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.