Ledell, A Man in Full

When I was the pastor of a downtown parish in Tyler, Texas, I found that there were two critical jobs at the parish. Neither were my responsibility, except hiring them.

The first is the receptionist. She/he sets the tone for the entire parish, welcoming people into the church building with a spirit of hospitality. OR, acting like a fire-breathing dragon that looms, threatening people who might dare to come inside. Luckily, I have had some superb people in that role that make people feel at home from the moment they walk in the building. A welcoming smile and a word of welcome are gold in this kingdom. You can’t put a price on the value of that first face the person sees. If your sign outside says “WELCOME” and yet the reception is cold, guess what?

The second, equally important person is the janitor. This is the person who is responsible for seeing that the building in clean, that it is in order, that it is set up in a proper way. This person has to be willing to be flexible and responsive when needs change. The skills match that of an ambassador, working with foreign heads of state, or in the church’s case, leaders of women’s and men’s groups. It’s not an easy job.

In the Episcopal church, we call the janitor a “sexton”, which I sort of dig. It has a kind of English spin, a Downton Abbey, feel. To me, it better captures the role: the sexton.

At Christ Church in Tyler, following the exit of a long-time sexton, we went looking to find just the right man, or woman to fill this critical role. We were fortunate to find a man who had been laid off by a large company who had all the skills we needed, and then some.

His name was Ledell and he reminded me immediately of New Orleans soul singer, Aaron Neville whose first hit, Tell It Like It Is, characterized my new sexton’s style of communication. In a word, he was “built”, with a muscular physique which would have been more at home on a linebacker on a pro football field. As it turns out, Ledell was tenacious in his work-out regimen, going to the Y every day. He also was a bit of a physical health evangelist, getting me and other staff members to join him in his gym routine. He was a drill sergeant as he ordered our routine of cardio and lifting weights. I’ve been around the weight room most of my life and have had no one more rigorous in his demands than Ledell. He was an animal. A monster…friendly, smiling, but a monster. And, he would tell it like it is!

Through our years together, I came to view him as a friend, if not a brother from another mother. He and I would talk about life and share meals. Some of my best memories are of going with him to the annual East Texas State Fair. We must have appeared to be the original Odd Couple: me, a white bearded dude in black clericals, and Ledell, a goatee-sporting black man in his work uniform. What a pair. We would go in his truck, hit the midway, observing the menagerie of God’s creatures, animal and human, on display, feasting on outrageously fried fair food. It would cost me the next day with a punishing work-out. Pass me the Lipitor.

Ledell had a gift for working on automobile engines and often rescued me with his handiness, tending to my Chevy K-5 Blazer. I came to admire his wisdom, his resourcefulness, and his faithfulness. He was a single father of two children, and made sure he was in their lives to form them. He was to me, a man in full, as Tom Wolfe once wrote. I admired him greatly.

Near the end of my time in Tyler, Target decided to put a distribution center out on I-20 and was looking for a custodial manager. I got the word that Ledell had been courted for this position as his reputation has gone viral. The coconut telegraph told me that he had gone out to look at the opportunity. I wanted him to take the job if it would bring him some pay increase that would be important to his life. But, I didn’t want him to go. I valued him as a co-worker and as a friend.

One morning, having coffee in our library, Ledell walked in. Typically, I began by kidding him about his being courted by Target, angling around in order to ask him about his intentions. He looked at me in the way he would when my lifting weights was waning in enthusiasm. He asked me to follow him.

He took me down the hall and then into our gorgeous church building. The stained glass in the morning light puts on a light show that would rival Disney. As we stood there in that sacred space, he began to talk to me.

“I was out of a job when I came looking here. You listened to me as a man and took me seriously. You gave me a job that was a good one. It gave me what I needed for my family. It was the kind of work I enjoyed and that I am good at. I like the people here and enjoy messing with you. But the most important thing is that I have a job that lets me take care of God’s house. Look at this. This is my job keeping God’s house looking good. Man, I can’t imagine a better thing to do with my life. I love working for God.”

I had been in the God business for a long time. You would never have been able to hear me wax as poetic as Ledell, describing the work I did for the Almighty. I guess I could have, should have been embarrassed by his godly description of his work, topping my more professional way of framing my career. But instead, I was inspired, called to do better in the way of thinking of my vocation.

Ledell is one fortunate guy. He would quickly retort, claiming more accurately that he was blessed. And he is.

To have the work you do have a heavenly purpose, that is the trick. To know that your work makes a difference is one of the greatest things a human can possess. It’s the old notion of work being a holy endeavor, whatever it is. It is an unstated goal for most of us. To make that connection between what you do with a purpose larger than yourself. Work like that provides an energy and a satisfaction that is prized. It is a state of the soul that I find missing in many folks that I talk to.

Business analysts tell us that most workers have anything but that feeling about their work. It was stunning to me to find that most workers are not engaged, wish they were doing something else. They are mailing it in, giving the minimum effort, with a small investment of energy. The real surprise to me was to find this rampant in healthcare, a most noble endeavor of saving lives. I’ve spent the last ten years listening to healthcare workers, nurses, physicians, and administrators, who have been been overwhelmed with bureaucracy, losing the original spark that sent them in pursuit of this career in medicine.

This is not only true in healthcare, but in just about every industry. Teachers who burn out, lawyers who hate their work, business persons who just get by, priests who are looking at pension time, folks who mail it in. Workers seem to struggle to make the connection to the purpose that Ledell natively lives and breathes.

I often have people coming to me to ask me help in recovering that spark. They are at the end of their rope, sometimes showing clear signs of depression, sometime self-medicating to relieve their pain or boredom. They are considering just chunking their current work and doing something else, go into another field that they fantasize will deliver them.

Sometimes, that decision to make a change is a good one, a necessary one. But I have found that often reframing the work that people do, are engaged in, is all that is needed. In Tyler, I developed a method of helping folks assess where they are currently, think about options of change that would address their needs for a more satisfying career, and then get creative as to how they could make that happen in their lives.

The good news is for many people, the answer was not found by ditching a career, but finding a new way to frame what it is they are doing. Sometimes it means letting go of some limiting beliefs about the way to do their work. One healthcare executive I worked with thought that he had to be “the biggest sumbitch in the valley” to get people to do their work. The effect was that he was disliked, even worse, disrespected. Once he figured out that he didn’t have to be mean, his true nature came to fore and the opinions of his employees changed, evidenced by his 360 assessment by those who worked for him. He came to not only enjoy his work but increased his productivity, not to mention the attitude of his employees.

For others, it means refocusing one’s work, letting go of of certain parts, and redirecting energy in new ways that bring satisfaction. It has particularly exciting to me to work with folks who are seeking to connect their work with service to the community or common good. It’s what David Brooks has called the Second Mountain, an endeavor that brings meaning and significance to one’s life.

This entails a process of coaching, with an initial assessment as to where one currently is, as well as becoming more clear as to where one wants to go. The process moves one to a decision, some planning culminating in an action plan, some encouragement and accountability as to making the change happen. It’s a process that I have enjoyed, helping people move through into a more satisfying life.

Ledell found his Second Mountain, as he would say, he was blessed by God. Most of us are not that fortunate. Sometimes we have to decide to make a move and address the sense of emptiness and lack of meaning in our lives. How is the state of your life? Are you happy with the life you are living, or do you need to make a change, small or large? I’d be happy to help you think through this or point you in some fresh directions. Feel free to contact me.

I am glad I was fortunate to come across a person like Ledell. That encounter changed my life. I was educated by some of the finest minds, trained by some geniuses, had my head shrunk by some world-class therapists, but it was Ledell that spoke into my life in a way that made a real difference.

Ledell…. a man in full. And my friend. Come to think of it, like Ledell, I am blessed.

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