Raymond L. Wheeler, DMin

Musings about leadership

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why I almost left the evangelicals

evangelicalI have had a growing discomfort with the label “evangelical” particularly in the current environment of its more nationalistic, right leaning, personality cult here in the United States that issues propositions that overtly contradict the message of Jesus Christ. I have struggled with how closely the current western evangelical world reflects the world of German Christianity pre-World War II as described by Bonhoeffer. Bonhoeffer, and others more recently, decried the church’s inability to adequately address the abuses and distortions of hyper-nationalism he labeled rooted in static thinking.

“…static thinking is, theologically speaking, legalistic thinking….Where the worldly establishes itself as an autonomous sector, this denies the fact of the world’s being accepted in Christ, the grounding of the reality of the world in revelations reality, and there by the validity of the gospel for the whole world. The world is not perceived as reconciled by God in Christ but as a domain that is still completely subject to the demands of Christianity, or, in turn, as a sector that opposes its own law against the law of Christ. Where, on the other hand, what is Christian comes on the scene as an autonomous sector, the world is denied the community God has formed with it in Christ. A Christian law that condemns the law of the world is established here, and is led, unreconciled into battle against the world that God has reconciled to himself. As ever legalism flows into lawlessness, every nomism into antinomianism, every perfection into libertinism, So here as well. A world existing on its own, withdrawn from the law of Christ, falls prey to the severing of all bonds and to arbitrariness. A Christianity that withdraws from the world falls prey to unnaturalness, irrationality, triumphalism, and arbitrariness.”[1] (Emphasis mine.)

The so called culture wars engaged by evangelicalism has launched a battle against the world God has reconciled to God’s self with the result that evangelicals are often at a loss as to how to love their neighbor, demonstrate deliverance and healing, or walk with the wounded toward Christ because they are too busy decrying the world’s moral turpitude while ignoring their own moral impieties. There are times I have wanted to simply stop the evangelical merry go round and disembark to find a faith that exercises a practice of grace, intellectual reflection, repentance, and effective community engagement. I’m done with calls to support a particular political party or policy stands as authentication of my evangelical credentials, silence in the face of absurd parallelisms between our current president and biblical characters. I overtly reject the premise that recognizes the current president of the United States as the most Godly and biblical president I can expect to see in my life time.[2]

I ran across a book by Richard J. Mouw, former president of Fuller Theological Seminary (my alma mater) titled, Restless Faith: holding evangelical beliefs in a world of contested labels. Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2019. Dr. Mouw asserts there are good reasons for keeping the label and not allowing rightist forces to co-opt it. My respect for Dr. Mouw’s scholarship and faith gave me pause to consider an alternative to leaving the evangelical fold and to work toward a revitalization of how we think. What follows is a summary of his main points.

Mouw grounds his definition of evangelical in David Bebbington’s four-part definition;

  • we believe in the need for conversion – making a personal commitment to Christ as Savior and Lord;
  • we hold to the Bible’s supreme authority – the sola scripture theme of the reformation;
  • we emphasize a cross-centered theology – at the heart of the gospel is the atoning work of Jesus on the cross of Calvary;
  • we insist on an active faith – not just Sunday worship, but daily discipleship

However, these four distinguishing marks need to be qualified. Mouw sees the need for a common theological label that differentiates the essential distinguishing marks from other branches of Christianity. Diagnosing the root of the challenge of how evangelicalism has been co-opted by right wing political agendas results in several hypotheses. Mouw quotes New York Times columnist Ross Douthat who sees the evangelical community is breaking apart in part because of a gap between evangelical intellectuals and the millions who worship in evangelical churches. Douthat writes,

“It could be that the views and attitudes on display in the recent support for rightist causes has really been there all along, without much of an interest in the kinds of intellectual-theological matters that have preoccupied the elites. If so, the elites will eventually go off on their own, leaving behind an evangelicalism that is ‘less intellectual, more partisan, more racially segregated’ – a movement that is in reality ‘not all that greatly changed’ from what it has actually been in the past.”[3]

Mouw doubts Douthat’s scenario. I don’t agree per se with Douthat’s characterization of thoughtful evangelicals as elites but I do agree that anti-intellectual and isolationist influences in evangelicalism have often diluted our effectiveness and placed us on the wrong side of social justice issues and in contradiction of missio Dei. The proponents of a cultural interpretation of evangelicalism (evidenced in the so-called culture wars) has made segments of the evangelical world more like syncretism than contextualism here in the west.

With an implied nod to the potential of syncretism, Mouw notes that none of us can claim to rightly have a Christian worldview. Rather he moves from a noun to a gerund i.e., the practice of Christian “worldviewing”. He commends the process of reflection as the Word illumines our way. In a proper sense evangelicalism has been in a slow process of deliberate and implied deconstruction of its assumptions about church life, community engagement, appropriate lifestyles etc., in response to the work of the Holy Spirit.

Mouw amplifies Bebbington’s concise definition through his own history of development as an evangelical. The main points that follow emerge from a combination of chapters which center around his major themes. Mouw’s insights provide a much clearer demarcation for defining evangelical over against either fundamentalism (which he doesn’t overtly define) and right leaning political persuasions.

  1. Evangelical means critically engaging faith. Raised in a fundamentalist setting that was heavy in anti-intellectualism, Mouw’s first engagement with exercising careful theological reflection was a book by Bernard Ram, A Christian View of Science and the Scripture the book spoke to his intellectual curiosity based on reason and faithHis exploration of Ram, Henry, and others in an emerging cadre of intellectuals of faith set the stage for his conclusion that he didn’t have to choose between intellect and faith. He engages a restless faith i.e., one that is willing to explore precritical ideas through the lens of a postcritical set of data and careful thinking.[4]
  2. Evangelical means believing the authority of the Scripture and doing the hermeneutical work needed to understand what it says. Mouw’s hermeneutics follows that proposed by Edward John Carnell (1959) and his presentation of the progressive revelation of the scriptures i.e., “…first the New Testament interprets the Old Testament; secondly, the Epistles interpret the gospels; thirdly, systematic passages interpret the incidental; fourthly, universal passages interpret the local; fifthly, didactic passages interpret the symbolic.” (32) A recent work by Volf and Croasmun add depth to what proper hermeneutical work is for me. They note that productive theological integration of various disciplines relies on a biblically rooted, patristically guided, ecclesially located, and publicly engaged theology, done in critical conversation with the sciences and the various disciplines of the humanities, at the center of which is the question of the flourishing life. In my observation many evangelicals do not know how to think theologically hence the move toward a fundamentalist populism that has conflated culture and the gospel.[5]
  3. Evangelical means possessing a historical grounding. “We evangelicals have inherited much from believers who ‘over time and across circumstances’ have been faithful to the gospel. When we fail to nurture those memories we can easily get caught up in ‘skimming over surfaces.’”(38) Mouw doesn’t recommend pure nostalgia, it is important to remember mistakes as well as successes – to be honest and transparent in our reflection of history so that the lessons we should carry forward are not lost in the tyranny of the urgent nor the tyranny of success and its pursuit. I add that it is helpful to read outside reflections on evangelical history as well. I found Frances Fitzgerald’s book, The Evangelicals: the struggle to shape America (2017) a helpful historical lens.
  4. Evangelicals are clear about sin in a way that avoids the trap of our self-actualization culture that sidesteps the work of the Holy Spirit on one hand and dwelling on guilty self-hood in a way that is inimical to spiritual flourishing on the other. How to engage this tension is a function of contextualization that takes seriously Hiebert’s concept of the excluded middle i.e., those issues about how we live out faith in the face of the systemic issues and challenges such as the sickness of a child, hunger, life threatening natural disasters etc. Hiebert’s concept makes room for the supernatural in facing these challenges and deals honestly with the limitations of the west’s scientific worldview in understanding the full scope of the good news of Jesus Christ.
  5. Evangelicals sing in worship and express reverence and mystery in lyrics and physical response such as the raising of hands. Communal worship is a hall mark of evangelicalism and serves as a collective theological memory in poetry and affirmation of faith. The hymnody (past and present) of evangelicalism is a significant part of theology as a mystery discerning exercise rather than a problem-solving exercise. (96) It is here that some of the messiness of theological reflection occurs. Evangelicals are not comfortable with messiness although an emerging cadre of theologians (men and women) are helping bridge the conversations we need to have on mystery. I have found it helpful to retain relationships with the liturgical traditions I grew up in who often have a much better handle on mystery.
  6. Evangelicals approach the communication of faith in a neighborly dialogue that reflects an outworking of Hiebert’s bounded and centered sets that simultaneously summons others to faith in Christ (belief as a boundary) while also observing the direction of their search (towards or away from Christ) regardless of their cultural and personal distance from Christ. This does not minimize careful accounts of doctrine but does so in a posture of empathetic learning. Hiebert’s conceptualization of centered and bounded sets was revolutionary for me. It gave me a way to reflect theologically on why I don’t approach the world with expectations that they behave like Christians before they meet Christ. I start with where they are and help and encourage their movement toward Christ and toward faith. The bounded set approach (read legalistic approach) that makes the world an enemy to be defeated only shows up the hypocrisy of withdrawal from the community around us. In every case I have see evangelicals withdraw from their community to avoid “sin” I have seen them ultimate end up in a concentrated expression of sins that nullify their calls for morality.
  7. Evangelicals expect “…regenerated hearts and minds to be clear about the truth. Confused theology – to say nothing of outright theological error – can cause serious damage in the life and mission of the church.” (116) Mouw finds challenges in both the Religious Right and conciliar ecumenism. There are issues that need fierce conversations (to borrow a phrase from Susan Scott) because they are core to the mission of God, in these evangelicals cannot be content to simply agree to disagree. But evangelicals cannot be content with division as usual, the priestly prayer of Jesus that we would be one summons us to find areas of common ground, to remnants engaged in relationships that require fierce conversations and to do so in the Character of Christ. “We need to be perplexed together. We need to rediscover the humility to be puzzled, the courage to engage the ambiguities and conundrums in our texts and look to each other to find the flashes and refractions of answers in places we least expect them.” (123)
  8. Evangelicals engage the public sphere as an active presence embodying biblical flourishing. The challenge in the rise of the religious right is that its engagement in social-political life is not particularly clear about what it means to be biblically faithful in its approach. Culture war mentality is a wrong-headed tactic. Much of evangelicalism has lost (or never had) Neo-Calvinist perspective of common grace i.e., that in the thoughts of pagan thinkers there is a strain of truth from God rooted in imago Dei. That the human mind though fallen is gifted by God and to refuse to accept truth produced by such minds is to dishonor the Spirit of God. (131) This recognizes that God never ceases God’s work among people – God’s Providence is active toward all people. In recognizing that the depravity of sin “…is total – it affects all aspects of our lives…is not the same as affirming absolute depravity – the teaching that every thought and deed of the sinful heart and mind is worthless in the sight of God.”[6] (142) In discussing the relationship of activism to government Mouw rejects the notion that all government authority is de facto faithful to its biblical mandate and ergo to be passively or actively supported. Evil, such as demonstrated by Hitler and the Nazis is to be rightly opposed. Mouw takes Paul’s words in Romans 13 as normative behavior for government, but where this norm fails resistance to evil is appropriate. In following Christ, we neither need to withdraw from or take over in exercising our influence.
  9. Evangelicals are committed to the importance of a personal (individual) faith in Jesus Christ. Though we recognize that individual salvation is not enough; the church must collectively address issues of injustice and public morality. Every person lives life coram deo e., before the face of God. This sobering reality of knowing and being known by God is not reducible to individualism but is a call to responsible community so that as God loves us, we love one another. It is also a call to confront evil expressed in “isms” which are already defeated in Christ e.g., racism, sexism, legalism etc.

Mouw takes up the work of wresting the name, “evangelical” away from those who have co-opted it in order to amplify the best theological heritage it represents. He is committed in the process to the reformed moto of ecclesia reformata semper reformanda. He does not propose a passive stasis or nostalgia, but active pursuit of God in fullness and truth.

I see the deconstruction about church life, community engagement, and appropriate lifestyles mentioned by Mouw as emanating from two forces. The first is a syncretism with the context of the United States. In this direction the evangelical assumptions about itself have become more and more comfortable with its equivalence to American exceptionalism and nationalism.  The second is a deconstruction emanating from the work of the Holy Spirit challenging culture assumptions that draws the church into a clearer reflection of the ministry of Christ. The later is where I place the discussion of Mouw who himself reflects a maturing of perspective that results from his engagement with the word and the spirit of God.

I found a heuristic in Mouw’s book that gives me direction on how to retain a personal integrity in claiming to be evangelical and a basis on which to challenge the misuse of the word by those who co-opt “evangelical” for their political agenda. May God grant us the grace and love to be the church Jesus calls us to be in the world.

[1] Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. (2009) Ethics: Dietrich Bonhoeffer works volume 6. Clifford J. Green ed. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 60-61.

[2] Source: https://www.minnpost.com/eric-black-ink/2019/04/on-michele-bachmann-and-her-view-of-trumps-godliness/; Accessed 26 June 2019.

[3] Mouw 2019:10.

[4] Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. (2009) Ethics: Dietrich Bonhoeffer works volume 6. Clifford J. Green ed. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press. Bonhoeffer again makes a important contribution. The opposite of a critically engaged faith is any one of the inadequate options identified by Bonhoeffer that oppose formation: Reason which cannot grasp the abyss of holiness or the abyss of evil; Fanaticism which assumes that the power of evil can be faced with purity of the will and principle; Conscience which attempts to fend off the power of superior predicaments only to be torn apart and settle for an assuaged versus good conscience to keep from despairing; Personal freedom that values necessary action over untarnished conscience, fruitful compromise over barren principle, or radicalism over barren wisdom of a middle way consent to bad to avoid the worse unable to recognize that the worse they seek to avoid may be the better one; Private virtuousness that does good according to abilities but necessarily renounces public life in the self-deception necessary to remain lean from the stain of responsible action in the world. “In all that they do, what they fail to do will not let them rest.” (80)

[5] Miroslav Wolf and Matthew Coasmun. (2019) For the Life of the World: theology that makes a difference. Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 82.

[6] Miroslav Wolf and Matthew Croasmun. (2019) For the Life of the World: theology that makes a difference. Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 69. “The image of the home of God as an abiding relation between God and the world fits well with two great images bookend the Bible. Both are images of the creations’ wholeness and flourishing. …the verdant garden (Gen. 2:4-3:22)…the thriving (and verdant) city (Rev. 21:1-22:7).” This integration and the point of human flourishing as a result of relationship with God is a theme amplified by Wolf and Croasmun that illustrates integration and common grace.


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spider web theology

spider webIt is known in my family, who find it simultaneously comical and comforting, that I don’t tolerate spiders or their webs. I even have a special broom that allows me to circumnavigate the house outside and inside destroying the vestiges of arachnid existence. I don’t mind the existence of spiders in the woods around our home, but I do mind when they invade my space. If I see a spider, I immediately dispatch it to its heavenly home.

On one afternoon after I had washed the windows, I lay down on the couch with a cool drink to relish the beauty around me now made more visible by the clean windows. Our home has a 360-degree view and that means a lot of windows some of which are on the wall near the top of our vaulted ceiling.

Movement caught my eye in the highest window. There, in plain sight and apparent disregard for the work I had just completed in removing all webs prior to washing the windows, an orb spider was busy re-spinning its lunch ticket. I watched it work, a painstaking and exacting process and it started me thinking.

I routinely destroy webs and spiders routinely re-spin them. Yet, I have never heard a complaint by said spiders. Re-spinning damaged or destroyed webs is part of their process of survival – stuff happens. I thought about my own responses to setbacks, as losing a web is surely a setback for arachnid survival. I often expended far more emotional energy than is needed when I face setbacks. Rather than simply rebuilding my “web” I complain, bemoan my misfortune, lament the added workload, and on occasion engage in passionate “intercessory” prayer. My eight-legged friend simply does the work of re-spinning.

Jesus once said,

I have said this to you, so that in me you may have peace. In the world you face persecution, affliction, distress, pressure. But take courage; I have conquered the world! (John 16:33, Wheeler expanded NIV)

The fact of the matter is that affliction, distress, pressure, and even persecution, sabotage, and setbacks are a normal course. Jesus gives a frame of reference regarding distress that is: the perspective from which we assess life events determines (a) whether they can serve a positive formative purpose and (b) the degree to which we recognize the working of God who is given to contradicting injustice, hurt, despair, oppression, and the afflictions of the human condition.

In a spider’s world, Murphy was right. If anything can go wrong, it will. In our world, the same is true. In fact, I have determined a corollary to Murphy i.e., if its bad it can get worse. In light of this, perspective is important. Given the very real suffering, sabotage, setbacks, and even persecution we may face we are promised peace. Peace is that security or tranquility that is the foundation for flourishing that comes from the reality that the systemic roots of evil and corruption are already defeated in the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. Jesus has overcome the systemic roots (the world in a systems sense). We are therefore called upon to engage behavior that contradicts the hurt of set-backs. I like the summary of womanist theologian Karen Baker-Fletcher;

The significance of Christ’s response to weapons of evil is not a passive bearing of it all, but is God’s profound “NO” to evil. In following Jesus, we participate in the divine “no” to evil and suffering. For these reasons, it makes sense to follow Jesus while also challenging an adulterous relationship with world power, greed, and violence.[1]

In watching that spider rebuild its web that day I realized it served as an eight-legged evangelist to me reminding me that things I see as a setback are not only predictable but powerful in that they serve to form and shape my development as a person who flourished in life not because I live in an artificial environment but because I have a sense of well-being and purpose that sees what God is up to even in the mundane and enjoys that fellowship with the Almighty that says “No” to evil and suffering and “Yes” to a flourishing and abundant life.


[1] Karen Baker-Fletcher. (2006) Dancing with God: The Trinity from a Womanist Perspective. St. Louis, MO: Chalice Press.

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Ethics – its not just a theory

Introduction – What Comprises a Theology of Ethics?

man hugging a woman wearing black tank top

Living an integrated faith

It is easy for ethical models to be disconnected from real life. James McClendon is one of many who have worked on creating ethical models that exercise a theology of ethical decision-making. McClendon (1986) writes that to be truly distinctive as Christian ethics – talking about morality must correlate with the fact that we are “. . . (1) part of the natural order, organic beings, bodies in an organic continuum, God’s natural creation; but also (2) part of a social world that is constituted first by the corporate nature of Christian existence, the church, and thereby our share in human society, God’s social creation, as well; and (3) part of an eschatological realm, the kingdom of God, the ‘new world’ (καινή κτίσις) established by God’s resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth from the dead.”[1]

McClendon summarizes these three strands as:[2]

  • body– we live in a body and so its desires and needs are not in themselves a problem but a blessing and a way to interface with our surroundings.
  • social – life finds meaning both in its connection to others and ultimately in our share in Christ’s story
  • resurrection – makes it inescapably clear that the story is to be marked with incalculable surprises. It summons us to a deeper engagement with our context not on the basis of known rules but on an eschatological basis that looks for the work of God’s promise that is unconfined by the way things appear to be.

In thinking through his theology, McClendon seeks to avoid a compartmentalized view of ethical thinking that often characterizes the way Christians behave ethically. Hence his efforts at explaining the interconnectedness of body, social, and resurrection realities in ethical thinking. He reinforces his project noting that:

…Paul was not willing to reduce Christian ethics to the third strand by denying the contributions of nature and of the storied community to the Christian situation – he was not willing to reject strands one and two in order to capitalize on the Christian strand.[3](258)

McClendon desires a theology on ethics to serve as a mirror that can confront the church with her potential convictions to ask whether she recognizes herself as she must be rather than how she is. In reading the case below, keep this challenge in mind. How would you answer the question raised by my former student? In what ways does my answer keep the recognition of how the church can be in body, social, and resurrection perspectives rather than simply recognizing how the Church is? What changes would you make to my answer? What aspects of the question did I not address?

The Case

Dr. Wheeler,

Sorry to reach out suddenly but I got some serious question that I just don’t know how to answer. A Friend of mine recently came to me and told me that his close friend (of whom he had feeling for but never expressed and grew into a brother sister love) came to him and asked him to sponsor her; meaning to marry her for papers. I don’t know how to answer this.[4]

He says that he’s only considering it because he wants to help her. He feels that as long as it’s done through city hall that he wouldn’t feel like it’s done officially under God and maybe they might grow to love each other seeing as they are close and if not he’s ok with it.

What are your opinions?

I feel that a marriage is a marriage and if he goes with it it’s under God. So, divorce shouldn’t even be an option, but I don’t know.

All feedback is very appreciated on this delicate subject.


An Analysis


Your friend is working under a false premise. An agreement founded on fraud Is fraught with multiple challenges.

First, he must lie to immigration about the true status of his relationship with his friend. The act is illegal designed to serve no good purpose. It can’t be justified in any ethical model.

Second, he must lie to himself by justifying his action – here by what you shared, his justification is the possibility of a healthy relationship. The odds are slim that a healthy relationship can be built on such a flimsy foundation. How does one build a foundation for the transparency, vulnerability, and repentance needed to build intimacy by working to maintain a lie?

Third he must lie to his friend. Does he desire sexual intimacy, emotional intimacy, and spiritual intimacy with his wife? Has he explained this desire to his friend? Or is he willing to forego sexual, emotional, and spiritual intimacy for the sake of her ambition? If he simply goes along with the plan he is lying to her. Or worse, will they simply hook up out of convenience? In this case they not only lie to one another about what they want, they violate a true covenant of marriage by passing off physical intimacy as irrelevant because they weren’t really married. Paul warned the Thessalonians against this kind of violation of others.

Fourth he must lie to his family or involve them in his deception. Either choice is a moral lapse.

Fifth, he must lie to the church by either declaring he is married or denying it.

Sixth, and most seriously, he must lie to God. His rationale that a civil marriage is not a real marriage before God is the first lie. How does one justify violation of law, family, friends, or the church?

So, agreeing to this action is illegal, he puts his own status at risk as well as hers. The act is unethical in that it is filled with deceit that only has caustic consequences in all his relationships not just the direct relationship with his friend.

So, I agree with your assessment – the idea isn’t just bad, it is spiritually, morally, and relationally destructive.



Why is ethical/theological reflection so important? McClendon cuts to the chase in his question of whether the church she recognizes herself as she must be rather than how she is. The absence of ethical reflection and action by the church yields behaviors that contradict the hope and the message of the church and this results in behaviors that are destructive and toxic. The community around us has no reason to consider the hope of the good news found in Jesus Christ if there is functionally little or no difference between our behavior and the behavior of anyone else.

The questions and issues I raised in writing my former student are not exhaustive. There are certainly other questions that are theologically appropriate to ask. There are other ethical models that would ask completely different questions e.g., individual utilitarianism. However, the context of the question arose in the behavior of the church and as such demands an approach that considers the issues raised by McClendon.

How well have you thought through your ethical model?

[1] James Wm. McClendon, Jr. Ethics: Systematic Theology Volume 1. Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1986, 66.

[2] McClendon 231-232.

[3] Idib 258

[4] In case this is not clear, this is a request rooted in the process of immigration.

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Are You a High-Capacity or High-Activity Leader?

iStock_000056636476_LargeI sat with friends of mine, both of whom are highly capable leaders in an international non-profit organization. Over the course of our conversation, they described their weariness and exhaustion as it relates to the demands of their current assignment. I listened to their story and noted that they danced around the subject of their director. They were careful to express their respect for their director whom they described as a high-capacity leader. What intrigued me in the conversation was the mixed messages I heard. On the one hand, they expressed frustration with their director over his consistent micro-management and unfinished initiatives. Every couple of weeks seemed to render a new “strategic” initiative that demanded everyone’s attention. Each new initiative had little connection to the one before it and never took into account the expenditure of financial and human resources needed to accomplish it. I could not make out a grand plan or objective in any of the initiatives they described.  On the other hand, they praised his high capacity for vision and initiative. They spoke in lofty terms about how he worked on a minimum of three devices at once and endured a grueling seven day a week schedule. They described him as warm and caring and committed. Then they described him as manipulative and domineering.

I began to ask what made this person a high-capacity leader in their minds. They described him as a man who:

  • Possesses high energy that engages a wide scope of tasks and generates a never-ending list of assignments and expectations for his team. He texts each of them numerous times every hour and after hours with ideas and assignments.
  • Demonstrates low awareness of other’s emotional needs. In fact, they described a person who minimizes others’ feelings and the challenges they face.
  • Exhibits a highly imaginative yet episodic vision casting. They described an imagination that bordered on fantasy – ideas were disconnected from the context and the challenges inherent in them.
  • Generates a trail of burned out senior leaders who leave the organization disillusioned and hurt.
  • Engenders high turnover among junior staff and leaders.
  • Manipulates calls to action through questions of loyalty frequently expressed in the question, “Will you support me?”
  • Task focused recruitment filling existing jobs and seeing people through the lens of their task contribution rather than their entire contribution to the organization.
  • Creates a culture of shame and guilt.
  • Is a gifted communicator.
  • Rarely debriefs with his senior staff and when this does occur it is expressed with minimal transparency.
  • Exercises defensive reasoning – problems and consequences are not his responsibility, instead, blame is assigned to staff and the quality of their loyalty.
  • Episodically warm and affirming – when he is not demanding performance and loyalty.
  • Has lost connection to his wife and family.

As we talked I wrote out the list above and then read it back to my friends.

“Oh no,” they said, “he is a godly spirit-filled man. One of the highest capacity leaders we have ever met.”

“Do you mean high capacity or high activity?” I asked. “The two are not the same” I suggested.

One of the most damaging kinds of leaders I come across is high-activity leaders who mistakenly assume that the more tasks they generate the more leader-like they appear. This kind of leader assumes that long hours are the same as effectiveness in leading. They expect others to work like they do and to be constantly available for the leader’s needs. I suggested to my friends that their director was in fact addicted to his own adrenaline and that the cost to their organization would not only be the talent drain they described but the woundedness the organization would ultimately generate when people saw outcomes that contradicted the mission of the organization.

“Let me contrast a high-capacity leader for you,” I said. “If capacity is the ability and power to do or understand something, then a high-capacity leader is a person who assists her organization in accomplishing a greater scope of outcomes that align with the mission of the organization. The high-capacity leaders I know have the impact of not only increasing outcomes but also of attracting greater resources.”

I started writing out the following list of characteristics I’d observed in high-capacity leaders:

  • A strategic focus on the kinds of tasks that must be engaged to achieve the desired outcomes. A high-capacity leader defines delegation and exhibits energy management. They have an enormous capacity for output that they follow-up with time for rejuvenation and they make room for both output and rejuvenation in all their team.
  • They demonstrate self-awareness in their emotions, self-confidence, and self-assessment and they exhibit social awareness in consideration of others’ emotional well-being.
  • They are highly imaginative and ground their imagination with a thorough awareness of the facts of their situation. They don’t deny challenges they recognize them and help their team generate strategies to address them.
  • They bring focus and inspirational purpose to their organization.
  • They have a history of producing high-capacity talent around them. This is in part a function of recruitment and more a deliberate investment in the capabilities and development of others. They attract the best and they openly appreciate them.
  • Their teams are characterized by low turnover and deliberate turnover. By that I mean they routinely give up their best people to take wider responsibilities in the organization.
  • They are motivational – they know what their people’s personal goals and ambitions are and they have a knack for integrating those ambitions into the organization’s objectives.
  • They are people focused when recruiting – they know that if they get the right people the tasks of the organization will be maximized creatively.
  • They develop a learning culture in which people are not afraid to make mistakes and take a risk.
  • They routinely debrief with their staff engaging them in a broader analysis of the organization and its context. Transparency is king for this leader because he wants his team to know the score.
  • They may not be a warm person but they are consistently appreciative of others and recognize jobs well done.
  • Their families are intact – they tend to have long-term marriages and share abiding intimacy with their spouse.

“Hmm,” my friends pondered my list and the contrast to the characteristics they described in their director. “We never saw this before,” they finally uttered.

I put the two lists side by side and the contrast between a high-task and a high-capacity leader jumped off the page.

“I’m not sure your definitions are reliable,” they suggested.

“I am open to rearranging the list and changing definitions,” I responded. “However, let’s start with outcomes, do you disagree in the outcomes I have listed for a high-task leader in that they damage their family, exhibit high turn-over, are abandoned by disillusioned senior leaders?” I queried.

“No,” they responded, “when we look at our director’s life and outcomes we can’t disagree with the description.”

The question that resonated with my friends was what kind of leader they would choose to be and whether there was a way to help their director see the contrast. Change, especially where high-task leaders have framed their identity around what they do rather than who they are, is difficult. It is part of what drives them to reaffirm their identity by adding more tasks. The sad part is that they often don’t see how toxic they have become to those around them.

What question resonates in your mind? Are you a high-capacity leader? Or, have you somehow exchanged true effectiveness for busy-work?  Look honestly at the outcomes your life is generating – what do you see?

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Engage Diverse Populations – Be a Learner

Engaging diverse populations in the church both locally and globally predictably generates conflict. This is true from the first day of the church’s existence in Acts and remains so to this day. “In those days when the number of disciples was increasing, the Hellenistic Jews among them complained against the Hebraic Jews because their widows were being overlooked in the daily distribution of food.” (Acts 6:1 NIV) Such conflict arises out of competing loyalties, divergent assumptions, and contending values. Hence, I engage diverse populations with three primary commitments.

First, I have a commitment to remain present and curious. It is easy to withdraw at the first tension felt in engaging cultures that differ or even regional differences within the same culture. I have learned along the way to take a deep breath and stay in the discomfort long enough to learn what the other’s perspective is. Routinely I enter such situations, whether the classroom, a local congregation, or denominational or organizational governance body with a verbal commitment to be a learner. Typically the statement sounds something like this, “I see that we come to this meeting (or class) from a variety of perspectives. Given that, I make two commitments to you. First, I will be as clear as possible in my communication, please ask questions if I am unclear. Second, when it comes to understanding cultural or gender differences that exist between us I am your student. I can only know your perspective if you teach me. So, if I offend you, it is not intentional. It is ignorance that only you can help me understand and be aware of.”

Second, I have a commitment to recognize and encourage the capacity of the group I am meeting with to address their context and think through their challenges and solutions as a facilitator not a dictator. The apostles asked the Hellenistic Jews to identify their solution givers. The apostles did not select the deacons. They did provide a parameter that got the process of selection and then solution development going. Likewise in facing diverse populations I attempt to limit my input to helpful parameters or possibilities that the group must work through using their own assumptions, values, and allegiances. Assuming the capacity and capability of the group to engage the realities of the gospel in the context of their frame of reference works similarly to The Pygmalion Effect – the group rises to the occasion of my belief in them.

Third, and this is where I have experienced the best bonding and trust, I eat with them. It sounds amazingly simple – and it is. When I demonstrate respect for their culture by eating their food I join their social/familial network. I was once invited by my Pakistani neighbor to enjoy a meal with him and his family, all of whom were visiting from Pakistan. I faced predictable scrutiny and suspicion as a Christian among Muslims. Other than my host, everyone was very reserved until I dished up a serving of every course. I sat with the men who waited to see my response to the spiciest yogurt like dish. I took a big scoop with bread and meat (as I had seen them do) while an audible gasp rushed across the room. I opened my mouth popped the mixture in and munched with a smile of delight. The room broke into applause, smiles, and conversations started from every direction. 

The church is always diverse where people live out authentic faith – encountering cultural and ethnic diversity is unavoidable around the God who loves the world. Perhaps the best overall advise? Be child-like in your approach to learning. You don’t have to “have it all together.” You just have to be easily approachable and engaging.

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A theology of leadership: it always has a cultural context

cropped-addis-ababa-week-1-0581.jpgWhen thinking about leadership through a theological lens it helps to be aware of the impact of one’s worldview on the process. We don’t think in a vacuum but in the context of the values, allegiances, and assumptions that make up the core of our worldview. So, approaching a theological reflection on what constitutes leadership is a process that requires both self-awareness and humility.

A culture’s view of power distance, certainty/uncertainty, masculinity/femininity, time orientation, and individualism/collectivism represent the factors that make up cultural constructs of what constitutes leadership.[1] These cultural factors are implicit. A practical theology of leadership recognizes (1) the cultural differences that go into defining what appropriate leadership looks like and (2) the dissonance in perspective that is certain to follow the transformative work of the gospel. This transformative work in collaborating across worldviews works both ways necessitating the need for a strong self-awareness and willingness to learn about and from others prior to making generalizations about leadership effectiveness or ineffectiveness.

The New Testament often utilizes metaphors to lay a foundation for defining leadership. Peter, for example, writes, “I exhort the elders among you to tend the flock of God that is in your charge, exercising the oversight, not under compulsion but willingly, as God would have you do it – not for sordid gain but eagerly. Do not lord it over those in your charge, but be examples to the flock.” (1 Peter 5:1-3 NIV)

The use of the shepherd metaphor quickly identifies leadership as a servant role. Sure, a shepherd is in charge of sheep but her primary assignment is the care of sheep. Peter draws a picture that can challenge or affirm cultural factors that define leadership.

Some cultures maintain a strict hierarchical relationship or high power distance between follower and leader. Peter doesn’t argue the extent to which leaders and followers should relate in a peer or subordinate/superior relationship. He does insist that leaders not repress or deride their followers. I can walk onto a Korean campus and observe congregants bowing to their pastor. Is this appropriate from my cultural perspective? No, it’s surprising – even off-putting. However, in paying attention to the relationship I see the deep care and respect that is mutually given in this act. At issue isn’t the form but the transformation of values that inform the form.

Femininity/masculinity is also addressed. Who should lead? Can women lead men? The imagery of a shepherd is not restricted to male or female. Even in the Bible cultures varied in whether men or women cared for sheep. The point is that the imagery of Peter plays well to either male or female leadership roles and calls for the same approach to servant leadership in submission to God.

Good practical theology utilizes imagery as a starting point for insight amplified through cultural lenses that are both sufficient and incomplete. When cultures, even distinctly different cultures, approach the scripture with a heart to learning (the essence of discipleship), both can learn from the other and both will experience the affirmation and challenge of their cultural assumptions.

[1] Geert Hofstede. Culture’s Consequences: Comparing Values, Behaviors, Institutions, and Organizations Across Nations 2nd ed. Thousand Oaks, California: Sage Publications, 2001

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How the nature of relationship intersects with the organizational structure found in the local church

customersIt isn’t uncommon today to find remnants of the mindset of the industrial revolution in how the church thinks about structure. The mechanistic assumptions so predominate in business and non-commercial structures throughout the 20th century often seeped their way into church governance here in the west in the adoption of a corporate organizational authentication for tax purposes.  The emergence of the church growth movement contributed to this same mechanistic set of assumptions in that it often uncritically adopted effectiveness driven assumptions that placed relationships in a subordinate position to growth and self-preservation in the church. This propensity to mechanize organizational structures to gain efficiency and effectiveness fall short in that they stumble over the reality that people are involved. One business writer commented that a well-known shoe company’s heavy investment in TQM was undone by one guy in the order fulfillment department who purposely stuffed two right foot shoes or two left foot shoes in a single box. When asked why he was doing this he responded that his manager had treated him poorly and his actions were revenge because his manager’s bonus depended on consistently accurate order fulfillment.

Similarly, church leaders can tell their own stories about how one person’s or pastor’s vindictiveness held the entire organizational structure of a congregation hostage and leveraged a mechanistic structure to redefine reality or expectations of what the community of the church should be.

What makes the church so unique is that Jesus set the cornerstone of the church’s structure firmly in healthy relationships. Jesus said, “This is to my Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples. As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Now remain in my love. If you keep my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commands and remain in his love.” (John 15:8-10)

Jesus outlines the task (remain in love) and the outcome (bear fruit) that make up the parameters of the church’s organization. Based on what Jesus modeled, love (or the organizational structure of the local congregation) is characterized by truth-telling, forgiveness, support, instruction, insight, inquiry, missional focus, and developmental bias. Love is not an afterthought or optional component to the relationships Jesus expected of the disciples as they continued his ministry. Love and its characteristics are the core feature that determines the legitimacy of the church.

Relationships are not an intersection in the organizational structure of the church they are the constituting frame that allows for the diversity of gifting, outcomes, and methods inherent in the works of God operating through the church. Relationships define the church’s purpose and its method. For example: does the organization accept responsibility i.e., bear fruit as outlined in Luke 4:18-19? Does the organization evaluate its context and behavior with truthfulness? Does the organization generate restored relationships, maturing behavior, continuous insight into what God is doing? If relationships serve only to intersect with a structure that is built on some other foundation (e.g., mechanistic) then relationship fails to be the nucleus and becomes a secondary add-on that is not elemental to effective and efficient operational systems. Organizational structures that push relationships to a secondary status inevitably become toxic and a contradiction to missio Dei.

So, how do you functionally define the structure of your congregation? Perhaps it’s time to sit with your leadership team and review what makes the structure of your congregation really tick.