I'm posting the first in a two-part set. I've been working on something - and while it is long, I didn't want to make it any longer. So Part Deux next week.
When I was in the military, “Command Climate” was a big thing. This describes not only the typical organizational stuff; how a commander’s agenda and vision, priorities and emphasis affected the whole unit. But it also included the words they used, how the commander carried themselves, how they spoke to subordinates, personality traits, tone of voice – all this had just as much an effect on the units they led. Leaders impact everyone in an organization, from the top to the very bottom, of course through their professional leadership qualities and skills, but just as much through their own personal traits as human beings.
Imagine two organizations – each with stated Mission and Vision. But with different leaders. One with a leader that is fair and consistent in their judgements, positive in their outlook, that uses constructive reinforcement to encourage the best out of people, that provides clear guidance and expectations, and within these, encourages original and creative thinking and actions. Contrast this with another organization whose leader is unclear in their guidance, who “moves the goal-posts” regarding outcomes and expectations, and who leads by intimidation and bullying.
It’s not hard to imagine the differences between these two organizations for employees. The leadership styles of the person in charge, the words they use and how they use them, what they do and how they do it – all this makes a huge difference to the organization as a whole! These things most definitely impact “command climate”.
I’ve been a pastor for about 20 years. Through these years, I’ve become more and more aware how impactful my presence is on Sunday mornings; my actions, my posture, my voice, even my emotions, all these combine to affect everyone there at worship. It’s the Sunday morning version of “command climate”. And one of the ways I am most impactful is through words… spoken words, on Sunday mornings particularly through preaching, but also the written word (as in this case).
I used to be an Army Intelligence Officer, and I remember an instructor at “Brand New Intelligence Officer School” say we’d earn our bread and butter as briefers; Intelligence briefings, Operations Orders, Decision briefings, etc. We were issued firearms – and taught how to use them (prior service Infantry training sure came in handy). But as part of a commander’s staff, our main “weapons” would be our pointers – pointing at maps, at time-lines, at photographs, etc.
He was right in a sense. Yes, we used the pointers to draw the eye, to emphasize something, for sure. But it was our words – what we said and how we said it – that ended up really being our “weapons”.
It’s clear words are how we clergy publicly earn our bread and butter too. We indeed have venues to put out words. It’s expected we put out words (particularly on Sunday mornings!). Whatever the size of the congregation, it is not unreasonable to assume a pastor’s words have impact on someone somewhere! What we say, how we say it, when we say it, and where and to whom we say it... all this combines to add to our version of “command climate”.
It’s an inescapable reality of the position we play in the grander public sphere…. just like other public positions and roles. Public voices have public impact! It’s just a reality!
And the more prominent our position, the more impactful our voice is. The higher the position a person holds in an organization, the more the voice of that person carries… the more impact it can have. The “voice” of the Bishop, for example, carries more import than the “voice” of the pastor. The “voice” of the governor carries across more weight than the voice of the local city or county bureaucrat.
Through his words, Winston Churchill inspired his nation to stand against the Nazi menace in Europe during World War II. He rallied his country – he united his country – together towards a common goal. His words inspired the best from the citizens of England. A portion of his words from one speech in 1940 still inspire:
“Even though large tracts of Europe and many old and famous States have fallen or may fall into the grip of the Gestapo and all the odious apparatus of Nazi rule, we shall not flag or fail. We shall go on to the end, we shall fight in France – we shall fight on the seas and oceans – we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air – we shall defend our Island, whatever the cost may be. We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender, and even if, which I do not for a moment believe, this Island or a large part of it were subjugated and starving, then our Empire beyond the seas, armed and guarded by the British Fleet, would carry on the struggle, until, in God’s good time, the New World, with all its power and might, steps forth to the rescue and the liberation of the old.”
And the famous portion of the speech by Martin Luther King Jr. inspired people all across the nation to lift their heads and see his dream of a better tomorrow. Here are small portions:
“I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, son of former slaves and sons of former slave-owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood. I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi – a state sweltering with the heat of injustice – sweltering with the heat of oppression – will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice. I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character. I have a dream...
I have a dream that one day in Alabama, with its vicious racists, with its governor having his lips dripping with the words of interposition and nullification, one day right there in Alabama little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers. I have a dream today ... "
And it continues…
“When we allow freedom to ring – when we let it ring from every city and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God's children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, ‘Free at last, Free at last, Great God almighty, we are free at last.’”
The truth is, those of us entrusted with positions that have “voice” are indeed bearers of a public trust. Words from leaders absolutely influence; they can inspire, they can bring together, they can lift up hopes. And words from leaders can do the exact opposite; they can inflame the fires of hatred and intolerance and violence of all kinds.
Leaders who have access to a public podium are indeed stewards of this responsibility. Having that public “voice” absolutely contributes to the “command climate” of our public discourse, of our public lives, of what we find acceptable and tolerable.
Like many people, I’ve been thinking about what happened in Pittsburgh last weekend. I’ve been thinking, not just about the person that did this, that murdered worshippers at Tree of Life congregation, but also about political language our national leaders use that influence these kinds of actions.
Saying a person with a “voice” – a person with access to a public venue, sharing their view, their beliefs and perspectives – bears no responsibility towards the larger “command climate” is an ignorant statement. It just ignores the reality that words from those in positions of public trust impact the greater “climate” of the system as a whole.
Are words and tweets solely responsible for the violence (both verbal and physical) and acts of hatred we have seen increase these last number of years? No, of course not. Are the national political leaders responsible for the actions of each person in our nation? Of course not. But through words – verbal and written – they are indeed responsible for the climate that allows the kind of violent and antisemitic and racist spewing – again, both verbal and physical – we see on the rise recently. Words… both verbal and written… from our national leaders, starting at the top, do indeed facilitate these kinds of behaviors antithetical to the Gospel we say we believe in.
Part 2 coming next week: The Gospel Message we say we beleive in... and how it relates to our lives in these times.