by Heather Zempel
Community is messy. It’s one of my favorite things to talk about. Usually, when I talk about messy community, I share examples from the comfortable vantage point of a third-party observer of a mess, a consultant in the navigation of a mess, or the victim of a mess. But every now and then, I am the instigator of a mess of the bad kind. What do you do when you—the leader—are the originator, creator, and mastermind of an unintentional mess?
I found myself in that very situation recently. Short story—we included a humorous bit (well, we thought it was funny) in a leadership summit that offended some folks. Including some folks on our staff team. The details of the scenario are really not important, but I thought I would share a bit on how I handled it. Or at least on how I wish I had handled it. Okay, let’s just say these are some lessons I am learning about how better to lead and serve in the midst of a mess of my own creation.
1. Affirm the relationships. Relationships are more important than anything else. More important than vision, more important than strategies, more important than being right. If you’ve got a leader with a complaint—no matter how valid you think it is or isn’t—make sure to validate and affirm the relationship.
2. Seek counsel. I spent close to 48 hours doing little more than seeking counsel. As a high “thinker” on the Meyers-Briggs personality profile, I actively sought out feelers and others who could help me sort through the logic and the emotions surrounding the mess.
3. Recognize your blind spots. Will Johnston summed up what both he and I felt at one point, “Enough people that I respect are offended that I am pretty sure I am wrong; I just don’t know why.” Listen to the people around you. It’s quite possible you have a blind spot. Let me re-state that for the record, it’s absolutely probable you have a blind spot.
4. Be honest. Be humble. I felt like it was important for me to be very honest with my reaction—I didn’t just roll over and wave the white flag of surrender. I stood my ground. But I also tried very hard to be humble, to say, “This is what I think; help me understand a different perspective.”
5. Own it. Somehow, I was immune to the initial criticism. It was all leveraged against my teammates because they were the implementers and the ones on the platform. But the reality was that they were simply executing my vision. I had to own it. Even if I didn’t have anything at all to do with the decisions and it was all my team’s fault, I’m still the leader. I’ve got to own it. Own the mess.
6. Keep a good sense of humor. I tried to acknowledge from the very beginning that “one day we will laugh about this,” and we were laughing about it before the day was over. Not in a flippant or arrogant or dismissive kind of way but in a self-deprecating, “We are not going to take ourselves too seriously” kind of way. We should take God seriously, not ourselves.
7. Look for the growth goals and the leadership lessons. One of my biggest goals throughout the process was to find the personal growth goals and the leadership lessons available. How can we communicate better? How can we better discern appropriate content? How can we anticipate reactions? How can we be more sensitive to differences of opinion? Whenever we are in the midst of a mess, ask, “How do we all grow from this?” and “How does God want to get glory from this?”
8. Take care of your team. My primary focus on the first few days of processing was to make sure that my Team D was okay. Some of them are relatively new to leadership and to ministry, and I wanted to affirm them. I asked lots of questions that day about their feelings, their thoughts, their opinions, and their ideas on next steps.
9. Strive for good conversation, not final resolution. At the end of the day, I’m not sure any of us found a perfect point of resolution. This may be one of those issues that we won’t find a place of perfect agreement on for a number of years. Maybe I need to mature a good bit before I see every dimension of my error or perhaps this is just one of those moments where good people who love Jesus will have to agree to disagree. What we must do is preserve an environment of open, honest communication and embrace the idea that the tension is good and resolution is not necessarily the end goal.
10. Keep failing. That might be the wrong way to say it because failing should never be the goal. But experimenting, trying new things, pushing the envelope, and innovating should be the goals and you can’t do that without stepping into some messes every now and then. New discoveries are never made without failures. I think it’s healthy for us to realize that we will continue to make messes. The goal is not to keep a clean lab but to ensure that any messes we make are cleaned appropriately and that progress is made as a result. If we are going to be the kind of leaders that make change happen, then we can be confident that we will make some colossal messes along the way.
A native Alabamian, Heather Zempel currently leads the discipleship efforts at National Community Church in Washington, DC, where she oversees small groups, directs leadership development training, and serves on the weekend teaching team. Heather put her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in biological engineering to work as an environmental engineer and policy consultant on energy and environment in the United States Senate before going into full-time ministry. She and her husband, Ryan, live on Capitol Hill, and she is the author of Sacred Roads and Community is Messy.