Reflecting and Refocusing

New Year’s is one of my favorite times of the year, and the week between Christmas and New Year’s — the last week of the calendar year — tends to be a time of reflection (looking back) and refocusing (looking ahead).

And the fact that it’s our first week back after family leaves, makes it even more of an important time for reflecting and refocusing.

When I do the work of reflecting and refocusing, I begin with Scripture. As it relates to leadership/ministry, two passage always come to mind …

Acts 6.1-7 — Early church leaders had reached a point where they were being distracted from their primary task. As they refocused their leadership, they recommitted themselves to prayer and teaching the Word.

Ephesians 4.11-13 — The Apostle Paul states that the purpose of church leaders is to equip people to do God’s work.

Ultimately, the primary task of pastors and church leaders is transformation. As United Methodists, we’ve said that that’s our mission as a church, too:

The mission of The United Methodist Church is to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world!

If the mission of the church is transformation, it makes sense that the leaders’ primary task is to equip the church for the work of transformation.

But it’s easy for us — the church and its leaders — to get distracted, isn’t it? Problem is, the things that distract us are often good things. In Acts 6, it was a food distribution program. Yes, the food distribution program needed to continue, but fortunately for the church, they found a better way.

Today, similar good things can also distract church leaders from their primary task. While these ministries must continue and even grow, we too must find a better way. Incidentally, the food distribution program grew when church leaders handed the ministry off to capable people who could more fully devote their time and attention to the ministry. There’s an important lesson here!

One of the areas I am refocusing on this week (something that I’ve been wanting to refocus on for a while) is preaching, or more specifically, sermon preparation. Since preaching (teaching, equipping) is part of my primary task, and because it’s easy to get distracted by the “tyranny of the urgent,” preparation is something that constantly needs attention and focus.

I’ll try to write more about this later in the week as I continue to reflect, refocus, and put into practice what I’m thinking.

Family Leave Report

Our family leave (8 weeks plus 2 weeks of vacation) ended Sunday, and Monday was our first day back to work, so we thought it might be a good time to write an update on how things are going with our bonding and adjustment.

It’s been a little while since we’ve posted an update. For previous updates, see: Fluid Situation, The Joy and Grief of Growing a Family, Fluid Situation 2.0, and Fluid Situation 3.0. Also, we recently posted a page (with a link at the top) for Sarah’s Adoption, to go along with Ethan’s Adoption, which are central places to share their stories.

We’ve often described 2008 as a “whirlwind” (the adoption of our first child, two graduations, a move and two new ministry appointments). While 2009, in itself, wasn’t as much of a whirlwind, it sorta continued the whirlwind of the last two years. Two years ago, it was just Joleen and me; now there are four of us!

We are grateful for the last couple of months that we’ve had to focus on bonding with Sarah, but we’re clearly just getting started on this process!

Overall, Sarah’s adjustment has gone well. She’s still not too crazy about the car seat but seems to be doing better (or maybe it’s just been a while since we’ve driven very far away). She sleeps well overnight and getting her to sleep is improving, although there are still occasional challenges (mainly related to placing her in the crib at night).

Our first family leave (with Ethan) was mentally intense (due to completing doctoral dissertations during our leaves) but our second family leave (with Sarah) was more emotionally intense.

As we’ve shared before, the biggest challenge in our bonding process with Sarah has been with Ethan. Thankfully, though, while this challenge is still ongoing, there are signs that Ethan is turning the corner. Ethan has mostly been okay with Sarah, I think; his issue seems to be mainly about sharing us with Sarah. In fact, in the first Fluid Situation update, I mentioned that Ethan refused to be in a photo with both Sarah and me (although he would be in a photo with Sarah alone). While this has improved, we still have our moments.

We think, though, that Ethan has helped Sarah transition as well as she has. Sarah constantly watches Ethan. And the two of them are playing together more and more. The thing that was fun to watch on Christmas morning was the two of them alternating between their own gifts and each others (which they were mostly okay with).

Finally, I’m not sure we’ve written about it, but Sarah was a little developmentally delayed physically when we brought her home (which we’re told is not uncommon for Korean babies as they are held a lot; I also think the small apartments and hardwood floors may have something to do with it). However, in the two months Sarah has been with us, she has made great strides.

Two months ago, Sarah was hardly able to sit up with much stability. Now, she often pulls herself up onto furniture. A week ago, she crawled to the stairs and (as I spotted her), she climbed to the top of the stairs with very little help. I just checked the date of our photos and Sarah is pretty close to Ethan’s age when he first climbed the stairs (and Ethan was much further along when we got him). Of course, chasing after Ethan and going after his toys is, no doubt, speeding up her development!

Anyway, as we go back to work, we do so knowing that this is all still very much in process. But we are grateful for the great start we’ve gotten in the last couple of months. Thank you for your prayers and support and for sharing this part of our journey!

Christmas 2009

Our first Christmas as a family of four was a lot of fun. Christmas morning began early when Ethan got up around his normal time. We woke Sarah up earlier than her normal wake-up time (which could have been risky!) so that she and Ethan could experience Christmas together.

Grandma and Grandpa Willis were also visiting us from Tennessee and got to meet Sarah for the first time.

Here are a few images from Christmas Eve and Christmas Day.

There’s Always a Better Way!

Too often we get so comfortable with what’s familiar that we stop looking for other ways, including better ways, of doing things. We live by the cliché, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it!” (actually, I like “If it ain’t broke, break it!” better!). We settle for less and it stifles our growth.

But, years ago, I read a statement that helps me to try to stay out of the ruts (which seems to become more challenging over time) …

There’s always a better way!

We try to instill this value in Ethan and Sarah (last month, I wrote about it in Cultivating Creativity). To truly believe that there’s always a better way is to embrace change as a good thing (or at least a necessary evil!). Without change there is no growth, no transformation, because transformation is change!

Sometimes looking for better ways simply means shaking things up, making sure you stay out of a rut. Weightlifting has a principle called the “confusion principle.” Because your body and muscles get accustomed to your regular routine, you confuse your muscles by changing your routine from time to time in order to overcome the tendency to get in a rut.

I’ve written about how I’m always looking for a better way in the area of task management (see this post and this post). I seem to always be looking for a better way to browse the Internet, too.

While there’s no such thing as the perfect browser (every browser has its strengths and weaknesses), too many people simply settle for the browser that came pre-installed on their computer (although that’s changing, according to a recent article at which notes that Firefox 3.5 is currently the most-used specific version).

When I was a PC user, I looked for alternatives to Microsoft Internet Explorer. I used Avant Browser, one of the early “tabbed browsers.” I loved tabs because I often have multiple windows and a number of tabs open at any given time with pages I’m reading, researching, and/or tracking). I also liked how Avant regularly released new updates (a sign of constant improvement).

Since switching to a Mac six years ago, my primary browser has been Safari, but not just because it came pre-installed on my Mac (it also came with Internet Explorer for Mac which I deleted a long time ago because it had already been abandoned by Microsoft after Apple released its browser, which now has a Windows version).

While Safari has been my primary browser, I periodically try other browsers, looking for better, more effective/efficient ways of browsing the Internet (or maybe I just get bored too easily). I’ve used Firefox (it’s been my main back-up browser) and have had a brief stint with Opera (now that version 10 is out, I may give it another spin, at some point). But, for some reason, I always come back to Safari after a while.

Recently, a beta version of Google Chrome for Mac was *finally* released (the Windows version was released last fall), and I’ve been trying it out in the last few days. As a beta version, it lacks some key features, but overall, I like Chrome and think it has some potential.

There are some things I really like about Chrome — its minimalist look, how it handles tabs, and how well it fits in a Mac environment (this is actually the number one I reason I keep returning to Safari).

But in order for Chrome to become my primary browser, there are some things that need to be added: the ability to open PDFs within the browser, a bookmark manager, and the ability to “Open all (bookmarks in a folder) in tabs” would be nice.

I would love to see keyword bookmarks (the ability to create shortcuts for bookmarks, like “ww” for, for example. Firefox and Opera have this feature; sadly, Safari doesn’t. The Official Google Mac Blog lists some features that are on the way.

Well, there’s always a better way. Or maybe I just get bored doing things the same way all the time. What about you? What are some areas in which you’re always looking for a better way?

When I Was a Kid

When I was a (20 year-old) kid, trying to figure out what God was doing in my life as I sensed a call to ministry/leadership, I tried to learn as much as I could from others in ministry.

I talked to the Christ-following leaders I knew or came in touch with while in college. In fact, three of the most influential people in my life at that time were my pastor, my youth pastor, and the campus pastor of the college I attended. We’d talk about practical stuff as well as what God was doing in my life.

I also wrote letters to people who were currently in ministry leadership. In the days just before the growth of the Internet, I’d write letters to pastors around the country (maybe people I’d heard or wrote books I’d read), asking for their advice, mostly on practical matters related to preaching, ministry, and leadership.

Hearing back from a few of them, I remember making a commitment to respond to aspiring ministers/leaders if I had the chance. This blog partly flows out of that commitment to share practical stuff. For example, the posts on Centre Grove’s journey through the Five Practices are written partly for this purpose. And, interestingly, some of the most visited posts on this blog come via searches on One-Point Preaching, StoryMapping, and Appreciative Inquiry.

In addition to contacting those who were doing what I sensed God calling me to do, I read about great preachers and leaders in history. Two things impacted me most: (1) they prayed and (2) they journaled. I’m not as sure of the significance of the second part, but it was enough to cause me to begin journaling in 1989, although I don’t do it nearly as much as I used to.

But the one thing that seemed to be a common thread in the lives of the people I read about was the fact that prayer was a core value and practice in their lives. One of the books that particularly impacted me was a little book by E.M. Bounds (a Methodist, who once served as a chaplain for the Confederacy during the American Civil War) called Power through Prayer. You can read it online here (also, the Complete Works of E.M. Bounds on Prayer have been published). I wrote a post a year ago on a statement from the book that’s stuck with me, It Takes 20 Years to Make a Sermon).

As life (and ministry) becomes more and more complicated with each new day, it’s helpful to remember the things God has taught us in the past (simple things really, but not easy!).

I’m grateful for the all the people have influenced me since I was a kid. I hope I will be faithful with the lessons God has taught me through them, and that I will be a good steward in sharing these (and other) lessons with others!

Who are the people who influenced you? What are you doing with the things you learned from them?

Involving Kids in Mission 2.0

IMG_0506Today, I connected my laptop to the TV and Ethan (wearing his backpack, at the time) helped us choose some gifts.

As we’ve written about before recently, we’re enjoying involving our kids (mainly Ethan, at this point) in our mission giving. We usually do some extra giving at the end of the year and one of our favorite year-end projects is Heifer.

Heifer’s mission is …

To work with communities to end hunger and poverty and to care for the earth.

Using Heifer’s online catalog, you can give the gift of various animals, from a flock of chicks or ducks ($20), to a goat ($120), or even a heifer ($500). You can also give a share of an animal if you choose to give less than the full amount.

It’s a great way to help alleviate poverty in the world!


In the monthly West Side UMC Stewardship newsletter, we have been looking at the twelve qualities of the Christian steward as presented by Rev. Phillis M. Bowers in the booklet, Guidelines for Leading Your Congregation: Stewardship. The next quality, which is appropriate in the midst of Advent/Christmas and as we begin the new year, is generosity.

A Christian steward is generous. Christian stewards give whatever is needed and whenever it is needed (Proverbs 11.24-29; Mark 10.17-22; Luke 12.13-21; 2 Corinthians 8.1-15; 2 Corinthians 9.6-15; Galatians 5.22-23; 1 Timothy 6.17-19).

They voluntarily gave according to their means, and even beyond their means, begging us earnestly for the privilege of sharing in this ministry to the saints (2 Corinthians 8.3-4). In this passage the Apostle Paul is speaking of the Macedonian Churches. He states that they are poor, but yet they desperately wanted to give to the ministry of the Lord. What a beautiful picture of generosity!

What enabled them to give in such a way? Paul goes on to say, “they gave themselves first to the Lord.” The only way we can have generous hearts is if we first give our hearts to the Lord. The only way we can see God’s will, and to have a desire to be a part of God’s work in this world is to give ourselves to the Lord.

And so as we present our gifts to God, we give him our hearts. As we first give him our hearts, he enables us to give generous gifts. He stirs up in us a desire to desperately want to share in the ministry and work of the church through our financial gifts.

It is my prayer that as we enter this new year, we will once again commit our whole lives to Christ!

HealthMiles Level 5

I have written several posts this year about the Virgin HealthMiles activity rewards program. The program is available to individuals but is available to us through our health insurance in The United Methodist Church.

The program involves wearing a pedometer to track steps. Depending on how active you are, you can progress through various stages, earning a little money at each stage (up to $300/year for all five stages, and actually, our insurance program added $125 in other incentives along the way). I decided to chart the course here on the blog through the first year, and today, I reached the highest level (5), nearly four months after reaching Level 4.

Interestingly, after the big HealthFlex HealthMiles Challenge (where more than 2,800 United Methodist participants competed in a national month-long challenge; 17 of us, including me, reached the daily maximum of 30,000 steps each day of the 29-day challenge), I haven’t been nearly as active as I was before the challenge. Of course, I expected a bit of a slump (or recovery time), but overall, my daily step counts are lower. I should get back on pace around the end of the year and the beginning of the new year, though.

On our “anniversary” date (the date we signed up for the program), participants start over, so on January 23, 2010, I will start all over again and work toward Level 1 (and beyond) during the second year.

Anyway, I’ve written these posts this year just to say that I think the program (or even simply wearing a pedometer, which provides instant feedback on activity level) is good incentive for getting/staying active!

Our Big Weekend

Earlier today, Ethan described the past weekend, saying, “I had a big weekend.” Well, we’re a little over seven weeks through our 10-week family leave (in connection with our adoption of Sarah) and we finally took a couple days for the four of us to go out of town (most of the time has simply been adjusting, bonding, and finding our rhythm).

Ethan likes Thomas & Friends so we decided to go to the Strasburg Railroad for their periodic Day Out with Thomas. And while in the Lancaster area, we also took in a cold evening at Dutch Wonderland where we enjoyed several rides. By the way, Dutch Wonderland is a good place for young children. They can go on rides by themselves and also with their families.

The Day Out with Thomas, on a snowy day, was a nice event. It was also a very smooth event — the workers kept everyone moving from place to place, shuttling people back and forth from the farm-turned-parking-lot via many school buses, taking photos of families on the 20-minute train ride, taking photos in front of the Thomas engine during 10-minute layovers at the station, etc. The train ride itself was pretty short — about 10 minutes going backwards, then 10 minutes returning to the starting point.

There were plenty of opportunities to spend money — personal photos (two 4×6 photos cost us $20), clothing, a fully-stocked gift shop, etc.

Anyway, it was a nice family event and a great getaway!