What You Give is Who You Are

I spent this weekend with some friends in Texas; they’ve been inviting me to come play music at their church for about 10 years now, so every 18 months or so I make the quick trip (Sat-Sun) to the Lone Star state and worship together.

One of the reasons I enjoy visiting them (aside from the relationship) is the fact that their lead pastor is a fairly unabashed fan of electric guitar, and the blues in particular. In fact, there have been times that he has flat told me to “play more.” He likes it when I let go, and I think from his perspective it blesses the church, so he encourages it.

On Saturday night a group of us went out to dinner, and I spent some time chatting with some gifted worship leaders who were also serving. Over the course of the conversation we got into a conversation that I (unfortunately) have had over and over again with “church musicians”: it’s the conversation about “freedom” and “expression” in the church.

When is too much?

When are we being distracting?

Should we close open our eyes?

Should we close our eyes?

I have been playing music in churches now for 18 years. When I was being interviewed for my first job, one of my interviewers asked me pointedly, “Do you own an acoustic guitar?” (I did not; I am primarily an electric guitar player.)

His point was that church culture pointed to the idea of a worship leader who plays acoustic guitar and sings.

So I bought an acoustic guitar, and though I led primarily from electric in the first few years, I told myself that when I “grew up” I would play acoustic for worship, since that’s what all the “real worship leaders” did. Eventually I tried it, and kept it up off and on for a few years, butI put the acoustic down (on Sundays, anyway) about 5 years ago, when I came to the conclusion that i am an electric guitar player.

I feel most natural, and most “at home” this way. For the most part, this “at home-ness” translates to people. As far as I can tell, when I’m playing electric–even if I’m playing “authoritatively” or even an intense solo–what people experience is me being quite natural.

This was not the case with acoustic guitar. I felt uncomfortable. Limited. Odd.

In my experience, the issue with worship leaders is not so much what instrument (if any) they play or HOW they play it (as long as it’s somewhat proficiently): rather, the issue is

“Where are you the most at home?”

I don’t frame this as a selfish question. In a way, a worship gathering is like a 3-way dialogue between the worship leader(s), the congregation and God.

If the worship leader isn’t at home in his/her own skin, how can they have a natural, engaged dialogue with the congregation? Or even God?

This isn’t an advocacy for the “worship guitar solo”. It’s not a call to put all worship leaders behind acoustic guitars or pianos.

It’s a call–or more preferably an invitation–for worship leaders to go on a journey of musical (and spiritual self-discovery and to know very deeply who they are, and where they are at home. It’s actually more important than you think, because ultimately you can only bring who you are–acoustic, electric, vocalist, etc–to the community. You cannot bring someone else to this event, this conversation.

People don’t need to hear from who you think they need to hear from. They need to hear from you; the deepest, truest part of you. You owe to them, and to yourself to learn and know who that is, so you can bring that gift.

Relatedly, it’s also a call for lead pastors and churches to be a part of this journey as well, and recognize both when a musician is “not at home and when they are. Rather than just assume, “Worship leaders in our church lead from acoustic (or whatever)”, watch for when things just seem to “click”, and the dialogue between the leader, the congregation, and God comes alive.

(And then listen for the guitar solo…)

BTW, I’m not sure this counts as someone who feels “at home” (2:10):



Twitter: @ericcase


Dream … Small

Are big dreams the only dreams

Last week I spent two days along with some other leaders from my church at Willow Creek’s Global Leadership Summit (full disclosure: my wife actually works for the GLS). As usual the conference was full of top-notch speakers and cutting edge leadership and vision discussions, and it was awesome to take a bunch of folks from my church and have them hear such great speakers.

However, with where I’m at in my life personally, the GLS brought up some interesting tensions. Most of the speakers (Christian and otherwise) talked over and over again about having huge dreams, and how important these big dreams are to the world.

The particular challenge that I have in my life—and one that I have to continually come to terms with—is how damaging “big dreams” actually are to my life. You see, if you were susceptible at all (like I am) to the ravages of pride and self-centeredness, then big dreams are actually the worst possible things that you can entertain. When I allow big dreams to enter my life without some kind of balance, interior wreckage and disaster and seems.

In other words, big dreams can be an absolute disaster in my life.

And yet, this is where so much of Christian culture seems to be nowadays. I think one speaker even said something like if we leave something undone in the world, then God will never get it done. To my thinking this is outrageous.

Whenever I hear really really good people talking about grandiose visions and making some kind of huge impact in the world, I think about Richard Rohr’s comments about how the United States professes to be such a thriving Christian culture and yet we are at least as addicted and obsessive as everyone else in the world; maybe moreso.

Anybody in recovery would tell you that pride and self-centeredness are foundational “sins” that fuel our addictive and compulsive behaviors. 

Can the church actually be contributing to this addiction and compulsion?

Don’t get me wrong, I took lots and lots of notes last Thursday and Friday. I love learning new things. My voracious curiosity is a huge part of who I am. But I can only take these new ideas seriously to a certain degree in my life before they start getting unhealthy.

To be blunt, I actually think that what the church needs is people who dream small dreams. People who want the kingdom inside their hearts to be ruled by God, rather then doing some amazing outward work of ministry.

I think truly transformed and enlightened individuals who have dreamed the small dream of simply, “Change me, Lord,” can make a drastic difference in our schools church, churches, and neighborhoods.

How do you organize a conference around that?

At the same time, however, I want to say  that there were some really powerful glimpses of hope. For instance, a good friend of mine did an impromptu interview on camera, and in subtle but firm contrast to all of the talk of big dreams and grandiose visions, he related about how his call to ministry was one small, open window after another. He said something like, “for me to think that one day I would be leading worship at the Global Leadership Summit when I started out in ministry would’ve been absolutely outside of my framework. But it seems like God just open tiny little edoors one after the other and I just was faithful to what he brought to me.”

(I am paraphrasing)

In addition, Jeffrey Immelt, the CEO of General Electric, made a passing comment that was struck me. He mentioned that working for him was “not about the career, it was about the work.” In other words, what he seemed to be saying is that sometimes you need to forget the big dreams and do the things, day-to-day, that you love to do. I wonder if some pastors (if you’re anything like me) need to remember “the work” they were called to do (put loosely: preaching and healing) and why they do what they do and press “pause” on the big dreams and visions for a little while

Put the career on hold, and focus on the work.

After all, I think God has the big things covered.

Sherlock and Leadership “Clues”

Surely we can agree: Benedict Cumberbatch is the Dreamiest Sherlock Ever.bbc-sherlock-1600

Okay, so I’m pretty addicted to the latest version of Sherlock Holmes, courtesy of the BBC. Robert Downey Jr. not withstanding, it’s a really great iteration of the story. A modern-day Sherlock and Dr. Watson (played by Martin Freeman, aka Bilbo Baggins) solve crimes around modern London and England in that oh-so-distinctive (and deductive) way: Sherlock perceives the clues and hints surrounding an “unsolvable” case and eventually comes up with a solution.

One of leadership’s most crucial tasks is to “interrogate reality.” That is to say, a leader’s job is to be able to take the pulse of his or her team/organization by asking questions like:

What’s succeeding?
What’s failing?
Where are resources needed?
Who needs encouragement?
What needs vision?

And so the list goes on. The main point is to be able to assemble an accurate portrait of what’s going on. Really going on.

Kind of like solving a crime.

A repeating theme in Sherlock (or it’s California-equivalent, Psych) is when the police rush to a decision because they have reacted to the most obvious clue. Sherlock then shows up to show how they’ve missed 5 other clues that would lead them down to a different suspect.

A different reality.

Similarly, one of the most common mistakes I’ve seen leaders make is when they attempt to interrogate reality using only one—usually very obvious—clue. It’s the ONE conversation with their favorite employee; it’s the SINGLE e-mail that says something disastrous (or something amazing); it’s the one metric that determines their paradigm.

But just like inspector Lestrade, this singular clue is most likely leading them to a skewed version of reality.

I’ve been around leaders who have contentedly announced, “Sue is so happy here!” while at the same time I’ve heard from 3 other people that Sue is frustrated and feels like she’s not listened to.

It’s easy to blame Sue and say, “Well she’s not being honest.”

But here’s the deal: you’re the leader. You are the one who is supposed to provide an environment where Sue can be honest, or at the very least you should be disciplined enough to talk to multiple people about Sue’s state of mind.

The thing leaders need to do is to step back and look at the wider view; to assemble a multitude of clues from which they can more accurately deduce the truth. What employees are they not hearing from? Which segment of the church population does not have a voice? What metric is being ignored?

Interrogating reality is not easy. Facing the truth is a bit scary, and merely mustering up the energy to observe multiple “clues” can be exhausting. At the same time, that essentially is one of our charges as leaders and influencing.

It’s elementary.

(did you like how I did that?)


Worship Leading Throughout the Room

For awhile I’ve been telling the folks on the worship team at my church to remember that they are always leading worship.

In fact, I prefer the negative form:

You are never not leading worship. 

You see, once you embrace your role as a leader, you no longer always get to choose when and how people respond to you.

In fact, I think it’s just best to assume that—on Sundays especially—people are always observing you, and therefore you always have the chance to “lead worship”, whether you’re on stage or not. You are always leading, so here’s a few ways to lead worship from “around the room”:

  • In the Parking Lot or Lobby: How do you conduct yourself before people know your gifts? Do you make an effort to get to know people? If “Leadership” is a part of “Worship Leading”, than we have to keep in mind that leadership is inherently relational. Saying “hi” to people far away from the stage increases people’s relational connection to you, which leads to trust, which increases your ability to help facilitate their experience with God.
  • In the Back of the Room: Or the side. Or in the front pew. How do you worship when you are not on stage? Is your experience of God as dynamic and vital off the stage as it is on the stage? Because people may be watching you. It’s about authenticity; it’s about saying, “This time—this response to God—is really this important whether I’m on stage or not.”

    (p.s. This means that you’re actually in the room, and not hiding in the green room or sleeping in…)

  • Backstage: What attitudes are you fostering among your band members? Are you bringing to life the same things within your team that you sing about in front of your community? What do rehearsals feel like? Are they relational, gospel-centered?
  • In the Tech Booth: When I visit churches, I carefully watch the tech teams: the audio, lighting, and graphics people. These individuals are usually the best barometer of the spiritual and emotional health of your worship team. How are you leading them? Are you treating them with respect, and seeking to understand their needs and perspective?

Like it or not, once you embrace leadership, you step into a spotlight that seldom dims. People are watching you, and you will influence—lead them—their response to God in every interaction that you have with people.

You are never not leading worship. This is a great opportunity; steward it well.



The Second Shot ALWAYS Comes

I was listening to the Fresh Air interview with Ben Affleck (it’s really good, IMO), and he was talking about some advice he received as a first-time/inexperienced movie director. Early in his career, he was told, “Know what your second shot will be.”

Affleck explains that a first-time director always knows what his first shot on a movie set will be; in order to avoid looking like a fool, you map it out, you agonize over the details, you go over everything in your head so you can gain the amount of respect and collateral that you will need to complete the film.

However, as Affleck explains, the first shot gets over pretty quick, and it’s at that point that everyone turns to you and says, “Well, what now?”


I believe that this is where a lot of us get hung up. When we are starting something new—a recording project, a teaching series, mentoring someone. We focus tremendous amounts of creative time and energy into the first meeting, the first writing session, the first song, etc., but then something remarkable and troubling happens.

The second meeting/song/Sunday comes rolling around.

And we are shocked, and then sent scrambling to try and write and prepare and execute.

Whenever we start a new project, put some muscle behind what is going to come second as well.

(Incidentally, this is also helpful to remember whenever someone asks you to get involved in a project or movement… There’s always a second shot/meeting/song/gig. Oftentimes, we have the resources—time, energy, ideas, etc.—for the first meeting, but before you become involved you should ask yourself, “WHEN this project continues, will I have the capacity to remain committed? Do I have the resources to help with the ‘second shot’?” 


Weapons of Mass Production, cont. :: Leadership Tools

Leadership Tools

Without a watch I can tell you—within about 3 minutes or so—when 1 hour has elapsed.

No really, I can.

I can do this little parlor trick because over the past 15 years of my life I have had to learn how to use 60 minutes of time in the most effective way possible.

I have learned this because, as a Pastor and a leader, one of the most valuable tools I have in my little bag of rusty tools is the one-on-one meeting with volunteers, and this usually happens (in my context at least) over lunch. I don’t have a staff that I can call into a conference room and work things out over a 3 hour meeting. Typically, I have 50-55 minutes to work with.

And I need to know (though God often intervenes and changes my agenda) what I’m doing.

As I was thinking about this, I approach my one-on-one meetings in four distinct ways. Sometimes they bleed into each other and overlap, but by and large these are the “buckets” I place meetings in.

  • The Directive Meeting.  Sometimes I—or my team—needs something done (or I need someone to stop doing something). These meetings are driven by a sense of strategic need and values. A directive meeting demands that you know—as precisely as possible—what it is you’re going to ask. Moreover, you should be able to communicate that somehow within one to three sentences. It’s also helpful to understand the why behind this directive: what is the value or need that is driving this request?
  • The Counseling or Pastoral Meeting. I’m not the best counsellor in the world, but nevertheless I recognize that this is a non-negotiable part of my job, so I try to do my best. The pastoral meeting is sometimes reactive (in other words, a response to a team member’s request to meet) and sometimes proactive or even confrontational (driven by an awareness or observation of a behavior). I tend to take the approach that people in these situations are hurting, even if they’re not aware of it. Therefore, I try to establish a warm, listening environment, and give plenty of space to talk. There may not be a firm “result” to these meetings, but my overall approach and paradigm is driven by something Brennan Manning wrote. “You are going to leave people feeling a little better or a little worse. You’re going to affirm or deprive them, but there’ll be no neutral exchange.” That may be over-simplifiying things just a bit, but for me that works. That quote establishes the playing ground for me.
  • The Coaching Meeting. The coaching meeting is driven by a firm agenda and a specific approach. “Coaching” refers to a method of helping people achieve specific goals within a specific time period. Unlike the directive meeting, most of the time the individual—not me—establishes the goals that I’ll coach them through. In my context, it can be the desire to pray more, or to write more, or to practice more. Also in contrast to the directive meeting, coaching is built on the idea that the answers and solutions lie within the individual, not the coach. It’s my job to establish a framework and to provide some accountability. Lastly, it’s time-bound, meaning a coaching relationship is meant to only last for a specific amount of time and a specific project (if you want to know more about coaching, you can start exploring it here).
  • The “Being” Meeting. Sometimes the greatest gift you can give your team members is the gift of your presence. Without an agenda. Sometimes you need to put away the lists and set aside the values and simply value them as human beings. Not surprisingly, for many of us these meetings are the most difficult ones to schedule and execute, but they can also reap the heaviest benefit. People (including myself) have a need to know that they are valuable far beyond their gifts and talents, and eating a meal together with no agenda is a great way to cultivate that reality in their spirit.

These are my meeting “buckets”; again, sometimes the edges are fuzzy, and sometimes my agenda and plans get disrupted. But I still make an intentional decision on how I approach my time together with my people. It values their time and efforts, and provides a framework and environment within which God works. Maybe it goes without saying, but the last tool to use when it comes to one-on-one meetings is to know what kind of meeting you are going into. 

If you’re in leadership, do you have one-on-one “buckets” or categories that you use? Feel free to share them here.


You Have to Know Your Story

Last week I was in Dallas to lead worship with some friends of mine. My in-laws also live in the area, so I spent the night with them, and ended up driving around Arlington, marveling at how the area had grown (and shaking my fist at Texas Stadium, but that’s another story). Driving through the warm Texas fall, I noticed something that I found utterly fascinating.

Arlington has mostly always been a place of strip malls and—to my eyes anyway—awful urban planning. It has been marked by the worst of our public space and architecture, of a lack of awareness of history and human scale. In some ways, this trip merely confirmed all of that: ugly buildings that were merely twenty years old had been destroyed to make way for new ugly buildings. Chain businesses that had been thriving years ago had been rebranded and become new chain businesses that were now (for the moment) thriving.

But then I noticed something else.

Astonishingly, in the midst of this urban/suburban renewal and sprawl, I found two unlikely establishments that had somehow weathered the storm, and were still open,—twenty-plus years later—and were still going strong.

photo-4Out to breakfast with my father-in-law, we were driving down Division street when I asked him to slow down. There, set back from the street about 50 yards, was  “The Gold Nugget”. This place was really special to me and my wife, since it was the place where we really began dating. Back in the day it had a stage, and a volleyball court out back, but here’s the deal: in 1992 this place was a bit dingy, and a throwback. How in the world is it still in business? 

As I left Arlington and drove to Garland, I drove up Collins Street, past Cowboys stadium. Almost immediately across from that monstrosity was a tiny restaurant called “The Pitt Grill”.

That’s right: that’s the name.

Image via rollbamaroll.com

Image via rollbamaroll.com

I don’t know how long the Pitt has been in business. I know that I used to go there and get greasy eggs and bacon (mmmmm bacon) twenty years ago, and as best I can tell, greasy eggs and bacon are still on the menu today.

The Pitt has no website; neither does the Gold Nugget. Yet these two businesses somehow have weathered the storm of development that has utterly remade (and erased) most of Arlington.

There is no sleek, modern design in their dining rooms…

They don’t serve sushi…

They don’t serve any form of fusion…

I’m pretty sure their bartenders don’t have ironic handlebar mustaches…

While I have no doubt that their bills are manageable (seriously, they’re really not the nicest of places), I think what struck me about The Gold Nugget and The Pitt is that ultimately they knew who they were. I’m sure that over the years they grew a little, and got really good at what they did, essentially these businesses are doing the same thing that they did 10 years ago, 20 years ago, 30 years ago. They’ve seen probably fifty businesses come and go around them, and they still plug on.

The Gold Nugget and The Pitt remind me that you have to know who you are.

The Pitt and the Gold Nugget know what they do, and I have no doubt that they do it consistently.

I have no doubt that they have great stories to tell.

I think of churches that I’ve talked to that have essentially a beautiful traditional service that suddenly feel called to create an awkward and sparsely attended rock and roll service, merely because “that’s what you’re supposed to do.”

I think of leaders who are trying to be something that they obviously are not, struggling with authenticity (by the way, the people you lead can see it) without questioning why they are trying embrace this.

Meanwhile, all that many people “out there” in the world are asking for is for churches, organizations, and leaders that

  • quietly and confidently live out who they are (sometimes in the face of a radically changed world)
  • tell stories about what they’ve seen and what they’ve done

How well do you know yourself? How well does your church or organization? Are you living out your story? Or someone else’s? 



“I May Not Have Jazz Hands, But I’m Working on Jazz Leadership”

“The real power of jazz is that a group  of people can come together and create improvised art and negotiate their agendas … and that negotiation is the art.” (Wynton Marsalis)

I’ve written before on how leadership (at least collaborative leadership) is like being in a band; today I’d like to zero in on that a bit.

Jazz is considered by many to be the quintessential art form. It is the height and essence of creativity: a group of people that are collectively yet coherently improvising and expressing themselves.

I think—and I’m not the only one—that this is essence of great, creative groups. Relatedly, leadership in a jazz/collaborative sense is not dictating what people play; it’s creating an environment where everyone is simultaneously creating while listening to everyone else in the group. But just because the music contains heavy elements of improvisation, it doesn’t mean that there’s not a leader. Typically, someone is in charge:

  • who chooses the song: “this is the basic structure of what we’ll play”
  • who chooses the key: “this is the basic musical playing field and rules”
  • who chooses the tempo: “this is the speed at which we will move”
  • who determines when it’s not working: “someone is overplaying or not contributing.” 

In other words, a jazz-influenced leader allows everyone to play masterfully and creatively, but still maintains an eye towards the piece being produced for the audience. They also guard the creative process and the group, making sure that all members are negotiating the rules of jazz (such as they are) in a healthy compelling way.

So some quick questions:

If you are a member of a group:

  • have you mastered your “instrument”—the voice that you alone bring to the ensemble?
  • are you contributing? where do you need to push the group in new directions?
  • are you over playing? where might you need to pull back and listen more?

If you are the leader of a group:

  • have you set the ground rules? do you know what “song” you are trying to play?
  • are you allowing the members to play creatively and compellingly?
  • do you need to challenge any members to play more? play less?

Miles… you do the rest….


I am NOT a “Book Guy”

Contrary to popular perception, I’m not a book guy.


<glancing nervously>

No, really I’m not…

… I don’t have a problem.

Okay, let me defend myself. I’m not a book guy; I’m an idea guy.

I’d actually like to think that I’m a growth guy.

I’m hungry for growth—maybe desperately hungry—and to my mind there are two ways to grow.

The first way is organic and incremental. “Slow and steady wins the race.” You get up and do the same things repeatedly, in order to feed yourself and feel yourself (though actually you don’t always perceive it) steadily growing and changing.

(I am lousy at this.)

Don’t get me wrong: I try. I have disciplines in my life, and I do my best to establish healthy rhythms and practices of grace and growth. But it is a consistent struggle.

The second way to grow is punctuated, evolutionary. It can occur when something—an idea or thought—enters a system that forces that system to change.

  • a thought
  • a concept
  • a belief
  • an action

Sometimes, we can look for experiences to introduce variables: concerts, art galleries & installations, conferences, etc.

But sometimes funds and time prohibit these experiences. In this case, we can turn to shorter-term, less demanding “variables”, like movies (documentaries, please), television shows…

… and books.

Books are not the point. Growth is.

If I recommend—or give—a book to you, I don’t want you to read it. 

I want you to grow.

What about you? How do you introduce new “variables” into the system of your life? When is the last time you allowed yourself to experience something new in order to grow?

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?