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October 29, 2012

The Protégé Path

An introduction to a better way to train church leaders


Throughout history, if someone wanted to learn a particular skill, he or she would find a master or mentor to guide them. This person seeking to learn and grow is called a protégé. And like any skill or trade, ministry leadership involves a set of abilities that must be developed and cultivated.

There are countless protégés simply waiting for an experienced master of their trade or wise mentor, but they so often become lost in the deficit of strong and developmental leadership that is so absent and misprioritized in today’s culture, and in today’s church. Where do these hungry protégés go to learn the skills and character they long to develop so that they can maximize their impact in the world? Who do they seek out to guide them on this critical journey?

A large majority of protégés within the church currently seek development from the educational system, predominantly from seminary. Others search for guidance from an influential, but distant, church figure, perhaps looking to imitate their success from afar. Although these tracks of learning and development are important, there are significant limitations when someone chooses either of them as their primary, even sole path.

Don’t get me wrong, attending seminary can be (and was for me) a remarkable resource for attaining knowledge (of the Scriptures, church history, leadership, etc.). Do I believe seminary can play a significant role in a person’s development? Absolutely. It has in my life, and in many others I know. So let me be clear. I am a believer in the value, and even necessity, of a theological education. However, research tells us that the overwhelming majority of seminary graduates don’t gain the adequate hands-on experience necessary for effectiveness in the world outside those classroom doors. Ninety percent of ministers report that they were inadequately trained for pastoral ministry, and fifty percent admit that they feel incapable of meeting the needs of their current job.

Although I greatly appreciate the seminary I attended (Bethel Theological
Seminary in St. Paul, Minn.), it’s still limited in its scope compared to what it takes for a ministry leader to develop in a holistic, customized fashion. I’m profoundly convinced that attending seminary without also receiving “on-the-job training” is the equivalent of a physician attending medical school without ever practicing their skills in clinical rotations. And this dilemma is not solved with a simple field education course, as good as it may be.

Think about it. Can you imagine being treated by a physician who possesses all the medical knowledge in the world after just graduating from several years in school but has absolutely no hands-on experience?

Ironically, this is essentially what we do when it comes to the relationship between church leaders and the people we serve. We may have an enormous amount of head knowledge and even voracious eagerness to learn, but we often lack the experience, training and real-life perspective we need when it comes to interacting with real human beings, in real time, about real spirituality, that produces real transformation. And we also lack all the pain, mystery, wisdom and wonderment that go along with it.

Many protégés who attend seminary as their sole preparation end up stumbling around the church upon graduation and battling confusion and frustration. Why? Because they initially believe they’ve been properly prepared, trained and equipped for the demands ahead, but they soon realize it’s not true. In actuality they were, more often than not, only given information instead of personalized and intentional development.

We must join together to shift our paradigms on what it looks like to train and develop ministers, church planters, social entrepreneurs, and other spiritual leaders. Our current system does a disservice to protégés when we tell them (or even imply to them) that education is enough, or that it’s the primary path. We all know life doesn’t happen in a classroom—it happens far beyond those walls. And it’s only outside those walls that a more holistic process of leadership development is even possible.

From Iconic Leaders to Real Mentors
Another common way that misguided protégés seek to prepare for ministry is through that iconic leadership figure in some far-off successful church or ministry. Protégés may have searched for ways to cultivate their skills but found no obvious path. So they begin to search elsewhere—like the megachurch pastor, charismatic leader, well-known nonprofit leader or prolific communicator. In a quest to fill their hunger for knowledge, they devour books, sermon podcasts, and attend any conferences they can (all of which can be an important part of development). And how can we blame them? Pursuing knowledge when a drive to learn strikes is commendable.

On the other hand, seeking development from masters of the trade who live nowhere nearby is remarkably similar to watching DVDs on how to take dance lessons. You could incessantly observe and study the flawless expert moves of a renowned dancer on a TV screen, but without someone training you in a non-virtual way, you will never come close to optimizing your maximum potential.

Being in relationship with a live personal mentor versus studying one from afar is the most significant way for a protégé to grow at the speed and depth necessary for them to reach their fullest potential. If protégés aren’t under the close watch and care of a passionate, intentional, wise mentor, they’ll always be one step behind. And, they may remain frustrated at their lack of ability and finesse in what they long to be great at, and what they yearn to accomplish through their leadership endeavors.

We all face the daunting challenge to develop ourselves and to develop the next generation of leaders who will shape the future of the church. Improving our thinking, sharpening our theology, adapting our approach, changing our paradigms, and sometimes adjusting our methodology, can be exactly what we need to help catalyze the church into having greater impact on the culture in which it exists.
The local church is full of possibility. I believe in what it can become. I’m convinced that when the church gets it right (which starts with leadership) we can see God do the impossible through us to impact our world. I’m convinced that we can radically influence the culture in which we live—the church has done it before, and we can do it again.

The hope of the church is to keep believing that we can make a real difference in our world. And most importantly, we’ve been entrusted to help usher more people into the kingdom of God and to see the kingdom of God bursting forth from the inside out.

With the help of one another and the power of God to reach our most broken places, every one of us can rise to the level worthy of our callings. I say to you what the apostle Paul once said to another community of influencers: “I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received” (Ephesians 4:1).

Taken from Protégé: Developing Your Next Generation of Church Leaders by Steve Saccone, with Cheri Saccone. Copyright(c) 2012 by Steve and Cheri Saccone. Used by permission of InterVarsity Press, PO Box 1400, Downers Grove, IL 60515.

October 25, 2012

Dealing with Toxic Staff

How I learned to exercise both grace and courage

I slumped on the bench in my church’s main hallway. The footsteps and voices all around me receded as I let the words that had just come to mind sink deep: “For just as each of us has one body with many members, and these members do not all have the same function, so in Christ we, though many, form one body, and each member belongs to all the others (Romans 12:4-5, NIV).

Slumping on that bench, back hunched and eyes closed, I knew that I just couldn’t take any more. Ken (not his real name) could no longer work on my administrative team. He had been a critical part of that team for more than 10 years. He’d designed, engineered, and now controlled all the technical and computer systems at our church—all on his own time. As administrative pastor, responsible for all the day-to-day operations of the building and staff, I supervised Ken.

Ken’s e-mails and conversations, not just with me, but with other members of the team and with our senior pastor, were the kind that make you wonder why “church” allows such behavior when, at any other organization, he’d face a three-month probation. He resisted accountability with every fiber of his being—just getting him to a meeting to collaborate on writing a job description for his role had taken me months. As for my requests for documentation, group training, and an emergency backup plan…five years later and counting, I still hadn’t received a single piece of information. Worst of all, he’d violated basic privacy and confidentiality protocols more than once by reading and responding to the e-mails that leadership and staff sent via the church’s server. That had been easy for him to do—the server lived in his second bedroom!

Yes, it had hurt when he’d called me incompetent, lacking in interpersonal skills and theological acumen. After that conversation I’d limped home, drawn a hot bath, and gone to bed, praying I wouldn’t have to go to work the next day—church ministry was too hard, too lonely, and too “crazy.”

Yet sitting on the hallway bench, the Spirit had been quite clear: Was I courageous enough, patient enough, strong enough to take Romans 12:5 seriously? What did it mean that I was a member of a church and that I therefore belonged to each person who called that church home…just as they belonged to me? Clearly, Ken didn’t think I belonged and frankly, the feeling was mutual. But we both belonged. Belonging meant that quitting my role as administrative pastor because of six years worth of toxic buildup with a team member wasn’t an option.

If You Can’t Speak the Truth in Love, Say Nothing At All

I had to remember that truth three months later. Black and blue from Ken’s latest round of e-mails, I set out to phone the chair of our deacons’ board. I stopped, literally, as I heard a voice in my left ear (no one was in my office at the time): “Until you can speak the truth in love, you cannot confront Ken or ask him to step down.” I hung up the receiver.

Truth was on my side. I had the e-mails, dating back years, to back up every point I needed to make: Ken had to either change his ways or go. Love? I began to pray.

If You Can’t Pray God’s Best for the Person Involved, Don’t Call a Meeting

It took another 16 months of sweaty, grunting, tear-filled prayers. Those prayers didn’t make going in to work, leading my team, or leading worship (Ken coordinated the sound team and manned the sound board most Sundays) any easier. But they changed me. “Lord, I hate Ken. He hurt me so,” I sobbed one night. “Lord, remind me today that Ken has a place at the foot of the cross that’s right next to my place,” I prayed some weeks later. “Lord, forgive me for not wanting Ken to know your grace. It’s not my place to say he doesn’t deserve it!” And Romans 12:4-5 forced me to be consistent: If I belonged, so did Ken. I couldn’t have it both ways. And so, one day, with open hands and relaxed shoulders, I prayed: “Lord, bless Ken today.” I meant it. It was then that I felt free to approach church leadership, and Ken, to begin the first of several hard conversations.

What I Learned

I do three things differently now, wherever I lead. They’re obvious, yet so often, the tugging drama and intensity of the “Ken” situations we all face suck at and sap away the energy and focus we need to lead with courage, patience, and strength.

1. I pray—sooner rather than later

I had waited too long to pray for Ken. I had prayed for Ken as part of the prayers I offered for my team and indeed for all the church’s leaders. But I had needed to begin praying for revelation, guidance, the clear evidence of the fruit of the Spirit, redemption the minute I realized Ken’s ministry to us lacked integrity…not six years later.

I had also needed prayer partners as I’d pastored, not just sounding boards. I wonder what would have been different had I prayed for Ken, immediately, the way my current prayer partners pray for me.

2. I trust myself

I’ve learned to trust my gifts of discernment and intuition. In the beginning, during my first-ever conversation with Ken, I knew almost instantly that he needed to be “hemmed in,” given a job description and an opportunity to function as part of a team. Ken needed to be led! And I had needed to tell our senior pastor, my boss and the one who’d given Ken free range for so long, that Ken needed to be led. Today, I would not wait six years to lead—either my bosses or my team.

3. I trust the Holy Spirit

Today, I trust that the Holy Spirit will temper my words, my gifts, and my abilities so that all I say and do reflects him in ways that are appropriate and helpful. Indifferent colleagues, stagnant bosses, and toxic team members don’t let me off the leadership hook. So I breathe deeply and lean in, even when I don’t have all the words or answers, even when I’m scared that I will be misunderstood; even when I remember the virulence of some of Ken’s e-mails to me, particularly those over how I’d used words, chaired meetings, or led worship. Those e-mails had almost shut me down for good. No more.

You belong to the community you lead, just as its members belong to you. That’s a divine promise that’s not easily lived out. But it’s yours.

Renee James is the former administrative pastor at a Convention Baptist church in Toronto, Canada. She now directs communications at Canadian Baptist Women of Ontario and Quebec and serves as a regular contributor to Today's Christian Woman.

October 23, 2012

The Care and Keeping of 20somethings

We may need to work with them before we can expect them to step up to leadership.


It was a beautiful spring weekend for a beach retreat with our volunteer student ministry staff, most of whom are in their early 20s. We worshiped, we discussed, we ate. We shared stories from a year of student ministry. We prayed for vision and growth in students’ lives. And I slept less than I did after bringing home my newborns. Even in my exhaustion, I found myself refreshed and exhilarated by their passion and potential as leaders.

It can be daunting to open up your life and ministry to the next generation. Just when you think you’ve figured out how to run a small group or women’s ministry or even your own meeting, this lively bunch shows up with energy and enthusiasm, zany ideas and young skin. They text each other while in the same room, they tweet a picture of you before you even know it was taken. They change their minds and change their careers with dizzying speed. They are sometimes impulsive with their choices. At times they seem like peers, other times like preschoolers. Pundits say they are entitled and adolescent.

Yet regardless of how you feel about the next generation, they are just that: the next generation. They are the church of tomorrow and the church of today. They are our next pastors, ministry leaders, elders, writers, and communicators. Working with them is a biblical mandate, as we are called to commend the works of God to the next generation (Psalm 71:8).

So how does a leader of any age work with 20somethings? What do they offer us, and what can we offer them? In my own practice of counseling and ministry, I’ve found there are four essentials to understanding the next generation. These essentials—understanding their development, background, culture and how they perceive us as older leaders—can’t be programmed or checked off a to-do list. The investment can come at a high cost, but the potential payout makes it worth it—the great blessing of serving a young leader at a critical intersection in her life.

Essential #1: Appearance Check
In my years of student ministry, I’ve often reminded parents of teenagers to remember that the grown-up looking creature that stands in front of them—the perfectly made-up girl or the six-foot-three boy—is still a child. That even though they’ve physically developed, they are still developing emotionally, mentally, and spiritually. I’ve often had to whisper to myself while looking up into the mascaraed eyes of a teenager taller than me, “She’s thirteen. She’s thirteen. She’s thirteen.” That makes sense when you are working with high school students, but perhaps it makes even more sense when working with 20somethings. We call them “young adults” but in reality, after college, young people are hurled into the vast sea of “adulthood.” They often sense that they are supposed to be ready to be grown-up, yet feel shockingly unprepared. This creates the temptation to hide their true selves and offer up a more “adult” version.

I once sat with a young person at my breakfast bar. Over coffee, she confessed to me how utterly unprepared she felt for life. From figuring out how to have good friends to managing a budget, this young person felt inadequate at just “being” an adult. I reminded her gently that she wasn’t just an adult. She was a baby adult. I told her that there are developmental stages in adulthood, not just in childhood.

As a “baby adult,” her job throughout her 20s was to grow in these things. To grow into a woman who can pick friends and make dinner and plan for retirement. A woman who can buy her own couch and go on a blind date and decide what time she likes to wake up on Saturday. A woman who has to decide for herself if she’s going to devote her life to God, if she’ll follow through on her commitments, if she’ll clean her room. Most 20somethings I know need permission to not have life figured out. They need to know that you, at 30 or 40 or 50, are not the same “you” you were at 20something. Although they will not want you to dictate their lives for them, with enough grace, coffee, and time at the breakfast bar, they will show you their true selves, thirsty for direction at how to be a grown-up.

Essential #2: Background Check
Beginning a relationship with someone in their 20s can be like adopting a two-year old dog rescued from a shelter. In your new pet’s first days in the home, you quickly learn about their past by their current behaviors. You might interpret the way they cringe at your raised hand as a sign of abuse. Attention-seeking behaviors might clue you in to the dog’s former neglect. And you would adapt your home environment, at least for a time, to make the transition easier for everyone.

It is easy to expect 20somethings to immediately “adopt” your culture and processes in ministry. Instead of thinking of ourselves as learning from them, we often expect conformity with the way we are already doing it. But young people bring a whole host of “learned behaviors” into the ministry setting. It is our responsibility to help these new adults in the transition time: to understand how their own upbringing, educational background, and experiences in faith affect and shape the way they approach the future. This can be as easy as asking new people in your work environment or ministry team about their families, their experiences in college, their church background. This information provides excellent context for understanding how you can best “adopt” young people into your team.

I recently worked with a young person I selected to run a volunteer ministry team. After a conflict arose between him and a young woman, I learned more about his family background. His relationships with females had been limited to the domineering influence of his mother and grandmother, who used manipulation to control both this young man and his father. His coping strategy was to shut down and avoid both of them. As I learned more about his upbringing, I understood why he reacted with such force to the complaints of his teammate. Knowing his background both softened my heart to him and gave me valuable information on how to coach him through this conflict. I offered him some healthy ways to interact with this young woman, and we had a great discussion about personality type, healthy conflict, and growing into his leadership role. And all of that conversation was informed by gathering background information.

Essential #3: Culture Check
When I graduated from college in the mid-90s, the economy was booming. Jobs were as ubiquitous as grunge bands. Signing bonuses were standard, as were the benefits of a steady paycheck: living on one’s own, buying appropriate business attire, and finding new ways to spend money. The environment that 20somethings enter post-college today is very different. Just between the years 2006–2010, the number of young people returning home from college to live with their parents increased by 10 percent, up to 52 percent. Chances are, the 20somethings in your congregation are living at home. In a poor economy, everything takes longer, from finding a full-time job to becoming independent to stepping into the next stage of life. Without an understanding of the culture that our young people are diving into, it can be easy to chalk up their homebound unemployment to indifference. But the church has the opportunity for a better way.

With fewer opportunities for job satisfaction, 20somethings seek purpose and fulfillment outside of their employment. The church is the perfect place for young people to use their education and skills in a meaningful way. I recently met Alex, a freelance graphic designer in his mid-twenties. After working in part-time ministry, he moved home to be closer to his family and was living with his sister. We spoke for a bit about what kind of work he was looking for. His face was downcast as he detailed the hours of time he’d spent building his resume and hoping for interviews. Over the next several weeks, I reached out to Alex, encouraging him in his job search, asking questions, and offering practical help, such as looking over his resume and putting him in touch with some influential people in our community.

Alex’s schedule helped me, too. He helped lead worship for our student ministry and worked with me on a design concept and logo for an upcoming student retreat. He was easy to work with and took direction well, and his work was evidence of his talent. I then referred Alex to my denomination’s headquarters, where he was paid for some additional graphic design work.

People like Alex are everywhere. The twenties are a transitional time of life when much support and understanding are needed. Without an understanding of the culture Alex is launching into, I might think of him as lazy or unmotivated. Yet when I give Alex more of my time and encouragement, I get more opportunities to plug him into ministry. It’s a win for both of us.

Essential #4: Honesty Check
Working with 20somethings may be the best humility check you can get in ministry. The way to build a relationship with young people is not to impress them with your theological knowledge or leadership know-how. It’s not about having the answers or “fixing” them. In fact, it’s the opposite. Today’s 20somethings were young teenagers when the twin towers fell. They are a generation raised with terrorist threats and war, with the reality of violence and oppression only a click away. Their temptation is cynicism—but optimism is wooed by authenticity. If you can’t get real with young people, you will lose credibility.

My pastor has always said “more is caught than taught,” an essential worth living. Young people want honesty from you. They want to know that you don’t have it all figured out (and you certainly didn’t in your twenties!) They want to know that you can be wrong and that you know how to apologize for it. They need to know it’s okay to not have it all together. They need to know that there’s hope for them even when they are a mess. In her blog post on the topic, young author Jennie Allen said, “we would rather you be a wreck and honest than polished and plastic feeling.”

Learning to be vulnerable can be difficult. If your church community doesn’t value authenticity, it will require courage to live differently. But when you lead with both honesty and hope, 20somethings are drawn to you and your cause. They will devote themselves to you because you model that you can be unsettled and not fully “arrived” and still have hope for change. Being honest is about imparting hope that God is bigger than our failures. But don’t tell them! Show them, in the way you apologize, in the boundaries you keep, and in the stories you tell.

Hope for the Future
A 20something recently e-mailed me the following encouragement: “I love that you are still growing. That is so exciting and hopeful for me. I don’t have to just make it out of the crappy early 20s and then get stuck.” This is the vibrant benefit of investing in 20somethings. From seeing them grow out of baby adulthood to investing in their stories and skills, the older leader has an opportunity to leverage new people into kingdom work. It requires grace and perseverance, but the leader who succeeds joins the psalmist in proclaiming God’s “power to this new generation, [his] mighty miracles to all who come after me” (Psalm 71:18).

Nicole Unice is a contributing editor for She’s also author of She’s Got Issues (Tyndale). She serves in family and student ministry at Hope Church in Richmond, Virginia.

October 18, 2012

Word War, Religious “Nones,” a Leap of Faith, and a Nobel Prize

Four recent events that matter to your ministry

Consider these recent events and how they might affect your ministry.

Book Controversy


A Year of Biblical Womanhood, the new book in which popular Christian blogger and writer Rachel Held Evans charts her attempts to follow all the Bible’s instructions for women, made news this week when LifeWay bookstores announced they will not carry it. The chain objects to the use of the word “vagina,” which Evans’ editors at Thomas Nelson urged her to remove to avoid offending Christian booksellers. After readers found out about the request, via an Evans blog post in March, they petitioned the author to put the word back in. She did, and the chain will not carry the book in any of its 160 bookstores.

In response to the controversy, Evans said, “I often hear from evangelical leaders, ‘Oh we’re really eager to have more female leaders.’ I want to say, ‘This is my voice. This is what it sounds like.’” While conversations may begin with whether LifeWay made the right decision, or whether Evans should have removed the word to avoid offending more conservative readers, they can provide an opportunity to move toward a dialogue about what it means to be a Christian woman in the public sphere.

“Vaginagate,” as it has come to be called, has brought Evans’ book to the attention of people who might not otherwise have encountered its ideas—while the narrative playing out in the media is on its face frustratingly familiar (look at the ridiculous Christians arguing over a silly word!) it opens up the possibility of a real discussion about what the Bible really does say for and about the role of women in the church and the world. You might capitalize on the interest the stories have drummed up by organizing a book club or Bible study that uses Evans’ book as a starting point for study on the subject.

Nones on the Rise

A new survey released by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life revealed that one in five adults have no religious affiliation, up five percentage points from just five years ago. This includes atheists and agnostics, as well all others who report no religious affiliation.

These “nones” are most likely to be young; 32 percent of 18- to 29-year-old adults fall into this group, compared to only 9 percent of those 65 and older. It is typical for young adults to skew less religious than older generations, but young adults today are much more likely to be unaffiliated than previous generations were at a similar stage in their lives.

But these “nones” have some surprising beliefs and practices. Two-thirds of them say they believe in God (68%). More than a third describe themselves as “spiritual” but not “religious” (37%), and 21 percent say they pray every day. Most think that churches and other religious institutions benefit society by strengthening community bonds and aiding the poor.

If churches and ministries want to reach these “nones,” it will be through practices rather than beliefs. Nearly all “nones”—88 percent—say they are not looking for a religion to fit their beliefs. They see religious institutions as too concerned with money and power, too focused on rules, and too involved in politics. For many, the church has become the primary barrier to a relationship with God—this is a failure, a massive one, on the part of the church to reflect the glory of God. This is not news for most who work in the church and have regular conversations with those outside the faith, but it should sound the alarm that the need is now more pressing than ever to consider ways to refocus the church’s attention on who Jesus is and what he offers the world.

Leap of Faith


More than 8 million people watched live as Austrian daredevil Felix Baumgartner jumped 128,100 feet from a balloon at the edge of space to the New Mexico desert, in the process breaking both the record for highest jump and the sound barrier. He reached speeds of 833.9 mph on his 24-mile descent.

The jump captivated millions of viewers, many of whom watched via live stream on YouTube. While many tuned in to witness history being made, others simply sought the spectacular. Feats like Baumgartner’s jump remind us that something special happens when we push toward that which seems impossible.

This type of thinking captivates us and inspires us to push past the preconceived limits we have drawn in our own lives and ministries. In ministry, especially, this temptation can be great. When the monotony of administration strings weeks into years, we begin to operate in maintenance mode. But this type of thinking does not push anyone toward growth, which is the task of a leader. We don’t have to jump out of planes to inspire people, but take time in the next week to question the limits others have drawn before you and consider how you might break those barriers that keep your ministry from jumping as high as it could.

EU Wins Nobel Prize

The Nobel Committee awarded its annual Peace Prize to the European Union, recognizing 60 years of peace on a continent torn apart by two wars in the 20th century. The award comes at a critical time in the institution’s life, as financial crisis and political unrest threaten Europe’s stability. Many commentators see the award as a symbol of hope, in an attempt to bolster the EU’s efforts to come together to address its growing problems at a critical time.

Whether the Nobel Committee’s push serves its purpose, we will not know for some time. But as leaders, and leaders of leaders, this decision presents an intriguing model for motivating those we lead to face difficult tasks with confidence. While we often—logically—wait until a task’s successful completion to recognize and reward its laborers, the very largest challenges may prove so daunting that people give up before they even begin. Sometimes people need to know that someone believes they can do it in order to believe it themselves. Think of people in your ministry who have demonstrated success in the past but may need a push to make it over the next hurdle. How can you boost their spirits and push them on toward success?

Laura Leonard is the associate editor of Building Church Leaders at Christianity Today. You can find her on Twitter @lmarieleonard.

October 15, 2012

Leading Yourself

You can’t keep going on empty


You are a leader. A leader is defined simply as someone who guides or inspires others. You figure out where you and your team need to go and then you help them envision the future. You empower them to make a plan to get there together. You take care of your team members, pour into them, pray for them, take care of their souls.

But who takes care of yours?

I was introduced to the concept of leading myself at a Willow Creek conference a few years back. Senior Pastor Bill Hybels talked about the importance of leading the most difficult person in your ministry—you. You cannot lead others where you have never been or are maybe even not willing to go. So leaders need to work on setting up disciplines for ourselves that will put us in a posture where we are more able to hear and be led by God.


Take regular timeouts to be alone with God—extended periods of solitude are excellent for your soul and necessary for your leadership. As leaders, we pour out into others constantly. For some of us, that’s simply an extension of who we were created to be. But for others—us flaming introverts—ministry is a different kind of draining. Either way, time alone is imperative.

When my kids were smaller, a girlfriend and I swapped babysitting once a month—she’d watch my kids for three hours, then two weeks later, I’d watch hers for three hours. We did this specifically to free each other for time of solitude at a park or coffee shop or the library. I also started a tradition of taking a retreat by myself twice a year, shooting for a few days over Christmas break and in August, just before the ministry year kicked off. This gave me a longer stretch of time to pray, think, read the Bible, read books that had been piling up, and simply enjoy being a child of God in his presence.

While you’re alone, you can ask yourself these questions to make sure that you are pursuing God more and more deeply and drawing on his strength:

- Joy. Do you experience joyful moments on a regular basis? Describe the last time.
- Pain. When a painful circumstance comes into your life, what is your go-to response?
God’s Word. How often are you getting into God’s Word, and what are you currently learning?
- Disciplines. What spiritual disciplines are you employing recently?
- Friendship. Describe your relationships with your three closest friends. What are you doing to pour into those relationships?
- Health. What is your current health status? Are you sleeping, eating, and exercising well?


I have learned a lot about how I relate with other women. I am most healthy in my relationships with women when I have a close circle of a few girlfriends I can count on. And thanks to a little tip I learned a few years ago, I have five close girlfriends I love deeply. Three of them attend my church and two do not. If I am ever having a really hard time with something (or someone) at church, I actually try to share with one of the two friends who don’t attend my church. It can be a relief to get an outside perspective and to share without feeling like I’m gossiping. Odds are, they will never meet the people I am needing to vent or get advice about.

Skill Set

Take some steps to stay sharp in your particular area of ministry. Go to conferences when you can. Listen to seminars on CD or through podcasts. Get a subscription to a leadership magazine. Read as many books and articles on leadership as you can find. Get together with other women’s ministry leaders in your church or in the area to swap ideas and to pray together. Check yourself to make sure you’re delegating so you’re not in over your head task-wise. Remind yourself that you are allowed to say no to that most recent request that doesn’t fit into your schedule or your area of giftedness—and that when you say no, you are freeing up that opportunity for someone else to ref="" target="_blank">Romans 12:8 says, “If God has given you leadership ability, take the responsibility seriously.” You are in a pivotal role to affect change and build the Kingdom of God within your church body. God hasn’t lightly placed you in the role that you’re in. And you shouldn’t take it lightly either. Important work must be done. He has equipped you to do it. You cannot be expected to run on empty. If you are to lead others well, you must be leading yourself well. Love God, love the people in your care, and lead yourself—all the rest is just details.

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 the author of five books, including At the Corner of Broken & Love: Where God Meets Us (Westbow).

October 11, 2012

Please Lead. I Need You.

Mentoring makes a difference, even from afar


Not long ago, I messed up something for a client. She emailed me about it and I emailed back an apology.

And then I waited.

I watched the clock tick. No response.

I burned with stomach acid and shame.

It was an idiot mistake. Anyone with a little professional savvy would’ve known better. Sorry or no sorry, she was going to fire me. I knew it.

I went to bed that night chanting, “I will not worry. I will not worry.”

I worried.

The next day my iPhone pinged mid-morning. It was her. She sent a simple word.


Um. Okay. Phew. Not fired. In fact, not even in the dog house. In fact, maybe I overreacted a little.

She thanked me for the apology and moved on.

One thing ran through my head: I am not fit to be an adult. What am I, a kindergartner? Afraid Teacher will be mad at me?

Well. Yes. It’s completely logical to me that when I mess up, I am then called into question. Am I capable? Is this even a right fit? How will I overcome this new reputation of being one who messes up?

Her response neutralized all that. The more I considered her response, the more I realized what she’d just done for me personally and professionally. She had modeled for me a leadership skill of addressing something, then moving on. Maybe I’d heard about that kind of leadership before, but she modeled it. And she modeled it at just such a time as it would influence the way I carry out my future plans.

Riddle me this: is it more important for a leader to drive others to excellence, or to show a neutralizing “Let’s move on” to them on a day when they’re not their best?

The answer? Ask Peter.

When Jesus was arrested and taken to the courtyard of the high priest, a lot of excruciating drama was unfolding. Peter stood nearby warming himself by a fire. A young girl asked if he was a disciple of Jesus.

Peter is my hero because, like him, I would absolutely be the one to pull together a cool one-liner at the most inopportune time and toss off a response to that girl. In his moment of truth, Peter said, “I am not” (John 18:17).

If it were me, I would then run through this diatribe in my head: I mean, yes I am. Yes, I am! I’m just scared. Am I one of his disciples? Yes, I am.

Then Peter got a second chance. And what tumbled out of his mouth? “No, I am not.” Again (John 18:25).

I could almost weep, I so relate to that guy. Then along came chance number three.

A guy got a good look at Peter and asked again if Peter was from Jesus’ group. (P.S. Peter—I think he knows it’s you.) Peter, come on! Just say it out loud now with a third chance to set the record straight.

Instead he cursed and muttered something akin to “Nope. Nada. Never met the guy.”

Cue the cock crowing, and ladies and gentlemen, this is my life! Chance after chance to say and do the right thing and how do I land over and over?

Among my mistakes. Missed opportunities that need fixing. Again.

And then it was Peter’s turn to weep (Mark 14:72).

It wasn’t until later that Jesus responded to Peter. After he died and was risen and met Peter at his boat and asked if Peter loved him, Jesus told Peter to “Feed my lambs…take care of my sheep…Follow me” (John 21:15-19).

Peter. There’s work to do. Let’s move on.

I know some mistakes are bigger than others. I know repercussions are called for. I know sometimes correction is the response that leads to growth. Of course!

I also know it is a sign of a seasoned, bright, purposeful leader who discerns the difference. I know that because I was just on the receiving end of that kind of leadership. Do you want to know what it feels like?

It feels empowering.

It feels like I can do my job better now and, because of a behavior modeled to me, I can now model it to someone else.

This sounds small, but it is no joke.

It was no joke to Peter then. It is no joke to women today.

The June 25, 2012, edition of Newsweek described how “women are storming the barricades of corporate America” thanks in large part to mentorships among women. “Debunking the queen bee stereotype, in which female bosses are especially hard on their female subordinates, the [multiyear survey by the non-profit research group Catalyst] found that 73 percent of women who mentored colleagues helped other women.”

Christine Silva, head researcher of the Catalyst study, categorized it as a “virtuous cycle.”

Your leadership modeling matters.

It matters in corporate America. It matters far beyond that. Recently, women in the Philippines began mentoring other young women through a new International Justice Mission program. These are women who have been rescued from slave trafficking. Their reaction to healing and growing strong is this: mentoring other women who are trying to heal and grow strong.

If it’s true that the harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few, I want to encourage the workers who are picking up the slack. Your work in leadership is contributing, perhaps more than you even know.

For instance, I never emailed back that client to tell her what her leadership moment meant to me. I would have had to explain to her my stomach acid. Not cool.

So I’ll start instead with you. Thank you for modeling leadership. Please continue.

I need you.

Janelle Alberts is a freelance writer and has managed marketing and media relations needs for various clients such as Microsoft, Wells Fargo and UPS.

October 8, 2012

When the World Shakes

Suffering reveals the impotence of our idols


From our cabin in Wisconsin there’s a long, sweet swim to a raft anchored a few football fields’ length out. It belongs to the Reeves, dear generational friends who are like family. Their men do all the work of hauling the raft out and in each summer, of rescuing, repairing, and returning it to the depths when storms on Green Bay overpower it. Those four-foot waves can break the heavy chain to the anchor as if it were a string, carrying the six-hundred-pound raft to shore and tossing it up on the rocks as if it were a child’s plastic inner tube. Sometimes we stand inside the safety of our cabins and watch, in awe of the storm, in awe of the power of God.

When God shakes the world of a believer, it is no longer judgment, but mercy. We have stones in our hearts, and shaking can loosen those stones so that they may be removed. God’s purpose is healing.

Recently, dear friends of mine began walking through the wilderness. Ed was a pastor with a great deal of warmth who elevated Scripture, but when I visited his church and listened to him preach, his sermon seemed man-centered instead of gospel-centered. Man-centered sermons tend to focus on what we can do instead of on the glory and the power of God. Though this may not be the pastor’s intention, the effect is that individuals listening then try to change themselves mechanically instead of concentrating on intimacy with God. And basically—it doesn’t work. Unless Christ is continually exalted, our hearts remain cold, and we do not long to abide in Him, so we do not bear lasting fruit.

I thought about telling Ed about a wonderful series on gospel-centered preaching I had listened to. But since most pastors do not welcome unsolicited suggestions on how to be a better preacher, I held back. However, when the church gave Ed a sabbatical, I emailed him, telling him my own speaking had improved dramatically since listening to seventeen messages from Ed Clowney and Tim Keller on how to preach to the heart. I gave him the iTunes link in case he was interested in listening during his sabbatical.

He was. He listened to every message and took dozens of pages of notes. He went through a time of personal revival. He was convicted that his preaching was not truly gospel-centered. He returned to the church after the sabbatical, excited, telling the elders that he wanted to lead the church in gospel-centered preaching through Romans. But to my great surprise, the elders did not agree with that direction, and Ed felt, before God, that he had to resign.

He preached three more Sundays, then he was without a job. His wife, Cynthia, who had thrown herself into being a pastor’s wife, was stripped of all her ministries. She assumed her husband would find another pastorate by the next year, so she also did not sign her teaching contract with a Christian classical school for the next year.

But it has been a year and no door has opened. Ed is driving a bus to put food on the table. Cynthia is tutoring where she can. They have sold their home and are temporarily living with friends. As Cynthia puts it, “We are homeless!”

Recently, Cynthia and I took a prayer walk together along the icy Missouri River. It was so cold we could see our breath as the words tumbled out of our mouths, our hearts fervent about being delivered from idolatry.

Cynthia said, “You know how in Jeremiah 2 God says we are adulteresses—that we have spread our legs for other lovers?”

As Cynthia spoke, I was wondering where she could be going, for to me, she was a woman passionate for God. She was an energetic and creative teacher—the students almost unanimously say she was the best teacher they had at that school. Likewise, when Cynthia was behind a retreat, a ministry, or a
Sunday school class, it was always amazing.

“My idol, my false lover, was—is—achievement! I always felt I was special and that others were blessed to know me. I thought, I’m a competent person, and they would want a competent person to do this.”

She paused, tears coming to her eyes. “I was worshiping myself and my achievement. It was my identity, it was works righteousness, it was my lover. Having my status taken from me has been a good thing. God is breaking up my heart idol. It is a severe mercy.”

As I listened to her, I thought, This is how someone who trusts Christ responds to suffering. She presses in. She asks for His light to shine into her darkness. When we back away from God in the midst of suffering, we are not only blanketing His light, we are also cutting off our only lifeline. He is the one, and the only one, who can help us when real trouble comes. And he will. After all, He is the great I am.

Satan loves it when we cling to our idols instead of to God, but when Satan is allowed to shake our world, it reveals the impotence of our idols. Not only that, but suffering can cause us to have an intimate experience with Jesus that we might not otherwise have had. As one of my friends said, “Dee, the fact that suffering leads to intimacy is stunning to me.”


We are six-year-olds when it comes to understanding the mystery of suffering. We cannot know the reason God allows it, but we can know what the reason is not. When Jesus hung on the cross for us, giving up His last breath, “the earth shook, and the rocks were split” (Matthew 27:51). Truly God’s judgment shook the world. So when you suffer now as a believer, it is not because God is angry with you, because Jesus took God’s anger that day on the cross.

Excerpted from Idol Lies: Facing the Truth about Our Deepest Desires by Dee Brestin, © 2012. Published by Worthy Publishing, a division of Worthy Media, Inc., Brentwood, TN. Used by permission. Tell us what you thought of this excerpt on Twitter: #IdolLies @WorthyPub.

October 4, 2012

Giving Grace Away

Hero or thief, I need the power of confession


As a kid, I dreamed that people could be divided into two teams: heroes and thieves; beggars and heirs. At night, beneath a ceiling of glow-in-the-dark stars, I fully expected to be a heroine. (Everyone intends to be superman—not the victim who needs saving.) Now I know better. “Not washed and beautiful, in control of a shining world where everything fits,” I am what Annie Dillard called a “frayed and nibbled survivor in a fallen world.”

It sounds as if I have some dramatic story to tell. That’s not true—my life story is no more or less dramatic than your average person. Sin ravages us all, though in different ways. It took some years before I realized I am no heroine. I am unable to fix or save anyone. And yet I am called (as every believer is) to have a ministry of reconciliation to the world. Not washed and beautiful—but commissioned to represent Christ.

How does someone like me carry that out? How do I serve? More than in books or articles, composed of paper and ink, but in my mood-swinging, fallible existence how do I contribute to the Christian community? What ought to be the anthem of the heroes, who find themselves truly thieves?

Originally, I intended this article to be three tidy points, each reflective of my perfect, sanitary life. The original idea quickly found its home in the trash. All I have to share is the depths of God’s grace where I have come to wade, and how he can overcome any of our frailties to show his strength.

In his essay “Damage,” Wendell Berry wrote, “To lose the scar of knowledge is to renew the wound. An art that heals and protects its subject is a geography of scars.” To ignore sin and frailty is to subject ourselves again to its power. To dress our lives like the airbrushed cover of a Christian fiction novel when we actually resemble the disjointed lines of an unfinished Picasso, is to be dishonest about our own strength.

But authenticity—or the term I prefer, “biblical realism”—is really tough to maintain. Heck, I’ve found it’s impossible to stay honest with myself about myself for too long. That’s why an out-of-the-way phrase in the book of James commands us to do the unthinkable: “Confess your sins to each other” (James 5:16).

I don’t know why public confession is so powerful. All I know is that speaking aloud makes our repentance solid. Humbling becomes real when we tell the embarrassing truth.

Three weeks ago in chapel, seated next to some friends I barely knew, I felt an urge to obey this verse. The days previous had been spent petting and feeding a growing bitterness against God’s sovereignty. This bitterness had grown out of humiliating events—and really, an embarrassing amount of pride. But I confessed to my friends the doubts wrestling in my heart, even as I feared what could happen at the revelation of Hannah’s Stupid Mistakes.

The truth was told. Confession grabbed my eyelids and peeled them back, forcing me to face my world, cracked. It stung. Breaking is the most disguised form of grace.

This is not to say that confession is a one-time thing. Although that confession snowballed into a deeper friendship with those young women, this is not to say I have found refuge in “Weakness Fests,” wallowing in how horrible I am. But confessing on a regular basis brings us again to the gospel. And the gospel declares over our lives, over and over, that the past is prologue; that we have been set free for freedom (Galatians 5:1).

That, ultimately, is the only position from which we can launch into ministry. The gospel, our only hope. Since I know I cannot fix myself, I know I have no power to fix others. All I have is Christ in me. He is my hope of glory.

We drink wine and bread to commemorate a death. The old me died with Christ. This life is new, a gift, resurrected by him. He is the hero. Every ministry to others must be the act of tugging each other back to seeing afresh the identity of Christ. We can only point to him as our rest, his cross as our justification, and his love as the antidote.

He loves us. He sees our weaknesses and declares us free from them. He sees us in the purity he purchased by his blood.

I think of the thief on the cross. With no time to clean himself up, his forgiveness was granted seconds away from the Kingdom. Perhaps God prefers the people who know how much they need him so his kindness can be shown in its full extravagance. Only when we admit we are beggars, can we become heaven’s heirs, splashing in fountains of grace. And heaven’s heirs, we now are.

Across the dinner table the other night, a classmate looked me in the eye and said, “You’re different than you were before. You seem more calm inside yourself.” It’s true. Back in the day, I tried using ministry as makeup to hide my sins. But my own ability to minister to others—that is no longer my anthem. We thieves—we know ourselves; the only thing that remains in us is what is real: an ongoing story of divine love, chasing us down. We are no longer broken, but humbled—healed by grace. Thieves on crosses, by the grace of God, we are given a hero’s welcome.

Hannah Farver is a twentysomething college student at Patrick Henry College and author of Uncompromising: A Heart Claimed by Radical Love (Moody, 2011). You can find her on Twitter.

October 2, 2012

Making the Most of Your Role

Finding your place in male-led ministry

Several years ago, I served as the treasurer of a small church. In this congregation, the treasurer was required to sit on the church’s governing board, which didn’t allow women. My husband, however, was on the board, so as a workaround for providing monthly treasurer’s reports, I would prepare all the financial information, and he would present it. I would explain to him what all the numbers meant and what to say, knowing that he understood the basics but that financials weren’t necessarily his skill set, nor did he have in-depth knowledge to answer significant questions that might arise.

Although the situation seemed unfair and ridiculous to me, I knew the structure of the church would not change. Instead of fighting it, I decided that I would do my job to the best of my ability. My goal was to help the board make good financial decisions whether I was in the room or not.

Many churches are male-dominated. While women may assume leadership roles, they may not be able to exercise their authority because of the structure of the church. If you find yourself in this type of church culture, you can still thrive where you are and be a kingdom asset. Here are some ways I learned to work well with our male-only pastoral team, church board, and financial committee at my former church:

1. Be true to what God has called you to do. Colossians 3:23 says, “Work willingly at whatever you do, as though you were working for the Lord rather than for people.” I haven’t noticed any exceptions listed before or after that command.

2. Don’t try to be someone you’re not. Trying to be “one of the guys” doesn’t work. It only leads to constant struggles in your interactions with the men on your leadership team. Instead, be who you are. Communicate authentically, and don’t worry about how you will be perceived. God has made us all different for a reason.

3. Support the entire team. If you do your job well, it will be evident to those around you. Better decisions will be made as a result of your work, and people will begin to seek you out when there are decisions to be made. Whether you are in the room or not at that time, you will have an impact.

4. Build good relationships with the people in charge. Senior pastors are not gifted in every area—for example, some are not gifted in finances or administration. They rely heavily on others. If you’re involved in the financial area of your church, train your senior pastor in the basic financial information that will help him lead effectively, and develop a good rapport with the finance committee chairman. Understand what information is helpful to the committee and review it with the chairman before the meeting. Make sure he is able to answer the questions that might be raised. If your pastor struggles in other areas that you’re particularly strong in, offer to come alongside him and teach him how you stay organized or manage other administrative duties.

Ultimately, if you are unable to work within a system that doesn’t allow women into key leadership positions, it may be best for you to use your talents in another ministry. Learning to serve within the structure of a male-led ministry can be challenging. But adapting to the culture and using your gifts with wisdom and grace can be a powerful example to the men and women in your church. Don’t discount the opportunity you have to be a vital player in your church’s mission just because of its leadership structure.

Vonna Laue is a CPA and partner with Capin Crouse, a national accounting firm for churches and nonprofit organizations. Vonna is an editorial advisor for Church Law and Tax Report and Church Finance Today, both sister publications of, and she is the co-author of Essential Guide to Church Finances (Christianity Today).


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