Leadership in a Culture of Cowardice (part twenty three)
For several segments in this series we’ve been investigating the challenge facing pastors today. The challenge: to stand with courage and clarity in a religious context that, for decades — maybe centuries — has become less and less courageous and clear. In this spiritual vacuum the greater culture has drunk itself sick on self-focused indulgence.
Or, maybe you see it differently.
Last time I invited you to reintroduce yourself to the adventurous life. A life of trust and risk and experimentation. Stepping beyond the natural limitations of your understanding, your competencies, your skill set, your own strength, intellect, and charisma.
And so with any adventure. There is the possibility of failure, of loss, of injury, of embarrassment, of being mistaken, and of hurt.
The Church today seems to have so little tolerance for the latter that it’s unwilling to engage the former. And, this reality is absolutely stunning in light of the Biblical record. The Christian life is anything but safe, cautious, predictable, measured, and reasonable. Everywhere in the Bible, those who followed God were adventurers.
By contrast, imagine this scene: more than 5,000 have come out to the wilderness to hear Jesus speak. Eventually it dawns on the disciples that if the crowds don’t get something to eat, some of them will grow faint, maybe ill. When Jesus sees that all they have is five loaves and two fish, he pats the young boy on the head and exclaims: “Oh my gosh! We’ve gotta shut this meeting down right now so everyone can get home to eat and rest. Luke, make a note: from now on, we have to hold these gatherings where people can get plenty of nourishing, low-calorie food, refreshments and medical services…and we need regularly scheduled breaks so people don’t over-extend themselves. We can’t have anyone getting tired or hungry at our meetings!“
“Hurry! Quick! Send everyone home!!”
Jesus’ orientation was to grow people to maturity. Those closest to him he challenged the most. Those further away were still challenged to grow in faith, in obedience, in selflessness. Jesus was clear that he was maturing women and men for his Father’s Kingdom.
Pastor, what are you doing?
Leadership in a Culture of Cowardice (part twenty two)
Do you find incomprehensible the pathway from the behavior of the Church described in the Book of Acts and that of most any Sunday morning gathering in the US today?
How on earth did the Church get from vibrant, exciting, world overturning, status-quo challenging, Kingdom of God advancing powerhouse to predictable, regimented, backward-looking, tradition-bound, safety-dominant, repository of religious relics it is today?
When were ministers of the Gospel transformed from courageous, God-trusting, whole-hearted, catalytic change agents to … to … well… providers of religious education and entertainment, chaplains of religious tradition, scholar-rhetoricians, and caregivers to those who claim to follow Christ?
What’s become of adventure?
I’m not advocating that we risk for the thrill of it, that we put ourselves in harm’s way for the emotional rush some get when doing dangerous things, or that we behave erratically just to break up the boredom.
I’m inviting you to the adventurous life for the advancement of God’s reign and rule in your community. This is not adventure for adventure’s sake. It’s returning to the biblically-normal life of risk and trust as we presence the way of Jesus in a culture more dark and desperate than we may fully appreciate.
The Adventurous Life
What an adventure it could be to…
- trust Christ as you call people to distinctively demonstrate the way of Jesus to the world.
- trust the Father as you lead your people off the church campus to love people and meet real needs right in your community.
- trust the Holy Spirit as you confront sin so clearly and confidently those within your sphere of influence regain their capacity to blush. [Jer 6:15]
- invite your people to take responsibility for their own well-being and destiny in Christ, supporting their commitment to mature in Christ-likeness.
- love your spouse so consistently and spectacularly that no one would wonder if the congregation had taken her spot in your heart.
- break up whatever fallow ground remains in your own heart [Jer 4:3].
- commit to love as if you’ve never been hurt [Lk 23:34].
- reach to reconcile with those from whom you’re now estranged [Rom 12:18].
…and do it all in full view of your congregation, so they can learn to live like Jesus from your example as well as your preaching [1 Pt 5:3].
The Adventurous Life
What might be gained were you to love that elder enough to challenge the irritating and demeaning way he engages those around him?
What benefits could accrue if you were really to dare your people to a lifestyle of financial sacrifice until it becomes the norm?
What do you think we perpetuate when nearly 70% of long-time church attendees give nothing in return for the services and benefits they receive? When fewer than ten percent of Church members actually tithe?
Why do you take pride in attendance numbers when most of those who come don’t contribute either time or money to the welfare of the fellowship, let alone the waiting and watching community outside?
The Adventurous Life
If you are in the religious education and entertainment business I can understand why you’d eschew adventure and risk. But, if you’re in the people-development business, committed to make mature followers of Jesus, I’m not sure there’s any other way.
Leadership in a Culture of Cowardice (part twenty)
Examining courageous leadership, a fifth principal is: Don’t “push on the rope”: the unmotivated are invulnerable to insight. Watching ministers lead for more than thirty years, it’s breathtaking how diligently and fruitlessly so many labor to lead those who are least-motivated to follow.
No wonder the burnout rate in the pastorate is dwarfed only by the dropout rate.
Here’s an alternative, practiced by the most effective leaders in ministry: Pastor, live with your pioneers.
Make sure those most ready to follow your leadership populate your appointment calendar. Every week, spend most of your time with the pioneers: those who’ve trained themselves to take risks, to try new possibilities, to leap into the unknown just to see if something better can result. Ask about their passions for the things God has laid on your heart. Listen for the “overlap” between your vision and theirs, your heart and theirs, your passions and theirs.
This area of overlap is where you and they get to play!
Pray with them. Dream with them. If your dream is to touch the un-churched, envision the kinds of impact you’d most want to have on the lives of those you’ll serve. Imagine yourselves serving authentically, regularly, generously—for their benefit.
Do some planning and strategizing…but please don’t get a brain cramp trying to figure it all out in advance. Planning for ministry is an almost irresistible temptation for church people. Don’t waste your vigor over-planning in the familiar confines of your church conference room.
Quick, before you lose your nerve, get out there and bless people.
Thrust yourself into action with your pioneers. Get off the property. Meet civic leaders. Learn where your congregation can help, where you can make a God-honoring difference, and go after it. Love people. Serve them.
For Heaven’s sake, experiment.
Go-again, fearlessly and flexibly.
When what you tried doesn’t work—do something else.
Do anything else. Let these be rich times of learning and of enjoying the adventure together.
As your pioneers love and care for the un-churched in ways that bless their lives, they’ll be skeptical initially. They’ll be wary that church people would serve without an agenda, a “gotcha”, a hook. As you keep being with them for their benefit–and not for yours–their skepticism will be replaced by gratitude.
Communicate their appreciation broadly through the congregation. Raise the visibility of your pioneers; make them your “heroes” and make a big deal of their willingness to risk, innovate, and lead in the change.
Over time, the belongers will decide it’s beneficial and safe to join in. Have places ready for them to serve. Plan these in advance.
Eventually, more and more belongers will embrace the changes, until they become the “new normal” for your congregation.
All the while, another amazing transformation is taking place. As you continue serving the un-churched, from a place of humility and unconditional love, their gratitude will be accompanied by openness. When they ask about your relationship with God, then you answer.
“Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have.” [1 Pt 3:15b]
The key, Pastor, is to give yourself to the pioneers, the “yes” people, the adventurers. Suspend your preference to win over the resisters and to bring along the belongers. They will watch—from afar—and when it seems safe to them, they will begin to play.
In the meantime, have a blast with your pioneers. Make a difference in the lives of those you’re serving. Enjoy what God does.
Leadership in a Culture of Cowardice (part nineteen)
We’re investigating a fifth leadership concept: Don’t “push on the rope”: the unmotivated are invulnerable to insight.
I ask you to consider that people have trained themselves, through their lives, as to how they respond to change. All change. Every change.
Last time we introduced the pioneers. These are your visionaries, riskers, outcome-focused action-takers. Their primary concern is not safety, nor reputation. Pioneers thirst to make things better. Period. Full stop.
The majority in any established congregation, however, aren’t pioneers.
They are ‘belongers’.
They don’t like to stick out. They’ve trained themselves to move with the group, the community. Which is why they’re called “belongers”. Pioneers don’t care about fitting in. They care about making a difference. But, for belongers, it’s different. Very different.
Belongers will change when certain conditions are met.
Primary among these is whether the proposed change will succeed and be safe. They will embrace change when they decide it is safe and successful to do so—and not before.
You’ll never see a ‘belonger’ on the leading-edge of change.
No matter how good a leader you are, they won’t. It’s how they’ve trained themselves. And, pastor, you’re not gonna change that.
Only they can.
Resisters are steady. Loyal to what’s been. They show up whenever the doors are open. Traditionalists, they engage in church life much the same way people have for decades. They still tithe.
Resisters have trained themselves to avoid the possibility of loss.
They’re not likely to implement any change that can be delayed. A core motivation is to avoid being wrong, to avoid failure.
Resisters will embrace change, but not until the discomfort of not changing is greater than the risk they associate with the change.
Resisters and pioneers interpret life in mutually-exclusive ways. When a pioneer is presented an opportunity, as soon as she sees the possibility of improvement, her default is: “Why not?” The resister will intuit the possibility of failure or loss and think: “Why take an imprudent risk?” The belonger will move, but not ‘til it’s “safe”.
The culture you’ve established in your congregation will determine the predominance of each group. Curiously, “church” is one of the few places in American society where resisters can gather en masse. I suppose government is the other. Think bureaucracy, not politicians.
Here’s the key: Pastor, live with your pioneers!
Every week, insure that you spend most of your time with them. In the next blog, we’ll clarify what to do when you’re together, so the change you believe God wants, actually takes hold in the congregation.
For now, work to clear your calendar of resisters, and fill it with pioneers. It may take three months or more to wean yourself away from the passion-extinguishing tantruming of the unmotivated.
Proactively schedule your office appointments with those who are most responsive to your leadership.
Invest generously in their lives. Support them as they grow in Christ. You’ll enjoy it a lot more, and more Kingdom fruit will be borne, as well.
By autumn, you could be leaping into your workweek with a vigor, optimism, and enthusiasm that most of your folks have never seen in you.
Leadership in a Culture of Cowardice (part eighteen)
We’re investigating a fifth leadership concept: Don’t “push on the rope”: the unmotivated are invulnerable to insight. This perspective is of central importance to pastors who are committed to lead their congregations through change. Maybe it’s because the religious culture’s assumption that the shepherd’s role is to comfort and soothe the sheep, that ministers tend to give most of our time and attention to those least motivated to change. Of course, there are exceptions.
Yet, in my more than 25 years of ministry—much of it to ministers—it’s stunning how much of pastors’ time, thoughts, and prayers are consumed with those who are least motivated to follow their leadership.
While you are breaking yourself to provide compelling insight in an attempt to inspire the unmotivated, they are breaking your will to lead. They are road-blocking the change you believe God wants, and your efforts to see God’s Kingdom advanced in your city.
Once the pastor’s will is broken, it’s “lights out” for that church—and for the un-churched community the congregation was assembled, by God, to influence.
If you believe America’s a mess—morally, economically, spiritually—you wonder how it got this way. Could it be the Church has been hijacked from her mission to salt and light society, by complainers opposed to Kingdom-advancing change who demand their anxieties be appeased by their leaders?
Pastor, your courageous, decisive leadership is critically important. Your will, resolve, and stamina in the face of opposition from people you love dearly, is essential to the Kingdom’s advance in American society.
I want to help you avoid the energy-sapping, confidence-draining effect of the unmotivated on your leadership.
To lead, you can’t “push on the rope”.
Rather than focusing on the resistant, give yourself to those who are most willing to go with you. Give them your time, your creativity, and your energy. In any community, you’ll find three kinds of people. This is over-simplified just a bit, so you can use and benefit from the concept.
These are pioneers.
They are God’s gift to you!
Next time, I’ll describe the other types of people who dominate Christian congregations in the US. Then, we’ll dig into specific strategies to lead all three, so you don’t waste another ounce of energy pushing on the rope!
Leadership in a Culture of Cowardice (part sixteen)
You and I are indebted to Edwin Friedman’s remarkably insightful examination of leadership in Failure of Nerve, for this fifth leadership essential: You can’t push on a rope: the unmotivated are invulnerable to insight.
Think about Jesus’ parable of the farmer. [Mark 4:3-20] The key to fruitfulness was the soil …not the seed. Yet, we in pastoral ministry devote hundreds of our very 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.
In post-Enlightenment Christendom fussing over the “seed” makes up the largest portion of an Evangelical pastor’s work week.
Why have we given so little attention to tilling the soil of our 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”.
Think about it.
We’re commissioned to faithfully proclaim God’s Word so that people around us live like Jesus.
To distill the ministry of the Gospel down to faithful proclamation without equal regard to the life-change taking place in those we lead is akin to straining gnats and swallowing camels.
If the unmotivated are invulnerable to insight and if the key to fruitfulness is the condition of the soil, would it be wise to get really good at soil preparation?
What if you cut your sermon prep time in half?
What if you dedicated all that time to working on the receptivity of your people’s hearts?
What if you started with those who are most receptive?
What if you focused your people-development energies on the most fertile hearts instead of those with the most rocky, barren soil?
What if you did what Jesus modeled and taught?
Leadership in a Culture of Cowardice (part fourteen)
In this blog, we’re considering the fourth of nine traits of healthy leadership:
Stand, as an exemplar, in the sabotage and backlash that must come.
When confronted by opposition, this kind of leader will be swift to embrace the reality of God’s sovereign control and grasp the security provided by God’s unconditional love. She then leans into resistance with a posture of confident curiosity. “God has this!” she might remind herself while stepping toward those who, unnerved by fear, have turned against her.
A leader’s humility creates the opening to presence herself so resourcefully amid conflict.
In John Chapter 7, Jesus is teaching in the temple courts. When those who hear him speak begin to gush with affirmation, applauding his brilliance, he rebuffs them.
Jesus’ response: “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…”
The leader recognizes that he is not powerful enough to have caused the upset nor the circumstances that many say upset them. Aware that each person connected to the disappointment has a contribution, he faces small temptation to assume he’s solely responsible for the unwelcomed turn of events. He has grounded himself in the understanding that he is not significant enough to have produced the organization’s successes … nor its failures all by himself.
Yes, he has a part.
His colleagues have a part.
The system has a part.
And, factors beyond everyone’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.
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 Cor 16:13-14: “Be on your guard; stand firm in the faith; be men of courage; be strong…”.
I find stunning the King James Version’s ancient rendering: “Quit ye like men.”
Leadership in a Culture of Cowardice (part thirteen)
We’re examining what may be a unique kind of leadership—leadership that is compulsory if the Church is to provide the redemptive influence in American society that she was given, by Jesus, to bring. For nine segments, we examined the regressive and infantile culture that has become normative in so much of the Church in North America. For the last eight, you’ve been invited to reinvent yourself as a distinctly courageous leader.
Now, we’re considering a fourth leadership characteristic: Stand, as an exemplar, in the sabotage and backlash that must come. You were invited to recognize that, like Jesus, every leader is an exemplar.
It can be no other way.
A leader is not simply someone who decides things, who gets stuff 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 better 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 is in the midst of sabotage and backlash.
Fuller Professor Dr. J. Robert Clinton has identified Leadership Backlash as 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. In A Failure of Nerve, Edwin Friedman elaborates: “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.
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 to deepen the maturity and faithfulness of colleagues and followers.
Further, this kind of leader chooses to interpret the opposition as provision from Heaven.
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 as well? He saw the departure of the many as an opportunity to assess and challenge the resolve of the leaders closest to him.
Leadership in a Culture of Cowardice (part ten)
We’re looking at the fourth characteristic of effective pastoral leadership: Stand, as an exemplar, in the sabotage and backlash that must come.
Consider the example of Jesus as revealed in John Chapter 12. By this point Jesus has become so popular that even the Hellenized Greeks are seeking him out. [Jn 12:20-24]
They ask Philip for an audience with the Master. At this moment, Jesus’ devoted followers may be at the pinnacle of their popularity. Imagine Philip’s enthusiasm as he tells Andrew the great news!
The two go together to let Jesus know that so-and-so has requested to see him. Rather than assign one of them to schedule his appointments with dignitaries he ignores the request and instead he talks to the two of them about of his impending sacrificial death.
Neither the admiration nor the disdain of the crowds and his closest followers seems to deter Jesus from his mission.
Jesus does not simply take a stand.
He is a stand.
Having taken full responsibility, before the Father, for his being and destiny, Jesus’ lives as if his every movement, his attitudes, his words, and even his silence are on purpose. His Father’s purpose. To establish the Kingdom of God in the lives of women and men.
This is what leaders do.
Acclimate yourself to the rigor of taking total responsibility, before God, for your own responses to your environment and circumstances. Friedman notes: “Leaders must not only not be afraid of that position, they must come to love it.”
So, you ask, where do I get that kind of courage? How could I ever come to love being ridiculed and adored, being evaluated and critiqued, judged all the time?
What if you have it all, already? What if you’ve been given all the courage you’ll ever have, or need?
What if you have it now in Christ? If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation… [I Cor 5:17]
God’s power has given us everything we need for life and godliness… [2 Pt 1:3]
Leadership in a Culture of Cowardice (part eight)
Jesus exemplified the second of nine leadership traits we’re examining in this series: Take full responsibility for your own emotional being and destiny.
At his arrest in the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus is in complete control of his emotions and reactions.
He does not personalize Judas’ betrayal: “Oh Judas, how could you?”
He doesn’t negotiate: “Hey fellas, what if I agree to stop teaching in the Temple—would that be OK with you?”
Nor does he play the victim: “Doggone it you guys. If you’d just stayed awake and prayed like I asked you, none of this would’ve happened!” [Mk 14:43-50]
Brought before the Sanhedrin [Mk 14:53-64], Jesus does not tantrum, collapse in an ocean of tears, call down fire, nor even expose his accusers’ hypocrisy. The only response recorded by Mark is his unmistakably clear admission that yes, he is the Christ, and that they will one day see him sitting at the Father’s right hand.
See, Jesus lived as if his being and destiny were securely and completely in his Father’s hands.
Clear about his calling to serve humankind as he fulfilled the Father’s will [Mk 10:45], Jesus’ being and destiny was undeterred by the autonomous choices made by the autonomous human beings all around him: Pilate, Peter, Judas, the false accusers before the Sanhedrin, and on and on.
Engaging his life in this way, Jesus catalyzed the maturing of the followers to whom he turned over the Church after his crucifixion.
And today, he’s turned that Church over to you, and me.
How often do the actions and decisions of other autonomous human beings affect your sense of wellbeing? How common is it for your confidence to be shaken when some human in whom you placed your trust turned out to be…well…human?
In the face of disappointment and betrayal, can you and I stand confident that our sovereign, loving God has not been caught by surprise, even if we are?
Yup. We can.