Know Your Core

At Willow Creek’s 2011 Global Leadership Summit (hollah), Bill Hybel’s challenged us to be aware of how we would summarize the central message of Christianity:

“What five words would you use to describe the gospel?”

He had everyone draw a circle, and then write the five central messages inside the circle. Everything inside that circle should be driving your mission; those words should be connected vitally with your mission, either as an organization or an individual. 

My core

Question 1: What are your five words?

Question 2: Are you living them out?


Four Suggestions for Navigating Vocational Change

What do you do when you feel like you’re being called to embrace a new identity, a new call on your life? How do you embrace a new role?

I was talking to a friend of mine this week who believes she is going through a change in her calling. She is leaving behind the familiar rhythms and demands of what she’s known for a while, and choosing to embrace the mystery of this new thing that God is doing in her life.

She asked me the other day for some practical ways to embrace this new thing in her life.

  1. Adjust your schedule. When my call was wrapped up solely in music and songwriting, a portion of my week—usually on Wednesday—was dedicated to songwriting. In 2009/2010, my call began to change to teaching; in response a portion of my week became dedicated to study. When your call begins to change, you need to dedicate time to reflect this new call.
  2. Adjust your information. While I am the pastor of musical worship at my church, it’s my responsibility to seek out new music and new sounds. I need to challenge myself with new sounds and new approaches. However, because I take my call to teach seriously, I’ve begun making sure that I’m consuming information and ideas that push me forward as a thinker and communicator. If you are moving into a new area of vocation and/or ministry, you need to first label that new area (“teaching”, “leading”, “writing”, “leading worship”, etc.), and then go seek information (one of the most valuable resources for me with this is Amazon’s “Customers Who Bought This Item Also Bought” feature).
  3. Adjust your conversations. As you are able to identify and name/label your new identity and call, seek people who (you think) are already in that role to have lunch or coffee. These meetings do not always need to involve direct, “Tell me how to live this out” questions. Often, they can begin with simply, “Tell me your story.”
  4. Be open to a disruptive experience. Don’t discount the fact that your new call may need to be reinforced or confirmed by an experience that is disruptive or different. Spiritually and emotionally, place yourself in a position of openness, and watch and listen. Often, we receive confirmation and earth-shaking revelations through conferences, prayers, or even concerts and films. Allocate resources (time, money, etc.) to put yourself in a position to have a disruptive experience that might just be a game changer for you.
  • Have you ever had to navigate a major vocational or identity change? What helped you move into this new area of calling?

Between Two Visions

apologize ahead of time for the length of this, but this has been on my mind for a while now, and I wanted to share it. Hopefully it all makes sense. 

I’ve worked for churches now for 14 years.

I know I’m supposed to say something higher, and more important sounding, like, “I received a call into full-time ministry at 29, and have been in vocational ministry ever since.”

I know that’s what I’m supposed to say, but I’m not sure that I can, at least with any honesty. At the very least, I’m not sure that I wasn’t doing ministry when I wasn’t working for a church, and I’m not sure that all the things I’ve done in a given week working at a church were actually ministry.

Does that make sense?

So I’m hesitant to call it more than what I think it is. I’ve worked at churches—on and off, full-time and part-time—for 14 years. During that time, I’ve planted churches, done music, taught, shared sorrows and joys with folks, and had a few hard conversations. I’m sure ministry “happened,” but I’ve always been challenged with my role and activities in the context of a church, specifically….

Am I a pastor? 

Most of the time I think I am. I try to be the best shepherd I can be, and try to counsel, encourage, and challenge people as the Spirit leads.

But I know that there’s this other side to me: the side that is gifted with very public talents (we call them “up front” gifts): singing, playing guitar, teaching.

These two sides of me struggle. One side is bathed in humility; the other is extremely comfortable in a spotlight (did the 1st century church have spotlights? never mind.) 

This is a really important place for me to be—between two visions of my “work”—and I think more than a few of us “in the business” of ministry are there as well. I’ve heard stories lately of a few really gifted church teachers and communicators who have left behind their positions. Some of them have left their church communities entirely, others have merely changed their roles to allow them more time to pursue the creative endeavors that they are amazingly gifted at. They’ve tended to couch their reasoning in language like this, “We want everyone to be free to pursue who God has called them to be; something has been nagging at us for a while, growing inside, and we’ve come to believe that we should be moving into (insert “movie making”, “drawing”, “screen-writing”, “book writing” or whatever here), and we need to follow that call of God on our lives. Since that’s what we believe should be happening with you, we should model that.”

Trust me: I know this language. Deeply. I know that God gifted me to communicate through music, and I’m grateful for the chance to have pursued it. Relatedly, there are things around my church that just “need doing”, and I have to, well do them. I wish I didn’t have to. They have little to do with my “calling”, in terms of talent. If I could get rid of them, I would, in a hot minute.

But there’s this other voice inside of me that rails against this whole paradigm. The “other guy” in my life—the one that believes that sitting across a table in a coffee shop and weeping with someone is one of the highest privileges in life—calls, “foul.” That guy’s conception of his job leans heavily on duty, obedience, faithfulness, and humility: things learned at the feet of people like Brennan Manning, Eugene Peterson, and folks that just “followed the call”—and in some cases faced down their demons—long before the book deals came (in some cases, they never came). That guy believes that self-actualization and “pursuing who God has created me” can veer dangerously close to an individualized, westernized version of the Gospel.

Does God call us to self-actualization? I’m not so sure.

To be blunt, I wish their announcements would’ve gone something like this:

“Hey everyone. I’ve really valued the time I’ve had to be a part of this community, to lead you, to teach you, to shepherd you. But there’s been something that’s been brewing in my heart, and in my family’s minds, and it’s come to this: I no longer want to be a pastor. I want to go into movie-making/music-making/design, because I feel that there’s vital, important work to do there—even God-breathed, evangelistic work. I’ve valued being your pastor/leader/shepherd. I will never forget it, and you will always be a part of my life, as we will be a part of you. But this season of pastoring is over. We are no longer responding to that call.”

Again, If I’m being harsh, it’s only because I live in this same spot. I know what it means to want to be free to do more of what you naturally want to do.

I’m just not totally sure that’s the gig. 

Eugene Peterson says that a pastor is someone in a community who has been set aside to pay attention. I love that. I try to do that. For me, that’s not really sexy, in fact, it’s not really about me. Contrary to guitar playing, I don’t think I’m very good at “paying attention”. What’s certain though, is that I’m not paying attention to me; I’m paying attention (or truthfully, trying to pay attention) to the Holy Spirit in the community here.

I’m trying to stay faithful.

I’m not sure if God will release me from the call to “pay attention”. Right now he hasn’t, so…

… for now, my eyes are open.

p.s. The following (LONG) excerpt from Eugene Peterson’s Working The Angles: The Shape of Pastoral Ministry has impacted me more than probably any other group of words in terms of what I believe a pastor is called to. It’s long, but there’s true weight in these words (they are couched in a fictional letter from a congregation to a pastor).

If you’re a pastor, read them and see if they resonate with you; if you part of a body of believers, consider what you’re asking your pastors to do.


We want you to be responsible for saying and acting among us what we believe about God and kingdom and gospel. We believe that the Holy Spirit is among us and within us. We believe that God’s Spirit continues to hover over the chaos of the world’s evil and our sin, shaping a new creation and new creatures. We believe that God is not a spectator in turn amused and alarmed at the wreckage of world history but a participant in it. We believe that everything, especially everything that looks like wreckage is material that God is using to make a praising life. We believe all this, but we don’t see it. We see, like Ezekiel, dismembered skeletons whitened under a pitiless Babylonian sun. We see a lot of bones that once were laughing and dancing children, of adults who once made love and plans, of believers who once brought their doubts and sang their praises in church — and sinned. We see the dancers or the lovers or the singers — at best we see only fleeting glimpses of them. What we see are bones. Dry bones. We see sin and judgment on the sin. That is what it looks like. It looked that way to Ezekiel; it looks that way to anyone with eyes to see and a brain to think; and it looks that way to us.

But we believe something else. We believe in the coming together of these bones into connected sinewed, muscled human beings who speak and sing and laugh and work and believe and bless their God. We believe that it happened the way Ezekiel preached it and we believe that it still happens. We believe it happened in Israel and that it happens in the church. We believe that we are part of the happening as we sing our praises, listen believingly to God’s word, receive the new life of Christ in the sacraments. We believe that the most significant thing that happens or can happen is that we are no longer dismembered but are remembered into the resurrection body of Christ.

We need help in keeping our beliefs sharp and accurate and intact. We don’t trust ourselves — our emotions seduce us into infidelities. We know that we are launched on a difficult and dangerous act of faith, and that there are strong influences intent on diluting or destroying it. We want you to help us: be our pastor, a minister of word and sacrament, in the middle of this world’s life. Minister with word and sacrament to us in all the different parts and stages of our lives — in our work and play, with out children and our parents, at birth and death, in our celebrations and sorrows, on those days when morning breaks over us in a wash of sunshine, and those other days that are all drizzle. This isn’t the only task in the life of faith, but it is your task. We will find someone else to do the other important and essential tasks. This is yours: word and sacrament.

“One more thing: we are going to ordain you to this ministry and we want your vow that you will stick to it. This is not a temporary job assignment but a way of life that we need lived out in our community. We know that you are launched on the same difficult belief venture in the same dangerous world as we are. We know that your emotions are as fickle as ours, and that your mind can play the same tricks on you as ours. That is why we are going to ordain you and why we are going to exact a vow from you. We know that are going to be days and months, maybe even years, when we won’t feel like we are believing anything and won’t want to hear it from you. And we know that there will be days and weeks and maybe even years when you won’t feel like saying it. It doesn’t matter. Do it. You are ordained to this ministry, vowed to it. There may be times when we come to you as a committee or delegation and demand that you tell us something else than what we are telling you now. Promise right now that you won’t give in to what we demand of you. You are not the minister of our changing desires, or our time-conditioned understanding of our needs, or our secularized hopes for something better. With these vow of ordination we are lashing you fast to the mast of word and sacrament so that you will be unable to respond to the siren voices. There are a lot of other things to be done in this wrecked world and we are going to be doing at least some of them, but if we don’t know the basic terms with which we are working, the foundational realities with which we are dealing — God, kingdom, gospel — we are going to end up living futile, fantasy lives. Your task is to keep telling the basic story, representing the presence of the Spirit, insisting on the priority of God, speaking the biblical words of command and promise and invitation

“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?

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?

Five Ways to Develop A Leader

Not leaders


I’ve been “thinking small” lately about “leadership development”: how can I invest more in smaller numbers of people?

At staff meeting today, we were talking about leadership development. It prompted my thinking about some ways that I’ve engaged with to develop some emerging leaders in our community.

  1. Slow Down. I used to try and “microwave” leaders. Find someone with potential and charisma, and then throw them into things as quickly as possible. Lately, I’ve been convinced that leaders are indeed made, but made over time. Not just popped like microwave popcorn.
  2. Pray. Like a lot of us, I’ve often tapped people on the shoulder for leadership roles. I’ve had conversations over coffee, I’ve encouraged, I’ve cast vision, and I’ve moved those people into positions of trust. Lately however, I’ve taken a slightly different approach, instead bringing people that I’m thinking about for leadership roles to God, and asking Him to break through to them, to light a fire in their hearts. Though it’s still a bit early to render a complete verdict, the method of bringing someone before God before I bring an opportunity before them feels more holistic, and (I daresay) successful. Ironically, the more I ask God to move in someone’s life, I often receive more insight to make that “tap” on his or her shoulder.
  3. Look for catalytic/transformational events. Though the culture of “conferencing” in evangelical churches (whereby staff members repeatedly attend roughly the same conferences with roughly the same speakers where they sing roughly the same worship songs in a highly charged, over stimulated environment) is a bit troubling, I can’t deny that they can be absolutely transformational for an emerging leader (at the very least, they haven’t sung the songs, heard the speakers, seen the laser beams or any other manner of silliness before). So seek ways to pull these folks into some kind of event where their world can be rocked a little bit, and God can speak into their lives in powerful ways. (By the way, it doesn’t always have to a be bigger/flashier/louder event; it could be a smaller/more peaceful/quieter event.)
  4. Don’t just seek to “be with”; try to “do with”. This is probably the thing that I’ve been experimenting with the most. I used to just talk to people about leadership. Lately, however, I’ve been actually pulling people with me on one-on-one meetings, where they can actually see (and participate in) what I do. The “up front” stuff is visible enough, but that’s the tip of the iceberg of my ministry; I remain convinced that the most valuable stuff I do often takes place Monday-Saturday, over coffee, lunch, or breakfast. I’m trying to find ways to take emerging leaders with me to see what that looks like.
  5. Finally, give constant evaluation and feedback. Most people I work with no that after any major undertaking, someone is going to get an email asking three questions: What went well? What needs improving? and What did we learn? Questions like these constantly evaluate events and projects, while still encouraging dialogue. (By the way: make sure whenever possible that positive evaluation isn’t overlooked or forgotten; “improvements” and “learnings” can easily overtake the successes, and cause some discouragement).

Obviously, this list isn’t exhaustive; there are countless ways to develop leaders. These just represent some of my current thinking on how to effectively invest in emerging leaders.


Improv Leadership

I’ve been enjoying Jonah Lehrer’s book on creativity, and something jumped out at me. In the chapter called, “Letting Go,” Lehrer describes the approach to improvisation at Second City, the premier comedy/improv school in America (with alumni that includes John Belushi, Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd, Chris Farley, Steve Carrell, Stephen Colbert, Tina Fey, and many others):

Lehrer writes that the students “begin practicing a technique called ‘Yes, and . . .’ The basic premise is simple: When performing together, improvisers can never question what came before. They need to instantly agree—that’s the ‘yes’ part—and then start setting up the next joke.”

Often leadership can devolve into a monologue: the point leader knows “the script”, and they simply dictate their vision and directives to the audience (the staff or team), who then respond accordingly. Needless to say, there is not much creative or collaborative about this environment, and even the most talented leader is missing out on the creative input of the audience/team.

But true collaboration—and all the benefits that come with it—involves embracing the “Yes, and …” philosophy of improvisation. Basically, this means a leader must…

  • confess that he or she does not have the “end of the story” written already; the other participants (team/staff members) are full contributors to the reality of the plot
  • choose to stimulate the improvisational creativity in a meeting or rehearsal by “never questioning what came before”; this means that suggestions and ideas must be accepted and built upon and only very rarely squashed
  • realize that even ideas that seem too far outside of the box can still be agreed to, understanding that improvisation is a process, and even though you may say, “Yes” to that idea, the “and” part means that it is open to change (a reality that the idea contributor needs to own as well)
  • acknowledge the fact that—even though they still have the option to say, “No,”—if they do so they risk squashing the creative process (there will be times this is okay, but discernment is necessary)

Though this culture can be uncomfortable for some contributors (after all, not everyone is comfortable playing improvisational jazz), it can be an amazing creative tool. If you are seeking to increase the level of collaboration and creativity on your staff or team, try embracing this “Yes, and…” philosophy to your meetings. Let the ideas flow and morph and change, and watch the energy level grow and rise from your staff.

Big Shoulders

Sears (Willis) Tower was designed to resemble Chicago's "Big Shoulders" // Image via

Two weeks ago, I wrote chord sheets out for about 20 songs in one night. It wasn’t easy, but it wasn’t all that difficult either. I’ve been making music in one form or another since I was 18 years old (8 or 9 if you count piano lessons and choir).

This is just something I do. 

It wasn’t necessarily the most fun I’ve ever had, but the fact that I could write them out so quickly meant that I could be free to focus my attention on other aspects of my life and work. In other words, I know my musical shoulders are big—I can carry a lot, and I can do so with efficiency and relatively little stress. It certainly takes time, but relatively speaking I can handle a lot of musical work and still be able to get other things done in my work. Musical “wins” come quickly for me, which leaves me time to work through more challenging aspects of life.

We all have them, and one of the tensions of leadership/creativity/work is to know where your “shoulders” are “big”—the things you can do, because of your experience, giftedness, and passion, that come easily—so that you can get to the things that may take more time and energy from you.

  • Do you know where your shoulders are big?
  • What can you take on easily while staying free to accomplish other tasks?
  • What “quick wins” can you look for in your work?


Leadership Commandments, 1-5

Last week I had the privilege of sending out a dear friend to the beginning of what I believe will be a long career in ministry. I decided to jot down some leadership “commandments” for him, and I thought I’d share them (with commentary) here. Here are the first five:

  1. Don’t forget to care for yourself artistically and spiritually. It’s simple, but we lose sight of it all the time. You have to have something in your tank in order to give something out. My wife and I bought our first really good kitchen knife just last year. When we first got it, it would slice your skin effortlessly. By now, however, it’s beginning to get dull. If we refuse to sharpen it, eventually it be as useless as the $19.99 set of 9 steak knives that I bought for Christmas one year (but that’s another story).
  2. Closely watch cross-gender relationships. Again, it should go without saying, but … um … it doesn’t. When you step into a position of leadership, it becomes very, very easy to confuse relationships with all kinds of people, particularly with those of the opposite sex. Lines are too easily blurred, too easily crossed, and then every single thing that you have you have invested in in your ministry will be incinerated, and you will be left with wreckage and ash.
  3. Know your job description, but know what you are paid to do (they don’t always match). Knowing your job description gives you a target, and makes sure that you are giving the church what they need. Knowing what you are actually paid to do, however, can focus your efforts even more, and relatedly allow you to say “no” more freely. When I started in my first ministry job, I was overwhelmed. I asked my supervisor, “How am I supposed to do this overwhelming task?”He replied, “I just want you to do two things: ensure excellence on Saturday (when we gathered) and shepherd the music team. That’s it.”That was what I was paid to do.
  4. Don’t be afraid to “just” be faithful. There will be times when you simply don’t want to lead people. There will be times when the feelings and emotions of praise and worship won’t be there. At those times, you must commit to just opening your mouth. Don’t confuse the feeling of worship with obedience. Sometimes it’s just enough to show up and lead the best that you can, out of whatever reservoir is available to you. Doesn’t mean you want to stay in that place, but neither can you just walk off the stage and leave it up to someone else.
  5. Character trumps ability. It will always be tempting to look for a “short-term” win and add an amazingly gifted—but fatally flawed—person to your team. Do this at great risk. They have the capacity to sabotage your efforts, and also to hold the rest of your team emotionally “hostage”. Choose long-term, holistic growth over the short-term sexiness of the glittering image. I’m not saying character can’t change; I’m merely saying that you should keep guard the safety of your team fiercely.
The next five are coming shortly…

Creativity in Worship (v2010) + Collaborative Leadership

Twice — I think in 2000 and 2001 — I was privileged to teach a seminar at the Willow Creek Arts Conference called something like “Towards Spontaneity in Worship.” The seminar was designed to help worship leaders safely navigate being able to have some “unplanned creativity” in worship: extended outros, “Holy Spirit” moments where the worship leader can just open up some space to respond to something that God made may be doing.

In my estimation, the seminars weren’t all that good; I’m not that great at unpacking things that I do intuitively (just ask me to try and give you a guitar lesson!). But last night I was thinking about it, after a couple of “unplanned musical moments” in our worship set yesterday, and realized that I had something to add to the topic. So here you go:

In order to experience some kind of spontaneity in worship (or in any creative enterprise), a leader must be willing to acknowledge that what others might be offering — in terms of notes, ideas, or melodies — may be better than what that leader had in mind.

If you can’t start here, I’m not sure that it’s possible to experience much in the way of spontaneity. Why? Because you’ll control it. And as long as it’s only you controlling it, you won’t encounter much of anything that you haven’t already thought of or discovered. To use a metaphor, I think that most leaders look at a task (or a song) much like a musical equation that they have come up with: A + B = C. A collaborative leader is willing to introduce an unknown or two: A + B + __ = __. The end result might be “C”, but it also might be C*.

Adopt the mindset that everyone on your team — everyone in the room or at the table — has something potentially amazing to give to the experience, and the possibilities become endless! Release control that the song is supposed to end the way you wanted it to; that the chorus is supposed to be quiet rather than loud; that a ministry should have one strategy versus another.

You are still “the leader”; you still have the right to say, “No thanks.” But in the meantime, entertaining the idea that there is something better residing in the hearts and minds of your musicians and/or team makes introduces the concept that something new, unplanned and unexpected can be created out of your collective efforts.

… And that’s fun!

What can you release control of?