Monthly Archives: January 2009

Back of the Napkin

One of the secret skills employed by just about every minister I know is the ability to scribble. For years I thought that I was the only one who had doodled my way through more conversations than I can remember. All I need is a booth in a restaurant, a napkin and pen, an interesting conversation and the magic begins. Some have said that virtually all artwork begins as a scribble [which may be why people keep finding pieces of art from Picasso or Rembrandt to sell at auction.] My guess is that there is an equal body of ministry that began with a squiggle.

Over the years, I’ve drawn pictures to communicate everything from the message of the Gospel to the structure of ministry relationships. In each case, it has been proof that a picture is worth a thousand words. And, over the years I’ve discovered that I am not alone. Almost every pastor I’ve met has their own portfolio of profound doodles.

So, you can imagine my joy when I discovered the book by Dan Roam, The Back of the Napkin [Penguin, New York: 2008.] There has been a lot of pressure over the last few years for Pastors to elevate their quality of presentation. It’s a way of catching up with the advancement of technical, automated multi-media which has created a demand for what one writer calls: "multi-dimensional, geospatially-grounded visualizations with time lines and cross-cutting cultural dimensions." And, that’s just what’s expected from Power Point!

As I opened The Back of the Napkin, I was thrilled to find that Dan Roam had made the simple science of the scribble an art form. With simple exercises, he makes it easy for even the most inept to draw a picture that would – as advertised by the subtitle: solve problems and sell ideas. As I’ve been working through the exercises, it’s hit me – it’s going to change the way I make presentations at large, and that’s a good thing! Interested? You can check it out for yourself: – or –

How Women Hear the Sermon

I have long written and taught about the value of investing sermon time developing “the problem.” By that I have meant that preachers ought to utilize “the listener’s voice” to identify with the hearer’s struggle to embrace the big idea of the sermon. We can’t always be telling people what they ought to know, believe, and do. We ought to spend some of our time appreciating the struggle that such things involve. Doing this doesn’t undermine our preaching – it deepens it.

What I hadn’t thought enough about is how such an approach might be received by the more than half of the congregation that is female. According to Pam MacRae, in The Moody Handbook on Preaching, women are particularly interested in this use of their own voice in preaching. There may, in fact, be a gender difference on this point. Given that most preachers are male, this aspect of the sermon might be even more important than I had thought. Let me quote MacRae at some length…

“Women typically have deep emotional waters and want to be understood. In the classic scenario, a woman wants to talk about a problem she is facing with her husband, only to get his quick response telling her how she should fix it. Her frustration and irritation shoots through the roof. She wanted him to listen to her and understand how she was feeling. He thought the best way to be helpful was to tell her how to fix it.”

“Generally, it is enough for her to feel heard and understood, which is of great value to her. She may eventually want help, but what she really wants is to feel validated in her experience, and then perhaps hear something soothing and comforting.

“Tannen notes that men are sometimes confused by the various ways women use conversation to be intimate with others. One of these ways she calls ‘troubles talk.’ She says, ‘For women, talking about troubles is the essence of connection. I tell you my troubles, you tell me your troubles, and we’re close. Men, however, hear troubles talk as a request for advice, so they respond with a solution.’”

“Conversations with the pastor give a woman information about the level of understanding he has for women in general. Does he offer quick solutions, answers or comments? Or, does he really listen to her? When a man offers an off-the-cuff solution, a woman may feel he is trying to diminish or dismiss her problem. He is communicating that he does not get her. This does not build trust and can profoundly affect how a woman hears the pastor in the pulpit.”

Church — An Adaptable Community

Church communities live with the tension between operating current ministries with excellence and the need to keep adapting those ministries to meet and survive future challenges. For forty years I have observed this tension play out as ministry trends come and go and churches struggle to find their bearings in the midst of this change. Discerning leaders help churches weather these challenges well, but sometimes leaders fail to recognize what is happening and churches slowly die or break apart.

I discovered recently that of the original Forbes 100 companies identified in 1917 only 13 have remained as independent entities. But among these only General Electric has performed with excellence relative to its peers. This is a very sobering statistic. The churches that now are identified as Fellowship Baptists emerged as a distinctive group in British Columbia in 1927. There were 16 churches in that original group, as best as I can determine. Of those churches perhaps half still continue to minister in some form. Perhaps one or two continue to do so with excellence. Of course this is a rough estimate, but it does serve to indicate that churches struggle both to minister effectively today and also to figure out how to adapt to tomorrow.

Three essential dynamics probably contribute to this situation. First, a strong focus on good execution of ministry plans often limits the ability of a church to adapt. The leadership concentrates upon and is committed to working the plan, and in the process they unwittingly become resistant to necessary adaptive change. The church needs to learn how to be ambidexterous, executing current plans well, but constantly innovating. It is tough to be do both well. The result is that some churches sustain good ministry for a certain time, but then begin to diminish because they fail to innovate. In the business world (recognizing that there are significant differences) some studies show that less that 1% of companies are able to maintain top performance over a fifty year period. My experience would suggest that this is probably similar in the case of churches.

A second dynamic is that churches tend to work with a bias towards overoptimism. We invest heavily in developing and executing current plans, with the result that we come to believe that they will always deliver the results we desire. Change becomes less urgent because we believe that the current plan will accomplish everything necessary. And so we become ‘set in our ways’ of ministry. Our models of ministry become rigid and we resist adaptation. Inertia exercises immense influence, often to our detriment.

The third dynamic relates to “complexity catastrophe.” The longer an organization exists and the larger it gets, the more complex it becomes. Various segments of the organization become interdependent. To change one aspect means changing the others and so conficts emerge. Positive change becomes more and more difficult to implement. Gridlock occurs and at some point, whether because of some external change or internal conflict, catastrophe envelopes the organization. Perhaps we see this being played out with entities such as General Motors today. Now most churches are not large. However, our communities, once they grow beyond two hundred people and are working with multiple staff, do become complex. As size and complexity increase, we spend more energy enabling the organization to operate well and this in turn limits our ability to adapt.

To respond to these challenges, church leaders should consider ways to reduce hierarchy, empower people to act, and stimulate diversity, in other words to build the church’s capacity to be responsive by the way it works as a community. Some leaders believe that the only way to get things done is to operate with a hierarchical structure. However, it is quite possible to work with shared purpose, high levels of trust, and impressive productivity within flat organizational relationships. High accountability is possible with low oversight. Empowering people to lead and act motivates them to achieve beyond expectations, but this does not mean accountability is diminished or absent. Perhaps we need to believe that “good ideas can come from anywhere,” not just from the lead pastor or the ministry staff.

Where in your church community are you enabling and encouraging the creation of ministry experiments that enable you to evaluate growth opportunities? We need to be willing to fail in small experiments so that we learn how to succeed in the big things. I know that Revelation 2-3 tell us that churches grow or fail for various reasons and that foundational to it all is the spiritual condition of the people. However, spirituality includes a wisdom to discern how to adapt and keep our ministries vital and responsive to changing conditions.

A Slap up the side of the head

Every now and again (more often than I would like) I need a slap up the side of the head when I lose perspective on what Jesus values in ministry.  I often look for efficiency and cleverness to accomplish a task when only humility, time and a receptive spirit suffice. A book by J.B. Phillips provided this corrective for me recently through a quote from Adventures in Solitude, in which the author reflected on months of illness:

As I thought during those long days, it seemed to me that the hospital cherishes a spirit, or an attitude, that the Church sadly lacks. I felt in it a respect for the human body and for human life beyond that in the Church, as it stands today, for the spirit of man.

The hospital diagnoses before it prescribes; the Church prescribes before it diagnoses. The physician stands humble before the human body, studies it, doubts about it, wonders at it; labours to fit his remedies to the exact disease. Is there in any church an equivalent humility in the presence of the spirit of man? Is the priest willing to inquire and doubt and wonder? Does he know before he tries to cure? Must the Church cultivate certainty lest knowledge turn and rend it?

Whether or not this is an accurate assessment of the author’s church is not mine to judge.  However, it does apply to my ministry.  One of the hardest, and yet most important, lessons I was taught (and still need to keep learning!) from my missions experience is the danger of speaking a message before properly discerning the question.  The answer I provide may be accurate, biblical and significant, but it is inappropriate when the context of the question is not fully appreciated.

If I do not listen carefully to the context and concern that stimulated the question, my answer, even if it consists of a clear and logical gospel presentation, will miss the mark.  When I am overly focused on the message I want to present, the result is an unfortunate lack of spiritual sensitivity to the person with whom I am relating; I fail to “read” or attend to their concerns and background.  On the other hand, when there is suitable sensitivity to the other’s perspective, coupled with an appreciation for the relevance of the issue being addressed, then God’s message can be presented in a way that resonates with the hearer by bringing healing to their hurt, forgiveness to their guilt, cleansing to their shame, and peace to their fear.

Such an impact cannot happen until I learn to stand humbly and patiently before their spirit to listen and diagnose. The process of Significant Conversations is my attempt to apply this lesson of sensitivity to the concerns of those people who enrich my life but have not yet come to Christ.


(quote: David Grayson quoted in Phillips J. B. and Duncan D. 365 Meditations by J. B. Phillips for this Day. Word Books, Publisher Waco, Texas, 1975. P. 120)

The Pastor’s Voice

Even though the article is dated, I was impressed once again by a study conducted by Easum-Bandy Associates. In 2007, Bill Easum reported that the one key factor in growing healthy churches was: a pastor who has one-on-one conversations with non-Christians that leads to their conversion to Christ. The article, entitled How to Grow a Small Church [] drew on an extensive study funded by the Lilly Foundation. It confirmed a very simple and obvious principle: The more focused the pastor is on evangelism the larger the church becomes.

This probably shouldn’t come as a surprise. Most people assume that a Pastor possesses unique qualities of training, education, knowledge, and giftedness that automatically translate into successful evangelism. To be honest, I have to think that there is much more to the issue. Two things come to mind. First, a pastor who is fluent in evangelism has learned how to speak about Spiritual things with as normal and pleasant a voice as any other topic of interest. The one-on-one conversations are not sermons delivered with power, but delightful “chats” with meaning.

The second factor is related to the first. The pastor’s “voice” has the ability to become contagious. It’s been my experience that over time a congregation reflects the language that they hear from a pastor, whether it’s in how they pray or in how they explain the Gospel. It may be anecdotal, but I have to think that the voice of a pastor is multiplied through the congregation into the community.
That’s a good principle to keep in mind. As Bill concluded his report, he made it a reminder: the higher the priority you place on evangelism and make personal time for it, the larger your small church will grow. [For more helpful thoughts, you might want to check out:]

Obama’s Oratory

Whether or not you supported Barack Obama in the recent American election, or are pleased by the result, you have to appreciate him for his oratorical skill. Nurtured in the African-American preaching tradition, Obama inspires with his sweeping rhetoric. The man is a truly effective public speaker. Some might argue that he hasn’t yet come up with anything to rival, "I have a dream…" or "Ask not what your country can do for you…" but it’s early. Often it is the circumstances that give rise to the greatness of an oratorical moment and he is sure to face his moments before long. The president-elect knows how to turn a phrase.

Those of us who are interested in preaching and biblical communication ought to watch closely what he is doing, not just because of the homiletical heritage of his speaking, but because we can learn something from him. Philip Collins, former speech-writer for Tony Blair is quoted in the BBC saying, "His style of delivery is basically churchy, it’s religious: the way he slides down some words and hits others – the intonation, the emphasis, the pauses and the silences," he explains.

In my book, Choosing to Preach, I described excellent preaching as akin to singing. Obama practices this as well as anyone. Collins continues, "He is close to singing, just as preaching is close to singing. All writing is a rhythm of kinds and he brings it out, hits the tune. It’s about the tune, not the lyrics, with Obama." Of course, preaching ought to be more about the "lyrics" than the "tune", but that is not to discredit the tune or the feel that our sermon form produces. Yesterday, a man commented that he appreciated the cadence of my preaching. He said that he liked the way it felt,  and appreciated the movement and flow of the sermon. While this was not my primary concern in preaching, it is something that can help.

Listening to Obama, I was struck by how effective rhetoric still moves people. The refrain, "Yes we can," was as powerful for its ring as for its content. A word well spoken can still bring a tear, charge a crowd, spark a movement. Such things can happen in our pulpits as well.

To read the whole BBC article referenced above, click on Obama: Oratory and Originality by Stephanie Holmes.

Defining Success

“Success” is one of those wonderful contemporary words that everyone bends to their own service. We use it to judge others and when it is convenient, we grab hold of it to bolster our own sense of worth and accomplishment. Within Northwest our Board recently has chosen the Carver Policy Governance model to organize and discipline their work. Basic to this model are three questions that the Board in exercising its leadership must continually ask about the Seminary – what outcomes, for whose benefit, at what cost? As it answers these questions, it seeks to define whether the Seminary is being successful in achieving its mission and vision.

As President, I am always wondering about our “success”. Are we developing enough good ministry leaders, are we doing it with excellence, are we making a difference in and for the Kingdom, are we investing our resources in the right way so that we are accomplishing our ends? What makes this so challenging is that my success as President is constantly dependent on the success of others. The Board holds me accountable for the success of the Seminary, but I am always delegating to others the means by which that success must occur. Of course, I am not entirely without recourse to facilitate this success.

Our success as a Seminary depends upon people – board members, faculty, staff, supporters, students, networked leaders. When each person achieves success in their personal lives and in their Seminary roles, then the Seminary succeeds. What I thank God for is the high degree of success that people in these various roles consistently achieve.

  • board members speak with Spirit-led discernment;
  • faculty teach and publish with incredible competence;
  • staff work with deep commitment to quality and mission;
  • students develop in ways we never imagined;
  • supporters in their stewardship contribute beyond our expectations;
  • leaders in our larger networks demonstrate godly, creative leadership that enables our Seminary to flourish.

But for each of these individuals to contribute to Northwest’s success, God must be involved too. Our Christian understanding persuades us that God generates any success that Northwest may enjoy through his very personal, individual work to create success in the life of each individual within our community.  As President I have to put a lot of faith in the people around me, but especially in God Himself. I am only able to guide Northwest to success as all of these various people, assisted by God, are themselves successful. To be President is to be in a wonderful place of grateful, daily dependence.

Was 2008 a successful year for Northwest?

  • We directly impacted 22 churches through Best Practice Workshops for Church Boards and Church Mission Committees.
  • We worked with 70 different students within Northwest and another 300 students in the larger ACTS community.
  • We provided financial aid to 49 different students.
  • We placed about 8 new ministry leaders in our churches.
  • We essentially balanced our budget.
  • Our faculty submitted, read or published 10 articles/papers, prepared two book-length manuscripts, advised and examined theses, taught, consulted, and preached in many churches, and provided mentoring for our students.
  • We redeveloped our relationship with the Fellowship Ministry Centre, creating the Fellowship Leadership Development Centre, led by Dr. Schrag.
  • We implemented The Journey: A Graduate Christian Leadership Development Centre located in Edmonton.
  • The Board adopted the Carver Policy Governance model.

I am sure there are many other advances I could mention. These lead me to conclude that we were successful.

The success of one year, however, does not guarantee the success of a new year. So Northwest’s work begins a fresh cycle in January, as we pray, plan and work together to forge another successful year in Northwest’s significant history of ministry among our churches. I look forward to discerning the hand of God in this success and how He will incorporate your life and service into this success.

For those of you located in the Langley area, I have extended an invitation to join with us February 13, 2009 and consider “The State of the Seminary.” You should be receiving that in the mail shortly, and I trust you will be able to join us. If you live outside of this area, but will be visiting during that period, please let me know so that we can include in this evening of celebration and prayer.