How Blackberry Picking is Like Ministry

This Summer, wild blackberries are everywhere! We see lots of friends across the Midwest who have been picking berries and enjoying the resulting cobblers. Well, I have done my share of picking, too. I find it relaxing and fulfilling to bring home these delectable treats. I blame my underprivileged upbringing (I can’t pass up free food), but in actuality, I find the blackberry jam that Letha makes to be the best I’ve ever eaten.  

As is usually the case with preachers, we find a lesson in everything. I will use blackberry picking as a metaphor for ministry. Here goes:

The berries represent the fruit of our labors – people, growth, progress, goals, etc. 

The bushes equal the world and communities in which we live, where we find the fruit of ministry.

The thorns, mosquitoes, heat, and poison ivy are metaphors for the obstacles and discouraging distractions we find in ministry.The jelly, cobbler, blackberry dumplins’ and berry crumbles are an analogy for the goal of ministry: souls for the Kingdom of Christ!

Here are some observations:

  • You can’t pick berries without getting stuck by thorns. I have scratches all over my hands and arms and I have to pick out the splinters. The only way to avoid getting stuck is to not pick berries. The analogy is pretty obvious: if you do ministry, you will get scars. 
  • The more berries I pick, the better I get at it. I’ve learned where the best blackberry bushes are. I now recognize ripe, sweet berries. I’ve become much more efficient. I’ve improved my skills. Experience is an excellent teacher. The longer we do ministry the better at it we are supposed to become. 
  • Some berries look good but are not. Some are past ripe or infested by bugs. Once you take hold of a bad berry, you know it – it squishes in your fingers. The ministry application is, some folks look good on the outside– but they are rotten on the inside. 
  • Some of the best berries are the most elusive. You spot a big juicy one, as large as a walnut, but it’s deep in a thorny bush or in the middle of chigger weeds. Is it worth going after? You bet it is! That’s the way it is with some ministry goals, isn’t it?
  • I’ve dropped a lot of nice berries. Once they fall among the bushes, they are gone. In church work, we can’t possibly keep all the fruit we harvest; we feel terrible about it but, unfortunately, we lose some. 
  • Sometimes berries grow in groups and come ripe at the same time. I have harvested as many as 7 berries in one grab. Family groups or entire neighborhoods are available to be won by our churches, if we have the wisdom to recognize how. Let’s observe and take advantage of those opened doors.  
  • Picking the berries is only the beginning. If we don’t do something with those berries, they will waste – we can’t possibly eat that many fresh berries. Cleaning, picking out sticks and bugs, freezing or canning, baking or cooking… much of the work is accomplished after the harvest. The comparison is obvious: win people to the Lord and His church – and then the real work begins!
  • Berry picking takes time. I have a demanding job so I have to make time to go out picking. It would be easier just to sit on the couch and then buy berries from the store, but, in my opinion, there is no comparison between packaged berries and wild, organic berries. In ministry, we must prioritize the spiritual harvest. The demands of life make it easy to justify our inactivity and ignore the harvest. But there is no greater reward than winning folks to Jesus and making disciples.
  • Berry picking season is soon coming to a close. As the summer days get shorter, the production will slow down. I have to pick while I can; if I wait, I will miss the season. You don’t need me to make the correlation, do you? 
  • Finally, we are freezing most of the berries I pick. This is because Letha is doing most of the work of making jam and baked goodies, and she also lives a busy life. (Lesson – we can’t enjoy the fruit of the harvest without the contributions of the good people around us). But we will enjoy these berries all year. I can’t wait for a hot blackberry crisp once the weather turns cold. Ministry lesson: work now, reap the benefits for eternity!

Thanks for indulging me this little folksy parallel. I hope you find it beneficial.    

A Lesson in Succession

I’m reading I Chronicles 28 and 28 where David is sharing the plans for the Temple which his son Solomon is to build. The lavish detail is remarkable. David is not able to build the Temple but his son is selected by God to do so. David goes to great lengths to assure the success of the project. David is extremely invested in this project. While God will not allow him to lead the construction, he is totally committed to making sure his son succeeds.

Along with procuring all the necessary building materials, David makes an incredible statement: “And now, because of my devotion to the construction of the Tempe of God, I am giving all of my own private treasures of gold and silver to help in the construction.” (I Chronicles 29:3)

Along with many other more obvious points, I see the following:

• Because David is not allowed to construct the Temple, he could have removed himself from the process (and kept all his valuables). 

• David did everything in his power to make sure the Temple was built according to the standards that God required; his money was needed to make that happen.

• David set his son up for success.Note: David is not coddling Solomon. He is not trying to cover for Solomon’s weaknesses. He is not creating entitlement on the part of his son. David believed in the project and in his son, therefore, he is willing to invest, heavily. 

My generation must invest in the next generation. There are things that we will not accomplish for the Lord that will be accomplished by those coming behind us. This is no time to hoard our resources. The wisdom, expertise and resources we have accumulated must be shared if the job is to be accomplished. 

Younger folks are not snowflakes. They’re not buttercups. They are the generation that is chosen by God to fulfill a great work; we elders have a vital part to play in that!

Ambitious Leadership During a Pandemic

design-66Perhaps we should start by redeeming the word, “ambitious.”  While today’s version of ambition probably includes a focus on power or wealth or fame, the simple target I am after is, “a strong desire to get something done.” There is nothing wrong with being ambitious, if the ambition glorifies God. There is much wrong with a lack of ambition, with slothfulness, laziness or passionless leadership.

Ambitious leaders are not content with just waiting out the virus. They are not comfortable on “pause” while scientists and politicians seek for answers. These types of leaders realize that regardless of Covid-19, time is wasting if we fail to move forward.  Who knows how long this mess will last? We can’t afford to be stuck that long.

So, considering a passion to do something great for God, how does one go about this while facing an unprecedented pandemic? Is it even reasonable to consider making progress, moving forward, gaining ground?

Yes! It is reasonable, logical and very necessary!

Here are a few ideas on how leaders can lead with godly ambition in the middle of an unprecedented pandemic.

  1. Try something new. Rather than sitting idle, or doing what we’ve always done, this is the perfect time to experiment. Most of us have entertained thoughts of a radical approach to leadership, a new concept or practice. Why not experiment? Go ahead, give it a shot.
  2. Create something new. Unmet needs abound. Many people are struggling, unsure, insecure, This is the opportune time to express care and compassion for the hurting.
  3. Address a dysfunction, right a wrong, solve a problem. Most leaders are too busy to deal with every crisis that arises. Since there is some level of inactivity, today is a great day to take on a tough project. Find your biggest organizational problem – and solve it!
  4. Plan for the future. Many leaders are just hanging on to see what the future brings them. Don’t fall for that trap!  Regardless of how this pandemic turns out, people will need hope. Folks will be desperate for solutions. Guess what… you have the answer. Get ready to share it!
  5. Be a visionary. Reactive leaders are being left in the quake of the pandemic. Think ahead. Plan ahead. Pray ahead.

This is the day for prophetic leaders. The Holy Spirit is available for us as we lead. He will lead us and guide us into all truth.

2020 is the absolute best opportunity for godly leaders in our generation to lead. People don’t know what to do, but God knows what to do.

My plan is to dig deep. I want to be appropriately aggressive. Start new things and end old things that are not working. Try harder. Pray more. Acquire new godly ambition. Leave it all on the field. I don’t want to miss this opportunity. I don’t want to use a pandemic as an excuse for doing nothing.

How about you?

When Leaders Flail

design-65.pngThat’s not a typo.

Although I am addressing how some leaders respond in times of failure, flailing is my focus. The word flail can be a noun or a verb. As a noun, it describes a primitive weapon, composed of a strong stick or pole, some type of rope or chain and a metal spiked ball at the end of the chain (picture courtesy of Google Images).  It was used in medieval times as a close-combat weapon. You can imagine the devastation it would cause an enemy. The verb form deals with a person who swings wildly, usually in a desperate attempt to overcome a dangerous situation. We see this kind of fighting in undisciplined street fights. Opponents don’t use fighting skills as much as they use brute strength, panic and a little bit of luck.

Let’s talk about flailing leaders. This type of flailing may not involve throwing punches, but it does involve wild responses. It happens when…

Under attack from an enemy.

In danger of being hurt.

Panic from failure sets in.

One doesn’t know what else to do.

Granted, it doesn’t happen in every one of these situations, but we’ve all seen it. A leader loses control of their assignment or themselves. They feel backed into a corner. They perceive a threat. So many of us come out swinging. They may yell, threaten others, try desperately to defend themselves or try to hurt others. We’re not sure who we are going to “hit” but someone will certainly get hurt.

I’m trying unsuccessfully to recall when a flailing leader came out looking good. I can name dozens of cases where a leader looked foolish while flailing.

Here are some things to remember the next time you are cornered, threatened, unsure, intimidated or in danger.

Once a leader loses their composure, things head downhill rapidly. People observe our reactions and responses. They watch closely what we do and say. They judge us as a leader based on our behavior. And many of them never forget what they observed. Years of trust building can be destroyed in a moment of flailing. Self-control is a vitally necessary characteristic for today’s leaders. If you lack control or are undisciplined, you will pay a big price. Poise is the ability to remain in control of one’s responses even when the situation is out of control. Poise under pressure is one of the most desirable traits for current leaders. People will trust and follow a leader that doesn’t panic. Maintaining equilibrium when things are falling apart allows a leader to help and serve others who desperately need them. Don’t get knocked off balance!

A flail (noun) is hard to control. Sometimes, people are hit unintentionally. Innocent bystanders can and will be damaged. And sometimes the person wielding the flail hits themselves. Sometimes, the blow is fatal.

Here’s the point: when leaders flail, people get hurt. Rather than helping people, we do damage.

The lesson is – prepare yourself ahead of time to respond to bad situations. Arm yourself with self-control, steady thinking, and the ability to remain calm. The next time someone or something threatens you, don’t fail by flailing! Your poise under pressure will serve you well and it will serve well those you are serving.

Leader: Who/What Validates You?

design-56To validate means to “recognize or affirm the validity or worth of a person.” (Dictionary.com). Before we get spiritual and argue that God is the only one who validates us, let’s be real.

Leaders are human and humans have weaknesses. Many of us struggle from low self esteem issues. We are insecure. Many leaders battle feelings of insufficiency and lack of qualifications. Being validated as a leader is not only helpful, it is necessary if we hope to survive the challenges that leaders regularly face.

Receiving recognition from those you lead is nice. Being honored on a special day or with a gift is affirming. When our leaders notice and comment on our work, it can be very motivating. Any time anyone says, “thank you”, we may feel validated.

But I believe we must be careful about who or what makes us feel good about ourselves as leaders.

Increasing productivity can validate us. Being named to a position of leadership, getting invited to speak at a special gathering or receiving an award can build our self esteem. But there is inherent danger herein.

Needing the public recognition or verbal affirmations of others in order to feel like a leader is dangerous. Those who must have a pat on the back may become vulnerable to people pleasing. Additionally, if we can be inflated by praise, we will become deflated by criticism.

I suggest our validity come from deep within ourselves. Leaders must know who they are in Christ. This does not mean that we don’t need the support and encouragement of others, on the contrary. But we can’t place our self concept in the hands of other people.

God called you as a leader, you responded. That response will include days when no one sees or talks about what a great leader you are. We’ve got to be ok with that.

Don’t feel less significant because your numbers are down. Don’t live or die based upon the opinions of others. Don’t count on the affirmations of others in order for you to understand your value.

You have family and close friends. Go ahead and allow them close into your heart and head. But even they shouldn’t be your sole source of validation.

You are valuable, you are needed, you are loved. That’s not validation coming from me, that’s validation coming from God.

Do We Talk Too Much?

design-47Dialogue is necessary. Spirited conversations are a staple of our relationships. But is it possible that we talk too much? Must we have an opinion on every topic; one that simply must be expressed? I am not discouraging healthy verbal interaction. But consider this:

If we must engage in every conversation, if we believe we have the solution to every problem, if we assume that we know more than others, perhaps our speech reveals a deeper issue. If it is my calling in life to straighten out wrong thinking by others or if I must have the last word, I have a problem.

It’s time to consider an increased focus on and practice of an important spiritual discipline: silence.

Let’s not:

  • Disrespect others by dominating conversations
  • Assume we are the smartest person in the room
  • Attract attention to ourselves
  • Presume to have answer to every question
  • Consider it our duty to correct the errors of others
  • Intimidate others with our forceful speech
  • Talk so much that others don’t have a chance

The more words we share, the greater our possibility of error. “When words are many, transgression is not lacking, but whoever restrains his lips is prudent.” Proverbs 10:19

The more we talk, the more we reveal what we know and do not know. “Even a fool who keeps silent is considered wise; when he closes his lips, he is deemed intelligent.” Proverbs 17:28

Sometimes we talk because we like for people to pay attention to us. “A fool takes no pleasure in understanding, but only in expressing his opinion.” Proverbs 18:2

We should choose our words carefully, and perhaps not use so many of them. “Do you see a man who is hasty in his words? There is more hope for a fool than for him.” Proverbs 29:20

Perhaps arrogance motivates so much talking. “For when dreams increase and words grow many, there is vanity; but God is the one you must fear.“ Ecclesiastes 5:7

We will answer for our careless words. “I tell you, on the day of judgment people will give account for every careless word they speak.” Matthew 12:36

We should listen more than we speak. “Know this, my beloved brothers: let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger;” James 1:19

Our words should bring honor to God, not ourselves. “Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, my rock and my redeemer.” Psalms 19:14

Do You Need a Mentor?

design-45Phil Pringle, author of “Top 10 Qualities of a Great Leader” has a very good idea. He says, “Mentoring is vital to success. However, this involves more than just chatting with a more experienced person. The mentoring relationship is opened up through serving. People sometimes ask me to mentor them. All they need do is help me do what I do, and they’ll find themselves in my world. They’ll learn more by serving than by any other means.
A good “mentee” makes a great mentor. No matter how good a person’s coach might be, if the person has no heart to serve and to learn, then they will fail to be coached.”
What a great idea! We learn best through serving. Rather than asking to have coffee once a week with a coach (that is also a great idea), how about if we request how we can best serve them? Instead of looking to a mentor to answer all of your questions, listen while they labor. Dig ditches alongside them. Make their life easier by providing practical hands-on help where needed, Honestly most mentors are very busy people and, as much as they may love sitting and pouring into a younger leader, the idea of spending time just talking isn’t always practical.
I’ve always said, I do my best counseling while I am preaching. But I also have a lot to share while I am cutting the grass, painting a room or driving long distances to minister. Serving alongside a mentor is an organic way to learn from them. And by serving them, you are returning the blessing to them.
Serving is not as glamorous as deep conversation which is why it’s an excellent way to weed out people who only want to talk.
If you don’t have time to serve, you don’t have time to be mentored. If you have no interest in serving, you really have no interest in being mentored.
If you need a mentor, think about who you would select as a mentor. Then consider ways that you could potentially serve him or her.
We may be on to something really significant here!

When Preachers Want to Quit Preaching

design-33The Gospel is like “A Fire Shut Up in My Bones!” Through the years, countless preachers, including me, excitedly made this proclamation! There are few preachers of any experience who have not quoted or referred to Jeremiah’s pronouncement in chapter 20 and the inability to keep the Word of God quiet. Jeremiah describes it as a “fire shut up in his bones.” Although he had considered trying, he simply could not keep it in; the Message had to come out! It’s an exciting passage to recite, and it usually elicits a warm response from listeners.

But I wonder how many preachers recall the setting of this “exciting” proclamation. Jeremiah had been prophesying (preaching) for years, with little or no positive response. The people didn’t like his prophecies and preferred the prophecies that declared favorable, positive things. He was rejected, ridiculed and denigrated. Years of preaching with no positive response! The people had enough. Finally, Jeremiah was arrested, was beaten and locked up in stocks in prison. He was paying a heavy price for preaching a non-compromised Truth.

Jeremiah was in pain; he was suffering physically, emotionally and spiritually. He was hurt, frightened and disappointed. He opens chapter 20, verse 7 by expressing his frustration with God about how he has been treated. He feels betrayed. Jeremiah 20:7-8 says, “You deceived me, Lord, and I was deceived; you overpowered me and prevailed. I am ridiculed all day long; everyone mocks me. Whenever I speak, I cry out proclaiming violence and destruction. So the word of the Lord has brought me insult and reproach all day long.” These are the words of a damaged individual. Before any of us accuse him of having a pity party, put yourself in his place.

Jeremiah is so hurt, he contemplates resigning as the local prophet. He’s thinking about quitting! Some reading this article are contemplating the same things. The details of your situation are different, but you can identify with Jeremiah’s raw feelings. While you might not dare say the things that Jeremiah said, you have thought them.

After a moment of exploring giving up his ministry, Jeremiah comes back to his senses. There, still in pain and in jail, still suffering and confused, he recalls the power of the Word of God which is within him. He’s still being laughed at, his enemies are still threatening him. He has no reason to believe that he will live through the night. But he simply has no choice but to keep preaching, regardless of his situation or his feelings. If he stops preaching, the fire of the Truth will burn him up from the inside out!

This is the setting of this famous affirmation of the call to preach. It’s not an exciting worship service, it’s not a Campmeeting or revival service. It was the lowest of low pits. At the worst possible moment for Jeremiah, his call to prophecy is confirmed. The call to preach is not about comfort, not about a favorable setting, or even about reception by others. The call to preach is an irrevocable commission to speak the Word of God, regardless of the consequences.

I wonder if any of us, in a similar situation, would end up in such a beautiful and poetic place. If God had allowed me to suffer in such extreme ways, would I be capable of confessing my inability to stop preaching?

I think the next time I am tempted to throw out Jeremiah’s proclamation (maybe looking for an emotional response from the church), perhaps I will weigh out the full context and intent of the statement. It is too powerful and meaningful to be used in a trite way.

And the next time I am contemplating giving up, I will recall what my Brother Jeremiah experienced and how he came to his resolution.

I encourage you to do the same.

Shepherds: the Sheep are Watching

design-26While it should be intuitive, I think it needs to be said: people follow their leaders. Leaders influence and impact. Those who lead others must understand their responsibility. Those we lead watch our behaviors. They listen to us talk. Whether intentional or not, followers pick up traits and characteristics from their leaders.

But some of the influence wielded by leaders morphs into, perhaps, unanticipated results. It may be assumed that a happy leader produces happy followers, but it’s not that simple.

At the risk of over simplification and generalizations, I think…

Angry shepherds lead wounded sheep.
Critical shepherds lead insecure sheep.
Disconnected shepherds lead wandering sheep.
Shallow shepherds lead vulnerable sheep.
Arrogant shepherds lead cynical sheep.
Manipulating shepherds lead confused sheep.
Selfish shepherds lead hungry sheep.
Doting shepherds lead entitled sheep.
Cowardly shepherds lead endangered sheep.                                                                                                                                            Rebel leaders lead rebellious sheep.

And

Compassionate shepherds lead recovering sheep.
Gracious shepherds lead transparent sheep.
Patient shepherds lead confident sheep.
Courageous shepherds lead secure sheep.
Consistent shepherds lead stable sheep.
Kind shepherds lead trusting sheep.
Nurturing shepherds lead healthy sheep.
Engaging shepherds lead connected sheep.
Serving shepherds lead committed sheep.                                                                                                                   Empowering shepherds lead growing sheep.

Of course, these are not written in stone, but you get the concept.

Leaders carry the heavy load of being influencers. If you are a leader, lead well. The wellbeing of the people you lead is dependent upon you.

Shepherds: the Sheep are Watching.

There’s No Hurt Like Team Hurt

design-24This post is directed toward ministry leaders.

I’ve adapted the current phrase, “there’s no hurt like church hurt.” We’ve all come to understand that there is no avoiding pain in ministry. While some heartache can be dodged through good decision making, leaders are never exempt from hurt. Samuel Chand addresses this eloquently in his book, “Leadership Pain.” I highly recommend this resource.

But I want to address the type of pain that ends some ministries and cripples countless others. When a close associate, an “inner circle” team member or a trusted staff member betrays a leader, the cut is deep.

You’ve heard about or experienced the scenario: a longtime staff member splits the church and starts a new one down the street. An apparently loyal colleague tries to destroy you behind your back. Someone you were sure you could count on quits unexpectedly in a crucial time. It all hurts, deeper than many other things.

Of course, Jesus had His Judas. But Jesus knew who His betrayer was before Judas himself knew. We are not omniscient; we get shocked by this kind of betrayal. And for the record, none of us have been sold to our executioners.

Here is the danger: when you get hurt in this manner, your first inclination is to prevent, at all costs, a repeat event. I know guys who absolutely refuse to lead a staff. While we must learn from our mistakes and while discernment grows with painful experiences, we must prevent adjusting our leadership approach in an effort to prevent all future pain.

If you’ve been hurt deeply, just a little advice:
Don’t harden your heart.
Don’t stop trusting people.
Don’t stop risking.
I’ve been guilty of all of the above and it didn’t turn out well.

Now, you’re not a punching bag, and there is no glory in considering yourself as a leader/martyr. But it is absolutely necessary for us to remain tender hearted. If we ever stop hurting, we’re in deep trouble.

Keep hiring staff. Keep building your team. Keep letting people get close to you. You will be let down and you’ll get hurt. But the pain of this kind of hurting is nothing compared to the hurt of refusing to ever trust again.

I hope this helps someone. It helped me to write it.

5 Things Ministry Leaders Should Expect From and Provide for One Another

design-20

  1. Assume the best. Don’t assume that another leader is corrupt or disingenuous. Expect and assume the best for one another. Let’s not become cynical about our colleagues.
  2. Give the benefit of the doubt. Don’t be quick to believe everything that is said about someone else in leadership. If they are accused, wait before judging, and assume the accusation is false.
  3. Innocent until proven guilty. Be slow with your judgments and even slower with your condemnation of other leaders. If solid evidence of wrongdoing is presented, gently engage in Biblical discipline. But if not, absolve the accused.
  4. “I got your back.” Stick up for one another. Your turn for being attacked will come soon enough; you’ll be grateful for the support.
  5. Treat with honor. Respect other leaders, practice mutual deference. Don’t think, feel or act negatively about them. Never speak disparagingly of other leaders. Practice mutual honor.

In a day when leaders are highly mistrusted and eagerly destroyed by an antagonistic culture, we must stick together, fight for one another and watch out for the good of our co-laborers.

Counting Attendance Can Kill You

design-17It’s Resurrection Week and church leaders all over the world are headlong into a massive ministry week. Most dream of capacity crowds and are focused on either filling their buildings or a specific numerical goal. While this is reasonable and usually honorable, the focus on “counting” can become deadly.

Allow me to explain.

God cares about numbers, so much so that He wrote an entire Book in the Bible called “Numbers”! But there are serious considerations in the Bible when leaders focus on numbers – when they should be focusing on obedience.

King David counted his military troops in I Samuel 24. This wasn’t the first time the troops had been counted, but this time was different. God was angry with Israel and some versions of the Bible says He incited David to count the men. F. LaGard Smith says that the problem may have been with David’s motivation for counting. “Selfish ambition for aggressive expansionism” is a possibility. Regardless of the motivation, God was not pleased and Israel paid a heavy price.

Listen, God is not against us counting our influence and impact. We are expected to know how many people attend our services and it is an important part of fulfilling our Mission. But God is against us trying to make a name for ourselves, competing with other ministries, manipulating God’s work to advance our reputation, or simply trying to make ourselves look good.

Thankfully, we are now under grace and God rarely acts in such harsh ways (at least perceived as harsh) when He punishes us. But this makes us wonder if we are being punished nonetheless.

This Easter, let’s keep track of numbers for the right reasons. We want to make progress; we must bear fruit. But let’s not fall prey to trying to impress anyone – except God.

Blessed Easter!

Hiding Behind Servanthood

IMG_5262About 20 years ago, my father in law was visiting our church. We had a meal event after the service. As the meal was finishing up, I grabbed a broom and started cleaning up. He called me aside and told me that I shouldn’t be doing that, I should allow others to do the clean up. I told him that it was important for me to exemplify servant leadership.

But here’s the thing: I wasn’t being a servant leader, I was hiding behind servant leadership.

I am an introvert, so my first preference is to do something other than engage with people. I called it servant leadership, but in reality, I was in my comfort zone.

Servant leadership is not necessarily doing what others don’t want to do; it is doing what you don’t want to do, but need to do.

My father in law was correct (as usual). It wasn’t that I was too good to sweep up, it was that I was more needed interacting with people.

How will you serve? My advice is, find something that really needs to be done but you don’t want to do. Then serve.

Why Some Churches Die

design-15I’m Palm Sunday sermon prepping. Of course, included in the Biblical texts of Passion Week is the little understood phenomenon of Jesus cursing the fig tree. If you are not a Bible scholar, this “cursing” has nothing to do with inappropriate language. Jesus cursed the tree, in essence, killed it with His words, because the tree was not producing fruit.

Here is the Biblical account as provided by Mark:

“The next day as they were leaving Bethany, Jesus was hungry. 13 Seeing in the distance a fig tree in leaf, he went to find out if it had any fruit. When he reached it, he found nothing but leaves, because it was not the season for figs. 14 Then he said to the tree, “May no one ever eat fruit from you again.” And his disciples heard him say it. (Mark 11:12-14) “In the morning, as they went along, they saw the fig tree withered from the roots. 21 Peter remembered and said to Jesus, “Rabbi, look! The fig tree you cursed has withered!” (Mark 11:20-21)

There is an obvious application to the religious leaders of Jesus’ time. Though perhaps not as obvious, there is a possible connection with this obscure event and today’s church.

Jesus expected that this fig tree should produce fruit. The purpose of the tree was to produce fruit. While it may serve other purposes (shade, nice to look at), without figs hanging on its branches, the tree was a failure. It was good for firewood.

Fast forward 2000 years. Many churches produce no fruit. The fruit of churches is Christ followers; disciples. Churches are supposed to produce more churches. While a church may serve other purposes, bringing people into the Lord’s Kingdom is its primary purpose. Jesus expects us to produce!

Could it be that Jesus has cursed some churches as He cursed the fig tree? There is no indication in the Bible that the fig tree represents today’s church. But there are indicators that if we don’t produce, we will be cut down. See: Matthew 7:19.

Of dying churches, Thom Rainer says, “Between 6,000 and 10,000 churches in the U.S. are dying each year. That means around 100-200 churches will close this week. The pace will accelerate unless our congregations make some dramatic changes.”

I contend that churches that decide to stop producing new Christians are dead already, regardless if they are still having services. But maybe the final death knell is the Lord drying the church up until it withers away – closes its doors. Maybe it’s a “chicken or egg” proposition: do churches die first and then stop producing new fruit or do churches stop producing new fruit and then die?

We may never know. But let’s learn the lesson provided. Let’s remain productive and fruitful. Let’s be purposeful and intentional about bringing people to faith in Christ through our churches.

p.s. Let’s not avoid the little statement in Mark 11:13 “it was not the season for figs.” Adam Clarke says, “It has been asked, ‘How could our Lord expect to find ripe figs in the end of March?’ Answer, Because figs were ripe in Judea as early as the Passover. Besides, the fig tree puts forth its fruit first, and afterwards its leaves. Indeed, this tree, in the climate which is proper for it, has fruit on it all the year round, as I have often seen. (Adam Clarke’s Commentary).

So there you go.

 

Hope for Dying Churches

Where Are The Young Leaders?

IMG_4998-1Moses raised up his replacement, Joshua. But Joshua did not raise up his successor, and the people suffered as a result. Let’s not make the same mistake.

We have a problem brewing. For a variety of reasons, there seems to be a lack of leaders coming up through our churches. Of course, there are some young women and men who are preparing themselves for productive leadership in their churches. But considering the great need that we have for leaders, the number of new churches that must be planted, and the age of many of our current leaders, we need many more young leaders! We are experiencing a decline in the number of young people that are entering the ministry; this trend must be reversed.

There are a few legitimate reasons for the decline in young leaders, but some of the reasons must be addressed and turned around. Some young people feel that there is no place for them in the church. They feel unwelcomed and unneeded. They are not included in the life of the church. Their participation is not encouraged. They are told that they must wait their turn. They are ignored. Brothers and Sisters in Christ – these things should not be.

While most of us love the young people in our communities, we can inadvertently drive them away from the church. When we criticize a generation for being different than us, we drive them away from the church. When we refuse to allow them a voice in the direction of the church, we drive them away. When we refuse to change anything in the church, we drive them away. When we look to the past more than we look to the future, we drive them away. When we disrespect a generation, we drive them away from the church.

God help us to turn this tide!

We all agree that God loves the young generation and wants to include them in His church. We simply must do whatever it takes to engage these young people as leaders in training. Here are a few practical things you can do:

  • Pray for the young people in your church and community.
  • Purposefully engage young people in the life of the church.
  • Build personal relationships with young people in the church.
  • Strategically identify young people with the gift of leadership.
  • Develop a plan, formal or informal, to develop the young leaders in your church.
  • Share leadership responsibilities with young leaders.

If the current trend continues, we will not have enough leaders to lead our churches and churches will close. If the current trajectory of many of our churches continues, they will close within the next 10 years – simply because no one will be leading or attending. Of course, we plan to change this course.

When I was a teenager, some leaders in the church pursued me and encouraged me to engage in the church. They recognized leadership potential in me and affirmed me. This changed my life. Can you do the same for a young person in your church?

Let me state: we value all people, young and old. The church family is made up of multiple generations. We cannot focus on one generation to the detriment of another. So let’s change the current direction. Please, young lives are at stake and the future of the church hangs in the balance.

God, help us to raise up a generation of young leaders!

The Sword

There is a beautiful and powerful scripture verse in I Samuel 21:9. At a point of desperation, David is in need of a sword. The only one available is the sword that he took from Goliath when he had killed the giant some time earlier (see I Samuel 17). When offered the valuable and rare sword, David said, “There is none like it; give it to me.”

This verse is powerful for us because it indicates the value of victories won. When God brings us through a potentially destructive time and we overcome, something significant happens within us. We have seen God do the impossible. A standard for impossible victories is established. From this time forward, we have no need to fear battles. We are able to return again and again to the time of miraculous deliverance, and we trust God, regardless of the challenges at hand.

From time to time, I need to go back and recall the specifics of when God came through on my behalf. There are some swords that are very valuable to me; the swords that decapitated some of the giants I was facing. These swords are proven, trusted. And they provide the confidence I need to slay another giant.

While every battle requires its own strategy, there is nothing like the proven, trusted and effective Sword of the Spirit, the Word of God.

When in peril, my response will be: “There is none like it; give it to me!”

Leadership Succession

design-11One of my greatest concerns about our current approach to church leadership is that not enough young leaders are being engaged in preparation for future leadership. We need to do better. This post is a series of thoughts that I originally shared on Twitter. I apologize for the choppy nature of the thoughts.

One of my most important tasks as a leader is to prepare future leaders to go farther than I ever will.

My predecessors invested heavily in me; I owe it to them as well as my successors to pass on what I’ve been given.

Leader, if you are indispensable to your organization, if they couldn’t survive without you, perhaps you’ve neglected an important responsibility. You won’t live forever.

One of the most important Bible verses to me: “Take the things you heard me say in front of many other witnesses and pass them on to faithful people who are also capable of teaching others.”
(2 Timothy 2:2 CEB)

Moses raised up Joshua. Elijah raised up Elisha. Paul raised up Timothy. Who are you raising up?

Moses passed on his leadership to Joshua. But Joshua did not prepare his successor, and the entire nation of Israel suffered because of it. Who are you preparing to succeed you?

Until current leaders and emerging leaders stop competing, the future health of our organizations is in jeopardy.

The most effective way for aging leaders to assure that they won’t be forced out is to make themselves perpetually valuable by virtue of the respect they’ve gained because of their investments in emerging leaders.

Current leaders must possess discernment regarding future leaders. See them, not for where they are now, but for where they can be.

If those who succeed me don’t enjoy more success than I have enjoyed, I’ve failed as a leader.

Leaders: use a relay race as a metaphor. If the next leader is not out in front of you, ready when you’re done, you’re going to get really tired; and your team won’t win the race.

Young leader, your best asset may be the leader in front of you. Pursue a learning relationship with them. You may know a lot, but if they’re in front of you, they know stuff you don’t.

Young leader, some current leaders think you’re arrogant. Prove them wrong. Stay humble and teachable.

Young leader, be humble enough to learn from the successes and failures of those who go before you. You’ll save yourself a lot of pain.

Young leader: find a coach, mentor. Pursue them. Respectfully follow them. Then ask then to train you. It’s humbling and necessary.

While the world is changing and leadership methods are shifting fast, some principles are timeless. Don’t discount old wisdom.

A focus on young and rising #leaders is not to the detriment or disrespect of older leaders. On the contrary; a focus on younger leaders assures that the faithful work of the seasoned leaders will continue and advance. If no one is prepared to succeed you, your work will stop when you do. The task requires both!

Leader, you’ve given your life to the task. Why cause your influence to be limited in longevity by not raising up your successor?

Leader: if your succession plan isn’t intentional and strategic, it is probably non existent.

The greatest hindrance to successful leadership succession is insecurity on the part of current leaders; we’re afraid of being put out to pasture. What you’ve done is too significant to be limited by intimidation of being replaced. Be strategic with it, your legacy will live on once your gone.

Leader, you may have started your organization, but it’s not yours, don’t hoard it. The next generation will need it once you’re gone. Get the next leader ready!

Leader, if your vision can be fulfilled by you alone, your vision is too small. Unless your vision outlives you, your vision is too small. Unless someone is being trained to take over once you’re gone, your vision is too small. But your vision is big.

Leader, you are reaping the rewards of those who came before you. Someone behind you will reap the rewards of your hard work. Be strategic about who succeeds you.

If current #leaders don’t prepare their successors, we will soon have a dearth of leaders. Don’t let that happen.

If every generation of leaders has to begin at square one, we’re all in serious trouble. Let’s learn from the past and make the future better. 

Leadership Empathy

design-10What do good leaders know about the emotions of those they lead?

Daniel Goleman and Paul Ekman write and talk about the emotions of everyday people, leaders included. Goleman’s book, On Emotional Intelligence is a highly recognized and invaluable resource for today’s leaders (I believe it should be required reading for every pastor).

In a recent article, Goleman and Ekman detail 3 ways that a leader can sense what another person is feeling. Leaders who have a developed social and emotional intelligence are far more effective at leading others than those who do not. This concept is especially important to those of us who work closely with people who struggle or experience crisis. I found the information helpful in the continual honing of my leadership skills.

The first trait listed is “cognitive empathy,” which is simply being aware of how the other person feels and perhaps what they could be thinking at that time. Most people are able to read the emotions of others. Verbal and physical cues provide most of the data needed in order to identify the emotional state of others. However, leaders must be aware that, in some situations, being aware is not enough. This skill is appropriate when negotiating a deal or brokering a transaction. But in especially sensitive circumstances, others can perceive cognitive empathy as cold hearted, detached or non-caring. Depending upon the nature of the issue being addressed, cognitive empathy may not be enough.

When dealing with people in crisis, leaders should also display “emotional empathy.” Emotional empathy is when a leader feels the emotions of those they lead. It provides the ability to sense AND feel what is happening in the people around us. This is a vitally important trait for those in ministry, in helps industries, and especially for parents. Any married person had better master this skill! Of course, there are times when emotional empathy can hinder the effectiveness of a leader. An example may be a pastor who must provide care to a grieving family. If the minister cannot compose herself long enough to conduct a funeral service, they won’t be able to help the family much. There is a time to cry and laugh along with people, but there is also a time to maintain composure.

Ekman identifies a third element: “compassionate empathy,” which Goleman calls “empathic concern.” This type of empathy takes a leader beyond awareness and sensitivity – to action. We are moved to get involved. Once again, in crisis situations, this trait can be invaluable. Unless and until leaders regularly experience and express compassionate empathy, they are lacking a Christ-like attitude about leadership.

While we are not the Messiah, the Lord calls Christian leaders to not only be aware of and experience the emotions of those we lead, but at times, we are compelled to engage in helping to heal the hurting. James 2:15-16 provides thought: “Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food.  If one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it?” (NIV) Not every situation requires a leader to have empathetic concern (we would be in a mess if they did), but leaders must never lose the ability to feel and take appropriate actions.

As the world becomes more complex, the responsibilities of leaders follow suit. It is necessary for us to be aware of emotions, feel along with those we lead and know what action to take and when.

It’s not as easy as some people think. So let’s work on it.

The Science of Survival

41Iu-eGceGL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_I am in the process of reading several survival books: biographies autobiographies, and survival science about people who survived in very difficult, life threatening situations. The reason for my interest is, I see many in my world who don’t survive. They quit. They give up. They fail. They go through the motions of their work but on the inside they are done.

Why do so many leaders opt out before they are successful? What causes some apparently emotionally healthy people to resign from life? Is there a key to understanding why people willingly throw away a lifetime of hard work? These survival books are a fascinating way of discovering the emotional and mental makeup of those who live when many others die.

I’ve read of Salvador Alvarenga who was stranded in the ocean on a boat for 438 days. I read about the Uruguayan rugby team that crashed in a plane in the Andes Mountains and only 16 of the 45 survived (for 72 days) (by eating human flesh). I read about Steve Callahan who was lost at sea in a rubber life raft for 76 days. Yossie Gensburg was lost alone in the Amazon for weeks, with no food or supplies. In 1856 a boat with over 100 passengers sank, and only one, Thomas Nye survived. I’m reading about Joe Simpson who broke his leg atop a 21,000 mountain in the Andes, and crawled his way back to civilization. So many crazy stories of people who beat the odds when most others could/would not.

Deep Survival: Who Lives, Who Dies and Why is a fascinating book by Laurence Gonzales. He delves deep into the human psyche to find what makes some people live despite impossible odds. He especially contrasts the mindset of those who die with those who live.

Gonzalez lists 12 traits of survivors. In the interest of brevity, I will list 5: 1. See the beauty: even in the middle of crisis find the lovely details in the surroundings. 2. Be there for others: those who survive often do so in service to other people. 3. Develop a stoic mindset: focus, discipline and emotional stability are vital to survivors. 4. Know your stuff: many times, survival is a matter of preparation and knowledge ahead of time. 5. Face Reality: survivors understand the danger; they know what is at stake. But they know how to function well in spite of the danger.

I think this list is very applicable to my life as a leader right now.

Once again, I am studying these traits because I want to survive and I want to help others to survive. It is no secret that the same skills and characteristics that help people survive in outdoor emergencies are the the same ones needed to survive everyday life.

While I enjoy the outdoors, I have no plans to be stranded in the ocean or in the mountains. But daily I need survival skills that keep me going against the odds. I plan to survive!

Let’s Own the Problem

design-1We frequently complain about the condition of the world. I often hear pastors and leaders grumble about the condition of the church they serve. Family members freely voice their disappointments with their family. Employees criticize their supervisors. It seems to be the way of the world.

But here is a thought: Let’s own the problem.

By “owning”, I am referring to the opportunity we have to accept responsibility, perhaps not for creating the problem (although at times we are guilty), but rather, for discovering the solution to the problem.

Sometimes, we like to remove ourselves from the work. We observe a big dilemma and the only answer is a lot of hard work – so we stand on the sidelines and shrug our shoulders. Or, we inherit a bad situation and it’s frustrating to see what a mess someone else has made. In these cases, it is easy to exonerate ourselves from responsibility.

I want to make 2 points very clear here:

  1. Leaders must be willing to clean up messes they did not make

and

  1. If you refuse to be the solution to problem, you are part of the problem.

Pastor, if you’ve been at your current church for more than 3 years, you own the problems, whether or not you created them. No more blaming your predecessor or the church members. If the church has a bad reputation in the community, repair it. If the leaders have no vision, train them. Politicians cannot continue to point fingers at the other party. We didn’t elect you to blame; we elected you to lead. If your neighborhood park is rundown, you can fuss about it on Facebook, or you can organize the community, raise some money, and go to work. Own the problem!

Keep in mind that God has a strategic plan for your life and if you are living in obedience to Him, He has you right where He wants you. Did He place you where you are only to be an observer? In His infinite wisdom, did He create you to be a complaining bystander? No, He put you in your current role so you can bring solutions to problems around you. You can no longer afford to be one who only points out problems – you must now be a solutions-oriented leader!

Moses didn’t enslave the people but God asked him to lead them out of slavery.

Joseph didn’t create the famine but God sent him ahead so he could rescue the entire nation.

Paul didn’t create the storm in Malta but God used him to save all 276 on board the boat.

Please notice that, in the cases above, owning the problem was painful. It cost the problem solvers a great deal. They suffered. But each of them accepted their role. And countless people were eternally indebted to them.

Let’s not minimize the cost of owning today’s problems. Let’s also not mistake this concept for becoming a “fixer.” You are not the Messiah; it is easy to get out of balance in your quest to bring answers. But within the proper parameters, one person can have an incredible positive impact on the dilemmas of this world.

One of the biggest responses we will hear from this proposition is: “the problem is too big for me. I don’t know what to do. It’s out of my scope of capabilities…” Keep this in mind: God can do anything. If you are on His side, if you are working on His team, He can bring the solution. But many times, YOU ARE THE SOLUTION! By this statement, I mean that God has placed the person with the perfect gift mix in the critical place to have the greatest impact in the process of removing of the obstacles that hold people back. You are that person. Let’s accept our role as problem solvers.

Problem solving is an art form. It requires great faith, vision and people skills. Not everyone possesses these gifts, so those that do must exploit them. Until we engage, develop and deploy these problem-solving skills, the problems will persist, and increase.

Keep this in mind: if you can’t or won’t engage the trouble, if you refuse to take ownership, perhaps God will appoint someone else who will.

Until we see ourselves as “owning” the issue, unless we take the reins to lead our way out of a problem, we will continue to make excuses – and the problems will plague us as well as the people we love. It doesn’t have to be that way.

Let’s own it.