A New Kind of Leadership

A New Kind of Leadership

For twelve years I wrote a weekly magazine column almost exclusively devoted to the church. Today I write more about the social wars infecting American culture, though my thoughts often return to the church. Today is one of those posts.

During my years as the CEO of a church planting ministry, I was flexible on a number of elements about church planting, including the number of staff, the amount of money dedicated to the plant and the location. On one issue, however, I was firm. Each church needed one and only one senior (or lead) pastor.

I knew unless they had good character formation and an empowered board of overseers, founding pastors had a tendency to become benevolent dictators at best, and egotists at worst. Over the years I’ve watched more than a few self-destruct. But I still believed there needed to be a single person who was the most equal among equals.

I consulted with several new churches in which two co-pastors shared leadership. In each case I told them eventually one would emerge as the lead pastor. They all said I was wrong, but in every case I was right. Eventually one person would give me a call to say his co-pastor had departed.

I am now a member of a church of about 800 that is not quite seven years old. While there is a founding pastor, Mark Tidd, he is not the lead pastor. He is one of three co-pastors, all carrying equal responsibility. Two are women. Mark is one of the most balanced, sensitive, Christ-like guys I know. Jenny Morgan and Rachael McClair, the other two co-pastors, are extraordinarily mature women. There is little question the Highlands leadership structure would not work unless all three co-pastors were people of high character.

The resulting leadership, which they call Trinitarian, forms the cultural grounding of all leadership at Highlands. It also makes it one of the healthiest congregations I know. Would it be possible to have this kind of shared leadership if the pastors were younger, or all male? I know I can be accused of sexism, but when you have a room full of men, it doesn’t take long before the posturing begins. In my experience, women are more collaborative.

Can an existing church make the change to Trinitarian leadership? Could a church started with typical Evangelical (which is to say male) leadership make the change? I know of a church with two campuses on the East coast that has created a flat leadership model. They do have one senior pastor, but many congregants have no idea that is the case. They also have women and minorities comprising a third of the church’s pastoral staff and lay leadership. What is remarkable is that these changes have been made in less than 12 months, after the church was 10 years of age, a relatively short period of time when you consider the church’s Evangelical roots.

When I look back at all those years in a male-dominated Evangelical world, I wonder how I could have missed how out of balance the leadership structures were. Increasingly in America, there is only one place guaranteed to have only male leadership – the Evangelical church. If that is the only leadership community you inhabit, it is easy to miss how out of balance your leadership is. I am not sure how a group can lead adequately when they only have half of the image of God in the room.

Over the last couple of years my previous ideas about church leadership have been properly challenged. The question is what do I intend to do about it?

I am pleased to say I am involved in church planting again. I have begun working with a team to determine the location and staff for a new church. And yes, we are committed to planting a church with Trinitarian leadership, balanced with male and female members, equal in authority and responsibility. I’ll let you know what happens.

And so it goes…


Merely Mortal

Merely Mortal

I still remember stealing a shiny Spanish coin from Bob May’s basement. I was probably about 10. Bob had scads of them, so I reckoned he wouldn’t miss one. If I had asked, Bob probably would have given me a coin, but I didn’t ask. I just took one. It burned a hole in my pocket until I returned it to its place on his basement floor.

I long ago came to the conclusion we are all a combination of good and evil. We do not just commit sins of omission. We commit sins of commission, and we do it throughout our lives. Sometimes we put the coin back. Sometimes we do not.

I do not think Evangelical Christianity prepares us for the reality that we are never going to be perfect as Jesus is perfect. In the misguided notion that we can attain something close to sinless behavior, we end up focusing on specks and ignoring logs. We do not embrace and accept our full humanity. As a result, our failure to be superhuman results in deep-seated shame.

The truth is we all juggle the relative merit of various values and make decisions that leave logs sticking out of our eyes. When we make believe the logs of others are worse than our own, it is a vain attempt to climb into the clouds where we can live among the gods, passing judgment on mere mortals, negating the messiness of our own humanity.

I used to do adoption casework and would routinely ask people to tell me their greatest flaws. Most people had no trouble. Evangelicals balked. At first I thought they were reticent to admit their flaws. Eventually I realized many believed they had overcome theirs. The avoidance of their humanity made it difficult to evaluate their fitness as parents.

In East of Eden, John Steinbeck paints a fascinating portrait of twin brothers. One seems removed from the reality of his emptiness, while the other despises his own tendency toward the profane, while mistaking his brother’s pseudo-morality for piety. My good friend, Jen Jepsen (jenniferjepsen.org) wrote about the book last week in her journal. Her words are perfect:

Why is timshel (a Hebrew word in the novel) so important? I already believe in choice, but do I get the weight of the power? There is evil but we aren’t powerless over it. There is suffering, but we aren’t powerless over it. We have a choice, a constant choice. Do I choose greatness, in the form of choosing good over evil?

There are abundant, if not infinite implications here. We are each in copious supply of good AND evil. This is illustrated in the character of Cal. Aron chooses to walk the pious path, which eliminates him from the beauty of humanity, while Cal is fully aware of his sides and fully baffled by why he does what he does (Rom 7).

In Evangelical Christianity we’ve been dumbed down to this belief in holiness and perfection, so we strive and strive – we have a pile of Arons, but what about the Cals? Well, these are the beautiful multi-faceted souls who provide us with art, music, truth and redemption. These are the souls who fill churches like Highlands (the church Jen and I attend.) These are the souls who can climb into the depths with another, for they have been there.

I have no interest in accountability groups and prayer circles whose aim is to rid me of my poor choices (sin). These will only feed my Aron. I want the wrestle that renders me with a limp, like Jacob, like Cal. This is the greatness, the depth.

One of the blessings of becoming a pariah is that you quit striving. Transitioning and losing almost everyone and everything gifted me with a necessary holy defeat. I would not have chosen it, but I have come to receive it as a gift.

Walking with a limp helps me walk more slowly. I see my sins more clearly. There are so many. Lately I have been remorseful about not coming out earlier in support of LGBTQ people. I am embarrassed by my lack of integrity.

I am not, however, embarrassed by my humanity. I feel guilt where it is due, but I no longer feel shame. It is good to be human, and broken, and defeated, and redeemed. Jen is right. Therein lies the greatness, the depth.

And so it goes.


A Little Compassion?

A Little Compassion?

After I transitioned I heard from many who were confused, hurt and angry. Day after day, email after email, they let me know. All claimed to be writing out of concern, but their concern was often wrapped in barbed wire. After a season of receiving these messages of condemnation, I began protecting myself. More accurately, Cathy began protecting me.

There is a moment in the movie, The Danish Girl, in which Gerda, the protagonist of the movie and wife of a transgender spouse, speaks a line that brought me to tears. She told a surgeon, “Einar believes she is a woman, and I believe she is too.” The movie was excruciating to watch, because it was about a loving spouse’s faithfulness through pain, something I had been observing closely. While Cathy struggled mightily, she protected me fiercely and well.

We both came to know which letters and emails to open. If they were from non-Evangelicals, they were safe to read. If they were from Evangelicals, Cathy read them first. Many were deleted after she read them.

Ironically, since I transitioned Cathy has experienced as much rejection as I. Most Evangelicals have avoided Cathy like the proverbial plague. Some are angry she did not choose to condemn me. Others simply do not know what to say. But evidently, finding an encouraging word for Cathy is beyond their collective ability.

I find that silence to be incomprehensible. I mean, what did Cathy do? What was her infraction, spoken or unspoken? Was she judged and found lacking simply because she had the misfortune of having married someone who is transgender? Based on the lack of response, that is certainly a possibility.

I have tried to understand the silence that often plagues the Evangelical community in a way it does not affect others. I believe it is based in a narrow worldview that finds strong support for its own kind, but little support for those who fall outside self-imposed Evangelical walls. The response to Cathy is certainly not consistent with the teaching of Jesus. But it is consistent with a tribe whose actions arise from a narrowly sectarian understanding of life itself.

These are the same people terrified to admit evolution might be true, or that LGBTQ people might be a threat to no one, or that theological truth may not strictly be the possession of their own peculiar sect. With a tiny handful of exceptions, and you know who you are, the lack of a Christian response to Cathy might be based on a lot of things, but it is certainly not based on the teaching of Jesus. That response would be love and compassion, empathy and understanding.

If I sound angry, it is because I am. While Cathy protected our family, Evangelicals stayed on the sidelines, where they did not do one visible thing to comfort her.

When your ignorance about a subject causes you to avoid the Christian responsibility of showing love, then it is time to jettison your ignorance about a subject. Cathy’s non-religious friends did that in spades. As for most of the Evangelicals, it looks like personal comfort trumped compassion. I never would have expected it. I thought better of the members of my tribe. I knew they would reject me, but the rejection of Cathy has been unconscionable.

And so it sadly goes.


Parents and Adult Children

Parents and Adult Children

One of the most fascinating parts of my Doctor of Ministry program was the study of Family Systems Theory. Edwin H. Friedman’s book about family systems in the church, Generation to Generation, should be required reading for all pastors. Dealing with families is never easy, especially one’s own.

I have a good friend who has worked through great pain to maintain a relationship with her mother. With her father, she stopped trying. He had rejected his daughter for being true to herself. Now, after years of absence, he phoned her. He offered no apologies and acted as if the years of absence had been nothing. She found the call invasive, but being a person of high moral character, my friend is agonizing over whether or not to remain in touch. I explained to her my understanding of family.

A parent never stops being a parent. My three children are all over 35, but I am still the parent, with more life experience. That life experience does not give me a free pass to tell them what to do or how to live. In fact, it means just the opposite. Being a parent means accepting my children and their spouses as they are. As long as I am physically and mentally able, that is my responsibility.

My children, on the other hand, do not have such a responsibility toward me. They are adults, with their own children, to whom they are fully committed, as Cathy and I have been to them. Their relationship with their own nuclear family is more important than their relationship with us. We have no right to make demands of them. We have the responsibility to be available to them as they see fit.

Many in our culture do not see it that way. They quote the fifth commandment, which says children should honor their parents. The renowned psychiatrist Scott Peck said more human damage is done trying to follow that commandment than any other. I suppose the silver lining is that it keeps therapists employed.

I pointed out to my friend that she used the term “invasive” when describing the phone call she received from her father. I asked if she was in the habit of inviting invasive people into her life.  She readily replied, “In other situations, certainly not.  But is this different?”  I said she was the one who had to decide that.

In my counseling work I have many clients whose parents make ongoing demands of them. Often these parents were emotionally or physically absent during their child’s formative years. Yet they are convinced their adult child owes them something. It is difficult to hear their stories. I believe the parent owes everything. The child is under no obligation to meet the expressed or unexpressed needs of a parent. The child has more important work to do, finding their own way through career, marriage, parenting, and all the other responsibilities of adult life. Life is hard enough without worrying about meeting the emotional needs of codependent parents.

During my transition there were periods in which my children stayed away. I did not go after them. There was a lot to process and they needed the distance. Sometimes they still do. It is my responsibility to understand and accept that reality.  That is what it means to be a parent.

Families are complicated. A family can be a place of great connection, or a place of unbearable pain. It can be one’s touchstone, or its members can feel like ships passing in the night. Most of the time it is a little bit of both.

I have no idea whether or not my friend will stay in touch with her father. But then that is another area that is ultimately none of my business.  A good friend may offer advice when it is requested, but after that, faithfuless to the friendship demands one’s presence and availability, regardless of the decision that is made.

And so it goes…


Yourself as the Audience?

Yourself as the Audience?

For decades I remained silent. On rare occasions I would share snippets of my struggle. I asked an Old Testament professor about the meaning of a passage about cross-dressing, “for a friend.” I told another professor enough for him to show compassion and give my circumstances a name. In my twenties, three friends knew a fair measure of my story. Interestingly, none of them have been in touch since I transitioned.

As I grew older I began therapy and confided less in friends. If I told them, I knew our relationships would never be the same. Based on the way they reacted after hearing the news, I was right. Evangelicals do not have maps for dealing with transgender individuals.

Talking with Cathy last week, we both lamented how often I was not fully there. When she looks at pictures of Paul, there is a sadness, not just because Paul is gone, but because a part of Paul was never really there. Until we had today’s comparison, I don’t think either one of us knew how true that was.

I have heard from closeted transgender individuals who still minister within my denomination. They saw the public ridicule I faced, and it affirmed their decision to remain in the closet. I do not blame them. Yet in their voices I hear a tragic loneliness that causes me to fear for their lives. I lament that they are not fully there.

It did me no good to hide. In John Steinbeck’s novel, East of Eden, Samuel Hamilton asks a penetrating question of Adam Trask, a man who suffered a great indignity. “Do you take pride in your hurt?’ Samuel asked. ‘Does it make you seem large and tragic? Well, think about it. Maybe you’re playing a part on a great stage with only yourself as the audience.”

Suffering alone leads to tragic self-absorption. It does us no favors. We are communal creatures and need to work out our lives in a safe place in which our true selves can`be reflected in the love of an accepting community.

Through my family, church, and friends, I have that community. On Wednesday I am meeting Mark Tidd, one of my pastors, at the Bacon Social House in Denver. I will have two of my granddaughters with me. Every time I think about the day my heart is warmed. I will have lunch with three people who take delight in me just as I am, no questions asked. And I will be eating candied bacon. What more could you ask?

Today, I am present to my life and the lives of those around me. Even on my darker days I have energy to bear burdens, share a little insight, and leave the world better than I found it. I live whole-heartedly.

This past weekend was the annual retreat for the staff and board of the Gay Christian Network. Over two days I spent 19 hours with 12 people working hard to plan a vibrant future for GCN. We want LGBTQ Christians to find the one thing lacking in the world they inhabit – hope.

GCN’s board includes a psychologist, three attorneys, two pastors, an accountant and two lobbyists. We are black and white, gay and straight, trans and cisgender. But the common bond that holds us together is our conviction that love wins.

I am silent no more, and I am a better person for it.  I end with the final stanza of another poem I wrote before transitioning:

 There is no way but east to west

No stopping time or turning back

No wishing for what’s left behind

Just hearts aflame unyielding