We often say that life goes by too quickly. This past year has been a challenge in terms of time and capacity, but it is also an opportunity for growth and discovery. We all enter any program of study to move forward in our life journey. Most of us entered this doctoral journey not knowing how the program would shape us, but understanding that change would be involved. When I began the program, I knew that the Lord was moving in my life and the life of my family. One of my favorite new words that I learned this year is “liminal,” which indicates the state of transition or being both in the old realm and at the threshold of something new. I know that my doctoral journey is shaping and sharpening me, and I can see that the Lord is molding my skills and knowledge for His work.
I’ve always been able to maintain balance and be resilient when life presents me with challenges. In fact, I’ve experienced challenges that many would consider life-impacting. But those challenges somehow have seemed different than the pursuit of a doctoral degree, as if they were short seasons through which there was always a clear path towards better things. When my brother died, I knew that my pain and sadness would eventually become bearable. When I completed both my bachelor and master’s degrees, I knew that they were a path to more challenging work, a more financially secure future, and more work flexibility. I have always chosen to pursue Christ in all of my endeavors and to lean heavily on him for strength to accomplish the steps that He has established for me. In fact, there are times that I have wished that the Lord didn’t make me so strong, as I know that He will never give me more than what I can handle. So, while I have always been obedient to move forward, there was a certain level of security in doing so. My doctoral degree seems different. In fact, my transition from solely working in the corporate world to working more with Christian institutions has knocked me off of my feet at least a few times. I know that the Lord is using this experience and my research to sharpen me, but I am still not clear on the reason why. I have an inward sense that there is specific work that He has me to accomplish, and to do so I must enter into some uncomfortable territory so that I can have better vision and understanding of whatever it is that He has me to do. It is this liminal space that I find myself in as I enter into the last phase of this program, writing my dissertation.
The program, thus far, has given me a much broader and deeper understanding of the world of Christian organizations and the state of Christianity in the world. It is a complex and unique world, which has evolved much over the past fifty years. My research has taken me into many organizations, both those that are thriving and those that are struggling. I see clear indications that too many Christian organizations have gotten off track from God’s plan for His community. As I dive into some of the organizational nuances with teams that tasked with fulfilling a part of our Christian mission, I am seeing the need for change, renewal, and restructuring from within. The ‘church’ in America (or the broader Christian organizational system) seems to have lost focus on the primary purpose within the global community. My observation is that this isn’t always intentional, rather individual institutions have been trapped in overwhelming waves of economic, cultural, and political concerns. The church is at a high state of risk due to increasing external and internal pressures. I am encouraged, as I see the Lord putting leaders into positions to help the church navigate in this liminal space. In fact, I foresee that the future is one in which the church is being prepared to operate sustainably and efficiently within a fluid ecosystem. Thus, the church shouldn’t run as if it is seeking a final destination or level of ‘good performance’, for indeed it won’t reach a destination until Christ’s return.
Last September, we started the fall semester by reading Jim Collins’ book Good to Great. This book is a classic in my library, and a good reference point to go back to when we are in the midst of implementing change. Collins offers insight on what it takes for an organization to go from simply being good to being great. The church system can leverage much of Collins research. The church’s aim should be greatness in Christ. In marketing, we refer to the principle of ‘the purple cow’. In a world of brown or black cows, it is the purple cow that people notice. What makes an organization stand out from the crowd? What differentiates the church from the rest of the world so that people take note?
Through my research and work activities, I am developing a framework or formula to help organizations live out God’s plan for their community through the practices of shalom and stewardship. When an organization demonstrates these principles, they become different, and people take note. The corporate world has shown how these principles have allowed them to do great things and to leave a mark on the world. Think about the way those organizations, like Apple, have transformed people’s lives. What if people searched Scripture as often as they do Google? What if people socialized with those in the church community as much as they do their friends on Facebook? What if the church became as popular of a destination as Walmart or Target? The church should be so impactful!
Edwin Friedman’s book, A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix, sheds light on what could be considered a plague in Christian organizations today. Trends show that people are shouting and saying that ‘something isn’t right.’ Church membership declines, Christian university enrollment numbers decline, and higher percentages of people claim they don’t trust organized religious institutions. Would you trust a leader who has ‘failure of nerve’? Christ did the right thing. He clearly had good intentions and love for others underlying His leadership actions. He was controversial, made others angry, and made high waves in systems of injustice. In a world where we have access to thousands of leadership models, books, and best practices, Friedman’s work stands out. I believe the church has many people in leadership roles, but it needs leaders who are willing to be different, to accept new ways of doing things, and who aren’t afraid of this liminal space. Len Hjalmarson, in his book Broken Futures, addresses the place and tension in which the current church and Christian institutions are operating. This place is uncomfortable and painful for many, and all indicators are that the underlying DNA needs transformation, and thus requires more than a surface level change.
Reflecting on this past year, I am amazed at the range of topics and the depth of knowledge that I have been able to attain, yet I know that I have more work to do. The Lord has also shown me that I have been spread too thin and that I have only captured a glimpse of what He has to reveal to me. After reading Deep Work, by Cal Newport, I am reminded of the value of time spent on tasks that produce higher levels of return. We all live in such a fast-paced world that it is easy to feel productive when we are busy. We can decrease our ability and effectiveness by spending our time on shallow things. Deep work, or what I call focus time, is when we can get into a cadence or zone where we can tap into our inner-self to concentrate and to think at higher levels. This time allows us to produce more value and to develop more innovative and creative solutions. Many of us are constantly connected and ‘always on’ when it comes to work. More work doesn’t always contribute to our ability to perform better. Deep thinking allows us to be more productive and efficient – it gives us our edge. As I head into the final phase of my dissertation work, I know that I need to adjust my schedule to have more deep work time to produce profound results. I just inherited an old-fashioned typewriter from my grandmother. It is a reminder of a time when the world made more space for deep thought, reflection, and connection with others. I am thankful that the Lord has already started removing things that compete for my attention, and I have a renewed sense of purpose in my work.
 James C. Collins, Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap–and Others Don’t (New York, NY: HarperBusiness, 2001).
 Edwin H. Friedman, A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix, [new ed. (New York: Seabury Books, ©2007).
 Leonard Hjalmerson, Broken Futures: Adaptive Challenge and the Church in Transition (Unpublished) 2016.
 Cal Newport, (2016-01-05). Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World. Grand Central Publishing. Kindle Edition.