Friday, December 16, 2011

S'No Leadership Fabrication

What is the definition of "leadership?"

If leadership can be defined as the ability to get good people to do great work, despite your own inadequacies, then this story will show I'm probably a good leader.

Otherwise... not so much.

Many Christmases ago, while living in New York City, I attended historic Calvary Baptist Church on Manhattan's West 57th Street, a major cross-town boulevard.  Desperate for Christian fellowship in the big bad city, I had joined the volunteers at Calvary's primary outreach to the city's singles, a Friday night coffeehouse ministry featuring contemporary Christian music.

I know - I know!  Contemporary Christian music has never really been my thing, but as I said, I was desperate to connect with Christians of my own "age and stage" in a meaningful way.  And the Solid Rock Cafe, as the ministry was called - after the famous Hard Rock Cafe restaurant down the street - needed volunteers.

Plucked from Obscurity

Calvary in general, and the Solid Rock Cafe in particular, were wonderful microcosms of the city's diversity.  We had a college student of Indian descent who set up the lighting, a photographer who set up the sound equipment, a Ford fashion model who ran the kitchen, and various other believers of all backgrounds, professions, and skin colors who filled in wherever they were needed.  Surprisingly, perhaps, considering the evangelical wasteland most of America's Northeast has become, almost all of the musicians we auditioned lived in and around New York City.  And while some were obviously better than others, I don't really recall us ever having anyone who was downright awful.

As it happened, a few weeks after I joined this group, the woman who'd been leading the ministry announced she was pregnant and would be stepping aside.  Not to worry, however; Amy had been one of the few married volunteers.  She and her husband had purchased a house out on Long Island, and now they were starting their family.  So everything was great.

Except that all of the other long-time leaders in the ministry who could have stepped into her shoes had defected from Calvary to join Tim Keller's fledgling church, Redeemer Presbyterian.  And although Calvary didn't mind former church members volunteering at the Solid Rock Cafe, church leadership wanted a Calvary member in charge for accountability reasons. 

One evening, while still living in Brooklyn, I got a call from Amy asking me to consider taking over for her.  I was floored - I hadn't yet joined Calvary as a member, and I was still learning the ropes - but since I was eager to get further involved, I accepted.  Calvary's pastor who oversaw the ministry, an associate pastor named Ken, met with me and agreed with Amy's selection.  And since nobody else already in the ministry wanted the additional responsibility, they welcomed my promotion with open arms.  And probably a fair amount of relief that somebody else was willing to take over instead of them.

Hey - I was young and naive.  I didn't know until later about all of the intricate church politics at Calvary that squeezed Ken through the ringer sometimes.  Music-wise, Sunday mornings were strictly classical and traditional at Calvary, and I loved that about the church.  Yet even though I'd come from a church here in Texas that had gone completely contemporary, I didn't fully appreciate how threatened some of Calvary's long-time members were by the rock music going on downstairs every other Friday evening.


On coffeehouse nights, we'd set out a sandwich board sign on the sidewalk along 57th Street outside Calvary's sanctuary doors.  We'd bring up a table from the basement and collect the modest $5 cover charge right there in the narthex, often with the doors wide open, until Calvary's deacons decided - wisely, probably - that having a cash box right by an open door along a major cross-street in Manhattan wasn't the safest idea.  We later moved our welcome table back downstairs, to a mezzanine below the sanctuary near the fellowship fall, our usual coffeehouse venue.

When I say casual and understated, that's what our operation was.

One time, while sitting at the welcome table with the narthex doors opened to 57th Street, I watched as a few tourists walked by, and they saw our sandwich board announcing "Solid Rock Cafe."  They stopped, shook their heads, and then lamented something about how even New York's Baptist churches were going to Hell in a handbasket.

That's why to this day, despite my strenuous objections regarding most contemporary Christian music, and my contention that "Christian rock" is an oxymoron, I choose my words extremely carefully.  During my tenure at the Solid Rock Cafe, I learned that there is a difference between the music and the hearts of its performers, even though sometimes that difference is difficult to discern.

At any rate, since I was in charge, I instituted a regular schedule of administrative meetings for the entire volunteer staff, so we'd all be on-board with what was taking place in the ministry.  Not that we did anything earth-shaking.  I would draft agendas for our meetings, give everybody a copy, and we'd work through them at a steady clip.  In my youth and naivete, I thought that's how all church meetings ran, until Ken remarked that our meetings were among the quickest he'd ever endured during his years of church ministry.

And indeed, attendance at the meetings actually grew as more of our volunteers realized they were efficient and respected their time.  Somehow, we'd manage to address everybody's concerns and feedback without hopping onto a lot of rabbit trails - something I myself am woefully guilty of instigating during meetings for which I'm not in charge.

During one of these meetings, we came up with the idea of hosting a special Christmas concert for the Solid Rock Cafe, where we'd feature a catered meal and a major talent.  (That's show-biz lingo for a popular musician.)  We'd had large concerts before, with the likes of Kathy Troccoli and Scott Wesley Brown, but they were conventional productions in the sanctuary.  This time, we'd do something more intimate, with tablecloths and special lighting, making it more of an event than just a generic night out.

The first Christmas we sponsored this concert, featuring Calvary member and Broadway actor George Merritt, our concept was very well-received.  So the next year, we decided to take it a step further.

White Christmas in Fellowship Hall

Calvary's fellowship hall is like many Baptist fellowship halls - more functional than fancy.  To fix that, at least temporarily, we needed an inexpensive yet striking solution.

I learned that as a member of 57th Street's business association, which included such famous neighbors as the Russian Tea Room, Steinway Hall, and Carnegie Hall, Calvary had a standing offer for discounts from a fabric store down the block.  Apparently, 57th Street used to be part of New York's fabric district, and a few venerable shops remained nearby.

Remember, I was young and naive.  I came up with the wacky idea of completely covering the drab off-white walls of our fellowship hall with yards and yards of white fabric, with maybe some silver thread in it to conjure up the idea of snowbanks with softly glistening flakes.  Ken's secretary went down to the fabric shop and selected what seemed like miles of white fabric with silver string woven into it, which the shop sold us for next to nothing.  Granted, it wasn't stylish fabric; I wouldn't have wanted to wear anything made out of it. But it suited my idea, and the price was certainly right.  So the Thursday night before our Christmas concert that year, I met with several volunteers after work to drape it around the room.

Except... all of the walls were concrete.  Duhh... it was a basement room, after all, and the walls were structural!  For some reason, I had assumed we could just tack the fabric discretely into the walls, but we quickly determined that we'd need a staple gun, or a hammer and nails.  But remember - this is New York City, a place where things like staple guns, hammers, and nails aren't necessarily in ready supply.  Fortunately, somebody with keys rummaged around in the locked janitor closets and found a huge hammer, and finally some small tacks.

We had a tall stepladder, which I, as the leader, proceeded to climb, so I could tack the cloth up against the cracks between the walls and the suspended ceiling.  Except, as you might imagine, the tacks wouldn't hold much weight for very long.  Oh, it was so frustrating, getting this shiny fabric put in place, only to have tacks fall out after you'd moved the stepladder along a few feet for another attachment job.

I've never been known for my patience.  I had a pounding headache and could barely breathe from an intense sinus infection.  I was tired, I hadn't had any dinner, since I'd rushed uptown to the church from my office downtown, needing to project an image of responsibility and authority by being early for the project.  For some reason, none of us expected this to be a complicated endeavor.  Yet we were making no progress at all.

How many times I dropped the hammer onto the floor while trying to nail those small tacks, I can't recall.  We had enormous, surprisingly heavy bolts of fabric that I didn't want to cut - even though doing so would have made our job easier - because I wanted seamless rolls of the glistening white fabric wrapping around the room.

Finally, I dropped the hammer one too many times - into my face, as I was looking up - and it fell into my left eye socket, popping my glasses off of my nose.  The falling hammer pushed my glasses awkwardly into my face, bending the metal frames, and cutting a small section of skin around my eye.  I could immediately feel it turning black and blue.

Of course, the tack bounced to the floor below, followed by the hammer, so I asked my friends to pick them up for me so we could continue.  But standing on the tiled floor, they all looked up at me on the ladder, and told me that enough was enough.  It had been a good idea to decorate the fellowship hall so elaborately, but we were wasting our time trying to make it work.  We didn't know what we were doing, and by now, we'd wasted so much time figuring out that we didn't know what we were doing, that we'd run out of time to do anything right.  It was late, I'd nearly gauged my eye out, fabric walls weren't essential to the concert, and we all had to go to work in the morning.

Their logic was irrefutable, so ruefully, I concurred.  We fixed up a couple of other minor details in preparation for the next evening's event, turned off the lights, and went home.

No Dreaming of This White Christmas

At work the next day, my sinus infection made me miserable physically, but my ineffectiveness at our decorating efforts the night before humiliated me - even though nobody at the office had any idea about it.  The scar around my eye didn't turn out to be as bad as it looked Thursday night, and I don't think any of my co-workers had even paid much attention to it.  I managed to make it through the day, so bundling up my dented pride, I ventured back uptown to salvage the concert that evening.

Tired, with throbbing sinuses and another empty stomach, I trudged up the steps from the Subway at 7th Avenue, across from Carnegie Hall.  I turned the corner and made my way down a blustery 57th Street to the church.  I pulled open one of the sanctuary's heavy wood doors, and plodded down the corner stairs to the fellowship hall, where I could hear my volunteers already bustling around in preparation for the evening's program.

What a reliable group of people, I thought with a weary smile.

I made my way through the mezzanine towards the balcony overlooking the fellowship hall, and there was Ken.  With two of my volunteer staffers, Krista and Michelle, who had been helping Thursday evening as well. 

And behind them I could see a beautifully-decorated fellowship hall, swathed with glistening white fabric from floor to ceiling!

Ken was beaming.  Krista and Michelle were, too.  The two women had each taken the afternoon off from their jobs to come in and figure out how to hang the fabric. 


I was stunned.  Floored.  Embarrassed.  Immensely grateful.  And then, proud.  Proud to have such friends, fellow servants in Christ, who would do such a thing.  Not for me, necessarily, although they said they really felt sorry for me after the hammer fell onto my face.

But they wanted our Christmas concert to be what we had envisioned it to be during our planning meetings - something special, and a bit unique.

When I tell people today, "some of the best friends I've ever had, I made when I lived in New York City," this is the caliber of people I'm talking about.

Follow the Leader

Throughout that evening, I remember a number of our patrons telling me they couldn't believe they were in the bowels of Calvary's bland fellowship hall!  We dined on a full-course gourmet meal prepared by a church member who used to own an exclusive catering firm.  Then another member of the church, who ran both a public relations firm and a popular solo singing career, provided the lush music for our concert.  And the room glistened not only with people enjoying themselves and being ministered to, but the faint twinkles of what - if you squinted hard enough - could have been snowflakes sprinkled along the softly-lit floor-to-ceiling fabric.

To this day, I still don't know how Krista and Michelle managed to hang the fabric and keep it on the walls without causing permanent damage.  I'm sure they told me, but I was too stunned for it to register.  Today, I thought of e-mailing Michelle, with whom I'm a FaceBook friend, and asking her again, but I think I like keeping this part of the story a little mystery.  For all I know, they duct-taped the fabric on the walls, and incurred the wrath of Calvary's sextons who had to repair the damage when it all came down.  I have no recollection whatsoever of who took it down, or when.  Usually, we were responsible for leaving fellowship hall looking like the Solid Rock Cafe had never taken place.  But I was so humbled by the efforts of my friends that my mind has blocked out what we ever did with all that fabric.

I moved from New York City before the next Christmas concert, but even years later, a friend at Calvary relayed to me that they were still using that fabric for Christmas events at the church.

These days, I've become disenchanted with the incorporation of snow themes with Christmas.  Experts tell us that even though we don't know the exact time of year in which Christ was born, it most likely wasn't anytime in December.  Or even the winter.  And Israel rarely gets snow, even if it was.

Not only may the European traditions of Christmas corrupt the historical integrity of the birth of Christ, they could be becoming increasingly insignificant as more and more people around the globe learn about the Son of God.  People who have never even seen snow.  And have no idea how or why it figures into the Nativity.

Nevertheless, to me now, it's not so much that the fabric with the silver threads looked like snow on the walls of Calvary Baptist Church's fellowship hall.  It's that my friends thought it was a cool-enough idea to try and create the effect by quietly, willingly taking time off from work, and figuring out how to make it happen.

A really good leader would have probably forced themself to think up a way to make that happen on their own.  Or at least have done a bit more reconnaissance around the venue before determining an effective course of action.  Or maybe even pressured the sextons to hang the fabric themselves, since they're the facility experts.

Ultimately, however, I'm satisfied appreciating the fact that volunteer staffers, without being asked, were willing to make extraordinary efforts out of kindness, and with no guarantee of reward.

After all, that's what God wants in all of His true servants, right?

Whether we're called leaders or not.


  1. What a great testament to the power of servants' hearts, something that sometimes seems hard to find in today's churches. But those servants are still around - if you can find them NYC, you can surely find them anywhere. ;-)

  2. Tim,
    Thanks for the reminder of God's grace being demonstrated through His people. Its something to say how God brings in that mixture of frustration and gratitude to sharpen our appreciation of Him.


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