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.