Archive for June, 2018

Subject to Change – 9

June 18, 2018 1 comment

They’re really good people.

He’d been staring at me all morning with an expression unlike any in the room. I’d been teaching for over an hour. A hundred local church leaders and their pastors were gathered around tables, preparing to dive into a yearlong journey of discovery and discussion. Our goal? Find the future for the dozen or so congregations represented in the room.

Things at his table didn’t look too promising. His pastor looked like a good guy. He’d been at the church for a couple of years now and seemed determined to slow the church’s decade of steady decline. I wanted to believe he could. This pastor appeared enthusiastic and his wife seemed to genuinely enjoy the people at their table. Better days were ahead, I was sure…except for the look on this one guy’s face.

This is what I do. I work with churches, trying to help them navigate a climb to greater effectiveness or turn a downward spiral in a new, more promising direction. Some days I sit with leaders from one congregation. Other days, the door’s been opened to multiple congregations, and I try to aid the unique discovery of purpose and direction occurring at each of the room’s round table. This was one of those days.

But he wasn’t buying it. Every other face showed signs of genuine engagement. These people came to learn. Motivational speeches aren’t usually needed when folks give up an entire Saturday to help their pastor find answers. Each participant had been chosen for this assignment. Pastor needed their faith, their hope, and their ability to dream with him. It’s usually a fun room.

This one man wasn’t having fun. His face didn’t fit with the others. They smiled and nodded and jotted notes vigorously. He pushed his chair back further from the table, folded his arms, and glared at me, as though he’d accepted a mission to prove me wrong at every turn. I could read his thoughts (not really). I could anticipate his complaints (I’d heard them before). I could quote his list of reasons why nothing I suggested would ever work at his church (I figured he was the reason).

We made it to the lunch break without him derailing my confidence. I wanted to embrace the affirmation others in the room extended as I grabbed a sandwich and a plate full of chips, but he was too close. By the time I reached the drink table, he had me cornered and asked if he could sit with me.

Now, I’m a pastor, at least I had been one for quite a while. Most of us know when we’re about to receive someone’s well-meaning correction. You’ve heard it too—the auditorium was too cold on Sunday or the sermon was too long, or in that one announcement we failed to mention the part that everyone really needed to know. Such moments are meant to help us, to make us aware of what people are saying, all the while being sure that the messenger means no ill intent.

So I slid my tray in front of a couple of empty chairs and motioned for my new friend to join me. I quickly took a bite of my sandwich, believing that the chewing motion would hide any other reactions my face might have toward his rebuke. But then something else happened, and I wasn’t as prepared as I had thought for what the next few moments would bring.

He wept. His shoulders began to vibrate and he fought hard to muffle the sobs that wanted to burst forth. “You don’t understand,” he whispered, trying to keep his overwhelming emotion from drawing the attention of the room. “You don’t understand…I can’t see a future…we can’t have a future for our church when we’re all afraid to face the past.”

Suddenly my food didn’t taste so good. I tried to swallow quickly, anxious to console him, wanting to trade in my suspicions for a much-needed dose of compassion. Pastor had seen the tears and slid into the seat next to me. “What is it, Bill?” he asked in such a soft voice that Bill and I could see his concern. In an instant, I went from the center of a conversation to its bystander, and I knew that I needed to do just that.

“Pastor, you don’t know all that’s happened. You don’t know about the Jenkins and the Simpsons, and the thing with the Walkers.” There was no reaction. The names didn’t seem to register in the pastor’s expression. “How can we talk of vision and a future when we can’t deal with all the hurt of the past?”

Good question, Bill.

After a brief conversation and the pastor’s pledge to engage whatever hurt Bill and his other tablemates might be carrying, our afternoon resumed. Bill wiped his eyes with a friend’s oversized handkerchief and pulled his chair back up to the table, seemingly ready to participate now that he was sure his new pastor really cared enough to face whatever ugliness had been a part of where they’d been. Over the next few months, Bill was as pleasant and engaging as anyone in the room. Apparently, he was finding reason to reach for the future again.

But his question underscores something your people want you to know before you lead them in change, Pastor. We’ll go where you go if you’ll come where we are.

Subject to Change – 8

Over the past few weeks, we’ve looked at three ways a leader can build trust–relationship, success, and personal transformation. While one of these three must take place in significant ways before a leader can lead change, there’s one more that can “seal the deal” either in favor of trust or compromise it completely.

The final means for building trust is to act with integrity. When people see that a leader will always do what is right, they begin to trust that leader with what is right for them.

Someone has defined integrity as “what you do when no one is looking.” It’s the idea of what you’re really like when you’re not performing for others. That presents an interesting opportunity for pastors since they are almost always “on.” Their 24-7 life as a shepherd seldom lets them take the pastor hat off.

A pastor can establish his public persona through his wise words, penetrating insights, and the understanding demeanor with which he preaches. People easily say that “he’s just a really good guy.” He shows up when we’re in crisis. He speaks kind words at our grandmother’s funeral. He stands at the church door, always smiling, always listening, always affirming. He speaks knowledgeably about the godly husband when he teaches on marriage and more than a few wish their husband was more like him. He’s a great guy!

But in the private places of his life, the photos may not always match. If people see him yell at his children, become frustrated with his wife, or offer a small fib or two when negotiating a good price with a salesman, the photo of the pastor they think they know gets a bit smudged. And, trust becomes a bit damaged.

I remember attending a conference where an elderly leader held us spellbound for more than an hour as he unfolded the challenges of reaching the next generation. He spoke of younger people with such passion and potential. He called for great steps to be taken to rally his older peers toward a bright and technologically-driven future. I remember thinking “that’s the kind of leader anyone would want to follow. The people who work in his organization have to be excited to have such a leader as this.”

Then I went to the hotel restaurant for a late dinner. There, at a corner table, sat the amazing leader, hidden behind the tall menu he was perusing. I chose a booth, not too far away so the waitress wouldn’t have to walk too far to serve us. The speaker and I were the only customers in the restaurant at that late hour. In a few moments, I was hiding behind my own menu.

When our food was delivered—his before mine since he got a head start on the menu—the speaker’s order was apparently assembled incorrectly. The vegetable was wrong, promised sauces were missing, and there was no butter for his bread. I knew each of these errors because he screamed them at the poor girl who had brought his plate. I sat stunned as he berated her for someone else’s negligence. I couldn’t believe that the man who had seemed so wise, so kind, and so in touch with today’s young people two hours earlier could abuse one such young person only a stone’s throw from the podium where he was so remarkable. Even as I write this, I realize that I remember his behavior in the restaurant, but can’t recall any of the incredible content of his evening message. I’ve apparently lost the notes I took too.

When the message matches the man (or woman), trust grows. A pastor who cuts corners, takes advantage of others, or seeks things for himself undermines such growth. But one who proves to be real, who acts honestly in every transaction, who treats people up close with his same “pulpit-kindness,” and insists on doing what is right even when that truth proves costly—that’s the pastor that will gain our trust.

If our pastor can be trusted in the little things, we will more quickly trust him with the big things. And, if he turns out to be that other guy, we may never learn to trust him at all.

Now, no pastor is perfect and most people try hard to provide him with a little grace to cover an occasional difficult moment. But the spotlight remains on at all times, even when you think you’re eating alone in a hotel restaurant.



Subject to Change – 7

Last time, we discussed the second way a leader builds trust…through success. Let’s look at another way to bring this critical element of trust into our leadership efforts…

A third means by which trust can be achieved is personal transformation. Here, we have decided to trust our pastor because of the impact his or her ministry has had on our lives. In the work of making disciples, those who shape lives establish a powerful influence on the lives they have shaped. So we say, “Pastor, your efforts have changed us. So now, we trust you to change our church.”

Personal transformation builds the most powerful form of trust possible in a ministry relationship. You can see such impact modeled in the relationships Jesus shared with His disciples. After a few years of almost daily interaction with Jesus’ teaching and miraculous moments, the disciples were ready to be world-changers on His behalf. When His work in their lives was punctuated by His resurrection—a moment that made their own deaths look a lot less threatening—they circled the globe with His message, enduring death threats of their own and standing firm when those threats became reality. He had changed their lives so now they trusted Him completely.

Of course, personal transformation is no overnight achievement. In fact, of the four methods for building trust, this one likely takes the most time. But it’s also why most of us became pastors anyway. We want to make a difference, and the lives of people are where we really hope to make it.

To some degree, personal transformation can seem like a combination of the relationship and success approaches. It begins with a genuine commitment to the existing congregation—to grow them, serve them, and teach them to serve others. As that priority becomes clearer, then the people are strengthened to aid our pursuit of the church’s measures of success. When we feel loved and understood, we will roll up our sleeves with you, and that’s often where we find the life-change we’ve long desired for ourselves.

If you want to grow a church without growing it’s people, you’ll be found out soon enough. Selfish success stories seldom endure in the local church. Frankly, it’s hard to imagine God himself getting on board with such an agenda or allowing one of his local families to suffer one for very long. Congregations are rarely enthused about building a name for their pastor, especially if they get very little from the bargain themselves. I think we can assume God is on their side on that one. Instead, a pastor’s genuine desire to see his people discover life as its meant to be lived keeps the focus where it rightly belongs.

While personal transformation will usually prove to be the most powerful means of building trust, it can also be the most difficult to measure. Pastor’s presence alongside my hospital bed can prove he loves me and there are metrics we can use to identify or church’s successes, but how do I know when personal transformation is occurring? What measuring stick can we use to determine real progress and how can a pastor reach higher on that stick?

The answer is usually told in the stories we’re living.

Pastor, if you’re going to have this kind of impact on our lives, we need to see your passion for the lives we currently have. Regardless of the numbers in the sanctuary, we need to sense your heart for us, and the hope you have for what we can become. Some of us stopped dreaming a while ago and our family members haven’t mentioned our potential in quite some time. When you teach and preach in a way that says you believe in us and want to walk with us into our futures, we know you didn’t come to our church just to reach other people. You want to reach us too.

I love visiting Mt. Rushmore—that chiseled collection of granite presidential heads one can find amidst South Dakota’s Black Hills. As a huge Abe Lincoln fan, I can spend hours at any site where he is in focus. Add Washington, Jefferson, and Teddy Roosevelt, and you have more than tripled the attraction.

Why those four? Actually Gutzon Borglum, the original sculptor at Rushmore, rejected the first list of carving candidates suggested by the guy who dreamed of the monument in the first place. Lewis and Clark, Red Cloud, and Buffalo Bill surely impacted the West, but Borglum insisted on sculpting those who had made their mark on a wider scale. Good call. The four great men he chose had transformed a nation. Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, and Roosevelt had founded, expanded, and preserved this superpower and stood as symbols of its courage. As such, they are among the most trusted leaders in our nation’s history.

Who would be on Mt. Rushmore if it were your life we were celebrating? For me, the list is easy—my dad, my immigrant grandfather, my first pastor, and his young adult son. I won’t fill the pages it would require to explain how each of these men have transformed my life, but I can think of no one whose head should be carved on my life’s mountain ahead of theirs.

Now, seeing family members on that list shouldn’t be too surprising, but including my pastor and his son seem significant to this context. Actually Pastor Howard held that title in my life for twenty-six years and his ministry has certainly impacted the other thirty-one. He put my growth, and the life advancement of dozens of others ahead of any church growth agenda he might have harbored. His son lived the same way, leading me to my initial faith decision and becoming a valued mentor in my teen years. They, along with my dad and grandfather, shaped my life in ways I can’t fully describe. Rushmore’s reserved for folks like that.

Pastor, we can tell when that’s who you want to be for us. You know our names, remember chunks of our important stories, and help us target a destination for our futures. So you bring the passion and we’ll bring our very lives, and the stories such a merger will write could prove to be the best future our church can find. You may want to change the way we do church, but your greater goal is to change us more into what we really want to be. Frankly, we’ll be glad for you to change both.