The Gift of Hard Things – Finding Grace in Unexpected Places
Yaconelli, M. (2016). The Gift of Hard Things – Finding Grace in Unexpected Places. IVP Books.
Amazon link here.
2023 is moving fast – and we are tired. It seems the world has been in a race to re-gather while eager to maintain all the innovations necessitated by Covid-19. It is often a heavy lift and one we are unsure we can, or even should, sustain. The pandemic is officially declared over – in the U.S., and yet hardships abound. How do we make peace with what is difficult to bear?
In The Gift of Hard Things: Finding Grace in Unexpected Places (2016), Mark Yaconelli, founder, and executive director of The Hearth, a non-profit dedicated to building community through transformational storytelling, offers an insightful and deeply moving meditation on what he calls the “alchemy of grace.”
Yaconelli opens his work by inviting readers to not only “accept difficulty as a natural part of the spiritual life” but to lean into and be transformed by the opportunities that challenges can offer receptive learners. The book is structured around what the author sees as the ten gifts of hard things: Burnout; Disappointment; Difficult People; Brokenness; Anger; Powerlessness; Loss; Suffering; Darkness; and Death. In each chapter, readers can open themselves to stories of grace, always unearned, finding solace and support within the pages. Yaconelli ends every section with practices to alchemize the spirit, categorized by what invites reflection and action.
Mark Yaconelli is a gifted writer. It does not surprise me that he receives high praise from acclaimed author Anne Lamott. I was full-belly laughing and unexpectedly crying as I immersed myself in his stories. Each chapter is insightful, heartfelt, and honest. Tough questions are posed, and vulnerabilities are shared. The Gift of Hard Things quickly points out its primary focus on the “middle sufferings” that impede spiritual growth. I had never thought about hardships existing at the mid-point of the emotional spectrum. Still, I appreciated the frame as it not only centers and normalizes feelings like shame, frustration, self-doubt, and emptiness squarely within the day-to-day but also reminds readers that there is a season for everything (Ecclesiastes 3:1-8), a built-in duality to the human experience.
Yaconelli ends his work by reminding us that we have a choice to “break or expand.” For those in ministry, whether lay or ordained, his book can be a gentle reminder that we are not alone and that it is normal and often necessary for things to be hard. We are in a liminal time, the often disorientating and anxiety-producing between place that emerges, as congregational consultant Susan Beaumont notes in How to Lead When You Don’t Know Where You are Going (2019), “through the slow death of systems or structures that have lived out their usefulness.” This liminality can be exhausting, and we are often overwhelmed by the work we are called to do. But as Cistercian Monk Michael Casey points out, “Grace itself is limitless; any restrictions come from the side of the receiver, that is, from us.” What unexpected places will we allow ourselves to find grace as we discern our next faithful steps?
Postscript: If you find this book a balm for the soul, as I have, I invite you to pick up Yaconelli’s more recent offering, Between the Listening and the Telling: How Stories Can Save Us (2022), as well as spend time in prayer with The Lives We Actually Have: 100 Blessings For Imperfect Days (2023), by Kate Bowler and Jessica Richie.
The Starfish and the Spider
Did you know that starfish do not have brains? They don’t even really have heads. So how does this knowledge pertain to leadership and healthy organizational systems? And what does this mean for the Church? In their 2006 book, The Starfish and the Spider–The Unstoppable Power of Leaderless Organizations, authors Ori Brafman and Rod Beckstrom offer readers an opportunity to explore “what happens when there is no hierarchy; when no one is in charge.”
The book outlines the difference between the traditional centralized leadership model, epitomized by the spider, and the unconventional, though a not necessarily new, way of navigating through a decentralized approach, exemplified by the starfish. Brafman and Beckstrom contend that closed spider systems are at a disadvantage – naturally hierarchical; when you cut off a spider’s head, the legs suffer. Whereas the open fluid system of the starfish, made up of a neural network of dynamic cells, allows for flexibility and adaptation. When a starfish loses a leg, it grows another one.
Calling attention to the strengths of headless models for organizing, The Starfish and the Spider highlights the power of the network. As the authors note, “when you have all the legs working together, a decentralized organization can really take off (p.87).” I found the book well-organized and clearly written. The authors define their terms well, backed up by interesting real-world examples from the Aztecs to online giant, Amazon. The effort is engaging and practical.
What does this mean for ministry? In recent months, I have read church-focused books from Anna B. Olson (Claiming Resurrection in the Dying Church, 2016), Dwight J. Zscheile (The Agile Church: Spirit-led Innovation in an Uncertain Age, 2014), and Dave Gibbons (The Monkey and the Fish: Liquid Leadership for a Third-Culture Church, 2009), and all three align with embracing a more decentralized approach to being the body of Christ in the world. Lay theologian Verna Dozier and other church leaders, like Fredrica Harris Thompsett, have been shining a light on the importance of the ministry of all for decades. This Acts 2, circular approach to being in community is chaordic and quantum. It lets go of what leadership expert Margaret Wheatly calls a Newtonian model of organization, embracing “power with” instead of “power over.” It creates the fertile soil for collaboration and emergence to grow and is the antidote for clergy burn-out and lay disengagement.
The last third of The Starfish and the Spider provides the perfect both/and offering – what the authors call “The combo special: The Hybrid Organization.” It is this section that I found most useful for church contexts. Sometimes centralized systems are precisely what is needed, and other times decentralized networks are the only way to grow. Sometimes spiders create barriers and stagnation; other times, starfish become nebulous and hard to manage. Often what works best is the middle, the via media; for Brafman and Beckstrom, this is a place that balances the creativity of the starfish with the structure of the spider. They end the book with ten rules for a new world. I commend them to you.
The Starfish and the Spider – The Unstoppable Power of Leaderless Organizations; Ori Brafman and Rod A. Beckstrom
Brafman, O., & Beckstrom, R. A. (2006). The Starfish and the Spider. Penguin.
Amazon link here.
Kim Arakawa holds a Master’s degree in Organizational Leadership and is currently pursuing her Ph.D. in Leadership Studies at Gonzaga University. She is the Project Manager for the Mutual Ministry and Baptized for Life initiatives with the Department of Lifelong Learning at Virginia Theological Seminary. When not voraciously reading leadership books, she enjoys quality time with her husband, son, and dog, Jack.