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How Good Systems Create Conditions for Flourishing

Recently, we introduced a new blog series focused on clarifying the meaning of the words we use. Over the next few months, this series will aim to redefine some of the most frequently-used language at the heart of the faith and work conversation.

Flourishing can occur in many different contexts. In our next few posts, we will focus specifically on three:

  1. Flourishing as a leader
  2. Flourishing as a system
  3. Flourishing as an organization

Jay Slocum has written an excellent article about the importance of flourishing systems.

It was the mid 1970’s and my dad was driving our green 72’ AMC Gremlin up a steep section of road in Poughkeepsie, NY that we referred to as Reverse Hill.

“Why is it called Reverse Hill?”, I asked watching my dad take a drag of his cigarette and flick the ash out the driver’s side window.

My mechanic-father said, “The name comes from the old timers who drove Ford Model T’s with gravity-fed fuel systems. The gas tanks were mounted under the driver’s seat and fed fuel down to the engine’s carburetor. The system worked until the car went up a steep hill causing the engine to be situated above the gas tank. With gravity, everything wants to go downhill not uphill. So the engine would stall. Drivers started going up this hill in reverse to guarantee that the fuel tank would remain above the engine. That’s how Reverse Hill got its name.”

The story of a flawed fuel system that gave a road its nickname can teach us three important lessons about what it means for a system to flourish:

  1. Systems flourish when all the parts cooperate
  2. Humans build systems with varying degrees of flourishing
  3. You can’t fight gravity, or we must cooperate with God’s system if we want to flourish

Systems flourish when all the parts cooperate

The wonder of systems is that they have the ability to make our individual work more effective, more efficient and more beautiful. Genesis Chapter Two describes God’s desire for man to flourish by working together. He places Adam and Eve in the garden and human society is created that we might, “be fruitful, multiply, fill the whole earth and subdue it.”

It is true that the individual work that we do rearranges the world of particulars and gives shape to life; musicians rearrange sounds that form songs, moms and dads help to rearrange the hearts and minds of their children that form citizens, water treatment plant workers rearrange the elements of creation to nourish humans and cleanse the world. But, when our work combines in a vast web of cooperative effort, we get systems. From mechanical systems like the fuel system that drives a car to systems of exchange that drive economies to systems that allow people to produce goods and services that we call corporations. What makes a fuel system or a business system or a church system a sort of miraculous wonder is that systems can bring about flourishing when a whole bunch of parts work together toward a common end. A fuel system is a little miracle under the hood of a car that can propel you down a highway at 80 miles per hour, warm your home, or allow you to cook a gourmet dinner. When a business scales from “mom and pop” to corporation it can go from giving meaningful work to a few people to employing a whole town. When a church empowers each of its members to use their gifts as Apostle, Prophet, Evangelist, Shepherd, Teacher, the world witnesses the Body of Christ here on earth.

“What makes a fuel system or a business system or a church system a sort of miraculous wonder is that systems can bring about flourishing when a whole bunch of parts work together toward a common end.”

Humans build systems with varying degrees of flourishing

When we arrange of bunch of related parts to work together to form a system, flourishing can occur. The creation of gasoline, fuel tanks, carburetors, and Model T’s is a sort of miracle that has allowed humans to navigate the world with ease. However, the story of Reverse Hill teaches us that not every system works well. Your car’s fuel system can either get you to the church on time or leave you on the side of the road waiting for AAA to come to your rescue. Our systems can appear flawless and our systems can be flawed. Human, mechanical, or biological cooperation can create great societies, great machines and great species but these forms of cooperation can also create things like the Nazi party, Apartheid, The Tower of Babel, and the 1972 Ford Pinto. In order for flourishing to occur, we must use our God-given creative capacity to get “a whole bunch of parts to work together toward a common end” but that end does not always benefit the created world.

You can’t fight gravity, or we must cooperate with God’s system if we want to flourish

When my dad told me the story of Reverse Hill, he said, “With gravity, everything wants to go downhill not uphill.”

There is an important lesson about systems in that statement: namely, if we want our systems to bring flourishing we must create them so that they cooperate with the larger system that God has placed us in within the cosmos. A mechanical system that does not consider the effect of a hill on a gravity feed fuel system is going to really put a stop to traffic. Can you imagine Reverse Hill at rush hour or in the dark and all of those cars having to stop and go up backwards (a quant story but not a picture of a flourishing system)?

Civilizations that think that they can engineer a perfect society by annihilating the family system that God designed or the church system that God Instituted (See Communist Russia in the 20th Century), will do great harm to a world designed by God for flourishing. Whether we call it Natural Law or Sphere Sovereignty or simply say, “with gravity, everything wants to go downhill not uphill,” when we acknowledge a moral order and a created order, we will have our best chance to create systems that flourish.

Systems can be a sort of miraculous wonder with all of their moving parts working in cooperation with one another. And, when we create systems that cooperate with the larger design within which we have been placed, the world can flourish.

Stories of Transformation – Mike Weber

On Suffering in Leadership

We recently published a blog post about how flourishing cannot exist without suffering. I asked Mike Weber of ProMinent Fluid Controls, Inc. to reflect on the concept of suffering in leadership that Andy Crouch lays out in his book, “Strong and Weak.”

By definition, leaders have authority. But in order to lead well and to flourish as leaders, they must also bear hidden vulnerability, the weakness and the risk that no one else sees. This, Crouch says, is the drama of leadership. The willingness to not only bear the inevitable suffering that leadership requires but even more, to actively choose to embrace that suffering, knowing that it is the pathway to flourishing for the community is THE common characteristic we see in the most effective leaders.

If you know Mike you know that he is a unique blend of compassion and no nonsense. His immediate response was this; “It is not a philosophy, it is a reality that God grows us through suffering. “ In fact, just before my conversation with Mike he discussed this very issue with a senior member of his staff who manages an incredibly difficult client. “There are people in every industry that are insecure and aggressive. They are petulant and mean and they use their power and position to belittle those under them.” Honoring those customers and standing between them and others in the organization is a difficult to do and takes its toll on a leader. I asked him how he thinks about these situations. He said, “first, be prepared. You will encounter difficult people and situations. Don’t go it alone. People are embarrassed to talk about their struggles. You have to bring those pains and struggles into the light- offer them up to God, share them with coworkers and family. This may be uncomfortable but it is vital. Ephesians 6:13 says, “Therefore take up the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand.” A leader in God’s economy does not go into battle but to takes up the armor of God, bring their full self to the tasks at hand to the best end of those around them, and, in the end, to remain standing.

  • Be prepared. You have to know that difficult times will come if you are doing the right things.
  • Don’t go it alone. Have your trusted advisors close let them in on what’s going on. Seek God ask, “What do you want me to see in this?”
  • Celebrate a good outcome. Know that God suffers with us seek to find a spirit of gratitude and trust that faithfulness will bear fruit over time.

Mike said it well, “I don’t seek out difficulty but when it comes my way I don’t avoid it. I actually embrace it. I know that when time are hard I am more humble, more open, more willing to ask for help and more willing to share.”

Flourishing Cannot Exist Without Suffering. Here’s Why

Last month, we introduced a new blog series focused on clarifying the meaning of the words we use. Over the next few months, this series will aim to redefine some of the most frequently-used language at the heart of the faith and work conversation.

Flourishing can occur in many different contexts. In our next few posts, we will focus specifically on three:

  1. Flourishing as a leader
  2. Flourishing as a system
  3. Flourishing as an organization

Today, we are jumping into the deep end with a big word: Flourishing.

Inherent within the idea of leadership is an outward-focused mentality. Leaders cannot be effective if they only focus on themselves. At the same time, a leader must act out a strong internal sense of identity and purpose. Leaders cannot be effective if they do not know who they are and why they do what they do. The tension between an outward and inward orientation makes the concept of flourishing as a leader difficult to define. Does a flourishing leader benefit at the cost of his followers, or does he suffer by drowning under organizational pressure?

In his book Strong and Weak, Andy Crouch delves headfirst into this idea of flourishing as a leader. Crouch bases his work off of a simple concept: Flourishing comes from being both strong and weak. This idea is somewhat counter-cultural; great leaders are commonly associated with ruthless strength, authority, and power. However, Crouch asserts that leaders only flourish whenever their strength is balanced with appropriate weakness.

Crouch defines flourishing according to a 2 x 2 diagram in which authority is crossed against vulnerability.

Adapted from Strong and Weak by Andy Crouch © 2016.

He offers specific definitions for these two loaded terms. True authority is defined as “the capacity for meaningful action.” True vulnerability is defined as “exposure to meaningful risk.”

This 2 x 2 grid creates four quadrants in which humans have a tendency to live, depending on their capacity for authority and vulnerability:

First, where authority is high and vulnerability is low, exploiting abounds. According to Crouch, exploiting is found anywhere people seek to maximize power while eliminating risk.

Second, at the low end of both scales, no authority and no vulnerability create withdrawing. We all start our lives in this quadrant, but as innocent newborns this space is called safety. Crouch writes that in today’s America, withdrawing can be easily found through the technological barricades that allow people to isolate themselves from society.

Third, opposite from exploiting, with high vulnerability and low authority, falls the quadrant of suffering. No matter how privileged or powerful a person may be, everyone will experience suffering at some point in life.

The fourth and final quadrant is the quadrant of flourishing. Flourishing occurs at the intersection of true authority and true vulnerability. Crouch writes, “In a world where many people simply withdraw into safety, where others are imprisoned in the most extreme vulnerability, where others pursue their own unaccountable authority, anyone who seeks true flourishing is already, in many senses, a leader.”

The heart of Crouch’s model, however, appears one step further, as he introduces the concept of “Hidden Vulnerability.” By definition, leaders have authority. But in order to lead well and to flourish as leaders, they must also bear hidden vulnerability, the weakness and the risk that no one else sees. This, Crouch says, is the drama of leadership. The willingness to not only bear the inevitable suffering that leadership requires but even more, to actively choose to embrace that suffering, knowing that it is the pathway to flourishing for the community is THE common characteristic we see in the most effective leaders. The biblical imagery of the vine and the vinedresser in John 15 is perhaps the most poignant. In order to produce ripe luscious grapes, there must be the hard work of pruning and shaping. Every leader worth following has actively embraced the hardship and the pruning, the pain and the suffering, necessary to become a leader who creates flourishing for her teams, organization and community. Embrace suffering and flourishing will follow. This is the true paradox of leadership.

This article was curated by Bethany Wilson, Grove City College.

Change The Language, Change The Culture

Language is powerful.

Most people hold this idea in sound agreement, but the extent to which it permeates our ideas and our thinking is largely unrecognized. In fact, often the most powerful language in our vocabulary is that which we do not even realize we are using. The manner in which we choose and employ words has the ability to drastically change the way our arguments are understood and the traction our language receives.

This issue does not disappear in the corner of faith & work discussions; instead it becomes even more relevant. The use of clear, consistent, and well-defined language is essential for discussion and understanding in this realm of conversation.

Several questions present themselves as we consider questions of language and meaning.

  • What exactly to we mean by often-used language in the faith and work movement?
  •  How does our use of language influence public perception?
  •  What language ought we to be using in important discussions?

Over the next several months, we will be presenting a series of blog posts addressing many of these questions. We believe that in order to enter into productive dialogue and faithful conversation, we must first redefine the words which are at the crux of our work. In these essays, we will offer “redefinitions” of several buzz words in the faith and work community: flourishing, transformation, vocation, and more.

Check back every month for a new post as we seek to “redefine” the language that is so important to our work and our faith.

This article was curated by Bethany Wilson, Grove City College.

Practical Transformation: Moving from Idea to Reality

Have you ever had a world-changing idea, but you were unable to bring it to life in a practical way?

For many years, our work has centered on the big idea that “everything matters to God.” However, there is often a practical gap in this journey. The challenge comes in crossing the chasm between embracing an idea and putting that idea into practice.

Terry Timm, the Lead Pastor at Christ Community Church in the South Hills, recently conducted a survey to see how comfortable his congregation was with implementing the principle that ‘all things matter’ into their daily lives.

Terry has been working to embed the integration of faith and work into his congregation since its early beginnings in 2003. He was surprised to find, however, that while they had internalized and embraced this theology, his congregation was uncertain what the concept should practically look like in their lives and work and how they could communicate to others.

So what does it take to move from theology to praxis? At PLF, we have identified “The Four Elements of Transformation,” the steps required to move from an idea into a reality. Much as a caterpillar follows a specific course as it transforms into a butterfly, these four steps provide an outline for understanding what actually occurs in the transformational process.

1. Perspective

Before the caterpillar can evolve into a butterfly, the necessary conditions must be established through the formation of the chrysalis. Similarly, gaining perspective sets the stage for the change which needs to occur in our lives.

This first step is a shift that many of us have already made—at least intellectually. We believe on a theoretical level that God cares not just about our faith but about all parts of our lives.

2. Paradigm

Paradigm is the critical point at which we have embraced the idea intellectually, but we begin to recognize a disconnect between our newfound conviction and its practical outworking in our lives and work. So how do we jump the gap? For the caterpillar, old cells must die off and new ones must begin to grow before it can emerge. You don’t get a butterfly by duct-taping wings on a caterpillar–something new must emerge. For us it requires the release of old ways of thinking and acting so that new ways can take shape.

The experience can push us into unfamiliar territory, and we may desire to move through this step quickly. In reality, effective change takes time.

3. Structure

As old practices begin to die off, new structures must form in order for the new ideology to take hold. In the metamorphosis, this is when the wings take shape and the compound eye forms.

Structure is where we start to ask ourselves how we want to fully embrace this new way of thinking and being. We often stop or get stuck once we have shifted our paradigm. It can be tough to make the shift, but structure is essential to ensure a lasting impact.

4. Process

Finally, just as the butterfly emerges from its cocoon, the new way of being becomes a part of daily life. We reinforce our newly-embraced reality with processes that help us function coherently within the system.

Transforming the knowledge that God cares about all things into practice is part of an ever-present cycle. We will forever be moving through the process of perspective, paradigm, structure, and process. The road from idea to application can be long and intimidating, but the truth that ‘everything matters to God’ is an idea ever so worth applying to your life.

How Our Words Impact the Sunday-to-Monday Gap

Have you ever sat in Church Sunday morning and listened to an amazing sermon about grace and forgiveness and then had to fire someone on Monday morning? Have you ever closed a deal or finished a project and wondered if what you do makes a difference in the world?

Dualistic Language

It can often feel like there is a chasm between what we hear on Sunday and how we apply that Monday through Saturday. Many of us know the life transforming power of the Gospel in our personal lives but don’t really consider the implications of that Gospel in what we do with 40-60+ hours of our week.

How can I go to church and experience profound grace and mercy despite my many mistakes and turn around and fire someone because they are incompetent in their role on Monday? It is really hard to reconcile being truly forgiven with accountability and results. We need a bigger context.

How can I go to church and experience profound grace and mercy despite my many mistakes and turn around and fire someone because they are incompetent in their role on Monday?

Sunday Words

Monday Words

Forgiveness
Mercy
Grace
Faithfulness
Encourage
Family
Commitment
Generosity
Common Good
Relationships
Responsibility
Accountability
Truth
Success
Shrewd
Career
Ambition
Negotiation
Shareholder Value
Results

What Does The Gospel Have To Do With It?

The good news is that the Gospel is true and it is big. It is a comprehensive story about a God that made everything perfect; about people who wanted to be autonomous and godlike and screwed everything up; about that same God who loves his creation so much he was willing to take on a body that sweats and stinks just like ours, a God who gave up everything to rescue his good creation; and finally, about a God who invites his people to join him in the work of restoring his world until the day he will fully bring his Kingdom to be on earth as it is in heaven.

God’s Assignment For Us

God’s invitation to join him in His work is what fills the chasm between Sunday words and Monday words. Our task is to take the good creation in all of its many parts: family, law, government, business, art- to name a few, and discovering how to unlock and develop the goodness inherent in them. God uses us to rescue creation from the bending and breaking power of sin.

That means that as Christians when we put a deal together or complete a project, we can tap into the work God is doing to restore the good creation and make life better for everyone. It also means we can be honest about brokenness and sin. Sometimes that means making hard decisions– including firing a person for not being willing or able to do a job effectively, while at the same time, affirming their value as a person.

That means that as Christians when we put a deal together or complete a project, we can tap into the work God is doing to restore the good creation and make life better for everyone.

In God’s story there are no distinctions between Sunday and Monday words. It is easy to narrow our context, and limit our understanding of what God is doing. We desperately need each other to expand our view so that we don’t lose sight of the one context where all words invite understand in light of the big story of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

The Significance of Play and Exploration: A Panel Conversation

The Play and Exploration Panel spoke at Jubilee Professional 2017. See what thoughtful and challenging speakers will be at Jubilee Professional 2018 HERE

What does the word “play” mean to you? Does play suggest only frivolity and nonsense, or could it have some greater purpose in our lives? Led by minister Dave Bindewald, the participants of the first ever Play and Exploration Cohort share how stepping into wonder and curiosity has transformed their perspectives on vocation, creativity, and flourishing.

Jubilee Professional is an annual, half-day conference to learn how to apply biblical truth to your everyday, professional life. It is brought to you by the Pittsburgh Leadership Foundation and CCOand is part of the Jubilee Conference.

Photo and video credit: Andrew Rush

Cultural Engagement and the Next Generation: Dr. Greg Thornbury

Dr. Greg Thornbury spoke at Jubilee Professional 2017. See what thoughtful and challenging speakers will be at Jubilee Professional 2018 HERE

We need a new generation equipped to relentlessly pursue cultural engagement and stand toe-to-toe with the world, says Dr. Greg Thornbury, sixth President of the King’s College. Has the church been training up and shepherding the coming generation with this urgency, and do our young people have the tools to set forth the Word of Life in our cities? Explore these questions in Dr. Thornbury’s captivating talk.

Jubilee Professional is an annual, half-day conference to learn how to apply biblical truth to your everyday, professional life. It is brought to you by the Pittsburgh Leadership Foundation and CCOand is part of the Jubilee Conference.

Photo and video credit: Andrew Rush

“Thy Will Be Done” in Community Transformation: Dr. John Wallace

Dr. John Wallace spoke at Jubilee Professional 2017. See what thoughtful and challenging speakers will be at Jubilee Professional 2018 HERE

What does it look like to redeem our neighborhoods for the kingdom of God? Dr. John Wallace works as both a professor at the University of Pittsburgh and a pastor in Pittsburgh’s Homewood neighborhood. Dr. Wallace shares how his church practically lives out “thy kingdom come, thy will be done” for his hometown community, in the spheres of education, enterprise, art, and commerce.

Jubilee Professional is an annual, half-day conference to learn how to apply biblical truth to your everyday, professional life. It is brought to you by the Pittsburgh Leadership Foundation and CCOand is part of the Jubilee Conference.

Photo and video credit: Andrew Rush

The Shared Story of Civil Rights: Dr. Todd Allen

Dr. Todd Allen spoke at Jubilee Professional 2017. See what thoughtful and challenging speakers will be at Jubilee Professional 2018 HERE.

As a college student, Dr. Todd Allen was shocked by the unfamiliarity of his peers with the history of the Civil Rights Movement, which had been so meaningful to his education. Now, college professor Dr. Allen has devoted his life’s work to communicating those stories and promoting the understanding that these stories belong to us all.

Jubilee Professional is an annual, half-day conference to learn how to apply biblical truth to your everyday, professional life. It is brought to you by the Pittsburgh Leadership Foundation and CCOand is part of the Jubilee Conference.

Photo and video credit: Andrew Rush