2/10/2011 12:16:00 PM
Have you ever found yourself trying to balance optimism with some tough stuff that takes you to places you'd rather not go? Have you ever worked with a congregation where the only thing people wanted to hear was the "good news" and refused to have conversations about the brutal facts of their dysfunction or pain or festering wounds that needed addressing?
If this has been even slightly true, you might want to read on. The title for this article comes from Jim Collin's book "Good to Great" where he tells the story of Admiral Jim Stockdale who survived an eight-year imprisonment from 1965 to 1953 during the Vietnam War.
During his time in prison, Stockdale not only survived but helped others manage the unimaginable conditions of prison camp. In reflecting on his experience, Stockdale says "I never lost faith in the end of the story. I never doubted not only that I would get out, but also that I would prevail in the end and turn the experience into the defining event of my life, which, in retrospect, I would not trade" (p. 85).
When asked who didn't survive the experience he said "The optimists." He went on to explain that the optimists were the ones who said "We're going to be out by Christmas" and Christmas would come and they wouldn't be out. Then they'd say, "We'll be out by Easter" and Easter would come and they wouldn't get out. Then eventually, they died of a broken heart!
Stockdale made this profound statement: "You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end - which you can never afford to lose - with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they may be."
Applying the Paradox to Leaders
As leaders, we are not only charged with helping others keep faith and adversity in perspective but to practice a healthy balance of living that way ourselves. The lessons of this paradox must start with us. We must personally learn to hold both a belief that we will prevail in the end and at the same time in honesty confront our current reality. When we do that, we are able to say, `Follow me, as I`m learning to follow Christ.`
Living with hope for a promising future in my own life has been met lately with some brutal facts of wondering which door God is going to open next for fruitful ministry. In the "waiting" I've been learning to stay active doing the things I can control while at the same time, stoking the fires of faith and learning to "listen for God's voice in everything I do" (Prov. 3:3).
Leaders are to be optimistic but not in a way that minimizes the adversity and challenges we may currently face. If your optimism is too strong, you'll keep saying "Next month things will change!" and then if they don't, discouragement takes root and causes us to give up. I've been learning to reframe my circumstances, my times of waiting more in terms of "consider it a sheer gift, friends, when tests and challenges come at you from all sides" . I trust that you are learning to do the same.
Retain faith that you will prevail in the end, regardless of the difficulties
and at the
Confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they
The Paradox Applied to Congregations
One of the challenges for congregations going through transition is to learn to practice the disciplines necessary for confronting the brutal facts of their reality while at the same time holding onto hope for the future God has in mind for them. Sometimes deadlines are set for finding the next pastor or seeing a problem solved and the date comes and goes - the problem isn't solve and the pastor isn`t in place. If people can`t be with open ended realities, they can get deeply discouraged and end up leaving or we see leaders panicing and making irrational decisions. Without a balanced perspective, hope evaporates because present circumstances don't change quickly enough or in the way we imagined they would.
A Biblical approach is for that same congregation to "embrace the gift of their adversity" (James 1) while at the same time stoking the fires of their faith and keeping a reasonable hope well anchored in Christ. It takes leadership to guide congregations through the wilderness of their transition, holding fast to a better future while at the same time, wrestling with challenges that at times seem impossible.
Jim Collins wrote these words after listening to Jim Stockdale tell his story and share the lessons he learned from his adversity:
What separates people, Stockdale taught me, is not the presence or absence of difficulty, but how they deal with the inevitable difficulties of life. In wrestling with life's challenges, the Stockdale Paradox (you must retain faith that you will prevail in the end and you must also confront the most brutal facts of your current reality) has proved powerful for coming back from difficulties not weakened, but stronger - not just for me, but for all those who've learned the lesson and tried to apply it (p. 86, Good to Great).
May we too learn this lesson and apply it!
Three Ways to Live this Out
There are three lessons (to name just a few) one can learn from the Stockdale Paradox that impact us at every level of life and ministry:
1. Spend adequate time nurturing and stoking the fire of faith so the flame of hope and a promising future does not go out!
2. We need people in our lives we can be brutally honest with but who will also help us maintain a perspective that helps us live with our reality and keep faith alive at the same time.
3. When working with others, lovingly challenge those who have not learned to temper their optimism with the discipline of having difficult conversations about the elephant in the room ("big issues present that everyone knows are there but no one is willing to talk about").
Action Steps to Deepen Your Learning
1. On a blank piece of paper, draw a line down the middle and put on one side "What I/we firmly believe and have faith will in fact happen" and on the other side write "The brutal facts about my/our current reality".
2. Now with your list, spend some time with God in prayer and invite Him to speak to you and guide you in figuring out how to think and what to do next.
3. Develop an action plan that addresses those things you can do to deal with your current reality (Note: Stockdale developed with the other prisoners a detailed communication method using coded tapping to fend off the isolation the guards tried to break them with).
4. Share with someone who is open to hear what you are learning about living by faith at the same time of dealing with brutal facts.
Really great article, I liked how how optimism is balanced and grounded by reality.
Created by Cheryl Berto
The most significant thing that will impede the employment of the great ideas of this article is the need for control. In fact, I would assert that the unhealty optimism that was described in this article is really rooted in a need for control. If I can remain open to the growth that my Sovereign Lord has for me in any situation, then I can be a wise receiver of the blessings that God has for me in it. If the key to wisdom is teachability (see Proverbs) then a posture of openness and submission to our circumstances, rather than control, is the key to great leadership and great Christlikeness.
Created by Ed Drewlo
It may be that we get into difficulty in this when we confuse optimism with faith. Faith is the confidence that God is in charge and will see us through based on the promises of His Word. Optimism is an attitude of expectation that may not always be realistic. It seems to me that a proper sense of faith balances God's sovereignty with practical realities. This is a good and timely article for me as I hope to see a pastor installed in my transition situation in the next six months. We've done our homework I think and the search is just about to begin. But I need to be prayerfull realistic about how this will happen.