Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Advice to Young Leaders #10 of 10 - Don't Be Too Needed

This is the last post of ten in my series of advice for younger leaders. Here are the links to the previous nine:

10. Don't let people need you too much.

Advice #10: Don't let people need you too much.

Thanks to those of you who have been around for the entire advice-giving journey. I have enjoyed the process more than I had expected. It has caused me to think through the reasons why I do some of the things I do. I'd like to think that maybe I am a better leader for this effort - or at least a more deliberate one.

This last bit of advice may be the hardest for me to verbalize, but I believe a key to Christian leadership is finding a way to lead in such a way that the need for your leadership diminishes. This is counterintuitive in business, politics and economics.  A major consideration of the leaders in the "world" is their own sustainability and progression as a leader. Politicians are always campaigning. CEO's are watching their backs. Celebrities are tirelessly image-building. In the world, part of leadership is about personal gain. In the Kingdom, we have already died to ourselves. Leadership is about God and his reign - not us. We don't get to be the King.

So it gets a little complicated. The people we lead need us to let them need us. But they need God more. Our task as Christian leaders is, at least in part, to slowly and methodically disappear over time. We need to be ever mindful that the Kingdom of God is eternal and will exist far beyond our influence. Leadership is stewardship. Leaders do a terrible disservice to their followers when they build organizations or cultures dependent on the leader himself.

I never feel successful in a leadership environment until I can imagine walking away with very few people noticing. This has always been a conviction of mine, though in my early ministry experiences I was not very successful at accomplishing it. I held onto some things too long. I left other ministries too abruptly or too early. I made significant decisions out of my pain instead of from the heart of a spiritual father. As I have gotten older, I have done a little better at leaving ministries better than when I found them...and ready to move on without me.

God may have me at The Vineyard for the rest of my life. I think longevity is a virtue and I'd love to be known as a leader who has staying power. But staying in the same place doesn't mean staying the same. The longer I am here, the more I need to become dispensable. Many pastors fall into "old world" thinking. They need to be needed. It not only feeds their egos, but it provides a sometimes-real sense of security. "If they need me, they won't get rid of me." This might be a good way to think in the corporate world, but this isn't a's a calling. Your job is to be faithful to it.

Monday, July 26, 2010

The Kingdom and The Powers

This past weekend I spoke about the Kingdom at VCC. I was asked by several people to provide the diagram that I drew on the flip chart during my talk. My friend Chris was nice enough to send me over a pdf of his notes. (Check out Chris' blog at

I will attempt to explain it briefly here, but if you have more interest, check out the weekend teaching at this link.

The rectangle represents the world...the way life really is. Imagine the diagram without the circle in the middle. There are powers at work in the world that shape and control us. In my mind, the four biggest powers at work in the world are economics, politics, violence and religion. These powerful systems seek to make us all pawns. They control us and reduce us to less-than-human playthings under their control. The four powers dance in and out of each other, creating the world we live in.

The reality of living under the control of these powers creates certain values or mantras that we live by. Chris listed a few of these at the top of the rectangle. Things like "Look out for #1," "Watch your back," or "I'm gonna get mine." That is the world we live in.

The circle in the triangle represents the reality-altering event of the coming of Jesus to earth. With Jesus came a new realm or reality that seeks to overcome the reality dominated by the fallen powers. Jesus's primary message centered on the current advent and future expansion of this new God-realm. Most translations of the New Testament use the word "Kingdom" for this "Jesus bubble" where he reigns and makes the rules. Jesus will often call it the "Kingdom of Heaven" or "Kingdom of God" or sometimes simply, "Heaven." My conviction is that regardless of what phrase he uses we are talking about "the current and future realm where God reigns with his people." This is my working definition for both of the words normally translated "Kingdom" and "Heaven" with a few minor exceptions.

When the religious leaders asked Jesus to give them the most important command in the Law, he responded that (in his realm) what matters most is love: loving God first, then other people. It is love that creates our lifestyle (culture, norms, values, etc.) The world (outside of the bubble) has its values. We have ours. Ours is love. Everything that we value and do within God's current and future realm flows from love. The commands of Jesus teach us how to live within a society dominated by love.

So, the "gospel" or good news in context of Jesus' primary message is that the system of the world is using and abusing people. We are slaves to that system and need to be liberated - not by some abstract concept of freedom - but by entering Jesus' realm and becoming God's servants. This is why Jesus' most common salvation language is to "enter" or "receive" the new realm (kingdom). We are saved when we leave (repent) the old system and begin to live within the new alternative kingdom.

This is the undercurrent of understanding needed to live out Jesus' commands like, "Seek first the realm (kingdom) of God and his lifestyle of love (righteousness) and all these things (food, clothes, etc) will be added to you as well."

Jesus believed that the realm of God had come to earth through him. He also believed that it had not fully come. It is now in the process of rapidly expanding. One day, after the resurrection of all things, God will destroy what is left of the system dominated by the powers and fully reign again over all of his creation. For now, we advance forward to that day.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Advice to Young Leaders #9 of 10 - Be Part of Your Church

This is the ninth post of ten in my series of advice for younger leaders. Here's the working list:

9. Be part of your own church.
10. Don't let people need you too much.

Advice #9: Be Part of Your Own Church.

The best leaders lead from their life more than their words. The way a leader lives will inevitably, for better or worse, influence his or her followers toward the same lifestyle. If you lead at 100 mph, your followers will sprint at that same pace until they collapse. If you lead from sluggish apathy, you will have apathetic followers. My favorite leaders are the once who have a way of pushing their followers to new and unprecedented places while maintaining a healthy, sustainable pace for them.

We need to be careful to lead in the tangible and practical world, not isolated within our idealistic theoretical one. When I planted my first church I set up a series of programs around key issues that were important to me. Programatic based ministry is attractive to leaders because it (in theory) creates a manageable system for care and growth. If everyone just does the right programs (and the programs actually work) then everyone in your ministry will be growing. This is why a lot of modern "contemporary" churches look the same - they ask people to come to a church service on Sunday to worship, pick another time to serve, pick another program to reach out to the poor, invite your non-Christian friends to yet another special event, and of course be in a small group where you can have genuine, meaningful relationships. Maybe Sunday morning isn't deep enough for you and you will also need a midweek Bible Study. Then, of course, as you grow and become a leader you will likely be asked to attend training and leadership meetings.

This programatic-driven structure will have at least one effect - it will make you and your people very busy. To be fair, some people thrive in this jam-packed system. But many others do not. I do not believe that programs are evil. I like programs and events. I even believe that a strategically timely program, event or class can change the trajectory of a person's life. (In a previous post I talked about how taking improv classes radically changed me.)

The main point of all of this is that as leaders we must be aware of what we are actually asking people to do. Personally, I do not function optimally working 40-60 hours/week, loving my family and friends, and doing my missional hobbies while also trying to attend 5 or more additional church meetings per week. I can't sustain that for the long haul. If the leader can't sustain the systemic requirements, very few others will be able to...and almost nobody will want to.

What I am able to do is have friends. I'm a big believer in living within a holistic Kingdom community. I can learn to create a life with my friends that is worshipful, educational and generous. It is actually easier for me to understand how to use my spiritual gifts within the context of my friends than in a larger organization. If every small group at my church is growing toward becoming sustainable, holistic communities of faith, then we are onto something noteworthy. The programs (church services, outreaches, classes, etc.) can function as stopgaps for our communities as we move past our current inadequacies. But the goal is for every follower to be in a relational, holistic, missional, sustainable Kingdom community. This is church really. In my understanding, the programs exist only to help people be the church. The summation of the programs isn't church...the people are.

Maybe you aren't in the same place as me with this stuff. That's fine. The point of this post isn't to convince you to value a holistic model over a programatic one. The point is that you should clearly know what you really care about - what you really want people to do - and, most importantly, what you yourself are ready to model everyday for the rest of your forseable future. As a leader, I can certainly influence people toward aspects of my ministry that I am not personally involved with that might be helpful to them. (For example, I can encourage someone struggling with drug addiction to attend a support group even though I am not currently needing one.) It would be unreasonable to expect the leader to do and be a part of everything in an organization. But there are some essential things that I expect and ask everyone who follows me to incorporate into their lives. I cannot really lead my people unless I fully commit and live out those "essentials." It is always a bit of a head tilt when I hear a pastor tell me that they aren't in a small group or giving to their church or inviting people into their community or whatever. To put it simply, you can't lead a church unless you are a part of the church. 

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

The Gospel as Relational Story

I just wanted to post a link to a great (short) article by Donald Miller on the narrative nature of the gospel. Check it out here.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Advice to Young Leaders #8 of 10 - Influence.

This is the eighth post of ten in my series of advice for younger leaders. Here's the working list:

8. Influence.
9. Be part of your own church.
10. Don't let people need you too much.

Advice #8: Influence.

I don't read John Maxwell much anymore, but when I was a young leader I read several of his books. A quote of his that has stayed with me through the years is "leadership is influence." I still come back to that basic definition of leadership most everyday. If I am truly leading someone, then I have influence over their decisions, actions and beliefs. 

As we have already seen in this series, influence is a tricky thing. I see two extreme reactions emerge as people struggle with the inherit messiness of being an influencer. All leaders have mixed motives. Some of us want to lead (influence others) because we love to be in charge. There are lots of different reasons why we love to be in charge, but it normally comes down to believing that we can do a better job of leading than whoever is currently leading (or not leading). Many young leaders fall into this category. Without a doubt, this is what motivated me to be a leader/influencer in my early years. I don't want to say that this motivation is necessarily wrong. Leaders need to reinvent. Most great leaders lead from some sort of holy discontent with the status quo. The problem comes when, after years of leading, you realize that while you may be addressing the things you thought were "wrong" you are only creating other messes in other areas. In essence, you will see that you may not be a much better leader than the people you used to criticize.

This can bring about the second extreme response I notice in people. Some very capable influencers make the choice to stop leading because of their awareness of their own inadequacies. This is a hurdle that must be crossed. If you used to be a leader, but are not one now that may mean that you are ignoring a gift embedded into you by the Holy Spirit. I like the way that the ESV version of the Bible translates Paul in Romans 12. It says, "Let him who leads do so with zeal." Leaders need to be free to be zealous - not hiding in the corners.

It seems to me that many of the best leaders have gone through a journey that looks something like this:

1. A holy discontent with the status quo.
2. A decision to do something heroic about it.
3. An aggressive initiative to lead others to 1.) see the problem and 2.) fix it.
4. A season of relative success.
5. A massive failure. (either to accomplish #3 or another failure while accomplishing #3)
6. An exodus from leadership.
7. A time of isolation and healing.
8. An (often reluctant) acceptance of a new leadership initiative.
9. Serving from a place of brokenness/humility with more of a focus on God and people than the problems of the status quo.

This has been my personal journey anyway. I have not been at it long enough to know if there are other stages past #9. I have seen others in my posit . ion start the entire process over again, as if it were a never ending circle where #9 leads back to #1. I hope it doesn't work that way. I have seen people go through the entire process only to forget the lessons learned from their failures. At this point in my life, I only follow level 9 leaders. That's why I came to VCC - it's full of them.

It is also difficult to know if the process can be avoided at all. I would love for the younger leaders in my  life to go straight from #1 to #9, but I have a hunch it doesn't work that way. Maybe the key is simply being aware - instead of dreaming about the day when you will be a great dynamic leader try to dream about a day when you will be utterly broken and humble.

Regardless of where you are in the process, if you are a leader you are influencing people. Make sure to influence a few people deeply. Have a few key followers who have special access to your life and schedule. From there, you will notice ripples of influence. The more you lead, the more you will influence people you are not in relationship with as well. This is a good thing, but only if you remember that your first priority as a leader is to influence your true "disciples." 

I started blogging almost ten years ago before anyone even knew what a blog even was. I started for one primary reason - so that I could expand my influence on anyone who might allow me into their life. It seemed like a free and easy way to lead people toward the Kingdom. Blogging has been an odd and somewhat tortuous journey for an introvert. Blogging, like a toppling domino, has given way to Facebook and Twitter. These are all activities that, were I not a leader, I would resist. Because I am a missionary in an increasingly cyber-based culture who wants to influence people to see the reality of the Kingdom, I embrace these things. That's also why I now write books. If someone wants to read the things that are important to  me, I'd like them to do so. Ultimately, this is also why I have a job speaking to 6,000 people each weekend when I personally prefer having church in my living room. I have accepted the calling to be an influencer. 

I firmly believe that those things are the result of trying to influence relationally one person at a time in my own little world. I certainly didn't set out to work at a mega church, have a billion Facebook friends or write a novel. 

So, if people want to follow you, let them. That means you are a leader. Positions matter very little in leadership. Influence is what matters. Lead with zeal, but learn to lead humbly from your failures more than from your successes. Use what the culture gives you to influence people toward the Kingdom...just be careful to not believe your own press when it comes. But, lead with zeal for God's sake. The reality is that you can become the sort of person who, by your very nature and presence, will nudge people toward a God who loves them. You can influence for God...and that's a pretty cool gig.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010


File this under the "take your own advice" file for me. I've been doing a series on leadership with recent posts on loving your city and offending the right people. I failed to follow my own advice with a recent tweet that I sent from Indianapolis last week. 

I was enjoying hanging out downtown Indy with my kids and thinking about how it has been hard for us as a family to connect with downtown Cincinnati. What I feel good about is that I was thinking about Cincinnati while away. That may be a sign that my heart is growing closer to her. What I rather foolishly tweeted was: Dear cincinnati city planners: visit indianapolis and take a few notes.

Looking at it now, it reads very hateful and somewhat out of character from the way I normally talk. I don't know the city planners or even what they really do. It was just dumb - I was having a blast with my family in an urban environment and thinking about home. I should have tweeted nothing...or maybe "we're having a blast in Indy." It is reflective of something I have had problems with in the past. I try to word things in a creative way and come off sounding like a jerk. (Or maybe at my core I am a jerk and sometimes don't always take the time to temper my words.)

I'm not sure how to apologize to a city, but I am sorry to Cincinnati and the planners for using hateful words to talk about things I don't really know much about in the first place. This is a perfect example of something that is fine to think, but does no benefit to say publicly. This morning I felt like I should take at least a little of my own advice when I said that when you do something stupid, you should immediately apologize. Thanks to my buddy Steve and others for pointing this out...

Monday, July 12, 2010

Advice to Young Leaders #7 of 10 - Get Serious about a Hobby

This is the seventh post of ten in my series of advice for younger leaders. Here's the working list:

7. Get serious about a hobby.
8. Influence.
9. Be part of your own church.
10. Don't let people need you too much.

Advice #7: Get serious about a hobby.

My life changed the day I allowed myself to have a little fun. I was clinically depressed most of my first five years in vocational ministry. Church work can destroy a person in a hurry. Church leaders know all too well the stakes for which we play. Most of us are drawn to ministry because we a have a sober understanding that people are hurting, lonely and in need of Jesus and his Kingdom. Every decision we make has eternal consequences to the people we serve. It is an emotionally heavy burden to be a minister.

As a result, many of us tend to pour our entire lives into our particular ministry. "It is worth the sacrifice," we say. The younger we are, the faster we can run. We don't think about the pace of our lives when we are young. We sprint...until we collapse. The thought of doing something simply because it is personally enjoyable feels selfish and shallow compared to the life-and-death calling we have received. I get that. I still, at times, feel a little guilty when I go on vacation or skip a "ministry" event for personal reasons. But, for the most part, that's an unhealthy approach to all of this. God doesn't need me to be everywhere to do what He wants to do.

Almost a decade ago, at the height of my depression, Debbie gave me the greatest Christmas gift of my life. She enrolled me into the introduction to improv class with The Second City in Las Vegas. I had confessed to her on multiple occasions that, had my life taken a different turn, I would have loved to have been an actor. I was captivated by improvisation most of all. I felt like, given a chance, I could do it well. But, at that time in my life I felt as though I was destined to be a pastor and a pastor only. Any hobby or interest outside of the church would surely prove to be a distraction. In her wisdom, my wife took matters into her own hands.

Within five minutes of my first improv class I knew everything had changed. I clearly remember thinking, "so this is where people like me end up." I had always felt somewhat out of place at church, but not at The Second City. I was with my people - my tribe. I was home. I never loved anything so quickly and deeply as I did improv. I scheduled my week around those early classes. I thought about improv all the time. It was filling something important missing in my life...more accurately, it was fulfilling something important missing in my faith.

As a result of my new hobby, within a year I had things I had never had in my life: I had a safe place to be me. I had a new group of friends who did not self-identify as Christians. I had a new discipline and tradition to learn. But most of all, I had a place to have fun. 

I also had a breakthrough. I realized that I should not call anything impure or unclean that God is willing to redeem. My improv classes were the holiest part of my life in those days. It was where I met God every week. Most of my improv friends weren't the church-going type, but I was able to bring Jesus with me and introduce him to them. I now have friends from years of learning and performing improv all over the world. I'd like to think that some of them know Jesus a little better because I brought him with me into the process. 

The biggest breakthrough of all was this - that though I was a professional pastor, most of my actual ministry was being done within the reality of my hobby. It was within the improv and acting communities that I formed genuine real-world friendships with people. It was with these new friends that I had the most genuine and authentic conversations about God. They became, in many ways, my first church.

Since the day I walked into The Second City first level class, I have never stopped improvising. Even when I was acting professionally, I made sure to keep improv as a hobby. Improvisers are my people. I love them...and for some reason, they love me - even the most militant atheists among them. We have something in common - an art and belief system that keeps us together.

Obviously, improv isn't for everyone. What is your thing? What is the thing in your life that you would love to do, but it sounds too shallow or selfish to be considered ministry? I have friends who have found their first church in basketball, poker, garage bands, golf, role playing games, fashion design and paintball. What if God himself has put that seemingly child-like desire in your heart for a reason? Maybe he is calling you into a community where you can love and be loved, know and be known. Maybe hobbies matter more than work sometimes. Find your holy ground...find your bliss and you may also find your greater purpose as a missionary. 

And a side-note for leaders who have vocational ministers working under your responsibility. I would encourage you to make it a top priority for your staff to engage in a hobby they love. If you have to, make it part of their "work hours." It will only make them better missionaries, more connected in your community and more engrafted into the culture. It will grow your ministry.

Saturday, July 03, 2010

Advice to Young Leaders #6 of 10 - Offend the right people.

This is the sixth post of ten in my series of advice for younger leaders. Here's the working list:

6. Decide whom you will offend before offending them.
7. Get serious about a hobby.
8. Influence.
9. Be part of your own church.
10. Don't let people need you too much.

Advice #6: Decide whom you will offend before offending them.

This series is written for leaders and future leaders. If you are a real leader, there is one truth that you will be unable to avoid: you will offend people. Jesus offended people. It is impossible to read his story any other way. It was his offensive words and practices that ultimately brought about his arrest and death on the cross. To lead is to offend, but that doesn't mean that to offend is to lead. Whom you choose to offend and not offend will determine the kind of church or ministry you lead. It will set the tone.

Here are three guidelines that I try to follow in this matter:

1. Try not to offend people accidentally.

Be smart about what you say, when you say it and to whom you say it to. I use a lot of humor when I teach, but I try to not go for a joke that will meaninglessly offend someone to the point where they cannot hear my message. Sometimes I do use humor to purposely make a segment of my audience uncomfortable, but that is not what I am talking about here.  For example, I don't make jokes about the Cincinnati Bengals when they play badly because we have had some of them visit VCC on occasion. Would you want to go to a place to learn about God only to have the spokesperson make fun of your performance at work? Probably not. As leaders, every word we say matters. That may not seem fair, but it is the reality of leadership. I know a few leaders who consistently say things they dislike are "gay" or "retarded." When I have asked them to consider choosing their words more carefully, they tend to say I am "too PC." I would wager a pretty penny that they don't have many homosexuals or adults with special needs in their ministry. Here's the deal, leaders: You aren't allowed to say whatever you want anymore. Use your head. Think before you speak. Ruthlessly disallow yourself to mindlessly offend people...because you are going to have to purposely offend some others and you can use all the advocates you can get.

2. Don't offend people over your unimportant opinions.

If you are a leader, you probably have strong opinions on everything from politics to economics to the lack of salary cap in Major League Baseball. You have lots of opinions because you are wired to bring change. The problem is that your opinions can screw up everything if you let them. Nothing will derail a leader quite like caring (or talking) too much about things that do not really matter. You have a simple leadership mandate - to proclaim the availability of the Kingdom of God through Jesus. When you state your opinion as clear fact, your followers will marry it with the good news of the Kingdom - possibly for the rest of their lives. You are adding your opinion to the gospel. Similarly, when you state your opinion as opinion you are still letting those who follow you know that you believe that opinion has great Kingdom significance. When you refuse to state your opinion on a subject, you are saying that you cannot yet be trusted to make a Kingdom-centered verdict on the matter - that it, effectively, "doesn't really matter."

I live my life with a 10-20-70 mindset on my opinions. 10% of my opinions are foundational. I will allow myself to fearlessly state them as fact to anyone who asks. 20% of my opinions are personally important convictions that I will publicly discuss, but only as my opinion. 70% of the conclusions I have come to will never be publicly expressed. Maybe if we are "real world" friends I'll tell you what I think about something after a few brews, but only after I trust that my sharing that particular opinion with you will not influence you toward or away from it. In other words, most of what I believe isn't that important compared to the gospel of the Kingdom. I think most Christian leaders invert this formula, in part because people love to follow leaders who have strong opinions. Just because people want a leader who is a know-it-all doesn't give you and me the right to pretend to know it all so that they will follow us. In the long run, that's a tried and tested formula for hypocrisy and deceit.

This is how it all works for me: Examples of "10%" non-negotiable opinions would be things like a confessional creedal faith, Jesus as King and Kingdom-bringer, community as foundational to life, and the hope of the resurrection of the dead. The "20%" category of my stated and voiced opinions include a call to non-violence, the primacy of storytelling in Christianity, and the danger of patriotism for Kingdom people. (It's July 4th, so that is on my mind today.) I also have "70%" opinions on universal heathcare, gay marriage, Calvinism, creation vs. evolution, legalizing marijuana, and a host of other hot button topics. I have opinions on them...but I'm keeping my mouth shut. (And don't try to'd just be half-right and half-wrong anyway.) If I make any of those issues too important then I would lose my Kingdom mandate and authority. There may be a day when one of those issues moves up into the 20% category of my stated opinions, but that day is not today. I would rather spend any influence equity a person is willing to give me on showing them the Kingdom vs. trying to get them to share some religious or political opinion with me.

3. Purposefully offend the right people.

This is actually the part I hate about leadership. I have never once in my life woke up and thought, "I'd really enjoy doing something today to hurt or anger someone." I hate being hated. I like to be liked and I like even more to be anonymous. I'm an introvert with a relatively fragile psyche. I also loathe creating pain in others. That's worse than anything. Nothing in me wants to stir the pot...

Except that I am a follower of Jesus. Jesus clearly taught us that some people deserve to be offended. In my "20% level" opinion, it is normally the blindly religious who should be forced to endure a verbal jab now and again. If you are leading at your church or ministry for your own worth, ego or fame then you are sinning and should quit your ministry tomorrow. Your sin is worse than the other sinners in your church because you have taken the Bride of Christ for your own mistress. Basically, you're raping Jesus' soulmate in broad daylight in front of everyone you lead. And if that is true of you...and my voicing it causes you pain or anger, then I've done my job. You deserve to be offended.

It also seems appropriate for us to offend what Paul calls "the powers of this world." The role of the church and her leaders is to be a faithful witness of the Kingdom in the face of these very real and dangerous powers. Our very presence will frustrate the powers of politics, religion, violence and economics. Again, in my "20% level" opinion, we do this best not by our many words or actions, but by living within the reality of our own countercultural economy and politic. Our stubborn existence under the realm (kingdom) of YHWH combined with the strategy of The Cross (death-to-self) offends them because it shows the cracks on their armor. Our power is simply more real than theirs...and the fact that we are still here believing ourselves to have life apart from all they think they give us offends them.

That said, we should desire peace above all. As much as it depends upon you, live at peace with everyone - even the religious nuts in your church. But if you lead, you will certainly offend people. If you offend someone accidentally or for the wrong reasons, be quick to humbly apologize and make it right. But offend those who need to be offended for the sake of the Kingdom unapologetically. It's part of leadership.

Hang in there, leaders. Our series will continue on a brighter note in the next post. I'll explain why you should be having more fun than you are now...and what you should do to get there.