"We need Mr. MacDonald's vitals," I overheard someone say as I sat in the doctor's office.
A minute later a nurse entered the room and introduced herself. "So what are these vitals you need?" I asked.
"Oh, just a few things we monitor each time you come. They tell us how you've been doing since the last time you were here."
Those vital signs are standard indicators of physical health: temperature, pulse, blood pressure, and respiration rate. Those four measurements help the doctor determine my condition. I bring up this standard medical procedure in order to ask: Are there vital signs that indicate the health of human relationships such as marriage, family, friendship, working teams, and congregations?
Most of my years have been involved with one form of leadership or another. Back at the beginning, I discovered that if I could not gauge the quality of my relationships, I was headed for trouble.
A story: My wife, Gail, and I have just finished the first two hours of a day-long meeting with a pastoral team from a large church. We find a corner where we can talk in private.
"They seem a pretty unified group. Don't you think?" I say.
"No," she says. "There's a lot of fear of the lead pastor in that room. Watch how everyone looks to see if they have his approval whenever they say something. And there's clearly some tension or competition between (she names two participants). Oh, and I can also tell you this," Gail goes on: "the women at that table are not happy people. Something is going on there."
"How can you tell all that after just two hours?"
"Gordon," Gail answers. "You're doing so much talking that you haven't had time to check the vital signs. I'm telling you: there's lots of trouble in that room."
I'd seen none of this. Without Gail's insight the day could have been wasted.
Fifty years of observing and experiencing relationships (as well as being married to Gail) has taught me that the connections between two or more people can quickly deteriorate if one is not consistently checking the relational vital signs.
My nurse only checked four vitals. But when it comes to relationships, I'm up to ten.
A vision is usually a great idea or an imagined opportunity that captures the energy of two or more people and causes them to merge their efforts to bring it into being. A worthy vision has reachable goals and usually requires faith, sacrifice, hard work, and personal development. It brings out the best in every person involved.
There is a "visional" (a new word I made up) foundation to a good friendship, a good marriage, a good team. Whether defined or simply intuited, the vision keeps the relationship moving forward and sloughs off the extraneous stuff. Thus, when I visit with people in various kinds of organizations, I like to ask "What is the vision that brings you together? How compelling is it—right now? Do you all have the same vision?"
Then I listen hard to each member of the relationship. Are the answers in alignment? Is there enthusiasm? Is there the right kind of pride in being part of this connection?
When Nehemiah challenged a crowd of people to rebuild Jerusalem's wall, there was an instant reaction. "Let us (us!) start rebuilding," they cried. And the crowd became a team, their cohesiveness forged by a great vision.
When I search for any indication that the secrets in one's past are affecting, positively or negatively, one's present relationships, "baggage" is my word of choice.
After whipping Jericho City handily in a strangely fought war, Joshua's army moved on to little Ai—a mere crossroads town. Apparently, no one thought the conflict would last long. But when the battle was over, it was Joshua's people who were running for their lives. Why?
Achan! The keeper of a secret. I don't know what you do with the story except to contemplate the obvious: that relationships—this time an entire community—were held hostage to the secret in the life of one man. He had baggage, literally—that stolen stuff hidden under the floor of his tent. It's not unlike the dark spot in anyone's soul, an unacknowledged issue that has an uncanny power to neutralize a strong army.
Can this happen to ministry teams? Yes, if people on a team have "stuff" under the floor of their tents: hidden angers, fears, regrets, guilt, spiritual hardness.
A member of a leadership team regularly undermines the efforts of the team leader, and when the issue is confronted, he confesses that he carries memories of a previous relationship where someone in authority had crushed him. That memory (never fully resolved) comes alive whenever he is asked to support the leader. Always on his guard, always fearful that he might be hurt again, he subtly resists leadership. Result? Misunderstanding, tension, loss of momentum for the larger group. It's the battle at Ai from a different perspective.
In all serious relationships, it's important that we know one another's story. As we listen and ask questions, we sometimes begin to hear patterns in each others' disclosures. We come to understand why another person does or thinks the way he does. From such understandings come possibilities for forgiveness, repentance, wisdom-building, a transformation of negative habits and anxieties. If we neglect this, we permit more baggage to accumulate under the tent and reduce the effectiveness of the relationship.
The Paul-Timothy working relationship could have easily collapsed if the two men had not been careful. One was pure Jew; the other of mixed race. One older; one younger. Paul was aggressive in his leadership style; Timothy preferred the non-confrontative, compassionate way. But the most significant difference between the two was that Paul was basically a logical thinker while Timothy was a "feeler," a people-person. How these guys made their relationship work is beyond me.
You see this temperament contrast in Paul's writings to Timothy. Paul pushes Timothy over and over again. And yet he tells the Philippians that he has no one who cares for people as much as Timothy. They must have worked constantly on their differences
I once chaired a meeting of regional leaders in a national organization. One man in the group was strangely quiet even though he possessed more knowledge on the subject under discussion than anyone else. At lunch time I approached him. "Why are you so quiet?" I asked. "Are you angry about something? We really need your voice."
"Gordon, I keep thinking about what I want to say so that when I say it, I can get it perfect. But then when I'm ready to speak, open my mouth, someone else beats me to the draw."
This was an introvert describing himself. As the group leader, I had failed him. I should have spotted his introversion and hushed a few of the extraverts so that he could enter the dialogue. He felt tense because temperament wasn't being taken into account as we talked.
Of all these ten vital signs, this may be the one that many leaders will take most lightly. And yet it just may be one of the most important factors in healthy relationships.
On what level do people in a relationship communicate? The late John Powell suggested five possibilities:
Clichés ("Hi, how are ya?")
Facts/reports ("We had 273 show up.")
Opinions/judgments ("We just didn't get the message across.")
Emotions/feelings ("I'm heart-broken over this.")
Loving/truthful conversation ("Let me tell you how I see you growing.").
Note that Powell's five categories demand increasing courage, trust, commitment with each level. Any casual relationship can accommodate the first couple of levels. But only a carefully developed relationship (over time) can cultivate the fourth and the fifth.
When I sit with married couples or teams of leaders, I've learned to listen carefully for the level on which they converse. My opinion? Relatively few people ever reach (even care to reach) level five. Not enough time; not enough curiosity; not enough courage.
The enthusiasm to cooperate (co-together; operation-a defined effort)—to work together—in any relationship is a vital sign.
I am a dinner guest in the home of a youngish couple. I notice as we eat that the wife does everything necessary to make the dinner happen. She sets the table, cooks the food, and serves it. At the end of the meal, she collects the dirty dishes, pours the coffee, and then retires to the kitchen to tidy things up.
The husband does nothing throughout the meal but talk. He lifts not a finger. Life at that table has not been a cooperative experience. In a later conversation, when he confides that his marriage is less than satisfying, I ask, "Was your performance (or non-performance) at the dinner table a reflection of the way the two of you do life-together?"
"The two of you did nothing together," I offer. "Your wife did all the work."
He thinks for a moment and says, "We've never done well working together. Maybe it's because each of us has a way of doing things and we tend to crowd each other's style. So she does her thing; I do mine."
A relationship bereft of cooperation dies a little each day.
Another Bible story: the artisans of Israel are charged to construct a sanctuary. The foreman, Bezalel, is "filled with the Spirit of God, with skill, ability and knowledge in all kinds of craft" and God gives both him and Oholiab "the ability to teach others." The people, wishing to be involved, bring daily offerings to finance the project. So great is their generosity, that the workers finally approach Moses and say, "Turn off the giving! We've got more than enough cash to finish this project" (Ex. 36:5, my paraphrase).
The craftsmen, the leaders, the people: working, coordinating, giving. That's cooperation. That's great community. You like being around people who know how to support one another.
I once saw that spirit in a Habitat for Humanity project. Twenty-five people (including Gail and me) wanted to finish a house-build by 4 p.m. on Friday. There was no job too big or too small that any of us would not have done instantly. Everyone was a sometime-leader; everyone was a sometime-follower. It was cooperation all the way. We loved the work and, you could say, one another.
An assessment of relationships has to include the "growing" factor. Do people mature in both skill and spirit in a relationship?
I was not a mature man when I met Gail and, soon after, asked her to marry me. But I do remember that I was captured and convicted by Paul's words to the Ephesian men. "Husbands love your wives just as Christ loved the church and gave himself for her … to present her … as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless."
Those words smell like growth to me. They suggest that any relationship—from marriage to congregation—must provide a growth opportunity for all involved.
I applied Paul's words to my marriage commitment. It was up to me, I decided, to guarantee a growth environment in my marriage so that Gail could become everything God had designed and called her to be. I took seriously the possibility that, one day, my Maker might say, "Gordon, has Gail become the woman I intended her to be while under your love and encouragement?"
May I add that Gail has always been committed equally to my growth.
Occasionally I have visited churches where it seemed as if everything was about the notoriety of the lead pastor. Staff members had come aboard full of enthusiasm and intention but had, within a few years, left: burned out, disheartened, even embittered. Reason? No one tended to their growth.
But then there are other relationships where spiritual and vocational growth is the order of the day. The leader takes great joy in seeing the men and women on the team mature and take on greater and greater challenges. No one is used. All are elevated.
Jean Vanier put it this way: "To exercise authority is to feel truly responsible for others and their growth, knowing too that the 'others' are not their property, are not objects but people with hearts in whom resides the light of God …. The greatest danger for someone in authority is to manipulate people and to control them."
I worry for churches and organizations where there are no attempts at formal appraisals of leaders, where boards of directors or elders do not offer both support and guidance. These are relational environments where people lose sight of the importance of saying "thank you" and "well done" as well as "you need to spiff up things here or there" or "we are concerned about this."
So how are appreciations and affirmations, corrections and rebukes delivered? Or are any of them delivered at all?
"Blessed are you," Jesus said to Simon Peter, "I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church." It was a stunning affirmation, a powerful statement of approval. This was the Son of God building in Peter's life.
But a few paragraphs later Peter falls into a seizure of impulsiveness. He dares to insist that Jesus need not go to the cross. "No, Lord. This shall never happen to you."
Now it's rebuke-time. "Get behind me, Satan!" And what might this mean? It's Jesus saying, in effect, you're supposed to be a follower not a leader. Get back behind me where you belong: you sound like the Adversary who tried to lead me in the desert."
One more time with Peter, Jesus says, "Simon, Satan has asked to sift you as wheat. But I have prayed for you, that your faith may not fail. And when you have turned back, strengthen the brothers."
Three times—affirmation, rebuke, warning—Jesus speaks plainly and directly into Peter's life.
But sometimes one hears in our world, "I never feel good enough" or "When he's displeased, he simply avoids me, says nothing" or "Just once, I'd like to hear her say, 'Thank you'" or "Even when I've done my best to please him, it seems as if there's always one more thing I haven't done."
Those are not signs of healthy relational vitals.
When I look at various relationships, I like to ask, what is the message this relationship seeks to send to others who look on?
"If you love one another," Jesus told the disciples, "the world will know that you are my disciples." It sounds as if the message the Lord wished to send was not promotional but attractional. "Your relationships," he is saying, "will authenticate your preaching … or disqualify it."
Both Gail and I come from difficult family backgrounds. It would have been easy to perpetuate a relationship similar to those in the previous generation of our family line: a lot of hurt, crushed spirits.
We determined to start a new brand of relationship, and that required us to ask ourselves, "What message do we want to send as we share life together?"
The message we chose? That we would be life-partners committed to exemplifying Christ's love in all we do and say. I wish I could say that this message has been lived out flawlessly. Unfortunately not. But this is our lifelong goal.
At the funeral of Rufus Jones (the great Quaker philosopher), John Hoyland, an associate of Jones' said: "(Jones) was a prophet and a saint and a shining light. We loved him …. He was the leader of our lives. His writing was secondary. It was his personality, his outgoing love, his humor, his congeniality, his luminousness. The Holy Spirit was in him to his finger tips. He made each one of us feel worthwhile and that he saw something in us and loved us individually. He had an extraordinary gift for creative friendship."
That's some message!
It is good to ask, when one checks the vitals in a relationship, "Is grace practiced here? Is there any second (even third) chances should one fail?"
"Man is born broken," playwright Eugene O'Neill famously said. "He lives by mending. The grace of God is glue." Whether O'Neill wrote that out of Christian conviction or something else, I don't know. But I buy into the truthfulness of the statement.
At one time or another we have all found ourselves locked into relationships where there was a paucity of mercy, a surplus of grudge-holding, an incessant peeling back of the healing scabs that are meant to cover our sins and failures. We want to get away.
But then there are relationships where everyone in the circle understands brokenness and, even better, appreciates the incredible power of restorative grace. Here is a marriage where repentance and forgiveness are core convictions, and over there is a team where one can acknowledge mistakes. Here is a congregation where confession of sin does not explode into gossip, and over there is an organization where mistakes are made into learning experiences.
Now we are looking at relationships that are beautiful to behold.
I think Theresa is talking about the spirit of redemption when she writes of life in her convent: "There is one sister in the community who has the knack of rubbing me the wrong way at every turn. Her mannerisms, her ways of speaking, her character strikes me as unlovable. But then she's a (sister). God must love her dearly; so I am not going to let my natural dislike of her get the best of me. Thus, I remind myself that (Christian) love is not a matter of feelings; it means doing things. I have determined to treat this sister as if she is the person I love best in the world. Every time I meet her, I pray for her, and I offer (thanks) to God for her virtues and her efforts. I feel certain that Jesus would like me to do this."
The final vital sign I check when I evaluate relationships is durability. Is this a relationship that is built to last? Can it take the blows of imperfection and failure, of success and notoriety. Can it change with the times, hear God's voice in the craziness of this culture?
I was raised in a religious tradition where, it seemed to me, people were used, not valued. Relationships lasted as long as one contributed to the organization, or did not fail in any way. But if they did, the "relationship" ended. It just ended!
So I assumed relationships were always tentative, that friendships and partnerships could be abandoned with frightening ease. I came to reject that way of life and embrace another—thanks to my wife, close friends, and some godly mentors. They taught me over a lifetime that there is no greater prize than that of relationships which endure to the end.
Durability reminds me of the Billy Graham team, which remained together for more than 60 years. Think of it! A group of young men in their twenties congealed around an audacious vision: that the whole world should respond to the gospel of Jesus Christ. Together they created a covenant of commitment and character. They traveled to every continent and spoke to and sang for and trained tens of millions of people.
Now they come to the end of life as wise and humble men who still love one another. This is what you can do when you live in grace, cooperate, stay steady and loyal for a life time.
The vitals of that group of now-very-old men are positive. They have shown us what is possible, what should be. Keep checking those vitals.
Gordon MacDonald is editor at large of Leadership Journal and chancellor of Denver Seminary.
Copyright © 2013 by the author or Christianity Today/Leadership Journal.
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