Aug 29, 2006

name tags

I glanced at my dresser the other day and saw a bunch of my name tags. One was a driver's license, another a press pass I got for the WCA Leadership Summit, and still another a tag I received at a regional gathering (which ironically had me listed at a church I'm no longer at). Then there was a pocket certificate of ordination (just in case I ever have to prove I'm ordained... you know, like when I'm buying stamps) and a bunch of pictures from my wallet that help me think about the family I am a dad and husband in.

Name tags. Things that in some way are to help identify who we are, be it to ourselves or to other people. Little mementos that attempt to label us for a purpose.

"Labeling... for a purpose."

It's like when someone in an interview or assessment asks you the question, “So what are your strengths and weaknesses?” It’s the famous lame question that someone came up with on some standardized test, then wrote a book about it, causing it to be quoted at lectures that companies would require their managers to sit through, creating the goofy process of evaluation that we know today.

(I don’t like using the word “hate,” so please keep in mind what I’m about to say. )

I hate that question.
Interviewer: “So what are your strengths and weaknesses?”

Interviewee: (thinking: “I need to pick the strengths that will help me get this job and think of some way to reword a weakness into a strength… let’s see…”) Obviously, my greatest strength is that I’m a people person. My vast background in your department’s specialty, though, is probably what you’re most interested in. As for weaknesses, I’d have to say that I’m a hard worker and may tend to put in extra time in order to get something done. Sometimes that interferes with my personal life, but I think I manage it well.”

I wonder if this question isn't anything more than a lazy way of someone trying to find out one of two things (if not both):

  • Does this person have a healthy handle on himself/herself?
  • How can I avoid doing a bunch of reference checks?

Okay, maybe I’m a bit cynical because I don’t think you can ever come to a clean conclusion to that question. When someone asks it of you it is usually in a situation that you are trying to prove something, be it to gain a job, pass a psych test, or maybe even become a church planter. Even when we try to be honest and objective we have to defer to what people have told us about ourselves.

Which merits the question…

Do you accept the name tags people attempt to place upon you?

Here are some of mine.

“You probably don’t want to hear this, but you should write for a living.”

“You know, you’re really a great writer. You should do that as a job. Not that you’re not a great speaker, but I love how you write.”

“Have you ever considered writing? The way you create patterns of thought helps a lot of people see life better.”

Apparently, I should be a writer.

“Wow! That’s was one of the most amazing messages I’ve ever heard. You really are a gifted speaker!”

“You are an amazing communicator, Tony. In our denomination you are definitely one of the top 50 speakers. If there was a church of 5,000 looking for a teaching pastor you would be able to jump in and hit the ground running.”

“Yet again you hit it out the ballpark… as usual. Not that you’ve ever given a bad message.”

Apparently, I should be a speaker.

“When you led our student ministry you were one of the main reasons why our son and daughter loved church. You’re a thinker, and you helped our kids to think about things and take stuff home with them instead of just making it about church attendance.”

“One of the things I love about the way you approach youth ministry is that everything is on purpose. Even the silly games or object lessons that seem meaningless at first somehow take on this spiritual application by the end of the night. You are the king of the curveball.”

“You really love students, don’t you? I can tell. It leaks out of you... and teenagers are looking for that kind of authentic love.”

Apparently, I should be a youth worker.

“Those videos Tony used to make really helped the teaching team to get its message across.”

“I’ve heard so many people say that there’s just something about when Tony leads worship… he is just able to take us into God’s presence.”

“Tony is obviously a gifted writer and producer… if he could find a place to use these gifts to the fullest his effectiveness would increase.”

Apparently, I should be a creative arts pastor.

“You lead by getting to know people first and gaining authority out of those relationships which is one of the reasons why people who lead the other way – demanding loyalty first – drive you crazy. It’s also why your followers will follow you and not just your position.”

“Can I just say something? Thanks for journeying with me. I really love your mentoring. You always seemed to know just the right thing to say when I was in high school and I love being able to just journey with you even after the fact.”

“You have a way about leading people that inspires them. I love that what is most important to you is that you live out what you are hoping others will do. The way you model Christ causes others to want to follow him.”

Apparently, I should be mentoring/shepherding people.

“What I find amazing is that the structures you have come up with in your ministry in order to follow the big picture have been adopted by the whole church.”

“Tony has leadership skills… he does see what should be done to get a project finished.”

“Not too many people know how to lead without having to be in the top leader’s chair. You have a way about you in the way you ask questions and offer thoughts that help guide even those above you toward healthier conclusions. I appreciate the manner in which you participate in meetings and discussions critical to the church. It allows you to lead in a very humble way that breaks through defenses.”

Apparently, I should be an organizational leader.


What about when the the name tags people try to put on you aren't so favorable?

“That was a nice article you wrote. It was a little ‘feely,’ though. Not quite so much mush next time.”

“I’m not sure if you really caught the scope of this project. I think we’re going to have to get together to define rewriting it.”

“That last blog of yours seemed a bit out of your character.”

Apparently, I shouldn’t be a writer.

“When you started talking about the cinnamon rolls in that one message I got completely lost. In fact, a bunch of those messages last fall made me wonder a bit.”

“I’m not sure if you truly understand the mind of an unchurched person. Any speaking you do may be in danger of not connecting.”

“I’m a visitor here today… I couldn’t have been more offended by what you shared and will not be returning to this church again.”

Apparently, I shouldn’t be a speaker.

“If you want to have a more successful youth group then you need to be (choose one: visiting the campus more, having more events, mentoring more, counseling more, meeting more families, bringing back more kids who left, finding more kids who have never come, advertising more, recruiting more, doing more yourself, delegating more out, etc.).”

“I heard what happened this past week at practice was chaos and it cannot be allowed on Sunday at your youth service. I’ve decided we’re canceling the whole thing.”

“You allowed the guys to do WHAT in the bathroom on your mission trip?”

Apparently, I shouldn’t be a youth worker.

“That last video you made is not at all what I asked for. I’m pretty angry that you went in a different direction.”

“You really need to be a better musician if you want to lead a band more effectively.”

“Excellence is a strength, but it can also be a weakness. Because Tony is so gifted he could lean into that instead of allowing others to join in on the fun.”

Apparently, I shouldn’t be a creative arts pastor.

“If you keep trying to live such a holy lifestyle you are going to alienate other people who think they can’t do it. You’ll end up seeming unapproachable.”

“A true shepherd is hardly ever in the office. You need to spend more time visiting people and calling on them at home/work/school/hospital/county fairs.”

“You’re not really in the office much and it can seem to people in the church that you’re not really doing your job. You should spend more time in the office making phone calls so that people can see your car out front… it inspires them to see you working hard because then they know that what they’re paying you is being put to good use.”

Apparently, I shouldn’t be mentoring/shepherding people.

“You really need to cut (so-and-so) out of our ministry team. It’s a bad call to have him/her serving with you and is going to bleed your leadership.”

“I know some people who don’t want to work with you because they don’t like how you lead.”

“Tony needs to learn more how to deal with leaders that are around him… dealing with those who cause problems or ‘waves’ within his ministry.”

Apparently, I shouldn’t be an organizational leader.

For the record, thanks for the compliments… if you’ve ever given me one. Likewise, I appreciate your candor in giving me constructive feedback on where I need to grow.

Psychologically speaking, we need to label people so that our brains have a reference point when we talk to them. We look and so-and-so and think, "So-and-so is named Bob, he likes U2 (except for the Rattle & Hum movie), enjoys reuben sandwiches, and can't stand marinara sauce on pasta." These name tags are intended to give us a thin-slice reference point to get to know someone better.

The problem becomes when we close up those name tags instead of keeping them open-ended.

Let’s face it – people change. You are not the same person you were ten years ago, three months ago, or five minutes ago. We are continually doing our best to keep moving forward, be it in a personal or professional way. We hope someone will see our progress (perhaps even ourselves), yet we are just fine and content labeling everyone else around us in ways that may be true for but one second only to be outdated in the next.

Then again, we can’t help it... can we? It’s a self-defense mechanism because our brains need to come to conclusions about our past and present in order to allow us the ability to have any forward thinking. We unconsciously feel the need to look at Sally and remember that she’s “gay” and “graduated from Michigan State” and “has brown hair” and “likes to drive with the windows down” and “doesn’t like it when people use the word ‘DUH’ because it demeans others.” Then we start to add additional layers of conclusions like, “She’s probably gay because of something that happened to her as a kid” and “I’ll bet she doesn’t like Christians.”

I so desperately crave for people to know how I am different today… how I’m not the person I once was but really am growing. I don’t know why I crave this, but I do. Maybe because I want them to see that Jesus is alive and can actually turn people around… maybe they’ll be inspired to do the same.

Or maybe it’s something deeper and selfish and all about me.

Honestly, I don’t know.

But I do know that any name tag – good or bad – is limited, dated, and simultaneously true and false. Maybe that's why I don't like wearing them at conferences, not to mention often buck at being labeled an "ENTP" or "INQJ" (or whatever other letters someone's come up with to sum me up).

So here’s my new approach – when someone asks what my strengths and weaknesses are, I ask, “In what context?” and “With whom am I with?” and “What are you really asking me?”

After all, when I am strong, I am weak. And when I am weak, I am strong.

Or something like that… whatever short summation I can tag myself with in order to get me through the day.

Or something like that.

He replied, "Why do you ask my name? It is beyond understanding. (Judges 13:18)


Anonymous said...

Tony- thanks for that.

Today, you are a gifted, thoughtful writer who communicated something that I've been feeling but unable to clarify so nicely in my mind or put in to words. In every new moment, love needs to win as we relate to others- especially those we have some history with. Having the ability to reframe our established labels in the newness of what God is up to today in our own lives and the lives of others...

Apparently you should be...

Crissi said...

I am one of those people who tend to wear the name tags that people give me. I have them pasted all over my body. Thank you for an inspring post.

Katie said...


that's really all I can say to this post

DJG said...

It is amazing to me how muh easier it is for us to remember and believe the negative things we here....and for the record, I hate that question too. Who is not going to answer in a the way you think they want to hear? I think the other reason I hate it is personally I can list my weaknesses real strengths I have to think about and then play down, lest I sound prideful....

Jessica said...

I finally have a reason for why my stomach cringes when I walk into a room and see name tags.

"It’s a self-defense mechanism because our brains need to come to conclusions about our past and present in order to allow us the ability to have any forward thinking."

therein lies my biggest problem - can't accept that it doesn't always make sense, you can do everything right and get a bad result or do it all wrong and still manage somehow to come out okay...i want things resolved and life is never that neat...nor am I.

Tony Myles said...

I get that... and I often struggle the same. To quote the great prophet Madea, "It ain’t what people call you... it’s what you answer to."

Anonymous said...

Bless G_d, He knows you by name!

JimmyBob said...

In one of our church's main disicpleship classes, we have the people take a spiritual gifts test. Part of it is having 3 people you know write out what they think your strengths and weaknessess are. This really helps in attaining a more accurate picture of who you are.

Carolanne said...

The reason I changed my blogsite/name was because I was tired of people labelling me and putting me into their box. I know I fitted into it sometimes but there is so much more to me than the labels people put on me.
My name is my own but it's not as simple as labelling me a mother, teacher, wife, friend.... etc. Each of those words in themselves conjures up different images for people.
Too often we're content with knowing the label and not seeing beyond it.

Jim Martin said...

This is a great piece. When I finished reading it, I immediately thought, "I've got to read this again." Thanks

Tony Myles said...

Jimmybob - Have you ever had three or more people tell you something about yourself that you knew wasn't true?

Or maybe it was.

Or maybe it wasn't.

We can go crazy sometimes wondering why we come off the way we do.

Tony Myles said...

To everyone -

Thanks for knowing this post connected with you today.

The question is if it will again tomorrow...

which is kind of the point, eh? :)

JimmyBob said...

Yes, that has happened! I know what you mean. Maybe the best we can do is a combo of ideas (our own and the point of view of others) to find out what our real strengths and weaknesses are.

Still, the better thing is to talk with Jesus and just do what he says. When I am weak, He is strong. When I am strong, I do it for Him anyway, so that in all things He gets the glory (at least I hope this is my attitude). I guess the point would be not to worry too much about man's assessments.

By the way, where are you from?

Tony Myles said...

Originally, I'm from my mother. Then I grew up in the Chicago suburbs, dabbled a couple of years in Indiana, and have been in West Michigan for the past 10 years or so.

Totally agree that Jesus needs to have the final word.

Because he is the Word, after all.

JimmyBob said...

Nice to meet a new friend. So, we're around the same age then (I think).

I noticed you posted on How do you know Jeff? He seemed to know you.

Anyway, I enjoy reading your thoughts. Thanks for letting me post.

Tony Myles said...

He and I are internet buddies through his site and mine. Lots of common conversations that have been mutually beneficial.

Thanks for being a new friend for me, too. Having you post is a blessing - thanks!

David Moss said...

Name tags - let's see....a few of mine have been "geek" (I was in the band after all!), physical therapist, husband, father, stay at home dad, drummer, youth guy, Mr. Sarcastic...and the list goes on. The hard part is stripping off the external "activities" that so often define us and allowing ourselves to be seen internally at the heart level. That is why we are so often drawn to the arts - music, writing, drawing, drama etc...these tend to reach into and/or flow out of our hearts.

Okay, I don't know that this fits with the theme of your original post anymore....but that is what flowed out at the moment!

bigwhitehat said...

Asking a potential employer to say what they mean can intimidate them.

Asking yourself to be honest is even more intimidating.

Sometimes it seems easier to become the ideal than admit the truth. But it aint.