Merry Christmas

Kari and I will be enjoying this week with our family. See you after the first of the year.

Why Shepherds? Part 4

This week I've tried to make the case that the shepherds in Luke 2 aren't there by accident. God made the spectacular birth announcements to shepherds (1) because Jesus as the Good Shepherd is the great fulfillment of God's promise in Ezekiel 34 and (2) because the other shepherds who should have been caring for the welfare of the people of Israel were asleep on the job. Every time Jewish leaders were reminded that the shepherds in the field heard first it should have been a stinging rebuke of their negligence.

So what? Here are a few observations from Luke 2 and Ezekiel 34 that apply to us as leaders today.

- Leadership is a stewardship. Shepherds didn't own the sheep; they managed them for someone else and were accountable to him for the welfare of the sheep-owner's assets. Whether we lead a church, an organization, a small group, or a family, God cares about the way we lead.

- God cares more for the welfare of the sheep than He does the position of the shepherd. When leaders refuse to manage well what has been entrusted to them, it is good stewardship on the Owner's part to replace the manager.

- God is looking for shepherds who will watch after the sheep, even when it is inconvenient, scary, exhausting, or bothersome. Nobody wants to stay up all night with a bunch of stupid sheep. But if the sheep are important to their owner, they should be important to us; whatever the cost.

- Faithfulness often gets rewarded in unexpected ways. In Luke 2, several guys watched over their sheep like they had undoubtedly done for many moons. They had likely seen several interesting things during their nights keeping watch over the sheep. On this night, they saw angels singing and received a sneak peak at the Good Shepherd who had come to save the world. God may not peel back heaven for your faithfulness in the minutiae of what He has called you to do, but He might.

Why Shepherds? Part 3

I started this week's post on Monday by saying that I don't think the shepherds' involvement in the Christmas story was a coincidence. Those guys weren't just in the right place at the right time. God chose to announce the birth of Jesus to specific shepherds for a specific reason. 

Yesterday I pointed to Ezekiel 34, in which God rebukes the leaders of Israel for being lousy shepherds. The angels should have sung for King Herod. God expected the king to be good shepherds (2 Samuel 5:2; Isaiah 44:28; Jeremiah 3:15, etc...). They should have sung for the Pharisees and Sadducees, who were also supposed to be good shepherds. 

But Herod and the Jewish leaders were shepherds who had fallen asleep on the job. 

When the angels appear in Luke 2:8, they appear to shepherds who were doing what shepherds are supposed to do: keeping watch over their flocks. And at night, no less. 

Night time is when predators like wolves and hyenas stalk lambs who stray from the flock. Night time is when thieves look for flocks to pilfer. Night time is when sheep - who can only see around 10 yards during the day - are prone to wandering away in the darkness. 

Night time is when sheep are the most vulnerable. It's also when shepherds are most vulnerable to taking their eyes off the ball. They're tired and sleep deprived. They're afraid. They're bored. Night time is a hard time to be a shepherd. 

But despite the obstacles, the shepherds in Luke 2 are exactly where they should have been doing exactly what they should have been doing: keeping watch over their flocks. 

When the Good Shepherd arrived, the angels announced the news to the shepherds who were doing what shepherds were supposed to do. The "shepherds" who were asleep at the switch missed the announcement. 

So what? In case it's not obvious, I'll finish out tomorrow talking about the implications for leaders today. 

Why Shepherds? Part 2

Yesterday I submitted that the shepherds' appearance in the Christmas story is more than just a coincidence. God picked shepherds, and specific shepherds, to be the recipients of his big announcement. Those guys weren't bit players in the drama - they tell a significant piece of the story.

You don't have to be an Old Testament scholar to know that shepherds play a big part in the Old Testament. Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and his sons, Moses, and David were all shepherds. In fact, as you read through the Old Testament you get the idea that when God wanted something done, He looked for a shepherd to work through.

In fact, that's precisely the point God makes in Ezekiel 34.

When we think about Christmas prophecies, we usually think about Isaiah 7, Isaiah 9, and Micah 5. But Ezekiel 34, as it turns out, has Christmas written all over it, though it's not all peace, joy and good tidings.

Ezekiel 34 is a stinging rebuke and judgement against Israel's leaders, who God says should have been been serving as shepherds of the people of Israel. Instead, they were selfish (Ezekiel 34:1-2); oppressive (Ezekiel 34:3-4); negligent (Ezekiel 34:5-6) stewards over the people God had trusted them to lead.

They were shepherds who were asleep on duty.

As a result, God promises to remove those leaders as shepherds and to replace them with someone else, Himself (Ezekiel 34:7-16). God announces judgment on these corrupt, oppressive, self-centered "shepherds" by shepherding the people Himself, caring for the people Himself, and restoring the flock Himself.

The judgment is announced in Ezekiel 34. In Bethlehem 2000 years ago, God made good on His promise.

The angels appeared to shepherds because this baby was the Good Shepherd (John 10:11-13) God had promised way back in Ezekiel 34. That's great news for sheep; bad news for the former shepherds. The angels should have appeared to the Jewish leaders. The angels should have appeared to the king. But those leaders were under judgment.

But why these shepherds? I think there's a reason these specific guys made it into the story. Check back tomorrow.

Why Shepherds? Part 1

Luke 2:8-20 is a familiar part of the Christmas story. There were shepherds living in the fields, watching over their flocks at night when a host of angels fill up the night sky and announce that a Savior is born who is Christ the Lord. They were "sore" afraid. 

Did you ever stop to wonder, why shepherds? 

Jesus was born a king, but God didn't pull back the sky to reveal the angelic host for Herod, who found out in a roundabout way through some wise men/astrologers from another land. 

Jesus was born the Jewish Messiah, but the Scriptures don't record any angelic visits to Pharisees or Sadducees.

The heavenly choir sang a command performance for a few hired-hands and a bunch of sheep. 

Why? Why shepherds?

I think there's a really good reason shepherds (and these shepherds in particular) get such a prominent place in the Christmas story. Their appearance isn't just coincidental, or filler in the story. The shepherds were intentional, and send a really powerful message for leaders every time we think about the Christmas story. 

Stay tuned this week. 


One of the things our staff team has been working through over the past year is the idea of alignment. We want to be a church that is committed to "developing Christ-centered people who make a difference," and want everything to align around that purpose. We don't want sideways energy that steals resources and focus from the reason we exist as an organization.

The problems with seeking alignment around anything are that (1) Almost everything can be justified in light of a common purpose, and (2) Alignment problems or perceived alignment problems are easily misdiagnosed.

Anyone's pet project or sentimental favorite can be rationalized in light of the overall purpose. And almost everyone can give anecdotal evidence concerning why something is working or not.

It is also easy miss the difference between things that are broken and things that are misaligned. Some things point the organization in the right direction, but aren't moving the organization because something else is broken. If your car keeps veering off the side of the road it could be because it is out of alignment. It could be because you have low tire pressure in one or more tires.

There is no such thing as a silver bullet when it comes to alignment and accomplishing your purpose. But you want to make sure your purpose is clearly defined and that you're accurately diagnosing things that are broken.

Comfort Zone

Have you ever noticed that most of Jesus' most poignant teaching moments with the disciples took place around the Sea of Galilee?

The Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7) took place on the shore. The Feeding of the Five Thousand (Mark 6) took place there too, as did Jesus walking on water (Matthew 14:22-33) and their restoration after He rose from the dead (John 21).

The Sea of Galilee was the place Jesus found and called several of them (Matthew 4:18). It was their turf. They were fishermen who had likely grown up around that lake.

I can't prove this, but I think the location for Jesus' lessons was intentional. He pulled them out of their comfort zone inside their comfort zone.

I think there's a lesson inside all the lessons: disciples desperately need Jesus even in spaces where they're comfortable.

The Big Problem

If you live in Fort Worth, you have undoubtedly heard about the new advertisements on city buses this Christmas season. There has been quite an uproar about the advertisements by an atheist organization declaring that "millions of Americans are good without God."

Some bus drivers are claiming they will refuse to drive buses with the advertisements on them. Reports of the potential for hundreds or thousands of people boycotting city buses seem to be credible. Some Fort Worth pastors are organizing church-wide boycotts of the bus.

Perhaps obviously, I'm in favor of consumers voting with their pocketbooks. There are stores and services I will never patronize again because of the way they treated me or my wife. And you had better believe I privately tell my friends about my experience in hopes that they'll join with me.

However, I'm not sure I can think of a scenario in which I think a church as an institution needs to be in the boycott business.

I'm more saddened by the sentiment of the advertisements than I am angered by them. That an organization called "Coalition of Reason" could have such a flawed and subjective definition of "goodness" can only be an indication of their blindness. Who gets to decide what defines "good" in order to declare that millions of people are "good?" Who or what is the standard?

I wish the advertisements weren't on the city buses, but I'm not going to waste a bunch of time worrying about them for two reasons:

First, I simply can't picture a person walking down Hulen Street, seeing a bus drive by that says "Millions of Americans are good without God" and saying to himself, "Gee... I had no idea." Honestly, I put less confidence in a city bus advertisement's ability to change a person's worldview than I do the "John 3:16" sign at football games; and that puts the advertisements pretty low on my confidence list.

Secondly, I'm far more worried about people inside the church who teach and live as if they believe they are "good without God" than I am atheists who expresses a spiritually blind opinion. I'm far more worried about functional atheists' ability to discredit the church than I am a city bus advertisement put out there by real atheists.

My uncle Phil had a really great post yesterday that says virtually the same thing, better than I could.

Security through a Team

From time to time I have worked with people who refuse to build a team around themselves. They thrive on being the Lone Ranger; the person with the plan; the one everyone looks to when a problem needs to be solved or a task needs to be accomplished.

Almost always, this tendency is based in insecurity. People feel like a team makes them irreplaceable. They're afraid if they empower a group of people to lead underneath them they will make themselves expendable. If they are the only person who knows how things work, they can't be replaced.

In reality, I think the opposite is true. Short of an ethical or moral challenge, the failure to build a team is as sure a way as I know to find yourself replaced. Building a solid team of people who can do your job better than you is as sure a way as I know to get promoted.

Teams allow you to focus on a higher level of tasks and to take on more responsibility. If you fail to build a team you create a ceiling for yourself - you are only able to be responsible for the things you are able to do yourself. As the organization continues to grow and change, you won't have the margin to grow with it and you won't make it.

Team-building ensures margin, allows focus, and maximizes effectiveness. As a result, it might be the most important trait of a person who wants to be a high-level leader.

Humble Yourself

Ever notice that 1 Peter 5:5-7 and James 4:6-10 give commentary on the same Proverb, and offer the exact same advice?

Both James and Peter reflect on Proverbs 3:34: "God mocks proud mockers but gives grace to the humble." And, both James and Peter give the same advice: "Humble yourself so that God may lift you up."

A lot of times we talk about "being humbled" as if humility is something that happens to us passively at the hands of another person or circumstance. That isn't the way James or Peter see it.

If you remember, both James and Peter were writing to people who were struggling under awful circumstances (1 Peter 1:6-7; James 1:2-4). If humility came through circumstances, these people would have had been poster-children already.

But Peter and James talk about humility as something we should do to ourselves. It's active.

Pride can be defined as "an unhealthy interest in ourselves." Humility is the opposite. Humility is what happens when we see ourselves the way God sees us: as empty-handed, broken people who are completely dependent on a Savior through the power of the Spirit. And it isn't something that "just happens" to us.

We need to constantly, consistently remind ourselves that we are nothing more, nothing less than "in Christ." When we actively humble ourselves in the sight of the Lord, the God with a hand strong enough to raise us from death to eternal life will lift us up in this life as well.

Platforms vs. Programs

My love/hate relationship with Apple is well-documented. I have a knack for buying lemons from Apple (on my ninth iPhone) and have even worse luck with their customer service trying to remedy my problems. And yet, I keep going back. I've tried to leave on multiple occasions, but keep going back for one primary reason.

Apple's philosophy is to create platforms that let the customer leverage the technology in a way that makes it useful to them.

Apple doesn't try to hang onto all the power. They don't try to corner every possible market. To do so would cause them to stretch far too thin and create a wide variety of mediocre, highly specialized products. They would be Microsoft.

Rather than trying to meet every imaginable need, Apple has created highly customizable tools that allow people who truly understand the specialized market to leverage Apple technology in a way that is useful to them. They empower the customer to maximize their platform.

I feel like a lot of our churches stretch themselves far too thin. Rather than thinking about platforms, we spend our time thinking about highly specialized programs that cause us to stretch too thin and create a bunch of mediocre stuff.

I wonder what it would look like if we focused more on creating platforms that allowed people the flexibility and adaptability to customize it to their specific needs as they seek to become Christ-centered people.

Kinds of Authority

I had a conversation last week with my friend Jeff Jones, the pastor at Chase Oaks Church. Jeff Jones and Gene Getz along with some other guys wrote the book on pastoral transitions. Jeff has been really kind to sit down with me every few months and walk me through the lessons he learned having walked an extremely similar road to the road I am walking.

Last week we had a conversation about their leadership structure moving through transition. One of the most helpful things about their leadership structure is (and was) its clarity when it comes to authority. A primary reason is some work they did with Brad Smith several years ago which helped them define and assign three primary kinds of authority that can be held by various groups. It is available as a part of a field guide produced by The Center for Church Based Training.

Input Authority is the authority to be heard on a specific issue. Decision Authority is the authority to make a final call concerning a specific issue. Veto Authority is the ultimate authority to overrule or overturn a decision. 

One of the most helpful things an organization can do is to clarify which roles carry which authorities. When lines get muddy, communication and expectations almost always break down. When people are asked for their opinion without clarity about the type of authority they carry, they normally always expect that they carry decision authority. 

People at high levels on organizational charts normally have implicit veto authority. When they express an opinion, it carries a great deal of weight even if they do not mean for it to. When they are clear about the type of authority they carry on a decision they are able to  express opinions with care. 

In my experience, almost everyone in an organization is okay with not having veto authority on most decisions. They are not okay with confusion about where authority and accountability lie. Great organizations are organizations in which every team is clear on every decision about what kind of authority they hold.

The Land Between - Review

I bought "The Land Between: Finding God in Difficult Transitions" by Jeff Manion on accident. I'm researching "pastoral transitions" for a dissertation and uploaded a bunch of books to my Kindle dealing with that topic. Somehow this one slipped into the bundle - maybe it was the word "transitions" in the title.

Before trying to send it back (I'm not even sure how you do that with a Kindle), I decided to read a couple of pages to make one hundred percent sure it didn't apply to my topic. It didn't apply to my topic, but I read the entire book before I knew what I was doing. I'm weak.

Manion takes a highly pastoral, highly personal look at tough transitions in life: the transitions that involve loss (loss of a loved one, loss of a job, loss of a marriage, loss of a home, etc...). Using the Israelites' wandering in the wilderness as a template, Manion helps to show how times of transition - the wilderness - can be transformational times in our life either for good or bad. To quote Manion, "The wilderness where faith can thrive is the very desert where it can dry up and die if we are not watchful."

I feel like the "wilderness wanderings" deal gets allegorized and over-used in a lot of cases. It is easy to stretch the metaphor so far beyond what the passage actually warrants that authors (and pastors) do more harm than good. In my opinion, Manion absolutely does not do this. His book doesn't feel like a self-help book with Bible verses forced in merely so he can sell the book at Lifeway.

"The Land Between" is really, really good. In fact, I'm ordering several copies to hand out to some of the people I counsel who could use the encouragement.

My only complaint about the book is that the Gospel doesn't make an appearance. I understand that the Israelites wandered a few thousand years before Jesus, but I sure wish there had been at least a mention of the fact that there is no hope for wandering in the wilderness without the Passover Lamb. Even still, this is a very good book that would make a really nice Christmas gift, especially for someone you know who is well-acquainted with the wilderness.

Performance Issue or Heart Issue?

Not long ago I was visiting with a guy who is emerging from a prodigal son season in his life. He's made a bunch of really dumb choices and wrecked a bunch of relationships in the process of drifting from the Father. Today he's on the journey back home, but is realizing that pig slop doesn't rinse off as quickly as it goes on.

As a part of our conversation, he lamented the "wasted years" of his life and said, "It just kills me that I let it go that far. If I had only made the decision back then to be in the Word every day, pray more often, and stay involved in church, things would never have gotten this out of hand."

His rationale is logical. Unfortunately, it's not biblical.

My buddy's prodigal journey wasn't the result of a performance issue; it was the result of a heart issue. He didn't wander away because he wasn't reading the Bible enough, praying enough, going to church enough. He wandered away because he has a heart that is prone to wander away.

In fact, it's God's mercy to my buddy that he didn't keep performing well when he went away. If he hadn't quit performing at the same time his heart wandered away, it might have taken him a lot longer to realize his need to return. He would have still been going through the outward charade fooling himself into thinking he was still close to home and causing him to attribute his "rock bottom" experience to a host of different things for some time before he realized what was really missing.

The reasons kids wander away from God at college isn't that they stop going to church. The reason husbands wander away from God and into the arms of another woman is not that they failed to read their Bible enough or pray enough; it is that sin is at work inside our bodies (Romans 7:23) so that we wander away from God.

The problem isn't our performance, so a change in performance won't fix it. The only solution is to be renewed through the Spirit (Romans 8:1-11) from the inside out (Romans 12:1-2).


In their book "The Leadership Pipeline: How to Build the Leadership-Powered Company," Ram Charan, Stephen Drotter, and James Noel argue that leadership development should happen at every level of an organization. The very best organizations develop leaders internally for every position. Not only is this attitude great for the company, it's great for team members as well.

"Development is the ultimate perk. It can't be taken back once given, and it leads to other benefits."

Perks like bonuses, vacations, stock options, and merchandise discounts can all be taken away. Give someone a skill or an opportunity that can truly help them develop as an individual, and you can't ever take that back.

Obviously, financial (and other) incentives aren't bad. In fact, if you only offer development as a perk, you will develop your team members right into a great role at a different company who will give them development and financial compensation. But, it shouldn't be overlooked as a really important part of what you offer employees. And I'm not talking about company-wide in-services that aren't truly helpful. Offer your employees an opportunity to get better at the things they love doing, and you'll give them something that will help them (and your organization) long into the future.