The Leader’s Problem with Pretense

2 09 2014

Tuesday Re-mix:

For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin.  Hebrews 4:15

transparencyMy friend Scott is a gifted teacher.  I remember one of his illustrations using a bunch of unmarked tea bags.  He had everyone pass them around and smell them to see if we could tell what kind of tea each one held.  Then he said something really profound: “Tea bags are a lot like people…you don’t know for sure what’s inside them until you put them in hot water.”  It was a beautiful illustration about integrity and transparency.  Together, those are the currency of leadership in the church.

What was truly transformative about Jesus (and what has been transformative about Christianity for over 2,000 years now) is not the power nor the persuasion nor the perfection of Jesus.  Rather, it was the almost spellbinding “connection” he had with everyone he met.  He connected with the Samaritan woman at the well.  He connected with the Pharisee, Nicodemus.  He connected with fishermen and tax collectors and soldiers and prostitutes.  What changed people was his ability to see right into their souls, and at the same time allow them to see right into Him.

That was the founder of this revolution for which you and I are contending.  And we should reflect that same level of transparency and connectability.  It is important to our mission.  In fact, the revolution depends on it.

But in our efforts to work harder to do all the things good Christians should do, and in our efforts to manage our people’s perception of us, we often tend to lose the transparency.  In our churches’ efforts to elevate our leaders to praiseworthy heights, we create an environment where it is no longer safe for them to be truly transparent, lest they lose the very popularity which placed them there.  We want heroes for our leaders, so we “create” them, leaving little or no room for their humanity.  And as leaders, we fall in line with this very system, as it often seems like the only opportunity to lead.  The very pretense which lifts us up eventually becomes our downfall.

But here is the magnified effect of that pretense: Leaders who pretend to be something they are not end up building organizations which pretend to be something they are not.  An entire culture of pretense and shallow relationships results.  And, more times than any of us want to admit it, we call it “church”.

As I reflect on Hebrews 4-5 and its description of our “great High Priest”, I am reminded that it is transparency and “connection” which are the real stuff of which Christ-like leaders are made.  Our ability to relate to our people and their ability to relate to us…to connect with us…is what really matters.  That’s what our founder taught us.  I just need a reminder a few times each day.  Because, in the end, when you put me in hot water, all I really want you to see coming out of me is Jesus.

© Blake Coffee
Permissions: You are permitted and encouraged to reproduce and distribute this material in any format provided that you do not alter the wording in any way and do not charge a fee beyond the cost of reproduction. For web posting, a link to this document on this website is preferred. Any exceptions to the above must be approved by Blake Coffee.  Please include the following statement on any distributed copy: © Blake Coffee. Website: churchwhisperer.com




Church Leaders and Our Hard Hearts

26 08 2014

Tuesday Re-mix:

So, as the Holy Spirit says:

“Today, if you hear his voice,
do not harden your hearts
as you did in the rebellion,
    during the time of testing in the wilderness,
where your ancestors tested and tried me,
    though for forty years they saw what I did.
That is why I was angry with that generation;
    I said, ‘Their hearts are always going astray,
    and they have not known my ways.’
So I declared on oath in my anger,
    ‘They shall never enter my rest.’ ”  Hebrews 3:7-11; Psalm 95:7-11

heart of stoneAs it turns out, hard hearts come in a pretty large variety of shapes and forms…even among church leaders.  It is rarely as overt as Israel’s rebellion at Meribah.  More often, it is a mild arrogance or self-reliance or pride at the heart of our hard-heartedness.  So, as I study the above passage, I am reflecting on some of the less obvious (but more common) ways I have seen leaders “harden their hearts”…including me and my own heart.

Hardening our hearts to the power of God’s Word.  Every time we catch ourselves thinking, “what this text needs is a little more of me…a little of my flash and polish will go a long way in helping it hit home in this sermon…” our faith in the power of God’s Word diminishes just a little more.  Every time we receive a compliment for a lesson well-taught and we fail to acknowledge that it was God’s Word and not our communication skills that caused the real transformation, we steal God’s glory, and our heart hardens just a little more to the miracle of His living word.

Hardening our hearts to the power of prayer.  When the priority we give gathered prayer meetings falls somewhere between  repairing the hems of the choir robes and making sure there is toilet paper in the women’s restroom, we miss the mark as spiritual leaders.  When our public prayers reveal just how little time we have spent in private prayer, we set an example of a heart hardened to prayer.  Jesus said his church would be a house of prayer…what type of house are you and your leadership building?

Hardening our hearts to Christ in our brother.  Finding Christ in our people…ALL our people…may be the most critical difference between good leaders and great leaders.  When we respond to criticism by saying to ourselves, “God is not gong to speak to me through THAT ignorant person…” our heart grows a little colder. When we refuse to hear a brother because of some sin in his life or because his choices are not like ours or because he votes differently than we vote or watches a different news outlet than we do…we harden our hearts not only to that brother, but to Christ in that brother…and in doing so, we forsake the single most significant “help” God has for us as leaders: His Spirit living in His people.

Do you see, then, that (especially for leaders who live in the accountability of the lime light) a hardening heart does not necessarily begin with a sense of rebellion nor outright rejection of God. Rather, it more often begins with these much less obvious moments of shrunken faith or heightened sense of self.  Unfortunately, there are many roads that lead to the hardening of the heart…many dangerous paths from which to choose.  They just don’t seem all that dangerous in the beginning.

God has a “groove” of His perfect will for His church and for its shepherds…a “rest” for the weary leader.  But it is not there for the hard-hearted.  It is for the humble leader whose heart remains pliable and moldable and whose faith is strong.  It is for the leader who trusts entirely in the Lord and in His Word and in prayer and in God’s people.  As leaders, we can choose whether or not that rest is ours.  Do not harden your heart.  Enter into the rest that is yours.

© Blake Coffee
Permissions: You are permitted and encouraged to reproduce and distribute this material in any format provided that you do not alter the wording in any way and do not charge a fee beyond the cost of reproduction. For web posting, a link to this document on this website is preferred. Any exceptions to the above must be approved by Blake Coffee.  Please include the following statement on any distributed copy: © Blake Coffee. Website: churchwhisperer.com




The Medium is the Message

19 08 2014

Tuesday Re-mix:

In the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son… Hebrews 1:1-2

God also testified to it by signs, wonders and various miracles, and by gifts of the Holy Spirit distributed according to his will.  Hebrews 2:4

JesusMarshall McLuhan was the first to coin the phrase, “the medium is the message”.  In his instance, he was referring to the ushering in of the information age (specifically, television) back in 1964.  He noted that television (and other similar media) were more than just conduits of information, they were actually shaping and reshaping the message and were as much a part of the message as the message itself.  I suppose we could make the same observation today about social media.  Twitter and YouTube and SnapChat are literally reshaping how (and what) we communicate.  It just seems that, from time to time, a medium comes along that changes everything we thought we knew about messaging and communication.  When that happens, “the medium becomes the message.”

Never in the history of the world has this notion been truer than with Christianity.  In ancient days, God spoke His message through angels, He spoke His message through the prophets, He spoke His message through the law, and He spoke His message through miraculous signs and wonders.  But never was the message so clear and so divisive and so disturbing as when God spoke His message through  Jesus.  The very embodiment of God, representative of all His glory and power and authority, Jesus is “the Word become flesh.”  He is BOTH the medium AND the message.

For Christ-followers (for His church), we have a contemporary medium through the gifts of the Holy Spirit distributed among us.  For us, this is a visual representation of God at work among us.  But for the watching world, it is gibberish.  For that world, there simply is no clearer image of God than Jesus Christ.  His life is a canvass upon which God’s Word is painted vividly in living color.

There is a great deal of talk in the church today about messaging.  It is good talk.  Important talk.  Using all the media available to us to tell the Gospel story is, I believe, important.  But even as we discuss websites and Twitter and blogs and videos…even as we consider signage and platforms and lighting and projections…we must keep one medium ever before us: Jesus.  In the midst of all our new languages and vehicles, we must show the world Jesus.  Because, in the end, He is the medium which really matters.

Show them Jesus.  And let all the other messaging flow from that.

© Blake Coffee
Permissions: You are permitted and encouraged to reproduce and distribute this material in any format provided that you do not alter the wording in any way and do not charge a fee beyond the cost of reproduction. For web posting, a link to this document on this website is preferred. Any exceptions to the above must be approved by Blake Coffee.  Please include the following statement on any distributed copy: © Blake Coffee. Website: churchwhisperer.com




The Best Laid Plans

7 08 2014

Thursday Re-mix:

When you sow, you do not plant the body that will be, but just a seed, perhaps of wheat or of something else. But God gives it a body as he has determined, and to each kind of seed he gives its own body.  1 Corinthians 15:37-38

Listen, I tell you a mystery: We will not all sleep, but we will all be changed—  1 Corinthians 15:51

TransformationI am no visionary.  I am the first to admit it.  I am envious of those who are visionaries.  I’m pretty quick to admit that as well.  I am impressed with the leader who says, “This is what we will look like in 5 years.”  I very much believe there are people like that…leaders who know exactly what they want to achieve and who know how to cast a laser-like vision to make sure their people make it happen.  So when that leader gets to that 5-year mark and is able to look back and say, “This is exactly where I said we would be in five years, and lo and behold, we did it…” I am impressed and awed.  And if it is a spiritual venture, like a church, I am a little bit sad.

I am sad because that picture seems to leave little room for God’s transforming activity.  You see, there may be some things about the God of the Bible which are predictable, but there is very little about His creative side which lends itself to even the best plans of men.  When God gets involved in something, huge, unpredictable transformations occur…things that are not a part of anyone’s strategic plan.  If we are planning correctly in the church, all we are really doing is structuring so as to enable the organization to respond quickly and efficiently once God’s transformational activity begins.

That is why I love the metaphor of “planting” a church.  There may be some predictable activity associated with planting a seed, but as for the transformation of the seedling into the sprout and then into the flourishing plant, it is all still more mystery to us than science.  And there is nothing about the appearance of the seed that would give you any clue at all as to the ultimate appearance of the plant.  God is unpredictable that way.  And “planting” a church works that same way.  Ask anyone who has been truly successful at planting them…he/she will share story after story of how God moved in totally unexpected ways to bring about results which were not on anyone’s radar screen.  Ultimately, the church ends up looking very little like the original dream.

And so, the church growth testimonies which stir our hearts are not so much the ones which were totally predicted by their leaders; rather, they are the stories about huge, God-sized, unexpected things happening and a church which simply followed God’s activity.  And while we applaud the visionary and the clearly-articulated and well-implemented ministry vision, what moves us is the unmistakable transforming work of the Spirit.

Please don’t hear me saying strategic planning and vision-casting are wrong, even in the slightest.  I believe they are critical.  But the real work, the truest tack for God’s people, is learning to rightly discern the work of the Spirit among us and then mobilizing to join in that direction.  After all, in the end, the clearest evidence of God’s work among us is that none of us envisioned the transformation He would bring about.  His ways…His thoughts…don’t look anything like ours.

© Blake Coffee
Permissions: You are permitted and encouraged to reproduce and distribute this material in any format provided that you do not alter the wording in any way and do not charge a fee beyond the cost of reproduction. For web posting, a link to this document on this website is preferred. Any exceptions to the above must be approved by Blake Coffee.  Please include the following statement on any distributed copy: © Blake Coffee. Website: churchwhisperer.com




The Shrewd Servant Church

5 08 2014

But his master answered him, ‘You wicked and slothful servant! You knew that I reap where I have not sown and gather where I scattered no seed? Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and at my coming I should have received what was my own with interest. Matthew 25:26-27

Honestly, I have always felt a little sorry for the poor servant who did not invest his master’s money wisely. It seems to me there is at least a little wisdom in putting the money away and making sure it doesn’t get lost or otherwise wasted away. I can still remember the first time I ever studied this parable (I was a teenager) and being shocked at the harshness of this master. “Wicked” and “slothful” just seemed a little over the top to me, especially for a servant who kept all of his master’s money intact and did not lose any of it.

human resourcesBut, alas, the economy of God’s kingdom does not favor the radical fiscal conservatives like me. In God’s eyes, simply hiding the resources under my mattress and saving them for a rainy day is just poor stewardship. I should rather be investing those resources and growing them. I should be risking them a little (every investment is a risk) and putting them to work.

The same is true for the church. And not just with finances or material resources, but maybe even more importantly, with the human resources God has given us in our congregants…the spiritual gifts, talents, abilities, learned skills, work backgrounds, and emotional strengths in the people God has brought us. Our master has placed all those resources into our hands as the church and, shrewd stewards that we are, we are to put them to work…risk them…use them to produce kingdom growth.  What we are NOT to do is sit on them or ignore them or stick them under a mattress…that would be wicked and slothful on our part. Moreover, part of shepherding these very people is helping them identify those gifts and learn for themselves how they can be invested in kingdom growth. In the church, you see, every member is a minister; everyone has an assignment. We need systems in place designed to figure out what those assignments are.

As Andy Stanley is prone to pointing out: the system you have in place right now for this purpose is perfectly designed to bring about the results you are getting. So, if you don’t like the results you are getting, it is your system (your approach to the problem) which needs tweaking. There are a multitude of vehicles out there today to assist. Rick Warren’s S.H.A.P.E. profile is one. The Enneagram Institute is another. Group Publishing continues to publish outstanding resources for mobilizing ministry volunteers. There is a host of personality inventories and spiritual gift inventories out there for use. There are nominating committee systems and even “drafts” for ministry leaders. I have seen and heard about some pretty creative approaches to mobilizing laity for ministry. Use any of them. Use all of them. Make up your own. The point is, be a shrewd steward of all that God has brought your church. Have a system in place for learning about all your people have to offer and have a system in place for then mobilizing them into ministry assignments.

Has your church figured it out? Do you have a system that is working well for you, making your church a shrewd servant? I would love to hear about it in the comments!

© Blake Coffee
Permissions: You are permitted and encouraged to reproduce and distribute this material in any format provided that you do not alter the wording in any way and do not charge a fee beyond the cost of reproduction. For web posting, a link to this document on this website is preferred. Any exceptions to the above must be approved by Blake Coffee.  Please include the following statement on any distributed copy: © Blake Coffee. Website: churchwhisperer.com




Churches Dying Well

31 07 2014

Thursday Re-mix:

There on the mountain that you have climbed you will die and be gathered to your people, just as your brother Aaron died on Mount Hor and was gathered to his people. Deuteronomy 32:50

“None of us are getting out of here alive.”  Jim Morrison, Valerie Harper, Evel Kneivel, Colin Murphy, Hilary Swank, Jill Shalvis, Elbert Hubbard (and these are just from the first couple of pages of results on Google)

Life is terminal.  We all get that.  Dying is just a part of living, and that is an eternal truth.  We may not like it, we may not be ready to fully embrace it, but it is truth.  And eventually, it is a truth with which we simply must deal.

abandoned churchBut have you ever thought about it as it relates to churches (i.e., to local bodies of believers)?  Have you stopped to realize that there is not a single “local church” which has been around from the very beginning?  All those “churches” mentioned in Revelation 2 and 3? Gone.  Even the good ones.  And the church you serve right now will die one day as well.  It is the natural order of things.

Churches are, metaphorically speaking, living organisms.  They breathe, they multiply, they regenerate, they get sick, and eventually, they die.  They exhibit all the same signs of life (and of death) as any other living organism.  My perception of “church” changed pretty significantly once I began to consider the implications of this.

In the first place, churches need nourishment and exercise in order to be healthy.  The nourishment is the Word of God.  The exercise is the stretching and bending and reshaping that Word constantly calls us toward.  And it also is the challenges (even the persecution) which God permits us to experience.  Exercise only makes us stronger.

Second, this concept made me look at missions and church starts differently. Reproduction is just a natural function of churches.  Starting new churches is something every church should be a part of doing in one way or another.  It is the natural spread and propagation of the gospel…of making disciples.

But the most disturbing way churches are like living organism is that they die.  It is a part of the natural order of things for them to do so.  Neighborhoods change or go away altogether.  Ministry opportunities likewise shift underneath us.  Key leadership families leave or die off.  Congregations age.  Churches sometimes grow less and less relevant to the rapidly changing communities they serve.  Churches grow older and tired and unable to meet the vast needs around them.  Rather than growing and becoming more and more vibrant, they shrink and wither and find themselves having to make horrendous decisions about personnel and ministries alike.  The difficult truth is, there are churches all around us who, frankly, just need to be given permission to die, to shut their doors and fade away.  There is no shame in that…not after a church has long since fulfilled its purpose for being.

When a church recognizes these signs and decides to wind down, and leaves its resources (its buildings, its assets, maybe even a few of its people) to a new work…one more able and willing to meet the needs of the community it serves, one with youthful vitality and passionate people longing to love and to be loved…when a church is willing to face that music and give birth to something new, even in its death, then its legacy lives on even after it is gone.  That is what dying well looks like for a church.

Maybe you know a church which is just waiting for someone to love them enough to give them permission to enter into rest.  Maybe you’re in a church like that.  No shame in that.  Nothing to hide from.  Embrace death.  It is part of life.  Find a way to create a legacy.  Die well.

© Blake Coffee
Permissions: You are permitted and encouraged to reproduce and distribute this material in any format provided that you do not alter the wording in any way and do not charge a fee beyond the cost of reproduction. For web posting, a link to this document on this website is preferred. Any exceptions to the above must be approved by Blake Coffee.  Please include the following statement on any distributed copy: © Blake Coffee. Website: churchwhisperer.com




Letting Your People Mess Up

24 07 2014

Thursday Re-mix:

And the Lord told him: “Listen to all that the people are saying to you; it is not you they have rejected, but they have rejected me as their king.  As they have done from the day I brought them up out of Egypt until this day, forsaking me and serving other gods, so they are doing to you.  Now listen to them; but warn them solemnly and let them know what the king who will reign over them will claim as his rights.” 1 Samuel 8:7-9

“There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, “Thy will be done,” and those to whom God says, in the end, “Thy will be done.”  C.S. Lewis

Here is a fundamental truth for church leaders (including pastors): the church is not for you (not really), nor is it about you.  If you think about it, that is actually a rather freeing reality.  That means it is not your responsibility to manipulate every outcome.  Rather, it is your responsibility to speak God’s truth to the best of your ability and to love your people well…and love often means letting them mess up royally.

Asleep in ClassMost of my own best illustrations of this leadership principle come from parenting.  If you are a parent, you already know the phenomenon well.  There are times when a parent can see a wrong direction a child is headed and the very best way to teach this lesson is to simply warn them and then let them make their own decision (and live with the consequences).  Take bedtimes, for example.  Toddlers are simply told when they will go to bed.  But, as they grow older, we eventually get to a point where they must learn to use their own judgment about sleep time.  The first time we lift the bedtime requirement, we simply explain to them, “Go to bed whenever you like…but if you stay awake too late, you’ll be awfully tired tomorrow at school.”  Then, that first night we find them playing on X-box at Midnight, we warn them again: “You’re gonna be awfully tired tomorrow if you don’t go to bed soon.”  Well, you know how this one plays out.

That illustration is harmless enough.  The worst outcome for that student is a little humiliation in class and perhaps a bad grade or two.  But the more mature our student becomes, the bigger the consequences.  We begin allowing them to make really big decisions with really big consequences.  It is all a part of growing up.

Shepherding God’s people is no different.  As leaders, there really is no other effective way to lead than to allow God’s people to make decisions as a people, even when those decisions are sometimes horribly wrong.  You can give them the benefit of your own spiritual discernment, you can warn them about the consequences of their wrong direction, you can even ask them to please reconsider.  But in the end, more times than not, it is their decision to make and not yours.  You cannot make it for them.  You cannot even make it for yourself.  Most importantly, you cannot take it personally when they decide not to take your counsel.  They will make their decision, and you and they together will live with the consequences of it, and you will just keep loving them as well as you know how.

God’s words to Samuel in 1 Samuel 8 echo in so many of your church’s important decisions today.  You can see the majority forming and you can see the damaging consequences of that direction.  They are about to make a decision exactly contrary to how you have counseled them.  This is when God’s whisper comes: “Listen to all that the people are saying to you; it is not you they have rejected, but they have rejected me as their king…Now listen to them; but warn them solemnly and let them know what [their decision will mean].” That is what leadership looks like.  That is what love looks like.  Swallow your pride, listen to your people, counsel them as best you know how, and then walk with them…even through the muck and mire of wrong decisions.

© Blake Coffee
Permissions: You are permitted and encouraged to reproduce and distribute this material in any format provided that you do not alter the wording in any way and do not charge a fee beyond the cost of reproduction. For web posting, a link to this document on this website is preferred. Any exceptions to the above must be approved by Blake Coffee.  Please include the following statement on any distributed copy: © Blake Coffee. Website: churchwhisperer.com







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