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

The shrewd and harmless tempered radical

Written by: on May 9, 2019

Diane Zemke, in her book Being Smart About Congregational Change, advances strategic and clear thinking around how one can influence change within a system. While her research was specifically focused on the local church context, it has high applicability to any organizational environment. In my case, with my focus on the changing landscapes within private family philanthropy, there were solid parallels. One caught my eye: the idea of the tempered radical.

Tempered radicals are ones who exhibit the traits of maturation and grace. While radical in orientation – they are visionaries and dreamers – they also pragmatically recognize that to get from here to there is not possible without savvy, even political, skills in navigating organizational realities to pursue change together.  These radicals have moved beyond being those who tear everything down and start from scratch, to ones who will work within systems to incrementally move the organization towards a new reality.

Zemke further elucidates:

“Tempered radicals often appear as loyal company employees on the outside, yet are different internally, based on their conflicting values. These conflicting values form the foundation for conflicting identities since our value commitments help construct our identity. It is the struggle to enact these conflicting identities that is at the heart of tempered radicals’ experience. Tempered radicals are not chameleons, exhibiting one identity here and another there. Nor do they lack integrity or authenticity. Indeed, their integrity and authenticity are revealed as they work to honor both identities simultaneously.”[1]

Tempered radicals are those change agents who are “as shrewd as snakes and harmless as doves.”[2]

Debra Meyerson, Consulting Professor at Stanford University Graduate School of Education, has also captured this idea and writes in the Stanford Social Innovation Review about its applicability within corporate social responsibility systems. These large business environments have a historical culture focused on profitability. But to move business toward collective social responsibility one must begin on the fringes.

Just like churches that have historic cultural patterns needing change, getting to the desired new culture in businesses will take time. Meyerson advises tempered radicals to start small. Incremental change is the way forward, and small changes inspire cultures to change because they:

  • Are doable;
  • Create a sense of hope and self-confidence;
  • Lead to heightened ambition and more effort;
  • Minimize anxiety and personal risk;
  • Are small enough they don’t bump against the majority system; and
  • Express and sustain different values and identities.[3]

Channelling the passions of tempered radicals into small changes that can incrementally model compelling new landscapes for churches, corporations, and in my case, family foundations, is a model that inspires my work at Stronger Philanthropy. Working with families of wealth where the entrepreneurial founder’s vision dominates is a challenge. Next generations of the family, to own the future of their philanthropy, must own their own vision. Getting there requires each new generation to have ownership that can only be acquired as they have a voice in the future direction of the organization.

My strategy for pursuing change led by next generation family members involves the creation of a sidebar philanthropy (we are starting small!), and focusing it on action, engagement, community development, innovation, and open spirituality. I realized early this year that to get there I couldn’t do it alone, nor could I from my position as a Gen Xer teetering on the dying fringe of Boomer-hood. In response, I hired my Millennial son, Nate, who began work on May 1. Like me, he exhibits tempered radical traits and convictions, but his age and stage made him a likelier candidate to lead my clients’ offspring toward more meaningful expressions of family philanthropy.

This includes the ongoing development of the Spark Initiative which engages Millennial investors with Millennial innovators in a year-long process of learning and doing social innovation as a community. We just concluded the most recent cycle with a retreat that combined both groups held in conjunction with our local university. Read Nate’s report on the retreat here.

Witnessing next gen givers inspired and engaged in philanthropy that transforms communities is still resounding in my spirit. The shrewd, yet harmless, outcome is that foundation founders will be overjoyed to see their kids and grandkids contributing meaningfully to social change, and over time, this new generation will rise to positions of leadership within their own family philanthropy having experienced a new pathway towards engaged generosity.

Researching this topic led me to include a new book in my working bibliography which Nate and I have both read and which guides our tempered radicalism. Edgar Villanueva is a member of the Lumbee tribe of North Carolina, and at the same time a Christian and a key philanthropy leader for large foundations in the States. Reconciling his indigenous heritage and identity with the often-white man’s world of family philanthropy is the topic of his book, Decolonizing Wealth.

Villanueva found, just like Zemke, Meyerson, and others, that alienating the system with a scorched earth policy will not serve anyone well. Rather, one must shrewdly erase barriers that exist between the haves and have-nots, freeing up capital to benefit communities, not one’s profile on the donor wall. He states,

“Effectively moving money to where the hurt is worst – using money as medicine – requires the funder to have deep, authentic knowledge of the issues and communities that will be putting the funding to use. Deep authentic knowledge does not come from reading some stats, reports, or articles; it doesn’t even come from a site visit to that community or interviewing someone from the affected community. It comes from living inside that community and experiencing that issue for oneself. Period.”[4]

This shared life together is the calling and blessing of a tempered radical.


[1] Diane Zemke, Being Smart About Congregational Change (Diane L. Zemke, 2014), Kindle loc. 1716.

[2] Matthew 10:16 (NLT)

[3] Meyerson, Debra E. “The Tempered RADICALs.” Stanford Social Innovation Review, Fall, 2004, 14-22, Accessed May 9, 2019. https://georgefox.idm.oclc.org/login?url=https://search-proquest-com.georgefox.idm.oclc.org/docview/217178643?accountid=11085.

[4] Edgar Villanueva, Decolonizing Wealth: Indigenous Wisdom to Heal Divides and Restore Balance (Oakland CA: Berrett-Koehler, 2018), 143.


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.

8 responses to “The shrewd and harmless tempered radical”

  1. Beautifully written. Villanueva communicated so much wisdom concerning philanthropy, money, and our societal longing for connection. I loved this,
    “Money is like water. Water can be a precious life-giving resource. But what happens when water is dammed, or when a water cannon is fired on protesters in subzero temperatures? Money should be a tool of love, to facilitate relationship, to help us thrive, rather than to hurt and divide us. If it’s used for sacred, life-giving, restorative purposes, it can be medicine.
    Money, used as medicine, can help us decolonize.” (9)

  2. Mike says:

    How goes it, eh? Welcome to summer school!
    I agree, Zemke’s work is adaptable to other ministry contexts like your philanthropy focus. I am applying her ideas to my spiritual warfare dissertation too.
    I agree with her and your ideas on the tempered radical and add the intentional practice of submission and humility before the Lord. Zemke does give good meaning to the Scripture “shrewd as snakes and harmless as doves” in her description of the tempered radicals.
    I liked your discussion on the “scorched earth policy” in this context. I saw that policy up close and personal when used by leaders in certain countries where I served. The loss of life, injury, damage, and hurt to others when someone uses that practice is almost unbelievable, yet it happens. Principalities and powers know the pattern of humankind and regularly reinvent, reintroduce, and reapply “scorched earth” to a variety of contexts. Amazingly, that is the environment they will occupy in the end, the lake of fire.
    Good post on Dr. Zemke’s work, I like her ideas.

    Stand firm,
    Mike w

  3. Jay Forseth says:

    Hi Mark!

    Great to be reading your good Blogs again. Thank you for your quality of writing and depth.

    Loved your thoughts on “Tempered Radicals” and I was reminded of the words we use that basically have the same connotations. We say “Launchable Leaders” and when describing them as “change agents” we believe in fact they have to act like you mentioned as “(shrew) wise as serpents but (harmless) gentle as doves.”

  4. Great post, Mark!

    Zemke’s book delved into the varied facets of congregational norms, traditions, and security. She did an amazing job at giving her readers a glimpse into the reality of one’s spiritual culture and then formulating a plan that can dismantle the rigidity of their past comforts.

    You mention, “Tempered radicals are ones who exhibit the traits of maturation and grace. While radical in orientation – they are visionaries and dreamers – they also pragmatically recognize that to get from here to there is not possible without savvy, even political, skills in navigating organizational realities to pursue change together.”

    Yes! I see this in my own organization as well. When we partner with dissonance, we are able to work towards a goal that reaches more people. This occurs when we listen and learn from those who see spirituality and purpose from varied viewpoints. My board and team are made up of Episcopalians, Methodists, Pentecostals, and Catholics and I love the varied voices and spiritual types. What has been the greatest gift of working with different quadrants? What has been the most difficult?

  5. Dan Kreiss says:


    Beautiful! Immediate application to your own situation and wisdom in understanding the importance of the role of the tempered radical. I think you have captured the essence of the need for the ‘belonging’ within a community of tempered radicals. They provide insight, diversity, innovation etc. that is often wanting in homogenous groups of people. I also see great wisdom in you hiring your son as a key to helping the next generation take ownership of new directions for the various foundations and philanthropic commitments. I look forward to seeing some of the results.

  6. Jason Turbeville says:

    You wrote, “Villanueva found, just like Zemke, Meyerson, and others, that alienating the system with a scorched earth policy will not serve anyone well. Rather, one must shrewdly erase barriers that exist between the haves and have-nots, freeing up capital to benefit communities, not one’s profile on the donor wall.” This is a great overview of the book this week and I probably will steal it (I will give credit because I am not that smart) but wow what a great statement. Thanks for the insight.


  7. Dave Watermulder says:

    Dude! You packed a lot of rich material to this post. I sure hope this is all showing up somewhere in your dissertation because you have been bringing some good stuff. I especially appreciated the list from Meyerson about those small steps that tempered radicals can take. Very helpful and practical. See you soon.

  8. This is such a great post, Mark. I like how you have framed and applied the tempered radical. I’m very interested to read more from Villanueva. His ideas (and yours) for philantrhopy seem to dovetail with where I’m going in my philosophy of mission. Itt’s all about being “with” the other.

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