Asking the Hard Questions

Leadership has become tantamount to positions, power, and personality.  If a person has the right position, they are deemed a leader, even if that person is devoid of substantive character.  The greater the position oftentimes equates to more power which in turn grants a person a leadership platform.  The person might verbally abuse people but if they have enough power, they are a “leader.”  Or, there is the leadership myth which states that people who display the right physical features (typically height and good looks) or charismatic personality they are anointed as leaders, regardless of the wisdom of decision-making or lifestyle integrity.  In each case, leadership is becoming increasingly defined by externals.

Biblically, leadership is characterized by the quality of one’s soul and character.  It is recorded of Christ, “And Jesus grew in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and man” (Luke 2:52).  While stature can refer to height, in this case, it equates to “reputation.”  In other words, it does not describe his physical features; it spotlights his internal qualities.  In today’s culture where people are attracted to the persona and status, it behooves us to affirm leaders who display leadership beauty.  In reflecting on this issue, a few personal questions attempt to move us in this direction and get beneath the surface.  Questions that personally challenge me.

  • Is my character truly consistent inside to out?  We all esteem to be consistently authentic yet typically it is a hope more than a reality.  Granted, we are broken people thus true consistency is impossible.  Yet, for the most part, we excuse character flaws without intentionally addressing them.  Consistency becomes a mission statement not life mission.
  • Am I prone more towards excuses or ownership? When I miss a deadline or receive less than positive feedback, do I make an excuse?  Or, do I take ownership over it?  Is it always someone else’s fault or the result of some circumstance?  Or, do I honestly stand up and say “I dropped the ball.  I take responsibility for it.”  It is easy to misdirect; it is hard to own up.
  • Do I elevate the character of those around me? One of the true tests of character is how we respond in a group that is complaining?  It is easy to jump on the bandwagon because we are in our heart of hearts people-pleasers, or stay silent in the corner because we fear isolation.  True leaders challenge the mob pessimism and elevates others towards things that are “honorable…just…pure…lovely” (Philippians 4:8).
  • Am I thankful? Thankfulness reflects a recognition of one’s blessings.  Complaining exposes a heart of entitlement.  I am always convicted when I reflect on the reason for my complaint.  What must my Heavenly Father think in response to my minimizing if not dismissal of the rich blessings He has given to me?
  • Am I quick to listen or speak? Clearly, this is a biblical mandate.  Yet, the pressure of leadership is to have the quick response, the discerning statement, or perfect resolution.  But, are these truly possible without first listening in humility, openness, and a posture of learning?  Some of the wisest leaders I have encountered were ones who waited in silence, oftentimes speaking last.  In the end they commanded the room because of their wisdom not outspokenness.
  • Is there a respect for other leaders?  How we speak of and approach other leaders says a lot about who we are as leaders.  Is there a natural response of respect based on that person’s leadership position or are we quick to tear down?  Do we delight in highlighting another leader’s strengths (even if we don’t see eye to eye) or do we have a knack for finding flaws?

Leadership involves soul and character development.  It is a matter of stewardship.  It is using the position, power, and platform granted by God to incarnate and nurture kingdom beauty in this world.  To do so requires us to be formed by Him as a prelude to be used by Him.  It is not easy but it is rewarding when we strive towards Christ-centered leadership.  And, when we do, I believe we shine as light in a dark world that desperately craves true leadership.



Personal lessons on leadership: Musings from this past year

Life changed one year ago.  In January, I began my new position at Capital Seminary.  Transitioning from pastoral ministry to academia proved both exciting and stretching as I entered a new ministry.  In some respects, it was similar as it involved pastoral care and administration.  In other ways, it was quite different as it meant being part of a larger organization with its unique protocols and processes.  Thankfully, LBC and Capital Seminary accommodated the learning curve of such a transition.  As I reflect back on this past year, there are a few poignant lessons I have learned about leadership.

  1. Sacred space matters. The daily life of a leader is filled with decision-making, vision-casting, conflict resolution, and mission-critical items.  I am the first to say my leadership pattern for years consisted of sacred space only in the morning.  I have learned this routine is a mistake.  It is essential for me to carve out time throughout the day to spiritually breathe.  Without it, decisions are reactive, emotional, short-sighted, and convenient.  Those few minutes at different points, when available and when necessary, allow me to make better, more God-honoring, leadership decisions.
  1. Chemistry matters. It is tempting to add a person to one’s team based on a resume or reputation yet the quality and makeup of a person matters equally as much.  In the program, there have been prospective students that appeared to be a good fit based on their academic portfolio.  However, during the interview process, certain responses gave me pause.  Since the program is cohort-based, chemistry is important.  If the student is not a mission-fit with the aims and philosophies of the program, it would have an erosive impact on the other students.  Equally so, I have observed the importance of chemistry through several new hires in my department.  The consideration of how that person fits within the existing team led to seamlessness with regards to mission and vision because an individual’s personality was pre-screened.
  1. Emotional intelligence matters. I have learned that simply because a person is a leader does not mean that person is emotionally mature.  Oftentimes, individuals are promoted to leadership based on achievements, charisma, and even physical stature.  Unfortunately, if a person is not emotionally healthy, it is simply a matter of time before the organization suffers.  It seems to me imperative that any person added to a team, organization, or ministry should spend considerable time evaluating a person’s emotional health.  It might require probing to determine a person’s emotional intelligence but it is worth it.
  1. Intentionality matters. There is a balance between delegation and micromanaging when it comes to leadership.  Oftentimes, a person tilts one way or the other.  Delegation empowers individuals yet runs the risk of seeing mission and vision slide due to worker autonomy.  Micromanaging preserves mission yet can suffocate individuality.  Good leaders find the right practice of intentionality and trust.  I have found great freedom at Capital in large part because this balance is fostered and practiced.  It leads to deeper passion and enthusiasm while also nurturing direction and accountability.

A person reading these musings might say, “Those are great.  But, what about…”  Yes, I agree.  This list is short.  I will be the first to say leadership is complex.  Yet, I have learned over the past year that in the midst of that complexity it is essential to preserve, if not implement, certain values that impact the longevity and health of an organization or team.  For me, these lessons capture some of these convictions.

Passionate Purpose: Why Should I Pursue a PhD?

I spoke with a British friend who commented that Americans are fixated on degrees.  He elaborated on the tendency towards the need for further degrees to do one’s job well or simply for the prestige of having a graduate or doctoral diploma.  At first, I was offended, particularly since I had two graduate degrees at the time and was completing my doctorate.  Yet, after further reflection, I understood his point.

As the director of the PhD in Leadership program, I am musing on this issue afresh.  It is not uncommon for me to be asked the question by potential and incoming students, “Where are graduates placed once they receive their degree?”  Honestly, it is the question I asked when I was looking at PhD programs so I get it.  Yet, it also underscores the slight tendency towards viewing a degree as a ticket towards a different career, usually academic.  Granted, in today’s academic saturated culture, it is nearly impossible to be offered an academic position if you do not have a doctorate thus in some respects it is necessary.  So, I offer this qualification – a PhD is beneficial if not necessary to advance in one’s career and specifically to obtain an academic position.  Yet, this reason should not be the primary reason.

So, why should I pursue a PhD?

  1. It is a testimony to God. Christians are usually not known for academic rigor.  When it comes to scientific methodology, social science research, or cutting edge writing, the academic arena oftentimes dismisses Christian scholarship.  PhD studies provide the opportunity to enhance God’s reputation by engaging in deep critical thinking through sound and worthy integration of general and special revelation.  Then, when new insights are discovered, the doctoral student or graduate is able to contribute to the broader academic conversation, both Christian and secular, by publishing findings that benefit the church and humanity.  As the director of the PhD program, it is my prayer and passion to cultivate such good scholarship that both Christians and non-Christians when they read our dissertations and papers walk away saying, “Christians can do excellent research and scholarship.”  Our program intentionally strives to do this.
  1. It is an act of stewardship. PhD studies are not available to every person.  Some individuals live in a part of the world where access to higher education is highly limited.  Others have not had the graduate program opportunities that would then open up doctoral education.  Thus, if a person has the chance to pursue a PhD, he/she should approach it with a stewardship mindset.  Questions such as, “How does God want me to use this degree?”, “How will my research enhance the kingdom?”, or “How can I better serve my context as a result of my studies?” should infuse our motivation.  I always encourage applicants to view PhD studies as a call from God.  For, if it is a call, these questions will naturally circulate in our mind.  Capital Seminary’s PhD program is not primarily designed to help you but rather to help the kingdom through you.
  1. It is a means of discipleship. Renewal of the mind is certainly a Christian mandate.  Doctoral studies embrace this purpose in an academic context.  Yet, I will be the first to say that my seminary studies proved to be dry, soul-depleting times.  Academics sterilized my passion for God by extracting education from discipleship.  To be fair, the institution did not intend this outcome to happen.  In fact, they attempted to avoid it.  Yet, it occurred because I allowed it to happen.  When I began PhD studies at the same institution, I vowed to embrace it as a means of transformation.  How can this knowledge stimulate my soul?  Is my mind, heart, and soul integrated as I study?  Am I viewing my studies as an act of worship?  I intentionally kept these reflective questions in the forefront of my mind so that my doctoral education would be a means of discipleship.  As a director, I am passionate about this goal.  Having served as a pastor for many years, my heart of hearts is to nurture transformation.  It is a joy to say that one of our key aims in the program is to “nurture the development of biblical character qualities in our students.”  My prayer is that student’s souls are more alive coming out of the program than when they entered it.
  1. It provides peer relationships. Leadership is oftentimes lonely.  The weight of making decisions, casting vision, and propelling an organization forward can drain a person.  I found myself relationally isolated at times in the ministry.  Yes, there were wonderful friends and supportive colleagues.  However, my academic curiosity looked for an arena to discuss ideas and theory, a place to let the mind go without the need to resolve “Will this work?”  I found this community in my PhD program – a setting to wrestle and share without fear of getting it wrong and to receive pushback from others on my ideas without caution due to my leadership position.  The cohort model at Capital Seminary (students journey together through the program taking all the same courses) is designed to foster collaborative, peer relationships where safety is present to discuss openly creative thoughts, leadership theories, ministry challenges, and personal struggles.  In other words, it is a place to cultivate academic friends that will last beyond the program.

In my opinion, these are the principal reasons to pursue a PhD.  It is these motivations that I constantly repeat to our students.  Are there other reasons, possibly more personal?  Yes, most certainly.  At times, an organization is encouraging a person to receive a doctorate.  In some cases, a person has been tapped on the shoulder about his/her leadership potential thus encouraged to further their academics.  Other times, a person receiving a position is dependent on that person going back to school.  I understand the complexity of individual decisions.  Yet, there has to be transcendent, more soul-abiding, reasons to pursue a PhD otherwise the rigors required will consume a person.

Academics is a gift.  It is a call.  It is an act of worship.  It is a means of growth.  It is an opportunity to leverage the mind for the good of the kingdom.  And from these perspectives comes great joy not only for the student but the beneficiaries of our education – the church.



Ownership is a good thing.

Leadership poses many challenges.  This reality is indisputable.  The question is how do we respond to those challenges when we face them.  Oftentimes, it involves rationalization.  “Work-life balance is impossible especially when you lead an organization or ministry.”  “Choices have to be made.  My family and personal life will have to wait.”  Or, “once I get through this season, I will enjoy some downtime.”  “It is the choice I made when I became a leader,” a.k.a. rationalization.

At other times, challenges are responded to with misdirection.  “The pressures of the position caused my poor decisions.”  My emotional unhealthiness is a result of my work conditions – “if only I had better workers, coworkers or boss.”  “The board would not understand if I scaled back a bit in order to recover.”  “What would my peers think if I carved out some time to process a difficulty?”  In each of these statements is misdirection – it is someone else’s fault for my frustration and exasperation.

We live in a culture where ownership is averted.  It takes very little time on social media to see the full extent by which we can easily rationalize and misdirect our difficulties.  In fact, empathy is oftentimes present when we do as everyone has a story to share.

Leadership is not immune to this toxic disease.  Yet, in doing so, we resolve nothing.  It does not fill our soul; it takes from it.  Our leadership does not grow; it pushes people away.  Our leadership is not maximized; it is minimized.

The remedy is ownership.  Jesus masterfully challenged people to own issues.  Like a spiritual surgeon, he posed questions to individuals about their true state.  Whether it was the rich man or the woman at the well, he responded to rationalization and misdirection with poignant challenges to own our spiritual and emotional state.  When it came to those in authority, he was less gentle by calling out the religious leaders.

Ownership is a good thing.

The challenge is how to accomplish it.

  1. Reflection: Take time throughout the day to reflect and pray about your spiritual and emotional state.  It is tempting to delay that reflective process for the weekend or a vacation.  Yet, in reality, those times simply become escapes.  Rest is best accomplished when we fully process life, in the moment and in the midst of it.
  2. Avoid the “ifs and buts”. Rather than look out the window at the problems that pound at our day, embrace Jim Collin’s level five leadership by looking in the mirror.  What do I need to own today?  How am I responsible for my own heart and soul?
  3. Listen to the most important people in your life, not those that demand to be viewed as the most important. There is always someone who will want your attention; the task is to give an ear to those that are worth your attention.
  4. Deal with issues straight up. Don’t dance around them.  Address them.  Be honest in the midst of them.  And, last of all, own them.

Are my emotions only self-centered?

I attended a leadership conference this past week.  During one of the sessions, one of the presenters discussed the propensity for emotions to be primarily self-centered.  In some respects, I am not surprised by this statement.  However, in other respects, it struck me.  I oftentimes do not see myself as radically self-centered.  Yes, there are common tendencies where I become self-absorbed as I seek to get my way or engage in self-pity if something doesn’t go quite right.  Yet, overall, I wish to believe that I consider others.

But, as I reflect on the presenter’s statement, it caused me to reflect.  Emotions are typically self-centered.  Anger arises over being the recipient of some injustice.  Frustration grabs hold of my heart because of an inconvenience.  Even joy involves moments of happiness in my life where I experienced something good.  It is true that emotions are oftentimes self-centered.  Granted, it is not bad, if not natural, to experience emotions because of something that happened to me.  As humans, we are “fearfully and wonderfully made” with emotions that typically flow out of some issue in our life.  In other words, we emote because we have experienced something.

However, the presenter prompted me to become self-aware.

  1. Are my emotions natural or a deeper indication of something more self-centered? It is possible that my emotions can serve as an indication of an area in my life that is selfish.  Possibly my anger is more of a reflection of an entitlement mentality than a momentary frustration.  Possibly I get easily irked because I believe I deserve to be comfortable.  In this sense, emotions can lead to a need for deeper transformation by highlighting areas of growth.
  2. Are my emotions in balance between self and others? While it is natural to have emotions that relate to personal issues, even inconveniences, emotions should not solely be self-focused.  It is not healthy.  It is not mature.  I should get angry when I hear of the plight of children in a refugee camp.  Frustration should be visible if a leader has abused one’s position for personal gain.  My heart should rejoice when someone receives a promotion or achievement even if it does not impact me.  Our self-focused emotions should be balanced by other-focused emotions.  And, if is not, our emotional intelligence is out-of-balance.
  3. Do I recognize that my heart as well as my mind require renewal? It is a common mantra in evangelical churches that we need to engage in the “renewal of our minds.”  It frames a bulk of discipleship material.  Yet, do I ever pause and consider the necessity equally so of the renewal of my affections?  Am I feeling the right things?  Am I surrendering my emotions to Christ?  I believe that decisions are oftentimes made in response to emotions.  “I am frustrated at someone therefore I am not going to talk to them.”  If this is the case, our actions will never be aligned with Christ’s will if we first do not address our emotions.
  4. Is there sufficient margin in my life to reflect on my emotions? I believe it is easier to reflect on my thought life.  It is at the forefront or our minds.  Yet, my emotions are deeply entangled, oftentimes buried in the subconscious.  As a result, it requires substantial space where I can reflect on those emotions – to uncover, to identify, to surrender.  It requires gradually unraveling the issues and reactions somewhat like loosening a shoestring that has been tightly knotted.

Leaders live in high-paced environments.  Oftentimes, decisions have to be made on the fly.  Each day presses in on leaders with a sense of emergency.  In such settings, it is easy to respond emotionally in a way that is not only counter-productive but harmful.  To be effective, it requires Christ-centered reflection and self-awareness so that our emotions are profitable for the reputation of the position and the good of those we serve.  It involves leveraging not simply our leadership opportunities but emotions in ways that are God-honoring.  Effective leadership is present when our minds and our hearts are properly aligned for the glory of God.

Christ-Centered Authenticity

Authenticity is a popular notion in today’s culture.  “I just want to be real.”  “I say it like it is.”  In many cases, it is couched in terms of integrity.  “I would not be telling the truth if I wasn’t authentic.  It is the true me.”  Social media has encouraged this posture of communication.  It is easy to share and post whatever is in one’s mind.  If someone likes it, great.  If not, it is not my problem.  Leadership has been influenced by this perspective as well.  One does not have to hunt for very long before finding high level leader, e.g. CEO, politician, industry leader, who shoots from the hip regardless of the implications.

First of all, I am in favor of authenticity, in some sense.  I believe it is important to be real.  A person should not be fake.  It is not good to be a people-pleaser to the point that you say whatever the other person wants to hear.  Nor should you be double-minded saying one thing one day and then changing your opinion the next day.  Our words should flow from our true beliefs and actions.  With those close to us, namely spouses and dear friends, it is important to share our true thoughts and feelings so that those around us do not have to guess.

Yes, I support authenticity but more specifically Christ-centered authenticity.  When I read Scripture, I do not see permission to be authentic in the way the world adopts it.  Rather, I see the concept of purposeful honesty.  Christ displayed it with those that approached him.  He was not shy in identifying the true need of an individual and saying it exactly as it needed to be said whether it is challenging the rich man regarding his possessions or the hypocrisy of the Pharisees.  Yet, it was purposeful – for their own spiritual benefit.

Paul equally exhibited this quality.  He openly acknowledged his needs in his letters.  He did not hide behind a superhuman complex that affirms no weakness.  Nor did he publicly blast people simply because he was in a bad mood (although there are times where it seems like Paul is in a snarky mood, aka towards the church of Corinth).  His authenticity was for the sake of the gospel.

Leaders would do well to embrace a purposeful honesty.  Truth be told, I am at the front of the line when it comes to moments of failure in this regard.  I am grumpy thus I blurt out some comment.  Tiredness overcomes me resulting in a moment of venting.  Leadership demands restraint.  It necessitates discernment, thoughtfulness, and measure.  There needs to be an awareness of the implications of a comment – to myself and the people I lead.  Restraint is most certainly biblical as we are instructed to hold our tongue, if the words would be unprofitable.

As I reflect on leadership and purposeful honesty, a few questions come to mind that frame some guidelines.

  • Do my words bring spiritual benefit to the other person and me? It should be both.  Unrestrained authenticity benefits the speaker as it serves as an emotional release (e.g. venting) but does not grow the other person.
  • Am I taking the extra few seconds to filter my thoughts and emotions through Scripture? Are my words in line with truth?  Is the tone of my comment honoring to God?  Is my comment prompted by the spirit or the flesh?
  • Am I self-aware of unprocessed frustrations? Oftentimes, authenticity is a vehicle for pent-up angst.  Being attune to such issues aides in appropriate, Christ-centered authenticity.
  • Is there margin in my life? Without some space, it becomes difficult to restrain our thoughts.  Allowing time for minds to declutter enables us to filter our thoughts and emotions prior to communication.

Leadership is a privilege.  With privilege, there comes responsibility.  And responsibility encompasses not only our actions, but our thoughts and words.

Spiritual White Space

I recently attended Willow Creek’s Global Leadership Conference.  It was an excellent gathering, providing a great deal of mental fodder for me to mull over.  At times, I walked away feeling as if I drank from a fire hose.  The challenge at such conferences is to boil the messages down to some manageable takeaways.  For me, it typically becomes clear what those are – those God nudges (or strong pokes in some cases) in an area of weakness or deficiency.  This year the gnawing message was the need to cultivate white space in my life.

Not to oversimplify but the speaker, Juliet Funt, defined white space as “a strategic pause taken between activities.”  Length of time does not matter as much as the purpose of those moments – to intentionally recover or frame your perspective in a particular direction.  Oftentimes, it involves reflection and introspection as you strive to strategize or simply breathe.

For me, my life is currently void of much white space.  Rather it is more often than not filled with the tasks related to my family transition to a new community, new schools, new jobs, and new friends.  While invigorating, it nonetheless squeezes out breathable moments.  Thus, I felt God strongly nudging me to incorporate “spiritual white space.”  I’ll be honest it has been a month since the conference.  How am I doing on this?   Some days I am OK; others not so much.

The notion of spiritual white space is not new.  Jesus frequently encouraged and modeled the necessity of peeling away from the busyness of life in order to reflect and prayer.  It is necessary.  It provides moments of reminders in the midst of my day as to what is important – God’s purposes and will in my life.  It serves as a corrective to my humanistic tendency to believe productivity is defined by the quantity of the work rather than the quality of the work.  It stimulates Christ-centered thinking as it creates openness for God to speak into my thought-processes, decision-making, and emotional reactions.  In other words, they are critical means of spiritual transformation.

Spiritual white space is necessary for leaders because it creates room for God’s voice to speak into our leadership.  Many voices whisper at a leader.  It can be external in the form of those around us, e.g. colleagues, supervisors, or clients.  But, the real voices that oftentimes sway us are internal cloaked in ambition, people-pleasing, and insecurity.  Without the constant presence of God’s voice, our minds become overtaken by far inferior messages.

Strategic pauses are also necessary as a means of buffer.  Life is busy.   When decisions pile on top of decisions or tasks slide into other tasks, our thought-processes and decision-making become sloppy.  Expediency drives our work day; reaction defines our emotions.  Healthy leaders recognize the need for times of buffer where our souls can breathe and our minds can rest.  Sadly, these moments are viewed as non-productive.  On the contrary, they are means to full, spiritual productivity.

Lastly, these pauses remind us that God uses us but ultimately does not need us.  A pause is simply that a pause.  Yet, in those moments, God continues to preserve His creation.  Life is still sustained by His providence.  Grace and forgiveness are freely offered and given.  None of this is dependent upon us.  God works when we stop.  Pauses reminds us of this truth.

Relational capital is a widely-used concept these days.  It involves the need to invest in relationships for the purposes of team-building and vision-casting.  It is important.  But, so is spiritual capital – the investment in the health of our soul so that God can most fully use us for His kingdom.  Yes, most certainly, I need spiritual white space.