Randy Wollf PictureMinistryLift Blog with Randy Wollf

Randy is the Director of MinistryLift and Assistant Professor of Leadership Studies and Practical Theology at ACTS Seminaries. He was a pastor, church planter and missionary for 20 years before going to ACTS. Randy loves to build capacity in people, teams and organizations so that they can love God more deeply and serve Him more effectively.

Discerning and Implementing Strategic Priorities for Your Ministry

Compass with the word priorities on itDo you want to take your ministry to the next level? Are you unclear as to next steps? I have found the following process helpful for discerning and implementing strategic priorities that will help a ministry build momentum toward a desired future.

Proceed Prayerfully

I cannot emphasize enough the importance of bathing the entire discernment process in prayer. As you go through the following steps, take time to pray periodically and to practice (and encourage others to practice) a posture of listening to God’s voice.

Clarify Your Mission

In a previous blog, Six Steps to Creating a Compelling Mission Statement for Your Group, I describe a process for identifying your group’s mission. If you don’t have a mission statement for your ministry yet, I would encourage you to read the blog and create one. It’s difficult to discern meaningful strategic priorities without an overarching goal in mind.

Articulate Core Values

What do you think are your ministry’s core values (this is a good exercise to do with your ministry team)? What do you think that your ministry should value? Come up with a list of 6-8 current and desired values that you believe are foundational to your ministry. One way to do this is to have your team brainstorm adjectives or phrases that describe the current ministry. Then, have them think about their dream ministry and go through the same brainstorming process.

Discern God’s Vision for Your Ministry

With your ministry team, project yourself into the future. It is five years from now and you have, amazingly enough, developed the most incredible ministry. Now, it’s your job, as a team, to describe it - as if you were able to see it, realistically around you. Make sure that you use your ministry’s core values from the previous step. It’s also very important that your emerging vision aligns with your mission.

Identify Strategic Priorities

Now, that you are clear on your ministry’s mission, core values and vision, you can identify strategic priorities. What are the steps you need to take to realize your vision? Identify three to five big objectives (e.g. develop a mentoring approach). For each objective, come up with SMART (specific, measurable, achieavable, realistic, time-bound) goals that will help you make progress with each objective (e.g. hold a one-day training session on how to coach others on June 20).

Execute the Plan

Ten Immediate Strategies for Recruiting Volunteers

Volunteers with hands raisedHaving recruited many volunteers over the years, I know the importance of immediate recruitment strategies. Yet, before I share these short-term strategies, I want to emphasize the importance of having a long-term recruitment strategy (see my blog on Ten Long-term Strategies for Recruiting Volunteers). The following immediate strategies work best when combined with the long-term strategies.

#1 Pray for God to raise up workers

We must never underestimate the power of prayer when it comes to recruiting volunteers. Prayer is both a long-term and short-term strategy for mobilizing people to serve.

#2 Approach former program participants

Who are the people who have served in your ministry in the past? They may have taken a break from volunteering in your ministry, but that doesn’t mean that they wouldn’t come back if asked.

#3 Ask current volunteers to approach others

Ministry leaders sometimes think that they’re the only ones who should recruit people for their ministries. A better approach is to encourage everyone on the team to recruit within their networks.

#4 Look for people who have an affinity with your ministry

When I took on the Missions Committee Chair position at my church, I asked the former Chair and the church staff for a list of people in the church who had gone on missions trips. I knew some in this group would be excellent candidates for a missions-focused committee.

#5 Approach people in person

In most cases, a face-to-face invitation to participate in a ministry is much more effective than an impersonal public plea for help.

#6 Create short-term volunteer opportunities

Most people will not jump into a long-term volunteer position right away. They are much more likely to help with a one-time event or to participate occasionally. In fact, Helen Little in her book, Volunteers: How to Get Them; How to Keep Them, says that 75% of volunteers in a member organization like a church will be occasional volunteers.

#7 Expose people gradually to your ministry

Ten Long-term Strategies for Recruiting Volunteers

VolunteersHaving spent many years recruiting volunteers as a pastor and lay leader in the church, I have learned that adopting a long-term approach to recruitment is essential. It may not produce results immediately (I will look at some of those strategies in a future blog), but over time, it will help you develop a ministry that attracts volunteers. When you have this kind of volunteer-friendly culture, the short-term recruitment strategies will be much more effective.

Here are ten long-term strategies for recruiting volunteers:

#1 - Pray for God to raise up workers

I cannot emphasize enough the importance of prayer in the recruitment process. When God begins to tug on someone’s heart to serve, it’s pretty hard to resist.

#2 - Help people discern their calling and strengths

A long-term approach to recruitment moves away from filling spots to helping volunteers understand their God-given calling. When people serve in their areas of passion, they are often much more satisfied and productive (check out my blog on personal calling to explore this further).

#3 - Serve your current volunteers well

If your current volunteers feel appreciated and supported, word will get out to others that your ministry is a great place to serve.

#4 - Build a strong sense of team

One of the primary reasons why people volunteer is to experience community. Strengthen your existing team of volunteers and the team dynamic will draw in others.

#5 - Start mobilizing early

One of the most successful High School basketball teams in British Columbia, Canada is from a small private school. They play at the very highest level in their age category and consistently win. One of the reasons for their success is that the coach starts training players for the team when they are as young as seven years-old. He mobilizes early. If we can mobilize children and youth to serve, we are much more likely to have capable adult volunteers in 5-10 years.

#6 - Grow in your own leadership capacity

Volunteers are often attracted to ministries whose leaders are growing closer to God and who are becoming more effective as leaders (check out my blog on the Seven Dimensions of Christian Leadership to see how you can grow in each leadership dimension).

#7 - Have a strong ministry vision that produces results

Three Biblical Reasons to Fast

Man looking at hamburger - fastingThroughout Scripture, we see examples of individuals and groups who engaged in fasting. Even though fasting today often includes refraining from activities besides eating (e.g. fasting from technology), the main type of fasting describing in the Bible involved abstaining from food. This does not diminish the importance of other types of fasting, but simply puts the following three biblical reasons to fast in their proper context.

Fasting Sometimes Accompanies Repentance

Because fasting is a time of denying ourselves and focusing more on God, we are often more open to the work of the Holy Spirit during times of fasting. This is one reason why people fast from something during the Lent season.

In Scripture, we see that the Israelites confessed their sins at Mizpah as they fasted (1 Sam. 7:6). Later on in their history, the Israelites fasted as they confessed their sin of marrying foreigners (Neh. 9:1-2). Daniel fasted as he confessed the sins of his people (Dan. 9:1-6).

Fasting sometimes precedes repentance, which opens us up to the Spirit’s work. However, fasting may also come after repentance, as we see in King Ahab’s life when he fasted after becoming aware of his sin (1 Kings 21:27). In this case, fasting is a response to the Spirit’s convicting work.

Fasting Sometimes Accompanies Urgent Prayer

Six Steps to Creating a Compelling Mission Statement for Your Group

Mission StatementEvery group, whether it’s a ministry team, church, or organization needs a mission. Why are we here? A sense of mission binds people together and helps them be more intentional and strategic in their use of group resources.

The following is a proven method for helping groups create a dynamic mission statement in 45 minutes or less (the method works best with 3-12 participants, although you can modify it for larger groups):

Step #1 – Describe the current group

Have group members brainstorm on their own three to five adjectives that currently describe the group and write them on separate post-it notes. For example, as I think about ACTS Seminaries where I teach, three adjectives that come to mind are practical, personal and collaborative. This time of individual reflection is important. As group members contribute their personal perceptions to the process, they are much more likely to own the product (i.e. the mission statement) at the end.

Step #2 – Categorize adjectives describing the current group

Working together, group the adjectives into categories. For example, someone in my group describing ACTS Seminaries may have used the word “applied,” which we could place in the same category as my contribution of “practical.” Even as you categorize adjectives, don’t minimize the importance of isolated adjectives. The outliers may have an important role to play later on.

Step #3 – Describe a dream version of the group

Have individual group members think about what they would love their group to be like in five years. Invite them to write down three to five adjectives on post-it notes that describe this dream group. As I think about my seminary, I would love it to be innovative, responsive and context-based. Once again, this is a solo exercise (like step #1), which helps everyone express their voice in a meaningful way.

Step #4 – Categorize the adjectives describing the dream group

Group the new post-it notes into categories. Some may fit into the categories from step #2 while others may lead to the creation of new categories. If an adjective does not seem to fit with any of the other descriptions, allow it to stand by itself as its own category.

Step #5 – Create a mission statement

World Cafe Method of Learning

World Cafe Method of LearningImagine that you are in a café with people from all over the world. You sit at one table with a woman from Tajikistan and a man from Mali. Amazingly, you can understand each other. Then, you move to another table and sip coffee with people from Finland, Bolivia and Yemen. It’s a rich experience as you exchange ideas and learn together.

The World Café Method of Learning is a tool for helping adults learn together – to build knowledge as an interactive community (you can read more about it at the World Café website). Here’s what happens (my approach is slightly different than the one on the website):

Break a larger group into small groups

When I conduct a World Café of Learning, I will set up tables with four to six chairs around each one. This automatically forces people to create small groups as they enter the room. You can do this with groups ranging from ten people to hundreds of people.

Explain the World Café

I orient people to the World Café approach by painting the analogy of a world café like I did in the opening paragraph.

Invite groups to write down the discussion topic

Each table should have a large sheet of paper with several markers. Ask groups to write down the discussion topic in the centre of the paper. For example, at one of my World Cafés, the topic was “Teaching Adults Effectively.”

Introduce the first question

My first question for the “Teaching Adults Effectively” World Café was: Think about a good teacher you have had as an adult. From your perspective, what made this teacher effective? Give group members 10-20 minutes to discuss the question and to write or draw their responses on the sheet of paper. Encourage groups to connect the ideas – to build knowledge together. When I do a World Café with a smaller group, I will serve a different dessert during each discussion round in keeping with the café theme.

Moving to a new group

Tips for Writing Excellent Surveys for Your Ministry

Filling out a surveyThe results from a well-designed survey can help clarify a ministry’s next steps. Here are several tips for writing excellent surveys:

Make sure that your survey has a clear purpose

If you can’t state the purpose of the survey in one sentence, don’t proceed with the survey. You will be wasting your time and the time of those who do it.

Craft every question so that it serves the overall purpose of the survey

Keep your questions short and to the point

Peoples’ time is precious, so make sure that every question is concise and easy to understand.

Include open-ended questions

Multiple-choice or yes-no questions can provide information about general trends. Open-ended questions will give you detailed information that will help you make sense of the general trends.

If you use a rating scale, make sure you give equal weight to positive and negative assessments

Sometimes, people will create surveys that have options that lean toward positive assessments. Instead, we would want to make sure that we give equal weight to the positive and the negative (e.g. 1=poor, 2=fair, 3=average, 4=good, 5=excellent).

Pilot-test the survey

Test your survey with a few other people before you send it out to your target group. Ask the pilot group for feedback, so that you can make the survey stronger.

Give people advance warning

When possible, let people know in advance that the survey is coming. This will get them thinking about it and will increase your rate of return.

Give people the opportunity to do the survey online

I would highly encourage you to use an online survey platform like SurveyMonkey for your surveys. It simplifies data collection and assessment. However, you may also want to include a paper option for those who are not inclined to do surveys online.

Set a survey completion date

People are more likely to do surveys if there is a sense of urgency to do so. I usually go with a two-week deadline for church surveys.

Remind people

You will find that your rate of return will go up considerably if you remind people about the survey. Doing it in a personal way (e.g. personalized emails or letters) will increase the rate of return even more.

Moderate your expectations regarding participation

Six Marks of a Missional Church

In Acts 2:42-47, we see an inspiring example of a missional church – a loving, Christ-centered church on a mission to be and make growing disciples of Jesus. What can we learn from the early church in ACTS about being missional today?

Lamp post with words missional church beside it

Devotion

The early church devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer (Acts 2:42).

The Greek word for “devotion” means to give something our steadfast attention, to care for it relentlessly, to wait courageously on something constantly. What were the objects of the early church’s devotion?

They were devoted to learning truth according to what the apostles taught. They learned and lived out the truth wholeheartedly and courageously.

They were devoted to the fellowship. They were committed to each other in an enduring sort of way.

They were committed to remembering Jesus. They broke bread regularly as a way of rallying to Christ, keeping him at the forefront of their lives.

They engaged in extraordinary prayer.

Awe

In the early church, “Everyone was filled with awe, and many wonders and miraculous signs were done by the apostles” (Acts 2:43).

The people were amazed at what God was doing in, through and around them. It was a powerful time when God regularly demonstrated His power. When God is working in us and through us, there is always evidence to show His working. Sometimes, we miss it. Yet, as we take the time to notice and give thanks to the Lord, we too will be amazed at the miracles that God is performing in and around us.

Togetherness

All the believers were together and had everything in common (Acts 2:44). One would get the impression that the early Christians enjoyed a strong sense of community. They were close to each other. They helped each other. They met together in large groups and small groups. They were together in their relationships and in their sense of mission for Jesus.

Gladness

The people were happy (Acts 2:46). Wouldn’t we be happy, too, if we were experiencing this kind of vibrant, intimate, Christ-centered, truth-inspired, prayer-driven, awe-inspiring community?

Favor

God was powerfully at work in the church in Acts. Part of this work was granting the Christians favor in the eyes of those around them (Acts 2:47). This favor was an important part of people receiving the gospel message and accepting Jesus.

Four Strategies for Growing Your Small Group

Small group Bible studyA study on small groups entitled, Small Groups - Big Impact: Connecting People to God and One Another in Thriving Groups (2011) by Jim Egli and Dwight Marable, discovered that groups that see people accept Christ, increase in size, and multiply into additional groups have four things in common. These groups have small group leaders who model and facilitate prayer, outreach, care and the empowerment of group members.

Prayer

The study found that 83% of groups that had a leader who modelled and facilitated prayer saw someone come to Christ in the past nine months (versus 19% of groups that did not have a praying leader). Praying leaders spend time with God. They actively pray for group members and group meetings. They pray for unsaved people in their lives and in the lives of others within the group. As the leader and others in the group engage in a lifestyle of prayer, people sense God’s presence in the group. Life change happens. People get saved. Who wouldn’t want to be part of that kind of group?

Outreach

When group leaders and their groups have an outreach focus, they are much more likely to see people come to Christ. The study found that 90% of groups with this kind of focus saw someone come to Christ in the last six months (versus 11% of groups without this outreach emphasis). In the book, Egli and Marable talk about the five I’s of reaching out:

       Investment - Members spend time with friends in order to share Christ

       Invitation – Leaders encourage members to invite others

       Intention - Outreach is a stated purpose of the group

       Intercession – Group members pray during their meetings for unsaved friends

       Imitation - Leaders model relational outreach

If we want to grow our small groups, outreach needs to be an important part of group life.

Care

A strong caring orientation is another key strategy for growing our small groups. The study showed that 44% of caring groups added at least four new members since starting (versus 18% without this emphasis). Caring groups spend time with one another outside of group meetings. They pray for each other, support each other and have fun together. Group members function like a family.

Essential Skills for Leading Small Groups

Small Group Bible StudyI have had the privilege of being involved in small groups for over 25 years as a participant, leader, pastor overseeing small groups, and as director of a network of missional communities. Over the years, I have learned that there are essential skills for leading a small group effectively. I have broken them down into four categories: preparation skills, skills for leading a small group meeting, shepherding skills and outreach/multiplying skills.

Preparation Skills

Preparation skills relate to who we are as small group leaders and how we prepare to serve our small group members.

Growing as a Small Group Leader - In my blog on the Dimensions of Christian Leadership, I look at several key growth areas for leaders. As small group leaders grow in these seven areas, they will become more effective in leading their small groups.

Discernment –Observing and understanding ourselves, the individuals in our groups, and our culture.

Biblical Understanding –Studying a passage of Scripture and understanding its intent and how it might apply to our lives today.

Making the Most of Curriculum – Using Bible Study guides, videos and other materials to help group members understand and apply biblical truth.

Skills for Leading Group Meetings

Leading the actual small group meetings is obviously an important skill for small group leaders. Here are some that I have found are important:

Breaking the Ice – Helping group members feel comfortable with one another so that they are more likely to engage in deeper levels of sharing.

Establishing a Flexible Structure – Creating a meeting format that accomplishes the purposes of the small group while being flexible enough to shift as the Spirit moves.

Using Non-verbal Cues Effectively – Using the room environment and body language to support the goals of your small group.

Engaging in Active Listening – Hearing what people are actually saying and even thinking.

Asking Excellent Questions – Launching and guiding a discussion in a direction, which is profitable for the group.

Shepherding Skills

Three Ways that Physical Health Connects to Spiritual Health

Stethoscope on a BibleI was overweight. I ate too much unhealthy food and didn’t exercise enough. I wasn’t grossly overweight, but the spare tire above my belt was slowly getting bigger.

I hadn’t seen Dave for about a year. When we met for a coffee, I could believe how much weight he had lost. He looked healthy. I asked him what had happened.

Dave shared how he had had started tracking his eating and exercising with MyFitnessPal. I was intrigued and decided to try it.

With the program, you set a weight loss or weight-maintaining goal. You then enter the food you eat and the exercise you get. The program tracks your number of calories (or other things you want to measure).

My initial goal was to lose one pound per week. I still remember the first time I entered that I had eaten a piece of chocolate cake. To my utter amazement, I learned that I had just eaten one-quarter of my calories for the entire day!

I carefully entered the information for a month until I intuitively knew what I needed to do to stay on track with my eating and fitness goals. Within six months, I was at a good weight. More importantly, I had established healthier eating and exercise patterns that I have maintained (for the most part) for the past three years. I still hop on the weigh scale each night to make sure that I’m on track and make adjustments, if necessary.

Since getting more serious about my health, I read an amazing book by Gary Thomas, “Every Body Matters: Strengthening Your Body to Strengthen Your Soul.” Thomas talks about how physical health connects with spiritual health. Based on my understanding of Scripture and what I gleaned from Thomas’ book, I would suggest three ways that physical health connects with spiritual health:

All of life is a spiritual discipline

Four Ways to Create Margin in Your Life

Highway with the word margin on itI was crazy busy. The church where I had been serving as a senior associate pastor had asked me to fill in as lead pastor while we searched for a new lead. I was trying to do both jobs and found myself running way too fast.

During this intense time, I came across a book called, Margin: Restoring Emotional, Physical, Financial, and Time Reserves to Overloaded Lives by Richard Swenson. Swenson, a medical doctor, reflects on a time when he was very busy with his practice and speaking engagements. One night, he and his wife sat down by the fireplace. They wrote down all of their commitments/responsibilities on a piece of paper. They then crumpled up the paper and threw it into the fire. They decided to start fresh - to reset their lives with margin, believing that is what God wanted them to do. They took out a new piece of paper and began writing down those things that they felt God wanted for them.

In many ways, it felt like my life was out of control. I longed to be able to do what the Swensons did. Little did I know that God would give me that opportunity.

Over the next year and a half, my wife, Lore, and I sensed that God was calling us into a new ministry. This transition gave us an opportunity to think afresh about our life purpose and what we though God wanted us to pursue. The key for us was to plan with the idea of margin. How could we position ourselves for long-term effectiveness? How could we live to have discretionary time, energy, and other resources so that we could respond more rapidly to the needs and opportunities that God placed before us and to process life in a deeper way?

Here are four margin-protecting practices that have been important for us:

Schedule “down time”

If we schedule “down time” in our calendars, we’re more likely to do it. It’s also easier to say no to a pressing demand when we already have something else scheduled at that time.

Set boundaries

It’s important to put fences around the time and activities we need for restoring ourselves. For example, we generally don’t answer our phones during meal times.

Unplug from technology periodically

It is increasingly more difficult to have margin in our connected age. Text messages, Facebook, Twitter and email constantly vie for our attention. I will often take a technology break on Sundays as a way to create some space for my family and myself.

Plan to have discretionary time and energy

Three Steps for Developing a Personal Growth Plan

Personal GoalsTis’ the season to think about New Year’s resolutions. As you do, I would encourage you to channel that desire for change into developing a personal growth plan for the next six months. Here are three important steps to developing a plan that will help you put feet to your desires:

Identify one to three areas of your life where you would like to see change

Where would you like to grow? It’s important that you are fairly specific. For example, you may want to grow spiritually over the next six months. That’s great! Yet, I would encourage you to think about a particular area of your spiritual life that you would like to grow. For me, I would like to strengthen my prayer life. At this stage, we are expressing good intentions. In my experience, most people stop here. The next step is critical to actually translating the good intentions into life change.

Develop three to five SMART action steps around each area where you would like to see change

As you think about actions steps that you can take to develop the area(s) you identified in step one, make sure that they are SMART: 

Shining the Light of Christ to the World around Us

Candle with words Jesus Light of the WorldThe familiar words pierced the darkness.

Hallelujah! For the Lord God omnipotent reigneth.

They reminded us of the One who reigns, even in dark places.

The kingdom of this world is become the kingdom of our Lord, and of His Christ; and He shall reign forever and ever.

Our hearts rejoiced in the Light.

King of Kings, and Lord of Lords. HALLELUJAH!

Never had the Hallelujah Chorus from Handel’s Messiah been so inspiring and meaningful as it was that night. It was December 2009 and we had been serving in Thailand for four months. We remembered again that God had called us to Thailand to shine Christ into the dark corners of that land and into the darkest recesses of peoples’ hearts.

We will soon celebrate, in a special way, Jesus’ coming. Jesus, the light of the world, came to dispel darkness. How can we shine the light of Christ to those who do not yet know Jesus this Christmas season? Here are several ideas:

  • Host or attend a neighborhood party and look for opportunities to build relationships
  • Give gifts to your neighbours
  • Serve the needy in your community
  • Have people over to watch The Nativity movie
  • Invite friends to a Christmas Eve service
  • Decorate your home with meaningful Christmas decorations that point to Christ
  • Be friendly in long line-ups and crowded parking lots
  • Purchase gifts like animals and water filters for needy people in developing countries

 

Of course, there are many ways to shine the light of Christ to others. I would love to hear what you do around Christmas to make Christ known (please leave a comment below).

Seven Tips for Managing Your Time and Avoiding Burnout

Man with stacks of paper - stress and burnoutI was barely two years into pastoral ministry when it happened. I burnt out. It took almost a year to recover from the fatigue and depression. As I struggled forward, I decided that with God’s help, I would never let myself burn out again.

By God’s grace and with several time management strategies in place, I have been able to stay clear of another major burnout period for the past 23 years.

Here are seven tips for managing your time and avoiding burnout:

Develop a life purpose statement

Understanding your purpose in life helps you to do what is best and not to get distracted by the many good options in life (you can read about how to do this in my Three Steps to Understanding Your Life Purpose in a Deeper Way post). God does not want you to meet every need or seize every opportunity that crosses your path. In fact, Jesus Himself did not meet every need he encountered. He understood what the Father wanted him to do. A sense of our life’s purpose will help us to follow God’s agenda for our lives (which, by the way, does not include major burnout).

Manage your schedule according to your life purpose

Schedule in daily, weekly, monthly and annual reflection times where you think through your priorities and arrange your life accordingly in your calendar. A life purpose is only a life purpose when it guides our lives.

Spend time alone with God

I need to spend time alone with God each day. I need to spend extended times with God so that we can go deeper in our conversations. For example, I just spent a day of prayer and planning at a local retreat center. These times alone with God help me to recognize God’s voice in the busyness and chaos of everyday life.

Leave room in your schedule for important interruptions

Seven Ideas for Keeping Christ Central at Christmas

Keep Christ in ChristmasI love the food that we eat at Christmas. I love hanging out with family, playing games and just having good conversation. I enjoy exchanging gifts. Christmas lights bring a smile to my face.

Yet, I find that these Christmas trappings can sometimes distract me from the most important part of Christmas. Jesus, God’s Son and the One who would become the Savior of the world, was born in a stable in Bethlehem. Jesus Christ is the reason for celebrating Christmas.

Here are seven ideas for keeping Christ central during the Christmas season:

Read one of the Gospels or a Christmas devotional

I am currently reading Luke as I go through the Christmas season. Some years, I have read a Christmas devotional. Focusing on Christ during my devotional times in December helps me to prepare my heart and mind for the celebration of Jesus’ birth.

Celebrate advent in your home

Early on in our marriage, one of our family members made us an advent wreath. Each year, we anticipate celebrating Jesus’ birth by lighting the advent candles on the four Sunday nights before Christmas and on Christmas Eve. Our kids love this time of singing Christmas carols and putting our focus back on Christ.

Join the advent conspiracy

A couple years ago, our church encouraged people to join the advent conspiracy. The four tenets of the conspiracy are to worship fully, spend less, give more and love all. As a family, we decided to be more generous with those in need and to give less to those who already have so much (like us). We send out Christmas shoeboxes through Samaritan’s Purse and purchase animals, water filters, mosquito nets and other items that help people who are struggling. We also look for people and causes closer to home that we can support a bit more at Christmas.

Recognize the spiritual significance of some Christmas trappings

Creating a Personal Timeline – Gaining Perspective on the Past to Help Guide You Today

Person holding an old photo that overlaps with a present day sceneWhen I first created my personal timeline, I experienced affirmation, healing, and a greater sense of God’s movement in my life. At times, I felt sad over missed opportunities or painful situations. Yet, I also rejoiced, as I saw God mixing the defining moments and seasons into something good.

In the Old Testament, the Israelites would often erect stones of remembrance as a reminder of God’s provision and faithfulness. In a similar way, your personal timeline is a way of identifying markers in your life that point to significant events that God used (or can use) to shape you. I am so thankful that God can bring good out of even the most painful event in our lives. This does not mean that we minimize what happened, but we recognize that God is able to redeem even our most painful experiences.

Here are four steps for creating your personal timeline:

Step One – Identify the pleasant and painful moments/seasons in your life

Using one color of post-it note for pleasant experiences and another color for painful events (or color-coding entries in a spreadsheet/table or using Chazown’s personal timeline tool), brainstorm some of your defining moments or seasons of life. Some of my defining moments are times when people spoke into my life by simply asking a question or making a statement (e.g. “Randy. Would you like to teach this lesson to the rest of the class?” and “I would like you to be a leader in this group”). Others occurred over a longer period (e.g. growing up in a Christian family). Put one defining moment/season on each post-it note. At this point, don’t worry about putting them in chronological order. Come up with approximately 20-30 events to start.

Randy's personal timeline using post-it notes

Step Two – Arrange your experiences in chronological order and give your timeline chapter titles

Arrange your post-it notes chronologically in columns in a legal-sized folder or on a 14x17” piece of poster board. On different colored post-it notes, come up with three to five chapter titles for the different seasons of your life. For example, as a young adult I went through several liberating experiences. I have called that chapter in my life, “My Renaissance.”

Three Steps to Understanding Your Life Purpose in a Deeper Way

Boardwalk through jungleOne of my heroes, Mother Theresa, had a driving sense of purpose. In her own words, her life’s ambition was “to love the least of these; to touch the dying, the poor, the lonely and the unwanted.”

Terry Fox, a Canadian hero who lost a leg to cancer, ran over 3,000 miles in his attempt to run across Canada. His purpose – to raise awareness about cancer and to ultimately find a cure.

Life purpose is the reason that we exist. It clarifies what is non-negotiable. It gives our lives focus.

Life purpose helps us to discern what is best among many good options. It gives us passion, courage and determination. When we understand our life purpose, we are much more likely to make sacrifices to achieve it. The result- increased productivity that is both meaningful and fulfilling.

In a previous blog, Why Understanding Your Personal Calling is Important, I talked about the first time I articulated my life purpose. Dave Jackson, who was with Church Resource Ministries at the time, led our church leadership through a process of clarifying our personal life purpose. The following three steps are an adaptation of the process he used and one that I have now used with hundreds of leaders to help them understand their life purpose in a deeper way:

Step One – What are at least eight Scriptures, sayings, or quotes that give you focus and direction in life?

For me, my blood pressure increases whenever I read about making disciples (Matthew 28:18-20) and the fields being ripe for harvest (John 4:35). Quotes like this one by C.T. Studd also inspire me: “Only one life and it will soon be past; only what’s done for Christ will last.” We all have “sacred texts” that guide us. What are yours?

Step Two – As you reflect on what you wrote in step one, what are the themes that emerge?

The Scriptures and quotes that resonate deep within your spirit likely contain themes that are not only important to you, but to God, as well. As we draw close to God, our desires increasingly reflect His desires. Identifying these passions as expressed in key verses and quotes will make the final step of creating your purpose statement much easier.

Step Three – Using the themes from step two, craft a one-sentence purpose statement.

Why Understanding Your Personal Calling is Important

Cell phone with missed call from GodI vividly remember the leadership retreat several years ago where Dave Jackson with Church Resource Ministries led our church leadership through a personal refocusing process. The lights came on for me, as I understood in a much deeper way God’s call on my life. That process of understanding my personal calling fanned into flame a strong sense of purpose that continues to guide me to this day.

God’s Plan

God has created and shaped us for a purpose. Our calling is God’s game plan for our lives. It’s also part of His larger plan for the Church and the world.

There are numerous examples in Scripture of people who knew their God-given calling.

Abraham made great sacrifices to move his family to the place of God’s choosing.

Nehemiah risked losing his career in the royal courts and faced great opposition to obey God’s call to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem.

After an attempted detour to Tarsus, Jonah realized that following God’s calling was better than going his own way.

God called Queen Esther to save her people and she did.

The apostle Paul had a strong calling to proclaim the gospel where people had not yet heard it. He lived out his calling and God used him to make disciples and plant churches all over the Mediterranean world.

Understanding Our Calling Gives us Direction and Passion

What happens when we understand our calling and decide to live it out in God’s strength and for His glory? We have a strong sense of direction – we know our game plan (or at least parts of it). Because we believe that our game plan is from our loving Lord, we will want to carry it out with passion, courage and determination. We will engage in extraordinary efforts in the struggle to realize God’s calling.

Staying on Track

Of course, there are circumstances and forces that may distract us from the game plan or diminish our passion to execute the plan. That is why it is imperative that we keep coming back to the Lord for guidance and strength. We also need to keep the plan in front of us at all times and prayerfully discern when God would have us to adjust it. Having a strong network of prayer supporters and encouragers will help us to stay the course, as well.

Seven Dimensions of Christian Leadership

I love building capacity in seasoned and emerging Christian leaders so that they can serve God more effectively. As I do so, I have found it helpful to focus my energies on seven key dimensions of leadership: biblical truth, a growing relationship with God, character, calling, community, team, and skill (see the Christian Leadership Pyramid below). Questions I ask are how am I personally growing in these seven areas and how can I help others to grow in these dimensions, as well. 

 

The Christian Leadership Pyramid

Christian Leadership Pyramid

 

Biblical Truth            

Biblical truth must guide every aspect of our leadership. It is imperative that we increasingly live and lead in keeping with a thoroughly biblical worldview. This comes as we grow in our ability to meditate on God’s Word continuously,[1] to handle it accurately[2] and to be a courageous practitioner of the Word.[3]

A Growing Relationship with God

Underwhelmed by God's Provision

Quote - Someone I loved once gave me a box full of darkness. It took me years to understand that this, too, was a gift.It was a momentous occasion. The Jews who had returned to Jerusalem from captivity in Babylon had laid the foundation of the new temple (Ezra 3:10-13). Many rejoiced. Yet, some who had seen the former temple wept. Presumably, the new temple already paled in comparison to the previous one built by King Solomon.

Sometimes, I’m underwhelmed by God’s provision, especially when it does not meet my expectations or seems inferior to His past provision. Yet, God’s provision is always right. Even though the new temple would be smaller and less majestic, it was still the right temple. As I receive God’s provision today, I am thankful that what He provides is just right.

Is God Good All of the Time?

Being Thankful in the Tough TimesIt was Christmas and we were expecting our second child. The pregnancy was not going well and we ended up losing the baby. We were devastated. Was God still good in the midst of this painful loss?

Flip back a few thousand years to the city of Jerusalem. The Israelites had lost their homeland. The Babylonians had destroyed their temple and their beloved city. Many Jews were forcibly taken to Babylon as captives. Yet, after many years in captivity, King Cyrus granted the Jews permission to return to Jerusalem to rebuild the temple.

After laying the temple foundation, the priests and Levites sang to the Lord: “He is good; his love to Israel endures forever” (Ezra 3:11). Despite the hardships they had experienced, the Israelites rejoiced that God was good through it all.

Tragedies happen. Life is sometimes unfair. Yet, God’s goodness and love remain. Yes, God is good – all of the time.

Living Out Our Calling in the Face of Fear

Walt Disney Quote - "It's Kind of Fun to do the Impossible."When we follow God’s leading in our lives, we will often encounter challenges and face opposition. The Jews whose hearts God had moved to return to Jerusalem to rebuild the temple were afraid of the people around them (Ezra 3:3). Yet, despite their fear, they built an altar to God and offered sacrifices on it. They had responded in obedience to God’s call and were prepared to follow His leading in the face of fear. We, too, can experience this kind of courage as we follow God and His plans for us. There is something powerful about knowing that we are doing what God wants that emboldens us to attempt the difficult and even what looks impossible. Besides, as Walt Disney was known to say, “It’s kind of fun to do the impossible.”

As One

Unity in DiversityThe Jews had been back in their homeland for seven months when they all came together in Jerusalem to offer sacrifices to God (see “First Things First” blog). The Bible says they came together “as one” (Ezra 3:1). They were so unified in purpose that they could operate as if they were one person. It’s a great expression that gets at the kind of unity we can experience as we seek to serve God with those of like heart.

Yet, sometimes our understanding of unity can hinder us from actually experiencing true unity. A problem arises when we assume that unity is the same as unanimity.

Unanimity suggests complete agreement. However, unity is the formation of a whole or one by combining separate, distinct parts. Diversity is an essential component of unity.

In an orchestra, unanimity is everyone playing the same musical line as the clarinets and trying to sound like them. Unity is the trumpets, saxophones, flutes, trombones, clarinets, percussion, and other instruments playing the same song with one conductor, but adding their unique sounds and musical lines to create a complex harmony, a rich oneness.

Diverse people unified by One Person and His purposes can come together as one and accomplish amazing things for Him.

Note: Part of this blog was first published by the author in an article in the MB Herald (November, 2013 issue).

First Things First

Woman kneeling before God saying, "I'm Yours God."Thanks to King Cyrus, the Jews were allowed to return to their homeland to rebuild the temple. After the Jews had settled in their towns, they met in Jerusalem en masse (Ezra 3:1-6). Instead of starting the temple rebuilding project right away, they built an altar and offered sacrifices to God. This is significant! The act of sacrificing symbolized their commitment to God. They had their priorities right.

Brian Dyson, former CEO of Coca-Cola highlights the importance of priorities in this way:

“Imagine life as a game in which you are juggling some five balls in the air. You name them - work, family, health, friends and spirit - and you're keeping all of these in the air. You will soon understand that work is a rubber ball. If you drop it, it will bounce back. But the other four balls - family, health, friends and spirit - are made of glass. If you drop one of these, they will be irrevocably scuffed, marked, nicked, damaged or even shattered. They will never be the same. You must understand that and strive for balance in your life.”

As Christians, our top priorities must be God, the people He has entrusted to our care, and the calling He has given us to live. As we go through our day, may we keep first things first by continually offering ourselves as living sacrifices to God, sacrifices who are not conformed to the pattern of this world but who are transformed by the renewing of our minds (Romans 12:1-2). Then, we will be in a better place to see His priorities – His good, pleasing and perfect will.

Recognized for Our Obedience

Father pointing son to lion in the skyI don’t usually get very excited about those chapters in the Bible that contain lists of names. In Ezra 2, we find a list of the exiles who returned to Jerusalem. What is significant about this list is that they are the ones who responded in obedience when God moved in their hearts (Ezra 1:5). May we, too, be on God’s list today of those who obey His promptings.

God Moving Hearts

If God brings you to it, he will bring you through itThe Israelites languished in captivity until the day when God moved the heart of their captor king, the mighty King Cyrus of Persia (Ezra 1). At the Lord’s prompting, Cyrus proclaimed that the Israelites could return to Jerusalem to rebuild the temple. Not only did God move the king’s heart, he also stirred the hearts of some of the Jews to seize this amazing opportunity.

As a part of God moving his heart, Cyrus instructed the neighbours of those returning to Jerusalem to provide them with silver, gold, goods and livestock. Pretty sweet! However, Cyrus wasn’t finished yet. He also brought out items that a previous king had taken from the temple and gave them to the temple-building entourage.

Through His movement in peoples’ hearts, God opened up a way for the Jews to rebuild the temple in Jerusalem.

I am so glad that God stirs us and others to action. I am excited about how God might move in my heart and the hearts of those around me today.

Lord, help me to hear your voice. Grant me the courage to act on your nudges. Thank you that when you bring us to something, you will also bring us through it. My life is yours. Amen.

Pruning the Good and Not So Good

Pruning a rose bushHenry Cloud in his book, Necessary Endings, uses the analogy of pruning a rose bush as a way to show the importance of giving up activities and relationships in order to move forward. He describes three types of pruning.

The first type of pruning is to remove healthy buds. Because a rose bush produces more buds than it can sustain, it is important to prune some so that the bush will thrive. The excess of good buds could ultimately rob the bush of maximum health and production. As I have reflected on this type of pruning in recent weeks, I have identified two areas of involvement that I need to prune so that I can devote more energy to the other commitments in my life. I can become so immersed in doing many good things that I miss out on some of the best things that God has for me (or cannot give them the time and energy they deserve).

The second type of pruning is to remove branches that are sick or diseased. These branches will not recover and will continue to draw energy away from healthy branches until they are removed. What are the dysfunctional, unproductive areas in our lives that are siphoning off resources and keeping us from blooming in a maximum way?

The third type of pruning involves taking away dead branches. Their presence takes up space that hinders the growth of other branches.

Pruning is a necessary process for promoting health and vitality in the plant world and in our lives, as well. Cloud goes on to say (p. 13):

“Endings are a part of every aspect of life. When done well, the seasons of life are negotiated, and the proper endings lead to the end of pain, greater growth, personal and business goals reached, and better lives. Endings bring hope.

When done poorly, bad outcomes happen, good opportunities are lost, and misery either remains or is repeated. So let’s get empowered to choose the necessary endings, execute them well, and get to the better results we all desire.”

Amen!

Cloud, H. (2010). Necessary Endings. New York: Harper Business.

Listening to the Wise Voices of Reason

Speaking Up at a MeetingHave you ever been in a group conversation that completely changed direction after someone spoke up with a contrary viewpoint?

In Acts 5:17-42, we see that the Sanhedrin was furious with Peter and the apostles after they had defied their order to stop preaching in the name of Jesus. To make matters worse, the apostles had even accused the Jewish religious leaders of killing Jesus. The Sanhedrin was ready to stone the apostles when Gamaliel, a teacher of the law honoured by all the people, stood up in the assembly. He said, “Leave these men alone! Let them go! For if their purpose or activity is of human origin, it will fail. But if it is from God, you will not be able to stop these men; you will only find yourselves fighting against God” (Acts 5:38-39). Gamaliel injected a wise voice of reason into the heated discussion, which convinced the Sanhedrin not to do anything rash. His contrary viewpoint challenged the groupthink that was occurring and completely changed the direction and outcome of the discussion.

It’s so important that we listen to the “Gamaliels” on our teams who speak wisely and help to focus our discussions. Sometimes, it is the quiet team member who brings this kind of wisdom to the table. As leaders and group members, it’s important that we create and support an open and safe atmosphere where everyone can contribute their insights. When a “Gamaliel” speaks, let’s be quick to listen and heed the wise voice of reason even when it means changing our direction.

Blood Clot in Bali

Randy and Doctor in Bali HospitalWhile serving at an English Camp in Thailand, I noticed a persistent pain in my calf muscle. Just before flying to Indonesia for the second stage of the missions trip, I emailed a couple medical doctor friends back in Canada about the problem. When I arrived in Bali where I was do some leadership training with Christian radio station managers, I checked my emails and saw one from one of my doctor friends. He said in no uncertain terms, “Get to a hospital now and get it checked out.”

Within a few hours, I had a diagnosis. I had a blood clot just behind my knee probably caused by a lack of movement and liquids on the 15-hour flight from Vancouver to Bangkok (for those of you who are wondering why the calf muscle was sore, it was because the muscle was not getting enough oxygen). The hospital staff immediately started me on a daily regime of warfarin stomach injections to thin my blood and hopefully break up the clot safely. I was still able to do my leadership training, but had to stay a few extra days until my blood was thin enough to safely fly. I was pretty discouraged by it all and felt very lonely (okay, I admit, having this happen in Bali did make it slightly more bearable). I eventually did make it home and made a full recovery.

I’m not big on pain and suffering (I’ve been known to get woozy at the sight of blood or needles). Yet, I’m coming to realize that God can produce good results in and through me when I go through times of suffering. Even during my extended stay in Bali, I had the opportunity to share Christ with a taxi driver on my way to the hospital for one of my daily injections.

In Acts 4-5, we see that the apostles were facing increasing pressure from the Jewish religious leaders in the Sanhedrin. These leaders had already told the apostles to stop speaking about Jesus (Acts 4:18). However, the apostles chose to obey God, rather than people. The result - the Jewish leaders had them flogged. What amazes me is that the apostles left their flogging session, “rejoicing because they had been counted worthy of suffering disgrace for the Name” (Acts 5:41).

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