It’s probably not surprising that ministers and funeral directors cross paths a lot. I guess it’s probably like produce growers and chefs, or teachers and crossing guards. We’re often in the same place at the same time. Though I’m admittedly painting with a very broad brush here, in my experience, funeral directors are often deeply compassionate, caring, and empathetic people who view their work as a calling. Day in and day out they sit with people in their deepest hour of grief and pain. I love to ask them about how they got into their line of work, what they most enjoy about it and what they think I can do to help families in my congregation when they are dealing with fresh grief. Time and again, they mention the importance of ritual or symbolism: placing a flower on the grave, placing a stone there, pouring sand over the casket. It’s important, it seems, to do something at that moment, to mark it, to honor it, to make sure it doesn’t just pass by like any other day. One funeral director recently told me about one of the funeral rituals she finds truly meaningful “I don’t know what all of it means,” she said, “But I know that at the end, they come up and everybody shovels three shovels full of dirt onto the grave and then they put the shovel back in the ground. They do that because…” and she stopped and swallowed hard and blinked her eyes quickly and then said, voice cracking “They do that because you’re not supposed to pass your grief on to anybody else” and then she put her head down and let the tears roll down her cheeks for just a second before she wiped them away quickly. “Anyway,” she said “It’s really special.”
This week my friend, colleague, and mentor Rev. Kelly Allen pointed me to a New York Times opinion piece about leadership. The piece is worth reading in its entirety (link at the end) but I found this portion to be particularly compelling:
“close off your options. People in public life live in a beckoning world. They have an array of opportunities. They naturally want to keep all their options open. The shrewd strategists tell them to make a series of tepid commitments to see what pans out. Hedge your bets. Play it smart.
But the shrewd strategy leads to impotence. You spread yourself thin. You dissipate your energies and never put full force behind any cause. You make your own trivial career the object of your attention, not the vision that inspired you in the first place.
The public official who does this leaves no mark. Only the masters of renunciation leave an imprint, only those who can say a hundred Nos for the sake of an overwhelming Yes. Only the person who has burned the ships and committed to one issue has the courage to cast aside the advice of the strategists and actually push through change.”
What does it mean, as a leader, to be a “master of renunciation” and to close off all of the many options and opportunities that might come your way in order to be supremely focused on one inspiring idea? I think that Mr. Brooks is on to something here. The idea of “playing it safe” and “hedging my bets” really resonated with me. What do you think makes a good leader?
For Further Reading: The Leadership Revival