Category Archives: Leadership

Respect the Gift: The UFC Light Heavyweight Champ on the Stewardship of Talent

UFC LHW Champion Jon Jones just dropped some truth at the UFC 165 Tickets On-Sale Presser yesterday to promote his upcoming title bout with contender Alexander Gustafson.  Following the stunning knockout of Anderson Silva at UFC 162 last weekend, Jones indicated this was a bit of a wake-up call:

“I think that Anderson Silva is a magnificent fighter,” he said. “I think he has extraordinary gifts. I think he’s gotten to the point where he really believes in his gifts, and he’s comfortable with the gift and he abused his gift. He disrespected the gift by disrespecting his opponent. Martial arts are traditionally a sport that’s based around honor and integrity and treating people with respect, and he somehow lost sight of that, and he paid the ultimate price for it.”

For the UFC uninitiated, Silva was KO’d because – depending on who you believe – either his showboating or his unorthodox strategy finally caught up with him.  As he has done many times before, he dropped his hands during the fight, goading Chris Weidman to come forward and engage him, even going so far as to feign being hurt.  As one headline put it, the former Middleweight champ was “slain by his own arrogance.

It strikes me that this is a danger for all of us.  Whatever your gifts, whether they are physical or intellectual, whether you are a leader or an artist, a professional or a student, we must beware of the temptation to “get comfortable” and thus “disrespect” our gift.  I am reminded of St. Paul’s words to his protege, Timothy:

For this reason I remind you to fan into flame the gift of God, which is in you through the laying on of my hands. For the Spirit God gave us does not make us timid, but gives us power, love and self-discipline.” (2 Timothy 1:6-7)

We call these talents and natural abilities “gifts,” because they come to us from outside of ourselves. Christians believe that “every good and perfect gift is from above.” (James 1:17)  I found Jones’ words a humbling reminder of what it means to be the bearer of God’s good gifts. Let us not abuse our gifts, but rekindle them to the glory of God and the service of his kingdom.

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On the Failure of the Church, Then & Now

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Today at Goodwill I picked up a true church nerd gem: an antique Book of Discipline of the Methodist Church, circa 1952.  Included in that Discipline was the 1939 document affirming the unification of the Methodist Episcopal (M.E for short) Church, M.E. Church South, and the Methodist Protestant Church.  It was fascinating to read, especially as I thought of the arguments that precipitated those splits.

In Broken Churches, Broken Nation, former Wesley Seminary professor of church history CC Goen argues that the split of the major denominations in the 1840’s – Methodist, Baptist, and Presbyterian – paved the way for the eventual sundering of the nation in the 1860’s and the brutal war that followed.  He cites numerous commentators of the time who expressed (highly prescient) fear that the natural result of schism in the church would be a tear in the fabric of the nation itself.

In his closing chapter, Goen offers conclusions about the failure of leadership that led to those denominational splits:

The real problem was the perception on the part of the evangelicals that an antislavery church would necessarily remain a very small church…the churches’ growth strategy depended upon their not requiring converts to face the hard moral discipline demanded by Christian sensitivity to the evil of human bondage.  So long as God seemed to smile on their zeal to bring in the unchurched, it was difficult to entertain any charge of fundamental wrongdoing…When Uncle Tom’s Cabin became as popular on stage as in book form, abolitionists noted wryly that “the theater became antislavery before many churches did.” (146-147)

Moreover, because the churches failed to lead the nation in coming to an amicable consensus around the issue of slavery, the country was left to find a political solution.  And while political solutions can be decisive legally, they do not necessarily change hearts and minds.  Goen quotes a 1961 work (hence the antiquated language) by historian Dwight Drummond:

…the failure of the churches at this point in our history forced the country to turn to political action against slavery, and political action destroyed slavery as a system but left the hearts of the slaveholders unregenerate and left oppression of the free Negro little less of an evil than slavery had been. (170)

Today, now as then, we are attempting to solve deep fissures in our national conscience with political action.  Also today, the church is failing her vocation to be both a graceful and an authoritative voice in the world.  The largest, most influential groups of Christians in Antebellum America were torn along sectional lines, and their Biblical interpretation and Christian ethics were largely determined by their social location.  Today, little has changed.

My own United Methodist corner of the Body is bitterly divided – between the Southeast and the rest of the country, between the the Western nations and the global South.  Again, social location seems to be triumphant, and we seem unable to ascertain a word of wisdom from the Spirit.

There must be a better way than parroting the worst of partisan culture, as we get with the “confessing” or “evangelical” renewal groups to fight the encroaching “progressive” or “liberal” interests in the other group.  As I read Goen’s book, and reflect upon our own situation, I was reminded of that great scene from War Games from many years ago which concludes, “the only winning move is not to play.”

A topic to develop for another time: isn’t it interesting how, centuries ago, Americans recognized that the key to church growth was not challenging the prevailing assumptions of those they sought to evangelize? Some things never change, I suppose…

St. Gregory the Great’s Advice to Young Clergy

I interrupted my current reading with something special for my ordination: Pope St. Gregory the Great’s Book of Pastoral Rule.  With his description of the ideal pastor and rather cutting remarks on the temptations to which clergy are prone, it was a humbling read to surround the days leading up to my ordination as an Elder in Full Connection.

A large portion of his Rule is devoted to specific instructions for people with opposite vices or situations; while this section gets a bit tedious and repetitive, there are nonetheless some gems within.  Especially interesting to me was the section entitled, “Those who are able to preach with dignity but fear to do so out of humility [does anyone know one of these people???], and those whose lack of skill or age prevents from preaching but who nevertheless rush into preaching.”

In that section, St. Gregory elaborates:

“…those who are prohibited from preaching because of a lack of skill or age, but nevertheless rush into preaching, should be advised that in their arrogance to assume the burden of the office of preaching, they do not cut off the opportunity for their own future improvement.  Moreover, as they seize prematurely what they are not able to do, they should be careful that they not lose those very skills that they might otherwise have achieved at a later time…they should be advised to remember that if young birds try to fly before their wings are fully developed, they fall from the height that they sought.”

He goes on to use – and really, who could be better? – the example of Jesus:

“And so it is that our Redeemer, though as the Creator he remains in heaven and is always by his power the teacher of the angels, did not wish to become a teacher of men until his thirtieth year on earth.  Clearly, he did this to instill a wholesome fear into the hasty by showing them that even he, who could not err, did not preach the grace of the perfect life until he had reached the appropriate age.” (Crestwood: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2007 [163-164].)

I am struck by how much this is the opposite impulse of many churches today, including that of my own (United Methodist) tribe.  Denominational authorities tell us everywhere that we need more young clergy, and many claim (or at least imply) that our time to ordination should be faster/simpler/easier.  I have my own thoughts on why “The Process” is so complex, and why it should be so in every corner of the Body, but here I am mostly interested in the age factor.

St. Gregory regards it as a vice that one would seek to preach at too young an age; we seem to act and think the opposite.  Mirroring, rather than challenging, the cultural assumption that everything new is good and the way of the young is the way it should be, the church too quickly and too often runs after the young like a drunk stumbling for a lamppost. Thus the values of the market win out over wisdom, and we effectively despise those whom most healthy societies have revered.

I am almost 31.  I am about to enter my 5th year of full-time ministry, and I have much to learn.  I have no illusions that I have achieved the heights of pastoral wisdom or preaching excellence, and I am horrified that anyone my age or younger would already be showing interest in the Episcopacy.

Wisdom is the fruit of years, and more specifically years of prayer, study, discernment, experience, and some serious grace.  While the young should be cultivated for spiritual leadership, and I understand that the investment the church makes via ordination (if for no other purpose than the rather mundane reasons of insurance and other benefits) means that younger clergy may be preferred by the system, we who are young should not seek to speak of God too soon or too lightly.  We should not presume that being young gives us some kind of monopoly over leading well or preaching with power and conviction.

In short, we could use a dose of Gregory’s advice: don’t be in a hurry to speak the words of salvation, to presume to speak for God.  Jesus didn’t get going until he was 30.  Don’t be too proud to walk before you run, or to sit in the chair of the apprentice before assuming the role of the master.

Thoughts Upon Ordination

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United Methodists don’t do this as part of the Ordination rite, but I kind of wish we did…

“For this reason I remind you to rekindle the gift of God that is within you through the laying on of my hands.”

Paul, 2 Timothy 1:6

As I went through last week’s Annual Conference (the yearly gathering of United Methodists from a particular geographic area, in my case Western North Carolina – aka the best Annual Conference), I was continually reminded of the many people, places, and experiences that were important during my journey towards ordained ministry.

I was reminded especially of:

  • Karen, who invited me to Youth Disciple;
  • Gloria, my youth pastor, who made sure I felt welcomed even though I didn’t know a lot of the kids in the group; she tried to tell me I was going to be a pastor years before I even began to study matters of faith and theology;
  • Marc, who showed me the importance of living the faithfulness and trust that we proclaim as pastors;
  • Phillip, who introduced me to “the process,” and walked with me when I stumbled;
  • College professors like Warlick and Norwood and Akinade, who helped me learn that there were other ways to be Christian than being a narrow-minded fundamentalist;
  • Dr. Stoneking, who was wise enough to advise me to pursue an M.Div at a place that taught me to think with the Church rather than outside of or against her;
  • Seminary faculty like Smith and Campbell, who taught me to think deeply about the Christian faith while not treating their students like machines on an assembly line;
  • Drew and Kirk and Mike, who taught me the day-to-day of work of ministry in its pure, unvarnished beauty.  They taught me to love the local church, in/through/with/despite its failures;
  • Mike, who told me I could be a pastor when I wasn’t remotely convinced;
  • Dr. Phillips, a professor who played a pastor when necessary;
  • My parents, who have been my cheerleaders the whole way, and told me from a young age – with no evidence to speak of – that I was a leader;
  • Brittany, who has supported me more kindly than I deserve, even though she often loses out to the vocation. She has carried me through the valleys and kept me from being conceited on the mountaintops.

Most of all, I found myself continually marveling at the Triune God for his bounteous, unending, surprising grace.  His strange, unmerited call is the chief reason I now find myself as an Elder in the United Methodist Church. That grace was mediated to me through various means – worship, prayer, sacrament, service – and the people and places that have graced my journey.  Thanks be to God.

Painting with Warren Buffett

The following is one of my favorite excerpts from Susan Cain’s marvelous Quiet, which I cannot recommend enough (whether you are an introvert or extrovert).  Warren Buffett, the famously introverted and successful investor, was at an investing conference just prior to the burst of the 2000 dot-com bubble.  Present at the party was lots of “new money,” investors and venture capitalists who had recently become very wealthy.

“Buffett was decidedly not a part of this group.  He was an old-school investor who didn’t get caught up in speculative frenzy around companies with unclear earnings prospects.  Some dismissed him as a relic of the past.  But Buffett was still powerful enough to give the keynote address on the final day of the conference.”

Buffett saw that the bubble was about to burst, and told the happy crowd exactly what he thought.  They were not pleased with his remarks, and dismissed him as hopelessly backwards.  Next year, though, when the bubble did burst, Buffett was proven right:

“Buffett takes pride not only in his track record, but also in following his own ‘inner scorecard.’  He divides the world into people who focus on their own instincts and those who follow the herd.  ‘I feel like I’m on my back,’ says Buffett about his life as an investor, ‘and there’s the Sistine Chapel, and I’m painting away.  I like it when people say, Gee, that’s a pretty good-looking painting. But it’s my painting, and when somebody says, Why don’t you use more red instead of blue? Good-bye. It’s my painting.  And I don’t care what they sell it for.  The painting itself will never be finished.  That’s one of the great things about it.'” (177)

Excellence as Deviance

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Here is my happy thought for the day, courtesy of business professor Robert Quinn. This is from his very insightful Deep Change, which I highly to commend to everyone regardless of your calling or profession, or role in leadership.

“It seems to me that you have to be clear about something.  Excellence is a form of deviance. If you perform beyond the norm, you will disrupt all the existing control systems. Those systems will then alter and begin to work to routinize your efforts. That is, the systems will adjust to try to make you normal. The way to achieve and maintain excellence is to deviate from the norm. You become excellent because you are doing things normal people do not want to do. You become excellent by choosing a path that is risky and painful, a path that is not appealing to others.” (176)

Though Quinn writes for a business audience, his findings about “deep change” (as opposed to quick change or incremental change) are important for anyone who, on an individual or organizational level, seeks change.  To seek meaningful, deep change, leaders must accept the pain and challenge of deviance, the disdain of the system, and the endless efforts to stifle creativity and difference.

Interestingly, I think the Christian could also substitute the word “holiness” for “excellence” in the above quote, and it would equally hold true.  What say you?

Spiritual Kaizen with Bishop Grant Hagiya

I just finished Bishop Grant Hagiya’s newly-minted Spiritual Kaizen: How to Become a Better Church Leader and I happy to commend it to your own shelves.  As I’ve written already, there is much food for thought within.  Hagiya’s brief volume, which draws heavily on his doctoral work, combines decades of church leadership experience, lifelong study of the martial arts (I like the idea of a Bishop that can break boards!), and the latest in organizational development studies.  His central thesis is that great leaders practice kaizen, a Japanese term that basically means “constant growth.”  One illustration of this concept comes from a story he tells about a retreat center (not institutions that are usually known for their entrepreneurship) that his annual conference frequented:

“Every time I returned to that retreat center some small new addition was noticeable. One time it was the addition of card holders on the sleeping room doors so people could put their business cards on the door to identify where they were located. Another time they had a seasonal prayer card placed on the desk in each room. Still another time there was the addition of a dessert cart. Each time I returned, there was a small but noticeable improvement present. This is kaizen at its best!” (104)

Giving this excerpt and describing his basic thesis, while accurate, do not due justice to the depth and breadth what lies within.  Compared to most of the paint-by-numbers church leadership books (you’ve read one, you’ve read them all), Bishop Hagiya’s work feels like a crash course in advanced leadership theory.  He sums up a massive amount of current literature in concise manner, and is well worth the read in that regard.  Combined with his insights from martial arts training and personal experience as a church leader at all levels, Spiritual Kaizen will make an enjoyable addition to your summer reading plans, whether laity or clergy.

Cumbersome By Design? Thoughts on ‘The Process’

“My child, when you come to serve the Lord, prepare yourself for testing.”

-Sirach 2:1

Taking on UMC ordination practices is all the rage.  I appreciated my pal John Meunier’s thoughts about the ordination process, and I’ve been following Jeremy Smith’s investigative blogging about young clergy falling out of the ordination track with interest.

All this has me wondering: Jim Collins has argued that great organizations are Great By Choice.  I wonder if our ordination system is Cumbersome By Design?

There was much discussion last General Conference about simplifying the ordination process for Elders and Deacons in the UMC.  Not long ago, the Book of Discipline was changed so that Annual Conferences could choose to ordain after a two-year full-time ministry “residency” rather than the previously required three years.  My own AC is one of the few that stuck with three years (though, to be fair, neighboring conferences seem to have found other ways to gum up the process that more than make up for the change).

But the infamy of ‘The Process’ (as many of us affectionately refer to the ordination gauntlet) is not only due to the time involved. Yes, a minimum 9 years of training (undergrad, seminary, ministry “residency”) before one is fully accredited is daunting.  But in the meantime, there are a plethora of smaller steps: mental health evaluations, local church and district gatekeeping, required coursework (sometimes seminary curricula and conference requirements clash), reams of paperwork, vetting, District Superintendent and SPRC evaluations, culminating in a two-stage paper-writing & (usually) interview process where one is judged on criteria that are anything but objective. Think about it: How do you define effective preaching? Which forms of Wesleyan theology are acceptable?

Needless to say, I’m glad to be (almost) done.

But does that mean all of this should be made easier streamlined to encourage more young people to enter ordained ministry?  I’m not so sure.  Pastors’ work is often ambiguous and difficult, the relational and organizational systems of our churches and communities are highly complex, and being agents for change and growth means fighting rudeness, apathy, and roadblocks at every turn.  Welcome to leadership.

In that sense, then, ‘The Process’ just might perfectly prepare ordinands for the world of the church: a world where good deeds are punished, where everything is not simple, fast, or fair, and which requires a surprising level of personal fortitude.

Does that mean everything is perfect? No.

‘The Process’ too often becomes a forum for personal vendettas and agendas.  Many people are dangerous with a little bit of power and unfortunately they know how to gain it.  Too often, as I have experienced, upper-echelon clergy in these settings are unwilling to police their own and put a stop to borderline-abuse of ordination candidates.  Stories abound; if you don’t believe me, ask around.  Ordination should not be an easy thing, but it should not be hazing either. There must be systems in place that guard against such maltreatment.

Does an extensive and laborious process guarantee the quality of those who get through it? No.

Like any other method of vetting, there are people who get through who are quite gifted and talented, and some who aren’t.  There are brilliant young clergy who are held up needlessly (and some drop out), and people who get through who should never be in any kind of leadership position.  I know PHDs in theology who have been held up by theology committees, and theological n00bs who have sailed through.  Systems are made of people, and as such no system will be perfect.  I have friends who absolutely should be on stage with me this year, and their absence makes my presence a near-farce.  That probably happens every year in every conference.

I have no illusions that everything is right in the world of ‘The Process’.  But just maybe the difficulty does us a favor.  Perhaps we are not well-prepared for church leadership by administrative pats on the back.  Perhaps the proper response to a “crisis” or “exodus” of young clergy is not to make ordination as simple as starting a Pinterest account.  ‘The Process’ as currently arranged in many parts of the denomination will prepare us well for a future that is difficult but promising, ministry settings that are often unfair but sometimes grace-filled, and systems that are complex and flawed but also full of people doing their best for God.

“Systems are designed to give you the results you are getting right now,” we are often told.  Maybe ‘The Process’, cumbersome though it is, is an excellent preparation for the church we are seeking to lead.

ImageP.S. I understand that, at its best, the ordination process is designed to be a holistic formation for effective ministry, and not merely a series of “hoops” through which to jump.  In that sense, it is not entirely satisfying to speak of the transition to set-apart ministry merely as a “process” or something to get “through.”  While I appreciate that sentiment and welcome efforts to change those tendencies, I have described it as I experienced it, and not as it exists ideally.  Please share with me places where your own experience is either similar to or divergent from my own.  May God bless his church, whom “the gates of hell will not overcome.” (Matthew 16:18)

Daniel Day-Lewis and The Art of the Holy “No”

I said no to something today, something pretty cool.  Not because I wasn’t interested, or because it wouldn’t be beneficial in some ways.  I just knew that saying “yes” meant I could not do that, and probably many other things, as well as I should.  So I said no.

It felt weird. But also good.  I’m not good with “no”.  I like it in theory.  I know that boundaries are important.  I know, as the saying goes, “every time you say ‘yes’ to something you are saying ‘no’ to something else.”  But it’s so hard to practice that.

Christians are often bad with “no”.  We are so infected with the culture of nice, and often so motivated by the twin demons of people-pleasing and guilt, that we can’t utter it.  But there is such thing as a righteous, healthy, and holy “no”.

I found some inspiration from Daniel Day-Lewis via Ain’t It Cool News.  It seems that initially the acclaimed actor was going to turn down Steven Spielberg’s offer to star in the now-successful Lincoln.  This is the email he sent to the director before he, in the end, accepted:

Dear Steven,

It was a real pleasure just to sit and talk with you. I listened very carefully to what you had to say about this compelling history, and I’ve since read the script and found it in all the detail in which it describes these monumental events and in the compassionate portraits of all the principal characters, both powerful and moving. I can’t account for how at any given moment I feel the need to explore life as opposed to another, but I do know that I can only do this work if I feel almost as if there is no choice; that a subject coincides inexplicably with a very personal need and a very specific moment in time. In this case, as fascinated as I was by Abe, it was the fascination of a grateful spectator who longed to see a story told, rather than that of a participant. That’s how I feel now in spite of myself, and though I can’t be sure that this won’t change, I couldn’t dream of encouraging you to keep it open on a mere possibility. I do hope this makes sense Steven, I’m glad you’re making the film, I wish you the strength for it, and I send both my very best wishes and my sincere gratitude to you for having considered me.

That’s how you say “no”.  Of course, since he relented in the end, maybe it isn’t the best example.  But the language is there.

A great question for everyone, especially those in the caregiving business, is this:

When was the last time you said no?

Tenure and Preachers’ Unions with Chris Christie

From tough-talking Governor Christie’s RNC speech tonight:

“We believe that the majority of teachers in America know our system must be reformed to put students first so that America can compete.

Teachers don’t teach to become rich or famous. They teach because they love children.

We believe that we should honor and reward the good ones while doing what’s best for our nation’s future – demanding accountability, higher standards and the best teacher in every classroom.”

I’ve been thinking a great deal about tenure these days.  Christie, of course, has been in the news for pushing education reform in his own state.  Not one to shy away from controversial issues – love him or hate him, he isn’t a political coward – Christy knows that “sacred cows make gourmet burgers.”

I also watched the controversial documentary Waiting for “Superman” recently, which advocates for educational reform through more choice in education (especially in the form of charter schools) and against the purported stranglehold that teachers’ unions have on education.  Among the more alarming statistics given in the film is the shockingly low number of teachers relieved of their jobs in any given year as compared to, say, doctors or lawyers.  To be fair, many pro-union voices have come out against the film and questioned its contents.  Still, the anecdotes  we hear on a regular basis are enough to inspire big questions about tenure.  Whose interests does tenure serve, that of the students/community/nation or the teachers and the union leaders themselves?Moreover, the differences between tenure at the university level and tenure at the secondary and under level are important.  University tenure could take a decade or more, and some professors will never get it anywhere.  Tenure in an elementary setting, for instance, can come after only three or four years of teaching and lasts for life.

In the United Methodist Church, ordination and “full connection” as a clergy member of one’s Annual Conference functions as tenure does in a non-university setting.  Ending the so-called “guaranteed appointment” (and yes, there is a mountain of meaning in the phrase “so-called”) was a major plank of the reformers at General Conference this year (also, curiously, in Tampa).

You know the arguments.  You’ve heard them already.  Those who emphasize fairness and security for teachers argue that the GA (guarantee of appointment) is important to maintain freedom in the pulpit, to prevent discrimination based on age/race/gender/theological school/favorite basketball team, and to discourage a vindictive executive from abusing their power by not appointing, under-appointing, or poorly appointing a pastor who is otherwise in good standing.  The focus for all of these arguments is on the good of the employee.

Those who emphasize excellence in ministry and effectiveness (and yes, these are notoriously hard to quantify or judge) point out that a de-facto tenure system does not encourage either of these.  To use the language of economics, tenure does not incentivize hard work or quality work and can, instead, incentivize laziness and substandard work.  Those who question the good of the GA are generally more concerned with the well-being of the church and the mission of Christ in the world.

Of course, it would be a cheap shot to call defenders of tenure (and/or the GA) selfish and narrow-minded.  I’m not really even attempting here to make a comment about education because that is far out of my wheelhouse, but I do think the argument about tenure bears heavily on our discussion of the guarantee of appointment.

Christianity Today recently asked a number of random churchy people, “Should Pastors Be Guaranteed Job Security?” and the results were interesting.  While some of the respondents didn’t seem to grasp what the question was getting at, Bishop Willimon can always be counted on to provide a worthwhile soundbite:

“Pastors have to be willing to lead a precarious existence. When we no longer are of service to a particular congregation and its mission, or to a living, demanding God, then we must seek ministry elsewhere. Tenure and contracts are out of place.”

Here is an excellent interview in which Willimon elaborates on his views of the GA.

To close with the good Governor, what are we in this for?  Is it about making a living, putting food on the table, or is it about Christ and his Church?  Will we expect the best from our clergy, rewarding excellence when we find it but demanding accountability when it is lacking, or must we perennially protect everyone’s job barring egregious misconduct such as a sexual or fiscal scandal?

All of this is very much on my mind as I look forward to my annual review this week.  If the work we do is important – be it in education, or law enforcement, or medicine, or in the church – then surely it is worthy of our best efforts.  In holding us to that standard, God and God’s people do us a great favor.