Loss Leadership

Sunday sermon for July 8, 2012
Text: Mark 6:1-13
Given at Slackwood Presbyterian Church, Trenton, NJ
(freshly after the 2012 PCUSA General Assembly)

As many of you may know, the General Assembly of the Presbytrerian Church has been meeting this past week in Pittsburgh, gathering together as it does every two years to listen together for how God is calling our church to act in the world.

Or at least that’s the theory. In reality, General Assembly doesn’t often sound like anybody listening to anything. Mostly it sounds like a whirlwind of parliamentary procedure, like you thought you were going to a church gathering but ended up at strange fan convention for Robert’s Rules of Order. Dawn and I were there, for several days, and upon returning home on Thursday I spent the subsequent 36 hours glued to the denominational website, watching a live Internet feed of people making amendments to amendments, debating the calling of questions, arguing between main motions and substitute motions, entertaining minority reports, and occasionally punching votes into handheld electronic keypads. And at any given vote, after all the keypads had been punched, as a signal to whatever entity was invisibly transforming those votes into convenient and projectable bar graphs, our moderator would offer this simple refrain: “We await results.”

We await results. Our denomination spent an inordinate amount of time this week awaiting results. After years of committee discussion, motions were brought to the floor on some of the hottest-button issues: on the theology of marriage; on the politics of Middle East peacemaking; on the very form and structure of the denomination. In every case, with prayerful consideration, with painful deliberation, and with guaranteed dissatisfaction from at least some significant portion of our ecclesial brothers and sisters, we awaited results. And for those dissatisfied with either the direction of the church or its rate of progress, the wait can be interminable. A two-year-long task force recommends an additional two-year study to be followed by a two-year compilation of data to generate an amendment that, if it passed, would take another year for ratification. That’s seven years! Seven years ago, there was no such thing as an iPhone! In a fast-moving world, for a people used to results and not used to waiting, this is the definition of inefficiency, of systems mismanagement; in a world that cries out with such need, a people not used to waiting argue that our languorous and over-encumbered polity ill-equips us for the mission that God is calling our church to do.

Which of course would put us in very good company. In today’s Gospel reading, the disciples are entirely ill-equipped for the mission that God sends them off to do. In many ways this is the first commissioning ceremony in Christian history: Jesus splits up the disciples (buddy system) and sends them off to do missionary and prophetic acts: to heal, to cast out spirits, to do basically what Jesus has already been doing throughout the opening chapters of Mark’s Gospel. But the remarkable part of this story is the curious demand Jesus places upon his disciples as they leave: “Take nothing for your journey except a staff; no bread, no bag, no money in your belts; wear sandals but not two tunics.” Two tunics means they’d be warm enough to sleep outside; Jesus wants them to have to rely on the strangers they find, on the food they beg for, day by day and hour by hour, with no bag even to hold spare change or lunch for the road. Sandals for their feet, and a staff to defend themselves against predators, and a mission for which these disciples are, by any standard, woefully ill-equipped.

Now those of us who await results have got to start asking some questions at this point in the story: I know, yes, the results do eventually come in, and Mark reports that the disciples in fact do perform many healings and acts of power. But don’t jump to the end: sit in this moment, in the absurdity of it, in the irrationality of it: these things that would make your mission easier; these things that would increase the odds of success – leave them behind. And if I’m with the disciples in this moment I’m beginning to think that a two-year-long study group sounds like a good idea! The right working group actually could help us think strategically about implementation! What does success look like for this mission? Do we have any conversion metrics in mind? What we need is some outside consulting help, someone who understands how to reach the target demographic, someone who understands the market and the landscape. We have to think about crafting the right language. We have to think about branding and visibility. If we’re really in the business of success ­­– if we’re not only waiting for but expecting resultswell, I think we’re going to need more than sandals, and a staff, and only one tunic.

You see my point. For those of us living in an efficiency-focused, results-oriented, success-driven world, this moment in Mark’s Gospel is illogical bordering on  scandalous. “And when you come into a house, stay there until you leave the whole area” – no trading up, no looking around town for a better place to stay – “and if no one will welcome you, shake the dust of that town off your feet as a witness against them.” And here Jesus just finally admits it: well, to be honest, this could all be a total disaster. Later in Mark’s Gospel he will send a few disciples ahead into Jerusalem to find that particular colt, and it will all go exactly at Jesus predicts; but here, he seems to have left his crystal ball behind. Surely if he were in the business of getting results; surely if he were in the business of success; surely if he were in the business of getting business done, this story would look a lot different. But as it stands, in this single moment of Mark’s Gospel, as the ill-equipped disciples embark on an unlikely mission – if no one will welcome you, shake the dust of that town off your feet ­­– this is a plan that no management consultant would ever concoct, and the only conclusion I can draw is that these disciples are being set up to fail.

We don’t like failure – we expect results! But for this one moment of Mark’s Gospel failure itself is the order of the day; failure itself is the motion on the floor. Mr. Moderator: I move that this assembly fail at all of the tasks for which it has been gathered. Well, you may get your wish, but nobody usually asks for that – I’m not even sure it’s in order. We can’t wrap our minds around it: the language of profit and success has so infiltrated our imagination that we have no room left to be the broken children of God. But nonetheless, we fail. All the time. Just ask yourself how your New Year’s Resolutions are going: failure is part of our lives, it’s part of what we do, it’s part of the human experience. And not just that: what this text lifts up is that failure has real value. It’s good. When we fail, we learn. When we fail, we grow. So the problem in this text isn’t that the disciples might fail. The problem is that we’ve forgotten how, that we’ve gotten so lost in a culture of success, so impatient with our waiting on results, that we have forgotten about failure, and we have forgotten that we are more beautiful and broken than any strategic plan can ever account for, and we have forgotten that some parts of our lives – our families, our schools, our churches – that some parts of our lives don’t report to shareholders, and don’t run on a simple bottom line.

Which is not to say that the lessons of business can’t be helpful. Churches and schools have learned immeasurably about financial stewardship from the wisdom of the business community. In fact in some ways the problem is that we haven’t learned enough. In particular this week I have been thinking about the business concept of a loss leader. You will know this by instinct if not by definition: in retail, a loss leader is a product intentionally sold well underneath the market price so as to drive foot traffic into the store. The most famous example of this is easily found on any Friday morning after Thanksgiving, when stores around the country use impossibly low prices on big-name items to reel in Christmastime consumers. Every time they sell that big-screen TV, they’ll lose a pile of money; every unit sold is a kind of retail failure, but in the real big picture, in the final analysis, that specific loss will begin to look a lot like gain.

So what then of the parts of our lives that don’t report to shareholders? The truth is that even there we are in desperate need of some loss leadership: leadership that sees the whole, leadership that seeks opportunity for productive failure, leadership that understands that every item on the shelf doesn’t have to make a profit. In part I say this as a new graduate of an institution that shows dangerous signs of having forgotten how to fail. In the past month Princeton Seminary has decided to outsource yet another critical part of its community fabric, its on-campus daycare. Obviously I cannot help but be biased; I won’t pretend to leave my parental instincts. But nor is this something that happened in isolation: in recent memory PTS has also outsourced its cafeteria service and its janitorial staff. It was announced that the cafeteria and daycare were both losing tremendous amounts of money, that the seminary could no longer afford the kind of results that those ministries were generating. But in search of different results the seminary has ignored the greater value at stake in consideration of the whole. Where the campus breaks bread together; where its children play together – these things are investments in its future, loss leaders of the first order, now victims to the basest kind of corporate logic.

And loss leadership isn’t just about recognizing that not everything makes money. In fact it recognizes that some things should fail – because failure is good, because failure teaches us how to move forward, because failure is part of the grand inefficient process of being human. You may have read in the paper about the recent drama at another institution close to my heart, the University of Virginia. For two weeks in June, relatively new University president Teresa Sullivan was removed from power by a Board entirely dissatisfied with her lack of business savvy. Her detractors argued that she was unwilling to apply the kinds of corporate and management principles necessary to keep the University relevant in the next century, cheap lessons like “Classics departments don’t make money” or “The Internet does!” – lessons suggested with little sign of research, nuance, or imagination. The campus rebelled, and after Sullivan’s eventual reinstatement, UVa professor Siva Vaidhyanathan wrote the following postmortem:

[Progress] doesn’t happen because someone saw a market opportunity and investors and inventors rushed off to meet it. That’s what happens in business-school textbooks. In the real world, we roll along, healthy and strong … because some very wise people decided decades ago to invest in institutions that serve no obvious short-term purpose. The results of the work we do can take decades to matter—if at all. Most of what we do fails. Some succeeds. The system is terribly inefficient. And it’s supposed to be that way.

Most of what we do fails. And if we sit around and only await results, the world will greet us with nothing but disappointment. Jesus sends the disciples door-to-door, town-by-town, with the confidence that they will be turned away; he sends them unequipped for their mission. He sets them up for disaster. But this isn’t a failure of leadership. It’s leadership through failure. Jesus sends the disciples without food or money not because it makes their mission easier. Jesus sends them empty-handed because it forms them as faithful witnesses, as servants who can trust that in the biggest picture possible their mission is in the hands of a loving, gracious, and providential God. Jesus sends them empty-handed because he is not simply waiting on their results; he is with them on the journey. When the food runs low, he is with them. In the coldest night, he is with them. When their own faith withers, he is with them. He is with them on the journey; he is with them in the process. Let those of us who profess his Lordship recognize it for what it is: loss leadership of the highest degree, leadership that joins us on our journey, leadership that encourages us in our failures, leadership that humbles us in our success, leadership that suffers and dies for us, that takes the ultimate loss for our ultimate gain. And on that cross, the victory we have is not just about results. The process matters. The struggle matters. The grand inefficient drama of being human matters. That’s loss leadership.

General Assembly now stands adjourned, and, for many parties, including myself, and maybe including many of you, the waiting continues. In many ways instead of action we have deliberation. Instead of boldness we have hesitation. The waiting continues, more desperately than ever, because the urgency is real. I heard the voices from the floor: The cries for justice and peace grow louder even as we argue about how long we are allowed to argue. I heard the voices from the floor: The politics of love are changing and every procedural vote we take simply further alienates the generation to come. I heard the voices from the floor: We don’t have time to wait: our churches are crying, dying, or walking away, and we sit here, clinging to our keypads, waiting for results. I heard these voices from the floor, and I share their passion. This urgency is real, and I feel it in my bones, and we all do, every one of us, every one of us who was there, every one of us watching from afar, every one of us gathered here today, this urgency that says that God is out there waiting for us out there to do to the things we have been called to do.

Surely this is true. Surely God is out there waiting on us to do what we have been called to do. Surely God is out there waiting on results. But God is also in here. In the process. In the journey. In the broken, inefficient, sinful, unprofitable, failure-ridden mess of a thing we call the church: God is here, in the process; God is here, at the table; God is here, in our fellowship; God is here, in our discord; God is here, with abundant and overflowing grace, and God waits for nobody.


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