Two Strange Gifts That Working at a Mega Church Gave Me

For one strange reason or another, my first full-time ministry job (or part-time ministry job, for that matter) was at Willow Creek Community Church, at the time one of the largest churches in North America. At the time Willow was (and still is, in many ways) the flagship of the Evangelical, mega-church world. The statistics are probably old, but I do remember doing 12 Easter services over two days; we had a “conference season” during which we hosted a Small Groups Conference, Student Ministries Conference, Arts Conference, the Church Leadership Conference and, eventually, the Global Leadership Conference.

It was crazy, and tremendously exciting.

Looking back now, I’m struck with how that time at Willow (I worked for their “Axis” ministry, one of the first GenX/post-modern/post-college gatherings in North America) shaped me. I definitely internalized “The Willow Way” in regards to excellence and leadership, but I also received a couple of very different gifts that have significantly impacted my approach to ministry since.

Platform

Before I had 2 years of leading a worship ministry under my belt, I was teaching at Willow’s Arts Conference; before I really knew what post-modern worship was (do I know now?), I was conducting seminars and trying to help other pastors “figure it out.” Though practically all of us at Axis were wet behind the ears and learning to do ministry on the run, hundreds and hundreds of leaders from around the world sought us as experts. Though we were very vocal with our ignorance, and very up front with the idea that we were also just trying to figure things out, we also didn’t shy away from the attention.

In addition, I personally fielded invitations to come and lead worship at a variety of different camps, conferences and other churches. Again, I was honest enough to be somewhat humbled at the invitations given my inexperience, but I still accepted what I could and was privileged to lead in these different environments.

In short, Willow’s reputation within the evangelical world (again, well-deserved in almost all respects) was such that we were perceived as insightful experts on ministry. People listened to what we had to say; they paid attention the questions we were asking (because a good post-modern only asks the questions; never answers them).

In short, we were given a platform, and a pretty big one at that.

For the years that I taught and led around the Willow circle, it was amazing. But over time, I realized that it’s very easy to mistake having a platform for being a pastor. Platform and ministry can get so dangerously intertwined that when one diminishes, you start to question your effectiveness in the other. If you’re not careful, you start to believe that doing ministry equals having a platform, or somehow entitles you to be an expert. What’s more, in my case at least those invitations and opportunities began to feed an unhealthy ego, and I began to believe that I was entitled to have a voice. Rather than seeking an opportunity to serve my local community, I was raging with the thought that I was “too special” to be contained in only one church: I deserved to be traveling, to be playing at conferences and festivals.

This was about as far from Jesus as you can get.

Eventually, the platform went away. As “Willow Creek” moved lower and lower on my resume, the invitations came less and less frequently, and it was actually pretty depressing, until I came to realize what most people know already:

That practically every pastor in the world simply does his or her work, week in and week out, with no expectation of a platform:

  • no speaking engagements
  • no article writing
  • no leading seminars
  • no perception of being “an expert”

… and this is okay. 

I’m pretty embarrassed to admit this, but it’s the truth. Being a pastor does not mean you are an “expert” in ministry. It means that you’re a shepherd, trying to help people navigate their life in an effective, gospel-shaped and meaningful way.

Downward Mobility

The first strange gift from being on staff at Willow—or rather its loss—would have been difficult to navigate had it not been for the second gift.

In the process of becoming a member at Willow, Shana and I received a workbook to fill out that contained many of the values and principles that Willow sought to embody.

In its pages had a statement that we were charged with embracing and embodying as Willow Creek members:

“I will embrace the idea downward mobility as a way of life.” 

(Or something very similar to that.)

Wrap your heads around that for just a moment.

This mega church in the affluent Northwest suburbs of Chicago was asserting that the normal way of life for a follower of Christ was to embrace, not affluence and “prosperity”, but generosity and even poverty.

I have never, ever seen this statement in any other church membership material. Ever. 

For all of its reputation of “easy spirituality” and “cheap grace,” Willow was advocating a much more radical discipleship, and that statement has haunted me ever since I read it. It’s a simple assumption that every new ministry opportunity should be bigger, or more prestigious, than the last, but that short little sentence and concept reminds me that this was not the model of Jesus’ ministry. 

His ministry ended up with him being deserted by all of his followers and dying alone.

True downward mobility.

(Note that I am not saying all “up-and-to-the-right” ministry paths are bad; I’m just saying that you can’t evaluate success or failure this way.)

Obviously, this second gift made putting the first gift into context a bit easier. It was still difficult, but over time it made more and more sense. These days, I feel like I’m still doing “recovery work” from the first gift, and doing the difficult and challenging work of staying engaged with a community over the long haul. I’ve been blessed to do a couple of things here and there outside my church, but I can no longer pretend to be an expert on anything, and that’s really okay. Frankly, my spirit is much healthier when there are none.

Lastly, let me say that there were other gifts that I got from Willow as well: a baptism, a mentor, a vision for ministry, amazing friends and colleagues, the opportunity to be a part of a truly great team, to work under an amazing leader (and to see other amazing leaders work as well), and many, many others.

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Five (and a half) Resources to Boost Your Creativity (especially you, pastor)

Creativity Resources

Creativity Resources

If you know me at all, you’d know that I think more creativity in any field is a good thing, especially ministry. Creativity unlocks new approaches and new ideas, as well as improves existing ones. It’s almost an issue of stewardship, since it involves (I believe) reaching the full potential of our resources.

Seth Godin writes in Linchpin that we should approach our daily work like it’s a treasure: “It’s our one and only chance to do something productive today… A days’ work is your chance to do art, to create a gift, to do something that matters.”

Now, Seth Godin didn’t write any of the Gospels in my Bible, but there is some wisdom in this. Any vocation can benefit from additional vision and creativity, including ministry, whether in discipleship conversations, preaching, or even arranging our schedule.

Here are a few resources that can jump-start your creative journey.

  1. Sometimes we get bogged down with solving the same problems with the same solutions (which isn’t really solving them at all, is it?). Thinkertoys, by Michael Michalko, is a collection of creative brain exercises to help you examine problems and opportunities from radically different perspectives. The exercises will seem odd and counter-intuitive, but they bear much fruit over the long run.
  2. Are you bringing your best energy to the most important part of your day? Manage Your Day-to-Day is a collection of short essays and articles from business and thought leaders (including Seth). It’s a very hands-on, “tactical” book that can help you reevaluate how you are spending your time. The chapters are short enough to read in 10 minutes, and they include summer pages and key takeaways. This book is really, really critical to putting all of the theory into action.
  3. I think everyone should have a collection of poetry nearby. This may be a little out there, but poetry engages a different part of our brain than prose, and in order to bring all of our resources to bear on our challenges, we should be willing to stretch our creative muscles (i.e., our brains) a little. I picked up an anthology of works by Rumi, who is a widely respected Persian poet and mystic from the 13th century. I read 3 or 4 poems a week, always out loud (the way poetry is meant to be read), just treasuring the way the words are strung together. (Note: you don’t have to understand poetry it to benefit from it.)
  4. These two works are combined into one resource: PresentationZen and The Naked Presenter, both by Garr Reynolds, are invaluable works on public speaking or “presenting” (read: “Preaching”). The quality of our message—whatever that message is—is repeatedly compromised by our inabilities to clearly and effectively communicate it. What’s more, our tendency is to add more— more slides, more images, more bells and whistles (animations? ugh)—when a better approach would be to take away. Clear the deck, so to speak. Provide space. Clarity. Reynolds ruthlessly shows how to arrange thoughts and information in ways that shout by whispering.
  1. Lastly, I present the lowly Moleskine sketch book. Early on when I began preaching, I instinctively began using sketches (as opposed to
    Moleskine // Jonah Sketch

    Moleskine // Jonah Sketch

    outlines) to develop my thoughts. As Mind Mapping has shown, our brain doesn’t work linearly, it works through “webs”, and to the degree that we try to visualize our problems with an outline or some other “linear” display, we are actually working against our minds. My sketchbook allows me to work with the brain’s natural tendencies, rather than against them. The next time you are trying to map a project or construct a talk, try sketching the ideas first, rather than outlining them. (Obviously, a nice white board works well too.)

These are just a few tools and tricks that help me approach my work from a more creative space. If you have any others, feel free to share them here.

 

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Is Easter REALLY Our “Super Bowl”?

Is Easter Sunday REALLY the Super-Bowl?

Growing up in my faith tradition, it was common to hear Easter Sunday referred to as “The Super Bowl”. Since it is (was?) traditionally one of the most heavily attended Sundays of the year, there is always a tremendous amount of time and energy put into making an amazing Sunday experience—both for guests and for God.

We put together the best musicians we can find, we purchase thousands of dollars in Easter lillies, we polish the pews and the doors and we make extra room for people who will “check out faith” for perhaps the only time that year.

In short, we put our best foot forward.

Part of this effort is in recognition of the celebration of the resurrection: Easter really IS a special day in our faith, and we do our best to make our worship reflect the glory and joy of Jesus’ resurrection.

However, is calling it “The Super Bowl” really the best metaphor? I’m not sure.

(For starters, soccer is a much better metaphor for the spiritual life.)

The reason I’m rather uncomfortable with the Super Bowl image is that, well, it just puts too much of me in it. The Super Bowl depends on the players playing in it.

Christ’s resurrection does not.

Our best efforts on Easter are not so much to “make it happen” but to respond to something that has already happened.

Our Super Bowl really happened already. We are just basking in the victory now.

Furthermore, the Super Bowl metaphor (and yeah, I know: all metaphors break down eventually, but this is my rant, not yours) doesn’t really play out theologically: We play the Super Bowl; you (Who: guests? The Church?) watch us. 

I wonder if a different image might be a Feast: We are inviting people to “our house” where a great celebration is going to happen. We didn’t even cook the meal, but it’s going to be a night of rich food and deep celebration. We want you to come, but the success of the feast doesn’t really depend on our greatness, or the 6 (8? 10? 15?) hours of rehearsal…

It depends on the presence of the One whom we are celebrating.

We are participants, with you—the guests, the Church… everyone. 

We have come to the feast just like you. We are not separate.

So what if instead of “Playing the Super Bowl” this year, we “Went to the Feast” (and invited others to come as well)?

 

That Time When Jesus Wrecked My Ministry (Well, sorta)

English: Wrecking ball in use during demolition of the Rockwell Gardens housing project in Chicago, Illinois, February 2006.

English: Wrecking ball in use during demolition of the Rockwell Gardens housing project in Chicago, Illinois, February 2006.

I’ve written before about where my ministry shoulders are “broad”, meaning the areas that I feel competent and trained and able to execute fairly easily. When I began to teach and preach regularly a few years back, that started developing into an area of confidence and competence as well. I never thought of myself as a preacher, but I knew that words mattered to me, and somehow (for better or for worse) I was able to string together series of them into phrases and thoughts that seemed to matter to people. It seemed like I could do some good; people came up and affirmed me, and told me how much these thoughts and phrases had challenged them, or helped them to see God in a new way, or comforted them.

A part of me loved every minute of it.

My ego soaked it up, and began to believe all of those words that I heard. Each time I walked up onto our little platform, I desired to be poignant and clever; I wanted to shake people up, to invite them to see God and His world in an awe-filled and worshipful way. I continued to do some kind of good, and accepted people’s compliments with the requisite, “aw shucks” attitude that pastors are supposed to have.

But in retrospect I think that I was rotting inside.

When I began my sabbatical back in January, Jesus started dealing with me in some very serious, foundational ways, and one of the truths that I’ve had to deal with is how full of myself I can be.

My pride can be horrific.

For the past 10 months or so, I’ve been journeying inside myself to find all these nooks and crannies where destruction lives, and attempting to bring them out into the light where God can deal with them in a loving but firm way.

As a result, I’ve begun to feel somewhat like a normal human being.

But what’s been interesting—and even a little scary—is how it has impacted my ministry.

Because I have less confidence than ever.

Because I stumble over words more (maybe our congregation doesn’t notice, but believe me, I do.).

Because I feel empty. (Not in the spiritual way; in the “Watch-me-I-can-get-this-done-just-fine” way.)

Because I feel mostly like I don’t have any idea what I’m doing.

All because Jesus showed up. All because he showed up to show me how ill I truly was, how my ego was destroying me, how my inflated and false sense of self was keeping me from knowing healing and some semblance of love.

He showed up—not because he wanted to tear me down as a pastor—but because he wanted to build me up as a human being. He comes to do that, you know: to turn us into full human beings, like we’ve always been intended to be.

He’s still working on me; I’m still speaking and playing music, and I’m growing used to the idea of not being in control of everything.

He’s better at it than I am.

Weapons of Mass Production :: The “135 Principle”

You should see my “To Do” list…

Currently, it runs 11 pages.

This is not a source of pride for me; it’s simply a picture of what my priorities are.

I don’t know how long your list is, but let me as you this…

How many things do you try to accomplish on a given day? 

One of the things I’ve realized lately is that there’s a serious disconnect between what I think I can accomplish on a given day (given an 11 page long “To Do” list) and what I actually can accomplish. I used to wake up and be determined to make some serious dents in that list, but over and over again, I’d end up at the end of the day frustrated and discouraged, because the list just seemed to actually get longer not shorter. It was pretty demotivating.

vsco_0What if the problem is not with my work ethic, but with my expectations? Would it not feel more motivational if I actually was clear (and reasonable) with what I wanted to get done?-

I’ve been trying to re-frame my thinking about my daily productivity, based on something that I’m simply calling the “135 Principle.”

It’s based on the premise that in a given day, you can really only accomplish one really big goal, three medium-sized goals, and five small goals. 

  • The “1” could be that very significant, highly creative project you’re working on that needs the best of you over multiple hours. It’s the centerpiece of your day, the “mission” of that day.
  • The “3” could stand for the thirty-minute standing conversation you need to have with a co-worker regarding an upcoming meeting or event. It could be the set of instructions you need to write up, or the recap conversation or email you need to craft.
  • The “5” could represent phone calls or informational emails; things that are still proactive, but not necessarily time- or resource-intensive.

Sophisticated language, I know, but this was significant because I realized that I’d actually been operating in something like a 5-8-15 paradigm, and there simply is not enough time to do those things. 

And when we “fail”, over and over again, to accomplish things, most of us stop referring to our lists, because we become subtly aware that they don’t mean anything. When you constantly feel like you are unable to accomplish your list, a trigger starts to go off in your brain to avoid it. It’s a drain; it’s a sign of failure.

What something like the “135 Principle” can do is to help you manage your expectations and complete your tasks on a given day, which can give you a minor sense of accomplishment and some motivation to get up and accomplish the next day’s tasks.

 

It’s about momentum.

 

NEXT WEEK: I’m starting a new series on Jesus (surprise!) Stay tuned!

 

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Weapons of Mass Production, Pt 1

Something different today…

As a pastor, I have to balance my life between efficiency and love.

This is not easy, because these two concepts are nearly mutually exclusive.

But that’s my reality.

I have to cultivate efficiency because I’m a part of an organization, I lead a team of busy people, and we try to accomplish various things.

I have to “get things done.”

I have to cultivate love because as a pastor I’m charged ultimately with trying to help people cultivate the Spirit of God in their lives.

Most of the time it involves long conversations, sometimes sitting in silence with people as they cry.

This is seldom “efficient.”

Looking at the efficiency side of things first, I thought I’d list some of my most helpful tools. I’m not naturally organized and linear; I’m actually rather distracted, and can be more than a little spacey. I need tools and techniques in my life to help me “ship” and to be present—physically, emotionally, spiritually—when I need to be present.

I need efficiency in order to love.

So here are a few:

  • Getting Things Done. This book forms the backbone of how I organize my life. In a very concise nutshell, everything that you have to do in your life—pick up groceries, finish the TPS report, learn songs for band practice, etc.—is taking up mental energy that you need for the most important/creative work that you have to do. So you get it out; you write everything down in a brain dump, and then you organize it and begin to tackle it. If you’re just getting started in productivity, or looking for a new way to organize your life, take a look at it.
  • OmniFocus. This app is my primary day-to-day task manager, and integrates well with Getting Things Done (GTD). They make it an iPad and iPhone version, as well as a desktop version as well. It syncs—fairly seamlessly—in the cloud and so my tasks are always with me. Very, very powerful, but very helpful (and also pretty beautiful, especially on the iPad and iPhone). The Omni Group make very, very good software. Everything I have to do goes in here, from writing exercises, to meetings, to events, to weekly worship planning.
  • Evernote. Evernote is critical to grabbing ideas, storing pdfs, sermon ideas, meeting agendas, even songwriting ideas. I use Evernote for anything that I want to have readily available. It’s powerful and simple. A great, great tool; make sure you get the mobile version(s).
  • Merlin Mann’s “Inbox Zero” Talk at Google. Merlin is passionate about productivity; he is also irreverently funny and brilliant. This talk (it’s almost an hour long, btw, so set aside enough time) has the capacity to radically change your approach to email. I’m still struggling to get to “Inbox Zero” myself, but it definitely woke me up to some of the pitfalls of email, and how I’d been using.
  • Moleskine notebooks. Part of the GTD system is capturing all the ideas that have the potential to drain your creative energy and distract your and writing them down so you don’t have to think about them. In order to do that, keeping various notebooks on hand is important. My primary notebook is 8×5 1/2 (alternating between squared and blank pages), but I also use 8×5 1/2 cahiers for various bible studies and class notes, a reporters notebook for my car, and finally an extra large notebook that I use as a sketchbook for larger-scale creative brainstorming.
  • Moleskine year calendar. Though I use iCal for my day-to-day calendar, when things get really crazy I reach for a paper calendar. I find that my relationship between me and my calendar changes when I actually have to write things down: I remember more things, but I also get more critical about what I’m doing. I’m somehow more emotionally present to a paper calendar, and that forces me to examine what I’m doing, and why I’m doing it. The large calendar also allows me to see my week at a glance and to easily identify blocks of time that are either being used or are “unseized.”

There are so many tools out there, but these are the ones I keep in my box. These are my efficiency tools.

Do you have any that you share?

“I Got 21 Problems…”

Each week, as I climb the three stairs to our stage, I have potentially a whole host of problems going through my head; here are just twenty-one:

  1. Who is on the team this week?
  2. What’s the pastor speaking on?
  3. Who’s running sound?
  4. Who is running lights?
  5. What will the graphics look like?
  6. Did I remember to put the “Chorus” graphic in twice?
  7. What arrangement of (that song) did we decide on?
  8. Should that be an “Fmaj7″ or just an “F”?
  9. Will the sound guy know when the guitar solo is?
  10. Will the coffee be brewed?
  11. Will the announcement person pray?
  12. Will there be any spelling errors or typos in slides?
  13. Did I meet that person last week?
  14. Who’s counting off the first song?
  15. Who’s counting off the second song?
  16. Where’s my bible?
  17. Does that child’s parents know that they’re in here?
  18. Where’s that buzz coming from?
  19. Did I eat breakfast?
  20. Is that “clever transition” going to work?
  21. AM I MAKING A DIFFERENCE????

Obviously, I can not answer most of these questions; however, I believe one of the essential elements for doing ministry is peace of mind. By the time I walk to the center of the stage, I need to be centered spiritually, intellectually and emotionally, and every question I have to deal with has the potential to pull me off my game. Luckily, I have to make choices with most of them. I can:

  1. Control them by answering them between Monday and Friday
  2. Control them by answering them Sunday with a conversation or a phone call
  3. Trust that they are answered, and just wait and see
  4. Know that they are not answered, but just release them (and make a note to address them later)

The trick to doing nearly anything is knowing when to press/control and when to release. There are simply certain things that I will trade in order to preserve my peace of mind. It may mean that I have to deal with a “curve ball” or two, but I also know where my “shoulders are big“, so I know which areas/categories are easier for me to release.

What about you? Do you know what questions confront you when you are “shipping”? Do you know what to release, control, or trust?