Finding your way out of a maze

Dear colleagues,

Here is a story I’ll never get tired of telling. I worked at a summer camp for many years when I was younger. As part of our training each spring, the staff would go through various outdoor team-building exercises. There is one that I’ve never forgotten. It began with one of our administrators ensuring that we were all blindfolded and then leading us through the trees. There, she ensured that we were all holding a piece of rope that was strung between some trees. The only instructions we received were these: we were now in a maze and needed to find our way out. If, at any point, we needed help, we could stop moving and raise our hand. This was the way to ask for help and if we asked, help would be provided.

I like a challenge, so I jumped right to the task of finding my way out. But what we didn’t know is that it wasn’t a maze at all but a large circle of rope running through the woods. There was no way out. So, over the next several minutes I moved through various degrees of curious, struggling, exasperated, frustrated, and ultimately despairing. Finally—and very reluctantly—I raised my hand. My boss came and whispered in my ear: “You’ve found the way out. You can step out of the maze.”

It was a simple exercise, but it conveyed a message I’ve never forgotten: in order to find my way out, I needed to ask for help. Simple, right? Yet given how long this activity took me and my colleagues, it was not so simple at all. I was so sure I could do it all myself. When I first raised my hand to seek assistance, I felt embarrassed and that I had somehow failed.

One unfortunate truism of life in the church is that people tend to get in trouble when they don’t ask for help—and this is especially true for clergy. Church leaders, like everyone else, can struggle with conflict, addiction, dependency, finances, workload, expectations, personal life, and a whole host of other issues that routinely occur in life. Trouble develops when we become convinced that we can address our problems alone or when we’re too embarrassed or ashamed to share our struggles with others. Asking for help seems so simple—and yet can be such a massive hurdle to overcome.

What’s true in the church can be true in a theological college as well. We are reaching a point in the term in which challenges and struggles of all types are bound to come to the fore. It could be a particular paper or course. It could be another person or personality in the community. It could be related to your life outside this community, of family and spouses and children. It could be unclarity about the future and the stress that brings. For all of this, I underscore the message I once learned standing amid the trees: ask for help. There are many people rooting for your success and who want to help you achieve your goals. But before anyone can help, you need to raise your hand and say, “I’m kind of stuck. Can you help me out?”

Faithfully yours,

Jesse Zink

This message was written by Jesse Zink for this week’s Wingèd Ox, a weekly news digest distributed to the college community.