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There’s much talk about and evidence for decline in the church. I myself write extensively about it. But what if lack of vision or discipleship systems, or the changing culture aren’t the only explanations for this decline? What if the church is in decline not because it has failed but cancer runprecisely because it has succeeded?

Here’s what I mean. In many ways, the Kingdom message of Jesus has effectively made its way out of the cloistered environs of religious literature, liturgy and institutions to star on the world stage. The Golden Rule is known everywhere. Servant leadership is taught in colleges, universities and business schools. Exercising care for the poor has been taken up by untold numbers of non-profits and NGO’s. Increasing standards of housing, education, healthcare, and equal rights are concerns in countries the world over. And as I wrote about recently, Steven Pinker observes in his quantifiably optimistic volume, Enlightenment Now, equal access to these elements of communal well-being has been increasing over time. Not coincidentally, communal well-being is an important aspect of the biblical definition of salvation.

The bottom line is that loving our neighbor as ourselves, and loving God has made its way into the culture at large. Christian principles permeate the secular world. The light indeed shines brightly in the dark. The church is not the only way that people bring love into the world.

In fact, people are excellent at organizing themselves to do good. There are races and walkathons for every cause. Shelters and food banks are staples in communities of almost every size. The non-profit sector is growing much faster than the for-profit sector. Even the for-profit world has shifted. Social entrepreneurs and B Corporations bring about positive societal change even as people shop. Personal and professional growth organizations such as Landmark Worldwide empower participants to spearhead projects benefiting the communities around them.

Just as John the Baptist had to decrease so that Jesus could increase, perhaps the church’s decline is a sign that at last Jesus’ Kingdom-consciousness has gained a firm footing in the world. If this is the case, the decline of churches is a good and necessary thing. It’s just might be a sign of our success.

Church leaders, as you look to the new year, rejoice that Jesus’ message is alive and well in the world. Take heart that your collective sermons have shifted the consciousness of the planet. Be assured that your work matters, that your efforts count, and that you are indeed co-creating Kingdom miracles with Jesus. At the same time, be of good courage in leading your congregations into their next vision. A new generation awaits.

Learn more about how we empower church leaders and the congregations they serve through our flagship program, Creating a Culture of Renewal.

woman looking awayWhat makes for a strong leader? I’m especially interested in that question as I train church leaders around the country in the skills of congregational intelligence, leadership smarts, and culture shifting. A recent conversation with noted pastor, James Howell, author of “Weak Enough to Lead: What the Bible tells us about Powerful Leadership,” (Abingdon 2017) gave me a brand new perspective.

Here’s a bit of our conversation.

James, how can this book help me as a leader?

Rebekah, this book won’t help you “succeed” or improve your metrics.  But it will help you grow as a leader in the sense of living in close solidarity with the biblical story, and to dig deeply to discern how you as a leader are both afflicted and gifted by the kinds of brokenness you share with biblical leaders like David, Paul, Moses and so many others.  I think a heightened intimacy with God and a deep immersion in the realities of Scripture may be the real stuff of authentic, faithful leadership.

James, how has knowing that the biblical story preferences leaders “weak enough to lead” impacted your own leadership and shifted your understanding of church?

Well, at 62 years of age, I’ve spent years trying to be as good a leader as possible. I’ve been told that I exhibit strength and charisma, and I’ve led by force of will. At the same time, I come from a family that’s just a disaster; I carry that stuff around. I used to think of it as an enemy to overcome, but now I see that my strength in ministry comes from that broken place. I understand human brokenness. Everybody’s got dysfunction. And it’s not all about getting better, it’s about being community together. The church is broken people being real community together.

James, what’s the main thing you want people to get from reading this book?

Rebekah, I want leaders to understand God’s ways more profoundly, and thereby not be demoralized by snazzy leaders they don’t measure up to, but buoyed by the mercy of God, the fact that throughout the Bible God uses the weak and unlikely, and the knowledge that even the greatest of leaders are sinful, flawed, foolish and broken.

Reflecting on my conversation with James, and my own imperfections, emphasizes for me the importance of self-awareness and personal spiritual growth for leaders. The kind that twelve step communities specialize in. Next week, come back to read about people who follow Jesus in a community modeled after the 12 Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous.

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If you’re weak enough to lead, and strong enough to know you need help, then take the next step in creating a powerful, authentic community by ordering James Howell’s book and registering today for Track 1 of a Creating a Culture of Renewal cohort. This year we’ll have groups in New Mexico, Wyoming, Oklahoma, Ohio, Iowa, Western North Carolina, and Maine. This leadership development gives clergy and church leaders the skills to ultimately shift the cultures of their own congregations into the real communities of which James Howell spoke. The communities that have arisen as a result of their leaders’ engagement in the Creating a Culture of Renewal program have not only healed the broken, but thrived and grown in ministry, creating and fulfilling visions that they’d never have thought possible.

 

In this series, Quantum Leaps of Faith for the New Year, I am introducing 5 norm-breakingtime to say yes leaps of faith that Jesus invites you to take. If you accept the invitation, it will move you from discipleship to apostleship; from being a mere follower of Jesus to an inspired leader like Jesus. No quantum leap of faith is quite like leap #2: Be Empowered Like Jesus.   This leap of faith invites you to humbly accept Jesus’ power and to use it. The prospect is both daunting and thrilling, seemingly heretical and deeply biblical.

I find it interesting that while Christianity centralizes authority—for instance, only the properly ordained may consecrate bread and cup and only the highly vetted may lead—Jesus himself shared his own authority generously, even carelessly, with his unskilled followers. From Peter to Judas, and dozens of other unnamed followers, Jesus invests in each and every one—sharing his knowledge, power and authority with them. While the church insists on centralizing authority; Jesus insists on giving it away. Before Jesus even really knows these fellows well—at least from what we can tell in the Gospels—he calls 12 guys to be both disciples or followers; and apostles or agents of his. That means he’s going to teach them everything he knows about manifesting the Kingdom including healing people and casting out demons. Then he’s going to send them out, invested with his authority, to do these very things.   Mark 3:13-19 spells it out:

“And he went up on the mountain and called to him those whom he desired, and they came to him.  And he appointed twelve (whom he also named apostles) so that they might be with him and he might send them out to preach and have authority to cast out demons. He appointed the twelve: Simon (to whom he gave the name Peter); James the son of Zebedee and John the brother of James (to whom he gave the name Boanerges, that is, Sons of Thunder);Andrew, and Philip, and Bartholomew, and Matthew, and Thomas, and James the son of Alphaeus, and Thaddaeus, and Simon the Zealot,and Judas Iscariot, who betrayed him.”

That was then, you say, this is now. It’s no different today. Jesus’ power is there for you. He insists on freely giving it away; he has to. Otherwise, his vision of the Kingdom cannot continue to become reality. Just like a carpenter would never expect you to build a house without a hammer, nails, a drill, sheetrock and the like, Jesus doesn’t expect you to manifest the kingdom without his power.

Here’s the scoop, friend. Jesus is calling you, yes you, to be empowered like him. He wants to invest in you, authorize you, and send you out to manifest the kingdom—to heal the sick, to cast out demons, and to generally live an incredibly abundant and empowered life. The good news is that you don’t have to do it perfectly, or even under your own steam. With Jesus’ empowerment comes equipping. Here are three spiritual tools you’ll need to be a miracle-making wonder of grace and empowerment: being a YES in life, accepting authority, and following divine promptings.

Let’s take a closer look at each tool.

  1. Be a YES. Jesus won’t force you to accept abundance, or power, or the next assignment. You always have the right of refusal. Jesus won’t force his will or his blessings on anyone. But make no mistake—you can go through your whole life and ministry refusing the power and agency of Jesus, while pretending you are saying yes. “Sure, Jesus,” you say, “I want to follow you. But, please don’t ask me to do or say or receive or preach that. ” (Fill in the blank.)   Saying “no” leads to maddening frustration, self-victimization, and burn out. Saying yes leads to thrilling unknowns, and a life of blessing and abundance. You get to choose.
  2. Accept authority. Like most folks, you are probably highly skilled at de-authorizing your own thoughts, belief, and knowledge. How many times have I clamped down on myself, thinking: “I can’t do/say that; I’ll look like a fool!” Accepting authority means accepting the inner freedom and power and guidance to know what you know, believe what you believe, say what you are led to say, and do what you are prompted to do. If you have spent any time at all developing a relationship with God through prayer, meditation, scripture reading, journaling, stepwork or practicing spiritual disciplines, then accepting authority is doing what comes next. Accepting authority doesn’t necessarily imply getting ordained or holding a certain position. It simply means learning to trust your inner wisdom and to discern divine promptings within.
  3. Follow the Promptings. Some years ago, I was studying the spiritual discipline of the laying on of hands and prayer. Ethelmae came through the line after worship one Sunday and told me about an aching tooth. I felt the Spirit prompt me: Put your hands on her and pray! “What?” I protested silently, “Right here in the greeting line? There are a bunch of people behind her. I’ll look like a fool!” “It’s okay,” the sure and steady voice prompted me. “Do it.” My elbows locked in at my side, I half-heartedly raised my hands up. Yes, it was as awkward as it sounds. I finally gave up pretending I wasn’t laying hands on her, released my elbows from my sides, and let my hand float up to her jaw, while asking, “Is it okay if I touch you here and pray for you?” “Yes,” she said, expecting no less from her pastor. She closed her eyes as I prayed. “Gracious God, please heal Ethelmae, and bring wholeness to her body. Amen.” She thanked me and moved on. Later she told me that she felt a pop when I prayed, and the pain went away; she was healed.

Your place in the kingdom may be hands on healing, or it may be casting out demons of sexism or racism. Whatever your divine calling, the basic tools are the same. As you use these 3 tools, you will experience a shift in consciousness. You will come to know yourself as an apostle—an empowered agent living out your divine calling. You will surrender the idea that you’re not good enough, perfect enough, or whatever enough for this Power to work through you. Instead, you will become willing to say yes to the promptings.   You will release the belief that only Jesus has the ability to make miracles happen, and embrace the power he longs for you to exercise. You will stop sitting on the sidelines of life, wishing things were different. Or you’ll stop trying run life by yourself. Instead, you will know a new sense of belonging and purpose. You will be a conduit of blessing, an apostle of hope.

Being Empowered Like Jesus is good preparation for the 3rd quantum of leap of faith: Be Accountable Like Jesus. Watch for it next week.

Last week, I introduced 5 quantum leaps of faith that Jesus invites each one of us to take. Each of these leaps of faith is grounded in the Tree Hand Illustration For Diverse People Team HelpBible and exemplified by Jesus himself. This week, let’s look at Quantum Leap #1: Be Fruitful and Multiply Like Jesus.

In Genesis, God commands the first humans to be fruitful, multiply and fill the earth. In this Quantum Leap #1, however, I’m not talking about making babies. I’m talking about replicating Kingdom leadership. There is more to following Jesus than emulating the spiritual principles he taught.  We are also called to multiply ourselves as leaders by passing on our Kingdom vision and values to the people we lead.

I call this replication a quantum leap because it is so outside the norm of what we consider possible, do-able, or even desirable. I work with a variety of church leaders around the country. In congregations large and small, leaders fall into the trap of thinking that leadership means, “I have to do it all.” They think they have to write and preach all the sermons, teach all the classes, fix all the fights, do all the ministry, counsel all the sick, bury all the dead, visit all the ailing, and lead the charge on every outreach initiative of the church. This is hard to say, but somebody has to: Doing it all is not Christ-like, and it’s not leadership; it’s fear-based, over-functioning. We fear that people won’t like us or respect us if we don’t do it all. We fear that no one will pick up the slack if we delegate, or that they’ll screw things up. We fear that we’ll let God down if we aren’t superhuman. These fears lead to over-functioning.

Jesus himself, in case you hadn’t noticed, didn’t do everything. Yes, he brought Lazarus and a 12-year-old girl back from the dead, healed a wide variety of people, and died on a cross. However, when it came to the day-to-day ministry of executing the vision of the Kingdom, he delegated. He taught others how to do what he did and handed ministry off to them. Even those activities we most associate with Jesus—healing the sick, casting out demons, and proclaiming the Kingdom—were carried out by others.

As leaders, we aim to grow our churches, to make disciples. That’s good as far as it goes. But if we’re not going on to make apostles out of these disciples, we stop short of fully embodying Christ-likeness. Jesus didn’t just make followers; he made leaders. He empowered his disciples to be miracle-working healers, priests and prophets in their own right by commissioning them as apostles. We know of 12 officially commissioned apostles. But Jesus didn’t stop with them. He deputized at least 72 others to act on his behalf and enact the vision of the Kingdom. “After this the Lord appointed seventy-two others and sent them on ahead of him, two by two, into every town and place where he himself was about to go.” He told them to heal the sick and to proclaim the Kingdom. Clearly, Jesus didn’t do everything himself.

When you think about it, if Jesus had insisted on doing everything, the vision of the Kingdom would have been crucified with him. Instead, 2.1 billion people now check the box “Christian.” Likewise, if we insist on doing everything, the vision will move, retire or die with us, even as the church continues to decline. In the meantime, the stress will all but kill us. Doing it all ourselves translates into not enough down time, not enough family time, not enough rest time; and definitely not enough vacation time. It also means we stunt the growth of the Kingdom by not sharing power and authority with those who wish to grow.

How do you do that, you ask, when no one seems to want to do anything? Here are three strategies for being fruitful and multiplying like Jesus:

  1. Develop a community-based vision that is worth investing in  Let it be big enough, bold enough and impactful enough that your brightest, most committed people would want to be involved. Rev. Ralph had the idea of ending hunger in his county by coordinating the hunger relief efforts already at work to make sure no child group was left out.   He preached about it, prayed about it, and gathered people. The vision garnered tremendous interest.
  2. Invest intentional time and energy in your most promising leaders by sharing the vision with them. When Rev. Ralph began to gain traction, he gathered a vision team around him. This inside circle bought in to the vision with excitement; they began to generate ideas and interest among other church folks, growing the number of people involved.
  3. Demonstrate leadership and invite shadows. Invite your top people to join you in leadership meetings and activities, so they get the inside scoop. Rev. Ralph let them watch him at work and they learned to imitate his actions. He taught them the biblical and theological underpinnings of his work; mentored them in how to preach, pray and act on behalf of the vision. Then, he set them loose to expand the scope of his work.

Jesus didn’t stop with making disciples. He was fruitful and multiplied; he went on to empower apostles to carry his message, speak his words and enact his deeds. They took the quantum leap with Jesus. We can too. Let this be the year you stop doing everything on your own.

Creating a Culture of Renewal is designed to empower you to both Dream like Jesus™ and execute the vision like Jesus so all the work doesn’t fall back on your shoulders.  Please contact us about our Early Bird Rates and see if it’s right for you.

If you are a last-minute leader, you’re not alone.  You’re not the only one putting finishing touches on a worship service, sermon, play, pieceCountdown to midnight. Retro style clock counting last moments b of music, bulletin or outreach effort.  In fact, you can be forgiven for thinking your timing is right in line with the theme of the season.  With no room at the inn, Mary and Joseph are ill-prepared for Mary to comfortably give birth to Jesus.  Much of Jesus’ early life, too, is spent on the fly avoiding Herod.

As Biblical as being last-minute may be, there’s a cost for today’s church leader. We are in danger of missing the very spiritual qualities we are preparing to share with others.

Last-minute activity, done under pressure, activates the release of adrenaline. Once adrenaline is released, it gives us a heart-pounding rush, energizing the system. There’s a feel-good component to that. At the same time, it shuts down the part of the brain that is tuned in to mood. And it messes with the heart’s rhythms, creating discordance instead of coherence. The ragged heart beat that results disconnects us from the people we love, unable to relax or connect in meaningful ways.

I remember one Christmas Eve in particular, where I had been scurrying around like the proverbial chicken with my head cut off. I had successfully managed one urgent matter, calmed down two anxious people, and counseled three lonely people. I felt very useful, but strangely empty. When all was said and done, I had many things I could check off the to-do list, but I had no sense of peace in my soul.

Here’s the thing: there will always be last-minute things we cannot control. There’s something about Christmas that seems to bring the unexpected to the forefront. At the same time, there are many things we can control. For instance, there are no surprises about when Christmas comes. Christmas Eve comes like clockwork on December 24. Christmas Day falls reliably on December 25. Advent is always the four weeks leading up to Christmas. We can plan for these holidays, folks.

Here are some last-minute recommendations for the last-minute leader.

First, congratulations on managing all the things that need your attention at this time of year; good job!   Give yourself some love; this is not an easy calling.

Second, consider all the people you will be serving this Christmas. It may well be the highlight of your year—a full sanctuary, new people coming in, beautiful music, people who know the stories and the words. Pray for these folks in joyful anticipation. Bless them. Open your heart to them.

Third, spend some time between Christmas and New Year relaxing. Get away for at least a little bit. Give attention to your own spirit, your own family, and your own well-being. Play and rest. During this time, I like to reflect on the wins and losses of the previous year, to count my blessings, and write out my celebrations. Once Christmas is over, spend time on this most important of activities. It will help you set the stage for a powerful 2018.

Fourth, don’t wait til Fall 2018 to look up the dates of Thanksgiving, Advent, Christmas and New Year. Map them out now. Think through the timing of Christmas Eve, Christmas Day and Watch Night services, and surrounding Sundays. Make note of the lectionary readings. Begin to collect stories and let your imagination connect with the scriptures. Put your notes where you can easily find them next year. And then, breathe deep. After all, Lent is coming.