Monday, March 25, 2013

Two Leaders with Much in Common

During a recent road trip, I listened to two audio books.  On the surface, the books would appear to be quite different.  One was the unabridged audio version of Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead by Sheryl Sandberg, chief operating officer of Facebook. The other was an abridged version of It’s Your Ship:  Management Techniques from the Best Damn Shipin the Navy by Captain D. Michael Abrashoff.  I found, however, that both books had several themes in common.

So how could there possibly be a convergence between a self-professed geek, mother, and female executive of an internet company and an Annapolis graduate who commanded a guided missile frigate in the United States Navy?  Although the styles are quite different (Sandberg’s book is part memoir, part motivational tract; Abrashoff’s is more of a management manual), the points at which they converge can be summarized in three words:  retention, relationships and reform.

Both authors want to see gifted people engaged in their respective enterprises.  Abrashoff is very concerned about the high attrition rate in the Navy.  At the time he wrote his book, three out of four sailors failed to reenlist after their first term of service.  As a commander, he was initially concerned about the cost of continually recruiting and training people to take their places, but he also came to see that these people could both thrive and pursue their callings if they could be persuaded to make the Navy a career.  Sandberg is concerned that women are not encouraged to become leaders in business and industry.  She believes that women are often their own worst enemies because they hold back their gifts and they fail to support other women in leadership roles.  When women chose to have families, they fear that they will loose career momentum or be seen as slacking off on their responsibilities, so they often just drop out of the work force.

Both are very clear that relationships are paramount in identifying and developing leaders.  Abrashoff had interviews with each crew member as they came on board.  He wanted to learn their backgrounds, strengths, and aspirations. He sent birthday cards to family and spouses and often wrote letters to family members letting them know what a great job their sailor was doing.  He treated his crew like human beings and encouraged them to have fun!  Sandberg points out that women need strong relationships not only to succeed but to persevere.  Women are often afraid to express both their ideas and objections because they fear rejection; Sandberg provides a number of studies to show that their reservations are not unfounded!  She understands the important of mentors and supportive marriage partners.

Both authors are rebels.  Abrashoff realized that he was bucking years of Navy tradition as he implemented new ways of leading, training, and acting.  Even though he often saved the government a great deal of money with his innovations, one wonders if his persistence in “coloring outside the lines” had  something to do with the fact that he left the service after 18 years and was not promoted beyond the rank of Captain.  Sandberg, who was once listed above Michelle Obama in a list of the most influential people in the world, realizes that she is walking a tight rope as mother of two who also wields considerable influence in the digital world.  She has come to accept that she has a responsibility to encourage women to lead and men to support them even if her stance is unpopular.

The most interesting point of agreement is that both of these writers believe in inclusive workplaces where both women and men can lead without discrimination.  They both lead highly technical enterprises that require good people who can do the job regardless of their gender.   If they found themselves seated side by side on an airplane, they would quickly see that they have much in common.

Lean In 
It’s your ship 

Sunday, March 24, 2013

A Tale of Two (New) Churches

This past weekend, I spent some time with two Cooperative Baptist Fellowship churches in Mississippi.  Friday and Saturday I led a visioning retreat for University Baptist Church, Starkville, a church organized 12 years ago.  On Sunday morning, I worshipped with Olive Branch Fellowship:  A Baptist Faith Community that started eight years ago in a town just south of Memphis, Tennessee.

On the surface, these churches are very different.  UBC meets in the Wesley (Methodist) Foundation building just off the campus of Mississippi State University.  The church was organized when a group of Baptists felt that they were no longer welcome in a large Baptist church in Starkville and created an alternative.  They are committed to ministry in the university setting.  Although I did not worship with University Baptist this weekend, I know that their worship is a blend of contemporary and traditional music with a rather casual atmosphere.

On the other hand, OBF was an intentional church start designed to reach a suburban population with a moderate Baptist witness.  Support was provided by three Memphis churches and state CBF organizations in Mississippi and Tennessee.  The new church occupied two rented facilities before purchasing and renovating their new home.  Although people dress casually at Olive Branch Fellowship, the worship is both creative and traditional; the order of service and music would be welcomed at any county seat Baptist church in the southeast.

There are some significant similarities, of course.  Both churches embrace an inclusive approach to leadership, involving both men and women in significant leadership roles.  Both owe much to good pastoral as well as lay leadership.  UBC has had several gifted pastors with Bert Montgomery as the latest.  OBF was born out the vision and passion of Chuck and Martha Strong; they have provided leadership through great personal commitment and sacrifice.

The two churches support CBF missions financially and personally.  They both minister to the marginalized in their local communities as well.  Of course, each does this in their own way.

What are the common factors that have caused these two new church starts to succeed?

First, in both cases there has a high level of commitment on the part of pastors and lay leaders. They often go the “second mile” to assure that things are done well in their churches.

Second, each understands and ministers within its particular context.  They understand the composition of their target communities and minister accordingly.

Third, in both cases, the pastors and people have made sacrificial commitments to assure the churches’ continuity. Neither group is numerically large, but they have each accomplished a great deal due to the generosity of church members.

Although there is no single template for a new church start, success is unlikely without committed leadership, a clear vision, and significant sacrifice by both laity and clergy.  We can learn a great deal from both of these young churches.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Will We Know the Future When We See It?

First Chronicles mentions the people of Issachar “who had understanding of the times” (12:32) and were able to instruct Israel what to do.  Wouldn’t it be a blessing to have such a gift—to be able to understand exactly what is going on in our time and discern the right path to follow?  Occasionally we see persons with this gift in business, government, or the church.  These individuals seem to be able to understand not only what is “trending,” but what is important to pursue in order to assure a successful future.

Not everyone has the gift.  Although the remark may be apocryphal, many point to a statement attributed to Thomas J. Watson, chairman of the board of International Business Machines in 1943 to prove it is hard to predict the future:  "'I think there is a world market for about five computers.

Although few may have the gift, there are some actions that we might embrace in order to catch a glimpse of “the next big thing” that will change society or empower the ministry of the church.

First, we can keep our eyes and ears open.  Leaders need to be exposed to new and even controversial ideas.  This means reading outside your field, especially publications like Fast Company.  Browsing through and listening to TED Talks is also very stimulating and encourages creative thinking.

Second, we can learn from others and ask a lot of questions.  When Patrick Lencioni’s consulting company begins working with an organization, they go in with a blank slate—they have done little or no research and they come asking questions.  They want to provide what the organization needs rather than sell what they do.  Don’t be afraid to ask questions that provide clarity and insight.  The only “bad” question is the one you did not ask.

Third, we must value what has worked but not hold it too tightly.  Everything was new and innovative at one point from the pipe organ to the rotary telephone.   Although some things—inventions, processes, and programs—endure and are adapted over time to maintain their effectiveness, others need to be given a respectful funeral.  We can give thanks for what has served us faithfully, but we must recognize when it is time to move on.

Fourth we must be willing to experiment and experience.   Before we commit too completely to a new idea, try it out in small ways or visit places where it is being done.  When I was involved in a building program several years ago, the architect suggested that we use a new type of floor covering.  A wise member of the committee asked, “Is there some place where this has been used for awhile that we can visit?”  We will want to try things for ourselves, but we can also learn from others’ experiences. 

Fifth, we can play with possibilities.  Before we get too deep into the planning process or implementation phase, we should take a step back, see if the pieces can be arranged differently, or ask if there are other ways to approach this that we have not considered.  An idea may be the “hot item” right now, but is it something that promises to endure over time?

Although the origin of the quote is not clear, this statement has a lot of truth to it: “The best way to predict the future is to invent it.”  We help to create the future for our organizations by the choice of what we will embrace and encourage.  I pray we will have the wisdom of the people of Issachar in doing so.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

St. Patrick and the Missional Church

When I teach a class on the Missional church, I always include George Hunter’s book The Celtic Way of Evangelism on the required reading list.  Hunter explains very clearly how a pagan people were won to the Christian faith, establishing an arm of the church that flourished in a period when other parts of the church were experiencing conflict and decline. 

Although the role of St. Patrick in the conversion of the Irish is shrouded in myth and legend, this “patron saint of Ireland” is credited with the rapid conversion of the Irish to Christianity and the establishment of an enduring Christian community there.  Certain principles at the core of this outreach reflect the experiences recounted of the mythical Patrick’s life, but they are significant for us today even if they were not initiated by the man himself.

First, those who led in the conversion of the Irish understood the culture and used it to communicate the Christian faith.  Legend tells us that Patrick had been kidnapped from England as a youngster and spent several years as a slave in Ireland before escaping.  When he returned as a missionary to Ireland, he knew the language, the social structure, and the customs.  Whether this is true or not, the Christian mission to the Irish used the symbols and mythology of the Irish to explain Christianity, building on concepts that the people could grasp easily.

Second, Christian missionaries in Ireland understood the value of community to the Irish people.  They established communities that invited both believers and non-believers to participate.  People were able to belong and then believe.  They could observe what Christianity was all about before they converted to the faith.

Third, the Christian church in Ireland embraced the egalitarianism of the Irish society.  In Irish culture, women were respected and protected under the law.  Because of this, the church accepted women in significant leadership roles, even that of bishop.  This increased the impact of the church in Ireland much more than in parts of the world where women were not given this opportunity.

Hunter provides a great deal more information about both the characteristics of the Irish or Celtic branch of the church in his book, but he also points out how the approach taken by Patrick and his followers can be applied to the church’s mission in North America today.

Ancient practices can be a fresh wind of the Spirit for churches today.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

What is a “Great” Church?

In a recent post, I stated that most churches will settle for being “good” rather than “great.”  So what does a great church look like?  I am not talking about numbers.  Being a great church has nothing to do with numbers—people attending, services offered, funds received.  A great church is characterized by the willingness of its members and leaders to pursue certain tasks.

A great church both prays to God and listens for God’s response.  Great churches have members who are willing to lay their concerns, hopes, and fears before God and to be patient enough to listen for an answer.  This means that the church is willing to hold everything loosely —ministries, budgets, leaders—and place it all in God’s hands.

A great church values its people as their number one resource whether they are children, adults, or retired people.  A concerted effort is made not only to teach the Bible but to apply it to life.  Leaders listen to members and discover where God is at work in their lives and then the church comes alongside to encourage them in their ministry, whether it is within the walls of the church or outside those walls.

A great church recognizes its strengths and builds on them.  They embrace who they have been called to be.  Such a church does not try to become something that God has not called it to be but uses its God-given strengths—people, context, facilities, funds—to be all that it can be.

A great church is willing to take risks and court potential failure in order to be the presence of Christ in its community.  A great church is not concerned about being unpopular or standing over against the popular consensus but in doing what God has called it to do.

A great church continually seeks ways to improve the way that it does things, whether it is member care or food services.  Great churches realize that the core remains the same, but everything else is in flux.  A church that wishes to be great takes advantage of the changes in its composition, community, and culture in order to become more effective in its mission.

A great church is willing to learn from the young, the old, the seeker, and the outsider.  Each brings a certain kind of wisdom to the table that gives the church insight and understanding about its mission.

A great church seeks to pursue God’s vision for the church.  This keeps the church focused on what is really important, avoiding wasting time on peripheral issues.  This type of church is not afraid to ask the question, “Does this have impact for the Kingdom of God or not?  If not, let’s not work about it.”

Great churches may not be large, popular, or prosperous, but they will clearly be God’s people on mission in the world.

(This blog originally appeared July 29, 2011.)

Friday, March 01, 2013

Growing as a Leader

I have lost count of the number of ordination services in which I have participated. Although the ordination of men and women to the Gospel ministry (perhaps I am dating myself in using that term) is meaningful to me, just as important is the opportunity to set aside men and women to the diaconate of the church.  These are people who have shown that they have gifts to both lead and serve.

When I place my hands on the head of a new deacon, I whisper these words from 2 Peter 3:18:  “Grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.”  My desire for that person is that she or he will continue on the journey that they have begun so well and will continue to discover what it means to be a fully equipped follower of Christ.

In talking to church leaders, however, I have discovered that many have no roadmap for the journey of growth.  Whether they are deacons, Sunday school teachers, small group leaders, or committee chairpersons, they have no way to assess their growth in discipleship. 

Although it is not a definitive list, I would like to suggest some ways that a person can ascertain whether he or she is growing as both a disciple and as a servant leader. 

First, prayer.  Ask yourself, “How often am I engaging in direct, honest conversation with God?

Second, Bible study.  A growing disciple should consider the question, “Am I engaging with Scripture in such a way that it not only informs my understanding but transforms my life?”

Third, spiritual direction.  Consider this question:  “Is there anyone in my life with whom I am transparent enough that they know the truth about me?”

Fourth, evangelism.  Although it may uncomfortable, ask “Do I understand my own faith story enough to share it with another person?”

Fifth, concern for the marginalized.  Ask, “Do I personally engage in some form of Christian service for the needy or the marginalized of my community?”

Sixth, stewardship.   Take the time to consider this question:  “Do I have a balanced life when it comes to allocation of the resources God has placed in my hands—money, time, and talents?”

Most of these are hard questions that make us uncomfortable, but how we answer them gives some idea of where we are in our growth as disciples.  I will return to each in upcoming