Leadership, Uncertainty, and Hope with Dr. J. Derek McNeil

This week, Dr. J. Derek McNeil, the president of The Seattle School of Theology and Psychology, engages in a candid dialogue with Dr. Dan Allender, exploring the multifaceted challenges of leading in today’s turbulent times.

Whether you hold a formal leadership role or not, this conversation speaks to the universal nature of leadership. Whether as a parent, grandparent, or friend, each of us has a level of influence on others and grapples with the burden of providing guidance amid uncertainty.

The conversation explores the tension between agency and dependence, and the balancing act of taking action and surrendering to a larger divine plan. Derek candidly shares his journey, grappling with the uncertainties of life while prioritizing his mental, physical, and spiritual well-being. Drawing from his upbringing and faith tradition, he finds solace in scripture, particularly Jeremiah 29:11, during moments of uncertainty and despair. His emphasis on cultivating a support system and fostering collaboration underscores the importance of community in leadership roles.

As you engage with this conversation between two insightful leaders, we hope it deepens your understanding of the complexities of leadership and sparks a sense of renewed hope in life’s uncertainties.

Episode Transcript:

Dan: I have the great privilege of being with Dr. Derek McNeil, who happens to be my boss. He is the president of the Seattle School of Theology and Psychology. So Derek, it is a delight. I’ll introduce you a little more formally in a moment, but what an honor to have you on our podcasts and essentially, given you’re the boss, on your podcast, so welcome.

Derek: Well, I have to kind of digest all that. I’m not sure what part of that makes any sense to me at all. Figurehead, mostly, but I… it is a pleasure. One, it’s interesting to say pleasure. We’re talking about issues of leadership and hopelessness and despair. The pleasure is in the necessity of the talk is these are things that need to be talked about. And in that sense, it feels like a rich pleasure as opposed to superficial ice cream cone. And I appreciate depth today.

Dan: More like steak.

Derek: Yeah, yeah.

Dan: Well, I would hope so. Well, let me further explain why my co-host is not with us. Rachael has a, not wickedly sick, but a not happy young one and no one to tend to that lovely child while we’re doing this podcast. So you’re stuck, Derek, just with me. But we’re going to be talking about the issue of leadership and trauma and hope. But it begins with the reality, at least I don’t know how you are feeling as the president of an institution, but my conversations with folks around the world, not just this country, I have felt more heartache and despair, more confusion, polarization, more what do I do with the level of rage and accusation, the presence of cancel culture with the tightrope that if I feel like if I just don’t use the right tribal language, I’m going to get excluded out of whatever world I’m leading. So not to belabor the point, I think most people are aware that leading at the moment is one of the most difficult seasons I’ve ever seen in my 71 years. So I’d love to get your perspective. How are you as the leader?

Derek: Some days? I don’t know. In all honesty, I think you’re so right that these are troubling times in that regard. And I think that the challenge for me as a leader, probably as a health concern, you have to be aware of your health, both mental and physical, your spirit, the discouragement of if you’re a strategic person, you’re planning your ability to have certainty. All those things get challenged. And then if you have not learned to cultivate a support system or group, it’s even more troubling for you. And because I think most of us are told you have to go it alone or else you’re not a good leader if you don’t. And these are times when you can go to some degrees alone, but you’ve got to find partners. And so I think I’m doing okay with the reality of an external environment that is not okay and with an awareness that this is not a job you can actually feel good about all the time, but one where you learn to respond and adapt and cope as best you can. So I’ve learned some skills. I mean, I’ve learned some things, but I’m doing okay. But the check for me is body and spirit, those two things. I check body and spirit and some days the body can be okay, not tired, exhausted, and enough sleep. But spirit be low,

Dan: Before we go much further, let me underscore for the discerning reader and listener. The problem with our conversation is both of us have both the privilege of being leaders. And there are a lot of people who are going to be listening to this going, I’m not the president of anything, I am not, et cetera. And I was attending one of my granddaughter’s soccer matches and the referee had to literally pull a red card on a parent and essentially said, I will shut this game down if there is another interaction with you. And the coach had to then engage the parent as well. And in that process, again, it’s just an obvious point. If you are a human being, you’re a leader somewhere, you are influencing people in some form, whether you’re a parent, whether you’re a friend, whether you’re a grandparent. Leadership has formality, but oftentimes it’s often in the informality of influence that leadership doesn’t get acknowledged that if you’re a human being and anything matters to you in the universe, you are leading someone at some point. And so this conversation is ubiquitous and universal for everyone.

Derek: Totally agree with that. I think that is the dilemma for people who don’t have the formal institutionalized role. And I had to learn to do and be willing to say yes to things. And I think that’s probably the step of leadership for me. I simply said yes to something. Somebody asked me for something and I said, yes, but I appreciate all the learnings that happened in those phases where I had to distinguish a voice and say, Hey, I’m not sure if I agree with that.

Dan: Well, prior to coming on and beginning the taping, you were saying that over Christmas, a beloved member of your family, 15 and a half years of caring and engaging you as a family, as the family pet, there was a prospect of having the righteous choice to let that pup move into eternity, but a decision had to be made one way or the other. So before we get much further, how did leadership on your part show itself in that context?

Derek: Joint and my wife and I. And she probably took more leadership in certain moments. We have a lovely little dog who really has become so much a part of our life and she is at the end of life, if you will, but she’s my wife’s companion. The negotiation of, hey, we’ve actually had some tussle about, okay, we need each other in this moment to actually talk to each other about what’s going to happen because this is a critical moment for us in our family life. And again, it feels like a family decision as opposed to simply a dog’s life is ending. So we tussled and came to agreement and my style is to think it and then try to do it. My wife wants to talk it all the way through and I’m thinking, okay, we just know what to do. I figured it out, we can just, and she’s like, well, you’ve got to say what you’re doing. And so part of me in terms of leadership, my leadership is to express more of what’s inside me and part of her leadership is to say, I need more than what you’re giving. And so it was very collaborative. It was very collaborative in that regard.

Dan: Isn’t that another way of saying you’re set up to never be enough, and yet is that not the reality for every leader, no matter what context, first of all, that there are very different styles of what individuals, let alone cultures need, but the inevitability that what Brenda wants, and by the way, I never see Brenda walking the dog.

Derek: Oh my goodness. She walks the dog,

Dan: Okay, I’m backing off.

Derek: They will go and be gone for hours. Historically. There are myths in our little, oh, I saw your wife when I’m walking the dog, I saw your wife way down like a mile away walking this little dog. So no, they go on record as being the kind of companion. So I’m just occasionally the caretaker.

Dan: Got it. So the dog no…

Derek: Third best, not even second best, but there’s only two of us in the house right now. But I’m third best for the dog. She will go with me and then we will tussle again. It’s a little dog. We will tussle about what direction we’re going. And my dog wants to be alpha and I stubbornly resist my dog being alpha. So I’ve got leadership pieces all around, negotiate, negotiating. But I’ll say this, Dan, this job, I have never needed more help in the job. I’ve never had a job that needed more help and more assistance than in this job. And to think of it as doing it alone or by myself or isolated from is such a foolish notion. And it does mean I have to also face into what I don’t do well with the people I work with. I have to ask them, please help me in this area. This is not really my gifted area or even I’m good at this at all and I need help in those spaces. And there’s something humbling about that. I mean that’s part of the learning of being a leader maybe in a formal role, but I think generic is learning to ask for help.

Dan: Well, and I don’t want to go back to Brenda and walking the dog, but let’s just underscore that sense of never being enough, but also knowing that the third best in a house with two humans, I would say that isn’t that fairly true with regard to leadership no matter where you are, that there will likely be the reality that as much as we may have elected you or chose you or whomever, however you got to this position, whatever decisions you make will only put you in favor with a certain group for a certain period of time and the group that was fully in favor of you when the next decision gets made, that even if it’s collaborative, even if it’s in one sense in the context of a level of mutuality, you will not be the first, you will not be put in the priority of being favored. Now, again, what I’m underscoring is there is a cost to leadership, which I think is one of the basis for many people to askew public service engagement in their church or taking on even in parachurch or social organizations. The task, especially in our day, seems so fraught with complexity that as we’re hoping to spend a lot more time than what we’re doing in this podcast trying to say what is leadership? What’s the issue of engaging trauma? Because so much of what we do as leaders is not just envision, but manage and engage the crises and the traumas of individuals and the organization. And it’s easy, profoundly easy to lose hope in that process. So I want to come back to that question. How have you kept hope? How has hope kept you? And are there again, I know this may sound like almost a proof verse text conversation, but what scripture has grounded you as you continue to wrestle but also grow and move in hope?

Derek: These are good questions. I’ll begin with the scripture since, and I wouldn’t even say it is a scripture as much as different moments, different scriptures seem relevant or louder for me. And I’ll say simply this two weeks, last two weeks, the beginning of January, Jeremiah 29, and again, it’s interesting how it comes to me as more of a phrase I’ve given you hope in the future. And it’s to a people in exile. And so Jeremiah 29:11 says, “For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans to prosper you and not bring you harm plans to give you a hope and a future.” And so what helps me manage the potential well, and I would probably distinguish despair and hopelessness. Hope for me has a future orientation and I struggle or will struggle. Most of us will struggle with hope and we lose our sense of agency into the future. In other words, it’s going to be this way. It’s never going to be anything different and I’m always going to feel just this way. And so the expectations for the future seem thwarted and the sense of agency, whether that be embodied, and I think this is where trauma comes in when your body is trapped and your psyche trapped in a certain containment, constraining and it’s not safe and you feel like this’ll never end, that’s trauma. And there’s a certain hopelessness, despair is this has happened to me and it will keep happening. And there’s a past sense of grief that I don’t know how to make sense of the grief. I don’t know how to make sense of it. So I think for me, in terms of the agency one, the future, the hope sense to not move into hopelessness, I had to learn that there are things I can do that give me hope when I have agency in the world, when I can go to the grocery store and get all kind of, I can do the things I want to do, my sense of agency is full least consciously, but when things break or when things are hard or I’m constrained or I can’t walk where I’m sick, then I start to feel that sense of encroaching upon my agency. I think that’s when God actually teaches us to shift our agency to God. And so I have learned, and I wake up at four in the morning at times, and I say, Lord, you’re sovereign in all the earth. What I’m saying is you have an agency and so you have plans for us that are beyond my capacity, my agency to bring about. And I think those are the ways I think in terms of grief or loss because despair to me has a sense of loss to it. And maybe I lost my agency that I have a friend who I used to work with at Wheaton when I was at Wheaton and she’s lost during Covid, she lost a son, an adult child, and she clearly is struggling with depression, despair, and she’ll occasionally text me and it’s not her personality to be withdrawn and closed off. And that’s kind of where the sense of I can’t make sense of something that happened two years ago, and this is the anniversary of that and how hard it is to face into that. And for the despairing piece, there’s something about grieving and finding some way of a sense of gratitude in the grieving, that’s the only protection I know from despair, which is giving up. And so I have tried to, when I feel the sense of grieving of a loss, something either didn’t occur or something happened or somebody passed, I have tried to not artificially, I think this has to be a full-bodied experience, try to find something of gratitude in what it is we’re living. And so I think with the school, it is, we’ve certainly had things that we’ve lost and things that is hard to see a future into both, I have learned to do the exercise of gratitude praise, and I don’t think of it as something I do as worship as much as I’m almost saving my own life. It is worship.

Dan: Yes. Well, you’re linking grief and gratitude, are you not?

Derek: Yes.

Dan: So I’d invite you to say more, most of us do not link grief and gratitude

Derek: The way, and it doesn’t happen right away. I think it comes with, this is kind of post-trauma growth material now, where you’re able to get out of the perseverating, they’re repeating it over and over and over and over and over and over and over again. You probably have to find another mantra. And so mine is God, you’re sovereign in all the earth. That’s my mantra to kind of pull me out sort of oh, oh geez. And I have to say out loud, God, you’re sovereign in all the earth and then there’s a searching for the growth of the moment. What is a growth orientation? What am I growing? Yes, there is a loss and yes, there’s possibility and even loss that I might see God more clearly and I have to find my way to that place. And then in the midst of still where my gut is hurting is to say, thank you Lord. Thank you. And I have a habit, as you know, when I pray I say thank you a couple times before I pray that thank you is to get me into a place of gratitude even to say, Lord, we need, or I need or I hope.

Dan: Well, I think of most of us, me in particular when things are not working, which feels like the majority of what it means to be a leader, is addressing the things that are not working well. And in that there’s propulsion, there’s movement, there’s choice, there’s what you have referred to as agency, but oftentimes that agency, when it’s thwarted, when it leaves us with this didn’t work. And actually I’ve now created more of a problem than what it seemed to be. As I began that repetition of propulsion, exhaustion, propulsion, exhaustion leads you to a point where at least I notice I have nothing to give because I have not had a posture of receiving. And so grief at least puts me at its best and perhaps better said, my best. Grief opens me to what you were referring to earlier. And that is I need the presence of others, not just for help to resolve, but just I need someone who can be with me in what feels like disaster. So grief in that sense sensitizes you to the reality that you are still alive, you still feel and you still want. And in that desire now the question is will you honor what your deepest desire is that agency, what comes to mind quickly is Paul in a Philippian jail and chained to a wall. I can’t remember who I think it may have been Silas that he was with, and they began to sing, which you can trivialize that to say, well, they just gave their hearts over to worship. I don’t differ with that. But I also think there was something in that that was revolutionary. They were essentially saying, every one of this room is ready for death or despair and we are going to bring, I don’t know how good a voice he had–if I had been that one, people would’ve been throwing things as they might–but there would’ve been that sense of what the hell is wrong with you? Do you not know you’re in prison? Do you not know you will likely be beaten and perhaps killed, but in the defiance? And that’s what to me, grief is there is a defiance against death by grieving and allowing your heart to desire. And if that’s accurate, then again, what I’d love for you to come back to is that Jeremiah 29:11, how has that focused and helped you engage what you have endured through the loss of significant staff? We’re about to move from a building that we have been in for about 230 years into a new and good, a new and good, but very different future. So it isn’t sir that you have not had ample loss.

Derek: I’ll go back to what you’re saying. I want to kind of echo, yes, it is… to be alone in grief is the worst. And so as I highlighted, hey, being with God, I’m also want to highlight being with other people who weep and mourn together. And I’ll even then do a historical thing. I’m sure that Jeremiah texts, I probably first heard from my parents, my mother maybe particularly. And so when I’ve given you a hope and a future is not something I just read, it’s something that echoes through history for me and my own personal history. It’s in the text. So there’s historical pieces to the text, and I’m sure we generation are not the first to say the text, but it is a story within me put in me and imagine for me and with me so that when I come to a space that feels alone, and I think this is a challenge of leading to it is you’re right, we have to recognize that in that prison we need others to sing with, to resonate with, to resound with. And then we’re not embodied alone. We’re more than just the sum of our two body parts, if you will. And the triad of us, God says, I’ll be in the midst of you that sense that we are and God is in the midst. And so I want to echo that and say, yes, that’s first. But I also know I wouldn’t have the capacity if it wasn’t put in me earlier. Much like David had to learn to slay things before he got to Goliath. This is to me the wounding of a young trauma where that historical capacity is questioned or not there or has been betrayed. I cannot rely on others. I am alone. This is where the struggle of trauma… And so there’s a need to work that before you’re in this situation, to have the resources in this situation to move away from death as opposed to tussle struggle and be drowned, pulled under by death.

Dan: And again, asking a hard question, but do you remember how your mother brought this passage to you or was it simply a part of the warp and woof of your existence in her home and in the world of her church?

Derek: Both. I mean, I think it was probably one in the air. It’s interesting the stories. We grew up kind of working class and I don’t think we knew how much we didn’t have at the time, but we didn’t. And so there’s always some challenge, financial challenge, some family challenge and some situational challenge. And what I saw as people or people who, both father and mother, people who had a certain trust in God to get us through things that we had no agency to get through ourselves. So it was in the face of as a person of color and a country, it was in the face of not having agency that a faith in God’s capacity to bring us over. And again, this is probably why you have some people of color identifying strongly with the Hebrew story from Egypt to a different land. The sense of there’s some things we can’t do. There’s some things not in our agency to do, if you will. Or at least we are not aware of that agency and we need to rely on something. And it’s interesting that God gives us the story of a people that says, Hey, I want you to depend on me, which is a hard, modern, Christian thing. I think we, part of the challenge I see in terms of Christian environment now, we don’t necessarily feel comfortable depending on God because we have our own sense of agency about it. Yeah. So our engagement with politics is about our own agency and our sense of who we are and being abused is about our own agency and recapturing that agency and fighting for that agency. And I think we may distort what it is we’re called to be as people of God. It doesn’t mean we’re not with agency, but we may be distorting what it is we’ve been called to be.

Dan: Yeah. Well it’s a letter to exiles. And in that sense, no wonder the African-American community, many immigrant communities, but particularly the African-American community literally are in the country because of exile and then often two layer, three layer exile from positions and places of power because of the color of one’s skin. So the reality that this has been a fundamental family, church, community, reflection again, I know I’m not asking it terribly well, but how has it in one sense invigorated but also at times confused you as to how to live out what has been a birthright gift to you?

Derek: And it’s good. I think it’s been both. There’s been moments where I’ll question, Hey, this is the way I see the world and this is how I believe God has engaged me in it. And other folks will say, well, you need to do something about that. And I’m like, but if you do something now, you might have unintended consequences later on. This is the challenge of having you perceive yourself as being full of agency. And so there’s a part of me knows I have to act. There’s an agent you’ve got to do that you can’t stand. But there’s another part of me that says, Hey, but to act too soon without in some ways understanding what God is doing, a larger picture, at least what God might be doing. And that’s the question, what are you doing? That sort of prophet, I can’t see what is God doing is the question that I always have because there’s some things there for me to do and there are other things that I really am reliant on God to do on our behalf. And so it will times I will question, okay, everyone else wants me to jump at that. And yeah, that would work. That would work. It would appease the moment, it would solve the problem. It would take it away from our stimulation, but then you’ll have to see it again in two years. And I am built to not want to keep repeating and I don’t want to be in the land of bondage for generation after generation because we repeat the same cultural style of engagement.

Dan: Back to the issue of agency to wait. And the issue of even in the waiting to be a disruptive presence of gratitude, it is part of how I’m thinking in terms of this conversation and Paul on the Philippian jail. But there are passage right before that in this really amazing chapter 29, warns the people that are going to receive this letter, do not let the prophets and diviners among you, deceive you. Do not listen to the dreams you encourage them to have. They are prophesying lies to you in my name and I have not sent them. I don’t want to try and pinpoint who is the current focus of mis or disformation, but I think there is that assumption that there is somebody who can tell you how to get out of the bind you’re in. There is somebody who can give you, in one sense, false hope. That feels like real hope because it makes the promise that this is going to get resolved. And so when I read the entirety of Jeremiah 29, it’s to a community that’s being sent because of their failure into exile. And they’re being told to do what seems to be the most radical. And that is proceed with your life, have children be married, prosper spread, spread out and prosper. The city prosper. Prosper the city you’re in. Talk about a culture war. They were anticipating a culture war. And the divine presence, the goodness of God is essentially saying, make sure the Babylonian culture, which is wicked to the core, may it prosper because of your presence. You can imagine that many of the diviners at that point were arguing very strongly for a form of rebellion, not waiting and anticipating but actually resolving. So when you think about, and again, I’m not naming anybody in our world, but what have you had to deal with regard to those prophesying on your behalf a very different way of engaging than what you’re describing?

Derek: Well, there’s an, it’s interesting. I had a lot of feelings when you kind of shared a lot there and a lot of feelings come, lemme see if I can identify what feels most poignant. I’ll go back to listening to lies. The lies that soothe me, that make me feel like it will be different quickly are the ones that are most dangerous. That all of that you’re concerned about. I can dependently push off of me and somebody else will carry them. And so the seduction of the dependent little kid in me who feels like it’s just way too complicated for me to think about or feel or I don’t want to feel those things anymore, I think we will always be seductively available, whether that be progressively or conservatively any sort of message that says, hey, you don’t have to be worried about this anymore. You can blindly cast it off to the thing that feels most soothing. And I think that’s the challenge, the subversive challenge of the Jeremiah texts that say hey, you actually have to live with this. You can’t just fall on those that say, hey, tear it down or we’re going to rebuild it. Neither will be true. You’re going to have to live through a period of not just simply, I’m doing something with you, but I’m doing something in the earth. And that’s a bit more challenging. It means you cannot go the party line or at least you need to be careful of the line that’s most soothing. And it should put us in a bit more of a discerning space and a troubled space as opposed to quickly conclude. So I get nervous about quick foreclosures or those who know it a hundred percent to be true. And I recall a tussle when I was at another school and I remember having a conversation with a theologian and I said, what are the Holy Spirit, theologians…That was kind of a cruel, I said, what are the Holy Spirit? And of course, he didn’t understand what I was even saying to him around the topic we were talking about. And he says, well, and I said, well, could my grandmother pray and know something that you don’t know? And he said, no. And I said, then what are the Holy Spirit? Wow. So in the sense of when you have certainty, certainty has a certain comfort. It may not be certain, but the sense of assuredness can give a certain, relax-my-physical-body-from-threat comfort. That can be very deceptive. And the question for me is, what are the Holy Spirit? What is the Spirit doing? It goes back to the question I asked earlier, what’s the Spirit doing?

Dan: Well and that invigoration of hope, the other side is that it feels more under my control to no longer be bound by hope to live with so-called realism, practicality, pragmatism, or just a null, a fundamental sense of desire and midst of hope. So to be in a position where hope is maddening, it may be sustaining, but in one sense the passage that you have focused us on leaves me with so much struggle, with doubt between what I know past, what I feel present and the uncertainty of the future. And that question of will I lean into the future with a stance of grief, gratitude, of lament, but also anticipation In many ways, we’re rounding a lot around Romans chapter 8:17-19 in terms of the intersection of lament and hope. But before we end, I just have one last question. Are you glad that you are a leader?

Derek: Some days, that’s an honest answer and some days not. There are some days that I simply want to stay in bed and I wish if staying in bed meant I didn’t think about or worry about. And there are other days I’m quite excited that I’ve been put, this has been put in my hands for such a time as this, and it’s in that moment of for such a time as this, and I know this is mine to carry that I feel the most agency, not necessarily the most clear solution, but the clear sense that God, I’m not alone. You have not left me and nor have we left each other as a team, as a school, as fellow travelers and that we have something to do together. And that’s energizing that first day in bed is to remind myself, you don’t need to do this by yourself.

Dan: Well, yesterday, I currently wearing, you would not know what I’m wearing because all that you can see is my head and a little bit of my shoulders. But I wore my pajamas all day. I had multiple meetings and at the end of the day, nobody knew. Becky asked me the question, what’s the deal with regard to your pajamas? And I said, it was my surreptitious commitment to quit. I don’t want to get out of bed, but I put enough on to indicate that I’m still in the game and the ability in some sense to hold the two together and still wait, but yet move forward. That’s why I would say it is a profound, one of the most profound honors of my life to work for you and to honor the great gift of what your leadership has brought, not just to the Allender Center and to the Seattle School, but I’ll just say what it’s brought for me. So I thank you, Derek, that you apparently aren’t wearing pajamas today, not today. If you wanted to stay in bed, thank you for getting out.

Derek: Well, I’ll say this too, and that’ll be the thing as we kind of think about that notion of waiting but being active, the paradox of waiting, but yet being active and hopeful and not despairing. There’s not a regression or withdrawal, but it is an anticipation of what God can do, and we will keep exploring what that means for us as well.

Dan: Thank you.