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Congregations need clarity about why they exist, what they’re trying to do, and who is leading the way

When you’re in seminary, you take a class called “Polity” (Presbyterian Polity, Baptist Polity, etc.). The class introduces you to the processes by which congregations and denominations make deliberations and decisions.

Then, when you go to be ordained, you have to take a written exam in “polity” to make sure that you learned all about the processes in seminary and can apply them to a real life situation. I think my polity exam asked me how I’d handle an embezzling treasurers or some such hypothetical. I had to answer the question with specific reference to the Book of Order.

Presbyterians have tended to focus on the process than whether the process produces a good result. Process is important, but it’s not the same thing as leadership.

I’ve found that, regardless of church size, the most important thing that contributes to effectiveness in mission is clarity. Clarity about who does what. Clarity about who is responsible to whom. Clarity about how to act when you disagree.

Many church members think that they have clarity.

To some extent they do, but it’s usually the case that they are clear about what they think and they’re clear that everyone else agrees with them. It’s never fun to be around when church members discover that other people see an issue differently.

Our churches often lack clarity because the board (session) often thinks of itself as an aggregate of the congregation responsible for advancing the interests of certain parts of the congregation. Some forms of presbyterian polity even encourage this.

However, the purpose of the session is not to be a representative democracy. The purpose of the board is to discern the mind of Christ with respect to a particular congregation. It is to answer the question: what ministry niche does God have for us?

No church is for everybody, all churches are for somebody.

To that, the board and the pastor need to work in partnership to discern the answer to that question. And then the pastor needs to be freed to lead the church in pursuing the mission.

The best model for do this is, in my view, the accountable leadership model proposed by John Kaiser in Winning on Purpose: How to Organize Congregations to Succeed in their Mission (2006).

The following is a brief summary of the concepts that undergird the book.

Mission: Why does our congregation exists

When I served a church in Bethlehem (PA) we were clear about our mission. We said it almost every Sunday: Know God. Love people. Serve the world.

It’s simple. It’s memorable. It’s shareable. We wanted to advance that mission by through our purpose which was: introducing people to Jesus Christ so that he can change their lives.

At the end of the day, there are only three options on why our congregation exists:

  1. It exists for us (inwardly focused)
  2. It exists for others (outwardly focused)
  3. It exists for both

If we choose “both” we will tend to focus inwardly first because that is the easiest thing to do. There are so many needs in the life of a congregation that, without being intentional, we will spend all of our time, money, and energy trying to meet those needs and ignoring the outside world.

The church then becomes a support group and not a mission outpost.

If we choose “others” we will find that our needs are also being met. If we prioritize outreach and mission we’ll find that through our service to others we find our own needs being met. As members give their time, talents, and money to advance the mission of blessing the world, they find they have enough to meet the needs of church members too.

It’s like exercize. The more you exercize, the greater your energy. And you eventually find that you can both run and get all the things done around the house, whereas you once felt you had to choose.

Mission: why our congregation exists

Our mission shapes two other things:

  • Vision: what our community and our congregation will look like in 3-5 years if we accomplish our mission.
  • Structure: the arrangement of resources (people, facilities, finances, etc.) for accomplishing the mission. 
  • Values: what we think is important. How we manage our resources reveals our true values.

Three structural paradigms

There are three tendancies when it comes to organizational culture:

  1. Bureaucracy: high responsibility with low authority = safe, but not effective.
  2. Authoritarian: high responsibility with high authority = effective, but not safe.
  3. Accountable: high responsibility with high authority and high oversight = safe and effective. 

Bureaucracy is safe because there are a lot of people who have to sign off on a decision before it is enacted. It’s ineffective because the more people who are involved in a decision the lower the accountability for the decision itself and the slower the time to enact it. Think of your local DMV. Did you enjoy your last trip there? I didn’t think so.

Authoritarianiusm is effective (you get things done), but its not safe. It’s not safe because there is no accountability for the decision-maker. How do you know the right issues are being addressed? Are they being addressed in the right manner? In the authoritarian system it’s my way or the highway.

The accountable leadership model offers an alternative. It’s effective because the leader has the authority to make decisions without a lot of red tape. It’s safe because there are guard rails–decided in advance–that ensure that the leader doesn’t overstep the bounds. It’s also safe because every decision is made within the context of a mutually agreed-upon goal/s adopted by the board or session.

In my next post, I’ll take a look at the nuts and bolts of the accountable leadership model and what it can look like in the life of a congregation.

Resource: John Kaiser, Winning on Purpose: How to Organize Congregations to Succeed in their Mission (2006).

Matthew 2:1-12



I’ve always been interested in the Kings and Queens of England. 

Growing up in England, I had a genealogy on the wall of my room that followed the succession of the throne of England from Alfred of Wessex to Queen Elizabeth II.

You probably don’t know much about the Kings of England–and possibly you don’t particularly care–but one of the interesting things about the line of monarchs is that they rarely go straight.

Actually, that’s true for all of us. 

house on green landscape against sky
Photo by Pixabay on

All of our family trees have strange twists and turns in them. It’s part of what makes the holidays so special, right?

Well, these twists and turns come to have really big significance when you’re talking about who gets to rule a nation or an empire.

And the twists and turns that take place in the line of kings and queens often come about for a couple of reasons. The first is that a king fails to have, in the old days, it was a son. 

Well, if the king doesn’t have a son then he has no one to inherit the throne and the throne will move to the next branch of the family. Maybe the king’s brother or sister has a son and he can ascend to the throne.

The second reason is if the king has too many sons. Perhaps he doesn’t have a son with his wife, but he has a bunch of other sons with other women. It happened all the time. 

These illegitimate children were sent off to monasteries to get them out of the way, btw. That way they couldn’t interfere with the family’s plan for who’d be the next monarch.

Well, if you have several children of the king with varying women and no legitimate child then these other children can make a claim to the throne. And, in some respects, the biggest thing a claimant to the throne needed was popular support.

It gets even more fun when you consider that somewhere like the United Kingdom is actually three nations–two kingdoms, England and Scotland, and a principality, Wales–under a single monarch, today, but centuries ago there were separate holders of the thrones. 

Charles Edward Stuart–also known as Bonnie Prince Charlie–claimed the thrones of England and Scotland. 

He’s also known as “the young pretender.” He was a pretender because even though he had a claim to the throne, others had a stronger claim.

And across the history of nations there are individuals who have claimed the throne who have had questionable right to it. 

They’re called “pretenders” or “usurpers” because they’re pretending to be something they aren’t in reality or they’re attempting to stop the legitimate monarch from sitting on the throne.

The story of the Magi is a story of a true king and a pretender. 

Herod the Pretender

The first main character we meet is a Herod. Herod was a false king. He was a usurper, a pretender. 

Herod was a ruler that the Roman Empire allowed to be King because he was committed to looking after their interests and playing by their rules. 

He was from southern Israel near what is modern day Jordan and Egypt. There’s some disagreement on whether Herod practiced the Jewish faith. Some say he did; others claim it was just a fabrication for the benefit of the Judeans.

At the time of Jesus’ birth, Herod was old and wiley. You know the sort. The sort of political player who, at 70 years of age, knew all the best ways to get rid of enemies and competitors. 

He’d spent his life gathering power from the Romans and extracting wealth from the Jews. He had no intention of being compromised by the birth of a Messiah, a real “King of the Jews.”

You see, the Jews themselves *hated* Herod. They knew he was not their king and that had clawed his way onto the throne by power and by violence. And he planned on staying there till the very end.

The Magi

Sometimes people on the “outside” of a situation can see things more clearly than those close to the situation. That’s part of the reason why you called me as your transitional pastor. I can see things that you yourselves cannot see because you’re so close and invested in the life and ministry of this fine church.

The Jews had been expecting a Messiah for ages. Given that God’s deliverance of Israel in the past had included parting the Red Sea, sending plagues upon Egypt, sending food from heaven, and guiding them by means of a pillar of fire at night and a cloud by day, you really can’t blame the Jews for being caught off guard by the birth of a child in Bethlehem.

And yet, the Magi–these strange figures who travel from afar to greet the new-born king–seemed to be completely aware of something that the jews themselves were confused about.

Jesus is often confusing. God’s ways are often perplexing. And its largely because of our own lack of attention or our own wrong assumptions that we miss how He is working. 

What little we know of the Magi, tells us that they were priests from the ancient Kingdom of Persia, modern day Iran. They read the sky–that is, the stars–and learned from them that there was a new King of the Jews. 

In what might be called by some a slightly indelicate move, it appears these Persian priests show up at Herod’s door and ask for this replacement. Well, that’s awkward.

You don’t have to be a historical scholar to realize how Herod received the news. He checks with his advisors and they tell him that there is evidence that the Messiah will be born in Bethlehem.

Not good news for Herod. So, he comes up with a plan.

You see, 

  • When a pretender is on the throne, he won’t part with it without a fight.
  • Pretenders always get others to do the dirty work for them.
  • When you discover a Herod go as far in the opposite direction as you can.

Jesus the Always King

Jesus is the true King. He sits on the throne and he was born to it. Anyone else who sits on Jesus’ throne is just an imposter and a pretender. 

Anyone else on the throne is bad news.

A throne is a seat for one. Only one can sit on it. Throne’s aren’t for sharing.

When we let someone other than Jesus sit on the throne then we commit spiritual treason. We allow a usurper to take our savior’s place and it will not end well.

The Main To Do

  • In 2021 let your only resolution be to let Jesus be the only one who sits on the throne of your life. 

Why It Matters

  • A pretender will always let you down. 
  • A pretender doesn’t care who gets hurt.
  • A pretender will tell you what you want to hear rather than what you need to hear. 
  • A pretender always is always looking out for number one, and when he or she discovers that you can’t help him get what he wants, he’ll throw you under a bus as quick as can be.

Winter in Illinois is tough. It’s cold. They skies remain grey. The wind whips. And it snows.

Snow is actually a consolation. I’m happy during a snow storm and for about five hours following.

trunk of tree under snow in forest
Photo by Marta Wave on

Ice is not a consolation.

Snow is beautiful. It is soft. It deadens sound. It reflects light. It can be moved with a shovel.

Ice can be beautiful. It’s beautiful in the same way a cocktail of arsenic is.

I hate ice. It fights back. It laughs in the face of a snow shovel and then breaks it.

I am never happy when ice is around–not even during the storm.

And yet, as I shovel my driveway, I choose to focus on the snow.

I’m grateful to have a driveway, a garage, and not have to put a chair on a parking space bought with the sweat of my brow only to have it stolen.

Attitude is they key. Even ice can be dealt with as long as you choose to focus on what beauty may be found.

Happy New Year!

January 1, 2021 — Leave a comment

The year has turned over and now its 2021. Most of you are saying, ‘thank God!’

The new year is a blank slate.

There’s nothing written on it.

2021 is God’s gift to us.

man with fireworks
Photo by Rakicevic Nenad on

So, what will you do with your new year?

Maybe the better question is, who will you be in 2021?

We tend to think of making the most of the new year for improving our health, our discipleship, our relationships, and the like.

What that really means is becoming the sort of person who chooses to eat healthily, exercize regularly, spend time with God daily, and nurture the important relationships in his life.

2021 is about becoming a new person, not just getting stuff checked off your resolution list.

So, let’s join together and encourage one another as each of us takes more steps toward being the sort of people that Jesus would want us to be.

Let that be your gift to God.

Happy New Year!