Five leadership books every pastor should read

Read in 2 mins

ImagePastoral/ministry leadership is one of the most complex types of leadership there is. It combines personal holiness (hopefully), with theological wisdom, and the ability to guide a team toward defined goals. During my time in leadership with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship/USA and now as a senior leader at First Presbyterian Church, I have repeatedly come back to these books to help me to develop as a leader:

  1. Leading Change – If change isn’t happening then you’re not leading; you’re managing. John Kotter’s book provides an excellent overview of the change process and how to move through it. [buy here]
  2. The Advantage – I’ve read this book twice as well as outlined it in the front leaf. Patrick Lencioni shows how organizational (congregational) health trumps everything else. He also provides a road map toward better health. [buy here]
  3. Good to Great  – Jim Collins shows why some companies are able to make while others continually struggle and eventully fail. This is helpful in terms of identifying limiting patterns in the life of a congregation and/or its leadership. [buy here]
  4. The Power of Full Engagement – As a leader as much can be gained by managing your energy as by managing your time. Tony Schwartz provides helpful strategies for managing your energy level so that you always have sufficient focus to deal with the strategic decisions and projects that are central to your work. [buy here]
  5. The Generals –  This masterpiece traces American military leadership from World War II to the present. By profiling key military leaders Thomas Ricks teaches timeless lessons about what good leadership looks like. [buy here]

Resource: If you prefer to read these titles electronically and don’t have a Kindle, make sure you download the Kindle App for your iPhone, iPad, or Android devices for free. You can download it here.

Five ways ministry leaders squander their day

Read in 3 mins

I’ve been in ministry for more than ten years. Nine of those were in parachurch ministry–some as a campus minister, and some as an area director. Since April I’ve worked on the senior staff of a large presbyterian church. Each of these calls has its own challenges. The ones that are freshest to me are those that are new. As a result these observations are based on two months of working at a large, multi-staff church.

One of the biggest differences between church and parachurch ministry is the fact that every day I get to go to work in a church building alongside fifty other people. We can run into each other in the halls, drop by offices, have meetings in conferences rooms, you name it. Most of my time working for InterVarsity, communication with colleagues in ministry involved getting on the phone. The physical proximity of colleagues makes for efficient communication, which I love.


The downside is that in a large church there is always something either going on or about to go on. As a result every day there are lots of conversations to be had about church-related stuff. Add to this the challenge of making sure that all of the events, initiatives, and meetings on the church calendar are effectively communicated across the congregation and you understand why each day can be sort of hectic.

As my workload has increased, I’ve found myself reminded of fundamental errors that often derail a ministry leaders’ day.

  1. Start the day without a plan. If you show up at work without at least a list of three “must do” tasks as well as a list of your time commitments for the day, you may as well go home.
  2. Ignore or obsess over email. With people communicating to one another internally and congregation members and leaders communicating by email, it’s entirely possible to spend the whole day doing nothing other than reacting. Don’t do this.
  3. Leave the door open all day. Pick a part of the day for open door visits and for walking around checking in on people and how their days are going. It’s best to leave the first 90 minutes of the day for door-closed focused work.
  4. Let themselves get in a bad mood. Productivity and focus is closely linked to mood. If you feel angry, bored, or frustrated it’s incredibly difficult to get things done. It’s tough to remember, but each of us has responsibility for our own mood-managing it so that we can work effectively. When you feel the sting of failure, the frustration of criticism, or the lethargy that often accompanies detail work do yourself a favor and go for a walk or get a cup of tea. It’ll help you regain perspective and return with a better focus.
  5. Never look at the clock. Obviously we all look at the clock so that we can know when an appointment starts, when we can go to lunch, or leave for the day. I’m talking about a more intentional clock-watching. We work best when we have an external accountability system and when completing our work gives us some sort of tangible reward. Use a stopwatch (you can check out an app like Vitamin-R) to time yourself so that a task or project is given a limited block of time in which to be completed. You’ll be surprised how highly focused you can be when working against the clock.

I look at productivity as a stewardship issue. It’s not necessary to wring productivity from every second of the day–in fact, that’s counter-productive. However, floating through the day can be a form of sloth. It’s also important to be fully-engaged with those interruptions that happen during the day–they’re often gifts from God and opportunities for ministry.

So, how do you stay focused in the church office?

What is the optimal length of a sermon?

Read in 2 mins

If the data are to be trusted, I have a longer attention span than most. If the subject is interesting to me and well-presented, I can follow a 30-minute presentation fairly easily. However, I’m not most people. Over at Holy Soup, Thom Schultz shares data that suggest the optimal attention span for an aural presentation is–are you ready?–six minutes.

Educators have been studying this phenomenon for some time now. Some of the latest research comes from the University of Rochester. Research scientist Philip Guo recently studied the efficacy of online education, specifically the use of teaching videos. He found that the average engagement time with any teaching video maxes out at 6 minutes, regardless of the video’s total length. And engagement times actually decrease the longer the video. For example, students typically spend only 3 minutes on videos that are 12 minutes or longer.

A decade ago (2004) the attention span of most adults stood at about 12 minutes and since then has been halved. So, the question comes: what impact should this have on preaching?


To some, a six minute sermon communicates a lack of value for the Bible. To others, it seems like an appropriate accommodation to the limits of our post-google brain. Pastors and sessions will need to decide precisely what they make of this data, but it seems wrong-headed to me to suggest that all sermons now ought not to exceed six minutes.

There are other options. Perhaps the sermon could be divided into something like four segments (that build on one another) and dispersed throughout the worship service? Perhaps greater use of video could minimize the sensation of talking heads? I’ve noticed that for many pastors, what is called “the sermon” is really a series of shorter messages bookended by a story–each segment lasting no more than six minutes and reset with a story and change of cadence/pause.

What do you think? How do the realities of our digital age require that we alter the recent tradition of sermon delivery?

Watch your life and your doctrine closely…

Read in < 1 min

There are some also who investigate spiritual precepts with cunning care, but what they penetrate with their understanding they trample on in their lives: all at once they teach the things which not by practice but by study they have learnt; and what in words they preach by their manners they impugn.


Whence it comes to pass that when the shepherd walks through steep places, the flock follows to the precipice. Hence it is that the Lord through the prophet complains of the contemptible knowledge of shepherds, saying, When ye yourselves had drunk most pure water, ye fouled the residue with your feet; and My sheep fed on that which had been trodden by your feet, and drank that which your feet had fouled (Ezek. xxxiv. 18, 19).


For indeed the shepherds drink most pure water, when with a right under- standing they imbibe the streams of truth. But to foul the same water with their feet is to corrupt the studies of holy meditation by evil living. And verily the sheep drink the water fouled by their feet, when any of those subject to them follow not the words which they hear, but only imitate the bad examples which they see. Thirsting for the things said, but perverted by the works observed, they take in mud with their draughts, as from polluted fountains.

Hence also it is written through the prophet, A snare for the downfall of my people are evil priests (Hos.v.1;ix.8). Hence again the Lord through the prophet says of the priests, They are made to be for a stumbling-block of iniquity to the house of Israel. For certainly no one does more harm in the Church than one who has the name and rank of sanctity, while he acts perversely.


Gregory, Pastoral Rule, Ch. 2

Three lessons from Brené Brown at Leadership Summit

Read in 2 mins

One of the highlights of last week’s Global Leadership Summit was hearing Brené Brown speak. Brown is a research professor at the University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work and a TED Talk sensation since her 2010 talk went viral (more than 8 million views). That talk is embedded at the bottom of the page. Her research has focused on the interplay between vulnerability and empathy, encouraging people to experience “whole-hearted” living.


Here are three lessons I learned from Brené Brown:

  1. When you judge yourself for requesting help, you invariably judge others when they ask.How many of you feel shame when you ask for help? Just yesterday I tried to figure out to run a report on a database at work. I had a call scheduled with my boss and part of our agenda was to create and discuss this report. I wanted to know how to do it before I got on the call–to save time. I’ll be honest, I tried for about 15 minutes and never did figure it out.

    Once on the phone I admitted that I hadn’t been able to figure out how to run the report. As I did, I noticed within myself a twinge of shame. Not much, just a little shame. After all, I use a computer all day long. I blog, use social media, etc. I should–I reasoned–have been able to figure this out.

  2. We lose people in the gap between profession and practice.Professing love (in all its forms) is fairly easy. What is not easy, not simply, what is incontrovertibly complex is practicing love.

    How many of us make vows at our wedding–a profession–only to find it require intention, effort, humility, and sacrifice to remain true to the words that so easily dripped from our lips?

    How many of us take vows when we join our church and in fairly short order recoil from a significant decision made and once more experience the difficulty of keeping vows?

    When the gap between what we say and what we do becomes too immense, we loose people. Marriages collapse. Church fellowships rupture. Friendships end.

  3. Courage and comfort are mutually exclusive.By its very definition courage requires that we confront something that is difficult or that causes us to experience fear. When comfort becomes our objective in life, we cannot be courageous for we will always turn away from anything that causes us to be uncomfortable–it could be making a phone call, following a dream, initiating a difficult conversation, restoring a broken relationship. Interestingly, we may claim that we’re not satisfied with our life, but as long as comfort is our chief value our life will never change and we’ll settle into a begrudging comfort.

I’ll be reflecting on these lessons for a while. What stands out to you from Brené’s talk?