Saturday, August 30, 2008

Strengthening the Soul of Your Leadership

During the long, hot summers in Texas, I often need the refreshment of a big glass of cold water. And that’s exactly what Ruth Haley Barton’s Strengthening the Soul of Your Leadership offers to the leader who needs to be recharged. (Even if you don’t think you do, keep reading!)

“Strengthening the soul of our leadership is an invitation that begins, continues and ends with seeking God in the crucible of ministry.” These words from the final chapter summarize the central theme of the book. The chapters leading up to it paint a compelling picture of the fruitfulness and joy of leading from a healthy soul that is focused on God, and the risks of soul-less leadership in ministry.

Barton follows the story of Moses through chapters with titles such as “When Leaders Lose Their Souls,” “The Practice of Paying Attention,” “Living Within Limits,” “The Loneliness of Leadership,” and “Finding God’s Will Together.” She talks about her own journey, including struggles and victories. At times she challenges the reader to take stock and at other times she offers practical advice for refilling our souls. And at the end of each chapter, she offers a “practice” that will help readers to reflect on and apply the teaching they’ve just read.

I’m not one to read with a highlighter in hand, but within the first few pages I found myself thinking, “Oh, that’s good,” and marking a couple of sentences for future references. I kept going back to the highlighter as Barton kept taking me to places deep in my spirit with quotes such as:

There is real tension between what the human soul needs in order to be truly well and what life in leadership encourages and even requires.

If spiritual leadership is anything, it is the capacity to see the bush burning in the middle of our own life and having enough sense to turn aside, take off our shoes and pay attention!

Being this reliant on God for the actual outcome of things is a very edgy way to lead. We are much more accustomed to relying partly on God and partly on our own plans and thoughts if the issues at hand are really important.

As satisfying as teamwork can be, spiritual people who come together to lead churches or organizations with a spiritual purpose have a deeper calling – we are called to move beyond teamwork to spiritual community and to have our leadership emerge from that place.

At times Barton’s words were a needed wake-up call and at other times they were a source of refreshment. I’m thankful for both, and I’m sure that you will be as well if you read Strengthening the Soul of Your Leadership.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Good or Great

It’s been fun to watch Michael Phelps swim in the 2008 Summer Olympics. We’ve run out of superlatives to describe his performance. He is truly a great athlete. But the thought that struck me this week is that for every gold medal winning Olympian, there are hundreds of good athletes who fall short of greatness.

There are lots of reasons for this, including a less favorable genetic make-up or fewer opportunities to excel. In many cases, however, another factor comes into play. As Jim Collins says in Good to Great, “good is the enemy of great.” How often has an athlete achieved early success due to a combination of raw talent and competitive drive, but somewhere along the way found this wasn’t enough. Continued success at higher levels of competition required a discipline and sacrifice that he or she was unwilling to make. One of the oft repeated statements about Phelps is that he doesn’t do anything but swim, eat and sleep. Everyone admires his commitment, but many athletes who are simply good fail to emulate it.

And so it often is in our spiritual lives and our leadership practices. We experience some measure of “success” – whether that’s spiritual or organizational growth or some other milestone – but we fall short of the “next level.” When we reflect, if we ever make the time to do so, we may discover that “good” has been the enemy of “great.” We agree to lead or participate in another Bible study, but find that our souls are not being nourished by spending time alone listening to God. Or we take on a heavy load of pastoral care, and wonder why there never seems to be time for creative thinking or dreaming about the future.

An endless array of good options is calling for our attention. I’ll be quick to admit that choosing the best can be difficult. But it’s a practice that will benefit all of us. So what about you? I’m sure you’re doing things that are good. But are you choosing that which is great?

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Beyond the Hundredth Meridian

OK. I don’t really expect any of you to read Wallace Stegner’s 1950-something classic with the subtitle, “John Wesley Powell and the Second Opening of the West.” But maybe you’ll at least read this blog as a challenge to pick up something outside of your normal reading bandwidth in the next few weeks.

When my uncle offered to take me and my 14-year old son on a weeklong rafting adventure through the Grand Canyon, he said that this was the book I needed to read before the trip. I ordered the book out of obligation, and began reading out of a desire to understand what it was like for Powell and company to make that first treacherous trip into the unknown.

Little did I know how much I would learn and how it could even apply to church leadership. Even though the American West was largely an unknown territory in the 1870’s, government leaders had many pre-conceived ideas that were shaping national policy. Ideas such as that the arid regions would suddenly become fertile without irrigation, and could therefore be settled with practices that had worked in the east. It took a persistent, visionary leader like John Wesley Powell to challenge the bureaucracy and begin to reshape some of the laws. I guess we’d never have these kinds of problems in a church, right?

Not only did I find some interesting lessons in the book, I rediscovered a lost personal enjoyment of history. So rather than reading your tenth book on leadership or theology or whatever is your pattern, have some fun with a different kind of reading this summer.