Sustaining Tension

This week the new RCA Today magazine came out.  In it is a short article I wrote about generating and sustaining creative tension.  All of this comes from the Ridder Transformational Process that I have been a part of for the last three and half years.

This takes courage. It takes courage to purposefully create tension. It takes courage to intentionally rock the boat. It takes courage to accurately and truthfully reflect current reality to people who may not want to see it. For me personally, it takes courage because I have to face into my fears of failing, not being competent, and wanting to be liked. If I don’t face these fears, they will dominate what I do or don’t do. My actions will be driven not by my pursuit of Christ, but by my pursuit of protecting myself. I’m serving me.


Sustaining Tension

Just a couple of years ago our church was in a financial situation that was forcing us to have some difficult conversations.  Giving had been trending down over the last few years, and money had been taken out of savings to make budget.  Now it was the time of year to create a budget for the next year.

There were two major philosophies at the table regarding how we should put that budget together.  One idea was to trust God would provide what we needed and to keep the budget the same.  This meant we would budget to take a third of what we had in savings out to make budget if things didn’t go as hoped.  The other philosophy was to cut budget enough to not have to take money out of savings.  As you can imagine, it was a spirited discussion.

We finally decided to trust God and budget to take the necessary money out of savings to maintain the budget as is.  Two years later it was evident this was the right decision as we have yet to take money out of savings and actually increased our budget last year.

But this post isn’t about how that happened.  This post is about where we find ourselves now.

Morale is high in the church.  People are excited about a new mission and vision statement presented last year.  Unity among members is greater than before.  Functionality of our leadership is higher.  Attendance is up.  Giving is up.  There is more ministry happening now than there has been in a long time.  Honestly, things are going very well.

So well I feel I need to disturb the peace.

The situation with the budget created tension with church.  Tension equals energy.  And energy makes things move.  Without energy, nothing moves.  What our church leadership did well with the budget situation was direct the energy towards creativity and away from negativity.  We presented the congregation with two stories.  The first story was a story of decline and slow death.  Truthfully, it was the path we were on.  The second story was a story of change and growth.  It is the story everybody said they wanted for our church.  By very truthfully presenting the two stories that would define us, our leadership generated tension that energized people to be creative.  And that creativity led to new ministry.

Now, with all the good things happening that urgency we felt two years ago is waning.  In some regards it is reason to celebrate.  We can celebrate God’s goodness and provision.  We can rest in knowing God is moving in our midst.  But I can sense a coming complacency.

If tension is necessary for energy, then a lack of tension results in a lack of energy.  And without energy nothing moves.  Another way to say this, “if there is no vision the people perish.”  My role as leader is to sustain the creativity and energy we have generated in the last two years.  But how do I sustain it?  It is simple, by creating more tension.  This does not need to happen through a crisis (and I really hope I am not creating that!), but can happen by constantly holding up before us the call God has put on us as a people and as a congregation to make disciples of Jesus Christ who impact the world.  For all the good things happening, we have to admit we aren’t there yet.  Nor will we ever be.

I realize this takes courage.  It takes courage to purposefully create tension.  It takes courage to intentionally rock the boat.  It takes courage to accurately and truthfully reflect current reality to people who may not want to see it.  For me personally, it takes courage because I have to face into my fears of failing, not being competent, and wanting to be liked.  If I don’t face these fears, then what I do will be dominated by me and not by God’s will for me.  What I mean by that is this; if my fears dominate what I do or don’t do, then what is driving my actions is not my pursuit of Christ, but my pursuit of protecting myself.  I’m serving me.  And if this is true, then I have to be honest and assume that even the good things I am trying to accomplish are done to serve me.  To make me look good.  Taking time to actively reflect on motivations, fears, and self-protections are essential to this process of creating tension.  So let’s be honest, generating and sustaining tension with in any organization is not for the faint of heart.  But we need to ask ourselves this, “Is the possible pain worth the possible gain?”

My answer is unequivocally, “Yes!”  People transformed by Christ, healed by him, restored by him, redeemed by him, and saved by him.  And the same for families and schools and communities and nations.  So yeah…its worth it.

So I am on the look out.  I’m actively looking for and thinking of ways I can create some tension.

And let’s be honest…this could be fun!

The stories we tell

*This is post is based on a sermon I preached a few months ago. To hear that sermon in its original form go here (itunes) or here (church website – see sermon titled “Heart”)

The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it? -Jeremiah 17:9

This verse can be difficult for a person to accept. Especially in this day and age. We live at a time when our emotions are often valued over our thoughts. Some even argue that our emotions are more real than our thoughts. It seems that this emphasis has caused us to become unable to distinguish between our emotions and thoughts. As a result we hear people say, “I feel this is wrong.”  No, you think it is wrong.  But we don’t know the difference any longer.  Feelings dominate and shape our reality.

Given the emphasis on our emotions (heart) it is no wonder that this verse from Jeremiah is troubling. Perhaps the most unsettling consequence of this verse is how it undermines our reality. If we let our emotions shape our experience, but if our emotions can’t be trusted, then is our reality real?  Here’s a simpler way to say this: “Is what I am feeling appropriate to what is really happening?  Or is my heart deceiving me to feel something that I don’t need to feel?”

Let me give you an example of what I mean.  I often call my wife in the middle of day.  Sometimes I need to speak to her about something, but sometimes I am just calling to check in.  Of course there are times when I call that she does not pick up.  Both of us keep our phones on vibrate nearly all the time so it should be no surprise that she doesn’t always hear/feel the call.  When she doesn’t pick up the phone the first time I call I don’t think anything of it.  But, when I call a second, or heaven forbid a third time, and she doesn’t pick up, well….now she doesn’t respect me!  She never considers my feelings or what I may need.  I feel this deeply.  But should I?  No.  There are a thousand things that could be keeping her from the phone.  She could be in a store and doesn’t hear it, she could be in the other room playing with our son, she could be outside, or she could be taking a nap.  But my heart, my emotions tell a very different story…loudly.

We all do this.  In their book Crucial Conversations, Patterson, Grenny, et al. outline three stories we typically tell ourselves.  These are victim stories, villian stories, and helpless stories.

Victim Stories

These stories are framed in such a way that we come across looking like innocent sufferers.  We completely ignore the role we played in the situation and place all the blame for why something happened the way it did on the other person.  So our motives are pure, well-intentioned, noble, and altruistic but because of the system or other person involved, we suffered.  So it might sound something like this, “I was just trying to make it the best it could possibly be, but they didn’t think it was important,” or “They just don’t value excellence.”  These two statements are intended to make your actions seem honorable and the other person to look like someone victimizing you.

Villain Stories

Villain stories are told by turning a normal, decent person into an evil mastermind.  All of their actions stem from a motive devoted to doing ill to others.  So a boss who is committed to excellence is seen as micro-manager.  A spouse is seen as inflexible and stubborn because they want things done a certain way.  The story I told above of my wife not picking up the phone was an example of a villain story.  She doesn’t respect me is a villain story.

It is important to note the difference between the victim and the villain story since they are so similar.  The victim story exaggerates our innocence.  The villain story exaggerates the other person’s guilt.

The real danger in the villain story is how it dehumanizes the other person.  If I label them a bonehead, a jerk, or whatever else I come up with it becomes easier to abuse them.  No longer do I have to treat them as a person, but I can talk about them with whomever I want as I am protecting people from the harm they may cause in the future.

Helpless story

Helpless stories create a narrative where we are powerless to do anything.  We believe there is nothing we can do to change the situation or person.  This enables us to do what we have been doing, or to do nothing at all.

All of these stories may be based on some fact.  Take the story of me trying to call my wife.  The story was based on fact.  I called and she did not answer.  But the interpretation, the story, that came from those facts is what was false.  My heart deceived me.

The True Story

As Christians this is an important idea.  It is so easy to be taken by the stories of our hearts and defined by them rather than being defined by the true story.  It is the story of God who comes when we least deserved it.  While we were still sinners Christ died for us.  When we least deserved it Christ on our behalf.  Through the cross of Christ, through the resurrection and the empty tomb God redeems us and calls us sons and daughters.  So when the stories of our hearts creep to our consciousness and begin to define us and our actions remember, this is not who you are!  You are a redeemed son!  A chosen daughter!

Christ choose you.

Christ did not choose you to be a victim.

He did not chose you to be a villain.

Jesus did not choose your brother or sister to be a villain either.

You are not helpless, but you are a co-creator with God.  Called to live out heaven on earth.

So here’s the question: Which story dominates your life?  What story does your heart truly believe?  Which story informs your actions?


I was 28 years old, sitting at a table with a half-eaten plate of food in front of me.  I was on one end of the table, my wife was sitting next to me, and surrounding us were the members of the search committee for the church I was interviewing with.  From across the table came this question, “As the pastor, what would your vision for our church be?”

What would my vision be?  Even though I was hired and I am the pastor that question still baffles me to some degree.  It’s not that I don’t have a vision, I have a vision.  I have a vision for a lot of things.  Having a vision is not the problem.  The pressing question is obviously, “Is it my vision or God’s vision?”

Since that time three years ago I can honestly say I have a vision.  I have a vision for the church, the local expression of the body of Christ.  I have a vision for how a community of believers live and move and express themselves in the world.  I am willing to say I believe it is a God inspired, Biblically rooted vision.  I just don’t think the vision is for a specific church.  The picture God is painting on my heart is one  less about a specific context than ever before.  This isn’t to say that context isn’t important or impactful on the vision itself, but the vision is more about the values and way of being shared by the community than it is about the contextual out workings of those values.  In other words, the vision I am being taken by is more universal than it is particular.

I am finding this to be extremely freeing.  I can live this vision for the rest of my life.  This does not need to be something that I give my life to for the next 3-5 years and then have to go through another period of discerning what God is calling me to while feeling uncertain about what I should be doing.  Vision does not have to be momentary.  Jesus knew what his life was to be about from the beginning.  Paul pursued one thing, “Christ and him crucified”, for his entire life.  Life doesn’t have to be lived from moment to moment, or even vision to vision, but can be lived with vision from expression to expression.

It is also freeing to discover that vision does not need to be completely contextual.  I always thought it did.  In fact, I think my answer to the search committee was something along the lines of, “Well, I don’t know how well I can answer that question because I believe vision to be very contextual.”  No more.  Yes, context plays a role.  But that role is not formative to the vision, but rather the context informs the expression of that vision.  For example, part of my vision is to be a part of a community whose love for each other spills out to those around us.  That vision does not need to change based on context, but rather how we love each other and to whom it spills out to will be determined by context.

I haven’t been completely freed by all my newer thoughts concerning vision.  Particularly how it affects those I lead.  I was sharing my vision with some friends and one of them said to me, “Do those you lead realize that as you seek to live into this, THEY will end up being profoundly affected?”  No, I did not.  I just took it at face value that, yes, I would in fact have to change to live into this vision, but I did not consider that OTHERS would have to change as well.  But they will.  For example, I believe God is calling me to be a part of a church, a community, that sees it as their responsibility to follow the lead of Jesus in washing the feet of other brothers and sisters, and the world around.  If this is to happen, then in whatever community I am part of I need to live into this, and those around me need to live into this.  This affects their lives.  This may require transformation on their part.  We will have to learn to be different.


And that’s probably the point.