faith

What It Means to Lead

A few of my observations on what it means to lead...in no particular order and by no means exhaustive. 1. It means having courage.

A friend of mine, CJ Casciotta, tweeted this the other day, and I thought it was genius:

Leadership is doing what others are afraid to do until they see you do it.

Some mornings I lie in bed, fighting myself because I just don't want to lead. I don't want to be the person at the front of the excursion into the jungle, hacking at every tropical shrub, spider and venomous snake that stands in the way.

Leading is hard because anything worth doing will be hard to do. You'll hate parts of it. Resistance will declare all-out war on you. Every insecurity you've ever had will bubble to the surface and be seen in the harsh light of reality. But that's what it means to have courage. That's what it means to do something meaningful...and to give other people meaning.

2. It means asking someone to follow. It might seem obvious, but so many of us skip this step. If you're going to lead, someone has to be following, and sometimes that doesn't happen until you ask them.

I rarely have people come up to me begging to follow me. That's not usually the way it works. Instead, we as leaders, have to perceive them. We have to have vision for them. We have to recognize what they uniquely offer. We have to inspire them toward a vision. We have to be open to the way they will change the thing we're leading.

And we have to ask. We just need to ask. I've found that, while most people aren't begging to be followers, they'll step up to the plate if you can show them how their strengths merge with your vision. And remember, you're promising them more than just the task at hand; you're doling out meaning and relationship.

3. It means slowing down long enough to let them follow. I'm going to have to circle back around to this another time, but in short, be okay with a slower pace if it means that other people can be in it with you. The product will be better for it. They'll be better for it. You'll be better for it.

4. It means turning things upside down. I believe leadership is about service. Not everyone would define leadership this way, but this is how Jesus defines it. Everyday I realize more and more that my role as "leader" is really to recognize, release and cultivate what is the unique potential in those who "follow" me. I think I'm going to have to circle back around to this one someday too because I can't begin to do it justice.

5. It means getting messy. We're talking about dealing with people here, and people are messy. All of us are messy and when relationships get real we tend to get our mess all over everything. But real leadership is rooted in relationship.

Why would I say that?

Well, for one, being known in relationship means there's more allowance for being imperfect. And, really, isn't this the best option...since being perfect isn't an option? If you're imperfect and detached, you are not going to be easy to follow. Loving people well also means that even if your grand vision comes crashing to the ground you can get up again because you haven't failed at what is most important.

I would rather love well than accomplish well.

I'm only just beginning to unravel my thoughts on this, so I think I'll need to circle back to this entire topic a few times. But I'm realizing that I do have some things I've learned and that I'm still learning.

Thirst

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I’m feeling the weight of melancholy today. I woke up with it hanging around my neck, weighing down my eyes, scattered on the floor, splashed on the walls, hazing up the air around me. It’s not new. Maybe it’s the curse of the creative person, or maybe it’s the curse of all those who live under the fall. I don’t know. But it snuck up on me. I stood in the bathroom staring at my face in the mirror, seeing only the scenarios playing out in my head.

A handful of emails I’ve marked as unread in my inbox, all of them asking difficult questions for which I don’t have the answers. A mental list of projects and ideas and thoughts to jot down, all with little boxes absent of check-marks. A sick wife who will single-handedly juggle two kids for most of the day. And this sort of crushing feeling that I’m far behind in a race I didn’t know I was running.

(Sigh.)

Blink it away. Shrug it off. Hum a tune, and push it to the edges. Save it for a rainy day.

That’s what I’d normally do. But today I’m looking it in the eye. I want to see it for what it is.

I have had good days lately. Good weeks and months, really. A long stretch of good work and seeing God work. A good look at who I am, and who God is and hearing his voice. In fact, of late I have experienced an intimacy with God and a regularity of hearing his voice that is brand new territory for me. So this morning should probably come as no surprise.

A few months ago I started drinking more water, a result of one of the silly pacts I make with myself on a regular basis.

Wake up without hitting snooze. Ride my bike instead of driving. Eat more green things. Read more books Read a book. Seriously…any…book.

Some I follow through with, and some I don’t. But I have been drinking more water. I’ve discovered that the strange byproduct to consuming the amount of water that I really should be, is that I’m more thirsty. (Or maybe not more thirsty, exactly, but more regularly in want of water.)

I used to be able to go for hours—half a day even—without water and then suddenly think, “Ooh, I should probably drink something. Maybe a Coke!” Terrible, I know.

Now I can be completely lost in whatever is in front of me, but as my throat goes dry and my eyes get heavy I suddenly realize that I haven’t had anything to drink in the last hour. My body knows what I need before my mind takes notice.

Rather than acting as a preventative to thirst, drinking more has actually made me more thirsty, more desiring of what is good for me.

Lately I have been drinking deeply of God’s presence and his word and his work in my life. And I think this morning’s melancholy is a case of my soul knowing what I need before my mind has taken notice. I’ve been drinking more, and I’m getting thirsty faster.

Maybe I shouldn’t try to shake this thing off. Maybe I should heed the thirst of my soul and go get a glass.

Threads, part 2

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When I’m tasked at coming up with a creative concept for, say, Easter, I begin by looking for threads. Threads are those things that hold seemingly disjointed things together. It’s the work of God helping us see the continual work of his grace through the moments, conversations, circumstances, dreams, and prayers of our lives.

Usually I start looking frantically. But I’m learning that the frantic search is never a fruitful one. Threads are found by being both proactive and perceptive, but you must fall silent and speak. You must focus your mind and also give it time to wander.

I always start with myself. Most of my best creativity comes from what’s happening inside me—the things I’m learning, the things I’m opening up to and the things I’m fighting. The work that comes from inside is usually the most honest and raw work I can do. I start looking for the threads of what God is doing in me.

But I don’t stop there. I start having conversations with friends and family, trying to perceive what God is doing in them and what they see happening in the world around them.

I also look for threads in the creative team at church and among the leadership, trying to see the lines and colors of God’s grace that is drawing things together in our personal lives and our church.

In all these places I’m looking for threads. I’m looking for patterns to align, for colors to emerge, for textures to suddenly “feel right” together. Oftentimes, there’s a single word or verse that seems to come up again and again.

I’ve found that the threads I most often end up working with are those that are being sewn so deep that they haven’t yet been processed. In conversation they’re rarely the first thing mentioned, they’re the last. And they’re almost always preceded by a pause—there’s an intake of air, a narrowing of eyebrows, and a far-off look. And then threads come out of our mouths in fits and spurts, with retraced steps and bad vocabulary. Because the best threads aren’t obvious, and they aren’t practiced, so we have to beat around the bush a little before we can get at them. 

Hunting for threads is one of the many things I’ve learned through my exploration of creativity, and it’s one of the greatest because it means that I’m learning a new way to listen to God.

Threads may not be how God speaks to everyone, but I’ve found it’s how he most frequently speaks to me. What I’m beginning to realize is that I should be looking for threads all the time, in every aspect of life. Looking for the voice and the wisdom and the presence of God seaming everything together. And then I should be faithful with the gifts he’s given me, and bring those threads to light, draw them out into the open, turn the fabric inside out and upside down so that all can see the intricate work happening underneath.

Threads, part 1

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Christmas and Easter come every year. They’re tenacious like that. (At least Christmas has the good manners to arrive at precisely the same time each December. Easter, on the other hand, sneakily slides around from week to week, making it difficult to pin down.)

As the leader of the creative team of our church, these annual holidays are times of both anxiety and excitement. They provide annual opportunities for us to tell the greatest stories of our faith and to push into new creative territory as we challenge the boundaries of our storytelling. But the holidays also carry with them the challenge of continuously needing to find new and captivating ways to tell a story that almost everyone in our western culture has already heard…and many have already dismissed.

In truth, the story is not really mine to tell. The Spirit tells these stories. I have to trust that.

As much work as I may do, as innovative as my methods may be, this story is made real, and it’s made transformational by the quiet whisper of the Spirit in the soul of each person.

Still, God gives me both the opportunity and capacity to partner with his Spirit in telling his story.

I take that very seriously.

Creativity is, for me, very serious business. Fun business, but serious business.

And so, year after year, holiday season after holiday season, I must innovate. But I’ve learned more and more to hear and to trust the voice of God in my creativity.

Lately I’ve been wondering how that comes about, and I’ve found that the process is not easily traced. It’s hard for me to perceive—much less describe—the way the Spirit whispers ideas to my mind and swells them in my heart.  But I’ve come to the conclusion that I’m always looking for threads.

Threads are those things that, well, they thread life together.

Life is a series of fragments, scraps of fabric. Every interaction, every conversation, every experience a different pattern, color, and texture. But through all of it, God is working and speaking. He’s highlighting words and moments.

We hear the same words repeated in a conversation with two friends weeks apart. We learn the same lessons three and four times over in different ways—through a situation, through a sermon, through our devotions. We feel a subtle shift in our hearts.

These are threads. It’s as if someone is taking a needle and thread and drawing them through the fraying edges of all of these scraps of life and suddenly making sense out of them, making them work in harmony, closing the gaps and seaming them together.

So each time another holiday comes rolling/looming on the calendar, I start looking for threads.

More on looking later.