Friday, August 28, 2009


Ask any denomination today to name its priorities and “starting new churches” is very likely to be near the top of the list. Doing this is another matter. When I was part of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship’s Movement Leadership Team, we often talked about starting new churches and classified church starts in three ways—new starts, restarts, and upstarts.

New starts are what we often call “church plants.” These are churches or faith communities that are started intentionally, usually after much prayer, preparation, and planning. A restart is church that, very often, rises from the ashes of a prior congregation. This can happen in a number of ways but it usually comes when an existing congregation realizes that it can no longer minister effectively in its setting, literally “goes out of business,” and gives its resources (usually a physical plant) to a new or forming congregation. “Upstarts” is a polite way to refer to “church splits.” In this situation, a dissatisfied group decides to leave an established congregation and begin something new. This is the way that most Baptist congregations have come into existence. In fact, a friend once told me, "It's hard to start a new church when you're not mad at somebody!"

There are pros and cons in the upstart situation. On the plus side is that the group starting the new church has a certain level of energy. Some of this is based on a commitment to a particular theological stance. Some comes from an attitude of “we are going to show them [the former congregation] that we can make it!” Upstarts usually benefit from having a core group that is highly motivated to work and contribute to make the new church succeed.

On the negative side is the baggage that the participants in the upstart carry from their former congregation. There may be anger, bitterness, and grief. If the upstart group recognizes these feelings and will go through a period of collective group therapy, they may succeed. If they do not, this will always be the proverbial “elephant in the room” for the new church.

Another negative factor that the upstart congregation must deal with is unrealistic expectations. Unless the upstart group numbers 100 or more, they will not be able to have the nice building, quality worship, and extensive ministry programs that were available in the old church. These may develop over time, but this requires a great deal of commitment and patience.

Another negative is that the group who withdrew may be too cautious about whom they will admit into their church and their leadership circle. There is often a fear that “someone will steal our church like they did at (name the old congregation).” This is a barrier both to growth and innovation. The upstart congregation may live in the past rather than creating a future.

While I worked with Tennessee Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, I talked at least two groups out of starting new churches. My primary question was, “Do you have a positive vision to motivate you as you begin this new church?” In both cases, the final response was “No.” Can upstarts or church splits succeed? In some cases they can, but they always carry the history of being borne out of conflict and must decide if this is a burden or a blessing.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

And What Exactly Do You Do?

Last Spring one of our seminary students asked me about what area of theological studies I enjoyed the most. He thought that I had a particular interest in biblical studies. In an offhanded way, I responded, “I am not that much into biblical studies.” He gave me a funny look and said, “Since you are minister, isn’t that a little odd?”

I suppose that I should have unpacked my response a little more at that point. I did not, but the exchange got me to thinking. (Much of this posting is transparently personal, so you may want to tune out at this point.) After some consideration, I realized that I have always been something of a generalist rather than a specialist. There is a need for specialists—I want a well-trained surgeon to work on my body or an extremely competent engineer to design the airplane on which I am a passenger—but many of us in ministry must be generalists to respond to the demands made upon us. You can reflect on your own experience, but let me recount mine briefly.

My college studies probably started out me out as a generalist. After dropping a physics major because I was not motivated by math courses, I found myself a history major with a minor in religion and philosophy. In reality, I was a liberal arts major who took courses in a number of areas including sociology, speech, political science, psychology, and education in addition to those in my major and minor fields. The Army decided this qualified me very well to be a supply officer and platoon leader!

Although I pursued a master of divinity degree (with languages) in seminary with the goal of becoming a campus minister, I also took a number of courses in the religious education school and thought about getting a second degree in RE, but I finally decided it was not worth the time to spend another year to do so, and it was time to get to work. I was fortunate that the MDiv program provided opportunity to take elective courses in ethics and philosophy of religion. The religious education courses I tacked on included psychology and counseling.

Since completing seminary, my ministry experiences have challenged me to develop at least a minimum level of competence in a number of fields. These competencies have been developed through formal seminary and university classes, degree programs, seminars, reading and mentoring.

Early in my campus ministry career, I developed an interest in small groups and pursued studies in group process and dynamics. In fact, my initial plan was to do my doctor of ministry project on group development, but this didn’t happen. Even so, my learning in this area led to the creation of family groups, discipleship groups, and leadership teams in three campus settings.

An effort to involve lay leaders in ministry with college students led to a doctor of ministry project centered on the faith development and psychosocial development of young adults. This not only helped me to understand the life situations of the students with whom I worked but also provided tools to bring lay leaders alongside in this ministry.

Work with a state judicatory led to an interest in learning more about both management and leadership through seminars, tape resources, reading, and dialogue with colleagues. I was fortunate to be part of a Total Quality Management program while there, and I pursued additional college course work in organizational development and psychology.

My own experiences with therapy as well as classes in psychology and counseling led me to complete a unit of Clinical Pastoral Education about a decade ago. This helped me to learn some helping skills but also convinced me that I was not called to be a counselor or a chaplain!

As I began working with a new state judicatory, I was persuaded that the old way of “doing church” was not working in most situations. This led me to reading about the missional church and then classes on both missional church and postmodernism. This study still informs my thinking about the mission of the church in the 21st century.

An undercurrent during these years was the opportunity to write and edit. I did a good bit of writing for denominational publications at one point and edited a journal on campus ministry as well as various newsletters. Most recently, this has resulted in this blog where I write about things that interest or concern me. Somewhere along the way, I have also developed some computer skills. I suppose this started with the purchase of my first home computer from Radio Shack!

My “growing edge” at this point is developing my skills in coaching. Some friends have recognized my innate skills in this area, but I am pursuing formal training this Fall and Winter in order to be certified as a life coach.

I think that if you looked in a dictionary under “generalist,” you might find my picture. In response to needs in the various places where I have served and my own personal gifts, I have developed some level of competency in a number of areas. I don’t really consider myself a “specialist” in any of them, and I am certainly learning most of each of these. The remarkable thing that I have discovered is the transferability of many of these skills to the various positions where I have served—campus minister, interim pastor, state program leader, trainer, state judicatory leader, teacher, seminary center director, and leadership coach. I am thankful that I do not have to choose one thing as my specialty. There is an old adage about “jack of all trades, master of none.” That’s fine with me.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Change Hurts

You’ve heard the joke about changing a light bulb: “How many Baptists does it take to change a light bulb?” “None. Baptists don’t change anything.”

Several years ago I was working with a ministry that invested a great deal of money in an annual fall event. The event was fun, reached a lot of people for a weekend, and it had become a tradition. I was the bad guy who suggested that the money spent on this three day event could probably be used more effectively in ongoing ministry throughout the year. We “killed” the event but not without some tears being shed (but not by me). I think I am still friends with those who wanted to keep it going, but saying “so long” to an established ministry is never easy.

In his book Axiom: Powerful Leadership Parables, Bill Hybels addresses the challenge a leader faces when the time comes to evaluate the sustainability of an established ministry. He suggests that a leader can do one of three things: give it a facelift, overhaul it, or have a funeral. Every once in awhile, we would do well to look at ongoing ministries and perform this kind of triage.

Some ministries (worship services, Bible studies, community projects, etc.) may just need a facelift to make them more attractive. This could be a new time, a new name, or a new location. In this situation, the core idea is good and the ministry is fulfilling a needed function, but it just needs a little sprucing up.

Others may need an overhaul—new leadership, new purpose, or new target audience. Although this may step on someone’s toes, if the decision has been made that this ministry supports the values of the church, leadership must seek out the new perspective that is needed to make it more productive.

And then there are those things that just need to be put to rest. The ministry has outlived its usefulness, it no longer supports the mission of the church, no one wants to lead it, or it just costs too much to continue. Giving a ministry a funeral requires all of the care exhibited in putting a loved one to rest. It must be done with respect, gratitude, and love, but at the end of the service, the lid is shut and the casket goes into the ground.

Action number one produces little pain. Action number two hurts a bit. Action three may result in more than one funeral! The good leader prays for wisdom, seeks to build consensus, and then proceeds with the task at hand, acknowledging that change is never easy.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Healthy Choice

Who would have thought that health care would have been the topic that replaced Michael Jackson on 24/7 news? Here we are at the end of the summer, and the cable news shows are chock full of clips of explosive “town hall” meetings, the President campaigning like it was October 2008, and all kinds of experts or advocates being interviewed.

One aspect of the debate garnering much attention in recent days is the “death panels” that critics charge would be included in government-backed health care plans. The fear is that some impersonal set of bureaucrats will “pull the plug on Grandma.” If nothing else, the fuss highlights our general misconceptions about life and death. I am not an expert on health care, but I do know something about death.

When I was doing a unit of Clinical Pastoral Education at a Veterans Administration hospital over a decade ago, one of the assignments we were given as chaplains was to discuss end of life issues with patients (as if we could avoid it) and ask them to consider completing advanced directives. These documents provided guidance to medical staff about the patient’s desires. For example, if a patient made a DNR—“do not resuscitate”—choice, they would not be put on a ventilator when they could no longer breathe on their own. Such decisions were to be made in consultation with family, friends, medical staff, and the chaplains, but the patient made the choice. Was this a “death panel”?

When my mother was diagnosed with cancer several years ago, she was in the hospital for various procedures including surgery. Every time she was admitted, she was asked if she had a “living will” which gave instructions about her choices related to extreme life continuation measures. We discussed this as a family and with consultation of her physicians. I guess this was a “death panel.”

My mother died at home in the bedroom next door to where I am writing this blog. Her cancer had recurred and was more widespread. The decision not to pursue further treatment was made in consultation with her oncologist. Her last days were made easier by caring hospice workers. These professionals—both medical personnel and chaplains—eased her pain as well as helping the family to understand the dying process. I continue to be thankful for their efforts.

My point here is that institutions have been making us part of the decision-making process about end of life issues for years. There are organizations in place, like hospice, to give us support when treatment is no longer feasible. A pending House bill has language allowing Medicare to finance beneficiaries’ consultations with professionals on whether to authorize aggressive and potentially life-saving interventions later in life. Though the consultations would be voluntary, and a similar provision passed in Congress last year without such a furor, some elected representatives are calling for such provisions to be dropped “because of the way they could be misinterpreted and implemented incorrectly.” This decision would negatively impact Federal support for hospice programs which provide a touch of sanity and dignity at the end of life.

Death is a reality. Too many people seemed to have missed that part of the instructions. The only way that any of us will escape that reality is divine intervention not legislative mandate. Our elected representatives could help in the process by providing the resources so that we can make wise choices about when to accept that reality. That seems a healthy approach to me.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

A Matter of Priorities

Imagine that your church received an unexpected gift of three thousand dollars this month. The donor does not have a specific purpose for the gift but does not want it to go into the general budget. Church staff and lay leadership carefully debate the best use of this gift. They finally come down to two possibilities. One would be to use the money for a special back-to-school activity in the church parking lot with rented inflatables, games, and refreshments for children and their families to “kick off” the fall programs of the church. The other suggestion is to use the money to help the church complete a Habitat home that church members are helping to build for a single mother with five children. What will the leadership decide? The choice may well indicate the philosophy of ministry that drives the church; is it “missional” or “attractional”?

An attractional philosophy seeks to engage people from the community in the worship, programs, and activities of the church. Every effort is made to get folks into the church facilities. This is a “come and see” approach to ministry. “We are doing some good stuff and you can be part of it.”

A missional philosophy seeks to engage the people in the community on their own turf. A missional church is concerned about quality worship, discipleship, and education programs, but it is more concerned about the impact it is making in its community. This is a “go and tell” approach. “Because of what God has done for us, we care about you.”

The illustration may be too clearly drawn, but every day church leaders must make decisions about allocation of resources and energy. No one will disagree with the contention that the church must be internally healthy, vital, and committed to continue its ministry to its community but can this internal orientation become an end in itself? Resources must be allocated to internal development, but we must always ask the question, “Are we keeping the proper balance?”

Where would your church spend the money?

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Leadership Lessons

When I attend a meeting like the Willow Creek Leadership Summit, I am reminded that I know a lot more about leadership than I am practicing. Over the last four decades, I have been responsible for everything from a supply platoon in the U. S. Army in Vietnam to a state-wide ministry with some twenty-five employees and a budget of over a million dollars. As I think back, there were some things that I got right and many that I got wrong.

What did I get right? A couple of things come to mind. Even when I was a youngster, my Dad (who was an enlisted man in World War II) told me that I should remember two sets of initials—RHIP and RHIR. RHIP means “rank has its privileges.” RHIR stands for “rank has its responsibilities.” In Reserve Officers Training Corps in college, I was taught that an officer always takes care of his men first. For example, an officer makes sure that his troops are fed and housed before he takes care of his own needs. This approach stayed with me in ministry positions as well. I made sure that I never asked anything for myself that was not available to everyone on the staff—training opportunities, compensation, vacation, etc. And I also went made every effort to make sure that our department staff was getting the same benefits that others in the organization received.

Second, I did a pretty good job of building staff wherever I served. By my estimate, over 90 percent of my hires were good ones, borne out by the fact that many of those persons are still employed by the same agency and are doing good work. Hiring decisions are the most important ones that any leader can make, and I learned that I was heading for trouble if I did not invest considerable time, energy, and prayer in those decisions.

What did I get wrong? There is probably not enough space for that list, but let me identify two things. First, although I think of myself as a rational decision-maker, too many of my decisions were made by intuition. In an effort to show progress, I occasionally chose a path that was risky or untried. Sometimes this worked and sometimes it didn’t, but too often such decisions wasted time and resources. In a couple of situations, I only escaped a catastrophe by the grace of God! If I did it over again, I would have taken more time on some decisions or sought more counsel.

Second, and this amplifies on the observation above, I too often operated from a “lone ranger” mentality. I think I took the saying, “It’s lonely at the top,” too seriously. When I worked for a state Baptist convention, one of the great resources available to me was other staff members in various departments in the building. I did more “drop in” visits with other department leaders than most of my colleagues, but I know now that I would have been better off if I had done more of this and in a more timely manner. Just because one has been placed in a leadership or managerial position, he or she should not fail to use the experience and skills of others both inside and outside the organization.

Although some people may be born leaders, I think that most of us spend a lifetime developing the skills it takes to be a competent leader. If we are honest with ourselves, the task is never complete.

Thursday, August 06, 2009

Leading in a New Reality

The annual Leadership Summit of the Willow Creek Association always showcases some of the best speakers and consultants on the circuit today. The conference originates on the Willow Creek Church campus in South Barrington, Illinois, and is sent by satellite to 140 sites across North America. I have especially appreciated the opportunity to be introduced to management gurus like Jim Collins and Patrick Lencioni through these meetings. The conference this year once again has an outstanding lineup of presenters.

One of things I admire about the Willow Creek folks is their transparency. When they make a mistake, they admit it. More than one time Bill Hybels, senior pastor of Willow Creek Church and board chair of WCA, has “fallen on his sword” when an error in statement or judgment was made. When they are going through a struggle, they own up to it, try to learn from it, and share their learning with others. Hybels was his usually candid self in speaking on the subject “Leading in a New Reality” this morning. He gave a report on how the church has handled the economic downturn in biblical, financial, and relational terms, then shared the impact that this has had on him personally.

Guest speaker Gary Hamel, however, went beyond the economic aspect in addressing the larger reality in which leaders function today. Hamel, a management professor and consultant, began by asking the question, “Are you changing as fast as the world around you?” He pointed out the breadth of the cultural, organizational, and generational changes in which every organization, including the church, must function today.

Although he is a member of a large church in California, Hamel stood on the stage of the one of the leading megachurches in America and made a surprising statement. He pointed out that many of the MBA students with whom he works are not interested in going to work for large, bureaucratic Fortune 500 companies; they want to start their own companies or be part of small, start-up organizations. They want to have a say in their work lives and careers. He then said, “If they don’t want to work in a large, bureaucratic company, I doubt very much that they will want to be part of large churches where they are not part of the decision-making process.”

I think he is right. Although Willow Creek does the “megachurch thing” better than anybody else, I wonder if this model has staying power. In fact, his observation about young business leaders wanting to “do their own thing” also applies to many young ministers and newly minted MDiv graduates. This IS the new reality. Hamel has hit it on the nose. A new generation craves a participative leadership style and a flat organization. Are we really ready for this?