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.

The Thrill of Hope

The thrill of hope, the weary world rejoices
For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn’

This lyric comes from one of my favorite Christmas carols: “O Holy Night.” I’ve always been captivated by the curious phrase, the thrill of hope. I’ve always wondered something. What is it, exactly, that makes hope thrilling?

Thrilling isn’t usually how we think about hope:

We hear about false hope all of the time.

People use the word hopefully when they really want something to happen (but they’re pretty sure it won’t).

Some use the word hope frequently because they’re positive people who like to express a general sense of optimism.

We talk about hope as a feeling or a vaguely positive emotion one experiences from time to time.

We’re quick to point out when someone has lost hope or gives up hope.

If we’re being honest, the idea of hope being thrilling is odd. Roller coasters are thrilling. A basketball game that goes into overtime is thrilling. Bungee jumping is thrilling (I’ve heard). How can hope be thrilling?

I believe it all comes down to what or whom is the object of our hope. Hope can be thrilling as long as it is built on something that is trustworthy and sure.

Hope isn’t thrilling if it is built on my desire to see the Colts to win the Super Bowl. It’s not thrilling if I’m brimming with confidence that my favorite politician will keep all of his or her promises when he or she is in office. Hope doesn’t thrill if it depends upon seeing my lottery numbers on the screen. And, hope doesn’t thrill when I’m leaning all of my weight on a job, a hobby, or a relationship for a sense of purpose or wholeness.

Hope is thrilling, however, if it is built on something true, real, right, and good.

What is hope?

When Christians talk about hope, the thrilling kind of hope from the Christmas song, we aren’t attempting to manifest something that isn’t real. We’re not engaged in wishful thinking or conjuring up what we wish for by the power of positive thinking. We’re not being irrational, weak, or dishonest. Nor are we ignoring or making light of the obvious pain, angst, suffering, and brokenness of the world in which we live. When Christians talk about hope, we’re making a powerful statement about the truest truths, the real-est realities, and the certain-est certainties. Real hope is built upon the truth of what God has done and the absolute certitude, on that basis, that he will do what he has promised to do.

The thrill of hope

Hope is thrilling—at Christmastime and throughout the year—because the reality of that miracle-baby in the manger is the God-man on the cross, the risen and eternal Savior. We can be thrilled will hope because we know that he will return to bring us home.

I pray that your heart leaps with joy, anticipation, and excitement this Christmas, that you experience the thrill of hope about which you’ll sing.

O holy night the stars are brightly shining
It is the night of our dear Savior’s birth
Long lay the world in sin and error pining
Till He appeared and the soul felt its worth

A thrill of hope the weary world rejoices
For yonder breaks a new glorious morn
Fall on your knees
O hear the angels’ voices
O night divine
O night when Christ was born

The Church and the World

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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

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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.

How to Know When to Leave

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Sometimes you have to walk away.

That’s a painful truth in ministry. Sometimes you’ve worked so long, fought so hard, influenced to the extent of your capabilities, and had all the difficult conversations that are necessary and there’s no sight of growth or change on the horizon. It could be an unchangeable systemic problem, nearsighted leadership, entrenched members, persecution, overwhelming political interests, or some combination of all of these external problems that prompts a minister to move on. Or, it could be a change of life circumstances, a heart that is pulled toward a new ministry focus, a family need, or some combination of these internal conflicts that prompts a minister to move on. Whether the root cause is internal or external, sometimes the only solution is to shake the dust off your feet and walk away.

So, if change is inevitable, how do you know when to leave? First, let’s consider what not to do.

Five mistakes when leaving becomes an option:

1. Allowing difficult circumstances to damage your heart, family, or friendships.

Some people are able to leave work at the office. Some bring it home with them. And, many ministry families have suffered because of the residue of struggles at church that have been allowed to creep in. By all means, preserve your heart, family, and friendships. They’re too important.

2. Believing the grass is greener.

It’s not. I’ve known ministers who regularly move from church to church. Either they leave when their bag of tricks is empty or they skip to the next more-prestigious assignment that comes their way. Sure, some churches are healthier than others, but simply moving on in order to avoid problems is not a solution that honors the church or deals in solid logic. Don’t jump over the fence just because you believe you’ll graze better.

3. Leaving too soon.

Friction and traction are inseparable. Way too many church leaders view friction as a sign that they ought to give up rather than conceiving of it as the precursor to the traction for which they strive. There will always be difficulty and discomfort. Great leaders push through and love people along the way. Don’t make the mistake of leaving too soon and miss the opportunities that are often just around the bend.

4. Staying too long at the expense of your character.

Wrong is wrong. Sin is sin. And, sometimes staying too long means that you actually perpetuate problems, endorsing them by your presence. And, it is quite possible to simply inherit guilt by association. Rise above. When it becomes clear that there is a deep-rooted moral impediment, you’ve done all you can to lovingly expose and heal the issues, and sin is allowed to persist, have the character to walk away.

5. Creating a mess on the way out.

Once the decision is made, it’s done. No good can come from being a disruption, making accusations, or fouling things up on your way out. Be gracious. Be slow to speak. Give up the right to defend yourself by casting aspersions on others. Just go. Speak well of Christ’s church. And, throw your heart into leading her elsewhere.

So, if you’re working hard to avoid these mistakes, how do you know when it’s really time to leave? 

How to know when to leave:

Unfortunately, there’s no magic formula. But, there are a few signposts that you’ll see along the way.

1. The Spirit prompts, nudges, or provides opportunities.

I’m not talking about open doors or outrageous circumstances. I’m talking about the Spirit’s still, small voice. What is the Spirit placing on your heart? What Scriptures is the Spirit bringing to your mind? Tune in. If he is the catalyst, he will also be the guide, comfort, and provision. Lean on him and step out.

2. The godly voices in your life encourage you to move on.

Who are these voices? Well, I’d begin with your spouse. Then, I’d include your accountability partner, ministry peers, godly counselor, concerned friend, or fellow small group member. Most of the time, assuming you aren’t quite hearing the Spirit’s voice, these will be the voices the Spirit will use to get your attention. Listen to them. Weigh what they’re saying against your experience and against what God’s saying to you in his Word. Don’t discount the observations they share or the wisdom they provide. Take stock. If the godly people in your life are unified in encouraging you to consider moving on, it might be time to brush up the résumé.

3. You’ve done all you can do to live at peace with others.

I love Paul’s advice in Romans 12:18. “If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.” Living at peace with everyone is obviously the objective. But, I love the qualifiers: if it is possible and as far as it depends upon you. Do all you can. Be above reproach in your thoughts, attitudes, motives, and actions. (Read all of Romans 12 if you need some tips.) You still might reach the point at which peace simply isn’t possible. It doesn’t all depend upon you. It’s OK—regrettable but OK—to walk away if this is the case.

4. You’ve handed off ministry to capable hands.

This is a different point from what I’ve listed above. But, if ministers take seriously their calling to equip God’s people to do the work of the church, there may come a time when your services simply aren’t needed. You’ve replaced yourself. That would be a success! And, assuming there’s not another role to step into, it might be best to move on and to continue equipping others elsewhere. If this is the situation in which you find yourself, congratulations! You’ve done well.

It’s never easy to leave a ministry into which you’ve poured your heart and life. But, there’s one truth that can provide immense comfort during times of transition:

It’s God’s Church. He is still loving, leading, and guiding her whether we’re present or not. We’re leaving her in capable hands.

What about you?

Have you ever had to make a transition? How did you know when to leave?

Back in the Saddle, Part 2

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I recently wrote about the journey our family has taken over the last 12 months. Now that I’m back in the saddle, I want to share the lessons God has been teaching me in the process.

1. God never changes.

It doesn’t matter what craziness is going on in the world—and there is so much of it—he never changes. He is always good. Always present. Giving us grace upon grace. Forgiving. Leading. Guiding.

In the same chapter in which he encourages us to be joyful in our trials, James reminds us that “Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows,” (James 1:17). It’s not a coincidence that James reminds us about God’s constant nature in the same context in which he talks about painful trials. The weight of God’s unchanging glory is the ballast that keeps our ship upright during all of life’s storms.

There have been so many times when I’ve been amazed by God’s presence and provision during the last year. And I’m so grateful that he doesn’t ever forget about his people. That’s been crystal clear.

2. God’s people are amazing.

It has been truly humbling to be on the receiving end of so many prayers, gifts, and notes of encouragement. Seriously! How does anyone survive difficulties without God’s people surrounding them? For all the flak that Christians get in our cynical culture, try having a struggle or a need in their presence. Then, try not to be overwhelmed by the help you receive.

Our families pitched in to make sure our ends met. Neighbors’ parents dropped off boxes of groceries and an envelope full of gas money. Anonymous gifts appeared in our mailbox. People dropped by to offer help. Countless people prayed on our behalf. Coworkers (Kelly’s, not mine; I was out of work!) showered us with gift cards.

God used his people to continually remind me that he would “supply all [my] needs from his glorious riches, which have been given to us in Christ Jesus,” (Philippians 4:19).

3. God is a Redeemer.

God must leap for joy when he encounters an outcast, a down-turned, cast-away, broken, bruised or damaged person. He never delights in our pain. Rather, he thrills to roll up his sleeves and to set about redeeming and restoring. He’s the champion of lost causes.

It’s incredible to see. It’s even better to experience.

God has reminded me, in no uncertain terms, that he “causes everything to work together for the good of those who love [him] and are called according to his purpose for them,” (Romans 8:28). If you’re hurting, keep waiting and watching. I can’t tell you what he has in store for you but I know that he’s at work and that, in the end, you’ll feel the same way I feel.

I’m back in the saddle

It’s been a wild ride. But, now that I have the privilege of being able to look back over the experience, I wouldn’t change it. I am right where God wants me to be. My family is thriving. Ministry is getting more and more exciting every day. It’s great to be back in the saddle!

Responding to Change, Part 2

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Several weeks ago, I wrote about a major change I was preparing to experience. I was leaving the familiar (i.e., safe, predictable, stable, comfortable) for the unknown (i.e., scary, unpredictable, uncertain, uncomfortable). At that time, I observed:

“In my mind, there are two main postures I can choose to embrace toward change. I can be a tortoise. Or, I can be a caterpillar … I want to be a caterpillar.”

In the face of danger, a tortoise withdraws into his protective shell, his little world. He remains still, waits for the danger to pass, and slowly continues at the same pace and in the same direction. A caterpillar, however, lives to change. She always moves toward it, preparing for it, embracing it. And, when the time is right, she emerges, transformed.

On Monday, I began a new career. And, as a bonus, I got a view that’s beautiful enough to make a butterfly jealous! It is refreshing to be on this side of this change. But, one of the unexpected experiences is that I have been contacted by a number of people who are struggling through significant changes of their own. Many of them have asked me the same questions and thought the same thoughts as me. The key question for all of us going through sometimes painful changes is:

Will we chose to be tortoises or caterpillars?

I have made a few observations about responding to change through this process. I want to share them in the hope that they might help some of my friends:

1. Changes can alter you outwardly without altering you inwardly.

When the caterpillar emerges from metamorphosis she looks completely different. But, inside, she’s still made of the same stuff. I entered this season of transition uncertain about what I would experience or what I would look like on the other end. But, I remained absolutely sure about who I was, what I believed, and what was right, true, and good. I have begun anew in entirely different surroundings but I feel just as certain—no, more certain—about God’s love and plan for me as well as how he wants to work through me.

2. Changes open the doors to incredible opportunities.

I’ve never seen a flying caterpillar. Without metamorphosis, a caterpillar would never experience the thrill of flight. That describes my experience. Instead of being dull, boring, and depressing, I count this as one of the most exhilarating seasons in recent memory. Instead of being nervous to meet new people and ask for help (more on that below), I found it thrilling to network, ask questions, secure leads, and make new connections. Each phone conversation, email correspondence, and coffee meeting led to even more connections and left me feeling energized and charged up about all of the opportunities around me. And, all of those conversations have started some great things.

3. Changes are wonderful at providing clarity.

Stability and predictability have the uncanny ability to lull us into complacency, blur our focus, and make us forget what is most important. Changes force you to take inventory of what—that is, who—is most important to you. For me, that answer is simple: it’s my wife, my son, my family and my close friends. This season afforded the most wonderful opportunity to spend huge amounts of time with the people who are in the center of my world. Knowing what is most important is incredibly freeing when you’re going through change. Change provides the gift of clarity.

4. You’re not in it alone.

I’ve never been good at asking for help. This situation has forced me to break through that barrier. And, I’ve been overwhelmed by the willingness—even eagerness—of people to do whatever they could to help. Family and friends prayed, fasted, and offered godly advice. Network connections shared wisdom and sent letters of introduction. Connected friends stuck out their own necks to provide their endorsements of my character and ability. And my wife—Oh, wow, my wife!—has been a force of nature, going above and beyond to do everything within her power to aid me through this process.

Change is difficult. Nobody chooses to go through painful and uncertain transitions. But, when they happen, we must realize we’ve been given an incredible gift … if we chose to be a caterpillar and not a tortoise.

What about you?

What changes are you experiencing? What are you learning?