Leadership

Conversations in Mentoring

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This is a (long overdue) follow up to the post “Rhythms from Mentors.” John and Doc took an interest in me early in ministry and greatly influenced the years ahead. Both engaged in formal and informal mentoring that blended into diverse areas of life. This post highlights some characteristics that made their mentoring effective.

Regular conversations
Both men established a regular rhythm of meeting with me. It was occasionally weekly but more often monthly. Their lives were full (as was mine), but both made an effort to connect regularly. The regular connection allowed us to build trust and a depth of relationship that enabled meaningful, “rubber-meets-the-road” conversations.

Direct communication
Neither John nor Doc is a “beat around the bush” kind of a guy. Both men lay their cards on the table; you don’t have to wonder what they’re thinking. There’s no pretense in their interpersonal relationships, and both men are willing to be direct. Maybe it was the maturity of their years (both have a few decades on me), but neither was hasty or impatient while being direct. Clarity is a high value for me—so I thrived in an environment where both men had the courage to offer direct feedback. Passive-aggressive is no way to go. John and Doc modeled good conflict and healthy, direct communication.

Loving correction
A “woodshed” conversation is when you get taken to the proverbial woodshed for correction/discipline. A good woodshed conversation is correction done in love. John and Doc excelled in loving correction. As you can deduce from the previous paragraph, both men had woodshed conversations with me. Doc coached me in administrative leadership: “Make a decision. If it’s wrong, fix it.” John once took me to lunch and gently but directly told me, “I’ve never met someone with so many strong opinions about so many things. You need to learn to sit back and listen.” His loving feedback that first year in pastoral ministry enabled me to grow in patience, humility, and maturity … though life keeps teaching me I have a long way to go.

Confident risk-taking
You can’t have tough conversations if you’re insecure about the relationship. John and Doc were secure enough to be lovingly direct without worrying about what I thought of them. If they’d related to me out of a hope that I’d like them or approve of their leadership, I’d have lost much of the benefit of their loving correction. I’ve thanked both men over the years for their investment in me—particularly their willingness to risk the relationship for the sake of loving correction. They weren’t afraid of losing the relationship, and that somehow made the relationship more secure and their love more evident.

Kind affirmation
Neither John nor Doc is a man of many words. Yet both have taken time over the years to demonstrate their desire for an ongoing relationship. They’ve affirmed personal growth, encouraged me, and prayed for me and my family. They’ve always taken an interest in me as a person, not a project. While both men are a number of years my senior, they relate to me as a peer. Some mentors are “hey-let-me-take-you-under-my-wing, little guy” kind of mentors while others are “pull-up-a-seat-at-the-table, young gun” kind of mentors. John and Doc were the latter, and that has been such a gift. They gave me the freedom to make mistakes and lovingly came alongside me when I needed help.

Trustworthy friendship
John and Doc are just downright consistent people. You know what you’re going to get from them. Though I in no way deserve to be their peer—I am far their inferior in maturity, wisdom, learning, age, etc.—they have welcomed me as a friend. And it’s not only I who am the beneficiary of their friendship. Each placed I’ve served has gotten to enjoy my being a *little* less of a knucklehead because of their influence.

Rhythms from Mentors

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John and Doc (see “Mentors“) had distinctive patterns in their relationship with me. Both engaged in formal and informal mentoring that blended into diverse areas of life. They demonstrated interest in my family and in me personally, outside the projects we worked on together.

Time together with John and Doc generally looked like lunch together, a cup of coffee, a “third place” of some sort. Neither ever made reference to the fact that he was mentoring me or taking me under his wing. I don’t think I was ever able to pay for my own meal (even when I’d insist), and both men were generous with their time and money to a fault.

Learning with John centered around conversation and reading—especially books and articles. John had us reading a book per month on leadership, management, and finance. Leadership and management learning has been a lifelong (adult) pursuit of mine, but my rate of reading definitely trended up as a result of John’s influence. John still sends articles and food for thought every week. Our reading together was occasionally Christian but was more often common grace wisdom that we embraced together from a Christian perspective.

Doc’s and my relationship grew as a result of several key projects we worked on together. I learned the importance of strategic intentionality and willingness to proceed on a course of action, even if it’s difficult or unpopular—as long as it was a wise course of action. We approached a bloated, outdated ministry program together and were tasked with bringing it into health and sustainability. Doc designed an excellent tool that helped us evaluate decisions and make them about the process and health of the organization as a whole, rather than personalities.

Both men combined a unique love for people with a direct style of communication. We’ll next examine what made their communication so effective.

 

Mentors

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Mentors. Everybody needs one. Smart people want one. Wise people know they’re hard to come by.

God has blessed me with good friends and mentors throughout my life. My dad was my first consistent mentor, and no one’s filled the gaping hole created by his passing in 2005. Yet God has graciously and consistently brought men into my life at each step along the way. Sometimes those men have been peers who have become close friends, but others have been older … more seasoned … men who have been close friends too.

Two of these “seasoned” men—Doc and John—played a vital role in my early ministry that continues to impact my life today. I refer to one or both of them regularly in conversations with other people, though it’s been several years since we’ve been able to spend much time together, due to geographical distance. Neither spent the bulk of his life in pastoral ministry (one was primarily in education, the other in finance), yet both exercised remarkable influence in my growth and development as a person, as a Christian, and as a pastor. Since both men turned 80 in the past year, I’ve recently begun reflecting on mortality and how fast relationships go.

John’s and Doc’s relationship with me didn’t exactly mirror each other’s. Yet both demonstrated consistent initiative in seeking a relationship with me. I try to reach out to them periodically to say thank you, but that’s a rather paltry way to attempt to repay such a debt. So I wanted to take a chance to reflect on their impact and what made them so influential in my life.

Having a mentor isn’t as simple as looking for one, and being a mentor isn’t as simple as trying to be one. So I’d like reflect on the legacies of these two men over the next few weeks and see what lessons we might be able to draw from them. Maybe God will use their lives to encourage someone else.

 

Looking for Margin

Margin is the space to rest, to recharge, to enjoy life with those we love … space to decompress and breathe.

As I get older, the pace of life seems to pick up more and more. Occasionally, I’ll hear someone (often a teenager) comment, “I’m bored.” I honestly can’t remember being bored—other than perhaps occasionally during a class lecture that was particularly tedious. But as far as looking for something to stimulate my mind when I had some “free” time? I just can’t remember that happening.

Life seems to bring a different problem my way—the need for breathing room. You might call this looking for margin. There was a time in my adult life when it was just me … then just me and my wife … then me and my wife and a kid … and then me and my wife and two kids … But I don’t think that margin is about the number of people involved in my life (though increased relationships and responsibility do affect margin).

Every person has the same number of hours in a day and in a week. My days and hours fill up, whether I fill them up or not. So … I’m learning that the only way to have margin is to create margin intentionally, by making sure that there is time for the most important things in life: my relationship with God and local church, my relationships with my wife and kids, and my relationships with friends and other family.

Life will run away with you if you let it; sometimes it even runs over you! Take intentional steps to create margin in your life—for worship, for rest … and yes, even for fun. God designed us to live life with rhythm and margin, and it takes discipline to create margin for the most important things. If you don’t live life with intentionality, you’ll look at your hectic schedule one day and realize that life is out of control.

My fear in life isn’t that I won’t get anything done. It’s that I’ll spend my life doing things that don’t matter or doing things that don’t matter the most.

The Beauty of Criticism

Do you hate criticism? I guess a better question is, who doesn’t hate criticism? In his book Tribes, Seth Godin notes that fear of failure could often be more aptly titled fear of criticism. We fear being criticized so much that we don’t even make an attempt.

But criticism can be a good thing. Criticism can come from soul-sucking negativists who don’t care a bit about you. But criticism can also come (and should come) from trusted advisors, good friends, and people that love you. Feedback, even when it’s difficult to receive, makes you stronger and wiser. Every person has blind spots and needs to hear about them.

As Godin notes, even criticism from negativists has an upside—it means you are doing something worth taking note of. If you are boring and completely unremarkable, critics won’t consider you worth their time. So, don’t have a pity party or be debilitated by criticism. Listen to it; learn from it; move on.

Good criticism can foster a culture of constant improvement, of building on good things that can become great things. Good criticism can give you courage to attempt something more audacious and awesome that you’d have ever attempted without it. 

So listen to your critics … but not too much … and let the feedback motivate you, teach you, and strengthen you. You’ll be glad you did.

Your Local Church: Movement or Institution?

Is the church a movement or an institution? An organization or an organism? While each local church tends toward one end of the spectrum or the other, a scriptural church is both a movement and an institution.

Tim Keller's talk on Church Planting and Movement Dynamics is insightful in assessing the health of a church. I highly recommend it. I'll outline some of the key points of this talk below.

Church Planting and Movement Dynamics

It's true that the book of Acts describes organic church growth. BUT … as soon as the church was founded as a movement, Paul appointed elders, rather than allowing them to just arise on their own. This demonstrates that the church must be BOTH a movement and an institution. Pressing either extreme becomes a problem.

We must keep our focus on the church as a movement. A church can't stay merely movement without becoming chaotic, but over time there will be inexorable pressure to over-institutionalize. This pressure requires constant vigilance and attention, so that a church does not lose its connection to its core vision and commitments.

A Movement:

  1. Is held together by a compelling vision.
  2. Is characterized by a culture of sacrificial commitment (a culture of celebration; intrinsic rewards).
  3. Is characterized by innovation, risk, and flexibility (quick decisions made by unified leadership).
  4. Is characterized by leaders who produce results (thus attracting energetic, gifted young leaders).

An Institution:

  1. Is held together by rules and procedures.
  2. Is characterized by rights, quotas, obligations, and turf (a culture of compensation).
  3. Is characterized by predictability, uniformity, and security (slow decisions and silo-ed thinking).
  4. Is characterized by leaders who “lead” because of tenure and connection (do not attract energetic, gifted young leaders).

Movements attract and produce their own ideas and leaders and thus attract investment. Institutions run out of money, ideas, and leaders.

It is inevitable that movements will institutionalize because there is a tension between a unified compelling vision and a culture of innovation. You have to institutionalize to allow a movement to grow, but you must also guard against institutionalization … or the movement will cease to grow.

Six ways to maintain movement dynamics in your church:

  1. Revival: Grace renewal dynamics; constant spiritual renewal (a white-hot spirituality in worship); Caution: fear, pride, and self-righteousness turn a church into an overly-institutionalized organization.
  2. Vision: A good vision is distinct, simple, and compelling. Developing a distinct vision is typically the most difficult work.
  3. A culture of innovation: Make sure everyone's ideas are listened to, while maintaining a commitment to the vision. Don't shut down feedback or seem to listen, while never committing one way or the other (this kills innovation). Invite feedback, and make a decision in light of the vision.
  4. Organic systems for producing leaders: What's your leadership pipeline? How will you intentionally create and reproduce leaders? A seminary can be helpful but is not enough on its own.
  5. Church planting: There is no better way to enhance movement dynamics than to plant a daughter church. Church planting is the best research and development department possible (especially for cultures that are afraid of risk).
  6. Covenant renewal: Times of prayer and recommitment to the vision. Campaigns related to the compelling vision.

My Conclusion

There is a temptation in all of us to run to the new strategy that will enable our churches to grow. But don't forget about step one: REVIVAL. Before we allow our minds to run too quickly to clever strategies to make dead, institutionalized churches into “movements,” perhaps we should begin with confession of sin and commitment to “white-hot spirituality.” May God give us grace to pursue healthy church life in a way that reflects the gospel in every area.

 

Trust Works! Distrust Kills.

But does it really? How do you measure and build trust?

Ken Blanchard is famous for his series of One Minute Manager books, which have sold over 15 million copies in 25 languages. His recent book, Trust Works! Four Keys to Building Lasting Relationships outlines four key areas of trust for leaders. This post isn’t a discussion of his book so much as it is a reflection on his four categories of trust.

1. Ability

“Ability” = competence: can you actually do the job you’ve been asked to do? can you admit it when you can’t?

Problem areas could sound like:

  • “I can do this; no problem!” (When deep down you know you can’t do it well.)
  • “When you’ve had my experience, you’ll understand. This is a highly specialized project that only a select few can even begin to comprehend.” (An attempt to complicate an uncomplicated issue to impress people to the point where they won’t ask hard questions [kind of like when the emperor got his “new clothes”].)

Have you ever been around a leader who was incompetent but was blind to or refused to acknowledge his incompetence? As a leader, if you suspect you’re in over your head, it’s better to admit it and ask for help. This kind of humility builds trust. Feigning competence, when you’re incompetent, erodes trust.

2. Believability

“Believability” = integrity: do you walk your talk?

Problem areas could sound like:

  • “You’re the best at __. I’ve never met someone so good at what you do.” (Flattery, instead of honest feedback.)
  • “I’m going to ___.” (Blustering promises, instead of an outlook based on reality.)
  • “I think you’ve got a great idea,” or “That idea is worth some thought.” (When you really think the idea is a bad one or a threatening one.)

Have you ever spent much time around someone who spoke one way and acted another? Or perhaps spoke one way to you when you were present and another about you when you when you were absent? This kind of leader may also shy away from critical feedback—even when it’s true and helpful. Faithful communicationeven when it’s difficultbuilds trust. Duplicity erodes trust.

3. Connectedness

“Connectedness” = relationships: do you connect to people?

Problem areas could sound like:

  • “I’m sorry; my schedule is slammed.” (When the real reason is, “I don’t want to take the time.”)
  • “Call me, and we’ll work out a time to get together” (When the tactic is, “If I delay long enough, this will go away.”)
  • “I really value your feedback; please come talk to me” (When the endgame is, “I’ll intimidate you into accepting my point of view.”)

When people connect to a leader, they tend to trust him/her. When a leader struggles to connect relationally or handles insecurity by resorting to intimidation, people will tend to mistrusteven if the leader is competent. If a leader struggles with ability and believability, his difficulty with connectedness will be greatly exacerbated. Caring about people and making time for them builds trust. Feigning concern for people while failing to make time for them erodes trust.

4. Dependability

“Dependability” = reliability: can I count on your word?

Problem areas could sound like:

  • “Yes, I can do that.” (When you can’t make it happen or don’t have a plan to make it happen.)
  • “When we initiate this new program, nothing will really change. If you like the way things were, your world will stay the same.” (When you might be making a promise that you can’t guarantee.)

Do you know any leaders who make promises they can’t really guarantee? Ever spent time around someone who tells you what you want to hear, only to fail in follow-through time after time? When a leader straightforwardly commits to only what he can actually follow through on, this builds trust. When a leader makes promises and commitments that are outside of his control, this erodes trust.

Conclusion

The most dangerous thing about trust and distrust is that they can sound so much alike. When a leader breaks trust, his every word becomes questioned. Unfulfilled promises are reasons people can’t trust the promises of tomorrow. Speaking kind words to a person’s face and cutting words behind his/her back become reasons to question every kind word.

Trust works! Distrust kills. As my dad often used to say, “It takes a lifetime to build a reputation and only a moment to lose one.” The same is true of trust. Leader, if you’re trustworthy 75% of the time, eventually people will distrust you 100%! Be one person. Be true. Commit to the truth … even when it’s difficult.

 

Christian Celebrity & First Impressions (Part 2)

In part 1, we considered that we have only one opportunity to make a first impression. While first impressions can be undone over time, we often don't get a second chance to demonstrate focused attention to the person right in front of us. The same is true for churches and church leaders.

Reflections for Churches:

What is the impression of those who walk in your doors for the first time? Do you give the impression that you are processing numbers (i.e., people) so that you can get to the main show? Is “checking in” at your church like checking in at the airport or a ball game? “Get these people through so that we can get the show started!”

Corporate worship is vital–you can't have a church without it! But corporate worship apart from genuine care for the people there is merely a show. It's an excercise in “mini Christian celebrity.” The people on the platform are looked at from afar, as people are drawn (or not drawn) to the personalities on the stage.

Have you given intentional thought about how to welcome and incorporate those outside your church who are just getting a first impression of your church? Corporate worship is essential, but it's not sufficient for showing love to those who are part of your church body and for showing true Christian hospitality to those who come in from the outside.

Be on the lookout for ways to actively demonstrate genuine interest and care for those who walk in. Develop a strategy for church leaders and church members to demonstrate tangible love to those who come from the outside. Think about the way you'd like to be treated and welcomed. We often greet and welcome visitors in such an awkward way that it's no surprise they feel conspicuous!

Reflections for Church Leaders:

Brothers, do you demonstrate genuine care for the people in your church? Do you wish that your sheep weren't so obstinate and difficult to work with? It may do us some good to reflect that those we serve may have the same thoughts about us!

We should seek to be where we are, to care about the person right in front of us, to demonstrate to that person that we aren't thinking about the next person in line or the next project or the next element in the order of worship.

We should give intentional time to thinking through first impressions for those outside of our church body and continuing care for those inside our church body. We should repent of impatience and a lack of care for the people right in front of us. When we mess up–or sin outright–we should be willing to repent publicly (when appropriate) and privately. While people may be drawn to celebrity from a distance, the nature of true humility is much more winsome up close than airbrushed celebrity perfection is from afar.

Don't overestimate your value to your church or to the kingdom of God. Recognize that God is doing something much greater than making you and your church look awesome. Love the person right in front of you, and trust that God will grow His church, in spite of your imperfections. He built His church for centuries without you, and He will keep building HIS church when you are gone!

 

Christian Celebrity & First Impressions (Part 1)

I have a natural distaste for anything that even remotely smells like celebrity. I've been at conferences where the stage was crowded with people eager to meet the speaker/singer/etc. Generally speaking, I avoid such things like the plague.

Over the last few years, I've seen a good number of articles about Christian celebrity. Authors (who are often Christian “celebrities” themselves) typically take one of two tacts: (1) Christian celebrity is terrible, and we should get over it; (2) Christian celebrity is inevitable, so we should embrace it and leverage it.

While I have no desire to make a judgment about Christian celebrity in general, I recently had two experiences that were instructive. Earlier this month, I “ran into” two brothers (both pastors) in Christ who are–more or less–Christian celebrities. Reflecting on these two (separate) meetings has given me some thoughts on what Christian celebrities are and are not.

Meeting 1:

After an introduction from a mutual friend, this brother greeted me warmly and acted grateful to meet me (though he didn't know me from Adam and had no reason to). After a brief conversation and an offer to buy me coffee (we were in Starbucks), he moved on. My impression of this brother: he was a kind, godly man who genuinely cares about people. Very positive.

Meeting 2:

Upon my saying hello, I had the distinct impression that this brother could not wait to be done with his conversation with me. I thanked him for his ministry to me and many other pastors. My impression of this brother: he was dismissive and disinterested. Quite negative.

Reflections:

While acknowledging that the second brother may have been (and probably was) merely having a bad day, I realized that our impression of people is often formed really quickly. I have profited from both of these pastors from a distance and will continue to do so. They are merely humans like the rest of us.

I'm sure that there are people who have met me (a non-celebrity by any measure!) and have thought I was pretty nice. They probably left with a very positive impression. I'm sure others have met me at a time when I was in a hurry or when I was mentally in another world and had a very negative impression. We have opportunities to make first impressions regularly, and we have only one chance to do so. I pray that God gives me the grace and alertness to be where I am, to talk with the person right there in front of me. In a day of increasing digital distraction, I find myself more and more tempted to mentally be somewhere else.

One pastor who impacted my life when I was younger often said the following: “Be where you are.” Great counsel.

In part 2, we'll consider some implications for churches in light of what I learned from these two meetings.