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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.

Character That Counts

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We live in a world today where it seems that competencies and skills are valued far more than character. Character counts to God and it should matter to us also. In the two primary passages on leadership for churches (I Timothy 3 and Titus 1) the qualifications overwhelmingly focus on character not ability. There is one exception: teaching! But God is far more interested in who we are than what we do. The scriptures make it clear that God’s focus is character and the heart of man, not outward appearances.

John 7:24 says, “Stop judging according to outward appearances; rather judge according to righteous judgment.” Matthew 15:16-20 says, “But what comes out of the mouth comes from the heart, and this defiles a man. For from the heart come evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, sexual immoralities, thefts, false testimonies, blasphemies. These are the things that defile a man, but eating with unwashed hands does not defile a man.” Following all the outward rituals does not insure the having right heart!

Here are some great quotes on character:

  • Howard Hendricks: “The greatest crisis in the world today is a crisis of leadership and the greatest crisis in leadership is a crisis of character.”
  • General Norman Schwarzkopf:  “99% of leadership failures are failures of character.”
  • Coach John Wooden:  “Be more concerned with your character than with your reputation, because your character is what you really are while your reputation is merely what others think you are.”
  • Arthur Friedman:  “Men of genius are admired.  Men of wealth are envied.  Men of power are feared but only men of character are trusted.”
  • David Star Jordan:  “Wisdom is knowing what to do next, skill is knowing how to do it, and virtue is doing it!”

Unfortunately, all too often we focus too much on ability and skill and too little on character. In Leaders Who Last, Dave Kraft compares capacity and competence to gliders. They can fly and stay up in the air soaring for a while but not indefinitely. They eventually will come down and they do not hold up well during turbulent times. Maybe this why some leaders come crashing down so hard. They have been elevated too quickly because of their charisma or capabilities but their character is not equal to the task?

Kraft goes on to say, “Who you are will take you much farther than what you can do. Character will stand the test of time and hold up when the winds howl and the storm rages around you.” So how do we develop character like he just described? Kraft also points out, “Character development is not a short-term project, but a lifelong pursuit.” It is walking with Christ daily and developing an intimacy with Him. If we desire Christ-like character then we must spend time with Him and abide in Him.

The importance of our daily spiritual disciplines cannot be overstated. Hopefully, we do not come to our daily quiet time with the Lord just so we can check it off of our list, fulfill our obligation, or feel good about doing what we should have done. Following Christ is about developing a relationship with Him. Great men and women of God are great because they enjoy exceptional intimacy with Christ. Here is an excellent example from John Ortberg in his article, “Motorboats, Sailboats, and Rafts,” on how to approach our daily habits of the heart:

“One of the analogies that has been kind of helpful to me is the difference between a motorboat, a raft, and a sailboat. In a motorboat, I’m in charge. I determine how fast we’re going to go, and in what direction. Some people approach spiritual disciplines that way. If I’m just aggressive enough, if I have enough quiet times, I can make transformation happen on my own.

Some people have been burned by that kind of approach, so they go to the opposite extreme and will say, “I’m into grace.” It’s like they’re floating on a raft. If you ask them to do anything to further their growth, they’ll say, “Hey, no. I’m not into works. I’m into grace. You’re getting legalistic with me.” So they drift. There are way too many commands in Scripture for anybody to think that we’re called to be passive.

On a sailboat, however, I don’t move if it’s not for the wind. I can’t control the wind. I don’t manufacture the wind. Jesus talks about the Spirit blowing like the wind. But there is a role for me to play, and part of it has to do with what I need to discern. A good sailor will discern, “Where’s the wind at work? How should I set the sails?” Practicing spiritual disciplines is like sailing.”

It is important to remember Zech. 4:6, “Not by might, nor by power, but by my Spirit, says the Lord.” And Acts 2:1-4, “When the day of Pentecost came, they were all together in once place. Suddenly there came from heaven a sound like a mighty rushing wind, and it filled the whole house where they were sitting.” We cannot control the wind, nor can we manufacture it, but all too often we try to produce His presence and power ourselves. Phil. 2:13, “For it is God who is working in you, enabling you both to desire and the ability to work out His good purpose.”

For Him to work on us we must place ourselves in the position to be filled with His presence and power. How do we do that so that we can develop Christ-like character?

  • Make sure you are relying on His energy – not your own!
  • Make sure you are pursuing His plans and purpose – not your timeline!
  • Make sure you desire His presence in your life more than His blessings!
  • Make sure you are abiding in His presence daily!

The Time is Now

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In The Making of a Leader, author Bobby Clinton states that only 30% of leaders finish well. Unfortunately, time takes a toll on many leaders who quit, throw in the towel or disqualify themselves. Too many lose heart, lose their joy, and become casualties of the pressures of leadership. All of us have been disheartened by news of a well-known leader who did not finish well. Sadly, the temptation is to only focus on what caused their demise instead of many contributions they made to the kingdom.

The truth is that most people will remember how we finished not how we started. How can we stand the test of time? How can we make sure we finish well? How do we make sure that our spiritual life, passion for Christ, and joy is not choked out of us? In How to Lead & Still Have a Life, H. Dale Burke describes a lot of leaders as “Busy, Buried, and Behind.” They have slowly but surely become overworked, overloaded, and overwhelmed. Many leaders talk far more about burnout than how blessed they are.

First, you must stay centered on Jesus! It is way too easy to make the ministry and our work the center of our universe, but it isn’t. Following Christ is first and foremost about developing an intimate relationship with Him. It is not about fulfilling obligations, checking items off our to-do list, or following a list of regulations. In Leaders Who Last, Dave Kraft says, “Great men and women are great because they enjoy exceptional intimacy with Christ.” Do not fall in to the trap of thinking it is all up to you! The power of God works in you and through you but it is not from you.

Second, you must stay focused on your calling! You cannot do it all and here is the good news; God never asked you to! Andy Stanley has said it this way, “Opportunity does not equal obligation.” It is imperative for you to determine what God has called you to do and then remain focused on that calling. If you are already overloaded and overwhelmed you must decide what you will say no to if you are going to say yes to a new project. If you have not written out your own personal purpose statement you should consider taking a prayer retreat and asking God to reveal that to you. Take a look at Jeremiah 42:1-3.

Third, be willing to place your to-do list through a filter. We must seek God regularly to guide our use of time. Wayne Grudem says it like this, “I find the most helpful thing I do regarding use of time is to spend time in prayer each morning bringing my plans and my ‘to do’ list before the Lord and seeking his direction.” How can you best leverage your time to have the greatest influence and impact for Christ? Change takes time and it is wisdom to remember that you hardly ever accomplish as much as you would like in one year but can accomplish far more than you thought in five years.

Fourth, reignite your passion for the great commission and the great commandment. Bill Bright, founder of Campus Crusade for Christ, wrote: “For many years, one of the first things I do every morning is to evaluate all the day’s competing demands against a single criterion: How will each opportunity enable me to maximize my contribution to helping fulfill the Great Commission? I prioritize accordingly. Some of the demands go to the top of my list, some down the list, and some get eliminated.” How will you meet and build relationships with those who are far from God?

Fifth, remember the example of the apostle Paul. When Paul went before King Agrippa he once again shared his salvation story on the road to Damascus and says this in Acts 26:19-20, “Therefore, King Agrippa, I was not disobedient to the heavenly vision. Instead, I preached to those in Damascus first, and to those in Jerusalem and in all the region of Judea, and to the Gentiles, that they should repent and turn to God, and do works worthy of repentance.” He testifies that He received “Help that comes from God.” He not only provides saving power but also sustaining power.

Sixth, know that Christ wants more for you than you can imagine. It was Paul who wrote in Philippians 1:6 “I am sure of this, that He who started a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.” Now is the time to go back to the basics of point number one and remind yourself not to fall into the trap of thinking it is all up to you! God wants to do greater things in your life and in your ministry than you do. Paul goes to the next level in Philippians 4:13, “I am able to do all things through Him who strengthens me.”

Seventh, make sure you are getting enough rest. Fight the temptation of thinking that if you are not busy then you are being lazy! David Kraft also says, “Sometimes our schedules and egos are writing checks our bodies cannot cash.” If we are travelling at a break neck speed the best thing we can do is to slow down. Where can you find margin in your life to get some much needed rest? Everyone needs to make sure they are able to find ways to get refreshed, recharged, and renewed. You can only run on empty so long before everything comes to a screeching halt.

Healthy Christians and healthy churches find rhythms led by the Holy Spirit of God that allow them to stand the test of time!