Thursday, March 16, 2006

Frustration, Trust, Cooperation, and Synergy

In Stephen Covey’s book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, the author recommends that one teach or at least discuss the material in the book within 48 hours of reading it. I first read the book not long after its 1989 publication date. A few weeks ago I started teaching from it. That’s a little over the 48-hour recommended gap between learning and teaching but it took that long for the teaching opportunity to come along.

As I’ve gone through the book again, I’ve been surprised by how much of it I have retained, not necessarily in my mind as something I read in that particular book, but as a “habit,” you might say. I have a personal mission statement that I first developed while reading that book and have updated periodically over the years. I review it now and again and consider how my default priorities correlate with the goals therein. I try to plan by the month and week rather than one day at a time - when I’m on top of things enough to plan at all. An occasional thought pops into my mind about things like paradigm shifts and emotional bank accounts and the contrast between my "circle of concern" and my "circle of influence", concepts I first encountered in The 7 Habits ...

I’ve also forgotten much of what I read in the book, enough that I’m pretty much stuck at being sort of rather than highly effective. Maybe teaching it will help my retention and I will be able to move up to somewhat effective. Or maybe not.

Last week’s lesson was on Habit #6 – “Synergize®” As predicted, teaching the material is increasing its impact in my own mind. I’ve been pondering the concept of synergy (the whole is more than the sum of the parts) all week.

There’s a graph in the chapter on synergy. I’m a mathematical thinker. Graphs speak to me and stick with me. On the graph, the ‘y’ axis is trust; the ‘x’ axis is cooperation. When trust and cooperation are low, people tend to find Win/Lose solutions to conflict. One side wins, the other loses. Moderate levels of trust and cooperation might lead to compromise, everyone loses a little and wins a little. It takes high levels of both trust and cooperation to discover Win/Win solutions through synergy, a final answer better than any of the initial solutions proposed by those involved in the discussion/conflict.

Set against this concept in my mind are some frustrating situations in my life. I’m banging my head against the wall. I look at the situations and long for an atmosphere that would enable synergistic Win/Win solutions. Instead, I find people who are too bent on winning to care that I’m losing and who are not interested in cooperating with me. As a result, according to Habit #4 (Think Win/Win) we’re all losing. Dr. Covey makes the point in that chapter that those who make Win/Lose choices actually lose. In the end, there is no Win/Lose or Lose/Win, only Win/Win or Lose/Lose.

This frustrates me, to put it mildly. Why can’t we sit down and let synergy do its magic as we come up with a Win/Win solution that is better than any one person can formulate alone? I’m not the only one frustrated by walls being erected in the organization as a result of mistrust. Why can’t we address the issues together and work toward synergistic solutions?

As I’ve thought about this, it has occurred to me that my own frustration is both a symptom of the problem and a cause of the problem. Those building the walls don’t trust me and are not willing to cooperate with me. They simply put up walls and shut me out of the decision-making process. Hearing me bang my head against those walls bolsters their confidence that the walls were a good idea. As my frustration at losing mounts, their desire to interact with me decreases. Shut the door. Keep her out. She can’t be trusted. There’s no use trying to cooperate with her. Take the win. Don’t worry about the losers. Losers are emotionally unstable and irrational. I end up isolated and alone behind the wall. No one hears my cries. Many around me are dealing with their own walls.

There is one other option besides Win/Win or Lose/Lose according to Dr. Covey - No Deal. Neither side wins; neither side loses. The parties involved agree that there will be no solution and either go their separate ways or move on to other priorities depending on the desirability of a continued relationship.

One side cannot force a Win/Win solution if the other side isn’t willing to trust and cooperate. That leaves Lose/Lose or No Deal. However, if a wonderful, synergistic Win/Win solution is lost through No Deal, isn’t that also a loss?

To reach Win/Win, one side has to decide to trust and cooperate with the other, even when trust has been previously violated. I can’t do it. These people have shown a willingness to shut people out (including me), a lack of concern for the interests of others. Even though it may be my own frustration that has prompted them to shut the door on me, I still can’t trust them enough to take the first step toward cooperation while they're still blocking me out.

It’s at this point that I’m thrown back on my faith. I can’t trust the people involved to care about me, but I can choose to trust God to do so. Jesus taught that those who freely accept Lose/Win decisions that are forced on them are winners in the end. (See Matthew 5:38-41) That Win may be a long time coming. Or maybe not. If I offer cooperation and express trust in God that the wall will not finally defeat me, is there hope that trust and cooperation will be offered in return? It’s something to ponder anyhow.

An old poem whose origins are lost to me comes to mind:

He drew a circle that shut me out
Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout.
But love and I had the wit to win,
We drew a circle that took him in.

I need to go look for some circle-drawing chalk.

Monday, March 06, 2006


Some among the powers-that-be at the church to which I belong have decided that those who decline invitations to join our fellowship of Christian believers may be staying away because they find our services less attractive than alternative activities (i.e. boring). The obvious solution is to do something more interesting than lining up on long wooden pews singing “church songs” together and listening to long prayers and an extended lecture about some passage of the Bible. Thus, one Sunday evening a month is being set aside for “fun and fellowship” rather than the usual Sunday evening service. I have mixed feelings about that move, seeing both positive and negative points, but that’s a topic for another time and place. None of those feelings are strong enough to merit a blog entry. After all, I have yet to find the verse in the Bible that commands Christians to attend two church services every Sunday. Primarily, I’m just going with the flow without comment.

Last evening was our second such event. It was a karaoke night. Having led a sheltered life, this was my first exposure to the activity. I was amazed. The high school student beside me at the table insisted strongly at the outset that “I don’t sing!” However, by the end of the evening, she had joined one or both of her younger brothers and young cousin several times behind the microphone. People who have been part of my church family for years and whom I’ve never heard sing took the microphone voluntarily. For some, the result explained why they don’t participate in special music for church services. Others revealed unknown talents and made me wonder why they’ve never responded to requests for more musicians to become involved in our church music program.

By my unofficial count, there were 47 in attendance for this event, double the number present the week before for an “ordinary” evening service. Of those, eighteen, more than a third, took the microphone for either a solo or group song besides the unison “table songs”. Only three of those who performed do special music in our services on a regular basis. Several who have very nice singing voices declined to participate. Most of the 15 who sang other than those three regular church soloists had not previously revealed their ambitions for public performance. What is it about an open mic and a karaoke machine that breaks down the inhibitions people have about standing in front of a fairly large group of people and displaying their musical skills?

Did I feel the pull? Yes, it was there. Knowing that I might not be the worst singer in the group based on what I was hearing was probably part of that pull. I guess that’s the blessing of those whose dreams and ambitions exceed their musical skills. They make it easier for others to take the risk of embarrassing themselves. I went so far as to look over the selections available to see if one would grab me and propel me to the front. None did. I do often wish I had better singing skills because I would love to be able to include the lyrics when I make music rather than just playing the tune on the piano. The selections available didn’t include any of the songs that stir up those wishes. They were more for fun. If I’m going to do things for fun, I’ll stick to the piano -- Henry Mancini, Floyd Kramer, and such. If karaoke included piano music, I definitely would have been up there doing “The Pink Panther” since the remake of that movie is still playing at the local theater and I love playing Henry Mancini music. Instead, I just enjoyed being part of the audience and sometimes sang along softly. Being the interim pianist for church services, I have no lack of opportunity to display what talents I have on the instrument for which I have the most skills – the piano. In truth, I don’t consider a church service the best setting for a performance since the purpose of such a gathering is to glorify God rather than individuals among the congregation, but the challenge of using my skills to bring others into the presence of God is plenty for me. I don’t need performance opportunities.

I went to the karaoke night with apprehension. Would there be arm-twisting to get people to perform? Would the pressure make anyone uncomfortable? Was it really an event to which one could invite someone who wasn’t part of the church crowd?

I was pleasantly surprised. I had thought that recreational singing was pretty much a lost activity outside people sitting in pews in churches. I had heard that public speaking was among the greatest fears of people. Surely, public singing would be an even greater fear.

I learned some things last night. We have people sitting quietly in the pews every week who would share their musical talents with us given the right opportunity. I'm not sure what to do with this knowledge, how to provide those opportunities as an avenue for ministry, but I find it interesting.

Did the karaoke night accomplish it's purpose of attracting people who think our church services are boring? Well, it brought some people back Sunday night who wouldn't ordinarily return for the evening service. And we had a Methodist join us for a while. Other than that, it was just the usual crowd having some fun together instead of doing the usual pew thing. Maybe that's not a bad thing to accomplish.

Thursday, March 02, 2006

Good works

I see I passed the one-year anniversary mark of this blog a week ago without notice. I still haven't settled on a theme, a direction, a purpose for the whole blogging experience. The topics I've pondered have been pretty random.

One area I have sort of stayed away is spiritual issues. Maybe it's time to go there.

I was in a Bible study last evening that dealt with Matthew chapter 3 where John the Baptist says to the people coming from Jerusalem for baptism: "You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath?" The discussion involved the wrath of God. I noticed that the passage didn't actually give the source for the "coming wrath," only mentioned that it was coming. Was it the wrath of God or the wrath of enemies or from some other source? The New Testament deals more with the love of God than the wrath of God. Was it reading too much into this passage to presume that the wrath mentioned was God's wrath?

Asking such a question wouldn't have really fit into the tone of the discussion so I drifted off into my own thoughts. Let's see... are there other New Testament passages about the wrath of God? Yes, Romans chapter 1, verses 18-32. What struck me in this passage, however, is that the consequences of wrong choices were placed in this life. The discussion going on around me focused more on judgment and punishment after death. Does the wrath of God have more to do with eternal damnation or with more immediate natural consequences of godless living? Because the people mentioned chose to ignore God, they suffered the sad consequences of their life choices.

I continued into Romans chapter 2. Ah, here it does indeed talk about the "day of God's wrath, when his righteous judgment will be revealed." So then, if there is an element of "wrath" that is simply the natural result of decisions made and comes in this life, is there a chance that even in the day of judgment the wrath of God is less overt and more a natural consequence of choices being made that reject the love of God? C.S. Lewis, in The Great Divorce, depicted people choosing to forego heaven because the requirements for entry were offensive to them. They could have entered but it would have cost them dearly and they chose to remain outside. In view of John's assertion that "God is love," can we look at alternative views of the nature of God's wrath?

Then I came to verses 6 and 7 in Romans chapter 2. "God 'will give to each person according to what he has done'. To those who by persistence in doing good seek glory, honor, and immortality, he will give eternal life." (The inner quotes refer back to two Old Testament passages that give this same message.)

That was the end of my study of God's wrath toward those who do wrong. What's this about those who do good? I know from other passages that it's not good deeds that put us in right relationship with God. We are saved by grace through faith (Ephesians 2:8). However, here's an interesting insight into life beyond the narrow gate by which we enter into relationship with God.

"To those who by persistence in doing good seek glory, honor, and immortality ..." How does one seek glory and honor and immortality by persistence in doing good? Aren't we to do all things for the glory and honor of God? (see 1 Corinthians 10:13) But immortality would be for the person doing good, not for God. Does doing good bring honor and glory in addition to immortality? What is involved in "doing good"? As a young man once asked Jesus (as recorded in Matthew 19:16), "What good thing must I do to get eternal life?" Jesus' response was that he needed to keep the commandments. When the young man pushed for more specific direction, Jesus suggested that if he wanted to be perfect he should sell all his possessions and give to the poor and become one of Jesus' disciples.

Doing good. Valuing people is good. Caring is good. Educating is good. Contributing to the community in various ways is good. Giving is good. Going to bat for the weak and oppressed is good.

Does doing those things result in glory and honor? Possibly. Sometimes it might even be during the lifetime of the do-gooder. Other times the glory and honor might be delayed.

There is mystery in eternal reward. Most paradigms of the modern evangelical church follow a black-and-white pattern. Heaven or hell, which will it be? Eternal reward or eternal punishment? You're either in or out, a sheep or a goat. The Bible isn't nearly so clearcut. It talks about some receiving many blows and others being beaten with few blows (Luke 12:47-48). It talks about great reward in heaven (Matthew 5:12) and being saved but barely and with loss (1 Corinthians 3:15). The parable of the workers in the vineyard (Matthew 20:1-16) ends with everyone receiving the same compensation regardless of the amount of time they spent working, but several other places correlate reward to how one lives, including the Roman passage and Revelation 22:12 where Jesus promises to "give to everyone according to what he has done."

Maybe it's because I'm in a tradition which emphasizes that salvation is obtained by faith rather than works, but I don't hear much about the value of good works. Glory, honor, and immortality. That seems like a pretty good payback for pursuing good works while depending on God's grace for the basic entry level into his kingdom.

One would think that it would be obvious that Christians should do good works. After all, Ephesians 2:10 says that we were "created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do." However, that message seems to be lost in the evangelical community. Rather than good works, we're called to focus on evangelism, on saving the lost.

Sometimes I wonder if I need to hole up someplace with my Bible and let it permeate my being without the filter of the church. I wonder how my life would change if I did that and whether it would be a healthy change.

Meanwhile, there is good to be done and little opportunity for withdrawal to lonely places.