Wednesday, February 29, 2012

"Learning to Sit on the Leadership Rock" by Garris Elkins

We have all read the story in Exodus 17 about Moses on the mountaintop holding up his staff while Joshua and the troops were down in the valley fighting the Amalekites.  If Moses held his staff up above his head the troops would win, but if he dropped his hands they would lose.

The people Joshua was fighting that day were the Amalekites, the descendants of Esau. Esau was the man who sold his birthright for a bowl of stew.  He was an opportunist whose life was defined by meeting his pressing needs in the moment and thereby forfeiting his future. 

The Amalekites were a nation of nomadic herders who traveled from one patch of green grass to another in order to feed their flocks.  In Deuteronomy the battle fought is Exodus 17 is retold by saying the Amalekites would attack the rear of a column of people to take down the weak and weary.  They were opportunists like their ancestor, Esau. Their tactics resembled a pack of wolves.

On the day of the battle Moses told Joshua to go and fight the Amalekites. Moses also told Joshua that he would go up on the mountain and raise his staff during the battle.  This staff had played an important role in recent activities in the nation of Israel and the people knew it represented God’s power and authority. Moses also took Aaron and Hur with him.

The battle plan Moses set out would make practically minded people uncomfortable.  The practically minded would say, “All hands on deck, Moses – we need everyone in the battle. Pray later – its time to fight.” The problem with God’s battle plans is that they are never very practical. Some of the most important ingredients in God’s plan for victory make no sense to a natural way of thinking.

If we allow ourselves to be held hostage to only practical solutions for spiritual challenges, we will shut the door on those steps of faith or prophetic acts that are sometimes required of us in order to live a supernatural life.  The battle Joshua would fight that day would be determined more by what happened on the mountaintop in prayer, than what took place on the actual battlefield.

The text reads, 11 “As long as Moses held up the staff in his hand, the Israelites had the advantage. But whenever he dropped his hand, the Amalekites gained the advantage. 12 Moses’ arms soon became so tired he could no longer hold them up. So Aaron and Hur found a stone for him to sit on. Then they stood on each side of Moses, holding up his hands. So his hands held steady until sunset. 13 As a result, Joshua overwhelmed the army of Amalek in battle.”

What caught my attention was the use of the stone.  When Moses went up on the mountain I am sure he had no thought of sitting on a rock.  He saw himself standing tall with the staff held high above his head.  That is a dramatic posture, but one that is not possible to hold long term.

It had become obvious that the original plan was not going to work.  Each time Moses got tired and dropped his hands, some of his men died.  Hands up and people lived. Aaron and Hur saw what was taking place.  They looked around for something for Moses to sit on and provided him with the stone.

Aaron and Hur were responsible to bring the stone because Moses was focused on the life and death task of holding up his staff.  One of Moses’ greatest leadership acts would be his willingness to sit on the rock that others had provided.

Two principles of leadership emerge in this text. First, those leading need to be willing to assume a posture of ministry that was unplanned and allows them to do what God has called them to do without burning out before the victory comes.  Plans change and leaders must be willing to adjust.

Our victory always comes from a place of rest.  That is the nature of living in God’s grace and favor. Being a leader carries with it the danger of thinking that our original plan will work long term. The reality is that somewhere in the battle we may realize that we need that unplanned stone seat if we are going to finish well.

The second reality is our posture of ministry – working from a place of rest - allows others to have access to our gift in order to bring a victory in the current battle. Followers are fueled from a leader who leads from a place of rest. It is also easier for them to access your arms if you are seated. Everybody trying to hold the staff above their heads would have looked dramatic, but that posture would not last long-term. All three of them would have grown weary and dropped their arms and the staff. This becomes a prescription for corporate fatigue.

I am beginning to think that one of the roles of leadership is learning when to sit and the role of those who serve leadership is to find rocks for their leaders to sit upon. 

Peter faced a similar challenge in Acts 6 when people were complaining that the widows were being overlooked in the daily distribution of food.  At the crisis point in that situation Peter sat down on his ministry rock and said, “We apostles should spend our time teaching the word of God, not running a food program. 3 And so, brothers, select seven men who are well respected and are full of the Spirit and wisdom. We will give them this responsibility. 4 Then we apostles can spend our time in prayer and teaching the word.”  Peter was wise enough to meet the practical needs of ministry without abandoning his calling. He sat down on his rock of prayer and teaching the word.

Wise leaders learn the importance of sitting on the rock of their unique gifting and assignment. They also understand the importance of incorporating a practically minded approach to ministry along with an apostolic minded approach to ministry.  In Exodus 17 there was a battle being fought in the valley and another battle being fought on the mountain. Both battles needed to be engaged.

This kind of leadership style will require courage to feel comfortable being up on the mountain while the troops are in battle down in the valley.  It will also require that those called to serve leadership know where to find the rocks for their leaders to sit upon so that we all don’t burn out trying to do things in our own practically minded strength.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

"Religious Mannequins" by Garris Elkins

When I was a street cop, I remember vividly what it was like to get ready for duty each night.  I would stand in front of my locker at the police station and change out of my street clothes into my police uniform.  I remember wearing jump boots – the kind paratroopers wear that keep your footing sure in the dark shadows of the night.  I wore a bulletproof vest under my uniform shirt that could stop a handgun round. 

Those big black duty belts that police officers wear are called “Sam Browne” belts after some officer name “Sam Browne” who invented them. On my Sam Browne belt I carried Mace, handcuffs, extra handgun ammunition, my nightstick and my Smith and Wesson Model 19, .357 magnum revolver. On top of carrying around all this gear, I stayed in top physical condition and studied martial arts.  I was about as ready for battle as a cop could be.

It never crossed my mind that I did all that training and wore all that gear so that when some threat would come my way I would just stand there and think that what I was wearing would somehow save me without me actually using it.  Where did some well-meaning believers ever come to understand Paul’s words in Ephesians 6 to mean that we are to put on all the armor of God and take up the sword of His Word and the shield of faith and then, in the heat of battle, just stand there and let the devil take us apart?

God's armor and weapons were never given to us to only possess, wearing them like some religious mannequin. There were given to us for aggressive and violent resistance to evil. "Therefore, put on every piece of God's armor so you will be able to resist in the enemy in time of evil. Then after the battle you will still be standing firm." Ephesians 6:13

According to Paul, only those who engage the battle will remain standing after the fight. If we don’t fight we won’t survive. Marriages will fail, ministries will fall apart and destinies will never be realized unless the fully equipped believer stands their ground and engages the threat with the overwhelming force of Christ’s death and resurrection.

I have come to realize that spiritual warfare is a violent series of actions that play out in real life and death scenarios.  Don’t ever let someone tell you that you can go to your spiritual locker and put on all the things a believer should possess for battle and then just stand still in front of the devil and his minions and expect a victory. Paul said it well, “Then after the battle you will still be standing firm.” Battle requires an engagement.  

Saturday, February 18, 2012

"Circular Teaching" by Garris Elkins

A few Easters ago, I did something I had never done before – I did not focus my teaching on the cross or the tomb.  Please don’t misunderstand me, I did speak about these two profound events, but I went further and preached about the destination of these Easter events - the Throne of Christ. 

As I prepared that Easter Sunday message the Lord spoke clearly to me, “The cross is empty.  The tomb is empty. But the throne is occupied.” That Easter I shared with the church where Christ is now seated as the result of His gaining victory over sin and death.  I taught about the Lord’s need to go through the experiences of the cross and the tomb to get to the throne.  When it was all over that Easter morning, I felt refreshed.  Something had changed in me.

Over the years my teaching about this high day on the Church calendar had become circular.  Year after year, I had gone over the same facts about the death and resurrection of Jesus without realizing that there is always something more that He wants to show us.

If you look at the yearly preaching calendar of most pastors you will find a lot of repetition.  In fact, if you come from a more mainline denomination your teaching schedule may actually be laid out for you year after year.  The same teachings come to be expected at the same time on the same Sundays.  This way of teaching and preaching can end up leading the sheep in well-known circles of understanding instead of into new seasons of revelation.

Alan Hirsch posted an article on his Facebook wall titled, “The Exiling of APE’s.” If you are not familiar with Alan’s APEST test you would think from the title that he was talking about segregating apes in a zoo.  It’s not – the “APE” stands for, “Apostle, Prophet and Evangelist.”  The other two in the APEST chain are the Shepherd and Teacher that round out the list Paul gave us in Ephesians 4:11.

In this well-written article Alan talks about the result of only a Shepherd-Teacher led ministry where equilibrium is the end result.  To a Shepherd-Teacher if a ministry can be made stable enough then all is well. If the APE’s aren’t allowed to come in and shake-up this equilibrium, the Shepherd-Teachers could eventually lead a congregation into decline and eventual death.

Alan said this about equilibrium,

“So, for instance, the Shepherd and Teacher (ST) will tend to design more stable environments where people can learn to relate and grow in their understanding of the faith.  However, as the learning and maturing are to be lifelong activities, communities led primarily by these ST’s will lack urgency and will likely concentrate on issues relating to long-term sustainability.  The net result will be to move inexorably towards a state of what living systems theorists call equilibrium.”

Equilibrium sounds good until we realize that it can produce death in the end.

Hirsch continued,

“The ST functions are ones that bring needed equilibrium into the system.  And this is completely necessary for long-term sustainability—few can survive in chaos situations for too long.  The problem however, arises when the ST functions become disengaged from the full APEST system. The result is that much needed balancing with disequilibrium producing ministries is undone.  When this happens, the dialectical pressure is removed and equilibrium becomes a settled state…and when a living system is in perfect equilibrium it is effectively dead.”

This state of equilibrium is the result of many contributing factors.  One factor can be how we preach and teach. If our teaching calendar has lived in a state of repetitive equilibrium for a few years something needs to change.

About the time I was processing how to teach on Easter, I was also processing the words of the writer of Hebrews in chapter 6:1,

“So let us stop going over the basic teaching about Christ again and again.”

What struck me was the “again and again” part.

Hebrews 6 goes on to list some subjects considered basic to any teaching calendar (not ever to be tossed, but to be built upon) like, repenting from evil deeds, placing our faith in God, baptisms, laying on of hands, the resurrection of the dead and eternal judgment. If you have not taught on these do so. They are valuable and indispensible foundation stones.

After this list of the basics is defined, verse 3 concludes the thought by saying,

“And so, God willing, we will move forward to further understanding.” 

It was this “further understanding” that God revealed to me on that Easter a few years ago.  God had broken the equilibrium in my teaching about Easter.

I have begun to look for other places in my ministry where I have settled for equilibrium and simply doing the same things over “again and again”. This can be a scary journey unless we know this is how God moves His Church forward.  It is a good thing!

2,000 years ago the faith that was once delivered to the Church was never meant to be something fully understood and grasped in total the moment is was dropped into our lives.  Revelation allows us to unpack the package of truth in a forward motion towards a fuller understanding of what we already possess. We build line upon line, precept upon precept in our understanding of this expanding Kingdom of God upon the earth.

God’s revelation was never intended to be parked in some repetitive cycle of doing church.  God has given us other gifts (here come the APE’s) within the equipping gifts list to help us break out of these death spirals of ministry equilibrium as they spin us downwards towards an eventual crash.

This week, as you prepare something to share, ask God for help to move you forward into the expanding revelation of His truth for your congregation.  Yes, cover the basics, but never think they are the destination – they are only stepping stones that are leading you to a greater revelation of Christ. 

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

"The Leadership Pendulum" by Garris Elkins

I remember the first time I heard a concept that I knew was a leadership principle.  At the time I was in my 20’s and studying for the ministry. A wise leader said the Church is like a pendulum – it is constantly swinging back and forth to find a place of balance.  As the years have gone by I’ve come to realize that this pendulum never stops, but continues to swing from side to side as the Church enters and departs different seasons of life and development.

I have lived long enough to see the Church change and transition over time.  I have seen the pendulum swing widely through areas of understanding in gender roles, the ministry of the Spirit, interpretations of God’s sovereignty and a host of other issues.  

This continuous motion of the pendulum is not because God is unsettled, or even that the Church is neurotic; it is because from our viewpoint we only see things in part, not the whole, and all of us are on a constant search for balance.

This is how the Church moves forward – we advance by reconciling imbalance.  Someone once told me that the very act of walking is a linked to a series of movements that have us seeking balance with each new step.  To walk forward we need to let go of our last foothold and pass through a swinging gait of imbalance to gain a new balanced foothold.   

The pendulum of the Church continues to swing because in any given moment we are out of balance in our current understanding about what God is doing upon the earth. I am not saying what we currently understand is wrong – it is simply not yet fully developed, no matter how mature we think we are. There is always more than we are seeing in any given moment.

Our tendency is to park our comprehension of God and His Kingdom somewhere along the timeline of certain events or revelations that we have experienced. When this happens we begin to build our concept of ministry around that stationary observation. The outcome of this way of thinking is that we actually stop growing and learning. Narrow vision sets in and we begin to view life and ministry with the blinders on.  From this stationary posture we can begin to construct a defensive compound from which to protect our limited understanding against any perceived change from outside our position.

The pendulum has been swinging throughout the entire history of the Church.  I think this is actually God’s plan.  Growing things are never static.  Motion means you are alive.

Just when I think I fully understand a point of theology, or how the Church should be led, or what the best model is for doing church on Sunday morning, God will lovingly take me to a wider and more expanded view of what He is accomplishing in His people.   He does this by showing me the smallness of what I have chosen to see. Realizing the smallness of my own vision allows me to repent and begin to live in greater humility and see the value of differing opinions than the one I hold.

Realizing we don’t know all things keeps us open to expanding our circle of fellowship to include others who may not process life like us.  A willingness to admit my limited understanding deconstructs the pride that comes when I think I fully see and understand all that is happening along the swinging arc of the pendulum.

I have learned a few things as I have watched this swinging pendulum of understanding within the Church.

I have learned that I need to be careful to not capture and define what I think God is doing, mid-swing in the pendulum arc, and build a definition around that limited understanding.  The leaders I observe, who lead from a place of peace, are not trying to get the pendulum to stop so they can define something.  These leaders step back and watch the pendulum from a distance and try to anticipate in what direction God is taking His Church and then begin to move their lives and ministries in that direction. 

I have learned that it is wise to resist the urge to park our understanding anywhere along the arc of a developing principle. At the point where we park we become irrelevant in our ability to engage developing realities and emerging generations of leadership. To finish well means that we must remain mobile in the way we think about our lives and ministries so that past seasons don’t define us. 

I have learned that the older a person gets the more the desire surfaces to return to “the good old days”. This desire must be seen as a warning that we are not engaging the moment.  We all have preferences and life-experiences that warm our hearts. They were never intended to lead us, rather, they are to be stones of remembrance left behind along the trail of our developing journey.  The destination is always out in front.

Finally, I have learned that the pendulum is a teacher.  Too many times I have felt I had some current issue all figured out and then God had me sit in front of the swinging pendulum and simply watch.  As I watched, I realized that some of what I thought ten years ago I no longer processed the same way today.  Those people and ministries I disapproved of years ago are now closer in thought and fellowship to me than ever before. The swinging pendulum has taught me let go of snap judgments and it has freed me to wait awhile until the pendulum swings back my way with a new and clearer understanding of what is taking place in the Church.