Tag Archives: church leadership

Curiosity is the Serum for Judgmentalism

my most recent epilogue column for Youthwork Magazine (UK) came out recently. here’s what i wrote!

serumI get insanely annoyed by the judgmentalism within the Christian church. I’m not just talking about judgmentalism within a single church, but that judgmentalism that dismisses or diminishes entire movements and tribes within the bride of Christ. That judgmentalism that shows up as ministry leaders who spend so much time and effort deciding (for God, it seems) who’s right and who’s wrong, who’s “in” and who’s “out.” But, I can’t deny the beam in my own eye on this one.

That makes me think of a quote my wife shared with me sometime ago. It’s a quote about Gandhi (not by Gandhi), from the book “The Root of This Longing”:

Gandhi always brings you back to yourself–the beam in your own eye, the discrepancy between your own actions and the ideals you profess. He insists that you look beyond the headlines for the root causes of each new horror, and always the trail leads back to forces in consciousness, like envy and fear and the lust for power, and always you have to recognize those same forces in yourself.

Shoot. I would much prefer the point out others’ annoying judgmentalism than face my own.

Half a dozen years ago, the leadership team of ministry I was a part of was sitting in the living room of a beach house in beach town in California, on retreat. And we were getting worked. Our consultant was in the process of inverting all the dimensions of reality as we knew it. At one point, during discussion, I noticed a co-worker getting defensive. This particular co-worker was pretty transparent when about his defensiveness, so it’s not that I was being perceptive: his body tensed up and he fidgeted like crazy, his voice raised a half-octave, and his answers become a series of “uh-huh’s”.

In the spirit of the truthfulness we were trying to foster, I decided it should be called out — “for the good of the team.” I did, at least attempt to speak with gentleness, even though I was calling him out. I said, “Hey, can I interrupt? You’ve suddenly gotten really defensive.” And here’s where I completely blew it: in the insecurity of that moment (thinking I was doing a good thing), I turned to the rest of the room to back me up: “Am I alone in this? Do the rest of you see this?”

Before the defensive guy could respond, the consultant turned to me, and with uncharacteristic directness and push-back, completely unveiled what I had just done: that I had attempted to gang up on my coworker; that I had tried to manipulate everyone in the room to my opinion in order to corner my friend. Just as the tingly nature of being publicly exposed and realizing he right started to set in, the consultant re-directed again. He said something like: I’m calling this out for a very specific reason. If you five are going to be effective, you have to learn the skill of being curious.

He used the situation that had just been unveiled as a case-study: if I notice that my coworker seems to be getting defensive, and if I really want the best for him as a human being, as an image-of-God bearer, than I should be more interested in what his “positive intent” is (what’s driving the defensiveness, in this case), than in embarrassing him or making myself look like the hero of group dynamics and herald of truth.

This concept of “being curious” profoundly shaped that leadership team over the next couple years. We exercised it all the time with each other, and it — more than anything else, I think — changed the tone of our meetings.

I found the concept of being curious (particularly about someone’s “positive intent”) has spilled over into other areas of my life. And I think it might offer us some particular value in our overwhelming place of judgmentalism in the church.

If judgmentalism is the venom currently coursing it’s way through the veins of the church, I’m thinking the anti-venom, the serum, isn’t what we’ve thought it to be. It’s not more truth or more clearly defining what we mean or retreating.

Curiosity. Loving, “I want the best for you” curiosity. I think that’s the serum.

To the church or ministry leader who seems overly concerned with criticizing others, or with who’s right and who’s wrong, who’s “in” and who’s “out,” I ask, gently: What are your fears? What are you feeling, and what’s driving those feelings?

And to myself, when I catch myself in the midst of judgmentalism, I ask, gently: Wait, Marko, what’s going on here? What’s driving this judgment or attitude? What’s the positive intent behind this — how are you hoping to benefit from this? What’s another way to think about this?

10 leadership soundbites off the top of my head

soundbitesreally, i’m going to make this up right now. ’cause i gots me a little burst o’ passion that i think will translate to twittery bits (ooh, “twittery bits” probably used to mean something very different). so here we go… i’m gonna wing this!

  • sometimes you fake it until you’re able to break it. that’s when things might get good.
  • “the ways we do things around here” could be, just might be, a really wonderful and good thing. take a second look before you discard it.
  • might is shite
  • “who i’m responsible for” can be legitimately in tension with “what i’m passionate about.” but not for long, or you’ll wilt.
  • you need a “how could this possibly succeed?” moment at least twice a year.
  • crossing t’s and dotting i’s is for scribes. is that all you are?
  • there are a thousand legitimate things you could do with the next hour.
  • loosening your grip is the second most important component of growth.
  • i want to play with people who are weird. i want to work with those who are odd. the edge of change is always populated with weird and odd folk.
  • see that line? put a couple toes over it. there you go.

Orbiting the Hairball: Innovation without Disconnection (part 2 of 3)

(part 1 of this series explored the need for most of us, despite the desire to be innovators, to stay connected to our organizations via the gravitational pull of orbiting.)

corrosionForces that Corrode Innovation
Even in the orbit, I have to be intentional about resisting the hairball’s pull. I’ve noticed a handful of things I have to be particularly cautious about.

The Love of New
I have a short attention span, and am constantly drawn to the next new thing (whether it’s a youth ministry idea or a smart phone). Whatever good or broken thing in me drives this has to be stabled from time to time.

New for the sake of new causes all kinds of problems. When I live this way, and think this way, I hurt people. I get more interested in the new thing than in people. I both reflect and add to our cultural obsession with acquiring new things and discarding (potentially good) old things. I set myself up to miss out on the beauty of stillness and unchanging. I get ruthlessly dismissive about what was good. I have, in the name of new, tossed many an archetypal baby out with bathwater that was hurl-worthy.

My Own Insecurities
I can be a bull in a china shop, to be sure; but sometimes only because I like being perceived as the kind of guy who’s willing to be that bull.

In my desire to be innovative, my insecurities work against me in two ways:

First, my insecurities and desire for approval fuel me to innovate merely so I will be perceived as an innovator. Seriously, how lame is that? Surely, any innovation born out of that motivation will be short-lived at best, or hollow and hurtful at the worst.

On the other side of the equation, my insecurities work against me to curb innovation. The thinking that lurks in my subconscious says, “In this case, it would be easier and safer to retreat to the majority way or the old way where tried and true measures of success are more predictable.

A Desire for Security
The professionalization of youth ministry brought some undeniable changes. But, in many ways, it’s the worst thing that ever happened to youth ministry. When we are—when I am—being paid to do youth ministry, our innovation muscles are unavoidably restrained.

I find this a tension regularly in my work with The Youth Cartel. I deeply desire for us to “instigate a revolution in youth ministry.” But I also need to figure out how to pay my mortgage, and pay my daughter’s upcoming college tuition. There’s great job security in not being a boat rocker.

Fear of Being Marginalized
I’ve been confronted with my fears at a much more visceral level since I lost my job at Youth Specialties more than three and a half years ago. My fears sort of sicken me; but as I’ve identified them, they’ve played a wonderful role in my pursuit of humility.

I know I have an almost insatiable desire to live larger-than-life. The squiggly thing under the rock is my fear of being forgotten, marginalized, lacking influence. It’s a counter-productive fear, and it stunts my creativity.

You might not share this exact same fear (though I think it’s common to the majority of youth pastors). But, what I’ve so strongly found in the coaching and consulting work I do these days is that every organization and every leader carries with them fears that are more than willing to stifle creativity and innovation, truncate risk, and derail deep transformation. Being honest about your fears, when it comes to change and risk, is a critical component of maintaining orbit around the hairball.

next up, in part 3: Two Essential Thrusters for Sustaining Orbit

Leading Up: Finding Influence in the Church Beyond Role and Experience

i’m so excited about the release of joel mayward‘s new book, Leading Up: Finding Influence in the Church Beyond Role and Experience, published by The Youth Cartel. i’ve worked with joel on this book, in one way or another, for almost two years. it sprung out of a conversation we had in the very first youth ministry coaching program cohort (that joel was in). later in that year, he presented thoughts on it, in the form of a rough book outline, to that cohort; and the whole group spoke into it.

it’s a leadership fable, in the style of patrick lencioni’s books. and joel really pulled it off with excellence. not only for youth workers, the book would be helpful to any church leader not in the driver’s seat (that said: the main character in the fable is a youth worker).

here’s the back cover copy:

Far too many church leaders find themselves frustrated, floundering, or fired because their dreams for the church reach beyond the job description they were hired to fill. Whether you’re a pastor, an intern, or a volunteer, you’re not the one in charge of the congregation. Thankfully, neither is your boss; Jesus is the lead pastor for every church. His Spirit moves in each of us, and those gifted in leadership can find Christ-honoring practices for leading up- having influence that goes beyond role or experience. This isn’t about manipulation or rebellion, but about humbly participating in the mission of God in your church.

Leading Up is a leadership fable that unpacks a paradigm and practical tools for leading up in your church. Logan is a young pastor with a big vision for Evergreen Community Church, but cannot seem to move any of his ideas beyond wishful thinking. At a significant breaking point, a mentor comes alongside to mentor Logan on his journey of leadership, transforming both of these leaders and the church in the process. Logan’s affecting tale will offer compelling insights for any church leader wanting to expand their leadership skills.

until the book officially releases (which should be in about a week, i think), we’re offering a special pre-release discount of 25%, making it only $9.74 (instead of the $12.99 it will be very soon). pre-release sales are on the physical book only, but ebook versions will be available soon also (on The Youth Cartel store, as well as the kindle store and the apple ibook store). click here to order now at the pre-release price.

innovations i’m convinced are needed in youth ministry

here are a handful of innovative movements I long to see in youth ministry, and am committing myself to.

go organic, buy local
youth ministry simply must become more organic and local. of course, your practice of youth ministry is local. but i’m addressing the whole engorged body of thinking and resourcing and modeling in the world of youth ministry. sure, national events can be great (heck, the youth cartel hosts some of them!). but remember that model church isn’t in your neighborhood, and isn’t populated by your teenagers and parents, and doesn’t necessarily share your values.

do not listen to me (or any other youth ministry “expert”) when we tell you what you should do. we might stir your thinking or imagination (and that’s a good thing); but you and i simply must cultivate an active life of spiritual discernment and organic contextualization when it comes to our approaches, models and methods.

i don’t know how we’re going to do this. and i’m certainly not the only one saying it. but we have to work against the isolation of teenagers, particularly in our churches. this, alone, is the single biggest failure of youth ministry over the past four or five decades.

models and practices for non-professional youth workers
sorry to be the doomsday guy, but the era of professional youth workers is going away, eventually. it might linger longer in certain denominations (like, southern baptist) or geographies (like, the south); but it’s on the decline, and it’s not going to return.

small churches, of course, have long done youth ministry without paid staff. but mid-sized to large white, suburban churches (where the majority of paid youth workers exist) have no idea how to even think about youth ministry without paid staff; and very soon, the money is just not going to be there.

what other innovations do you think are needed in youth ministry?

leading without power, part 10 (final)

in this series of posts (part 1, overview; part 2, competency facilitator; part 3, culture evangelist; part 4, mission curator, part 5, storytelling host, part 6, champion of hope, part 7, uniqueness dj, part 8, contextualization czar, and part 9, trust guard) i’m ruminating on the suggestion that leadership in the church needs to move away from the traditional notions of hierarchical power we’ve embraced for so long. and i’m unpacking 9 new metaphors for “powerless leadership”. here is the final metaphor (#9):

Collaboration Guide

i’m going to keep this short and to the point, since this series has gone on long enough (too long, possibly), and because i’ve written about collaboration multiple times in the midst of the other 8 metaphors.

here’s a strong statement for your consideration: the top three skills needed to be an effective leader in the twenty-tens are…

1. discernment

2. contextualization insight and praxis

3. a passion for and skill in hosting collaboration

a reminder of where this blog series began:

power-based leadership has no place in the church.
(and: power-based leadership is a culturally-waning paradigm in all contexts, because we live in a wiki, prosumer culture.)


here’s a paradigmatic shift idea: church leadership needs to move from a paradigm of control to one of facilitation.
in this context: facilitation = identifying and nurturing competencies

collaboration is messy. it can be cumbersome. it can create political and relational tensions. but it is better is just about every way. collaboration is a reflection of the various giftings paul writes about, and a reflection of each person’s imago dei, and a reflection of the priesthood of all believers.

and collaboration works at a practical level: whatever hierarchical power a leader might forfeit by leading collaboratively is gained by an order of magnitude in terms of buy-in, shared ownership of mission, creativity, follow-through, quantity of output, breaking up group think, avoiding stupid errors and blind alleys, and all sort of other CYA dead ends.

this is the biggest lesson i learned in my years of leadership at ys — particularly when it came to the leadership team. when we operated collaboratively, we kicked butt and had a blast doing it. when we were forced to operate in more traditional top-down decision-making modalities, the fun went away, the mission lost focus, and the ministry suffered.

here’s a thought to chew on: collaboration requires leading from within, not leading from out in front.

what would this look like for you?
what would it require you give up?
what would you have to risk?
what might you gain?

leading without power, part 9

in this series of posts (part 1, overview; part 2, competency facilitator; part 3, culture evangelist; part 4, mission curator, part 5, storytelling host, part 6, champion of hope, part 7, uniqueness dj, part 8, contextualization czar) i’m ruminating on the suggestion that leadership in the church needs to move away from the traditional notions of hierarchical power we’ve embraced for so long. and i’m unpacking 9 new metaphors for “powerless leadership”. here is metaphor #8:

Trust Guard

trust is, perhaps, the single greatest factor in leadership. and, while trust is so rarely present in hierarchical power structures (in churches or businesses), the funny thing is that it’s one of the few facets described in this blog series that is possible within traditional hierarchical power structures (btw: if you want a good book on this — trust in the context of traditional power structures, that is — i recommend stephen m.r. covey’s the speed of trust). and the reason boils down to this: trust is 100% dependent on honesty. if a hierarchical power-based leader is fully honest and transparent (an extremely rare occurrence, to be sure), it’s possible to instill trust. but more often than not, the mindset of a leader in utilizing role power and hierarchy has a mental mindset that says, “i know things you cannot and should not know; they are not your job to know them.” if the leader were, somehow, able to be completely honest with himself or herself (another rarity), the truth would be closer to, “being less than transparent and fully honest with you protects my position of power, control and authority over you. you are more dependent on me when i know more than you do.”

ah, but this tactic just doesn’t work.

a moment of honesty myself: i have not been a superstar on this. i think my leadership team at youth specialties had a high level of trust in me and my leadership; but that was directly connected to the level of honesty we shared. but for the rest of the staff of youth specialties, their trust of me vacillated greatly. at times, it was high and strong; at others, extremely questionable. in my 20/20 hindsight, i can see the pattern clearly: when we were in seasons where i was being ruthlessly honest, trust was high. when we were in seasons where i was withholding, or spinning them, trust was low (or at least weakened).

if we want our organizational teams (and, again, this applies to volunteer teams as well as groups of employees) to experience the kind of wholeness and full embracing of the organizational mission, we have to place the value of alignment in a place of preeminence. in youth ministry 3.0, i wrote about the goal of “communion” – a combination of authentic community with christ in the mix. pulling out the essence of that into a workplace, i can envision a kind of missional alignment experienced in community by all members of the team.

and, without trust and safety, there will be no communion or missional alignment.

without communion (or missional alignment), the ministry or church staff culture or business culture will be clubbish and/or wimpy.

what if one of the primary ways we leaders exercise our power is by being honest?

i’m reminded of this as i write, as i’ve been looking at a case study over the past few days. a particular mission board (ABWE) received information, decades ago, about one of their missionary doctors perpetrating pedophilia on young teen missionary kids. they responded by covering it up. the issues were brought up at multiple points over the last 20+ years; and each time, they promised action, but took none. not only is the wrong perpetrated in this example horrific on many other levels, the result has been – as i’ve watched this unfolding in real time – a systemic and complete breakdown of trust. trust in the organization and its leaders has been shot for a long time for those closest to the crime; but now that the story is coming to light, trust has been eroded at levels that reach far and wide, including affiliated churches and donors. the likely result will be leaders losing their jobs and a big shake up. justice, in situations like this, gets more and more difficult without honesty. (btw: if you’d like to read more about this story, or help throw your voice into the mix of people calling the board of the organization to action, read this fairly comprehensive blog, hosted by some of the MKs impacted.)

i’m also reminded of one of the (rare?) times i think i got this right: when it was brought to our attention at YS that we had published some blatantly racist content in one of our books, and we were called out by the asian american church community. in this case (as would have been true with ABWE), it would have been better had we not allowed the offenes to occur in the first place. but we screwed up; and the only right response was full disclosure, complete honesty, and swift action. now, you could say that this was all external, and more about our interface with customers. but the impact on our staff was significant; and the way we handled it (both in how we talked about it internally, and the steps our staff saw us taking) had an enormous impact on the level of trust internally. it was — counter-intuitively — one of those times when our screw-up resulted in more missional alignment (and communion) for our staff team.

back to my question: what would it look like if, as a leader trying to lead without power, that your primary expression of the power provided by your title or position were the relentless pursuit of honesty?

leading without power, part 8

in this series of posts (part 1, overview; part 2, competency facilitator; part 3, culture evangelist; part 4, mission curator, part 5, storytelling host, part 6, champion of hope, part 7, uniqueness dj) i’m ruminating on the suggestion that leadership in the church needs to move away from the traditional notions of hierarchical power we’ve embraced for so long. and i’m unpacking 9 new metaphors for “powerless leadership”. here is metaphor #7:

Contextualization Czar

in order to actively engage in most of the previous metaphors, and in order to lead via collaboration, the leader who aspires to lead without traditional hierarchical power has to become an intentional student of context. really, since we’re living in an era where culture has splintered (youth culture, for sure, but all culture is following), the role of the leader must shift.

in the 1950s (think “mad men” or the church version — even more power, slightly less cigarettes and grain alcohol), the primary approach to leadership called for the loudest voice, and maybe the ability to think forwardly.

in the 80s and 90s, all kinds of social science-like skills rose up the “skills leaders must possess” ladder: empathic listener, prophetic visionary voice, new idea generator, motivational speaker, strategy hound.

but today, in our new world, when copying the other guy (or the other business, or the other church) gets you nowhere other than a few steps behind or grossly misguided, the ability to host these collaborative questions trump the other “skills”:
– what’s our context?
– who are we called to be?
– what are we passionate about, and why?
– what’s unique to us?
– how can we become more us, rather than more like someone else?

this means that we have to be anthroplogists. the wiki-god says, “Anthropology asks ‘What defines Homo sapiens?'” see it? pretty easy to translate that for our local, rather than global, realities. “what defines us here at the youth cartel?” or “what defines us at first church?”

now, leaders have played this role in many ways over the decades and millenia. but the spirit of what we’re addressing in these posts is that power-based leadership is both unbiblical and ineffective in today’s world. so we have to think about how to ask that “what defines us” question without forcing or demanding or unilaterally deciding.

and that brings us back to… collaborative discernment.

i think i’ve written this more than once on this blog, but i think the primary skill set needed (but not present) in most church leadership today is to recover the art of spiritual discernment. understanding context, being responsive to context, and hosting collaborative discernment rooted in context might be the best gift you can give your organization.

leading without power, part 7

in this series of posts (part 1, overview; part 2, competency facilitator; part 3, culture evangelist; part 4, mission curator, part 5, storytelling host, part 6, champion of hope) i’m ruminating on the suggestion that leadership in the church needs to move away from the traditional notions of hierarchical power we’ve embraced for so long. and i’m unpacking 9 new metaphors for “powerless leadership”. here is metaphor #6:

Uniqueness DJ

powerless leadership metaphor #2 was “competency facilitator”. that metaphor plays out mostly at an individual level — identifying and facilitating competencies in individual people (particularly in other leaders, i would suggest). the ‘uniqueness dj’ idea works in partnership with that skill to mix a team’s uniquenesses into a cohesive whole.

the uniqueness dj is not into pigeon-holing people based on pre-determined roles.

the uniqueness dj does not leverage traditional hierarchical power to assign people.

the uniqueness dj abhors vanilla, and loves to create new mixes of surprisingly complementary flavors.

wearing this hat (probably a cool porkpie, btw), this kind of leader allows for — celebrates, even — the one-of-a-kind gifting, experience and personality of each person on the team, and looks for ways to connect them to the shared values.

here’s a practical example: for years, in youth ministry, i utilized a highly articulated ‘job description’ for volunteers. the thinking was (and i had been taught this, and subsequently taught this myself in many seminars) that youth ministry volunteers would flourish is they knew what was expected. i read that sentence now, and i think, what a dehumanizing approach to people. i would approach this very differently today. after the shared values of the ministry are discerned and articulated, i would work with each volunteer, based on his or her strengths, interests, experiences and competencies, to help him or her develop a unique plan for embodying our values in the context of their youth ministry calling. and, i would be intentional about how these unique works of art, made in the image of god, can experience something greater than themselves by bringing their uniqueness to the whole.

this kind of ‘mixing’ isn’t a blender approach, creating a mushy paste of liquified banality. instead, it’s a skill more akin to a ben and jerry’s flavor creator. or, a super-fresh mash-up of disparate musical pieces overlaid on the beats of shared values.

leading without power, part 6

in this series of posts (part 1, overview; part 2, competency facilitator; part 3, culture evangelist; part 4, mission curator, part 5, storytelling host) i’m ruminating on the suggestion that leadership in the church needs to move away from the traditional notions of hierarchical power we’ve embraced for so long. and i’m unpacking 9 new metaphors for “powerless leadership”. here is metaphor #5:

Champion of Hope

i’ve been doing more than my normal share of thinking about hope in the last year or two. in some ways, at all started when i was asked to speak on the subject of hope at a youth ministry event very early in 2010. i did some thinking and praying and digging, and realized that there are a handful of things that often rob us of hope in our churches:

  • optimism and pressure to be content. it’s not that optimism is a bad thing.  it’s just that we’ve spiritualized it in the american church and re-labeled it as hope.  but they’re not the same thing.
  • being well-resourced. honestly, what church leader would choose being under-resourced over being well-resourced.  but as i meet hundreds — thousands, even — of church leaders and youth workers around the globe, i’m amazed how being well-resourced can lead to a variety of destructive things (hoarding, protecting, confidence in things) that make hope impossible.  because hope has embedded in it some longing.
  • living without pain. i’ll expand on this a bit more in a second, but pain seems to be the necessary b-side to hope.  or maybe it’s the other way around: hope is the b-side to pain.
  • technique. we loves us some technique in the american church, don’t we?  technique is a distraction, and quickly becomes (in many, if not most cases) the object of hope.

but my perspective on hope was rocked by my trips to haiti this past year (which i have blogged about extensively). and that idea that suffering and hope are two sides of the same coin really started to click for me.

as i wrestled with this more (including developing a book proposal that’s under consideration at some publisher or another), i read more on hope — particularly some stuff by bruggemann. and i saw the biblical pattern: honest and healthy dissatisfaction with the way things are –> crying out to god, admitting your need for god and dependance on god for a rescue –> the gift of hope. it’s most clearly seen in the exodus. and it’s seen again in the exile. it’s even seen in jesus’ cry from the cross.

but here’s how this applies to ‘leading without power”: organizations need to have hope (not just individuals). while this isn’t talked about often, it’s intuitively true. we’ve all been part of, or visited, organizations (churches, business, whatever) that lack hope, and ones that seem to be bursting with hope. really, this isn’t just christian organizations — my visit to zappos.com, the online shoe retailer, gave me a visceral experience of hope embodied.

but the leader who wants to lead without power (because, really, there’s NO WAY to hierarchically force someone to have hope!) becomes a champion of hope in the organization. the powerless leader listens for and is present to suffering — not brushing past it or sweeping it under the rug (easier said than done, btw). and in the midst of that safe articulation of struggle, the powerless leader points people to the source of hope (jesus), rather than cul-de-sacs of optimism, technique, and other hope thieves.

a few practicalities:

1. remember Romans 5:3 – 5 — …we also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us.

2. provide reminders of who we place our hope in; reminders of what our hope feels like; reminders of why we have hope.

3. cultivate a language of hope with your team, and with parents.