Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Being a Lifelong Learner

Good concepts can quickly become clichés. One of those concepts is “lifelong learning.” When I first heard the term it sounded fresh and challenging. Now, when I talk to someone about being a lifelong learner, I realize that it is more commonly articulated than practiced.

So what does it take to be a lifelong learner? Here are some ideas; you may have your own.

First, a lifelong learner reads. This means not just reading in the area of your professional expertise, but reading broadly--delving into other areas that may even be a bit unfamiliar to you. Reading should include the news whether you access it in the newspaper, a newsmagazine, or online. Fiction and nonfiction should also be on the agenda.

Second, a lifelong learner attends seminars or conferences to learn from others. I think we can add webinars and teleconferences to this list now. The real lifelong learner then does something with what he or she has learned by coming up with at least one action plan based on the experience; only then does it really become learning. (I think it is also helpful if a colleague, friend, or fellow church member can attend with you to help to process information and to plan together for implementation.)

Third, a lifelong learner takes formal academic classes. Being in the classroom with other learners has always been a growth experience for me. This may also take place in online classes, but I have not experienced that yet, so I will pass on whether that is as helpful. Some Doctor of Ministry programs are a good investment of a minister’s time, but I suggest that a degree program be selected with care. Too many are more concerned with “jumping through academic hoops” than with practical ministry application.

Fourth, a lifelong learner knows how to ask good questions in order to learn from others. When I asked a friend what he would do if he could receive a sabbatical leave from his church, he said that he would spend part of the time visiting other ministers and their churches and discovering their best practices; in other words, learning from them.

Fifth, a lifelong learner is part of a peer group. It may meet weekly, monthly or even annually, but the opportunity to talk, fellowship, and play with colleagues is a great learning (and support) experience.

Sixth, a lifelong learner travels. Traveling helps us to learn how other people live, work, and worship. You don’t have to go to Europe or Asia to have a cross-cultural experience. Those are available much closer to home.

Seventh, a lifelong learner creates. Everyone has a bit of creativity within them and exercising that creativity—writing, painting, photography, music-- can give a fresh perspective to one’s life.

Finally, a lifelong learner makes good lists and then attempts to practice what he or she preaches!

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Leading in the 21st Century: What's at the Core?

In the recent past the leadership of organizations was built on a mechanistic model. There was a clear organizational chart, decisions flowed from the top down, and responsibilities were codified in job descriptions. The primary responsibility of each succeeding level of supervision was to make sure that those individuals at the level below were doing what he or she was hired to do—nothing more and nothing less. This mechanistic model stifled creativity, meaning, and relationships for everyone except (perhaps) those at the very top.

The new organic model of leadership is built on a core of spirituality and relationships. When the leadership team of the Union Baptist Association in Houston began seeking to create a way to lead churches in transformational change, they realized that spiritual and relational vitality was the driving force for church transformation. They also realized that they needed to model it themselves as a team if they were going to guide churches in transformational change (see Jim Herrington, et al., Leading Congregational Change).

Spiritual and relational vitality are two dimensions of single reality taught by Christ in this way:

One of them, an expert in the law, tested him with this question: "Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?" Jesus replied: "'Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.' This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: 'Love your neighbor as yourself. All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments." (Matthew 22:35-40)

If a congregation or judicatory does not have a commitment to a spiritual walk as well as healthy relationships at its core, it will neither survive nor prosper. Even a secular organization must have both core values that look beyond itself and vital relationships among its people if it is going to be something other than a machine.

Spiritual and relational vitality form the basis for effective leadership in the 21st century. Why? Because people are looking for meaning and they want to be valued for whom they are. If these basic needs are not met, the organization is dead in the water. How are you developing spiritual and relational vitality in your setting?

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Great Bookstores I Have Known

Although I am a great fan of all things digital, I still enjoy browsing a good bookstore. There’s nothing like wandering the aisles, noting an interesting cover or title, and picking up a book and leafing through it. Some people talk about Facebook being addictive, but I can testify that spending time in a bookstore may be even more addictive!

I could even give you a list of great bookstores I have found. Some may no longer exist. I remember discovering a bookstore in Wake Forest, North Carolina, just off the campus of Southeastern Seminary. This former supermarket had tables holding thousands of books. Whenever I was in the area, I would spend a couple of hours just walking through and browsing. One of my favorites was BookStar in Nashville. The owners had taken an old movie theater and converted it into a bookstore, but they had kept the lobby cards, décor, and screen in place. Unfortunately, it is now closed.

I enjoy browsing online bookstores, and I am grateful that more publishers are making it possible to take a look at the table of contents and even an excerpt from an interesting book online. It’s also nice that Amazon.com lets you download a sample chapter to your Kindle of a digital book you are considering purchasing. I love my Kindle and the ability to get a new book in minutes. But . . . I still like the tactile experience of picking up and leafing through a book. I also like being able to mark a book (one that I own, of course) and make notes in the margins.

I was discussing this recently with a friend who is also a bibliophile and wondering about the future of printed books. He pointed out that there is a new generation who are growing up on digital media who will not have the same attachment to the printed page that many of us do. He is probably right, but I hope it doesn’t happen too soon.

And now, I’d better get back to that book I am reading on my Kindle.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Leading in the 21st Century: Back to the Future

For the last several blogs, I have suggested five characteristics or functions of 21st century leadership—pathfinding, aligning, empowering, coaching, and networking. In this blog, I would like to bring the focus specifically to the work of judicatories or denominational structures in the 21st century and suggest a biblical model for this approach.

When we think of the work of the apostle Paul, we tend to focus on him alone. In reality, Paul was surrounded by a team of gifted individuals that was continually changing. We know the names of some of them—Barnabas, Luke, Timothy, John Mark, even Priscilla and Aquila. At various points, different individuals became part of the apostolic team led by Paul. The composition of the group evolved and changed over the years. Very often members came on board, made their contribution to the work of planting and encouraging churches in an area, and then attached themselves to a particular church or churches to continue their work apart from Paul. Some were already mature and gifted persons when they joined the Pauline team, but others were nurtured by the apostle and the group. How did this team practice the functions we have been discussing?

First, they were certainly pathfinders. From the day that Paul and Barnabas left the church at Antioch, they were on new ground for the Gospel. Sometimes it was fertile, sometimes it was stony, and sometimes it just needed to be cultivated. Throughout Paul’s ministry, he took his team into new and potentially hazardous situations to share the Gospel and establish churches, thus taking the Christian church into new territory.

Second, when it comes to alignment, “herding cats” is easy compared to the task of bringing together Jews and Gentiles, slave and free, male and female, rich and poor in order to focus on the spread of the Gospel. The Pauline team often embodied within itself a cross-cultural element that helped find ways to get everyone going in the same direction.

Third, Paul and his associates were all about empowerment. I would like to think that this is one thing that Paul learned from Barnabas. Paul himself was a pretty rough stone before Barnabas took him under his wing. Paul continued to develop new leaders both within the team and in the churches. The Pauline team was not going to stay in one place very long, so it was necessary to call out, train, and empower indigenous leadership.

Fourth, we know that Paul provided coaching to church leaders and others because we have letters that he wrote (or dictated) to local churches dealing with specific situations and needs. Sometimes this guidance was very directive in nature, but he often challenged those in the church to take responsibility for themselves and deal with issues within their fellowship. Coaching also took place as he sent team members to deal with troubled churches and their leaders.

Fifth, Pauline team members were the “seed carriers” or networkers of their day, going from church to church and sharing news of how the Gospel was making progress in various cities. At one point, Paul developed a network of giving churches to provide assistance for the church at Jerusalem when it was in financial need, but the networking function in seen also in the sharing of letters among churches and the constant visits of Paul and his team.

I am not saying that the Pauline team had a checklist of these five functions, but I am saying that they embraced a relational, organic, and fluid approach to ministry leadership described by these functions that is very appropriate for our day. As we leave behind the mechanistic, bureaucratic leadership models of the 20th century, this approach provides a new mental model for doing ministry.

In a recent article in The Christian Century, mission strategist Ray Bakke said, “Almost 90 percent of the barriers hampering urban ministry are found in the church’s own ecclesial and mission structures.” I don’t know the source of this statistic, but his statement does challenge us to find new models for ministry leadership for churches and judicatories in the 21st century. This more organic approach is one of them.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Leading in the 21st Century: Networking

“Networking” has become a common term among individuals—especially entrepreneurs—who are attempting to connect with those who can help them achieve their business plan and those who are potential customers. Networking is also an essential skill for leaders of 21st century organizations.

Peter Senge has explained the importance of internal networkers or community builders in developing learning organizations. He describes such people as “the seed carriers of the new culture, who can move freely about the organization to find those who are predisposed to bring about change, help out in organizational experiments and aid in the diffusion of new learnings.”

If you have a 20th century perspective on leadership, this characteristic of leadership will really get under your skin. If you are part of an organization or judicatory, you may not see the value of encouraging the “gadfly” employee who flits from desk to desk, cubicle to cubicle, or office to office looking over other employees’ shoulders. If you are a church leader, you may be suspicious of the staff member or lay person cruising the hall with a cup of coffee in his or her hand, stopping to talk with whoever walks by, and peeking into Sunday School classrooms. Either of the above descriptions may not be the most effective way to share information within your organization or church, but there must be a mechanism for this to happen. Sharing knowledge is essential to the 21st century organization.

Many people call this the sharing of “best practices”—here’s what works for us. The person who shares a best practice is not guaranteeing that if you adopt this practice in your setting that you will have the same level of success. He or she is simply reporting, “This is how we solved our problem. Maybe it will help you to solve yours.”

In some way, networking needs to be institutionalized within the organization or church. Encourage both planned and unplanned gatherings of persons representing different parts of your organization. Both organizations and churches might do better if everyone had the opportunity to stop by a common coffee or snack area before retreating to their individual cubicles or classrooms. Finding ways to encourage people from different parts of the organization to cross paths—such as a common entry or fellowship area—might be helpful. Meetings of leaders could focus more on sharing from the participants rather than dissemination of information from the upper echelons.

There are good things happening in every community—church, judicatory, or business. We just need to find ways to “scatter the seeds.”

One word of warning: This will only work if you are willing to take some risks. Notice that Senge used the words “change” and “experiment” above. A 21st century leader who adopts this approach must be willing to put up with a little messiness and occasional flat out chaos. When you encourage people to share their creativity, you may be surprised, amazed, and unsettled. That’s one of the risks of 21st century leadership.

Personal Note: The information shared in this blog and the four previous ones on leadership for the 21st century came out of a paper I wrote at Northern Baptist Theological Seminary four years ago. The skills of pathfinding, aligning, and empowering were suggested in an article by Stephen Covey in The Leader of the Future (Jossey-Bass Publishers). As I mentioned above, Peter Senge’s description of the networking function was presented in another article in the same book. For more on coaching, see Robert Logan and Sherilyn Carlton, Coaching 101.

Monday, March 09, 2009

Leading in the 21st Century: Coaching

With March Madness upon us, I am not sure that this is the best time to talk about coaching. At this time of the year, the word evokes pictures of nicely dressed men and women yelling, sweating, and throwing tantrums on the sidelines of college basketball games. At the same time, these coaches show that there is a certain passion involved in the art of coaching. They encourage young men and women to stay the course to achieve a goal and that is what coaching is all about.

Those who lead organizations in the 21st century will have to exercise a coaching function. Coaches are people who walk along beside others and help them to attain their full potential. Like the characteristic of empowering, coaching is a highly relational matter. A coach establishes rapport with the client, helps him or her determine an action plan and agenda, and then holds the individual accountable for his or her actions. This is a dynamic and interactive process; along the way, the plan will have to be revised as the individual faces reality (much as a basketball coach in the last few minutes of a close tournament game makes last minute changes in the game plan in an attempt to get a few more points on the scoreboard).

Although I have never been an athlete, I have had a number of coaches. A couple started out as mentors (individuals who could teach me some things that I needed to know) and turned into coaches (persons who helped me to determine a course, pursue it, and make course corrections as necessary).
In an organization or a church, the skill of coaching goes hand in hand with the skill of empowerment. In sports, the coach doesn’t play the game, the athlete does. If we believe in the equipping ministry of the church (Ephesians 4:11-12), we will see the ministry of coaching believers as essential to the building up of the body of Christ.

Although there will be some in the 21st century church who want to be told what to do, there are many more who want to discover the task that God has called them to and simply want someone to walk alongside them as they attempt to do it.

Leading in the 21st Century: Empowering

I don’t think it was a Dilbert cartoon, but the sentiment is in keeping with that venue. A leader was addressing a group and commented, “It is our goal to find each person’s spark of creativity and to water it.” Unfortunately, that mixed metaphor often describes the task that leaders of churches and other organizations embrace! The word “empowerment” is not in their vocabulary.

One of the key leadership characteristics of the leader of a 21st century organization is empowering. The leader must learn how to truly empower individuals. Each person has unique gifts, skills, and abilities. An effective leader will help the individual discover those attributes and release the individual to use them in the work of the organization. The leader’s role is more than saying, “You can do this,” but to give responsibility, resources, and space for the participants to act.

This is not simply helping persons to discover their gifts so that their names can be penciled into boxes on an organizational chart. It is much more in keeping with what Myron Madden called “the power to bless.” This Old Testament theme is most clearly shown in the experience of Jacob and Esau. One was blessed by the father and one was not. Blessing involves affirmation, encouragement, and empowerment.

One of the greatest dangers of being part of any organization—including the church—is losing one’s self identity in the larger group. Every group of human beings has a tendency to push for conformity and solidarity. When an outlier pops up, he or she is usually brought back into line. An effective 21st century organization balances the concepts of unity and uniformity. The leader wants everyone going in the same direction (alignment) but the leader also respects the unique gifts of each person (empowerment).

Of course, once a person discovers his or her unique calling, the leader may recognize that person does not really fit with the mission of the organization. In such a situation, the leader may have to “push the young bird out of the nest” so that he or she can fulfill their calling. This is not done with malice but with a desire to help the person find where they can best serve.

Empowerment is a highly relational aspect of 21st century leadership, but it is not the only one.

Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Leading in the 21st Century: Aligning

Super Bowl commercials can either be memorable or outrageous (or both). I don’t remember the product or service, but my favorite was one that appeared several years ago. The commercial featured several cowboys on horseback attempting to “herd cats.” I suppose I liked it because it was so familiar—anyone in a leadership role has found that working with a group of independent-minded people is often like herding cats! It is difficult to get all of them going in the same direction.

Another of the tasks that an organization in 21st century must do is to align team members and constituents in such a way that they are all pursuing the same goal. Once you have found the path that you wish to follow, how do you get everyone onto that path and moving forward?

This assumes that everyone is motivated to some degree and actually moving. I believe that there is a law of physics that states that it is easier to change the direction of an object in motion than to put a body at rest into motion. Most people have something that they want to accomplish in life or in your organization, but it may have nothing to do with the goal that the leadership has in mind.

I used to do a non-verbal exercise with groups that went something like this. I would ask the group to stand in a circle and lock arms. Then I would ask each person to pick a place in the room that he or she wanted to go to and to move the group to that point. Of course, this involved a lot of pulling and pushing. The smaller members of the group were pulled in different directions by competing larger members. Usually, the pulling and tugging resulted in the circle being broken and one section of the group pulling away from the others. In debriefing, I often asked, “How would this have been different if you could have talked with each other?” After discussion, someone would comment, “Well, we could have negotiated, set priorities, and taken the group to everyone’s spot eventually.”

I think it was Peter Senge’s writing that introduced me to the idea of alignment. The basic idea is that everyone is going somewhere, but is there some way to get everyone to either put aside or alter their goals so that everyone can move in the same direction, at least for a short while? Very often an individual’s goal can even be seen as a means of attaining the larger organizational goal so that it is a win-win situation.

This type of alignment requires clarity of purpose, listening, and negotiating. It may even require compromise (not a dirty word and the way that our government moved forward before we became so polarized in certain positions). Alignment does not mean that I give up sincerely held values or beliefs, but it does mean being willing to walk in the same direction with colleagues in order to reach the goals of the organization.

This is hard work, but if it were easy, anyone could do it!

Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Leading in the 21st Century: Pathfinding

Last Saturday, I spent most of the afternoon helping my grandson, Noah, prepare for an oral report on Davy Crockett, the Tennessee frontiersman, hunter, politician, and popular hero. We even went to iTunes and downloaded “The Ballad of Davy Crockett” from the 1950’s TV series. Although Crockett’s adventures may not have opened up new territory like Daniel Boone, Jim Bridger, Kit Carson, John Fremont, or other pioneers, he was something of a pathfinder, discovering new trails and hunting lands in the rapidly changing Tennessee wilderness. Men like Crockett were always just one step ahead of civilization. They prepared the way for expansion into new territories.

Pathfinders are still needed today. As we consider what makes effective organizations in the 21st century (churches, judicatories, etc.), we have to name “pathfinding” as one of the key values of such organizations. Every group needs someone who is out there on the cutting edge, scouting out new possibilities and identifying resources that allow the organization to address those opportunities. In the 18th and 19th centuries, scouting parties were sent out ahead of settlers to find not only the best places to live and work but the resources for a viable settlement there.

Effective organizations today must embrace this value. In industry, this function is often allocated to a research and development department, but many companies have discovered that the best innovations come from the factory floor or even from the user of the product. Whether your organization is a church or judicatory, each person should be given a coonskin cap and named a pathfinder, commissioned to look for new opportunities and new resources. This requires giving each person some time to explore, dream, or just to wander around.

Such exploration may involve reading, research, benchmarking (discovering what others are doing), talking to constituents, or just speculating. Leaders in effective 21st century organizations will fight for this “blue sky” time because it is the only thing that will keep their organization vital and effective.
Several ministers of my acquaintance have used their sabbatical time to visit other churches or organizations to find out what they are doing. Usually, they cannot import a newly discovered idea or practice to their own situation intact, but the exposure to other ways of doing things helps them to reconceptualize their own ministry.

Inherent in this mental model is the idea that the organization will be on the move. It will not be in the same place tomorrow that it is today. Even if the organization wants to stay in one place, it cannot because the environment around it is changing. In order to serve in that new environment, the organization must seek out new ways to serve and interact with it. It’s a risky task, but it can also be a lot of fun! (And someone might even write a song about you.)

Monday, March 02, 2009

From Maintenance to Mission

With the financial challenges that we are facing, one of the greatest temptations for a church is fall into a survival mode. When a church adopts this perspective, its priorities change drastically. Leaders become more concerned about maintenance than mission. Like the man in the proverb, we want to dig a hole and hide our gift because we fear losing it.

If we are honest we will admit that the maintenance mode is the usual operating procedure of many churches even when they are not facing financial crisis. In this approach, the care and maintenance of those in the “family of faith” is more important than the needs of the unchurched and dechurched. Maybe we no longer have the philosophy that the church should be primarily committed to “keeping up the graveyard and having someone to conduct funerals,” but we may be more concerned about providing for our own members than about outreach and ministry to the community.

When I use the term “outreach” I am not simply talking about bringing in more people to pay the bills, but sharing the gospel with the unchurched because it is what we are called to do. Likewise, “ministry to the community” is done not with the expectation of any reward, but because this is also part of the mission God has called us to do.

How can a church avoid becoming more concerned about maintenance than mission? First, we can pray with open eyes and open hearts, seeing the world as it is rather than what we wish it would be. Second, we can enter into honest dialogue with fellow church members, acknowledging our fears as well as our hopes. Third, our leaders can “open the windows” of the church to the world by inviting those who are engaging in ministry outside our walls to share their stories. Fourth, through the preaching ministry, our pastors can remind us of the God who loved, sent, and sacrificed for humankind. It is God’s example that we are called to follow. God’s way does not guarantee success but it does provide satisfaction.

The problem is not the financial climate; it is our willingness to be part of the mission of God.