Saturday, January 30, 2010

Boldly Go

I just completed reading Failure is Not an Option by Gene Kranz, flight director for many of the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo space missions. A friend had also read it recently. He commented, “If current workplace regulations had been in effect in the 60s, we would never have made it to the moon!” Whether he was serious or kidding, his comment reminds me how dangerous space flight has been and still is. Kranz points out that many of the missions succeeded only due to hard work, perseverance, God’s grace, and pure luck.

The early members of the NASA team were brought up short by the death of three astronauts-–Gus Grissom, Ed White, and Roger Chaffee—during a static test on a launch pad on January 27, 1967. It was a tragic event but not the last one that would take the lives of American (and Russian) astronauts. In his book, Kranz notes that Grissom recognized the danger in his work. One of the original Mercury astronauts, he almost drowned when his capsule took on water before he could be picked up by the recovery crew. Kranz quotes Grissom as saying, “The conquest of space is worth the risk of life.”

I am not sure what holds us back today in moving forward with space exploration—fear of loss of life, economic tightness, vacillating leadership, or lack of vision. When he wrote the book ten years ago, Gene Kranz stated, “We stand with our feet firmly planted on the ground when we could be exploring the universe.” The book ends with a challenge to move forward, a challenge that has been largely ignored.

If a cause is worthy, men and women will give their lives to it. They just need to have the chance.

Failure is Not an Option

Gene Kranz was a pioneer in the manned space program and was involved with NASA for over three decades. In his book, Failure is Not an Option, Kranz recounts an insider’s view of manned space flight from Mercury to Gemini to Apollo. As a flight director, he often provided stability and a cool head in the midst of crisis. Kranz describes a macho, patriotic, and dedicated environment that stayed the course during a period when there was great tumult in American society—the Vietnam War, assassination of leaders, the struggle for civil rights, protest, and political infamy. Although Kranz certainly considers himself a tough guy, he was and is a very religious man who was deeply touched by the reading from Genesis 1 during the Apollo 8 mission as well as the death of colleagues.

I read this book primarily as a case study in leadership and found plenty of insights there. Kranz writes, “With only the tools of leadership, trust, and teamwork, we contained the risks and made the conquest of space possible.” Failure is Not an Option provides plenty of examples of all three.

For Kranz, a leader does not shrink from presenting a challenge or making a decision. When the crisis of Apollo 13 became clear and that the lunar mission had become one of survival, Kranz told his team, “Flight control will never loss an American in space. . . You’ve got to believe that this crew is coming home.”

Although he was often the final voice in making a decision, Kranz practiced teamwork and used all of the human resources at his disposal. He believed in his people and demanded that they to be the best. He learned early on that “learning by doing” was the only way that controllers would be become smart enough to handle all the things thrown at them. They practiced simulations, learned from their mistakes, and debriefed every mission thoroughly. He understood that a good leader must “always hire people smarter and better than you are and learn with them.”

As a leader, Kranz set high standards for himself and his team. A sign in his office noted, “Aviation in itself is not inherently dangerous. But to an even greater extent than the sea, it is terribly unforgiving of any carelessness, incapacity, or neglect.” He later added “ignorance” to this motto.

He made clear that “the greatest error is not to have tried and failed, but that in trying, we did not give it our best effort.” Kranz called upon flight controllers to be tough and competent. To be tough meant “we are forever accountable for what we do or fail to do.” To be competent meant that “we will never take anything for granted.”

With the lives of astronauts in the hands of the teams in Mission Control, Kranz realized that nothing less than the maximum effort would assure success. One of the memorable moments in the movie Apollo 13 is Kranz (played by Ed Harris) saying, “Failure is not an option.” His perspective was that a controller would not give up until he had an answer or another option. He proudly noted, “Generating options is our business.”

Although he believed in his people, he did not feel the same about the technology they handled: “It isn’t equipment that wins the battles; it is the quality and determination of the people fighting for the cause in which they believe.” He understood that “the human factor allows us to achieve things that technology alone cannot.”

Gene Kranz was a technically oriented person who drew upon on his background as a fighter pilot to build a team. Even more, he was a person who was willing to learn from others while challenging them and himself to the next level. In Failure is Not an Option, he shares his rich experience with us.

Do We Still Need Each Other?

The discussion about the future of denominations continues unabated. A series of videos and articles offered by Leadership Education at Duke Divinity provides some fresh insights for the discussion.

In one video, Wesley Granberg-Michaelson, general secretary of the Reformed Church in America (RCA), states that the question is “not whether congregations will be linked, but how.” He believers that most congregations continue to see the need for connections that reflect that we are each part of the larger body of Christ. In the same series, author, activist and former pastor Brian McLaren tries to offer some positive comments about denominations, but he observes, “I ended up becoming a church planter of a church that was nondenominational. I would have been happy to join a denomination, if a denomination would have brought me more benefits than it brought me liabilities.” Ouch!

McLaren offers a list of “what denominations do well” that merits consideration. I would like to offer a brief list of some things that denominations have traditionally provided and comment on whether those things are needed today or not.

First, denominations provide order. This can be interpreted in two ways. Order may mean protection from heresy, instability, and unqualified clergy. The other side of the coin is that order may mean control—giving up freedom to another group to assure protection. Although some congregations and congregants may desire the stability offered in this arrangement, I would venture that the majority would rather not have to deal with outside intervention. Even with hierarchical denominations, order is breaking down.

Second, denominations provide identity. Being part of a particular denomination helps us to understand the “tribe” to which we belong and what this particular group holds sacred. In reality, the tribes are reassembling in different configurations. Moderate Baptists have more in common with some Methodists and Disciples than they do with the Baptists down the street. Some Episcopalians have more in common with Missouri Synod Lutherans than Lutherans who have different ideas on who can be leaders in the churches.

Third, denominations provide resources. Traditionally, denominations have been very good at this. They have been the purveyors of curriculum, leadership development, and ministerial training. Increasingly, however, churches are discovering or producing resources that allow them to fulfill the mission that they have identified for themselves. Most of these resources are not connected to their denomination or any other.

Fourth, denominations provide partners for mission. Even in the age of megachurches, there are some tasks that call for cooperation. Most congregations would rather join with others who share their values to serve in the community, reach unreached people groups, and impact the culture. The breakdown of the denominational tribes (see above), however, may mean that these partners come from a different doctrinal or denominational background.

Fifth, denominations provide relationships. As individuals and as congregations, we need friends who will encourage us, help us, and hold us accountable. Denominations have provided this the past. I don’t particularly like “meet and greet” fellowship times, but I can remember going to denominational meetings at Ridgecrest conference center and being the last person to leave because I was enjoying fellowship with people with whom I had so much in common. Today, I am as likely to find that fellowship at a nondenominational gathering.

Do we need denominations? I will let you answer that question yourself, but I will affirm that we need those functions that denominations have tended to provide for us. We still need each other. Where we find that support may well have changed, however.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Being Accountable

My dirty word for the day is “accountability.” It is one of those words that make us uncomfortable. I think we all try to avoid being accountable to someone else we can. I love the freedom of retirement, but I still find that I am—and must be—accountable to others. I thought about this Sunday when I preached about the rich young ruler. The key verse in this story is this:

Jesus looked at him and loved him. "One thing you lack," he said. "Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me." (Mark 10:21, NIV)

The real challenge is not giving up riches, but following Jesus. If this man did that he would have to become accountable to someone else. He would have to answer to Jesus and allow Jesus to set his priorities. If he had been willing to accept this challenge, he would have gained much more (as Jesus goes on to explain) but he chose not to do so.

Although society makes us accountable in many ways, for the most part accountability is a free choice. We choose whether we will be accountable to someone else or not. We become accountable to an organization or company and its leaders because we want to make a living and a contribution. We join accountability groups like Alcoholics Anonymous or Weight Watchers because we want to change our habits and our lives. We give up some freedom and become accountable to spouse and family because we value these relationships and want them to succeed. In a coaching relationship, the client becomes accountable to the coach so that he or she can achieve life goals. In coaching, as in any other relationship, the only power that a coach has over the client is given by the client.

Accountability is not a dirty word. If we want to grow as believers or persons, we must give up complete autonomy and become accountable. This is the way that we enrich our lives and find fulfillment

Monday, January 18, 2010

A Day to Reflect

Today we celebrate the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and those who stood with him in the Civil Rights Movement. In light of this observance and the election of President Obama, many are discussing whether we have become a “post-racial” society in America. The answer is, of course, “No” and “Yes.”

No, race is still important in America. If we do not take race seriously, we cannot understand who were are and how we interact with each other. In one recent seminary class I quickly discovered that all of us were Baptists, but that an African American church operates very differently from the predominantly Euro-American congregation of which I am a member. One reason is that the African-American church has played a unique role in our society, providing empowerment, direction, and leadership that African-Americans could not find elsewhere.

Race should not be ignored. Racial pride grew out of marginalization. When a race is subjugated, the members of that race make choices: they can give up their identity, they hold on to what is really important and work within the larger culture, or they can strictly resist assimilation. Most of the people in my family rejected their Native American identity, and I am a poorer person for that. We should value our roots. On the other hand, if one holds too closely to their racial identity (such as resisting learning the dominant language), they will continue to be marginalized. Living with this tension is not easy.

I grew up with the idea that American was a “melting pot”—differences in culture were “boiled down” to a stew with a common consistency. When ethnic groups came to this country, they left their ethnic identity behind and embraced the “American way.” In reality, this was a long slow process and some of that ethnic identity still survives today (think about Saint Patrick’s Day!). Sometime in my young adult years, I was exposed to the idea of our country as a “mosaic”—different races and nationalities making their own unique contribution on the larger landscape of American life—valuing their identity but offering it to strengthen the society. I like the mosaic idea better, but it presupposes a stable base on which to build that mosaic. In our country, the base is the rule of law and a tolerance for those who differ from us.

On the other hand, race is not as important in some areas of life as it once was, and I am grateful for that change. Different races work, live, and worship together in ways that they did not fifty years ago. Is there still prejudice? Yes, but it is not codified and responsible people struggle to deal with it in society and in their lives. Is there racism? Yes, just as there is greed, lust, rebellion, and corruption. All of these sins exist in society, but we do not honor them or encourage their practice.

Race continues to be a key issue in American life. People of good will must continue to talk, pray, and deal with this issue. To argue otherwise is to miss the opportunity to improve ourselves and our society.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Understanding the Times

“What’s the church going to look like 50 years from now?” The question came from a seminary student during a conference call in which I participated this week. This is an understandable query from a person in his twenties who is about to enter what he hopes will be a lifetime vocation of ministry.

Of course, I couldn’t give him an answer. We can make some educated guesses, but only God knows what lies ahead. I suggested to the student that if his desires to have a relevant ministry for the next five decades, he should learn how to read the culture. I am reminded of the men of Issachar mentioned in 1 Chronicles 12:31 “who understood the times and knew what Israel should do.” Knowing your context can not only help you to survive in ministry but to prosper.

Why should we be concerned about the culture? I suggest several reasons.

First, if we expect our message to be heard, we need to speak the language. I don’t expect English to pass out of fashion in the next 50 years (although learning Spanish and Chinese might be a good idea), but if we are going to communicate effectively, we must understand the idioms, jargon, and phraseology of the times. King James English is still very beautiful, but there are many parts of it that must be explained. Our language continues to evolve, and we must be aware of the changes in everyday usage and the nuances of language.

Second, we need to understand the messages that the culture is sending. An effective communicator of today and tomorrow must be aware of movies and TV shows. This is where people, especially young adults, learn their framing narratives. This has been true for years. Think about the Star Wars mythology. How many ideas and phrases that have become part of our everyday language were drawn from the archetypes that George Lucas wove into his films? We don’t have to embrace these narratives, but we do need to understand and deconstruct them.

Third, if we understand our culture, we know the issues with which people are grappling and can consider ways that the Gospel speaks to those issues. I know that Jesus never talked about abortion, stem cell harvesting, or online etiquette, but His message certainly can help us to address these and other challenging ideas in our culture.

Fourth, if we understand culture, we can find ways that it can work for us as Christ followers. We can learn how to leverage the strengths of the secular world to build the Kingdom. We can take advantage of unexpected opportunities—like Paul on Mars Hill—to communicate the gospel.

How will the events of the next 50 years impact the church and its work? I think the answer is up to us.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Learning from Mistakes

One of my favorite sayings is, “It is better to have tried something and failed than to have tried nothing and succeeded.” This philosophy is reflected in a section of Dave Ellis’s book Human Being entitled “Appreciate Mistakes.”

Ellis’ approach is that mistakes are fertile ground for growth if we take the time to get over guilt, shame, and blaming and are willing to learn from them. Since I have participated in some colossal blunders in my time (and dragged others with me), I am grateful for his perspective. I don’t know Ellis’ religious bent, but I find the idea rooted in my understanding of God and God’s dealings with us.

There are some empowering concepts that can come from mistakes. First, we can learn new behaviors. It is easy to rely on old habits but doing so only replicates the same mistake. New behaviors help us to do things differently the next time and, perhaps, come out with a more productive outcome.

Second, we can set more realistic goals. Sometimes we bite off too much by overestimating our capabilities, resources, or available time. Mistakes help us to be more realistic about what we can really accomplish.

Third, we can learn to work more effectively with others. This may mean listening more attentively to the hopes and aspirations of teammates, sharing more of the responsibility, or asking for help when we get in over our heads.

Fourth, we can be honest with ourselves. When something goes wrong, I find it easy to look elsewhere for the cause of the failure. Blame is not the answer; clear assessment is. I have to be willing to recognize my role in the situation first and then allow others the freedom to assess their own responsibilities.

I was fortunate to have a supervisor early in my ministry who understood this concept. I shared with him one time a list of things that had not worked out as I had planned. I suppose I was seeking some absolution. It came in the form of his response: “Keep it up. It’s the only way to find out what WILL work.”

Thursday, January 07, 2010

The Multichannel Church

“Don’t put all of your eggs into one basket.” That old adage sums up the philosophy of Tom Ehrich, writer and consultant who pens the daily online devotional On a Journey. In a webinar today, Ehrich encouraged participants to think in terms of a “multichannel” church, one that ministers in more than one venue and does not confine itself to a Sunday morning presence in the lives of congregants.

Every church provides ministry on-site, primarily through Sunday morning worship and Bible study. Many churches are doing more off-site ministry ranging from home Bible studies and community ministries to satellite campuses. A third option that is only rarely practiced is personal exploration, an individualized delivery system that may well take advantage of online resources.

Two significant questions were asked during the webinar. One was, “What percent of your church’s resources are used for the Sunday morning services?” Most participants responded fifty to 75 percent. The other question was, “What percent of your church activities take place off-site?” Most reported ten percent or less.

Ehrich emphasizes that the church needs to adopt multiple delivery systems, not only on-site but off-site and online as well. Some members would welcome the opportunity to receive spiritual nurture at home or on the road during the week through online delivery. Those looking for a “church home” go to the church’s website before they decide where to visit. Many non-church members will not enter the doors of the church until their lives are intersected by believers in the community. We have too many options that we are not using to maximum effect.

Ehrich, an Episcopalian priest who works in the secular world as well as the ecclesiastical realm, challenges us to use all of the tools at our disposal to reach people. Read more at his web site

Tuesday, January 05, 2010

Putting God at the Center

In a review* in the current issue of Christian Century, Anthony Robinson discusses the application of missional church theology to denominational structures. As Robinson reminds us, it is not the church that has a mission but God who has a mission of which the church is a part.

In applying this concept to judicatories, Robinson writes, “Because missional church theology consistently emphasizes the missio Dei—God’s mission, in which the church participates—this venture might be summarized as an attempt to rearrange denominational life so that God is at the center.”

This is a significant insight. Denominations consciously or unconsciously choose their focus. In my denominational experience as a Baptist in the south, we usually talked about the church being at the center of our work. This was, of course, the ideal, but the emphasis on the church reminded us of local church autonomy (although we often wanted churches to fall in line with the latest program that was handed down from denominational headquarters!). The idea we pursued was the local congregation as the nexus of God’s work. This is a good start, but it only goes so far, and certainly falls short of the missio Dei.

Denominations have been organized around other concepts as well. They have often been centered on mission endeavors. In this context, “mission” meant missionary-sending structures in which the resources of individuals and churches were mobilized to put people on the mission field. This may be part of but does not totally encompass what we mean when we use the term “missional church.”

In other contexts, denominational structures have centered on regulation, doctrinal orthodoxy, and simply survival! Our denominations have often been more concerned about promoting success than faithfulness.

What if we reconsidered denominational life with the missio Dei at the center? How would this impact our priorities, structures, and personnel? This is an idea worth considering.

*The book reviewed was The Missional Church and Denominations: Helping Congregations Develop a Missional Identity, edited by Craig Van Gelder (Eerdmans).

Monday, January 04, 2010

Transition is a Reality

When I paid our check after a meal at Cracker Barrel over the weekend, the cashier who helped me was a young man with the title “Manager in Transition” stitched on his apron. This caught my attention and I engaged him in conversation about what he was transitioning into or out of. The phrase reminded me that all of us are in transition whether we recognize it or not! Nothing in life is static. We may resist change, but things are always changing around us.

We usually become conscious of transitions at certain points in life—beginning and ending of school years or academic programs, changing of jobs, marriage or divorce, birth of children, death of family members or friends, or joining a new church. With the changing of calendars, most of us are probably thinking about transitions of one type or another right now.

Transitions are not good or bad; they are a reality. With transitions come new opportunities. New doors are opened and new perspectives become available. As a leadership coach, I define my goal as to help a person discover his or her growing edge and to live into it. One’s growing edge becomes more apparent during times of transition. Since things are changing anyway and new possibilities are becoming available, why not explore a new path to walk?

This presupposes a couple of things. First, God is always calling us to grow—spiritually, emotionally, relationally, etc. God has created us to be growing creatures. Growth is evidence of life. Second, we have the opportunity to make decisions about our lives. God has created us as decision-makers, and we are ultimately responsible for our own decisions.

Although we can make choices about our futures at any point on the calendar, the beginning of a new year is a great opportunity to consider where we can grow during the coming year. Find your growing edge and find those who will help you to move in that direction.

Friday, January 01, 2010

A Time for Everything

The writer of Ecclesiastes reminds us, “There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under heaven.” (3:1) The ending of one year and the beginning of the next is only the turn of the page on a calendar (or the discarding of an old calendar for a new one), but it is a time when we contemplate what has been and what is to come.

Some seem to feel that some years are better overall than others. I think that each year has its blessings and struggles. I have also come to appreciate that each year will have its share of celebration and pain. Celebration of new life, new accomplishments, and good times. Pain of loss, struggle, and indecision. Celebration and pain are inexorably connected. This past year we rejoiced over the birth of a grandson, but we struggled with his mother’s health concerns resulting from that pregnancy. We enjoyed friends, but we went to the funerals of ones who will be missed. We accepted new challenges but met some closed doors along the way.

The one constant in all of this was the presence of God with us. Wisdom literature (like Ecclesiastes and Job) sometimes leaves us with more questions about God that it answers. God does not promise answers, however; God does promise to walk with us on the journey.

So the journey continues and our Companion for the journey walks with us into the New Year. To God be the glory!