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Feeling provoked (in a good way)? Hope so!

Posted by Arlen Vernava on February 7, 2012


whirlingdervish“Sometimes a man [woman] stands up during supper

and walks outdoors, and keeps on walking,

because of a church that stands somewhere in the East.

And his [her] children say blessings on him [her] as if he [she] were dead.

And another man [woman], who remains inside his [her] own house,

stays there, inside the dishes and in the glasses,

so that his [her] children have to go far out into the world 

toward that same church, which he [she] forgot.”  (Rainer Maria Rilke,trans. Robert Bly 1981)

Twenty-two years later this poem still provokes me (in a good way).  Transition work needsprovocation; do not fear provocation!  The therapist provokes, so too the medical internist, the concert pianist, the art gallery curator, the movie director, poet and prophet.  Jesus provoked.  Provocation nourishes leaders and the organizations/congregations they serve.  Are you, dear friend, provoking (in a good way) and are you working in a provocative-valuing environment?  If you think not, does any of the following feel familiar?

Unprovoked, leaders “remain inside the dishes and in the glasses.”  

  • habits include timidity, caution, status-quo, risk aversive, plateaued

 Unprovoked, institutions forget their founding story and their vision-directed purpose
  • behavior includes no consensus, turf battles, passive aggressive management, defensive focussed

 Unprovoked, persons/ideas/material resources wander ill-equipped “far out into the world”

  • best and brightest walk in the front door/out the back door, clients feel poorly cared for

  • creativity and initiative languish pent up or quit, exhausted

 Unprovoked, well loved organizations and her leaders slip into comfortable malaise...
  • everyone values familiarity, safety, rest until malaise passes it’s “tipping point,” then...

  • despair, chaos and every kind of nonsense demand their way  

Vision-directed, an organization and her leaders vibrantly balance familiarity, safety and rest with curiosity, risk and creative doing.  Rilke, like Jesus, understood that the question isn’t “will we (collectively) seek the ‘church somewhere in the East’” but “when and how will leaders lead?”  And religion-based or not, of course, every vibrant organization symbolically orients itself to the “church in the East.”  Metaphors abound:  beginnings, wakefulness (after sleep), life (after death), brightness, light, creation and creativity. 

Leaders and their organizations are drawn to this place.  Here they flourish, undergirded, guided and defined by who and what they cherish.  Provocation begins and sustains vision-directed leaders and organizations.  Persons and ideas sharpen one another, clarify and push, test and affirm.  

In the spirit of provocation, here are a few questions to consider:

  • Who are the provocateurs in your organization/congregation?  Are they valued or                marginalized?  Who nurtures an institutional spirit of provocation? 

  • Place “familiarity, safety and rest” alongside “curiosity, risk and creative doing.”  Do they provoke one another in healthful, vibrant collaboration?  Where do you notice and feel vibrant, passionate spirit?

  • Can you and others easily, happily, offer blessings and thanksgiving for the place you work, the people who lead and serve with you and the product/service you offer to your world?  

Feeling provoked (in a good way)?  Hope so!


 -Arlen G. Vernava

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Topics: deep dive