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When You’ve Done the Work But Aren’t Seeing Success - Mary Beth Minnis

Personal frustration is part of the job description in most modern workplaces. Many people today find themselves toiling in jobs where the rewards of success often seem elusive. If this is you, this may leave you asking: How long do I have to wait to see success in my work? Our guest today is a film producer who recently found herself asking the question: How long? Mary Beth Minnis is a documentary filmmaker whose producing credits include award-winning films such as Return to Mogadishu, Unforgivable and Tower. Through these films, Mary Beth Minnis has inspired audiences with true stories of resilience, hope, and redemption. But the project most poised for commercial success, a documentary film called Jump Shot, continues to be plagued by setbacks and incomplete distribution, all of which have left her asking the question: How long? Interestingly enough, the film tells the story of the basketball great Kenny Sailors, the inventor of the jump shot, who also spent much of his career without recognition for his contributions. In today's conversation we'll talk to Mary Beth Minnis about what it's like to wait, and wait, and wait for success at work, and to ask the question: How long?

Scripture References

  • 2 Corinthians 1:8-9
  • Romans 8:28
  • Psalm 90:17
  • Habakkuk 3:16-19

Additional Resources Referenced

Jump Shot Movie

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Transcript

Leah Archibald: Making It Work is brought to you by The Max De Pree Center for Leadership at Fuller Theological Seminary and the Theology of Work Project.

Mark Roberts: Welcome to Making it Work.

LA: Through conversation, scripture and stories, we invite God into work’s biggest challenges... so that you can live out your purpose in the workplace.

MR: I’m Mark Roberts.

LA: And I’m Leah Archibald. And this is Making It Work.

Personal frustration is part of the job description in most modern workplaces. Many people today find themselves toiling in jobs where the rewards of success often seem elusive. If this is you, this may leave you asking: How long do I have to wait to see success in my work? Our guest today is a film producer who recently found herself asking the question: How long? Mary Beth Minnis is a documentary filmmaker whose producing credits include award-winning films such as Return to Mogadishu, Unforgivable and Tower. Through these films, Mary Beth Minnis has inspired audiences with true stories of resilience, hope, and redemption. But the project most poised for commercial success, a documentary film called Jump Shot, continues to be plagued by setbacks and incomplete distribution, all of which have left her asking the question: How long? Interestingly enough, the film tells the story of the basketball great Kenny Sailors, the inventor of the jump shot, who also spent much of his career without recognition for his contributions. In today's conversation we'll talk to Mary Beth Minnis about what it's like to wait, and wait, and wait for success at work, and to ask the question: How long?

Mary Beth Minnis, welcome to The Making It Work Podcast.

Mary Beth Minnis: Thank you so much for having me.

LA: Thank you so much for being here. So I wanna start by talking about this film Jump Shot, which by the way, listeners, I highly recommend it. It was both very enjoyable, and very inspiring to watch. So tell us a little bit about Kenny Sailors, the inventor of the jump shot, and about his story that you're telling through the film.

MBM: Absolutely, I love talking about the man Kenny Sailors, he is one of my heroes, somebody that I admire and respect immensely. I remember when I first saw a rough cut of the film Jump Shot, telling some of Kenny Sailors story, I was so moved by this man who really exemplified what it means to be a human, he was somebody who was known, well-known for his contribution to the game of basketball, well he wasn't well-known. But the thing he was most famous for was for his contribution to the game of basketball, and developing the jump shot, the modern day jump shot. But what moved me was the way he chose to live his life. He made sacrifices for his family, for his country, he served as the United States Marine in World War II, and he sacrificed for women, so that they would have opportunities to play basketball. And somebody like him, a forerunner like him, just moved me when I saw the rough cut, and I couldn't wait to join the team, and help tell the story of this wonderful man, Kenny Sailors.

LA: So I should give a little background. I know I started by saying he invented the jump shot, some of our listeners may not be sports fan, so just to be clear, he picked his feet off the ground and shot a basketball while jumping, which before him people didn't do, and this was a huge innovation to the game of basketball. So in the film, there's kind of this... There's a sports element to it, there's maybe this engineering entrepreneurship element to it, the inventor of something, and there's this human interest side, which is Kenny Sailors has a really interesting life story and he's so humble in his way of speaking. So the film really has everything that you might wish for in a film poised for commercial success, it's a very compelling story, it's inspirational, and it was supposed to have this wide release in theaters and then the pandemic hit and kind of... Why don't you tell us what happened because of the pandemic, and where the film is now?

MBM: Sure. Well, I'll also mention one of the things that led me to believe that it would have wide commercial success is that we were able to secure interviews with basketball greats, Dirk Nowitzki, Kevin Durant and Stephen Curry.

Steph Curry is also an executive producer on the film, so we really had some power houses in the game of basketball today. And we were set to have a theatrical release April 2nd, 2020, if I'm remembering correctly. And I had lined up all of these people across the country that I knew, and we had premiered the film at the South by Southwest Film Festival in 2019, and we'd won so many awards and everyone was so excited, and then the pandemic hit. And I think we can all relate to our entire lives being upended when that happened, and we saw opportunities, "Oh, well, maybe we're not gonna be able to do this, but maybe it could be this." And some people saw great success with their work that they had never seen before, and other people lost their jobs, and had difficult things happen. So for us, we had to pivot and do an online release, and that went well, but the film didn't see the distribution that I had hoped for, and that we had dreamed about, and that I had prayed for. And it was really disappointing, and as time went on through the pandemic, it's continued not to see the success that I think it deserves. [chuckle]

LA: So you mentioned you had prayed for success, how did your prayers... And I'm sure you weren't like God make this film successful so I can have lots of money, and be super successful. You want this film to be successful so it can reach, and inspire lots of people. How did your prayers change as time went on with this film not seeing the release or adoption that you hoped it would?

MBM: I would say my prayers changed to me being open to whatever the Lord wanted to do. Okay, this isn't happening how we thought it was gonna happen, this is really disappointing, I'm gonna talk to God about that. Okay, you must have something else in mind, so help us get on board with your agenda, whatever it is. And then I started to have ideas, and dreams of something that, "Oh, okay, well, maybe not this, but this." But at each turn, it sort of felt like, "Okay, and then I thought maybe it was this, but then it wasn't that." [laughter] It's just this continual sort of laying down of how I envision God answering my prayers, and what reality is.

LA: Mark, I wanna bring you into the conversation because I think there's precedent in the Bible for us praying about our work, even when our work doesn't go well, and maybe especially when our work doesn't go well. And I'm thinking in particular of all these instances in the Psalms where the Psalmist is having a bad day at work, and mentions this, specifically, I'm thinking, one example is Psalm 90, which starts out lamenting, how long Lord? And then it ends with the words, let the favor of the Lord be upon us and prosper the work of our hands. So this is one instance in the Psalm, specifically, related to work, but how do you think, Mark, the Bible sets up a framework for us being able to pray for our work when it's not going well?

MR: Well, you've identified one of the most important pieces, which is that scripture models for us an open expression of our disappointment with God. It's not just how long, it's sometimes always like, where are you? Why are you not here? There's really this freedom that the Psalmists have, really to tell God how they're feeling and their disappointment in him. And for a lot of us, that is not something we were brought up to do, maybe even in human relationships, but especially in our prayers, we were taught to believe God, and trust God, and rejoice. And those were all important things too. I'm not saying that we shouldn't do those things, but many of us did not learn what the Psalmist knew so well, and that was how actually to lament and to express openly their disappointment.

And that's a starting point. Because if you don't really express to God what's going on inside of you, it's harder for God to touch those parts of you. God can do all kinds of things, so God is not limited by us. But it's often when we open our hearts to God, open our disappointments, our frustrations, our how longs, that God is able to get inside of us and begin to do some work that otherwise God might not have been able to do. And so the Psalms are extraordinarily permission-giving, if you will, and that's really important for all people, but especially for those of us who were raised in families, or churches, or cultures that tended not to be very good with lament.

LA: Is that how you... Mark, do you feel like you were raised in that culture?

MR: Oh, absolutely. The culture, but also especially in my family, just had a really, really hard time with things like sadness and disappointment. The extreme example of that was, my dad died fairly young, and my mom's mother, my grandmother, my mom's mother loved my dad and loved my mom and was a wonderful human being. And when my dad died so young, she never ever talked about him, never asked my mom how she was doing, why? 'Cause she had no place in her life for that kind of sadness, even though she had it. And so if I were in my past shoes as a younger person in my family system and said, "I'm just so disappointed." I would be encouraged, I would be told that God would work it out, that God always has a purpose, God always has a plan, and those are true, I really believe them, but there wouldn't have been a place in my family for me to say, but this is really disappointing. I feel really sad. I'm just so... That just wasn't okay. And the fact that we can do that with God and that they're in the Psalms that are then not just personal prayers, but shared with others says we can do that in Christian community. We can share what's really going on in our lives with others. And that opens us up to new things that God would do and ultimately, to hope and joy and all that, but you don't jump ahead there.

LA: Mary Beth, do you feel like either in your religious upbringing, or in your community you're in now, did you feel like you had a space to give breath to lament either to God or to other people?

MBM: Yeah. So I was raised in America and in both Catholic and Protestant traditions. And I've worked with a Christian non-profit for a long time. So I would say generally, there hasn't been a space for lament. Certainly, I was exposed to the Psalms, and certainly I learned somewhere along the way that it was okay to do those things. But if I showed what would be negative emotions, sometimes people wouldn't hold space for that, and instead, they would try to cheer me up quickly rather than just sitting with me in the grief and allowing me to not be alone in it. And so because that was my experience, I really try to do that now with people. Believe me, I'm not perfect at it. I'm sure I can quote Romans 8:28 at times, that God's working all things together for our good, too early before someone needs to hear that. But I really try to sit with people in their lament, in their grief, and allow them to feel that and to walk through it. You asked about how my prayers changed or what my prayers were like when I faced the disappointment. I asked questions of God, whether it was journaling or on a walk or just silently in my heart, I would ask these questions like, "Lord, why does this film not get the viewership I think it deserves? Why do these films that I think are objectively not as high of quality, not as well-made or even their content is sort of soul-numbing rather than soul affirming, why are these films... Why are these things spreading like wild fire?" [chuckle]

And I don't know what that says about humanity or what, but it just would grieve me. 'Cause I think when anyone sees this film, I've rarely heard any majorly negative feedback. Now, that could be because they don't wanna say that to me. That's true. But for the most part, people feel like it's something that they really enjoy and feel uplifted by. And so it just grieves me that why can't I get this to everyone? It's the same sort of feeling I have when I want everyone in the world to know Christ like I know him. When you have tasted living water, you want to offer that living water to everyone you encounter. And at the same time, you have to trust it is God's spirit at work. So I guess I need to apply that when it comes to my film work.

LA: Well, I'm curious, when you're in that place of prayer with God and you are being open with God and bringing your laments, "Why isn't this film getting the air time it deserves when all the soul-numbing stuff is?" What do you feel... Do you feel like you hear anything back from God? Is God in your brain, quoting back, Romans 8:28, "We know all things work together for good for those who love God." Or is it a Psalm-like experience where you're praying something into the ether and that feels some way transformative? What does the experience of bringing that to God feel like for you, Mary Beth?

MBM: Different times I hear from God in different ways. It's usually not immediately. Usually, I'll cry out to God literally, verbally, when I'm alone or in my head or in a journal. Usually, I don't hear anything back right away. But he tends to answer my cries at some future point, when I'm listening to a sermon, when I'm in Scripture, when I'm with godly people. Somehow he'll kinda connect the dots in my brain and it'll make more sense like, "Oh, okay. Perhaps this is what you're doing." Oftentimes, I see in the Scriptures, especially in the Psalms or... And Job asking the question, "Why? Why? Why? We want the answer, why?" And it's not super common that God will explain why. Sometimes he does. But usually, he answers with who, himself, his character, like with Job. And I think it's because we can't comprehend why. Because at every moment, God is doing so many things to bring about his plan of redemption that as finite human beings, we couldn't comprehend it. And so even though I crave the why, and sometimes God answers it, and I have to ask it 'cause it's in my heart, it's in my mind, I don't usually get a clear answer. And I just have to trust that perhaps some day in eternity, perhaps I will be able to comprehend that. And I will see and understand. Or maybe I never will. Because I'll never be God. I will always be his creation.

LA: Mark, tell me if you've had this experience over the course of your career.

MR: Yeah. Sure. I do wanna say though, 'cause we mentioned Romans 8:28, which is certainly is one of those verses you can quote at somebody or yourself, God is working all things together for good. So get it together. Stop being so upset. Now, the same guy who wrote that, Paul, actually wrote this passage in the first part of 2nd Corinthians that is mind-blowing, really, if you think of that. 'Cause he says there, so he's writing to these folks in Corinth and he says... I'm gonna read it for you so that I get it right: We don't want you to be unaware, brothers and sisters, of the affliction we experienced in Asia, for we were so utterly, unbearably crushed that we despaired of life itself. Indeed, we felt as if we had received the sentence of death so that we would rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead.

Now, my inclination is to wanna focus there, on God who raises the dead, and then it says that God rescued him in it. But what an amazing thing. First of all, that he, the guy who knows that God works all things together for good also was felt utterly, unbearably crushed that he despaired of life itself. Now, that's pretty big.

LA: He was having a bad day at work.

MR: Yeah. We don't know actually, as you said, we don't know exactly what the affliction was, but almost every scholar thinks it is work-related for him, something having to do with his apostolic work and there's different theories on that, but yeah, for him it was a work-related thing, he was utterly unbearably crushed despaired of life itself. So first of all, that he felt that is important, and he's sharing it with these people, which is just... Now, there is good news, and so we hold those things together, but I just find that to be so important to hold those things in tension, because it's easy... And I actually think I do know some Christians who lean so much in the direction of lament, it feels like they sort of stay there, and that's not what we're talking about here either. But I just wanna say, we've got that tension that we live into, and in that tension, there is an opportunity to be honest about where we are, we've got it with others, and then it is God who raises the dead. So it's God who intervenes, but in different ways, sometimes in ways that we ask for and want, and that's wonderful, and often in ways that we don't expect, which ultimately is wonderful, it may not be in the moment.

LA: I feel very inspired hearing that connection between Paul's encouragement and also his really bad workplace situation that he shared. I wonder Mary Beth if this is a story that you take inspiration from, or if there are other places that you take inspiration from in your current situation of workplace waiting?

MBM: Well, I think you maybe mentioned Psalm 90, I don't know if we've talked about that yet. But it says: Let the favor of the Lord be upon us and prosper the work of our hands. And it's interesting that you had mentioned that passage because that was the passage I chose for when I made Return to Mogadishu, and I would pray it over, and over, and over, and over again, every decision, at every turn, I would pray that. And the Bible addresses, obviously, that our workplace waiting must matter to God and it must matter to people. So it's kind of something that all people have dealt with. If it's in the Hebrew Scriptures from way back when, it gives me great comfort to know it's not just me that has to deal with workplace waiting, and that I'm not the center of the universe, I'm not the only one that faces this, and that I can take comfort from that, and yeah. So I wanted to hit those notes. What was your question again on this one?

LA: No, you absolutely answered my question. That is so beautiful. I love the reflection that since time in memorial, since people have been following this God that we follow today, they have also been asking for favor in their work, they have also been praying prosper the work of our hands, and they have also been returning to this God in lament when things don't go right. And as Mark said, they have also been, in some way, after some time, resurrecting their feelings of hope that God is capable of bringing good things out of situations that feel like they're failing or bringing good things for them and for their work out of difficult situations.

MBM: And I would just say there are New Testament people that I look to, like Paul, who was rich and poor, was in prison, was a Roman citizen, had everything as far as his Jewish background and faced rejection and all of those things on the gamut, or I look at Joseph in the Old Testament, or Esther, or these different people who went through really challenging times and yet in their stories within the time frame that they lived, you do start to see some of the redemption, and some of what God was doing, and that gives me great hope. I know that some of the dreams and desires I have will not be fulfilled this side of heaven, but I have hope that some of them will be fulfilled. And perhaps as I get older, I will understand with greater wisdom some of what God is doing to bring about His plan of redemption.

MR: Yeah. Another great biblical example of sort of living into this place of struggle and tension and faith is the prophet Habakkuk or Habakkuk, I know people say it either way, but in the very end of that book, so I'll read one passage and then another, so there's a passage where the prophet says: I hear and I tremble within, my lips quiver at the sound. Rottenness enters into my bones, and my steps tremble beneath me. I wait quietly for the day of calamity to come upon the people who attack us. Now, so that's they're waiting, they're being threatened by others, but the point, you get this again, this sense of just, this guy is in a tremendous funk because of the attack, and he's waiting. God is not rescuing them.

Okay, the immediate next verse is a whole lot about work, it says: Though the fig tree does not blossom, and no fruit is on the vines, though the produce of the olive fails, and the fields yield no food; though the flock is cut off from the fold, and there is no herd in the stalls. These are agricultural people, so basically, though my work has been absolutely fruitless, there are nothing there, though, yet, I will rejoice in the Lord, I will exult in the God of my salvation. God, the Lord, is my strength; he makes my feet like the feet of the deer, and he makes me tread upon the heights. And part of what I think we're saying, and Mary Beth, what you're saying is, there some of us and some of our culture and our traditions we're gonna jump to that end. In fact, if we're gonna read this in church, we probably only read the, I'll rejoice in the Lord and exult. But look at the context of this just devastation waiting upon God, God isn't doing something, my bones are rotten out, my work has been absolutely fruitless, still I will rejoice in the Lord. So we live in that place of tension. Again, and you've said it, Scripture gives, it invites us into this place because it's in that place of honesty with God and crying out to God that our hearts get open and God can do things in us that God has not been able to do before.

And the blossoming of the fig tree in the end isn't something we can produce at any rate. Whether God blesses or not, it's not something we can control, but we can engage with God with authenticity, and we can cry out for God to bless us and bless our work, and Mary Beth you're not just asking God to bless your work so you yourself can be successful, and it's obvious that from the work you do and who you are, it's what the work does. Your vision is for the impact of the work in people's lives and in our world, and that is... And then you wanna say so God, what's up? [chuckle] And specially I appreciate your comment about looking at other things that are successful, when do you think, why is that? And that's a real place to be. It's really a gift that you're able to share that with us, because I think that will encourage people whatever they were to not be afraid of owning the reality that they're living in.

MBM: This might take us on a tangent…A few years ago, I discovered a quote that has been really helpful to me, it's that, "Life is the drama of God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the immortal King, and the unfolding plan to manifest the splendor of His wisdom, goodness, and power, and the creation, redemption and consummation of all things." Scott Swain is who said that, and it really helped me remember that I'm not the central character in the story of life, nor are the political figures of any generation, kingdoms rise and fall. The Triune God is the main character, the world is the setting, the climax is the cross, and the denouement is the new Heavens and the new Earth. And thinking along these lines has enabled me to fit my story and every other person's story in its proper place.

And a lot of times, like you said, there is a sincere desire that this would be for the good of people and the glory of God, but certainly mixed in there are my own selfish ambitions for glory, for praise, for admiration, for respect, what we all crave as humans. And I have to keep going back to, again, you're not the central character in the meta-narrative of all time and eternity. And that sort of... It takes some pressure off, but it also just sets things in their proper context so that I don't get caught up in what really doesn't matter.

LA: I love that, Mary Beth. Thank you for sharing. You really have a very deep perspective on how to think theologically wholly about facing challenges at work, facing waiting at work. I wonder if we can close our conversation with maybe some practical tips, 'cause we've given our listeners, we've thrown at them the whole book of Scripture from the Old Testament through the Psalms, we got a prophet in there, we got some New Testament, so let's close with some practical tips beyond going to Habakkuk and doing some deep reading over the weekend. And Mark, I'm gonna put you on the spot and start with you. What are practical tips that our listener could do if I'm coming to you, Mark, and I'm saying, "I just have been struggling, I put everything I can into this work project and I'm not seeing anything come out of it. How do I right myself with God right now? How do I get a handle on this? The emotions of the situation?"

MR: Well, partly your question would answer your question, part of the answer to your question is you actually asked somebody else about that, you shared it with somebody. For those of us who are inclined to sort of hold it in, we don't do that as often. And I will confess that I am that way, and sometimes my wife will say, "Is everything okay at work?" 'Cause I'm just being really cranky, but I haven't told her. So one thing is, share it with at least one another person, and it depends what is your context? But share what's going on because there's something wonderful in just having somebody who can understand, but it also often it's in the sharing of it, you can come to certain kinds of clarity or understanding that you wouldn't have had if it's just inside your head, and that's the one.

And the other thing, we already said it, but it's just... And then do that with God, or do it with God first. I don't care the order. But have the faith to tell God what is real, and if you say, if that feels so hard for you, then pull out some of the Psalms we've mentioned or pull out that last part of a Habakkuk or the first part. There's biblical precedent for this. Jesus in the garden for goodness sake, asked that the cup would be removed from him. And we talk about the permission to just lay it out before God, so those two things, talk to... In whatever order seems best and not just maybe one time, some of this you're gonna have to... You wanna process for a while, but have at least one person with whom you can share, and then make sure you're also letting the Lord know what's going on. That those would be my two pieces.

LA: That's great. Mary Beth, what do you have for practical tips?

MBM: Well, I echo what Mark shared. And I would say sometimes it's hard to access our emotions, sometimes it's hard to really get there, and so sometimes music helps me. If I listen to music, different types of music, it can open up my soul or my heart in a way. And then sometimes watching certain movies, or shows, or hearing stories, reading stories, listening to stories, hearing stories, it will just touch something. It's crazy, sometimes I'll be watching a movie, and just one scene will just make me cry and then I'll go, wait, where are these tears coming from? I'm the only one crying here, and that's a clue to let me know there's something there that I need to pay attention to. And then it's sort of like what he said like, okay, I'm gonna talk to God about this, I'm gonna think about this, and maybe I'm gonna find a safe friend that I can say, "Hey, this happened, can you help me process this?" And I also have a therapist that I can turn to for things like that as well, but the body of Christ is usually might go to place to process those things.

Yeah, that's what I would do. And then, sometimes I just need encouragement. So for an example with Jump Shot, when I start to get down and I think, "Oh, how long O Lord?" I remember how long Kenny Sailors worked and wasn't recognized, or I think about Jake Hamilton and the other people who helped make the film and how long they worked on it before it came out, and that gives me encouragement to think, okay, so maybe God's timing isn't what I thought or I think about the people who have said to me, "I watched the film and it moved me in this way," and I hear those things and I think, Okay, I know that this is something that can do good and that will allow me to press on and continue to move forward. Even though I feel discouraged right now, I can keep moving forward knowing that there is value, I just may not always hear or see what's happening, much like you mentioned agriculture in the biblical times and what they worked on, and you don't always see the fruit, sometimes it's years later, decades later, millennia later, and just remembering that and remembering the stories of people who have been moved by something I've done kind of spurs me on.

LA: Mary Beth, I'm gonna underline that tip for our listeners, and for anyone who is feeling down that they're not feeling as seeing success in their work and they're waiting a long time. You have to watch this movie, Jump Shot: The Kenny Sailors Story, because I promise you, I'm not just plugging it because I like Mary Beth, it is very inspirational to see this man who was extraordinarily gifted in his career, and also who waited, and waited, and waited and never got the recognition for his success, at the same time being so humble and well-rounded in his feeling of his identity in God, his identity and who he was as a human being and a person of faith. So watch the film Jump Shot because it'll put a smile on your face, I promise you, and it'll also lead you to a deeper experience of some of the themes that we've been talking about today in this conversation. Mary Beth Minnis, this has been such a pleasure. Thank you so much for joining us on the podcast today.

MBM: Thanks so much for having me.

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