Three Is Better Than One

I spoke at a company in Washington, D.C. two weeks ago and at a conference of psychotherapists in Palm Springs last week.  In both places I engaged in fascinating conversations about agentic leadership.  Agentic leaders are assertive, independent, competitive individuals. The more common term for these leaders is “alpha.”

Pretty much all of the leadership structures of Western Civilization have been created by agentic/alpha leaders.  As you might imagine, most have been male.  A Golda Meir or Margaret Thatcher happens along every now and again, but they are the exception that proves the rule.

I was an alpha male.  I was a corporate leader who felt comfortable around other strong leaders. Most of my male friends were also alpha leaders.  They were “Dominant” personalities on the DiSC test, ENTJ’s on the Myers-Briggs, and Eights and Threes on the Enneagram. (Full disclosure – I am an I/D on the DiSC, an ENTJ on the MBTI, and a Two with a strong Three wing on the Enneagram.)  These strong alpha leaders can be found in just about every corner office in America.

I have done thousands of  DiSC personality tests over the years.  I used the DiSC extensively in my second masters thesis and my doctoral project. There are sixteen personality types on the DiSC, but in the area in which I worked, entrepreneurial leadership, there were only two that were consistently effective in achieving the results we wanted.

For my doctoral project I studied 50 lead pastors of new churches.  Over half (26) had one personality type on the DiSC, the Inspirational Pattern, a “D/I” combination.  I knew something was wrong when over half of the people hired to lead new churches in the US had one single personality type.

These people did have a demonstrated ability to get people to buy into their vision. Unfortunately, a large number of them also had a predisposition to narcissistic behavior.  Without the right kind of character formation and accountability, these guys (and they were all guys) could go off the rails.

Unfortunately these are also the kinds of leaders we recruit into most corner offices in America.  We think strong alpha people make the best leaders.  But the truth is that we really do not know whether or not they make the best leaders, because no other leadership structures have been tried.

Throughout the centuries patriarchal societies have created systems that assure powerful males are ensconced at the highest levels of leadership.  It has not served our species well.

If we do not free ourselves from our addiction to these patriarchal leadership structures, we could lose the species. Seriously.  We now have the capacity to start a war that would end life as we know it.  I am not being an alarmist.  Those are the facts.

I believe our best hope is to dismantle the patriarchal systems that have left us in such a precarious position.  These hierarchical/vertical systems have been at the root of every war that has ever been fought.  But if we do dismantle them, what kind of leadership structure should take their place?

At Left Hand Church we followed the example of Highlands Church in Denver and chose not to have a single lead pastor.  We have three.  All three are equal.  But here is the interesting thing.  If you asked our people to identify one of the three of us as the heart of our church, they would say it is our one non-alpha leader.  I believe they are right.

Aaron Bailey and I are alpha leaders.  Aaron is a D/C on the DiSC, the number one personality type of Fortune 500 CEOs.  I am an I/D, the typical personality type of a lead church planter.  But I don’t think either one of us would be seen as the heart of our church.  Jen Jepsen is.  Jen Jepsen is an I/S on the DiSC and an Enneagram One with a Two wing.  Jen is not America’s idea of a CEO.  And we think that is a good thing.

Our Trinitarian-inspired leadership model has allowed a non-alpha leader to emerge and influence in a way traditional hierarchical structures would never have allowed.  And with three leaders instead of one, narcissistic behavior is unlikely.  Narcissists do not like to share power.

I know  we are just a one-year old church with 100 people, and Highlands is a nine-year-old church with 700 people.  Neither of us is exactly a compelling example of long-term success.  But Rome wasn’t built in a day.  And I do believe we are onto something.

Imagine the difference that would be made if more non-alpha people were in leadership positions.  There would be more collaboration, less competition, and more focus on the powerless.  There would be fewer wars and more resources for those who have been forgotten.  There would not only be equality.  There would be equity.

I know all of this sounds idealistic.  But this is not a pipe dream.  It is happening in real time in two churches in the shadow of the Rocky Mountains.  And if we are successful, this could be a viable example of what is possible.  I hope so.  We need alternatives to the mess our patriarchal leadership structures have created.

One Loss and Then Another

One of the women I most respect passed away shortly after noon yesterday.  I have known her since 1991, and for over two decades she was like a second mother to me.  She lived in the Rocky Mountains, and during three weeks each year, she was my grounded companion.

She was grounded because the place at which she worked did not allow her much freedom to get away.  But she was also grounded because she was, well, grounded. She was my companion because every morning and early evening I would come to her office and we would talk.  Sometimes for hours.  She grounded me.

I came to Colorado alone every winter to snowshoe.  Every summer I came with my family, and every fall I came with my co-workers for a larger retreat held in the region.  Occasionally I would sneak in a fourth trip late fall in the fall, always alone.  I wrote most of my first book there, and a fair amount of my next six books.  The space was conducive to creative writing.  It wasn’t just the mountains.  It was also the space she created with her gentle warmth.

I hiked all day and came back to the warmth of the fire each evening.  The picture above was taken not far from her place on one of those winter hikes.  In the evening we would sit by the fire and talk.  Her early adult years had not been easy, but she found herself when she headed to the mountains.  She tried to retire when she turned 65 or so, but quickly became bored.  Besides, the mountains kept calling.  So she returned to the mountains and her gift of hospitality.

Over the years she came to know a lot about me.  I talked about my bouts with depression, my struggles as a parent, particularly when my children were in high school and college.  She was a mom and understood, offering advice when requested, listening attentively otherwise.

I talked about the work opportunities I had to become the senior pastor of more than one megachurch, and why I did not feel called to the position.  She understood.  She listened as I talked about my struggles with evangelical Christianity and the frustration of working in the political world of organized religion.  She understood that too.

After we moved to Colorado, Cathy and I would see her when we headed to the mountains to hike.  We spent one Christmas afternoon with her family, when they all came up to visit because she had to work that day.  The next year was the last time I saw her, though my trips to the mountains continued.

I wrote and told her I was transitioning, but never heard back.  Last summer I hiked with one of her former co-workers who stayed in regular touch with her.  He said yes, she had gotten the letter.  He said he would ask if it was all right if I stopped by for a visit.  It turned out it was not all right.

I have abundant stores of grace for this Godly woman who loved so many so well.  I understand how difficult it was for her to see me as anyone other than Paul.  She was one of my two most elderly friends.  She needed her memories intact, and I respected that need.  It was a great loss.

Her former co-worker now owns the business at which she kept working until six or seven months ago.  He wrote yesterday to tell me of her passing.  He said, “Love was at the center and core of her being.”  She was the kind of woman who saw love at the center and core of every being.

I never know what to do with moments like this.  It will not be possible for me to be at her wake or funeral.  I have become a little too well known to sneak in and sneak out unnoticed.  I also know that some of her family members would be uncomfortable if they knew I was there.  I respect their space and need to grieve without distractions.  Not being able to show my respects in person is a second loss.  You don’t think about these kinds of realities when you transition.  They always come upon you like a sudden storm.

I am grateful for having known her, and for having had the opportunity to be blessed by her presence as we sat by the fireplace, appreciating life’s blessings and struggles.  More than just about anybody I know, she lived well the poignant words of Dag Hammarskjold:

“For all that has been, thanks.  For all that shall be, yes.”

Grounded and Good!

I was in Chicago last week for meetings of the Union of Affirming Christians and the QCF Conference.  It was cold. When I’m in Chicago I am either freezing or sweltering.   Chicago needs a temperature makeover.

On Thursday evening I went to dinner with eight friends at an Italian restaurant near my hotel. We had a private room with a large screen TV on the wall, playing an endless loop of an old movie shot on the Amalfi Coast.  The movie starred Clark Gable and Sophia Loren and there were a lot of scenes with a young kid.  One time he was smoking a cigarette.  There was no sound so the plot remained elusive.

On Friday I interviewed the Executive Leadership Team of QCF in the morning’s main session, did a workshop with Jonathan, hung out with a friend in the afternoon, and headed out.  By the time I got to Left Hand Church for services on Saturday evening, I’d almost forgotten I’d been in Chicago.  It was a quick trip.

Church on Saturday was absolutely wonderful and, as is usually the case, grounded me in the ritual I need to thrive.  Knowing where I will be at 5:00 PM every Saturday is important.

Our TEDWomen talk was released on January 7.  Eight days after its release, the talk has been viewed over 650,000 times.  My TEDxMileHigh talk has been out for a year and has been viewed over 1.75 million times.  The TED talk has done in a week about a third of what the TEDxMileHigh talk has done in a year.

I had my season of obsessively counting media views.  The pleasure centers of the brain like watching counts climb on social media.  But the time comes, sooner or later, when the counts slow down and fewer people come up to you in airports thanking for you for your words.

Even if you happened to have been one of the biggest movie stars of the 20th century, eventually your movie career becomes an afterthought on the wall of an Italian restaurant, glanced at occasionally by a woman whose senses have been dulled by her second glass of the house red blend.

Do my children even know who Clark Gable is?  Sophia Loren is 84 and in a wheelchair.  I only know that because I just looked her up online.  Clark Gable and Sophia Loren are all but forgotten.  And what about the kid smoking the cigarette?  His name was Marietto, and he’s 71 years old now.  I hope his lungs are all right.

Jake Halpern writes in his book, Fame Junkies, that given the option of being a United States Senator, a Fortune 500 CEO, an astronaut, a university president, or an assistant to a star, twice as many American middle school students said they would prefer becoming an assistant to a star than any of the other jobs.  Let’s be clear about this.  They did not choose being a star.  They chose becoming an assistant to a star, carrying their bags, ordering their groceries, booking their haircuts.

Donald Trump is president because Mark Burnett knows how to turn marginally capable humans into stars.  Burnett, who is now a born-again Christian, doesn’t have a problem with what he ultimately did by placing Trump in The Apprentice.  He was just chasing views, counting his way to higher ratings and a bigger bank account.

Don’t get me wrong.  I love that our TED talk has done well.  But it is far too easy to become enamored with even relative fame.  It is fleeting and fickle.  Fame is anything but grounding.

Jonathan Haidt, in his book, The Righteous Mind, says religion gave the human race the ability to work together beyond the level of blood kin. Specifically, two elements of religion gave us that capacity.  The first was the ritual of religious practice, which serves as a steadying force in people’s day-to-day lives.  Second was the strength of the relationships that developed within one’s religious community.  Religious ritual and deep relationships allowed our species to thrive.  They still do.

Last Saturday evening at Left Hand Church was amazing.  Jen preached a bold and daring sermon.  Heatherlyn, Jason and Ben crafted a beautiful worship experience. Jody did a combination communion meditation and stand-up comedy routine that brought the house down.  But it wasn’t just the service itself that made the evening electric.  It was the depth of relationships that are developing at Left Hand.

Jen wrote about it in her blog post in our church email yesterday:  “I am moved and encouraged by your stories – both victorious and difficult.  You do hard things and emerge on the other side.  None of this is easy but all of it is beautiful.

The machine of celebrity uses you up and moves on.  I do not mean the people at TED or TEDxMileHigh.  They are wonderful!  I mean the machinery of social media and entertainment.  They were not created to serve human souls.  Left Hand Church serves human souls.

Left Hand Church invites you to live fully, embracing pain and happiness, joy and sorrow. If you want doctrine to matter more than life, we are not your church.  If you want tight boundaries instead of expansive love, we are not the church for you.  If you want to decide who is in and who is out, then you’d better look elsewhere. If you want celebrity pastors and fog machines, ditto.

But if you want to be rooted in the rich soil of lives authentically lived, then head on over to Fourth and Kimbark at 5:00 on any Saturday.  We’ll be there, waiting for you.


TEDWomen 2018 – Goodness Reigns, Love Wins

My TED talk came out yesterday.  As of this moment, it has had over 300,000 views in less than 14 hours.  I am a bit overwhelmed.  Jonathan and I are thrilled with the response.  It is an honor to share our story. I have put a link at the bottom of this post.

Our entire week at TED was a phenomenal experience, especially the extended time we were able to spend with the other speakers and TED staff.  Six weeks after TEDWomen 2018, there is one memory that stands out above all others.

The resort at which TEDWomen was held was a massive and beautiful complex nestled against the mountains outside of Palm Springs.  Walkways and manicured gardens ushered you from one lush location to another. I often found myself on the path from my room to the green room and nearby practice rooms reserved for the speakers.

On the way to the practice room I walked through a corridor with the registration area on the left and a waiting area for the entrance to the theater on the right.  The corridor was always bustling with activity.

The afternoon before the event began, the TED staff had been in the theater watching rehearsals all day, giving thoughtful advice and last minute suggestions.  Our rehearsal in the theater was over, but I was headed back to the practice room to meet Jonathan and Briar, our TED coach, to go over the talk one more time.  As I hurried through the corridor I saw a woman standing outside the theater door, leaning against the wall, looking intently at the screen on her iPhone.  I stopped to watch.

I could tell the woman was talking with a child, and not just any child.  She was talking with a child in whom she took great delight. Her eyes sparkled and she laughed heartily at something that was said.  Though the commotion around her was relentless, she was oblivious to anything but the screen and its precious image.

She spoke to the child.  If I listened intently, I might have been able to hear what she was saying, but that would have felt like a violation of sacred space.  There was an invisible boundary around her that begged for respect. I just watched.

I later learned she was talking to her child before bedtime back in New York.  Mom was in no rush, and I am sure the child knew it. Everything on the mother’s face said, “There are no two people in the world except you and me, right here, right now.”

The scene was touching under any circumstance, but to me,it had special meaning.  The mother holding the phone was Helen Walters, the Head Curator for TED.  Here was this woman who carried the burden of the programming of TEDWomen on her shoulders, yet she was attending to her child as if that child was the only person in the world.

I loved being a father, and when you watch the TED talk, it will be obvious that I adore my son. I always have, just as I adore my two daughters.  But as much love as a father might show his child, he never has the look on his face I saw on Helen’s face.  Only mothers have that look.

It is the look of a woman who knows every curve and ridge of her child’s body.  It is the look of a mother who discerns every subtle nuance of her child’s mood, and anticipates the child’s need before the child even knows to have it.  What I saw was the adoring gaze of a mother who loves with abandon, and treasures every moment in her heart.  Many of those memories will be pondered years later, maybe as her child goes off to college or gets married. Who knows?  Once a child is grown, there is often a far away look in a mother’s eyes, as she ponders those treasured moments from long ago.

When Jonathan and I practiced on the stage at the TED office in Manhattan, I got pretty emotional giving the talk aloud for the first time.  When we finished, there was applause and encouragement and suggestions. But in the middle of it all, Helen stopped everything and said, “Paula, are you all right?” She saw my tears and knew that I was, in fact, not all right.  I knew at that moment that I could trust Helen and the people at TED who took such good care of Jonathan and me.

There are times we get so caught up in the speed of this world that we miss the precious moments hidden in the corridors.

This is what gives me hope.  In spite of all the narcissism and self-serving madness in our corridors of power, we humans are going to be all right.  As long as mothers tuck in their children, whether near or afar, goodness will reign and love will win.

And now, our TED talk:

About That Glimmer of Light

The New Year arrives with bursting fireworks and great anticipation.  We hope for grand new insights, momentous opportunities and obvious pathways.  But the year never plays out that way.  What actually arrives is a glimmer of light on a road less traveled, suggesting a faint path forward.

Yesterday would have been my 46th wedding anniversary.  It is never an easy day.  I have written consistently and appropriately that my family’s story is theirs to tell, not mine.  I was pleased when Jonathan asked me to respond to five chapters of his book, She’s My Dad, but he was under no obligation to do so.

There was no proper or improper way for my family to respond to my transition.  They each needed to do whatever they needed to do.  That is still and will always be true.  When I was negotiating the life rights for a feature film to be made about my life, I only had a few conditions.  One was that I did not want any of my family members portrayed as the antagonists. The antagonists have been the evangelical church, and others who show little respect for the civil rights of LGBTQ people.

Jonathan’s story and mine have intersected fairly often over the past couple of years, as we work together with the WITH Collective of progressive churches.  With our TED talk being released this coming Monday, we are getting speaking requests.  We will be at the QCF Conference in Chicago on Friday, January 11.  Cathy and the girls have chosen to be more private, and I appreciate all of you respecting their privacy.

I loved being married, and I loved parenting, and I miss that part of my old life.  But like I said in the TED talk, I have always trusted that the truth sets us free.  Free does not mean easy or without pain. Trusting the truth is not easy, but it is good.  And the authentic journey offers little gifts along the way, reminders that we are not alone.  One reminder arrived a couple of weeks ago.

Every year, the robins return earlier and earlier to the foothills of the Rockies. Last year they came in early January. This year they arrived the third week of December.  Maybe they knew the holidays would be hard and wanted to give me a really early hope of spring.  Last year there were just two robins.  This year I am pretty sure I have counted six.  I know some people might say it’s just global warming that has them this far north this early.  I think not.

Any time you are in a winter season, there are always signs of spring.  The challenge is having eyes to see them.  No pie in the sky suggested here, just a willingness to keep looking, as you are able.

For me, the glimmer of hope has been robins, friends, family and co-workers.  The last three are always torchlights, blazing a path forward. The robins are there for the dark days, sipping from the waterfall off my patio.  The motor that keeps the water falling is its own little miracle, running non-stop for 11 years, pumping water, quenching the thirst of the early robins.

As they stopped for a drink, I took a picture of two of the robins yesterday. They are not obvious in the photo. You have to let your eyes rest on the picture for a while.  They were my glimmer of light on what is always a hard day.  The robins, and the good friend who checked on me early in the day, and the other friend who texted late in the evening to send a picture of socks with words on them.  I’ll leave it at that.

The robins stayed close to the waterfall all day.  Every time I looked out they tilted their heads and peered into the glass. They reminded me I was not alone.  We never are alone in these things.  We just think we are.  We humans have a tendency to think we are dying of thirst when we are standing in the middle of a crystal clear river, water rushing around our ankles.

The robins are nowhere to be found this morning.  They knew when they were needed. Today they are probably just outside a neighbor’s window, peering through the glass, with their sage wisdom.