In 2005, Jim Bush took over service operations at American Express. At the time, it was run on a command-and-control model in which the goal was reducing cost. Reduced call times and driving customers to the website were top priorities, and customer satisfaction was consistently rated as acceptable. But, other companies were rapidly catching up, and even more disturbing to Bush, employee turnover was high, which continued a cycle of poor morale and imposed a burden on the organization as a whole.
And so he saw a way to change the game, by making customer relationships the priority, which he argued would also build company growth and profits. But the scripts, metrics, and rules all stood in the way. They measured success in terms of short-term cost savings.
So Bush decided to let go. He eliminated the scripts. He stopped focusing on call time and declared that from now on representatives would let customers set the pace, determining how much time they would spend on each call. He sought out people with the right personal qualities and values, often with experience in the retail or hospitality industries rather than in other call centers. With a clear goal, articulated boundaries, and appropriate support, service employees were able to build the kind of warm relationships with customers that ensured that they would recommend American Express to their friends.
It’s a risky move, letting go of the way things have always been done. But American Express has been defined ever since by their willingness to walk away from things that were holding them back. And it seems to me that our lives are largely defined by this balancing act between what we hold on to, and what we let go.
It was a risky move for those first followers of Jesus to go out in pairs to the surrounding towns, carrying nothing but the clothes on their backs and a simple message: “The kingdom of God has come near to you!” They’re supposed to go out and impose on the kindness of strangers, heal some people, and tell them about the reign of God, which is kind of a risky task to begin with. But perhaps the biggest risk comes if a town does not receive them. Then they’re told to brush the dust off their sandals and leave, with no plan B except to hope that the next town will be more welcoming. There’s no success story in this. There is, in fact, a very real threat of starvation.
But this is what leaving is. A risk. A threat. And a hope.
When we leave, we don’t know how things are going to work out. That’s true whether we’re leaving a relationship, a job, a home, a way of doing things, a set of beliefs…it’s always going to be hard. We’re always going to think, maybe I could have made it work. Maybe the disciples would think, maybe if we stayed a little longer, maybe if we tried harder, these people would listen to us. But even in the midst of Jesus’ very difficult call to go out and spread the message of the coming reign of God, is this other message: if it doesn’t work, it’s ok. You can go another way. You can try another town. I’m not measuring your success on whether you can force it to work, just on whether you’re faithful to try.
I think we all probably have been in situations that just aren’t working. The business is not quite keeping up. A really good organization or even a church program is just not blossoming the way you expected. A job feels stagnant. A relationship just gets harder and harder until it doesn’t seem like there’s anything to salvage. Your lifestyle isn’t satisfying anymore. The faith that has always been there for you suddenly wilts in the face of crisis. We’ve all been there, right?
And while it’s hard to see a pop anthem as a source of much wisdom, Taylor Swift has a deeper message than she lets on – and one that is remarkably similar to Jesus. What we let go is so important to how we are formed and who we become that first century disciples and 21st century pop stars alike both need to sing it once in a while: “Shake it off, shake it off, shake it off!” And versions of this song have been sung by leaders across centuries who have changed their lives and ours by what they were willing to let go.
It is the song that was sung by those who refused to live unrepresented under British rule, and declared the independence we celebrate tomorrow.
It is the song that was sung by the Rev. Jermain Wesley Loguen, a former slave who had taken up residence in Syracuse when the Fugitive Slave Act was passed, who declared “If you will give us up, say so, and we will shake the dust from our feet and leave you,” rather than returning to slavery.
It is the song that was sung by Elie Wiesel when he left behind the beliefs and traditions of his youth in response to the Holocaust, becoming an advocate for human rights and dignity across races and religions.
All of these people, and Jim Bush, and Taylor Swift, and Jesus, knew that sometimes, you just have to shake it off, as risky as it may be. Because it’s what we leave behind that allows us to embrace what we really value. The disciples were able to shake the dust off their sandals and leave because they could hold on to what was really important: this message of the Gospel, that God was near to each and every one of us. That was the one thing, the one goal. Everything else was just dust; shake it off.
In some ways, the disciples had it easy; their goal and parameters were clear. For us, it’s much more complex than a pop song, obviously. We have to consider the various priorities in our lives, and balance the good we do with the harm it may cause. But sometimes, when the things of our lives are not allowing us or others to thrive, we can take a little advice from Taylor Swift – and Jesus.
That worry that if we are our true selves or say what really matters to us, people won’t like us? Shake it off.
That fear that when we do something right, we are stepping out on our own? Shake it off.
The inertia that drags us down when we know it’s time to move on toward greater flourishing for ourselves or others? Shake it off.
And may the courage of disciples, revolutionaries, abolitionists, Nobel Prize winners, corporate visionaries, and yes, even pop stars urge us on as we move forward toward the freedom we have in Christ, shaking off all that keeps us from fullness of life.