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August 31, 2012

Who Do You Think You Are?

Knowing and accepting yourself helps you be fully present without pretense

Some of my earliest memories find me sitting barefoot and cross-legged under a large tree in our neighbor’s backyard. My girlfriends and I were making purses out of large leaves, weaving the stiff stems through the fleshy edges. I enjoyed nature and creating beauty with my hands. I was a tenderhearted, very compliant, artistic little girl, who loved beauty from an early age.

Unfortunately, that gentle essence was pretty much out of line with the values in my immediate environment. I was raised in a part of the country whose entire economy was based on the exploitation of natural resources. Refinery fumes invaded our homes and non-air-conditioned schools as well as paid the bills. Our family culture valued important things like thrift, achievement, discipline, academic excellence, and faithfulness, but did not invest much in beauty, emotion, or the more tender aspects of life. There was little money for music lessons, ballet, frilly bedroom décor, store-bought clothes, or musical instruments. Makeup was discouraged; fashion was for others. Nor was there much interest in nature or travel.

Enriched by the family strengths and values present, I learned to be a very good student. Along the way, God provided manna for the more beauty-bent parts of me through neighbors and friends, books, art electives at school, youth group trips around the state, and teachers who encouraged me to write. But by and large, conscious awareness of that beauty-loving, tender part of my personal identity faded almost completely, going underground only to be resurrected at age thirty-five.

For many months, my new life felt unsure and fragile. As the people in my world discovered that something was changing with me, I felt freer to adjust my schedule to better accommodate this massive internal shift. I resigned from virtually all of my ministry obligations and began to see a counselor every other week.

This was a season of intriguing and continual revelation. I spent several years becoming reacquainted with that little girl who loved to sit barefoot in the grass. I discovered that I am a gardener and an introvert. I found out that I am a deep thinker and that’s just fine with God. In fact, it’s a gift! I recovered my emotional sensitivity, and I learned that I have a large dose of the gift of mercy, a gift my made-to-be-a-corporate-executive thinking had denied completely.
Much of what I discovered had to do with my feminine identity. I began to wear makeup and became more aware of my emotional nature. I curled my hair and designed a new flower garden for our backyard. I became more aware within my relationships and let my deeply compassionate heart lead for a change. I felt both more pain and more joy with each day.

As I came to know my true self more and more, I began to possess such a sense of personal grounding and presence that my heart began to open to what God might be calling me to do in the kingdom at large. About that time, my husband and I attended a conference where the speaker was referencing the story of Moses. He highlighted how overtly God spoke of hearing the cry of his people when he called Moses. When he posed for us the question “Whose cry have you heard?” the response “wounded women in the church” surfaced immediately for me. Not long afterward, I realized that in order to do that work, I needed to continue my education in graduate school.

The decision to move our family for the sake of my education was a difficult one. The move would be a dream come true for me, more work for my husband, and genuine suffering for our kids, ages sixteen, thirteen, and ten. In that season of decision, the Who do you think you are? rant was almost everywhere I looked: friends, family, church, and within. But my sense of calling remained.

Just before we left, I directed a retreat for the women of our church, asking a counselor friend of mine to speak on “The Cry of a Woman’s Heart.” My role was to handle general administration, act as the emcee, and lead a gardening workshop. It was great fun to share some of the wisdom I had learned from God in my garden. The retreat felt like a lovely and appropriate parting gift to the community that had given me so very much through the years.

The move was costly and difficult, but oh so enlivening for me. I found myself, at age 40, in graduate school. Three thousand miles from my native homeland of Texas, I began to discover even more latent aspects of myself. I found that I love to listen. Previously, I thought my preference was to speak, to teach. Through feedback from others, I found out that I have a gentle presence. That surprised me. Though I knew I had changed internally from that hard, harsh person who actively fought against recognizing her tender, merciful heart, I had never realized that others could see that difference. My identity was becoming a reality on all fronts, one step at a time. What a transformation! I was also affirmed for my depth of thought and insight, a trait that, sadly and painfully, some had responded to by telling me I would be “of no use to God’s kingdom” if I didn’t think and speak more simply. I was willing and eager to accept and embrace these parts of my identity.

At the same time, when my professors affirmed my writing abilities, I was not willing to hear what they were saying, dismissing it as a pretense, a choice to be nice to me to keep me paying tuition! (I am now quite appalled and embarrassed by my cynicism! Self-contempt turned to contempt for others.) I also discovered that I was in the midst of a pendulum swing with regard to some of my self-perceptions. When I took a Myers-Briggs assessment in school that year, I scored near zero in thinking and near 100 percent in feeling. My academic record begged to differ. I needed time to settle into a more realistic sense of myself. As I noted in the introduction, this was also the season in my life when I began to become aware of my tendency toward self-sabotage.

These new self-discoveries began to subtly reshape my faith journey. I longed for stillness and silence, fewer words, more sacraments. With my barefoot-little-girl sensibilities restored, I needed to taste and touch and smell my worship. My faith shifted from being book- and knowledge-centered to becoming more gospel- and wisdom-centered. I was drawn to the perplexing and confounding teachings of Jesus. My merciful heart subtly shifted the priority from learning more about righteousness via books to receiving and offering more mercy via Communion and action. As one of my wise professors said, “You need a church with a different furniture arrangement.” He was referencing the different emphases of traditions that place the pulpit front and center compared to those that are physically centered around an altar and Communion.

Graduate school was marvelous, but when our finances dictated an earlier-than-expected return a year later, I was struggling. Though I could complete my degree long-distance, I loved the Pacific Northwest. I did not want to move back to the refinery-filled landscape of southeast Texas. I knew I could not return to the same church. Even more sadly, I also knew that there was nothing I could say to those I loved that would adequately explain why.

The Syrophoenician Woman

Like many accounts of women in Scripture, this is a brief story. Brief, however, does not translate to small in meaning. This text is much like the miracle sponge you see advertised on television: If we pour ourselves into it, we will see it expand before our eyes!

Jesus left that place and went to the vicinity of Tyre. He entered a house and did not want anyone to know it; yet he could not keep his presence secret. In fact, as soon as she heard about him, a woman whose little daughter was possessed by an impure spirit came and fell at his feet. The woman was a Greek, born in Syrian Phoenicia. She begged Jesus to drive the demon out of her daughter.

“First let the children eat all they want,” he told her, “for it is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.”

“Lord,” she replied, “even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.”

Then he told her, “For such a reply, you may go; the demon has left your daughter.”

She went home and found her child lying on the bed, and the demon gone (Mark 7:24–30).

She Knew Who She Was

She was a woman. Not a man. She was a Greek. Not a Jew. She was born in Syrian Phoenicia. She was neither of the Promised Land nor one of Abraham’s seed. She was a mother, perhaps a new mom, as the text says her daughter was little. She was in deep angst. Her daughter was possessed by a demon. She was a listener, possibly a friend of some local Jews. She heard of Jesus’ arrival despite his desire to keep it secret.

She was bold. She went as soon as she heard. She was humble. She fell at his feet. She was desperate. She begged. She was singularly focused and she knew something of who Jesus was. She asked this miracle-making rabbi for only one thing: to drive out the demon from her daughter. She knew who she was and she came as who she was. Not so hard, right?
Yesterday evening, I met with one of my spiritual direction clients who is about to get married. Because of some local scheduling conflicts, some old church politics, and an out-of-town location for the wedding, few of her church family are slated to attend. She expressed her deep hurt with many, many tears and very vocal anger. I had to fight to keep from smiling.

Don’t misunderstand: I am not the least bit happy about my friend’s pain. What made me want to smile was the fact that she came as who she was. She was fully present without pretense. She knew who she was and what she was feeling, and there was no gap between the internal identity and the external reality. For the last year since we have been meeting, most days she brought her brain but rarely her emotions or her body. Last evening, she was all there—a daring and vulnerable act of faith worthy of celebration (at another less painful moment). It is not a given that we always know who we are or approach others with bold and authentic relationship.

She Knew Who She Was Religiously and Culturally

The Syrophoenician woman was not clueless. She knew that when she came as she was, this Jewish rabbi would likely not even acknowledge her presence. Jews and Greeks (Gentiles) did not mix. It was socially and religiously forbidden, grounded in ancient custom and law. Wholesale rejection was the most likely course.

Perhaps she had heard of the compassion of this rabbi. Perhaps she was grasping with abandon at even the most remote straw. Perhaps the rejection would have simply echoed or validated what she was feeling from God as she watched her child suffer. She came knowing that it would take more than one miracle for her precious little one to be healed. First, she had to be heard.

Yet she came anyway. As herself. If that Just who do you think you are? accusation had been raised within her, she would have simply and confidently answered it. She did not try to create a more acceptable identity or obtain a proxy, perhaps a Jewish friend who might plead her case. There was no pretense, only a willingness to be fully and honestly present. This was indeed a choice of great faith.

She Knew a Deeper Truth

This story really opens up when we consider the context. Just before this encounter, Jesus had a moment of frustration with his disciples. The question at hand was “What makes a person acceptable (clean)?” Surprisingly, Jesus’ teaching was that it had nothing to do with the external. In verses 1–14, just before our story, the Pharisees had initiated the conversation with talk of ceremonial washing before meals. Jesus expanded the conversation with an Isaiah reference: “These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me” (Mark 7:6). He also mentioned issues way too close to home for them, such as how poorly they were treating their parents. He concluded with remarks about evil being inside out, not outside in.

Again Jesus called the crowd to him and said, “Listen to me, everyone, and understand this. Nothing outside a person can defile them by going into them. Rather, it is what comes out of a person that defiles them.”

After he had left the crowd and entered the house, his disciples asked him about this parable. “Are you so dull?” he asked. “Don’t you see that nothing that enters a person from the outside can defile them? For it doesn’t go into their heart but into their stomach, and then out of the body.” (In saying this, Jesus declared all foods clean.)

He went on: “What comes out of a person is what defiles them. For it is from within, out of a person’s heart, that evil thoughts come—sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly. All these evils come from inside and defile a person” (Mark 7:14–23).

I don’t believe this story was placed just after this teaching by accident. This deeper understanding of clean and unclean was the very truth this unnamed woman from Syrian Phoenicia not only knew intuitively, but was also banking on big time.

She Sensed the Source of Power and Hoped for Mercy

Scripture is full of non-Jewish women who saw and sought the power and mercy of the God of the Jews. Think of Rahab, who had heard the rumors of what God had done for his nation and declared her belief to the spies (Joshua 2). She knew where the power was, and she approached, seeking mercy. Think of Ruth, the Moabite. Undoubtedly expecting rejection based on her nationality, she followed her Jewish mother-in-law Naomi back to Naomi’s homeland. Ruth, too, knew where the power was, and she approached, seeking mercy. And mercy she received through her loyal and kind choices, her creative mother-in-law, Naomi, the provision of the law, and the faithfulness of her kinsman redeemer Boaz (Ruth 1–4).

My guess is that each of these three women knew more through their feminine intuition and relational sensitivities than through rational, theological, or analytical knowing. They were not “dull” like Jesus’ disciples. They sensed in their innermost being that this was the direction of salvation and life, and then followed the Spirit’s prompting.

She Planted Herself and Persisted in What She Knew

I have heard lots of defenses for Jesus’ remark to her, but still it never fails to impact me like a slap in the face. Some say the word he uses for dog is a reference to a valued pet. That’s not much comfort. What has been helpful, though, is to read the whole of this story through the lens of the end of the narrative. The telling conclusion finds Jesus healing the daughter and affirming the woman’s reply as the reason for that healing.

With that lens in place, I read her response not as agreeing to a contemptuous label, but as standing tall and courageously in the presence of harsh religious and cultural realities. “ ‘Lord,’ she replied, ‘even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs’ ” (Mark 7:28). What a brilliant, shining retort. This spirited woman grounded herself in the reality of who she was—in the midst of an overtly acknowledged social/religious context that devalued her—and asked anyway. It is as if she were saying, “Yes. I know who I am and who I am not. I know that I have no externally based right to be here asking for a miracle. I also know I am a mother with a sick child. A sick child whom I have heard you can heal. I know it and I believe it. Crumbs? Hey, I’ll take them. No problem.”

This wise and astonishingly brave woman stood her ground. There were logical reasons for rejection. Yet she was completely authentic and unwaveringly unapologetic. Listening with her eyes and her heart, how could she have missed or doubted the mercy in Jesus’ eyes? Something in her knew that logic and laws, nationality and status, the externals Jesus had just devalued in his teaching with his disciples, are never the greatest reality. She knew the very thing that the disciples could not grasp. The fact that she so boldly evidenced this knowing, this heart-based, internally defined holiness might well be the larger message of this side-by-side section of Scripture.

Crumbs Are Enough

I see within this story a duality to the “crumbs are enough” message. We often believe that the reality of who we are is not enough. We are not loving enough, smart enough, caring enough, tough enough, beautiful enough, and on and on. So we pretend to be someone or something else. I call it the Wizard of Oz syndrome. Poor Oz, he was hidden behind that curtain, feeling like he was only enough in the pretense of Oz the Great and Terrible. He saw his limited human presence as a crumb. What he didn’t realize was that when we are crumbs fallen from the Master’s table, we are enough.

A huge part of the Syrophoenician woman’s faith was the fact that she came to Jesus as a fragile and limited human being. No pretense or manipulation, no screen or great and terrible image—she was a needy and real woman. Just as she believed that the crumbs from Israel’s table could heal her daughter, she also believed that the crumb of who she was would be enough to be heard.

Jesus Honored Her

“For such a reply, you may go; the demon has left your daughter” (v. 29).
Jesus tied her daughter’s healing directly to this Gentile woman’s brilliant and shining retort. He did not miss her courage and he rewarded her faith. She had persisted in both the reality of the limitations of who she was and in her desire for and expectation of mercy. She walked into the house likely expecting rejection, but she refused the temptation to talk herself out of going or to run away. Neither did she compromise, deny, enhance, or hide her identity.

My Story (continued)

In August 1998, we moved back to Beaumont. I had found such life in my graduate school community; amazingly deep connections formed in a single year of shared learning, now torn asunder. As our family returned, I leaned into instead of away from my sadness for the first time. The only thing I knew was that God had not brought me back to die. I could hardly stand to be inside and spent most of that first fall working in my yard. I transplanted grass in September heat and tearfully planted a dozen encore azaleas in 40-degree misting rain on Christmas Eve.

Alongside the grief were some amazing surprises, seeds of new life God was planting in the loose, tear-moist soil of my life. We began attending a local Episcopal church. I felt as if I were finally home. This tradition suited my newly recovered identity perfectly. I found life and new avenues for growth in this ancient tradition that emphasized the Gospels in teaching and weekly Communion in worship. I also located a spiritual director, an ancient discipline I had learned about in school, and began meeting with her monthly.

Over time, with my spirit so well fed, I gave back to my church community through leading a grief group at the request of our pastor. I loved the work and was genuinely helpful to others. It suited my listening and emotional sensibilities and my depth of thought. I also created and offered a workshop for women, “Women, Wisdom, and the Word,” exploring how one might nurture feminine spirituality through the interplay of Scripture, creativity, and small-group conversation. For the first time, I felt as if my ministry and my giftedness, my work and my identity, were well matched, hand in glove. I was letting my light shine, fully present without the need for pretense, operating on all cylinders. When I confronted that core, accusing question of self-sabotage Just who do you think you are? I actually had an answer! What a difference that made in both my efficacy and my satisfaction.

My next adventure was an unexpected one: hospital chaplaincy. With our first child’s pending departure for college, my husband and I knew that more income was needed. I was actually interviewing for a different position when Sister Margaret Mary offered me a job as a chaplain. She was a wise and intuitive woman who reminded me over and over, “Do the job as only you can do it. Listen to yourself as a woman and follow that path.” Though there were some rough days at first, soon, with Sister Margaret Mary’s steady encouragement and positive feedback from within and without, I found chaplaincy to be both a place of effective ministry and an opportunity to stretch and strengthen my capacity for service. I was daring to shine as a gentle, listening healer.

Excerpted from My Own Worst Enemy: How to Stop Holding Yourself Back by Janet Davis. Used with permission of Bethany House Publishers.

August 30, 2012

Could I Love My Neighbor Who Didn’t Love Me?

I struggled to sows seeds of grace in my own neighborhood


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"I can handle a lot of people, but I can't handle Evangelicals." Mary grimaced as I stood next to her at our block's progressive dinner. The party made me nervous. We had just moved to the neighborhood three weeks ago. I had this slight sweating problem, and I couldn’t find anything nice to wear in the packed boxes piled in the basement.

"Christian is another word for uneducated." She rolled her eyes, brought a glass of Chardonnay to her lips, and took a sip. The opportunity to meet our neighbors had seemed like a good idea. But now, standing next to Mary, I wasn’t so sure. Doesn’t she know that my husband is the new minister of the church on the corner?

I shifted my weight and tried to breath in a pair of jeans that probably fit last year. A glistening smile held up my face. This move was a bad idea. Mary is just saying what everyone else thinks. A man changed the subject, and I ignored the urge to kiss him on the cheek. The rest of the evening I kept finding myself sitting in the corner thinking about Mary. She must be “bad soil.” I did my best to avoid her.

Three years later, God called me out on my attitude and avoidance of Mary. Unfortunately, I acted like her idea of a stereotypical Christian before I repented of my sin.

I was watching my four-year-old daughter, Polly, tickle Lilly, my friend Stacy’s baby, as she and I chatted outside my house. Walking on the other side of the street, Mary saw Stacy and started flapping her arms in our direction, like she was an air traffic controller. She looked both ways and crossed the street. My heart rate quickened.

“Hi, Stacy! I heard you put your house up for sale?”

“Yes, actually, it sold already.”

“That’s our neighborhood for you. Everyone wants to live here.” A smile rolled across Mary’s face. Her husband participated in the neighborhood association.

“And how is Lilly today? Hi, Lilly. Hi!” Mary oozed over Stacy’s baby. My daughter, Polly, noticed and came close.

“This is Polly,” I offered.

“Hello, Polly,” Mary allowed. And then she picked up Lilly and practically put her to her breast. Polly fixed her eyes on Lilly basking in Mary’s attention. Why the cold shoulder to Polly? Was it because of her four- year-old affiliation with Evangelicalism? Because I have to say, the verdict is out on that kid. She steals chips off my plate at lunch.

I scooped up Polly and showered her with kisses.

“You’ve been great neighbors! All the best to you!” Mary gushed to Stacy as she handed Lilly back. She waved an arm at me and darted away, her pink track suit akin to a bubble forced down the street by the wind.

“Stacy, I need to get Polly in for a nap,” I said, gathering my things. We spoke our goodbyes, and I helped Polly up the stairs to our door.

Since moving here, I had done my best to love my neighbors through pans of lasagna for families with new babies, play dates, participation in book club, and running a mom’s group every other Thursday at our church. But no matter what I did, Mary’s words, “Christian is just another word for uneducated,” tainted my efforts. On some level, I believed her. We weren’t wanted here. That day, Mary had clearly ignored Polly and me. My heart hurt.

I could have talked to God about it. Instead, I called Amanda, another neighbor. “Mary nearly dripped all over Stacy’s baby. She completely ignored Polly.” Amanda participated in my mom’s group. Earlier in the year, she had opened up that she was suspicious of Christianity but enjoyed our meetings.

My voice rose. Words sprung from my lips. I emptied my opinions and hurt out on Amanda, a friend I had been trying to point to Christ.

After hanging up, my satisfaction dissolved. Did I just gossip about a mutual neighbor? My hurt had clouded my original vision: to share the love of Christ.

In Matthew 22:37-39, Jesus pointed out the two greatest commandments: “You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. A second is equally important: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ ”

Instead of loving people in my neighborhood, I laced up fighting gloves, not in a “ready to battle for Jesus” kind of way but more like “if you say anything, I’ll deck you.” Instead of sowing seeds of grace and kindness in Mary, Stacy, and Amanda, I hid and gossiped and watered weeds of fear, rejection, and righteous self-pity that had sprouted up in me at that progressive dinner.

As Christian leaders, we need to keep in mind that it really doesn’t matter what people think about us. Sure, it can be hard. It hurts. But it’s simply not the point. There is a great work involved: kingdom work. God gave me the desire to forge friendships in my neighborhood. I took that desire and let one hurtful remark from a neighbor morph my ministry strategy to love people into a flimsy personal campaign to prove I deserved to be liked. It stopped being about Jesus. It started to be about me.

Thankfully, God rebuked and refocused my efforts. Pans of lasagna, play dates, book club, and moms’ group are all worthwhile pursuits in God’s economy, but only if the servant’s heart, regardless of the leadership role she fills, is kingdom-focused.

“Love your neighbor as yourself.” I washed my face, ate a spoonful of peanut butter, breathed out a prayer to God for help, and called Amanda and Stacy to apologize.

Gillian Marchenko is a wife, mother, writer, and speaker. She is still building friendships with Amanda and Stacy and others in her neighborhood, but hasn’t built up the courage to take a pan of lasagna to Mary yet.

Note: Names in this article have been changed

August 27, 2012

The Fragrance of Leadership

Is your influence inviting?


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Standing in my friend’s kitchen while she was making oatmeal, I was immediately transported back to my grandmother’s home, where every morning of my summer visits, she would make the best oatmeal on the planet. Loading it with real cream and brown sugar, she would place the bowl in front of me, making me feel special and loved. Now, once again, I was feeling that same sense of comfort and love.

The aroma of oatmeal that evoked a powerful emotional response in me is much like the fragrance of influence. Leadership influence, the effect of one person on another, has the power to shape the destiny of others, either negatively or positively. Positive influence is grace-filled, generous, and authentic. It leaves a sweet fragrance. Negative influence leaves a putrid stench—it focuses on tasks rather than relationships, hoards ministry, and is pride-filled. Let’s look at Dana and Lisa, two hypothetical leaders who wield their influence differently.

Dana: Negative Influence Yields a Putrid Stench

Tension filled the air as the team waited for Dana, the director of women’s ministry, to enter the conference room. After two years, Dana struggled to garner the respect of her team. Four members resigned and the remaining women were on the brink of leaving. Her influence impacted her team negatively because of the following:

Tasks Trump Relationships—Dana expected her team to execute her vision before she invested in building relationships. Consequently, her team did not have “buy in,” did not value the task, and felt they were being used.

Hoarding Ministry—Dana rarely gave projects to her team to execute and micromanaged the process, leaving them feeling unvalued and inadequate.

Pride—Thanks to a superstar complex, Dana’s identity was embedded in performance. If her team members brought a concern or criticism to her attention, she took it personally and accused them of sabotaging the ministry. Pride kept Dana from recognizing her weaknesses and submitting herself to spiritual oversight.

Lisa: Positive Influence Yields a Sweet Aroma

Lisa and her team celebrated yet another successful fundraiser for the community. For the seventh year in a row, Lisa ended the fundraising season with a dinner to honor her team, thanking each member with a gift of her appreciation. At the end of every celebratory dinner, the same team signs up for next year’s fundraiser with one stipulation: that Lisa lead the committee. Lisa’s influence positively impacted her team because of the following:

Grace—Lisa’s leadership style is based on Philippians 2:3-4: “Don’t be selfish; don’t try to impress others. Be humble, thinking of others as better than yourselves. Don’t look out only for your own interests, but take an interest in others, too.” Lisa intentionally invested in a relationship with each member of her team. She spent one-on-one time with each person, asking about dreams, passions, and vision for the future. Feeling valued and affirmed, each team member wanted to execute Lisa’s vision for the fundraiser.

Generosity - Lisa gave ministry away, often asking individuals to speak at community functions. When she saw potential in others, she would give them opportunities to flex their leadership muscles and spearhead a project.

Authentic - Lisa didn’t pretend to know all the answers. She understood her weaknesses and managed them by humbly submitting herself to accountability partners.

Those of us in leadership can see ourselves both in Dana and Lisa, but to what degree will determine the fragrance we leave in the lives of the people we influence.

Use this quiz to determine the fragrance of your leadership influence. Use the following scale:

4 = always
3 = sometimes
2 = seldom
0 = never

1. Do the people you lead hang around after meetings to speak with you?
2. How often do you affirm and reward the people you lead for a job well-done?
3. How often do you use social media to acknowledge a job well-done?
3. How often are you developing new leaders?
4. How often do you allow people you lead to represent you at public functions?
5. Are you invested in your staff’s leadership development and discipleship?
6. Do you have regular meetings with your spiritual authority, discussing your heart issues?
7. How often do you have heart-to-heart discussions with the people you lead?
8. Do you regularly pray for the people you lead?

The higher your score, the sweeter your leadership influence. If your score was lower than you hoped, here are a few practical steps to improve your fragrance:

• Speak candidly with your spiritual authority, giving permission to address issues that hinder your leadership.
• Find a mentor to help you develop your leadership skills.
• Humble yourself before your team, explaining your desire to improve your leadership and, if necessary, ask for their forgiveness.
• Consider taking a sabbatical from your leadership position. Take time to reflect, pray, and seek the Lord. Remember, at the end of your leadership tenure you want the lingering fragrance of your leadership influence to smell of grace, generosity, and authenticity.


Julia Mateer serves as the director of women’s small groups at Bayside Community Church. A writer, speaker, and professional Christian counselor, she lives in Florida with her husband, Mark.

August 23, 2012

Three Ways to Kill a Small Group

Avoid these sure-thing saboteurs

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You’ve worked hard to prepare for your first small group: the invitations have been sent, the curriculum selected, the brownies baked. Everything you need for an amazing small-group experience! Except…it’s not that easy. It takes much more than good marketing to make a small group actually thrive. And if you aren’t careful, you can kill yours in three easy steps:

Step #1: Misread Purpose

Kill your group fast by misreading its purpose. Take a bunch of women who’ve never met and expect them to be really vulnerable in the first meeting. Or take a group of women who’ve never studied the Bible and ask them questions using words like “atonement,” “predestination,” or “lexicons.” Or you can take a group of thoughtful, educated businesswomen and tell them you’ll be making a magnet craft with puffy paint every week.

Step #2: Don’t Prepare

Another easy killer is to spend more time preparing the brownies than your content. Use poorly written curriculum on topics that don’t interest or challenge anyone. Better yet, don’t prepare at all—just read the questions out of the book as you go along. Nothing says, “I care about you being here” like a leader who clearly hasn’t done any work in advance.

Step #3: Go Desperate Housewives

Proverbs 18:8 says, “Rumors are dainty morsels that sink deep into one's heart.” There is a part of us that responds to juicy information. But there is a part of us that knows this kind of talk doesn’t bring life at all. If you want to kill your small group, allow a gossip to dominate the conversation. Let her disguise her complaints about others in the guise of prayer requests, and even when you don’t like it, allow it to continue.

If you don’t have the gossip problem, you can still kill the group. Just allow anyone to dominate the conversation. Whether it’s a prayer request or a continual problem relationship, allowing a small-group member to become the focal point of your time doesn’t just distract others—it actually detracts from the group by taking your focus off Christ.

Good News

Before this article makes you give up on small groups forever, take heart! The good news about these killers is that doing the opposite can make your small group great.

The first small-group killer is to misread its purpose—the first secret to thriving is casting vision. What is the purpose of your group? Is it for growing relationships? Learning more about God through Scripture? Group therapy? (Couldn’t resist.) Small groups can be tricky because they can be any number of things. The secret to making yours thrive is to be clear with the expectations of the group.

The second small-group killer is lack of preparation—the second secret to thriving is deciding to lead. In my experience leading in ministry, I often find that women underestimate their importance as leaders, which undermines their confidence. Yet when you decide to lead a group, in some ways you become a pastor. You shepherd, teach, counsel, and encourage. Do not make light of this call! Instead, you should “lead a life worthy of your calling” (Ephesians 4:1). If you take this call to lead seriously, you will pray for your group. You will plan for them by being at least a week ahead of the group in content. You will spend time thinking of ways to apply your lesson. You will think through the flow of each meeting and make sure you are facilitating each lesson well. You will ask for feedback. And you will grow. This is the blessing of leadership, and it’s worth the work.

The final small-group killer is allowing gossip or one dominant individual to run the show. But you can encourage your group to thrive by making time for everyone. This might mean gently redirecting the group by saying, “Thanks, Mary, for sharing. Let’s get back to it in a minute after we’ve heard from everyone.” This may mean going directly to prayer and not stopping at prayer requests at all (which can often derail the group). It might even mean talking with “Mary” individually. But it does mean dealing with the situation as creatively as necessary to allow others to be active members of the group.

Leading a small group is hard work—but it can also be one of the most rewarding leadership opportunities of your life. Don’t let one of these killers detract from the life-giving experience that small groups can offer!

Your turn: What small-group “killers” have you experienced? How can they be avoided?

Nicole Unice is a ministry leader at Hope Church in Richmond, VA, and the author of She’s Got Issues (Tyndale). Her personal mantra is “no more awkward small groups!” and the DVD group experience that accompanies her book works hard to create an honest, real, and refreshing experience in God’s Word. Learn more at http://www.ShesGotIssuesBook.com.

August 22, 2012

What Happens When You Don’t Serve Fluff on a Platter

Lessons learned from the first year of a women’s mentoring ministry

Our leadership team has learned a few lessons after one year of prayer, preparation, and leadership training; a successful launch of a women’s mentoring ministry at our church; and one year of mentoring through small groups. I’d like to share these lessons with you:

1. Trust God. Establishing and sustaining any ministry is a consistent exercise in faith and reliability on the Lord. It is a process. We give ourselves room to fail and grace to try again. We encourage each other on the journey.

2. Less is more. Some of our groups have eight mentees, but we are starting to believe that six is a more manageable number if the mentor truly wants to build relationships with the mentees, intercede in prayer, and serve them well. In his book Mentor Like Jesus, Regi Campbell suggests that if Jesus discipled only 12 and one of them was a bad egg, we certainly should be discipling no more than that at any one time.

3. Mentoring is not for everybody. Establishing a ministry in this manner could be a culture shock for you and others in your church. Pray a lot. Seek the counsel and support of your church leaders. Educate and train your leaders. Equip them with the right information. Communicate, communicate, and communicate some more. Sometimes I feel like a broken record, but you can never over-communicate when starting something new and radical.

After you have sought the Lord and presented the opportunity, some women will embrace it and others will not. If women are not ready to commit, it is better that they not join a group. Those who fully commit have testimonies, like this one from a woman in the first year of our mentoring ministry: “The women in my group have begun to develop a sense of unity in Christ. We are sharing our hurts and our triumphs in a Christian environment that feels safe and supportive. I believe we are drawing on Christ's strength and love through one another. It is a joy to have a place to offer support and be supported as well.”

However, mentoring and discipleship are for everybody. I have no doubt about that. At the same time, the way that I have outlined is not the only way to do it. Therefore, don’t pressure women to commit if they simply are not ready, and be sensitive to where they are on their spiritual journey. When they are ready, welcome them with open arms.

4. Radical mentoring means women start to develop a biblical Christian worldview. We don’t tell them that initially. It sounds a bit academic (too seminary-like) and in the opinions of some, therefore of no earthly good. The bottom line: in today’s culture, women need a biblical Christian worldview like never before. There are too many lies masquerading as the truth, yet it is not enough for women (or men for that matter) to simply know the Word and quote Scriptures. They also must be able to apply the truth of Scripture to their daily lives. Theology requires both head and heart knowledge, being both hearers and doers of God’s Word. Once we learn this truth, our eyes are opened forever.

We don’t tell the women what to think; rather, we challenge them to ask why. We ask a lot of questions and provide them with the resources to find their way. If they seek guidance and counsel, we gently nudge them in the right direction. If they are headed down the wrong path, like a good shepherd, we bring them back. It has been interesting for me to see women discover that the pursuit of God can be a challenge and that is okay (better than okay actually).

As one mentee said, “From the start of my group, there was a sense of bonding, being real, and soul searching. We immediately begin to bare our hearts by praying for each other. Even after the first group gathering, there was excitement to hear how God was working to answer prayers in each person’s life.”

When women approach me and tell me they are struggling through the reading, I often smile and say, “Good.” Then I remind them that Jacob received his blessing after he wrestled with the angel of the Lord all night long (Genesis 32:22-32). Much of what we find in the Bible and in life is quite difficult, and sometimes we need to wrestle with God.

5. When you don’t serve fluff on a platter, women start to discover who they are in Christ Jesus. They start to depend less on their emotions and stand on the Word of God, believe what God says about who they are, and see themselves as God sees them. When I questioned women concerning feedback from one of the reading resources, I started hearing responses like “I am a theologian! I didn’t know that before.” They have also discovered that they are God’s image bearers (Genesis 1:26-27), a reflection of God’s glory on earth, and they have a responsibility to actively take care of all the earth and its inhabitants by partnering with our brothers. Not only that, they have discovered that we are ezer-warriors (Genesis 2:18), the Greek word for strong “helpers”—God’s answer to the problem of man’s aloneness and an agent of change to advance his kingdom forward.

They start to see themselves as friends of God (John 15:15), daughters of the King of the universe, and joint heirs with Christ (Romans 8:15-17a). Knowing and believing the truth changes everything! It is my hope that as a result of this ministry, women will no longer be suppressed by who the world says we are, who the church sometimes traditionally says we have to be, or how we measure up against another sister or brother. Imparting women with the truth of God’s Word has provided love, freedom, and validation because of the work that Christ has already done on our account!

Women are starting to see themselves as spiritual warriors in God’s military. They start to win spiritual battles in their minds, through the truth of God’s Word and by the power of the Holy Spirit. In the words of one mentee, “Through this ministry, God was preparing me for the battle but I just didn’t know it. I chose to believe the testimony that God is good and on the throne; otherwise, I wouldn’t have made it.”

6. When we mentor like Jesus, women start to value the diversity within the community of believers and seek to build up the church and community as a whole. We have opportunities to “submit to one another out of reverence for Christ” (Ephesians 5:21). Mentors and mentees learn from each other, and peer-to-peer mentoring also takes place. The breadth of experiences and God’s hand at work in our individual lives enhance the body, encourage our testimonies, and strengthen our faith (1 Corinthians 12–13). Most important, the women are learning the truth of James 5:16: “The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective” (NIV). Intercessory prayer is an invaluable part of the mentoring group’s time together, and women are experiencing freedom, healing, and strength at the mighty hand of the Lord.

What are some lessons you have learned concerning mentoring and discipleship?

Natasha Sistrunk Robinson serves as co-director (along with Nikki Kober) of the Women’s Mentoring Ministry at Cornerstone Baptist Church in Greensboro, North Carolina. She is the founder, writer, and speaker for His Glory on Earth Ministries, a member of the Redbud Writers Guild, and a full-time student at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. Connect with Natasha through her blog, Twitter, or Facebook.

August 16, 2012

The Healthy Leader Quiz

Are you leading from a healthy place? Find out now!

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Guiding others has the potential to be one of the most exhilarating experiences in life. But too frequently, the joy found in leading others becomes suffocated underneath the pile of daily demands and due dates. The pressures leaders experience today often leave them feeling drained and devitalized. Some lead from a position of physical exhaustion. Others serve while emotionally destitute.

Are you leading from a healthy place? Take the following quiz to find out:

1. You are having coffee with your accountability partners when the conversation turns toward a member of your small group. You inwardly agree with the others when they admit disliking her whiny tone and how quickly she becomes emotional.

You…

a) confess your feelings toward her. You love her as a sister in Christ, but sisters can still grate on each other’s nerves.

b) don’t voice your opinion, but instead suggest there is something in her life story which may cause her to act in this way. After all, you’re in her small group and you’re privy to details of her life the others aren’t.

c) say you don’t think she would appreciate being talked about like this. Then you bring up a new topic to discuss.

2. You can’t stay awake at your desk and find your eyelids fluttering during conversations. You resolve to get more sleep. Four days into your newfound declaration, you are asked to join the 6:00 a.m. Thursday prayer meeting.

You…

a) decide the benefits of your support of a co-ed prayer meeting outweigh one night a week with a little less sleep.

b) check to see if any other prayer groups meet during the afternoon or evening. Only when you are told no other prayer groups exist, you agree to join the 6:00 a.m. meeting.

c) politely say no. Even though you may receive enough sleep six other nights of the week, you know you don’t do your best work with even one night of not enough sleep.

3. You’ve spilled coffee down your white blouse, your kids fought the entire time they got ready for school, an accident closed down the highway, and you forgot the new ministry proposal on the kitchen table. You open the door to your office only to find the youth group pranked your office…again.

After you stop screaming on the inside, you…

a) speak to your secretary about loaning the high schoolers her copy of the office key. Somebody can get emotionally hurt when pranks escalate out of hand, especially if the person is having a bad day.

b) realize kids will be kids and round up extra hands to help clean up the mess. By the time your office is sparkling, you know you’ll be able to laugh.

c) recognize kids will be kids. You round up extra hands to clean up the mess and plot to turn the tables. This time you will prank them!

4. You found an online coupon for one free session of an introductory Pilates class and are pumped to try something new. As you gear up for your session, an emergency phone call takes up your entire afternoon.

You…

a) feel disappointed because you rarely receive the chance to exercise and you don’t know when you’ll be able to again.

b) were excited for Pilates, but you know this phone call was important and couldn’t be helped. Besides, you’ll have time for another class soon.

c) know the phone call couldn’t be helped. You’ll go to the class tomorrow or the day after instead.


If you answered mostly A’s: You currently don’t see balance as the key to healthy leadership. You may raise boundaries but they fold quickly. Sometimes you feel the temptation to prioritize your work over relationships. Your intentions are great! However, healthy boundaries, priorities, and balance are going to empower you to serve for the long haul in ministry. Are there two or three healthy boundaries you can implement into your schedule? Let those around you know so they can root for you as you continue growing.

If you answered mostly B’s: Though you sill have a couple miles ahead, you are on your way to leading from a healthy place. You recognize healthy leadership is about maintaining balance and put in some effort to try to keep the equilibrium, but need to be more firm when it comes to boundaries. Try talking with your loved ones about specific boundaries you can establish and solicit their help to hold you accountable.

If you answered mostly C’s: You understand the importance of balance and tend to lead out of a healthy place. You identify boundaries and stick to them. You prioritize loved ones and are willing to defend those you know. You vent steam, but aren’t afraid to laugh. You try to groom yourself for the long haul by taking care of your body. Keep up the great work.

Margaret Feinberg (margaretfeinberg.com) is a popular speaker and author of more than two dozen books, including Hungry for God: Hearing His Voice in the Ordinary and the Everyday. You can follow Margaret on Twitter at www.twitter.com/mafeinberg.

August 13, 2012

Mentoring as Discipleship

Through intentional relationships, everyone learns


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After more than 10 years of teaching the Bible, 14 years of discipling and mentoring women, and launching two women’s mentoring ministries, I realized two things are needed for ministry: a clear focus and training. Our women’s mentoring ministry provides a focus and intentionally unlike any other church ministry I have witnessed. Throughout a 10-month mentoring season, our groups meet once a month for a period of three hours at each gathering. This gives the women opportune times to complete their required reading, memorize Scripture verses, journal, intercede for their sisters in Christ, and most important, spend quality time with the Lord in personal reflection concerning what it is he is teaching them throughout the month.

I have to be honest with you, not everyone takes advantage of this time. We still have some women who wait until the last minute and cram their “homework” in at the final hour before their group meeting times. Those women have not getting the most out of the experience. On the other hand, there are other women who are doing the hard work, meeting with group members and/or mentors outside of their monthly mentoring gathering, and those women are experiencing life-change. The leaders receive regular testimonies from them, and my ministry partner and I hear feedback from these ladies as well as their parents, friends, and spouses about the amazing work God is doing in their hearts.

We have developed a progressive framework to focus on three key areas: Know and Love God, Know Who You are in Christ Jesus, and Love Our Neighbors. The biblical foundation for this framework is found in the greatest commandments presented by Jesus (Matthew 22:37), the Titus 2 Scripture, and the great commission of Jesus presented in Matthew 28:19-20a. To accompany the mentoring framework, we select book resources to guide personal reflection and group discussions. The resources are quite challenging.

Prior to starting the ministry, several people cautioned, “Women will not be able to handle the material. Don’t do anything too difficult; start out with something ‘light.’ Don’t overwhelm women with reading because we are all so very busy already.” In today’s American culture, women are bombarded with a wealth of information. Likewise, in the Christian context, women are exposed to many “light” resources which cater to our emotions and at best encourage women to apply quick fixes, temporary solutions, and bandages to areas where heart surgery is needed. As a leader, I believe a step in the right direction is encouraging women to change their priorities. This Christian journey is not all about how you or I feel. Once we make God the Father our priority and acknowledge who we are in Christ Jesus, only then can we approach life in a God-honoring way. By and large, this is not the message marketed to women. So we want to challenge them (many who have been in the church all of their lives) to get off milk material and transition to “meat”¬—a sustaining and spiritually nourishing reading diet.

When we ask the women in the ministry to read, we also ask them to take notes about what they have read, we discuss, we journal, we pray, we memorize Scripture, we open our Bibles, we fellowship, we laugh and cry, we journey through life together. Together this ministry builds personal relationships with the Lord and a safe community of female relationships.

One woman in her first year of our mentoring program said, “I gained great encouragement and support in the midst of personal crisis as a result of being part of this mentoring group. How wonderful to be allowed to be open and honest in a confidential setting and to know that the true issues of the heart were bathed in prayer by others. We placed many issues at the foot of the cross and watched God graciously respond. What a blessing!”

One of our mentors told us, “While reading my devotional, I realized how exciting it was to read the verse that was also one of the verses I memorized for mentoring. This does not seem like such a great discovery until I reflect on how difficult it is to memorize as I am older, especially since I was not exposed to the Bible in my younger years. Suddenly, I realized how God is bringing me closer in my walk with him which is what we are all striving for. I always felt in God's eyes, he made me a follower and now I am a leader. He is challenging me in every way through mentoring. I trust you, Jesus, and thank you.”

Leading and Ministering in Context

It is of paramount importance that all leaders lead in context. What I mean is, we must know our people and the environment in which we lead. If I were leading in a church of illiterate people, I would certainly take a different approach to mentoring. In my current situation, however, the environment is educated, middle- to upper-middle-class laypeople. The lack of ability is not a problem; the lack of priority is.

Which leads me to a bigger question, How are you going to lead? I am not a person who is motivated to lead out of my fears. In other words, I am not going to take an alternate route from the direction I believe God is leading me simply because I fear others may not like it, will talk about me, drop out of the ministry, and so on. Before launching the ministry, we evaluated our church’s culture and the context in which we minister. We decided there are plenty of free devotionals and light reading available on the Internet and in Christian bookstores, which the people in our congregation have access to. I would submit that most Bible-believing and Bible-teaching churches like ours offer regular Bible studies, so that base is also covered. On the other hand, if women simply want to fellowship, they can go to a group that exists for that purpose.

We did not want to simply offer the women one more ministry option from which to choose. We seriously wanted to fill a gap in our church (the same gap that is present in so many churches today) of older and wiser women intentionally mentoring and discipling younger, maybe less spiritually mature, women. We then came to the realization that if women truly want to be discipled, it would require a two-way commitment and both parties would have to be willing to do the hard work.

I read a book recently which basically stated that Christians want long-term benefit for short-term investments. Any financial advisor will tell you that’s delusional. Long-term benefits come from long-term investments. The New Testament teaches ad nauseum about faith and works, picking up your cross to follow Jesus, training so that we win the prize, and standing firm to resist the schemes of the enemy. The entire Christian journey is training in spiritual discipline, maturity, and warfare.

Newsflash concerning the big picture: We are at war! It is a spiritual war. We know the victory is already won and the weaponry for warfare is not carnal. We understand that the Holy Spirit is at work on our behalf and the Apostle Paul tells us with that understanding, we can train to stand firm against the evil one. Mentoring in the manner we have outlined helps us train our minds. Winning in our daily battles is directly linked to how well we train in truth, righteousness, living the message of the gospel, knowing the assurance of our salvation, hiding the Word of God in our hearts, and praying without ceasing (Ephesians 6:10-18). As warriors on God’s side, we must be alert, intentional, and persistent about moving disciples from milk to meat diets.

How well do you train? How does knowing the big picture change the way you train?

Natasha Sistrunk Robinson serves as co-director (along with Nikki Kober) of the Women’s Mentoring Ministry at Cornerstone Baptist Church in Greensboro, North Carolina. She is the founder, writer, and speaker for His Glory on Earth Ministries, a member of the Redbud Writers Guild, and a full-time student at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. Connect with Natasha through her blog, Twitter, or Facebook.

August 9, 2012

I Quit!

Moving on from ministry

When my daughter was 9, she and I were working on her homework together. She had to write a sentence using the word exhausted. She came up with this: “When my mom comes home from work, she is exhausted.” Seriously. Ouch. Now, I worked out of the home two only days a week—so twice a week, apparently, I walked in complaining of a headache and my level of tiredness. That concerned me for a couple of reasons.

First, I want my daughter to grow up knowing she can do for a living whatever she wants to do—whatever she feels God leads her to do—even if it means working outside the home at some point in her life. So it pained me that, despite how much I loved my job, all she knew was that it wore me down.

Second, I had just returned from a vacation. The vacation in and of itself was all fine and good, but re-entry was hard to say the least. In the past, when I’d been gone that long from home and work, I would come back refreshed and could hardly wait to turn on my computer and jot down all the ideas I was struck with while away. But I didn’t come home nearly as refreshed as I would have hoped, I barely gave my job a passing thought, and I came back completely idea-less. Except to entertain the concept of what my life would be like if I weren’t working, something I had never considered. My daughter’s insight into that part of my life wedged itself into my mind and I couldn’t shake it loose.

This led to many questions.

How do you know when to walk away from something?

When something really good just isn’t the best for you?

When something that used to be God’s will for you has ceased being God’s current will for you?

What would happen if I just stopped?

Right around that time, I’d been thinking a lot about moving more slowly. How I ran through my days. How I’d been running through my kids’ childhood. How Jesus calls us to give him our burdens and promises in exchange he will give us rest. To quote author and speaker Keri Wyatt Kent, Jesus never said to us, “Get over here! I have a lot for you to do!” I laughed loudly when she said that. Maybe because it resonated so deeply, maybe because deep down I had actually been believing it.

A good Christian woman serves God. That’s what we’re supposed to do. But are we supposed to run ourselves into the ground? Did I want my children, my daughter especially, equating ministry with exhaustion and meetings and tasks that didn’t really fit who I was anymore?

I had the privilege to go away alone for two days to think all this through. I spent the first day reading my journals from the previous year. If you’re not a journal writer or even only a sporadic one, no big deal, right? But if you’re like me, a fairly faithful everyday journal keeper, well, that’s another story. It took me nine hours to read them. (And I even knew how everything was going to turn out!) When I was finished I had a headache and I was depressed. Why? Because a theme had bubbled to the surface for me in that marathon reflection. Innumerable times I had written something like “I’m low-energy this morning” or “wish I could stay here on the couch in my jammies today…that’s not gonna happen for another week or so.” And it made me sad. It made me sad to think I had filled that past year of my life with activities, many of them that apparently I no longer enjoyed, that I no longer found fulfilling, that just didn’t fit me or my season of life anymore. I was running. But for what? For whom?

If I actually believed I’d been doing all that I was doing to please God, well, I think I had another thing coming. Because to be truthful, I couldn’t even remember the last time I had handed God my day or my agenda and just asked him what he wanted me to be doing. I’d been doing what I’d been doing for so long, and it finally started to sink in that what I was doing and who I wanted to be no longer matched up. I’d been round-hole/square-pegging it for a while. Longer than I wanted to admit. Longer than I maybe even knew.

So I sat with my questions. I asked God if I could stop, if that’s what he wanted for me. I asked for wise counsel from friends who knew me well, from my boss, from my therapist. I read Scripture. I tried to listen for God’s voice in each interaction. I journaled. I took long walks. I thought, I prayed, I waited.

I came to the place of allowing myself to realize and remember that God had called me to an abundant, free, joyful life, not a packed-out, constricting, complain-y, busy one full of activities that I just endured or that sometimes even made me cringe. And this was the best part: Bottom- line, my Heavenly Father was going to love me no matter what. Even if I stopped.

And one morning I outright asked him, “May I quit my job?” with tears running down my face. His gentle response: “Yes. And I will still love you.”

So I did. The very next morning, I walked into my office at church and told my boss and two of my co-workers that I was clearly feeling it was time to step down from my position. I gave six weeks’ notice and began all the wrapping-up work of finishing well a job that I had poured my heart and soul into for four years. And over those weeks of saying goodbye to my work, my colleagues, and my volunteers (though I stayed at the church after I left), mixed with sadness was utter relief. I experienced a peace and a burden being lifted off my shoulders.

I had never planned to leave that job, but it was time and I knew it. God had another person for that position and he had many other things for me as well. I was in a posture of availability for all that God had for me.

So think about it. Are you running too hard, too fast, through your life? Are you stuck in a rut? Has your gift mix shifted? Is your passion area no longer what’s in front of you? Do you wish you could be doing something else, anything else?

Consider stopping, breathing, resting, finding the real you underneath it all, asking God what you should be filling your time with. He will answer when you call.

“Give me insight so I can do what you tell me—my whole life one long, obedient response (Psalm 119:33, MSG).


Elisabeth K. Corcoran started and led the women’s ministry at her church for ten years, then went on to other church ministry roles. She is a member of the Redbud Writers Guild and the author of five books, including At the Corner of Broken & Love: Where God Meets Us in the Everyday (Westbow).

August 7, 2012

Building Bridges through Mentoring

Creating safe places for learning in community, through diversity, and across generations


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In the weekly reFill column of FullFill Magazine, Anita Lustrea (Moody’s Midday Connection broadcast host and author of What Women Tell Me) wrote about women’s need for community. In an online survey of over 2,300 women, relationships were among the top three recurring macro-themes. In her article, Anita shared the fears associated with cultivating relationships, the health benefits that can result from having friendships, and the types of friends we all need. “In addition to simply finding friends, however, we need to find safe people to be in community with. Henry Cloud and John Townsend give a great grid in their book Safe People. A safe person, they say, has three characteristics: they draw us closer to God, they draw us closer to others and they draw us closer to our authentic selves.” These are the types of safe communities we create in our mentoring groups.

One of our mentors stated: “I don’t know why I continue to be amazed at the things God does rather than just expecting that he will do them, but I do, and the mentoring ministry is just another example. It’s hard for me to believe that our group has bonded so well in so short a time. One member of our group remarked that she thought God had put together the perfect group for her, and we all agreed.”

Building a Community

Prioritizing the community over the individual is where the rubber meets the road when it comes to mentoring and discipleship. The Bible is an Eastern book that values the community (God’s chosen people, Israel, and then his elect people, the New Testament church) above the individual. In Western culture, however, and particularly in America, we value individualism and self effort. That’s what the American dream is all about. Yet that is not the model for spiritual growth we observe with Jesus, the 12, and his other disciples. This is the main reason we have elected not to move forward with one-on-one mentoring relationships (though we do consider them on a case-by-case basis). My observations through studies of the New Testament show that leaders only isolate themselves from a group for the purposes of prayer, fasting, and rest.

These important realities present huge tensions and challenges when considering the need and importance of making disciples in the postmodern American church. In this culture, we often hear some version of “I will walk with you for a period of time (maybe through a six-week Bible study), but after that, you have to go and figure the rest out on your own. After all, the Bible says we need to work out our own salvation (Philippians 2:12).” The foundation of that message is, “I am only willing to give you a short-term commitment and then I’m going to do more important things with my time.” Is that a kingdom mindset? Does that response reflect God’s will and his priorities? Maybe it does in the proper context, but certainly this posture cannot be the standard way Christians relate to each other. We need to seriously ask ourselves, “What can be more important in this life than making disciples?” Because I believe large failures of the church are a result of not prioritizing disciple-making.

I certainly don’t mean to oversimplify this because I do understand life’s demands. I also understand that there are “needy” people and we must be discerning in those particular situations. At the same time, when we accepted Christ and asked him to be Lord of our lives, we made an exchange from living for ourselves to living for God and his glory, which in turn means laying down our lives and our desires for the sake of the gospel and for the sake of God’s people. As a Christian, my life is no longer my own. God has work for me to do and that work is not passively showing up to church on Sunday mornings—it requires active engagement in my daily life. I must commit to binding my life to others in compassion and love. Mentoring is a lifelong commitment to this cause.

Diversity and Blessing the Generations

Mentoring stretches us and makes us uncomfortable. Humans are creatures of habit and given our choice, we will do what is most comfortable for us every time. People will regularly gravitate to those with whom they already have something in common. So the moms will hang out with other moms (and the Mothers of Preschoolers get their own special group), young professionals hang out with other young professionals, the widows are over here, single folks are over there, college students in the gym, the elderly…well, you get the picture. In short, the entire church is segregated. That’s quite natural behavior. We need to understand, however, that if we are in a church which operates in this manner, we must be more intentional about discipling (across generations from the biblical model as presented above) and building relationships at other opportunities outside of Sunday morning.

Titus 2 communicates the responsibility older and wiser men and women have to teach and train the younger men and women. The Israelites were disobedient and regularly chastised for failing to teach their children as God required (for example, see Deuteronomy 4:2-10). God is a God of generations. Throughout the Bible, God refers to himself as “the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob (Exodus 3:6 and Matthew 22:32).” The writers of the Psalms clearly discussed the blessings that follow those to teach across generations.

“Let this be written for a future generation that a people not yet created may praise the Lord (Psalm 102:18, NIV).”

“But from everlasting to everlasting the Lord’s love is with those who fear him, and his righteousness with their children’s children—with those who keep his covenant and remember to obey his precepts (Psalm 103:17-18, NIV).”

We mentor across generations so that women of all ages will love God, obey him, praise his name, and teach other men, women, and children they influence to do the same.

One mentee told us after months of mentoring experience, “I came away with many blessings, one of which was being a part of a diverse group of believers. I found it helpful to listen to the views of ladies in other seasons of life than my own at times. I would sometimes benefit from the wisdom of a more mature believer and sometimes it was the fresh eyes of a new disciple that I needed to look through for perspective and understanding.”

We keep our blind spots and limit our focus when we only hang out with people who are of like mind and circumstance as us. For this reason, we intentionally diversified our mentoring groups. What does that mean? We offered various mentoring group opportunities at different times and home locations throughout the week. Then we asked potential mentees to prioritize the group meeting times and locations that worked best for their personal schedules. We did not tell them who the mentors were because we did not want them selecting a group based on a personality. (Jesus was the only human being to have the privilege of a “personality-driven” ministry, not us.) We did not tell them what resources we would use for mentoring, because we did not want them to turn away from the opportunity because they had perceptions about a book or its author. (We also did not want them to read the information prematurely.) So in many ways we stretched these women outside their comfort zones.

Throughout this process of forming mentoring groups, the leadership team prayed over the placement of mentees (in the same manner we selected the ministry leaders). We had a sub-team who worked to intentionally diversify the groups. In other words, we purposely placed single women and married women, working professionals and stay-at-home moms, older women and younger women in the same mentoring group. We have women as young as 20something in the same mentoring group as women who are over 60 years old, and both ages are learning from each other and reaping the benefits by focusing on the right priority—Jesus.

Another mentee said, “God has taken a group of ladies from various backgrounds and of various ages, and created an environment where together we can grow closer to him while encouraging each other. What an honor it has been to pray for my sisters in Christ and to see God actively working in their lives.”

In what ways do you create a God-honoring community? How do you mentor across generations in your church or community?

Natasha Sistrunk Robinson serves as co-director (along with Nikki Kober) of the Women’s Mentoring Ministry at Cornerstone Baptist Church in Greensboro, North Carolina. She is the founder, writer, and speaker for His Glory on Earth Ministries, a member of the Redbud Writers Guild, and a full-time student at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. Connect with Natasha through her blog, Twitter, or Facebook.

August 2, 2012

Working with Your Husband

An Interview with Executive Pastor Karen Miller


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You and your husband work at the same church. How do your roles relate?
I’m called Executive Pastor, and my husband, Kevin, is called Associate Rector. But basically, he serves in another executive pastoral role. It’s been a year and a half since he came on staff full time. He has taken over a lot of the financial area, adult formation, and some preaching. My area is the staff, the ministries, the running of the church. We’re assigned distinctive roles, but we also overlap because we’re in a collaborative team environment.

So what’s it like to be married to someone on the same church staff?
It’s a twofold answer. One, it’s awesome because it’s something we’ve dreamed about since we got married. Although when we first got married, we thought Kevin would be a pastor and I would be the pastor’s wife. So our journey with the Lord has taken us on an interesting creative design path. I actually became the first official ordained pastor in the couple. But we have always loved working together in church. Our lives are called to the church even when we both had full-time jobs outside the church. People would ask, “What’s your hobby?” Church. All spare time and spare money went to the church. So it’s really fun to be on the same staff together.

The adjustment has been figuring out where we stop talking about work when church is our life and now it’s our work, and it’s our friends, and our daughter goes to the church and my sister’s the business manager and works at the church full time…how do we stop talking about church? And when are we talking business about the church and when are we just sharing about your days like we used to? That’s what we’ve had to really work on.

So how do you navigate that and other challenges when you’re at home and when you’re at church? I imagine there are some separate challenges for when you’re interacting at home.

We have navigated through a lot of it, and we’re still navigating. The thing that helps us at church is the fact that over the last eight years I’ve built an environment with a very healthy staff. Our first principles are from the Bible. The second book we use is Five Dysfunctions of a Team by Patrick Lencioni. Every staff member reads it and knows those principles. We work very strongly on short accounts, healthy conversation, keeping conflict down, while also being aware of spiritual warfare. So part of it is just to try to keep a healthy environment at work.

We’ve also been honest with the senior pastor and the staff. Like any time you bring in a new person, there were ripple effects throughout our staff when Kevin joined. Working on a new building, we were having a lot of design conversations when Kevin was still fairly new and they were getting used to him. We got feedback that it was difficult for them because they didn’t know our dynamic well. If we were sparring a little bit, they felt uncomfortable. We’re both strong personalities and strong leaders. So we actually had to work on how we work together in meetings.

One thing that helped was establishing who’s leading the meeting. Because I would be leading and then Kevin would take over his piece of the meeting, and it was confusing. So I’d say, “Kevin’s leading this part of the meeting, and then I’m leading this part of the meeting.” Also being open and honest with the staff that when we’re sparring, it’s okay. That’s helped, too.

Another thing that helps is that we have a bishop. At first some of the staff were wondering what would happen if Kevin and I and the senior pastor were all in conflict. We made an agreement up front that we would go to the bishop, that then we would go to therapists if we needed to. Then we would work on mediation.

At home, the difficulty is knowing where to end work. Kevin and I meet once a month, but we’re talking about having a regular meeting every week to have that time when we can discuss some of the things we’re talking about at home at ten o’clock at night when we’re both on our laptops in our home office. Then instead, at ten o’clock we can be unwinding and going to bed.

Thursday night is our guarded date night. We may talk about work, but not problem solving. If we go into problem solving, we’re done talking about it. We stop the conversation and take it up later.

We’re pretty good as a staff to take off Friday and Saturday. So for Kevin and me, Friday is Sabbath. We don’t do any kind of church work. Just whatever we want to do for fun. Then Saturdays are chore days.

How do you feel your professional relationship affects your marriage relationship and vice versa?

His entry was harder than we thought it would be. The personal and the professional get mixed: “Are you interacting with me as executive pastor or as my wife?” All of that got pretty blurred at one point until we recognized that in conversation, for example, he has to identify, “I’m talking to you as executive pastor of the church; or now I’m talking to you as my wife.”

You have to define that for each other at that moment.

Right. We’re still working through that.

We also make sure we’re connecting on that romantic and personal level. Whenever we go on vacation, we bring along little cards or books that help us get off work conversation.

What advice would you give other people who work alongside their spouse or who are considering such an arrangement?

If you are going to do that, your marriage has to already have high skills in partnership, communication, and conflict resolution. That sounds pretty basic, but that’s why a lot of marriages end up in our office—they can’t do it anymore. If they’re fighting about sex or money, it’s actually about communication, trust, and respect.

Karen Miller is executive pastor at Church of the Resurrection in Wheaton, Illinois.

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