Vulnerable People Yelling At Each Other as Empire Twirls its Moustache

Oppressed factions splinter and turn against one another,

Leaving them no energy to notice the shadowy figure

Pulling the strings and accruing influence.

Congratulations, Empire.

You’ve got us right where you want us.

These words came to me as I spent this morning in meetings with theological educator and pastor colleagues on Zoom, on the phone, and on social media. I sensed a pattern that feels like a new pandemic, one with no vaccine as yet. The pattern redounds of a futuristic action movie, where a nebula of anxiety hangs over the world, causing chaos and madness as those under its spell desperately seek someone to blame for their feelings of helplessness and rage.

I have seen the movie The Avengers about 30–40 times. That’s what happens when you’re married to Marvel. My spouse loves all things Marvel, and the first Avengers movie has it all: great interpretations of beloved comics for my spouse. Good-looking people in complex relationships for sentimental, fascinated-with-humans me.

It wasn’t until I’d seen the movie many times before I asked Dan, “What’s the deal with the scene where the camera turns upside-down, and the Avengers start sniping at each other?” Dan explained to me that, in the comics, Loki is a trickster. He’s able to play mind games with people to gain advantage. In the scene in question, Loki uses his mental magic to make the heroes lose patience with each other, rendering them vulnerable to attack from Loki’s mind-controlled mercenaries.

Are our churches, schools, and other communal institutions vulnerable to mind-controlled armies? You tell me: school boards need armed security guards in order to hold meetings. Some of the most gifted, rising-star ministers I know are resigning from congregations because they can’t stand being blamed constantly for tension they didn’t create and can’t resolve. My most well-meaning colleagues are sticking their necks out, trying to manage conflict in the communities they serve, and finding their heads separated from their bodies. The shadowy figure clicks its tongue, wondering why they bother.

My beloved colleague and former co-instructor Paul Adkins used to tell our students at Andover Newton Seminary to read everything they could get their hands on about managing conflict. Go to every workshop. Take every class. Why? Because conflict is part of deep, meaningful community. Father of congregational systems theory Rabbi Edwin Friedman tells us that the absence of conflict says you’re probably doing something wrong. Small talk, withdrawal, and skirting around the Real Stuff gets a community nowhere.

In Paul’s honor, I’ll be dedicating my next few installments in this series to leadership amidst conflict. Here is my first edition:

When you sense that you’re vulnerable, and tempted to turn against another who is also vulnerable, ask yourself this question: might Empire be throwing a little party, gleeful that your distraction will give it that much more time to dig in? If yes, how can we rain on Empire’s parade by choosing to lift each other up, partnering across vulnerabilities and saying, “Not today”?

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Sarah Birmingham Drummond is Founding Dean of Andover Newton Seminary at Yale Divinity School and teaches and writes on the topic of ministerial leadership.

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Sarah B. Drummond

Sarah B. Drummond

Sarah Birmingham Drummond is Founding Dean of Andover Newton Seminary at Yale Divinity School and teaches and writes on the topic of ministerial leadership.

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