The Month that Has Been a Lifesaver! (A 16-Year Practice)

Time

Sixteen years ago, my family and I moved to Waco, Texas, to begin working with the Crestview church. Our children were young and were fascinated by the notion of moving. I still remember their glee when we flew into the Waco airport and were greeted by some members of what would become our new church. These people did so much to help us feel welcome. They sent us notes and cards, invited us into their homes for meals, and were very kind to our two little girls.

Yet, in spite of those kind gestures, it would be a hard move. Our prior church situation had been very, very difficult. In fact, after almost three years there, I began to wonder if I wanted to remain in “full-time ministry” any longer. I was burned out — completely. In fact, it was with some hesitation that I agreed to come work with the church in Waco. I was hesitant to trust again and experience deep disappointment all over again.

However, what happened in those early discussions regarding the possibility of our move has turned out to be highly significant to my staying there for sixteen years of ministry.

From the beginning, we (the elders of this church and I) agreed that I would be away each July. Two of these weeks are vacation. They really are vacation. I don’t do e-mail, Twitter, Facebook, etc. The remaining two weeks in July would be for study. These two weeks would be a time to prepare for messages for the following year. It would be a time to read and think without the pressure of everyday ministry responsibilities.

So for sixteen years, I have been away each July. When I return, I usually feel rejuvenated and refreshed, with new energy and perspective. I really believe the primary reason for my being at this church for that many years has been the opportunity to check out each July.

What do I do during those two weeks? I have done a variety of things. For several years, I have gone to Regent College in Vancouver, B.C. There, I am in a different culture, hearing different concerns, and have the opportunity to listen to good lectures. One year I spent the week in Memphis while another year, I spent part of a week in Birmingham. Some years, I have read heavily, covering a variety of issues. Other years I have focused on one topic or issue. Some years, I have spent much time in libraries. Other years, I did not ever enter a library.

One year I simply focused on what I was hearing from people around me. I spent lots of time in Starbucks and various other coffee shops. I made notes of most every conversation that I participated in or that I overheard. I browsed through magazines, newspapers, etc. looking for common themes and threads. During that time, I was also in the middle of preparation for a new message series on Sunday mornings. So what I heard from others connected with the preparation of these messages.

In a few days, I will return to work after another July. I remain thankful to this church that provides this opportunity for me each year. I only wish that more and more of my friends who are in a similar role had such an arrangement with their churches. I think these churches would quickly see that they are making a wise, long-term investment in their minister that benefits the congregation greatly.

(I wrote this after reading a fine post by my friend, Tim Spivey, regarding a similar rhythm that he has in his life. Please read his post here.)

Questions

Have you ever experienced anything close to burnout? What practices or habits have you built into your life that have helped to energize and provide renewal?

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Five Steps to Take in Moving Ahead

Every August, I start over. I begin again.

Charlotte and I have lived in Waco, Texas, for sixteen years this August. During this time, I have worked with one church. My role with this church includes aspects of preaching/teaching, leadership, and care for these people both in this church and outside the church. Each summer, I think and pray about my ministry here in these roles. I think about and plan my preaching/teaching for the next ten months.

For sixteen years, I have been away each July. Two weeks are vacation. Two weeks are spent in study and preparation for the next school year. I usually come back refreshed and ready to go to work. The preparation for this new year actually begins before I leave in July. Typically, I begin working toward this in May.

The following are five steps that I take during the summer to get ready for the fall:

1. Think about what is next in terms of preaching/teaching.

Each summer, I decide on a major series, theme, or text to use the following year. The most difficult decision is deciding upon a text. Generally, I will spend a significant time over the next year in one book of the Bible. This is not necessarily one long series. In fact, it may turn out to be several shorter series.

What goes into this decision? Much prayer over a period of months. I talk with people in our church. I observe the morale and thinking of people in our church. I make no decision based upon one conversation or any one person’s input. Rather, it comes after months of pondering this.  

2. Think about what is next in terms of our overall ministry as a church.

During the summer, I think about what is next for us as a church. Where does God seem to be leading us? What doors are open? What could this church and this ministry look like in several years? This is a time to think, pray, and dream about our future possibilities as a church.

3. Gather and sift through possible resources.

I typically begin collecting resources in May. For example, this next year, I plan to spend some time with our church on 2 Corinthians. Much of this book has to do with the nature of authentic ministry. So, I have been gathering for the last few weeks. I have gathered key commentaries, a number of articles, and some other resources. Lately, I have corresponded with several people, asking them to suggest key resources on this book. I am not looking for a large quantity of resources but rather the best quality resources that might be helpful in preaching/teaching. This week, for example, I have been listening to a podcast of several special lectures on 2 Corinthians. This is early preparation and it takes time.

4. Saturate.

Thirty minutes ago, I read the entire book of 2 Corinthians. I will do this again and again for the next few months. I will read through the book using different English translations. I will also read through the book paying attention to the original language. At some point, I will read through the book underlining key words and phrases. There is no substitute for simply reading and saturating oneself with Scripture.

As I read through the book, I think about the message and possible applications. I think about both my own life and the life of the church.

In addition to the preaching/teaching preparation that I am describing here, I will usually read a couple of books, which helps me think about our church and our ministry here. There are some books that help me look forward. I have been amazed through the years, at some of the books that trigger my thinking, dreaming, etc.

This might be a good moment to mention that I am careful to write down my thoughts, feelings, insights, quotes, etc. from this time period. I am particularly conscious about doing this in July. Whether I think something has any practical relevance or not, I write it down. For example, I might see a commercial on television or read an interesting quote. I write it down if it triggers a thought.

5. Map it out.

By the end of July, I will have spent much time with this material. I intend to have a longer series mapped out and several shorter series mapped out as well. When I go back to my office on August 1, I want to have these plotted on a calendar. Then, I will put a manila folder with the title of each series in my desk so that I can begin collecting ideas, stories, and possibilities throughout the year (or until it is time to begin that series).

Perhaps some of you will find this interesting. Some may even find it useful.

What do you do as you think, plan, and dream about the year to come? Has any practice been particularly helpful?

When Leaders Run By Themselves

leadership.jpgMy daughter Jamie ran track her first few years of high school.  On one occasion, she had a track meet at a nearby school.  At most track meets, I generally stood
against the fence around the track waiting for my daughter’s race.  This day would be no different.  I stood by the fence ready to watch the next race.  

The
time came for the 100-meter, varsity boys’ race.  The guys who ran this race were generally very fast.  The runners got in
their respective lanes.  The starter raised his hand with the pistol in
the air.  "On your mark, get set, go!"  One young man apparently jumped
too soon.  As soon as the gun fired, the starter then quickly fired
again — the signal for a false start.  When that happens, all of the
runners are supposed to stop and go back to their starting positions.

All
of them did return — except for one young runner in a maroon uniform.  He
continued running
.  I cringed with embarrassment for him.  I heard someone
say, "Oh no, he’s still running! How embarrassing!"  He ran by himself
the entire race, not realizing that he was the only one running.

Finally he raised his arms as he crossed the finish line, thinking that
he had won the race. He then turned around only to realize that no one
else had been running with him.  I can’t imagine how he must have felt.  The stands were full
of people.  About fourteen or fifteen schools were present at the meet that day.  Many people watched this kid run the race by himself.

Has this ever been you?  Do you, as a leader, ever feel like you are alone in your
race?  Life is a lifelong marathon.  The
goal is not speed but endurance.  We just want to finish and finish strong.  Yet, it
is awfully difficult to do this by yourself. 

Leadership can be a very lonely role.  Yet, sometimes, the issue may be more than loneliness.  We may have jumped the gun and so we find ourselves running — alone.  While leadership involves the individual and his or her commitments, values, and passions, it is more than a task to be done alone.  Leadership requires others.  Leading is more than being aware of where others are in the process.  It could be that you have jumped the gun, not realizing that others are not with you.

Leadership is more than telling people which way to go.  It is more than announcing, persuading, or even preaching to them.  Leadership involves working with people and bringing them along.  Leadership is influencing people for something good, honorable, and worthy.

As leaders, we want to finish and finish strong.  We lead because we believe the cause is great and the goal is worthy.  However, we were never meant to run by ourselves.  Life is
tough — at times leadership is extremely tough.  How encouraging it is to know
that you are not running alone.

 

And so …

1.  Leadership is not about being a "Lone Ranger."  To lead is not to run the race by yourself while others watch.

2.  Leadership is about working with people to move toward something that is good, honorable, and worthy.

 

Questions

What do you think?  Who are some of the best leaders you have known?  What made them good leaders?

 

(Be sure to read the two excellent articles by Michael Hyatt, "Leadership 2.0" and "Eight Things Leaders Can Learn from Symphony Conductors.")

Getting Back to the Center (3)

Yesterday, I spend a great day at the "Summit" in Abilene.  (Formerly known as the "ACU Bible Lectures")  I will be in Abilene through much of the day and will return to Waco later this afternoon.  Yesterday I went to several very good classes (including one taught by long time friend and blogger Bobby Valentine) and visited with a number of people throughout the day.  It is a great time of for reconnecting with a lot of people.

 

I recently read a great book by Ruth Haley Barton entitled Strengthening the Soul of Your Leadership.  (Parts one and two.)  Early on in the book,  Barton speaks of the value of silence and solitude for one who would lead.  One value of solitude, according to Barton, is "…that solitude is the place of our own conversion."

"…In solitude we stop believing our own press.  We discover that we are not as good as we thought but we are also more than we thought.  As we slowly come in contact with our own dysfunctions, we unveil our need for security and all the ways we try to use God and others to get it.  We are alarmed to discover that when the shepherd is starving, he or she may start devouring the sheep!"  (p. 51)

What is it that may be revealed in solitude?

 

  • Our fears.  Fears of loneliness and abandonment.  Fears of really loving and allowing our self to be loved by others.  I have known some people who were fearful of people who seemed more gifted, more talented, and more visible.
  • Our competitiveness.  Have you known people like this?  They seem to forever be in competition with their peers and so never quite allow themselves to experience real friendship.
  • Our jealousies.  Have you known others who seethe with jealousy when good things are happening to others?   
  • Our rage.  Have you known very, very angry church leaders?  Have you known people who experience no joy in their lives or ministries? 
  • Our manipulations.  This person has a way of relating to people that is manipulative.  For example, this is the person who fears confrontation so he or she stirs up a few people so that they will confront while he waits in the background watching it all unfold. 

 

Do you relate to any of these?  Have you observed them in others?  Have you experienced in solitude an awareness of what was really going on in your life?

Getting Back to the Center (Part 1)

barton.jpgThis week, I have posted very little as I am transitioning from a PC to a Mac.  For about three days this week, I have not had access to either my new or the old computer.  Anyway, the transition phase of this is almost over.  Thanks for your patience.

 
In the meantime, several people in the comments  to a recent post (Ricky and Kristin), asked me to post further regarding living out of the center.  (These are comments in regard to the post "Question: What are the Warning Signs?")

 
At the same time, I have been reading a very fine book this week, Strengthening the Soul of Your Leadership by Ruth Haley Barton.  This is a very fine book which addresses this issue.  While the book specifically addresses Christian leaders and the importance of living out of the center, its message is applicable to all Christ-followers.  So I think I will respond to these comments by referring to Barton’s book.  Perhaps this will be helpful.   

I will post more on this next week.  For now, I want to begin with a few quotes from Barton’s opening chapter, "When Leaders Lost Their Souls" (or anyone else for that matter):
 

…What would it look like for me to lead more consistently from my soul–the place of my own encounter with God–rather than leading primarily from my head, my unbridled activism, or my performance-oriented drivenness?  What would it be like to find God in the context of my leadership rather than miss God in the context of my leadership? (p. 25)

 
…The only way to begin facing these challenges is to keeping seeking tenaciously after God through spiritual disciplines that keep us grounded in the presence of God in the center of our being.  Solitude and silence in particular enable us to experience a place of authenticity within and to invite God to meet us there.  In solitude we are rescued from human striving to solve the challenges of ministry through intellectual achievements and hard work, so that we can experience the life of the Spirit guiding toward that true way that lies between one polarity and another.  In silence we give up control and allow God to be God in our life rather than being a thought i our head or an illustration in a sermon…. (pp. 28-29)

 
…those who are looking to us for spiritual sustenance need us first and foremost to be spiritual seekers ourselves.  (p. 29) 

 
the most important thing I can do as a leader today is to keep seeking God in depths of my own soul–no matter what it costs.  (p. 30) 

Living out of the center is critical, not only for Christian leaders but for all of us who attempt to follow Christ as we live as a husband or wife or father or mother.  If we live out of the center, where the presence of God is, we will approach our work or academic pursuits very differently.  We will live as a people who understand that we have a calling instead of living as a people who are desperately trying to fill the emptiness of our lives.

 
Perhaps the place to begin, as Barton suggests, is continuing to seek God in the depths of my soul–no matter what it costs.

 
Why is it that some Christian leaders seem to completely ignore the condition of their own souls?   Have you experienced this either yourself or in others whom you have observed?

What Would Jesus Say? (Part 2)

puzzle.jpgWhat would Jesus say?  I asked that question the other day regarding the church (see part 1).  What might he say to a congregation of Christians on a Sunday morning?  (I was thinking about the specific congregation of Christians that I am a part of.)  

 
Now I wonder, what might Jesus say to the leadership of that church?  What might he say to those in our congregation who have leadership roles?  (You might think about your own church here.)

 
Suppose he were to meet with our key leaders.  Perhaps he is going to sit in on a regularly scheduled meeting.  He has requested that we go on with our agenda for the meeting.
 

  • What might he think about the subject matter of this meeting?  What might he think about the overall discussion that took place in that meeting?
  • Would he hear anything about the mission or the kingdom? 
  • Would he see leaders who are broken hearted about the conditions of people, families, children in their city? 
  • As these leaders talk, what do you suppose might thrill Jesus?  What might sadden him?
  • What might Jesus say to this group?  Would we feel encouraged, saddened, or embarrassed?
  • What would he think about the way we talk about the community and the church?  What would he think about the way we talk to one another within the group?  Would he sense the love that we have for one another? 

As I think about these questions, I am trying to not distance myself from this group.  Rather, I picture myself being there and experiencing this, together with the others.

 
What might Jesus say?

On Being a Jesus People — Together

coffee36.jpgAre you a part of a Christian group?  Are you married?  Do you have children?  Do you work with a team of ministers?  Are you a part of a group of elders?  Are you in a leadership role in which you work with others who are also in leadership roles?  Are you a part of a small group ministry?

 
One of the most important questions we can ask is: "How are we functioning as a group?"  We may be great individuals, but how do we function as a team?  How do we function as a group?  A husband and wife may be great individuals but they might ask themselves how they function as a couple?  I have known many church leaders who were great people individually but did not function well as a part of a group.

 
Now I am not thinking about effectiveness.  Yes, there is a time to reflect upon how effective the group is in doing its task, carrying out its function, etc.   Rather, I want to reflect on how we are doing as Jesus-followers.  As a group, are we becoming more Jesus-like as we function together?

 
As a married person, not only am I called to be a Jesus-like man or woman but I am called to function together with my spouse in a Jesus-like manner also.  Together we are to grow in Jesus-likeness.

 
As a Christian leader, not only am I to be a person who is committed to serving in this capacity but I ought to be committed to function, along with the others, in a manner that is Jesus-like also.  Do we function in a manner so that Jesus is obviously the center of our group and not just our individual lives?

 
As a member of a small group in our church  (I am thinking small group ministry) not only am I to desire that we function well as a small group, but I also need to desire that this be a group that is growing in Jesus-likeness together.

 
The following are three challenges for those of us who work with other believers in these groups (again, this includes marriage and family):
 

  • Let us move from “I” to “we.”  Self-preoccupation has a way of pushing aside any sort of real growth toward the one who called us to deny self.
  • Let us consider that not only have we been called to
    be Jesus-like (individually) but we are called to have a
    Jesus-like
    manner about us as we function as a
    group
    (or couple if thinking about marriage).
  • Let us realize that our presence and authenticity as Jesus-followers with one another, as a part of the church, must be prior
    to anything we might do or say to the church as a whole.
     
    Far too often, ministers/church leaders are all too ready to want to do or say something to the church when in fact they are failing in the way they treat one another in their leadership group.  (Again, if you are thinking about marriage/family, this means that husbands/wives must  address their own Jesus-likeness as a priority and live out of that authenticity.)

What can a group do that might help keep this in focus as they function together?  What can a married couple do?