If you want to see me really, and I mean really, stick my foot in my mouth, all you need to do is expect me to stick my foot in my mouth. In other words, I — like many, I’m sure — am most likely to say something stupid and inappropriate, that I don’t even mean, when I’m at my most self-conscious.

Example: about ten years ago, I consulted with a university running a grant-funded program that needed help setting up the system through which it would evaluate the grant’s effectiveness. The same school was applying for another grant from the same foundation, so stakes for them were high; they had good reason to want to prove they were a good investment.

I had helped lots of schools and programs with their evaluation practices before, but two variables made this particular engagement more challenging. First, the school was of a different religious and political ilk than that to which I was accustomed. By “different,” think not apples and oranges, but apples and blue. Second, my host experienced a personal tragedy just days before I arrived, and I had real questions about whether I ought to postpone the visit. My host didn’t want to, and I respected his wishes, but I was on-guard against saying anything… sad.

Need I even complete the story? Do you have any doubts the visit was a disaster? You shouldn’t. I was trying so hard not to say anything that offended my clients’ religious sensibilities; and not to use metaphors like, “I could have died,” or “You kill me…” that I did all of the above and worse, all day long. I can still to this day summon up the mortified feelings with which I walked away from the visit, with my clients surely sighing with relief to see me go.

Memories of that consulting visit flooded in as I listened to the Supreme Court confirmation hearings for Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson. When Lindsey Graham asked her about her faith with his gotcha-game face on, I gasped. As Tom Cotton quizzed her on statistics that no one would be expected to commit to memory, I felt my own anxiety rise, as though I too were a contestant on the guessing-game.

At least in my own experience of self-conscious fumbling, I was my own worst enemy. My host school’s constituents didn’t want me to screw up; my self-consciousness was the culprit, not them. In Judge Jackson’s hearings, many of those questioning her wanted her to blow it. They were salivating at the thought of her giving them a sound bite to pound like a drum all the way to the midterms. She was magnificent but listening to her hearings left me depressed.

Gotcha- and guessing-games are terrible ways to communicate with one another. Why? Let us count the ways.

First, they bring out the worst in the person being questioned. Whether I’m being overtly asked my position on a controversial issue by someone with an agenda, or I’m speaking to a group that’s not giving me the benefit of the doubt, I feel the tension in the air and just don’t do well. I overthink, think out-loud (big mistake), or lose focus as I try to figure out in real-time what others want me to say.

Second, gotcha- and guessing-games are inherently judgmental. If an issue is complicated — and most important ones are — our positions on them are bound to be complicated too. We need to give each other a chance to provide nuanced descriptions of our views, but we sometimes shut down dialogue and pass judgment too quickly for that to happen. Seeking understanding of, versus passing judgment on, one another are two completely different ways to engage. We have to work to understand each other, whereas judgmental mindsets are our default setting.

Third, Jesus was profoundly anti-guessing-and-gotcha-game. In the context of Jesus’ ministry, whenever his opponents and skeptics sought to test him, he either won the game, changed its rules, or refused to play. When he really connected with people, it was from a place of love and grace, and it led to healing. When Pontius Pilate asked Jesus, “What is ‘truth’?” (John 18:38), we witness the insufficiency of a legal framework to make sense of God’s redeeming love. When subjected to cruel and simple-minded games, love doesn’t square, as it isn’t on the same wavelength.

Appreciative Inquiry is a style of engagement made famous through business scholars at Case Western Reserve University. The idea behind it is that when we engage people from a stance of appreciating that there’s a lot of good in them — their ideas, their accomplishments, their goals — they get even better. The reverse is true, too. When we come at people expecting them to blow it, we increase the likelihood they will.

In some settings, I’m afraid of saying something racist, as I don’t want to hurt people and compound injustices. In other settings, I’m afraid of sounding stupid, or coming across like I think too much of myself. In still other settings, I’m afraid of sticking to superficial and safer topics, as doing so would mean no real connections with my community. Afraid, afraid, afraid.

What can we do to dial down the fear? For me, as relates to the litany above, I work on anti-racist understandings and practices. I work on my relationship with myself, so as to manage my self-esteem and occasional lack thereof. I try to create atmospheres conducive to appreciative dialogue, in which people feel like they can let down their guard, but sometimes I feel like the deck is stacked against us in doing so.

Ketanji Brown Jackson was a marvel to me. Where she played the game, she won. When necessary, she opted out of the game with a smoothness of which I could only dream. She had real enemies, and she slid from their grasp, never letting them gain hold. That’s great… and she shouldn’t have had to. The scrutiny endemic to the confirmation process provided plenty of tough topics to talk about without guessing- and gotcha-games. What got lost was meaningful discourse.

When our nation’s leaders model to us that the way to engage people with whom we might disagree is through childish taunts, it’s no wonder that ordinary leaders like me have a hard time creating atmospheres of healthy dialogue. Those on the political left need to stop trolling for their opponents’ mistakes. Those on the political right need to do the same, and until they both do, neither will. The games are getting us nowhere, and by playing them out on the most national of stages, they’re making it harder for all communities to communicate respectfully.

Jesus liberated himself from the vicious cycle of morality-gamesmanship; can his love now liberate us, too? Yes, starting with each and every one of us liberating ourselves through working on whatever we need to work on to love each other, love God, and love ourselves better and more.


Rev. Dr. Sarah B. Drummond is founding dean of Andover Newton Seminary at Yale Divinity School and teaches and writes on the topic of ministerial leadership.



Photo by Towfiqu barbhuiya on Unsplash