Jeff Iorg Blog
This past weekend, I spoke at a men’s conference for a Baptist association in central California. The host was an exciting church reaching people across their area. They are out in the country – not even a blinking light in site. But this past Easter, about 600 people showed up for their Easter events and worship services.
The pastor, about my age, is a layman turned pastor, in his first pastorate, who simply believes people can be reached with the gospel. So, without a lot of whining about how hard it is or the limitations of their situation, they just reach them! No one told him it can’t be done, so he is just doing it.
As I quizzed him about his strategies and approaches, he said, “We use the KISS method.” I replied, “You mean, keep it simple stupid?” He corrected me, “No, our people aren’t stupid. We have changed KISS to mean keep it spiritual and simple.” He then added, “We just pray, share the gospel, meet people’s needs as best we can, and watch God do the rest.”
The results are undeniable. A church buzzing with spiritual life! It’s a myth today that God is only working in suburban mega-churches or urban church plants. God is working in those places, but in a lot of other places as well. The per capita evangelistic success of some country churches would put their bigger, richer, more urbane sister churches to shame.
It was a good weekend – being encouraged by seeing God at work and making some attempt to add fuel to the fire. Churches can grow in any context where the gospel is preached, people have faith, and leaders chart a path forward. Being with those men this weekend did me more good than I did them!
A Good Saturday
Mar 24 2014
I spent this last Saturday with some special people – pastors and other leaders from small and rural churches across Northern California. They live and work in relative anonymity, except of course to the people they love and serve. To those people, these leaders are heroes. They are their spiritual guides, mentors, and examples. These pastors, along with their leadership teams, are vital kingdom workers.
An important part of our denominational strategy is focusing on church planting in cities. I affirm that priority. That’s where most people live so that’s where most of our leaders and finances need to deployed. But that doesn’t mean other ministry settings are unimportant or can be ignored. Millions of people still live in rural areas and small towns. Effective churches must be built to meet their needs. New churches in underserved communities are still needed. A truly national strategy includes everyone – from megacities to the places yet to install their first blinking light.
One of the reasons I enjoy speaking to and sharing ministry with these leaders is how “down-to-earth” they are. They live and work in communities where secrets are few, character still matters, and how you treat people determines your credibility. There’s no image to uphold, just reality to be lived. I like that. While so many people today, including some religious leaders, are interested in establishing a social media identity - these leaders are more interested in living transparently with people they see at the local café or the high school football game. They remind me, and all of us, that real relationships – not the virtual kind – are the fertile ground of transformational ministry.
It was a good Saturday. Made me glad to be a church leader and privileged to minister to other church leaders!
Leadership Cruise Update
Feb 27 2014
We have had a very good response to our first ever President’s Advisory Council Alaska Leadership Cruise, August 1-8, 2014. Registration is still open, but our reserved room block is filling up. We can still accommodate you, but after April 1, it will become more challenging. So, if you are still pondering – go ahead and make the call. We hope to see you on the high seas!
On the cruise, we will enjoy a week together – marveling at God’s creation as we tour Alaska and learn about leadership. Each day, I will be presenting insights from my new book “Seasons of a Leader’s Life.” Phil Kell, president of the California Baptist Convention, will also present professional information concerning how you can leave a financial legacy (that is both biblical and tax-smart) and will be available for consultations. Dr. Ben Skaug, new to our team at Golden Gate, will be our devotional speaker.
If you have any questions, then please contact Dr. Skaug at 415-380-1498 or firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also learn more about the cruise at www.ggbtscruise.com. This is shaping up as one of the best events we have ever sponsored. We hope to see you there!
Nov 04 2013
While studying the “one another” verses in the New Testament, I discovered an interesting perspective. The Bible tells us to do things like love, serve, care for, and pray for one another. There are more than a dozen of these “one another” directives but one has become particularly meaningful to me – “honor one another.” There is never a bad time to honor another person by giving them well-deserved recognition or thanking them for contributing to your life.
You may be thinking, “But what if recognition leads to pride?” Not your problem. A person receiving honor is responsible to handle it appropriately – smelling the flowers, not eating them! Interestingly, the Bible never tells us to “humble one another.” It does say, on multiple occasions, “humble yourself.” We are responsible to humble ourselves (keeping our pride in check) but honor others (recognizing them for their service, character, and contribution).
My new book, Seasons of a Leader’s Life, is dedicated to five men who have mentored, encouraged, and coached me along the way. They helped teach me to lead, followed my leadership as their prominence waned, and supported me honestly and faithfully. As part of launching the book, I have been meeting with these men (or their families since some are in heaven) and expressing thanks for their contribution to my life. Giving honor where honor is definitely due has been a pleasure and a privilege.
What about you? Who can you honor for helping you become the person you are? You don’t need to wait until you write a book to express honor to them. Write a real letter (remember what those are?), send a card, make a plaque, or otherwise communicate what a friend or mentor has done to help you along the way. Give honor now, not when you finally get around to it, to thank and encourage someone who has made a difference in your life.
Leaving Your Legacy
Oct 28 2013
Most people want to leave something behind to mark their contribution to a better world. Prominent people have buildings named after them, establish foundations, or create institutions. Frankly, most of us don’t think in those terms. We are more concerned about impacting the people around us, mainly our family and close friends, in a positive way. That’s the legacy most of us want to leave.
In my new book, Seasons of a Leader’s Life
, I describe legacy this way. Your legacy is “the wisdom you have gained, the people you have influenced, and the convictions you modeled which inspires subsequent generations.” Christians gain wisdom through studying the Bible and putting it into practice in complicated situations. Passing that process and its results along to people you influence is the core of your legacy. This can be as simple as having a conversation with a grandchild in a teachable moment. Your legacy is also communicated through the convictions you model. People are watching you – more than listening to you – to discover what’s really important to you. Your example is also part of your legacy, whether you lead a large organization or are only observed by your immediate family.
You are a legacy-leaver. Don’t disqualify yourself because you can’t leave behind a lot of money, a big monument, or a building with your name on it. Focus on people as your legacy. Pass along what you have learned, model what really matters, and stay faithful to the end of your life. Your legacy will be revealed in the people you influence. If you want to learn more about how to do this, check out my new book
Seasons of a Leader’s Life
Oct 21 2013
My new book, Seasons of a Leader’s Life: Learning, Leading, and Leaving your Legacy
, was released a few days ago. This book is a leadership primer that reads more like a devotional book than a textbook. The idea for the book emerged from my observation that there are various stages, phases, or seasons of a leader’s life.
When you first start leading, you are primarily a learner. Formal education and early experiences shape you during the “learning season” and prepare you for growing responsibilities. This leads to the “leading season” – while you are always still learning your primary role now is leading. Finally, you reach the “legacy season,” when your focus is leaving a lasting impact.
One biblical character who lived through all three phases was Peter. In the gospels, he was a learner. In Acts, he was a leader. In his letters, Peter wrote his legacy. My book considers every story in the Bible in which Peter is mentioned by name. For each story, depending on the season of his life, I answer a key question. For the stories in the gospels, the question was “what was Peter learning about leadership?” In Acts, the question was “what was Peter doing as a leader?” Finally, considering his letters, the question was “what did he leave as his legacy?”
My hope is this book will be a resource for legacy leavers to train younger leaders and learners. This is a good book to use to mentor a younger person, perhaps meeting with them once per week to discuss a chapter. This is a good book for a pastor to use to train his staff or a collegiate minister to use to disciple a leadership team. School administrators or other ministry executives can also use it to train faculty and staff. This is a book to be read and discussed, not just read and underlined. Pick one up and use it creatively! Let me know how it’s being used and we will pass along the best practices to motivate others.
Extend the Call
Aug 26 2013
Because of one of my books, Is God Calling Me?, I get asked to speak at college events on the subject of “God’s call.” A few years ago, when speaking to about 600 students, I asked, “How many of you have ever heard a sermon in your church on God’s call to ministry leadership?” Only a few hands were raised. Then I asked, “How many of you have heard a pastor or speaker extend a public invitation to answer God’s call to ministry leadership?” Even fewer hands were raised.
I am often asked, “How’s the seminary doing?” My response is, “In many ways, just about like the churches.” We are a reflection of the churches that support us. When churches don’t teach about God’s call and challenge young people to respond to it, we will naturally have fewer and fewer students pursuing God’s call at the seminary.
A young church leader called me recently and said, “We had the best thing happen at camp. The pastor asked for a show of hands – among 125 campers – of those who thought God might be calling them to be missionaries, pastors, or other church leaders. Amazingly, 25 hands were raised.” She then told me, “We had been teaching on missions and ministry all week, but it didn’t occur to us to ask the pastor to include answering God’s call as part of the worship services. When he did, it seemed so natural. I was embarrassed we hadn’t planned to do it and glad he did it. Now we have a whole group of kids to shepherd forward toward potential leadership.”
Learn from this example. Older children and teenagers are interested in kingdom service. Many of them will commit to a life of ministry leadership – if they are challenged to consider it and supported in their decision. Golden Gate is the end of the training funnel for future leaders. The beginning point is children’s and youth ministries in churches. Collegiate ministries are also vital to the process.
Church leaders – be more intentional about teaching and preaching about God’s call. Fan the flame of initial interest and nurture embryonic commitment. Seminaries don’t produce leaders. We only shape those the church sends. We are depending on you to call out the called!
See you in Houston
Jun 10 2013
A few years ago, I described the Southern Baptist Convention’s annual meeting as a Southern tent revival colliding with a Baptist business meeting at a flea market. I have also described it as a family reunion – complete with distant cousins, in-laws, outlaws, and crazy uncles (some put me in the last group since I’m from California). This year it happens in Houston, Texas – home of the struggling Astros, a few million gallons of humidity, terrific seafood restaurants, and some of the strongest Southern Baptist churches in the world. The city, along with those churches, will no doubt be a great host.
Our annual conventions are fairly predictable, but always interesting. We will debate doctrine (Calvinism is the issue right now), resolve to confront issues (the Boy Scouts will be front and center), hear reports from Baptist talking-heads (of which I am one), promote our mission of getting the gospel to every person (usually the best part of the program), and hear outstanding preaching from our president, Dr. Fred Luter. All in all, a full three days of drinking from the Southern Baptist firehose!
This year, the Golden Gate report is on Tuesday afternoon (June 11). Over the years, we have had some interesting time slots on the program. One year, I spoke just after President Bush addressed us by video from the White House. I spoke to the backs of 10,000 people going to the hallway to rehash the President’s remarks. Another year, I spoke just after Condoleezza Rice addressed the convention. Once again, I spoke to a departing horde all headed out to discuss what she had to say. Last year, I spoke just before our presidential election. The arena was packed with messengers prepared to elect the first African-American president of the SBC. When I finished speaking, I jokingly told Dr. Luter, “I’m glad I could gather a crowd for your election.” Barring any last minute changes, it looks like Golden Gate’s report will happen this year without any of these interesting conditions.
If you are in the Houston area, come see us. Various Golden Gate personnel will be manning our booth and connecting with alumni, friends, and potential students. They would like to meet you. Our Alumni and Friends Luncheon is Wednesday, June 12, at 12:15 p.m. Stop by our booth and purchase a ticket. I will be at the booth on Tuesday afternoon, from 3:30 – 4:30 p.m. and would enjoy meeting you as well.
Southern Baptists are good people, who at their best, love God and serve people. See you in Houston as we celebrate those two profound commitments expressing themselves through our cooperative work.
It’s graduation time at Golden Gate! We now have six commencement ceremonies each spring – one at each of the five campuses and one in San Quentin prison. I get to lead and speak at all six. One person lamented, “Sorry you have to go to all those graduations!” Sorry?! Have to go?! I don’t have to go to graduations, I get to go. Graduation is the whole point! We work hard for years shaping students toward the day when they complete their diploma or degree. Watching them graduate is one of the best days of the year.
This is a milestone graduation season for Golden Gate. During commencement at the Northern California Campus, our 8,000 graduates walked across the stage. That’s quite a number – 8,000. It’s hard to believe our school, often perceived as “the small seminary out west,” has graduated 8,000 ministry leaders. But we have! It was fitting the 8,000th graduate was a Master of Missiology student. While we train all kinds of church leaders and missionaries, our passion to get the gospel to the nations is well known. Having a milestone graduate typify this passion is exciting.
While we are happy to graduate so many – more than 250 each year – it’s also sad to see them go. But then we remember new students are coming! In a few weeks, new students will start their seminary journey. The cycle of training the next wave of leaders continues. We have our sights set on 10,000 graduates! We will probably hit that number sometime around 2021-22. If you are a high school senior or college freshman, you could be the magic graduate – number 10,000. Start planning on attending seminary – and not just any seminary, Golden Gate!
This past weekend, it was my privilege to participate in the memorial service for Dr. Don Kim. He was the founding pastor of Berendo Street Baptist Church in Los Angeles, the first Korean Baptist church in North America. Out of this significant church has emerged a movement including thousands of converts, hundreds of churches, and countless pastors and other church leaders. By any measure of Christian ministry, Dr. Kim was a great man who catalyzed an eternal movement.
Greatness in our world is usually confused with popularity. If a person is well-known for making movies, playing a sport, running for office, or working in the media – they must be great! Never mind their true contribution – even if they are only famous for being famous, they must be great. That’s the shallow way people are evaluated today.
True greatness should be measured by a person’s contribution of something significant like raising children, caring for family, working at an honorable vocation, or serving others. From a Christian perspective, it should include making an eternal impact by sharing the gospel, starting churches, and sending missionaries. Unfortunately, even those of us who should know better sometimes lose our perspective. We get caught up in the Christian-celebrity subculture, making the same mistakes secularists make by commemorating the temporal rather than the eternal.
Let’s do better. Think of a truly great person you know, someone who is making a real difference. Find a way to let them know how much you appreciate them. Keep it simple – a kind word, a note, or a small gift. Dr. Kim’s memorial service was powerful, and the kind words well-deserved. But we don’t have to wait until the funeral to recognize people who are making a difference. Do it now.
Strategies for developing courage (part 2)
Jul 16 2012
Last week we started on a list of seven resources to overcome fear or develop courage. The foundational asset is salvation in Jesus Christ. The other six strategies build on that sure foundation. Here are the final four.
4. Pray…hard! While my short prayer, “Father, here we go,” (see last week) is helpful on the spot –more prayer is needed to overcome the stronghold of fear. “I sought the Lord and he answered me and delivered me from all my fears” is one leader’s impassioned testimony (Psalm 34:4). Sometimes, fearful situations are ongoing. They test us over a prolonged period of time. The fear monster, seemingly slain, rears itself time and again.
One young man’s struggle to enter ministry illustrates prayer as a strategy to overcome fear. He had many fears about the ministry based on his observations of ministry leaders, particularly his father who had been through many unfortunate ministry conflicts as a leader. Every time he considered entering ministry, his fears of what might happen to him, to his family, and to his future short-circuited the decision. He had to pray through his fears.
It took months but he finally committed himself to ministry and now serves effectively. His fears were deeply rooted in his experiences as a child watching his father deal with very negative situations. A significant breakthrough came when he realized that his father, while he had suffered some very unfair treatment, had not given up on the church or the ministry. My young friend realized he was allowing fear to control him. After months of prayer, he came to realize God’s confidence that enabled him to answer God’s call to ministry. Through prayer, he gained the insight needed to confront his fears and move forward.
The Psalmist “sought the Lord” which implies more than a casual prayer. The tone implies persistent praying. Sometimes, a short prayer produces the needed change. But more often, when it comes to overcoming fear, it takes longer to pray through. Cracking the stronghold of fear requires focused prayer, use of scripture in prayer, careful mediation while praying, and discerning the Spirit’s promptings about the causes and solutions to the fear-producing situation.
5. Take action in faith. Several biblical leaders (listed two weeks ago), were afraid or were told not to be afraid. The good news is you are in good company when you, as a leader, struggle with fear. One of the strategies these leaders demonstrate is taking action in faith while you are still afraid.
James 2:17 says, “…faith, if it doesn’t have works, is dead….” Taking action in faith is required of leaders. You will never be free from all fear. You may confront it with truth, pray through it, celebrate God’s presence, and still be afraid. Some fear only flees when a leader stares it down and takes action in spite of feeling afraid.
Ezra, the Old Testament prophet, dramatically illustrates this principle. Surrounded by enemies of his effort to restore the Temple, Ezra led the people to resume the sacrificial worship system. “They set up the altar on its foundation and offered burnt offerings for the morning and evening on it to the Lord even though they feared the surrounding peoples.” Sometimes, leaders must take action even though they are still afraid. Waiting until you are fear-free means you are unlikely to act boldly as a leader.
Preparing to share the gospel, meet a critic, handle a personnel problem, or attend a difficult meeting can be fear-inducing. Often, however, what we imagine might happen is far worse than what does happen. Do not be immobilized by fear. Move ahead purposefully. Trust God to make fear flee as you confidently take action by faith.
6. Enjoy God’s love. We have a scripture plaque in our bedroom, hung when we were first married and moved with us to every place we have called home. It says, “There is no fear in love; instead, perfect love drives out fear, because fear involves punishment” (1 John 4:18). The plaque reminds us love drives away fear, including the fearful situations we face as a couple. Love overcomes fear, not only in marriage, but in other significant relationships.
Much we fear involves punishment. Fear is often rooted in performance or performance-related expectations. If you do not perform up to a certain standard, real or imagined, you fear you will be judged. God does not relate to you that way. God loves you, case closed!
So where does this kind of devilish (hint!) thinking come from? The Evil One is determined to undermine you any way he can. Since you have discovered God’s love expressed through Christ, you would think you would never doubt his love for you. But that is not the case. As a Christian leader, you can still doubt God’s love. You would never express it that bluntly, but you express it plainly by how you act.
You still work to prove your worth, strain to demonstrate your value, base your self-esteem on what others think or say about you, and measure your success by external achievements like buildings, budgets, or baptisms. When you do these things, you deny the love of God. God’s love is about acceptance, security, rest, and a profound sense of worth because of his relationship to you.
A good word for this self-inflicted mental punishment is “condemnation.” Many leaders are punished by fear through the condemnation they feel and struggle to overcome. Leaders who fear they can never do enough or never quite measure up are victims of the internal condemnation fear produces. These kind of condemning strongholds are the deep wounds that drive insecure leaders.
The solution is to enjoy God’s love for you. “Enjoy” might not be a word you are comfortable using to describe how you experience God’s love. We tend to think how unworthy we are, how gracious God is, and therefore how parsimonious we need to be with God’s love. In other words, we like it but we need to use it in small doses so as not to exhaust the supply.
God’s love is unlimited. Enjoy it. Revel in it. Drink deeply from the well. Let God’s love immerse you. God’s love is perfect and perfect love, enjoyed thoroughly, will drive out fear. It really will. As you rest securely in God’s love, condemnation ceases, self-punishment stops, and fear diminishes.
7. Obey God’s laws. Moving from enjoying God’s love to obeying God’s laws may seem like an abrupt change of direction and perspective. Not really. God’s laws, commands, and instructions are definitive expressions of his love. In other words, God knows what’s good for you and tells you plainly. There is no guesswork with God on certain issues. He wants his people to be blessed and warns that certain behavior is too destructive to tolerate.
Both the Old and New Testaments have clear warnings about how fearful it is to disobey God. God warns in Leviticus 26:15-16, “If you reject my statutes and despise my ordinances, and do not observe all my commands – and break my covenant, then I will do this to you; I will bring terror on you….” Similar language is in Hebrews 10:26-27, “For if we deliberately sin after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a terrifying expectation of judgment….” Terror and terrifying expectation of judgment await the person who willfully disobeys God.
When you obey God’s clear instructions many common fears become irrelevant. Like a toothless tiger, these fears can growl but they have no bite. Your obedience renders some fearful situations completely powerless. Resolving some fears is just this simple. Obey God! Get under the protective covering of his Word on clearly “right or wrong” issues. When God gives clear directions, obey him and enjoy safety and absence of fear. Disobedience leads to terror and terrifying judgment. If you are willfully disobeying God, you should be afraid! Nothing will help you until you repent and obey Him.
Strategies for developing courage (part 1)
Jul 12 2012
There are seven biblical strategies for overcoming fear. Stated another way, these are strategies for developing courage. While the first one is foundational, the other six are not sequential. They are, instead, strategies you can continually use to confront and overcome your fears as a leader.
1. Be saved. Salvation in Jesus Christ is foundational to overcoming fear. In a broader context about salvation, Romans 8:15 says, “For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear….” Your salvation experience with Jesus breaks the power of sin in your life. Sin is still very much a force in our world, but it no longer has control of you as a believer or as a leader. Apart from this foundational spiritual relationship and its liberating results, you have no hope for facing down your fears.
You can face your fears and lead when you still feel afraid because of your salvation in Jesus Christ. Every other strategy emerges from this relationship. Without this relationship, every other strategy is a dead work of the flesh. Handling fear is a spiritual battle, not a psychological ploy. Facing fear is a spiritual reality, often fought on the battlefield of your mind.
Romans 8:15 continues “…but you received the Spirit of adoption, by whom we cry out, ‘Abba, Father!’” Some relationships have special privileges. As a Christian, you can cry out to your Father because you enjoy a unique relationship with him. You are his child – his son or daughter. My children have certain privileges that come from their relationship with me. They can call me any time, day or night, and have my help with any problem. They can access my resources and will someday receive an inheritance. Relationships have privileges.
2. Practice God’s presence. God is your Father. Better than any earthly father, he is always with you. Learning to live this reality is not a psychological trick; it’s a spiritual reality. The Psalmist wrote “The Lord is with me; I will not be afraid. What can man do to me?” (Psalm 118:6 NIV).
This simple affirmation, “God is with me; I will not be afraid” is a powerful resource to remind a leader he or she is not alone. There is something very comforting about companionship, about knowing we are not alone in a difficult situation. When my oldest son was about four, we went to a church building late one Saturday night. All the lights were off. We entered the auditorium on the opposite side from the light switches and were quietly shuffling our way through the dark. His little hand felt its way into my hand – and it sure felt good! While my son was reaching out in the dark for his dad, I was just glad to have anyone with me. Dark church buildings can be scary places.
Sometimes, well-lit church buildings can also be scary places. Some worship services demand prophetic preaching, committee meetings require hard decisions, counseling sessions call for tough love, board meetings deal with controversial issues, and staff meetings can feel like combat zones. In every one of these situations, leaders feel fear but must lead anyway.
Leading while afraid is possible when you remember God is with you. He is with you when you preach, when you lead a difficult meeting, when you referee relational conflicts, when you make controversial decisions, and when you face competing agendas. God is with you. One of my favorite prayers underscores the reality of God’s presence with me as a leader. It’s a short, simple prayer, “Father, here we go.”
The emphasis is on “we.” I pray this prayer before I stand up to preach. I have often stopped outside a meeting room, with my hand on the doorknob, and prayed “Father, here we go.” I pray this prayer before entering almost any difficult situation. “Father, here we go” reminds me God is with me. I do not ask him to accompany me; he is always with me. This prayer changes my perspective, puts my fears in their place, and gives me confidence that I am not alone. Military men go into battle with the buddy system – partners who watch each other’s back and commit to bringing each other home alive. What a great picture of God’s presence - the ultimate buddy system for Christian leaders.
3. Confront fear with truth. “You will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (John 8:32) is oft quoted and applied in many situations. Does it apply to confronting fear? Absolutely. John often combines the themes of truth and light (for example, John 12:35-36), building on the Old Testament use of these images. In Psalms, for example, walking in the light (truth) is connected to overcoming fear when the Psalmist writes, “The Lord is my light and my salvation,” and then asks, “Whom should I fear?” (Ps. 27:1).
The answer to this rhetorical question is “No one!” God provides light – truth – for us to walk in and doing so overcomes fear. So many fears are irrational or caused by imaginary enemies, situations, or possible results. The What if monster roams the mind of every leader creating various scenarios of what might happen. What if people become angry with me, our ministry is hurt by my decision, we are making a huge mistake, it costs more money than we planned (it always does, by the way!), the project takes longer than we thought, a personnel decision does not work out, and on and on and on.
Fear paralyzes leaders with questions about what might happen. Leaders are responsible to consider options, imagine possible outcomes, and manage strategies that may need to be adjusted on the fly. That’s what leaders do. But stewing inwardly, having your gut in a knot all the time about what might happen is not effective contingency management. Fear has the upper hand when that is a leader’s experience.
Confronting fear with truth can be done in two ways. First, confront fear with biblical truth. Memorize key verses (like some in this chapter) that underscore what the Bible says about fear. Memorize passages that remind you of the core spiritual resources you have in your relationship with God. Meditate on the truth in these passages to change your thinking about fear.
Second, confront fear with what is true about your situation. Too often, our mind races through wild scenarios about what might happen and how bad it will be. When that happens, you need a reality check! What is the worst that could happen? You could lose your job. And then you would get another one. You could lose some friends. And then you would make new ones. You might die! But then you would be in heaven. This is not to make light of the painful, difficult results from some decisions a ministry leader has to make. But it does put our losses in perspective. The reality of what we imagine might happen to us is generally not as bad as what does happen to us.
Barriers and Blockades
Apr 23 2012
One of the most puzzling spiritual dilemmas is discerning the difference between a barrier and a blockade. Sometimes, God allows difficulties to test our faith. He wants to build endurance in us and show his power through us. It’s painful, but God shapes our character through these challenges. Let’s label these circumstances “barriers” to be broken down, climbed over, or otherwise surmounted. We are better Christians when we triumph through these struggles.
Other times, God allows similar difficulties – not to test us, but to stop us in our tracks. Let’s call these circumstances “barricades.” These are huge stop signs God erects to get us to freeze, reconsider our options, and go a different direction. Continuing to pound your head into an immovable, God-sized obstruction is painful and futile.
Discerning the difference between barriers and barricades is challenging. It’s not easy to figure out what to do when you first run into resistance. Most Christians aren’t quitters. We expect to swim upstream and paddle harder when the current intensifies. But is that always the best response? Initially, probably so! But when increased flow is a precursor to a coming tsunami of God-generated opposition, it’s best to get out of that stream altogether.
When we planted our church in Gresham, Oregon a marketing consultant surveyed the community on our behalf and told us, “Get out while you can. This will be a very difficult place to start a church.” We considered that counsel, rejected it, and plowed ahead. It was hard – some days, very hard. But we persevered and a great church resulted. A barricade that was really a barrier!
When we wanted to add a staff person to the Northwest Convention staff, the need seemed genuine and a suitable candidate was willing to serve. But there was no money. We prayed and worked and asked and connived – to no avail. God thwarted us at every turn. The opportunity passed and that position was never filled. A barrier that turned out to be barricade!
These are just two examples of how puzzling this dilemma can be. It continues to be a major discernment issue for me as a leader. My usual sources for direction in decision-making – the Bible, the Spirit, past experiences, timely information, and wise counsel – are helpful but, to be honest, it’s still a struggle. My hunch is sorting out the differences between barricades and barriers are a struggle for a lot of you – but also something some of you do better than me.
What have you learned about this process? I would like to hear your story at email@example.com.
Mar 19 2012
Airports are my second home. At last count, I have flown to or through more than 90 of them. Watching people, while waiting, is a fun way to pass the time. Oh come on, you know you do it too! People are, to say the least, interesting. Here are a few recent passer-bys.
One woman, grandmother age, was wearing sandals, yellow anklets, orange and yellow pants, and a blue shirt. Since it was St. Patrick’s Day, she also sported a large green flower-thing in her hair. Another young woman, college age, passed grandma in a hurry. She seemed like a poor person, at least judging by her clothing. She was wearing a shirt she must have bought when she was about eleven. It was trying to cover her, and barely doing the job – if you know what I mean. The “modest is hottest” memo apparently never got to her.
T-shirt messages are also interesting. One fellow’s shirt read, “The rules don’t apply to me.” How did he make it past security? If the rules don’t apply to him, he may have been armed – or at least carrying a five ounce bottle of shampoo (the rebel!). Another man wore, “I’m only wearing this because my scrubs are in the laundry.” I guess he wanted someone to think he was a rich doctor. And then, another one, “Some days it isn’t worth it to chew through the restraints.” I have no idea what that means, but I gave him a wide berth when we passed on the walkway. There were some other t-shirt messages, but this is a g-rated column!
People-watching also reveals much about the human condition. There are often men and women in military uniforms. Some are coming home on leave, others are being deployed. They are an ever-present reminder our nation is at war and our world is a dangerous place. Couples crying are also a common sight. Someone is loved, and leaving. Then at the arrival area, other couples hugging and crying – this time happy tears. Then there are wheelchairs and canes and casts and crutches. And, in the summer, families excitedly traveling on vacation. What a collection of emotions, situations, and needs!
People-watching reminds me how interesting people are, how many stories they have, and some of the challenges they face. People are my business, so my thoughts often focus on the spiritual side of what I’m seeing. Do the hurting know God loves them? Do the happy recognize God’s blessing? Are the soldiers prepared for eternity if the unthinkable happens? Will the immodest woman find true love, the fake doctor real happiness? Will the wannabe rebel get over himself and find peace in a relationship with God?
Over the years, my focus on reaching people with the gospel has made these kind of questions almost second nature for me. It’s impossible to just watch people pass by – even strangers, much less my family and friends – without thinking about their spiritual needs. It’s burdensome sometimes, but it’s mostly a burden gladly borne. Ministry leaders are not primarily tasked to manage organizations and accomplish projects. We are called to love God and people. Never abandon that priority no matter what else you might be assigned to do.
A friend of mine committed himself to Jesus as his Lord and Savior a few weeks ago. I was part of the process, helping him along the way in his decision. I felt like a midwife – in the room trying to help but really only catching the baby when new birth happened! It was an amazing moment, watching a person’s inner transformation happen before my eyes.
Because I’m a seminary president, people ask me all sorts of complicated theological questions (assuming I have the answers, or at least I want to argue the points). My practical bent (remember, I’m really a displaced church planter masquerading as a seminary president), always tilts my answers toward how theological complexity works itself out in the crucible of doing ministry with everyday people.
Consider the doctrine of salvation. When my friend was ready to become a Christian, the grace of God was evident. Repentance and faith were in the mix. He was definitely deciding to change, but larger forces were shaping him toward his decision. Looking back, all of that can be analyzed. In the moment, none of it mattered to my friend. He had never really considered those theological categories. After a long process, he had simply come to the end of himself and wanted Jesus to take over his life. Submission to Lordship, experiencing grace, repentance from sin, faith in God – all of it was happening all at once as my friend became a follower of Jesus.
Theology is important – very important. But one measure of how well you understand theological concepts is your ability to explain them to everyday people. Is your theology – no matter how pristine it is in the ivory tower – communicable to shift workers, the woman who served your lunch, the high school dropout raising two kids, or the urban professional who has never read a Bible? In short, can you communicate your theology to everyday people with no theological training in such a way they experience God? If not, your theological training was inadequate. The professionals may get it, but the people who need it don’t understand what you are talking about!
May God give us, especially those of us who work hard at teaching theology, the humility to remember this: the end of theological pursuit is changed lives, not polished papers earning good grades from the academy.
Oct 10 2011
One type of troubling email that comes my way is a frustrated or disgruntled church member asking me to intervene and correct behaviors by one of our graduates currently serving in pastoral leadership. Many church members assume the Southern Baptist denomination (association, convention, or seminary) has some means to hold pastors accountable for their behavior. They assume seminaries have authority to pronounce who is fit for pastoral leadership and to supervise their graduates. Not so in Baptist life!
Baptist churches are autonomous which means they are self-determining and self-governing. We rightly resist any denominational hierarchy that threatens that core conviction about church life. Most Christians are very quick to defend their church’s autonomy – until they don’t like something being done by the leaders. Then, they want someone to step in and do something about it. Churches can’t have it both ways. Freedom comes with the corresponding responsibility to be self-governing in the truest sense – meaning a church takes responsibility for evaluating its leader’s behavior, holding them accountable for it, and rewarding/correcting them as needed.
A healthy pastor/church relationship includes a defined structure for accountability – both for the pastor’s leadership and behavior, as well as for the church’s relationship to the pastor. While the pastor is called and employed by the church, no person can be supervised by an entire congregation. Congregational authority doesn’t mean the entire church has to be involved in every decision. A self-governing church can limit the scope of decision-making responsibility by delegating certain tasks to small, church approved groups. This is an essential step in healthy pastoral accountability.
Every pastor should be supervised by an appropriately empowered small group. This can take several forms depending on the church’s overall governing structure. My recommendation is a group of men (usually a subset of the deacons or elders), so the group can be quite specific in investigating and supporting the pastor in maintaining moral purity. This kind of group isn’t about criticizing the pastor or only evaluating negative behavior. It’s also a means for the church to affirm good leadership, solve minor issues before they become problematic, and discover ways to strengthen the pastor’s leadership.
This kind of group also lessens the pressure many pastors feel to please everyone. When criticized, a pastor can take the issue to the accountability group and discover its legitimacy. Sometimes, cranky people need to be ignored. Other times, they are pointing out an issue that needs correction. A routine, healthy process for supervision can help sort out the difference.
In most churches that lack this structure, the pastor will need to initiate its creation. Doing so demonstrates maturity, humility, and willingness to learn from others. Failure to create (and then submit to) an adequate supervision structure invites long-term conflict.
When a pastor misbehaves, his church (not the denomination) has the responsibility for correction. When a pastor is doing a good job, his church is also responsible to affirm him, support him, and facilitate further effective service. The time to put this process in place is when relationships are strong. Don’t wait for the crisis – it will be too late. Pastoral supervision doesn’t diminish pastoral authority or freedom to follow God’s leadership. It simply insures local church accountability – both in correcting harmful behavior and rewarding healthy leadership.
If you need help working through this in your church, the denomination (particularly your associational director of missions or state convention staff) is a good resource. They can’t replace the church’s autonomous role in supervision, but they specialize in training, coaching, and guiding churches to fulfill their role more effectively.
Why Christians Compete - Part 1
Sep 06 2011
“If I commit my life to God, where will the drive come from to compete at a high level? Doesn’t Christianity teach me to love everyone? Won’t following Jesus make me soft?”
Those questions, in various forms, are often asked by athletes during conversations with me about developing a personal relationship to God through Jesus. They are the same questions any driven, competitive, trying-to-get-ahead person asks – no matter their profession – when considering life lived under the Lordship of Jesus.
Becoming a Christian does not preclude competing at a high level. In fact, from my perspective, Christian athletes should be the most competitive athletes – models of focused intensity for their teammates and peers. Here’s why.
Christians understand the true nature of competition. Competition isn’t about destroying (or even defeating) others. True competition is an internal challenge – competing to maximize your God-given potential within the ability and opportunity you have been provided.
Jesus taught this principle in the parable of the talents (Matt. 25:14-30). A master gave three servants talents to manage in his absence. A talent was a large sum of money (about a year’s wages for a working man). Two servants invested wisely, earned good returns, and were praised for their ingenuity. The third buried his talent, saved it, and returned it to the master. He was harshly rebuked.
Jesus’ point in the parable is clear. You have been given “talents” (symbolizing abilities and opportunities). God expects you to maximize them. Continuing the analogy from the parable, God is not pleased when you save, hide, or limit what he has given you. He expects production in proportion to the abilities and opportunities he has provided. The two faithful servants were not competing with each other. They were affirmed for doubling what they had been given, not for beating anyone else’s results.
You are responsible to maximize your God-given abilities and opportunities. When you exhaust their full potential you are competing at the highest level. In sports, when you have done all you can do, you either win or lose. The essence of competition, however, is not revealed by the final score. The true nature of competition is shown in the absolute effort expended in the arena.
This explains why wise coaches sometimes praise a team in defeat and ream them out in victory. They know their role is preparing players and then demanding maximum effort, not just winning games. Real competitors are only satisfied when they have given all they have – no matter the final score. When they lose, it hurts for a while but ultimately, they feel the quiet satisfaction only possible for the athlete who knows they gave everything they had.
Christians know their role in any contest. Athletes keep score. We total the points, runs, or times and determine a winner and loser. It’s easy to lose focus and allow outcomes to measure the quality of effort. In sports, as in life, outcomes are impossible to control. A perfect pitch might be lined for an out or hit six inches higher for a double. An official’s error can call back a perfect touchdown pass. Outcomes are an elusive measure of competitive success.
A proverb with a military analogy provides key insight on this point – “The horse is made ready for the day of battle, but victory rests with the Lord” (Prov. 21:31). The proverb underscores the importance of preparation and effort. In other words, saddle your horse, equip it with armaments, and ride it hard into battle. Get the best horse possible – but don’t trust it for victory.
You are responsible for preparation and effort, God is responsible for outcomes. When you focus on controlling outcomes, frustration always mounts. You become preoccupied with the score, the officials, the media, performance of teammates, and decisions by coaches. You lose focus, feel stressed, and worry about aspects of the game over which you have no control. True competitors keep their focus on their responsibilities – preparation and effort. When both are maximized, you are competing at the highest level. When either is neglected, you are focusing on outcomes – the part of the equation you can’t control – and losing your competitive focus. When you do this, you are burning energy – but you aren’t competing.
Golf is not my game. I wish it were. I really like playing golf, or should I say “trying to play golf.” I’m not sure what I do is really playing golf – more like playing at golf. My sons are both good golfers, and are happier people when they are moving. So when one or both of them come home or we rendezvous somewhere, we almost always play golf. Last week was one of those special times.
As we walked to the first tee, I thought, “Well, this will be interesting.” I had not played since the last time my sons were home – about a year ago. Soon it was my turn to tee off, with our foursome, the starter, and a few other onlookers all watching. Many golfers will tell you the first shot, with an audience, is the hardest shot of the day.
With driver in hand, I stood over the ball and thought, “Here we go!” And go it did! Right down the middle of the fairway, past the shots of the other players, in perfect position for a short iron to the green. As we headed down the fairway, I told my group, “That’s the best shot I will hit all day. Too bad it came so early in the round. From here on, it’s downhill all the way.”
But it wasn’t! Six of my first seven drives were just like the first one – or even better. I was crushing the ball, straight as a string and longer than my fellow players on almost every hole. It was an awesome feeling. Hitting the sweet spot on a titanium driver feels sooooo good. Oh, how I wish I could do it every time! Eventually, as fatigue set it on the back nine my usual “pray, spray, and hope to play” method returned. But for a while, I was on top of the golfing world – hitting it straight and long. Sweet!
One of our faculty members talks often about finding your ministry “sweet spot.” He challenges students to find their unique role in ministry and then sacrifice themselves fulfilling it. For me, it took a while to really find my niche. Organizational leadership, and training other leaders, emerged from my early experiences of pastoral and church planting ministry. It was a process. It took a while. But now my kingdom assignment is clear.
My personal mission, my sweet spot, is providing visionary leadership to Golden Gate Seminary and shaping leaders through teaching, preaching, and writing. When I do these things, God enables effectiveness that astounds me. When I venture into other areas, frustration always results. You might wonder, “Why then, do you drift into other activities?” Several reasons – ego, pride, insecurity (which keeps me from saying “no” and disappointing people), and arrogance (which makes me think I can do everything well), and competition (trying to do things as well as other gifted people). Ouch! Writing that was painful – but true.
What is your ministry sweet spot? Have you found it yet? If not, keep looking. There is a unique role – something you do well, find fulfilling, and are supernaturally effective when you do it – that is just the assignment for you. Don’t worry about how glamorous it is, how remunerative it may or may not be, or how many people will notice. Just find the niche where you can make a difference – as a preschool teacher, maintenance worker, volunteer coordinator, parking lot usher, preacher, teacher, or counselor. Find your sweet spot – and then lose your life in sacrificial service to God and others.
I Sprout Bible
Aug 15 2011
Despite the roller-coaster like stock market which makes retirement so unpredictable, a few of us were discussing it last week. We talked about places we would like to live, hobbies we would like to start, and how much we will enjoy setting our own schedule. We also talked about the kinds of work we will do in retirement – essentially all the aspects of our current jobs we like without the parts we don’t.
One of the men in the conversation is a faculty member at Golden Gate. After listening to our jabbering, he said, “Well, it really won’t matter where I live or what I plan to do. Wherever I’m planted, I know I’ll sprout Bible.” God made him to teach – and that’s what he will do. He shared his conclusion with a kind of happy, resigned, matter-of-fact shrug of the shoulders. He knows, no matter what, wherever God places him – teaching the Bible will emerge as naturally as a seed sprouting a plant.
It’s good to work with people like my friend. His life is consumed with biblical truth – learning it, applying it, and sharing it with others. He has been doing it for so long it is an engrained habit, a life-long pursuit that won’t stop when the paycheck does. He can no more stop teaching than an apple tree can stop popping out Fujis. He was born to teach, is trained to teach, and will teach until he is no longer physically able. It’s what he was born – and born again – to do.
One of our retired faculty members personifies this. He retired from Golden Gate, and then took on a significant teaching load in our prison program at San Quentin. He is planted in prison, so he sprouts Bible. The inmates love him, the work fulfills him, and the fruit of his labors is significant.
Working with people who are passionately consumed with fulfilling their calling – in this case to teach – is a pleasure. But it makes me think. Wherever I’m planted, what sprouts? For me, the best answer is probably leadership. Whether I’m at seminary, on a community board, or serving on a denominational committee – my first thought is always, “How can we get more done, more effectively, with more people involved, while maximizing available resources?” Leading sprouts out of me like teaching does my faculty friends.
What about you? What do you sprout? If you can answer that, you have identified not only your passion, but the reason God made you and your best contribution to kingdom work. Knowing this about yourself will enable you to fulfill God’s purpose and find your most satisfying role in his kingdom.
Don’t over-think the problem! What you are good at, what gives you the most satisfaction when you do it, what other people compliment you for doing, or what you would pay others to let you do – that’s your passion. Find it, celebrate it, do it!
More than 30 years ago, a mentor gave me this advice for success in pastoral ministry. He said, “Build your ministry on the Word of God and around men.” Some might react to that statement, claiming sexism, or in some other way diminish the focus of his counsel.
But his advice worked well for me as a pastor. A primary focus for me was building men who would assume leadership roles in my church. This doesn’t mean I didn’t also train women for leadership roles. Throughout my ministry, women have had prominent roles in the churches and organizations I have led. But, as a pastor, I gave focused attention to training men. Why?
My experience, proved over and over, was strong men provided stability, strength of character, and models of service that motivated men, women, teenagers, and children to greater commitment. Strong, committed men gave our church leadership in evangelism, missions, and discipleship ministries. Women, of course, joined them in leading in all these areas. Again, this column isn’t about diminishing the role of women. It is about the pastoral discipline of building men into leaders and the impact this has on the total church membership.
This past weekend, it was my privilege to speak at a men’s retreat for a local church. It was an invigorating, positive reminder to me of the power of committed men in a church. These were regular guys – husbands, fathers, single guys; professionals, retired men, and blue collar workers; all ages and all incomes levels. Their fellowship, transparency, love for one another, and humility as men seeking God was refreshing. It made me want to be part of their church!
When you have a group of men with a passion for Jesus Christ and his church, powerful things happen! As a church planter, I asked God for 12 guys who would stand with me to build the new church. At our first men’s retreat, in our first year, I shared that prayer and emphasized how important the men were to our ultimate success. I didn’t realize there were exactly 12 of us on the retreat! One man, a very new believer, silently counted around the circle of men ending with him. Then he iinterrupted my teaching time and blurted out, “Hey, I’m number 12!”
His interjection caught us all of guard. Then we realized how powerful his observation was and what an answer to prayer God had provided. One reason our new church developed quickly to viability was these laymen who gave their time, energy, money, and expertise in various areas.
Dr. Jim Henry, pastor emeritus of First Baptist Church, Orlando, Florida is a model pastor in every regard. For more than 30 years, he met almost every Friday morning with a group of men for discipleship, leadership development, and spiritual encouragement. He has told me on several occasions he traces much of God’s blessing on his ministry to this disciplined commitment to build men into leaders who could expand the ministry of his church. That is a good testimony of the point I am trying to make in this column.
So, pastor, build men. Rather than complain about the lack of strong, committed male leaders in your church – go to work building some. This is not a quick-fix for your current church crisis. It is, instead, a long-term strategy for church health and growth.
Order in the Court
Sep 15 2008
My oldest son works in Washington, D.C. and has a number of other friends about his age who have similar positions in government. One of his friends is a law clerk at the Supreme Court. On a recent visit, my son asked if I would like a behind-the-scenes tour of the Supreme Court building. History buff that I am, I jumped at the chance for a private tour with his law clerk friend.
I have toured the Supreme Court building on two occasions as a tourist. I expected this experience to be about the same. Not so! My new friend took us behind-the-scenes to the private part of the building where the justices work. With permission of Chief Justice Roberts, we were able to tour the private meeting room where the justices actually deliberate and confer about their decisions. It was an awe-inspiring moment for me as I thought of the historic decisions that had been made in that room.
The Supreme Court has become the arbiter of moral values for our nation. While we may prefer laws governing moral behavior be decided by legislatures or popular vote, the reality is issues like abortion and (someday) a national definition of marriage are or will ultimately be decided by the court. The Court’s power continues to increase because justices are living longer, thus extending their influence and making Court decisions less likely to be overturned.
That is, for me, one of the main reasons to vote in the upcoming presidential election. Some of my friends are lamenting the weaknesses in both presidential candidates and are reluctant to vote for either. I understand those concerns – both about the character of the candidates and their various policy positions. The character of the candidates isn’t going to change in the next 45 days. Their policy positions may change, but in the long run their decisions about the economy or the war on terror will be short-lived.
The next president, however, will most likely appoint one or perhaps two Supreme Court justices. It is likely those appointments will last 30 years – more than three times the maximum time either candidate could serve as a two-term president. This fact makes this presidential election extremely significant. Perhaps the most important question we should be asking these candidates is their guiding philosophy on judicial appointments, including to the Supreme Court. The longest-term impact of this election won’t be on the economy, the war, or any other of today’s pressing policy matters. It will be on the Supreme Court.
So, as you consider who to vote for on November 4, think about the candidate who will most likely appoint justices who will most likely support moral positions based on the Christian worldview. We don’t need a “Christian Supreme Court,” but we do need a court that will support moral values foundational to a healthy society.
Don’t sit this one out – vote!
Pastors have always been my heroes. My first pastor, Dr. T.C. Melton, was a model pastor. He planted his life in one location for almost 30 years, served people as a spiritual guide, preached and taught the Bible faithfully, and led his church through good times and bad to make a significant mark on his community. He was and is an effective leader.
Last night, it was my privilege to participate in a pastor installation service at a church in our area. The church, and the new pastor, shared mutual commitments to seal their new relationship and start their ministry together. The service magnified the pastoral office and properly celebrated the arrival of a new spiritual leader. It was a special night, full of promise for a future of effective ministry together.
At the Northern California campus, we are highlighting effective pastors this fall in chapel. We have four pastors from across the West speaking in a special “pastor’s series.” The first pastor, Dr. Walter Price, from Beaumont, CA was our guest last week. He preached an exceptional message and is a model of effective pastoral leadership our students can emulate.
One of the unique and positive aspects of the faculty at Golden Gate is that several of our men serve as pastors – two of them in large, growing churches. Professors who are also pastors bring a special practicality to the classroom. It is hard to live in the ivory tower when you are in the trenches most of the time!
Why all this emphasis on pastoral leadership? Very simply, the Bible describes the church as the fulfillment of God’s eternal plan for the ages and pastors as God’s gift to us to lead the church. Pastors are, in my opinion, the most important kingdom leaders. They are responsible for making disciples, starting new churches, calling out and sending missionaries, and preserving the doctrinal integrity of the church. That is a big job – and a worthy calling. They are the front line leaders for kingdom advance. Those of us who work in support roles have an important calling to strengthen pastors and help shape new pastors for the future. But the importance of our work pales in comparison to the actual work of pastoral leadership.
You either are a pastor or have a pastor. If you are a pastor, be encouraged. Your work matters to God! You are a gift to the church and we need you. If you have a pastor, find a way to encourage him – to make his work more of a joy - this week.
Envy or Admiration
Sep 03 2008
My friend, Dr. Roger Spradlin, pastor of Valley Baptist Church, Bakersfield, Calfornia was recently speaking at a conference and said (my paraphrase), “Today, many people envy other people – but they don’t admire them. They want what they have, without regard for their character.”
In just a few words, Dr. Spradlin nailed a prevalent attitude in American culture. We envy what other people have – money, fame, power, appearance, possessions – and want to be like them in obtaining their external accoutrements. We seem to have lost the capacity to care about the character of people as part of the package of deciding if we want to be like them. This is particularly troubling to me as it relates to people deciding who to admire as a leader.
We envy what people have, instead of admire who people are. We crave the external, rather than celebrate the internal. We long for the superficial, instead of disciplining ourselves to achieve the significant. We seem, as a culture, to be ever-closer to actually believing the ridiculous bumper sticker “The one who has the most toys, wins!” The one who seems to have it all, at least wins our allegiance!
The great divorce in America leadership – in politics, business, and sadly in religion – is segregating character from the discussion on leadership effectiveness or suitability. If a person appears successful, they are perceived as competent to lead. Like the camera commercial said, “Image is everything.” That certainly seems to be true as we evaluate leaders. Likeability also seems important. I often hear it said, “She seems nice” or “He looks like you can trust him” when my friends discuss leaders. How ridiculous!
Leadership must rest on a foundation of character for sustained positive influence to result. Sure, almost anyone can fake it for a while but true character eventually shines through. And when it does, a lifetime of work can be invalidated by what is revealed. Trust is lost, and even though forgiveness may be extended, a leader’s future effectiveness is compromised.
We were “old school” parents. We congratulated our children for their accomplishments, but we praised them for their character. When they told the truth, showed compassion, stood up for the weak, gave sacrificially, or kept their word even when it was costly – we praised
them. We pointed out the positive character attribute being demonstrated, described how important it was to us, and said some of the most powerful words in parental vocabulary, “I’m proud of you.”
Leaders should strive to be admired for their character, not envied for their popularity and its external symbols of success. And, we must use our influence – in our families and our organizations – to celebrate character as foundational to success. What we celebrate, is emulated by our followers.
The Warren Forum
Aug 18 2008
Rick Warren, pastor at Saddleback Church, recently hosted a Civil Forum with Barack Obama and John McCain. The forum was Warren’s attempt to have a conversation with the two candidates without the vitriolic rhetoric often found in a presidential campaign. Warren hoped, and seemed largely successful, that having this event in a church with a pastor-moderator would establish a dialogical tone for frank conversation.
After watching the presentations, my decision about how to vote in the upcoming election became even clearer. Our denomination encourages people to “vote their values.” That’s what I try to do. The question, then, is what are the key values I plan to vote?
Some criticize religious leaders like me for forcing biblical values into the public arena. So, rather than draw my conclusions from a religious document, I am willing to draw them from a secular one. My points are adequately made by three important values in a distinctly secular document – The Declaration of Independence. For me, in this election the key values are “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
I will vote for life. I will vote for the candidate who will reduce abortion. Abortion is not a right. It is a permitted medical procedure. The American Holocaust is a national shame. I want a president who will propose laws to limit abortion and appoint Supreme Court justices to uphold those laws after they are enacted. I also want a president who will speak with moral authority about sexual fidelity and support programs that help prevent unwanted pregnancy. I will vote for life.
I will also vote for liberty. The war on terror (not limited to the war in Iraq) is the greatest external threat to our liberty. I will vote for a president who understands warfare in the 21st century against a new kind of enemy is fundamentally different than past wars. I will vote for a president who works internationally to build a coalition to restrain evil – one of the biblical roles of government. Our greatest internal threat to liberty is our greed, which makes us dependent on other nations (energy, national debt, and trade deficits). Sound national fiscal policy is central to national defense. I will vote for liberty.
And finally, I will vote for the candidate who promises to help me pursue happiness, not the one promises to make me happy. This is, perhaps, the greatest misunderstanding of our “rights” as Americans. We have come to believe we have a right for the government to make us happy. We were not promised that right. We have the right to “the pursuit of happiness” which is a fundamentally different issue. When a candidate encourages personal responsibility, corporate accountability, and community initiative – I’m in! When he promises to take care of me – I’m out.
So, join me in voting for life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
Another Adultery Confession
Aug 11 2008
John Edwards, former North Carolina Senator and Democratic presidential candidate, recently confessed to an adulterous relationship with a campaign employee. Speculation that he might become a cabinet officer if Barack Obama wins the election has turned to lament of the end his career in politics. Given Bill Clinton’s rebound, it will be interesting to see if this is really true. Time will tell.
But, for now, Edwards is paying the public price for his private choices. His statement about his adultery is instructive for other leaders who want to avoid this problem. Edwards’ said, “I was and am ashamed of my choices, and I had hoped that it would never become public.” How could anyone who has lived this long in the public eye really have hoped “it would never become public?” Private sin is never really private. Other people are involved. A paper trail, or an electronic trail in today’s world, is created. A secret is something told to one person at a time! Be sure of this – if you are involved in sexual sin with another person, it will be found out.
Edwards also said, “In the course of several campaigns, I started to believe that I was special and became increasingly egocentric and narcissistic.” Fancy words that mean Edwards started to think the whole world revolved around him and the rules he had for other people didn’t apply to him. These are common characteristics of a leader who justifies behavior he would not condone by others.
A mentor once told me to beware of pastors who were “perfectionists, prudes, or pretty boys.” That was his earthy way of warning me about pastors who claim to be perfect, claim moral superiority, or spend an inordinate amount of time on their image. When I first heard the warning, I thought, “That’s either crude or rude, but either way I don’t like it.” Now, after 30 years of watching ministry leaders, I have concluded his statement is true.
Pastors, and other ministry leaders, are responsible to preach, teach, and live a high moral standard. But, while we are standard bearers, we must also stay in touch with reality – about ourselves and the people around us. We are not perfect. We are not morally superior. And, we must not be preoccupied with our image (with what we want people to think about us). If you are drifting in any of these areas, you are in danger of, in Edwards’ words, “increasingly egocentric and narcissistic behavior.”
While avoiding adultery or other sexual sin in our sex-obsessed culture is difficult, it is not impossible. Doing so starts with your attitude. Stay humble. Never think, “It could never happen to me.” Yes, it can! Recognize your frailty. While it may seem counterintuitive, admitting vulnerability is the first step toward moral strength. Most ministry leaders know the actions to take to help them maintain moral purity. The actions, however well intended, are a charade if the attitude isn’t right.
Are you drifting toward narcissism? Do you think the rules you have for other people don’t apply to you? Are you dabbling with, or flirting with, immoral behavior? Are you drifting? If so, stop it now. Recognize what’s happening to you and turn around now. If you don’t, you will someday say, as Edwards’ did at the end of his statement, “I have been stripped bare.” Don’t let it happen to you.
Why Character Matters When Choosing a President
Jun 02 2008
In the June 2008 issue of Christianity Today, Daniel Taylor and Mark McCloskey have written an interesting article on why virtue trumps policy when selecting a president or other senior leader. Certain aspects of the article were particularly insightful and pertinent to the current national election.
One of their arguments for prioritizing character over policy is the impossibility of any candidate having a policy statement on every conceivable policy problem that can present itself. For example, there was no policy on what to do if two World Trade Center towers are destroyed by terrorists that had ever been articulated by any president or presidential candidate. No one could have predicted Katrina or the AIDS epidemic in the 80’s and 90’s. Was anyone expecting $4 or $5 per gallon gasoline prices? The collapse of the housing market? The Internet bubble, or when it burst?
But a candidate does have a demonstrated life record of handling problems as they arise. They have a constellation of values, a decision-making matrix, which forms their process and informs their decisions. This applies to presidential candidates, but also in other settings. When interviewing potential staff members, I like to ask a series of questions about examples of problems they have solved, how they solved them, and the process they used to reach their decision. Understanding past patterns gives me insight into how the person will respond to future challenges.
Senior leaders must have core convictions, a set of non-negotiable beliefs that form their worldview. It is not essential for all Christian leaders to articulate these exactly alike. Some of the common themes, however, should include integrity, courage, obedience to God, and submission to clear instructions in the Bible. These are the qualities that form a base for good decision-making no matter the problem a leader might face. It is more important to me that a candidate, or a future employee, have demonstrated the ability to make principled decisions than that they have an answer for every conceivable future problem.
The best indicator of future success in making challenging decisions in difficult circumstances is past performance in similar situations. For that reason, the public record of any candidate or potential employee is more important than promises they make about the future. In the coming election, this means you should analyze past behavior and past choices rather than put your stock in promises of future actions. A leader, no matter their best intentions, is still human and humans default to comfortable behavioral patterns in stressful situations.
When considering adding someone to your team, make the same kind of diligent inquiry into past behavior and choices. Look for examples of courage, integrity, obedience, and submission in past choices. Chances are, if you observe them in past decisions, these same values will be evident when facing future challenges.
Character counts. Knowing who a person is, their true character demonstrated by past actions, should inform your decisions about how much trust you will place in them for the future – of our country, your company, or your ministry organization.
My brother is a paramedic in South Texas. Last year, he found himself on a solo call in which he saved two lives and prevented a catastrophic house fire. For his efforts, he was selected as the paramedic of the year for the state of Texas. This week, he joins 49 other state honorees in Washington, D.C. for special ceremonies including a trip to the White House to meet the President. My mother and I are flying to Washington to attend the banquet and public recognition of the 50 winners, including my brother.
Over the years, our family has had its struggles. We have had some tense moments and broken relationships. But, like most families, we rally when trouble comes and celebrate each other’s successes. Part of helping our children to adulthood was teaching them to celebrate their siblings’ successes, rather than allowing sibling rivalry to hamper their relationships.
Celebrating successes of others is a spiritual discipline. It requires humility, putting others ahead of ourselves, and allowing honor to flow to others. Families are strengthened when they do this. So are churches and ministry organizations. One of my saddest observations is jealousy among ministry leaders. When a church or organization or leader is successful – by any measure – he or she is often criticized rather than celebrated by their peers. This is disgraceful and reveals spiritual immaturity. A true mark of maturity is the ability to celebrate what others do, to give honor, and not succumb to the temptation to diminish others to make ourselves feel more secure or successful.
Later this week, we will have “Honors Chapel” at Golden Gate. We will recognize students for outstanding achievement in various areas – from biblical studies to demonstrated leadership initiative to perseverance through uniquely challenging circumstances to complete their seminary training. Some might question “praising men” as part of a seminary program. We view it as “honoring one another” and enjoy the privilege of singling out some students for the special encouragement that comes from peers and professors saying, “Job well done.”
Giving honor is a privilege and a responsibility in the Christian community. Receiving honor, and giving God the glory, is the spiritual responsibility of the recipient. So, when you have the opportunity to honor someone – do it. Celebrating the success of others is a much better response than petty jealousy or false humility that prohibits you being a blessing to others!
Who Did You Vote For?
Feb 04 2008
Tuesday, February 5, 2008 is the California primary election to select the candidates for president from the two major political parties. Friends have asked, “Who did you vote for?” My answer is the same answer for every election in the past 30 years.
I voted for the most pro-life, pro-marriage, pro-security candidate who will appoint Supreme Court justices to uphold laws supporting those positions. Most Americans, according to national polls, base their decision on the economy or perceived likeability or party loyalty. I don’t. I am a “values voter” who votes a particular way on what I consider the most pressing, long-term issues of importance in American culture.
Because my convictions are clear, it is usually fairly easy to figure out how I voted and how I will vote in November. But I don’t endorse candidates. Why? Deep down, I believe the best position for religious leaders toward politicians is “respectful prophet.” Christian leaders today, generally, seem too enamored (on both the right and the left) with political leaders. We enjoy the notoriety that comes from knowing and being known. We like to be courted and included. We are induced and enticed by the trappings of power. Frankly, it’s easy to like the attention! My concern has always been Christian leaders would become so closely connected to political leaders we would lose our prophetic voice.
Our role, it seems to me, is to speak to governmental leaders – not for them. Our role is to demand justice and integrity, to hold up a biblical standard for behavior in the public square. Our role is to model servant leadership and challenge political leaders to express that spirit of leadership but with the authority of the state.
We also have the responsibility to provide pastoral ministry to political leaders. Some have criticized Billy Graham, and now Bill Hybels and Rick Warren, for being pastorally involved with the current and past presidents. This is shortsighted. Everyone, especially those isolated by positions of great responsibility, needs a pastor. We should celebrate a leader humble enough to seek personal spiritual counsel and pray for those who God gives the opportunity for such influence on leaders.
Voting is a special privilege. Vote your values – not the economy or the trends of the latest polls.
A New Kind of Joy
Jan 28 2008
Up until now, the most fulfilling part of my ministry has been introducing people to Jesus Christ. Having a part in a person making a commitment to Jesus is the ultimate rush! Watching those converts grow to maturity over the years comes a close second. When I think of people like Jack and Sue, Chris and Cathy, Josh, Jack, and Helen – it makes me smile.
But now, a new experience is rivaling the joy of seeing people come to Christ through my witness. My children are now leading people to Christ and calling home to share their excitement. The joy, satisfaction, and yes, pride I feel in their witness equals or surpasses the pleasure of personally leading someone to faith in Jesus.
Last Monday, my youngest son Caleb called from the University of Oregon. He said, “Dad, a guy from my golf team in high school called last night. He told me he wanted to commit his life to Christ.” Caleb’s witness in high school, which he felt was largely ignored, had been heard by a friend. It took him a while to respond but now he has committed himself to Jesus.
When Caleb called, he said, “Dad, this is the best day ever!” I smiled. I felt the same way. How satisfying to know my son has developed his own commitment to the Lord and is now witnessing to his friends. Even more, how fulfilling to know God is using him to reach others.
My daughter Melody, however, may be the most evangelistic person in our family. She has been on four continents in the past two years sharing the gospel. She has worked on campuses, in prisons, in dumps, on soccer fields, and basketball courts. She recently started attending a Spanish-language church to improve her fluency for bi-lingual witnessing. Her passion for people around her and for the nations of the world is humbling and inspiring.
Melody told me recently, “I think I made a mistake putting up the world map of unreached people groups on the wall over my bed. I lie awake at night, praying for people and burdened for the lostness in our world. It’s hard to sleep.”
Leaders have a two-fold responsibility in sharing the gospel. We must be personally involved. But we must also train others – our children, church members, or students – to follow our example. One reality helps keep me motivated daily, is knowing in some way I have a hand in shaping future leaders who will share the gospel all around the world.
Joy comes from seeing people making commitments to Jesus. But an equal joy, a deep-down in the soul satisfaction, also comes from seeing the people we have trained carrying out God’s mission.