Doctor of Leadership in Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

On composting

Written by: on March 1, 2018

At first glance the life of a leader in Christian family philanthropy has it made. Not only is there apparent spiritual peace and integration through one’s faith commitment to Christ, but the resources to effect change in the world are also present in abundance. Many gaze longingly at the role I undertake, for example, declaring, “You have the best job ever!” What is absent from this cursory observation is a deeper probing into the gilded cage that is experienced by Christians of wealth. If, as Gary McIntosh and Samuel Rima claim, that we all have a dark side to our leadership, it will emerge at some point as Jesus takes us on a journey through the refiner’s fire. McIntosh and Rima’s book, Overcoming the Dark Side of Leadership, is an invitation to carefully navigate through the pain that emerges to a better integrated and healthier leadership on the other side.

The authors state the problem clearly: “There comes a point in all leaders’ lives … when they will begin to experience the relational friction, organizational blow-ups, and personal pain that result from unidentified and unresolved inner-life issues. When that time comes, they have a profound and pivotal choice to make: Will they … as Annie Dillard has written, “ride the monster all the way down”, allowing God to do his healing, restorative work in long-buried areas of personal pain and shame?”[1] This is a courageous question that not all are willing to answer.

The issue amongst my clients is not just restricted to church or organizational life, for the issues of pain and disintegration are embedded within their own family systems. One’s work environment is intertwined with one’s own family of origin. Those who wish to pursue integration must choose freedom from ways of thinking and behaviour that have been embedded since childhood. I often counsel families that in their philanthropy they must create processes that take them away from their Thanksgiving Dinner table and role within the family system (for example, as the paternalistic parent, the eldest domineering child, the spoiled baby of the family, etc.) and employ sound organizational structures to allow the family’s philanthropy to survive and thrive.

This process will not happen overnight. I found the composting metaphor utilized by McIntosh and Rima especially useful in considering this movement toward a healthier dynamic. With the shadow actions and attitudes of our leadership, it is important to allow these to be composted. And, to state the obvious, composting will necessarily require time (perhaps years?), darkness, and bold identification of what should be cast aside. “What the process of composting tells me is that there are parts of my personality that are not usable in their present form, but are nevertheless indispensable. Composting also teaches me that I am responsible for participating in the process by identifying what is in need of transformation, by putting my refuse in a designated place, and then waiting as transformation occurs. Composting asks me to trust that I will eventually bear witness to what only God can do.”[2]

For healing to come to Christian family philanthropy systems, some of the key ingredients to cast onto the compost pile are power and privilege. Thayer Willis was a speaker I heard years ago at The Gathering[3], an annual event bringing together families of wealth who significantly give to Christian ministries. Her book, Navigating the Dark Side of Wealth, and her psychotherapy practice, both focus on the debilitating characteristics of inherited wealth to one’s identity and how it impacts the family.

My summary of her work is that free money is toxic. Listen to her reflection on the inheritor’s Golden Rule: “He who has the gold makes the rules.  A nasty thought, granted, but if you have ever been in a close relationship involving a great disparity in the “gold” possessed by both parties, you will readily see the truth in the maxim.  There are exceptions, however. They consist of those humble, generous individuals who refuse to wield their power, despite the circumstances.”[4]

Individuals in wealthy families, even generous people of faith, can have blind spots. But those who refuse to wield the power of wealth are those who are well on their way to freedom from the dark side that can control and oppress even the most intimate of relationships.

There are a plethora of studies on the dark side of leadership which highlight abuse of power as a common trait. Combine the privilege of position with the power of money, and you have an explosive cocktail that is volatile; the slightest disruption can cause it to go off. Stephen Linstead et al. explore the relationship of capitalism, easily relatable to philanthropy, to the dark side. They theorize that “…[C]apitalism constantly needs to creatively destroy itself, to test its own limits to destruction… but that there is no way of knowing whether specific events of destruction will prove creative and rejuvenating or not. The dark side may be an indelible feature of capitalism,… but whose mechanisms are obscured, whether by conscious and conspiratorial actions of the dominant classes or simply its unfolding systemic logics, of which participants may be relatively unaware. It may be naturally hidden or deliberately concealed.[5]

Under power and privilege, deep within a capitalistic worldview which commodifies everything in its path, lie seeds of a future hidden destruction that will painfully destroy. For the Christian philanthropist to uncover a healthy pathway forward, one must choose to surrender the privilege and leverage the power, and cast both onto the compost pile. Acknowledging that these gifts will actually bear greater fruitfulness when composted is key to discovering the joy of philanthropy for the Christian family.


[1] McIntosh, Gary L., and Samuel D. Rima. Overcoming The Dark Side Of Leadership: How to Become an Effective Leader by Confronting Potential Failures. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2011), 23.

[2] McIntosh and Rima, 161.

[3] The Gathering website, https://thegathering.com/, Accessed March 1, 2018.

[4] Willis, Thayer Cheatham. Navigating the Dark Side of Wealth: A Life Guide for Inheritors. (Portland, OR: New Concord Press, 2003), 72.

[5] Linstead, Stephen, Garance Maréchal, and Ricky W. Griffin. “Theorizing and Researching the Dark Side of Organization.” Organization Studies 35, no. 2 (February 1, 2014): 165–88. https://doi.org/10.1177/0170840613515402. Accessed on March 1, 2018.

About the Author

Mark Petersen

Mark Petersen is the CEO of Stronger Philanthropy, a Canadian firm specializing in maximizing family philanthropy. He leads a diverse group of visionary individuals, foundations and organizations to collaborate in leveraging wealth for charitable impact.

12 responses to “On composting”

  1. M Webb says:

    I like your explanation of spiritual composting better than the authors. Thanks! I would think your role as a guide for the rich and famous is more like being a sports agent for a talented and sought-after athlete. Instead of athletic skills, your clients have financial resources and power. You must have a lot of opportunities to advise, mentor, challenge, and rebuke your clients the better you get to know them. Yours is a unique calling, but in God’s economy, you are exactly where He wants you for this season. As your cohort member, you will have our prayers and support as we get to know each other better.
    Do you serve as a liaison between your philanthropy clients and mission organizations looking for financial support for new cases?
    Stand firm,
    M. Webb

    • Thanks Mike. Keep praying! I do appreciate it, and commit to praying for you and the rest of our cohort too.

      Regarding your last question, yes, my role is akin to being a broker for opportunities. As you might imagine, I have needed to create solid processes and procedures to serve my clients well.

  2. Jennifer Williamson says:

    Hi Mark. I was not a huge fan of this book, but the one part I did like was the idea of composting. I wish the authors had done a better job of developing that idea, because for me there was a lot of confusion between what is my role and what is God’s role. For example, even in the quote that you cite, the author’s say that the individual has to identify what needs to be transformed and place it on the compost pile. My greatest period of deep transformation thus far in my life happened during my adjustment to living in a new country. Everything I knew as “normal” was stripped away, like a total fruit basket upset. I know missionaries who do not surrender to that process, and in that way, they avoid putting anything on the compost pile. But for me, I learned that my role was opening up my hands in total surrender, and watching God strip me of my own identity, my skills, my abilities, my gifts, etc. and trusting that in God’s time and in God’s way, those things that were meant to be mine would be given new life and new expression in this new land.

    So I guess what I’m being very long-winded in saying is that I don’t think we get to choose what goes on the compost pile. And if we are dong the choosing, chances are we aren’t choosing correctly.

    Also, (I know I’m a super concrete person, so bear with me), I really don’t get what they mean by “putting our refuse in a designated place.” Say God is stripping me of my need for approval. What would it look like for me to put that dark part of myself “in a designated place”? How would you interpret and apply what the authors are suggesting?

    • That is a good distinction you are making. I agree. You can’t choose what ends up in your compost pile.

      Regarding the act of putting your refuse in a designated place, for me it is all metaphorical. I would imagine that as I identify that my need for approval is all-consuming and disintegrative, then through work with a spiritual director or therapist (or my wife!) I might begin to intentionally lay down those moments where I seek approval. I would choose to surrender those.

  3. Jay Forseth says:

    Hi Mark,

    I had a hard time understanding the metaphor of composting related in this book, but after I read your Post, I understand it better.

    On the issue of money, do you believe that how a person handles God’s money is a Spiritual indicator? I do, as it reveals very quickly our dark side. Seems like most of the modern stories in the book were with sexual downfalls, but I bet we could have written a whole other book on financial moral failures…

    Thanks for your writings. They are always solid!

  4. Hi Jay… handling money could be a spiritual indicator, but I think one must go deeper because it is all about the heart. One could give away 99% of one’s wealth to churches and mission agencies and, man, it would look great, but if they are doing it to puff up their ego, it is but chaff. Ultimately, only God can discern this.

  5. Chris Pritchett says:

    Such a great word, Mark. Thank you for this warning. Power and privilege – my family’s two best friends. 🙂

  6. Dave Watermulder says:

    Thanks for this post! It’s awesome to hear some of these insights and tidbits from your world and experience. It is different from local church pastoral work in some ways, but in others, it is so familiar. I loved the composting image, not only for those I would minister to, but also for myself. Thanks for lifting that up.

    • Yes I love the idea of composting – there’s a lot of spiritual reality there. We just began a compost pile last fall for the first time. It will be interesting to see what’s become of it once the snow melts! 😉

  7. Trisha Welstad says:

    I dig composting. For a time I wanted to build my own compost bin and have chickens so we could have a nearly closed loop system of compost. The metaphor the authors and you use is powerful and a good revelation of how creation is restored. In particular your last paragraph summarizing the need to surrender privilege and leverage power is one that translates to many, maybe all in one way or another. I appreciate learning from your perspective of philanthropy because it helps me to see others in new ways as well as challenge my own thoughts.

    I also wonder what type of pragmatic ideas you offer people when encouraging them to break away from their traditional roles within family to healthily maintain their philanthropy? That seems challenging.

  8. One of my practical steps for helping families break out of traditional family roles with their philanthropy is to formalize the running of their foundation. Board meetings, annual general meetings, officers, agendas, minutes, mission statement, application process, etc. It sounds over the top but I have seen it bear great results.

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