I thought there were a number of lessons for church leadership that can be drawn from the fiscal cliff crisis.
1. "Be wise as serpents..."
I thought there was some clever maneuvering through the crisis. Boehner had to keep House Republicans happy enough to re-elect him as Speaker (we'll find out today if it worked), while working toward the goal. Even his Majority Leader (Cantor) and Majority Whip (McCarthy) were against him.
I thought it was clever for Obama to turn to the Senate when the House fell apart. Frankly, I never thought they'd pull it off after the House recessed New Year's Eve. But then again, I thought it was clever for the Senate to wait until after midnight on New Year's so that it was technically a tax cut rather than tax hike.
Being a church leader can call for some clever maneuvering, especially when people are being stubborn and the normal route is blocked... and sometimes you have to be clever or someone else with power will out-maneuver you.
2. Clever maneuvering usually ticks people off.
Obama and the Democrats felt this wrath when they used clever maneuvering to get the Affordable Care Act through. Most people are relieved that Congress got this current deal done, but very few are sitting back admiring their savvy. Most are pretty ticked at a "do nothing" Congress.
So a church leader spends chips of clout when he or she uses cleverness or politics to get things done. There's definitely a time to do it, but you spend capital when you do. Choose your battles, because political and power maneuvering can be an act of leadership martyrdom. It can be worth it, just as self-sacrifice can be worth it. But choose when to use your stinger wisely (because it's the last thing you'll do as a bee).
3. Power always wins.
... even over the right, unless God intervenes. Of course to a large extent I mean power wins over what you think is right, because all the different sides imagine themselves standing up for what is right. The Republicans think they are fighting for justice, maybe even God. The Democrats think they are fighting for justice, maybe even God.
But secondly, God rarely rides in on a horse to save your cause. Most of the time, God lets power play itself out. I had to laugh at Bobby Clinton's aha moment in The Making of Leader when, surprise, surprise, he had this incredible insight one day well into his leadership career: "In a power conflict the leader with higher power will usually win regardless of rightness of issue" (188). Duh!
Yet, some church leaders don't get this. They think everyone will eventually see that they're right if they just keep talking or stonewalling long enough. Some people don't know when they've lost or when to give up. There's a time when you just don't have the votes, and it's pointless to keep talking. In such instances it doesn't matter how hard you bang your head against the wall. The wall doesn't care.
4. There are very few "victory or death" situations.
I believe there are causes worth dying for... but there aren't a lot of them. Not raising taxes at all? Not cutting entitlements at all? These are far from absolute moral principles. I'm pretty sure most economic experts would say the choices we've faced this last Congress have been between significant economic crisis and giving in a little on your absolutism of choice.
Try this "win or die" approach in a church and you're toast. You're fired. You're out of the ministry. You're out of leadership. In fact, say good bye to your marriage and any friends other than your wolf pack if you're a "my way or the highway" type person. Don't cry persecution when you are the one who ends up packing. In real life, you almost always have to meet people somewhere in the middle, even if they are stubborn donkeys.
5. Something is better than nothing.
The choice in this gridlock was not "taxes or no taxes." The choice was "some taxes or a massive amount of taxes." Thankfully, a majority of Congress in the end realized time was up and most compromised. No one on either side is happy, but progress was made.
As a church leader, as a spouse, as a parent, you often can't get everything you think you should. It's the difference between a teenager who daydreams about dating someone and actually dating someone who has thoughts and desires of her own. Sometimes they don't say back what you daydreamed.
But you can often get something. You can move things in the right direction. You can argue and argue over it all and end up with nothing. Or you can get something. You may not get the church to move locations, but you might get a new venue offsite in the meantime. You might not get the full membership rules of the denomination changed, but you might get a new category of community membership in the meantime.