Thank-You Lou Riley: An Unexpected, Powerful Spiritual Experience

“Are you Lou?”

“Yes.”

“I’m Pastor Mark, from First Methodist Cocoa Beach.”

“You’re the new pastor?”

“Yes.”

“Well, come in!”

Within forty-five minutes of this awkward introduction, I would have an unexpected, powerful spiritual experience.

I’m ashamed to admit it, but I don’t like scheduling visits to shut-ins, hospitals, and nursing homes. Don’t get me wrong, when I’m actually spending time with people during visits, I’m always blessed, but it’s really hard to motivate myself to do it. It takes time to map out all the addresses, estimate travel times, and to call the day before to make sure they will be home when I’m in their area. Getting around to see everyone takes all day, and there are a hundred other things I would rather do. It’s easy to find excuses to put it off another week, and then another week, and then another week—saying to expectant family members and friends, “I really want to go visit your loved one, but things are just really busy right now.” Eventually, guilt and obligation motivate me and I drag myself out the door. Today was one of those days.

This is what brought me to Lou’s house.

Prior to this morning, I’d never met Lou. Our only contact was two months ago, when I called to set-up a visit. Despite my yelling into the phone several times, “I’M PASTOR MARK!” she couldn’t hear me and eventually just hung-up! Now I was standing at her door, wondering if she’d even invite me in.

Knock, knock, knock.

When the door open, I saw a reluctant elderly woman with obvious mobility issues. Although I too was a little reluctant, when I explained who I was, she immediately welcomed me in. My plan was to say up front, “I have many visits to make today, so I can only stay for about 15-30 minutes,” but she immediately began to talk and I didn’t have a chance to stage my quick escape.

Lou told me many stories about her life. I initially thought, “I’m going to be here awhile!” but as she reminisced about her life, I was drawn into her stories. She talked about her husband and children, proudly showing me pictures. She talked about her career, singing and dancing to entertain the troops during the Vietnam War. She explained how this provided her a chance to travel all over the world.

Excitement and joy bubbled to the surface as she reflected on her past, but then she looked at me and said, “Pastor, maybe you can help me with a question.”

“Why am I still here? I know that Jesus is keeping me alive for a reason, but I can’t figure it out. I pray all the time, but I can’t figure out why I’m still here.”

“I’m not sure, Lou. When the time is right, are you ready to go?”

“Why, yes! I want to go! But I don’t know why I am still alive. I can’t do anything anymore, other than walk around my apartment, touch all my things, remember the past, and say, ‘Thank- you Jesus.’ But I’m even a problem to my children. My daughter calls me a few times a day just to say something nice to me, and my son, Skipper, comes over all the time. But I don’t know why I’m still here.”

If you didn’t know, I’m well trained for these kinds for questions, so I started with good theology! “Well, Lou, the purpose of human life is a loving relationship with God. As we experience all of God’s good gifts, we grow in gratitude, and the more thankful we are the more we can praise Him. You have told me many stories, and I can see that your heart is full of gratitude. As you pray throughout the day, thanking God for all His gifts, God delights in you—your life is a blessing to God.”

I sat back in my chair thinking, “That was pretty good.”

She briefly pondered my points, talked a little more, and then repeated the question again: “Why am I still here?”

I leaned in to make another theological argument. “You said that you were a problem to your kids, but I think if they were here they would say that you are not a problem and that they love you very mu . . .”

“Well, yes, I know that!” she interrupted.

I jumped back into the conversation to complete my thought: “Well, maybe you’re still here because you bring joy to their lives and they still need you for some reason.”

While she was grateful for my efforts, my answers were not convincing. After an awkward pause, she abruptly said, “It’s probably your lunch time, so I should let you go.”

In that moment, I felt an opportunity slipping away. I took off my theology hat and said, “Can I tell you one more thing before I go?”

“Well, sure!”

I looked at her with complete sincerity and said, “You have really blessed me today. I didn’t know what to expect when I walked in, but listening to your stories has brought me joy.”

Her eyes welled-up with tears, and through a faint smile she said, “Well, maybe that’s why you are here. To tell me that I’m not worthless.”

I was stunned and broken hearted at the same time. “You are not worthless,” I insisted. “You are a bright light in this world, and you bring many people joy just by being here.”

“That’s it!”

She raised her hands in the air, slapped my leg, and look at me as if she had just won the lottery.

“Jesus sent you here to tell me that I’m not worthless! JESUS SENT YOU HERE! Jesus sent you here . . . to tell me that I’m not worthless! Thank-you Jesus! THANK-YOU JESUS! Thank-you Jesus.”

She grabbed my hands: “We have to pray now.”

“Thank-you Jesus for sending this young man to tell me that I’m not worthless. He is your messenger, and you have sent him to me today to cheer me up. I didn’t even know I needed cheering, but I did. Thank you for sending him to me. May his sweet face and gentle voice go and comfort others today. Thank-you Jesus.”

(Now I’m bawling like a baby.) She squeezes my hand and goes silent. That means it’s my turn.

“Thank-you Jesus for sending me to Lou. She has brought me so much joy in these few moments, and through her love you have reminded me of my calling. I didn’t know that I needed to hear it, but you have reminded me, too, that I’m not worthless. We are your children, you love us, and we have value. Thank-you Jesus. Amen.”

Still holding hands, we lifted our heads. As we looked into each other’s tear-fractured eyes, we both knew that we were beholding the face of Christ. The presence of the Holy Spirit was so palpable in that moment that I felt the world shift under my feet. It was one of those rare times when eternity breaks through the mundane and grace floods into your soul. We both experienced resurrection.

The irony in all of this doesn’t escape me. While God may have sent me to tell Lou that she was not worthless, God was reminding me that I’m not worthless either, and that I have been called to be a messenger of love and hope, especially to the lonely and forgotten. God was reminding me that sometimes the biggest blessings come when we are doing things that we aren’t particularly excited about doing, and that Christ is most powerfully present when people share their brokenness in moments of honesty.

Thank-you Jesus for sending Lou to me!

(The picture above is of items that Lou gave me during our visit.)

Why Culture Is More Important Than Programs When Trying to Grow Your Church

If you want your church to grow, you need to focus less on programs and more on culture.

Effective marketing, strategic preaching, and good online ministries can help get people through the door. If newcomers experience warm hospitality and some of their needs are met in worship, they might even stick around for a few months. But if people don’t develop a sense of belonging in the larger community within the first three months of attending, they will likely go looking somewhere else. Most people crave life-giving friendships in a genuine community of love, and this is the main reason why people stay at a church.

This is why the first part of our mission statement at First UMC Cocoa Beach is so important to me. It reads, “Our mission is to learn and practice the teachings of Jesus in ways that create communities of love . . .” In many churches, first, you are expected to believe certain things. Second, you are expected to behave in certain ways. Third, you finally get to belong, which is typically formalized in official church membership. However, if you are trying to grow your church, these priorities must be reversed. First, you should accept people where they are, so that from the beginning they experience a sense of belonging. Second, you should model how followers of Jesus treat each other when cultivating a community of love. Third, you should offer a lifegiving theology that can sustain and support deep spiritual transformation in the real world.

In growing churches, believe—behave—belong gets switched to belong—behave—believe.

The important point is that if people do not experience a sense of belonging in a community of love, then your odds of keeping them in your church will drastically decrease. And if you can’t keep them around, you will never change their beliefs or behavior.

 Communities of Love

What distinguishes a community of love has everything to do with the way that people treat each other. The New Testament is instructive.

Take for example Colossians 3-4. The author instructs followers of Jesus to die to self (ego), and to resist anger, rage, malice, slander, and abusive or critical language (3:8, CEB). He also tells them not to lie to each other (3:9).

After explaining what must be eradicated, the author goes on to say that we should treat each other with “compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience” (3:12). Followers of Jesus are called to clothe themselves in love, exercise tolerance, practice forgiveness, and be united in peace (3:13-14). Our attitude should be characterized by gratitude (4:2), our speech should be gracious (4:6), and everything we do should honor Jesus (3:17).

Likewise, the author of 1 Thessalonians says that we should live in peace with one another, respect each other, and build each other up (5:11-12, CEB).

Organizational Culture

How we treat each other over time creates a unique culture. Organizational culture can be a difficult concept to grasp, but it is like the water in which fish swim. Healthy culture is like clean water in which wildlife thrive, and unhealthy culture is like toxic water that destroys an ecosystem. Another helpful metaphor is that of eyeglasses. Healthy culture is like a good prescription that helps us see our relationships accurately, and unhealthy culture is like a prescription that distorts how we see ourselves and others.

If we are not intentional about eradicating attitudes and behaviors that destroy loving community, then our church culture will be dysfunctional and toxic. Paul describes the kinds of things that characterize toxic culture: hostility, strife, jealousy, envy, conceit, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, and competition (Gal. 5:19-21). However, if we are serious about following Jesus, we can cultivate a healthy culture supportive of communities characterized by love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. (Gal 5:19-26)

Drawing from passages such as these, we can clearly distinguish between healthy and toxic organizational cultures.

COMMUNITIES OF LOVE COMMUNITIES OF DESTRUCTION
Positive Negative
Hopeful Despairing and Cynical
Optimistic Pessimistic
Joyful Disagreeable
Generous Withholding and Critical
Gracious Demanding
Gentle Harsh
Kind Dismissive or Nasty
Courteous Rude and Crass
Forgiving Unrelenting
Respectful Demeaning
Flexible Rigid
Helpful Obstructive
Compassionate Judgmental
Humble Arrogant
Patient Compulsive and Reactionary
Thankful Unappreciative
Builds-Up Tears-Down
Self-Sacrificial Self-Serving
Open to Feedback Defensive and Blaming
Direct, Respectful Communication Gossip and Backbiting
Peace Conflict and Anger
Unified Divided
Accountability Anything Goes

Who in their right mind would want to invest in a community characterized by the qualities in the right-hand column? A culture built around these kinds of attitudes and behaviors will run-off every single newcomer who has a modicum of emotional health. This kind of culture literally repels people.

In contrast, who in their right mind would not want to invest in a community characterized by the qualities in the left-hand column? A culture built around these kinds of attitudes and behaviors attracts people, because it creates safe environments where people can learn, grow, and change.

 Leaders as Cultural Architects

So, how do you grow a healthy culture? It starts with your leaders. The number one predictor of organizational culture is the way leaders treat each other and those they serve. If your leaders do not understand and seek to embody attitudes and behaviors that reflect the value system of the Kingdom of God, then you will probably never cultivate a culture in which communities of love can grow and flourish.

Consequently, if you want your church to grow then your number one priority should be discipleship. The pastor, staff, and leaders must seek to follow Jesus daily and be transformed in ways that make them more loving. Remember, you can’t share what you don’t have. If the pastor, staff, and lay leaders are not willing to treat everyone in ways that reflect the teachings of Jesus, your church will not grow. It’s that simple.

This means that a handful of people at the top who are left unaccountable to the gospel can poison your entire culture and keep the church from fulfilling its mission. The reason is because the attitudes and behaviors of your leaders are contagious and will create an invisible but pervasive presence that will either feel emotionally safe or dangerous. The former will attract and the latter will repel.

Since change is difficult, if you are working within an unhealthy culture you will need to do at least three things with your staff and leaders to accomplish lasting change: (1) clearly communicate the attitudes and behaviors that are acceptable and unacceptable, (2) put effective accountability systems in place, and (3) regularly and consistently apply these accountability systems until the culture changes and you have the right people in place. (Not to discourage you, but some studies show that creating lasting culture change can take up to seven years.) Leaders must be firm and gracious, remembering that none of us follows Jesus perfectly. However, we should cast God-sized goals for our relationships, and when we fall short of our goal it should lead to repentance and renewed effort.

Culture > Programs / Maturity > Execution of Skill

The upshot of all this, is that churches should focus less on programs and events and more on developing a healthy, loving culture reflective of the values lived and taught by Jesus. In terms of hiring, managing, and disciplining staff, supervisors should focus less on talent and execution of skill and more on attitude, commitment, and spiritual/emotional maturity. This means that the primary job of the pastor is not to be a manager of ministries, but a spiritual leader making disciples that make more disciples. So, the order of importance in evaluating staff and leaders should be: (1) faithfulness in discipleship, (2) commitment to working cooperatively to accomplish the mission of Jesus, and (3) execution of skill and accomplishing mutually agreed upon performance goals.

Accountability Tools:

There are two resources that I have found helpful in discipling staff and leaders when trying to effect cultural change.

Faithfulness and Fruitfulness Accountability Sheets

Before a one-on-one staff meeting, I require everyone to complete a “Faithfulness and Fruitfulness Accountability Sheet.” The idea for this kind of worksheet came from Jorge Acevedo’s book, Vital. This is what we use at First UMC Cocoa Beach:

Faithfulness and Fruitfulness Accountability Sheet

Name: _____________________________

Date:   _______

  1. Faithfulness: How is it with your soul? Are you abiding with Jesus?

“Remain in me, and I will remain in you. A branch can’t produce fruit by itself, but must remain in the vine. Likewise, you can’t produce fruit unless you remain in me” (John 15:4).

  • How is your personal devotional life?
  • How have you denied Jesus this week?
  • How have you glorified Jesus this week?
  • How are your most important relationships?
  • On a scale of 1-10 how have you lived into the following biblical values:

______    I have been positive, optimistic, and hopeful

______    I have been flexible and open to feedback

______    I have been gracious, generous, compassionate, and forgiving

______    I have been humble, respectful, kind, and polite

______    I have been joyful, thankful, and content

______    I have directly shared concerns only with appropriate people (no gossip).

______    I ‘m pursuing excellence while being encouraging to those I serve.

______    I’m working cooperatively with others to accomplish the mission of the church.

  1. Fruitfulness: How is it with your ministry? Are you abounding with Jesus?

“Therefore, my dear brothers and sisters, stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain” (1 Corinthians 15:58).

  • Program and Administrative Staff: Where are you in your long-range strategic planning? (You should develop 3, 6, and 12 month SMART goals that will help accomplish the mission of the larger church.)
  • All Staff: What progress have you made in your work plan?
  • What do you need to Stop? Start? Continue?
  • What challenges are you facing and what do you need to be successful in your specific area of ministry?
  • How are you serving, nurturing, discipling, training, developing, and resourcing your volunteers? How are you growing those in your care individually and as a team?
  • How can I hold you accountable for your area of ministry?

 ____________________________________________________________

The day before a meeting, I ask the staff person to spend some time praying and reflecting on the questions outlined in the worksheet, writing-in short responses. At the beginning of our meeting, they give the completed sheets to me and we spend about thirty minutes on each section (totaling one hour). Every three months, I give them feedback on how I think that they are doing, creating change plans where necessary. Honesty is very important in this process.  The supervisor must be willing to initiate difficult conversations, and the leaders must be willing to receive feedback without deflecting or blaming.

Social Covenants

A second tool that is helpful in creating cultural change is the social covenant, which I learned from Rev. David McEntire. After making sure that your leaders understand and embrace the church mission, go away on a retreat and work with them to develop agreements regarding how you will treat each other. Importantly, the pastor should not write a covenant (or borrow one from another church) and impose it on their team. Rather, the pastor leads a discussion using the four questions below, which empowers the leaders to develop something that belongs to them. Ownership is critical if the covenant is going to work.

  1. How does the leader want to be treated by the team?
  2. How does the team want to be treated by the leader?
  3. How are the members of the team going to treat each other?
  4. How is the team going to resolve conflict?

Once adequate brainstorming has happened in a group setting, a couple of people from the team who are skilled writers are delegated to organize, distill, and write a rough draft. The draft is then brought back to the team for final revisions. Once a final draft has been written, all leaders sign it around the margins of the first page, which is then copied and distributed. The first ten minutes of every meeting is used to silently reflect on the covenant and publicly self-rate on a scale of 1-10. No one rates anyone else, and no feedback is given (positive or negative) unless the person sharing explicitly asks for it. If the covenant is not used in this kind of way, it will become a useless piece of paper.

Conclusion

These tools are not perfect, and there are many others you can use. But the main idea is that if you want your church to grow then you must focus on cultivating spiritual and emotional maturity in your leaders. You must help them develop the attitudes and behaviors necessary to create and nurture communities of love. Don’t focus on programs, events, and hiring a superstar staff. Focus on discipleship, spiritual maturity, and cultivating a loving culture that models the values system of the kingdom of God.

The Power of Weakness: How Attempts to Be Strong Lead to Impotence

No one likes to be weak. It’s one of our greatest fears. For most, weakness is something to be avoided at all costs because it’s associated with powerlessness, deficiency, and victimhood. We fear that even the appearance of weakness in this dog-eat-dog world will lead to exploitation and all kinds of injustice. While those rendered weak by age, infirmity, or disability mighty be pitied, more often the weak are scorned and derided.

There is evidence for this in every sphere of human existence. Politics at every level includes scathing critiques of “weak leaders” and endless promises to restore the disenfranchised to power. Currently, a significant group of people in America would rather endorse a xenophobic, egomaniacal strongman who promises to restore nationalistic power than candidates who demonstrate even a smidgen of honesty, respect, temperance, and intelligence. Western culture itself is based on a value system of success, and success requires the acquisition of personal power to overcome obstacles on the way to realizing our dreams. Indeed, all of our relationships (not excluding those with close friends and family members), are perpetually wounded by various kinds of power struggles.

Regardless of the situation, human beings tend to act on the assumption that the world is a dangerous place, and that individuals must act with great personal strength to deter potential threats and secure their own safety, reputation, upward mobility, and possessions. Conversely, we assume that if we are weak then we’ll be exploited, victimized, and left-behind to suffer misfortune. In many ways, we have reduced the essence of human life to gaining, cultivating, and leveraging personal power so we can secure ourselves and avoid losing anything of value.

This is why it’s so difficult for us to truly understand the gospel of Jesus, which is about God overcoming the world through the weakness of Christ. Even more difficult to understand is the idea that God continues to overcome the world, not through strongmen who exert top-down power with money, guns, and contemptuous rhetoric, but through the weakness of those who surrender to a crucified savior. Consider the Apostle Paul, who after having glorious visions and revelations from God was given a “thorn . . . in the flesh” to keep him aware of the true source of power. “Three times I appealed to the Lord about this, that it would leave me, but he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for [my] power is made perfect in weakness’” (2 Corinthians 12:8-9).

One of the hardest lessons that God continues to teach me is that the more I flex my muscles the weaker I become. My fear, insecurity, and vulnerability are proportionate to my insistence on securing and protecting my own interests. Why? Because real power does not come from me, it comes from God. When I exercise personal power in attempts to gain control and accomplish my own agenda, it forces the power of God to the margins of my life. The more I posture, position, and protect, the less space there is for the power of God to move in any given situation. But as soon as I acknowledge my weakness, surrender to God, and move my ego out of the way, divine power begins to work in mysterious and unexpected ways to accomplish greater purposes. This is why Paul says, “So, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me” (v. 9b). These are strange words to people who are fearful of even the appearance of weakness and are hell-bent on cultivating a personal power strong enough to secure themselves. But even more difficult to hear (maybe even impossible without the Holy Spirit) is what Paul says next: “Therefore, I am content with weakness, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ; for whenever I am weak, then I am strong” (v. 10).

If we don’t grasp this essential truth in the gospel, then the power we work so hard to attain will eventually destroy us. Jesus says that if we try to save our life we will lose it, but if we are willing to lose our life then we will gain it (Luke 17:33). Is it possible that in our very efforts to avoid weakness and exert strength that we are sowing the seeds of our own destruction? Can those who abhor weakness ever experience the true power of God? In all of this, we do well to ponder the power of weakness, because weakness has the power to get us out of the way so that God’s power can move through us to accomplish greater things.

If you liked this article, then you might like others by Pastor Mark:

“Take Up Your Glock and Follow Me: Whatever Happened to Martyrdom?”