Put the Big Rocks in First!

At last week’s monthly mentoring group (which I mentioned here), I led the afternoon spiritual formation time. I used three props to focus on areas that I think are critical for leaders.

One of the areas I talked about was putting the “big rocks” in first. In preparation for last week, I remembered reading a blog post a few years ago (see Big Rocks First: Double Your Productivity This Week). The basic idea is that if you fill your bucket with small rocks (lower priority stuff), you won’t have room for the big rocks (higher priority stuff). Putting the big rocks in first makes you more productive because you’re completing the most important stuff (even if you don’t get to all the lesser important stuff, which you won’t).

I asked the leaders to list their “big rocks.” My big rocks are …

  1. Time with God
  2. Reading (or watching/listening to audio/video resources)
  3. Sermon Prep
  4. Exercise

These are all recurring big rocks. There are other big rocks that are on the list from time to time (i.e., projects, tasks, events, etc.) I’ve found that if I will put in these four big rocks first (and preferably early in the morning), I am much more productive!

It’s not easy. My temptation is thinking that if I could knock out a bunch of the small rocks, then I’d be able to focus on the big rocks. But there seems to be a never ending supply of small rocks, and eventually, I run out of room for the big rocks!

What are your big rocks?

The Price of Vision

In preparing for last week’s spiritual formation time at my monthly Matthew 28 pastors group meeting, which I wrote about recently, I came across (and used) a couple great quotes from Andy Stanley’s Visioneering: God’s Blueprint for Developing and Maintaining Vision.

Stanley talks about what it takes to pursue a vision.

Any vision worth pursuing will demand sacrifice and risk. You will be called upon to give up the actual good for the potentially best. You will find it necessary to leave what is comfortable and familiar in order to embrace that which is uncomfortable and unfamiliar. And all the while, you will be haunted by the fear that this thing you are investing so much of yourself in may not work out at all. (125)

This first quote speaks of the risk inherent in pursuing a vision. The next quote reminds us of the commitment that’s required.

Vision requires courage and confidence. It requires launching out as if you were absolutely assured of the outcome. Vision requires the commitment of a parachutist. You don’t ‘sort of’ parachute. You are either in the plane or in the air. You either do it or you don’t. The tendency is to approach a vision the same way a first-time ice skater takes to the ice: cautiously, and never more than an arm’s length from the railing. (126)

Courage is knowing the risks and doing it anyway because the vision is worth it!

Leadership Wisdom in a Fortune Cookie

Last Thursday, I met with a group of pastors who are in the Matthew 28 Initiative. We’ve been meeting monthly since January. Each month, a District Superintendent leads a discussion on an assigned book. After lunch, one of the pastors from the group leads a time of spiritual formation. It was my turn this month and my spiritual formation time had a leadership focus.

This month, we ate lunch together at a local Chinese restaurant. At the end of lunch, the people at my table shared their fortune cookie messages. I said I’d save mine for the spiritual formation time. Ironically, the message in my cookie had a nice (and timely) leadership spin …

If you’re riding ahead of the herd, look back once in a while to make sure it’s still there.

I love this statement. There is no leadership without followers. If no one’s behind you, you’re not leading!

Sesame Street

A couple of weeks ago, we took the kids to see the Sesame Street show at the War Memorial Arena in Johnstown, PA. We attended the morning show (there were two shows later in the day), which was lightly attended (same as the Thomas & Friends and Barney shows we had attended before).

It was a nice day out. Here are a few photos from the event …

“Spiritual Leadership”

Earlier this year, I listed 15 Books That Have Shaped Me as a Leader. One of those books was the classic by J. Oswald Sanders, Spiritual Leadership (I also talk about spiritual leadership in my last post, What Kind of Leader Are You?)

The main reason the book (which I read during my time as Asbury) made the list is because of a particular impact it had on me. I remember walking around the lower level of Crever Memorial UMC in Petersburg, where I was serving at the time, and reading the chapter on prayer.

It may be a little overdramatic, but it reminded me of God asking Solomon about the one thing he wanted (Solomon chose wisdom). It felt as if I had to choose between mastering the art of leading, preaching, or prayer. I chose prayer.

As important as leadership and preaching are to me (they’re at the core of what I do), nothing is more important than prayer. (Of course, full disclosure here: I believe that prayer will make my leadership and preaching better, so choosing prayer was a no-brainer! :-)).

Anyway, here are a few quotes from the book that I highlighted a few years ago when I read the book …

Real leaders are in short supply. (17)

The Bible shows us that when God does find a person who is ready to lead, to commit to full discipleship and take on responsibility for others, that person is used to the limit. (17)

Spiritual leaders are not elected, appointed, or created by synods or church assemblies. God alone makes them. (18)

In chapter 8, Sanders lists a number of essentials of leadership: discipline, vision, wisdom, decision, courage, humility, and integrity and sincerity. Sander’s lists grows in Chapter 9 where he adds several other qualities: sense of humor, (holy) anger, patience, friendship, tact and diplomacy, inspirational power, executive ability, the therapy of listening, and the art of letter writing (written before the advent of email).

On time, Sanders writes …

A leader needs a balanced approach lest it become his bondage and downfall … If the leader sincerely plans his day in prayer, then executes the plan with all energy and eagerness, that is enough. A leader is responsible only for what lies within the range of control. The rest he should trust to our loving and competent heavenly Father. (98)

Easier said than done.

On the cost of leadership, Sanders’ contends …

The toll of true leadership is heavy, and the more effective the leadership, the higher it goes. (115)

No cross, no leadership. (116)

Scars are the authenticating marks of faithful discipleship and true spiritual leadership. (116)

Sanders discusses many other topics, but I’ll close with some of his words about prayer. Sanders reminds us …

Prayer was the dominant feature of (Jesus’) life and a recurring part of his teaching. (86)

[W]e are to pray in the power and energy of the Spirit … praying in the Holy Spirit releases supernatural resources. (88)

The goal of prayer is the ear of God. Prayer moves others through God’s influence on them. (91)

Prevailing prayer that moves people is the outcome of a correct relationship with God. (91)

Great leaders of the Bible were great at prayer. (92)

This book, written in the mid-1960s, offers some timeless words on leadership!

What Kind of Leader Are You?

A few years ago, while thinking about possible topics for a D.Min. dissertation at Asbury Theological Seminary, I thought a lot about “spiritual leadership.” But then in one particular class, I started thinking about other qualifiers for leadership.

Recently, in preparation for my interview with the consultation team as part of the Matthew 28 Initiative, I thought about what kind of leadership I feel called to. So, I jotted three different types of leadership on a post-it note.

I’m sure it’s not an exact science, and there’s sure to be some overlap or something missing, but these are three types of leadership that are important to me as a leader.

Spiritual Leadership
While there are similarities between leading a church and leading other types of organizations, there are dynamics that are unique to leading a church. There is a spiritual realm that’s critical to leading a church — cultivating a personal relationship with God, cultivating an atmosphere where people know and serve God. In other words, my relationship with God, as a leader, matters!

Visionary Leadership
For a class on visionary leadership at Asbury, I defined visionary leadership as (1) getting the vision, (2) casting the vision, and (3) navigating the vision. Vision matters to me. I believe it’s extremely critical for the church. I try to communicate vision in as many ways as possible and as often as possible. I believe what others (such as Bill Hybels and/or Andy Stanley) have said, “Vision leaks.” The vision must be constantly communicated and reinforced!

Transformational Leadership
Spirituality and vision are constants for me as a leader. Change and transformation are also constants. Organizations left to themselves tend to seek comfort and the status quo. God, however, is always doing a new thing, which requires that we be nimble and ready to follow God’s leading at all times. Transformational leadership is especially needed in established churches that are plateaued or declining. The bottom line is, pastors are in the business of transformation!

Well, these are three ways I describe my leadership. How would you describe your leadership?

Transforming Congregations Through the Matthew 28 Initiative

A few years ago, our conference worked with Paul Borden to develop the Matthew 28 Initiative. This initiative is “a strategy for transforming congregations to greater fruitfulness in making disciples of Jesus Christ.”

This is the third year of Matthew 28 in our conference. As I understand it, there are approximately 45 churches in the initiative, including the nine that began this year. Centre Grove applied to enter the initiative last January, and is currently in the process. In fact, we are now entering the most critical stage of the Matthew 28 process!

There are three major components of the Matthew 28 process. First, pastors participate in a mentoring group for one year (my group started in January). We read a book, meet and discuss it, and conclude the day with a time of spiritual formation (the formational time is led by a different pastor in the group each month).

Second, a consultation takes place at each church. Centre Grove’s consultation starts tomorrow and concludes Sunday morning (we submitted a congregational self-study report a month ago). The team (made up of the district superintendent, a consultant, and a coach) will spend all day Friday conducting various interviews (with me, several leaders, and a focus group of about 20-30 people). On Saturday, the consultant will teach a workshop, then the team will spend Saturday evening writing prescriptions. The consultant will preach Sunday morning. After the sermon, the consultant will present the team’s report, including a list of prescriptions.

The prescriptions are intended to help us be more fruitful in our mission of making disciples. Each task comes with a deadline, all to be completed within the next year.

The church will have a month to consider the prescriptions before voting on them in a special church conference. If the church votes to accept the prescriptions, we will work with the coach for one year. The coach will guide us and help us stay on track. A coaching relationship is the third component of the Matthew 28 initiative.

Personally, I believe the real benefits of the initiative are not necessarily the prescriptions (whatever they are) as much as the accountability we will have with the coach and also the energy and intensity of trying to accomplish so much in the next year.

I am excited about this process. After spending two years leading Centre Grove through an engagement of Bishop Schnase’s Five Practices of Fruitful Congregations, we felt Matthew 28 was the next faithful step. This weekend, and more importantly next month’s church vote, will determine our course of action for some time to come (either in working on the prescriptions or in regrouping!).

As we enter into the heart of the Matthew 28 process this weekend, my hope is that this experience will be energizing, inspiring, and challenging for all of us. It should force us to seek God. It may cause us to wrestle with what it means to be the church!

It should be fun!

“The Spirit of Wesleyan Leadership”

One of the books we read as part of the D.Min. program at Asbury several years ago was Lovett Weems’ Leadership in the Wesleyan Spirit. I never blogged about it but I think about it from time to time.

Weems discusses the vision and practices of early American Methodists. When people in America began moving west and into rural areas, many church leaders were reluctant to follow the people. But Methodist circuit riders chose another path—they followed the people and started new churches all across the nation.

Weems notes that Methodism peaked in 1925 at 6.46% (membership percentage of the population). That was also the year the nation peaked as a rural nation with 75% living in rural areas. According to the 1990 census, the situation has reversed with 75% living in non-rural areas (cities and suburbs). (Unfortunately, however, 20th-century Methodists didn’t maintain their predecessors’ pioneering values.)

Weems writes …

The Wesleyan movement became a powerful spiritual force in America by going where the people were. The movement did not exist to serve churches. … It was a passion and urgency for all to know God’s love revealed in Jesus Christ that propelled this movement of God, against all odds, to every corner of a vast nation. (32-33)

In the book, Weems writes about the principles of leadership in the Wesleyan spirit (it begins with people, follows the people, focuses on serving people, and remembers especially the poor), practices of leadership in the Wesleyan spirit (practices multiple leadership, leads from the center and the edge, lives in a tension, seeks to include, and makes ‘connection’ happen), and the passions of leadership in the Wesleyan spirit (knows God, proclaims Christ, and seeks justice).

Weems addresses the importance of knowing God. Weems states …

Leadership and spirituality are inevitably linked. Leadership is only possible to the extent that we are able to discern a compelling and driving vision of what is good and acceptable and perfect. One cannot lead without such a vision. Such a vision can only come from closeness to God and to a community of believers. (118)

Two more quotes to close …

Those of us in the Wesleyan tradition love to talk about the warmed heart. Perhaps we have forgotten the fire that warmed it in the first place. … Surely the crisis of leadership in the life of the church is, at least in part, a crisis in the life of the spirit among our leaders, among ourselves. (120)

Finally, a note about Wesley’s legacy …

The great example of Wesley for future generations is not as a model leader. He was far from that. His lasting example is a spiritual legacy of one who spent virtually his entire lifetime on this same pilgrimage. Until his dying moments he continued to seek growth in grace, peace of soul, communion with God, and perfection in love. (146)

May we do the same!

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!