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Thinking Out Loud

A Mantra for Leaders

by Michael Jinkins | Feb 08, 2016

MantraWhen presidents of theological schools gather, you get a really interesting combination of conversations ranging from hard-won wisdom to pedestrian kvetching. This year's gathering of presidents of graduate schools belonging to the Association of Theological Schools in the United States and Canada (ATS) was no exception. Except that it offered an especially large amount of the former and much less of the latter.

Over the course of three sun-drenched days in San Antonio, Texas (does anyone want to guess why ATS, which is headquartered in Pittsburgh, has its annual January meeting of presidents in San Antonio?), we heard from some of the most knowledgeable people in theological education, including Dan Aleshire, the longtime executive director of ATS, Barbara Wheeler, former president of Auburn Seminary, and Richard Lischer, professor at Duke Divinity School and author of the best-selling memoir, Open Secrets: A Memoir of Faith and Discovery (New York: Harmony, 2002). We also heard from our fellow presidents sharing some of those "I wish I'd known then what I know now" sorts of insights that are priceless.

Among the most valuable of these sessions was a brief presentation by Dale Meyer, president of Concordia Theological Seminary in St. Louis, Missouri. Among the insights Dale doled out to us was what he referred to as his "mantra," three phrases which were handed down to him by another colleague who in turn had received the saying from yet another leader. Like so many great pieces of wisdom, the advice finds its way to us as an oral tradition. If you happen to know the original source, please let me know.

Here's the mantra that Dale repeats to himself regularly and which I guarantee will become part of my prayer and meditation:

"Accept chaos.
Give back calm.
Provide hope."

I'm going to reflect briefly on each of the elements of Dale's mantra.

Accept Chaos
Will Willimon once observed that the worst possible preparation for becoming a minister (and I would include institutional leaders of most any sort, too) is a prior career as a group photographer. Anyone, Will says, who is going into ministry needs to give up on getting everyone pointed in the same direction, standing still and smiling at the same time.

You don't have to be a Zen priest or a Greek philosopher to know that life just doesn't hold still for long. Everything changes. Order proceeds toward disorder. When you get up in the morning, it is utter folly to expect that everything you nailed down yesterday remained fixed overnight. Nothing stays fixed. Either in place or repaired!

This is why the most important preparation we do for any meeting is not the agenda (as important as it obviously is), but ourselves. And we prepare ourselves best not by trying to anticipate every single, imaginable, possible thing that might arise in the meeting, endlessly playing the tapes of the possible disputes or arguments we dread might happen. We prepare ourselves best by entrusting ourselves and the group that is meeting to God's providential care, asking that God lead us all into God's own purposes - which, incidentally, are almost never identical with the will of any individual around whatever metaphorical table we are gathered.

Change is the fundamental reality of life. The sooner we come to realize this, the better for us and the organizations we lead. Improvisation fits the reality of organizational leadership better than the ability to read a musical score. But, as every jazz musician knows, improvisation is as much a matter of practiced skill as it is art. In the midst of the change, craziness and chaos, there is something else required of us, even if we are skilled in improvisation.

Give Back Calm
I think it may have been Ed Friedman who said that the indispensable gift a leader has to give her organization is to be a circuit breaker within its systems. If he didn't say this, he should have, because really this is at the heart of his much-discussed ideas of a well-differentiated leader who projects a non-anxious presence.

Organizations NEED their leaders to be calm, cool and collected, especially in the midst of all their chaos. The more conflict there is, the more calm the organization needs from its leader. Rattled leaders, anxious and excitable leaders, emotionally reactive leaders only make matters worse. To return to the metaphor of the circuit breaker, the hotter the system runs, the cooler the leader needs to be to make sure the whole thing doesn't blow.

Shortly after becoming a seminary president, I asked several experienced presidents what was the most important thing they had learned about leadership. One said that a leader must learn to speak very, very softly. The louder the situation, the softer we should speak. Though he had a pretty quiet voice to start with, I really think he was speaking metaphorically. Bombastic posturing seldom leads to good decision-making. It just tends to turns up the temperature in the room.

If the system needs a circuit breaker, so does the leader herself. Each of us needs that internal switch that allows us to hit pause in the midst of a tense situation, that mechanism that restrains us from reacting on impulse and allows us the emotional room to respond thoughtfully, constructively and calmly. Calmness makes it possible for us to listen to others. A leader who is calm and who listens tends to influence others to do the same. Reflectivity is as contagious as is reactivity, and calm reflection allows the room needed in a group to see a fuller range of options than does anxiety-driven reactivity.

Provide Hope
Hope is the opposite of cynicism, and hope is a theological act. It goes far deeper and is far more enduring than mere optimism.

Hope is the confidence that we and our families, churches, schools, organizations and, indeed, the whole wide world belong to God. "Into thy hands," is a prayer of pure hope, and it is the prayer a leader can pray throughout the day without ceasing.

A year or so ago, I was visiting a young ministry couple. Over lunch, the wife shared with me her frustrations about a worship service she had recently attended. The whole thing was so dismal, she said. The minister seemed tired and distracted throughout the entire service; the sermon was about depression, but it mostly just seemed depressing. After describing the service to me, she said, "The church should be about hope. Our people need hope."

I was reminded of this conversation during the recent ATS presidents meeting when Kerry Robinson, executive director of the National Leadership Roundtable on Church Management, related a similar experience of a friend of hers. She said her friend was attending a Mass conducted by a priest who dolefully and drearily stumbled through the liturgy. It was a very sad affair. Her friend told Kerry that afterward she had to bite her tongue to keep from telling the priest, "Father, I know this is the holy sacrifice of the Mass, but you're not the one being sacrificed!"

Our churches and other organizations look to their leaders for hope. Not glorified gold-plated nonsense, by the way, but real hope. And that hope resides in the confidence that God will take the best we can do and do with it more than we could ever have imagined. This hope lives in the confidence that God is up to bigger and better things than we can ask or imagine.

So, here's a mantra worth remembering always and repeating often:

"Accept chaos.
Give back calm.
Provide hope."

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