Offensive, Scandalous Grace

TRIPPING UP

Grace, the Stumbling Stone
Grace, the Stumbling Stone

I am klutzy.  I trip over the tiniest variations in sidewalks, over cobblestones, up and down steps.  Usually I can awkwardly recover before I go all the way down, but it’s still embarrassing.  My sweet husband keeps count of the number of times I stumble when we are out together.  I think I average 3-4 wobbles per outing.  I never set out to trip.  Usually when I do, it’s because I was distracted and not paying attention to my feet.  I hit a hazard that I just didn’t see, and boom—down I go.  It’s painful and humiliating.

Tripping is an accident that happens when I try to do too many things at once.  My husband doesn’t get annoyed with me when I fall down.  He doesn’t judge my ability to walk and shame me for falling.  He laughs a little when I stumble, but he always grabs my arm to stabilize me.  He gets concerned if I go all the way down.  He doesn’t walk away; he helps me back up.  I am, however, embarrassed and hoping no one else noticed.

Things are similar in our walk with Christ.  I don’t believe that Christians set out to sin; it’s an accident.  We trip over the place we didn’t see coming when we didn’t realize we were vulnerable.  Sometimes we just stumble and sometimes we go down hard.  Most of the time, these incidents are accidents, not a product of evil intentions.  The fact that someone hides their sin and got caught, however, is not an indicator that they purposefully, secretly, set out to sin.  It only means that they are embarrassed by it.  It’s a normal, human response.  This perspective should change how we deal with people.  Instead of pushing people away when they fall, we reach out to stabilize and to support.

The Bible says that grace itself is a stumbling stone.  When Jesus came, religious people didn’t see it coming.  They were caught up in appearances and in following the rules to earn moral superiority.   The free grace Jesus offered threw them for a loop.  “The Gentiles, who did not pursue righteousness, have obtained it, a righteousness that is by faith; 31 but the people of Israel, who pursued the law as the way of righteousness, have not attained their goal. 32 Why not? Because they pursued it not by faith but as if it were by works. They stumbled over the stumbling stone. 33 As it is written: ‘See, I lay in Zion a stone that causes people to stumble and a rock that makes them fall and the one who believes in him will never be put to shame.’” (Romans 9:30-33 NIV)

Jesus, grace embodied, is the ultimate stumbling stone.  There are parts of Jesus that can be really hard to understand.  There are things that God forgives that I have a very hard time forgiving.  It trips me up and I don’t even realize I have stumbled over grace.  Why would someone get a clean slate, free and forgiven, for major betrayals like adultery, or for swindling little old ladies?  Does God forgive a pedophile?  Does God forgive a murderer?  Is grace big enough to cover these things?  If Hitler repented on his deathbed and God decided to save him, my Jewish family would reject God because his grace is too inclusive.  Muslims who follow Sharia law reject Christianity because of grace.  It’s too loose, too free.  Things that we hold on to, God lets go of.  I’m happy for God’s grace to cover my junk, but sometimes grace looks like injustice when it covers someone else.  Grace can be a stumbling stone.

We each carry the weight of our own failures.  Most of us have secret places in our past, distant or recent, where we tripped and fell, but we keep them hidden because we are embarrassed by the errors.  These things can make us feel under qualified to take our place serving or leading in the church.  Do those things disqualify us from connecting to the church and sharing Jesus?

NAUGHTY NAUGHTY GIRLS

I noticed something truly interesting in the genealogy of Jesus.  Matthew wrote his gospel to the Jews, to prove to them that Jesus was the promised Messiah.  He rattled off the genealogy of Jesus at the beginning of his book because where Jesus came from mattered to Jewish people.  There are some truly illustrious men in that list—superstars like Abraham, King David, and King Jehoshaphat.  The ladies that got a mention, however, are decidedly less so.  They are kind of a who’s who of the naughty girls of the Bible, starting with Tamar, the girl who pretended to be a prostitute so she could score a one-night stand with her father-in-law, Judah.  She wanted her father-in-law to get her pregnant.  Shocking!  Then there is Rahab, the prostitute and treacherous turncoat, followed by Ruth, the shameless woman who snuck into a man’s camp in the dark and slept next to him to force him to marry her.  These are Jesus’s great-grandmas.  The virgin Mary has a lily white image, but even she was a bit of rebel if you think about it.  She would have had a sketchy reputation, having gotten pregnant and giving birth before marrying Joseph.  If Mary had been my daughter, I would have married her off as soon as possible and said as little as possible, hoping people didn’t add up the months.  Mary must have wanted to make sure that everyone knew Jesus wasn’t Joseph’s son.  That’s pretty edgy.

The Bible doesn’t explain why these are the women included in Jesus’s pedigree.  There must have been other wives that lived good, tidy lives who didn’t get a mention.  God must have included these girls in the recorded lineage of Jesus for a reason.  Perhaps it is to tell us that he doesn’t pass over girls who have made mistakes; who have stumbled trying to navigate life.  Even the girl with most checkered past can be a God-carrier.  The scandal and the babies that resulted from those scandalous relationships resulted in the most gracious perfect gift to mankind.  It makes no sense; it’s a stumbling stone, but our failures and our foibles don’t disqualify us from serving up Jesus to the world around us.

I know some of you may feel an obligation to challenge this.  There are some pretty stern passages throughout 1 Corinthians about people who sin, and some strong requirements for the people who lead in the book of Timothy.  Yes, those who lead are judged to a higher standard.  Yes.  But are those leaders any less entitled to the same grace we enjoy?  Or is their need for grace a stumbling stone for you?

WHEN LEADERS FALL

I’ve watched a few Olympic races.  Sometimes, the racer makes an error and falls.  The sportscaster will always replay the big moment in slow motion.  They show the misstep and the athlete going down, mouth open, arms and legs flailing.  Racers nearby get tripped up in the churning limbs, and the massive train wreck results in a jumble of bodies and injuries on the ground.

This is what happens when Christian leaders stumble.  Usually their error affects the people closest to them, and can cause real pain for the people closest to them.  When they stumble, they cause other people to stumble.  Untangling those train wrecks and nursing the injuries is not a small matter.  Every fallen leader has to carry the responsibility for this.  It’s the getting back up part that I am chewing on.  Jesus gives grace freely to each one of us.  It’s very clear that none of us are perfect yet, no matter what position we hold.  Do those mistakes disqualify fallen leaders for future leadership?  If we don’t actually get back up but stay committed to our funk, clearly it does.

In church, no one has any obligation to stay or to serve or to give.  People can leave at any time and go find another church.  People only follow us to the extent that they respect us.  If your life is a visible mess, people will not follow you.  Ergo, you are disqualified from leadership because you are leading no one, because no one will follow you.  I wonder if the qualifications for leadership that Paul gave to Timothy have more to do with this practical reality than anything else.  We all require the grace of Jesus to stand righteous—every one of us.  Our own righteousness did not qualify us for leadership to begin with, so it can’t later either.

God made a point by including only flawed women in his lineage.  I wonder if Tamar will be embarrassed when I meet her in heaven.  Out of her whole life’s story, the one snapshot that got included was her scandalous baby-making endeavor.  Her story makes me feel pretty good about my flubs being redeemable.  Our journey of grace doesn’t have to be a private one.  If we are willing, our grace journey can show others the way, providing a pathway people can follow.

People root for the underdog.  People love a comeback story.  People will follow a fallen leader that gets back up and learns from their mistakes.  God’s grace covered their sin the minute they put it under the blood of Jesus.  Will his grace be a stumbling stone for us, or a point of victory?

Friends

Thoughtful woman sitting on the couch in a living room and looking sadFRIENDSHIP VS. FANSHIP

“I just don’t fit in anywhere.  I feel alone most of the time, except with my husband.  I really don’t have any friends; I don’t have time to hang out with people as friends.  We don’t really talk to any other pastors.”

I have met quite a few pastors and leaders who shared with me how alone they feel most of the time.  Honestly, this shocks me a little, because so many people are pastors and leaders in churches.  It shouldn’t be this hard; the potential friend pool is pretty big.  The body of Christ might be spread across the globe, but God designed us to be connected to each other.  Too many are feeling a little friendless!

Friendship is definitely different from popularity.  If we are honest with ourselves, most of us are interested in measuring our own popularity.  It’s a habit we started as children, evaluating how many birthday parties we got invited to or who wanted us to sit at their lunch table.  This measurement of popularity didn’t really end after Jr. High; it just morphed.  Social media provides an easy measuring system today.  I keep reasonably close tabs on all my numbers.  Hopefully it’s not just me.  There will always be people more popular than me or you.  If popularity becomes a measure of our own value, or our ministry’s value, we have navigated ourselves into truly murky waters.

For some reason, we church leaders tend to overanalyze our own popularity.  On one hand, it’s good.  Lots of people following us should mean lots of people are following Jesus.  (hopefully)  On the other hand, it’s easy to slip into Jr. High mode and feel the same way about the number of social media followers we have as we did about the number of parties we got invited to in Jr. High.  Our absorption with our own popularity is not so healthy.

I believe that a big reason that so many North American pastors feel lonely is that there has been too much emphasis on popularity and too little emphasis on friendship.

When a super cool leader is doing awesome things in their church, we want to be like them and get in their world.  It’s a similar concept to American celebrity culture.  We get consumed with the lives of popular pastors and leaders just like celebrities—how they live, what they wear, what they do for fun, how they cut their hair, what they do to grow their church. There is nothing wrong with this at all.  It’s great to be inspired by people who are doing awesome things.  We just need to be realistic—we aren’t friends with them.  This is fanship, not friendship.  Aligning with these amazing, wonderful leaders is not the same thing as friendship.  It may be a door into a real relationship, but Facebook friends do not equal real friends. (For the very few of you who had not yet realized this.)

Two women outdoors hugging and smilingQUALITY FRIENDS

We all need friends.  We find such life and strength in the God friendships of our lives.  I’m definitely not always good at being a friend, but I am learning.  I have learned by watching some people who are just really good at being a friend. I have certain friends, gifts from God, who love me—warts and all.  They have a God-given grace for me—for my weirdness, for my awkwardness, for my weaknesses.  These things don’t seem to offend them, but amuse them instead.  It doesn’t matter how badly I’ve neglected them; they stay loyal to me.  They have become part of my kingdom family, an extension of my natural family through an unwritten covenant.

The common denominator is that they are always far less concerned with what they are getting out of the relationship than they are with the well being of the person they care about.  Healthy friendships are not based on “I scratch your back, you scratch mine.”  That is a good business partnership, not friendship.  Real friendships have that Christ-like quality in them where we give without keeping track of what we get back.

There is a Seinfeld episode where a “friend” of Jerry’s starts working out.  After bulking up, he outgrows an expensive suit and offers it to Jerry.  Jerry feels nervous to accept the extravagant gift and says so.  The man thinks for a moment and says that if Jerry would just take him out to dinner, it will be even.  As the episode progresses, the dinner turns into more than one dinner, and pretty soon, nothing Jerry does is enough to balance out the gift of this fancy suit.  Jerry gets fed up, and finally the relationship breaks down because of this gift.

We aren’t born knowing how to do friendship well.  Friendship is a learned skill that we have to cultivate.  It doesn’t just happen because we like a person.  I have to choose to be someone’s friend.  I can’t just be their friend because they treat me well, or they call me their friend, or because they make me feel good.  If I did, I would wind disappointed as soon as they let me down, and the relationship would be over.  Friendship is a gift that we give to people.  It’s pretty hard to turn down genuine friendship.  It doesn’t ask for anything, just offers love and acceptance.  It doesn’t require validation or time.

When our friendship depends on mutual benefit, we will always be looking for how to even the scales, and resentful when it looks like our friend is giving as much.  “An unfriendly person pursues selfish ends.”  Proverbs 18:1 NIV

Loyalty is one of the most under-rated qualities out there.  A loyal friend, who believes in you and loves you when you dumb things and cheers with you when you win, that friend is priceless.  Real friends see the real me and love me anyway.  They laugh at you, and you laugh at yourself because you feel affection from them, not scorn.  They don’t make you feel dumb or inferior.  Most of these people in my life are old friends, who have stood the test of time.  Those friends are just awesome.  You can pick up where you left off with them, like no time has passed, even if you haven’t seen them for a few years.

I’m fully grown up now, I think.  I don’t have as much social time as I did in my teens and twenties.  When I do, my first instinct is to spend time with well-established friendships because I love them, and it’s a guaranteed easy and fun time.  I really have to intentionally make room in my life for new friends now, where when I was younger, it came quite naturally.  I don’t want my world to shrink in.  I want it to get bigger, to have a generous heart.  I want to add to my friends, not stagnate.  For us to connect with new friends, it’s going to take some extra thought!

My goal is to make at least two new, real friends a year.  I meet all kinds of people, so that’s no problem.  I don’t just want new contacts or new acquaintances; I want to be a friend to more people.  I tell myself this:

 Choose to reach out to the people you like.

Don’t feel awkward about pursuing them.

Keep pursuing, and choose not to feel rejected by what looks like the brush-off.

It takes time for people to get to know you enough to love you, so be patient.

PRACTICE THE ART OF MAKING NEW FRIENDS

For us to make new friends requires that we take the initiative.  I can’t sit around expecting people to suddenly spark an interest in me.  I have to be a friend first before I will have a new friend.  Here’s what I have been thinking about when it comes to making new friends.

1.  Friends are interested in each other and what they are doing.

The people in my world best at relationships intentionally make time regularly to check in on people, even when they are not involved in their everyday life.  I’m not great at this, but I’m working on it.  These amazing people don’t get so consumed by themselves and their own schedules that they forget about the people they love.  They make time to think about and pray for friends.  The age of the selfie and numbering social media connections has made friendship very self-focused in general.  True friendship is externally focused, not inward.  Friends are interested and ask questions.

2. Friends don’t pull away, funky and awkward, when their friend’s star is rising.  They don’t compete.

Friends promote each other because they are excited about each other’s wins.  I’ve seen friendships that got weird when one of them experienced greater success.  The other person just couldn’t seem to get their head around the inequality of their situations.  Without realizing it, they had been racing the other person.  When their friend won, the other got sour.  Jealousy is the enemy of friendship.  Sometimes we allow resentment of our friend’s blessing to rob the joy in the relationship.  Unnecessary competition is not worth a precious friendship!

Friends challenge each other, but they don’t compete.  The Klitchko brothers are two heavyweight Ukrainian boxers who were a big deal in the last ten years.  (My husband is into boxing, so I have picked up a few things over the years.)  They are probably the best two heavyweights out there, and both hold major belts, or at least they used to.  (You fight over belts in boxing.  I might be more into it if they fought over shoes, but whatever.)  These two brothers decided years ago that they would never box each other.  If they were any random two men, it would be a natural paring for a great fight. Because these two are brothers, they don’t fight each other.  They refused to let anything divide them.

“Iron sharpens iron,” means that we can be challenged by our friends’ successes and become better.  If we disengage from relationship because we feel weird suddenly, then we miss out on the sharpening.

3. Friends lean in during the tough times.

Friends lean in during crisis.  Lean in, even when your friend is pulling away.  When I feel embarrassed or hurt, I just want to want to crawl in a hole and disappear.  It’s human nature.  Sometimes people push friends away because something is going on in their world.  Those are the times we need to apply some grace and patience and just keep reaching for them.  Lean in and love them anyway.  Real friends pray for each other, in the good times and in the bad.

My husband’s best friends have leaned in with real support during his hardest moments.  One of them told him, “Some people are going to spank you, and sometimes you do need it.  Some people will love you and be for you, no matter what.  I choose to be that friend.”  That’s the kind of friend I want to be!  “A friend loves at all times, and a brother is born for a time of adversity.” Proverbs 17:17

4.  Friends make time for fun

Friends have fun together.  Fun creates memories, and memories connect us forever with shared history.  I’m convinced that if adults will prioritize fun in their lives, they will experience more deep and meaningful relationships.  Friends make time for each other.  Life is more than the tyranny of the urgent and important.  We need a little silly in our lives, and people to laugh with.

5.  Friends don’t let anything divide them.  They work through issues like family does.

Sometimes we make far too big a deal about accidental snubs.  It amazes me how very small issues can sour an entire friendship permanently.  We should be quick to let it go, yes, but be sure you actually can let it go and aren’t just burying it.  If you can’t let it go, have a chat about it!  It’s worth the pain of that conversation to save a friendship.  Little issues have a way of resurrecting just when you thought you let it all go.  You can be honest, without being hurtful.  Real friends speak the truth in love.  “Wounds from a friend can be trusted, but an enemy multiples kisses.” Proverbs 27:6

6. Friends are loyal, even when they aren’t sure their loyalty is reciprocated.

Loyalty means you don’t giggle at someone else’s misfortune, or tell anyone when your friend’s life is going badly.  Loyalty means that you check in with people, even when they are sucking your energy away with their problems.  Friends don’t talk about each other in a negative way, and don’t listen to someone else spill about them.  Friends come to terms with each other’s weaknesses without judgment.

7.   Friends relax together.

You have nothing to prove.  You don’t have to be perfect to be respected, and you don’t have to have it all together to be loved.

8.  Friends are sisters of the heart.

“One who has unreliable friends soon comes to ruin, but there is a friend who sticks closer than a brother.” Proverbs 19:24

My relationship with my sister is one of my deepest and oldest friendships.  It amazes me how when she hurts, I seem to feel it intensely.  It’s not my hurt; it’s hers, but I feel it just like I feel my own.  We have a heart connection.  When she is joyful, I feel what she feels.  I am connected to her wellbeing, invested in her happiness.  Sisters of the heart carry the weight together.  What happens to her affects me, for good or bad.  I’m invested in her life, not disconnected or impartial.

I think this is what real friendship is at it’s core: to be so connected that we are unable stand by and watch our friends hurt, or be okay with their loneliness or their need.  We feel pride in their success, and excited by their joy.  We are invested in who they are.  I believe this kind of relationship is what God designed us for.

On Church and Change

NEW VERSUS NORMAL

In the fourteen years that I helped put together church services for Family Christian Center, we did some crazy out-there stuff.  Trying to describe to new friends what my role was like is almost comical.  People listen to me talk about the animals and their excretions, the Thriller zombies, and shooting arrows into screens and their first reaction is usually to laugh.  Some of the risks we have taken paid off with highly effective services, and some have made for great stories later.  HA!  Brooke, our fourteen-year-old, travels with us now after growing up at Family Christian Center.  For her, all these things that sound extreme to others are just normal life.  In her world, it’s just how you do church.  If you don’t have a city bus on stage, miniature horses, or human torches, she’s a little bored.  At least blow something up!  It sounds over the top, but she is growing up to a new normal in church life.

Everyone who grows up in church or gets saved in church has an idea of what they believe church should be like.  Usually it is very connected to the first spiritual experience we had in church.  The atmosphere where we first felt a God connection often defines our preferences for the rest of our lives.  We get resistant to anyone who tries to change what we enjoyed so much.  Sometimes it’s the number of songs being sung, or the length or content of the preaching that we get hung up on.  Interestingly enough, however, what seems traditional to you today was radically new to someone else in the previous generation!

The form of church services themselves has changed dramatically throughout history.  In the Old Testament, God spent entire books of the Bible explaining in great detail exactly how he wanted his people to worship him.  He gave them specific instructions about everything, from the ceremonies to the size of the room and the decorations, with no room for personal freedom or creativity at all in the expression of it.  As the years went along, it become more and more apparent that it just wasn’t working.  Throughout the books of prophecy, God expressed his dissatisfaction with the way people were worshipping.  They did the rituals well enough, but their heart wasn’t in it.  God wanted more.

THE IRRELEVANT DEBATE 

When Jesus came, something incredible happened to the way humanity interacts with divinity.  There is a fascinating conversation that Jesus had with a Samaritan woman that changed the way we do church forever.  It reversed everything that humans understood about the way God wanted to be worshipped.  Jesus began this conversation with some small talk and then abruptly switched gears by reading this woman’s mail and telling her he knew about her checkered past.  After she got over her surprise, she took advantage of the moment to ask what for her was a very pressing question.

“19 The woman said to Him, ‘Sir, I perceive that You are a prophet. 20 Our fathers worshiped on this mountain, and you Jews say that in Jerusalem is the place where one ought to worship.’ 21 Jesus said to her, ‘Woman, believe Me, the hour is coming when you will neither on this mountain, nor in Jerusalem, worship the Father. 22 You worship what you do not know; we know what we worship, for salvation is of the Jews. 23 But the hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth; for the Father is seeking such to worship Him. 24 God is Spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth.’”  (John 4:19-24)

This is an over-simplified explanation of a complicated history, but I think it will help you understand the premise for her question.  Bear with me for a moment.  Moses made the Tabernacle per God’s request when the Jews wandered the desert for forty years.  It was a portable church venue essentially—a tent.  Whenever they stopped for a few days, the Tabernacle was set up, and when it was time to leave, it all packed up and came with.  Once they settled in what is now Israel, the Tabernacle was permanently set up on Mount Gerazim because there was no longer any need to move it around.  The Jews would go up this mountain to worship God.  When David came to power generations later, he built himself an impressive palace in Jerusalem.  He felt guilty that he had such a nice place and God still lived in this old tent.  He decided to built a temple, which his son, Solomon, wound up building.  After they finished the temple, they moved the Ark of the Covenant, which housed the presence of God, from the tent on Mount Gerazim to the new temple.  Some of the Jews were very offended by this move.  After all, their ancestors had been worshipping on that mountain for generations!  They believed that the change was wrong.  These Jews continued to worship on Mount Gerazim, even after the ark was no longer there.  They became known as the Samaritans, and this difference of religious opinion divided them for hundreds of years from the Jews who worshipped in the Temple.  What this Samaritan woman was asking was this: Since you, Jesus, seem to be in God’s inner circle, please resolve this debate once and for all and tell us what God wants!

Jesus’s response was incredibly radical.  He told the Samaritan woman that she was asking the wrong question.  God couldn’t care less where they worshipped.  What really mattered to God was the authenticity of the heart behind the worship.  Jesus was saying that for the first time in the history of humanity, the form did not matter anymore.  This was a complete change!  The focus of worship was no longer on ritual and tradition, but based on emotional and spiritual connection first before any spiritual expression.  Jesus was saying that the way you worship, the mechanics of it, is irrelevant.  God had been given form and procedure for thousands of years, but what he really wanted was something that was heartfelt, not just a duty.  God wanted people who would worship him from their spirit, or from the very essence of their identity, and they would worship truthfully, authentically.  He changed the paradigm of the way worship would happen forever!  In essence, as long as our services are leading people toward connection with an genuine God moment, pretty much anything goes.  There is no formula, no set anything!

That day, something fundamentally changed about the way we connect to God.  It went from thousands of years of sameness to several thousand years of never the same.  Since that conversation, church worship has been consistently changing so that it always reflects a fresh creative expression of our hearts toward him.  Every generation since then has done church a little bit differently.  Today, the expressions of Christian worship all across the world are incredibly diverse.  Islam is the opposite.  No matter where a Muslim is in the world, they worship the same way.  They face Mecca, get down on their knees and pray five times a day—same prayers, same locations, the same way.  Jews are still caught up in form.  I read an article recently about how the Jews have been sneaking up onto the Temple mount to pray recently.  The third holiest Muslim site, a giant mosque, occupies that space currently.  They are willing to risk their lives trying to honor their worship tradition.

CHANGE IN CHURCH

It’s human to love our traditions.  Christians can easily get so caught up in what is familiar that it can become a lid to our creativity.  Instead of a foundation to grow on, it becomes a lid.  Even in the most creative environments, we easily get comfortable in what we have always known, connected to the ritual of doing things the way we have always done them.  It is possible to be so captivated by our history that we miss the freedom that we have to create fresh moments that help our people truly connect in worship.  To Jesus, the benchmark for quality services is that people have authentic God-connection moments.  We have no guarantees that what worked ten years ago is still going to work today.  Every new generation will worship God a little bit differently.

As a young pianist, my teacher emphasized to me that good practice establishes strong neural pathways.  The more I play a song correctly, the easier it is to do it the same way the next time.  The upside of this is that it gets easier to play it well.  The downside is that change becomes more and more difficult if I am playing something wrong.  My family listened to me play a song over and over and over and they would get incredibly sick of hearing that song.  If people are listening to the same song over and over, they get burnt out on it after a few months.

Churches that want to provide quality experiences for their people spend enormous amounts of time, energy and resources getting it right.  Our teams practice carefully to give the best experience we know how to do.  Some of us have gotten really good at it!  Unfortunately, if we do church the same way every week, the same two things happen.  The first is that we will find it harder and harder to change the way we get together corporately, and the second is that people begin to disconnect from their experience because it feels stale and overplayed.  If we allow this to happen, we will miss the new generation.  Bands that have been successful over many years learned how to reinvent themselves again and again.  Most artists aren’t able to do this and have a few years in the sun, then fade back into obscurity.  If we don’t intentionally reinvent the way we do church, particularly for well-established, older churches, we will wind up in the same boat.

Dying churches are full of older people and shrinking every year as they die.  It’s essential that we build change into our church cultures.  It’s very easy to slip into the habit of making decisions based on what we know will work, what we know our teams can pull off to minimize risk.  The bigger and older we get, the harder church leaders find change to be because of fear of losing what has been built over many years of hard work.  We find comfort in our routines, and what was once radical has become traditional.

So what needs to change?  Some things shouldn’t change at all.  Keep certain things central.  The apostles devoted themselves to doctrine.  We have to make sure we are getting it right.  It really bothers me that there are some GenX leaders are moving away from the idea of the Bible being inspired.  We don’t adapt the truths of the gospel around popular opinion. Right and wrong, sin and salvation, the cross and resurrection, the Holy Spirit and his power, the truth of the Bible—these things are foundational. The Sundays we build are only as strong as we build these foundations.

THE MILLENIALS ARE COMING

We have to watch this generation carefully to learn how they connect.  I’ve done some research and some personal observation to arrive at some thoughts about the value systems of Millenials, but these are certainly up for debate.  Purely to prime the pump of your thinking and to get the conversation going, here are my thoughts about what is valuable to Millenials, or GenY.

 

Connection to the past:  Millenials tend to get excited about old buildings being revived, old instruments revived, or old clothing revived.  Hipster culture has reconnected to folk music roots.  Churches are taking old cathedrals and renovating and reviving them.  Vintage instruments are wildly popular.  Reviving old furniture or homes is huge—there are multiple reality shows about this.  Millenials have a value for legacy and history as a point of personal identity.  Perhaps this is because of the homogenization of the cultures of the world.

Value for environmental responsibility:  We can’t ignore this as a church.  Millenials value this responsibility as significantly as they value fiscal responsibility or family responsibility.  This translates in to recycle bins in church, or community gardens and local markets in church parking lots, or composting in church kitchens.

Life is less compartmentalized:  Most people take their work with them wherever they go.  They take work to church, and they take home to work, building communities together that do life together on a broad spectrum.  We don’t go on vacation with the neighbors anymore; we go on vacation with work friends, with the community we connect with that has shared values and interests—and there is a little community for every interest under the sun.  The Millenials are mowing the parks of Detroit.  This should be a government responsibility, but they don’t have a problem crossing over this line.  As the church, we have to figure out how to make church less a Sunday event and more integrated into people’s daily habits.

Intimacy and community:  In a digital age where we are connected to hundreds shallowly online, Millenials crave the intimacy of face-to-face personal relationship. Their relationships have been reduced to a like button.  They desire genuine connection instead of anonymity.  They love being part of a team where everyone is comfortable with each other, not a stiff hierarchy where people are in competition all the time

Millenials aren’t interested in stereotypes:  They do cultural mash-ups all the time in music, in fashion, in art, and in relationships.  We can’t be afraid to cross all kinds of cultural barriers and be inclusive.

Honesty:  Millenials hate pretension or fakiness.  No one has everything a hundred percent together, and authenticity matters,  They don’t like being impressed or schmoozed, and can smell an agenda a mile away.  If we want them to come to our church, we can’t pretend we like them.  We have to actually like them!  They don’t like feeling pressured into community,  It has to happen organically, because people have something in common and genuinely like each other and want to share their lives.  Shared interest connect groups have been pretty successful for this reason.

High value for personal freedom:  They want the flexibility to do life uniquely their way.  Whether it’s in creative expression or in a work environment, micromanagement is the life sucker.  Google is the gold standard for work environments.  If we want to lead young high performers serving in our church, we have to give them some space.  They want to get the job done well their own way.

Cause-driven work:  Millenials want to know that what they are doing is a piece of a larger, important work for humanity. They want to know why their work matters, beyond just bringing home a paycheck. Hair salons are more commonly hosting free makeovers for underprivileged high school proms.  Restaurant owners contribute to community gardens where people can collectively grow fresh produce to give away to anyone who needs it.  Journalists tell stories that expose injustices to inspire change. The “social entrepreneur” is a new industry according to Forbes magazine, and it’s a multi-billion dollar industry.

Smaller venues:  Apparently the American shopping mall is in decline.  Outdoor village-like environments that feel like shopping at boutiques in the city are on the rise.  Millenials find connecting and doing life difficult in giant environments.  Huge venues for one-off events will never go away, but more intimate environments appeal.  They don’t like being crammed into a crowd or standing in a long line or sitting right next to (touching) a stranger.  Milllenials are building smaller venue multi-campus churches with a great community feel, many services and many options.

Financial responsibility:  This generation has grown up in the great recession.  They have seen the credit crunch and are far more wary of debt. They saw their baby boomer parents be under water in their home loans, owing more than their property was worth.  They are less willing to take on multi-million dollar building loans or pay a higher cost per square foot for a larger auditorium.  Openness about financial decisions is of much higher value.  This doesn’t mean they want to control the way their church is spending money, just that they don’t like secretiveness. 

Increased value for quality hand craftsmanship:  Millenials appreciate things that are not just mass-produced.  Pinterest and Etsy have boomed.  For a season, churches felt very corporate, and looked like business buildings.  I think that the churches of tomorrow will reflect this value for craftsmanship.  I’ve seen it in things like hand-carved beautiful wooden pulpits and guitar stands, or handcrafted lighting fixtures in church lobbies.

If these qualities are part of this generation, then we have to think through our systems and presentations from this perspective.  I’m not suggesting that we all need to grow beards and wear vintage Doc Martins.  We just have to think about our methods through these value systems, and reexamine our processes.  If Millenials don’t enjoy feeling pressured into an assimilation system, then maybe we should look at how we word our communication to new guests, or how frequently we are communicating to them.  Is it too heavy?  Does it feel like we genuinely want relationship with them, or is it overly formal and generic?

RETHINKING TO CONNECT BETTER

We need to rethink things.  If we don’t purposefully change by taking risks in areas we don’t understand well, we will stagnate.  It’s not about being cool and trendy.  We have to learn how to make the gospel come to life for every new generation.  Statistics have been telling us for quite some time that the vast majority of Christians made their decision to follow Christ as a young person.  This means that the most important God experiences in church are happening in the lives of young people.  They are important because they are the first of a lifetime of moments.  As the church, we must prioritize and design these moments and design around young people.

What’s tricky is that currently the baby boomers are for the most part leading the church.  To reach young people requires the older generation to let go of their preferences and their ideas about what is cool, and yield style and method to younger preferences.  Boomers, don’t get resentful about this.  I am GenX, looking between Boomers and Millenials.  It won’t be many years before the kids in children’s ministry will be telling me what is cool.  Give those Millenials thirty years, and it will be their turn to yield their preferences!  It is the way Jesus set up the church—each subsequent generation must change.

Just as significantly, we need the older generations.  Boomers have the leadership experience, the skills, and the emotional maturity that churches desperately need.  Just because we are changing does not eliminate the place that older generations have in the church.  Every part is valuable.  Don’t feel excluded or discarded because of the changes that need to happen.  Making space for the preferences of a younger generation does not eliminate our ability to participate in or to lead the process.  It just means that we reinvent our contribution.

We love our traditions and routines because they feel comfortable and familiar, like an old warm fuzzy blanket in front of a fire on a cold night.  They aren’t bad!  It’s just that no one else wants to curl up under your ratty old blanket with you!  It is your blanket, unique to you.  Traditions are the same way.  We can’t expect someone else to love them.  It’s incumbent on the older generations to be willing to change and give way to the styles and methods of the younger generation.  My husband John says when he was younger, his mentors were twenty years older, but now they are twenty years younger.  As leaders, church isn’t for us. It’s our opportunity to present Jesus to others.

Don’t be resentful, because give them twenty years and they will be in the same boat.  We can choose to love what’s fresh because it keeps us young.  More than that, it keeps our heart’s connection to Jesus fresh and active.  Let’s have a yes in our heart to whatever new thing our pastor wants to try.  Let’s keep measuring what we are doing, watching carefully for when systems are getting stale.  Sometimes more than a patch of a new leader is required, and we need an overhaul because that process just isn’t working any more.  We have no guarantee that because something is working now it will always work.

Above all, let’s ask God to give us his heart toward people.  The Bible says that Jesus looked at people and felt compassion.  He can keep us focused on reaching others rather than our own preferences.  If we get our head up long enough to watch people, culture, and trends, we will get genuinely interested.  People know when it’s real!  Let’s build teams that have inclusive spirits, reaching for new people and new ideas.

 

The Difference Between Crimea and the Matriarch Ruth: Cultural Realignment

CULTURAL IDENTITY

In between the pervasive news about the lost Malaysian airliner, we have had snippets of information about what is unfolding in the Ukraine.  It’s pretty fascinating to me that the Crimean people would vote to detach themselves from their country and reattach to another country.  (This particular country, oddly enough, has had a long history of abuse and repression of the Ukrainian people.)  It’s like the state of Washington suddenly deciding they don’t want to be part of America any more and joining Canada, or Hawaii deciding they want to be Japanese.  It’s a big deal!  So how does this happen?

Interestingly enough, the majority of Crimeans have (apparently) Russian ancestry.  These folks, even though they have lived as part of the Ukraine for generations, have maintained a Russian identity.  (Crimea has been part of the Ukraine before, after, and during Soviet rule)  They maintained a Russian culture, even though they are now Ukrainian nationals.  Just because we join a new country doesn’t automatically mean we have a new cultural identity.  America’s major cities are full of Chinatowns, Greek neighborhoods, Italian neighborhoods, and the list goes on.

My husband is an Aussie living in America.  There are certain parts of American culture that he had to choose to adopt when he married me.  Australians don’t celebrate Thanksgiving, but it’s a major family get-together holiday in America.  In the early years of our marriage, he scheduled himself to be away once for a Thanksgiving, not even registering that it was a big deal for him to miss it.  However, Thanksgiving was a big deal to me.  It’s my culture; it’s family time.  Because he loves me and he is committed to me, he made a decision to take on a value for that American holiday.  He hasn’t missed one since.

The same is true in church.  We may join a church or a leadership team, but it doesn’t mean that we have automatically adopted its new culture as our own.  We have to learn a new culture, and then decide to adopt it.  Adopting new culture is a journey of changing attitudes, values, language, and habits.  We are born into a culture.  Our early environments, parents and mentors, and life lessons shape this.  We have to cultivate our ability to read the requirements of our leadership culture, see how it diverges from what is familiar and comfortable to us, and then take on that new culture.

I travel quite a bit.  When I get to vacation in a beach resort its just amazing.  It’s super comfy and the temptation for me is to move between the pool, the spa, and the room service.  If I just stay in the resort, I have no chance of connecting to this new culture.  It’s a little scary and risky to get out there, but I download the guidebook, get out and eat the weird food (ignoring the potential consequences).  I talk to locals about what they do; learn some history, what’s important and what makes things tick in that place.  The same is true in church.  It’s a little scary and risky, but we aren’t really connected until we have immersed ourselves in learning the culture.  That’s how we learn to love what’s different and unique, and learn the language.  If we wrinkle our noses at parts of the leadership culture of our church that is foreign and refuse to engage, then we will feel stuck as an outsider and a guest in our own church.

RUTH’S REALIGNMENT

“‘Look,’ Naomi said to her, ‘your sister-in-law has gone back to her people and her gods.  You should do the same.’  But Ruth replied, ‘Don’t ask me to leave you and turn back. Wherever you go, I will go; wherever you live, I will live. Your people will be my people, and your God will be my God.”  (Ruth 1:15-16 NLT)

Ruth made a decision to abandon the culture of her birth and adopt a new one.  She attached herself to Naomi as her leader with fierce loyalty.  What’s interesting to me is that Ruth could have kept her own language, religion, and traditions, but she didn’t.  She didn’t keep her own identity and culture in Naomi’s land.  She left behind her old value system and adopted Naomi’s culture, even though it was foreign to her.  This is next level loyalty!  She made a choice to follow Naomi.  To Ruth, following Naomi was a choice to realign herself with the people Naomi loved, Naomi’s language and culture and faith.  This meant she redefined herself fundamentally.  In the end, Ruth didn’t lose out; she wound up on top, better off.  The fruit of this decision was her marriage to a strong and wealthy man, and ultimately her inclusion in lineage of Jesus.  Pretty good deal!

If we will make the same kind of choice to fully immerse ourselves in the culture and heart of our house, we will find a place where we belong, a new family.  This kind of leadership loyalty is an adoption of a new set of values, even when it’s different.  Unity is not about agreement; it’s about alignment.  We may not always agree, but I make a choice to align myself with your values.  Unity is achieved not through harmony and compromise, but through deliberate decisions to align to our senior leader’s expectations, standards, and goals.  The reality is that the things that unite us are far more significant than the things that divide us.  Too often, leaders divide over the small things that don’t really matter.

What matters is not so much what we personally prefer, but what Jesus is calling us to be as a church.  Pastors have to lead according to the direction they get from the Holy Spirit, not the vast mosaic of personal values found in his church.  Leaders who attempt to satisfy everyone else’s personal values wind up chasing their tails and going nowhere.  The most effective number two level leaders recognize where personal values differ from the values of our house and make a decision to embrace these new values over our own.

Everyone loves the idea of harmony and world peace.  In all my lifetime and in all my travels, I have never met one person who told me that they love war and division.  So if everyone wants unity, why is it so hard?  Why is the Ukraine on the razor’s edge of unraveling into civil war?  Why has Syria been pulling itself apart for three years?  These nations share culture and language, but they cannot find a place of agreement.  The truth is that unity is far easier in ideals than it is in real life.

UNITY HAPPENS WHEN WE DISAGREE

Fundamentally, we all want to fit in because we want social acceptance, but we also want to stand out.  There is something wired deep into our humanity that wants to be distinguished, to be special.  There is something deep in us that wants to make our mark on the world around us, to be noticed and remembered.  The rebel gets remembered.  The dissident is a singular voice in the crowd, standing out.  The Bible tells us that the place for us to do this is letting our light shine in the darkness, reaching out to people who are far from God.  We don’t need to be doing this inside our church, but outside.

The thing about vision is that it requires unified efforts behind it to actually happen.  What’s tricky about this is that it needs all of us who are wired to desire uniqueness to come together, against our nature, into the same purpose.  People have to let go of their desire to do whatever else they could be doing and choose unified vision and values.  Just like Ruth, saying yes to new a culture and vision is saying no to something else.

If we will bring a heart and an attitude that says yes unconditionally to vision, amazing things can happen.  Unity actually happens when I disagree.  My leader may have decided to go one way after I suggested another.  My attitude in that moment determines true unity.  If I am sulky and irritated, I am producing division.  If I maintain a life-giving spirit, staying full engaged with the direction I suggested against, that’s true unity.

People are far more willing to do this when there is proven fruitfulness.  It’s easier to say yes when you have some kind of guarantee that your time and efforts are going to pay off for something good.  It’s human to hesitate when we have seen problems or to distrust what’s new.  Even if there are issues, let’s put the strength and the health of our church first.  Sometimes leaders who have had these hesitations will start to build a sub-culture inside their church.  Their teams speak differently, and value different things than the rest of the church.  These ministries become isolated, separated from the body of their church.  They think they are building something more spiritual or better, but they are actually weakening the fabric of their church.  None of us want to be caught in that trap and say or do anything that will weaken or hurt the church.  Let’s be leaders that build teams that value the house over our own area.

Sometimes leaders will join a team that they look down on, thinking that they will “fix” what’s wrong in their house.  This attitude always ends badly, with hurt and frustration.  Choose to adopt the values of your house, and you will avoid a world of ugly.  If you are in this trap, trying to grow areas of your church that aren’t part of the vision, don’t be surprised when your ministry isn’t growing or you don’t find your opportunities and influence expanding.

Leave those areas in God’s hands.  Ultimately, he has a unique assignment for every church.  We reach different facets of the world, and no one church will be strong in every area.  Focus on what your church values and does well, and be happy, loving it for what God has called your house to be.  When we choose to adopt this new culture as our own, we become sons and daughters of the house.  The church is strong when we know who we are and what our mission is, and we love it!

The Purple Velvet Hammer

TheVelvetHammer

My husband is a boxing and MMA fan.  This means that from time to time, to be a loving wife, I am subjected to a few hours of wincing and mild nausea.  Every so often, there will be a pair of girls who jump into the cage and try to tear each other apart.  It just feels awkward to watch them going at it—sensitive body parts flashing across the camera in between blood sprays, swinging hair and swelling faces.  I do not enjoy it.

I’m not the only one.  Female fighters aren’t really embraced by womankind.  Fighting is not really a feminine characteristic, unless its in defense of your babies.  Most girly images are soft and gentle and sweet.  Femininity and confrontation just seem to be an uneasy marriage.

Whether it’s a friendship that is going sour or a team member that is sliding further away from their commitment, we all face potential confrontations at some point or another.  We have two choices.  Walk away, or have the awkward and costly conversation.  Most of us girls lean away from smell of a fight and want to back away slowly.  The tension in those conversations is stressful and unpleasant, and we don’t want to make things worse than they already are.

It can be tricky finding the sweet spot between being a pushover and being a b****.

In Judges four, the Bible described two women who went to battle.  The first was Deborah, a judge in Israel.  In Deborah’s time, the people began to have a defeatist attitude.  They had been defeated by Jabin, king of the Canaanites, and as victims of these circumstances, their warriors began to be half-hearted and lazy.  They did not even attempt to defend what they had, much less move forward.  Deborah stood up as a prophet and rallied an army to go and win back their independence.  She literally went into battle with the guys, but she was still fully female.  She is referred to as a mother in Israel, not as Xena, the warrior princess.

The Bible describes four things that Deborah did as a foundation for her leadership.  We can use these principles today to help us find the right balance between strength and sweetness.

In the time of Shamgar son of Anath,

    and in the time of Jael,

Public roads were abandoned,

    travelers went by backroads.

Warriors became fat and sloppy,

    no fight left in them.

Then you, Deborah, rose up;

    you got up, a mother in Israel.

God chose new leaders,

    who then fought at the gates.

—Judges 5:6-8 MSG

Be willing to mother more than your own gorgeous rugrats.

The Bible says Deborah rose up as a mother in Israel.  She got involved in people’s lives at the level a mother would.  Deborah spent somewhere around 30-40 years sitting under a palm tree nearly every day, available to chat with people and help decide their disputes.  Mothers are involved—loving, looking after, training and directing.  They get incredible joy out of their children’s successes, and are willing to sacrifice for them.

For us to lead well, we have to be as involved as a mom is in people’s lives and be willing to be accessible.  The level of our confrontation needs to be at the level of connection we have to people.  As a leader, I have to be able to recognize at what level I’m leading an individual and moderate my confrontation to the level of my leadership.  If someone is distantly connected to me, the tension of heavy confrontation is going to tear the fragile threads that connect us.  For someone else that is in my world daily and I’ve invested heavily in, the complex web of our relationship can handle more pressure.  It takes time and investment to earn people’s trust.

Let God rise up new leaders around you.

Deborah’s leadership produced more leaders.  God chose new leaders who fought in place of the old, tired ones.  The people who came with us this far may not go the next leg of the journey with us.  Confronting half-heartedness in old leadership is risky—those team members may not make it through the conversation.  If we haven’t made room for new leadership, the thought of losing those old leaders may make us hesitate to confront where we should.  Making room for new leadership and trusting new leaders isn’t easy for us.

My Chinese sister-in-law, Ying, observed to me recently that “best friend” to Americans really means, “oldest faithful friend.”  We place high value on relationships that have stood the test of time.  The process of building and leaning on new relationships is long hard work full of awkward conversations.  Our attitude about that journey makes all the difference.  We can be open and engaging, or keep our world small and insular.

Be willing to rise up and confront sloppiness.

More times than I can count, I have been up late at night, thinking or worrying about a situation that needs addressing.  I can try to ignore it, but it just wriggles in the back of my brain trying to get my attention.  In my early years of ministry, I relied on my husband to do the confronting for me.  He would sense my distress or discomfort and would rally to my defense.  The thing is, when he got involved, it never actually helped people buy into my leadership at any greater level.  Those moments established his authority and his leadership—not mine, even though the conversation was with someone in my area of responsibility.

If I am going to wear the title of leader, I have to do what Deborah did, and get dirty with the conflict.  It’s up to me to sort things out, as uncomfortable as it may be and as unprepared as I may feel.  If we don’t confront at all, we will hesitate to give people responsibilities that really matter in case they mess it up.  If we over-confront, people resist our leadership.

I frequently get asked the question, “What should I confront or not confront in my new team members?”  Confront new team members and new leaders at the level of their commitment.  This requires clear conversations about expectations early on, from attitudes to preparation.  Tension arises when people don’t deliver on what they have committed.  Deborah confronted the warriors who gave themselves permission to become fat and lazy.  They were not doing what they had committed to do—defend Israel.

If someone committed ten hours and is delivering five, have a conversation about it.  If they have committed to come to a rehearsal prepared, knowing their songs, and they don’t; let’s talk about it.

Be the purple velvet hammer

So how strong should we be in those conversations?  How intense should we be?

Deborah leaned on the people’s commitment to God in her conversations.  The way we serve reflects on our relationship with Jesus.  I do not confront anyone without reminding him or her about why we serve.

I love the story of Jael, another fierce chick from Judges five.

Most blessed among women is Jael,

The wife of Heber the Kenite;

Blessed is she among women in tents.

25 He asked for water, she gave milk;

She brought out cream in a lordly bowl.

26 She stretched her hand to the tent peg,

Her right hand to the workmen’s hammer;

She pounded Sisera, she pierced his head,

She split and struck through his temple.

27 At her feet he sank, he fell, he lay still;

At her feet he sank, he fell;

Where he sank, there he fell dead.

 –Judges 5:24-27 NKJV

Jael was the purple velvet hammer.  She was gentle and hospitable, and when it came time, she handled her business without any excess drama.  We can be purple velvet hammers too—soft and pretty, but with an iron core.  We don’t have to confront harshly or argue.

The point of confrontation is not that I’m right and you’re wrong.  Good confrontation offers a truth, a tool that will help you become who you already want to be.  We can be gracious in these conversations because every one of us has blind spots that need someone else’s coaching to overcome.  As female leaders, our femininity can be disarming and help lower defenses so that the truth can be welcomed.  We can tell people difficult truths, but with a lovely smile and a hug.

Deborah’s song encourages us to be like the sun. It’s warm, bright, and nourishing, but it’s also unrelenting and incredibly strong.

But let those who love Him be like the sun

When it comes out in full strength.

 Judges 5:31 NKJV

 

Girls, we can be both strong and sweet!

Why Getting Paid by Your Church Doesn’t Make Serving Easier

When I was a little girl, I watched the woman who played the piano on stage and the ladies who led worship and knew that’s what I wanted to do.  Before I even knew that you needed money to live, I wanted the church to be my profession.  I started serving in church as a little girl in the children’s choir, and I never looked back.  For all of us who love the church and have been serving and leading for years, joining a church staff seems like a natural next step.  What could be better than spending all our professional time building what we love and serving Jesus with our lives?

It’s hard to consider getting paid cash money to do something awesome as a bad thing, but sometimes, the money doesn’t make your serving easier, but harder.  I have been privileged to chat with many people who have taken ministry jobs for the first time, and without fail, after the honeymoon is over, there is a transitional season that isn’t easy.  In fact, sometimes it’s so rough that people don’t make it.  I know more than one person who has come on and off their church’s staff multiple times because the transition was so difficult that they didn’t make it the first time around!

There are unique challenges for churches both from hiring from the inside and hiring from the outside.  When I first started in full-time ministry fifteen years ago, it required a move half-way across the country.  My husband was a college buddy of the pastor’s son, so we were an outside hire, not an inside hire.  Most churches would prefer to be able to hire one of their own if they can.  People we have gone the journey with and built trust and culture with slip so naturally into staff roles.  There is an easy dynamic of trust that happens when a church hires one of its own.  There are, however, inevitably some important mental transitions that we have to navigate if we accept a staff position at our own church.

These are some of these challenging thoughts that new staff, hired from within their church, will likely have to grapple with.  I have come across these struggles in leaders who answered the call to ministry both at home and in the churches that we work with. They are challenging and might give you pause if being hired by your church has been your goal.

1. A loss of freedom and control: the transition from, “I control the level of my serve;” to “My participation is mandated.”

2. A potential loss of morale: the transition from, “I get to; I want to;” to “I have to.”

3. A change in relationship: the transition from, “You’re my pastor;” to “You’re my boss.”

4. A loss in finances: the transition from, “If I could just get paid to do ministry, life would be just amazing;” to “What?! This is how much I’m getting paid to do this much work?”

5. An increase in responsibility: the transition from, “I’m a supporter;” to “I’m responsible.”

6. A loss of confidence: the transition from, “I’m the best volunteer we have; I rock this;” to “I’m super green, unsure of myself, and intimidated by successful leaders who are now my peers.”

7. An increase in pressure: the transition from, “I get celebrated as a volunteer;” to “I have to celebrate volunteers that I need, but I don’t feel celebrated.  In fact, I feel pressure now from my leader like I’m not good enough.”

8. An increase in frustration: the transition from, “Everything this church does is fantastic;” to “Can I get a little help around here??”

9. A decrease in sanctuary: the transition from, “This is my happy place;” to “This is a demanding place.”

10. A shift in motivation: the transition from, “I serve Jesus because he died for me;” to “Jesus is my career.”

(This one is subtle, but WAY important in how we view church.  When your sense of professional accomplishment depends on the church, it’s easy to let our motives slip from where it all began if we are not vigilantly guarding our heart.)

11. A loss of personal value: the transition from, “I feel valued and respected in my career by my pastor;” to “I feel owned and less valued because I work for you.”

All of the people I have talked to who joined their church’s staff have felt at least one of these things in the transitional season.  That season can last differing amounts of time for different people.  None of these feelings or thoughts of themselves are shameful, and none of them are disqualifiers if you have felt them.  They do, however, require that we process through them with Jesus and with our pastors.  If we let these thoughts and feelings fester, they will cause us to do and say things that will disqualify us.  Ministry is not easy.  Many, many pastors don’t survive it.  If we will work through these challenges and pop out the other side, things do get much better!  There is nothing more fulfilling than doing full-time ministry if we are called to it!

We just have to be very sure that God has called us, and to be very real with ourselves about the demands of the lifestyle.  Regular heart checks and motive checks are vital.  If our ministry motive is to build our personal profile or make our mark in history, we will wind up as ministry road kill.  These motives will cause us to fall, and our hearts to be trampled, if we don’t keep love for Jesus and his heart for his people at the center of what we do.

Many of the most effective leaders I know are also volunteers.  It doesn’t take a church check with your name on it to make your contribution valuable, and it doesn’t take a staff title to validate your ministry.  The apostle Paul worked many times without pay and maintained his business as a tentmaker, and he never viewed pay as any measure of his ministerial success.

“7 For you know that you ought to imitate us. We were not idle when we were with you. We never accepted food from anyone without paying for it. We worked hard day and night so we would not be a burden to any of you. We certainly had the right to ask you to feed us, but we wanted to give you an example to follow.” 1 Thessalonians 3:7-9 NLT

For all of you who are volunteering the equivalent of a part-time job or even a full-time job, bravo!  You inspire and encourage so many, even if you don’t hear it often.  There are significant rewards for the level of service you give.  I am one hundred percent convinced that when we make God’s kingdom a priority, he will make certain that our needs are more than met.  I volunteered thirty hours a week all through my teenage years.  God made sure that I got scholarships I didn’t deserve to more than pay for my college education.  I am so grateful!

I’m sure you are living in a blessed place because of your serve.  Those blessings may or may not be overt, but you can see them if you look for them.

“31 Therefore do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ 33 But seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things shall be added to you.” Matthew 6:31,33 NKJV

When we make a priority of building God’s house, he will build our house!

When Things are Bananas, Focus on the Fruit

It’s inevitable. We all face seasons when life is less than peachy. Our leadership is producing nothing but lemons. All our pretty, pretty pleas for help must be lacking the cherry on top, because no one is responding. As hard as you try, you just can’t find that sweet spot; and all that hard work left you plum tired. Things are absolutely bananas!

Some time ago, I saw a funny-ish old episode of “Frasier” where the doctors Crane learn to ride bikes for the first time as adults. The brothers go to a local park to practice their new skill. Frasier is terrified of riding into hazards along the path. While he rides, he carefully focuses on the trees to make sure he doesn’t run into them. He’s so focused on them that sure enough, he rides right into exactly what he wanted to avoid! Whatever he focused on, he crashed into.

The same principle applies in life. When times are tough, what we are focused on makes all the difference. When we focus our attention and emotion on the potential hazards along the way, we crash land into the problems. Whatever we are focused on is what we are targeting. We can spend all our time running after fixing problems, and there is an endless succession of them! It leads to a terrible quality of life. When we are forced to continually react to and repair what is happening to us, we burn out.

We get through tough seasons by focusing on the right things. Jesus never called us to a life of misery! He said, “my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” (Matthew 11:30) Life is better when most of our attention is focused on building vision rather than the problems. We need to keep the problems in our peripheral vision, but keep our focus on the things that move us forward. This means putting more energy and attention into what we are doing right than what we are doing wrong. Keep your eyes on the prize!

It’s easy to define wins if we are working toward a clear vision. We can only move forward if we have a target we are aiming for. It doesn’t matter how young or how old we are—if we don’t have a vision, it’s time to do some dreaming! If the dream seems derailed, then it’s time to pick back up and focus on what we can do rather than what we can’t.

While every person needs unique goals, there is also a universal mission that Jesus gave the church collectively. Our mission is to help make new followers of Christ while we move forward on our own journey. That journey is a multi-step process and takes a lifetime to complete. Each step forward in that process is producing what the Bible calls fruit. Every decision that is a step toward Jesus is worth celebrating! It doesn’t matter how far along we are, as long as we are moving!

Fruit comes in all shapes and sizes, but it is all fruit! My fruit will not necessarily look like your fruit. This doesn’t make either kind any less valuable. Jesus didn’t curse the fig tree because it wasn’t bearing strawberries. He cursed it because it had no fruit. It can be easy to devalue the fruit we are producing because we are too familiar with it. Sometimes we look into someone else’s garden plot and see the beautiful things being produced and get overwhelmed. We’ve been in it since the beginning—planting seeds, dealing with manure, watering it, and watching slow growth. It’s a whole lot of work! The fruit that comes out the other end can be very rewarding, or disappointing, if it’s not what we were hoping for.

Harvest seasons have historically always been time for celebration and thanksgiving. We have an entire American holiday around that theme! Next time you feel a little discouraged, look for your fruit. You will find it in the place you have been working hard and investing. It is incredibly valuable to God, and it’s a reason to celebrate!

Instagram, Self-torture, Measuring Tape, and Pineapples

INSTAGRAM AND MENTAL SELF-MUTILATION

The latest apps like Picflow or Video Story sew a bunch of photos together into one Instagram slide show—perfect for your year in review.  My photo stream is full of them today.  I can see the 2013 highlight reel of any number of friends in snapshots.  It’s funny how fantastic this makes our lives look.  It’s all the best moment of the year crammed together into fifteen or twenty seconds.  Even the worst year can look pretty amazing in an Instagram slide show!  It’s easy to look an acquaintance’s slide show and feel a twinge of envy.

For most humans, this kind of reflection is our annual tradition as the New Year turns over.  It’s time for happy memories, wishes for revisions, and plans for self-improvement.  I always experience an interesting tension between regrets that I am not where I want to be and motivation for the fresh New Year.  This self-reflection, however, is a bit of a slippery slope toward self-comparison.  There are always others around my age and experience that are so much farther down the track than I am.  Self-comparison leads to self-criticism—Get it together, Anna!

I have several friends who have had an exceptionally difficult year.  Needless to say, they did not post an Insta year-end slide show.  When your life is not on the upswing, this kind of New Year’s mental self-mutilation is even easier to slip into, particularly for leaders.  My prayer for any of you experiencing this kind of self-torture today is grace for the journey.  The Bible talks about the ups and downs we will face.  Our leadership journey is going to have fantastic seasons and others that feel very lonely and difficult.  Thankfully, Jesus promises to be with us at every step, and to bring us to a great place of vision and his presence.

“And how blessed all those in whom you live,

    whose lives become roads you travel;

They wind through lonesome valleys, come upon brooks,

    discover cool springs and pools brimming with rain!

God-traveled, these roads curve up the mountain, and

    at the last turn—Zion! God in full view!”

                                                      (Psalm 84:5-7 MSG)

This season will not last forever!

USE YOUR OWN MEASURING TAPE

The path out of self-disappointment starts with a liberal application of God’s grace.  As leaders, we tend to measure out God’s grace generously to those we minister to, but withhold it from ourselves.  Grace for the journey gives us permission to learn from our mistakes rather than disqualify ourselves.  Grace gives us permission to move at a sustainable pace rather than watch our relationships wither on the altar of our to-do list.  God’s grace gives us permission to love the strengths we have rather than hate the weakness that are part of our humanity.  Our journey is our own, and not comparable to anyone else’s.  

As leaders, we tend to measure fruitfulness based on statistical performance, opportunities, and the perceptions around our ministry.  We go through seasons when what God is building in us is bigger than what he is building through us.  Those seasons when he is strengthening the foundations of our lives and building character can look barren on the outside, but they are vital for the next season.  If we aren’t aware of what he is doing in our lives right now, we can spin our wheels chasing after success when just maybe, this season is designed for us to get healthy.  Health produces fruit, and not the other way around.

Learning grace for the journey means learning how to measure our progress in rhythm, at the right places and the right times.  Too often we measure sporadically, or use someone else’s measuring tape.  Our measuring tape should be the vision and values of the ministry we serve, not the vision and values of the church whose conference we love to attend.  If we measure our progress according to the vision God has called us to, then we have an accurate picture of our progress.  Hillsong is called to write original worship songs that the church worldwide can worship with.  If your church’s primary vision is to feed and clothe the needy in East Jahunga, then the fact that you aren’t producing original worship songs sung around the world isn’t a fail.  

Too often we measure by comparing what we have built to what people we respect have built.  Paul talked about our journey as a race, and it’s easy to get focused on winning by being more successful than other leaders.  The kind of race we are in is more similar to a marathon.  Long distance runners aren’t nearly as concerned about what place they finished the race in as whether or not they beat their PR.  Their goal is to beat their personal record, to run their personal best.  We are more like distance runners than sprinters.  Measure against your own progress, no one else’s.

Women in particular can be guilty of measuring themselves by someone else’s measuring tape.  We measure by comparing our lives to our best girl friends’ lives.  We literally compare our body measurements.  We tend to take our kids’ failures and successes and measure ourselves by them.  Girls, your kids’ mistakes do not disqualify you any more than their successes validate you.  Your kids measuring tape is not for you!

GOING IT ALONE: ALWAYS A SERIOUS MISTAKE

It’s human nature to want to withdraw from relationship with people we respect when things aren’t going so well.  We don’t want them to see us vulnerable, or maybe we don’t trust them to handle us with love and acceptance.  I have friends who have pulled away from good relationships in hard times.  They stopped attending the conferences they used to attend, don’t reach out like they used to, and they felt hurt that no one was reaching back.  It would seem foolish for me to feel hurt for something I changed, but it’s a trap many of us fall into.  I have to take responsibility for my own relationships; I can’t blame someone else for my choices.  If I disengage from relationship, then I will go through hard times alone.

One of the many things I love about my husband are his skills at building and maintaining friendships.  He is able to genuinely and wholeheartedly celebrate the successes of his friends.  Just as quickly, he gives love and support when things are going badly.  Not everyone is able to do that authentically.  I have been in leadership environments where people struggled to celebrate their friends’ successes.  Being part of a leadership community requires that we don’t give ourselves permission to think that someone else’s progress diminishes ours or that their success makes ours smaller.  If we want true friendship, we have to learn to authentically value and celebrate the progress of those we are in relationship with.  The nature of true relationship and true community is that we cheer each other on, not one-upmanship.  

At various moments over the years, I’ve caught myself watching someone else’s success, examining it for weaknesses.  I’m not sure why, but maybe their weaknesses made their success seem more achievable.  If I am cheering someone on with my mouth, but in my head looking for something to criticize, then I have made myself smaller.  The same applies to you.  We probably all have had to face this battle at one time or another, feeling inadequate in the face of someone else’s triumph.  We have to catch ourselves at it, give ourselves some grace for the journey, and then decide to value the success wholeheartedly.  After all, we win when then church globally wins.  Our friends are not the competition we need to try to outdo.

PINEAPPLES AND BELL PEPPERS ARE BOTH FRUIT

Pineapples and bell peppers may be culinary opposites, but they are both fruit.  Fruit comes in thousands of different shapes, sizes, color, and textures.  Some are sweet, some are not.  Traveling from temperate America to the tropics will give you a rapid revelation of how limited our awareness is about fruit.  We tend to categorize things neatly: apple, banana, orange, grape.  There are things out there that simply defy categorization.

The same is true about kingdom fruit.  It looks wildly different on different ministries.  We get fruitful where we put resources, leadership, and energy.  What we work toward is what we produce.  We have different passions, different styles, and different levels of resource that all produce churches that look and feel very different.  The growth in every church environment is fruit.  Fruit is found in people–numbers growth, leadership development growth, and character growth.  Fruit looks different on every ministry.  We are all filling different kinds of roles and answering the different kinds of needs that Jesus calls us to.  

Every kind of fruit is valuable and important.  Our tendency is to focus on others’ strengths but our own weaknesses, undervaluing our own fruitfulness.  We have to learn how to value the fruit we can produce!  We are uniquely capable of reaching specific kinds of people.  The church needs what you were specifically designed to bring!  Just because it doesn’t look, smell, or taste like someone else’s success doesn’t make it any less a fruit.  The fact that we have the potential of producing more fruit or healthier than we are now doesn’t make the fruit we do produce any less valuable.  Celebrate each step of the journey of fruitfulness.

If you have been caught in the torture of mental self-mutilation, comparing your year-in-review to someone else’s, pause here.  A change of focus is required, moving from the failures to the wins.  Take a deep breath in, and thank God for this year’s journey.  What he has taught us has taken us a step forward toward strength, health, and purpose.  No one else’s progress diminishes that strength.  Eyes up, shoulders back, smile in the face of the next challenge ahead, and into 2014 we go!  And good luck in East Jahunga!

When Mommying Isn’t the Best Way

Women have actually always been leading. Females may be relatively new to professional leadership environments, but leadership is nothing new to us. We’ve had to develop some serious leadership chops for parenting. Moms everywhere have had to learn how to lead.

We have used a variety of leadership skills, both great techniques and some maybe-not-so-great ones. Our mothering leadership toolbox has historically included some useful tools: bribery, (I’ll give you a cookie when we get home if you stop it now), manipulation, (it makes mommy so sad when you do that), nagging, (how many times do I have to tell you…), and the all-powerful, “because I said so!” Unfortunately, these tactics that may work reasonably well at home are resented in adult leadership environments.

Because of these mothering habits, many women find it difficult to figure out how to get what they need out of people without resorting to this style of leadership. Unfortunately, men resent it, and women hate it. Almost everyone already has a mother. Few need or want another naggy one. One of the biggest challenges facing women leaders is learning how to lead as a woman without mothering.

Effective female leaders inspire rather than demand. When we lead from vision, inviting people to build something great with us rather than railroading people, the teams we build are much healthier and happier. This type of leadership takes more time, because it requires us to show people the big picture while we ask them for specific tasks. Women wear many different hats and carry a variety of roles. In our busy lifestyles, with so many demands, we tend to breeze over the big picture because of time constraints.

Leading through inspiration means I am helping my teammates see how the unique task I am asking for connects to the greater cause, the reason why. People are inspired when they understand how partnering with a greater cause gives our lives greater purpose and significance. It may be a repetitious or boring task, but it is vitally important, and we explain why. Inspired people will work harder and more creatively than loyal people. We don’t have to bribe, manipulate, nag, or demand in order to get the job done!

I’m definitely not suggesting that we need to abandon our girlyness to become better leaders. Some women try to mask their femininity to fit into the masculine leadership culture. We will wear suits, pull back our hair and pretend we have no emotions to fit in. Women will intentionally behave more gruffly to be “one of the guys.” This may feel like an easier way to connect, but it is not necessary getting better results.

The fact that we are different gives us an edge. We are unique! It is what makes us stand out in the crowd. Not only that, our femininity is disarming to men and we can use it to break down walls. Our emotion makes us more intuitively empathic leaders. If we will manage it well, it’s an asset, not a liability. They key is for us to manage our emotion instead of our emotion managing us.

There is a very wide range between Gloria Steinem-style leadership and Princess Catherine-style leadership, but somewhere in the middle is probably the healthy place to fall. God made us feminine, and we can be well-respected and inspirational without surrendering our strength or our sense of style. We are all different, and leadership will look different on our various personalities and styles. The best expression of leadership is going to come out of the most authentic, best version of ourselves.

Everyone buys into a leader at a different rate. Not everyone is universally behind you, just because you got a job or a role. This doesn’t mean that those people are against you and should be viewed squinty-eyed with suspicion. Followership is not black and white, it’s a gradient that is different for every individual and can change in different life seasons.

If you are mothering instead of leading, you may be leaning on the negative tools of the trade to get folks in line who aren’t 100% all-in yet. Usually, this gets greeted with push-back and resentment. Give it some time. We have work to do to get people to follow us at greater levels. It takes a long time–months to years, even!–to earn the leadership respect of high-capacity people, but it’s well worth the effort.

Everyone is on a journey and is at a different point in engaging our leadership. Making “because I said so” demands on men who are early on their followership journey with us will send them backwards. Using other tools, like listening, smiling, engaging, sharing the wins, and gratitude, will coax them forward. Above all, inspire rather than demand. This moves people towards us instead of away from us.

The love and loyalty that moms have for their kids is always appropriate in leadership. Great leaders see potential in their team members and believe in them when they don’t believe in themselves, just like great moms do. To all the awesome moms of this world–we need you and value you. (Shout out to my mom!)