The Power of Leaders Who Listen


I’ve been doing more and more ministry consulting recently, especially focused on helping churches and other ministry organizations work on the transformation of their leadership cultures. Most leaders emphasize talking over listening. The assumption is that more words will always win the day. But we are discovering the transforming power of listening:

  • Listening to God for myself and for our ministry.
  • Listening with God to our past (and the good to be kept or the harmful or worthless to be turned from and left behind).
  • Listening to one another in leadership teams.
  • Listening to God for the people and the ‘program’
  • Listening to people we serve.

When we fail to listen, we may also find ourselves failing to keep first things first. We forget the words of Jesus that are rich not only in personal wisdom but in leadership wisdom as well:

Matthew 6:33 NLT, “Seek the Kingdom of God above all else, and live righteously, and he will give you everything you need.

Instead of being attentive to the reign and the way of God, we find ourselves seeking first:

  • To be different
  • To be attractive
  • To be relevant
  • To be cool
  • To be liked

Are these God’s invitations to us? Are these evidences of His loving reign and His good way? Everything good is a fruit of making our seeking of God a first response instead of a last resort. When God is truly reigning in our lives, we are different in ways we cannot manufacture directly. We love one another from the powerful center of sharing Christ in common. Our lives actually display God’s glory in increasing measure. And what could be more relevant than a community of people living a truly caring, joyful, relaxed way of life together?

For Reflection:

  • What are you tempted to seek first these days in your life and ministry before God’s gracious reign and His life-giving way?

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Telling Our Stories of Transformation


(A repost from March 2010)

One expanding arena of our work in The Leadership Institute has been in organizational transformation. Recently, Paul Jensen pointed me to a quotation in Evil and the Justice of God (Intervarsity, 2006), where N. T. Wright says, “As Walter Wink has argued strongly in his major work on the powers, there is a great deal to be said for the view that all corporate institutions have a kind of corporate soul, an identity which is greater than the sum of its parts, which can actually tell the parts what to do and how to do it. This leads to the view that in some cases at least, some of these corporate institutions-whether they be industrial companies, governments or even (God help us) churches–can become so corrupted with evil that the language of ‘possession’ at a corporate level becomes the only way to explain the phenomena before us (p. 18, emphasis mine).”

Wright and Jensen are careful about explicitly referencing the demonic in relation to Christian organizations, but there can be patterns in any organization that look more unholy than holy, unloving than loving, ungraced than graced. Christian organizations may find themselves desiring a deeper integrity as it relates to practicing God’s presence in their individual and shared life together. One of the tools that has proven fruitful is remembering and telling founding stories. In any church, ministry, mission, movement or denomination, there are stories about how it came to be. There are often powerful God dynamics illustrated in those stories. Over time, a community may lose touch with those God stories. When this happens, a community forgets who they are and Who God is among them.

A basic biblical version of this dynamic is the way in which Israel told and retold their own Exodus story, remembering together (and often) how God had delivered them from centuries of slavery in a miraculous way through the Red Sea. Whenever they lost track of that story, they lost track of their unique relationship with God. So the story needed to be told and retold.

What are some of your own earliest God stories? How well do you remember them? How often do you remember them?

If you are in any kind of ministry leadership, what are some of the founding stories of your organization? How might remembering them be a source of renewal and encouragement for your community?

Buy a copy of Evil & the Justice of God on Amazon.com

Spiritual Transformation: We Don’t Have Time!


I’ve written here before about a simple, strategic insight we’ve been gaining in our work alongside Christian organizations and ministries in spiritual transformation. It’s so simple it almost sounds silly to mention it, but here it is: There must be time and space given to spiritual practices (like scripture reflection, waiting on God in community, intercessory prayer) in the midst of leadership, planning, board and other organizational meetings.

One of the barriers to this occurring is an insidious little belief that creeps into our thinking: “There is so much to do for God that we don’t have time for these practices.” The assumption is usually that everyone will make time on their own to pray or read the scriptures reflectively. I certainly hope Christian leaders do this. But we’ve found that many don’t. The need is to practice the Christian life together as well as in our prayer closet.

Another way this “we don’t have time” belief sounds like this: “Ministry time given to mutual prayer, scripture reflection and other spiritual practices will diminish our ministry productivity.” We won’t get as much done if we are taking some church or ministry office hours to pray together, listen to scripture together, etc. Our experience is the opposite. Even a tithe of time given to sharing in the life of Christ together in community multiplies itself in creativity, wisdom, energy and other spiritual realities that actually increase ministry fruit. (We encourage leadership teams and ministry boards to work towards devoting one-third of their gathering to seeking God together in such practices).

A while back, we encouraged an international ministry board to devote one of their three packed board meeting days to simply seeking God in solitude and in then in community. Some struggled, feeling that they would run out of time to address everything on the agenda. Instead, they finished the planned three day agenda in about a day-and-a-half. Their hearts were on the same page. They felt they had clearer discernment of God’s leading. They spent far less time in the kinds of disagreements that might make the agenda take longer.

We sometimes believe that time given to reflecting on scripture and praying in community as a church or ministry team will diminish the ministry. It sounds a little crazy when you look at it written there, but that belief lingers in a lot of our hearts. It’s an addition/subtraction view of the work of ministry. Less hours on ministry work will produce less fruit. But what if doing the “first thing” of communion with God together is a multiplication approach to fruitfulness? What if the fewer hours left after I’ve given first attention to first things means that my message preparation, event planning, problem solving, etc. are far more creative and Spirit-guided than they would have been otherwise? This has been our experience.

Questions for Reflection:

  • Think of your own ministry, whether in a paid or volunteer role. How much time do you spend in leadership or planning gatherings actually enjoying the scriptures and praying for one another? How might God be inviting you to practice “seeking Him first” in the midst of leadership meetings?
  • Perhaps you are part of a leadership gathering that you don’t lead. How might you enrich the meeting by sharing something meaningful from your own time in scripture that day with the others? How might your life be a catalyst for spiritual transformation?

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Looking Back: Thoughts on a Protestant Order


Yesterday was full and good day of ministry. I began by enjoying coffee with a worship pastor friend with whom I meet every other Thursday to share our lives with one another. Then, I helped lead a day retreat in Orange, CA for a number of Christian leaders from the area. I never cease to be amazed at the creative compassion of God in how He expresses Himself to His beloved sons and daughters. Then, I ended the day speaking to the InterVarsity chapter at University of California at Irvine. I came home tired and grateful.

Tomorrow, I’ll lead another one of our “An Unhurried Day with Jesus” events at Creekside Christian Fellowship in Irvine, CA. Then, I’ll preach at the three Sunday services at the Ventura (CA) Vineyard on the theme of “Prayer: A Relationship with God”. I’d be grateful for your prayers.

I so long to be part of a wider movement of Christ followers who share a common life of intimacy with God, love for one another and shared engagement in Christ’s work in His world. Below is a link to a post from January on what such a movement might look like.

Read more of “Thoughts on a Protestant Order

Buy a copy of The Yoke of Christ on Amazon.com

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Looking Back: Church and Ministry Renewal


Today, I’m leading “An Unhurried Day with Jesus” at Flood/S.A.A.M. near downtown Sacramento. This is the town where I grew up. Would you pray for about twenty who will be spending three or four hours alone with God in nearby parks or on the church grounds?

Meanwhile, below is a link to a post from February about how God uses leaders to bring about transformation in groups. You might be surprised what does and doesn’t help.

Read more of “Church and Ministry Renewal

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The Transforming Power of Remembering Our Stories


One expanding arena of our work in The Leadership Institute has been in organizational transformation. Recently, Paul Jensen pointed me to a quotation in Evil and the Justice of God (Intervarsity, 2006), where N. T. Wright says, “As Walter Wink has argued strongly in his major work on the powers, there is a great deal to be said for the view that all corporate institutions have a kind of corporate soul, an identity which is greater than the sum of its parts, which can actually tell the parts what to do and how to do it. This leads to the view that in some cases at least, some of these corporate institutions-whether they be industrial companies, governments or even (God help us) churches–can become so corrupted with evil that the language of ‘possession’ at a corporate level becomes the only way to explain the phenomena before us (p. 18, emphasis mine).”

Wright and Jensen are careful about explicitly referencing the demonic in relation to Christian organizations, but there can be patterns in any organization that look more unholy than holy, unloving than loving, ungraced than graced. Christian organizations may find themselves desiring a deeper integrity as it relates to practicing God’s presence in their individual and shared life together. One of the tools that has proven fruitful is remembering and telling founding stories. In any church, ministry, mission, movement or denomination, there are stories about how it came to be. There are often powerful God dynamics illustrated in those stories. Over time, a community may lose touch with those God stories. When this happens, a community forgets who they are and Who God is among them.

A basic biblical version of this dynamic is the way in which Israel told and retold their own Exodus story, remembering together (and often) how God had delivered them from centuries of slavery in a miraculous way through the Red Sea. Whenever they lost track of that story, they lost track of their unique relationship with God. So the story needed to be told and retold.

What are some of your own earliest God stories? How well do you remember them? How often do you remember them?

If you are in any kind of ministry leadership, what are some of the founding stories of your organization? How might remembering them be a source of renewal and encouragement for your community?

Buy a copy of Evil & the Justice of God on Amazon.com

Church and Ministry Renewal


We’re familiar with the practice of creating a mission statement for our businesses, ministries and churches. I’ve been part of shaping a number of them. The Leadership Institute recently worked through our own mission, vision, strategy and legacy statement. But in our work with ministries and churches, we’re seeing a practical difference between a stated mission statement and a functional mission statement.

For example, a church may declare that it is a church that prays. It may also have a board member who says, “We just don’t have time in this board meeting to spend praying.” The implication is that matters of organizational policy, financial accountability and conflict resolution and other business for which the board is responsible requires little by way of prayer and much more by way of business savvy. What we’ve stated is out of harmony with what we practice.

This is where Edgar Schein’s insights into organizational transformation are so helpful. Paul Jensen has done quite a bit of work with his writings and has developed a presentation for The Journey from these insights. Schein reminds us that the actual culture or “spirit” of an organizational is the unstated beliefs and assumptions that lie hidden from view below the surface of an organization’s social community. A leader’s primary function, in Schein’s view, is to transform the organization’s culture which first requires that the organization be preserved. An organization that is destroyed by leadership action cannot be transformed. And there is a tension between transforming functions and preserving functions.

One implication of Schein’s insight is that organizational culture is transformed more indirectly than directly. This happens through what he calls “embedding mechanisms.” He also talks about reinforcing mechanisms that do not produce change, but can serve to support (or fail to support) new beliefs and assumptions that are being embedded by leaders. How are these new beliefs and assumptions embedded in the cultural values of the organization?

  1. By what a leader actually models. To what degree does a leader (or leadership team) model trust in God versus trust in personal resources or strategies?
  2. What a leader gives attention to. Where is their focus? What do they talk about most? Where are the leader’s intentionalities focused?
  3. What criteria are used in selecting and advancing leaders? (Jesus spends the night in prayer before selecting his Twelve).
  4. What criteria are used in releasing others from certain tasks or roles? (Not just “firing,” but sabbatical or sick leave).
  5. How does a leader respond to crisis. How is crisis and the leader’s response expose actual values that may be in conflict with stated values?
  6. (Added by Paul Jensen) How is the leader telling the group’s story, reminding the community of their roots? Such stories are the lived experience of what its beliefs, assumptions and convictions actually are. God repeatedly invites His people to remember and proclaim the story of His actions on their behalf, as well as how they followed or didn’t follow. This is a way of refreshing the good things that were embedded in the past for the present.

Think about your own influence—family, work, church, ministry. How do you see these six mechanisms at work? Which is a strength for you? Which is a weakness?

Thoughts on a Protestant Order


The Leadership Institute staff community has long functioned as a kind of Protestant Christian order, though we have not formalized that as of yet. (I use “Protestant” to distinguish from an Eastern Orthodox or Roman Catholic order). Elton Trueblood had a remarkable little essay on the theme, “The Emerging Order” (and being written in the 1950s, he wasn’t talking about anything related to the contemporary Emergent movement). Listen to this:

“The idea that is developing so powerfully is the idea of an order. An order is a society of persons, united by some common rule of obligation. The reformation that is sought is that by which the church as we know it becomes an order in this sense.” (Elton Trueblood. “The Emerging Order.” The Yoke of Christ and Other Sermons. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1958, p. 120.)

An order is a community of men and women who are connected on the basis of a common rhythm of life and ministry. This is how I would prefer to state “common rule of obligation” (a phrase which feels more rigid and less life-giving to me). Becoming an order or being part of an order is not about making people as comfortable as possible as they come to us. We don’t invite them to join on the basis of self-interest, then grow in selfless discipleship to Jesus. At least that wasn’t His approach.

“What is needed, by contrast, is a movement of great power which cuts across all denominational lines, so that those who are working for the recovery of the lost provinces in the Methodist Church will feel a deep sense of unity with those who are doing the same in the Presbyterian Church, though this horizontal loyalty never interferes with the denominational loyalty. This is exactly what is coming to pass, and it presents no conflict of loyalty whatever. Because an order is radically different from a denomination, loyalty to both at the same time involves no difficulties. We must be wary of new religious movements which tend to draw people away from their local churches. What we seek, instead, is a movement which, by the inculcation of a new mood and the encouragement of a new discipline, can make ordinary Christians more effective members where they already belong and where their contributions are needed.” (Trueblood, p. 121.)

An order does not have to live within a single denominational or organizational boundary. In fact, it is probably better if it doesn’t. An order is a relational reality that seeks to serve the various communities and traditions from which participants come. It doesn’t exist for its own benefit, but for the benefit of others. Whatever order emerges from the extended community of The Leadership Institute will seek to serve the churches, institutions and ministries from which members come. It would not seek to replace or supplant them, but serve and enrich them. That’s at least what I long for.

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Ministries That Help or Hinder Spiritual Formation


IMG_7321Pastors, missionary leader, heads of campus ministries and other vocational leaders want to create organizations that encourage spiritual growth. The reality is that sometimes, the very structures within which we live and minister can begin to get in the way.

I read the quotation below from Thomas Merton a few years ago. It comes from a letter he wrote in 1959 to an emerging Latin American leader. He had been in the monastery at Gethsemani then for nearly twenty years. As you read his perspective on the monastic environment in which he had lived nearly two decades of life, think about the church, ministry and mission setting in which you have lived yours. Where are there echoes? Where are there differences?

“the peculiar circumstances of this monastery prevent real spiritual growth. Underneath the superficial and somewhat good humor, with its façade of juvenile [casualness], lie the deep fear and anxiety that come from a lack of real interior life. We have the words, the slogans, and the notions. We cultivate the pageantry of the monastic life. We go in for singing, ritual, and all the external. And ceremonies are very useful in dazzling the newcomer, and keeping him happy for a while. But there seems to be a growing realization that for a great many in the community this is all a surface of piety which overlies a fake mysticism and a complete [emptiness] of soul. Hence the growing restlessness, the rebellions, the strange departures of priests, the hopelessness which only the very stubborn can resist, with the aid of their self-fabricated methods of reassurance.” (Thomas Merton. The Courage for Truth. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1993, p. 112)

What is it in particular that Merton suggests is preventing spiritual growth in his monastery? It seems to be a failure to attend to the deep resistances of fear and anxiety underneath the outward appearance of spiritual vitality. There is a difference between emotional excitement and spiritual life. Exciting music and energized preaching may or may not touch these deeper places that keep us from really engaging God.

What do you think?

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Looking Back: Direct or Indirect Ministry?


After a long and good week of ministry last week at The Journey, I’ve been enjoying a Sabbath day today. In the interest of continue to share something each day (which is a discipline I took on just before Summer), here a link to an October 2007 post in which I reflected on some good words by Eugene Peterson from A Long Obedience in the Same Direction:

LINK: “Direct or Indirect Ministry?

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