Thursday, December 13, 2018

Transforming Culture

Do you ever wonder about the source of many of our Christmas traditions?  In a recent blog from Bible Study Tools, the author unpacks some of the practices that we casually accept as being part of our Christmas observance.  

One thing that may surprise some Christians is that two pagan festivals honoring the sun were also celebrated on December 25.  It is possible that December 25 was chosen to counteract these pagan influences. 

The author writes, “To this day some people feel uncomfortable with Christmas because they think it is somehow tainted by the pagan festivals held on that day. But Christians have long believed that the gospel not only transcends culture, it also transforms it.”

Culture is all around us. We are inheritors of a rich mix of ideas, relationships, practices, and taboos which we usually accept without question; however, we are not captives of culture.  We can learn to exegete our culture rather than simply attack it or succumb to it. In fact, with Christmas as a case in point, Christians can use culture to communicate the gospel more effectively. So how should Christians relate to culture?

First, how can we use our culture to share the Gospel?  The first step in communicating the Gospel in a culture is to know the language and provide the Bible in the language of that culture.  This is the only way we can express the biblical message to people who are immersed in a particular culture. The Bibles we read today are not written in Hebrew, Greek, Aramaic, or Latin. They are written in English and many are provided in contemporary, colloquial English.  We can also look to literature, media, and current events to illustrate timeless Christian truths and inform the way that we present the Gospel.

Second, what cultural expressions conflict with our deeply held theological beliefs?  In many ways, Christianity is going to be counter-cultural. When we take a stand for personal responsibility, human rights, and social justice, we may very well find ourselves in conflict with prevailing social norms. When we complain about misplaced priorities and wish that things were like they were in the “good old days,” we are probably dealing with trends, expectations, and lifestyle choices rather than crucial core beliefs.  Although we may not like youth athletic competitions on Sunday, these are not going to destroy the church.  These trends challenge us to be more creative in reaching families and children.  We must be discerning in what we accept and what we condemn.

Third, how can we as believers transform culture?  There are times when our beliefs are in direct conflict with the culture.  In those situations, Christians join together to take a stand.  Although widely accepted in the world well into the 19thcentury (and defended by many Christians in the southern United States), slavery was counter to Gospel teaching and needed to end.  Christians in Great Britain and the United States took the lead in condemning the practice, despite the consequences.  In reality, this work is not over, and human slavery continues even at our doorstep.

As Christians, we are called to use, critique, and transform the cultures in which we live.  This is Kingdom work, but it is not easy.

Tuesday, December 11, 2018

Wake Up and Smell the Coffee

How’s the coffee at your church? If it is like most churches, it’s pretty bad.  Usually we buy the cheapest brand, make it weak, and almost always we use decaf.  Drinking a cup of coffee is a least a step of faith and at most an act of penitence.

The point of this little tirade, of course, is not the quality of coffee, but our attitude about what we do in church.  Do we settle for second best in what we undertake in the church?  Do we anticipate receiving forgiveness when something is good enough but not great?

For the most part, those who are called to ministry do not assume this attitude.  They see what they are doing as an expression of their commitment to God, so they put a great deal of time and effort into planning worship, practicing music, writing sermons, preparing Bible studies, and visiting parishioners.

And many of our church members have the same vision. Whatever they do, they do as an expression of their love for God, especially in the most visible things.

Where we often fall short in the small things.  Some of us who are teachers study our lesson on the drive to church.  We allow our classrooms to become messy and littered. We fail to stop and say hello to someone who is unfamiliar to us in the worship service.  We think about what is the least we can do and still feel alright about ourselves.

The small things count. They show we care.  

Am I being too critical? Maybe I just need my second cup of coffee.

Thursday, December 06, 2018

What Makes a Great Leader in the 21stCentury?

The church needs not just good but great leaders for the 21st century.  A TEDTalk by leadership consultant Rosalinde Torres suggests three questions to determine whether you will be a great leader in today’s context.

First, where are you looking for change?  Who do you spend time with? Where do you travel?  What are you reading?  In all of your activities, are you open to seeing the discontinuous change that characterizes our time?  Torres calls this “the ability to see around corners.”

For church leaders, this means prayer walks in your neighborhood, reading outside your area of expertise, talking to business leaders about the changes they see in their industries, and connecting with community and not-for-profit executives.  Change is happening but are we placing ourselves where we can perceive it?

Second, what is the diversity measure of your network?  We all have networks but are they homogenous or heterogenous?  Are we connecting with people who are different from us culturally, economically, racially, and ethnically?  If we spend time only with people who are like us, we will continue to see and hear the same things. We will be locked in an echo chamber.

For church leaders, we must not only engage secular leaders but faith-oriented leaders who are different from us.  Networking with the Lutherans, Episcopalians, and Catholics is a good start, but we must go even further and connect with the Islamic imam and the Buddhist priest as well.

Third, are you courageous enough to abandon the past? What are you willing to give up?  Daring to be different is not easy.  To do so, we may have to find partners outside of our usual networks with whom to work. Torres urges leaders not just to take a step but a leap.  

For church leaders, this can be particularly painful and scary.  Do we have the courage to kill some “sacred cows”?  We do this not just to change, but to offer something better.

Being a great leader for the church in the 21stcentury means being willing to ask these hard questions.

Tuesday, December 04, 2018

Collaborative Consulting

In teaching coaching classes, we point out the differences between the various “people development processes” --counseling, consulting, teaching, mentoring, coaching, and spiritual direction.  The differences are generally defined along two axes--self as expert versus other as expert and asking versus telling.

For example, in most cases, the consultant is usually the content expert who shares his or her expertise, so consulting is in the “other as expert”/”telling” corner. Coaches on the other hand lead the process with the client as the expert and the coach asking questions; therefore, coaching is in the “self as expert”/”asking” corner.

In reality, the lines are often blurred.  Over the course of time, a mentoring relationship can take on more of the characteristics of coaching as the client or protégé accepts more responsibility for his or her actions. In newer forms of education, teachers may become more guides or facilitators that dispensers of knowledge. Spiritual directors use a wide variety of approaches to their work with clients based on their individual skills and philosophy.

Consulting can also be approached in a different way.  There is also the possibility for a blended approach in consulting. The term I use for this is “collaborative consulting.”  In this approach, the consultant uses the methodology of coaching in working with churches and other organizations. There are definite benefits or the client organization in using this approach.

First, the collaborative consultant works with the congregation to discern the work of the Spirit in their midst by asking questions such as “Where have you seen God at work in your life as part of the congregation?” and “Where do you see God at work in your church right now?”

Second, a collaborative approach shows respect for the faith tradition of the church. Our doctrinal and theological backgrounds are often determinative in the actions we take, but they can also be an impetus for change.  Collaborative questions seek to discover beliefs that are essential and immutable and those that empower change and Kingdom engagement.

Third, asking questions rather than giving answers recognizes that the parishioners and staff ministers are the experts on their situation.  They know more about their context than anyone else. Although they may be satisfied where they are and resistant to change, challenging questions can help them to see their situation from a different perspective and visualize alternatives.

Fourth, similar to the observation above, good questions help the participants unlock and express their knowledge of the context in which they live, work, and minister.  Again, they should know more about situation that the consultant does. If they don’t, good questions can push them out into the community as more perceptive learners.

Finally, effective questions can lead a congregation to discover resources that they have overlooked--spiritual gifts, physical and financial resources, networks--that can be engaged in effective ministry.

Just as in coaching, asking powerful questions is key to a collaborative consulting experience.  The consultant leads a process so that the congregation and its leaders define the best way forward, discover the resources available, and monitor accountability for progress.  They come of the process with a clearer understanding of their inherent strengths and ability to make choices.

Dare to Lead: A Book Review

If you have not seen a Brene’ Brown TEDtalk or read one of her books on vulnerability, courage, shame, or empathy, I am very surprised.  A professor of social work, Brown’s research on emotions, relationships, and self-concept has provided creative ways to conceptualize, discuss, and embody these topics in a variety of settings.  

Even if you are familiar with her work, you may be surprised that her newest emphasis is organizational development.  In her new book, Dare to Lead:  Brave Work, Tough Conversations, Whole Hearts, Brown focuses her research, passion, and irreverent comments on how to revolutionize the workplace. Drawing from her research and her six previous books, she explains the impact of one’s values, emotions, and interpersonal relationships on leadership effectiveness.

Brown uses this quote from Theodore Roosevelt to frame the book:

 “It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again… who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly.”

Starting from this point, Brown simply asks, “Do you dare to lead?”

If you are a leader or aspire to be one, this book will speak to you on a very emotional level, particularly her chapter on “Armored Leadership.” As I read the sixteen examples of armored leadership and the contrasting daring leadership actions, I found myself evaluating my own experiences as a leader.  There were points where I could say, “Yes, I nailed that one!” but too many times where my response was, “Yeah, I failed to realize what I was doing and fell right into the trap.”

Her chapter on “Living into Your Values,” validates my conviction that values are at the very center of what we do as leaders.  If we do not identify and act on our values, we will fail.  Brown writes, “Daring leaders who live into their values are never silent about the hard things.”  Living into our values means more than articulating our values; it means that we practice them. She explains that individuals do not have two sets of values--one personal and one professional.  We have only one set of values that we are called to practice in all areas of our lives.

This is a great book.  Whatever your position is, whatever your responsibilities, please read this book and put its lessons into practice.  

Monday, December 03, 2018

Liking the People with Whom You Work

On Saturday, I attended a Celebration of Life for friend and former colleague, Stan Braley. During the service, a person who had served on staff with Stan at a church he pastored told of the positive relationship they had as co-workers and the wonderful way their families got along.

This was a good word. Healthy relationships among co-workers, especially in a church staff where one is the supervisor of the other, are a blessing.  This happens only when both persons are committed and willing to make the relationship worked.  It was clear that Stan and his fellow minister were willing to do this.

I am grateful that I have had the opportunity to be in such situations.  When you like the persons with whom you work, you are more productive, supportive, and creative.  How does this happen?

First, you have to trust one another. The leader is the one who must model this behavior.  He or she must be trustworthy, a person of integrity, who calls out this same in others.  Trust and transparency are not the same thing.  There is information that should not be public knowledge; healthy co-workers recognize the need and honor confidentiality.

Second, you have to have clear lines of communication.  This means both finding ways to do life together through conversation, social events, and celebration and setting clear boundaries.  If some topic or subject is off limits, there must be clarity about this and the reasoning behind the boundary.

Third, all parties must understand the nature of accountability.  Even in a healthy work environment, decisions must be made and executed, projects have to completed and delivered on time, and results have to be evaluated. Accountability is not a bad thing and everyone, even a supervisor, is accountable to someone.  Although often seen as negative, accountability moves us forward and keeps us on track.

In order to like the people with whom you work, you have to be willing to make the investment to in both personal and group development.  When you do so, the benefits are great.

Friday, November 30, 2018

When the Horse is Dead, Dismount

You can do a Google search on this quote, but the results on its origin are ambiguous.  Most likely, it is a Native American tribal saying popularized by leadership gurus like Peter Drucker.  The meaning, of course, is clear.  When something no longer work, it is time to move on.

This is easier said than done.  In business and industry, abandoning a project may mean the loss of jobs and capital investment.  In education, old approaches must be unlearned and new ways learned.  In the church, there may be some fear that we are giving up part of what makes us faithful when we end a program, ministry, worship service, or building.  It is not only about change, but loss as well.

R. Buckminster Fuller  said, “You never change things by fighting the existing reality.  To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.”  So what do you do when the existing model is already obsolete?  You had better get to work on an alternative!
Of course, it is important for people to face reality first.  The old no longer works. People need to honor the past but get ready to invest in the future. We can come up with a new way of doing things but we need to get to work now.  
A sense of urgency is not a bad thing. Knowing that we only have a short time to come up with something new challenges our creativity and builds community. Of course, some will not be willing to do this hard work and probably will leave rather than deal with the tension. Honor their choice but don’t regret their leaving.
Finally, sometimes quick fixes are only temporary and are only the first step to a more sustainable existence.  Hold the new approaches rather lightly.  Experience and learning may well push to the next level of innovation.
Getting off the dead horse is good advice. Finding a new horse will take some work.
(This blog originally appeared here on March 27, 2017.)

Thursday, November 29, 2018

Information or Formation?

Sociologist Brene Brown once said, “What we know matters, but who we are matters more."  This applies to our understanding of Christian discipleship.  As Christians, we often struggle with the balance between orthodoxy (right knowledge or doctrine) and orthopraxy (right practice or action). This is the challenge that James presents when he writes, “But someone will say, ‘You have faith; I have deeds.’ Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by my deeds.” (James 2:18, NIV)

Both right belief and right action are necessary in the life of a follower of Christ, but can one get in the way of the other?

Historically, Baptists have been very good at communicating information about the Bible and the faith.  They delight in asking questions of scripture that exegete the text in an attempt to understand the who, what, how, and why of the passage.  We are less open to letting the text speak to us.  

For example, when I attempt to introduce Lectio Divina to a Baptist group, they often want to question the text rather than let it question them.  The practice of Lectio Divina treats the text not as something to be studied but as the Living Word that questions us.

Certainly, we need to understand the text to avoid its misuse.  There are three questions we should ask in studying a passage of scripture:

  • What does it say? Do we understand the words and their meaning?
  • What did it mean (in context)?  Every part of the Bible was given first to a particular group of people in a specific context.  What did it mean to those who heard the text for the first time?  Was it teaching, exhortation, or worship?  What life circumstances did it address?
  • What does it mean to me?  Study of scripture without application is incomplete.  What does this text say to me today and what should I do about it? 

Ultimately, the goal of right teaching is right action.  If we become experts in the study of the Bible but never put it into practice, we have missed the point.  Information is important, but formation for Christian living is the real goal.

(This blog originally appeared here on August 23, 2017.)

Monday, November 19, 2018

Are Cooperative Baptists Really Interested in Supporting Theological Education?

The Baptist Theological Seminary at Richmond is closing its doors at the end of this academic year.  BTSR has blessed many through its capable administration, gifted faculty, and effective alumni.  Born with a great vision in a time of Baptist turmoil, the seminary encouraged many who were seeking an alternative path for theological education and ministry formation.

In light of the seminary’s closing, Paul Baxley, senior minister of First Baptist Church of Athens, Georgia, asked these questions: “As Cooperative Baptists, are we really committed to the importance of theological education in preparation for ministry? While there is still time, are we willing to act boldly to strengthen our remaining schools so that congregations may thrive and ministers may be trained? Are we willing to envision a new covenant between our churches, our current ministers, our theological schools and those whom God is calling into ministry now and in the future?”

My answer is an equivocal, “Maybe.”  The statements I am about to make are based on my own experience and impressions. I welcome rebuttal and correction from those more knowledgeable.  I suggest we look at the categories that Baxley lists--churches, ministers, and theological schools--and add CBF Global and the state CBF organizations.

First, my impression is that the seminaries who wish to serve CBF and its related churches have done most of the heavy lifting up to this point. They may be free-standing institutions, affiliated with a university, or related to another denomination. In each case, they raise their own support, handle the recruiting of students, and attain the instructional and administrative standards to maintain accreditation.  They have taken the initiative to reach out to churches for support, developed donors and foundations as contributors, and encouraged their students to be part of CBF General Assembly meetings and CBF missions.

Second, ministers who have graduated from these schools have been good representatives of their institutions through their ministries, networking to help graduates find placement, and often urging their churches to support their alma mater. Unfortunately, many of the graduates of the CBF-oriented theological schools have found more opportunities with American Baptists, Disciples of Christ, the United Church of Christ, Methodists, and Presbyterians than with progressive Baptist congregations, so their impact in the CBF system is lost.

Third, churches just don’t get it.  Unless there is a CBF-oriented school in the immediate area, most church members and search committees don’t know the difference between Liberty’s Rawlings School of Divinity and Baylor’s Truett Theological Seminary.  I have consulted with members of more than one pastor search committee who were struggling to distinguish among the theological schools on applicants’ resumes.

Fourth, CBF state and regional organizations have worked to keep the theological schools before their constituents through presentations at meetings, hosting seminary exhibitors, and funding scholarships (there is one named in my honor that is offered by the Tennessee Cooperative Baptist Fellowship).  Rarely, however, do these entities provide any direct financial support to theological institutions.

Fifth, what is CBF global doing?  For one thing, seminarians are included in the Young Adult Network. According to the CBF website, this network includes individuals from the following categories of young Baptists: seminarians, young clergy (up to age 35), young adult laity (ages 21-35), and those who minister alongside individuals from the above age ranges.  For another, CBF provides or has provided scholarship funding to students who attend 20 theological education programs and regularly provide direct scholarships for 15. That is about it.  I believe that CBF Global is interested in seminarians but is concerned about becoming too connected to theological institutions.  Perhaps the institutions feel the same way.

Finally, here are some general observations.  

  • Certain programs provided through CBF Global encourage students in CBF-oriented seminaries, but it is too little.
  • Although early graduates of the theological schools are rising to places of prominence in CBF churches and life, the support for those schools has not increased.  
  • The entire system is informal, loose, and tenuous.  Due to what happened to Baptists in the South in the late 20thcentury, perhaps that is what all involved prefer.  Is there anyone who really wants to forge “a new covenant” to assure the future of CBF-oriented theological education?

So, my response to Dr. Baxley’s question is, “Maybe.”  But I am an optimist.

Friday, November 16, 2018

Diversity Makes Everything Better

"We all should know that diversity makes for a rich tapestry, and we must understand that all the threads of the tapestry are equal in value no matter what their color." --Maya Angelou

Diversity is something of a buzz word today.  Most often it refers to a racial and ethnic mix, but it can also be applied to any number of other categories.  Diversity recognizes the reality that society itself, as Angelou noted, is a tapestry. Although there may be similarities, no two people are exactly alike, not even identical twins.  We are part of a rich and variegated society.

Perhaps the greatest gift that diversity provides is the opportunity to learn from others and to create a stronger society, organization, church, or product by incorporating the unique experiences and abilities that each person brings to the table.

We make efforts to create diversity by reaching out to individuals who are unlike us, but inherent in any group is a thread of diversity.  Diversity means that people approach things differently.

Although the quote, “Where is everyone is thinking alike, somebody is not thinking” is attributed to George S. Patton, the idea has been around for a long time. Just having a group of people working on a project doesn’t mean that everyone’s abilities are being tapped.  “Groupthink” can lead to a lock step approach that either follows the leader without question or brings discussion to the lowest common denominator.

Tapping into diversity and the rich knowledge base in a group is a significant skill for a leader.  It requires the ability to put one’s own assumptions on hold, listen to others, ask good questions, and value other’s insights.  When it works well, the result can be phenomenal.

Tuesday, November 13, 2018

Healing Racial Divides: A Review

A positive aspect of teaching classes for Central Seminary (Shawnee, KS) has been the diversity of the student body.  In addition to working with students from a number of denominations, I also have the opportunity to engage students of different racial and ethnic backgrounds.  I have especially learned from the experiences of African-American Christians who have been willing to share not only their church culture but their personal experiences as well.  Even with this exposure, I still have a lot to learn about relating across the racial gap, so I appreciate Terrell Carter’s informative and challenging book Healing Racial Divides: Finding Strength in Our Diversity.

Dr. Terrell Carter is an artist (he provided the cover art), pastor, theologian, educator, and former police officer.  He combines these experiences with the insights of theology, the social sciences, law, and cultural analysis to address the key issue in American life--the racial divide that inhibits our interactions and poisons public discourse.  Carter’s very personal engagement with the topic encourages us to find strength rather than division in our diversity.  His approach is fresh, informative, and a source of healing.

In Healing Racial Divides, Carter helps us: 
  • Understand the roots of racism in the world, the church, and ourselves;
  • Gain a biblical perspective on the sin of racism, as well as the biblical call to Christian unity;
  • Examine how racism continues to be perpetuated in America today;
  • Explore the concept of "white normality" and its aftereffects;
  • Discover a way across the divide through the creation of multi-cultural relationships, churches and communities.

I think you will find Carter’s observations not only informative but uncomfortable, especially if you are not an African-American.  I appreciate his willingness to tackle this tough subject.

(Note:  The book will not be released until January 2019, but it is available now for pre-order on Amazon.)

Monday, November 12, 2018

Strategies for the Future of the Church

We see the articles and blogs daily: church membership is in decline, mainline influence is waning, church buildings are a burden, membership is declining, fewer people are entering the ministry.  Despite the challenges, there is a way forward for the church.  I believe that the church will survive and prosper in the days ahead, but the form It takes will change.  Here are some strategies that may allow the church to remain vital and relevant.

First, congregations must learn to engage in a deeper spirituality that will foster meaningful discernment.  Spiritual vitality is at the core of a healthy congregation.  There must be a significant shift from voicing what parishioners want to seeking where God is leading.  This will require both personal and corporate prayer, Bible study, and sacrifice.

Second, we must recognize there is more than one path to leadership in churches.  Churches will continue to call out and employ members with little or no theological training for leadership roles because they have the gifts to do the work.  Trained ministers will continue to follow their callings but may have to supplement their incomes through work beyond the church.  Lay leaders will have to take on responsibilities that were once assumed by paid staff.  Both denominations and seminaries are recognizing these realities and developing new approaches to form, equip, and encourage these individual ministries, but the shift will not be easy.

Third, churches must adopt leaner, more agile organizational structures.  With fewer leaders, declining resources, and time pressures, people in the church will be less inclined to waste their time on meaningless or maintenance-oriented tasks.  We need to focus on the essentials, eliminate redundancy, cut committees, add short-term teams, and outsource functions that can reduce staff workload.

Fourth, churches must look outward to develop dynamic externally-focused partnerships.  Christians must come to realize that God is at work not only within their churches but with others as well.  If we are not already partnering with other Christians to do Kingdom work, this is a good time to discover where we can work together to multiple our impact. We must seek out “persons of peace” in other faith traditions who want to work together for community improvement and social justice.  We should also seek partnerships in the not-for-profit community or consider ways that we can join with those outside our churches to make a difference in the lives of people through new community organizations.

These strategies are not easy.  Such steps require a reorientation of our priorities and a willingness to let go of some things, but as we do so, we will be free to embrace new possibilities.

Saturday, November 03, 2018

A Test of Leadership

The relationship between God and Israel recounted in the Hebrew Bible is a bit of a roller-coaster ride.  A good example is found in Exodus 32.  God has delivered the Israelites from Egypt. They have gathered at the foot of Mount Sinai to worship God, receive the Ten Commandments, and affirm a covenant with the Deliverer God.  Moses goes up to the mountain for 40 days to receive the commandments etched on stone by God and full instructions for a Tabernacle to symbolize God’s presence with the people. Then it all falls apart.

For their own reasons, the people despair of Moses’ returning and are afraid that this God he has proclaimed has forsaken them.  They call on Aaron to help them create a golden idol that they can see and worship.  They rebel.

God sees this happening and declares to Moses,“Go down, because your people, whom you brought up out of Egypt, have become corrupt.”  (32:7, NIV). God’s new plan is to destroy them and “then I will make you into a great nation.” (32:10).

Here is a major test of Moses’ leadership.  He can abandon the people and embrace God’s new plan and join the ranks of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as a new patriarch.  Moses has had his own times of frustration with this group since they left Egypt.  Maybe it is time to cut his losses and move on. He chooses a different course of action.

Moses accepts his role as leader and argues on behalf of the Israelites.  He reminds God that they are not his people, but God’s (32:11) and that God has already invested a great deal in them.  God relents of destroying the people and joins Moses in a plan of redemption.

Perhaps this was God’s intention all along.  When times became difficult, would Moses abandon those he led and look out for his own welfare?  To his credit, Moses accepts the challenge. The next steps will not be easy, but he affirms his mantle of leadership and addresses the problem.

The test of a true leader is her or his ability to accept responsibility.  Plans will go astray, people will fail to follow through, and events will complicate things.  When life happens, the leader can throw someone else under the bus or step up and try to make things right.

Moses passed the test.  Leading this ragtag group would never be easy, but he had found his place and accepted the responsibility of a leader.  What a great example!

Wednesday, October 31, 2018

There are Pilgrims and Then There are Pilgrims

In the recent publication of my article entitled “Day Camper or Pilgrim?”, my friend who was doing the layout chose to illustrate the piece with a Pilgrim hat. You know, one of those conical hats with the wide brims that our kids wear in Thanksgiving pageants as an ode to the Plymouth colonists. Well, there are Pilgrims and then there are pilgrims.

The earliest use of the term refers to one who is on a religious journey to a holy place. The practice is common in many world religions, especially in Islam where every devout Muslim desires to make the pilgrimage to Mecca at least once.  The word has also been used to refer to our time here on earth.  The idea is that we are just sojourners here on the way to something better.

Of course, the historical Pilgrims or Pilgrim Fathers, the ones with the hats, were religious dissenters who founded the Plymouth Colony in Massachusetts in 1620. They are often called Puritans because of their desire for a pure faith apart from the established church in England.  They were on a pilgrimage to religious freedom.

I used the term in the article with the sense of Eugene Peterson’s book, A Long Obedience in the Same Direction: Discipleship in an Instant Society, in which he reflects on the Songs of Ascents in the Hebrew psalter. These were songs sung by pilgrims on their way up to worship in Jerusalem.

My conviction is that Christ has called us to be on a journey with Him. This is not a sprint but a marathon.  On this pilgrimage, we can discover more about Him as well as more about ourselves. This is also preparation for the eternal pilgrimage we will experience with God.  The journey goes on!


Tuesday, October 30, 2018

Coaching: A Guide for the Journey

The first real “job” for which I was paid was as a math tutor.  Considering that I failed Calculus in college, this is rather ironic. I was a junior in high school and my math teacher recommended me as a tutor for an eighth grader.  The parents paid me ten dollars a session.

As I began working with this young man, I realized pretty quickly that he already knew what he was supposed to do.  He understood the calculations and was probably a better math student than I was!  The key was focus.  He needed someone who would just sit with him, respond to his work, and provide encouragement.  I did not need to be an expert; I just needed to be there.

I find myself in the same situation very often as a leadership coach.  As I talk with a client, I discover that not only does the person have the best knowledge of the situation we are discussing, but he or she has some ideas about how to address it in a positive way.  So why does the person need a coach?

One of the things that a coach does is to help a person have a conversation with herself or himself. The coach asks the questions that the client needs to be asking for decision, planning, and goal-setting.  The coaching conversation brings clarity by helping the person to openly articulate solutions and approaches that, up to that point, were simply ideas and inclinations.

A friend recently asked me about my approach to coaching and how I knew when I was successful.  I know that I am helping the client when he or she says, “That is a good question.” I have not shared new information but have encouraged the person to dig deeper and unearth his or her own knowledge, experience, or gifts.

Most of us already know more that we are doing.  A coach can provide the catalyst to act on what you already know.

Monday, October 29, 2018

Voting--A Privilege and a Responsibility

When we went to vote early recently, two of our grandchildren were with us. This brought to mind the times when I was a child and went with my Dad to the voting place in our neighborhood. He would pick me up at school and we would go directly to the polling place so he could cast his ballot (my Mom always voted earlier in the day).

My parents’ example has stayed with me.  This is one of the most important ways that we exercise our citizenship. Even if I estimate that my candidate has little chance of winning, I know it is important to express my point of view.  

We are a week away from mid-term elections.  Early voting has been going on in many places for a couple of weeks. I encourage you to cast your vote for the candidates of your choice.  I am not arguing that you vote for a particular candidate or party, but I do suggest that you ask yourself these questions about each candidate as you decide.

First, would you be willing to have this person as a guest in your home? Is this a person that you would enjoy spending time with and who would enrich the lives of your family members?

Second, does the candidate respect every person in their constituency regardless of social or financial status?  A representative does not have to agree with everyone in their constituency, but elected officials represent all the people in their area, not just one particular group and not just those who voted for them.  Can they listen to and respond to dissenting voices in a constructive way?

Third, is this candidate more concerned about people than issues?  Issues change over time and an elected representative may be asked to act on legislation that impacts our changing society in unexpected ways. People matter more than issues.

Fourth, do the person’s public actions reflect a moral center?  Does this person appear to know right from wrong? All of us make mistakes in life, but is the candidate willing to admit his or her errors and acknowledge these with a contrite spirit? 

Fifth, does this candidate have “real world experience”?  Have they been in positions where they have earned a salary, supported themselves and a family (if they have one), and worked with different types of people?  The level of responsibility is not as important as the experience of working with others to accomplish a task.

Whatever your decisions may be, I hope that you will prayerfully consider your choices and then vote.  Voting is both a privilege and a responsibility.

Friday, October 26, 2018

The Work of Equipping Leaders

While attending the ordination service for a friend recently, I appreciated that the person bringing the challenge to the candidate provided a strong emphasis on the role of a clergyperson to call and equip leaders for the church.  Although not always emphasized, this is one of the most significant tasks of a leader. 

Ephesians 4:11-13 offers a model for equipping and empowering believers:

So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.”

Some believers are set aside to equip God’s people for the “works of service” so that everyone can find his or her place in the Body of Christ and grow in Christlikeness. This does not mean that we have two levels of giftedness—the clergy and the laity, for example—but different functions in the body of Christ. Those we usually refer to as “clergy” are ministers and those we call “laity” are also ministers. Those gifted as apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, and teachers (the last two may be one function) are specifically charged to equip and empower others for ministry.

So how do those with the responsibility to equip and empower other believers do their work? They do it by developing a culture in the church that fulfills the goals of equipping and empowering. In my book, For Such a Time as This: Aligning Church and Leadership for Missional Ministry, I suggest some specific actions that contribute to this type of culture.

The church must recognize all gifts without respect to gender, age, or ethnicity. This means that women, older adults, median adults, younger adults, youth, children, and people of various races all have a part to play in the church. We must remove the prejudices and ingrained habits that are barriers to their service.

We must encourage people to discover how God has “wired them up.” Each person is a unique mixture of spiritual gifts, talents, experiences and passions. When we understand who we are, we are better prepared to find the right place of service.

 The church must organize for equipping and empowerment. What are the structures—discernment, counseling, assessment, training, placement—that we can put in place to help people use what they have to further the ministry of the church?

We must find the methodology to measure our progress and determine how effective we are in the process of equipping and empowerment, although this is not easy. As someone said, “What gets measured gets done.”

We must train both “clergy” and “laity” to mentor and coach each other to use their giftedness and find the right placement in the Body of Christ. Scripture offers many examples, especially in the work of Barnabas and Paul.

God continues to call gifted and talented men and women for “works of service.” We must be more intentional about helping them find how to perform that service.

(This post originally appeared here on September 11, 2017.)