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.