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!