There are so many things about being a leader that are, well... fun. It's really enjoyable to dream and cast vision. It's great working with a team you love. It's something to wake up to when you realize your day is going to make a difference in someone's life. But it's not all fun and games.
That's why I love what Eric Geiger has always said about leadership.
When we step into leadership roles, whether it's in a business or nonprofit or even in a church, we're going to have to start a fire. We'll have incompetence in a staff position, we'll have a moral failure in another leader, we'll deal with brokenness and painfully bad decisions someone else makes, and more.
And that's when we have to set a fire. We have to deal with the bad news that we've gotten. Fires aren't fun, ever. They burn, they damage, and even though we all know they're necessary, it doesn't make them any less difficult. The kind of fire we start is what matters.
We can, as leaders, choose to take a Scorched Earth approach. In this, everything gets toasted. You find out something happened and it blows up, literally. Someone in a moral failure is dragged in front of the church and forced to apologize (such as when a young woman gets pregnant outside of marriage, funny the guy doesn't have to wear the scarlet letter). A team member makes a minor mistake and is beat down with a verbal barrage. A family going through difficulty is forced to live it out and even those not affected have to answer. Scorched earth doesn't work. It leaves nothing behind.
Leaders fail when they adopt a scorched earth approach because there's nothing left to be redeemed. Sure you got the point across, but what's left behind? Ashes and charred remains. Nothing can grow and nothing can be restored for years, if ever.
That said, in very rare and very extreme cases, sometimes you need to just torch everything. News broke this morning of a church leader who ruled with an iron fist and was a dictator. That's a time where the elders and leaders have to torch it. You have to deal hard with hard issues, but only when there's no other option. Same thing where a volunteer or worker gets popped for messing with a kid. There's no "second chance" on that. But these cases are rare and exceptional.
The other approach is the Controlled Burn. One of the perks of living in Florida is we don't have wildfires very often. We get hurricanes, Florida Man, alligators, pythons in ponds, crazy thunderstorms, and Disney tourists. But we don't get wildfires. What's blown me away about wildfires is that one practice to stop a wildfire is to do a controlled burn. In a controlled burn, a fire is carefully set and controlled in order to rob the raging wildfire of its fuel to burn out of control.
Leaders who take a controlled burn know there's going to be damage, know there's going to be fallout, know that people will be hurt, know that this isn't going to be much fun. But rather than torch everything, they're careful, intentional, loving, and restorative about the fire they set. In this, there's always the opportunity for redemption. There's always the opportunity for healing and growth. The burn is done in order to minimize damage and maximize hope.
Controlled burns don't dismiss the severity of the situation, nor do they give a pass for bad behavior. The fact they're controlled means that the impact is limited to the specific person or situation and doesn't destroy things unnecessarily. Yes there's pain, and as a leader you might have some fallout to deal with. But it's not widespread. It's not catastrophic. And most of all, it's left room for healing and restoration. For a family with a wayward child, it means not condoning but also leaving a light on and coffee on the table. For a staff member with a moral failure, it means discipline and termination but also care and ministry to the family. For the worker who puts a hole in a window, it means paying for the window without dragging their name through the mud on Facebook.
Pastors and leaders, how do you make sure you're doing controlled burns?
If you were to rank the responsibilities of a pastor, the top one would be preaching. It's the most visible thing we do. It's what we're most known for. It's what we're expected to do week in and week out. And because it's our top priority, it's what we should devote the bulk of our time to.
But how long should it take?
When I was in seminary I remember hearing someone say that a minute in the pulpit = an hour in the study. If you're in a church that does Sunday morning, Sunday night, and Wednesday night you're looking at anywhere from 80-100 minutes each week of preaching. Congrats pastor, you can catch a couple hours of sleep on Thursday afternoon.
Instead of focusing on study time as a direct correlation with the amount of time you spend preaching, I loved how this article from The Gospel Coalition ended: sermon preparation takes "however long is necessary."
Everyone has a different flow and capacity for what they're able to do. Some of us are speed readers who can work through commentaries quickly, others of us are slower readers who have to labor more intensively to retain what we've read. Some of us can flesh an outline out quickly and others of us have to stare at a white board and make connections to try to figure out what a text is saying.
Whenever you're preaching a passage, your study should focus on how to take what the passage says, explain what it means, and give practical application for it today. We should strive to avoid two pitfalls of pastoral ministry:
1. Spending too little time in preparation - Acts 6 makes it clear that the role of elder/pastor in the church is primarily the preaching of the Word, but it's not all there is. Pastors still must lead, do administration, counseling, shepherding, discipling, and the "whatever it takes" to serve a congregation. We fail our primary task when we let our time be overrun with the secondary responsibilities. And when pastors are ruled by secondary responsibilities they run the risk of becoming nothing more than a chaplain/gardener who tends the garden until everyone's dead. What suffers in the gardener ministry? The proclamation of the Word. Preaching becomes weak, trite, shallow, and malnourishing. Instead of giving strong meat, we're giving chewed up bread.
2. Spending too much time in preparation - I actually believe pastors can spend too much time in sermon preparation. Spending too much time in study and preparation means that the primary responsibility has become the only responsibility. When we spend too much time in preparation sometimes we overthink the passage, where we make bigger mountains than the text allows, or we try to dive into every possible rabbit hole. More pragmatically, when we spend too much time in preparation we're failing to live and serve among our congregations. The difference between a speaker and a pastor is that a pastor knows to whom he's preaching. We know to whom we preach because we spend time with them, we invest in them, we're in hospitals and living rooms.
The worst hire to make is the wrong hire. Not only the cost of interviews, bringing in a candidate, paying a consultant or outside perspective, and the cost of any severance or buyout required to move on. But beyond the financial cost, there’s other expenses that can’t be recorded on a ledger sheet. The leadership loses a little bit of its credibility and trust after bringing in a bad hire. It will then be more difficult the second (or third or fourth) time around when an opening requires a hire.
Obviously you can’t tell everything in an interview or screening process. Those, though good, aren’t perfect. Someone can absolutely dazzle in an interview and then when they’re on the job they flame out as a dud. Or someone can be awful in the interview process but turn out to be a great hire who happened to have a bad morning.
Whenever you’re looking at bringing in a new team member, you not only want to see what they can do, but also who they are. This is especially true for ministry, where the qualifications for pastoral ministry are overwhelmingly character > competency. And in the church, because what we do is intensely personal and interactive, we have to make sure we’re bringing the right people on board.
Jim Collins called it “making sure the right people are on the bus in the right seats.” The wrong person in the wrong seat can make it difficult for any ministry to move towards vision. I wrote a whole book on developing a team climate in ministry, where I put a ton of emphasis on chemistry as the missing ingredient for most church staffs.
Though they’re not perfect (every hire and on-boarding requires a tremendous amount of faith and trust in the provision of God), we should try to ask 6 questions about every new hire.
What questions do you ask in a new hire process?
The Patriots won (again), the commercials were lame, and the halftime show featured some bizarre combination of Maroon 5 and a rapper in a fur coat. Now that the Super Bowl is over, a whole tribe has emerged: the Haters. The Haters are known for their hot take tweets during and after the game:
“This is exactly what the NFL wanted! Another Pats win” (Remember that time the NFL was willing to go to the Supreme Court over the PSI of a ball? And took away draft picks over Spygate? And how awkward Goodell is every time he hands over the trophy?)
“The refs should be the MVP for New England” (Are we forgetting the reason the Rams are in the game is because of a blown call? And that MJ totally shoved Byron Russell out of the way?)
“Edelman shouldn’t have won MVP because he juiced” (Alright I’ll give you this. But he took the suspension mandated by the league at least)
Why do the Haters exist? Quite simply, I think it’s because many people resent others’ success. It doesn’t have to be in sports. It happens in business, in education, at work when someone else gets a promotion, and dare I say it… in the church.
When the megachurch across town reaches hundreds of people each week and expands to another campus, the Haters respond with “Well people are going for the circus” or “They’re just a stage show entertaining.”
When the faithful pastor gets called to another church, the Haters reply with “He just used them as a stepping stone.”
When someone gets invited to speak at a conference, the Haters reply with “He’s just interested in building his brand.”
The list goes on and on. As Christians, and especially as pastors, we’re not immune to being Haters when others have success. In fact, I would argue that one of the markers of our maturity as a leader isn’t how we respond to our success, it’s how we respond to others’.
As pastors, it’s important for us to steer clear of becoming one of the Haters.
In shocking news to all of us in Florida, the entire country (except us) got hit with ridiculous, generational cold temperatures. It was colder in Chicago than Siberia. And Minneapolis got so cold that the weather radar didn't even have a color for it.
If you're reading this in one of those areas affected, stay warm and make sure you check in on your neighbors.
Weather events always prompt us as pastors to ask the hard question: should we have services today or not?
I'm not proposing a clear-cut, black-and-white answer to this question. Every church has to make the decision for themselves when facing a significant weather crisis. Those who choose to have them will do so trusting that their services go well, and are attended by those who can safely come. Those who choose not to do so trusting that they have made the right decision in people's best interests.
Typically we don't see decisions made on the far ends of the spectrum. Most of us live in the middle. So I want to propose 5 questions to ask when deciding whether or not to have or cancel services during inclement weather.
1. Is there a legitimate public safety crisis? - If you're in an area that deals with hurricanes and one is expected to make landfall on Sunday at 10:00am... you might want to go ahead and cancel. Sometimes there are legitimate public safety issues to factor in to our decisions. If roads are not treated for ice/snow, and local officials are encouraging non-essential people to stay home, there's a legitimate safety issue to factor. Tune in to your area's Emergency Management for warnings and advice.
2. Will there be a risk to our senior adults? - I'll be totally honest, the people who will get out in snow/ice or serious weather threats aren't your families in minivans. It's going to be the guy on his third hip, or the lady with a walker. Our senior adults in our churches are our consistently faithful attenders, and they'll show up when the church is open.
3. How are our facilities? - When it comes to snow and ice, our facilities have to be clear and prepped in order to accommodate people for services. In making any decision about holding or cancelling activities, the state of the facility has to be considered. If your facilities can be cleared and accessible safely for people, then consider having. If not, consider closing. Every church should, depending on where they're located, have on hand the resources and materials (and a list of people with strong backs) to do what's needed to clear.
4. What do our key leaders think? - Group think can often lead to decision paralysis, but if you're the decision maker you need input from those around you. I've been part of paralyzing decision processes, but I've also seen when getting input has been helpful in making decisions. If you ask key leaders or if you have a group who are charged with the decision, it can sometimes make it easier. I've had times where I've been reluctant or hesitant, and when getting input from people around it's made the decision easier.
5. Do we have other options? - Growing up in Kentucky we often would experience all four seasons in a week, sometimes even in a day. When making the decision, you may have the ability to still have some activity, depending on conditions. You'll see this when churches will cancel their early activities and only host their later ones, or those who condense into one service, or who reschedule for the afternoon.
If you ask me my philosophy, I tend to be more cautious than most. My thought is that it's better to call off and be wrong than to have and put people at risk. You may not be that way. That's ok. We're not all supposed to be the same. But we do have to ask ourselves these questions every time we're confronted with the question.
How do you and your church handle weather issues and making the decision? Share in the comments!
In my lifetime I don't know if I can name anyone who got really excited about meetings. I think most of us look at meetings the same way we do a trip to the dentist: it's for our good and we need them, but the happy gas (or donuts in the meeting) is the highlight.
But it's possible to make meetings enjoyable. I'd argue that our cynicism towards meetings is because the overwhelming experience we've had in meetings has been negative. They've been led poorly. They went nowhere. They never ended. And worse, they could have been an email.
If you want to lead meetings well, I want to give five suggestions
1. Start (and End) on Time - Most of the time we spend the opening parts of our meetings catching up or small talking. There's nothing wrong with that. We need to build relationships and strengthen chemistry with the people around us. But that happens outside the meeting time. If your meeting starts at 10, start at 10. If it's scheduled to end at 11, it ends at 11. I've heard of CEOs using a kitchen timer to set the time limits for their meetings. We want to be mindful of people's time, and respectful of their attention during our meetings.
2. Use Memos (or Emails) - It's anecdotal, but 75% of the time I've spent in meetings in my life could have been sent as an email. If there is information to be passed on, do that in an email. Don't take time in meetings to talk about things that could be shared in an email. Use the time in meetings for things that require the meeting. Memos/Emails are a great way to get calendar dates, reminders, etc. out quickly.
3. Have an Agenda - The scariest meeting is the meeting without a plan. It's like handing a bunch of toddlers markers in a freshly painted room. You're asking for trouble. Agendas provide structure, direction, and road markers for your meeting. Agenda items are prepared and initiated in advance. And the agenda is sent out before the meeting so people know what to expect.
4. Solicit Input - One thing meetings allow that emails don't is that you have all the key decision makers and leaders in the same room. Get their input and feedback in the meeting. Don't turn meetings into benevolent dictatorships where you dispense things and expect approval. Meetings that solicit input turn conversational, foster collaboration, and create a stronger team atmosphere.
5. Have an Action Plan - At the end of the meeting, there should be a very clear plan of what happens next. Clear action items should be agreed upon, delegated to the right people, and a system of accountability & follow-up should be put in place. No meeting should ever end with inaction. If it does, you've wasted your time (and everyone else's).
These are written really generic, but let's think about particular application to the local church. How can pastors & ministry leaders effectively lead meetings? What do you do in your meetings to lead better meetings?
One of my favorite movies is Office Space, and in the movie the main character has a really rough start to his week (TPS reports, 8 bosses, traffic, and getting static shocked by the door). He has a "case of the Mondays."
If you've seen the movie, you have that line stuck in your head now. You're welcome.
Pastors aren't immune to a case of the Mondays. We're coming off a very emotional day on Sunday with worship, preaching, meetings, spiritual crises, and more. We've poured everything we had into our message and are on empty afterward. To flip the calendar to a Monday and have to restart everything might sound discouraging and daunting.
Some pastors respond to this by taking Monday off. They're so emotionally drained after Sunday they need a day before they can bounce back. They'll do yard work, projects around the house, and step away from the meat grinder of ministry for a day. It's their Sabbath. If that's you, go for it. Some guys are able to do that and function and process and be ready to roll on Tuesday morning.
Everyone has a different way of handling their Mondays. Some people knock out meetings on Monday. Others do all their administrative work and are "peopled out" for a day. It's part of how God has uniquely wired each of us.
If I can offer a few suggestions for kicking your case of the Mondays:
1. Write thank you notes - One of the things I've been most blessed by lately is writing thank you notes on Mondays to people who made Sunday awesome. It's helped me be more grateful and appreciative of all that goes in to make Sunday happen. This week it was for people in our children's ministry who jumped in as volunteers to cover for stomach bugs!
2. Follow up with guests - Quick phone calls, emails, texts, and social media contacts are some easy ways to connect with people who visited on Sunday. For me it's a source of joy to talk to people who made it a priority to visit us. I love hearing their story, asking who made their visit special, and what we can do to minister to them. Sometimes Monday is a pastor's worst enemy, when we don't feel like we got anything accomplished on Sunday. But hearing from guests is a quick remedy.
3. Map out the week - I love iCal because it lets me schedule things in blocks and shape out the week, color coded by function. Monday is the time to lay out doctor's appointments, sermon prep time, meetings, ministry commitments, personal activities, and more. And what I love about block scheduling is that if emergencies arise, all I have to do is move the block.
4. Do mindless work - Type out agendas, answer emails, tidy up your office, update spreadsheets, look at attendance numbers, and make Powerpoints. None of those take critical thinking energy, and you can knock out a lot from a weekly to-do list in one day.
Whatever and however you do your Monday, do what you need to so your week can thrive and be most faithful and effective in ministry.
How do you kick your case of the Mondays?
We hear stories all the time of an athlete playing with a "chip on their shoulder" that pushes them and motivates them to excellence. Tom Brady can still recite the names of every quarterback taken ahead of him in the 2000 NFL Draft, Clemson heard all season about how Alabama was potentially the best team in college football history, and perhaps my favorite of Michael Jordan making up beef with LaBradford Smith in the 1990s.
As fans we love watching when athletes play with the chip, especially if they're on our favorite team. It brought me great joy to watch Lamar Jackson light up the NFL after being told he would be a receiver instead of quarterback.
I don't think pastors are immune to a chip on their shoulder. But we have to be careful not to allow those chips to become idols in our lives. The difference between a chip and an idol is that a chip fuels motivation for something, but an idol becomes the thing we serve. So a pastor who got a failing grade in his seminary preaching class might use that as a reminder to give his best effort every time preaching. When it becomes an idol is when our motivation for doing well becomes less about God's glory and our effectiveness and more about proving a point.
Warning: Unusual transparency ahead
For me, I had to take a long look in the mirror and ask if the chips that I had on my shoulder had gotten out of hand. What I thought I was using for motivation as a chip so I wouldn't, as Alexander Hamilton said, throw away my shot, was more and more an idol that would consume me. Instead of wanting to be the best pastor I could be so I could be a vessel of God's glory, I would hear the voices of people I had served under in my head"
No matter what you say, no one will listen. You're just a kid.
No one is going to read your book. Who are you to have anything to say?
At first it pushed me and I had really productive months of writing and research and ministry. But then, like every idol (in this case the idol of being taken seriously) it became a snare. Instead of wanting to be the best minister, I wanted more than anything to be taken seriously. There wasn't joy anymore, it was an ax to grind.
So pastors, my call to all of us is three things:
1. Have a short memory - You shouldn't keep your failed exam from seminary and post it on your mirror like Rocky fighting Drago. Forget about it. Move on. Don't dwell on what someone said to you and buy into the lie of critic's math.
2. Stay humble - Ministry isn't about proving a point or proving someone wrong, nor is it about success or fame and glory. It's about faithful plodding. And we can't faithfully plod if we're not humble.
3. Please God, not Man - Your faithfulness as a pastor or ministry leader is what's most important, not the scoreboard. You can get all the accolades and back-pats in the world, but if you're not first/foremost/solely/only seeking to honor God, none of it matters. We're not in this to make people like us or take us seriously. We're in this to point people to Jesus.
Have any of you as pastors struggled with a chip on your shoulder that turned into an idol? How'd you smash that idol?
I stayed up way too late Sunday night to watch the end of the Patriots & Chiefs. Thankfully I missed the horrible no-call against the Saints in the first game, or else I'd have gotten sucked way down into the Twitter vortex. By the way, fantastic trolling from the eye doctor offering free exams to the refs. Nice work.
But what stuck out the most in watching the Pats win in overtime wasn't that they controlled the ball and kept Mahomes off the field. It wasn't that the Evil Empire once again seemed to get the 50/50 calls. It was that Tom Brady was just as excited about his 9th Super Bowl appearance as he was his first. Think about that for a minute, Brady has been in more Super Bowls than any franchise in NFL history. And for him, that moment wasn't routine.
Not to connect everything to football, but in ministry we can so often get consumed by the doing of ministry and the doing of church that we forget to take joy in what we see around us. One of the unique things about ministry leadership is that God gives us, in many cases, a front row seat to what He's doing behind the scenes. We get to see the expressions on people's faces when they trust Christ, we get to hear the stories of broken marriages restored, we get to listen as people share about why they feel at home in our churches.
And that should never get old.
Thanks Tom Brady for reminding us that we should never get bored with the incredible, even when it becomes routine.
If you've never been exposed to Francis Schaeffer, you're missing out. There's no other way to say it. Schaeffer, with wondrous prose and careful thought, sheds light on so much that Christians have often missed speaking towards, especially the arts and culture.
Hat tip to Nathaniel Miller for loaning me his copy of Schaeffer's book Art & The Bible. In short, Schaeffer points out that much of what Christians contribute to the arts is "romanticized Sunday School art." I'm not going to use this to air my grievances with poorly made Christian films, though you can read others' comments here, here, here, here, and here. I'll never forget leaving one and talking with the friend I went with to see it and saying "I mean, I know I'm supposed to like it because we're all Christians, but that was awful."
How is it that we, who have tasted redemption, who have been freed from chains of sin and despair, who have experienced the greatest and highest of joys, reduced our expression of that to Thomas Kinkade paintings and feature length sermon illustrations? Where have we missed the point? Schaeffer brings all of this to bear, by writing at length about the role of art, how God used artistry for beauty's sake in the Bible, and how Creation itself bears witness to the artistry of God.
So what are the takeaways for pastors and ministry leaders?
1. Pursue excellence - Just because it's for Jesus doesn't mean we should be content to say "well, they tried." We should desire excellence for excellence's sake, because Jesus redeemed our production to be done well. We shouldn't settle for mediocrity in our preaching, in our worship, in our outreach, our programming/events, and more.
2. Don't sanitize - Life doesn't work like it does in the Kinkade painting or lame movie. Sometimes pains don't go away. Sometimes the atheist professor flunks the Christian student. The Bible itself often leaves us with an unsanitized view of life. But what it does give us is the never-ending presence of God, it gives us the surrounding hope of community to bear our pain with us, and it shows us that only in the return of Christ will our tears be wiped away.
3. Embrace creatives - We're very formulaic in much of our expressions of worship or embrace of the arts. It has to fit in a nice neat box. But creatives don't work with that side of their brain. The spreadsheets don't have to be all clean and neat. They say things like "heaven meets earth like a sloppy wet kiss." They're not heretics, they just think differently and look at the world differently than you and I do. That's ok.
4. Stop trying to copy the world - I get so annoyed with pastors who rip off whatever TV show or movie is big at the moment. Stop it. Stop trying to be too clever or cute. I'd extend the same to Judgment Houses that try to be cheap copies of haunted houses. We don't need to copy the world. We have something much greater than anything they can offer or entertain us with. Schaeffer said "The Christian is the one whose imagination should fly beyond the stars." Let's not settle for cheap copies, let's offer something far greater, the wonderful drama and narrative of Scripture.
Scott M. Douglas
A blog about leadership and the lasting legacy of family ministry.