Spiritual Leadership and Gardening

If you are a spiritual leader in any milieu—or if you ever plan to be—you should learn to garden. Spiritual leadership and gardening both require the same mindset, the same skills, the same posture, and the same dedication.

This winter was so long. We had snow in the middle of April, for goodness sake! Since the weather broke, warm sunshine began peering through the clouds, and the world began to spring to life a few weeks ago, my family and I have been outside as much as possible. One of the things we most look forward to is the annual planting of the vegetable garden. I can already taste the tomato salsa we’ll make as well as the fresh strawberry shakes and fried zucchini. (Who says fruit and veggies have to be healthy!)

Last weekend, as I was putting the final touches on the new garden box, breaking up the soil snow-compacted soil, and yanking up a few bothersome weeds so Kelly could move in and begin working her magic in the garden, I had a thought:

Spiritual leadership and gardening are twin disciplines.

Life is a great teacher. In 17 years of ministry experience, I’ve learned a lot about what to do and, of course, what not to do. I’ve also learned so many lessons as a husband and a father, as a friend, and as a Christian wrestling to make sense of the world around me. Kneeling in front of the garden last weekend, I realized there are so many similarities between spiritual leadership (the overarching theme and goal of all those relationships) and gardening. They both require a similar mindset, skills, and posture.

The mindset of spiritual leadership and gardening

Our son wanted to plant carrots. A few minutes after we got them in the ground and watered them, he asked when they’d be ready. He was expecting it to be a matter of minutes, not months.

Gardens don’t grow overnight. They require that the gardener possess a long-term mindset. Someone who is planting a garden simply has to be patient. They plant in the spring and can only begin to harvest a few months later. And planting and waiting won’t work. A gardener must also demonstrate a great amount of dedication while he or she waits for the garden to produce. Growing a garden is a commitment. Day after day, week after week, and month after month, the gardener must continue to return to the garden to tend it. Patience and dedication are also required character traits of spiritual leaders. Like gardens, people don’t bloom overnight. They take weeks and months of dedicated, patient care.

The spiritual leader, like the gardener, must have the right mindset if they desire to see results. But, that’s not all. they must also possess the right skills.

The skills of spiritual leadership and gardening

I mentioned earlier that I do the heavy work. My wife has a green thumb, the one with the skills to keep the conditions right so the garden can reach its full potential. Spiritual leadership, like gardening, requires great skill.

A gardener expends a lot of energy cultivating, getting the soil just right. They work the soil so it is perfectly hospitable, conducive to the development of young seedlings. Additionally, and seemingly without end, they protect their plants and soil by pulling greedy invaders from the environment. It’s amazing how much weeding both gardening and spiritual leadership require. The gardener or spiritual leader who refuses to pick weeds puts his or her plants at risk. Finally, in addition to cultivation and weeding, a gardener must feed and water the plants. Without food and water, especially during the hottest parts of the summer, tender plants will be stunted, they’ll wither, and they may even die.

The spiritual leader must possess the skills of cultivating healthy environments, mitigating the effect of dangerous situations or malicious people, and to providing the nourishment required for sustained growth. Finally, gardening and spiritual leadership require the correct posture.

The posture of spiritual leadership and gardening

Every gardener understands that something supernatural happens when you plant a garden. And, they know that the outcome is really out of their hands. While they use all of their skills to give each plant the greatest chance of health and fruit, the growth of a seed into a fruit-bearing plant is the work of God. Therefore, spiritual leadership, like gardening, requires the proper posture.

My wife and I garden almost exclusively on our knees. And I don’t think that’s a coincidence. The proper posture of a spiritual leader, like the gardener, is a humble posture of faith and prayer. Spiritual leadership is ultimately—as the name implies—the work of the Spirit. He is the one who produces the increase. Placing a seed in the ground or planting a seed in a human heart is, therefore, an act of faith. The one who plants believes in what he or she hopes for and is certain of what he or she does not see (Hebrews 11:1). And, if planting is an act of faith, it stands to reason that gardeners and spiritual leaders must dedicate themselves to prayer.

In addition to the proper mindset, skills, and posture, there’s one more thing to say about spiritual leadership and gardening. The one who cultivates, plants, waters, weeds, and prays gets to enjoy the fruit of the harvest.

The fruit of spiritual leadership and gardening

I’m so excited for fresh tomatoes. I can’t wait to walk around the corner of the house and smell the fresh basil. We’re going to have some fantastic salads. And, have I mentioned that I make killer salsa? I can taste it already.

The elderly Apostle John summed it up when he remarked that nothing brought him more joy than the knowledge that his children were walking in the truth (3 John 4). In other words, it thrilled him to know that the Spirit caused the seeds he had planted and watered, in the ground he had cultivated, to grow and to bear fruit.

The joy and fulfillment for the gardener is very similar to the experience of watching someone you’ve led bear fruit. It’s the joy of the harvest that keeps the gardener focused. Spiritual leaders, keep working. Keep pulling weeds. Keep watering and feeding. Your work is not in vain. As you continue praying, hoping, and trusting God to bring a harvest, you will be encouraged to know that your hard work is not in vain.

If you are a spiritual leader—or if you ever plan to be—you should put in a garden this spring. There’s still time. Becoming a gardener will make you a better leader.

Diminishing the Clergy-Laity Divide

“Do you plan on being ordained before your first ministry begins next month?” As an idealistic, young seminary graduate, I had given this topic a lot of thought. I was unsure. I was—and am still—all about diminishing the clergy-laity divide.

Frankly, I was leaning away from ordination for three reasons:

Entitlement

I was turned off by several ministers and professors who held themselves in high esteem because they were ordained ministers. To me, it seemed as if they used their ordinations as all-access passes that entitled them to better treatment than others.

Bitterness

I was equally repelled by a handful of ministers and professors who viewed their ordinations as martyrs’ crosses, burdens to be borne. Rather than observing gladness, willingness, and gratitude in them, I saw obligation, sourness, and hesitation.

Other Believers

I had met too many Christian women and men who viewed themselves as second-class because they weren’t ordained. These people were supremely gifted, called by God, deeply involved at the church, and engaged in Christ’s mission at home and at work seven days a week. Yet, many of them felt as if their ministries at home, at work, and in the community were less important than that of their pastors. How tragic!

If I were to be ordained, would I fall into the entitlement trap? Would I be embittered by my calling? And, most sobering to me, what would my ordination communicate to the Christian men and women I respected so much?

In the church, there’s a wide gap between clergy and laity. And, that simply shouldn’t be. An elevated clergy limits the potential influence of the church. It reinforces a consumer mentality we need so badly to eliminate. And, tragically, a diminished laity sends the message that vocational ministers are more holy and useful in the kingdom than those who don’t share the same calling.

So, how do we diminish the clergy-laity divide? Here are three tips. (And, by the way, it’s up to us, fellow ministers, to make sure this happens.)

Teach the Priesthood of All Believers

We stand on firm ground when we help believers realize and live into their priestly identities in Christ. The Bible is clear on this. It has always been God’s will to make his people into a kingdom of priests, people who perform sacred duties designed to usher people into the presence of God.

If we wish to diminish the clergy-laity divide, we simply must help Christians understand that we are all priests.

Equip God’s People for Ministry

It feels good to be needed. It gives our egos a boost when people reach out to us to do ministry stuff. And, we like to be the ones who help. However, when ministers hoard the work of ministry to themselves instead of equipping God’s people to do the work of the church, we place a governor on the ministry of the church. We can’t do it all alone. Nor should we.

Ministers, it is our responsibility to equip God’s people. Not only will this diminish the clergy-laity divide, it will engage Christians in mission and help the church to be healthy, growing, and full of love.

Embody Kingdom Leadership

As nice as it is to have people call us pastor, to enjoy being ushered to the front of the line, to appreciate the view from the head of the table, and to be the one given the final say, we must remember that Kingdom leadership—as embodied by our Savior—is not top-down. Kingdom leadership is bottom-up. So, ministers, the higher you ascend and the more responsibility you are given, the more earnestly you must serve others and the more willing you should be not to be exalted but to do the dirty work.

We’ll diminish the clergy-laity divide when we begin to embody Kingdom leadership.

So, I ended up being ordained

Doesn’t that sound contradictory? I’ll admit, on the surface, it does. However, when I thought of all the wonderful Christian men and women at my home church who had poured into my family, the people who discipled me, and the sweet saints who had prayed for and molded me over the years, I decided submitting to ordination was the perfect way to serve and honor them. I got to stand before them and pledge to serve others as they had served me. I got to thank them for investing in me and to encourage them to keep it up with the next generation.

Now, 17 years later, I still regularly glance up at the signatures on the ordination certificate that hangs in my office and I picture all the former Sunday-school teachers, youth sponsors, elders, and friends who taught me, by their ministries to me, how to be a minister. I’m so glad for their ministries to me.

If you’re a Christian, you’re a minister

No matter whether you’re sitting in a church office, a bulldozer, a corporate boardroom, a classroom, a cubicle, or a barn, God has ministry prepared for you in advance. Let’s not make much of the clergy-laity divide. Let’s link arms and do ministry together.

How To Be a History Maker

I want to be a history maker. I remember the first time I saw my favorite Christian band, Delirious, in concert. In that dark, crowded, suspiciously musty concert venue, I remember shouting the words of one of my favorite songs:

I’m gonna be a history maker in this land
I’m gonna be a speaker of truth to all mankind
I’m gonna stand, I’m gonna run
Into your arms, into your arms again

Delirious, History Maker

In 1999, I was a 21-year old Bible college senior ready to change the world. Those heady words swirled inside of me and took residence in my heart. I had ambitious plans. I would land an internship, join a church staff, ascend through the hierarchy, and accept the call to lead. I’d be a fearless, compassionate, and creative leader. Over time, I’d expand my influence by coaching and supporting other aspiring leaders. After a full ministry career, I’d run into God’s arms and hear, “Well done, good and faithful servant.” I wanted to be a history maker!

Can you relate?

No matter what calling God gave you—vocational ministry, the armed forces, education, raising children, banking, farming, retail, tech, or politics—you likely pursued it out of a deep passion and an overwhelming desire to make a difference in the world. You wanted to help, to earn responsibility, and to expand influence. You wanted to change the world.

Do you still want to be a history maker? I know I still do. There are at least four disciplines that history-making demands of us:

Become good at the little things

I discovered quickly that if I wanted to change the world, I’d have to focus on the present. Every career is made up of 1,000 un-glamorous tasks that simply must be done. I learned that if I wanted to have a chance to teach on a big stage, I’d have to get really good at planning lessons for my small group. If I wanted to help an organization increase efficiencies, I’d have to learn how to file accurate expense reports on time. If I wanted to get permission to make changes, I’d have to learn how to persuade decision makers. I had remember that this is the path to greater responsibility and impact in the Kingdom: “You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things” ([biblegateway passage=”Matthew 25:21″ display=”Matthew 25:21″]).

Faithfully executing the details gives you the experience and credibility you need to assume greater responsibility. There are no shortcuts to success. The discipline developed in getting good at the little things positions you as a person who can be entrusted with bigger things.

Sharpen your Spirit-given strengths

I had a clear picture of what I was going to accomplish but I didn’t know my own strengths and weaknesses. As I embarked upon on my plans, I experienced great friction in some areas and great traction in others. I spent a lot of time trying to become good at things that simply weren’t aligned with my gifts. I soon realized that I could either invest hours trying to bolster up weaknesses with very little return on investment or that I could lean into my strengths with huge results. Along the way, I learned that God had given me gifts of leadership, administration, and teaching. I took time to better understand my own temperament. And, wise counselors gave me permission to focus on my strengths, gifts, and calling. This made all the difference.

The Apostle Paul teaches that each of us who are in Christ have been given the powerful presence of the Spirit to accomplish the common good ([biblegateway passage=”1 Corinthians 12:7″ display=”1 Corinthians 12:7″]) and he reminded his protege Timothy to fan his gifts into flame ([biblegateway passage=”2 Timothy 1:6″ display=”2 Timothy 1:6″]). If you want to be a history maker, spend your time sharpening your Spirit-given strengths.

Invest in people

You can be charismatic and gifted, in possession of all the right resources, and you can be a wizard at strategy and structure. If you don’t invest in people, though, you’re setting yourself up for failure. Or, at the very least, you’re diminishing your potential. No matter where you work, what you do, or how talented you are, you won’t succeed if you’re not great at investing in people.

As Christians, what’s our overarching calling and purpose? It is to “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind” and to “love your neighbor as yourself ([biblegateway passage=”Matthew 22:37″ display=”Matthew 22:37″] and [biblegateway passage=”Matthew 22:39″ display=”39″]). That’s it. Whether it’s our coworkers, our constituents, our clients, our communities, or our customers, our first priority must be to love people well.

If we become history makers it will be because we invested in people and we loved them well (ultimately by bringing them to Jesus).

Keep showing up

Finally, there’s no substitute for simply showing up every day. For most of us, God willing, it will be a long race. It’s easy to become discouraged when we forget that history making takes years of sustained, persistent effort. We tend to overestimate what we can do in a week or month and underestimate what we can do in a year or two. People who make a difference in the world have learned how to push through the pain of slow progress and how to keep showing up and doing the work to which God has called them.

What about you?

Are you young and ambitious, hoping for history-making results on a shorter-than-realistic time frame? Are you trying to remain passionate in spite of slow progress or under-realized visions and dreams? Have your world-changing dreams begun to fade?

Hang in there. Keep working on mastering the little things. Continue sharpening your Spirit-given gifts. Don’t quit investing in people. And, by all means, keep showing up. God is in the business of making history and he wants to use you and me. (If you need a little extra inspiration, try this!)

The Church and the World

the-church-and-the-world

The relationship between the church and the world can be complex, especially for the church.

I’ve always thought and taught that there are essentially three postures that the church—which is to say, both congregations and individuals—can take toward the world around them.

They can insulate. Churches or individual believers who insulate themselves see all of the problems going on “out there” and retreat into their holy huddle. They cloister themselves, privatize their faith, and build high walls to keep the world from invading.

They can integrate. Those who choose to integrate buy into the contemporary cultural ethos hook, line, and sinker. They sell their biblical birthright for a proverbial pot of stew.

Or, they can incarnate. Churches or believers who choose the model of the Messiah, incarnational ministry, partner with the Spirit to transform the world around them.

This little alliterative outline has helped me in my personal attempt to live for Christ in the world. And it has been a real help in encouraging believers as they live out the same mission.

Thanks to an article I read this morning, I have a new outline to use.

The church _____ the world

The preposition you use to fill in the blank—in, against, of, or for—makes all the difference. 

I love the simplicity. Of course, this originated with Tim Keller. There’s a reason that thousands of people will pay to read what people like him write. There are four postures that the church can take toward the world.

The church in the world, like the insulated church I’ve always taught about, is present there but has little or no effect upon it.

The church against the world is like the church in the world in that they’ve grown inward. However, they’ve taken it a step further by fostering and fomenting an adversarial relationship toward the world.

The church of the world is the church that has integrated into the world. They have diluted or discarded the truth of the Bible in effort to appeal to the masses.

The church for the world is making God’s word and ministry incarnate. They want to see God’s will be done on earth as it is in heaven. So they take action, compelled by a deep conviction of the truth of God’s word, the prompting of the spirit, and a deep love and concern for their neighbors.

The view that you, as an individual, and your church, as an organization, take toward the world reveals itself in a thousand ways: how you talk, what you think, your stance toward sin, the activities with which you busy yourself, the prayers you pray, and the company you keep, just to name a few.

When it comes to our view of the church and the world, let’s make sure we choose the correct preposition.

Let’s talk about it

What about your church? Is your church in, against, of, or for the world?

What about you? Are you in, against, of, or for? The preposition you and I choose makes all the difference.

Fighting for the Heart

fighting-for-the-heart

I had only been in full-time ministry for four months when I attended a conference in Atlanta with friends. One of the first speakers preached a sermon that fueled my ministry in those early years.

God had used him to transform a dying church into a vibrant community of belief that was, and still is, on the cutting edge. But, it wasn’t an easy process. He described the period of time at which he and his leadership team were at the lowest of lows. The vision they had been communicating had fallen flat. Many of the people they were attempting to love and bring along with them were leaving. They had experienced several other gut blows that left them gasping for air and wondering if God was done with the church they were so desperately trying to bring back to life.

He spoke of his ministry as heart surgery. He framed himself as the surgeon and the church as the patient. I remember him saying, “I decided that I would either save the patient or I would die in the operation!”

His passion, and that sticky metaphor, have remained in my heart and mind for the past 15 years.

Fighting for the heart of the church

It’s not always easy.

The other day, I met with a friend who has suffered a huge amount of hurt during his time serving in ministry. Things have been so painful that he’s no longer serving in the church. It has gotten to the point at which he’d rather mow the lawn on Sunday; it’s just too difficult to go there for him and his family.

My heart goes out to him.

The church is far from perfect. Sometimes people get hurt, overlooked, moved to the margins, or forgotten. It’s regrettable. Many times, it’s avoidable. But, the fact remains, there is no perfect church and sinful people, as they’re prone to do, will sometimes disappoint.

The church needs leaders who know all about her blemishes—leaders who might have even been hurt by her in the past—to determine to remain in the operation, to keep fighting for the heart of the church. The church needs brave, godly, committed men and women who refuse to get caught up in petty problems, turf wars, and politics so they can focus on fighting for things that matter: bringing lost souls to Christ, nurturing young believers in the faith, preaching and teaching God’s truth, binding up the hurting, restoring the broken, and transforming communities. It’s not always going to be easy. But, it’s necessary.

Isn’t she worth fighting for?

As I talked with my friend, I reflected upon some of the difficulties I’ve experienced in the church. I’ll admit, there have been times where it was tempting—and would have been easy—to walk away. I’ve considered it seriously. But, by God’s grace, he keeps drawing me back, reminding me how much he loves the church, and encouraging me to keep going.

She may not be perfect. But, she is still worth fighting for.

I’m either going to save the patient or I’ll die in the operation!

What about you?

Are you fighting for the heart of the church? Have you given up? What keeps you committed? I’d love to hear from you.

Why Your Church’s Mission Matters

why-your-churchs-mission-matters

I’ve always appreciated a well-written mission statement.

Recently, as I was sitting in the whirlpool at the YMCA loosening up after a swim, I glanced up at the prominently posted rules of conduct and noticed the Y’s mission statement:

“The mission of the YMCA of Greater Indianapolis is to put Christian principles into practice through programs that build healthy spirit, mind, and body for all.”

I’m glad the Y is committed to that mission. It’s a good one. But, as I sat there and thought more about it I realized that the mission could just as easily be adopted by any number of well-meaning congregations.

Think about it:

Programs.

Christian principles.

Healthy spirit, mind, and body.

Now, I have to clarify, there isn’t any church I know that has adopted mission statement like this and actually put it in print. But, in practice; well, that’s a different story.

Think about your church.

Lots of activities: camps, classes, small groups, fitness classes, golf outings, retreats, committees, and seminars. At each of these programs, Christian principles are taught: be honest, be a good parent, read your Bible, pray regularly, attend faithfully, help others, and grow spiritually. And, the result of all this activity and advice? Do the right thing. Be moral. Grow at a steady pace. And, make sure you stay on track.

I realize this is somewhat of a caricature. But, if we’re honest, we’ll admit that a lot of the frenetic activity that happens at church is really centered around making sure a bunch of people are relatively happy, relatively well-adjusted, and relatively knowledgeable, and that they keep attending on a fairly regular basis.

This is why your church’s mission matters:

Your church will be no different from the YMCA unless the transforming, saving power of the Gospel of Jesus Christ is central to your mission.

The Gospel is the difference. But, it cannot just receive lip service. It must be the catalyst for each ministry the church undertakes. It must be the central element upon which all activity and teaching is focused. And it must be the end toward which everything points.

The Gospel of Jesus’ death, burial, and resurrection is the only thing that makes the church any different from the YMCA. Let’s keep it at the heart of all that we do and all that we are.

What about you?

Is your own mission focused upon proclaiming and living out the Gospel? What about your church? How are you contributing toward that end?

Want to Get Noticed in Ministry?

want-to-get-noticed-in-ministry

I’m an ambitious person.

Not a characteristic you typically associate with someone who is in ministry? I agree; at first, that may seem like a contradiction. We typically think about ambition in a negative sense because we’ve witnessed so many ambitious people doing whatever they can to climb the ladder, to achieve, and to protect their status. But, in and of itself, ambition is morally neutral. It can be used for evil or it can be used for good.

I’ve always been ambitious to make any contribution to the church that I can. Occasionally, that ambition has been accompanied by a strong desire to ascend in leadership, to take on greater responsibilities at a higher level. Actually, I think that’s a good thing. In men and women who God calls and equips to lead, there’s always an inner pull, an ambition, toward greater leadership.

But, what do you do when you’re not given greater responsibility? When your ambitions fall flat? When you don’t get to lead at the level at which you’re capable?

There’s one man whose ministry in obscurity encourages me greatly.

I want to be like Andrew

Andrew was one of Jesus’ first disciples but he wasn’t the greatest. He’s best known as Simon Peter’s brother. He rarely appears in the Gospels. He isn’t included in Jesus’ inner circle; James, John, and his brother occupied that space. And, other than a quick mention in the book of Acts, Andrew never appears again in the text of the New Testament. When it comes to notoriety among the disciples, he’s pretty low on the list. He wasn’t a leader. He wasn’t prominent. He didn’t hold a special position.

But, what we do know about Andrew is a huge encouragement to me:

Every time we meet Andrew in the Gospels, especially in the book of John, we find him bringing someone to Jesus.

In [biblegateway passage=”John 1:40-42″ display=”John 1″], Andrew is the one who actually introduces his brother, Peter, to Jesus. Peter was the leader of the disciples and the central figure in the first few decades of the Church.

In [biblegateway passage=”John 6:7-8″ display=”John 6″], Andrew is the person responsible for bringing the boy with the fish and loaves to Jesus. Jesus used the boy’s lunch to feed 5,000 people.

In [biblegateway passage=”John 12:20-22″ display=”John 12″], Philip is approached by some Greek men who want to see Jesus. He doesn’t know what to do so he gets Andrew. And, of course, Andrew brings them to Jesus.

I love it! Andrew isn’t the disciple whose name gets placed on the marquee. He’s not at the top of the organizational chart. But, that doesn’t faze him. He continually goes about his business of introducing people to Jesus.

So, what happens when your ambition for greater responsibility doesn’t get you noticed? You remain faithful. You keep bringing people to Jesus. You keep serving, continue loving, and continually pray for God to convert your ambition into greater depths of dedication to your role.

When ambition exists because you want to get noticed in ministry, that’s trouble. Ambition is OK as long as long as the object is bringing people to Jesus.

What about you?

What is your ambition in ministry? Is it to get noticed? Or, is it to bring people to Jesus? If you’re not a vocational minister, what’s your ambition? Do you consider it your job to bring people to Jesus?