(Christian) Living and Leading in a Chaotic World

I’m happy to share here an article I wrote that has just been freshly published. I wrote on Christian living and leading in a chaotic world – a world that feels even more chaotic now than when I wrote this only a few months ago. As a self-identifying Christian, I need to acknowledge that too much chaos emanates from individuals and groups saying and doing stupid things under the Christian label. I can only say, “we’re not all like that; we’re not all of one social or political stripe” and hope my words can make a difference.

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A Book Called Meh.

A Book Called Meh

I don’t often recommend books I haven’t yet read, but I recently did with Scot McKnight and Laura Barringer, A Church Called Tov: Forming a Goodness Culture (Tyndale, 2020). Partly this was because I thought the topic to be timely. I’m sick of hearing about prominent “celebrity” pastors failing and their ministries’ toxic celebrity culture brushing off victims and voices in opposition. McKnight and Barringer (McKnight’s daughter) had both attended Willow Creek in the past with front-row seats to their handling of Bill Hybels’ fail.

I also recommended the book sight unseen because I very much like and trust Scot McKnight. I thought the idea of developing church culture around the concept of tov (Hebrew for “good”) sounded brilliant and I looked forward to what this world-class biblical scholar had to say.

So I was super disappointed when I read the book. So much so that I felt the need to follow up with those to whom I’d recommended the book, and have even been inspired to blow off the dust from this blog and post about it. (Has it really been since 2016?)

Overview

The book falls into two parts. Part 1 (Forming and Deforming a Church’s Culture) introduces the toxic celebrity culture that has recently emerged (famously) in American ministries that have enabled the scandals (and poor handlings of them) at ministries like Willow Creek, Harvest Bible Chapel, and others. The book gives a rudimentary introduction to what culture is, and the narcissistic and fear-based leadership that typically hallmarks toxic celebrity cultures. It concludes with language for common “false narratives” often used in these contexts to shut down victims’ voices.

In Part 2 (The Circle of Tov), the authors express how to create a culture of goodness (tov) in chapters that discuss each: nurturing empathy, grace, people-first, truth, justice, service, and Christlikeness.

Strengths

As far as it goes, there’s nothing the book says wrong. There are some nuggets there to help churches identify narcissistic leadership and giving victims categories to recognize techniques that that shut-down their voices. And nobody would object to the suggested characteristics of a tov church culture.

I thought Barringer’s description of her second graders’ fascination with Greek and Roman mythology was a great way to introduce the topic of narcissism (p. 26), and scrutinizing Jesus’ instructions on handling conflict is an important reminder of the limitations of biblical texts:

“It’s one thing to set this procedure in motion when someone has said something ugly about another person or has wrongly taken credit for something. But when a woman or child who has been sexually abused is required to meet one-on-one with the perpetrator, it becomes morally inexcusable and psychologically violent to insist upon legalistically following Matthew 18. Such an approach becomes a cynical dodge and is almost always designed to protect the leader or the church” (p. 49).

Another practical nugget includes the essential practices of a people-first culture:

“What can we do to regain a people-first culture in our churches? We’d suggest five essential practices: (1) treat people as people, (2) enfold others into the community, (3) recognize all people as made in the image of God, (4) treat people as siblings, and (5) develop Jesus-like eyes for people” (125-26).

I also liked the juxtaposition between the narcissistic and servant pastors, where the authors note that both “have all the same standard equipment. They both preach and teach and form committees and share the vision and administer missions and motivate and encourage and all the things we’ve come to expect from our pastors.” But whereas the narcissist makes it all about him- (or her-; but usually him-)self, in a servant culture “People are first, grace matters, empathy is a first response, truth is told, and doing what is right shapes the mission of the church” (p. 176).

So, there are some good takeaways here, and the book scores points for talking about abuses of power and enabling victims to speak and identifying a growing problem of narcissistic leadership and celebrity church culture, especially in the US.

So what’s my problem, then?

My problem is that the book is simply insubstantial. Basic. A white bread response to feed a multi-grain problem. Besides calling out the very public failures of celebrity ministries like Willow Creek, the book is impractical, ivory-towered idealism with little correspondence to the everyday experiences of everyday leaders.

There isn’t one leader to whom I recommended this book who will find anything in the discussion of tov culture they wouldn’t already have thought about for their churches and ministries. Of course they’ll value empathy, grace, people-first, truth, justice, service, and Christlikeness – Bill Hybels and the Willow Creek board would all have nodded enthusiastic ascent to each of these, too!

I found myself especially chaffing at the final section of the book on tov as Christlikeness. Not, of course, because I believe the church is not to be facilitating peoples’ formation into Christlikeness – of course I do! But because the chapter revealed an agenda I’ve seen increasingly since Hybels’ fall that connects the demise of the church to the church’s embrace of corporate leadership principles.

Until I assumed a role where I became responsible for leading an organization and managing the lives and conflicts and needs and idiosyncrasies of the many people serving in it, I admit I also used to criticize importing business leadership models into the church. Then I suddenly found myself on the other side of the leadership table and undefined concepts like “empathy” and “people first” needed to be more concretely articulated into processes and procedures I could implement in real life.

I maintain that Willow Creek’s failure was not that it traded “good” biblical beliefs for “bad” corporate practices; it’s that they didn’t practise the practices they preached. In recent years, GLS presenters at Willow Creek have emphasized repeatedly corporate leadership values of trust and vulnerability and approachability and accountability. These are hallmarks of regular GLS favourite, Pat Lencioni, of Joseph Grenny (author of Influencer ­– one of the leadership terms this book disparages), of Adam Grant, of Brené Brown, of Sheila Heen…Willow Creek itself facilitated all sorts of advice that, had they heeded it, would have identified and corrected its own toxic celebrity culture.

Equating the problems of celebrity culture with the “leadership craze” of the 1980s and 90s is unhelpful, and it’s a false binary to imply pastors embracing good leadership principles will fail to focus on spiritual formation, leading to toxic culture (p. 208). I serve with mostly small and rural churches that have not remotely bought into this craze and they are not inherently the better for it! What about small-church dynamics, where the narcissist isn’t necessarily the pastor but The (singular) big-tither, or the legacy family who perennially occupy power positions on the board, or whose congregations are toxic and chew up and spit out their pastors? On the contrary, both large “celebrity” churches like Willow Creek and everyday small and rural churches could all benefit from basic human-resource and “leadership” practices, consistently applied.

One reason the “leadership craze” took off as it did in the 80s and 90s is because governance and volunteer and personnel management in churches is historically so poor and the subjects have been historically ignored by the colleges and seminaries preparing church leaders! Hybels was a critic of the seminary for this reason, but so is James Emery White, pastor and former president of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, who admits “how little my seminary education had actually prepared me for the day-in, day-out responsibilities of leading a church” (What They Didn’t Teach You In Seminary [Baker, 2011], p. 14). This is a major reason the institution I serve at has embraced a competency-based approach.

In all of this, the book is a practical disappointment. It doesn’t do anything wrong, per se, but it just could have been so much more.

McKnight is a world-class biblical scholar, and maybe that’s the problem. Maybe he hasn’t been in the leadership trenches enough to know what to say to real-life leadership problems. Or maybe he didn’t think these concepts beyond, as he shared in one interview, sketching them on a napkin with his daughter. (Incidentally, Back of the Napkin by Dan Roam is another great corporate book!) The book is an ideal, eminently impractical.

Indeed, with one hand the book removes from pastors and Christian leaders the practical, procedural advice found in corporate leadership literature, and with the other dismisses the practical, procedural advice given by Jesus in Matthew 18. Of course we need Scot to explain the hermeneutics of how “legalistically” following Jesus’ prescription there is nonsense for sexual assault victims. (Just this morning, I actually recommended Scot’s book on hermeneutics, The Blue Parakeet – which I have read!) But tell us, then, how practising Jesus’ prescription does work in a healthy community? And instead of glibly remarking that we don’t know who the pastors were at Corinth or Ephesus or Galatia because they weren’t celebrities (pp. 188-89), reflect on the implications that much New Testament scholarship suggests there probably wasn’t a specialized office of “pastor” at these churches but an empowerment of various people! In a book making theological prescriptions of tov, talk to us also about the human condition of ra (evil) that affects leaders and congregants, big and small churches alike. And while resisting a leadership term like “organization” for the church, how about one like “corporation” (Lat. corp- “body” [I can play with the language, too! 😊]), the concept of the “body” as an organizing principle for an assembly of people used by both Paul and his philosophical contemporaries (those extra-biblical “leadership” gurus of his day). Go beyond simplistic aphorisms (“Christlikeness”…of course Christlikeness!) to give real-life leaders some concrete ideas on what it actually looks like to be a tov community practising life together. Bonhoeffer this book is not.

Summing up

In my opinion this book is … OK. It’s a quick read, so you won’t waste a lot of time with it. And it definitely has some good nuggets and takeaways. And I wouldn’t not recommend it, especially to someone who’s maybe presently in one of those toxic cultures. But the book is an impractical, ivory-tower ideal, definitely not a book written by someone in the real-life leadership trenches. I guess that’s my disappointment and maybe a lesson in recommending a book sight unseen. My expectations were too high. But it could have been so much more!

Summer Beach Reads

If you’re like me, one of the greatest joys of summer is slowing down enough to do some “beach reading.” Despite the phrase, what counts here is the reading; the beach is optional.

I know I’ve probably got eclectic tastes, but in case they’re of any interest I thought I’d share the titles accompanying me on vacation, whether or not they include a beach.

The books feed my varied interests in leadership, communication, biblical studies, and good fiction.

Leadership

Patrick Lencioni, The Ideal Team Player: How to Recognize and Cultivate the Three Essential Virtues (Jossey-Bass, 2016). 240 pp. On Amazon.ca for CAD $18.00 (hardcover); $11.99 (Kindle).

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Patrick Lencioni is always worth reading. Not only does he offer excellent management insights, but he crafts his “leadership fables” in enjoyable narrative prose. (Lencioni was an amateur screenwriter before becoming a leadership guru, and his writing style and character development make his books worth reading for their own sake!)

In this latest work, Lencioni advances concepts from his earlier book, The Five Disfunctions of a Team, to unveil the core employee characteristics corporations ought most to look for in The Ideal Team Player, namely: humilityhunger, and people-smarts. See the précis on Lencioni’s Table Group page.

model

Communication

Chris Anderson, Ted Talks: The Official TED Guide to Public Speaking (Collins, 2016). 269 pp. On Amazon.ca for CAD $24.26 (hardcover); $13.99 (Kindle).

Carmine Gallo, The Storyteller’s Secret: From TED Speakers to Business Legends, Why Some Ideas Catch On and Others Don’t (St. Martin’s Press, 2016). 268 pp. On Amazon.ca for CAD $27.74 (hardcover); $9.70 (paperback); $15.99 (Kindle).

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A good portion of my job involves speaking publicly. This is something I enjoy and something for which I’ve trained professionally (homiletics) and for which I have some natural affinity. But it is also an area on which I’ve recognized I need to make conscious and continual improvements.

A couple years ago, I picked up Carmine Gallo’s exceptional book, Talk Like Ted, framing public speaking tips on the ubiquitous TED Talks.

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The freely accessible and never-more-than-18-minute TED Talks have so captured the attention of the global masses that they seem to possess the secret sauce for effective public communication in today’s world. (Though if you’ve watched a few TED Talks, CBC’s This Is That parody is laugh out loud hilarious!)

This summer, I look forward to learning what “head of TED” Chris Anderson has picked up from some of TED’s most popular speakers, and to gleaning more insights from Carmine Gallo on communicating great ideas through persuasive story-telling.

Biblical Studies

John M. G. Barclay, Paul and the Gift (Eerdmans, 2015). 672 pp. On Amazon.ca for CAD $86.08 (hardcover); $69.83 (Kindle).

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Putting on another hat entirely, I am eager to complete John Barclay’s already critically acclaimed Paul and the Gift. Barclay was teaching at Glasgow when I began PhD studies in Edinburgh, and his Obeying the Truth was possibly the first book I read when preparing my thesis on Paul’s ethics.

Barclay’s massive tome explores the concept of “gift-giving” in ancient Jewish and Graeco-Roman contexts as a means to apprehend what Paul means by “grace.”

Set to challenge both traditional (Lutheran) Protestant and New Perspective positions (see my earlier posting here), Barclay’s work is sure to remain must-reading for many scholars’ summer trips to the beach!

As I’m preparing to publish a review of the book for The Evangelical QuarterlyI’ll likely blog more on this later.

Fiction

Finally, how could we conclude a summer beach-read list without at least one work of fiction?

Jonas Jonasson, Hitman Anders and the Meaning of It All, translated by Rachel Wilson-Broyles (HarperCollins, 2016). 312 pp. On Amazon.ca for CAD $14.85 (paperback); $ 13.99 (Kindle).

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Touted as Sweden’s “anti-Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” author, Jonasson writes whimsically about deplorable but loveable characters who misstep favourably through unlikely adventures and pitfalls to implausibly end up on top.

I thoroughly enjoyed Jonasson’s earlier The 100-Year-Old man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared, and trust this latest story of an alcoholic hitman who discovers Jesus to be equally entertaining. (So as not to set up false expectations: despite Jesus’s role in it, this is not a “Christian” book!)

Whatever your titles, I wish you happy reading this summer – with or without the beach!

Women in Leadership II: A Mentee’s Perspective

Last month, I received a reply to my earlier post on Women in Leadership.

Among many important points she raised, this blogger identified that a core problem for professional female ministers

is the fact that there are so few available mentors for young women who desire to enter ministry. It is proven that even in the secular professional world that the availability of mentors has a significant impact of the advancement of a woman’s career.

Coincidentally, I received this reply while travelling with two female, ministry-professional colleagues. The reply naturally prompted much of our discussion for the remainder of the trip.

I have more to say on this topic, especially in light of the current popularity of “Young, Restless, Reformed” speakers and teachers, subtly advancing their complimentarian agenda into our ostensibly egalitarian churches.

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(In August 2015, The Assemblies of God adopted a position paper rejecting New Calvinism and its complimentarian stance. See on p. 6 of the paper here.)

I’ll offer further thoughts on this in a future post.

Meanwhile, I’ve invited Carmen Kampman, a female colleague, fellow blogger, and mentee, to offer her perspective on being a female in mentored relationship with a male (me). Enjoy.

He Said, She Said: A Mentee’s Perspective

I’ll never forget the day I got an email from one of my professors saying something along these lines, “Carmen, can you please come to my office and see me? Before returning your most recent paper, I want to talk with you about it.”

This request, and the conversation that followed mark the early beginnings of one of my most influential mentor/mentee relationships to date. And to be clear, I’m the mentee.

When the above-mentioned request came, I have to confess I was utterly freaked out.

I was a mature student (39) being “called to the office” by her teacher! And not just any teacher – my very first teacher, in my very first class, in a new and unfamiliar Bible college environment!

There were also other interesting dynamics:

  • He was male; I was female
  • He was younger than me; I was older
  • He was a teacher; I was a student
  • He was in a position of influence; I was vulnerable and unsure of what I was doing
  • He was intentionally willing to invest; I was cautiously open to receiving.

Although I don’t remember how the conversation started that day, I do remember the following:

  • I didn’t feel shamed.
  • I got the sense from him that my success mattered.
  • I felt respected.
  • He coached me on how I could improve the quality of my writing.

I don’t think that conversation for my teacher was easy, but it was a necessary conversation between someone who could demonstrate a better way (mentor) and one who needed to learn (mentee).

And good mentorship is about others; it’s about investing in another’s life and helping them to become.

A good mentor has healthy boundaries, models a way of life, shares resources, doesn’t shy away from the hard conversations, asks good questions, is generous with encouragement, celebrates successes, and helps process failures. And as the journey continues, they create space for mutual learning.

Over time, the mentor/mentee relationship has changed. As I began to grow as a person, a student, and a leader, it became evident (and perhaps my mentor sensed that early on!) that there was more in store for me. That professor would eventually go on to become my boss.

The conversations changed, opportunities emerged, respect and trust grew. And in an organic way, the relationship took on a new dynamic of mutual learning, something I would label as “He Said, She Said.”

Whereas once I sat more listening, I began to now challenge, ask questions, own my choices (and the consequences too), and grow in my confidence.

And then one day something remarkable happened: my knowledge of a particular subject surpassed that of my mentor, and he celebrated my achievement. It felt great! I felt smart! (I still occasionally rub it in!)

Because I have been in a mentoring relationship for several years, I’m able to track some distinct phases that the mentor/mentee relationship has gone through.

For example, there was a time when I felt dependent on the guidance I was receiving, but during summer of 2015, I felt myself pulling back and no longer needing as much guidance. The conversations changed. And where once I had been observing my mentor lead, I was now being entrusted with opportunities to lead.

Over the course of my life, there have been others that have mentored me. Some have been intentional relationships; others have not.

I’m not sure there is an exact method to mentoring, but there is one thing I know for sure: people are worth investing in because they are image-bearers of a holy God. And if that value drives you, you will find creative, God-honouring, people-honouring ways to sow into the life of another.

 

Grit

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Last weekend, I celebrated two graduations.

Our college, Horizon, hosted graduation in our 80th year, while elsewhere my wife, after having two kids and moving between three provinces and across the Atlantic, convocated for her Master’s degree.

I am super proud of these graduates. Graduation is a ceremony that celebrates perseverance, determination, and sticking with it to the end of one leg of a journey. Congratulations!

It’s a fitting capstone to the lesson I think God has been teaching us at our college this year.

Every year, God seems to teach us something new at Horizon. I think this year’s lesson is “grit.”

I take the term “grit” from Bill Hybels’ opening talk at the 2015 Global Leadership Summit. By “grit,” Hybels means one of the “intangibles” of leadership that showcase perseverancedeterminationsticking with it, despite obstacles, setbacks, and failures.

Interestingly, several of this year’s GLS faculty presented similarly on perseverance and the importance – and inevitability – of failure on the path to success.

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As a college, 2015-16 marks a watershed year for Horizon.

This year we launched our distinctive, competency-based approach to Christian education, trailblazing into uncharted territory in Christian higher education. (See here.)

Our launch predictably mixed successes with undeniable bugs to fix, and we’re grateful for our students’ patience and honest input to make it better next round.

Besides CBE, however, this year we also said unexpected “farewells” to familiar staff and students, “welcome” to new workers, received our largest ever single donation (thank you!) followed immediately by a tanked economy, and many of both staff and students report this year having experienced significant struggles personally, with family, and with loss.

No question: for many, this year has been a real challenge!

But as abnormally challenging as this year may feel, the abnormal is really the normal in Christian life.

In the Bible, Paul, in particular, portrays the “normal” Christian life as one of struggle, exhorting us to “stand firm” (Eph 6.14), “press on” (Php 3.13-14), “run the race” (1 Cor 9.24; cf. Heb 12.1), and to resist our enemy (Eph 6.11; cf. 1 Pet 5.8-9).

In other words, normal Christian life requires “grit.”

But “grit” alone won’t cut it.

The Bible also clearly instructs that we source our “grit” in the Lord.

Paul begins his famous passage on spiritual battle with the command: “Be strengthened in the Lord and in his mighty power” (Eph 6.10). (Cf. Col 1.11: “Be strengthened with all the strength that comes from his glorious power”; 1 Sam 30.6: “David strengthened himself in the Lord”.)

“Grit” in the Christian life calls for more than perseverance and determination. It’s that capacity to dig deep down to get beyond yourself and, despite appearances, to draw for strength not on your own reserves but on the infinite power of the infinite God.

This year, may you find the Lord to be your source of “grit” to overcome whatever abnormal, normal challenges you face!

(To hear more about where Horizon is going as a college, join us at our upcoming Galas: Friday, May 13 in Winnipeg and Thursday, May 19 in Saskatoon!)

4 minutes on forgiveness

 

This Easter, I participated in a Good Friday service where seven of us preached for four minutes each on one of Jesus’ “seven sayings of the cross.”

My message was on the first saying: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Luke 23.34). I post my 4 minutes below.

Dali John of the Cross
I have a print of this painting in my office – controversial, because Dali’s perspective is above Jesus, arguably a perspective belonging to God.

Jesus turns away, nailed high and bloody on a wooden, Roman cross, away from the crowd assembled below him, their faces flush with hate, mockery, anger, and, looking up to heaven, Jesus prays for them; prays not against them, as he might, seeking justice and rightful vindication, but prays, improbably, for them, at the height of their unrepentance; in the very moment of their unjust crime, Jesus turns and, looking to heaven, asks:

“Father, forgive them, they know not what they do.”

Jesus’ words continue to exercise their improbable power today, even within my own life experience.

***

I was born in Lethbridge, Alberta, the land of coolies and Taber corn.


Perhaps that’s why it impacted me surprisingly personally when, on April 28, 1999, news broke of the fatal shooting at W.R. Myers high school in Taber.

The 14-year-old shooter produced a single fatality: 17-year-old Jason Lang, son of Anglican pastor, Dale Lang.

I responded to the news with the predictable emotional cocktail of horror, shock, pity, anger, fear.

What I was unprepared for, however, was the response from victim’s father, Rev. Dale Lang, who immediately vocalized forgiveness for the attacker.

At the time, I confess, I was unsure how to process Rev. Lang’s quick reaction. Forgiveness, yes, sure. But in time: once justice has had its way!

As a Christian I was, I suppose, hypocritically at the time, prepared unjustly to receive unmerited forgiveness; I was just uncertain the extent to which one ought to extend it.

“Father, forgive me, I know not what I was doing.”

Rev. Lang has gone on to share widely the message of forgiveness, recently empathizing publicly with the community after their tragedy at La Loche.

***

Before the Taber incident, I had been introduced to the forgiveness ministry of South African Bishop Desmond Tutu and his work with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in the wake of Apartheid.

I’d like to say I knew of Bishop Tutu because I was a justice-seeking, politically savvy teenager. In truth, I heard of him through one of Bono’s rants on U2’s Rattle and Hum album.

Bishop Tutu and Bono

Nevertheless, his response to the atrocities committed under Apartheid captivated me.

To move South Africa forward, Bishop Tutu’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission sought not simply to bring Apartheid perpetrators to justice, but to bring perpetrators and victims together under Jesus’ words:

“Father, forgive them, they know not what they do.”

Tutu’s model is used around the world today and, as I consider war-torn Syria or Boko Haram, I wonder whether Jesus’ words might yet exercise their improbable power dramatically again in my lifetime.

***

And what about in my own life?

What about in yours?

How might Jesus’ words change our lives if we apply them to an undeserving

father,

mother,

child,

or grandparent?

a sibling,

spouse,

or someone else in our extended family?

a colleague,

boss,

or subordinate,

(past or present);

a childhood bully, or

a workplace bully?

an acquaintance,

stranger,

friend,

(or former friend)

or an outright enemy?

a pastor,

or someone else at church?

and, turning to heaven, we might ask:

“Father, forgive them, they know not what they do.”

An Advent Reflection

(A little Christmas diversion from my series on leadership resources.)

Last weekend initiated the season when we are officially to begin anticipating Christmas. You know what season I mean. Even if it’s not marked on your calendar, I’m sure you saw it advertised on TV or received flyers about it in the mail.

Of course, I mean “Black Friday.” Although fairly new to Canada, Black Friday now officially marks the start of Christmas Shopping Season. And if Christmas is all about how much stuff we accumulate under our trees, then Black Friday is truly an appropriate advent to the season.

But there is another Christmas advent, and last week marked the start of that Christmas season, too.

Advent is the season when we anticipate Christ’s birth, weekly reflecting on the hope, peace, love, joy, and light that Christ’s advent (Latin: “coming”) brings. As we’re now entering our second week of Advent, I invite you to anticipate Christmas by meditating with me on the first characters we meet in Luke’s version of the Christmas story and, through them, twelve miracles that anticipate Christ’s birth.

Introduction: The characters (Luke 1.5-7)

Luke introduces the story of Christmas with Zechariah, an elderly, country priest, and Elizabeth, his elderly wife. Both are of priestly descent, both are righteous and blameless in God’s sight and, together, they are childless.

Miracle #1: Zechariah offers incense (Luke 1.8-10)

It is no small matter where Luke opens his scene. Zechariah stands offering incense in the holiest place in the Temple any human (except the High Priest) may access. Drawn by lot within his order, and one of an estimated 18,000 priests, Zechariah’s duty is less than a once-in-a-lifetime occurrence, with many priests never receiving this opportunity. If not a miracle, it is certainly something out of Zechariah’s control.

Miracle #2: An angel of the Lord appears (Luke 1.11)

Clearly not an everyday occurrence!

Miracle #3: God hears Zechariah’s prayer (Luke 1.12-17)

Zechariah’s job in the Temple was to offer the prayers of the people which, given Israel’s occupation by Rome, would have included prayers for deliverance from their Roman oppressors. The angel reports that God has heard Zechariah’s prayer. What is interesting, however, is God’s twofold answer to that prayer:

  1. God promises Zechariah that Elizabeth will bear him a son; and
  2. God promises that Israel will be turned to God, a “people prepared.”

The answer to Zechariah’s personal prayer blends with the answer to his priestly, nationalistic prayer – a technique Luke repeats elsewhere (for example, in Mary’s song where Mary transforms into Israel [Luke 1.46-55]).

Miracle #4: Zechariah is made mute (Luke 1.18-22)

As a consequence for disbelieving that God can make Elizabeth fertile, Zechariah miraculously loses his power of speech until this miracle is fulfilled. A further consequence is that Zechariah is unable to fulfil his priestly duty to perform a blessing on the people upon exiting the sanctuary.

Miracle #5: Elizabeth conceives (Luke 1.23-24)

Biologically impossible, Elizabeth miraculously conceives.

Miracle #6: Elizabeth’s shame is removed (Luke 1.25)

We cannot overlook the social stigma attached to barrenness in the ancient Mediterranean world. Elizabeth’s relief that her “shame” has been removed anticipates the status-elevating ministry Jesus will undertake throughout Luke’s Gospel.

Miracle #7: John in the womb recognizes Jesus in the womb (Luke 1.39-41a)

As Luke tells the story, there is no reason Elizabeth would yet know of Mary’s pregnancy. Mary’s virginal conception out of wedlock was both recent and nothing she would widely have broadcast. Likely, Mary was coming to Elizabeth to share the news. Before she has the opportunity, however, Elizabeth’s unborn child not only recognizes that Mary is pregnant but reveals the undisclosed identity of Mary’s child.

Miracle #8: Elizabeth Prophesies (Luke 1.41b-45)

A typical formula in Luke and Acts, when the Holy Spirit appears the next activity is inspired speech. By this, Luke tells us that the words spoken are not from a particular character, but are God’s own authoritative voice.

Miracle #9: Elizabeth names her child (Luke 1.57-63)

It may seem a small matter to us, but in a reversal of gender responsibilities it is Elizabeth and not Zechariah who names John. As Luke tells the story, it seems that Zechariah has not communicated John’s name to his wife (which is why the people all “marvel” when Zechariah confirms John’s name in 1.63). Again, this reversal of status is typical of Luke’s elevation of women throughout his Gospel and Acts.

Miracle #10: Zechariah regains his speech (Luke 1.64-66)

As the angel predicted,  Zechariah regains his speech at the time of the promise’s fulfilment. Significantly, Zechariah’s first speech-act is to “bless” – the very obligation he was prevented from completing when exiting the sanctuary.

Miracle #11: Zechariah prophesies (Luke 1.67)

Once again, the Holy Spirit appears followed by inspired speech.

Miracle #12: God begins to reveal His greater agenda (Luke 1.68-79 – esp. v. 79)

Near the end of his inspired speech, Zechariah identifies part of God’s plan “to shine on those living in darkness.” By itself, this may seem insignificant. But as Luke develops his story through the Gospel and Acts, we see God’s plan unfold as a ministry inclusive of all peoples – including, specifically, gentiles. Luke’s similar use of “light” language elsewhere draws from Isaiah 49.6: “I will also make you a light for the Gentiles, that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth.” In Zechariah’s prayer, we have one of the earliest hints of the miraculous mission yet to be disclosed. (See Simeon’s prophetic prayer in Luke 2.32; Paul and Barnabas in Acts 13.47).

It is fitting that this last Advent miracle focuses on light, because that is how Advent finally leads to Christmas: The final candle to light is the white candle, often representing Christ as the light of the world.

As you prepare for Christmas this Advent, I pray you, too, will know Christ as the light of the world, and that your anticipation of Christmas will be filled with the hope, peace, love, and joy that mark this season.

Favourite Leadership Resource #2: Good to Great

My favourite Christmas film is The Sound of Music. To this day, simple, everyday statements like “so long” or “favourite things” starts Julie Andrews singing in my head. When I think of where I started my reading in leadership, I’m therefore comforted to hear Julie approving that I started “at the very beginning; it’s a very good place to start!”

The first leadership book I read seriously was Jim Collins’s Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap…and Others Don’t (Harper Business, 2001).The book is so foundational, it’s really a “must start” place for anyone entering senior leadership. Reading it for me felt something like a baptism into the world of leadership and management.

Collins’s work builds on years of solid research. His team researched what moved certain companies from being simply good to becoming great (hence the title) and reported not only on these findings but on their findings of direct comparison companies that did not fare as well.

Through their research, Collins’s team introduces us to some of the most foundational concepts for best business practices:

  • “Good is the enemy of great”;
  • “Level 5 Leadership” – Consistently, good-to-great leaders are not flashy, charismatic outsiders, but typically insiders who embody modesty and fearless resolve;
  • “First who, then what” – Get the right people on the bus, get the wrong people off the bus, then figure out where to drive;
  • “The Stockdale Paradox” – Confront the brutal facts facing your industry, but never lose faith in apparent no-win scenarios;
  • “The Hedgehog Concept” – Identify:

What-is-Your-Hedgehog-Concept-Jim-Collins-Zest-eBiz

  • Create a “Culture of Discipline” – Not just the company’s leader, but the entire company develops a culture of disciplined people exercising disciplined thought leading to disciplined actions;
  • Carefully select “Technology Accelerators” – Avoid the bandwagon approach to new technologies, but use technology selectively to accelerate your hedgehog concept;
  • “The Flywheel and the Doom Loop” – Consistent, committed effort in the right direction exercised again and again and again will build momentum and lead to dramatic results. There are few shortcuts to breakthrough.

Through the book, Collins takes us from buildup to breakthrough:

good to great build up breakthrough flywheel-resized-600

I gobbled up this book, applying it immediately to our college context.

Overall, we were blessed with having the right Whos and an ability to face facts and keep the faith in an industry in decline. (We are a faith-based college, after all!)

We could identify our Hedgehog concept and have embraced a culture of discipline (meaning, among other things, adopting a model of shared governance and the arduous task of developing much needed policy in many areas!). I was able also to communicate Collins’s “Flywheel” concept to our wider constituency (see here), and the results are beginning to show (reported here).

Later, I discovered that Collins had self-published an addendum more particularly geared to our non-profit context: Good to Great and the Social Sectors: A Monograph to Accompany Good to Great. Among its more helpful social-sector applications is Collins’s modification of the “Hedgehog concept” to replace the “economic engine” (= profit) with the “resource engine” (= time, money, and brand). Although Collins summarizes key differences between the social and business sectors, however, he concludes that “Great business corporations share more in common with great social sector organizations than they share with mediocre businesses…the key question is not business versus social, but great versus good” (p. 30).

Perhaps significantly, Collins reports in Social Sectors that he hopes to see results of matched-pair research using non-business entities as the data set, indicating that “such research studies – done right – require up to a decade to complete” (p. 3). Since he published this work in July 2005, I wonder if we can anticipate a more substantial publication by July of next year?

Good to Great is so foundational that anyone who’s been in leadership for much time at all will already have – or will have intended to have – read it. For those who haven’t, “it’s a very good place to start!”

Favourite Leadership Resource #1: Start with Why

I mentioned last post that over the next few weeks I’ll blog on some of the resources I’ve found most influential on my recent journey into leadership. My criteria in selecting these particular resources is not only that they’re good, but that I implemented them immediately. The first such resource is Simon Sinek’s Start with Why.

Favourite leadership resource #1:

WHY

Simon Sinek, Start with Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action. Toronto: Portfolio/Penguin, 2009. (Download a free chapter here.)

Sinek’s book expands on his extremely popular TED Talk, “How Great Leaders Inspire Action” (here) and, for anyone in leadership, watching that talk is eighteen minutes well invested!

Sinek introduces “The Golden Circle,” what he identifies as a biological success formula:

WHY

In short, whereas most people and corporations begin by explaining WHAT they do – make computers, fly aeroplanes, teach mathematics -, successful people and corporations routinely begin by articulating WHY they do what they do. So Apple doesn’t “make computers” – that’s WHAT they do. Instead, Apple believes in challenging the status quo; in thinking differently. That they happen to make computers (their WHAT) is really only a particular expression of their WHY. This is why we’re also happy to buy from them cell phones and tablets and Apple tvs.

Sinek roots the success of beginning with WHY in biology, namely, the brain’s development. WHY takes place in the most ancient part of the brain, the pre-linguistic limbic region; WHAT occurs in our most developed part of the brain, the neocortex. WHY is from that part of us that is pre-rational, instinctual, giving us gut-level, deep-down beliefs, and it’s from that area that most of us still make most decisions about life.

Why Brain

Successful individuals and corporations tap into that basic region of human belief, making their products or services infinitely more attractive to consumers who share their basic beliefs than any rationalization or manipulation could achieve. This leads to Sinek’s often repeated mantra: “People don’t buy WHAT you do, they buy WHY you do it.”

So WHY functions as an almost un-articulable belief. HOW consists of the actions taken to realize that belief, and WHAT is the results of those actions.

Interestingly, and apparently completely independent of Sinek, Patrick Lencioni prescribes a similar path in his book, The Advantage.

advantage

Partrick Lencioni, The Advantage: Why Organizational Health Trumps Everything Else in Business (Jossey-Bass, 2012).

Lencioni prescribes six critical questions that leaders must answer to build healthy organizations. Significantly, these start with WHY, HOW, and WHAT:

Question 1: WHY do we exist?

Question 2: HOW do we behave?

Question 3: WHAT do we do?

Lencioni’s remaining three questions really amount to particularizing the first three. That is, whereas the first three questions identify something constant and almost timeless, the last three produce answers that are temporary and variable, strategies for successfully achieving WHY, HOW, and WHAT in particular – and regularly changing – contexts.

Question 4: How will we succeed?

Question 5: What is most important, right now?

Question 6: Who must do what?

Starting with WHY has been essential to our development as a Christian college. It gets us out of bed in the morning to realize that we don’t exist “to teach people.” That may be WHAT we do, but WHY we do it is to participate in God’s project of advancing His Kingdom in a hurting and broken world. It drives us to offer the highest quality training (WHAT) in ways that emphasize competency in Kingdom workers (HOW) because we believe God invites us into His Kingdom project (WHY).

To see more from Sinek, including the diagrams used in this post and free powerpoint presentations, see his website, here.

Varied Terrain: My Unexpected Journey into Leadership

meThis summer I returned to my roots and went backcountry backpacking in the Canadian Rockies. The trip lasted three days and covered about 60 km and 3,000 feet of elevation. (I wore Vibram Spyridon LS, incidentally. I may review the shoes in a future post…)

vibram

Although I grew up playing in the Rockies, it still amazes me how incredibly and unpredictably varied is mountain terrain. Over 60 km, we travelled through trees and fields and rock slides. We marched over trickling, mountain streams and by (and into!) clear, glacial lakes; down winding ravines and up to rock-spewing waterfalls; through wet, dense forest and into expansive, flower-filled vistas; beneath still cliffs and along rushing rivers. It amazes me not only how radically mountain terrain varies within a relatively compact area, but how quickly and unexpectedly it transforms. Round a bend and we are suddenly standing somewhere completely different, a fresh encounter on the journey.

Over the past couple years, my life has rounded bends and led to terrain I never saw coming. I trained to school people about the New Testament; now, I lead an organization that employs others to do the schooling. Although not the terrain I set out to encounter, however, I am amazed at how this journey into leadership remains somehow still my path, an unexpected yet natural extension of God’s call on my life.

Leadership has been a fresh encounter on my journey. For the past couple years, I’ve been voraciously self-educating in areas of business, management, and leadership that previously held little interest to me. I continue to study and learn.

Over the next few weeks, I will share on this blog some of my favourite books and resources that have marked this recent leg of my journey. Meanwhile, I’ll just share a few pictures from my trip to the mountains!

field forest Glacial lake Glacier and waterfall wildflowers