Leaders, Followers, Titles, and Giftings

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Howard Hendricks was one of my professors at Dallas Theological Seminary. He was an absolute master in the classroom, modeling excellence in teaching, care for the student, and the highest caliber of skill in communication. It was a gift to watch him lead. Prof. Hendricks’ son, Bill Hendricks, was interviewed and asked, “How do you define ‘leadership,’ and how did your Dad model that?” He answered:

I always think back to the simplest definition of leadership I’ve heard, which I learned from Dad’s friend Fred Smith, Sr. He said, “Followers—that is what leadership is all about. If people are not following you, you are not a leader. You may have the title, but that’s all.”i I look back at my dad’s life and work, and I see that the man absolutely loved teaching; that’s an understatement, actually. He’d say, “I love to teach; I live to teach. I’d teach whether or not they paid me to teach (but don’t tell the seminary that!).” In pursuing the craft of teaching, Dad learned a lot about leadership. He read all the books, met with leaders, and had conversations about leadership everywhere he went. From that perspective, he was obviously an expert in leadership. But he didn’t aspire to the title of “leader.” He didn’t create an organization, manage employees, or intentionally train a successor. Instead, he was a great communicator who happened to focus on leadership. 

I do not agree that having followers is what leadership is “all about,” though I affirm that leaders have followers. And people will follow those with titles, though not for long if those holding a title neither steward their responsibilities well nor demonstrate a capacity to lead effectively according to their gifts. Titles are placeholders for authority, but not the source. Authority comes from people, from their lives. According to Bill Hendricks, it stems from gifts. I’d say yes, and character.

Hendricks states:

Your leadership is a function of your own giftedness. It’s possible to have the title of leader, but if no one is following you, then you’re not a leader. Conversely, you might not perceive yourself as a leader and might not have the title, but you look behind you and find that people are following. Leadership is not about titles or positions; it’s about your giftedness and the people who follow you. Play to your strengths and surround yourself with people who have the strengths you lack.

Leadership can be learned. Leadership gifts differ. Two things can be true at the same time. Wise leaders understand their gifts and appreciate that their ability to lead effectively has only a little to do with their title. Titles are important only insofar they clarify responsibilities and further the mission.

The best leaders surround themselves with other strong leaders and build an effective team. The purpose of the leadership venture is seen as bigger and more important than the personalities. They are more concerned with leading than they are with labels. They focus on goals. High quality, high character leaders are often more concerned with the work getting done, projects being completed, the right kind of workplace culture, and good and positive ideas being championed than they are with what people call them.

Some of the best leaders are the last to know they are leaders. They are too busy looking ahead. They find out they are leading when they look left and right and see they are gladly accompanied by quality companions. They look back and see others following along, sharing in the work. After that discovery is made, what follows is stewardship, and legacy, which both are part of the challenge of leadership.

Leading? Reforming? Choose Optimism

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“The optimist is a better reformer than the pessimist; and the man who believes life to be excellent is the man who alters it most. It seems a paradox, yet the reason of it is very plain. The pessimist can be enraged at evil. But only the optimist can be surprised at it. From the reformer is required a simplicity of surprise. He must have the faculty of a violent and virgin astonishment.”

G. K. Chesterton, from this book, found here

There is a lesson here for Christian leaders, not only those with apostolic and evangelistic ministries, but for those who serve humbly within the existing established institutions.

The Gift of Patient Presence in Discipleship: Do This, Not That

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He also said, “This is what the kingdom of God is like. A man scatters seed on the ground. Night and day, whether he sleeps or gets up, the seed sprouts and grows, though he does not know how. All by itself the soil produces grain—first the stalk, then the head, then the full kernel in the head.  As soon as the grain is ripe, he puts the sickle to it, because the harvest has come.”

Mark 4:26-29

Dallas Willard, on this passage:

Here’s what I found out years ago, and if I hadn’t I would’ve been out of the business thirty or forty years ago, and it’s this: you don’t have to make it happen. The little parable that Jesus tells in Mark about the farmer that goes out and sows seed and then takes a nap? There is a little phrase in there that says, “The farmer knoweth not how this works.” There’s a plant coming up out of the dirt, and pretty soon there’s something edible there. But although the farmer doesn’t know how it happens, you can be sure it’s going to happen, and that takes the load off of you. You don’t have to make this happen. This is one of the most important things for pastors to understand. Don’t try to get people to do anything; just speak the word of the gospel, live as a disciple, lovingly teach, be with people, and it will happen.

“The Gospel of the Kingdom” an interview with Keith Giles, in Renewing the Christian Mind, p. 226.

The other day I was part of a discussion about the felt need to “do” something in ministry moments where the person we are with is stuck. Our friend is disappointed with God, the divine will is opaque, they are confused with what is next, or they are flummoxed due to relationship difficulties.

We want to say the right thing, fix the problem, offer sound advice, provide good counsel, quote the right Bible verse, dispense sage wisdom, or prescribe the right action. But sometimes, we don’t need to do anything other than listen, be present, and pray. God is “doing” all that needs to be done, and we are watching and waiting for God to reveal, act, and direct accordingly. As a minister, it is important to remember that you are not the only actor. God may be hidden, but God is present, and God is most assuredly working.

Notice there is something to be done. Rather than tell or solve, however, we sow, rest, and then see what comes up. We then harvest at the right moment. As Willard says, “Don’t try to get people to do anything; just speak the word of the gospel, live as a disciple, lovingly teach, be with people, and it will happen.” We do what is ours to do. But we don’t have to make anything happen. That is God’s business.

Screaming at a seed does not cause it to sprout. It will do that on its own, in its own time, as God appoints. It will happen.

Werntz: “Harm Will Happen in the Best of Churches”

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Because the church is a body of persons undergoing their healing in Christ, harm will still happen in the best of churches: it makes no sense to talk about sanctification or healing within the body unless there is something to be healed from.

[. . .]

But ordinary harms are not abuses, and the treatment of the sinfulness of the church-as-such as a potential trauma factory is unhelpful: the harm we experience from others do damage us and others, but it is a harm which we should understand as facets of an ordinary world suffering the pervasive conditions of sin.

And as such, it calls forth a different, ongoing culture of repair and repentance.

Myles Werntz, “Of Course Church Will Hurt Us: How Could it Not? – Part I

These are two quotations from Werntz’s first installment in a series, all addressing “Traumatic Church Discourse.” You may have heard someone describe “church hurt,” and it does exist. Werntz helpfully distinguishes between trauma, abuse, and harm, and how these terms can help us distinguish between encounters with evil that may occur within Christian fellowship. He also adds a lot of theological nuance.

I’m making my way through the series. I suspect there are ideas here that will help me clarify what is a very difficult truth: until the return of Jesus, we will sin against one another. We will cause harm. The truth about these harms should be named and confessed. Repentance should follow. Justice should be sought. And, by God’s grace, we pray healing, mending, and repair will take hold.

The church isn’t the only institutional source of harm in our world. It isn’t the only institution with resources for addressing harms. But it is an institution with biblical resources, theological convictions, and practices to identify and acknowledge harms, and then, as Werntz says, to undertake the work of repair and repentance.

How Do You Make Your Workplace Better Each Day?

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I was part of a conversation recently where a person in our circle asked, “How do you make Truett better each day?” I thought it was a superb question. And I took my time before answering, listening to others as they made their offerings, wondering if I would have anything of value to add, and ordering my impressions as they emerged. I arrived on three ways I think I make my workplace better each day.

First, I pray for those I work with and alongside. I pray for the institution. I pray for needs of which I am aware. I pray for people I encounter as I walk the halls, and those who pass my window I see and wave at. As I see students, faculty, staff, and guests, I consciously will the good of everyone in prayer to God. In other words, I bless them. In doing so, I apply an insight I gleaned from Dallas Willard. I concede that I do not know how or in what way my prayers make the seminary I serve better, that the answers and the workings of God are hidden behind the veil, but I trust God works in and through the prayers of Christian people.

Second, I learn names and demonstrate a genuine interest in the lives of those I work with and alongside. I do not learn the name of every student, though I do try to match names with faces and call each individual by name when we meet. I come to know some students better than others. Coming to know faculty and staff colleagues differs, slightly, in that the overlapping spheres of my work and the work of others varies. I do make an effort, however, to be friendly and to strengthen relationships, as I am able. Passing through the COVID-19 pandemic slowed my effort to know others better, and for others to know me, in obvious ways. I’m still learning about my colleagues, and as personnel changes, there are new people to come to know.

Third, I keep the church in mind. I think beyond Truett, and even beyond Baylor, and consider people in congregations large and small and in-between. I want what we do to make a difference in Christian communities and the broader communities within which those churches live and move and have their being. I think that makes us “better” because it keeps in view who we serve: Christ and the church.

Truett Seminary “exists to equip God-called people for gospel ministry in and alongside Christ’s Church by the power of the Holy Spirit.” Not everyone that we educate serves a church in a leadership position after completion of a degree. But I hope that everyone who receives an education at Truett is part of a church somewhere, and I hope these individuals strengthen a local body through service, making good use of their gifts, graces, talents, and abilities. I also pray they would offer sound biblical and theological knowledge to those with whom they share fellowship so that the church might be built up.

For those outside a seminary and friendly to Christianity, you likely hope those within it would pray, care for individuals, and keep the church in view! Pray for us; Lord, have mercy.

Not everyone works in a seminary, like I do. The word “seminary” originated in the fifteen century; “from Latin seminarium ‘plant nursery, seed plot,’ figuratively, ‘breeding ground.'” The seminary is a place where the Word of God is cultivated, where a person comes who, having received the Word, is nourished so that they might mature spiritually and then proclaim the Word more faithfully. It is plausible that a student could receive the Word for the first time while in seminary, moving from a knowledge about God to a knowledge of God. Heaven forbid that we, as a seminary, would hinder the Word, though that, too, sadly, is plausible. Jesus, in the New Testament, often spoke of the Word as seed. It is my desire that the Word would go forth, find good soil, and grow, yielding thirty, sixty, and a hundred fold. We plant and water. God gives the growth.

Workplaces other than the seminary, however, can prove to be fertile ground for ministry and Christian witness, a place within which you can take actions that make the working environment “better.” Prayer, collegiality and care, and keeping in view the constituency you serve can be commitments of any Christian in any place of work. In addition to these, doing your work with excellence, so long as the work you render is moral and good, can be valuable and worthwhile, not only for the organization you serve but for the prosperity and flourishing of others.

How do you make your workplace better each day?

Daniel Darling’s Common Leadership Mistakes

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Daniel Darling dedicated an issue of his newsletter to 5 Common Mistakes Leaders Make, identifying the following leadership missteps:

  1. A Refusal to Deal with Personal Insecurities
  2. No Gray Hair in the Inner Circle
  3. Unwillingness to Build Relationships Across Key Constituencies
  4. Unwise Stewardship of Leadership Capital
  5. A Lack of Personal Humility

His exposition of each of these observations is worth reading, so visit the link.

I have a few thoughts on each of these corrective admonitions.

All five of these failings evidence of immaturity. All can be grown beyond. All five are potential pitfalls, especially for developing leaders.

Ministry leaders, like everyone else, have insecurities. The crucible of ministry service reveals what those insecurities are. The congregation is the forge for growth in holiness. It may not always be pleasant, but God often works through our relationships with those we serve to reveal the ways we have yet to stand confidently in the gospel, secure in faith. The people we serve often help us to see more clearly the way of repentance. Knowing oneself is a gift of God, but it often comes through intimacy with weakness, the very places where God’s grace can be displayed as strength.

While it is true that young leaders can mistakenly surround themselves exclusively with those of their age and stage, old leaders can commit the opposite, parallel error. Leaders need to know their congregation, from the oldest to the youngest, saying hello, learning names, shaking hands, being present, displaying curiosity, demonstrating care, and being open and vulnerable, sharing not only the gospel, but life.

I’ve seen leaders steward their “leadership capital” poorly, but knowing where and how and at what pace to lead is not easy. It’s easy to say “don’t spend it too quickly!” But the opposite error can be made, moving too slowly or doing nothing at all in order to play it safe. It’s more art than science, involving discernment, sensitivity, and skill. I don’t think anyone does this perfectly. Wisdom in this area comes from knowing that leaders gain trust in spoonfuls and lose it in buckets, so lead wisely.

The fifth is the key to lessening propensity to falling prey to the previous four. Humble leaders often become so by dealing with their insecurities in healthy ways, learning their limitations and the power of God in light of those limitations. They associate with all kinds of people. They are confident in making bold decisions, but they appreciate the weight of their decisions, are very aware of ways their decisions effect the people they lead, bear the criticism directed their way from those who disagree with them from a place of understanding and compassion, and share the credit when things go right. In fact, the most humble leaders give all the credit away to those who gave and sweat and prayed and bled and served and worked, and to God, who makes all things possible.

They know that, in the end, the objective is to glorify God. They know that in God’s kingdom the last are first and the first are last, that we are called not to lord over but to serve, that we are the unworthy who have been made worthy through so great a salvation. There is only one name to proclaim in ministry leadership, there is only one whose reputation and reign ultimately matter. The ministry leader knows that their being brought in, appointed, and anointed is a sheer miracle of grace. Having received so great a salvation, they cannot neglect it. They live in light of it. They invite others to do the same.

“Nondenominational” Churches: Taken Together, They Have the Most Adherents in America

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Christianity Today reports on new findings from the U.S. Religion Census:

In 2010, the US Religious Census identified 35,496 independent congregations without any formal denominational affiliation. The lead researcher, Scott Thumma, told CT there were almost certainly more than that, but it was the most precise count anyone had done to that point.

Using the same method in 2020, the US Religious Census team found 44,319 nondenominational congregations, with an estimated 21 million adherents. That makes nondenominational Christians the first or second largest group of Protestants in America, depending on how one counts. The Southern Baptists have about 7,000 more churches, but 3.4 million fewer people.

The next largest Protestant group, the United Methodists, can only claim about half the number of people as Southern Baptists, and the denomination has lost a number of congregations in an ongoing church split since the Religion Census tallied at total of 30,051 in 2020.

When I’ve seen headlines chronicling the decline of traditional and mainline Protestant denominations, I’ve had the sneaking suspicion that some who have left Southern Baptist life, or Methodist life, or any one of the various other established Protestant bodies, have found spiritual community among autonomous, independent, non-affiliated, “nondenominational” local churches.

Additionally, because I have seen nondenominational church leaders and pastors who have displayed a deep passion for evangelism, a commitment to discipleship, the desire to serve, and openness toward and encouragement of the arts, creativity, and innovation, this data point doesn’t surprise me. Eventually, I thought researchers would find a way to capture what I suspected was happening on the ground. The rise of the “nones,” which the CT report also notes, has been a much discussed data point, but not the rise of the “nons,” which has been, up until now, hidden from view.

Some might think this development a good one and a sign that Christianity in America might be able to rebound from its decline, or at least that it is not dead yet. I think we’ll have to wait and see what it means. I rejoice when there are signs of vibrancy, growth, and transformation in the lives of those who take part in any Christian community. Autonomy, independence, and freedom from a denominational body brings with it certain advantages, including adaptability and flexibility within a rapidly shifting cultural environment. But there are also reasons to be wary, including the lack of accountability to a larger network of like-minded ministry partners, a less developed institutional memory regarding the doctrines and practices of a tradition, a susceptibility to celebrity, and clear divides that are broadly made and known between what is sound teaching and heretical leanings (at least among traditions with well-defined doctrinal commitments, rather than in those supporting “big tent” or doctrinally pluralistic approaches to connection).

Who knows what the future may hold? It may be that nondenominational churches create new kinds of connection, not necessarily formalized or solidified by way of organizational bloat and bureaucracy. Maybe new confessional movements will emerge. Maybe partnerships will be more informal and occasional rather than formal and ongoing. Maybe local commitments will take precedence over a global “brand” or “identity.”

Maybe this is a blip.

As institutional structures, I still think there is a place for the historic Protestant denominational churches. But God will need to renew them if they are to have a vibrant future. God can, and I hope God will. Maybe nondenominational congregations will give witness to what is possible, with God’s help. Otherwise, as John Wesley said in “Thoughts Upon Methodism,” the historic Protestant denominational churches in America will only display “the form of religion without the power.” The charitable among us will pray for God to renew us all, and maybe the not-so-charitable should, too.

Trust Makes it Go

Via Sketchplanations

When it comes to trust, I think people put a lot of weight on credibility and intimacy, and we certainly factor reliability over time. A credible person not only has the credentials, they display competence. A safe person keeps a proper confidence, listens well, and allows for vulnerability. And the reliable person consistently comes through on time, under budget, and with high quality.

But self-orientation is the one we keep in the background, both in how we evaluate ourselves and in how we evaluate those we work alongside. I might rephrase the description above and instead couch self-orientation in terms of shared or common interests, rather than mine or theirs.

I think human beings do make decisions and take action based on self-interest. I think growing and mature persons are aware of the ways their own self-interest is in play. I think respectable and wise leaders are understanding of the interests of others they work with and alongside, and they are cognizant of the ways personal and organizational interests align when moving toward a goal. Furthermore, they have reached a point of maturity where the interests of the other, and others, are considered more important than one’s own self-interest. They are willing and able to put self aside to serve. That’s easier said than done.

In Philippians 2:1-4, Paul writes:

Therefore if you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any common sharing in the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind. Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.

Paul then goes on to cite the example of Jesus in the rest of the chapter, not only as one to follow, but as the theological justification for the dynamics that are in play in healthy Christian communities.

In Christian communities, trust is not only built through displays of credibility, reliability, and intimacy, but also by an orientation toward Christ and the kingdom of God and the seeking of God’s glory. If that’s a shared focus, good things happen, and we not only learn to trust one another, but to trust God’s leadership, guidance, and work within and among the community. As a result, we elevate the trustworthiness of people and we learn through experience the trustworthiness of God.

Quite a Sight

Harris Creek Baptist Church, Waco, Texas, August 14, 2022

This week a couple of friends of ours were baptized at Harris Creek Baptist Church. It was something to see.

I am not part of Harris Creek, but I am part of the body of Christ, and to see over fifty people enter the waters for baptism is a reason for rejoicing. Children, teenagers, college students, parents entering the waters and then turning to baptize their children, adults in the latter half of life, the pastor baptizing, parents baptizing, grandparents baptizing, and powerful testimonies of new life in Christ. All incredible. A sight to see, for those with eyes to perceive it.

Baptism is an outward and visible sign of an inward, spiritual reality, and an encapsulation of the gospel story. We are buried with Christ in baptism and are raised to walk in the newness of resurrection life. It is an act of obedience, following Jesus’ example, and a yielding of the self to his command.

Jesus commanded his followers to go, make disciples, and to baptize into the Trinitarian reality, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit all who would enter the kingdom. The water is for a moment. Life with God is for eternity. We remember our baptism. Our life is a testimony to what it means. What story does your life tell?

God continues to call people into a life of relationship in and through Jesus. Few or many, salvation is by grace. The Christian message is, in part, a call to repent and be baptized, to turn from one spiritual reality and into another, from death into life for a lifetime and beyond.

That invitation is open to all.