Vision Has Its Price – Andy Stanley

This speaks right into my heart today…

Any vision worth pursuing will demand sacrifice and risk. You will be called upon to give up the actual good for the potential best. You will find it necessary to leave what is comfortable and familiar in order to embrace that which is uncomfortable and unfamiliar. And all the while, you will be haunted by the fear that this thing you are investing so much of yourself in may not work out at all.

There are so many unknowns associated with a vision. There are dozens of opportunities for things to go wrong. There is no guaranteed return on your investment. Sacrifice and risk-taking are unavoidable.

But to allow the cost and uncertainties to cause you to shrink back in your commitment or cause you to move out tenuously is to invite failure. Besides that, no one will follow you. Uncertainty in a leader is always magnified in the heart of the follower. John Maxwell says it this way: ‘People buy into the leader before they buy into the vision. People buy into the vision after the leader buys into it.'”

Vision requires courage and confidence. It requires launching out as if you were absolutely assured of the outcome. Vision requires the commitment of a parachutist. You don’t ‘sort of’ parachute. You are either in the plane or in the air. You either do it or you don’t. THe tendency is to approach a vision the same way a first time ice skater takes to the ice: cautiously, and never more than an arm’s length from the railing.” – Andy Stanley, Visioneering, p. 125-126


Worth Fighting For: Key Lessons in Reviving a Small Church in Decline

I asked Jimmy Hinton to provide insight into the turnaround process in the small church where he ministers in Somerset Pennsylvania. He graciously provided these insights, reminding us that small churches don’t have to die. They can make a return to growth but it is going to take work!

Jimmy’s thoughts…

Many people have told me over the years that it is easier to plant a church than to try and change the direction of an existing church.  This is true in many ways, but church planters are faced with a whole different set of challenges.  Many of my friends who minister at small churches are frustrated at the lack of meaningful dialogue between them and their elders/deacons.  In fact, several of them feel that they are stuck in the proverbial rut and that the elders are lording over them and, in some cases, working against them.  Another friend of mine once joked (sort of) that perhaps we should be praying to God for strategic deaths in our congregations so that His church would actually stand a chance of turning around.  Some of my friends have seriously debated whether it would be better to walk away from their small congregations and plant a new church.  So I ask the question that many ministers and church leaders are asking, “Is your small church doomed?”  If the signs point to yes, is it too late to turn it around?

Matt asked if I would write some of my story on how our small church made a turnaround.  Some may disagree with me but, by all definitions, a few short years ago our congregation was a dying church.  While we are not exactly splitting at the seams yet, we have recently begun to evangelize in meaningful ways and are more unified now than we have been in years.  People are genuinely excited for the Lord and new people are coming in just about weekly.  We are appointing elders and deacons this October.  I serve at the congregation that was my home church growing up, and in my 33 years of life they have not had any elders or deacons.  We are not the exception in the Northeast.  It is quite common for Churches of Christ to not have elders or deacons in this area.

I have served at Somerset for four years this June and my wife and I are as excited as the day I began.  Just as an aside, I do not claim to be an expert minister, a church doctor, or someone who has all the answers.  I simply am a servant of God who has been, and continues to be, blessed by Him.  There are several commonalities among small churches in decline, and I will offer some biblical principles that I believe, with God’s power, can turn a dying church around.  I will add that, just like a dying marriage, a dying church is worth fighting for.  Isn’t this what Paul did with the church at Corinth?  Church “divorce” should not even be on our radar.  The church is the bride of Christ, and she belongs to Him, each and every member.  We have no business hijacking her, abusing her, or dividing her up into pieces.

1. It is not your job to change people—Many church leaders carry a burden of responsibility that they were never called to carry.  We cannot change people.  If a minister accepts a position because he wants to change people, he will burn out very quickly.  Rather, he should model, instruct, and encourage Christ-like living in all that he does.  Invite others to follow your lead.  Be an ambassador for Christ (2 Cor. 5:11-21).

2. Make known your expectations—The quickest way for church leaders to find themselves at an impasse is to hide their expectations with one another and with the congregations they serve.  I let my church leaders know what I expect of them and ask them what they expect of me.  Every few months I make adjustments (as people grow and are equipped) and keep raising the bar.  My congregation knew when I was selected as their minister that gossip, personal attacks, and anonymous complaints (all things that were going on prior to my hiring) will never be tolerated by me.  Just recently, we raised the expectations on Sunday worship.  If people are assigned to serve on a given Sunday, they will be on time and they will come prepared, just as the minister is expected to come prepared to preach.  Our worship has had a complete turnaround just simply by making expectations known.

3. Absolutely no straw-man arguments—This is one that destroys churches, quickly spreads anxiety, and is downright divisive (see Titus 3:10-11).  When a minister hears, “People are saying. . .” he usually pictures a mob of angry congregants and expects the worst.  This is the intended purpose of straw-man arguments—to create a fictitious mob in order to gain leverage and intimidate.  I have a policy that there will be no anonymous complaints.  Period.  If someone wants to throw a stone, they will write their name on it or it is dropped immediately.  I once received a nasty letter in the mail criticizing my sermons.  There was no name or return address.  I threw it in the trash and never acknowledged it to anyone else.  I’ve seen ministers and church members nearly ruined by church leaders over something an anonymous person was upset about.  If someone doesn’t have the guts to go to the person who offended them, they have no business hiding behind a straw man and stirring up the Lord’s church.

4. It is the minister’s job to train, re-train and equip leaders—This is one that I have fought God on for a long time.  Preachers of small churches have enough on their plates, right?  As if preaching isn’t demanding enough, ministers of small churches often find themselves caught in the additional roles of full time shepherd, deacon, secretary, janitor, tech guru, evangelist, song leader, author of bulletin articles, counselor, coordinator of church events, leader of men’s business meetings (the name says it all!), officiant of all funerals and weddings, director of education and outreach, the interim youth minister, and the go-to guy for all other decisions, including whether or not purchasing a new stapler should be approved.  Plus the minister must find time for his family—another full time job.  The irony is that ministers are taking on all of these responsibilities precisely because they have not adequately trained others to be leaders.  Paul was doing more than just evangelizing everywhere he went.  He was mentoring, training disciples, and calling others to imitate his pattern.  Paul was equipping leaders to equip the saints.  This command to equip others has really broken down in the small church.  Acts 6:1-7, 2 Thess. 3:6-15, Romans 12:3-8, 1 Cor. 12:1-31, and Eph. 4:1-16 have become my modus operandi.  Meditate on them and find ways to put them into practice.  If a church falls apart after you leave, the signs point to a dependent church where members were not equipped to serve and lead.

5.  Make it happen—We joke that this has become my motto when people come to me with fresh ideas for ministry.  Harold Shank calls this permissive leadership.  Ministers, you should model permissive leadership to your congregations, including your elders and deacons.  When a church member comes to leaders with excitement and new ideas for serving others, the best thing they can hear is, “Make it happen.”  Most idle people, I am convinced, are currently not serving because either nobody has allowed them to serve or they haven’t been taught how.  We leaders must learn to trust, equip, and empower the saints to serve.  Children will never learn how to ride a bike if the parents always ride it for them.

6.  Create structure or it all falls apart—Churches under 100, especially if there are no appointed elders and deacons, tend to follow the strongest or most domineering personality.  Because there are not recognized shepherds and deacons, nobody really knows who the actual leaders are.  Typically, small churches easily become androcentric (male-centered) and whoever happens to show up at scheduled men’s business meetings are designated “leaders” and “decision makers.”  Small churches need to get more structured and ministers need to start recognizing giftedness among each and every one of the members.  If you see someone as a potential shepherd, let him know and start building him up.  If you see certain women who have gifts, encourage them to nurture them and serve more often.  Encourage and teach your members how to work together so that nobody is sitting on the sidelines.  Working together eventually dismantles and deflates domineering people, because the congregation no longer needs a strong personality to do the work for them.

7.  Let no one despise you and be transparent—I am mostly talking to ministers here.  If people within a congregation (including elders or deacons) are giving you unfair criticism, remind them that they hired you because they trusted you to lead.  Do not allow people to despise you.  I am hesitant to offer this advice, but if a person is relentlessly harassing you for the way you lead, offer them to take your job for one week.  This is not meant to be sarcastic.  Most people have no idea how much ministers of small churches actually do or the types of spiritual problems that they are regularly faced with.  Really offer for the criticizer to have people come to them with the kinds of things that you deal with on a daily basis and allow them to come up with the best biblical solution.  At very least offer for them to shadow you for a day and ask them for input, or perhaps type up a few case studies and then ask them how they would handle the situations.  I close with this passage:

“Command and teach these things.  Let no one despise you for your youth, but set the believers an example in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith, in purity.  Until I come, devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to exhortation, to teaching.  Do not neglect the gift you have, which was given you by prophecy when the council of elders laid their hands on you.  Practice these things, immerse yourself in them, so that all may see your progress.  Keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching.  Persist in this, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers” (1 Tim. 4:11-16 ESV, emphasis mine).

Lead on, and may God bless and lead your small church to bear fruit!

Church Growth Requires Adjustments – Pointing You to Ben Lamb’s Experience

Two years ago we went from having one child to two. It has been quite the adjustment. Just when you thought you were about done with diapers, bottles, and being up all night…here it goes again. What is more, coordinating two kids is entirely different than just managing one child. It takes a lot more communication, a lot more intentionality and a lot more work to pull it off. The same is true with churches. The more people you have the more coordination and communication it takes to hold it all together. If you aren’t used to it and have grown from being a smaller group or a smaller church into a larger one the change can be harder. You know what worked to get you  where you are at and so our guy tells us to keep doing all those things that used to work. When the church was small you could be more pastoral with less people. With more people comes a great need for more people to be pastoral rather than just one central figure or group of elders.

One person who has written about his own struggles with this is Ben Lamb. I appreciate Ben’s openness and honesty in the following post as he highlights the adjustments he has had to make and continue to make in order to address the challenges of growth. And we are not just talking about changes in strategy…we are talking about personal adjustments as well. Have a read of Ben’s post The Not So Fun Side of Gracepoint Growing.

Growth Happens Best in Practice, Process Becomes Secondary

Over the last two years at Northwest we have been trying some new things. We process a new idea or direction to death, get a plan together, get people on board and then move ahead. What we have noticed, and I am sure you have too, is that you only learn how this new things is actually going to work once you begin working at it. Plan all you want, once you start doing things, you will find out what really needs to happen. You will find out what made sense on paper but doesn’t work with real people. You will see areas you never thought to address that need to be added and find out some of your ideals were too ideal and need to be dropped. Things that are too complicated to be repeated will fall out and things that are simple will hang on. So process all you want on the front end but realize that it is only in the practice that the real growth takes place. Things get refined in and through action, not just with paper and pencil in the drawing room. Once you get to work, then you will have time to process what you are actually doing rather than just what you think could happen.

Handing Off Ministry to Others…Valuing Development Over Dependence

One of my goals in ministry is to develop people well enough that if I got hit by a truck tomorrow that things could continue on without me. Ministries that fully depend on my presence will never grow bigger than my own skill set and availability. Empowering and equipping others to take on pieces of ministry and sending them to go and do it is essential to effective ministry. It is not expedient on the front end but it is necessary for ministry to be done by community and not done in isolation. That means ministry shifts from being done to people to being done with people and by people. Maybe the next stage of your ministry is development rather than dependence.

A few ideas to start handing things off to others:

  1. Don’t hand off too much too fast but make sure the goal is to hand off as much as possible. Change takes time. Giving people more than they are ready to take on or are available to deliver on will just make them feel guilty and unsuccessful.
  2. Know your people and know what they can handle…then give them just a little bit more than what you think they can handle.
  3. Know when to back off and when to push forward with people.
  4. Be in tune with the concept of availability. People are only going to give what resources they have and are willing to give. Some people have resources but aren’t willing to give them. That is an availability issue, not a talent/skill issue.
  5. Some day you will transition into something else. Do you want to leave the next guy with a ministry that is limping along, dependent and immature? Or do you want the next guy to find a stable, healthy, and growing ministry that has direction, vision and momentum from within?
  6. Identify which things you have to do and which things can be handed off.
  7. Give away the parts you can with adequate description and expectations without micromanaging too much. Again, know your people. Some people may start off needing a little more direction than others.
  8. You will find that the more you involve others in ministry, the more the ministry will grow. People are more likely to invite friends and talk about their own ministry than ministry that someone else is doing to them or for them.
  9. Know your skill set and surround yourself with people who have what you don’t. Maybe you aren’t the most magnetic person in the world, know who is and use them. Maybe you have magnetism but you aren’t the best teacher…identify those who can teach and get out of their way.
  10. What is your number 10?

Getting Stuck in the Battles of the Past Is Not a Winning Strategy (Leadership & Ministry Lessons Part 7)

Consider these words from the Captain,

“Before considering several engagements of this type that occurred during the World War, let us review some of that same war’s lessons, albeit, no human being can say whether or not they will apply to the war of the future. Indeed, there is tragedy in the fact that the solider must learn from examples of the past and only rarely from the present. In fact, there is a certain danger in the study of military history if we seek to obtain from it more than the eternal verities of leadership, morale, psychological effects and the difficulty and confusion which battle entails. We cannot visualize war of the future merely by studying wars of the past. If this were so, the best professor of history would necessarily be the best commander. Certainly the next war will place entirely new problems before us – problems that have not even been imagined. Our descendants may never have to face the difficulties that confronted us in the last war and that still confronts us today, but we can be certain that in place of these they will have other difficulties to overcome…Let us not fall into the mistake ” (Adolf von Schell, Battle Leadership, 66)

The first thing you will notice from that quote is that Von Schell refers to World War One as “the World War.” That is because this was written in the late 1930s and WWII had not yet occurred. The main point in this quote is this…it is important to study and understand the battles of the past but we cannot expect future battles to follow past patterns. Why? Because things change. We face new challenges. There are advances in technology, culture, and strategy that alter the battlefield. How does this apply to leadership in ministry? It is too easy to fight battles of past generations that are no longer relevant to our contemporary culture.

The past informs the future but we should never confuse the past as being the future.
When we do that, we end up in all kinds of wacky conversations that lack relevance.

Here is What is Creating a Disconnect in our Churches and Why So Many Leave (Leadership & Ministry Lessons Part 6)

I have been writing a series of posts on leadership in ministry based on the book Combat Leadership by Captain Adolf Von Schell. This sixth post is probably the most important one yet. So important, that I changed the title in hopes of getting more response out of this one. Please read the whole post, especially if you are in church leadership.

In chapter 6, Von Schell reminds the reader that training for war and real war are two different things. When you are training, everything goes just right but it is never like that in the real world. Here is how he put it,

“In our peacetime map problems, war games and field exercises, we have simple situations. There is no uncertainty, nothing goes wrong, units are always complete. Every company has its appropriate number of officers. Every battalion has its commander…Long written orders are published and in an unbelievably short time, reach the individual to whom they are addressed, who promptly carries them out. Every man has his map and compass. He knows that the attack will be pushed forward in the exact direction of the 179 1-2 degree magnetic azimuth.”

What he is saying here is that up to this point in history, combat training assumed ideal conditions where ideal orders are given, everyone is present, communication is perfect and everyone has their map and compass pointed the right way all the time, every time with more precision than you would be able to do with bullets going over your head. He goes on,

“In war it is quite otherwise. There is no situation that our imagination can conjure up which even remotely approaches reality. In peace we have only grammar school tactics. But let us never forget that war is far more advanced than a high school. Therefore, if you would train for the realities of war, take your men into unknown terrain, at night, without maps and give them difficult situations. In doing so use all the imagination you have. Let the commanders themselves make their decisions. Teach your men that war brings such surprises that often they will find themselves in apparently impossible situations…Every solider should know that war is kaleidoscopic, replete with constantly changing, unexpected, confusing situations. Its problems cannot be solved by mathematical formulae or set rules…All armies of the world learn, in peace time, how to write long, beautifully constructed orders. I believe that it is correct to learn to think of everything and to forget nothing, but we must never lose sight of the fact that, in a war of movement, our orders must be brief and simple.”

His point is that training must reflect the realities of what you are training people for. When you look at publications that tell you how to run a specific ministry, do evangelism, discipleship, or any of a number of things this is too often true. We are presented and trained for ideal circumstances where your staff has every gift imaginable and where life never seems to get in the way. How do we train people in ministry “in the trenches” rather than just sitting at desks in a classroom? How do we train Christians in ways that are real and relevant to the world they live in? Often Sunday seems too disconnected from Monday. We train for the ideal but the world will never be ideal. So why do we keep training like it is?

He continues,

“There is a tendency in peace time to conduct training by use of stereotyped situations which are solved by stereotyped solutions. In war, however, we cannot say, ‘This situation is so and so and according to the rules which I have learned, I must attack or defend.’ The situations that confront one in war are generally obscure, highly complicated and never conform to type. They must be met by an alert mind, untrammeled by set forms and fixed ideas.

In our peacetime tactical training we should use difficult, highly imaginative situations and require clear, concise and simple orders. The more difficult the situation, the more simple the orders must be. Above all let us kill everything stereotyped; otherwise it will kill us.” (p.63-64)

Kill the stereotype or it will kill us. What is he saying there? He is saying that in the classroom, there are perfect formulas that work every time but step away from your desk and onto the battlefield and those same formulas no longer look as relevant. Here it is, I am convinced that what Von Schell is saying here is one of the most important lessons we can learn in ministering in the 21st century. The culture we live in is no longer predominantly Christian. People are getting shot at all the time. Then they come in on Sunday or Wednesday and get trained for a world that exists only in the classroom and only in the mind. There may be application but not necessarily for the world they live in.

This is why there is such a disconnect today, especially with young people. What Von Schell is saying here is perfectly describing the disconnect young people especially feel in the assembly. In order to address it we have to change our tactics. We have to change our training. We have to understand the real world and understand how Christians can live in it and support one another through it, much like soldiers huddled together in a war zone. As I type that I am reminded of what Mike Breen wrote in Multiplying Missional Leaders,

“Sending people out to do mission is sending them out to a war zone. When we don’t disciple people the way Jesus and the New Testament talked about, we are sending them out without armor, weapons or training. This is mass carnage waiting to happen. How can we be surprised when people burn out, quit and never return to the missional life (or to the church for that matter?) How can we not expect that people will feel used and abused?” (p.12)

Have you all experienced this? How have we missed it?

For those who want to read more reflections on Combat Leadership, here are the other parts to date:

  1. Part 1
  2. Part 2
  3. Part 3
  4. Part 4
  5. Part 5

Leadership & Ministry Lessons from a World War One German Officer (Part 5)

When you lead people into battle, there are going to be times of intense stress and anxiety. One of the things Captain Von Schell was good at was finding ways to put his soldiers at ease when their lives were on the line,

“I noticed that my men were uneasy; they were now waiting for the shell that would fall in the middle of the house…We waited together. This waiting and this uncertainty made us nervous. We sat int he house and listened for every shell. We could tell exactly whether it was too short or too long, whether it would fall to our right or to our left. Finally the following thought came to me: ‘The walls of this house are very thick, in fact about a yard. If a shell bursts outside the house and we are in it, nothing can happen to us. If, however, a shell bursts in the house, then it would be better to be outside. Therefore, the best thing toi do is to sit in the door and watch the shells. We can tell where they are going and we will be in a position to go either into the house or out of it.’ So I sat down on a chair in the door and was soon perfectly satisfied-so satisfied, in fact, that I went to sleep. This action on my part calmed my men to such an extent that they began to play cards. After a few hours the firing ceased.

You may laugh at my action in this case I too am ready to laugh at it. My conviction at that time was nonsense. One cannot decide whether a shell will land three or four yards to the right or to the left. I have only mentioned the point to illustrate that it makes no difference whether or not the security is real; it is simply a question of feeling that it is.” (p.15)

He couldn’t tell if a shell was going to land in the house or outside the house and yet the very fact that his men knew he was “on it” was enough for them to relax. Here is another example of putting his men at ease,

“The shells continued to fall around our shed. No one said a word. I noticed that my men were highly nervous…Suddenly a shell came down right in the middle of the company, but it failed to burst. Nerves were frayed almost to the breaking point…In order to obtain a feeling of security somebody had to act. Then I had a good thought; I called the company barber, sat down with my back to the front and told him to cut my hair. I must say, that in my whole life, no haircut has ever been so unpleasant. Every time a shell whistled over our heads, I jerked my head down and the barber would tear out a few hairs instead of cutting them. But the effect was splendid; the soldiers evidently felt that if the company commander could sit quietly and let his hair be cut that the situation was not so bad, and that they were probably safer than they thought. Conversation began; a few jokes were played; several men began to play cards; someone began to sing; no one paid any more attention to the shells.

Two points stand out in this incident: Instill a sense of security in the men; by doing so you will help them overcome their fears. Do something to induce action among them.” (p.16-17)

I feel a tension here because it seems like a lot of Christianity today plays it safe. We don’t get on the front line that often. We shelter people from it. We professionalize it so much so that it seems only the high ranking officers are involved in the war. We don’t want to put people at risk. We don’t want to do anything dangerous. We don’t want people to get hurt. So we stay far from the battle lines. There is no anxiety to alleviate other than if we sing songs don’t like or we pass communion wrong. Where are we leading people? Are we in the fight? Are they in the fight? Before we have to worry about how to relieve the battlefield anxiety, we first have to be taking people on the battlefield!

Leadership & Ministry Lessons from a World War One German Officer (Part 4)

People want to follow a leader who has made a name for himself. Captain Von Schell talks about how much of a moral booster it was to his troops when they knew they were following the orders of a famous leader.

“[The experienced soldiers] said, ‘We are fighting now under Hindenburg who has already beaten the Russians so many times. If Hindenburg is commanding us we are sure to win. Just you wait and see…’ This confidence in their commander was shared by the officers also. Everyone was inspired by the fact that they were fighting under Hindenburg. His fame at this time was already secure. He had won the battle of Tannenberg, the modern Cannae, had defeated the Russians at the Mazurian Lakes, and had conducted those two splendid campaigns in southern Poland and at Lodz. The officers looked into the future with the utmost assurance.”

People get great assurance from following great leaders. How does this apply in the context of Christian ministry? In 1 Cor 11:1 Paul wrote, “Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ.” Christian leaders lead best when they point people to Christ. Our reputation as Christian leaders can only be so great as the degree to which we point people to Jesus. Jesus is the author and perfecter of our faith…not the pastor, elder, minister, deacon, etc. Just as those who were under the orders of Hindenburg felt assurance due to his reputation, ability and excellent leadership…we get our assurance from following Christ and being under his orders. He calls the shots and we follow because his reputation precedes him.

Leadership & Ministry Lessons from a World War One German Officer (Part 3)

Leadership requires making decisions without all the information. Combat leadership prior to the advent of satellites and advances in communication technology meant that decisions had to be made without all the relevant information. Even with all the advances in technology that is still true in war and it is true in ministry. You may think a road looks safe but it turns out to be disaster. You can let the unknown freeze you up or you can lead through it.

“Leaders must nearly always issue orders without exact information. Our mission and our will are often the only things untouched by obscurity. These will frequently form our only basis for an order. If a leader awaits complete information before issuing an order, he will never issue one.” – Adolf Von Schell, Combat Leadership, 31

He mentions two important things that assist decision making when one does not have all the information: our mission and our will (the will of the leader and his troops). That means the overarching mission drives the leadership decision. The question should be asked, does this decision drive us in the direction of the overarching mission or does it distract from it? That question will help make the decision clearer even when all the information in not available. As Christians, we would tweak the second…it is the will of God that helps us in our decision making. We ask the question first, “Is this what God wills?” If he does, then we have to move our will in line with His.

In ministry, we are going to have to make decisions based on incomplete information. At the end of the day, if even things get rocky as a result of those decisions, we have to be able to say we believe the decision was in line
with our Christian mission and was God’s will as best as we could ascertain that.