Relationships Are Everything. Literally.

November 29, 2010 — 6 Comments
A fish swims in the sea,
while the sea is in a certain sense
contained within the fish!
Oh, what am I to think
of what the writing of a thousand lifetimes
could not explain
if all the forest trees were pens
and all the oceans ink?
– from “The Dryness & The Rain” by mewithoutYou off of the album Brother, Sister

The Dryness & The Rain by Mewithoutyou
Listen on Posterous

I’ve flown through the first half of Margaret Wheatley’s Leadership and the New Science. In it the author is making a case for revisiting the way that we view organizations and structures, especially in light of new scientific advances. She asserts that we have been using outdated scientific metaphors that are causing more frustration that clarity (locs. 506 & 630). If we are to continue to draw metaphors from the scientific community, we should update those metaphors to include the discoveries and advances since the time of Sir Isaac Newton.

Specifically, Wheately delves into quantum physics, biology, and chemistry to find new, helpful ways to look at how we perceive and interact with organizations and the role of leadership in those organizations. Fundamental to understanding her insights is understanding the role that relationships take in life, both on a macro and a micro level:

Relational issues appear everywhere I look. Ethical and moral questions are no longer fuzzy religious concepts but key elements in the relationship any organization has with colleagues, stakeholders, and communities. At the personal level, many authors write now on our interior relationship with our spirit, soul, and life’s purpose. Ecological writers stress the relationship that exists not only between us and all beings in our environment, but between us and future generations. If the physics of our time is revealing the primacy of relationships, is it any wonder that we are beginning to rethink our major issues in more relational terms? (locs. 444-448)

More and more, science is determining that it is the relationship between things, more than the things themselves, that matter. As opposed to a Newtonian understanding which seeks to reduce things to their most basic components, analyze them, and then put them back together, the new science (quantum physics, most notably) seeks to understand how things relate to one another. This is especially interesting when it comes to subatomic particles, which do not exist outside of their relationship to one another (loc. 405).

Consider how contrary this is to our “advanced” Western society. We prize autonomy, individuality, and self-reliance as our highest aims. Those who are dependent upon others are seen as weak, lazy, or needy. The American Dream is to start from nothing and, by grit, determination, and hard work, achieve wealth and autonomy.

Wheatley is pointing out that the universe doesn’t operate that way. What is key for overall health and life is relationship. We need to be in relationship. Not only do we need human relationships, but we need to be in healthy relationships with our Creator God, with the earth, with our jobs, with ourselves. Relationships are dynamic, not static. This means that we never “arrive.” We will always be adapting and changing as our relational landscape changes.

The importance of relationships is woven throughout Scripture. Genesis 1:26 says, “God said, ‘Let us make humankind in our own image, after our likeness…'” Even before humanity was called into being, God was in relationship. Christ said that the greatest commandments were to love God and to love others (Matt. 22:36-40). His actions were predicated on his relationship with the Father (see John 5:19 ff.). His prayer was that we would be in him just as he is in the Father (see John 15:1-17 and 17:20-26).

When it comes to organizational leadership, this all requires a significant paradigm shift. We are used to setting up goals that can be measured, progress that can be charted, accountability that can be enforced, and results that can be replicated. Relationships defy such quantification. What might it look like to have as one’s primary job the cultivation of healthy relationships? How can one be supervised toward that end? How do you measure progress and repeat the outcomes? What do you use to understand effectiveness? I’m not sure, but my job allows me the freedom to experiment with these exact questions. Into the lab I go. . .

Anderson Campbell


  • Chris Marshall

    Hey Eddie,I felt a Zing in your comment that “we never arrive”. Autonomy in the American dream is never truly realized. That hurts my american-hood so good. The American narrative of the rugged inidividual that gets the grades, goes to college, gets a good job, climbs the ladder, attains financial freedom and then retires blissfully is complete folly yet it is our dominant paradigm as consumers and individuals. No focus on process, no attention paid to relationships except where they help to attain any of the above mentioned goals. You state, “relationships defy such quantification”. This has been my ecclesiology for years, and I still go back and forth as to whether I’m being productive or not because of a lack of measureables. I want to believe that most of what my community is “producing”, can’t be measured or seen. It’s a walk of faith, only sometimes do I walk it well. Thanks.

  • Bill Westfall

    Thanks for your reflections, Eddie. We do indeed need community.I’ve been reading the book your suggested to me by Steven Garber, “The Fabric of Faithfulness,” and trying to figure out the role of community in seeing people (but college students especially) develop behaviors from out of their beliefs. Garber says that it is critical for people to be involved in a community that is also seeking after the values of the worldview being pursued by the individual. I agree, community is key. But I also want to see something measurable in our communities. Is it enough for us to be a “social club” that gathers for the exclusive benefit of community members, or do we push for more? Do we push for outward expressions of our beliefs…expressions that go beyond the confines of our group? I want to see students make a tangible impact on the world. I think God wants this as well. I want to see students’ beliefs translated into behavior. How do we achieve this? Is it something I do, or something God does?

  • Rodger McEachern

    Eddie – another clear and thought provoking post. I see the tension between organizations with measurables, and relationships that defy being quantified. In my life and work I have, like Chris [if I interpret his statements correctly] between the two – in in my younger years more the former than the latter and as a become older more the latter. Yet can ecclesial structures, or relationships for that matte,r exist without some measurables,? I know by framing the question this way I may be revealing my Cartesian and Newtonian assumptions, and also framing the answer. Perhaps concerning relationships we will not measure them in terms of numeric values, or even play the game ‘I better than you!’. Yet it seems to me to be like the Father and to do as Jesus did involves measurement – maybe more or less, better or worse with Jesus being the standard. And to use one of Margaret Wheatley’s observations that sub atomic particles do not exist until they are measured…would love exist, or forgiveness exist if it were not observed and thus measured? ((tags:dmingml)) #dmingml

  • Chris Marshall

    Rodger,I agree, I don’t think we throw out what we learned in the newtonian era, but use it within the context of new learning. Perhaps we use softer measureables within the new science instead of the the more cold/mechanistic hard measureables of the past. I have learned to measure different aspects within our community model like how much the people are talking to each other and hanging out together in between meetings/gatherings, how people choose homes based on hosting community space, people saying “no” to moving to stay near their spiritual community etc. Those are soft measureables of leaving our hyper-individualism and embracing community life.

  • Anderson Campbell

    Great discussion here! I love it! All three of you are wrestling with the same tension. If you re-read the end of the post, you’ll notice that the questions are not “should we use measurements?” rather, what and how do we measure relationships. I think it has to go beyond counting. Since I completed this post, the story of David and the census of Israel has been rolling around in my head (see 2 Samuel 24 and 1 Chronicles 21). Now, I’m not suggesting that because of this one instance in Scripture, all measurement should be thrown out the window. But I do think that it speaks to our motivations for why we measure what we measure and the conclusions we draw from the results.Perhaps it was curiosity that plagued David. Maybe it was pride. Or it could have been prudent military planning. Whatever the initial spark was, David decided to take an accounting of the number of able-bodied fighting men in his charge. The writer of the Chronicles account says that Satan seized on this while in 2 Samuel it is attributed to the anger of the Lord. Either way, it was a bad idea from the start.Joab tried to inject some caution into David’s request and we are reminded that the great sea of people that make up the nation of Israel are YHWH’s people, not David’s. That there were hundreds of thousands of people that made up Israel was a testament to God’s faithfulness, not David’s leadership skills, military prowess, or magnanimity. Sometimes, not always, I think that the church growth obsession causes leaders to measure the wrong thing for the wrong reasons, much like David did. While many in the mega-church realm will eschew the prosperity gospel, they give a hat tip to its cousin, the membership gospel. There is a temptation to blindly equate church growth with God’s blessing. That is a dangerous proposition. Some churches become so focused on seeing their membership increase over last week, last month, last year that their focus shifts to maintaining that trend, often at the expense of things that would deepen spiritual rootedness but may not be as attractive and “feel good.”Now, I put myself at risk of being misheard. I’m not advocating that churches become skeptical of growth (though many in the Anabaptist tradition would advocate just that). Nor am I suggesting that we never, ever count the number of people in our churches or use that number to evaluate and gauge the successfulness of our mission. God does care about numbers and He cares about adding more people to His citizenry. I am, however, calling for a corrective in how many churches idolize church growth and equate it with God’s blessing. Just because people are streaming into your church doesn’t mean that it is God who is attracting them. We need to know why people are coming through our doors. When God does bless a church with a great inflow of people, that is cause (I think) for great humility and, perhaps, fear of the Lord. There is great responsibility that comes with having hundreds and thousands of people in your care. If the magnitude of that doesn’t drive a leader to his/her knees, that is cause for concern.This comment has turned into a mini-post. Sorry about that. So, to wrap up, it’s not about me. It’s not about how attractive my church is. Church growth should result in humility instead of high-fives. We still need to figure out how to best measure things that aren’t best measured by counting. The End.

  • Bill Westfall

    Our ministry organization, for many years never discussed numbers when we got together as team leaders. We had been taught that to discuss numbers often resulted in pride (which is true). But on the flip side, there was no accountability. Since we couldn’t talk about numbers, we really had a difficult time asking people how their ministry was going, so our conversations remained very superficial.We have changed this practice a bit. We are not afraid to ask about numbers now, but we also search for other evidences of “fruitfulness” in our work. We are getting better at asking more questions, and not afraid of the accountability. I think when we focus on numbers, we begin to assume that numerical growth is the only fruit that is from God. This is absolutely NOT true. Numbers can be a form of fruitfulness, but not necessarily. Fruit can take many different forms, and as we expand our understanding of fruit, we deepen our understanding of who God is, and how he works, and what he values.