In it she profiles two seminary communities in Kentucky: Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and Asbury Theological Seminary. Southern has a “complementarian insistence on male headship,” whereas Asbury “rejects overtly gendered hierarchies.” This comparative study already piques my interest. I expected it to be a takedown of Southern that held Asbury up as a shining example of how to “do gender and practice power.” Indeed, McKnight writes here about Weaver Swartz and “Southern Seminary’s ‘Godly’ Man.” McKnight calls it “faux masculinity” where “the power dynamic becomes asymmetrical, which itself is fertile ground for abuse.”
But Weaver Swartz notes in the introduction, “Asbury, however, has struggled to achieve the demographic equity it prescribes.” Even this seminary with a so-called egalitarian theology has a narrative that “limits women much more subtly.” There is at Asbury Seminary an “individualistic genderblindness” that “limits gender equity.” And so, “Combining theology, culture, rhetoric, and embodied practice, both seminaries narrate powerful institutional stories that center men and limit women’s agency.”
Phew! That’s all from the first few pages. And the title, Stained Glass Ceilings, is really clever. Not to mention a beautifully designed cover.
Check out the book here at the publisher’s site. I’m eager to read it.
I preach from the Bible whenever I preach. God spoke through and to humanity by the Word. My primary goal as a preacher is to create a space where we can hear God speaking to us today again through that Scripture that is “living and active.” And that we would respond faithfully.
Rare, however, is the full sermon I preach about the Bible: what it is, how we got it, what it does, and how we can respond. I had that privilege this last Sunday, as I preached on the first of five parts of our church’s vision: Scripture guides us. To say Scripture guides us invites reflection on at least two questions: (1) what is Scripture and (2) why should that be what guides us? (Not to mention: how would we know, months and years from now, if Scripture actually were guiding us?)
Despite 40+ years of my life steeped in the Bible, despite memorizing whole books of the New Testament as a kid, despite reading the Bible through multiple times, and despite reading it in Hebrew and Greek… I found it surprisingly challenging to concisely share about, “What is the Bible?” and the follow-on question: “So what?”
In the end I broke it down broadly into two -ations: Revelation and Invitation. God’s Word is revelation. God’s word is an invitation.
To call the Bible revelation means that it is a received word. It is a given word. It is not something we went looking for and figured out by pure reason or emotion or will—in contrast to starting points in other disciplines, like philosophy. All the world’s Pulitzer Prize winners combined couldn’t conjure up God’s Word if they tried. Scripture is God’s self-revelation, and we have it, available to us. Deuteronomy 30:11-14 says:
This command I am giving you today is not too difficult for you, and it is not beyond your reach. It is not kept in heaven, so distant that you must ask, ‘Who will go up to heaven and bring it down so we can hear it and obey?’ It is not kept beyond the sea, so far away that you must ask, ‘Who will cross the sea to bring it to us so we can hear it and obey?’ No, the message is very close at hand; it is on your lips and in your heart so that you can obey it.
Notice who is doing the work, so to speak, in finding “the message”—not you! Not me! God says the people of Israel already have it—on their lips and in their heart. Not because they set it there, but because God put it there. In the 21st century, we might add that we have God’s Word at our very fingertips—just a search string and a click away.
The more specific word Scripture uses for revelation is inspiration. 2 Timothy 3:16-17 says:
All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.
Maybe a better English word (or at least a more literal one) for “God-breathed” would be theo-spired. God breathed his words into the Bible. Just as he breathed life into Adam and Eve and created them in his image, he breathed himself into Scripture, showing us even more of his image. Scripture is not just humans guessing at who God is; it’s God himself telling us who he is.
By inspiration of Scripture we mean that supernatural influence of the Holy Spirit on the Scripture writers that rendered their writings an accurate record of the revelation or that resulted in what they wrote actually being the Word of God.
Just how does inspiration work? If the Bible was both written by God and written by humans, what percentage of each author is at play in each passage, or across the whole Bible? Or is that the wrong way to think about it? Is it more like the incarnation: fully divine, fully human, both at once?
I think the best answer to this question is: we just don’t know. Erickson says it more articulately:
It is our contention here that inspiration involved God’s directing the thoughts of the writers, so that those thoughts were precisely the ones that he wished expressed. At times these thoughts were very specific; at other times they were more general. When they were more general, God wanted that particular degree of specificity recorded, and no more.
I suppose Erickson’s claim could be seen as a case of post hoc ergo propter hoc , where someone infers causation (or intent) just because one thing chronologically follows the other. In other words, “We have it how we have it, so God must have wanted it that way.” But I believe he’s right, and so do millennia of interpreters.
Speaking of philosophy, Erickson tells this story about Edmund Husserl:
Edmund Husserl, the phenomenologist, had a devoted disciple and assistant, Eugen Fink. Fink wrote an interpretation of Husserl’s philosophy upon which the master placed his approval. It is reported that when Husserl read Fink’s article, he exclaimed, “It is as if I had written it myself!””
So, too, God’s relationship to Scripture.
That’s all revelation. But this revelation of God calls for a response: it’s also an invitation. I’ll write more about this in a future post.
It’s not written from a religious perspective, but I thought it applies especially well in the body of Christ. Summary:
Earlier in our careers, speed and energy are important components. But there comes a point where you actually can’t speed up any more. You need to rely less on what you can personally achieve (your “ego-drive”) and more on what you can achieve with others (your “co-drive”). Instead of being energetic, you need to become energizing. Instead of setting the pace, you need to teach others to self-propel. Instead of delegating, you need to allow people to congregate. As you shift from proving yourself to helping others perform, your key question is not “How can I push harder?” but “Where can I let go?”
In a recent chapter of Uproar that our church’s elders read together, Peter Steinke writes, “Distress is not always an obstacle to learning. Pain can be a teacher. Real learning begins when the threat of pain emerges.”
There is the idea that our call in the church is not to shield people from pain1 but to walk with them through it.2 You may seen this described as a “ministry of presence,” “accompaniment,” or just “sitting in the mud” with someone. If we can’t make the hard stuff go away, at least we can be there.
In a similar way, an author and leadership consultant, Jack Shitama, writes:
A big mistake we make is to think we can relieve other people of their emotional pain. This does them no favors. In life, pain is an opportunity for growth. The best thing you can do for a friend is stay connected to them, go alongside them, while they deal with their own pain. They will be stronger for it.
Theologically, it helps me to remember that pain by itself does not make us stronger, but inviting the presence and power of God into our pain can transform it and actually strengthen us: “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”
Then, with God’s help, we can ask how pain might become an opportunity to grow. We can ask how we might channel anxiety to motivate positive change.
I read an article recently called, “Stress Can Be a Good Thing If You Know How to Use It.” You can read it here. The article is good as is—I would just add that reading it as a Christian, we can also say: Stress Can Be a Good Thing (Or Turned Into a Good Thing), If We Give it to God and Allow God to Use It!
A “system” is a process with its distinct yet interrelated parts. An organism or institution may consist of multiple systems. For example, various interlocking systems (nervous, skeletal, respiratory) make up the one human body. The human body is its own unified system with all these smaller systems working together. The church is a system full of complex humans—a system full of systems, you might say.
The Bible uses systems imagery in Romans 12: “For just as each of us has one body with many members, and these members do not all have the same function, so in Christ we, though many, form one body, and each member belongs to all the others.”
In a healthy human body, all the systems do their part and work together as one. In a healthy church, all the “systems” (interrelationships) work together toward unity in Christ. Peter Steinke says, “Health is a continuous process, the ongoing interplay a of multiple forces and conditions.”
This is why, for example, the New York Yankees can’t just buy their way to a World Series. They could have all the best players, on all the most expensive contracts, but if they don’t work well together as a team (“one body”), they won’t win. The Red Sox (or the Tampa Bay Rays!) will beat them every time. It’s not just about all the parts, but how the parts connect and work together as one.
Because you and your leadership do not exist in isolation, what you model as a Christian leader can ripple through the whole congregation (system). This is true of attendees who are not leaders, too. Think, for example, about how “contagious” giving can be, and how matching gifts can enact a process where people are inspired to give.
The downside to a system like the church, where patterns can be contagious, is anxiety. Anxiety is about as catchy as the omicron variant of COVID. Because the church is one body—interconnected with various systems and processes that affect each other—anxiety in one part of the church spreads and affects what is happening in another part of the church. For example, if there’s anxiety about a budget-setting process, that can spread into other parts of the church, like how we relate to each other in small groups. Or a parishioner might lose a loved one and direct the anger outward at a church leader or other member. Or this classic example: Bob has had a stressful day at work, because his boss yelled at him (because his boss fought with a spouse before work), so Bob comes home and kicks the dog. The dog isn’t legally employable, and yet the anxiety from Bob’s workplace (and Bob’s boss’s marriage) has spread to the poor pooch. Steinke refers to this as “shifting the burden” or “blame displacement,” also known as scapegoating. Systems crave stability, and sometimes the drive to release anxiety causes members to act in reactive and unhealthy ways. Anxiety is normal. It just needs to be regulated.
In his book Uproar: Calm Leadership in Anxious Times, Peter Steinke calls leaders to be a non-anxious presence: “To be a non-anxious presence,” he says, “means to acknowledge anxiety but not let it be the driver of behavior.” “Non-anxious” is the ideal, but a bit of a misnomer. Everybody has some anxiety. But good leaders strive—with God’s help!—to be at least a less-anxious presence.
In an “emotional system,” the emotional temperature comes from the people, and from the relationships people have, and from the culture and processes that are embedded there. An emotional system can be a congregation, a non-profit, a medical practice, a denomination, a family, or a small group.
Steinke lists some key ways that “leaders impact a system.” Then he says, “The overall health and functioning of any organization depends primarily on one or several people at the top who can exercise the above characteristics well.” He says, “Any social system—a family, workplace, or even a whole society—improves when people function less and less in reactive ways and more and more on the basis of values and beliefs sustained by clear goals.”
Uproar, chapter 1: “Living Nowhere between Two Somewheres”
Living nowhere between two somewheres has been called “the liminal experience,” the “neutral zone,” and the “transition space.” My own term is “Uproar.” Uproar is a time of dislocation; everything is “up in the air” or “at loose ends.”
We live in anxious times. And anxiety wishes to resolve itself, to be relieved. We don’t always pursue this in healthy ways. Sometimes we look for (or try to be) “rescuers,” placing unreasonable expectations on our leaders. But:
If the leader becomes anxious and forfeits calm reflection, the system is essentially leaderless. Anxiety tumbles down like loose rock dislodged from a high position. In a time of Uproar, the leader cannot be as anxious as everyone else.
The non-anxious leader should be differentiated, having a clear sense of self. They are neither overly close to others (emotionally “fused”) nor too emotionally distant (“cutoff”). Many people have stories about family members who were co-dependent or overly distant. The church is not immune to this dynamic.
Well-differentiated leaders know who they are. They find their identity in Jesus, and are not afraid to let other people be who they are, even when they disagree. Differentiated leaders do not change themselves to match other people, nor do they automatically withdraw from people or coerce them when there is disagreement.
What does this mean for leadership functioning? Either the leader becomes unengaged with others (acts rigidly, dominates, withdraws, becomes overly dogmatic) or too close (panders, seeks consensus, shifts with the wind for the sake of harmony). …In highly anxious times, people tend to tilt toward one or the other extreme in order to survive.
I’d sum it up like this:
Well-differentiated leaders know who they are
We find our identity in Jesus, and are not afraid to disagree
Differentiated leaders do not change themselves to match other people
Differentiated leaders do not withdraw from people or coerce them when there is disagreement.
We can pray that God’s peace would empower us to be a loving, non-anxious presence in our congregations.
Why am I leading our leaders through Uproar? Among other reasons, because anxiety confronts us at multiple levels:
our own individual insecurities that we don’t measure up or aren’t doing enough
anxieties that unwanted patterns from our family of origin will just repeat themselves in other settings
congregational anxieties: building space, attendance, an aging congregation, the absence of younger/newer folks, still not seeing some of our folks who attended before the pandemic
societal anxieties: take your pick! COVID-19, racism, inflation, Putin/Ukraine, social media, violent rhetoric from public officials
Steinke uses family systems theory to help us know how to be a non-anxious (or less anxious) presence in the midst of all these multiple anxieties. Understanding how to respond maturely and faithfully to anxiety will make us more effective leaders, not to mention better and fuller versions of ourselves.
On a personal level, family systems theory and the practice of a non-anxious presence have been powerful helps for me in pastoral ministry the past few years. I want to share with my fellow leaders what I’ve learned on my own leadership journey.
And I’d like to share those lessons, too, here at Words on the Word.
Our church’s leadership is five chapters in to Uproar, and even though it’s less church-specific than Steinke’s other works, we’ve been finding powerful applications—in a congregational setting and beyond. In the midst of life’s anxieties, family systems theory and especially the idea of being a non-anxious presence can help us build individual and organizational capacity. This is true whether we’re in conflict situations right now, or even if any of our life spheres are relatively conflict-free. In fact, it’s in conflict-free times that conversations about reducing anxiety can be most powerful—certainly easier. “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”
I didn’t set out to do it at first, but I’m creating short study guides for the chapters we discuss, and I’ll post adaptations of those here in coming weeks. In the meantime, check out Uproar here or at your local library. Below is its full Table of Contents. Let me know in the comments if you have read or are reading this book.
Full Table of Contents
PART I: THE NEW CONTEXT
1 Living Nowhere between Two Somewheres 2 Anxious Times 3 Societal Emotional Process
PART I: THE LEADER’S PRESENCE
4 Heads Up! 5 The Non-anxious Presence 6 Impacting the Emotional System
PART III: THE LEADER’S FUNCTIONING
7 The Balancing Act 8 At the Edge 9 The People of the Charm
PART IV: THE LEADER’S CHALLENGE
10 Rocking the Emotional Boat 11 We versus They 12 Staying Calm and Courageous, No Matter What
Here is a profound insight on what self-deception (and then deception of others) looks like:
No man, perhaps, ever at first described to himself the act he was about to do as Murder, or Adultery, or Fraud, or Treachery, or Perversion; and when he hears it so described by other men, he is (in a way) sincerely shocked and surprised. Those others “don’t understand.” If they knew what it had really been like for him, they would not use those crude ‘stock’ names. With a wink or a titter, or in a cloud of muddy emotion, the thing has slipped into his will as something not very extraordinary, something of which, rightly understood and in all his highly peculiar circumstances, he may even feel proud.
—A Preface to Paradise Lost, by C.S. Lewis
We rationalize our actions, even if we might rightly balk at the same actions, were it somebody else. Hard a pill as this is to swallow, I think it’s an important truth to acknowledge—and confess to God.
I keep coming back to this arresting passage in Jeremiah:
For from the least to the greatest of them, everyone is greedy for unjust gain; and from prophet to priest, everyone deals falsely. They have treated the wound of my people carelessly, saying, “Peace, peace,” when there is no peace.
— Jeremiah 6:13-14
Any declaration of peace calls for discernment. Anyone can say there is “peace” in a place when there’s really not. In fact, folks with positions of power (formal or informal) have a vested interest in “saying, ‘Peace, peace,’ when there is no peace.”
That way they can preserve the status quo (from which they benefit). They can avoid “conflict” (or taking a long, hard look at reality and themselves). They can curry favor with those who love to hear that there is peace (don’t we all?).
In Jeremiah it was prophet and priest who were “dealing falsely,” saying “Shalom!” when shalom was decidedly not God’s word for the people. Shalom did not reflect the hard realities.
I find it sobering to remember that prophet and priest are appointed, sacred offices, established by God.
Yes, even sacred communities are susceptible to the abuse of lying leaders who declare peace where there is none.
A hard truth, but I think the even greater challenge is to think about how these verses might apply to our own settings.
It’s easy to call out Jeremiah’s Hananiah, his nemesis who persuaded the people “to trust in lies.” It’s easy to point at pastors, priests, and bishops who have lied and misled people in other communities. It’s easy to call for the resignation of a deceitful and unrepentant church leader in another faith community (or president of a country). Indeed, we should.
But what about when the false prophet is my false prophet? What about when the fake peace proclaimer is our fake peace proclaimer? What about when the deceit is coming “from inside the house”?
We might try to minimize:
Yeah, but she’s been a huge part of our community for decades!
Well, he thinks there is actually “peace” here, and he’s prophesying sincerely.
They’re doing the best they can under the circumstances; how about some grace?
Or the even more insidious: “Who can even know what peace is?”
It’s harder to navigate when Hananiah is one of us… when we have worshiped with Hananiah… when we have shared meals with Hananiah… when we have done mission together… when we celebrated birthdays and holidays and baptisms together. We might even think that Hananiah has somehow earned the right to be wrong, the right to (occasionally?) misrepresent God to the people. Jeremiah’s Hananiah is clearly in the wrong but my Hananiah gets a mulligan.
Jeremiah 6:16 goes on:
Thus says the LORD: Stand at the crossroads, and look, and ask for the ancient paths, where the good way lies; and walk in it, and find rest for your souls.
Instead of an uncritical acceptance of our Hananiah’s lying, instead of asking, “How can we even know?”, God calls the people to stand and look and ask. (“Seek and you shall find.”) And then to walk in “the good way.”
And then there is the last line of Jeremiah 6:16—indeed, it often goes unquoted:
But they said, “We will not walk in it.”
May God have mercy on us, for all the times we choose not to walk in God’s good way. And may God give us the discernment and the courage to acknowledge the truth about Hananiah and his prophecies, even when he’s “one of us.”
I recently saw a survey given to young people that asked them something like, “Do you use your computer inappropriately?” The number was low, 10% or so of respondents answering yes. The next question was something like, “Do your peers use their computer inappropriately?” The number was much higher; if I recall, close to a majority of respondents said yes. In other words, I don’t do that, but they do.
I suspect that pattern holds with other destructive habits. Take gossip, for example. Deborah Grayson Riegel points out that in her coaching work, her clients often deny participating in workplace gossip, “with a look on their faces that indicates that they are insulted to have been asked such a question.” But when Grayson Riegel reframes the question, the response changes:
When I ask them whether they have ever participated in a “confirmation expedition” — whereby they 1) ask a colleague to confirm their own negative or challenging experience with a third colleague who is not present, or 2) welcome a similar line of confirmation inquiry from another colleague about a third colleague who is not present, most admit that this is, in fact, a regular part of their daily work life.
She talks about the importance of naming gossip (or a “confirmation expedition”) as such:
First, call gossip “gossip” to stop it in its tracks. If you are engaging in “informal and evaluative talk in an organization, usually among no more than a few individuals, about another member of that organization who is not present,” — especially if the aim is to confirm your experience rather than get constructive solutions — then you are participating in gossip.
The intertestamental book of Sirach goes further than just calling gossip “gossip.” It says, “Curse the gossips and the double-tongued, for they destroy the peace of many” (Sirach 28:13, NRSV). Gossip destroys the well-being of persons and disrupts whole communities.
The apostle Paul also warns his first century churches about “gossips,” which in Greek sure seems like an onomatopoeia: psithuristēs (whisperer). Think: “whisper networks,” but not the good, truth-telling kind that rightly bring down folks like Harvey Weinstein et al.
One of the dangers of gossip is that it seeks to confirm information (or at least claims to), but it risks getting reality wrong, because not all the involved people are in the room, including folks who may know more about a situation at hand. Not to mention that such furtive whispering is hard to hear, and often inaccurately conveys information when passed from one person to another (as happens in the kids’ game of “Telephone”).
Grayson Riegel has excellent advice for what to do about this dynamic (see her Harvard Business Review article here). I especially appreciate her “Let people know that you have a policy of ‘if you have a problem with me, please tell me first.’” (Although I think we need to be ready for the unfortunate possibility that some may simply ignore this request.)
I would add this prayer from Psalm 139:23-24, which could help us avoid doing what we are sure only others do:
Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my thoughts.
See if there is any wicked way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.