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    Entries in Church Leadership (15)


    Book Review: Goggin and Strobel's The Way of the Dragon or the Way of the Lamb

    Power is a tricky subject. It always has been. Power presents great temptations. It is also unavoidable and necessary, can be used for good or ill, and is best understood as a kind of stewardship.

    Power does not always receive the degree of reflection it deserves among Christians. It is an acknowledged presence in congregational, community, and personal interactions but is not always carefully addressed. Christians long for power, and even possess power to a certain degree, but fear naming it. There is kind of confusion that reigns concerning a proper or healthy disposition toward power and how it can be used for good as well as a blindness to its more seductive properties. In naming power, we acknowledge the responsibilities that come with it, as well as the temptations that accompany it. Bringing power to the forefront of conversation exposes us one way or another as good or poor stewards. Perhaps there is fear for what such a conversation might reveal.

    Jamin Goggin and Kyle Strobel address power in their book The Way of the Dragon and the Way of the Lamb: Searching for Jesus’ Path of Power in a Church that Has Abandoned It. Far too often, Christian leaders look to the surrounding culture and for cues on power and its use. Goggin and Strobel apply pastoral wisdom and theological insight to the question of power while also inviting the reader to reject prevailing models and take up the way of Christ.

    Goggin and Strobel’s book unfolds as a travelogue. They travel from place to place and interview evangelical sages about power and report their findings, speaking with J. I. Packer, James Houston, Marva Dawn, Dallas Willard, Eugene Peterson, John Perkins, and Jean Vanier. In each of these conversations they weave together their insights about present models for church leadership and why they are problematic and then offer alternative ways of leading the church that bring proper honor and glory to Jesus Christ.

    Goggin and Strobel are right to critique present leadership structures in evangelical churches, which can be overly-susceptible to defining success in terms of attendance, buildings, and cash. When taking their cues on leadership from sources other than Christ, churches can become entrapped by over-reliance on charismatic leaders and resistant to those who serve humbly and faithfully as shepherds. Sadly, small churches can be labeled unhealthy or second-rate just because of their size, when in fact they are just as much a part of the body of Christ as other fellowships who faithfully proclaim the gospel and serve the kingdom. Goggin and Strobel also note that some pastors can also fail to acknowledge God’s call to serve smaller fellowships because of false notions about what constitutes success.

    Strobel and Goggin also address how churches have at times elevated toxic leaders, those who use leverage their ministries for personal empire building rather than as serving as shepherds of an outpost of the kingdom of God. This phenomenon is certainly not limited to evangelicalism. It turns out that churches are just as vulnerable to temptation, corruption, and malfunction as any other human institution. Churches consist of sinners being remade into saints, and as Eugene Peterson notes, they also have sinners for pastors.

    But churches are also home to God’s people and are communities where God’s grace continues to be at work. Goggin and Strobel offer a prophetic call: reject the way of the dragon, the way of worldly power and domination. But they also offer a gracious invitation: embrace the way of the lamb, the way of service and humility, the way of Jesus Christ.

    The way of Christ is the way of weakness, which involves vulnerability, meekness, and the willingness to put self aside. Churches do not grow in maturity through technique or manipulation, but by grace and gentleness. Leaders who have been enraptured by the way of Jesus will be like John the Baptist, but understood that he must become less and Christ must become greater (John 3:30). Goggin and Strobel bring theological and biblical insight to bear on the question of power, and highlight the significance of practices like the Lord’s Table, communion, and baptism as formative in the way of the lamb.

    This is a good book containing a needed challenge for Christianity in evangelical circles and in other denominational or networked forms. The first task of the church is not to rule but to serve. The Christian way of service will differ from all alternatives. It is not a way of rejecting power but instead of stewarding power. It is a way of focusing on others and foremost upon God rather than pursuing the glorification of the self or of a particular congregation. Goggin and Strobel provide a compelling vision.

    But the realization of that vision would require a tremendous work of grace, as I am certain Goggin and Strobel would concede. The prayer of the church then should be one of humility and availability for service, as well as of reliance and trust, that the God who has all power would make his power manifest in his people, and that his people would join alongside the heavenly court, laying down their crowns, and proclaiming that all power and glory and honor are the Lord’s forever (Revelation 4:1-11). There is an alternative approach to power, one which seek to exalt the Lord’s power and is conscious and aware of human limitation, weakness, sinfulness, and need of grace. A different pathway for church leadership and for Christian discipleship is possible. This book points toward a better way.


    Can Pastors Keep it Real and Lead Well? An Interview with Mandy Smith

    Church leaders are people. This means they possess both strengths and shortcomings. On some days, they fulfill their calling and serve really well. And then there are the days when everything falls apart. Eugene Peterson observed, “Every congregation is a congregation of sinners. As if that weren’t bad enough, they all have sinners for pastors.” Our pastors come with flaws.

    That is not always easy to remember. We compare one minister to another and often have selective memories. Our expectations differ from those of other congregants. We want our pastors to please everyone. Simultaneously our concerns are considered the foremost criteria by which we evaluate our ministers. The way in which pastors choose to lead becomes more complicated when we consider the scene beyond the local context: celebrity pastors, excellent podcasts, and en vogue models of leadership influence our understandings of success. Those models can be too narrow.

    The dominant and prevailing understandings of pastoral leadership are insufficient. That’s why we need other voices, not only for the sake of pastors trying to find their place but also for congregants. There is more than one way to be a healthy congregation, and more than one way to lead. It is hard to remember that sometimes.

    Mandy Smith serves as lead pastor of University Christian Church in Cincinnati, Ohio. She is author of The Vulnerable Pastor: How Human Limitations Empower Our Ministry (InterVarsity Press, 2015). Her book is a welcome addition to the broader conversation concerning church leadership. She is forthcoming about her experiences and provides an alternative way of understanding the pastoral task, which includes a profound reliance on God, an openness to the Spirit at work in the congregation and community, and what I’ll describe as holy patience with oneself as God works out his purposes within the life of the minister.

    I’ve read a number of church leadership books, and I found this one unique and valuable. Last week I corresponded with her, and asked a few questions about The Vulnerable Pastor.

    B: I really enjoyed The Vulnerable Pastor. What led you to write the book?

    Most of my writing grows from wishing someone else had written it for me. I’ve felt quite alone in figuring out how to lead and yet still be myself so if there’s any way I can be with someone else as they wrestle with similar questions, it’s my joy to do that. And although it’s risky to put my story out there, it’s worth it for the possibility that I may hear back from readers and find our stories are similar. Although writing can be a solitary task, I see it as one part of a larger conversation. I love that conversation.

    B: One of the commitments I found throughout your book was to the practice of prayer, either liturgically, congregationally, or through a cultivated posture of listening to God throughout your day, whether in conversation, study, or through your writing or art. How does prayer shape the work of a vulnerable pastor?

    If we claim to rely on him, it makes sense that we would engage with him. I have a tendency to claim to need God but then spend most of my time talking about him, planning to do stuff for him, troubleshooting in my own strength, fretting over things that are beyond me. So part of prayer is the words I say but a big part is just the choice to pray, turning from the way I act when I think it’s all up to me and choosing to take on the posture of prayer. The act itself of turning reminds me I’m not alone and it’s okay to ask for help. I need that reminder a lot. In prayer there is no shame in our human limitation.

    B: You spoke of prayer as a reminder that God is with us and responds to our petitions for help, and that prayer itself is a reminder of our limits. I can see how those reminders are helpful for the pastor. How do those reminders influence your relationships with your congregants?

    It’s amazing how the things that we think are so shameful and that we try so hard to hide from congregants often become moments of breakthrough when we let them be seen. As much as we think we serve folks by looking strong and competent, it only perpetuates the impression that we live an unattainable kind of holiness. As leaders we don’t want them to see our doubt, our family troubles, our bad days. But strangely enough, and although it’s always uncomfortable, when I’ve said “I have to be honest with you, I don’t have the answers” others have had a chance to offer ideas--or find grace that they also have questions. When I’ve said “I really am struggling today” others have seen faithfulness does not mean always feeling happy. Of course, there are unhealthy ways to rely on folks we’re supposed to be leading but many of our more human moments can be ways to show that we’re all following the Lord together. Then our role is no longer to be the one they rely on. Instead our role is to model reliance on God. In some ways leading by having it all together and looking strong is harder than modeling reliance on God. In some ways it’s easier.

    B: Your book is notable because of your willingness to shatter any existing delusions of pastoral invincibility and to reveal how human limitations and weaknesses are present in church leaders. How does this kind of vulnerability help the church become more faithful to the gospel, for pastors and congregants?

    If God is not limited by our brokenness, that’s truly good news! Whether it’s to help us live out our call or help us in our parenting or save us from sin, it all feels like the Gospel to me! The world teaches us it’s shameful when we need to rest, get old or sick or can’t fix things or don’t understand. But God is not surprised that we’re human and longs to be shown to us and through us as humans. When we come to terms with the limitations and opportunities in the human nature he gave us, we’re more able to fill our role and let him fill His. And we have a greater appreciation of the work of God-as-human (Jesus) and of God-in-humans (the Spirit).

    B: In the latter half of your book you explore how vulnerability informs your teaching and preaching, and examine the relationship between teaching and the overall process of spiritual formation within the Christian community. What do you mean by “process,” and how does your emphasis on process help those in your congregation grow as disciples of Jesus Christ?

    In the western world we’re all about product. Productivity has become sacred. On the other hand, in any creative endeavor (including partnering with God in his recreation of ourselves and this world), the process is significant. How we get there can’t be distinguished from where we’re going. I’ve found that there’s a lot of pressure to arrive--to have all the answers, to be all we should be. But there’s peace to be found in submitting to the humbling process of learning a little at a time. It’s a grace actually--as much as we want it all now, our hearts and minds could not take in the fullness of the goodness and beauty of God all at once! The emphasis on process allows folks in our congregation to set aside the anxious work of creating their own personal brand. Embracing the process gives them grace to trust that whatever God is doing in them is a partnership--a listening and responding to the work of the Spirit. The pressure to arrive gets in the way of the journey and once we’re released from it, we are free to enjoy the unfolding of where God leads us, day by day, together.

    B: Lastly, what words of wisdom would you offer to those actively discerning a call to serve in pastoral ministry/church leadership? And, since I am married to a woman in ministry, do you have any words of wisdom or encouragement specifically for women?

    As we’re discerning a call, we often look at what skills, personality, passions we have and compare it to other people we’ve seen in leadership. But the models of Christian leadership have been very narrow in recent years. We need men and extroverts and management-oriented folks and we also need women and introverts and artists and folks who often feel like outsiders in the church. So my advice to those discerning that call would be: look not only to contemporary spiritual leaders but also to the many models of leaders in scripture--most of whom had good reason to not feel capable (they were too old, too young, too different, not educated etc) and yet were used powerfully by God. There’s supposed to be a moment when something amazing happens and people say “Hmm, that person is not capable of what we just saw. There must be a greater power at work here!” The question is, are we willing to let our limitation be seen so his power can be obvious?

    On the question about women: The world’s way of thinking about our role as women often has to do with our rights. Which, of course, is not the way of the Lord. For a long time I thought in terms of “The church has to give women a chance! It’s our turn!” but the more I learn about this moment in the history of the Western church, the more I say “The church desperately needs what women bring!” As women entering ministry we’re often painfully aware how different we are from leadership norms and can feel like second-class citizens. But the natural skills women often have (don’t want to speak in stereotypes here) which the world sees as weak or unimportant--warmth, collaborative skills, listening, empathy, flexibility, patience, humility, community building, hospitality, openness to difference--are exactly what God wants to use to lead the church through its current identity crisis. The more I read scripture, the more I see the depth of God’s heart, the more I see the power of a woman’s emotional and spiritual energy to express that heart to the world.

    Many thanks to Mandy for joining me and answering my questions. The Vulnerable Pastor is available at Amazon.


    Taking Stock of a Culture

    In Daring Greatly, Brene' Brown offers ten questions useful for assessing a company culture:

    1. What behaviors are rewarded? Punished?
    2. Where and how are people actually spending their resources (time, money, attention)?
    3. What rules and expectations are followed, enforced, and ignored?
    4. Do people feel safe and supported talking about how they feel and asking for what they need?
    5. What are the sacred cows? Who is most likely to trip them? Who stands the cows back up?
    6. What stories are legend and what values do they convey?
    7. What happens when someone fails, disappoints, or makes a mistake?
    8. How is vulnerability (uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure) perceived?
    9. How prevalent are shame and blame and how are they showing up?
    10. What’s the collective tolerance for discomfort? Is the discomfort of learning, trying new things, and giving and receiving feedback normalized, or is there a high premium put on comfort (and how does that look)?

    I came across this list while reading Mandy Smith's The Vulnerable Pastor. I share them because I have friends in church leadership, though they can be applied more broadly. If you are part of a workplace, a family, or a fan base, you are part of a culture. Cultures can be healthy and yield flourishing. They can also be unhealthy, and harmful.

    When cultures are healthy, it is helpful to ask why. What principles, practices, and patterns contribute to the overall well-being of those who are part of the family, workplace, or congregation of which you are a part? What can you chronicle, capsule, communicate, and continue going forward?

    When cultures are unhealthy, people are often afraid to ask why. Facing reality would require facing the truth about oneself and the collective, which is always difficult. When an unhealthy situation is acknowledged, responsibility is assumed. When a problem is identified, resolution should follow. Confession and repentance are for more than private devotions: they are communal practices that can lead to reconciliation, renewal and revival.

    Take a look at these questions. If there is a culture that you want to be good, assess it. Gather with others who likewise would like others to flourish through participation in your shared life.

    Then get to work.


    Leading and New Decisions

    photo credit: ostateczna pozbywka pozbywki via photopin (license)

    Whether you are leading a family, business, congregation, or running club, you have experienced differences of opinion. You believe the future should look one way. Someone else prefers a different option. Then, you find yourself stuck.

    Seth Godin offers this thought: you won't convince the other person they are wrong. What's the alternative? Godin writes: "Help someone make a new decision, based on new alternatives and a new story."

    In congregational leadership, there might be a disagreement on music style. Instead of debating the merits of a particular form, why not ask, "How can we best connect with people in our community who do not have a church home, or who do not know Jesus?" Rather than telling a story concerning personal preferences (which should be respected), you're telling a story of humble service to others, so that they can hear the gospel.

    If your congregation experiences visitors each weekend in worship but you remain flat concerning average attendance, rather than saying, "It was great that we had visitors this weekend," ask, "What would it take for us to increase the number of second time visitors?" People visiting, versus people returning and growing in faith as part of the community, are two different stories.

    Rather than bemoaning young people leaving Christianity and disengaging from congregational life, ask "What would it take for us to have young people engaged in worship, taking steps as disciples of Jesus, and sharing the gospel with their friends?" Passing on the faith to another generation is a story everyone can engage with, even if they disagree concerning how to accomplish that goal. The important thing is to define what success looks like, and to celebrate when you achieve your aim.

    The challenge rests in discerning the future God has for you, and acting in accordance with God's will. This includes defining they key decisions, the alternatives, and the arc of the story you are convinced God is calling you to enter.


    Conversation, and the Healthy Church

    I believe that teams that are willing to have open conversations about the most pressing challenges before the church today will have a lasting impact. In the future, the churches that grow will be the churches whose leaders courageously hold the most honest conversations and then take action.

    - Carey Nieuwhof, Lasting Impact: 7 Powerful Conversation That Will Help Your Church Grow

    Most people, in every church I have been a part of, desire that their church be healthy.

    And one aspect of church health is growth.

    Growth can be measured in different ways.

    The missing element in churches that are not healthy beyond vision (health) and intention (commitment) is the means (conversation).

    I read a variety of books. I read academic theology and biblical studies. I also read popular theological works and even church leadership books. I have a tendency to be suspicious of growth techniques and plug and play ministry programs.

    But I am deeply confident in the Holy Spirit, and the possibilities that can emerge when those people who are mature and wise in Christ come together and are open to God's will and direction.

    My congregation is in a season of transition. There are good signs. Everything is not perfect. But the possibilities are many, and the avenue toward becoming a healthier congregation is conversation among the right leaders, with the right degree of urgency, and a full dependence on the grace of God.

    I pray that we would have the courage to speak the truth to one another in love, the wisdom to discern the will of God, and the strength to do the will of God, as it becomes clear to us.