Sunday, March 1, 2015

Focus Leadership Institute: What Went Right

[If you haven't read my previous post, it's here.]

People. Will you read the comments on this Facebook post? And this one?

We sound like a cult. #kiddingnotkidding


Seriously? One semester made that much of a difference to so many people? And it sounds like nothing ever went wrong.

With the announcement that the Focus Leadership Institute is closing, it's natural that many of us are seeing our time there through rose-colored glasses.

It's fitting that words of honor are being written. Fitting, so long as we don't pretend—to ourselves or others—that deep brokenness didn't also color our time together. Because it did. Because we are human. (Not to mention the SWAT team invasions, forest fires and near death experiences.)

It's good to celebrate the victories. And it may be the best thing we can do to make sure the impact of the Institute didn't cease last Friday, when its doors closed.

God Roams the Halls

One of the finest stories in Institute mythology is about the time when Dr. Del Tackett was asked, "What's so special about the Institute?"

And he answered, "God roams the halls."

It may sound over-spiritual, but it was true. Experiencing God at work in our midst was THE. BEST. THING. about the Focus Leadership Institute. Without that, nothing else would have mattered.

But there were other good things that—no matter how magical they felt at the time—were actually practical, intentional and, most important, reproducible. So the best things about the Institute haven't died, because we can do them again, wherever we are:

Worship

No one can claim credit for or control over the work that God did among us at FLI. But one good thing that we chose as a community was our response to God: worship. Throughout the 20-year history, communal worship—primarily through prayer and song—was a hallmark. 

Soli Deo Gloria is a part of many alumni remembrances of their semester, and something that has sunk down deep into many of our lives. If we take nothing else with us, let's take this: that lifting Christ high is our highest purpose in all that we do. 

Good Questions

We often spoke of teaching students How to think rather than What to think. 

Obviously, we weren't perfect at it. Nor did we claim to be unbiased. Because let's be honest, if you're at Focus on the Family, there's a particular angle from which you probably view the world. But that's another post, which I will probably never write.

The cool thing to watch was this: for many students who grew up with conservative Christianity, the Institute was the first time they had EVER been encouraged to ask tough questions. To embrace doubt rather than fear it. Many walked away with a more robust, more reasoned faith for having doubted, disagreed and dug deep for more satisfying answers than they'd heard in Sunday School.

Dr. Chris Leland used to say—and I agree—that the students pushed his learning edge. Their questions made us question and press into the reality that all truth is God's truth.

Community

Four or five years into my time on staff, I had a light bulb moment: the almost-utopian picture of the early Church in Acts 2:42-47 is not just descriptive, it's instructive. And we were living it. Community grows when we spend time together, eat together, sacrifice for one another, pray together, eat together and wrestle with truth together. (And did I mention eat together?)

But please, please let me tell you the flip side of that truth. Like an incubator, the Institute was an artificial environment for community, cranking up the factors that make it grow, and keeping out the factors that inhibit it. So if you went back home and had disappointing experiences of community ever after, you weren't alone. But the fact that community grows more slowly and laboriously in "real life" doesn't mean the principles of Acts 2 are false; it just means we have to be more patiently committed to them in order to see fruit.

Identity 

In terms of what FLI uniquely offered to the world, I think this was the pinnacle. I know of no other leadership development program or tool that addresses personal identity in quite the same way. It seems too obvious, but how can a person lead others well unless he knows himself? Unless she is comfortable in her own skin and able to live a life of integrity from a heart of humble confidence?

The crux of this, I think, was that the Institute addressed the issue of misplaced shame.

That's my term, not a phrased we used at the time, and by it I mean this: Shame (the idea that "I am not good enough") ought to be a very narrow slice of human experience. Its only cause should be moral failure and its only remedy is salvation through Jesus Christ. Unfortunately, the shame river has far overflowed its banks and shame now cripples so many for reasons from "my jeans are a size too big" to "I can't live up to my parents' standards of perfection." It's killing us.

Professor John Eldredge captured the affections of hundreds of students with the shame-defeating assertion that "God wants your heart." Professor Sheryl DeWitt was THE MASTER at dismantling shame in the lives of students and coworkers alike. If we're going to lead in the 21st century, we have to address misplaced shame. That, my friends, IS another post—one I will write—because it's way too big a tangent to fit right here.

Personal Investment

"Because we loved you so much, we were delighted to share with you not only the gospel of God but our lives as well." – 1 Thes. 2:8

I could say it differently, but there's no way to say it better. We loved "doing life" with students. We pushed ourselves to do so as authentically as possible. Jeff Abel tells the story of a student who would come over to his apartment to watch him argue with his wife—because they were that real in public—and because it was reassuring to this child of divorce that a couple could argue in a healthy way and be stronger for it.

I wish you all could have seen the staff meetings after the budget cuts got deep, when staff and faculty alike volunteered to host students on their own time and their own dollar, because we felt that strongly that making a personal investment in students was at the core of our calling. 

What would happen if we all invested ourselves that deeply in the places God has called us today?

Many Seeds

The Institute didn't hold the patent on any of these values. And as we found out, these things alone are hard to turn into a profitable enterprise. But, holy cow, they would improve the effectiveness of just about any enterprise.

So let me leave you with this commission from our Lord:

"Very truly I tell you, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds."  – John 12:24.

The seed that was the Institute has fallen. But any of us can take it and plant it and, in doing so, produce a great harvest.

2 comments:

  1. For the last year and a half I've been practicing things I learned at FLI.. Things I'd never even heard before FLI. The truths instilled in my life, that summer, I hope to pass on to others. Although I'm still trying to consistently work them through my life.

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  2. When you get around to writing the shame post you're envisioning (unless you're thinking of something you already posted?), drop me a line, please.

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