Monday, December 29, 2008

Learning to Ask Good Questions

In an interview in Newsweek, Peter Ueberroth, organizer of the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics and former commissioner of Major League Baseball, was asked, “What do you look for in a young leader?’’ Ueberroth replied,

When you get past integrity, you go to curiosity. [When I observe young leaders] what I’m so surprised by is, everybody wants to talk—to make a presentation, to do something rather than ask questions. The smartest people are the ones who continue to drive for information.

This reminds me of the old story of the two people at a reception. After a lengthy monologue, a talkative man said to the person next to him, “Well, I’ve talked about myself long enough. What do you think about me?”

A good leader knows that he or she does not have all the answers; in fact, the leader may not even understand the situation. Asking good questions is the key to finding answers for oneself and for helping other people to discover their own answers. A friend of mine who is a personal coach points out that if you help a person solve a problem by giving advice, you have helped him with that specific situation, but when he faces a different challenge, he will tend to come back to you (or someone else) for a solution to that problem. The person has learned dependence rather than discernment.

Good coaching and effective consultation are based on asking the right questions and letting people discover their own answers. It is really the Socratic method of teaching—framing questions so that the student discovers things for herself.

In some ways, this takes a lot more time and work—at least initially—but this is how leaders are formed. They learn to process situations by asking good questions because it has been modeled for them.

Ueberroth is right. Good leaders ask good questions.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Perception is Reality

Our guest preacher this morning used the phrase, “Perception is reality.” This is not the first time I have heard this, but I started me thinking about the pros and cons of this idea as applied to the interpretation of scripture.

On the negative side, the comment challenges the way that we read the Bible. As 21st century readers, we need to take care in imposing our own perspective on the Scriptures. It is too easy to make Jesus and His disciples modern, rational Americans like us.

For example, I pointed out to the Sunday School class I was teaching earlier this month that “Jesus was not a Christian.” (I might also point out that John the Baptizer was not a Baptist but that is another topic.) When Jesus taught and interacted with first century folks, he was not the spokesman for the Christian church and he was unencumbered by twenty centuries of Christian history. Jesus was a Jew, speaking into and out of a Jewish context. We are really not familiar with the richness and complexity of that context. If we were, we would find many of Jesus’ teachings very dangerous, provocative, and risky. He certainly was not one to play it safe.

On the positive side, the Bible has implications for our lives today, and we are right to bring our own life issues to that consideration. Another part of the worship was a solo entitled “Some Children See Him.” The text of the piece points out that children tend to see the Christ child from their own point of view. If they are black, they see Him as black. If they are yellow, they see Him as yellow.

Is that not part of the inspiration of Scripture? As we bring our own life experiences to the study of the Bible, we open ourselves up to applications that shatter our preconceived ideas and stereotypes. We identify with His teachings and actions, thus informing the way that we live out the biblical message.

Certainly this is a paradox—we need to be both objective and subjective in our study of the Bible . . . but God becoming human is also a paradox.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

God Bless All of You on the Good Earth

On December 24, 1968, millions of us listened and watched as the Apollo 8 astronauts broadcast pictures of the Earth from lunar orbit and read the first verses of Genesis. Frank Borman ended the broadcast by saying, "Merry Christmas. God bless all of you, all of you on the good earth."

It was a stunning, historic moment aglow with optimism and hope. Most of us expected that the anticipated moon landing in 1969 would be followed by the establishment of manned lunar bases and pioneering flights to Mars and beyond.

Well, it did not quite work out that way. After several moon landings, the emphasis shifted to close earth orbit. Here we are in 2008 and human beings have not been back to the moon in 33 years, and we are phasing out our orbital space shuttle fleet. What happened?

A primary reason was the end of the Cold War. It was no longer necessary for us to get the upper hand over the Russians. Another reason was the cost of the program. Certainly, there were scientific and technological benefits, but such developments could also be produced by a less expensive orbital program. We also began to find ways to work with our former international competitors. And, of course, national priorities shifted because the public has a short attention span.

There are now plans to return to the moon, but our current financial situation is sure to move lunar settlement down on the list of priorities. So what will it take to get us back on the moon? Perhaps some leader will come along who can provide motivation to move forward with manned space exploration, motivation that is not based on national interest, competition, and fear . . . but I don’t see one on the horizon.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Making History

I just finished watching John Adams, the HBO series based on the book by David McCullough. The series is well-produced and features strong performances. I would recommend it even to those who are not particularly interested in history. McCullough has said that “history is the story of people,” and the series tells the story of very human people who were extraordinary despite their humanity.

Included with the episodes was a documentary about author McCullough. Although I had read two of his books—John Adams and Truman, I knew little about the man. He has had an interesting life. Although he considers himself a writer rather than a historian, he has an ability to understand not only the people in his stories, but the context in which they lived. This is certainly due to the fact that he is also a painter, an amateur musician, a world traveler, and an avid reader. He spent several years working on PBS television series like The Smithsonian. Of course, he has some idiosyncrasies; for example, he continues to compose all of his books on an old manual typewriter!

I suppose what impressed me the most was that, at the age of 75, he has a list of at least 27 more books he would like to write. After seven and half decades of life, he still has goals he wants to achieve. McCullough is a great example of a lifelong learner and a source of great encouragement to a guy who is getting ready to move into a new phase of his life and ministry.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

A Time for Innovation

In an article in the Harvard Business Review several years ago, leadership guru Peter Drucker wrote:

Innovation rarely springs from a flash of inspiration. It arises from a cold-eyed analysis of seven kinds of opportunities: unexpected occurrences, incongruities, process needs, industry and market changes, demographic changes, changes in perception, and new knowledge.

Our nature is to resist change. Once equilibrium is established, we work to keep things in balance. Then something comes along to upset that balance. What is our response? The natural response is to try to return to equilibrium but to do so may mean casting off something or taking a new stance.

Many churches and denominational entities find themselves in a time of disequilibrium. We point quickly to the financial crisis as the source of this event, but other forces were already at work—demographic changes, changes in mission philosophy, and changes in our culture. Too often we have tried to ignore those changes, but it is hard to ignore economic contingencies.

The question now is (using Len Sweet’s image), “Do we allow ourselves to be washed away by the tsunami or do we learn how to surf the wave?” I think it is a good time to learn to surf, taking advantage of the power of the wave to find new directions and new alliances.

This is not the first time that the church has been faced with unexpected change. The class differentiation of 18th and 19th century England was addressed by the spiritual reformation movement led by the Wesleys. The isolation of the American frontier produced the circuit rider, the farmer-preacher, and the camp meeting. The growth of the American higher education system and the separation of many young adults from families, home churches, and beloved communities led to the organization of the YMCA, the YWCA, the Student Volunteer Movement, and denominational campus ministries. The post World War II economic and population boom produced innovative and growing churches and denominations.

All of these were innovations in their time but, as someone has pointed out, “Yesterday’s solutions are today’s problems.” It’s time for fresh thinking, creative approaches to ministry, and wise use of resources. The economy is only the latest force to push the church toward change but it appears the most difficult to ignore!

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Ministry Entrepreneurs

A new group of ministers is emerging on the scene. I call these folks ministry entrepreneurs. These are folks who have a particular vision for ministry and have not been able (or willing) to find a way to pursue it in traditional ecclesial structures. This may be a calling to minister to a specific unreached people group. The person may have a passion to build up the churches through his or her unique gifts to teach or encourage. Perhaps this person is filling a ministry niche that has been unfilled.

To put it another way, the person may be saying one of the following to the churches:
· "Come alongside and help me in an important ministry."
· "Let me help you to do your ministry."
· "Allow me to be a broker or networker who will connect you with ministry partners."

We find such people involved in congregational development, clergy development, community missions, marketplace ministry, lay development, new church starts, and global missions (among others). The examples are endless.

My question in this posting is, “Who is training these people?” Many come out of traditional seminary programs and have developed other skills that uniquely equip them for these focused ministries. Others are autodidacts who have taught themselves what they need to know. Just as college and universities have developed programs for entrepreneurs in business and industry, is there a place to develop ministry entrepreneurs?

In regard to these ministry entrepreneurs, I think it would be interesting to discover:
· What do they need to know (knowledge)?
· What do they need to be able to do (skills)?
· What do they need to be (values)?
Although much of what they learn would be similar to the knowledge, skills, and values of a church or judicatory minister, their peculiar calling demands other training.

Are there seminaries or theological schools providing preparation for this new category of ministers? If so, I would be interested in discovering who they are.

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

The Institutional Church

The “emergent church” conversation has much to offer Christians and the mission of God in our time. It characterizes a movement that many see as fresh, innovative, and imaginative. Although I find the subject of the emerging church personally interesting, I would like to say a word about the “institutional church.”

When someone speaks of the “institutional church,” this is usually a negative statement about the nature of a church or churches. In this view, “institution” conveys fixed, stagnant, bureaucratic, impersonal and ineffective. It doesn’t have to be that way. According to The Random House College Dictionary, an institution is “an organization . . . devoted to the promotion of a particular object.” The purpose of an institution is to support and further a particular cause—in this case, the message of Jesus Christ. I see that as a worthy goal.

Most of the churches that I have related to over the years would fall into the category of institutional churches. They have buildings, staff members, budgets, participants, activities, and bills. I would imagine that this is true for you as well. The institutional church is the church that most of us know. This type of church provides a number for things in our culture.

First, worship. No matter what the worship style, most churches put their best foot forward in their Sunday morning worship services. In most cases, the musicians are gifted, the preachers are prepared, the prayers are heartfelt, and the praise is genuine.

Second, pastoral care. When one is in the hospital, grieving a loss, or going through a personal crisis, the church provides support, prayer, and encouragement through both clergy and lay ministry. The institutional church is often at its best on such occasions.

Third, Christian nurture. Most churches have carefully thought through an approach to Christian formation for all ages. The quality may vary, but most institutional churches seek to help their participants grow in the grace of knowledge of Christ. Children learn Bible stories, teens learn about Christian community, and adults learn to apply the Bible in their daily lives.

Fourth, community. Through its Sunday school, Bible study groups, and mission activities, the institutional church gives people the opportunity to connect with each other and develop a sense of community. Whether one is a member or not, the church provides a place to belong.

Fifth, community and world service. Most institutional churches are involved in ministry in some way. This may be giving a can of food to a local food pantry, donating money to support one who is called to a specific mission, or traveling to Africa to help dig a well. Through the institutional church, people are given the opportunity to love and serve others.

Sixth, celebration of the arts. Even in the most austere church building, the architecture often points to the devotion of the congregation to God. Windows, lighting, flowers, and symbols point people to God. Many forms of music are sustained by the church. And there are few other places in society today that encourage group singing!

Are institutional churches doing all of these things well? No. Are they free of conflict? No. Can they improve? Yes. Breathing new life and new vision into the institutional church is an ongoing task that usually involves breathing new life and new vision into ourselves! That work is never finished.

Sunday, December 07, 2008

Advent is Good News

Baptists have not traditionally observed Advent, a part of the Christian church’s liturgical year, but a number of Baptist churches have started to recognize the value of using this observance to prepare their members for Christmas. I have found Advent to be a personal spiritual discipline by which I can both consider the importance of Christ’s coming to our own lives and gain a proper perspective in the overly commercialized season.

Having children or grandchildren allows us to regain the wonder of the story of the birth of the Christ Child. My four-year-old granddaughter, Erin, likes to take the flannel Nativity scene that my wife bought last year and “tell” the Christmas story. I try not to edit her narrative too much at this point. Like most of us, she struggles to know what to do with Joseph. She adds her own touches such as naming the donkey “Josh” and deciding that the shepherd and the Wise Men had a sleepover to help take care of the baby.

The only correction I have provided so far is about the angel. She started out the other day saying, “This is the angel, and he is coming to bring bad news.” I gave a quick theological insight that angels are messengers from God, and they bring good news. (I selectively ignored all those wrathful angels in the Old Testament and Revelation.) I further suggested that the birth of the baby Jesus was good news. She agreed to that assessment (and getting her to agree to anything is a major success).

The lesson for me is that sharing the story of the good news of Jesus’ coming is something we can do with family, friends, and strangers this Advent season. People still need good news wherever they can find it.

Monday, December 01, 2008

What Have You Done for Me Lately?

When money gets tight in our household, we start making tough choices. One decision we have already made is that we are only giving Christmas gifts this year to grandchildren under 21 years of age and not to adult children or grandchildren. (We have told them that we do not expect any gifts either.) Every time a renewal notice comes in the mail, we think twice before renewing. Although the cost of gasoline is down, we still give careful consideration to every trip, even if it is just across town. Food, clothing, shelter, insurance, and church tithe are necessities in our house. Beyond these, the basic question is, “Do we really need this?”

In a recent article on, Robert Parham considers the long-term viability of religious organizations due to financial exigencies. He basically poses the question, “Are we moving into a survival-of-the-fittest scenario among local and national faith organizations?”

I think his question is very appropriate. As churches experience declining revenues, building maintenance concerns, increase staff costs, and local ministry needs, they will be asking the same question we do at our house: “Do we really need this?”

What does this mean for middle-level and national judicatories, mission boards, educational institutions, publishing houses, and “niche” ministries that both serve the churches and are dependent on the churches for their support? I think churches will be asking these questions:

1. What have you done for me lately? Church members, especially those who have grown up with denominational strife, do not believe that the state or national denominational structures are relevant to their needs or those of their churches. They are the generation “who know not Joseph” and the benefits that the denomination provided in the past. There is no “brand loyalty.”

2. Does it fit? The biggest challenge for most denominationally-based programs is that they are not contextualized for the local congregation. Due to the Starbucks experience, people realize that they can have their latte the way that they want it. They expect the same for church programs.

3. Are there strings attached? Does the church have to meet certain criteria to be in good standing with the organization that comes alongside to assist in the church’s ministry or will they accept us as we are—women deacons, liturgical worship, etc.?

4. Can I get it somewhere else cheaper? We may condemn this as a consumerist attitude, but when churches are struggling to keep the light bill paid, they have to ask this question.

5. Will you love me in the morning? After we have partnered with you, will you take our church for granted or will you seek to strengthen the relationship based on mutual respect and accountability?

Perhaps church members and clergy leaders will not be this blunt in the way they ask these questions, but they will ask these kinds of questions in the future. Those organizations that seek to minister alongside churches in the coming days will have to be caring, attentive partners who do not take the relationship for granted.