What Snorkeling Taught me about Selecting Leaders

Several years ago I spent ten days with my family vacationing in the Bahamas in a condo literally steps from the beach. The snorkeling was dazzling. I saw over two dozen varieties of fish, excluding the nurse sharks, dolphins, and a giant starfish I found. My experience with three specific fish reminded me that we leaders must keep certain principles in mind when we select other leaders to serve with us.

snorkeling, silhouette of woman hand with mask and snorkel

One day while on that vacation we took a powerboat trip to a private island in the Exumas, a collection of islands in the Bahamas. The experience included feeding grapes to threatened iguanas and fish slivers to giant stingrays. The highlight was when the tour guides fed grouper carcasses to lemon sharks and reef sharks as we stood a mere ten feet away.

Schools of triangular-shaped silver fish about the size of saucers also swam a few feet from the shore and after our broiled grouper lunch, I decided to try an experiment. I put on my goggles, took two hotdog buns, and waded out into the water. I pinched off small bits of the bun and dropped them a foot in front of me while I was under water. A feeding frenzy ensued reminiscent of a piranhas’ attack.

As long as I gave these fish hotdog buns, they stuck around. But once I ran out, they scattered. Here’s the principle I learned from these fish.

1. Shy away from prospective leaders who just want a piece of you. These people are mostly takers.

I often snorkeled in a reef about two hundred yards east of the beach in front of our condo. One day as I swam there the reef shelf suddenly dropped from a depth of four feet to over ten feet into a horseshoe-shaped mini-lagoon. I looked to my left and saw the most beautiful fish I had ever seen, a fish about a foot long with huge feather-like fins. Unlike most fish when I dove down toward it, this one wasn’t frightened. For ten minutes I snorkeled about two feet away from this magnificent fish.

When I returned to the condo I described the fish to my daughter and she exclaimed, “Dad, I think that fish was a lionfish. It’s poisonous!” I responded, “No, it couldn’t be.” I then googled ‘lionfish’ and the picture in Wikipedia included this caption: The lionfish’s attack posture. That posture was the one the fish took when I was snorkeling. As I read further, I learned that if you touched one of its spines you’d experience severe headaches, vomiting, and difficulty breathing. If you didn’t get immediate emergency medical attention you could die. Apparently the lionfish was waiting for me to get close so he could sting me.

I had been so enthralled with the fish’s beauty that I almost put myself in a dangerous situation because I didn’t know enough about the species. Here’s the second principle I learned from the lion fish.

2. Carefully vet those who dazzle you with the first impression they make on you. First impressions can deceive.

Call me stupid, but the next day I went to the same reef hoping to see the lionfish again. This time I wanted a picture, from a safe distance though. It wasn’t there, but as I floated I noticed a piece of seaweed about the size of a large pencil carpenters use to mark wood. For some reason I kept looking at it and as my eyes focused on this floating ‘seaweed’ I realized it was actually a fish. From my elementary school days I remember seeing a picture of this species called a ‘trumpet fish,’ a relative of the seahorse.

I almost missed seeing this unique fish because it blended so well into the reef’s background. Here’s the third leadership selection principle I learned from my fish experience.

3. Your best leaders may be right in front of you and yet you don’t notice them. Often they won’t stand out in a crowd (much like how David didn’t ‘look’ like a king when God told Samuel to pick him).

So, the next time you face a leadership selection decision, consider these three principles.

What principles have helped you make good leader selections?

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3 Lessons I Learned from 75 Cuban Pastors

In mid-October I experienced one of the most difficult yet rewarding weeks of ministry in my 35 years as a pastor. I trained 75 pastor-leaders in Cuba and I will never forget it. The group I trained is pictured below.

cuban pastors

I spoke 22 times in 5 days, 19 of those times crammed into three days. A local church in Holguin, a city in SW Cuba hosted the conference. The room was not air conditioned and the temperature averaged well into the 90’s. Fortunately I had an excellent translator, a young lady deeply committed to Jesus.

During the nearly 20 hours I taught (with sweat dripping off my face onto my iPad), I focused on four aspects of leadership: self leadership, family leadership, team leadership, and church leadership.

Through this experience, I learned these lessons from these amazing leaders.

Revival does not depend on resources.

The Cuban church is experiencing revival. This week of training targeted pastors who serve in a Baptist denomination. This group had 200 churches in the 1990’s and now they have 600 churches, over 1100 missions, and over 3,000 prayer cells.

They are exploding in growth, yet the average pastor makes less than $40 per month. Even with very tight resources, they are experiencing revival. Their lack of resources does not dampen their vision to reach people, an important reminder for every pastor who deals with limited resources.

Passion precedes progress.

The two pastors I most closely worked with exuded passion and vision. They constantly shared their plans for new ministries, new missions, and new ways to reach people. In fact, they envision 1,000 churches by 2020 and ultimately plan to have 100,000 churches, one church for every 1,000 persons.

This kind of vision and progress does not happen without passion for Christ. As I experienced their passion, God challenged my heart toward greater passion.

Teachableness overcomes difficulty.

These leaders listened intently, took copious notes, and asked many questions, even in searing heat and humidity. Why did they pay such close attention to me? They were spiritually hungry and teachable. They wanted to learn and absorb what I shared.

Even as they sweated and endured hard pews for hours, the majority of them soaked up what I had to say. Their teachable hearts overcame a difficult learning environment, unlike some in North American churches who tune out if you go 10 minutes longer in a service.

As I continue to process my experience, I hope that God will use me as a catalyst for revival, stir my passion for Him and lost people, and create in me a more teachable heart. Sometimes it takes getting away to a different environment for God to teach us such lessons.

If you’ve served in other cultures, what have you learned?

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Do Pastors Wield Too Much Power?

Several years ago during our weekend services I realized how much power I wielded as a pastor. I’ve served in vocational ministry over 35 years and I knew intuitively that my position brought with it power over people, but not until then did I understand a unique power my position, and every pastor, carries.

Cable in human hand. Power and connection

When I say ‘power’ I don’t mean destructive power seen in high profile mega-church pastor melt-downs or in the abuse cases in the Catholic church.

Rather I see this kind of power reflected in Peter’s admonition to avoid misusing our position and in the words of the writer of Proverbs.

1Pet. 5.2 Care for the flock that God has entrusted to you. Watch over it willingly, not grudgingly—not for what you will get out of it, but because you are eager to serve God.  3 Don’t lord it over the people assigned to your care, but lead them by your own good example. (NLT-SE) 

Prov. 18.21 Words kill, words give life; they’re either poison or fruit—you choose. (The Message)

So, the power I mean is the power to bless others. These simple interactions I’ve recorded below helped me realize this influence I carry. 

  • In one service as I chatted with a couple with two young daughters, out of the blue the mom said, “You want to hear my daughter quote the names of the presidents of the United States?” I replied, “Sure.” As I knelt down, the kindergartener quoted them. I replied with, “Wow, that’s super. Good job.” The following Sunday the grandmother beamed with pride as she recounted that brief encounter. Her kids had told her about it.
  • That same Sunday as I talked with a single mom she said, “My daughter made straight A’s this year. She’s one of the top five students in her school.” I looked at her daughter and said something like, “Way to go. Keep up the good work.” I could tell that my simple affirmation encouraged that mom, and the daughter as well.
  • The same weekend during my improv class get-together on a Saturday, I complimented several in the group on how well they performed. Most of those in my class don’t go to church and they all know I’m a pastor (and they still like me). Yet, I could sense that my genuine compliments meant a great deal to each of them.

As I’ve done the proverbial “put two and two together” I now realize more than ever that our position gives pastors a power to bless others in a unique way. Although everybody has that same ability, I wonder if other people give greater weight to our blessings (or lack of) than they do others. If that’s true, perhaps we should bless others with our words a lot more than we do.

What do you think?

  • Do pastors actually wield this kind of beneficent power?
  • Am I overstating this influence?
  • Do pastors use it enough?
  • Can and do pastors misuse it for their own ends?

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7 Holes that Can Swallow Ministry

I have four earned degrees and my toughest by far was an industrial engineering degree from Ga Tech. That degree taught me to think systematically. In addition, I’ve added to my competency tool box many books on church planning plus two churches where I’ve served have engaged in year-long visioning processes with church consultants. So, I’m well versed and trained in the church visioning/planning process. But  Will Mancini‘s seminal book on the subject, Church Unique-How Missional Leaders Cast Vision, Capture Culture, and Create Movement has opened my eyes to vision clarity. From his book I learned 7 holes that can swallow any ministry.

Picture of the Bimmah sinkhole in Oman

In chapter one in a section called “Lost on the Way to Your Own DNA,” he lists subtle thinking patterns that can suffocate vibrant thinking. He coins these patterns or holes, ‘thinkholes.’

I’ve listed them here with brief definitions.

  1. The ministry treadmill: busyness eliminates time for reflection…leads to just adding more programs.
  2. The competency trap: presumption that past methods will continue to work decreases appetite for learning…leads to just working harder.
  3. The needs based slippery slope: consumerism removes the need for discernment…leads to trying to make people happy.
  4. The cultural whirlpool 1: BuzzChurch-innovation short circuits self-awareness…leads to just trying to be cutting edge.
  5. The cultural whirlpool 2: StuckChurch-change outpaces the discipline for learning…leads to glorifying the past.
  6. The conference maze: success increases the temptation to copycat…leads to just modeling best practices.
  7. The denominational rut: resources disregard local uniqueness…leads to just protecting theology.

At times I’ve been caught up in these ‘thinkholes.’

How about you?

Do you agree that these issues can hinder effective ministry? What has helped you overcome them?

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Are You a Catalytic Leader?

The book, The Starfish and the Spider: The Unstoppable Power of Leadership Organizations by Ori Brafman and Rod Beckstrom, highlights the value of what the authors call, ‘leaderless’ organizations. Although I don’t advocate leaderless organizations, one chapter describes tools that successful non-leader leaders use to catalyze their respective organizations. These qualities also apply to catalytic leaders. I’ve summarized them below.

Catalyst - Shallow Depth Of Field Macro Close-Up Selective Focus Of Word Highlighted In Dictionary In Orange

Qualities of a catalytic leader:

  • Genuine interest in others
  • Loose connections (they don’t limit themselves to a few close friends but have many connections)
  • Mapping (catalysts think of who they know, who those people know, how they all relate to one another, and how they fit into a huge mental map)
  • Desire to help others
  • Passion
  • Meet people where they are (there is a difference between passionate and pushy; catalysts rely less on persuasion and more on meeting people where they are )
  • Emotional intelligence
  • Trust
  • Inspiration (catalysts often inspire others to work toward a goal that often doesn’t involve their own personal gain)
  • Tolerance for ambiguity (they learn to be OK when they don’t have concrete answers to big questions)
  • Hands-Off approach (they are less apt to use command and control)
  • Receding (after they accomplish what they intended, they get out of the way)

The authors also contrasted traditional CEO’s to Catalysts.

A CEO vs a catalyst…

  • The boss vs a peer
  • Command-and-control vs trust
  • Rational vs emotionally intelligent
  • Powerful vs inspirational
  • Directive vs collaborative
  • In the spotlight vs behind the scenes
  • Order vs ambiguity
  • Organizing vs connecting

As you read the positive qualities, how many would others say you embody in your leadership? What quality needs the most attention in your leadership?

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