February 25, 2017 • Life for Leaders
Other seed fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked it, and it yielded no grain.
Mark 4:7 (NRSV)
Jesus’ Parable of the Sower begins by suggesting that our work of leadership is a vocation that originates with a gift – a seed – from outside of us. It then explores different responses to that vocation in the soil of our lives. In my last two reflections, I’ve indicated that a Christian vision of leadership requires conscious and sustained attention to Jesus’ way of leadership, particularly to the formation of our individual practice as leaders and the culture of the organizations that we lead. Today’s reflection explores the nature of what distracts us from that kind of attention.
In Jesus’ explanation of today’s text, he cites “the cares of the world, and the lure of wealth, and the desire for other things” (Mark 4:19) as impediments that keep us from attending to our leadership vocation. It’s easy to hear these as bad, perhaps even immoral, diversions. No doubt, morally compromising temptations exist in every leadership setting. But, I’m not sure that’s all that Jesus meant. In Luke’s version of Jesus’ words, the text says it’s “the cares and riches and pleasures of life” (Luke 8:14) that divert us. I find that language helpful. It suggests to me that our problems are as much with innately positive distractions as with inherently negative ones. One of the fundamental challenges of leadership is our capacity to distort God’s good gifts: the pleasures, the riches and even the things-we-ought-to-care-about of life.
Perhaps another way to say what Jesus had in mind is that it’s “the challenges and successes and joys of work” that pose significant problems for us. Meaningful work provides a context in which human beings exercise their gifts to overcome challenges and take delight in their accomplishments for the common good and to the glory of God. That’s true whether we are talking about being a parent, writing software or running a company. So, how do these things become a distraction for us?
One of the traits of the thorns mentioned in today’s text is that their growth comes at the expense of the seed’s growth. When the challenges, successes and joys of our work occupy an excessive amount of our attention, we have distorted God’s good gift into a dangerous distraction. God’s seed – the gift of our vocation as leaders – is embedded in what some have called the gift of finitude. Unlike God, we do not have unlimited attention or resources, even though we often act as though we do. And, our cultural fascination with ascribing almost godlike qualities to human leadership reinforces the illusion. Instead, we must learn the discipline of living within our limits as human leaders.
I have to admit that I’m not very good at this. I tend to live in the cultural delusion of an unlimited capacity, although getting older is a healthy corrective to that conceit! I have to work hard at developing a sense of balance and tempo in my leadership. By balance, I mean discerning how much attention and energy to give to the different and multi-faceted aspects of my work. That’s particularly challenging when our leadership vocation spans many different categories (e.g., being a parent as well as leading an organization). By tempo, I mean determining the appropriate cadence of my current leadership tasks. Like a good symphony, our leadership work has different “movements”, each of which is meant to be played at a different pace. It is easy for me to find myself (and my organization) always running at breakneck speed (“Presto” in musical terms) when something much slower may be needed (such as in an “Adagio” movement).
I am not suggesting that there is an ideal balance or tempo for our leadership vocation. Like all of us in leadership, Jesus himself experienced seasons of intense, unrelenting work. As the gospel of Mark records just before this parable, “Then (Jesus) went home; and the crowd came together again, so that they could not even eat. When his family heard it, they went out to restrain him, for people were saying, ‘He has gone out of his mind.’” (Mark 3:19b-21) Seeing Jesus struggling with family and friends who were wondering about his work-life balance is strangely encouraging! Still, while there is no ideal balance and tempo, we find Jesus actively exercising the discipline of changing the tempo (for example, by taking time to withdraw from the crowds and pray) and adjusting the balance (for example, by moving on from one town to the next) of his work.
Learning the discipline of finitude, particularly as expressed in the balance and tempo of our work is an important way for us to create space and time for the kind of leadership Jesus calls us to embody. Turning work into an obsessive and relentless fixation on its particular and immediate challenges, successes and joys distorts God’s good gifts into a destructive distraction. Good ground has then produced invasive thorns instead of a healthy crop.
And, as my wife who is an expert gardener reminds me, the only cure for that is the hard and corrective discipline of weeding.
QUESTIONS TO CONSIDER:
What kinds of distractions do you find difficult in your leadership? How do they impeded your ability to focus on what is important?
In what ways do you currently struggle with the balance and tempo of your work? How might you adjust your balance? How might you change your tempo?
Lord Jesus Christ, I am grateful that you struggled with your leadership work as I do. You know that leadership often demands intense, unrelenting work. And, you know the additional emotional challenge of family and friends who express their concern about you and the effects of your work. If you are at all like me, I can imagine that only made the burden of leadership heavier.
Nevertheless, thank you for your disciplined example of changing the tempo and adjusting the balance of your work. Give me the discernment to know how and when to do that and the courage to make the needed changes and adjustments.
I ask this in your name, Amen.
Image Credit: First Steps by Vincent van Gogh – art database, Public Domain, Link
Explore more at the Theology of Work Project online Bible commentary: A Benedicite for Human Work
During his adult life, Uli Chi has lived and worked in the intersection between business, the academy and the church. He has had the privilege of serving as past Board Chair of Regent College in Vancouver, BC, as current Vice Chair of the Board of the Max De Pree Leadership Center at Fuller Seminary, and as current Chair of the Executive Committee of the Center for Integrity in Business at Seattle Pacific University. He has also been involved in all aspects of local church leadership, including as a member of the adult ministries team’s teaching faculty at John Knox Presbyterian Church in Seattle.
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