Monday, February 28, 2011

New Meaning for Community

In a recent e-mail message, consultant Tom Ehrich commented, “As we move forward in the Internet age and learn to use the tools at our disposal, I think we are coming to a richer meaning of ‘incarnate’ and what it means to be a faith ‘community.’"  With text messaging, instant messaging, e-mail, and social networking, we can establish contact and share information very quickly with other people.  Of course, there is a great deal of discussion about the depth and quality of such relationships.

Ehrich acknowledges that nothing will ever take the place of the profound interaction of human beings face to face, but we are learning to trust and learn from these “instant contacts.”  They allow us to share new insights, understanding, and information directly with those about whom we care.  We can grieve, rejoice, support, and pray for others more intelligently.  I have had a positive experience with Facebook.  The social network has helped me to maintain contacts with a number of people and to make some new friends.  The same is not true for Twitter which has been intrusive for me, providing “way too much information.”

How does this apply to larger expressions of community?  We are accustomed to joining with other believers in a setting for worship—praying, singing, and listening—in real time.  Can this be translated into a virtual or online format without losing the power that comes from shared experiences in community?

Ehrich commends this as a worthy experiment.  I am currently working with a friend to implement an online platform to promote community in our church.  The platform is very robust, providing opportunities to share prayer requests, communicate quickly with individuals or groups, and share various types of content.  Although not designed for community worship, it would not be difficult to take that next step with the right platform.

Each of us is at a different point of readiness for such experiences.  Some will readily embrace the opportunity while others will never be comfortable with any type of online community.  The reality is that community is and has been manifested in many different forms across the years.  The concept continues to evolve.  What we do with these new manifestations of community is our choice.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

It’s Not Broken Unless I Say It Is

In The Practice of Adaptive Leadership, authors Ronald Heifetz, Alexander Grashow, and Marty Linsky, make this observation:

"There is a myth that drives many change initiatives into the ground: that the organization needs to change because it is broken. The reality is that any social system (including an organization or a country or a family) is the way it is because the people in that system (at least those individuals and factions with the most leverage) want it that way. In that sense, on the whole, on balance, the system is working fine, even though it may appear to be "dysfunctional" in some respects to some members and outside observers, and even though it faces danger just over the horizon. As our colleague Jeff Lawrence poignantly says, 'There is no such thing as a dysfunctional organization, because every organization is perfectly aligned to achieve the results it currently gets.' "

This goes a long way to help me understand why change is so difficult. William Bridges wrote that it is not that people don’t like change, they just don’t like being changed!  If I am satisfied with my present situation, who are you to tell me that I need to do anything differently?

Change is not imposed on a person or an organization from outside.  Change can only happen when that person or organization is ready to change.  So what drives change?

1.    Impending death.  Although I know people who have been told they will die if they don’t stop smoking, I have seen plenty of people who are ready to take off their oxygen mask for just one more puff.  For most individuals and organizations, impending death is not necessarily a strong motivation to change because we cannot imagine the world with us or our organization.
2.     A “wake-up call.”  There is a sudden realization that disaster is on the doorstep-- you can’t make your mortgage payment, or there is no money to pay this month’s salary checks, or the roof of the sanctuary just caved in and the insurance doesn’t cover it.  Few people can ignore disaster when it is staring them in the face.
3.    Embarrassment.  When something happens that violates the values and standards of the individual or community AND it becomes public knowledge, there is usually readiness to change.  Whether is a drunk and disorderly charge of abuse of a minor by a staff member, corrective action can no longer be delayed.
4.    Discontent.  This is the least dramatic cause for change, but the one that may have the most lasting effect.  When an individual discovers that he or she is underperforming or a church realizes that there are unmet opportunities at its doorstep, this may well provide readiness for change.  In such a situation, a perceptive person or a wise leader can cast a vision for a desired future that will provide motivation for life or organizational change.

Change rarely happens overnight but it will never happen without readiness for change.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Following the Needs of the Churches

In a recent address in Minnesota, Bradley Longfield, dean of the University of Dubuque (Iowa) Theological Seminary, said the church needs “to find new and creative ways to train leadership.”  Of course, the church expects seminaries to provide this leadership, Longfield observed, and the seminaries have often been slow to respond.

Longfield pointed out, “The future seems to be breaking in much more quickly than most of us would like.”  Just as the church was slow to embrace the use of radio and television to further its mission, so the church and its institutions have been slow to embrace the Internet and digital technology for ministry.  They have been committed to an older way to delivering ministry and ambivalent about trying new approaches.
The reluctance to change on the part of seminaries should not be a surprise to anyone.  Churches have long looked to theological institutions to teach not only the faith but to be gatekeepers for those qualified for ministry.  They have been considered the keepers of the heritage.  Although this feeling may not have been as strong for those with a congregational polity such as Baptists, in most circles education was respected and scholars were honored.  This is attested to by the number of schools, colleges, and seminaries founded by Baptists in the 18 and 19th centuries.  Just as the monasteries of old, the colleges and seminaries of the church were seen as solid, trustworthy institutions with a commitment to biblical and theological foundations as well as the traditions of the church.  They were the “keepers of the faith.”
This is no longer true.  As churches struggle to prove themselves credible in contemporary culture, they have often looked beyond the theological institutions that they spawned for new insight and leadership.  In so doing, some have made good choices and others have failed miserably.
This provides new opportunities for theological institutions.  They have the resources that are needed by the churches and must find new ways to share them.  As Longfield said, “Seminaries are going to follow the needs of the church.”  The contemporary climate calls for innovation and creativity.  Without sacrificing academic integrity and competent scholarship, many institutions such as Longfield’s and Central Baptist Theological Seminary welcome the challenge and are seeking ways to prepare leaders for the churches, denominations, and other faith communities.

This is a time of great opportunity--not a time of fear but of hope.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Do We Need Knights or Gardeners?

Futurist Cassidy Dale is leading an online class for the Wayne E. Oates Institute on “How Theological Worldviews Shape Our Ministry.” One of the resources for the class is an e-book written by Dale entitled “The Knight and the Gardener:  Worldviews Make Worlds.”  In this book, he points to two extremes on a spectrum.  At one end are the Knights who are always looking for a battle.  They are ready to go off on a crusade and see every issue in black and white.  They are defenders of the cause.  At the other end are the Gardeners who are always looking for something to fix or nurture.  They put all their time into bringing divergent constituencies together to accomplish some goal.  Gardeners want to creative lasting alternatives.

At different points in a person’s life, he or she may be either a Knight or a Gardener, but each person tends to favor one style (or worldview) over another.    Abraham Lincoln might be seen as a Knight who became a Gardener.   Dwight Eisenhower might fit that role as well.  Both fought wars but sought a redemptive peace.

When it comes to conflict, Knights seek enemies; in fact, they must have an opponent to justify their existence.  Gardeners, on the other hand, look for challenges and opportunities and seek partners rather than enemies.

We have seen this played out in Baptist life in the South over the last three decades.  Knights on one side sought to purify the Southern Baptist Convention.  This gave rise to Knights on the other side (often called Moderates) who sought to defend the status quo.  When the moderate Knights withdrew to form their own kingdom (just continuing the analogy), they continued to see the division as a battle to be won, trying to bring the undecided into the fold.  Although some Knights continue to exist in the moderate camp, leadership (especially among younger leaders) has tended to adopt more the Gardener approach.   These leaders want to build something new, attract the disaffected, and find new partners.

Although we honor the Knights for their sacrifices, the future of the moderate Baptist movement lies with the Gardeners.    They are not looking for antagonists to define battle lines but new friends to expand their sphere of influence.

Download Cassidy Dale’s e-book, read it, and find out where you are on the continuum.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Growth-Centered Relationships

On a recent Saturday, I conducted a morning retreat to launch a peer coach training group in our church.  In the presentation, we discussed the value of growth-centered relationships.  Peer coaching attempts to foster relationships that will lead to personal and spiritual growth.   I was reminded that relationships that produce individual growth are actually rooted in two things—encouragement and accountability.  They are two sides of a coin.

Several years ago, I was involved in a performance review with my supervisor.  As we talked, I recounted some things that I had tried in the past year that has seemed promising but had failed to produce the desired results.  I suppose I was feeling a bit guilty about the lack of success these efforts produced.  My supervisor responded with a comment to this effect:  “Don’t worry about it.  Keep trying new things.  It’s the only way you will learn what works.”  Although he was not abdicating the position of accountability he held over me, he was also giving me the gift of encouragement.

In Missional Renaissance, Reggie McNeal writes, “Genuine spirituality lives and flourishes only in cultures and relationships of accountability.”  We might add to that statement these words: “and where one is encouraged to grow.”

The Power of a Literal Worldview

Bart D. Ehrman is the James A. Gray Distinguished Professor of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He spoke this past Friday at Middle Tennessee State University here in Murfreesboro.  His topic was “Misquoting Jesus:  Scribes Who Changed the Bible and Readers Who May Never Know.”  He has written over 24 books including Misquoting Jesus, Jesus Interrupted, and Lost Christianities. 

Ehrman is an accomplished academic, an engaging speaker, and a Biblical scholar, but he is not a Christian.  The last statement is not based on my assessment but his own declaration.  He is an agnostic; not a combative agnostic but a professing one nonetheless.

To his credit, Ehrman did not bring up his religious inclination (or lack thereof) in his presentation.  This surfaced in the question and answer period afterward, and he was specifically asked to recount his journey to this position.  He explained briefly that he had been “born again” in a fundamentalist church in Kansas as a teenager and went on to study at Moody Bible Institute.  From there, he went on the more liberal (you are allowed to smile here) Wheaton College.  There he exhibited a skill in Greek translation and was encouraged by a professor to attend Princeton Theological Seminary and study under New Testament scholar Bruce Metzger.  After receiving his master of divinity there, he went on to receive the Ph.D.  (magna cum laude) and even pastored a Baptist church briefly while in graduate studies.

Along the way, he went from fundamentalism to liberalism to agnosticism, primarily due to his study of the New Testament documents and his growing awareness of the “mistakes” and inconsistencies found there.  What really pushed him over the edge, however, was his struggle with the problem of suffering in the world.  From his perspective, a God who has the power to intervene to relieve the suffering of the world and chooses not to is not worth worshipping.  Therefore, he questions whether there really is a God.

I have a great deal of respect for Professor Ehrman.  I was first introduced to the idea of “alternative Christianities” and “proto-orthodox Christianity” by reading some of his more popular works.  He is a brilliant man and is honest about his point of view.  In his lecture, he was not critical of the Christian faith (although he pointed out how little Christians really know about the Bible) and responded graciously to those who attempted to challenge his scholarship and his faith stance.

Professor Ehrman, however, is as much a literalist as any Christian fundamentalist.  It seems to me that he continues to perceive theological questions out of the worldview he learned as a teenager in a fundamentalist church.  He is either captive to that worldview or just doesn’t care to consider other alternatives. 

Although I am not endowed with the scholarly qualifications of Professor Ehrman, may I suggest that the point of the Christian faith is not the book but the Christ?  Although the present state of the Biblical documents does reflect human error, neglect, and even deviousness, the message is still there for us to appropriate in beliefs that give meaning and direction to our lives. For example, one belief that gives me encouragement each day is that the present age is not all there is.  Although we take seriously the inbreaking of God’s kingdom into this world, we are just at the beginning of God’s redemption of humankind.  God’s love breaks through in many ways into the present age, but God’s work will not be finished here.

God continues to use broken and bent instruments of all kinds to give new meaning and purpose to humankind.  I do not fully understand the process, but I embrace it.

Friday, February 18, 2011

United We Stand

Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin is attempting to eliminate most collective bargaining rights for public employees in his state.  Republican legislators in my state of Tennessee want to take this right away from teachers.  Florida is considering similar legislation.  Across the country, elected officials are attempting to roll back the rights earned by American workers through blood, sweat, and tears.

I will admit up front that I am prejudiced.  I grew up in a home where my father was a member of a union.  More than once, the union went on strike to gain better wages and benefits.  Those were not happy days!  My wife and daughter have been members of teachers organizations (often referred to as “unions”) that negotiate with local school boards and state legislators for improved wages, better working conditions, and employment protection. 

The closest I have come to being a “union” member was when I helped to organize and promote a professional organization called the Association of Southern Baptist Campus Ministers in the 1970s.  At least one state director of student work (one who was not my employer) wrote and told me that “BSU [Baptist Student Union] directors don’t need a union.”  We did need encouragement, professional development and fellowship, but most all we wanted to exercise our freedom of association.  (On a side note, several of the early leaders of ASBCM went on to become state directors of student ministries!)

The freedom to join together as a group to pursue common interests and engage in collective bargaining is based on freedom of association. Although it is not specifically found in the Constitution of the United States of America, it can be inferred from the right of freedom of assembly.  By working together for the common good, unions and other organizations have helped to assure fair and equitable treatment for all the members of a group.

I know that there are downsides to such organizations, but they provide a check and balance on the power of employers and even governmental entities.  In my experience with public education, I know of several individuals who would have loss their livelihood without the support of the teachers’ organization.

In an age when individualism is extolled but not always rewarded, we need the strength of community and mutual commitment to a common goal.  The people of Egypt can testify to the importance of such unity.  Working together, we can may a difference.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Find a Good Starting Point

I was involved in a conversation recently with the leader of the sales team of a company.  As we talked about his experience with outside trainers and consultants, he said something to this effect:  “Too often these folks come in with their product and want you to buy it whether it fits your organization or not.”   In other words, they start with their needs rather than the client’s needs.

What’s wrong with this strategy? First, this approach does not take into account the uniqueness of the client.  Whether it is a consultant working with an organization or a life coach working with an individual, the service provider must start by getting to know the person or organization with whom they will be working.  This requires more listening that talking.  Only then will the resource person knows the special needs and capabilities of the one being service.  In Getting Naked, Patrick Lencioni models a consulting approach where the consultant begins his or her relationship with a company with an open display of curiosity or even ignorance.  The consultant asks questions, listens, and learns before suggesting any actions. 

Second, this approach often reflects the limited expertise of the coach or consultant.  Someone said, “When the only tool you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.”  If you only have one product to sell, you sell it.  Whatever the client’s need, your product will meet the need.  This was the approach that religious denominations pursued in the past.  “You want to reach more people?  Then you need a bus ministry (or Evangelism Explosion or direct mail).” This might be a short-term fix, but there are rarely lasting results because the program doesn’t really fit the church.

Third, most clients today know that they have a choice. They can use the “off the rack” coaching or consultant model, or they can work together with the service provider to develop the strategy that will be most effective in their situation.  This is the contrast between Wal-Mart and the boutique or the mass production model versus craftsmanship.  The former option will meet your short-term need but the latter approach is much more useful to you in the long run.  The client makes the decision and pays the price (in money, time, or effort).

When it comes to providing help, the provider must always offer assistance in the way that the recipient can best incorporate it.  Otherwise, the effort is wasted.  Being conscious of the other person or group’s individuality will pay off in long term changes and benefits.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Boomers Step Up Their Ministry

When I was a young seminary student just out of the military, I was befriended by my next door neighbor in seminary housing.  He was in his early fifties with grown children.  After serving as a lay leader in churches for a number of years, he had been ordained to the ministry, called to a small church in east Texas, and packed up his wife and moved to Fort Worth to attend seminary.  His experience and common sense enriched my life as I embarked on ministry as a life’s work.

I thought of my friend when Steve Guinn at Central Baptist Theological Seminary recently shared an article entitled “Holy Enrollers: Why Boomers are Going to Divinity School.”  The author cites a report from the Association of Theological Schools that the number of students age 50 or older had grown from 12 percent in 1995 to 20 percent in 2009 (the last year for which data is available).  This certainly confirms the experience I have had with students both at the Central center in Murfreesboro as well as students at the Shawnee campus.  Older students are a significant population in graduate theological institutions today.

Melba Newsome, the author of the article, suggests some reasons for this trend.  She suggests, for example, that Boomers want “to give back” in some way.  They have always been an idealistic generation and now that their children are grown, they have the freedom to pursue another vocational calling.

I would suggest some other motivations as well. For example, as Boomers have faced the challenges of life—love, loss, success, and professional struggles—they have come to see the difference that a faithful walk with God can make in a person’s life.  In turn, they want both to deepen their own spiritual experience and to share it with others.

Secondly, those who enter the ministry later in life have gained some important skills that they want to offer to others.  They have maturity, patience, and—most of all—wisdom.  There are some abilities and insights that only come through experience.  These cannot be taught in the classroom, but they can be identified, clarified, and nurtured for effective ministry.

Third, most mature students bring a strong work ethic to their ministerial preparation.   This is not to question the commitment of younger students, but those who have been in the marketplace for a number of years have struggled with balancing work, home, and service.  If they have survived all of these, they have learned some important time management and organizational skills!

Fourth, they are often ready to accept more responsibility.  Although some have had a “Damascus Road” experience, most are continuing a pattern of service they have already embraced through most of their lives.  McKennon Shea, director of admissions at Duke Divinity School, says “It’s rare that they’ve had a complete 180-degree life change.  They all seem to have had a calling to ministry at some point.”  They have chosen this time in their lives to step up their commitment to that calling.

Although I spent most of my ministry working with collegiate-age young adults, I have enjoyed the opportunity to interact with these older students who bring so much to the table.  May God continue to bless their response to God’s call in their lives.

Wednesday, February 09, 2011

The Hungry Web

Although this sounds like the name of a Doctor Who episode, I am really thinking about the Internet’s voracious appetite for content.  With every organization seeking an online identity, web sites have proliferated at a rapid rate.  The challenge is to find material for those web sites.

One of the reasons that AOL spent $315 million for The Huffington Post this week was to acquire the content.  The deal will allow AOL to greatly expand its news gathering and original content creation and attempt to reverse a decade-long decline,” according to AOL chief executive Tim Armstrong.

I have been providing web content for almost five years through The Barnabas File. No one has offered to buy my content but I have been fortunate to have my material picked up by, Central Baptist Theological Seminary, Christian Coaches Network, and Baptist Women in Ministry.  Central has recently upgraded their web site and added a place for blog contributions.  I was pleased that they asked me to be a regular contributor.

I follow a number of blogs, but I am constantly reminded of the need to be discerning about the information I find there, as I must about most web content.  My impression is that most blogs are meant to inform, inspire, and/or aggravate.

Of those that seek to inform, a number are well researched like the blog that David May writes related to New Testament studies.  Because his blogs are so carefully constructed, Dr. May does not post often, but what he does provide is always useful.  A number of blogs are inspirational in nature.  One example is Keeper of the Fire written by Eileen Campbell-Reed.  Dr. Campbell-Reed’s site shares her own experiences of growth in life, spirituality, and ministry and encourages others in their growth.  I tend not to follow blogs that aggravate, but Tony Jones’ Theoblogy sometimes moves beyond information and inspiration to aggravation.  When Tony is aggravated, I do enjoy seeing how his mind works!

Whatever you read on the web, remember to be a bit skeptical, even of what I write.  I have followed some blogs for awhile and then dropped them either because they were repetitive or the material that the writer was delivering was misleading, shallow, or useless.  Over a period of time, you will find those sites that you can trust and that will provide new insights for your own life. I hope my writing will have those qualities.

Sunday, February 06, 2011

False Advertising

If you bought a book entitled Church Planting is for Wimps, what do you think the subject would be?  Well, this book is not about church planting, and I should have been more careful in my selection.  Mike McKinley’s book is a memoir of his work to revitalize Guilford Baptist Church in Sterling, Virginia, over the last four years, so it is not about church planting.

This is interesting for a couple of reasons.  For one, McKinley seems to want to have it both ways.  He seems to think that church revitalization is really harder than church planting (thus the title) but he keeps saying that the lessons he learned in church revitalization can be informative for a church planter.  Second, one of the endorsements on the back specifically endorses this as a book for church planters, church planting teams, or churches that want to sponsor a church plant.  I wonder if the endorser read the book or was misled by the title as I was.

McKinley does provide some insights about working with small churches, the need to develop a team of leaders, and about the importance of a church leader maintaining healthy family relationships.  He is also clear about the importance of centering a church in the preaching of the Word and the need for diversity within the body. 

I admit that my theology differs in some ways from McKinley’s but there is really no excuse for his statement “that most of . . . [the] Roman Catholic or Pentecostal churches . . . have abandoned the gospel.”  I also disagree with his limitations on women in church leadership.  He also seems to revel in the fact that the way that his church has dealt with mission and vision statements is to do away with them.  In citing writers like Aubrey Malphurs and George Barna, he deliberately misinterprets their statements on the subject to show how much insight he has.

In the last chapter, he notes “It’s a little embarrassing to write this book so early on in my pastoral career.”  He’s right.  A little more maturity would have helped to give a more well-rounded perspective on what it takes to build and nurture a healthy church.

Tuesday, February 01, 2011

Who Can Measure Up?

As Steve Jobs has stepped aside at Apple due to health issues, a number of folks have weighed in on the topic of succession planning for CEOs, especially those who are the entrepreneurs who founded their companies or have been the driving force to take their organizations to new levels.  The truth is that most leaders don’t want to think about this.  For some it may be the feeling that they are indispensable. Sometimes their shareholders embrace this idea as well.  For others, to consider stepping down would a concession to their own mortality.  They just don’t want to let go.

Churches rarely do a good job in succession planning.  When long-time pastors leave, they are usually followed by a person (although competent) who doesn’t last long.  He or she is, in reality, the interim before another long-term pastor comes on board.  This happens in medium or large size churches and does not even consider the challenge that a Willow Creek or Saddleback will face when their founding pastors—Bill Hybels and Rick Warren, respectively--step down (if they do).  Robert Schuller couldn’t do it nor could W. A. Criswell.  They stepped back, but their influence was still front and center.

In large to medium-sized churches, long-serving pastors rarely have the opportunity to help in this process.  Although they may be respected by many in the congregation, lay leaders would rather that they move out of the way and let someone else make that decision.  When veteran pastors are given the chance to help, their experience can be invaluable as they can work with the church in this process.  The decision does not belong to the outgoing pastor, but his or her experience can ease the transition.

In this process, the church can identify a likely candidate internally or externally and begin grooming the person for that position. If they are  nor currently on church staff, the new pastor can be brought on board in an “associate” or “teaching pastor” role and be given time to adjust to the congregation and vice versa.  Even so, there must be a clearly defined “endgame” and a specific date that the former pastor will step aside and relinquish his or her role.  I know of two examples of churches that identified a gifted staff member with pastoral leadership potential and moved that person into the pastoral role when the long-term pastor retired.  They are still there after several years and the churches are thriving.

This is not easy and demands transparency, trust, and commitment on the part of the church, the outgoing pastor, and the pastor-elect.  When this works, the church benefits since it does not lose ministry momentum, members, or financial support and avoids a period of uncertainty about the future (they will find enough causes for uncertainty elsewhere!).

There are good examples of this process in church life.  We need to identify those churches and denominational entities that have implemented smooth leadership succession plans and learn from them.