Tag Archives: Character

Why We Must Develop Habits of Deeper Discernment

The demands of our world make it abundantly clear that we urgently need Christians who cultivate habits of discernment. Discernment can be challenging to define and practice at the best of times, but it is absolutely vital at certain moments. And within the practice of discernment lies a quiet habit that may seem like a rabbit trail leading off from the main thing; it may even seem lacking in appropriate pious fervor. Of course, I mean deliberately pursuing the practice of curiosity.

Our urgent need for Christians who hone discernment as part of spiritual growth drives us home to what it means to be curious. And if this doesn’t yet seem convincing, consider the difference right now between an American Christian who can describe the general region where Ukraine is located vs an American Christian who cannot. Is geography essential to spiritual growth? No.

But humility is.

History isn’t essential to spiritual growth, either; but interest in the broad, simple strokes of a geopolitical context can increase the understanding you bring to your intercession.

A simple text continues to float to mind this week: “wise as serpents, gentle as doves.” The call to be savvy and kind describes both perspective and posture.

We aren’t allowed to stop our ears and close our eyes and hum and ignore evil; a savvy perspective recognizes and discerns evil – and does not underestimate it. (This was a characteristic of G.K. Chesterton’s priest-detective, Father Brown.) We are allowed however to be savvy in when and where and how we confront evil. In the midst of this perspective, a gentle or kind posture means that in recognizing or confronting evil, we are not allowed to dehumanize ourselves or others.

You do not have to be a top student or Rhodes scholar or trivia champ to cultivate curiosity and grow in deeper discernment. You don’t have to be able to speak five languages or have a trust fund to show compassion. Somehow though, a creeping habit has begun to let us off the hook; the habit of winking at a lack of curiosity or even disinterested ignorance.

Yet many churches of all sizes throw open a window to the world, when members tack a map to a lobby bulletin board with pins marking missionary locations, or medical teams are formed to travel on medical mission trips to countries with critical health needs.

When my mother was a child, she sat on the lap of her Grandmother, who knew a very narrow slice of life experience, confined to a small number of square miles. But her Grandmother passionately supported her denomination’s missionaries through ladies’ fundraising efforts – and prayer. One day, her Grandma had a bound world atlas on her lap. “Don’t let anyone ever tell you I’ve never been anywhere,” she told my mother. “I’ve traveled all over the world through this book.”

A woman with limited money, education, and life experience was hungry to learn, and for her, learning about her world was a way she could better practice her faith. Decades after she could no longer hold an atlas, my feet found Chinese soil, Mongolian soil, Scottish soil. I visited places she read about, places she saw in flickering black and white reels, places she saw on the small fuzzy square of early television.

Humility allows us to be teachable – to be unembarrassed by curiosity. We don’t have to hide our lack of knowledge by behaving as though we don’t have anything to learn, and we don’t have to hide our lack of knowledge by brushing away topics with flimsy excuses: “I let the so-and-so’s worry about that” or “that’s above my paygrade” or “I’ve just never been good at that” or even “I just leave that in God’s hands.” All those statements may be partly or mostly true. But the implied second half is the problem: “…so I don’t bother with it.”

There comes a point when lack of curiosity begins to border dangerously on lack of love.

If I love my neighbor, I will go to the effort. I will bother with it. I may not understand well, I may make blunders, I may get stuck on a DuoLingo level or have terrible pronunciation of even one basic word of their language, I may get their holiday or festival slightly wrong. They will see I tried.

But there also comes a point when lack of curiosity begins to seriously impair discernment.

What I don’t bother with, I don’t reckon with. What I ignore, I fail to factor into my thinking; I fail to factor into my prayers.

“Well, God knows it all anyway.”

Yes; and I don’t bear responsibility for world events or sustaining gravity. But I do bear the basic responsibility of citizenship, and the greater responsibility of Christian love.

The Apostle Paul didn’t write to all those scattered groups of early Christians, “well, I’ve never been good at letter-writing and God knows how you’re doing anyway, so I’m not going to bother keeping up with what’s happening in your neck of the woods.”

No: Paul urgently wanted to know how they were doing; he told them how he was praying for them; he let them know what updates he’d had about their welfare; he longed to see them and see for himself that they were alright. He updated them on what was happening with himself and others; he prayed for them, drew from informed examples to encourage their spiritual growth, and navigated among a variety of cultural, linguistic, and religious backgrounds and differences.

Sometimes, with the help of the Holy Spirit, he even used the ignorance of others strategically. (“When they found out he was a Roman citizen…”) By walking around and looking at the cultural and religious practices of a place, he was able to discern an introduction into conversation (even Paul kept silent, observed, and stayed teachable and curious sometimes).

By absorbing the events around him, learning about others, and engaging strategically, Paul paid others the dignity of notice. And consider the marvelous power of the Holy Spirit at work in his life! Young, zealous Saul had been in the thick of it, watching coats as Stephen was martyred; he noticed, listened, and traveled in his zeal to track down, root out, and arrest – “terrorize” – early Christians. God used these same characteristics and traits that had been directed toward persecution, and anointed them and redirected them to fuel the spread of the early church.

The difference, of course, smote the earth in his cataclysmic encounter with Christ.

The difference, of course, was love.

Through the power of the Holy Spirit, you and I can discern through the fog of our times to see places God may be at work. By intentionally growing our curiosity about our world, by refusing to flinch at hard things, by trusting God with the depth of our lament or overwhelmed brains or confusion, the Holy Spirit can synthesize the bits and pieces of your life that seem disparate or random so that you can see – really see – into the truth of a moment; so you can sense the Spirit’s prompt of, “wait – wait; now!”

Savvy as serpents, gentle as doves. We must refuse to underestimate evil; we must discern; we must not dehumanize.

Is geography essential to spiritual growth? Of course not; neither is literacy, for that matter.

But humility is.

God, give us the grace to be curious; give us the courage to face whatever we find; and give us practice in seeing and seizing moments, by listening for and following the rhythm of the Holy Spirit. And all for love’s sake.

Featured image courtesy Karl JK Hedin via Unsplash.

Leading Generously: Setting Up a Team for Success

One of the most illuminating things I ever heard about leading generously involved Johnny Carson. For most of my childhood he was host of The Tonight Show: late nights were Johnny Carson at 10:30 and David Letterman at 11:30. They could not have been more different but were each hilarious in their own way. If you go back and rewatch Johnny Carson, you see pretty quickly that comedically, he is the “straight man.”  He’s the one who sets up the other person for the laugh. He had a real gift of making the other person look funny. The other people become the ones who get to make everyone double over with laughter. They make the joke, and Johnny sits off to the side, smiling and laughing. 

That might not have been obvious to viewers, but in many ways, it was the secret of Johnny Carson’s success – and it’s one of the secrets of leadership.  Johnny Carson could play the straight man and make his guests look good because he understood that every joke on The Tonight Show was comedy on his stage, whether he was the one telling the joke or not.  He got credit for the laughs, whether they were his quips or not. By being the host, the comedy was his.

That’s what it is like being a Lead or Senior Pastor. Every joke is our joke, so to speak. We get credit for it, even if we didn’t do it. That means that one of the most important jobs that we can do with our team members is to build them up, both publicly and privately.  

I always try, to the best of my ability, to pass along the credit for any “victory” that our staff achieves and shoulder the blame for any “defeat” that we may experience. The reality is that every laugh is “my” laugh: if the church is healthy and doing great ministry, I will get the credit whether I deserve it or not.  But it is the team that is the key to the “success” of the church. Building up my team publicly and privately is the only way that teams can truly be successful.  

This is important because it shows a few things:

  1. It shows how important a good team is.  It is so important for churches, especially larger staffed churches, to have a healthy leadership team. It is important for a congregation to understand that the church is more than the Lead Pastor or even their favorite staff person. It is the team that makes victories possible. As a leader, when I model that, I really believe it. It would be easy to bask in the success won by the hard work of my staff. But everyone needs to know that ministry is more than just a Lead pastor; it is the team that makes ministry possible.  
  1. It models accountability.  In the same way as passing along credit shows the value of the team, taking ownership of failure shows that I don’t consider myself beyond criticism.  By taking ownership, I demonstrate that I have my team’s back, and that trying and failing is not the worst thing in the world; it is the only way we get better. I have told my staff many times that “taking a bullet” for the team is sometimes the best way that I can help.  
  1. It creates buy-in. When staff members know that they will get credit for victories and protection from defeats, it creates buy-in trust, not just for the leader, but for the system. This is one of the best and first steps any leader can take.  
  1. It grows leaders.  As a leader, when I model this behavior, I help set a culture that will hopefully produce humble and selfless leaders moving forward.  

Of course, there is also liability with this model; if taken too far, it can allow those who are underperforming or not living into their potential to continue in that vein, looking better than they are or never being held accountable. For me, it is important to have someone (Staff-Parish Relations Committee and a coach) hold me accountable to ensuring that I don’t allow dysfunction to set in.  Another consideration is that it simply takes time to earn the trust of your congregation; in taking ownership of defeats, as a leader, you need goodwill so that you don’t lose the trust of your people.  

In Scripture, Barnabas is the perfect model for this. He was already a key leader in the early church; in Acts 4, we see his first selfless act in selling a field and giving the proceeds to the church. Later he takes on Paul as a mentee and then Mark. He defends, encourages, and then steps back, letting them achieve the great victories for the Kingdom that they attain. His selfless leadership helped produce so much of the New Testament and echoes in the life of every Christian in the world today. 

In a world that calls us to always get the laugh, as leaders, let’s learn from Johnny.  When we play the “straight man” and others get the laugh, we build a culture of a winning team.  When we lead in that way, everyone wins, and the kingdom moves forward.  

Featured image courtesy bantersnaps on Unsplash.

grapes hang from branches in a vineyard

Fruitfulness through Faithfulness

I have found Psalm 1 to be a guiding principle in my life and ministry; it speaks to my theology and character as a pastor. In Psalm 1, we learn that God wants to bless us and to make us fruitful, but it is up to us to make choices that will lead us to God’s blessings. By choosing the ways of God and by living according to God’s wisdom and teaching, we bear fruit – blessings that give us joy, peace, and fulfillment even despite bad seasons in our lives. In Psalm 1, we learn that “delighting” in God is about staying in love with God, which leads us fruitfulness. Another lesson for us is how faithfulness leads us to fruitfulness as well.

For this, there is a story in the Hebrew Scriptures about a person who went through plenty of trials, dealing with many obstacles and enemies. Yet, over time, he overcame all of them and experienced abundant fruitfulness – because of his faithfulness to God. This is the story of Joseph, one of the most known characters in the Bible. Many movies have been made about him; even if you have never read the Bible, you probably still have heard about him as “Joseph the Dreamer.”

Who was this Joseph? Joseph was the eleventh of twelve sons born from Jacob. His story is told in Genesis 37-50. Joseph’s life was immensely fruitful. He lived in Egypt where Pharaoh, “made him master of his household, ruler over all he possessed, to instruct his princes as he pleased and teach his elders wisdom” (Psalm 105:21–22). And because of his faithfulness, his people became very prosperous.

But that is the second part of Joseph’s story. The first part is a dark one.

In the early days, it did not seem like his life would amount to anything. When he was a young man, he was sold as a slave by his brothers out of jealousy, and they lied to their father, telling him a wild beast had killed him. As a slave, Joseph was taken to Egypt, where he was sold to an army officer. There, the army officer’s wife who owned him tried to seduce him, and when he refused, she accused him of attempted rape.  That led him to prison. He suffered great injustice. 

While he was in prison, he befriended the Pharaoh’s butler by interpreting a bothersome dream. In return, the butler promised to put in a good word for him with the Pharaoh. But as soon as the butler was out of prison, he forgot all about his promise. For two long years, the butler failed to keep his promise, while Joseph remained in prison. 

As you can see, Joseph went through betrayal, slavery, temptation, imprisonment, and plenty of injustice and suffering. Yet in all this, he remained faithful. He never lost his trust in God in a lifetime filled with extraordinary trials, obstacles, and enemies (Genesis 45:5–8; 50:20).

And that is why we have the second part of this story. After all these dark times, he became the second most powerful man in Egypt, only after Pharoah. In short, against all odds and many trials, Joseph’s faith, character, and wisdom promoted him to the highest place in all Egypt, where God used him to be a blessing to many.

How is that for fruitfulness?

This is an amazing, powerful, and inspiring story, and I believe we can relate to it in many ways. I am certain that each one of you has had moments when things went sideways, and you wondered where God was. I am certain that sometimes those sour seasons have lasted longer than you wanted them to. I am certain that at some point, you were also tempted not to care anymore. Yet, I am also certain that you have made it through each one of those chapters of your life.

How do I know that? Because you are still here: stronger, wiser, and more determined to do what God wants you to do. But we need to be reminded of this hope now and then – the hope that we are God’s people, that God is with us, and that God wants to bless us and help us overcome our challenges.

This is true for us as a church and as people, as individuals. I know it is true for me. I have been there, facing all kinds of challenges but also experiencing victory over them.

Do you know who also has a story like Joseph’s? Someone my church members know, Mr. Zach Batiste. I met Mr. Batiste last week and visited with him. Let me tell you, he can talk, and he is a blessing, a dear man who loves God and has endured and overcome so much. Mr. Batiste is a blessing because he is faithful. In many ways, his is a story of faithfulness like Joseph’s, because he has endured and loved God against many odds.

My friends, I have seen how faithfulness leads us to contentment, peace, and fruitfulness. I know it to be a true and tangible promise: fruitfulness comes from faithfulness to God. That is the miracle in Joseph’s story; despite all the trials, he was miraculously fruitful and successful because he remained faithful—even when no one was watching and when he had every reason and excuse not to care anymore, to give up.

Now, let me ask you: how many times have you been in that spot? “I can’t do it.” “It is too much.” “This isn’t fair.” “No one cares.” “No one wants me.” You know what I am talking about. Life has highs and lows, and sometimes we struggle to get through it.

But today, I want to encourage you to believe and not give up, to trust that you can overcome everything with God. Stories like Joseph and Mr. Batiste are here to remind us that we can. Even when everything may seem against us, we will overcome because God wants for us far beyond anything we can imagine.

With this in mind, here comes the invitation and challenge: we must remain faithful to see this through.

Consider this. In John 15, Jesus gave one of his last teachings to his disciples before being arrested, tried, and crucified. He told them, “I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing.” (John 15:5) Here, Jesus taught them (and us) that fruitfulness is directly linked to our relationship and union with him. It is out of the fruit of relational intimacy with Christ that other vital aspects of fruitfulness in discipleship flows. He explained this by using the analogy of the vine; he is the true sprouting vine, and only by abiding in him we can have life and be fruitful.

One of the keys here is the word “abiding.” To me, that word sounds a lot like faithfulness. Abiding, or being faithful, translates as our commitment to God to keep and practice the teachings and ways of Jesus, whether we have an audience or not, regardless of our situation or circumstance.

This is where it can get challenging for us: being faithful encompasses diligence, diligence in faithfully keeping and carrying out those things God has called us to do through Jesus Christ. This part is critical to everything I have said, because this fruitfulness consists of Christlike character and conduct. Your blessings more likely will not come as a result of a supernatural event but as a consequence of your actions and choices.

For example, if you are honest as Jesus is honest, you may be entrusted with more responsibilities. If you are compassionate as Jesus is compassionate, you may develop loving and lasting relationships with others. If people see the way we love and care for each other as a church, they are going to come. Being faithful is not a contemplative act but a proactive attitude: determination and discernment to do what is right, what is kind, and what is loving.

To finish, I want to tell you this: you are not done yet. No matter how old you are or what has happened in your life, you are here, there is life, there is a purpose for you, and there is still a lot of fruit to bear. You are not done yet. Joseph did not give up when he was betrayed and imprisoned unjustly. Mr. Batiste did not give up when many things did not go as he would have wanted them to. With this in mind, I invite you today once again: don’t give up, keep on doing the right thing. Don’t get tired of practicing kindness.

Be diligent in being faithful, and let God make you and our church fruitful.

Elizabeth Glass Turner ~ Living with Gracious Conviction

How do you express your convictions with deep respect, appreciation, and even grief? This is a question many are wrestling with currently. An acquaintance for whom I hold deep respect named this struggle quite clearly on social media recently. He addressed it with humility, genuinely hoping to find a way of communicating with both conviction and graciousness. Living with gracious conviction isn’t just something to be pursued by leaders in one denomination, either, as denominational Hospice care is called in for the UMC. How might Christians not only speak with gracious conviction but also live with gracious conviction? How might people uncertain of their faith but desperate for respectful dialogue speak and live with gracious conviction?

Embodying Service

In a time when words are thrown around a dime a dozen online – when we’re so inundated with words communicated through modern technology that emojis were developed to communicate nonverbal intent – speaking and living with gracious conviction means getting our hands dirty.

It is not only acceptable, for Christians it is biblical to be prodigal – generous and extravagant with our service toward others. Our service can never solely be toward people who affirm our religion or our theological convictions. Occasionally, no matter what theological camp one finds herself in, there is the fear that showing service, care, or love to someone with whom you disagree is somehow a token of your agreement with all their opinions. This is patently, incontrovertibly wrong. To love your neighbor as yourself, to “let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 2) means to promote the welfare and well-being of people who may think you’re wrong, misguided, ignorant, blinded – or laughable. No theological camp is immune. Progressive liberal activists and conservative traditionalists alike easily justify withholding a towel and basin on the basis of principle.

Embodied service doesn’t require the perpetuation of one organization – an organization attempting to hold together so many different theological threads that it is straining and ripping at the seams. Embodied service simply means showing up for people with whom we profoundly disagree, because we value their lives. Organizational pragmatism may indicate the advisability of existing as separate worshiping bodies, where demonstrably and repeatedly over decades profound disagreement emerges on who exactly we’re worshiping.

Belonging to the same organization has never been a prerequisite for serving someone, though. Belonging to the same denomination or tradition isn’t a requirement. The Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve. For those in the Wesleyan Methodist branch of the family tree of the faith, we’re familiar with John Wesley’s thinking on the “means of grace,” which include not only works of piety, but works of mercy.

So maybe you notice someone you’ve been arguing with on social media has a sick family member: send them flowers or a restaurant gift card. Maybe you’ve lost your graciousness in an exchange with a colleague: apologize without self-justification. Shovel their sidewalk; mow their lawn. Maybe you long for someone to know that no matter how deeply you differ, you’re trying to really see them, hear them, and treat them with dignity. Donate in their honor to a non-profit they might value.

In times when words are cheap, show up with actions to demonstrate the posture of your heart. It’s interesting that actions shape attitudes as well. Getting down on your knees to pick up the coins accidentally dropped by someone who thinks you’re deeply wrong? You and they both need to feel your willingness to do it, whether or not they ever express gratitude or reciprocation.

The image we have to guide us is Jesus at the Last Supper – Jesus washing his disciples’ feet. These feet included the feet of Judas, who would walk out of the room with feet cleaned by God and would walk to betray God whose hands were wet with dirty water. Jesus knew and knelt anyway. We can’t do less.

Verbalizing Gratitude

Living with gracious conviction can also be expressed by finding something for which you can say thank you. Find something, however small, that you appreciate, and say it. To live and speak with gracious conviction is to step aside from intense irritation, anger, hurt, or frustration long enough to find anything you can say “thank you” to.

This doesn’t come from an odd need to debase yourself. It doesn’t come from a place of neediness for affirmation. Rather, verbalizing gratitude simply reinforces the essential humanity of another person. It reminds both you and them of your acknowledgment that they have something to contribute to the world. If we are quick to write off people due to their opinions, are we making it easier to write off their innate value? Jesus was willing to meet at night in private with Nicodemus, a man who belonged to a group publicly opposed to Jesus during the day.

Obviously, very, very few people in human history have been completely, thoroughly given over to all-consuming evil. If most people are a complex mixture of motives, wounds, gifts, personal histories, self-sabotaging habits, prevenient grace, corrosive self-centeredness, and will – yet all the while made in the image of God, however fractured – then thanking them is a simple, genuine way to communicate gratitude for their existence. It also leaves the door open, because you never know when someone may change their mind, and giving them a path and doorway to do so is vital. Finding something for which you can thank a person will acknowledge that they may have some kind of insight you do not (even if it’s a coffee recommendation) and that you are in the position to receive that insight. It takes discipline to think and communicate in ways that constantly remind us, as C.S. Lewis pointed out, of the glory other beings are capable of bearing.

There is always something you can thank someone for. There is always something you can appreciate. It may have to be only, “I like your shirt.” It may have to be, “thank you for engaging in a difficult conversation,” or “I appreciate the time you took to respond,” or “thank you for sharing your perspective; it’s a privilege to hear your story, I don’t take it lightly.”

If there’s genuine opportunity, you can even verbalize something you’ve learned from them, gained from them, or notice about them. “You are really passionate about what you believe, and I respect that,” or “I know we’re operating from different convictions, but I’ve noticed you’re really gifted at ________, and I hope you have ways of utilizing those talents,” or, “a while back you mentioned ___________ and while I know we have different perspectives on other topics, I want you to know how much I appreciated it when you said __________.”

One time Jesus healed ten men isolated and marginalized by disease; they were so eager to go get medical clearance and find their loved ones that they ran off. Only one came back to thank Jesus – and the one that returned to thank Jesus was a Samaritan – a “foreigner” whose social marginalization wouldn’t end with the healing of a disease. Sometimes we forget how rarely people hear the words “thank you.” Can you think of a time someone thanked you and it made a world of difference?

For Christians, one of the distinctive practices of our faith is sharing Communion – the Eucharist – the “Great Thanksgiving.” To receive Communion is to remember we are recipients of grace. To thank others is to remember we are all recipients of grace, none more worthy than another.

Responding to the Real Thing and the Real Person

Living and speaking with gracious conviction means giving others the gift of seeking to understand their position as they would describe it. You don’t have to agree with it or their conclusions or actions; but you can’t reject a caricature of their position and then pronounce your rejection of the caricature.

Christians are called to seek Truth. In this sense, we are committed to responding to the real. This means we work to seek out and find the real. So while we may hold differing beliefs, convictions, or theological perspectives, a commitment to the Truth means a commitment to discovering what someone actually believes. You’re not repeating someone’s opinion of what someone else believes. You’re not reporting on hearsay of what a group believes. You’re actually researching for yourself to the best of your ability. It is work.

The difficulty of course is that humans are so good at saying one thing and doing another, and that humans are so good at seeing themselves in optimal light and others with skepticism. No one is perfectly self-aware, and whole groups of people may profess one value but fail to embody it consistently.

However, we’re speaking here of explicitly stated declarations of belief, and not just the ability to live those beliefs consistently. We may insist that a Christian denomination ought to have some meaningful measure of shared theology about who Jesus is without making a caricature of one individual hateful progressive activist intolerant of those with whom they disagree. We may insist that a Christian denomination ought to value and act on initiatives to dismantle systemic racism, poverty, and injustice, without making a caricature of one individual hateful traditionalist conservative intolerant of those with whom they disagree.

To live with gracious conviction is to be ruthlessly committed to the Truth, which requires us to represent others’ convictions as fairly as possible – so that they would be able to recognize the description as an accurate representation of themselves. In this sense, it’s simple honesty. We are trying to be truthful and fair in our representation of others (even though it’s not nearly as satisfying as sharing a meme mocking them; unless it’s a meme mocking the Patriots, we can all agree those are universally acceptable, right?).

By responding to the real beliefs and professed values rather than mischaracterizations, we extend dignity to those with whom we differ. And to thoughtlessly, carelessly mischaracterize an opponent is to lie and steal – you are lying about their beliefs or motives and you are stealing their reputation. What may have been a profound but respectful disagreement becomes a hurtful, toxic stew of mischief that feeds off the half-formed perspectives of those new to the conflict and bewildered by the exaggerated portraits they’re presented. When we research and read and listen and track down primary sources and ignore clickbait commentary, it’s easier to respond both to beliefs and to the people who hold them.

Recently a friend commented, “it’s easy to hate something you get to define.” He meant that it’s easy to decide something is A, and since you hate A, you hate the something. The question is whether something is A or whether you quickly decided it is – and then dismissed it. To live with gracious conviction is to be willing to learn what something is before you decide to define it and reject it.

Laughing at Yourself

Some of the people in my life who most closely embodied the word “saint” are people who never took themselves too seriously even when other people took them very seriously indeed. There was a childlikeness to them, independent of age. By all means, take Christ seriously – though Chesterton reminded us all of how surprised we’ll be by God’s mirth – but in your earnestness, be able to laugh at yourself easily. Your silly, inconsistent, hobbit-like self.

I can make a cheap shot at the Patriots that will garner a strong response of approval or howls of indignation – but the truth is, I rarely watch American NFL football, my loyalty to the Colts is casually based on growing up in Indiana, and I have no idea whether other teams cheat as well and the Patriots just got caught at it. I can smile while looking at my silly bias, when I haven’t watched football in over a year and the last time I really cared about the Colts was before Manning headed West.

We’ve got to be able to laugh at ourselves.

In a culture in which we all take ourselves quite seriously, perhaps one sign of holiness is holding our own dignity and reputation lightly while seeking to deal fairly with others’. Burnt out pastors and leaders in particular struggle to be able to laugh at themselves; a sign you’re on the path to rest and restoration is when you can have fun again without worrying what’s being neglected while you do. Living with gracious conviction doesn’t mean the responsibility is all on your shoulders. It’s not irresponsible to a cause to stop and smile; it’s essential.

If you believe that in his full God-ness Jesus was also full human, then remember: we have a Savior who laughed until he cried. Probably at James and John, who seem likely to have been the Fred and George Weasley of the disciples.

Show up and serve (your enemies), say thank you (to your opponents), respond to the real thing (not the caricature), laugh at yourself (instead of others). These habits will help form a posture of communicating – of living – with gracious conviction. Most of them rely on humility in action; they show and shape perspective at the same time. They are habits learned as we follow Jesus around as his apprentices. They don’t always come easily; as we learn, we still fall short. But this is the Jesus way. We can’t do less – and by God’s grace, it will become easier.

Priscilla Hammond ~ When Change Is Uninvited: Leading through Uncertainty

Have you ever welcomed an unexpected guest into a house that is not ready for visitors? It is difficult for some of us to prepare for invited guests, as kids, pets, or spouses seem to undo whatever has been done. Things are even worse though when those guests are unexpected. You apologize for the chaotic appearance, leading the way as you toss things behind closed doors. You explain that things don’t normally look like the ruined temple of Jerusalem, its gates burned with fire!

Chaotic change is an uninvited guest. Like an unplanned extra person at an already too-small table, everything seems forced. Decisions have to be made before their time. People have to make room, take on new roles, or change habits even while leading.

Reasons vary when it comes to people disliking change. We may not like being out of control, or we may fear surprises or an uncertain future, or dread a heavier workload. We may have a preference for the “same” over something different, or have defensiveness over our territory, or feel that others question our competence, or we remember past resentments (1). And when that change is unexpected, these feelings are magnified.

When Nehemiah approached the actual ruined temple of Jerusalem, he evaluated the situation, assessed the damage, and called the people to rebuild. But in reading the Old Testament book of Nehemiah, have you ever noticed the people to whom he was speaking were already in the city?

They could see the same broken-down gates and walls; they were standing on rubble as he called them to change. They hadn’t done anything about it, though, before Nehemiah showed up and called them to rebuild. There is a sentence between his evaluation and the people’s response that is easily overlooked due to its brevity. But it explains how the people were inspired and motivated to change.

“I also told them about the gracious hand of my God on me and what the king had said to me. They replied, ‘Let us start rebuilding.’ So they began this good work.” (Nehemiah 2:18)

The people had smelled the smoke. They had seen the walls fall. Change had come and there was nothing they could do about it. Attendance falls. No one shows up to serve. Staff leaves. The budget isn’t met. We smell the smoke of chaotic change. Something is broken.

Nehemiah showed up to the ruined temple without anything more than a positive vision, inspiration, and the commitment to persevere. He had a sense of urgency to bring chaos under control and rebuild. And through his leading, he received the response from the people, “Let us start rebuilding.”

They answered challenges as they came. Naysayers attacked with mocking words, and Nehemiah responded with the vision. Rumors flew of the project’s demise, and Nehemiah responded with changes in roles, delegating half to work while half stood guard. Midway through the rebuilding he had to deal with budget issues and threats to vote him out. Nehemiah 1-6 contains an example of every possible element of a contentious change. Nehemiah 7-12 is an example of the results of persevering through the chaos.

We all want so many volunteers at church that we have to draw straws, everyone “storehouse tithing,” confessing their sins to one another, and living in agreement. Idealized circumstances rarely come to life. We have to see the rubble and be willing to make hard decisions and put in even harder work, leading to make the vision come to life.

This type of chaotic change doesn’t usually follow a step-by-step program, which can frustrate planners used to taking followers through a structured, rational process. Project managers want to analyze and create the best solution with specific leadership roles, which are wonderful skills – for planned change. But when we’re standing on the rubble smelling smoke, how do we manage organizational change?

First, you need to step back and evaluate the situation. This isn’t data collection for a thesis, but a quick assessment – Nehemiah took three days to evaluate an entire city.

Next, evaluate the leaders’ experience, influence, capacity, and willingness to change (both your own and any potential leaders). People have different approaches to change. One resource, de Caluwé and Vermaak’s color-print model (2 and 3) is an excellent way to understand the approaches of your leading team members.

The strength of the leadership team is dependent on having the right type of change leader in the right place for that change situation. In the color-print model, there are five colors, and each can be used to describe the dominant approach needed for the current change initiative. For example, a blue-print thinker is organized and great at managing controlled, planned change (blue = architectural design). Yellow-print thinkers form coalitions and are great at lobbying for change among a power base (yellow = power/sun/fire). When you need to bring common interests together to create a win-win situation, the yellow-print should lead the charge, not the blue-print. Nehemiah may have been a red-print motivational leader, focusing on the emotions of followers; their behavior changed as a result of inspiring vision (red = heart). He was the right leader to lead a downtrodden Jewish remnant who needed to be stimulated to action.

After evaluating the situation and the leadership team, the change requires both management and leadership. This is the equivalent of having a tool in one hand and a weapon in the other.

We must continue to manage what is working in the organization and decide how to prioritize resources for the ongoing activity of the church, while leading in creative collaboration to fix what is not working. Leading means looking past the broken walls being repaired to see the contentious issues on the horizon and working together with followers to craft solutions.

In both planned and unplanned change, leaders are called to exercise wise decision-making, with trust in God, the people, and the process. Leaders must persevere, inspire, and remain positive. Learning the language of change management and different tactics to lead change can result in effective organizational change – even when the change is uninvited.

1 Kanter, R. M. (2012). Ten reasons people resist change. Harvard Business Review. Retrieved from https://hbr.org/2012/09/ten-reasons-people-resist-chang

2 de Caluwé and Vermaak Videos: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RgEvL0aQxoE

3 de Caluwé and Vermaak Article: http://www.decaluwe.nl/articles/ODJournal.pdf)

Maxie Dunnam ~ A Brand New Year: How to Leave Your Stuff Behind

Do you ever wonder how to leave your stuff behind? Loren Eiseley was one of my favorite writers, a distinguished anthropologist and essayist with the eye of an artist and the soul of a poet.  He saw beyond the surface and had that rare double gift which enabled him to enter deeply into an experience and then share that experience with us. In one of his poignant vignettes from boyhood, he shares a moment of time that bears timeless truth. 

Eiseley was 16, and one day he leaned out the second-story window of his high school and saw an old junk dealer riding in a cart filled with castoff clothing, discarded furniture, and an assortment of broken-down metal objects. A broken-down horse was pulling the cart.  As the decrepit figures passed below him, Eiseley had a sudden sense of what time means in its passing. He wrote: “‘It’s all going,’ I thought with a desperation of the young confronting history.  No one can hold it… we’re riding into the dark.  When my eye fell upon that junk dealer passing by, I thought instantly, ‘save him, immortalize this unseizeable moment, for the junk man is the symbol of all that is going or gone.’”

After that, Eiseley said he could never regard time without a deep sense of wonder. He sought to receive every moment as a kind of gift that was only his.  It’s an image to consider as we begin this new year.  Let’s look at our scripture lesson, found in Genesis 45:1-28, which you can read here.

Tucked away in this story of Joseph’s sojourn into Egypt is a verse packed with far more meaning than appears on the surface. It is a word that carries a whole wagon-load of goods for reflection. It teaches us an eternal truth that we do well to consider as we move into the New Year. It is helpful in practicing how to leave your stuff behind.

Rehearse the story.  Sold into slavery by his brothers, Joseph found favor with the Pharaoh and became one of the trusted officials in Pharaoh’s court.  A strange irony of fate (the providence of God, of course) brought Joseph and the brothers who had betrayed him together again.  A famine ravaged the land of Canaan, the people were without food, and they came to Egypt to buy food from the Pharaoh.  They soon learned that the person with whom they dealt was the brother they sold into slavery, so the tables were turned.  Here they were, asking food from the person they cast away. 

When it came to Pharaoh’s attention that Joseph’s brothers came, it pleased him. He instructed Joseph to bring the whole family from Canaan, promising to give them the goods of all the land of Egypt. It is at this point we find the power-packed verse.  Do this, said Pharaoh: “take some carts from Egypt for your children and your wives, and get your father and come.  Never mind about your belongings, because the best of all of Egypt will be yours.”  I like the way the King James’ version translates that. “Regard not your stuff, for the best of all the land of Egypt will be yours.”

Regard not your stuff.  

There’s all sorts of meaning in that.  One translation renders it, “leave your stuff behind.”  Now some of us who have moved a good bit, like Methodist preachers, know what that means. We moved from Mississippi to California years ago.  Moving across the continent made it even more difficult to decide what stuff we were going to take and what stuff we were going to leave behind.  Moving is expensive.  My wife, Jerry, collects rocks, and she had bushels of them.  She knew better than to get into a discussion about taking those rocks from Mississippi to California.  Do you know how heavy rocks are?  So Jerry did a very cunning thing.  She packed her choice rocks into kitchen canisters and cake tins and brought them along.  The movers were mystified, I’m sure, as they handled those cake tins and canisters, and I learned of it long after I had paid the bill!

“Regard not your stuff,” said Pharaoh, “leave your stuff behind…for the good of all the land of Egypt is yours.”

By the time most of us get to be adults, we have accumulated a great deal of stuff – all kinds of stuff.

We’ve learned so many wrong things, stored up so much misinformation, learned to respond in so many destructive ways. We’ve adopted all the biting, snarling, snippy styles of relating, become secretive and cynical.  We carry a lot of stuff around, and it burdens us down.  It’s hard learning how to leave your stuff behind. We get all glued up in our limited world of habit. 

So this word of Pharaoh to Joseph’s brothers is a good word for us, particularly as we begin this new year: leave your stuff behind. What is some of the stuff you need to leave behind as you begin the new year?  What can you drop off your weary, bending back to make your trek into the New Year a bit easier and far more meaningful?

Leave behind self-pity. 

Self-pity is a burden most of us are unwilling to drop off.  Someone hurts our feelings and we carry our hurt with us forever.  We’re treated unfairly and we never forget it.  Something happens in our family and it seems to us like we’re being put down: someone else is receiving special treatment, so we get a kind of complex.  We suffer physically and we get the idea that the whole universe is out to persecute us – such an easy snare to fall into! As long as we carry this burden of self-pity, we can blame our failures on someone or something else.

To go through life with the burden of self-pity is to go through life hampered.  It is to stumble along at an uneasy, faltering pace, so we need to leave the bundle of self-pity behind us.  We need to stride into the future, not with self-pity, but with self-affirmation.  And when we rehearse the gospel, we know that we can do that because the whole of Scripture, especially the Gospels, is an affirming, not a destructive word.

Jesus said that not even a sparrow fell to the ground without the Father taking note. Then he added, “you are of more value than sparrows.” And how extravagant is this? “The very hairs on your head are numbered.” Each of us is a unique, unrepeatable miracle of God, and there is a place in God’s heart that only I can fill…that only you can fill.

“For thee were we made, oh God,” said Augustine, “and our hearts are restless until they rest in thee.”  No wonder he said that; the psalmist himself had captured it long before – “You have made us a little lower than the angels, a little less than God, and crowned us with glory and honor.” 

We don’t need to go into the New Year with self-pity because God is on our side.  To let go of self-pity is to begin practicing how to leave your stuff behind. God created us. And God is going to be with us.

Leave behind illegitimate responsibility.

The next bundle of stuff we need to leave behind is illegitimate responsibility.  I’m talking about the responsibilities which we rigidly claim for ourselves, but which don’t legitimately belong to us.

Our journey will be more meaningful if we can determine that there are certain responsibilities that are ours; these we will accept and give our resources to.  There are other responsibilities which we simply have to leave with others and with God.  Parents, there is a limitation to the responsibility we can take for our children.  We must do all we can to nurture our children to live productive, helpful, meaningful, Christian lives.  But beyond a certain time and place of nurturing, we must commit them wholly to God, and leave with them and with God the responsibility for guiding themselves.

This is conditioned by a special word to young parents. A Chicago suburbanite put on a last spurt of speed to catch his train but missed it.  A bystander remarked, “if you’d run a little faster you would have made it.”   “No,” the suburbanite replied, “it wasn’t a case of running faster, but of starting sooner.”  Young parents, you can’t begin too soon to relate a child to God – to demonstrate clearly to your children your own commitment and values.  We can’t depend wholly upon the church to instill within our children a love of God’s Word.  That won’t do it;  of course the church has a responsibility, but parents are primarily responsible. When we have been faithful in our parenting, we can leave our inordinate feelings of responsibility for our children behind.

There are responsibilities that we can and must assume – but many of us are weighed down by responsibilities that don’t belong to us. We must leave them behind.

Leave behind cancelled sin. 

There’s a lot of stuff we ought to leave behind, along with self-pity and illegitimate responsibility. What stuff do you still need to leave behind? We can’t name them all, but let me mention one other bundle that we need to cast off as we stride into this New Year: the bundle of cancelled sin.  The phrase comes from Charles Wesley’s hymn, “Oh For A Thousand Tongues To Sing.”  He claims that this is the work of Christ.

He breaks the power of canceled sin,

He sets the prisoner free;

his blood can make the foulest clean;

His blood availed for me.

Scores of people who beat a steady stream to my study door for counseling are burdened down by cancelled sin.  Somewhere in the past, they did things, got involved in situations, and were caught in relationships about which they feel morbid guilt.  They carry this around as an inside burden which no one knows about.  But like a malignancy, it grows and spreads until it poisons the person and brings a sickness like death.

The heart of the gospel is that God through Christ forgives our sins, and our sins are cancelled by God’s grace.  But obviously, this fact and experience are not enough.  Cancelled sin still has power – destructive power in our lives.

How then is the power of cancelled sin actually broken?  How do we leave this burden behind?  There is one key: confession and inner healing.  I believe that under most circumstances, not only confession to God but confession to another is essential for healing and release from the power of cancelled sin

This is the reason James admonishes us to confess our sins to one another and pray for one another.  Once we confess to a minister or to an intimate friend or group, we don’t carry the burden alone.  The poisonous guilt that was bottled up inside is now released.  The cleansing and freedom that comes is wing-giving.  Forgiveness and acceptance are confirmed in our lives and the fear of others knowing who and what we are is taken away.

A medical analogy works well here. When an infection appears somewhere on the body, antibiotics are given.  If these do not destroy the infection, usually the infection is localized and has to be lanced.  The surgeon uses the scalpel and opens the boil in order that all the poison can be drained.  Confession is something like the surgeon’s scalpel.  When we honestly open our lives in confession, all the poisonous guilt that we have bottled up within has a chance to flow out.  Confession becomes the cleansing process by which the self is freed from the power of cancelled sin.

Now there are two requisites for redemptive confession – one, you must trust the person or the group to whom you confess; and two, your confession must not be destructive to another person.  We cannot disregard the health and wholeness of another in order to seek our own release.

The big point is that the burden of erased wrongdoing is too great for us to carry into the New Year.  You can leave that stuff behind, because God forgives.  God loves you and accepts you.  And if you’ve not experienced the release from cancelled sin, if the burden of it is still with you, you may need to find a person whom you love and trust with whom you can share.  Open your life to them, and allow the poison to flow out in your honest confession. Remember the promise of John’s gospel: “if we confess our sin, he is faithful and just to forgive our sins and to cleanse us of all unrighteousness.”

I want to invite you now to use your imagination. Picture yourself with a big trash bag. Move through every room of your life; select the stuff you need to leave behind. I’m talking about self-pity and illegitimate responsibility. 

Put it into the trash bag.

What cancelled sin still has power over you, what hidden hatred, what frustrating fear, what devastating doubt, what powerful prejudice?

Put it in the trash bag.  Do it.  Act it out in your imagination. 

Put it into the trash bag.

Is there an unresolved relationship with a husband or wife, a parent or a child, a neighbor?  Is there a jealousy you’ve never brought out into the open? 

Put it into the bag. 

It could be any number of things.  You know what weighs you down, and what stuff you don’t need to take into the New Year. 

Put it into the bag.  Be specific in identifying and visualizing all the stuff in your mind to put into that bag.

Now stay with me in your imagination.  Get in your mind the picture with which we began  – the junk man with his cart filled with cast-off clothing, discarded furniture, all sorts of abandoned useless things.  Do you see it in your mind?  He’s passing by. 

In your imagination now, throw your trash bag onto the junk wagon and let it be taken away. 

Have you done it?  In your imagination, just cast it onto the junk wagon to be taken away.  Be silent now and enjoy the relief and release of getting rid of that burden. Keep the image of the trash man in your mind for a moment, taking all your trash away.  Now substitute for the image of the junk man, Christ himself.

Do you see him?  Jesus. Listen.  Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. 

Leave your stuff behind – all your junk.  Leave it.

You are forgiven.  Your failure and weakness are accepted.  Your past is buried in the sea of God’s loving forgetfulness.

Go into the New Year with Christ, and go joyfully.

Michelle Bauer ~ What God Sees in Your Heart

The Lord said to Samuel, “How long will you mourn for Saul, since I have rejected him as king over Israel? Fill your horn with oil and be on your way; I am sending you to Jesse of Bethlehem. I have chosen one of his sons to be king.”

But Samuel said, “How can I go? If Saul hears about it, he will kill me.” The Lord said, “Take a heifer with you and say, ‘I have come to sacrifice to the Lord.’ Invite Jesse to the sacrifice, and I will show you what to do. You are to anoint for me the one I indicate.”

Samuel did what the Lord said. When he arrived at Bethlehem, the elders of the town trembled when they met him. They asked, “Do you come in peace?” Samuel replied, “Yes, in peace; I have come to sacrifice to the Lord. Consecrate yourselves and come to the sacrifice with me.” Then he consecrated Jesse and his sons and invited them to the sacrifice.

 When they arrived, Samuel saw Eliab and thought, “Surely the Lord’s anointed stands here before the Lord.” But the Lord said to Samuel, “Do not consider his appearance or his height, for I have rejected him. The Lord does not look at the things people look at. People look at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.”

Then Jesse called Abinadab and had him pass in front of Samuel. But Samuel said, “The Lord has not chosen this one either.” Jesse then had Shammah pass by, but Samuel said, “Nor has the Lord chosen this one.”

Jesse had seven of his sons pass before Samuel, but Samuel said to him, “The Lord has not chosen these.”

So he asked Jesse, “Are these all the sons you have?” “There is still the youngest,” Jesse answered. “He is tending the sheep.” Samuel said, “Send for him; we will not sit down until he arrives.” So he sent for him and had him brought in. He was glowing with health and had a fine appearance and handsome features. Then the Lord said, “Rise and anoint him; this is the one.”

So Samuel took the horn of oil and anointed him in the presence of his brothers, and from that day on the Spirit of the Lord came powerfully upon David. – I Samuel 16: 1-13

The ripples of Saul’s rebellion have left the prophet Samuel sad and disoriented. At the beginning of the passage, God encourages Samuel to rest from his grieving. What are you grieving today? Talk with God about what might bring you comfort.  

What else do you notice about Samuel’s relationship with the Lord? What is the last thing you heard from God? How hard or easy is it for you to hear from God? Talk to God about the growth you’d like to experience in this area.  

In what ways was David not the stereotypical candidate to be king? What qualities did David have that would make him a godly king? Consider your own story, personality, physical characteristics, skills and talents, education, and experience.  What pieces of who you are make you a likely candidate to seek after God? Ask the Spirit to show you what God sees when he looks at you.  Sit quietly and wait for God to speak to you.

God instructed Samuel to look past appearances and directly into David’s heart. What did Samuel see when he did this? How would you describe your heart to someone who was interested in knowing you at that level?

Imagine yourself as a part of this story. Are you one of the older brothers being passed over? Are you David running in from the field wondering what the emergency is? Are you Samuel trying to discern God’s voice? What do you see or feel from placing yourself in the different perspectives?

After his anointing, the Spirit of the Lord came on David in power. What do you think that experience was like for David? Do you experience the Spirit of God at work in your life? If you sense any resistance, talk to God about that too.

David may have become a king of Israel and a forefather of Jesus, but he was far from perfect.  His story includes some great triumphs but maybe more rock bottom moments. Scripture, though, proudly describes him to us as “a man after God’s own heart.”

Despite his many (and monumental!) sins, David made a life-shaping decision to follow God, and he never gave up – not even in the face of mortal danger or utter failure.  His goal was to be a student of God’s heart and he gave his life to it.

You, too, are invited to become a person after God’s own heart. Be encouraged! Today is the perfect day to begin, or to begin again, on your journey towards God’s heart. Don’t let a recent failure, your age, your story, your perceived inability, or anything else keep you from it.

James Petticrew ~ Our Greatest Leadership Challenge of the New Year

In late 2017, I found myself in discussions with an English congregation in Switzerland about their pastoral vacancy; much to my surprise, those discussions were progressing well. After several years of serving parachurch organizations and acting as a consultant, there seemed to be a growing prospect that I would be heading back into local church leadership. It was a daunting prospect. The church near Geneva was full of highly educated people from around the world, including academics, diplomats, business executives, and senior officials in NGOs. There was no doubt in my mind that being their pastor was going to be the biggest challenge of my leadership abilities that perhaps I had ever faced.

Now as 2019 begins, I am the pastor of Westlake Church-Nyon, that English-speaking congregation just outside Geneva. Nyon is situated on the shores of Lake Geneva; it has the Jura Mountains as a backdrop and the majestic Alps dominating the horizon across the lake. It’s a stunningly beautiful place to minister but, as I predicted, I am finding the return to local church leadership a great challenge. However, the biggest challenge any of us face is often ourselves.

I have a book sitting on my desk as I write these words, the title of which now seems either ironic or prophetic. It is called When Leadership and Discipleship Collide and was written by Bill Hybels. In case you have been ministering on Mars for a year, leadership and discipleship did indeed collide in Bill Hybels’ life in a way which has destroyed his reputation, deeply damaged the lives of his victims, terminated the ministries of his successors and shaken to its foundations one of the flagship evangelical congregations in America.   I wish this high-profile pastoral fall from grace was an isolated incident.

Over the last year it feels like high-profile pastors, friends and colleagues in ministry have been falling from their ministries like dominos, one after another. It’s been dispiriting to hear of case after case from the Christian press or through the denominational jungle drums. Their fall has been exclusively the result of sexual misconduct: there’s no other way to put it.

As a pastor, my big question has been how to react beyond the initial moments of unbelief and disappointment when I say to myself, “Who?” “Really?” I haven’t had it in me to join the chorus of condemnation that these things stir up on social media and in hushed conversations at pastors’ get-togethers. Nothing I would say would make most of those involved feel any worse about themselves than they do already and the Holy Spirit does a pretty good job of leading people to repentance without my tuppence’ worth on Facebook. But as all of this has been happening just as I am reentering pastoral ministry in a local church, the whole issue is becoming more personal to me.

Reflecting on these current events, I happened to read Eugene Peterson’s translation of 1 Corinthians 10:11-12. It might have been Peterson’s choice of words, but I heard God’s voice through them:

11-12 These are all warning markers—danger!—in our history books, written down so that we don’t repeat their mistakes. Our positions in the story are parallel—they at the beginning, we at the end—and we are just as capable of messing it up as they were. Don’t be so naive and self-confident. You’re not exempt. You could fall flat on your face as easily as anyone else. Forget about self-confidence; it’s useless. Cultivate God-confidence.

“Don’t be so naive and self-confident. You’re not exempt. You could fall flat on your face as easily as anyone else.”

God, as he so often does, put his finger on my soul and pointed out that my reaction toward those who had fallen, to whom I had looked up in ministry and with whom I’d shared ministry, was naïve. I have often thought when hearing of another nose-dive from ministry, “not him?” but underlying that has been a naive attitude that has assumed that it won’t ever be me. The Lord confronted me with a harsh truth: the biggest threat to my ministry is me. I now see that, to use Peterson’s inspired choice of words, I’m “just as capable of messing it up …”

In his book Charis Preston Sprinkle has a great one-liner about King David and Bathsheba: “Within seconds, a man after God’s own heart turns into a man after the woman next door.”Listen, if it can happen to King David, a man after God’s own heart, if it can happen to ___________(insert name of your fallen ministry hero or mentor), if it can happen to ____________ (insert name of your ministry friend or colleague), then it can happen to James Petticrew and it can happen to ___________ (insert your name). I’m not exempt from sexual temptation. Neither are you, my pastor / church leader friend. No matter how close we are to God right now, how good our marriages are, how careful we are with the opposite sex, let’s not be naive enough to believe it can’t happen to us.  I bet David thought that; I bet ___________thought that.

When I was training to be a police officer, an instructor told us that, “you are never more in danger than when you think there is no danger.” I have realized that that is true for me as much as a pastor as it was for me as a police officer.

As the pastor of Westlake, I am indeed facing some tremendous leadership challenges: learning a new church culture, navigating a congregation where people come from different countries, continents and theological traditions, seeking a way forward for us with our unique gifting and setting. Yet by far the biggest leadership challenge I face is the self-leadership challenge: leading myself well.

A couple of years ago I had the privilege of preaching from the pulpit of one of the most influential Scottish pastors of the 19th Century, Robert Murray M’Cheyne. God used Murray M’Cheyne in extraordinary ways to bring spiritual revival to parts of Scotland. The current minister of the Church had a quote from Murray M’Cheyne on the wall of his vestry that now faces me on the wall of my study in Nyon: “The greatest need of my people is my personal holiness.” The people of Westlake Nyon have many needs for which ultimately I bear some responsibility: the need for a good preacher, for clear leadership, for help in discipleship. But their single greatest need is my greatest leadership challenge, my personal holiness.

Samuel Rima says in Leading From the Inside Out, “The way in which a leader conducts his personal life does, in fact, have a profound impact on his ability to exercise effective public leadership. There is a direct correlation between self-leadership and public leadership.” If we don’t lead ourselves well, we can’t lead others well and will probably end up leading no one at all. This issue of self-leadership, this need for personal holiness, is one I want to suggest needs to be at the top of your priority list as we enter this new year.

Over the years I have gained a bit of a reputation for my phobia of making any sort of marks on my books, but I read something once that made such an impact that I broke my usual practice and highlighted it so I could easily find it when I got home. The book was The Next Generation Leader by Andy Stanley. I highlighted a question that Stanley asked. “What small thing in my life right now has the potential to grow into a big thing?”

Thinking about that question, I wondered what would have happened if all those high-profile megachurch pastors and my ministry colleagues who had pastored in relative obscurity had asked themselves that question? If they had just taken the time to look for small problems before they became the big problem that brought them down? I wondered what might happen to me in the future if I don’t answer that question honestly now?  

Maybe I should put Andy Stanley’s question next to Murray M’Cheyne’s quote on my study wall where I can see it every day. Maybe you should too.

Elizabeth Glass Turner ~ Resolutions: The Problem of Shibboleth in 2018

It is the time of year when resolutions abound. Or if not resolutions, goals. Maybe goals are too weighty a burden: maybe wishes.

It is the time of year when wishes abound. Despite the popularity of making “New Year’s Resolutions” – and despite the popularity of articles detailing how to make resolutions “stick” – most people know that lasting life change isn’t found on the heels of New Year’s Day. Resolutions melt away along with the winter snow drifts, and if one thinks about resolutions at all mid-July, it is often accompanied by reflections on exactly when or how they crumbled and disappeared.

Yet “resolutions” are really a misnomer. If you are resolute, you are “single-minded,” “firm,” and “unswerving.” If a person resolves to do something, that person has decided to do it. The person has resolve. There is strength, and because of that, follow through. A resolution isn’t a goal; a resolution is a decision. In that sense, goals are mile-markers; resolution is the direction you are running.

It may be a short-lived New Year’s goal to drink less, but it takes real resolve to drive to an AA meeting and walk in the door. It may be a futile goal to go to the expensive gym you joined; but it takes real resolve to value your body, your health, and your future, and to examine why you may devalue any of those things.

Where goals may gather around what you want to do or quit doing, how you want to look or where you want to go, being resolute may have more to do with what kind of person you want to become.

And here we arrive at shibboleths. 

What kind of person do you want to be? What kind of culture and society would you like to take part in? Because right now, dear North America, we are addicted to shibboleths.

If the word sounds familiar but just out of memory’s reach, it is a cultural reference, yet originates – as so many cultural references do – from the Bible. In Judges 12, the Gileadites are aware that their enemies the Ephraimites may be trying to cross a stream, posing as Gileadites. But the Gileadites are also aware that the Ephraimites have a small verbal giveaway – a difference in pronunciation of a word. (Think of how the pronunciation of certain English words give away whether you’re from the North or the South of the United States.) So if an enemy is trying to sneak by, just have them say a word – one single word – that will betray their association. If said incorrectly, the speaker dies.

It was simple but effective. Long before taking off your shoes at airport security or full-body scanners, one man looked at another and said, “really? Then say shibboleth for me.”

Since then, as Rice University points out, if something is said to be a shibboleth, it is used in a way similar to a “litmus test” (a phrase lifted from one context – the science lab – into another context – a cultural standard applied for the use of making a judgment).

shibboleth is a kind of linguistic password: A way of speaking (a pronunciation, or the use of a particular expression) that is used by one set of people to identify another person as a member, or a non-member, of a particular group. The group making the identification has some kind of social power to set the standards for who belongs to their group: who is “in” and who is “out.”

The purpose of a shibboleth is exclusionary as much as inclusionary: A person whose way of speaking violates a shibboleth is identified as an outsider and thereby excluded by the group. This phenomenon is part of the universal use of language for distinguishing social groups. It is also one example of a general phenomenon of observing a superficial characteristic of members of a group, such as a way of speaking, and judging that characteristic as ‘good’ or ‘bad’, depending on how much the observers like the people who have that characteristic.

And as we sit down and pen our resolutions – or our goals – or our half-hearted dreams – it is worthwhile to take a moment and consider our addiction to shibboleths. How do we employ shibboleths to decide who we listen to on – anything?

Doing away with the usage of shibboleths doesn’t mean throwing away core principles or values: it does have to do with preserving personhood, no matter who is crossing whom’s river. Using a litmus test to decide whether or not to pay someone basic common respect isn’t a value of Jesus Christ.

So the problem isn’t an inherent issue with a system in which someone is “in” or “out” – that’s necessary, just like standards for making it to the big leagues or getting into Harvard or joining the local VFW. The problem isn’t with having group boundaries; the problem is how we treat people no matter which side of the boundary they’re on. And often, when we unconsciously use a shibboleth, we’re giving ourselves permission to treat people as less than. 

Every group has its favorite shibboleths. 

Did you just use a male pronoun to refer to God? Violation! Shibboleth. I don’t have to listen to the rest of your sermon now.

Did you just use the phrase “climate change” in a way that suggests you’re concerned about it? Violation! Shibboleth. I know all your other beliefs now and can dismiss you out of hand.

Did you just use the word “orthodox”? By that, didn’t you mean “power play by males to keep authority by ruling what everyone had to believe?” Violation! Shibboleth. Obviously, you’re stuck in a literal interpretation of faith and haven’t accepted it as myth yet.

Did you just say you’re “cisgender”? I don’t even know what that means but I know what everyone believes who says that kind of thing. Violation! Shibboleth. There’s no point getting to know you.

Did you just say you’re for women’s rights but you’re also pro-life? You can’t be, I say so. Violation! Shibboleth. We can’t ever work together for anything and I don’t have to think about your point now.

This is what happens when we employ shibboleths. We don’t engage in critical thinking, we don’t assume the value of the other person, and we don’t speak with kindness to or about those outside the boundaries of our groups. You have spoken a shibboleth: that, we say, is all we need to know. We reduce every complex particularity of a person made in the image of God to how they pronounce shibboleth, and if they say it wrong, we take their personhood from them and move on, leaving a bleeding corpse in our wake. They revealed themselves for what they were. It was a pity, but it had to be done. We were justified.

Do you have a goal to abstain from social media drive-by’s this year? Do you wish that other people weren’t so obnoxious about differences?

Or are you resolved to put shibboleths to death? To maintain your integrity, principles, and values, and yet not to give in to the wily notion that your integrity demands that you dehumanize the people on the other side of the boundary? On the contrary – your integrity demands that you raise up, elevate, and protect the humanity and value of the person across from you who is trembling as they utter the word, wondering if you will see them – the real them – or whether you will draw your sword?

Debate where it’s needed; argue when necessary. Stand confident in your principles. And yet, while you debate, while you argue, while you stand confident –

And yet I will show you a still more excellent way…

If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.

May 2018 find love shaping the sound of our every word.


Andy Stoddard ~ The Limits of Leadership: Integrity and Incarnation

One of my great hesitancies when I first entered the ministry concerned leadership.  I was afraid to lead.  I had too many doubts.  What if I choose wrong?  What if I lead my people poorly?  What if I make a mistake and it all falls apart?   

As I was going through ordination in the United Methodist Church, my mentor suggested I read In the Name of Jesus by Henri Nouwen, and that introduced me to the life of leadership in ministry. And my heart was on fire! Now I love leadership. While there are many, many ways that I need continued growth, leadership is truly life-giving to me.    

But at a pastor’s conference a few years back, something happened that caused me to stop and rethink this passion.  The speakers kept hammering the theme, “leadership, leadership, leadership!”  And I agreed with them in principle – but I turned to my youth pastor and said, “Honest question that I don’t know the answer to: is leadership the chief virtue you want in your pastor?”  In the years since I have thought long and hard about that question.  Is leadership the chief virtue we desire for our pastors?     

As important as leadership is, it cannot be the driving force of ministry.  So, then, what is? What is the virtue that we as pastors need to develop in our lives and that our people need from us most of all?     

It’s a struggle to find the right word, but the closest thing I can come up with is incarnation.  The goal of salvation is the recovery of the image of God that had been corrupted by the fall.  Our very salvation is part of the process, whereby the Holy Spirit, through the means of grace, draws us closer to God and we grow deeper in his grace and love.  Through that grace, we love God fully and love our neighbor fully. That’s the purpose of all our salvation, and in the end, our ministry. 

I think that ministry today must be led out of incarnation.  The Word became flesh and dwelt among us (John 1).  Emmanuel, God with us.  Through Jesus Christ, the fullness of God was blessed to dwell.  He is true God from true God, begotten, not made, as we confess in the Nicene Creed. As we are filled with the Holy Spirit, Christ dwells within us.  I think that this notion of ministry, flowing from incarnation, paints a path forward for us, and for the Body of Christ.     

With so many pastoral leaders fallen in integrity breakdowns along with what seems to be the current unraveling of power structures within our society, we are beginning to see those without a voice now having a voice to speak truth to the power that has harmed them.  When we see this and we see the (often) men at fault, it is easy to say, just stop it!  Just stop being a cad, just stop abusing power, just stop.    

Those words should and must be said.  As a pastor who has been blessed to work with amazing female pastors and leaders, one of my main jobs as a leader is to help create a space where everyone, every voice, feels safe.     

But for pastors, our ministry must not only be based upon morality; it must be based upon incarnation.  To me, this means a couple of things.    

First, to do ministry out of the Incarnation is to see the inherent worth of others.  It is so easy for leaders in many fields to see people as existing only to serve whatever purpose they have for that leader.  Eugene Peterson makes an analogy in The Contemplative Pastor that compares program-driven ministry to strip-mining the land: using others for our purpose or our goals and then discarding them when we are finished.  Yet the Incarnation reminds us that Jesus died for the world: all of the world. And everyone, male, female, young, old, powerful, or powerless, everyone has an inherent worth that comes from being made in the image of God.  If we do ministry out of the Incarnation, no one is an “object” to be used by the leader.  Everyone is a beloved child whom Christ came to save. We must treat all with the radical love of Christ.

Let me say this again, and say it loudly: everyone has worth.  No one is an object, and any ministry or leadership philosophy that leads people to deny that or not to see that inherent worth in others is wrong and not of God.     

Second, to do ministry out of the Incarnation allows us to see the source of our strength.  One of the things that constantly amazes me is how our society seeks to see spiritual matters through clinical terms.  The answer to every ill our society faces is education, or jobs, or other “fixes.”  While education, money, and resources are vital to living a life with hope today, they are not the fix.  I have heard this quote attributed to C.S. Lewis: “Education without values, as useful as it is, seems rather to make man a more clever devil.”   

Our education or even our values do not stand on their own.  While yes, in how we treat each other, we need helpful guidelines that keep us walking together, in the end, we will not treat others with the respect they are due unless we see their worth and allow the Holy Spirit to work in our lives, changing us, molding us, making us into the people God desires us to be.     

Ministry, and life, in general, are not an act of willpower.  

Ministry is an act of surrender to the Spirit who lives within us.  We are called to live and to lead out of the Incarnation, the spirit of Christ dwelling within us.  We are not called to stand up and fight, but to fall to our knees and surrender.  The Incarnation reminds us where our strength comes from.     

And lastly, to do ministry out of the Incarnation reminds us of the purpose of our faith.  Jesus Christ died for the world.  That’s why ministers do what we do.  He loves all.  All can be saved, and as Wesley said, all can be saved to the uttermost.  We are not here to build a more efficient organization; we are here to tend to and lead the Body of Christ.  The church is not a Fortune 500 company.  It is not a corporation.  It is a living, breathing body.  As Christ fills us, we fill the church, and the church fills the world.  We live out that grace and hope.  We are the protector of the weak, the widow, the orphan.  We love, we serve, we give, all through the power of Christ.     

Because that is what we are here for.  Not to grow.  Not to use people.  Not for fame, attention, or power.  But to live out the power of Christ within us, the mystery of God.    

We have been called into Christ’s ministry.  Our world needs the church and Christian leaders to live out of this calling now more than ever.     


Note: featured image is “Follow Me, Satan: The Temptation of Jesus Christ” by Ilya Repin.