What Bothers Me Most about Working with Porcupines

“I’ve had it with my critics!”

You’ve said it too. We’ve all had our share of feisty characters show up in our daily labors. My encounters with the species began as an aspiring leader at age sixteen. Having already served in a number of roles, friends encouraged me to run for student body president. As I stood to give my campaign speech, there were jeers and boos from the back row. The opposing candidate had a younger brother. Unbeknownst to my campaign, little brother had gathered a gaggle of hecklers.

As I began to speak, a series of signs were lifted in the air. They read: DON’T LET THIS ELECTION GO DOWN TO JOHN! Disturbance rumbled in the room. I fumbled, stumbled over a phrase, then regained my composure to deliver a less-than-compelling address. Two days later, I was defeated. The event became a lifelong leadership metaphor for an overarching reality: Back-row critics will always abound!

In every realm of service, I have regularly encountered those “prickly critters” and their heavy doses of cantankerous pushback. You know the kind of people. They’re often jaded, jealous, even belligerent—all too often verbally critical of the organization, your modus operandi, and even you personally. Admit it: those pokes feel painful.

Exceptional leadership in our workplaces means intentionally influencing others for the advance of Christ’s kingdom work. Such intentional influence necessitates prioritizing the cultivation of our relational skills. In Business As Mission, Michael R. Baer reminds us that kingdom business is relational, and he spotlights the primacy of intentional relationships. Baer urges us to value people as God does. He supplies a brief survey of biblical anthropology. Key concepts include: People are the good creation of God; People are created in the image of God; People are the highest point of God’s creation; People are fallen and in rebellion against God; People are redeemed at a great price; People will share in God’s kingdom. Such anthropological truths can motivate us to prioritize our relational skills, even with our critics.

Working in a variety of leadership realms across three decades, I have encountered plenty of self-consumed, caustic individuals. Amidst such clashes, I’ve seen two prickly problems dealing with porcupine people. And there’s one more that bothers me most of all.

First, porcupines bring out my own reaction to poke back.

The urge to fling reciprocal accusations or launch a strong defense is totally normal. Our impulse is to kick back, punch back, and set ‘em straight. 100% natural.  And that’s the problem. As kingdom leaders, we are called to a supernatural, divine style of love for people who can be very unlovely. We must never forget, Christ led the way with that style of love for us. Love is absolutely necessary, even and especially when we don’t feel like it. In his winsome relationship guide The Delicate Art of Dancing with Porcupines, Bob Phillips counsels:

“It’s not easy to demonstrate love in the face of criticism or rejection from others. But we must respond lovingly to others even when we don’t feel like it. I’ve had people tell me, “If I act loving when I don’t feel loving, I’d be a hypocrite.” No, you are not a hypocrite. Rather, you are a responsible person demonstrating responsible behavior.”

Leaders who are committed to work like Jesus respond responsibly instead of reacting with a poke back.

Second, porcupines bring out my own dark side reaction, to insist that I’m totally right!

“They simply don’t yet see how faultless, pure-motived, and Christ-like I am in both my attitude and approach.” Clad with such posture of heart, I jut out my chin, stiffen my neck, and determine that I am in the right.

You might react: “I have no responsibility here; I’ve done no wrong! All he says is unfounded. It’s really his problem!” J. Oswald Sanders tells of Samuel Brengle, leader in the Salvation Army, who was sharply attacked by a caustic critic. Brengle’s response? “I thank you for your criticism of my life. It set me to self-examination and heart-searching and prayer, which always leads me into a deeper sense of my utter dependence on Jesus for holiness of heart, and into sweeter fellowship with him.”

During my early years in leadership, one of my mentors shared this axiom for dealing with critics: Always draw the nugget from the negative. His point? Even if you know for certain you are right—and you often are—there is probably still something to learn, some way in which you can grow and change.

And right there is my deep-down biggest problem about working with the prickly ones. They often help me see more ways in which I need to change and grow in greater Christ-likeness. If I slow down to actually consider their pokes and jabs, I can sometimes see ways in which I need to lead our organization in better ways.

Doggone it! My critics’ accusations might carry a nugget of gold that can enrich my character and methodology for even greater kingdom work. Consider these three outcomes of working responsibly with your leadership porcupines:

You’ll grow thicker skin.

You’ll grow a softer heart.

You might even discover surprises.   

It’s very tempting to petrify your perspective about porcupine people, to consider your view of that person settled once and for all. “She will never change. I know it!” Go ahead, fossilize them forever. It feels good to categorize people, to dump them into the bucket with your other opponents. It’s one of the ways we deal with the hurts, hang-ups, and heartaches we face from the “trouble-makers.”

But what if a person’s criticism isn’t always the end of the story?

Years ago, I landed in a new leadership role. I needed to lead change endeavors for the organization. As I led, my list of critics grew exponentially longer. One senior gentleman really did not appreciate the fresh directions. “We’ve never done it that way!” The all-too-familiar mantra was his battle cry. In several meetings, he shared hard words, some of them aimed at me. It was so tempting to conclude: He will never come around. I almost tossed him in the bucket . But to my amazement, a few months later he informed me that he and his wife were praying for me and our family. We sent them a Christmas card that year, and I learned it was on their refrigerator. In the months to come, I began to hear words of encouragement and buy-in about the fresh momentum in our organization. We were changing. I was changing. And my critic was actually changing for the good and for God’s glory.

I still cannot say I enjoy the painful pokes, but I can say I am grateful for how Christ uses my prickly critics. Thicker skin. A softer heart. And sometimes even a stunning surprise.

 

Beyond Walls and Borders—Working to Bless Foreigners

immigrants

(Special Note: This was originally published in January 2017. Perhaps it still conveys some contribution for the current controversy. Much of the original content was crafted in book creation two years prior—WAY before the political turmoil and raging debate of the current landscape. My aim was/is to help advance a more Christ-honoring posture—not to add gasoline to the fiery political debate. Blessings!)

Ten days into a new presidency, the media is abuzz with controversy. (I know, shocker! Did we really expect anything less?) What are we to make of declarations like “America FIRST!” and executive orders aiming at exclusion and long-term consequences for refugees, immigrants, and others seeking a homeland in our midst? No matter where you fall on the political landscape, every Christ-following leader must boldly seek to explore the issues through the lens of King Jesus’ redemptive plans for the Gospel. How will our allegiance—whether to Trump or to King Jesus—create healthier rhythms of mission, including strategic choices for treatment of others in our workplaces?

Wise leaders cultivate profitable business for greater job creation that leads to poverty alleviation—marked by marvelous dignity on behalf of every worker. A very deliberate aim for blessing-focused, workplace leaders is to strategically express God’s love to the outsiders—the foreigners, the marginalized, and those previously outside the faith community.

With such focus, we embrace God’s global mission—to welcome and enfold others. We discover a model leader in an Old Testament business owner, Boaz. Leading man in the Ruth narrative, he very intentionally lived out Leviticus 19:34: “The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt. I am the Lord your God.” Recall Ruth’s label; she was readily known among Judah’s inhabitants as “the Moabite.”

Here is the thick, loving thread of God’s mission, to reach the nations, to intentionally include the outsiders, those from other people groups (Gen 12:1-3; Matt 28:18-20). Action-biased love for the foreigner is a phenomenal method of applying the second greatest commandment, the others-oriented portion of our calling: “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Lev 19:18; Matt 22:39). When Boaz welcomed Ruth and supplied work in his field, he was demonstrating the faithful life of a God-follower. In a real sense, he was a gospel-centered, mission-driven, disciple-making business owner.

Our daily business and work endeavors can leave a definitive, emotional-spiritual impact toward others’ redemption, especially people who are not yet a part of God’s family. Don’t forget, Ruth was previously an outsider, riffraff from Moab. Boaz and his team took a risk, included her on their labor force, and very deliberately embraced God’s mission (Ruth 2).

Ralph Broetje had a dream one night as a teenager. Ralph explains: “The dream was that I would own an apple orchard and use the money we made to help feed kids in India.” In 1968, Ralph and his wife, Cheryl, bought a cherry orchard in Benton City, Washington. During the first three years, the orchard was plagued by a deep freeze, excessive rain, and treacherous fruit flies. It appeared the fledgling enterprise was ruined and ready to fold. Providentially, help arrived when the Broetjes received the immense blessing of financial backing from a dream team of friends. As a result, they were able to persevere and see stable progress across the coming decade.

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, the Broetjes purchased hundreds of acres of sagebrush land in the Columbia Basin of Washington State. This was not previous apple orchard territory. It was risky, but they began to plant apple trees. The trees grew and the orchard began to thrive. In 1984, the Broetje family embarked on a mission trip to Mexico. Their trip proved to be transformative for their business’ entire focus. Ralph explains: “That mission to Mexico made me realize how hard it was for people there to dream about achieving anything, because the opportunities did not exist. I understood that they were coming to the United States for better opportunities for their families. It gave us more insight into what their needs are, and it reminded me of why we had this orchard. It wasn’t so we could keep building things for ourselves. It was so we could try and give back to the families we worked with as much as we can.”[1]

In the wake of that trip, the Broetjes have not only developed numerous additional full-time jobs, but a large complex of single-family homes and apartments, available to rent at low cost to year-round employees. In addition, the New Horizons Preschool and Vista Hermosa Elementary (K–6) were founded. The Vista Hermosa Foundation supports local initiatives for families and reaches out to partner with underserved communities around the world. Such partnerships exist in over thirty countries, including Mexico, India, Honduras, Colombia, Uganda, Ethiopia, Kenya, Chad, Haiti, Jamaica, Romania, and the United States.

In recent years, the Broetjes’ work has continued to thrive and flourish. They have developed additional endeavors, like CASA LLC and Mano a Mano, supplying further focus on housing and community building. These endeavors contribute to educational outreach and on-farm seasonal housing for workers needing temporary shelter. Today, the Broetje Orchard in Washington State stands out as a blessing business, accomplishing God’s mission in amazing ways, both locally and globally.

Workplace leaders dare to risk, step outside their comfort zones, and develop holy anticipation for what God might accomplish with each of their relational opportunities. In Workplace Grace, Bill Peel and Walt Larimore encourage us: “Whether we work on a factory floor, in a cramped cubical, or in the corner office, each of us is significant and every gift is important in God’s master plan to draw people to him. He has given us the privilege of being part of the world’s redemption. Never forget small things—a word of encouragement or a simple act of kindness—can be used by God to accomplish big things.”[2]

In whatever daily work we do, when both our actions and words are carried out in the character of Christ, we can reach others with Christ’s redemptive love (Col 3:17, 23–24). In the days ahead, let’s join Boaz and the Broetjes. Will you wonderfully welcome and creatively employ the foreigners, the refugees, and other outsiders in your daily work? We must remember, this goes beyond the partisan chatter over walls, the President, and his executive orders. It’s a serious matter of allegiance to King Jesus and his missional orders—to keep our hearts and borders open, to bless the foreigners with His loving Good News.

This post is adapted from chapters five and eight in EmotiConversations: Working through Our Deepest Places, coauthored with Holly Hall-Pletcher. EmotiConversations is available from Wipf and Stock Publishers and other favorite booksellers.

 

[1]Broetje, http://www.firstfruits.com/company-history.html.

[2]Peel and Larimore, Workplace Grace, 79.

What Bothered Me Most About THE GREATEST SHOWMAN

Movie lovers have lauded the film. But to put it kindly, I was bothered. Certainly, there are praiseworthy elements. The story itself is captivating and keeps us coming back. How many of us have watched The Greatest Showman now how many times, primarily out of its success in supplying joyous escape? Story guru Robert McKee maintains that a superbly told story “makes time vanish.” McKee declares:

“The story power of a fine play, novel, film or TV series sweeps us through time until the entertainment spell suddenly breaks and we glance at our watch in amazed wonder: ‘Wow, was that three hours?’ Some story-goers plunge back into a much-loved classic for a second, third, or more reliving.”[1]

Such story phenomenon is certainly at work with The Greatest Showman. And of course, the musical score is breathtaking. Choreography is superb, and the brilliant colors on the tonal pallet are nothing short of breathtaking. Some scenes leave you wondering: Is this a film or a painting?

But I was still bothered.

I could readily say I was bothered by the glamorizing of Barnum’s dishonest, shyster ways. Once again, Hollywood successfully convinced us to love and root for a crooked and morally corrupt individual. His business practices were abominable, but viewers find themselves cheering for him. Nevertheless, that is not what most bothered me. Such skillful crafting of characters and a twisting of the audience’s love-hate capacity has been a hallmark of truly great story telling for centuries.

I could stomp my feet, bothered by the liberties that were taken with P.T. Barnum’s actual history. While the movie’s story line lands some threads right and tight, there are numerous points of departure and inaccuracy with the true story of this over-the-Big-Top character. For a wonderfully researched and mesmerizing rendition, read Matthew Goodman. The movie paints the picture of Charity’s family as ultra-snobby, disapproving of Phineas. Solid history reports it was actually the other way around. Mother and other relatives believed that a young man as promising as Phineas “should set his sights higher than a local seamstress.”[2] The list of discrepancies between the film and true Barnum history could go on and on. But that is not my biggest gripe. Movies have been twisting history for many moons.

My genuine, gargantuan gripe comes into play as the story’s tension crests the hill and our Showman’s crisis winds ever tighter. Barnum is wrestling with what’s truly most important. Across his life, P.T. has been constantly seeking to satiate his never-ending thirst for accolades from the upper crust, from highbrow family, from newspaper reporters, and from the ever-fickle adoring fans. Now he has the opportunity to take off on a cross-country concert tour with Jenny Lind, the breathtaking European soloist (who none-too-ironically sings Never Enough.) But could he—would he instead—choose to stay with his ever-faithful circus troupe and his lovely family?

And right here is the real rub, the issue that bothers me most with this movie. The story line strikes a raw nerve for all of us who step onto life’s stage. The issue of “what matters most” is indeed the pressing issue for every leader, every artist, every public speaker, every athlete, and every person in business large or small. At the end of the day to a very real degree, we are all show people. We are faced with the push-and-pull, tug-o-war question: Will I live my life for the applause of the audience, for their approval, for the ratings, and other people’s love?

Jesus actually worked on this issue in the Gospels when confronting the Pharisees—and really all of us. His use of the word hypocrite was borrowed from a descriptive term used of play-actors of the ancient Greek world. The great showmen of the first century wore masks. They were out to impress, to play to the crowds. Jesus’ bottom line wisdom on this issue: “Don’t be like the hypocrites” (Matthew 6:1-6).

I realize the real reason that I am bothered by The Greatest Showman. It hits a nerve; there is a little too much P.T. Barnum in me. And based on the current landscape of humanity, it seems it is true for so many of us as leaders. This is a pressing issue, whether you are the President, a powerful preacher, a top-level executive, a high school student in your first role, a big-name performer, a public speaker, or something of an emerging celebrity at any level in society.

At an extremely poignant pivot in the movie, Phineas’ wife Charity lands the clincher line:

“You don’t need everyone to love you, Phin. Just a few good people.”

It’s the cash money wisdom of the story. When she said it, I gulped. I need to deeply believe that every day. We all need to live in light of it.

And now perhaps I’m ready to see The Greatest Showman again.

[1]Robert McKee and Thomas Gerace. Storynomics. 12/Hatchett Book Group. (New York, 2018), 87.

[2]Matthew Goodman. The Sun and the Moon. Basic Books. (New York, 2008), 104.

The Bigger Deal About the Bill Hybels Accusations

Stunned. Saddened. Angered. Grieved. Determined. Questioning.

I have this jumbled mix of emotions upon reading the Chicago Tribune article. How can this be? Who is really telling the truth? I know there are no absolutely perfect professions that get a pass on scandal. No perfect families, no impeccable churches, no spotless tribes of churches, and there are certainly no perfect pastors. (I know that first-hand.) But I find myself scratching my head and proclaiming:

“Not Bill. O Lord, not Bill.”

I am very aware that Bill adamantly denies the accusations. (I so hope he’s telling the truth!) What should I think, since the likes of Ortberg, Jimmy, and Nancy have joined their voices purporting that the accusations may carry some validity. They have been trustworthy friends of Willow Creek (and it feels like friends to so many of us as readers and listeners over the years). Whom to believe?

In the wild wake of #MeToo, the raucous flood of high-profile Hollywood accusations, as well as the skeletons in the closets of a much-too-muddy White House, we have settled into a ridiculous new normal. What we might have known a year ago as a healthy sense of disgust when hearing blasts of smutty news now gives way to a cold case of calloused numbness, a grogginess that’s settled over our collective conscience.

The Hybels accusations serve as a fresh slap to my sleepy soul. I cannot help but wake up and ask: “How can so many mature people who claim to know better act this way? Really? No! Enough is enough!”

“Not Bill. O Lord, not Bill.”

Sadly, such sickening scenarios are lose-lose-lose. Someone is lying while someone is truth telling. In the process, they each lose big-time. But there is another bigger, even sadder set of losers. No matter which side is right, the “skeptics, moralists, and long-time seekers” just grew less trusting and took another step away from the kingdom. I grieve and say to my skeptical and seeking friends, “Please, O please, I beg you to believe that there are still some good and reliable Christians left in the world. I so hope and pray at the end of the day, you remember how much we all need God’s loving grace. That includes Bill—and you and me—and every person pulsing on the planet.”

For many of us, “Me too” is no longer something that remains in the safe distance of a far-off scandal traipsed as tabloid in the Tribune, splashed across Christianity Today’s weekend headline, or blasted across a CNN banner. It hits way too close to home for that friend or family member who suddenly has to leave their job due to a previous season of sinful indiscretion. Many of us know someone not in the presidential, Hollywood, or mega-pastor limelight experiencing something that feels like collateral damage during this dreadfully punitive season. The self-centered choices and slippery compromise finally came home to roost. The pain is real.

In actuality, accusations of infidelity and sexual misconduct are as old as some of humanity’s famous families. The stunning story of Joseph in Egypt features a season when he was rising in influence, second in charge to a powerful man’s household. Joseph was relentlessly tempted; he remarkably resisted but was framed by his seductress. (See the Hebrew Scripture’s account, Genesis, chapter 39 for more of the story.)

Sage workplace author Tom Nelson elaborates: “When it comes to sexual temptation in the workplace, we don’t have to go out of our way to look for it; it often finds us. Joseph’s wise response to sexual temptation in the workplace is a model for us to emulate. Joseph didn’t cozy up to sexual temptation, he fled from it.”[1]

What’s the big deal? Our core struggle with workplace temptation lies deep inside. Jesus’ wisdom shines his probing searchlight on our eyes and hearts (Matthew 5:27-30). Lust is sparked when we indulgently imagine how people can be used for our self-serving interests instead of genuinely loved. God’s style of selfless love aims at practically caring for others’ best interests, not using or abusing them from our own places of power and control.

How do we develop a strategy to stand strong against workplace temptation, or as in Joseph’s case, to decisively run away? In Taking Your Soul to Work, R. Paul Stevens and Alvin Ung urge these five strategy steps:

(1) Know that your heart’s desires are for God. Hunger and passion for God put all lesser desires into perspective. (2) Reduce exposure to erotic stimulation in your choice of movies, novels, and Internet sites. Put a plan in place that will help you avoid temptation on business trips. (3) Pray for a colleague, a customer, or a supervisor whom you find attractive. Choose God’s perspective on the person instead of treating her/him as “just a body” to be visually consumed. (4) Seek accountability partners; commit to transparently answering tough questions. (5) Identify the early beginnings of lustful thoughts. Heightened vigilance in advance allows you to be more responsive to the Spirit’s guidance.[2]

Instead of being trapped in daily rituals of workplace lust and other sexual sins, we can stand strong. We can run away, stay pure, and truly honor Christ. With such choices, we will honor others with more wholesome love at work.

What is the truly bigger deal about the Bill Hybels accusations? Upon deeper reflection, I am struck with this reality. Instead of saying: “Not Bill. O Lord, not Bill,” I need to be saying, “Not me. O Lord, not me!”

Rather than shaking our heads in dismay over such scandals, jumping on judgment bandwagons, or allowing ourselves to be further numbed by the relentless shock to any remaining thread of moral leadership compass, we must realize we are called to genuine love. After all, virtues like decency, purity, and loving respect for others are God’s high calling for all of us—not just the mega-leaders of today’s world.

New levels of loving respect must start with everyday leaders—like you and me—making those solid, everyday choices. I want to stand strong. I want to stay holy and true to my wife and children, committed through and through as a truly good leader.

Will you join me in making fresh commitments to wholesome and holy love, the kind of love that is relentlessly loyal to those with whom we live and work each day?

May we all join our determined voices: “Not me. O Lord, not me!”

[1]Tom Nelson. Work Matters: Connecting Sunday Worship to Monday Work. (Wheaton: Crossway, 2011), 173.

[2]R. Paul Stevens and Alvin Ung. Taking Your Soul to Work: Overcoming the Nine Deadly Sins of the Workplace. (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2010), 26-31.

 

If You Dare, A Labor Day Prayer

Throughout the years, I’ve noticed a mischievous thing about Labor Day weekend. If I’m not careful, I miss it. I can get so caught up in the sensational hoopla of picnics, yard work, or a last-hurrah-of-summer getaway that I mindlessly skip over this holiday’s true significance.

Might we dare to think, stir, and move a step or two deeper this year on the meaning and opportunity of Labor Day weekend?

Originally, Labor Day was so much more than a calendar marker for wrap-up of summer, the pool’s closing, and launch of all things flavored pumpkin spice. Call for such a day was the creation of the labor movement and dedicated to recognize the social and economic achievements of American workers. It constitutes a yearly national tribute to the contributions workers have made to the strength, prosperity, and well being of our country. The first state bill for Labor Day was introduced into the New York legislature, but the first to become law was passed by Oregon on February 21, 1887. During that year four more states—Colorado, Massachusetts, New Jersey, and New York—created the Labor Day holiday by legislative enactment. By the end of the decade Connecticut, Nebraska, and Pennsylvania had followed suit. By 1894, 23 other states had adopted the holiday in honor of workers, and on June 28 of that year, Congress passed an act making the first Monday in September of each year a legal holiday in DC and the territories.

I’m afraid we too often forget just how meaningful and significant our daily work is in the scope of God’s original call to humans (Genesis 1-2) and his ongoing redemptive plans (Ephesians 2:8-10). For disciples of Jesus who are seeking to actively grow in holistic faith, there’s a thought-provoking, responsive prayer, originally penned by Jim Cotter and Paul Payton.[1] If we dare to pray this prayer, it might just refocus our outlook and help guide us into an even more robust, holistic perspective on the vital role our work plays in God’s great work in this world. It goes like this:

Leader: Let the sowers of seed bless you, great God, the gardeners and farmers sing your praise.

Everyone: May the fishers and foresters bless you, Beloved, praise your name and glorify you forever.

Leader: Let the bread from grain bless you, great God, the wine from the grape sing your praise.

Everyone: May the transformations from cooks bless you, Beloved, praise your name and glorify you forever.

Leader: Let the spinners and weavers bless you, great God, the designers of clothes sing your praise.

Everyone: May the salesmen and retailers bless you, Beloved, praise your name and glorify you forever.

Leader: Let the sounds and silences of music bless you, great God, the great composers sing your praise.

Everyone: May the improvisers of jazz bless you, Beloved, praise your name and glorify you forever.

Leader: Let the software and civil engineers bless you, great God, the architects sing your praise.

Everyone: May the pastors and clergy bless you, Beloved, praise your name and glorify you forever.

Leader: Let the marketers and advertisers bless you, great God, the entrepreneurs sing your praise.

Everyone: May the attorneys and judges bless you, Beloved, praise your name and glorify you forever.

Leader: Let the educators bless you, great God, the academics and authors sing your praise.

Everyone: May the doctors and nurses bless you, Beloved, praise your name and glorify you forever.

Leader: Let the sculptor and scientists bless you, great God, the business owners and janitors sing your praise.

Everyone: May the artists and baristas bless you, Beloved, praise your name and glorify you forever.

Amen.

We will be praying this congregational, responsive prayer this weekend in our church’s worship services. Might you dare to pray it personally, share it with friends, and even potentially share it in your congregation?

[1]Jim Cotter and Paul Payton. Out of the Silence . . . Prayer’s Daily Round (with changes by Mark Mohrlang and adapted here for congregational responsive prayer).

The Messy Middle—when you’re not flourishing

My three sons are now enjoying the zenith of their youth. With thick hair on their heads, they readily revel in highlighting their dad’s graying, thinning, Friar Tuck up top and his less-than bulging biceps. I remind them that I can still take them any day in a wrestling match. They grin and sport a “We wouldn’t want to hurt you; we still need your paycheck” look.

This summer alone, my two oldest are adventuring for work and mission in Los Angeles, Port-Au-Prince, Moscow, and D.C. If he’s lucky, their father might trip off to New Jersey some evening if there’s a little gas remaining in a vehicle. Sure signs of my own middle age on Middle-earth.

That’s all tongue-in-cheek. Really. I’m seriously thrilled my boys are flourishing. And there’s our beloved buzzword. It’s everywhere these days, zooming about in the titles, texts, subtitles, and subtexts of the latest, greatest, brightest, and mightiest of current thinking on the good work and Good News for our desperate world.

“God wants humans to flourish.”

That’s true. I concur that from the earliest pages of the Gospel story to the final shout of Revelation’s victory, God is working for his humans and all creation to experience redeemed flourishing—all for his glory.

But my heart is aching these days for the messy middle where most of us spend so much of life. What about the hard-working entrepreneur whose best-made strategies seem to produce zilch in profits five years in a row? What about the uber-creative, aspiring artist who can’t land an agent or garner more than fifty followers on Twitter? What about my beautiful friend from high school who’s passionately checking off her bucket list as she battles cancer? And there’s my friend serving in that stifling hot, undisclosed location on the other side of the globe, laboring to learn a new language, to make new friends with Muslims and somehow make ends meet—all for the good of Jesus’ kingdom work.

I’ve been reminded lately that this messy middle—the graying, not-so-flourishing places where most of us live most of life—can actually be a very good place. Dusty words from the old prophet Habakkuk supply some beautiful ugly perspective:

“Although the fig tree shall not blossom, neither shall fruit be in the vines; the labour of the olive shall fail, and the fields shall yield no meat; the flock shall be cut off from the fold, and there shall be no herd in the stalls:

Yet I will rejoice in the Lord, I will joy in the God of my salvation.

The Lord God is my strength, and he will make my feet like hinds’ feet, and he will make me to walk upon mine high places.” —Habakkuk 3:17-19 (KJV)

Such vivid description of NOT flourishing! But right there, Habakkuk made the choice to rejoice and find his strength in the LORD God.

How do we become such joy curators & joy carriers, especially when it feels like we are not flourishing? Here are 7 ideas you might find empowering in the messy middle:

Create more holidays! Recall that holidays were originally HOLY days, like Sabbath and festivals. Why such intentional plans? God himself celebrates, delights, and gushes joy, even at the end of each day of Creation (see Genesis 1-2)!

Celebrate thanksgiving daily, not just in November. Deliberately make lists of situations, people, and provisions for which you are grateful. It’s tough to stay stuck in doom and gloom, pessimism and skepticism, when you are reflecting thanks.

Laugh on wholesome humor. If you need a kick-starter, go watch a couple clips from Michael Jr. or Tim Hawkins on YouTube. Get ready to laugh.

Hang out with joyful people. They are contagious!

Break from your devices. Sometimes, we think we’re not flourishing because we’re stuck playing comparison games with everyone else’s stunningly beautiful lives as portrayed on Fakebook and Instacram. Admit it; you might need a break.

Bless and serve others! There is something SO uplifting, therapeutic, Jesus-like, and joy-producing about deliberately focusing on other people’s needs, interests, and opportunities.

Start now. Choose joy in the present! Psalm 118:24-25 motivates us: “The Lord has done it this very day; let us rejoice today and be glad. Lord, save us! Lord, grant us success!” (NIV)

Even in such messy middle, those seasons when it seems like our work and overall life is not flourishing, we can make our bigger discovery—this choice to rejoice. We can find fresh strength in Christ. Maybe, just maybe, we’ll discover there’s actually something new beginning to flourish in our souls!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Paperwork OR Peoplework? You’re probably PARALYZING your productivity!

I was first asked the insidious question many years ago as a student in a leadership workshop: “Which are you?” I naively assumed it was a valid question, a thoughtful call for leadership categorization.

HGTV’s hit show insists their contestants “Love it OR List it.”

People are commonly either “dog people OR cat people.”

As a passionate coffee lover, I often encounter folks who are either “coffee lovers OR tea lovers.” I rarely meet someone who claims allegiance to both beverages. (And anyway, how could a tea lover also appreciate coffee? I say you’re either strong OR wimpy.)

So which are you? Tasks and details-oriented OR people-oriented and more contemplative?

Either-or thinking flows naturally in so many arenas of life. BUT when it comes to work life, I believe our productivity often suffers from such either-or attitudes and actions. We say things like:

“I thrive on relationships and time well-spent with others. C’mon, pour more coffee. Let’s chat, build trust, and bask in the process. But please, I don’t do the administrative stuff.” The result? There’s usually great talk with others, but little if anything actually gets produced.

Another coworker might declare, “Bring on the tasks, strategies, and lists. Divide and conquer! But please, oh please, don’t make me work with other people!” Such go-getter leaders insist: “I push, drive, and accomplish. I’m HIGH D, baby! That’s me. So cut the relational crap. Let’s just get ‘er done!” And what’s the outcome? Great accomplishments abound, but there’s usually a serious body count in the process. (Even if it’s not right away, the carnage happens over time.)

“Tasks and deets” OR “people and contemplation?” Workplace assessments, personality profiles, and job satisfaction surveys often force people into such categorical buckets.

What if God’s view is much more integrated? When we analyze three of Holy Scripture’s hallmark work scenes, we make a unique discovery.

Work Scene 1: In the biblical book of Genesis, chapters 1 and 2, we find a detailed, poetic, methodical list of day-by-day accomplishments. There is no doubt about it—God is orderly and very strategic in sequence. AND in this same report, humans and our subsequent relationships—both with God and one another—prove to be the apex of the Creation encounter (Gen 1:26-2:3). God’s work cannot be tightly filed into either-or folders. God does BOTH.

Work Scene 2: When instructions are given for the building of the Hebrew Tabernacle during the Israelites’ wilderness wandering (Exodus, chapters 25-30), the Lord supplied a serious task list. (Admit it, many of us have lost it right here, our best Bible read-thru momentum has gone up in flames. ZZZZZZ.) We dare not miss the beautiful reality that God’s tedious tabernacle details culminate with a passionate focus on the skilled craftsmen named Bezalel and Oholiab. It was God’s oh-so-personal impartation of his Spirit that empowered them to accomplish their tasks. God’s work cannot be tightly filed into either-or folders. God does BOTH.

Work Scene 3: The Gospel accounts reveal God’s Son, Jesus, working with similar modus operandi. Christ remarkably blended accomplishment of tasks, his focus on details with his priority for people and relational/contemplative cultivation (See Mark’s Gospel, chapter 6, verses 30-44 for Jesus’ both-and blend in this story. Five thousand+ people enjoy an amazing picnic!). The God-Man did both.

If you’re more of a task-oriented person, marvelous! Bridges would collapse without the engineers and code enforcers. Cars and trucks would not make it down the road one mile if we lacked auto designers and mechanics. You rock! Local and global economies would crash without the pencil pushers and number crunchers. God’s work in this world needs you. We need you and your penchant for spreadsheets and schematics. We applaud you!

And there are those of you who are all about the conversations, extended times of deeper contemplation, and fostering dynamic connections. You lunch meeting experts and relational gurus, thank you! You keep us caring, encouraging, feeling, healing, networking, learning, and growing. God’s work in this world needs you. We need you and your bent toward conversing and flourishing with others.

But over the years, I’ve observed: Most of the most effective leaders deliberately develop a skillful blend. They’ve learned to do the dance between details and people. They resist the bog-down and paralysis that often comes with either-or thinking. How can we do that in our own businesses and workplace leadership?

  • Push back against your own either-or thinking. You’re seriously limiting your own potential and the productivity of your business when you willingly decide it has to be either-or. Instead, embrace attitudes and daily patterns that involve both strategic tasks AND loving conversations with people. Dare to embrace this bolder, image-of-God reality. You CAN do both!
  • Don’t aim for perfect balance in this crucial leadership choice. Balance is a ridiculous pursuit. Instead, shoot for a God-like blend, skillfully choosing between people and tasks as opportunities emerge. Since the Lord is our ultimate example of a creative leader and flourishing worker, let’s dare to cultivate such a tasks-people blend in our workplace approaches.
  • If you’re more task-oriented, deliberately schedule more people time. Hans Finzel warns us about “putting paperwork before peoplework.” (The Top Ten Mistakes Leaders Make, chapter 2) When you create greater margin for relational cultivation and reflective contemplation, you’ll likely see an exponential increase in your quality of connectedness with others and subsequent productivity in teamwork.
  • People sometimes ask me how I get so much done while being strongly relational in my approach. I smile and tell them my secret weapon. I make aggressive task lists. Now because I personally bristle at the thought of being too task-oriented, I label my uber-full weekly list as “OPPORTUNITIES this Week.” (You’re probably chuckling and calling me out: “Okay, Pletch is crazy—just playing a semantics game.” But hey, it works for me. Really!) And the silver bullet is this: My “OPPORTUNITIES” list always includes more people with whom I’m aiming to connect, equip, and cultivate.

What have you found best helps you push back the either-or approach and more fully live out God’s beautiful blend of details and people?