Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Time for Fresh Ideas

In a recent blog entitled “Low Wages, Student Debt, and 'The Call:' Financing Seminary Education,” LeAnn Snow Flesher put this entire ongoing discussion in context.  Flesher is not an outsider to theological education but serves as Academic Dean/CAO and Professor of Old Testament at American Baptist Seminary of the West at The Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, Calif.

I agree with Flesher that at the core of the issue is the changing concept of “church” and what people expect from a faith community.  From my perspective, this has not happened overnight and is the result of several factors.

First, since the 1960s traditional forms of authority have been questioned.  Initially, politicians came under fire (often for good cause—think Richard Nixon), then it was corporations, and then religious leaders (plenty of scandals to go around here). 

Second, the church growth emphasis helped to build a consumer mentality so that people became more concerned about “religious goods and services” than spiritual devotion and formation.  Consumers go where their needs of met, and they decide what their needs are.  Today, it is not unusual for a person to state that he or she is a member of a particular denominational church but attends another faith community on a regular basis—a megachurch, a house church, or a community Bible study group.

Third, the idea of what a church is began to change.  Megachurches provided well-executed and planned worship experiences, preaching focused on personal growth, and dynamic leadership.  People began to discover “the church in the home” and similar organic structures.  Young adults found that spiritual truth cut across denominational lines as well and time and space, so they created the “emerging church” movement.  During this time of revolution, most denominations tried to do the same old thing but put more energy into it with declining results.

Fourth, the leaders of these new forms of church were often self-taught or mentored by other leaders with little or not formal theological education.  They favored “just in time” learning and studied under business and communication leaders as well as experienced ministers.  Results were the primary concern and theological depth was sometimes sacrificed for enthusiasm.

Fifth, social service agencies and social entrepreneurs began tackling problems that the churches once addressed and often did this work in a more effective way.  These creative persons combined business expertise and compassion in order to meet human need.  And they did it outside denominational and congregational structures.

Flesher says, “[T]he church is in trouble; theological education is in trouble.”  She readily admits that this can also be said about U.S. education in general but this is outside the scope of her blog.  She suggests, “It’s time for some entrepreneurial ministerial work! This work cannot be done by one group, but must come from the collect. It must flow out of the grassroots movements if it is going to speak to and meet the needs of the population.”

The conversation is underway and it is one that must include not only academics and denominational leaders but laity, local clergy leaders, and potential students as well.  Welcome to the conversation!

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Characteristics of Small Groups

When we think of the work of the apostle Paul, we tend to focus on him alone. In reality, Paul was surrounded by a team of gifted individuals that was continually changing. We know the names of some of them—Barnabas, Luke, Timothy, John Mark, even Priscilla and Aquila. At various points, different individuals became part of the apostolic team led by Paul. The composition of the group evolved and changed over the years. Very often members came on board, made their contribution to the work of encouraging churches in an area, and then attached themselves to a particular church or churches to continue their work apart from Paul. Some were already mature and gifted persons when they joined the Pauline team, but others were nurtured by the apostle and the group.  The group experience was vital to the development of disciples and the spread of the Gospel.

My own experience is that small groups of believers provide an opportunity for individual growth in a number of ways.  This only happens, however, if the groups are intentional and reflect certain characteristics.

When Pinnacle associates lead Disciple Development Coaching© training, we introduce this definition:

“Disciple Development Coaching is a focused, collaborative relationship, resulting in the disciple living out his or her calling more fully.”—Disciple Development Coaching:  Christian Formation for the 21stCentury

This definition certainly informs the basic characteristics of a properly functioning small group. 

First, a good small group is healthy.  A healthy body is one in which all the parts are working together, each doing the part for which it was designed (see Romans 12:3-8).  The term “collaborative” when used in the DDC context is applied primarily to the coach/disciple relationship, but it can also apply to a well-functioning small group.  In such a group, each person is involved and willing shares in discussion, direction, and mutual accountability.

Second, a small group is made of people who are authentic with one another.  This authenticity is built on “relationship,” another part of the DDC definition.  In DDC coaching the relationship is one to one.  In a small group, the relationships are multiplied among the various members of the group.  Just as the coach models authenticity in the coaching conversation, the leader of a small group takes the lead in modeling authenticity, vulnerability and transparency for the group members.  He or she attempts to be open about his or her own struggles while allowing a safe space for the members of the group.

Third, a good small group stays on target.  They know what they are there to accomplish and the leader helps them to stay on track.  In a coaching conversation, the disciple set the agenda, but the coach provides the structure or keeps the conversation “focused.” This is the role of the leader of a small group—to provide the structure that keeps the group on task while encouraging full participation.

Those involved in small groups would do well to assess their status by asking these questions:
  • Are we healthy?  Is everyone involved?
  • Are we developing strong relationships?  Can we be honest with one another?
  • Are we focused?  Are we achieving what we say we want to accomplish?

Monday, July 28, 2014

Unique Coaching Event

Designed specifically for Christian coaches, don't miss this Online Mega Conference, the IMPACT 2014 eSummit. Enjoy over 30 business and practice building sessions from top-notch experts. We kick off the conference with a pre-summit series on Sept 24th. The full conference runs Sept 29-Oct 3, 2014.  I will be leading a pre-session conference on "Creating a Coaching Culture in the Church."

Industry Pioneers & Experts

The conference will feature keynote presentations, panel discussions and sessions from pioneers and experts in the Christian Coaching field. For a full lineup of speakers, visit the Speakers page. Here are some names you may know:
  • Jennifer Britton, MCC – an expert in the areas of Group Coaching and Team Development
  • Gary Collins, PhD. – author of the landmark book, Christian Coaching
  • Jane Creswell, MCC – an innovator and leader in internal corporate coaching
  • Ben Koh, MCC – founder of I Am Life Coach, a leading coach academy in Asia
  • Janice LaVore-Fletcher, PCC – founder and president of Christian Coach Institute
  • Christopher McCluskey, PCC – consider by many to be the father of Christian Coaching
  • Tracy Stevens, MCC - a leader in executive coaching and coach training
  • Tony Stoltzfus – a pioneer in the Christian coaching movement
  • Mary Verstraete, PCC – cofounder and president of the Center for Coaching Excellence

Value-Packed Pricing

We are dedicated to making the eSummit as convenient and affordable as possible.
Value - Sessions are packed with best practices, proven strategies, practical tips, encouragement and fresh ideas that will equip you to improve your coaching practice.
Convenience- No travel required. Since this is an online conference you can join as many sessions as you wish from comfort of your home or current location. The only equipment you would need is a computer, headphones and landline.
Cost - The basic conference fee for a CCN member who signs up by the early bird deadline (Sept. 1) is only $147. Amazing value! You cannot miss this Mega Conference.
Click here for registration information.

Managing Your Time

“I don’t have enough time.”  I have heard this often in coaching leaders.  In reality, everyone has the same amount of time.  How we chose to use it is up to each one of us but those choices are not always easy.  I have come to realize that when I consider the tasks before me, I have three choices.

First, there are those things I need to do.  These are the things that are of primary importance.  One of these is my relationship with God.  Another is my relationship with family. Everything else is negotiable.  Those things that I need to do are usually those things that I am gifted to do.  This does not mean that they are easy to accomplish.  They may take work, but I have the skills to do them or I can acquire those skills.  These are usually the activities that bring me the most sense of fulfillment.

For example, I have just finished the manuscript for my first e-book.  Since it is based on my experience, ideas, and interpretations, I was the person to do it.  Did it take time, energy, and effort?  You bet.  It also brought a sense of satisfaction and completion.

Second, there are those things others can do.  Some of these are things that are others’ responsibility and I need to leave them alone to do them.  Other tasks are things that I am not really equipped to do and will probably not be able to acquire the skills to do, so I ask for the help of competent people.  And then there are those things that I can delegate to others, perhaps encouraging and equipping them as they do the tasks.

With the manuscript, I found a number of people who could help and were uniquely equipped to do so.  I found a copy editor to read my manuscript for errors and syntax problems.  Several friends in ministry reviewed the manuscript and gave me feedback and suggestions for improvement.  Finally, a very competent associate set the book up for publication.

Finally, there are those things that nobody needs to do.  These are projects that might have looked important at one time, but they are really not necessary and no one is going to miss them if they are not done.  In the past, I often felt some guilt about starting something and leaving it incomplete.  I realize now that sometimes the sense of urgency to do a task is fleeting and the desire or need is no longer there.  I have also come to understand that if someone does not come alongside to help get the task done, maybe it lacks real traction or significance.

I had another publication idea, but my passion for it has ebbed and those who might have been part of the writing have not shown interest, so perhaps it is not something that I need to do.  Of course, someone else may come along and pick it up and run with it and I would certainly bless that effort.

Choices about those things that I should do, the things that others should do, and the things that no one should do are not easy.  Guilt, frustration, and a sense of failure often conspire to make those choices difficult, but making those choices makes life much easier.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Why Most Churches are Good but Not Great

In Good to Great, Jim Collins and his team sought out companies that moved from being good at what they were doing to becoming truly great.  They pointed out that “Good is the enemy of the great.”  In other words, people will praise your organization for providing quality but not exceptional products (or programs or services).  People have been abused so long by organizations that they are satisfied with good but not exceptional service.   They don’t expect anything to be “great.”   Why take the risk to move to the next level when you already have acceptable results?

I have thought recently about how many good churches there are.  These congregations provide solid preaching, well-planned worship, comprehensive Christian education, competent pastoral care, and helpful ministries, but they are not exceptional.  They are shackled by their own expectations of what church ought to be and limited in their Kingdom vision.  What keeps them from being great?

Good churches are satisfied with the acceptable rather than the exceptional. They do what is necessary to “cover all the bases” so that the community will think well of them but they rarely are willing to go to the next level and provide something that is truly exceptional. 

Good churches tend to major on minor issues. They are very concerned that things be done correctly whether those things are important or not.  They major on minors.

Good churches value security over service.  They have a low level of risk tolerance, so they are unwilling to try anything that may result in criticism from within the congregation or from the outside community.

Good churches are more concerned about maintenance than mission.  They would rather take care of what they already have than reach out to embrace the unfamiliar, fearing embarrassment or uncertainty and possible inconvenience.

Good churches would rather invest in programs than in people.  They have the mindset that the right program will answer all their problems, so they sell their members on programs rather than asking members what they need in order to fulfill God’s calling in their lives.

Good churches prefer to stay with the familiar rather than embrace innovation.  When one is innovative, there is always the possibility of failure and good churches cannot tolerate failure.

Good churches are too easily distracted.  Every immediate difficulty becomes a major problem, so they take their eyes off what is best and simply settle for maintaining what is good.  They are unwilling to “stay the course.”

My friend Bo Prosser has noted, “Very few churches will thrive in the 21st century because we are too nice to sweat, too proud to cry, too stubborn to change, too sophisticated to laugh, and too busy to celebrate.”   Just being good will not further the work of the Kingdom of God.  Unless we loosen up and respond to the leadership of the Spirit of God, we will always be good churches but never great ones.

This post originally appeared Feburary 28, 2013

Friday, July 25, 2014

“Find the spark of creativity and water it”

Unfortunately, this mixed metaphor describes what we often do in church.  Naturally creative people come up with new ideas then those ideas are stifled in the implementation phase.  Why? There are many causes—a desire to control,  fear of the untried, failure to understand, satisfaction with the status quo, or lack of vision.

Exactly what is the role of leaders and leadership groups (committees, deacons, elders, etc.) in a congregation?  Are these people gatekeepers or permission givers?  Do they seek to empower or control?  Do they build up the body of Christ or hold it captive?

Certainly, there is a need to vet new ideas to make sure that they are moral, financially feasible, and comply with basic legal concerns.  Real leaders, however, find ways to bring creative ideas into compliance so that they can move ahead rather than be stopped in their tracks.

One reason that young adults are disenchanted with the church is that they no longer see the church as open to innovation.  In too many cases, the desire of entrenched leadership to preserve and protect has overcome the desire to create and bring new life. We find many young adults who start their own ministries because they are not willing to jump through congregational or denominational hoops that ten to squeeze the life out of ministry.

John 3:8 says, “The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.” (NIV) Not every new idea is born of the Spirit, but perhaps we should be more prayerful in our consideration and spiritually discerning before we squelch something new.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Growth through Small Groups

Teaching Sunday school is always a learning experience for me.  Whether I am the designated teacher or one of the participants, I find it beneficial to hear another’s understanding of the text.  Each of us brings our own life experience and needs to the text.   I am becoming more committed to the idea that the study of Scripture is incomplete unless it takes place in community.

Sunday school classes are called various things now, but whatever they are called, they are small groups of people who learn and grow together. Small groups have been important to the life of the church for years, finding expression in various forms--the “holy clubs” of John Wesley, the modern Sunday school movement, home Bible studies, and recovery support groups among other examples.  Even in the age of the megachurch, small groups are an important strategy for growth and discipleship.

Scott Thumma and Warren Bird’s study for Leadership Network of 25,000 megachurch attenders showed that “large churches are very intentional about helping people find their identity in some kind of group or team.”  Some sixty percent of those surveyed indicated that they are involved in one or more groups and this is a growing percentage.  Over almost a decade, the number of mega churches saying that small groups were central to their approach to Christian nurture and spiritual formation grew from fifty percent to eighty-six percent.

Although small groups vary in their leadership style, purpose, content, commitment and process, they are places where individuals can practice self-discovery while learning from the experiences of others.  Small groups may have been part of the church for generations, but they still continue to be on the “growing edge” for Christian formation and discipleship.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Coaching Classes Offered by Central Seminary

I want to take this space to share a great opportunity for those who are interested in learning coaching skills:

Once accessible only to key executive and business leaders, the demand for coaching is growing among individuals in all areas of life.  Whether it is called life coaching, leadership coaching, or discipleship coaching, churches and church leaders are seeking to develop skills in this people development process. With a new coaching concentration, Central Baptist Theological Seminary is seeking to meet that need.

In the fall of 2014, Central will begin offering three elective courses online that will assist seminary students in acquiring skills as coaches.  “Introduction to Mentoring, Coaching, and Learning Communities” (MP513e) is a fall semester course for those who wish to add mentoring and coaching to their skill sets as they work with individuals in churches, not for profits, and missional faith communities. 

For students who are interested in preparation to apply for a coaching credential from the International Coach Federation, two courses will be offered to fulfill the class requirements for the basic coaching credential.  ICF is a major third-party global provider for coach certification. 

 “The Ministry of Coaching” (MP509e), an online class for spring 2015, is designed around the International Coach Federation Competencies and Code of Ethics.  The class introduces students to several coaching models and involves them in practicing these models.  The second course, “Coaching Practicum” (MP514e) will be offered online during the summer term 2015 to help students develop advanced coaching skills, cross cultural coaching, and intergenerational coaching issues.

Instructors for the courses are Ircel Harrison and Rhonda Abbot Blevins, supplemental faculty members in ministry praxis.  Harrison has taught classes for the seminary since 2007.  He is an ICF certified coach and co-author of Disciple Development Coaching as well as the Coaching Coordinator for Pinnacle Leadership Associates.  Blevins is Associate Pastor for Congregational Leadership at Tellico Village Community Church in Loudon, Tennessee, and a recent Doctor of Ministry graduate of the McAfee School of Theology at Mercer University.  She has also served as a campus minister and denominational leader.  Blevins has been a coach with Pinnacle Leadership Associates since 2013 and is pursuing certification by ICF as a life coach.

Central has been an innovator in the area of coaching.  The seminary began offering individual coaching to the first Doctor of Ministry cohort two years ago.  The 2013-2017 create Master of Divinity students have been assigned mentor coaches.  A course on “The Ministry of Coaching” has been offered as a seminary elective since 2011.  This is a further step to empower leaders for effective ministry.

Please contact Ircel Harrison at for further information or to ask questions about the classes.

Monday, July 21, 2014

The Future of Space

On July 20, we marked the 45th anniversary of the first human landing on the Moon.  Like most people, I was pinned to the television to watch the grainy pictures of the first steps by Apollo 11 astronauts on an alien world.  Once Apollo was over, human exploration of the Moon ended.  In fact, we retreated to near Earth orbit and left exploration farther out to automated probes and instrumented landers.  I must admit that I am disappointed when I realize that my grandchildren have never seen a real live person walk on the Moon.  Apollo is ancient history for them.

In addition, the United States no longer has an active crewed spacecraft capable of achieving orbit.  With the end of the Space Shuttle program, Americans are dependent on Russians to take American astronauts into space.  NASA talks about human missions to Mars, but I would not hold my breath about the possibilities.  The United States Air Force seems more interested in drones and surveillance satellites than putting people into space.

The future of space exploration and exploitation is primarily in the hands of commercial entrepreneurs like SpaceX, Orbital Sciences, and Virgin Galactic.  Perhaps this is the way that it should be.  Those who take the risks will receive the rewards.  These are the entities that will reap the benefits from asteroid mining, power generation, and space factories.  Exploitation will trump exploration with the latter done only by instruments.

The downside is that governments will eventually find themselves completely dependent on independent contractors for space services.  With military downsizing, this is the approach now used in Afghanistan and other places where the U.S. military has a presence overseas.  Much of the support, technical, and even security responsibilities are outsourced.  This may seem the most economical approach right now, but will it always be so?

Whenever the first human craft lands on Mars, expect it to carry as many logos as a NASCAR contender.  And that’s the way it is . . .

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Asking Powerful Questions

In coaching, I know that I have asked a good question when the person I am coaching pauses and says, “That is a good question.”  This means that we have moved into an area or found a perspective that the person has not considered before.  The client is standing in a different place and considering their challenge in a new way.

I was reminded of this when I heard a podcast by Keith Webb recently.  Keith is a coach and coach educator with Creative Results Management.  In the recording, he pointed out that the coach’s role is not to help people get things done but to look at things in a new way.  This requires powerful questions.

Often, the tendency in coaching is to move quickly toward the solution—identify an objective, set goals, and design the action steps to get there.  This may work, but the danger in this approach is failing to identify the client’s real objective.  We have “missed the mark.”

The gift that the coach gives to the person being coaching is an environment in which to think about his or her challenges in a new way.  The coach actually creates a safe, non-judgmental, and creative space for the client to gain a new perspective.  Why is this a gift?  Because we rarely take the time to do this on our own.

Thanks, Keith, for reminding me that presence, asking good questions, and listening are worth the time invested in them and provide the person being coached with the freedom to identify what is most important for their personal growth and development.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Good Theological Education is Not Cheap

Several years ago, someone contacted me about auditing a class at our seminary site.  She was upset when I quoted her the fee to do this even though the fee was only a third of the cost for taking the class for full credit.  I was surprised because I knew she did not seem to mind paying a much larger amount for a session ticket for her favorite college basketball team.

Good theological education is not cheap.  Of course, you can find unaccredited schools that will give you a degree with a minimum amount of effort or cost, but I don’t consider that theological education, much less good theological education.  The result of this relationship is a piece of paper rather than an education.

Most of us, including theological students, don’t realize that the individual student does not carry the full cost of his or her education.  Even though students may borrow money to go to seminary, the total cost would be prohibitive if the student had to bear it completely.

Good theological education is made accessible to students due to several factors.

First, individual donors provide assistance.  Some of these are graduates of the school, but most often they are people who have been touched by the ministry of a clergy person who attended the school or that of a professor or administrator.  These donors may never have taken a theology class, but they appreciate the work of the institution.

Second, committed faculty members often work at a low rate of compensation because they believe in the ministry of the institution.  They are committed both to their disciplines and forming a new generation of ordained and lay leaders.

Third, wise administrators make good use of the resources available.  They employ good management procedures and accountability structures to get the most out of every dollar available.

Fourth, certain foundations are very interested in specific emphases and provide grants to assist theological institutions to undertake new initiatives.  These are usually limited in time and scope, but they help seminaries and divinity schools to move in new and challenging directions such as cross-cultural education or international immersion experiences.

Fifth, institutions increasingly are dependent on quality adjunct faculty who work on a contract basis without benefits in order to hold costs down.  Clergy, itinerant educators, and retired professors do this because they believe in and support the mission of the institution.

Good theological education is not cheap but it is worth every penny invested.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Finding Direction for the Local Church

Being a denominational executive at any level has never been an easy job and it certainly has not improved in the early decades of the 21st century.  In addition to dealing with financial and social issues, individual congregations even in denominations with a hierarchical polity are exerting their individuality.

Because of this, one wonders why a competent denominational leader would attempt to identify priorities for churches for the next ten years.  In a recent article in a denominational publication, a well meaning state Baptist leader outlined goals for “bringing people to salvation,” “revitalizing churches,” and “planting new churches” among other things.  These would seem to be things that churches do rather than denominations.

On a personal level, I cannot motivate another person to do something unless he or she wants to. In like manner, a church will only become “revitalized” or “bring people to salvation” if its members choose that path. 

In the old mechanized, bureaucratic approach of the 20th century, denominations—even those with congregational polity-- set standards and challenged their individual congregations to meet them and many attempted to do so either out of denominational loyalty or a desire for more efficient ministry. This often worked well and when it didn’t, denominations just plowed ahead anyway, churning out new curriculum and programs for the churches.

In the 21st century, more congregations are aware of their unique calling from God to be part of the mission Dei—God’s mission.  They realize that the Spirit of God can work in their midst calling forth their giftedness, and they recognize their role in reaching out to their communities and the world.

This is a bottom up rather than a top down approach.  This is the world in which we live. Denominations that thrive in the 21st century will be those who support rather then dictate, empower rather than regulate, and serve rather than direct.  But not everyone understands this yet.

Wednesday, July 02, 2014

Hyatt Regency—45 Years Later

When I attended the CBF General Assembly at the Hyatt Regency Hotel in Atlanta last week, I realized that the last time I had been in the hotel was December 1969 when I attended Mission 70, a program put together by six Southern Baptist Convention agencies that attracted 5000 college students and young adults.

With music written especially for the event, original drama, and speakers like Coretta Scott King and NBC commentator John Chancellor, meeting planners sought to engage a young adult generation that included both those immersed in social activism and those who were just on the periphery.  We were challenged as Christians to take up the tasks of justice and reconciliation in order to make a difference in the world.

As a Vietnam veteran and a student in his final year of seminary, I was a bit on the edge of the action.  I had a wife, one child and one on the way, and I was looking for a place to do collegiate ministry (what we called Baptist Student Union at that time).  I was still wondering what shape my own ministry would take.

Many of my peers who were at that meeting eventually gave up on Southern Baptists in particular and Baptists in general.  They went in a number of different directions, but the momentum for social change generated by Mission 70 stayed with them.  Many did make a difference, but often outside the church.

Similarly, the calls to social action, justice, and reconciliation were all part of the 2014 CBF General Assembly and presented in several forums.  We have come a long way, but there is still so much more to do.

This commitment to change the world is very attractive to the young adults that CBF is seeking to engage in its work.  If CBF is to continue to be a vital “denominetwork,” we need new leaders, fresh ideas, and youthful enthusiasm.   The leaders of Mission 70—people like Lloyd Householder and Ed Seabough—knew this was true.  I think that the leaders of CBF and its partners realize it, too, and are investing in a new generation in an intentional way.  Who knows  where that will lead?