A Culture of Cowardice (part four)
I’m a leadership coach to pastors. We’re nine segments into a series on Leadership Courage. This is our fourth pass exposing a Culture of Cowardice that I believe has dominated much of the Church in North America.
These observations are confined to North America because I have very little exposure to non-Western churches and leaders. Since the US has been exporting what we call “the Gospel” in earnest since WWII, no doubt we’ve packaged and shipped our cultural preferences along with it.
Regrettably, we may have exported a Culture of Cowardice, to the foreign field. You who minister cross-culturally can offer your observations from around the globe, by commenting below.
In A Failure of Nerve Edwin Friedman identifies characteristics of chronically anxious families, communities, and societies. While I see ample evidence of these features in American society it’s stunning to consider how these traits apply to Christian churches today.
Recently, I suggested that the insipid capacity of the typical congregation to tolerate discomfort has accelerated our orientation away from bold, courageous leadership and centered it on the most needy and emotionally-regressed among us. Two segments ago, I opined that religious political-correctness has become so toxic to courageous leadership that Jesus – not the “Flannelgraph Jesus”, but the historical Jesus of the New Testament – would embarrass many in church today.
Do you find this stunning?
I work with pastors in dozens of denominations—each with their peculiar polity and priorities. Some systems locate leadership responsibility and authority with the pastor. Others load the pastor with responsibility and deny her or him the authority to lead. Still others withhold both leadership responsibility and authority from their ministers. Regardless of denominational polity, no one has as great an opportunity to influence the culture and values of a local church than the Senior Minister. That is why I’ve dedicated my life to standing with and strengthening them.
You who stand in pulpits determine – more than anyone else – what your congregants talk about. To the degree that you choose your title or topic or text when you preach, you inject that into the “congregational conversation” that takes place in cars and restaurants and kitchens of those who hear. You don’t determine what they say about your topic, but you do get to decide what that topic is.
Think about it.
Does your preaching provoke people?
Do your sermons unsettle them?
Do your messages undermine the mediocrity of most of your members’ lives?
Do you challenge your congregation to change?
If not, why not?
A Culture of Cowardice (part three)
I’m a leadership coach to pastors. Last time, I introduced a pervasive cultural condition that’s true of so many churches it’s become characteristic of the Church in America.
A Culture of Cowardice.
While there are many exceptions, compared to the whole, these exceptions are so exceptional that the description deserves our attention—particularly when the topic is leadership courage.
Edwin Friedman, in A Failure of Nerve diagnoses American society as chronically anxious. As he describes systems experiencing chronic anxiety—the Church in North America fits the description even more than American society as a whole.
Chronically anxious systems, Friedman notes, are toxic to courageous, well-differentiated leadership. So acute is the culture’s abhorrence of discomfort that it “knee-jerks” its way from one perceived threat to another, clamoring for instantaneous relief from ministers, who are pulled in all directions at once.
A pastor may have begun with a clear sense of mission. But, in short order that mission is overwhelmed by the demand that the “crisis du jour” be averted with haste. Ministers, instead of challenging the congregation to mature and leading them to take important new ground, become consumed with smoothing out the never-ending ruffled feathers of the flock.
Caretaking is not leadership.
And, to do this, they need only to answer the phone!
Ministry, for many, resembles the role of a caregiver in an overcrowded orphanage, wearily scurrying to soothe the baby screaming most loudly before she can comfort the next infant to bellow.
For many, the priorities of ministry are based more on responding to the immediate needs of church members than in steadfast obedience to the Audience of One.
A leader who remains resolute in pursuit of a cause greater than the good feelings of the congregation (for example, the maturation of the disciples and the mobilization of members for ministry outside the church) is seen as heartless, unresponsive, deaf to the cries of the downtrodden, and out-of-touch with “real people” within. Emotionally and spiritually emaciated church members have no stomach for a real leader…like Christ.
What if Jesus belonged to a typical American church today?
To a member of a beleaguered minority he declared: “You have no idea what you’re worshipping!” [Jn 4:22] Embarrassed by Jesus’ insensitivity, the Church might howl: “How cruel, abusive, and bigoted! All-loving heavenly Father is nothing like him!”
After freeing the Gadarene [Mt 8:32], imagine the uproar from the typical church at the brutality shown the pigs. Animal rights activists throughout the Church would demand that Jesus be locked up. “How could anyone representing God mistreat innocent wildlife so maliciously?”
Jesus says: “Let the dead bury their dead” when a potential new member asks to attend his father’s funeral. [Lk 9:60] To this, the church would smugly declare: “How unfeeling, cold, and heartless! A merciful God would never say that!”
When Jesus comes upon merchants in the temple, he goes nuts: vandalizing their property, abusing the animals (again!), and misappropriating their funds. [Jn 2:15] Most churches would get a restraining order against Jesus—after his 5150 expired. “God is a God of order—not chaos”.
Jesus is revealed in scripture as clear, decisive, and disruptive.
You might think Him a study in contrasts: compassionate to the adulteress and hair-triggered to critique the religious leaders of his day. He’d be branded a troublemaker (or worse) in most US churches today.
Jesus was resolute in His commitment to model, bring, and defend the Kingdom of His Father.
A Culture of Cowardice (part two)
- Courageous leadership is, by nature, decisive.
And, the Latin root of decisive means “to cut”. But, it is not nice to cut anything away, to cut anything off, to cut anything out—even a toxic presence – like a parasite – that survives by sucking the life out of those who are healthy.
To lead with heart is to stand for what’s best, simply because it is best—even when unpopular. Even when it provokes opposition from misguided stakeholders within the Church…draining its vitality.
- Courageous leadership, by nature, is clear.
Such a leader is unapologetically clear about who she is, the difference she is committed to make in the world, her values and priorities.
The clearer you are as a leader, the clearer people around you will become.
And, therein lies the problem. As pastors, we don’t always like what that clarity reveals. As you become more and more clear as a leader, more and more people will decide they’re not “up” for going where you’re going. Stay foggy and many will stick around, wandering in impotent ambiguity.
But, those who get behind a leader who is clear will be a powerful force for good—the good to which that leader’s been called.
- Courageous leadership, by nature, is disruptive.
Courageous leaders routinely disrupt dysfunction. They regularly challenge their own preference for comfort—and that of those they lead.
Many interpret their leadership as crisis-inducing.
Edwin Friedman notes that crises are normative in leaders’ lives. These crises come from two sources: those that just arise, imposed upon the leader from forces outside that leader’s control and crises that are initiated by the leader doing exactly what she should be doing. Jesus did this all the time. But, notice the reluctance of anyone in church leadership to lead in a way that invites a crisis for long-standing church members.
As a leadership coach and consultant to pastors, my life’s work is to champion Christian influencers to find their hearts and to fully re-engage them in this great, important struggle to stir the Church from its slumber.
There is no altogether “nice” way to do this.
Just five verses into his story, Jonah is asleep below decks, aboard a ship imperiled in a brutal storm. The terrified captain races below, stunned to find Jonah asleep — in so critical a moment. Waking Jonah, he demands: “How can you sleep? Get up and call on your God! Maybe he will take notice of us, and we will not perish.” [Jon1:6]
Get this, folks: it was not a follower of Yahweh who stirred Jonah from slumber—calling him to take action with God lest the “community” they were part of be plunged to ruin.
Look around you.
Is not the community around your church caught in a destructive storm?
A moral, ethical, and spiritual hurricane that wills to destroy the fabric of American society? Don’t you see the storm buffeting the Christian faith—driving it to the very edges of the culture?
To awaken the Church, her leaders must first rouse themselves.
Then, embracing the opportunity provided by this life, they can stand clearly, decisively, and disruptively to awaken their churches to enter the glorious and dangerous fight for the redemption of the community around them.
What else would a Christ-follower do?
The Responsibility Riddle
QUESTION: Pastor, who is responsible for your spiritual maturity and vitality?
ANSWER: I am, of course!
Ok, fine. Now answer this…
QUESTION: Pastor, who is responsible for the spiritual maturity and vitality of your congregation?
ANSWER: Again, I am!
Really? Are you sure?
If you are responsible for your congregation’s spiritual maturity, what are they responsible for?
Ask me that again??
There’s a troubling trend in the Church these days. We, in ministry, see the evidence of this all the time.
It can be found in a complaint that, more often than not, sounds like this:
“I’m just not getting fed, here…”
“I don’t experience the presence of God here…”
“The worship no longer ministers to me…”.
And then off they go, out the door, on to another church, … or maybe to no church at all.
The thinking, both of the pastor and the complaining congregants flows from the same fallacy: that the pastor, the church, the elders are somehow responsible for the spiritual condition of those they serve.
Thinking like this, it’s no wonder the Church is diapered in perpetual spiritual infancy.
So, who is responsible for your spiritual maturity and vitality?
The responsibility riddle can be solved in this important, seldom recognized distinction: Your pastor is responsible to you, but is never responsible for you.
Think about it. A pastor is responsible to the congregation to model mature faith in action, to proclaim God’s Word faithfully, to represent Christ ethically.
Each believer is responsible for what they do with the Word of God: both the preached Word and the Word that sits in their lap, on the bookshelf, or on the coffee table gathering dust.
Are you responsible for your spouse’s happiness?
Of course not!
How could you be?
When you notice that someone has tried to make you responsible for whatever it is that God has made them responsible for – their attitudes, their behavior, their “stress”, their decisions, their depression, their optimism – invite them to embrace this reality: you bear responsibility to them, but are never responsible for them.
Do I have a responsibility to my wife? Absolutely!
I am responsible to keep my promises to her. I’ve promised to value her above every breathing human being. I’ve promised to honor her whether she deserves it or not. I’ve promised to pray for her. I’ve promised to champion her toward all God’s called her to be. I’ve promised to be faithful sexually and emotionally. I’ve promised to walk with God and to submit my life to Jesus and his Word. And, I promised to treat her better than she deserves.
And, she is responsible for herself.
When our kids were small and unable to take responsibility for themselves, as parents we bore the responsibility for them. When our pre-teen had a friend over, and they snuck out at night and lit a porta-potty on fire, we were legally responsible—because they were minors and under our supervision.
Now in his twenties, it would be foolish for us to take responsibility for his decisions.
In fact, it would be irresponsible for us to do so.
To take responsibility for another adult is a violation of his or her autonomy.
An invasion of their sovereignty.
It represents a kind of abuse.
When you are with an otherwise capable adult as if they were incapable of adult choices and incapable of bearing the adult consequences for those choices, what is your impact – really – on that person?
What is the “fruit” that is produced when you persuade another to live irresponsibly?
The distinction of being ‘responsible to’ vs. ‘responsible for’ is central for everyone in leadership.
There’s great freedom when you’re clear about this distinction, and lead in such a way that those you influence are clear about it too.
To stand in life responsible to others and responsible for your own emotional being and destiny may require courage you’ve not been willing to summon, until now.
Time to call it up!
The Price of Love
Courage, I’ve suggested, is living with heart. With you heart fully engaged. Fully invested. Fully in play.
Some would argue that to live this way is expensive. Costly. Reckless. Even dangerous.
To live with your heart withheld is costly, too.
There’s no living without paying prices. Give your heart; there are prices.
Hide your heart; other prices are paid.
So, let’s examine prices that living with heart exacts. Just to be clear about it.
Whenever you care about anyone and anything, you invest some of yourself.
The more you care, the more of you, you invest.
What it could become.
Before long, you entertain how you might be affected. How you might contribute. The good that could come out of it all. How you might benefit… if it works out.
As you do, you give yourself permission to see it. To see as possible what this could lead to. What it could become…
And, as hearts are wont to do, your heart gets gripped.
Not only do you see this as preferable, you begin to love what this might be. Now wanting it, you give yourself to it, a bit at a time. Giving more of yourself as you do. Your time.
As you pour yourself into having it happen… you are changed. Some of what used to capture your attention no longer does.
No longer repressing your enthusiasm, you invite others in.
Most are satisfied to stay on the sideline, amused maybe, watching to see what will happen…
whether your dreams will be dashed or fulfilled…
waiting to see if it’s “safe” to join you.
And, a few are enrolled.
They choose in.
Into the possibility of what could be. As they do, your relationships change.
The stakes are higher now. Greater. “If this thing goes south…”, you catch yourself thinking, “a lot of people could get hurt.” “And, if we succeed…”
Momentum seems to come from nowhere. Connections appear in surprising ways. Provision arrives unexpectedly. It’s like there’s a wind at your back, propelling you forward.
You feel alive.
Life seems to open up before you, to expand.
At the same time, loved-ones caution you not to get in too deep.
Remember the movie Rudy?
You’ve heard the message too: Don’t go too far. Don’t move so fast. What about the risks? What if this doesn’t work?
Don’t you care about us?
All along the way, with your heart engaged, you are paying prices. You set aside the predictable, the familiar, the safe. You wade into foreign waters. So much is unknown, untested, uncertain.
Disappointments come, as they must.
Setbacks catch you off-guard.
Betrayals stun you. Backlash comes from unexpected sources. Supporters withdraw. Criticisms that began as a whisper grow in ferocity. You feel alone.
Each time, your hopeful heart is nicked.
Lanced. Pierced. Wounded. Assaulted.
You want to pull back, dis-invest, protect yourself, be reasonable, find balance, cut your losses.
Most of all, you want to rescue your heart from the hurt.
C.S. Lewis in The Four Loves, writes: “Love anything and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly be broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact, you must give your heart to no one…”
To live and lead with courage is to love so much that your heart is vulnerable to being “wrung and possibly broken”. And yet, when your heart is wrung, or broken, you choose to keep it engaged.
Silencing your survival instincts and trusting God to heal and strengthen your heart, you keep giving yourself — fully – to your life.
This is no small matter. If it were, the world would be full of powerfully courageous leaders.
Imagine if the Church – even your church – was a gathering place, and equipping place, a sending place for leaders like this…
The Heart to Lead
Francis Frangipane asks in The Three Battlegrounds: “Is your love growing and becoming softer, brighter, more daring, and more visible? Or is it becoming more discriminating, more calculating, less vulnerable and less available? This is a very important issue, for your Christianity is only as real as your love is. A measurable decrease in your ability to love is evidence that a stronghold of cold love is developing within you…”
Paul, with all that was at stake in Corinth, governed his own heart so that it stayed open wide, and his affections so that they were not withheld from them. [2 Cor 6:11-13] So rigorously and openly did he give his heart that he was able to call them to reciprocate—his leverage coming from his having gone first!
He called them to a “fair exchange” of affections.
I wonder if, on those occasions when I have been stunned by the absence of affection I’ve encountered, it actually represented a “fair exchange” of the stinginess-of-affection that I’d sown into the relationship.
I too have trained myself to keep my heart carefully cloistered away where it can’t be hurt. Not much. Yet, this protection comes at a great price.
As humans, let alone Christ-followers, we were made for love.
Built to access and share affection readily, easily, generously.
Like little kids do.
Living with and among imperfect human beings, I’ve been hurt and I’ve seen others get hurt.
In the movies and on TV we see characters that give the appearance of being deeply satisfied, fully alive, and relationally connected without the risk of hurt and heartache that love requires.
I once taught myself to live that way.
Denying what I was, and what I was made for… ‘till Christ captured my heart and taught me a new way: a risky way, a vulnerable, dangerous way. Since then, there’s been an accordion-like opening and closing, expanding and compressing of the affections my heart was meant to exude.
This past decade I’ve been intentionally entering the rigor to open my heart wide and to war against the regular impulse to withhold my affection from those I influence. Imperfectly and purposefully I’m giving myself to this dangerous and delightful way of life. Calling others to engage in a “fair exchange” of affection.
What might God do among those you lead, if you were to give up trying to keep your heart “safe”?
What if you trusted God and opened your heart wide to those you lead?
Leveraging your love with them.
The Heart to Lead
This series is about courage… living with heart.
It’s written as an invitation for you, as a leader, to live and lead with your heart fully engaged. The Apostle Paul wrote to the Christ-followers in the commercial and cultural center, known as Corinth:
“We have spoken freely to you, Corinthians, and opened wide our hearts to you. We are not withholding our affection from you, but you are withholding yours from us. As a fair exchange—I speak as to my children—open wide your hearts also.” -2 Corinthians 6:11-13
As in all affairs of the heart, there is risk.
to be vulnerable.
Paul settles the issue for those in ministry: we get to go first! In doing so, we model the way of love for all those around. “We have opened wide our hearts to you”, Paul says. “We are not withholding our affection from you…”
Of how many in Christian leadership could that be said?
How generously, how obviously, how daringly do you love?
How careful are you to not withhold your affection from those you lead?
Most pastors say they love their people well, sacrifice for them, work tirelessly, and always try to be accessible. Yet, Paul speaks of his heart being wide open to them.
A heart wide-open!
A big, gaping opening that can be exploited, disappointed, rejected, maligned. And, I speak not just to the young, wide-eyed church planters that haven’t yet taught themselves to distrust their congregations and to bury their affections behind a mask of professional, religious niceness.
I mean you: the veteran of betrayals, abuses, attacks, and back-stabbings… by those who you’ll likely find in Heaven. You, who’ve been around the block a few times. “We’ve not withheld our affection…”.
Heck, how challenging has it been to keep your heart wide open to your spouse? What struggles have you encountered to not withhold your affection from your own wife or husband?
How stingy are you with your heart, these days?
The Heart to Lead
This begins a new blog series. The topic is Leadership Courage.
Courage is integral to leadership.
The link between the two is inseparable. Attempting to lead anyone, without employing courage, will undermine the possibility of the enterprise you hope to lead others in.
Management is another bird entirely. A manager does not a leader make. I hold a management degree. An advanced degree. From a pretty good school. We learned and practiced sophisticated problem solving techniques. We got pretty good with multifaceted analytic tools: market, cultural, financial, logistical, and competitive analysis just to name a few. Maybe most importantly, we developed our abilities at strategic reasoning and planning. In no way is my objective to denigrate management or management education. Yet, leadership is an altogether different matter.
Leadership is the visible employment of courage in a way that changes people
Their thinking, behavior, and the impacts of those changes.
So, what is courage?
A friend and mentor often says: “Courage is not the absence of fear, but is moving forward in the face of fear.”
So, what is it that moves one forward in the face of fear?
The answer, I think, can be found in the etymology of the word itself.
Our English word “courage” comes from the French cor which means “heart”.
Courage, literally can mean “with heart”.
To live courageously is to live with heart.
With your whole heart.
Your whole heart invested.
Your whole heart at stake.
Your whole heart exposed.
Your whole heart vulnerable.
And, what makes this whole-heart living so elusive is this: we’ve all had our hearts hurt! You cannot live, be in relationships, and love without having your heart broken… rejected… crushed. In short: hurt.
Since you’re not stupid, you learn from each heartbreaking experience not to play fast and loose with that heart of yours.
You’ve learned to be cautious.
Once, you lived with your heart in your hand. You put it out there where someone could embrace it as a marvelous, generous, precious gift. And, sooner or later it was rejected, repelled, repulsed.
That hurt. A lot.
And, since you’re no fool, you made sure not to make that “mistake” again. So, you pulled your heart back.
You weren’t quite so willing to give your heart away. A person would need to prove himself before you’d loosen your grip on your heart. And, at the first sign of trouble, you’d be quick to retrieve it!
Then, maybe later, an opportunity presented itself. A good opportunity.
A really, really good one. Possibly it was a venture, a business idea, a ministry, a job, a project. You might have been skeptical at first, but the idea grew on you and, as it did, you became more and more passionate. You began to see yourself in this. You decided that you could actually see this working out! As you gave yourself to this possibility other priorities fell aside. You invested more deeply. Past the point of “no return”…
Then, somehow, in some way you hadn’t anticipated, the bottom fell out. Words were spoken.
Again, you and your wounded heart retreated from this “folly”—and any future follies as well. From now on, you’d be playing your cards a little closer-to-the-vest. What a fool to risk like that! What an idiot to trust so indiscriminately!
With each experience, you pulled your heart back.
To a place less vulnerable. A little further from other people. Not so susceptible to their whims and vacillations.
A little farther from your dreams.
Eventually, you took that heart of yours and stuffed it back inside your rib cage. Back where you decided it should’ve been all along.
Like everyone else.
Well… most everyone else.
In AD 185, St. Irenaeus of Lyons in his theologically important treatise Against Heresies wrote: Man fully alive is the glory of God.
A human being fully alive is the glory of God.
When you take your heart out of your chest and extend it at your arm’s full length to those you have affection for, are you not becoming more fully alive?
When you put your heart in play, at stake, at risk for some great, worthwhile heart-engaging endeavor, do you not become more fully alive in the process? A human fully alive is the glory of God.
So, what does all this have to do with Christian leadership?
When you lead with your whole heart fully invested, you inspire the rest of us to join you.
When you are fully at stake, with your eyes wide open and yet you are still “all-in”, you invite us in, as well. In fact, when you are engaged like that, you exude an almost irresistible magnetism that draws others in with you. You and those you inspire become fully alive.
The glory of God.
The Supremacy of Vision (part ten)
In the Garden, Jesus modeled visionary leadership, powerfully.
As scripture reveals, Jesus was both fully divine and fully human. Wrestling with his impending crucifixion, he demonstrates the final key distinction about vision: the leader subordinates her psychology to her vision.
Here’s what I mean:
This agony, we understand, was his natural human response to the anticipation not just of a dreadfully painful execution by crucifixion, but also some kind of separation from the Father [Mt 27:46] for a period of time.
Physiologically, sweating blood is called “hematidrosis”. When capillaries around the sweat glands rupture, and blood oozes through the sweat ducts. It occurs when a person is facing death or highly stressful events, having been seen in prisoners before execution and during the London Blitz.
Hematidrosis indicates just how powerful Jesus emotions were. Bible translators describe his prayer as fervent, urgent, earnest, anguished, and intense.
Fully human, Jesus possessed all his psychology. He experienced the full range of human emotions.
Just like you do.
We see him engaging deep, intense emotion—completely authentic and appropriate in light of what he’s facing. And, he didn’t just emote. He wrestled. He cried out: “Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me” [Lk 22:42a]
It was not for show.
Real, honest, penetrating, intense emotions.
And, he chose to subordinate his emotions to his vision: the will of the Father. He suspended his human preference for emotional resolution (apprehensions comforted, fears assuaged, aloneness addressed, hurt salved, etc.) so that his great, world-changing, eternity-impacting vision could be accomplished.
He resolved: “…yet not my will, but yours be done.”
This is visionary leadership.
Dr. J. Robert Clinton’s team’s research of 1,300 biblical, historical, and contemporary Christian leaders has revealed patters—similarities—in the ways God develop leaders. One is that all leaders experience Leadership Backlash multiple times over their lifetimes. Leadership backlash occurs when leader and followers move to fulfill the vision they’ve agreed upon. Then, when unanticipated difficulties arise, followers turn against the leader, on whom they blame the setbacks.
In backlash, the leader’s psychology is activated. Depending on the leader’s spiritual maturity, those emotions either request, demand, or tantrum to be assuaged. Often isolated, alone, the leader either abandons the vision, or subordinates her psychology to it, like Jesus in the Garden.
This it the pursuit of God-authored vision against all odds, through all resistance—even our own. We have our psychology. But, no longer driven by it, we can marshal its potency to keep us moving toward vision’s fulfillment.
Like Jesus did.
The Supremacy of Vision part ten.docx
The Precision of Vision (part nine)
As a leader, the clearer you become—about who you are and what you’re for—the clearer those around you become.
Problem is: we don’t always like what that clarity reveals.
Imagine leading a ministry which such clear focus and purpose that everyone is aligned behind the vision. Where everyone’s energy is invested in pursuit of the ministry’s goals.
Being laser-focused about your church’s purpose will drive off everyone who wants something inconsequential, self-centered, and puny.
Everyone who wants something else
Very, very good.
Focused vision will attract exactly those who want that kind of church. Who’ll give themselves to have it happen.
Who are “up” for the sacrifice to accomplish something noble and God-honoring…something great with their lives.
Just ask the founding families at Willow Creek, Saddleback, YoungLife or any ministry that’s significantly advanced God’s Kingdom in this country.
You’ll hear about the precision of vision that called them to invest deeply, passionately, wholly in it.
Take up your cross every day in pursuit of me. [Lk 9:23]
If you don’t give up everything you have, you won’t be my disciple. [Lk 14:33]
Follow me and I’ll change everything about the way you live. [Lk 5:10]
Jesus’ was not some puny, inconsequential invitation to a happy, challenge-free life.
He called women and men to greatness: to God-honoring exploits that people would marvel at [Jn 14:12] and, as a result, honor God alone. [1 Pt 2:12, Mt 5:16]
Vision—true vision, God-authored vision—calls people to live great Kingdom-advancing lives.
Most don’t want it … they’ll flee.
Glory to God!
The Precision of Vision part nine.docx