Wanted: Moments of Grace

It was an embarrassing moment as a young minister.

Charlotte and I had been living in Abilene while I finished seminary. I had just completed my studies and moved to north Alabama where I began preaching for a church. Now, I was a full-time minister for a congregation.

I was overwhelmed and had no idea what to do.  So, I began doing what many young ministers do: I watched several experienced ministers to learn how to do this work.

One preacher I had been watching seemed to put a lot of energy into welcoming guests.  He was at the large urban church near where I grew up.  Some hotels get four and five stars for a rating.  This church would probably rate five stars in somebody’s review. People in my circle talked about this church as if they were the group that seemed to do most things right.

I did notice that they seemed to do things smoothly, unlike me.  I handled things awkwardly at times.


One of my first Sundays I introduced a new family and asked them stand. After all, I had seen the minister at this church do the same.  I then moved on to introduce another new family.  Upon introducing them I asked them to stand.  The couple stood, but I noticed the man had a puzzled look.

“Jim, I’ve been a member of this church for a number of years.”

I froze.  I wanted to hide.   

One Question Every Church Leader Should Ask

What is it like to be someone else in your church?people3.jpg

I’m convinced that some people never wonder. These are the people who sometimes make awkward statements to others. These are the people who sometimes sound smug as they talk about people who have various problems. They seem to have no appreciation for how tough life has become for some people.

My friend sat in an assembly one Sunday morning. The minister began his sermon by referring to his “extraordinarily difficult week.” Then he explained that he had a fender-bender in a car last week. He went on to talk about trials and tribulations that people face.

Meanwhile, my friend listened, amazed that he would talk about a fender-bender using language like “trial and tribulation.” After all, for the last several months, my friend had spent his days sitting beside his wife’s hospital bed while she was dying of cancer. That morning, he left her bedside to be a part of this assembly. My friend decided this preacher really had no idea what it was like to sit beside the bed of a loved one and watch her die.

John Killinger, in one of his books, suggested that ministers need to realize that people in churches find themselves in a variety of circumstances on any given Sunday morning. He suggested an exercise in which a minister reflects on some of these situations. (Actually, this exercise would probably be useful for anyone.)

What would it be like to:

  • Have just experienced divorce?
  • Have an adult child in jail?

  • Be living on government assistance?

  • Be a new parent for the first time?

  • Have just learned you have cancer?

  • Know you are having major surgery tomorrow?

  • Be told by your wife, “I’m moving out. I’ve found someone else I love.”

  • Be told by your employer, “We won’t be needing you anymore.”

  • Live alone for many years?

  • Live in an abusive home?

  • Be single?

  • Want children and yet be unable to have children?

  • Face a move to a new community in a state where you’ve never been?

  • Experience severe depression?

  • Realize you are in serious trouble financially?

  • Grieve over your mother’s death?

  • Feel old and useless?

  • Care for aged parents while you try to be attentive to your children and grandchildren?

What thoughts, feelings, experiences, names, situations, places, etc. come to mind? There are times when I ask myself as I prepare to teach or preach, “How would a person in one of these situations hear this message?”  

Far too often, we see life only from our point of view.

Perhaps there are some people whom I will never totally be able to identify with. However, I can try. I can at least ask the questions. I can consider what it might be like to be another.   


What can church leaders do that might help them better understand the experiences of the people they interact with?

Charles Siburt

Charles Siburt has been a friend and mentor to me for almost 25 years. I have learned so much from him. I am a much better man and minister for having known him.

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For many years he taught ministry at Abilene Christian University. His teaching went way beyond the classroom. Charles spent time and energy helping ministers and other church leaders all over the country.

He is very sick and is not expected to live on this earth much longer. He has recently been transported from a hospital in Dallas to a hospital in Abilene. Soon he will be with the Lord.

My friend, Dan Bouchelle, wrote the following:On behalf of all of us who love Charlie, I invite you to join several of us who love the Siburts by setting aside this Friday, February 3, as a special day of prayer with fasting if you choose. Please lift up Charlie’s body, his spirit, and his family to the Father of all compassion. Judy and his sons have sacrificed time with Charlie for the sake of the church for many years. Pray that their final days with him in this age will be enriching. Pray that God will give Charlie courage for his final days and a peaceful trip home. Pray that he will be able to leave the hospital for his final days. Most of all, give thanks for all that God has given us all through Charlie. Pray that God will raise up an Elisha or twelve to pick up Charlie’s mantle. What will we do without him?

Charles and Judy have blessed so many men and women. Charles served as a consultant and friend to the congregations I worked with in Florence, Alabama, Kansas City, Missouri, and Waco, Texas. Each time he helped our leaders become more effective and at times work through knotty problems. I have called him at all hours of the day and evening to talk through frustrations, disappointments and new possibilities. Again and again, Charles helped me become better.

The following are a few of the ways he helped me:

1. He was one of the first ministers to introduce me to serious, thoughtful ministry resources. At one of the very first Austin Graduate School Sermon Seminars, I heard him share resources with the group. (I was in graduate school at ACU.) I was furiously taking notes as he mentioned authors, commentaries, journals, and training opportunities – related to ministry. I went back to ACU and followed up on as many resources as I could.

2. He taught me about the importance of managing myself well. I have spent the last three decades learning about the implications of this. It was Charles Siburt who instilled in me the importance of self-care and being intentional about how I handle myself as a leader.

3. He helped me in each congregation I have served. Each time he came, he helped our church and blessed Charlotte and me.

4.   He told me again and again, in a variety of way is how much he believed in me. I can’t begin to tell you how much his confidence in me has meant. He recommended me to churches and universities and gave me other opportunities to serve. There were times when I called him when I felt discouraged and devalued. He always communicated value, encouragement, and hope.

5. He made himself available and accessible to me. He returned my calls from airports, his office, hotel rooms, and during breaks at out of town conferences. We shared lunches and met in his office on various occasions. The time and energy he invested in me made a difference. So often his words gave me fresh options and a new perspective. What I experienced with him, I now practice with younger ministers.

6. He helped me see the importance of paying attention to the details of others’ lives. So often, I came away from conversations with him amazed at how well he remembered details – children’s names, where they went to college – where an elder worked, on and on. I saw how that practice communicated much to others.

7. He modeled for me a way of being a father. Year ago, I was in his office when he received a call from Judy. He asked about one of the boys and a situation at school (high school, I think). He asked about the situation and mentioned a variety of details related to it. He talked for a moment about how their son was handling it. I came away thinking about how I wanted to be involved and aware like that still when my daughters were that age.

Please especially pray for Charles and Judy on Friday, February 3. For more information, please see this fine post by Dan Bouchelle here. Read Jordan Hubbard’s tribute here. Also note this special Facebook page for Charles and Judy here.

3 Words That People Never Get Tired of Hearing

“I appreciate youcoffee cup (1).jpg .”

So many, many people rarely, if ever, hear these words, “I appreciate you.”

These are three words that people never get tired of hearing.

In the absence of these words, many people feel unappreciated, devalued, and taken for granted.

One of the best encouragers I know is Jerry Rushford, who for 30 years has been the director of the Pepperdine Lectures (thousands of people on campus for classes, worship, conversation, etc). Each year he publicly praises missionaries from faraway places throughout the world. Or, he might recognize people who have served in ministries for decades. This is so important and encouraging.

Recently, I was on a retreat where a friend/longtime minister prayed for me specifically. We were in a group of about 15 people and he prayed a prayer of blessing. He prayed in such detail that I was very moved by this moment. A part of what made this moment so moving for me was that he communicated value, worth, and genuine appreciation.

You can communicate value to someone in a variety of ways:

1. You can tell someone how valuable they are to you as a friend or as a co-worker.

2. You can “catch them” doing something right and bring it to their attention.

3. You can praise their work before others.

4. You can listen — genuinely listen — to their thoughts and ideas.

5. You can send a note, card, e-mail, text, or any other kind of communication to communicate value.


What else would you add to this list? How has someone communicated value to you?

When Leaders Stop Learning

He was in his mid-70s but about to challenge the thinking of the rest of his fellow leaders who were younger. He opened his notebook and began to read aloud the paper that he had carefully thought through. The subject was controversial and that alone made some in the gathering very nervous.Learn & Lead

However, “Steve” was a lifelong learner. He was not afraid to think. Maybe just as important, he was serious about learning.

In the recent 2011 Willow Creek Leadership Summit, Bill Hybels said “Leaders have an insatiable appetite for learning. They have to learn. Leaders are relentless learners.”

Yet, far too often key leaders remain in their roles long after they have stopped growing and learning. While others are growing, developing, and maturing, these people remain stagnant. They sometimes become obstacles instead of contributing to the health of the organization.

This is tragic.

It is not that these leaders make mistakes.

It is not that these leaders don’t know what to do.

It is not that these leaders are not smart enough.

What is tragic is that these people remain in their leadership roles long after they have stopped learning. When this happens, those who depend on their leadership are the ones who lose.

Does someone look to you for leadership? You may be a husband/wife or a father/mother. You may be a teacher or a supervisor. You may be a manager or the owner of a business. You may be a preacher, pastor, minister, elder, or any other kind of church leader. Do others look to you for direction, guidance, or encouragement?

Learn something today.

Get serious about your own learning and growth.

Trust that when you are learning, you are in turn encouraging others to continue to learn.


Ministry Inside.37

Do you seek wisdom? Christian leaders need to desire and seek wisdom. Now maybe that is obvious. Yet, some of the mistakes ministers make with their congregations often come down to poor judgment and a lack of wisdom. Not every issue is a matter of right or wrong, moral orimmoral. Quite often, Christian leaders need to ask, “Is this wise?”

Great resources! The Truett Media Library offers much. Guest preachers, lecturers, workshops, etc. These were all delivered at Truett Theological Seminary, Baylor University.

Do you read Tim Schraeder’s summaries? Most recently, Tim wrote summaries (in the form of bullet points) of some of the messages delivered at Catalyst West. For example, this particular summary by Eugene Peterson was very interesting to me.


Do you take advantage of learning moments? Here is a practice I find helpful. Four to five times a week, I work out at the gym. I typically listen to something on my iPod. Each week, I will download particular podcasts to listen to during the time that I am on the treadmill or another machine. For example, a week ago, I did a search in the iTunes store for any podcast available by Tom Long. I put those on my iPod for the week, along with others podcasts that I regularly subscribe to. The following week, I then listen to someone else.

One of the advantages of podcasts is the opportunity to listen to a variety of people and/or programs instead of simply listening to the same two or three people and not varying your input.

Church leaders have a tremendous resource that is available to them but unfortunately is ignored. The resource I have in mind is their capacity to be used by God to encourage each other. It is startling to hear ministers speak of rarely, if ever, being asked encouraging questions by elders in their congregations. Very often, elders do not encourage one another or their ministers.

I really liked a tweet I saw from @garyLthomas (Gary Thomas) yesterday regarding marriage. Gary wrote: “The opposite of love isn’t hate, it’s apathy. To love our spouses is to pursue them, not just avoid doing them harm.” The same is true regarding a minister and his relationship with a group of elders, or the congregation as a whole.

I have talked with a number of ministers whose elders are not doing them any harm. Yet, there is no “pursuit.” That is, there is no sense that this minister is really valued, as a person, by the group that he works most closely with. These relationships could be a source of energy and life. They can be energized by intentionally seeking to be a friend and encourager.

You might consider asking your preacher, pastor, elder, minister, etc. “How could I best encourage you in my relationship with you?”

Ministry Inside.29

Each Thursday I write a post (ok, most Thursdays) entitled “Ministry Inside.” This post is primarily written for those who are in various church ministry roles. Yet others might find these comments and resources helpful as well.coffeemagic1.jpg

You might enjoy reading my blog via your phone. You can do this directly through a browser (www.godhungry.org) or through the app “Godhungry” if you have an iPhone. To download this app onto your phone, go to the iTunes store and do a search for “Godhungry,” or you can get it through the App store on your phone.

Russell Davies has written a thoughtful post entitled “How to be interesting.” What caught my attention is a great list that he gives the reader. Many of his suggestions are good ways to be present and stay fully alive. Some of his suggestions will help us see, smell, and hear the world again. Far too many ministers and church leaders get into deep ruts and find it hard to do good thinking or to change worn-out practices.

Have you seen Andy Crouch’s list: “The Ten Most Significant Cultural Trends of the Last Decade? This list made me think!

Last night, Charlotte and I began a marriage conversation with seven couples. We have not done this before. We hope to reflect on our own marriage and our attempt to live as Christ-followers in the context of marriage. Part of the evening included telling part of the story of our marriage.

For a number of weeks, I have been reflecting on “game changers” in ministry. One game changer is:

Be a student of your church and your community. Be observant.

Ministry always takes place in the context of a community. That is, we served real people who live in real places. Ministers ought to be good students of the people and the places where they live. Far too often a minister will enter a church and make statements that the locals find odd or even insulting. With some people, to talk about the opening of deer season might seem very normal while among people, such a topic might sound very odd. To talk about this morning’s chai latte may seem very normal among other people, while such a comment might seem out of place to others. There is nothing wrong with being an individual, however, I don’t want to continually communicate to the people in our church, “I am not one of you.”

It might help to know the people in the context where we minister. A minister who makes no effort to get to know and to appreciate his community can quickly communicate to others that he doesn’t really value the place where he is living.

Read good blogs! Read Scot McKnight’s Jesus Creed. Read Michael Hyatt’s blog. Read my friend Allan Stanglin’s blog. Read Tim Spivey’s blog. (Just a sample of good blogs.)

I regularly skim through three print periodicals in which I am primarily looking at book reviews. The publications that I skim through regularly are The New York Times Review of Books, The New York Review of Books, and Books and Culture. I find this to be a very helpful practice that lets me keep up with themes that are being addressed again and again. In particular, Books and Culture has been a lifesaver in terms of being introduced to significant biblical and theological writers.

Ministry Inside.28

Each Thursday, I post some reflections especially with ministers and other church leaders in mind. If you are not in the ministry but are simply a person who serves God and serves people, I hope you, too, will take something from this post.

Each week, I am elaborating on some “game-changers” for ministers and other church leaders.

Game-changer #2 “Manage yourself. Don’t live in reaction to your past or to someone in your present setting.”


How do I function when I am managing myself?

  • Managing myself is the capacity to take a stand in an intense emotional system. This means that I am able to think and articulate my thoughts, my feelings, and even to take a stand when others seem to be very emotional and insist that I think like them.
  • Managing myself is saying “I” when others are saying “we.” It is the capacity to think and feel instead of allowing yourself to be swallowed up by your desire to be like and accepted.
  • Managing myself is to position myself so that I do not become a part of a church’s polarization. I learn to take stands while I maintain relationships with people in the various polarizing groups.
  • Managing myself is to become a non-anxious presence even when the congregation or various people are extremely anxious.
  • Managing myself is to take responsibility for my own behavior and my own emotions rather than blaming others or the church.

Bottom line, managing myself is choosing to behave maturely. It is refusing to get sucked into immature behaviors and ways of thinking.

Ministers must put a premium on staying connected with others while maintaining a strong sense of self.

This means that as a minister I need to avoid two extremes:

1. One extreme is to know what you believe to be important but then to only really value the relationships of those who see things your way. Consequently, great energy may be placed on investing in relationships with those in the congregation who agree with you while making little investment in relating to those who don’t really value what you are thinking or saying at this point in time. This happens again and again in churches that are polarized. Instead of ignoring these people, I need to look for opportunities to do anything to bless these relationships.

2. Another extreme is to lose your sense of self as you try to have the approval of everyone. The problem is that some ministers seek relationship by trying to be liked and to win the approval of others. They are willing to say or do whatever will make someone “happy.” They believe that something is wrong if someone is not happy with them. If someone puts pressure on them or expresses displeasure, they react to this anxiety by becoming anxious themselves. As a result of this practice, they eventually lose their sense of self and the church loses a valuable resource.

(This post was written after I skimmed through Edwin Friedman’s A Failure of Nerve. I read the first edition in 1999 when it was published and just purchased the 2007 edition, which is very nice.)


Which one of these extremes do you lean toward? How have you addressed this tendency in your own life and ministry?

Question: What Concerns You Most About Men Today?

This Sunday is Father’s Day.father-and-son.jpg

This is a time in which many men will be thinking about their own roles as fathers.

I am also thinking this week about what it means to be a man.

So let me raise this question: What concerns you most about men today?

For example, here are a few of my concerns:

1. Some men can not be counted on. They do not support their wives or their children. They avoid dealing with matters in their lives that really need their attention. They avoid, neglect, and dodge. Meanwhile, the various situations often just continue to deteriorate.

2. Some men say the right things but then seem to forget that reality is shaped not just by what they say but what they do. Some men talk but then rarely follow through.

3. Some men manipulate. They have learned how to get what they want but at any cost. They have gone through life manipulating women and men. Now, they manipulate their wives and children. For example, a man may want a new car. In fact, he might make the decision to buy that car. Yet, instead of just telling his wife this, he begins to manipulate her until she gives in. Then he tells everyone that they both thought this was best. “I found the car but she was the one who said, ‘Let’s get it!’ You know how she is when she makes up her mind.” Hmmm.

4. Some men recognize characteristics in their own fathers that they don’t want to repeat. However, some of these same men are so lacking in self-awareness that they continue to behave in other undesirable ways (often like their dads). For example, a man may say that he does not want to be self-absorbed like his dad even while he continues to impulsively spend money like his dad.

5. Some men have no passion for the things that matter most to Jesus. Consequently, a family may only see a man’s passion as it relates to his favorite football team, fishing, hunting, or some other interest. Meanwhile, this same man may almost yawn when opportunities surface that could make a real difference in someone’s life.

6. Some men are passive. They spend hour after hour sitting in their recliners watching television. They sit by passively and wait for their wives to take action with their children. They passively watch life go by not really investing in their marriages. They take no action and no initiative. Rather, they wait for someone else to make the first move. Do they ever show any passion? Sure. Just watch what happens when something gets in the way of being able to see the big game or their favorite program!

These are a few of my concerns. Yet, I could also tell you about some of the wonderful qualities of a number of men with whom I continue to be impressed. In fact, within the last few days, Charlotte and I have talked about several men (a variety of ages) who continue to impress us both. I think of men who take action, who want to make a real difference, and who stand up for their wives and children. I think of men who I know are trustworthy. They are loyal to their wives. I know men who have backbone and who will stand up for what is right. I could go on.

I am interested in hearing from you regarding this.


What concerns you as you observe some men?

WInning More Than a Game

Some athletes win more than a game.

I have been a sports fan for as long as I can remember. My favorite team sport is football.

Every fall, I follow my favorite teams. I watch the games on television. I keep track of the standings. I read the sports pages. At the end of the season, some teams will stand out because they won. (Usually, these are not my teams. :)) These teams will have won the big game. A college teams and a pro team will be designated as the best.

Yet, there are others who win. There are individuals who win the respect and the admiration of men and women across the nation because of their character. Coach Tony Dungy has made such a positive impact on people because of his character. His story can be read in his books, Quiet Strength and Uncommon: Finding Your Path to Significance. Hear him reflect on life in this video:

There are several college players who have recently encouraged many people through their character. I think of people like Heisman Trophy winner Tim Tebow (The University of Florida). Sam Bradford (The University of Oklahoma) and Colt McCoy (The University of Texas) are two positive examples. (See their “We are Second” video here.) I was impressed with Mark Ingram (The University of Alabama) and his humility as he accepted the Heisman Trophy. (See his Heisman speech here).

Just the other night, Alabama beat Texas in the BCS National Championship. Colt McCoy was injured in the opening moments of the game and did not play for the remainder of the game. Even though his team lost the game, McCoy continued to earn the respect of people across the nation as he shared these remarks:

No doubt, there are many, many other men and women athletes who could be listed in this post. I am grateful for these people who are visible before so many people and who represent good character.

They are winning more than a game.