An Interview with Mark Craig: Part 2

September 14, 2017 - J. Carter Tolleson
8 Min read

The capstone of the Reverend Mark Craig’s 41-year career was his leadership of Highland Park United Methodist Church, where he was Senior Minister for 18 years from 1995 to 2013. The Church’s congregation comprises multi-generation families and individuals who are significant civic forces. President George W. Bush has been quoted as saying that one of Mark Craig’s sermons was part of his inspiration to run for President. Craig has also been a friend and mentor to members of the Tolleson Family.

As part of the Family Education series, Carter Tolleson sought Craig’s wisdom regarding parenting, the impact of wealth on family dynamics and other matters in the complex interplay of behavior in families. The second half of their conversation follows. Some responses have been edited and condensed for clarity.

Carter Tolleson: You mentioned earlier [in part 1 of our interview] that you observed that the happiest people are the most generous. A speaker I heard recently said that when you do a good deed, there’s usually an element of selfishness because you are doing something that ultimately gives you satisfaction.

Mark Craig: I have a hard time relating to that. I hope that’s not true. “No greater love than the one who gives life for another.” People have all kinds of motivations for giving [and doing good]. Doing something for the good of humanity? I think there’s a lot of that. People give for immortality, too. They want to ensure that what they love and cherish will be there for someone else.

CT: You have been asked for lots of advice across the course of your career. What’s the best advice you ever received?

MC: When we moved down here [to Highland Park Methodist Church], I was really nervous, felt out of my element. Big church, powerful people, everybody with their own perspective on what I should do and how to do it. Ruth Altshuler—wise lady—pulled me aside and said, “be yourself.” And she was right; smart lady. Everyone wants authenticity. Everyone wants you to be yourself, and the biggest challenge in life is finding out who that self is. That’s really, really hard. You have all these things you don’t want to expose that become secrets. My siblings and I are having a discussion about whether “who you are” changes over time; I don’t know. It gets back to who are you, really. People used to call me when they were really ill, and they wanted to tell me secrets and it was usually insignificant stuff. There are a lot of secrets in families, and I think that’s bad. One thing that made me better in my preaching [and with my children] was my willingness to share vulnerabilities, failures, goals, aspirations. You have to figure out who you are. As the minister of this Church, I had to become comfortable with that. You would like to be as good as people think you are, but on any given day, you might not be. It creates a lot of guilt. Who are you, really?

CT: You’re exactly right, “who you really are” can often times be hard to determine. A few years ago, I took a personality assessment test and it concluded that I was a textbook introvert. It was a disappointing day, but it led me down a path of self-awareness in order to better understand myself. This was my “aha” moment where I realized I had never taken the time or made the effort to become more self-aware. Once I starting learning, I began to cut out things in my life that weren’t meaningful.

MC: I do think at that point that money is important. Money is important to do the things you want to do—I’m not talking about vacations. Focusing on what’s important means that you have to give up some things. Having the money to let you give up some things means you can focus on what’s valuable to you. You know, I used to go visit people who were very, very sick on Christmas Eve. It always made me think and I was always amazed at what people talked about. They didn’t talk about their jobs or their money or their wills—they talked about their loves in their lives. If that’s the last thing you’re thinking about when you leave this earth, that tells us something. It’s pretty important.

CT: It’s unfortunate that some people don’t reflect on their lives until it’s almost over. I believe your legacy is defined by what others do after you’re gone. It’s all about people and passion. What difference did you make in another person’s life.

What helped me in business and at home was understanding that I like to take a little longer to gather information and process things – not a long time, but I typically don’t make off-the-cuff decisions. Because of that, when I make a decision, it’s with confidence and conviction. This was an important place for me to get to—so I can tell people what to expect from me.

MC: That would be a great thing to tell your kids when they get older. That’s insightful and could help them—lots of different ways to live your life.

CT: Jason Garrett tells a great story about his track coach who told him he had “finish line anxiety” as a runner. The meaning: life is about the run, not the finish line. Does that resonate with you?

MC: I would like that to be me—but the finish line was always important. I’ve always wanted to feel that I completed something. I’ve always wanted to enjoy the journey more, but I’ve been finish line-oriented. I wish I wasn’t so finish-oriented, and I wish I wasn’t so motivated by fear in my life—the next bad news, the next problem. I was afraid I would run too long, too far, not be successful. I didn’t want to be a “back up.” This fear thing—I talk to a lot of men who are motivated by fear of not being successful. And lots of time, there is pressure coming from the family to do more, make more money. That creates a lot of anxiety.

CT: You’ve mentioned to me that you didn’t like speaking in front of people—but you’re a professional at it! How did you do that?

MC: I just realized that a successful ministry is about preaching and raising money. I have the idea that sometimes God gives you talents that are not the things you love to do. And I knew that to do this [ministry] well, I would have to do it. So I just did it. But I knew that I wanted to identify a finish line and to reach it.

CT: Fear can keep us from realizing our full potential. Self-pity, self-doubt and self-consciousness are real threats to personal achievement. It’s hard to overcome those things sometimes but, like in your case, realizing how important the mission is, whatever you’re trying to accomplish, is critical. Finding that critical mission is really important.

What advice do you give people who see a challenge or impediment to whatever they’re trying to accomplish?

MC: I always try to put an issue in perspective. I think people knew if they came to me, they might hear things they didn’t want to hear. If an issue is not life-threatening, I like to tell people that most other people would like to have their problems. That’s a wake-up call. I would tell people that I would talk to them one time about their issue and then they need to “get with the program.” Moving people out of my office and into a three- to four-point action plan was really important. I’ve always believed that more people act their way into a new way of thinking rather than think their way into a new way of action. Most people don’t want to do anything about their problem. I did everything I could to try to get people to do something about it. With most problems, that works. With some insurmountable ones—major illness—it’s different. But most things feel bigger than they are.

CT: We all deal with various problems from time to time – some meaningful and some not. In adolescence, the small problems seem huge. How do you get across to kids that their problems are not as big as they seem?

MC: That’s a hard one. I know some people who take their children to [impoverished] parts of the city and show them what need is. I don’t know that it works. The problem that I was never able to deal with is entitlement. I didn’t grow up that way, and it is a failure in me not to have seen it earlier [and learned to deal with it].

CT: It gets back to the whole idea about humility overcoming entitlement. What can you do for your kids to create the kind of humility that fosters gratitude? I think it’s a combination of things: exposing them to impoverished areas, allowing them to fail, communicating often about the family’s core values, creating a very accepting environment – especially when allowing for failure.

MC: There’s some great advice to give your children: This is the way I’ve lived my life. You have to decide how you’re going to live yours.

Final Thoughts: Throughout my conversation with Mark Craig, there were a few common themes woven through all of his answers: sharing vulnerabilities and failures, effective communication and being authentic.The advice Craig was given, “be yourself,” seems straightforward at first, but it takes a lot of self-awareness to understand what your true self is and even more courage to act on it.

This was a privilege for me to have this conversation. I want to offer my sincere thanks to him for his willingness to have this conversation with me and trust me with the direction and results. I appreciate his candor and openness throughout. For many people, these are uncomfortable topics; the questions aren’t asked and the answers aren’t volunteered. It is highly personal and it is complicated. The great Dr. Seuss wrote, “Sometimes the questions are complicated and the answers are simple.” Craig has the ability to turn difficult questions into simple answers. It is a gift and it is my honor to share some of it with you.