By Eddie Pipkin

Here are two different ways to define the word misfit: 1) a person whose behavior or attitude sets them apart from others in an uncomfortably conspicuous way; or 2) a deviation or departure from what is normal or expected.  Thus, this term, misfit, might be an excellent choice to describe the person who is causing you all sorts of turmoil as you seek to lead drama-free ministry.  It’s also a really good appellation to choose when describing Jesus.  For church leaders there has always been a dynamic tension between the desire to keep things efficient and smoothly operating and the heritage of holy discontent at the center of our narrative.  Misfits, rather than being the sand in the gears of our organization, can instead be catalysts for creative change if we embrace them, empower them, and give them the tools to channel their restless spirits.

I was reminded of the mystical power of outsiders, misfits, and malcontents to shake things up as I listened to a great podcast from Malcolm Gladwell’s Revisionist History: “The Creative Power of Misfits.”  (I highly recommend a listen.)  This audio hour of reporting details the way that some famous successes have been the products of people who were given the freedom to shake things up for their hidebound organizations.

Of course, as Christians, we have been regularly reminded of the overlooked potential of oddballs, outsiders, and nonconformists.  It’s one of the great tropes of the faith!  Paul uses his own famously unnamed Achilles heel to lay out the principle by which God can use anybody, the quirkier the better: “My grace is sufficient for you.  My power is made perfect in weakness.” (2 Corinthians 12:9)

We routinely devour devotions which highlight this point that “We’re All Misfits” (with thanks to Christianity Today):

Jesus loves misfits; they’re the people he uses to change the world. Those who have it all together are too busy to be bothered with the messy, beautiful life of God’s Spirit. The imperfect, the weak, the ones who struggle with not fitting in or who can’t seem to ever get it right already know their own fallibility. God doesn’t want perfect people; he wants humble people. We’re all misfits—some of us are just better at hiding it than others.

We regularly embrace the tales of the underdogs who propel the biblical narrative, as noted by Andy Pierson:

It is through God’s eccentric lot that we see the earth move and the sky catch fire. I sit in bemused amazement after reading the Bible and the stories of the societal rejects God picks to accomplish the amazing tasks we see in the Bible. He has continued to pick the same type of person when he picked you and I to be His disciples and to carry on the Good News. It is the very reason that he picked them (and us) to do His work too. Flawed vessels accomplishing great things in faith by the power of God. The very power that resurrected Christ from the grave. (with thanks to “The Faith of Misfit Believers.”)

We take comfort in that misfit Paul’s words to the Corinthians:

Brothers and sisters, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. God chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him. It is because of him that you are in Christ Jesus, who has become for us wisdom from God—that is, our righteousness, holiness and redemption. Therefore, as it is written: “Let the one who boasts boast in the Lord. (1 Corinthians 1:26-31)

Really, it’s part of our spiritual DNA, isn’t it?

And yet while we celebrate the mythology of the divinely guided misfits, in the day-to-day practical aspects of ministry, we tend to shunt them to the side.  Dealing with them is often an inconvenience and an unwelcome distraction from our well-oiled plans.  This sidelining of misfit voices, however, is our loss, as evidenced by the “Creative Power of Misfits” podcast.  In such settings as the fabled Pixar movie studios, it has been the outsider voices that have reinvented and reinvigorated the mission.

Lesson Number One:

The best time to shake things up and try something new is when things are going well.

Our default as ministry leaders is and always has been to be unwilling to shake things up until things are falling apart.   Although innovation should be a constant and continual process to keep the energy fresh and free flowing over the long term, we tend to wait until we are forced by desperation to try new ideas.  The watchword at the local church is generally consistency, and ministry is often the apex of the philosophy of “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

But because we serve (or should be serving) such a diverse collection of people (perspectives, ages, cultures, theological leanings), even when things are going gangbusters, someone is feeling like they don’t quite belong—someone or several someones are feeling like they are misfits.  Helping them explore and navigate that territory is some of the most interesting work we can do.

We too often wait until we are in emergency mode to let the disenchanted try a new idea for which they have been long-time advocates: “Well, we’ve tried everything else.  We might as well let Sonya try her midnight drive-in yoga worship!”  These desperate moments come fraught with high tension and intense levels of scrutiny.  The fate of the organization seems to be riding on them.  But consider the same idea given a chance to find its groove during a time when things are going well.  The idea then has freedom to take its time in finding its niche.  It even has the freedom to fail, and in doing so to be fondly remembered as something we earnestly tried that didn’t quite work out, but from which valuable lessons were learned and useful new truths were discovered.

A successful time in ministry is the best time to free people up to try out new things, and some of the best people to free up to try out new things are the ones who are chafing under our existing routines.

Lesson Number Two

The passion of misfits can be harnessed to do great new things.

Let’s distinguish between the “never-ending grumblers” and the true misfits.  There are, obviously, some people who are complainers and malcontents by nature, and it doesn’t do any good to give those people the keys to the car—they’re just going to wreck it.  However, there are true misfits, people who love being part of our organization but aren’t happy with the status quo or don’t quite feel like they fit in.  Theirs is a ‘holy discontent,’ an authentic longing for something that doesn’t yet exist, and they are passionate about the opportunity to build a new thing or try a new thing.  These are the people we should be empowering.

I wrote about one aspect of this idea a couple of years ago in a blog post titled, “Boredom, Frustration, and Grumbling = Eureka!”  In it, I quoted Adam Strong as he defined the secret power inherent in frustration if we can successfully harness it:

Frustration is the feeling of being blocked from a goal. Although it sounds like a destructive emotion, it can actually be a source of creative fuel. When we’re frustrated, we reject the status quo, question the way things have always been done, and search for new and improved methods. But there’s evidence that dissatisfaction only promotes creativity when people feel committed to their team and have the support they need to pursue their ideas.

Quoting myself from that previous blog, there is a payoff worth pursuing in the giving direction to the divinely discontented:

There is a long and honorable history of ministry folk who were propelled to good works by “holy discontent.”  By this standard, Jesus, himself, often seems frustrated with the religious leaders of his time.  He proposes a whole new world view, actualizing God’s grace in surprising ways.  Imagine if, instead of constantly working to tamp down the discontented folks on our ministry teams, we freed them up to pursue the holy restlessness?  We can even incentivize it, offering this kind of deal to the disgruntled: “Look, if you will cooperate on helping us accomplish Goal A, you can have permission to swing for the fences and follow your passion with Goal B.”

People who aren’t quite fitting in (for whatever reason) have the eyes to see what we can’t see as  part of the “in” crowd.  They have the imagination to visualize new pathways and possibilities.  They have the potential to connect us with whole new categories of ministry participants who have been looking at us from afar and mostly liking what they see, but not quite feeling like they can connect.

Even when these initiatives to allow the discontented to try something new don’t work out, they indicate a level of listening and respect that is invaluable in the community.  It’s a beautiful kind of grace to believe in people enough to let them try new things, even if we don’t quite “get” the new things.  It sends a strong message of letting people be the people God has created them to be.

How about at your local church?  Do you value misfits, or do you roll your eyes at them and hope they don’t cause too much interference in your carefully considered plans?  Do you probe to understand why the misfits feel a lack of connection?  Do you empower them to not only express themselves in their discontent but to find creative solutions to build stronger connections to your ministry?  At what points in your personal journey have you felt like a misfit yourself?  Were you able to use that energy for good within an organization, or did you find your only option was to pursue a new home?  Share your thoughts and ideas in the comments section (even if—especially if—they take issue with the premise of this blog—outlier positions welcome!).