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living in the awkward

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Life is sometimes awkward. It just is. There is physical awkwardness when our body seems to lack balance, grace, harmony, or skill. We find ourselves in positions which feel uncomfortable and we'd rather not stay that way for too long. I have awkwardly tripped and had a large wooden speaker fall on top of me. I have tried to open a door with my arms full and done some awkward contortions just to keep that bulky box tucked under my arm. Then there is social awkwardness which adds the element of other people seeing our lack of grace. We feel awkward singing or dancing in front of people because for most of us, it is very much a work in progress (or so we hope). Or maybe we are at a wedding dressed in jeans and a t-shirt when everyone else is in their finest clothes (the airline lost my luggage) making us very aware of the lingering looks people are giving us and the assumptions they are making about our lack of propriety. We can be standing by ourselves at a party, not sure what to do because everyone else is gathered in small, chatty cliques. But perhaps the worst is leadership awkwardness. Those times when we are trying to help others, speak in front of others, lead an activity, or explain something to a group, and it all seems to be going nowhere or somewhere we don't want it to go. I have had plenty of those moments.

I feel awkward pretty much every time I try to be generous, be it money, a gift, or a kind word I am attempting to give to another person. A lot of the time there are awkward moments when people come into my home for a meal, when I teach in front of a group, when I present a paper at an academic conference, when I am called upon to speak extemporaneously, when I need to explain something difficult or sensitive, when I pray in front of people or make a public announcement...well, you get the idea. Leading is just unnatural and clumsy at times. I see the eager faces, the sleepy faces, the cynical faces, the inattentive faces, the expectant faces, the doubting faces, the loving faces, the confused faces, and I know that what I have to offer will always be inadequate. I can never give people what they truly need and hardly ever what they want or expect. Everything I do as a leader will be a partial success at best. And I am okay with that. I try not to let it stop me from doing what is important.

I remember years ago witnessing a church leader going up to the front of the church during the worship time and kneeling prayerfully on the stairs (I think it was following a song about surrender). It was a touching moment, we all thought, but she later confided that most of the time she was at the front she was wondering if her skirt had caught on her shoes and was now exposing her backside. Despite the awkwardness, she did it anyway. A few months ago I gave a very short talk in front of 500 students. I had been asked to take a few minutes in the middle of an interdisciplinary conference to describe the graduate experience to a group of undergraduates. I spent a sleepless night trying to figure out what I could say, then a few hours the next morning with a quivering stomach, then I got onstage and spent 5 minutes stumbling and stuttering under the bright lights as I struggled to make a coherent point. Awkward, but I did it anyway. A few weeks ago I had to call someone who had a bad experience at our church and set up a meeting. Really awkward, but I did it anyway. Yesterday I had the urge to give a stranger a gift. It took me quite a long time to work up the courage, then I decided to do it anonymously. Of course, the man appeared in the doorway as I was handing over the gift to a third party. Awkward, but I did it anyway.

Awkwardness in leading is just part of the job. Leadership, teaching, and practicing love and compassion are skills I am always learning. I will never be perfect at them, but I can push through the awkward moments, the moments when I am trying out a new dance move, so to speak, and just commit myself to doing the best I can at that moment. Awkwardness is me being aware of my lack of skill and expertise. It is acknowledging that something is difficult and I will probably not get it right on the first try. It is knowing that process is a bit messy. But anyone who has ever been a teenager can bear witness to the fact that awkward is just another stage in growth, in maturity, and in developing life skills. Awkward is also what the distance between myself and another person looks like, but from experience, I know that awkward is an opportunity to grow in love, in patience, in compassion, in grace, and in listening to the still, small voice of the Holy Spirit.

We tend to hear mostly success stories from leaders. I have deliberately left out the ending of all the anecdotes above because for the most part, we are not privileged to know the final results of our awkward actions. I can only do what I believe God is asking me to do: to serve, to love, to learn to walk with others, to be generous, to be kind, to listen. And then I leave the results up to God. It will feel awkward. It might not look like anything. It might seem to be pointless. But I do it anyway. Ultimately, my success is not measured by the accolades of others nor by the number of followers I have. My success is based in how much I have loved and how much I have let my heart shine through my awkward actions. My confidence as a leader is never in my ability to lead, but in the sure-footed steps of the Holy Trinity to lead me (us) in the dance of love and joy and service.

Don`t mind the awkwardness, let`s dance!

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