Friday, September 30, 2011

When ministries need to change

Many ministries have not kept up with the changes in today's world. This includes many churches but it is especially true in the mission world where I work. In many organizations radical change is needed.

A common response when faced with the need to change is to start tweaking the current paradigm. Tweaking is "fear based change." We are so afraid to rock the boat significantly that we hope we can tweak our way out of our predicament. It never works. Change requires new paradigms in how we think and new ways of delivering on our mission. Furthermore, talking change but making tweaks tells the whole staff that leadership is not truly committed to change so they can keep their heads down and continue to do what they have always done.

A similar response is that of incremental change. Going in the right direction but slowly. At the pace of change in our world today, those who move slowly will find themselves in the same place they currently are as change in our environment outpaces our ability to respond.

Another observation. Ministries are often unwilling to bring in an outside facilitator to help in the change process or to bring in new leadership from the outside. The sub culture they have created is not friendly to those coming from the outside with new ideas and new ways of thinking. This is an absolute killer of any real change because it leaves one locked into the very culture that must change if the organization is going to change. I am watching several ministry organizations right now wrestling with needed changes but until they bring in someone from outside their insular culture there is no chance that it will happen.

Often the leaders who brought an organization to where it is today cannot take it to where it needs to go tomorrow. But until boards and current leaders face that reality they will not move forward. Sometimes courageous choices need to be made and leadership or board changes need to take place if we want to re-invision the organization for its next run. Remember that while we always honor people, our stewardship of the ministry requires us to do the right thing for the ministry even if it means changes in staff. That is the real world. Do it graciously but don't be afraid to do it.

The issue of leadership courage is huge in change. Leading change is a tough business. People resist, some get nasty, change is messy, personnel changes must take place which can be hard, arrows come! It is the nature of change. Organizations that desire to change but who don't have a leader who can effectively lead the change will lose. In addition that leader must be able to articulate the new realities and vision so that people have clarity on where they are going even if they don't like the white waters of change.

If you know your organization needs significant change ask yourself these questions. Do we have clarity on what the future should look like? Do we have a leader who can take us there? Do we need to bring key staff in from the outside? Do we have the courage to let people go who no longer fit? Do we have the resolve to see this through? Are we willing to make radical paradigm shifts to get us to where we need to be?

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Deep Influence and Deep Pain are Intimately Connected

For those who desire a life of influence, pain, while never invited is a gift nonetheless. Suffering develops perspective, character, forces us to focus on the important and shed the unimportant and brings us closer to a sovereign father if we respond by pressing into him. Unfortunately, there is no substitute for pain and suffering when it comes to our inner life, our relationship with Jesus and the renovation of our hearts.

Those who ask Him to help them become like Him, to give them a heart like His and to help them love as He loves are inviting suffering into their lives because that suffering is the very thing if responded to well that brings the desired result. In the New Testament, Peter, Paul and the writer of Hebrews all talk about the way that pain purifies and brings His transformation to our lives.

Think about this. When we are treated unfairly we learn what it means to trust our situation to God. When we are slandered we learn that it is God who holds our reputations in His hand. When we face serious illness we learn what it means to prioritize the elements of our lives and to shed the unimportant. When we cannot get through a day without His help and grace we learn what it means to live in His presence even hourly. When the unexpected slams into our lives and we are left reeling we learn that there is nothing more precious than our relationship with Him - when all is said and done, He is what we need.

I don't relish pain. Those who know me know that Mary Ann and I have had our share. The funny thing is that in retrospect while I never want to go through certain situations again, I can today thank God for the hard and painful gifts he brought through suffering. I can say with certainty that the contours of my heart have been irrevocably shaped in suffering and that nothing else would have sufficed. When C.S. Lewis said that pain is God's megaphone to us he was right. Thus I call it an unlikely gift but a gift nonetheless because it was God speaking to me through the pain - it was Jesus who wanted to get in touch with me in my suffering.  Pain is God's certified mail to our very souls if we will but listen.

One of my sons told me once that he thought God would really use him in a significant way. In the aftermath of that conversation I thought about the price he would pay if that were to be the case. Spiritual influence comes at a price which is why those who have suffered deeply often influence us the deepest. They have been forced to go deep with God and the quality of their hearts and lives show it well. In contrast, those who simply want a life of ease and safety may get their wish but it will be at the expense of spiritual influence they might have had. 

The wonderful truth is that when we suffer and press into God we "share in His sufferings," in the words of Paul to the Philippians. We join our savior in the suffering that He endured for the sake of His father and for ours. We never suffer alone but have a high priest who has gone before us and understands the pain we feel and the issues we face. That is the gift of the incarnation. God, who had not known the frailties of those He created, became one of the created so that He could not only redeem us but identify with us forever. Thus in all pain and suffering we live with the reality that He not only went before us but goes with us in full understanding, compassion, grace, comfort and presence.

If you are living with the reality of pain today, my prayer is that God will comfort you and that you will go deep with Him and that out of it all will come deep and abiding relationship with the Father and deep influence with those around you. And to a friend out east who is in the confluence of pain, I pray that you will be encouraged, that God will do His work and that you will emerge stronger than ever.

Investing in your staff

It is easy for leaders at all levels to become so busy with their own work that they neglect one of their fundamental responsibilities - growing their staff. For those of us who lead, staff development is not an ancillary but a primary part of our job. In fact, our ministry success is deeply wrapped up with the quality, focus and capacity of those who work under our leadership. Not only that: leading others is a stewardship and they have a right to expect that we will help them become all that they can be in the positions they are in.

This is not about micromanaging - a demotivating activity for staff. Nor is it about telling them how to do what they need to do - if one needs to do that one has the wrong staff. Rather it is about understanding the wiring of staff members and through dialogue and discussion helping them maximize their gifts strategically in the role they play.

Good leaders are exegetes of their staff. They seek to understand how each individual is wired, what motivates and demotivates them, where their strengths and weakness are, their emotional intelligence and even the shadow side of their personality (we all have one). Without a basic understanding of these elements of personality one cannot help others grow and develop. That is why staff development is a very personalized art and why leaders need to take the time to get to know those they supervise in more than a superficial way.

One of the greatest gifts we can give staff is time with them in dialogue regarding their work. There are three specific things that I look for: focus, strategy and relationships.

Focus is all about helping staff keep the main thing the main thing and not become distracted by activity. Activity does not equal results. Results come from a clear and focused set of priorities that is translated into schedule and activity. Can your staff articulate what is most important in their work and do their schedule and priorities reflect those big rocks they have articulated. Further do they have the correct big rocks? Lack of focus is one of the primary reasons for less than satisfactory results for all of us.

Second, do they have a strategy that makes sense? Is their strategy designed for addition (based around what they can do) or multiplication (getting others involved)? Does their strategy maximize the opportunity or leave things on the table? Socratic dialogue around these issues can sharpen their thinking and help them to leverage their time and efforts for the best results.

Third, how are are they doing with other staff and volunteers? Relationships are the coinage of ministry success. Helping staff grow in their ability to work with others productively, handle robust and candid discussion without defensiveness and resolve conflict and differences are non-negotiable elements of ministry success. Don't wait till there is a crisis to press into relational issues. They matter all the time.

An extended conversation around these kinds of things on a monthly basis will help you surface issues, talk through challenges, keep the focus sharp and help your staff report think more strategically. If we neglect this kind of time with direct reports we will inevitably pay for it. It is one of the best investments we can make because our ministry success is directly tied to the ministry acumen of those we lead. Make the investment monthly and you will reap the benefits in a big way.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Don't get caught in the church numbers game

What spells success for a local church? For many pastors the answer is how many attend their church. I drove by a Unitarian church with a full parking lot on Sunday. By our common definition of success they had achieved it - or the Mormon temple two blocks from my house that draws a full crowd. Seen in that light we realize that numbers are not everything and sometimes are nothing when it comes to success.

In fact, numbers may be the worst definition of success for churches and pastors. Churches do not grow indefinitely. Many pastors are not equipped to lead a large church but are wonderfully equipped to lead a small or medium size church. All of us have a leadership ceiling and internal wiring that defines the size of an organization we can effectively lead. Since God gave us that wiring we have to assume He is pretty happy with it and so should we be. One of my ministry buddies is a great preacher and the quintessential shepherd pastor. He pastors a church of around 250 and is wonderfully fulfilled in that role. His lane is not a church of 500 or larger where he would be frankly miserable. He is fulfilling his God given calling in a smaller church.

Further, the focus on numbers can easily cause us to move away from a full presentation of the gospel to embrace an attractional model of church where the goal is to attract as many people as possible and in the process to water down the emphasis on disciple making which actually demands something from those who come. There are plenty of large churches full of untransformed people which is not a New Testament definition of success. And remember that most church growth in the United States is not about new conversions but simply about people transferring from one church to another. How does that spell success?

We should also remember that many people are not enamored by large churches. They prefer a family size church where it is easier to know others, plug in and where relationships are easier to build. There are far more avenues of direct involvement possible in smaller churches than in large churches.

What we ought to really be focused on is not numbers but helping our congregation experience true spiritual transformation: Hearts transformed by grace; thinking transformed by God's word; priorities transformed to align with His word and relationships transformed by His love. Pastors often say to me, "I don't know how to do the vision thing." My answer is that ninety percent of vision in the church is simply helping people live out the Gospel in their lives, their homes, their neighborhoods and their places of work. This is true in a large church or a small church. Size is not an indicator of success - transformed people are. 

Can small churches grow? Often they do so by church planting. They may not desire to grow significantly in numbers as a congregation but all churches can grow by multiplying themselves in church planting. And there will indeed be conversion growth for any body that is focused on spiritual transformation. Get the focus right and true spiritual fruit happens - John 15. 

There are always reasons for church size - a complex set of variables that we cannot address in full here. But I would say to any pastor, the measure of your success is not in your attendance numbers as much as it is in the transformation that is taking place among your people. Even in the New Testament there were huge churches and tiny house churches and all kinds in between. While God's people grew in numbers there were still all sizes of churches and there is no reference as to numbers being the sign of success for any of them. Transformation was a sign as well as ministry engagement - see Ephesians. People coming to Christ was a sign - see the book of Acts. But church size was not.

Rather than getting caught in the numbers game, we all ought to be focused on transformed lives which leads to new people coming to Christ. And, be who you are made to be as a church whether a small neighborhood church or a mega church. The numbers don't tell the story, Gospel engagement does.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Power, Humility and Leaders

Leadership advancement must be accompanied by a parallel advancement in personal humility. This is a paradox as leadership advancement brings with it additional power, opportunities, freedom, perks and responsibilities - all of which are more likely to lead to pride than to humility which is the only antidote to the dark side effects of additional power.

Humility is not a denigration of the leadership gifts we may possess. Healthy leaders are by nature self confident, self assured and have a bank of experience and wisdom from which to draw on. Some will actually see that confidence as arrogance when in fact it is simply self assurance. Paul tells us to have an accurate read of our strengths and we need not apologize for leadership acumen. Most if not all leaders have run into people who don't like their ability to make clear directional decisions and accuse them of arrogance. Usually that reflects more on the accuser than the accused.

At the same time, leadership gifts bring with them unique personal challenges because of the power it brings. Decision making power which can be used more for our benefit than for others, influence over the careers of others, additional personal freedom with a larger "sandbox" in which to play along with less candid feedback from those around us who may choose to play to our leadership role rather than engage in robust, honest, candid discussion.

It is not unusual for leaders to lose some of their sensitivity to others as their role increases. There can be an expectation for others to serve them, agree with them, and live up to their expectations whether they are appropriate expectations or not. They can also lose the ability to listen closely and carefully - after all they are busy and distracted by many issues. In the ministry world, there is the added dimension of "spirituality" in the leadership equation where "God speaks" and leaders can use the "God's direction" to go where they desire to go. How does one argue with God?

How do leaders grow their personal humility as they are handed greater authority, power and freedom? First, while leaders are often lifted up by others with perks, titles and respect, they go deep into their own hearts, souls and lives to understand and respect the depths of their own depravity. None of us look as good on the inside as we do on the outside and leaders cultivate a high view of their own fallenness in order to not be deceived by the adulation of others. In doing so, they develop a greater understanding of their true self, vulnerabilities, need of God's grace and forgiveness and their personal understanding balances out the adulation of others.

Second, healthy leaders surround themselves with people who will be honest with them. Unhealthy leaders surround themselves with people who will play to their ego. There is a huge distinction! One of the reasons for building healthy leadership teams is that there are multiple voices that weigh in on critical decisions and robust dialogue of a group rather than the single voice of one. You can tell the nature of a leader by those he or she surrounds themselves and by how candid those individuals can be with their leader. Personally, I will never again work for a leader with whom I cannot be completely honest behind closed doors.

In fact, healthy leaders go out of their way to solicit information, opinions, feedback and advice on critical decisions. True self assurance is not intimidated by the differing opinions of others and actually desire the opposing view so that they can understand all angles and potential unintended consequences. Any leader who is intimidated by strong opinions that differ from theirs is actually an unhealthy leader. Those leaders who don't want to listen and dialogue with other strong voices are more concerned with their own ego and power then with leading well. It is about them, not about those they lead.  

Third, leadership brings with it power, options, and greater freedom. Many leaders use those perks of leadership for their own purposes. Healthy leaders use those perks to help those they lead. The power of leadership, for instance, can be used to further our own goals or it can be used to remove barriers and pave the way for our staff to be more successful. Our freedom as leaders gives us the opportunity to extend greater freedom to others, to be their advocates and to tackle the politics of the organization that they are not in a position to deal with.

Leaders do not need to apologize for the greater freedom they have because of their leadership role. They have earned it. But, the best leaders use that freedom on behalf of their teams not on behalf of themselves. They use the power of their position to serve those they lead! Power in itself is not bad. It depends on how that power and influence is used. I have been helped over the years in significant ways by those above me who could intervene on my behalf and without whom I would not be in the leadership role I am today. They used their influence to help me in situations I could not negotiate by myself.

Power and humility are two sides of the same coin for healthy leaders. If you lead, how are you doing on the balance between the two?

Boundaries matter

All of us have boundaries in our personal lives, our work and our relationships. Those boundaries are designed to keep us in moral, ethical, legal and healthy places. When we start to violate those boundaries and play with the boundary lines we are in dangerous territory.

How well we keep our boundaries is a matter of our humility. Pride says, "those boundaries don't matter for me." Humility says, "Those boundaries apply to me just like they apply to others and they are there for my own good." The human heart has endless ability to move the boundary markers in our own lives and to rationalize the decision. It is the nature of sin to think that the rules don't apply to us. It is actually narcissism - the rules don't apply to me, I am above them.

In ancient times, boundaries were marked by stones and it was a major offence to move a boundary stone: they were sacred and immovable. So it should be in our lives. The ethical and moral lines laid down in Scripture are there for our protection and represent the immovable boundary stones of a righteous God. We have other boundary stones in our workplaces that are equally immovable. The moment we start to move the stones, our hearts are in jeopardy and the deceit of pride has reared its dangerous head. God says the markers matter. The evil one says they don't - at least for us.

We ought to ask ourselves periodically if we are playing with any boundary markers in our lives. Have we moved any? Are we skating across any? Are we thinking that any of them don't apply to us? None of us is exempt from moving the markers. All of us are tempted to do so. But it never turns out well and once we have moved one it is easier to move another and another and another. The boundaries in our lives matter and the wise humbly acknowledge that they apply to them not just to others.

If any markers have been moved the smartest thing we can do is repent and put them back where they originally belonged. Boundaries matter.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

The River of Marriage

When I think about marriage, my metaphor is that of the Mississippi river which runs through my city of St. Paul. Its source is Lake Itasca in Minnesota where you can literally walk across it as a small stream, stepping on a few stones. From that humble and small beginning it meanders slowly southward for 2,320 miles to the Mississippi River delta.

On its long journey, it is a watershed for nearly 40% of the United States as rivlets run into streams and streams run into rivers and those rivers run into the mighty Mississippi. By the time it reaches its termination, it is discharging between 200 and 700 thousand cubic feet of water per second into the gulf. Its start is inconspicuous to the massive force of its end where its width spans as far as the eye can see and its strength pushes fresh water far out into the gulf with enough force that for miles its contents don’t even mix with the salt water of the ocean.

While marriage is exciting and exhilarating at its start, it is but a small trickle of what it can become if its partners are willing to share the long journey of a life together. The width and depth of a marriage well lived can be seen in the relationships and influence of those who have withstood the numerous bends in the journey, some joyful, some hard and some where they simply had to hang on together in faith - not knowing what was around the next bend. Marriages that have withstood the journey carry with them the weight of thousands of accumulated streams and rivers that have added to their strength widening and deepening a relationship that seemed so strong but was but a tiny stream in comparison at its inception.

And what are those streams and rivers that flow into the marriage over the years that add to its depth and width? Every time a partner serves the other, a stream flows into their relationship. Every time forgiveness is extended a stream flows into their relationship. When they walk through tough times in faith and commitment, rivers flow into their relationship. Every act of love, service, forgiveness, and commitment adds to the flow of their marriage which over the years and around bends too numerous to count cause it to flow with strength, depth and amazing power – having influenced many along the way.

Any captain will tell you that the Mississippi is a challenging river to navigate with its constantly changing sandbars and shifting channels. Marriage is no different. What did Mary Ann and I really know when we made vows at twenty about “in sickness and in health” and for “richer or for poorer?” It is in facing those unknowns that will unexpectedly appear together and with faith in a loving God that adds strength to our marriages.

When you see a couple in their eighties with wizened faces, unsteady legs and holding arthritic hands, don’t be fooled. They may look frail but if they have taken this journey called marriage together, they have depth and wisdom and a kind of commitment that nothing can break. Like the mighty Mississippi that flows into the gulf with great strength and force, their marriage has grown exponentially from that initial trickle of a stream so many years before. And they will tell you if you ask that it was worth the effort and that their love and commitment is great and there is a deep satisfaction that they weathered the challenges that marriage inevitably brings. Their small stream of love has turned into a river, wide and deep.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Definitions of poverty and wealth in the majority world

When it comes to how we spend money in missions it is critical to ensure that we are not hurting more than we are helping. Some of this comes down to our definitions of what poverty and wealth are and how our definitions skew our view of others. Because the west has so much in the way of financial resources and the majority world so little we tend to think that we need to solve their issues with money. And while money is key to mission efforts, how we spend that money and what we give it for can either help or damage our cause. Many well intentioned mission projects actually do more damage then good.

Take a moment and read this insightful article by Steve Saint on this important topic.

An excellent book on this topic is When Helping Hurts which should be a must read for all mission committees. In addition, I have a blog post titled When Money Hurts Mission Efforts.

Not all that looks like poverty is truly poverty. Sometimes it is our own definitions, not reality. One can be rich in many ways without being wealthy and much of what passes as wealth in the west is truly poverty of life and spirit.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Seven questions for every leader

Christian ministries have a special responsibility to live out the convictions they espouse within their own organizations and with their staff and constituents. The actions of leaders speak volumes about the true integrity of their ministry. Here are some questions ministry leaders should ask themselves and one another on a regular basis.

One: is there any stated ministry conviction, value or commitment which we proclaim that is not practiced internally? For instance, many ministries talk about dependence on God in all they do. Is that dependence practiced within the ministry itself in a tangible and significant way? We should not ask of others what we ourselves do not practice.

Two: is our treatment of our staff consistent with how Christian relationships are described in Scripture? This includes fairness, compassion, kindness, patience, consideration, forgiveness, redemptive spirits, a commitment to grow them and help them become all they can be. Does our internal persona with staff match our outward persona with the public or our constituency? How we relate to and treat those who work for us is the test of our relationships.

Three: are we truthful and candid with both our staff and constituents about issues related to the ministry? Truth and honesty is one of the highest values of a holy God. Skirting the truth for spin purposes or withholding truth when it is inconvenient is a violation of God's character. This includes what we communicate to our constituents about the results of our ministries. Falsehoods are lies and do not reflect the character of God.

Fourth: do we handle conflict in our ministries in a God honoring way? Do we invite honest feedback and dialogue even when it challenges us? Do we keep short accounts when relationships have been breached? Do we forgive and extend grace when needed?

Fifth: would our staff describe us as humble, non-defensive, open to and inviting dialogue, teachable and committed to ministry success above our own success? Our staff read us well over time and their answers to these questions may be more accurate than our own. Ministry humility and openness starts with ministry leaders and is caught by staff - if we are modeling them.

Sixth: would our staff describe us as servant leaders committed to their success? Servant leadership does not start with our constituents but with our own staff. We are either deeply committed to helping them succeed or we are not. Ours is either a generous or selfish leadership.

Seventh: are we focused on the mission of the organization or are we distracted by our own agendas? Many leaders become more enamored by their personal agendas then staying focused on the mission of the organization they lead. The temptation is natural as leaders are given many opportunities outside their immediate responsibilities. When those opportunities get in the way of their primary mission, however, they lose leadership capital internally.

This is really about authenticity: being who we say we are with our own staff who know us best and never allowing ourselves to be something different internally than we are to the public. It is having the integrity of living the convictions we espouse.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Redemptive responses to problematic staff

In spite of our best efforts to hire well, there are times when a staff member's behavior or interactions with others cause problems on a team. Often it is not a matter of competency but of not being aware of how their words, attitudes or actions negatively impact those around them. Or, they may have a personal ministry agenda that is dear to them but which does not fit with the rest of the team or the overall ministry. Sometimes it is an issue of a wonderful staff member who fit the ministry when the ministry was smaller but as the ministry grew their ability to keep up has lagged and their competency in a small ministry has become a liability in a larger ministry. This is not only an issue for the leader who may be frustrated but it can also become an issue for other members of the team who are also impacted.

Being redemptive wherever we can be is consistent with the character and example of Christ. Healthy ministries will do all they can to resolve the disconnects before they simply fire someone or let them go. A redemptive response can take several routes.

First, honest dialogue with the staff member in question is key. Often in ministries, we are not upfront with issues that are present because we want to be graceful. But in not engaging in honest, candid dialogue the staff member is left with a frustrated leader and team without necessarily knowing how their behavior or work is negatively impacting others. Speaking the truth in love in a dialogue form where there is give and take and the opportunity to clarify gives the staff member valuable information on the issues. This should include bottom line concerns of their supervisor along with behaviors or issues that need to change.

If the issue is one of competency in their present role there should be exploration of other posssible roles that are in "the lane" and "gifting" of the staff member. When staff are in the wrong lane they are frustrated and frustrate others. Often the issue can be resolved by getting them into a lane more in line with God's gifting and their wiring.

Where the issue revolves around EQ (emotional intelligence) it sometimes takes an outside executive coach who can help the staff member understand how their behaviors negatively impact those around them. Lack of EQ is one of the most common causes of problematic behavior and if it can be resolved the issues will dissapear. This means that we are willing to make a financial and time investment to help a staff member get to greater health but that is a far cheaper (and more redemptive) proposition than simply firing them and starting over. I will do all I can to resolve issues with staff before letting them go. But if the issues cannot be resolved I will not prolong the pain for the organization.

Where issues of competency or EQ cannot be resolved, it is clear that a transition needs to be made and even then redemptive thinking asks the question, "How do we make a transition that honors the staff member and the organization?" Of course, that requires the active cooperation of the staff member to transition well and in ways that do not do harm to the ministry. I have always believed that how we leave a ministry is the real test of our character. If we honor it on the way out, God will bless. If we try to hurt it because of our anger, God will not. As a leader I cannot control the response of the staff member but I can seek a redemptive and smooth transition.

Any time we can bring health to an unhealthy staff situation we have a win. When we cannot, the win is transition. But in all cases we seek to do it as redemptively as possible.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Free Download available for Leading From the Sandbox: How to develop, Empower and Release High Impact Ministry Teams

I am pleased that Leading From the Sandbox is currently being offered as a free Kindle download for a limited period of time. The Mission Exchange named this book its Leadership Book of the Year in 2010.

Written out of a passion to help ministry teams, this book is a paradigm that brings clarity to what your organization is about, and what you must focus on as a leader or a team member to be successful. Leading From the Sandbox can revolutionize your leadership and teams through the clarity and alignment it creates.

The book will help you bring clarity to your ministry, understand what good leadership looks like, how to build healthy, effective, united, and missional teams. How to grow your staff and deal with staff who are not productive. It is designed for a staff to read together and develop a common lanuage that can help them go to the next level.

A friendship lost

I lost a friend on Friday of 23 years. Few people have prayed for me more often over the past two decades than my friend Naomi. When I heard of her home going I immediately felt the hole of a deep friendship gone and a prayer partner who has prayed for me every day as I traveled over two million miles to fifty plus countries, faithfully following my daily schedule.

What was remarkable about this friendship is that I met Naomi when I was 32 and she was 80. She was single as she had been all her life. Yes, she celebrated her 103rd birthday days before she died. For years we met for breakfast twice a month until my travel schedule slowed us down to a monthly visit. We talked God, theology, world events, and for years Naomi devoured the best of my books until her eyes made reading too difficult. Her one fear was that all of her friends would desert her as she aged. I promised I never would and kept that promise.

I was not the only one she prayed for. She had a long list of friends, family and missionaries who have lost a prayer warrior. At ninety I gave her an email machine so she could keep up with all those friends and thousands of emails came and went over a decade until her fingers would no longer cooperate. I know those hands well because she love to just sit and hold my hands in hers as her world became smaller with the loss of mobility and her confinement to a wheelchair. When she wondered why the Lord kept her alive so long I would remind her of how many people she prayed for and was a dear friend too.

To my boys, she was grandma Naomi - an adopted grandma who they have known virtually all their lives. To the end their pictures were a part of her now small world in a nursing home. I don't think they ever really noticed her age until we saw her as a family last Christmas and she was in a wheel chair. Even then it was as if the years peeled back and life was like it always was at Christmas when the family would visit her apartment for an evening of cookies and games.

Friendships are precious. Prayer partners are priceless. Never take them for granted. I will be forever blessed and enriched by this unlikely friendship that lasted for so many years.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

The elephants in the room

On a recent consult with leaders from a local church one of the common refrains was that there were a lot of elephants in the room. Elephants are those issues that everyone knows are present but nobody feels free to name. It is also an indication that there is not enough safety or trust in the group to put the elephant (an unresolved but significant issue) on the table.

Every organization has issues that are problematic. The problem with elephants is that they are issues that cannot be discussed without repercussions from some corner. In other words, the presence of elephants is indicative of a culture that both avoids conflict (we don't want to talk about it) and which lacks the necessary trust to have a discussion around an issue without threat of personal repercussions. Elephants then, by definition, because they cannot be named and discussed are indicators of a dysfunctional group or team.

We discussed the result of conflict avoidance in a recent post - sick churches, both because unresolved conflict does not go away but because the inability to deal with conflict indicates leaders who do not have have the courage to lead. Unattended issues fester and become tumors that hurt the body.

What groups do not understand about elephants, however, is that they are really opportunities to become a better organization or team. Dealt with, they are not negatives but opportunities to deal with an issue that has gone untreated and which if solved will better the team and organization. In other words, wherever you uncover an elephant you uncover an opportunity to get better, become healthier and build greater trust.

One of the elephants for this group was that while they "wanted to grow" they didn't want their church "family" to change so they actually resisted allowing new people into the family dynamics or relationships of the church. Thus, like many churches they were plateaued and actually in decline. Nobody wanted to talk about the dynamic that held them hostage because it was uncomfortable and involved something they had to own. But once on the table for discussion they had an opportunity to face their own dysfunction and think about changes they needed to make so that new people coming in would want to stay. Their significant problem was actually a huge opportunity if faced and handled well.

The reluctance to name elephants or issues is that we know someone will be offended. In our organization we talk about robust dialogue where any issue can be put on the table with the exception of personal attacks or hidden agendas. We can be honest but we cannot get personal. The issue is the issue, it is not a person. We also work very hard to create safe environments where we can discuss issues without people feeling unsafe.

It is a matter of perspective. Elephants are problems but problems, rather than being negative are actually opportunities to grow and get better. I am always interested in finding ways to grow and get better as an organization so I welcome the uncovering of problems or elephants or any issue that if resolved in a positive way makes us a better, healthier, more effective organization.

The key is to create a safe environment where we can put the issues on the table and keep them as issues that we all have a stake in resolving with the commitment that there will never be recrimination for naming them. This obviously requires a senior leader and other leaders who are not defensive but who model and invite transparency and open dialogue. After all it is not about us but about the mission that Jesus has given us.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Inside out: Why our personal issues impact others

We often do not pay close enough attention to our inner lives - those things that wake us up in the night, anger we harbor over issues or people, anxieties that cause a slow grade burn in our stomach, worries or unresolved issues or besetting sin. We figure these are just our issues but the truth is that they become other peoples issues as well because Jesus said that what is in our hearts (and minds) is what spills over to others from our lives (Matthew 7:15-23).

I put it this way. We live inside out. What resides inside us inevitably spills over to others whether we are aware of it or not. On the negative side, it can exhibit itself in irritability, shortness, lack of compassion or understanding or even anger which has nothing to do with those who are on the receiving end but has everything to do with issues we are struggling with. I think of the difficulty I imposed on my wife and kids during a time of depression. They took the brunt of my issues. I was living inside out even though I didn't want to or intend to. Dishealth inside - as it spills out can create missunderstandings, the break up of friendships, treating others poorly and it's ripples can be large and unhealthy. This is why people with significant dysfunctions cause chaos and dysfunctions in relationships and friendships.

On the positive side, when we are healthy, at peace with ourselves, our situation and with others, that peace spills out in kindness, compassion, graciousness, patience and in all kinds of ways that reflect the fruit of the Spirit. What is inside will spill over because we live inside out. The healther we are personally the healthier our impact on those around us. That health encourages health in others as well. It's ripples are large and many. Think of how the righeousness and health of Jesus rippled on those around Him and how it not only attracted others to Him but to desire what He had. Inner health lived inside out is powerful, wonderful and magnetic.

Because we live inside out we need to first be aware of the unresolved issues in our own lives (we all have them) and then do all we can to resolve them in a healthy manner. Unresolved issues cause issues for others.

We also need to be aware of how our inner issues manifest themselves to others while we are working through them. They do: And the more aware we are of them the better we can work to ensure that they do not negatively impact others.

Third, when we are dealing with something particularly difficult it is often helpful to disclose those challenges to others so that they can support, and pray for us as well as understand when we are short, unkind or irritable. People around us will give us grace if they understand some of the pressures we are dealing with.

Remember, we live inside out, whether we know it or not. For those of use who live in the leadership arena the stakes regarding our inner health are even higher because our inner lives ripple on that many more people.

Thursday, September 15, 2011


The interactions of Jesus with people overflowed with graciousness, gentleness and love. The only exception was when He dealt with the Pharisees and hypocrites (often one and the same) where he appropriately rebuked their heart attitudes. But think of his interaction with the woman at the well, Mary and Martha, Nicodemus, the blind man Bartemaeus and the list could go on. People gravitated to Jesus because of His love, His unconditional acceptance and the grace which He exuded.

Contrast that with the way we often deal with one another in God's family. Hard words, unnecessary barbs, sharpness, putting others down or in their place, calling into question motives, anger, irritation, unforgiveness and words that once spoken or sent in an email cannot be taken back. There is a great deal of ungraciousness among God's people that is incompatible with the example of Jesus and the teaching of the New Testament.

Think about Paul's letter to the Ephesians on this subject. "Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths but only what is helpful for building others up...Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other...Be imitators of God...and live a life of love...(Ephesians 4-5)." Or Romans: "Live in harmony with one at peace with everyone...Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another...(Romans 12-13)."

There are times when we must have hard conversations but even in those they can be done with graciousness. Perhaps the hardest people to be gracious to are those we are closest to because it is easy to take them for granted - a spouse or colleague. The test of our graciousness is not those so much we don't know but those we do know and whose weaknesses we are well aware of.

I want to be known as a gracious leader, friend, husband and colleague. There are days when I fail miserably but my desire is to see people and treat people as Jesus did. This includes kindness and warm courtesy, tact, a merciful and compassionate nature, sympathy, and politeness. It is what my late uncle Warren had that caused us all to want to be around him. He was the definition of graciousness and it was a magnet to others.

Loving others is the foundation of graciousness toward them. Further, they are men and women made in the very image of God. Harsh attitudes don't come from God - loving attitudes do.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Triangulation and incestuous information channels

It is not unusual when dealing with dysfunctional organizations, boards or churches that there is a lot of inappropriate conversation taking place. In fact, where there is a lot of gossip, blind copying of emails clogging cyberspace, "confidential" information being shared inside and outside the organization with people who have no business knowing that information, you have a sign of an unhealthy and dysfunctional workplace or board (or wherever it is taking place).

While it is a strong term, I call this kind of dysfunctional communication "incestuous information" because the definition of incestuous is "inappropriately intimate or interconnected." Let me give you an example. In one organization I once knew, employees left disgruntled yet they continued to call others in the organization who kept them up to date with the latest developments (including a former COO). Further, when employees were unhappy with management some of them would call board members to vent (going around their own supervisor). There was gossip inside the organization, outside the organization and information being inappropriately shared at many different levels. Blind copies went places they have no place going and you never knew what information was being shared by whom. It was incestuous in its nature, caused all kinds of relational triangulation and frankly chaos as one tried to sort out what was true, what was not true, and who knew what. I know churches, boards and Christian organizations who fit into this mode. And the key factor is that they are dysfunctional.

Healthy organizations, boards and churches operate with a healthy and clear set of communication guidelines. First, they send confidential information only to the appropriate folks who have a need to know it and if there is a need to copy others it is a cc rather than a blind copy so all us upfront. Blind copies generally mean "this is a secret, don't let anyone know I told you" which can create later problems. At the same time CC's are not sent to those who are not involved as a way of pressuring the party being communicated with. Unnecessary or inappropriate CC's bring others into a conversation that they usually do not need to be involved in.

Second, they never violate their own chain of authority unless it has to do with a moral or ethical violation that causes them to go to a higher level.

Third, they speak well of the ministry they work with to others and don't reveal information that they know because they work there - unless it is available to the general public.

Fourth, they don't triangulate. They deal directly with those with whom they may have issues, not with those who cannot solve the issue and not with those who are not directly involved.

Fifth, they don't gossip or in any way denigrate others, including those they have issues with. Whatever needs to be spoken between two parties who have a dispute stays there and does not spill over to infect other innocent bystanders.

The Apostle Paul makes it clear that gossip is a heart and spiritual issue and he links gossip to other behaviors that are common but unhealthy and unspiritual. "I fear that there may be quarreling, jealousy, outbursts of anger, factions, slander, gossip, arrogance and disorder (speaking to the Corinthians, 2 Cor. 12:20). Gossip is actually responsible for a great deal of quarreling, jealousy, anger, factions, slander (by its very nature) and disorder (chaos as above). Arrogance is part of the picture because when I engage in gossip I put myself in a place of judgement over others.

The bottom line is that how we communicate, who we communicate with, how we resolve issues, and whether or not we engage in inappropriate gossip and conversations matters a lot. If chaos and misunderstanding are the result it has gone bad. If order and understanding is the result it has gone well. It is a spiritual issue as well as an organizational issue.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

What are you doing to intentionally raise up the next generation of leaders?

Every church, every mission, every ministry is one leadership generation (and that is not a long time) away from decline if we are not deeply intentional about raising up the generation who come behind us. In fact, I believe that our leadership stewardship is not primarily about what happens when we are in leadership, but when we are gone and the long term fruit of our work is either evident or not. And that means that we have paid attention to the sucession to the next generation of leaders in our ministry.

For church boards this often means taking the risk (in the eyes of current board members) to mentor and bring on young leaders who think differently and come with a different perspective than older leaders. And, making them welcome at the leadership table.

For churches with long term pastors who are now in their late fifties or early sixties, it may mean bringing on the next senior pastor and making a transition over a period of years so that the pastoral transition is planned and smooth. The larger the congregation the more helpful this is. It is a change in paradigm from simply waiting until the present senior pastor retires and then hiring someone completely new to the church. That obviously takes a selfless and unthreatened current senior pastor who is willing to share leadership for a period of time and then transition to the new leader as he transitions to either retirement or a different position in the church.

The issue of next generation leadership is particularly critical in mission organizations where my observation is that there is an aging leadership group and where leadership is often given to those who have long experience regardless of whether they have leadership skills or not. Mission organizations today are in a vulnerable position as the world is changing rapidly around them and unless they also change many current missions are going to find themselves in serious decline. I was surprised recently when one large and well known mission replaced its retiring CEO with an individual who was almost his age - as if it needed to guard the status quo rather than embrace the future.

Raising up the next generation of leaders in ministry does not happen without a passion to pass the torch well, to see the ministries we lead flourish and do even better when we are gone and a plan to bring new, younger leaders into key positions with the requisite mentoring and training to help them succeed. Any current leader over fifty ought to be thinking succession even as they continue to lead. Boards of ministries ought to be talking about this issue as well on an ongoing basis as they are stewards of the ministry.

This does not apply only to senior leaders but the the leadership bench throughout an organization. I know, for instance, a new senior pastor of a large church who inherited almost an entire staff of fifty five plus pastors who are locked into two decade old ministry paradigms. He must go through the painful process of bringing on a whole new set of leaders because the board and past senior pastor did not address the issue of leadership succession, or even keep their current staff growing and changing as the ministry grew.

The question for leaders is three fold: What are we doing to raise up the next generation of leaders througout the organization?; Who will replace us? and what are we doing to keep our current leadership staff on the cutting edge and not allowing them to coast toward retirement?

Monday, September 12, 2011

Don't waste your pain

I often talk with ministry professionals who are walking through pain, some very deep. It may be of their own making, more often it is not and sometimes it is grossly unfair - as life often is. My counsel to them is to seperate the source of the pain from how God wants to use that pain in our own lives for our good, our growth and our enhanced leadership potential.

A great example of this is Joseph in the Old Testament. Unfairly accused by his master's wife of trying to seduce her, he spent years in prison. Obviously the charge was bogus and the incarceration unfair. But, God had greater things in mind for Joseph and it was his prison experience which grew his faith and prepared him for what eventually became the second most important job in Egypt. If Joseph had focused on the unfairness of the situation he would likely have grown a bitter spirit. Instead he focused on serving God in the prison and growing his relationship with Him and he emerged stronger and wiser and more mature.

Pain, from whatever source, focuses our lives and gives us the chance to go deeper with God. And God, in His wisdom and graciousness is more interested in our growth in relationship with Him than in our comfort. It is the process He uses to grow our hearts to be like His which is the greatest gift any of us could ever experience.

When we experience pain, there are two focuses we can choose. One is to focus on the source of our pain - often unfair circumstances or unfair people. We do need wisdom in how we respond to people and circumstances to be sure. However, even more important is to focus on what God wants to do in our lives through the circumstances because ultimately we cannot control people and circumstances but we can ensure that we don't waste the opportunity God is handing to us to grow closer to Him, learn more about faith and grace and followership and faithfulness.

Early in my ministry career I walked through some deeply unfair circumstances. Many around me wanted justice for me which from a human standpoint would have been very satisfying. In retrospect, however, I realize that while the situation was not fair, God was up to something in my life that was far more important than the fairness or lack of it. He wanted to change me in ways that only could be accomplished in pain. I am forever thankful for the pain, and that I did not waste the pain by focusing on the wrong things because that pain was responsible for major transformation in my own life over time. I did not get justice: I got something far more precious than justice - I got heart transformation that has spilled over to others ever since.

It is easy when experiencing pain to conclude that God is punishing us, or that we don't have enough faith or have not pleased Him in some way. The reality is that pain is often one of the greatest signs of God's love for us in that through the situation we have the opportunity to press into Him and get to know Him more intimately. Far from being punishment it is often an invitation to come to the One we were made for and experience His peace, presence and relationship.

Jesus said, "I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world (John 16:33)."

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Does your church board need help? Most do!

Could your board use some help in the common areas where church boards struggle? Make a small investment in moving toward greater board health and effectiveness!

-Coming to clarity about vision and direction?
-Getting the right people on the board and the wrong people off the board?
-Understanding what the role of church boards is and is not? 

-Building strong unified boards?
-Grow the spiritual commitments of the the board and congregation?
-Being more intentional in leading the church?
-Getting rid of the complicated board structures that strangle ministry in many churches?
-Developing board meetings that are focused and effective?
-Developing a set of guidelines that guard board behaviors?
-Learning how to bring needed change and negotiate that change with the congregation?
-Understand the DNA of your church including the spoken and unspoken values?
-Intentionally developing a more healthy church ethos?

These are the kinds of questions this book will help your board deal with. Eighty percent of churches in the United States are either plateaued or in decline and much of that has to do with how the church leadership leads. If you are weary of the norm and want a better way for your board, this book will help you get there.

Life as a journey from brokenness to wholeness

There are many ways of looking at the journey of life but I am convinced that one of the most important is seeing it as a journey from brokenness to wholeness through our walk with Jesus. One of the ironies of age is that the older we grow the more cognizant we are of our own sinfulness and inherent brokenness. That in itself is a great blessing because it sets us on a path toward the kind of life wholeness that Jesus came to bring. 

One of the most encouraging things Jesus said was that he had come so that we could "have life and have it to the full." The New Living Translation puts it this way. "My purpose is to give them a rich and satisfying life." Jesus desires to enter into our brokenness and bring wholeness - in all areas of life and in all those places where our own fallen nature and sin has brought pain or lessened the joy of life. 

We often look at our sinful tendencies with despair, knowing how often we fall into them and hurt ourselves. Jesus, however, looks at them with hope - the hope that comes from knowing that He came to lift us out of that misery and lead us to a life of greater and greater satisfaction in Him as we cooperate with the Holy Spirit to move from sinful tendencies to righteous tendencies. Jesus is under no illusions as to who we are by ourselves. He has a high and amazing view of who we can be - and are - through His redemption of our lives:

"In him we were also chosen, having been predestined according to the plan of him who works out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will, in order that we, who were the first to hope in Christ, might be for the praise of his glory. And you also were included in Christ when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation. Having believed, you were marked in him with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit, who is a deposit guaranteeing our inheritance until the redemption of those who are God's possession - to the praise of his glory (Ephesians 1:11-14)."

We need to start seeing ourselves as Jesus sees us and in response to his high and exalted view of who He has made us to be, press into those areas where we still live with brokenness and work with Him toward greater wholeness. It is not necessary to live with the disappointment of our brokenness. Rather we can see life as a journey with Christ toward wholeness and do our part in putting off those things that hold us back and put on those things that are like Him and will lead us forward. 

Let's get practical: What is the one thing God has been talking to you about regarding your need to move from brokenness to wholeness? Are you/we willing to focus on that one thing for the next month and allow Him with your cooperation to take the next healing step of your journey? 

There will be a day when we are completely whole - when we see Jesus face to face. The greatest gift we can give to Him and to ourselves until that day is to keep walking from what we were to what God created us to be. It is a journey of hope, healing, anticipation, ever increasing joy as our hearts become more like His heart. Remember we were made in His image and while that image was compromised by sin, He came to reclaim us and His image in us.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Be fully who God made you to be

Timothy, in the New Testament, was like many of us when it comes to using our spiritual gifts - he was timid. He didn't quite know if he should really step into his gifting all the way and go for it. Evidently he held back like many of us do. 

Paul, challenged Timothy on this directly. "I remind you to fan into flame the gift of God...for God did not give us a spirit of timidity, but a spirit of power, of love and of self - discipline (2 Timothy 1:6-7)."

It is interesting that Paul tells Timothy that God did not give us a spirit of timidity. Timid means lacking in self confidence or assurance, being shy, fearful or hesitant, lacking in boldness or determination. When it comes to using the gifts God has given us, how many of us fall into that category? We are hesitant to just step into who He made us to be, or fearful of going there - hesitant.

Yet, God uniquely created each of us for a unique purpose and gifted us for that purpose. Paul points this out in Ephesians 2:10: "For we are God's workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do." There is one unique "us" created to do "good works" which God prepared just for us to accomplish. That is why He gifts us!

So Paul tells Timothy, and us, "God did not give us a spirit of timidity, but a spirit of power, of love and of self-discipline. Power because we use our gifts in the power of His Spirit; love because our gifts are used to build others up and self-discipline because that is what it takes to overcome our reticence to step fully into who and what God made us to be. 

My gifts are in leadership, communication and strategy. God wants me to boldly use those gifts without apology, hesitancy or shyness knowing He gave them to me for His purposes. He wants you to do the same with whatever gifts He has given you. Paul says, enough of this hesitancy, Timothy, God gave you gifts and He wants you to use them in His power to build others up. Don't live fearfully or reticently but use those gifts with boldness, self confidence and determination.

Think of the amazing energy, synergy, power and impact we would have in our congregations if each of us fully stepped into our gifting with the confidence that God intends to use us for His unique purposes in our corner of the world. We would be different and our world would be different. Be completely who God made you to be.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Dissappointment with God

The longer we live the more disappointments we incur in life: some major and life changing, some less so but disappointments nonetheless. They come in the form of illness, injustices, things beyond our control and some change our lives forever. It is the nature of life. All of us experience them, none of us are exempt. At 55, I have a long list of them.

The question is not whether disappointments will come but how we will choose to deal with them. There are three common responses, the first being bitterness toward God. We would not label it as such but it is there, lying just below the surface for many people. That bitterness distances them from God because if He is responsible for our pain, what can be said about His goodness, His love, His reliability and His care for us? 

But think about this: "It is easy to blame God for bad things that happen in this world. The truth is that in blaming Him we are doing something even more terrible. We are blaming the perfect and holy God who created a perfect and holy creation for the sin that we as humans brought into the world in rebellion against Him. In essence, He created a perfect world, but we rebelled and now blame Him for the imperfect world. We ask why He allows bad things to happen, why He tolerates injustice and evil and sorrow and pain. Blame is heaped on the One who sought the very best for men and women made in His image who instead chose to rebel and go their own way. That is the greatest possible transfer of responsibility ever (When Life Comes Undone, p. 52)."

Bitterness toward God is exactly what the evil one wants for our lives for he is in the business of stealing, killing and destroying (John 10:10). His lie is that God is responsible for the evil in our world while the truth is that we are responsible for that evil along with the evil one. Blaming the creator and therefore alienating ourselves from Him is one of the classic lies of Satan who uses that lie to destroy our relationship with God. 

A second response to the disappointments we incur is to simply decided to settle for a diminished life. To allow a profound sadness to permeate our lives, steal our joy, rob our passion and hold us hostage to our pain. Again, the evil one has won because he has stolen from us what God intended for us (John 10:10). In that same verse, Jesus says, "I have come that they may have life and have it to the full." Jesus said this knowing all the issues we would face living in a fallen world and still He promises that He will give us life and life to the full. 

A third response is to press into our loving Savior, with faith that He is who He says He is, Has our lives in His hands, redeems pain for His purposes, and turns our human scars into divine scars if we will allow Him to. And that, He is with us in our pain for He experienced the same kind of pain when he walked our earth so that we can "approach the throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need (Hebrews 5:16)."

Choosing to trust God in the disappointments of life is the essence of faith. It is choosing to trust when we don't see the end and cannot understand the rationale. It is trusting God when we cannot see the answers we seek or the end we desire. Read again that great definition of faith in Hebrews 11:1. "Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see. This is what the ancients were commended for."

In the disappointments of life we cling to what we hope for in Jesus and we believe in what we do not presently see - knowing that He has provided the hope and that He sees what we do not see. And in that choice, we choose life, we choose trust, we choose faith, we choose Him and the fullness of life which He promises despite our circumstances or pain.

All of us suffer from disappointments in life. Which choice are we making today?

Thursday, September 8, 2011

The one thing I look for in staff

There are naturally a number of things that we look for when hiring staff at any level of an organization - or when recruiting volunteers. Things like competency, Emotional Intelligence, fit with the culture of the organization and so on. But here is one non-negotiable for me which I will not compromise on: humility.

Humble individuals are teachable. They treat others with respect. They are eager to learn from others and can play on a team well. They don't need their own way and don't fight stupid intramural battles. They care more about the accomplishment of the mission than their own ego. In fact, their own egos don't get in the way of finding the best solutions in a team setting. They are not looking for personal recognition but want a win for the organization. Their humility makes it possible for them to keep short accounts and to apologize when they are wrong or have offended others. They are not competing for attention but are easy to have on the team.

Those who lack humility are prideful. Pride causes us to want to one up others, to get our own way, to claim the accolades personally. It prevents us from apologizing and keeping short accounts and can kill team spirit because it is about us, not the team. Pride keeps us from learning from others or from receiving counsel or rebuke. It craves recognition, importance, authority and control.  It is slow to praise others and competes for that praise. It often treats others with carelessness and lack of consideration. True introspection is difficult as pride gets in the way of seeing what is really there.

Now think carefully about the implications and characteristics of a humble or prideful individual on your ministry team or more importantly in a leadership role. Think about the impact their natural behaviors have on those they work with and the outcome of the ministry. Think about the ease of supervising a humble individual compared to a proud individual. Finally, compare these two kinds of people against the character of Christ and one sees how critical a humble spirit is to all that we do in Christian ministry. 

When you choose staff, don't miss this test. Almost without exception when I have dealt with a serious staff issue, there is an element of pride that is involved and gets in the way of healthy resolution. There is a reason that humility is so close to God's heart. It is part of his character.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Muslims are not the problem

Regardless of what we hear - Muslims are not the problem! Islam is (and I know that is not politically correct). Islam literally holds over a billion people hostage to a system that keeps people in bondage.

Consider: within Islam it heretical to question what the Koran says or how it is interpreted. Many women are kept in absolute bondage within their homes and often kept from receiving an education. In addition, they are forced to live with other wives causing ugly family rivalries and dynamics. Women have virtually no rights and are considered property of their husbands. It is forbidden to consider other faiths and conversion to Christianity can be a capital offense. The Koran is used to justify lying to non Muslims and killing the same. Children are brainwashed from an early age in many contexts to hate all non Muslims, especially the infidel west. Sharia law includes stoning for adultery, harsh penalties for women who disobey their husbands, the cutting off of hands for certain crimes and other penalties that defy justice. And, worst of all, the system is designed to keep people in it, allowing no debate, no dissent or no escape - which is why communities even in the west are insular and through fear, seek to keep people enslaved in the system. And the greatest fear of all is not knowing if one is in good standing with God and therefore what their eternal destiny is. One can hope and pray but it is all in the will of God which we cannot know!

But what of the people enslaved by such a system? Muslims are the victims of Islam. They are enslaved by miss-truth, by Scriptures which are not from the God of heaven, by a system that keeps them from exploring other options, by fear of violating that system and its consequences, and by a belief system that leaves one in limbo regarding their salvation. Muslims are victims of Islam and in need of believers who will love them, show them the wonders of the Gospel and invite them to freedom.

I love how The Crescent Project, a ministry that helps churches minister to Muslims states their vision: "We see a day when fear is replaced by love and millions of Christians are actively sharing the truth of Christ with millions of Muslims for the glory of God."

There is great fear among many regarding Muslims. As believers we should not fear for God died for Muslims as he died for all people. He died so that they could be freed from the prison and spiritual bondage of Islam. And we should always remember that the problem is Islam and the victims of Islam are its very adherents. 

If you or your church is interested in reaching out to Muslims one of the premier tools is The Bridges curriculum developed by The Crescent Project. Check it out. You will also find that many Muslims are open to a conversation regarding spiritual things.

Leaders and critical thinking

One of the unique roles leaders play for their team or organization is the discipline of critical thinking: Where are we going? How will we get there? What are we going after? What spells success? Do I have the right people? Are they situated in the right "lane"? Is there absolute clarity around our mission? What are the priorities for this coming year? Who will take over if I am taken out of the picture? Are we maximizing our spiritual influence? and the list could go on. 

Taking the time to reflect on the most important questions that help a ministry flourish is one of the key jobs of a leader. Because it is a hidden practice (it is not up front) and because it is not a physical activity, it is often lost in the busyness of all the other things leaders must do. Yet this basic discipline is the most critical thing a leader should be doing on an ongoing basis. 

If a leader does not pay attention to this area of their leadership role, someone else in the organization who thinks deeply often will. They will be the ones asking the right questions and trying to help the team define clarity and success. Ironically, people will gravitate to and often follow the individual who can help the organization think critically whether they have the title of leader or not. While many do not have the skill for critical thinking (they are primarily doers), most desire to have clarity about what they are about, where they are going and how they will get there.

As the leader of an organization, I actually build into my schedule, thinking and writing days or weeks. They are intentionally kept clear for the discipline of thinking, and then clarifying through writing. I also have some key members of my staff who are great critical thinkers and regularly we will call a meeting in a room full of white boards to tackle a significant issue. In fact, the majority of my meetings are designed to do problem solving, get to clarity on an important issue, rethink how we are doing what we do and maximize our impact. 

The discipline of critical thinking extends to hires that we make as well. There are few decisions that are more critical than the people one hires. They will either help drive the ministry forward or keep it back. The higher the level the hire, the more true this is. Thus, investing significant time in evaluating, dialoguing with, listening to and thinking through the strengths and weaknesses they bring to the ministry is crucial. 

There are consequences to every decision we make. Part of critical thinking is to ask the question: What are the unintended consequences of the decision we are considering. All decisions have consequences, it is the unintended consequences that we need to identify because they can compromise the very thing we are trying to accomplish. Knowing them becomes part of the critical thinking equation.

In a complex world, critical thinking is often a group activity. While I do a great deal of thinking about organizational issues alone, I never pull the trigger on a major decision without involving my key ministry colleagues. The power of combined thinking and wisdom is far higher than the wisdom of any one of us by ourselves. This is also why I often call meetings of key individuals to together tackle an important issue.

This requires a spirit of humility and collaboration on the part of leaders. Lone ranger leaders, no matter how great their critical thinking skills are will not maximize their organization's potential by themselves. We need other critical thinkers around us as well as their buy in - and if we together are part of the solution, we will all buy into that solution.

Good thinkers are also people who seek the wisdom of colleagues from other ministries to find out what they are experiencing, how they are tackling like problems and what "dumb tax" they have paid that you should avoid. If ministry leaders talked more often and with greater candor we would together raise the bar for all of our ministries.

Critical thinking is a hallmark of leaders who stay in front of those they are leading, always asking the right (and hard) questions, and always looking for better solutions to maximize the spiritual influence of their organization. It is also the route to innovation!

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Missionary Lifestyles

We all know that authentic relationships with non-believers are critical to the mission that Christ left us. We are the bearers of the good news of the Gospel. Every follower of Jesus is a missionary to those in their circles of influence. There are no non missionaries in God's family. For some of us the question is, how do I do this most effectively?

First, remember that people are people, not projects for evangelism. Every man, woman and child has intrinsic worth as people made in the image of God. We develop relationships with others because God cares about them and therefore we care about them. Incarnational relationships are about stepping into relationship with others because they are loved by God and therefore by us. Just as God gave us unconditional love in spite of all of our issues, so we extend the same to others with the love God has given us. Just as Jesus looked for men and women in need of His love we do the same.

Second, we have more in common with unbelievers than we often think. All of us face common family, personal, work, children and other issues of life. One of the keys to developing authentic relationships is simply being transparent about our lives. Christians who put on a front that all is well all the time are not only lying to themselves but they are missing a unique opportunity to relate and connect with others. By being transparent, we invite transparency. That transparency draws us closer to those we are with and it opens opportunities to talk about how we deal with the challenges of life - which has a lot to do about faith.

Third, think about how you can love on those you have befriended. My wife, Mary Ann, puts it this way. "If I were in their position, what do I wish someone else would do for me?" So, when our neighbor has the flu, Mary Ann cooks a dinner and delivers it. Simply putting ourselves in the shoes of others helps us know how to best respond to them.

Fourth, pray for your friends. The hardest work in introducing someone to Christ is not done by us but by the Holy Spirit. Our regular prayer changes hearts as the Holy Spirit does His quiet work. Also, when a friend shares a problem they are facing simply ask "Can I pray about that for you?" Often they have never had someone offer to pray. If the opportunity is there, ask if you can pray with them right there. Together you lift their challenge to the throne of Jesus. This is far more powerful than we realize because in involving them they too are being invited into God's presence.

Fifth, when the opportunity comes up, be transparent about your own faith in Christ. My two nearly fatal illnesses have been the cause of much conversation by many who know of what happened. When people ask, "How did you pull through?" we simply tell them about the many people who prayed for me and how God miraculously healed. These kinds of conversations open doors to other conversations of faith. All people are on a spiritual journey and we want to encourage them to take the step over the line from unbelief to belief.

Sixth, introduce your unbelieving friends to other believing friends. There is a quality of relationship among believers that unbelievers are not used to. There is a quality of marriages that they are often unused to. Being with God's people opens the eyes of unbelievers to a world that they may not be used to. It certainly should challenge their world.

Seventh, be ready to share in simple terms your own spiritual journey and how God has changed your life. In the context of relationship and transparency this is neither out of the ordinary or pushy, it is simply life on life conversation. Encourage your friends to read the Gospel of John or other Scriptures and introduce them to good reading material. And continue to pray that the Holy Spirit will work in their hearts.

Missionary work is all about friendships where we genuinely enter into the lives of others with the same love and intentionality that Jesus did when on this planet and with us. And it is amazing to watch the Holy Spirit work and to be a part of God's redemptive plan with others. There is nothing more exciting in life.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Church programming and its impact on evangelism

Yesterday's post on Building authentic relationships with unbelievers presupposes that we have time to invest in those relationships. Perhaps one of the most challenging issues is that many churches program so heavily that it sucks up most if not all discretionary time of the congregation leaving little time for relationships outside the church. Added to this is the subtle message that "ministry" is to be found by volunteering inside the church and that healthy believers take advantage of all of the programming of the church. 

In contrast to this think about the amount of time that Jesus intentionally spent hanging around the very people who would never enter the door of a synagogue. They did not feel worthy to be there and their faith journey was such that they were a long ways from organized religion. Jesus did not expect these folks to show up at the Synagogue so He went to them. While many do find Christ through the church, there are many who will never darken the door of a church unless someone has intentionally developed a relationship with them.

For years, Mary Ann and I made an intentional decision to spend more time with neighbors and friends outside of church rather than to be involved in more programming in the church. While many congregations see 80% of real ministry taking place in the church we believe that 80% of ministry takes place outside the church as we engage a secular and unbelieving world with the love, help and claims of Jesus. I am convinced that one of the major reasons for the poor evangelism rates in the United States is that we are hoping unbelievers will show up in our church and find Christ through our programming while I believe the opposite is the intention of Christ and that it is through relationships that most conversions take place.

The concept of Simple Church is perhaps more conducive to evangelism than the complex, program driven churches we often encounter today. It would be ironic if our very programming efforts mitigated against more effective evangelism by leaving little time for relationships with unbelievers. And sending them the message that what we really care about is that they show up with us at church is (so they can hear about God) is probably not the best evangelism strategy. Many will not come, either.

I believe that the local church is God's intended means of reaching the world. It is His bride. But it is the church scattered during most of the week that primarily allows this to happen, not the church gathered. Further, we need to communicate that ministry is not simply about volunteering for roles in the church (important as those are) but in using our gifts in the places where He has given us spiritual influence - our neighborhoods, workplaces, little league, or wherever our relationships are to be found.

It is far easier and less intimidating to be with God's people than to be intentionally developing relationships with unbelievers. But that is where evangelism starts and that is the heart of God. In all of our great church programming, lets not program out the very time that is needed to bless our friends with the Gospel. The power of incarnational ministry is the most effective evangelism strategy we will ever have.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Building authentic relationships with unbelievers

Much evangelism strategy in the church today assumes that unbelievers will show up at our services. This is certainly a true assumption for many congregations at Christmas and Easter and they take full advantage of the opportunity. However, evangelism rates in the Unites States and Europe remain exceedingly low and I believe one of the key reasons for this is the lack of intentionality in developing relationships with unbelievers.

By nature, many of our relationships change as we come to Christ. We move from a majority of our relationships being with fellow unbelievers to a majority of our friendships being with believers. That is a natural development as they are our new family and fellow members of God's family. What is lost, if we are not careful and intentional are the very relationships that are necessary to influence our former friends toward a relationship with Christ. And the challenge increases as our spiritual age grows.

The key is to be aware of all the folks around us who don't know Christ and be intentional in developing relationships with them: our neighbors, workmates, restaurant servers, clerks at local stores and all those that our paths run across. 

Mary Ann and I have been deeply intentional in getting to know all of our neighbors for the 23 years we have lived in our neighborhood. We have seen several of those come to Christ as a result of long term relationships. Some years ago we chose a restaurant that we both enjoy and go back regularly and have developed friendships with most of the wait staff and owners. Because I am an author, we have shared my books like Live Like You Mean It and When Life Comes Undone with all of them. Mary Ann has done the same at her hairdressers. Then there is the fellow who cuts our lawn and helps with projects around the house who is now sharing with us the challenges of his life. We also stay in touch with doctors, nurses and aids who cared for me over two long illnesses.

Authentic relationships build trust and trust leads to conversation and often disclosure of issues in our lives. Those conversations lead to the opportunity to love, accept, empathize and share the good news of the Gospel. We have found that because these friends know that we have a different kind of relationship with God than they do (a real friendship and relationship) they gravitate to us in times of crisis and ask for prayer which leads to further opportunities to share the good news of Jesus.

Neither of us would consider ourselves to have the gift of evangelism but we have learned to be intentional in developing long term relationships with those who don't know Christ. Those relationships when coupled with prayer are a powerful combination for opportunities to see people come to Christ.

Congregations that see many people come to Christ are intentional in developing and maintaining relationships with unbelievers. And I am talking about authentic relationships here where at whatever level, life rubs off on life. It is not simply about wanting them to find Christ, it is about caring about them as people loved by God. It is that genuine love through relationship, conversation and the work of the Holy Spirit that often brings them into the greatest family we could ever have.