What Walmart Greeters Taught me about Leadership

Looming over six feet tall with a scraggly beard, wire-rimmed glasses, a 12 inch ponytail tied with a rubber band, and a vest dotted with military patches, George would be at home riding a Harley with a motorcycle gang. Instead, he holds a clear plastic jug plastered with yellow smiley-face stickers and filled with dollar bills. And he enthusiastically says, “Welcome to Walmart. Have fun! Want a sticker?” George is my favorite Walmart greeter. I’ve learned a lot about leadership from George.

george walmart greeter

My second favorite greeter is Jimmy. Unlike George who stands, Jimmy sits…in his motorized wheel-chair. His physical disability keeps him from standing or even holding one of those charity jugs. Yet, with the same exuberance, he makes you feel good with his, “Welcome to Walmart. Thanks for coming.”

I don’t know how well the following statement would hold up under a scientific study, but I believe it to be true. Shoppers who meet George and Jimmy as they arrive buy more stuff at Walmart than those who meet other greeters who, for the sake of not being too harsh, come across with much less enthusiasm.

Both George and Jimmy use their leadership mirror well.

What is a leadership mirror? It’s a concept rooted in science and in the bible.

In 1995 an Italian neuroscientist  discovered what are called ‘mirror neurons’ in our brain. Essentially, a part of our brain lights up when we sense intention behind another’s action. When that part of our brain turns on, we feel a connection to that person. Their actions activate our mirror neurons. For example, when someone smiles at us, it drives the same motor response on my face. We smile. That experience then sends signals to our emotional center so that we share a positive emotion with the person. The strongest emotions we portray ripple out to others, whether those emotions are good or bad.

Before scientists discovered these mirror neurons, the bible already had. Remember what the writer of Proverbs wrote?

Prov. 15.1 A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger.

That explains that if when I go to Walmart and either George or Jimmy is on duty that day, I have a better experience shopping. They have used their leadership mirror well, even though they probably don’t even know it. Their body language, facial expressions, and tone of voice have become a mirror to me that I subconsciously reflect back to them which in turn affects my behavior and emotions.

This concept profoundly impacts our ability to lead as well. When we use our leadership mirror effectively, team attitudes and performance improves. When we don’t, the opposite occurs. Just think about how you feel the next time you go to Walmart and encounter a dumpy, negative, sleepy-faced greeter versus a George or a Jimmy greeter.

Consider these questions and ask yourself if you need to polish your leadership mirror.

  • Am I keenly aware of how I come across to those I lead with my body language, facial expressions, and tone of voice?
  • Do I consistently portray a positive upbeat tone to others?
  • What is my default facial expression… a scowl or a smile?
  • Do I consistently show up the same way each day at the office or do I leave people asking, “I wonder which boss is showing up today, the mad, sad, or happy one?”
  • Do I attempt to truly be present with others in the moment or do yesterday’s events, today’s task list, and tomorrow’s problems distract me from fully engaged interactions?

If we as leaders pay a bit more attention to our leadership mirror and use it well, we not only can increase team performance, but can actually bless those on our team as we help them activate their mirror neurons for the good.

Lately, how have you used your leadership mirror?

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When People Compare Pastors

Many pastors secretly struggle with measuring up to very successful pastors and churches. It’s tough, but it comes with ministry. People compare pastors. In this post I suggest a few ways to deal with this “measure up mentality.” I begin with one pastor’s experience. He received this e-mail from someone in his church. The names are changed to protect the innocent (uh, I mean the guilty).

comparison

Hi Pastor Jim:

Sharon S. here. How are you? I have been meaning to send you a note for quite some time and tell you about a pastor in California that I thought you might be interested in. Yeah, I know. If I were you I’d be rolling my eyes about now. But I must say, this guy is awesome and has challenged me personally in my life over the last year.

He has pastored [God’s Favorite] Church just outside [Utopia] for about three years and has grown it from 150 people to over 3,500. I have never seen a young guy with such a passion and a heart for God, willing to go against the “appropriate” evangelical grain and just teach the scriptures.

He just started a new series a week and a half ago. I am going to attach the first message because I would love for you to listen to him.  I can’t tell you how many people I know listen now. His name is [Gabriel, the archangel]. He has some of the best teaching I have ever heard on leadership in the church, justification, and some other tough subjects. He is a lot like [another famous pastor], who is his friend and a Facebook “fan” of his. Anyway, I have felt led to connect you with [Gabriel] for a long time. I’m not really sure why. Take it for whatever it is worth. 

Sharon

Pastor Jim emailed this response back.

Dear Sharon,

Thanks for reminding me that my preaching is subpar. It’s great to know that people in my church are making sure they get podcasts from somebody who will never know their name or answer their encouraging emails.

You’ve really made my day. I was studying for this week’s message when I got your note (I’ve already spent twenty hours on my sermon). I immediately stopped to download his magnificent sermon. It’s also wonderful to know that his church has exploded in growth; as you know, our attendance declined by 3% last year because people like you stayed home to watch guys like him on TV!

Gotta go finish my shallow sermon.

God’s blessings on you,

Pastor Jim

Pastor Jim didn’t really send this e-mail. He only wished he had.

I admit that at times this ‘measure up mentality’ has sucked my joy out of ministry, especially when I served in the U.S. I serve in Canada now and find this less of an issue here.

I’ve applied some simple ideas below that have helped me keep my joy even when I felt that I didn’t measure up in the eyes of others. Perhaps they will encourage you as well.

  • God made me who I am. I may not be a world-class leader, a ‘blow you a way’ preacher, or as creative as most, but I must appreciate, embrace, and faithfully use the gifts and competencies He has given me.
  • He has placed me where He wants me to be. I must accept that and do my best with the opportunity He’s provided.
  • I must not dismiss or cutoff those with whom I don’t measure up. We will never please everyone and such people will probably stay in our churches.
  • It’s ok to take care of my valid needs. I can’t change what other people think about me, make them like me, or force them to approve of me. I can, however, take care of the body, soul, and spirit God has entrusted to me. In doing so, I then become the best pastor and leader He has created me to be.

This old King James Version verse has encouraged me as I’ve faced the ‘measure up mentality.’

Psa. 62.5 My soul, wait thou only upon God; for my expectation is from Thee. 

In my third book, People Pleasing Pastors: Avoiding the Pitfalls of Approval Motivated Leadership, I deal extensively with how to manage this ‘measure up mentality’ as it relates to the temptation to people please.

How have you handled this ‘measure up mentality?’

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5 Benefits of Working Outside the Office

Although I’ve been a pastor 35 years, only in the last few years have I discovered the value of studying/working outside my church and home office. I’ll either go to McDonalds (cheap food) or when I lived in Chicago, Panera (good atmosphere and the place I preferred). Both provide free Wi-Fi. While I don’t advocate spending all your time working outside the office, I’ve found that doing so once a week benefits me and the ministry in these ways.

Working in coffee shop. Side view cropped image of thoughtful young man working on laptop while sitting in coffee shop

5 Benefits  of Working Outside the Office

  • Productivity: Less interruptions from others.
  • Creativity: A different environment spurs it.
  • Focus: Less distractions help me concentrate better (like being tempted to clean up my office or play with something on my desk).
  • Energy: A different ambiance/atmosphere gives me more.
  • Stress management: I feel less of it in a neutral environment.

When I do work outside the office, I use an app I play into my sound suppressing headphones. It’s called Ambiance which offers zillions of nature sounds to listen to. I use Audio-technics active noise-cancelling headphones. They’er cheaper than Bose and about as good.

If you can, try working outside your office a day or so a month and see if it benefits you as it does me.

What other advantages of studying outside the office have you discovered?

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6 Faith Qualities Every Leader should Embody

Hebrews 11, one of the greatest chapters in all the Bible, lists several faith heroes from the past and includes details about their lives that evidence great faith. We often refer to this chapter as the ‘faith’ chapter. It offers leaders profound insight about faith that we must believe and embody to effectively lead. I suggest these 6 faith qualities every leader should embody.

Compass with arrow pointing to the word faith. 3D render image suitable for religion or self confidence concept

6 Faith Qualities Every Leader should Embody.

  1. Faith pleases God.
    • The write of Hebrews begins the chapter by reminding us that  God commended the ancients for their faith (v 2). He emphasizes that idea with, Without faith it is impossible to please God (v 6). If we want our leadership to please God, we must exercise true faith and trust in Him.
  1. Faith does not eliminate uncertainty or discomfort.
    • Verse 7 recounts God’s command to Noah to build an ark. Up to this point Noah had probably never seen rain. Yet, he exercised faith when he built a giant boat on dry land. Verse 8 tells us that God told Abraham to go to a place he had never visited before nor even seen. Yet, he obeyed in faith. Both of these biblical characters faced great uncertainty, yet showed great faith.
    • In fact, when we exercise faith (take a step into uncertainty) we actually may feel a bit fearful or anxious because our brains don’t like uncertainty. When we face uncertainty the fear centers of our brains cause specific hormones to enter our blood stream and certain neurotransmitters to increase in our brain which creates anxiety and even fear. So, a step of faith as a leader may initially cause us emotional discomfort. It’s normal. It’s a biological process we can’t avoid. Feeling such emotions doesn’t necessarily reflect lack of faith.
  1. Faith takes the long view.
    • When God told Abraham to go to a new land he, was looking forward to the city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God (v 10). The secret of Abraham’s patience was his hope in the ultimate fulfillment of the promise of God. His ultimate Promised Land was heaven, just as ours is.
    • Even in verse 13 the writer of Hebrews tells us that these faith heroes,  were still living by faith when they died and that, They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance (v 13). Leadership requires that we take the long view of ministry, not rating our ministry success by the inevitable short-term setbacks.
  1. Faith confronts the impossible.
    • In verse 11 we read about God’s promise to Abraham that he and Sarah would have a son, although he was 99 and she was 90. Such a pregnancy at their age seemed humanly impossible. How did Abraham reconcile that? I love what Kent Hughes says.
    • “He weighed medical probabilities of them having a child at such an old age (humanly impossible) with the divine impossibility of God being able to break his word and decided that since God is God, this would not be impossible.”

    • He goes on to make this insightful point. “We are not to indulge in fideism—faith without reason—or rationalism—reason without faith. We are to rationally assess all of life. We are to live reasonably. When we are aware that God’s Word says thus-and-so, we are to rationally assess it, [believe God at his Word, and obey] my notation.”[1]

    • Sometimes ministry challenges seem impossible to hurdle. Faith gives us the courage, however, to confront those impossible challenges.

  1. Faith requires sacrifice.
    • In verses 17-19 God asks Abraham to do the incredible, to sacrifice his promised son. Abraham had never seen a resurrection but reasoned that God must be able to raise him from the dead. Unknown to Abraham, God had other plans all along (He had prepared another sacrifice). But his faith prompted him to act sacrificially. Healthy leaders recognize that leadership often requires great sacrifice.
  1. Faith enables perseverance.
    • In verses 32-35 Hebrews lists the incredible successes of several biblical heroes who exercised faith. By human standards the heroes in this list were true winners.
    • Fortunately the writer doesn’t end this chapter there. He pivots to a new list, a list of those who also exercised great faith but experienced horrible difficulties. Yet, These were all commended for their faith, yet none of them received what had been promised (v 39).
    • Sometimes we lead at our best yet see little or no progress, experience great heartache, and feel like giving up. During those times, perhaps the supreme mark of genuine faith is our courage in the face of such difficulties.

Every leader must lead with great faith. Those who have gone before us model what it means to lead with such faith.

What have you learned about faith and leadership?

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[1] Hughes, R. K. (1993). Hebrews: an anchor for the soul (Vol. 2, p. 100). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books.

 

Is Skipping Church Good for your Soul?

I’m a pastor. Pastors are supposed to go to church. So I go to church, several times each week. I’ve done that for decades. I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve missed church by choice. But one weekend I added to that handful of misses. I skipped church. Was skipping church that day helpful or hurtful? Read on and you decide.

truant

My daughter had come to visit us over the Labor Day weekend and I scheduled one of our other pastors to preach at the weekend services. We took a long weekend at a lake house about 50 miles from our home.

The last time we took a long weekend we all went to church, a very boring one. This time however, I simply decided I wouldn’t go. To be frank, I felt a tinge of guilt because my wife will tell you I’m always the one pushing us to go to church while on vacation.

But for some odd reason, I didn’t push us this time.

So what did I do that Sunday morning? I sat in a swing and read my bible. I cut some dead limbs off a tree. I chatted with a neighbor. I exercised on my treadmill. I practiced the art of ‘slowing.’ And I really liked it.

Although I’m deeply committed to the local church and won’t make skipping a habit, I leaned a few valuable lessons.

  1. Skipping church reminded me that pastors’ schedules keep us from normal weekends that most families experience. Sundays (and Saturdays if you hold services) are our biggest work days. But, it’s not all about me and I will gladly stay faithful to God’s calling.
  2. Those not in pastoral leadership roles will never understand this sacrificial part of our profession because when they want to skip church, they easily do with no repercussions. And when they do, most don’t even think twice about skipping.
  3. An occasional ‘break from the Sunday routine’ can refresh a soul and help avoid pastoral burnout.
  4. I now truly understand how hard it would be for someone who has seldom attended church to give up his or her Sunday mornings and start attending. I really enjoyed having that Sunday free.
  5. Number 4 above reminded me that we pastors must craft compelling, Spirit-led services if we are to entice the unchurched to attend and keep attending. What they experience at church must be worth the price of giving up their relaxing mornings at home, at the lake, or at the ballpark. We may only get one shot.
  6. Pastors need  a sabbath too. Since Sundays aren’t ours, we must prioritize another day for rest. I now take Saturdays off and I was reminded that I must truly rest on that day.

If you’ve ever played hookey from church, I’d love to hear what you learned.

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