Friday, September 30, 2011

Commercialization of Ministry

I am a terrible salesperson.   When I believe in an organization, I readily participate in it and support it, share its value with others, and ask them to support it as well, but I am not naturally inclined to push people to buy or invest in something.   An entrepreneur must be able to do this—not only to envision and create but to market or “sell” as well.  As I have written in other blogs, I have a great respect for entrepreneurs and I believe that the future belongs to those organizations and individuals who can create and provide quality services and resources for the churches.  Those who provide such services and resources will (and to some extent already have) replace traditional denominational structures.

Even so, I often find myself concerned about the commercialization of ministry.  When I walk through an exhibit hall at a religious gathering and hear comments like “But this is where our product is better” or “You don’t want to deal with that company because . . . ,” I react negatively.  These are the marks of a competitive spirit borne out of crass commercialization.  This is the same kind of rhetoric we hear applied to automobiles, tennis shoes, cell phone service, and insurance policies.

Is such competition becoming to those who are representing their work as a ministry intended to further the Kingdom of God?  Undoubtedly, it is natural for entrepreneurship to lead to competition.  If we believe in our product or service, we want to convince others to take advantage of it.  This religious marketplace is unfamiliar territory for both service providers and purchasers and the secular marketplace offers little guidance on how to proceed.

 In this competitive environment, how does a church go about choosing the organizations with which they will partner or which group’s resources or services they will purchase?  Here are some suggestions.

First, what is the vendor’s theological perspective?  Are you comfortable with their stance?  Do they clearly articulate their understanding of God’s work in the world, the nature of humankind’s relationship to God, and the role of individual believers in ministry?  For example, many of us will be concerned not only about a group’s attitude toward the role of women in ministry and the church but the language they use in their materials.  Are they gender inclusive in word and deed? 

Second, what are the core values of the vendor?  Is there clarity about their reasons for existence?  Do these reasons extend beyond the motivation to make a profit?  Certainly, those who provide a service or resource should be properly compensated, but does the organization exist just to provide jobs for its employees or to serve some worthy ministry objective?

Third, what are the value-added aspects that the organization brings to table?  This includes things like quality presentations and materials, clear experience and expertise in the field, a proven track record, and exemplary customer service.  With so many vendors offering similar services, customers (including churches) have a choice and the “little things” mean a lot.

New paradigms bring both new possibilities and new dangers.  As churches make decisions about those with whom they will partner or from whom they will buy services or resources, they will have to walk a minefield that is often covered by the fog of “hype,” taking careful and thoughtful steps.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

People of the Story

As people of faith, we are part of a story.  You may choose to begin that story with the Garden, but I usually start with the covenant that God established with Abraham in Genesis 12:1-3:    “I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you . . . and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.”  God was calling out a people who would do what God does—bless others.  The end of the story is found in Revelation 21:1-3:  “Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth . . . And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God.’”  God’s people find themselves in perfect union with God at the end of the story.

A lot happens to humankind and it relationship to God between Genesis and Revelation, but the theme continues—God is calling out a people who will be on the mission of God, bringing all people to God.  At the center of God’s call to create such a people is a story.  It is the story of God’s call and humankind’s response.  This is the Gospel story.

Now the beauty of the story is that you don’t have to have a high IQ, a theological education, or any education at all to understand the story.  The story can be told to children in Africa, to illiterate farmers in the jungles of South America, or to people on the islands of Malaysia.  As long as we stick to the essentials of the story, anyone can understand it.  Children can understand it.  Mentally challenged people can understand it.  The gospel cuts across human boundaries of culture and education because it is essentially a story.

This is a seamless story.  There is not a neat division between the Old Testament and the New Testament (or as some say the old covenant and the new covenant).  We often use that to deal with problems of interpretation, but it is all one story.  Like any good story, many of those who were part of it did not know the next chapter or the ending, but they had faith that it would all work out as God promised.  We are part of that story and although we know the end, our part in it is still being played out.

In the Formation for Christian Ministry class that I teach for Central Baptist Theological Seminary Tennessee, I take the time to tell my story during the first class.  I do not do this because my story is so remarkable but because I want students to see how my story links both to God’s story and that of God’s people and so they will be empowered to consider their story in the same relationships.

No matter who were are or where we live, God’s story is part of who we are and hope to become.  Let’s keep telling the story.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Learning About Leadership from Experience

In a previous blog, I shared this quote from Harold Geneen:  “Leadership cannot really be taught. It can only be learned.”  Most of the time, leadership is learned in the crucible of action.  When a person is thrust into the midst of a situation where he or she must act, the stage is set to learn about leadership.  Although effective leaders draw on their values, skills, and past experiences, they can use the challenges of their present assignments to hone their leadership abilities and grow as leaders.  There are several ways to do this.  

First, an effective leader will make time for reflection.  Socrates said, “The unexamined life is not worth living.”  As busy as he was, Jesus found time to retreat for prayer and meditation.  Each of us, whether leader or not, needs time to be alone to think, meditate, and/or pray.  As we do so, we hear another voice that gives insight and clarity to the difficult situations we often find ourselves in.

A second way to grow as a leader in times of challenge is “just in time” training.  No matter how much time one spends in formal education or workshops, opportunities will emerge that require new skills or knowledge.  This may come in the form of reading and personal research.  The leader may also avail himself or herself of a mentor to teach the skills needed or take advantage of seminars or online courses.  “Just in time” learning gives the leader the opportunity to try out new skills and knowledge immediately in real world situations and reinforce what has been learned.

Peer groups are a third source of learning for leaders, especially groups of individuals who are dealing with the same issues.  The help comes not so much in advice offered but in the clarification that comes from questions, the encouragement of others who are going through the same thing, and the resources shared by others.

Fourth, a leader can benefit from personal coaching.  Whether this person is called a personal coach, a life coach, an executive coach, or a leadership coach, a trained coach comes alongside in order to help the leader follow his or her own agenda.  The coach helps the client assess his or her situation, determine the direction the client wants to go, consider the client’s resources, assist the client to develop his or her goals and action steps to reach those goals, and provides encouragement and accountability as the client pursues the desired change.  A good model for coaching to deal with one’s current issues is the Leadership Coaching Project of Pinnacle Leadership Associates which will begin with a three day retreat in November and continue with six months of coaching.

All of these strategies take time and commitment, but they will help leaders not only to survive but to prosper as they face the challenges that come their way daily.

Learning About Leadership from Reading

When I was in grade school, our school library had a series of books that told the stories of famous people—everyone from Benjamin Franklin to Thomas Edison and beyond.  Each provided information about the subjects’ formative years, their adult lives, and their impact on other people and society.  Although published in the 1950s, the series was not limited to white American men, but also featured women, Native Americans, and African-Americans.  For the most part these were morality tales that promised if you worked hard and helped others, you would be successful in life.  The perspective might have been rather narrow, but such reading did introduce me to the joy of learning about leaders through reading.

Reading biography and autobiography provides significant insight about those who have gone before us--the famous, the infamous, and the obscure.  Such reading gives a ground-level perspective on great national and international movements and often helps us to gain a better understanding of why certain actions were taken and others avoided.  We are also given the opportunity to reflect on the consequences of the subject’s action or inaction.

Of course, one could argue that the autobiography or memoir is a biased narrative.  We have come to accept that the politician who has left office or the person who has been a leader in business, industry, or other public position may use their book to “settle accounts” or provide their “spin” on events.  Although I have not read his book, I would imagine that Dick Cheney’s new book, In My Time: A Personal and Political Memoir” falls into the category.   Those aspiring to office also usually write (or get help writing) their “back story” in order to introduce themselves to the public—Barack Obama, Sara Palin, and Rick Perry come to mind.

Even so, the personal memoir gives us a sense of the person as he or she wants us to perceive him or her—formative experiences, defining moments of life, and values embraced.   This is their life narrative and explains to us how they perceive leadership and the way they exercise it.

Biography, the story of a person’s life written by someone else, is by no means objective or impartial, but it very often is more balanced.  Most reputable biographers try to get a 360 degree view of their subject by getting input from others.  Interviews and research provide the writer with the viewpoints of other observers or participants and often places the person’s life in the political, international, cultural, or economic context of the time in which they lived.  I realize that some biographies are “authorized” by the subject, so we must take that into consideration as we attempt to learn more about the person and their leadership style and choices.

Those books who promise to give us “leadership lessons” from the life of a particular individual should be read with caution.  Most of the time, the author begins with his or her own point of view on leadership and imposes it on the life story of the subject.  If some incident in the subject’s life does not fit the author’s pattern, it is rejected.  Such books tend to take a narrow rather than a broad view of a person’s life.

As we read about the lives of the great and small, we not only learn from their experiences, but we are also challenged to reflect on our own lives.  How do we make choices?  Who and what do we value?  What is the legacy we leave to others?  All are good leadership questions.

Friday, September 09, 2011

Can Leadership be Taught?

When I was in seminary, we were asked in one class to introduce ourselves and share our vocational goals.  I remember one student’s response:  “Well, I guess I want to be a denominational leader.”  His statement has always stayed with me not because of its audaciousness but its naiveté.    One does not become a leader by willing oneself to be one or even acquiring a position of authority.  The nature of leadership is such that one can be placed in a position of leadership but never really become a leader.  Many pastors, CEOs, and Presidents of the United States have learned this the hard way.

What is a leader?  Peter Drucker once said that “a leader is a person with followers.”  In other words, you are a leader if people respond to your leadership.   Real leadership is often recognized only when it is effectively exercised.  People will tell you that they are not looking for a leader, but they respond when someone challenges and inspires them to accomplish a goal.  Others who say they are looking for a leader only want someone who will cater to their preconceived ideas and prejudices.  They would not know a leader if he or she wore a sign around the neck saying, “Leader.”

Perhaps leadership is only recognized when it is effectively exercised.  Harold Geneen commented, Leadership is practiced not so much in words as in attitude and in actions.  When someone really functions as a leader, those being led respond and suddenly realize that this is the type of person they were seeking all along, they just could not articulate their need.  This is why leaders often emerge only in times of change or crisis.

Even though effective leaders may not emerge until they are placed in positions that challenge them, their passion to create, do, and serve moves them in that direction and often places them in the right place at the right time.  In most cases, leaders emerge because they have been good stewards of the resources placed in their hands as managers or workers within the organization.  The best denominational leaders are those who have served faithfully in “the trenches” in churches or denominational agencies or have been effective leaders in other organizations.  In those roles, their commitment to the values of the denomination has been manifested in their daily work, so their responsibilities are increased.

This does not always happen, of course, but when a person is placed in a place of significant responsibility without having learned the skills that will make him or her a true leader, failure or stagnation often results.   Geneen also said, “Leadership cannot really be taught. It can only be learned.”  Leadership is learned in the effective exercise of responsibility—no matter how great or small.  It is learned in the proper use of what God has placed in our hands not matter what it is.  The words of Jesus in Matthew 25:48 embody this idea:   “The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’

Thursday, September 08, 2011

Throw the Rascals Out!

The political races of 2012 are well underway with politicians and interest groups at every level jockeying for position.  As they dream their dreams of victory and hone their strategies, do they realize the disillusionment and anger at the grassroots level?  I am not talking about the members of the Tea Party, but the ordinary voters who are fed up with both the Congress and the President.  While people are struggling to pay their bills and keep their homes, our elected representatives in the state capitals and in Washington seem to be living on another planet.

Please understand that I will vote for President Obama again.  His leadership has not been perfect, but he took office at one of the most difficult times in our history and the expectations of his supporters were unrealistic at best.  The challenges he inherited were overwhelming.  He has often spent too much time on analysis and appeasement, but his administration has made some wise decisions about the economy and foreign affairs that deserve praise. 

Legislative bodies on the both the state and national levels have wasted their time on trivial pursuits like outlawing Sharia law, making it more difficult for our teachers to do their jogs,  and passing laws that penalize illegal workers who are being hired by our local business people because they want and need their labor.  Both the Congress and the President have made sure that they take their vacations while thousands of Americans are losing their homes, being “downsized” and struggling to pay their bills.  This is not a time for “business as usual.”

The greatest advantage for many candidates in 2012 will be that they are not incumbents!  Their qualifications may not be any better than those in office now but the fact that they are not presently in office may well assure their victories.  It’s time to wake up!

Monday, September 05, 2011

Cultures in Conflict

In January, I began reading the Sister Fidelma mysteries by Celtic scholar Peter Berresford Ellis writing as Peter Tremayne.  Now 19 books and two collections later, I have read the complete series.  The most recent is entitled The Chalice of Blood.  Just to review, Fidelma is a dalaigh or advocate of the ancient law courts in seventh century Ireland.  She is also a member of a religious order and sister to the king of Muman, one of the five kingdoms of Ireland in that period.

Although the background of the series is the growing conflict between the Roman and Celtic churches, over the course of the series there is also definite character development for Fidelma as she falls in love with the Saxon monk Eadulf (her partner in crime solving), marries him, has a child, wrestles with her true calling, and finally decides that she must choose the law over the religious life.  Along the way, she and Eadulf face and overcome charges of murder, she experiences postpartum depression, and she comes to terms with a sometimes difficult temperament. Behind all of this melodrama, however, are major questions about how cultures interact with one another, the place of intellectual discourse in the discovery of truth, and the evil done in the name of faith. 

When Fidelma and Eadulf meet, she is already known and respected as an advocate of the law. Although she has chosen the religious life for some measure of security, she is not into “proselyting” and wears her faith loosely.  Eadulf, a hereditary magistrate in his own homeland, was converted from paganism as a young man by Irish missionaries but has embraced the ways of Rome.  As they come to know each other, they also learn lessons about the world in which they live and their shared commitment to find some stability in a changing world. 

Fidelma and Eadulf experience not only the clash of Celtic and Roman Christianities, but the conflict of the various cultures they encounter in Ireland, on the British Isles, on the continent of Europe, and in Rome itself.  They often find themselves interpreting and exegeting not only the laws but the customs of the lands in which they travel, trying to do some good as they walk an often difficult path.  They respect the cultures they encounter but recognize the real differences in each.

Fidelma has a great respect for all learning.  Although the books often go too far in extolling the virtues of the people of Ireland and their legal system, it is clear that Fidelma (and the author) value all cultures.  When fanatical Christians resort to burning the books of pagans and heretics (including some classical writers as well as ancient Irish texts), both Fidelma and Eadulf are appalled, realizing that the loss of any learning makes everyone poorer.  As one character says, “Fear the man who has only one book.”  The more points of view one has the opportunity to consider, the more informed the final decision.

Another key factor in the books is the desire for power, even among those of Mother Church.  Abbots, various church leaders, and ordinary clergy often resort to lying, theft, extortion, and even murder to accomplish the “greater good.”  Arguing that ends are more important than means, they often abuse both their power and those they have been called to serve.  Have things really changed that much?

The author knows the historical context and uses it well not only as the setting for the stories but as a means to carry them along.  I look forward to other offerings in the further adventures of Fidelma.

Friday, September 02, 2011

The Power Based Life by Mike Flynt

When times get tough, what is the source of your strength?  In this readable book, Mike Flynt suggests twelve strategies to identify and maximize sources of personal strength.  As a Christian, Flynt begins with one’s relationship to God, who God has created each of us to be, and the joy of building on those discoveries to create a life. He uses personal examples, biblical references, and stories about historical and sports figures to illustrate his strategies for operating out of one's "power base."

There is little new in the book but what sets it apart is the author himself.  Expelled from college before he could compete as a football player in his senior year, Flynt went on to construct a meaningful life with a loving wife and family, success as a strength coach, and the founder of a company.  He always regretted his failure as a college athlete, however, and returned to Sul Ross State University, his alma mater, to compete in collegiate football at the age of 59.  This story is told in the book The Senior, but the present volume testifies to the growth of a man who observes on his return to play that he had changed more than the game had!

Flynt’s philosophy of life centers not only on his faith in God but also an understanding that one’s growth is based on building on one’s strengths and “coachability.”  The chapters on visualization and dealing with adversity are especially helpful to one who is a life coach or who is being coached.

This is a quick read but the insights are valuable.
Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher through the BookSneeze®.com <http://BookSneeze®.com> 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 <> : “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”