Friday, October 29, 2010

Truth and Love: Conversations that Matter

Those who lead often face situations where direct feedback to a member of their team is necessary. Or, you may be a pastor with someone sitting in your office who needs to be lovingly confronted for choices they have made that are hurting them or others and you will need to be direct. Or, a friend who you care enough to talk to about an issue in their life but it will mean a difficult conversation.

All of us have encountered folks who do this badly, coming across as judgmental, blunt or harsh. More often in our desire to avoid conflict we also tend to avoid direct conversations. But in doing so we actually do a disservice to those who need to hear something that will help them in their job, in their walk with God or some other area of life.

Jesus was a master of direct conversation that went to the heart of things in a true, loving, non-judgemental way. He combined truth (what needed to be said) with love (wanting the best for those he spoke to) and did so in a way that invited conversation (the woman at the well). Because of the loving way in which He communicated, his directness did not provoke anger - with the exception of the Pharisees who wanted nothing to do with truth. He did not speak in anger to seekers or followers, he did not beat around the bush and avoid the real issues and He did not avoid the hard topics. He cared about people too much to do anything but speak in truth and love.

My wife was for many years a nurse at a suburban high school. Her favorite kids were the "bad" kids who often called her their second mom. She would keep food for kids that came to school hungry, talk to kids about their sexual acting out or drug use or choices that were hurting them. Rarely did they take offence because they knew that she was in their court, loved them unconditionally and wanted the best for them. She was direct (truth) in a spirit of love (grace). This was a combination that the kids were not used to but loved.

Pastors who speak truth in love to those not living in alignment with Jesus are being a faithful shepherd. Friends who speak truth in love to one another are faithful friends. Supervisors who speak truth in love to those they lead are faithful and wise leaders. In each case, our willingness to be honest and direct has the opportunity to help another in a significant way.

Direct conversation is not playing the role of the Holy Spirit. What people do with the truth we speak into their lives is between them and God. It is being honest in a clear way. Avoiding necessary conversations is often dishonesty because it pretends that an issue we need to address is not there. Nor is avoidance loving when direct conversation is in the best interests of a friend, a congregant or a staff member.

Direct feedback is most often received well when it is delivered in an honest but non-judgemental way, when people know we have their best interests in mind, when it does not judge motives and when it invites conversation so that it is not perceived as an attack or delivered in anger.

For those who lead others, honest and direct conversation is critical so that their staff know what their leader believes and thinks. It invites honest dialogue and robust discussion. Avoidance does the opposite.

We could learn much from carefully thinking through how Jesus interacted with people as He had the wonderful balance between truth and love that we all desire. None of us doe this perfectly but all of us can learn to do it better. With the humility that we too need others to speak with honesty and directness into our lives.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

The choice of every church: Cooperation and Partnership or Competition and Autonomy

There are two choices that nearly every church in our nation has the opportunity to make: whether to compete or cooperate with other churches in their city or region. For most churches the choice is to compete since success is measured by numbers, programs and budgets. For a small but growing number of churches the choice is cooperation toward a higher goal of building His Church and reaching whole cities and communities for Christ.

I have no doubt that Christ himself would choose cooperation and partnership over competion and autonomy. But of course, Christ's definition of success is often different than ours - even what we do in His name.

“Did God call me to built a great church in my area or to reach my area for Christ?” was the question on the minds of a group of pastors in the Chicago area. What would happen if rather than competing with one another we actually joined together with other evangelical churches to make relevant, meaningful contact with every home in our city? What would happen if instead of caring just about “my” church we cared instead about The Church?

This is happening in Gurnee, Illinois where ten churches committed to evangelism are working together to bringing the gospel to every home in a city of 32,000 people. In Lake County Illinois, 45 churches are actively involved with scores of others participating in one way or another. Under the banner of Christ Together, churches are banding together across denominational lines and even theological differences in a major effort to reach whole cities and whole regions for Christ.

“The whole church bringing the whole gospel to the whole city” is the goal of Christ Together. The strategy gets its roots from the church in Acts 2 which banded together to reach the city for Christ. Churches who are involved see this effort not as an ancillary ministry but as one of the core ministries of their congregation. It is transforming churches, lives, and entire communities. Not only are these congregations working to bring the gospel to every household but they are banding together to serve the community in tangible ways as well.

What a refreshing difference from the autonomy and competition that marks so many ministries today!

Christ Together wants to help churches make five key shifts that they believe are consistent with the principles found in Acts 2.

“Move from Spiritually Struggling to Spiritually Transforming: We help churches to become agents of spiritual transformation, leading people into a vibrant, life-changing relationship with God.”

“Move from Relationally Fragmented to Relationally Connected: We help churches to build deep and trust-filled friendships with one another, enabling them to pursue God’s dreams for their city together.”

“Move from Functionally Anemic to Functionally Healthy: We help churches to overcome the pragmatic ministry challenges that threaten the strength and vitality of their faith community.”

“Move from Culturally irrelevant to Culturally Inspiring: We help churches to serve their community together in significant ways, reshaping people’s perceptions of God, Christianity and the Church.”

“Move from Missionally Ineffective to Missionally Effective: We help churches to fulfill the Great Commission by reaching their community more effectively, one life at a time.”

These are certainly five key shifts that are needed in the American church today. In a ministry culture that is driven by “my success” and the building of “my church” there is a deep need to repent of our selfish, autonomous ways that build our ego and pride and work to build His church, The church and reach our communities in humble partnership with the whole church.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Don't get enmeshed in the issues of others

One of the hallmarks of good emotional intelligence is that we are able to empathize with others without getting enmeshed in their issues. This does not mean that we do not care, provide counsel, pray and support. It does mean that we don’t allow the issues of others to become “our” issues.

A key to this is what I call “keeping my own counsel.” Everyone has a perspective on issues but they are not always accurate or fair. It is their perspective. This is especially true in relationships. I often hear negative things about others. In line with keeping my own counsel I seek to listen and when appropriate ask questions but ultimately I must make my judgments based on my own personal experience rather than on the perspective of others. It is not wise, fair or healthy for me to simply take on the opinions of others when my experience does not line up with theirs.

This leads to the second key to staying out of enmeshment. I cannot solve other people’s issues for them. I can encourage them to resolve their issues with whomever they have those issues. I can offer to mediate a meeting between them for resolution. But ultimately I am responsible for my issues and others for theirs. All manner of relational chaos is caused when I take up the offense of others without firsthand knowledge and based on their information alone.

In fact, getting sucked into the issues of others is often a ploy of the evil one to take what is a relational breakdown among two people and to multiply it among others who were never part of the original breakdown and who have simply taken on the stuff of others rather than keeping their own counsel. This is often the stuff of church splits and conflict. What was an issue between two parties becomes an issue between multiple parties and what was a small issue now becomes a major issue. What was complicated now has become exceedingly complex. What might have been resolvable is now often not resolvable.

Matthew 18 is clear that when I have an issue with another I am responsible for seeking to resolve it. If I cannot resolve it I bring another to help resolve it. What I don’t have the luxury of doing is going to others and pulling them into my issue, nor of picking up the issues of others and taking up their cause in the absence of first hand information. These Biblical principles are violated among Gods’ people all the time to the detriment of His reputation.

There is a final principle that is both Biblical and reflective of good emotional intelligence. When I have an issue with another I always have the choice as to whether I draw others in and seek to influence their opinion of the one I have issues with – unhelpful and sinful behavior – or whether I keep my own counsel, seek to resolve but not to influence the opinions of others. It is not my place to hurt the reputation of others but to ensure that my own behavior is healthy and biblical. Once we have done what we can do to resolve our issues, we leave the rest to the Holy Spirit whose counsel is always right, fair and accurate.

Proactive or Reactive Leadership

One of the ongoing frustrations of many church boards is the lack of progress they seem to make in endless meetings. In some cases, the issues they are dealing with are the same issues they dealt with last year – and the year before that. The reason often has to do with getting trapped into reactive leadership – which is not really leadership at all rather than proactive leadership.

While leaders must at times respond to issues, the heart of leadership is intentionally moving an organization or ministry toward a preferred future. This requires a board to deal with issues at hand but to focus on issues in the future. One way to do this is to agree to two board meetings each month, one for dealing with decisions and business and the other for prayer, discussion and thinking about the future – with no business allowed.

But what about those issues that seem to come up time and again? My experience is that many boards are negligent in actually making decisions with the result that issues are never really resolved and come circling back for another and another round of discussion. I recently met with a board facing this dilemma. Using a white board we listed the unresolved issues that seem to keep popping up. I then gave each member three post it notes with a one, two and three and asked them to put their “one” next to the most pressing issue, the “two” next to the second priority and the three next to their third priority.

Very quickly they had prioritized their most important issues. I then suggested that they tackled these one by one and make a decision on each. Clarifying issues with a decision, even if it is not the perfect decision is far better than not making a decision and allowing the wandering to continue.

One of the main responsibilities of a board chair is to ensure that the most important “big rocks” that will help the organization move forward are addressed before the minutia that probably does not belong on the agenda at all. In the final analysis, leaders choose through the agenda items they tackle what is truly important to them and whether they will be proactive in their leadership or merely reactive to issues that arise. The first will move the ministry forward while the second will merely guard the status quo. How is your board doing?

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Predicting the Decline of the Attractional Church

I am sure that this blog will elicit comments for I am not a fan of the attractional church model and believe it is already in severe trouble with the young, old and some in between.

The attractional church model thinking goes like this: If I have a great performance on stage, relevant preaching and lots of programming that I will attract a lot of people, build a large church and therefore experience ministry success. The American church continues down this path blind to the fact that it is often not producing real disciples but that there are a growing number of folks who are rejecting it outright. This blog is not about church size but church philosophy!

Take the young generation. What they see in the attractional model is that people come to get and not give. They desire to be part of communities who are actively living out the gospel rather than simply hearing about the Gospel. There is a fundamental difference between those two. Furthermore they do not relate to a performance up front but would rather be a part of the worship experience. Finally, our preoccupation with service "excellence" is often seen by them as lacking authenticity. They can live with simple if they believe it to be authentic.

Oh, and the preaching? By dumbing down the gospel to make it relevant, by not addressing the radical implications of the gospel - that would make it too uncomfortable. By paying more attention to culture (the relevance thing pastors talk about) they feel cheated on the truth thing (what Jesus has to say about life). All of these reasons contribute to the dearth of the under thirty crowd in many churches.

On the other end of the spectrum are the fifty plus crowd who are increasingly but quietly leaving attractional church models looking for something different. They feel cheated in the worship (not just worship style) but in the often shallow worship theology and show up front. They especially feel cheated by the lack of emphasis on the word of God in today's "relevant" preaching. And they are more interested in doing ministry that makes a difference in the world rather than attending another program in the church. They have not rejected the church but they have rejected the attractional model of the church.

When I look at the American church at large today I ask the question, where are the gospel centered churches where truth is proclaimed carefully with real application. I ask, where are the gospel centered churches where the emphasis is more on reaching those outside God's Kingdom than programming ourselves to death to justify our buildings and facilities. One can see with our current model why it takes 168 people one year to bring one person to Christ in the course of a year.

I also ask how we have so mangled our definitions of success so that almost all that is talked about are numbers on weekends. We claim that spiritual transformation is our goal but the real marker in many Churches has nothing to do with that and all to do with numbers to justify the success of the pastor.

In a mentoring conversation recently with a young pastor I asked him how he would feel if there was not growth to his church in the next three years. His church has deeply problematic health issues and they may be what he needs to focus on. It took him a moment to say he would be all right with that....because for most of us success is in the numbers.

When I read the story of the early church I do see numbers being added to their ranks regularly. But the emphasis was not on the numbers. It was on radically living out the implications of the gospel - meeting together to share the elements and receive teaching, sharing their possessions with one another and being the people of God in their circles of influence which is why for instance the gospel penetrated whole communities with radical conversions, powerful miracles and a high emphasis on the word - read the story in Acts 19.

We have a deeply American model of church which has many differences from the Biblical model of church. A congregation I attend from time to time is a simple Anglican church. No flashy music, simple Biblical teaching, great Biblical liturgy and prayers and participation in the service of ordinary congregants who take their ministry seriously. Half of those that are there are former members of my own denomination who have left "attractional churches" for the simplicity of the gospel.

I predict that the American church of the future will look very different than it does today - in Evangelical circles. I pray that it is more word centered, authentic in its worship and committed to living out the "good works" God designed for us in our communities and circles of influence rather than through its programming keeping folks in the church. The program of God for the church is that they impact their communities, workplaces and circles of influence through living out and sharing the implications of the gospel.

I celebrate every gospel centered church I find, and the number is growing. They hold the key to the future of the American church. And they will attract people who are hurting, needy and looking for an authentic Jesus who can bring authentic change to their lives. Is it possible that the church of the future will attract people because it is centered on the person of Jesus Christ above all else? And in living out the implications of the gospel?

Monday, October 11, 2010

When Congregationalism goes amuk

There is a great deal of confusion around the concept of congregationalism. Many mistakenly believe that congregationalism means that all folks in a church have a voice in all matters and that the congregation gets to weigh in on all decisions. In addition, to keep everyone in the loop and to ensure that nobody has too much power many churches continue to operate with numerous elected boards and committees. At its core, like American politics the system is build on mistrust of leaders so it is designed to make decision making complicated.

Congregationalism as defined above says more about bringing our national polity practices into the church than anything the New Testament says about church leadership! In scripture there is only one group of senior leaders variously called elders or overseers who are responsible for the spiritual temperature of the church, ensuring that the congregation is taught, protected, developed - empowered and released in ministry and led well. When new needs came up they simply appointed ministry teams like the deacons. All of this was designed in an atmosphere of trust where leaders were actually loved and appreciated by the congregation. And they were to lead well as under shepherds.

But what to make of the congregational thing? Congregationalism originally conceived did not mean a democracy or that every individual has an equal part in decision making. The priesthood of all believers is not the leadership of all believers. If that were true Paul would not encourage those with the gift of leadership to lead well.

Congregationalism meant something very simple. There could be no authority outside the local church such as the state church that could tell them what to do. Second it meant that congregations had a way to change the direction of their church if their leaders took it in a direction inconsistent with Scripture. Thus we say in the EFCA that if a congregation calls its senior pastor, votes on an annual budget, votes on any changes to the bi laws or constitution and must approve the sale and purchase of property it is congregational. Boards may choose to bring other issues to the congregation but this is what it means to be congregational.

Too often, the way we practice congregationalism hurts the church rather than helps bit. Multiple boards and committees are like toll booths that hold ministry up. The number of people on those boards and committees keeps those very people tied up in meetings rather than using their gifts in ministry. Leaders become discouraged because it is so hard to get things done and there is a huge loss on Return on Mission if indeed there is a mission being actively pursued.

If your ministry suffers from some of these elements it may be the very thing that is keeping you from moving forward missionally. And you do not have to live this way. My books High Impact Church Boards and Leading From the Sandbox (NavPress) can help you think differently about how you lead and about the missional elements to that leadership. Don't let your system constrain your mission. Design your system to serve your mission.

On not speaking down to our children

Some of my most memorable years as a father were our family dinner conversations in the evenings. Mary Ann and I would talk about our work and ministry and the kids would weigh in on those, ask questions or wax eloquent on their own issues of life, faith, politics and people.

From an early age, we did not hide from them issues we were dealing with including problematic issues at work. We had a fast and standing rue called PC or "Private Conversation" that could not go anywhere and to me knowledge they never violated that commitment. In the process they learned how we handled real life stuff and they learned how to have "robust dialogue" on any issues they wanted without personal attacks.

This is perhaps why from an early age, Jon and Chip were so comfortable around adults. They were treated like adults at home who could think through adult issues.

I think that we too often speak down at our children thinking that they will not understand. We do this with every day life issues, and especially with theology where we feel a need to bring the gospel down to their level. It is interesting to me that Jesus never did that. He spent time with children, talked with them and they in turn simply believe what he said in their naivety! He called us to have the same child like faith in his promises rather than rationalizing them away. He said it was easier for a child to enter his kingdom than a rich man.

I remember as a young child listening to tapes of Bible Stories right out of the gospels and Old Testament. My earliest scripture memory goes back to those "go to bed tapes." I did not need explanation, I simply listened and believed with child like trust. Perhaps that is a reason for my gift of faith today! God said it and I believe it. In fact, I never struggled in that department but it goes back to my youth.

Sure there are complicated themes in the Bible. But there are many that are complicated to adults that are not complicate to kids. They simply take God and Jesus at his word: a novel idea unhindered by our western rationalism.

Years ago, an expert in education from England wrote these words.

We might gather from [misguided] educational publications that the art of education as regards young children is to bring conceptions down to their 'little' minds. If we give up this foolish prejudice, we shall be astonished at the range and depth of children's minds. And, we shall perceive that their relation to God is one of those 'first-born affinities,' which it is our part to help them to make good. A mother knows how to speak of God as she would of an absent father, with all the evidences of his care and love. She knows how to make a child's heart beat high in joy and thankfulness; as she thrills him with the thought 'my Father made them all,' while his eye delights in flowery meadow, great tree, flowing river. 'His are the mountains and the valleys, his the resplendent rivers, whose eyes they fill with tears of holy joy.' And this is not beyond children. (Charlotte Mason, Philosophy of Education)

Remember that when children are created they come with amazing minds, creative ideas and a spiritual component that wants and needs to connect with the living God. It is often we as parents that complicate the uncomplicated and limit their understanding through our disappointments in life and sometimes far from robust faith.

Understanding the wiring of your staff

Several long conversations with ministries recently - both church and other have reminded me of the importance of paying close attention to how individuals are wired before we place them in their jobs. In one case, significant mistrust had developed between a senior pastor and his board. Words like “mistrust” and “unqualified” “lack of communication” and “distant” were used and it was obvious that there was a significant gap between the work of the board and the expectations of the leader.

In our dialogue, however, it became very clear that the long standing frustrations had nothing to do with the integrity or qualifications of the leader. Rather, they had to do with how the leader was wired and gifted. In fact, we made two lists on the white board. List one was the list of all those things that the pastor did (or did not do) that caused frustration for the board. They were all organizational leadership issues.

We then made a long list of the leader’s strengths. They were almost all people related, things he did one on one and did very well. His areas of strength lie almost completely outside the organizational arena. They are strengths he uses one on one with people facing problems, in evangelism and in his preaching.

This took the conversation out of the real of “good or bad” “trust or mistrust” and put them into a category that revolved around current job fit. This could mean that this leader will be happier in another job. It could mean that the board needs to change his responsibilities so that he plays to his strengths. That is a process they need to run over the next months.

In our organization we actually have three steps in the hiring process. First, is this someone we want on the team: Do they have the emotional, relational, spiritual and skill healthy that we need? Once we say yes, we need to determine how they are uniquely wired by God. Are they individual producers or organizational leaders? How do they like to be led and how do they lead? We use the SIMA organizational tool for this analysis as well as long dialogue. Finally, we write the job description that is consistent with their gifting and wiring. The job description gets written last, not first.

People are hard wired by God in unique ways and that wiring is not going to change. We can grow in a number of areas but our wiring will not change. The leader above will never be a great organizational leader but he shines in his lane. The more we think along those lines, the better the fit, the lower the frustration and the more return on mission we will experience.