Thursday, August 10, 2017

Some thoughts on leadership, part 2 — how not to lead

If there’s one thing that the administration of Donald Trump has shown me — and it’s shown a lot since he was first inaugurated in January — it’s how not to lead.

Perhaps most books on leadership understand that leadership requires cooperation, not coercion. Standing up saying “Follow me or else” simply doesn’t inspire most people toward trust without reason, nor should it. You have to have a track record because, frankly, you can’t lead where you’ve never been.

Two examples:

A quarter-century ago jazz pianist Bob James called two of his friends, guitarist Lee Ritenour and drummer Harvey Mason, to work on a new album; he asked them for a recommendation for a bass player, and they both suggested Nathan East. That group clicked exceptionally well, so seeing an opportunity, James asked they others if they would be interested in forming a band, and they agreed.

But since he recognized that these were all top-notch musicians and, since at the time Ritenour and Mason had music recorded under their own names, when it came to compositions, arrangements and production James decided to give them equal say in how things were run. The band, dubbed Fourplay, is in fact on tour as I write. (East, at their encouragement, has recorded his first two albums in the last three years, the first up for a Grammy two years ago.)

I also do West Coast Swing, a very versatile but demanding partner dance which takes a lot of work, especially for a lead. It’s unique among such dances in that it allows the “follow” a lot of power to “hijack” a pattern and take it in another direction, which as a lead I do appreciate from time to time. I’m not that great a dancer, truth be told, which is why I still take lessons.

It was thus the height of hubris when President Trump declared upon securing the Republican nomination for president, “I alone can fix it” — hubris because he had never been part of the political scene and especially since he hasn’t leaned on more experienced hands to help him through the process. More to the point, allies are getting tired of his “America First” shtick, his rejection of the idea that “we’re all in this together” not going over at all.

For decades people have complained that “government should be run like a business.” Uh — no, especially in our bottom-up political culture where (at least in theory) the people at the top should answer to the folks at the bottom, and even in business you have to hire good people and let them play to their strengths. But Trump is so power- and attention-hungry that he can’t, or won’t, share the spotlight and — important — he’s not mentoring anyone.

Bottom line, effective leadership takes a lot of humility. We’re not seeing it in the White House right now, nor do I expect to see it over the next couple of years.

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

How to do it

I’ve heard complaints since the 1980s that mainstream media are biased against ideological conservatives in general and conservative Christians in particular. Frankly, I don’t see that, especially given that I’ve made my living in secular media for two decades and in the process actually written articles pertinent to believers.

I was inspired to write this post by a Facebook memory that one person complained that he was no longer permitted to write a column for the campus newspaper because of his faith (I had once also served in that capacity). Why was he banned but I wasn’t?

One, you have to respect your audience. While it’s commendable to want to write about Christian topics in a secular publication, keep in mind that continually “preaching” to it will cause them to want to turn the page; continuing on with such a mentality might cause the outlet to lose revenue because advertising might not support it.

While I was open about my faith when writing for that campus newspaper, it wasn’t all I wrote about. Among other things, I also tackled race relations and Bill Clinton’s toying with the Republican Party during his first term as president (I graduated the year of his second inaugural); though it was never my goal, I eventually learned that I had become a hero to Christian students for speaking out. When the opinions editor, also graduating, paid tribute to the people who worked for her she wrote about me, “Your unique perspective [I was 36, considerably older] and versatile range added depth to the section.”

Two, and related to this, I never saw the media as an “enemy” to be defeated and understood that reporters and editors didn’t hate me or my faith. As such, I saw teaching moments and an opportunity, down the road, to put a plug in for the Gospel — if not by me, through someone else.

Three, I was able to sell my stories as legitimate. Nine years ago I wrote an enterprise story about the merger of my childhood church, which I never officially joined, with another church. The news hook was that my childhood church had caught fire — it was reported on all the TV stations — and I was curious as to what had happened with it. Since I knew that church’s history (and had lived through some of it myself), I was able to give detail that the average writer might not see. Moreover, I had known for years all but one person I had interviewed.

Bottom line, it’s about respect and the “do unto others” principle. Were more Christians to treat folks in the media with such we might have a better time of it.

Some thoughts on 'leadership,' part 1 — leading, not driving

Many supporters of President Donald Trump became such precisely because of what they consider his take-no-prisoners, no-nonsense, no compromise style of “leadership.”

But given yesterday’s threat he made toward North Korea upon learning about a possible nuclear attack on Guam — he said, off the cuff, that “[it] will be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen” — I’m wondering if he really understands leadership.

Because there’s quite a difference between “leading” and “driving,” the latter I refer to as exercising existential authority for its own sake — “because I say so.” You can and probably need to do that with children, but above a certain age it gets tiresome.

This becomes dangerous in the spiritual realm as well, with numerous Christian groups basically on his team for similar reasons. Some pastors and other leaders, wrongly in my view, have said that America’s pulpits are being victimized by “weak preaching [against sin]” and need to redouble their efforts for things to turn around morally.

It’s dangerous because approaching things in that way leads to not only legalism but also cultural and social isolation. Nobody wants to deal with people determined to have their way for its own sake, which is why, despite all the religious right’s time and energy in trying to re-impose “Christian” values in the public square in the 1980s, doing so proved ineffective. (And that won’t change, even with redoubled efforts during the Trump Administration — indeed, perhaps even because of such.)

I haven’t seen any recent polls measuring Trump’s effectiveness as a leader; they can’t be too high these days, however. Being a jerk may attract a certain segment of the population but can take you only so far.

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

'Lazy evangelism'

Recently a photo of a Bible study with numerous members of President Donald Trump’s cabinet has been making the rounds of the internet. It’s being called “the most evangelical cabinet in history.”

The Bible study, led by the Rev. Ralph Drollinger — the founder of Capital Ministries, dedicated to “[m]aking disciples of Jesus Christ in the political arena in the United States of America, and in foreign [capitals] around the world” and also known to sports fans as a basketball center for UCLA in the 1970s — would likely give hope to the uninformed that God is moving in the halls of power to bring righteousness.

Don’t hold your breath. Rather, it’s what I call “lazy evangelism,” the idea that political leadership can stem what might be considered a slide in biblical witness simply by proclaiming “truth” from their lofty perches. Reason: You don’t see what a difference biblical faith makes in their lives. In other words, they haven’t earned the authority to be heard, and it does need to be earned.

As Rod Dreher wrote recently in The New York Times, “Conservative Christians helped elect Republican politicians, but that did not stop the slide toward secularism. True, the church gained some access to power, but it failed to effectively counter popular culture’s catechetical force.” In other words, simply putting up “stop signs,” as many Christians were wont to do especially in the 1980s, wouldn’t suffice to transform society because their goal was to live in it comfortably — something the LORD Himself will never allow.

I wouldn’t argue that people in power don’t need ministry — they do — but if they're studying the Bible to justify their focus on political power and ignoring “the last, the least and the lost” in the process, they’re wasting their time. Awakening can begin only when Christians examine themselves and recognize the ways in which they’ve compromised the truth, not to mention the LORD they supposedly love, and then take steps to rectify their faithlessness. But if these things do take place, evangelism and service will become natural and the churches might not able to hold the folks coming through their doors.

And having political power will have nothing to do with it.

Monday, July 24, 2017

The imminent revival, part 8

Yesterday, as part of my annual summer church tour, I visited a Disciples of Christ congregation in my home area. Only about 30 people attended the service; the meeting actually took place in the church gym, not its sanctuary. The immediate neighborhood, shall we say, has itself seen better days. And — the two primary pastors, including the preacher, were women, of course unacceptable in some Christian circles.

But mentioned during the service was distributing socks and underwear through the local ministerium for the children at one of the local schools, and the message itself was about generosity. The preacher also mentioned that she refused to take morning appointments because she needed, and was encouraged, to take that time to spend with God. Moreover, it was a supporter of William Barber, another pastor in that denomination who has been holding “Moral Mondays” in the state of North Carolina to promote racial and economic justice.

While it’s too soon to tell, it appears to me that this church is well on its way toward a deeper walk with God as a church and thus ready to minister His healing touch to a neighborhood that certainly needs it — and that’s how and where revival will break out.

I contrast this with the recent “laying hands” on President Donald Trump by several prominent evangelical leaders, one of them, Rodney Howard-Browne, enthusiastically saying that “we are going to see another great spiritual awakening."

The trouble is, of course, is that folks like Howard-Browne wouldn’t recognize revival if it hit them in the face.

I’ve said time and time again that much of American evangelicalism sold out God by supporting Trump. That has angered a lot of his supporters, of course, but consider this: When you have or seek political, social, economic and cultural power, why would you need or want the power of the Holy Spirit (which should supersede all of those)? Such folks make the horrendous mistake of believing that change of that kind takes place from the top down, that were Christians to take over leadership of various institutions things would turn around.

And with that is the dangerous assumption that only their having that kind of power will cause change.

Just before the 2006 general election ABC News “Nightline” broadcast a segment of two Christians — one lonely figure from a small church whose name I don’t even remember that was protesting the war in Iraq; the other, “patriot pastor” Rod Parsley, who was bragging about the numbers that his side could turn out. (If you remember, the Republican Party, whom Parsley was clearly supporting, was routed in that election nationwide.)

I’m also reminded of the parable of the Pharisee and the publican, with the Pharisee looking down on the publican and the publican admitting not feeling worthy to lift his eyes to God — likely a complete shock to Jesus’ audience. But such humility is where true ministry begins, in part because when you experience your own brokenness and allow God to heal it you can transmit that to others.

That is why the female pastor at that little church in an impoverished area is far more likely than all these big shots currying favor with an ethically challenged president whom they in essence worship to feel the presence of the LORD. In fact, I seriously doubt that they’ll feel Him at all.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Avoiding politics and getting rolled

President Donald Trump once admitted, “I didn’t know that health care was so complicated.” He certainly knows it now.

For the third time his “American Health Care Act,” designed to replace what is officially the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, commonly disparaged as “Obamacare,” has failed to pass the U.S. Senate.

And this is because the Republican Party simply didn’t want to play the political game; during discussions on the ACA its supporters didn’t bargain in good faith with the other side (and still wouldn’t today). Yes, that bill passed with no Republican votes, but it wasn’t for lack of trying on the part of President Barack Obama, who allowed about 100 amendments.

But this goes to the mentality of the political right, which concedes nothing and simply tries to roll over its opposition. Several senators refused to support the ACHA because, correctly, that it ended up cutting coverage; however, one, Rand Paul of Texas, opined that it didn’t go far enough in repealing the ACA. 

And when you have that inability to split the difference, without which governing is impossible, that’s precisely what you end up with: Nothing. An unforeseen complication was that, despite its flaws, the ACA actually worked as intended, so even in rural areas that went for Trump folks wanted to keep it.

One of Trump’s problems as president is that he can’t stop campaigning long enough to engage in the hard work of governing. Thing is, however, his base demands that he continue to assert his authority, so he’s caught in a vise basically of his own making.

That’s less a failure of “Trumpism” than of the conservatism that defines the modern GOP. I suspect that they’ll lose a few more battles before reality sets in.