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Who’s on First?

Being Brethren and understanding our organizational structures is essential to our survival. The Ashland Brethren, though, have had a tenuous relationship with organizational authority. We all say we need it but we’re terrified to submit to it. A stalemate exists among local, regional and national entities. In a funny way, I’m reminded of the old Abbot and Costello bit “Who’s on First?” (Watch it below before you continue reading.)

Think about how we approach organization and authority. When a need arises, we immediately ask “who’s on first?” We pride ourselves on being a relational people. It should come as no surprise that we jump to the who side of the diamond first. But the “who” quickly frustrates us. Ashland Brethren have bristled at leaders outside our context exercising any sort of authority over us.

We’ve not always been the most empowering culture. Generations understand things quite differently and we sometimes struggle to discern the timeless values apart from time specific expressions. With neither side wanting to offer or receive accountability and authority, a libertarian streak appears. One recalls images of “Don’t Tread on Me” flags. A relational people become jaded and distrustful. The larger fellowship struggles.

We quickly move to the “what” on second. If personnel will not alleviate our anxiety, then we need to ask what programs, initiatives, or institutions may provide relief. Alas, the “whats” that have sustained us are undergoing a great deal of change. Programs are so time constricted that they do not offer us the remedies that we really need. Institutions move into self-preservation mode (not out of spite but for survival). The nimbleness of relationships is traded for hyper-contextualized, time-constricted institutions. All good programs and institutions will have a life cycle. No matter how hard we try, nostalgia will not bring them back.

The next base we hit is the third base of “I don’t know.” We grow cynical and ambivalent about the larger organization and simply want to detach ourselves from it. We’ve struggled to experience either relational or systemic authority. We throw our hands up and breathe a sigh of disbelief and check out. We’re close to home but the last sprint seems miles away. We’re tired. We’re discouraged.

The two people we should be focused on in this little slice of comedy are the pitcher and the catcher. At home we have “Today.” Home plate marks where our organizational journey begins and ends. All we have is the present. The paradox of organizational life is that we reflect and forecast from the present. It is a both/and of leadership.

“Tomorrow” is pitching at us. We need to attempt to predict what tomorrow will pitch. We’re foolish to not try to forecast. We swing at tomorrow’s pitches while our community is on the bases. Relationships, systems and cynicism hopefuly give way to the crack of the bat.

Who’s on first—relationally we long for authority but we need to relearn trust. What’s on second—programs, institutions and initiatives are valuable expressions but do not provide us the transcendent influence we desire. I don’t care is on third—we reach a place of ambivalence and cynicism which are but shadow sides of commitment and optimism. All along, we have run the bases acting as if first, second or third base was the place to finish.

Maybe, just maybe, Abbot and Costello were subtly on to something in this sketch. You and I laugh all while a organizational commentary is unfolding. A comedic parable reveals the disappointments of any organizational life. Two gents show up on our screen and we feel they may be describing Brethren polity. I never knew these two were Brethren comedians! Just like Costello responding to Abbot, we become tongue-tied, perplexed, frustrated, aggravated, and agitated. In the words of a farmer friend of mine, “We don’t know whether to wind our butts or scratch our clocks.”

What we experience:

  • First base becomes relationships minus accountability. Why would I hold you accountable if I have no idea to what I’m holding you (or myself) accountable?
  • Second base becomes institutional expressions of nostalgia rather than mission. Such expressions become but hollow signifiers of a time gone-by rather than empowering people to be their best selves today.
  • Third base becomes a pit of cynicism and frustration. If key people and places don’t matter (first and second bases), then what does matter and how am I to know that it matters?
  • We feel stranded on bases. No RBIs in this game.

What if…

…first base became relationships of accountability—true, deep, intimate, spiritual friendships animated by the mission of God rather than self-preservation.

…second base became initiatives of mission rather than institutions of nostalgia—institutions adapting to live into their new realities rather than falling back on their perceived laurels.

…third base moved from a posture of despair marked by a cynical “I don’t know” to a posture of hope marked by a curious “I don’t know” as we all ran the bases to lean into the compelling why before us.

Questions arise as to where the anxiety lies. Below are a few of my own as I observe the Brethren struggle:

  • What is tomorrow pitching at us? Examine the bases of our baseball diamond. What do you see? Why is the Brethren baseball team even up at bat?
  • Who are our heavy hitters today? Who are our RBI leaders? Runners stranded on base do us no good. We need singles, doubles, triples and, every once in a while, a grand slam!
  • What do each of the bases reveal about our life collectively?
    • Who: How are we encouraging relational authority and influence in your denomination? Where are places of confession? Where is mentoring and accountability taking place?
    • What: Where are new initiatives birthing new ways of doing life together? How are our organizations and institutions responding to the fresh call of God for this place and this time?
    • I don’t know: Where is cynicism and ambivalence creeping into your heart? How did first and second bases discourage you? What does running home look like?

I know this is stretching this comedic sketch a long way. These are simply organizational leadership thoughts inspired by one of my favorite comedic performances. The Ashland Brethren will only grow as we develop relational authority, systematize such development in missional organizations, and allow both relational and systemic authority to help us round third base and head home. Tomorrow will never stop pitching. Today will always be at home plate. You, the batter, have to continually rediscern how hard you should swing.

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