Monday, December 28, 2009

Spiritual But Not Religious

To extend Christmas a little longer, my wife and I attended the Radio City Christmas Spectacular at the Opry House on Saturday. The show was well done with great staging, music, and choreography. The finale was the adoration of the Christ Child with shepherds and Wise Men present. It was beautifully done but the show’s producers followed the typical approach of taking great liberty with Matthew’s account about the visitors from the east.

Matthew’s gospel tells us about the coming of magi (probably Zoroastrian priests) to worship the Christ child. They were both astrologers and astronomers who connected happenings in the heavens to those on earth and vice versa. Given their interchange with a very troubled King Herod and the fact that they found the child and his family in a house, their visit would have been at least two years after Jesus’ birth, so they would not have been present at the manger.

The interesting thing about this story is that Matthew includes it at all. The gospel writer has a great concern in the book to show how Jesus’ coming was the fulfillment of Jewish prophecy. Throughout his account, he shows that Jesus is of the lineage of David, the one who came to bring in the Kingdom of God, and the Anointed One of God. But he seems to be stretching a bit when he includes a group of star-gazing gentiles in his story. When he contrasts the worship of these pagans with the terror and disbelief on the part of Herod and his advisors, the reader is certainly expected to identify with the gentiles rather than the Jewish leaders.

By including the account, Matthew pursues another theme that carries throughout the book, God’s desire that all nations, not just the nation of Israel, may be blessed through the Son of God. Matthew’s radical message is that Jesus came for all of humankind.

As I think about the wise men (and they were surely all men), I am reminded of the many in our day who proclaim themselves as “spiritual but not religious.” This generally means, “I am interested in spiritual things but I am not part of a faith community and certainly would not have anything to do with a Christian church!” Matthew embraces the spiritual commitment of the wise men and uses it as a means to attest to the universal appeal of Jesus. There is no indication that these foreign religious leaders became “born again” believers, but their spiritual insight is certainly highlighted. Although the Jews rejected divination (including astrology), the gospel writer grasps the spark of truth attested to by these gentiles and affirms it.

Perhaps the lesson for believers today is to meet unbelievers where they are. If they manifest a spark of truth, let us encourage it rather than extinguish it by rushing to unload more than they need at this point in their spiritual pilgrimage. If we try to dump the whole load of orthodoxy on these seekers, they will be overwhelmed.

Matthew reminds us that God is already at work in the larger world and God invites us to join in that work.

Monday, December 21, 2009


James Cameron’s Avatar is THE blockbuster holiday film. I saw it in 3-D and wish that I could have seen it in the IMAX format. This is a beautiful, exhilarating film that invites the viewer to suspend his or her imagination and enjoy the ride. The invitation is easily accepted.

The story is not new or unique. Although some reviewers have charged that Cameron plagiarized Dances with Wolves, his inspiration is more from Edgar Rice Burroughs’ John Carter, Warlord of Mars series (something that Cameron himself readily admits). Although the writer/director strives for a fresh take on colonialism and biodiversity, this is a swashbuckler about an outsider who becomes immersed in an alien culture and becomes its savior—a common theme in science fiction and fantasy. Cameron also introduces a love story but that too is standard for this genre.

In the film, an avatar is a body controlled by a “driver” or human controller. The body itself is a cloned hybrid created by combining the DNA of the Na’vi, the race indigenous to the moon Pandora, and that of a human. Although the avatars were designed as a medium for scientific and sociological research, the managers of the company plundering the moon’s resources have other ideas.

The real focus of this film is the production itself. Much of it was digitally created. The integration of live action and computer-generated characters is nearly flawless. (We saw a computer-generated Arnold Schwarzenegger in Terminator: Salvation. I wonder when someone will resurrect a deceased star like James Dean or John Wayne for a cameo in a film.) The visual effects are realistic and breathtaking—animals, the Na’vi tribe, and the landscape. The viewer feels that these are real and not simply virtual world created by computer.

Cameron’s team also goes to great lengths to create a native culture with its own language, customs, and religion. This culture stands in sharp contrast to the mechanical, militaristic culture of the mining company.

Although the story is hardly original, many of the characters are strong. Sam Worthington as Jake Sully, a disabled Marine who becomes part of the Avatar program, is convincing (he was good in Terminator: Salvation and is even better here). Stephen Lang as Colonel Miles Quaritch is a strong villain, although rather one dimensional. Joel David Moore is Norm Spellman, a biologist who studies plant and nature life who fills the “sidekick” role well. If there is one thing we can count on from Cameron, it is strong female characters. In this film they are portrayed by Sigourney Weaver as Dr. Grace Augustine, a botanist with an attitude; Zoë Saldaña as Neytiri, a native princess; and Michelle Rodriguez as Trudy Chacon, a Marine pilot. One of the fun things is to see Weaver in the form of an avatar.

Some will put be off by the violence, others by the Gaia or “mother planet” idea, and some by the simplistic storyline, but this is not a philosophical or “message” film. This is a popcorn film with characters that are easy to like. Sit down, put on your 3-D glasses, pick up your soft drink and popcorn, and enjoy.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Responding to the Spirit

Economic downturn, midlife crisis, or work of the Holy Spirit? Whatever the reason, seminaries are welcoming a new type of student to campus. This student comes with life experience, a background in a profession (such as business, education, law, or medicine), and a desire to make a difference in the world.

Many of the students that I relate to at the Murfreesboro center of Central Baptist Theological Seminary fall into this category. They have families, jobs, and church responsibilities, but they are seeking something new for themselves and for the Kingdom of God. They have a vision that may not fit into the usual parameters of church-related ministry. Some want to be part of a ministry that does not exist already. This is a work of God's Spirit.

This is happening at other seminaries as well.

In a Religious News Service article, David Worley, director of admissions at Iliff School Theology in Denver says, “Our big push is recruiting folks who want to be social entrepreneurs and advocate for social change.”

In the same article, Arthur Holder, dean of the Graduate Theological Union in the San Francisco Bay Area observes, “More people see this [seminary study] as an entrepreneurial venture. They’re saying, `I want to start something. I want to start a new kind of church, a virtual religious community that meets online, or an urban retreat center...’ They’re not expecting the denomination or church organization to do this for them. They want to get the training, the skills and the knowledge (so that) they can create it as they go along.”

Many seminaries are responding to this opportunity with alternative delivery systems for the Master of Divinity program or new degrees. The Shawnee campus of Central Baptist Theological Seminary has inaugurated a new Master of Divinity program called CREATE designed especially for ministry entrepreneurs. The seminary also offers a Master of Arts in Missional Church Studies with an emphasis in urban ministry.

I think we will see more such innovations as seminaries and theological schools provide for this new type of student. The wind of the Spirit is blowing and calling us to respond in creative, responsible ways.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Making Many Books

We read in Ecclesiastes 12:12, “Be warned, my son,. . . of making many books there is no end, and much study wearies the body.” I am not sure exactly what the writer was getting at here, but my initial response is to say “Amen” to the first part and “So?” to the second.

Anyone who knows me realizes that I like to read. I have certain categories that particularly appeal to me, but I occasionally venture outside of those areas to consider other genres. The greatest gift that someone can give me is to recommend a book that has been especially meaningful to that person.

I like to share books that I find interesting, helpful, formative, or instructive. At the top of my blog page, you will see a banner with “Ircel’s Recommendations.” If you follow that link to, you will find several categories.

First is a list of books that I am reading right now. Some of these are in progress or may just be sitting on my shelf (or on my Kindle) waiting their turn. These have usually been recommended by a friend, written by an author I respect, or I have stumbled across the title in an article or online and the topic sounds interesting.

I have suggested books in six other categories. “Missional Church” addresses the work of the church as the missio Dei or “mission of God.” These include classics in the field and some new additions. “Leadership” lists books that address this topic in the church, in secular organizations, or both. In the “Emerging Church” list, I have tried to highlight seminal thinkers who are not only observers but practitioners as well. “Postmodernism” means different things to different people, but the books listed here are accessible even to those who have little or no background in the subject. “Vocational and Spiritual Formation” books address the idea of what it means to be a Christian and how one can grow in discipleship. This has been an interest of mine for a long time, but my approach to it has evolved over the years. The books here reflect where I am now on the topic. Finally, I have always had an interest in how people work (or fail to work) together, so the “Organizations” category addresses this from a number of perspectives.

I hope you will take a look at these lists and give me some feedback. And, if you want to recommend a book, I would welcome it!

Sunday, December 06, 2009

Vision is Just the Beginning

President George H. W. Bush (”41”) was widely criticized when he commented that he did not get the “vision” thing. For the last several decades, if you have read anything about personal or organizational development, you will realize that having a vision for yourself, your organization, or your church is mandatory. I don’t disagree with this idea, but vision is just the beginning. You can have a magnificent and compelling vision and fail in the pursuit of that vision!

There are other things to consider—values, strategies, etc.—in building an effective organization or church but I affirm that the biggest challenge that a leader faces in the 21st century is obtaining resources. When I used the term, I am using it in a very broad sense. Resources include (but are not limited to) people, finances, spiritual insight, time, and technology. In fact, it is sometimes difficult to differentiate between these four; they tend to blend into one another.

For a church or church-related organization, there must be a focused attempt to marshal spiritual resources. This is done through prayer, discernment, study of scripture, and dialogue in the community of faith. For believers, this is the beginning point. If we cannot find the spiritual resources to do what we attempt, then we better stop at once.

People are a vital resource. Personal commitment to any organization, including the church, is much more transient than in the past. We can cite any number of reasons. Some people leave the organization because “their needs are not being met.” Others question the commitment of the organization to them, so they “jump ship” first. Organizations can be part of the problem as well by failing to adapt to the gifts and skills of those who are part of the organization. Without people, we will do little to move toward our vision.

Time is also at a premium. This and the people resource clearly overlap. People will not invest their time in something that is not effective, helpful, or rewarding. On the other hand, individuals will give a great deal of personal time to something in which they believe. From another perspective, people may be impatient and unwilling to give the organization the time it needs to accomplish its mission

The organization that fails to adopt and use technological resources will not survive the 21st century. Sure it takes time to set up digital systems, but once they are established they enable us to use our people and time resources more effectively. Communication, administration, and education benefit from proper use of technological resources.

When we use the term “resources,” finances are usually thought of first, but money is only one ingredient needed to achieve a vision. I would argue that spiritual direction, people, and technology may be higher on the list of priorities, although money can help maximize the effectiveness of the latter two.

Resources allow vision to become reality. The problem is not that resources are limited. This goes without saying. No matter what resource we discuss, there is always a finite supply (including time). Allocation is the issue. The challenge for the leader of the 21st century organization is to persuade and challenge those with resources to invest them to accomplish the vision. This is an art that comes from passion and practice.

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Are You Saved?

One of the classes I teach from time to time is titled “The Basics of Contemporary Christian Witness.” The scope of the course as taught at Central Seminary includes a study of the nature of salvation (especially as expressed in the Gospels), the missiology of the church through the ages, and an understanding of the missional church.

One of the papers required of the students is a personal statement of their soteriology or doctrine of salvation. Students sometimes argue that there is certainly only one approach to salvation, but the history of the Christian faith shows otherwise. How and why we are saved by the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ has been interpreted in many ways in the history of the church. The doctrine has even led some Christian to persecute other Christians!

Each of us brings his or her own perspective to this doctrine today. Because of our background, the teachings to which we have been exposed, our study of the Bible, and our life experiences, we each develop our own understanding of salvation even if we have never fully articulated it.

My personal perspective on salvation has changed. In my experience, the idea of salvation has usually centered on either being saved from something or to something. For example, one is saved from the fires of Hell and/or saved to eternal life with God. Too often such approach comes down to an eternal “fire insurance policy” for the believer with little implication for life now.

It may be an oversimplification, but I am coming to see that I am saved for something. For me that something is the Kingdom of God (some prefer to call it the “Reign of God”). When Jesus was on the earth, he talked a lot about the kingdom: “it is already among you.” “It is coming,” “this is a sign of the kingdom.” With Jesus’ advent, the Kingdom of God broke into the world. That same kingdom is still breaking into the world today. It is an “already, but not yet” reality.

Believers are called to be citizens of that Kingdom. We are called out of life as we know it into life in a new culture or way of being. Our lives are reoriented with a new set of values, priorities, and opportunities. To me, this is a pretty good definition of salvation.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Consider the Context

We just returned from a Thanksgiving visit to our son and his family in the San Francisco area. Every time we visit I am struck by the multi-racial, multi-ethnic, multi-cultural nature of the population there. I realize, of course, that the same thing is happening on an accelerating scale across the country. When I go to a program at my grandchildren’s elementary school in Tennessee, the principal struggles to pronounce names that are Asian, Hispanic, and Indian.

Churches in my little part of the world are only beginning to address this cultural diversity. Most of the time, the strategy is to create churches that are targeted to a specific racial, ethnic, or language group and translate the North American understanding of the gospel for that group. This ignores the fact that some things do not translate well! Often this strategy does not take into account the vast differences within a particular language group. The strategy also does not consider that we could learn something from dialogue with these groups that might help us to communicate the gospel more effectively to them.

For example, if we consider the experience of certain Hispanics, we might discover that some biblical themes would resonant with their experience. Those who have grown up in virtual slavery would appreciate the liberation themes of Exodus. The oppressed often identify with the struggles that the young church in New Testament times experienced with the Roman Empire.

In working with Asians, we would do well to understand both the cultural impact of their professed faith and the rich tradition of meditation and contemplation we find there. How does the Wisdom literature of the Hebrew Bible address some of the issues with which Buddhism and other oriental religions are concerned? Are there commonalities?

A friend has developed a model that uses teachings in the Koran about Jesus as a beginning point for evangelistic dialogue with Muslims. In so doing, he is using a valuable tool that is readily available to his audience.

We have much work to do if we are to learn how to exegete the biblical message in order to present it in a way that can be understood and embraced by those whose experiences are so different from ours. Of course, we can ignore this opportunity, but such a choice leads to irrelevance and the church cannot afford to be irrelevant in the 21st century.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Take Time to be Thankful

I often get invitations on Facebook to join advocacy groups such as “Keep Christ in Christmas.” This year I have seriously considered setting up on that advocates “Let’s Not Start the Christmas Season until the Day after Thanksgiving.”

There are some, including folks in my own family, who start putting up decorations the second week in November. Some have even already bought all of their presents! (Yes, it is hard to live with people like that.)

I am sure that their efforts are driven by a love for the season (as well as personal industriousness), but I cannot say the same for the stores that start pushing Christmas decorations and gifts on Labor Day. I cannot believe that their enthusiasm is driven by good feelings about the “reason for the season.”

There are two primary reasons that I will hold off on my decorations, Christmas music, and holiday observance until after Thanksgiving. First, I love Thanksgiving. I know that some consider this holiday a capitulation to “civil religion,” but I enjoy the opportunity to stop and be thankful for the blessings of the past year. Our worship service this past Sunday was a good reminder of how God has blessed us and of God’s continuing presence with us every day—certainly something for which to be thankful.

Second, this coming Sunday, the first after Thanksgiving, is the first Sunday of Advent. I have come to appreciate the rhythms of this part of the liturgical year. We are reminded of the meaning of hope, love, joy, and peace for Christians around the world. We are prepared for the coming of Messiah. By reading the Common Lectionary texts for the season, we join millions around the world in meditating on these blessings.

I’m not going to start that Facebook group, but I am planning to enjoy Thanksgiving before turning my attention to the coming of the One who give me reason to be thankful.

Monday, November 16, 2009

The Church is Like a . . .

You’ve heard the story of the blind men who encountered an elephant. Each touched only one part and then generalized about the nature of the beast based on this partial knowledge. They variously described it as a wall, snake, spear, tree, fan or rope, depending upon where they touched. Each developed his own metaphor based on the partial knowledge they had of the subject.

Metaphors are powerful tools. In fact, researcher Andrew Ortony once commented, “Metaphors are necessary, not just nice.” Rightly used, metaphors are powerful tools for learning and change. Just as a picture is worth a thousand words, a metaphor can shift the way that a person perceives reality.

We can see the power (and limitation) of metaphor when we select words to describe the church. Many churches describe themselves as “family.” This works most of the time, but some people have had very negative family experiences—broken relationships, abuse, isolation—that color how they see family. The idea of the church as an “army” has been very popular in years past, but as a veteran who served in an unpopular war, the word carries very negative connotations.

Findley Edge used terms like “hospital” or “seminary” to describe the church. These can be taken either in a positive or negative light. The Apostle Paul, of course, described the church as a “body.” Others think of it as a “garden” where believers can be nourished and bear fruit.

My concern is that we not rush too quickly to embrace just one metaphor to describe the church because, like the blind men, our perspective is often limited to our own experiences. The church is much richer and more nuanced than the experiences of one person or even a handful of people.

We would do well to listen to the stories that others tell about the church and build our list of metaphors. Each reflects some aspect of reality without providing the whole picture.

Saturday, November 07, 2009

An Environment for Growth

I can remember the day well. It was May 1970. The mover had packed up all of our worldly goods for the move from Fort Worth, Texas, to Murfreesboro, Tennessee. I climbed into the station wagon (loaded down with clothes and other things we would need immediately). Rita (great with child) and our daughter, Sherry, stayed behind with friends. They would fly to Nashville later after I got the house set up with help from my parents. I made a loop around the campus and said farewell to Seminary Hill, not expecting to return anytime soon! I had earned my degree, been called to my first place of ministry, and could leave all that behind.

After only a few months, I realized that my education was not over. I soon began to encounter situations in teaching, counseling, and administration that I had not anticipated. Seminary helped me to develop many skills I put into use immediately—planning, preaching, and research. At the same time, I quickly discovered that I needed help to be a more effective minister, and I began to search for people and learning opportunities that could help me with the challenges that I faced. Did I have feelings of inadequacy? I probably did at first, but I soon realized that there was no way that seminary could have prepared me for the specific context in which I found myself.

I was fortunate to find the help I needed. This was not true for some of my contemporaries who either left the ministry in the first five years or began moving through a series of pastorates, failing to connect in any of them.

Hopefully, ministers have come to realize that learning is a lifelong process. Seminaries have also discovered that they can continue to provide support and resources for their alumni after they complete their formal education. One of the initiatives that Pinnacle Leadership Associates is undertaking is the First Call Project. We hope to partner with seminaries and funders to provide ministers beginning their first full-time positions with the “just in time” learning and support to work effectively in their settings.

This is just one piece of the puzzle, of course. Ministers must be proactive in developing an environment that will nurture and support them in their daily work. Family provides some of this, but we cannot expect our spouses and children to provide everything we need to be effective ministers! We need to find support groups, community resources, continuing education programs, formal degree programs, reading and internet resources, and other emerging opportunities for personal and professional development.

Where are you in the process? There is help available. Don’t hesitate to begin developing your own environment for growth.

The Age of the Unthinkable

You may be interested in this video by Joshua Cooper Ramo introducing his book

Sunday, November 01, 2009

Getting a Different Perspective

I just completed reading Joshua Cooper Ramo’s The Age of the Unthinkable. Ramo is the managing director of Kissinger Associates, a former editor of Time Magazine, and a China analyst. Ramo’s thesis is that we live in a “revolutionary age,” defined by problems (such as terrorism, financial crisis, global warming and the AIDS pandemic) whose complexity, unpredictability and interconnectedness increasingly defy our efforts at control. Taking a page from writers like Thomas Friedman and Malcolm Gladwell, he uses historical, contemporary, and personal vignettes to both illustrate the situation and to support his approach to dealing with the situation.

So why does a person who is interested in “building up the Body of Christ” in the 21st century read a secular book like this?

I picked up this book because it was recommended by Alan Roxburgh, one of the most creative thinkers I have encountered on the missional church and missional leadership. Roxburgh introduced me to the concept of “discontinuous change”—just because we know what has come before, we cannot necessarily predict where we are going next. Ramo’s approach blends in well with Roxburgh’s thesis.

Roxburgh understands that we as Christians can learn a great deal from persons in a number of fields who are struggling to understand the world we find ourselves in. Those people don’t have to be believers to share ideas and strategies that may benefit the church. We often find people like Ramo and others who are thinking along parallel tracks, dealing with similar issues, and suggesting approaches that may have applicability to the church.

I think we can learn a great deal from reading outside our usual areas of study. We can learn from literature, film, drama, political science, and the hard sciences. Looking at things from another’s perspective can change or sharpen our own.

I encourage you to “get out of your box” and take a look at what others are doing. You might be surprised at what you learn.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

The Importance of Innovation

During a workshop today, participants began to question whether it was practical to take the time to initiate a new approach to leadership development in the church. Their concern was, “How can we attempt something new when we are dealing with basic survival in the church?” I shared my belief that a spirit of experimentation and innovation is key to the health of churches in the 21st century. We must move beyond maintenance to dreaming and planning for future opportunities.

Afterward, I commented to one person that every church should have a Department of Research and Development. The church should always be trying new things. Of course, doing this is not easy. When things are going well in the church, people say, “Why bother to try something new?” When things are not going well, the response is, “We don’t have the time and resources to try something new.”

Now I do not mean that we need a literal department with the name “Research and Development,” but every church should be stretching itself by trying at least one new thing every year. This will institutionalize a spirit of innovation and anticipation. Perhaps it will be a new approach to leadership development such as Disciple Development Coaching© or a training program for a Sunday school leaders. The innovation may be a new Bible study class that deals with contemporary issues or a spiritual formation group that encourages the practice of spiritual disciplines. I am not talking about big emphases that seek to involve all members of the congregation like Forty Days of Purpose. I am suggesting small, experimental initiatives that have the opportunity to nudge congregations in new directions without major changes in schedules, disruption of established programs, or a large allocation of financial resources.

This is “seed planting.” Some of the seeds will prosper and yield new fruit. Some will wither and die. In any event, these innovations can generate new learning and a fresh appreciation for the church’s ability to grow and adapt to meet the needs of the 21st century.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

The Importance of Empowerment

“Power to the people!” Sounds like something out of the 60s, doesn’t it? But that is the bottom line message of The Age of the Unthinkable by Joshua Cooper Ramo. As Ramo reflects on the rapidly changing and complex world in which we find ourselves, he encourages readers to consider the total picture and not to be distracted by one particular focus. He reminds us that problems that we face today—internationally, politically, or economic—rarely have one cause. Such problems may also be addressed in a number of ways and have multiple solutions. Most often, he contends, these solutions “bubble up” from creative, empowered individuals who join together in community to create change.

Empowerment is not a new idea. When Luther and other Reformers embraced the priesthood of every believer (although interpreted in various ways), they opened the door to individual and corporate actions that would go in unexpected directions. In Ramo’s book, he points out that grassroots decision-making, whether in confronting AIDS in South Africa or fighting the Israeli army in Lebanon, produces positive results that cannot be achieved from the top down. When we encourage people to take responsibility for their own needs, they often surprise us.

Baptists have long argued for individual and congregational autonomy, but we have often abdicated that responsibility. Some would argue that this was for the greater good. Southern Baptists in the 20th century had the most efficient, vertically integrated denominational structure in the United States. In many ways, Southern Baptists were the “catholic church of the South.” This produced a massive international missionary presence, booming institutions, and widely used Christian education programs. Unfortunately, such structures foster hubris and invite abuse. A changing culture would no longer tolerate such a centralized approach. The 21st century demands something else.

We have often said that a Baptist principle is “tell the truth and trust the people.” I have come to see that as being naïve because there are different versions of “the truth” out there. Whether we choose to tell the truth or not, the people are going to exercise their autonomy. Perhaps our greatest challenge is to find ways to create and sustain community in light of that autonomy.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Tell Me a Story

Bill Leonard, dean of the Wake Forest Divinity School, was a guest at our church over the weekend for a Baptist Heritage weekend. In a couple of the discussions and over lunch on Sunday, the postmodern question was interjected. Leonard made some comments to the effect that there are fewer metanarratives—grand, all-encompassing stories—that all Christians look to for meaning. In contrast, there are a number of stories that link us to God’s story.

One of the key theological themes to emerge in the 20th century was contextual theology. The idea is that our context and our experiences shape how we talk about God. We see expressions of this in the emergence of black theology, liberation theology, feminist theology, and so on. If we consider this carefully, we realize that this makes sense. We each come to the biblical story with our own perspective, one that provides the lens of our understanding.

This is not strictly a personal matter, however. Theology and community are necessarily connected. “Theology” is “a word about God.” Words are used in communication with other individuals. We build community upon written and verbal communication. We may think about God as individuals, but we talk about God as part of a community.

We see this in the gospels, written documents that are the products of worshipping communities. As these early Christians lived their lives and shared their faith, they drew upon the teachings of Christ that strengthened and empowered them. Prompted by God’s Spirit, they recounted, recalled, and applied the appropriate teachings of Jesus to their own community experiences.

Although we can list any number of great theologians—Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, etc.—who labored long and hard to produce eloquent writings about God, ultimately they were accountable to a community of faith that either accepted or rejected their formulations. Theology is not done simply by individuals; it is done within a community context.

This brings me back to the value of the stories that are shared in community. Faith stories are formative for believers but they are embodied in community. Ideally, each story connects with God’s story in its own unique way. Our challenge is to learn to listen to other stories with an openness to learn and to discern if someone else’s story helps us to understand our own. Perhaps we no longer have a metanarrative, but we do have a promising anthology to consider.

Friday, October 23, 2009

The Importance of Resiliency

Whenever I led an orientation for college students who were planning to spend ten weeks in mission service, I always added one thing to the list of responsibilities: “Be flexible.” No matter how much planning went into these projects, life often happened. Sometimes it set the stage for disaster, and other times it was an opportunity for the Spirit of God to work in a great way. The way it turned out often depended on the attitudes toward change of those involved.

In The Age of the Unthinkable, Joshua Cooper Ramo presents the concept of flexibility early in the book. He points out that “you might have a dream of what you want to do . . . but unless you constantly refine that dream, constantly update it, your chances for success are limited.” To accomplish your dream, you must be adaptive or flexible and aware of the environment in which you live and work.

This provides the basis for one of his key arguments—planners, policy makers, and leaders of all stripes must not only be flexible and in touch with their environment, but they must find ways to enrich that environment in order to provide more options for action. He calls this “resiliency” and identifies ways that this might be developed in different settings. He notes, “A management approach based on resilience would emphasize the need to keep options open.” In fact, such an approach would seek to develop any number of ways to deal with an issue, often approaching it from the back, side, or underneath rather than head on.

Like most human endeavors, there is a tendency in the church and church organizations to face the perceived problem head on, to go for the “quick fix.” Our natural strategy is to seek quick resolution or closure so that we can move on to the next problem. Let me suggest some ways that we can keep our options open.

First, don’t burn any bridges behind you. When a time of employment, partnership, or a contract comes to an end, we often have to suppress the inclination to “shake the dust off our feet” and declare”good riddance.” When the termination is involuntary, this may provide some emotional release, but wouldn’t it be best to leave it alone and maintain some sense of dignity and charity? There is always the possibility that things will change and provide future opportunities for cooperation.

Second, don’t put all of your eggs in to one basket too soon. When we are floundering and looking for a quick fix, we naturally look for “any port in a storm.” We might be better served to pursue several options at once until we find which is the most workable.

Third, develop networks. Find those who have an interest in the issues, needs, and problems that you encounter. These may be in other denominations, social service organizations, the marketplace, or in academia. Churches need to be open to finding new partners in ministry.

Fourth, listen to people and ask questions. Take the opportunity to get to know people both inside and outside of your or your organization’s area of expertise. Many times, the best insight and the freshest perspective come from outsiders who are unencumbered by preconceived approaches.

Fifth, learn from the past in order to avoid making the same mistakes. We are now in an era when past experience does not necessarily provide the best information about future performance, but we can look at what did not work and avoid doing the same thing again.

Sixth, know your strengths and build on them. Whether we are talking about individuals or organizations, we would do well to know what we are already gifted to do before we launch out to develop new skills and activities. Those strengths are good clues to our next step of ministry.

Seventh, open your eyes to the work of God. We might be surprised by what God has prepared us to do.

Such thinking allows us to move beyond “strategic planning” to “adaptive planning.” In the changing world that Ramo describes, we have a hard time planning for next month much less five years in the future, but we can keep be resilient by keeping our options open. I would venture to say that resilience is part of the church’s DNA, but it must be nourished.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Leadership Coaching

The famous thinker Anonymous is reported to have said, “History repeats itself because no one listens the first time.” Someone commented recently that she appreciated my blog comments. My response was, “That’s because I am becoming a better listener.”

Listening is an important life skill. It is one that a good leader will work to develop. Listening is a mandatory skill for a coach. I have been thinking recently that I have learned the most in my ministry when I have asked the right questions and listened carefully for the answers. When coaching skills such as listening and leadership are brought together, phenomenal things can happen.

The area in which I am spending a good deal of my time these days is in leadership coaching. I have always been interested in the area of leadership, especially as it applies to the church and its various manifestations, but I have become more aware of the impact that effective coaching can have in the life of believers and their empowerment as leaders.

Taking a cue from Gary Collins in Christian Coaching, I embrace the idea that “leadership coaching refers to the coaching of leaders and potential leaders around two specific issues: enabling leaders to become better leaders and equipping leaders to use coaching as a way to lead others.”

In my work with Pinnacle Leadership Associates, I do individual coaching with clergy leaders as they deal with personal, professional, and spiritual issues. They identify their “growing edge,” then I work with them to develop an action plan and provide support as they pursue it.

We are helping leaders apply coaching skills in the local church through our Disciple Development Coaching © workshops and training. DDC helps church leaders—both lay and clergy—to learn coaching skills as they work with their peers, church members, teams, and committees. I have found that church leaders are ready to embrace a new approach to disciple development based on the priesthood of the believer and clergy resourcing.

As we seek to encourage and involve young leaders in the church, older lay leaders as well as clergy can use coaching skills to empower and equip younger church members. Young adults are looking for encouraging relationships to help them discover their own gifts and skills and to grow into them. They no longer want to “fill a slot” on a committee; they want to make a difference for the Kingdom of God.

Think about where your “growing edge” may be. How are you engaging it? Who can coach you to move toward it? Who can you coach as they pursue their own walk as a disciple?

The Importance of Convergence

“Mashup” is not a term I use every day. It comes from the rap music genre where different types of music are mixed at varying speeds to develop a new piece of music. The process transforms two or more different things into a new creation.

Several years ago, something similar happened when Japanese game creator Shigeru Miyamoto combined an accelerometer used for the deployment of automobile airbags with a video gaming system to produce the Wii. As Joshua Cooper Ramo notes in The Age of the Unthinkable, Miyamoto had “mashed up” two seemingly unrelated things to create something new. He explains, “Understanding mashup logic is . . . the first step toward a new, deep security in which our ideas match the world around us.” In so doing, we can recombine “our policies, dreams, and ideas . . . to release new and unexpected power.”

Another term for this would be convergence. How do we combine various streams to produce some synergetic—more than the sum of its parts? I suggest that this is one of the arenas of opportunity for the 21st century church. We must find new partnerships, new combinations, and new connections to make a difference in our culture. This will provide us, first of all, with a sense of empowerment as we minister in a “post-everything” context. We will no longer be limiting ourselves to ministry within the walls of the church. Second, we will release new power for ministry.

My friend Billy Cox shared an example of how this worked in one situation. Ginghamburg UMC in Ohio built a new "youth center" several years ago, but it was not part of the church, therefore they could use sponsors like Pepsi and others to fund the "youth center" and its programming. Billy says, it is a “nice building and it seemed busy when I visited there several years ago.”

Another example would be combining technology and worship. Video projectors can be used to project the words of contemporary choruses, but they can also be used to create an ever-changing environment for worship—one week the inside of a majestic cathedral and the new week the lush backdrop of a forest.

In serving the community, churches can provide space for various community outreach ministries—counseling programs, parent education, literacy training—with the idea of not simply sharing geographic space but of finding ways to benefit each other in the process.

Many churches are finding ways to combine the Internet and resourcing members for spiritual formation. For example, a church that traditionally prints Advent Devotional Booklets for their congregation will this year offer those devotionals as a daily message on members’ e-mail accounts.

Some examples of convergence in the church may be radical, while others may be relatively simple. The key idea is to find ways to put different ministries, services, and experiences in new combinations in order to create new ways to reach out. This both empowers the church and energizes the church’s ministry.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Recovering an Important Truth

You learn a lot when you lead a conference, especially when you get good questions from the participants. I was leading a workshop on Discovering Disciple Development Coaching in Mississippi over the weekend. The concept I was presenting was that healthy people have the ability to discover the answers to their own problems—spiritual, relational, professional. What we need to do is provide a climate to help them discover those answers, plan how to implement those answers, and then hold them accountable.

The question went something like this: “How will people in the church respond to this? They are used to coming to the church to receive direction and answers. How will they respond to the idea of finding their own answers?”

As we processed this together, I suggested that believers do need biblical information and teaching, but they also need to learn how to make decisions for themselves. Jesus walked with his disciples, taught them and encouraged them, but when he was gone, they had to take up the mission that he had given them. They had been fed, now it was their turn to feed. The process of discipleship resulted in a capable believer.

This is a key concept of the priesthood of every believer—each individual not only has direct access to God but the responsibility to be a priest to other believers. We receive a gift and then we are to gift others. Sometimes I hear an individual complain that they are “not being fed in their present church.” Interesting comment since babies and the infirm are the only people who need assistance to receive sustenance. The healthy, mature person can feed himself or herself.

The goal of discipleship is not simply to be a better follower but a competent and responsible leader. This is Christian discipleship. The strange thing is how surprising this is to many Christians!

Wednesday, October 07, 2009

The Importance of Technology

You’re rummaging through your tool box, and you suddenly discover a brand new tool that does just what you want to do and in less time. So what do you do? Do you say, “Hey, I am used to my old tool, so I will just stick with it”? Or do you say, “Thank goodness, I have finally found something to make my life easier”? If you are smart, you use the new tool that you just found and save yourself some time and effort.

Given the above scenario, you can understand why I am surprised when I find a minister who says with disdain, “I just don’t do the Internet. It’s not my thing.” I look at that person and think to myself, “Well, I guess you don’t use a cell phone, microwave, or electricity either, do you?”

You may think that this is mean-spirited, but I have a difficult time understanding a person who does not use the tools available to him or her. If we are to deal with the challenges of the 21st century, we have to be ready to use the technologies that will make our ministries more effective.

When the printing press came along, Protestants could have said, “Oh, no. Now people can read the Bible in their own language. This is going to mean trouble!” Actually, the Protestant reformers saw this as a way to encourage the priesthood of all believers and to give people the opportunity to hear and receive the gospel in a way that they could understand. They wrote, published, and distributed books to the people and also taught them to read.

In the first half of the 20th century, preachers like Charles E. Fuller used radio to present the gospel across America (and along the way create seminary that bears his name). Bishop Fulton J. Sheen saw the potential provided by television to preach to the masses and spoke to more people than any other Roman Catholic priest of his time. Billy Graham understood that motion pictures could both entertain and evangelize, so he began to produce movies that drew crowds to theaters and stadiums.

I could name any number of ministers who have had the vision to embrace technology in constructive ways, often redeeming these enterprises from the commercial uses for which they were being used.

In today’s climate, at least someone in each church or denominational organization needs to be an advocate for the use of the Internet, social media, and digital communication. This advocate needs to both practice the use of these 21st century tools and challenge peers to think how these tools can make their work more effective.

Certainly tools can be misused. A hammer can drive a nail to build a house or crush a skull, but I don’t see us outlawing hammers! If there is a problem with a tool, it is most often in the way that it is used and that is up to the user. Some tools have created new problems for us, but the same tools can well provide the answers to those problems.

Monday, October 05, 2009

The Importance of Dialogue

Have you ever noticed that if you talk to the same people all the time, you rarely hear a new idea? Whether these folks are family, coworkers, church members, or fans of your athletic team, we tend to hang with those who think, act, and feel like we do. This is comfortable, but it does not promote a climate for change and growth.

In a previous blog, I suggested several factors that have impacted all organizations, including churches, in the last couple of decades—fragmentation, customization, and decentralization. In this blog, I suggest one way to deal effectively with those influences—dialogue.

How does dialogue differ from discussion or debate? David Bohm suggests an answer. Discussion comes from the same root word as percussion, so the sense communicated is “beating against something.” Dialogue, on the other hand, comes from the root word for “flowing together.” Both can promote learning but they begin from different perspectives. Discussion assumes that by pushing something hard enough, I can persuade you to my point of view. Dialogue suggests that we can walk alongside each other and come to a “meeting of the minds.”

Churches and denominational bodies will gain new perspectives on the issues impacting them today only when they stop talking among themselves and debating with other groups but enter into true dialogue with others including those different from themselves. Think about the possibilities.

We can promote dialogue among generations. Generational theory is not as popular as it once was, but we can identify differing expectations on the part of silent, boomer, Gen X and millennial people due to their differing life experiences. These experiences both challenge and inform us. This is not a matter of trying to satisfy everyone but of taking their stories seriously and learning from them.

We need to talk with people of various ethnic backgrounds. Since we are becoming a nation where there is no racial plurality, we need to take into account the wisdom that comes from other cultures. There is much that we can learn if we engage in dialogue rather than confrontation.

I am becoming more aware each day of how much we can learn from those of other faith communities, both Christian and non-Christian. The Christian tradition offers a rich palette of colors upon which we can draw. Non-denominational churches are discovering and implementing new approaches that can inform the mainline churches. Mainliners bring great experience and skill to the table. We must also recognize that other world religions are having an enormous impact not only politically and economically but culturally as well.

Finally, churches need to be in dialogue with the marketplace. For many years, church leaders have read management books and picked up pointers from the secular world, but now it is time to identify common goals and find ways that we can work together to impact society. Enlightened businesses and corporations have a stake in developing healthy employees and building a coherent world.

I offer one word of warning as we enter into such dialogues. We are not blank slates. As church people, we have certain values and beliefs that are engrained. We need to decide which of these are givens and which are negotiable. We cannot have a healthy dialogue with another unless we know who we are and what we bring to the table. Only then can we identify and embrace the new insights that will help us deal effectively with the world in which we find ourselves.

Friday, October 02, 2009

New Times Call for New Thinking

In The Age of the Unthinkable, Joshua Cooper Ramo writes “My argument so far has been that . . . many of our best minds, blinded by optimism and confusion, are using out-of-date and unrealistic models of the world. This is why our uneasiness about resting our future in their hands is inevitable.” Although he is talking about foreign policy experts, I think we can apply this to other areas of human endeavor as well, including churches and religious institutions. New times call for new thinking.

Whether we acknowledge it or not, everything really has changed in the 21st century. The changes have been coming for decades, but we are feeling their full influence and power now. Let me suggest several that have especially impacted churches.

First, fragmentation. While there at least appeared to be unity in 20th century denominational structures and they certainly operated efficiently, most denominations today are divided over theological, moral, and practical concerns. Whether it is the way that gays are treated or the nature of the Bible, schism is the order of the day. Feelings are strong and tempers are short. This fragmentation will not be solved by recourse to the old way of doing things.

Second, customization. “Just in time” supply lines, “Have your way” fast food, and an “” retail world have led us to expect what we want when we want it. In the church world, the denominational publishing house or mission board are no longer the preferred provider of goods and services. Most churches browse the marketplace to find what best fits their need or they do it themselves. In reality, this is a very positive move for it places responsibility squarely on the local congregation on mission in its unique context.

Third, decentralization. Martin Marty’s comment of several years ago about the “Baptisification of America” has certainly come to pass. Even churches with strong connectional systems want to practice local church autonomy when a congregation disagrees with the decisions of their national leadership. Congregational government is looking better all the time as churches chose their own direction.

This is a time calling for new models and ways of thinking. The old models were creative when they were introduced and produced admirable results, but their time has passed. The challenge for us is to find new models and practice them. In subsequent postings, I will suggest some ways to do this.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Facebook Friends

“You love it or you hate it!” Well, maybe that is too strong a statement, but when it comes to digital media—especially social networking media--people tend to have strong feelings. Facebook is a good example.

A friend recently commented on the fact that Facebook was a time wasting activity. People were always inviting him to play games, accept gifts, and sending him messages. It was more than he wanted. On the other hand, another person recently noted how she used Facebook to keep family and friends up-to-date on her husband’s recent surgery. To paraphrase her comment, “I just sat at the computer this morning with gratitude for our God who transcends time and space and for Facebook which has allowed almost instant access to so many friends.”

The difference in attitudes, of course, is in how you chose to use the application. Games can be fun or addictive. You can spend so much time with Facebook friends that you neglect family and folks right in your home or community. This is a matter of choice and may require some discipline. I write this to remind myself that I need to provide a proper balance in my own life!

Social networking applications are a matter of choice. I love Facebook and use it to keep in touch with family and friends as well as for professional networking. I am not a fan of Twitter. I tried it and was getting more information than I could process as well as invitations from some folks who wanted to “follow me,” and I was not particularly interested in that happening!

If you have not tried out Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and other social networking sites, give them a try. Once you have evaluated their value (or lack of value) to you, you can remain connected or disconnect. Aren’t you glad that the “delete” button is on your computer?

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Third Floor Seminarians

On two or three weekends a month in the fall and spring, the third floor of the middle education building at First Baptist Church, Murfreesboro, Tennessee, becomes a theological seminary. Like all good seminaries, there are lectures, discussions, papers, and community (including meals). In all honesty, I am not sure that the other components would be very effective without the last one. These students spend at much as 12 hours together on Friday night and all day Saturday, so they come to now each other as friends, colleagues, and follow pilgrims. When a team from the Association of Theological Schools made a site visit last May, they were particularly impressed by the sense of community that had developed among these students.

Central Baptist Theological Seminary in Shawnee, Kansas, has offered classes in Murfreesboro as part of its “teaching church seminary” emphasis since September 2005. This arrangement is the result of a commitment among three parties—the seminary, First Baptist, and Tennessee Cooperative Baptist Fellowship. Classes are taught by professors from the main campus and local adjuncts. The adjuncts are professors, pastors, and PhD candidates from the area with the necessary academic credentials to teach in a particular area.

Students are men and women, African-American and Euro-American, and are from three denominations this semester. They are pastors, church staff members, or lay leaders in their churches. Many are biprofessional with secular employment. All have families and homes that require their attention.

They bring two things to their seminary studies: a common sense of calling and a desire to be equipped as effective ministers. They are blessed to have found the support of spouses, families, and churches in order to pursue their ministry preparation in a non-traditional way. These students are fortunate that they do not have to leave their jobs and relocate their families to continue their education, but they do make sacrifices to follow their calling and desire.

This is not your grandparents’ seminary! This is something new. The third floor seminarians are at the forefront of the reinvention of theological education. God bless them!

Friday, September 18, 2009

A Dose of Reality

I love my GPS unit, but I have discovered that I need to update it on a regular basis due to new construction and changes in the names of streets. I have learned that I can’t assume that what it says (it does speak) is always accurate. This reminds me of author Alan Roxburgh’s comment that our maps define our reality and his warning that maps are only representations of reality, they are not the real thing. They can help us but they can also mislead us.

In The Age of the Unthinkable, Joshua Cooper Ramo observes that theorists come up with beautiful ideas, but when they have to deal with reality, they often shelve those ideas. As he notes, “When they [policy makers] finally do get their hands on real power, many foreign-affairs academics or economic masters are quick to leave their beautiful scholarly ideas behind.” Their ideas are wonderfully constructed, but they do not always work in the real world.

My point in all this is to express appreciation for those who temper their theoretical concepts with an appreciation of real life situations. The real world contains too many variables that resist control. Ramo explains that “systematic irrationalities” (the environment, the economy, politics, people) always imperil constructs developed apart from reality. Organizational development consultants have to deal with real organizations and real individuals. Academics should consider how their disciplines actually impact the lives of people. Pastors must finally make an application of a biblical text to the lives of their parishioners. Spiritual directors help their clients to get in touch with God, but then those clients live out their spirituality in the real world.

Given that God chose to engage the world through Jesus Christ, we should not be surprised by this. The Christian faith may be of divine origin, but it does not deny the reality of the world. We are called to be "in the world," although not "of the world."

In recent days, I have suggested that CBF needs to take a fresh look at the real world it finds itself in. This is good advice for me as well. I am convicted that what I learn or attempt to teach must finally intersect with real life. Theory without action has little value. What difference are we making? We could all do with a good dose of reality.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Biting the Hand

Given my background with the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, some readers of this blog may have been surprised by the comments I made in yesterday’s posting offering some unsolicited advice on the future of CBF. You may be thinking, “You didn’t say that when your paycheck came from a CBF state organization.” Well, actually, I did. Some of the suggestions I offered were articulated to administrative and planning groups. I also attempted to create an innovative and resilient environment in the organization I led so that we could be more responsive o the needs of individuals and congregations.

I need to be clear on several points. First, organizations are created to serve a purpose. Whether for-profit, not-for-profit, or church-related, each organization was created to accomplish one or more tasks. For the Southern Baptist Convention, the initial task was to unite Baptists behind missions. Of course, the task may change over time. When an organization no longer serves the purpose for which it was created or fails to find a more worthy purpose, it is already dead.

Second, the church was ordained by God, but too often it is an organism that has taken on the structure of an organization. Each local expression of the church is unique whether its polity is congregational, connectional, or hierarchical. When a local congregation becomes more concerned with its organizational structure than its mission, it is in trouble. Congregations are based on relationships not rules.

Third, organizations are not inherently good or bad within themselves. Like every human creation, they are initiated by sinful human beings. Sometimes they succeed in spite of those who lead them. I believe that one of the Niebuhr brothers expressed the belief that there is something of the demonic in every organization! In spite of that, we can do good through our organizations if we accept their—and our—imperfections and use their ability to change.

Fourth, every organization must continually evaluate its actions and their results to make sure that they align with the organization’s mission and core values. When there is misalignment, it is time for change.

By the way, the responses I have received so far on yesterday’s post have been encouraging. Most seem to understand and agree with the need for new approaches. It is good to know that there are those who care enough about the CBF movement to share these comments.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Some Unsolicited Advice

I was having lunch with a friend recently when he asked the question: “Does CBF have a future?” He knew that I had served as coordinator for the Tennessee Cooperative Baptist Fellowship for ten years. He was asking out of his own experience as a partner who works with CBF leadership on the state and national levels. He realized that, like many denominational groups, CBF is experiencing financial tightness. He also observed that the CBF movement seems to have plateaued.

I wish that I were wise enough to answer his question, but I am not. I do think his observations contain some truth. In many ways, CBF is struggling through its adolescence and trying to make good decisions along the way. With some humility, I can offer some observations about how the CBF movement may regain its momentum. From my perspective, CBF will be a one generation phenomena if it does not do two things—relate to more churches and reach more people. CBF leadership may respond, “Well, that is what we are trying to do.” I would suggest that there are different ways to do it.

First, CBF has put a lot of effort into “winning over” churches that have traditionally related to the Southern Baptist Convention. Cecil Sherman readily admits in By My Own Reckoning that this was his strategy when he became the first coordinator. CBF has continued this strategy and has usually spent a lot of energy in converting “big steeple” churches to the movement. This field has been picked clean. It is time to look elsewhere.

One new field to cultivate is the one composed of young church starts that don’t want to be identified with one of the established denominations. Most of these call themselves community churches or have a one word name like “Journey” or “Ekklesia.” They don’t care about being part of a denomination that they are expected to support just because it is there or a judicatory that wants to control them. Instead, they are looking for relationships and partners. They want to relate to creative, like-minded believers and work with others on mission activities. CBF can offer what they desire without strings attached.

Another possibility is to start new churches. Yes, I know that every CBF entity says this is a priority, but the reality is that this is not happening. Part of the problem is that established churches are worried about competition. Another is that church planting is not easy. CBF needs to continue to develop and support a network of church planters. CBF entities also need to plan and start churches where CBF is not strong—the northeast, the west, the Midwest, and in states like Mississippi and Louisiana.

Second, CBF needs to reach out to a new, younger constituency. The faithful folks who founded the movement (like me) won’t be around forever. It is time to call out a new generation of leaders. Some networks of young Baptists have been created, but they must be empowered and supported.

There must be a concerted effort to reach unchurched and dechurched young adults. In areas where the CBF movement is strong, churches near concentrations of young adults—college campuses and reinvigorated inner cities, for example—must be encouraged in their outreach through grants, training, and networking. Some of those new church starts should be located next to some of the major university campuses of our nation, especially those with concentrations of international students. This may be the most effective use of the CBF mission dollar and a way to call out indigenous Christian workers who will go back to their own countries and share the Gospel. There are already some examples of this type of ministry supported by CBF that could be duplicated around the country. National staff could also be decentralized and strategically located around the country in urban centers where young adults work and live.

A significant part of the young adult population is Hispanic, Asian, and African. This reflects the nature of America in the 21st century. If CBF is to grow, the movement must take cross-cultural ministry seriously and engage this growing cohort of young leaders. We need to value, encourage, and empower them.

Placement services offered by CBF should be less interested in confirming the “moderate credentials” of candidates for church positions and more concerned about developing a profile to identify creative, entrepreneurial leaders who are ready to bring new life to the churches. Being a “born and bred” Baptist would not be a requirement! This would open the door for people who want to serve progressive congregations but have never had the chance. Some of these candidates should be cultivated as the creators of church plants and missional faith communities. Churches can then decide if they want to call these gifted people or not. Calling of staff is still a local church decision, after all.

None of these suggestions are meant to criticize the commitment and dedication of CBF leadership in national, state, or regional positions of leadership. These are good people who work hard at what they do. The problem is that the times call for radical, not incremental, changes. If we continue to do the same thing, we will get the same result. We don’t really have time for that approach.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

I'd Rather Do It Myself

“Quite honestly, I don’t really trust anyone else to take care of this.” I have heard that comment in some form from pastoral leaders for years. I must admit that I can identify with it to some degree. I tend to be a perfectionist and that is not a good thing! Over the years, I have had to learn how to let go and give others a chance to succeed or fail. Sometimes it means cleaning up a mess, but I have found that it is worth the risk in the long run. The end result is often the birth of a competent, skilled leader.

Church and denominational leaders say that they want more people to step up as volunteers and “shoulder part of the load.” We often say that we want young people to be more involved and to “do their part.” I have found, however, that our lack of trust and dearth of equipping skills often limit untried church members to roles with minimal responsibility and limited opportunities for initiative and creativity.

Craig Groeschel, the founding and senior pastor of, commented recently that most pastors spend more time “recruiting volunteers than empowering leaders.” Basically the difference is looking for a helper and seeking out a colleague. A volunteer may perform a worthy, time-consuming task, but a leader takes responsibility.

The New Testament challenges us to exercise an equipping ministry. This means that the work of the church is not that of ministers alone but is to be shared with all members of the body based on their giftedness.

Only rarely are these skills taught in seminary. Those who come to the ministry from business, education, or administrative backgrounds may have some advantage in developing leaders, although these skills may have to be adapted to the church setting. Groups such as Pinnacle Leadership Associates provide workshops, retreats, and coaching to help ministers develop these skills. For example, the Vision Infuzion workshop helps congregations learn how to do lay ministry development. Our Disciple Development Coaching © training events and Peoplemap Communication System seminars assist ministers to develop the people skills needed for staff and congregational leadership. Other organizations provide similar training.

I encourage all clergy leaders to do a self-assessment. Do you really want to do it all yourself or are you ready to bring others alongside? One road leads to burnout and frustration but the other leads to personal liberation and ministry growth.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Made to Stick

“A sticky idea is understood, it’s remembered, and it changes something.” This is the basic idea behind Made to a Stick by Chip and Dan Heath. JFK’s “man on the moon in this decade” was such an idea. It was short, succinct, visual, and memorable. The question that the book attempts to answer is, “How do you get people to understand, remember, and act on your ideas?”

According to the Heath brothers, sticky ideas have six traits in common. They term this the “SUCCESs model.” The components are simple, unexpected, concrete, credible, emotional, and stories.

Simple idea messages state the core of the message clearly. One example they provide is the message that “Southwest will be THE low-fare airline.” For a Southwest employee, ff something does not contribute to that end, it is off-message. They point out that proverbs are good examples of lasting ways to communicate simple and profound ideas.

Use the unexpected to grab hold attention. Surprise people but then hold them by generating interest and curiosity. You do this by citing violations of expected behavior and creating “curiosity gaps.”

Concrete idea messages use sensory language. They provide mental pictures and “hooks” that will hold people. After all, our minds are wired to remember concrete data.

Ideas can get credibility from outside (authorities and anti-authorities) or inside (using human scale statistics or vivid details). There must be an inherent credibility in the idea for it to “stick.“

Emotion plays an essential part in making an idea stick. People care about people, not numbers. They remember and act on what they feel. When I worked for a judicatory, we often said that contributors supported people not programs.

Stories carry wisdom. They drive action through simulation (what to do) and inspiration (the motivation to do it). The authors provide some good guidelines for spotting stories that will make ideas stick.

The brothers picked up the concept of “stickiness” from Malcolm Gladwell’s book The Tipping Point. The middle section of that book was titled “The Stickiness Factor.” Their goal was to identify the traits that make ideas sticky.

Chip and Dan Heath are no threat to Malcolm Gladwell. Their model is helpful, and they provide good illustrations, but the book spends too much time developing the model. Go to and you can find the basic content of their communication model. I think they have identified something important, but they spent too much time interpreting it.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Unchurched or Dechurched?

“I have just given up on the church. There is no place for me there.” This was the comment made by a participant at a meeting I attended several months ago. The focus of the meeting was on reaching the “unchurched,” but the discussion moved quickly to testimonies by those who considered themselves “dechurched.”

What’s the difference? Unchurched people declare that they have never had a meaningful relationship with the church. Sure, they may have been to weddings and funerals and an occasional Christmas or Easter service, but they never really have identified with a particular congregation. Dechurched people, on the other hand, were once active in a congregation or denomination. They may have grown up in the church or made a profession of faith at some point in their pilgrimage, but they no longer consider themselves church people. In fact, some may no longer consider themselves Christians.

What causes a person to become dechurched? There are any number of reasons, and they are highly individual.

Some leave the church because their expectations were not met. They did not find the challenge or insight that they were seeking to deal with daily life or problem situations.

Others have left because of a power struggle in a particular congregation. A pastor may have exceeded his or her authority or been forced to leave the church. Maybe there was a disagreement over use of resources—personnel, facilities, or finances. During power struggles, individuals often show their worst side. Power struggles anywhere are not pretty, but they are especially ugly in the body of Christ because we expect more of the people involved. This leads to disappointment and alienation.

Abuse may the reason someone is no longer related to the church. The individual, someone in their family, or a friend were abused by another church member or clergy leader. To add insult to injury, perhaps the incident was handled improperly. This happens more than we would like to admit.

Perhaps the person was “burned out” by the church. They were gifted and wanted to help, but they couldn’t say “No” and found themselves overcommitted. On the other hand, the individual might have wanted to use his or her gifts in the congregation, but the opportunity was denied and they got tired of beating on that door.

I am sure that you can add other reasons that people become disenchanted with the church. The questions I would ask of a dechurched people are these. First, do you still long to be part of a Christian community? Second, do you have something to offer and the desire to do that grows stronger every day? Third, are you willing to acknowledge not only the fallibility of others but your own tendency to fall short of the goal? Fourth, can you practice grace even if you have no received it from others?

The church is made of up sinners, but that is all that God has to work with in this world. As someone told me years ago, if you find the perfect church, don’t join because it will no longer be perfect.

Monday, September 07, 2009

Leading Through Conflict

Fight or flight? These are the options that are generally cited when one deals with a conflict situation. I have found myself practicing both responses at one time or another. These approaches have longlasting negative consequences for both the minister and the congregation. How about a third choice? Can a leader find ways to deal with conflict in a constructive way? How about "facing it"?

One of the skills that we need to learn is leading THROUGH conflict so that we can come out on the other side with positive results. This requires a high level of maturity and discernment.

Susan Nienaber, a senior consultant at The Alban Institute, studied 12 congrations that had successfully recovered from serious conflicts and reported her findings in the article Susan Nienaber: Leading through conflict Faith & Leadership

I think you will find it interesting and a beginning point for developing skills to lead through a conflict.

Friday, September 04, 2009

Developing Healthy Partnerships

In an age of limited budgets and downsizing, partnerships between ministry organizations are looking more attractive. These ministry organizations may be individual congregations, judicatories, institutions, not-for-profit organizations, and consulting groups. In an effort to be better stewards of their limited resources, Christians are looking for new ways to work together. Imagine that!

What should a ministry organization look for as it seeks to develop a partnership? What are some warning flags? Let me suggest a few. You may have some of your own.

First, shared values. The two organizations should share some basic values. These will be determined only through clear communication and dialogue. Examples of shared values could be a similar view of the person and work of Christ (Christology), practice of gender equality, integrity, financial accountability, and concern for human need. The values upon which the partnership is based should not be negotiable once agreed upon and should be clearly stated. Some would say that for two organizations to work together, they must have an identical theology. I am not sure that this is true. I can work with someone who has a different understanding of the practice of baptism or church polity if we both believe in the centrality of Jesus Christ.

Second, a shared vision. Before two organizations “marry” or start “going steady,” they need to determine if they are each moving toward the same goal. Are they both aiming for the same outcome of this partnership? If either enters into the partnership with a hidden agenda, the relationship is bound to fail.

Third, a shared commitment. Is this a long term or a short term arrangement? If we are in this for the long haul, how will we reconcile differences? How far can we bend without breaking? If the relationship is not based on equality and mutuality, who has the final word and why?

Fourth, shared health. Very rarely will the merger of a sick organization and a healthy organization result in a healthy relationship. Too often a weaker organization sees a partnership with a stronger organization as its salvation, but the weaker may just drag the stronger down. If an organization is not making it on its own, this is a good sign of dysfunction that can spread and destroy both organizations.

Good partnerships—like good marriages—require communication, negotiation, and commitment. Good partners understand and respect their differences and rejoice in their similarities. Desperation can cause a partner to enter into an unhealthy relationship. Just because someone asks you to dance, you don’t have to accept. Stop and consider the consequences first.