Monday, March 19, 2018

Lessons Learned: Schaller on Leadership

I considered Lyle Schaller a teacher, mentor, and a friend at critical moments in my life. There is much I could say about him and his insights about congregational life were of great help to me as a leader and especially when Bishop Payne gave me the opportunity to work with the 156 congregations in the Diocese of Texas.  Almost all the teaching that I have done on Congregational Development came from him.  However, this series of blogs is about lessons I learned from others on leadership, so I will limit my comments here to four things that I learned from him that directly relate to leadership. 

When Stuck, Change your perspective

I learned from Schaller, that when a leader is stressed, we do the counterproductive thing of doubling down.  We do this with our intentions, by repeating them over and over.  We do this with our personality, overusing one of our strengths. We do this with our energy, working harder and harder and getting smaller results. Schaller taught models that allowed one to see things from a new perspective. 

For example, “Does this issue make sense if I, as a leader, apply the typical congregational life cycle to our situation?”  Another example is “Is this strategy going to be effective in a small pastoral sized church?” 

The big one that I often see in churches is that when the leader is challenged, he or she responds by once more repeating their intentions.  The assumption we make is that a challenge can be answered by clarifying what we have already said.  Seldom is a challenge to leaders about what we are saying.  Many times, it has to do with an inconsistency in what we say verses what we are actually doing.   Many of Schaller’s books give us tools to make just such a shift in our perspective. 

When I started working with the Vestry of St. Matthew’s Cathedral, I was struck by how may intelligent people kept saying, “Dean, but what do you think we should do?”  I thought I was doing team building. As I reflected on this, I realized that I was acting like a consultant to the Vestry and not as the leader of a program sized congregation.  The Rector of a large parish acts more like the Director of a non-profit than a participative leader typical of smaller parishes. Once I started giving suggestions and saying which one made sense to me and my staff, it helped us get unstuck.

When It Isn’t Working, Ask Yourself the Right Questions

Quite honestly, when frustrated many clergy leaders ask “What is wrong with me?”  This is the wrong question.  The better one Schaller gave me was “Why am I frustrated and what can I do about it?”  This is also true for congregational leaders.


Once when working with a conflicted Vestry, I stopped an angry discussion and asked them to go around the room and define what each thought the issue really was.  We had 6 different answers from 9 Vestry members.  Realizing this, I challenged them to choose one of these and start from there. 

Manage both Content and Process

Schaller taught me that when a leadership team or any group is working, there are two dynamics going on.  One is the content and the other is the process.  His advice was simple; “If you are stuck on content, then ask a process question.  If you are stuck on process, ask a content question.”

In a divided Vestry discussing the need for a new building and getting nowhere, I asked, “What would be the best way to resolve this matter?”  After further discussion, they delegated this to a special committee and asked them to come back with a recommendation.

Good Leaders Ask Others the Right Question at the Opportune Moment

Schaller taught that a good leader knows the power of asking the right question at the right moment.  Here is one of his classic ones: “If we decide to go ahead with this plan, what do you think the predictable resistances will be?”  

Here is what I said to my senior warden at a critical moment.  “I understand that you are against what I am recommending, but I am wondering why you are so angry about this.”  His first response was classic.  “I don’t know.”  Which do you think more important at that moment, his position or his anger?

And here is a question Schaller asked me, “Kevin, is this the most serious crisis that you’ve ever faced in ministry?”  “No, not at all,” I blurted out.  Then he asked, “So why are you so preoccupied by this?”  It didn’t take long for this question to bring an irrational fear to the surface that had me stuck.

And here is my favorite one that I have had to ask myself and others many times; “Is this a people problem or a system problem?”  Because as Schaller liked to point out, people problems need people solutions and system problems need a system solution, and it is not always clear at any moment which solution is really needed. 

It is painful to note how many congregations try to solve their dysfunctional systems problems by firing the Pastor.  Smart Leaders learn the difference.

As I reflect on this, I realize the wisdom and tools that Schaller gave me as a leader and how passing these on have helped many pastors and lay leaders become more effective. 

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Lessons Learned: The Power of the Pulpit in Leadership

Years ago, I subscribed to “Preaching Today.”  They would mail out a monthly tape cassette with two sermons.  Between them were workshops and interviews that were quite helpful. There I found two great preachers and teachers who influenced me both as a preacher and a leader. One was Fred Craddock.  I used his book “Preaching” in workshops and when I taught preaching at the Stanton Center in Dallas.  My favorite, however, remains Bruce Thielemann.  If you have never heard one of his sermons, do a web search and listen.  You will be richly rewarded. He not only preached well, he also helped many of us learn the power of the pulpit in the arsenal of the clergy leader.  

Here are some important things that I learned from Thielemann.

Christianity is about BIG and IMPORTANT things. Do not waste your time explaining minor points from this Sunday’s lectionary.  Preaching allows us to set the main agenda and what is demanded from us as Christians and as the Church.   

I add a subset to this by always reminding Episcopal Clergy that if we don’t preach on the mission of THE church and our mission as a congregation, no one else will. And guess what, once a year is not enough to communicate its importance. 

Thielemann taught that our 15 to 20 minutes in the pulpit is an incredible opportunity for the preacher to be both a pastor and spiritual director to our people.  What did he mean? 

Thielemann pointed out that folks in our congregations suffer from a relatively common list of problems and affections. For examples:

            Relationship issues; love, betrayal, forgiveness, dysfunctional behavior, revenge, resentment

            Addiction, either in ourselves or in those we love

            Depression and its opposite, anxiety


            Grief and loss

You get the idea.  Then he would point out that the Scriptures are ripe with examples and stories that touch on these topics.  He suggested that the wise pastor should make a list of these maladies and periodically ask if our preaching helps those afflicted with these issues.  Sure, there are great saints who have wrestled with “the dark night of the soul,” but congregationally speaking, not so much.  However, depression? You can count on it! 

He added to this what we Episcopalians would call “Spiritual Direction.”  If we conceptualize any way of understanding spiritual growth, we realize that we have many parishioners moving along this path. We need to ask if we are helping them take that next step or even know there is a next step.  C.S. Lewis pointed out that Jesus offered unconditional forgiveness to the woman taken in adultery, but he demanded something of the rich young ruler.  Jesus understood that people need different directions based on where they were at that moment in their relationship to Christ.  

I hear a great deal of preaching in TEC about inclusiveness, grace, and unconditional love.  But Jesus didn’t say to James and John, “You fisherman understand that God loves you just the way you are?  Have a nice day fishing.”  He called them to intentional and sacrificial discipleship.  Many in our churches need to hear that call. 

This is how I ended my sermon on the 1st Sunday of Lent in my home congregation this year.

“We Episcopal Clergy often suggest that our people give up and/or take on something for Lent. Most of these things, if we think about it, generally benefit us.  Wouldn’t all of us be better off having a little bit more of quiet time?  The problem is that this makes Christianity about what we do, not who we are.  If we really want to revolutionize our spiritual life this Lent, why not ask ourselves a much more penetrating question?  How am I not yet the person that God has called me to be in Christ?  Of course, this will require repentance and amendment of life, but you see Christianity is not about doing something, it is about being someone!

What does all this have to do with our leadership?  I can tell you.  The Priest who keeps the big issues before our people, demonstrates our compassion and love by addressing their wounds and hurts, and who applies the appropriate spiritual direction to the souls committed to our care, gain a place of influence in their hearts.  John Maxwell said it often and best, “They don’t care what you know till they know that you care.” 

Bruce Thielemann understood this and we should too. 


Monday, March 5, 2018

Lessons Learned: The Main Thing

Jane Hansen was one of the most remarkable Christian leaders I have ever known.  She was for many years the President of Aglow Ministries International headquartered in Seattle.  Most of my readers will not know her or much about Aglow Ministries, but I sat as a member of their advisory board for the 7 years I served as Rector of St. Luke’s in Seattle.  Aglow is an independent evangelistic ministry aimed at women and strongly associated with The Assemblies of God and also other various Pentecostal denominations.  For those 7 years, I watched one of the best managed Christian organizations that I have known.  Jane’s ministry team was very professional and at the same time a wonder example of a Christian team ministry.  Ironically as a woman, Jane would not have been allowed to be a pastor in her own denomination though she ran a ministry that vastly outnumbered any of their churches.

I was on the Advisory Board because my predecessor at St. Luke’s was before me.  I sort of inherited the position.  The board of Aglow has a bit of an unusual organization.  It was comprised of Jane and her Vice Presidents all of whom headed up a major division of Aglow.  The Advisory Board was made up of six area pastors most of whom headed large, 2000 plus ASA, congregations.  I wish I could say more about Aglow’s work back in the 80s, but it would take too long.  I want to focus one of the primary things that I learned from Jane.   

During one Board meeting a group made up of local fundamentalist and evangelical organizations made a presentation on abortion.  They represented a national organization that was trying to get every conservative denomination and para-church ministry to sign a common declaration opposing abortion in the strongest terms possible. After an hour of presenting their point of view, they concluded with how important it would be for Aglow Ministries to sign on and how strange it would be if they refused.

Now remember, all the board members were women, most were grandmothers, and all would have been clearly opposed to abortion.  After the group left, Jane asked the advisors for comments.  Three of the pastors were strongly in favor of them signing on. Three others of us weren’t so sure.  For me, it felt like the presenters were a bit intimidating and certainly they were pushing to get Aglow to sign on.

After we had spoken, Jane paused and looked at her board members.  Several of them were members of two of the Churches represent by advisors in the room.  She then asked if we would mind stepping out of the room for a few minutes while she had an conversation with her fellow leaders.  Half an hour later, we were invited back in.

“Well what did you decide?” asked one of the pastors who had been vocally in favor of them signing on. Jane pause, smiled, and then said gently, “We have decided that it would not be right for us to sign on to this declaration.”  

That Pastor looked stunned.  “Why not,” he angrily replied.  Here is how Jane answered: 

“Pastor, you know how all of us feel about his issue.  It was a difficult decision for us.  However, when we thought about our mission to introduce women to Jesus Christ it caused us to stop and ask this question; what if one woman decided not to attend an Aglow meeting because she once had an abortion? Then we would be failing to carry out our mission.” 

What did Jane and her associates grasp?  Long before secular writers wrote about this, they knew that a ministry, denomination, and congregation needed to remember to keep the main thing the main thing.

I have consulted with many congregations and worked with three dioceses and time after time I had to remind myself of the importance of keeping the main thing the main thing.  This is often a difficult discipline for leaders to keep.  Keeping it means that leaders need not to dilute their effectiveness by adding more and more good things to what they are called to do.  Next, leaders need a way to say “no” to what they are not called to do.  Of course, the discipline is dependent on two other things. 

1.      You have to know what the main thing is!

2.     You have to organize everything around it.  

Most Episcopal Churches that I’ve worked with have no idea what their main thing is.  When I ask leaders to share their mission and core values, I often find the mission is so vague that they are not able to build a strategy around it.  In addition, they will list 20 or more core values and some of these congregations have less than 100 people present on any given Sunday.  

The congregation that I served in Seattle was just like this.  They had way too many good things and no way of centering on what the main thing was.  So my first work was to find the main thing.  Then we set to work carrying out strategies that made the main thing the main thing.  In three years, the congregation, already large by Episcopal standards, became the largest it had ever been in its history.  Then we launched a daughter congregation as a part of our strategy. 

My advice to every leader is to always Make the Main Thing the Main Thing!