Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Leaders Lead

As an 11-month old Christian, sitting in my first class at North Central Bible College, I heard Dr. Don Meyer say, “The cream always rises to the top.” I understood it then as a way to help us understand an important theme in the Pentateuch. After hearing him say it from time to time in the years that would follow, I understood that he was meaning to teach an important lesson for life and leadership.

The cream always rises to the top.

Others have said, perhaps more simply, “leaders lead.”

I don’t mind admitting now that I misunderstood these axioms. Earlier in my career I didn’t get it, thinking that what was meant was more along the lines of “organizations will recognize leadership potential and then promote people into positions of authority so that they can then lead.” I thought that leadership had mostly to do with position, authority, responsibility and resources. Leadership can have a great deal to do with those sorts of things, but I know now that leadership has even more to do with influence, inspiration, perspective, opportunity, and followership.

Many of our core ideas about leadership come from outmoded models such as the military, athletics, and old style command-and-control industry. Such leadership ideas may work in controlled situations where information is limited, or at least containable, and objectives are clear and static. But these days information is generally available to all and usually enters our systems from every portal; rather than information flowing in and down from the top, the best information usually flows in at the point of service and flows up in an organization. And while a good organization has a mission and vision that flies above the fray, tactical goals are often a moving target; rather than making every tactical call, today’s most effective leaders in upper management often find out about tactical gains after the fact.

Simply stated, leadership systems need to be more distributed (shared leadership throughout the system) and more nimble (leadership needs to be able to happen quickly and with flexibility so as to capture opportunity).

In the institutions that I serve today, a mere organization chart is an insufficient instrument for identifying leadership. We simply can’t only rely on those with titles to lead; deans, directors, pastors, managers, vice presidents and presidents are great, but leadership needs to come from more than just the title holders. It may already seem like a trite and tired saying, but it is true… everyone is a leader.

That may seem easy to say, but it is not always easy to do. How does one lead without authority? How do we lead colleagues, or those who may outrank us? How do we lead in areas that are outside of our departments or areas of responsibility? How do we lead our boss, or our boss’s boss?

I’ve noticed that, in the same organization, some employees seem to be able to get all sorts of things done while others seem stymied by the system. Some are able to make a way for themselves and their programs and others are entangled by bureaucracies (both real and perceived).

It seems that one of the big differences between the can-do and the can’t-do people is leadership. More specifically, the can-do people realize that leadership has little to do with position, and far more to do with influence. Can’t-do people long for the imaginary future when they will be in charge and call the shots. Can-do people apply their influence creatively, leading people to solutions whenever and however they can.

When an organization needs to fill a leadership post, they typically go to the can-do people. Nobody is impressed by those who stand on the sidelines pointing out what is wrong, waiting for their opportunity to be the boss so that things can finally be done right. Strong organizations recognize the leadership being provided by the can-do people, enabling the leadership that is already being demonstrated by providing positions of greater authority and responsibility.

It turns out that good leaders know that titles and positions are a handy tool, but it takes a leader to lead and it is influence that transforms people and organizations, not titles.

Here are some tips on how to be a leader, regardless of title or position.

  • Recognize that each of us have unique perspective, gifts, and opportunity. I’ve noticed that can’t-do people often complain that their leaders don’t see or do what is obvious. Can-do people realize that what is obvious to them may not be obvious to anyone else. It may be that the reason you notice something that ought to be done is that you are supposed to get it done… or at least see to it that it gets done. I’ve often told people that work with me, “The only thing that will get you in huge trouble with me is if you come to me too late saying I could have told you so.” Leaders trust their instincts. They are at peace with the notion that they see things that others don’t see and can do things that others might not be able to do.
  • Sometimes it is our job to make ourselves hearable. When we know that we need to lead, but people are not following, we need another approach. I’ve watched can’t-do people say the same thing the same way and get more frustrated the more they keep saying the same thing the same way while nobody seems to hear. We need to be creative in finding the best approaches so that people can, and will want to, follow. If nobody is following you, you are not leading.
  • There are no excuses for abdicating responsibility. First off, when we do have specific authority in an organization, that simply must be our primary focus; we can’t let our responsibility suffer by putting our work down to pick-up someone else’s work. But we can’t simply say, “That isn’t my job” either. We aren’t being leaders when we allow any important work to go undone; we aren’t being leaders when we knowingly allow others to suffer, especially if we allow failure just so we can make our point.
  • We have to be tough and teachable. Leadership is risky business, especially when we dare to lead without titles and authority. How does the old saying go? “The nail that sticks up gets hammered down.” Leading from the inside, alongside, and even underside is an art form that sometimes needs to be learned by trial and error. Sometimes the errors leave bumps and bruises, but with the right attitude they will heal… and it is worth it.

Institutions need to change, too, in order to allow leaders to lead, regardless of title or position. I’m finding that in the organizations I lead, I need to continually allow for, and encourage, flexibility, forgiveness, and teaching. Rather than being threatened or bothered by leaders trying to lead, we need to help leaders lead. Sometimes that means we’ll have to overlook minor offenses; other times we’ll need to provide correction and training. And sometimes we’ll have to step in and clean up a minor mess. But it is worth it. When an organization allows leaders to lead we find out that there is no such thing as too much leadership. When leaders lead we find that there are more opportunities and we all benefit from bigger and better successes.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Charette on Servant Leadership

Readers of this blog know that we've been kicking around themes of servant leadership. For a Biblical basis for servant leadership, listen to what Dr. Blaine Charette presented in our church this morning. Although not necessarily the main focus of his talk, Blaine brought solid fundamentals on the topic from the Gospel of Mark. Check it our at http://www.cedarpark.org/thechapel/services

Sunday, November 04, 2007

Is Level 5 Leadership Servant Leadership?

Most of us are familiar with Jim Collins’ work Good to Great. Just before the book came out, Collins wrote an article in the Harvard Business Review that focused on one of the book’s key concepts: Level 5 Leadership. I read the article again tonight, asking myself the question, “Is Level 5 Leadership Servant Leadership?”

I think the simple answer is yes. The article says “Level 5 leaders blend the paradoxical combination of deep personal humility with intense professional will.” It goes on to ask, “How do Level 5 leaders manifest humility? They routinely credit others, external factors, and good luck for their companies’ success. But when results are poor, they blame themselves. They also act quietly, calmly, and determinedly—relying on inspired standards, not inspiring charisma, to motivate. Inspired standards demonstrate Level 5 leaders’ unwavering will. Utterly intolerant of mediocrity, they are stoic in their resolve to do whatever it takes to produce great results—terminating everything else. And they select superb successors, wanting their companies to become even more successful in the future.”

In the simplest terms:
Humility + Will = Level 5
Servant + Leadership = Servant Leadership

I think the Level 5 model is most useful to CEOs and other executives. I’m not sure that it is all that scalable, which leaves it a bit lacking as a tool to encourage Servant Leadership throughout an organization… but a very useful tool for CEOs, other executives, and others who enjoy studying such things.

At the end of the article, Collins discusses the question “can Level 5 be learned?” Without providing a direct answer, he seems to hint that Level 5 is more of a spiritual thing. Even though it can be imperially observed and verified (in the case of his research, he wasn’t looking for it but it could not be ignored) it is far more than a skill set or credential. It is an attitude, a set of characteristics, a life philosophy. It comes less from an MBA and more from sanctification.

When I first encountered this article almost seven years ago, I think I thought “I could probably become a Level 5 leader.” Today I find myself less confident that I’ll ever be a Level 5 leader, but I also know that I’m a lot closer, a great deal closer, to being a Level 5 leader today than I was seven years ago. Weird.

Monday, October 29, 2007

Servant Leadership

I’ve been hearing and seeing this phrase “servant leadership” more frequently over these past weeks. Some have called for more of it, others want to define it and understand it better, and I’ve even heard some folk really misuse it (at least from my perspective). Last week I even had some good friends agree that I was doing a good job of demonstrating it (Just how is one to take that? It strikes me that if someone receives a commendation for servant leadership it somehow negates the whole business.). I’m looking forward to working with this vitally important concept, servant leadership, with colleagues in the coming weeks.

Here are a couple of random things that are running through my head on the subject today:

  • Servant Leadership Isn’t Necessarily Flat – I’ve noticed that sometimes when people call for servant leadership, they also call for a more flat organizational structure. It is as if servant leadership and hierarchical organization structures don’t work well together. I think they can work very well together, and it might be that servant leadership works best within good organizational structures and hierarchies. It seems to me that when we approach our organizational system building asking questions like “who should work for me so that I can get my work done?” we set ourselves up for a crummy display of servant leadership by focusing on the leader’s needs rather than the followers’ needs. A better question might be “who would serve this person/group/department best as a leader/resource.” With a focus on which leader would best serve the followers, we begin to set ourselves up for good servant leadership. That sort of approach then leads us to good hierarchical structures since one of the considerations in answering such questions is “who has the talent, time, resources and attention to give leadership in this circumstance.” Flat organization structures may set us up for crummy displays of servant leadership because they spread leaders too thin. Jesus fed 5,000, but washed the feet of only 12.
  • Servant Leadership is Leadership – I’ve noticed that sometimes when people call for servant leadership, what they really seem to want is a servant, not a leader.
  • Servant Leadership is More Walk Than Talk – Especially in the Christian ministry circles in which I operate, talk works really well for a while. But it takes servant leadership in action, over the long haul, to really make the difference. We need to resist settling for talk, and probably work a little harder to notice walk.

What do you think? Post a comment if you’d like to get in on a conversation.

Thursday, September 06, 2007

From One Hand to Another

Here's a brief follow-up on my "No Hand Backs" post from 3/28/07.

We need to resist the urge to broadcast a hand off. You've probably exepienced this: someone identifies a problem or wants something done, so they type up an email and task several people. It could be that they aren't sure who to task, so they just put as many people in the "to:" line as they can.

I've noticed that this often results in:
  • Several people chasing after a solution, which is horribly inefficient and sometimes results in complications, or
  • Nobody picks up the task. Sometimes when we make something everybody's problem, we inadvertanly make it nobody's problem.

So go ahead and push the hand off metaphor. When handing off, don't just toss the ball at a clump of running backs, hoping that someone will get the ball and run with it.... purposefully hand the ball to one person, and try not to let go until you know they have it.

If you haven't seen it, check out http://leadershipcommentary.blogspot.com/2007/03/no-hand-backs.html

Monday, July 09, 2007


Some of the best stuff about being a pastor/leader is found in the surprises.

You find out what you are made of when dealing with the surprises of life. Crisis is often the crucible in which leadership skills are revealed and refined. Plan as we may… we are never immune from the come ups and curve balls that require us to improvise a solution.

Then there are the surprises of Jesus that Don likes to talk about. Our Lord seams to delight in blowing us away by showing up in our circumstances. Like any father, our Heavenly Father is happy to make us happy.

Today I was surprised by a story of the extraordinary goodness of some of the guys in our church. It appears that Steve cooked up a plan to have Mark join him on a ministry trip to medical facility that is hosting one of our senior-most members, Kay. I’m pretty sure that Kay has filled out the paperwork to have Mark officially installed as the fourth person of the Trinity… mostly due to the way Mark plays the piano. When Mark took control of the approximately-in-tune piano in the community room for an hour, Mark literally brought a bit of Heaven to Kay and all those who gathered.

When I called Mark, I left a message on his voicemail saying, “I don’t know when I’ve been more proud to be anyone’s pastor.” I suppose it is one thing to have someone say “good sermon, pastor” on Sunday morning while we stuff ourselves with coffee and cookies after the service, but there is an entirely different level of gratitude and satisfaction that comes from hearing reports of Christlikeness displayed by members of our church outside of our walls, seven days a week.

Friday, May 25, 2007

What’s in a Name?

Our Leadership Council (deacons and pastors) have been kicking around the idea of a name change for our church. The circumstances of founding our church were so unique that we didn’t really give the name a great deal of thought at first. Since we were so blessed to have so much in place for us, due to our partnership with Cedar Park, we were able to go from idea to implementation in just a few short months. Who had time to think about a name?

Now in our sixth year of existence, The Chapel at Cedar Park wonders if the name of our church should be a bit more than the name of the building in which we worship.

Every so often you hear about parents who wait a while to name their children. The rationale is simple: they want to get to know the kid before affixing a moniker. In like manner, our church has grown up and we have gotten to know it… maybe it is time for a better name.

As we’ve been thinking about characteristics that might be reflected in a name, several things have come up in conversation: warm hospitality and fellowship; appreciation for tradition; reverence for scripture and value for biblical, even exegetical, preaching; and commitment to God’s mission to save people in our families, communities, and around the world.

We’ve even talked about recent trends that produce clever names for churches… names that sometimes don’t even reveal that the place/organization is even a church at all. The motive seems to be a good one; this kind of approach indicates a bias for outreach. It is a good approach, but it doesn’t seem to suit us. Those who seem to find our church most helpful are specifically looking for a church.

The name that the Leadership Council keeps coming back to is Redeemer’s Fellowship. One of our deacons brought a verse of Scripture that provides a good basis for this name: God is faithful, who has called you into fellowship with his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord (1 Corinthians 1:9). He also referenced 1 John 1:3 and Hebrews 10:24,25.

We like the word Fellowship as it reflects our commitment of care to one another. Our church has distinguished itself as a warm, inviting, community in which people genuinely love each other… and even really like each other. It expresses our understanding that we are called to serve together, that God calls us to be members of one body; more than merely a gathering of persons, we are a people.

Redeemer’s seems to suit us well too. It could be that the most important part of that word is the apostrophe, that little punctuation mark that indicates that our fellowship is in the possession of our Savior. We understand that we are His… that any right standing that we have before God and creation is only because we have been redeemed by Jesus.

So these days we’re looking for feedback. Nobody feels that change is absolutely necessary; The Chapel at Cedar Park has served us well. But it could be time for change. Do you like that idea? Do you have a better idea? Should we just keep The Chapel as is? Let us know what you think.

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Foot Washer

It would, of course, be a great mistake to think of Jesus as primarily a foot washer. Of course he did, at least on one occasion, wash feet (John 13:1-17)… but we don’t label him by this humble act of service.

I wonder if it would also be a great mistake to assume that Jesus only washed feet that one time to make a point. If one were to ask Bible scholars “how many times did Jesus wash feet?” I would imagine that most would simply answer “once.” But I wonder… is that really the Spirit of Jesus? Just washing feet once to make a point?

When I think of Christians, especially those who I understand to be Christian leaders, in regard to this quality of humble service, there are a couple of categories.
  1. Those who occasionally perform acts of humility for effect, and
  2. Those who consistently perform acts of service out of their humble nature.

I’ve always seen more Christlikeness from those in camp #2.

There are those who give lip service to their willingness to help with simple things. These are the types who say “oh, you’re finished? I was intending to help.” Or “I’d try to help but I’m afraid that I’d get in the way.” You know these types… the ones who arrive late, linger at the refreshment table, and leave early.

Then there are those that fly under the radar and just get the work done. No fanfare. Little recognition.

I think I am most impressed when the humble service requires great skill. My pal Merlin is a great example. He serves as one of the VPs at the University with me. As an example, while the rest of us VPs were participating in the pomp and pageantry of commencement just a few days ago (see http://www.northwestu.edu/media/photos/galleries/index.php?id=123) Merlin ran around with cameras in hand. He is an excellent photographer and his work with a camera is famous in some circles… but he is so much more than merely a photographer. Other VPs of Marketing eschew seemingly menial tasks like photography, especially when there are more dignified things to do (like wear a girly robe and funny hat)… but not Merlin. For him, photography is a bit of foot washing. Highly skilled foot washing.

Here’s the dilemma that I’ve pondered on and off for years… do these acts of foot washing discredit our roles? In Merlin’s case I watch it happen over and over again; even though his business card says Vice President, he is often referred to (and even worse treated as) the photographer. I’ve experienced it too… since I’m willing to do various technical or mechanical things (Web pages, PowerPoint, ghost writing, etc.) I’ve sometimes been labeled as more of a manager or technician than a leader.

So… back to Jesus. I don’t think He was a foot washer merely for effect. I tend to think that Jesus served the best He could on a moment by moment, situation by situation basis. So if that meant that feet needed washing, He washed feet… or healed blind eyes… or fed hungry mouths… or hungry souls for that matter.

If that is the case, then our responses ought to include:

  1. When serving, serve not merely for effect, but really serve, even if it requires finely honed skill, and
  2. When we observing someone serving, let’s resist the ease of stereotyping the one serving. Let’s appreciate the humble act of service without mindlessly sticking someone into a menial category.

Just because Jesus washed feet (I’m guessing on several occasions) doesn’t make him a foot washer.

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

No Hand Backs

I’ve noticed in my dealings with various companies that one of the significant factors that impacts my satisfaction is the manner in which I am moved through an organization’s bureaucracy. So, for example, I deal with a couple of financial firms who work with me on a number of levels in different ways. In some cases I am a personal client, in others I am a corporate client. With a bank, for example, I might have different kinds of accounts including a checking account, credit card, and mortgage, and I may deal with the same bank through my work. Inevitably, it seems, I start by calling the wrong person or department. A couple of years ago it seemed that SOP (that is standard operating procedure) was to give me the phone number for the right department… “I’m sorry Mr. Neary, you need to speak with someone in the mutual funds department… they can be reached at 1-800-blah-blah-blah.” That was good service because usually the person on the other end of that call (Ok... really it would be the person I would eventually get to after responding to several automated prompts) could help me.

These days it seems that SOP is that, rather than giving me another number to call (thus handing me back my problem), organizations are more carefully handing customers off to those who can solve problems… “I’m sorry Mr. Neary, you need to speak with someone in the mutual funds department, please hold… hi Joe, I have Mr. Neary on the line, he needs you to help him with his mutual fund account… you should have his information on the screen… I know that you can solve his problem.”

Hand offs are far superior to hand backs.

An organization in pursuit of superior customer service should adopt a no hand backs policy. No matter what, once a customer (student, parishioner, patient, constituent, influencer, etc.) presents you with a problem, you don’t get to give it back to the customer. It is either yours to solve, or you need to thoroughly hand off the problem to a colleague. No hand backs, only hand offs.

This approach could help fix some common misconceptions including:
  • Customers understand and appreciate the fine lines of delineation that exist in our organizational structures. If I were a bank employee, for example, I might better understand why the mutual fund representative can’t answer questions about a money market account… but I’m not an employee and all the problems, as well as all the various customer service representatives, look the same to me. We can’t expect our customers to be all that skilled in navigating our bureaucracies.
  • Getting involved in another department’s work is the unpardonable sin. I think that most people most of the time do hand backs not because they are uncaring or lazy, but because they are afraid to touch another department’s business. Once the problem is solved, the customer will likely go merrily along their way… but I have to work with Joe in accounting for ever! For the sake of our customers, and ultimately for the sake of our organizations, we need to get over our fascination/fear of our organizational structures.
  • It is bad form to dump problems on others. I get that; we call them wet babies in my office. If we hand back, we might be able to do so anonymously; hand offs tend to implicate us in the problem. Again, we need to get over ourselves. Besides… if we do a good job of handing off, helping to identify the problem and getting good communication going, we are already more a part of the solution than part of the problem.

This is all pretty rudimentary stuff, I know, but it seems pretty important.

I’m thinking about making a no hand backs rule in the organizations that I have a part in leading. Think it will work?

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Creatio Ex Nihilo

There are so many mysteries that accompany our walk of faith. Like Winnie the Pooh, I walk this path of faith realizing that I am a bear of very little brain… so I can only handle one, or maybe a few, of these mysteries at a time. So as I deal with one mystery, I have to let the others take a back seat in my mind; it is a simple tactic in pursuit of some measure of sanity.

I think the mystery that lingers at the forefront of my mind more often than the others is this: Why does God choose to accomplish most of his work in partnership with the likes of us? There are, of course, those instances in which God completely and sovereignly overwhelms a situation, changing the course of things with a dramatic miracle. But the usual way that God accomplishes his purpose is through His people. Why does God degrade His work by mixing his perfect and powerful ways with our flawed and puny ways? Why risk it on us? If I were God I would likely do it all myself.

Yet, His primary mode of operation is to accomplish His work through people. I think it probably has something to do with God’s mission not only being about what he accomplishes through us, but maybe even more importantly, His mission is also about what He accomplishes in us. Furthermore, I believe it is at the forefront of God’s mission to not only accomplish His will in us and through us merely individually; He desires to work in and through us corporately as His people. More than just a vast number of persons, we are called to be His people. God’s mission is to accomplish His work and will, both through us and in us, as what the New Testament describes as the Body of Christ. God’s plan is to work through His current, bodily representatives on earth, that is the Church.

So with that theological framework in mind, I press a bit more into the mystery by asking: What kind of work would God be doing through His Body/Church/People? To answer that question, we are forced to get to know God, which leads us to His Book. If we start with the first words of His Book, we read, “In the beginning God created.” God as creator may not be the most important theological understanding, but it is certainly one of the first (actually, I think it is the second since the first theological understanding is the preexistence of God stated through the first three words “In the beginning”).

It is a pretty easy jump for people to understand that the Church ought to be creative. Creativity is a God-like quality that should mark the Church. But what about the kind of creating that is referenced there in Genesis 1:1? What about creatio ex nihilo? The standard view is that only God can create out of nothing… that creatio ex nihilo is what distinguishes God from us; creation out of nothing is off limits for us mere mortals, even off limits for the Church.

But I wonder if creatio ex nihilo is really off limits for the Church. I’m not proposing that we suspend the laws of conservation of matter or conservation of energy, but are there real areas in which these laws do not apply? I think that wealth is one area in which the laws of conservation do not apply. Creation of wealth is more than the sum of its parts. A productive enterprise should create more wealth than the sum of the values of components and natural resources, even more than the component values of soft resources like knowledge, skill, and even labor. When business works like it should, there is some part of wealth that comes from nowhere… creatio ex nihilo!

Could it be then that the Church ought to be more intentional about the intersection of our faith and business activity? Could it be that the creation of wealth is a Christian endeavor, especially when we are approaching this all with a proper view of stewardship?

Friday, February 23, 2007

Meetings Make Us Dumber

One of the greatest things about working in higher education is lunch. Really… lunch is great at the University; you can count on great conversations. It is a real privilege to work with so many smart people.

Today I brought up the story I saw posted yesterday on MSNBC titled Meetings Make Us Dumber, Study Shows. It turns out that the headline was more interesting than the article. The basic gist of the article was that “people have a harder time coming up with alternative solutions to a problem when they are part of a group.” Sorry MSNBC, this is not big news.

Our lunch bunch agreed. Group think is rarely good at coming up with good solutions. So, we asked, should we ditch all the meetings we attend? No… but why? I think we correctly identified that meetings are great for two vital tasks:
  • Identifying problems and opportunities, and
  • Making good solutions better

That gave us a model that we’ve all seen work:

  1. Use groups and teams to identify problems and opportunities. Meetings are great for identifying problems that need attention, or noticing opportunities that might be seized.
  2. Look to individuals or small teams to formulate, and document, a solution or a few solutions.
  3. Use groups and teams to counterpunch with the proposal. Again, meetings are great for taking good solutions and making great solutions.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Marketing’s New Idea or the Church’s Old Idea?

An ancillary comment delivered by Dr. Brian Stiller in his concluding talk in a lecture series here at Northwest University got me thinking about something I heard recently on the HBR IdeaCast. The current issue of the Harvard Business Review (HBR) includes their annual survey of emerging ideas under the title Breakthrough Ideas for 2007.

Breakthrough Idea #3 introduces the idea of cohort marketing. The brief article explains that “the typical brand manager is an ageist.” There are, of course, all sorts of ways to segment markets, but breaking markets up into generations is probably the most common and effective. So, a brand manager targets a generation and then manages the brand by attracting those who are aging in at a rate equal or greater to the number of those aging out. As middle aged men move from Polo to Brooks Brothers, brand mangers drag young men away from Abercrombie and move them into Polo. This is a tried and true method; it is marketing conventional wisdom.

The HBR, with new idea #3, urges consideration of a different approach. A cohort branding approach dictates that once a brand manager selects a generation, the work then becomes managing the brand in such a way that it matures with the cohort. This is a strategy aimed at nurturing brand loyalty. Rather than counting on customers moving from Ford Mustangs to Lincoln Continentals as they age (risking the loss of the customer in the transition), the strategy would be to let a brand segment morph and age with the consumer. The model they offer is the Harry Potter brand; the series is primarily targeted at kids who are the same age as Harry and they all, Harry and customers, are aging together. The strategy certainly has limits (anybody interested in an Oscar Meyer filet mignon?), but it is an interesting idea.

I contend that the Church has been doing cohort marketing for years, although sometimes without intention. In our contemporary churches it is not uncommon for a ministry to age, often times right along with the founding pastor. So a church might start young and hip, but then the nurseries get upgraded when the leaders start having kids, then children’s church becomes a major focus and maybe even a Christian school, followed by youth groups, and so on. Other aspects of cohort marketing in church contexts drive us to keep things the same. Music tastes, for example, often don’t change as we age; so a cohort strategy for churches would be to lock in to one music style and hold on to it through the years.

In a more macro sense, entire denominations seem to follow this cohorting pattern. Something new happens, an organization forms, and it develops and matures along with its leadership. But somewhere along the way the organization’s rate of change slows, or even stops, and organizational forces are then applied to holding on to an era, at which point the organization faces the risk of becoming irrelevant.

A simple approach to cohort marketing has an obvious fatal flaw: cohorting puts an expiration date on a brand. A church that follows this simple path will eventually die with its leadership.

But if we would come to grips with cohorting, it could unlock a path to increased effectiveness. I think I can make a case that individual churches should cohort. The local church is the best expression of the Body of Christ. Sure, Jesus saves and the Holy Spirit indwells individual believers, but persons are saved and filled to not merely remain persons but to become a people, the church, God’s cohort of believers knit together to worship, serve, and witness.

Many small group strategies work in this sort of cohorting fashion. A church could embrace this too, as long as it could manage several cohorts. In the corporate world, cohort marketing only works over time if there are new (or possibly renewed or recycled) brands introduced on a periodic basis. In the church world, leaders would need to intentionally manage a range of cohorts through multiple services. I understand the rationale behind a strategy that simply duplicates a one-size-fits-all worship service a few times on a Sunday morning, or even several times throughout a week, but I think applying this cohorting strategy could increase impact. If congregations were encouraged to cohort, it could result in deeper meaning, stronger service, and more loyalty.

A successful denomination or church organization needs to resist cohorting for the whole group, but rather intentionally lead a multi-cohort strategy. The difficulty here could be that organizational leaders may mistake cohort distinctives as what ought to distinguish the whole, which would likely lead to getting stuck in an era and eventually becoming irrelevant. There needs to be more of a big tent mentality, lots of different expressions of style that are bound together around unifying goals and principles for the good of all.

I’m interested in feedback from readers. Does this make some sense or is it wrongheaded? Do you have examples of how this does work in the church world, or how it has failed? I’d like to hear from you; use the comments option below.

Saturday, February 10, 2007

Lost Sheep

At least half and up to two-thirds of our kids will step away from their faith while attending non-Christian colleges and universities. This is the most startling statistic distributed in recent reports published by Christianity Today based on studies by Dr. Steven Henderson. Dr. George Wood, General Secretary of the General Council of the Assemblies of God, goes on to report this statistic in terms of our sponsoring church when he says, “nine years from now, as many as 189,000 of our 315,000 youth could be drop-outs from the faith.” Dr. Wood’s report has been circulated among our faculty and leadership at Northwest; you can access it here http://www.danneary.org/blogstuff/agu.pdf

At our University, we are grateful for the nearly 1,300 students that are in our care this year, but we are also mindful of these 189,000 potential lost sheep.

Reports like these remind us of our stewardship responsibility. The years that students spend at our University are often among their most important years of formation as they become Christian adults. While here at Northwest, students are challenged to think deeply about their faith, employing academic rigor and critical analysis tools in ways that are likely new to their Christian experience. We may challenge them to ask questions they have never asked before. What makes our Faculty members different from their counterparts in secular institutions is that their goal is to drive students toward their faith, not away from their faith. The faithful stewardship of this trust demands that we nurture our students’ faith, building a solid foundation that will stand up against the inevitable attacks they will face throughout the rest of their adult lives.

We are mindful of the lost sheep when we do our work in recruitment. Even though our work shares some of the trappings of marketing campaigns and sales tactics, we know that there is so much more at stake. Our recruiters are motivated by a very real sense that they are dealing with God’s plan and calling in the lives of our prospective students. Recruitment, at least for us, isn’t merely about closing a deal with a student, it is about helping a student answer God’s calling and preparing for a life of service.

Reports like these also increase our burden for fundraising. Cost certainly is not the only barrier that keeps a student from attending our University, but it is one of the toughest barriers to face. Every dollar we can raise that helps keeps our costs low, is a meaningful step toward reaching lost sheep.

This report impacted me as a leader in Christian Higher Education as it reminded me of important principles that have guided my work over the years, but this specific report impacted me even more as a Pastor. For nearly 20 years I have been involved in drawing students to Christian higher education because I know, firsthand, what a difference a place like Northwest University can make in the life of a student. For the last 5 years I have also been involved in sending students to Christian higher education as I have been serving as pastor. As I read the reports from my perspective as a pastor, it occurred to me that this is not merely about the impact of a Christian university on a student, but it is also very much about the way a church like mine disciples students so that they will be apt to choose a Christian university. I need to be more purposeful about leading my church in such a way that the young people under my care are the kinds of young men and women who want to choose a place like Northwest. My church needs to help lead these students to this important choice.

The reports also reminded me how important churches like mine are in supporting Christian higher education with prayer, influence, involvement, and finances. There are all sorts of agenda being advanced at universities across our country by organizations that stand in opposition to the Church. Even our governments advance positions that are contrary to our Christian stance through support of their universities. I need to lead my church in such a way that we are advancing our cause and providing for our church’s future leadership through support of Northwest University.

Beyond the impact on me as a university administrator and pastor, the impact that hit closest home was on me as a dad. My oldest son Alex will be making his choice of a university in just a few short years; his 11 year-old brother Donny will be making his choices soon after. I’m glad that they are already planning on making that choice Northwest, and that I will be able to support them in that choice. A lot can change, of course, as my boys grow up and the crucial time for their decision approaches. As a dad, I know that I will serve my boys best by helping them understand the weight of that choice and providing them with a clear view of the value of choice for a Christian university.

Thursday, January 25, 2007

I Do My Own Stunts

I’ve been thinking about this little phrase over the past couple of days.

Occasionally we’ll hear the really macho actors brag that they do their own stunts. I think they want us to appreciate how tough they are, and how they don’t look to someone else to do their dirty work.

Should we admire those who do their own stunts? Or, rather, should we marvel at their stupidity? I don’t think many A list actors do their own stunts. Is it because they are chicken or lazy? Or is it because they realize that by doing their own stunts they jeopardize their most prized assets? George Clooney can’t make the big bucks with a smashed face or paralyzed legs. An A lister needs to be careful not to get too scuffed up.

I get the feeling that President Bush does many of his own stunts, and I wonder if that is part of his PR problem. He is leading in such a way that he doesn’t have anyone else to blame. It could even be that he’s so scuffed up and rattled that he can’t do a great job as “communicator in chief.” It seems that some of his predecessors, especially the more eloquent communicators that are in our recent memory like Regan and even Clinton, made sure that others were doing the stunts.

I think I’m a do-my-won-stunts-kind-of-guy. I’ve also been a stuntman from time to time; it comes with the territory of being in supporting roles, especially when those roles include marketing manager, ad guy, ghost writer, and problem fixer. Sometimes I wonder if doing my own stunts is an asset or a flaw. Does this approach to life and work hobble me?

I don’t think I’ll be making any changes along these lines; I can’t even conceive how I would make that change. Besides, when I think about the kind of leader I want to continue to be, I identify the specific leaders that I want to emulate… and they all seem to be do-their-own-stunts people.

Maybe the one’s we should admire the most are those who do their own stunts but are never heard bragging about it.

Sunday, January 14, 2007


Toyota has been making the news a lot recently because they are expected to become the world’s largest auto maker this year, passing GM’s sales and bumping GM from the world’s largest perch that GM has held for the past 75 years. Even though many of those Toyotas are designed, engineered, and built by Americans on American soil, this is a big deal. The US has dominated the world auto market as long as cars have been around, and now a Japanese firm is going to take a turn as the market dominator.

We know why Toyota is doing so well; they make really good cars. Specifically, they make better cars than GM. Actually they made better cars than GM… these days GM and Ford are getting rated well, right in the mix with Toyota and Honda, when it comes to quality. Unfortunately bad is worse than good is good, and US automakers have to overcome a couple of decades of making some really crummy cars in order to win back customers.

I saw part of an interview with one of the executives at GM that made it clear that they know what they are facing. He explained that they know that they can’t merely be as good as a Toyota to take back the lead; they have to be better than Toyota to get customers to come back to GM (actually, he said they have to be more Catholic than the Pope… which made me laugh). It is going to take ongoing improvements that have been underway for the past several years, but it appears that they will endeavor to stick with the change that is underway and take back the lead. As a kid from the Midwest who grew up in the shadows of smokestacks, I’m rooting for them.

Although in miniscule proportions when compared to GM, I’ve been around positive organizational change. I’ve happened upon problems in which everyone seemed unhappy: Board, customers, leaders, influencers, and employees.

In all of the reports I have seen on the Toyota story, I have never once heard anyone say that Toyota’s advertising has much to do with their overall success. Everyone understands that good marketing and advertising is important, and Toyota couldn’t be where they are without it, but it is something else that makes the difference, especially in the long haul.

This is one of the lessons I’ve learned, the hard way. I’ve found myself convinced that I could change an institution from the outside in. So, with little regard for the insiders, I worked hard to change perceptions. We had some success, real success that we could measure in revenue… but we were running into problems that had little to do with our PR and marketing efforts. We had internal relationships and systems that needed to be fixed before we could see any further successes.

Our changes in governance have not only made people feel better about their place in the organization; these changes have made it so that people are working smarter and making more meaningful contributions to our strategies that will shape our future. Our systems have changed, and so have our attitudes and approaches. Our relationships inside the organization are better, stronger, and more productive. It is working.

GM, although obviously way larger and more complicated than any organization of which I have played a part, is on the same path. Their old ways of treating employees like part of the machinery are out moded; today they know that the experiments they started with Saturn must overtake the whole organization. They’ll retake the lead from Toyota as they continue to change the way they work with their own people. Maybe, in some ways, they’ll be more Japanese than Toyota.

Thursday, January 11, 2007

Mormon in the White House

Former Massacheusetts governor, Mitt Romney, took initial steps to get his presidential campaign rolling. At a recent kickoff fundraiser, his supporters expressed their enthusiasm for his candidacy with a whopping $6.5 million. He seems like he is on his way.

Prominent Evangelicals (like Dr. Dobson) have speculated that Romney would not receive support from Evangelicals because he is a Mormon. I'm wondering about that.

Laura Ingraham asked Romney about it yesterday morning; there is a clip of this portion of the interview availble by clicking here. (If you'd like more of the interview, you can access it by clicking here).

Romney's reply makes a lot of sense, as did the rest of his interview.

I'm wondering if people are really serious about Evangelicals shunning him because of his faith. What other candidate would they support? The other early frontrunners seem to be fairly secular. Currenlty we hear Obama and HRC refer to their faith more than McCain or Giuliani.

Do you think faith matters much in the 2008 presidential race? Do you think that Romney's faith will hurt him with the Evangelical Republicans?

Monday, January 08, 2007

Work to Rest

We gather together on Sunday mornings in church for worship… so really we shouldn’t start by thinking of us and what we want or need from church. We start all this with the goal of worshiping God… of expressing our thanks and devotion to Him.

But with that said, I do want people to receive something at my church each Sunday morning.

  • Hope for those who can’t see a way out of their present troubles
  • Answers for those who are struggling with life’s biggest questions
  • Peace for those who are tormented
  • Encouragement for those who are getting beat up by life’s blows
  • Joy for those who are low
  • Safety for those who don’t know where to turn
  • Rest for those who are striving to make life better

We come to worship God, and when we meet Him in times and places like these, we are not left the same.

I have colleagues, pastors like me, who think primarily in terms of what a sermon will mean to those in the congregation… that the main way anybody gets anything out of a Sunday morning is through the preaching. They structure the service in such a way that everything leads up to the focal point, which is the message they’ve prepared. I’ve even heard them speak of everything else as ancillary or preliminary to main event… the preaching.

I don’t really have any big problems with that line of thinking. Even a cursory reading of the New Testament reveals that preaching is a vital part of church life as we proclaim the Gospel and build up believers. We take preaching seriously.

But my experience teaches me that there are all sorts of ways that our needs are met on any given Sunday morning. Many from my congregation tell me from time to time how important the sermon was, but there are other times when other parts of the service pack the punch. On a given Sunday, the sermon may have been just fine for any of us, but what really made the difference was something else (singing, words shared by others, choir, something that someone said over coffee and treats after the service). Sometimes we just sort of endure one part of our service because another part is just that good.

For me, what is often the most meaningful isn’t any one thing, but the confluence of several things. I love it when a plan comes together. Sometimes it is the result of our careful planning; we are intentional about how the various elements of our worship services focus on a theme. Other times the confluence is outside of our plans and appears to be the Holy Spirit’s work as God moves people and ideas and events and circumstances into place in powerfully meaningful ways.

I think we may have experienced one of those wonderful confluences on 1/7/07 at my church, with the confluence of:

  • Christian Lindbeck’s sermon last week
  • Hebrews 4 – This passage scheduled in our series
  • Communion – Remembering Christ’s work on our behalf
  • Epiphany – The historical celebration of the revelation of Jesus
    o To the Magi or Wise Men
    o Through His miracles
    o Up through His baptism in the Jordan River by John the Baptist. That moment when Jesus commenced His ministry, submitting Himself to baptism, where the Trinity was revealed as the Son was identified by the Father in an audible voice, and the Holy Spirit came down, as a dove according to the Gospels, and remained on Him.

Even though I was there the previous Sunday, and paying attention, I went back and listened to Christian’s sermon again. It was one of those that I knew would be good to review. As I listened again I was able to deepen my understanding of the solid Truth Christian delivered. He spoke to the ever present and frustrating problem of sin. He reminded us that we are broken and that we face real, spiritual opposition. And He also reminded us that God knows us, cares for us, Has provided for us, and that we can continue on. Although this is one of those that we didn’t intentionally plan, I think Christian’s sermon provides a great lead in to this passage that comes to us via our series in Hebrews.

Let’s run through this passage.

We can recall that the main theme of Hebrews is that Christ is superior. Reading the three chapters that have gone before reminds us that Christ is superior to angels and Moses, and that Christ offers superior salvation and superior atonement.

Since the Book of Hebrews was written first for the benefit of Jewish believers in Jesus, it is natural that the writer of Hebrews would differentiate Christianity with the ways of the Old Covenant. And not just the ways or beliefs of the Old Covenant, but the Book of Hebrews also calls to mind the history of the Hebrew people, calling these Jewish believers to proceed differently than there own ancestors. In this case, we are specifically called to remember that wilderness generation… our own ancestors in the faith that were called by God out of slavery, delivered from their enemies… yet would not move in to the fullness of God’s promises and the rest He prepared for them in Canaan, the land of promise.

So in the beginning of chapter 4, the Book of Hebrews is saying to us simply this: that just as there was promise waiting for that wilderness generation, there is promise waiting for us. We are called to enter into that promise, rather than allow our fears to keep us out of the promise, resulting in our continued wandering in the wilderness.

We ought to think a moment about this word rest that we see in the passage and contrast it with the story of that wilderness generation. After God had performed extraordinary miracles, they made their way out of slavery in Egypt. God again saved them from Egypt’s armies by providing escape through the Red Sea. He met with His people, making them His covenant people at Sinai, all the while leading them to the edge of His promise. Moses dispatched spies into the land and their reports came back so very positive that God had brought them to a wonderful place… but, the majority report was that they could not conquer those who inhabited the land that God had promised. Instead of faith, there was fear. They believed they would be beaten in war… that they, coming from one captivity, would find themselves in another captivity. They couldn’t do the work, so they turned their backs on God’s promises and choose the wilderness instead.

The problem here is that they understood the next step into God’s promise as work, not rest. Even though God had led and provided every step of the way, they viewed this next step as their step, their work, and they rightly surmised that they couldn’t do it. They were right; they couldn’t do it. They were wrong in not moving forward, don’t misunderstand, but they were right in understanding that they could not prevail. Where they were wrong was in misunderstanding that God was not calling them into work, but rest.

The point is this: If God, the Creator of heaven and earth everything seen and unseen, comes to a point where He speaks that things are finished and rests… AND He calls us into that rest, what more can we do than obey?

The wilderness generation disobeyed, and did not enter that rest. Even though they eventually entered the land, under Joshua’s leadership, they did not enter rest, but continually faced fierce opposition. That opposition continues even today.

But there remains rest for the people of God, a Sabbath-rest, a rest that is God’s rest, a rest that is a result of God’s promise (Hebrews 4:9-11). It is a rest that is more than merely a day that we honor and keep holy as a Sabbath. We can start there; it isn’t that this passage isn’t about a Sabbath day, but it is about so much more

The point here is that God has provided rest for His people and He is calling His people into that rest… superior rest. This superior rest is provided for by the work of the Son. It isn’t merely about ceasing the work we perform for our livelihoods for a day; it is about ceasing our work for salvation for an eternity. The point is that God is calling us to be His and that He has done the work. He is calling us to hear His voice and obey; He is calling us to believe in the power of Christ to be our work for salvation.

There is a really peculiar turn of a phrase here in verse 11. Do you see it?

Let us, therefore, make every effort to enter that rest[1]

Every effort to enter rest? It seems like an oxymoron doesn’t it… work to rest?

I’m reminded of a conversation that I had with a friend this week who has a family vacation in Hawaii scheduled to begin next week. He was complaining, yes complaining, about how much stress he was under to get all his work done before vacation… saying he wasn’t even sure if it was worth it. Of course it didn’t take him long to shake that off; of course it is worth it. Now we don’t have to feel sorry for poor Jim who is heading off to Hawaii, but we can understand what he was getting at. It usually takes some work to rest and relax.

The point in the passage is that it does take effort to discipline ourselves to obey God and receive the rest that He promises.

The rest of this portion of Scripture reminds us that when we are on God’s side, we are on the right side. We’re reminded that we have God’s Word to guide us in His ways. Furthermore, His guidance through His word is more than just superficial, more than surfacy sort of trappings, but it is penetrating guidance. We have more than just a map to guide our steps, but guidance that that penetrates to our thoughts and attitudes.

God guides us fully and knows us fully. I suppose this could be a scary thing, that we can’t hide from God. But really we should, rather, take great encouragement! Our God, who knows us better than we know ourselves still bears with us, still guides us, still loves us, and provides salvation so that we can live these lives in worship to Him, and enjoy His presence forever.

We would do well to apply this passage to opportunities that could be part of our worship together this: Communion and Epiphany. These observances can help us seal the point of this passage.

Communion should always be a reminder of God’s work on our behalf. The bread and the cup of Communion remind us of the price that was paid for our salvation. Work is required to provide for our salvation… but it is work that we are unable to perform. Strive as we may, we are not equipped to secure our place in heaven. Work as we might, we cannot please God in this life.

Communion reminds us that we were purchased, that God sent His Son, Jesus, to be our way. Jesus gave did the work on our behalf so that we may enter into God’s rest. And not just so we can enter His rest on Sundays in church, but His rest is for us each and every day. We may start our workweeks again tomorrow, but the work that brings us peace with God is never ours to pickup again. Jesus paid it all and we are called into God’s rest.

Epiphany gives us opportunity to reflect on the revelation of Jesus. Epiphany gives us opportunity to commit ourselves to both seeking deeper revelations of Jesus, to see Him and experience Him more fully, and also to reveal Him to others through testimony and good work.

You see… the more we realize that Jesus has indeed accomplished eternity’s most important work on our behalf, then our work is turned to honoring, serving, and revealing Him. And this is a work of the Holy Spirit.

As we reflect on Epiphany, we think of the revelation of Jesus at the time of His baptism. Mark 1:

At that time Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. As Jesus was coming up out of the water, he saw heaven being torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. And a voice came from heaven: “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.” At once the Spirit sent him out into the desert, and he was in the desert forty days, being tempted by Satan. He was with the wild animals, and angels attended him. [2]

Specifically, we recall the Father’s identification of Jesus by a great voice from heaven, identifying Jesus as God’s Son in whom He is well pleased. And we recall that the Holy Spirit rested upon Jesus as He came out of the waters of Baptism.

Later in His ministry, Jesus would breathe that same Holy Spirit into the lives of His followers, and throughout this present age of the Church the Holy Spirit works in us and through us.

So on Epiphany, we ought to look to God for anointing and filling and leading by His Holy Spirit.

The audio version of this post is available on the 1/7/07 entry at http://www.cedarpark.org/thechapel/services

[1] The Holy Bible : New International Version. Grand Rapids : Zondervan, 1996, c1984, S. Heb 4:11
[2] The Holy Bible : New International Version. Grand Rapids : Zondervan, 1996, c1984, S. Mk 1:9