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Leadership 101 – Slow Down

Most leaders I know need to slow down. We get caught up in the hustle and bustle of so many different things. It is difficult to find a rhythm that is sustainable with the demands of ministry and the juggling act that it seems to require. Stop and think for a minute, though. What are the usual results of rushing, getting in a hurry, and potentially getting ahead of the Lord? The answer is that it can be disastrous. The Bible gives us multiple examples of impatience in leaders.

Abraham became impatient in waiting on the son God promised him. He and Sarah had a plan but we know that did not turn out well. Moses grew impatient even though he had a great heart to help his fellow Hebrews in Egypt. He committed murder and it cost him 40 years on the backside of the dessert. King Saul grew impatient and offered burnt offering to the Lord instead of waiting on Samuel. His getting ahead of God cost him his throne. Impatience does not pay off.

The book of Proverbs has several references about the wisdom of the prudent. The idea is being careful and sensible. A prudent man is marked by sound judgment while being cautious and possessing great awareness of each situation. What are the consequences of inadequately discerning God’s will before moving forward? They can be tragic and devastating. We need to develop a rhythm in all areas of our lives of slowing down and sitting in His presence.

Here are some areas where we need to slow down.

  1. Slow down in your daily personal life. Develop the daily discipline of slowing down long enough to listen to the Lord. Find a place of solitude where you can be more mindful of His presence.   That is what will carry you through those crazy and hectic times when it is full steam ahead. If you have not slowed down to see Him in times of solitude it will be very difficult to see Him and sense His presence during the busy times.
  2. Slow down in your family time. Build boundaries to protect quality time with your wife and children. Make sure you have a date night where it is just you and her enjoying time together. Schedule family time on your calendar and when asked if you are available tell them you already have an appointment. Make sure you are there for the important events in your children’s lives. Your church will not remember many of the sacrifices you make for them but your children will.
  3. Slow down in your sermon preparation. Develop a system that enables you to best utilize your time. When is your most productive time to study? Schedule it on your calendar and then protect that time. You can get a lot accomplished when it is quiet and uninterrupted. If it means getting up an hour earlier to spend that time in the word it will be well worth it. Early mornings work well because the phone does not begin ringing until about 8:30 a.m. Find a study rhythm that works for you.
  4. Slow down by enjoying your favorite hobby or pastime. What recharges your battery? What is it you enjoy doing that refreshes you, makes you laugh, and puts a smile on your face? Find that outlet that gives you the opportunity to release the tension and frustrations that build up inside of all of us. Whether it is running, bicycling, hiking, golf, or cross-stitch it will be time well spent. All work and no play usually leads to burnout!
  5. Slow down in your leadership style. Make sure people really do understand where you are headed. This requires slowing down long enough to articulate clearly and allowing people to process the information. Bringing them along with you on the journey will slow down the process but it is worth the investment. Also make sure there is appropriate accountability. It is not wise for any single person to possess absolute power in a church. Lord Acton said it well, “absolute power corrupts absolutely.”
  6. Slow down and develop leaders. If you are too busy to spend time discipling and pouring into leaders then you are too busy. Take a close look at the things you should not be doing and pass those responsibilities on to someone else. Focus in on those three just like Jesus did. Look for those who want more and then challenge them to meet you at 5:30 a.m. for coffee to see if they are serious. Do not spend time chasing them or trying to persuade them to be dedicated. If they are called to a higher level of commitment they will pursue you.
  7. Slow down and enjoy the worship service. All too often we are focused on so many things Sunday mornings that we feel like a one-eyed cat watching 15 mouse holes. Involve as many people as you can in making sure the worship services are well prepared and planned but let them handle it so that you focus on two things, worship and preaching. Train and develop a team to oversee all of the details from greeters, altar workers, ushers, sound booth, announcements, song service, and everything else. Slow down and worship.
  8. Slow down and define what success really looks like. People must know that you will seek God’s will above all else. Remember, when we push and rush in decision making there will almost always be problems. Take time to sleep on it, seek wise counsel, and listen to the Lord. The greatest thing people need to see in a leader is a life that is characterized by, “Lord, not my will, but yours be done!”

The key words for church planning and strategy are slow down!

Should I Stay or Should I Go?

You have probably seen the hotel commercial that asks this question in song, “Should I stay or should I go?” Many pastors ask that question at many different times and most of the time it is motivated by a genuine desire to do what is best for that local church. Leaders desire to be in ministries where they can be effective and have as godly an impact as possible. The reality is that far too many pastors may leave too soon at a time when their effectiveness could be optimum.

There are studies that show the wisdom of a long tenure of a pastor but we also cannot discount the leadership of the Lord. The problem so often is that the decision to leave is made for the wrong reasons and at the wrong time. If you’re not careful when going through a valley you will move from a valley at a familiar location to another valley in a new location. We must make sure that we learn the lessons God wants us to learn when we go through the valleys and the difficult seasons that will come in any ministry.

The greatest problem might be being able to hear His voice clearly when we are in the middle of difficult circumstances. Wise counsel would be to get away, get refreshed, and seek to hear what the Lord is truly saying He wants us to do. Make sure you have a prayer retreat, sabbatical, or time focused on discerning his perfect will as best you can. There certainly are reasons and times to move to a different ministry but here are some reasons that are not good reasons to leave or move on.

Don’t leave just because of problems and difficult circumstances.

Paul makes this clear in I Corinthians 16:9 because he says a great door was opened to him but then says there were many adversaries. J.D. Greear puts it this way, “Paul saw the presence of adversaries, obstacles, and closed doors as opportunities to keep pressing, not signals to give up!” We think that just because there is opposition maybe we should move on but maybe we need to stay and work through that difficulty.

Don’t leave just because difficult people are being vocal in their opposition.

Maybe no one has ever confronted them in a biblically centered and loving manner. We are instructed to speak the truth in love and let people know when their behavior is not pleasing to the Lord. A church fellowship needs to hold its members accountable if they have fallen prey to sowing discord within the fellowship. It is never enjoyable to face difficult people but spiritual leaders are willing to face opposition that others have been unwilling to face.

Don’t leave because you are unwilling to pay the price that is required to work through the difficulty.

The normal reaction is to shy away from confrontation and conflict but someone has to work through it. Another characteristic of true spiritual leadership is the willingness to pay a price that others are unwilling to pay. Get a plan to work through the challenges and then begin to systematically work on solutions one problem at a time. List the problems, prioritize them, and then work on them one by one.

Don’t leave because you were unwilling to make the hard decisions no one else was willing to make.

Three things need to be determined by using the following questions. What is the problem? Who needs to be involved in correcting the problem? And then, when does the problem need to be worked out by? You can never get as much accomplished in one year as you think but you can always accomplish far more in five than you think.

Don’t leave thinking that things will be much different and much better in a different ministry.

They very well may be but there is no guarantee. All churches and ministries have challenges and difficulties. People are people and a lot of the ongoing problem is that no one has ever been shown how to work through them and learn how to biblically handle conflict. Challenge people that they can either become a part of the problem or a part of the solution. Adrian Rodgers said, “A change of scenery has never guaranteed a change of character.”

When you add all of these together it should encourage us to realize that all ministries are different. Be careful of comparing your ministry to others who seem to be getting blessed far more than yours. A look at Hebrews 11 shows us that the hall of faith includes those who shut the mouth of lions, were delivered from many great challenges, and were blessed with great victories. There are also those who were tortured, those who experienced mocking and scourging, and seemingly experienced great suffering.

God is glorified in both as long as we are faithful where He has placed us and to the calling He has given us. Do not interpret God’s calling to only be validated by good circumstances. Just ask John the Baptist who sat in prison after the accolades and applause had ended. No one was flocking to hear his teaching anymore and the multiple baptisms were a thing of the past. His reward for faithfully preaching the gospel was being beheaded. Yet Jesus said there were none greater then him. He had said, “I must decrease and He must increase!”

Ministry Support and Care

The ministry is not easy and we know that Paul warned Timothy and others of many challenges. The need for a team of others you can count on cannot be overstated. At running the risk of saying the same thing too often, allow me the opportunity to say it again, “The speed of the leader determines the speed of the team.” If you, as a spiritual leader, begin to struggle spiritually then before long others around you will begin to struggle also.

Protecting your walk with the Lord is paramount. You cannot allow yourself to get to the point of running on empty by not constantly abiding in Him. You must develop rhythms in your life where you daily, weekly, monthly, quarterly, and annually build systems in your life that continue to stir up the passion you have for Christ and the gift within you. What are you studying right now that is helping you to know Him better and develop a closer and more intimate relationship with Him?

On a regular basis I challenge church planters and pastors to properly care for themselves because if they are not spiritually healthy their families, friends, and ministries will not be far behind. One important aspect is to build a ministry care plan of support and accountability…having people around you that keep you on track and encourage you. They love you enough to tell you what you need to hear and provide a role in your life that you desperately need for balance and direction.

There are five roles I have told these leaders they all need to have. They need a supervisor, a coach, a mentor, a pastor, and a friend. The roles are important but can be adapted to fit your context. This does not mean you have to have five people because one person can fill two of the roles such as a friend can also be a mentor. There are certain roles that are harder to be fulfilled by the same person such as a supervisor and a coach. Lets take a look at each one of these roles.

The first is the role of supervisor!

This is the person or persons you answer to whether that is a boss, a committee, a group of elders, a board of trustees, or even a pastor accountability team. This is a team of individuals who plan with you, dream with you, and help you process God’s direction in your life. This person or persons serve as a sounding board and is far from being “yes” people. There will be tension at times but that is a good thing as wisdom is sought through prayer.

The second role is that of a coach!

According to Keith E. Webb’s definition, “Coaching is an on-going intentional conversation that empowers a person or group to fully live out God’s calling.” There is skill set that is necessary for being a good coach. It involves being a good listener and then asking good questions. We never show someone we value him or her more then when we are willing to listen to them. Do you have someone who listens well and then asks you the right questions?

The third role is that of a mentor!

The best definition I have heard of a mentor is that it is someone who has been where you want to go and is willing to help you get there. A coach pulls out but a mentor pours in. They know what you need to know and they are willing to take the time to share it with you. The best biblical example of this may be Paul pouring into Timothy but there is also Moses to Joshua and Elijah to Elisha. Do you have that individual in your life that can pour into yours?

The fourth role that everyone needs is a pastor!

We all need a spiritual shepherd who cares for our spiritual walk.   The reality is that we need someone in our lives that has a pastor’s heart for us and always wants what is best for us. They protect us from the wolves waiting to attack and devour us. They not only have a heart to protect us but they want to make sure we are properly nourished. They will always go to the word of God to direct us, correct us, reprove us, rebuke us, and strengthen us.

The fifth role is that of a friend!

Do you have that friend in your life that you know you can always count on and with whom you can always be completely transparent? True friends are very special people. David had his mighty men and there is wisdom in building a team of three friends around you. Those friends that you can always call on knowing they will be there to listen and encourage us. They are the kind of friends that you count on 24/7 who don’t walk out on you when times are difficult. You can always depend on them to be there when you need them.

Ministry care requires that we focus on our spiritual walk by building a team around us that will provide these critical roles in our lives. Can you name the people who fulfill these roles? Are you meeting and talking with them on a regular basis? If you are do not have this support system are you ready to prayerfully begin looking for them? Who fulfills the role of supervisor, coach, mentor, pastor, and friend in your life? Spiritual health requires accountability and spiritual care givers.


Keeping your church focused on Christ will be an ongoing and unending pursuit. There are faith habits that you must show new believers how to develop. Also, the reality is that you should not assume that those who have been in church for years know what to do. Develop an environment that teaches how to “lean” into Jesus both personally, in small groups, and corporately as a church. When you study His word you are “leaning” into His presence to hear His voice and His direction for your life?

The total depravity of man means that in our natural state we will always lean toward sin and away from God. Yes, we are created in the image of God and even evil people are capable of doing a good deed but they remain far from God and without hope. The depravity of man means that even a saved man is capable of an evil act if He is not in the Word and walking with the Lord. That is why it is so crucial to develop a rhythm of praying and being in God’s word daily.

There are four habits that will help your church lean in toward Christ for His presence, power, and direction.

First, lean in by spending time in His word. Here is a great quote from Alistair Begg, “The main things are the plain things, and the plain things are the main things.” Look for the obvious and begin to obey and follow those directions. Many are running around looking for a word from the Lord when all we have to do is open His word and begin to obey.

Determine how you will come along side your people to assist them in their spiritual progress. Consider publicizing a daily Bible reading and teaching them how to S.O.A.P. (Scripture, Observation, Application, Prayer) through journaling. It is great to write down the verses and then circle the key words to consider what God may be saying to you. Suggest a great study Bible and other study tools they might use to go deeper in the word. Lean in and look at what He says.

Second, lean in by developing the habit of spending time with God. Show them what prayer looks like and how they can cry out to God and that He hears them. Four elements of prayer as seen in the model prayer are praise, repentance, ask, and yield.   One idea would be to meet with several of your disciples and teach them about prayer but more importantly show them what it means to pray by praying with them, for them, and over them.

In prayer it is also good to stop and listen for a time. When you pray remember that it is communicating with God and that involves both sides. It is wonderful knowing that He is listening to us but it is just as wonderful to know that He speaks to us also. In your quiet time develop the practice of having a pen and pad in hand. Stop and listen to what He is saying to you through His word and the Holy Spirit. Take 3-5 minutes and be quiet in His presence. Lean in and listen!

Third, lean in by developing the habit of tithing. This is far more than good stewardship but teaches them what God requires as a part of our worship. This principle is far more than the amount but teaches the Lordship of Christ through placing God first in our day, our finances, and in our relationships. The principle of putting God first in everything must be taught and reinforced regularly. We must be willing to give Him everything including time, talent, and treasures.

Philippians 4:18 says, “I am fully supplied, having received from Epaphroditus what you provided—a fragrant offering, an acceptable sacrifice, pleasing to God.” Paul thanked this church for their financial support and describes these financial gifts with worship language. Once again we know that giving is an act of worship not just a matter of stewardship. You lean into His presence by giving with the right heart and the right motive.

Fourth, lean in by developing the habit of fellowship. The importance of community cannot be overstressed. We need one another and the New Testament is written from the “we” perspective not “me.” Natural Church Development says, “Loving relationships are the heart of a healthy, growing church. Jesus said people will know we are His disciples by our love. Practical demonstration of love builds authentic Christian community and brings others into God’s kingdom.”

They go on to say, “Loving relationships is the area in which churches tend to extravagantly overestimate their spiritual quality…they fail to see how outsiders can have a hard time finding access to a clique. These Christians consider themselves as ‘warmhearted’ and ‘open’ toward newcomers, but they communicate-most unconsciously-the message: ’You don’t belong here.’” We need to lean into stronger, deeper, and authentic relationships. It is important to develop these four habits of leaning in toward the Lord in the context of worship services, small groups, leadership development, and our personal walks.

The attractional approach (come and see) will connect an individual usually through a worship service or an event that, well, attracts them! The incarnational approach (go and tell) focuses more on relational evangelism and tends to connect people in smaller group settings. Being attractional or incarnational is not an either/or decision but rather a both/and. As a member of my church reminded me recently, “God sent us a little reminder that our mission field is not where we go to, but where we take Him!” Hopefully, you will continue to lean into His presence through developing godly habits that will enable you to mature spiritually by coming to age in Christ. This process will keep you from leaning away, then drifting away, and eventually maybe even dropping out.

Help your church to lean in through worship, small groups, and personal discipleship!


When I first began working as the BMA Director of Church Planting, I remember being at the office one day overwhelmed with the amount of work that was on my desk. Many days I felt like I ran from one fire to the next doing my best to extinguish them. The workday was over according to the clock but wanting to get all the work accomplished on my to-do list that was staring me in the face. One of my heroes and mentors, Jerry Kidd, stepped into my office and told me to go home. He then gave me two great pieces of advice I have always remembered.

First, he told me that it would be there when I got there the next day and it could wait until then. Secondly, he informed me that it was not going to get any better. There would be many days ahead when this same overwhelming feeling would be present and I would need to accept that there would be times to just step away and begin afresh the next day. Yes, it is important to prioritize but you also need to accept that interruptions will occur. We must remember that people are always more important than the task.

If you are in full-time ministry you need to know that it is hard work and no one should work any harder than us. In I Corinthians 15:10 Paul says, “But by God’s grace I am what I am, and His grace toward me was not ineffective. However, I worked more than any of them, yet not I, but God’s grace that was with me.” Wow, Paul declares that none of the Christian leaders of his day worked any harder than he did! A minister’s work ethnic should always be exemplary but also realistic. Being a workaholic does not mean we are spiritual or pleasing God.

Over-functioning is defined as “doing for others what they can and should do for themselves.” This may make us feel good and give us a sense of accomplishment, but it is far better to train people to develop the leadership skills they need to meet their own needs. When they begin feeding, teaching, and learning themselves then they will be able to begin teaching and training others. The reality is that most projects do not require you to take care of all the details personally but instead delegate those items to your team.

Here are some things to think through as you build a team that can accomplish so much more working together.

First, look for the right people to help you. Two things that should be non-negotiable are that they have a teachable spirit and they will be loyal. That does not mean that they are a “yes-man/woman” but that they understand confidentiality and there is a good chemistry between everyone on the team. Everyone should enjoy working together and look forward to the time they focus on the project.

Second, know what to delegate and what not to delegate. All too often the leader is actually the bottleneck that keeps the project from becoming a reality.   Spend some time deciding what cannot be delegated and then write it down. Then you should seek out a leader/mentor who could talk over that list with you. Is it realistic or are you being too controlling? After that, you should make a list of everything you can delegate on that project or responsibility. Once again, seek counsel from another leader or leaders and then tweak both lists.

Third, realize that the best ideas will probably come from the others on your team. Embrace the truth and enjoy the fact that you do not have to be the sole producer of great ideas. Listen to them and give their ideas merit.

Fourth, give them permission to risk and you must be willing to take a chance on them. In a church planting training I heard Rick Warren said, “If it does not require faith does that mean we have been unfaithful?” John Piper says it this way, “The Christian life is a call to risk. You either live with risk or waste your life.” According to Matthew 25:16-30 the servant who refused to risk was called “wicked’ by his master. J.D. Greear says, “Risking for God is dangerous; but not risking is more dangerous.” Yes, you may get burned and someone may drop the ball, but we must risk by being willing to invest in raising up more leaders.

Fifth, give them permission to fail. Two things are very important here. First, if someone never fails that means they probably are not doing very much. Second, keep reminding yourself of those who took a chance on you. I personally am so thankful for those who believed in me enough to give me a chance and then when I did mess up (and the stories are plentiful) were supportive of my efforts but then were also helpful in showing me where and how I had messed up. Walk them though a W.I.N. What did they do well? Where do they need to improve? What will they do next after having evaluated?

Sometimes we are over-functioning because there is no one else available to help us but other times it is because we refuse to equip and empower others. If the second is true then we are hindering others from developing their leadership skills and utilizing their spiritual gifts to be a blessing to our ministry. God has put a lot of leadership capacity in other people around us. We do not serve our team well by leading in their place and not allowing them to step up and lead themselves. Do not allow the “if I want it done right I must do it myself” to control your leadership style.

Dave Ferguson of Exponential says when we approach other people we should remember these four letters and share what “ICNU!”


The first time I remember hearing the phrase “for an audience of one” was when our good friend, Buddy Mullins, was singing in our church. He spoke of how God had impressed upon him that it was not about performing for people but it was all about worshipping Him. In Joe Gibb’s book, Game Plan for Life, he also talks about performing for an audience of one. We must remember that He is always watching and it is far more important what He thinks about us than anyone else.

Recently, Tony Dungy reminded me about this principle again in his daily devotional book, Uncommon Life Daily Challenge. His perspective is that this principle should be “unbelievably liberating.” It reminds us that it is God who keeps score and His scorecard looks a lot different than ours. Even in ministry we can become more concerned about what others think of our ministry rather than being focused on how God feels about what we are doing.

How do we define success? How do we measure the impact we believe God wants us to be having? This thinking does not advocate giving up or settling for less than God intended but making sure that we are in tune with God’s agenda for our lives and for our ministries. Are we faithful where He has placed us? Are we daily being faithful in the little things so that we can be faithful in bigger things? God looks on our desire to serve and follow Him…no matter what the outcome may be.

The key to this principle of “an audience of one” is finding our identity in Christ Jesus. The reality is that only Jesus can tell you who you are. Three times the heavenly Father declared who Jesus was, affirming that He was His Son, and that He was pleased with Him. Psalm 73:28 says, “But as for me, God’s presence is my good.
I have made the Lord God my refuge, so I can tell about all You do.” We must be close enough to Him so He can whisper in our ears what we need to hear from Him.

First, our crises can become opportunities for a fresh experience of the glory of God’s affirmation.

We all face challenges, trials, and difficulties in this life. When a crisis comes it is our opportunity to draw up close to His presence and listen for His voice of assurance that we belong to Him, He is with us, and that He is looking after us. When the Father affirmed the Son He was saying, “Son, we’ve got this!” Our God is able to handle every situation and He will not abandon us along the way.

Second, our goal is greater than avoiding the pain that crises create.

When our identity is in Christ we are driven by a desire to obey and do the will of the Father. None of us take to sacrifice naturally. It hurts and the hurt is real but we push through and we press forward. Why? Because there is a deeper desire than simply avoiding the trial and it should be so that our lives will glorify Him. Jesus said that His food was to do the will of the Father who sent Him and to finish that work.

Third, if you find your identity in what others say about you – praise can corrupt you.

All of us must be careful to not think too highly of ourselves. Years ago my dad’s mom finally got to hear me preach for the first time. I had already been pastoring about seven years and I was excited she was there. When the service was over she took my hand and patted it while saying, “It’s ok, Larry, you keep working on it and you will get better.” Remember that pride comes before the fall.

Fourth, if you find your identity in what others say about you – criticism can crush you.

Words do hurt and we must be mindful of what we say and how we say it. The reality is that people will criticize you for decisions you make as a leader, for stands you take as a minister, and even for preaching the truth. Remain humble, realizing that God will provide you with strength and perseverance in the midst of adversity. It is difficult, but we must have thick skin while maintaining a sensitive heart and spirit.

Fifth, find your identity and security in His presence.

In the first fifteen verses of Psalm 73 the Psalmist is struggling with his apparent failure while the wicked are prospering. It is a sustained dirge about what he sees as the futility of the righteous life verses the success of the wicked. Then every thing changes in verses 16-17, “When I tried to understand all this, it seemed hopeless until I entered God’s sanctuary. Then I understood their destiny.”

The change occurred when he went into the temple. Then, we assume, he lingered in the presence of God. When we are only interested in an audience of one and get into His presence the change occurs. Our attitude, perspective, and behavior begin to be shaped and formed into who He wants us to become. The audience of one reminds us that the nearness of God is what we need more than the applause of man, the accomplishments for which we have been striving, or accumulating wealth.

The journey can become difficult and trials will come our way. We sometimes wonder, “Will we make it?” Doubts arise and fears come as we ask, “Can I do this?” Then our loving heavenly Father whispers in our ear, “I am faithful!” As we perform for our audience of one He affirms that “being confident of this, that He who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.”

Heart Test!!!

All of us need to examine our hearts to determine if we are true disciples of Christ or not. In order to administer a test, the test first has to be developed and written. If you are going to ask a question then there needs to be a definitive answer. When you ask many church leaders to define a disciple you actually will get a multitude of answers. How does your church define a disciple? What elements are necessary to say a person is a fully devoted follower of Christ?

There are three tests every believer should test himself or herself on to determine where they are in their personal journey.

First, do you know and are you following Jesus? Have you decided to follow Him and make Him Lord of your life?

Second, are you being changed and transformed by Christ regularly? Is Christ consistently at work in you so that He might work through you?

Third, are you committed to the mission of Jesus? Are you focused on what He has called you to do?

This heart test requires all three…not just two of them. If you are having physical heart problems think about how different tests intensify and are more in-depth. First, you may be given an EKG to see if there are any irregularities in the patterns of your heart (“Follow me”). Second, you may then be asked to take a stress test that challenges your heart under a more difficult situation (“and I will make you”). Third, they then may require a heart catherization (“fishers of men”).

Do not stop at the first or second level because a true test of the heart of any disciple is that they must be living on mission for Jesus. Matthew 4:19 makes it unmistakable, “Follow me and I will make you fishers of men.” A clear and concise definition of what it means and what it takes to follow Jesus is how we can test our hearts. Honestly, many Christians and many churches need to rediscover and recommit to the mission of God. Each level is a more in-depth test of where you are spiritually.

A huge part of this process, “and I will make you,” happens in community and with other disciples. We were not made to follow Jesus alone, but together, because two are better than one. Someone has said, “You should be willing to stand alone for Christ but you should not ever have to!” There is not just strength in numbers but those numbers being together in community strengthens us. That is what the Bible means when it speaks of iron sharpening iron. It is one hard object striking another hard object to improve effectiveness.

Bill Hybels gives a great definition of biblical community, “Knowing and being known, loving and being loved, serving and being served, and celebrating and being celebrated.” Three necessary ingredients to properly test our spiritual hearts are the Word of God, the Holy Spirit, and the people of God. This is why connection (small) groups are so important to spiritual maturity. We grow as God intended when we are following Christ together in community by praying for one another, loving one another, serving one another, and even correcting one another.

There must be an environment of authenticity and transparency for this to work. In larger groups we are able to hide behind superficial relationships that never really get beyond pleasantries. We are comfortable taking about the weather, sports, fishing, our jobs, but God forbid we ask someone what sin they are struggling with the most. If we are not careful, we create pretend relationships…not authentic ones. Honesty in a safe environment is what develops trust. Here are three areas that test our heart and our authenticity.

First, you do not need to feel like you have all the answers. As a matter of fact, J.D. Greear says, “The greatest ideas for ministry are likely in the minds of congregation members…Furthermore, if the majority of what Jesus wants to do He wants to do in community, it shouldn’t surprise us that He puts His best vision into the hearts of the people who live and work there for the majority of their hours each week.” Allow creativity and listen to what the Holy Spirit is saying to others around you.

Second, make sure you have not surrounded yourself with “yes men.” Ed Stetzer said, “Surround yourself with strong voices who have permission to disagree.” That is not always easy and challenges us but we must give permission to spiritual people to speak into our lives and we must be willing to give what they say a fair hearing. Greear and Stetzer have hit the nail on the head by stressing the importance of promoting creativity and valuing everyone’s opinion on your team. A true test of spiritual maturity is that you do not have to have your way.

Third, trust the people around you by equipping them, empowering them, and releasing them. Craig Groeschel says, “You can have control or you can have growth, but you can’t have both. You have recruited great people, trust and empower them.” That may not fit your situation exactly but learn from the principle. If they are not in the right position then help them discover the right one. If they are not sure about what to do give them the training that would help them be more effective.

Leaders, we need to test our hearts on our willingness to “be changed and transformed by Jesus.” Are we listening to His leadership in making disciples who make disciples? Are we willing to realize that the people God has placed around us have as much vision and ability as we do? Do we really believe in the priesthood of the believer and are we willing to practice it? Let me close by quoting Greear again, “Shouldn’t pastors see themselves as servants of the movement rather than celebrities of the moment?

Sifting Does Occur

We must expect trials and tribulations to come our way. We have already discussed the importance of learning to read the Bible honestly. Jesus told Peter in Luke 22:31-32, “Simon, Simon, look out! Satan has asked to sift you like wheat. But I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail. And you, when you have turned back, strengthen your brothers.” Leaders should especially be ready for the attacks that will come our way. There is a bull’s-eye on our backs and the devil has us in his crosshairs.

Here are some excellent questions from Spiritual leadership by J. Oswald Sanders: “How well do you handle criticism? When have you profited from it? The humble person can learn from petty criticism, even malicious criticism.” One rule of thumb in this area is to always be open to any kernel of truth there might be in the criticism – whether it is constructive or not. Sanders then asks, “In what situations have you been a peacemaker? A leader must be able to reconcile with opponents and make peace where arguments have created hostility.”

Sifting can occur many different ways but it is never enjoyable. It is like discipline of which Hebrews 12:11 says, “No discipline seems enjoyable at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it yields the fruit of peace and righteousness to those who have been trained by it.” The sifting we go through produces a stronger and more vibrant faith. James tells us that the testing of our faith produces endurance and enables us to grow into spiritual maturity. Jesus told Peter, “And you, when you have turned back, strengthen your brothers.”

Sanders also asks, “Can you accept opposition to your viewpoint or decision without taking offense? Leaders always face opposition.” He then adds, “Do you depend on the praise of others to keep you going? Can you hold steady in the face of disapproval and even temporary loss of confidence?” We may face health challenges, financial challenges, but the most difficult can be relational challenges. Especially when they come from those closest to us. This sifting can hurt the deepest and take the longest to overcome.

First, we must make sure that we talk to people not about people. Make Matthew 5:23-24 and Matthew 18:15-10 a value that you live by and practice. Conflict resolution training is needed and must be implemented into your ministry. In Irresistible Church Wayne Cordeiro says, “The DNA of any conflict resolution involves bringing people together and getting them to talk and listen to each other.” Unfortunately, we worry far too much about pleasing people instead of producing results that will honor God. It is difficult to balance at times.

Second, learn from your mistakes. Make sure that you are not building up a standard so high that no one can live up to it. Wayne Cordeiro refers to this equation; “Experience plus reflection equals insight.” We can always learn from our experiences by stepping back and asking simple questions such as “how could I handle that better next time?” Also, seek other people’s opinions and “debrief” with them how you handled the situation. Listening to other people’s viewpoints ensures that you are not only looking through your lens, which can create tunnel vision.

Third, realize that you will not be able to fix every situation. There are times to lament a situation as found in the scriptures. What does that look like? When a person comes to you and it cannot be easily resolved, you point that person to Jesus and invite them to honestly pour out their heart to the Lord. We acknowledge that God is good and sovereign, yet life is not always as we would like it to be. We learn that our emotions are permitted, that it is right to express them, even when those emotions include anger and injustice when done correctly.

Fourth, be good with a time of prayer and reflection if resolution does not occur immediately. You may not ever have all the answers for people when they are struggling. Unfortunately, life is unfair and people do not always act the way God would have them act. So we repent, we strive to improve, we listen to concerns, and we try to remain sensitive to the Holy Spirit. All of us are challenged to remain sensitive to the real pain and needs of people. We must learn to be patient with people who are wading through many difficult issues in their lives.

Fifth, embrace the paradoxes of leadership. Wayne Cordeiro continues, “The challenge is to stay balanced when criticized, to avoid taking the criticism personally, and yet not to become calloused and cynical. In leadership we are called to a paradox of personalities: sensitive but not easily offended, empathetic but not weak, flexible and yet filled with convictions.” God desires to reconcile and heal unhealthy relationships and He will when it is what we truly desire. The question we must ask ourselves is, are we willing to yield to His principles for reconciliation?

Avoidance of a broken relationship should not be an option. Having right relationships is more important than having church according to Matthew 5:23-24. We must get together in order to work the issues out in a godly, Christ honoring fashion. If apologies need to be made then you must offer them. If rumors need to be cleared up then you must communicate the truth. Most importantly, everyone must be reminded of our goal to honor and glorify God in all we do. John 13:35, “By this all people will know you are My disciples, If you have love one for another.”

Vitality vs Vulnerability

Encouragement + Accountability + Intentionality = Spiritual Vitality

We must be on our guard against the attacks of the devil. Temptation is everywhere and we must realize that anyone can stumble or fall if not properly prepared. Paul told the Galatians, “watching out for yourselves so you also won’t be tempted.” Solomon gave the warning that we need to guard our hearts. The challenge is to protect our eyes, our ears, and our thoughts in order to keep our hearts right before God. Here is a great question to consider, “Are you living with good intentions or are you living intentionally?”

The reality is that you can dry up on the inside long before it shows on the outside. We have been programmed to act like we are walking with the Lord when we are not. We know what “churchianity” looks like and while we are drying up and needing a fresh wind from the Lord, we can easily be guilty of going through the motions. Do not think that this is not possible because in Revelation 3 Jesus told a church, “Because you say, ‘I’m rich; I have become wealthy and have need of nothing,’ and you don’t know that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind, and naked.”

There are three elements that make you very susceptible to temptation. Time + Hardship + Deprivation = Vulnerability (Bill Hull in The Complete Book of Discipleship). The devil is always looking for just the right time to push our buttons. Remember that the devil is working overtime all the time. You cannot afford to ever let your guard down because at our most inopportune time the devil will see it as his golden opportunity. Peter makes this very clear when he says, “Be serious! Be alert! Your adversary the devil is prowling around like a roaring lion, looking for anyone he can devour.”

The second element is Hardship. Trials and difficult times can be guaranteed. It is easy to stand for the Lord in church when everyone is saying amen but it is another story in the real world. We commit to follow Jesus and think we have a “let’s do this” mentality but we will be tested greatly when hardships come into our lives. You must expect trials and hardships and you must be prepared for them when they come. We are told in God’s word to on our watch and to be ready to “stand against the attacks of the enemy.”

The third element is the most important in not becoming vulnerable. That element is deprivation. If you are not walking with the Lord you have no foundation to stand on and no inner strength from which to draw. Are you abiding in Christ? Are you allowing His fullness to work in you and through you? If we do our job, getting daily into His presence, then He will do His job of providing us with His power and guidance. David makes this declaration, “I have treasured your word in my heart so that I might not sin against you.”

Vitality is a choice we make by pursuing God. We develop the daily habits of prayer and being in His word so that we will be have spiritual vitality. Hebrews 3:13 says this, “But encourage each other daily, while it is called today, so that none of you is hardened by sin’s deception.” Here we are given a simple Biblical formula of three important elements. Encouragement + Accountability + Intentionality = Vitality. While we are 100% responsible for our spiritual walk, here is a clear pathway of how we can help one another on a regular basis.

The first element of vitality is encouragement! All of us need encouragement and all of us need to encourage others. There are enough people around who drain the energy out of us and this makes encouragement of paramount importance. The idea of exhortation is being a cheerleader to others. Do you have someone like that in your life? Are you being that cheerleader to someone else? We all need that individual in our life who believes in us, believes in what God is doing in our life. They encourage you to not listen to the naysayers.

The second element of vitality is accountability! We are told to encourage “each other.” We not only need the word of God and the Holy Spirit of God, but we also need the people of God speaking into our lives. Yes, we need a body to belong to and to grow with but all too often the missing ingredient is that individual to whom we voluntarily make ourselves accountable. Do you have someone you can vent to and know that they will then speak the truth in love back to you? There are many times you need that trusted confidant to bare your soul to and be 100% transparent.

The third element is intentionality! We are to encourage each other “daily.” Do you have an intentional plan in place to keep you on the right track spiritually? You cannot afford to be haphazard in this area. Tony Dungy says one of the keys to life is “to discipline ourselves to do what we need to do so that at a later time we can do what we want to do!” If you want to run a marathon you must begin the physical training today and increase your workouts along the way. If you want to finish the race Christ has placed you in you must also increase your spiritual workouts.

Healthy churches and healthy Christians build an environment and a culture of spiritual vitality. They strive to ensure that there is a system of discipleship and mentoring that facilitates these three elements of encouragement, accountability, and intentionality. Who are you encouraging and who is encouraging you? Who have you agreed with to hold one another accountable? Are you communicating regularly and have you developed a good rhythm? Remember, “so that none of you is hardened by sin’s deception.”

The Struggle in the Middle

Sometimes the hardest place to be is in the middle. There seems to be more adrenaline in the beginning of a new project and a lot of excitement on completion, but when you are in the middle it can be challenging. Just like a new year with new commitments and a new resolve. We want to do better and we are determined to make changes but somewhere along the line we lose steam. Any project can start strong and fizzle as quickly as it began.

One example is in the area of prayer. We know we need to pray more and we believe prayer makes a difference but then the reality of the discipline required sets in. Eph. 6:18 describes this well, “Pray at all times in the Spirit with every prayer and request, and stay alert in this with all perseverance and intercession for all the saints.” Did you see it? Perseverance is required once we begin doing what God has asked us to do. Paul says to stay alert about the need to not only start praying but to continue!

In a study on the effectiveness and fruitfulness of pastors, Thom Rainer has discovered stages where we struggle in the middle. Years four and five and years eleven and beyond have proved to be crossroads where the challenges can be overwhelming. Years six to ten have proven to be the most fruitful but many never make it there because in years four and five most pastors decide to leave and go elsewhere. Could it be that this is because we struggle in the middle? During these crucial years it is easy to see progress and be productive, but if not careful, you can lose your passion.

Here are some things you need to know about any new project or endeavor you begin. Whether it is a new position, new church, new program, new building, or new initiative there are some steps you need to be aware of to help you while in the middle. The reality is that we hear a lot about the excitement of what is new and the commitment to finish strong, but we also need to be aware of how to remain faithful when we struggle in the middle. Think through these four natural phases we go through.

First, there is the initial excitement and passion. Everyone likes something new, such as that new car smell, but it only lasts so long. They have even produced a spray to give your car that fresh new smell again, but it just is not the same. There is also an initial adrenaline rush when we tackle a new project that propels us forward at a breakneck speed, but it usually cannot be maintained long. This time period lasts anywhere from three to six months and can even last a solid year. Has anyone ever heard of the honeymoon stage?

Second, reality begins to set in with a little bit of time. We begin to see, as the newness wears off, that there are many problems and challenges we did not notice in the beginning. You may even begin to wonder what in the world were you thinking? You also may even begin to question why you got into it in the first place. Remember, this is natural and is why so many can struggle in the middle. Use this time well and leverage it to evaluate your present reality.

There are two great dangers here to be aware of with the first being an unwillingness to evaluate. It is not comfortable for us and can be very difficult because of the transparency required. The second thing is, when we finally do evaluate the temptation, to do nothing about what we discover. The change it requires causes us to struggle in the middle because it requires an unbelievable amount of energy, effort, and cooperation. Capitalize upon this opportunity to determine what changes must be made in order to see the needed improvement.

Third, figure out what you do not want to do anymore. This sounds cold but please listen closely. We struggle in the middle sometimes because we are unwilling to admit what we have been doing is not working. We default to doing what we have always done while desiring different and better results. Webster defines the word default as, “a selection automatically used by a computer program in the absence of a choice made by the user.” Has anyone ever heard, “that’s the way we have always done it?”

A second definition for default is, “a selection made usually automatically or without active consideration due to a lack of a viable alternative.” You must be careful about settling for the same old same old and being unwilling to consider that there are other options. Innovation can be scary but it is necessary. When you consider your present reality and envision a preferred future you must be willing to prayerfully consider “viable options” even if you have never done it that way before! You struggle in the middle when you default to what you have always done and expect different results.

Fourth, a clear vision and plan of where you are going. It takes time to observe, build relationships, develop team atmosphere, and communicate that vision clearly. Systems must be developed such as outreach, spiritual growth, assimilation, ministry placement, worship service planning, pastoral care, and finance. It takes time to train and recruit leaders to lead the ministry teams and keep these systems functioning properly. The initial passion can wane and we struggle in the middle when we have to dig in and work on the ministry creatively and diagnostically.

God’s plans are discovered, discerned, and defined in God’s presence. The beginning excitement and adrenaline rush will last only so long. You need to be prepared for the crossroads that often occur in years four, five, and eleven. Remain passionate about your ministry and your church by maintaining a passionate relationship with Jesus Christ!

Get started because the speed of the leader determines the speed of the team.