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.

The Role of Leadership in Thriving Cities: Dr. Greg Thompson

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

Today more than ever, our communities need bold leaders to move them from brokenness into regeneration and thriving. Dr. Greg Thompson, Executive Director of New City Commons, outlines the qualities of leadership necessary for this movement and invokes the great Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. as he calls us to “step into the shards of our communities and bear witness to the reality of love.”

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 CCO and is part of the Jubilee Conference.

Photo and video credit: Andrew Rush

Justice for the Common Good

Michael Gerson spoke at Jubilee Professional 2016. See what thoughtful and challenging speakers will be at Jubilee Professional 2018 HERE

In an age of political turmoil, what can Christians do?

There is an underlying issue that many feel the American dream has been stolen. This comes at a time when a major economic transition has upended the blue collar economy and family structures have become weaker.

Family, community, and economic challenges are related in complex ways. All are in need of attention and understanding. Christians must stand for human dignity and common good in all of those ways.

I think this emphasis on entrepreneurship, on the proper role of government, and on strong families and communities is the great contribution of reformed Christianity to our common life.

And while it is easy to feel hopeless in times of turmoil, remember that the people regarded as heroes in our country stood for hope and unity, not divisiveness and hatred.

How Parents Can Influence the Faith of Their Teenagers

Dan Dupee spoke at Jubilee Professional 2016. See what thoughtful and challenging speakers will be at Jubilee Professional 2018 HERE

About 60% of kids raised in the church leave during the college years. Father of four and author Dan Dupee explores this phenomena in his book “It’s Not Too Late: The Essential Part You Play In Shaping Your Teen’s Faith.” He looks at three opportunities that can help parents continue to be influential to their teen’s faith.

Confront Myths

Teens tend to give off the “I need you but I don’t want to need you” or “I love you but sort of hate you” attitude. In reality, Dan reminds parents that kids are always looking towards their guardians, even during college. Just as Jesus looked to his father, parents matter.

Create Opportunities

Parents make mistakes. Everybody makes mistakes. Dan created a list of way to create opportunities for your children within the messes and mistakes parents make. Even with imperfections that lead to suffering, we experience God’s true and beautiful grace.

Stay With It 

Entrepreneurs constantly experience triumphs and trials, they experiences periods of anger and periods of love for their program, business, or organization. Likewise, a parent’s relationship with their child will go through highs and lows. Even when they make choices that can’t be taken back, they can be forgiven.

Lastly, Dan reminds us that, “Our kids needs us to hang in there with them and invite others into the fray.”

Dan’s book is available at Hearts and Minds Books. Order a copy today!

Leadership as Stewardship

Matthew 25:21,23
“His master replied, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your mater’s happiness!”

This scripture passage is often used by church leaders as part of “stewardship or capital” campaigns, making the (legitimate) case that if one invests in their local congregation, it will return Kingdom dividends.

But what if Jesus had a much more personal and high risk investment he was suggesting? As leaders, what if the primary ‘talent’ God has given us to steward is who we are as His image bearers?

Stewarding one’s self is the most vital work each of has been given as a follower of Jesus. The work we put our hands to and the things we choose to invest our time and energy in, are the primary things we must steward for Kingdom dividends. The Greek word for stewardship, “Oikonomia” translates as economy or house management. Before we can steward anything else, we must manage our own house. This means doing the hard work of knowing yourself, investing in developing yourself in an intentional and focused way.

This is not navel-gazing, but rather learning who God created you to be and what your unique gifts, talents and strengths are to steward, wherever He has placed you. It guides what you say yes to, and more importantly, what you say no to. When we do not know and develop the very talents God has placed with in each of us, we are hard pressed to help others do the same.

The leadership implications of this are profound. Stewarding of self is fundamental to the work of any effective leader and not attending to this is well-intended disobedience. The consequences are harsh:

“For whoever has will be given more, and they will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what they have will be taken from them. And throw that worthless servant outside, into the darkness…” Matt 25:29-30

Are you stewarding who God created you to be? Are you over-extended but know there are things you spend time on that are “outside your wheelhouse”? If so, then you are ready for the steward leadership journey that matters.


This was originally posted in Man Up Pittsburgh: 2016 Devotional. For more information on Man Up, visit www.ManUpPittsburgh.org.

The Most Important Lesson For The Next Generation of Leaders

The Rev. Sam Shoemaker once said, “The untapped conviction and belief in [Pittsburgh] is worth more to it than all the coal in the hills and all the steel in the mills. If we could train and mobilize that force, Pittsburgh would become the spiritual pilot plant for America.”

16489_994111810448_7939774702136935498_n-570x428This is how Lisa started her talk on the most important lesson for the next generation of leaders last Saturday morning for the Learning to Lead breakfast, organized by LC grad Doug Smith.

There are three marks of a great leader.

1.) Faithfulness (11:20)

Faithfulness in the small things will get you to where you want to go. Continue to be faithful about the things you are called to do.

2) Obedience and yieldedness (16:10)

This means you truly know what it take to submit. We are not doormats, but yield when it is the appropriate thing to do, and do it with a sense of grace and forbearance. All the plans in the world mean nothing unless you are yielded to God.

3.) Stewardship (19:10)

We were created by God to create. Stewardship means that we take our God-given gifts and use them for the greater good.

Imagine if all of us worked for the good of the cities around us. What would it look like if we understand that our whole work is heavenward offering?

You can listen to the podcast below, by visiting Doug Smith’s website, or listening to it on iTunes (Learning to Lead)

Episode #68: Lisa Slayton on Leadership

 

[box] Part of PLF’s calling is to invest in what being a great leader means. We offer programs such as the Leaders Collaborative and the Urban Leaders Project to address these questions.[/box]

[learn_more caption=”Leaders Collaborative”] The Leaders Collaborative is a leadership development program that utilizes teaching and community-building to help members gain clarity around stewarding their calling. Email Lisa Slayton if you are interested in this program.[/learn_more]

[learn_more caption=”Urban Leaders Project”] The Urban Leaders Project is a cohort-based program that offers non-profit leaders the unique opportunity to embolden vision and cultivate professional community through five months of teaching, coaching, and collaboration. Contact Herb Kolbe if you are interested in this program.[/learn_more]

 

Photo credit: Dollar Photo Club
Photo credit: Doug Smith