The “Confuser” Is In the Details

Sarah B. Drummond

David A. Mersky is a member of the faculty in the Institute for Jewish Philanthropy and Leadership at Brandeis University. About five years ago, I co-taught a course with colleague Rabbi Daniel Judson from Hebrew College on ministerial leadership, and he invited Mr. Mersky to speak to students. In his remarks, Mr. Mersky provided an overarching sequence in which leadership takes place: you cast a vision, and then you get obsessed with the details.

I am learning through Andover Newton’s steps in a bold new direction that even this simple sequence does not happen in a linear fashion. Leaders cast a vision, get obsessed with the details, and then revisit the vision in light of what they have learned… which requires more attention to new details. Sometimes leaders get confused as to whether they are dealing with a vision issue or detail issue, or they try to solve a problem with the details by changing the vision, or they ruin the vision by inflicting death by details.

In my work these days, I traverse the road between vision and details on what feels like a half-hourly basis. As just one example, I have hosted a number of forums and dozens of one-on-one meetings with current students about how they can navigate changes at the School while still meeting their goals. In these conversations, I have found that many students are viewing the School’s changes as part of their curriculum in two different ways.

First, some are watching the School’s choices and learning about institutional change in postmodern religious leadership. I am glad they are doing this, as we know that many of them will graduate from Andover Newton and enter ministry in a setting that is itself in need of a bold new vision.

Second, virtually all students have had to turn their attention to the details of planning their programs in order to ensure they can finish what they have started at Andover Newton. This intentional focus has stressed some students to tears, but that focus has also provided students with helpful insights about who they really are and what they really want.

I have never liked the expression, “The devil is in the details.” I almost always hear it come out of the mouths of those who have made careless and avoidable mistakes, or those who prefer not getting their hands dirty. But I appreciate Clarence Jordan’s translation of “Devil” in his Cotton Patch translation of the Gospels,* where Jesus is tempted by “The Confuser.”

Details can be confusing, but they can also be intensely clarifying. With every detail I manage in this transitional period, I come to greater clarity that our School’s mission is worthy, has had numerous expressions over the years, and must be continued forward no matter how multitudinous the issues that need to be taken into consideration. And as we obsess over those details, we can revisit the vision and even improve upon it. Attention to detail that can be confusing is also utterly worthwhile.

* Jordan, Clarence. The Cotton Patch Version of Matthew and John. New Win Publishing, Clinton, NJ, 1970, p. 20

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