Archive for July, 2018

Subject to Change – 14

This 14-part series of blogs–Subject to Change–is taken from the first three chapters of a new book by the same name that I hope to release in 2019. Believe me, there’s a lot more thirst-quenching truth to draw from the well of things people wish their pastor knew about leading them in change. I welcome your comments on what you’ve read thus far…

So, Pastor, we know you’re anxious to get started on the future, but let us walk you through our past a bit. We need you to know a few things before we put this car in drive. So let’s summarize a bit:

We need you to know that you’ve missed a lot.

We need you to know that yours isn’t our first vision.

We need you to know that getting this far hasn’t been easy.

We need you to be gentle when discovering our failures.

And, we need you to walk in our old shoes a bit before thinking we can run in your new ones.

We’re all a part of a larger story, a tale we hope will reach epic measurements, and we want you to be everything your role requires. We’ll even help you by doing our parts too. Just don’t think that this story started the day we added your name to our bulletin. It didn’t and there’s a lot of stuff behind us that we’ll keep carrying until you lovingly help us lay it down.

Here’s what happens if you do. If you love us enough to listen to our stories and let us cry through the sad parts, we’ll write new stories with you. We don’t need you to fix us—at least not yet. We don’t need you to run your highlighter over our failures—we know them too well. We just need you to love us enough to think you can learn from us too. And we’ll teach you what a few forays into the tall weeds have taught us. We both need to know those things ‘cause we really don’t want to end up there again.

Remember My friend, Bill? He turned out to be a really good guy. In fact, by the end of our journey together, he was ready to stand before his congregation and use his influence to fuel the new direction he and his team had discovered. Turns out he’s the kind of guy you’d love to have in your church. To say that he’s a believer in his congregation’s future today would be an understatement. I’m guessing there are several folks in that church reeling in shock to see Bill becoming such a catalyst for change. Last I saw, He was joyfully flailing his arms to fan that flame. It feels really good to see him so enthusiastic. Like most of us, he’s a lot better looking when he smiles.

Funny thing, though. I keep running into Bill nearly everywhere I go. Actually, it’s not Bill himself, but maybe a few of his cousins. In so many settings, I find people twisted into a tight ball that will only ever be unraveled when a wise and caring pastor takes the time to do what Bill’s pastor did for him.

Truth is, Pastor, none of us have been where you want to go, and we’re pretty sure that you haven’t been there either. But that doesn’t mean we don’t want to go or we don’t long for destinations like the one you describe. We just need a bit more trust, a bit more relationship, and a little less fear to climb aboard your fast-moving train. We’ve always thought there could be a Promised Land for our congregation, but so far it’s only been a place we talk about and we’ve already tried more than few maps to get there. Yours may be the right one and you may be the chosen one to guide our journey there, but the previous locomotives that have powered through here and the depot full of baggage they left have taught us to prefer looking more than leaping.

Subject to Change – 13

Welcome back to our ongoing discussion of the things people wish their pastor knew before leading them in a journey of change.

A second fact many pastors will discover when they look into the congregational past is that we’ve got our share of dysfunction.

No congregational journey can be reviewed without discovering a fair number of detours, wrong turns, and family quarrels in the car. Welcome to humanity, the necessary risk God took when entrusting His eternal purposes to us. We tend to get a number of things wrong on the road to getting them right.

One of the greatest ventures in human history begins unfolding in the Bible’s Book of Exodus. Moses, a slave baby raised in the palace, leads masses of the oppressed to a land of freedom and plenty. It’s a compelling story with every plot line the most creative screenwriters could possibly manufacture. That’s why every movie ever filmed of those events gets the label “epic.” It’s an amazing story.

But, think about this story from the bird’s eye view. First, you have such an amazing vision—Promised Land—a gift to people who’d spent more than four centuries in slavery. We’ve lived the American dream for a little more than two centuries. Imagine facing your greatest nightmare for twice that amount of time only to have the horror melt into a hope like this one. Honestly, the idea was so appealing that even a bunch of Egyptians gave up their homes to follow those slaves into the desert.

Of course, this was God’s journey. He proved He was along for their ride on numerous occasions. First, He extricated them from Pharaoh’s grip with the help of ten horrific plagues, aiming them into the Egyptian neighborhoods with a precision that makes our smart bombs look like kindergarten projects. Then, He dropped a moving sidewalk into the middle of the Red Sea, creating an aquatic adventure Sea World can’t copy. Maybe they could if anyone would have taken a few photos, but there wasn’t time before God Himself collapsed that body of water into a frenzy of waves that washed away the powerful army that had been chasing them.

There was honey-soaked bread-like stuff on the ground. There was water from a rock, and quail that flew so low and so slow that even the senior adults were catching them in their bare hands. I hunted quail a few times and know first hand what a miracle that would take. To say that God made this journey with them seems to be a colossal understatement.

Don’t forget the cloud. God put a puffy tour guide in the skies to show them when and where to move forward, and He even lit that fuzz ball up with fire at night so they’d be confident of His direction, even while they were sleeping.

And Moses was a pretty good leader himself. The Book of Hebrews lauds his humility and its clear that this former Egyptian prince had a heart for God that few can match. If you want to be a leader, it’s hard to find a finer example to follow than Jochebed’s boy.

So, put that all together. You have amazing vision, God’s power and presence punctuating the journey in “you-had-to-be-there” kind of ways, supernatural guidance so clear that even the most foolhardy could see which way to go, and a leader of leaders that’s easily among human history’s top ten guys to follow anywhere.

And still there was dysfunction. People complained and wanted to go back to the land of slavery where they were now hated with immeasurable fury. Some of the leaders were given to backbiting and jealousy. They even called God’s spotless record of support into question when the enemies became bigger. Frankly, if there was ever a journey that should have danced all the way to the end, this was it. A real life musical in the making, and yet they hit an awful lot of sour chords.

Every journey has problems…yours will too. So, Pastor, as you look at where we’ve been, be gentle.

Too many new leaders try to build their current credibility on the failures of the past. They vocalize the frustrations of the formerly frustrated; thinking that affirming their disagreement with former leaders somehow aids their own popularity. They point out the mistakes of the past; hoping people realize that “had I been here” the path would have been straighter. So trashing the predecessor or ridiculing the past becomes the path to a weak leader’s future.

He won’t live to see it.

If you criticize the day you didn’t live and the road you didn’t walk, you alienate those who did. Sure, there were mistakes along the way, but the last thing we need is for someone to remind us of that. Besides, that leader you’re refuting cared about us, led in circumstances you don’t fully understand, and sought the same God for direction that we need you to be talking to. Don’t ridicule the work that preceded your arrival. You won’t earn our respect that way.

Change, on its own, can feel like a criticism of the past. A new way causes some to think you’ve decided the old way was foolish. Don’t add to those inaccurate perceptions by careless words and actions that seem to prove them true. The Apostle Paul wasn’t afraid to confront unhealthy stuff when necessary, but even he told us to prove all things and do your dancing around the good stuff (somewhat paraphrased).

If you want to lead our next step, affirm the steps we’ve already taken. You may be smarter than our last pastor, but if you insist on acting like it, some of us will feel compelled to prove otherwise. He was our friend first. Even if he made a mess of things and limped away in colossal failure, it’s not fun to gloat over his grave. We need to build with rock, not mud.

Subject to Change – 12

July 16, 2018 2 comments

Welcome back to our ongoing discussion of the things people wish their pastor knew before leading them in a journey of change.

Remember my friend Bill? He was the fella struggling to see a future for his church because the past tended to demand his undivided attention. Like a driver with an 18-wheeler bearing down on him, he was struggling to give any focus to the windshield. Sometimes the monsters in the rearview mirror really are closer than they appear to be.

Bill’s story is sadly far more common than most of us realize. When you become the pastor of a local congregation, there are many stories you don’t know and haven’t been a part of. And, a lot of them aren’t good stories. In fact, people don’t talk about them, and if they do, they only whisper.

To effectively lead many established churches into the future, a pastor has to have a grasp of the past. You see, the past has shaped the present and it has molded some of its participants too.

Over the years, several people have told me that I tend to walk too fast. For whatever reason, my approach to getting where I’m going occurs at a pace that’s uncomfortable for many of those who walk with me. So, I’ve been known to escape the sight of those following me through airports or traipsing toward the work site on a church missions trips. “Can we slow down a bit,” they ask politely, though I’m guessing they may be mumbling other things.

I admit that I walk fast. The “too fast” part is the opinion of others. And, chief among them is my wife, who frequently reminds me that we’re not in the hurry my legs seem to believe in. Now, my wife is an aggressive high-achiever who, like me, packs more into her calendar than some find realistic. She’s not slow by any definition. My guess is that the difference in our paces relates to leg length and one other major factor—shoes.

I’m no expert on women’s shoes, and I tread cautiously here so as to avoid losing what could be more than half of my readers. But it seems to me that in women’s shoes, there is often an inverse relationship between attractiveness and functionality. When Nancy Sinatra originally sang, “These Boots Are Made For Walkin’” she probably had a specific set of footwear in mind. So did Jessica Simpson when she more recently recorded the same tune, though I’m guessing that her closet offers a variety to choose from. The song suggests that each woman had other options in their closets, but they weren’t made for “walkin’.”

I’ve never worn women’s shoes and have no plans to do so. But I have become convinced that should I ever don a high heel, the speed of my gait would surely be affected. Simply put, if I walked in my wife’s shoes, I wouldn’t walk faster than she can.

The idea of walking “in someone else’s shoes” implies understanding where they’ve been and what they’re dealing with from an insider’s perspective. It means exploring what we feel about the journeys we’ve faced and how those journeys may currently be killing our feet or even hurting our hearts. A leader who ignores the impact of where we’ve been will never understand us enough to effectively lead us in a new direction, no matter how wonderful the waters of your Promised Land might be for soaking our feet. You need to take a few steps in our shoes.

That’s what we’re asking you to do, Pastor.

And, yes, that will probably mean moving a bit more slowly. You see, our shoes can be caked from the mud of a previous journey. Our shoes can be damaged and the heels a bit broken from a few missteps or battles we may not have won. The racing stripes wore off long ago, too. But these are our shoes…and they’re the only ones we have.


Subject to Change – 11

July 9, 2018 1 comment

Pastor, if you’ll listen to your people, you can gain important insights that will help you lead them in change. Here’s something you can learn…yours isn’t our first vision.

There’s something exciting about a fresh start with a new pastor. You can tell as you watch the Sunday attendance swell a bit on that first Sunday. Even some of those who had drifted away in recent months stop by again—people come to see.

What are they looking for? That’s a bit hard to be sure of. Some may have felt rejection from a previous leader and now look to see if there’s any single Sunday evidence that the new regime will be different. Some miss their old friends and see leadership change as the opportunity they need to reenter without having to answer a lot of questions. Some may be wondering who else had left after they did, since they figured theirs would be the first of many departures.

But most come to see what the new day will look like. They come to hear what new priorities will be undertaken. They come to feel the direction of an altered journey to determine if the church will now choose a destination that they’d like to find. In a word, they come for the vision.

Vision is a difficult word. It suffers from overuse, to the point that any clear sense of its intended meaning has been obscured by the dozen or so other meanings it has been known to carry. Vision can mean many different things to many different people, much like the idea of “love” and the specific manifestations of “flu.” You just can’t use such words without also explaining what you really mean.

In this instance, vision definition is in the eye of the beholder. What did that slightly enlarged crowd come looking for? What were they hoping to hear or to settle in their minds by darkening the door on our new pastor’s first Sunday? And what was it that they apparently didn’t hear or didn’t like since their Sunday attendance didn’t reproduce itself?

In such moments, vision means new direction and destination, and the strategies that will get us there. While that’s more than the word should really mean, a pastor’s sense of vision must produce it all. He must tell us where we are going, why we are going there, and how we will most likely get there. That’s what Moses brought down from the mountain and that’s what we’re looking for from the new Moses who just moved his family into our tiny parsonage. What’s God telling us to do, how is He telling us to do it, and what will things look like when we’ve done it?

That’s a lot of pressure on poor Moses, especially if he hasn’t been up the mountain yet.

Truth is, a new pastor can’t and shouldn’t have all those answers on his first Sunday. He just joined our carpool, and even if we decide to let him drive that first day, the only places he knows to find are the places he’s already been. He could try to superimpose the road map of his last church on us, but that’s probably not a journey that fits in the new place. So, how can he know where we’re going or have the beginnings of any idea of how to get there?

Vision is hard, and how to find it deserves its own book, but what we really need pastor to know is that we’ve been down this road before—more than once.

As I already mentioned, I was pastor number thirteen. From everything I could tell, those other twelve guys were pretty remarkable. Though many had died before I started to live, some of the names were quite familiar. There was the prominent missionary whose amazing stories among cannibals in Liberia were the stuff of legends. Little wonder, that the great missionaries to emerge from this historic congregation were launched during the late 1920s era, when his vision ruled the roost.

There were the denominational leaders, a few who had spent time amidst this congregation on their way to bigger things. The footprints of their excellence were still discernable in the hallway carpet and in the hearts of those they once led.

There was the guy whose evangelistic zeal had guided the days of the church’s greatest attendance. Busses in the 1960s had brought dozens of children and parents to the door, a strategy that swelled the black and white sanctuary photos of those days until it seemed the building would hold no more. (I finally got around to reading that history book.)

And there was my predecessor, the brave saint who led the church’s aggressive and under-resourced move to the suburbs. It wasn’t easy to abandon the deteriorating building his vision inherited for the temporary comforts of a shopping mall until the new campus could be ready. It wasn’t easy enduring the financial failings of a general contractor that left much of the finish work to his aging congregation. It wasn’t easy, but he did it—by vision.

Unfortunately, as is often the case, twelve pastors meant twelve visions. And, after you’ve rambled in the wilderness chasing after that many different oases, it’s hard not to lose your own way. Just like in your church, pastor. Once the people have been led to pursue a few different visions, their anticipation of the next one wanes a bit. If the last couple of chases have done little to quench their desperate thirst, don’t be shocked if your enthusiasm for a new journey is met with a bit of barely-veiled ambivalence.

We’ve been here before.

Now, that doesn’t mean we don’t want to go with you or that we’ve all purchased subscriptions to “Better Homes and Deserts” and want to plant radishes in the sand. We want the new day you hope to bring, it’s just that we’ve been down a few roads already. That’s why those folks didn’t come back after they dipped their toes in the water on your first weekend. We want vision, we need vision, but after we’ve lived through several visions, vision just doesn’t rev our engines like it used to.

You’ve probably heard about that frog that once battled the limits of the jar that contained him. In his early days, he jumped a lot, banging his somewhat slimy green head on the underside of the lid until repeated bouts of dizziness taught him a new way. Now he doesn’t jump as often, and certainly not as high, so go ahead and use that lid on a jelly jar (just wash it first).

Frankly, church can be a place where we talk a great deal about what we’re going to do and why we should do what we’re going to do, but it’s not always a great place for getting it done. Motivation without strategy has doomed many a vision, and left us with a keen awareness of the gap between where we are and where we could be. Add thoughts of God and His purposes to this mix and “could be” starts feeling like “should be.”

So, Pastor, don’t think we’re not interested in the new day you dream of. We truly are. But yours isn’t our first lap on the vision track and some of us still have sore muscles from the last time we tried to sprint. We’re a bit more cautious now, and we might need some pre-race stretching.

Subject to Change – 10

In an earlier blog in this series, we discussed how pastor and people could get off to a difficult start when their goals for the relationship differ. Remember, he wants to build a great church and they just want a great pastor? Well, one of the reasons for that disconnect is the simple fact that, Pastor, you’ve stepped into the middle of a story.

Have you ever tuned into a movie after an hour has already elapsed? Ever tried reading a book by starting in chapter six? Do you know what it feels like to walk up to a group of friends that are fully engrossed in a story one of them has been telling for the last ten minutes?

Confusing, isn’t it?

You really don’t know what’s going on or what has already occurred. How can you possibly guess what might or should happen next? Thanks to modern DVR technology, some people won’t even watch an episode of a popular television show today until they can go back three seasons and start at the beginning. It’s the back story we need to understand the story ahead.

So how could we think we can lead a church forward without catching up on a few episodes that have shaped the current plot? Things didn’t start when our current pastor walked in the door and pretending that they did isn’t fooling anyone.

Now, if you’re a church planter, the founding pastor of your congregation, or that rare breed that ends up pastoring the church you grew up in, then you know much if not all the road that’s been previously traversed. You’ve been there and done that, and you should have a handle on how yesterday might be impacting today. In fact, you could skip to the next chapter, but I think we’ll still cover some ground in this one that you could find helpful.

For the rest of us, there’s a history lesson ahead.

Frankly, one of the surprises I get at many of these group gatherings comes when I ask each group about the age of their church. They know, but I am amazed at how often the pastor doesn’t. Now, pastors are typically ready with the answers to most of my questions, but on this one they quickly glance at the older fella on their left to find out. That’s a smart thing to do when you don’t know. I’ve had a few pastors venture a guess only to miss the correct response by more than a decade. That’s awkward.

The night my wife and I were elected to serve as lead pastors at Maranatha Worship Center in Wichita, the deacons sent us home with two books. The first was a small, but beautifully bound copy of the church’s constitution and bylaws. No staples or plastic spiral combs for these folks. When a congregation pays to publish the bylaws with such quality you can quickly imagine some the reasons why this document has become so important over the years.

The second book was larger—a hardback history of the nearly eight decades this congregation had lived together. Black and white photos and the detailed descriptions provided by the church’s official historian proved that every moment of their journey mattered, even now. The book had been assembled for their 75th anniversary celebration a few years earlier. Though I knew that such effort to tell a church’s story usually means that yesterday looks more appealing than today or tomorrow; still, I was pleased to have access to such a valuable publication.

But I have to be honest. I didn’t read it as attentively as I should. The weeks prior to moving my family to our new home and new city were filled with plans. I was busy crafting vision statements and listing ministry priorities. I was writing a core discipleship class and thinking about the process we would use for equipping new believers. There were books to read, but they were the practical strategies the most successful pastors had poured into notebooks and video discussions. If podcasts weren’t still eight years from invention, I would have listened to them too.

What had happened at this church didn’t seem nearly as important to me as what was about to occur, at least that’s what I must have been thinking. So when I arrived at my new office and unpacked my library, I placed that history book on my coffee table, which by the way is the right place for a coffee table book.

They say that those who don’t learn from history are destined to repeat it. I’m not sure that’s true in every situation. What I do believe is that if you don’t learn your church’s history you will run smack into it. And it’ll likely hit you hard. It’s tragic to learn things the hard way when an easier path is sitting on your coffee table.

Here’s what you can learn…yours isn’t our first vision.

Stay tuned…