Category Archives: Leadership
Several years ago, Dr. Penny Marler approached me about participating in a program where pastors might become
friends across differences—race, age, denomination—and learn from each other. Rev. Arthur Price and I decided to make that journey together. He is the pastor of historic Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, where, 50 years ago this fall, people driven by hate and fear set off a bomb that killed four little girls who had just prayed together. The episode set off a national revulsion to the radical racists and helped put America in a new direction.
Over the course of that few years, we became friends, Arthur much younger, a different personality, a native of the North, me a son of the South. It was one of the richest experiences of my life, and it is documented on the website of the Resource Center for Pastoral Excellence. (For more information about the project Rev. Price and I did together, click HERE)
One of the side blessings of that friendship was connecting our churches. We visited each others’ deacons meetings, had our congregations together for fellowship, and continued our friendship by having breakfast together regularly over the years. Last year, we began to talk together about doing something positive that would mark this anniversary by affirming that we are in a new day and that the faith community is part of that. We were joined by another friend, Rev. Keith Thompson of First United Methodist Church downtown.
After the massacre at Newtown in December, our sense of commitment was heightened. Whatever strikes at our Read the rest of this entry
- See 2012. Ditto, and this time, mean it.
- Write fewer words and say more with them.
- Go to bed earlier and more often. In some cases, stay there as long as possible.
- Stop caring about your career and start caring most about getting something done.
- It’s a free country. Say what you want about it. I’ll think what I want about what you said. Neither of us will do
anything about it other than listen or respond coherently.
- Less anger, more effort. (For a significant portion of you: GET HELP)
- Let’s shorten election cycles to three weeks, and allow representatives to have a career but after two terms you have to take one off and get a real job, and that does NOT include lobbying. Lobbyists are required to clean the offices of the people they oppose and babysit their children.
- Find all the ways to work on something in common, and if there’s time left over we can accuse, caricature, spin and lie about each other.
- Read the rest of this entry
I don’t know many people who aren’t generally disgusted with the political process right now. Left to right, top to bottom, it’s a mess. I thought I’d put a little advice together for would-be leaders.
Further, Baptist preachers are about the most able politicians around. They are more like small-town sheriffs, who have to lock you up AND get your vote. Since Baptist churches are about the purest form of democracy around, where even the least of these can topple the most of those with enough work, a Baptist preacher learns to hone the skills of
diplomacy, bridge-building and persuasion. We have to run for election every year. It’s called “the budget.” A lot of high-handed Baptist preachers take over churches, of course, with dictatorial ways, but it doesn’t last long. Turns out that once you deceive people they decide, for some unknown reason, to stop funding your foolishness.
So here are some lessons from a 33 year veteran who has survived some titanic battles over camellia bushes, building programs, and even got a church to vote for a letter of apology to an offended church member once who got mad when his name wasn’t read at the centennial celebration thirty years before. He wobbled back into church on his walker a few months before he died, looked up and said, “Preacher, you reckon the building will fall down if I come in?” And a good old deacon said, “Well, if it does we’ll build it back.”
A little unsolicited advice:
- You have to learn how to build consensus. Winning 51-49 is not winning. You don’t need unanimity, but until you accomplish good for all, you haven’t won.
- You will learn humility willingly or eventually. Willingly is much less painful.
- Since politicians seem to evidence almost no persuasive ability in the current moment—I add this one: “Learn to tell a story. Keep it simple. Tell the truth. Truth doesn’t need help.”
- The same people you defeat will have to help pay for it in the end. They are not enemies, so unless you can regain their support, you lose in the long run.
- It’s dangerous to claim God is on your side and never leave room for disagreement. Even if you and your mother think so. God is not too keen on preachers as court jesters and God is intolerant of people misusing the divine name, so you’ve been warned.
- Preaching that doesn’t turn into good deeds doesn’t amount to anything.
- You have to trust others to make real changes. Nobody does it by themselves.
- Those who live by demonization die by demonization.
- Forgive and move on. It’s just that simple. Holding grudges is a waste of valuable energy.
- Sometimes you just do what is right and let the chips fall. There are worse things than losing your job.
- Believe in Someone or Something larger than you. Without a real vision, not only do the people perish, but nothing really happens.
- It’s not your church. It’s not their church. It’s God’s church. Seems to me this applies to countries, property, power and prosperity.
- If there isn’t any money, you can’t spend it. It’s not rocket science.
- Doesn’t hurt to let someone else take credit now and then, even if it’s your idea.
- A good staff makes a poor preacher look great.
- Principles matter the most when they are most inconvenient and unpopular. Lose ‘em and you might as well quit anyway.
- No matter how high and mighty you get, the Almighty gets the last word.
- Don’t do the Devil’s work for him.
- Know when to hold ‘em and when to fold ‘em. Even a great idea ahead of its time will lose to anxiety and fear and misinformation.
- As a friend of mine put it, “Everything happens for a reason. Sometimes the reason is you’re stupid and you make bad decisions.”
- Love really is the great truth of life. Politics, even with the noble concept of “justice” will degenerate into darkness without the temper of love.
Indians Sue for Possession of the U.S.:
Ask for Return of Lands and Deportation of
(Imaginary Press Release) The immigration crisis in the United States took an unexpected turn today when Native Americans launched a lawsuit to deport all European descendants from the US back to their homelands. Following the recent Supreme Court decision on immigration, leaders representing all the major tribes gathered together at Little Big Horn to announce an impending lawsuit. They are seeking a lawsuit to remove all European Americans whose ancestors emigrated to this country illegally during the past 300 years, claiming that they had illegally squatted on tribal land, brought a plague of drug and alcohol abuse, took jobs that unemployed Native Americans could do, like being CEOs, equipment managers for basketball teams, and investment bankers, and ruined their livelihoods by killing off all the buffalo.
They are asking the court to uphold their legal request that requires all Europeans to carry identification cards and wear moccasins except in extremely cold weather. They also have suggested that Reservation police be able to check identity and arrest Senior Adult Caucasians at Casinos if they have probable cause to think they are here illegally. The Europeans must return all stolen lands and go live on a reservation while their cases are being deliberated. If deported, they will go to the end of the line, which is said to be in Iceland and that they may come back in ten years.
Descendants of Cochise, Red Cloud, Sitting Bull and Geronimo have hired the Manhattan firm of Dewey, Cheatum and Howe, famous legal counsel for NPR’s “Car Talk,” to lead the dream team. They will be joined by lead attorney and member of the House of Representatives Chief Enormous Bull as they argue their motion.
The motion blames Squanto for helping the Pilgrims, who kidnapped him and took him to England while his tribe was wiped out by Pilgrim diseases. Squanto, they contend, did not have authorization to permit them to land in the first place. The Indians had planned to build an enormous wall around Plymouth Rock but construction had not begun when the immigrants arrived and began squatting on the land.
In a related move, the Geico Cavemen said they would file an injunction blocking the Native American motion as their ancestors likely preceded them and should also be removed. While their numbers are small, they have considerable insurance assets to leverage for a long legal fight.
Neither group has said specifically if the motions would apply to all Caucasian Americans, or would only affect those whose ancestors actually took Indian lands. Both groups said they would be willing to negotiate a settlement, and neither had interest in taking Manhattan back, and said that Arizona could remain as a reservation for whites until arrangements to move in with relatives could be made.
The American Bar Association said it looks forward to the years of billable hours that this action implies. Leaders in China said whoever wound up with ownership of the country would be responsible for its current and future debts. Europeans announced a counter-suit denying the return of the descendants until they could prove that they would be good citizens and not a threat to security. Mexican drug cartels protested the removal of their largest customers citing exorbitant shipping and transportation costs. Meanwhile, Alabama and a dozen other states said they would begin deportations immediately, whether there was a country to take them or not. In the absence of a place to go, white people will be given large flat barges stocked with bottled water, Spam and saltine crackers, cable television and country music CDs while they wait until a country will receive them. The suit has specified that those being placed on the reservation will travel by Greyhound bus along the Trail of Tears.
A spokesman for the Euro-Americans protested the move, citing the damage it would cause to families and especially children, and members of Congress met through the night and said because of the urgency of the matter that Immigration reform could be ready as early as Tuesday. The President said he would rush back from vacation to sign the bill, which would resolve the situation. “This affects millions of voters…er, people. We have to fix this.” Observers say it may be the fastest action of this magnitude that the Congress has ever achieved other than declarations of war, voting on raises for Congress, and motions of appreciation for professional athletes.
When it comes to the painful problem of race, it’s never about one thing…it’s about everything.
By Gary Furr
The explosion that has occurred in recent days over the shooting of a Florida teenager has reignited one of our oldest and most enduring debates. The case of Trayvon Martin has caused outbursts between journalists, demonstrations and a weary “Will we ever be able to move past this?” cloud to hover again over us. The gulf between the races is painfully obvious. It sounds as though we are talking about two different cases. And we are.
In the late 1980s, I listened as an African American pastor friend in South Georgia, a disabled veteran, told me about watching men with pickhandles and baseball bats beat his father nearly to death because his father had disagreed with his boss at work. As a ten year old boy, he watched through the blinds in terror. He described a journey of forgiveness and grief over that incident that lasted far into adulthood as he tried to make peace with incomprehensible violence.
In July of 2010, I was a part of a group of pastors from Alabama who traveled together to Israel for a pilgrimage as part of a very generous grant from a foundation aimed at giving us rest, study and spiritual renewal. Amazingly, since our congregations did not have to pay for it, they all voted to let us go.
It exceeded our expectations, as we all enjoyed a wonderful experience of community and prayer in the land where the founder of our faith walked the earth. It is also a place of contradictions, of course, and we saw those, too. We saw the ugly “barriers” that cordoned off the Palestinian people in their towns, born of genuine anxiety for security among the Israelis and yet which only deepens the frustrations between the two groups. Security is always a concern where mistrust abounds.
If you ever go to the “Holy Land,” as we Christians usually call it, the entry to the airport begins with a clump of scowering, eagle-eyed security people clustered around a narrow doorway where everyone enters, looking you up and down with folded arms and either expressionless or glaring. We walked past–I had been before and advised everyone, “Don’t joke, don’t laugh, just walk through.”
At one point, I heard something, and noticed that our three African-American pastors had all been detained and whisked to the side. I started to go back, thought better about, and simply waited until the interrogation was over. In a little while, they were released and we were on our way. At first we kidded and joked, but then we fell silent.
It was obvious to me that they were pained about this. They are three highly educated, holy, respected men, two veterans and one a younger pastor. Their integrity is as high as I know. I would trust my life to them. But in a world of fear and insecurity, all that goes out the window.
Later, we talked about it, and they told us that this was and always had been a part of life. They were pulled out for no other reason than their skin color. They told us stories of being pulled over because of the car they were driving or walking down a street. As we began to comprehend some of what they had been through, our mood about the incident, short as it had lasted, changed to somber and sad reflection. A world in radical distrust is a painful thing indeed.
Having once lived in a small community that exploded in a racial crisis during the 1980s, I once said in a meeting that when it comes to racial divides that “truth can become a casualty.” It got a negative reaction and I realize why it was wrong. It’s not truth that becomes the casualty, it’s the argument about the facts. It is akin to a debate between a married couple about when the last time he kissed his wife—it is beside the point.
The bare facts of a particular event can miss the point when it is connected to a cosmic or cultural reality. There is always more “here” and so we end up arguing, in a sense, about a particular case AND a long painful history AND the emotional, experiential and perceptive divide between us. If we do not understand this, the temptation is then either to say, “Courts, justice and processes should be thrown out” or to say, “This is all emotion, irrationality, fear and overreaction.”
In times like this one, perceptions, experiences, truths, that need, more than anything, to be shared, heard and understood often explode into the moment. Most of the time, these complexities are ignored, suppressed or unnoticed. The outcry calls attention, but there is hard work to be done in every place when the protests end and the media moves on to the next thing.
Understanding is hard, hard work. So is justice. Facts are the limiting factor of an investigation, but our disconnections from one another are something bigger that deserves some work at the level of our citizenship and “neighbor love.” If we have solved many of the legal issues of race, we have not overcome the pain of our disconnections and distrust of one another. We are in the realm of attitude, perceptions, and understanding.
In the community where I was, we had a wonderful group of leaders, black and white, who had met and worked together to deepen understanding for a long time before the crisis happened. Without it, no way to work through it would have existed. That these channels do not often exist in many communities where people of good will intentionally step out of their usual places to offer themselves as listeners is part of the disconnect. Good relationships don’t happen without an effort on both ends.
The particular case of Trayvon Martin’s death is one thing legally, and another in this larger sense. When it comes to racial matters, it’s never about one thing—it’s about all the things. For Christians who have been handed the ministry of reconciliation, this is a fine time to listen, not react. The calling to Christians in such a moment is to patience, to not reacting, to find a place where something good could be done, to keep our tempers, and to work for understanding and patient agape love. Listening never costs anything more than a little time, but it can only be given by the surrender of one’s attention and care. It is fitting in Holy Week to remember Paul’s breathtaking summary that “in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us.” (2 Corinthians 5:19). Holy week is a memory that it is in the most unpromising times that the world can change for the better.
Life-giving leadership is not being in control so much as persuasion of others to offer their best selves to that which matters the most.
I got an email from former classmate, Vicki Butler, now in the Advancement Office of my old college, Carson-Newman College in Jefferson City, Tennessee. She was in town and wanted to visit with us. I do this in my work as a Pastor, so I know that institutions need money. I have moved from being a disdainful idealist as a teen to a reluctant fundraiser to a committed realist.
So my wife Vickie and I met Vickie in the lobby of her hotel. She told us what Carson-Newman College is facing and how they hoped alumni would help out. I was preparing my protests: (“Do you know how much I gave last year? The TaxCut preparer always flags my giving. Americans don’t give this much!”) But our conversation moved on to how things are going, how the school has adjusted to hard times, and to what a great mission it has.
We were at Carson Newman from 1972-1976. Vickie and I married early—Christmas of our sophomore year. I was 19, she 18, and in love. That this did not pay bills had not yet occurred to us. We lived in the little house right behind the infirmary in 1973 Read the rest of this entry
Love and truth belong together. So why is it that they are so often found separated? Moral life arises from the recognition of eternal truth, the acceptance of the reality of others in that same truth, and the sensitivity to feel the connection between them. Puritan preacher Richard Baxter said love for one’s neighbor is akin to hunger and food connecting. It makes possible a new and different conversation.
Truth and love cannot live divorced from one another. Otherwise we are, in the former case, driven to principles rendered only as power, devoid of kindness and the graces and kindnesses of feeling for the other. Read the rest of this entry
Ten Commandments for Working for Change (Kingdom of God Version)
I am not sure why I started this. I have been thinking, at 57, about how disappointing the world, other people, the church, society, politicians, even myself, are. And yet, I hope. I still think things can be better. This is mysterious. I went to Mount Thinkaboutit to consider this, and came down with two tablets carved in sand, so they can be easily revised if needed, but these are some things I have thought about in my experiences thus far.
- First Things First. The ministry of healing requires clear priorities. The First Commandment is always the First Commandment. “Thou shalt have no other gods before Me.” “Let God be God,” is redundant. God IS
God. The only question is, “Will we rail against God and the universe and the Way It REALLY Is or not?” All of our spiritual traditions say God doesn’t care for human deities running around lording themselves over the rest of us. This keeps motives clear, priorities arranged and a healthy dose of humility in all of our efforts.
- Caring IS change. We are changed the moment we care. The poor are my neighbors, friends, or estranged kin, not problems to be eliminated or solved. Helmut Thielicke, the theologian, once said that sin entered the world when God was first spoken of in the third person by Satan: “Did God REALLY say?” Maybe the same is true of our neighbors—when we talk about them in place of “I-Thou,” as Martin Buber called it, we get, well, what we have. Listening, being present, loving our neighbors has already changed the conversation. Until you care, nothing changes. Not caring is a tempting way of protecting from the hurt, but it is ultimately impossible for being really alive.
- Politics alone cannot heal. It can facilitate genuine healing or get in its way. The same can be said of all the “principalities and powers”—economy, power, business, civic life, and even religion. They are instruments to occasionally use but never of eternal value for themselves. Sometimes it is the obstacle to go around, sometimes the opposition to ignore but never a god in whom we trust wholly. Politics is pretty important, which is why it is always overestimating itself
- Epiphanies are doorways! Real change begins with ideas, relationships, and genuine connection. Money, power and importance can only follow them if the change is genuine and the commitment unwaivering. Money, fame, and power are not usually agents of change so much as instruments of resistance. They get on board when it suits them, and left to themselves tend to prefer comfort, control and micromanaging (i.e., spiritual anesthesia). Because change will always bring the Unholy Trio into question, they become anxious because they will decrease if things do change. They do not like this, but sometimes the numbers just aren’t with them any more. Epiphanies are fast track connections.
- The Power of the Question. Before transformation was the question and it must be asked by right person at the right time. “Questioning” can be a somewhat self-righteous exercise, however, even a delusional self-perception (this was franchised in the United States in the 1970s, causing the number of people who were at Woodstock to quadruple). Real questions, like real change, have the element of self-involved investment/caring/suffering.
Part Two tomorrow…
How do you measure a life? Gene Bartow is a legend now, having passed long ago from active coaching to the place where no one else can reach you—retired success. But since he passed away, Birmingham, Memphis and the college basketball world have been filled with remembering. He is a college basketball Hall of Fame coach who coached 1000 games in his career. He finished with a 647-353 record over 34-seasons. He [i]was a success at Memphis State, leading the Tigers to a remarkable championship game appearance in 1973, where they lost to UCLA and John Wooden. He was national coach of the year that year. In all, his teams appeared in the NCAA tournament 14 times.[ii]
He is too often only remembered in the national press for one thing– for a time when he was successful but it wasn’t enough. He was chosen to succeed the legendary John Wooden at UCLA, the greatest coach of all time, who had a reign of ten titles in twelve seasons, the tenth in his retiring year, and seven in a row during that time.
So in 1975 Gene Bartow came to UCLA to replace the legendary Wooden when he retired. He stayed only two turbulent years. He was 52-9 record and took them to the NCAA tournament both years and was in the Final Four one of those. But it wasn’t good enough. The Washington Post quotes one of his players, Marques Johnson from that team. “He was a
sensitive person,” Johnson said in an interview. “He was used to being totally embraced as a coach and a person, and he was just not ready for the kind of vitriol thrown at him when he took Coach Wooden’s place. He never came to grips with it, and it bothered him more than anything. After two years, he was gaunt and pale, and he refused to read the Los Angeles newspapers or listen to the radio because there was so much negativity. But he was a wonderful human being, a super nice guy and a great coach.”[iii]
As a coach, Gene Bartow touched the edge of the big prize twice, but never won it all. He left the dream job that became a nightmare. He decided instead to come to Birmingham, Alabama and help build an athletic program and basketball team for a then-fledgling university at UAB. He did reach great success, including seven NCAA tournament appearances. But he never won the “big dance,” as they say.
But another event, the dramatic run to the edge of a championship with the Memphis Tigers in 1973, may have been his real greatest moment. “I don’t think this community ever had better race relations than when Gene coached at Memphis,” a friend said. “He had the way of bringing everybody together to support his team and the entire university.”[iv] It hadn’t been long since the painful memory of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Times were tense in the entire country. Then the city of Memphis was unified for a time around the glorious run of a Cinderella team that almost did it.
They lost, as I mentioned, in the championship game, to the juggernaut UCLA, coached by Wooden and led by future
NBA stars Bill Walton and Keith Wilkes. So his highest career points were two Final Fours, a lot of tournaments, being the sacrificial lamb at UCLA, and then to rebuilding himself as well as building UAB in Birmingham.
So how do you measure a life? While we’re measuring, it might also be worth mentioning that he ended his life with the nickname, “Clean Gene,” a moniker few carry in college sports these days of rogue fans, agents and corruption, for the way he ran things. He gave a race-divided city in Memphis something else to rally around and focus on in a painful historical moment. He started a great program in the city where we live that has had some really great moments. He battled stomach cancer to the very end with humor and grace.
I think it is fitting that Gene Bartow passed from this earth in the time in which one weekend carried the UAB-Memphis game and will be followed next weekend by Martin Luther King day. I’d say, all in all, he did the right things. The rest is just wins and losses.
It always matters how you play the game. John Wooden and Gene Bartow would agree, and maybe now they get to talk about it. All the rest is just wins and losses and what other people think. Rest in Peace, Coach. You went out on top.