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Posts Tagged ‘education’

Analysis of Church Conflict Management

In my articleAnatomy of Church Conflict Management“, I suggested that there are some familiar mistakes that churches and their leadership tend to make in regards to conflict and crisis management.  I also quickly summarized what effective leadership before, during and after these events occur might look like.  It is to these leadership needs during conflict and crisis that I would like to return now.

It is necessary for every church to have a conflict and crisis management plan.  This plan needs to include:

  • Knowing the triggers or events that call for the plan to be engaged,
  • Working the crisis management and communication plan,
  • Communicating the unfolding development of these plans to those who need to know, and
  • Identifying the desired stages and outcomes of working these plans, and then, finally,
  • Evaluating how these plans worked and what needs to be adjusted to make it/them work better next time.

Identifying capable leadership to handle conflict and crisis is important.  Not everyone is emotionally and psychologically equipped to deal with them.  At the same time, leadership directly involved may not be good candidates because of conflict of interest or lack of objectivity.  A team of three to five people who are spiritually mature, skilled communicators, emotionally mature, and hold the respect of others in the organization make a great team.  For many churches, this group may be the Board of Elders.

Mt, Adams, Washington State

Clear Skies Over Mt. Adams, Washington State

If this is not possible, then working with a third-party dispute resolution or crisis management team is the best option.  This may come from a hired company, one of the many non-profit dispute resolution centers around the country, denominational leadership, or a team from another church in the community who has developed their own team.  The important point is to know who – what team – you are going to look to before the need arises.  Everyone in the organization needs to be informed of who this team is and what the “triggers” are that call for their involvement.

Not all conflict or crisis is the same.  Some involve only a couple people or a small group.  Others, however, involve a larger portion of the organization and have potential to cause a ripple effect that disturbs the whole organization.  It is important for every leader to know what level of disruption is being faced.  This will be an important trigger that sets in motion the work of a conflict and crisis team and the plan that has been established.

A carefully scripted plan for communication, handling confrontation, and identifying the small-step goals to reconciliation, restoration and peace must be established in the calm before the storm.  In the heat of a crisis is not the time to attempt to develop a plan.  The plan must be clear enough so that steps can clearly be taken to move toward progress.  Getting “stuck” in a conflicted crisis is not to anyone’s benefit.  Every plan must answer simple questions:

  • Who is involved?  Who needs to know?
  • What are the issues and how can they be discovered?
  • How can miscommunication and misunderstanding be avoided as much as possible from those who are on the fringes of the problem?
  • How will the process and its milestones to restoration be communicated to those who need to know?
  • How will “success” in terms of reconciliation and restoration be recognized?
  • What will be the terms in which irreconcilable differences and hurts are recognized and a “parting of ways” a recommendation for the organization to move forward?
  • When will the end of the process for the team be recognized?

Every conflict or crisis event must also involve a debriefing and evaluation time for the team.  This may also included key individuals involved who were not on the team.  This will not only allow the team members to take away “lessons learned” from the experience, but it will allow them to adjust the conflict resolution and crisis management plan in order to be more effective in the future.  Just as important, is the opportunity for the team members to sort through their own thoughts and feelings after handling such an emotionally charged situation.  This helps the team to make sure that as individuals they are not carrying away any unnecessary emotional or psychological baggage.

Low Clouds Surrounding Mt. Hood, Oregon

Cloud Skirted Mt. Hood, Oregon

Every event is different.  Then again, every event is similar.  Where the congregation and its leadership is immature and/or unhealthy, it almost always waits too long to seek intervention.  One thing is clear.  Conflict resolution involves as much art as it does science.  In twenty-five years of pastoral ministry, here are three things that I have come to realize about church conflicts:

  • The “problem” is almost never “the problem.”
  • Change and growth never come without problems (i.e. conflicts).
  • I can be my own worst enemy in that I cause most of the problems (i.e. conflicts) I experience.

Of all places, the faith community should be a place where the practice of our spiritual principles and precepts enable everyone to overcome fears, doubts, misunderstandings, chaos, conflicts, confusion and even anger.  Unfortunately, as I pointed out in my last article, there are myths about itself that the Church must overcome.  Don Bussart, associate professor of interpersonal ministries at The Iliff School of Theology in Denver, Colorado, identifies these as:

  • The Church must suppress conflict to maintain its image to as a loving community united in God’s service.
  • Conflict is bad because it threatens the unity of the church.
  • A loving person is always tranquil, stable and serene.
  • The administration, worship and programs of the church are fixed and established thus not subject to change.
  • Individuals and the church as whole should be “spiritual” — that is, should be “above” conflict.

The fact of the matter is that the pastor (lead or senior pastor) is most often the first line of defense in dealing with conflict and interpersonal crises in the congregation.  Marlin Thomas in Direction Journal astutely puts the pastors role in perspective:

“For pastors of troubled churches, ministry cannot be viewed as “business as usual.” One cannot relate to troubled people as fully rational beings, capable of making and keeping bona fide agreements. And troubled church systems cannot be led as if they were healthy systems. If they are so treated, they will only become less healthy, and the pastoral leader will ultimately be caught by painful surprise and sadly fail in his [or her] heavenly calling.  Pastors of churches under stress must think of themselves as specialists. They must care for people according to the special, “soulish” needs of their wounded pseuche, and not merely conduct “church as usual.”. . . The administrative leadership style of a pastor in a troubled church must be that of a loving but firm parent who presents clear outer boundaries to the children, while allowing them to develop slowly within the parameters of their own ability to grow. Disordered people can serve God, even if they can’t get along very well with each other or even with the pastor. But in such cases the pastor must be more than just a pastor; he must be skilled in the taming of hearts. It is true that only God can ultimately tame the heart, but it is also true that God desires to use sensitive, skilled human agents in that effort.”  [Bracketed italics added.]

One of the biggest needs a pastor must fulfill is to help the congregants become grace-filled, permission-giving members.  This is outlined simply by Thomas as:

  • Give life permission to be the way it is, until Christ changes it.
  • Be who you are—responsibly.
  • Let others be who they are—caringly.
  • Be willing to say “where” you are—kindly.
  • Let others say “where” they are—acceptingly.
  • Care about your sister or brother—appropriately.

This character development doesn’t happen over night.  It is a long journey.  However, the benefit is growing into grace-filled individuals who have an internal agility (i.e. flexibility) to deal with different people and growth and changes that pose potential conflict.  The larger the capacity of a congregation to practice this in interpersonal relationships the better its ability to handle and recover from conflicts and interpersonal crises.

Mt. Rainier, Washington State

Mt. Rainier Behind Safeco Field

It is interesting to note that most statistics tell us the the majority of non-churchgoers in the U.S. consider themselves to be Christians.  Of these, four out of ten have dropped out of church due to a “painful” or “agonizing” ordeal in a church.  I have pastored Assembly of God churches for 25 years and can attest to many encounters with people who no longer attend church because it was simply too emotionally painful for them to return.  Either the people in the church or the building, or both, held such bad memories that even returning to the building proved impossible.

Today, I attend a Central United Protestant Church, which is a trans-denominational church left over from the protestant military chapel supplied by the U.S. government’s Hanford Project during the cold war.  It is under the leadership umbrella of the United Methodist Church but serves five other denominations.  Not surprising, I have discovered similar stories around the community concerning this church.  So, this issue goes beyond denomination labels, church sizes or community settings.

There are many resources for church leadership and their congregations to use.  A perusal of the world wide web will uncover a library of articles, papers and blogs for careful consideration.  Independent consultants and denominational resources are available to most every church.  In a couple of instances from my experience regarding small independent churches, calling in respected and recognized pastoral leadership from other churches to offer guidance and counsel is a possible alternative.

Where there are people there will be conflict.  Where there are people passionate about issues there will be passionate conflict that could lead to interpersonal and congregational crisis.  However, such occasions need not be a debilitating and defeating event.  Instead, they could be transforming events that help individuals grow in grace and help congregations grow in expressing mature Christ-like love and unity.  How we face it will be the determining factor.  The question is whether we will take the time to thoughtfully prepare for it before we face it.

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (October, 2011)

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Despite never having adopted the metric system for day-to-day use, Americans are familiar with the basic units, like grams, kilograms, meters and such.  But when it comes to lesser known units we’re clueless.  To help the educational process along a bit …

* 1 millionth of a mouthwash = 1 microscope

* Ratio of an igloo’s circumference to its diameter = Eskimo Pi

* 2,000 pounds of Chinese soup = Won ton

* Time between slipping on a peel and smacking the pavement = 1 bananosecond

* 16.5 feet in the Twilight Zone = 1 Rod Serling

* Half of a large intestine = 1 semicolon

* 1,000,000 aches = 1 megahurtz

* Basic unit of laryngitis = 1 hoarsepower

* Shortest distance between two jokes = 1 straightline

* 453.6 graham crackers = 1 pound cake

* 1 million-million microphones = 1 megaphone

* 2 million bicycles = 2 megacycles

* 2000 mockingbirds = 2 kilomockingbirds

* 52 cards = 1 decacards

* 1 kilogram of falling figs = 1 FigNewton

* 1,000 milliliters of wet socks = 1 literhosen

* 1 millionth of a fish = 1 microfiche

* 10 rations = 1 decoration

* 100 rations = 1 C-ration

* 4 nickels = 2 paradigms

* 2.4 statute miles of intravenous surgical tubing at Yale University Hospital = 1 IV League

[author unknown]

Start Cola Early!

Start Cola Early!

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On Training Shepherds

A short time ago I wrote a blog article entitled “Training Shepherds.” I attempted a modern-day parable of sorts.  It was a word picture in parable form of what I think has been the evolution of clergy or pastoral training for many churches and their denominations.  In this article, I would like to explain my understanding and thinking of this subject.

I make no claims to having all the answers. I also readily acknowledge that all forms of education and mentoring have their own problems inherent in them.  There is no perfect system.

That being said, I have the unique position of observing the changes of pastoral training over a number of decades. First through my parents’ eyes as they are products of an older system of training and mentoring.  Second through my own eyes as I followed years later in my own training, through the evolved institution, and now as I hear and observe close peers who children are attempting to go through the same institution with its still further changes.  These changes are what I attempted to portray in my parable “Training Shepherds.”

Also, I maintain close ties to individuals who work within the education institution that my parents and I graduated from years ago. So, I have had the opportunity to hear the challenges and concerns from inside it.  They are similar to the ones I have heard from friends in other higher religious education institutions which try to train people for ministry.  So, I feel that many of the issues are the same across the board.  The places and faces change but the stories remain the same.

Finally, a study of the history of various religious institutions and their development over time tells us that these developments seem to be normative. The consequences for affiliated churches and denominations who accept their graduates into clergy status seem to be universal.  It would seem that no institution’s original mission and calling has ever succeeded its own success.

To provide full disclosure, I was raised in the Assemblies of God denomination. My parents, right out of high school, attended what was then Northwest Bible Institute, which was originally part of Calvary Temple Assembly of God in North Seattle, Washington.  Their final years (’59, ’60), the school moved to its own location near Kirkland, Washington, on an old military base near Lake Washington.

Like my parents, I attended what had become Northwest Bible College, later shortened to Northwest College as it took on more liberal arts studies for other careers. I earned a Bachelor of Arts degree.  Then, while my wife completed her B.A. in Elementary Education, I completed a Bachelor of Theology degree.  After college, I went on to a couple ministry position and then attended the Assemblies of God Theological Seminary in Springfield, Missouri, where I earned a Master of Divinity degree.  Afterward, I continued in ministry in Assembly of God churches.

I very much appreciate the education I received at both of the schools I attended. I have no “sour grapes” to harvest and serve up.  This serves as only my recollections and observations in hopes that a healthy dialogue will be generated concerning the education and training of people for ministry in whatever church, denomination or field of service in which they feel called to serve.  It is a distillation of many hours of conversations with friends in and out of ministry, other friends involved in Christian higher education, and personal experience and studies.

In part, we become the product of our own making. This is no less true of institutions than it is of individuals.  Each decision and subsequent action has a ripple effect that we cannot always predict but will nevertheless in the end make or remake us.  Sometimes, our assumptions based upon what others are doing around us can be a basis for those decisions and actions.  Otherwise, how is it that so many end up in the same place even though each one determined that it would not be so?  We assume that taking the same road traveled by others will bring us to a different conclusion because we will travel it better and more careful.

I surmise this is often what happens to denominations and their institutions of higher education. Consider the history of some of America’s greatest halls of learning.  They began as places for training clergy.  Their early stories include historical figures that played major roles in pastoral, missional and theological works.  Now, however, they are bastions of the most liberal type of education – far from “Christian” higher education and no where near their original intent to train people for ministry.  What happened?

I suspect that what happened is not all too different from what we see happening today in many Evangelical colleges and universities. There is a declension towards taking the road everyone else is taking to be “successful.”  Changes are made to increase enrollment to increase revenue so that the school can grow to increase enrollment to increase revenue, ad infinitum.

This is in no way to suggest that a Christian liberal arts education is undesirable. It is a wonderful thing.  Many evangelical colleges and universities are doing this very well.  However, the point I am attempting here is all about maintaining the original mission of training people for ministry work in churches and mission fields.  Can a school accomplish both?  Perhaps.  I do not know because I do not know of a good example of it.  Usually, one must gives way to the other and it usually comes down to “bucks and butts” – how much money students and their desired degrees bring in and how many students each area of study itself attracts.

When a school expands to accommodate other fields of study, it by necessity must give up something it is already doing. It is a general rule of life that one cannot say “Yes” to something without saying “No” to something else.  At the same time, saying “No” to some things allows one to say “Yes” to things that really matter.  We would like to believe that we can do everything at all times equally well.  However, it is hard to point to a successful example of it.

So, this is not to critique a Christian liberal arts education. If that is the stated goal and mission of the Christian school of higher education, then we can be satisfied with it and move on.  There are many great Evangelical school that are doing a great job of accomplish this mission.  However, this is a critique of the present state of educating and training clergy persons.  It is my observation that we seem to be “losing the battle” of training and equipping young people for ministry.  I say this as a pastor within the church and denomination.

I know that within the Assemblies of God denomination the median age of ministers keeps rising, there are not enough young ministers entering ministry as pastors or missionaries to replace those who are retiring, and there are not enough individuals willing and able to pastor the growing number of small churches who are presently left with no pastor. This does not even begin to address the needs of individuals who are needed to pioneer new ministries.  This dilemma is repeated in other denominations according to my circle of ministry friends.

When my parents attended what was then Northwest Bible Institute, almost all of the students attending were exploring or pursuing the possibilities of active ministry of some kind. Did all of them end up in full-time ministry?  No.  However, it was the purpose and goal of the school to be a place where that could be explored under the guidance of experienced pastors, solid Bible teachers, and exposure to ministry in various forms.  Many, many individuals did leave the school to go on to become missionaries, pastors and evangelists.

Today, at what is now Northwest University, the number of students in the School of Ministry numbers hardly more than a dozen. This is out of a school population of around one thousand.  Slightly more than one-third of the students even come from an Assemblies of God church.  So, while the school has grown in popularity for a wide diverse audience interested in pursuing a Christian education for careers in medicine, business, education, etc., it has lost its connection to its core constituency and mission.  (Incidentally, I remember when I was at Northwest and there was concern when the number of ministry students in training fell under 100.)

This may be a natural consequence of decisions made to broaden the mission of the school. If that is what it is (and I am certain it is) and if everyone is alright with this (and it seems that most people are, in fact, aligned on this point), then church and denominational leaders must quit agonizing over their loss.  Move on.

The question that must be answered and one that needs to be acknowledge may lie outside what the present institution (Northwest University) can offer isWhere do we go from here to adequately train people for ministry?  How can we challenge more young people to consider full-time ministry of service rather than simply a career to make money?

Hayas Lake Drainage and Meadow, Roslyn, Washington, September 2010

Hayas Lake Drainage and Meadow, Roslyn, Washington, September 2010 ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

As I suggest in my parable “Training Shepherds“, we may need to return to the original model and original mission – or some variation of it. Let me suggest why training up people for ministry under the tutelage of elder pastors and local churches may be a better way forward:

  • Financially – The cost of receiving an education from a private Christian school is prohibitive for people wanting to enter full-time ministry.  The reason for this is that the vast majority of our churches are small churches who can barely pay the living expenses of a pastor.  Forget health insurance, retirement contributions or saving because most pastors that I know in these congregations are just able to get by on the churches salary.  Most of them are bi-vocational, which means they have another job or career that supports them in ministry.  This is not to put down small churches (they make up most of our churches) or the communities they serve.  It is simply the reality that is too often forgotten by student and institution alike.  Many elder-shepherds have graduate degrees and many years of experience of exegeting and teaching the Bible, they will be able teachers.  Likewise, with the availability of online classes, correspondent courses, and seminar course work, a student would be able to receive a very fine education without the cost of paying full tuition for attending a school campus.  This would allow a local church to also invest in the education and training of the student, which is something that does not happen too often now because of the disconnect between the churches and their institutions of higher learning.
  • Educationally – I have often wondered if removing someone from ministry context, sequestering them on campus for four years and then sending them back into ministry contexts was the best way to train young people for ministry.  I chose ministry late in my education career.  It is one of the reasons why I went to seminary.  Even though I was heavily involved in my churches throughout my educational experiences, I really had very little real chance to experience ministry by shadowing someone in ministry, being mentored by an elder or being required to do something substantive in a ministry situation.  For my M.Div. practicum, I wrote an ushers and greeters manual for our church.  While it was a great exercise and I hope a help to my church, I never once was asked or challenged to be involved as an usher or greeter.  So, a writing project was to suffice fulfillment for my graduate “practicum”.  (Perhaps I need to look up “practicum” again.)  Classroom education cannot replace hands-on experience.  Knowledge of the Bible cannot substitute for knowledge of working with people in all sorts of life situations.  Learning under the tutelage of a professor what church books, constitution and bylaws and ministry meetings should be like can never fill the gaping hole left by the lack of handling them.  The hands-on experience and knowledge gained in ministry context is paramount to training and equipping.  It needs to be done before one is launched into ministry of any kind.
  • Relationally – While I look back with fondness on almost all of my professors in Bible college and seminary, the relationships that have stuck with me and continue to shape me are my peers in ministry.  Helping young people in ministry establish a mentoring relationship with an elder-pastor will carry them a long way into their ministry years.  In their turn, one day they will have the opportunity to give time to mentoring and training someone else.  This relationship can work both ways.  For the elder-shepherd will find his or her own ministry and life challenged by the fresh generational perspectives and energies of those placed under his or her care.  This will enable an opportunity to hold on to unchanging truths and practices while also embracing new ides and approaches to ministry.  The one in training will gain from the years of experience and the wisdom of someone who has been successful in ministry by learning unchanging truths and exploring opportunities.  The whole church would benefit from the synergy that results from such an association.

These are broad ideas and applications. However, the crisis of calling and training new shepherds for the Master’s fields and flocks is important.  Is it critical?  I do not know, but I hope we figure out some way to return to the important mission of calling and equipping people for ministry in an effective way before it becomes so.

What is evident is that what most churches and denominations are attempting to do is not working. When we look at developing churches in other places around the world, their model does not look anything like ours in the United States.  In many of these places, the number of followers of Christ and churches is growing so fast that it is difficult to keep up with training shepherds.  When one examines them, it appears that they took the pages right out of our original plans and approaches.  So, if it seems to work for them, maybe we need to go back to what we did at the beginning of our development, albeit with the advantages we have today with modern resources and tools.

A missional approach is perhaps exactly what we need to focus upon again. Returning to our original calling and mission when it comes to specifically training people for ministry may lead to different answers than what I have suggested here.  I am not in a position of influence to affect such a course for others.  However, until things do change, I know what I will be recommending to those who ask me about going into ministry and the best way to be trained, “Find a place that is focused on its mission and calling to train for pastoral ministry and that will give you experience in ministry.  Go there.”

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

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Soon after the tragedy of 9/11, I was in a gathering of community pastors praying for our nation, national leaders, military personnel and community. The emotions among all of us were raw and ranged from bewilderment to anger over the act of terrorism that took thousands of innocent lives on that terrible September day.  The overall consensus was that the United States needed to pursue the masterminds behind this attack on our soil.  In short, everyone favored attacking/invading Afghanistan.  I found myself in the minority.

It was not that I stood against military action to seek out the perpetrators of this heinous act. Rather, I strongly believed then that only military action, and military action gone awry in particular, would do the U.S. more harm than good.  I had read history books that detailed the rise and fall of empires, kingdoms and nations in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran and Iraq.  So far, the success rate was abysmal.

One can go back to the ancient Babylonian, Mede and Persian empires to see how quickly control of governing power in that part of the world can change hands. Alexander the Great lost a great portion of his army and ultimately died in that part of the world.  The Romans and their military machine never really fully conquered or controlled it.  Violent tribalism raged for centuries.

In more modern times, the Ottoman Empire succeeded only when it ruled these areas with an iron fist. Then, the British Empire was more than willing to give up control over these areas after World War I and the close of the colonial period.  It had paid a heavy price economically and militarily to just maintain a presence in that part of the world.  Its attempt to bring “civilization” and Western style government to these areas almost bankrupt it.  The nation building that followed World War I and World War II did little to bring about actual, viable governments.  The results of these efforts are what we are still dealing with today.

I may be wrong. Time will only tell; more so because the military work in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan (with unstable Iran in the middle) is not yet done.  The most wanted of the 9/11 conspirators are still at large.  It looks to be possible that America’s longest war will linger on another few years at least.  So far, the success of building a strong government in these areas is spotty at best.

Hot Rod, Cool Desert Nights, Richland, Washington, June 2009

Hot Rod, Cool Desert Nights, Richland, Washington, June 2009 ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

At the same time, I am delighted to discover that others are taking a different approach to addressing the struggles and needs of this part of the world. One such person is Greg Mortenson.  After reading his book, “Three Cups of Tea,” I started right into his most recent book (2009), “Stones Into Schools.”  It continues the tale of a mountaineer’s failed ascent of K-2, becoming lost in the wilderness and recovering in a very small, remote Pakistani village.  Greg is that mountaineer and “Three Cups of Tea” details his adventures that end in the building of a school for that village, along with the promise to build many more in the remotest areas of this part of the world.

This is the story continued in “Stones Into Schools.” However, the setting switches from Pakistan to Afghanistan.  Through contacts made with the people from the most remote parts of Northeast Afghanistan, called the Wakhan Corridor, Greg Mortenson and his team of unlikely heroes do the impossible.  They build schools for liberal arts education – math, science, reading and writing – in the most remote and poor of parts Afghanistan; the places where its own government will not go.  These schools, while open to boys and girls, specifically target the education of girls.  This is something that challenges the radicals of Islamic extremism – Al Qaeda and the Taliban.

By including village elders, tribal leaders and local workers, Greg Mortenson has guaranteed that these schools are locally owned and controlled. The finances provided for materials and some of the labor come with the caveat that the education will focus on reading, writing and math and that at least half the students will be girls.  Not only is the idea of a school enthusiastically embraced by the villagers, but so is the promise of educating their girls!  They are so committed to both of these that they are willing to defy the Taliban who threaten the teachers, students and their school buildings.  Not only are they doing this, but they are succeeding at it.

The success of Greg Mortenson and the Central Asia Institute in Pakistan and Afghanistan has captured the attention of many world leaders. The book “Three Cups of Tea” became required reading for all military leaders involved in Iraq and Afghanistan.  The approaches that Greg has taken to build relationships with village elders and allowing them to be decision-makers is now the approach the military personnel is taking toward building solid local governments in the communities in which they are placed.

The military leaders who have read “Three Cups of Tea” and “Stones Into Schools” is a list of “Who’s Who”: General David Petraeus, Admiral Eric Olson, General Stanley McChrystal, Major General Mastin Robeson, General James Conway, Colonel Stephen Davis, Major Jason Nicholson, Major General John Macdonald, Major General Curtis Scaparrotti to name just a few.  Likewise, these books are well-known among some of our governmental leaders: Rep. Mary Bono, Rep. Earl Pomeroy, Rep. Jean Schmidt, Rep. Denny Rehberg, Senator Max Baucus, Senator Olympia Snow, Senator Mark Udall, Senator Richard Lugar, Senator Ben Cardin, Senator John Kerry, among many others.

Whatever the future may hold, I believe that anyone who has strong opinions or cares about what happens in this part of the world owes it to themselves to read these two books. They are delightful reading.  Besides a captivating and moving story, they give you an insight into a culture that is terribly misunderstood.  More importantly, I believe these stories can show us another way of bringing peace and stability to this war-torn part of the world.  Instead of creating more enemies through military action and violence against innocence, this is a model for a way to build healthy relationships with people who are far removed from where and how we live in the U.S.  It will take “Three Cups of Tea” to turn “Stones Into Schools.”

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

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“Made in the USA” does not hold the credibility that it had fifty years ago.  Today, it communicates overpriced and poorly made.  Other countries have surpassed the USA in producing the same products more cheaply.  More important, some countries have surpassed the USA in producing those products with better quality.  Increasingly, those companies in the USA who are producing qualities products that the American consumer wants are foreign owned.

There are many reasons for this decline in quality and affordable USA products.  However, one outstanding reason that must be examined and critiqued is a growing cultural comfort with personal mediocrity.  For the last 50 years, the USA has increasingly raised up children fed upon the idea that personal work ethic and effort is not important.  We have taken pride in producing a “safe” environment in our schools and playgrounds where “everyone is a winner.”

For the past few Olympics, Americans no longer pride themselves in “taking home the most gold.”  Now, we just count total medals.  It used to be that Americans and their Olympians counted only the gold medals in comparison to other nations.  However, when that comparison became more sketchy in guaranteeing that we look good, we switched to counting total overall medals.  A silver and bronze medal is something to be proud about, to be sure.  But it makes one wonder if this switch was not a subtle way of seceding our ability to be the best or another expression of “everyone is a winner.”  Of course, this change did not just happen over night.

Our young people have their whole lives chewed upon the American idea that participation is enough.  As a result, they have come to expect that participation is all that is required of them.  Everything else will be provided for them to succeed because every child deserves to succeed.  It is no longer the individual’s responsibility to succeed but the community’s responsibility to make them succeed.  At the end of the day, every one will get a trophy, certificate, or diploma regardless of personal effort or work ethic.  And the community will take pride in making another child feel good about their self.

This inbred attitude is taken into the workplace where the right of a job is expected.  Or, it is taken to the college or university where the right of a degree is expected.  Once at work or in college, the expectation is that they should pass or qualify for the job, they deserve to graduate or be promoted, and they deserve to succeed.

Talk to any business manager or owner today and you will find the same critique.  There is an attitude of entitlement in the generation coming up that does not think that personal effort and work ethic should have anything to do with keeping a job or getting a pay raise.  It seems that teaching our children that “everyone’s a winner” – regardless of personal effort – has robbed our children of a productive future rather than helped them.

The pressure upon our school systems to pass kids, raise their grades, help them achieve seems to leave out one important factor.  The desire and motivation of the child to succeed.  When parents come to parent-teacher conferences blaming the teachers and administrators for not guaranteeing their child’s success, it only reflects the entitlement culture that has been bred among us.  Instead of looking at their children and their own family life as a possible cause for their child’s personal work ethic, parents with an entitlement mindset can only see and blame others for their parenting failures and the failures of their child.

It is no wonder, then, that when these young people enter the work force they are unable to hold a job.  Coming to work on time, putting in a full day’s work, working hard to help guarantee the success of their employer, and doing their best to personally learn and grow in their field is completely foreign to them.  When they find their selves unemployed, they become angry and blame their former employers for being unfair.  After all, “everyone is a winner,” right?

Hot Rod, Cool Desert Nights, Richland, Washington, Summer 2009

Hot Rod, Cool Desert Nights, Richland, Washington, Summer 2009 ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

Try and explain that attitude to the workers in the majority world who must work or starve.  Try to explain that mindset to the business owners and entrepreneurs of the majority world where “survival of the fittest” determines whether they are in business next year or not.  Try and explain that to the young people in the majority world where getting into a college or university is a slim chance and so every effort to succeed is important not only for their own personal success but for the survival and success of their extended family.  I think you would get a lot of blank stairs.

Meanwhile, Americans feel threatened by immigrants who come to the USA and take their jobs.  They will work jobs that most Americans will not touch.  Pooling their efforts and resources together, pretty soon their own and run those business.  Then, Americans are shocked to see those same immigrants running the hotels, restaurants, lawn businesses, laundry stores, gas stations, auto repair shops, beauty salons, and other industries.  Surprised, we cry in dismay that “those immigrants” are taking over our country.  (Forgetting, it seems, that our European, ancestors were once those same immigrants with those same work attitudes and goals.)

In reality, it will probably be these immigrants and their families that will save America from going into total global economic decline or even non-existence.  Every wave of immigration to the USA has brought its challenges.  But it has also brought renewed vitality to the American economy and politics.  In other words, an infusion of fresh blood into the American family tree is probably just what we need right now.

It does not matter whether you are a Democrat or Republican, lean to the political left or right, or hold to no political affiliation and shoot straight down the middle.  Creating a societal atmosphere of entitlement that disincentivizes the individual’s work ethic, work effort, and expectations for their rewards is hurting America.  It has largely produced an uneducated, unimaginative, and unwilling work force.  Meanwhile, other world economies are outpacing us, out producing us and will soon leave us in their GDP (Gross Domestic Product) dust.

There is no excuse in America for an educational system that has poorly maintained buildings, terrible educational models and opportunities and inept teachers.  Especially when one considers that America spends three-times more per student on education than its closest competitor in the world. More money is not the solution.  Countries with worse buildings, educational models and ill-trained teachers are still creating better students and a subsequent workforce.

Is it any wonder that in the last 40 years in the USA there has being an exponential rise in home schooling?  That private and religious schools are in high demand?  And that independent charter schools have taken off?  Everyone realizes that there is a problem!  Except for those at the leadership levels of our politically charged national and state educational systems and teacher unions.

There are no easy solutions to recovering what we have lost.  One does not just simply turn around a cultural and societal problem and attitude like this as if it were a U-turn on a Boulevard.  Nevertheless, it must be done.  If America continues with the idea that regardless of work ethic or effort “everyone is a winner” then, sooner than later, no one in America will be a winner.

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

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Self-actualization is the predominant god of our American culture. It is nothing new to humanity.  In fact, it has roots in humanity’s fall in the Garden of Eden.  The idea was made prominent in modern psychology and sociology by Abraham Maslow.  His famous quote, “What a man can be, he must be.  This need we call self-actualization” is taught in every psychology, sociology, and educational course.  It is a cornerstone idea of our contemporary world.

Kurt Goldstein (an organismic theorist) was the first to introduce the idea that every person strives to realize his or her or potential. His idea was that this overpowering urge was the master motive for every human desire.  In fact, he believed it to be the only true motive.  All other motives a person may have were simply manifestations of the desire for self-actualization. “Goldstein defined self-actualization as a driving life force that will ultimately lead to maximizing one’s abilities and determine the path of one’s life” (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Self_actualization).

Interestingly, Kurt Goldstein’s book was titled “The Organism: A Holistic Approach to Biology Derived from Pathological Data in Man”. Notice the part about “derived from the pathological data in man“.  Studying human pathology and deviancy certainly will give insights into the motivations of human behavior.  One has to wonder, however, if it is a good baseline with which to start.  That aside, Abraham Maslow broadened Goldstein’s idea and popularized it.  Now it is as much of our cultural ethos as religion and politics.

What started out as an identifier for human motivations has come to be considered a human right of every individual regardless of consequences or deviancy or even pathological behavior.  We are told that we will never be happy until we attain self-actualization, which has come to mean personal fulfillment and happiness at whatever cost.  I wonder what Goldstein and Maslow would think of where our popular culture has taken their ideas.  Did they even foresee the possibility of these unintended consequences to their studies?

Personal fulfillment and happiness are wonderful things in the right perspective and context. However, when they are twisted to the ends of human pathology or the spiritual fallen nature of humankind one has to wonder how bizarre it all can get.  After all, self-actualization, personal fulfillment, and happiness must assume the good nature and motivation of the human heart.  But what if that human nature is evil and the heart “deceitfully wicked”?  What then?

I cannot speak for any one else, but I know for a fact that many of the things that I have desired in my heart and thought would bring me ultimate happiness and fulfillment would have really destroyed me and my relationships.  It is only by the grace of God that I did not go there and get there or realize self-actualization.  Even those things that seemed good and honest at the time in hindsight now reveal a tragic end had I gone down that path.

Self-actualization seems to be the very thing that the serpent tempted Adam and Eve with in the garden: “Surely you will not die.  You will become like God”.  There is the promise that what they saw and desired truly would not destroy them.  Instead it would fulfill them.  They would reach their hearts’ true desire – self-actualization – to be like their Creator.  Who does not want to be like God?  That would be a good thing, right?  Not that way, it turns out.

In reaching out to consume the fruit of self-actualization they destroyed the thing they desired most – a growing knowledge of their Creator and becoming like their Creator.  The permissible attitude that says, “As long as it makes you happy is all that counts.  As long as you become a fulfilled individual is what is important.  As long as you reach the vision of who you think you can become (self-actualization) you have the right to it”.  This is the bait that appeals to our pride and feels so good to our wounded psyches.

Flamingos Ix Pu Ha', Mexico

Flamingos Ix Pu Ha', Mexico ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2009)

Unfortunately, it is easier to see and point out the deviancy in another’s choices and motivations than our own. Thus, our efforts at self-actualization are permissible where someone else’s are not according to our judgment.  But who is to make that big, final decision.  Many people would say that it is the changing mores of our culture and society.  Therefore, laws should change to reflect the social values of our times.  In other words, what’s outlawed today may be permitted tomorrow to make another group of people happy.  Thus, marijuana may be illegal today, but some day in the future it maybe legalized.  Homosexual marriage may be illegal today, but in the future may be legal.  Multiple marriage partners may be illegal today, but in the future may be legal (it already is in some countries).  Each group, however small, struggling to gain self-actualization, no matter how deviant, has the hopes that someday their behavior will be acceptable and normalized.  In the end, who has the right to refuse anyone from self-actualization?  Apparently, no one.  Not even a divine authority such as God and his Word.

Thus, relativism plays a big part of shaping attitudes toward self-actualization. If there are no absolute values or truths, then there really are no deviant or wrong behaviors.  We really cannot fault pathological human behavior no matter how slight or severe because it is all an attempt to realize what a human being truly can be.  In this world, it is like driving on a road system with no rules or no signs.  You can drive any way you like as long as you don’t kill someone else.  Just honk your horn loud enough to let everyone else around you know that you are there and where you are going.  There is no right way or wrong way to drive on life’s road.  All roads lead to the same end – happiness, fulfillment, and self-actualization.

So, it does not matter the cost or the consequences. Go ahead and get that divorce to be happy.  Go ahead and follow the natural inclinations of a deceitful and wicked heart no matter where it leads.  Go ahead and have sex with anyone as long as you and your partners are fulfilled.  Go ahead and do whatever is necessary to be self-actualized.  In the end, all that matters is that you are happy, fulfilled, and self-actualized.  After all, you are like God.  You know right from wrong and what is really good or evil for yourself.  Go ahead.  Indulge.  Take a bite of this apple.

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2009)

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