Guard Against Short-Term Thinking

This morning, I was re-reading some chapters in Isaiah and read about Hezekiah’s impending death (Isaiah 38). Isaiah tells Hezekiah, who was ill at the time, that his time is up and that he won’t recover from his illness. After Isaiah leaves, Hezekiah prays. God sends Isaiah back to Hezekiah with news that God heard his prayers and cries and tells him that he’ll get 15 more years to live.

Some time after Hezekiah recovers, he does something really stupid. He welcomes foreign leaders into his kingdom and shows them everything, including his armory. Afterward, Hezekiah receives another visit from the prophet Isaiah, who informs him …

Days are coming when all that is in your house, which your ancestors have stored up until this day, will be carried to Babylon. Nothing will be left, says the LORD. Some of your sons, your own descendants whom you fathered, will be taken to become eunuchs in the king of Babylon’s palace. (Isaiah 39.6-7, CEB)

Hezekiah’s response?

‘The LORD’s word that you delivered is good,’ since he thought, That means there will be peace and security in my lifetime. (Isaiah 39.8, CEB)

Because of Hezekiah’s poor judgment, God’s people would suffer in Babylonian captivity. But Hezekiah doesn’t mind because that will happen long after he’s gone!

Leaders must guard against short-term thinking and think long term. It’s easy to take short cuts to avoid paying a higher price. This is a challenge for United Methodist pastors, who tend to move from church to church every few years. If something needs to be done, but the payoff is years down the road, why bother? Or if there’s a problem that needs addressed, just let the next pastor deal with it. That’s short term (not to mention selfish) thinking.

A few years ago, I remember reflecting on Abraham, the father of the faithful. I thought about the fact that virtually of Abraham’s descendants came after his lifetime. While Abraham heard God tell him that he would have countless descendants, he never saw it. What if that’s true for us, too, that our greatest fruit will come after our lifetimes? Shouldn’t we live with the long view?

I’ve always loved Hebrews 11.13-16. After talking about the great faith of our spiritual ancestors, the writer states …

All of these people died in faith without receiving the promises, but they saw the promises from a distance and welcomed them. They confessed that they were strangers and immigrants on earth. People who say this kind of thing make it clear that they are looking for a homeland. If they had been thinking about the country that they had left, they would have had the opportunity to return to it. But at this point in time, they are longing for a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore, God isn’t ashamed to be called their God—he has prepared a city for them.

They lived their lives always moving forward.

If leaders are really committed to God’s mission, we will do what’s best, not what’s easiest, even if it means paying a higher price in the short term!

Lessons I Learned from a Church Merger

In 2006, two of the churches I was serving at the time merged to form a new congregation, Hope UMC (Alexandria, PA). It was quite an intense experience. I was appointed to Centre Grove in 2008 so I only led the new congregation for two years beyond the merger, but ever since then, I’ve wondered what lessons I needed to learn from the experience. While I’ve thought about it from time to time, I’ve never really had a strong sense that I learned what I needed or wanted to … until a few months ago.

A few months ago, we were in Altoona on our day off. At the mall, I was pushing a napping-Sarah in the stroller while Joleen and Ethan shopped in a children’s clothing store. For some reason, I thought about the merger, and a couple of lessons suddenly struck me. I’ll get to them in a moment, but first, a little background.

In 2002, I was appointed to serve the Petersburg Charge, made up of three churches, Alexandria, Barree, and Crever Memorial (or Petersburg). Several months earlier, the churches had voted against merging (by all reports, it wasn’t a tumultuous ordeal). But during my first two years there, the idea of uniting came up over and over again in meetings and in conversations.

Finally, in 2004, a group of people from Alexandria proposed that the three churches worship together for the summer months at Petersburg. At a joint council meeting, the three churches voted to worship together for the summer.

Toward the end of the summer, it was time to decide the next step. We began working with a church consultant, who guided us throughout the journey. Council members of the churches voted to continue worshiping together for the last four months of 2004 at Barree. A second vote was taken immediately to continue the rotation and worship at all three churches in 2005, four months at each church (bringing the total time of worshiping together to 19 months).

We established an exploratory committee; I called them “Scouts.” Our key biblical text was the story of Moses sending scouts to survey the promised land. We chose three “scouts” from each church and we met together once a month.

Toward the end of the journey, the leadership group finally drafted a proposal to formally merge/unite the three churches to form a new congregation. When the vote was taken in February 2006, two churches voted in favor of the merger while one voted against it.

Because of the way the proposal was written (i.e., merge all three churches), it was determined that a second vote should be taken in the two churches that voted in favor of uniting. When that vote was taken a month or so later, Alexandria and Barree chose, overwhelmingly, to unite and form a new congregation.

While the two-year journey was challenging, there was a strong sense, at the time, that we had followed God’s leading. In July 2006, we celebrated the formation of Hope UMC.

Well, as with anything, there are things we did well and things we could’ve done better. Here’s what I think, a few years removed …

Things We Did Well
I think the Scouts did a good job. There were things we could’ve done better, but overall, we did a good job of seeking God’s will, focusing on mission, and leading the congregations in the discernment of God’s will.

I wrote emails to the Scouts regularly. My role was to keep the leaders on mission, not to unite churches (as we said then, it would be a decision they’d have to live with much longer than I would!). I had a strong sense of God’s presence and guidance throughout the journey that I’ll never forget.

I also tried to keep the congregations on mission through weekly preaching. We didn’t talk about it all the time, but there were stretches where we’d focus on God’s mission through various sermon series.

Things We Could’ve Done Better

I think we needed better communication between the Scouts and others in the congregations. That was supposed to happen informally, but we should’ve been more intentional.

I think we took too long to come to a decision. While no one wanted to rush to a decision, we let the process drag out too long. The Scouts had a very difficult time making the final decision to propose a merger, mostly because they didn’t want to hurt other church members. On the one hand, we wanted to give plenty of time for God to work in people’s hearts, but on the other hand, the longer it dragged on, the more exhausted people got.

Toward the beginning of the process, we should have established a new mission/ministry that people from all three churches could have united around during the discernment process. Because the process was so consuming, very little ministry seem to take place during the process.

Lessons from a Church Merger
Now, back to my day at the mall. Nothing earth-shattering, but if I had to do over, I’d make it a little harder for them to merge. Specifically …

I’d ask “Why?” (over and over). Why do you want to unite? If the response was right (it’s about mission, not survival!) …

I’d ask, “Are you sure”? Are you sure this is what you want to do? Are you sure this is the best way to live out God’s mission? Are you sure this is what God is calling you to do?

For the Scouts, it was primarily about the mission, but unfortunately, that wasn’t the case for everyone. I think merging was the right thing to do, and while asking these questions might not have changed the vote (I hope not), it might have helped some people be more clear about what they were doing and to be more committed to the outcome.

The bottom line: churches should only merge for missional reasons. Survival may be a factor, perhaps even a precipitating factor, but it can’t be the primary motivating factor. It has to be about the mission. Also, there has to be a strong core group who take ownership of the mission and to be strongly committed to the vision!

The larger leadership lesson is that leaders must help people make the right decisions for the right reasons. Leaders must be missional and they must work to shape missional cultures in the churches they lead!

“Juggling Elephants”

This week, I read Juggling Elephants by Jones Loflin and Todd Musig. The book tells a story to present “an easier way to get your most important things done—now!” (subtitle).

Time management has been something of lifelong journey for me. I’m always looking to be more effective in the use of my time. Most of the time, though, I feel like Mark, the main character in the story that’s told in Juggling Elephants.

The story centers around Mark, who’s married to Lisa. Mark and Lisa have a young daughter, Jackie. Mark is overwhelmed at work trying to get everything done. One night, he reluctantly goes to the circus with his family and there he encounters a visiting ringmaster, Victor, who becomes a mentor to Mark and shows him a way to get the most important things done.

The concepts taught in the book aren’t necessarily new, but they are presented in a way that’s memorable and fun, which make them more likely to be implemented!

The phrase “juggling elephants” is a metaphor for trying to get everything done. Just like juggling elephants is impossible, so too is getting everything done. The book states, “The result of juggling elephants is that no one, including you, is thrilled with the performance” (25). The solution is to focus on the most important things.

Using the circus as a metaphor for life, we become the ringmasters of our own three-ring circus. Victor, the mentor in the book, states, “The ringmaster has the greatest impact on the success of the circus” (31). Victor also points out, “The ringmaster cannot be in all three rings at once” (33). Victor says, “I have to give my full attention to the ring I am in and, when it’s time, I must move to the other ring as quickly as possible” (33).

Applying this to your life, Victor notes that there are two steps. “The first step is to have a plan, much like the (circus) program” (34). I like “program” better than “to-do list.” The “second step is to review the acts before bringing them into the ring” (34), that is, be intentional.

Viewing your life in three rings, there’s the work ring, the relationship ring, and the self ring. Mark, like many of us, “was just jumping from ring to ring, accepting whatever acts were easiest and most convenient to have in a ring at that moment. He was busy, but he felt like he was not achieving the results that were most important to him” (41).

Here is a list of some things Mark learned from his mentor, Victor …

  1. The ringmaster cannot be in all three rings at once.
  2. The ringmaster always reviews the next act before bringing it into the ring.
  3. The key to the success of the circus is having quality acts in all three rings.
  4. I need to figure out which ring I should be in at this moment.
  5. I need to decide what acts I should be focusing on right now. (46)

Two questions that help bring focus to this process are, “Which ring should I be in right now?” and “What act should I be focusing on?” (58).

Because there are so many “acts” vying for attention, “every act must serve a purpose” (63). We must focus on the most important things, even if that means laying aside, or delaying, some good acts. Victor says, “I have to remind myself that not all acts belong in my circus. We cannot be all things to all people. Choices have to be made” (65).

When considering new acts (i.e., things to add to the program or to-do list), there are two questions to ask: “Does this act belong in my circus?” and “When should this act appear?” (89).

There’s a lot more in the book that I need to process and implement. I like the importance of “intermission,” those breaks that helps us be more effective in the long run, as well as the advice to spread out the major acts in the three rings (i.e., if you have a major act at work, don’t schedule a major act at home at the same time).

The challenge for us is that our ministries are not clearly-defined, 9-to-5, 5-days-a-week jobs. Neither do our jobs do not come with clear boundaries, that is, our work takes place in many different locations—worship services, the church office, various places in the community, different locations within the district and/or conference, as well as in our home, which is where the real challenge of knowing which ring we are in comes into play!

There is a website that goes along with the book. See jugglingelephants.com.

While the concepts aren’t necessarily revolutionary, the approach is helpful because it’s fun and memorable. And if it’s fun and memorable, it’s much more user-friendly. I look forward to becoming a more effective ringmaster of my own circus!

6 Next Steps After the 2011 Leadership Summit

Yesterday, I wrote 6 Takeaways from the 2011 Leadership Summit. Now I want to look ahead so that we can make the most of what we’ve experienced!

We’ve attended enough seminars over the years to know that once you return from an event, no matter how great, it’s easy to put the notebook on the shelf or hide the notes in a file somewhere. In other words, unless you take some next steps, it doesn’t do much good!

So, here are some things I want to do after the Summit …

Watch Bill Hybels upcoming webcast.
The Willow Creek Association makes it easy to follow up on the Summit. On August 24, Bill Hybels will review the Summit in a one-hour webcast: What Messed with My Head.

Check out online digital resources.
At the Summit, we registered for next year’s Summit and received a code for access to online digital resources.

Read more and listen to more audio/video resources.
At the Summit, we purchased the Summit Resource Bundle Bag which includes downloadable mp3s of all the Summit speakers, a DVD collection of 10-minute video segments on leadership, and three (speaker’s) books of our choice (we chose Humilitas by John Dickson, Onward by Howard Schultz, and Move by Greg Hawkins and Cally Parkinson). It’ll be a while till I get to these books, but I’ll especially enjoy reviewing the talks as I travel.

Watch “Waiting for Superman.”
Specifically related to the takeaways I wrote about yesterday, I want to watch Waiting for Superman, the documentary on Michelle Rhee.

Read Jeremiah.
I also want to read through Jeremiah again (I’m currently halfway through Isaiah, so Jeremiah’s on deck). I particularly want to think about success as it relates to the call and ministry of Jeremiah.

Pray for Divine Mandate.
I want to lead Centre Grove to pray for divine mandate. This couldn’t come at a better time as we make final preparations for our Matthew 28 consultation weekend coming up in less than six weeks.

What are your next steps at becoming a better leader?

6 Takeaways from the 2011 Leadership Summit

Last Thursday, Joleen and I attended the Willow Creek Association Global Leadership Summit. We expected it to be a great event, but it exceeded our expectations. I knew it would be leadership intense, but I was blown away by how spiritually intense it was, especially Friday morning’s focus on “tough assignments.”

Presenters at the Leadership Summit come from both the church and the business communities, often alternating between each. The event took place at Willow Creek, near Chicago, but was beamed to 185 sites across North America (we were in Wexford, PA), and eventually to many other sites around the globe. It’s estimated that 165,000 people will have participated in this year’s Summit!

There was a lot to chew on. For now, here are 6 takeaways from the 2011 Leadership Summit …

Leaders must be learners.
Okay, this wasn’t new or life changing, but it was a good reminder. I love Bill Hybels’ statement: “Leaders need to be insatiable, incurable learners.” Hybels added later, “Leaders rarely learn anything new without having their bell rung.” Based on some of the reaction via Twitter, many people had their bell rung in the opening session of the Summit!

Pray for divine mandate.
Perhaps the single biggest takeaway for me was Rev. Dr. Brenda Salter McNeil’s challenge to pray for divine mandate. She suggested that we pray, “God, break our hearts for what breaks yours!” noting that it’s also the most dangerous prayer. It’s about getting our marching orders from God.

Dig ditches.
Steven Furtick spoke on 2 Kings 3.9-20 where Elisha tells the people to dig ditches and wait for rain. He challenged leaders to be active and to trust God for rain. Furtick said, “Only God can send the rain!” but we must be active (i.e., dig ditches).

Develop humility.
John Dickson talked about humility from his book Humilitas. But more than that, we saw an example of great humility in “Mama Maggie.” Mama Maggie Gobran, a Nobel Peace Prize nominee this year, has been serving the poorest of the poor in Cairo, Egypt for 20 years. In her talk, and in her response to being cheered and welcomed by thousands of people to the Willow Creek stage, she simply showed tremendous humility. It was very powerful!

Redefine success.
In his second presentation, Bill Hybels redefined leadership success. His talk focused on the prophet Jeremiah. Talking about tough assignments from God, Hybels said, “Jeremiah is not the picture of a successful leader.” And yet, Jeremiah was faithful to God’s call. This will take some more reflection, but it was pretty powerful to hear Bill Hybels, arguably one of the most “successful” pastors in recent decades, redefine success!

Stir the pot.
I’ve written about leaders being pot-stirrers before, but we heard from a great pot-stirrer at the Summit. Michelle Rhee, who now leads a grassroots effort called StudentsFirst, served for three years as Chancellor of the Washington, D.C. Public Schools. During her brief time there (which ended when the mayor who selected her lost his next election), students’ scores and graduation rates rose dramatically. Her experience in D.C. was recently told through a documentary, Waiting for Superman. After being interviewed by Jim Mellado at the Leadership Summit, I want to see the documentary.

Rhee demonstrated great courage in leading the D.C. school district. If I remember correctly, one of her first actions was to close 23 schools (15% of the schools) and to fire a number of principals (two-thirds, I believe). She took a lot of heat for that, as the documentary details. Her office and her home were picketed by angry citizens. She was yelled at by angry mobs during public meetings. When asked how she handled it, she made a great statement: “I would much rather deal with anger than apathy.” What a courageous leader!

In my next post, I’ll share come next steps I want to take after having attended the Summit.

Look for the Shining Eyes!

I often think about the prophet Jeremiah’s call. In part, God tells Jeremiah, “Do not be afraid of their faces, for I am with you to deliver you” (Jeremiah 1.8, NKJV). That was a meaningful reminder for me when I started out. Transformational leadership and communication is not for the faint of heart!

Communicators can’t help but notice people’s facial expressions (as long as you’re not buried in your notes). I try to have good eye contact with as many people as possible. I heard recently that there are three types of people: Engaged, Unengaged, and Actively Unengaged. I generally know who’s engaged and who isn’t, as well as those who are actively unengaged (some are more obvious than others!).

Several years ago, there was a great video making it rounds at pastors’ gatherings in our conference. The video was a presentation based on a book by Rosamund Stone Zander and her husband, Benjamin Zander, a symphony conductor, The Art of Possibility: Transforming Professional and Personal Life (see Ben’s more recent, free 18-minute TED Talk on music and passion).

A few months ago, I remembered one of the lessons from the video: Look for the shining eyes.

“Shining eyes” is a metaphor for listeners who are engaged in the presentation.

Pastor Mike Slaughter talks about going to Ginghamsburg (a plateaued, declining church, at the time) and looking for the people who were engaged. He transformed the church by equipping them and putting them in leadership positions.

When I prepare to communicate, and even while I’m communicating, I tend to think about those who are engaged and those who are (actively) unengaged. While I certainly want to convince those who are unengaged (more on that when I blog about Nancy Duarte’s book, Resonate), I especially want to focus on teaching, leading, challenging, and encouraging those who are engaged, those who have shining eyes!

York, Maine

We recently returned from vacation where we spent a week in York, Maine, on the coast of southern Maine. It was a great week, and the kids enjoyed it tremendously. They got to spend some time at the beach, mostly playing in the sand at Long Sands Beach. They also enjoyed climbing on the rocks around Nubble Lighthouse.

We love Maine. Joleen and I visited Bar Harbor (a little further north) in 2000 and loved it, especially it’s rocky coast. A few years ago, we passed through the area on our way to Nova Scotia, Canada. Our favorite place in Nova Scotia was Peggy’s Cove, which has an awesome rocky coast. So one of the things I enjoyed on this trip was climbing on some rocks with Ethan (except that it was hard to pull him away from the rocks when it was time to go).

While in Maine, we spent an afternoon at the Kittery Outlets (not my favorite activity), visiting some historic sites in York, and cooking out and/or eating out a few times (my favorite ice cream was Maine Wild Bear, which was raspberry ice cream with chocolate-covered raspberries, at the Ice Cream House). We also watched them make salt water taffy at The Goldenrod.

It was a good way for our whole family to get some much-needed rest after a long, final stretch of our ordination journey!

Here are several of our favorite photos from the experience …