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Saturday, January 21, 2012

Whom Do I Follow?

There is a lot of talk about following these days. Sure, most of it is related to blogs, Twitter and social media, and not real following of leadership. But so much trendy talk blurs the true concept of what it means to follow.

I have this on my mind for three reasons...

1. I just got back from a consulting project at a local church. I've been working with this church since last August. They invited me to come in and do with them what I have been doing with Free Methodist churches (and some other non-profits) for the last three years: help them assess the gifts and calling of their staff and leadership team, and coach them in a new and focused direction. As this unfolds, I also work with the core leaders on strategic planning and management.

As I worked this morning with this team of lay leaders, I was especially struck by how energized they were by the conversation. I rely heavily on Strengths-Finders assessments to coach and train leaders and to create a common understanding of what we're talking about. I was reminded again that people love to be led by those who seek to bring out the best in them. I led the two-hour training not as much out of charisma (though I always love to engage people and make them laugh!) as out of a desire to leave them aware of their own capacity to contribute. I always pray after these presentations that they are left talking about what's next for them, and not about me or anything I said.

2. This morning I read the story of Joseph in the Book of Genesis. I gauge how good a story is by how much I want to turn the page to find out what happens next. I know the story of Joseph. I have read it so many times, and recounted it just as much. Nevertheless, as I read it this morning I was still compelled to keep going and "find out what happens next." What I noticed this time though was the multiple and subtle ways that Joseph brought leadership to every situation. As he interpreted Pharoah's dream, look what happens (Genesis 41:33-40):

Joseph: “Therefore, Pharaoh should find an intelligent and wise man and put him in charge of the entire land of Egypt. Then Pharaoh should appoint supervisors over the land and let them collect one-fifth of all the crops during the seven good years.  Have them gather all the food produced in the good years that are just ahead and bring it to Pharaoh’s storehouses. Store it away, and guard it so there will be food in the cities. That way there will be enough to eat when the seven years of famine come to the land of Egypt. Otherwise this famine will destroy the land.” 
Joseph’s suggestions were well received by Pharaoh and his officials.  So Pharaoh asked his officials, “Can we find anyone else like this man so obviously filled with the spirit of God?”  Then Pharaoh said to Joseph, “Since God has revealed the meaning of the dreams to you, clearly no one else is as intelligent or wise as you are. You will be in charge of my court, and all my people will take orders from you. Only I, sitting on my throne, will have a rank higher than yours.”

Given the deep antipathy felt by the Egyptians toward Hebrews, I truly believe that Joseph was not campaigning to be that "intelligent and wise man" put in charge; it could not have been a remote possibility in his mind. Nevertheless, his obvious skills were evident. Leaders should be recognized, not appointed.

If someone comes to me and says, "I think I'm called to be a pastor," (and this happens a lot to me -- I'm a director of recruiting, after all!) the first thing I say to them is "Great. Start a bible study. Let me know how it goes." The fruit will be evident. I firmly believe we do not give people the title and let them grow into it. We set people lose to work out of their calling and talents, and recognize what God is doing in and through them. Those are people I want to follow, and whom I am recruiting to lead the church and in the community.

3. I'm following every minute of this year's election. My friend A. and I are addicted followers of politics, and talk about it frequently. But I do not think my addiction reveals that I think the solutions of the world's problems are going to be found in political systems. As New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof wrote at year-end,
Here's a paradox: We’re finding authentic leadership these days not from our nominal leaders in Washington but from unelected (and mostly unelectable) figures whom we like to deride as self-indulgent narcissists. Congress is so paralyzed and immature, even sleazy, that we reporters sometimes leave a politician’s press conference feeling the urgent need to shower. But look at university and high school students. Sure, plenty still live for a party, but a growing number have no time for beer because they’re so busy tutoring prisoners, battling sex trafficking or building wells in Africa.
Rather than the President or Congress, I know the solution to the sin and brokenness of this world is found in the gospel, and in how God uses His people to live out his love and transforming power. This is leadership that the world desperately needs, and I am so anxious for the church to be the place that provides those leaders.

In fact, it is what I am giving my life to from here on out... Yes, I use Twitter, and yes, I follow many accounts, and yes, I follow certain blogs. And I hope people "like" the Facebook page I've recently created, and I choose my own "likes" carefully. But ultimately, whom I follow is the One who is irresistible. As the marginalized Samaritan woman burst out with upon her encounter with Jesus,
“Come and see a man who told me everything I ever did! Could he possibly be the Messiah?”

May we look for true leaders to guide us, and be willing to be such leaders ourselves, should God put that call on us.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Cluck Cluck... Gobble Gobble

I haven't posted a recipe since last year (OK, since December...) and I am happy to have a new and creative one to share.

I'm not sure what to call it. If you're feeling rather homey and proud to be a coupon clipper, you can call it "Oven-Fried Chicken." If you want to appear chic and sophisticated, hold your pinkie in the air and go with "Pecan-Crusted Chicken." Either way, it's a new way to bake chicken that you will gobble right up. Get it? :)

And honestly, it's about as close to fried chicken as you can get with none of the fat and kill-your-heart complications. Enjoy.


6 (4 oz) skinless chicken breasts (bone-in or boneless)
2 large eggs
1/4 c non-fat or soy milk
1/2 c finely chopped pecans
1/3 c cornmeal (I used polenta)
1/3 c whole wheat, oat or gluten-free flour
1 tsp salt
1 tsp onion or garlic powder... or both
1/2 tsp cayenne pepper
1/2 tsp fresh ground pepper
1 tb butter, slivered into thin slices

Pre-heat oven to 425 with the rack in the center. Line a 9 x 13 inch deep baking dish with foil.

In a wide bowl whisk the eggs and milk. In another shallow bowl or pie tin, stir together the pecans, cornmeal, flour, and spices. (If you have a food processor or Cuisinart Smart Stick, I quickly pulsed the dry ingredients together to make the pecans more fine. Don't pulverize them, but give a good couple of pushes on the button.)

Dip the chicken breasts one at a time into the egg wash, then dredge each one in the pecan mixture.

Place the chicken in the baking dish. Dot each coated piece with a little butter. Bake until golden brown -- approximately 40 minutes.

P.S. Halfway through the baking, I put in a tray of Yam Fries. Baked Potato Fries or Sweet Potato Fries will work too. Very, very tasty.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

FSE #3 - "Transitions"

Someone told me yesterday that they've enjoyed the two FSE posts I've written so far. I chuckled and said, "Frankly, I could write one every day, but I don't want to wear people out." Certainly, the Christmas and New Year's break has afforded an even larger number of coffee talks...

This past week I've gotten together with two graduates who are in the thick of "Now what?!" In that same span, I've also talked with two friends who are closer to my age who are saying... "Now what?!"

Ironic, isn't it? Whenever I sit and listen to a female high school student who bemoans the gossipy, mean-girls struggles of female friendships, I let them know, "I'm afraid it doesn't change much as you get older..." The same could be said of transitions.

In my conversations with so many graduating college students (and let me tell you, I've sat and listened to a LOT of them), eventually they say something to the effect of "It's just so hard to have so many unknowns ahead." I will not dismiss their concerns outright, because they are genuine and almost palpable. But after they unload all their fears and insecurities and come up for air, I try to let them know that this will be the first of many challenging transitions in their lives.

Not only have I sat with students struggling with career, identity and community upon graduation, I've sat with girlfriends who are struggling with all of their friends getting married. I've heard from friends when they have babies talk about the isolation and lack of fulfillment they feel at having their lives revolve around one (though very cute) little life, anonymously. I've sympathized with parents who anguish over seeing their children, who previously put their parents at the center of their universe, callously blow them off as they enter adolescence. I've sat with empty nest parents who weep over the silence of their once-busy households. I've nodded my head in compassion as I sit with a friend over lunch who has either been laid off or is realizing that they desperately need to make a career change. And as I have recorded here, I have anguished with friends dealing with terminal health crises that have derailed their plans dramatically.

One of the graduates I sat with last week was amazingly articulate, and with her permission I was able to write down the specific questions and thoughts she is struggling with. When you read them, you'll agree with me that these are fundamental to every transition in life:

  • What am I most afraid of?
  • I need an idea of what I am even looking for.
  • Relationships are really important to me. Which ones do I build my community on?
  • How important is it to live near my family? I don't feel like I fit in at home anymore.
  • I.Need.Deep.People.
  • This is gonna be new territory for me... that makes me nervous.
Incredible, isn't it?

She asked me for advice, and I will share the brief thoughts I shared with her, knowing that I have said the same things to each of the other situations I just described:
  1. Give yourself at least a year. Certainly, identifying your fears and focusing your attention on doing something about your situation is so important (rather than living in the land of "yeah, I should do something about that..."). But my strongest counsel is to pace yourself. This problem isn't going anywhere. Things took a long time to get this way... they will take some time to unfold and take root.
  2. Give yourself grace. One of my favorite lines with graduates is, "Quit trying to be the next Indiana Jones for Jesus." As believers we are often exposed to (or perhaps went to school with) so many extraordinary speakers and leaders who are doing really impressive things in the name of the Lord: starting non-profit agencies, writing books, speaking to thousands, going to prestigious grad schools... But let's be honest: the majority of us will be ordinary people who simply need to invite the extraordinary God to work through us in the daily stuff of life.
  3. Give your soul space. To both of the graduates I met with this week, I strongly counseled them to spend regular time to be quiet. To cultivate room in the heads, hearts and schedules to pay attention, both to God and to themselves. I hope that makes sense. It is really easy to cope with the anxiety of transition by tap dancing as fast as you can, keeping busy with a multitude of things that throw a lot of dust in the air but don't always add up to the real issues at hand. We need to spend time in scripture (look up resources in lectio divina), listening prayer, reading about God (not just cheesy Christian books), and some form of reflection where you are able to know how you are doing. I've seen some friends slide into depression, anxiety and compulsions that were recognized when they took the time to admit it.
If any of this applies to you, perhaps these words I read this morning from Proverbs 3 will resonate:

5 Trust in the LORD with all your heart; 
      do not depend on your own understanding. 
 6 Seek his will in all you do, 
      and he will show you which path to take.

 7 Don’t be impressed with your own wisdom. (Humbling words!)
      Instead, fear the LORD and turn away from evil. 
 8 Then you will have healing for your body 
      and strength for your bones.

I'm so thankful we are not alone. He is faithful.

Friday, January 6, 2012

Book Review: The Shaping of an Effective Leader

I think it's safe to say that in every single conversation that I had this week I was asked this question:
"So what did you do over the Christmas break?" 
The chitchat tends to hover around the topics of family visits, house projects, time to catch up on sleep, and so on. And while it is always fun to catch up (because I love the people I talk to), secretly I would rather talk most about the one thing in particular during the Christmas through New Year's holiday that I enjoy more than everything else...

The chance to read.

Sure, it might sound pretty nerdy to admit it, but there it is. For the last few weeks of every year I start pulling out the books that have been on my "wouldashouldacoulda" reading list for the previous months. I get WAY too ambitious and start entertaining visions of reading 4-5 books over the break.

Then reality sets in, and of course I have far less free time than I imagined. But nevertheless, I do have a few quiet evenings at home and even an idle afternoon or two, to read for more than 20 minutes before I go to bed. This is heavenly for me. I believe I have mentioned here before that I was an English major in college purely because I love to read.

My tastes are highly eclectic, and wander into some topics that you may find a little dry. I read a book on theology and missiology, caught up on some issues of the New Yorker, and got going on a book about retracing the steps of a wandering monk in the Middle East.

But even I was surprised to find that my favorite book of the break was this one: The Shaping of an Effective Leader: Eight Formative Principles of Leadership, written by Gayle Beebe. Initially I picked it up because it is written by the parent of one of my students... But he also happens to be the president of Westmont College. A minor detail, right?! (Kidding)

My official title with the Free Methodist Church in Southern California is "Director of Recruiting and Leadership Development," so I imagine it comes as no surprise that I would find this book interesting. But before you wonder how I could possibly relax over the holiday by reading a book that is work-related, let me assure of this: This is a very accessible, enjoyable, inspiring book to read.

In the same breath I will say that it is not something you casually skim for 2 hours. It is absolutely jam-packed with an almost dizzying number of pearls of wisdom. My copy is already heavily underlined and tagged with multiple post-it notes. But at the same time Gayle somehow manages to intersperse a tremendous assortment of anecdotes and illustrations in the midst of it all, and makes it something that I tore through very quickly.

To be sure, many of the details were of interest to me because I am familiar with all of the institutions mentioned in the book. And the entire issue of leadership is something I have devoted my entire adult life to understanding and developing. Which also means I have read multiple books already on this topic. Why do I think this has something new to add?

This paragraph says it all for me:
I realized that our understanding of leadership does not come to us all at once. It takes time. In our instant-oriented culture we often want to short-circuit the thinking, reflecting and acting that mark our progressive development as leaders. Understanding how leaders develop and why they matter requires discernment, wisdom and insight. (p. 22, emphasis mine)
In other words, Gayle is not promoting some gimmicky methodology here. Instead, he takes the reader through a very thoughtful process of how one becomes a leader, and also how one shapes other leaders. He helped me to see how my own leadership has evolved, and how much more I have to learn. More importantly perhaps, he motivated me to get even better at it as he lifted up the value of gifted, intentional, and wise leadership.

So my advice is simple. Get. This. Book. I've already ordered a batch for the pastoral interns I will train this summer, and I plan on assigning it as a text for an upcoming course I will be teaching. Think about your own context: If you are leading a Bible study, running a business, managing or supervising employees, teaching, heading up a team, or just flat out interested in being or becoming a better leader, this book has much to say. I have already used content from it twice this very week in consulting with pastors on projects we are working on. I can tell that I will be drawing from it over and over again.

Once you are finished reading it, do what I'm getting in the habit of doing for books I like: Write a review on the Amazon page. There are so many lame books out there on getting rich quick or reducing success down to five easy principles that all start with the same letter. I want to see this book rise to the top and get the attention it deserves.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

FSE #2 - "Home"

It's time for a second installment of "FSE" (Former Student Encounters). Thank you to those who read and responded to the first one, either through comments on the blog post itself or through emails to me, Facebook likes or tweets. Perhaps the most gratifying was that the majority of the follow up came from other former students! It encouraged me to keep going, and thankfully, opportunities come up pretty often.

Today I had coffee with a former student who is still home on break from college. She and I have always talked about family: the stresses and struggles, the small victories and occasional surprises. At one point she asked me for some advice on how to stay engaged with her family when it's obvious that things just go better all the way around when she's not back in the house! The old adage, "Out of sight, out of mind," applies here. The longer she's away, the more she settles in with new friends from school, and finds it so easy to get attached to them -- and thus a bit more detached from her immediate family. Then it becomes that much more challenging to re-enter her dysfunctional and deeply painful situation when she's home on break.

I did not pretend to have any easy answers. Most of all, I tried to listen well, and at one point, just sighed, looked at her and said simply, "I'm just so sorry." More than anything, I said, we have to remember that we cannot "fix" our families. First of all, they are not usually are seeking out our advice on how to improve, right? Counseling 101 teaches us that we cannot control the actions and decisions of others; we can only control ourselves, and how we respond to what our family members do.

Especially during the holiday it's tempting to look at other families and think they are all having way more fun that yours is. But regardless of what is really going on with everyone else, I have learned that it is useless to compare. We were born into our families for a reason. But at the same time, I always encourage students to not try to figure out exactly what that reason is!

As we continued talking, I told her that one benefit of this tension of growing up is that we are reminded that, no matter how things are going here on earth, that heaven is our true home. Two passages have given me great comfort over the years in this regard:
Dear brothers and sisters, pattern your lives after mine, and learn from those who follow our example. For I have told you often before, and I say it again with tears in my eyes, that there are many whose conduct shows they are really enemies of the cross of Christ. They are headed for destruction. Their god is their appetite, they brag about shameful things, and they think only about this life here on earth. But we are citizens of heaven, where the Lord Jesus Christ lives. And we are eagerly waiting for him to return as our Savior. He will take our weak mortal bodies and change them into glorious bodies like his own, using the same power with which he will bring everything under his control. (Philippians 3:17-21) 
* * * * * 
 4 The one thing I ask of the Lord—
      the thing I seek most—
   is to live in the house of the Lord all the days of my life,
      delighting in the Lord’s perfections
      and meditating in his Temple.
 5 For he will conceal me there when troubles come;
      he will hide me in his sanctuary.
      He will place me out of reach on a high rock.
 6 Then I will hold my head high
      above my enemies who surround me.
   At his sanctuary I will offer sacrifices with shouts of joy,
      singing and praising the Lord with music.

 7 Hear me as I pray, O Lord.
      Be merciful and answer me!
 8 My heart has heard you say, “Come and talk with me.”
      And my heart responds, “Lord, I am coming.”
 9 Do not turn your back on me.
      Do not reject your servant in anger.
      You have always been my helper.
   Don’t leave me now; don’t abandon me,
      O God of my salvation!
 10 Even if my father and mother abandon me,
      the Lord will hold me close.

 11 Teach me how to live, O Lord.
      Lead me along the right path,
      for my enemies are waiting for me.
 12 Do not let me fall into their hands.
      For they accuse me of things I’ve never done;
      with every breath they threaten me with violence.
 13 Yet I am confident I will see the Lord’s goodness
      while I am here in the land of the living.

 14 Wait patiently for the Lord.
      Be brave and courageous.
      Yes, wait patiently for the Lord.

The passage from Philippians 3 helps me to remember that my story here on earth is very, very brief in light of eternity, so I cannot focus too much on the circumstances in front of me. They come, they go, faster than I realize. Instead, I will "fix my eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of my faith" (Hebrews 12) and do my best to run the race with endurance, seeking to finish well.

However, I am locked in time and space while I am here, and in my weakness, I often am desperate for the strength to persevere at that very moment. That is where the words of Psalm 27 keep my lips above the water as I gasp for air. Right when I am at the brink of despair, I end up getting a peek of the Lord's goodness to remind me of my eternal hope. It is like we are waiting for a big production to begin, and unexpectedly, we are allowed a quick look behind the curtain. That short glimpse only creates that much anticipation for us as we wait to enjoy the show.

I'm reading the Book of Genesis for my daily Bible reading these days. What a mess. By Genesis 4, brothers Cain and Abel are vying for attention; then Cain murders Abel. By Genesis 6, human wickedness has blanketed the planet, and God "was sorry he had ever made them and put them on the earth." By Genesis 11, human pride aspires to build its own tower to heaven. No one can say that the Bible is full of shiny, happy people with perfect lives. In spite of all our sickness and screwing up for thousands of years, the Bible is one long story of God choosing to remain in our midst, and better still, working in and through us in spite of our glaring shortcomings.

My prayer for this student I hung out with today, for myself, and for all of us, is that we could hear these words that God said to Abram in Genesis 12:
I will bless you... and you will be a blessing to others. 
May we redeem our time here, whether it be long or short, waiting patiently and by His grace, learning to be brave and courageous. Jesus, come quickly.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Bird by Bird (aka Writing Update)

I have had the opportunity to write occasionally for Youthworker Journal since 2009 (here are my past articles). I consider it a privilege because I have read this magazine for years and found it to be an excellent resource: a place to "let down my hair" and admit my fears and shortcomings, and also a trustworthy resource to get the tools I needed to get the job done.

So I did a little jig when I opened my mailbox today and found the latest issue, with my name on the cover (make your eyes all squinchy and you can see it under the "Loving God" headline.) So it's not fame and fortune in the big city, but it's fun all the same.

Should you not happen to have a subscription to this magazine (ahem), here's the link to the article. I especially loved submitting this one because it's all about perhaps my greatest passion in ministry: small groups. For those of you who have worked with me, you will recognize the Small Group Covenant, based on Galatians 6:1-2, that I include in this article.

I have some other writing that has come out recently:

As I've mentioned before, writing doesn't really pay the bills, but my goodness I enjoy it. I've read several books on writing, but the one that probably has taught and inspired me the most is by Anne Lamott, and it's titled Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life. Anne is a little salty, so if you're uncomfortable with some not-used-in-the-Bible language now and again, you might want to skip it. But she has some really practical stuff there on writing. I will end with this quote from the book:
But I still encourage anyone who feels at all compelled to write to do so. I just try and warn people who hope to get published that publication is not all that it is cracked up to be. But writing is. Writing has so much to give, so much to teach, so many surprises. The thing you had to force yourself to do - the actual act of writing - turns out to be the best part. It’s like discovering that while you thought you needed the tea ceremony for caffeine, what you really needed was the tea ceremony. The act of writing turns out to be its own reward. 
I’ve managed to get some work done nearly every day of my adult life, without impressive financial success. Yet I would do it all over again in a hot second, mistakes and doldrums and breakdowns and all. Sometimes I could not tell you exactly why, esepcially when it feels pointless and pitiful, like Sisyphus with cash-flow problems. Other days, though, my writing is like a person to me - the person who, after all these years, still makes sense to me.