I was raised to be a leader. My early leadership training took place in the church. My earliest leadership experiences included serving as a chaperone for church activities, leading initiatives for mercy ministries, and teaching Sunday school. From my mother I learned other important leadership skills. Taking initiative. Standing firm for what you believe. Remaining calm and consistent in the face of opposition.
When I look at Kim Davis, I see a leader.
- She has positional authority. That’s a tiny piece of the picture, but without it she wouldn’t have had this kind of impact.
- She has made a decision about what position to take, and despite opposition has not diverted from that decision.
- She has maintained her commitment to what she believes is the right thing despite being arrested for it.
In Kim Davis I also see someone whose beliefs I fundamentally disagree with–now. I would have agreed with her with just 25 years ago.
I believed in Jesus, but I also believed in rules. This was part of my upbringing. Rules like:
- What to do (tell people about Jesus, study the Bible, pray, believe that God/Jesus is with you and intimately involved with your life moment to moment, and live a blameless life).
- What not to do (drink alcohol, engage in extramarital sex, believe the wrong things, lie, steal, listen to creepy.rebellious rock music, or hurt people). To be fair, what I was taught about sex mostly fell into the category of not hurting people (including yourself), but it was a very clear marker for “good people” vs. “bad people.”
In the Christian Faith with which I was raised, I was “taught” not to judge others, but I was taught this in an atmosphere of constant judgment. Every action, every person, every belief was sorted into “good” and “bad.” In an atmosphere like that of course I wanted to be one of the ones sorted into “good.” I devoted all of my energies to being good. Doing the good things and not doing the bad. Believing the right things and not believing the wrong.
The first time I ventured into the territory of something I was raised to believe was “wrong” was when I was 18 years old. Friends introduced me to a set of beliefs that were actually even more conservative, even more fundamentalist, and even more “holy roller” than those I was raised with. This is a long story that I won’t go into here, but it started me on a roller coaster of belief and emotion that culminated in a trough of discouragement and doubt. For weeks I isolated myself in that trough because I believed in my heart that I had sorted myself into the ‘bad’ category. I was in a shame spiral.
Fortunately, when I was ready to break my own self-imposed segregation from the good people, the person I selected to receive my secrets was someone with amazing emotional intelligence–the youth group leader at the church I was attending at college. She listened patiently to my story and then said the one thing–the only thing–that could bring me back into community: “Oh, I have felt that way so many times.”
It was perhaps the most important moment of my life.
This was when I learned, truly learned, the concept of grace. It was also the first time I learned that leadership is spiritual in nature, must be emotionally grounded to be effective, and is at its best when healing shame through empathy rather than triggering it with judgment.
At my mother’s request I transferred to a college closer to home. She had no way of knowing that this new school was a magnet for lesbian and gay students, and over my three years there I had many opportunities to discover that being lesbian or gay did not mean being bad or even nonChristian. I am deeply grateful to Rick J, Steve L, Liz K, and Mark C (four Christians whose sexuality wasn’t what you would call “straight”) for sometimes patiently, sometimes emotionally, and always sincerely inviting me to acknowledge reality and learn to accept.
It wasn’t until my 3 years on campus at seminary that I came fully to accept that being lesbian, gay, bisexual, or even transgender meant nothing about “goodness” or “badness.”
I thought I had become all kinds of liberal until someone brought up marriage equality to me only about ten years ago. I discovered I felt it was “too soon,” and “asking for too much.” I was satisfied with the way things were. Will & Grace? Great. Ellen? Cool. Marriage equality? Hang on… that’s just too much to ask for.
I encountered, then, the anguish and passion of a human adult whose life was being directly impacted by inequality in our marriage systems. “Crap.” I thought. “Could I actually be wrong about this? I don’t feel wrong.” I was really confused.
Because I didn’t feel wrong, I could have stayed committed to an unfair system. I could have decided to stand my ground there. But there’s one reason I didn’t: I already knew that with gay relationships, my own scope of experience and insight is too limited for me to judge. I had already learned that self-determination is more important than making up rules and holding them over other people. This was clearly a situation where I needed to get out of the way until my brain caught up. So I did.
I discerned that my sense of certainty was not reliable. This is an aspect of leadership that we are not seeing in Kim, and that I hope she will eventually embrace. It’s difficult. Most of us put great stock in our sense of certainty. Our belief in what we know can be nothing short of seductive. But, feeling certain doesn’t mean you’re right. A better leader can stay open to others’ perspectives and acknowledge when they’ve been headed in the right direction. This isn’t about being wishy-washy–it’s just about acknowledging that nobody has all of the information to make all of the right decisions all of the time. If we’re open to input, open to the possibility that we may have been wrong, then we can change course and head in a better, more reliable direction–when our brains catch up.
My brain did catch up. I hope I didn’t make someone else’s life harder while it was doing so.
I have no advice for Kim. I only know that she is on her own path, just as each of us is on our own. I have watched as every member of my nuclear family has journeyed through these questions and figured out what answers seem right to us. And we’ve wound up in very different places from each other. Figuring out how to maintain loving and respectful relationships with each other has been almost amusing in its challenges, and I am proud of us for making love more important than agreement.
Our larger, human family is even more diverse. We’re coming from different places, and who knows where we’ll each wind up? But I am certain that as we journey, we change. We have insights. We learn. We discover. We decide what to accept and what to reject. There’s no controlling someone else’s journey, no matter how wrong you think they might be.
No matter where you are and no matter what you are seeing in others’ choices, I offer this one thing I believe wholeheartedly: leadership is spiritual in nature, must be emotionally grounded to be effective, and is at its best when healing shame through empathy rather than triggering it with judgment.
If that were true, how would it change your approach?
“I do not pretend to understand the moral universe; the arc is a long one, my eye reaches but little ways; I cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by the experience of sight; I can divine it by conscience. And from what I see I am sure it bends towards justice.”-Theodore Parker
Or, the version most of us know: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”-Martin Luther King
The arc of the moral universe that connects to my own life and thinking has bent toward justice for others. If this has happened to you, tell your story on social media. Use the hashtag #IWasKimDavis. Encourage others to do the same.