The Fragility of Ministry
“Fra—gee—lay. Must be Italian.” 
One of the great things about the Christmas season is when the movie A Christmas Story is featured for 24 hours. I dare say many of the people who have seen the movie have never actually watched it in its entirety. Rather, most have pieced it together over the years one scene at time, watching the Christmas classic in pieces and chunks instead of the whole feature at once. The movie itself centers on Ralphie and his quest for a Red Ryder BB gun, something he wants for Christmas more than anything. Yet, the refrain echoes back to him again and again, “You’ll shoot your eye out, kid.” Ralphie, as a kid, cannot understand why people are so concerned.
Ralphie’s father, meanwhile, is the stereotypical paterfamilias. He desires order and discipline, and rejoices in his routines. Yet, the movie seems to hinge on the moment the doorbell rings, and Ralphie’s father receives a package that contains a lamp. But not just any lamp; a lamp shaped in the form of a woman’s leg. It’s an impractical purchase by a practical man. A gloriously funny step away from the character he seems to relish playing. This is never more pointed than when he is opening the package and sees the word fragile on the side. This results in the most quoted line of the movie, the one you see above.
However, it symbolizes one of the great themes of the movie. Later, at the climax of the film, Ralphie receives his “impractical” gift, the thing he wants more than anything from his father, who purchased it unbeknownst to Ralphie’s mother. And, predictably, he almost does shoot his eye out. But this is irrelevant to those of us watching the movie. The message, though more text than subtext, is quite simply that the best things in life are the risky things, the impractical things, but maybe especially, the things that can’t break. In A Christmas Story, that turns out to be the family itself. Despite all the things that happen in the movie, things that threaten to ruin the Christmas season, Ralphie and his family push through, and show themselves to be decidedly anti-fragile.
This is the theme of Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s book Antifragile: Things that Gain from Disorder.  A spellbinding writer, Taleb has made a career as an author by challenging norms in the world of business and organizational health. The book itself is made up of seven smaller “books” and includes essays on how some organizations are Damocles and some are Hydras (one regenerates because of harm, becoming stronger, and the other is just waiting for its impending doom), the difference between cats and washing machines, a conversation between “Fat Tony” and the “Fragilistas” (Taleb’s self-appointed moniker for academics), and how to talk to your doctor. The theme of all the books, however, is the idea that organization, individuals, and our very world would be better off if they structured themselves in a way that included, expected, and, in a healthy way, invited suffering. Why? Because suffering will make the organization stronger.
This is fascinating thinking when considering the ways in which churches organize themselves and the way they think about organizational health. Thus, a healthy organization will actually invite conflict instead of avoid it. It will build conflict into its systems and structures with the goal of becoming a stronger organization. Taleb would even argue that a lack of conflict means your organization is probably on its way to death already.
This is even more profound when one considers the very roots of the Christian faith having sprung from “Israel,” the one who “struggles with God.” Or even more to the point, what happens to the church that doesn’t have a theology of suffering? Will today’s churches die out not because of conflict but because they forgot how to welcome it? Or as Rom 5:3-5 puts it:
Not only so, but we also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us.
Taleb thus begs the question, “Do your organizations have character and hope?” If not, it may be because you have skirted suffering. Is your congregation fragile? What would it take to break it? These are great questions for any pastor or church leader to ask, but perhaps the main takeaway from Taleb is asking how churches organize themselves or how ministers think of their own personal growth. What structures are in place to allow conflict to come to the surface and make the organization, and the minister, better? If those aren’t there, leaders may soon find themselves in the very tenuous position of having only people who agree with them around. In that way, Antifragile is essential, sometimes laborious, but often enjoyable, reading. It is one of the more quotable books any leader can read so instead of closing with a flourish I leave you with the simple admonition to make it a priority to get this book and with some of his more thought-provoking lines:
Some things benefit from shocks; they thrive and grow when exposed to volatility, randomness, disorder, and stressors and love adventure, risk, and uncertainty. Yet, in spite of the ubiquity of the phenomenon, there is no word for the exact opposite of fragile. Let us call it antifragile. Antifragility is beyond resilience or robustness. The resilient resists shocks and stays the same; the antifragile gets better. (3)
If you see fraud and do not say fraud, you are a fraud. (15)
The robust or resilient is neither harmed nor helped by volatility and disorder, while the antifragile benefits from them. (17)
When you are fragile, you depend on things following the exact planned course, with as little deviation as possible – for deviations are more harmful than helpful. This is why the fragile needs to be very predictive in its approach, and, conversely, predictive systems cause fragility. (71)
A loser is someone who, after making a mistake, doesn’t introspect, doesn’t exploit it, feels embarrassed and defensive rather than enriched with a new piece of information, and tries to explain why he made the mistake rather than moving on. (74)
Absence of political instability, even war, lets explosive material and tendencies accumulate under the surface. (105)
Do not invest in business plans but in people. (238)
To this day I still have the instinct that the treasure, what one needs to know for a profession, is necessarily what lies outside the corpus, as far away from the center as possible. (248)
As shown from the track record of prophets: Before you are proven right, you will be reviled; after you are proven right, you will be hated for a while, or what’s worse, your ideas will appear to be “trivial” thanks to retrospective distortion. (310)
Never ask the doctor what you should do. Ask him what he would do if he were in your place. You would be surprised at the difference. (389)
 Nassim Nicholas Taleb, Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder (Random House Trade Paperbacks, 2014).