3 Lessons I Learned from 75 Cuban Pastors

A few years ago I experienced one of the most difficult yet rewarding weeks of ministry in my 39 years as a pastor. I trained 75 pastor-leaders in Cuba and I will never forget it. The group I trained is pictured below.

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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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.

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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7 Thinking Errors that Hinder Church Growth

My first degree, industrial engineering, taught me to think systematically which has in turn benefited my pastoral leadership. Since then I’ve read many books on church planning and been certified through Ministry Advantage and Auxano, two strategic planning/pastoral coaching organizations. I’ve also led three churches where I’ve served through a year-long strategic planning process. So, I’m well-versed and trained in the church visioning/planning process. Yet, of all the books I’ve read on strategic planning, Will Mancini’s book, Church Unique is the best. In his chapter called “Lost on the Way to Your Own DNA,” he lists subtle thinking patterns that can hinder church growth. He calls these patterns ‘thinkholes.’ I’ve listed them here with brief definitions.

Ministry “thinkholes.”

  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 simply 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?

What other thinkholes would you add to this list?

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The 3 Kinds of People in Every Church

In Judson Edward’s book, The Leadership Labyrinth, he describes 21 paradoxes in ministry. He defines the ‘relationship paradox’ in this way: the people who like you the most will be the ones you try least to please. He then writes that these three kinds of people fill every church.

  • The energizers: their very presence makes us feel better, buoys our spirits, and fills our tank.
  • The regular folks: they may not buoy our spirits, but they don’t demoralize us either. They make up the largest group in a church.

The main difference between the energizers and the drainers are their expectations of us. The energizers don’t place great expectations on us. The drainers do.

We don’t measure up to the drainers expectations. Either our preaching or counseling or leading or availability is not enough. These subtle unmet expectations may not be overt, but when we are around these people, we feel their unspoken disapproval.

Edwards pens these profound words.

“When our credo becomes ‘I am as you desire me,’ we have lost the very thing that will enable us to minister effectively: our authenticity.”

Edwards rounds out his chapter with three insights into how Jesus responded to his drainers.

  • First, Jesus retreated from this drainers to refresh himself and seek God. He regularly sought renewal.
  • Second, Jesus balanced his drainers with his energizers.
  • Third, Jesus didn’t allow the drainers to deter him from his plan and purpose.

Although Jesus practiced a rhythm of renewal and time away from his drainers, he never got rid of them. He still had to contend with them, just as we pastors must do in our churches.

Not everyone liked Jesus. Not everyone will like us. But God’s grace gives us what we need to serve even the most draining drainers.

What other categories of church people would you add to this list?

If this post resonates with you, you may enjoy my third book that released last year: People Pleasing Pastors: Avoiding the Pitfalls of Approval Motivated Leadership. It was one of this year’s Outreach Resource of the Year Recommendation in leadership.

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The 10 Most Important Questions You could ever Ask Yourself

Questions reveal a lot about us. Good questions can point us in healthy directions. Great questions can save us from disaster. Several years ago I read a brief article by Donald Whitney, a pastor and seminary professor, who gave me permission to re-print his article that lists 10 important questions. It is outstanding and I’ve included it below.

Once, when the people of God had become careless in their relationship with Him, the Lord rebuked them through the prophet Haggai. “Consider your ways!” (Haggai 1:5) he declared, urging them to reflect on some of the things happening to them, and to evaluate their slipshod spirituality in light of what God had told them.

Even those most faithful to God occasionally need to pause and think about the direction of their lives. It’s so easy to bump along from one busy week to another without ever stopping to ponder where we’re going and where we should be going.

The beginning of a new year is an ideal time to stop, look up, and get our bearings. To that end, here are some questions to ask prayerfully in the presence of God.

1. What’s one thing you could do this year to increase your enjoyment of God?

2. What’s the most humanly impossible thing you will ask God to do this year?

3. What’s the single most important thing you could do to improve the quality of your family life this year?

4. In which spiritual discipline do you most want to make progress this year, and what will you do about it?

5. What is the single biggest time-waster in your life, and what will you do about it this year?

6. What is the most helpful new way you could strengthen your church?

7. For whose salvation will you pray most fervently this year?

8. What’s the most important way you will, by God’s grace, try to make this year different from last year?

9. What one thing could you do to improve your prayer life this year?

10. What single thing that you plan to do this year will matter most in ten years? In eternity?

What questions would you add to this list?

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Copyright © 2003 Donald S. Whitney.

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