I was late to the party. I did not watch “The West Wing,” when it first premiered on television in 1999, but thanks to Netflix I am now an avid fan. So “avid” in fact that I have watched all seven seasons fifteen times through and am about to start on my sixteenth viewing.
I have learned much from the show about government and politics–but the best take-away for me has been something I picked up from Leo McGarry (played by John Spencer). As the chief of staff to President Jed Bartlett, Leo often instructs his press secretary with these words: “If you don’t like what they’re asking, you don’t accept the premise of the question.” In other words, just because a reporter asks a question does not mean it is a viable question.
In the last few years, I have relied heavily on my “friend” Leo–not with questions from reporters but with criticism and complaints from others. I’m not talking about those “hate-letters” and “hate-emails” that spew out anger at me and then offer Bible verses to prove to me that women can’t be ministers. I don’t accept the premise of those letters and emails either, but I mostly just delete and go on. I don’t have time to get into endless debates with people who feel the need to attack me personally without ever have had a conversation with me.
What I AM talking about are those emails and phone calls in which I hear questions like: “Why doesn’t BWIM ever offer support to (insert area of ministry here)?” “Why doesn’t BWIM speak out on (insert topic here)?” “Why doesn’t BWIM focus more attention on (insert area of interest here)?” Those calls and emails used to send me into a dark place. I believed every complaint made. I worried over every criticism. I spent hours trying to reorganize BWIM’s work and fix all that the person had said was broken. Then I finally realized that I need to step back and reassess the question. And thanks to Leo, I realized that I didn’t have to accept the premise of every question.
I finally learned that not every complaint was valid, not every criticism held water. Instead of accepting criticisms without question, I responded with research–checking to make sure BWIM is doing what it needs to be doing. Then I learned to be a stronger advocate of my own work–and to challenge the question. “Well, as a matter of fact BWIM often highlights that area of ministry, does speak out on that topic, and has focused attention on that area . . . and here is how BWIM has done that in the past year in this blog, in that workshop, in this program.” I did the research and then responded with information, not with apologies.
One thing I did not learn from Leo but from my pastoral care and chaplain friends was to look beyond the challenging phone call or email and ask “What is at stake here for the caller? What is the real question being asked? Is there hurt or pain in this question?”
“I do not accept the premise” has been a source of freedom for me! And I am thankful for “The West Wing” and Leo McGarry. Who says television isn’t educational?
Pam Durso is executive director of Baptist Women in Ministry, Atlanta, Georgia.