Monday, January 26, 2009

Outliers: Success is What You Make of It

Do you remember Carl Sagan’s Cosmos and Kenneth Clark’s Civilisation [sic]? These were just two of a number of PBS series in the 1970s and 1980s that attempted to address major topics by gathering various pieces of information (sometimes seemingly unrelated) and identifying or synthesizing themes that seemed to make sense of all that data. In broad, sweeping strokes these intelligent men attempted to provide coherence and sense to an incoherent, senseless world.

I was reminded of these series when I read Malcolm Gladwell’s latest book, Outliers: The Story of Success. You will remember Gladwell as the author of two previous books—The Tipping Point (which I really liked) and Blink (which I never really understood). Gladwell is a synthesizer like Sagan and Clark. His works are cross-disciplinary discourses that (as in the present volume) draw on history, sociology, psychology, linguistics and literature. In this book, Gladwell attacks the idea of the “self-made man” (or woman). The basic premise of Outliers is that geniuses are made not born. They are created by their families, schools and society.

Take Bill Gates as an example (as Gladwell does). Gates happened to come along when several currents combined to give a boost to his natural abilities. He was a student at a well-to-do school in 1968 that provided students access not just to a computer but a terminal connected to a mainframe computer. As a teenager, he was given the opportunity to program for some startup software companies and often would sneak out of his parents’ home to work all night programming at the University of Washington which was within walking distance. His school even let him work programming full-time on a “study project” for the Bonneville Power Station in his senior year.

The author says that ten thousand hours of practice in a certain area is “the magic number of greatness” in that discipline. He applies this to Mozart, the Beatles, and . . . Bill Gates. By the time Gates graduated from high school, he had more than ten thousand hours writing code. Who else had that kind of opportunity (and took advantage of it)?

Gladwell also points out the importance of timing. Born in 1955, Gates was too young to be pulled into a career track at stodgy IBM and old enough to be able to take advantage of the personal computer revolution in the mid-70s. Steve Jobs was also born in 1955.

Gladwell talks about hockey players, Asian rice farmers, Jewish New York corporate lawyers, geniuses, Appalachian “rednecks” as well as his mother’s ancestors who benefited from the peculiar status of “coloreds” in Jamaica. His reach is sweeping and specific. His writing is interesting and instructive.

Although he states that “successful people don’t rise from nothing” and “successful people are products of history and community, opportunity and legacy,” Gladwell shows that success is based on more than just intelligence and being in the right place at the right time. A successful individual is one who takes advantage of his or her opportunities. Circumstances empower but they often must be overcome as well. He notes, “Outliers are those who have been given opportunities—and who have had the strength and presence of mind to seize them.” So perhaps successful people aren’t self-made, but they use the materials given to them very effectively.

This book is worth reading. You may find points of disagreement, but you will come away with a new perspective on success and how we can encourage it. It is available at

Saturday, January 24, 2009

A Ministry of Coaching

Very often we use words interchangeably that have very distinctive meanings. As I have started doing clergy coaching with Pinnacle Leadership Associates, I have found that friends tend to confuse three terms—counseling, mentoring, and coaching.

Counseling is a healing or therapeutic relationship designed to help a person deal with his or her past. Although there are many variations of counseling—marital, grief, pastoral, substance abuse, and so on—the common aspect is to process feelings and experiences in such a way that the client can deal with the “baggage” of the past.

In a mentoring relationship, a more experienced person helps a less experienced person to develop a specified capacity. This is an educational or development process.

In a coaching relationship, the coach helps persons to learn or achieve something for themselves. This is an encouraging, future-oriented relationship. Although there are many types of coaching, the growing edge is in life coaching. This is a process that aims to helping clients determine and achieve personal goals. The key role of the coach is to hold the client accountable. Life coaching is relationship-based, client-centered, and goal-oriented. Life coaches use multiple methods that will help clients with the process of setting and reaching goals.

When I refer to clergy coaching, I am talking about a type of life coaching—working with ministers to develop and achieve specific goals in their lives. These may be personal or professional. Working with a coach is a great way to get “unstuck” if you find yourself on a plateau or at a seeming dead end.

I am excited about the potential of this type of ministry. In these difficult times, many of us are struggling. Coaching provides an opportunity to clarify our focus, discover our possibilities, and then to move forward.
For more information on clergy coaching, to go the Pinnacle Leadership Associates web site.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

The Danger of Labeling

In conversation with a friend recently, we talked about our natural tendency to classify people or put them into “boxes.” We take a look at a pastor and try to find indicators of where he (or she) fits theologically—books read, schools attended (and when), conferences attended, known associates, etc. We readily admitted that this often cuts off opportunities to get to know the person as an individual. I compare it to an entomologist who has become so interested in properly classifying an insect that he neglects to appreciate the intrinsic beauty of the creature.

In his book entitled Never Call Them Jerks, Arthur Paul Boers offers a listing of the dangers of “labeling” others. To mention just a few of these:

Labeling can be a self-fulfilling prophecy. For example, when one is identified as a “trouble-maker,” the person often proceeds to create problems.

Labeling is judgmental. This is a paternalistic rather than an objective action. It dehumanizes a person.

Labeling makes it easier to write off others’ concerns. It obstructs the opportunity to see another’s perspective and to learn from it.

Labeling hurts healthy process. It cuts off healthy dialogue.

Labeling can be a disguise for projection. We see in others what we may try to overlook in ourselves. Christ warned against this when he talked about “criticizing the speck in our brother’s eye and ignoring the log in our own” (Matthew 7:4-5, paraphrase).

In our efforts to determine who is “moderate” and who is “conservative” those of us who are Fellowship Baptists may fail to extend fellowship to our brothers and sisters in Christ. Do we remember how some of us were treated in the past? Of course we do, but we don’t have to adopt the same behavior. Let’s not be too quick to close the doors to new friends, new relationships, and new opportunities.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Overcoming Our Fears

In 1970, I became the Baptist campus minister
(Baptist Student Union director) at a state university
in middle Tennessee near Nashville. The area was still largely rural. The ministry was supported not only by the state Baptist convention but by the local association of about 40 churches.

I found out in my initial interview with local church leaders that they were a bit ambivalent about doing ministry on the college campus. Of course, this was just after the decade when college campuses (usually in the north and west) were centers of protest and liberal lifestyles. Little of this had impacted Tennessee, of course, but our local Baptist constituents tended to fear higher education, the “liberals” on campus, and students in general. I can even remember one member of a small church saying, “Aren’t you concerned about the influence that the students will have on your children?”

These were good people, but they were afraid. They wanted to do the Baptist thing and cooperate with the state convention on a ministry that was, in reality, a state mission initiative, but they feared change, education, and “the other”—anything different from themselves. I can still remember the Sunday when I took an African student to church and the stares we received. Afterward one church member said, “Oh, I knew it was OK. I figured he was just an international student since he was with you.” I wonder what would have happened if I had brought an African-American to church?

When I left six years later, most of the churches in the local Baptist association had come to the point that they considered this “their” ministry. What caused the change? First, I spent time in the churches. I was able to preach in most of the churches—from the largest to the smallest. This meant that my wife had the responsibility for getting our children to church on Sundays, but she graciously made that sacrifice. Second, I did the tedious work in the association that showed that one was really a team player—leading Vacation Bible School clinics, serving on committees, attending the monthly association executive board meeting on Saturday mornings. Third, we got the students into the churches. No, they did not join local churches in droves. This was, after all, the 1970s not the 1950s. Student missionaries gave testimonies to mission groups, the student choir sang in worship services, and students even helped with association mission projects.

Over time, the local folks came to trust me, but even more they found out that the students were not as bad as they thought they were! Some of them were even members of their churches who had been forgotten once they left the youth group. Others were growing, searching young adults who sincerely were seeking ways to serve God. Many of those students are leaders in local churches today.

The lesson I learned from this was the importance of getting people to interact with each other. Our natural tendency is to draw a circle that defines who is “in” and who is “out.” Once you sit down across the table from someone and engage in some level of dialogue, it becomes more difficult to see that person as alien or “other.” A little conversation can go a long way in overcoming misconceptions. Want to overcome fear? Talk to the one that you fear.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

A Family Reunion

We gathered on the third floor of the education building at First Baptist Church, Murfreesboro, last night. Although it felt like a family reunion, this was actually the beginning of spring classes offered in Murfreesboro by Central Baptist Theological Seminary. The center opened in fall 2005 to provide graduate theological education for students who had jobs, families, and church responsibilities and were not able to relocate to another city to prepare for Christian ministry. A number of laypersons have audited courses over the years as well.

The student body is African-American and Euro-American, women and men, varied in ages, and representing at least four denominations. Teachers are seminary professors from the campus in Shawnee, Kansas, or adjuncts from the Nashville area. The instructor this weekend is Eileen Campbell-Reed, who completed her Ph.D. at Vanderbilt last year.

Classes are offered Friday night and all day on Saturday for four weekends a semester. Every Friday that classes meet the little community of scholars joins together for a chapel service. This is led by students and sometimes guests. The speaker last night was Larry Taylor, retired pastor who now lives in Murfreesboro. He had a very appropriate message about "Launching Out into the Depths." He acknowledged that the existence of the seminary outpost in Murfreesboro was something of a risk for both the seminary and the students.

This is definitely not your Mom and Dad’s seminary. This is a different model that takes theological education to the people and encourages students to take advantage of their present contexts in preparation for ministry. This “teaching church seminary” approach is still something of an experiment, but this is one way to revision theological education for the 21st century church. If seminaries are to be effective partners for churches in the coming days, such experiments are essential.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Isn't It Good to be a Baptist?

With the coming of 2009, we are celebrating the 400th anniversary of Baptists. No, we didn’t start at the Jordan River with John, Jesus’ cousin (he was a baptizer not a Baptist). Most Baptist historians today trace the origin of Baptists to a church organized by John Smyth in Amsterdam in 1609.

As Baptists take this opportunity to reflect on their past and contemplate their future, some are threatened by the challenges of the 21st century. They seem to forget that the words “challenge” and “Baptist” have been synonymous for most of those four centuries.

Baptists who are afraid of what the present and future hold tend to resort to two phrases: “Baptists have always done it this way” or “Baptists have never done it this way.”

“Baptists have always done it this way” should be interpreted to mean “in my experience, this is the way that Baptists have done things.” For Baptists in the South, what became popular in churches in the mid-twentieth century defines “the way things have always been.” This includes the Cooperative Program, age-graded Sunday School, unified church budgets, and annual mission offerings like Lottie Moon and Annie Armstrong. This should not surprise us. Most of us think that what happened during the period of our lives between 11 and 15 years of age as “the way things are.” It all depends on your perspective.

My pastor, Mike Smith, has pointed out that when someone says, “Baptists have never done something,” they are exhibiting great ignorance about Baptist history. You can probably find some Baptist somewhere in time who has done just about anything! For one example, our forebear John Smyth called himself a Baptist didn’t baptize by immersion. For another example, John Smyth and Thomas Helwys were very open to women serving as leaders in their churches. Baptists have actually been a rather creative people.

My point in all this is that if Baptists are to survive and prosper in the 21st century, we will have to do some things that we have never done before. We will find that very hard to do because such actions require not only humility and courage but a radical commitment to the Scriptures. But as someone once said, “If it were easy, anybody could do it.” The great Baptists have never taken the easy road.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Identifying with Humankind

George MacLeod, twentieth century minister of the Church of Scotland, founded the Iona Community and was involved in ecumenism and social justice issues. Perhaps the best known MacLeod quote is the following:

"I simply argue that the cross should be raised at the centre of the marketplace as well as on the steeple of the church. I am recovering the claim that Jesus was not crucified in a cathedral between two candles, but on a cross between two thieves; on the town's garbage heap; at a crossroad, so cosmopolitan they had to write His title in Hebrew and Latin and Greek ... at the kind of a place where cynics talk smut, and thieves curse, and soldiers gamble. Because that is where He died. And that is what He died for. And that is what He died about. That is where churchmen ought to be and what churchmen ought to be about."

Certainly MacLeod’s quote is as appropriate today as when it was written. This statement hearkens back to the ultimate act of contextualization—the crucifixion of Christ. It was a brutal, bloody public event. Crucifixion had happened before Christ was put on the cross and it would happen again. What makes the event unique is that in going to the cross, Christ completely identified with his humanity and those among whom he lived. The implications have been profound.

Contextualization of one’s ministry requires self-giving and identification. Christ is the ultimate example. The Apostle Paul refers to the act in this way in Philippians 2:5-8:

"Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death—even death on a cross!"

MacLeod was a soldier, a scholar, a minister, and a mystic. He had seen the cruel face of war but he had also seen the loving face of God. Perhaps it takes such a man to see the link between the two and proclaim it as a model for ministry.

Monday, January 12, 2009


Most Baptists of my age grew up in churches that were very program-driven. As a church and denominational worker, I was captive to this model: “Whatever your need, we have a program for you!” I know see how diverse and complex churches are and realize that “one size does not fit all.” Each church can and must make choices about what is appropriate to their unique gifts and needs. We are also seeing churches move beyond programs to processes to accomplish their mission.

I still struggle with the program/process dichotomy. Over the weekend, I met with a team that is considering the most effective way to do Christian formation in our context. I must admit that I tend to fall back into the program mentality when I get in such groups—What resources are available? What classes can we offer? What are our desired outcomes and what are the steps to getting there?

An idea came out of that discussion. Instead of offering new things, what if we attempted to assess the spiritual implications of what we are already doing? For example, how does my participation in a community mission project help me to grow spiritually? I suggest that we think in terms of some debriefing or discernment questions that a person might use after involvement in some activity. Here are some that came to me. You may have others.

1. Did participation in this activity cause me to think about a particular biblical narrative or theme? Did it bring to mind a biblical character or specific scripture passage? If so, what was it?

2. Did participating in this activity add to my appreciation of God as Creator or of God’s Creation?

3. What did this activity model of Christ’s earthly ministry—loving, caring, serving, sacrificing?

4. Did I perceive the Spirit speaking to me in this activity?

5. As a result of reflecting on this activity, will I do anything differently in the future?

6. As a result of this activity, will I treat people differently?

Rather than imposing another layer of activity on what we are already doing, perhaps we can gain deeper spiritual insight from those actions in which we are already involved. In fact, if we cannot discern spiritual growth from those activities we are presently pursuing, perhaps those activities should be discontinued!

Thursday, January 08, 2009

The Making of Books

I am not sure what the author of Ecclesiastes meant when he wrote, "Of making many books there is no end" (Ecc. 12:12). In context, it appears to be a negative comment. At any rate, I understand that the statement is true, especially today. Hundreds of books are published daily. Some are outstanding, some are soon (and best) forgotten, and some deserve a wider readership.

I like to read. Most of the time, there are two or three books that I am reading concurrently. I rarely go anywhere without a book! As you will note, I make comments about books in this blog from time to time. I will try to identify which category into which I believe each falls--outstanding, forgettable, or deserving. If you are interested in purchasing any of these books, please check out You will get a good book, and I will benefit from your purchase!

Wednesday, January 07, 2009

Avoiding Tragedy

In his new book Outliers: The Story of Success, Malcolm Gladwell discusses the tragic accidents that marred the record of Korean Air in the 1980s and 1990s. He writes, “The kinds of errors that cause plane crashes are invariably errors of teamwork and communication.” Both of these are skills required if a ministry entrepreneur in the 21st century is to avoid crashing and burning!

Until a few years ago, a good communicator was one who could present his or her message effectively in writing and/or verbally. In some instances, a person who could communicate effectively though the visual arts might be considered a good communicator, but more often when we talked about communication, we emphasized the ability of a person to put together clear, cogent sentences that would stir, convict, educate, or persuade one’s audience.

In the 21st century, a good communicator must not only be able to use verbal, written, and visuals skills to communicate, but he or she must also be able to make good use of digital communications. Having good writing skills helps in being a good digital communicator, but it is not mandatory! Web pages, blogs, e-mail, and social networking utilities are just a few of the technologies available to ministry entrepreneurs. These tools offer an immediacy and intimacy that were lacking in older forms of communication.

You might question the importance of a ministry entrepreneur having team-building skills. Aren’t entrepreneurs single-minded, driven individuals who have a vision and then work to fulfill it without others being involved? Steve Jobs, the founder of Apple, is cited as an example of an entrepreneur who was a great visionary but not a team player. At one point, he was replaced as CEO of Apple because he was not considered an effective leader for the corporation. Of course, he was later invited back to save the company. In the process, Jobs also learned that he needed others to accomplish his vision.

I would argue that ministry entrepreneurs need team-building skills for two reasons—theological and practical. First, our theology is based not only the call of the individual to serve God but the role of community in calling out and supporting individuals as they serve God. We need a community in order to do ministry effectively. Second, even though a ministry entrepreneur is usually a gifted individual, his or her gifts are often limited to certain areas. Steve Jobs is a visionary and creative person, but he needs people around him who can make his visions reality. (See Warren Bennis, Organizing Genius, for examples of how great teams are created.) A ministry entrepreneur not only knows his or her gifts but his or her personal limitations as well. Ministry entrepreneurs need a team or community both to accomplish the task and to call for accountability.

Korea Air solved its problems by tweaking the corporate culture so that flight crews learned to communicate more effectively and to work as a team. Effective ministry entrepreneurs can avoid difficulty with the proper teamwork and communications skills.

Thursday, January 01, 2009

What Can Our Culture Teach Us?

Recently, I wrote that an effective ministry entrepreneur needs to acquire specific knowledge, cultivate certain values, and develop competent skills to be effective in ministry. Two of these skills are being able to read or discern the culture in which one finds oneself doing ministry and then to use that culture to influence belief. Perhaps these are just two parts of the skill of contextualization. The purpose of acquiring such skills is not to accommodate the central message of the gospel to the culture but to be able to present the message in such a way that it will be understood and received by hearers steeped in the culture.

There is no doubt that first century apostles used the dominant Greek culture to organize thoughts and teachings about the Messiah and to interpret this message to their hearers. The very choice of the New Testament writers to use Koine Greek rather than Aramaic or Latin in their writings speaks to a desire to communicate in a medium that would be comprehensible to the largest number of readers.

Certainly there is the danger of pursuing fads and the ephemeral in utilizing these skills, but effective discernment can be learned. A skillful practitioner will learn from his or her mistakes and build on successes.

Another part of this skill is using the cultural trappings to influence people to change their thoughts and their actions. I don’t want to belittle the tremendous political sense of our President-Elect, but would he have been as successful if we had not seen portrayals of African-American presidents in the media? Such depictions go as far back as 1972 when James Earl Jones portrayed Douglass Dilman, in The Man, a motion picture based on a novel by Irving Wallace. Dilman, the President Pro Tempore of the Senate, unexpectedly becomes President when the sitting President and Vice-President are killed. Other portrayals of African-Americans as President of the United States include Morgan Freeman in Deep Impact and Dennis Haysbert in 24. Seeing African-Americans in the role of President, even in fictional portrayals, has conditioned the public to accept that this is a possibility.

Perhaps one of the most creative persons to use culture as a way to communicate the gospel is Bishop T. D. Jakes. Not only through his television ministry, but through his writing and film production, Jakes is using the culture to present the Christian message. His novels Woman Thou Art Loosed and Not Easily Broken have not only been best-sellers, but both have been made into films released in general distribution. Jakes uses these cultural expressions to present stories of people whose lives have been changed by their faith.

If this sounds something like Jesus’ use of parables--simple everyday stories that embody deep meaning-- is this a coincidence? I don’t think so. These stories used cultural realities to present spiritual truth. Is there any better example of the skill of contextualization?