Category Archives: Leadership

Whom Shall A Church Follow?

There isn’t any such thing as a local church without leadership. All communities of people have leaders whom the rest follow and so it is with local churches too. The real question is what kind of leaders does your church have? Who are the people whose influence is charting the direction which the church journeys in and where is that journey headed?

The local church is neither a business like an investment company nor is it a squadron or company within a military structure. So while there are lessons in leadership to learn from businesses and military life, the question of what kind of leadership and leaders does a local church need is not found in either approach. What I mean is that leadership among a local church is neither a minister functioning like a CEO or Commander nor elders functioning as a board of directors or tribunal. Though God raises ministers and elders up as leaders, such spiritual authority derives from their wisdom displayed in the way they live and serve.

In some cases, leadership in a local church happens by popular vote or the influence of a smaller “ruling” group within the church. Even in churches with ministers and elders, sometimes the direction of a church is determined by a fear of upsetting the perceived mass. Of course, this is wrong! The local church is neither a democracy led by popular vote nor is it an oligarchy ruled by a few who may offer generous contributions or happen to have the most seniority in terms of having the most amount of years being members of the church. I’ll also add that the local church is not a monarchy either. While the universal church of Jesus Christ is a monarchy of whom Jesus is the King, leadership in the local church is not a dictatorship.

Leadership is shepherding sheep. It is of utmost importance that anyone seeking to provide leadership realize that the people who make up a local church are sheep in need of shepherding, not cattle to be driven. Shepherding people requires dwelling among the people, listening and learning from them in order to know them and build a relationship of trust with them. Shepherding people also requires setting an example that is worth following.

So where does a church begin is asking the question of what kind of leaders and leadership will it have? Whom should the church follow?

“Shepherding people requires dwelling among the people, listening and learning from them in order to know them and build a relationship of trust with them. Shepherding people also requires setting an example that is worth following.”

The most obvious beginning place for identifying a leader worth following is Jesus. Throughout his ministry, Jesus lived as a servant to others to the extend of forsaking himself for the sake of others. Christian leaders are servants who will forsake themselves for the sake of others. Anything else is toxic and sure to become a problem. Moving beyond Jesus, the story of the apostles calling for the selection of seven men to lead the distribution of food in Acts 6 to offer some help in answering the question of what kind of leadership will a church follow. The apostles empowered the rest of the disciples to select seven men “who are known to be full of the Spirit and wisdom” (v. 4). For those with eyes and ears to see and hear, it ought to be rather obvious who is full of the Spirit and wisdom. Elsewhere, Paul will tell the Corinthian church to follow him as he follows Christ (1 Cor 11:1). Spiritual leaders among a church are followers of Jesus too. Not just good church goers but followers of Jesus. And here too, it should be rather obvious if someone follows Jesus.

This certainly is not an exhaustive look at what defines those called to lead God’s people among a local church. It’s a beginning point that reminds us that healthy church leadership requires servants who are Spirit-filled followers of Jesus. These servants are not perfect, as all people are still sinners and live with various struggles from time to time. But they will exemplify an abiding faith as they follow Jesus, growing in their knowledge of God’s word and excelling in good deeds, demonstrating their wisdom as leaders worth following.

Church Discernment: Navigating Unchartered Waters

Between the holidays and getting prepared for an upcoming D.Min seminar at Northern Seminary, I have’t had much time for writing on this blog. However, I hope to return to regular blogging soon. In the mean time, one of the books I have read for my upcoming D.Min seminar is The New Parish by Paul Sparks, Tim Soerens, and Dwight J. Friesen (2014). The book is offers a vision for how we can live as the church beyond the building, participating in the mission of God among the neighborhood. It’s an easy and accesible read that draws on some of the recent thinking regarding missional leadership and contextual theology.

For churches moving forward as participants in the mission of God among our neighborhoods, discernment is absolutely necessary. With all of the cultural changes taking place among society, we are in many ways navigating through unchartered waters. With each new day comes new challenges and we all, as local churches, exist among particular contexts that differ in degrees from each other. Therefore, rather than chasing after easy one-size-fits-all answers that don’t really help, we are invited to discern the way forward. Leaders in particular are called into discernment.

Discernment presumes that we are listening for what God is saying and then acting upon that discernment. It is risky, requiring faith, but as the authors say, “To substitute faith in God for your own controlling strategies is to undermine that which is most central to the gospel” (p. 64). My conviction is that God speaks through scripture, tradition, and each other as we gather in submission to God and one another. I am not saying that God speaks in an audible voice, for if he did then we wouldn’t have any need for discernment. And even though some are apprehensive of such a seemingly subjective endeavor that has room for error, we must trust that God, though the Spirit dwelling among us, is leading us as followers of Jesus to move forward in unchartered waters.

However, as we consider possible actions and choices, the authors list several questions that I believe will help us in the discernment process (p. 129):

  • Is the ministry of Jesus being continued in what we do?
  • How might we as a gathered community be formed if we act in this way?
  • Will these actions invite us to be more faithfully present to God, once another, creation, and our parish?
  • Will we be invited into mutually beneficial relationships with others?
  • Will this action invite the flourishing of life for all and for creation?

How might our conversations about worship, community involvement, ministry to the poor, etc… change if we are asking these questions?

What Am I Looking For in a Church?

     With the Columbia Church of Christ disbanding, I find myself looking to what is ahead and how I might continue serving God with the gifts he has blessed me with. I am thankful for those who have encouraged me to continue in ministry as a life-vocation, as this has reaffirmed God’s calling into ministry which has come at very necessary moments. I am also thankful for the Christian community that was known as the Columbia Church of Christ. Though the outcome was not what anyone expected when I began serving as the minister, it was the leading of God and along the way I also learned a lot about leading a church in a pastoral sense for the sake of God and his mission.
     Even though I have learned from all of my experience and education, it is my experience with the Columbia Church of Christ, participating in the Mission Alive training labs, and the Doctor of Ministry studies in missional leadership I am working on at Northern Seminary that has helped me understand how I must serve as a minister. And now that I am talking with some other churches about serving with them as a minister, one of the questions that always seems to come up is what sort of church am I looking for as a minister. So here is my answer to that question.
     Let me start by saying what I am not looking for. I am not looking for a church that is afraid of considering something new, reluctant in taking any risk, and simply interested in maintaining things the way they are. But on the other hand, I am not looking for a church that is just trying to change in order to follow the latest trends of what some other church is doing. Instead I am looking for a church that wants to pursue how God is working among them and in their local community for the sake of his mission so that they can continue participating with God in that work.
     So besides preaching and teaching, casting vision, spending time visiting with people, and all the other work that ministers often do (which I enjoy doing), I am trying to foster a conversation. This is a conversation about how we, as a church, participate with God in his mission, serving one another and our community as we serve God. It is a conversation in which the gospel, as known through scripture and the Christian tradition, is brought into conversation with culture so that we may discern how God is calling us to embody the gospel followers of Jesus. When this happens, there is participation in the mission of God.
     For me, as a minister, that means serving as a listener first in order to learn how God has been at work among the church as well as the local community. By listening and learning myself, I believe I am better equipped to help the church listen and learn so that we are able to discern how God is leading us. This also means that I am seeking from the elders shepherding the church buy-in on a commitment to leading by listening and learning, so that we are listening, learning, and leading together for the sake of God’s work among the church and  community. That’s ministry leadership… pastoral leadership… missional leadership!
     When this happens, we are able to discern as a church not only where God is leading but what might need to change and how that should occur. Further more, this ministry leadership enables us to discern how God is gifting various Christians within the church in order affirm their giftedness and encourage their faithful service using such gifts.
     That’s the sort of church I am looking for. The sort of church that wants to discover how God is at work among them and where he is leading them next in order to go there in faith, just as the people of God have done many other times.

Church Renewal: Discerning The Way Forward

Many churches find themselves struggling to carry on the mission for which they are called. With membership numbers slowly declining and once vibrant programs running like a dial-up internet in an age of high-speed wifi, the concern is palpable. And even planting new churches, which is always necessary, is not guaranteed of a better outcome. For as many “successful” church plants, there are many more “unsuccessful” church plants. The issue isn’t a matter of how to do church better or start a new program that might grow a church. The challenge has to do with mission itself, particularly how we participate in the mission of God.

What Is The Challenge?

For many churches, “missions” has always been a program led by a committee to oversee the sending and supporting of missionaries among a foreign culture. Missions has not been the adjective missional describing the life of the local church belonging to Christ. That is to say that churches have not understood themselves as a missionary-people among their local community and culture, and therefore have not thought about the purpose like a missionary.

When missionaries enter a foreign culture, they seek to indigenously plant the gospel seed among the people they encounter. Doing that requires a cross-cultural approach that strives for both faithfulness to the gospel and contextualization of the gospel within the local culture. The missionary question asked is how is the gospel faithfully planted in a contextual manner so that indigenous Christianity forms? Most existing churches didn’t feel the need to think like this and ask this missionary question because the local community was shaped by Christendom worldview where regardless of how many non-Christians there were, the culture of the community was shaped by and functioned out of a broad Christian ethos. For example, public prayers were always prayed “in the name of Jesus” and whether or not a person lived like a Christian should, they were likely a member of some Christian church.

Things are much different now as the American cultural landscape is quickly becoming post-Christendom. Besides an overt secularism, society is shaped by pluralism where numerous voices present. These voices are engaged in a table conversation about the purpose and meaning of life and each voice is vying for an equal hearing (side point: sometimes those other voices would love for the Christian voice to get up and go to its own table… which is why Christians need to learn good table manners). This is the new culture churches find themselves among and it requires a cross-cultural missionary approach. The big difference is that instead of crossing into a foreign geographical culture, churches must cross into a foreign social-culture from their own. So the driving question is the driving question is how does the local church embody the gospel in a faithful yet contextual manner?

Engaging The Challenge

In the pursuit of the driving question, part of the challenge for the local church learning how to enter into a different social-culture as missionary people. This  has been of interest to me as a minister ever since I became aware of the new cultural context churches are finding themselves in. So as a minister, the question is how do I help lead a church to embody the gospel in a faithful yet contextual manner? 

I don’t make any claims of having the final answer on this issue, as I am still a learner myself. However, I am fairly convinced that the issue is deeper and more robust than just than trying the latest trend that appears from afar to work in another church, etc… The beginning place is always humility, realizing that something has to change. Once this posture of humility is present, a new listening posture can take shape where the church is able to enter into a necessary conversation.

This conversation is what the image to the left depicts as a “trialogue” where the gospel, known through scripture and Christian tradition, is brought into conversation with the local church at it is presently (not just in its “glory days” or where it would like to be in the future, though both the past and future cannot be completely discarded) and the local culture…

  • Gospel: This is listening to the creative-redemptive story of how God is reconciling and restoring in and through Jesus Christ, told through scripture and the historical traditions of the church. Such listening requires an openness to the reality that there may be elements of the gospel the church has missed or sort of neglected.
  • Church: The church is listening to one another, discerning how God is at work among the church. Of importance is the way in which Holy Spirit is gifting the church and the sort of passionate dreams that God may be awakening among each other.
  • Culture: The church is listening for the ways that God is at work among the local culture, so that the church might possibly join God in that work.

In one sense, this trialogical conversation is simple but it is also an open-ended conversation that (re)discovers how God is at work leading the church to live as his missionary people. Questions may arise about everything from the way the church practices benevolence to teaching and forming disciples to the new ways that fellowship becomes an intentional practice of church and so on. What is up for reconsideration is the gospel itself, as the church can only participate in the mission of God so long as it continues in the gospel first proclaimed by Jesus and then his Apostles.

A Final Word

One of the disastrous notions of modernism is the need to control and know the outcome. Seeking control in order to know and even manage the outcome, which is often motivated by fear, traditionalism, and maintaining comfort for the comfortable, already misses the point of a church living as God’s missionary people. Mission is not the result of the church doing God’s work, rather the church is really the result of disciples living on mission with God and that happens when the church is animated by the Spirit rather than controlled by human motives.

Engaging Conflict Requires An Attitude

Conflict is a part of life, period! It exists in everything from marriage to the work place and larger society. The only person who lives without any conflict is a hermit living on a remote island by him/herself and that’s a lonely life. For the rest of us, conflict is a given. In fact, I just spoke with a person who was telling me how an ongoing work place conflict, lasting for over a year, has been favorably resolved. Conflict can be stressing and perplexing but it can be a healthy thing too.

Yes! Conflict can be a healthy thing too and that’s good news for Churches, since every church I know of has its share of conflict.

Because conflict is amoral, this should not bother us. What should concern us is how we handle the conflict. In fact, that is where the anxiety about conflict arises because too often we don’t handle conflict well. Given the choice of fight or flight, we either run in hopes of avoiding the issue all together or we fight by responding with selfish postures attempting to win by injuring the other…

“She just believes every last word that Joyce Myers says.”

“He just think that because he has money…”

“They just don’t care about what the Bible says.”

“He just can’t see past his own traditions.”

“She just takes everything too personally.”

Those are just some of the things I have heard Christians say about someone else in their church. I’ve probably made similar such comments too. Although sometimes spoken in a direct manner, most of the time this approach is passive-aggressive in nature.

The problem with conflict is how we handle it. Often when challenged, we become defensive. Believing that we are right with little, if any, consideration that we might be wrong, we argue and protest against the other. If it is a policy or practice we disagree with, we’ll dig our heels in and turn what often is a minor issue into a major issue that must go our way. But again, the issue isn’t the conflict itself but the way we respond to the conflict.

The difference between healthy and unhealthy conflict hinges on how we handle the conflict. A healthy response to conflict begins with Christ-likeness. So the apostle Paul says that we are to have the same attitude of Christ, who humbled himself as a servant and became obedient even to the point of death (cf. Phil 2:5-8). In practice, having this attitude means…

  • Listening to understand before responding. Humility means recognizing that be wrong. Even if we’re not wrong, we can’t help resolve any conflict without listening first. Listening also involves, as my friend Fred always says, assuming the best about the other person when they speak.
  • Extending grace toward each other. Jesus was obedient to the point of death even though he was never in the wrong. His obedience is the extension of God’s grace and like Jesus, we must extend grace even when we have been wronged. That means forgiving and loving one another.

I’m not trying to suggest that conflict is easy. If it was easy, we wouldn’t try avoiding it or do so poorly with it at times. But ignoring conflict or failing to rightly deal with it allows what could be a great opportunity become a problem that threatens the and undermines the health of the church.

Listening and extending grace toward each other amidst conflict requires talking. One of way of doing this involves table fellowship. Serve each other by eating together. Invite some others to join if needed but the act of eating together helps create and maintain a hospitable atmosphere where we hear one another, clarify misunderstandings, apologize, forgive, and resolve to speak/act rightly moving forward. The result is reconciliation and at the end of the day that is what engaging conflict is about… so that we may be one even when we don’t agree.

May we all engage conflict with an attitude… the attitude of Christ!

Wisdom and Insight: Companions For A Complex Life

One of the questions that many churches want to know of their ministers has to do with various moral/ethical issues, especially those involving marriage and all things sex. For example, what should we do when a couple from church say they are pursuing a divorce? Or how should we respond to some parents who say their teenage child is gay?

Regardless of the issue and the hypothetical scenario, the response hinges not only what we believe but also how we should respond. One of the difficulties here is that such hypothetical questions are so vague that it would be hard for us to offer any response beyond our basic beliefs regarding any number of moral/ethical issues. But a bigger problem is that in real life, such issues always present themselves in a particular set of circumstances that rarely, if ever, are simple. Part of the complexity is that the circumstances which the issue presents itself in is almost never a one to one correspondence to the circumstances in which the issue is addressed in scripture. This is where we encounter the limits of reading scripture as a law.

Just like any policy or procedure, a doctrine is contextually ignorant. In real life, acting upon any moral/ethical doctrine requires wisdom. Barry Schwartz gave this brilliant TED Talk about the need for practical wisdom in an age overran by bureaucracy. I wholeheartedly agree! While doctrines or rules and policies are necessary, so also is wisdom. However, for ministers, not any form or wisdom will do. What is needed is gospel-wisdom. By gospel-wisdom, I mean wisdom that is shaped by the biblical narrative, what it teaches, and how that teaching is revealed and embodied in everything we know about Jesus whom the church follows. But that is only part of the task.

Proverbs 4:7 says, “The beginning of wisdom is this: Get wisdom, and whatever else you get, get insight” (NRSV). The sage is telling us that both wisdom and insight are necessary. While not the same, wisdom and insight are neither exclusive from each other as both sharpen each other. The purpose of wisdom is counsel as it doesn’t tell us how to respond but offers guidance for how we might respond in any given situation. That assumes a posture of listening, as we cannot even begin to know what is the appropriate response unless we have listened first. So when that couple says to me that they are pursuing a divorce or those parents who say their teenage child is gay, my first response is to listen by asking good questions that will allow me to understand the circumstances better and get a better feel for the complexities. Only then does wisdom have the insight necessary to offer any counsel on what you or I might do.

Whether you’re a minister, an elder, or just a Christian trying to help someone else out, you need gospel-wisdom and insight gleaned from listening to that someone. Your own moral/ethical beliefs and values are certainly valuable and necessary but in real life situations, which are as different as they are many, wisdom and insight are indispensable companions for a complex life. So get wisdom, get insight!

Yogi Berra and Being Nice

“You can learn a lot just by watching,” said Yogi Berra. Yes, you can! Just watch the various people connected to baseball as they speak about Yogi Berra and you learn something we all need to be reminded of from time to time. More on that in a moment…

In case you haven’t heard, yesterday Yogi Berra passed away at the age of ninety years old. One of the most famous baseball players, Berra played his entire career as a catcher and outfielder for the New York Yankees and after retiring, was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1972. Besides being an incredible player, Berra served in the U.S. Navy during World War II and became a well-known personality far beyond the game of baseball.

As I listened to various sports commenters and players who knew Yogi Berra speak about this person, they all spoke about how nice of a person he was to everyone on and off camera. In fact, former Yankee and future Hall of Fame inductee Derek Jeter wrote the following:

To those who didn’t know Yogi personally, he was one of the greatest baseball players and Yankees of all time. To those lucky ones who did, he was an even better person. To me he was a dear friend and mentor. He will always be remembered for his success on the field, but I believe his finest quality was how he treated everyone with sincerity and kindness. My thoughts and prayers go out to his family and friends.

What a tribute! And what a reminder of how important good character, a character of “sincerity and kindness” truly is.

Every one of us live a life on and off camera. That is, whether we are a a school teacher, an electrician, a police officer, or even a preacher like I am, there are those moments when we are “on the clock” but a true test of our character is how we treat people when there aren’t any spectators.

Be a nice person, be kind and sincere with everyone… Love our neighbors as ourselves because the world is a better place when we do!

“Love is the most important thing in the world, but baseball is pretty good, too.”

-Yogi Berra, 1925 – 2015