When I was in seminary, I was in a degree program that gave me a lot of latitude in designing my program. I decided to ask two of my professors to engage with me in an independent study. The first one I approached was an ethics professor, because ethics was my main interest. I proposed meeting with him one hour a week for one or two credits. He didn’t say yes, and he didn’t say no. He said, What’s in it for me? I simply asked, what do you want? Turned out he was interested in expanding his understanding of economics as a key piece of social justice ethics, and he knew that I was a semi-retired professor of economics. We wound up doing two semesters of a fruitful and rewarding reciprocal tutorial, both suggesting and requesting areas where each of us needed to learn more. The most fun question I got from him was when he asked me to explain money. We wound up doing a second semester of mutual independent study.
The other professor was my adviser, Steve. I felt I needed to get some New Testament in my program in addition to the required two semesters of Bible, which I had already fulfilled with Old Testament, or Hebrew Scriptures as we were taught to call them. But what about the New Testament? I didn’t think Revelation belonged in the Bible, and I wasn’t fond of Paul, which left the gospels. The most interesting part of the gospels to me has always the parables, the teaching stories which were a rich tradition in Judaism. And I knew Steve taught a class in parables for preachers. I asked if he would, in essence, supervise me as a student teacher of the parables. I was in seminary in Atlanta, but my class would be back in Clemson, about eight women, in a class we would call Wine and Parables. We would meet every Friday late afternoon over wine to discuss the parable for the week.
Like my ethics professor, Steve asked, What’s in it for me? I responded as I had before, what do you want? He wanted contemporary examples of the parables in literature, film, music, and other places. I carried that proposal back to my friends, and they agreed. It was an amazingly rich experience, the mysterious Steve always in the background where he and I discussed the upcoming parable and the previous week’s encounter with my class, including their offerings of examples. My favorite offering was the song Return of the Prodigal Daughter by Michelle Shocked.
After the shock wore off again, I realized that it was a good and appropriate question. I had my agenda, they had theirs. How could we provide mutual support and guidance to one another? I know we are an individualistic society, and that’s a very individualistic question to ask, sometimes a hard one to answer. But the very question suggests an openness to saying yes if there is some mutual benefit.
A few years back, I was asked to be treasurer of my homeowners’ association. I was an okay treasurer, but it was rather dull. When my two year term was about to expire, the nominating committee asked my friend Sandi to be the next president, presuming that I would serve two more years as treasurer. Sandi said no, but if Holley will be president, I will be treasurer. I had been president at least nine organizations, and she had an equal track record as a treasure, being a retired business manager of an all-female real estate firm. My round peg was redirected to a round hole, and she fit her square peg comfortably in a square hole.
A near miss occurred in my congregation when the Nominating Committee invited a small businessman to become president-elect. He said no. That ended the conversation. It was only when he told a friend who got word back to the Nominating Committee that he was patiently waiting to be asked to chair the Finance Council. A more perceptive nominating committee had a very busy member turned down the office of treasurer, but she was willing to serve on the Audit Committee.
Whether you are asking a favor or recruiting someone for a task or a leadership role for some kind of commitment,you should be prepared to answer that question of what’s in it for me—even if it isn’t asked directly. Ask what would make that task or role or commitment attractive and meaningful, and suggest reasons why you asked him or her rather than someone else for that particular role. Be prepared to explore that question and, like me, expect to be surprised by the answer!