What color is that rule?

3:00 a.m. 

The darkest part of night. 

The first big thunderstorm of summer. 

Rain poured off her straw-colored hair.

She struggled to carry her three children by herself—a newborn and twin toddlers in car seats. 

She shuffled slowly along an urban bicycle trail. 

The incision from her C-Section was infected.

Can you imagine what that would feel like? 

I can’t. 

I have tried. 

My imagination is unable—or unwilling—to conjure up such raw terror. 

My breathing gets tight when I even try.

Somehow, the police found her. 

Perhaps someone driving by the bike trail saw her but was too afraid to pull over in the middle of the night. 

The police officer, overwhelmed by what he was witnessing, drove the woman and her three babies to our shelter.

I wasn’t there. I wish I had been. Only occasionally—even at a homeless shelter—do you have an opportunity to care for someone in precisely the worst minute of the worst hour of the worst day of their life. 

That moment is what the 5’th century Celtic Christians called “a thin place,” where the distance between heaven and earth is narrower. There is no better way to describe it.

However, I wasn’t there. 

I was a few miles away, in my bed, sleeping soundly. 

That night there was only one staff person on duty. He was responsible for 200-250 souls scattered over a 45,000 square foot building. 


      • He immediately got her a warm meal even though the kitchen was closed. 


        • He prevented a dozen women from taking a shower before work so she could bathe in peace. 


          • He left the building completely unattended while he rummaged through a trailer in the parking lot looking for dry clothes. 


            • He put her in an empty dorm room in our transitional wing, a direct violation of federal grant guidelines.

          Before the sun had crested over the horizon the next morning, this staff member had broken at least a dozen organizational rules. 

          I have never been prouder of a staff member.

          Red Rules and Blue Rules

          There are two types of rules in every organization:


              • Red rules = Rules that must be enforced every time.


                • Blue rules = Rules that generally should be enforced, but staff have some discretion to ignore them if the situation warrants it.

              Let’s look at some examples…


                  • A red rule is “No weapons.”

                If a person brings a rocket launcher into the shelter, but “promises not to use it,” I do not want the staff making an exception.


                    • A blue rule is “Everyone must be inside by 9:00 pm.”

                  If a woman with three small children shows up soaking wet at 3:00 am I want staff making an exception.

                  The challenge is that management knows which rules are red and which are blue.

                  Frontline staff oftentimes do not.

                  What should you do?

                  If you are in management, explain to your staff which rules are red and which are blue.

                  If you are not in management, ask which is which.

                  Have a great week!



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