Thursday, February 19, 2015

Your Mother Was Right: Life's Not Fair (and sometimes, you shouldn't be)

Most of us carry a little tape in our heads of things our mothers said repeatedly. And sometimes we repeat those things, often unintentionally mimicking mom’s voice. One of those things your mother probably said, especially if you had siblings, or, when little friends came over to play was, “Play fair!” But you likely remember what your mother also said on those occasions you protested “It’s not fair!” She likely quipped, as countless mothers have through the ages, “Life’s not fair.” (And, if your mother was like mine, she may have added, “Get over it.”).

One source of anxiety for many leaders is the need to be, or at least appear to be, “fair.” Adult employees or staff persons, like children, will cry “foul” when they feel they are treated unfairly. And reactive employees, or church members, will be quick to charge pastoral leaders with being unfair as a quick way to get a hearing or gain an advantage. The trap for any leader comes when he or she feels the need to live up to the expectation that it is the leaders’ job to always be fair, and to live up to what that means for everybody in the system. 

But the fact is, as your mother said, life is not fair. And, not everything is equitable or needs to be. What seems fair for one person or group in the system will seem unfair to another. And while I always say “Never question people’s motives,” I am also fond of reminding myself, “Never underestimate the power of the baser motivations.” On any given day, anxious persons will always choose what is best for them over what is best for the system. 

Recently a pastor shared his experience during a church business meeting in which a troubling and willful church member took the floor during a time of debate. As is typical during times of congregational crises, attendance during this particular business meeting was robust. Acting as moderator the pastor sought to keep things orderly and announced that each person would be allowed to speak three minutes for or against the issue under debate. The troubling member was the first to stand to have his say, but strongly protested that three minutes was not enough time to speak his case.

Not wishing to seem unfair, and thereby antagonizing the troubling member and his supporters, the pastor said that he would stick to the three minute rule, but would allow others to “give” the speaker their three minutes. Whereupon, starting with the man’s daughter, several people “gave” the man their three minutes, enabling him to go on to monopolize the business meeting for about fifteen minutes! 

In a moment full of anxiety, trying to appear “fair” (and likely with all good intentions about acting fairly) this leader effectively not only empowered the most willful person in the room, but also failed to challenge people to take personal responsibility for their thoughts and beliefs. The tactic failed to challenge persons to take a self-defining stance for their positions, viewpoints, or beliefs. Instead, this leader facilitated a “herding” mentality. Instead of each individual standing up and taking responsibility for him- or herself, many chose to allow another to speak for them. 

Leadership requires courage, and acting courageously in the midst of crisis is hard. But leaders need to remember that they are first responsible for the welfare and health of the system as a whole, and their own functioning in their leader position. Everything else is secondary: other people’s functioning, other people’s happiness, or, whether every decision is “fair” for every individual or group in the system. 


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  2. This is a helpful post, and a topic I've thought quite a lot about. I think most people equate "justice" with "fairness," but our measurement of fairness tends to be very local. If there are two people in need of pastoral attention, the pastor could give each of them twenty minutes, which superficially seems fair, but to the parishioner whose problem is relatively straightforward, it might be ten minutes too long, but twenty minutes might be too short for the person whose problem is more complex or nuanced. When my kids were little, they might complain that it wasn't "fair" that one got shoes and the other got a jacket, but if that's what each of them needed, then it seemed fair to me as their parent. Too often, complaints about fairness reflect the emotional process of those who are struggling with other areas of life…it isn't really that the pastor or the church has treated them unfairly, but that life itself (as our mothers said) seems unfair to them.