“I Wasn’t Lying to a Certain Extent:” Ryan Lochte and The Art of Confession

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Ryan Lochte

I can tell when I’m being hustled.

Here’s how: street hustlers and their corporate counterparts are diverse, but they share a defining trait: relentless monologue. A true hustler will keep talking without taking a breath in the belief that a word barrage will wear down my resistance until I become compliant. In media we call this “marketing.”

Hustlers aren’t the only monologue artists. In countless conversations I’ve noticed that liars also use too many words. The book of Proverbs advises, “When words are many, transgression is not lacking, but whoever restrains his lips is prudent” (10:19 ESV). So if you go on and on, you’re either imprudent or it’s unlikely you’re telling the truth, or both. I know this from experience as both the listener and the monologist.

Under pressure to come clean, two options are available: (1) Popular culture endorses the example of the celebrity comeback; (2) The New Testament offers the alternative of simple confession to God and others.

THE CELEBRITY COMEBACK MODEL

Ryan Lochte’s recent interview with Matt Lauer, set off my “hustle” alarm. He talked too much. Using many more words than necessary to answer simple questions reads as evasion.

Lochte’s initial claim that he and other American Olympic swimmers were victims of an armed robbery in Rio cast a shadow over the games and the nation of Brazil. But he now admits that his account (and that of others) did not tell the whole truth. The incident was more of a negotiated settlement for vandalism than a robbery. This huge hit to his credibility means Lochte is desperate for a comeback.

Mea Culpa. The time-honored celebrity comeback process starts with a public announcement of private guilt. Having already lost a over million dollars in endorsement contracts, Lochte needed this phase to go well, so he agreed to the Lauer interview, among others.

But his rambling explanations reveal a man who is working way too hard at it. The truth is easy to tell. Everything else is complicated and exhausting. Take, for example, this exchange between Lochte and Lauer:

Matt Lauer: “So when you talked to Billy on Sunday afternoon, you didn’t tell him the whole truth. When you spoke with me on Wednesday night by phone, you didn’t tell me the whole truth.”

Ryan Lochte: “I left – I left details out, which, that’s why I’m in this mess, is I left certain things out. And I over-exaggerated some parts of the story.”

Matt Lauer: “One of the things you appear to have embellished with Billy when you talked to Billy is you said at some point after you refused to sit down the security guard put the gun to your forehead and cocked it. That didn’t happen?

Ryan Lochte: “That didn’t happen. And that’s why I over-exaggerated that part.”

Matt Lauer: “Why’d you do that?”

Ryan Lochte: “I don’t know why. You know, it was still hours after the incident happened. I was still intoxicated. I was still under that influence. And I’m not making – me being intoxicated – an excuse. I’m not doing that at all. I mean, it was my fault. And I shouldn’t have said that. I shouldn’t even – just kept it like, ‘I’m not– I’m not saying anything.’ But I over-exaggerated that part. And the gun was drawn but not at my forehead. It wasn’t cocked at my forehead. It was towards my general direction. And as you can see in the surveillance, that’s when my hands went up.”

The interview continues:

Matt Lauer: “That doesn’t sound like a robbery. A robbery is when some guy targets you, whether he’s armed or not, to take your money, and your belongings, and your valuables. This guy was negotiating a deal because of what had happened in that walkway. And you guys were on the other end of that negotiation.”

Ryan Lochte: “And that’s why it could be – people can see it in many different directions. All we know is that there was a gun pointed to us and we were demanded to give him money. And end of story.”

Let’s be clear. Over the course of the interview, Lochte apologizes to everyone, takes “full responsibility” and refers to himself as “immature” and “intoxicated.” Mea culpa.

He characterizes his early media statements this way: “I over-exaggerated some parts of the story,” and “I left out details.” Mea culpa. Let’s do the math: some parts of the story were padded, other parts were left out. Isn’t there a word for that? Stephen Colbert’s send up captures the moment.

Mea Culpa? Lochte’s admissions are buried in dozens of other disjointed “filler” sentences, and this from a man so familiar with media appearances and doubtless supported by professional management. The bloated paragraphs tumbling out start to feel less like clarification, and more like camouflage designed to distract us from deception.

Moreover, all of his statements of culpability are trumped by this answer to Lauer’s questioning about the distinction between a robbery and a negotiation: “And that’s why it could be – people can see it in many different directions.”

He leaves the central question about the incident in the realm of personal interpretation, making his “confession” just one way to look at what happened. In an interview with Globo TV, Lochte goes even further: “”I wasn’t lying to a certain extent,…. I over-exaggerated what was happening to me.”

I translate that statement as, “Some of what I said was true, and the part that wasn’t, well, that’s just an exaggeration, which isn’t nearly as bad as a full-on falsehood.”

These carefully hedged admissions feel crafted by a damage control consultant. They are not a confession. They are a reframing of the charges, a plea bargain to the lesser offense of lying only in part when viewed from a certain perspective, a celebrity misdemeanor at best, offering a rapid return to the arms of his fans and sponsors.

I’m not writing about Lochte because he is unusual, but because he is so common. We get the celebrities we deserve. He is me. He is all of us.

James 3:1 reminds us that “we all stumble in many ways” (3:2 ESV). Mea culpa. The context of this warning is those who want to teach others need to realize they will be held to a higher standard and all of us will struggle with that requirement. We are all Ryan Lochte, just on different days. He has done what we would do if we could.

When we’ve done wrong and are in real need of restoration, what approach should we use? In public life, the “comeback” is now the commonplace.

From Tiger Woods’ stoic 2010 recitation of his serial adultery on CNN, to congressman Anthony Weiner’s 2011 description of exchanging “messages and photos of an explicit nature with about six women over the last three years,” comebacks begin with stating the facts of the case. Saying what happened out loud is supposed to begin the process of reconciliation. If it didn’t work, it wouldn’t be used all the time.

But many of the appeals for understanding and forgiveness I’ve heard from the famous have a kind of hollowness, a stage-managed feeling intended more to limit the confessor’s legal exposure than to cleanse the soul. The pathos of contrition can itself become a kind of theater aimed at building the brand in the long-term. What if I want a life instead of a brand?

THE NEW TESTAMENT CONFESSION MODEL

As a Christian pastor I’ve  worked often with people burdened by their failings, a struggle we all share at times. The celebrity comeback model may offer a trajectory back to fame and wealth, but most of us don’t have the staff of lawyers and consultants necessary to make it work. We just need our life back.

The New Testament model offers that radical alternative, a path of humility leading to forgiveness, healing and integrity. I’ve been witness to the effectiveness of this model for many years. It just works. Two key passages cast light on the path:

Horizontal Confession. A primary New Testament source on this issue is found in 1st John 1:9 – “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”

John’s admonition tells me the first effect of unrighteousness in my life is to do harm to my relationship with God, the final arbiter of what is right. Until that harm is removed, my conscience will be troubled and my mind distracted. God may even discipline me to prevent my infractions from evolving into something much worse. So sin makes the past my enemy instead of my friend.

“Confess” in John’s writing translates a Greek word (ὁμολογῶμεν) that has the primary meaning of saying “the same thing as another, and, therefore to admit the truth of an accusation.” So when I confess to God, I am saying the same thing about my life that God says about it.

When we’ve fallen short our first stop is not Matt Lauer, and our confession does not depend on anyone’s point of view. Accepting God’s evaluation of our conduct as final humbles us. And it affords the opportunity to turn away from unrighteousness and receive forgiveness on the merits of Jesus’ sacrifice for us on the cross. That forgiveness is total and without loopholes. It’s pardon, not parole.

Vertical Confession. James 5:16 offers a second aspect to our New Testament model of confession. He writes: “Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed.”

This teaching may involve confession to a person we have harmed or offended, but it more likely refers to times when we simply need to unburden ourselves to a trusted friend. Healing results from this simple interaction as it drains guilt, shame and brokenness out of our lives before they become even more toxic.

James’ term, “confess,” translates a Greek word (ἐξομολογεῖσθε) that in every New Testament use connotes an admission that is “full, frank, open.” The kind of confession that brings healing holds nothing back. Zero. No hedging. No ambiguity. No wordiness. It does not allow statements like, “I was not lying to a certain extent.”

Confession, then, is not the first step in a campaign to recapture lost status, it is a simple humbling of the heart before others, trusting God to raise us up again at the right time. (1 Peter 5:6) No wonder we are healed in the process.

FEWER WORDS, MORE TRUTH

Setting aside the example of celebrity comebacks, a New Testament model of confession requires no media consultants, involves no damage control, and makes no demands. It comes down to this:

  • Vertical confession to God fully agrees with God’s assessment of my conduct based on the Scriptures. This step is primary and most often private.
  • Horizontal confession to others fully discloses what I have done to a trusted friend. This step too is almost always a private matter. And it’s worthwhile even if you don’t believe in God or horizontal confession.

Where the offense is personal, both dimensions of confession are usually best conducted in private. (I’ve watched needy people use public announcements of guilt as just another way to garner attention.) But larger community issues can call for public statements. Fostering racial reconciliation, for example, doubtless requires this public aspect.

The point here is not the format, but that we fully agree and fully disclose. Agreement reconciles my relationship with God, while disclosure does the same for my relationship with people. Both require few words.

Are Faith and Illusion The Same Thing? A Question from “Florence Foster Jenkins”

 

image(SPOILER ALERT: This blog is one big spoiler for this film.)

Like most Americans, I see only 4-5 films a year in an actual movie theater. So Stephen Frears’ Florence Foster Jenkins was an odd choice for one-quarter of my annual movie budget.

An 86% Tomatometer rating not withstanding, a film about older people is so far from the Marvel Cinematic Universe as to be a spandex-free, geriatric universe all its own. Mix in opera, a mid-1940’s setting and stars with wrinkles (Meryl Streep and Hugh Grant) and I’m sitting in the dark with a medium popcorn and caffeine-free Diet Coke asking myself what I’m doing here. The answer is simple: I thought my wife would enjoy it.

This British-French biopic portrays an American heiress (Streep) who lives an illusion: her monumental singing talent exists only in her own mind. As an honest reviewer writes in the New York Sun: “[Mrs. Jenkins] has a great voice. In fact, she can sing everything except notes.”

I found the film very funny and surprisingly moving. It is the biography of an illusion: a completely false idea that takes on a life of its own. Watching Streep’s poignant handling of her oblivious character  prompted me to ask what illusions I might be harboring, and how are those distinguished from faith?

Didn’t one of Mark Twain’s characters say, “Faith is believing what you know ain’t so.” What’s the difference?

THE POWER OF ILLUSION

Florence’s love for the stage never wanes. So late in life returns to performing as a vocal soloist. Her “husband,” Mr. Bayfield, vocal coach, pianist (Simon Helger) and cult-like fan base all indulge this craving.

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Florence Foster Jenkins

Streep’s performances of “Lady Francis'” solos are the highlight of the film. Singing badly well requires her impressive talent. I found myself simultaneously laughing and cringing.

But from the wreckage of twisted notes and broken phrasing emerges a brilliant sincerity. (“Wait…Florence actually means this!”) Free from exposure to criticism, she is indeed an opera virtuoso on her own terms. “People may say I can’t sing,” she states defiantly, “but no one can ever say I didn’t sing.”

The power of illusion is its ability to inspire confidence beyond what our actual performance justifies. Illusion is the cure for accountability. Once cured we can define the terms of our own success because illusion effectively confuses sincerity with quality.

THE PRISONERS OF ILLUSION

Sincerity itself is not enough. Lady Florence’s professional illusion depends on a carefully cultivated personal illusion. Mr. Bayfield, himself an actor of noted mediocrity, serves as the cornerstone of a private reality within which she shelters. Little wonder Donald Collup’s documentary about Jenkin’s life is entitled, A World of Her Own.

Living in a posh hotel, practicing her songs to the incessant cheerleading of her vocal coach, little else seems to count. Mr. Bayfield works tirelessly  to promote Lady Florence by day, for example, but in the evenings retreats to his apartment across town and the girlfriend (Rebecca Ferguson) who lives there, all bankrolled for by Florence.

The arrangement makes a kind of sense to her. She receives the best of Bayfield’s efforts to nurture her career and interests. In return he is able to live on her inheritance, indulge his own interest in the arts, and find his own form of refuge “It’s complicated,” Bayfield notes. No it isn’t. It’s a simple quid pro quo.

Lady Florence defines the boundary between her personal and professional ambitions as permeable, so her sequestered private life medicates her against painful intrusions.

A personal illusion is anesthesia. Mr. Bayfield, for instance, describes his criteria for admission to her concerts as, “No mockers and no scoffers!” Without this fictive family as shelter, Florence would be torn to shreds by critics defending the arts and a public that thrives on the entertainment value of mockery.

Illusions can be so powerful they define other people, even people we love, as mere tools, means to our ends. Spouses become support services, friends become audiences for our little speeches, family serves to maintain and promote our brand, and advisors only say “yes.” In return, illusion offers other people a small role in our supporting cast. The really sad part is that seems worth it to the illusionist.

THE PRICE OF ILLUSION

With the slavish support of her inner circle, the horrific quality of Lady Florence’s music is utterly obvious to everyone but her. The exception is that portion of her fan base that appreciates her singing as comedy. Her famous vocal coach enthuses: “You’ve never sounded better!” Mr. Bayfield reassures: “Yours is the truest voice I have ever heard!” Illusion makes ambiguity seem like insight.

Resting in these reassurances, Florence schedules a climactic concert at Carnegie Hall without her husband’s consent. Despite gales of laughter from the audience as the evening opens, she sings every note of her material and brings the concert to a triumphant conclusion. Her skills do the music much more harm than good, but by the finale the audience loves her unflinching commitment, her brutal authenticity.

But one reviewer destroys her on the pages of the New York Post. The shock sends Florence into a downward spiral from which she cannot recover. On her death bed, Streep dreams of herself as a young woman dressed in an angelic costume delivering a perfect solo to the adulation of an enraptured audience. Bayfield, leaning over her pallid face is unaware that, in her mind, Florence is in concert, leaving this world to a standing ovation. But then, that’s that’s where she has always been.

Illusions are so very fragile. Lady Florence falls to pieces over one newspaper article despite reading many dozens of contrived positive reviews over the years. Seeing my blind spot can be devastating, hitting like a brick through plate glass. Putting that glass back together is problematic.

THE PARSING OF ILLUSION

The biography of Florence’s illusion is the story of all our personal fictions. The film provokes me to ask how a person of faith can know the difference between that conviction and Penn and Teller’s famous “double-bullet catch” stage illusion, which I love precisely because I know it’s not actually happening.

I am a Christian pastor, and sometimes a writer, professor and conference speaker. Over time, these experiences can be desensitizing, confusing the difference between belief (which is the unseen presence of truth) and blind spot (which is the unseen absence of truth). Gradually, I can begin to operate more out of illusion (which is about me) than out of faith (which is about God and others).

Florence Foster Jenkins suggests several questions that might assist in discerning the sometimes subtle faith/illusion boundary:

1. Am I accountable to anyone or anything? Is there someone who has my permission to say, “you don’t really bring that to the table,” or, “that’s not your best work.” Is there some standard (like a sacred text) to which I hold myself? Faith seeks out this sort of correction. Illusion runs from it.

2. Do I reduce others to a supporting cast? Am I able to love and serve others for their sake rather than for my own, or do I need them only as a sort of entourage. Faith seeks to elevate and serve others. Illusion loves to use them and call it servanthood.

3.  Would I self-destruct if I’m not well-received? Can I take a couple hits without being permanently derailed or lashing out viciously? Faith is resiliant becuase it grounds me in something bigger than my performance. Illusion matches my identity exactly to my idea of what I can deliver,  leaving me no options when it’s not enough.

Questions like these might not save me from illusion, but perhaps they make it harder for them to capture me in the long run.

Stripped of illusion, the faith life is described by the Apostle Paul in his letter to the Christians at Rome:

Romans 12:3 For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned. (ESV)

I don’t want to wake up one day realizing I only played Carnegie Hall in my mind.

What Jim Gaffigan Taught Me About Communication

Jim Gaffigan poster

Jim Gaffigan in San Francisco

Jim Gaffigan makes me laugh out loud.

Janet and I went to see Gaffigan last week at the Masonic in San Francisco. This was the first live comedy show by a major artists I’ve ever attended in person. I was not not disappointed.

But I did more than just laugh. Gaffigan put on a communication clinic using humor. He schooled me. And here is some of what I learned:

1. Talk about what you know.

Jim Gaffigan’s comic persona is a clueless man tormented by life who will tell anyone willing to listen. This is his metanarrative.

His tone and manner suggest we could just as easily be sitting at a bistro table as in a concert hall. And the jokes themselves are drawn from everyday life, describing things like the exhaustion of raising five children, the tortrue of airline travel, and the rigors of a long-term marriage.

He executes this material beautifully because he owns it. Refining the jokes for years on the road certainly doesn’t hurt. But when he says, “I have five children….The bidding starts at $50,” he’s not joking about being a dad. He is one.

Gaffigan models the principle that my talks need an address somewhere in my life. After all, if my ideas don’t relate to my own experience, and don’t even work for me, why should anyone else consider them?

Presentations deeply rooted in the presenter’s experience offer the audience a “backstage pass.” The music seems sweeter when you’ve met the band, and a talk feels more believable when I can sense real life behind it.

Talking about what I know also enhances my content and delivery. Mark Twain is quoted as saying, “If you tell the truth, you don’t have to remember anything.” So true. Being a docent for my own life is so much easier than hoping my memory holds up while unpacking “19 Ways to Achieve Financial Security.”

Longer talks on more abstract subjects serve an important function. But there is a reason why  TED presenters give the speech that springs most naturally from their own accomplishments

2. Be for something by being against it.

As a Christian preacher I was trained to make a case for the teachings of the Bible every Sunday. If my talks didn’t seem to land, the only recourse was to double down.

So the way to make an idea land was to support it with a “kitchen sink” of arguments, illustrations and statistics. Gaffigan demonstrateds something very different.

Almost all of his jokes attack the very things in life he loves the most. He laments that his wife incessantly critiques his handling of the remote control, while bragging that he contributes only 10% of the parenting effort.

That’s how I know he loves his family. Because he complains about them constantly. So constantly, the audience gets that his bond is deep enough to survive a relentless pounding in front of millions of strangers. That’s love.

So sometimes I can make a point by suggesting alternative or even opposite ways of looking at it. If I present a sermon on the resurrection of Jesus, for example, I could ask how Christian claims about it differ from the claims of alien abduction “victims”?

Telegraphing to the audience that I’m not threatened by a question like that can only help.

A contrarian approach isn’t a substitute for presenting the truth as I see it, but it can be a powerful complement. It tells the audience that I am bigger than my talk, and aware that life and tRuth are complicated.

A disarmed audience is more likely to be open to receiving that truth. And more likely to enjoy the way I present it.

3. Use weakness as strength.

“I’m a fat guy.”

If Gaffigan has a mantra, that would be it. The first quarter of his show is devoted to his issues with weight and exercise.

This material surprises, especially in San Francisco where 2% body fat is d’rigeur. But it proves he is not afraid of us. So he plunges into a full-on assault on running, hiking and every other form of exercise, summarized in a one-word challenge: “Why?”

Gaffigan is counter-cultural. Instead of insinuating the perfection of his personal brand, he focuses on its flaws. This self-mocking engenders a perverse respect for the comedian: a guy who speaks openly about his less impressive traits must have courage and integrity on some level.

And the audience embraces it. The radical idea that vulnerability is acceptable wins over the crowd in a way that jokes cannot. If Gaffigan can be a “fat guy” maybe It’s OK for me to be imperfect. And then maybe I need to re-think all the ways I critique other people on the basis of their imperfections. He is offering us grace.

There is no deprecation like self-deprication. The crowd isn’t only laughing, they are opening up to him, letting down their own defenses, and eventually are won over by his hapless persona.

Instead of allowing audiences to believe (by omission) that I am invulnerable or omni-competent, letting my weakness show in appropriate ways can forge a connection that my best material cannot. It’s common ground.

Chances are they sense some of my issues anyway. Talking about it shows I am not afraid of my imperfections and they don’t have to be afraid of there’s either.

4. Talk about faith in public–wisely.

During his running critique of physical fitness, Gaffigan blurts out, “I think of Jesus as a really in-shape guy.” The audience freezes, unsure how to react. He lets that hang in the air for a moment and then says, “that’s the name that takes the air out of the room like no one else.”

This comment launches a series of jokes about religion. The unease of the audience is almost palpable at points. My take is they’re ambivalent about whether a private, individual issue like spirituality has a place in a diverse public forum.

That’s exactly the opening Gaffigan wants. He plunges ahead into a long riff on the “loaves and fishes” story (Matthew 14:13-20). Beginning with his own devotion to bread, he speculates on what types of bread Jesus could have produced for the hungry crowd (“pretzel bread?”). I laugh. So does everyone else.

By treating religion like any other subject, Gaffigan mainstreams it as an appropriate topic for the public square. What a relief. The laughter drains the tension out of the issue and suggests we might even be able to talk about it with each other.

As a Christian who is also a professional presenter, I learned a lot about communication from the Jim Gaffigan concert. Moreover, he helped me appreciate even more how Jesus connected with people.

Jesus spoke out of 30 years living among common people, he claimed those who seem first will one day end up last, he laid aside his rights and position to sacrifice himself, and his very public discussions of faith “amazed” people.

Thanks Jim.

 

What Children Taught Me About Communication

Lots of unusual things happen on the road. A few years ago, for example, we met a former Air Force sergeant who actually worked at Area 51, the desert location where secret military things happen according to the government, and salvaged alien spacecraft are hidden according to UFO researchers.

But one of the most helpful of our unusual road experiences occurred while presenting our vision for a new church in Berkeley to a group of elementary age children at Elevation Church in Layton, Utah. Jan and I shared with them for about 10 minutes before speaking in the adult service.

Before going to the children’s area, we cooked up a plan for our presentation: We would use a Cal teddy bear as a prop, then show one of our short Berkeley videos, and then talk a bit just before giving the kids a chance to ask questions. Brilliant.

Entering the room, we found Brianna and Clint, two of the adults working with the kids, and asked for some advice on how to communicate with today’s nine year-old. I questioned whether the children even knew what a “university” was, only to be assured they did understand the word “college” because there were some in the area, and they mostly intended to go there one day.

That helped. But, soon we realized the kids were too old for our teddy bear trick. When the video failed to function (our bad), the second part of our plan also collapsed. This left us  with only a short talk and the favorite of every 5th grader: Q & A.

The children entered as a group and all sat in the front row, separating themselves by several seats to stretch end to end. Brianna told us later that getting them all into the front row was a considerable moral victory. Her comment reminds me how much often progress has to be measured in excruciatingly small steps.

Jan opened our presentation by defining “college” as a kind of school attended by thousands of people and said we were going to move near to one called “Cal” to start a new church. Then it was my turn to talk about how God wants to be everyone’s friend and that many of the people at Cal didn’t know about God’s friendship.

Then came the highlight of the talk (at least for us): teaching the kids to growl like Cal Bears (our mascot). A few brave students asked some questions during the Q & A time, and, with one final bear growl, we excused ourselves to speak in the adult service—where the video worked, the reception was warm, and everyone sat attentively through our 30-minute tandem presentation.

We both spoke in each venue, and we both totally enjoyed them.

But I gained a new conviction about training communicators: anyone preparing for a role that involves public speaking should give presentations for children on a regular basis. Jan and I have done so many talks for adults that I cannot count them, but we have been in a children’s venue only a handful of times.

This latest experience with kids reinforces some things for me:

1. Talks really need to be shorter: We were asked to do 10-15 minutes for the children. But even this very reasonable request seemed like an eternity during the actual presentation. Some of that feeling doubtless reflected our inexperience, but I can only imagine how long it seemed to the kids! I have been an advocate of 25-minute sermons for a while now, but mine generally end up being something like 30 minutes, even using a timer. The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.

The children taught us that shorter (generally) is better. My case for short talks is not based on declining attention spans, but on two other ideas: (a) the time belongs to the audience not to me, so my task is to be a good steward; (b) cutting minutes from a talk forces me to use only my best stuff by condensing the content, hopefully getting rid of the Hamburger Helper and retaining the hamburger.

2. You are the ultimate weapon: On the road, presentation technology will work about 70% of the time. This figure climbs to about 85% whenever you have home court advantage. We could not get our Berkeley video to function for the children (our fault for not showing up earlier with the disc), but they did not seem to care. Even the collapse of the teddy bear strategy left them unmoved. Their response seemed to depend more on who we were and why we were there. Are we going to be more impressive than their video games? I don’t think so.

This experience made me wonder if we are over-developing our technology and under-developing ourselves as communicators. I’m not suggesting this is always a trade-off, but that with all our production meetings, creativity teams, and branding, who is in charge of developing the communicator him/herself into a person worth listening to?

3. Feedback is my friend: Adult audiences are usually too nice. Even when I am doing a talk that is not moving people at all, many in the audience will solidify their facial expression into a frozen mask of feigned interest. Sure, some will play with their phones, but lots of people will pretend to be engaged while secretly watching another movie in the multiplex theater of their minds (or their phone).

Children are not so. They are honest. Whenever Jan and I lost the attention of our elementary age students, their posture and expressions immediately made this painfully clear forcing us to try something else to regain their interest (the Cal Bear growl helped a lot). Similarly, watching yourself on video as soon after a talk as possible is a tremendous way to improve, as is soliciting input through surveys or focus groups. Why not invite a future-Christian to a service and ask him or her give you an evaluation of a sermon? I ask my students in preaching classes to do this sort of thing, and often see profound results.

Communicating across cultural lines is the single most effective way to grow as a speaker. The line between adults and children is one of those opportunities. Think you’re pretty good? Try speaking to kids.

The 6th Dysfunction of a Team

Good teams are where you find them. And these days they are everywhere—at least in name.

I’ve witnessed many organizations transition to “team-based” ministry simply by applying the word as a suffix to their existing groups (e.g., The ushers become “The Ushering Team,” the Customer Service staff becomes a “Customer Service Team”). In the long-term this move usually accomplishes only one thing: convincing everyone that the whole “team” thing has no merit—which it doesn’t when handled that way.

This trend illustrates just how easy it is to get a really important idea really wrong. In his classic book, The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, Patrick Lencioni outlines the primary ways in which good intentions turn into bad teams. The five include:

1. Absence of trust
2. Fear of conflict
3. Lack of commitment
4. Avoidance of accountability
5. Inattention to results

As our new church in Berkeley transitioned from the resource-development phase to the team-building phase a few years ago, I was forced to reconsider all of these issues.

My conclusion is that Lencioni basically has it right, even if some of his concepts are a bit more complicated to apply in the non-profit sector with its volunteer staffing.

However, at least one potential “dysfunction” could be added to his list of five: the leader’s misplaced belief that my next team must be like (or unlike) my last team. This is the sixth dysfunction.

An effective pastor friend, for example, recently voiced frustration over his inability to replicate a very positive 1980’s staff experience with the groups he led in later decades, despite repeated attempts. I suspect he speaks for many others in many fields.

Looking back over my own experience, I feel very fortunate to have worked with some  great people in team settings, but only recently have I realized how radically different all of these groups were from each other.

My training taught me to beware of looking for teammates who are too much like me. And that’s good advice. But no one ever warned me about two other temptations: (1) if my last team experience was positive, I may attempt to recreate it even if it does not fit my new context well, or; (2) if the preceding team environment turned out poorly, I may bypass people I need in my new situation just because they resemble some bad memories.

At first it seems easy to grasp why a new team should be quite distinct from the last. After all, the new task likely has requirements, goals, resources, and infrastructure that are unlike what I’ve experienced in the past. So putting together a completely new kind of team seems like the logical thing to do.

Until you try it. Then my last team easily becomes the standard of measurement by which I evaluate prospects and procedures for the new group.

The search for a personal “comfort zone” can blind me to the very people and practices I need, while bringing in those that remind me of my last positive experience. Working this way can lure me into creating a “sequel” to my last leadership role, forsaking the fresh, creative team format that likely is necessary to succeed in a new context.

The first step in forming a new team, then, is a “funeral” for the last one. Not that the relationships or the fruitfulness or the good memories are lost, but I must say “goodbye” to those days. Being informed by experience is fine. Being controlled by it is not.

A new team’s life depends on a fresh start in which it is not compared to a group that no longer exists. Our memories of the past can be as much mythology as history so their navigational value is questionable anyway.

So to build the next group, let the last one go. Pray for the laborers to be thrust into the harvest field. And ask the Holy Spirit for the discernment to see who they are and how to work with them in new ways.

What Johnny Mathis Taught Me About Growing Older In Leadership

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A few days ago Janet and I saw Johnny Mathis in concert with the San Francisco Symphony. The tickets were a gift from our church’s leadership team. They became a gift in another way.

If you’re new to Johnny, check out his legendary career on Wikipedia.

Icon is not too strong a word.

He took the stage with the kind of slow walk that said, “No need to hurry. I’ve been here before.” The packed house went crazy, beginning the set with a standing ovation. Nothing bothered them. Not the constant medleys, not the brevity of the event, not Mathis’ habit of singing with his shoulder to the audience.

But I couldn’t stop thinking: This guy is 77! How does he keep doing it?

The easy answer is that he has an older audience that was young when Mathis reached the height of his fame back in the 20th century..)

A few of these lessons might include the following:

1. Be Good

The performance was punctuated with so many rounds of applause I lost count. Even approaching 80, Mathis makes an audience glad they showed up. That’s not an accident. He referenced the full rehearsal he and the Symphony worked through in the afternoon. In the 6th decade of his career, Mathis continues to work on his craft, taking nothing for granted. When someone asked film star and humorist Steve Martin how to make it in show business he replied simply, “Be undeniably good.” If you’re superb and older, people call you a virtuoso. If you’re average and older, they just call you old. Develop your craft now and you’ll have an audience later.

2. Don’t Wait

Mathis has an audience now because he was scoring hits in 1957.

The market doesn’t lie over time; in fact, he may be more famous now than ever (his Facebook page has over 96,000 “likes”). I often meet ministers who tell me they “want to teach” at the end of their careers, a noble goal. I feel like asking them, “So what have you done so far?” Age by itself does not create wisdom, neither does it qualify a leader to form others. Be fruitful now and influence will find you.

3. Reframe Yourself

Being backed by a world class orchestra certainly did not hurt the 77 year-old’s presentation. No doubt, he has lost a step in terms of vocal ability. But instead of bailing out of the business he simply turned away from recording albums to performing live with other outstanding musicians. In other words, a truly great symphony covers a multitude of vocal sins. Like a great picture in a lovely frame, the combination works beautifully. So the audience seemed completely forgiving of that lost step.

Leaders can prepare themselves (e.g., by education) for the settings that will employ their gifts to best effect later in life. It’s not likely that many of us will do the same thing forever. So what’s that next thing going to be?

4. Hear Truth

The star’s clothing distracted me. Mathis performed in a shiny shark skin suit that included baggy pants and a white shirt (no tie). For someone who grew up in a city (San Francisco) where everyone seems to wear black, I was surprised by his fashion choice. Perhaps he prefers a “lucky suit,” or maybe his black suit was lost by an airline. But really. Shark skin? I got the feeling no one is telling Johnny about this image deficit.

Recently one of my younger mentors saw me setting up my GPS for a trip. He scoffed that using one these days is like carrying a pager on your belt. Ouch. I made the trip using the iPhone Google maps app.

5. Leave Space

At first I barely noticed the jazz quartet seated unobtrusively between Mathis and the orchestra. But as the performance unfolded, their skills came to the forefront, including a music director who could simultaneously play the piano with his left hand and the keyboard with his right. The guitarist has been with Johnny for 43 years and handles all of his bookings. Mathis is a star at singing because he doesn’t have to be a star at anything else. Virtuosos are specialists. Eric Clapton. Tony Bennett. Sherlock Holmes. All virtuosos. All specialists.

Most of us begin as general practitioners, but age brings with it the opportunity to focus on something specific that will maintain our value in the market. That means making space for other people to star in their speciality. No one gets there alone.

6. Stay Within Yourself

Johnny never attempted to do a three-hour performance. Like Tony Bennett, whom we saw in concert a few years ago, he sang for just over an hour, including numerous instrumental interludes. This concert length might have been a disappointment in 1975, but certainly not now. Mathis limits his performances so he can continue to do them, wisely staying within the physical limits imposed by age. As leaders grow older, the 80 hour weeks (which were never a good idea anyway) become both less rewarding and less feasible. Going long means taking care of yourself so that others benefit from your gifts for as long as possible.

I’m 17 years from being Johnny Mathis’ age, but I can see it from here.

His enduring mastery of vocal performance increased my faith in what leaders can do later in life even in a youth-exalting culture.

We cannot be young again. But we can always be a better older person.