If we all switched chairs

If we all switched chairs, this conversation would be completely different.

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Tim Dobbins is the youth leader who first helped me connect to a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. Tim often brought laughter to the conversation when he would quip, “You know, if we all switched chairs, this conversation would be completely different.” I still smile when I think of this phrase. What in the world was he talking about? It took me awhile to make sense out of this. I thought Tim was just being funny. Actually, he was communicating an important truth that I would later discover for myself.

It makes me ask myself, “How do I interact in groups?” I notice that virtually every time I walk into a meeting, I check out the seating arrangement. I have become quite proficient at the skill of surveillance and strategy. I subtly decide on the best seat at the table to accomplish my personal goal. May seem odd… but sometimes, I intend to be an invisible member of the meeting. I simply want to stay beneath the radar screen, off the firing line. I want to avoid being stuck in the trenches. Carefully, I plot my words like an advisor to the general at military headquarters. I have prepared for battle and am running on stealth mode. Sounds like guerrilla warfare. Probably describes my state of mind in those meetings. Choose the seat least likely to draw attention to myself. My advantaged position is often silence… followed by carefully crafted words. Regardless of my agenda, I am almost always intentional about where I sit in a meeting. I do not want to be vulnerable. I want to operate from a perspective of control.

According to my father, who was a math professor, if you have five people in a meeting around a table, the potential number of combinations of where people are seated is a “Five factorial” or 5 x 4 x 3 x 2 x 1 = 120 different combinations. Each one would have its own distinct pattern of interaction. If you are in a meeting and things are not going well, ask everyone if they are willing to change the seating arrangement!

Somehow, the words of Jesus keep popping up in my head. He was keenly aware of where people sat at the table. He says we are to take the lesser seat; to avoid lording power over others. One time, Jesus confronted two brothers vying for positions of power. “Jesus called them together and said, “You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all.” (Mark 10:42-44)

What if we rearranged the seating at a table? Would the conversation be completely different? Do I apply this same principle to how I choose my clothing, what car I drive, who my friends are, where I live and work? Do I tend to put myself in an advantaged position? Does my being in an advantaged position put others in a disadvantaged position? Does my being an “insider” create “outsiders?”

If my position at the table was one of the uneducated working man, would I have a different perspective? If I were a woman at the table, would I find sexual innuendoes charming or cute? If a person of color, would I tolerate the tenseness in the room when I expressed a controversial opinion? The beginning of knowledge is recognizing that which we have not experienced–of knowing where we have not been or cannot go.

I have spent most of my adult life in ministry with people from whom I am different. Often referred to as “cross-cultural” ministry, this means I am an outsider in another culture. I am the one who is different. I am white, and have ministered with African-American youth. I am an adult and have entered the world of the adolescent. I worked on behalf of people with brain injury yet have not personally experienced this trauma. I am hard-of-hearing and minister within the Deaf community. Make no mistake about it; if you are ministering in another culture, you are always a visitor, regardless of where you sit at the table.

Real-Life Wisdom: Stories of the Road

The one thing we share across all cultures, is our incredible need for connection with God and each other. The ground really is level at the foot of the cross. We are equally in need of decency and right relationships. Gather with those different from yourself. Approach them as equals who have more to teach you, than you can teach them. Remember, you are the visitor when you cross cultures. Go with respect, humility, vulnerability; become more of the kind of person God can use, for the sake of others.

Excerpt from Real-Life Wisdom: Stories for the Road, (Bob Ayres, 2004)

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