Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Two Years

Ryan and I hit the two years of marriage mark yesterday. Wow! It's been great. Lots of change (we have both changed careers since our wedding day). But lots of fun.

Ryan and I met in a small group at NCC. That's probably one of my most compelling stories to encourage people to plug into small groups! Maybe I should tell it more.

I am checking out of the blogosphere for a few days so we can celebrate. And how are we celebrating? I am scared of roller coasters. So my wonderful, caring husband is taking me to Hershey Park to force me to ride roller coasters. Be back next week! Hopefully...

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Communicating Encouragement

In his book Becoming a Person of Influence, John Maxwell describes an experiment that was conducted to test people’s capacity to endure pain. Individuals were asked to stand barefoot in a bucket of ice water for as long as they could. Psychologists discovered one factor that helped one group of people remain in the bucket for twice as long as the others– encouragement.

On any given day, every single person in your small group or sphere of discipleship is standing in a bucket of ice water. That bucket could be their career, their relationships, their self-esteem, their relationship with God, etc. The ability to communicate encouragement is a vital leadership skill; we can help them endure the bucket.

The Biblical Greek word that we typically translate into “encourage” is parakaleo, which means, “to call alongside.” The word was used to describe appropriate aid given to an object under some sort of pressure. Ancient Greek authors occasionally described military reinforcements using parakaleo. Paul repeatedly referenced the importance of communication in his letters to the churches, and the noun and verb forms of the word show up in the New Testament epistles over 75 times.

Paul told pastors Timothy and Titus to both rebuke and encourage (2 Timothy 4:2, Titus 2:15). He sent Tychicus to the churches at Ephesus and Colosse to update them on Paul’s ministry and to encourage them (Ephesians 6:21-22, Colossians 4:8), and he sent Timothy to the church at Thessalonica to encourage them (1 Thessalonians 3:2). The writer of Hebrews issued the challenge to “encourage one another daily.” Barnabas was a nickname that meant “Son of Encouragement.”

Some people are natural encouragers. You can’t escape from their presence without feeling better about yourself. Certain names probably jump immediately to your mind. One of my mentors, Mike Mathews, cannot write an email unless it is dripping with encouragement. For a few people, encouragement is a spiritual gift that oozes from their pores. For most of us, it is a leadership skill that can and must be cultivated.

Think of two types of encouragement. The first is what I call the “star on the homework.” Remember in elementary school when teachers distributed stars, smiley faces, and other stickers to celebrate a job well done? Star on the homework is about recognizing and applauding a job well done. Author George M. Adams said, “There are high spots in all of our lives and most of them have come about through encouragement from someone else. I don’t care how great, how famous or successful a man or woman may be, each hungers for applause.” This first type is about celebrating the gifts, wins, and accomplishments in a person’s life.

The second type of encouragement is the “good swift kick in the pants” form of encouragement. It’s more than just cheering someone across the finish line. It’s about jumping down onto the track, picking them up, and running with them. It’s the type of encouragement that lifts people up when they are weak, challenges them when they are complacent, and stretches them when they stop growing.

People need both types of encouragement at different times. It’s also good to think in terms of areas of encouragement. As a leader, you can specifically encourage people in two primary areas:

Encourage their gifts. In Paul’s first letter to Timothy, he reminded him, “Do not neglect your gift” (1 Timothy 4:4). In his second letter to Timothy, Paul challenged Timothy to “fan into flame the gift of God (2 Timothy 1:6). God will help you identify natural and spiritual gifts in the lives of those you lead, and it is your responsibility to acknowledge those gifts, encourage them in their gifts, and identify opportunities for them to use their gifts. Sometimes, you will need to encourage gifts that others do not see yet.

Encourage their growth. Paul’s letters are crammed full of encouragement to the churches and to individual leaders. Godly encouragement is important to helping people stay firm and to take next steps. It strengthens those who are feeling weak or are tempted to do less than their best.

Here are some practical tips to help you grow as an encourager:

Pray. God knows where people need to be encouraged and how they need to be encouraged. Through prayer, the Holy Spirit can help you discern a person’s gifts and passions and guide you in how to encourage them in those areas. Prayer helps you see people as God sees people.

Listen well. When we listen, we can more clearly hear people’s hearts. Listening well builds trust and security and creates environments where encouragement can happen.

Believe the best about people. John Maxwell said, “Believing the best about people usually brings the best out of people.” Some people require “convincing,” and your leadership can convince them of their gifts.

Set a goal to make someone’s day. I am convinced that ninety-percent of encouragement is simply being aware of the need to encourage. We need to get it on the forefront of our minds and make it a priority of our everyday life. Prayer gets it on the radar screen. Setting a goal helps us put it into action. Pick one person. Go ahead, do it right now. Maybe it’s that person sitting beside you in the office. Maybe it’s someone in your small group. Maybe it’s the homeless person you pass each day as you walk to the metro. Okay, got that person in mind? Now, think of something you could say or do to make their day. If you have trouble coming up with an idea, pray. The Holy Spirit knows exactly what would make that person’s day.

Look for reasons to celebrate. Lisa Suwandi and Lanre Williams are the masters of this. Their group is constantly celebrating the small wins and the big wins. They celebrate baptisms, the end of semesters, new jobs, and the work God is doing within them and through them. Their blog is a source of on-going encouragement by group members for group members.

Romans 12:10 says

“Love each other with genuine affection and take delight in honoring one another.”

What are five creative ways you can encourage the people that you lead?

Friday, August 11, 2006

Change of Perspective

Mark Batterson developed a formula a few years ago that has really been helpful to me:

Change of Pace + Change of Place = Change of Perspective

It's Biblical. Moses set up the tent of meeting. Jesus withdrew to the wilderness. Peter climbed to the roof to pray.

When I first began working at NCC, Mark encouraged me to establish regular "focus days" where I could get out of the office and look at the big picture. He said, "This job will catch up with you quickly, so make sure you take the time to step back."

In the beginning, I was really good at maintaining focus days on my calendar. And then the inevitable happened-- the job caught up with me. There were leaders to meet with, and group registration deadlines to enforce, and leadership trainings to teach, and sermons to prepare, and small groups to lead, and lessons to write. Things were too busy and the needs too demanding to take the luxury of a focus day. I was too busy leading to focus. Or so I thought. Now I realize that I was so bogged down in the details and the noise of daily life and ministry that I was actually maintaining more than leading.

If we don't take the time to focus, we cannot effectively lead.

On Wednesday, I went out to Great Falls for the day. My backpack was loaded with books, a calendar, a task list, and a copy of our recent leadership survey. I spent 5 hours reading, praying, and processing, and I accomplished more in those 5 hours than I would typically accomplish in a couple of days at the office.

Make focus days a part of your regular ministry rhythm. You need the change of pace and the change of place to give you the right perspective.

Here are some ideas:
  • Get out of the office. Whatever you do, this is most important.
  • Practice the spiritual discipline of "unplugging" for a day. This is the postmodern equivalent of silence and solitude.
  • Go to a place that helps you focus on God and think creatively. For me, that typically means somewhere outside, an art museum, or a cathedral.
  • Set some goals for the day. My goal for Wednesday was to process the leadership survey in one sitting, to read two books, and to be proactive in scheduling for our Fall semester. Goals in the past have included the following: finish a writing project, brainstorm theme and content for a retreat, pray and reconnect with God, develop a teaching series.

Two Things I Love

I've never been a fan of those bloggers who give you detailed accounts of their breakfast menus and their day-to-day activities. But there are two things that I am particularly thankful for this morning and feel compelled to share: SEC football and blackberry cobbler.

I realize this post will have little significant eternal impact on your life. My point is that it is good to stop every now and then and enjoy life.

Thursday, August 10, 2006

Communicating in Conflict

Healthy small groups will occasionally experience conflict. A successful community is not one void of conflict, but one that handles conflict well. The Bible instructs us that “iron sharpens iron,” and there are growth opportunities found in the friction and refining fires of conflict. iIf approached with a humble heart, an attitude of learning, and a Biblical perspective, conflict can be a tremendously rewarding growth opportunity for every person involved and it can foster a deeper level of commitment and community.

Jean Vanier said, “Communities need tensions if they are to grow and deepen. Tensions come from conflicts… A tension or difficulty can signal the approach of a new grace of God. But it has to be looked at wisely and humanly.”

As a small group leader, you will set the tone for the way conflict is viewed and resolved within your group.

There are two basic types of conflict that may be experienced in a group. The first is sinful behavior. If we truly love the people that we are walking with in community, then we must skillfully address sinful patterns in their lives and be open to others addressing sinful patterns in our lives. If someone is unrepentant, then Matthew 18:15-17 provides the foundation for navigating this type of confrontation.

“If your brother sins against you, go and show him his fault, just between the two of you. If he listens to you, you have won your brother over. But if he will not listen, take one or two others along, so that ‘every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.’If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, treat him as you would a pagan or a tax collector."

No other commentary is necessary; that’s the way to do it.

The second type of conflict that must be addressed is relational breakdown, and that is the most common type that erupts in small group circles. This occurs when two or more members of your group get into a disagreement that escalates to a level that requires reconciliation. Such a breakdown may occur over a disagreement during group discussion or it may occur outside of the actual group time. Our model for navigating this type of conflict is Matthew 5:23-24:

Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you,leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to your brother; then come and offer your gift.

The following guidelines for managing conflict are taken from Building a Church of Small Groups by Bill Donahue and Russ Robinson.

Framework for Conflict Navigation

  • If it happens in group, process it in group.
  • The small group leader is responsible for process, not outcomes. In other words, your ultimate responsibility is to ensure that the conflict is handled Biblically; you are not responsible for the final decisions and attitudes of those involved.
  • Validate the conflict. This is a key step in the reconciliation process– recognizing that the problem exists and providing a safe place for working that out.
  • The conflict does not need to be resolved in one meeting. Navigating conflict is a process. Think in terms of steps.
  • Conflict must be processed with trust and confidentiality.

Flowchart for Conflict Navigation

  • Start soon. If feelings are extremely raw, then a short “cool off” period might be necessary. But err on the side of starting sooner rather than later.
  • Meet face to face—NO EMAIL! I can’t stress that enough. Email is an inappropriate vehicle for navigating conflict.
  • Affirm the relationship. Begin by affirming the friendship and fellowship within the Body of Christ and use that as a point of reference for the entire process.
  • Make observations, not accusations.
  • Get the facts.
  • Promote resolution, reconciliation, and restoration.

John Ortberg said, “People who love authentic community always prefer the pain of temporary chaos to the peace of permanent superficiality.” The question is not if you will encounter conflict, but how you encounter it once it springs up.

Use the comment thread to share what you have learned about navigating conflict.

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Rethinking Evangelism

I'm heading offsite today. One of the first instructions Pastor Mark gave me when I joined the NCC staff full-time was to make sure I scheduled regular "focus days." Days to get outside of the office, away from the phone and email, and dream with God about my ministry. In the beginning, I did that regularly. But then the job "caught up" with me, and it always seemed I was too busy to get away. So today, I am getting out of the office to read.

I am re-thinking evangelism right now. The old tricks and methods and diagrams and cute analogies and evidence that demands a verdict just don't seem to "work" in this post-modern culture where truth is relative and experiential. I think we are learning good ways to communicate the Gospel in a relevant way on Sunday mornings. But we need to make sure we are training our people to communicate the Gospel one-on-one.

Here's what is in my backpack for today:

Just Walk Across the Room (Bill Hybels)
Evangelism Outside the Box (Rick Richardson)
Reimagining Evangelism (Rick Richardson)
The Bible-- of course, this is our best resource. I want to dig into the Scriptures and look closely at how Jesus and the disciples did this. I want to look at it in a new and fresh way and not come to the Scriptures with pre-conceived ideas.

Small Group Outreach was helpful in jump-starting my thinking on evangelism, as well. I also plan to re-visit Becoming a Contagious Christian at some point. I think it's probably a bit dated, but I always thought the "evangelism styles" explanation was tremendously helpful.

If you've got any helpful ideas that would help me or others, please pass them along!

Friday, August 04, 2006

First Friday Podcast

We are constantly looking for new and creative ways to communicate with our leaders. Our newest experiment is a monthly podcast. The Zonegathering.com First Friday Podcast is broadcast, rather appropriately, on the first Friday of every month. Each month, Pastor Mark teaches on one of our church's core values. We also talk about events or issues in the church that we want our leaders to be preparing for or praying for.

We are still trying to work out the kinks.

This month, we focus on the core value "Pray Like It Depends On God and Work Like It Depends On You." You can check it out here if you are interested.

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Book Review: Small Group Outreach

In Walking the Small Group Tightrope, Russ Robinson and Bill Donahue identify various "tensions" faced in small group ministry. One of those tensions is "task" vs. "people." Another way to define that tension is "inward-focused groups" (those groups that are primarily concerned with the growth and care of its members; most traditional small groups fall into this category) and "outward focused groups" (those groups that are primarily concerned with caring for someone or something outside their own circle; ministry teams and outreach groups typically fall into this category).

But both groups grow best when they stretch towards the opposite direction. In other words, ministry teams work better when there is an element of community life present in the team. And small groups grow best when they are serving something outside of themselves.

Jeffrey Arnold's Small Group Outreach: Turning Groups Inside Out is a great primer on fostering an attitude of service and incorporating service projects into traditional small groups. The topics range from evangelistic outreach to serving the church and community to involvement in missions. Each chapter begins with a real life story to illustrate how a group can make a difference in a particular area of outreach. Then, Arnold gives very practical and tangible advice for incorporating that type of service within the fabric of an existing group.

Each chapter includes lists of ideas and tips on how to approach them as a group. Some chapters include additional materials or resources that could be helpful in exploring those aspects of outreach. A small group guide is included in the back of the book for groups that wish to dig deeper into the topic.

One of the things I love about this book is that it demonstrates how service and outreach can grow organically within existing communities in the church. Instead of creating a new outreach program, the outreach can occur naturally through groups that are already formed.

My only beef with the book is that it is rather dated and it is targeted to traditional cell group or meta group models. However, the principles and ideas are easily transferrable regardless of what type of group/discipleship structures you have.

I want our small groups to be alive and healthy, and a healthy group is one that is giving out. In the fall, I will begin a new leadership series for our small group leaders on Service, and we will be encouraging our leaders to incorporate a service element into their group life. Small Group Outreach was extremely helpful as I thought through topics for that series and it will continue to be a valuable resource as we think practically and creatively about turning our small groups inside out.


I like to say that one of our purposes at NCC is to turn atheists into missionaries. That kind of transformation is nothing short of a miracle and a work of God.

But we also have this core value: Pray like it depends on God and work like it depends on you.

So, while we know that turning atheists into missionaries is ultimately something that only God can do, we also realize that there are some things we can do as a church to bring people into our community and help them find their place in the body of Christ. We need to turn first-time guests into second-time guests into regular attenders into fully devoted followers of Christ into disciple-makers.

Most churches call that process "assimilation." Quite frankly, we are terrible at that process. Our front-end marketing is great (getting people into the church door for the first time). And our back-end leadership development is good (turning people into disciple-makers). But the in-between stuff-- moving people off the movie seats and into the game-- not so good. And it's on my radar screen right now.

If you are looking for assimilation help, I would highly recommend resources from The Journey Church in New York City. Their Assimilation Seminar has been really helpful. I would also recommend the book First Impressions by the guys at Granger Community Church.

If you know of any good resources to help us, please use the comment thread below or email me.