Managing Expectations - A Conversation on Living in Christian Community

Josh Shepherd continues his conversation about living in Christian Community…

I want to talk with you about managing expectations, something I decided to write about when my wife, Tricia, was about 8 months pregnant. Now our firstborn daughter, Sophia, is sleeping beside me as I write. In a little while I will feed her myself for the first time as Tricia hopefully gets some well-deserved rest. Sophia is perfect. It is a word I rarely use, and one I will never hold over her head, subjective as my usage is. But for us, she is perfect. 

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And I never could have expected this.

Certainly not 9 years ago when we first started "trying" -- that cringe-inducing word I simply use to say we wanted a little one of our own a long, long time ago. We expected she'd be here much sooner. I eventually began to worry she never would be.

Then when it was clear a baby was on the way, I began to worry some more. That she'd be a boy, for starters. Then when it was clear she was a girl, I began to worry about other things. That she'd come out looking like me, a man who has been physically compared to John C. Reilly by more than a few separate "friends". And like I said, now she is here and she is "perfect" for us in every single way.

So there is some hypocrisy in my effort to talk about how to manage expectations, when I have managed my own expectations so poorly. I only hope I'm not alone in this regard. In fact, based on my experience living in the kinds of communities I described in my first post, I'm quite sure I'm not alone. We humans are very bad at managing our own expectations, at knowing what to expect, and handling them once reality takes a path diverging from all we expected.

There is a chance your experience in short-term Christian community will be every bit as much a joyful surprise as Sophia is to us. More likely, you will have to navigate a substantial amount of disappointment as neither you or your companions live up to your idealistic expectations. Building community takes time, and I'm not convinced 8 weeks is enough time. 

In my first draft of this post, I attempted to walk readers through why this might be the case. I used some sociological tools like Tuckman's stages of group development. I talked about how all of the resources and materials on community basically come to the same point: that the first stages of community are like a honeymoon period that comes to a sudden, unwanted, and seemingly premature end as everyone realizes how much of a mess we all are. And then I went on and on in a way that might've risked alienating you from trying this in the first place.

“But then Sophia arrived and I remembered how much joy can come when we simply don't know what to expect.”

But then Sophia arrived and I remembered how much joy can come when we simply don't know what to expect. And so all I ask is for you to check your expectations at the door. Knowing what you don’t or can't yet know is an important step towards maturity. If you want to know exactly what will happen to you this summer, you should probably sign up for something safer and more predictable. I hope, instead, you'll sign up for and embrace the unknown. I hope that both the surprising joys and the unforeseen disappointments will shape you as you learn to respond to them in the way of Christ -- with grace, patience and all those Christlike character traits on one hand, and with conflict resolution and communication skills and all those interpersonal skills on the other hand.

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The trick is not to rid yourself of expectations completely. Who could do this? But to review each one of them wisely, prayerfully considering whether you really know what's going to happen. When I look back on my own track record, I realize two things. One, I know very little about what is going to happen, and this is coming from someone who spends a ton of time trying to figure it all out ahead of time. Second, almost all of the greatest things in my life were simply unforeseeable. This is true for both the joys and the hardships, and it's likely your summer and your experience in short-term Christian community will bring a little bit of both to your life.