Kirk Kirlin

Kirk Kirlin

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Provoke their Hunger


The motivated are vulnerable to insight.

What might occur if you got really good at provoking your parishioners’ hunger for God’s Word?

What if, this coming year, you devoted yourself to provoking their hunger for maturity?

What if you saw to it that your parish became a more uncomfortableplace to stay spiritually and emotionally immature?

You might get to reinvent yourself in the process. You would have the opportunity to trust Jesus in ways you haven’t in a long time. You could trade familiar patterns and skills for fresh, provocative, people-changing ones.

Why would you do that?

-Kirk Kirlin, Leadership Courage

Reflections on Sermon Prep

In the Parable of the Sower [Mark 4:15-20] Jesus’ directs our attention to the condition of the soil. “Some people are…” he begins. The unmotivated are invulnerable to insight.

So, why is it that we devote ourselves to sifting, sorting, cleaning, massaging, and polishing the seed?

Sermon preparation in post-Enlightenment Christendom consumes the largest portion of most Evangelical pastors’ workweeks. When I was in seminary, my preaching professor told me to invest an hour in preparation for every minute in the pulpit. Thirty hours preparation for a thirty-minute message. Imagine that! Thirty of my fifty-five-hour workweek spent away from my people, away from preparing the soil of their hearts, and away from provoking their hunger for God’s Word.

I began to ask myself why pastors give so little attention to tilling the soil of their hearer’s hearts?

Could it be that we’ve forgotten what business we’re in?

Maybe we’ve inadvertently supplanted the make-mature-disciples-who-live-like-Jesus business with the faithfully-proclaim-the-Word-of-God-business. Yes, you and I have been commissioned to faithfully proclaim God’s Word, but we do it so that people around us will live like Jesus.

Don’t we?

-Kirk Kirlin, Leadership Courage

The Condition of the Soil


Think about Jesus’ parable of the farmer. [Mark 4:3-20] The key to fruitfulness is the soil…not the seed. Yet, we in pastoral ministry devote hundreds of our most valuable hours fussing over the seed—while ignoring the soil.

Does that make sense to you?

Look at it again: “Some people are like seed along the path, where the word is sown. As soon as they hear it, Satan comes and takes away the word that was sown in them. Others, like seed sown on rocky places, hear the word and at once receive it with joy. But since they have no root, they last only a short time. When trouble or persecution comes because of the word, they quickly fall away. Still others, like seed sown among thorns, hear the word; but the worries of this life, the deceitfulness of wealth and the desires for other things come in and choke the word, making it unfruitful. Others, like seed sown on good soil, hear the word, accept it, and produce a crop—some thirty, some sixty, some a hundred times what was sown.” [Mark 4:15-20]

Jesus’ directs our attention to the condition of the soil. “Some people are…” he begins. The unmotivated are invulnerable to insight.

-Kirk Kirlin, Leadership Courage

The Unmotivated are Invulnerable to Insight.


You cannot provoke change by pushing on a rope.

Friedman offers this: the unmotivated are invulnerable to insight.

Yet, weekend after weekend, well-intentioned ministers stand in pulpits all over the land, bringing scintillating insights from God’s Word, hoping that learning will motivate life change.

Statistics, sadly, illuminate the truth of the matter. People, by and large, are not changed—at least, not much.

Too many of those who listen are invulnerable to insight. Without compelling motivation, there is insufficient hunger to embrace the price and pain of change. Even change that sounds good, change that would be preferable to the status quo, or change that could propel the listener toward an honorable outcome will elicit mental agreement. And, it will not ignite action.

-Kirk Kirlin, Leadership Courage

You Can’t Push on a Rope


We’ve been examining what it means to live and lead courageously amidst a culture of cowardice that, from my perspective, has captured the Church in North America, leaving American society rudderless in a tsunami of sensuality, secularism, and self- centeredness.

Edwin Friedman informs our fifth concept: Don’t “push on the rope:” the unmotivated are invulnerable to insight.

I’ve done a little boating. One summer in Leland, Michigan, you might have seen me standing on a dock, tugging on a line, endeavoring to center the hull of our friends’ Boston Whaler over the submerged bunks of a small boatlift. Without thinking, I push my hand out, as if the boat will somehow move away from me.

It’s as if I’ve imagined that the rope has somehow stiffened so that it can propel the boat away from the dock and over the lift. Of course, it doesn’t. It can’t. You cannot provoke change by pushing on a rope.

-Kirk Kirlin, Leadership Courage

The Stamina to Stand

We’re considering a fourth leadership characteristic: Stand, as an exemplar, in the sabotage and backlash that must come.

Scapegoating, so common in an anxious, immature culture, is antithetical to the stand of the leader and the developing ethos of the organization. Even when the less mature succumb to its pull, the leader is not provoked to respond in kind.

Keeping in mind how consequential it is to shift the culture of any church, the leader has developed stamina to live into Paul’s charge in 1 Corinthians 16:13-14: “Be on your guard; stand firm in the faith; be men of courage; be strong…”. 

I love the ancient King James rendering of this verse: “Quit ye like men.”

-Kirk Kirlin, Leadership Courage




In John Chapter 7 Jesus is teaching in the temple courts. When those who hear him begin to applaud his brilliance, he says: “My teaching is not my own. It comes from him who sent me. If anyone chooses to do God’s will, he will find out whether my teaching comes from God or whether I speak on my own. He who speaks on his own does so to gain honor for himself, but he who works for the honor of the one who sent him is a man of truth.” [John 7:17]

This is humility.

The leader recognizes that he is not powerful enough to have caused the upset nor the circumstances that many say disturb them. Aware that each person connected to the disappointment has a contribution, he faces little temptation to assume he alone is responsible for the unwelcome turn of events. He has grounded himself in the understanding thathe is not significant enough to have produced the organization’s successes or its failures. He has a part. His colleagues have a part. The system has a part. And, factors beyond anyone’s control have also contributed to the outcome.

Rather than encouraging carelessness, the leader’s decision to interpret life this way empowers responsibility to one another and to the ministry’s mission and goals.

-Kirk Kirlin, Leadership Courage

Leaning into Resistance


Consider Jesus.

In John 6:66 we read that many of Jesus’ disciples turned back and no longer followed him. Immediately, Jesus turns to the twelve and asks: Don’t you want to go away too? He saw the departure of the many as an opportunity to test the resolveof the leaders closest to him.

Embracing the reality of God’s sovereignty and apprehending the security of God’s unconditional love, a leader leans into the resistance with a posture of confident curiosity. “God has this!” she might remind herself while stepping toward those who, unnerved by fear, have just betrayed her.

This may shock you: it is the leader’s humility that creates the opening to presence herself so resourcefully.

-Kirk Kirlin, Leadership Courage

More on Leadership Backlash


In “A Failure of Nerve,” Edwin Friedman notes: “Mutiny and sabotage came…from colleagues whose will was sapped by unexpected hardships along the way.” It is the leader’s person and posture amidst this collegial sabotage that is so stunningly effective.

A courageous leader recognizes how common backlash and sabotage is, and that both are the product of evacuated courage in those disheartened by difficulty. The leader interprets backlash as an opportunity to model a way of leading that inspires confidence [from the Latin, literally “with trust”] toward God, and deepens the maturity and faithfulness of colleagues and followers.

Further, this kind of leader chooses to interpret the opposition as provision from Heaven. 


-Kirk Kirlin, Leadership Courage

Leadership Backlash


A leader is not simply someone who gets things done or who gets other people to behave in desirable ways. A leader is different. She presences herself in life and relationships in a uniquely beneficial way. This uniqueness transcends behavior, skill, and knowledge. It can best be described in terms of being.

A courageous leader’s way-of-being is distinctive. It provokes maturity in those she influences. The differences are palpable.

One difference is the way a leader isin the midst of sabotage and backlash. My mentor Dr. J. Robert Clinton has identified Leadership Backlash to be one of the most common methods God uses to develop leadership character. Backlash occurs when once-enthusiastic followers turn against their leader in the face of unexpected difficulties. Driving that leader to the foot of the cross, in prayer.

-Kirk Kirlin, Leadership Courage

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