The Where of Leadership

I have taken many courses on leadership. Most of these learning experiences focused on the “how” questions – how to navigate conflict, how to plan, and how to inspire others. None of those courses ever had anything to say about the “Where” of leadership.

The “where” is a significant factor in the leadership task. The places we do life don’t merely contain the important conversations and interactions, they shape them.

When I was a Cadet at West Point I had the privilege of learning leadership from Army officers who served as professors but had decades of experience leading soldiers in the real world. When I think about the importance of “where” in the leader task, two very different conversations with two very different professors come to mind.

One older Colonel, the head of my department, always met with me in his office. He sat in a leather, high-back swivel chair behind a large, oak desk. He insisted that I stand while he addressed me. Needless to say my predominant emotion in those interactions was fear. The space, a cold professional, controlled environment, marked by intimidating furniture and an intimidating personality behind the desk, shaped the conversations that happened there.

The same week I stood fearfully in the Colonel’s office another professor, an Infantry Captain who taught military history, invited me to lunch. He wanted to talk about my recent paper, which as I remember, wasn’t very good. He took me to the officers club, bought my lunch and we sat at a table and talked. The shared experience of a meal, sitting eye to eye created the possibility for a different sort of conversation. The Captain had much more influence with me than the Colonel.

Sometimes the swivel chair and the desk is the appropriate space for particular conversations with people we lead.

More often the lunch table is a more productive leadership space.

How intentionally have you thought about the “where” of your leadership? How do the spaces you choose to have conversations, make decisions and plan shape your work and your relationships?

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Dog in the Glass

 

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I have a little, black toy poodle. His name is Bokkie. This morning Bokkie discovered his reflection in the glass doors of my office. He saw a black toy poodle moving back and forth in the panes and didn’t like it. He saw himself and it made him growl and bark.

Bokkie’s adventure in the glass reminded me of some of my less pleasant moments with people. Like Bokkie I too see myself in the words and actions of those around me. Their words often trigger something deeper in my story, something I don’t like about myself or some memory that causes me not to like myself. Like Bokkie I am unsettled and sometimes respond with loud barking.

This happens most often with my wife. The other day she made a comment. Her words were benign, something like “Have you finished your expense report?” And for some reason her question triggered something in me and I “barked” at her. Now I realize that I was barking at myself. I hadn’t looked at my expense report and knew that I should have. In that moment I saw the Gabe I didn’t like in her words. I saw the Gabe that doesn’t live up to my standard. I saw the Gabe that isn’t as diligent as I would like to be. And in her words I heard the lie, “See you are pretty worthless. You can’t even get an expense report done on time.” Those weren’t her words. She loves me. She was asking about my work because she wants to help me. She is my best friend, the one who knows me the best and yet I responded with barking. And my barking wounded her.

Today I hope to have more self awareness than my dog.

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The Beauty and Pain of Forgetfulness

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To be human is to be forgetful. We forget more than we remember. Think about it. In the last year every one of us lived 8,760 hours. How many do we remember? Each day we speak thousands of words. How many do we remember? Over the course of our lifetime we watch thousands of television shows, listen to thousands of podcasts, speeches, and participate in countless conversations. How many do we remember?

In some ways forgetfulness is painful. As we age we forget where we put our keys, what we had for breakfast and eventually events and people of greater significance. We forget birthdays, names, the sound of loved ones voices after they walk the earth no more. We also forget the beautiful things we are privileged to experience. We forget blessing. We forget the gifts we are given. This forgetfulness is part of our brokenness and weakness. It disempowers and shames us. We wish that it weren’t so but it is.

And yet in other ways forgetfulness is a gift. We forget many of the wrongs done to us, allowing once acute pain to dissipate into distant memory. We also forget how ugly we were to others, the harshness of our words, the intensity of our hatred and so we are able to move on. Forgetfulness allows us to be forgiven and to forgive. This is a divine quality for he who made us chooses to remember our sin no more. Perhaps we do not possess the same power of volitional forgetfulness, but it empowers love for others all the same. Forgetfulness is gift.

This human quality of fading memory is blessing and curse. Like an anchor our memory steadies us when we need hope in the midst of raging swells our lives inevitably bring. And like an anchor pulled onto the deck in calmer waters our forgetfulness allows us to shove off and continue course towards new destinations.

Let us lament the curse and mourn our low estate. Let us celebrate the blessing and revel in the glory that our past does not always dictate our present. And let us keep moving towards the distant shore where memory will lead to thankfulness and the shadows of glory we once saw in part give way to the fullness of glory without end.

**(Painting: Sea of Forgetfulness by Missy Borden. Located at https://fineartamerica.com/featured/sea-of-forgetfulness-missy-borden.html)

Next Things

(Picking out our first live Christmas tree in 7 years)

The frost of winter is fading. This is a statement full of meaning for the Smith family as we enter this new season of life and ministry. As the new tulips break through the hardened, dark dirt on the edges of our lawn in South Carolina, new opportunities and vision are also breaking through the newly turned over soil of our lives.

The three months of sabbatical provided a space for our fields to lie fallow, for pruning lifeless areas and for new things to be nurtured. The fallow field is a metaphor for a place of rest. In the ancient days the Lord instructed the forefathers of our faith to “let the land lie unplowed and unused” every seventh year (Exodus 23:11). This was a discipline of sabbath rest, a place to do the uncomfortable thing of not working the resources entrusted to their care. The seventh year was an invitation to a sort of wholistic rest that precipitates life.

The sabbatical in our seventh year since beginning the work of East Mountain was a place of wholistic rest. During this time we intentionally set aside the work of doing ministry, building Christian community and making disciples. In the absence of these activities some of the things that needed pruning were given space to fall away. One of these things was the lie that our ultimate value is in what we can do for God. This year we wrestled with the theme of identity, realizing that too often we have connected our worth as people to the work entrusted to us. In the ninety days of sabbatical we were forced to face who we are without our titles, positions in organizations, and places to use our giftedness outside of the home. What we discovered is that we are deeply loved by our Father in Heaven who calls us his beloved. What an incredible joy it is to discover that despite all of our shortcomings we are his beloved, chosen by him and invited to be part of program for the world!

This theme of letting dead things die and allowing new things to be sown in our lives took on different meaning for each of us. I (Gabe) was confronted with my propensity to feel responsible for everything and everyone. This soul killing belief had too often governed my decisions and motivated my actions, leaving me drained and apathetic. For Janet it was letting go of the idea that she needed to be a stay at home Mom to be a faithful Christian wife. For Madeline it was a painful process of mourning the departure from South Africa, the place she considered her home.

On the other side of the letting go and leaving we discovered new life.

(Our farewell committee from East Mountain the day we left South Africa)

I (Gabe) am growing increasingly confident and excited about my giftedness as a visionary leader made to build innovative, disciple-making Christian communities. Janet has embraced a new opportunity to start a business and is finding a big, new life in the marketplace where she is learning that she is really good at marketing, sales and motivating others on her team. Madeline has made four new friends at school and is finding new freedom as a creative person designing her daily outfits at her new school (no more uniforms!).

We are filled with incredible amounts of gratitude as we contemplate your generosity and steadfast partnership for the Gospel that enabled us to take this sabbatical time. Thank you, thank you, thank you!

So what’s next?

When we went on sabbatical we went with the idea that the Lord may be calling us to lay down the work of East Mountain permanently. We hoped that wasn’t the case, but also realized that we must be open to that reality. To our great surprise and joy what we discovered upon our return were multiple requests from all over the world from people and organizations interested in starting new East Mountain communities. There is too much to share in one letter, but in short we are in conversations with leaders in Australia, Germany, Thailand, Scotland and India as they build or consider building an East Mountain Community in their context. I just returned from a two week trip to South Africa where I spent time with our two East Mountain communities there and to helped teach twenty or so pastors in the rural areas of the Eastern Cape.

Why East Mountain?

You may be wondering why folks are interested in joining the East Mountain movement. The easy answer is that the Lord is on the move and East Mountain Communities are part of his work to make all things new. The more complex answer is that people are longing for authentic Christian community where they are invited to be known, loved and given a place to use their giftedness in a common work of discipling others.

The East Mountain way is to build an authentic relational space where members are called to love God and neighbor as they find a rhythm of their life together, pursuing intentional relationships and living according to a common rule. The community seeks to partner with others for wholistic Kingdom mission, engaging in intentional relationships with church, non-profit, business and school leaders to ask the question, “How can we help?”. The community works with, and through, these partnerships to craft discipleship and leadership development pathways that make sense in the particular context.

(The East Mountain UK Community on retreat)

In the pilot community in South Africa, we started a year long residency, a six week summer internship, and several theological cohort models. As we engage with leaders interested in East Mountain, we are learning that our language of community, partnership, discipleship, and leadership development resonates with what people have already been contemplating.

What part does our family play?

I (Gabe) see very clearly that my role is to continue to envision, equip, and encourage leaders with a particular emphasis on those starting new East Mountain communities. This kind of work gives me energy and joy as I see other leaders move into their giftedness. What a joy it is to invest in a few who are investing in many.

We also see very clearly that the Lord has equipped us to start a new community here in the Greenville area. We will be sharing more about that vision soon so look out for our next letter!

Janet will also keep growing her business to supplement our income and explore a new entrepreneurial passion. In the meantime, we will continue to depend on the support of our friends who have chosen to partner with us in this amazing work for the Kingdom.

And last but certainly not least, Madeline can’t wait to finally finish the fifth grade and enjoy her first American summer vacation.

How can I be a part of what’s going on?

(With pastors in the rural Eastern Cape of South Africa with West Point classmate and friend Erik Borggren after leading a weekend theology intensive last month)

Pray:

On sabbatical, we saw the viciousness of the forces of darkness that want to discourage and destroy us. We also experienced the incredible power of prayer. Prayer is the space where the temporary meets the eternal, the mundane the divine, the terrestrial the heavenly. We are desperate for people who will commit to praying with us and for us each week. To facilitate this serious Kingdom work we have set up a place to sign up to be a prayer partner. If you are willing to serve in this way, we ask that you commit to praying for us and the work of East Mountain at a designated time each week. You can expect to receive a special weekly email detailing prayer needs and invited to a monthly webinar prayer service online. You can register here to serve in this capacity. (https://goo.gl/forms/xhtfJjBXuGtZ3Q4D2)

Give:

This kind of edge of the Kingdom, global work is necessarily funded by generous Christians who see it as part of their calling to commit to radical giving so that leaders all around the world can be properly discipled, envisioned and launched to build the church. Right now we have a BIG fundraising goal of finding families or individuals who can commit to giving in the following amounts for the next year:

  • Five Givers @ $500 per month or $6,000 per year
  • Ten Givers @ $200 per month or $2,400 per year
  • Twenty Givers @ $100 per month or $1,200 per year
  • Forty Givers @ $50 per month or $600 per year
  • Sixty Givers @ $25 per month or $300 per year

If we can successfully find and partner with these 135 Givers we would:

  • Personally be 100% funded for the year. A tremendous stress relief!
  • Be able to seed fund 2 new East Mountain Communities.
  • Be able to personally encourage, envision and equip leaders on 5 continents.
  • Be able to offer scholarships to deserving young leaders from some of the world’s poorest communities to attend East Mountain residency.

If you would like to either become a Giver or increase your current gift, please visit our donation site by clicking here

Much Love,

Gabe, Janet and Madeline

Reimagine the Statues

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My great, great, great grandfather was James Augustus Whitley, a Sergeant in the Confederate Army and a tobacco farm owner who no doubt benefited from the use of slave labor. I still have the desk that he built, his eyeglasses and his change purse. These few artifacts of his life arranged neatly in a corner of my childhood home served as a kind of historical marker, silently memorializing him, celebrating his heroism in the war, and reminding me that his story is a part of my own.

As I think about that desk I am reminded that history matters.

In our postmodern context we are want to believe that history doesn’t matter. We are gripped by the fantasy that we are pure masters of our own fate, disconnected and free to make choices and write the narrative we imagine for our lives independent of the stories that carried us into the present.

This kind of thinking isn’t helpful. Our lives, our culture, and our realities are intricately connected to the choices, ways of thinking, successes and sins of those who came before us. The contexts in which we live our lives are shaped by the forces of history.

I am a son of North Carolina, the progeny of people who believed that the color of a person’s skin determined their worth. This is a part of my heritage. It’s my past but it’s not my future.

Next month I am moving back to South Carolina from South Africa, where I have lived for over five years giving my life to see the next generation of African leaders empowered to make a difference in the world. My friends will help me carry James Augustus’ desk from my parents home into mine. I will not destroy the desk. Instead I will reimagine it. I will set it in a corner and fill it with pictures of my African friends. The faces of Luthando, Obedience, Phumelele, Joel, Noah, Lindiwe, Marlyn, and many others will stare at us from the darkly stained pine. Then when my young daughter remembers the story of her past she will see it more fully. She will know that James Augustus fought bravely. She will know that he was part of oppressing African people. And she will never remember that desk without also remembering the love for her friends. She will know what redemption looks like.

I wonder if this little desk re-imagination project could inform the current conversation regarding the statues in the South. What if the best way forward isn’t to tear down the statues, but to reimagine them? What if we invested the same energy used to destroy, to empower African-American artists to create visual art that does not forget the past but tells a more complete story?

Redemption is always about creating beauty from the ashes. History matters but the present matters more. We are responsible for writing the history that our children will remember for generations to come. Our present is their history. Let it be a history they can be proud of.

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The Smartphone Conundrum

Broken Phone

Last month I let my nine year old borrow my smart phone. She dropped it on an asphalt road, cracking the screen. A few weeks later I sealed my phone’s fate when I inadvertently stepped on it, expanding the original imperfection into a spider web of cracks. I remember the moment I realized that my phone was gone. I felt sick to my stomach, frustrated and even a little angry. Later that night as I lay in bed I caught myself reaching for my phone to scroll through the latest Facebook update. The addiction was deep.

Over the next week there were hundreds of other moments where I felt the urge to grab my phone. On one level I just missed the convenience that my smart phone provided. Google Maps kept me from getting lost (most of the time anyway). Facebook, Instagram, Podcast Addict, Kindle, and the BBC gave me an easy exit from reality in the moments that were either too boring or too painful to engage. What’s App, texting and Facebook messenger ensured that I didn’t go too deep with people too often.

The move away from convenience was annoying but what truly disturbed me was the rising sense of angst, impatience and entitlement festering in my soul. I longed for my phone and somehow I became increasingly aware that this sort of desire shouldn’t be fed. So here I am, still considering whether I should buy a new smart phone or dust off the old brick sitting in my drawer.

As I write the words the absurdity of that proposition sets in and I know that the smart phone needs to go but I’m also a little afraid of what life will look like without it.

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Need Hope? Forget Yourself and Remember.

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We live in a culture that elevates our experience as the ultimate measure of truth. In our pragmatism we believe that what we can see, hear, touch and feel provide access to what is true about ourselves, the world and even God. The trouble is that our day to day existence is often marked by tragedy, confusion and pain. The difficulty of our mundane experience clouds our perception, rendering our ability to discern truth useless in the face of everyday life.

The psalmist alludes to this conundrum in Psalm 77 as he considers his present trouble and cries out, “I am so troubled that I cannot speak.” His pain causes him to question the goodness and love of God as he says, “Will the Lord spurn forever, and never again be favourable? Has his steadfast love forever ceased? Are his promises at an end for all time? Has God forgotten to be gracious? Has he in anger shut up his compassion?”.

Our culture balks at the notion that we should look to the past for guidance. We are progressive, always moving forward, always improving on the failures of yesteryear. But this too is folly. For when our present circumstances fail to give us hope where shall we look? Here too the Psalmist helps us. He says “I will remember the deeds of the Lord; yes, I will remember your wonders of old. I will ponder all your work, and meditate on your mighty deeds.”

Like the Psalmist if we possess enough humility to forget ourselves for a moment and allow the picture of God’s faithfulness, compassion and greatness to overwhelm our present sensibilities, then we too can move forward in faith with supreme confidence, joy and peace. Today let us forget ourselves and remember what God has done, trusting that he will do it again.

The Long-Run Deception

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Life doesn’t happen in the long run, it happens now. Right now I feel the kiss of the morning breeze as it washes over my face. Right now I am alone with my thoughts, able to sit and think, free from the other chaos that will soon mark my day. Here in these minutes blood courses through my body and I am alive.

I am drawn to the next better thing. Too often I linger in the place where I am thinner, wiser, less busy, more comfortable, safer and more content. This is the place I imagine exists somewhere in the long-run after my careful planning and diligence yields the fruit of a better life. The trouble is that while I contemplate the glories of some other future reality the life before me passes through my fingers.

Today my daughter is eight. When the solitude of this morning is interrupted it will be with her voice, the one that sounds like it did when she was four only with words that remind me that the sweetness and innocence of childhood is fleeting. She will want to go and play, eat ice cream, tell jokes and watch funny cat videos on YouTube. She will climb into my lap, bury her head into my chest and have a conversation about nothing. If I’m not careful, I’ll miss all of this life unfolding right in front of me. The beauty, mystery and joy offered in the present will become a mere benchmark of progress on the way to the preferred future.

What a subtle yet evil deception!

Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me
all the days of my life,
and I shall dwell in the house of the LORD
forever. – Psalm 23:6

Right now I choose to be here. I choose to pay attention to the unbelievable beauty of creation, to listen, to rest, and to receive the gift of life offered to me this day. Today I choose to live in the present and in the long run I’m trusting that goodness will follow me.

The Second First Breath

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His cold and bloodied body lay on the stone slab in the dark room, the humanity snuffed out. This was the morning of the third day since he cried out in agony and sucked in his last desperately painful breath.

In a moment the darkness disappeared into a canopy of pure, blinding light. It was as if the sun itself had somehow burst into the room and flooded the darkness with a radiance that was both beautiful and terrifying.

In the center, where the light was most intense, where it seemed to originate, lay the faint outline of a man. At first the man didn’t move, although his form pulsated with the energy of a thousand supernovas. It was a blinding, unfathomable display of glory.

Suddenly the canopy of light went into the form of the man. His body, which just moments ago lay cold and still, now shone with a brilliance and power that defied all description. His form, his being and the light were one glorious entity.

Pierced by the light, the man inhaled deeply, drinking in his second first breath. The last time his lungs tasted oxygen for the first time, he was greeted by the smiles of his mother and the chaotic melody of barn animals. This time he was alone as the air rushed into his chest. As he exhaled his heart exploded with life causing the pale skin to fill with color.

The light sat up and the linen cloth that encased the previously dead body simply fell neatly on the stone parapet, unable to remain on the now radiant skin. As the man began to move the light melted into his body the way a flame gives way to coals when there is nothing more to burn. He slowly stood and stretched out his arms as if waking from a long slumber. In a moment the linen cloth that wreaked of death was instantly replaced by new robes flickering with the glow emanating from the man.

Despite the unbelievable transformation the new man still bore a resemblance to the dead body. The wounds which precipitated his death were visible, but of course now healed. His face and overall form were markedly similar to the dead man so that he would be recognizable but there was something new and glorious even in the details of his features.

He walked, nonchalantly towards the eastern stone wall of his tomb. Without breaking stride he passed into and then through the thick stone. Whatever his constitution, its’ essence was superior to anything known in the material world so that the stone could not contain him. As he stepped into the garden, the soldiers guarding the entrance simply passed out, unable to mentally or physically process what they saw – a man pulsating with the light of the sun emerging from a sealed grave.

In the days to come the man went about daily life, reintroducing himself to friends, catching and cooking fish, eating, drinking and finally ascending in one last glorious act as he returned to heaven.

This is resurrection. This is death conquered. This is life without end.

And for those of us who submit to the authority of King Jesus – this is our hope and our future.

One day we too will take a second first breath. One day we too will experience what it feels like for the power that created the universe to enter into our mortal bodies, transforming them into immortal, glorious bodies. One day we will walk out of our graves to join the firstborn among the dead in a life without pain, suffering or death. One day we too will live forever.

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Experiences on Golgatha – John

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Even as a child he knew that he would earn a living casting nets into the sea. He was a simple man, his days ordered by the rhythms of the tides, his years according to the seasons. He and his brother, James were inseparable, always together. They were usually quiet patient men, but when incited to anger they could be full of fury.

But one day his life was interrupted. Just in from an unproductive day of fishing, he was washing his nets with James and their business partner Simon Peter when Jesus walked by. Jesus, then known as a teacher but what else they didn’t yet know, climbed into Peter’s boat, asked to be pushed out a bit and then began teaching. It was the sort of teaching that shook your soul, the kind that you never forgot. They were mesmerized.

Then Jesus did something no teacher ever did – he gave them fishing advice. “Get back to work.” he said. Take your boats out into the deep water, and cast your nets there.” he told them. Uncertain but curious they did as he said. Immediately they brought up their nets with so many fish that one boat couldn’t contain them all. Even the nets began to break under the strain of their catch.

Astonished by this teacher who spoke profound truth about God and seemed to have some sway even over the fish, they “pulled their boats up on shore, left everything and followed him.”

That day John had no idea what sort of decision he made. Following Jesus wasn’t so much a choice as a compulsion – something he had to do. The allure of his presence was magnetic, his words troubling, his message deeply relevant.

John would witness Jesus walking on the water, healing the sick, raising the dead to life. He would have hundreds of conversations with Jesus around the fire, conversations that would change him forever. John would call himself, “the disciple whom Jesus loved.” His purpose and significance was completely wrapped up in his self identification as one who Jesus loved.

From that first day on the beach, he imagined the grandeur of life as a friend of the King. He was certain that this choice to follow Jesus would be filled with adventure and glory. And it would be, but not in the way he imagined.

The other friends had run away and here he stood beneath his friend, his Lord, his leader, Jesus. “What had gone wrong?” he wondered. As he stared in horror at the grisly sight of his friend torn to shreds, bleeding profusely, gasping for each breath he remembered the moment on the hilltop the last time that Jesus hardly looked human. But that time his humanity was nearly washed out with the radiance of his glory. This time his humanity seemingly erased with violence.

As he looked on, unsure of what to do but unable to leave, the raspy voice called down from his bloody cross “Woman, behold, your son!” and then the still gentle eyes of Jesus looked into his as he said, “Behold, your mother!” In the beginning Jesus cared about the practical things of life, fish to a fisherman. And even now, at the end he still cared for the well being of his mother and for the heart of his disciple and friend.