Friday, July 24, 2009

Identifying and Removing Hidden Barriers to Growth

They are often hidden and not obvious but all ministries face barriers to growth that if not identified and removed will cause the ministry to plateau in its effectiveness.

One of those barriers is the leadership style, activities and priorities of the senior leader who is operating the same way they did when the organization was smaller. Since I blogged on this issue last week, two leaders have raised their hand and said, that is me - help me figure out how to lead differently so that I am not the barrier to growth.

Leaders and how they lead are responsible for much plateaued leadership. This is why it is very rare for a church to get much larger than 1,000 if it gets that far. As leaders continue to lead as they did when the church was 500, they effectively plateau the church unless changes are made.

Another barrier can be staff who were effective when the church was smaller but do not have the capacity to lead in their area as the Church grows. For instance, the larger the Church the more critical it is for staff to multiply themselves by training others and working through them. Some staff do that wonderfully. Some staff are always individual producers and cannot multiply themselves. Thus they become a barrier to growth in their area and when one area of ministry plateaus it causes other ministries to do so as well.

Ministry complexity can become a barrier to growth. Here is a counter intuitive observation. The larger the organization the more simple it must become if it is going to continue to grow. Growing ministries often go the other direction toward greater complexity. But complexity is difficult for leaders and members to get their hands around and the very complexity causes confusion, makes it hard to manage and diffuses ministry energy.

Another hidden barrier is either a lack of missional focus and clarity or confusing missional focus and lack of clarity. Again, the larger the organization the more critical it is for staff and volunteers to be clear on who they are, where they are going, how they are going to get there and what the end result of their ministry should be. Without this focus and clarity, ministries silo into their own orbit, people do what is right in their own eyes and ministry focus is hugely diffused.

Church governance that does not reflect its size if a common barrier to growth. Multiple boards, unempowered leaders, too many decisions that must go to the congregation are all barriers to growth because it simply takes too much time and energy to get anything done and the lack of permission granting leadership structures frustrates and takes precious time away from other leadership priorities.

A final hidden barrier to growth is the quality of congregational leadership on their senior board. I spoke recently to a pastor of a church of 1,200 whose leadership board is endlessly wrangling over petty issues, has no focus, wants to manage the staff and ministry, does not empower the senior pastor, cannot provide adequate direction and is not candid with the congregation. Here is a church that will never grow until the group is traded out for a group of leaders who know how to lead and are willing to do so.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Game Changers in Missions

Ministries in search of growth and more effective results often find themselves tweaking themselves endlessly. Tweaks are often needed to fine tune a ministry. But tweaks do not bring ministry breakthroughs. For that one needs to find the game changers.

Game changers are new ways of thinking or new ways of doing that significantly change the results that a ministry achieves - usually by significantly changing the way it goes about ministry in key ways.

The world of missions desperately needs game changers if it is going to meet the astonishing opportunities of reaching some 6 billion people with the gospel. Unfortunately many mission agencies are tweaking old paradigms rather than rethinking their strategies for how they do what they do. Here are some of the game changers that are making a major difference in missions today.

Partnering with others rather than doing missions in isolation. It is amazing how little cooperation there has historically been between mission agencies. Essentially instead of building the church each agency felt that it had to build its version of church - duplicating all the denominations from the United States to the global world. Jesus died for the church and not just our version of the church so any time we can partner with like minded ministries we leverage ourselves for greater ministry results.

Building the church, not simply our version of church. Here is a game changer for our mission - ReachGlobal. While we are the mission of the EFCA we are not intent on planting EFC churches globally. Yes we must have orthodox theology and we believe in the ethos of the EFCA. But, we are far more concerned that the churches we work with or initiate are healthy, interdependent, reproducing, self supporting and indigenous. What we are not concerned about is the name above the door. This means that we can come alongside multiple movements in a country, not just the ones that have the same name as us. This dramatically increases our spiritual influence. It has been a game changer.

Another game changer in missions is related to the previous one. Rather than simply assuming that one needs to start something new in an area of the world in which one is working, the first thing strategic missions do is to look around and see what God is already doing there and where possible, come alongside existing movements to help them multiply healthy churches. Where there are no local believers, evangelism and apostolic church planting is the work of the missionary. But where there are existing believers with a level of health, the first thing strategic missions do is to see if they can come alongside of them. Of course, this requires that the mission is not simply committed to building their brand of the church denominationally. Those that are limit themselves significantly.

Coming alongside existing believers to expand the church leads to another kind of game changer. Rather than simply focusing on what mission staff can do, the focus is now on developing, empowering and releasing indigenous workers for the harvest and therefore moving from addition (what I can do) to multiplication (what we can do). In this scenario, missionaries see themselves more as coaches of others as they work alongside and serve those they are partnering with.

This leads to a mindset game changer. If we are not simply building "our brand" and if we are empowering others and lifting them up we no longer own anything, control anything or count anything as ours. That is a massive mind set change for western missions and it represents a humility and service mindset rather than the "expert" and "in charge" mindset. It significantly changes how we are seen by those we partner with.

One of the ultimate game changers takes place when empowered and encouraged indigenous partners take on their own responsibility for sending missionaries. This has happened with our African movement partners who two years ago formed Reach Africa for the sending of their own missionaries and they are already training dozens of pastors and church planters in areas where the church is not yet present. ReachGlobal partners with Reach Africa as equals in the mission endeavor - a powerful combination.

One final game changer comes when Western mission agencies start to bring on their staff leaders from the parts of the world where they work in significant leadership positions. They bring with them a wealth of cultural understanding, strong understanding of the issues faced in their part of the world along with the very relationships the agency needs to increase their influence. In recent years we have grafted into our leadership Indonesian, Egyptian, Lebanese, and Kenyan leaders. They, and others to come are changing ReachGlobal in a wonderful way and are helping us be far more effective as a mission.

It is time for mission agencies to embrace a new paradigm and a new relationship with indigenous partners. It has never been easier to reach more people with the gospel than it is today. Whether we respond to that challenge is up to us. I don't want to settle for anything less. You?

Signs that your board needs renovation

You are frustrated by the pace of decision making.

It is necessary to get the approval of more than one group in order to get something done.

You find your board revisiting issues you thought you had already settled.

You discuss issues that have nothing to do with leadership and should be decided at another level.

Your are bored on the board.

Board members find it hard to make key directional decisions because of fear that some in the congregation will resist and complain.

Your board meetings are poorly planned and led.

There is confusion or conflict over what place the congregation, staff team or board plays in leadership or decision making.

Your board does not have a clear job description and understand its responsibilities.

You find that you spend more time 'managing' day to day activities than thinking and planning for the future.

There are elephants in the boardroom that are off limits for discussion.

You cannot identify the clear 'preferred future' for your congregation and there is not a shared dream of the board.

Your board and staff do not have clear annual ministry goals and plans.

You are frustrated with the number of decisions that need to go to the congregation for approval.

You have nice people on the board but not enough leaders.

There is not a high level of unity and relational health among board members.

Your church structure and bylaws hinder rather than help leaders make timely decisions.

Your board does not have ample time for prayer and study of Scripture, and to dream and plan for the future.

Your board does not have a covenant that spells out its procedural and relational practices.

Robust, honest, dialogue is not practiced.

You do not have an intentional process designed to find the very best leaders for your board.

You do not believe that your church is maximizing its ministry impact.

Your church has more than one elected board.

There is tension or confusion between staff and board over who is responsible for what.

You are not able to attract and retain the best leaders in your church to serve on your senior leadership board.

If a number of these statements are true for your board, consider reading High Impact Church Boards as a group. It will help you move toward greater board and leadership health.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Films we Play in our Minds

We live in three dimensions. The first is the most obvious - the world in which we live and the circumstances in which we find ourselves. Sometimes good, sometimes bad and sometimes ugly.

How we respond to the first dimension has a lot to do with a second dimension that lurks in our unconscious mind: films from our past whose imprint has left its mark. The pastor who as a child was constantly ridiculed now finds himself trying to assert his authority through autocratic behaviors. The child who was punished for minor infractions finds it hard to believe that God is a God of grace and assumes that God sees him like that harsh parent. The woman who was sexually abused struggles with self image and personal worth.

These films that play in our subconscious impact how we interact with people, how we see ourselves, how we see God and many of the addictive or problematic behaviors we struggle with are a result of that second, subconscious dimension. None of us are immune from its reality. In fact, the buttons that someone pushes that cause us to lash out in anger or stab us with pain are indicators of that second dimension at work. Something in our past triggered an emotion in our present.

A strategy of the evil one is simply to understand those films from our past that cause us discouragement or pain or acting out and simply to play them for us over and over to our detriment. If he doesn't do it for us, we do it for ourselves.

Enter the third dimension which is the spiritual dimension and while hidden, as real as the first and the answer for the second. "But because of his great love for us, God who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions - it is by grace you have been saved. And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus, in order that in the coming ages he might show the incomparable riches of his grace expressed in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus. For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith - and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God - not by works, so that no one can boast. For we are God's workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do." Ephesians 2:4-10.

That is a passage worth committing to memory and coming back to on a daily basis. It changes our perspective on the issues of life we face - the good bad and the ugly. It transforms the films we play in our minds for we are seated in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus, trophies of His grace and mercy for all to see, we have been called to relationship with Him and work for Him.

Those films? We now see our past and our present and our future in a different light. Jesus gives us a new reality and a new set of films to play - that reflect his high and important and grace filled calling on our lives. The old films have been replaced by His films.

Don't play the old films. Allow the grace of God to filter deep in your conscience and the place of honor in which you sit in Christ Jesus impact your view of life, your view of you, your view of God and your view of your calling. The old has passed and a new day has dawned.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Ephesians and Church Health

For all the talk about church health, possibly the most underutilized resource is that of the book of Ephesians which is, if nothing else, a primer on church health. Unlike many of the other churches in the New Testament, the church at Ephesus was a pretty healthy body.

In fact, I would suggest that Ephesus was a great example of a church of "irresistible influence." A reading of Acts 19 shows that this church was instrumental in the name of Jesus becoming known throughout the whole region and the gospel was so powerfully proclaimed that real persecution evolved. But in the midst of that, there was a level of public repentance for sin rarely seen and "the name of Jesus was held in high honor" (Acts 19:17).

Paul's farewell to the Ephesian elders (Acts 21) at a later time indicates that he had left in that church a group of committed, courageous and theologically trained leaders.

Then move to the book of Ephesians itself. Several things stand out as it relates to what a healthy church looks like.

First, healthy churches result in real life transformation. This transformation is rooted in a true and transformational understanding of one's life in Christ (Ephesians 1 and 2). This is a transformation so profound that it changes the outlook of those who have experienced it on ourselves, on God, on relationships, on other racial groups, on how we live, our marriage relationships, family relationships, unity among other believers and our view of the the spiritual war taking place behind the scenes around us.

While we have often stressed certain life changes (all good) we have often not stressed that this life change is rooted in a radical transformation that comes from a relationship with Jesus Christ. Our goal in the church is not to help people look like whatever we think Christians should look like but the radical reorientation of their life that comes out of new life in Christ.

This radical reorientation of life is accompanied by a power for living that Christ brings. In his prayer for the Ephesians in 3:14-21, Paul uses the word three times, once in each of his three main thoughts. The Christian life is only possible through the power that comes with the Holy Spirit and is likened to the power that ripped Christ from the grave and seated him at the right hand of God in 3:1-13.

The book of Ephesians also makes it clear that it is the church that is God's chosen instrument to reach the world. "His intent was that now, through the church, the manifold wisdom of God should be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms, according to his eternal purpose which he accomplished in Christ Jesus our Lord (Ephesians 3:10-11)." The church is His bride and is loved as a husband loves his wife (chapter 5).

If, indeed the church is His chosen instrument to reach the world, the transformational nature of the church, the unity of the church and the church as an equipper of His people (Chapter 4) becomes of primary importance

Unity in the church is an underrated issue that has huge implications for whether a church will impact the world around it. That is why Paul tells us to "make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit - just as you were called to one hope when you were called - one Lord, one faith one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all (Ephesians 4:3-6).

In his farewell to the Ephesians elders in Acts 21, Paul specifically charged the leaders to be on their guard against those who would come in and divide the church. In fact, divisive people are one of the great threats to the the Church. Ironically, modern day evangelicals are quick to guard the church against heresy and perhaps ongoing unrepentant sin but we allow divisive people to continue their spoiling of Christ's unity with impunity.

The purpose of church leaders is not to do the work of the ministry but to prepare His followers for works of service so that the body of Christ may be built up (Ephesians 4:12). Bringing God's people to the place where they are using their gifts and wiring of Him is a prerequisite of maturity (Ephesians 4:13) and it is to the extent that a majority of His people are engaged in His work that the congregation itself will become mature (Ephesians 4:16).

This is rooted in the understanding of Ephesians 2:10 that "We are God's workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do." We were created both for relationship with Christ and to do work for Christ. It is my conviction that the reason the church has so little influence outside its four walls today is that we have not take seriously this call on every believer to be engaged in His work and rather than equipping people for ministry, many staff positions are simply doing the ministry on behalf of everyone else. That is not a strategy that will yield great influence, nor maturity.

Ephesians 4:17-5:21 goes back to the theme of transformation but this time in very practical ways. The life we have entered into in Christ gives us the responsibility to "put off" all kinds of practices and attitudes that are at odds with our new life and "put on" those practices and attitudes that would reflect our new life with Christ. Thus, transformation brings intentional change in our thoughts, motives, and the outworking of our faith.

The numerous surveys that show that the behavior of those who claim to be Christ followers compared to those who do not indicates that such life change is not taking place today. Of course, the church may not be explicit today that such behavioral changes are non negotiables if we are going to follow Jesus fully.

There is no greater passage on spiritual warfare and the need to live in the full power of the Holy Spirit and the Word than that of Ephesians 6:10-18. This passage gives us a small peak behind the veil of our world to see what is going on beyond our sight but in our presence in the spiritual realms.

My view is that God's people generally do not have an adequate understanding of this very real spiritual war that is taking place or the need for all of God's armor in order to fight that war. To the extent that we understand God's divine drama and the war between the forces of good and evil, to that extent we will armor ourselves for that conflict.

The bottom line is that the book of Ephesians is a fundamental treatise on the health of the church. Boards that will take the time to study Ephesians and ask the hard questions about their own church and people will benefit greatly. It will be far more important than any book they could read on church health. It is the fundamental treatise on church health in the New Testament.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Passion Killers

Why do some ministry staff have a high and contagious level of passion for what they do and other staffs have low and non contagious levels of passion?

Certainly some of it has to do with how individuals are wired personally. But, much of it has to do with the ministry environment in which they work - for environments will either fuel or kill passion in those who work in them.

Passion killers are those things that will diminish rather than fuel ministry passion.

There is the passion killer of ambiguous missional purpose. Organizations that do not have a compelling reason for existence that everyone understands and shares will diminish rather than fuel passion for ministry. General ministry purpose yields general ministry efforts with general ministry results. Lack of focus and clear definition of what we are all about will not generate much passion. No wonder such a high percentage of churches in our world exist without much excitement or energy around them.

There is the passion killer of control and micromanagement. Good people want to be developed, empowered and released rather than controlled or micromanaged. Control diminishes passion because it devalues people and essentially says "I can't trust you to do your job by yourself." It disempowers and discourages and over time diminishes enthusiasm for one's work. Leaders who control or micromanage by definition kill passion.

There is the passion killer of poor leadership. Leaders set the pace for the missional focus, health, level of energy and commitment and the synergistic working of a team. Where leaders don't provide that kind of directional leadership and cohesion passion begins to diminish. Poor leadership yields poor followership and teams will rarely rise above the passion and commitment and example of their leader. For passion to remain high it must start with the leader of the team.

As noted in my prior blog on risk, there is the passion killer of living with the status quo rather than being willing to take a risk for ministry leverage. Organizations that will not take a risk diminish the passion of those who long to do something different in order to get greater ministry results. When the answer is "no" we don't do that here, passion leads from discouragement!

There is the passion killer of unresolved conflict and lack of team cohesion. Teams, congregations, and organizations often live with high levels of negative stuff that is not resolved. Everyone knows that it is present but no one has the courage to face and resolve it. Over time, that diminishes the passion of good people whose desire to see something happen for Christ is discouraged by the dis health they are surrounded by.

Then there is the passion killer of leaders who are coasting toward the end of their ministry life, who don't really know where to go anymore but who are determined to "hang on" till the end, leaving staff without direction or real purpose. This is a real problem among pastors who have lost their ability to lead but who don't know what to do next and simply hang on. They may be great people but they are no longer leading and their lack of leadership diminishes passion among those they should be leading.

There is also the passion killer of leaders who are more about building their own success and legacy than working as a team. These leaders may have narcissistic tendencies and it is all about them. Their narcissism diminishes passion in others quickly as team member realize that they are simply being used rather than part of a cohesive, unified ministry team. It is about the leader and not about the mission. Some very large organizations, and churches, suffer from this passion killer.

Organizational culture and its leadership will either fuel or diminish passion. I would love to hear from readers on passion killers they have observed in their ministries.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Catching the Wind

It is a wonderful feeling when the wind fills the sail, the boat surges forward and lays over powered by the breeze! It is a metaphor for life when we know that our sail is full and what we were meant to be is what is and we are - almost effortlessly being propelled by unseen forces. Life isn't always like that but when it is the exhilaration is palpable!

Sailors don't control the wind and neither do we. But there are practices or habits we can cultivate that are likely to help us catch the wind when it comes.

Staying fresh with Jesus is the first habit. How we do that is different for each of us but keeping the connection fresh is always the place to start. For me that means enough rest and time for reflection because my ability to live in His presence diminishes with fatigue. When rested I can feel His presence and His pleasure. When tired, I am just tired. Knowing our rhythms of connection and syncing those with our lives becomes key. As Jesus said in John 15, "remain in me and you will bear much fruit."

Living in my sweet spot so that I am operating out of my strengths is the second habit. Too much time operating in areas of weakness frustrates, fatigues and drains us. Optimally we are working in areas of strength not less than 60% of our time and it is wonderful if it is 80%. The wind is very hard to catch when we are playing to weaknesses rather than strengths. That will often mean that we say no to many things in order to say yes to certain things so that we live and work in areas of strength.

Knowing and paying attention to the big rocks of our lives is the third habit. When the distractions and busyness of life take us away from those things that are most important to us they steal the wind from our sails. Just as sailing is for the patient, positioning the boat and the sail for maximum advantage, so is life. I position the sail of my life for maximum advantage when I am paying attention to the big rocks of my life rather than being distracted by less important activities.

Finding time for ministry in connection with my strengths and wiring is the fourth habit. This is one of those big rocks that puts wind in the sail when I make time for it because each of us was made for unique works of ministry prepared by God just for us (Ephesians 2:10). The Holy Spirit fills our sails when we join Him in the work he created us for.

Each of these habits is dependent on one final habit: time for reflection and evaluation of our lives. Our constant activity robs us of time to think and therefore of the ability to live with the wisdom that comes from God's prompting and a balanced life as defined by these habits. Activity is often the enemy of real life results. Again it is the patience to position the sails of our lives so that we are most likely to catch the wind when it comes.

When the wind does come, catching it is a wonderful experience.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Rethinking Church Membership

I am a member of my church. It was easy. Give my testimony, agree to some nominal commitments like coming to church on a regular basis and I was in. The bar in my congregation like many is very low but what are the consequences of a low bar?

My question: Why do we have such a low bar for church membership? Jesus does not have a low bar for what it means to be a disciple but we send a different message when we make it easy for people to join our congregations.

Low expectations yield low commitment. High expectations yield high commitment. I suspect that one of the reasons there is such a low level of true followership today is that the church - the bride of Christ has low expectations of those who want to join.

Some churches have recognized this and have called their "participating members" to a higher commitment. They are clear that membership carries with it expectations:
-To give generously
-To attend regularly
-To resolve conflict biblically
-To attend a growth group
-To follow God obediently
-To use their spiritual gifts in ministry

That commitment carries a very different expectation and raises significantly the importance of deciding to become a participating member. Notice the difference between the description of "member" and "participating member." One implies I am in the church. The other, I am an active member of the church. Which description would you rather have?

Some churches are raising the bar even further by asking participating members to "re-up" every year. This is a declaration that I am "all in" on an annual basis and a reminder of what that commitment means. It is not a meaningless "membership card" but a serious commitment to the church and its ministry.

By the way, if you raise the bar you will get push back. Interesting! Why would you get push back for expecting what God would expect of obedient followers? Because we have trained our people that our expectations are low. "You mean, you have expectations of me to be a member? What are you thinking?"

That is precisely why congregations ought to consider raising the bar. It will certainly get people's attention. And you will get the very people that you want in making ministry decisions.

How low or high is your membership bar?

Measuring Ministry Results

Ministries often do what they do, year in and year out without a clear sense of whether or not their ministry or efforts are paying off. Consider these examples.

I spent time this past week with a pastor of a church of 1,500. For years they did what many churches do in the summer - DVBS, putting huge resources, time and energy into this ministry. The Bible School would take some 300 volunteers. Given that investment he asked for a rigorous review of the results of the ministry. What he found out was that in three years, this massive ministry layout resulted in only eight new families coming to the church, three of whom were planning on coming anyway.

This year there is no DVBS.

My own church, for many years had a "sports ministry" - mainly baseball and dedicated half of its five acre lot to a baseball field. In the 25 years of the "sports ministry" there were no known new believers. Mainly it was church folks playing with each other. Nice but not strategic.

We often make the assumption that because something is "ministry" that it is useful, good and important. Assumptions without factual information on results is a great mistake. It confuses activity with results. All ministries have loads of activity, many see few results. You don't know if you don't evaluate and ask what the real, tangible results are of your activity. A simple but neglected proposition in many ministries.

Wise ministries actually measure ministry results. I suspect that there are massive layouts of time, energy and money to ministries in local churches and missions which yield very little but we don't realize it because we don't measure. In fact, we don't even think to question our practices since we are just used to doing them.

This implies that we are willing to say no to ministries that cannot demonstrate true missional effectiveness and challenge ministry teams to have a strategy for getting those results. It is not necessarily popular but it is missional.

The same pastor who shut down DVBS this year had folks come to him to start a new sports ministry - they are a church very interested in reaching out to their community. His response was that he would consider it when he saw the detailed plan on how the ministry would leverage its sports program to actually bring individuals to Christ and help them grow. That is, after all the mission of the church, and therefore each ministry within the church.

Wise leaders question everything and count everything. They don't rely on past history or blindly assume that ministries are producing real ministry results. What do you really measure? What areas of ministry are you not measuring? It is worth thinking about!

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Simplicity and Complexity

Remember that last strategic plan you did for your organization? How much of it was ever implemented? Can you remember the details of what you decided? Or what about those things called ministry philosophy, values, preferred future or ministry outcomes? Do you remember what those are for your church? Would your leaders or staff remember? Are they helpful to you?

All of the above are good I am sure. But they often look like the jumble of paperclips in the picture - they are there somewhere and they can be helpful - if you can remember them when you need to or make sense out of them when you want to.

Consider this
Ministry is always complex
Complexity is confusing
Therefore complexity must be communicated with simplicity
Simplicity beats complexity every time

Most ministry leaders have a hard time remembering core documents or core missional commitments - let alone three year strategic plans. And if leaders don't remember those things, certainly those down the communication chain are even more challenged - if they care at all.

Despite the title of the book, "Simple Church," few churches are truly simple - nor are other ministries. The world is a complex place filled with complex problems that require complex solutions. Even the four basic Questions every leader must ask for their ministry requires a level of complexity:

1. What is our mission?
2. What are our guiding principles?
3. What is our central ministry focus - the thing we need to do well all the time?
4. What results do we want to see?

Rarely can I get a quick and clear answer to those questions even from the most senior leaders of an organization. That is not a criticism as much as it is an admission of the complexity inherent in even those four answers. Any good organization must ask and answer those questions - to say nothing of others that may be important.

The problem is that complexity creates confusion. Or, just as problematic, people deal with complexity by simply ignoring it (it takes too much energy) which is a worse fate than confused complexity! Is it any wonder why mission and vision drift take place so easily?

One of the best ways to simplify complexity is to tell stories. Jesus was a master at this. Stories grip the imagination and are remembered. Just think of the complexity of grace and the ways in which we respond or don't respond to grace and then think of the story of the prodigal son! So simple, so profound, so easily remembered and so full of content.

You may have a philosophy of ministry or uphold a certain value. Telling stories of those who have lived it out will be remembered even if the specific wording of your value is not. Stories are powerful simplifiers.

Metaphors do the same thing. The baseball diamond used by purpose driven churches takes complexity and simplifies it. I lead from a sandbox (hence the title of this blog) which takes complexity and simplifies it. A metaphor is something that can be repeated and remembered which is the goal!

Sometimes just a phrase, intentionally and often repeated does the trick. A friend of mine, pastor of a large church always tells the congregation that "We always must have a seat for the next person who is looking for a church home." He has said that for twenty five years and the church now has over 7,000 people in multiple worship venues. The value of always having a seat for the next individual has been owned by the congregation.

You can actually create an intentional church or organizational culture around those things that your care about and which are important to you but in order to do that one must take complexity and bring meaningful, rememberable simplicity. That takes great intentionality but those who do it find that their values, direction, mission and culture are understood implicitly or explicitly by their organization or congregation.

But complexity must be simplified. How do you simplify complexity and does your church or organization get it?

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Lessons Learned in Mentoring Young Leaders

Mentoring young leaders is a passion of mine. At fifty three, the more young leaders I can help grow, the more ripples I can make - and keep on making after I have left the leadership stage. I believe that mentoring is a stewardship responsibility of all leaders and it is one of the most unselfish investments we can make.

Mentoring young leaders is all about taking people with significant potential and helping expedite their growth through your sponsorship, attention and leadership example. A proven leader can open critical doors of opportunity, understanding and growth to a young leader which can dramatically accelerate the leadership trajectory of young leaders.

I recently reflected on some of the lessons I have learned in this process:

Look for potential not experience. Almost all job applications have an experience clause. Sometimes that is what you need. But often, what you really want is the "right stuff" in potential that can be shaped and grown. It is a thrill to hire someone who is "too young" by others standards and watch them flourish.

Look for good EQ. Good emotional intelligence is critical for a mentee because there will be plenty of opportunities when they will need to receive honest feedback on their performance. Poor EQ - defensiveness, inability to accept honest feedback, poor relational skills - will prevent them from growing like the should. Get good EQ, combined with potential and you have a powerful combination.

Help them understand their wiring and strengths. Mentoring is not about growing another "you" but about helping a young leader understand how God designed them, how they are wired and where their strengths lie - and don't lie. Young people often don't have the life experience to figure that out well but a good mentor can dramatically speed up the process by helping them discover their strengths.

Dialogue a lot. Mentor's use Socratic dialogue to help those they mentor think through issues, solve problems, discover solutions and evaluate performance. By its very nature, mentoring takes time and only those who are willing to make the investment will make good mentors. People learn the best when they are challenged to think critically and evaluate well so mentors think out loud with their mentees on a regular basis.

Ask lots of questions. The more questions one asks, the more you will help your young leader think and evaluate. Engage their perspective on people, situations, problems and solutions. Don't tell, ask - and then dialogue.

Give honest feedback. Good mentors give feedback but they do it in appropriate ways and appropriate settings. No, the Trump method "You're Fired," does not fit that paradigm! Mentors never embarrass by calling out a failure or misstep in public. They do it behind closed doors and in a way that causes growth, not discouragement (again, good EQ is very helpful).

Allow young leaders to figure it out and even fail. We learn more from our failures than our successes so allowing young leaders to figure out how do get something done (consistent with their strengths) and even to get it wrong on occasion is a powerful growth strategy. We practice "autopsy without blame" after a failure. We want to know why it happened and what went wrong and why but it is not about blame, but about learning.

Give assignments that stretch. Often, young leaders do not see in themselves what others see in them. Giving assignments that are out of their comfort zone - but within their ability helps them test their skills and critical thinking. Again, Socratic dialogue along the way is helpful, but not solving the problems they encounter.

Keep their plate full. Bright young leaders get bored quickly. Keep their plate full so that they continue to grow and stretch and increase their capacity. If they are really good - do whatever it takes to keep them engaged with you so that they don't look for greener pastures elsewhere.

Let them shadow you. Young leaders need models of what good leadership looks like. Because mentors are all about developing others, find ways to expose them to your world even if it is not in their job description. Exposure to meetings, problems, problem solving and other key people will give them context that they would not otherwise have and exposure that helps them leverage growth.

Ensure a relationship of high trust. Mentors often share information with a young leader they would not share with others - precisely because by introducing them to one's world and the real challenges one faces, young leaders learn how to deal with real life situations. This means, however that young leaders must be trustworthy (EQ again) to keep information that is private private and the maturity to handle sometimes difficult information. Clear guidelines should be discussed up front and reminders made along the way regarding confidential information.

Be tansparent. Sharing one's life honestly is an important element in growing leaders. Understanding how to balance life, deal with life when it comes undone and persevering in Godly character is the inner core that will sustain young leaders over the long haul. Wherever appropriate, be transparent so that they are challenged by your heart and character as well as your leadership expertise.

Mentoring is a challenge and a great privilege. And it allows you to expand your influence far beyond what you could ever do yourself.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

It's all about the Gospel

Those of us who are deeply involved in ministry, as leaders, team members or volunteers constantly need to be reminded of one very important truth: It is all about the Gospel!

Paul put it this way in his summation and introduction to the book of Romans. These two verses (Romans 1:16-17) sum up the message of Romans and the gospel.

"I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes; first for the Jew, then for the Gentile. For in the gospel a righteousness from God is revealed, a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: 'The righteous will live by faith.'"

Paul's first statement is interesting: He is not ashamed of the gospel. Why would he say that? I believe because many in his day were indeed ashamed as in our day. It was too simplistic (simply by faith), it was politically incorrect (there is only one way), it was intellectually stupid (God on a cross) and it was flawed in its premise (you can do nothing to earn salvation - it is simply by grace).

Paul was no intellectual slouch! But he understood the premise, power, truth, and plan of God in the gospel to do what no other religion could do - transform sinful men and women from all walks of life into walking billboards of God's grace through simple faith and he refused to be ashamed of this gospel, or to try to make it more palatable. It is what it is: The one and only way to Jesus and a life of relationship and significance.

It is easy to forget in our strategies, programs, events, plans and ministry that everything we are and everything we do is ultimately focused on the simple gospel of Jesus Christ. That gospel has the power to change any individual who will simply trust, intervene in any situation that we will give to God and transform corners of society that are infected by its truth.

John McArthur writes this about Paul. "Paul was imprisoned in Philippi, chased out of Thessalonica, smuggled out of Damascus and Berea, laughed at in Athens, considered a fool in Corinth, and declared a blasphemer and lawbreaker in Jerusalem. He was stoned and left for dead at Lystra. Some Pagans of Paul’s day branded Christianity as atheism because it believed in only one God and as being cannibalistic because of a misunderstanding of the Lord’s Supper.

But the Jewish religious leaders of Jerusalem did not intimidate Paul, nor did the learned and influential pagans at Ephesus, Athens, and Corinth. The apostle was eager now to preach and teach the gospel in Rome, the capital of the pagan empire that ruled virtually all the known world. He was never deterred by opposition, never disheartened by criticism, and never ashamed, for any reason, of the gospel of Jesus Christ."

I ask myself and I ask you: Do we have that kind of drive and that kind of passion to see the gospel spread across the regions where we work? The work of spreading the gospel is not a job: it is the greatest privilege anyone could ever have and the greatest responsibility given to man by God. There is hope and power and forgiveness and grace and eternal favor wrapped up in that message.

Do we believe that much in the power of the gospel? Do we believe that God wants to transform hundreds of thousands of lives through the work we do and the movement leaders we support? Do we believe that the gospel has that kind of compelling magnetism and spiritual power? The kind of power the raised Christ from the dead and set him above every rule, authority, power and dominion and title that can be given, not only in the present age but in the one to come?

In the end, it all comes back to the gospel. That is why I am not ashamed! And I never want to lose the sense of awe, majesty and amazing grace encapsulated in that gospel. It has the power, the only power, to change lives for eternity.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Avoiding Pain

Contributing Writer
Ellen Conserva
ReachGlobal Thailand

My friend recently told me about his recovery after shoulder surgery and how long and painful it was. He was finally at a place where he could function, but found that he still needed to make a few adjustments.

“So, I went back to my old comfortable chair the other day. I have been using a temporary chair without arms so I could get close enough to my keyboard without lifting my arm. Well my old chair has big arms that don’t fit under the desk, so I lowered the chair and then my shoulder was up too high. I finally decided to order a good ergonomic chair.”

What struck me about this story is how we react to discomfort. It seems that, like my friend Matt, I also adjust things in my life to avoid pain.

I don’t make that phone call I should, because I know that I will be in tears by the time I hang up.

I don’t start conversations that will eventually give me a stomachache.

I don’t look up as I drive past the temple where a dear boy at the orphanage was cremated, because that memory is just too raw for me to deal with.

I haven’t sent any of my stories in to a publisher yet because I am afraid that my fears will come true…I’m just not good enough.

I don’t look in the mirror sometimes, either! Just too painful at certain times in the day!

I wonder if this whole “avoidance” thing is right though…aren’t we meant to face our fears? Aren’t I supposed to look into the eye of the monster and take him by the throat and tell him that he doesn’t scare me?

The Bible says “Fear not.” It also says that we will all suffer. So what gives? Are we meant to suffer but not be afraid? Does God want us to grin and bear it? Or are we all just destined to quietly cower in the corner, flinching and twitching when something scary comes to call?

The Bible says something else, too….”for everyone born of God overcomes the world…this is the victory.” (1 John 5:4) So that means that we are already victorious over the things that scare us, that cause us pain. This is a promise that God gives, even before the scary thing freaks us out. We are already standing in a place of victory. We are already on the Victor’s Stand…the place where there are kisses and medals and trophies and champagne poured over our heads and down our necks.

So, before I ever face a particular battle or fear in my life, I already know that I am victorious; that I have won. That I have defeated the scary monster before I even open my mouth to yell at him to leave me alone.

Jesus had a scary monster, too. It was the cross. And He knew that He would be victorious, before He pointed one toe in that direction. Maybe that is why He didn’t try and avoid the pain that He knew He would face. He looked up at it. He looked right through it, too , I imagine, right to the other side. Right to the empty tomb. He saw it all before Him, right to the very end. He saw the Victor’s Stand and the kisses and the trophy and the “well done, You!”. He saw and felt His Father’s embrace. He heard the angels singing praises and shouting, “Worthy is the Lamb that was Slain!”

So, I must draw this conclusion then….that my fears and pains are taken care of already. That I do not need to avoid them. I need to let Jesus grab the scary monster by the throat and yell at him for me.

I need to surrender. And I need to remember that surrendering doesn’t mean that I lose. Surrender means I don’t have to fight anymore.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

How extensive is your root system?

Healthy people have extensive root systems that keep them solidly grounded, well nourished and always fruitful. But it does not happen by mistake. Roots we grow are grown intentionally not accidentally.

The most important roots we grow are in our relationship with Jesus and keeping it fresh by regular time in His word and time with him in meditation and prayer. These roots provide the "living water" of our lives as it is infused with the presence of the Holy Spirit in our lives. The deeper these roots, the stronger we will be.

For Mary Ann and I there is another set of roots that are like anchors to our lives - those of close, intimate, deep, friendships with a set of "friends for life." These are friendships with amazing friends where there is mutual support, shared spiritual journeys and a desire to be all that God made us to be. When life throws a curve, council is needed or disappointments come our way it is these friendships that become the voice, hands and personal love of Jesus to each other. We cultivate these friendship roots with great care.

Deep roots grow when we are in a good church fellowship. Anyone who has been surrounded by the love of a congregation in a time of need - prayer - meals - visits - concern - knows how those roots produce amazing stability in times of amazing needs. In fact, having been the recipient of that kind of love we often wonder how those who don't have a church family face those kinds of times.

I have several thousand roots that line my bookshelves - the wisdom, faith, and commitments of those who have gone before me - or are contemporaries whose books provide nourishment to my soul and challenge my thinking on a daily basis. These roots give me perspective as they have grappled with the issues of faith going back some two thousand years.

Some people seem to go from one crisis to another with a weak root system that cannot stand the test of storms in their lives. Others withstand the worst hurricanes because their root system is extensive and deep. How deep our roots and how extensive is up to us. My goal is for deep, extensive and strong.