Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Customer Service and Servant Leadership

For the most part, I only think about “customer service” when I am the customer and on the receiving end of what I consider poor service.  I will not elaborate here.  Each of us has a collection of frustrating stories we could provide as illustrations.

In preparing a Bible study recently, I was forced to put myself on the other side of the transaction.  The passage I was considering deals with Jesus’ response to the question, “What is the greatest of the commandments?”  His reply is recorded in Mark 12:28-31:

 “The most important one,” answered Jesus, “is this: ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one.  Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.”  (NIV)

The command to provide neighborly love is a call to servant leadership—putting yourself in the place of the other person and providing what she or he needs.  For Jesus, this was a natural response to the love that God has shown toward us. For Christians, this is the equivalent of providing good customer service. 

Tom Ehrich wrote, “Customer service is the actual heart of any enterprise. Not financial management -- that's the easy work -- but recognizing customers, responding to their needs, and remembering now and again to say thanks.”

What kind of customer service do we provide as followers of Christ?

In our congregations, customer service shows up in how we treat our guests in Sunday worship.  Do we seek to engage with them, extend the gift of hospitality, and help them to find what they need?  Will they want to become part of our fellowship as a result of the inclusiveness and care we show?  Do we provide support in such a way that they can receive it without feeling manipulated and threatened?

For those of us who provide services for churches and individuals, do we provide prompt and accurate responses to inquires?  Are we clear in providing information about cost, locations, and accommodations?  Do we engage with them in such a way that they will realize that we care about them as persons and not just as consumers?  If they choose not to engage the services we offer, do we treat them graciously in order to leave the door open for an ongoing relationship?

If you are in theological education, how do you deal with our students?  I was a part of a meeting recently where the coordinator of a Doctor of Ministry program stated that when they started planning their new program, one of the core values they embraced was “customer service”—assuring students of a quality experience.  Such an experience goes beyond instruction and course work and encompasses timely response to communications, concerns, and unexpected needs.  In other words, care for the total person.

For those of us who are believers, customer service means practicing servant leadership.  How are we doing?

This blog originally appeared on the Associated Baptist Press blog.

Sunday, December 29, 2013

The Wise Kings and the Wicked King

During the Advent season, we are introduced to many interesting characters:  Mary, Joseph, Anna, Elizabeth and Zacharias, Anna and Simeon, John the Baptist.  Most of these are in Luke’s Gospel, but Matthew’s Gospel gives us a different perspective and some new characters.  Matthew 12:1-12 introduces several kings—some wise Gentile “kings” and one paranoid king.

The individuals we call the “three kings” or Magi came from east of Palestine, probably Persia or Babylon (present day Iraq or Iran). We don’t really know how many there were; the number three comes from the three gifts they carried.  Although commonly placed at the stable and depicted in Nativity scenes, they came long after Jesus’ birth (probably two years later).

These men (and they were most likely men although they did ask for directions) were part of a unique group.  They were astrologers, men of wisdom, and advisors to the king of Babylon.
In those times, astronomy and astrology made up one not two disciplines. They were of a priestly class, probably practitioners of Zoroastrianism.

These proto-scientists connected great happenings in the heavens to great events on earth (and vice versa).  In the ancient world, people spent a lot of time observing the night sky, making up stories about the stars and the constellations, and observing the celestial movements.  The star they saw could have been a conjunction of the planets Jupiter and Saturn or a supernova. We don’t know.

Although they were Gentiles and practitioners of a pagan religion, they felt compelled to come and worship the new King of the Jews. 

Herod the King was as wicked as the men from the east were wise.  He was from Edom and was not a Jew.  He contributed enormous amounts of money to complete the Temple at Jerusalem (money he gained from exorbitant taxation) and played the role of a faithful Jew, but he was more concerned about embracing the Greco-Roman culture and a lavish lifestyle.

Herod was paranoid, but he felt even more threatened as he got older. He killed three of his sons because he feared them as successors. Augustus Caesar is reported to have said, “Better to be Herod’s pig than his son.” The word “disturbed” in the text might be better translated “terrified.”  His worst fears were coming true.

Herod did not know his Jewish prophecy, so he consulted the chief priests and scribes. They identified the birthplace of the new king from Micah 5:2 as Bethlehem, only a few miles from Jerusalem.  Herod was treacherous.  Despite his statement that he too wanted to worship the new king, he did not want to worship but to destroy him. 

The men from the east did find the child, deliver their gifts as an act of worship, and were divinely compelled to return home without letting Herod know that they had found Jesus. Although the text says that they did so because they were warned in a dream, perhaps they were very wise after all.

What do we learn from this account?

First, the story emphasizes that Jesus is both a divine and human figure that even Gentiles worship, a major theme of Matthew’s gospel.  Pious Gentiles recognized Jesus as a king at his birth even if Jewish religious leaders seemed to fear him.

Second, there is a big difference between the one who had been made king and the one who was born a king. Herod had used all of his connections and power to act like a king, now he was upstaged by a real king.  Despite his treachery, Herod would not win out.  Despite the slaughter of innocent children to protect his rule, he would die and Jesus would live.  Herod’s kingdom was earthly but the Kingdom of Jesus is eternal.

Finally, the wise men were like many people today--they were very spiritual but were still looking for more.  This is a good reminder that we need to look for opportunities to share our faith with those who are seekers, nurturing the spark of truth that they perceive.

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Christmas Eve Service

As we gathered with several hundred other worshippers at our church for the Christmas Eve service, I was struck by the way in which this assembly reflected the nature of the church.  Many present were long time members of this particular body, faithful saints who have faced life’s challenges and remained faithful.  Some were relatively recent additions, while others were visiting family members, friends, and guests.  Undoubtedly, some were not believers but they were present to hear the Good News of Messiah’s birth.

Various types of families were represented—nuclear and extended, single parent families, unmarried individuals, in-laws and a few ex-mates.  All saw the value of being together for this time of common worship, even if it may have taken an extra effort and some emotional anxiety to be there.

And there were children present.  A few had gone to the nursery, but for the most part even babies and preschoolers were in the service, adding a bit of disruption and chatter that brought a smile rather than a frown to most worshippers.

We sang Christmas hymns, celebrated the Lord’s Supper, and heard a message of encouragement and hope.  When we said the Lord’s Prayer together, we were reminded again of what we hold in common with other believers.

At the close of the service, the light from the Christ candle in the Advent wreath was passed from person to person.  We were celebrated the truth that the Light has come into the world and it has not been extinguished but continues to pass from generation to generation. 

And thus, the church goes on—celebrating its Lord and doing His work.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Young Ministers Want to be Mentored

Starting out in any field is not easy, but ministry has its own challenges.  Most congregations expect that their new pastor or staff member will “hit the ground running” and be ready to deal with both the routine and the unexpected tasks encountered.  Too often, our ministers’ preparation has not taught them how to reach out to others for support, guidance, or collegial relationships. 

My recent experiences with young ministers indicate that most ministers in their first call—whether to a church as solo pastor or to a staff position—not only want but are eager for someone to become their mentor.  Although the young minister may not use that term, he or she would welcome a relationship with a more experienced clergy person who would give them good feedback and even suggestions about their work.

When a church calls a new minister to staff, especially if that person is right out of seminary, the senior pastor or head of staff should expect to become a mentor for that person.  I am sure that some pastor is reading this and saying, “Just what I need: another thing on my plate!”  I will grant that being a mentor takes time, but it also takes patience, a teacher’s heart, and the ability to listen well.  The reward for the mentor is helping a brother or sister in Christ become established and competent in ministry.  If for no other reason, good mentoring can increase staff retention and health.

What about a young minister who is the solo pastor in his or her congregation?  If the denomination does not provide a mentoring program, the young minister may need to seek out a mentor.  This person might be the pastor of a local church, a retired minister, or a judicatory leader.  This support is also available through organizations such as Pinnacle Leadership Associates that provide coaching for ministers at each stage of their profession or ministry.  Seminaries are taking a more proactive role to meet this need and developing programs to support the minister in his or her first call.

A mentoring relationship can benefit both the protégé and the mentor, but the greatest benefit is to the congregation that the young minister serves.  Congregations would do well to give thought to ways to provide this type of support.  There are a number of freshly minted minister who are looking for a Barnabas to walk alongside them.

This originally appeared on the Associated Baptist Press blog

Monday, December 16, 2013

Finding Meaning and Purpose in the Marketplace

I was listening to a podcast recently that featured a computer systems engineer who had worked with six different tech firms over the last 20 years.  He had some interesting stories, but what struck me most about his presentation were some of the words he used—words like “mission,” “values,”  “making a difference,” and “calling.”

These are all terms that I am accustomed to hearing in a religious context.  In the church we affirm that we have a mission—the missio Dei (or “mission of God”), we help believers recognize and act on their values, we encourage congregants to “make a difference” in the world, and we facilitate each person discovering his or her calling.

How did this connection or transference originate?  For a number of years, various types of companies have emphasized the need for a clear vision and a mission statement.  These terms could very well have come from other sources such as the military.  The use of more values-laden terms like “calling,”"servant leadership," “making a difference,” or “giving back” have emerged in the last couple of decades and previously seemed quite alien to the corporate environment.

There may be a number of reasons for this usage, but I think it is definitely connected to the amount of the time that people spend in their professions and their desire that their work be something more than simply making a living and acquiring money.

Max De Pree, a corporate leader, found that "servant leadership" was an effective way to expand management into a new dimension.  Writers such as Daniel Pink have pointed out that money is not always the ultimate motivator for people.  As long as they are making an acceptable wage, they are motivated more by other factors such as the ability to be innovative, plan their own projects, help others, or positively impact the lives of their clients or customers.

Whatever the cause, there is something inside each of us that pushes us to the next level.  Perhaps it is part of an innate desire that comes from being created in the image of God.

Thursday, December 05, 2013

Embracing Innovation

Dr. James V. Green at the University of Maryland College Park teaches an online course titled “Developing Innovative Ideas for New Companies: The First Step in Entrepreneurship.”  The course encourages students to identify and address opportunities for innovative services or products. 

Of course, innovative approaches can be generated within an existing organization as well, but this requires a creative environment or climate.  Green identifies several characteristics of such a creative climate.  They are:

An enjoyment in experimenting with new ideas
A trustful management that does not over-control
Considerable communication with outsiders
Open channels of communication
A willingness to accept change
Little fear of negative consequences for making a mistake
Selection and promotion of employees based on merit
Sufficient financial, managerial, human, and time resources for accomplishing goals

As one who identifies with the church in its many manifestations, my response is to attempt to apply this template to the church.  When I do so, however, I find myself disappointed.  I find very few churches that are willing to do any of these things. 

I want to be proven wrong.  As the body of Christ, the church should always be open to opportunities for growth, learning, and creativity.  If a church wants to both survive and prosper, these practices are mandatory.

If you can provide specific instances of a church that is embracing even a couple of these characteristics, please let me know.

Tuesday, December 03, 2013

When the Church is at Its Best

Hardly a day goes by that I do not read some criticism of the church—whether in its local, national, or global expressions.  I acknowledge that there is much to criticize but there is much to praise as well.  As I worshipped last Sunday, I started thinking, “When is the church at its best?”  Several things came to mind.

First, the church is at its best when it engages people in authentic worship that brings them into the presence of God.  Of course, God is the audience in worship and we are the performers, but we know when worship is working when we are brought face to face with the God who is both transcendent and immanent.

Second, the church is at its best when it is caring for the hurting, whether they are part of the community of faith or not.  There are many who are sick, lonely, or stressed whose lives have been made a bit easier by a visit, a prayer, a kind word, a helping hand or an offering of food from someone in the church.

Third, the church is at its best when it is nurturing children and youth in the faith.  Very often there is little long term benefit to the local church in doing this.  Most of these youngsters will leave their present churches and their home communities when they get older, but the church is building into them a framework of meaning and a relationship with God that will stay with them for their entire lives.

Fourth, the church is at its best when it is presenting a gospel that challenges rather than condemns.   The gospel is “good news” and can be presented as such when the church is loving and compassionate in its presentation of the Christian message.  Will accepting the gospel create tension and call for change in a person’s life?  Probably, but such transformation begins with love not condemnation.

Fifth, the church is at its best when it is serving the marginalized people of its community and world.  When the church reaches out to the addicted, the homeless, the hungry, or the ostracized, it is doing what Christ himself did.  God will bless such ministry.

Someone said that the way to reinforce good behavior is to catch a person doing something right and praise them for their action.  Perhaps this could work for churches as well.  Let’s “catch” the church doing something right and affirm it.

This blog post originally appeared on the Associated Baptist Press blog.

Monday, December 02, 2013

Holiday Stress—Dealing with the Contradiction

Chaplain Pierce McIntyre offers helpful insights and prayers for dealing with every day life in his regular e-mails to friends and colleagues.  In a recent e-mail, he pointed out that there is an inherent contradiction in the term “holiday stress.”    A holiday is “a celebratory day, break, day of rest or vacation.”  Stress means “anxiety, impatience, and nervous tension.”  The two really don’t seem to go together, but we know that they exist in combination too often these days.

We are now immersed in the “holiday season’ that is inaugurated with Thanksgiving, reaches its peak with Christmas, and then closes out with New Year’s Day.  This is a time of feasting, visiting, giving, reflection, and worship for most of us.  As McIntyre notes, however, it is often a time of stress as well.

So how do we deal with the stress?  What are some things we can do to deal with the stress?

First, we can set priorities.  What do we really value not only during the holidays but everyday?  If we value family, we will make sure that the holidays are times of sharing and creating positive memories together.  If we value giving time to others, we will structure such time into our lives.  Holidays are different from the normal flow of life but they can still reflect the values we embrace and put first.

Second, we can take the time to give back. During the holidays, we become even more aware of the gap between the haves and the have-nots.  Many struggle in a number of ways—to have food on the table, to have safe and comfortable housing, and to provide for their families.  Those of us who have so much become more aware of those who have little.  Providing meals, support, and assistance for those in need may give us a head start on a new way of behaving in the New Year.

Third, we can take the time to nurture and enjoy relationships with family and friends. Take the time at parties, dinners, and other gatherings to really connect with others and show appreciation for them.  Even if we are geographically separated from those we love, we can call, write (remember old-fashioned cards and letters?) and find other ways to communicate.

Finally, we can commit time to prayer and reflection.  This is a holy season. We give thanks for the fulfillment of God’s promise in the Son, Jesus Christ, and consider what it means for our lives.  Although the change in calendar from one year to another is totally arbitrary, the move from 2103 to 2014 provides opportunities for us to assess where we have been and where we might go in the future with God’s help.

Holiday stress is a reality, but we can commit ourselves to emphasize the first part rather than the latter part.

Friday, November 29, 2013

Sharpen the Axe

Abraham Lincoln is reported to have said:  "Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe.”  This approach to preparation was popularized by Stephen Covey in his book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.  Even so, the practice of continuing personal and professional development is not a high priority for many leaders—especially clergy.  They are too busy chopping down the tree to take time to sharpen the axe.

Since I became a certified professional life coach, I have entered into a world of required professional development that I have only observed from the outside in the past.  My friends who are public school educators, counselors, marriage therapists, and medical professional are required to take a certain number of hours of continuing education each year in order to maintain their license or certification.  Some denominational judicatories require such education for their clergy, but this is the exception in most denominations including Baptists.

I have been fortunate in my ministry to work with supervisors who both practiced and provided professional development opportunities.  Glenn Yarborough, director of student ministries for the Tennessee Baptist Convention, regularly brought interesting and gifted people to share with campus ministers at staff meetings and retreats.  Clark Bryan, my supervisor at Carson-Newman College, both encouraged and made it possible for me to complete an unfinished Doctor of Ministry degree while I was on staff there.

Given this background, I am always amazed and disappointed that professional development is not a high priority in our churches.  Staff meetings and retreats are most often devoted to program coordination and calendar planning rather than discovering and sharing new insights and understandings with one another.

Although the pastor cannot tackle this problem alone, the initiative must begin there.  The pastor must model professional development and life long learning and lobby church officers and committees to provide development opportunities for all staff members—both ordained and non-ordained. 

Such options include but are not limited to finances for book purchases, time and money to attend conferences, resources for staff development events, and sabbaticals for professional staff.  The advent of the Internet provides many valuable learning opportunities free or at minimal cost.  Judicatories, theological institutions, professional organizations, and consultants offer innovative options for lifelong learners.  Ministry leaders can also benefit from being part of a peer group or being coached by a trained life coach.

I have a tendency when I walk each morning to look down at the road rather than lifting my head and seeing the world around me.  I have to remind myself to look up and see what is going on.Too many of us go from day to day only looking at what is right before us and not engaging in new ideas, learning, and development.  Lift up your eyes and see what’s ahead!

(This blog post originally appeared on the Associated Baptist Press Blog.)

Friday, November 22, 2013

Offering Ourselves in Worship

A friend told me recently that he and his wife have chosen to participate in a bank account deduction giving option that their church offered.  The offering is deducted from their bank account on a regular basis and placed in the church account, all done electronically.  Not writing checks or having to remember to take them to church to put in the offering plate seemed like a good idea.  He realizes now that there are drawbacks.

One concern is that his children no longer see him putting anything into the offering plate, so they are probably wondering, “Why don’t Mom and Dad support the church any more?” Of course, other members may be thinking the same thing!  What kind of example is he setting?

As important to my friend is that he feels that he is missing out on an act of worship.  Offering something back to God in a tactile way can be a very satisfying act of worship.

I understand how my friend feels.  I have often said that offering is an essential part of worship.  Drop anything else, but keep the offering!  This has nothing to do with ensuring the financial viability of the congregation.  Failure to provide this opportunity to respond in offering truncates the worship experience.

If anything, we need more rather than fewer ways for worshippers to respond.  I still like altar calls and opportunities for members to respond in some tangible way.  We need the chance to use our feet and hands in worship as well as our voices.

My friend is thinking about some way to continue his bank deduction and still participate in the act of giving in worship. Any ideas? 

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Leader Growth: Spiritual Direction

Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me—put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you.”-- Philippians 4:9, (NIV)

When I first considered this verse, my initial response was that Paul was being pretty egotistical:  “Look at me!  Do what I do!”  I have come to realize that Paul was justified in exhorting his readers to follow his example.  He was writing to people who had probably seen only one practicing Christian believer and that was Paul himself.

If we are going to grow spiritually, we need models and guides who will assist us along the way.  When we seek such help, we are looking for spiritual direction. Spiritual direction has a long history in the Christian church.  For centuries, men and women have sought out mature Christians who could help them to grow in Christ.  In such a relationship, the one giving spiritual direction is providing both information and accountability.

Spiritual direction takes many forms today.  It may be provided by a person who serves as a mentor or spiritual director, helping the believer to discover where he or she is on the Christian journey and providing the instruction or reflection to encourage growth in the life of faith.  There individuals who have taken the time to be trained as spiritual directors and they make themselves available as spiritual guides to others.

Sometimes this person is called a “soul friend,” one with whom the disciple can be open and candid.  In the Celtic tradition, the soul friend was not only a guide but a person to whom one might confess their sins and shortcomings. One approach similar to this that is used in modern times is peer coaching where two individuals meet regularly to encourage one another and hold each other accountable.
Various kinds of accountability groups can fill the same purpose, providing a place for the believer to practice faithfulness and to encourage others as well.

A leader must find a place where he or she can not only learn the practices of the faith but be held accountable for their practice as well.  Whether this is done with another person or with a trusted group, finding spiritual direction is key to being an effective leader.

Consider these questions as you think about spiritual direction:
  • Is there anyone in my life who knows the truth about me?
  • Do I have sufficient relationships with spiritual mentors or soul friends to keep me accountable for my spiritual journey?
  • Am I willing to submit myself to spiritual guidance?

What if JFK had lived?

The assassination of John F. Kennedy was the defining moment of my generation. When he was killed in Dallas, I was 20 years old and a junior in college.  During a time of stress in our nation—the Cold War and civil rights, among other things—Kennedy embodied hope and a promise for a better future.  In hindsight, we now know about his flaws including his reluctance to act on crucial issues, his physical illnesses,  and his personal indiscretions. In 1963, however, Kennedy seemed to embody all that was good about America.

I have been reading a book entitled What If?  in which leading military historians imagine what might have been if certain military conquests had ended differently.  It is tempting to play the “what if” game with the assassination of John Kennedy.

If Kennedy had lived, would we have entered in the quagmire of Vietnam that resulted in the deaths of 60,000 Americans and hundreds of thousands who lived in Southeast Asia?  Many young men (and women) would not have lived broken lives upon their return to the States.  Perhaps I would have spent my active duty time on an Army base in Georgia rather than spending a year in Vietnam.

If Kennedy had lived, would the US government have negotiated a rapprochement with Cuban leader Fidel Castro? There are indications that the Kennedy Administration was working on such a deal when he died.

If the Kennedy had lived, would the youth revolution of the late sixties have been as radical and reforming?  The anger might have been defused by a young, optimistic President.

If Kennedy had lived, would the Cold War have ended sooner or would it have continued to drag on? Would the absence of the failure of American policy in Southeast Asia have emboldened American military efforts in other areas?

So many questions and possibilities, but they are all speculation.  The only thing we know for sure is that the shots that rang out in Dealey Plaza on Friday, November 22, 1963, changed our lives.

The Heart of Leadership: A Review

The management narrative was probably invented by Ken Blanchard and Spencer Johnson over 20 years ago with The One Minute Manager.  The format uses a story to communicate information about management and leadership.  The protagonist goes on a quest to discover how to become a better leader, manager, parent, or person, meeting various people along the way who give information and insight.  The best writer in this genre is Patrick Lencioni; his characters have depth his situations are realistic.  Mark Miller has used this format in four books now.  He is not as good a writer as Lencioni, but his style does not get in the way of presenting some significant and helpful leadership principles.

In The Heart of Leadership, Miller brings back young Blake Brown and seasoned leader Debbie Brewster.  Blake is stuck in his company, unable to get to the next level.  Through mentoring and directing Blake to other leaders, Debbie helps him to see that leadership is less about skills and more about character.  Of course, the facets involved in leadership character work out to an easily remembered acrostic (which I won’t reveal or there would be no need to read the book).

Those who read regularly about leadership, management, and change will find little new here, but they will be reminded of some basic and useful ideas.  For example, I was confronted again with two key concepts of leadership.  First, one does not have to have a title to be a leader.  Debbie tells Blake, “[A] title doesn’t make someone a leader—and the absence of a title shouldn’t keep someone from leading.” (p. 81) Second, we should not confuse opportunity with leadership.  Debbie says, “Others control many of our opportunities, so that shouldn’t be our concern.  We control our readiness.” (p. 39)

Underlying everything in the book is the idea of servant leadership.  A leader who thinks that he or she is the center of the universe will be greatly disappointed!

The book is a quick read, a good reminder for a seasoned leader or a primer for one just starting out.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013


Although I am not a counselor, I spend a lot of time with counselors, pastoral counselors and therapists and count a number of them as friends.  I have taken a number of counseling and psychology courses as an undergraduate, seminarian, and graduate student.  I have also served on the board of a pastoral counseling center and regularly attend the continuing education events the center offers.  I have even done a unit of Clinical Pastoral Education. 

One of the things I have learned in all this is that I do not have the gifts to do long term counseling.   I have great appreciation for those who do and support their work every chance I have to do so, but it is not my calling.

Most of the counselors I know are Christians, but they do not necessarily market themselves as “Christian counselors.” Even so, they bring a theological perspective and world view to their practices that are informed by their faith.

First, they have encountered a God of grace and love who seeks to redeem each person—supporting what is good and moving beyond the bad.  They have experienced this in their own lives and wish to share it with others.

Second, they recognize that each person is at a different place not only in their lives but in their faith journeys.  These counselors step up and walk alongside people where they are rather than where they wish that they were.

Third, they have the patience to work with clients, realizing that the client did not arrive at this place in his or her life overnight and will not change overnight.  Change requires both commitment and support.

Fourth, a counselor may be the first person who has exhibited unconditional acceptance to the client.  Of course, a good counselor does not want the person to continue harmful behavior or remain burdened with past experiences, but he or she adopts the attitude of Jesus in John 8:1, “Neither do I condemn you.  Go and live a new life” (my paraphrase).

Thank God for calling such women and men to this special ministry of counseling.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Challenging Milennials

In a recent blog, Shane Raynor addressed millennial myths and the real reasons that people leave the church.  He argues that millennials are not a homogeneous group, and their decisions to disengage from the church vary greatly.  Some are reasons that lead people of all ages to leave the church.  He suggests five reasons that millennials leave.  I don’t agree with all of them, but he does suggest one with which I resonate—“They don’t feel challenged”—but I see it in a slightly different way.

Raynor says, “Some of us have tried so hard to meet people where they are that we’ve made church too accessible.  Most people want to grow spiritually, and it’s hard to do that in churches that spend an inordinate amount of time catering to the spiritual lowest common denominator. . . .People who don’t feel they have opportunities to move forward spiritually may leave church simply because they’re bored.”

I would suggest that challenge comes in many forms.  If we pursue the idea that the common approach for many people today is to belong, behave, and then believe (rather than the old approach of believe, belong, behave), the challenge that young adults seek is not a higher level of spiritual engagement, but a desire to make a meaningful contribution in a supportive environment.  Although it may seem trite to say it, “They want to make a difference.”  Often this is seen as personal investment in service rather than becoming more spiritual. Unlike previous generations, young adults don’t want to take the time to “pay their dues” before serving.  They have seen other generations who have worked up through the system and who have then found themselves marginalized and their leadership rejected.

Young adults do need to be challenged spiritually, but a foundation must be laid first.  When it comes to spiritual growth, helping young adults to engage the Gospel in language that they understand and answering the questions they ask is not “catering to the lowest common denominator.”  In a post-Christendom society, many young adults lack the vocabulary or context to pursue their spiritual quest in the ways familiar to a previous generation.  Once on board, however, they are quick learners and find much in Christian doctrine, theology, and heritage to enrich their lives and help them grow spiritually.

So, I agree that we need to challenge young adults, but the form of the challenge must be concrete, meaningful, and engaging.  Only then will they realize their need for a spirituality that will change their lives and their motivation.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Is There Still a Need for “Doctors of the Church”?

Mark Wingfield, associate pastor at Wilshire Baptist Church in Dallas, recently posted a blog challenging the assumption that a doctorate degree is always a good thing for pastors to have.  Wingfield presents a good case that not every ministry situation requires someone with a doctorate (Doctor of Philosophy, Doctor of Ministry, Doctor of Education, etc.) and that some churches may just be on an ego trip when they seek a minister with a doctorate.

If a church just wants someone with some initials after their name or a title, they can give the candidate a few dollars and point him or her to the internet. We all know that getting a certificate that says one is a “doctor” is different from earning a recognized doctorate degree in a field.  Pastor search committees really need to be asking potential pastors, “Are you a life long learner?”

Churches need ministers who are continuing to grow personally, professionally, and spiritually. A minister of the gospel faces new challenges regularly for which the best seminary education did not provide training.  A minister who does not continue to grow will become stagnant and incapable of dealing with the challenges that God sends his or her way.

Earning a doctorate is one way of improving one’s skills and insight as a minister.  Several years ago, someone suggested to me that someone who had received a doctor of ministry degree (a professional degree for ministry) should go back in twenty years and get another one!  I am not sure that my friend meant that literally.  I think he meant that learning was an ongoing process, so even if you have a professional degree, you should not stop learning. 

Ministers can continue to grow in a number of ways—intentional reading, participating in peer group or learning communities, sabbaticals, spiritual retreats, continuing education programs, leadership coaching, and degree programs.  Whether the growth leads to a new academic degree is not as important as the desire to continue to grow, learn, and serve as a competent minister of the gospel.

When is a Person Coachable?

Over the last four years, I have had the opportunity to engage in coaching conversations with some committed and gifted people.  Walking alongside such person as they explore new directions for their lives and ministries is very rewarding.  They are very “coachable.” 

But is everyone “coachable”?  The question has been asked in different forms, but the core intent of the inquiry is, “When is a person coachable or ready to be coached?”  In truth, some people are not ready to be coached; that is, they are not ready to commit to a coaching conversation for their own personal or professional growth.

 Perhaps the person is dealing with baggage from the past or a poor self-image.  Maybe they have not taken the time to reflect on the idea that they have the ability to do more with their lives.  It may be that the “coachable moment” has not come in their lives.

How can you tell if a person is ready to be coached?  Look for these things.

First, the person will tend to have an optimistic mindset about himself or herself.  This is apparent in the way that the person responds to challenges or environmental changes.  He or she will face and not ignore those challenges.

Second, the person will have a natural curiosity.  There is an inherent desire to know and understand both the self and the context.

Third, the person “leans forward,” showing an anticipation to discover what is just down the road or around the corner. 

Fourth, the person will have shown a willingness to experiment with both new ideas and new behaviors.  He or she is willing to risk failure in order to find a better way.

Fifth, the person is willing to commit and accept the discipline necessary for change in one’s life.  Change is hard work and the person being coached must recognize this up front.

Coaching provides a person the opportunity discover and grow into new dimensions of personal and professional development, but the decision about being coached is ultimately up to the individual.

Thursday, November 07, 2013

Katharine Bryan—Mentor Extraordinaire

A memorial service for Dr. Katharine Bryan was held in Knoxville on November 6.  Katharine was a colleague while we both served the Executive Board of the Tennessee Baptist Convention but she was also a valued mentor and friend to me.

Katharine served as a mission educator for a number of years including 12 years as executive director of the Tennessee Woman’s Missionary Union.  After “retiring” from her work with the state convention, she served as director of adult education at Carson-Newman University and then as interim director of North Carolina.  Katharine was a visionary mission leader, an insightful educator, and a committed church leader, but I remember her most as a mentor.

Katharine exhibited the best qualities of a mentor.

She was willing to make herself available.  I enjoyed a number of lunches with Katharine as well as “drop in” visits at her office.  Although she was always busy, she was ready to make the time to talk about personal and professional development.

Katharine brought a great deal of experience to her role as a mentor.  She had worked for several Baptist entities, so she knew the way that organizations work.  She understood the challenges of working with Baptists in both judicatories and in local congregations.  She also was very perceptive about how people work (or fail to work) together.

I know few people who have both the insight and vision that Katharine possessed.  She could identify core concerns, possible barriers, necessary resources, desired alliances, and opportunities for growth that often escaped others.

She could also be very tough in confronting problems and ideas.  Some might prefer the word “firm,” but there was a strength that was at the foundation of her personality that she could draw on to confront a situation or a person.  She did not suffer fools lightly or ignore poor standards.

Katharine was most of all an encourager.  She found a way to help a friend or protégé work through the most ill-conceived idea to bring clarity and focus.  Perhaps this was her greatest spiritual gift, one that blessed the many people who worked under her supervision and alongside her.

Thank you, Katharine, for being a good and faithful servant of God who blessed so many of us.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Strategic Planning or Strategic Thinking?

Time to face reality—strategic planning is dead. It has been for a long time, but few have been willing to acknowledge its demise. Things change too fast to develop a three, four, or five year plan of action. The environment, the markets, personal interests, and technology make it impossible to set specific goals for an unknown and unknowable future.

I work with a consulting group that provides planning services for churches and not-for-profit organizations. When I first became part of the group, I was reluctant to call what I offered “strategic planning” because I realized the futility of promising anyone that you could help them come up with a hard and fast route to their desired future.

We do a visioning process with our clients. You may say, “That’s still planning,” but it is more of a way of thinking that takes into account the realities of a changing world.  We need to be open to respond to opportunities that come our way unexpectedly.  We also must be ready to create opportunities for ministry and service when we see the potential.

In strategic thinking, we help the client to discover these things:

Values. What is really important to you and your church or organization? What are the non-negotiables that you would never give up or compromise?

Strengths. What have you done well in the past? What are you good at? What are things that your people do well or can learn to do well?

Passions. What do you really care about? What would you “go the second mile” to accomplish?

Context. What is the environment in which you serve? This may be a neighborhood, a city, a region, or a particular clientele. How well do you know your context?

Opportunities. What are the apparent challenges you can address given who you are as an organization? Is there something you can provide that no one else is providing? Can you create a market for what you can provide?

The bottom line for planning today is to be receptive to the unexpected, keeping not only an open mind but a prepared mind that sees the emerging opportunities.   This means that you have to know who you are and what you have to offer. This is strategic thinking.

(An earlier version was posted on Medium on October 16, 2013)

Monday, October 07, 2013

Disciple Development is a Priority for the Church

After the gift of the Holy Spirit, the primary resource that God has provided for the development of the church are the women and men who make up the people of God.  Each believer is a unique individual who has been called and gifted by God.  The challenge is to help each person discover how God has “wired them up” to serve.

The writer of First Timothy provides this challenge:

"Do not neglect the gift that is in you, which was given to you by prophecy with the laying on of the hands of the eldership. Meditate on these things; give yourself entirely to them, that your progress may be evident to all.” (1 Timothy 4:14-15, NIV)

The role of ordained and lay leaders is to call out, encourage, and empower all believers to be part of the mission Dei (the mission of God).  This is disciple development and it can be done in many ways.  The church has used various processes for growing disciples through its long history, but I suggest three that are particularly important today:  mentoring, coaching, and developing learning communities.

First, experienced leaders can mentor promising protégés.  They can model ministry and support believers as they try out new skills and enter into new relationships.

Second, trained coaches can encourage the personal, spiritual and leadership development of others in the congregation.  With proper coaching, individuals can discover and pursue their vision of ministry and service, becoming aware of their own gifts and skills, and using them in challenging ways.

Third, leaders can encourage and support one another in learning communities and draw lay leaders into similar communities.  Support groups, planning teams, and “think tanks” are all forms of learning communities that can expand the ministry of individuals and the church.

Both clergy and laity can learn to use the practices of mentoring, coaching, and learning community formation for personal, spiritual, professional, and leadership development in various ministry contexts.  In doing so, we are helping to fulfill God’s mission in the world.

Monday, September 30, 2013

Theological Education and Diversity

Last year I was part of a discussion around the book Educating Clergy: Teaching Practices and Pastoral Imagination prepared by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching.  This in-depth study addressed the formation of clergy from the standpoint of the Jewish, Roman Catholic, and Protestant (including Evangelical) traditions.  The book raises some challenging questions, but since it was written in 2006 based on field research in the years before, its picture of theological education is already dated in many ways.

One of the issues addressed which is still relevant and has become even more critical in recent years is diversity. The authors comment, “The increasing diversity of students in programs of clergy education has significantly challenged the ethos and mission of seminary education during the past forty years.” (p. 54) This diversity includes the greater involvement of women (both as students and faculty), historically marginalized (ethnically and racially) students, older students, and the variety of religious traditions (or lack thereof) within a student body.

If a seminary professor really wants to connect the subject matter with the student, then he or she   must consider how to provide spaces for dialogue while not abdicating teaching goals. Communication is a two way enterprise.  Just because I say something does not mean that you understand me, especially if we come from widely divergent cultural, racial, social, or ethnic perspectives. 

I have experienced this challenge myself as an adjunct professor.  I have particularly enjoyed the dialogue with African-American clergy in class.  They bring a rich, layered, and alternative point of view to many discussions.  Often when have I talked about the way that things are done in the church, I have heard the response, “That’s not how it’s done in our church.”  This has taught me a great deal, including some humility.

I have learned much about sensitivity from the women in my classes.  While some are young adults, most women that I have taught are mid-career people who grew up in a church culture where their gifts and insights were not greatly valued.  With the hope for a new way of doing things comes a great deal of frustration if not anger.

Another challenge is dealing with the various vocational expectations of students. In addition to the varied types of ministry goals represented in a classroom (pastor, youth minister, Christian formation minister, etc.), there are those who are not seeking ministry preparation but plan to pursue an academic career.  Others are committed to starting new ministries that will be faith-based but not necessarily church-sponsored.  Some are lay people who have no plans to be ordained but simply want to deepen their spiritual lives.

The authors of Educating Clergy ask, “[T]o what extent do seminaries accommodate—in the institutional culture, public mission, and teaching practices—the presence of differences among students?” (p. 58) There are no easy answers to this question but it is a wonderful opportunity for mutual learning.