Balancing Simplicity and Empowerment

Leading a church requires delicate balance.  One often must work a fine line in between two equally worthy ideas, which are oppositional to one another.  I suspect you need an example, because you are already wondering how two oppositional ideas can both be worthy ideas.  The topic of this article is one such example.

One of the principles I choose to emphasize in my church is empowerment.  I believe any church member might be led by God to start a new ministry.  If they are committed to this ministry they can approach the church with a workable plan and gain approval to form this ministry with the blessing and support of our church.

On the other side of the coin is the simple church principle.  This is the idea that if the church is too busy doing a diverse collection of ministries they will soon not be doing any of them well.  Instead of all the different ministries making disciples they will be competing for the limited resources, money and workers, the church has to offer.  Instead a simple church will have one path of discipleship, one process of disciple making, one plan for turning out disciples.

I believe in empowerment. If God did not want to put every member of the church to work, why gift every member with different abilities and passions?

I also believe that if the devil can’t make you bad, he will make you busy.  The church that is exhausted will not be nurturing maturity.  Burnout is a poor substitute for discipleship.

Somewhere in between these two poles is the path that God want’s the individual church to take.

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Net Neutrality

One of the more obtuse political footballs this winter has been “net neutrality.”  Whatever that is.

The general idea intrigued me, so I attempted to do a little bit of research about it.  First thing I note is that it’s hard to find arguments in favor of removing net neutrality.  The second thing I note is that the arguments in opposition to removing net neutrality made no real sense.

Here are some examples.

A man says he came to America from a country in South America, and when he lived there he had to pay before he was allowed to tweet and he was protesting to avoid that happening here. 

Does he not pay for his internet access here in America?  I pay for a cellular data plan on my phone, I pay again to have internet at home and again at my office. The only way I tweet for free is if I find a public wifi, in which case someone else is paying for the connection, but that is not the same thing as it being free.

A common illustration is that net neutrality prevented people, and corporations from creating fast lanes which get all the service while everyone else is crowded into slow lanes.

I pay extra for fast internet at my house.  I used to pay a little less and eventually decided to upgrade hoping the speed would make life easier.  Companies pay according to the amount of bandwidth and speed they want.  I started this plan long before net neutrality was repealed, and it has always the case that better service costs more.

Another argument is that large corporations will be able to force out smaller businesses by controlling how others access them on the net. 

I have a friend who had a profitable small business.  He was proud of the fact that in the narrow market that he served he would show up on the first page of most search engines. Then suddenly, he stopped showing up at all, and he stopped getting new orders.  He learned that google had caused this calamity by changing their ranking algorithm.  There was nothing he could do about it quick enough to save his business. This also happened before net neutrality was repealed.

 

I think the people who were against repealing net neutrality would probably call me an ignoramus and say that I just don’t get it. I would ask if they are sure they get it.  If they do get it, why have they not found a way to express the problem in something other than the above non-sensical arguments.

I think the real problem is that we have become a nation of near sighted sheep who are too easily led. The right spin can rally people to a cause and they don’t have to understand the issue.  These citizens will act as instructed, simply because of their blind allegiance to political parties, news outlets, and social media.

The Gift of Leadership

Leadership is important in every situation.

When the general yells, “Charge!” the soldiers had better run forward ready for battle.

When the CEO says, “We need a software update.” the engineers will begin brainstorming ideas for the next version.

When the Pastor says, “We need to add more Bible study classes.” the church can expect to discuss and may or may not decide what to do about a deficiency in the Bible study hour.

All three of these are leadership, but did you notice how different they are?  One is dictatorial, barking orders that will be followed instantly and without question. Another recognizes a need but unleashes others to work out all the details only maintaining loose oversight. The last one points out a problem, allows others to discuss and decide what do even if the decision is not what he was hoping for.

The point of this exercise is to help remind us that different styles of leadership are appropriate in different situations. If a surgeon ever wants to operate on you and promises to handle the surgical staff democratically, find a new doctor.  Why? Because if a vein is nicked you don’t want him calling for discussion or forming a committee to study it. You want him to fix it. Immediately, before you bleed to death.  You want your surgeon to be dictator.

On the other side of the coin if you are in a volunteer position and someone in the group, leader or one of the other volunteers, is ordering everyone around and refuses to discuss anything, you can expect the volunteers to thin out.  Quickly.  Volunteers almost always want to have a voice in their work, and not just have orders barked at them.  In other words, volunteers want their leaders to be teambuilders.

When it comes to the church, you are working with volunteers.  In a Baptist church it probably has a member empowering, congregational method of carrying out decision making.  Leadership in a situation like that requires learning a different skill set than leadership in business, in the military, or in academia.

In church leadership, the goal should not be getting the church to do what you want.  Instead in some cases it will be, helping the church see what the Lord wants and enabling them to follow Him.  In other cases, it isn’t obvious what best serves the Lord.  For example, maintenance and upgrade issues of the buildings, equipment and even the programs will likely not be addressed by Scripture. In these cases, the church leader should help the church see what it wants and enable them to accomplish it.

It is more important to have unity in the group than to have things done any certain way.  In fact, it more important to have unity in the group than to have things done the best way.  It is better to be unified with problems than to be broken apart and ‘perfect’.  It is better to be thriving and chaotic than to be well oiled machine that is losing membership left and right.

This makes church leadership frustrating for people who have lead in other arenas successfully.  Nevertheless, if they can adjust their style of leadership sufficiently, a person with the gift of leadership can be one of the greatest assets a church has.

Bridge Building in the Church

I often feel a stress about how infrequently I am blogging right now.  However, a couple of years ago I began to feel called to administrate a men’s retreat for affiliated churches in my area.  This has been where all my extra energy has been going. 

Today I have something on my mind in relation to church politics.  So, I am preparing to discuss it under my ‘Politics Monday’ category. 

One of the strongest choices a church can make is to find ways to build bridges to the community.

But what exactly does that mean? Simply put, it is finding ways to connect with people who do not have a church, and possibly would not normally consider setting foot on church grounds. If a congregation’s only chance to evangelize is to witness to those folks who happen to visit, they will be missing the entire point of the great commission.

When people talk about bridge building they will often center on whether an outreach event is on the grounds of the church or not.  And this does have a point to it. A lot of the people we should most want to reach would never attend an event on the church grounds.  Not in the fellowship hall, not in the parking lot and absolutely not in the sanctuary. But some will.

Those who would be willing to visit an outreach on the church grounds might well be the low hanging fruit of the great commission, but low hanging fruit needs to be picked too. For this reason, I am not in agreement with those who assert genuine outreach and evangelism cannot take place on church grounds.

However, doing events off the church grounds has tremendous value. Not only will you have a chance to meet people who you will not meet on the grounds, but you will also see the church’s faith stretched and the community’s hearts opened. The church that is seen by community involved people as also being community involved will be their most likely place to land. Furthermore, If you are always standing on the safe ground, were exactly is the faith in that?

But before you dismiss me as being a Pollyanna let me explain that both claims have another side.  When you see into the hearts of the community you might well have that tattooed biker chick who wears her pierced earrings everywhere except her ears dropping in on the senior ladies sewing circle.  It might mean having a perfectly normal looking teen boy bring his boyfriend on his first visit.

This is about the time when you begin to find that a congregation’s faith can crack or break when it is stretched too far too fast.

I suspect to many people it sounds a little bit like compromising with the world.  To others it sounds like polluting the purity of the church with the effluence of unregenerate souls.

So, bridge building is not for the faint of heart.  But then again, no part of faithful Christianity is. Real people have real problems and sometimes we get too accustomed to our view of the church as a trouble-free zone.  But it was real people for whom Christ died.  People with fears; people with flaws.  People like you and me.

The Pastor I Want to Be

This morning I came across Philippians 2:19-30, and came to see it as an example of the type of pastor I wish I was and should strive to be.

In these verses, Paul speaks of Timothy and Epaphroditus and the encouragement they have been to him. Before looking at what he said about these two men let’s remember the situation Paul was in as he wrote these things.

They encouraged him in ministry. Only those who are well outside the loop believe ministry is an easy course. These men encouraged him in his imprisonment. Paul had been imprisoned for the gospel, in a world where prisons were especially brutal. They encouraged him as he faced the likelihood of execution. Paul speaks of his survival as a fifty-fifty shot.

This is the most amazing thing about this passage. Paul wanted the Philippians to experience the encouragement of these men so much that he was willing to send them, rather than to keep them close, serving himself.

So what does Paul say about these men?

First thing I notice is that Timothy is described of having the interest of others, from the perspective of Jesus Christ.

The opposite of this is to seek your own interests.  This is a constant challenge for a pastor or minister of any type. Just yesterday I sat with a missionary who spoke of the difficulty of speaking on God’s behalf without allowing the message to decompose into personal tirades at the people we love, because of our private, and often frustrating, knowledge of their sins.

Another challenge of seeking the interests of your congregation is that they don’t really know what is in their own best interest.  They too have a way of making their self-interests selfish instead of Christ-centered. So, in order to avoid telling people what they want to hear, you have to temper your message constantly with a deep connection to Christ.  This is the only way that you will know His best interests for your hearers.

The last thing I want to mention about this maintaining the interests of those you serve, is that it helps to have a support system outside of the circle of your own congregation.  Often others can see things in us we have carefully hidden from ourselves.  An honest friend will tell you what you need to hear to allow you the opportunity to improve. Every Paul needs a Timothy and every Timothy needs a Paul.

Second, Paul speaks of Timothy as a person of proven character.

Proving anything takes time. Proving character takes a lifetime. Timothy was not spoken of as someone whom Paul just met and had a good feeling about, but instead as someone that had served alongside Paul for an extended time.

Proving leadership has a trait in it that many people miss.  One of the ways that you become a good leader is by being a good follower. Paul’s leadership over Timothy helped bring out Timothy’s abilities in that area. Leaders who cannot follow, at least in my opinion, also cannot lead. Remember job one for any leader is to follow Christ.

Character is not weighed on scales, so that as long as more half their characteristics are good, they are a good men. Character is not a litmus test, meaning that when a strong majority of their characteristics are pure they are a good person.  Character is on the gold standard.  If it is not 100% pure then it is still in need of refinement. All of us are still in the process, but don’t use that as an excuse to change out to any other standard than Christ.

Finally, Paul speaks of Epaphroditus as a man who was willing to sacrifice all.

The first sacrifice was being willing to live broken-hearted for the people he served.  The passage describes it as longing for the Philippians, and indeed, leaving behind those you love is one sacrifice most face in ministry.  But the sacrifice of a broken heart comes in many other ways too. Everything from watching people drown in their sin to burying your beloved members break your heart.

He also was willing to walk the line of public scrutiny and shame.  I say this because prisons in that time and place were difficult to survive. Paul most likely would not have made it through if Epaphroditus was not bringing him food, water, medicines and encouragement.  But bringing these things to Paul meant he was willingly associating himself with the crimes the Roman overlords assumed Paul was guilty of.

Finally, Epaphroditus almost died from illness while performing these ministries. This was the context in which Paul said we should hold men like Epaphroditus in high esteem. Are we as willing to risk everything for the gospel?  We live in such comfort today that it is hard to tell. But if you are not willing to make the many smaller sacrifices included in ministry, you are not training yourself to be ready to make the ultimate sacrifice if, or maybe when, the time comes.

 

 

 

Presidential Imperfection

This morning I scanned the news and was amused by one commentary which went to great lengths to diagnose the mental conditions held by our new president.  Just out of curiosity I checked his credentials and did not see a degree in psychology among them.

The President certainly is interesting.  However, I believe it is foolishness to expect any president to be perfect.  The common pattern of behavior by politicians is to present a façade of perfection.  Therefore, the real choice is not between perfect and imperfect, but instead between transparent and guarded.

With transparency comes a sea of criticism, but at the same time there is the chance to understand the person as an individual. With a guarded persona comes an assurance they will always be professional in public, but at the same time you may never be able to understand or trust what they are doing in private.

Given those choices I am willing to accept the president who allows his true self to be seen, even though I don’t always endorse the character displayed.

Taming Hypocrisy to Win America

While reading through Zechariah today it occurred to me that God often magnifies a people’s sin in the process of setting them up for judgement.  For example, the foolishness of the idolatry of Israel was put on display by the events with Elijah on Mount Carmel. The selection of Saul entirely apart from any understanding of his character moved the people toward the misery of living under a King other than God their King.

Perhaps a more modern day example is taking place in our time. The two presidential candidates both had deep moral flaws. They could easily represent the abuse of power and the obsession with sexuality, two evils which currently define our nation.  We have willingly given ourselves to these evils, and both are highlighted in the public accusations against the two candidates.

I also notice, more while reading Matthew than Zechariah, that hypocrisy is a sin of special concern in Jesus teaching. He chastises the religious leaders for despising the common people. The leaders accuse them of falling short on the minor points of the moral law, while they themselves ignore or work around the weightier points. He helped the rich to see that their belief in their own goodness was false, and that their devotion to wealth was greater than their devotion to God.

A modern day example of this hypocrisy is visible in that those who favor a candidate so easily accuse the failures of the opposing candidate. It didn’t matter which candidate won, there was going to be immediate calls for impeachment. Meanwhile both sides fail to see that the candidate on their side has genuine problems, as well. Even worse, the nation continues to deepen this divide by demonizing the supporters of their opponents.

No matter who had won the election, the path to saving America must include the unifying of the population.  It is a myth of our times, that people with opposing viewpoints cannot work together. We can stand together to rebuild our strength, without agreeing on anything more than America needs to be better. If we unify then we can take an honest look at the evils enslaving us. Seeing those evils will require us to abandon the hypocrisy and to see the weaknesses of both sides. But if we do this, if we humble ourselves before God, we will begin to tame these issues by the resources provided to us as one nation, once again choosing to be, under God.