Monday, March 30, 2015

Church Planting Jugulars: Three Mistakes to Avoid

Over the past 10 years I've had the honor of assessing, training, and speaking into the lives of hundreds of church planters here in the mid-Atlantic, and around the world.  Though my current role doesn't include the oversight of church planting, I still love these God-called men and women who risk much to establish more and more outposts of God's Kingdom.  

There is no mission without the church, and the church moves forward best by multiplication, which means that all who love Jesus should also love church planting.  Some of the most joyous experiences of my  ministry have been watching the birth of new churches.

Conversely, the most painful conversations I've had over the past decade involved conversations with planters who failed.  I"m sometimes asked what I believe are the most common pitfalls of those who don't make it.  My top three are below:

1. They have a vision for the church, but not for the community. In his book Winning, former GE CEO Jack Welch laments the overuse of vision and mission statements in the business world. I share these lamentations because I have seen winsome statements crafted by church planters in their training that have little to nothing to do with the area they are seeking to reach. Simply put, many church planters I talk to know how many they want to show up, they know what kind of building they want, and of course, they know what their salary should be. The problem is that these ideas are seldom expanded to include how the church system they design will impact the community around them.  Rather than start with an understanding of the community, they start with inserting a foreign church system into the community.

Those tempted to define their church's vision in this way should read Bob Lewis' book The Church of Irresistible Influence. To make short a long story that is worth the read, Lewis' Fellowship Bible Church of Little Rock, AR came to the conclusion that although their attendance exceeded 3000 people every Sunday, if their church disappeared the city of Little Rock would not notice, which made their church a failure by default. The subsequent story of their efforts to become a city-impacting church is inspiring, and worthy of emulation.

Any church planting vision that is worth the paper on which its written will have an "end game" that reaches beyond the walls of a building and sees the transformation of an entire community by the Gospel.

2. They depend too much on the denominational system, The truth about denominations--and those of us who work for them--is while we can be a great help to you, we can also handicap you, especially if you depend on us too much.

This is particularly true of the guys who go "full time." The temptation is to act as an employee of the system rather than the church planting missionary God has called you to be. My most frequent recommendation to church planters is that they begin in a bi-vocational role. Intentional outside employment is good and healthy. It gets you into the community, and forces you into relationships with people who don't know Jesus. In addition, it tests your stamina and resilience. While planting a church, I worked two additional jobs while simultaneously finishing a doctorate. Needless to say, I have little tolerance for guys who think they can't do this unless they are doing it full-time.

But regardless of whether you are full-time or part-time, from day one you should refuse to see yourself as a denominational employee. To be sure, if part of a denomination, you are accountable to those who support you. At the same time, God has called you to plant a church, which means that if you are spending more time around the office than you are in the field, you aren't fulfilling your calling.

3. They have unrealistic expectations. My book Planting Churches in the Real World deals directly with this issue.   Too many guys come to the field having read Rick Warren, Bill Hybels, Andy Stanley and others, and they think they will be next in line. Subsequently, when they haven't broken the 50 barrier after their first year in the field, they feel like a failure. In addition, there are a few denominational folk out there who also make them feel like a failure, when the truth is that their plant is simply the "norm."  

A few years ago, Leadership Network found that new churches whose attendance exceeds 100 after four years are a small minority. The problem is that when church planters read the stories of Northpoint and Saddleback, they forget that people love these stories because of how extraordinary they are. If you are a church planter, know that while I pray you are indeed one of those exceptions, more than likely your experience will be quite "ordinary." Just remember that throughout the Scriptures, God used ordinary people, places, and events to accomplish great things, and don't give up!

Monday, March 23, 2015

What is a "Great Team Member?" 5 Questions to Ask

Leadership is, by default, a "team sport."  If you have no one to lead, how can you be a leader?  But having a group to lead doesn't necessarily mean you will lead them well, nor does it mean they will necessarily be a "great team."

Over the years, I've often bragged publicly about the folks who have worked for me, and I have been truly blessed through most of my ministry to have some great team members.  But I've also had some bad experiences in this department, and my observations of these contrasting experiences have revealed a few characteristics that make someone a truly great team member.  So if you have leadership responsibilities over a group of people, how can you tell if someone will make a "great team member?"  I've found the following five questions helpful:

1. Do They Want You to Personally Succeed?  Great team members aren't just after their own success. They want the entire team to succeed, and they have a clear understanding that if the guy/gal at the top fails, such failure will also reflect on them.  This  means they will sometimes challenge the leader for what they perceive is the leader's own good.  It doesn't mean they will always get it right, but if their motivation is to see you as their leader succeed, they are someone you want to keep.

2. Do They Care About Your Well-Being?  Great team members aren't all about the work, principally because they understand that anything affecting one's personal life in a negative way will eventually spill over into the professional arena.  Great team members are personally concerned for your family, for your health, and for your mental well-being.

3. Are They Loyal without Being Blind?  One doesn't need to be a "lap dog" to be loyal.  In fact, "blind loyalty" is actually disloyalty, because it ignores things that can bring a leader down.  As a leader, I've always had a policy with those who work for me that is expressed in this way: "My door is open to you, so long as you close it before you criticize me."  If I'm about to do something incredibly stupid, I want people on my team who will tell me that.  Part of "managing up" is striking the careful balance between respect for authority in public, and appropriately challenging that authority in private.

4. When they Offer Criticism, does it contribute to solutions?  Anybody can criticize.  Anybody can find something wrong with the plan.  And anybody can tear down people they work for.  We are all imperfect, and finding those imperfections merely to point them out is the work of kindergarten students.  Great team members are able to offer appropriate criticism, at the right time, aimed at the right place, in order to point toward a right solution.

5. Do they love the mission?  My friend and colleague Mike Crawford says that Marines don't need to sit around for hours discussing their mission.  They simply dig a foxhole and fight together.  Too often in the church, we think that if we can just somehow "create" community, we will have mission. But it actually works in the opposite way.  Community doesn't create mission.  Mission creates community. In the end, it doesn't matter how educated or skilled the individual members of your team are.  If you aren't clear on the mission, and engaged in it together, your team will always be dysfunctional.  This means you have to ask, of each individual member of your team: "Do they understand that the overall mission is more important than any 'part' of the mission, and are they committed to that mission with us?"

Monday, March 16, 2015

Creflo, Character, and the Ripple Effect of a Heterodox Life

Western Christianity never looks more lavish, or less like Jesus, than when its leaders are embroiled in scandal.  This past weeks events proved no different, as Creflo Dollar, an Atlanta area pastor and "Word of Faith" teacher made waves across the internet by asking his congregation to provide funds for a new private jet--at the bargain price of $65 million.

Anyone even casually acquainted with Dollar's background and ministry will not be surprised at this latest development.  Formerly a student of Kenneth Copeland, Dollar promulgates a message of health, wealth and prosperity that sounds less like Jesus' call to take up one's cross, and more like Milton Friedman on steroids.

So first things first:  when scandals like this are caused by prosperity preachers, followers of Jesus need to send an abundantly clear message that this is NOT Christianity.  Often, our Pentecostal brothers and sisters are unjustly blamed because of the more casual relationship that exists between these movements and prosperity teaching.  But the historical roots of the so-called "Word of Faith" movement aren't anchored to Azuza Street, but to Spencer Massachussets, where E.W. Kenyon developed his philosophy of New Thought Metaphysics.  His teachings concerning the nature of reality--and the ability of the human mind to bend that reality by "tapping into the divine" and "positive confession," are a bizarre mixture of eastern panentheism and practices that originated in a form of Vajrayana Buddhism.  The subsequent "positive confession" teachings of the late Kenneth Hagin and his students built on these teachings.

So when it comes to the origins and essence of "health, wealth, and prosperity," Word of Faith theology bears absolutely no historical, Biblical, theological, or philosophical resemblance to anything like orthodox Christian faith.  We may call this twisted faith system many things.  "Christian" is not one of them.  So its important that when non-Christian leaders cause scandal that affects the name of Jesus, genuine followers of Jesus call these false teachers what they are.  But at the same time, we must also admit that many who might otherwise be considered "orthodox" can be guilty of the same things.

To be sure, prosperity teaching certainly makes it easier for someone to do what Creflo Dollar has done.  But Dollar's recent actions aren't primarily about heretical theology.  Nor are they about affluence.  Honestly, I'm not sure who it was who first suggested that ministers should be poor, but whoever did it was forwarding a poverty theology that is every bit as heretical as its prosperity counterpart.  If a pastor is doing well financially, in most cases we should be happy for his success.

But when your net worth is north of $27 million, and you are seeking to bilk one of Atlanta's poorest neighborhoods--one in which the average annual income is less than $29,000--out of another $65 million just so you don't have to fly coach, that's a character issue! 

And when it comes to a lack of character, the ripple effect through the western church is vast!

Too often, churches and ministries have skimmed right past the instruction of the pastoral letters, and ignored their call for character, because they were attracted to winsomeness, or leadership skills, or visionary ability.  The results in too many ministries have been tragic.  And while they will never make the headlines like someone coveting a $65 million plane, the results of low character even in "doctrinally sound" environments are very similar to those produced by religious charlatans.  When we ignore character, in the end we really don't look that much different from the heretics.

After many years of working within denominational systems, and with many, many churches, I've observed three primary ways that low character presents itself, damages the body of Christ, and casts aspersion on the mission:

Pride; When a leader of low character becomes prideful, he or she develops a "God's man" syndrome that causes them to think themselves "above" everyone else.  This sometimes leads to an entitlement mentality.  Like Moses in Numbers 20, they feel as though their faithfulness over a certain period of times means they should be allowed to blow their stack, or otherwise use their ministry for personal gain.  I've seen pastors pad their resumes, embellish their achievements, and use ministry resources for personal pleasure--all because of pride.

Personal:  Personal animus sometimes causes a leader to harm entire ministries simply because he or she won't practice Matthew 18.  I've counseled with churches where staff conflict was handled in an unhealthy way, and the conflict rippled out to eventually divide the church. I've seen church members scarred, staff terminated, and ministries ruined because someone who presumed leadership was willing to damage mission simply to be vindictive.  Leaders unwilling to take the relational high road for the sake of mission are leaders of low character.

Power:  Low character leaders will sometimes abuse their authority for personal gain. More obvious examples of this involve sexual misconduct and/or financial impropriety.  I've unfortunately had to deal with a few pastors over the years who couldn't keep their pants on, or keep their hands out of the offering plate.  At the end of the day, it was their sense of entitlement that fueled these behaviors, and the power they were granted for the good of those under their care was instead used to serve themselves.

In each of these cases, the ripple effect of low character carried a very high cost.

So how do we respond to this dilemma?  The answer to this question has been starring us in the face for the past 2000 years.  In 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1, we read clearly that the first qualifiers for spiritual leadership have little to do with ability, vision or charisma, and everything to do with character.  Unfortunately, western Christendom has too often looked past these essentials, and we have paid a dear price for it.

Pastor search committees, executive search teams, senior pastors looking to hire staff shouldn't ignore the importance of skill and competence, nor should they view visionary leadership as an undesirable trait.  But deep questions to determine if a leader is truly above reproach, genuinely devoted to his family, morally consistent, financially responsible, and relationally respected are the most important questions.  Eventually, the things a leader does when no one else is looking will break through all the "visionary" facade.  When that happens, it suddenly becomes clear whether the things which are most important are inherent in a leader's life.

Creflo Dollar's theology and lifestyle are easy to identify as a false Gospel to anyone with an ounce of discernment.  But for those who call ourselves followers of Jesus, its the less distinct expressions of bad character wrapped in "solid theology" or "visionary leadership" that is the real danger.  The Holy Spirit through Paul has warned us for 2000 years; when it comes to spiritual leadership, character is king.

Monday, March 09, 2015

My Favorite Half of Romans 14

One of the most annoying experiences of ministry often comes, interestingly enough, after I've preached a message. It's that moment when I'm standing in the back of the church shaking hands, and someone comes up and says "great message Dr. Rainey. I wish _________ could have been here to hear it. They need it!"

Honestly, it's hard in moments like that to keep my temper at bay. I want to ask, in righteous indignation, "don't you need it too? What's wrong with you that you see faults in others before you see them in yourself? Haven't you read Matthew 7:1-5?? Are you an idiot?? . . . .

. . .but just before exploding, the Spirit reminds me that often, I too, am an idiot.

For example, many folks on my wife's side of the family come out of a Holiness background. Because of this, they hold strong convictions that I don't hold. I remember early in our dating life when Amy would say "don't talk about movies we have seen around the relatives. They believe going to the theater is sinful."

Of course, my instant reaction was to appeal to Romans 14. After all, Paul has given us clear instruction regarding how to relate to each other on "debatable" matters. There is nothing . . .absolutely NOTHING in Scripture that forbids me from seeing a good movie, especially one in which there is lots of gunplay, fast cars, and buildings blowing up in a hopelessly gratuitous fashion. There is liberty in Christ, and where "movies for guys who like movies" are concerned, I aim to exercise my liberty!!

Furthermore, those who would object to my affinity for fast cars and bullets on the silver screen should consider carefully the following verses from Romans 14:" . . .and let not the one who abstains pass judgement on the one who eats, for God has welcomed him." v.3b"Who are you to pass judgement on the servant of another?" v.4"Why do you pass judgement on your brother?" v.10"Therefore, let us not pass judgement on one another any longer." v.13a

Wow, if only my "weaker brother" were here to read these verses. He sure needs it!

Problem is, in quoting my preferred half of this text, I've totally ignored (i.e. violated) the parts that are addressed to me in an effort to point out those parts that are addressed to my weaker brother. Talk about irony!

As a "stronger brother" in this regard, I should instead be looking at the following passages:"Let not the one who eats despise the one who abstains. . ." v.3a". . .but rather decide never to put a stumbling block or hindrance in the way of a brother." v.13b"For if your brother is grieved by what you eat, you are no longer walking in love By what you eat, do not destroy the one for whom Christ died." v.15"It is not good to eat meat or drink wine or do anything that causes your brother to stumble." v.21

Do such texts mean that I should totally abstain from seeing the next "Avengers" movie when it releases? Not necessarily. At the same time, it probably means I should keep quiet about it around certain folks out of deference for their convictions. OF course, they have their responsibilities as well. But I'm not responsible to fulfill my weaker brother's responsibilities. I'm responsible to fulfill mine.

The same is true for any other debatable issue. My denomination, for example, has, on the whole, very strong convictions about alcohol consumption . . .convictions that I share to a large extent. So when it comes to beer, I switch teams. I'm no longer a "strong" brother. Now, I'm a "weaker" one. And within our churches, I’ve noticed a strange phenomenon: almost anytime a debatable issue divides the strong and weak, the weak come out on top in the form of additional rules. The strong are often warned against causing others to stumble. The weak are rarely called out for judging their stronger brothers.

Perhaps this explains, at least in part, why there are so many evangelical churches that are culturally unengaged—bordering on the isolationist. To be sure, some of my more aggressively evangelistic brothers sometimes do things, and go to lengths, that give me pause. But when comparing those I believe sometimes go too far with the multitude majority who don’t go far enough, I think we need more of the former!

The thing that interests me about any debatable issue is that most folks are just like me . . .they have a propensity to appeal to those verses in Romans 14 that are addressed to their opponents. The problem with this approach is that it not only ignores those texts most applicable to you, but it also violates the spirit of the very texts to which we appeal; a spirit that is best summarized by Paul's contention that "the Kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking but of righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit."

"Whoever thus serves Christ is acceptable to God and approved by men. So then, let us pursue what makes for peace and for mutual upbuilding." (vv.17-18)

Appealing to my "preferred half" of Romans 14 is never conducive to the kind of peace and Kingdom thinking that Paul describes. To pursue peace, I have to appropriate the other half . . .the half that describes my responsibilities when it comes to debatable issues.

With this in mind, maybe I don't need to judge my brother who participates in activities I find I can't participate in without sinning. Conversely, perhaps I need to resist colorful descriptions of "Fury" in front of certain family members.

Maybe, just maybe, if we all practiced such things, righteousness and peace and joy would be seen more clearly in us by those who need to know Jesus. Just maybe, this is what Paul had in mind when he wrote Romans 14.

Tuesday, March 03, 2015

Five Things a Pastor Search Team Should Never Do.

For more information on these principles,
check out my book "Side-Stepping Landmines."

The following is an introduction to the principles in my book Side-Stepping Landlines, which can be ordered here. 

Over the past ten years, largely due to serving as interim pastor in 7 different churches, I've consulted with numerous teams who were charged by their churches to find a staff member.  In most cases, the team was seeking a Senior or Lead Pastor, and in most of those cases, the team felt inadequate for the task.

In some parts of the country, that feeling of inadequacy would be no surprise, but in the Mid-Atlantic, where 30% of the population has a Master's Degree or higher, and where 87% of the work-force is white-collar and high-income, its truly shocking.  Many of the people I've talked with on pastor-search teams in this area have themselves been part of conducting executive searchers for Fortune 500 companies, yet they still felt unprepared when it came to serving their church by recommending the next pastor.  I've discovered that, regardless of the demographic makeup of the church, those chosen to search for a pastor always feel a bit uncomfortable.  And I've seen too many search teams make some pretty big mistakes--over and over again.

Over the years, I've seen 5 common mistakes that Teams seeking a Pastor usually make.  These are things a Search Team should never do, but almost always do.

1. There is a fine line between communication and confidentiality, and Search Teams cross that line repeatedly.  Most Search Teams understand that confidentiality is important, and they also get that the congregation needs to be kept "in the loop" on the search process.  Unfortunately, clear guidelines are often missing on how to strike this balance, and the result is that many Search Teams say things they shouldn't, and keep to themselves things that need to be said.

2. They use people with their process rather than using the process to find the right people.  In other words, too many Search Teams become slaves to a process, rather than using that process as the tool.   The process becomes the end rather than the means, and this causes too many Team members to burn out, and too many good candidates to get burned.  Effective search teams master the process.  They are not mastered by it. 

3. They ask hypothetical questions when they interview.  Anyone with average intelligence can answer a hypothetical question in a way that makes you think he is an expert on every subject.  On this issue, many Search Team "handbooks" are no help either, as many of them are filled with questions that are philosophical and hypothetical, but never allow the Team to see for themselves what kind of man they have sitting in front of them.  Asking the right questions, and translating a candidate's answers appropriately will give the team a realistic picture of the person in front of them.  

4. They assume the important stuff, and as a result, fail to ask the hard questions.  While most pastors are high caliber when it comes to character, many pastors have fallen morally, and many others possess character flaws that will not serve the church well.   The most important questions are aimed right at issues like these, and they come right from the texts of 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1.  Unfortunately, many times these questions are never asked because a committee assumes that the title "Reverend" means they have a morally straight guy in front of them. An effective search team asks hard, and sometimes very personal, questions of a candidate. 

5. They don't consider contextual fit, and often hire the "best" candidate instead of the "right" candidate.  The guy with the highest earned degree, the longest run of experience, or the best "track record" in ministry might be the "best" candidate in a stack of resumes, but that doesn't mean he is right for your church.  Effective search teams don't hire the "best" man.  They hire the "right" one.

Search teams interested in learning more about these principles can find them in my book "Side-Stepping Landmines."