DMin, Leadership and Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

Elephant Fights and Values

Written by: on April 11, 2019

“Why do you hate me?” My father said abruptly to me. It was late and we were the last people up in the house. I was a bit stunned by the question. My dad would proceed to tell me why Jen and I adopting was spitting in his face. I was shocked and frustrated with the conversation that would follow. The depth of my shock was built upon the fact that our decision to adopt was largely a result of the faith I had developed growing up in my father’s house. Years of church and youth group telling me that love of God was love of orphan, care for the stranger, and the willingness to give up one’s life for the other. Adoption was (and still is) the natural outgrowth of the values transferred from a faith built in my childhood. Up to that point I would have attributed a lot of my desire to adopt upon my parents insistence that I go to church.

In Dare to Lead Brené Brown argues that the primary reason leaders fail is a lack of courage. Through her research in social work, using grounded theory, she and her team discovered that there are four skill sets necessary to increase courage: vulnerability, values, trust, and the ability to overcome struggle and rise.1 The most interesting of these topics, to me at least, is her work in values. Brown argues that values are “a way of being or believing that we hold most important.”2 But for values to be of value they need to come with us everywhere and not be watered down or discarded at difficult times.3

I was fortunate to have a conversation this week with the leader of a non-profit in town about the work of motivating people to action. He made the point that moving people from inaction to action is about changing the perception of what is being asked from novel to being normal. So long as the act is itself novel the common response will be, “I could never do that” or some variation on how it is weird. So long as the leaders keep the courage of their convictions – or values in Brown-speak – they will be able to move the perception from novel to normal.

Thinking through my interaction with my father that night, I can understand why it seemed so strange to him that we would adopt. It was something no one in my family had ever done. There was risk involved and no guarantee of success. It was novel and it was different. But by the time we began the process of our second and third adoptions his perception of it had changed to one of delight with the process.

While all this moving from novel to normal was a result of Jen and I not backing down from our shared values that adoption was both good and a calling from God, there is still the question of why my father’s reaction was so severe. I think the answer to that is that we had contradicting values. My father’s values were tied around having a grandson with a last name of Dean that shared his DNA – one of his arguments that night was that I was destroying the Dean line. The conflict of values caused what Haidt might call an elephant fight. My dad’s emotions and instincts were running his half of the conversation. My emotions and instincts were in on it as well, except I had thought through what I believed beforehand, so my elephant was working in conjunction with its rider. This combined sense of self allowed me to get through that conversation and continue on the path Jen and I had decided to walk. I believe this is why Brown argues that you need to work out your values before they get challenged.4

Thankfully, my father loves our sons now, but the only way for us to get from that night years ago to today was through a firm set of values. I am rarely brave, but I can see that Brown is onto something and I am thankful for the work she is doing to help us all become a little braver.

1. Brown, Brené. Dare to Lead: Brave Work, Tough Conversations, Whole Hearts. London: Vermilion, 2018. 11
2. ibid. 186
3. ibid. 186
4. ibid. 186

About the Author


Sean Dean

An expat of the great state of Maine where the lobster is cheap and the winters are brutal I've settled in as a web developer in Tacoma, Washington. As a foster-adoptive parent of 3 beautiful boys, I have deep questions about the American church's response to the public health crisis that is our foster system.

9 responses to “Elephant Fights and Values”

  1. mm Rev Jacob Bolton says:

    I do not believe the line you write that states, “I am rarely brave.” From what I have known of you that is not accurate at all Sean.

    Wonderful post, both deeply personal, and pastorally applicable.

  2. mm Harry Fritzenschaft says:

    You have an amazing ability to convey scholarship, passion, and personal vulnerability. Like Jacob, I would affirm you are quite brave. I appreciated your use of Haidt’s elephant (which has morphed into Dune’s sandworm in my psyche). We need to prepare beforehand, how we will react to our own and other’s “beasts.” Thanks again for your clear inspirational challenges.

  3. mm Tammy Dunahoo says:


    As an adopted person, thank you. Thank you for seeing this as a value to hold not just a scripture to obey. That might sound sacrilegious but my intent is that some obey as a rider and others live like the elephant on this matter, and it makes all the difference to the child who has no choice. Values are forged in us from life’s deepest and often, painful experiences. They are the scars we have and the things we pound the table for. You embody that and that is what moves it from novel to normal.

    • mm Sean Dean says:

      Tammy, my research is veering in the direction of how do we encourage this value. It’s easy for people to feel sorry for orphans, much harder to make them believe it’s valuable to bring them into their homes. Knowing so many successful grown up adoptees is making me believe it’s worth the work.

  4. Digby Wilkinson says:

    Hi Sean. Thanks for the history. Always interesting and inspiring to hear human stories unfold from the experience of reading a book. Courage is huge even if you know your values. The whole vulnerability thing is important when it comes to staying with your values. It’s almost as if if courage is really the result of the two. In fact I think that’s what Brown says: values, vulnerability and a bit of fear are the ingredients of courage. You seem to have those in place. They change the world around you.

  5. mm Mary Mims says:

    Sean, thanks for showing your bravery, as others have said. I think to adopt outside of your race and to eventually win your father over, shows incredible courage. I appreciate your stance on many subjects, whether I agree or not. I know you are always living your convictions, which is what Brown is all about.

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