Curiosity is the Serum for Judgmentalism

my most recent epilogue column for Youthwork Magazine (UK) came out recently. here’s what i wrote!

serumI get insanely annoyed by the judgmentalism within the Christian church. I’m not just talking about judgmentalism within a single church, but that judgmentalism that dismisses or diminishes entire movements and tribes within the bride of Christ. That judgmentalism that shows up as ministry leaders who spend so much time and effort deciding (for God, it seems) who’s right and who’s wrong, who’s “in” and who’s “out.” But, I can’t deny the beam in my own eye on this one.

That makes me think of a quote my wife shared with me sometime ago. It’s a quote about Gandhi (not by Gandhi), from the book “The Root of This Longing”:

Gandhi always brings you back to yourself–the beam in your own eye, the discrepancy between your own actions and the ideals you profess. He insists that you look beyond the headlines for the root causes of each new horror, and always the trail leads back to forces in consciousness, like envy and fear and the lust for power, and always you have to recognize those same forces in yourself.

Shoot. I would much prefer the point out others’ annoying judgmentalism than face my own.

Half a dozen years ago, the leadership team of ministry I was a part of was sitting in the living room of a beach house in beach town in California, on retreat. And we were getting worked. Our consultant was in the process of inverting all the dimensions of reality as we knew it. At one point, during discussion, I noticed a co-worker getting defensive. This particular co-worker was pretty transparent when about his defensiveness, so it’s not that I was being perceptive: his body tensed up and he fidgeted like crazy, his voice raised a half-octave, and his answers become a series of “uh-huh’s”.

In the spirit of the truthfulness we were trying to foster, I decided it should be called out — “for the good of the team.” I did, at least attempt to speak with gentleness, even though I was calling him out. I said, “Hey, can I interrupt? You’ve suddenly gotten really defensive.” And here’s where I completely blew it: in the insecurity of that moment (thinking I was doing a good thing), I turned to the rest of the room to back me up: “Am I alone in this? Do the rest of you see this?”

Before the defensive guy could respond, the consultant turned to me, and with uncharacteristic directness and push-back, completely unveiled what I had just done: that I had attempted to gang up on my coworker; that I had tried to manipulate everyone in the room to my opinion in order to corner my friend. Just as the tingly nature of being publicly exposed and realizing he right started to set in, the consultant re-directed again. He said something like: I’m calling this out for a very specific reason. If you five are going to be effective, you have to learn the skill of being curious.

He used the situation that had just been unveiled as a case-study: if I notice that my coworker seems to be getting defensive, and if I really want the best for him as a human being, as an image-of-God bearer, than I should be more interested in what his “positive intent” is (what’s driving the defensiveness, in this case), than in embarrassing him or making myself look like the hero of group dynamics and herald of truth.

This concept of “being curious” profoundly shaped that leadership team over the next couple years. We exercised it all the time with each other, and it — more than anything else, I think — changed the tone of our meetings.

I found the concept of being curious (particularly about someone’s “positive intent”) has spilled over into other areas of my life. And I think it might offer us some particular value in our overwhelming place of judgmentalism in the church.

If judgmentalism is the venom currently coursing it’s way through the veins of the church, I’m thinking the anti-venom, the serum, isn’t what we’ve thought it to be. It’s not more truth or more clearly defining what we mean or retreating.

Curiosity. Loving, “I want the best for you” curiosity. I think that’s the serum.

To the church or ministry leader who seems overly concerned with criticizing others, or with who’s right and who’s wrong, who’s “in” and who’s “out,” I ask, gently: What are your fears? What are you feeling, and what’s driving those feelings?

And to myself, when I catch myself in the midst of judgmentalism, I ask, gently: Wait, Marko, what’s going on here? What’s driving this judgment or attitude? What’s the positive intent behind this — how are you hoping to benefit from this? What’s another way to think about this?

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