Work Yourself Out of a Job

“Your goal should always be to work yourself out of a job.”

The speaker was John A. Lapp, the executive secretary of Mennonite Central Committee.   I had just been "hired" for a one-year stint of voluntary service with MCC to establish a new unit, the Mennonite Conciliation Service.  I was pretty excited about the gig I had just landed and I wasn't very interested in abandoning it!   So his advice was a little startling to me.  But in the 45 years since, I have often remembered the words of this veteran Mennonite peacebuilder and development worker.  Like a zen koan, they have provided me with layers of insight about vocation and the requirements of peacebuilding.

Conflict Transformation Starts with Encouraging Self-Sufficiency

As modern professionals tend to do, I thought of my work as responding to the immediate needs presented by individuals I was working with.  I thought Lapp meant  that, when mediating, I should seek timely withdrawal from conflicts and encourage parties to develop their own means of working out differences. It seemed like good advice and I sought to follow it as the caseload of our new unit slowly developed.

I was unable yet to see that my mentor, a veteran development worker deeply tutored by life experience with communities that were both conflicted and chronically disadvantaged, had in mind dynamics and needs larger than the day to day quarrels of individuals.

Transformation Continues with Building Capacity to Make Peace

As requests for mediation increased, I sensed a call for deeper forfeiture than I had first understood.  I could be only one place at a time; conflict is everywhere. To achieve our goal of encouraging constructive resolution of conflict in communities and the nation, I should let go of the goal of becoming the mediator and instead train others as mediators.  I loved mediating, but I recognized I must shift my priority to training mediators, a mission I felt pretty shaky about. 

Transformation Expands by Training Trainers

I soon came to love training even more than mediating.  But as demand for MCS workshops increased, it became apparent that a still deeper level of relinquishment was called for.  My calendar couldn’t accommodate all the promising possibilities to lead training workshops.  Rather than training mediators I ought to be training trainers.

I began pulling away from doing training workshops myself and sought to focus my priorities around developing others as trainers and bringing them into MCS workshops as co-leaders and leaders.

This was strange and scary in the beginning.  I was used to being in front, teaching.  Now I was often at the back while others taught.  And if I gave away all my training expertise, wouldn't I soon be left behind, with nothing to do?

Transformation Endures by Multiplying those with a Vision for Peace

Of course it didn't take long to see that being at the heart of a network of trainers grateful for what I had taught them was even more rewarding than training itself!

Yet even this focus eventually proved too narrow.  Peace in our world requires people with broad and courageous vision of possibilities for peace.   Such people are present in every society and situation of conflict, but often they lack the courage and skills to act.

So the “job” as I have come to understand it in recent years is to find and be an ally to those with a vision for peace.  Some may become mediators or facilitators, but others will become advocates of tolerance, bridgebuilders to supposed enemies, conveners or funders of fellow peace visionaries, professionals in other callings who use their connections and influence to create processes and institutions that build peace, etc.

This is the right "job" for me at this time, I am sure.  Yet it is certainly the loneliest.  I miss the daily comraderie,  the sense of intricate rootedness I felt in earlier roles.   Sometimes I feel that I am floating rather than deeply engaging.  The structures - and rewards - of this new modality are still emerging.

Values that Guide Transformative Presence

At the root of my own deepening understandings of peacebuilding lie understandings of self, relationships to others, and calling that could be stated quite explicitly: You are not in this work just for yourself, to build a great career; you are to be deeply guided by the needs of those you serve.

And therefore: Since your role must respond to the needs of others, it is transitory.  Do not expect or seek permanency. In fact, success depends in part on your ability to precipitate transition wisely, in the service of others. This will probably require relinquishment, letting go of something desirable and rewarding. But that is as it should be, because you have a calling higher than any one job or role; let that higher calling define your role.

To do this requires a conscious commitment to the empowerment of others and a rather substantial personal capacity to contain the ego as the peacebuilder scales back from established roles that are often quite gratifying to the peacebuilder, in order to support others in stepping into them.

One of the moves I feel best about across my career was a decision to step out of a role I enjoyed as Director of Training, hand it to a promising young South African whom I had hired and trained, and continue to work under his supervision.  More on that in a later blog post.

Needed: More than an Iron Bladder, A Hard Head, and a Brass Butt

Dr. James Laue, the twinkly-eyed, pioneering Methodist layman and early proponent of the US Institute for Peace, used to sketch a comic drawing, the "anatomy of a peacebuilder".  Along with a hard head, an iron bladder and a brass butt, a key element was an "ego container".

In my view, the field of peacebuilding globally has plateaued.  The field is becoming institutionalized; too many decisions are made on the basis of turf and personal career interests of would-be peacebuilders, ignoring the requirements of transformation and empowerment of  people in conflicted communities.

Holding the goal of "working myself out of a job" helps me create an ego container and locate myself at that intersection of conflict resolution and human development called  conflict transformation.   Here my longings for professional security and accomplishment are confronted by my vision for integrity and transformation of the world.

From this uncomfortable encounter have emerged the most challenging - but also the richest and most rewarding - transitions of my career.

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@ Ron Kraybill, 2016,  May be reproduced so long as attribution is given.  This post is adapted from my chapter, "Transforming the Peacebuilder",  in Andrew P. Klager, editor, From Suffering to Solidarity: The Historical Seeds of Mennonite Interreligious, Interethnic, and International Peacebuilding" (Wipf and Stock, 2015).