Saturday, August 11, 2018

A Future for the Global Leadership Summit?

Craig Groeschel, the founder and senior pastor of Life.Church.
The Global Leadership Summit which began as a project of Willow Creek Community Church in South Barrington, Illinois, and its founding pastor, Bill Hybels, over 25 years ago was held this week without Hybels. For several years, the GLS has been now produced by the Willow Creek Association, a spin-off organization and a loose network of churches but Hybels has been its driving force.

Attended by thousands at the church facility in South Barrington and broadcast to thousands more at satellite locations, the annual meeting brings together not only evangelical leaders but outstanding speakers from business, charitable organizations, politics, and business.  For the first time, Hybels did not appear due to allegations of sexual impropriety brought against him over the past year by former employees, staff members, and business associates.  He has already left the church and resigned from the board of the association.

I have attended at least half of these meetings over the years--once onsite and at other times at satellite locations in my area.  For the first time last year, a church only a ten-minute drive from my house served as a satellite location.  In talking with a staff member of the church in May, I discovered that they had joined over 100 churches across the network who declined to participate as hosts this year. I found myself driving about thirty minutes to another community to attend.

The Global Leadership Summit is always a big event for me.  The meeting provides an opportunity to hear thought leaders from around the world. The Summit lineup is always diverse with a strong representation of women consultants and practitioners as well as ethnic and international speakers.  I have involved seminary students on various occasions and taught a class in connection with the meetings.  At other times, I have attended with colleagues with whom I have reflected, debriefed, and applied insights learned.

Several key speakers withdrew due to the Hybels scandal, one just a few days before the meeting.  Summit favorites such as Craig Groeschel, senior pastor of Life.Church; John Maxwell, leadership coach and author; and Bishop T. D. Jakes, pastor of The Potter’s House, stepped in and assumed added responsibilities.  Groeschel, especially, became the face of the meeting.

In the keynote presentation, Groeschel acknowledged the “elephant in the room.” He clearly addressed the charges about Hybels that have rocked the Willow Creek Church and the association. "Any abuse of power is sinful, it is hurtful, and it is reprehensible,” he said.  According to a Chicago Tribune article, he went on to say that “as the father of four daughters and the brother of a woman who was sexually assaulted, he supports the women who have accused Hybels and will work with the association to bring healing for everyone.”  (The power went off at the site I was attending, so I missed part of Groeschel's opening presentation.)

As usual, there were great speakers. In addition to Groeschel and Jakes, restaurateur Danny Meyer presented challenging observations on hospitality; researcher David Livermore addressed the need for cultural intelligence for leaders; consultant Shelia Heen talked about having difficult conversations with co-workers and family members; and speaker Simon Sinek presented strategies for making maximum impact in one’s organization.  It was worth my investment in attending.

Why did I participate in the Summit despite the problems associated with Hybels?

First, the Summit introduces me to people who are addressing important issues like culture awareness, social entrepreneurship, relationships, and organizational development. For a long time, secular leaders have been more proactive than religious leaders in engaging these issues which are vitally important for the future of our churches.

Second, I am exposed to a part of the Christian family that many moderates disdain--the evangelical churches, often megachurches that are willing to try things that are new and risky.

Third, although I may have theological differences with some speakers or participants, I love their enthusiasm and attitude.

Fourth, I don’t drop friends, even those I know only marginally, when they are having problems.

What’s the future for the Willow Creek Association and the Global Leadership Summit without Bill Hybels? I don’t know, but this may be the defining moment for leadership to decide if the WCA is just an organization or truly a movement of churches who want to encourage and learn from one another. This may be an opportunity rather than an obstacle for WCA.







Thursday, August 09, 2018

The Tragedy of Willow Creek Community Church

File photo of Steve Carter, Heather Larson, and Bill Hybels
As Christian brothers and sisters, we need to pray for Willow Creek Community Church. On the eve of the Global Leadership Summit, a worldwide conference sponsored by the church in cooperation with the Willow Creek Association, church leadership imploded as a result of further allegations against former pastor Bill Hybels.

Last year, Hybels introduced the team who would assume church leadership upon his retirement--lead pastor Heather Larson and teaching pastor Steve Carter.  Although the founding pastor planned to stay on to assist in a time of transition, reports of sexual impropriety involving Hybels surfaced early this year.  He accelerated his departure from the church and left the board of the Willow Creek Association.

When other charges emerged last week, teaching pastor Carter resigned. On Wednesday evening, Larson and the entire elder board--lay leaders who provide accountability on behalf of the congregation--resigned and “apologized for mishandling allegations” against Hybels.

Without addressing the validity of the claims or the actions of the church elders, we must recognize this as a tragedy not only for this church but for the work of Christians everywhere.  Although you may not be a fan of the megachurch, this affects how people see the church.

Whenever any part of the Body of Christ stumbles, every member of the Body is hurt by the fall. This is not a time to point fingers but to recognize the imperfection and fallibility of those who lead, show compassion for those who have come forward with charges, and encourage accountability.

There are some lessons here for all of us.

First, there is danger in putting too much trust in any one individual. Whether the person is the pastor of a church, an elected official, the leader of an educational institution, or the CEO of a business, too much power placed in the hands of one individual hurts the people involved, tempts the leader to excess, and can lead to organizational chaos.

Second, given the congregational polity of those of us in the free church tradition, we should recognize that this could happen in any Baptist church in the South.  Church leaders are too quick to ignore bad behavior by leaders and sweep problems “under the rug.”  

Third, leadership is a lonely place and every leader must guard against the abuse of his or her role. Every spiritual leader needs mentors, coaches, and friends who will challenge him or her and be ready to provide accountability and confront aberrant behavior. 

Willow Creek Community Church can survive this, but only with much prayer and soul-searching.  Let’s pray for them.





Asking the Hard Questions in Coaching

Having coached for almost ten years now, I have assumed that one thing that makes me attractive as a coach is my easy-going attitude.  For the most part, I come across as non-judgmental and supportive.  Some have termed it “Southern graciousness.”

At some point in a coaching relationship, however, I may find it necessary to set this persona aside if I am to effectively coach my client.  I was reminded of this last year when I attended a coach training event in California.  We were asked to identify skills we needed to work on to be better coaches.  I chose three:  challenging, intruding, and taking charge.

Now all of these run counter to my normal way of doing things, but our trainers pointed out that sometimes a coach should stretch and step outside of his or her comfort zone to serve the client more effectively.

Clients do not need a coach who is a “yes” person but one who will make them dig deeper and discover the abilities, determination, and initiative that is too often been dormant. Sometimes a coach needs to move a client into less comfortable territory.

Some questions that display these skills are:

“You have used this approach in the past.  What have been the results?”  When a coach has worked with a client for awhile, he or she has seen how the client addresses certain concerns.  The coach realizes that the client has an accepted modus operandi that probably should be challenged to determine its effectiveness in the current situation.

“Is this something you really want to do?  Your failure to follow through indicates otherwise.”  If a client has set a goal and fails to pursue it, the coach digs deeper to help the client identify motivation and assess commitment. Perhaps this item is no longer a priority for the client and there is a need to focus attention elsewhere.  On the other hand, the goal may need to be redefined or clarified.

“When are you going to ‘pull the trigger’ on this project?”  If a client has clear goals or great ideas but never acts, what’s the obstacle? Perhaps there is no sense of urgency or a fear of failure.  The coach’s role is to help the client get “unstuck.”

“What’s the real concern here?”  Often a client will talk at length about a situation, perhaps as a way of avoiding action. The coach can help the client to focus and move on by calling the conversation to a halt and challenging the client to determine the real issue and a plan of action.

Of course, these questions are productive only when one has developed trust and rapport with the client.  He or she must know that by asking these questions the coach is doing his or her job to help the client move to the next level. 

Wednesday, August 08, 2018

Lost in Space: A Review

With all of the new science fiction series on the various forms of television, I have found one that is both family-friendly and entertaining.

The Lost in Space concept has appeared in three incarnations.  The original was a series that ran on network television from 1965 to 1968.  My son and I watched it in reruns, but it was basically a children’s show with one-dimensional characters.  The idea was resurrected for a 1998 motion picture that was dark and depressing and not well received.  The latest version on Netflix is a good family series that reflects our times and challenges.

The Robinson family is part of an expedition to settle the Alpha Centauri star system, fleeing an Earth in decline.  Maureen Robinson (an excellent Molly Parker) is an aeronautical engineer and mission commander.  John (a scruffy Toby Stephens), her husband, is a former Navy SEAL and biological father to two of their three children.  Eighteen-year-old Judy (Taylor Russell) is the mission doctor and is Maureen’s biracial daughter from a previous relationship.  Penny (Mina Sundwall) is the audacious, volatile 15-year-old with “spunk.”  Will (Maxwell Jenkins) is the eleven-year-old brother who always seems to be operating a bit outside his comfort zone.

Without giving away too many spoilers, the mission ship is attacked by an alien entity while enroute to their destination and the majority of the colonists find themselves marooned on a beautiful but unstable planet.

As the series develops, we understand that this is not your 1960’s “Leave to Beaver” family.  John, the father, had chosen to distance himself from the rest of the family by seeking out hazardous combat assignments.  Was it from feelings of inadequacy or fear of commitment?  

Maureen is strong, intelligent, and committed.  Her moral failing is in manipulating the system to get Will on the mission.  She can be a bit indulgent with her kids and a bit distant from her husband.

The children are facing the challenges of growing up.  Judy has been given significant adult responsibilities for a teen-ager and experiences a frightening near-death experience which makes her doubt herself.  Penny is the teen-ager going through all the challenges of growing up including taking impetuous risks.  Will has this thing with a robot entity who is sometimes a savior and often a threat.

The snake in the garden is Dr. Smith/June Harris (Parker Posey), a fragile and unstable personality, who is a continuing source of chaos for the family.

There are many levels to the story, but the series presents a number of issues for reflection.  Some are matters that the church should consider.

First, the Robinson family reflects the reality of family life today.   It is a blended family, one member is biracial, there are conflicts between Mom and Dad, and the siblings don’t always get along.  This pretty well describes families in our society.  They struggle to build family stability and coherence, and I must admit that I smiled as I watched the Robinsons overcome challenges both internal and external and grow stronger as a family.

Second, Maureen is a leader. She is strong and determined.  Her husband’s struggle to accept her in that role reflects where many men are today, including male church leaders.  On one occasion I thought, if a woman can lead a mission to Alpha Centauri, surely she can pastor a church!  Women’s gifts of leadership must not be denier.

Third, there are a number of moral questions for both the Robinsons and other colonists.   For example, how far would you go to both keep your family safe and assure family cohesion?  As we look at what is happening with family migration today, these concerns are very relevant.

Fourth, in this manifestation of the series, the Robinsons are not alone. They find themselves living alongside others.  Being in a larger community both enriches and challenges their relationships.  This certainly reflects the fact that we as parents and neighbors must find healthy ways to relate to others in our society.

I would recommend the series for family viewing.  Some of the happenings are a bit far-fetched, but it is science fiction!  There will be a second series, and it appears that the growing ties within the Robinson family will face new stresses.  It should be fun.

Tuesday, August 07, 2018

All the Heroes in This Story are Heroines

Our Bible study lesson on Sunday came from Exodus 1 and 2.  The text presents the status of the Hebrews under a Pharaoh “to whom Joseph meant nothing” (Exodus 1:8, NIV), the attempts to marginalize the descendants of Jacob, and the birth and growth into manhood of Moses, the one who would lead God’s people out of bondage.

A key insight was provided by James Semple, the writer of the teacher commentary.  Semple points out that all the heroes in this story are women. The Hebrew midwives, Shiphrah and Puah,who are instructed to kill all the male children participate in an act of civil disobedience by ignoring the order.  When questioned, they simply reply, “Hebrew women are not like Egyptian women; they are vigorous and give birth before the midwives arrive.” (1:19).

When Pharaoh commands the Hebrews to cast their male children into the Nile, Moses’ mother Jochebed complies but she does so by placing the child in basket that will float on the water, then leaves the rest to God.

Pharaoh’s daughter finds the child, recognizes his Hebrew origin, has compassion on him, and defies her father’s order by keeping the baby alive.

Miriam, Moses’ sister, serves as the means of connecting her mother with the child so that he can nourished until he becomes part of Pharaoh’s household.

When Moses flees into the wilderness after killing an Egyptian taskmaster, he encounters Zipporah and her sisters at a well.  She provides an entrée for this stranger into the home of her father Jethro, becomes Moses’ wife, and bears him a son.

The motivations of these women to take a stand against authority are varied.  Some do it out of faith in God, some for love of family, and others simply because it is the right thing to do.  Although they, too, are marginalized people in their society, they do the right thing when the time of testing comes.

Thanks be to God for faithful women with the courage to take a stand when it is crucial to the work of the Kingdom of God.




Monday, August 06, 2018

Are You on the Wrong Bus?

When I was in Mississippi several years ago, I heard the story of the driver who was pulled over by the Highway Patrol officer going south on Interstate 55 at 80 miles per hour. The officer asked, “Where are you going?” “To Memphis,” the man replied.  “You’re headed south.  This won’t get you to Memphis.”  “I know,” the driver said, “but I’m making such good time.”

I was reminded of this story when I read Seth Godin’s post about being on the wrong bus.  Yes, it was not easy to get on the bus, you are comfortable, and it’s getting dark outside, but you are still on the wrong bus.  You have made a mistake and you need to correct it. Godin writes, “If you really want to get where you set out to go, you're going to have to get off the wrong bus.”

The moral of these stories is that if you are heading in the wrong direction--in your professional life or with your church or organization, you need to admit it and change direction.

Changing direction is not easy.  You may have to admit that you made an error and lose face.  You may have to confront the powers that be and help them understand that your church or organization can invest all the time and energy they have available to continue along the same path, but it will not get them to where they want to be.

As Lewis Carroll wrote, “If you don’t know where you are going, any road will get you there.”  A wise person or organization identifies a preferred future and starts moving in that direction.  There may be detours along the way, but at least having some clarity about where you are going avoids wasting time, energy, and resources.



Monday, July 30, 2018

What is the Sprit Saying to the Church in Olive Branch, Mississippi?

"And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it.” (Matthew 16:18, NIV)

If we read this statement of Jesus in the larger context, we can argue that the emphasis here is not so much on Peter as on his declaration of Jesus as the Messiah (v. 16).  The universal church--made of all believers throughout time--is built upon this belief.  This is the message declared by all local congregations as communities of faith and expressions of the universal church.

Thirteen years ago, my friends Chuck and Martha Strong saw the birth of a church built upon this profession of faith.  They had a vision for a “free and faithful” church based on Baptist principles in Olive Branch, Mississippi, a growing suburb of Memphis, Tennessee.  Three Memphis congregations as well as the state CBF organizations in Mississippi and Tennessee came alongside the Strongs, their daughters--Rachel and Laura, and other believers to establish the Olive Branch Fellowship.

Chuck has resigned as pastor of the church and preached his last sermon yesterday. One of the strengths of this new church start is that most of the charter members, including the Strong family, are still part of the fellowship.  The church has a significant ministry in the community, there is a stable and growing congregation, they have their own building, and the founding pastor has handed off the church to a young couple—Corey and Alisha Phillips—who will serve as co-pastors.


In his final message, Dr. Strong referred to a Beatles song that included a section of “improvisations within prescribed limits” and suggested that this is a good description of what the church ought to be.  We establish and grow churches within certain boundaries, but much of what we do within those boundaries is improvisation.

When Olive Branch Fellowship was in its youth, the participants tried a lot of different things to carve out a niche in the community and reach potential members.  Many of them didn’t work!  For example, they sent out a mass mailing of 5000 postcard to the community which attracted one new person.  While that person’s response was valued, the church realized that there had to be better ways to reach people and so they continued to improvise.

The Spirit has a unique way of working with us when we are open to improvisation. Although we can learn from other congregations, the Spirit opens doors when we least expect and provides opportunities for which we have not planned.  Olive Branch Fellowship has grown through the leadership of the Spirit--through relationships, ministry experiences, and surprises.  As a result, it is a healthy fellowship of believers.

Perhaps the greatest gift that the Strongs have given to this church has been a willingness to be open to the Spirit of God.  I pray that this will always be true.



Monday, July 23, 2018

Hospice Care for Churches

"And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it.” --Matthew 16:18, NIV

When Jesus made this promise, he was certainly referring to the church universal rather than individual congregations.  There were many churches in the Middle East, Asia Minor, Greece, and elsewhere that flourished in the years after Christ’s death and resurrection that no longer exist. Were they vital and effective fellowships in their day?  Of course they were, but times changed and the individuals (and sometimes buildings) of those churches have passed from the scene.

Although we may not want to admit it, not every local congregation is going to exist forever. Economic, demographic and even political shifts may affect the viability of a congregation.  

The church in Mobile, Alabama, that nurtured me and ordained me to the ministry no longer exists. About 30 years ago, the congregation chose to sell their building and merge with another church.  It was a difficult but necessary decision.

Congregational transitions such as this call for a specialized ministry.  Increasingly, it is clear that we need transitional pastors and consultants who can serve as “hospice chaplains” for congregations who desire to “die with dignity.” Some denominations are beginning to address this need.

There are many options for the church whose life is no longer sustainable.

Leave a legacy.  The church may decide to sell its building and give the proceeds of the sale to a ministry or institution which members value.

Merger. The church may choose to invite another congregation to join them in their present facility or members may relinquish the building and unite with another congregation.

Death and rebirth.  The present congregation may “go out of business” and allow a church with a different vision for ministry to take over the facility.

Repurpose. A remnant of the congregation may continue to worship in the facility, but the majority of the property is given over to other congregations, ministries (such as a clinic or homeless shelter), or community activities.

No matter what happens to the participants and the facilities, the transitional pastor or consultant has two primary tasks:  first, provide pastoral care for the present members by assuring that they find a place to worship and work through their grief; second, assure that the physical resources and facilities are used to benefit the work of the Kingdom. These tasks require both a pastoral heart and a visionary spirit.





Tuesday, July 17, 2018

Apostolic Entrepreneurs

Faith-based social entrepreneurship is gaining traction.  Visionary leaders, many of them young adults, are seeking to meet needs outside of ecclesiastical structures.  Their motivation for doing this might be addressed in another blog, but the trend is growing.  In a recent article published by the Association of Theological Schools, writer Linda Kay Klein identified the top five qualities of a successful faith-based entrepreneur.

Purpose-driven. Faith-based social entrepreneurs are driven by internal rather than external motivation.  Rather than seeking recognition, money, or freedom from guilt, these trailblazers have a clearly identified positive goal in mind. They see a need and want to meet it.  When they encounter barriers, they are driven to overcome these difficulties because they have a clear focus on what they want to accomplish.

Resilient.  Successful social entrepreneurs have often overcome personal challenges in their past.  Therefore, they are ready to meet the challenges of a start-up--limited funding, lack of support in the community, changes in leadership.  They realize that flexibility is a virtue if you still can accomplish your goal.

Two-channel thinking. Klein writes, “It’s as though they are simultaneously on two channels--at once seeing the muck and mess of today, and the beauty that could be tomorrow.”  They can own the vision and communicate it to others while developing pathways to achieve the vision and inviting others on the journey.  They are the chief advocates for the vision.

People-centered.  They are not simply serving people and fulfilling their needs but inviting others to co-create the best solution.  They learn from those affected by the problem or possibility.  They also seek to network with those in various fields--business, government, social services--who share a common interest in achieving the goal.

Outcomes-oriented.  Successful social entrepreneurs realize that they must address the root causes that create the need and not just the symptoms.  The only path to permanent, life-giving change involves changing the system.  

Churches, judicatories and theological schools are beginning to recognize the impact these faith-based social entrepreneurs can make, but these entities usually lack the flexibility and creativity to support their work.  If the 21stcentury church is to be truly missional, we must find ways to empower, encourage, and resource those who can be our contemporary apostles to the world.  They will make a difference, but will we help or hinder their work?

(The post originally appeared on this blog on December 13, 2017.)



Monday, July 16, 2018

First, Do No Harm

Although the statement, “First, do no harm,” is not actually part of the Hippocratic Oath for physicians, it was coined by the Greek philosopher Hippocrates to remind medical practitioners that, although they wish to heal their patients, they have an equal capacity to do harm.  I think this directive also applies to church consultants.  I have been known to share the statement, “There is no problem that a consultant can’t make worse,” but in my practice as a consultant, I certainly try to avoid this.

Churches call upon consultants for a number of services:  staff development, visioning, transitions, conflict resolution, fund raising, security audits, building planning, and many other things.  At Pinnacle Leadership Associates, we deal primarily with the first four.  What has been your experience with church consultants?

If you are planning to contract with a consultant, let me suggest several things for you to consider.

First, does the consultant seek to understand and respect the DNA of your church?  Another way to ask this would be, does the consultant try to understand and work with the values that are most important to your congregation? Every faith community is different. Their values differ as well. What is important in one congregation’s context is not as important in another. A good consultant knows this and tries to understand what the church considers important and work with those values.

Second, does the consultant respect the people and their opinions?  Another way to ask this is, is the consultant a good listener?  What percentage of the time does the consultant devote to telling and what percentage is given to listening?  If your consultant does not build into the process the opportunity for the people to be heard, then he or she doesn’t really value those in the congregation.

Third, does the consultant see staff and church leaders as colleagues?  The consultant will come and then leave, but clergy and lay leadership will probably continue to serve in the church.  One role the consultant should play is helping present leadership to develop skills that will address the present concern and equip them to deal with future issues of the same type.

Fourth, does the consultant ask good questions?  The only way that a consultant can be effective is to discover as much as possible about the congregation, how it operates, and the deeper dynamics that drive an issue. This requires asking not only questions to gain information but questions that will cause those in the congregation to dig deeper for insight.

Fifth, does the consultant communicate that there is not one just one solution but multiple solutions and the church must decide which one to follow?  A good consultant does not bring an all-purpose, fits-every-need product to the congregation but a process that leads the congregation to discover and select its own path forward.  Solutions are discovered together.

Sixth, does the consultant have a positive attitude and a spirit of encouragement?  Several years ago, a church that had just experienced a split and lost half its participants invited a person in to provide insight and encouragement.  Knowing only a part of the congregation’s story, he proceeded to point out what he perceived as the church’s failures and faults and berated them for their reluctance to change.  He was not invited back.  Instead, the church sought out an interim pastor who loved them, offered wise counsel, and walked with them through a difficult time. An effective consultant brings an encouraging attitude and shares that with others.
 An effective consultant can help the church see its situation with fresh eyes and walk with the church as it moves forward, but the selection of a consultant must be pursued with prayer, wisdom, and discernment.

Friday, July 13, 2018

Unlearning

Whether we want to admit it or not, our actions and decisions each day are as programmed as if we were computers. The word “routine” applies not just to humans but to computers as well. In computer programming, “routine” and “subroutine” are terms that describe any sequence of code that is intended to be called up and used repeatedly during the execution of a program. They are shortcuts to speed things up.

We function smoothly most days because we have developed certain habits related to hygiene, eating, dress, relationship, and exercise that are second nature.  In the same way, we use paradigms to process what we experience even if those paradigms are fictional.  For example, we talk about the sun rising in morning and setting at night when we are the ones moving.  We have adopted patterns for processing information that usually give us reliable results and makes sense of our environment.  

As with most things, a strength carried to an extreme becomes a weakness.  Our preferred habits, paradigms, and pattern recognition routines may keep us from seeing something new.

I have been involved in recent days with some colleagues in a class on human-centered design (or design thinking) as a way to address challenges in a creative way.  One of the beginning points of this process is “embracing your beginner’s mind.”  Another way to say this is “have an open mind.”  In human-centered design, we are asked to empathize with the end-user of the process, product, or service we are designing so that we can see things through their eyes.  We are to bring “fresh eyes” to the challenge.  This is not always easy.  This means that we must unlearn some things that may get in the way in order to learn something new.

Liz Wiseman addressed this idea in her book Rookie Smarts:  Why Learning Beats Knowing in the New Game of Work.  She wrote, “When the world is changing quickly, experience can become a curse, trapping us in old ways of doing and knowing, while inexperience can be a blessing freeing us to improvise and adapt quickly to changing circumstances.” Being a rookie can be a good thing.

I once heard a student of church history say something like this: “Don’t tell me that Baptists don’t do so and so. Baptists have done a lot of things that we don’t do today.”  This is true of the church as a whole.  The mission of the church has survived and prospered in a climate of adaptation and change.  The message remains consistent but the delivery system changes.  In other words, we unlearn some things in order to learn others.

What do you need to unlearn today? What does your church need to unlearn? What is getting in the way of a new insight or plan?  What is hindering the work of the Spirit?

(This post originally appeared on this blog on February 22, 2017.)



Wednesday, July 11, 2018

Sacred Space and Sacred Presence

Church architecture has always fascinated me.  The spaces we create for worship and their theological implications challenge my thinking about how we try to express the spiritual through the physical.  One of the most interesting and challenging papers I wrote in seminary was on the subject “The Church and Architecture” for Dr. John Newport’s Philosophy of Religion class.

In recent years, I have come to realize how easy it is to confuse sacred space with sacred presence. Sacred space--whether constructed or naturally occurring--provides an environment where we can prepare to encounter God.  Sacred presence occurs whenever we perceive God in a meaningful way.  

There can be a beautifully designed sacred space, but we do not necessarily find God there unless our hearts and minds are prepared to do so.  We have all visited beautiful spaces that were created for the worship of God, but meaningful worship no longer takes place in that space.  These places have become architectural artifacts that witness to past, often forgotten, practices.

On the other hand, we can experience the presence of God anywhere.  We may be in a cathedral, in nature, in our bedroom, or in an automobile. My theology affirms that God is always near us, even when we are unaware; however, in times of prayer, need, and openness, God’s presence is manifested in intimacy, power, or any hundreds of other ways.

In the most fortuitous situations, sacred space and sacred presence intersect for a significant corporate or individual time of worship.

What makes the difference? First, personal preparation is important.  When we come to God with a prepared spirit, heart, and mind, we are better prepared to experience the desired presence.  This is true whether we are alone, with two or three others, or a large crowd.  Second, being part of a faith community worshipping together in a space often facilitates our receptivity to the sacred presence.  Certainly, being present with others does not always enhance our worship of God or guarantee our experiencing the sacred presence, but when we are immersed in committed relationship with others, we are in a situation where God’s presence can become real.

Although many congregations value their buildings, authentic faith communities will understand that it is the relationship with others that facilitates their awareness of God in the space they occupy.  We celebrate our sacred places, but it is sacred presence that we crave.

(This post originally appeared on this blog on March 31, 2017.)

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

The Failure of Imagination


“Some see things as they are and ask why.  Others dream things that never were and ask why not?”--George Bernard Shaw

One of the greatest challenges that Jesus seems to have encountered with his disciples was a lack of imagination.  He used parables and illustrations to explain his vision of the Kingdom and expand their perception, but their responses were often tied to the old paradigms; for example, “Who will sit on your right hand and your left hand the kingdom of God?” (see Matthew 20:20-28)

Although Jesus built upon the Hebrew teachings about the Kingdom of God, they only provided a beginning point for him.  He was not interested in the preservation of the Temple in Jerusalem and its sacrificial practices.  He was not concerned about elevating the people of Israel to the top rung of civilization. He could care less about the place of Israel in the world economy of the day.  Jesus was invested in fulfilling the promise of God to Abraham that through his lineage “all nations on earth would be blessed.”  (Genesis 18:18)

Jesus was not changing the game but expanding its reach.  The Kingdom would not just be made up of the faithful of Israel but anyone who accepted an invitation to follow its Lord.  As you can imagine, some people did not like the changes that Jesus envisioned.

Even so today, believers are both strengthened and hindered by the paradigms for ministry they have embraced.  The way we have always done things is so attractive, reassuring, and “so right” that we have a difficult time accepting that this is only one expression of the Kingdom and perhaps God has something better in store for us, something more effective for our day.

One role of the Spirit of God is to nurture and stimulate our imaginations.  Peter’s quotation from the prophet Joel in Acts 2:17 affirms this: “‘In the last days, God says, I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your young men will see visions, your old men will dream dreams.” (NIV)

How open are you to listening to the voice of Spirit and dreaming new dreams for the Kingdom?



Monday, July 09, 2018

The Value of Taking a Sabbatical

A friend attended a special event at our church recently and remarked to my wife, “I don’t see your pastor here.”  Rita explained that our pastor was taking a sabbatical this summer.  The reply was, “Well, is he coming back?”

The idea of a sabbatical for a pastor or staff member is still not understood by many church members. They either see the sabbatical as a way to ease a pastor into termination or deal with a problem. Quite to the contrary, the church that provides a sabbatical for a ministerial staff member is not only doing a good thing for the minister but for the church as well. The practice is being encouraged by organizations that provide grants for pastoral sabbatical, but many churches now build this into their personnel policies as well as their budgets.

When I was chair of our church’s personnel committee several years ago, we expanded the sabbatical program to provide a sabbatical for every minister after each five years of service. Although it took a while for this to become a regular practice, our present ministers are taking advantage of the opportunity.

A sabbatical allows a minister to do several things.  First of all, it provides time for the minister to slow down and get a little distance from the day to day challenges of ministry.  It provides breathing space for personal and spiritual reflection.

Second, it can provide time for the minister and his/her family to spend some real quality time together on an extended vacation.  Most sabbatical grants expect the minister to have some fun during this time and to travel.

Third, most ministers use the sabbatical for some personal and professional development.  This may be taking a course on a topic of interest, spending time with a respected leader or mentor, writing and research, or overseas travel.

This is all very good for the minister, but it also benefits the church.  The minister returns refreshed with new energy and insights as well as appreciation for a congregation that cares enough to provide this time.  Although I have not found any research on this, but my hunch is that a sabbatical program increases a staff minister’s tenure at his or her church.

The church benefits from being exposed to one or more different voices from the pulpit.  Our church has invited supply preachers who serve for two consecutive summers.  My colleague Mark Tidsworth is serving as the sabbatical pastor in a church for the entire time the pastor is away.

The time that a minister spends on sabbatical allows the congregation to benefit from a leader who returns with renewed vision, stamina, and commitment to congregational life and health.

I encourage churches to consider the value of providing ministerial sabbaticals, but I also encourage ministers not to miss the opportunity take a sabbatical.

Saturday, July 07, 2018

Time Well Spent: Four Audio Book Reviews

When I did denominational work, I frequently traveled by car and got into the habit of listening to audio-books, first on cassette tapes and then DVDs.  Now, of course, these are available as digital downloads on your iPhone or iPad.  Since the beginning of the year, I have had the opportunity to listen to four complete audio books.  As you will note, they cover a variety of topics and all provide interesting insights about people and culture.


Vance’s writing style is poignant, abrupt, and down-to-earth.  His memoir includes plenty of salty language that clearly expresses both his attitude and that of his family and friends growing up. 

Vance is a success story.  Coming out of a declining area of southeast Ohio, he survived a difficult childhood to enter the Marines and eventually graduate from Yale Law School.  A Republican, he is committed to investing in the area where he grew up as a venture capitalist, not-for-profit entrepreneur, and possible political candidate.

His book reflects the challenges faced by white working-class people who often barely survive in our culture.  Vance’s stance is realistic but hopeful.  The key insight here is that one person--his maternal grandmother--provided the intervention that changed his trajectory in life.  One person can make a difference.


How fitting it is to listen to this audio book while driving at high speed down an Interstate highway.  Author Tom Lewis recounts the developments of the United State highway system from the creation of the Bureau of Public Roads in the early 20thcentury, but the story goes into high gear with the creation of the Interstate Highway System in 1956 under the Eisenhower Administration.  

The key take-away here is the background, education, and motivations of the those who conceived and constructed our Interstate System--social planners, economic investors, and highway engineers.  They were often misdirected or blind to the consequences of their work.  In many cases, these players were neither interested in or trained to consider the impact that these super highways would have on people and culture.  

One of the most egregious proposals was an effort that would have separated the historic French Quarter and Jackson Square in New Orleans from the Mississippi River with an elevated Interstate highway.  Just think about sitting at the Café du Monde, eating your beignets and drinking your Coffee Au Lait while hundreds of trucks and cars passed by overhead! Thankfully, a few committed individuals stepped up to combat this idea.

Lewis’ book helps us to understand how this monumental work can both unite and divide us as a nation.


Billionaires Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos take center stage in this account of the effort to shift the paradigm for space exploration and exploitation but there are other players like Richard Branson and Greg Wyler.  Fernholz clearly shows how the military-industrial complex’s hold on space efforts has not only been wasteful but often less than successful.  With the support of NASA and the military, traditional aerospace firms like Boeing and Lockheed Martin have used regulatory and political pressure to edge out potential commercial competitors and preserve their domination in the field.
Amazon writes, “With privileged access to top executives at SpaceX, including Musk himself, as well as at Blue Origin, NASA, Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Orbital ATK, and Virgin Galactic, Fernholz spins this high-stakes marathon into a riveting tale of rivalry and survival.”
This is an interesting story of government excess and entrepreneurial imagination with “the final frontier” as the backdrop.  Lots of fun!

My reaction to Brown is often divided between exhilaration and dismay.  Her honesty is disarming and her insight into the human condition is inspirational.  
I love this book because is addresses a theme that I have considered from time to time--the power of wilderness experiences.  From the accounts of Hagar and the children of Israel in the Hebrew Bible to the temptation of Jesus in the Gospels, wilderness in the human journey is a place of wonder and opportunity. Brown writes, "The wilderness is an untamed, unpredictable place of solitude and searching. It is a place as dangerous as it is breathtaking, a place as sought after as it is feared. But it turns out to be the place of true belonging, and it's the bravest and most sacred place you will ever stand."

Brown is, as always, candid about her own life experiences.  In one part of this book, she talks about being asked to speak in various venues if she will only adapt her clothing, language, or approach to fit into someone else’s expectations.  Her response is clear and profane!  She says, "True belonging doesn't require us to change who we are. It requires us to be who we are."  
This book is a real treat!