By Eddie Pipkin
Former Navy SEAL Commander Jocko Willink had a habit of responding to his subordinates’ reports of unexpected crises with a word that irritated them until they got used to it: “Good,” he would say whenever they reported a missed supply drop, a busted piece of equipment, or an unfortunate weather forecast. Whatever bad news they presented, he had a consistent response: “Good.” It was his way to keep them motivated by unpacking the possibility of growing stronger together inherent in facing any challenge. It’s one of those good habits leaders develop — the ability to reframe and repurpose negative conversations — and it’s a key ministry strategy.
Commander Willink’s approach, which he now shares with civilians as part of a motivational speaking business, works by considering what skills can be learned in the face of a challenge. If you lose a piece of equipment, how can you still get the job done by improvising? If plans have to change, how can the team pull together to discover new strengths among themselves to get the mission done? Of course, a SEAL team has explicit, real-time objectives that must be accomplished. no matter the odds. But doesn’t ministry?
It is sometimes too easy for us to fall into ministry drift:
- There is no sense of urgency about the work we’re doing. Many of us build our ministry lives around the calendar – generally the liturgical calendar – and the ebb and flow of the ministry year, and the expenditure and depletion of our energy, is tied to seasonal worship schedules. Obviously, this is a big part of what most of us do – absolutely this is true for those involved in worship leadership, which is most of us – but it is very easy for the calendar to dictate mission rather than ministry goals dictating our sense of urgency.
- We run into an obstacle and we lose steam. Sometimes we have leadership structures that intentionally slow work down once an obstacle is encountered – rather than intensifying effort to move through a problem (the SEAL team way), we use the obstacle to say “maybe we should slow down.” Sometimes, we use the obstacle itself to indicate a divine sign that perhaps we are moving too fast.
- We have no go-to strategy for how to address familiar, recurring obstacles. If I gave you a mental exercise right now (which is what I am doing) in which you envisioned the formation of a new ministry effort, and I asked you to imagine five problems that might immediately present themselves, you would have no hesitation in naming some candidates: 1) Money 2) Volunteers 3) Congregational resistance . . . etc., — I’m just spitballing here – the point being that these are familiar, recurrent, predictable issues, so it makes sense to have creative people in your leadership structure who have a go-to plan for addressing those recurrent problems when they inevitably arise.
From a Gospel perspective, looking at the day-to-day operations of Jesus and the disciples, it is clear that they functioned much more with a SEAL team attitude than the moribund, meeting-based leadership structures within which most of us operate.
And here’s a thought: we work within our church structures in pursuit of the Holy Grail of smooth, quiet, peaceful, and drama-free operations. This is our goal, that things be calm, budgets are balanced, and things are comfortable. But this doesn’t look like the Gospel at all. Jesus and the disciples were right in the middle of things at all times, negotiating the complexities of the human struggle and understanding that that’s what the mission was. Perhaps we should remind ourselves that the very challenges we bemoan – and the people at the center of those challenges – are the reason we are here doing what we’re doing. The peace we seek (found in the Spirit and a life of focused discipleship) is not an escape from the chaos and the human drama – it is in spite of the chaos and drama.
- We’re having trouble recruiting people to support an outreach ministry: “Good!” Now we’re going to go out and talk to individuals about exactly how they are individually being led to serve rather than just putting out a sign-up sheet and hoping for the best.
- We don’t have enough musicians on hand: “Good!” Now we’re going to get to go out into the community and meet some musicians and see how we might partner with them in sharing their gifts.
- We don’t have enough money to keep the food pantry going: “Good!” Now we get to go start conversations with local business and other social service agencies to see how we fit into the big picture of what’s happening in our community and how we can partner with them in addressing the problems in our immediate neighborhood.
- We know we’re doing good things, but people just don’t seem energized. “Good!” Now we get to think about how well we are sharing our story and imagine new ways to share that story with more people. In the process, we find some creative communicators who have just been sitting on the sidelines waiting to do their thing.
- We don’t have a young adult ministry in our church: “Good!” Now we get to go have conversations with some actual young adults and empower them to build the kind of community they would like to see. We give them permission and the tools to enact their vision, and away they go!
Good, as well, that in facing each of these challenges we get to pray harder, work together more closely, recruit new leadership with new perspectives, reevaluate our priorities, and delegate what we’re been trying to do all on our own. We get to remind ourselves that the challenges are the work, and the work reveals the power of God to get things done – hopefully through us.
You can read a story about how the Baltimore Ravens turned their season around by embracing the “Good!” philosophy HERE. (True, they went out in the first round of the playoffs, but considering the many, many challenges they faced during the season, getting to the playoffs was an accomplishment to celebrate.)
And for a little further reading about the enemy of the “Good!” here’s an article on toxic attitudes/responses that knock us off our positive trajectory: “14 Toxic Thoughts To Let Go Of If You Want to Be Happier.”