The Balcony

People are always quoting Ronald Heifetz’s maxim about “the balcony,” how leaders need to devote time regularly to take a comprehensive view of their work and the relation of all its component parts. This is in contrast to the day-to-day demands of being down on “the dance floor.”

Here’s a good way to do that. Ask someone who knows nothing about your work to allow you to explain it to them in 30 minutes. Buy them a coffee. If this feels weird, consider the opportunities you may already have to do this, like when a new person joins the staff or a new colleague moves to town.

How you present everything in that time will be revealing: what do you explain first? What do you spend the most time on? What do you forget to mention at all?

I’ve always understood this “balcony” metaphor in solitary terms. It doesn’t need to be.


Sam Shepard

This article by Graeme Wood about the resurgent relevance of Sam Shepard’s plays brings back a few memories. The first is of reading “Fool for Love” in my college dorm the day before classes began my freshman year. It was the last play in an anthology required for a Theater 101 course, and for some unknown reason I started reading it in the middle of the afternoon. I was so gripped by it that I didn’t stop until I’d finished. My college education began in earnest before the classes did.

Two years later I was in Manhattan with a traveling drama ministry and went to see “Buried Child” at the Brooks Atkinson Theater. By that time I had read several Shepard plays but never seen one staged. I had not read “Buried Child.” It starred James Gammon of “Major League” and was directed by Gary Sinise. One of the actors hurled a coffee mug across the set, and it shattered against a wall.

The following fall I took an acting course and chose a scene from “True West” to perform with a classmate. It was really hard. I came away from it with a strong preference for reading Shepard over performing him, or, for that matter, performing at all.

Wood’s essay is worth the read. It prompted me to get tickets to “True West” playing at the Steppenwolf Theater this Saturday.



It’s gratifying to the preacher when a congregant shares how they used a sermon, how it spoke to them and guided a decision they made or an encounter they had with a stranger.

It also raises a question for the preacher: how am I using the sermons I preach?



Three mornings in the past week I have woken up and ambled into the kitchen to find it other than how I left it the night before. The pantry light it on. There is a torn-open tea bag and some cracked cardamom pods on the counter. The kettle is off its dock. I leave the kitchen clean and orderly when I go to bed at night, so these messes stand out.

She is 11, and she can now easily outlast us. We collapse into bed at night while she still has plans and the energy to carry them out. Thankfully those plans are only for making tea. For now.


Two Conversations

Two communications yesterday happened within two minutes of one another. The first was a phone call from a pediatrician specializing in adolescence who wished to explore with me how our ministry with youth might help young people in trauma, and the second was an email about shuffleboard. A congregant works for a shuffleboard rental company and wants to talk with me about youth events where we might hire him.

You never know what’s coming at you an any given day.


Need To Not Need

The summer Sundays are fast disappearing, and I’m spending my July weekdays designing event calendars and scope-and-sequence plans for youth groups that will start in about six weeks. It’s twelve years I’ve done this. The thing I’ve learned in that time is that you need these calendars and plans, badly, but you also need to not need them.

Without them it’s hard to plan, because these are not the only things you’re working on, and they’re not the only things youth and their families are planning for. It seems parents need these things earlier and earlier, and in fact the end of July feels late. But apart from the scheduling demands, you need a scope-and-sequence so that each week fits into a larger framework of activity–teaching, community building, service. Doing this year-to-year prevents a kind of default “We’re only ever do X” type of program.

And yet you need to not need these plans and calendars. A vibrant ministry is capable of spontaneity, not chained to a calendar. If students become energized around an idea in February, you need to be able to work with it, even if the plan was for something else.

“Know the rules well enough to break them effectively” is one of my favorite sayings. It works for plans too: make a clear enough calendar and plan that you can change it effectively.



On nights when Daughter wants to stay after cheer practice for open gym I get a front row seat to a carnival. Fully grown humans (most of them men) show up here after 9 pm on a Tuesday to jump and flip and spin and bounce their bodies off the springy blue gym floor. They’re all young, like early-to-mid 20’s, but their youth, to look at them, is the only thing they have in common–this is as racially diverse a gathering as you will find anywhere in the city at this hour.

What do these people do during the daytime? Do they have jobs? And what are they practicing for? They take turns performing individual moves, and they offer one another high fives and tips, but they’re not rehearsing anything together. They’re all on their own in here, and this is perhaps the only place in the city they can do this.

It’s stunning to watch. A younger version of me would feel inferior, like these taut, twisting frames were condemning mine as I sat slouching in the corner. But not anymore–at least not today. My life has progressed out of the phases in which you pursue solitary hobbies past 9:00 on a weeknight. Theirs will too, and some of them will be glad for the transition. But for now they have this seemingly unbounded freedom and flexibility, and I’m glad for that. I’m happy for them.


Me Against Cards Against Humanity

There was a group of students near the vending machines playing a game, and they responded to my approach in pursuit of a Diet Coke by becoming suddenly silent. Clearly they didn’t want me to hear what they were saying. It was awkward, but I let my hand linger over the button to see if I could learn anything. Then one of them blurted out, “We’re playing Cards Against Humanity!

My heart sank. I could only mutter, “Well that’s unfortunate.”

“Why?” one of them asked, slightly indignant. I wasn’t expecting that. Their silence at my approach meant they knew an adult wouldn’t approve of their playing, at a church youth conference, a game dubbed to be “for horrible people.” I suppose it’s a fair question though.

“Because it’s really offensive,” is all I could answer. It was awkward again, and I couldn’t take it, so I took my Diet Coke and left them to the game I’d just insulted them for playing.

Leaving the vending machines, I felt the need of some justification for pouring cold holy water on some teenage fun. I’ve never actually played Cards Against Humanity, so I did a quick search for commentary that would support my judgmental intervention and found this useful description of the game play, which includes the unambiguous assessment:

It’s what mainstream white culture has done for generations and the framework which Cards Against Humanity deliberately provides is one that encourages it further. In an age of greater awareness, where more and more people push for social change, this game is winking at you and telling you it’s okay to indulge those backward prejudices. It’s just fun, it says. It’s ironic, it says. And for the white male designers of Cards Against Humanity, who are primarily selling it to white male players, a lot of these belittling, dehumanising concepts are just a bit of fun rather than real issues that affect them.

If you’re wondering if any of the kids I caught playing were non-white, they weren’t. This was a group of white teenagers who a few hours earlier had clapped and hooted during worship when the preacher charged them to take a faith-based stand against racism. Now here they were indulging a game in which racial prejudice is part of the setup. I was near despondent about it, not to mention embarrassed that I’d walked off and left the game in progress, not to mention disappointed that my ministry with teenagers has produced students who feel comfortable playing such a game.

I spotted the owner of the game about an hour later and asked him if he would please not bring the game out again. I muttered something about it going against the values of the conference, something that felt both judgy and weak at the same time. He politely agreed.

Too little too late.



The first time I spotted a rent-able motorized scooter on the massive midwestern campus serving as the venue for my denomination’s every-three-year youth conference last week, I thought, “Oh, kids are definitely going to want to ride those.” Check that. The thought was more, “Oh no! Kids are definitely going to want to ride those!”

The first time I spotted one of the event’s teenagers riding one of them it was actually two of the event’s teenagers, and both of them were from my church and thus my responsibility, and one of them was in a sling from a month-old broken clavicle. I thought–no, I don’t actually want to confess what I thought.

I shut down the scooter riding among my students. I gave two reasons. 1) there are no helmets, and 2) renting them involves waiving liability for injury, and, as one of my fellow leaders pointed out, minors can’t legally do that. I leaned more heavily on the first reason. For the remaining three days of the conference, my students had to watch their peers from other groups speed and weave down the street while they themselves trudged countless miles in sticky humid heat. Sometimes it stinks to have me as your youth leader.

By week’s end tales were being told of two conference attendees hospitalized from scooter accidents, one of them reportedly hit by a car but both of them okay. Still, sometimes it stinks to have me as your youth leader.


Platforms Revisited

Some of the earliest posts I wrote on this blog were based on Jeff Jarvis’s book, What Would Google Do? and sought to apply its insights to the church. In particular, I was really excited about the idea, that, just as Google provided a platform for communities to do the things they cared about, churches ought to think of themselves in platform terms.

That was in 2010. A lot has changed. I no longer think that global technology corporations are the right metaphor for church life, and I’m embarrassed about my previous enthusiasm, because the intervening nine years have clearly demonstrated the central danger of platforms: ownership.

It felt forward-thinking then to suggest that congregations could conceive of their mission in terms of what communities wanted to use them for. My leading illustrations were scout troops and skateboarders, and I thought it worth exploring how a church might provide a meaningful platform to those communities as an expression of its own mission. What was missing in that idea was the importance of ownership, that when you offer a “platform” for something you have to be willing to own the outcome of that something. Being a platform can easily be seen to involve surrendering authorship and ownership of the work, and that’s a mistake.

In the worst case scenario, where the platform is used to someone’s injury, you can’t disassociate yourself. Google and Facebook are providing a platform for harm, and they are failing in their missions when they shrug their shoulders about the dangerous and hateful things people are doing with them. Clearly, churches can’t copy that.

But even in the best case scenario, we should care more about ownership, authorship, and creation. It feels to me now that collaboration is the better ideal. For a church to make something in partnership with a person or a community is a more fruitful ministry outcome than simply handing them a platform to do it themselves. It’s more creative and generative, and it allows us to build more dynamic relationships–ones based on reciprocity and that prize learning–than when we simply offer up our space.