Look Back with Old School Thinking to Look Forward

Translating New Testament Principles into Present-Day Practices

One of my favorite pastimes is browsing through used bookstores in towns I travel to. Recently, I discovered a treasure in the form of the book “Building Better Churches” by Gaines S. Dobbins, prominent Southern Baptist educator from the 1920s-1950s. He asks some great questions:

  • What sort of church would it be that undertook intelligently and fearlessly to fashion itself according to the basic principles of the New Testament?
  • On what vital functions would it major?
  • What would be revealed to be its strengths and weaknesses?
  • What would it give up as encumbrances inherited from a traditional past but clearly of doubtful value in the living present?

His answers? He thought the church should be a

  • Regenerate body – an inward change growing out of a personal experience in which the shift of life’s center has been from self to Christ
  • Beloved community – sacrifice for the common good is the essence of true community; love cannot flourish in an atmosphere where some assume an attitude of superiority over others as their inferiors
  • Company of worshippers – the object of worship is the God of the Lord Jesus Christ made real through the presence of the Holy Spirit. The practice of worship is in spirit and truth; the purpose of worship is to maintain vital unity between the worshiper and God through the mediator, Jesus Christ, and the illuminator the Holy Spirit. A church may do much else besides worship, but it will do little else of consequence without worship
  • Winner of believers – the process of intelligent persuasion began with Christ’s invitation to “come and see.” It continued throughout His ministry and Paul expanded it. There is no mistaking the proposal of the New Testament that believers be won to saving faith through persuasion
  • Teacher of disciples – preaching and teaching are indispensable means of leading toward Christ, to Christ, and into the service and likeness of Christ. A church is essentially a school with Christ as the Great Teacher; the Holy Spirit as His interpreter; the Bible the chief textbook; the minister the chief officer of the school with other leaders gathered around him as teachers and staff; every believer an enrolled student; and all others who can be reached are sought as learners to be led toward Christ
  • Server of humanity – the early Christians caught the spirit of Christ and like Him, “went about doing good.” It must send regenerate men and women out into an immoral society to transform evil into good, wrong into right, injustice into justice, not so much by political measures as by the leavening process of Christian influence
  • Agency of the Kingdom – the Kingdom of God is a present and future reality. It is not an organization to be promoted, nor a movement to be advanced, nor a social ideal to be realized, but a relationship to be entered and a spiritual order into which others are to be brought through persuasive witnessing

Dobbins, after a lifetime of service to the church, but writing this in 1947, had this final thought which I leave for you to consider:

Ours is an age of revolution. Inevitably the churches are undergoing change. Why not seize on this opportunity to make changes back to the New Testament rather than farther away from it?

And we thought all this “church change” stuff was new…

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Look Back and Learn: Investing in Wisdom Equity

In researching and working on some leadership development material for an ongoing writing project, I came across the following:

Christianity is a religion of change. Jesus’ call in Mark 1:15 (the kingdom of God is at hand) was a call to change – change of mind and heart, of conduct and character, of self and society. By its very nature Christianity is a religion for a changing world and has always had its greatest opportunity during times of upheaval.

The Christian leader has no option; he must face a changing world. If the leader is to render maximum service, he must both adjust himself to the phenomena of change and address himself passionately to the business of producing and guiding change. Here are some elements that constitute the changed world in which the Christian leader today is called to fulfill his ministry.

Changed world outlook

Changed economic philosophy

Changed social consciousness

Changed family life

Changed community conditions

Changed moral standards

Changed religious viewpoints

Changed conceptions of the church

Changed media for molding public opinion

Changed demands made upon the leader

Pretty good list, right? Dead on. Taken from today’s headlines.

Nope.

courtesy the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary

courtesy the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary

The author was Gaines S. Dobbins, distinguished professor of Religious Education at my alma mater, The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, in Louisville KY.

Written in 1947.

As the introduction to the book “Building Better Churches: A Guide to Pastoral Ministry.”

Dr. Dobbins retired before I was born, but while in seminary in the early eighties I had the privilege of sitting under a couple of professors who were students of Dr. Dobbins. When I came across this book in a used bookstore, I bought it on impulse. After flipping through it, I realized it was a treasure of leadership wisdom.

At Auxano, we talk about a concept called “vision equity.” As developed by founder Will Mancini in his book Church Unique, it’s realizing that the history of a church is a rich resource for helping rediscover what kinds of vision language past generations have used. That language is very useful for anticipating and illustrating God’s better intermediate future.

As I read Dr. Dobbin’s book, I think there is also a concept called “wisdom equity.” It’s realizing that there have been some great leaders and deep thinkers over the past decades and centuries whose collective wisdom would be a great place to start as we struggle with the new realities that face us every day.

It’s why I love history – I see it not as an anchor that holds us to the past, but as a foundation to build a bridge to the future.

Go ahead – look back and learn.

The Danger of Being the Brightest Person in the Room

Recently I recalled a consulting job several years ago where I was speaking to a church about the formation of a team to work on the planning for a new building. During one of the sessions I was speaking on the importance of including the facility manager on the building team in a church project, and I tossed out the following statement: The person who sweeps the floor should choose the broom.

That brought out a lot of chuckles from the attendees, but the point hit home: Operational staff members almost never get the chance for input into the decision-making process, yet they are held responsible for the ongoing outcomes of the decisions. That statement and the following story came to mind recently while working on a teamwork project for a future presentation.

James Watson and Francis Crick can arguably say they answered the question, “What is the secret of life?” The pair discovered the double-helix structure of DNA, the biological material that carries life’s genetic information. During an interview on the 50th anniversary of their discovery, Watson was asked how he and Crick had solved the problem ahead of many other highly accomplished, recognized scientists. Watson’s answer included identifying the problem first, being passionate and single-minded about their work, and their willingness to attempt approaches outside their area of familiarity. Then he added something that was astounding: they had cracked the DNA code primarily because they were not the most intelligent scientists pursuing the answer.

Watson went on to say that the most intelligent person working on the project was Rosalind Franklin, a brilliant British scientist who worked alone. “Rosalind was so intelligent that she rarely sought advice. And if you’re the brightest person in the room, then you’re in trouble.”

That comment highlights a common occurrence in church leadership: When dealing with a specific problem or issue, leaders should ensure that they collaborate with team members toward its resolution, even if they are the best-informed, most-experienced, or most skilled person in the group. Far too often, leaders – who, by virtue of greater experience, skill, and wisdom, deem themselves the ablest problem solver in the group – fail to ask for input from team members.

Scientific studies have shown that groups who cooperate in seeking a solution are not just better than the average member working alone, but are even better than the group’s best problem-solver working alone. Lone decision-makers can’t match the diversity of knowledge and perspectives of a multi-person unit that includes them. The ability to distribute many subtasks of a problem to its members – parallel processing – enables the group to outperform the individual who must address them sequentially.

Are you a church leader working in a group? Don’t relinquish your leadership role, but make sure your process allows group members to offer insights, cooperate, and collaborate with each other. The Bible has a lot to say about that, but that’s for another time!

What’s Shaping the Minds of This Year’s Freshman Class, the Class of 2021

Each August since 1998, Beloit College has released the Beloit College Mindset List, providing a look at the cultural touchstones that shape the lives of students entering college this fall.

Today, the Mindset List of the Class of 2021 was released.

The creation of Beloit’s former Public Affairs Director Ron Nief and Keefer Professor of the Humanities Tom McBride, authors of The Mindset Lists of American History: From Typewriters to Text Messages, What Ten Generations of Americans Think Is Normal, it was originally created as a reminder to faculty to be aware of dated references. It quickly became an internationally monitored catalog of the changing worldview of each new college generation.

Leaders – of all ages – need to understand what has shaped the lives of today’s entering college freshman class, those 18 year olds who:

  • Are the last class to be born in the 1900s, making them the last of the Millennials.
  • Are the first generation for whom a “phone” has been primarily a video game, direction finder, electronic telegraph, or a research library.
  • Have always had emojis to cheer them up.

For those who cannot comprehend that it has been 18 years since this year’s entering college students were born, they should recognize that the next four years will go even faster, confirming the authors’ belief that “generation gaps have always needed glue.”

Here are a few nuggets from this year’s Mindset Class for the Class of 2021. You must read the entire list here!

  • They are the first generation to grow up with Watson outperforming Sherlock.
  • Amazon has always invited consumers to follow the arrow from A to Z.
  • They have always been searching for Pokemon.
  • By the time they entered school, laptops were outselling desktops.
  • Whatever the subject, there’s always been a blog for it.
  • Ketchup has always come in green.
  • The BBC has always had a network in the U.S. where they speak American.
  • Family Guy is the successor to the Father Knows Best they never knew.

You can find the rest of the list here.

Read it now.

How to Establish a Systems Thinking Mindset on Your Team

How do you cultivate long-term commitment on your team?

Many teams today are not really teams at all – organizationally, structurally, and motivationally they are not set up to work as individual parts of a larger, unified whole. Often they reflect outdated organizational charts that have little to do with current reality. There are times when a leader realizes their team is actually a collection of individuals who are looking out for themselves. Left in this state, a team can actually become a divisive and damaging cancer to the organization.

Is it little wonder, then, that leaders seek help in cultivating commitment within their teams? The problem isn’t necessarily with the team members or leaders themselves, but what the team is being asked to do: work together without any larger sense of organizational direction or purpose.

If your team needs a boost in commitment, consider establishing a systems thinking mindset on your team.

THE QUICK SUMMARY – The Leadership Equation, by Eric Douglas

What distinguishes the most successful organizations?

What do the leaders and managers in these top organizations actually do?

In this fascinating book, entrepreneur and business consultant, Eric Douglas, paints a clear picture of what happens inside high-performing organizations. He reveals a simple but profound equation: Trust + Spark = Leadership Culture. Leaders and managers are most successful when they focus on building trust and sparking innovation.

In The Leadership Equation, Douglas expands the equation into the 10 most important practices for building trust and spark. As Douglas clearly shows, when trust and spark combine, leaders improve the performance of their team, their department, and the entire organization – and, ultimately, reach their own full potential.

A SIMPLE SOLUTION

Entrepreneur and organizational consultant, Eric Douglas, wants leaders to realize the importance of engaging in systems thinking, and in turn, leading their teams to do the same.

“Systems thinking” is a framework for seeing interrelationships rather than things, for seeing patterns of change rather than static snapshots.

Today, systems thinking is needed more than ever in the increasingly complex world we live and minister in. It is all too easy for organizations to break down despite individual brilliance, because they are unable to pull their diverse functions and talents into a productive whole. 

To achieve a leadership culture, the power of systems thinking needs to spread throughout the organization. Systems thinking teaches us to appreciate how a decision made in isolation can negatively affect others.

We teach our clients to see their organizations holistically, asking them to look at it from five systems perspectives – strategy, governance, performance, process, and people.

Strategy – From this perspective, you focus on the long-term trends affecting your organization. You respond positively by thinking about the long-term use of your resources and how to focus to achieve your most important priorities. You respond negatively by focusing too much on factors beyond your control.

Governance – From this perspective, you focus on the system of decision-making that controls the direction of your organization. You respond positively by thinking about governance and being very specific about delegations of authority. You respond negatively by blaming people for making misguided decisions when the system isn’t clear.

Performance – From this perspective, you focus on systems for measuring performance, first at the organizational level, then to departments, teams, and finally to individuals. You respond positively by deciding which metrics and targets to track at each level and what communication systems to use. You respond negatively by paying too much attention to individual cases of poor performance.

Process – From this perspective, you focus internally on the process of producing value, measuring effectiveness and efficiency. You respond positively by thinking about how to improve the individual components of the process. You respond negatively by singling out specific individuals for not managing a process consistently or efficiently.

People – From this perspective, you focus on your system of hiring and rewarding people. You focus on how to get the right people on board and how to develop them in their roles. Your respond negatively by selecting and promoting people based on arbitrary factors.

– Eric Douglas, The Leadership Equation

A NEXT STEP

Your leaders want to be on a winning team, and teams are most successful when they are innovating and executing around consistent systems. The art of developing systems thinking is found in the organization of your actions and attitudes and the realization that each perspective needs to be measured against every other.

At your next team meeting, list the five systems perspectives above on a whiteboard or flip-chart. Choose a recent leadership team decision and take that decision through each of the five systems perspectives, asking for each, “what worked?”, “what did not work?”, and “what would we do next time?’

At the conclusion of this exercise, sift through the why behind those response to begin to develop a set of guidelines that will help your team see the positive benefits of systems thinking while avoiding the negative consequences.


While all too often teams are “teams” in name only, individual commitment to a larger whole is an integral part of the success of any organization.

By engaging in systems thinking, leaders can help their teams maintain commitment and accomplish their Great Commission call.

Excerpt taken from SUMS Remix 12-3, published April 2015


Part of a weekly series on 27gen, entitled Wednesday Weekly Reader

Regular daily reading of books is an important part of my life. It even extends to my vocation, where as Vision Room Curator for Auxano I am responsible for publishing SUMS Remix, a biweekly book “summary” for church leaders. I’m going to peruse back issues of both SUMS and SUMS Remix and publish excerpts each Wednesday.

Do You Ever Feel Like You’re Living Out the Movie “Groundhog Day” at Your Church?

Groundhog Day is a celebration of an old tradition – Candlemas Day – where clergy blessed and distributed candles for winter, representing how long and cold winter would be.

Groundhog Day is also a 1993 movie starring Bill Murray that popularized the usage of “groundhog day” to mean something that is repeated over and over.

Many churches find themselves in their own version of groundhog day, living out a dream and vision that was once relevant, but now is long in the past. Unwilling or unable to face reality, they are simply repeating the past over and over.

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Church leaders who find themselves in this situation have an excellent resource in Cracking Your Church’s Culture Code by Sam Chand.

“Cracking Your Church’s Culture Code” offers a practical resource for discovering the deficits in an existing church’s culture and includes steps needed to assess, correct, and change culture from lackluster to vibrant and inspirational so that it truly meets the needs of the congregation.Cracking Your Church's Culture Code

The book includes descriptions of five categories of church culture (Inspiring, Accepting, Stagnant, Discouraging, and Toxic) as well as diagnostic methods (including a free online assessment) that church leaders can use to identify the particular strengths and needs of their church.

One particularly useful section of the book deals with the seven keys of CULTURE:

  • Control – it isn’t a dirty word; delegating responsibility and maintaining accountability are essential for any organization to be effective
  • Understanding – every person on a team needs to have a clear grasp of the vision, his or her role, the gifts of the team members, and the way the team functions
  • Leadership – healthy teams are pipelines of leadership development, consistently discovering, developing, and deploying leaders
  • Trust – mutual trust up, down, and across the organizational structure is the glue that makes everything good possible
  • Unafraid – healthy teams foster the perspective that failure isn’t a tragedy and conflict isn’t the end of the world
  • Responsive – teams with healthy cultures are alert to open doors and ones that are closing; they have a sensitive spirit and a workable system to make sure things don’t fall through the cracks
  • Execution – executing decisions is a function of clarity, roles and responsibilities, and a system of accountability

Understanding your church’s culture is not an easy task. Cracking Your Church’s Culture Code is a very helpful resource for the leader who wants to delve below the surface of church as usual and lead it to greater impact.

Cooperation Rather Than Confrontation

Following the Civil War, economic recovery and expansion in the United States was to a large part driven by the expansion of the railroad system.

From its infancy in the 1830s through the 1870s, railroad systems developed piecemeal within the borders of each state. Everything from locomotive size to railcar layout to schedules to fares was developed only with a mind to serve a limited scope – usually measured in tens of miles, occasionally getting up into the hundreds of miles. Nowhere was this more glaring than the rail gauge, or distance between rails.

Facing a tremendous rebuilding effort, with grand schemes of expansion beyond that, the independent railroad systems of the mid-1880s realized that it would be better to serve national, rather than local, interests. The idea that it was better for a railroad to have a separate gauge from its local rivals had become redundant.

Cooperation rather than confrontation was now the watchword.

After decades of incessant fighting, railroad companies realized that railroads work best as an integrated system; the longer that passengers and freight can travel without changing trains, the better the service.

In the South, the five-foot gauge was changed to standard (4 feet, 8 ½ inches) over two days in the summer of 1886.

Two days.

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Large gangs of track workers moved one of the rails on 13,000 miles of track. The operation – staggering in its scope – also required converting 1,800 locomotives and 40,000 coaches. Up until this time, trains heading in and out of the South had been subject of delays as their cars were lifted by hoists and attached to wheel sets of the right gauge.

The efforts of tens of thousands of workers over a momentous thirty-six-hour period on May 31-June 1, 1886 created – at last – a unified railroad for almost the whole United States.

Are there bottlenecks in your organization where converting to a “standard gauge” will bring tremendous growth opportunities?

Background material from The Great Railroad Revolution by Christian Wolmar