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The Game You’re In (part one)


As a professional coach to ministers I get to invest my life in catalytic conversations. Conversations that produce change. And, change that transcends behavior.  It’s a change in being.

Clients have the opportunity to fundamentally shift the way they perceive themselves, their challenges, their ministry context, and those in it.

Conventional coaching, I think, is often tactical. What to do and how to do it better.

Many coaches help people do things better. Coach and client move from obstacle to obstacle and from one context to another: office, marriage, staff, elders, family, congregation.

While the client receives benefit, the rate of motion can be glacial. And that’s not good enough.

To support a leader to make rapid movement and to sustain that rate of change over a lifetime, it is helpful to engage on a different level. To provoke awareness and champion responsibility at the core of the client’s self-understanding:

1. Who are you?

2. Why do you think you’re here?

3. What difference are you alive to make?

4. What will it look like when it happens?

In short: What “game” are you in?

See, every one of us gets to choose “the game” we’re in. Clear about that, you can give yourself to your life without reservation. Without limitation.

Imagine twin brothers. Both with Olympic dreams… and Olympic talent.

One in the shot put. 

The other in fencing.

Everything about how these athletes live will be determined by the “game” they’ve chosen: what they eat, how they exercise, the muscles they develop, their physical conformation, vision, stamina, quick twitch muscle development, leg strength, etc, etc. We can know little about what it takes to excel at fencing or shot put, and recognize that the decisions of each athlete will be far different.

The “game” you’re in determines how you “play”.

Now, let’s say your in a difficult marriage. All marriages get difficult at times, and many times these difficulties reveal much about the “game” each spouse is in.

In one marriage, the partners are committed to equality. What each wants is fairness: I do my part and you do yours. We contribute equally. No one gets taken advantage of. It’s the “game” this first couple is in.

In another marriage, each spouse is committed to be a gift of love to the other. Without condition. Without reference to their mate’s generosity, responsiveness, or reciprocation. To be “love” to the other. This is the “game” the second couple is in.

And, the game they’re in, determines everything about how they play.

Doesn’t it?


Coaching Distinctions #30

The Meaning we Make Up (part eight)


Today, we finish our discussion about creating meaning for the experiences of life, so they make sense.  We humans have a pretty tough time just letting life unfold… especially when what unfolds is awful.

We want to be little “gods” reigning supreme over the affairs of our and others’ lives as if we’d been imbued with divine wisdom, consistently choose the moral high ground, and suspend self-interest when it invites us to break from principle.

But, we don’t have divine potency and still, we want to run things—and often live as if we do.

So, how do you decide what your life’s experiences mean?

Last time, I invited you to consider that, above all else, God’s intention is to grow you to maturity in Christ. [Jas 1:4] Second, that you who are in Christ, are (present tense) God’s poema: God’s masterpiece, prepared to do good in the world. [Eph 2:10]

Your “world”.

The God of the universe claims you to be the work of his creative artistry so that good gets done through you.

To these, we add one final perspective to help you interpret life.

Society suggests that, for most, life is horribly unfair and often cruel. Different subcultures have their own villains and scapegoats upon whom they pin responsibility for injustice.

More common is the assumption of causality: what I get, I deserve. If something good happens, I merited it. If trouble, I earned that too.

Against these views stands Romans 8:28: “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.”

For those who sincerely love and follow God, in every experience of life God is working for good. This doesn’t mean everything that happens is good. It means, in the midst of it, God intends to work it out for good—specifically for your good. 

When working with dozens of pastors who are my coaching clients, I challenge them to search for the good in the midst of trouble. And I coach myself this way too.

In Acts 14. Paul is in Lystra healing the sick and pointing to Christ, like a champ. Next thing you know, he gets beaten within an inch of his life! The cultural assumption is that Paul blew it. He did something to provoke that attack.

Yet, you don’t see Paul collapsing in a puddle of tears. He doesn’t give up the ministry because some mob almost killed him. He (apparently) gets prayer, then he and Barney head off to Derbe where they win a bunch of people to Christ.

Buoyed by the reality of Rom 8:28, you can face life’s setbacks with stamina in the hope that God’s at work for your good…if you choose to believe it.


Coaching Distinctions #29

The Meaning we Make Up (part seven)


We’re almost thirty entries into this series examining distinctions I regularly use when coaching pastors and Christian leaders. This is the seventh of eight blogs focused on the very common—and debilitating—human drive to have life make sense…even when it doesn’t.

So, when the events of life don’t make sense, we invent our own meaning and hold it as true, even when it contradicts scripture. 

For the last six segments I’ve invited you to suspend the practice of attaching a meaning to yourself, others, and life’s experiences.  Now, I want to contradict myself—sort of.

In the Bible it’s clear: God is sovereign and loving.

And, God speaks. I believe it and I believe God has spoken to me. I can also attest that when my circumstances have been most challenging, confusing, and confounding God has often been silent.

In those moments when I most ardently demanded that God explain things to me—God was silent.  

Oftentimes, later I learned valuable insights that helped me understand some of what God intended by allowing me to experience what occurred. The fourth chapter of Ephesians provides an invaluable frame through which to understand God’s priority for you and me: that we “become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.” [Eph 4:13b]

See, God wants us to grow up before we grow old.

Christ-likeness is God’s aim for you and me. And, God will shape the events of your life to assist your growth toward maturity in Christ, if you’ll submit to its rigor. And, that choice is always yours to make.

Usually “submitting to its rigor” means faithfully trusting when it looks like you’re completely on your own. 

A second perspective when life is perplexing is also found in Ephesians: “For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.” [Eph 2:10]  

If this is true, then your life has been set up for you. Whatever comes, you get to bring your unique brand of “good” to it.  It’s what you’re created for.

There’s a calm confidence in Christ that can characterize a believer willing to interpret her life through the lens of Eph 2:10. 

So, I invite you to consider yourself the beloved child of an attentive Father who is superintending over your life: drawing you to maturity in Christ and providing opportunities for you to bring your special God-honoring goodness to those you impact.


Coaching Distinctions #28



The Meaning we Make Up (part six)


In Philippians chapter three, Paul’s listing his credentials from “circumcised the eighth day” to his meticulous adherence to Jewish Law. He then says: the things that “were gain to me, I now consider loss for Christ… I consider them garbage…” Paul illustrates the meaning we make up.

Just like ours, Paul’s culture attached meaning to his accomplishments.  Yet, transformed by his encounter with Christ, his fellowship with the saints, and the Spirit’s work on his heart, Paul gave it a counter-cultural meaning.


When Jesus Christ takes over a life, he often wrecks it. 

He works to wreck our petty fetishes which  Hebrews 12:1 calls “sins that so easily beset”.

Jesus works to wreck our insolent immaturity.

The veneers we’ve labored to erect.

Our commitments to self-sufficiency.


And selfishness.

So, if you’re life’s being thrashed from sources unknown, look to see if it is the Lord’s loving work: working to undo your independence from him… independence God knows will destroy you in the end.

In the spiritual mushiness of today’s Christian culture, such opposition is held to suggest that God has failed you.  Just the opposite is true.

God chastens those he loves. [Heb 12:6]  Political correctness would have us view such texts with derision. As archaic. Practically prehistoric.  Anchored in a middle-eastern culture too far from the sophisticated sensibilities of our day.

There is a place to assign meaning to life experiences, when, like Paul, we anchor that meaning in scripture, fully informed by Jesus’ life and teaching.  As you and I grow in Christ-likeness, we’ll interpret more and more of life the way he did. Counter-culturally.

That’s how Paul was able to reinterpret his history. Paul was God’s provision for a deeply religious culture that was so proud of itself.  His life, up to Damascus Road [Acts 9] was everything they admired. And, Paul’s life thereafter was just what they’d need to counter the meanings of their cultural predilections.

Consider the Sermon on the Mount. It’s a litany of counter-cultural meanings that Jesus assigns, beginning with poverty of spirit [Mt 5:3] and ending with what an authentic disciple is. [Mt 7:23]

Take a month and only read the red type in your Bible. Let Jesus’ own words soak into you. Allow them to challenge the meanings you’ve been assigning all over your life.

Would you?

Coaching Distinctions #27

The Meaning we Make Up (part five)


A few weeks ago, while pondering what you’ve been reading, Annie and I were in church. As we sang: “I’m coming back to the heart of worship; and it’s all about you, all about you, Jesus.  I’m sorry Lord for the thing I’ve made it, when it’s all about you…”

The phrase “…the thing I made it…” speaks to the meaning we make up.

At the church Matt Redman attends, it became clear that worship had taken on a meaning that was troubling the pastor. So, he scrapped the band, the instruments, and the sophisticated production and called the congregation to return to the simplicity and focus at the heart of worship: adoration of the Savior.

Mike Pilavachi, Matt’s pastor, challenged his church to examine the meaning they’d made up about worship and, instead, apply a scriptural meaning.  The beautiful anthem I sang a week ago was birthed in Mike’s challenge.

So, let me ask you: What meaning have you given to worship?

Pastor, when you conduct your services this weekend will you be entertaining people, providing religious education, and collecting money? Or, will you be provoking your people to maturity in Christ, equipping them to live as ministers, and enrolling them to serve in the community?

What do your services mean?

What does all the activity mean? 

What meaning have your elders assigned to themselves?

When they meet, what do they think it’s for?

What meaning have they attached to their “elder-ing”?

Christian, what meaning have you made up for yourself?

Why is it that you’re breathing?

When you’re at work— why are you there?  In addition to making a living, what do you think you’re doing there, all those days?

Have you considered God’s meaning for your being at that specific job, with those specific people, as this unique moment in history?

See, the meaning you make up has everything to do with how you carry yourself in each of life’s settings.

Doesn’t it?

I remember a unique season in my life, immediately following an unusually powerful seminar Annie and I attended. The speaker somehow convinced me to live with the expectation that God was afoot; that God would use me everywhere I went. All I had to do was to be prayerful, expectant, and watchful.

Know what?  For the next eighteen months every day was an exciting surprise.  I found myself doing all kinds of ministry. Almost every day I had the opportunity to pray for someone, speak with a co-worker about Christ, or encourage a stranger about God’s care and love.

The meaning? Life’s an opportunity to enter the continual flow of ministry that God is already doing.

Isn’t it?

Coaching Distinctions #26

The Meaning we Make Up (part four)


We’re considering the overwhelming power of the meanings we give to the experiences of life.

I assert that it’s not the events of your life, but the meaning you attach to those events that influences you so greatly – and creates such mischief in life.

Here’s an example.  A client who is a highly competent executive confided that, as a child, a parent had nicknamed her “grace” because, in her assessment, she was “anything but”.  She carried this hypothesis into adulthood as if it were true.

Unsurprisingly, her attention was drawn to any time she was less than graceful. Just as naturally, she’s spent decades overlooking her every demonstration of poise and elegance.

Predisposed to the assumption of clumsiness, when under the spotlight she’d naturally be less natural and more self-conscious than at other times. Such hyper-vigilance would undermine her confidence, just as it would yours or mine.

The difference is, for my client, each misstep solidified the meaning she’d given herself—decades after the parent set the interpretation in still-wet cement.

A few years ago I received a lucrative consulting contract with a wonderful church in a denominational tradition that was new to me and to my CRM team. The prospect of breaking into this stream and serving them well was thrilling. And it was exciting to contextualize our cultural change process for them—until a weekend retreat when everything went wrong.

At the outset, I managed to offend the most influential in the group.

By Saturday, the room had “locked down” opposing me and our process. The charge: I didn’t understand them, their culture, and their unique traditions.

Within a few hours, I’d been fired.

The intensity and steadfastness of the resistance was striking. My efforts to reframe, renegotiate, and debrief the fallout were resolutely thwarted. I worked hard to assess what contributed to the breakdown.  And I worked just as hard not to make up a meaning as to why it happened. If I had, it’ve sounded like: “Something’s very wrong with me, it, or them!”

Two years ago, I had another opportunity to work with a church from the same tradition. I was aware that I was aware of the debacle from before. I committed myself to be with this church and with this board in this moment.  Where it served us, I described what happened years before—careful not to inject meanings that could doom our budding relationship.

Had I concocted a meaning—beyond the events that occurred—to explain the “miss” with the other church, it would’ve undermined what’s been a deeply satisfying and fruitful process that’s still going strong.


Coaching Distinctions #25

The Meaning we Make Up (part three)


Last time I raised the question: “What are people to you?”  We’re talking about the meanings we give to ourselves, to the experiences in our lives, and to others.  So, please stop and consider: what meaning have you attached to people?

I don’t mean your ex, or your mother-in-law, or your favorite Olympic athlete.

I mean human beings. The whole bunch of us.

Christianity, I suggest, invites the following:

  • People are an opportunity to bring glory to God.
  • People are openings for intimacy.
  • People are possibilities for experiencing and expanding the Kingdom of God.

What would be created in your relationships, if you chose one of these meanings for the people God puts in your path… co-workers, neighbors, the clerk at the DMV?

What if your congregation embraced these meanings for those in your community who are not members of any church?

If our meaning shifts, what other shifts automatically follow?

Try it and see.

For this next week, try one of these meanings on—like you would a sweater.  Just put it on, every day, for a week… and see what happens.

Live in it as if it’s true.

As if people are an opportunity for you to bring glory to God.  Then, do what comes naturally when “an opportunity to bring glory to God” calls you up, or asks for directions, or slinks into work hung over.

Live for one week as if people are an opening for intimacy.

Just do what comes naturally when “an opening for intimacy” comes home late for dinner, forgets her textbook at school, or asks to borrow your golf clubs.

It’s surprising.  Once your meaning shifts, a whole lot of other shifts happen all by themselves.

Emotionally, you’ll be different.  Instead of frustration you may feel intrigued. Rather than disdain or judgment, anger or indifference, you might experience mercy or kindness, curiosity or compassion.

Since you’ll be feeling differently, your behavior will shift, as well.  Not like gritting your teeth and tolerating someone you can’t stand.  When the meaning shifts, and your emotions change, you actually behave differently, pretty automatically.

Here’s an example: A relative and I’d had an icy relationship for the several years after I became a fire-breathing Christian.  Convicted by God, I began to see how oppositional my stance was.

It broke me.

Repenting, I chose to embrace him as a gift, rather than a threat. Love and kindness replaced fear and judgment. Automatically, I started to see the virtue in him and, just as automatically, I began to affirm it.

The “ice” began to melt almost immediately … and … twenty years later, he gave his heart to Christ.

Coaching Distinctions #24

The Meaning we Make Up (part two)


This series, we’re exploring coaching distinctions I rely on when coaching ministers for deep, life-changing transformation.  Last time, I introduced the very common habit of making up a meaning and attaching it to the experiences of our lives.  Seldom do we examine the veracity of these meanings, and so we live as if they are true… as if there’s no other explanation for why we encounter what we do.

Ever watch the first couple weeks of American Idol? People audition who can no more carry a tune than a rusted hinge. Yet, they’re absolutely convinced they sing well, sound great, and the judges – all music industry pros – are crazy.  We watch in stunned amazement.

How could anyone be that out-of-touch?

Then, we discover why. Departing from the audition they’re embraced by an adoring, doting, cooing parent who continues to lavish empty affirmations on her child. See, the parent has attached meaning to her child and reinforces the delusion over the years—so even industry execs can’t break through. 

A Midwesterner by birth, I now live in Southern California where I often say selfishness is the national pastime. This culture breeds narcissism (delusional self-love) the way concentration camps breed hopelessness. Children receive awards for finishing kindergarten!

In a few years they’ll be perfecting celebratory antics for scoring a touchdown in the NFL— which is what they’re paid to do!  Try as I might, I can’t picture Jeff, my tax guy, doing the Dirty Bird every time he finishes a return.

Jesus said: “…you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” [Jn 8:32]

The word translated “truth” here means “reality”.

Freedom is possible when we encounter reality and interpret it as it is—without overpowering it with a meaning we devise.  As coach, I support my clients to separate reality from meanings we rarely see we’ve assigned to it.

So, whether the meaning you’ve chosen is self-limiting (“I must be a fraud as a pastor”) or self-aggrandizing (“That J. Lo. don’ know nuthin’ ‘bout music”), it’s impossible to accurately assess the events of your life when they’re tangled up with meaning you’ve invented.

“What are people to you?”

In other words, what do people mean to you?

Many see people as a means to an end. Ministers can view their members as “possessions”… and some as “problems”. We can interpret other churches as “competitors”, other ministries as “opponents”.

Uninterrupted, these meanings undermine our effectiveness and make mischief of our message.

Don’t they?

Coaching Distinctions #23

The Meaning we Make Up (part one)


We humans are peculiar.  We want so badly to make sense of life that we do a very insensible thing.  We make it up!

What I mean is this.  When an event occurs—particularly if it’s surprising, we’re not content simply being surprised.


We have to figure out what it means. The stronger your “TJ” on Myers-Briggs, the greater this pressure. But, TJ or not, we’re thrown to make the senseless sensible.

So, we demand a meaning.

If I was abused by my mom, suffered a terrible accident in childhood, experienced a forceps injury at birth, or lost my dad at age seven, before long, I’ll arrive at an understanding why misfortune has befallen me.  And, if I avoided these tragedies, I will not have escaped unscathed.  Because being human, raised by humans, befriended and rejected by humans, we will experience difficulty, harm, or worse.

The thing we can tolerate even less than being hurt in life is not knowing why.

So, if there’s no rational, justifiable explanation for our plight, guess what humans do?

We make one up!

Rather that live in the ambiguity of not knowing why this-or-that has befallen us, we make something up.  “I was hated as a kid because I’m un-loveable.” “God has it in for me… maybe a curse from my ancestors.” “I’m so unlucky, I attract tragedy.”

Often we’re “helped” in this making-up-meaning process by influential voices (parents, siblings, teachers) early in life. Once we grasp a particular meaning, we almost always hold it so tightly that it becomes intertwined with our own identity—and how we interpret life’s events.

Let’s say, in first grade, you’re labeled an “underperformer” by an influential teacher. A couple years later, you choke in the late rounds of a spelling bee. Then, you’re injured on the eve of a ballet recital, and can’t perform. Despite dozens of other experiences where you performed admirably, these few stand out to you. They support the thesis that as an “underperformer”, you find ways to sabotage almost certain success.

As you move through the decades that follow, you experience a normal mix of accomplishments, failures, and successes. To make sense—particularly of the disappointments and near-misses—you interpret these through the lens of self-sabotage. 

As a coach to pastors, I listen for the meanings my clients attach to themselves and their circumstances.

Invited to suspend these meanings, the client is freed to consider the events as they are. While Freud apparently never said “sometimes a cigar is just a cigar” it remains true.

Some events are just events. Setbacks happen. As does betrayal, difficulty, harm, and loss.

Still wonder why?

Try Genesis 3.


Coaching Distinctions #22

Playing to Win! (part two)


We’re examining leadership coaching distinctions that I employ when coaching pastors and Christian leaders.  Last time, I suggested that the client’s perspective determines what they see as possible and impossible as they search for solutions to pernicious problems.

One common perspective is “playing to win” vs. “playing not to lose”.

Pastors commonly cycle between “playing to win” and “playing not to lose” several times across a career.  Armed with clarity about God’s call and great hope that God will use you in significant ways, early on, you’re all-in.  Playing to win, you’re taking risks, learning, experimenting, making adjustments, and going again.


And, as the decades pass, you encounter opposition and criticism from intransigent resisters, who — somehow – got themselves into positions of power.  You’ve taken many punches along the way, maybe survived (or not) a congregational vote-of-confidence, and been disillusioned by the heartlessness of Christians more than once.  As a result you’ve set your sights lower, become more passive, and less aggressive in pursuing what you once knew God wants the Church to become.

You’re less disturbed by the status quo, less willing to endure the rigor to provoke maturity in your people, and far less likely to face down those who are both influential and immature.  You’re no longer gripped, as you once were, to bring deep, God-glorifying, fundamental change to the church you serve.


Called to a new pastorate, you find your footing, being careful not to lose the opportunity to serve here.  Then, you begin to stretch yourself, your elders, and your congregation to take new ground, declare and achieve goals, and pursue a future worth having. And yet, over time, your enthusiasm to take on that obstinate trustee wanes.  You capitulate, opting for peace — even if it means your people stagnate spiritually.

So, as a coach to pastors, my privilege is to invite you back in. Back in to win.

You stand in your pulpit, amid the congregation, and with admirers and detractors alike, clearly self-differentiated.  You’re vigilant to seize opportunities to provoke your members toward maturity in Christ… maturity of character.

The ministry you’re doing becomes increasingly focused on equipping saints to minister on Christ’s behalf. As a result, church members are engaged with the un-churched all over town.  Skeptics, once hurt by the Church, are reconsidering their dismissal of the Gospel. Marriages are being strengthened. Hopelessness is being banished. People far from the church are coming to Christ.

Over time, the culture in your community is changing.

Crime is down.

Caring is up.

Love is on display.

This is playing to win.

Coaching Distinctions #21

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