Friday, December 31, 2010

Embracing the Life Cycle

On a Sunday before Christmas, our pastor was reflecting on the importance of Jesus as Immanuel—“God with us”—for humankind.  By becoming human, God entered into the messiness and beauty of this world.  In his incarnation, Jesus experienced the reality of life.  This means that he went through most of the experiences of the human life cycle just as we do.

Jesus experienced childhood, adolescence, and young adulthood.  He probably dealt with the death of the one who was his earthly father and cared for his mother as she grew older.  He found both a livelihood and a vocation, and then he embraced another calling at midlife. He was faced with and experienced the reality of death.  In doing all of these things, he affirmed the importance of the stages of the human life cycle, raising them above being mundane, ordinary experiences.

By implication, we are encouraged to value these stages of human experience and learn more about them.  Although my training is as an historian and a minister of the Gospel, I have always been drawn to the study of  human development and its psychological, social, and moral implications.  My Doctor of Ministry project was based on understanding the faith and psychosocial development of young adults.  Every stage of life carries its own challenges—physical, emotional, and spiritual.  Those of us who work with people should be aware of the varied needs of those with whom we minister at each stage of life.

God established the cycle in the beginning and Jesus lived it. Through our experiences as children, youth, and adults, we can learn more about ourselves and about our need for a relationship with God and God’s people.  If we fail to do so, we cannot become the people that God has called us to be.

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Third Culture Principles

One of the most significant things I have learned in recent years is a new way of looking at missions.  Some excellent mentors—Eliot Roberts, Pat Anderson, Rob Nash, Mart Gray, Steve Street, Mike Young and others--have shown me that we must respect the humanity of those with whom we minister.  I have too often seen ministry as something that I or my group “do for” someone else without any regard for whether they want “to be done unto.”  They are not recipients by partners.

Dave Gibbons follows this perspective in The Monkey and The Fish:  Liquid Leadership for a Third- Culture Church.  If we are to mesh smoothly as ministry partners with others, we must observe certain principles.  Gibbons outlines them in this way.

First, we must listen more than we speak.  This is a skill that is often difficult to learn!

Second, we must believe that “the locals” know more than we do and learn from them.  They live there; they know the situation better than we do and have wisdom to share.

Third, we must understand that Jesus is already there.  In some way, God has already expressed God’s love for these people, even if we cannot readily identify that work.

Fourth, we must be open to redeeming and giving new meaning to cultural practices or customs even if we do not understand them or may be uncomfortable with them.  Much of the “baggage” we bring with us has nothing to do with the Gospel.

Fifth, we must respect the forms and practices of a given culture.  This means learning both the verbal and nonverbal languages of people.

Sixth, we must recognize that the world outside our doors has a much higher regard for Christ than for Christianity, especially as they have seen it practiced by us. 

Although some of these principles may seem harsh and critical, take a few minutes to reflect on them.  If your experience is anything like mine, you will identify ways that you have violated most if not all of these at some time. 

Gibbons seems to be saying, “It’s not all about us.”  There is a great big world of people who can teach us much.  If we will enter into their cultures with humility and love, we can open not only doors but hearts as well.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

The Monkey and the Fish: New Perspectives on Ministry

Dave Gibbons, pastor of Newsong Church, has mined his own life and experiences in writing The Monkey and the Fish: Liquid Leadership for a Third Culture Church.  In embracing his Korean and Anglo background, he has learned the value of seeing needs with different eyes—those of the “outsider.”

Gibbons writes, “Third culture is the mindset and will to love, learn, and serve in any culture, even in the midst of pain and discomfort.”  He expands this definition by explaining that third culture is not simply a strategy but a way that believers are to live—loving God and loving neighbor. In order to do this, we must be like water.  As a liquid, water adapts to fit its environment.  Using the metaphor of water as the Good News for a thirsty world, Gibbons challenges the church “to be open to creatively designing or embracing new forms, languages, customs, and containers to deliver that water.”

Doing this will require a radical change in the way most churches operate.  In his list of third-culture principles, Gibbons argues for humility, openness, and flexibility in dealing with other cultures.   His approach calls for a maturity and adaptability that is open lacking in our churches.  We must give up our preconceived ideas and let God speak through others.

In undertaking this strategy, the church can tap into a new network of innovators and influencers in the world—artists, business persons, and community-development specialists.  Through the use of language, metaphor, and images, artists play the prophetic role in movements.  Businesspersons bring resources, connections, and organization skills to the table, providing “front-line wisdom to organizations and systems.”  Community-development specialists are those with “the view from the streets”—educators, healthcare professionals, relief workers, economic developers—with a passion to change the world. Each of these groups has shown the willingness to respond to human need with their talents and resources when given the opportunity.

 In order to tap into these leaders, Gibbons points out that the church must overcome its biases and learn to work more collaboratively.  In making this point, he says, “Even people we consider to be pagan often are much better at working together than the church is.”  He charges that the “obsolete systems and hierarchies” of the church tend to separate Christians from the real action in the world.

Although portions of the book seem to be adapted from sermons or conference addresses, Gibbons paints a vision of a new way of doing church that is challenging but optimistic.  He encourages the reader to adopt a new perspective on ministry that is refreshing.  The Monkey and the Fish is worth the read.

Monday, December 27, 2010

Shaping the Future

Forty years ago, Alvin and Heidi Toffler wrote Future Shock, a groundbreaking book about what we could expect in the future.  It was a challenging and, in many ways, accurate forecast.  Some of its projections are still coming to pass.

Toffler Associates has released a special report called "40 FOR THE NEXT 40: A Sampling of the Drivers of Change That Will Shape Our World Between Now and 2050." The report identifies future trends in politics, technology, society, economics, and the environment. You can download it here as a PDF file for free.

I picked out several that seem to have specific implications for the church. 

First, THE NUMBER AND VARIETY OF NON-STATE ACTORS WILL RISE DRAMATICALLY.  NGOs (non-governmental organizations) will be the fastest growing non-state actors and will be extremely influential in humanitarian and social concerns.  If churches and their mission organizations are to have an impact around the world, they must have a strong presence through recognized NGOs.  Missionaries can no longer fly “under the radar” but must openly work and partner with others.

Second, THE EMERGENCE OF OPEN NETWORKS FOR INNOVATION WILL ALLOW RAPID ACCESS TO SPECIALISTS ACROSS THE GLOBE.  Churches and mission organizations must learn to embrace ideas and implement innovations they did not invent.  There are creative problem solvers around the world who can help Christian groups meet challenges even if they do not embrace a Christian worldview.  We can learn from them.

Third, SOCIAL NETWORKING WILL DRIVE NEW MEANS OF INFLUENCE.  The report comments that “new relationships will break down previously protected borders and provide new intelligence sources.”  The church must find effective ways to embrace social networking and build on its strengths.  With all of its faults, social networking is a reality that the church cannot ignore.

Fourth, COMPANIES WILL INCREASINGLY CREATE VALUE BY BEING “CONNECTORS”.  The church approach will be somewhat different from the secular approach, but church judicatories especially must come to see their role as being connectors rather than suppliers.  Judicatories can help churches discover resources and implement strategies that the judicatories do not create.   This is a better use of time and resources.

Fifth, GLOBAL RELIGIOUS DYNAMICS WILL IMPACT THE POLITICAL, SOCIAL AND SECURITY ENVIRONMENTS OF THE FUTURE.  According to the report, “Changes in global religious demography, such as the rapid growth of Christianity in the global South and increased Muslim immigration to Western nations, will shape public attitudes and government policies.”  It also states, “Growth in religious believers will have an increased impact, with major policy and security implications around the world.”  The impact of this trend can be positive or negative.  The churches can play a major role in making it positive by embracing strategies that promote understanding, dialogue, and cooperation.

There are 35 more and you may find others that you feel will affect how we “do church” in the next 40 years.  Take a look at the list and reflect on its implications. You won't agree with everything, but it will stimulate your thinking.  

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Holiday Hospitality

Our family usually marks the holiday season by doing something in relation to the Gaylord Opryland Hotel in Nashville.  The property has good memories for us.  We always enjoyed the Opryland Theme Park (not closed) when our children were young.  We attended at least three student mission conferences held at the hotel during the Christmas/New Year’s holidays.  We have eaten Thanksgiving dinner there as a family and toured the Christmas lights and decorations some years.  Rita and I have attended Christmas programs or concerts there.

Like many, we were saddened by the closing of the hotel due to the flooding last spring.  We have a close friend who works with guest services at the hotel and she was devastated by the damage.  One Sunday this summer, we talked at church and she was excited about the renovation work and the opportunity to bring back the personnel who had been laid off due to the closing. 

Rita and I spent a night at the Gaylord Opryland Hotel this week and attended a Christmas concert.  We ran into our friend when we arrived, and she graciously stepped in to provide VIP treatment for us.  She knows the meaning of hospitality and practices it both at her work and in her personal life.

Hospitality is a key part of this season.  Hopefully, we will provide a more hospitable setting to family and friends than Jesus experienced at His birth.  As we think of Him, we have the opportunity to rekindle our sense of hospitality for those we know and those we don’t know.  I hope that at least some of your gifts during this season are directed toward “the least of these” whose needs continue year round.

Behind all the decorations and festivities, I need to reconsider the meaning of hospitality.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Engaging Believers in the Church

“How can we help our church members grow?” is a common question among church leaders.  Undergirding that question may be others such as “How can we reach people for our church?” or “How can we get our members more involved in ministry?” or (if we are honest)   “How can we get our people to support the church financially?”

These are all valid questions that express the concern to help believers grow in their spiritual commitment.  Albert L. Winseman, a Methodist minister and an associate with The Gallup Organization, suggests that we take a step back and first ask, “How can we help people to be more engaged in our church?”  In Growing an Engaged Church, Winseman draws on extensive research to show that once a person is engaged in the life of the church, he or she will show growth in life satisfaction, serving, inviting and giving.

Winseman observes that conservative churches have done a better job of connecting with people at the emotional level than have mainline churches.  He states, “In today’s postmodern world, people don’t show up at worship services because they want to know more about God; they come because they want to experience God.  They want to have an emotional connection with the holy.”

He points out that the three things that will have the greatest impact on a person’s engagement in the church are clarifying the expectations of membership; helping members discover what they do best; and creating small groups.  Ironically, encouraging people to discover and use their natural talents tends to go against conventional wisdom in most churches.  We are more concerned with putting people into slots than assessing whether they fit there or not!  If we help people discover what they do best, give them a chance to do it, and then provide some level of accountability (such as small group involvement), they are well on the way to becoming really engaged in the life of the church.

The book tends to be a bit repetitive and even “sermonic” at times, but the concepts and suggestions ring true.  I think you will find it helpful as you seek to help people live out their faith in community.

Monday, December 20, 2010

A Milestone

This posting is something of a milestone for Barnabas File.  This is my 400th post!  For a number of years, I used the title "Barnabas File" on articles I wrote for the newsletters of various organizations I served.  The title, of course, honors one of the "nobodies of the New Testament" (as one writer called him) whose love, integrity, encouragement, and innovation are characteristics that I would hope to reflect in my own life.  When I decided to launch a blog  in June 2006, it seemed appropriate to continue to use that title.

The subtitle I chose still seems to apply:  "Comments of a  progressive Baptist Christian about things that matter to him." I have written about everything from my personal response to the death of Titans quarterback Steve McNair to my commitment to women pursuing their calling in ministry.  Although this blog has served as something of a personal journal for me, I have tried to avoid making it a place for me to gripe.  Rather, I have tried to ask questions with which I am personally struggling.  My purpose has not been to pontificate but to investigate possibilities.

Although I have received inquiries about using this space for commercial purposes, my only concession has been linking books and resources to an online publisher.  When I review or comment on a book, I have read it and try to be honest about whether it is worth your time or not.  In fact, why would I take the time to write about something that is not worth your reading?

Your comments are appreciated.  I am often surprised to find out who is reading my "stuff."  Thanks for engaging in this conversation with me. My plans are to continue with the Barnabas File as long as ideas come to mind. I appreciate your fellowship on the journey.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

No Regrets?

One morning recently I was scanning the obituaries in the local paper (a daily ritual) when I noted the comment in one posting:  “He lived his life with no regrets.”  I also noted this man had also requested no memorial service.

I did not know this individual, but I started wondering, “What does it mean to live one’s life with no regrets?”  I cannot identify with the statement.  Perhaps I am either too introspective or too guilt-ridden, but I can think of a number of things that I regret in the sense that I wish that I had handled them differently.

There are people that I knew in high school and college to whom I could have paid more attention.  As a young person, I was too concerned about me (I guess it goes with the territory) and less concerned about how my remarks and attitudes might affect others.  There were times that I treated others in inappropriate and disrespectful ways.  I should have known better, but I didn’t or chose not to.

I regret that I did not spend more time with my children when they were at home.  I now see what a gift they have been to my life.  The business of life and work interfered with family time.  It often still does.

From time to time, I regret that I did not spend more time with those who are no longer with us—my grandson who died of cancer just short of his fifth birthday, my parents, longtime friends and mentors.  These all enriched my life and more time with them would have blessed me and perhaps them.

I regret that I was not aware of the needs of one friend who committed suicide.  When I heard of her death, I was shocked and could not understand why I did not see this coming.

I could go on, but the point is that I do live with regrets about “the road(s) not taken.”  Regrets are based on actions we wish we had taken.  I suppose we live with and learn from regrets by the way we deal with them.  First, I have to acknowledge these before God and ask for God’s forgiveness.  Second, if possible, I need to share my regret with those involved.  I don’t expect forgiveness but I need to acknowledge my failings.  Third, I need to ask God to give me insight about myself based on these feelings.  What do they say about my priorities, my values, and my growth as a believer?  In addressing these regrets, I can hopefully become a better person.

Life without regrets?  No, I don’t identify with that statement and I do not choose to practice it.  I will live with my regrets.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Patton: The Pursuit of Destiny

Because of the responsibility entrusted to them, top military leaders tend to be controversial figures.  In fact, Agostino von Hassell and Ed Breslin begin their overview of the life of General George S. Patton, Jr., with a critique of the Academy Award-winning 1970 film that bears the general’s name. They seem to think that their subject was frequently depicted unfairly in this production.  This book attempts to correct those misconceptions.  Von Hassell and Breslin’s brief biography of one of the greatest general officers of World War Two is readable and comprehensive without drowning the reader in detail.  One will come away with a much better understanding of a gifted and flawed leader.

Von Hassell and Breslin provide a good account of the legacy inherited by George Patton, one that was both a blessing and a burden. Although Patton was often a thorn in his side, Supreme Commander Dwight Eisenhower valued Patton and acknowledged that he was “born to be a soldier.”  Patton was often intemperate, impolitic and impulsive, but he was a leader of men and produced results when they were needed.  The authors’ theme is that all of Patton’s life prepared him for the greatest victory of his career, the relief of the embattled and surrounded American troops at Bastogne in the winter of 1944.

One of the more interesting insights of the book is the account of Patton’s gifts as a teacher.  He was a student of war, especially cavalry tactics, and this informed his training of thousands of American troops.  Patton was not only able to effectively organize vital teaching about preparation and tactics, he was an eloquent (although often profane) communicator who got his point across.

There are some shortcomings in the authors’ approach.  First, they often heap excessive praise on Patton, forgetting that he was part of a team of diverse but gifted leaders.  Patton himself was careful about sharing praise with others, especially his troops.  Second, Von Hassell and Breslin tend to identify too many people (including General Mark Clark and General Omar Bradley) as “enemies” and “rivals” of Patton when they were really only men doing their jobs who might not have agreed with Patton!  Third, they appear to think that war and politics are separate distinct endeavors and that Patton was above politics.  In fact, Patton was politically savvy although not always careful in his remarks.

Early in their account of World War Two, Von Hassell and Breslin accuse Eisenhower of being a poor leader and envious of Patton, but later they acknowledge that Eisenhower knew Patton’s value and stood by him, even during some of his more foolish actions.  Once again, just because someone did not along with every idea Patton presented, this does not mean that the person was his enemy.

The book is based on primary sources that are often mentioned but never footnoted, but this does not detract from the work but allows the reader to proceed through the pages quickly.  For those who have never read anything about a remarkable military leader, Patton: The Pursuit of Destiny is worth the time.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher through the <> book review bloggers program. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 

Monday, December 13, 2010

People Skills are Important

Organizations often state, “Our people are our most important asset.”  If this is true, the corollary should be “People skills are essential in our daily work.”  People skills are the way that individuals relate to their supervisors, those they supervise, clients, and other team members.  

At Peoplemap training recently, Mike Lillibridge pointed out that the longer a person stays with an organization, the more important their people skills become.  An entry level employee is usually hired for his or her technical skills not their people skills.  After some time with the organization, three years or more, employees are evaluated almost equally on their technical skills and their people skills.  When the person becomes a “valued” employee, their technical skills may be only 30 percent of their “value” and their highly developed people skills represent 70 percent of their value.  When a person becomes a leader, manager, or supervisor, their “advanced” people skills make up 80 percent of their work and their technical skills only 20 percent.

We may not hire for people skills, but we expect them from employees as their responsibility grows in the organization.  Mike pointed out that successful companies develop their workers’ people skills.

So how does this apply to the church?  I talked recently with a friend who works closely with seminary graduates in their “first call” placements.  For young adults with little experience in any organization, they often lack two abilities--project development/planning and relational skills.  In other words, one of the things they really need is people skills, but often they are called for their “ministerial” skills first.

Just because a person has been called to ministry, he or she may not necessarily have the people skills necessary to be an effective minister.  Pinnacle Leadership Associates is one resource to churches, judicatories, and not-for-profits who want to help their team members develop these skills.  Contact Mark Tidsworth for more information.

Monday, December 06, 2010

Reform without Accommodation

The Christian faith has been marked by conflicts between reform movements and the establishment from the very beginning (consider Paul and the Judaizers).   Without a doubt, the Spirit of God tends to move in unusual and often chaotic ways.   For the most part, reform movements through the centuries have started outside of the established church.  These include the monastic orders, Protestantism, mission societies, and even theological education.

They don’t stay outside the church for very long, however.  The church always attempts to institutionalize these movements and bring them under the wing of the establishment.  The church needs the enthusiasm and fresh insights of these movements to provide both vitality and new direction.  Of course, when this happens, the reform movements tend to become organized, controlled, and domesticated.

The trend continues today and has actually accelerated due to the social and technological resources available to spiritual entrepreneurs.  There a number of entrepreneurial organizations that are doing things in a new way, thus seeking to “reform” the church and adapt its mission and ministry to a new culture.  We see this in “moderate” or progressive Baptist life with the news agencies, social action and education groups, mission organizations, and theological institutions that have been created to support churches that have broken with an old way of doing things. 

There is still a desire among many to regulate or control these entities, absorbing their strength, but also domesticating them and sapping some of their vitality.  Is there any way to break this cycle? Is there a new model that will encourage cooperation, collegiality, and community without domestication?

For this to happen, we must not only be creative but willing to live with some level of discomfort and ambiguity.  In The Monkey and Fish, pastor and third-culture proponent Dave Gibbons says, “I need to learn to embrace chaos better, because movements of God are marked by chaos.”  As the various movements of the Spirit manifest themselves today and in the future, we will be increasingly challenged to learn that lesson.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

50 Things Your Life Doesn’t Need

I have known very few real change agents in my life. Sam Davidson is one of them. Sam is a writer, entrepreneur, and dreamer who believes that the world needs more passionate people. So he is one!  He also mobilizes others to be passionate about things that matter (or should matter) to each and every one of us.

Sam sees the infinite possibilities in each situation and does not hesitate to become an advocate for them. Because of that, he often makes me uncomfortable (but that’s a good thing).

In addition to being a very practical theologian, Sam is the co-founder of Cool People Care and Proof Branding. He has a new book entitled 50 Things Your Life Doesn’t Need. I recommend it to you and provide an excerpt here.

One Thing Your Life Doesn't Need: Complaints Without Action

Sometimes, there’s no better stress or tension reliever than letting off some steam by complaining. Yell, stomp your feet, or throw something (as long as it’s not at someone’s head). Just don’t let complaining become a lifestyle, in which you idly vent about what bothers you. Your life doesn’t need complaints without action.

If you see a problem, it’s okay to be upset. Getting upset and proclaiming your disapproval is a good thing. But complaining should never be the end; it should be the beginning. Complaining should lead to acting, whether that means protesting, writing, volunteering, or leading the effort to make it right. Take action when you complain. It’s the only way you’ll ever stop.

“There outta be a law!” you say? Then make one (or call or write or email the people who make them). “That ain’t right!” you protest. What is right? What should be done? It’s time you get to doing it. There should be a new rule stating that if you complain and don’t act, then you’re not allowed to complain any more. Maybe I’ll get to work on that.

People who complain and never act should soon lose their right to be heard. Whether you simply ignore them when they start moaning and groaning, or whether you challenge them to start doing something to address the object of their dislike, the complainer will soon see the folly of griping about something and not acting.

Things only change because people act to bring about that change. Leaders of movements and revolutions weren’t merely complainers. They took action. Many were willing to be ridiculed at best and at worst, executed. Had any of them stopped at the complaint stage, our world would not have seen any progress in centuries.

Thankfully, they decided it was time to get to work, and the world was made better for it. What will you improve? You’ll need to move beyond simple complaining to get it done. The time to act is now.

(Disclosure: The writer of this blog received no compensation for the recommendation of this author or publication.)

Monday, November 29, 2010

Important but Not Urgent

Although a grandchild will sometimes say, “I’m bored,” I rarely hear that from any of the adults in my life. Most of us have more on our plates than we can handle. What makes it challenging is that most of it is “good” stuff. Certainly, we all have those tasks that don’t particularly energize us—taking out the trash, washing clothes, vacuuming, paying bills, maintaining our yards—but most of us have more perfectly good things on our “to do” lists than we have time to complete.

When one of my coaching clients talks about finding time to complete “important but not urgent” tasks, I immediately identify with him or her. These are the things that we need to do. They will ensure our personal, spiritual, social, professional and economic security, but they are often pushed to the background due to what one writer called “the tyranny of the urgent.” The urgent things are, by definition, not important but they must be done here and now. Like bad currency drives out the good, so urgent things drive out the important things. The urgent things drain our time, our attention, and our energy.

The first step in dealing with this situation is to remind ourselves why certain things are important. In spending time doing these things, our lives will become more balanced, healthier and richer. By doing these things, we are investing in the future. Do we want to be better than we are, then we need to fine time for the important things.

The second step is to learn to say, “No.” There are some things that I could do, but should I do them? Are they in keeping with God’s best for my life? Are they included in my personal priorities (which I should have thought out beforehand!)? Will they take time away from my family? Is there someone who can do it as well (or perish the thought) better than I could?

Third, is it really my problem? There are times when we want to step up and help a friend, family member, or even a stranger who is in a bind, but there are also times when we need to say, “I would love to help, but I already have a commitment.” This is not easy for those of us who tend to be “people-pleasers.”

Fourth, turn the phrase around: “Urgent but not important.” If that doesn’t put things into perspective, nothing will.

None of these steps is easy. I know because I struggle with implementing them in my own life. The alternative is to always be at the mercy of the urgent and miss out on the important.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

More Differences than Similarities?

Evidently in honor of Thanksgiving and anticipated family dinners, National Public Radio’s Morning Edition has been doing a series on why siblings differ from each other. In a story entitled “Siblings Share Genes, But Rarely Personalities,” researcher Robert Plomlin says, "Children in the same family are more similar than children taken at random from the population but not much more." The story goes on to report that, in terms of personality, we are similar to our siblings only about 20 percent of the time.

Three theories were presented for this, but one was particularly interesting to me. This is called “environment” but it is actually based on the idea of “non-shared environment.” This theory argues that although it may appear from the outside that siblings are growing up in the same family, in very important ways they really aren't. They are not experiencing the same thing.

"Children grow up in different families because most siblings differ in age, and so the timing with which you go through your family's [major events] is different," says Susan McHale, a researcher at Pennsylvania State University. "You know, a parent loses a job, parents get divorced. If you are three or five years behind your sibling, the experience of a 5-year-old whose parents get divorced is very different from the experience of a 9-year-old or a 10-year-old."

Also, McHale says, children in the same family are rarely treated the same by their parents, even if parents want to treat them the same. “Children have different needs," McHale says. "They have different interests. They have different personalities that are eliciting different treatment from parents."

This got me to thinking about church membership and the fact that, in reality, each of us belongs to a different church although we may be part of the same one! The experience of a thirty-year-old who has moved to the community and recently affiliated with downtown First Church is very different from that of the sixty-five year old who was on the cradle roll there and has never attended anywhere else. The experience of the single mother of four is very different from that of the father with a special needs child. Expectations differ as do the contributions that each member can or will make.

What does this mean for church leaders? We must never assume that we understand what an individual church member needs or wants. There are some commonalities shared by all members, but we might learn from the observation about siblings above: [They] are more similar than [individuals] taken at random from the population but not much more."

So what do we do? We ask questions, we listen, and we develop relationships. Only then will we have any idea about how we can walk alongside a believer in the journey of Christian growth and service.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

A Common Vocabulary

In leadership development, I have often used non-verbal exercises with groups to solicit insights about how we relate to one another. For one exercise, 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.”

Conversation can help to surface and deal with individual needs and priorities. Of course, this assumes that those involved in the conversation have a common language or vocabulary to conduct this conversation. As I have worked with the Peoplemap Communication System, a simple instrument to help people identify their personality type, I have discovered that one of the key benefits of using this instrument with a group of people is that it provides them with a common vocabulary to talk about how they interact with one another.

In discovering whether he or she is a leader, people, task, or free spirit type, a person is given both the permission and the terms to talk about personal needs, strengths, and potential Achilles Heels and how these impact the group of which they are a part. Team members can discuss their relationships with one another in nonthreatening ways. The result is a better understanding of each other’s contributions and needs.

If we hope to communicate effectively with one another, we have to agree on a common language. This is true if we are talking theology, politics, economics, or relationships. The challenge is to find those resources that help us to find common ground or, at least, a common language.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Incubators and Launching Pads

The coffee shops of America may be the new Antiochs and Mars Hills of the church. While waiting for a friend at a coffee shop/café this week, I was close enough to the next table to overhear the conversation taking place between three men. It was clear that one was a pastor and that they were discussing the launch of a new church in an adjoining community. Their discussion was intense and purposeful. I could pick up their enthusiasm just through the tone of their voices.

I was reminded that just a couple of weeks before, I had observed another man at the same table as he seemed to be interviewing candidates for a ministry position. As I thought about these conversations, I realized that over the last few months, I had seen several small groups involved in Bible study, others in intense dialogue over clearly Christian books, and a couple of people (evidently pastors) working sermons with their laptops. This café is a virtual incubator for church planting and Christian formation. In fact, I was there to meet my friend for a peer coaching session where we would discuss our spiritual, personal, and professional goals.

College shops and cafes like this one provide a number of things that encourage use by Christians. They are accessible, hospitable, and provide opportunities for networking. Add a laptop and Wi-Fi and you can easily access reams of information to help in planning and writing.

What a great resource for a church! But watch out for the muffins.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Using What You’ve Got

Last week I participated in the Leadership Coaching Project Retreat led by Mark Tidsworth, the president of Pinnacle Leadership Associates. We met in a beautiful setting—Lutheridge Conference Center near Asheville, North Carolina—with some great people. Including the Pinnacle team, we had leaders from Baptist, Presbyterian, Methodist, and Lutheran churches.

As I facilitated a small group of leaders and listened to the presentations that Mark did, I was reminded that each of us has great resources for growth and ministry. Every believer is wonderfully gifted by God. Retreats like this help us to discover more about ourselves but, in reality, most of us already know much more than we are doing! Coaching is one way to make better use of our gifts and natural talents and to focus those for life balance and more effective service.

What are some of the things that keep us from effectively using what has been given to us? You can come up with your own list, but here is mine.

First, I need to determine my priorities. I am involved in so many good activities, but what are the best for me? The problem is never finding something to do. It is making good choices about what to do.

Second, I need to determine the best use of my gifts. Although I don’t see myself as enormously gifted, I know that there are some things that I do well. I also know that there some things that I could do that might be done just as well (perhaps better) by someone else.

Third, I need to protect my core but be open to change. I admit that I borrowed this from Jim Collins (Built to Last, Good to Great, How the Mighty Fall), but it makes good sense on a personal level. There are some core values built around family, God, and community that are vital to me and inform who I am and want to be. At the same time, these values can be a springboard for growth and service rather than an excuse to ignore opportunities.

I will probably add more to this as I think about it, but this is a beginning point. What’s your list?

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Christian Reflections on the Leadership Challenge

Leadership continues to be a hot topic in business, government, academia, the non-profit sector, and the church. Most people realize that the leadership that got us into the situations we find ourselves in today won’t get us out of those situations, so we are constantly seeking new ways to conceptualize the role of leaders who can.

One of the most popular leadership models in recent years is The Five Practices of Exemplary Leadership ® developed out of extensive research by James M. Kouzes and Barry Z. Posner. They first presented their findings in The Leadership Challenge (2002). This spawned additional resources and over 200 doctoral dissertations and academic research projects.

The original book is very thorough and sometimes quite dense, so I was pleased to find that Kouzes and Posner had edited Christian Reflections on the Leadership Challenge. The theme of the book is how Christian leaders can apply the editors’ model “to the work of mobilizing others to get extraordinary things done.” This is a much more accessible book than the original volume. Although the editors provide three chapters on their model, the bulk of the book was written by authors who look at components of the model from a Christian perspective. Those contributors are John Maxwell, David McAllister-Wilson, Patrick Lencioni, Nancy Ortberg, and Ken Blanchard. Several of these authors bring both secular and ecclesial backgrounds to their presentations.

Kouzes and Posner’s basic model is: Model the Way; Inspire a Shared Vision; Challenge the Process; Enable Others to Act; and Encourage the Heart.

There is little new here, but it is presented in an interesting way.  Both the creators of the model and the contributors to this volume recognize that leadership is basically a relational task and, as such, is embodied in both the actions and the character of the leader. As Kouzes and Posner point out, “The legacy you leave is the life you live.” They understand that “the most significant contributions that leaders make are not today’s bottom line but to the long-term development of people and institutions that adapt, prosper, and grow.”

As in most collections, the various writers’ differing styles and approaches can create some difficulty for the reader, but the overall volume is concise, optimistic, and stimulating. This is a good introduction to Kouzes and Posner’s model and will encourage some creative thinking and self-appraisal for the Christian leader.


Sunday, November 14, 2010

Being a Baptist Christian

Dr. Tillman and Jim Whitaker
As we observed Baptist Heritage Sunday in our church today, I heard a term used by both our pastor, Mike Smith, and our guest, Bill Tillman, that I rarely heard as a young person growing up in a Southern Baptist church. The term is “Baptist Christian.” The addition of that adjective gives a perspective that I did not have in my formative years.

For most of my life, the use of the terms “Baptist” or “Southern Baptist” was sufficient to describe both my orientation and my tribe. We really weren’t that concerned about other Christians and tended to go it alone. We were even unsure about the National Baptists and the American Baptists, much less the independents. We really did not need anyone else to do God’s work. We were the God’s “last and only hope” (to use Bill Leonard’s term). Bold Mission Thrust, the effort to share the gospel with every person on earth, was first and foremost a Southern Baptist effort.

But things changed. We took our eyes off the goal and began to fight among ourselves. We lost some of our best and brightest to the Methodists, Disciples of Christ, Presbyterians, and (occasionally) the Lutherans and Episcopalians. Many found a home elsewhere discovered that those faith traditions often had their own challenges, but they were willing to make the sacrifice.

Not everyone left, of course, but minority status brought a new point of view. In more recent days, those who consider themselves progressive or moderate Baptists have begun to think about what it means to be a “Baptist” Christian. We are recovering our place in the world family of Christians. What do we offer to our brothers and sisters in Christ and what can we learn from them? Some call this “emergent Christianity.” Perhaps it is or maybe it is just that we have become more humble and willing to learn from the experiences of others.

I am grateful to be a Christian and, most days, I believe that my Baptist tradition has something to offer. On those days, I feel especially blessed.

Sunday, November 07, 2010

The Way Forward

Recent news reports tell us that Robert Schuller’s Crystal Cathedral in California has filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. The church leaders disclosed that the church is close to $50 million in debt. Some have seen this as the harbinger of the death of the megachurch. Of course, the reality is not that simple.

The Crystal Cathedral is probably unique among others in that category because it has practiced a rather traditional approach to worship albeit on a grand scale. The church has also been embroiled in a leadership transition crisis. The problems at this one megachurch do not mean that this expression of the church is dying out. In fact, Scott Thumma, an authority on megachurches, says mammoth churches aren’t going anywhere anytime soon.

In the CNN blog that reports the Crystal Cathedral’s bankruptcy, Thumma states that most megachurches are holding their own financially amid this "great recession." He defines a megachurch as a congregation with 2,000 members and above.

"Megachurches, in part, grew because they were adaptive, innovative and resourceful. They, and their leadership, have a great ability to evolve," says Thumma, co-author of Beyond Megachurch Myths: What We Can Learn from America's Largest Churches.
The blog writer asks the question, “Will megachurches retain their popularity in the future or is something other kind of church ready to be born?” The answers are “Yes” and “Yes.”

Churches are remarkably resilient institutions that continually reinvent themselves. Several years ago I was a member of a church that “split”—a good Baptist term for the act of one group of church members leaving to start another church for one reason or another. At least one member of our congregation questioned whether we could survive the loss of the pastor, a couple of other staff ministers, and two hundred members. I never doubted that we would. In fact, the original church is as strong as it was before the split and the church that was born out of the division is prospering as well.

No only do traditional churches find ways to survive, churches also know how to innovate. A quick Google search will provide information about house churches, organic churches, emerging churches, missional faith communities, and new monastic communities among other expressions of the Christian faith. These new forms will exist alongside the traditional county seat church, the neighborhood church, and the megachurch. I would not be surprised if even the Crystal Cathedral finds a way forward. God can and will be worshipped in a variety of expressions of the Christian church in the future, just as God has been worshipped in a variety of ways in the past.

Saturday, November 06, 2010

Using What God Has Given You

Several decades ago, author and humorist Grady Nutt wrote a book entitled God Don’t Make No Junk. As I remember, the premise of the book was that God has created each of us as unique beings endowed with certain innate abilities, strengths, and gifts. No one gets all the good stuff, but that’s not a problem. We should celebrate what God has done in us and use it wisely.

I think of Grady Nutt when I read Albert Winseman’s Growing an Engaged Church. Winseman is part of the Gallup Organization, a group that has done a great deal of research on helping people identify their strengths rather than their weaknesses (see, for example, Marcus Buckingham and Donald Clifton, Now, Discover Your Strengths and Tom Rath, Strengths Based Leadership and Strengths Finder 2.0).

In Growing an Engaged Church, Winseman applies this approach to the local congregation. He writes, “The notion of focusing on discovery and maximizing natural talents tends to go against the conventional wisdom.” He points out that their research “has shown that individuals have the most room for growth in their areas of greatest talent.” He suggests that strengths-focused organizations should leverage that principle as much as possible.

This makes good sense to me. If we are already started down a path that God has honored, the best course would seem to be to continue to follow that path. On the other hand, if we are on the wrong road, we will eventually realize our error and try another one (or even stop and ask for directions!). Let’s look for ways to maximize the resources that God has already provided rather than yearning for something that is beyond our reach.

Wednesday, November 03, 2010

A Future for CBF?

In a recent article at, John Hewett, the first moderator of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, shared hindsight on the position he and other moderate Baptists took at the beginning of the CBF “movement.” He realizes now that his vision and that of his contemporaries was limited by “the narrow constraints of our tradition” and preserving that tradition. “How I wish now I had sent us forth in May 1991 with the call to be free and faithful Christians,” he writes, rather than free and faithful Baptists.

As CBF approaches its twentieth anniversary and thinks about its future, Hewett provides this challenge:

“Now CBF has an opportunity to catch a fresh vision of what God is actually doing in God's world . . . . I am cheering them on, albeit from the sidelines, praying that the original dream of a brave and progressive Christianity in the Baptist tradition might come to pass, to the praise of God's glory, for Christ's sake, and our sakes.”

If CBF attempts to be both Christian and Baptist in the 21st century, it must face up to some hard questions:

First, what exactly do participating churches want from CBF? They certainly are not looking for a judicatory that will insure doctrinal integrity. Is CBF the broker for services of third party suppliers or a provider of services?

Second, how does CBF encourage innovation by its partners and reward that innovation?

Third, what does CBF expect from the theological institutions with which it partners? Is it encouraging its partner schools to provide leaders needed for 21st century missional churches?

Fourth, in the paradoxical context of a world that is becoming both more integrated and divided at the same time, what is the role of missionary field personnel? Are they strategy coordinators or ministry providers (or both)?

Fifth, what is the role of CBF in providing meaningful fellowship for churches, clergy, and lay leaders?

The answers to these questions will not come from the type of thinking that birthed the Fellowship. I believe that is what Hewett is saying.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

A Time to Kill

I have been spending an unusual amount of time recently with a female Episcopal priest. Of course, she spends a lot of time with the local police chief. There is no problem, however, since both are fictional and the leading characters in a series of mystery novels by Julia Spencer-Fleming.

Clare Fergusson is the thirty-something priest of St. Alban’s church in Millers Kill, New York, a small town nestled in the Adirondack Mountains in northern New York. A Virginian by birth and former Army helicopter pilot, Clare is in her first charge out of seminary. Chief Russ Van Alstyne is 15 years older. A Vietnam vet and former military policeman, Van Alstyne has returned to this home town upon retirement to head up the local police department, accompanied by the wife who helped pull him out of alcoholism. As one might imagine, events conspire to bring Clare and Russ together on several levels.

Neither our protagonists nor the people of Millers Kill are saints; they are people who wrestle with the issues of life and often stumble along the way. In All Mortal Flesh, Van Atlsyne tells Clare, “If there’s one thing I’ve learned in twenty-five years of law enforcement, it’s that anyone is capable of anything if pushed hard enough.” Clare’s experiences as a priest don’t contradict this observation. In fact, her challenge is to be the mediator of God’s grace to such people—and often to herself.

Those residents of Millers Kill who cross the line are often people like us—a parent concerned about his child’s future, a low-wage worker who has lost his job, a woman whose family has fallen on hard times, a doctor trying to cover up his transgressions. They don’t intend to do evil, but their burdens become untenable. Of course, there is the occasional sociopath as well.

Although Clare and Russ are the heroes of the series, they have their flaws as well. They take care of others but they often find themselves lonely and with no real friends. Thus, the friendship that turns into something more and heightens the tension of the relationship. The emotions they experience are real and often wrenching. Clare’s struggles to listen to God while ministering to those around her and attending to her own needs will resonate with clergy.

Spencer-Fleming is an effective writer who tries to avoid formula. The events in one novel take place over the course of a single day. Another goes back and forth in time from the Prohibition days of the 1920’s to the present day with other stops along the way to unravel several mysteries. One is written almost entirely from the perspective of a new member of the police force. The author allows us to get close to the two primary characters, but she also introduces other three-dimensional characters in each novel and weaves them into her plots. No one’s life is static and characters evolve from one story to another, so the reader will want to read the series sequentially.

Each novel unfolds at a pace that pulls the reader along easily. As you might expect, there is often a climatic event that both surprises and exhilarates, putting one or both of the leads in peril.

There are six novels in the series with a seventh due in April 2011. I am looking forward to the next episode in the lives of these interesting characters. If you start now, you can read all six and be ready for the new title, One Was a Soldier.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Essential Thinking about Mission

Few books can be considered truly seminal works in their field. Transforming Mission: Paradigm Shifts in Theology of Mission by David J. Bosch is one of them. Although Bosch, head of the department of missiology at the University of South Africa, died in an automobile accident in 1992, his work stands as a classic in its field. In a recent issue of Christianity Century, one theologian selected it as one the five books of the last 25 years that he describes as “essential.”

As we worked through part of Bosch’s book in our Christian Witness class this past Saturday, I was once again impressed by the scope of his work. Professor Bosch drew on history, theology, sociology, and economics to paint a picture of a gospel that has been continually in dialogue with the culture in which it finds itself. He saw the gospel as dynamic rather than static in relation to its culture.

The thesis of Bosch in this book is that “what has unfolded in theological and missionary circles during the last decades is the result of a fundamental paradigm shift, not only in mission or theology, but in the experience and thinking of the whole world.” He notes, of course, that this is not the first such shift that the world or the church have experienced, but we have the opportunity to be conscious of this change and take advantage of the opportunities it offers.

Bosch is not light reading. Students often note (if not outright complain) about his tendency to examine every implication of an event or movement ad infinitum. With a longer view of things that he was not permitted to have, we can see some false conclusions, such as the waning influence of fundamentalism in religion. This does not detract from his innate ability to observe, analyze, and suggest the implications of major movements in the Christian faith.

Anyone who wishes to understand how we arrived at our present situation in regard to Christian mission will find Bosch invaluable.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Anticipating a Future of Service

When I was campus minister at a denominational college in east Tennessee, I often attended five or six associational meetings in October. Adding these to already busy schedule was not easy, but there were three good things about the assignment. First, I saw some beautiful fall foliage as I traveled the highways and roads of east Tennessee. Second, I got to meet some nice people and tell them about the students at their denominational school. Third, I heard some good preaching! The person (it was always a man, of course) doing the annual sermon always pulled out his best and delivered it with conviction. Those were good days in many ways.

As I mentioned in an earlier post, the district judicatory that we call the Baptist association faces tough times today. If associations are going to survive, they must adopt a new paradigm that more effectively addresses the reality of the churches they serve.

The association will become more effective when it becomes a regional rather than a county organization. At least in Tennessee, churches cannot support all of the associations that presently exist. Several county associations could combine into one association that would be more effective and efficient.

The association must move away from the program delivery model to a people development model. The director of missions must become a coach to both clergy and laity. This means individualized attention to help church leadership address the unique needs of their congregations. The director can also facilitate peer groups of pastors, Christian educators, and lay leaders so that they can help and support each other.

The association can serve as a clearing house for ministry opportunities in the local area. This does not mean that the association will staff and fund these ministries. On the contrary, the association can identify established programs that embrace the values of local Baptist churches and then link the churches with these ministries. The organizations served do not even have to be Baptist!

The best thing about this approach is that it requires no buildings and little overhead. The association can be housed in a supporting church and utilize its meeting facilities when needed or go to other supporting churches.

These changes are not radical, but they could assure the future ministry of the judicatory.