My most recent favorite book is Deep Survival: Who Lives, Who Dies and Why. It is a fascinating study on the internal capacities necessary for surviving crisis. There are a whole host of amazing lessons that are applicable both to surviving the wilderness as well as the chaos of life. (Many of the lessons of which can be found in an article at National Geographic Adventure here.)
A number of the principles that stood out to me resonated with words that have been ringing in my heart since the Spirit of Jesus called me to be one of his followers in the world. And lately, as I have mused on issues around leading organizational change (especially within my own congregation and within the PCUSA denomination), I have found myself coming back to some of these thoughts again and again. So let me offer just three of the "survival principles" as Christian leadership principles for our denomination and our day--and see if they have any relevance to you in your particular contexts:
- Survivors: "Deny Denial" The tendency to believe that things are going to get better is universal. Every year people die on Half Dome in Yosemite because they believe that the storm clouds overhead are going to pass "them" by. That is, until lightning strikes...again. And that most wilderness accidents are a direct result of this denial: "A hiker in denial will continue walking even after losing the trail, assuming he’ll regain it eventually. He’ll press on—and become increasingly lost—even as doubt slowly creeps in." Gonzales gives direct advice here: "Learn to recognize your tendency to see things not as they are but how you wish them to be and you’ll be better able to avoid such crises." Part of my blogging on this page, leading in my church and working in our Presbytery has been marked by a renewed commitment to "deny denial". (I hear echoes of John 8:23, do you?) I believe that the only way to move through the current crises in our church and in our world is through looking squarely at what leadership expert Jim Collins calls, "the brutal facts." Which leads to...
- "A good survivor says: 'I may die. I’ll probably die. But I’m going to keep going anyway.' (Echoes of Matthew 16:25, huh?) Lately as I have been talking about our denomination, I have been writing and saying aloud what I have felt for years: With our deeply held competing world views, we very likely cannot survive as a denomination together. I believe in my heart that it is only a matter of time until the PCUSA as we know it, reorganizes into a new entity of some kind. I have no idea when, but it is inevitable to me. But...that reality does not fill me with dread or despair, but freedom because of this third principle...
- Survivors: "Do the Next Right Thing". And this, maybe now more than ever, is the most important consideration. What does it mean for us to "do the next right thing" in a situation where we are denying denial, squarely looking at the reality that our denomination is probably going to di, that many churches are dying and that the Christendom culture that we have operated in for years has been dead (or on life support maybe) for decades? What should we be doing besides cursing the darkness, waiting for the ship to go down, blaming one another, giving up or whistling in the dark? To paraphrase that famous biblical question from Luke 3:10, "What shall we do?
(Tolstoy once answered this question by declaring that he would "add his light to the sum of light in the world." Which is a pretty good answer, I'd say.)
For me, doing the next right thing means fundamentally being obedient to Christ expressed specifically through:
- Using the most respectful, honest language possible whenever there are deeply held competing values at stake.
- Thinking the best of those with whom I disagree and affirming whatever I possibly can.
- Listening, empathizing and understanding
- Staying calm, connected and consistent to my convictions as possible.
- Being open to biblical correction.
- In everything working to fulfill Jesus prayer, "Thy Kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven."
- And wherever I am, above all, "doing the next right thing" that is at hand.
As for the PCUSA, we may not "make it" as a denomination, but maybe the way we go about dying could be part of the new life that God wants to reveal to a dying world.
(P.S. If anyone else wants to read the book or the article and comment on the other "survival lessons" that he raises--and apply them to whatever situation you find yourself--please do..it's a fascinating thought experiment with many leadership implications.)