Thursday, March 23, 2017

5 Qualities of a Great Team Member

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 with me, and 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--be they paid subordinates or volunteers, 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 (its happened once or twice!), 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?  I have a friend who 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, how educated or skilled the individual members of your team are matters far less than their passion for the mission.  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?"

You can't be a loner and be in ministry--at least not for long!  And you can never do it effectively by yourself.  Be sure you have good people on your team, and ask these questions before you put them there.

Friday, March 17, 2017

Five Lies People Tell about the Church

As a pastor, I've had many unfortunate encounters with domestic violence and its consequences.  I've sat in my office across the table from a woman wearing sunglasses to hide the bruises.  I've tried to comfort children as their father was handcuffed and taken from their home for beating up mom.  In a few situations, the husband was escorted to jail as he simultaneously declared his love for the woman he just battered.  But no one--not the police, his children, or me--was buying it.  The violence and vitriol that brought all of us to that house was evidence enough that he didn't truly love her.

You just can't beat someone up while claiming at the same time that you love them.  No one believes that--unless of course, you are talking about the church.

There seem to be a lot of people who "follow Jesus" but take every opportunity they can get to give His bride a black eye.  Too many of them claim to be "Christian leaders" who are constantly critical of the church.  Though their violence against her isn't physical, the lies they spread about her infect our culture like cancer.

Of course, the church isn't perfect.  Each time I speak at an ordination service for a new pastor I warn the young man of the challenges that await him by expressing  that while one day Jesus' bride will be spotless, beautiful, and completely holy (Revelation 7:9-17), right now she can be a rather ugly woman!  Like Israel before her, sometimes she can be stubborn, given too much to tradition, concerned only for herself, and even openly rebellious against her Lord.  The wedding supper still in her future, the bride of Christ remains in her chamber working on multiple imperfections as she prepares for that day.  She is a work in progress.

But there is a difference between honest, helpful critique of the church and the snide, dismissive tone with which too many who claim to follow Jesus speak about His beloved.  As one called to be a shepherd to His people, I admit that I can get quite defensive when I sense that helpful criticism has descended into outright verbal abuse.  After all, you are talking about my family!

Over the years, the most acute forms of this abuse have presented themselves through five lies people tell about the church.

1. They don't care about the poor/homeless/disenfranchised.  Less than a month after moving to the West Virginia panhandle I met with the leadership of Jefferson County Community Ministries.  This organization coordinates the work of multiple churches in the county who serve the poor and homeless.  This coming week, the homeless in our county will find shelter in our facility.  Volunteers will cook them breakfast every morning.  The next week, they will relocate to another church in the area--all of them working together to serve the most vulnerable.

Our food pantry distributes approximately 25,000 pounds of food each month, and we are far from the only church in our area helping the vulnerable.  And everywhere I have ever served as a pastor, I have been honored to work in similar environments--churches banded together in some way to serve the poor

Could the church be more effective?  Could we serve more?  Of course.  But I suspect, once the stats are truly known regarding what churches are really up to, it will become clear that they are already doing far more than the loud-mouth critics on social media who only talk.

2. We subsidize their religion with our taxes.  This is, by far, one of the most deceptive statements about churches.  Because churches qualify under 501(c)3 status as non-profit organizations, their income is not subject to taxes.  Additionally, contributions to churches are tax deductible, just as contributions to your local Red Cross chapter are deductible.  The only way this situation could be construed as "subsidizing" is if you believe all money ultimately belongs to the government.  Government doesn't "subsidize the church."  The church provides services that government and its citizens benefit from daily, at bargain prices!

3. They are all about the money/building. As a guy who used to serve a netowork of more than 560 churches I have to ask; have you actually seen most church facilities?  Have you actually reviewed the financial balance sheets of the majority of churches whose name isn't Saddleback?

I could share multiple stories of churches whose facilities are inadequate, but who continue to serve.  I could share more stories of faithful pastors going for weeks without a paycheck because the church couldn't afford it, yet still serving God's people faithfully.  I could fill a book with stories of churches who passed on needed facility upgrades so that monies could be forwarded to reach the nations with the Gospel.

4. Churches are full of hypocrites.  Actually, churches are full of sinners redeemed by the blood of Jesus.  And since hypocrisy is one kind of sin, yes, we have hypocrites among us--just like hypocrites exist outside of our fellowship.  We also have porn-addicts, liars, adulterers, drug-addicts, alcoholics, and every other kind of person whose sin has separated them from their God--who has found full pardon in the bloody cross and empty tomb we offer every Sunday.  If you join us, you may find forgiveness as well.

5. I don't need the church to follow Jesus.  Well, if you are the kind of person who speaks these sorts of lies about your brothers and sisters in Christ, that fact is evidence enough that you aren't developing well as Jesus' disciple without the church.

I suspect that, underneath the surface, there is a real reason the church catches the flack she does.  Its because the church is an easy target.  She can't tax you.  She can't imprison you.  She can't negatively affect you once you leave.  She can't compel you to do anything.  In a culture of free religion and free market, no one is obligated to support a church in any way, yet free to speak ill of her at their leisure.

But if you claim to follow Christ while simultaneously smearing the church every chance you get, you might consider how unhappy He is going to be with you when He returns one day to find a battered wife whose bruises you caused.

If you truly love Jesus, you will stop talking about His bride in such demeaning ways, and join her in the mission Her Lord has given her.

Tuesday, March 07, 2017

Islam, Muslims, and the Importance of Knowing the Difference

"I've never met Islam.  I think Islam owes me $5.  But apparently Islam hates America, which is fascinating."  -Wajahat Ali

"Islam is a diverse religion with many expressions, though unfortunately there is a demonstrable tendency among Muslims to assume only one legitimate interpretation of Islam"  -Nabeel Qureshi

On March 23, I'll be participating in a panel discussion at nearby Shepherd University talking about our multi-faith world and how we can coexist together in peace.  The objective is to build relationships and foster a deeper understanding of the three Abrahamic religions--Christianity, Judaism, and Islam.  As such, I'll be joined by an area Rabbi, and my friend Imam Faruq Post of the Islamic Society of Western Maryland.  And while I'm anxious for leaders of all three religions to know one another and model peace, I have a particular concern for my Muslim neighbors, who are often maligned and held in high suspicion.

Yes, I'm still an evangelical pastor who believes the Old and New Testaments combine to form the very written words of the living God.  I still believe Jesus is God, crucified for sin and risen from the dead.  And I still believe the only hope for the world is that all people hear this message, and accept it.

So why would someone like me participate in a panel like this?  For one thing, my faith teaches me that it is a sin to bear false witness against my neighbor (Exodus 20:16), and too many in the west who call themselves followers of Jesus have repeatedly violated this command where our Muslim neighbors are concerned.

But there is another reason I look forward to March 23.  Its because the church family I'm honored to lead can't be faithful to Jesus' call to share His message unless we are willing to build relationships with people not like us--which is precisely what Jesus did!

We fear our Muslim neighbors because we don't know them!  Its time for that to change!

Prior to the September 11, 2001 attacks on our country, few people in the west gave much thought to Islam.  Most non-Muslim Americans were aware of their fellow Muslim citizens, but because they kept their distance and never really got to know them, they had summarily stereotyped their understanding of what it meant to be a follower of Islam.

After 9/11, rather than seeking to understand through relationships, many Americans just added a suicide vest to that stereotype.  Since that time, "fake news," fear-mongering politicians, and regrettably a few notable Christian leaders have continued to stir the pot of ignorance, discord, and division. All of this is fueled by the generalized assumption that "Islam hates the west" or "Islam's values are antithetical to America's values."  These are strange statements to the many Muslims who have lived peacefully among us for many decades now.  I have a friend who served as a Senior Advisor to President George W. Bush, who currently works with an organization that promotes global religious freedom.  He has been a devout Muslim his entire life.

Last year while at a meeting in Washington I met a former Ambassador who served during the Reagan administration--also a devout Muslim. Fighting back tears, her concern was obvious.  "I don't recognize my own country any more," she said.  I have another dear Muslim friend, a young professional with a wife and young child who is building a quiet life in the country for his family.  He is pro-life, pro-traditional family, pro-business, and believes in small, limited government.  And just recently he told me "I'm a Republican, but I couldn't vote for the Republican this year because I feared I might be voting for my own extermination."  I could go on, but these stories alone should demonstrate that Islamophobia is alive and well.

Yes, there are violent forms of Islam in the world, and these movements are dangerous and must be eliminated.  The temptation to assess based on fear is understandable, but dangerous to our civil discourse, and for those who follow Jesus, it is simply antiChrist.

As an Evangelical pastor, I'm not particularly fond of Islam--not because I believe it is a threat to national security, but because I believe it endangers the soul.  But I know and walk in relationship with numerous Muslims who live all over the world, and I love every one of them.  Some of them have become like brothers to me, and in watching those relationships develop I've learned many valuable lessons.  But perhaps the most important lesson is this:  Islam is a highly diverse religion, practiced in at least three "denominational" expressions among more than 1.7 billion people worldwide.  Any religion with that many adherents can't simply be painted into a simplistic corner.  In fact, the best way to understand isn't to read a book about Islam, but to simply get to know your Muslim neighbor. In other words, if we want to have a meaningful conversation about what is transpiring in our world, we have to distinguish between "Islam" and "Muslims."  There are several reasons for this:

1. Faith is not a Monolith.  Think of the difference between an Eastern Orthodox Priest in Armenia, and a Pentecostal preacher in Alabama.  Both are "Christian."  But they don't look or sound very much like each other, do they?  That same sort of diversity exists within Islam.  My Turkish Muslim friends in Baltimore are anything but identical to my friend in Hagerstown who is a Burmese Imam.  Faith is a very personal thing to devout Muslims, and beyond the "five pillars" you will find a wide degree of opinion on a large number of issues.  Just ask them!

2. Systems are not People.  There are numerous Catholics who are on the pill.  Multitudes of Baptists consume alcohol regularly.  I have a Reconstructionist Rabbi friend who will not refuse a good slice of ham.  In this regard, Islam is no different.  Once you actually get to know the people who call themselves "Muslim" you discover numerous opinions on everything from shellfish to alcohol to head coverings
3. History is not Theology.  In recent years, an understandable question has emerged regarding which Islam is the "true" Islam?  While I sympathize with this curiosity, as a Christian theologian I have to refuse the premise of that question.  For Christians, our faith is rooted in and dependent upon the death and bodily resurrection of the Jesus of history (among other things).  But to appeal to "true Islam" by seeking its historical roots is, in my view, to commit a two-fold error.  First, doing so assumes an historical timeline that bears the same validity as our own faith, and I simply reject that.  But additionally, seeking to trace the historical roots of Islam in order to ferret out its "real" theology is to ignore that Muslims themselves worldwide rarely connect the two.  Though Muhammad is revered by all, his life, beliefs, and actions are understood very differently even within the Muslim world.  It is, therefore, unfair of us to ascribe a belief system to our Muslim neighbors that is rooted in an understanding of Islamic history they themselves may reject.

4. Lecturing isn't listening. I was 12,000 miles from home, sitting with my wife across the table from the only other white people in a Chinese city of more than 2 million.  The husband--an Indianapolis police officer--asked me what I did for a living, and when I said "I'm a Baptist pastor," he responded with the only reference point he had--Westboro "Baptist" Church, and said "so you are the folks who hate gay people?"

Feel that sting?  That's the same sting your Muslim neighbors feel when you lecture them about what they "really" believe.  So just don't do it.

Too many Christ followers make generalized claims such as "well, if they were really following the Koran they wouldn't be so 'peaceful.'"

I'm really thankful that when most non-Christians read Exodus 31:12-15, Leviticus 20:10, Numbers 21:34-35, Joshua 10:40, 1 Samuel 15:2-3, or any of the other 842 violent passages in Scripture, they give me the benefit of the doubt. Some even allow me the courtesy of explaining where these passages fit within the larger context of my faith.   I think we owe our Muslim neighbors the same courtesy with regard to Sura 2.  I'm not even saying their interpretation is the right one.  But let's allow them to tell us what they believe.  They can't do that if we are lecturing instead of listening.

Instead, get to know them, assume you really don't know what they believe--because you don't.  Ask questions.  Have a conversation.  Get to know each other.

And if you live in this area, you have an opportunity to do just that on March 23!

There is much fear in our culture, but followers of Jesus who walk in the Spirit don't walk in fear (2 Timothy 1:7).  So let's stop talking about "Islam" and get to know a few Muslims.  For one, we have a mandate to share our faith--a topic most of them are eager to discuss.  But even if they never believe as we do, there is a pretty good chance that a deep friendship will result that will bless you both.

It also happens to be an excellent way to defeat terror and bigotry at the same time.