic assumptions that actually do shape the behavior of the group. The leader who hopes to help his or her organization to adapt well, must get to the deepest, most crucial strata of the organization’s culture. But to get to this deepest level of basic assumptions, the leader sometimes may actually have to introduce a change that will cause the basic assumptions to surface (so that everyone can see what really makes the organization tick), even though the introduction of such a change will release “large quantities of basic anxiety.”6

    Schein’s theory probably needs a Surgeon General’s Warning Label: Delving into the layer of basic assumptions may be hazardous to your health. Indeed, a leader who finds it necessary to equip his or her organization to examine, challenge and change basic assumptions is in for a bumpy ride. Basic assumptions are where a culture’s deepest values reside, deeper than artifacts, deeper still than espoused norms, at a level of beliefs so deep that they are seldom even vocalized and never questioned. These deepest assumptions implicitly guide the decision-making of a group. But because they do exist beyond the level of frequent examination, if they are faulty they can represent the key barriers to a group adapting well to a rapidly changing environment. Even at great risk, leadership must help a group go to this deepest level to understand why they value what they value and why they make the choices they make. And leadership must also help the group find ways to articulate appropriate shifts in their basic assumptions that neither violate the group’s meaning nor keep it from adapting well.

    Schein spends a great deal of time explaining the tenacity and power of these basic “implicit, unconscious assumptions” that relate to the fundamental aspects of a group. “The most central issue for leaders,” he writes, “is how to get at the deeper levels of a culture, how to assess the functionality of the assumptions made at each level, and how to deal with the anxiety that is unleashed when those levels are challenged.”7 This is the leader’s unique work in the group: to equip and lead the organization to look deep into its meaning and purpose in order to guide the group members to fulfill their mission in a changing environment.

    What Schein examines from the perspective of organizational behavior, James Dittes explored from a pastoral perspective in his, When the People Say No: Conflict and the Call to Ministry (New York: Harper & Row, 1979), 2. Dittes’ lesson is worth remembering, especially for those who lead congregations and church-related groups. When the people say “no,” our real work as leaders is just beginning. Their “no” is pointing toward deep values and basic assumptions that are important to them. The minister, as Dittes says, “works through the grief” of the people to help them understand anew what God is calling them to be as God’s people in the world now. At that point, the archeologist of a congregation’s common life becomes something far more important, a pastor.

    1Edgar Schein, Organizational Culture and Leadership (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2nd edition, 1992), 5.
    2Ibid., 5.
    3Garry Wills, Certain Trumpets: The Nature of Leadership (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1994), 16.
    4Schein, 15.
    5Ibid., 16.
    6Ibid., 22.
    7Ibid., 27.

  • The Cost of Mediocrity

    by Michael Jinkins | Nov 04, 2014

    Cost of MediocrityRecently I wrote a blog on an idea introduced by Thomas Friedman who has said "average is over." His thesis is simply this: when excellence is only a keystroke away on our mobile devices, "average is over." The sources of excellent content are within reach of many people around the world now. This competition means that educators and many others cannot settle for average any more. We must capitalize on those things we can do better than anyone else, and we cannot afford to settle for “pretty good.”

    Some readers of this blog seemed to read in my comments that I was encouraging a form of elitism - that I was arguing that only the greatest pulpiteers in the tallest steeples and only the best known educators in the grandest ivory towers could now compete for the hearts and minds of people. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth.

    If anything, the digital revolution has actually leveled the playing field. On one hand, it makes it possible for virtually anyone with great ideas to find an audience. It means that even the most remote communities can, in effect, find the best spots on the digital highway.

    On the other hand, and perhaps more important, the digital offerings of excellent content also and unintentionally raise the value of face-to-face relationships, especially if we are mindful of the opportunity their competition represents. The online competitors can actually spur us on to ensure that the education we provide and the ministries we perform are the very best possible. There are lots of things only real flesh-and-blood face-to-face communities can provide than virtual experiences can only approximate. In many ways, the more intimate and direct the human relationships, the better and the more competitive.

    But there was another concern raised by a perceptive reader, a concern that the claim "average is over" biases against and somehow diminishes (even if only unintentionally) the work done by pastors and church leaders in smaller congregations. This concern deserves further reflection for one simple reason: "excellence" should never be thought of as code for "elitism." Excellence certainly should not be thought of as biased toward large ministry (or educational) settings. As noted above, there is a pragmatic argument to be made, but there is also a theological argument for the value of excellence in any and every place.

    There's a scene in Robert Bolt's play about the life of Sir Thomas More, A Man for all Seasons, in which More tries unsuccessfully to mentor an extremely ambitious and character-deficient young man to abandon his dreams of political prominence and to become a school master. The young man, charmed by the life that More himself leads that includes regular audiences with the King and being called out at all hours to speak with the Lord Chancellor, refuses to teach in the small school that More recommends. The young man, thirsting for fame and fortune and wide public acclaim, asks More who will ever know about him if he invests his life in teaching in a small school. More answers: "God will know. You will know. Your pupils will know. Not a bad public."

    We can confuse the quest for excellence with the quest for fame (and in our culture, the quest for fortune and the quest for a large public) to the point that we forget a fundamental fact of Christian thought. Because we belong to God and everything we do is done unto God, then every act is an act rendered to God's glory, and every act is imbued with eternal significance. There is not a single thing we do that should not be invested with excellence, whether our immediate audience as a preacher is four or four thousand, whether we are serving a large institution or a small one, whether our object of pastoral care and concern is a person of considerable wealth, a lonely elderly person or a small child numbered among "the least of these" in the estimation of the culture.

    Perhaps, instead of using Friedman's phrase, "average is over," though I think his message has merit, we might be well served, and more precisely accurate, to speak of the call to reject mediocrity.

    A few weeks back, Debbie and I were visiting in Columbus, Indiana. In addition to visiting with the wonderful Presbyterian congregation in Columbus, we also took a tour of the architectural wonders of that small city. And they are remarkable.

    This small Midwestern city has some of the greatest treasures of modern and contemporary architecture in the world. Even structures dedicated to the most humble purposes have been given great and careful attention because of the dedication to excellence that has become a tradition in the city. Public parks, elementary schools, churches, homes large and small, hospitals, even the city jail, reflect the quest of excellence and the rejection of mediocrity.

    Many people can claim some credit for the dedication to excellence in this small city, but arguably the greatest credit goes to the late J. Irwin Miller (philanthropist and business leader) who famously said, "Mediocrity is expensive." Miller's point was that cheap efforts cost more than excellence in the long run. Cutting corners and shabby workmanship, in whatever field of endeavor, ultimately cost more than doing the job well to begin with. And it costs far more than dollars!

    Miller's commitment to excellence sounds purely pragmatic, but it was much much more. Miller was translating his own deep Christian faith into the vernacular.

    Whatever we do should be done excellently, not only because excellence is cost-effective in the long run, but because our lives belong to God, and whatever we do is done to God's glory.

    If this conviction guides our efforts, then average really is over.

  • Thought Leadership

    by Michael Jinkins | Oct 27, 2014

    Thought LeadershipThe clipping from the newspaper hung on the ragged bulletin board outside my philosophy tutor's room in our college. I don't recall the precise wording or the British newspaper from which the story had been torn, but the headline reported bemused shock: "Thinking Well May Aid Businesses." This was late in the 1980s in Britain when philosophy departments around the country were being gutted because they were unprofitable units, unnecessary and financially draining on the universities. My own tutor, with whom I studied Søren Kierkegaard and Ludwig Wittgenstein among others, was a casualty of this era. The article reported the "surprising finding" that many of the most respected leaders in the U.K. credited their business acumen to the study of philosophy.

    Fast forward twenty years and to the hallowed pages of a recent issue of The Economist, and we find an essay titled, "Philosopher Kings: Business Leaders Would Benefit from Studying Great Writers." It touts the benefit to business leaders of studying serious thinkers rather than chasing the latest consultant-fanned fad. Rather than investing in yet another outward-bound adventure brimming with trust games and kayaking, one would do well, says the author, to sign up for an inward-bound adventure like learning to think more deeply, critically and with greater care.

    The world of leadership, and this applies to far more than business leadership, has become the dominion of superficiality and reactivity - the anxious suspicion that the magic elixir of success lies in the next book or the newly advertised leadership conference. An inch deep and a mile wide, what passes for thinking is often little more than the anecdote-driven realm of good and bad advice drawn from examples of past successes and repackaged as the next big thing. Many leaders, desperate to deal with perennial human compulsions in a highly anxious world, rush from one seminar to another like dogs chasing cars at a demolition derby.

    "The only way to become a real thought leader is to ignore all this noise and listen to a few great thinkers. You will learn far more about leadership from reading Thucydides's hymn to Pericles than you will from a thousand leadership experts. You will learn far more about doing business in China from reading Confucius than by listening to 'culture consultants.' Peter Drucker remained top dog among management gurus for 50 years not because he attended more conferences but because he marinated his mind in great books. … Inward-bound courses would do something even more important than this: they would provide high-flyers with both an anchor and a refuge." (Schumpeter, "Philosopher Kings," The Economist, October 4, 2014, p. 76.)

    Engaging deeply great thinkers helps us discern what is truly important, what it means to live wisely, how to keep our heads amid distraction and danger, and what is truly valuable.

    "It is difficult to measure your worth in terms of how many toys you accumulate when you have immersed yourself in Plato. Distracted bosses would also benefit from leaving aside all those emails, tweets and LinkedIn updates to focus on a few things that truly matter." (Schumpeter, p. 76)

    Of course, many of us have known students and professors of the subject of philosophy who score as poorly at living as do the most deluded of the rest of us. That's where a key philosophical distinction comes into play. One deserves to be called a philosopher not if one has read the most books on the subject or can rattle off the most impressive array of somebody else's ideas. One deserves to be called a philosopher who has learned to live a life guided by thought and enduring values.

    In Neil Gaiman's novel American Gods, we are introduced to an array of modern gods all vying to knock off the ancient ones. Among the contemporary gods, I think the most entertaining one is the twitching, compulsively superficial spotty-faced young god zipping around in a fast car unable to center his attention on any one thing for more than a few seconds, anxious that someone else will possess a technological toy or trendy new idea before him, greedy and angry and zealous for short-term gains. Perhaps the time has come to save ourselves, our businesses, our organizations, families and lives, from the deathly worship at the shrine of the god of perpetual distraction. Surely it's worth a thought.

  • Leadership Notebook 4: Adaptive Leadership

    by Michael Jinkins | Oct 23, 2014

    Editor’s note: Periodically throughout the 2014-2015 academic year, “Thinking Out Loud” readers will receive blog posts that address the idea of leadership. Best practices, challenges, rewards and lessons learned from different models of leadership are the focus of these special blog posts. We’d love to hear what you have written in your “leadership notebook.” E-mail us!

    Our second theoretical model for the practice of leadership is adaptive leadership.

    Leadership Notebook 4Ron Heifetz is the founding director of the Center for Public Leadership and the King Hussein bin Talal Senior Lecturer in Public Leadership at the Harvard Kennedy School. In arguing for the importance of what he calls “adaptive leadership,” Heifetz says that if we wish to “clarify a complex situation,” we must be able to see it from “multiple vantage points, each of which adds a piece to the puzzle.” Heifetz, in other words, is arguing for our using a variety of theoretical lenses to bring our practice of leadership into clear focus.

    Leadership, according to Heifetz, is not for the fainthearted, nor for those who wish a quiet retreat from the “fever of life” in this busy world (to borrow John Henry Cardinal Newman’s eloquent phrase). Leadership, Heifetz argues, demands that leaders stir things up so that groups and organizations can examine their own deep, largely invisible, but life-guiding beliefs and values. In doing so, leaders ask whether, where and how these beliefs and values continue to serve their common life and their goals, and whether, where and how even long-held beliefs and values actually work to the detriment of their common life.

    According to Heifetz, leadership must be comfortable with and politically prepared to deal with the conflict and anxiety produced among a community or organization if it hopes to meet the challenges of the present and make the necessary adaptations to meet the challenges of the future. Heifetz understands something that many do not. He understands that the deep beliefs and values of every group are and must inevitably be in tension, even in contradiction, and that this state of affairs does not represent a failure to be overcome or an evil to be opposed, but merely a reality that is essential to the nature of things.1

    In order to understand the significance of Heifetz’s perspective on adaptive leadership, we need to examine the powerful assumptions underlying our culture which explicitly contradict what Heifetz is saying. These assumptions are so deep and so tenacious that most people never question them. They constitute the cultural and philosophical water we swim in without noticing it. They are so much a part of Western culture that Sir Isaiah Berlin, a professor of political philosophy and founder of Wolfson College at Oxford University, referred to them as the philosophia perennis, i.e. the perennial philosophy of Western Civilization. I want to explain why at least one aspect of Berlin’s thought matters so much to our leadership.

    A Sense of Reality
    Berlin had the rather amazing capacity to cast his mind over the entire scope of Western civilization and to see those dynamics that shape our lives and communities. His most provocative (and perhaps most useful) attempt to understand the societies in which we live takes into account the entire philosophical heritage of the West, from Socrates, Plato and Aristotle through the twentieth century (he died in 1997). Even as a young student at Oxford first reading philosophy, he had begun to notice something that disturbed him, an assumption inherited from ancient Greek philosophy that (as he put it) “all genuine questions must have one true answer and only one, all the rest being necessarily errors,” that “there is a dependable path towards the discovery of these truths,” and that “the true answers, when found, must necessarily be compatible with one another and form a single whole, for one truth cannot be incompatible with another.”2

    In some of the most brilliant and often witty essays in the English language, Berlin debunks these ideas and argues for a sweeping pluralism founded on what G.K. Chesterton once described as the most extraordinary form of imagination, the imagination to see what is really there.

    Berlin has a lot to teach leaders, but arguably the most important lesson he has to teach us relates to that basic idea Heifetz articulates in his discussion of adaptive leadership.

    There are in various cultures, and frequently in the same culture, and often in the same individual, conflicting and incommensurable values and moral ends. These values and ends compete for our loyalty, exerting claims upon our allegiance. And these claims may necessitate conflicts that are as intractable as they are objective. We must, in a manner appropriate to our own deepest understandings and wisdom, and especially with the adaptive needs of our communities in view, make our choices between these competing values and ends. As we make these choices, we must recognize that our choices often entail losses that are as irremediable as they are irretrievable.

    For example: There are times when a nation which values both freedom and security will have to make trade-offs between these two values, sacrificing the one for the other. Even a society that values freedom as a bedrock value, a founding value which lies at the core of its identity, may choose to sacrifice a greater measure of freedom than it wishes in order to survive a particular threat to its existence. A society should be absolutely clear and truthful with itself about what it is doing, Berlin observes. It should never misname a value to pretend to itself that it is not making a tough choice.

    Several years ago, Jack Stotts, then president of Austin Seminary, said that he had noticed a profound shift in American cultural debate. He noted that in former times, it seemed to him that when two people disagreed strongly, one was likely to say, “You are wrong.” Now, one person disagreeing with another has become more likely to say, “You are evil.” The theoretical insight derived from Berlin’s analysis of Western philosophy may be among the most practical perspectives a leader can bring to a community’s decision-making because it recognizes that often our conflicts are not grounded in a lack of values, but a wealth of values.

    Good leadership will inevitably churn up conflicts over values and ends within an organization, because good leadership keeps an organization focused on its forward momentum, both dedicated to the fulfillment of the organization’s mission and adapting to changes in the environment. When values come into conflict – as they inevitably will – there may be times when one must trump another for the sake of the organization’s success. It is natural for people in these organizations to mourn losses in the midst of these value negotiations. The fact that the losses are real does not change the fact that the choices have to be made for the sake of an organization’s future. This is why Berlin’s theoretical model is sometimes referred to as “agonistic realism.” The fact that it is true doesn’t detract from the agony.

    I suspect that Berlin’s insight might introduce a word of grace into many of the conflicts raging in our societies, in our churches and in higher education.

    1A few years ago, the Academy of Religious Leaders, an organization of which I was a founding member, asked those who teach leadership in theological schools to rank the best books in the field of leadership studies. No. 1 by a large measure was Ronald A. Heifetz, Leadership Without Easy Answers (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1998).

    2Quotes here are from Isaiah Berlin, “The Pursuit of the Ideal,” in The Crooked Timber of Humanity: Chapters in the History of Ideas, ed. Henry Hardy (London: John Murray, 1990), 5-6. Among Berlin’s many other writings, see Isaiah Berlin, The Sense of Reality: Studies in Ideas and Their History, ed. Henry Hardy (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1998), in which two other essays especially pertinent to leadership appear: “The Sense of Reality” and “Political Judgment.”

  • Does OUR History Have a Future?

    by Michael Jinkins | Oct 20, 2014

    All of the future has a history; not all of history has a future.
    -Dan Aleshire

    Does Our History Have a FutureThis summer Dan Aleshire, executive director of the Association of Theological Schools (ATS), addressed the 49th biennial meeting of the association on the topic of change. Dan is quite simply one of the wisest observers of theological education and the church in our time. His reflections were sobering, but also exciting.

    Dan says that twenty years from now theological schools will probably not look as they do today. As someone who joined a theological faculty in 1993, and thus has spent more than twenty years in theological education, I have come to realize that only the very young think that two decades is a long time. The truth is, twenty years is a mere blink of an eye, and already the transformation of which Dan speaks is well underway. Some ATS member schools with great histories have no future, Dan said. Thus, the epigraph at the beginning of this blog: "All of the future has a history; not all of history has a future."

    If there is one feature that dominates the current ecclesial and educational landscape more than any other, it is change. There are technological, economic, ideological and demographic aspects to this change. However you characterize the change, it is relentless and real.

    A year ago at a consultation in England, a professor expressed his fury to a group in which I was participating. He said he was sick of administrators in British universities constantly talking about change and the need for sustainability. All they do is change things, he said.

    I don't know his particular context well enough to comment on it, but if the administrative leadership of his schools is anything like the administrative leaders I know in American higher education, they aren't making the change happen. They are desperately trying to help their schools adapt to the change with integrity, because if they don't adapt with integrity, they either won't survive, or they won't be worthy of survival.

    Dan Aleshire, in his address to the ATS biennial, drew lessons from a handful of congregations he has observed, each of which has adapted with integrity to the massive changes in their environment. All of the congregations he profiled are in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, where Dan lives. He went into great detail analyzing each congregation, but I will simply enumerate the lessons he believes these congregations may hold for theological schools. There's real hope in his rather somber message.

    First, each congregation he profiled found a way to a future. In other words, each of their histories will have a future. The churches he examined did not give up or give in to the forces surrounding them. They found a way to respond to their challenges. They found a way to thrive in indifferent - if not hostile - environments.

    Second, each congregation claimed the future in a different (its own) way. You might say, each of their histories will have its very own future. They embraced the distinctiveness of the challenges they confronted rather than giving in to the drumbeat of pessimism in contemporary culture regarding the future of faith communities. While learning from others, they also learned how to adapt in their own ways.

    Third, what worked for each congregation would likely not have worked for the others. The examples of these congregations dispels the terrible temptation many desperate institutions share - to find a template for success and to force your church or school to fit it.

    Fourth, conventional wisdom might not be very wise. This is important to remember every time we see a bandwagon rumbling by promising that it has the solution for everyone who will just jump on. Many are the congregations and the schools that have spent their best energy and resources following the crowds rushing to a solution that "every expert agrees" is the only thing they can do.

    Fifth, the future of each congregation is more multiracial and multicultural than their past. Those churches and schools that want to thrive by retreating into an enclave of homogeneity (whether denominational or cultural) are likely to fail. The vision of the New Testament, as described in the book of Acts and the letters of Paul, is of an ever enlarging circle of God's love, to paraphrase Gene March’s book, The Wide, Wide Circle of Divine Love: A Biblical Case for Religious Diversity (Westminster John Knox Press, 2004). The gospel calls us relentlessly outward.

    In each case, each congregation built on foundations that were distinctly their own. They claimed what was strongest and most durable in their histories, but they also claimed what was most flexible. They were willing to sacrifice some cherished traditions so that something even more sacred than their cows might survive. They discovered the grace of stewardship that lurks within the challenge of sustainability.

    Dan warned his audience that "fundamental redirection takes time." His comments reminded me of what Dean Robert Shelton often told his green young faculty: "A theological seminary is like an ocean liner. It takes time to turn." Dan wanted us to understand that we are likely at the front end of huge changes, not behind them. So, we need to be a little patient, but we also need not to grow weary in making necessary changes. The conditions that necessitate change are not a couple of momentary bumps in the road that we're bouncing over. Rather, we're climbing a long hill, and it won't do any good for our schools to pretend either that the hill isn't there or that we don't need to go over it.

    The theological schools that thrive in the future will be inventive with their missions, their resources, their facilities and their employees, Dan told us. There are implications for every aspect of theological education, from pedagogy to governance to faculty roles. Some things that were much beloved in the past will not exist in the future of our schools, and other things we do not know today will emerge. Of course, this has been true from the beginning of formal higher education. Hardly anyone today engaged in liberal arts education can name the original "liberal arts" (hint, they are carved above the doorways of the Old School Quadrangle at the Bodleian Library at Oxford University).

    As I emerged from Dan's address, the question that I found myself asking was this: "Does OUR history have a future?" I'm sure I wasn't the only president or dean in the audience asking that question.

    Upon longer reflection, a better question may be: "If our theological school has a future (and I am convinced our seminary does because of the courageous course we have charted) what parts of our history will go forward with us into that future?"

  • "Who am I? Why am I here?"

    by Michael Jinkins | Oct 13, 2014

    James StockdaleJames Stockdale is not a name I had thought about in years.

    Probably the last time I thought much at all about him was during Ross Perot’s independent run for the White House back in 1992. Perot chose James Stockdale to serve as his vice presidential running mate. Most people, if they remember Vice Admiral James Bond Stockdale at all today, remember him for saying, “Who am I? Why am I here” during his opening remarks in the 1992 vice presidential debate. He died in 2005 at the age of 81.

    So why has his name come to mind now?

    John Wimmer, a friend and program director in the Religion Division at the Lilly Endowment Inc., knowing my love for Stoic philosophy, in general, and Epictetus, in particular, shared with me a lecture that James Stockdale presented when he was a senior research fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford. The lecture is titled, “Courage Under Fire: Testing Epictetus’s Doctrines in a Laboratory of Human Behavior” (Hoover Institution on War, Revolution and Peace, Stanford University, 1993). I am grateful to John for his reading recommendation. Since the essay came into my hands, I have read and reread it, and bought copies for colleagues and family members.

    The “laboratory of human behavior” of which Stockdale speaks was, largely, his own life. As he explains in the lecture, he came to the philosophical life relatively late as a thirty-eight-year-old naval pilot in graduate school at Stanford University. By this point, he had already been in the Navy for twenty years, spending most of that time in a cockpit. Philip Rhinelander, dean of Humanities and Sciences at Stanford, opened Stockdale’s eyes to philosophy in a course he taught on “The Problem of Good and Evil.” Specifically, Dean Rhinelander turned Stockdale on to Epictetus, giving him a copy of The Enchiridion, a brief handbook of Stoic thought drawn from the teachings of the former Roman slave who was born in approximately 50 A.D.

    Stockdale seems to have resonated immediately with the teachings of Epictetus. However, it was after he was shot down over North Vietnam on September 9, 1965, during the seven-and-a-half years he spent as a prisoner of war - four of which were spent in solitary confinement – that Stockdale drew for daily sustenance on the Stoicism of Epictetus. Repeatedly and brutally tortured, wearing heavy leg irons for two years, attempting suicide rather than allowing his captors to force his capitulation, Stockdale brought to life the Stoicism he had committed to memory.

    In his Hoover Institution lecture, Stockdale says:

    "The Stoic viewpoint is often misunderstood because the casual reader misses the point that all talk is in reference to the ‘inner life’ of man. Stoics belittle physical harm, but this is not braggadocio. They are speaking of it in comparison to the devastating agony of shame they fancied good men generating when they knew in their hearts that they had failed to do their duty vis-à-vis their fellow men or God. Although pagan, the Stoics had a monotheistic, natural religion and were great contributors to Christian thought. … In his inimitable, frank language, Epictetus explained that his curriculum was not about ‘revenues or income, or peace or war, but about happiness and unhappiness, success and failure, slavery and freedom.’ His model graduate was not a person ‘able to speak fluently about philosophic principles as an idle babbler, but about things that will do you good if your child dies, or your brother dies, or if you must die or be tortured.' " (Stockdale, “Courage Under Fire,” 3-5).

    At the core of Epictetus, there is a conviction that no one and nothing can restrict our freedom once we understand that our freedom (and our happiness and serenity) do not depend upon externals, the things that happen to us, but only upon our response to them.

    This philosophy served Stockdale well as the highest-ranking naval officer in captivity, encouraging and organizing his fellow prisoners, helping them to develop “a society with our own laws, traditions, customs, even heroes.” Stockdale was eventually awarded the Medal of Honor, two Distinguished Flying Crosses, three Distinguished Service Medals, two Purple Hearts and four Silver Star Medals. I am sure that these recognitions meant a great deal to Stockdale, but the philosophy that was forged like steel in the crucible of his imprisonment taught him, in the words of Epictetus, that “whoever then would be free, let him wish nothing, let him shun nothing, which depends on others.”

    Beyond the lessons Stockdale’s Stoicism teaches (and I do encourage you to read both Stockdale’s lecture and Epictetus for yourself), there is something else his experience of public life brings to mind, and it is a point of considerable criticism I wish to raise. Indeed, it is a point of self-criticism.

    How does it happen in our culture that a person as distinguished as Stockdale is reduced to a caricature? Even the reverential obituary offered by The New York Times mentions that Stockdale is remembered by the general public as “the butt of jokes from late-night comedians” because of what he said during the vice presidential debate. Incidentally, as the Times obit says, in an article written by Stockdale for The World & I magazine, he explained that he had chosen these words, “Who am I? What am I doing here?” in order “to showcase his basic view of himself” as a “philosopher.” (Steven A. Holmes, “James Stockdale, Perot’s Running Mate in ’92, Dies at 81,” The New York Times, July 6, 2005, accessed August 21, 2014, http://www.nytimes.com/2005/07/06/politics/06stockdale.html.)

    We have all seen it happen again and again, haven’t we? If I were Roland Barthes, I would have the competence to develop a rich semiotics of public caricature, something like what Barthes did with his brilliant essay The Eiffel Tower, observing the way in which the Eiffel Tower, quite apart from its architectural function, now serves as a gesture “standing in” for the identity of France.

    We use a shorthand of images and statements conveying simplistically (and often humorously) the identity of a person, reducing the rich complexity of their lives to a gesture. Sometimes we employ the gesture to remind ourselves of them with affection, but sometimes we employ it to dismiss or ridicule them. Of course, we do not only do this to public figures and celebrities, we do this to other people too, even to acquaintances and relatives.

    I recall a very good friend, an artist herself, remarking several years ago that she does not like sketched caricatures. The reduction of a person’s appearance to a few linear gestures (as we often see in political cartoons) was offensive to her. It seemed unfair and untrue to reduce a person in this way. I have mulled over her comments for something like twenty years, reflecting on the way she called into question a genre that I dearly love (political cartoons). Where would the political cartoon be without the immediately recognizable hangdog expression of Lyndon Johnson or the exaggerated ears of Barack Obama? Equally, where would Saturday Night Live be without the political caricatures in comic sketches from the “stumbling President Ford” of Chevy Chase to today’s hottest targets ready for comedic lampooning? But maybe there should also be a pause of reflectivity beside or just on the other side of our caricaturing, a reminder that however much fun we are having, we owe others more dignity than a stock gesture.

    “Who am I? Why am I here?” It may not be adept professional politics to ask these questions, but they are still great questions. Maybe it takes a philosopher to ask them. Maybe that was the point.

  • Leadership Notebook 3: Fables, and Other Truths and Untruths

    by Michael Jinkins | Oct 10, 2014

    Editor’s note: Periodically throughout the 2014-2015 academic year, “Thinking Out Loud” readers will receive blog posts that address the idea of leadership. Best practices, challenges, rewards and lessons learned from different models of leadership are the focus of these special blog posts. We’d love to hear what you have written in your “leadership notebook.” E-mail us!

    Because of its influence, especially in congregational leadership, the first theoretical model we’ll look at is family systems theory.

    Friedmans FablesA domino saves all the other dominoes in the long row from falling just by remaining standing. An “uncouth” animal observes that if you want a ferocious beast in your forest and you don’t want the small animals terrorized or eaten, you’re going to have to build a cage. A man who, in his desire to motivate his wife to play tennis with him, ends up running back and forth on the tennis court playing both sides of the net. A very sensitive, sadly afflicted fellow who has learned to use his sensitivities to run over others, until his wife has finally had enough. Fables.

    Whenever I think about Edwin H. Friedman, who died in 1996, I do not think first of his extremely influential book, Generation to Generation: Family Process in Church and Synagogue (New York: Guilford Press, 1985). Nor do I think first of his posthumously published A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix (New York: Seabury Books, 1999/2007), his popular DVD and study guide Reinventing Leadership (New York: Guilford Press, 2007) or even the intensive workshops he led around the country. I think first of Friedman’s Fables (New York: Guilford Press, 1990) where his remarkable gift as a storyteller and his insights into human nature come together.

    Edwin Friedman and the family systems theory, which Friedman developed and applied to the leadership of religious organizations, was arguably, at least for a season, the most influential force guiding pastors of a certain ilk (my own ilk, mainline Protestant, especially those of us who had some training in pastoral counseling) as we sought to be better congregational leaders. We flocked to work with him. We read his books. We did our genograms. We joined groups of other Friedman fans assiduously examining our own families of origin and analyzing the organizations we led. Those of us who taught in seminaries put his books high on our list of required texts and framed many class exercises to help students learn the best of what Friedman taught.

    The first thing that must be said about all of this is that it was, in the main, extremely beneficial.

    Any pastor or other leader of a congregation will benefit from learning how to achieve genuine “self-differentiation” while also remaining “in touch” with her or his congregation. It is a fundamental of good leadership to be a “non-anxious presence” in the midst of the organization you lead (there’s no “faking” non-anxiety). And it is valuable for everyone to be able to identify emotional triangles and to learn how to de-triangulate oneself from them. I remain convinced that if a pastor or other leader can do these three things consistently, s/he is giving the church an inestimable gift of emotional and spiritual health that can form a foundation for real community.

    Friedman’s occasional comments and asides were almost as valuable as his big theoretical insights. For example, he often noted that in highly anxious systems it tends to be the least mature group members who exert the most influence, thus preventing the group from actually achieving its goals. He often said that, in spite of the best intentions of highly rational people, insight does not change unmotivated people. And he observed that adventure and lightheartedness are far more valuable in actually moving a group forward than safety-seeking and over-seriousness. For Friedman, vision was an emotional phenomenon. Persistence and stamina, especially in the face of mutinies, was the gold standard of good leadership. Self-regulation of one’s emotional responses was the only way to deal effectively with sabotage, because reactivity only stokes the fires of the emotionally immature, while self-differentiation and reflection hold the best chance of inspiring more mature group members (and potentially mature group members) to participate positively and to counteract sabotage.

    Friedman’s key insights derived from his own experience as a rabbi and as a therapist who had grown disenchanted with the highly individualistic approaches long popular in psychotherapy. Along with others like Murray Bowen, Michael Kerr and (though he is not strictly speaking in the same family of family systems therapists) Salvador Minuchin, Friedman sought to understand how our systems function emotionally often drawing or even forcing people into roles for which they are then blamed.

    This was largely for the good. However, there was a tendency among some who applied family systems theory to accentuate its authoritarian side. While self-differentiation actually allows for greater freedom in a healthy system, some in leadership used it as an excuse to say “My way or the highway” to those who didn’t agree with them. For them, it was often much too easy to paint as immature or even saboteurs anyone who disagreed.

    There was also a rather strange need on Friedman’s part to generalize his insights into universal truths - strange at least to my post-modern ears, and unnecessary. Anyone who ever participated with Friedman in his intense workshops also observed the mischievous twinkle in his eye when he provoked someone with a particularly insensitive remark. It was hard to tell if he really meant what he said in one of his more outrageous utterances or if he was simply (like many good teachers) saying it to provoke thinking on the part of his students. In contrast to the genuinely and deeply beneficial insights offered by Friedman’s brand of family systems theory, these are all relatively minor concerns. I would be the first to say that if you really want to see for yourself just how valuable family systems theory can be for you as a leader or just to be a healthier and saner human being, you would be well served by reading Generation to Generation.

    However, when it comes to communicating to others the most important of his insights, you can’t do better than Friedman’s Fables. Whether working with families in workshops or intensive retreats or with groups of pastors or students more interested in understanding leadership, again and again I have seen the light of self-recognition appear in someone’s eyes as they heard the fable of “The Bridge” and realized in their soul, “I need to free my hands from this rope,” or who suddenly realized that they are the fish in the fable “Burnout,” who swims incessantly at the bottom of the pool eating up everyone else’s excrement until it is too much to bear.

    Recently someone asked me if family systems theory was the answer to getting their organization to move out of its rut and to move ahead. It is possible, but that’s not really the primary interest of this approach to leadership. The basic thesis of family systems theory is that unhealthy behavior (a lack of self-differentiation, being driven by anxiety, participating in triangulation, and so forth) on the part of an organization’s leadership dooms an organization to the same. The healthier the leadership, the greater chance the organization has of getting healthy and remaining healthy.

    Family systems theory isn’t a manipulative tool to motivate other people to do what you want. It offers an opportunity to embrace sanity, at least for leaders of organizations. I would argue that this is no small thing.

  • The Talk

    by Michael Jinkins | Oct 06, 2014

    The TalkWhen some parents say they need to have "the talk" with their kids, they are speaking of that awkward conversation so many of us have had with a prepubescent child about "the facts of life." But for many parents these days, "the talk" is about something rather different than "the birds and the bees."

    Recently, a friend and former student, the Rev. David Snardon (MDiv ’11), was visiting with me, and we were talking about the events in Ferguson, Missouri, where a young man was gunned down by a police officer. The young man was black, the officer was white. (Incidentally, I encourage you to read the Rev. Dr. Shannon Craigo-Snell’s excellent article, “Marching into Danger,” which appeared in The Christian Century and focuses on her recent experience as a nonviolent protestor in Ferguson.) David and I also talked about another incident in New York City, where a black man was killed by being placed in a chokehold and the shooting of a black man in South Carolina during a routine traffic stop.

    David, who is also a pastor, mentioned that he had recently seen a film clip on television of a white woman arguing with a police officer who was demanding to search her car but refused to state the cause of the search. She was stopped at a roadblock, and her car was holding up traffic. She argued vigorously with the officer until a supervisor came over, took a look at the woman, and told the officer to let her car move on. David told me he was watching the news story with his son. After it ended, he turned to his son and said, "Don't you ever do what she did."

    Then David had "the talk" that many people today must have with their children. It’s "the talk" about the dangers of being black, the necessity of saying "yes, sir" to the police officer, cooperating fully and immediately, keeping your hands visible, doing exactly what you are told, and not arguing (even if you believe strongly that you are in the right) so that you don't get hurt or killed. "The talk" that many parents - black parents - are having with their children is about how dangerous, how potentially lethal, it is to be a person of color - especially a young black man - in our society.

    My children could always count on running to a police officer anytime they felt threatened or in danger. That's what we told them to do. But my children are not black. They are white. And for many citizens of our country today, our police forces do not represent safety, they represent a life-threatening danger.

    Some people have argued that this is a case of a "few rotten apples" among law enforcement. And I personally know many fine policemen who place their lives on the line every single day to protect and to serve. I grew up in a home in which police officers and other emergency workers were not only heroes of our community, but close friends and even family members. But there is no denying that we have a problem in our country today which we must address. It is a profound problem when many of our citizens live in fear because of the color of their skin. A result and symptom of that problem is "the talk" that so many of our African-American neighbors are compelled to have with their children.

    The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. once told the story of having to explain to his daughter why she couldn't go to an amusement park she had seen advertised in the newspaper. He said, as he explained the rules of segregation to her, he could see a pall, a tragic veil, fall over his child's face. A psychic wound was opened up that he feared might never heal. The wounds suffered by too many of our nation’s children today are both psychic and physical.

    My colleague, the Rev. Kilen Gray, who is the dean of students here at Louisville Seminary, recently put it more eloquently than I possibly can. He said:

    “While African-Americans feel the necessity of survival to have ‘the talk’ with their children, we need to encourage our white sisters and brothers to have a much more necessary ‘talk’ of how they will work among their law enforcement friends to make this necessity a figment of the past. I just wonder, while we are training our children how to survive legal terrorism, what are the conversations being held within the majority culture? There must be a comparable conversation and action by all Americans so that the few who hold hegemonic filters will find no sanctuary for their misguided beliefs.”

    "The talk" that many black parents are having today with their children has become necessary. This is a tragedy beyond all words, and we must do whatever we can to make it unnecessary.

  • Friendship as a Means of Grace

    by Michael Jinkins | Sep 29, 2014

    Thinking out Lous 093014What does the most notorious spy of the twentieth century have to do with a twelfth-century saint?

    Almost nothing. But it’s the “almost” that’s interesting.

    Over a thirty-year period, Kim Philby worked his way up the ladder of Britain’s elite MI6 (MI for “military intelligence”). Yes, that MI6. The one of which the British government denied the existence. The one that employs the fictional James Bond. But Philby was no fiction, though I’m sure there are lots of people who wish he had been.

    A product of the British establishment, schooled at Westminster and Cambridge, Philby was recruited as a Soviet spy while in college. Philby betrayed his country. Throughout his long and apparently distinguished career (at one time in charge of counterintelligence against the Soviet Union), he fed his Soviet handlers every scrap of information he came across, costing untold lives across Europe and the Middle East.

    He also betrayed his friends, especially the two colleagues who trusted him most, Nicholas Elliott (his fellow officer in MI6) and James Jesus Angleton (the head of counterintelligence for the CIA). Cutting an elegant and disarmingly charming swath across British, European, Middle Eastern and American society for three decades, Philby used every relationship he gained to advance a Communist ideology that he refused to question even as the evidence continued to mount of the horrors of the Gulag and Stalinism.

    Philby once said, “Friendship is the most important thing.” But he also said, “I have always operated on two levels, a personal level and a political one. When the two have come into conflict, I have had to put politics first. The conflict can be very painful. I don’t like deceiving people, especially friends, and contrary to what others think, I feel very badly about it.”

    However badly he may have felt about his betrayals, his actions led to the death of hundreds of real people who placed their trust in him and the intelligence services for which he worked. As a result of Philby’s spying, one CIA analyst said: “What it comes to, is that when you look at the whole period …, the entire Western intelligence effort, which was pretty big, was what you might call minus advantage. We’d have been better off doing nothing.”

    And the friends Philby betrayed never recovered from the betrayals. All were scarred by the profound betrayal of intimacy and trust. He left in his wake three wives, one of which took her own life and another who died prematurely, as well as friends on two continents who never recovered. The lack of trust suffered by Angleton likely contributed to the witch hunts he conducted undermining the CIA for a generation after Philby’s defection to Moscow.

    Ben MacIntyre’s new book, A Spy Among Friends: Kim Philby and the Great Betrayal (New York: Crown Publishers, 2014) leaves the reader scratching his head alternately asking, “How stupid could we have been?” And “How could someone do what Philby did to people he seemed to care about?” It is particularly this last question that fuels this book, delving into the tragedy of friendship betrayed, the power of political ideologies and the detritus of sociopathology.

    So, how does Philby connect to the twelfth-century saint?

    If ever there were a perfect opposite to the ideal of friendship, the sacramental potential of friendship, portrayed in Aelred of Rievaulx, Kim Philby is it!

    Recently during a silent retreat at the Abbey of Gethsemani, I came across Aelred’s writings, and I was astonished never to have read him before. Born in Hexham in 1110, near Durham, England, which for the past thirty years has figured prominently in my sense of call, Aelred served first as novice master at Rievaulx Abbey in Yorkshire, before becoming Abbot of Revesby Abbey, and finally returning to Rievaulx as abbot.

    He remained at Rievaulx until his death in 1167. Just to locate Aelred historically, before entering the monastery he served in the household of King David I of Scotland and later as an adviser to King Henry II of England. As a Cistercian monk and abbot, he was under the authority of St. Bernard of Clairvaux, who took a great interest in him, mentoring and encouraging him as a writer and diplomat. Among the greatest of Aelred’s writings (and he wrote broadly in history, theology and spiritual direction) and the most influential of his texts in the medieval period, was a book titled, Spiritual Friendship.

    To understand the significance of this book, perhaps a little theological background is in order: Christian theology, from the church’s earliest times, advanced an understanding of the Trinitarian God known as perichoresis, though this term does not appear until somewhat later. This doctrine can be difficult to grasp, but I think it can best be understood by focusing on the incarnation of Christ. In the incarnation, according to this doctrine, we are invited to look into the very heart of God’s eternal being; as classical theology puts it, into the Father’s eternal outpouring into the Son, God’s giving away God’s own life and love without reservation. This act of self-giving love is itself not merely an impersonal “it,” but is God the Holy Spirit, flowing from the Father to the Son and through the Son to all humanity and creation. The life of Jesus, through the eyes of faith, invites us to see that love is the ultimate meaning of all things because God is love. God created all things in love, and God loves all things that God has created. The God who is love invites us to participate in God’s own life and love through the power of the Holy Spirit.

    This classic doctrine has been articulated variously by fourth-century theologians like Gregory of Nyssa and modern theologians like Catherine Mowry LaCugna. C.S. Lewis famously described prayer in these terms as participation in the triune God in his Mere Christianity, noting how an ordinary believer quietly bowing to pray in his or her bedroom is in fact lifted up into the inner life of the Trinity.

    Every attempt (at least, that I know of) to speak of our participation in the life and love of God has been explicitly religious. Prayer is a religious act, a means of grace by which we participate in God. The Lord’s Supper, the same. And so forth. But then I came across Aelred. For him, human friendship is a pathway to participation in the life and love of God. Friendship is sacramental, a means of grace.

    As Marsha Dutton (of Ohio University) explains, Aelred “writes of the sacramental essence of friendship – the way in which men and women may by loving one another embrace Christ in this life and enjoy eternal friendship with God in time to come.”

    Drawing on sources like Cicero’s On Friendship, Ambrose of Milan’s On the Duties of the Clergy, St. Augustine of Hippo’s Confessions and the Bible, Aelred argues that God has woven God’s own love for the other, God’s love for community, God’s own being-in-communion into the very fabric of creation. When we participate in friendship, then, we are participating in God, we are being united to God. [Aelred of Rievaulx, Spiritual Friendship, tr. Lawrence C. Braceland, SJ, ed./intro. Marsha L. Dutton (Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 2010)].

    According to Aelred, whether we know it or not, Jesus Christ is the silent partner in every real human friendship. Through the power of the Holy Spirit, Christ shares with us, in and through the bonds of friendship, the joy that is the love of God. Not only is such “spiritual friendship” a love that never ends, it is a love that is divine because ultimately it flows from God and returns to God. This means, of course, that a betrayal of friendship is not merely a social faux pas. It is not an unfortunate lapse about which we may “feel very bad.” It constitutes a loss that shatters something of eternal significance in us.

  • Leadership Notebook 2: Theoretical Flies in the Practical Ointment

    by Michael Jinkins | Sep 26, 2014

    Leadership Notebook 2Several years ago, the seminary of which I was then dean was conducting interviews for an opening in the faculty. A professor on the search committee observed that while the candidate we had just interviewed seemed to possess a fairly good knowledge of certain aspects of her discipline, whenever she was asked a question on the subject of feminism, she could only speak anecdotally. My colleague observed that the candidate’s understanding of this subject was “insufficiently theorized.”

    I asked my colleague what was meant by that phrase. The response was very interesting: “The candidate only spoke from her own individual experience, and however valuable that particular experience undoubtedly was, it neglected the rich multidimensional understanding of the subject. She had little or no knowledge of the critical literature, no familiarity beyond the most superficial and popular levels of discussion on the subject, and no understanding of the history of the most important conversations on this subject.”

    The lack of sufficient theory meant that she did not know what to pay attention to and what to ignore in practice. On one level she was highly reactive, at another blithely unconscious. According to my colleague, the candidate needed a deeper engagement with theory on this subject if she was going to teach it.

    Something similar can be said of many leaders and their practice of leadership. Their understanding of leadership is insufficiently theorized. Many leaders, actively engaged in the leadership of organizations, have little or no knowledge of the rich, varied and critical literature on the subject. Their knowledge is frequently only anecdotal, restricted to their own experiences or to pop publications. And as valuable as individual experiences and popularized resources can be, they can also leave us without the deep grounding we need to lead well.

    In a public leadership course, which I taught jointly at an Episcopal and a Presbyterian seminary, I attempted to address this issue by presenting a few of the most crucial theoretical models for leadership. Students in the course learned these models and used them in analyzing case studies.

    Before I presented the models themselves, I realized that we had a significant obstacle to clear regarding the meaning of “theory” and why “theory” matters in practice. The very word “theory” is sometimes used as a derogatory term. In the religious world “theory” ranks right up there with “myth” as a term misused and abused.

    Theory is, in fact, a model for thinking about realities. It is a lens through which we bring the world into focus, and it represents a process for critically analyzing matters at hand. Theory does not simply play the egg to the chicken of practice. Virtually every practice bears within it (usually implicitly) a variety of theoretical understandings.

    I once heard an astrophysicist define “theory” as a descriptive model for how reality functions. He said that although no theory is perfect and every theory has flaws, some theories are useful. For example, he observed that every physicist with whom he worked on the Hubble telescope project recognized that Albert Einstein’s theories represent the workings of the physical universe more profoundly, more accurately and more subtly than do the theories of Sir Isaac Newton. However, he added, if you want to get a rocket from the earth around the moon and back to earth again, you don’t resort to Einstein’s theories. You use Newtonian physics. Einstein’s theoretical model for the way the universe functions is not as useful for this particular task as Newton’s. However, a physicist who only has Newton’s model today is nowhere! We are best equipped to get things done when we are adept at using various theories and fitting the right model to the right situation.

    In order for leadership to be both successful and effective, leaders are best served by practices enriched by theoretical awareness. Leaders need theories better to understand their practices. Ironically, a theory-rich practice can help leaders resist the temptation of living in thrall to the latest pop leadership fad du jour, being tossed first in this direction and that by dueling consultants and experts.

    The next few Leadership Notebook blogs will explore very briefly a few genuinely helpful theoretical models that many have found particularly useful. For example, the October 10 Leadership Notebook will address one of the best known models among congregational leaders, the family systems theory. The reason many people have found this theory so valuable is because it provides both a set of understandings through which we can bring our practices into focus and because it provides a set of insights into organizational dynamics that can help us see what, perhaps, we had not previously noticed. The key to success here is to have more than just one theoretical model to help us understand what’s going on. Human organizations are extremely complex, requiring a variety of complementary (and sometimes contradictory) theories to make sense of them.

    Max De Pree once said: “Leadership is an art, something to be learned over time, not simply by reading books. Leadership is more tribal than scientific, more a weaving of relationships than an amassing of information.”

    De Pree’s insight, which I believe is right on target, actually supports the idea that theories can enrich practice. If we wish to practice an art well, if we want to learn over time (and not just repeat the same failed practices again and again), if we are going to weave relationships, we need lenses to help us see as well as possible what is really going on. That’s what good theory provides.

  • Average is Over

    by Michael Jinkins | Sep 22, 2014

    average is overThomas Friedman wrote a column some time back about the revolutionary changes sweeping through higher education. In his column, “The Professors’ Big Stage” (The New York Times, March 5, 2013), he observed that Harvard Business School no longer offers a basic accounting course. The school refers its students to an online course offered by another university, observing that there's no need for them to use Harvard's resources providing that kind of basic course. Better for Harvard to concentrate on the kinds of educational offerings they are best at providing.

    A couple of things are notable in Harvard Business School’s strategic adjustment.

    (1) They recognize that certain kinds of knowledge can be acquired just as well from a high quality online or hybrid educational source. It is not that basic accounting as a subject isn't important, it is just that the particular kind of knowledge is suitable for transmission through a non-traditional delivery system.

    (2) Harvard Business School itself is focusing its resources on those methods for transmitting the kind of knowledge, wisdom and competencies that it does best. It excels at intensive face-to-face instruction that transforms the student through the acquisition and integration of knowledge and practical wisdom.

    In developing his argument, Friedman makes a fascinating observation that ought to be carved on the heart of every organizational leader today: "When outstanding becomes so easily available, average is over."

    From the perspective of theological education, the message could not be clearer. We must make the case that theological education is not simply good for the church. Theological education is indispensable to the practice of Christian faith.

    What do I mean?

    I read The Economist each week for two reasons. It is fascinating. (That's the purely positive reason.) And, more importantly, it has become indispensable to me. I would be afraid of what I would miss if I didn't read it.

    Is this a fear-based motivation? Sort of. But it is true. As someone who needs the best information I can get, I would indeed be afraid not to read this journal. I don't feel the same about many other good newspapers and magazines, some of which I read regularly.

    Seminaries need to demonstrate that they are indispensable to the preparation of excellent leaders for our churches and our society. Average is over. Just being "Ralph's Pretty Good Grocery Store" may be good enough for Garrison Keillor's Lake Wobegone, but it is not good enough for the real world of ministry today.

    But even that is not enough.

    We must demonstrate that we are thoughtful in determining what can only be learned and what can best be learned through the educational modes we cultivate. And we must never stop learning what needs to be learned for leadership and ministry and how best to teach this. Average is over. Average is no longer an option. Not if our schools are to have a future. And not, I would argue, if our communities of faith are to flourish in this rapidly changing environment.

  • Creative Genius

    by Michael Jinkins | Sep 15, 2014

    Creative GeniusWe tend to create genius in the image of our age. Just as the nineteenth century created the myth of the solitary hero (a myth that dominated the Romantic movement, and beyond) with its lone and sometimes lonely genius, whether discoverer, artist or adventurer, our age is creating the myth of the corporate genius, the idea that great ideas and great achievements inevitably arise as the products of collaborative groups.

    The reality is far more complex and idiosyncratic than either the myth of the solitary hero or the myth of the corporate genius conveys.

    In every age, breakthrough moments and achievements of genius, have resulted from the insights and hard work of individuals (often in concert with incremental corporate plodding), AND from wonderful symbiotic group processes to varying degrees and in various mixtures.

    Charles Darwin possessed genius. His publication of The Origin of Species represents the meticulous assembly and analysis of data as well as an explosion (far more than a mere spark) of creative insight and considerable courage. This was an individual achievement, from one perspective. To miss the individual character of this achievement is to misunderstand it fundamentally. But it was not just an individual achievement. As historians of science remind us, Darwin stood on the shoulders of others who were trying to make sense of the data that was accumulating. And Darwin stood among others in a milieu of scientific investigation that was seeking to make sense theoretically (as we say now, at a "meta-level") of this accumulation of data. An evolutionary metaphor seems to have been gathering in the ether ready for someone to conceptualize. The concept was resonate before it was articulated.

    Bletchley Park and the Manhattan Project were rich in examples of collaborative group genius long before the open-concept school or office emerged. In both of these very different contexts during the Second World War, one can also find examples of individual creativity and discovery.

    To minimize either the roles of communities of thinkers and aggregated collective creativity or that of the courageous, industrious individual is to misunderstand the way creative genius functions in either the arts or the sciences. But our age seems to be an age afraid to give individuals their due, and some folks have a hard time expressing an idea without the benefit of rigid "either/or" exclusions. We tout the ways in which technological innovations emerge in groups of gifted people, as we should. But groups consist of individuals with distinct gifts, and groups function in relationship to individuals, some of whom make the groups function better than they might otherwise function because of their peculiar and highly individual (and sometimes difficult) genius. I'm thinking here, for example, of Steve Jobs.

    Ed Catmull, the co-founder of Pixar Animation Studios, president of Walt Disney and Pixar Animation Studios, and longtime colleague of and collaborator with Jobs, does not shy away from describing Jobs as a genius - someone with a distinctive and singular creative gift. One aspect of that gift consisted in Jobs' ability to get the most out of groups of other creative people, helping them to create far more than they might otherwise have been capable. Catmull does not sugarcoat Jobs' personality or the challenges Jobs' personality could present for working with others, especially in his earlier years of leadership. But Catmull also praises the ways in which Jobs' passion, his intellectual brilliance and his capacity to draw out the best in other creative people exponentially multiplied a group's creative power, though not everyone was comfortable with his approach. (Catmull, Ed. "Afterword: The Steve We Knew." In Creativity, Inc.: Overcoming the Unseen Forces that Stand in the Way of True Inspiration, with Amy Wallace, 297-315. New York: Random House, 2014.)

    In Joshua Wolf Shenk’s recent (and widely read) New York Times editorial essay, “The End of Genius,” the collaborative model is singularly advocated, and the collaborative genius of songwriters John Lennon and Paul McCartney (among other examples) is extolled as definitive (an argument-clincher for many baby boomers). Shenk, argues that there's really no such thing as individual creative genius and that all creativity is collaborative. (Joshua Wolf Shenk, "The End of Genius," The New York Times, July 14, 2014, accessed July 30, 2014, http://www.nytimes.com/2014/07/20/opinion/sunday/the-end-of-genius.html?_r=0.)

    Shenk's observations might have provided a helpful and corrective perspective, but as an argument for the existence of only one form of creativity they collapse under their own weight. As Beatle historians have demonstrated, for example, there was much more in the Lennon/McCartney partnership than collaborative creativity. There was also extraordinary individual creativity spurred on by competition with one another and others, and astonishing individual achievements were credited under the signature of the duo. ("Yesterday" being just one example among many McCartney products credited officially to the two songwriters.)

    In other words, even in collaborative creativity, we should not underestimate the role of the individual of genius. There are times when a person of remarkable creative ability makes a leap of insight, creates a work of art, or discovers something that leaves us all standing flat-footed and speechless. This is not to say that the individual of genius operates within a social vacuum (few would claim such a thing), but it is to say that a creation of original vision might take us so far beyond all known predecessors (to whom the creator acknowledges indebtedness) that we find ourselves struggling to understand how it is connected to whatever went before. (I'm thinking here of artist Mark Rothko's acknowledgement of his debt to J.M.W. Turner, for example.)

    When we consider the contemporary preoccupation with "collaborative genius" as a necessary corrective to the previous myth of the solitary genius and as an expansion of our understanding of the way genius emerges "among" us, we find in it a really helpful insight, and one that can aid artists and scientists, as well as organizations and their leadership, to function better.

    The gift of collaborative genius has only begun to be explored. When we use the idea of collaborative genius, however, as a sort of weapon against individual insight and individual achievement, we not only give in to yet another dominant-culture ideology (and this one a myth of the moment masquerading as counter-cultural myth-bashing), but we also undermine the very processes that lead to the breakthroughs which enrich human life.

    It takes two to tango and a full room to make a great party - especially a party of genius. AND let us not underestimate the value of those individuals who make up the duets and collaborations as well as those who sometimes work in solitude through the lonely days, nights and decades of quiet inquiry and expression.

  • A Leadership Notebook

    by Michael Jinkins | Sep 11, 2014

    Editor’s note: Periodically throughout the 2014-2015 academic year, “Thinking Out Loud” readers will receive blog posts that address the idea of leadership. Best practices, challenges, rewards and lessons learned from different models of leadership are the focus of these special blog posts. We’d love to hear what you have written in your “leadership notebook.” E-mail us!

    leadership notebookSometime in 1993, shortly after being called to the faculty of Austin Seminary, Dean Robert Shelton invited me to his office to discuss his vision for the area which I had been invited to teach. He told me that we needed to rethink the seminary’s whole approach to the teaching of leadership for the church. As of that day, I had his blessing and my faculty colleagues’ encouragement to completely reshape our curriculum in the areas of leadership, administration, management and finance. Looking back over the experience of teaching leadership in a seminary for seventeen years it seems as though I never stopped reshaping that curriculum.

    I think I was an odd choice for this work. My academic training was in historical and systematic theology, and the first courses I taught (at the invitation of Austin Seminary but before I joined the faculty) were in philosophy of religion and doctrinal theology. My education was just about as traditional as it gets, in the ancient, ivy-covered bastion of King’s College at the University of Aberdeen.

    Nevertheless, I had also been a pastor by that point for some twelve years, and, with my wife, Debbie, had recently written a book on power and change in congregational leadership - the first of two books and several articles we would go on to write together on leadership. So, I turned my attention to rethinking the teaching of leadership in a seminary context.

    Frankly, this was really rewarding work. It brought me into a close and enduring mentorship with the great Ellis Nelson, who had retired to Austin after completing his presidency at Louisville Seminary, as well as a number of great new colleagues in a variety of fields around the country. The work also gave me permission to read as deeply and broadly as I wished in the rapidly growing field of leadership studies and organizational behavior.

    As we begin this new academic year, I plan to write a semi-regular feature in these blogs relating important lessons about leadership from some of the best practitioners. Most of what will be shared will come from paradigmatic figures in the field. I will also share insights from rather surprising sources, such as the intrepid and brave women and men who fight wildfires, and from political historians such as Doris Kearns Goodwin who have a way of unearthing the most interesting leadership insights while writing their biographies about leaders.

    There’s so much we can learn from these folks that is applicable to the life of our congregations in this rapidly changing world. I hope you enjoy this new feature and that you find it helpful.

  • Parables and the "Zen" of Jesus

    by Michael Jinkins | Sep 08, 2014

    Zen and JesusDuring the summer, I decided to spend some time with the parables of Jesus. Many of the parables are among the most familiar and beloved texts in all of the Bible. We’ve heard the parables of the lost sheep and the lost coin, the good Samaritan, the unjust steward and the prodigal son again and again. One of the things that gets in the way of hearing what the Bible says to us is our tendency to think we already know what it says. This can be especially bedeviling when reading familiar passages like the parables.

    Robert Farrar Capon, in one of his wonderful books about the parables of Jesus, makes the observation: “The first and most troublesome (obstacle to the parables), oddly enough, is familiarity. Most people, on reading the Gospels’ assertion that ‘Jesus spoke in parables,’ assume they know exactly what is meant. ‘Oh, yes,’ they say, ‘and a wonderful teaching device it is, too.’”

    But, as Capon explains, “Some of (Jesus’) parables are not stories, many are not agreeable; most are complex; and a good percentage of them produce more confusion than understanding.” [Robert Farrar Capon, The Parables of the Kingdom (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1985), 7.]

    In fact, far from teaching in parables in order to aid the understanding of his hearers or to clarify what he meant, we are told by the Gospels that Jesus sometimes taught in parables specifically to make his points obscure.

    Perhaps I should tell you why I recently became interested anew in Jesus’ parables. During a silent retreat at the Abbey of Gethsemani early last summer, after reading Thomas Merton’s classic study, Zen and the Birds of Appetite (New Directions, 1968), I committed myself to becoming more familiar with some basic texts of Zen philosophy and spirituality. It was in the course of reading and contemplating ancient Zen stories and koans that I came to a new awareness about the parables of Jesus. [Incidentally, the most useful source for these stories I have found is Zen Flesh, Zen Bones: A Collection of Zen and Pre-Zen Writings, compiled by Paul Reps and Nyogen Senzaki (Tuttle, 1957, 1985)].

    Zen writings, you see, are often intended to mystify, to confuse, to discombobulate, to obscure meanings and multiply possibilities. They are designed to provoke a more profound level of reflection and contemplation in the reader or hearer that pushes us beyond our comfortable assumptions.

    Frankly, reading Zen literature, I repeatedly found myself saying, “Wow, that sounds a lot like Jesus!” Not necessarily like something Jesus said, but the “tone,” the “posture,” the “way” Jesus said things. There’s often a sly, foxy wisdom, a serpentine trick, a twist of expectations, even a sense of humor about the best Zen stories. Again and again, the reader or hearer of an ancient Zen story meets resistance at the very point he or she might wish to find a little clarity, accessibility or comfort. Some of the stories are rather bleak in outlook, few have any sort of a “moral” (in the sense of a fable), and virtually none yield meanings to the impatient or to those who “can’t get out of their heads.”

    In one story, a person finds himself chased over the edge of a cliff by a hungry tiger. Falling, flailing, he reaches out and grabs hold of a root of a vine with one hand. Hanging there, he realizes that mice are gnawing at the vine, and it is on the point of breaking. If that weren’t enough, looking down, he sees another hungry tiger in the valley below, pacing back and forth, just waiting for him to fall. Just then, the man sees a wild strawberry growing from the side of the cliff. With his free hand, he reaches out and picks the strawberry and pops it into his mouth. “Ah, how sweet it tastes,” he says.

    In another story, a disciple comes to his teacher and explains that he has succeeded in emptying himself entirely of all distractions, indeed of everything that would prevent him from receiving enlightenment (Zen). His master simply says, “Good. Now throw out your emptiness too.” To which, the disciple says, “I can’t throw out my emptiness!” His teacher answers, “Of course, I see. Then carry it out.”

    Barump-bump goes the trap drum.

    If anything, Zen koans are even more mystifying than the stories. There are Zen koans that so utterly defy understanding they have become the subject of years and years of meditation. They are designed to trip us up, especially, again, if we have a hard time apprehending the world around us except from an intellectual perspective.

    That’s when it struck me that Jesus as a teacher is a lot closer to the approach of the ancient Zen masters than he is to the approach either of a tenured professor or a pastor. Jesus is a lot more “Eastern” than “Western” to start with. And it may just be that our cultural bias toward understanding, making spiritual matters more accessible, and ensuring that people are comfortable with our faith may be getting in the way of them and us hearing the message of Jesus. If we aren’t provoked by some of his parables, we aren’t paying attention. If we aren’t mystified, we haven’t yet heard them. If we don’t find them self-contradictory, we haven’t really followed their trajectory. They are often intended to resist us more than to draw us in.

    The parables of Jesus are not intellectual puzzles. They are after a bigger prize than our comprehension.

    The parables of Jesus sometimes are meant to work on us like an annoying pebble in our shoe. We keep taking off the shoe, shaking it upside down, putting the shoe back on, only to discover that the pebble is still there. The parables just keep working at us, never simply confirming our sense of rightness or righteousness.

    When I returned to the parables of Jesus after my engagement with the ancient Zen writings, I found myself considerably more open to not assuming I understand them, and I have found this exercise enormously enlightening. For those who have ears to hear, well, you know the rest.

  • Spotting "Promise for Ministry"

    by Michael Jinkins | Sep 01, 2014

    How do we spot promise for ministry?

    This is not only a lively, perennial question generally for pastors, concerned church members and committees on preparation for ministry, it is an essential question for the faculty, leadership and Board of Trustees of Louisville Seminary as we move toward the implementation of our Covenant for the Future scholarship program.

    Already we invest a significant amount of the Seminary's endowment in the education of our students. Beginning next fall, we will fully subsidize the tuition of every master’s degree student. Making sure that we invest these funds in the students with the greatest promise for ministry is a matter of good stewardship.

    So, how do we spot women and men with the greatest promise for ministry?

    The first thing that must be said is that ministry is not one-size-fits-all. There are, as Saint Paul tells us, many varied gifts for many different ministries. (I Corinthians 12:4-31)

    A person with the right gifts for pastoral leadership in certain congregations might not be ideally suited for pastoral leadership in some others. A great hospital chaplain might not necessarily make a great pastoral counselor. A remarkable Bible teacher does not necessarily have the gifts needed for a director of a church-related nonprofit charity. An advocate for the needs of impoverished children's health might not be the sort of person who will make a good spiritual director.

    Ministry is varied. Contexts may vary as much as gifts and forms of service. And timing can be particularly crucial, even in a single lifetime. For example, one member of our Seminary faculty, Dianne Reistroffer, after a long vocation as an educator, having recently retired, has returned to graduate school to train as an attorney so she can become a legal advocate for children. We've all seen gifted congregational ministers move on to teaching careers or leadership. Again, ministry is varied for many reasons.

    Consequently, we must first recognize that spotting promise for ministry means being on the lookout for a wide variety of gifts, interests, personality types, aptitudes, skills and capacities. But this is where another truth emerges with special force.

    The second thing we must bear in mind when attempting to spot promise for ministry is that while the wisdom about how to do this may be conventional, it may not be all that wise. In a recent article in the Harvard Business Review, Claudio Fernandez-Araoz, surveys the history of the conventional wisdom of talent spotting. While his comments are geared to recruiting the best talent for jobs in corporations, his comments offer some real insights for ministry.

    Fernandez-Araoz explains that for something like a millennium, people judged potential based entirely on physical attributes. "Those attributes were easy to assess," he writes, "and, despite their growing irrelevance, we still unconsciously look for them." He notes, for instance, that Fortune 500 CEOs are on average 2.5 inches taller than the average American, though I doubt that many board members or stock holders believe there is any positive correlation between good leadership and height.

    Historically speaking, the next era of talent spotting "emphasized intelligence, experience, and past performance." There's a lot of wisdom in this approach, conventionally-speaking, as we all know, but it may also only guarantee the repetition of the same-old same-old. And in a rapidly changing environment, the status quo may be the last thing we need.

    The next era in talent spotting, which sought out "competencies," was an advance over the first two, Fernandez-Araoz explains, and was shaped by the needs of a particular time (the era in which most of us have spent most of our professional lives). The growth of new technologies and the convergence of previously unrelated fields in this era meant that intelligence was still valued in the process of spotting talent, but "emotional intelligence" was even more to be prized, because you needed people who could fit into various social contexts. And the possession of specific competencies and skills was much more predictive of future success than either previous experiences or job descriptions, since many of the professional positions that were emerging had never previously existed.

    "Now," Fernandez-Araoz writes, "we're at the dawn of a fourth era, in which the focus must shift to potential." If the previous eras constitute "conventional wisdom," here we enter the realm of the unconventional. We must now focus on potential, as he defines it: "the ability to adapt to ever-changing ... environments and grow into challenging new roles."


    Because: "In a volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous environment ... competency-based appointments are increasingly insufficient. What makes someone successful in a particular role today might not do so tomorrow if the competitive environment shifts, the company's strategy changes, or if he or she must collaborate with or manage a different group of colleagues. So the question is not whether your company's employees and leaders have the right skills; it's whether they have the potential to learn new ones." There's no part of the contemporary context - business, education or religious - that is immune to the dynamics he describes. We need to recruit for potential.

    What does potential look like? According to Fernandez-Araoz: "The first thing we look for is the right kind of motivation: a fierce commitment to excel in the pursuit of unselfish goals." This kind of motivation reflects a form of humility, a dedication to "big, collective goals," and a willingness to keep on improving. He identifies four hallmarks of potential, for which we can all be on the lookout; they are curiosity (an openness to learning and change), insight (the ability to gather and make sense of information that suggests new possibilities), engagement (a knack for using emotion and logic to communicate a persuasive vision and connect with people), and determination (the wherewithal to fight for difficult goals despite challenges and to bounce back from adversity). (Fernandez-Araoz, Claudio. "21st-Century Talent Spotting." Harvard Business Review June 2014: 46-56. Print.)

    There's a great deal more in Fernandez-Araoz's insightful essay, and I highly recommend that you read it in its entirety, but even this small sampling is highly suggestive to those of us who want to ensure that the next generation of ministers and leaders can help our church meet the challenges before us.

    Now, it's up to us to listen for the Spirit and to do the work of discernment, spotting promise for the ministries to which God calls men and women in our time. As Saint Paul reminds us:

    Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of service, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of working, but it is the same God who inspires them all in every one. To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.


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