"Accept chaos. Give back calm. Provide hope.”

I first heard this bit of wisdom from Dale Meyer, president of Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, who traces its origin to a colleague who received it from a friend who got it from another friend. I continue the tradition of passing it on because it’s a mantra to remember always and repeat often. Here’s why:


Accept chaos.


Methodist pastor Will Willimon once joked that the worst preparation for ministry is a prior career as a photographer. Pastors, he said, need to give up on any hope of getting people to turn in the same direction, stand still, and hold that smile. Life isn’t static. Everything changes. Order lapses into disorder. When you get up in the morning, you can never expect that what you nailed down yesterday has remained fixed overnight. 


That’s why the key to a good meeting isn’t preparing the agenda but preparing ourselves. We do this not by anticipating the arguments that might erupt, but by entrusting ourselves and the group to God’s care. This means asking God to lead according to his will — which may not mirror the will of those gathered around the table.


The sooner we realize that change is a fundamental reality of life, the better for us and our organizations. Improvisation fits the reality of organizational leadership better than the ability to read a musical score. But, as every jazz musician knows, improvisation is a practiced skill as well as an art. In the midst of change and chaos, there is something else required of us, even as we are skilled in improvisation.


Give back calm.


Was it leadership consultant Edwin Friedman who said that the indispensable gift a leader gives an organization is to be a circuit breaker within its systems? If Friedman didn’t say it, he should have, because this concept is at the heart of his much-discussed ideas of a well-differentiated leader who projects a nonanxious presence.


Organizations need calm and cool leaders in times of conflict. Rattled or emotionally reactive leaders make matters worse, and the hotter the system runs, the cooler the leader needs to be to ensure the whole thing doesn’t blow.


Shortly after becoming president of Louisville Seminary, I asked several peers to share the most important thing they had learned about leadership. A leader must speak very softly, said one. Bombastic posturing seldom leads to good decision making. It tends to spike the temperature in the room.


If the system needs a circuit breaker, so does the leader. Each of us needs an internal pause button that restrains us from reacting on impulse and allows us the emotional room to respond thoughtfully and constructively. Calmness enables us to listen to others, and a leader who listens influences others to do the same. Reflectivity can be contagious, just as reactivity is. Calm reflection can allow space for a group to see a full range of options. 


Provide hope.


Hope, the opposite of cynicism, is a theological act. It’s deeper and more enduring than optimism. “Into thy hands I commend my spirit” is a prayer of pure hope — a prayer that can truly be said without ceasing. 


A year or so ago, I was visiting a young ministry couple. Over lunch, the wife shared her frustrations about a worship service she recently had attended. The minister seemed tired and distracted, and had delivered a sermon that was downright depressing. “The church should be about hope,” she emphasized. “People need hope.”


Churches and organizations look to their leaders for hope — not glorified gold-plated nonsense, but real hope that resides in the confidence that God takes the best we can do and does more with it. God is the source of things bigger and better than we can ever ask or imagine.  


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