taking the words of Jesus seriously



Editor’s Note: This post is part of the Red Letter Book Club. It is an interview with Sarah Cunningham about her new book, “The Well-Balanced World Changer: A Field Guide for Staying Sane While Doing Good.”

You give a lot of examples of balance in this book, between risk & control, or passion & identity, for example. How do you define balance and what’s its significance?

I see the word balanced as being related to the words “healthy” or “well, ” “at peace” or “content.” Well balanced, in this case then, means finding leadership rhythms that allow you to pursue noble goals or support worthy causes while maintaining personal health, supportive relationships, and psychological well-being among other things. It may echo the idea of “fullness” that Jesus said he came to bring in John 10.

I should also be careful to stress that I don’t consider myself well balanced, nor do I know anyone who is. Not fully anyways. What I can say is I am more balanced now than I was a few years back. And I am trying to stay on course to become more balanced over time. But I don’t think balance is a permanent state if we continue to lead and pursue goals. We may find balance during a stage, but then we pick up a big project or some new ambition or circumstance lands on us and it often throws us off balance. We are always in the process of learning to balance new ideas, work, and life circumstances as life changes and evolves around us.

A book like this had to have been born out of a significant number of personal stories and experiences. Can you share a memorable one?

Yes. A couple of my friends and I were once involved in leading a ministry for young adults and we found ourselves connected to several young people who had experienced great tragedy in their lives and struggled to get past personal drama and dysfunction. We were constantly exhausting ourselves taking on their issues and cycling through whatever bad choices they made along the way and started to feel depleted and dried up, like we had nothing left to give.

We went to lunch with one of the elders in our church and he shared the lighthouse illustration that is in this book and is excerpted as part of this book club. He suggested we see ourselves as lighthouses, not just in the sense that we give off light to help orient people to shore but that also we realize a lighthouse defeats its purpose if it uproots itself and goes out into rocky, muddy waters to chase reckless captains. It no longer orients people and it lets one boat prevent it from offering help to the rest.

His words weren’t altogether new or ridiculously profound, but they were fresh air in the moment. I needed them to penetrate my situation and help me re-frame the way I was expending my effort. It was like a life raft that let me find a way to still help without it being self-destructive.

In the book you talk about writing a letter to your future self from your sanest self. Can you tell me more about this practice and why it helped? What other practices help keep us sane while trying to change the world?

The idea is that, of course, in our sanest and best moments, we see things much more objectively than we do when we are immersed in emotion, falling to temptation, or clawing to get beyond hard times. So it is helpful in these moments of peace and balance to get very clear about who we want to be in the world AND that might include knowing what we DON’T want to be as well. To do this, I wrote myself a letter encouraging myself not to get tripped up by either things that had harmed me in the past or behaviors I had seen subtract from other people’s ministries or well-being. And then I kept the letter for moments where I might become more prideful over some new achievement or more swayed by public affirmation and I would re-read it as a way of centering myself in my original goal and in my enduring identity in Christ that transcends any particular circumstances.

I think it is helpful for leaders to develop habits that help them become aware of their own patterns (for example, noticing what things start to fall apart in their lives before they reach burnout) so they can try to adjust and reframe along the way. The book shares several ideas for how various leaders have chosen to recalibrate. One of them came from Steve Jobs who looked in the mirror every morning and asked himself, “If today were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I am about to do today?” And whenever the answer was no for too many consecutive days, he took that as a sign he needed to make some changes.

Speaking of changing the world, your approach the topic as if it’s something innate in each person, we all desire to change the world, is that accurate?

Interesting question! I do think we all probably live in a certain amount of tension between “the world as it is today” and the world as we wish it could be.” For some people, their dissatisfaction or vision for changing their environment may be smaller. Maybe they just want to improve the morale at their workplace or they want to help their kids unplug from excessive technology. They’re still striving at change, but maybe not on a societal scale.

But I think this book best fits a faith or ministry leader or a visionary in the charitable or humanitarian field–people who are expending a lot of energy working toward a specific goal or cause. And because the book is titled “The Well-Balanced World Changer: A Field Guide for Staying Sane While Doing Good, ” I am guessing that most readers who bother picking it up are coming to the book with some frustrations and visions that are already propelling them toward action.

The idea of being “well balanced” could be seen as boring. But you believe this content is appealing to aspirational people. Why?

I get that.

So first, I’d say that as an “aspiring worldchanger” I too have this tendency to not want to be “balanced” or to reign in myself. I tend to be a dive-in, full-speed kind of person who kind of prides myself on having the ability to lock onto a goal and push my limits in carrying some cause across the finish line.

But what I’m suggesting is not that you have to deny that ambitious part of your identity, but that you can strengthen your self-management skills so that you are even stronger and can go even further and pay less of a personal cost. It’s a way of working just as passionately, and having just as intense personal drive, but employing more wisdom to work smarter.

Being polarizing often sells and attracts in this culture. I’m not sure being well-balanced attracts blog hits. How do you navigate that tension?

I am so glad you brought this up. Leaders today face a uniquely new tension because of the rise of social media. It’s a world where publishing, speaking, recording, career and other opportunities may very well be awarded on the basis of who has the largest platform, who is getting the most retweets and likes, or who is getting the most blog hits. And that encourages us to try to learn the best social media practices–how to title blog posts well, for example–in order to get our posts and work the most exposure. But the danger of that is we may begin blogging, writing, singing, and speaking about things that are no longer central to our mission because we are chasing the page rank or Klout score or whatever.

It’s a fine line. I think it is right and good to be a good steward of the material you produce, for example, and to want to share the learnings God gives you with as many people as possible. But it is a scary world when we who invest in “doing good” begin to see each other as competitors vying for a limited number of spaces as “influencers” in the “spiritual marketplace.” Even that term–“spiritual marketplace”–should strike fear in our bones. I hope we don’t buy into the illusion that only a few can succeed via stepping on others as they climb up the ladder. Any time our “good works” brood competition or happen at the expense of others doing good, I think we’re no longer on the side of good. It’s time to backtrack.

It’s better and will produce more enduring results if we choose to protect the condition of our hearts over chasing fame.

I know you’re the mom (aka, Chief Servant as you say it) to a four year old and one year old. In what ways, will you raise your boys to be well balanced?

One of the sentences I pray over my boys, repeatedly, is that they will have the courage to stand up for what is right and that as they do so, they will keep one hand on truth and one hand on grace.

There are several stories in this book that encourage us to appreciate the faith traditions our current day communities evolved from; to find reverence for the timeless and not just chase the new. I hope to instill in my kids an ongoing hunger toward a lifelong pursuit of truth, not just a hunger to find what’s new or trendy or popular.

And I hope that I will model for them a way of pursuing and finding truth that is rooted in personal humility. I don’t think we can present truth apart from Jesus’ instructions that we love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us. I don’t think we can divide our presentation of truth from love–a love that is not boastful or seeks no record of wrong. I don’t think we can live truth detached from Paul’s encouragement that we see others as better than ourselves.

But I think I’ll mess that up many more times before it is all over. And in that, I hope that I will teach them that grace is all-encompassing. And God is not a video-game designer who dead ends our lives when we take a right where we should’ve taken a left; that he is a uniquely loving being who desires to direct any life circumstance we find ourselves in toward our ultimate good. I will need that grace from them as well as others and they too will be presented with times they would benefit from being humble enough to celebrate being on the receiving end of grace as well.

This post is an interview with Sarah Cunningham about her new book, “The Well-Balanced World Changer: A Field Guide for Staying Sane While Doing Good, ” currently featured on the Red Letter Book Club.

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