Archive for June, 2009

Do Something Remarkable

Posted: June 23, 2009 in 1, church, leadership

Seth Godin, one of my favs, on doing something remarkable. Sit a spell, you’ll enjoy this.

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Most of us hate feedback! I know that that has been the case for me throughout my career. Most people – especially ministers and pastors – hate the idea that we would submit ourselves to another’s thoughts, judgments, and perceptions. It all seems terribly threatening, and for good reason too. There are simply too many stories of some poor preacher being made to sit through a sermon rebuttal at the weekly elder’s meeting or having to attune themselves to the constant carping of one or two hard-hearted and untrained church members?

There are some kinds of feedback that are only destructive. While we know as a leader there is absolutely no way to please all the people all the time, yet a good leader learns to hear criticism appropriately and use if effectively.  In addition, for us to become what the Kingdom of God needs us to become, we have to open our ears and lose our fear of feedback. Here’s why:

First, “good” feedback has limited use. For years I thought I wanted feedback, but what I actually coveted was “good” feedback. Good meaning, “You did a great job, Sean.” While we all need our strokes, good feedback has limited ability to make us think more deeply and broaden our perspectives. Good feedback has a tendency to point us backward to what we have done instead of forward toward what we can do. We need to hear good feedback. We need to hear that we are on track and that our work and prayers have been meaningful to others. Yet we also need to seek out thoughtful, measured voices to tell us when we may have hit a wrong note or are headed for trouble.

Second, feedback gives us perspective. As a Senior Minister I have a great deal of latitude in what happens on any given week in my congregation. Yet it would be abusive to shape congregational life around my preferences or the preferences of a privileged few. Because I’m human, I naturally orient things around what I like. But in the process of seeking deliberate feedback I can see, hear and feel what others see, hear, and feel. At the end of the day, my job is to add value to my congregation’s worship experience, not design the perfect experience for myself. This cannot be done if I have not endeavored to know what their perspectives are. Leaders, it seems, should ask themselves, “Am I doing this because it is what I like, or because it best serves my church.”

Third, feedback keeps us humble. This applies to both positive and negative feedback. At no point in my life am I more in awe of the power of God then when people are telling me stories of how God has used my life to change theirs. At the same time, when we receive negative feedback we stay in touch with our own humanness. Let’s face it; some of us think that once we’ve entered pastoral leadership we’ve been anointed with greatness. Sometimes we are great – or do some things great – but many times, we are simply filled with hubris. If you cannot handle negative feedback, then you might need to get your ego in check. What happens in ministry is not about you, and to be good leaders, we have to know the areas where we need improvement.

These are simple ways we are aided by criticism and feedback and I don’t want to work with or alongside anyone who feels she or he is above it. If you don think you’re above it your department or organization is going nowhere fast. As a leader, your challenge is to identify the very best modalities to hear and incorporate valuable feedback. Know this, though they may not mean to be, oftentimes, your critics are you allies.

windowslivewriterleadershipvsmanagement-13209image-thumbIn his book, Tribes, Seth Godin makes these two statements: (1) “Management is about manipulating resources to get a known job done” and (2) “Leadership, on the other hand, is about creating change that you believe in.”

As I examined these statements from the early pages of Tribes, I realized that throughout my ministry training – both formal and informal – I was taught to manage, not lead. Not only that, but I was instructed in anti-leadership. I was shaped to be adept at strategies of how NOT to change anything, how NOT to innovate, in essence, how NOT to lead.

An oft-quoted piece of advice in this anti-leadership world is that when you are entering a new ministry context, you should spend at least a year massaging the status quo, never changing anything, and challenging as few practices as possible. I understand the root and genesis of this kind of thinking, and there is some wisdom there, but as I have lived it in three different ministry contexts and as I’ve seen other ministers enter into new contexts, I have seen how this thinking has and is leading to the stagnation and decline in my denominational tribe.

What’s more, throughout my ministry training I was taught incredible and deeply troubling truths about God, scripture and the purpose of the church. Invariably, a student would passionately question why our churches weren’t talking about these things. In response, someone would tell us how we had to be patient and take it slow. It is no wonder then that so many churches never mature, develop or grow.

If management is manipulating resources to get known outcomes then the very best a management-trained minister can do is keep a 200-member church a 200-member church! None of the very best and most healthy churches in my non-denominational tribe have grown significantly in the last 10 years.

None.

Zero. 

Nada.

One reason is obvious; our systems are set against innovation, change and growth. For some reason, we have come to believe that our churches should operate as they did 10, 20 and even 50 years ago. This is partly because our very identity is rooted in restoring something that was (1st century church), rather than becoming something that is not yet (the coming kingdom of God).  Clearly then, if your fundamental orientation is backward looking you never need leaders, only managers.  You don’t need men and woman with vision, only exegetes. You wouldn’t want to consider new approaches for new generations; you simply need to force younger people to appreciate what older people appreciate and when they don’t call them faithless. Regardless of how much time we spend talking and praying about evangelism, mission, missional ecclesiology, growth, formation or discipleship, our systems are stacked against ever doing any of them at best and diametrically opposed at worst. I know. I have seen this dynamic up close and personal.

So this is a call to leadership, for myself and for the good men and woman in ministry I have known over the years who still remain within our churches. It is time for us to lead! To look forward and create new pathways and initiate change people can believe in. If we do not, then our brand of churches may be looking at dark days ahead.

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POST-SCRIPT: (It’s important for me to say that I was taught scripture and ministry by extraordinarily faithful men and women, most of whom were taught – or trapped in – the same anti-leadership environs I was. I am eternally indebted to them for their teaching, ministries and gracious “A’s”.)

Criticism

Posted: June 10, 2009 in change, leadership, Missional Church

There are at least two wonderful things I’ve learned from people who’ve been fired. The first is this: Your identity cannot be wrapped up in what you do, and secondly, you begin to see criticism differently. It’s this second learning that I want to explore.

Most of us are terribly fearful of criticism. I am. I hate it when someone has something negative to say about the way I… well, about the way I do anything. It hurts, quite frankly. Criticism surfaces all the negative thoughts and feelings I often think and carry about myself, even though I know many of them to be false. When we hear criticism we magnify it and frequently respond to criticism in all kinds of negative ways. Perhaps, however, we ought to begin to think about criticism in different ways. There is, I think, a way to understand and receive criticism wherein our critics become a blessing to us and a necessary component of becoming the leaders and Christians we are intended to be.

First, criticism doesn’t tell us we’re bad people, it tells us our work product could have been better. After my first year leading and planning a youth conference in Houston for several thousand teenagers, our team received some negative feedback. Some of the criticism was silly, but there were some pieces that were valid. These were the criticisms that hurt the most! My friend, Jason Noble, simply mentioned that the criticism wasn’t personal, the critics weren’t telling us the event was bad, but that one or two parts could have been better. That’s an important lesson.  Everything we do could be done better. Is that news? Do any of us think that our work product is perfect, of course not. When our critics bring these missed opportunities to light, they are aiding us in producing a better product the next time around.

Second, criticism keeps us fresh. Because we made mistakes – big or small – last time, we are forced to generate fresh ideas and insights the next time. A consistent criticism of my sermons is that I talk too fast. OK, I get it. Therefore my wife, Rochelle, constantly reminds me to slow down. In fact, oftentimes during sermons and speaking engagements I will look at her and see her motioning downward with her hands reminding me to slow down. I find that when I can slow down, not only does my excellent delivery style become even better J, but also I’m able to connect on a personal level. An added benefit of slowing down is that often fresh, new insights come to mind and I ditch what I was going to say in favor of something better. This kind of “fresh-making” can happen because past criticism has been interpreted and appropriated.

Third, criticism keeps us Heaven-focused rather than Earth-bound. Critics remind us that earth is a fallen, broken place where mistakes happen. Think about this: If earth were populated only with people who praise you, would you be more or less desiring to stay here? And if earth were populated only with critics, wouldn’t you prefer to move on to your heavenly dwelling with the Lord. Crazy as it sounds, friends keep us earth-bound; critics tell us that we don’t want to stay around here for too terribly.

Fourth, you will always have critics. There’s simply no way to get around it. People are so different that there’s no way to please them all. As a communicator, I’ve heard it all. “You’re too conservative; you’re too liberal. You dress up to much; you need to dress more casual. Your talks are too short; your talks are too long.” Eventually, you have to learn which critics and criticisms to listen to and which to allow in one ear and out the other. As a leader, you have to get to a place where you tell yourself that God has placed you in a specific position for a specific time. This means you oftentimes have to make a call, own it and move forward, regardless of what the critics think. There is no uncriticizable decision or action. If you can’t deal with that, you don’t need to lead.

So, if you’re a leader facing criticism, take heart. There are a lot of us out there with you. In fact, to lead oftentimes mean taking legitimate criticism, as well as some that’s not so legit. At any rate, I encourage you to hold onto the vision God has given you and your organization. If you trust and follow God you will please Him. And after all, He’s the only critic that matters.

I enjoyed watching NBC’s “Inside The Obama White House” this week. Rochelle and I always enjoy a peek behind-the-scenes of “the people’s house.” I remember that we stole some Christmas tree ideas from Laura Bush a few years ago. While these specials are typically over-hyped and choreographed (as if the President goes to Five Guys Burgers every week); I was interested in one thing President Obama said in the interview.

When asked about cable news, he mentioned that he did not find the conversations helpful. He went on to say that many of the hosts, contributors and personalities are “set pieces.” What he meant was that the T.V. personalities played characters — the conservative, the liberal, the gas-bag, the funny gas-bag, the crier, the yeller, the out-raged, etc….

I thought it was interesting that the President said he found the conversations unhelpful. In his opinion, when everyone already knows what everyone else is going to say before they say it, the conversation gets stuck and there’s no need to bother to listen. And stuck dialogues are devastating  for any organization.

At times in my ministry career, I have cast myself as a character in the church story. I’ve been the young and naive — and played it masterfully. I’ve been the fly in the ointment, the voice no one wants to hear, you know, the prophet. I learned over time that once you’ve played your role and learned your lines for long enough, most people play President and simply don’t tune in to your channel anymore.

This is the danger of becoming a set piece.

The trouble is that many times the set pieces we become are partly  — if not mostly — us. That means to keep other’s attention, to be a channel worth viewing, we need to keep our perspectives fresh, new and evolving. Which, in turn, means that we must continue growing and developing. Our perspectives need to be challenged and we need to be opened to being challenged. If not, we cannot grow.

As a church leader, I know that people need fresh words from God, and as the human voice that’s given the microphone, that fresh word is expected to come through me. I — nor my church — can afford for me to be a broken record; a set piece.

And in whatever capacity you serve your family and humanity, you can’t become a broken record either. So here’s your challenge: What are you doing today to keep it fresh?