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 na├»ve 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.