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Mentors, Mantles, and the Mayhem of Transition

[Elisha] picked up the mantle of Elijah that had fallen from him, and went back and stood on the bank of the Jordan. He took the mantle of Elijah that had fallen from him, and struck the water, saying, “Where is the Lord, the God of Elijah?” When he had struck the water, the water was parted to the one side and to the other, and Elisha went over.

When the company of prophets who were at Jericho saw him at a distance, they declared, “The spirit of Elijah rests on Elisha.” They came to meet him and bowed to the ground before him.
2 Kings 2:13-15 (NRSV)

Transitions are never easy. Along life’s journey I am constantly finding comfort in the status quo. What “has been” seems safe and secure in the “now.” Change skews the equilibrium. Anxiety bubbles to the surface. What “will be” suddenly seems uncertain because the “now” is no longer what “has been.” Anxiety quickly morphs into fear. I try to maintain the outward appearance of stability despite the fact my spirit is reeling like a drunken sailor. Fear subtly begins to leak out of my sub-conscious into the open in all sorts of unexpected (and often unhealthy) ways as my spirit searches for ways to cope with uncertainty.

In my work I often find myself on-site with clients amidst the whirlwinds of change. Corporate acquisitions, changes in leadership, changes in technology, changes in team, and changes in jobs are all realities that my clients struggle with in their workplace. There are even companies I know for whom the destabilizing effects of change become the status quo. I get to witness the internal and external effects of the ceaseless churn on individuals in my coaching sessions and conversations.

There are many layers of meaning in the events described in today’s chapter. I could write a weeks worth of blog posts (or more) peeling back and exploring every one of them. The main theme of today’s chapter, however, is transition. It is an event that our culture regularly references without realizing the source. When the great prophet Elijah is whisked up to heaven in a fiery tornado,  his “mantle” falls to the ground. Mantle refers to a loose cloak worn over clothes. His protégé prophet, Elisha, “takes up the mantle” of leadership from his mentor, Elijah. Elisha picks up his mentor’s discarded mantle and immediately uses the mantle to perform the same miracle Elijah had just performed with it before his dramatic exit. The act confirms to the team of prophets witnessing all of this that there has suddenly been a huge transition in the executive ranks of the prophetic organization. The corporation of prophets suddenly finds themselves with a new CEO.

What’s fascinating is that the first act among the corporation of prophets is sub-conscious anxiety oozing out into well-cloaked organizational action:

“Let’s appoint a committee to go look for Elijah. We saw him whisked up in a whirlwind, but no one saw him land. We need to verify that he is really gone.” (Because finding Elijah and returning to the comfortable status quo would feel much better than the anxiety I’m feeling about Elisha running things!)

Elisha warns that the actions are a waste of time and resources, but the search committee is adamant to the point exasperating the new leader. Fear does funny things to people.

This morning I’m thinking about transitions. I’ve been through many of them professionally and personally on this life journey. I’ve come to recognize the familiar, internal pangs of anxiety and fear that accompany these abrupt changes of course. They don’t necessarily get easier, but I’d like to hope that I’ve matured in how I respond to them inside and out. I’ve come to understand that what “has been” never completely passes away. It simply becomes the foundation on what “will be” is going to be built. I simply have to hold the tension of “now” with faith in what I believe to be true no matter what was, what is, or what is to come: I can trust that God’s got this.

‘Do not fear, for I am with you;
Do not anxiously look about you, for I am your God.
I will strengthen you, surely I will help you,
Surely I will uphold you with My righteous right hand.’
Isaiah 41:10

Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all comprehension, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
Philippians 4:6-7

Trust in the Lord with all your heart
And do not lean on your own understanding.
In all your ways acknowledge Him,
And He will make your paths straight.
Proverbs 3:5-6

featured image: detail from the St. John’s Bible

Messengers of Warning

Surely the Sovereign Lord does nothing
    without revealing his plan
    to his servants the prophets.
Amos 3:7 (NIV)

Over the past 23 years I’ve been a business consultant specializing in customer satisfaction research and quality assessment. Some of the most enjoyable, long-term client relationships I’ve experienced are with companies who value the data and insight our team provides. When you see a client’s long-term improvement and success, it’s rewarding.

What is not as enjoyable in my profession is to watch good people and good companies ignore data that offers them a hint of trouble on the horizon. Often, the data from our research or assessments warn of changing customer attitudes or internal corporate issues that threaten to create larger (and costly) problems for the company if the issues aren’t strategically addressed. It’s never fun or easy being the bearer of bad news, and even less fun watching insecure executives and managers burying or denying the data in an effort to avoid the issue. On occasion, I have to defend a sharp attack on our data and methods when a client really doesn’t like what our data reveals.

The ancient prophets occupied a critical role in the Great Story that God is telling from Genesis to Revelation. Like spiritual consultants presenting a spiritual picture of what lay ahead, the prophets sounded the spiritual warning sirens of trouble on the horizon. When current circumstances had the government and public feeling good in the moment, the prophets often offered a bleaker picture of what was going to happen if certain issues were not addressed and strategic spiritual changes weren’t made. More often than not, the prophets had to watch as their message was ignored. They had to watch their warning of doom come to pass. They also endured sharp personal attacks from their audience. Some of them were even killed as scapegoats.

Jesus regularly mentioned the prophets in His teaching, pointing out to the religious leaders of the day that their ancestors ignored and killed the prophets who were sent to warn them. Because the priesthood and religious duties of the temple were passed down by family line, the religious leaders Jesus spoke to were the direct descendants of those who sometimes killed God’s messengers:

“Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you,how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing.”

“Woe to you [religious leaders], because you build tombs for the prophets, and it was your ancestors who killed them.”

“Because of this, God in his wisdom said, ‘I will send them prophets and apostles, some of whom they will kill and others they will persecute. Therefore this generation will be held responsible for the blood of all the prophets that has been shed since the beginning of the world'”

“If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.”

“How foolish you are, and how slow to believe all that the prophets have spoken!”

This morning I’m thinking about the role of being a truth teller. It’s not always easy being the bearer of difficult or bleak news. Sometimes it feels like it would be easier to simply paint rosier pictures and ignore what we don’t wish to see or hear. But, we all need prophets in our lives. Sometimes we need someone to look us in the eye and tell us the truth we don’t want to hear. We’re better off when we find the wisdom and courage to heed the warning signs and make the necessary strategic decisions to avoid future problems.

Walking Humbly

The Lord Almighty planned it,
    to bring down her pride in all her splendor
    and to humble all who are renowned on the earth.
Isaiah 23:9 (NIV)

The autumn season it a busy time for my business. We begin looking the coming year, preparing proposals for clients, and forecasting what the coming year will look like for us. Over a quarter century I have experienced both the highs and lows of business. For a long time it seemed that our company’s business would continue to grow at a fast pace. I can remember a number of years of continuous expansion when it seemed nothing could stop us.

I’ve learned, however, that things can change in a hurry. It’s amazing how quickly a person can go from dreaming big to scrambling to make ends meet. It’s a humbling experience.

In today’s chapter, Isaiah turns his prophetic eye on the city of Tyre which was a powerful port of trade on the Mediterranean. The trading ships of Tyre did a lot of business, and they had been on a good run for a long period of time. Isaiah prophetically warned them to get ready for a devastating change in the business forecast.

Isaiah points out that the coming devastation was intended by God to teach humility. It was another one of the ancient prophets, Micah, who said that what God really requires of us is to “act justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly.” I like the image of walking humbly. Humility is not momentary. It’s not like a coat we put on for a chilly day. It’s an everyday mindset for every stretch of life’s journey, both the  bears and the bulls, the peaks and the valleys, the good times and the bad.

This morning I’m thinking again of our nation. Some are feeling smug and assured in victory. Some are feeling devastated in the sting of defeat. Days like these bring out the absolute worst that pride produces in us, both in triumph and tragedy. I am thinking about Tyre in its booming heyday, and impending decline. I am remembering my own pride when I believed nothing could go wrong, and the painful days when it actually did. I am reminded this morning of walking humbly every step of this journey.

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featured image by antrover via flickr

Community Spirit

The rest of the people cast lots to bring one out of every ten of them to live in Jerusalem, the holy city, while the remaining nine were to stay in their own towns.
Nehemiah 11:1 (NIV)

Last night was a beautiful summer evening. Wendy and I shuffled across the street at the invitation of our neighbors Kevin and Linda. We sat in their front yard and sipped cold drinks as the sun set and the stars came out on a cloudless sky. As always, the conversation with our friends meandered into diverse topics. One of the topics was that of community support.

We live in a thriving small town in Iowa. Our little town is a hoppin’ place. When you go to “the square” during the day you’re often going to hunt for a good parking spot. Housing is in short supply compared to the demand of those moving in (another topic of our conversation). Many rural towns our size would love to have such a problems.

There are a number of reasons for our town’s success, but one of them is simply community support. “Buy local” aren’t just buzzwords here. There is a true spirit among residents of supporting local businesses. You feel the expectation, and you generally feel good when you’re a part of making the community successful. Our conversation with Kevin and Linda last night meandered into the sticky wicket that residents face in discerning when to bite the bullet and pay higher prices to support local and when/if it becomes fiscally foolish to do so.

In today’s chapter, the Israelites around Jerusalem were facing similar dilemma of community support. They had restored the broken down walls and gates of Jerusalem. They had resurrected worship at the temple. But, their efforts would be in vain if people didn’t actually live inside the city wall and support the local urban renewal project. So, they cast lots (the ancient version of drawing straws) and chose ten percent of the families from among the tribes. These families were to “support local” and move themselves within the city walls and do their part for the community. The fact that they had to draw lots makes me wonder just how excited those families were about moving into the rubble.

This morning I’m thinking about community. I’m thinking about the support that is required to make communities, small businesses, and community organizations run. Without a spirit of community among the individual members, the whole suffers. Jesus’ teachings of washing each other’s feet and loving others more than we love ourselves is woven into the spirit of community. We need each other.

 

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Flexibly Staying the Course

And Joshua said to them, “Do not be afraid or dismayed; be strong and courageous; for thus the Lord will do to all the enemies against whom you fight.”
Joshua 10:25 (NRSV)

Just the other night Wendy and I were with some friends and we recounted a period of time when we all worshiped together in the same church service. During this particular period of time the leaders loved having a catch phrase or motto that would be touted as the theme of whatever new initiative happened to spring into the leaders’ heads. There would be banners and bookmarks and an official launch of the great new theme. And, it would last for a mere few weeks until the next great theme came a long. There was a lot of laughter around the table as we recounted a number of themes and catch phrases that had been raised and then abandoned shortly thereafter when the next “it” theme came along.

In today’s chapter, I found it fascinating to find Joshua still clinging to the word God had given him back in the first chapter. “Be strong and courageous. Don’t be afraid or discouraged.” We’re ten chapters and several battles (both won and lost) into the story. Joshua’s theme, however, has not changed with the winds of war or shifting sands of the landscape. In fact, Joshua makes a point of ensuring that  the theme is not forgotten. He takes the opportunity of victory to call the nation together and remind them to keep focused on that which God had said to him from the beginning.

Today I’m thinking about the challenge of staying the course amidst a culture of social media, news media, web content and trending topics that reduce our attention spans to mere moments. As a leader in family, business, church and community I’m thinking about my role in helping groups and individuals remain focused on vision, values, goals, and objectives. Like Joshua, I want to hold course to the vision, even while I remain flexible in adapting to ever-changing circumstances around me.

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The Challenge of Leadership Change

Jephthah judged Israel six years. Then Jephthah the Gileadite died, and was buried in his town in Gilead.
Judges 12:7 (NRSV)

A leader sometimes needs time to find traction, and a quick succession of leaders creates difficulty for the team, or people, being led. I have observed this in different organizations from athletic teams to business to government and civic groups.

Take a step back and look at the list of Judges and the “year of rest” during their period of leadership so far:

Othniel (40)
Ehud (80)
Shamgar (?)
Deborah & Barak (40)
Gideon (40)
Tola (23)
Jair (22)
Jepthah (6)
Ibzan (7)
Elon (10)
Abdon (8)

The tenures of leadership are getting smaller. Unrest is growing, and it won’t be long before the people are crying out for a new form a government. All the city-states around them had strong central leadership in the form of a monarchy. Israel will be clamoring for that as well. God predicted this (Deut 17:14-15) and it will come to pass.

This morning I’m thinking about leadership and it’s relationship to the people and organizations under their influence. Time is required in developing a successful leadership and organizations. When there are rapid changes in leadership marked by short tenures, the organization struggles to find traction and constancy of purpose. The system learns to function on its own, believing/knowing that new leadership will not last and the chaos of change is futile. Dysfunction grows.

In an age in which changes in technology and culture are happening at a faster rate than any other time in history, I believe we will struggle. We will struggle the time required for the development of strong, capable leadership. We will struggle if/when leadership changes become more rapid.

God, help me to lead well, follow well, and adapt to unprecedented levels of change.

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featured image Create Learning via Flickr

Profound Impact. Memories of a Mentor.

In the early hours this past Monday morning my friend Chuck finished his earthly journey. Chuck had a profound impact on my life and I can safely say that I have been forever changed by his influence over the past 35 years. He was an employer, teacher, mentor, counselor, benefactor, and friend. Our relationship serves as an example of how much one person can influence another, and God has taught me innumerable lessons through it.

I met Chuck when I was 15. I had been cast in a role of Heartland Productions film, Face in the Mirror, and Chuck was an executive for the company in the marketing department. Chuck was gifted by God with a particular charisma that drew people to him and I’ve always marveled at it. I still remember seeing him on the set and wanting to know who he was. Eventually we met and I was surprised when he seemed to take a particular interest in me. I had just made a decision to follow Jesus earlier that year and Chuck wanted to learn more about my story. We made plans to meet and talk.

When the film was released, Chuck asked me to help with a few marketing efforts. That led to him offering me an after school job cleaning and repairing 35mm films, which then led to him asking if I’d like to do a weekly bible study at 6:00 a.m. on Tuesday mornings in his office. For two years Chuck taught me to study God’s Message, to memorize it, and he instilled in me an appreciation for spiritual discipline. I can honestly say that I wouldn’t write my chapter-a-day blog posts if it weren’t for Chuck planting the seeds of spiritual discipline in me on those early Tuesday mornings back in the early 1980s.

One of the other lessons that came from our relationship in those early years was not one I believe Chuck necessarily intended. Our strengths have their corollary weaknesses and, despite a protege’s penchant for placing mentors on a pedestal,  I learned over time that Chuck was a driver. He had his own ideas about that paths I should take in life. He pushed me in multiple ways. He pushed hard. In fact, Chuck once confessed to me that he’d thought he’d pushed me harder than any one he’d ever mentored. Things broke.

For a number of years Chuck and I did not communicate. I went to college, got married, and had children. It had been about six years when I made contact with Chuck again. We got together and talked about our falling out and the years of silence between us. We admitted our mutual failings, expressed our mutual forgiveness and our relationship resumed.

It was a year or so later that I found myself suddenly in need of a job. When Chuck learned of this he asked to meet with me immediately. Years earlier he’d left the production company where he worked during my high school years. He and his wife, Charleen, started a management consulting firm under their name, c wenger group. Chuck said he thought he might have full time work for me in 6-12 months. He promised me that if I would take a step of faith to start with them part time, he  would commit to trying to build an opportunity for me with the group. I took the step of faith. Things moved even faster than expected. Within just a month or two there was plenty of work for me to do. That was 21 years ago.

I entered a new phase of Chuck’s mentoring. This time it was not as a young spiritual sojourner but as a young businessman. The group was small at that point. In those early years our semi-monthly staff meetings were at the Wenger’s kitchen table with Chuck, Charleen, Scott (a fellow colleague from the Heartland Production days, who had already been working with the group for a few years), and me. Chuck and I traveled together on business a lot in those early years. We worked together, served together, and prayed together. We spent countless hours together on the road. The group grew and Chuck journeyed beside me and continued to mentor me during those tumultuous years when a young man confronts his demons and learns what it means to be a man.

Scott Tom Chuck in Israel - 1

It wasn’t all work. Chuck, Scott and I also served at BSF together. We sailed Lake Superior together with our colleagues. The three of us journeyed to Israel together. Chuck and I spent time together at his place in Florida, and I have so many fond memories of late nights on his deck overlooking the Intercostal waterway enjoying good wine, great cigars, laughter, and conversation that was enjoyable, challenging and inspiring.

The journey was not without its share of challenges. One of the greatest lessons I took from our relationship over the years was the perseverance required through life’s ups and downs. When you do business on a daily basis with another person it tends to reveal both strengths and blind spots, sometimes in unexpected ways. Chuck and I had strong similarities and marked disparities. We often brought out the best in each other and at times struggled intensely with each other’s weaknesses. Yet there was always between us love, admiration and appreciation built on our mutual faith in and devotion to Jesus.

Charleen died in the late 1990s, and Chuck chose to retire at the end of 2004. Scott and I took over as owners of c wenger group in January 2005. Chuck remained on as Chairman of our advisory board and continued to provide wise counsel to the end. I feel perpetually honored that Scott and I were entrusted with leading the company he and Char began.

Each of our life journeys are affected by others. A few years ago I took the time to recount all of the ways Chuck made a profound impact on my life. I thanked Chuck for each one. This week, as I process my own grief at his passing, I find myself recounting all of them again, and thanking God for each one, and for Chuck. I hope that I influence a few lives a just a fraction of the ways Chuck influenced mine.