Raymond L. Wheeler

Musings about leadership

Dad: the First Missional Leader I Knew Well

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Hardly a day exhausts its wonders, challenges and opportunities that I don’t think of my dad.  I reflect on the lessons (implicit and explicit) he taught me about leadership. I often wish he was still here to talk with me about the lessons I have learned since his death and the insights I have gained from reflecting on his life.  I still find myself talking to him in my mind and at times I almost hear his response. Watching dad respond to his faith in Christ Jesus taught me to think of the church as a missional entity rather than an institution. Dad was a significant force in modeling this for me. Dad invested in me the propensity to go to research and empirical investigation to challenge my own assumptions then use that investigation as the ground for deeper theological reflection.  So, what did I learn from dad that has shaped my view of the church and its mission?

A missional church exercises curiosity and theological reflection. It was the 1960s and through a serious of events equal in absurdity to a Greek tragedy we had moved from the Missouri Lutheran church we attended to a different Lutheran church. The tragic part of the story is that the move was precipitated by a question I raised in Sunday school.  After hearing the story of Elijah, I wondered why similar miraculous events did not occur today. The question raised a ruckus my first grade mind did not comprehend.  After a lively discussion with the pastor in the hall outside the classroom dad motioned for me to join him. He gathered my brothers and mom and announced that we would find a new church. Dad’s action signaled that I had permission to ask questions and think critically about faith and more importantly that he was willing to defend my curiosity.  The willingness to think critically about faith and its application to the present is the beginning of renewal. Without curiosity history degrades to dead tradition and nothing more than an idealized myth detached from meaning in the present. The author of Hebrews admonishes us to exercise curiosity in theological reflection, “Remember your leaders, those who spoke the word of God to you; consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith.” (Heb. 13:7)

A missional church uses the scripture as a starting point and a standard of action. The move to a different congregation was providential. Dad and mom started attending a class on Wednesday evenings. The class was a study through the Bible that familiarized dad with the scope of God’s work in history.  The class acted as a catalyst to new questions.  For example dad and other men found James 5:14, “Is any one among you afflicted – ill treated, suffering evil? He should call the in the church elders – the spiritual guides. And they should pray over him, anointing him with oil in the Lord’s name.  And the prayer [that is] of faith will save him that is sick, and the Lord will restore him; and if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven.” (AMP). “Why don’t we do this?” The question started a new time of prayer during which pastor Andy and these men did what was recommended. What’s more when they prayed for the sick some were healed and set free.  The results became catalytic to new exercises of prayer among the entire congregation. It is one thing to state belief it is quite another to act on that belief.

A missional church engages the community. Dad always had friends and we always had people over to the house.  Games, conversation and spirited discussions were part of our family heritage.  Dad’s investigation of the scripture and what it meant to be a Christian changed the tenor of the conversations. I was typically sent to bed before the real conversation started. However, I often snuck into the hallway off the living room to listen to the discussion. I listened to conversations with students and leaders from all over the world talk about their experience with God and their stories of transformation. We hosted evangelistic teams (each Easter week a dozen or more college men slept in our garage which was transformed to a dorm room each year), dad and mom loved their neighbors and simply engaged in conversation that often lead to discussions of faith.  Dad was not plastic in these discussions he was always just himself. Jesus said, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’; and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ ” (Luke 10:27) Being missional was not odd for dad; he simply loved his neighbors.

A missional church engages prayer like it makes a difference.  The Easter outreaches exposed dad to Bill Bright and the ministry of campus crusade.  I still remember the trek we took from Costa Mesa to Arrowhead (former headquarters of Campus Crusade). “What do you think about living here?” dad asked.  Hey the mountains were awesome I was fine with it. For the next several weeks every night after dinner dad cleared the dining room table after dinner and work on his application to Campus Crusade.  I watched him pray and struggle over the decision. I had no real grasp of the issues he wrestled with as he prayed about joining the staff of Campus Crusade. But something soaked in about involving prayer in my deepest personal decisions.  Praying for direction with an expectation of clarity was not an esoteric exercise thrown up against the wall of heaven’s doors with the hope it would stick.  Dad engaged a more deliberate process. Dad prayed like prayer made a difference in reality and in his decision process. The words of Jesus seemed clear. Jesus said, “If you believe, you will receive whatever you ask for in prayer.” (Mat. 21:22)  Ultimately he determined that Campus Crusade was not the direction he needed to go.  Shortly after that we moved from Southern California to Southern Oregon.  Dad became a professor who influenced hundreds of students each year as they prepared for careers in engineering. Dad’s influence as a leader included international students, local organizations and clubs – even the yacht club.  Not only did dad show me the power of prayer but he demonstrated the reality of ministry in the work place.

A missional church does not take itself too seriously – but is clear about its mission. As I entered school and engaged school rules and bureaucracies dad pulled me aside one day for a father son chat.  “Ray, one thing you will learn about organizations is that rules are meant to be broken.” Dad wasn’t talking about living as though morality was passé.  Dad was clarifying the difference between effectiveness and mindless compliance. Simply put, organizations sometimes become their own worst enemies.  As an Air force officer dad experienced the difference between effectiveness and mindless compliance many times.  He respected those leaders who knew when bucking the system was appropriate.  “But, if you break the rules and get caught take responsibility and own your punishment.” This piece of advice was some of the best leadership advice I ever received.  The idea of taking responsibility for one’s actions is absent in practice at times within the church. If leaders in the church exercise as much clarity about their mission as they do clarity about the need to comply with their rules and regulations they might unleash a world changing revolution of faith. When the disciples reported the impact of their efforts Jesus reminded them about the important stuff, “However, do not rejoice that the spirits submit to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven.” At that time Jesus, full of joy through the Holy Spirit, said, “I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children. Yes, Father, for this is what you were pleased to do.” (Luke 10:20-21)  Recognizing the real priorities and accepting responsibility for one’s actions seems very much in line with being a child to whom God has entrusted a clear mission.

A missional church lives a lifestyle of repentance. I packed my wife and children into the car and drove to see dad.  I was well into my first pastorate and needed some time to talk with dad about the leadership issues I was going through.  I opened the refrigerator at dad’s and noticed something different. I could not put my finger on it at first.  I stared harder at the contents.  “Dad,” I called out, “where’s the beer?”  As I asked the question I realized that I had not seen a cigarette in dad’s mouth when I walked in.  “I quit smoking and drinking.” A head of foam and cigarette smoke were iconic symbols of dad to me.  Dad explained that smoking was killing him (something I had said to him for years) and God had asked him to stop.  What about the beer?  Well that too was gone for the moment so dad could focus on what God was saying to him.  Repentance is the other side of taking responsibility.  Repentance is both an admission of error and a change in behavior.  Dad modeled repentance in his usual engineering precision.  It was a simple case of realizing he was wrong and needed to make an adjustment. So, he did. Sometimes I find leaders are too invested in their persona to actually allow God to work on their person. Proverbs makes an amazing statement about repentance, “Repent at my rebuke! Then I will pour out my thoughts to you, I will make known to you my teachings.” (Pr. 1:23 – NIV)  Repentance is what dad was doing. In the months that followed I saw the impact of dad’s actions – he gained insight into God’s thoughts.

A missional church lives accountably to itself and the world around it. I loved going to breakfast with the men who were dad’s friends. Dad met with a small group of men to talk about faith, to pray for one another and to encourage one another. Those breakfast meetings amazed me.   I heard these men talk about their struggles, ask hard questions of one another, cry together, love one another, tease one another and laugh with one another. I learned the importance of being transparently accountable. These men talked about learning from their encounters with others at work, their wives, their colleagues.  They modeled what I call a transparent accountability because it extended to every venue in which they lived and worked. Sometimes I see accountability groups as little more than carefully choreographed posturing that has little to do with reality. When Paul instructed Timothy on what to look for in leaders he affirmed the importance of transparent accountability, “He must also have a good reputation with outsiders, so that he will not fall into disgrace and into the devil’s trap.” (1 Tim. 3:7)   It turns out that the world around us can decide if we are legitimate in faith or not.  Too many Christian leaders act as though they are exempt from the verdict of relationships outside the church. Nothing could be further from the truth.

I miss my dad. He had a way of helping me get to the heart of things quickly. He taught me something about being missional. Today when I teach, coach, consult and encourage I think of dad. When I resigned my last congregation the first words out of dad’s mouth every time we visited was “when are you returning to full time ministry?”  I would always answer, “Dad, I never left I just changed jobs.” He would smile and the conversation would move on.  Who better to teach me what it means to be “full time” in serving Christ than my dad.  Missional churches understand that “full time” is not a job designation it is a relationship with Christ.  Jesus said it this way, “I am the light of the world. Whoever followme will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” (John 8:12)  Thanks dad for helping me discover the light of life.

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Author: Ray Wheeler, DMin

Ray Wheeler - executive coach, confidant, mentor, leader, and friend. Ray is the author of, Change the Paradigm: How to Lead Like Jesus in Today's world. He is also an adjunct lecturer at LIFE Pacific College, Bethesda University California and Azusa Pacific University in cross-cultural leadership, leadership development, leadership ethics, administration, church growth, and mission in today's world. Certified leadership coach, certified Birkman Consultant, and certified in the iOpener Assessment (happiness at work).

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