Sabotaging Stewardship

This time of year, church leaders sharpen their pencils and write budgets, and preachers turn to the most inspirational sermon material we can find to motivate people to pledge and give enough to support those budgets. We do our best to talk about stewardship more inclusively than making a budget, and some of my friends do that very well. We preacher-types have become very skilled at laying out the benefits and joys of stepping up to a higher level of stewardship of our gifts, whether that means giving away more money or time, becoming a better friend, spouse, or parent, or taking better care of this earthly tent in which we live. What we almost always fail to tell anyone about is the dark side of stepping up:

If you become a better steward of your gifts, you will be sabotaged.

If you step up your leadership of an organization to the next level, and maintain a new sense of vision and clarity for more than a week, you will be sabotaged.

If you raise your fitness regimen, or your practice of spiritual discipline and ethics to a higher plane, you will be sabotaged.

Sabotage may come from others, especially if you change your functioning as a leader in that organization; or, it may come from your own body or soul, or it may come from an apparently random event in the world like a storm that knocks out the electricity just as you step up to the microphone to deliver a catch-the-world-on-fire speech or sermon. Once you gather some momentum, the gods will hatch a plan to throw tacks under your tires.

Don’t believe me?

Try it.

Raise your game.

And brace yourself.

Rabbi Edwin H. Friedman, in his unfinished book, A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix, tells of his body sabotaging his professional progress. Just as he reached a new level of being in demand as a lecturer and consultant, he discovered that he had both an arterial blockage and a blocked carotid artery. In the classic double bind, surgery to correct one could trip a catastrophic failure in the other. Stroke or heart attack, pick your path to death’s door. Different doctors gave him different advice. Friedman managed to navigate his way through this crisis, and thrived another six years after both surgeries, but he held no illusions. He knew that while his doctors could give him advice, he had to make his own decisions. The forces of sabotage inhabited the minds of even the most intelligent and well-meaning experts.

When I use the word sabotage, I differentiate it from resistance. Resistance and Sabotage live on a continuum from one to the other, but when that cucumber turns into a pickle, you know it.

Resistance will negotiate with reason and love. Sabotage will not.

Resistance invites conversation. “Honey, if you’re going to eat differently [paleo, vegan, vegetarian, or gluten-free] I need you to do most of the meal preparation.” Or, “Sweetheart, if we’re going to give away more money, we need to decide where it’s going to come from.”

Sabotage comes as a bullet from a sniper’s rifle.

Sabotage often arrives in a double bind, such as, “If you were really a good leader, I wouldn’t feel so upset by the changes you are forcing on us.”

“If you really wanted to stay sober, you wouldn’t need to go to those meetings.”

“Your body may be more fit, but all that competition indicates a deep-seated immature need for external approval.”

Five years ago, I came to the realization that I had neglected my health and fitness. I had gained nearly fifty pounds in the previous ten years, and my blood pressure and resting heart rate had begun to rise beyond normal levels. While my mind continued to think of myself as young and fit, the truth was that, approaching fifty years old, I became winded from strolling up a flight of stairs.

Once I paid an entry fee to a short triathlon six months out and committed myself to train for it, I envisioned a smooth path, swimming, cycling, and running back to fitness. Instead, I found the path to fitness littered with the stones of sabotage thrown by well-meaning friends and family members, a doctor, and worst of all, by my own mind and body.

My friends at a church supper did not mean to sabotage when they said, “As much as you exercise, you can eat anything you want. Here, have a piece of pie, just this once can’t hurt you. It’s really good. You’ll hurt my feelings if you don’t have any.”

My doctor friend intended to help when he said, “If it hurts when you run, you shouldn’t run anymore.”

My own mind kept telling me, “By the time my grandfather was this age, he was dead. By the time my father was my age, he had begun to show symptoms of a terminal disease of unknown origin. What am I thinking? That I can defeat my own genetic destiny?”

My own body did its best to sabotage my progress by bringing me sciatica, shingles, psychosomatic chest pain, knee pain, bronchitis, severe dehydration after a hot weather race, and a bicycle wreck that led to a ride in a helicopter to the trauma center for cracked ribs and a collapsed a lung.

So, what can we do in the face of sabotage?

  1. Prepare for it.
  2. Remember that it is not personal.
  3. Think and respond instead of reacting emotionally.

Simply knowing that sabotage will come whenever we step up our game will empower us. When it comes, we will find it much easier to navigate if we say, “Ah, there it is,” instead of “What the hell?”

Rabbi Friedman said, when it comes to leading change, “When the shit hits the fan, you have to hear it as applause.” Next time your child throws a fit and storms out of the room and slams her door, you can say, “It’s a standing ovation!”

When sabotage comes from other people, we will find it difficult not to take personally. We humans are programmed to blame. If we can see sabotage as a natural process in the course of change, we will be better equipped to handle it than if we blame, condemn, diagnose, or speculate about the motives of those who bring the sabotage to our door. If we look at sabotage as a natural reaction to change, then we will find it easier to remember that the person who delivers sabotage is a messenger, not its creator. If we cut off emotionally from the messenger, then the forces of sabotage will find a new messenger, one we would less likely expect and therefore one more likely to trip us up.

Sabotage, by its nature, finds our softest, most vulnerable emotional spots, and sinks its hooks where it hurts the most. It finds ways to tell us that continuing on our present path as a parent, spouse, leader, or athlete will lead to whatever we most fear, whether that is being unloved, disrespected, insignificant, ineffective, bankrupt, or dead. Sabotage challenges us to recognize our own emotional reactivity, work through it, and call up our full measure of clarity of thought. It challenges us to stay focused on that vision of a better future that put us on this path of change, and to discover alternate paths when sabotage blocks our way.

Have you ever been sabotaged? How have you handled it, or not?

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5 thoughts on “Sabotaging Stewardship

  1. How does the world know when I have $10 in my pocket? Whenever I do, someone invariably shows up needing it. I’m discovering it is more of an invitation – to deeper engagement with the Divine, with others, with who I am called to be – than I had expected. Meant for something other than sitting in my abundant pocket.
    The sabotage in my life these days comes in my exercise regimine. My new job has pushed my fitness time to the end of the day, when I am typically feeling “rode hard and put up wet.” Thanks for your encouragement to respond rather than react. I may not make 5 miles today, but I will make it out the door.

    1. Thanks for your comment, Sam. So true about the $10, and it begs the question as to whether what we experience as sabotage at first can become part of a calling. When somebody who needs the $10 more than we do shows up, that may lead us where we need to go. And giving it away may lead us where we need to go even if the one receiving our $10 uses it for a ticket to perdition.

  2. I needed to hear this, this week. Especially hard not to take it personally. It was helpful to think about this: that if we cut ourselves off from the messenger, “they will just choose another messenger.” No need to increase that tribe. I’m fuzzier about the stewardship connection, though. Are you suggesting we should warn people about said sabotage? And is there a way to do that without sounding negative and petulant?

    1. The stewardship angle comes from an inclusive understanding of stewardship. If we look at our calling and vocation as our personal stewardship of our gifts, then we can be sure that we will experience sabotage of our most deeply-held beliefs that lead to action. I think we can warn people about sabotage as long as we are playful about it. If we get too serious, it can sound negative and petulant. If we smile when we say, “When the shit hits the fan, you have to hear it as applause,” maybe a stewardship committee can feel excited when they hit resistance or sabotage: “We’re on the right path!”

  3. Neill, I,m amazed at the accuracy with which this article describes most aspects of my life… i didnt understand it, and was terribly upset when it occurred, seemingly over and over. You have shed much light along (my) the path God has chosen for me to trod; I will be more inclined to respond positively since I now know it (sabatoge) comes from any direction imaginable or not imaginable… and it is our duty to rise above that sabatoge and as you said regarding your example person who lived 6 more years ~ navigate it while not slowing down and moving forward…. or at least not stopping… when all else fails (somewhere in Bible says), STAND… you and Nancy are both cool ministers cuz you both are.. Love to you both. Lorene

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