Over the summer, with some major career transitions approaching, I took some time to reflect on what I’ve learned about leadership during my first decade in the workforce. My context has been leadership in a Christian ministry organization, but I believe the principles are fairly universal. This is the first post of seven.
It was a beautiful Saturday morning in the spring about four years ago. We were hosting an event on campus where JHU IV alumni could come and reconnect with each other and with the ministry. We had brought in a speaker on neuroscience and the soul, and I had cooked all the food for 60 people. I stopped by Justin’s place to pick him up (this was pre-marriage), and somewhere between loading my car with crockpots full of cocktail-sized meatballs and walking into his living room, I had an existential crisis. I sat down on his couch and started crying about how much I hate meatballs. Justin, at that point in our relationship, did not understand that generally by the time I’m crying: (1) a concrete reality has become a symbol of an abstract idea, and (2) that idea has been irrationally globalized to all of life and time.
Justin, sitting down next to me: “You don’t have to eat any meatballs if you don’t like them…”
Me: “It’s not the meatballs! It’s what they represent!”
Justin, tenderly rubbing my back: “You mean… the cows?”
Pulling meatballs out of the freezer correlates in my mind with food events for large groups of people. Thus they have begun to represent all of the futile, irritating tasks in ministry that suck the life out of me, yet are inexplicably necessary. They are the 2-liter bottles of soda that need to be carried to the farthest building (see Dr. Pepper post). They are the 200 names, emails and phone numbers that need to be entered into a Google doc. They are the beleaguered bureaucrats who take out their own frustration with life on unsuspecting students just trying to reserve a room. Meatballs are painstakingly preparing a Bible study, praying for the students in it, buying snacks, showing up early – and having everyone text you that they are skipping to go see a hypnotist. Meatballs symbolize inescapable futility. And crying means I believe I will be trapped in inescapable futility forever.
Over the years, I’ve come to recognize two meatball-related myths. The first myth is that I am the only one who has futile, irritating tasks as part of my job. As someone who lives and works in the privileged West, I can become entitled and feel betrayed when my job is hard or futile. However, I now realize that every job has some amount of futility. These are the thorns that result from the curse on the ground in Genesis 3. Work itself is broken, and redeeming it is hard labor.
The second myth is that the tasks that seem irritating, unglamorous and futile are ancillary to the “real” work. I think this is a particular lie in full-time ministry. We feel we should be freed from those tasks to do the “real” work of teaching, pastoring, and generally being influential. Yet Oswald Chambers says, “If we will do the duty that lies nearest, we shall see God.” Jesus says, “If anyone wants to be first, he must become last and servant of all.” Meatballs sharpen us and purify us. It’s hard to get arrogant and think you’re spiritually a big deal when you’re lugging a crockpot half a mile with marinara sauce spilling over the side… or no one is showing up to your Bible study… or when some 23-year-old on a power trip is rejecting your paperwork just because she can.
Meatballs remind us we’re not God. Meatballs are mercy. May you embrace the meatballs of your work.