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.
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 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 Truth about Trust (part four)
I’ve asserted that trust can’t be earned—though that’s clearly what most of us have believed. As humans, limited and fallible, we can’t be forever trustworthy (i.e. “worthy of trust”) in every turn and situation.
Some of us work hard to limit our promises to those we’re confident we can keep, to own up as soon as we discover we can’t, and to live as our word—as much as humanly possible. Friends who live this way I eagerly trust.
When they stumble, I’m quick to offer forgiveness, restoration.
Swiftly bestowing trust.
And, to these I bestow trust as well.
Believing they’re capable of living honorably, even if they’ve seldom done so, up ‘till now.
And when I need a ride to the airport at five am, I’m not going to call my more mercurial friends.
That’d be dumb.
Dozens of experiences have taught me what I’ve can expect and from whom. And, when I’m surprised, I try to rapidly bestow trust again…with wisdom.
Years ago a friend at church managed a real estate investment that, for years, had performed impressively. I invested. In a few months, I heard he’d moved to Kansas City. No notice. No forwarding address. Oh, and his email and phone were no longer working…
I’d been had.
I learned that I can trust that man to deceive and steal.
Invest with him again?
That’d be dumb.
And, God, as promised, was faithful to me, providing financially in other ways—while teaching me a great lesson.
This is my conviction: God is fully capable of providing for you and me, healing, comforting, and restoring in the aftermath of loss and betrayal.
My buddy’s wife had an affair. She repented. He forgave. Right away, he bestowed trust while he trusted God to heal his broken heart.
Then, it happened again.
He forgave again. This time, owning his contribution to what wasn’t working in the marriage. They forgave each other. It was powerful. Years have passed and they’re stronger than ever.
As I write this, a legal situation with potentially monumental consequences looms. The outcome unknowable.
So, I trust.
Trust God. The legal team. My financial partners (legal fees are immense). Our intercessors. The justice system. And many who’re standing with Annie and me.
I trust God.
“God will make this happen, for he who calls you is faithful.” [I Thes 5:24 NLT]
Because of that, I can trust you, and you, and you, and you.
I choose to.
I bestow trust.
Unless you’re that guy in Kansas City.
The Truth about Trust part four.docx
The Truth about Trust (part three)
Thus far, we’ve considered two distinctions about trust that I found surprising…and true. One’s that people really never earn our trust.
We bestow it.
At some level, every human is un-trustworthy. We pretend that those we trust are thoroughly reliable beings who keep promises unfailingly. Because of our experience with them, our love for them, and what they do for us, we choose to overlook their discrepancies.
We chalk it up to human frailty.
Not all the time, thankfully.
And, some more than others. Much more. Some people play fast and loose with the truth. The Bible calls them “deceivers”. We call them criminals and politicians.
They lie for a living.
The rest of us operate in a “zone of reliability” in which we either occasionally or regularly break our word. Usually, small commitments:
“I’ll be home by 7:00.”
“We’ll visit your mother next month.”
”You look good in those jeans.”
What I’ve found to be helpful for me and for those I coach is this:
Solomon, considered the wisest person on Earth implores: “Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways submit to him, and he will make your paths straight.” [Prov 3:5-6]
“Know therefore that the Lord your God is God; he is the faithful God, keeping his covenant of love to a thousand generations of those who love him and keep his commandments.” [Deut 7:9]
“In you our fathers trusted; They trusted and you delivered them. To you they cried out and were delivered; In you they trusted and were not disappointed.” [Psa 22:4-5]
“What if some were unfaithful? Will their unfaithfulness nullify God’s faithfulness? Not at all!” [Rom 3:3-4a]
“But the Lord is faithful, and he will strengthen you and protect you from the evil one.” [2 Thes 3:3]
Funny, we who are Christian often behave as if trusting God is the last thing we ever do.
Crazy isn’t it?
We trust ourselves. We trust people. We trust our experience. We trust our ability to figure things out…
All the while, our God who has pledged himself to be faithful, to meet our needs, to watch out for God’s own is waiting to act on our behalf. To be revealed for who God is.
My invitation is to trust God to protect, heal, repair, recover, restore even when people turn out to be…well…human.
The Truth about Trust part three.docx
The Truth about Trust (part two)
Years ago I participated in a ministry that conducts potent character development workshops. Life-changing transformations happen over the course of a weekend. It was a privilege to host or help lead almost thirty workshops across the country.
Invariably, people came because of disappointment with their most important relationships. As each workshop unfolded a familiar pattern recurred:
People had been hurt.
Hurt by parents, an ex, a boss, roommate, business partner, or lover.
They pulled back.
They pulled back further.
Each time, more cautious.
Hiding the heart, hoping to protect it from harm.
Rendering them lonely, isolated, distant from those they love…
And, here’s the rub. Distrusting others may well be “wise” on one hand, but it leaves us empty on the other.
See, we’re all in relationship with human beings.
And humans fail.
Sometimes, even the best of us are selfish.
Because we’re human, we get tired.
We play safe. We play small.
We miss opportunities to live big, generous, courageous, God-honoring lives…
And, when we do, those we love are left holding the bag.
If they do what so many do, they’ll pull back from life, from others. They’ll withhold trust.
And, this leaves them lonely, isolated, and distant from those they say they love.
While I’m sure it seems callous, you can trust this: people will fail you.
Will you “turtle” as a way to protect your precious little tail, and feet, and head?
Safe, in your shell.
Safe and alone.
Will you withhold trust from everyone, or just men, women, people in authority?
God has made you, not just a “conqueror”, but a “more than conqueror” through Christ. [Rom 8:31-37]
That’s God’s doing.
God intends you and I to be so secure, so confident in Jesus Christ, that nothing dissuades us.
Imagine being un-discourageable…
No matter who fails you. No matter how often others drop the ball.
You are clear and confident in your Savior…and connected to people, open, trusting, and vulnerable.
The Truth about Trust part two.docx
The Truth about Trust (part one)
Pretty audacious, right?
How can I claim to know how you trust? And if, by some miracle I do, how can I assert that you misunderstand how you trust people? The way you trust is other than the way you believe you do?
Scripture says the heart is deceitfully wicked, who can know it? [Jer 17:9] Said more contemporarily: We’re good at fooling ourselves.
Because trust is central to relationships, misunderstanding how we trust causes much mischief…especially when trust’s been broken.
Let me explain.
Most believe that, as largely rational beings, we evaluate the trustworthiness of those with whom we relate. We assess their veracity, and, finding it substantial, we trust them. If we discover them dishonest, mercurial, deceptive, or deceitful we withhold trust.
And when someone we trust betrays that trust, it’s game over!
“I don’t trust you. And I won’t.” (Here’s where the mischief arises.) “Not ‘til you earn my trust again.”
The first falsehood about trust is that trust is earned.
Trust is bestowed.
Think about it.
You see your doctor, maybe recommended by a friend, or based on an online review, or because she’s connected to a reputable medical group. Waiting, as we always do, you don’t suspect the framed diploma on the wall is a forgery do you? The nurse who enters, takes your BP and administers your flu shot could be an impostor…a fraud in a uniform with a stethoscope who walked in off the street.
No. You trust that your Doctor is who she’s portrayed to be, that this is her nurse.
You bestow trust.
If you’re the suspicious type, you make small talk about your Doc’s Alma Mater: “How’d you like New Haven when you were there?” Easily satisfied, you move on.
You say they’ve done nothing to undermine your trust… so you trust them. But honestly, it’s impossible to know a person is completely trustworthy.
After all, we’re human.
Human = limited…imperfect…flawed.
I can have the best intentions to keep my promise to you, respond to a pressing need that’s just arisen, and to not ‘drop the ball’ on any of a dozen other commitments I have in play at the same moment in time: Edit manuscript. Invoice coaching clients. Submit expense reports. Call potential participants for June seminar. Email prayer partners. Invest in marriage.
If I’m honest, I’m not all that trustworthy.
So, why do people trust me?
‘Cause, it’s bestowed, not earned.
The Truth about Trust part one.docx
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
Effective leaders cast vision people want to get behind. It’s not because the leader is so personally powerful or so uncommonly clairvoyant that catapults people to enthusiastically carry the vision. [I Cor 2:1-4]
It’s because the vision is what they wanted.
They may not have seen a way for it to be realized. They may not have language to express the longings in their hearts. They may’ve been unaware of their yearnings for these same things. But, as they hear the articulation of the vision, it springs to life within them.
Dormant no more.
Where “doing the stuff” of ministry wasn’t a privilege reserved for the paid clergy. [Eph 4:11-12]
Where the point was not growing the size of your particular congregation but advancing Jesus’ influence outside—in the community. The works of God on display alongside the Word of God. [Mk 16:20] And where we always, always cared for the poor. [Gal 2:10, Acts 3:6]
I wanted that!
My heart leapt when I sat in Jim Bristow’s living room hearing that chubby, bearded man open scripture and talk this way for the first time.
I felt I had always wanted that.
I always believed the Church should be like that. But, I had never, ever put words to it before. John’s vision (the red) and my vision (the yellow) overlapped (the orange), and it was game on!
It happened again when a since-discredited “prophet” from Kansas City Fellowship described sports arenas teeming with people being released from oppression, illness, disease. Lk 10:19] He called the throng of anonymous healers a “faceless generation”.
These were Christians who kept pointing people to Jesus. [Jn 14:6] Never to themselves, their churches, ministries, or denominations. [Phil 2:3-4] A multitude of believers so captured by the love of Christ, and so competent in liberating captives, healing diseases, and raising the dead that the miraculous happened routinely, almost naturally, free of commercialization and aggrandizement. [Jn 14:12]
That’s exactly what I wanted to be: A Christian doing the works of Christ in the world. Nothing more or less. [Mt 10:8]
I didn’t know I wanted it until I heard it. But then, I realized that I’d always wanted to be a part of that company. That caliber of person. That effective in the furthering cause of Christ. That damaging to the powers of darkness that tyrannize so many all around us.
God, I believe, embedded that vision deep in my heart.
I wonder if it’s in yours, as well.
To access it, you may have to suspend fear, rationalism, and the limitations of what you’ve believed is and isn’t possible…[Mk 9:23]
Christian leadership should be the most exciting, compelling, world-changing enterprise on the planet. [Acts 17:6] Embracing and communicating God’s intentionfor the Church, and because of it, for the waiting world.