Sunday, January 31, 2010

Three Things People Love or Hate About...

“What do you love or hate about a visit to your dentist?”

That’s a question I often asked when developing dental centres. While informal surveys may seem simplistic, they can provide profound insight that goes right to the core of your business model.

It doesn't take long before you are able to discern three key things that people love – or conversely, hate – about your industry and your competitors. Deliberately design and differentiate your business around Disney-like delivery of the ‘love’ factors, purposefully eliminate the ‘hate’ factors, and you may just be on to something!

In dentistry, we discovered that people love to be seen on time, and hate to be kept waiting. They love to be remembered as a person, and hate to be treated as a number. And, they hate paying the bill – especially when it seems so expensive, but appreciate choices that are clearly communicated.

We found these three things so consistently true that the concepts became imbedded in our culture. Treating people in a timely and caring manner, and using plain language to communicate cost-effective services showed up in our values, daily activities, peer reviews and evaluations, bonuses, on comment cards, and was celebrated at staff meetings.

We built an extraordinarily successful business around the answers to one simple question.

So, what three things do people love or hate about your business?

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Making Sense of Haiti

It’s not easy to explain with authority or convincing clarity why God might allow bad things to happen to good people. Accepting that the mysteries of divine wisdom are difficult to discern is what forms the foundation of faith. Yet in the aftermath of the Haitian disaster we see tangible evidence of answered prayer.

Jesus taught us to pray: “… ‘Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name, 10 your kingdom come, your will be done…’ ” [1] What is his will? When asked which commandment is greatest, “37 Jesus replied: “ ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’a 38 This is the first and greatest commandment. 39 And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’b…” ” [2]

The world has rallied around the Haitian cause. In the midst of suffering, God turns the hearts, souls, and minds of the world to love of neighbour. This is people doing what people were created to do.

Many have felt compelled to pray not only for victims and survivors, but especially for rescue and relief workers, and the people who support them through small sacrifices of their own. May God’s Spirit be with them!

[1] The Holy Bible : New International Version. electronic ed. Grand Rapids : Zondervan, 1996, c1984, S. Mt 6:9-10

a Deut. 6:5

b Lev. 19:18

[2] The Holy Bible : New International Version. electronic ed. Grand Rapids : Zondervan, 1996, c1984, S. Mt 22:37-40

Friday, January 22, 2010

When a Benefit Ceases Being a Benefit

Yesterday, I received a call from a good friend and former co-worker. Cheryl (not her real name) has a naturally giving spirit, and has earned a reputation for going beyond the call of duty in order to serve her clients, coworkers, and company.

The topic of our conversation concerned her frustration with a present employer’s take on what she believed to be a straightforward policy with respect to an employee benefit. The issue was admittedly minor, but justifiably frustrating all the same.

Cheryl has a knack for finding good deals – both at work and home. The benefit in question concerned employee reimbursement for supplies used in the workplace. The reimbursement amount had a set limit which, to date, all employees had used to the maximum. When Cheryl discovered a way to purchase double the supplies for the same price, she found her benefit cut in half, and felt she was being penalized for being frugal.

Proverbs 18:17 reads: “The first to present his case seems right, till another comes forward and questions him.” It’s easy to see Cheryl’s point: she found a way to create greater value for her employer, and her employer illogically rejected her effort. As a result of Cheryl’s effort however, the employer had now discovered a way to reduce the overall cost of the originally intended reimbursement.

The question is not, and never is, about who is right and who is wrong. Most employee benefits are originally established with good intentions and with the hope of attracting and retaining good employees. Happy and conscientious employees help to create a pleasant and profitable workplace.

Now here’s the point: When an employee benefit becomes a contentious issue, it ceases to be an employee benefit. Many readers would be surprised to discover that the amount at issue in this story was only twenty-five dollars.

Turning benefits into barriers is surprisingly common. Employers can guard against inadvertently alienating employees by following these guidelines:

  1. Before introduction of any new benefit, carefully consider what you are hoping to achieve.
  2. Clearly communicate the purpose and parameters of all employee benefits – in writing!
  3. Always remember why you established the benefit in the first place, and be prepared to alter it in favour of your employees when you discover that perception has changed.
  4. Quietly congratulate yourself for elegantly adapting to change, and continuing to lead a happy and productive team.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

What I Now Know About Stress

Stress occurs when two or more forces are acting in non-complementary directions.

In the workplace, people become stressed when they feel pressure to perform beyond their ability, under unreasonable time pressure, or without support required for realistic expectation of success. I have often believed workplace stress to be something largely self-inflicted. I mean, do superiors really expect their staff to accomplish more than is humanly possible? Apparently, sometimes, they do.

We all need, on occasion, to push ourselves beyond what we think possible. George Bernard Shaw wrote: “The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.”

Effective employers set expectations high and, at the same time, guard against excessive transference of their own stress onto employees. Healthy employees should know that they are expected to do their absolute best – and no more.

On a personal level, in leading an organization I recently encountered stress as essentially a battle between must and can’t. In this case, can’t eventually prevailed, and the pain subsided. The bittersweet discovery is that we truly can emerge stronger and wiser from all the twisting and pulling of stress.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Five Findings from Failure

Acquiring and bringing a business back from the brink can be an exhilarating experience, but what makes it so, is the ever-present possibility of failure. Failure is one of the best ways to really learn things we thought we already knew. Here are five findings from a failed turnaround attempt:

People: The management team that caused the problem, or failed to prevent it, will almost never be capable of contributing to the solution. Loyalty won’t help; change your team – fast!

Urgency: Have a plan ready to go before you start. There’s no time to learn on the job. There’s no time to train leaders.

Clarity: Accept responsibility for understanding everything. Don’t assume, because an expert on your team has seen something, they approve of it. Ask. Don’t proceed until you both have clarity.

Information: A Buyer will never have as much information as a Seller. Do your due diligence – and trust your gut. It’s better to walk away from a potential winner than be stuck with a certain loser.

Communication: Sharing information with stakeholders can be a double-edged sword: if your success is in their best interest, they may collaborate to find a workable solution; if risk-averse they may pull out when needed most. Don’t expect outsiders to fully grasp your predicament, but communicating early helps avoid completely blindsiding them.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Transforming Youth Leadership


Although an extraordinarily great percentage of significant spiritual decisions are reached within the first eighteen years of a person’s life, many churches struggle to keep a youth pastor even eighteen months. Is this a problem?

Given the present organizational structure of churches in contemporary culture, the simple answer is: yes. This paper seeks first to identify specifically why the apparently short tenure of youth ministers presents a problem, and then drives deeper to discover some of its sources. In identifying the root sources and resultant issues, it becomes possible to propose a variety of specific solutions. Unfortunately, these solutions, while certainly worthy of implementation, require incremental change; and change is difficult. So, empowered by the Holy Spirit, the Church should seek a more transformational solution. The surprising conclusion of this study is that an integrated approach to raising children in the Church by involving the whole community may indeed render the traditionally understood role of youth pastor and its attendant issues unnecessary in many of our churches.

Let us first consider come of the data surrounding the importance of the first eighteen years. In his book, Transforming Children into Spiritual Champions, George Barna centres his study on children aged five through twelve. His reason is simple: “if you want to shape a person’s life – whether you are most concerned about his or her moral, spiritual, physical, intellectual, emotional or economic development – it is during these crucial eight years that lifelong habits, values, beliefs and attitudes are formed.”[1] His research uncovered that adults who attended church as a child are twice as likely to read the Bible during a typical week as are those who avoided churches when young; twice as likely to attend a church worship service in a typical week; and nearly 50% more likely to pray to God during a typical week.[2] Adults essentially carry out the beliefs they embraced when they were young. Barna presents four critical outcomes: a person’s moral foundations are generally in place by the time they reach age nine; a person’s response to the meaning and personal value of Jesus Christ’s life, death and resurrection is usually determined before they reach eighteen; in most cases people’s spiritual beliefs are irrevocably formed when they are preteens; and adult church leaders usually have had serious involvement in church life and training when they were young.[3]

As for the tenure of youth pastors, the eighteen month figure probably originates from an article written in 1983 by Paul Borthwick. A credible source with well over a decade in youth ministry in twenty-two years of service on staff at a single church, he wrote: “the general consensus is that the average tenure of a youth minister is not more than eighteen months.”[4] There is however sparse concrete evidence. In surveying a variety of studies, Joe Neill uncovered little support for the eighteen month figure and surfaced some research to suggest more career stability than previously believed. According to one source, the average paid youth minister has 4.2 years of experience and has been at the same church for 3.9 years. Another source reveals that youth ministers stay in one church an average of 4.65 years.[5] At the end of the same article, after weighing the evidence, Neill concludes: “The best answer I can come up with is that there really is a problem. If there are perceived tenure problems then there are problems – no matter what the statistics say.”[6] The problem was significant enough for the Christian and Missionary Alliance denomination to commission an extensive study addressing as a fundamental concern the short tenure of youth pastors. Its data revealed that only 30% of youth ministers were in their present position more than two years.[7]


“Then little children were brought to Jesus for him to place his hands on them and pray for them. But the disciples rebuked those who brought them. Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.” (Matt. 19:13-14)

So why is this short tenure of youth ministers a problem? Veteran youth leaders know that it takes time to break through to youth, teens and their parents in effective ministry. The nature of youth ministry tends to be relational, and lack of fidelity leads to frustration.

In contemporary church environments, the motivation for the involvement of teenagers in church-related activities tends to be relational, rather than spiritual. If this is the case, when the relational networks change upon graduation from high school or college, we can expect a continued decline in church attendance among the emerging generation.[8]

Matthew 28:20b reads: “And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” According to Kenda Creasy Dean: “Few lines of Scripture sound more reassuring – or less likely – to young people than Jesus’ promise at the end of the Gospel of Matthew. Contemporary culture offers little assurance that anything will be with them always.”[9] The church reinforces this insecurity when youth ministries lack consistency. Teenagers respond best to relationships that are stable and trustworthy. Youth take a long time to open up to people, requiring that we build youth ministries with leaders who are ready to be long-term friends and pastors.

Each time a youth leader leaves, it is difficult for the group to avoid feelings of rejection and frustration – as if they are being shown that they are not important. Frustration hinders the effectiveness of ministry and impacts attitudes toward the church that last well into adulthood.


In her book, Dean identifies four common misconceptions surrounding youth ministry: adolescence is a deficient form of adulthood; Christian youth programs solve problems youth face; youth ministry’s primary purpose is to ensure the church of tomorrow; and youth ministry is primarily about youth.[10] These misconceptions both flow from and contribute to three source challenges – a culture of segregation; perceived stylistic differences; and a crisis in theological depth – and are in part responsible for the creation of the youth minister’s position. But because the problems are systemic, a number of issues arise, all pointing to a subtle lack of respect for the position.

The growth of denominational programs in American Sunday schools owed much to Horace Bushnell’s emphasis on the church’s role in nurturing childhood faith, but his biographer, Margaret Bendroth, fears he may have regretted the institutional isolation of children from adult worship, when what he advocated was their full participation in every aspect of church life.[11] Today it seems that adults meet in the sanctuary while youth meet in the youth room; adults worship on Sunday morning while youth do devotions Sunday evening; adults participate in missions while the youth do service projects; and adults hear sermons while youth hear talks. The result is that young people feel more ‘set aside’ than ‘set apart’. This is the age-segregation of American institutional life that began at the turn of the last century as the one-room school house was gradually phased out.[12] Today, our culture continues to segment the population for marketing purposes. Regrettably the congregational church has ‘bought into’ the concept without adequately investigating its consequences.

Blame it on postmodernism, the generation gap, or whatever you will, but teens seem to have little patience for institutional forms of religious expression. There is, however, a significant difference between what young people want and what they need or honestly think is appropriate. At formative stages especially, children do not know what they need; they require adult direction and they need boundaries. Whether the differences are real or partly perceived, they are most certainly exacerbated by continued divisions.

Simply because stylistic differences exist, capacity for theological depth need not be compromised. Dean laments, however: “For most of the twentieth century, mainline Protestants have done youth ministry in the shallow end of the theological pool.”[13] “When youth ministry draws its primary energy from special events, ‘cool’ leaders, and high-voltage youth gatherings more than from the long tradition of practices through which youth identify with the life, death and resurrection of Christ, we communicate a version of faith that has no analogy in the adult church – or in real life for that matter.”[14]

Segregation, stylistic differences and the dumbing down of theology seem to mandate a dedicated professional for ministering to youth. Due at least in part to the misconceptions described above, a number of issues arise in this position. Neill lists several in his article: time conflict between job demands and personal needs, and between administrative duties and youth contact; a disconnect between students and church; a disinterested or apathetic youth group; inadequate salary; inadequate budget; greater opportunity for successful work in new positions; conflict with the senior pastor; unhealthy spiritual environment; and disillusionment.[15] Neill summarizes all of these issues as deriving from a “subtle lack of respect” for the position of youth minister and balances his comments with the acceptance of at least some responsibility on the part of youth ministers: “if youth ministers have lost respect, it’s probably from us doing stupid things.”[16] I conditionally agree. The beginning of any solution is the acceptance of responsibility, but as long as misconceptions exist the problems will survive.


While cause and effect continue to blur, there are seven common deficiencies for which Borthwick and others suggest solutions: calling, gifting, vision, support, recognition, energy, and experience. Without addressing these, the position of youth minister becomes merely a stopping point along the way to something else.

Many youth ministers fail simply out of an absence of calling. It becomes incumbent upon the church to affirm the call. Younger servants in particular may need assistance in understanding the concept of call and the biblical model of congregational involvement in such decisions.

Another and related area is a genuine lack of gifting, fit or ability. A disinterested or apathetic youth group may simply be pointing to a problem in leadership. An especially deplorable practice is the use of the youth group as a ministry tryout area. Without specific gifting, this can be a setup for failure for the individual involved, and sends a clear message to the congregation that the treatment of the younger generation is somehow less critical than adult ministry. Candidates must clearly consider their gifting.

Every leader needs a clear vision for ministry. The lack of vision is a third area where the youth minister can fall down. Ministers should be encouraged to set personal and ministry goals and to see their ministry as a process and not just a yearly program.

Another major area of concern is an ongoing lack of support within the congregation. The youth minister should be encouraged to continue to study. They should always lead through a team supplied by the laity. They should receive support in front of parents as well as training in relating well to parents. The odds are shifting in favour of more qualified youth ministers as a result of formal youth ministry majors. An essential addition to this would include a deliberate mentoring program and a spiritual director.

The Christian and Missionary Alliance’s study suggests pastors at the beginning of their careers likely do not receive the recognition for their efforts that their more seasoned colleagues do.[17] This lack of recognition harms the possibility of longevity. The youth minister needs to be an integral part of the church’s overall leadership team. There should be opportunity to grow beyond youth ministry. Some churches encourage their staff to have a ‘major’ and a ‘minor’ so that they are involved in at least two types of ministry at differing levels. There should also be opportunity to grow outside the church through observing or working with other groups and interacting with others in youth ministry. Pay must be relative to responsibilities, education and experience.

Another intimidating aspect of youth ministry is the relentless need to ‘be there’ for the kids – a lack of endless energy. Youth ministers must learn to guard their personal life and to have relationships outside of teenagers. This is essentially the concept of Sabbath-keeping.

The final area of deficiency is in experience. New ministers need time to grow before they are expected to assume positions of leadership. Says Neill: “If we’re funneling all the newbies into youth ministry, what should we realistically expect regarding tenure?”[18]

Without addressing these deficiencies, a frequent result is that the position is used as a stepping stone to other ministries. This attitude is so prevalent that some denominations even use it as mandatory home service for missionary candidate preparation. If the youth pastor is considered a junior minister, it should be natural to expect eager transitions to other positions, such as ‘senior’ pastor.

The view that youth ministry is a place where pastoral leaders ‘do time’ until they qualify for ‘real’ ministry is alive and well, thanks to the self-defeating practice of throwing clergy, seminarians, and unsuspecting volunteers with little experience and less support into positions where adolescents, searching for fidelity, demand more than we have to give.[19]


Change is certainly necessary if we are to move beyond the revolving door into and out of youth ministry, but some of these symptoms may be pointing to a larger issue. Perhaps the church needs not a tune-up but a transformation.

Change is a shift that may or may not last, tends to happen at a discrete and identifiable moment in time and is often incremental in nature – almost imperceptible in many cases. Transformation, however, is an enduring process in which the person is radically reformed and does not revert to his or her previous condition.[20]

The same is possible of organizations.

Marva Dawn tells us: “The dominant culture never has to worry about character formation because its principles and morals are easily imbibed.”[21] The problem is that Christianity is no longer the dominant culture. The church is called to be an alternate and parallel society and this must be intentional and deliberate. “The reason why Christians are so similar in their attitudes, values and lifestyles to non-Christians is that they were not sufficiently challenged to think and behave differently – radically differently, based on core spiritual perspectives – when they were children.”[22] Fortunately, teenagers will settle for nothing less than passion – something worth suffering for, and children come with a simple faith worth emulating. “He called a little child and had him stand among them. And he said: ‘I tell you the truth, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore, whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.’” (Matthew 18:2-4) Spiritual heritage must be passed from one generation to the next.

The transformational solution steers away from the role of youth pastor and toward community and an integrated approach to ministry that redefines the expectations of the leader.

“The mandate to ‘be there’ for young people belongs to the Christian community, not to any individual or group of individuals.”[23] The task begins with church-permeating prayer for children and families. Barna’s research points also to the importance of families taking the lead in the spiritual development of children. Many of the essays edited by Bunge emphasize the importance of parents in the nurturing of children. Raising and educating children are seen as important tasks requiring cooperative effort between the home, church, community and state. Bushnell, Chrysostom, and Schleiermacher all describe the family as a “little church.”[24] The primary agent of grace is the family, not the church. “Religion never thoroughly penetrates life until it becomes domestic.”[25] Barna’s survey data indicates that parents generally rely upon their church to do all of the religious training. It is not so much that they are unwilling as they are ill-equipped. Churches only get one or two hours with a child, while parents have them all week. The more willingly churches play the co-dependent role in this drama, the less likely we are to see spiritually healthy families and a generation of young people who grow into mature believers.[26] What churches need to do instead is prepare parents more adequately to handle the responsibility of their own children’s spiritual growth. “The community’s and the pastor’s primary task concerning parents is to help them keep God first in their lives.”[27] This will require considerable personal contact from the churches. “If we want to nourish in them godly character and the desire to choose God’s will over the allures of the world, it is critical that we begin when they are small to invite them into the delight of being different.”[28]

Research shows that church leaders are surprisingly uninformed as to the spiritual content and practices related to their children’s ministry. Most are simply interested in acquiring a turnkey curriculum. Interestingly, while 41 percent of those attending churches are under the age of 18, only 15 percent of church budgets are allocated to children and youth ministries. Children are sometimes mistakenly considered a ‘loss leader’ or seen as ‘bait’ in order to attract adult ministry.[29] While finances are not the issue, evidence of priority certainly is. Church leaders need to clearly understand the facts:

People are much more likely to accept Christ as Savior when they are young. Absorption of biblical information and principles typically peaks during preteen years. Attitudes about the viability and value of church participation form early in life. Habits related to the practice of one’s faith develop when one is young and change surprisingly little over time.[30]

“If you want to have a lasting influence upon the world, you must invest in people’s lives; and if you want to maximize that investment, then you must invest in those people while they are young.”[31] What is required is an internally consistent approach.

An integrated approach might radically alter or redefine the role of youth pastor. In a substantial number of the churches surveyed by Barna with really effective ministries to children, there is no one staff member dedicated to leading the children’s ministry.[32] As an alternate society, church needs to be intergenerational. Young people can participate according to their gifting as parts of the Body. Every child should be personally involved in some form of ministry. The pastor’s role becomes that of an advocate for the youth. In Matthew 21:15-16, the chief priests and teachers of the law were indignant because the children were shouting praise in the temple area, but Jesus defended them. Perhaps children ‘get it’ earlier, and we really do still have something to learn from them. “Invariably, the churches where the children’s ministry prospers are those led by pastors who are unapologetic advocates for that ministry focus.”[33]

As priority of the entire church shifts toward the nurturing of children, the requirement for a dedicated individual assigned to children or youth is actually diminished. In many congregations the lead pastor could be expected to fulfill the requirement. Only in congregations where size truly prohibits, or where the lead pastor is somehow unable to relate to children, might a staff member be required. The unfortunately titled ‘senior’ pastor (where the individual is occasionally neither older nor more established) carries with it the implication that all other pastors are junior.


In light of overwhelming evidence that faith decisions are grounded in the early years of a person’s life and the counterproductively short tenure of youth pastors, we do indeed have a problem. It simply takes a commitment of time to impact young lives. Although answers are readily available to the issues of youth leadership and have been successfully implemented in some congregations, the pervasiveness of the problem points to a subtle lack of respect not only for the position of youth minister, but for the focus of their ministry as well. As a result, the position continues to be treated as a stepping-stone to more satisfying ministry. A transformational shift to a truly alternate society where the last come first and titles are set aside in favour of following the example of Jesus remains our highest hope.


Atkinson, Harley T. and Fred R. Wilson. “Career Development Cycles and Job Satisfaction of Youth Pastors in the Christian and Missionary Alliance.” Christian Education Journal vol. xi, no. 2 (Winter 1991): 39-50.

Barna, George. “Adults Who Attended Church As Children Show Lifelong Effects.” The Barna Update (November 5, 2001).

________. “Parents Accept Responsibility for Their Child’s Spiritual Development But Struggle With Effectiveness.” The Barna Update (May 6, 2003).

________. “Research Shows That Spiritual Maturity Process Should Start at a Young Age.” The Barna Update (November 17, 2003).

________. Transforming Children into Spiritual Champions: Why Children Should Be Your Church’s #1 Priority. Ventura, California: Regal, 2003.

Bass, Dorothy C. and Don C. Richter, eds. Way to Live: Christian Practices for Teens. Nashville: Upper Room Books, 2002.

Borthwick, Paul. “How to Keep a Youth Minister.” Leadership vol. iv, no. 1 (Winter 1983): 75-81.

Bunge, Marcia J. ed. The Child in Christian Thought. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 2001.

Dawn, Marva J. Is it a Lost Cause?: Having the Heart of God for the Church’s Children. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 1997.

Dean, Kenda Creasy. Practicing Passion: Youth and the Quest for a Passionate Church. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 2004.

Neill, Joe. “Staying Power When the Door Looks Soooo Good.” Youthworker (July/August, 2004) 4 p.

[1] George Barna, Transforming Children into Spiritual Champions: Why Children Should Be Your Church’s #1 Priority (Ventura, California: Regal, 2003) 18.

[2] George Barna, “Adults Who Attended Church As Children Show Lifelong Effects,” The Barna Update (November 5, 2001, accessed 09 August 2004); available from

[3] George Barna, “Research Shows That Spiritual Maturity Process Should Start at a Young Age,” The Barna Update (November 17, 2003, accessed 09 August 2004); available from

[4] Paul Borthwick, “How to Keep a Youth Minister.” Leadership vol. iv, no. 1 (Winter 1983): 76.

[5] Joe Neill, “Staying Power When the Door Looks Soooo Good” Youthworker (July/Aug 2004, accessed 11 August 2004): 1-2; available from In this article Neill quotes three sources: Merton Strommen, Karen Jones, Dave Rahn, Youth Ministry That Transforms (Zondervan, 2001) chapter 1; Rick Lawrence, “The 18 Month Myth” Group Magazine (Jan/Feb 2000); and Jonathan Grenz “Factors Influencing Job or Career Changes among Youth Ministers” Journal of Youth Ministry (Fall 2002).

[6] Neill, “Staying Power,” 2.

[7] Harley T. Atkinson and Fred R. Wilson. “Career Development Cycles and Job Satisfaction of Youth Pastors in the Christian and Missionary Alliance.” Christian Education Journal vol. xi, no. 2 (Winter 1991): 48.

[8] Barna, “Lifelong Effects.”

[9] Kenda Creasy Dean, Practicing Passion: Youth and the Quest for a Passionate Church (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 2004) 73.

[10] Ibid., 13-14.

[11] Margaret Bendroth, “Horace Bushnell’s Christian Nurture” in The Child in Christian Thought, Marcia J. Bunge, ed. (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 2001) 356.

[12] Dean, Practicing Passion, 37.

[13] Ibid., 162.

[14] Ibid., 168.

[15] Neill, “Staying Power,” 3.

[16] Ibid., 3.

[17] Atkinson and Wilson, “Career Development Cycles,” 49.

[18] Neill, “Staying Power,” 3.

[19] Dean, Practicing Passion, 90.

[20] Barna, Transforming Children, 97-98.

[21] Marva J. Dawn, Is It A Lost Cause? Having the Heart of God for the Church’s Children, (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 1997) 6.

[22] George Barna, “Spiritual Maturity Process” (November 12, 2003).

[23] Dean, Practicing Passion, 91.

[24] Marcia J. Bunge, ed. The Child in Christian Thought, (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 2001) 356, 64-65, and 333.

[25] Bendroth The Child in Christian Thought, 356, quoting Horace Bushnell, Christian Nurture (NY: Scribner, 1861; reprint Cleveland: Pilgrim Press, 1994).

[26] George Barna, “Parents Accept Responsibility for Their Child’s Spiritual Development But Struggle With Effectiveness,” The Barna Update (November 17, 2003, accessed 09 August 2004); available from

[27] Dawn, Is It A Lost Cause? 110.

[28] Ibid., 229.

[29] Barna, Transforming Children, 39-41.

[30] Ibid., 41.

[31] Ibid., 42.

[32] Ibid., 119.

[33] Ibid., 104.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Vision & The Spirituality of Leadership


Much has been written on the topic of leadership. Most of the literature eventually takes one of two tracks: practical direction for the secular marketplace; or spiritual guidance for the Christian, which is then typically applied in traditional ministry settings. Few arguments seem to make a satisfactory connection between the two by bringing Christian leadership back into the marketplace. Without discounting the great value of the work that has gone before, this essay proposes that connection. Of all the qualities of leadership, it is vision that moves leadership from the secular to the spiritual. Spirituality, however, is not limited to that which is distinctly Christian. Therefore it must be clear that it is vision in the counsel of God that further separates the sacred from the merely spiritual. Both types of vision may be observed and applied in either church or marketplace.

We will begin by seeking an understanding of leadership: what it is, and what it is not. We will see that while leadership naturally implies interaction with others, it is also intensely personal. Vision is the quality that characterizes powerful leadership, but what exactly is vision? We will learn that while vision appropriately includes others, it too is very personal. Vision is what makes leadership spiritual. Therefore, we must seek an understanding of spirituality. Spirituality suggests power, but power presents problems. So we will explore the positive side of power and consider how one might recognize its source. All leaders, Christian or otherwise, are free to choose the source of their vision as well as how and where best to apply it.


Leadership is a high calling. According to Max Stackhouse, business leaders, increasingly, are the stewards of civilization.[1] Without leadership, organizations are resigned to the status quo, or subject to atrophy. In a popular book targeting business leaders, Blanchard, Hybels and Hodges make the bold statement that the only reason for pursuing excellence with customers, or growing profitably, is to honor God and to help others reach their highest potential.[2] Honoring God and developing people in the marketplace requires competent and creative leadership. Max DePree says that “the goals of the organization are best met when the goals of the people in the organization are met at the same time.” Unfortunately, “these two sets of goals are seldom the same.”[3] Not only does leadership have its challenges, even the definition of leadership is subject to misunderstanding.

The word leadership is ambiguous. “To an extent, leadership is like beauty: it’s hard to define, but you know it when you see it.”[4] Newspaper editor Gloria Anderson adds: “You can’t make being a leader your principal goal, any more than you can make being happy your goal. In both cases, it has to be the result, not the cause.”[5] In order to gain a greater understanding of what leadership is, it is helpful to consider what it is not. Leadership is not about motivation. “Employees bring their own motivation… What people need from work is to be liberated, to be involved, to be accountable, and to reach for their potential.”[6] Neither is leadership about personal achievement or recognition. Jim Houston reacts against the proliferation of leadership literature: “The high value placed upon a single person with his or her own aesthetic notion of what is due him or her is not unlike the contemporary cult of ‘leadership.’”[7] Leadership also is not synonymous with management.

It has been said that management is doing things right, while leadership is doing the right things. Warren Bennis describes the difference between managers and leaders as the difference between those who surrender to the context, and those who master it.[8] The root origin of manage is a word meaning ‘hand.’ To manage, then, is to handle, or maintain. By contrast, the word lead, at its root, means ‘go, travel’ or ‘guide.’[9] Etymologically, therefore, the term leadership evokes the notion of a journey. Leadership involves anticipation of the future and the ability to take people there. “Leadership is a reciprocal relationship between those who choose to lead and those who choose to follow.”[10] Followers need leaders to show the way. The popular term ‘servant leader’ refers to those whose paramount aim is the best interests of those they lead. According to Kouzes and Posner, servant leadership is rooted in love – of products, services, constituents, clients, customers, and work – and love may be the best-kept leadership secret of all.[11]

But this is an incomplete picture. Leadership is not only about others; it is also personal:

It’s not about the corporation, the community, or the country. It’s about you. If people don’t believe in the messenger, they won’t believe the message. If people don’t believe in you, they won’t believe what you say. And if it’s about you, then it’s about your beliefs, your values, your principles. It’s also about how true you are to your values and beliefs.[12]

This means that character counts because character directly reflects the source of a leader’s belief system. A good way to see that source is through a leader’s vision.

The Role of Vision in Leadership

Where there is no vision, the people are unrestrained

(Proverbs 29:18, NASB)

A compelling vision is essential to great leadership. On this, the experts agree. While Bennis lists passion, integrity, trust, curiosity and daring, as ingredients of a leader, first among them is a guiding vision.[13] Leighton Ford says leaders get attention through vision.[14] George Barna: “Vision is to a leader as air is to a human being: Without it, you die.”[15] DePree: “To carry out its work, the organization needs from a leader a clear statement of its vision and its strategy.”[16] Blanchard et al: “‘All great organizations have a visionary leader at the top who maintains a clear picture of the kind of organization it’s going to be. People are inspired by vision.’”[17] Kouzes and Posner: “Leaders inspire a shared vision.”[18] Hybels: “Vision is at the very core of leadership.”[19]

Examples of visionary leadership abound. In 1774 John Adams declared a vision of a new nation, a union of thirteen states independent from Parliament and the King of England; in 1776, the United States of America was born. In 1789 William Wilberforce began a tireless campaign against slavery; in 1883, four days before his death, Parliament passed a bill completely abolishing slavery. In the late 1800s the Wright brothers began working on a flying machine; on December 17, 1903 they made history at Kitty Hawk. In the early twentieth century Henry Ford vowed to make an affordable automobile; fifteen years later he had produced millions of Model Ts. In the 1940s Billy Graham had a dream of reaching people for God; to date, over one billion have heard Dr. Graham present the gospel.[20] But what exactly is vision?

First of all, vision is not to be mistaken for mission. Mission describes an overall purpose for existence, whereas vision is focused guidance that helps determine the unique way in which one has been called to fulfill a particular mission.[21] According to Peter Block: “A vision is really a dream created in our waking hours of how we would like the organization to be.” It differs from mission in that mission is simply a statement of what business we are in.[22]

Vision, in the marketplace, may legitimately carry a variety of meanings. That leaders have vision may mean they think longer term; or that they see where their system fits in a larger context; or that they can describe a possible future that lifts and moves people; or that they can actually discern, in the clutter and confusion of the present, the elements that determine what is to come.[23] Hybels offers this crisp definition: “Vision is a picture of the future that produces passion.”[24] For Christians, vision may represent the revealed will of God. Therefore, staying vision-focused keeps Christians God-focused; the vision is a reminder of dependency.[25]

Yet vision requires not only dependency on God but also on others, for there is a shared aspect of vision. Former sociology professor-turned-playwright, Philip Slater, provides this illustration from the theatre explaining how creativity is magnified in community:

Inexperienced playwrights often want to direct their own plays so they can make sure everything conforms to their vision. The result is usually sterile and often disastrous. If the vision comes through the writing, the director will see creative ways of enhancing that vision – ways the playwright never dreamed of. And so will the actors, designers, composers, and so on. I tell playwriting students never to write stage directions that tell an actor how to do or say something, since it limits the actor’s options and encourages phony gestures. A good actor, I tell them, will have a dozen ways of creating the effect you want – ways you haven’t thought of – and will choose the one most natural and the one that most powerfully expresses that vision.[26]

Similarly, in a marketplace context, vision may begin with the leader, and gain clarity as it is communicated in community.

There are, however, limits to the communal aspect of vision; like leadership, vision also has an intimately personal nature.

Another contemporary myth about vision-crafting is that it should be a shared idea, thus reducing the risk of others failing to buy into it. As a consequence, missions and visions that were once extraordinary ideas are adapted, modified, and pummeled until their fire and passion have been squeezed out of them. These ‘consensus’ missions and visions reach for the lowest common denominator where an accord can be built – egalitarian and democratic no doubt, but soulless and lacking in magic. In other words, they suffer from a fatal flaw – compromise – and this leads to mediocrity.

Lance Secretan continues:

The power of a compelling Cause rests in the soul of its creator, because Cause springs from the soul. It is a spiritual statement from one soul and cannot be the result of many. It comes from a deep place of knowing – some conviction that a richly imagined future could, in some way, dramatically and positively change the world. Others can offer their input, help, advice, and even help to fine-tune, strengthen, and wordsmith it. But in the end, a magnetic Cause is a one-of-a-kind thing that cannot be cobbled together by a committee or a team.[27]

In addressing the business community, Secretan uses words like ‘creator’, ‘soul’, ‘spiritual’, and capitalizes the word ‘Cause.’ Although the source of Secretan’s inspiration is not clear in this passage, he suitably shows that vision is spiritual.

Vision represents one of the clearest distinctions between leader and manager:

By focusing attention on a vision, the leader operates on the emotional and spiritual resources of the organization, on its values, commitment and aspirations. The manager, by contrast, operates on the physical resources of the organization, on its capital, human skills, raw materials and technology.[28]

This is the crux of the argument: vision moves leadership from secular to spiritual, but spiritual need not necessarily mean Christian. Only vision inspired by God may truly be considered sacred. Since God is Lord of all, he is able, through the Holy Spirit, to use any leader in any situation for the working out of his will.

Spirituality though, like leadership, is a difficult concept to pin down. Parker Palmer describes these two words as among the vaguest in our language. When you put them together, he says, you get something even more vague.[29] Katherine Tyler Scott, a leadership development consultant for church and business, says arriving at consensus on the meaning of leadership is an elusive accomplishment. Agreeing on the meaning of spirituality is equally challenging. Unlike leadership – which everyone agrees is necessary – we lack certainty about the value and emphasis that spirituality should have in our public lives. Scott writes:

Immediately we can see that the objective definitions lead us in different directions: spirit evokes images of an intangible and internal world, while leadership focuses on the visible and the external reality. Spirit is a matter of being and becoming, of creation and recreation, while leadership is doing, acting, performing. The definition of spirit invites contemplation, analysis, and insight, while that of leadership directs our attention to visible results.[30]

Spirituality and religion are not quite the same either. Whereas religion is a system of beliefs and practices shared by a community, spirituality more precisely describes the way people live out their beliefs, values, and convictions in daily life. For many, spirituality represents a search for meaning. Some have suggested that, where spirituality is the goal, religion is a path. Therefore it would be wrong to assume that only Christians seek spirituality. It is more accurate to say that, for those who do not know Christ, spirituality deals in the realm of the unknown. And danger lurks in the unknown.

Spiritual Power in Leadership

Then he said to me, “This is the word of the Lord to Zerubbable saying, ‘Not by might nor by power, but by My Spirit,’ says the Lord of hosts.

(Zachariah 4:6, NASB)

When leaders lead with vision, they deal in that which is spiritual, and are presented with the problem of power. The demon in power is pride. Leaders must be aware of the principalities and powers and recognize their own frailties, for “power can take us down the path of the demonic.”[31] According to Henri Nouwen, the second temptation of Christ was to do something spectacular; something that could win great applause. The third temptation was the temptation of power. (We will deal with the first temptation later.) “What makes the temptation of power so seemingly irresistible? Maybe it is that power offers an easy substitute for the hard task of love. It seems easier to be God than to love God, easier to control people than to love people, easier to own life than to love life.”[32] “Rare,” says Andy Stanley “is the visionary who is able to maintain a spirit of dependency and humility in the face of public success.”[33]

Good leaders therefore must vow to bring authority and submission into proper balance by modeling leadership within the context of servanthood.[34] DePree even goes so far as to suggest the practice of leadership without power.[35] Leadership and power are not the same, but they are correlated. Power has acquired such a bad name that many good people persuade themselves that they want nothing to do with it. While ethical and spiritual apprehensions are understandable, no leader can legitimately renounce power.[36] John Gardner draws this analogy:

To say a leader is preoccupied with power is like saying that a tennis player is preoccupied with making shots an opponent cannot return. Of course leaders are preoccupied with power! The significant questions are: What means do they use to gain it? How do they exercise it? To what ends do they exercise it?[37]

Perhaps it is helpful here to recall that, for the Christian, the marks of spiritual power include: love, humility, self-limitation, joy, vulnerability, submission, and freedom.[38] This underscores why it is important for leaders to know where the power is coming from.

Christians must be rooted in a “permanent, intimate relationship with the incarnate Word, Jesus, and they need to find there the source for their words, advice, and guidance.”[39] This means dwelling in the presence of God. Receiving a vision from God is both deeply spiritual and deeply practical. It involves the quiet, internal work of making one’s heart ready, as well as the energetic, external work of exploring and experimenting.[40] Responding to vision need not be overtly mystical. Often, the vision does not originate with the leader personally, but rather from others. The leader may be the one to choose the image from those available at the moment, articulate it, give it form and legitimacy, and focus attention on it, but closer analysis reveals that the leader is often not the one who has conceived the vision in the first place. [41] In other words, leaders must be good listeners, and resist the temptation of self-reliance.

Application and Conclusions

In the marketplace, as elsewhere, all leaders have a choice: on the firm foundation of faith they may wait upon God for vision, or they may forge ahead with a vision rooted elsewhere. Now, according to Nouwen, Jesus’ first temptation was ‘to be relevant,’ by turning stones into bread. “I am telling you all this,” says Nouwen “because I am deeply convinced that the Christian leader of the future is called to be completely irrelevant and to stand in this world with nothing to offer but his or her own vulnerable self.”[42] Is it not instead possible that Jesus’ first temptation was to be self-sufficient? If Christian leaders fail to be relevant – if their vision cannot stand the test of the marketplace – the Holy Spirit can, and does, use other means to accomplish God’s will.

In the marketplace, the Christian leader’s primary goal is not conversion. The best way to bring glory to God is through excellence in pursuing a God-given vision. Stanley concurs: “The truth is, our secular pursuits have more kingdom potential than our religious ones.”[43]

This essay began by looking at leadership. While leadership most certainly involves others, it is also very personal. Effective leadership is grounded in a compelling vision and, while vision embraces others, it too is intimately personal. Vision is the quality that distinguishes leadership as spiritual, but while vision moves leadership from the secular to the spiritual realm, spirituality is not exclusive to Christianity. Only vision rooted in the revealed will of God is truly sacred. Even so, God can, and does work through leaders who do not profess to know Christ. All good leaders respect the power inherent in spirituality and become instruments of the Holy Spirit, whether they operate in the church or in the marketplace.


Barna, George. The Power of Team Leadership: Finding Strength in Shared Responsibility. Colorado Springs, Colorado: WaterBrook Press, 2001.

Bennis, Warren. On Becoming a Leader. London, Random House, 1998.

Bennis, Warren and Burt Nanus. Leaders: Strategies for Taking Charge. 2nd ed. New York, NY: HarperBusiness, 1986.

Blanchard, Ken, Bill Hybels and Phil Hodges. Leadership by the Book: Tools to Transform Your Workplace. New York: WaterBrook Press, 1999.

Block, Peter. The Empowered Manager: Positive Political Skills at Work. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 1987.

Bolman, Lee G. and Terrence G. Deal. Leading with Soul: An Uncommon Journey of Spirit. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 2001.

Covey, Stephen R. The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People: Powerful Lessons in Personal Change. New York, New York: Simon & Schuster, 1989.

DePree, Max. Leadership Jazz. New York, New York: Dell, 1992.

________. “Theory Fastball” in On Moral Business: Classical and Contemporary Resources in Ethics in Economic Life. Max L. Stackhouse, Dennis P. McCann and Shirley J. Roels, eds. (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1995), 572-577.

Ford, Leighton. Transforming Leadership: Jesus’ Way of Creating Vision, Shaping Values & Empowering Change. Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 1991.

Foster, Richard J. The Challenge of the Disciplined Life: Christian Reflections on Money, Sex & Power. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1985.

Gardner, John W. On Leadership. New York, NY: The Free Press, 1990.

Houston, James, M. The Mentored Life: From Individualism to Personhood. Colorado Springs, Colorado: NavPress, 2002.

Hybels, Bill. Courageous Leadership. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 2002.

Kouzes, James M. and Barry Z. Posner. The Leadership Challenge: How to Keep Getting Extraordinary Things Done in Organizations. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 1995.

________. Credibility: How Leaders Gain and Lose It, Why People Demand It. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 2003.

Lattore, Patrick. “Leadership” in The Complete Book of Everyday Christianity: An A-to-Z Guide to Following Christ in Every Aspect of Life, Robert Banks and R. Paul Stevens, eds. (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 1997), 564-568.

Nouwen, Henri J.M. In the Name of Jesus: Reflection on Christian Leadership. New York: Crossroad, 2001.

May, William F. “The Virtues of the Business Leader” in On Moral Business: Classical and Contemporary Resources in Ethics in Economic Life. Max L. Stackhouse, Dennis P. McCann and Shirley J. Roels, eds. (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1995), 692-700.

Palmer, Parker J. “Leading from Within: Out of the Shadow, into the Light” in Spirit at Work: Discovering the Spirituality in Leadership. Jay A. Conger and Associates, eds. (San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 1994), 19-40.

Scott, Katherine Tyler. “Leadership and Spirituality: A Quest for Reconciliation” in Spirit at Work: Discovering the Spirituality in Leadership. Jay A. Conger and Associates, eds. (San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 1994), 63-99.

Secretan, Lance. Inspire: What Great Leaders Do. Hoboken, New Jersey: Wiley, 2004.

Slater, Philip. “Leading Yourself” in The Future of Leadership. Warren Bennis, Gretchen M. Spreitzer, Thomas G. Cummings, eds. (San Francisco, Ca: Jossey-Bass, 2001), 103-115.

Stackhouse, Max. “Introduction: Foundations and Purposes” in On Moral Business: Classical and Contemporary Resources in Ethics in Economic Life. Max L. Stackhouse, Dennis P. McCann and Shirley J. Roels, eds. (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1995), 10-34.

Stanley, Andy. Visioneering: God’s Blueprint for Developing and Maintaining Personal Vision. Sisters, Oregon: Multnomah, 1999.

[1] Max L. Stackhouse, “Introduction: Foundations and Purposes” in On Moral Business, Max L. Stackhouse, Dennis P. McCann and Shirley J. Roels, eds. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1995), 12.

[2] Ken Blanchard, Bill Hybels and Phil Hodges, Leadership by the Book (New York, NY: WaterBrook, 1999), 163.

[3] Max DePree, Leadership Jazz (New York, NY: Dell, 1992), 23.

[4] Warren Bennis, On Becoming a Leader (London: Random House, 1989), 1.

[5] Ibid., 131.

[6] Max DePree, “Theory Fastball” in OMB, 572.

[7] James M. Houston, The Mentored Life (Colorado Springs, CO.: NavPress, 2002), 29.

[8] Bennis, On Becoming a Leader, 44.

[9] James M. Kouzes and Barry Z. Posner, The Leadership Challenge (San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 1995), 36.

[10] James M. Kouzes and Barry Z. Posner, Credibility (San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 2003), 1.

[11] Kouzes and Posner, The Leadership Challenge, 14.

[12] Kouzes and Posner, Credibility, xiv-xv.

[13] Bennis, On Becoming a Leader, 39-41.

[14] Leighton Ford, Transforming Leadership (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1991), 26.

[15] George Barna, The Power of Team Leadership (Colorado Springs, CO: WaterBrook, 2001), 37.

[16] Max DePree, Leadership Jazz, 26.

[17] Blanchard et all, Leadership by the Book, 125.

[18] Kouzes and Posner, The Leadership Challenge, 11.

[19] Bill Hybels, Courageous Leadership (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2002), 31.

[20] Ibid., 29-30.

[21] Barna, The Power of Team Leadership, 41.

[22] Peter Block, The Empowered Manager (San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 1987),113.

[23] John H. Gardner, On Leadership (New York, NY: Free Press, 1990), 130-131.

[24] Hybels, Courageous Leadership, 32.

[25] Andy Stanley, Visioneering (Sisters, OR: Multnomah, 1999), 57.

[26] Philip Slater, “Leading Yourself” in The Future of Leadership, Warren Bennis, Gretchen M. Spreitzer and Thomas G. Cummings, eds. (San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 2001), 114.

[27] Lance Secretan, Inspire! (Hoboken, NJ: Wiley, 2004), 68.

[28] Warren Bennis and Burt Nanus, Leaders (New York, NY: HarperBusiness, 1986), 85.

[29] Parker J. Palmer, “Leading from Within” in Spirit at Work, Jay A. Conger and Associates, eds. (San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 1994), 27.

[30] Katherine Tyler Scott, “Leadership and Spirituality” in Spirit at Work, Jay A. Conger and Associates, eds. (San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 1994), 63, 65.

[31] Richard J. Foster, The Challenge of the Disciplined Life (San Francisco, CA: HarperSanFrancisco, 1985), 13, 179.

[32] Henri J.M. Nouwen, In the Name of Jesus (New York, NY: Crossroad, 2001), 38, 57, 59.

[33] Stanley, Visioneering, 67.

[34] Foster, The Challenge of the Disciplined Life, 12.

[35] DePree, Leadership Jazz, 179.

[36] Gardner, On Leadership, 55.

[37] Ibid., 57.

[38] Foster, The Challenge of the Disciplined Life, 201-207.

[39] Nouwen, In the Name of Jesus, 31.

[40] Hybels, Courageous Leadership, 38.

[41] Bennis and Nanus, Leaders, 88-89.

[42] Nouwen, In the Name of Jesus, 17. [italics mine]

[43] Stanley, Visioneering, 225.