Only I Can Do That...

Want to brag on my boss for a second. I don't think he even knows I blog, so don't even think of accusing me of being a brown noser... he'll never read it.

Ken's been a great mentor for me in a lot of areas, but perhaps most importantly in the area of the pastoral ministry/family relationship. Ken and Kathy have a great marriage, and raised two young adult children who both love Christ and would tell you they are thankful to have been raised as pastors children. You don't find preachers' kids who would say that every day.

Ken gave his daughter Anna away on Saturday. His brother Ron did the ceremony.

Last week, someone asked Ken why he wasn't doing the wedding ceremony. I love his response. He said, "Because I'll be busy sitting next to my wife, holding her hand. Anyone could do the wedding ceremony, but I'm the only person who can sit next to my wife and hold her hand."

A lot of times rather than prioritizing based on what we can't do, we would do well to spend time asking ourselves, "What are the things only I can do?"

The Finger of God?

I don't know if you heard about the tornado that hit Minneapolis last week during the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America's (ELCA) convention, but commentary is starting to make its way around the blogosphere and I wanted to pitch in my 2 cents (you may want change).

Briefly: One of the items on the agenda for the ELCA to discuss was whether or not "practicing homosexuality was a behavior that should disqualify a person from pastoral ministry." On the day that item was going to be discussed, an un-forecasted tornado struck the church where the meeting was taking place. Now... three things:

1. I respect the fire out of John Piper. His response to N.T. Wright titled "The Future of Justification" was a masterpiece example of taking a stand against something with a careful blend of scholarship and the spirit of a pastor's heart. His other books are terrific as well. So, when I realized Piper had blogged about the tornado, it really grabbed my attention.

2. I believe the Scripture plainly says that homosexual behavior is a sin against God and that men and women who blatantly choose to take part in and justify any kind of clearly sinful behavior are unqualified for ministry leadership (1 Timothy 3:2; 3:8; 3:11). If they are believers God's discipline is certain (Hebrews 12:6), and if they remain unbelievers God's judgment is assured (Romans 1:18-32).


3. We must be extremely, extremely careful before stating with certainty that a specific event is God's judgment on specific people for a specific sin. The tornado damaged other buildings as well, and tornadoes happen with some regularity all over the country, even if not in Minneapolis. I think we walk a dangerous line when we are quick to draw a connection between natural events which are a reminder that we live in a fallen world, and God's specific purpose for any of those events.

God may have had many purposes for the tornado that touched down in Minneapolis. One of those may well have been a warning shot to the ELCA - God certainly isn't happy about the direction they're taking - but we cannot assert that judgement was God's main purpose with certainty.

Remember the blind man in John 9:1-3? The disciples were convinced that his blindness was judgment from God. The connection was too obvious for them. But Jesus corrected them, and proceeded to show them a different purpose.

The ELCA should certainly examine their hearts and plans to ensure they are in line with God's. We should certainly speak out against the direction they are headed. But I think it's a bit presumptuous to declare God's purpose in a natural event without a clear word from God. Otherwise, we put ourselves on the same road as Pat Robertson who declared that Hurricane Katrina was God's judgment on New Orleans, and Jeremiah Wright who declared that 9-11 is what America deserved for its past sins.

We must speak the Truth where the Bible speaks it, and be careful when we draw connections between "this" and "that" which aren't explicit.

Hard Conversations

Most people don't feel like they're very good in hard conversations. I'm certainly in that camp. Hard conversations are hard because they usually deal with sensitive subjects at inopportune times. There isn't ever a good time to tell someone they're fired, or that they need to deal with a sin issue.

Other times, the opportunities for hard conversations blind-side us when we are not prepared. It would be hard to count how many times I've skipped an easy opportunity to share the Gospel with someone because the opportunity came when I wasn't expecting it and didn't feel prepared.

Hard conversations are hard but think back about the people in your life who have made the greatest impact. They are the people who were willing to have the conversations with you that challenged you, confronted you, or inspired you, weren't they? As uncomfortable as those conversations were for you and for them, because they were willing to say the hard stuff in a loving way you perceived that they cared for you.

We instinctively understand that when people speak hard Truth in a loving way, they put the relationship and their reputation on the line because they care for us that much.

The equal and opposite truth is this: When you speak only what people want to hear, you will ultimately not be heard. People understand when you really don't care enough about them to put yourself at risk, and they won't trust you. Hard conversations are essential.

I'm still not great at hard conversations, but I've taken to asking myself a question that is helping me make progress. In every conversation, regardless of the circumstances, I'm trying to ask myself: "If I really cared about this person, how would this conversation be different."
You'll be amazed how many conversations are transformed on that question alone.

Investing Advice

I wasted last evening trying to switch over our personal finance software. I've had it on my computer for a while, but that's just not workable when Kari needs to see where we're at on our budget, so I'm switching things over to her computer. But, for several years we've used Microsoft Money which isn't being made anymore so we're switching. I spent the whole evening trying to switch only to figure out once I got everything set up that the new software wouldn't work for what we need it to. Nothing more frustrating than wasting a whole evening on something that doesn't work out (Maybe I should have listened to Jaye).

Being wise in keeping up with our finances is pretty important to Kari and I because, quite frankly, I'm on a career track where I am never going to make so much money I'll be able to afford to be unwise. I expect to live until I'm 70 or 80 and would like to have things I can enjoy in my old age, so every financial decision I make today matters.

This morning as I was studying 1 John 5:13 with a buddy of mine, I was reminded of a different timetable for my investments. John wrote so that his readers would "know that they have eternal life."

See, we don't just expect to live until we're 70 or 80; those of us who have trusted in Jesus Christ can expect to live forever.

I'd like to have some things to enjoy a billion years from now even more than I'd like to be able to play golf every day when I'm 80. That should re-focus the way I invest not only my money, but every resource God has entrusted to me. And just like my finances, those resources are limited. Every decision matters.

The Person Standing Alone

There are pluses and minuses for being a part of a larger church. One of the minuses is that it is really hard to spot guests. McKinney is a very friendly church, but every once in a while we have people who slip in and out without being greeted by anyone.

Believe it or not, I have one or two introverted tendencies. One is that I don't really love meeting strangers. I'm usually pretty uncomfortable unless someone introduces them to me who I'm confident can keep the conversation going. Part of it is that my short-term memory stinks and I'm afraid I'm going to re-introduce myself to someone I should know (that happens at least once a Sunday).

For a long time I've talked to the ministries I lead about developing eyes for the person standing alone.

In a healthy church, most people gravitate to their groups of friends. So, when you see a person (or couple) standing by themselves, there is a good chance they're guests trying to scope out the nearest exits just in case the church starts handling snakes. One of my regular Sunday morning prayers is that God would give me eyes to see those people standing alone, and the courage to reach out to them. You should pray that too. Visiting churches is hard work, and people with trained eyes can make it a lot easier.

Negligent Christians?

I've begun noticing a trend in many of the blogs and books I've read recently, as well as in many of the conferences and podcasts I've followed. It's become extremely trendy for evangelicals to bash the modern Evangelical Church when it comes to acts of mercy and social justice. If you listen to many of today's Christian writers, you could easily come to the conclusion that the Church has been completely asleep at the wheel since the 14th century when it led the charge in caring for people during the Bubonic Plague.

It's convenient to bash the Church, and I won't disagree that the Church has not been all it could be in this area. But I'm not sure the situation is nearly as bleak as many people have painted it.

There is a good chance that the largest hospital in your area was started by the Evangelical Church. If homeless people in your area need to be cared and provided for, they likely go to a Christian food bank or shelter. When it comes to relief efforts for famines, hurricanes, tsunamis, and other natural disasters, Christians have historically been some of the first people on the scene.

It's popular to bash the Church as if Christians have been completely negligent for the past seven hundred years. But those kinds of conclusions just don't bear the weight of the facts.

Don't get me wrong: we need to do better. We need to help people see that God cares about the poor, disenfranchised, persecuted and abandoned as we point them toward the ultimate hope found in Christ. It's true that some individual churches have focused on being right more than they've focused on being the Body of Christ. But I reject the notion that the Church has been completely negligent in these areas and think we should be ashamed of ourselves for the exaggeration. What kind of witness is that?

Would You Fire You?

Had a great discussion yesterday with a group of guys about managing money. Here's the question we posed:

If you had a financial planner who treated your finances the way you manage the resources God has entrusted to you, how long would he have a job?

"Each one should use whatever gift he has received to serve others, faithfully [stewarding/managing] God’s grace in its various forms." (1 Peter 4:10)

Church is Full of Hypocrites

I had an interesting conversation with a guy the other day about why he doesn't go to church more regularly. He used the old "the church is full of hypocrites" line, which I'm not always sure how to respond. Do you agree, and try to talk about the importance of grace? Or do you disagree on principle and talk about all the great things the church is doing in the world? Both are probably true. I never know what to say... but this time he threw me a softball I couldn't resist.

Here's how the conversation went:

Him: "I don't really do church... it's full of hypocrites."

Me: "Yeah, sometimes that's the perception. When is the last time you were in church?"

Him: "Christmas... or maybe Easter. We usually go to both of those, you know, for tradition's sake."

Me: "Well, that's the problem. Your only two data points are the Sundays when the church is full of a lot of other people like you."

I think he got the point. He was at church this week.

Moving Target

One of our unwritten (but always present) values at McKinney Church is to do everything we do with excellence. If everything we do as a church staff (or as Christians for that matter) is an exercise of the gifts God has given us, it should be done so that He receives glory (Colossians 3:17). Excellence gives glory to an excellent God.

The main reason the value of excellence is unwritten is that it's impossible to define what "excellence" looks like. Excellence, quality is a moving target; it never stands still.

Excellence is subjective to everyone except God, and thus is measured differently for each of us. I have a different perception of what excellent music sounds like than you do, and we both have a different perspective than someone from another culture. It's a moving target.

The benefit of a moving target is that you have to re-aim every time you get ready to pull the trigger. Since the definition of excellence never stands still, we have to do the same thing. We're forced to constantly evaluate and re-evaluate everything we do to ensure we're doing things that honor God in an excellent way, using the gifts and talents He has given, so that He is honored and glorified.

Your Story

I spent this morning talking with a guy about how to tell the story of what Jesus Christ has done in his life. Every Christian needs to be prepared to give an "elevator version" of how they came into a relationship with Christ in less than 100 words. If you prepare that kind of story and are ready, you'll be shocked at how many opportunities you get to tell it.

(As a matter of fact, as I was typing this blog entry at Panera, I had a random guy sit down next to me and strike up a conversation where he asked me to "tell him a little more about myself...")

The two biggest challenges people face when telling their story is (1) Forgetting what the story is about, and (2) Forgetting the goal of the story.

Most of us tell "our story" and forget that our story is really not a story about us. We emphasize how we were before we came to know Christ, and emphasize our life after Christ, but don't emphasize what Jesus has done in our lives. The most important part of your story is the climax of the story - when you understood that Jesus Christ died for your sins and gave you eternal life as a gift. Make sure you make it absolutely clear that your story is about Jesus and what He did on the cross. It's not a story about you. The gospel has to be clear.

Secondly, without an invitation, your story is just information. After you've made it clear what Christ did in your life, it's important to give people an opportunity to take a step. I usually ask, "Tell me about your spiritual journey." Or "What about you? Has anyone ever given you the opportunity to trust Christ?" Whatever you say, give people an opportunity to take a step that gets them closer to understanding and responding to the Gospel. They won't always respond, but you'll never get to see them respond if you don't give them the opportunity.

So, what's your story? See if you can get it to less than 100 words and post it as a comment. And when you share it this weekend (I guarantee if you look for it, you'll have an opportunity), don't forget to invite people to respond.

The Surprise of Preaching

I got a really nice note yesterday from a person in our church who made some neat life choices as a result of something God did through the sermon on Sunday.

I don't know why, but those kinds of responses always surprise me. I'm not surprised that God blesses the teaching of His Word; He always does that. I'm just amazed at how He arranges it.

My experience is that the sermons I feel the worst about are the sermons He tends to use the most.

For me, sermons are personal long before they're public. I work hard on the front end, always asking the question "How does this connect with my life." Because if I'm not working to live it, I can't preach it. You can't lead to a place you're not willing to go.

As a result, I often walk up on the stage Sunday morning feeling as though I don't have much original to say. Sometimes that's the truth but more often it's just a function of the fact that I've been living with a sermon for long enough it has lost its freshness with me. And because it doesn't feel new to me, I wonder how much what I say is going to connect with people.

What I find is, the sermons that connect the best are the ones I've lived with the longest, although those sermons almost never feel great to me on the Saturday night before I preach.

Praise Publicly, Challenge Privately

I've mentioned before: When it comes to my gift-mix, I tend to be a fairly good leader by nature, but not a good manager. I work well at 30,000 feet, but don't do as well keeping the plates spinning on the ground. But with very few exceptions, a degree of management is involved in all leadership. Even the most visionary CEO usually has to manage a COO who will keep the plates going for him. So, I've done a lot of research on management trying to shore up some of my weaknesses in that area.

One of the most obvious pieces of advice I've received in this area has also been one of the most helpful. I had a conversation with a really great manager not long ago who reiterated the importance of "praising publicly, challenging privately."

The most sure-fire way to lose a person's trust is to talk negatively about them in front of another person. It's true when you're managing businesses, and true when you're managing families. If you have something negative to say about someone, you owe them a conversation, but that conversation should be private. Using someones weakness as a "learning tool" for your team is a great way to make sure the only thing your team learns is that they can't fail in front of you. And if they can't fail in front of you, they can't risk in front of you.

The converse is also true. If you've got something nice to say about someone, make sure you say it to as many people as you can, because nothing motivates better performance like public recognition. Tell everyone that someone is a valued member of the team, and they'll go into battle and die for you as a leader.


When you're trying to lead change in your organization, you will always have critics.

Most leaders resist critics because they pour cold water on vision and strategy. And half the time, leaders are right to keep critics as far away as possible. The other half the time, keeping critics distant can prove to be fatal.

You have two kinds of critics in your organization. One group of people will never be won over. They're chronic critics who love to poke holes in plans and play the devil's advocate, but will never be persuaded despite a mountain of evidence against them. In most cases, this person has no actual influence because everyone knows his colors. The leader does well to remove him if it's possible, and marginalize him if removal is not possible.

The other kinds of critics are the people who are just not-yet-convinced. They're critical of plans because they haven't been persuaded that a plan of action is the best one. If the leader ignores these critics, it is to his own peril. These people can serve as a great sounding board for leaders because they help the leader shape his plans and communication to be as comprehensive as possible. They also help to point out flaws in logic and blind spots the leader hadn't considered, and nobody else bothered to point out. Their critiques are sincere, and come from the same heart as the leader's: a heart for the health of the organization. Though it can be exhausting for a leader to spend time with these people, if he is wise they will be some of his most trusted advisers.

If you distance yourself from everyone who disagrees with you, you will soon find yourself surrounded by a bunch of people who don't have anything to say to you. You'll be limited to your own wisdom and intellect, and that's a dangerous place to be.

Book Review: He is Not Silent

Albert Mohler is a freak. He is the president of Southern Theological Seminary, husband, father of two children, itinerant preacher, seminary professor, debater, and daily writes thoughtful, scholarly, persuasive entries on his blog.

Oh yeah, and he writes great books too.

I don't know where Dr. Mohler shops for time, but he must find it on sale.

He is Not Silent is Mohler's recent work on "preaching in a postmodern world." In it he defines biblical preaching and argues for expository preaching in a world of story.

However, lest you think this book is some kind of fundamentalist diatribe against everything contemporary, it isn't. Mohler helps the contemporary preacher think about preaching in a culture that continues to move in a postmodern direction.

One of the clearest examples of this is Mohler's chapter on "Preaching the Bible's Big Story." Postmodernism is consumed with the idea of "meta-narrative" - the idea that everything is connected as a piece of a big story. Mohler helps the preacher see this not as something to be afraid of, but as an opportunity to connect people with the meta-narrative of Scripture: the Gospel.

Mohler's book is a great call for preachers to stay focused on the Bible. He discusses the purpose of preaching, the reason for preaching, and the method of preaching. The book also contains a helpful chapter in talking about the uniqueness of the postmodern culture. It's a worthwhile read for anyone who preaches or teaches the Bible.

Many of you who read my blog don't preach. You are not pastors, and don't teach. This book isn't for you, but that's okay. October is Pastor Appreciation Month. Buy the book, wrap it up, and do your pastor a favor.

Book Review: Sticky Church

My buddy Jason, the Pastor of Small Groups at Chase Oaks church recently gave me Sticky Church, by Larry Osborne. If you've been reading my blog for more than a year, you might remember my review of one of Osborne's earlier books "Contrarian's Guide to Knowing God." That book talks about the importance of community within the church because it "Velcros people to truth."

"Sticky Church" develops the Velcro idea even further, proposing the idea that sermon-based small groups help close the back door to churches, further the impact of a sermon, allows more simple equipping of small group leaders, and provides a better context for people to grow as disciples.

Osborne believes (and I agree) that we do people a disservice when the only discipleship models we offer are linear (step one, then step two, then step three). Nobody grows in any other relationship like that. Instead, we learn best when we need to know. I didn't truly learn about God's sovereignty and character until I was in a desperate situation that forced me to examine it. According to Osborne, small groups are best equipped to help connect people to Truth because they connect people to Bible-centered community groups who are strategically placed in each others' lives to be present in need-to-know situations.

Even if you're not a part of a church whose primary discipleship model is small groups (ours isn't), this book can be helpful - especially for pastors. I'm not convinced that sermon-based small groups that function exactly like Osborne's are the silver bullet for discipleship, though I certainly buy most of his arguments. I do think that small communities of people are the most effective way to stimulate each other toward love and good works (Hebrews 10:24).

Whatever system your churches uses for discipleship, it's worth examining Osborne's model. Many of the principles will carry-over even if you decide not to do a system overhaul. Osborne thinks and writes well - "Sticky Church" is an easy and worthwhile read."

Book Review: Crucial Conversations

I heard about the book "Crucial Conversations" by Kerry Patters, Joseph Grenny, Ron McMillan, and Al Switzler from a friend who works in Atlanta. He said it was all the rage in Atlanta right now. I hadn't heard of it, so I'm either ahead of the curve or way behind it. It was published in 2002, so there's a strong chance I'm reviewing a book that was cool seven years ago. Even still...

This book is written to help spouses, roommates, businessmen, parents, and children communicate better in conversations that involve different opinions, high stakes, and high emotion. The principles they point out are helpful whether you're having a conversation with a roommate who leaves his socks on the floor in the living room, or an employee who is under-performing in their role.

This book helps you understand why some conversations go well, and some go poorly. Their advice won't be a surprise to most readers - there's nothing new under the sun. But these authors arrange helpful advice in such a way that is extremely helpful.

"Crucial Conversations" will help you go into difficult conversations with confidence, create environments that are safe for dialogue, deal with strong emotions that come when you're attacked, hurt, or scared during conversations, understand your goal alongside the goal(s) of other parties, in order to ultimately move a conversation toward a decision.

It's no wonder the people in Atlanta are excited about this book; it should make a comeback in Texas as well. If you lack confidence or skill in having difficult, emotionally-charged conversations with people you care about (or don't care about, for that matter), these guys can really help you.

Book Reviews: Organizational Change

I'm digging out of a pile from being in a class the last two weeks, and preparing to preach this Sunday so over the next few days I'm going to blow through some book reviews.

Most of my reading over the past two or three months has been about organizational leadership - the topic of my class. Some of those books have been helpful but aren't probably the kinds of reviews anyone wants to read (or write), so I'll just hit the good books I read in that vein today and move on to some more exciting books (for most of you) tomorrow.

The Leaders Change Handbook - This book, edited by Jay Conger, Gretchen Spreitzer, and Edward Lawler, contains independent chapters from experts in various aspects of organizational change. It deals with everything from leadership structure to organizational spin offs. As with most compilation books, some of the chapters are much better than others, but the book is helpful overall.

Managing Transitions - William Bridges is one of the world's leading experts on managing change. This book is short (125 pages), but immensely helpful. Bridges gives special focus to the reason people resist change, something most books on change do not address. He says people resist change not because of change itself, but because of the personal losses they inevitably experience by change. Leaders who address those losses openly, honestly, and creatively, will find much less resistance to change. Bridges also spends some time talking about leading through the "neutral zone;" the place between the casting of vision and the full implementation of whatever it is the leader is trying to change. "Managing Transitions" is an extremely helpful book.

Change is Like a Slinky - Hans Finzel is the president of World Venture, a Christian mission organization, so this book is written from a biblical perspective. Finzel describes six phases of change, and helps the leader think through successful ways to lead an organization through change. Honestly, the information in this book is great. Finzel is easy to read and offers great wisdom, but the Slinky parallels throughout the book drove me nuts. Read the book, but you've been warned ahead of time.

A Sense of Urgency - John Kotter writes for Harvard Business Press, and is one of the world's other great experts on change. He also wrote "Leading Change" and "Our Iceberg is Melting." "A Sense of Urgency" develops the idea that before change can be successful, the people who are being asked to change must feel the need to change. Kotter points out that the "need" must be experienced - it can't be handed down from a top-level executive. Kotter spends a chapter helping the leader deal with people he calls "NoNos" - the people who are chronically opposed to every sort of change. He also helps the leader differentiate between true urgency and false urgency that ultimately kill the change process.

The Leadership Challenge - James Kouzes and Barry Posner have written a book on Leadership that is possibly the most comprehensive resource for leadership available. If not, it is certainly one of the best selling leadership books of all time. They define 5 practices of great leaders: modeling, inspiring, challenging, enabling, and encouraging. If it is true that leaders are made, not born, Kouzes and Posner have taken a worthy stab at making great leaders. It's impossible to capture this book in a short review, so I won't try. If you're interested in organizational leadership and haven't read this book yet, it should probably be one of the next books you read.