equality is an action word

NOTE: this is part of glenn hager’s monthly synchroblog.  june’s topic is “community” and you can check out all of the links here.  erin started the lively conversation about finding a place for the church-homeless, the vagabonds, those who no longer can go back to the old ways but don’t have a new place to go, either.  it is clear that among so many there is a deep longing for community & the question is how to create it, nurture it, sustain it without the bondage & baggage of typical church systems.  i am in a bit of a different situation because for the past 2+ years i have been part of developing a community–the refuge–a wild, wacky, beautiful, ugly rag-tag group of men & women trying to live out some of our dreams.   my little contribution to this conversation is to offer a few thoughts on how to incorporate equality into the fabric of any new community’s future.  to  me, equality is an action word. and i am seeing the beauty & value of it up-close and personal in ways that have drastically changed my view of community, the church, the kingdom.

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the definition of egalitarian is: “asserting, resulting from, or characterized by belief in the equality of all people, especially in political, economic, or social life.”  (and for those of us who are christian egalitarians we can add “church”).   interesting is that the word stemmed from the word “equalitarian” (i sort of think they should have just kept it the way it was because it would probably make more sense for people).  it’s a core belief that everyone is equal, period.  i am not going to get into a theological argument about equal in value, different in role.  i will always disagree with people who think that women can only do certain things & men do others and live their entire lives and ministries upon that principle.  i think that core belief damages the foundation of the value of equality far beyond just women but to all of the underrepresented, voiceless, power-less.  so in creating these new, hopefully equality-infused communities, i believe core questions needs to be:

how will we live out the value of equality?

what will that really look like? 

how can we diffuse power & give everyone a voice?

how will we work to make sure the pull towards the old power default doesn’t happen? 

if there’s one thing i have learned in the past few years is that true equality in community is way easier said than done!  some of these things sound good in theory but the reality of living them out isn’t always quite as pretty. here are a few things we are learning:

equality goes far beyond girls & boys (but i do think it’s a great place to start!). when it comes to the male-female issue, this is one of the refuge’s strengths.  we really are learning how girls & boys can work alongside each other, take out the weird power dynamics and be friends, equals, partners in ministry.  it is a glorious thing and we have worked our tails at it to get there.  but what is more important to us is that we try to extend equality beyond just gender.  young, old, married, divorced, educated, unschooled, charismatic, not-so-charismatic, excited about God, mad at God, artsy, not-so-artsy, democrat, republican, making good money, living at the poverty level.  those are all represented on our team, our community.  (the one thing that’s really missing for us is color diversity.  my husband’s hispanic & we have some other refuge friends who are, too. the funny part is that they have 6 kids & we have 5 so actually with our 11 kids we contribute proportionally to the ethnic mix pretty well! but honestly, we long for more color at the refuge).  to me, diversity across all levels is what helps with equality.  without diversity, i don’t know if the value of equality can be fully expressed.

equality means we have to give up excellence.  this is the biggest lesson we are learning.  you can’t have both.  i will say it again (and i know strong leaders out there are cringing at this thought): i really believe you can’t have true equality and excellence.   you can have partial equality and excellence, sure.  that means you can keep power with some talented people, give some not-as-talented people a shot at things now and then, and keep your level of excellence high and consistent.  if you are talking about true equality, well, that will immediately lower the bar and lower it fast.  when the person who can’t sing that great is given a true equal shot at participating, the music won’t sound as good.  when the person who stumbles over their words a bit and isn’t super smooth at communicating is speaking it makes new people feel a little uncomfortable.  when people who actually could do stuff better don’t so that other people who aren’t as “good” at it technically get a chance, well, the quality decreases.  i don’t mind it a bit anymore but i know that it drives some people a little crazy and they probably long for someone to step in and “clean it all up” a bit.  the reason we don’t, won’t, is that it is a piece of our DNA that we always want to protect–that everyone in this community is equal. sure people do things better than others, but who really cares, let’s give everyone a chance to participate as much as possible and take a huge brutal hit on appearance.  it is my favorite part of our community. it is also why it is small!  inside so many people is an expectation of performance and excellence (and churches have done a pretty good job cementing this idea over the past few decades).  we give a lot of things up for the sake of equality but the cost-benefit is so worth it when you look underneath what’s on the surface.

equality will get on your nerves. see above!  i just wanted to remind everyone that somewhere along the line you might long for some strong powerful leader to pull it off for you and make things happen in an easier, smoother way (or maybe it’s the temptation for us, as a leader, to step in, get the power, and get the job done).  it’s so in the core of our how we’ve lived for so long that even with all of our high hopes & dreams of new ways, the longing for the familiar, the easy, the predictable creeps in (not for long, i promise).

equality will always have to be tended to because there’s a natural pull against it.  we are all prejudice toward talent, charisma, ability, power.  we don’t mean to be, it’s just in us.  we will be drawn to people who are educated, good communicators, leaders. that isn’t a bad thing so i’m not dismissing its importance at all.  i am just saying that we have to be extremely careful that we don’t rely on those people and then subtly separate them from “the other people”, the underlings, the less pretty, smart, squared-away. it is so easy to do because of our humanness.  as one of the pastors at the refuge, i automatically get power that i need to be very very aware of and very careful with. it is easy and natural for me to lead, but if i am not careful, too much weight will get put on me & equality in our community will take a hit.   that is as much my responsibility to manage as it is the friends in my community’s responsibility to not let that happen.   this is why the kingdom principles of the beatitudes are important in developing community so that a humility & value of the least, a desperate need for God’s ways and not ours, can permeate our cultures.  i don’t think equality comes naturally & i think we will constantly battle against power’s pull.

we do not have any of this nailed, that is for sure.  we have so much more to learn and try and experiment with.  there are so many more ways we can infiltrate our community with the value of equality, true equality, so that everyone feels just as valuable as the next person regardless of gender, giftedness, contribution, and life circumstance.  we really are just babies at nurturing and developing this, but in the past few years i’ve become much more passionate about this issue because everywhere i look i see power systems that directly negate the kingdom value of equality.

as pioneers continue to stake out new ground, my hope is that all of us new community-planters keep asking ourselves “what does equality look like for us and how can we do everything we can to preserve, promote, nurture it at the expense of looking stupid & not being as cool as we had hoped?”.  i strongly believe it’s worth it.  equality is definitely an action word.

Kathy Escobar

Kathy Escobar co-pastors at The Refuge, a Christian community and mission center in North Denver and is the author of Faith Shift: Finding Your Way Forward When Everything You Believe is Coming Apart and several other books.

19 Comments

  • Gasp! You have DEMOCRATS in your church??

    Kidding. 🙂

    Kathy, I really appreciated the heart with which this post was written. Well said. I was especially intrigued with your comments on excellence. I have a slightly different way of expressing this, but I think we end up on the same side of the aisle here.

    We have always believed in and promoted excellence as a way of honoring God (NOTE: NOT as a way of winning His favor). But we have never defined excellence as perfection. To us, excellence is simply doing your best with what you have–no matter how much or how little you happen to have. Defining it this way means you don’t have to put your “best” person forward in the name of excellence; it also means someone can come forward and stumble over their words, and it can still be excellent, because they did it with all their heart. Excellence shouldn’t compare one to the other; it should just challenge us personally, as Scripture says, to do whatever we do with all our heart. So to me, thinking about it this way, excellence and equality don’t have to be mutually exclusive. I think we just started mis-defining excellence along the way. It should not be a comparison word, and when it is treated as such…it *does* work against equality.

    I guess I see excellence this way because I feel a call to the creative community, and by treating equality and excellence as mutually exclusive, I could easily see the pendulum swing the other way where people actually felt bad because they were *good* at something, and that would be just as wrong as someone being excluded for *not* being good at something. When we value people as *people* and not use their skill sets or talents to assess their worth, it frees each of us to excel in our own way while still being treated as equals. I hope that makes sense.

    I’m adding your post to my link list. Great post!

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  • Kathy,
    This is sooo important – what you have to say about excellence and equality. Excellence is such a modern, American concept, so bright and shiny and efficient and smooth – production quality, etc. We look at product excellence, not process excellence, and assume God wants the very best possible product, as if only the best glorifies God. Not so.
    This is very powerful, Kathy. I hope the church at large listens to you on this.

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  • Kathy ~ I love your thoughts. It addresses some of the things that I have been thinking about, including how it involves a lot of effort to maintain community. Thanks!

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  • Some thoughts:

    “i don’t mind it a bit anymore but i know that it drives some people a little crazy and they probably long for someone to step in and “clean it all up” a bit. the reason we don’t, won’t, is that it is a piece of our DNA that we always want to protect–that everyone in this community is equal.”

    This used to be a real stumbling block for me. I used to despise going to church and hearing a lackluster sermon or an off-key “special number” during the offering. I guess it came from my career in radio. As a program director, I expected things to be perfect. No slip-ups. No umming or dead air. To keep people tuned in, much was required and expected. Also, as a youngster and the son of an, at times, itinerant preacher, I was called upon to sing or give testimony. I hated it because I sucked at it and felt it contributed nothing to the service. Regardless of how many people were “touched,” I felt like I’d failed.

    This attitude is hard to banish.

    “as one of the pastors at the refuge”

    Maybe it’s time for a new title. Or no title at all. One can be a leader within a community and not allow others to attach a title. No disrespect intended, as I hope you know me well enough by now to know my heart on this. But if the title is a stumbling block, get rid of it. Do the same things you do as a leader, guide and direct as led, but drop the title and don’t allow others to use it of you.

    I hope that makes sense.

    Excellent post. Yours are about the only really long posts I take the time to read. They are packed with pearls . . .

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  • jeff – thanks for the great comments. it is the word “excellence” that gives me the most trouble because of all of the baggage that comes with it. i totally agree with you that one person’s “best” is radically different than another’s and it’s a matter of the heart, etc., but the reality most of the time is that it becomes about skill & talent. i just recently spoke with someone about their church & how they had grown from a small community that had to beg other people to come play certain instruments for them to now needing to have auditions. in my heart, the questions i wondered were: #1) if you don’t have a certain instrument, who cares? isn’t it possible to do with what you have inside of your community & make do and #2)what happens to the guy who loves to play but doesn’t pass the audition? oh that is so hard for me because i don’t have any problem gauging who can do what, how they play, etc., my issue is why can’t everyone play no matter what if that’s what they love to do? i think much spiritual transformation can happen in our hearts when we learn to sacrifice for each other, adjust, rally, learn to be together. i totally agree with you, that i don’t think it means that we are supposed to be ashamed of our gifts/talents/abilities. rather, it’s about using them in harmony with others for the greater good & not elevating certain gifts above others in terms of value. thanks for sharing! i need to read everyone’s posts later today/tomorrow.

    phyllis – yeah, you get it. you so get it. i do hope things shift over time but boy will it hard to get those “excellence” tentacles out of us. we both know how much damage it’s done to so many.

    glenn – really pulling off deep, fluid, strong community is tricky! we are all learning so much!

    brian – when excellence is in our genes, it is so hard to shake. i can totally relate to what you are saying & i used to be the same way, too. anything “less-than” just bugged me. at my old job the announcements got critiqued so they could be as smooth & polished as possible (i’m like, people, are there not more important things to care about?) it was all so nutty. and of course, i totally know your heart & respect what you are saying about the pastor thing. it is something i think about here and there with the more i read and listen in and consider all the shifts that i believed need to be made in “the church”, one of them being getting rid of structures/systems that promote power. we are always in flux at the refuge, willing to shift & adjust as we need to. for now,i like that we are experimenting with co-pastoring in an intentional way because i hope more people consider it, men & women sharing roles that are traditionally held by one person and usually a guy. i like that we are a community with evangelical roots that has a woman “pastor” so that maybe it will open up a few doors for some other women leaders in the future. but i totally agree with you, titles mean nothing and i can do everything i do now without it, there’s no doubt. it would just be the piece i contribute to the refuge. i think it’s more for the outside than the inside, honestly. but it will be fun to see what evolves over time and we’ll look back and reflect at all of the shifts, changes, etc. we’ll make as we learn and adjust and grow up together. thanks as always for the great thoughts! i can’t seem to write a short post! if i had more time, i am sure i could shorten but until then, everyone’s stuck with my rambles, ha! ps: did you see “once?” i know you love movies, too. i watched it last night, it was simple but good. great music.

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  • Kathy,
    When you said the word “excellence” comes with baggage, I totally understood that. Sometimes a term gets so weighed down with “baggage” that it becomes easier just to find another word than it is to try and reclaim an older meaning. (That’s why some Christ-followers are now even shy about using the word “Christian” anymore. It’s loaded.) So I can completely understand the logic behind underplaying “excellence” in church meetings, especially if people have been beaten over the head with the word in times past. Makes sense.

    I really think we are tracking the same direction on this. Thanks for the reply.

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  • jeff – i think that’s what it is–the word “excellence” just has too much baggage, especially for those who know how much damage it’s done to some people’s hearts and desire to be part of a community but never made the cut. we’re tracking! and i forgot to say, gasp, imagine that, democrats & republicans all together, we can talk about faith & politics at the same time and not beat each other up!

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  • The refuge is the only place like that I know. One of my treasured friends there listens to Limbaugh and reads Coulter, and I am a capital L liberal from Boulder and an Obama supporter. Because of grace and the kind of community we have, we are good friends. If we had first met around issues of politics, we would have just yelled at each other, and never gotten to know one another. because we meet as fellow followers of Jesus, outside of the usual environments of self-righteousness and shame, we Love one another. the way of Jesus heals and transforms relationships in such a startling way.

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  • sage – i think there are a lot of places like this that we don’t know about–where so many dissimilar people love each other because of Jesus, but i am with you, i just haven’t experienced it before & it is really fun, energizing.

    phyllis – i have been thinking about what you said a lot last night…that it has all become about product excellence not process excellence. and i really believe the process, the transforming, the learning, the growing, the becoming, that is what we should care about & what communities should be a safe container for…thanks again for sharing.

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  • Fascinating subject, particularly the discussion on excellence. You are one sharp chica, Kathy!

    I was introduced to the pastorate through a WCA church (my first and final pastor gig, nine years of it), so I am quite familiar with the seventh core value, “We believe that the relentless pursuit of excellence honors God and inspires people”. This is what I was taught, believed, and passionately expected from everyone at our church. I think I understood it as “product excellence” for most of that time, but at the end was more convinced it was about doing what was “good enough”. I don’t know if it was the result of disillusionment with the “production” value in our services or just a growing understanding, but I came to believe that product excellence actually gets in the way of what God might be trying to do in our midst. We got so focused on every detail, every note, every comment (and yes…most definately the announcements) that we sort of lost sight of the role of the Holy Spirit in it all (at least I think I did…can’t speak for everyone on staff there).

    There’s a war story (not sure which war) about a brigade who was ordered to build one of those floating bridges so the troops could get the heavy equipment and artillery across a swollen river. Time was critical. They had done this dozens of times, trained for it, and had the latest equipment and tools. The bridge kept washing out until finally they had to sort of duct tape the thing together. The general in charge was told of the problem and the team who built the bridge offered an apology for their failure to accomplish their mission with excellence. The general’s response? “Did the bridge hold long enough to get the equipment across the river?” Yes, it had. “Good enough is all we needed. Well done.”

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  • Kathy,

    You are spot one concerning excellence! Excellence is performance related – no way around it. If those who perform better – using our own definition of “better”, I might add – are given more opportunities to perform than others, then we are demonstrating that our desire for performance is ruling our desire for relationship. God does not judge our performance – thank God! In God’s eyes, the one who stutters while speaking may be more beautiful, more useful, and more obedient than the polished speaking professional.

    Thank you for this great post. It is very encouraging to see a group of believers attempting to live God’s love relationship with others. Life is messy, and God loves us in spite of the mess. If only we can look through the mess of others (and ourselves) and see the beauty that God has created! People who act out of that kind of attitude would truly become a community!

    -Alan

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  • I have really enjoyed the discussion on this post. I agree with most everything written, but I’d like to play devil’s advocate here. Here are two real-life scenarios that I’ve witnessed:

    I was once involved in a ministry that was reaching out to the broken. I’m purposely going to keep this vague to protect the “guilty.” 🙂 Part of the evening every week was a time of teaching. There was this one guy who “felt called to teach” to this group of people. He did so about one out of every two times we met. He was horrible. I mean truly awful. I’m talking agony to listen to him for 45-60 minutes (and even then he did not want to stop…). Circular, going nowhere, having almost no meaning. Not only boring and dull (I can put up with that), but it was all injected with so much of his own “stuff” as to nearly obscure the gospel completely. Add the legalistic bent to it and it about put me over the edge. Seriously, I would rather have a root canal every week than to have to ever listen to someone like that again on a regular basis. So, no need to worry about “excellence” here. It was not even in the ball park. It broke my heart because we gave the “best” to those that could afford to pay their tithes in nice church buildings, but to those that are utterly down and out, any person with a bible in their hand and a self-proclaimed “call to teach” would do.

    Scenario #2: A drummer who, seriously, could not keep the beat. Not even close. It threw off everyone, the other musicians, those trying to sing, etc. It was like this herky-jerky time. You could not focus on God for more than 5 seconds because you’d be jerked away by losing the spot of where you were in the song because the drummer had moved onto the drumming part of the chorus even though we were still in the verse. This went on for months until there even the hardiest of souls couldn’t take it any more and they finally had to suggest some lessons for this guy. No excellence there, either.

    So, while I totally get what you mean when you say “excellence” and letting everyone have a part, the above two scenarios have also caused me to take a new look at my anti-excellence stance. I don’t want excellence just for the sake of excellence. It’s worthless before God and has no value or place in the Kingdom, in my opinion. But I also think that some people do seem better suited than others to doing some things, and it’s a wonderful thing if we can help them discover what those things are rather than letting them stumble around causing others agony by being in the wrong space for what they were created to do, you know? I wonder if we do a disservice to them by letting them keep on in areas where they just plain are awful at it.

    I’m really asking this question here more than stating my opinion, as I have very mixed feelings on it. I know the pendulum has swung too far in one direction, toward the “excellence” camp. I reject that model, completely. But I’d love to hear if you folks think there needs to be a balance between not striving for “excellence” the way the church has historically defined it versus letting people do whatever they want for as long as they want even if they are truly horrible at it and there is no life in what is taking place. “Good enough” I agree with. I don’t want it all cleaned up and sterilized and “perfect.” “Excellence” in the traditional way it is used, I abhor. But, please, don’t ever make me sit and be tortured the way I was, above, for months and years on end.

    Straighten me out, please. 🙂 I’d really, seriously like to know if I’m missing the mark on this. I’m wide open to being dead wrong on this, truly.

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  • randy – love your thoughts. yes, that model really perpetuates excellence as the most important thing and it’s “product” excellence and so often misses the underlying story of process excellence, what’s really happening underneath the surface in people’s hearts, lives, journey as they are part of the community. i think we throw God into it to make ourselves feel better–we’re doing this for God, “to advance the kingdom”–but i wonder how much is really about making us feel important, good and if that same amount of energy was focused on serving the poor, practicing sacrifice, loving our neighbor, building relationships, drawing out people’s strengths, how much more could actually change in a church community than bigger numbers. thanks randy, always great to hear from you!!!!

    alan – i think that’s what it is, that our definition of excellence is just that, our definition. man’s definition. and usually that is defined by the world, our culture, etc. and doesn’t usually have to do anything with God’s economy. in God’s economy, the least will be first. the weakest are the strongest. i don’t think excellence in performance is at the top of the list but rather purity of heart & commitment to serve & give. our measures are messed up, i am pretty sure, and i am just as guilty of getting sucked into them because they are so pervasive. God’s always about the heart and what is going on underneath.

    jonathan – oh i loved this line: equality is the brother that kicks you in the ass. i finally watched this whole piece after having read the transcript when it first came out. it is so worth watching if anyone hasn’t yet. yeah, equality is painful and motivating and a big, big deal in the kingdom. thanks, jonathan! ps: i am getting ready to write something on grace jealousy next week!

    tracy – oh my friend, i hear the dilemma and thank you so much for playing some of the other side because i know that is reality in so many ways. i definitely don’t have any easy answers but i think where i land is that if there’s really truly sharing the one person doesn’t facilitate every other week but rather the load is shareda little bit more than that so it sort of decreases the impact a bit. i am not saying that in community we can’t be honest a bit, too, of what works, what doesn’t. when things were confusing, when they were clear, but i think we need to take that on a more individual subjective basis instead of on an objective bar (this is good, this isn’t). some people are unaware completely of their strengths/weaknesses and need feedback and support and encouragement. other people, that is just who they are and they’re never going to “get better” possibly in some areas but it still lights their fire so why not make it an option. sometimes i have to sacrifice what i want/need/hope for for the next person. so i sit there irritated but that person is coming alive. i think there’s balance and i can see how there’s this line that crosses over where then it can be detrimental to others but i still would throw out the question: what spiritual transformation is taking place in me that is bigger than the moment? what is God trying to show me? what is God trying to show us as a community? what does it mean for this person to get to be part and how can i put my needs aside for them (especially if i have more power & margin). i believe in excellence in some areas, no doubt, i am one of the most get-it-done, perfectionistic, quality-oriented people around so my nerves take a beating a lot but i think the one thing i’m learning to focus on is noticing this other crazy thing in community that is so below the surface and seeing the beauty and glory in other people trying…bottom line: no easy answer and i think every person has to sort of figure out what works for them, what they can live with, what feeds their soul, etc. my biggest challenge, though, is to consider what God is up to in our hearts in the midst of our discomfort. ps: happy, happy birthday!

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  • Kathy, I think this line of yours really sums it up for me:

    “…but i think where i land is that if there’s really truly sharing the one person doesn’t facilitate every other week but rather the load is shared a little bit more than that so it sort of decreases the impact a bit.”

    That makes a lot of sense to me and I can get on board with that as well. 🙂 Thanks for the birthday wishes. I have such joy and know it’s going to be a tremendous year as I screech down this last year to the big 5-0!

    Reply

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