Dealing with Tragedy

Fifty years ago today the United States, and world, was rocked by the assassination of President John F Kennedy. While I was growing up I would hear how older adults would always recall exactly where they were when they heard about the President being shot. It became, for their generations, an event seared into the collective minds of millions.

With the walk up to this day and the remembrances that it evokes, some news outlets have been providing some intriguing stories about the events of that day and also of reactions from around these events. Over at Time, there is a piece discussing how the Boston Pops reacted during their afternoon concert. The short blog post links to this YouTube recording of how the Conductor  Erich Leinsdorf breaks the news of Kennedy’s assassination to the concert hall just before their regularly scheduled afternoon concert.

Hearing the audible distress from the audience is profound. Imagine a day where people had limited access to news and media, entirely unlike our constant stream of data and information now. As the article recalls, some immediately left, others stayed, some wept, others sat passively. What is particularly notable about this event, and specifically it occurring in Boston, is its heritage to the Kennedy family themselves.

The Boston Pops then change their course of program and, instead, play the haunting “Funeral March” from Beethoven’s Eroica symphony. This recording is powerful.

So often in our nation’s history, and what will happen in the future, tragedies will befall us and we will be both spectators to their horrific happenings and, we pray not, perhaps victims ourselves. So many of the stories recounting this event fifty years ago are mentioning how society reacted.

For our interest, how churches reacted then and how we continue to react to these events offers moments for us to extend the grace of the Gospel that offers comfort and healing. In our own lifetimes we’ve seen churches flooded with people in the weekend following a tragedy such as 9/11, the Challenger disaster, and other events. Are we wise enough to change the program and address the obvious in such a painful and necessary way as Erich Leinsdorf, or do we plod ahead with our regularly scheduled programming?

These decisions are difficult. Yet, as our churches offer sanctuaries from the plights of this world we extend the grace and mercy of God in a real way. We become the people of God, committed to the task of being the healing agents for God in this world. Often only in tragedy do some think about the reality of death that besets us all. Too often the answer the problem of evil is best expressed in a comforting embrace rather than a well articulated apologetic sermon.

Lamentations 3:17-33 seems to capture this:

17 My soul has been deprived of peace;
I have forgotten what happiness is.
18 Then I thought: My future is lost,
as well as my hope from the Lord.

19 Remember my affliction and my homelessness,
the wormwood and the poison.
20 I continually remember them
and have become depressed.
21 Yet I call this to mind,
and therefore I have hope:

22 Because of the Lord’s faithful love
we do not perish,
for His mercies never end.
23 They are new every morning;
great is Your faithfulness!
24 I say: The Lord is my portion,
therefore I will put my hope in Him.

25 The Lord is good to those who wait for Him,
to the person who seeks Him.
26 It is good to wait quietly
for deliverance from the Lord.
27 It is good for a man to bear the yoke
while he is still young.

28 Let him sit alone and be silent,
for God has disciplined him.
29 Let him put his mouth in the dust—
perhaps there is still hope.
30 Let him offer his cheek
to the one who would strike him;
let him be filled with shame.

31 For the Lord
will not reject us forever.
32 Even if He causes suffering,
He will show compassion
according to His abundant, faithful love.
33 For He does not enjoy bringing affliction
or suffering on mankind.

Nov 2013



Blockbuster is Dead, Long Live Blockbuster

In business news this week was the announcement from DISH Network that it is ending Blockbuster by closing all remaining aspects of the business. This wasn’t surprising.

When DISH bought Blockbuster for $234 million in 2011, a price which was befuddling at the time, it began a program to turn around the beleaguered movie rental giant. Now, within 24 months, they’re pulling the plug.

Think about this for a moment, at the height of its corporate model, Blockbuster owned the retail market for video game rentals. (For a great history of the company since its inception in 1985 head over this piece at the Street.) Blockbuster expanded across the US and in every market became the Wal-Mart to any locally owned, or regional, video rental store. Other competitors attempted moves against them and had marginal success. Blockbuster became a massive corporation that seemed unstoppable…until the market conditions shifted and they were unable to move.

Who would’ve thought that on August 29, 1997 that Blockbuster would be shut down 16 years later. That day, in 1997, Netflix launched its website. 

Business analysts and journalists are writing a lot about this and there are plenty of great articles, see Justin Carr’s Fastcompany piece, about this soon to be MBA case study o business history. The keyword for this whole episode has been disruption. Now the focus of this disruption hasn’t just been Netflix, but a set of market and cultural shifts that made Blockbuster’s model obsolete. Netflix was a major factor, but so was RedBox, video streaming, on demand content, and the idiocy of renting a movie and having to rush it back to the store before a late charge is assessed. Blockbuster didn’t adapt nor did it foresee this could happen.

One of the greatest fears for many tech and digital industry leaders is that there’s some kid in a garage in suburbia who’s crafting a new algorithm that will put all the leading players out of business. What simply couldn’t have happened back in the post World War II generation, massive disruption based almost entirely on a better mouse trap, is now easily possible.

The lessons of Blockbuster for those of us who lead churches and ministries shouldn’t be missed.

With the ongoing cultural shifts taking place what other metrics and models are out there which should be diligently studied, prayed through, and discerned? Even though we continue to see substantial movement towards ecclesial consolidation into large and mega-church ministries, especially by 20somethings, there should be something about our movements and ministries that is continuing to keep us deft and nimble in how we go about ministering to others.

Maybe one of the best lessons about the Blockbuster episode that we’ve seen is when executive leadership turns a deaf ear to the innovations and ideas of lower level directors and leaders. Though your business model is churning out revenue and new stores constantly, your demise is being written by the memo or meeting that you disregard. Though not all ideas are good ones, and there is a long line of executives who professionally died after taking a bad risk, there are some organizations that have thrived after making a tough decision.

In ministry not all ideas are good ones. We must be discerning and prudent about what models we adapt, however we also need to notice if our leadership is in cruise control or turf protection mode.

Having a regular and robust dialogue is one key to moving forward. While the Church is not going to die out suddenly, the prospect of our prophetic bankruptcy amid a changing culture is very real and very scary. Just because we continue to see growth in some sectors doesn’t deny that there will be diminishing returns in others. Part of the challenge of market and cultural shifts does result in Schrumpeter’s “Creative Destruction.” Yet just growing doesn’t always lead to health.

So how are you engaging in looking around the corner? Who are you in conversation with and what are you reading to stimulate your ability to see ahead of the curve? What “market forces” might lead to the shift away from your model towards something different? What is your goal for ministry and for those involved in your ministry?

Being able to discern and see how things are going also requires knowing where you’re heading. Those who think they can simply build a better bomb shelter for Christians don’t realize the true danger that lies ahead. Prayer and discernment are key functions for any leader.

Nov 2013



Church and “Big” Data

If you were to pick up a popular business magazine or click through a business blog, at some point you would probably run across some article about “big data” and its implications for some facet of business strategy or performance.

Big Data is our friend...even when it wants to play a game.

Big Data is our friend, even when it wants to play a game of tic-tac-toe.

Big data is a pretty significant movement in business strategy and goals today. Simply defined, big data is gigantic amounts of data that is handled and processed to glean insights for multiple applications in business, government, scientific, and military sectors. The amount of data that is handle is so voluminous that it requires off-site data centers to handle the workload.

Properly harnessing the insights of big data has become a fundamental “best-practice” for leading edge businesses and agencies that help them better understand their key constituents, buying behaviors, market conditions, and an assortment of other important information. These aren’t gigabytes or even terabytes of data, but petabytes and exabytes.

In the millions and billions of figures of any given data set, experts look closely to see if they can gain a competitive advantage in the marketplace and better position their business, or client, for success.

Not too many churches talk about big data…but we should.

Granted, the amount of data that properly comprises a legitimate “big data” set is far beyond what most churches and ministries could ever need to use. What is important here is the the principles at play. For too many churches and ministries there is a lack of coherent strategy and sustainable vision because most plans in these categories are made on false assumptions. We believe we know who our primary constituent (from guest to member) group is, and we are able to assume how they want to be involved. This kind of reflection, unfortunately, too often begins in the mirror and stays in that reflection.

One of the primary tools that any church can learn to utilize is a properly maintained and properly updated membership database that tracks participation and involvement of our guests, attenders, and members. Having a good database is one of the first tools that needs to be established in a church and that is consistently updated by staff and lay people.

When you have a database that is able to regularly accept the inputs from the whole host of activities any given church provides throughout the year, the leadership of the church can begin leaning on that data set to learn about trends and participation. Some databases also enable a church to see different levels of potential relationships between members.

As a result, data can help understand how people are involving themselves but it can also provide key relational connections for ministry.

In some churches that can leverage the analytical insights from data sets in the community and partner them up with ongoing trends in their congregation, the larger data set can aid in crafting new ministries and developing a strategic vision. Later this week, we’ll talk about some specific practices and examples.

However, for our first purpose here we hopefully are making the case that even in a local church properly taken data can be an aid to ministry. One of the first steps for any church or ministry is to engage with a suitable database system that allows them to collect data from a number of reliable sources, perform specific searches of that data, and let the numbers help identify trends and movement.

It should certainly be said before wrapping up that this kind of data is helpful to a point, but it will never eclipse the role of the Holy Spirit in guiding and inspiring vision for ministries of a church. Data sets are a tool for helping leaders understand what is going on and how they can best adjust their ministries. But data only provides an isolated view. Christian ministry is, at its core, a person-to-person practice that requires relational proximity and personal authenticity. Data provides a picture but never equals the physical practice of ministry among God’s people.


Succession Planning Perspectives

One of the growing challenges confronting many growing and thriving churches is what to do when the leader leaves.

A simple, but definite, rule for ministry (and life) is that regardless of how wonderful our ministry and impact, we are ultimately going to have to leave one day.

leadersPart of being an effective and Jesus centered undershepherd (i.e. pastor) is recognizing that one goal in ministry should be to leave the church, or division, better than when you found it. Recently I read of a pastor who, after thirty long years of ministry, retired from his church and encouraged them to go and united with another church because they had grown down to such a small amount and no other leader had been risen up to take his place. The pastor, who is well thought of in some circles, mentioned this in an off-the-cuff illustration in a sermon. Yet it resonated with myself and a few others as to what happens when we don’t follow God’s command to raise up and equip new leaders and what failing to plan really looks like…a planned failure.

For corporoate human resources work it is challenging, or horrifying as one friend in HR put it, when your CEO (or senior leader) finally begins leaving. Just like in churches when the well established senior pastor announces his retirement, a sense of both panic (we call it urgency to smooth it over) and uncertainty can easily creep in to any organization. Imagine how much more magnified this is if it is a Fortune 500 company with revenues in the billions.

Last night I came across an article on Retuers about the impending succession plan that the NASDAQ is going through as their CEO, Bob Greifeld, plans a possible exit, even after signing a new five year extension on his contract. For various reasons, there is a possible shift coming to the exchange whose leader has been in place for ten years (which in the real world would be like running a company for 30 years.) Yet Greifeld has been at the helm of an international stock exchange that has been navigating massive shifts in the markets, its own strategic planning, and increasing diversification in the entire sector.

How does a company go about replacing such a vital person?

How does a church go about replacing a senior pastor who has been there for twenty plus years and seen it through many seasons, generational changes, and even facilities transition? Not to mention the spiritual and emotional attachment rightly given to senior pastor?

For the NASDAQ several leading staff departures have left the remaining candidate pool from within drained to a low number. An outside candidate might be worth exploring, but there are some risks. Perhaps the person wouldn’t understand the complex DNA of the exchange, they are too junior and executive understand the task priorities of a CEO, the sector is loaded with talent but not at the same level as the NASDAQ, and other concerns populate the confounding questions of succession.

Sounds a lot like questions churches have about a new senior pastor.

Over at the Harvard Business Review Blog they’ve provided some tips that might help frame how to go about this process for any organization:

1. Call the process succession development – though this might sound trivial, the idea is pretty solid, it helps educate expectations.By developing your next leader instead of planning for them there is a chance to embed crucial organizational DNA and also allow them to step up into the position. The person, by the time of succession, comes from within and is a known figure.

2. Keep it simple – HBR is right that this shouldn’t be a complex process. Ultimately, it is about one person giving another their seat. HR and org charts convolute the structures. Make this a baton pass between teammates, not a bait-and-switch.

3. Stay Realistic – nobody expects the next person in for a senior leader to walk on water the same way the other person has done for years. There will be transitions and adjustments. One of the benefits that churches have over other organizations is the ability to seek unity through prayer, fellowship, and the outpouring the Holy Spirit. Seek out these means and remember that every leader still puts their pants on the same way.

An article over at Forbes adds an additional point:

4. Realize what got us here won’t get us there – with a new senior leader comes an opportunity to bring a fresh perspective and rejuvenate any organization. Any decently degreed candidate can look at the strategic plans, programs, and operations of a new organization and imitate success for several years and have success. However, what most organizations need is someone who will take them to a new place. Because the new leader isn’t the old leader allows for the opportunity to change and cross over to a new way.

For any organization with an established leader, the next person up isn’t going to be the same. There will be some natural turnover in staff and, for our churches, possibly our members. This still remains an opportunity to move forward. 

As we have seen excellently modeled in the ministries of John Piper at Bethlehem Baptist Church, Jerry Vines at First Baptist Jacksonville, and Bob Russell at Southeast Christian Church, successful ministry succession is possible. Being able to humbly and earnestly seek God’s blessing in this process will always help find the best candidate to be the best pastor they can be.

For churches seeking assistance with this kind of succession planning (or development) I always encourage them to talk to an expert at an staffing organization which works with churches. Three of the best I know of (in no particular order) are: Minister Search, the Shepherd Staff, and the Vanderbloemen Group. Call them and talk as soon as possible. One general rule I always follow on church staffing, free sites get you bad results. This kind of search requires a specialist.


Building a Young Church: Part Two Validation

As we continue to talk through some of the essential building blocks for building a young church, or a church of young adults, we next turn to the key element of validation.

Validation is an organizational priority of authentic engagement. This is often accomplished by the investment of capital (monetary, leadership, and facilities) to give more specific attention and placement of an emphasis on the ministry for that group.

If a church desires to grow their young adult base, a key step in evaluating whether or not they are validating, or willing to validate, effective environments for young adults. This isn’t about creating plastic rooms that meet a specific ratio for hipster style low lighting, but it is about having appropriate textures and spaces that facilitate ministry connection for a young adult crowd. The same environments and methods used to reach and keep senior adults are not as effective for young adults.

For many young adults in their 20s and 30s, a key to workplace happiness is the intentional validation of their efforts and roles. While this certainly is a universal rule, it is often the case that this age group will work at jobs longer where they are given appropriate validation and recognition by their leadership. Articles which have mentioned this kind of managerial insight have appeared in business publications including Forbes Magazine. Now, if you’re knee-jerk reaction to that statement is to roll your eyes and gripe about entitlement then perhaps that is part of the problem.

This isn’t about some kind of psychologically programmed post-adolescent coddling, but it is instead the result of a desire to know where, in a world of hurts, harms, and hang-ups, that a person belongs and contributes. Validation for a young adult ministry isn’t about being the full time focus and effort of a church onto that group, but is, instead, about being mindful of their presence.

While an institutional building, metal folding chairs, bad coffee, and mint green walls are a non-issue for other generations, for young adults highly validated spaces for their group gatherings, fellowship times, and service represent a kind of mindfulness about their presence that they appreciate. For so many young adults the aesthetic of their experience is as important as the script of a video, the Bible passage being considered, and the conversation that takes place.

This means that churches which are appropriately providing validated young adult environments have a strong tendency to attract and keep young adults.

As a result, when we think strategically about these environments we should keep in mind that mixing in a reinforcement of the church culture will be as important to motivating young adults to service and missions as making an announcement.

Just like how a comfortable coffee shop makes a more conducive environment for conversation, reflection, and work, appropriately validated young adult ministries tend to allow for greater movement and growth (specifically relational and spiritual) for strategically minded churches.

Some key questions for evaluation might include:

  • In our current facility, how much space is specifically designed for young adults and their children?
  • When we talk about events or activities in our publications and on Sundays, what percent of space is given to young adult activities?
  • How often are young adults featured in roles of service and missions?
  • As it relates to our children’s spaces, are they conducive to easy check-in and provide a sense of security?
  • Are the sermons we preach using illustrations and examples from media in the 70s and 80s or from the last five years?
  • Is there a prioritized space for young adults to connect that isn’t a classroom?
  • How much of our programming dollars and hours go to creating events and activities that meet the priority needs of young adults in our church and community?
  • Do young adults have ways of providing feedback and generating new ministry ideas as much as established generations in our church?


This certainly isn’t a deal breaker for a community, but it is an important step. As we turn to our next part of this discussion let’s consider what it looks like to provide effective programming and ministry models for young adult ministries.


Recommended Books for Recent Seminary Grads

Every spring, and often in the fall, our seminaries are turning out new crops of graduates who hope to enter some role in pastoral ministry. Hopefully, during seminary, each graduate has developed some reading habits that will last them for the rest of their lives.

What are some particularly helpful books for recent seminary graduates to read to help make the transition from academic life to pastoral ministry?

After having read some substantial theology for the last several years, there are five recommended books that some of my fellow ministers have recommended for recent graduates:

A Little Exercise for Young Theologians by Helmut Thielicke. This was one of the first books recommended by a seminary professor for graduates. It is the classic text that, in a concise 57 pages walks recent seminary graduates through the transition from academic discussion to application within local church ministry. Others have attempted to match it but this is still the classic text.

Brothers, We are Not Professionals by John Piper. Arranged in 36 chapters, Piper’s text develops a practical pastoral ministry for pastors who are both new to ministry or are veterans. Piper’s paradigm for pastoral ministry seeks to rediscover the shepherd’s task and heart and move ministers away from the professionalization that has lost its connection with biblical ministry.

They Found the Secret by Raymond Edman. Moving towards a more devotional topic, one of the questions that I’ve had for established ministry leaders when I am able to take them to lunch or sit and talk with them, is “What books impacted your life the most?” One of the books that I’ve consistently heard from so many was this one by Edman. It is a classic on finding the “exchanged life” that can help each of us focus our ministry trajectory at an early stage.

The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership by John Maxwell. Seminary does many things well, but one of the challenges that we see all too often is that there is a lack of actual ministry preparation. We learn plenty of wonderful things about theology and biblical studies, but actual pastoral ministry has less to do with those and so much more to do with leading people. Maxwell’s text is, in my opinion, the best at helping us understand several key leadership rules to will help us, along with the ministry of the Holy Spirit, motivate people to life change.

Good to Great by Jim Collins. Obviously this list is less theological, but as we all find out in ministry, the pastorate is less theological than we hope. When I first sat and read this text, in my first church out of seminary, it shook my world and help refocus my leadership goals. Collins has brought together some of the best practices of making good organizations great. When I’ve asked that question about who pastors read, Collins’ text has also made that list of some of the most dynamic pastors who have built Jesus loving, God glorifying churches of all sizes.

Certainly there are a number of other texts I could put on this list, but I wanted to keep it slim. Every year when I organize my yearly reading schedule (outside of seminar and research texts) I try to read three of these five.

Seminary prepares us so well for the rigor of ministry and these texts will, hopefully, add to the practicality of ministry. While some might decry the lack of substantive theologies, in reality for most seminary graduates we need a dose of reality in our first pastoral role that familiarizes us with the beauty of our parishioners.

So, what other books would you add? What practical texts have help mould you for ministry?