Something old may just be something new!

I haven’t blogged in well over a month. I haven’t felt like I had anything new to say. Maybe I don’t. But in the past two weeks I’ve had two conversations with ministry leaders from two churches in two states, each of whom sharing with me something that set off my equipping alarm! I have been reminded that each person learns at their own speed, implementing what they can, when they can. In other words, when someone attends a training or reads a book or blog, there may be only one or two points that grab their attention and around which they take action.

Case in point: in the first conversation, the ministry leader shared that their church had enthusiastically encouraged gifts discovery, providing curriculum and a class for those who were interested in learning. Many of their members went through the class and were excited to learn their spiritual gift. However, there was no follow through. No follow up. No process for helping those folks find a serving opportunity that would utilize their gift in fruitful ministry.

This reminds me of the first Christmas we gave our son an electronic toy. He squealed with excitement when he opened his gift, then cried with equal fervor when it wouldn’t work because we had neglected to purchase the necessary batteries. I saw the same frustrated disappointment on the face of my grandson just a few weeks ago when, after gleefully ripping the wrapping paper off a Christmas present, he was told he couldn’t open the box to play with the toy because his momma was concerned that the small parts would be lost in all the empty boxes and wrapping paper. What’s the fun of opening a gift that you can’t use?

In the second conversation, a ministry leader shared that they had at one time offered a discovery process, but it had now been years since spiritual gifts was a topic of conversation around the church. New folks who had come since that time had not been provided an opportunity to discover their unique design for ministry, and those who had participated previously had not been encouraged to re-visit the process to see what new thing the Holy Spirit might be doing in their lives to birth new ministry.

In each of these cases, a discovery process was implemented–probably in response to a new idea gleaned from a book or a training–but the process was incomplete in the first instance, and relegated to a program (with a predictable end) in the second. I’ve no doubt that the intention of each of these ministry leaders was to encourage their congregation to serve, but they had only a partial understanding and implementation of what is necessary to equip their people for fruitful and fulfilling ministry.

These conversations lead me to believe that I may not have anything new to say, but the stuff I’ve said before bears repeating. With that said, I will focus the next few posts on casting the vision for what is necessary to create and sustain an equipping culture. For those of you who have heard it all before, I hope you will share your thoughts, experiences, and suggestions to make that which is old (to you) into something new for others…and perhaps for yourself, too!

something old made new

Growing up

This week I began reading Eugene Peterson’s book, Practice Ressurection. It’s an insightful work on Paul’s letter to the Ephesians,inviting me to ponder anew some familiar concepts.

“This kingdom life is a life of entering more and more into a world of gifts, and then, as we are able, using them in a working relationship with our Lord.” 1

Peterson goes on to talk about how we understand the concept of gift easily enough. After all, we neither make ourselves nor birth ourselves and so life itself begins as a gift. Immediately we begin receiving gifts–food, shelter, clothing, nurture, education, training, etc. Everything we have is a gift when we are a very young child.

“We have been given much. Now we begin exercising these gifts in community.”  2

Growing up…  From early childhood we begin to learn to do for ourselves. We learn through the gift of training to dress ourselves and feed ourselves. We learn through the gift of education how to apply basic skills like reading and math as we mature into adolescence. During adolescence (rightly described by Peterson as “awkward and often turbulent”) we learn how those gifts we’ve been given translate into adult responsibilities. Life leads us into into making decisions–some wise and some not so much–but all part of growing up.

Let’s apply this concept to the maturation process of the Christian believer. There are the “baby” Christians who are just discovering the wonder of a life lived in and under grace–that wonderful gift that sets us free to accept all the other gifts bestowed by the Spirit. Sadly, there are some who never mature past this point. They fill the pew on Sunday only for what they can receive.

Then there are the mature believers who have heard and answered Christ’s call to a life lived for Him. They share freely the gifts the Spirit provides, serving others in their day in and day out lives. They come to worship not for what they can receive–though they do, indeed, receive much–but to offer themselves to Christ in a loving and working relationship.

But what about the adolescents? The ones who are navigating that awkward stage between being a baby Christian (primarily receiving) and becoming a  mature believer (primarily giving)? Attempting to discern their call through exploring the Spirit-gifts, checking out various ministries, trying on different serving opportunities can be confusing and frustrating and…turbulent! These are the ones that require the most from me as an equipping leader. Having parented three adolescents, I know first-hand that this stage requires guidance and structure, not to mention patience.

If you are an equipping leader who frequently “parents adolescent Christians,” having structures and processes in place will be an encouragement to the people you serve. It will help you help them navigate this stage safely and securely. Providing a gifts discovery tool, a structure for exploring serving opportunities that doesn’t require a lifetime commitment, and being available to debrief the process with them are three things you can offer to help them grow up into the fullness of Christ.

1Peterson, Eugene H., Practice Resurrection (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdman’s Publishing Co., 2010), pg. 46
2 Ibid.

**If you think examining your equipping process with a fresh pair of eyes would be useful to the people you serve, please contact me at

Full Disclosure

For the past three years, I have been working with our small congregation to develop an equipping culture. My prior experience with a large congregation involved to maintaining and growing equipping systems and processes that were already in place.  Transitioning to a smaller church setting has provided me the opportunity to practically explore the “why” behind some of those structures and processes I have taken for granted.

I recently signed up to help with an off-site ministry event. I had a busy week and didn’t give the event much thought until the night before, when I realized I had a lot more questions than I had answers! I found myself feeling somewhat frustrated because I didn’t have information that would help me feel confident as I stepped into my assignment. As a result of this experience, I learned why a defined process is a useful tool when planning ministry events.

Here’s one way you can develop such a tool. Gather a team of inquisitive, detail-oriented people and start asking questions:

  • What time do volunteers need to arrive?
  • What time will they be finished?
  • If it’s an off-site event, where should they park?
  • Is the event indoors or outdoors? If outdoors, does rain cancel the event?
  • What is appropriate attire? (e.g., work clothes, comfortable shoes, etc.)
  • Do they  need to bring special equipment or supplies?
  • Who do they report to?
  • Upon arrival, where will they find this person?
  • Who will they be working with? (Remember, no one should serve alone!)
  • What specific task(s) will the volunteer be required to do?
  • Will they be trained prior to the event or at the event?
  • How will we promote this event?
  • How will we invite people to participate?
  • Where and how can people sign up to serve?

Ask until your well of questions runs dry! No question is insignificant. Believe me, if you come up with it, someone else will also.

Feel like a tedious exercise? Perhaps. You may not mind walking into a strange place without knowing exactly who will orient you or specifically what you will do. But there are plenty of people who want to know exactly what to expect and won’t sign up to serve until they have enough information to feel comfortable and confident.

By the way… if you oversee the volunteer ministry of your church, I encourage you to sign up occasionally as a volunteer. It’s a good way to evaluate what’s going on in various ministry areas from the perspective of a volunteer. You can then help ministry leaders become high-capacity leaders of high-capacity teams, not to mention helping volunteers have positive and fulfilling ministry experiences. Just remember to seek first to understand and then to be understood. Ask questions that will help you understand specifics of the particular ministry so that you can be helpful while avoiding any hint of micro-managing.

Lastly…debrief ministry events as soon afterwards as possible. Even if you don’t anticipate repeating that particular event, you will discover tips to increase your effectiveness when planning the next event. And don’t forget to celebrate your success!



A new thing, part II

The new most important word in my equipping vocabulary:


Are you thinking, “yeah, yeah, yeah…heard that before?” Well, bear with me, OK? (If you are just tuning in, you may want to read my last post.

Wikipedia defines vocation as “a term for an occupation to which a person is specially drawn or for which he or she is suited, trained, or qualified. Though now often used in non-religious contexts, the meanings of the term originated in Christianity.” Since the early 1900’s, it has evolved to also mean “the notion of using our talents and capabilities to good-effect in choosing and enjoying a career.”

Wikipedia defines avocation as “an activity that one engages in as a hobby outside one’s main occupation.” It goes on to talk about people whose professions are the means by which they make their living, but whose true passions lie in the activities outside their workplace.

If you are a pastor, you are most likely going to associate to vocation with your “call” to ordained ministry. If you are a layperson, you probably think of vocation as your 8-5 job, or the means by which you earn a living. What’s more, laypeople tend to treat their ministry as an avocation.Why? Because church leaders often do.

We (church leaders) approach equipping as a program. We encourage gifts discovery as the means by which we help people connect to ministry. But it’s task-based…a serving opportunity, we call it. As I said in my last post, it may be a more thoughtful approach, but it’s still slot-filling.

I think it’s time for a paradigm change. I think it’s time we stop thinking of the church functionally and think ontologically. In a recent blog post, W. David Phillips writes,

Ontology has to do with being. An ontological understanding of church has to do with what it is, not what it does. And what it is is far wider, deeper, higher than anything it does, or anything we can take charge of or manipulate.

In their book The Equipping Pastor R. Paul Stevens and Phil Collins point out that, “in Pauline thought, Christ does not use his body to get his work done on earth, as attractive as this idea might be.” They clarify that the body does serve God in the world, but emphasize that “God is as concerned about being as God is with doing.”1

Parker J. Palmer says, “Vocation does not come from a voice “out there” calling me to become something I am not. It comes from a voice “in here” calling me to be the person I was born to be, to fulfill the original selfhood given me at birth by God.”2

This speaks again to the ontological rather than functional nature of the church. God’s covenant with us is a covenant of being, not primarily a contract for doing. God invites us first and foremost to be his people, and then to share in his project on earth.

I’m not done yet…there’s more, so stay tuned. In the meantime, I’d like to hear from you if my musings thus far have stirred up anything within you!


1R. Paul Stevens and Phil Collins, The Equipping Pastor (Betheesda, MD: The Alban Institute, 1993), 105.

2Parker J. Palmer, Let Your Life Speak, (San Franciso, CA: Jossey-Bass, 2000), 10.

The Un-Interview

A couple of weeks ago I led a workshop at the LifeServe National Conference which I titled “The Un-Interview.” The topic was ministry conversations–those conversations we equipping leaders have with newcomers to our congregation or with folks who decide it’s time to “get more involved”–and how to get the most out of them. I recently read Henri Nouwen’s book, Spiritual Direction,  and it was playing through my mind as I prepared my presentation.

As ministry leaders, it is easy to succumb to the temptation to treat these conversations like marketplace interviews. Certainly there are similarities. We are trying to match people/skills to roles. But there’s so much more to ministry conversations than matching and placement! We would do well to see them as prime opportunities to discover what God is doing in a person’s life.

“I’m sorry, but I just don’t have time to serve right now.”

As ministry leaders, this is the excuse we most often hear from someone who is unwilling to serve in ministry. Rather than pull our hair in frustration, what if we view this as a clue to what God wants to do in that person’s life, and embrace it as an opportunity to engage in spiritual direction… that is, creating space for this person to grow in their understanding of God? That reluctant volunteer may not trust God to meet their need for the time and energy necessary for ministry. Their excuse is our clue that God wants to replace their wrong narrative of a demanding and stingy God with a right narrative of a God who invites us into ministry with him and graciously provides all we need to accomplish his purpose!

Another reason for reticence that I often encounter is the fear that God will call someone to a ministry for which they have no desire. This is often tied up in that person’s wrong narrative about “carrying their cross.” Why would the Spirit hand out gifts–something we associate as a pleasurable experience–and then call someone to use that gift in the place that is least desirable to them? What wrong assumption does this person hold about God? My colleague Peter says, “If God is the God who wants you to go to Africa, you probably won’t want to do anything else.” In other words, if God is going to call you to something, he will give you the desire for it!

Guiding people into ministry is more than filling out questionnaires, tallying scores, matching gifts to roles, and making placements (though these things are a necessary part of the process). Ministry conversations can–and should–go far beyond discovering what gifts have been given, what experiences have occurred, what abilities have been learned, which heart-strings have been pulled. Ministry conversations can hold clues to false narratives about God that, with a little spiritual direction, can be gently revealed and corrected, creating space for spiritual awakening to a God full of grace and wonder. Serving that God becomes, then, a joyful “get to” rather than a joyless “have to.”

What are we equipping them for? Is it enough?

In my last post, I questioned whether we are in danger of turning equipping into another program of the church. I suggested that we as equipping leaders might need to look at our motive for equipping. If we are truly honest, are we motivated to equip in order to fill the empty ministry slot? Perhaps we are accomplishing that more efficiently when we encourage people to engage in gifts discovery and match them to appropriate serving opportunities, but I’m concerned that our motivation is still skewed.

Perhaps we need to be motivated by something more than the ministry roles and serving opportunities of the church–no matter how important and worthwhile they are–and rather be driven by a passion for helping people see the whole of their life as a serving opportunity. Perhaps we need to be motivated by the desire to see each and every believer be the hands and feet and voice of Christ wherever they are and whatever they are doing. Period. Maybe what we need to do is help the harried working mom or the stressed-out executive dad discover how God has gifted them for ministry right where they are.

In our consumer culture, is it any wonder that they are suspicious about our attempts to “equip” them? Why wouldn’t they assume that we are trying to add one more thing to their already busy calendar… the sad thing is that, in too many cases, they are right! We may be sincere in our desire to help them find the best serving opportunity that aligns with their SHAPE* for ministry, but we are still trying to plug them into a serving role that we need to fill.

Last Sunday I listened to a sermon on 1 Peter 2:5. The preacher spoke of us as being priests to the nation and to the world, explaining that a priest (in this context) is simply a person who represents God. How are we equipping believers to represent God? How does the working mom or the middle-aged executive reflect the grace and glory of God in their day in and day out life? Can we simply equip them by helping them discover how their SHAPE for ministry fits into the warp and woof of their every day life without suggesting one more “opportunity” to live it out? Can we let that be enough… until such time as the Holy Spirit prompts them to volunteer to teach Sunday school or serve at the homeless shelter?

What do you think?

*SHAPE is an acronym for Spiritual gifts, Heart, Abilities, Personality, and Experiences. This discovery method originated at Saddleback Church and is my preferred approach for equipping.

What are we equipping people for?

Bad grammar… legitimate question. So you’ve put on your equipping hat–you’re all about gifts discovery, you have your systems and structures in place, you are meeting with folks and successfully matching them to ministry opportunities. What for? What’s your motive… your purpose… the driving belief that keeps you focused and energized for the task?

If it has anything to do with filling the ministry roles of your church (inside and outside the walls), you are going to be disappointed. Why? Because you will never be able to fill all the ministry roles.

Believe it or not, I am an optimist–even if incognito at the moment–so before you hit that red X in the upper right hand corner of your screen, give me another minute or two.

Honestly, I have yet to run into anyone who has enough volunteers to meet all the serving opportunities of their church. Have you? It’s just the nature of the beast, I’m afraid. So, if that’s your goal–if that’s what motivates you to tackle the hard work of equipping people for ministry–disappointment and frustration are going to be your companions. However, it may be that we are missing something…

I think most of us who value good equipping practices do so because we are convinced that God has gifted and purposed each and every believer for ministry. Because many of the churches in our western world are self-focused, the motivation that drives equipping is to sustain ministries, developing new and hopefully better ones as the old programs run out their course. We present this in the context of innovative new methods for reaching the lost, and that may well be a sincere desire. Even with all the talk about being “externally focused” and “missional,” the drive behind equipping people is still about filling ministry roles.

I’m not yet willing to say that this is totally wrong, but I am interested in asking whether it is totally right. Are we in danger of turning equipping into just another program of the church?  Do we look at well-equipped volunteers as tools to accomplish the various tasks associated with the institutional church, including evangelism? I can’t help but consider young mothers who are employed in full-time jobs, struggling to manage family, home, and career. Or the man approaching middle-age with a couple of kids to put through college, working 60 hours a week in order to hang onto his job and the stable income needed to support his family. There are all sorts of people for whom there is simply no capacity in their lives to serve at church or in the community. I know you know who I mean… you’ve talked to them. In fact, you have probably been frustrated by them, thinking they simply don’t “get it” and won’t step up to serve. I have.

You know and I know that they are just as called to serve as the next person. So how do we equip them?  What do we equip them for?

More to come…