A number of years ago, I spent three days and two nights at “The Quiet House.” This is a retreat cottage hidden away in the Texas Hill Country on the Laity Lodge property. This little cottage is secluded. It is surrounded by live oaks, cedar trees, and deer that come and go.
I went there thinking it would be great to spend time alone in a place that is undisturbed. After all, there are no neighbors or cars nearby. No television, radio, wifi, e-mail, or texting. My phone hardly got a signal.
I spent much of my time reading, hiking, and writing in my journal. While I was there I read a moving book about a father/son relationship.
Yet, it was difficult. The first two days were especially challenging. It was hard to be quiet. It was difficult to be surrounded by quiet.
In January of this year (2014), I began working as Vice President of Harding School of Theology in Memphis, Tn. This was quite a change after 36 years of congregational ministry. For most of those years I worked with churches in Florence, Ala., Kansas City, Mo., and most recently in Waco, Tx. The change in ministry has been both invigorating and exhausting. Transition is difficult no matter how good the transition is. However, it can also be a time of renewed energy. You might be interested in the following: After all these years, why did you transition from congregational ministry to serving in this school? I received the invitation to serve in this role at Harding School of Theology. What excited me most about this opportunity was the possibility of making a real difference in churches as well as cities/towns where graduates would serve. Men and women who study at HST can really make a significant kingdom difference regardless of their vocation. These people are not at HST for academic study alone but are also being shaped and formed as Christ-followers.
I was two years old when this picture was taken. My parents had just moved to Dallas from Little Rock.
Of course, I don’t remember this moment. Nevertheless, this picture means a lot to me. At that moment my parents were a young couple who had moved to a big city with their two year old. Little did they know of the twists and turns their lives would take. Nor could they have imagined what life would be like for their toddler.
Years later, a variety of experiences would shape and form my life and forever impact me.
I would enter kindergarten. Mrs. Rich was my teacher. I would come away from that experience with good memories.
Just a few years later, I would have a brother and sister. I would live with my family of origin, go to college and then eventually leave and marry.
I would have moments of joy and also moments when I felt utterly defeated.
I would learn the story of God’s love. I would be baptized. I would continue to grow in my faith as a part of a church community.
Years later, I would marry Charlotte and we would have two children, Christine and Jamie. We would spend much of our lives in Alabama, Missouri, and Texas.
Now, here we are with two grandchildren, two sons-in-law, and many great memories of the places where we have lived.
I never would have dreamed, even a few years ago, that we would live in Memphis and that I would be working with Harding School of Theology.
Why mention this?
I want to suggest a way of learning that I have practiced for many years.
For the last 35 years, I have learned from a variety of people by simply asking questions. These are questions that I have thought about in advance. My goal is to glean something helpful from these individuals. What I wish to learn shapes the questions that are asked.
Typically, I will ask a person to coffee, lunch, or simply spend some time at that person’s office. We meet for an hour or less.
1. I interviewed the mayors of several of the communities where we lived in order to learn about the area. I simply asked these leaders for the opportunity to learn from them.
2. I have interviewed many, many preachers. I asked questions about ministry and preaching, as well as for guidance in experiencing a long term ministry. These conversations also included questions about spiritual formation, dealing with conflict, and overcoming discouragement.
3. I have interviewed business people. From these individuals I have learned much about personal organization, time management, and developing a process for getting things done.
4. I have interviewed husbands to learn about marriage. I have interviewed fathers to learn how to be a better father.
5. Finally, I have interviewed coaches, teachers, professors, and others to gain understanding about various aspects of work and life with the goal of personal growth.
Beware of counterfeit ministry!
1. A church leader can become more concerned about image than reality. This church leader will spend much time and energy projecting a particular persona while the reality of this person’s life is elsewhere. In every generation, there is a temptation to want to appear cool, relevant, successful, sought after, important, etc. (Some words will resonate better than others. Nevertheless, the same principle is at work.) Unfortunately, that same person may be settling for a superficial spirituality instead of rigorous discipleship.
2. A church leader can speak one way in public settings while speaking very differently in private. Years ago, a woman shared with me her disappointment in a preacher who spoke warm words about a former elder at a church banquet. That same evening, he privately mocked and made fun of the same man he had honored in the public setting.
Some church leaders really connect with the people who make up the congregations they serve. Others have great difficulty. The following are a few suggestions that might help you connect. Perhaps one or more of these will be helpful.
1. Listen to people. Listen to a wide variety of people in your congregation. Too many church leaders seem to listen primarily to their critics while others seem to only listen to kindred spirits. Again, listen to people across the spectrum in your congregation.
2. Ask good questions. Give some thought as to the questions you might ask people in your congregation. Having specific questions in mind can help prevent an awkward silence when you don’t know what to say. It can also keep you focused on having an exchange with someone instead of dominating the conversation.
3. Reflect on what it might be like to experience another’s circumstance. For example, consider what it might be like to experience situations such as these:
*What’s it like to be divorced?
*What’s it like to be depressed?
*What’s it like to lose your job?
“What’s it like to have cancer?
*What’s it like to have lost a child?
*What’s it like to learn of your spouse’s affair?
*What’s it like to be secretively in debt due to gambling?
*What’s it like to be gripped by pornography?
Pondering such situations might flavor your remarks in sermons and classes. Such reflection might also help a church leader reconsider telling a particular joke or making flippant comment.
4. Don’t tell inside jokes. A speaker will make a remark in a presentation. Then he says, “That’s an inside joke.” A few people laugh while everyone else is baffled by the remark. This practice can leave other people feeling as if they are on the outside looking in.
5. Pay attention to the edges. Years ago, a woman gave me some very good advice regarding connecting with people who were on the edges of our congregational life. After a Sunday morning assembly, she asked me if I had met a couple who had been visiting our church. I had not. She said, “You are going to have to try harder. These are not people who are going to come to you.” She was right. I needed to be more intentional in connecting with people who were on the edges.
My friend told me many years ago, “If you are going to last, you can’t keep working like this.”
I was a young preacher. I had just told my new friend some details about my typical work week. I had no sense of boundaries or priorities. Consequently, my days were typically spent with far too much activity and too little reflection on the value of these activities.
My friend had served congregations for many years. He was ten years older than me and had given much thought about his use of time in his own ministry.
Consequently, I made some changes in the way I used my time in my work. I also learned much about the way I had been using my time.
Perhaps you will find these helpful.
1. Every “yes” is a “no” to something else. Some people say “yes” to almost every request they receive. Yet time is a limited resource. Consequently, I can be busy fulfilling the requests of a few people, while I ignore the message preparation that will impact hundreds of people on Sunday morning. I learned to think through the implications of saying “yes” to far too many requests.
I love to laugh.
A funny story can be told in a sermon, class, elder’s meeting, or in a small gathering of friends. It is particularly enjoyable to laugh with friends. Laughter can often draw us together.
Laughter, used in the wrong way, can also be deadly. Someone’s laughter can be embarrassing or even humiliating. A public speaker or a person in a small gathering can actually use laughter as a weapon.
Beware when humor is used in the following ways.
1. Beware of humor that causes another to feel embarrassed, exposed, or shamed. This can happen when certain people share stories about another’s humiliating moment. Yes, everyone laughs. However, more than once I have suspected that the person about whom the story was being told was dying inside. Do I really need to tell these kinds of stories?
2. Beware of humor in which you find yourself telling or laughing about another’s misfortune. A joke about their son’s arrest? A joke about a wife’s unfaithfulness? A joke about someone’s bankruptcy?
3. Beware of humor in which you intentionally tell a story that exposes the private moments of your spouse or children. Your spouse and children ought to be able to relax and live in your home without fear that you are going to trot out their latest mistake in a sermon. Far better for one to tell about his own mistakes and his own blunders than those of family members.
Who do you intend to be? Will you finish well?
I recently read Walter Wright’s most recent book The Third Third of Life: Preparing for Your Future. Wright is the former President of Regent College in Vancouver. Wright suggest that one’s life can be divided into thirds.
“I like to think of life in thirds. The first third (one to thirty) we spend in incubation, education, preparation, exploring identity and purpose, intimacy, and relationships. The second third (thirty to sixty) is dominated by family and work: we define our core relationships and commit to a career path. The third third (sixty to ninety) encounters the unexplored terrain of life after the working career.” (p 9)
The book explores the “third third” of life. You may not be there yet. Before you stop reading, however, you might note this paragraph:
“Planning for the third third of life draws heavily on the first two thirds. Who we have become is the result of a lifetime of learning, work, and relationships. Who we will be is a choice that builds on this foundation. Preparing for the future is not a uniquely third third concern. It is an agenda for life.” (p. 114)
Given these realities, who do you intend to be? Will you finish well?
Every Thursday, I write this post particularly for church leaders. As church leaders, we strive to lead holy and transparent lives. Yet, some of us do not address certain issues or problems in our lives that may be so apparent to those who know us best.
Remember the first couple, Adam and Eve.
Perhaps you also remember that God once asked them a question. In fact, this is the first time on record of God asking a human being a question.
Where are you?
After all, they were hiding. They were frightened. They did not want him to find them. They had eaten from the forbidden tree. Now God is in the garden and they are hiding. Eventually, they will have a conversation with him and begin blaming others for what they did.
Where are you?
This is still a very important question.
Some of us may hide. We are doing fine. Everything is wonderful.
Some of us may blame. I know this isn’t right, but after what he did . . .
Some of us may become fearful. What will people think if they see that I am inadequate and that I become anxious at times?
Some of us may deny that anything is wrong. I don’t really have a struggle with temptation or sin. I’m no worse than some of the other church leaders I know.
As church leaders, we need to receive this question and let it penetrate our hearts. The evil one has helped to slowly destroy many church leaders who did not take this question seriously. Nothing may be more important than to be honest and humble before the Lord.