Tuesday, December 11, 2018

Wake Up and Smell the Coffee

How’s the coffee at your church? If it is like most churches, it’s pretty bad.  Usually we buy the cheapest brand, make it weak, and almost always we use decaf.  Drinking a cup of coffee is a least a step of faith and at most an act of penitence.

The point of this little tirade, of course, is not the quality of coffee, but our attitude about what we do in church.  Do we settle for second best in what we undertake in the church?  Do we anticipate receiving forgiveness when something is good enough but not great?

For the most part, those who are called to ministry do not assume this attitude.  They see what they are doing as an expression of their commitment to God, so they put a great deal of time and effort into planning worship, practicing music, writing sermons, preparing Bible studies, and visiting parishioners.

And many of our church members have the same vision. Whatever they do, they do as an expression of their love for God, especially in the most visible things.

Where we often fall short in the small things.  Some of us who are teachers study our lesson on the drive to church.  We allow our classrooms to become messy and littered. We fail to stop and say hello to someone who is unfamiliar to us in the worship service.  We think about what is the least we can do and still feel alright about ourselves.

The small things count. They show we care.  

Am I being too critical? Maybe I just need my second cup of coffee.

Thursday, December 06, 2018

What Makes a Great Leader in the 21stCentury?

The church needs not just good but great leaders for the 21st century.  A TEDTalk by leadership consultant Rosalinde Torres suggests three questions to determine whether you will be a great leader in today’s context.

First, where are you looking for change?  Who do you spend time with? Where do you travel?  What are you reading?  In all of your activities, are you open to seeing the discontinuous change that characterizes our time?  Torres calls this “the ability to see around corners.”

For church leaders, this means prayer walks in your neighborhood, reading outside your area of expertise, talking to business leaders about the changes they see in their industries, and connecting with community and not-for-profit executives.  Change is happening but are we placing ourselves where we can perceive it?

Second, what is the diversity measure of your network?  We all have networks but are they homogenous or heterogenous?  Are we connecting with people who are different from us culturally, economically, racially, and ethnically?  If we spend time only with people who are like us, we will continue to see and hear the same things. We will be locked in an echo chamber.

For church leaders, we must not only engage secular leaders but faith-oriented leaders who are different from us.  Networking with the Lutherans, Episcopalians, and Catholics is a good start, but we must go even further and connect with the Islamic imam and the Buddhist priest as well.

Third, are you courageous enough to abandon the past? What are you willing to give up?  Daring to be different is not easy.  To do so, we may have to find partners outside of our usual networks with whom to work. Torres urges leaders not just to take a step but a leap.  

For church leaders, this can be particularly painful and scary.  Do we have the courage to kill some “sacred cows”?  We do this not just to change, but to offer something better.

Being a great leader for the church in the 21stcentury means being willing to ask these hard questions.

Tuesday, December 04, 2018

Collaborative Consulting

In teaching coaching classes, we point out the differences between the various “people development processes” --counseling, consulting, teaching, mentoring, coaching, and spiritual direction.  The differences are generally defined along two axes--self as expert versus other as expert and asking versus telling.

For example, in most cases, the consultant is usually the content expert who shares his or her expertise, so consulting is in the “other as expert”/”telling” corner. Coaches on the other hand lead the process with the client as the expert and the coach asking questions; therefore, coaching is in the “self as expert”/”asking” corner.

In reality, the lines are often blurred.  Over the course of time, a mentoring relationship can take on more of the characteristics of coaching as the client or protégé accepts more responsibility for his or her actions. In newer forms of education, teachers may become more guides or facilitators that dispensers of knowledge. Spiritual directors use a wide variety of approaches to their work with clients based on their individual skills and philosophy.

Consulting can also be approached in a different way.  There is also the possibility for a blended approach in consulting. The term I use for this is “collaborative consulting.”  In this approach, the consultant uses the methodology of coaching in working with churches and other organizations. There are definite benefits or the client organization in using this approach.

First, the collaborative consultant works with the congregation to discern the work of the Spirit in their midst by asking questions such as “Where have you seen God at work in your life as part of the congregation?” and “Where do you see God at work in your church right now?”

Second, a collaborative approach shows respect for the faith tradition of the church. Our doctrinal and theological backgrounds are often determinative in the actions we take, but they can also be an impetus for change.  Collaborative questions seek to discover beliefs that are essential and immutable and those that empower change and Kingdom engagement.

Third, asking questions rather than giving answers recognizes that the parishioners and staff ministers are the experts on their situation.  They know more about their context than anyone else. Although they may be satisfied where they are and resistant to change, challenging questions can help them to see their situation from a different perspective and visualize alternatives.

Fourth, similar to the observation above, good questions help the participants unlock and express their knowledge of the context in which they live, work, and minister.  Again, they should know more about situation that the consultant does. If they don’t, good questions can push them out into the community as more perceptive learners.

Finally, effective questions can lead a congregation to discover resources that they have overlooked--spiritual gifts, physical and financial resources, networks--that can be engaged in effective ministry.

Just as in coaching, asking powerful questions is key to a collaborative consulting experience.  The consultant leads a process so that the congregation and its leaders define the best way forward, discover the resources available, and monitor accountability for progress.  They come of the process with a clearer understanding of their inherent strengths and ability to make choices.

Dare to Lead: A Book Review

If you have not seen a Brene’ Brown TEDtalk or read one of her books on vulnerability, courage, shame, or empathy, I am very surprised.  A professor of social work, Brown’s research on emotions, relationships, and self-concept has provided creative ways to conceptualize, discuss, and embody these topics in a variety of settings.  

Even if you are familiar with her work, you may be surprised that her newest emphasis is organizational development.  In her new book, Dare to Lead:  Brave Work, Tough Conversations, Whole Hearts, Brown focuses her research, passion, and irreverent comments on how to revolutionize the workplace. Drawing from her research and her six previous books, she explains the impact of one’s values, emotions, and interpersonal relationships on leadership effectiveness.

Brown uses this quote from Theodore Roosevelt to frame the book:

 “It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again… who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly.”

Starting from this point, Brown simply asks, “Do you dare to lead?”

If you are a leader or aspire to be one, this book will speak to you on a very emotional level, particularly her chapter on “Armored Leadership.” As I read the sixteen examples of armored leadership and the contrasting daring leadership actions, I found myself evaluating my own experiences as a leader.  There were points where I could say, “Yes, I nailed that one!” but too many times where my response was, “Yeah, I failed to realize what I was doing and fell right into the trap.”

Her chapter on “Living into Your Values,” validates my conviction that values are at the very center of what we do as leaders.  If we do not identify and act on our values, we will fail.  Brown writes, “Daring leaders who live into their values are never silent about the hard things.”  Living into our values means more than articulating our values; it means that we practice them. She explains that individuals do not have two sets of values--one personal and one professional.  We have only one set of values that we are called to practice in all areas of our lives.

This is a great book.  Whatever your position is, whatever your responsibilities, please read this book and put its lessons into practice.  

Monday, December 03, 2018

Liking the People with Whom You Work

On Saturday, I attended a Celebration of Life for friend and former colleague, Stan Braley. During the service, a person who had served on staff with Stan at a church he pastored told of the positive relationship they had as co-workers and the wonderful way their families got along.

This was a good word. Healthy relationships among co-workers, especially in a church staff where one is the supervisor of the other, are a blessing.  This happens only when both persons are committed and willing to make the relationship worked.  It was clear that Stan and his fellow minister were willing to do this.

I am grateful that I have had the opportunity to be in such situations.  When you like the persons with whom you work, you are more productive, supportive, and creative.  How does this happen?

First, you have to trust one another. The leader is the one who must model this behavior.  He or she must be trustworthy, a person of integrity, who calls out this same in others.  Trust and transparency are not the same thing.  There is information that should not be public knowledge; healthy co-workers recognize the need and honor confidentiality.

Second, you have to have clear lines of communication.  This means both finding ways to do life together through conversation, social events, and celebration and setting clear boundaries.  If some topic or subject is off limits, there must be clarity about this and the reasoning behind the boundary.

Third, all parties must understand the nature of accountability.  Even in a healthy work environment, decisions must be made and executed, projects have to completed and delivered on time, and results have to be evaluated. Accountability is not a bad thing and everyone, even a supervisor, is accountable to someone.  Although often seen as negative, accountability moves us forward and keeps us on track.

In order to like the people with whom you work, you have to be willing to make the investment to in both personal and group development.  When you do so, the benefits are great.

Friday, November 30, 2018

When the Horse is Dead, Dismount

You can do a Google search on this quote, but the results on its origin are ambiguous.  Most likely, it is a Native American tribal saying popularized by leadership gurus like Peter Drucker.  The meaning, of course, is clear.  When something no longer work, it is time to move on.

This is easier said than done.  In business and industry, abandoning a project may mean the loss of jobs and capital investment.  In education, old approaches must be unlearned and new ways learned.  In the church, there may be some fear that we are giving up part of what makes us faithful when we end a program, ministry, worship service, or building.  It is not only about change, but loss as well.

R. Buckminster Fuller  said, “You never change things by fighting the existing reality.  To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.”  So what do you do when the existing model is already obsolete?  You had better get to work on an alternative!
Of course, it is important for people to face reality first.  The old no longer works. People need to honor the past but get ready to invest in the future. We can come up with a new way of doing things but we need to get to work now.  
A sense of urgency is not a bad thing. Knowing that we only have a short time to come up with something new challenges our creativity and builds community. Of course, some will not be willing to do this hard work and probably will leave rather than deal with the tension. Honor their choice but don’t regret their leaving.
Finally, sometimes quick fixes are only temporary and are only the first step to a more sustainable existence.  Hold the new approaches rather lightly.  Experience and learning may well push to the next level of innovation.
Getting off the dead horse is good advice. Finding a new horse will take some work.
(This blog originally appeared here on March 27, 2017.)

Thursday, November 29, 2018

Information or Formation?

Sociologist Brene Brown once said, “What we know matters, but who we are matters more."  This applies to our understanding of Christian discipleship.  As Christians, we often struggle with the balance between orthodoxy (right knowledge or doctrine) and orthopraxy (right practice or action). This is the challenge that James presents when he writes, “But someone will say, ‘You have faith; I have deeds.’ Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by my deeds.” (James 2:18, NIV)

Both right belief and right action are necessary in the life of a follower of Christ, but can one get in the way of the other?

Historically, Baptists have been very good at communicating information about the Bible and the faith.  They delight in asking questions of scripture that exegete the text in an attempt to understand the who, what, how, and why of the passage.  We are less open to letting the text speak to us.  

For example, when I attempt to introduce Lectio Divina to a Baptist group, they often want to question the text rather than let it question them.  The practice of Lectio Divina treats the text not as something to be studied but as the Living Word that questions us.

Certainly, we need to understand the text to avoid its misuse.  There are three questions we should ask in studying a passage of scripture:

  • What does it say? Do we understand the words and their meaning?
  • What did it mean (in context)?  Every part of the Bible was given first to a particular group of people in a specific context.  What did it mean to those who heard the text for the first time?  Was it teaching, exhortation, or worship?  What life circumstances did it address?
  • What does it mean to me?  Study of scripture without application is incomplete.  What does this text say to me today and what should I do about it? 

Ultimately, the goal of right teaching is right action.  If we become experts in the study of the Bible but never put it into practice, we have missed the point.  Information is important, but formation for Christian living is the real goal.

(This blog originally appeared here on August 23, 2017.)

Monday, November 19, 2018

Are Cooperative Baptists Really Interested in Supporting Theological Education?

The Baptist Theological Seminary at Richmond is closing its doors at the end of this academic year.  BTSR has blessed many through its capable administration, gifted faculty, and effective alumni.  Born with a great vision in a time of Baptist turmoil, the seminary encouraged many who were seeking an alternative path for theological education and ministry formation.

In light of the seminary’s closing, Paul Baxley, senior minister of First Baptist Church of Athens, Georgia, asked these questions: “As Cooperative Baptists, are we really committed to the importance of theological education in preparation for ministry? While there is still time, are we willing to act boldly to strengthen our remaining schools so that congregations may thrive and ministers may be trained? Are we willing to envision a new covenant between our churches, our current ministers, our theological schools and those whom God is calling into ministry now and in the future?”

My answer is an equivocal, “Maybe.”  The statements I am about to make are based on my own experience and impressions. I welcome rebuttal and correction from those more knowledgeable.  I suggest we look at the categories that Baxley lists--churches, ministers, and theological schools--and add CBF Global and the state CBF organizations.

First, my impression is that the seminaries who wish to serve CBF and its related churches have done most of the heavy lifting up to this point. They may be free-standing institutions, affiliated with a university, or related to another denomination. In each case, they raise their own support, handle the recruiting of students, and attain the instructional and administrative standards to maintain accreditation.  They have taken the initiative to reach out to churches for support, developed donors and foundations as contributors, and encouraged their students to be part of CBF General Assembly meetings and CBF missions.

Second, ministers who have graduated from these schools have been good representatives of their institutions through their ministries, networking to help graduates find placement, and often urging their churches to support their alma mater. Unfortunately, many of the graduates of the CBF-oriented theological schools have found more opportunities with American Baptists, Disciples of Christ, the United Church of Christ, Methodists, and Presbyterians than with progressive Baptist congregations, so their impact in the CBF system is lost.

Third, churches just don’t get it.  Unless there is a CBF-oriented school in the immediate area, most church members and search committees don’t know the difference between Liberty’s Rawlings School of Divinity and Baylor’s Truett Theological Seminary.  I have consulted with members of more than one pastor search committee who were struggling to distinguish among the theological schools on applicants’ resumes.

Fourth, CBF state and regional organizations have worked to keep the theological schools before their constituents through presentations at meetings, hosting seminary exhibitors, and funding scholarships (there is one named in my honor that is offered by the Tennessee Cooperative Baptist Fellowship).  Rarely, however, do these entities provide any direct financial support to theological institutions.

Fifth, what is CBF global doing?  For one thing, seminarians are included in the Young Adult Network. According to the CBF website, this network includes individuals from the following categories of young Baptists: seminarians, young clergy (up to age 35), young adult laity (ages 21-35), and those who minister alongside individuals from the above age ranges.  For another, CBF provides or has provided scholarship funding to students who attend 20 theological education programs and regularly provide direct scholarships for 15. That is about it.  I believe that CBF Global is interested in seminarians but is concerned about becoming too connected to theological institutions.  Perhaps the institutions feel the same way.

Finally, here are some general observations.  

  • Certain programs provided through CBF Global encourage students in CBF-oriented seminaries, but it is too little.
  • Although early graduates of the theological schools are rising to places of prominence in CBF churches and life, the support for those schools has not increased.  
  • The entire system is informal, loose, and tenuous.  Due to what happened to Baptists in the South in the late 20thcentury, perhaps that is what all involved prefer.  Is there anyone who really wants to forge “a new covenant” to assure the future of CBF-oriented theological education?

So, my response to Dr. Baxley’s question is, “Maybe.”  But I am an optimist.