Start with why

start-with-whyIn Start with Why: How great leaders inspire everyone to take action, Simon Sinek argues that there are only two ways to influence human behaviour: manipulation or inspiration. Manipulation doesn’t have to be viewed negatively. A business can manipulate behaviour by dropping prices, offering incentives, running promotions, etc. Such manipulation works, but it costs. After a while customers expect the discount, or wait for the next promotion. It doesn’t build a loyal customer base. Over time, such strategies become too expensive to sustain. Customers only return for what they can get, rather than a commitment to the business or its products. Manipulation strategies have become the norm in many organisations. But there is another way.

Some are born leaders—others need to learn. The good news is that those of us who need to learn, can! And the big thing we need to learn is the power of WHY.

goldencircleSome leaders inspire rather than manipulate. They operate by a process that Sinek calls the golden circle. This approach works from the inside out. Instead of focusing on what or how, they begin with why. Many people and organisations can explain what they do and how they do things, but they struggle to clearly articulate why they do what they do or why they do it how they do it. Why has to do with purpose, reason, and cause. Why exposes our motivations and beliefs, and these are the things that inspire.

For the golden circle to work there must be clarity about the why. Once we can clearly articulate the why, we can then work out the how. How embodies the values and principles that flow from the why. And the what is the results that flow from the why and the how. When the golden circle is in balance, then the organisation or business or individual is seen as authentic and real. This isn’t easy to achieve and it requires us to continually go back to the why and work outward from there, rather than manipulating people with what.

In turn, this builds trust in customers and clients. Such trust is more than a rational experience—it’s a feeling we have when we believe the organisation or leader is behaving with integrity (whether they are successful or not). This feeling of trust inspires people to action.

Why types tend to be the visionaries and optimists who imagine what the world can become. How types are the realists and practitioners who focus on getting things done. Why types need how types, and vice-versa. Truly inspirational organisations display a healthy partnership between the two. A why without a how can be little more than unstructured passion and destined for failure.

Over time it’s easy to become focused on the what and how and forget the why. We become accomplished at what we do, and know how to do things intuitively, but we can lose sight of why we do them in the first place. We need to continually return to the why—the compass that sets our direction and motivates us to action.

Reflections

I have mixed feelings about this book. I agree with the basic thesis and the shape of the golden circle. We should proceed from the why to the how to the what. Being clear about why we do what we do, and why we do it how we do it, is the key to acting with integrity and authenticity. This is what will lead others to trust us. This is what will inspire others to follow.

My problem with the book lies in its length and the choice of illustrations throughout. Sinek takes a whole book to make some very simple and fundamental points. It could have easily been argued in a pithy article of 10 to 20 pages. He colours the book with examples of organisations like Apple and Harley Davidson. While I’ve been a fan of Apple since 1987 and Harley Davidson for even longer, such iconic companies don’t exactly represent the typical organisation or individual. I’d love the same arguments to be made with reference to more ‘average’ people or businesses.

I appreciated the contrast between manipulation and inspiration. As a pastor and Christian leader, my desire is to inspire people to follow Jesus. I don’t want to manipulate people’s behaviour with sticks and carrots, but to inspire people with the gospel of Jesus and the grace-filled word of God.

Asking why I do what I do, is something I’d be wise to do often. It’s so easy to fall into ruts and patterns; to perpetuate the same old same old; to do things because this is just what we do, or because it’s what we’ve always done. Why offers the energy to initiate personal and organisational change. We can critique what we do or tinker with how we do things, but the real benefits are found in regularly reviewing why. I hope to be able to do this at a personal level and to lead review at an organisational level in the context of my leadership.

As a Christian, I find the why comes not from my passions and priorities, but ultimately in following God’s revealed will. The author of life offers meaning and purpose to life and this shapes what I do and how I go about it. My challenge is to anchor what I do in the word of God’s grace. It’s to teach and model the why, as well as the how and the what.

Seven practices of effective ministry

seven_practices_of_effective_ministrySeven practices of effective ministry describes the philosophy of ministry at North Point Community Church in Atlanta. Andy Stanley, Lane Jones, and Reggie Joiner challenge their readers not to keep adding more and more programs before carefully evaluating the ones they already have. Churches have limited resources and they need to be allocated and used wisely. They have identified seven practices to assist in evaluating existing and proposed programs. These practices aren’t about telling churches what they should or shouldn’t do. They’re about equipping churches to ask helpful questions to determine what programs to start, what to improve, and what to stop.

#1 Clarify the win

Define what is important at every level of the organization

Clarifying the win means communicating to our team what is really important. This is essential to keep our team from guessing what a win looks like. We don’t want people following the loudest or most persuasive voice, simply because they haven’t been given clarity about what matters most. It doesn’t help if leaders are all defining the win to suit themselves. The church needs to be clear about what it’s doing, what is expected, and why. Clarifying the win helps your team stay on the same page. As the church grows it’s easy for things to get out of alignment. Effective leaders keep holding up a picture of what the church is supposed to be, and calling people back to this picture. This tends to build a positive momentum for ministry. It also helps us to use our limited resources wisely according to what is and what isn’t working.

There are four key steps to clarifying the win.

  1. Sum up the win in a simple phrase.
  2. Keep the win as specific as possible.
  3. Restate the win frequently and creatively.
  4. Meet to clarify the win at every level

#2 Think steps, not programs

Before you start anything, make sure it takes you where you need to go

Many churches adopt or design programs to meet the needs of members, but few develop clear steps to help move people where they want them to go.

  • A program is defined as ‘a system of services, opportunities, or projects, usually designed to meet a social need.’
  • A step is defined as ‘one of a series of actions, processes, or measures taken to achieve a goal.’

We need to ask ‘Where do we want people to be?’ and then ‘How are we going to get them there?’ These questions help us to focus on growing followers of Jesus. They get us thinking specifically about spiritual growth and the building of relationships in our churches.

Effective steps have three characteristics.

  1. Every step should be easy. If it’s too much of a jump, then people won’t move forward.
  2. Every step has to be obvious. People don’t like stepping into the unknown. They need to understand where to go next. Communicating the steps and their importance is essential.
  3. Every step must be strategic. It needs to lead somewhere. Once we know the specific destination that we want to lead people to, then the steps must clearly move them in that direction.

As we think more about steps and less about programs, synergy grows in our church and ministry teams. People are required to depend on each other, and the silo mentality becomes less of a problem. We’re more likely to see what’s not working and to work together to simplify our processes.

#3 Narrow the focus

Do fewer things in order to make a greater impact

A lot of churches are doing too much, but failing to reach more people. They have A.D.D. Over the years the number of programs grows and grows and effectiveness is diluted.

Here are four reasons churches drift into complexity, making it difficult to simplify their structures.

  1. Some churches have bought into a ministry ‘menu’ philosophy.
  2. Churches feel constant pressure to provide programs on the basis of needs.
  3. Individuals have been allowed to build their identity around a program, not a mission.
  4. Church leaders fear the fallout of eliminating certain programs.

The challenge is to simplify things. We need to learn to say ‘no’ to ideas and ministries that take away from our core focus. Sometimes things that are still working adequately need to be replaced by other things that will potentially work better. We need to design what we do to reach and connect with people effectively. As we narrow the focus of our ministries, relevance increases, people become better connected, quality improves as we try to do less things  better, and we have a stronger impact on our communities.

#4: Teach less for more

Say only what you need to say to the people who need to hear it

We all experience information overload. The danger is that our churches just add to the noise. We need to rethink what and how we communicate.

There are four steps to teaching less for more.

  1. Decide what you are going to say
  2. Decide to say one thing at a time
  3. Decide how you are going to say it
  4. Say it over and over again

These ideas are developed more fully in Communicating for a change.

#5: Listen to outsiders

Focus on who you’re trying to reach, not who you’re trying to keep

Some of us have been in church for so long, we’ve forgotten what it’s like to never attend. We have believed what we believe for so long, we don’t know how an unbeliever thinks anymore.  (p142)

Our churches should be on about helping believers grow and reaching unbelievers. The problem is it’s easier to look inside than outside. North Point Community Church developed a strategy to reach people in their community. They called it ‘Invest and Invite’. Every member is encouraged to make a personal investment in someone’s life and invite them to one of the church’s ministry environments. The responsibility of the church is to create the effective environments for their members to bring people.

This has led to members being more attuned to what an outsider would hear and experience when they come to church. They want to create a positive first impression of church and to make people feel at home. They’re keen for the teaching to be clear and understandable.

Billions of dollars are spent by organisations seeking to understand their market. Churches at least need to listen to the people who aren’t there. When we listen to outsiders, we begin to see our church in a whole new light.

#6: Replace yourself

Learn to hand off what you do

If you fail to develop a strategy to replace yourself, you will…

  • force talented individuals to remain in the wings
  • cause potential leaders to exit the organisation
  • stifle needed insight from valuable team members
  • hinder your ability to recruit volunteers
  • limit the growth of your programs and ministries  (p160)

Succession planning is important. We won’t be leaders forever. Now is the time to use our opportunities to influence and shape those who will come after us. Teaching what we know by apprenticing others helps the ongoing transition of people into leadership roles. If leaders set the example of investing in future leaders, this gets modelled through the church. Every area of ministry should be focused on building leaders for the future. This is critical to sustaining and building long term ministry.

Successfully handing off leadership requires three steps.

  1. Break it down into clear and doable steps
  2. Hand it off. You are giving something away. Many thoughts and emotions will be going on inside of you. Let the new person make their own mistakes and their own progress.
  3. Let it go. Move on. Trust the new guy!

#7: Work on it

Take time to evaluate your work and to celebrate your wins

Self-evaluation is an important practice that must be pursued intentionally. We need to examine what is working and what’s not. It’s not likely to happen effectively unless we build evaluation into our calendars on a regular basis. We need to stop, look back, and review. We need to step outside of our work and take a look at it.

They describe this as ‘creating margin’. It can happen on a weekly basis to evaluate regular activities. It can be done less regularly to review the bigger picture.

When we evaluate, we will discover areas that need improvement. This often means people get threatened when their areas are critiqued. It’s essential to build an environment of trust where we commit to these reviews for the sake of our common goals.

It’s also important to celebrate the successes. Saying thank you publicly is very powerful. Sharing stories builds energy and gratitude for what God is doing.

Review

This book is a helpful tool for assessing the organisational health of our churches. It pushes us to seek clarity and simplicity. It urges us to make a priority of encouraging people to grow in their knowledge and love of God, and to understand how they can serve God in this particular church context. 

My experience of church is that everyone tends to be busy. Busyness is not a virtue. We can be very busy doing nothing of value. Churches can be very busy, but unclear where they’re headed or why. This book is a call to identify what things really matter, what our churches must focus upon, and how we are going to do it. Then we can help people to serve God together.

If you feel that your church is chasing its tail and you’re not quite sure why you’re doing what you’re doing, then this book should help you to ask some good questions.

I found the emphasis on steps rather than programs to be particularly useful. Instead of being content with a smorgasbord of unrelated ministries, it’s more important to be clear and intentional on how one thing relates to another. This encourages us to think about where we want people to end up. How do we want people to grow and change? What will assist this to happen? What do we hope for children over the seven years they might spend in Kingdom Kids (Sunday School)? How do we help people find their way into the life of our church, join a growth group, serve in a ministry team? It helps us to build pathways and show the way ahead. We’ve more work to do on this front – but it is happening!

The three signs of a miserable job

3-signs-of-a-miserable-jobThe three signs of a miserable job is another helpful analysis by leadership and teams expert, Patrick Lencioni. A miserable job is the one that’s tough to get out of bed for. You dread going to work and you can’t wait to get home. It’s not about the actual work. Nor is it about the money. An executive on a seven-figure salary can be miserable, while a waitress finds great satisfaction in her work. It can be any type of job, any business, and any time. No one is immune.

There are huge economic and personal costs to this misery. It damages the individual’s physical and psychological health. It spreads through homes, families, marriages, friendships and society.

The three signs of a miserable job

Anonymity
People can’t be fulfilled in their work if they aren’t known. We all need to be understood and appreciated by someone in authority over us. People who see themselves as invisible, generic, or anonymous are not going to love their jobs.

Irrelevance
Everyone needs to know that their job is important to someone else, even if it’s just the boss. Without seeing a sense of connection between the work and satisfaction of another person or group of people, an employee will not find fulfilment.

Immeasurement
Workers need to be able to gauge for themselves their progress and level of contribution. They won’t be satisfied in their work if success depends on the whims or opinions of others. Without a tangible means for assessing success or failure, motivation eventually deteriorates as people see themselves as unable to control their own fate.

The benefits of managing for job fulfilment

Employees who find their jobs rewarding will work with more enthusiasm, passion, and commitment to quality than those who do not. They’ll develop a sense of ownership and pride in what they are doing.

There will be less staff turnover, with employees holding onto fulfilling jobs as long as they can. Fulfilled employees tend to attract other good employees, ultimately resulting in fewer costs to the organisation. The organisation will enjoy greater stability and cohesion. Being known as a satisfying place to work is a valuable point of difference with other organisations.

The obstacles to managing for job fulfilment

Sometimes employees fail to find fulfilment in their work because they put too much emphasis on getting the right amount of money or finding the ideal job. Yet even people who are paid well for doing something they love can be miserable if they feel anonymous, or irrelevant, or they don’t know if they are succeeding or not.

Sometimes the problem is the organisation. The business and its leaders are slow to see their employee dissatisfaction issues and, when they do, they focus on the wrong things. If they don’t notice until people are starting to resign, then it’s too late. Often people will not honestly state why they are leaving and issues of anonymity, irrelevance, and immeasurability are left unaddressed.

In order to be the kind of leader who demonstrates genuine interest in employees and who can help people discover the relevance of their work, a person must have a level of personal confidence and emotional vulnerability. Without it, managers will often feel uncomfortable, even embarrassed, about having such simple, behavioural conversations with their employees. They will mistakenly feel more like kindergarten teachers or little league coaches delivering a simple pep talk, even though their employees  – at all levels – are yearning for just such a conversation.  (p228)

Addressing anonymity

If you feel that others on the team know and understand you as an individual, then you’re much less likely to want to leave the team. Leaders must take a personal interest in the members of their team. This doesn’t necessarily mean that you start watching the same TV shows they do or listening to their music. Simply get to know them. Take time to sit down with them and ask them about their lives. Keep it real. It must be a genuine interest. Not once off, but over and over again. Show interest and follow it up.

People want to be managed as people, not as mere workers.  (p231)

Addressing irrelevance

Why are so many athletes, rock stars, and actors living such messed up and unsatisfied lives? Lencioni believes the root cause is a subtle fear of irrelevance. He says this because it’s hard to understand how someone who earns truckloads of money doing something they love, and who gets constant attention from others, can be unhappy. And conversely how low-paid, ‘hiding in the background’ workers can be happy. The answer has to do with being needed and having an impact on the lives of others.

Human beings need to be needed. They need to know that they are helping others, not merely serving themselves. Leaders need to help employees (or volunteers) answer two questions in order to establish relevance in their jobs.

‘Who am I helping?’
For many workers, the answer will be the customers, but some people are in jobs where they don’t have direct contact with customers. It could be other employees, colleagues, or departments within the organisation, or even their own boss. Leaders can be reluctant to speak of how people’s work helps them, but most people get a great deal of satisfaction when their supervisor thanks them for what they’ve done or says how helpful and significant it has been.

How am I helping?
The answer to that question isn’t always obvious. When a room attendant at a hotel brings breakfast to a guest, he isn’t just delivering food. He’s helping a weary traveler feel a little better about having to be on the road, which can have a significant impact on their outlook on life that day.

One of the most important things that managers must do is help employees see why their work matters to someone. Even if this sounds touchy-feely to some, it is a fundamental part of human nature.  (p235)

Addressing immeasurement

Effective job measurement lies in identifying the areas that an employee can directly influence. Leaders need to see the importance of the people on their teams having clear measurement criteria. Some measurements will be behavioural in nature and may be achieved by an informal survey of customers or a by identifying behaviours that indicates satisfaction with their work. If people can’t see any clear link between their daily responsibilities and the metric they are being measured against, they lose interest, feeling unable to control their own destiny. This is why so many salespeople enjoy their jobs. They don’t depend on others to tell them whether they’ve succeeded or failed.

Taking action

How can you go about putting all this into action, depends on who you are.

If you’re a manager…

Anonymity: Do I really know my people, their family situations, their interests, or how they spend their spare time?

Irrelevance: Do they know who their work impacts, and how?

Immeasurement: Do they know how to assess their own progress or success?

Employee assessments allow people to confirm or deny the accuracy of your answers. Finally, develop a plan to overcome any inadequacies around the three signs. This could be done one on one or in a team session. Make clear what you are trying to do, so that people don’t assume ulterior motives.

If you’re an employee or looking for a job…

You can do some things to increase the odds that your job will be fulfilling. Talk with your boss (or prospective boss) about the three signs and your desire to avoid them. A good leader will take this seriously. If you’re looking for a job, ask how they show interest in employees, how the job you’re discussing has an impact on people, and how you will be measured. If you’re hearing answers that indicate anonymity, irrelevance, or immeasurement, then it might be the job to avoid.

The ministry of management

I have come to the realisation that all managers can – and really should – view their work as a ministry. A service to others.

By helping people find fulfillment in their work, and helping them succeed in whatever they’re doing, a manager can have a profound impact on the emotional, financial, physical, and spiritual health of workers and their families.  They can also create an environment where employees do the same for their peers, giving them a sort of ministry of their own. (p253)

Some further thoughts on working with volunteers

Much of what I do as a church leader involves working with unpaid volunteers. Lencioni’s diagnosis of the signs of a miserable job is valuable for thinking about how to encourage people to serve in a range of voluntary roles. Are our volunteers feeling recognised, valued, appreciated, and purposeful? Do they understand the importance of their contribution to the ministry of the whole church or organisation? Are they able to assess whether they are doing a good job or not? Or are they left constantly wondering if anyone notices or cares?

How do we recruit volunteers to roles within our ministry? In my experience we often stress the gaps that need filling and push people to fill places on rosters. It’s far more helpful to inspire people with the opportunities for valuable ministry. Explain the essential contribution their work will have to the ministry as a whole. Offer examples, case studies, statistics or personal testimonies. Show the outcomes when this is done well. Highlight the potential for people to use their gifts and grow.

Sometimes we equip volunteers for the work we want them to do and then leave them to do it. The team leader’s job doesn’t stop with training. It flows on into encouragement, feedback, support, and celebrations. Keep reminding people of the relevance and value of their contribution. Empower them to recruit others and play a role in training and developing people in their roles. Acknowledge their contribution publicly in the organisation. Help develop clear metrics by which people can assess the success or failure of their contribution.

If we’re experiencing a high turnover or drop out rate among our volunteers, we should take the time to assess the reasons why. It’s highly likely that people are experiencing one or more of these signs of a miserable job. Leaders would do well to put their minds to helping volunteers overcome feelings of anonymity, irrelevance and immeasurability. It could help to engage volunteers so as to better understand the factors that contribute to or overcome such feelings. This could be done ad hoc or on a regular basis. It could form the basis of a regular formal review with volunteers and teams.

Leading from the second chair

second-chair1Leading from the second chair: Serving your church, fulfilling your, and realizing your dreams by Mike Bonem and Roger Patterson is a book I used to recommended to my associate staff. Now that I’m one of them I figured I should look at it more carefully!

A second chair leader is a person in a subordinate role whose influence with others adds value throughout the organization. (p2) They exercise leadership that is not based on the power and authority of a position. Their effectiveness has more to do with influence and relationships. You don’t have to be the number two person to be a second chair leader. Anyone who is not the lead leader can fall into this category.

Leading from the second chair involves three paradoxes: the subordinate/leader paradox; the deep/wide paradox; and the contentment/dreaming paradox. This is the work environment for the second chair leader. They need to focus on how they manage their relationships (subordinate/leader), their work habits (deep/wide), and their emotions (contentment/dreaming).

Most organisations, churches included, have lots more second chair leaders than first chair leaders. They need to be equipped, supported, and allowed to exercise leadership. A lot of second chairs see their current position as a stepping stone towards becoming the first chair. This book is not about how to get promoted. It’s about growing and contributing to the organisation from the second chair.

Determining whether you are a second chair leader is not so much about your title (eg. associate pastor) but your influence. Regardless of your title or position, your influence will grow as you build strong relationships and make wise decisions for the good of the organisation. It can take longer to achieve this influence when you don’t occupy the first chair. It requires patience, persistence, and consistency. It takes commitment to teamwork and cooperation. It requires to to be committed to the whole of the organisation and not just your particular focus of responsibility.

Relationships

Effectiveness in the second chair is greatly impacted by the quality of relationship with the first chair.

If the relationship is healthy, most second chairs find a sense of freedom and fulfillment in their job, irrespective of the responsibilities assigned to them. But if ongoing tension or detachment characterizes the relationship, it is difficult to feel successful, even while the organization is flourishing. (p27)

The second chair is required to be subordinate. They must accept that they are not the overall leader. They don’t have the final authority or the ultimate responsibility. This requires genuine humility and gladness. It grows out of reverence for God, understanding that God is the ultimate authority. They must remain loyal to the first chair even when things are difficult. They need to be committed to supporting the first chair in his work.

The big test of subordination comes when the first chair does disagrees with the second chair’s advice , criticises the second chair’s actions, or gives a role to someone else that the second chair expected would be theirs. What happens then? There are three options:

  1. Fight: you openly disagree and directly challenge your first chair.
  2. Flight: you walk away wounded and feel like giving up.
  3. Stay involved without confrontation: you accept the decision for what it is but stay engaged in the discussion and accept the first chair’s final decision, whatever it may be. (p33)

Relationship is absolutely critical. The right relationship is more important than the right answer. This can be difficult for a second chair who often has more information available than the first chair. It doesn’t mean you don’t state your views, but relationship must trump getting your own way. The more the relationship grows the more the second chair is likely to influence the decisions being made.

Trust is the foundation for an effective partnership between first and second chair leaders. This requires faithful service and patience over a long period of time. Mutual respect, complementary skills, and common vision and passion are important. As trust builds so does communication, morale and teamwork across the organisation. A warning for first chair leaders: micromanagement is one of the best ways of damaging trust.

Inevitably conflict will arise. It might be caused by personal clashes, unresolved issues from the past, or different visions. Sometimes the second chair crosses over an invisible line. They might be seen as overstepping authority or being insubordinate. It may simply be a matter of taking initiative that is not appreciated by the leader. It’s important to recognise that a line exists. It outlines responsibility and authority and is more than what’s written in a job description. Sometimes the line can be moved, but it takes time and trust before this can happen. If the second chair is in doubt as to where a line is, they are wise to seek clarification. Better to ask, than to appear insubordinate. Sometimes it will happen accidentally, in which case a prompt apology might be all that’s needed.

Work habits

The truth is that adding value throughout the organization is not a function of position; it is a matter of perspective. (p71)

Some second chair leaders love the big picture and get lost in the details. Others are experts in their particular area but have trouble seeing how it relates to the whole. Second chair leaders need to be both deep and wide. They need to develop their systems thinking, to see the interrelationships rather than isolated parts. Systems thinking helps them to grasp that a change in one place creates a ripple effect throughout the organisation. For example, hiring a new kids and youth pastor results in more families coming to church, which means we need more growth groups for parents, which means we need to equip more leaders, and so on. To think systems means asking lots of ‘why’ and ‘what if. questions. It means thinking logically down the line. Know the people, the problems, and the opportunities. The most effective second chair leaders develop a deep/wide perspective that enables them to be effective in their particular area of responsibility and to add value to the whole organization.

Too many second chair leaders think they require formal authority before they can truly have an impact on their organisation. We need to remember that leadership is influence, and if we can’t lead through influence then we shouldn’t be given more authority. Second chairs not only need a healthy relationship with their first chair, they also need to build strong, trust-based relationships with their peers. Effective teams are very important. Such teams are collaborative, mutually dependent, and typically operate by consensus. They can take months or even years to develop working well, but once they do it is good news for the organisation. Roles in teams need to be clear, otherwise people can end up defining their own jobs and having expectations of others that may not be accurate or fair. This requires good communication. Everyone needs to be on the same page.

Being deep and wide requires the second chair to be a generalist, as well as as well as a specialist. There are four practices that can make people deeper and wider as a leader:

Be a pulse taker
Stay in touch with what others are thinking and feeling. Keep your finger on the pulse of the organisation. Often the senior pastor has the worst seat in the house when it comes to pulse taking! Many people just won’t tell him what they’re really thinking. Helping the first chair to stay informed and in touch is very helpful.

Be a vision amplifier
The first chair is the primary vision caster, but the second chair leader can repeat, clarify, and reinforce the vision. In taking the pulse, you also have an opportunity to influence the pulse. In talking with people you can help them to understand the vision.

Be a leader multiplier
Recruiting leaders to the vision should be an ongoing priority. As you amplify the vision, you will discover people who are on board and have leadership potential. We need to make a priority of growing and developing leaders.

Be a gap filler
Many second chair end up filling gaps when suitable leaders can’t be found. They should be prepared to do this. Gap filling can be a function of the first chair’s strengths and weaknesses. If the second chairs fills these gaps it can lead to a stronger and more effective organisation.

A note to first chairs: if you really want your second chairs to be deep and wide, you need to allow them to participate in the big picture. This is more than going to a meeting; it’s involving them in shaping the picture. That means not being a control freak!

Emotions

The contentment/dreaming paradox captures our internal struggles as leaders. It’s not always easy to serve faithfully and diligently wherever we are. We need to learn to be content.

Contentment in the second chair is your choice to stay and grow and excel, for a season, regardless of current circumstances. (p124)

The most important part of this definition is that contentment is a choice. Contentment is possible if we choose to recognise that something more is always at work, beyond our needs, expectations, and frustrations. Contentment is difficult when society is always telling us that we should be on the lookout for the next opportunity, a better prospect, and that we shouldn’t stay in one place too long. This is a recipe for dissatisfaction.

On the other hand, we need God’s grace to offset and overcome our impatience. We should remember that our identity is found in Christ, not our title or role. Contentment can be encouraged through developing healthy relationships. Celebrating the fruit of our ministry helps us to see how we’re making a difference. Patience is an important character trait to develop. It’s easy to get frustrated when things don’t happen as fast as we want them to, or the way we want them to. But patience is a choice! Don’t imagine that leaving our current ministry situation will solve all the problems we are having in the second chair. The grass isn’t actually always greener somewhere else.

Second chair leaders often think they’re not allowed to dream big dreams. Just as we must pursue contentment, the paradox is that we should also pursue our dreams. It’s good to dream, but we need to check our egos at the door. We mustn’t be arrogant or overconfident. We should always remember that ministry leadership is about serving others.

It can be good to dream with your first chair. It’s not easy, but neither should it be impossible. A first chair’s dream for the organisation is often big and broad, but may not answer all the how questions. The second chair has plenty of room to pursue their vision, so long as it’s in step with the general direction of the first chair. Look for opportunities where our passion and gifts intersects with the first chair’s overall vision.

Moving on

Most second chair leaders leave their positions eventually, but not all leave well. Some leave because they want to take a first chair role, others take a new second chair position, and others retire. Leaving well is important for you and the organisation. It’s helpful to be honest and clear with yourself and others about why you are leaving.

In terms of leaving, you need to think carefully about whether you should move on, and if so whether it’s the right time for you and the organisation. Some people leave too soon and others hang on too long. Sometimes leaving isn’t your choice. You may be asked to move on. This isn’t easy. Whether voluntary or not, the challenge is to leave well. Try to maintain a good relationship with your first chair and others on your team, even if you feel you’ve been treated badly. Don’t badmouth or undermine the first chair or the organisation. It will probably come back to haunt you. Don’t burn your bridges. Seek to leave with the good will of the first chair and the organisation, and offer your good will also.

A very useful book

Leading from the second chair is a unique and important contribution to the literature on leadership. Most books are addressed to the first chair leader, the senior pastor, or the CEO. There seems to be very little written specifically for the team members and subordinate leaders. There is much to be learned about working well with others in this book.

I only half read this book when I was a working as a senior pastor, but I should have given it my full attention. There are specific sections for the first chair to assist them to develop and encourage their second chair leaders. In fact, much of what is written is directly applicable to first chairs also. It’s helpful to be reminded that real leadership is more a matter of influence than positional authority. I recommend senior pastors read this book before they add staff to their teams. If you are about to make your first associate pastor appointment, then consider these ideas very carefully. It could make the difference between a frustrated colleague who moves on quickly, and a long term associate with whom you share some exceptional teamwork.

The five temptations of a CEO

FiveTemptationsofCEOBeing a self-confessed Patrick Lencioni fan, I figured it was time to re-read another of his books. I love reading them because he writes so well, and he begins most of his books with ‘A leadership fable’. He tells a story that illustrates the main points of the book. You get swept along in the story, and the points are obvious once he’s finished. The five temptations of a CEO is a complement to another of his books: The five dysfunctions of a teamThis book isn’t just for CEOs. It’s valuable for leaders everywhere. The temptations that Lencioni identifies are common to leaders in many contexts. My leadership experience has been mainly in churches and Christian organisations, and I can testify that these temptations are very real.

The first temptation: Choosing status over results

Lencioni argues that the most important principle the CEO must embrace is a desire to produce results. Sadly, this is what gets many people into the position but their attention changes to preserving their status. This results in CEOs making decisions to protect their ego and standing. They tend to reward people who support them, rather than who produce the greatest results for the organisation. Contrast two answers to a question presented to a sporting coach: ‘What was the greatest day in your career?’

Answer 1: ‘The day I was hired.’
Answer 2: ‘The day our team won the championship.’

The first answer is about the coach and his position. The second is about the results of the organisation. This is why he is coach. The CEO is responsible, not for maintaining his position or status, but for leading the organisation to achieve results.

The second temptation : Choosing popularity over accountability

We all agree about the importance of holding people accountable, yet we rarely do it. I suspect this is an even bigger issue in many churches than it is in companies. It’s not easy. Nobody wants to be the bad guy. We all want to be liked – I know I do – and it’s a dangerous trait for a leader. We want to develop friendly relationships with our staff and that can make it harder to keep people accountable. Especially if someone we like is consistently not doing what is expected of them.

If the leader doesn’t hold people accountable, this will breed a culture of lack of accountability in the organisation. The irony is that some CEOs will fire people who do not perform, but they are too gutless to walk through processes of accountability with them beforehand, which might have avoided the need to fire them.

Holding people accountable requires that you give them clear targets to shoot for. They need to be very clear about expectations. They also need to understand the consequences if they don’t meet expectations. These are difficult conversations for many leaders, who would rather avoid them than feel awkward. The temptation to be liked can cripple an organisation.

The third temptation: Choosing certainty over clarity

Some CEOs will not make decisions until they are certain that they are correct. This is often impossible because outcomes are affected by so many unknown variables. This can paralyse the leader and the organisation. It often means that leaders are deliberately vague with others as they attempt to gain clarity for themselves. This wastes a lot of time and damages good will from others. The leader can end up frustrating their staff by their failure to make decisions or clarify directions.

What organisations need is clarity, and it is the leader’s job to provide it. Clarity about the goals of the organisation, what it’s aiming to achieve, the roles and responsibilities of the employees and other leaders, and the consequences for success and failure. This has to do with core things like vision, mission, values, and goals. It’s easy to give lip service to these terms, or to waste endless time getting the right words but failing to make any changes.

If the leader is spending his time trying to make sure that he makes every decision correctly, then he won’t offer the clarity the organisation needs. He’s more likely to fudge, just in case he’s wrong. He will remain deliberately vague about matters about which others desperately need clarity.

It’s okay to be wrong. Some would say it’s the CEO’s job to be wrong. If he discovers he’s wrong then he can fix it. If everything stays vague, if decisions don’t get made, then he will never know what needs fixing.

The fourth temptation: Choosing harmony over productive conflict

It’s normal to want peace and harmony, but it can be counterproductive to good decision making. If harmony or consensus is our goal then we will naturally restrict conflict, but Lencioni argues that healthy conflict helps us to create the best outcomes. He’s not talking about interpersonal conflict targeted at people, but healthy exchanges of different opinions on issues. The best decisions are made when all the knowledge and perspectives get aired. And people are more confident in decisions if they’ve had a chance to contribute. Meetings can be a good indicator of problems in this area.

Pleasant meetings – or even worse, boring, meetings ones – are indications that there is not a proper level of overt, constructive, ideological conflict taking place.  (p129)

The fifth temptation: Choosing invulnerability over trust

Even leaders who resist the temptation to protect their status, to be popular with their staff, to make correct decisions, and to create harmony sometimes fail. Why? Because even though they are willing to cultivate productive conflict, their people may not be willing to do so.

temptationsMany leaders are not willing to allow themselves to be vulnerable. They mistakenly believe that they will lose credibility if people feel too comfortable challenging their ideas. No matter how much a leader encourages healthy conflict, it’s only going to happen if people feel safe to engage. Otherwise people will passively line up with what they think the leader expects. It’s about trust. People who trust each other aren’t fearful about offering their opinions. But if you want people to trust you, then you need to trust them, and this means being vulnerable.

Five temptations of a senior pastor

Some time back out staff team spent a couple of days away and we watched a video of Patrick Lencioni teaching about the five dysfunctions of a team. I think we decided that we had all of them in varying degrees. If we’d been assessing the five temptations of a senior pastor, then I suspect the rest of the team would have identified me as giving into all of them in varying degrees too!

If you lead a church or a Christian organisation, then my guess is that this book will diagnose some of your temptations and give you areas to work on. I also suspect that your team will be pleased if you do.

Temptation 1
My temptation was not to measure anything. If you don’t measure then you can’t fail, but nor can you know how you are going. The results for a church will be measured in very different ways to a company or business. We will be focused on the impact on people’s lives, people growing into maturity as believers, people committing to serving one another, people not being tossed around by the latest ideas, people loving one another and reaching out to their neighbours.

Temptation 2
I’ve never been very good at holding others accountable for their work. A desire to avoid unpleasant conversations has led me to let some things slide. This might have been motivated by kindness, but in the end it’s not kind. It hurts the individual and frustrates the people they lead. Sometimes I would let things go until I became exasperated. The danger is that this would sometimes lead to overreacting. If I had my time again, I would establish clearer expectations for the members of my team and hold them more accountable. Regular clarification, update and review meetings would have helped people to perform better and meet expectations.

Temptation 3
Vagueness breeds frustration and can lead to a work environment becoming toxic. If people aren’t clear on their roles and responsibilities, then they will likely step on each other’s toes and annoy one another. Turf wars sometimes result. I’ve seen this in our teams when people do not have clear job descriptions. Ministry trainees working with different staff across different areas can find this especially difficult. Clarity covers over a multitude of sins – or should that be charity?! Maybe both.

Temptation 4
I think I’ve led far too many boring meetings. People have often wondered why they need to be there. I should have read Lencioni on meetings at the start of my ministry leadership. The only trouble was he hadn’t written the book yet! It’s important to encourage constructive conflict in our meetings, but this will only happen from a foundation of trust. People need to know that we’re on the same team and we can disagree together to arrive at the best outcomes for everyone. Leaders need to work hard to create such an environment, otherwise we just end up avoiding conflict so we don’t hurt each other’s feelings.

Temptation 5
Have I been willing to be vulnerable? I think so, but maybe there are blind spots that I haven’t seen. I can remember breaking down in tears during a few staff meetings. I can remember apologising to my team for what I’d done or failed to do. But I can also recall getting very defensive about people criticising my ideas and decisions.

We need to remember that we’re called to lead others by serving them, putting their needs before our own. The greatest example of one who did this is Jesus Christ. My desire is to follow his example, with his help, for the sake of his honour and glory, not my own.

1 Therefore, since through God’s mercy we have this ministry, we do not lose heart. Rather, we have renounced secret and shameful ways; we do not use deception, nor do we distort the word of God. On the contrary, by setting forth the truth plainly we commend ourselves to everyone’s conscience in the sight of God.

For what we preach is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, and ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake.  (2 Corinthians 4:1-2, 5)

Managing your boss

HBR_managing_yourselfIn the early 90s a good friend put me onto an article by John Garbaro and John Kotter called Manage Your Boss. It was first published in the Harvard Business Review in 1980 and reproduced 25 years later as a classic in a compilation volume called Harvard Business Review on Managing Yourself. When I first read this article, I was both leading my own team in student ministry and reporting to a senior pastor, as his associate, in church ministry. I found it so helpful in alerting me to a number of issues that can dramatically impact working relationships. So much so, that over the next two decades I would often give this article to new staff and trainees when they joined our team. If they were going to have to work with me, then they may as well have some guidance in how to make it work for them. Now that I’m an associate pastor again, I thought I should read over the article again to brush up on my skills in relating well to my boss!

If you have a tendency to cynicism, you may be tempted to think this article will be spin for political manoeuvring or sucking up. It’s not. It’s about consciously working with your superior to obtain the best possible results for your boss, yourself and the organisation. It’s really about ensuring people and teams work well together, and accepting your role in making this happen. I’m sure this applies to any organisation, but I know that it’s critical for church leadership teams.

Too many breakdowns of relationship get blamed on personality conflicts. It’s an easy diagnosis that seems to absolve everybody of responsibility or blame. However, I suspect, this is often a very small part of the picture. Yes, personalities will conflict, but why haven’t they been able to work through the differences? That’s the real question.

Kotter and Garbaro helpfully describe boss-subordinate relationships as involving mutual dependence between two fallible human beings. This means that managing these relationships will require the following:

1. You have a good understanding of the other person and yourself, especially regarding strengths, weaknesses, work styles, and needs.
2. You use this information to develop and manage a healthy working relationship – one that is compatible with both people’s work styles and assets, is characterised by mutual expectations, and meets the most critical needs of the other person.  (p135)

This has many practical implications. For example, do you know your boss’s preferred method of communication? Does he or she prefer to receive written reports or have verbal discussions? Do they like to get regular updates on your work or progress, or are they happy for occasional summaries? When they delegate work to you, do you know what they mean by delegation? Is it now hands off by them, or are they expecting you to check with them before making key decisions? Do they like to communicate early on issues and bang them around out loud, or do they tend only to communicate once they have resolved the way forward? Being able to answer these and similar questions will advance your working relationships no end. It will also head off potential conflicts and breakdowns.

Developing effective working relationships also requires you to have a good understanding of your own preferences, your needs, strengths, weaknesses, idiosyncrasies, communication and work styles. What can you do that will will improve your working relationship with the person you report to? This can also help you to avoid counterdependent and overdependent behaviours.

Clarity of expectations is crucial to good working relationships. Subordinates who passively assume they know their boss’s expectations are in for trouble. It’s their responsibility to find them out. Ask, clarify, explore, listen, feed back. The time given to getting on the same page with your boss will certainly be worth it.

And don’t assume your boss is disinterested or doesn’t need to know what you’re doing. What you’re doing is part of a bigger picture and your boss needs to be able to hold the various parts together. They likely need to know more about you and your work than you realise. It’s important to take the initiative to communicate what you are doing, if for know other reason than to breed trust and enable your boss to defend you to others who may not be sure. And be honest! Honesty is crucial in team work. If your boss cant believe you or trust you, then ultimately they won’t want you.

The authors offer a quick checklist for managing your boss:

Make sure you understand your boss and his or her context, including:
• Goals and objectives
• Pressures
• Strengths, weaknesses, blind spots
•
 Preferred work style

Assess yourself and your needs, including:
• Strengths and weaknesses
• Personal style
• Predisposition toward dependence on authority figures

Develop and maintain a relationship that
• Fits both your needs and styles
• Is characterized by mutual expectations
• Keeps your boss informed
• Is based on dependability and honesty
• Selectively uses your boss’s time and resources  (p143)

Managing your boss is a brief, practical and insightful article to help stimulate good team work and working relationships. I commend it to pastors, associate pastors, ministry trainees, leaders and others. It will help in your church, as well as your work place.

I’ve noticed in myself various tendencies and preferences over the years that have been useful for my associates and employees to understand. Here are a few:

  • I prefer to be over-informed than under-informed.
  • The more I understand and trust what people are doing, the more freedom I offer.
  • I find passive resistance infuriating.
  • Regular updates from my co-workers builds my trust in them.
  • Triangulating relationships in conflict increases the damage. If people take their concerns about me to others rather than me it often makes things worse.
  • I believe that people should always reply promptly to emails, even if it is only to say they have received it and will deal with it asap.
  • Being late for meetings steals time from others who need to be there. Recidivist lateness is selfish and inconsiderate.

My task now as an associate pastor is to apply things from the other direction. How can I best relate with my boss and my new peers? It’s important we build good relationships based on trust and mutual dependence. We need to be able to express conflict in healthy ways. We need to learn to hold one another accountable without appearing to be judgmental. We need to be committed to the common goals of our organisation (church) and thus measure and evaluate our results.

Many of the ideas in this article resonate with God’s word:

One who is slack in his work
is brother to one who destroys.  (Proverbs 18:9)

13 To answer before listening—
that is folly and shame.  (Proverbs 18:13)

15 The heart of the discerning acquires knowledge,
for the ears of the wise seek it out.  (Proverbs 18:15)

17 Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone. 18 If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.  (Romans 12:17-18)

Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves,not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.  (Philippians 2:3-4)

If you report to a superior in your workplace, I recommend you read this article. If you lead others in your team, read the article and pass it around. If you lead a church or serve as member of a pastoral team, you will benefit from following much of the wisdom in this article. You can find the article in the compilation book (and it contains other useful articles) or you can purchase one or more copies of the article on the HBR website.

Mentoring matters

mentoringmattersFor the last month or so I’ve been particularly focused on issues of leadership development. I’ve been considering the respective roles of mentoring, coaching, and training. These are hot topics these days in many areas and it’s been difficult to know what material to consider. My special interest has been to view distinctively Christian perspectives on these areas, and in particular to see how they can be a help to Christian ministry. I’m discovering there is much to be learned in these areas, but we need to carefully sift the helpful from the not so helpful. Mentoring Matters by Rick Lewis is full of practical wisdom and helpful advice that’s been tested by experience. However, I believe there’s a theology driving this book that is actually unhelpful.

Lewis offers this definition of mentoring:

Within intentional, empowering, unique relationships, Christian mentoring identifies and promotes the work of God’s Spirit in others’ lives, assisting them to access God’s resources for their growth and strength in spirituality, character and ministry.  (p20)

All parts of this definition are important to the author. Mentoring relationships should be tailored, focused on supporting and equipping the mentoree, for their good. The focus is on being, more than doing, and seeking to allow God’s agenda to shape the mentoree from the inside out. They’re more than a friendship because they’re grounded on an agreement between the two parties about the purpose and shape of the relationship.

Mentoring Matters shows mentoring to be an effective way of addressing many problems faced by today’s Christian leaders. The mentor can provide help in encouraging personal spiritual health; non-judgmental friendship and support; safe peer relationships in which to discuss vocational issues; accountability from a person outside the organisation with no positional power; help in integrating the theory and practice of ministry through reflection; and help in reaching specific goals for change.

Lewis argues that everyone in ministry would benefit from a mentor outside their particular church or organisation. Indeed, the advance of God’s kingdom can be helped by the focus on developing more leaders, more frequently, of a better quality, and who will last longer. He provides evidence that in Australia there are as many ex-ministers as there are current ministers and argues that good mentoring can change this sad equation.

A strength of Mentoring Matters lies in how it distils so many different factors in mentoring with clarity and simplicity. I plan to write up a number of checklists for myself based on the material in this book. A good example is this ‘rough guide’ to help new mentors quickly get their bearings on pages 111-118. This is also summarised on the Mentoring Matters website.

Build genuine relationship
Spiritual mentoring is more than an arrangement set in place for pragmatic purposes and cannot be conducted from an emotional distance. An environment of mutual positive regard, respect and heartfelt care is required.

Establish mentoree responsibility
Mentoring is effective only when the mentoree takes responsibility for his or her own spiritual growth and health. There is absolutely no domination or control in healthy mentoring.

Prioritise the inner life
While the whole person is of interest, development of the inner life is fundamental to spiritual mentoring. Our doing flows out of our being. The principal means of bringing about deep inner change is the power of the Holy Spirit in the life of the mentoree.

Put aside other agendas
Good mentors do not see mentorees as a means for achieving a preconceived agenda. The mentor’s concern is for the spiritual growth of the mentoree, beginning where the person is at, and working toward what God has designed them to be and do.

Discern God’s work
Mentoring involves a process through which two people together seek to understand what God is doing and saying. This does not need to be an obscure, mystical process. Thoughtful conversations linked with prayer comprise an effective process.

Facilitate reflection and goal-setting
Encouraging reflection and goal-setting in mentoring is aimed at achieving experience-based learning. Reflection turns experience into learning, on the basis of which mentorees can construct and commit to goals and to action steps.

Provide positive accountability
Mentorees set their own goals and action steps and give their mentor permission to hold them accountable for following through on those commitments. Accountability is an opportunity to prove progress rather then to expose failure.

Prepare thoroughly
Both mentors and mentorees will get the most out of mentoring sessions only if they are prepared to review points covered previously, complete any undertakings made, and prepare good questions for one another.

Pursue mentoring energetically
Be deliberately proactive about your mentoring relationship. If mentoring is not made a priority it will certainly be edged out by the huge number of competing demands on a leader’s time and energy.

Encourage mentorees to mentor others
Where a mentoree takes on the role of serving another future leader, the benefit they have received through being mentored is more firmly established in their own life.

Learn from Jesus
Spiritual mentoring is a Biblical process, modelled most perfectly by Jesus. He mentored his disciples by who he was, what he said and what he did. The gospels comprise a mentoring handbook useful to the most experienced mentor.

So what are my main concerns with this book? And how important are they?

mm2A key theme running through this book is the idea of discerning God’s particular will for the mentoree. Mentoring is seen as a specific journey of helping the mentoree to work out where they are, where God wants them to go, and how they can get there. This has to do with discovering what God’s Spirit is doing in their life. An earlier cover of the book describes the book as Identifying and promoting the work of God’s Spirit in the lives of Christian leaders. This has now changed to Building strong Christian leaders. Avoiding burnout. Reaching the finishing line. I’m not aware that the inside of the book has changed at all. My guess is that the new cover has been designed to appeal to a broader audience and to focus on the outcomes of mentoring.

Am I concerned with this emphasis on identifying and promoting the work of God’s Spirit? Am I one of those evangelical Christians ‘who don’t really believe in the work of the Spirit’, ‘who are all head and hands and no heart’?

Let me try to communicate clearly! The work of God’s Spirit must be central in the life of the mentor and mentoree. No equivocations. If we’re not on about God’s work in people, then we’re wasting our time. No amount of mentoring will be of any eternal benefit unless God’s Spirit is at work. Therefore, I believe it is critically important to identify and promote the work of God’s Spirit in the life of the Christian leader.

It’s what the author understands this to mean and his suggested methods for discovering and discerning the will of God that I take issue with. Lewis writes that Godly mentors are attuned to the prompting of the Holy Spirit. Out of a deep desire to live a life pleasing to God, they are able to discern the ‘still, small voice’ and are in the habit of following that leading. (p125) While saying that tuning into the Spirit’s work doesn’t have to be a mystical experience, the overall message and vibe of this book is that it is. There is very little mention of the Bible as a source of discovering God’s will. In fact, there is very little Bible in this book at all. Its main appearance is in the chapter called an Ancient Art for a Post-Modern Context where various Bible passages provide part of the justification for mentoring today. Very helpful passages, by the way.

I worry that mentoring conducted along these lines could be unhelpful to the participants. It could lead to people believing they need to be looking for and responding to particular, personal, leadings of God’s Spirit, rather than concentrating on the given, revealed, sufficient, sword of the Spirit, the Bible. Over time the focus turns away from reading the Scriptures, that are able to make us thoroughly equipped for every good work (2 Timothy 3:17), to reading circumstances, weighing up feelings, or looking for God to speak in other ways outside of the Bible.

My concerns about this book are not so much with mentoring per se, as they are with a perspective on guidance implicit throughout. I would love to see much more in Mentoring Matters about opening the Bible together, searching the Scriptures, seeing God’s revealed plans, to discover what this means for our lives, ministries, and the options before us. A great model of this approach is offered in Don Carson’s book on the topic of prayer, called A Call to Spiritual Reformation. He reveals how his mentor patiently and carefully helped him to pray according to the will of God as they delved deeply into the Bible together. If you’re keen to work through what the Bible teaches about guidance, let me recommend you work carefully through any of the following books:

Decision making and the will of God by Garry Friesen
Just do something by Kevin de Young
Guidance and the voice of God by Phillip Jensen and Tony Payne

If you’re serious about mentoring Christian leaders, then you will find much in Mentoring Matters that is helpful and practical. You will benefit from the emphasis on internal transformation, the priority on being before doing, and the focus on genuine relationships at the core of mentoring. But, let’s read with discernment, as we should with every book.

Growth Groups

Passing the Baton-text-S2Growth Groups by Col Marshall has been around now for a couple of decades. For many of us, it’s been the ‘go to’ book on small group ministry. As I’m currently reviewing how we support and equip our growth group leaders, I thought I should read over it again. My immediate thought was it could do with an aesthetic refresh. The number-dot-number section headings makes it look out of date and rather academic. However, the content is as relevant and helpful now as it was back in ’95. If you were to get one book on leading Christian small groups, this would probably be the one to get. It gets you into the Bible, but it also explores the other aspects relevant to leading groups – such as group dynamics, prayer, personal ministry, evangelism, training leaders, and the like.

The real strength of Growth Groups is how it places small group ministry within the wider context of gospel ministry in church. God’s agenda for transforming lives shapes the agenda for these groups. The training course at the back of the book involves studying Paul’s letter to the Colossians and this anchors the earlier material in God’s Word. Colossians takes us from the grand themes of Christ’s lordship and salvation to their practical outworking in the Christian life. For this reason the best way to read Growth Groups is in conjunction with the training course.

If you’re not able to participate in a training course, the book still provides an excellent resource for leaders. It’s full of biblical and experiential wisdom on ministry in small groups. The following chapter headings show the breadth of material covered:

  1. The strategy of growth groups
  2. Growth group basics
  3. Pitfalls of growth groups
  4. Preparing a Bible study
  5. Leading a Bible study
  6. Answers about questions
  7. The games people play
  8. Praying in growth groups
  9. Gospel growth through growth groups
  10. Leading for growth
  11. Growing the individuals
  12. The healthy growth group
  13. Starting a growth group
  14. Selecting, training and shepherding leaders
  15. Developing the growth group program

It’s most logical to work through the chapters in the order they appear, but you can dip back into them any way you like. I’ve found that over the years I’ve written all sorts of notes, supplementary ideas, questions and links to other resources in the margins of my copy. It’s covered in underlining and highlighting, with various scraps of paper lodged inside. In other words its a tool – a workbook that I keep coming back to on the job.

Having read this book again in close proximity to reading Spice It UpI can see the overlapping ideas between the two. The latter builds on the chapters about preparing and leading Bible studies and it helps us to engage well with the text and with the people in our groups. Col’s book presents the foundational issues very clearly, and I believe its an indispensable ‘Small Groups 101′ manual. It offers a philosophy of small groups ministry, that’s anchored in Scripture, and from which our practise should flow. The best example of this is the opening chapter that draws us deeply into Colossians and expounds on receiving Christ as Lord and living with Christ as Lord (Colossians 2:6-7).

Chapter 3, on the pitfalls of groups, offered some helpful warnings. With the ubiquity of small groups in churches today, and the variety of purposes they seem designed to fulfil, this book warns how they can easily lose their way. Community, experience, and mission can all become divorced from their biblical significance and growth groups can become much like many non-Christian groups in our world. We’re encouraged to keep God’s agenda front and centre. Sometimes groups can take on an independent life of their own, reacting against the church, the minister, or the preaching. Our purpose is not to create isolated, independent mini-churches, but rather to help the whole church to build itself in truth and love by meeting regularly in smaller gatherings.

Chapter 9, on gospel growth, reminds us not to let groups become introspective cliques. God’s agenda of bringing people into his family through the gospel is to shape the purpose of growth groups. This might not mean regularly inviting and welcoming non-believers into our groups (though some groups could have this purpose), but it will mean keeping the gospel on our agenda. Growth groups are an excellent context to support one another in reaching out to others and to pray for friends’ friends to become followers of Jesus.

Growth Groups is intentional in developing leaders – it’s a training book, after all! But it calls leaders to be committed to expanding the numbers of groups by raising up and training new leaders. Apprenticing leaders is the preferred model, to be supplemented with the material in this book. The course itself involves guided reading of this book, plus a 10 week practical Bible study and training program. Our church is following a similar strategy by encouraging our leaders to have core members in their groups whom they are mentoring into leadership. We will also be offering specific targeted training courses later in the year for these apprentices and others.

If you’re a leader and you haven’t come across Growth Groups, then I recommend you get hold of a copy, read it and scribble what you learn all over it! If you’re looking for a training program for leaders in your church then this is a great place to turn, especially as it’s so comprehensive. If you’re feeling rather stale in your leadership, and you want to up-skill a bit, then why not read a few of the chapters of this book with a friend and discuss them together? If you’ve been reading The Trellis and the Vine then you will find that these books are singing from the same song sheet. And that’s a good thing because it’s about churches, small groups and individual Christians being shaped by the gospel.

Building Leaders

Malphurs-Building-LeadersNow that my brief is building leaders, I figured that I should read a few new books in the area. Building Leaders, by Malphurs and Mancini, seemed on topic and came highly recommended. I must confess that I wasn’t looking forward to reading this book. I worry when people have written lots of books on the same topic that they’ll be stretching out material for the sake of more royalties. But I hadn’t actually read any of their books on leadership, so I shouldn’t have been too quick to judge. It took a while, but it was a helpful read. Much in the book was familiar, but it helped to have things organised and spelled out with detail and clarity. I’ve already begun putting into practice a number of its lessons.

The authors have identified a lack of churches committed to training leaders. Most would claim to be, but closer analysis shows that it isn’t really happening. It’s not that ministry isn’t happening, but that these ministries aren’t developing leaders who will continue and grow the ministry. People aren’t taking the time to train others to lead. Sometimes we don’t feel the effects of this until people move on and there’s no one to replace them or until the ministry becomes too big for the current leader to lead. When we compare the attitude of the military who make this an ongoing priority, or when we look at the model of a teaching hospital, we can see how much churches can take leadership development for granted. Unless we plan to grow leaders we won’t.

Malphurs and Mancini offer a definition of a Christian leader:

A servant who uses his or her credibility and capabilities to influence people in a particular context to pursue their God-given direction.  (p20)

They define leadership development as:

The intentional process of helping established and emerging leaders at every level of ministry to assess and develop their Christian character and to acquire, reinforce, and refine their ministry knowledge and skills.  (p23)

It’s important to recognise that this is intentional. We have a responsibility to make it happen, not simply to hope that it is. Notice also the emphasis on character, together with knowledge and skill. Christian character is essential for Christian ministry leaders, for this is what God is seeking (and producing) in his followers. You can’t follow what you don’t see in the leader, so all these things matter.

They also discuss the importance of empowering leaders to lead, describing empowerment as:

The intentional transfer of authority to an emerging leader within specified boundaries from an established leader who maintains responsibility for the ministry.  (40)

This contrasts with directing, abdicating and disabling. For leadership to develop it must be applied. You can’t simply learn to drive a car by reading a book or sitting in a classroom. People need to get into the driver’s seat and give it a go. Likewise leaders learn to lead by leading. Good tuition, support, ongoing guidance, feedback, and praise will all be helpful, but ultimately the emerging leader needs the opportunity to give it a go.

Malphurs and Mancini seek to ground their understanding of Christian leadership in the Bible. I don’t think this is the strength of their work. They are careful to avoid teaching that the model of Jesus or the apostles gives us principles of leadership to follow, but they highlight the practices they see for us to learn from. This boils down to a model of recruitment – selection – training – deployment. These chapters feel a bit like things are read into rather than out of the text, but they offer wise processes to follow nonetheless.

The book is divided into 4 parts and it’s the 3rd part, The Process for Developing Leaders, that takes us to the nuts and bolts for making it happen. The strength of these chapters are how things are broken down into identifiable strategies. I realised that we have implemented many of these ideas and suggestions, without always thinking through why or how things fit together.

It’s been particularly helpful reading this book in close proximity to The Trellis and the Vine. There’s much overlap between the two, with this book being a lot more prescriptive, descriptive and highly structured. One interesting point of comparison relates to what to we are seeking to develop in a Christian leader. The Trellis and the Vine highlights conviction, character, and competency, whereas Building Leaders identifies character, knowledge, skills and emotions. Or, to put it another way: being, knowing, doing and feeling. The extra emphasis on emotional intelligence is helpful, because it’s a good indicator of someone’s capacity for healthy relationships in an intensely people focused area (ie. ministry leadership).

Malphurs and Mancini identify four types of training:

      1. Learner-driven training
      2. Content-driven training
      3. Mentor-driven training
      4. Experience-driven training

This breakdown is very helpful in helping us to think about how we train and why. Some methods of training overlap or integrate the different approaches, and they each have different strengths and weakness.

Learner-driven training

The up-coming leaders effectively take responsibility for their own training. It focuses on what they can do on their own. Listening to talks, watching DVDs, interviewing other leaders, attending classes or seminars are among the possibilities on offer.

Content-driven training

This focuses on the transfer of knowledge. It often flows from a pre-determined curriculum and tends to be one-way communication where important content is delivered. This is often the ‘go to’ strategy because we want to make sure people have the right information before they are let loose. However, it is rarely sufficient to equip people to lead.

Mentor-driven training

The distinguishing feature of this training is the trainer. This approach combines relationship with information, and modelling with teaching. Such mentoring will normally involve a loop of instruction, modelling, observation and evaluation.

Experience-driven training

The emphasis here is hands on – actually doing ministry. It’s on the job training. Experience prevents us becoming theoreticians, knowing lots about leading without actually being able to do it.

Recognising these different approaches to training opens up new opportunities  and contexts in which to train prospective Christian leaders. Building Leaders identifies 16 different ‘venues’ – what I’d prefer to call ‘contexts’ – for training leaders, and it demonstrates some of the strengths and weaknesses of each. For example, a classroom is good for content-driven training, but weak on showing how things actually happen. Apprenticing is ideal for relationally-based training, but it’s harder to stick to a syllabus.

Some training will deliberately utilise a number of strategies and contexts together. For example, we are reshaping how we equip and support our growth group leaders and there are a number of aspects to the training. People will meet with a mentor at least once a term for a personal catch up and feedback. They will be part of a vision meeting with all the leaders once a term to prepare for the new program ahead. Leaders will be encouraged to find one or two core members of their group to apprentice as leaders for the coming year. These apprentices will be offered a small group leaders course later in the year which will impart important information on our expectations of leaders. By breaking down our thinking about training and what we are seeking to achieve, be can be far more effective in preparing our leaders.

There are some excellent, if not overwhelming, ideas in these chapters on developing leaders. If you are a leader of leaders, then I’d recommend you spend some time in this book. You could use it help you audit what you are doing in training, how you’re doing it, and why. This book could help you to add to your armoury of training strategies, to be more focused, and to rekindle your excitement for training. The authors urge us to build evaluation into our leadership development strategy. For me, this is the place to begin, but once we make changes and try new things we’ll need to keep on evaluating. Most churches had good strategies and programs once. We just forgot to evaluate them and many of them stopped working. Time to lift our game again.

Mistakes leaders make

mistakes-leaders-makeDave Kraft has had plenty of time to make mistakes and to observe others doing the same. He’s been in Christian leadership for more than 43 years serving with Navigators and a variety of churches. In his recent book, Mistakes Leaders Make, he offers ten warnings of what not to do as a leader. This is an easy book to read. It took me less than a day, but I’d recommend taking it more slowly and working through the issues and questions he raises more carefully. It’s readability is increased by the style of writing. He follows the pattern of Lencioni in telling a story about a church and its various staff. While the church is fictional, the characters and issues are very real. Each chapter introduces a new character, and their mistakes, before teasing out some principles and practices.

Kraft recommends letting Psalm 139:23-24 be your prayer as you work through each chapter.

23 Search me, O God, and know my heart!
Try me and know my thoughts!
24 And see if there be any grievous way in me,
and lead me in the way everlasting!

The list of mistakes is very sobering. I have experienced temptation and failure in a number of these areas. Each one is worth considering carefully.

  1. 1. Allowing ministry to replace Jesus

The first mistake is very subtle and easy to deny. How could you possibly replace Jesus with ministry when ministry is about serving Jesus? You can and I have! It’s easy to be so caught up with the responsibilities of ministry that we neglect our relationship with our Lord. I don’t have time to talk to God because I’m too busy doing things for him. Successful ministry can become more important that honouring the one we serve. I think this area is a big trap for senior pastors and it has an awful ripple effect. Families, staff teams, and churches all suffer as this happens. The key to this mistake – indeed the solution to each of the mistakes in this book – is to keep Jesus at the centre of our lives and all we do.

2. Allowing comparing to replace contentment

Comparison versus contentment is another perennial fight for Christian leaders. Every denominational gathering, leadership conference, or ministry fraternal offers the temptation to pride or envy. How many on your team? Have you planted a new church this year? What’s your budget? How many people come each week? It’s a fools game. The solution is to be content with who you are, where you are, what you are doing, and what God is doing through you. (p33) Just remember you are God’s person, entrusted with God’s people, and God’s ministry. If you must compare, then ask yourself the question whether you are being all that you could be for God.

3. Allowing pride to replace humility

Kraft argues that pride is the root cause for the undoing and fall of most leaders. It’s so easy for the ministry to become all about us. He quotes Gary Thomas in his book, Thirsting for God:

Proud women and men relate everything back to themselves. They are all but incapable of seeing any situation except for how it affects them. Empathy is something they may read about but will never truly experience.  (p44)

Pride can be a particular issue for young, gifted leaders who experience success early in their ministry. It’s easy to be swept up in the praise, to believe we are the cause of our own success, and to lose sight of the contribution of others. Most significantly we can take our eyes of the Lord of the harvest altogether. I believe that this was a struggle of me at times. The solution is to refocus regularly on the cross of Jesus Christ and the extraordinary grace that we’ve been given from God.

4. Allowing pleasing people to replace pleasing God

People pleasing is a trap. If we spend our time worrying about what everyone else will think of what we do, then we will be torn this way and that and never lead effectively. Ultimately we play to an audience of one – God himself. He will judge our motives, words and actions. As Proverbs 29:25 says, The fear of man lays a snare, but whoever trusts in the Lord is safe.

5. Allowing busyness to replace visioning

Busyness is a great enemy of Christian leadership. Too few leaders spend time thinking, praying, dreaming, looking ahead, and planning. The urgent gets our attention and we fail to set clear vision for the future. This mistake leads to ineffective and overly busy ministries, burnout of people, and disillusionment with what we’re doing. Leaders must look to the future. We need to be concerned with what could be not simply with what is.  This is a hard lesson to learn because we are so often tyrannised by the urgent. Let’s make time in our calendars to think, pray, reflect, dream, plan – both on our own and with our teams.

6. Allowing financial frugality to replace fearless faith

The temptation is to think that this mistake is one that only church boards and parish councils make! This is not true. We began our ministry on a shoestring. We had to clear a substantial debt in the beginning and for a number of years I was paid 6-8 weeks late. Everything was done on the cheap, money was kept and saved rather than spent, and I became overly concerned with getting a bargain. We need to be financially wise, but also filled with faith. We should remember that God is our provider and he calls us to use his resources for the advancement of his work.

7. Allowing artificial harmony to replace difficult conflict

We are not to be so loving that we don’t speak the truth, or so truthful that we don’t speak with love; there is a fine balance between the two that is essential to all human relationships, especially among church staff and in a leadership role.  (p79)

Avoiding conflict can be a big problem among Christian leaders.  I’ve been in staff meetings where it’s obvious people aren’t on board, but they remain compliant or passively aggressive. It’s awful! We’re tempted to work around people rather than confront them. Sometimes people are unable to do their job and we’d rather compensate for them at great cost to the organisation, than confront them or move them on. Conflict can be very healthy for teams. And healthy conflict depends on trust and relationships. I recommend reading Patrick Lencioni for more on this.

8. Allowing perennially hurting people to replace potential hungry leaders

There are always hurting people in our midst and the compassionate leader can find him or herself overwhelmed with trying to care for them. Eventually the leader is unable to keep it up and goes on stress leave or resigns. The problem is we try and do it all ourselves. Leadership is about building teams of people to share the load. We need to take the time to get the right people onto the team bus with us and them help them to find the right seats according to their gifts, abilities and passions. Grow the team and we grow the capacity to care. Leaders must be team builders.

9. Allowing information to replace transformation

It’s not what you know, but what you do, in dependence on the Holy Spirit, with what you know that makes all the difference.  (p99)

It’s easy to be so consumed with preparing, teaching, and passing on information, that we lose sight of the purpose of seeing people transformed by God. If we are teaching and learning, but never changing, then we have a massive problem. As leaders we should be on our knees asking God to transform us and the people we lead.

10. Allowing control to replace trust

Stressed and busy leaders are high risk to be controlling rather than trusting. We might fear things going wrong or getting out of control. We might worry that someone else will stuff things up or not do them properly. We might be jealous of others and try to guard our reputation. Good leadership is about helping others to have a go, to grow, and contribute, and be the people God made them to be. After all, this is God’s church and God’s ministry, so let’s lighten up and trust God!

This is an insightful and practical book. It cuts deeply. I recommend it especially to young blokes coming out of theological college who are planning to conquer the world! It’s also a must read for senior pastors who know deep down that they keep running in the red zone on empty!

Leadersense

I’ve just taken on the role of developing leadership within the church I serve as a pastor. It’s a wide role and open-ended. What type of leaders – do you mean pastors and ministry apprentices? Will it include members of the congregation? Is this about growth group leaders? What about children’s and youth leaders? Aren’t they someone else’s responsibility? Will this involve women as well as men? Shouldn’t each area of ministry be doing this anyway? Will you be creating new opportunities for leadership? And these are just some of my questions! I’m sure you can think of dozens of others. The role is really about making sure we’re recruiting, training, equipping, supporting, and multiplying our leaders across the church. The answer to every question above is ‘yes’!

It’s easy for us to be very monochrome when it comes to thinking about leadership. We might limit our focus to paid staff for example and say that they’re our leaders. We could think of the governing body of the church as the leaders. Or we might limit our thinking to all the people who have the title of ‘leader’, such as our growth group leaders, kingdom kids (Sunday School) leaders, youth leaders, service leaders, and so on. If we think role as well as title, then we have leaders (or at least we need leaders) in all kinds of places. Every ministry team needs a leader. The growth of a church requires a corresponding growth in the numbers and calibre of leaders. Leaders need to understand God’s agenda for church, the church’s vision for ministry, the needs of the people they lead, and the importance of continually replacing and reproducing themselves.

This may seem like common sense – and it is! But, as someone once said, good sense isn’t that common! It’s easy to assume that leadership will arise naturally, that people will automatically understand what’s expected of them, that they’ll step up to the plate, do a great job, and all will go well. In the real world, leadership needs to be taught and caught. It needs to be encouraged, supported, resourced, and held accountable. We have to develop pathways to move the right people into leadership, and equip them so that they’ll lead people in the right way.

The Scriptures are the foundation for understanding leadership. God made people. He knows us inside out. He knows how we tick psychologically and engage relationally. Jesus, Paul, Peter, Moses, Joshua, David, and others, show us and teach us God’s purposes for leading his people – why to lead them, where to lead them, how to lead them, who should lead them. My plan is to draw on the riches of God’s word to build and inspire leaders in our midst. And, more importantly, for each of our leaders and yet-to-be leaders to dig deeply into the Bible, to shape and equip their leadership.

large_einsteinAnd yet, I don’t subscribe to the view that says “If you can’t find it in the Bible then it’s not worth knowing.” The Book of Proverbs shows how much can be learned by astute observation of this world we live in. God has created sharp minds who have much to teach us in many areas including ‘leadership’. We can learn from great leaders throughout history. We will be warned to avoid the mistakes of the past and inspired to reproduce the wisdom that worked. Bookshops abound in leadership books and, while many aren’t worth the paper they’re printed on, there are some real gems out there. Leadership happens in all areas of life and organisation and we can draw on our experiences in other contexts and the experiences of others in similar situations. All this must be firmly bracketed by the understanding that leadership in church should be fundamentally about leading people in their relationship with God, through Jesus Christ, in the strength of God’s Spirit. No Harvard Business Review best-seller will take you there.

olddogI’ve been in this leadership game for years and years, but I’ve still got so much to learn and apply. My hope is that this old dog can learn a few new ‘tricks’! My goal and prayer when it comes to leadership is to develop God-informed and worldly-wise, practical and principled, organisational and personal, uncommon and common sense.

I’m keen to grow in my ‘leadersense’.

Custom make your own conference

This time last year I was enjoying the Geneva Push In the Chute conference in Melbourne. I gathered with others from all over Australia, young and old, from a range of denominations, to encourage each other in the work of planting new churches. In some ways, I was the middle-aged pinup boy, heading to the Top End to begin all over. It was exhilarating to feel the energy, especially from those who were moving to new places to reach out with the message of Jesus. I had the privilege of teaching on why we need to keep planting new churches, how to build ministry teams, as well as sharing our specific dreams and plans for outreach in the Darwin area.

This year, I’m unable to attend. I’d truly love to be at the conference, listening to Don Carson teach, finding out how some of the new churches are travelling, and generally being encouraged to keep on with the work of ministry. However, health, other commitments, and distance are keeping me away this time round.

Depending on our networks, some of us could spend an awful lot of time at conference after conference. In my case, I get drawn towards church conferences, FIEC conferences, men’s conventions, CMS summer schools, Geneva Push conferences, MTS conferences, AFES conferences, FOCUS camps and conferences, RUPA conferences, Easter conventions, Arrow Alumni conferences, AFES staff and regional directors conferences, speaking at other camps and conferences, and the list could go on!  Sometimes it’s simply too much and not all of them are always that relevant. I understand that I’m there for what I can give as well as what I might get, but there are times when I just crave to focus on some particulars and we just don’t go there.

3stoogesI thought I’d share a do-it-yourself idea that I came up with a couple of years back. I customised my own mini-conference that just involved 3 or 4 people. Our church was going through a few strategic and structural changes and I was keen to gain wisdom from others in thinking through these issues. I made contact with a couple of other senior pastors, whose churches were at a similar size and stage, and we organised to set aside two half days to talk things through together. I took a colleague with me, and we flew to Brisbane to catch up with the other guys.

In order to maximise our time together, I wrote up a couple of pages of topics and issues that I was keen for us to discuss. This helped us to think ahead and to stay on topic in the limited time we had together. Each of us had been reading one or two of the same books that had been shaping our thinking about ministry, and so we were able to interact with these ideas also.

I confess to driving the agenda because there were things that I was keen to nut out. We were able to explore how each of us approached different ministry issues, what our churches were doing in a range of areas, how we planned and organised, and more. Talking together afterwards revealed that each of us had benefited in different ways through our time together.

Some of my peers do a similar thing from time to time, so as to focus on their preaching. They meet together for a couple of days, share ideas for a series of talks, preach and critique each others sermons, discuss their exegesis or illustrations or applications, and show how they’ve integrated the preaching with a series of Bible studies.

The advantage of these do-it-yourself mini conferences is that they are tailor-made. You meet for a clear purpose, you contribute to that purpose, and you get out of it what you put into it. It can be organised around your timetables and calendars. You can do it in-house if you have a large staff team, or you can coordinate with others in other places if you’re more isolated. This strategy will work to connect people in similar types of ministries also. Children’s workers can get together with other children’s workers … so can youth workers, women’s workers, executive pastors, small group coordinators, evangelists, school chaplains, and so on.

If you want to make the most of your time, then I recommend you consider the following:

  • agree on the main purpose of your conference
  • put together an agenda or list of issues to be discussed and allow time for people to prepare in advance
  • consider a book or two, or other resources, that are related to your issues, and get people reading these in advance so as to inform your discussion
  • clear your diaries of other commitments and meet in a comfortable place that is free of distractions
  • pray for each other throughout your time together
  • take notes of ideas and have someone distribute a follow up summary of discussion and ideas
  • contact each other a few weeks after your conference to see how things have progressed.

As iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another.  (Proverbs 27:17)

The Big Idea

The Big Idea: Aligning the Ministries of your Church through Creative Collaboration by Ferguson, Ferguson and Bramlett challenges churches to think hard about the message we communicate and how we go about doing it. Fittingly, the strength of this book is its big idea. Disturbingly, I found some of its weaknesses lie in the details.

If you go to church regularly it’s a worthwhile exercise to write down how many different little ideas you have to take in each week. If you consider the welcome signs or banners, printed handouts, messages on the screen, various announcements, the MC or leaders comments, intros to songs, the songs themselves, children’s talks, prayers about different topics, video clips, Bible readings, the sermon, various connected or disconnected points within the sermon, more songs, closing comments, conversations over supper or morning tea… you can see the problem. What message do you take home from church? Add to this the family context – if children and youth are looking at unrelated material, learning about different things, and engaged in different activities, then families could have dozens of ‘take home messages’. What gets remembered? What sinks in? What gets put into action? This book argues for alignment, getting our message focused. It’s premised on the observation that more information means less clarity and less action.

We have bombarded our people with too many competing little ideas, and the result is a church with more information and less clarity than ever before.  (p19)

The passion behind the big idea is for churches to be communities of transformation, not simply information. This requires genuine relationships and a focus on personal change. Small groups, for example, aren’t to be tutorials or study groups, but rather places where people care and share, challenge and support, confide and confess, learn and grow together. At Community Christian Church, where the authors serve as pastors, they adopted sermon-based studies to align the small groups with the weekly church celebrations around the same big idea. This approach is much the same as that described by Larry Osborne in Sticky Church. Yet, not only do they seek to align small groups with the big idea, but also families, ministries, congregations and other churches in their network. One big idea shapes everything they do.

What does this look like? It begins with planning the preaching program a year ahead. Topics and series are worked out and positioned carefully with regard to the annual calendar. At thirteen weeks out, the teaching team write a short essay that fleshes out the series and each topic within. These are called big idea graphs. The graphs are distributed to the relevant people so that at nine weeks out a creative team meeting can brainstorm how to shape the church service by the big idea. This meeting will include the leaders of teaching, drama, music and other areas needed to determine and shape the service content. At five weeks this gets a reality check. At three weeks the teaching team and the small group curriculum writers collaborate to construct a big idea sermon and discussion guide. At two weeks the big idea teaching manuscript is finished so that preachers in different congregations or churches can take the manuscript and personalise it to their own style and to suit their congregations. This is also passed on to the media team and others who will organise slides, graphics, scriptures references, and other things needed for the particular service. The whole process is very collaborative and teams are the order of the day. Even the sermons are a cooperative exercise. The long lead times opens options for creativity and ensures that things are done well.

There is much to like about this approach, but I will reveal my concerns first. The authors openly admit that topical preaching is their preferred and normal practice. They brainstorm and discuss possible sermon ideas and vote on which ones to pursue in the following year. It seems that much of the creative work in preparing sermons takes place as people share their ideas about the topic. Working out which Bible texts might be relevant to the topic is only done after the topics are nutted out. I don’t believe this is the healthiest approach to determining a preaching plan. It can mean we’re driven by popular ideas and what we think people will find interesting. Many important themes addressed in the Bible will never be heard and certain hobby horses will often get ridden. I’d much prefer to follow a staple diet of expository preaching so that we let God’s word put the topics on our agenda. Look to get a balance from different parts of the Bible and mix it up from time to time with some specific topics and occasional messages. In fact, I’d love to see a book like this written from the starting point of expository preaching.

I’m also worried about what doesn’t really get described in this book. One example is their skeleton for weekly adult services:

  1. Praise choruses (opening of service)
  2. Campus pastor moment (greeting)
  3. Creative element (video, sketch, or song or a combination)
  4. Teaching
  5. Communion
  6. Giving back to God (offering)
  7. Praise choruses (closing of service)  (p133)

While admitting that we can replace the nouns we see with whatever describes our own church’s style, system and mode, it concerns me what they’ve left out. Where does prayer feature? Where does Bible reading fit in? What preparation goes into these areas? I have to admit that the heavy emphasis on the creative arts and the silence about prayer and Bible reading in the church service left me concerned. The storyline of this book is about BIG church and is dominated by the ‘performance’ on weekends. This is not to say it’s irrelevant to small churches with single pastors. I think there’s some great wisdom here, but it needs careful transposing.

So what did I find helpful? Let me focus on two strengths of The Big Idea. Firstly, the alignment of message in the church. My experience is that too often we have many little ideas competing for people’s attention and the message we most want people to hear gets seriously diluted. We have so many announcements that we forget most of them and can’t differentiate their importance. Sometimes the songs have no relationship to the message. Or the prayers are completely unrelated to everything else going on. Or the talk seems more like a commentary than a sermon, picking up too many ideas from the Bible passage without highlighting and applying the main one.

I’m not beating up on our church now. I’m very encouraged by the fact that our church has a weekly team meeting to discuss each service, make sure the different parts are connected, link the music to the message, integrate the kids talk, discuss priorities and emphases with the service leader, and more. We’ve also been following the same teaching programs with adults, youth, and children and this has enabled us to pool our resources and help families to focus on the big idea each week.

The second strength of this approach, is the emphasis on preparing well ahead. It worries me when I keep hearing of pastors writing their talks on the Saturday night before church, the kids talk being thrown together without much thought, the Bible reader being organised as we walk into church, the musicians not being given or not learning the songs until just before church. It doesn’t need to be this way. It doesn’t take any more work to be organised weeks ahead, but it does require discipline and organisation. 

I’ve always worked to get a draft preaching plan in place a year, or at least a term, ahead. This requires a lot of work, reading the relevant books, working out the preaching units, determining the big idea, conveying this briefly in a sermon title. It may mean setting aside a week or more to achieve it. We’ve mostly published these for the upcoming term so people know where we’re headed and can prepare as needed. In the preceding term I’ve been working on the upcoming book of the Bible, reading commentaries, writing notes and drafting ideas. I put these in a note book and draw on them when I get to preparing the actual sermons. I’ve tended to prepare the actual sermons in the week that I’ll deliver them. However, one year I managed to get about six weeks ahead with my talks. I’d write the rough draft weeks ahead, and tune it up in the final week. I can testify to this delivering a better product and removing a lot of stress. If I had my time again, I’d like to make this normal!

Our youth programs are worked out a term ahead and publicised. This enables the team to share responsibilities among the leaders while keeping to the big idea. Working on the children’s ministry material well ahead helps the creative process and good integration with the adult and youth programs.  Other churches manage to prepare Bible study and discussion guides for the upcoming teaching series. (We’ve only managed it once or twice, but we do manage to get them out each week!) These guides connect with the sermons. This means the big idea of all sermons needs to be worked out well ahead, so that the studies are integrated with the teaching. Advance planning assists the music teams to choose songs that connect with the big idea. It ensures we think carefully about what we’re praying about. It opens the door to creative ideas that we could never pull off the night before. And it takes some of the stress out of planning church.

All in all, I’d recommend this book to pastors and leaders as they look to the year ahead. Read it through before you spend a few days with your team planning for 2013. You did plan a planning time, didn’t you? Or perhaps you’re well organised and have already done it!

The contrarian’s guide to leadership

Without exaggeration, The Contrarian’s Guide to Leadership is one of the most insightful and compelling books on leadership I’ve read. Steven Sample is an analytical practitioner of the highest calibre. He’s an electrical engineer, musician, outdoorsman, professor, and inventor. For nearly 20 years Sample served as the president of the University of Southern California, leading it to become one of the premier universities in the US. This book is the product of research, reflection, observations and experience, woven together with wisdom and clarity. Many books about leadership are riddled with predictable cliches, whereas The Contrarian’s Guide offers fresh and profound insights in every chapter.

1. Thinking gray, and free

Don’t form an opinion about an important matter, until you’ve heard all the relevant facts and arguments, or until circumstances force you to form an opinion without recourse to all the facts.  (p7-8)

Sample explains how we often jump to conclusions, flip-flop between ideas, or believe things which we think are strongly believed by others. Thinking gray, suspending our binary instincts, filing away our first impressions, helps the leader to consider weighty issues more carefully. Free thinking takes ‘thinking outside the box’ and ‘brainstorming’ to the next level. It involves contemplating outrageous ideas without restraints, well-worn ruts, passions and prejudices getting in the way. A creative imagination, or the ability to encourage this in others, is a huge asset for a quality leader.

2. Artful listening

The average person suffers from three delusions: (1) that he is a good driver, (2) that he has a good sense of humor, and (3) that he is a good listener.  (p21)

Listening is a vital skill for a leader. It’s better to listen first and talk later. As we listen, so we learn, show respect for others, and gain the capacity to make wise decisions. Artful listening connects the leader to new perspectives that enable her to think independently and creatively. Costly misunderstandings and mistakes are often avoided when time is taken to hear from the right people.

3. Experts: Saviors and Charlatans

Experts can be helpful, but they’re no substitute for your own critical thinking and discernment.  (p189)

Sample argues that it’s necessary for an expert to be a ‘deep specialist’ and for a leader to be a ‘deep generalist’. The expert will know more than the leader in a specific field, but the leader needs to be able to integrate the advice of different experts into a coherent course of action. Leaders should never become too dependent on experts, they should maintain their intellectual independence and they should never kid themselves that expertise can be substituted for leadership.

4. You are what you read

In these tempestuous times it often appears that everything is changing, and changing at an increasingly rapid rate. In such an environment a leader can gain a tremendous competitive advantage by being able to discern the few things that are not changing at all, or changing only slowly or slightly. And nothing can help him do that better than developing a close relationship with a few of the supertexts.  (p57-58)

Not many books are still read 10 years after they’re published, let alone 50 years, or centuries later. Such enduring texts are significantly influential. Sample believes that such literature includes The Bible, The Qur’an, Plato’s Republic, the plays of Shakespeare, Machiavelli’s The Prince, and a handful of others. He describes them as supertexts due to their endurance and influence.

I expected Sample to be a freak who devours hundreds of books annually, but he focuses on only a few books and maintains a regular diet of truly significant writings. He briefly scans the newspaper, more for entertainment than information, and replaces his reading time with books of substance. He’s far more interested in understanding original ideas than reading another popular book that repackages and regurgitates the same old stuff. Sample recommends the advice of  Thoreau: “Read only the best books first, lest there not be time enough to read them all.”

This advice resonates strongly with my experience as a pastor, teacher and leader. Every week more books are published in my fields of interest than I could read in a year – if not a lifetime. I can’t keep up with all the latest fads and ideas. But nor do I need to. What offers the greatest reward is concentrating on the supertext that guides me in every area of life. This book was given to me by my grandparents when I was 6 years old and they highlighted these words inside the front cover…

Thy word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path.
(Psalm 119:105 Revised Standard Version Bible)

5. Decisions, decisions

The contrarian leader’s approach to decision making can be summed up in two general rules:

1. Never make a decision yourself that can be reasonably be delegated to a lieutenant.  (p71)

2. Never make a decision today that can reasonably be put off to tomorrow.  (p72)

The key is to work out what’s reasonable, and this requires skill and practice. Sample argues that the leader must maintain responsibility for hiring and firing key staff, and making the decisions that will have the greatest impact on the organisation. He also argues for artful procrastination, allowing time to make better informed and wiser decisions. Of course, leaving things too long will result in missed opportunities or new problems developing.

6. Give the Devil his due

We must accept the fact that human beings and their institutions hardly ever measure up to our noblest ideals, and that to pretend otherwise is to invite ruin.  (p102)

Sample is a great fan of Machiavelli’s, The Prince. This chapter is his apologetic for drawing on the wisdom of this controversial writer. One of Machiavelli’s strengths is his honesty about the complexity of the human condition. People have capacity for both atrocity and altruism. The contrarian leader won’t be naive about the people and circumstances he’s dealing with. Many decisions will be very complex and the leader must discern the pitfalls of various options and choose the best on offer, knowing that there is no perfect solution.

7. Know which hill you’re willing to die on

When he turned 16, Sample was given the same advice by his father that my father gave me and that I’ve since passed on to my children:

“If a cat or dog or squirrel (or kangaroo in Australia!) runs in front of your car,” he told me, “just steel yourself and kill it like a man. You have the responsibility not to endanger people in your car or in other cars by swerving in an effort to save the animal.”  (p107)

Let me tell you, this is hard to do, and I’ve hit a few kangaroos in my time! But I’ve also seen people wipe out themselves and still hit the kangaroo by attempting to swerve. Some decisions are very tough and some are much tougher than the one above. Moral choices can be incredibly complex. Sample asks us to choose what hill we’re willing to die on. In other words, what moral compass will guide us to work out what we will and won’t do as leaders? The ethical dimensions of leadership are very important and they require us to ask difficult questions of ourselves. Every leader must come to terms with their own moral beliefs and be accountable for the decisions they make based on those beliefs. What you believe or don’t believe about God will play a significant part in this.

8. Work for those who work for you

If a would be leader wants glamour, he should try acting in the movies. However, if he in fact wants to make a consequential impact on a cause or organization, he needs to roll up his sleeves and be prepared to perform a series of grungy chores which are putatively beneath him, and for which he’ll never receive recognition or credit, but by virtue of  which his lieutenants will be inspired and enabled to achieve great things.  (p122)

I loved this chapter – haven’t always lived it out – but I love what it teaches! There is great wisdom here about who we employ and how we support them once they’re employed. There is sober advice about firing people, and how the leader should always do this in person. There are excellent recommendations for evaluating, assessing and equipping our key staff.

Choosing these people, motivating them, supporting them, helping them grow and achieve, inspiring them, evaluating them and firing them are among the most important things a leader does.  (p139)

9. Follow the Leader

Whatever the basis of his authority may be, when an effective leader turns in a new direction his followers turn with him; that’s the test of real leadership. To paraphrase Harry Truman, leadership in involves getting others to move in a new direction in which they’re not naturally inclined to move on their own.  (p142)

Sample identifies a number of skills required by effective leaders. Premium among these is communication. Words are their tools. Most highly effective leaders have an excellent command of language, either spoken or written or both. The most powerful form of communication between a leader and his followers is the spoken word. It’s not the email, bulletin or memo that’s going to inspire people – it’s direct, face to face, oral speech.

Leadership is about people; connecting with real people one to one. A leader may not be able to do this with everyone in the organisation, but it’s important that someone can and does. Sample emphasises the power and leverage of people chains, through which the leaders goals, vision and values are communicated orally and personally to every follower. Jesus was amazingly effective at achieving leadership leverage through people chains. A dozen followers grew to 120, then thousands, then thousands more, such that 2000 years later millions of people continue to follow him.

10. Being president versus doing president

The best physician won’t necessarily make a good hospital administrator or medical dean, the best engineer won’t necessarily make a good division president, the best teacher won’t necessarily make a good school principal, and the best athlete won’t necessarily make a good coach. There is no shame, and often much merit, in a person’s simply deciding he’s not cut out to have power and authority over, and responsibility for, a large number of followers.  (p161)

To which I would add from the world of my experience, the best people serving others in Christian ministry won’t necessarily make a good leader of a church. Effective leaders need to be well tuned to the people around them and they need to be clear on where they’re taking people and how they will do it. It’s important for would-be leaders to recognise that leadership often removes them from doing what they’re best at and enjoy doing the most. That remains the privilege of those who serve under them. In fact, Sample argues that even the best leaders, under ideal conditions, will spend less than 30% of their time and effort on substantive matters. The rest of the time will be spent reacting to or presiding over trivial, routine, or ephemeral matters. Wanting to be the leader and wanting to do the work of a leader are two very different things!

So…

If you’re a leader or a would-be leader then I’d put this on your short list of recommended reading. If you’re wanting some fresh input on leadership then get hold of this book. There are plenty of pearls to be plucked from its pages. Many of my texts on leadership are built on an explicitly Christian platform, deriving their message from the Bible. This isn’t one of them. Who knows, Steven Sample may be a follower of Jesus. He’s certainly familiar with Christianity’s supertext and much of his wisdom resonates with things I’ve learned from the Bible. Like any other good book, this one needs to be read with discernment and with a view to application.

Let me finish with the following quote:

…before you spend several hours carefully reading a relatively new book, you deserve a thoughtful preview from a person whose passions and prejudices are familiar to you. In many cases you’ll find that this thoughtful preview is all you’ll ever want or need to know about that particular book.  (p70)

Kind of justifies this blog, doesn’t it?! 😉

Your church in rhythm

A catch-cry of recent years has been the search for ‘work-life balance’. Very few of us would be brave enough to claim achieving such equilibrium. And what is true for individuals has also been true for my experience of church. There are so many things clamouring for our attention and we feel guilty every time we notice that some aren’t getting any. So it was quite a breath of fresh air to read Bruce Miller’s Your Church in Rhythm. In his preface he argues for rhythm as the best picture of a healthy life and critiques the so-called balanced life as being…

…unbiblical, impossible, and toxic.

Here’s some questions to ask yourself right now:

Has our church got everything in balance?
Are we reaching out enough?
Are we giving enough time to preparation of sermons and lessons?
How is our care and counselling ministry?
Are we leading well? Are we developing leaders effectively?
Are we praying enough?
How are our administrative systems and processes?
How are our ministries to children and youth?
Are our small groups vibrant?
How are we doing at following up with our guests?
How is our communication with the church family?
How is our discipleship process?
Am I reading enough to grow personally?
Am I current on email and other correspondence?  (p. xxii)

If you’re a church pastor, elder, leader or committed member of your church, then I’d bet you’re probably feeling guilt, guilt and more guilt after reading this list. We just get one thing humming when another falls apart. We start to feel good about what we’re doing and then realise how much more is not getting done.

Miller gets us asking the question, “What time is it in your church?”. If we understand the times, he believes that our experience of church and ministry will become more effective and enjoyable. There will be less fatigue and burnout, less boredom and apathy, more enthusiasm and engagement, we will work harder and rest more thoroughly, and there will be greater outcomes for the kingdom of God. Does it sound like the kind of book you’d like to read? You can’t lose really. At least you’ll be able to tick your ‘Commitment to professional development’ box when you finish!

Your Church in Rhythm describes two types of time: kairos and chronos. Kairos time is experienced time, shaped by organisational stages and ministry seasons. Chronos time is measured time, it’s cyclical, and can be divided into days, weeks, months, quarters and years. Recognising the impact of the stages and seasons helps you to determine what is most appropriate for now. Understanding the five chronos cycles enables you to pace your ministry better.

By choosing rhythm, you will invite your church to live in harmony with the flow of life – to be content in all circumstances, to make the most of the moments, to rejoice at all times – and to set your hope on what’s to come.  (p. xxv)

A guideline is offered to understanding organisational stages in a church. The life span of a church is broken down into five stages: inception, growth, maturity, decline, death or renewal. This can be complicated further by recognising that larger churches are collections of congregations and ministries which also have their own life cycles. These stages rarely follow a simple straight pathway and are commonly impacted by crises or major transitions. What’s important is that we seek to discern what stage our church is in, to understand the times, so that we can identify what best to focus upon now.

Ministry seasons are shorter than organisational stages. They may only impact one ministry area, they can be experienced more than once, and a church could be in several seasons simultaneously. Throughout this book Miller engages helpfully with other literature and I will be following up various leads. In this chapter he draws on Kubler-Ross’s research on loss and grief cycles and John Kotter’s important work on change management. These perspectives are useful for appreciating what churches and ministries go through over time. If a church loses a pastor, gains a new one, shuts down a ministry, starts up another, builds a property, restructures its leadership, negotiates a difficult crisis, seeks to increase its giving, plants another church, or goes through a period of transition – these are seasons, not simply events. Their impact needs to be appreciated and navigated well.

Miller identifies six strategies for getting your church into rhythm, and then a conclusion that is a must read! The following table (p169) highlights the structure of this thinking:

rhythmI won’t develop each strategy in any detail, as I don’t want to simply repeat the content of the book. The real benefits will come as you get into the book for yourself, identify your own organisational stage and ministry seasons, and consider the impact of the different chronos cycles on your church, people and community. You may disagree with the specific stages or strategies identified in this book, you may disconnect with some of his examples or illustrations, but I believe Miller’s overall thesis is both helpful and liberating. Let’s briefly skim over them.

Release expectations

Releasing expectations involves accepting that we can’t do everything. There are limitations placed upon us by our stage and season. There’s no point envying churches that are in different stages or wishing we were in a different season. Releasing expectations helps us to grow in contentment and focus on the time we’ve been given.

A heart at peace gives life to the body,
but envy rots the bones.  (Proverbs 14:30)

I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances.
(Philippians 4:11)

Consider a church that has just been planted and is getting underway. Now is probably not the time to worry about developing lots of ministry programs, you don’t need detailed systems in place, and you’ll manage fine without a sophisticated newcomer follow-up process. Just work hard at getting to know each other, invite people to your place for a meal, set the tone for your church community, relationships, and gospel priorities. As you move into your growth stage, as you add staff and become more complicated, then you will need clearer processes and systems so that you care effectively for the church and continue to reach your wider community. But there will be a time for this, it can wait for a while!

Likewise, recognising the seasons you are experiencing will help shape your focus and enable you to release expectations. If you’re falling well behind budget and encouraging your regulars to give, it’s not the time for embarking on a new program to reach all the local schools. If you’re transitioning between members of staff, it’s probably not wise to introduce a bunch of new ministry ventures. If the church has been impacted by a season of grief, then it’d be wise to forget the rah-rah and allow people the space to work through things carefully.

Seize opportunities

Open your eyes to the opportunities around you. Sometimes we can be so locked into our longterm strategic plans and goals that we fail to take up valuable opportunities before us. We need to discern whether to hold to the plan and pass on the opportunity, or to alter the plan and seize the opportunity. Evaluate your motives, ask what’s at stake. Most importantly, weigh things in the light of God’s agenda.

Any opportunity worth pursuing should advance the cause of Christ. Will this opportunity advance the Gospel better than the current plan and better than any of the other opportunities we could pursue?  (p77-78)

In the inception of a new church, people are more open than they will ever be. Seize the opportunities to establish culture, mission, vision and values. Focus on the unique low-key relational opportunities. It’s a time of firsts – make the most of them. It’s a busy period, but pause, catch your breath, and delight in what God is doing among you. Likewise, later stages and ministry seasons will offer you special opportunities to advance the cause of Christ. Look out for them, explore them, critique them, and weigh up the best way to move forward.

Anticipate what’s next

We need to live fully in the present stage or season, but looking forward fuels hope with anticipation. You can work hard for a season if you’re looking forward to the outcomes and you’ve planned for a time of rest afterwards. Change can be a difficult season in the life of a church, so it’s important to emphasise that it’s temporary, and for leaders to shepherd their people through the processes. Anticipating what’s ahead is a key to this.

It’s also important to consider all our stages and seasons in the light of the big picture. As Miller writes:

All stages and seasons will culminate in the final stage of all history: the new heavens and new earth. Our ultimate hope is the return of Christ who will make all things new. We do our work in anticipation of what God will do in the near future. We can persevere knowing these are temporary seasons. Our role in these seasons is to announce and demonstrate the Kingdom that has come and is coming.  (p94)

Some seasons can feel like they’re never going to finish, or that they will destroy our church. A building project can cause all kinds of stresses and grief. False teaching or moral failure by a leader can mark a terribly difficult time for the whole church. Anticipate that there will be better times ahead. And whatever our particular church may experience, it’s important to remember Jesus’ promise that nothing will destroy his church (even if our particular organisation struggles or dies).

Pace your church

Pacing is the technique of spreading out your strength over time so that you do not burn out before the end. (p111)

Athletes are acutely aware of the importance of pacing, but it doesn’t stop with them. It applies to many areas of life and work, and it’s important for organisations like churches. Church leaders need to pace themselves so that they run well for Christ, rather than burning out and quitting. Congregations need to pace themselves well, so that people don’t migrate from church to church, or drop out altogether.

It’s worth asking, what do we expect of people every day, every week, every month, every term, every year. There is a time for many things, but when everything happens at once we clearly haven’t paced things well. Miller suggests using the five chronos cycles as a foundational grid for identifying and assigning appropriate frequencies what what we do as a church. If we’re expecting people to come to church each week and to participate in a small group, then how much and how often can we expect more from them? Pacing our planning around terms and years assists people to grasp the bigger picture of where church is heading and what we’re trying to achieve. Giving people time out and time off on a regular basis helps them to remain in the game for the long haul.

Being aware of the natural rhythms of the community will help you to pace things more effectively also. Some coastal churches don’t run Sunday morning family services because many families are caught up with the surf programs running at that time. When we were preparing to plant a church in Darwin, we recognised the impact of the dry season, the build up and the wet season on community involvement and activities. There’s no point cutting across these natural flows if we intend on connecting with those around us.

Build mission-enhancing rituals

Mmmm! Coming from an independent church with very few of the trapping and rituals of traditional churches, I had to think hard on this one! But the key is ‘mission-enhancing’, not ritual for ritual sake. What patterns, practices and habits will help people to appreciate and engage in building Christ’s church? Some annual rituals or weekly practices can carry power explicitly by their repetition. Repetition can be mindless and meaningless, but it can also highlight what’s really matters.

Miller illustrates this with an example of how his church changed how they approached personal, small group and church-wide Bible study and preaching. The goal was to see people transformed and impacting others as they engaged with the Scriptures. They adopted a study → listen → discuss → share strategy. Everyone in the church was given a guide that helped them to study the passage of scripture during the week. Then on Sunday the sermon was preached from that passage. Small groups met in the following week and discussed the application of the passage, and people were encouraged to share and encourage one another with what they’d learned. This pattern increased alignment in the church and helped deepen people’s understanding and personal ministry to each other.

Oscillate intensity and renewal

Too many church leaders are not oscillating, and neither are their churches. We are neither working hard enough nor resting deeply enough.  (p140)

Life is not a marathon but rather a series of sprints and rests. If churches try to keep a constant pace, they build up higher and higher levels of stress.  (p141)

Miller argues that in each of the chronos cycles, we should experience an oscillation between intensity and renewal, work and rest. This is not the same as work-life balance, it’s about rhythm. God built this type of oscillation into his creation. Working six days, resting on the seventh. Sometimes we need to put our foot down on the accelerator, at other times we need to coast. There’s no place for workaholism and there’s no place for laziness. But there can be a time for climbing mountains and a time for lying on beaches, without feeling guilty for doing either!

Holidays, breaks, doing something different, changing things around. They can all help us to stay the course. Giving our leaders time out, refreshment, and encouragement will help them to want to do the work again. Encouraging our congregation to join together every week, but acknowledging there will be things that keep them away from time to time, can reduce guilt and increase enthusiasm for meeting together. Pastors taking a day off each week, protecting their annual holidays, having some study leave or taking a sabbatical, can decrease burn out and aid perseverance. Sleep matters, so does exercise, so does having other interests and so does working hard when we’re working! Oscillation is built into the rhythm of life – go with the flow!

Conclusion

Miller has written this book to be used. Each chapter contains a case study and a worksheet. There’s a ‘next step’ summary plan at the end of the book. I recommend we approach this as a workbook and take the time to apply it to our lives and gather with others to apply it to our churches. It’s about leveraging insights into the times and cycles we experience, so as to advance the cause of Christ. And it’s up to us what we make of it.

I appreciate the way this book recognises the ups and downs, seasons and stages, needs and opportunities in life. I’ve been persuaded that rhythm, rather than balance, is a better picture for describing the good life. Most of all, I’m warmed by the bigger picture that frames this book. As Miller writes:

It is the rhythm of eternity that empowers us to be steadfast and immoveable, giving ourselves whole-heartedly to the work of the Lord.

We can endure difficult days when we remember that ultimate rest is coming. A focus on the ultimate future sustains us today with vivid hope. Understanding the ultimate rhythm can help us release false expectations. In this case, we can – and should – release the erroneous expectation that this life will ever be paradise. Seize opportunities to do that which will last forever. Anticipate eternal joy to come. That is the source of true and rich hope. So in view of the eternal rhythm to come, we want to flow our ministries as well as possible in the earthly kairos and chronos rhythms.  (p157-158)

The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People

This is an oldie, but a goodie! It took me a while to discover The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen Covey. It wasn’t recommended to me by anyone. I was simply browsing a local bookstore and the title caught my attention. I figured it wouldn’t hurt to read it because I was feeling particularly ineffective at the time! The holidays were approaching and I was looking for a book to read on the beach at Byron Bay. All I remember now, is feeling that this book must have been written about me. It identified at least seven areas that I needed to change… urgently!

Since this time, over 20 years ago, I’ve reread this book or parts of it numerous times. I still believe it’s one of the most helpful ‘personal organisation/time management/self help’ type books available. So if you’re feeling a little disorganised, don’t have enough hours in the day or days in the month, feeling overworked and underproductive, then I recommend dipping into the 7 habits.

This book stands apart from many contemporary ‘success’ or ‘personal management’ books, in that it focuses on character and principle-centred living. It’s not full of techniques, tricks, or tools, for getting ahead. Rather, it pushes the reader to focus on what matters matter most, so as to ensure that these values shape the way we live. This book deals with internal personal transformation as well as external interpersonal relationships. It seeks to help us reshape our lives so as to create sustainable changes for the better.

I will introduce each of the 7 habits, before offering some reflections on the usefulness and limitations of Covey’s approach.

Habit #1  Be Proactive

We have a tendency to see life as the product of our circumstances. We inherit traits from our parents and grandparents. The environment we grow up in, learn in, work in, live in, is said to determine how we will deal with the stuff that comes our way. Covey critiques this reactionary outlook on life, reminding us that we have the freedom to choose what happens between stimulus and response. Proactive people are driven by principles rather than circumstances. They have response-ability. The proactive person is focused on their circle of influence which is a subset of their wider circle of concern. There are somethings we can’t change and there is no point being all consumed with these. Rather we become more effective as we focus our energy in areas where we have direct or indirect control.

Habit #2  Begin with the End in Mind

Covey illustrates the second habit by asking the reader to envisage their own funeral. We are invited to imagine the eulogy. How will we be remembered? What do we want people to be saying about us? What type of a person are we? We’re encouraged to look to the end and ask what we need to do in order to get there. The suggestion is made to develop a personal mission statement as a guide to a principle-centred life. This exercise pushes us to consider what matters most, what we value in life, what shapes and drives our choices.

It’s incredibly easy to get caught up in an activity trap, in the busyness of life, to work harder and harder at climbing the ladder of success only to discover it’s leaning against the wrong wall. It’s possible to be busy – very busy – without being very effective.  (p98)

Habit #3  Put First Things First

This habit challenges traditional ways of looking at time management. It moves beyond ‘to do’ lists, calendars and diaries, and even priority listing. Covey describes his approach as fourth generational time management that includes people and relationship needs alongside efficiency and results. He suggests we identify our key relational roles, set goals in each area, schedule weekly to address our goals, and adapt daily as required.

All activities can be defined as either important or unimportant, and urgent or non-urgent. Covey introduces a matrix to illustrate these variables and help us to put first things first. He argues that the more time we spend in quadrant 2, on non-urgent and important activity, the less time we need to spend on urgent matters, the less we experience burn out, and the more our personal effectiveness increases.

Habit #4  Think Win/Win

Relationships, work, ministry, teams, and life itself, will inevitably involve us in situations of disagreement and conflict. In many cases this ends very badly in a win/lose or even a lose/lose outcome. Unlike a game of rugby where win/lose is the desired outcome for players and fans (unless you’re on the losing side) win/win is the desirable goal for interpersonal relationships. Covey calls individuals and organisations to encourage and reward win/win solutions. He suggests following a four-step process:

First, see the problem from the other point of view. Really seek to understand and give expression to the needs and concerns of the other party as well as or better that they can themselves.

Second, identify the key issues and concerns (not positions) involved.

Third, determine what results would constitute a fully acceptable solution.

And fourth, identify possible new options to achieve those results.  (p233)

Habit #5  Seek First to Understand, then to be Understood

It doesn’t matter if we’re talking about marriage or work or international diplomacy, good communication is essential to good relationships. Seeking first to understand represents a paradigm shift for most of us. We typically want to be understood first and foremost. Instead of listening with the intent to understand, we listen with the intent to reply. Covey illustrates this with a quote:

A father once told me, “I can’t understand my kid. He just won’t listen to me at all.”  (p239)

I trust you can see the problem! In order to understand another person we need to listen to them. Empathic listening is required. We listen so as to understand, and then we get to communicate so as to be understood. In fact, we will do a far better job of communication if we’ve made the effort to understand the listener before we express our views.

Habit #6  Synergize

What is synergy? Simply defined, it means that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. It means that the relationship which the parts have to each other is a part in and of itself. It is not only a part, but the most catalytic, the most empowering, the most unifying, and the most exciting part.  (p262-263)

synergyIn order to achieve synergy, there needs to be high levels of trust and high levels of cooperation. This opens the door to creative outcomes and solutions. When there’s a lack of trust and cooperation, conflict, deadlock or compromise, may be the best that can be achieved. Synergy is achieved through the application of putting first things first, seeking to understand before seeking to be understood, and looking for win/win solutions. Covey describes the search for synergy as fishing for the third alternative. His more recent book entitled The 3rd Alternative examines this in much more detail.

Habit #7  Sharpen the Saw

This habit is focused on personal renewal. It’s illustrated by the story of a wood-cutter who takes a couple of minutes each hour to sharpen his saw, resulting in far greater effectiveness than the one who perseveres long and hard with a blunt saw. Covey identifies four dimensions to the self: physical, mental, social/emotional, and spiritual. He argues that a balanced lifestyle, that cares for and nurtures the self, will have a profound impact on personal effectiveness.

The physical dimension translates into issues of diet, exercise, rest and relaxation, and there are no quick fixes. He identifies such factors as prayer, meditation, religious literature, and music, in the spiritual dimension. The mental dimension means investing in the mind, strengthening and enriching it by reading, study and continued education. The social and emotional dimensions are tied together because of the significant impact of relationships on our emotional wellbeing. All four dimensions are important and the neglect of any will impact the other three.

Personal reflections

This book had a profound influence on me, especially as I sought to juggle or balance many important roles and responsibilities in life. How could I make investments in being a husband, a dad, a team leader, a pastor, a sports chaplain, a preacher/teacher, a trainer, and various other things all at the same time? I seemed to keep spending my life dropping one ball after another. I’d ignore some areas (often of vital importance) simply because other things had become more pressing.

Covey’s approach encouraged me to pay attention to each of my major roles every week. It urged me to focus on quadrant 2, non-urgent and important, activities. These are the activities that reap the greatest rewards down the track and they help keep us from being run ragged by the urgent. It also helped me understand why I often found myself in quadrant 4, the non-urgent and unimportant. This is the burnout zone, where you hide when you can no longer cope with all the demands upon you.

I followed this guide on a regular basis and encouraged our staff and trainees to do the same. It was very helpful. The emphasis on effectiveness over efficiency was especially important. I made sure I was investing in personal renewal areas. I’d keep developing long-term important goals and working towards them. I’d set aside time to reflect and examine how things were going, to plan and set a new course for the future. I even purchased a Seven Habits Diary to help me get it all together!

As a Christian I found that much of this book resonated with me, and it offered a framework for personal and time management that I could use consistently with my beliefs and values. My understanding is that Stephen Covey was not a Christian, but a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. While I’m certainly not a Mormon, and do not follow Mormon teaching, I found there was much in this book that I could apply to my life without compromising or abandoning my own beliefs.

But herein lies an important issue. We need to be clear on what our beliefs are. How can we assess the importance or relevance of these particular habits? What do we value? What really matters in life? What is the end that we should be heading towards? Covey’s book won’t answer these questions. If we have no clear principles, then we’re not going to find them by reading this or many other self-help type books. 7 Habits makes assumptions and claims about what matters matter that are based primarily on observation and experience. Some will read them and agree, others will look in other places.

I look to the Bible for my answers to these significant questions. I find my compass for life, as I trust in Jesus Christ and seek to follow his lead. The Bible offers me a guiding light for life and decision making. It shows me that wisdom is to be found by respecting God and honouring him in my thoughts, words and actions. Jesus provides the supreme example of one who truly began with the end in mind and followed this all through his life. He came to seek and to save the lost, knowing fully that it would cost him his life. He put the needs of others above his own. He depended on his heavenly Father and made time to escape the heavy demands upon him to spend time in prayer. He entrusted himself to God, in the face of of opposition and execution, for the greater goal of offering forgiveness and reconciliation to all.

If your life feels out of control, if you’re running on empty, dropping important balls all over the place, drowning in endless tasks, or dissolving into trivia… can I encourage you to take a step back and look at who you are and where you’re headed. I recommend you take a good look at the Bible, as I’m persuaded that it offers you the most accurate compass to follow. And if you’ve got that worked out, then I think you could do a lot worse than thinking through each of these 7 habits.

Why we need more churches

Late last year I was invited to speak at a conference on the topic Why we need more churches. It seemed a silly question really. Of course we need more churches. The population’s growing. We’re not keeping up. Denominations are dying. Church attendance is declining. Church buildings are being shut down or turned in restaurants, offices, trendy homes, and even funeral parlours.

But for me, it was and is a real issue. People confronted me with this question a number of times after hearing that we were moving to Darwin to plant a new church. Many were enthusiastic and supportive of our intentions, but others seemed to view it as invading their turf. Some denominational leaders said “We’ve already got churches up there.” One wrote to me and told me not to come because they had it covered. It was suggested we go somewhere else, where new churches were really needed. I met with one local pastor who warned me that the last thing they needed was people from ‘down south’ coming up and planting churches – despite the fact that he, and many other pastors I met, had done exactly this!

We faced the same issue in Canberra when deciding to plant a new church south of the lake. Some denominational leaders believed this would create a ‘competition’ with their churches. We were asked why people didn’t simply leave our church and join theirs, instead of starting another. It’s easy to get excited about new churches, until someone starts one in your neighbourhood.

Let me offer a number of practical reasons (with warnings) for why we need more churches, and then one theological reason.

Practical reasons why we need new churches

  1. Current churches are not effectively connecting with the Australian population. Some surveys suggest that 65% of Aussies don’t have a personal relationship with a Christian.
    We need to be careful here because we could increase the number of churches, remain in a religious ghetto, and still not connect with 65% of our population.
  2. Existing churches are perceived as irrelevant, out of date, oppressive, self-righteous, and a bunch of other things that keep people disinterested.
    It’s not ultimately perceptions or image that matters, but the reality of what is believed and practiced. It’s just as important for established churches to make an impact on people’s lives as it is for new ones. And who’s to say that new churches will be different? New churches could end up reproducing the problems of their founders.
  3. Someone once said of the church, “It’s easier to give birth than to raise the dead!” It’s true that some established churches will be harder to turn around than the Titanic, so maybe it’s better to leave them to sink and get people out into other boats.
    While this is often true, we shouldn’t cop out on the importance of revitalising wayward churches. I think it’s Mark Dever who has spoken of the 2 for 1 benefit of resurrecting dying churches. He sees it as both removing a bad witness in the community and adding a good witness. And it utilises existing resources.
  4. Geographical reach is an important strategic reason for planting new churches. While committed Christians might travel long distances to come to church, their neighbours or interested friends most likely won’t. This might lead to a city church giving birth to another congregation in a different part of the city, or a country church beginning a satellite church in a neighbouring town.
  5. Cultural reach is another driver for starting new churches. Some churches will never reach certain subcultures in their community. The language, dress, customs, activities of the church just alienate outsiders. Hence, a church might be planted to reach uni students, or an ethnic or language group, or mining workers, or some other group.
    While a church might be created to reach a certain demographic, the church needs to be open to anyone. It could begin with one type of people in mind, and discover the need to keep changing as it comes into contact with different people.
  6. Urban growth continues in some parts of Australia at a rapid rate. The number of churches is not keeping up proportionally with the size of the population. We can’t depend on town planners to allocate land or facilities for churches. We can’t assume denominations will add another franchise in the new housing development. Christians should see urban growth as creating new mission fields and the need for more churches tailored to connect with people in these centres.
  7. Of the many churches that exist, many seem to have lost the plot. They’re not what I’d call evangelical, that is grounded in the Bible and focused upon Jesus Christ – his offer of relationship with God and his call on people’s lives. Many churches have competing agendas or no apparent agenda at all. Some appear to be little more than middle-class religious clubs. Others are preoccupied with rituals and out-dated forms that veil the truth of the gospel. We need more churches that are teaching the Bible and proclaiming the good news of Jesus Christ.
    Mind you, the imperative is also to transform existing churches with God’s agenda.
  8. There’s a need to plant ‘church-planting-churches’. Very few churches in our country have planted daughter churches. Institutional thinking has left this to the denominations and it doesn’t always happen. If churches are planted with the DNA of planting more churches, then we create a multiplying (rather than simply adding) effect.
  9. Planting new churches re-energises people to serve. In large churches it’s easy for people to sit in the congregation and watch others do the work of ministry. The new group, or the core team for the new church, will easily see the needs and opportunities for ministry. There tends to be more urgency and importance placed on reaching out to others in new churches. Children’s workers, musicians, teachers, preachers, welcomers, carers, you name it – the new church needs them!
    The danger is that burnout often occurs. Many jobs are being filled by a few. The newly planted church needs to establish clear priorities and monitor people’s involvement carefully. Having lots of busy people doesn’t necessarily equal a healthy growing church.
  10. Planting new churches sharpens the vision for ministry. It requires people to ask the big questions of what are we doing, why, when, where and how? It forces people to get off the treadmill and set a deliberate course for the future.
    Once again, it’s important for existing churches to take stock and set a clear vision for their ministry. Planting a new church shouldn’t be seen as the easy alternative to making important changes in the existing one.
  11. It’s a good thing for the sending church. Planting a new church is always costly, so it helps the sending church to practice generosity. There’s a loss of people and relationships, money and resources, gifts and talents, vibe and comfort. If you’re the ones left behind it’s easy to feel like you’re the ones left behind! So we should see this as a fresh opportunity to grow and change, to step up and get involved, to refocus our vision, and to look toward planting again.

Theological reason why we need new churches

We could brainstorm and come up with dozens more practical reasons why it is important to keep planting new churches. And people already have! But the need for more churches isn’t essentially about pragmatics, strategy, analysis, or the latest trends. It’s not fundamentally needs driven.

There’s a deeper, broader, more profound, theological reason for why we need more churches. It’s at the core of the plans and purposes of God.

The church is at the heart of God’s design for humanity. We were created to belong to the church. It’s key to what it means to be truly human! Now all that might sound a bit weird, and you won’t find it taught in anthropology, psychology, sociology, or biology. You probably won’t even hear it taught in many churches. But it’s in the Bible and it needs to be taken seriously.

Take Ephesians 5, for example, a passage that gets preached at many weddings. It seems to be a passage about marriage, that gives instructions to husbands and wives. The Apostle Paul appeals to Genesis 2, man and woman in union together, as the foundation for marriage. But a careful reading shows something deeper going on…

31 “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.” 32 This is a profound mystery—but I am talking about Christ and the church.

The profound mystery isn’t the union of man and woman, it’s the union between Christ and his bride, the church. This is the core reality, the primary marriage. Humanity was created for union with Christ. That is, we were made to belong to Christ’s church and we experience this as we place our trust in Jesus Christ and respect his headship.

These ideas, introduced at the beginning of the Bible, find their climax and fulfilment at the end in Revelation 19…

Then I heard what sounded like a great multitude, like the roar of rushing waters and like loud peals of thunder, shouting:

“Hallelujah!
For our Lord God Almighty reigns.
Let us rejoice and be glad
and give him glory!
For the wedding of the Lamb has come,
and his bride has made herself ready.
Fine linen, bright and clean,
was given her to wear.”
(Fine linen stands for the righteous acts of the saints.)

Then the angel said to me, “Write: ‘Blessed are those who are invited to the wedding supper of the Lamb!’” And he added, “These are the true words of God.”

The ultimate event to participate in is the wedding between the Lamb, Jesus Christ, and his bride, the church. God is calling people to be ‘at one’ with his Son, our Lord and Saviour. This imagery highlights the extraordinary importance of being united to Jesus. This is what truly matters. This is the relationship we were made for. This is why the church is so important.

Of course, the church on view here is not St Blogs down the street, nor is it the denomination or institution. The church on view is the gathering of all who truly belong to Jesus Christ. This gathering finds its earthly expression as people give their lives to Jesus and meet together with others who have done the same.

It’s always been God’s plan to gather people to himself. His Son, the Messiah promised in the Old Testament, came to build his church. We see this in the climactic announcement about Jesus’ identity in Matthew 16…

13 When Jesus came to the region of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say the Son of Man is?”

14 They replied, “Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, Jeremiah or one of the prophets.”

15 “But what about you?” he asked. “Who do you say I am?”

16 Simon Peter answered, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”

17 Jesus replied, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by man, but by my Father in heaven. 18 And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it. 19 I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” 20 Then he warned his disciples not to tell anyonethat he was the Christ.  (emphasis added)

Jesus is the promised Christ or Messiah (these words mean the same thing). He came to take on the Messiah’s job description, that is to build his church. Not an institution, not a building of bricks and mortar, not a local spiritual club – but a gathering of people, belonging to God for all eternity. The church is not a social construct. It comes from the heart of a merciful loving God.

Why do we need more churches? Fundamentally, because God is calling people to belong to the church of Jesus Christ. We’re not talking about structures, organisations, denominations, buildings or campuses. We’re talking about the church of God, union with Christ, people coming to grips with what it means to be truly human.

Humanly speaking, this will come about in many ways – denominational and non-denominational strategies, revitalising existing churches, transplanting congregations to reach new areas, pioneering mission to connect with new people groups, people speaking with their friends and family, church planting organisations equipping people to lead new churches, and more.

From God’s own perspective, this is a seriously costly project. Jesus went to the cross and died so as to bring people into his church. Growing the church required the ultimate sacrifice of Jesus Christ himself. The church is deeply precious to God. It’s his treasured possession and therefore needs to be handled with great care. We see Paul encouraging the leaders of the church in Ephesus to take this seriously…

Keep watch over yourselves and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers. Be shepherds of the church of God, which he bought with his own blood.  (Acts 20:28, emphasis added)

Planting churches will also mean leading churches. It’ll mean teaching and warning people, loving and caring for people, equipping and mobilising people, serving and encouraging people, praying for and giving to people. Planting new churches should never be seen as the ‘easy option’, nor should it be adopted as the latest fad strategy. It’s hard work. It’s a costly project. It can take a lifetime. It should be embraced with humility, relying on God’s strength, and going about it God’s way, because it comes from the heart of God himself.


Silos, politics and turf wars

silosPatrick Lencioni is the guru of team work. His book, The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, is the place to begin. Then add Death by Meeting and Silos, Politics and Turf Wars and you’ve got an excellent tool kit for tuning up your team. This book is written primarily for executives in business who are seeking to align their organisations, departments and staff. I read it as the lead pastor of a church with multiple congregations, specialised ministries and a growing staff team. It helped me identify a number of areas that had been hampering our effectiveness as a team. The subtitle sums up its main message: about destroying the barriers that turn colleagues into competitors.

Our church would probably be considered mid to large on a scale of size and complexity for churches in Australia. We have three congregations meeting each Sunday (at one point we had four). There are forty to fifty small groups meeting throughout the week. We have children’s and youth ministries happening at various times and reaching around 250 young people. The church has sent and supports a number of home-grown missionaries. We provide staff and resources to university ministry on four local campuses. There are ten pastoral staff and seven ministry apprentices employed to work with the church and its associated ministries. All this means that we face many challenges in keeping people focused and cohesive as we pursue our mission together.

These challenges are experienced at a staff level with people on the team having different areas of responsibility. Some staff are deployed to work across multiple congregations, taking responsibility for connecting or growing or serving. Some have primary teaching/preaching responsibilities, whereas others work mainly with individuals and small groups. Some staff oversee teams on the different university campuses. One directs the youth ministry, another the children’s ministry, and another the ministry among international students. Some work from a church office, others work mainly from home, and a couple are most likely to be found in a coffee shop! It can be difficult getting everyone together, let alone working as a highly functioning team.

When it comes to team meetings that are working on church issues, it’s easy for the campus ministry staff to feel disconnected. If we spend time planning or reviewing the kid’s ministry, it might seem entirely unrelated to needs of the international student ministry. Different departments of the church can end up in competition for attention, people, budgets and resources. It’s easy to feel like my area is the most important and to resent the time wasted engaging with others’ concerns. Silos can arise in any organisation and growing churches are not immune. Sadly, divisions are far too common in churches. They can be found among staff and other leaders, and sometimes they can polarise whole congregations against each another. It’s so tempting to focus on ourselves and our areas of responsibility, and to forget that the church is called to a unity of people and purpose.

Silos, Politics and Turf Wars is full of practical wisdom for getting people and organisations together on the same page, supporting one another, sharing our problems, and celebrating our various successes and achievements. Lencioni offers a model for combating silos, consisting of four components:

  • A thematic goal
  • A set of defining objectives
  • A set of ongoing standard operating objectives
  • Metrics

Lencioni argues that determining the thematic goal is the key to aligning the organisation and its people. He defines this as a single, qualitative focus that is shared by the entire leadership team – and ultimately the entire organisation – and that applies for only a specified time period. (p178) This is different from a long-term vision, a five year plan or a ‘Big Hairy Audacious Goal’. It’s designed to focus the organisation over the next six to twelve months and provide clarity about what’s most important on the agenda over this period.

There should only be one thematic goal. If everything is considered equally important, then nothing ends up being important. However, the thematic goal needs to be broken down into a number of actionable defining objectives. These are the building blocks that clarify what is meant by the thematic goal. Everyone needs to be committed to these objectives, regardless of the role they have within the organisation.

The standard operating objectives are different. These are the objectives that don’t go away from period to period. These are the things the organisation needs to keep monitoring regardless of the current thematic goal. Depending on the business, these might include such topics as revenue, expenses, customer relations and so on. These aren’t the type of things to rally the organisation around, but they do require constant attention.

Once the thematic goal, the defining objectives, and the standard operating objectives have been established, it will now be important to measure progress. The leadership team will need to establish appropriate metrics.

Lencioni includes a number of fictional, but realistic, case studies at the back of his book. One of these case studies depicts a church and I will reproduce it (with modifications) to demonstrate how this model might work in practice. Don’t judge the details, but simply consider the illustration!

Situation:
Attendance at weekly services is up. More and more people are coming each week. The building size is limiting further growth. Regular giving is increasing. Many new people are not in small groups or serving in the life of the church.

Thematic goal:
Expand to enable healthy continued growth.

Defining objectives:
Add another Sunday service.
Offer more small groups.
Train more leaders for groups and other ministries.
Develop an integration process to assist newcomers into groups and ministry areas.
Add another member of staff.

Time frame:
One year.

Standard operating objectives:
Maintain attendance growth.
Maintain quality follow-up of all newcomers.

Maintain quality of Sunday services.
Maintain regular giving.
Increase numbers of people in small groups.
Maintain support and equipping for all leaders.

If you’re part of a growing organisation, and things are becoming more complex, and you’re keen to ensure people are clear on their roles and working as a team, then I expect you’ll find this a useful book. I recommend that you read The Five Dysfunctions of a Team before you read this one, because it’s more foundational and you’ll discover that they complement each other nicely. Like most of Lencioni’s books this is written as a ‘leadership fable’ so it’s very easy to read and the points are clearly summarised in the final section.

Death by Meeting

meetingA friend of mine had a fishing boat that he’d named A MEETING. It was brilliant really. He could be out fishing and if anyone called, his wife could ‘honestly’ let them know that he was in a meeting and he’d be back later (hopefully with dinner)!

My kids used to think that my job was to go to meetings. Sometimes I thought that too! Staff meetings, council meetings, leaders meetings, training meetings, congregational meetings, one-to-one meetings, committee meetings, annual general meetings, budget meetings, planning meetings, review meetings, vision meetings, administration meetings, board meetings, boring meetings, way too many meetings! If you didn’t enjoy having to read the word ‘meeting’ 16 times in the previous sentence, then you’re probably like many of us who don’t like seeing the word appear that many times in our diaries. Surely life wasn’t meant to be an endless sequence of meetings. In his book, Death by Meeting, Patrick Lencioni writes:

While it is true that much of the time we currently spend in meetings is largely wasted, the solution is not to stop having meetings, but rather to make them better. Because when properly utilized, meetings are actually time savers.  (p250)

In my line of work, I couldn’t see a way around having meetings, so I was a prime target for this book. I read it and I wasn’t disappointed! Death by Meeting is another ‘Leadership Fable’ in the same vein as The Five Dysfunctions of a Team. It hooks in the reader with a great story, making the book easy to devour, and finishes with a summary section that ties together all the main points.

Lencioni argues that there are two main reasons we don’t like meetings. Firstly, meetings are boring, tedious, unengaging and dry. Does this resonate with anyone?! Busy people forced to sit through boring meetings is a recipe for pain. Secondly, meetings are ineffective. Sometimes it’s impossible to see how they contribute to our organisations. All they seem to achieve is tying up people’s time and breeding resentment. I’m sure you know what he’s saying!

Problem #1: Lack of Drama

Lencioni brings his experience as a student of screenwriting to the topic of meetings. Why is it that we get excited about watching a movie for two hours, but cringe at the thought of a two hour meeting? He explains why meetings should hold greater appeal than movies. We get to participate and interact in a meeting, whereas we sit passively during a movie. Meetings can have a massive impact on what we need to do afterwards, whereas nothing much in our lives is affected by whether we watch a movie or not. The difference, he demonstrates, is that movies contain drama, tensions and conflict. And these are the same ingredients that make for good meetings.

People need to be hooked in to participating in a meeting from the outset. They need to be jolted into grasping how important this meeting will be, how dangerous it would be to make a bad decision or to fail to respond to a strategic opportunity.

Throughout meetings conflict should be encouraged, not avoided. Avoiding difficult issues ultimately leads to boredom and frustration. However, mining for conflict and disagreement opens the opportunity for productive, engaging, and even fun meetings! Leaders need to give people permission to disagree and explore contentious issues. This creates an environment of trust where individuals can be honest and constructive and it leads to better outcomes for the organisation. Lencioni writes:

The truth is, the only thing more painful than confronting an uncomfortable topic is pretending it doesn’t exist. And I believe far more suffering is caused by failing to deal with an issue directly – and whispering about it in the hallways – than by putting it on the table and wrestling with it head on.  (p230)

Problem #2: Lack of Contextual Structure

Too often our meetings lack clarity and purpose. Some topics take up all the time and never get resolved. Other matters are rushed through at the end without getting the scrutiny they need. Some agenda items are big picture, long range and visionary. They require research, preparation and time to consider. Other items are trivial and would be better dealt with outside of the meeting. What’s the point of our meetings? Lencioni writes:

The single biggest structural problem facing leaders of meetings is the tendency to throw every type of issue that needs to be discussed into the same meeting, like a bad stew with too many random ingredients. Desperate to minimize wasted time, leaders decide that they will have one big staff meeting either once a week or every other week. They sit down in a room for two or three or four hours and thrash everything out… Unfortunately, this only ensures that the meeting will be ineffective and unsatisfying for everyone.  (p235)

This book recommends there should be different meetings to fulfil different purposes. It offers a template of four basic types of meetings.

Meeting #1: The Daily Check-In

This is a 5 minute meeting, held at the start of each day, where each member of the team reports very briefly on their activities for that day. This meeting is to get everyone on the same page, clear about priorities, so that things don’t fall between the cracks, and people don’t step on each other’s toes.

Meeting #2: The Weekly Tactical

These meetings are focused on tactical issues of immediate concern. Lencioni recommends not setting agendas in advance for these meetings. Rather, what’s actually going on and what the organisation needs to be doing determine what get’s discussed. Discussion should be restricted to specific, short-term topics that require people to focus on solving problems. The two overriding goals of these meetings are the resolution of issues and the reinforcement of clarity.

These meetings should normally take place weekly and run for between 45 and 90 minutes. Of course, this will mean that there simply isn’t enough time to discuss many complex and important matters. Long-term strategic issues will be left unresolved. There won’t be the opportunity for brainstorming, analysis, or even preparation (as there is no prior agenda). When strategic issues are raised in the weekly meeting, it’s important for the leader to take them off the table and plan for them to be discussed in a different type of meeting.

Meeting #3: The Monthly Strategic

These are potentially the most interesting, important, and fun meetings for the team. This is where we deal with the big stuff, where we’re headed and how we’re going to get there. It’s important to set the agenda for these meetings so that people come prepared. Research, planning and preparation will be required if quality decisions are to be made. There should only be one or two topics on the agenda so they can each receive the attention they need. The duration of these meetings will vary, but Lencioni recommends scheduling two hours per topic to encourage good conversation and debate.

It’s important to schedule these strategic topic meetings. When we don’t hold them, our meetings are dominated by the urgent rather than the important, and we fall into the trap of simply doing the same old same old. Sometimes a topic will arise that can’t wait until the next monthly strategic meeting. In these cases, the leader should call an ad hoc meeting specifically to tackle this topic. Don’t fall back into the trap of stumbling over the topic in the weekly tactical meeting.

Meeting #4: The Quarterly Off-Site Review

Off-site meetings provide the opportunity to step away from the daily, weekly and monthly issues that dominate our time and thinking. They provide the time and space to sit back and take in the wider picture. In fact, getting away from the office (so to speak) often creates a freshness and energy that takes the team and the organisation to a new level.

Such meetings need more time, usually a day or two. They provide a relaxed environment free from normal distractions. They can be utilised for a variety of purposes, such as building relationships, enhancing teamwork, comprehensive strategy review, long range dreaming and planning, or exploring what the competition is doing.

A final thought on meetings

As a church pastor, my life and work and ministry has been dominated by meetings. At times they’ve been vibrant, productive, and fun. Often they’ve been dull, lifeless and a chore. This book has offered me cause to reflect and examine our meetings. It’s led me to make some helpful changes, to clarify the purpose of our meetings, and to introduce deliberate variety in our meeting program. But as I reflect, it’s the kind of book that needs to be read and re-read. It’s easy to fall back into unhelpful old patterns and for our meetings to lose their edge. I’ll finish with this quote from Lencioni:

Bad meetings exact a toll on the human beings who must endure them, and this goes far beyond their momentary dissatisfaction. Bad meetings, and what they indicate and provoke in an organisation, generate real human suffering in the form of anger, lethargy, and cynicism. And while this certainly has a profound impact on organisational life, it also impacts people’s self-esteem, their families and their outlook on life.

And so, for those of us who lead organisations and the employees who work within them, improving meetings is not just an opportunity to enhance the performance of our companies. It is also a way to positively impact the lives of our people. And that includes us.  (p253)

Sticky Church

Last year, I purchased the ‘wrong book’, and read it by accident – and I’m so glad I did. Sticky Teams had been recommended to me as a helpful book to consider our organisation and direction as a church, but I mistakenly ordered Sticky Church by Larry Osborne instead! It took me a while to appreciate that this was a different title by the same author. And it proved to be even more important in thinking about how we were doing church.

As a senior pastor/team leader/preacher I’ve applied myself to the crafts of leadership and communication over many years. There may be 100 or more books on my shelves touching on these areas. But I’d probably only read 3 or 4 books on the topic of small group ministry, and none that had really explored the strategic importance of a well integrated small group ministry in a growing church. Sticky Church has begun to fill this void and pushed me to explore other material in this vital, and yet overlooked, area of our ministry.

The book begins by tackling the matter of how we grow our churches. While many churches work hard to get people in through the front door, they leave the back door wide open and people don’t stick around. By contrast, Osborne’s church does no marketing, gets plenty of visitors and inquirers, and focuses on building genuine connections with those who come. In short, small groups are seen as the key to closing the back door, by building real relationships in a context of ministry, Bible, prayer, and life experience.

For the statisticians among you, think about this one:

Imagine two churches that each grew in attendance from 250 people to 500 people over a 10 year period.

Church A is a revolving door. It loses 7 people for every 10 it adds. To reach 500, it will have to add 834 new members of attenders.

Church B is a sticky church. It loses only 3 people for every 10 it adds. To reach 500, it has to add 357 new members or attenders.

On the surface, both churches appear to have doubled. But the revolving door church had to reach reach 834 new people to get there, while the sticky church only needed to reach 357.

Obviously, doubling attendance is a lot easier for the sticky church than for the revolving door church. No surprise there. But here’s the kicker: After ten years, the church with the big back door will have 500 attenders and 584 former attenders! And every year after that the spread between the number of ex-attenders and the number of current attenders will grow larger.

No matter what that church does to expand the size of the front door, it’s going to be hard to keep reaching people when the predominant word on the street is, “I used to go there.”  (p17-18)

Osborne is committed to having 80% or more of church attenders actively involved in small groups. He sees the groups as the hub of the ministry. And he sees this model as fully scalable. The same principles that make a church sticky with a hundred or so in attendance, continue to work as the church grows into the thousands. Osborne’s church, North Coast Church, is a mega church in Aussie terms and may lead some of us to tune out as to the relevance to our contexts. However, it took them five years to reach 180 attenders and another five to reach 750, and they worked hard at the small stuff along the way.

Sticky Church presents a model of sermon based small groups, where the preaching on the Sunday is followed up in people’s homes throughout the week. We can argue about the ups and downs of groups being sermon based, but let’s not miss the primary observation. Osborne writes:

It doesn’t matter if the groups are sermon based or not. Ours weren’t initially. All that matters is that a significant percentage of the congregation begins to meet in small gatherings outside the church building to share life and study the Bible together.  (p49)

I read over this book a couple of times, gave copies to all our pastoral staff, and used it as the basis for evaluation and planning at our staff week away last year. Here are some comments, relevant to our situation, that I pencilled into the inside cover of my book for our discussions:

How do we convey the value and importance of groups to the life of our church and the spiritual vitality of our members?

  • teaching ‘one another’ the word of God
  • developing authentic relationships and Christian community
  • encouraging people to share their lives and faith with others (in the groups and beyond)
  • helping more people take up opportunities to serve in the life of the church and our outreach
  • decentralising leadership and care of one another
  • experiencing more personal prayer in relationship with others

Growth in churches is often crippled by what Osborne describes as the ‘holy man myth’. This is the idea that pastors have a more direct line to God. They are seen as the ones who must teach, visit, pray, counsel, and do pretty much everything. Especially if we’re paying them to do it! Aside from the poor theology driving this myth, the harsh reality is that one man simply can’t do all these things. My observation is that if a church or its ‘holy man’ thinks he must do everything, then we are not likely to see the church grow beyond 100 to 150 people. Healthy small groups are a valuable means for decentralising the ministry, and empowering people within the church to use their gifts in service of one another.

This book promotes sermon based Bible study in small groups. Our church had only done this occasionally, usually for a specific purpose such as focusing the whole church on a theme. People expressed appreciation for the guidance and resources, but we’d never managed to keep it going. From my perspective it was hard enough getting the sermon done well, let alone adding the preparation of small group material. I’d seen others committing to it over the years, week in week out, and in some cases preparing their whole series of Bible study notes before the preaching even began. I would just sit back and marvel at how they could pull it off. I’d leave it for the Phil Campbells, Steve Crees, Craig Dobbies… it wasn’t for me!

But, Sticky Church has pushed us out of our comfort zone to develop a sermon linked small group Bible study strategy. We haven’t managed to write a series in advance yet. Mostly the studies are produced and distributed week to week, ‘just in time’ for leaders to work over material and prepare for their groups. They are sermon linked, rather than based, because we don’t want people just rehashing what the preacher said on Sunday. We want people getting back into the text, doing some work themselves, and applying it in their lives. Some groups like to follow the sermon with the emphasis on further exploration and application. Others have opted to precede the sermon with the study, aiming to get people more engaged in the observation and investigative processes, raising their questions, and whetting their appetite for a sermon to follow. Horses for courses, but I think that in our context we will benefit from a greater commitment to applying the Word in the context of relationship with one other after the sermon. So I’d tip the scales towards sermon first – small group studies afterwards.

There are a few things that have moved us in this direction. Feedback from some of our leaders has shown that they have worked hard on preparing Bible studies from scratch and devoted little or no time beyond this to leading and caring and promoting the ministries of others in their groups. Some haven’t even seen this as their role. (This probably says more about our poor communication of expectations and encouragement of leaders in their roles). Just focusing on preparing and leading studies is commendable at one level, but if we are seeking these groups to become ‘little church’, where people are being fed, encouraged, caring for one another, and encouraging each member to be connecting with people who don’t follow Jesus… then the leaders need to be helped to embrace a larger job description. Not simply preparing and leading studies, but leading people, and this takes time. If we can resource the leaders with material, this will give them a leg up. Some leaders follow our material pretty much as provided, while others use it as an aid for their own specific preparation.

We’ve also seen the positive benefits of having the entire church learning together the same or similar material. In fact, on the occasions we have been able to integrate youth and children’s material with the adult preaching and small groups, we’ve had great feedback from families. By linking to the sermons, people have had the benefit of the preacher’s hard work combining with the group working through understanding and application of the Bible together. As we put our sermons on line, people who miss church are able to download the talk before attending (or even leading) their small groups. This seems to be increasing people’s engagement with the Bible and with working through its implications for life.

Osborne’s church has worked to keep their groups aligned with the mission of the church. They are not seen as optional accessories, but integral to the church fulfilling its purpose. They desire to 1) enlist new followers into God’s kingdom; 2) train them how to live the Christian life; and 3) equip them and deploy them into service. Small groups are vital to this process.

There are some interesting particulars how about how North Coast Church groups function. People sign up for a term at a time, and are then asked to provide feedback at the end of each term, which includes indicating whether they will be remaining with the group the following term. Osborne says that providing a clear way out of groups has led to more people staying in. Groups are not divided into two as numbers increase. In fact, he has a whole chapter on Why dividing groups is a dumb idea. He notices that some people take forever to click with a group that works for them, and then we cruelly split their group and they’re lost again. Their answer lies in two strategies: starting new groups for new members, and hiving off leaders rather than dividing whole groups. We’ve basically adopted this approach and begun to see the advantages of moving newcomers through an introductory ‘connect’ course into a small group with the people they’re already getting to know.

There is some good stuff on finding and developing leaders. Look for spiritual and relational warmth in prospective leaders. Avoid hyperspiritual God-talkers and single-issue crusaders. Look to apprenticing leaders within existing small groups, or else find people with few preconceived ideas or baggage about how groups should be run and prepare them to play on the team. Grabbing a leader who did things differently in their previous church, without engaging them with the vision of your church, can spell disaster! And it’s better to ask for recommendations, rather than asking for volunteers.

I also appreciated the creative rethink on how we go about training leaders. The emphasis is on preparing leaders on the job, for the job. Keeping the information flow with resources, encouragement, tips, suggestions, and ensuring that groups are well connected with the wider ministries and mission of the church is vital in equipping our leaders. This hasn’t been our strength to date, and we’re seeking to improve. Osborne also addresses the different needs of rookie and veteran leaders. This is something we should probably consider more.

Finally, the last section of the book includes tips for preparing sermon based studies. For mine, this is not the high point of the book, but it’s worth reading as we review our approach and strategies. And there are a number of appendices that show how North Coast Church puts their model into practice.

I’m very glad that I stumbled onto this book. Not simply because of it’s great ideas and practical common sense, but especially because it reminds me that if we’re expecting our small groups to be the hub of our ministry, and a primary pastoral care context, and the leaders to run with this vision, then we must invest more in helping them to work well.