We can’t do it alone.
I have been listening to a podcast about comic books and comic book culture. It is my way of retaining my adult responsibilities, eschewing the commitment of actually purchasing and reading comic books, and still holding onto a semblance of my adolescent desire to escape the painful waking reality in which I dwell and run to the fantasy land of heroes and monsters. In listening to this particular podcast I have come to embrace the hosts’ aversion to the phrase, “I’ve got this.” Again and again on the comic page or in the movies a villain or monster or beast or some kind of challenge will emerge and threaten our heroes, and again and again one of group will step forward and say with just the right amount of bravado, “I’ve got this.” And I join in the groan at hearing such a phrase.
And it isn’t just that it feels like lazy writing, or a cheap one-liner that causes me to groan and rant, but that there is something more insidious that is embedded in such a phrase.
In that statement the individual is saying, “step back, don’t get involved, don’t do anything to help, in fact it might be best if you just get out of the way, take a seat, maybe do some knitting or something else to pass the time because I am so sure of myself with this impending challenge that any involvement on your behalf will only get in the way.” Or in other words, “I’ve got this.” It is a cheap and easy line that should just be avoided at all costs in almost any media, and yet it is a line that we hear all too often in the movies, in television shows, and radio dramas. I am not an editor, so it is not just the easy and low-hanging fruit of conflict writing that irks me with this phrase. It is the mentality behind such a phrase that bothers me. It is the sentiment that such a phrase speaks to that worries me. From a pastor’s point of view, saying, “I’ve got this” is much more dangerous and divisive than just the cheap and lazy writing. It is a statement that is contrary to the ideal community and that goes against the values of walking and working with others. It is a statement of power and individuality. It is a statement that has no place in the church.
When you are with a group of people, facing a challenge, and someone says to you, “I’ve got this,” you are being silenced and pushed aside. While there may be multiple ways to respond to the challenge or multiple ways to grapple with possible solutions, one individual is saying that he or she knows the best way and will engage in that way no matter what anyone else says suggesting that any other input is not necessary or needed. It is saying that the problem can and should be solved alone. And it is a way of bragging, a way of showing off and proving one’s power and might at the expense of the community.
In this approach to a problem a secondary challenge is created by the person claiming to “got” the solution; there is a potential problem with other people in the community. If a group faces a challenge and the attitude is one of individuality and the ethos is one of people crying out, “I’ve got this”, then people on the team may be competing with each other to see who can claim that they have “got” it first to show off one’s skill and power. The goal is to see who has the solution first and problem solving can quickly become a race and a competition. This is not how a community works. The attitude of “I’ve got this” is one where the solution most strongly argued for is seen as the only solution that is viable or possible. The solution that is offered is a solution that claims power and does not share it at all. It is an approach to problems and solutions that leads to a context where the leader carries all of the responsibility and everyone else is just there to follow like lemmings. This is an approach to conflict and challenges that has no place in any community, especially, the church.
Contributing to the challenge of individuality is a culture of experts; a culture of people who have trained in one area, reject the presence of the generalists, and claim that unless you have studied and worked and gained credentials in a specific area then you have no business speaking. This can also be a problem (says the guy with a PhD in Theology). If the challenge is about money then talk to an economist and no one else. If the problem is about building structures then talk to an engineer and no one else. Let those who have skills and abilities in their area be the hero of the day. Let the musician, the artist, the writer, the doctor take a back seat until their particular skills are needed and only allow them to speak to their own area of expertise. The cult of the expert adds credence to the individual uttering the phrase, “I’ve got this.” I’ve been trained, I know what I am doing, I am better than you so step aside because I’ve got this.
Now there is a degree to which this attitude can be good. If I need to have heart surgery then I do not want a bassoonist or a dancer to do the operation. I want someone who is trained, who has the technical skills and know-how to do the surgery right and well. If I want a piece of artwork to hang on the wall that will inspire and move and help me in times of difficulty I do not want an economist to paint it. When considering specific challenges with specific needs then it is good to have someone who is trained to “get it.” There are technical challenges with technical solutions that are appropriate to apply. I want the heart surgeon to look at my blocked arteries and say with confidence, “I’ve got this.” I want a theologian speaking to the nuanced differences in prayer and understanding and relation to God. There are many times when we need and desire the expert’s presence and intervention. Yet this should not be the approach for all things. There are the larger challenges, the broader challenges of culture and life where we still compartmentalize and de-emphasize the presence of people who may not seem to be the expert or the person with authority. This is not good. There can and should be a democratization of our culture in addressing and wrestling with the problems of the culture or of institutions that I am wrestling with.
In his book, The Answer to How is Yes, Peter Block suggests that we tend to face the majority of challenges in organizations and institutions with one or two lenses and neglect all others at the table. We tend to let those who have technical skills offer the answer again and again to what we assume is a technical problem no matter what. We let the economists or the engineer say, “I got this” and speak about numbers and figures while the rest of us step back and watch assuming that the doctor or the musician or the teacher or the plumber has nothing to offer. The problem that we face is put into one lens, one frame and nothing else is offered space.
Rather than acquiescing to one mode of thinking, or letting a problem be presented in one frame, Block suggests multiple approaches to consider a challenge together. He is suggesting that we look at a challenge or problem from multiple angles, inviting multiple perspectives to see and consider paths and ways towards change and solution. I see it as diffusing power, as allowing power to be shared among the community or the team. Block is suggesting that bringing in a variety of people with a variety of perspectives invites a “yes” to the “how.” It is letting people think about the challenges together, and the role of the leader is to make space for multiple people to engage in different ways. In his book, Block offers a number of typologies that may be helpful for those who like to have labels and categories and the like and suggests ways that these different typologies bring insight and perspective, offering a shift in the ways that many may view process and group dynamics. I, instead, would like to consider the deeper approach and idea of sharing power. I would like to work with Block’s notion of bringing multiple people to the table and consider that what it is that we are doing rather than how it is that it should be done is vital and important. Something radical is being suggested in Block’s approach to institutional and societal challenges and it moves towards inviting multiple voices into difficult conversations.
We are making space for people and this is scary, and radical, and exciting.
When someone says, “I’ve got this,” they are claiming all the space for themselves. They are closing out others and saying that their input is not vital or essential. But what if in response to the macho marking of territory someone else says, “Ok, and who else has this?” This is inviting others into the space and sharing the power. This is offering the “yes” to a question that has not even been asked yet. It is saying that no one person should be expected to have the solution because no one person may fully see or understand the challenge. It may even be that the challenge is not what everyone thinks it is. It may be that there is something that no one else is seeing or an approach that no one else has considered. Sharing the space invites more people to consider the challenge in different ways.
Let me get specific. I work with a church community. I am engaged in what really is an odd profession and share that odd profession with thousands of others across the country; professional ministry. Many of us struggle with how to be a pastor within a community. There has been, for many decades, an idea that the pastor is the leader of the church community. The pastor is the one who is supposed to give the vision, lead the church, save the church, save the community, and save the people. When tragedy strikes, it is the pastor who is supposed to say, “I’ve got this,” and all of the people in the church then step back, get out of the way, and make space for the pastor to “get” whatever it is that needs “getting.” This is a paradigm that is found in all structures and types of religious communities. From free-church traditions to the more liturgical and hierarchal traditions this approach has been the standard, and it has stunted the faith of all. No matter your theology of ordination, your understanding of what it means to be a pastor, the expectation that the pastor is called, anointed, blessed, enhanced, or whatever else, the pastor is still human and cannot see it all. The pastor cannot “get” everything, cannot be the one to have the solution for everything and when a pastor or a congregation tries to assume that the pastor does it usually does not go well.
We need to have space for multiple responses. People need to see where it is that they can say that they may have a part in the challenges and the solutions in their own way. The way of doing church that is emerging, painfully and slowly, is a way in which the pastor is a part of the community, but not the totality of the community. A way of doing church that is emerging is one in which the community itself that decides what “got” is ripe for “getting,” and what is beyond the “get” for whatever challenges are before the community. It is making sure that all the angles, especially the obscure ones are considered. Perhaps one of the best ways to practice this way of being a community when facing a challenge is to make sure that a child, between the ages of 6 and 12 is a part of every decision-making process. If you cannot explain the challenge you are facing to a child of that age, and in your explanation invite the child into the conversation, then you need to spend more time trying to understand the challenge yourself. If you cannot listen to possible answers that the child may give, then you are not making space for the Spirit to fully move through every person and part of the community. If you can, then you are also making space for dreamers and artists as well as the builders and planners. And you are giving up the space and inviting something new to happen.
It is scary to give up the space. For pastors it is scary to invite others into the space where decisions are made and to let go of control because, in part, it makes us wonder if we are needed at all. For churches it is scary to invite other churches, other faith traditions, other cultures into the space and to let go of control because, in part, it makes us wonder if we have a claim on the truth of our tradition or if it is a claim that we need to share. For people it is scary to give up the space and to see what might emerge within the community, the city, the state, or the nation because, in part, it may mean that we would have to share ideas and values. If we just forced the solution that we think is best then we force others out. If we offer space, then we offer change that we might not control.
Perhaps the best, and dangerously trite, example that I can think of is music. When a symphony plays, when an orchestra makes noise there are moments when a musician has to rest and make space for others to make music. There are moments when an instrument or section will shine. There are moments when all will shine. Not long ago I had the wonderful opportunity to be part of an orchestra playing Dvorák’s 8th symphony – often the “B” side to Dvorák’s 9th symphony. It is a fantastic work with a great beat to dance to. There are many great and wonderful bassoon parts in that work that I cherish playing. Yet in rehearsals and concerts, there was one part that caused me to smile again and again, that I would say was my favorite part of the piece. The odd thing is that it was not any moment when I was playing, but when the brass was playing. The brass was offering something as an ensemble that was beautiful and powerful and wonderful and at that time I was not a part of the music. If I decided to jump in and try to play along I would ruin the moment. I had to make space and to listen. I didn’t “have” this, and yet I would argue that I helped to make the moment in one way or another. By stepping back, by making space, something great occurred.
We have to let go to allow such moments to happen in the life of the church and our lives as well. We have to get to a place where we can invite a new consideration of the challenges as well as the solutions. With the church the time of individual heroes, the time of people playing the part of Christ is over. No longer should we be looking for that one person to say, “I’ve got this,” when we are facing our challenges and difficulties. We don’t have this on our own, but with others, in community, and with God we do. We need to open ourselves to make space for the wonderful and unknown ways that God might be working and saving and guiding us all. I don’t have this. You don’t have this. We have this.