Category Archives: Leadership

A Few More Words on Leadership

A week ago I blogged a bit about the failure of leadership at Willow Creek Church.  I’ve taken some time to reflect on the reasons such failure happen, not just in churches like Willow Creek, but churches all over.  You can add the PA Catholic Priest abuse cover up, but you can also add those “smaller” incidents in [fill in the blank] church where a pastor or church leadership betrayed the trust of the Christian community.  Infidelity, embezzlement, abuse of all kinds (verbal, psychological, emotional), neglect, and the list could go on.  Yet the question remains, why do these things happen?  As a mentioned before, I think these are issues of character and how leaders’ relationship with power will distort one’s character.

Before I continue, let me say that leadership isn’t simply a “Christian” issue.  I don’t believe in a “Christian” form of leadership, or set of rules and principles that are distinctly and solely “Christian.”  In fact, much of my prior life experience outside of church ministry has informed and shaped my character as a leader.  That said, I do believe there are certain leadership principles that are necessary to serve within a Christian context.  Perhaps I’m just doing a little clever wordplay, but let me try to explain the distinction.

If we look to the object of our faith, Jesus, then we have to look at the very character of the one whom we profess to follow.  That leads to one place: the cross.  Jesus’ character leads him to the point of death.  Yet, that death is not some act of self-serving martyrdom.  It is death for the sake of….for the sake of the other.  Jesus’ resurrection confesses that the only way new life, reconciliation, liberation, salvation, and a whole host of other things can come is through the act of dying for the sake of others.

Leadership within the Christian context is no different.  Pastors and church leaders must adopt a character that puts one’s desires to death for the sake of others – the congregation, the community, the ministry, and God’s people.  This character is the only one that will lead to anything healthy or hopeful.  True leadership can only come out of such a death of the leader’s ego for the sake of others.

Now, that is not to say that pastor or leader can’t cast vision, or lead prophetically.  Yet the minute the leader ignores their checks and balances against their ego, the instant a leader begins to buy into their own hype, the point at which a pastor believe that they actually have power – and that they are entitled to that power – they are no longer effective leaders within a Christian context.  Their character at that point is twisted, no longer believing that effective leadership comes out of death of self for the sake of others.  Instead, all effort goes into preserving the self – which leads to abuse, corruption, lies, and denial.

So how do we recapture a proper leadership character within a Christian context?

In the other contexts I serve, we often talk about “core values,” or specific traits that are necessary to hold a leader accountable, and to center them amid so many challenges and temptations that come with positions of leadership.  Here’s my short list.

Humility: The ability to share and distribute power, to not buy into “the hype.” Will to be accountable to others.

Courage: the ability to be truthful with others…and with one’s self, especially in the toughest of times.

Resilience/Toughness: There’s a lot to unpack here, too much for this blog.  But at the core of resilience and toughness is the character that is prepared, can endure, and can bounce back from the challenges and temptations of leadership.

Love: What is the object of your worship (or, what is at the center of your life)?  The church?  A denominational tradition?  The Bible?  All those are idols.  For the leader, love of God and love of neighbor….this is the most essential thing.

Graciousness: with one’s self and with others.  Mistakes/failures are not seen as character flaws…which we often try to cover up.

What would you add?




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A brief word about failures of leadership….

As busy as my life has been lately, the following article on a friend’s Facebook page caught my eye: “Willow Creek, Your Time is Now.”  I clicked and am now caught up on the latest regarding  the Willow Creek/Bill Hybels sexual assault and harassment of women who worked under him, and the subsequent cover up/denial by church leaders.  Hybels isn’t the only one to resign, but so have Willow Creek elders and their senior pastor.

Here’s the deal though.  The only reason this one is getting so much attention is the scale and visibility that Willow Creek has.  The bigger they are, the harder they fall, right?  The truth is that failures of leadership like this are happening within congregations, and in more of them than any of us would care to admit.  So why are they happening?

There are many possibilities.  However, for me it starts with character, or the fundamental values that are at the center or core of an individual’s being.  Character is what drives one’s view of the world, and what ultimately drives their actions (or inactions).

If we’re going to talk about things like Willow Creek and character, then we need to start that talk about the leader’s relationship with power.  What is their attitude with power and how it affects the self?

I have lots to say on this topic, but I’ll leave you with this passage from 1 John to reflect on.  I think it gets at the core of the character issue and failures of leadership like Willow Creek and the countless others I’ve seen, heard, and witnessed within congregations.

This is the message we have heard from him and declare to you: God is light; in him there is no darkness at all.  If we claim to have fellowship with him and yet walk in the darkness, we lie and do not live out the truth.  But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus, his Son, purifies us from all[sin.  If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.  If we claim we have not sinned, we make him out to be a liar and his word is not in us. ~ 1 John 1:5-10

More to follow……

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“Just Keep Pushing.”

Sitting down to write this blog post is representative of my whole 2017: I can’t seem to get started. All year-long, the struggle was real:

  • I could never start any of my homework for my Continuing Education Program.
  • I found myself having to force myself to head to coach wrestling.
  • It was like pulling teeth to carve out quality time with my wife.
  • It was hard to sustain effort, because the task seemed never-ending…and at times I felt unnecessary and questioned if I was actually bringing folks anything of value.
  • I just about everything I tried to write….it didn’t get written.

The ideas were there.  The pull to go do those things was strong.  Yet I couldn’t just get myself in gear.  Things in my head and heart never seemed to get turned into action.

This is a familiar feeling for me.

It takes me back to my competition days.  There were those moments when I just didn’t have it.  My body unresponsive from a drastic weight cut or overtraining. Seeing moves and openings, but a split second slower than my opponent. I was mentally distracted.  My fear and nerves got the better of me.  Some days, it was simply, “That guy is better than me today.”  He was putting points on the board, I was just hoping he’d cut me and give me the free escape point.

Here’s the thing in wrestling though: you don’t have the option of quitting.  Even after the guy lets you up, you have to keep wrestling.  You have to keep pushing, even if you know it’s not gonna be easy and success is unlikely.

You have to keep pushing.

I think 2017 was so difficult on so many levels for so many people.  I don’t think I need to expend too much energy writing those things here; you can name them.  People I speak to, they’re frustrated results aren’t what they expect, or they’re afraid to commit for fear the result won’t be what they want.  (That’s how I feel about this post right now.  I’d like to delete it because honestly, I’m about 99% sure you’ll think it’s rambling drivel.)

Yet, just like on the mat, I’ve learned that results aren’t the point, and you can’t be afraid of failure and the opinions of others.

You just keep pushing. I tell the athletes I coach this.  I tell the people I care for as chaplain/pastor the same thing.

So shouldn’t I follow my own advice?

Maybe it won’t be great, but maybe it’ll be enough.  In fact,

  • Since they don’t give grades, maybe it’s enough I just learn something.
  • No matter how I feel, I just need to show up for practice.  Being on the mat is always good for me (time has taught me that).
  • No matter how busy my day, I leave a little in the emotional/mental tank for the wife for quality time.
  • Helping just one person is enough; in fact, caring and helping people IS enough.  The ideas and projects can wait.
  • Maybe I just need to write once a week, whether it’s profound or not.

This year, I’ll worry less about the result, the outcome.  For those things that are important to me, no matter how I feel, I’ll just keep pushing.


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Churches & Leadership today: What we won’t talk about, but need to.

I was on my summer internship doing hospital chaplaincy, and I had the opportunity to serve on the palliative care team.  Palliative care, for those who aren’t familiar with the term, is an interdisciplinary approach to caring for patients and families with serious illnesses and injuries.  I was assigned to a case where an elderly women had suffered a massive stroke, and was in a coma.  Her recovery unlikely, her children faced the difficult choice of removing life support and placing her on hospice.  As the chaplain, I sat with the family, offering an empathic ear that listened to their concerns and sadness about their mom’s state, I mediated arguments between the siblings and their spouses as they accused each other of less than honorable motivations and past hurts, and did my best to gently and as pastorally as I could steer them toward the decision that made the most sense: place their mother on hospice and say their final goodbyes.

Well, this went on for 3 hours as we waited for the palliative care doctors.  I was getting nowhere with the family; in fact, I felt like things were going backwards.  As my frustration mounted, ticked off that my very pastoral presence wasn’t bringing calm into the situation so that a rational choice could be made, the palliative care doctors finally walked in.  The practitioner, with just as much empathy and genuine care, said, “I’ve reviewed your mother’s situation and health and I can tell you in my most honest medical opinion, she isn’t going to make a recovery.  My only question to you is, what would your mother want in this situation?”  The siblings agreed to take their mom off life support and place her in hospice.

My initial reaction: “You’ve got to be kidding me.  You just roll in and in 5 minutes get the family to make the decision I spent 3 hours trying to get them to make?”  After reflecting, I learned a important lesson about the necessity of varying skillsets and roles on teams.  What the family needed in that moment was “outside my lane” as a chaplain.  The doctors, as compassionate truth tellers, were the people they needed, with the information and expertise they needed to make their choice.

Many of us are well aware of the challenges facing ELCA congregations (and likely all denominations) with respect to shrinking membership, resources, and a lack of pastors for the number of vacant calls.  There are a lot of faithful, smart folks who are working to address these realities.  However, I think there is one reality out there that many of us know, but aren’t willing to acknowledge:

There are a number of congregations out there that are no longer viable.  

The reasons vary, but the reality is the same: while God always promises God’s people a future and a life with it, the same isn’t true for congregations.  While we certainly don’t know the timeline or shelf life, as God’s people are pulled in new and different directions and the context around them changes, the communities they create will be affected.  The truth is, just like our own lives, congregations also may come to a point where their life comes to an end.

I think part of the problem is that we don’t have a healthy way to talk about this.  It’s kind of like the person who didn’t exercise enough or eat right through their lives.  Maybe that’s part of their demise, but the causes when we’re facing the end aren’t worth dwelling on.  It’s about facing and living through the ending with grace and dignity, not making a list of regrets and shortcomings that brought on the end. Also, it isn’t about clawing tooth and nail for survival, right to the bitter end. 

I digress.  My point here is to raise the issue that we don’t really have the appropriate skillset or role in our current leadership structure to deal with issues of viability and end of life with congregations.  We have mission redevelopers, developers, Directors of Evangelical Mission, assistants to synodical bishops for conflict resolution, and intentional interim pastors.  However, these are roles that assist congregations in transition, not facing a choice about whether to continue on or not.  None of these roles directly addresses the issue of viability and end-of-life with congregations for whom that is a reality.

Do we need a “palliative care” type role among our current pastoral leadership models to address congregations facing serious issues as they face the future – God’s future for both God’s people, and for congregations?

Do we need a pastoral skillset to lead congregations through discernment of their viability?  Do we need compassionate truth tellers who will assist and empower congregations and synod leadership to make an informed decision about the congregation’s viability?

I believe that God is calling us into a conversation about this, and it’s one we need to have no matter how much we’re unwilling to admit more than just a few of our congregations are facing the question of whether or not they’ve reached the end of God’s mission for them in their current state.  If we start with God, then we know that there is a future for us as God’s people; our faith doesn’t die with our congregation, but rather it is the beginning of something new.  The truth is – and we know this – new life often can only happen when we first put to death our own fears and need to survive.

As people of faith, death AND resurrection is who we are.  It is the same for congregations.  We, both individually and communally, often avoid the first.  We need leaders who will come alongside and help us with the issue of viability we simply won’t talk about….but need to.




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Just another blog on leadership….

….or maybe not.

Talking to most pastors, leadership conversation usually centers on the quality of what one does.  It’s about HOW one leads, HOW one gets people or an organization to do what it’s supposed to, or how we put it in my line of work, what they’re called to do.

But I believe leadership is about YOU – the leader.  It is fundamentally about WHY you lead and WHO you are.  That is what is known as character, or integrity.  The best leaders are able to answer the “why” and “who” questions, and aren’t afraid to honestly reflect and wrestle with them.  I ask myself: “What can I learn?” versus “Was I successful or a failure?”  I know the first question is an exercise on reflecting on one’s character.  The second, I’m not sure what it’s about fully, but the temptation to be dishonest with one’s self and shift blame is present.  Considering the last almost 3 years of pastoral ministry, I thought I’d pass on some of my learning to you leaders out there for something to chew on.  So without further ado…..

1. There are usually 2 sides to every issue….or 3. Or 5.  When people bring their “issues” to me, I remind myself that it’s simply their perspective.  You know the old adage, “there’s your side, my side, and the truth.”  While it’s important to always here someone’s story and perspective, that doesn’t necessarily mean you should accept it as objective, absolute truth…..because there’s always another side to the story.  In today’s world, it’s acceptable to overreact to every issue,  and we’re learning the outcomes are divisive and tragic.  I’ve learned not accepting the first, second, or even the eighth side I hear slows me down and allows me to be a non-anxious presence, rather than an anxiety-producing one.

2.  Don’t let people steal your joy.  I am one of those rare pastors who doesn’t derive my sole joy in life from my job. (Note sarcasm) Each of us has something that brings us sustained, unlimited joy in our lives.  It’s that thing that keeps us going.  No one but you and I are responsible for making room for it, however; it’s ours, and if we’re not careful, we can let people and distractions steal it from us and we become a shell of who we really are.  Worse yet, we become unhealthy and unfit to lead.  Sure, there is a degree of sacrifice that comes with being a pastor, but you’re not called to be a martyr. Don’t let people steal your joy.

3.  Lead out of acceptance, not affirmation.  I used to be one of those people who sought affirmation of others to define my self-worth.  However, affirmation often is hitched to the wagon of success.  What happens when that wagon departs and you’re left holding failure?  I’ve learned that people’s praise is often fleeting…tied to their expectations, their level of satisfaction, and their definition of success.  Acceptance is taking things at face value.  It’s knowing who you are, your limits and capabilities, what you can offer and what you cannot.  It’s also knowing – and accepting – the same in those you lead.  Acceptance is not holding on to things too tightly, because they’re not really yours to begin with.  Acceptance is understanding leaders aren’t in total control, which leads me to a couple supporting ideas:

  • Accept failure as simply consequence of decisions/actions vice an indictment on you, and learn from it.
  • There are limits to what’s within your control; but be ok taking control of what is within the sphere of your role.
  • As a leader, you often get what you earn, good or bad.

Finally, acceptance has led me to understand that only standard I need to evaluate myself by is God’s.  The minute I cannot be true to who God has created and called me to be, is to be in denial of what’s truth.  Acceptance is accepting that good news as…truth.

4.  Whether you succeed or fail, know why.  Any fool can get lucky and hit the jackpot.  Conversely, fools also tend to pass blame when failure comes.  In either case, it’s leadership by shotgun approach and totally random.  Good leaders at their core are intentional about learning – they take the time to know why something succeeded or failed.  When success comes, they can replicate it.  When failure results, they can learn and change.  Leaders who know why things succeed or fail (or take the time to discover it) provide stability and wisdom to the people and places they lead.

5. It is important to have a fundamental belief in the people you lead and the community’s mission/vision.  Perhaps a softer way to say this is “you can’t fit a square peg in a round hole.”  But it’s deeper than that.  People and the church deserve your best.  If cynicism sets in to the point where you don’t believe in people or the community’s ability to give their best or to fulfill what God has called them to, then it’s time for you to leave.  That doesn’t mean you’re a jerk nor that there’s something wrong with your people.  It’s just a sign that perhaps it’s time for you both to part ways before apathy – or worse – sets in.

6.  Compromising doesn’t mean compromising who you are and who you’re called to be.  Know your “why.”  This has two parts.  Let me start with the first one: compromise.  There is a big problem in congregations, and that is the idol of “nice.”  People hold up this idol and compromise becomes the sacrifice at the altar of “nice.”  What it means is that the leader always should “be nice” and thus be a compromiser.  What this compromising ends up being is that the leader and their decisions are subject to the expectations, satisfaction, and definition of success of others.  Over time leaders compromise what they are about and the ministry they feel called to do.

That leads me to the second part of this.  I think compromise runs rampant when leaders forget their “why.”  One’s “why” is as simple as what makes you get out of bed in the morning.  It’s the motivation behind what you do, your call, your reason for existing.  Whether it’s comfort, apathy, fear, or a host of other things, the result is we tend to forget our “why.”  That’s when we start compromising – ourselves and our vocation.

This isn’t an exhaustive list.  What other things do you think are important when it comes to thinking about leading with character or integrity?  What does it mean to you to lead with one’s character and integrity intact?

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Bi-Vocational Pastor: Your Fundamental Belief in People

I’ve been coaching the sport of wrestling for over 12 years now.  I’ve always enjoyed working with athletes, teaching them the sport, about life lessons, and helping them achieve their goals.  It is truly satisfying work, but I noticed something disturbing in myself about 9 years ago – I found myself spending increasingly more time focusing on our best and most talented wrestlers, and less time focusing on less gifted ones.  In fact, I found myself seeking ways to avoid those less gifted kids, even though the level of commitment and desire to get better was the same from both groups.

It is natural for us to spend time with those who seem more responsive to our coaching and leadership efforts.  If we’re honest, we do so because we derive a sense of satisfaction, a measure of success and reward for ourselves.  I don’t see this tendency to be the problem.  What I do see as the problem is that if we dig a little deeper into the why, it raises this question:

What do you fundamentally think about people?

What I found for myself 9 years ago is that deep down, I simply thought less of my less talented wrestlers.  They weren’t worth my time and energy because there was a lower probability that they would achieve what I had defined as success.  As I dug deeper into my fundamental beliefs and attitudes about people, I discovered I viewed my talented wrestlers through a similar lens.  They were worth my time because they were a commodity that would ensure my success and self-worth as a coach.

I recently listened to a podcast by a popular non-denominational pastor who began to talk about the lifestyle choices of the people near the church they were discussing.  He described them as a “challenging context.” He and his partner could not comprehend why these people wouldn’t want to have families, why they seemed more interested in their dogs and drinking coffee, and “secular things.”  In fact, they even went as far to suggest they felt threatened, that their “perfectly normal” life of having a wife and 4 kids was looked upon with scorn by these people.  Yet clearly in their minds, that is the life that God desires for all of us!  These people “need God” and it validated their attractional ministry to in the premise their lives were somehow “lacking.” 

 I also sat in a church-related meeting where one person, encouraging the rest of the group to reach out to families in the community, suggested that this was desirable because “each of those families….that’s $1,000 right there.” Enough said right there. 

Now if you were one of the people these folks were referring to, and were a fly on the wall for those conversations, would you want to be part of their community of faith?

What you fundamentally think about people will affect how you interact with them.  And those fundamental beliefs will show through to people, regardless how “nice,” “welcoming,” and “well-intentioned” you try to be.

Our tendency towards sameness when it comes to who we surround ourselves with blinds us to this fact.  It deceives us into believing there is something wrong with the other, and creates an “us versus them” mentality.  Even worse, we think “they” don’t notice. The truth is, people are smarter than you and I think.  People are always watching and evaluating, and they are especially evaluating leaders.  I know 9 years ago my wrestlers were watching, just like they continue to do so today.  The same is true in my role as pastor and Navy chaplain.  You don’t have to like every person, and you don’t have to treat each person the same.  You do, however, have to hold a universal belief about the worth and value of human life.  What that is for you, I’ll leave that up to you to decide for yourselves.   I do know, however,  your integrity and effectiveness as a leader depends on your answer.


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Bi-Vocational Pastor: “Rethinking leadership….but not re-inventing the wheel.”

The decision to which college or university one wants to go to is an important moment in any high school senior’s life.  It was no different for me.  Out of the myriad of choices, that decision was solidified when I was reviewing information on the U.S. Naval Academy and read this in their Admissions Handbook:

Midshipmen are persons of integrity; they stand for that which is right. They tell the truth and ensure that the truth is known.

I applied right then, and it was the only school I applied to that summer.

Over the course of my “four years by the bay,” that initial attraction to something greater than myself became solidified through a leadership curriculum, countless lectures, seminars, case studies, and experiences (including competing as a wrestler through college!), and instilled in me an uncompromising need for truth and integrity.  That need still drives me to this day, its uncompromising quality being both a burden that causes contention and frustration in my interactions with others, but it is also a strength that makes me the leader I am today.

While my station in life has changed, the necessity of integrity and truth has not.  As a pastoral leader, it is both a burden and gifts the same.

Yet so many don’t see the gift, but rather see only the burden….primarily in the form of being a pain in the ass.

There is a dire need for conversation about integrity-based leadership in ministry today.  Most of the leadership voices offer tools and strategies on how to influence people for “growth” or to manage conflict and anxiety ensure a level of comfort.  Rick Warren, Thom Rainer, Carey Nieuwhof, Andy Stanley – all offer lots of great thoughts on such things.  Yet, they gloss over the conversation of integrity with thin platitudes such as “let Jesus lead you” or refer to “biblical” models.

My suspicion is that so many avoid the integrity-based leadership conversation because it requires a level of deep self-criticism, self-reflection, and consistently questions who one is and the motivations behind their actions.  Most people avoid this because it’s either simply too painful, too hard, too negative, or they’re just too political.

Yet, so many communities of faith are operating with a lack of integrity behind who they are as “church” and what they call “mission” or “ministry.”  I want to change that; I think we need to change that.  The challenges the church faces are contextual, but they are also due to the consequences of leadership that lacked integrity.  I say this having listened to numerous colleagues in ministry and their challenges, colleagues who have left calls burnt out and way too early, and even my own experiences.

Now I am sensitive to the fact that we all make mistakes and our own brokenness creates leaders of a numerous variety and no one model fits.  I am by no means an expert; I’m not trying to re-invent the wheel and I definitely don’t have answers. But I can ask questions.  I can raise concepts for further reflection.  I can start a conversation, one that isn’t new by any means, yet one that in which God might transform us.  Of this I remain as uncompromising as ever.

Pastors must be persons of integrity.  They must stand that that which is right.  They must tell the truth and ensure the truth is known.

And that quest begins with looking at ourselves.




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