Saturday, December 6, 2008

Living with joy and challenge within unhealthy institutions

This week I've been learning about ways to live joyfully within imperfect institutions, while also moving toward the development of alternatives to those institutions. I've been thinking about how Jesus worshiped in the Temple in Jerusalem, while also challenging the institutional powers connected with the Temple, and planting seeds for new forms of religious communities. I've recently talked with people in both religious and secular institutions who find a way to live within imperfect institutions, while also planting seeds for alternatives to those institutions.

One of those people I talked with was Jin Kim, the pastor at Church of All Nations in Columbia Heights, MN. Their members include people from more than 20 countries, and no one ethnicity is a majority within the congregation. The church describes themselves as a "high risk, low anxiety church." They seek to embody the changes they envision in the wider church, in ways that are radical, nonviolent, and humble. I am inspired by their example. Here's a sermon that Jin gave about their church's vision.

I sometimes get confused about whether I should be working for revolution or reform in institutions that I work with. The examples of Jin and others I've talked with, and the stories of Jesus remind me that it isn't always an either/or choice. We can live now in the spirit we are seeking to bring about, recognizing the ways we are intertwined in the oppressive systems we are working against.

In the consulting work I do, I find that almost all organizations have some harmful patterns that seem to suck people into negativity. I also find that every organization seems to have at least a couple people who have a gift for addressing the unhealthiness without being caught in it. They are able to remain both joyful and realistic when there is a lot of blame and despair around them.

How do you balance loyalty, reform, and revolution in your relationships with institutions?

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Greg Boyd: Theology applied to institutions

I sometimes say that Greg Boyd is my "online pastor." He is the pastor at Woodland Hills Church in the Twin Cities, and he's written several books. I often listen to mp3s of his sermons, but I'd never actually met Greg before this interview. I have found his ideas about how to live out Jesus's example of "power under" leadership within corrupt systems to be quite helpful. He has shown up on CNN, the New York Times, and many other places for his challenges to some of the directions the Evangelical movement in the U.S. has gone. Here is a video excerpt from our conversation about theology and institutions:

In this clip, Greg talks about 'power over' and 'power under' in organizations. He says, "Always understand that 'the Powers' are trying to play you."

How about you? How do you think spiritual forces impact organizations?

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Language for bringing our deepest inspiration to work

A couple days ago one of my sisters said to me, "You know, I have no idea what you are talking about [in this blog or when I talk about the spirit of institutions]." She was curious and kind about it, but she was also letting me know that I haven't found language to connect what I'm drawn to with where my sister is coming from. I know that she isn't alone.

As I've been doing interviews with people this fall about spiritually grounded leadership, I've been listening for different language to describe what I think of as the spirituality of institutions.

This week I was happy to do an interview with Bob Wahlstedt, who co-founded a manufacturing company in the Twin Cities, Reell Precision Manufacturing. Bob was the co-CEO of Reell for almost 30 years. The company started with a direction statement that included, “Reell is committed to following the will of God.”

The idea of secular organizations following God's will can excite and motivate me, if I trust the values and discernment of that organization. To many others, the idea of a business following God's will is either meaningless or offensive.

For the past 38 years at Reell, they have been applying the spirit behind that language--they ask people that work there to bring their deepest inspirations and motivations to work. The language of their direction statement has evolved, but it is still explicit about following God's purpose, while also welcoming a diversity of spiritual perspectives and traditions. In practice, this orientation has been expressed through an approach to management that Reell calls "teach, equip, trust," which they contrast with "command, direct, control" methods of management. Workers on their assembly lines are typically hired as entry-level assembly workers, but they learn every stop on the assembly line, from scheduling to quality checks. Their products are shipped only when the line worker signs off — without inspection other than periodic audits.

Here are a couple quotes from my conversation with Bob Wahlstedt that I found especially helpful in thinking about how we use spiritual and religious language in the workplace:

“What we call God is an image, not actually God. It is far less than God. It is idolatry to worship that image. Anyone who is discerning meaning and purpose and discerning right and wrong is following a spiritual path.”

"We need to quit excluding the spiritual insights and motivations of the people who work in our organizations. People exclude it because it can be divisive, but it also pushes away a great resource."

There is much more to Reell's story that I've savored, such as how they tell employees that they should put family responsibilities above work. Here is a paper that tells more of the company's story.

With each conversation I have about this topic, I'm slowly learning about language (and the limits of language) to describe how we can cultivate organizations that bring out our best selves. I welcome your questions and suggestions, like my sister's, to help me down that path.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Charles Simmons: Spirituality and Leadership

Charles is a friend of mine who is the chairperson of a group called Ex-Felons for Ex-Felons. The group is primarily made up of people who have formerly been incarcerated, and who have a commitment to helping other succeed in that transition. The group is supported by the Council on Crime and Justice, where Charles also works as a Building Manager. Charles has taught me a lot about surrender to God and about what empowering leadership can look like.

  • 0:10 Just remember that God is ultimately in control of everything.
  • 1:30 I had a guy that came in and said, "I remember you and your brothers. You had the Northside locked up."
  • 4:20 God is refining you to be what he wants you to be.
  • 4:50 It brought me a closer, inner peace with Him in prison.
  • 5:50 I think that in any atmosphere, there are good and evil spirits. You can fall into it, or let them control you ... as far as that prison atmosphere... God is in the midst of everything.
  • 9:00 I can relate to this person who just came out of the institution because I've been in that institution... I walked on those same paths you walked.
  • 11:25 I don't go out with the intention that I've got to go change somebody today.
  • 13:20 Pray over the atmosphere that you are in...Let the Spirit reveal what you need, and bring that to your work environment.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Kay Pranis: Spirituality and Leadership

This week I met with Kay Pranis, a leader, trainer, and author in the Restorative Justice field. Kay has inspired me and many others for several years. I was happy for the chance to ask her how she thinks about leadership, spirituality, and transformation that changes institutions. Here is an excerpt from the interview:

This shift is so big... in all of our institutions

Encouraging examples:

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Looking for spiritually grounded leaders and organizations

I'm looking for spiritually grounded leaders and organization to learn from. Can you help me find them? I'd like to do interviews about leadership that draws on spirituality for guidance, nurturing the people in the organization, and transformation. Please leave me any tips in the comments or by email (

Here's one example that I've been inspired by:
There is a nonprofit organization in the Twin Cities, City House, that I've been loosely connected with for a few years. I got to know City House when they had a mission to provide spiritual companionship with people who are poor or on the margins of society in someway. In the past year, the leaders at City House have felt a call to shift their mission from simply serving the poor to one of mutuality--emphasizing that people on the margins have just as much to teach people in the mainstream. City House is continuing to provide spiritual companionship to people who are homeless, in recovery, and in transition in other ways--but now they also work with people in the mainstream of society to support their transformation as they learn from those who are on the margins. I was able to talk with Tom Allen, the Executive Director of City House, several times during this shift in mission. I saw in Tom a willingness to listen patiently for God's guidance, an ability to engage others in that discernment, and a willingness to take personal and financial risks to follow that vision.

This month I started participating in a leadership program that City House is offering called The Inner Leadership Journey, which is one expression of their new direction. I'm grateful for the faithfulness that led Tom and others to this point.

What leaders and organizations do you see as spiritually grounded? I welcome any tips!

Here's a video about City House, that I made a couple years ago:

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Prayer is... (fill in the blank)

I feel drawn to learn how to pray for organizations. One place I want to start is deepening my understanding of what prayer is. In a broad sense, I understand prayer as conversation with the sacred. But, I want to get to know more creative and personal images of prayer. So, here is my request and challenge to you. Fill in the blank, in one sentence or less: For me, prayer is _____: To get us started, I put some statements about prayer in this video.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Does "Evil in the Workplace" Exist?

Part of what motivates my sabbatical is a belief that there are unseen, spiritual realities behind every organization. I am seeking to name and engage these spiritual realities.

I was recently listening to an unedited version of an interview from my favorite radio show, Speaking of Faith. In this show, the host, Krista Tippet was interviewing Jonathan Greenblatt about "The Business of Doing Good." Something that Krista said during this conversation quickly and strongly tapped into the motivation behind my sabbatical. Here are some excerpts of what Krista said:

"I've observed that some organizations that do the best work in the world can be most dysfunctional... I've actually thought that there would be a show to do called 'The Problem of Evil in the Workplace'....I mean, it's just that any institution becomes a place that we interact with each other, and we bring the dark side of the human condition to work as well as the great side."

Thanks for bringing this up, Krista! I've been afraid to. I prefer a worldview that doesn't believe in evil. However, in recent years, I have had some experiences that I can best understand as an active spiritual force that seeks to harm. These spiritual forces that I've perceived have appeared to be attached to institutions.

I hesitate to use the word evil, because I think it can lead to the demonization of people and groups. Use of the word can also foster the illusion that the source of harm is entirely separate from us--an "other." I also hesitate to use the word because I believe that what we choose to pay attention to tends to grow. I don't want to grow evil.

Yet, the words "evil in the workplace" point to a spiritual reality that I'm drawn to understand and engage. I think that much of the dysfunction and pain in workplaces can be attributed to bad organizational structures, policies, and personal ethics. Yet, I sometimes find it useful to talk about a larger spirit that can be behind the details of these dysfunctions, or behind the happy coincidences that lead to success.

There have been many times I felt swept away by both negative and positive spirits moving through institutional systems. In some periods, patterns of subtle racial bias and sexual harrasment seem to build off of each other--and mix together with disempowering, confusing power structures in workplaces. I've contributed towards these negative mixes, both actively and passively. At some times, it has felt to me like there is a dark cloud following a workplace. This cloud seems to spread like an interconnected web, even though none of us individually want to act in that spirit. I want to be clear that I don't mean this as a critique of any organization that I've worked with. I've been fortunate to be in workplaces with many ethical and skilled co-workers--and it still felt as if we were sometimes resisting a pull towards a destructive spirit.

And many times I've felt a spirit of creative, redemptive goodwill spread quickly through an organization. I've seen people take risks to honestly and vulnerably confront a problem and change the tone throughout the workplace. Sometimes humor and playfulness can also ripple throughout the organization, removing a heavy layer of anxiety.

I think that many kinds of spirits can snowball. I want to understand more about how this happens. Many of these dynamics can be explained in terms of organizational culture--yet I am also drawn to the religious and spiritual language, such as "evil," that point to the way these forces can be much bigger than my intellectual understanding.

What about you? Do you think it is useful to talk about "evil" or other spiritual forces that operate in workplaces? Have you experienced them?

And if there are negative spiritual forces active in our workplaces, how do we contain and transform them? Stay tuned for future posts!

Monday, July 14, 2008

Starting a sabbatical

I want to learn how to understand and engage the spirit of institutions.

August 1st, 2008 will be my last day in my position at the Council on Crime and Justice. After that, I'll be starting a year-long sabbatical. Yipee! Here is a description of what I want to learn about.. As a part of my learning, I want to write a book about the topic. I also plan to spend more time with my kids, make more movies., and start doing more organizational development consulting.

I'll put stories and updates from my sabbatical on this blog. Please come back and discuss this topic with me!