A blog post by Terri Elton
Sunday I participated in my first race of the year, a duathlon in downtown Minneapolis. It was a hot, humid August morning. As racers made their way to the starting line, the race organizers warned us that they’d be keeping an eye on the weather and if the heat index got too high, they’d call off the race for safety reasons.
Now I was not in my best racing condition and hadn’t trained in this extreme heat. So, I had mixed emotions regarding these announcements. But as my wave headed to the starting line, I promised myself I’d listen to my body and committed to holding safety above a competitive time. And then I was off on the first leg of the race.
Just about two hours later I crossed the finish line exhausted and dehydrated. As I found a place to sit down and rest, I learned that ten minutes earlier they had made the decision to stop people before the final leg. I’d finished, but over half of the participants would not have the same opportunity.
What followed was a series of comments — some in favor, some in opposition. As I returned to the transition area to get my gear, I passed one of the event staff. I paused, and once he got off the walkie-talkie, I thanked him for his work. Then I made my way to breakfast and air conditioning.
It wasn’t until later in the day when I made the connection between the race and ministry. Linksy and Heifetz remind us that leaders are always putting themselves on the line. Many of us know what they are talking about — leading is dangerous and is not going to win any popularity contests. But here are three things I’m taking away from my experience on Sunday; things I will use as I enter into a new season of ministry this fall.
- Leaders are called to keep their eye on the big picture. As a participant, I had a job to do — run my race. But as I was focused on my role, there were all kinds of other things going on that I couldn’t (and shouldn’t) pay attention to. It was the job of others — the medic staff, the volunteers, the police officers — to pay attention to traffic and weather and making sure there was enough water. And their paying attention to those things enabled me to do my thing. In ministry, there are people whose role it is to teach Sunday School, for example. Their role is to love and teach kids. But other people have other roles — like cleaning the building and planning worship. And some ministry leaders are called to step back and see the big picture, just like the race staff. These leaders have to watch and listen; they have to make decisions, often weaving together information from various other folks, so they can lead the whole.
- Leaders have to care about the good of all, not the good of a few. Many of the participants stated that the decision to finish or not should have been left to the individuals themselves. And yes, many of the participants could have made the right choice for themselves. But, speaking for myself, I didn’t realize until later in the day how dehydrated I had gotten. I was taking in fluids all during the race, and I was paying attention to my body. But too many elements were different than my previous training runs, and I was not in the best position to make the call, for me or for others. Leaders understand that; they understand their role is to care for the widest audience. At times, caring for the whole means watching out for the vulnerable, those on the edge, those who may not have the opportunity to speak up for themselves. This was the right thing.
- Leaders decide and move on. Once the decision to cancel the last leg of the race was made, everyone stood behind that decision and worked to carry it out. And there was no apologizing. Yes, there was explaining and communicating, but there was no hedging. They had warned us, they had watched the weather, and it had gotten to a turning point. And the leadership made a decision and stood by it. Thanks! I appreciate that. And standing by one’s decision does not mean being without compassion about the individuals impacted. No, quite the opposite. The decision was made in order to care about the individuals, and that was part of the message communicated in various ways. If we, as leaders, know what our calling is, and have a framework for leading, then we have what we need to make the hard decisions when the time comes.
So, as we move into September and another fall season of ministry, I challenge you to lead. Know leading isn’t going to make you popular and, in fact, it might be dangerous. But also know that leading is important and that without it, ministry won’t have the environment it needs to thrive.
Terri is passionate about young people and their families, and loves the church. No really! She’s our Associate Professor and teaches with an eye toward developing leaders and leading change. She also serves as Director of the Center for First Third Ministry and hopes to help ministry leaders create environments that cultivate a faith that matters. Growing up in southern California, Terri discovered her love for the city, cultural diversity and the beach. You can usually find Terri running or biking the streets of Minneapolis/St. Paul, or wherever she happens to be. When not moving, she’s watching a movie with her husband or traveling with her two young adult daughters.
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