Lessons in Organizational Dynamics

I read two interesting articles from the sports world yesterday. One article was titled, “Inside the Browns’ Front Office, Where Hope and History Collide,” about the Cleveland Browns, of the National Football League. The other article was was titled, “For Most Clubs, Losing a Star like Frenkie de Jong would be a Killer. For Ajax, it’s their Business Model,” and it’s about the Amsterdam Football (Soccer) Club Ajax, of the Dutch Eredivisie.

They’re both pretty long, involved articles (though I found them enjoyable and stimulating to read). But in case you’re short on time, this is the gist of what they say: the Cleveland Browns organization has been marked by dysfunctional leadership dynamics (though there seems to be some reason for hope in the future)… and the Amsterdam Ajax organization has been marked by a culture of developing young talent and then selling that talent to clubs in other leagues just as they reach their prime (cultivating a sense of hope for both the individual players and the organization as a whole).

I’ve been thinking about the ways that both of these stories and both of these teams provide lessons in leadership and organizational dynamics that may have insight for ministry leadership.

Am I looking to be — or find — one great, transcendent individual who can overcome all the difficulties that have plagued my organization? Or do I believe that one particular set of circumstances can turn the proverbial ship around, if I just tinker with things enough? Am I trying to consolidate and control communications and decision-making, in the belief that I know best?

Or am I looking to cultivate a slow and steady culture of broad and deep development? Am I looking to empower others? Am I building our team on multiple levels, seeking to elevate each individual and the organization as a whole in the process? Am I willing to go along with a system that results in a lot of transience, while still fostering excellence?

I want to see both the Browns and Ajax succeed, as sports teams. There seems to be reason to hope that they both will. But when it comes to emulating organizational cultures and dynamics, I want to think red and white, more than orange and brown.

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Blue Hen Falls

We got over a foot of snow over the weekend. It’s already disintegrating into a yucky pile of slush, now that a new weather system has moved in with warmer temperatures and soaking rains. Fortunately, though, my kids and I got to go on a winter hike before the melt.

Our destination was a pretty little waterfall in the Cuyahoga Valley National Park called Blue Hen Falls.

It’s a lovely spot, situated along a rugged section of the Buckeye Trail. But it’s also relatively easy to access, with a parking area less than a quarter of a mile from the waterfall and a sturdy bridge over the stream that feeds the falls.

I’ve visited this spot during other times of the year, but I appreciate it even more now that I’ve been there in the winter. I also understand now why it’s called Blue Hen Falls.

When the waterfall freezes, it takes on a remarkable blue color (the pictures don’t really do it justice). And there’s also something about the dynamics of the waterflow that cause the ice to pile up in this squat, rounded, fluffy shape that is quite reminiscent of a bird on its nest!

Behold the Blue Hen!

It was especially enjoyable to see the falls right as the sun was starting to set to the west. After we returned to our car, we did a little bit of sledding right there at the trail-head. We helped another family whose car got stuck on the crude driveway from Boston Mills Road to the parking lot. And then we drove home through the deepening darkness.

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Behind the Scenes of a Difficult Decision to Cancel an H2O Worship Gathering

Northeast Ohio was hit by a massive winter storm this weekend: more snow over the last 24 hours than any other time I can remember, since our family moved to Kent in 2012. Many area events had to be canceled or postponed, with notices posted throughout the weekend on websites, social media, and scrolling announcements on local television stations.

There was only one event for which I bore any real responsibility, however: the weekly worship gathering for H2O Church at Kent State University. And I have to say, our own cancellation was more difficult — both to decide and to execute — than I expected.

Questions started rolling in almost as soon as the snow started to fall, yesterday around mid-day. We posted to our social media accounts: “It’s snowing! We’re monitoring the weather, so check back here after 9am tomorrow for a final word on whether or not we will be gathering for worship!” Even after posting this notice, however, there was a level of anxiety and confusion that kept getting back to those of us in leadership: questions about the ways that our decision affected their personal circumstances… rumors of cancellation (from unauthorized sources)… second-guessing about the process we had implemented for making the decision and putting out communication about that decision…

And through it all, the snow kept falling.

This morning, we woke up to about a foot (30 centimeters) of snow on the ground. My co-pastors and I started trading text messages around 7:30 AM, this morning. And we went back and forth on all the pros and cons of cancellation versus continuation. We looked at the weather reports from several different sources… We noticed that several other area churches were announcing their decisions to cancel their own worship gatherings. We observed more of the questions, rumors, and second-guessing within our own communication channels… And all of the chatter made it very difficult to wrap our heads around the dynamics of our decision.

Ultimately, we decided that we couldn’t really make a decision until we got eyes on the snow removal efforts by the City of Kent and Kent State University. Unfortunately, in order to get eyes on the snow removal situation, we had to remove the snow from our own driveways! And with a foot of snow on the ground, that meant half an hour of heavy shoveling.

As I started driving towards campus, the chatter on our internal communications channels started to intensify. The secondary roads in Kent were still in pretty bad shape, though not entirely impassable… The main roads were surprisingly navigable… And campus sidewalks were actually in decent shape.

While on campus, I picked up my co-pastor Jason (who had walked over to campus from his house), and we talked some more about the decision before us. The two of us were starting to lean towards a decision to “Carry on” with regular H2O programming… until we got to the street where Jason lives. I started turning onto the lane and suddenly thought better of it. No plows had been through yet. But just as I started turning my wheels back towards the more primary thoroughfare, the car’s forward momentum ground to a halt, and we were stuck fast.

That was the turning point in my own decision.

It didn’t take too long for us to dig ourselves out of the snow (Jason’s house was very close by, and he had a couple shovels we could use to clear the short path back to clearer roads). We drove over to the house of our (third and final) co-pastor, Matthew, and then we cruised around the streets of southern Kent while we deliberated all the angles. We almost got stuck a couple more times. And by 8:45 AM, we all felt peace about a decision to cancel our worship gathering.

We pulled into a McDonald’s and started working on communication with all the other people who play a role in our Sunday worship gatherings. First, we told our staff team. We then asked our colleague Brooke to put out the word on our social media channels, figuring out the nuances of our message together with Matthew.

After that went live, we asked our Staff to push out a screenshot of the social media announcement to all the various groups that make up our church. We reached out by phone or text message to some of the people we suspected might not otherwise hear the news. We were all on our smartphones for a good 20 or 30 minutes, trying to get the word out. As we worked, we talked about how we might be able to streamline our communications process for future situations along these lines.

Eventually, we were able to start to relax a little bit. We took some time to deliberate the options for H2O events scheduled later in the day (ultimately deciding to cancel these events, too). We worked on communication stuff a bit further. We talked about other church stuff. And finally, we finished by arranging to print out some 8.5 x 11 sheets of paper to tape to the doors of Bowman Hall, in case none of our other communications made it through to individuals.

It wasn’t a perfect process. We’ve got a lot of ways to learn and grow in the future. But I’m glad we were able to figure it out, together as a team, and I’m glad to be nestled in at home now as the snows keep coming.

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Poison Ivy Everywhere

Poison Ivy Everywhere

I saw this sign while hiking along the Buckeye Trail this morning: “Poison Ivy Everywhere.”

It feels like a symbol or metaphor for something… but I don’t know exactly what the antecedent might be. Fomenting unfounded fears? The depravity of man? The changing of the seasons?

What do you think?

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Spider-Man as a Metaphor for Adolescence?

I don’t know why it never occurred to me before. But I recently saw the newest Spider-Man movie with my kids, and it totally hit me on a different wavelength than any other time I’ve considered the Spider-Man story-line. As a middle-aged father, sitting in the darkened movie theater with my three adolescent children, it occurred to me:

Could it be that Spider-Man is a metaphor for adolescence?

Think about it: a young person is going along with his everyday life until one day he is bitten by a “radioactive spider.” All of the sudden, his body starts changing. He develops a heightened awareness, or “Spidey-Sense,” of the world around him. He feels icky and out-of-place until he masters his new powers. And then, he ultimately learns the lesson that “With great power comes great responsibility.”

I never really connected with this metaphor until I saw the interaction between Myles Morales and his father. (It’s really not all that different from any of the previous iterations of the dynamic between Peter Parker and his Uncle Ben). Both adult and youth are sympathetic characters. They both want to fight against the evil in the world around them. But they have dramatically different — even antithetical — approaches. Misunderstandings abound. Communication is a challenge. But in the end, they learn how to get along as adults.

I enjoyed the unique approaches to visual design and animation in Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse. I appreciated the fresh take on a familiar story (though honestly, the plot got a bit convoluted at times). But more than anything else, I’m grateful for the way this film got me thinking about parenting, pastoring, and passing along power and responsibility to successive generations, both in family and in ministry.

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Hiking with Ghosts

I like to hike.

Honestly, the physical activity and the beauty of nature are enough. I would enjoy hiking for these elements alone. But to me, hiking provides so much more than lungs laboring to process fresh air. When I go out to the wilderness, it’s often to go hiking with ghosts.

The main ghost with whom I go hiking is the Holy Ghost. Perhaps “getting some extended time with God” is a less provocative way to say it. But seriously: most of my hiking happens when I purposefully set aside time for practicing spiritual disciplines like prayer, meditation, Bible study, silence, and solitude. These Hikes with the Holy Ghost, or Walks in the Woods, are a weekly discipline for me, usually on Friday mornings.

I feel the fullness of the Holy Spirit out on the trails, away from my desk or the campus where so much of my ministry takes place. The awe and serenity of Creation helps me to connect to the Creator Himself. The separation from normal, everyday stuff provides an invaluable perspective which is enhanced by natural beauty: God’s enormity, power, and timelessness juxtaposed against my human limitations. It’s reassuring to be reminded of Who God is — and who God says I am.

The Holy Ghost is a great hiking companion. In addition, I also carry with me relics of other ghosts that connect me to past people and experiences, where God demonstrated His care and concern for me.

When I hike, I wear a Colorado Rockies baseball cap that reminds me of summers at Estes Park Leadership Training: an exceptionally-beautiful ministry environment in an exceptionally-beautiful part of the world (the Rocky Mountain National Park). I remember feeling especially close to God in the summer of 2016, when our family spent the summer there, and I guess you could say that I still feel happily “haunted” by those experiences. The ball cap is a tangible connection to all those memories.

If the temperatures are below freezing, I will typically hike in an old set of coveralls that I inherited from my grandfather, Ezra Liechty. He lived almost all of his life on the plains of North Dakota, where conditions can be rather inhospitable. He toughed out the conditions, however, and built a business that still survives today, even though he died four years ago. The coveralls were made by a company called Key, and the particular model of coveralls I wear is the Imperial: “The Aristocrat of Outerwear.” And in a way, the coveralls are the perfect metaphor for my Grandpa Liechty: rugged, tough, insulating, and affording access and advantages in life that not everyone gets to experience.

Underneath the coveralls — or just under a regular jacket, if the temperature is a bit warmer, or as the only outer garment if the temperature is a lot warmer — I typically hike in a hooded, zip-up sweatshirt. It’s a convenient garment for hiking because it can be made quite warm (if zipped all the way up, with the hood pulled tight around my face) or relatively cool (if unzipped, hood off). But the three hooded, zip-up sweatshirts I have are all special because of the people who gave them to me. One was given to me by my mother-in-law, Louise. One was given to me by my best friend, Jason. And one was given to me by my wife, Marci. All three of these people represent key relationships in my life.

I hope I can continue my habit of hiking with ghosts for many years to come. This year, I’m taking aim at the 253 miles in the northeast Ohio loop of the Buckeye Trail. But wherever I go, for however long I’m able to keep going, I’m glad to walk with God.

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H2O Kent Spring Semester Staff Retreat

I love our team at H2O Kent.

We just finished three full days of meeting together to prepare for the Spring Semester at Kent State University. It was a lot of conversation, and I confess that things grew tiresome at times… But I kept thinking what a joy it was to be doing it with our team. Even the “boring” parts of our retreat were a privilege.

In addition to the conversation and prayer, though, we paired up and competed against each other in “Minute-to-Win-It” games every so often, to break up the conversation…

We drank lots of good coffee and ate lots of good food. We played pranks on each other and laughed a lot.

I’m just glad that God is building His Kingdom here in Kent. And I’m glad that He does it through community. We talked a lot this week about living out Jesus’ New Commandment to love one another (John 13), and I feel like we’ve already got a solid foundation within our leadership team.

Now we just want to go out there and see God’s love expounded and expanded, for His glory.

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Ferro and Menno

Crazy to think that we’re already nearly a week into the New Year! I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about the possibilities presented by a new year… But “Resolutions” feel too strong for me. Like, “I do hereby firmly resolve to complete the following…” I do, however, have lots of ideas or hopes for 2019. Goals or quests can be motivating — and a fresh calendar year provides a good opportunity to take aim.

That being said, I’m learning that one’s hopes and goals are healthiest when they combine a balance of work and rest. It’s not just about trying harder or doing more. From the very beginning of time, going back to the first day humankind was established upon the earth, we can see that God made us to work from rest, not to rest from work. Jesus demonstrated the same truths when he walked and talked among us, and he also talked explicitly about a need to balance rest and work:

I am the true grapevine, and my Father is the gardener. He cuts off every branch of mine that doesn’t produce fruit, and he prunes the branches that do bear fruit so they will produce even more. You have already been pruned and purified by the message I have given you. Remain in me, and I will remain in you. For a branch cannot produce fruit if it is severed from the vine, and you cannot be fruitful unless you remain in me. “Yes, I am the vine; you are the branches. Those who remain in me, and I in them, will produce much fruit. For apart from me you can do nothing.

John 15:1-5

One of my emerging hopes for 2019 is to deepen my study of the Bible by continuing to learn the source language of the New Testament. And in the passage quoted above, everything seems to hinge on two key words in the original Greek, each of which contain shades of meaning that might be missed in translation.

The first word is an infinitive verb, pronounced something like “Ferro:”

φέρω

To remain, to abide, to stay, to tarry, to remain in a place, to dwell, to live, to lodge, to continue

The second word has a symmetry with the first word that makes them both more memorable: also just two syllables, four letters, identical vowel sounds. It’s another infinitive verb, pronounced something like “Menno:”

μένω

To bring, to bear, to carry, to lead, to bear along, to carry forward, to endure, to produce, to be moved

The words underneath the Greek text, above, are some of the options for English translation of these two words, depending on their context. The aggregate gives a distinct feel for how the the two concepts compare and contrast to one another. Both have their place in the life of a Christian.

Ferro and Menno… Menno and Ferro. It sounds kind of catchy, doesn’t it? Ferro… Menno… Ferro… Menno… Ferro… Menno… Ferro… Menno… I’m hoping I can carry this refrain throughout the coming year.

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The Murder of the Century

I just finished reading Paul Collins’ book, “The Murder of the Century.”

I heard about the author on a podcast, and when I looked him up at the local library, the synopsis on the dust jacket of this one seemed interesting. So it inadvertently became my first read of 2019.

I enjoy history of almost any kind — and I’ve recently been particularly interested in the “Gilded Age” of American Industry, around the turn of the 20th Century.

The book centered around a murder mystery that gripped New York City in the summer and fall of 1897. The crime itself was not all that remarkable, in terms of the people involved (poor immigrants from the slums) or the circumstances leading up to the crime (jealous lovers, caught up in a love triangle). But the case took on historical significance because of the way that the newspapers of the day covered the story and competed against each other (and the law enforcement agencies) for angles and information on the murder.

The story of the obvious drama between William Guldensuppe (the victim),
Agusta Nack, and Martin Thorn (the perpetrators) was interesting enough to keep me engaged. It felt like the narrative was drawn out further than necessary, to help the reader “get to the bottom of the case.” But I never felt bored or bothered to the point of skipping or skimming.

The real story, to me, was the behind-the-scenes drama between Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst. They captained rival newspapers — The New York World and the New York Journal, respectively — and the dynamics between these media moguls was shockingly similar to the battles that have been waged in the last couple of decades between cable news networks and social media platforms.

The power dynamics… the cut-throat strategies to dominate one’s opponent… the financial implications of the competition… and the ego-maniacal tendencies of the lead figures involved… These dynamics are all exactly the same as they were a century ago! Truly, there is “nothing new under the sun,” and I always appreciate the way that reading history helps me to understand the present.

I don’t know if I would necessarily put this book in the “strongly recommended” category, but I’m not sad I read it either.

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Where the Wild Things Are

I got an annual membership to the Kent State University Recreation Center for this year.

I know. Classic New Year’s move.

But I think it will be a sustainable part of my life and ministry throughout 2019.

I know. We’ll see…

So anyway: I went in to work out today, and I was surprised by how many students were around — even on the university’s winter break. The weight room was actually quite full. There were a number of (older) people swimming. And there were even a handful of students on the basketball courts.

When I went into the locker room. There were a couple of students who were carrying on like caricatures of fraternity guys. Their hats were on backwards. They were wearing cut off T-shirts, and talking about their chests and triceps. And they were speaking in accents that were almost Californian, dropping F-bombs every other word. I didn’t pay close attention to their “frat-boi” patter, as I got dressed for my exercise. But I thought they were kind of funny and interesting.

I was planning to get most of my exercise in the pool, but I thought I would start with putting up a few shots on the basketball courts to warm up. After about ten minutes of shooting around, however, a couple of other fraternity guys (not the ones from the locker room) asked if I wanted to play full-court basketball with them, so they could have a full five-on-five. I figured “Why not?” and trotted over to their court.

It took a while for us to get started, with everyone tying their shoes and putting up practice shots. As we prepared for the game, one of the guys started talking about his plans to go to “the Jack” in Cleveland that night.

His friend said, “I can’t play there, man. I went to Vegas for my 21st, and now all other gambling has been ruined for me.”

“Oh yeah,” his friend responded. “Vegas is pretty wild…” I couldn’t tell if he had ever actually been to Las Vegas, but he played it off as though he knew all about it. He didn’t mention anything further about “the Jack.”

“Pretty wild,” I thought, smiling to myself. I don’t get to experience life in the “wild” very often, at my stage in life. Now I’m not one to mourn that fact. But I recognize how insulated I can be from anyone who experiences any sort of thrill from those “wild” places.

Eventually, teams were formed, and we started playing. I was not an All-Star by any means, but I held my own. My team won the first four games. So suddenly my ten minutes of “quick warm-up cardio” had turned into over an hour of pounding up and down the court. My body groaned under the unfamiliar physical stresses, but I enjoyed the opportunity to mix it up with the students. And after a while, I got to know them better: Which high schools they went to… What they were studying at Kent State… Why they were around over winter break… What they did for Christmas… Nothing particularly deep or spiritual, but it was the beginning-of-relationship stuff.

When my team finally lost, I felt like I had gotten to know the other four guys on my team pretty decently. We exchanged handshakes and fist bumps as I left the court, and we said that maybe we would see each other some other time.

Of course, I only had the energy to swim about a dozen laps in the pool by the time I was finished with all that basketball, but as I swam I kept thinking about those guys from the basketball court. I don’t get many other opportunities to interact with students from fraternities. They are very busy people. They have their own very extensive, very involved social networks. They live in their own parts of town. They are almost invisible to me most of the time.

But not at the Rec Center.

God has been stirring my heart since that experience on the basketball courts. As a Collegiate missionary, I want to go “where the wild things are.” Even if it is just to remind myself that they are not all that wild. Even the “wildest” fraternity brothers and gym-rats are normal people, who struggle with insecurity, just like I do. They yell at themselves when they miss open shots, just like I do.

They need God’s love, just like I do.

So, I’m really hoping I can keep up some rhythms for spending time at the Rec Center. I feel like God has given me a broader vision for community and camaraderie this semester. So, I’m going to keep thinking about this and praying to see what will happen.

I know. Typical New Year’s optimism. We’ll see.

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