(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.

https://digitaltestimonymag.ca/testimony/fall_2020/MobilePagedReplica.action?pm=1&folio=33#pg33

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!

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.

yrr ct cover

(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.

 

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.”

On Generosity

Last week I shared a mini-sermon with our students on the topic of generosity. The context was to announce an invitation to the college’s upcoming fundraising banquets – see here, and please feel likewise invited to attend!

The announcement prompted an opportunity to share briefly on a too often neglected area of discipleship: generosity.

Generosity and the topic of money generally have become choppy waters to navigate for today’s pastors. Today’s pastors are frequently nervous to talk about money lest they – and the church – be associated with the self-promoting antics of flashy TV or “health, wealth, and prosperity” preachers who hijack Scripture’s rich teaching on wealth, twisting it to suit their personal gain.

That’s a shame, because right thinking about wealth and, in particular, generosity is essential for a discipled life.

Multiple studies show that Christians in the western world have steadily grown wealthier and, in the past 15 years in particular, have steadily shared less and less of that wealth. In fact, US figures for 2009 put giving barely above 2% – almost as low as statistics for giving recorded during the Depression and the post-World War II eras (cited in Craig L. Blomberg, Christians in an Age of Wealth [Zondervan, 2013], p. 24).

I believe Jesus means it when he says: “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matthew 6.21; Luke 12.34).

En masse, western Christians today demonstrably DO NOT deposit our “treasure” primarily in the Kingdom. Demonstrably, our treasure goes to our personal security (homes, vehicles, careers, RRSPs, RESPs, etc.) and our personal pleasure (gadgets, movies, holidays, activities – including activities for our kids!).

How we spend our money today indicates measurably that we are in a crisis of discipleship. And I do not believe I’m overstating it when I say that until we get our hearts in the right place – as demonstrated by getting our money in the right places! – the church will be ill-equipped to deal adequately with any other social issue that comes our way.

For some excellent resources on generosity, see:

Craig L. Blomberg, Christians in an Age of Wealth (Zondervan, 2013);

Ronald J. Sider, Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger, Rev. ed. (Thomas Nelson, 2005);

Ronald J. Sider, Just Generosity, 2nd ed. (Baker, 2007);

Further, the Pentecostal Assemblies of Canada has also issued a small booklet that’s both worthwhile and, at only $4, inexpensive:

David Hazzard, ed., Generosity Changes Everything…Even Us (PAOC, 2014).

 

 

“What Time Is the 3:00 Parade?” What the Church Can Learn from Disney

Last May I led our staff through a customer service seminar.

We listened to an episode of one of my favourite radio broadcasts: Under the Influence with Terry O’Reilly. CBC has just replayed that episode, so it’s available for free download for another week or so here; manuscript version here.

The episode offers loads of fantastic advice for improving customer service using examples from places like Macy’s, Zappos and Disney. The examples from Disney most resonated with our staff.

Disney staff are taught to value their customers as people,with the understanding that people remember people, not products.

Consequently, Disney staff are coached to answer the question: “What time is the 3:00 parade?” by offering customers optional places to view the event and giving assistance in directing them there. In other words, staff are coached to respond in ways that retain the customer’s dignity as a person, by-passing what may be a natural impulse to answer a stupid question with a sarcastic or belittling answer (“The 3:00 parade is at 3:00, moron!”).

“What time is the 3:00 parade?” has become a shorthand among our staff that reminds us to treat our students as people, even when they ask questions with self-evident answers. (Having just spent 30 min. going over a course syllabus, drawing attention to the clearly displayed assignments and due dates: “So, when is this paper due?”)

When it comes to church, I don’t think we’re too bad for addressing newcomers with sarcasm. Typically, we’ll greet them with a smile and a handshake and a bulletin and, if opportunity presents itself, indicate our available programs and services.

On the other hand, however, I wonder if we always possess Disney’s underlying value: to value people as people and not just as prospective additions to our club.

As Christians, this is a value I think we all know we should have since it’s one Jesus modeled throughout his entire ministry. But sometimes we just need a little reminder. And maybe a trip to Disney.