Time and Tone
If you’ve just joined in the cliffhanger series, welcome. Life both personal and professional is full of twists and turns. The power of these stories is largely in the tone we write or speak them. For me the past four years has been especially unexpected in the number of twists and turns and I currently find myself with a number of cliffhanger situations. My particular setting currently happens to be the church, but I have worked in other environments, public school and business, where the same principles hold true. If you are up for some cliffhanger learning, come along for the ride.
The right environment involves tone
No matter how much people appeal to Biblical authority (or any other authority for that matter) in defense of their convictions, an anxious, angry and threatening tone cannot provide an environment for wise, God-honoring decision making. The loudest, most articulate voices can create tremendous pressure but they should not drive or force decision making. In the fall of 2014, there were many things I did not know. But this one thing I was very sure of. This congregation needed a non-anxious presence in leadership. I did not have all the answers but I was more than confident that the Lord of the church was still in control and would guide us if we took the time and cultivated our minds and hearts to listen and learn. The ruling elders needed time to study, pray, and talk and debate regarding our denominational connection and the issues facing the congregation, in relation to the mission and ministry that was our primary concern. Remenber, they had not had the opportunity to meet together before another group began meeting and strategizing and communicating widely regarding what these leaders should do.
With time, the wisdom of many
These dear dedicated volunteers needed to be given a space to lead where the tone was safe and nurturing for building trust and confidence in their responsibility to discern the right way forward. I will be forever grateful for the wisdom of two authors during this time of resetting the tone. David Benner’s Desiring God’s Will, and Ruth Haley Barton’s Discerning the Will of God Together were invaluable for us in resetting the tone.
Getting past our own willfulness
Perhaps the most important principle learned from these books for us as spiritual leaders was to acknowledge and own how much each of us are prone to self-righteous conviction and consequently unable to honestly listen to the conviction of others. And, one of the most detrimental characteristic of self-righteousness is that we cannot really listen to anyone because we are always thinking about and preparing the defense of our view—the correct one. Benner helped us acknowledge our willfulness—the strong and innate propensity to desire our own way. And Haley-Barton helped us learn how to relinquish it. Actually, Haley Barton’s work goes a step further. She helped us acknowledge it is sometimes not possible to completely relinquish our will. Amazingly, acknowledging it gradually released our clinging to self-righteousness and opened us up to the possibility of really listening. And, both Benner and Haley Barton taught us that it is in the relinquishing together that the tone and environment is created for hearing each other, then, and only then, can we hear from above through each other and find a way forward.
The miracle of time and tone
The proof of the power of tone was demonstrated in the miracle of the fall of 2014 and the winter/spring of 2015. Over those months, a divided and anxious group of leaders pressured from many sides, learned to submit to the authority of Scripture that says not to be anxious about anything, but in everything, with thanksgiving, make our requests known. It further promises that the peace that passes all understanding will guard our hearts minds in Christ Jesus (Phil. 4:6). They learned to listen to each other. They learned to respectfully disagree with each other. When this group of leaders consistently held high the mission and ministry of the congregation—being a community for the community not a club for members—they were able to find the courage to make a decision that could have a price tag, but they were confident that the steady and continued focus on our mission and ministry was worth whatever the price might be. And, the price would prove to be high.
The plot thickens with another twist
But wait. Remember, this whole series is about cliffhangers. We are exploring the power of stories as cliffhangers. And I am also processing my own cliffhanger story unfolding through these last four years. All the while the ruling elders and I were working on resetting the tone of how we deliberated and made decisions as leaders of the congregation, there was a committee of the congregation doing hard and discerning work to find us a new senior pastor, what Presbyterians also call the head of staff. And after months of deliberating and interviewing and checking references they had come to a decision. Yes, the cliffhanger of who would be our next head of staff was coming to a conclusion. The new pastor would arrive May 11, 2015, at the very same time the elders were coming to a decision about the future direction of the congregation in relationship to the denominational connection.
However, this convergence of these two decisions created another cliffhanger. The ruling elders decided to wait, yes wait, until the new head of staff arrived and had time to get the lay of the land. (Poor man, they only gave him three months and a few days change!) The ruling elders determined that after three months together, with the new lead pastor’s participation, they would make a final decision at their August monthly meeting. The twists and turns would continue.
For me, the cliffhanging remained. How would I transition back to being an Associate Pastor after leading as head of staff for almost a year? Not unrelated, but more important, what would my working relationship be like with this new person taking the lead? What did my future look like in this congregation where my leadership role had changed so much in less than three years. And, I know some will think I am just messing with you, but there is one more cliffhanger—major cliffhanger that was developing during these months of discernment and leadership transition. I told you my life was full of cliffhangers. I wasn’t kidding!
The tone is key
The communication lesson I learned during this challenging time filled with crazy wonderful adventure, was worth the suspended uncertainty. Important and complex decision making, and especially spiritual discernment cannot be made hastily under pressure. It takes time and non-anxious leadership to reset the tone when conviction, emotion and the stakes all run high. Over and over again people from the congregation have expressed how grateful they were for that steady, non-anxious leadership. My story, my life and leadership have been greatly enriched by hanging in there through that cliffhanger! Stay tuned. Many more valuable lessons straight ahead. Well, actually, with twists and turns ahead.
How many cliffs can one person navigate
Next week, I will intentionally digress to this new, not yet mentioned developing cliffhanger. I will do this because I am now wondering, and being challenged to consider that THIS new cliffhanger may actually help to resolve some of the others that have kept me suspended. It would be nice if we could have some resolution and not just keep adding to the uncertainty, don’t you think? You can’t keep an audience on the edge of their seats all the time! It creates back and leg pain. So, sit back until next week when the plot thickens!
What resource, person or writing, have you used to guide you through decision-making in anxious times? Leave a comment with your best resource.