Everyone has an agenda. What’s yours?

White Christmas is one of my all-time favorite movies. I faithfully watch it every year—have for more years than I will admit to here! I was reminded today of a particular scene… Early in the movie, Wallace and Davis encounter the Haynes sisters in a contrived meeting. When Betty confesses that her sister Judy set up the meeting under false pretenses, Wallace chuckles and comments that “everyone has an angle.” In today’s parlance, we might say “everyone has an agenda.”

The reason this scene came to mind is that I was reading about a pastor who entered a resistance-to-changenew pastorate with some pretty high expectations. When he encountered resistance to his agenda, he became angry at the people who were opposing him. He couldn’t understand how they could disagree with him on several fundamental issues of the faith. He fell into a pit of despair.

Are you familiar with that pit? I am! Want to know the quickest way to fall into it? Insist on your own agenda without listening to those who will be impacted by it.

Years ago I served on the staff of a large church that prided itself on its Wednesday evening programming which had for years been a mainstay of their discipleship offerings. It had begun during an era when most churches had Wednesday night services. Consequently, schools did not schedule extracurricular activities on Wednesdays. Offices and retail establishments closed their doors at 5:00pm. Kids had homework that could be completed in under an hour, and usually without the aid of a parent. But as all that began to change—businesses remaining open until all hours of the night, kids having homework that requires hours to complete and parents pushed to help them if anyone is going to get to bed at a decent hour, and schools scheduling extracurricular activities every night of the week–we struggled to have enough volunteers. I found that my agenda became all about feverishly recruiting volunteers to cook and serve the meals, lead Bible studies for adults and children, and keep the nursery. I became angry and frustrated with what I heard as excuses for not cooperating with my agenda and, eventually, I fell into that pit of despair because I failed to make them see serving as I saw it: a fundamental faith issue.

By God’s grace, I had a conversation with a mother of three kids whose husband traveled extensively. This woman served faithfully in a couple of ministries, but as she shared her struggle each Wednesday to get the kids home from school, start homework, make it to church in time for dinner, stay for Bible study afterwards, then return home to finish homework and get them in bed in time for a full night’s rest, my heart gave way. Expecting her to serve on Wednesdays was saddling her with an unbearable burden!

I began listening to other parents of school-age kids and heard much the same story over and again. Parents said that they came in the door and their family splintered, kids going one direction and adults the other. No wonder my agenda of recruiting more volunteers was meeting with such resistance!  We were encroaching on the precious little family time they had!  What we meant for good was in reality straining for our families. It was obvious our Wednesday night programming needed to be modified. Interestingly, when I brought this to staff meeting, suggesting that we scale back our Wednesday activities, I met with the same resistance I had been offering. No amount of explanation would sway the staff’s thinking. Their agenda was set in stone.

This reflection has been a good reminder for me, and I share it in case you need to hear it, too. Whenever we meet resistance to our agenda, it is wise to stop and listen. We should ask questions that are motivated by a sincere desire to understand, rather than a selfish desire to push our agenda. We need to listen carefully to the answers…listen for the voice of God through the voices of others who oppose our agenda. It may be that God isn’t a fan of our agenda, either!

The Problem With Commitment

I hear it over and over again:

He didn’t show up to serve on his scheduled Sunday.

She signed up for the retreat, then cancelled at the last minute.

Everyone thought hosting the event was a great idea, but no one showed up to help.

Culturally speaking, we have a problem with commitment. Perhaps it’s a problem with definition. Oxford Online Dictionary offers these definitions for commitment:

  1. The state or quality of being dedicated to a cause, activity, etc.
  2. An engagement or obligation that restricts freedom of action

I find this to be something of a paradox. It’s hard to be dedicated to a cause, activity, etc. that restricts one’s freedom. Yes…exactly. It’s hard. Keeping a commitment sometimes requires making a hard decision.

If we are honest, perhaps we might acknowledge that…

  • The problem with commitment is that it requires showing up to do something when I would rather be home relaxing, going out with friends, spending time with family, or any one of a hundred other things.
  • The problem with commitment is that it requires me to be responsible to those who are depending on me, and I don’t want that responsibility.
  • The problem with commitment is that it often requires some sort of sacrifice–and I don’t like to give sacrificially.

I can absolutely own any one of those statements on any given day! I don’t know a single person who is not tempted at some time or another to renege on a commitment. We can chalk it up to our innate desire to serve self.

But here’s the problem with failure to keep our commitments: it undermines trust and tears away at the fabric of our families, our church, our communities, and our world.

It’s not rocket science. Before we say “yes,” we need to stop and ask whether we really mean it. Better to say “no” and do it commitmentanyway than to say “yes” but not keep the commitment. (Matthew 21:28-32)

Before we give in to the temptation to renege, we should ask who will be effected by this decision–who will be inconvenienced, disappointed, left “holding the bag?” (1 Corinthians 12:25-27)

Before going back on our word, it is wise to ask whether the sacrifice of our character is worth it. (Acts 5:1-5)

I don’t want to communicate judgment or unforgiveness. Of course there are times when something unforseen arises that necessitates breaking a commitment. Let’s be sure, however, that this is indeed the case and not a refusal to prioritize, to make the hard decision.

Yes or No?

Your word is your bond.

Walk your talk.

Say what you mean and mean what you say.

Or, as Jesus put it:

Whatever you have to say let your ‘yes’ be a plain ‘yes’ and your ‘no’ a plain ‘no’—anything more than this has a taint of evil. (Matt. 5:37, J.B. Phillips translation)

I am asked regularly how to cope with volunteers who just don’t show up. I have no magic answer, but there are some trouble-shooting questions I usually ask which can shed light on gaps in the structures and processes a leader employs with their volunteers. But I think the problem runs much deeper than any organizational strategy.

It has become commonplace in our culture to say “yes” to something when we know full well that we won’t honor the commitment. “I don’t want to hurt someone’s feelings by saying no,” is the typical excuse. But more often than not, that’s not the real reason. If we are honest, the true motivation is that we don’t want to look bad because we don’t want to give up our resources (time, money, energy, influence). We don’t want to appear unwilling to help, or blind to the need. It’s why we walk past the beggar on the street corner without looking at him. If we look, we will see the need and then be faced with our own selfishness in not responding. It’s just easier not to make eye contact. If I don’t see you, then you can’t see my hardness of heart. Sure.

Lest you think I am being judgmental, I assure you that the first person to stand in judgment on this is me! I have said “yes” when I knew my real answer was “no.” I have lied–let’s just call a spade a spade, shall we?–to make myself look better. I have refused to make eye contact with someone I knew would ask something of me that I didn’t want to give.

But here is what I have come to see: Every time I don’t keep my word, I breed distrust in someone. That distrust may begin with me, or I may be just one more in a long line of liars (ouch! such an unpleasant descriptor, isn’t it?).  Either way, I’m contributing to the fabric of distrust that pervades our society and encourages self-protective behavior, which often leads to violence of all kinds. I add to the disease of independence that eats away at Christ’s mandate to serve each other (John 13:14-15) , to Paul’s exhortation that the body of Christ must be interdependent (1 Corinthians 12).

Each time I say “yes” when my real answer is “no,” I injure the body of Christ, or place a stumbling block in the path to faith of someone who does not yet know Christ. You may think I look good in the “yes” moment, but God sees my heart and knows my lie. Just because I don’t look at him doesn’t mean he is not seeing me.

Let’s try this the next time you are tempted to say “yes” when you know you don’t mean it. Stop for a moment. Ask for time to consider the request or, if you know your mind already, just say “no” right then. In so doing, you will honor God, the person making the request, and yourself. Yes, that’s right: you will honor your self… in a healthy manner that encourages the same in others.

 

Caring for Multi-hatters

Multi-hman-juggling-jobs_400-213x300atters are a blessing in the small church…and often a necessity! I am so very grateful for the volunteer ministers in my parish who serve in two–sometimes three–different roles. But I also know that this can cause volunteer burn-out if not carefully monitored. It can also cause team leaders to “fight” over a volunteer minister, necessitating cutting the volunteer in half so that each leader can have him/her.

Oh, wait. That’s not how that Bible story ended, is it? Ok, ok…back on track…

When I began ministry in our parish, volunteer scheduling was at times chaotic. There were basically five ministries that had schedules, and there was little or no coordination between them. Being a small church, many of our volunteers wear multiple hats, serving in a couple of different areas. It was not unusual to find overlap in the schedules, calling for a last-minute scramble to find someone to fill in.  Needless to say, this caused a certain amount of anxiety for everyone involved. Another problem was that some people would serve for weeks without having a Sunday off.

The logical solution was to create a master calendar which would reflect all of our serving roles, making it immediately obvious when a volunteer was in danger of being cut in half expected to serve in two places at the same time, or was serving week in and week out.

In the beginning, I asked team leaders to schedule their teams, and then turn the schedules in to me. I found that it’s really much simpler, however, if I do all the scheduling. I confer with team leaders about preferences and any other special considerations. It’s easier for me to compile everyone’s preferences and work around them as I make up the schedule than it is for the team leaders to try and keep track of those details for all the teams.

I create the schedule three times a year–January through April, May through Labor Day, September through the first Sunday in January. In this way, I avoid beginning a new calendar with a major holiday or the beginning/end of summer. This can create havoc when the new schedule gets lost in the busyness of holiday activities, end-of-summer vacations, and the May madness of proms and graduations! My goal each season is that no one serves more than two Sundays/month, regardless of how many ministry areas they serve. I ask all volunteers to find their own replacement if they have a conflict, and to please let me know of the change so I am not expecting the wrong person to show up.

What are you doing to safeguard the ministry life of your multi-hatters? I know this sounds like a lot of work, and it is. Groan if you must–I certainly do each time I create our master calendar! I think it is somewhat of a cross between a thousand-piece jigsaw puzzle and dominoes as I try to make all the pieces fit, then find that moving one piece effects the delicate balance of the others! But, in the end, it’s worth the time and effort. I am removing a major obstacle to ministry, which is one of the primary responsibilities of an equipping leader. Ministry is more evenly distributed. There is less volunteer burn-out. Our volunteers don’t serve week in and week out without taking a break. And, most importantly, no one gets cut in half!

Small Church Equipping Values

big-or-smallHow do equipping values differ between the large church and the small church? They don’t; there is no difference! The values are the same:

  • Prayer–Developing an equipping culture requires Holy Spirit power. The path to that power is through prayer.
  • Vision of the church as contained in Ephesians 4–The role of the leadership is to equip the people for the ministry of the Church.
  • Servant leadership–The leaders and the laity are partners in ministry. Leaders set the example by serving others.
  • Team ministry–No one does ministry alone.
  • Intentionality–Equipping doesn’t happen on its own. It requires intentional preaching, teaching, discovery, and connecting people to meaningful serving opportunities
  • Proactive towards change–Change is inevitable; resistance is futile! Learn to evaluate and respond to change as it comes.

The values may be lived out differently in the smaller church, however, because the challenges are different. For example, smaller churches are often more inclined to view the pastor as the one who performs all the ministry of the church. Their reasoning may be that the church is small so there’s not that much to do. But that completely misses the point in 1 Corinthians 12 that every member of the body has a function and a role, as well as the pesky mandate in Ephesians 4 that the pastor is to equip the people to do the ministry!

Another common scenario in the small church is the person who has served in a particular ministry for so long that she and the ministry have become synonymous. So whereas the small church may only need one adult Sunday school teacher for their one adult class, there may be others with teaching gifts to be employed as well. Creating a teaching team–even if it’s only two–says that shared ministry is valued.

In larger churches, there is usually a variety of classes and programs offered. Keeping those classes and programs running smoothly requires many volunteers. On the other hand, the smaller church doesn’t offer such a wide variety because they don’t have the multitude of people wanting or needing it. So it may be tempting to “fill the slots,” get the ministry essentials covered with a few willing volunteers, and let the rest of the people off the serving hook. It requires a different kind of intentionality in the small church to connect people with ministry because it becomes necessary to look outside the walls of the church for places and ways to connect your people to serving opportunities. And that means it is all the more necessary to preach and teach about following the example of Jesus as servant because serving outside the walls of the church can be less convenient than serving inside the walls!

The values are the same no matter the size of the church; it’s the way those values are recognized and executed that is different. The challenge for the equipping leader in the small church, then, is to adopt the equipping values which apply to all churches, but adapt the processes that are designed for a large church to something more applicable in the small church context.

Are you an equippingleader in a small church? How have you adapted “big church” methods to fit your church? I invite you to share what has worked…or what hasn’t!

 

Questions for Conflict

I’m writing this as I sit in the airport waiting for my flight home. I’ve had the joy of speaking to the leadership team of another church today, casting vision for them to become known in their community as the church that equips people to live their true vocation in all of life. More than 25 people came out on a cold Saturday morning, giving up the better part of their day, to consider why and how they should spend their time and energy helping their church grow.

We opened the scriptures to carefully consider Paul’s letter to the church in Ephesus, particularly 2:10 and 4:11-16, and how it is relevant to their church today.

We examined the institutional church model with its clergy-centric, hierarchical culture, contrasting it to an equipping church model that values the priesthood of all believers. I strongly encouraged them to trade in their old church paradigm for a new one—one that is actually ancient in comparison to that institutional paradigm!

We examined their culture, asking the tough questions, “Are we who we say we are?” and “Who does the community say we are?”

Leadership was another important topic of our conversation today. What does an equipping leader do? How is that different from any other kind of leader? What makes a leader anyway? One older gentleman who had been in executive leadership prior to retiring was refreshingly honest in confessing that he liked being the “top dog” who had all the control. It was less messy that way. But he learned that he didn’t have all the right answers and, in the end, he came to value the messiness of collaboration over the control of the one-man show. He found that it yielded far more satisfactory results!

And lastly we explored doing ministry as a team. What’s the difference between functioning as a committee—long the pattern in their denomination—and serving together as team? What makes a team? We identified some of the sacrifices that developing team ministry requires, such as time and ego, and how their people might benefit from making those sacrifices.

In parting, I told them that becoming an equipping church is not easy. It’s really hard work. It will cause conflict at times, which will be painful. It takes time. Sometimes it will feel like they are taking two steps forward and one step backward…and that’s on a good day. But, in the end, they will have the satisfaction of knowing that they are choosing to be the church God is calling them to be because they are equipping others to be the ministers God designed them to be.

question markThere are lots of questions in this post. I encourage you to ask them of your church and of yourself. Even if you’ve asked and answered them before, you may find it’s a good idea to ask them again. The questions may well produce conflict, and this is a good thing. Conflict causes us to look at the choices we are making and evaluate whether they are the right ones. Conflict properly handled is a critical step to becoming an equipping church.

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