The Physics of Church Leadership (3/3)
Newton’s Third Law of Motion Applied to Leadership In the Church
Law 3 (simplified): For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction in relation to different parts.
Newton’s Third Law is easily the most misunderstood of his laws of motion made more incomprehensible by frequent misquotes. Taken in the popular way (‘for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction’) it would seem to imply that forces cancel themselves out, in which case no movement would ever be possible! This is why the ending “…and directed to contrary parts,” is so crucial (or as we said “in relation to different parts”). In truth it has to do with interactions between pairs of forces, e.g. if I push on a wall, why don’t I fall through it? It is because the wall must be exerting a force back on my hands as well. Why is it that we are able to walk on the ground without falling through to the center of the earth? Because we push on the ground, but the ground must push on us at the same time too and with the same force. This law then is all about how object A interacts and influences object B, and in turn how object B interacts and influences object A. e.g. If someone pulls a rope tied to a wall, that wall pulls back with the same force. Force is measured in newtons and as one physics site illustrates, the newtons do not change from when measured from A to B or B to A.
So how does anything move at all then? Equal forces are not the same thing as balanced forces. In the illustration to the right the elephant will clearly win the tug of war because of its mass and its ability to accelerate that mass in the opposite direction (2nd Law). What does this law mean for leadership? Plenty!
First, why are leaders always so shocked when they begin a new initiative only to discover there is “equal and opposite reaction”? This is the natural state of things so instead of wasting time being awe struck every single time, we expect it and have a plan for it. On the one hand then, this principle is about not allowing oneself to be moved by unhealthy criticism. On the other hand, it’s about learning to persuade the elephant to walk in my direction. Newton wisely instructs, “Tact is the art of making a point without making an enemy”(#434).
Second, as stated in the Second Law application, this means that change is a matter of either gaining mass (of other influential voices, or, of a guiding coalition that can lead the way), or accelerating ideas (i.e. creating urgency or opportunity for great reward).
Third, leadership is about more than influence. Here is a surprising truth from this law: If someone weighed 150lbs the earth would be exerting a downward force of 150lb on them, but equally so, they would be pulling up on the earth with 150lbs too. We often quote Newton’s third law, but rarely do we believe it. For, the previous statement would mean that if I jumped up in the air then my force would actually be pulling the earth up. This is true, however the number is so infinitesimally small given the difference in the mass of the earth and its acceleration vs. mine that there is no way to notice it (however, it still is not mathematically zero!). This then reminds us that there are some forces too big for us to influence, prayer and fasting and active waiting on the Lord is always the answer (Matt. 17:21; Joshua 10:12-14).
Fourth, the fact that forces come in opposite pairs reminds us that creating effective change means recruiting teams of people who are not the same as us (so often the natural tendency). This is the organizing principle of Triperspectival Leadership that takes the categories of Christ as prophet, priest, and king, and observes that if we are truly called to be like Him it means more than the oft quoted “servant leadership,” it means living out the threefold office of Jesus too. Since no one person can do all that, they reason, it therefore entails creating a team of people with different combinations of leadership strengths. An executive senior pastor may be a king-priest-prophet combination, great at administration with a love for pastoral visitations, able to preach but maybe not his forte, while his associate pastor may be a prophet-priest-King, known for solid doctrinal teaching with a heart for intercessory prayer, but weak on administration skills (or in my case prophet-prophet-priest paired with an elder who is King-prophet-priest – probably the only reason any organizational element gets done!). While this model appears more “biblical” the truth is the categories are typological and do not always correspond in their application to modern leadership. It’s a useful tool but the deeper principle is pairs of forces get things done. A swimmer leaps from a boat (action) and the boat pushes backwards (reaction). A rocket bursts out a raging inferno (action) and the ground responds with equal newtons insuring it has something to push off (reaction).
Newton was an introvert and recluse and may have remained in obscurity if it was not for another force acting upon him to bring his genius forward. Edmond Halley (who discovered the eponymous comet) came knocking on Newton’s Cambridge door one day because he heard about an obscure mathematical genius toiling away beneath its stones. He wanted to trace the path of celestial orbits, but could not figure out the mathematical calculations. Newton quietly gave him the answer, to his astonishment, and later sent him the calculations. It amazed him and provided the proof that was so lacking for understanding the orbits of the planets around the Sun. Halley pushed Newton to publish his work. Then he pushed him more to write his now landmark Principia. Halley even paid for the book’s printing with his own money. These scientific advances began a revolution, but it was Halley’s question and insistence that brought Newton out of the dark corners and into the light of day to be known.
In church leadership we too need to find our “pair force” – not just someone we work well with on a team, but someone who brings out the best in us, who sees our potential (and we see their’s) and pushes us to greater heights. This kind of a person is worth praying for, searching for, and persuading to come join our leadership team (one wonders if Barnabas understood this when he sought out Paul; or later Paul when he grabbed hold of Timothy?).
Fifth, Newton understood the action/reaction of ideas that went before him and the need to give credit. In a letter to one of his critics who is best described as a “Hooke” in his side (Robert Hooke) he humbly said, “If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” Are we so eager to take credit that we as leaders forget those in our own local setting who have gone before us? Perhaps we pay honor to them first, asking questions about their initiatives, what people liked/disliked, what worked/didn’t work, then plot a path forward. Dale Carnegie’s world famous and influential book details the techniques for waiting, listening, and trying to find a starting place for your new ideas with other people first. Every initiative does not have to be new, it can and should build on the work of others.
While so many were out in the scientific world trying to find new things, Newton was testing the experiments he had been taught about yet trying to go beyond them too. From Aristotle to Descartes light was understood to be pure white. In order to get colors from light a prism was used that was said to distort the light in order to reveal a particular color. Newton set up a prism and passed light through it and sure enough on the wall he could see red, blue, yellow, etc. But he didn’t stop here. He wanted to know what would happen if he passed a particular color through another prism. According to the beforementioned theory it ought to distort the color into a new color altogether, but when he did it the red stayed red. The blue stayed blue. He deduced that what everyone thought was pure white light was in fact a collection of all the colors mixed together (you can thank him for ROY G. BIV). And just like that, he overturned 1900 years of scientific wisdom! As you can imagine, this led to plenty of controversy and criticism for challenging established ideas (especially from Hooke). Perhaps when it comes to our churches, instead of thinking we must do everything, be everywhere, have a dozen ministries going at the same time, we ought rather to just settle down into one and experiment with it for a time – really press into it and see where it goes. Do you have a small group ministry? How can that be developed into a missional network outreach? Are you reaching the elderly in one nursing home once a month? How can you reach one a week and many per month in your area? Do you have a soup kitchen or pantry ministry? How can you lean into that so Christians relationally connect to the people being served and friendships are made and bonds are solidified? How could that turn into a hospitality ministry for everyone in your church? Perhaps our next great ministry discovery is waiting for a little bit more time and experimentation before moving on to the next big thing.
Sixth, perspective. As giant as he was both in his day and in history, Newton could say,
I do not know what I may appear to the world, but to myself I seem to have been only like a boy playing on the seashore, and diverting myself in now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth all undiscovered before me.(#432)
Some leaders think they have “arrived,” and they tout their training over their people in just that way. Others wallow because they haven’t yet found their “smoother pebble,” but they are hyper aware that others beside them have. And still others lament that they cannot find more.
What matters most is not what I find on the shore, but who has already found me, in that, I rest soul. Newton seems to enjoy talking about the greatness of our God in this respect:
And from his true dominion it follows that the true God is a living, intelligent, and powerful Being; and, from his other perfections, that he is supreme, or most perfect. He is eternal and infinite, omnipotent and omniscient; that is, his duration reaches from eternity to eternity; his presence from infinity to infinity; he governs all things and knows all things that are or can be done. He is not eternity or infinity, but eternal and infinite; he is not duration or space, but he endures and is present. He endures forever, and is every where present; and by existing always and everywhere, he constitutes duration and space. Since every particle of space is always, and every indivisible moment of duration is everywhere, certainly the Maker and Lord of all things cannot be never and nowhere.(Book III, p. 505)
Seventh, people are more unpredictable than falling objects. Or, as Newton put it so well, “I can calculate the motion of heavenly bodies, but not the madness of people” (#433). Some who otherwise shouldn’t, will disappoint us. Others who otherwise wouldn’t, may make us proud. As a personal rule of thumb for my own emotional sanity I recite a mantra every morning, “Low expectations, high hopes.” Then I run scenarios of where people will fail me. In doing so I allow my hamartiology (doctrine of sin) to play out story lines and set my emotional expectations. I am the happiest, most content, most satisfied with my people, when I zero out my expectations of them, accept them for who they are, and where they are in their spiritual walk, and pray that the Lord does great things in and through them. I see this same pattern of sorts in Jesus interaction with Peter right before his three denials (Lk 22:31-32). He tells Peter that Satan wants to sift him like wheat (v 31). But then assures him,“But I have prayed for you, Simon, that your faith will not fail”(v 32). And just as quick he follows up saying, “And when you have turned again, strengthen your brothers.” Peter will go on after this to deny Jesus three times. Jesus’ prayer still came true, Peter’s faith did not “fail” in any final sense of the term, yet, Jesus does seem to assume some kind of serious fall and the need to “turn again” i.e. repent.
Our missional small groups are very intimate places to share our failures. As leaders it is true that is only possible when leaders are vulnerable first, for vulnerability begets vulnerability (and we’re not talking about sharing that you were speeding 5 mph over the limit!). At the same time, I am very well aware that the personal things I share will at some point be misused against me, misquoted, or behind closed doors I will be judged. It’s just normal sinful human nature. A few years ago a woman whom I had I spent tens of hours counseling with over the years (and her family and asking the church to support her with money for food and gas) told her women’s group that I broke into her house and stole her property and she needed them to pray about whether she should call the police. I laughed and went on with my day assuming my mantra had come true. She wasn’t wrong by the way. We had a meeting scheduled at her house so I walked in, but she wasn’t home. I went to leave a note and had a hunch she was spending money on marijuana so I reached behind a book case and found a large coffee can stash which I promptly confiscated. I told her she was welcome to call the police and explain why this massive can of pot belongs to her! Eventually she came clean to the group.
If leaders wait for 100% trust before being vulnerable then they will never enjoy the blessings of authentic Christian fellowship nor will their assembly of believers. Set your expectation, take the risk, trust the Lord to defend you.
The “church” is not a static object, a building, of course, we know that. The church is an organism and therefore it is alive with the Spirit of Jesus working through human sinful choices. Moderns should not be faulted for equating the two since the term, “church” derives from the Greek term kuriakos is used only twice in the New Testament and describes something belonging to the Lord (as in the Lord’s supper (1 Cor. 11:20), and the Lord’s day (Rev. 1:10). It came into German and then Old English to mean the Lord’s house in reference to the church building. The word “church” is not a translation, at least not a good one, of ekklesia which is used 112x.
The connotations of the Greek term ekklesia both in Greek culture but especially in New Testament theology seems to carry the idea of a legal assembly of living bodies (people) interacting with each other despite whatever location they may be or in what structure they meet (house, school, store; most often the local assembly rather than the universal church).
It is more popular to quote the etymology of the term as “called out ones,” and then to spiritualize that as those called out of darkness into light (1 Pet. 2:9). While true of the saints in general it is not true of the term. Here “called out” carried the idea of delegates being called out of the general populace to assemble for the purpose of action-oriented decision making (Encyclopedia Britannica says of Athens, “The heart and center of their government was the assembly (Ecclesia)”). We would not refer to the U.S. Congress as just some friends getting together for coffee, would we? Neither should we denigrate the symbol and status of Christ’s legislative body that carries His authority into the world to establish a new civil authority under His Lordship (e.g. the keys to the kingdom!; Matt. 18; Matt. 28:16-22; 1 Cor. 6:3; Rev. 2:26-27; of course some places it is more broadly understood so Acts 8:3). There is a reason why Tyndale refused to use any other term beside “congregation” to translate ekklesia. It had echoes back to the Old Testament as the congregation of Israel, a civil authority empowered by God. Likewise, God’s congregation had authority outside the Papacy which was considered “The Church.” As in, the only church. Truth be told, the vicar of Christ on earth is not the Pope, but every local assembly of Christ called to represent him.
Howard Snyder’s book may be imbalanced on certain issues, but Community of the King gets this right:
So the church is the agent of the kingdom of God. To speak of evangelism, prophetic witness or any other dimension of the church without relating these to the church’s kingdom mission is to lose the biblical perspective and develop a stunted vision of the church’s calling. Biblically, neither evangelism nor social action, nor the church’s worship life, nor any other aspect of the church’s being makes full sense divorced from the fact of the Christian community as the visible, flesh-and-blood expression of the kingdom of God (p. 13).
Eighth, puritan preacher Stephen Charnock described the essence of leadership and with it ministry when he said, “We learn more of God under the rod that strikes us, than under the staff that comforts us” (Complete Works, p. 81). Leaders are constantly under the mighty hand of God (action) responding with humility and dependence (reaction) and more times than not there is discipline in our own soul that needs taking care of. Like the kids arcade game Whack-A-Mole, we do best to keep our heads down and hubris in check lest God put us in check (just ask Driscoll, Mahaney, and more recently James McDonald).
Finally, Newton declared, “I believe the more I study science, the more I believe in God.” We pray that is true for the readers as well who took this journey through Newton’s Laws of Leadership.
“Let no one grieve at his poverty,
for the universal kingdom has been revealed.
Let no one mourn that he has fallen again and again;
for forgiveness has risen from the grave.
Let no one fear death, for the Death of our Savior has set us free.
He has destroyed it by enduring it.”
—John Chrysostom, Bishop of Constantinople; Easter sermon