The Importance of Looking Down the Trail

This morning I read a very good article about mountain biking skills on the International Mountain Bike Magazine web site that is a great illustration for leading a small group.

An important skill in mountain biking is to look down the trail, past what’s right in front of you. When you look down the trail a ways, you can identify potential hazards and challenges before you get to them, allowing your brain more processing time. The main idea here is to be proactive rather than reactive. Take it from me, constantly looking down just ahead of your front tire results in a jerky, stumbling ride and lots of falls. (Yeah, that’s me illustrating this point.)
In mountain biking and in leading a small group (or anything, for that matter), you want to make decisions before you actually get there (wherever “there” is at the time).

One of the seven signs of a healthy small group is:

Goals & Plans. The group has a written “Action Plan” that includes a mission, goals, expectations, ground rules, etc. (See my October 30, 2009 post for all seven signs of a healthy group.)

In other words, be proactive. Look down the trail a ways. Know where you are going, not just where you are at this moment.

As you project ahead on a mountain bike, your mind takes in a lot of information that your brain needs to process. As my mind processes all the information my eyes see, my brain can naturally anticipate more negative outcomes (Oh no, you’re going to hit that tree!) than positive (You’re going to flow through this section and land that jump ahead.) Negative outcomes will distract us, especially if we’re looking just ahead of our front tire. We need to learn to identify and respond to the good outcomes.

This past week, a member of one of our small groups emailed me with what she thought was a problem. She wondered if the church could reimburse the leader for all the copies she made for the group. Or should the group take up a collection to help the leader with these expenses? The member had not asked the leader if this was even an issue and did not know how or where the copies were being made. It was simply a reaction to what this person perceived (we’re going to hit that tree!). Now, if the group had proactively planned how lesson materials would be made and who would pay for them in advance, there would be no issue.

When I start looking for a safe place to crash, guess what happens? Yup … I crash! But when I am looking down the trail proactively, the ride flows and is fun. I reach my destination and want to go again!

A healthy group is a proactive group. They take time early and often in their group life to look down the trail. They are constantly thinking “next … next … next …” They are prepared and they don’t freak out at little challenges along the way. They grow, reach out, serve, and develop new leaders. They excitedly look ahead to “what’s next?”

Learn to keep your head up and look down the trail! Being proactive produces confidence and commitment, both on the bike and in a small group.

Leading Down the Mountain

Spiritual leadership begins with the heart to be led. It involves humble surrender of “my” leadership as an act of stewardship to God. Moses displayed this kind of leadership.

Moses returned from the mountain and called together the leaders of the people and told them what the Lord had said.
– Exodus 19:7

The job of a spiritual leader can be summed up simply: (1) to meet with God and (2) to share God’s messages with God’s people. To go up to the mountain and then return from the mountain. To receive and to overflow. (Other great Biblical leaders, especially Jesus, exhibited these traits of leadership as well.)

Have I been to the mountain today? Am I returning from the mountain to share what the Lord has said?

Father, as I come to the “mountain” today to meet with you, help me to hear your voice and simply enjoy abiding with you. I thank you that I can come close to you and have this kind of relationship with you because of your Son’s death on the cross for me. I am looking forward to what you will teach me today, Lord, from your Word and through your Spirit. I open my heart to you to pour into me to overflowing. As I come down from the mountain through my day, help me to simply overflow into others what you’ve been pouring into me.

Great Humility = Great Leadership

It takes great humility to be a great leader. Moses was a great leader because he was a very humble man, more humble than anyone else on the face of the earth (in his own words! See Numbers 12:3.). It takes humility as a leader to listen to others’ advice, especially when they tell you that the way you are leading is not right, and even more especially when that person is your father-in-law!

“Moses listened to his father-in-law’s advice and followed his suggestions.”
– Exodus 18:24
Earlier in this chapter, Moses had recounted all God had done for the Israelite people. Moses’ words focused on God’s provision, not his own greatness, but still, Moses knew that he was the man God had chosen to lead the people.
If that would have been me (and probably you!) standing there before my father-in-law, I’m not sure I would have been so quick to listen to his unsolicited advice. After all, Jethro was not one of God’s people. He had not been “through the wilderness” with Moses. He was not a certified organizational strategist. Moses had every reason to say, “Hey Jethro, why don’t you take your high-falutin’ sixth-grade-educatiun double-naught-spy-actin’ five-gozinta-ten-countin’ britches back the hills …” Oh, sorry, wrong Jethro.
My point is, we can learn something from Moses here. He listened and followed Jethro’s advice because he was humble enough to know that he did not know it all. Moses was flexible to change “his” way of doing things, so he could be more effective and productive in his leadership.
Lord, I recognize that I lack this kind of humility. I need your help to become the person you want me to be. Help me to be flexible and to adjust my “organizational structure” and way of doing things so that the ministry you’ve given me will grow and flourish. Send me a “Jethro,” Lord, who can help me see better ways of carrying out the work of which you’ve given me stewardship. Help me to delegate responsibilities and share the ownership and leadership of my group, ministry, church, whatever you’ve called me to.

3 Vital Leadership Principles in the Wilderness

“Then Moses pleaded with the Lord, “What should I do with these people? … The Lord said to Moses … Moses did just as he was told …”
– Exodus 17:4-6

As the Northeast church campus undergoes a lot of messy construction, our senior pastor, Bob Cherry, has compared it to the Israelite’s journey in Exodus. It’s a good analogy. We’re on our way to the “promised land” of a new, bigger auditorium and state-of-the-art student areas. But when parking and exiting and everything in between is inconvenient and sometimes downright difficult, the people are apt to groan and complain. Not only that, but the long walk from the other end of our campus, through mud and snow, winding around through the construction, is a lot like a walk through the wilderness!

And that’s why Bob asked the staff to read through Exodus now. I’m enjoying reading this book again and applying it to our current realities. But I’m seeing much more than what I was looking for. Exodus is a true-to-life parable of our journey as Christ-followers–and as spiritual leaders.

Moses displayed three great spiritual leadership principles in this passage in chapter 17. The principles are pretty simple, yet so vital to leading effectively.

  1. When faced with a problem, Moses went immediately and directly to God for help. On this occasion, at least, he did not try to figure it out himself or come up with a solution by his own power. Recognizing God as the real leader is the most important attribute of leading successfully. You and I must understand our leadership role as a matter of stewardship.
  2. When God spoke, Moses listened. Moses had become attuned to God’s voice and leadership. He did not argue with God here as he had earlier (e.g. Ex. 3:11; 4:1, 10, 13; 5:22; 6:12). Moses had learned to to trust God. He knew now that apart from God, he could do nothing (John 15:5).
  3. Moses obeyed God, even if it didn’t make a lot of common sense. A leader after God’s heart does not suggest to God a better, more logical way to carry out His plans. He or she does just what God tells the leader to do … with an eager expectation of seeing God do His work in a way only He can do.

Father, I want to be a leader after your own heart, just as Moses modeled here–just as Jesus modeled throughout his earthly ministry. Help me to go directly to you before doing or saying anything. Not my will, but yours be done! Help me to hear your voice clearly today, Lord. Help me to distinguish your voice from all the competing voices out there. I want to listen to you and follow you each step of the Way. Give me strength to obey you, Lord, even if it may not make sense from my own small point of view. As I obey you, I eagerly expect you to do what only you can do.

Trials Along the Trails

“At the Lord’s command, the people of Israel left the Sin Desert and moved from place to place.” 
– Exodus 17:1, NLT

For us as leaders, life is more than just setting a goal and then achieving it. God works in our lives, families, small groups, and churches in the midst of the journey, as we move from place to place. Often that journey is longer and harder than we had hoped, planned, or imagined. Always we face trials along the trails. But God is at work during the journey, leading us, guiding us, maturing us, and working through us.

What the Israelites forgot and we must remember is that the same God who has led the way on the journey will provide for us during that journey. The question is not always, “How quickly can we get to the destination?” but “What can we be learning along the way? How can God use us during this part of the journey?”

Lord, just as you led the Israelites by a pillar of cloud at day and a pillar of light at night, you guide us along our journeys today. As you lead us to your Promised Land, we know you are with us, even in the wilderness, even in our times of trials and tests. You will not leave us nor forsake us. You are for us, so who can be against us? As I walk with you today on this part of the journey, help me to sense your presence with me.

Abundant Life Leadership

I closed my last post with this sentence:

If you want to lead successfully, Jesus must first lead you!

To lead well and bear fruit, you must be connected to the Vine (John 15:5). Another way of illustrating  this is to imagine your life as a glass. As a spiritual leader, your main job is to be in a position where Jesus can pour into you to overflowing (see John 10:10; Ephesians 3:20; Psalm 23:5. The word for “”to the full” or “abundantly” means overflowing). As God pours His abundance into your life, you overflow into those He’s put all around you. 

Your job as a small group leader is not to pour yourself out to others, but simply to allow God to fill and abundantly overflow your life into others with His love, mercy, and truth. 

So now I have a question, and I really need your response. How, specifically, is Jesus leading you? How are you opening yourself up to Him to fill and overflow your life into others? Please be specific, and share with other leaders so that we may grow together! 

Get the dialogue started below! 

Trophies, Cheerleading, Enoch, and Leading a Healthy Small Group

What do you want to be known for? What would you want people to say about you after you die?

At different stages of my life I would have responded to that question differently. As a kid growing up in Cincinnati, I wanted to be known as a great athlete, like Pete Rose or Oscar Robertson.

My athletic career was unspectacular. I accumulated a caseload of trophies, because I was on some good teams. I did get three individual awards, however. In basketball I got the award for Best Defense … which went to the kid who rarely scored a basket. In baseball one year, I got the Most Spirited Player trophy … which went to the kid who sat on the bench and cheered on the rest of the team.

My favorite award was the Most Improved Player … which went to the kid who didn’t stink quite as bad as the year before. The trophy had the initials “MIP” on the plaque. I overheard my mom telling all her friends I got the “Most Important Player” award. At least my mom appreciated my talent!

In college at the University of Cincinnati I would have said I wanted to be popular. Just for fun my freshmen year, I went out for the cheerleading squad. I figured at least I’d meet some pretty girls. On a fluke, I made the squad, three years straight. I was proud to be a “big man on campus.”

Today, in my better moments, I want to be like Enoch. You don’t hear too many people say that, do you? People say they want to have the faith of Abraham or the power of Moses or the wisdom of Solomon. But Enoch? I love what Genesis 5:22-24 says about him: “Enoch lived another 300 years in close fellowship with God …. He enjoyed a close relationship with God throughout his life. Then suddenly, he disappeared because God took him” (NLT).

No, I don’t want to live another 300 years! And it’s not at all necessary to just disappear without dying, unless it’s the rapture, of course. But I do want to simply live in close fellowship with God throughout what’s left of my life, and then for God to take me when he’s ready.

Enoch had a heart for God, and small group leadership starts with your heart. It starts with your relationship with God—seeking after him.

The previous paragraphs are adapted from my book, I’m a Leader … Now What? I’m currently blogging about the Second Vital Sign of a Healthy Small Group: a healthy, growing small group leader. I believe in this foundational principle so much I write about it often! I’ve written about it in Leading from the Heart and briefly in The Pocket Guide of Burnout-Free Small Group Leadership. I’ll continue to emphasize this until God takes me. 

If you want to lead successfully, Jesus must first lead you!

The Leader’s Heart: 2nd Sign of a Healthy Group

The most vital mark of kingdom leadership is a leader’s relationship with God. And that’s the second sign of a healthy small group: a healthy growing leader.

The apostle Paul prayed for his Ephesian friends that “Christ will be more and more at home in your hearts as you trust in him. May your roots go down deep into the soil of God’s marvelous love.” (Ephesians 3:17, NLT). While I pray that prayer regularly for the Life Group leaders at Northeast Christian Church, I think it’s OK to pray it for myself as well. So, Father, I pray …

  • that Christ will be more and more at home in my heart … so I am living the superabundant life he came to give me — life that is naturally overflowing out of me to others;
  • that I may stay connected to the Vine daily (John 15:5), abiding in him so that I can bear much fruit for you, fruit that will last,
  • that, as Christ becomes more and more at home in my heart, others around me may follow my example … but only as I follow the example of your son,
  • that my roots keep growing, deeper and deeper into your awesome, abundant, undeserved, undeniable love,
  • and, as a result (fruit), that Christ will also be more and more at home in the hearts of my family, my friends, my neighbors, and our small group members — as they trust in you as I do.

Yes, the first sign of a healthy group is that it is Christ-centered, but that will only happen if he is first at the center of the leader’s life–at home in his or her heart. (“The ‘heart’ in the Bible always refers to the center of a person’s emotions and will.”  —Life Application Bible Commentary)

May Jesus be at home in your heart, leader. This is more than a surface-level relationship. It is very intimate. This is more than just occasional. It’s constant. It’s why Paul encouraged us to pray “continuously.”

Nothing is more important than this. If Jesus is at the center of the leader’s heart and at the center of the group, the group you have been entrusted with will be on its way to health, strength, growth, and vitality.

So how’s your heart? Or, better yet, who’s at home there?

“For a Cause or for Christ?” (Repost of Heather Zempel Blog)

I’ve been talking about the first sign of a healthy small group. It must be Christ-centered. Heather Zempel (at right) put it so well in her blog November 23. Check it out:
“The disciples didn’t lay their lives down for a cause but for a person.”
That’s how Dave Buehring kicked off his talk on the Ways of God at our Kaboom Retreat (formerly zone leader/team leader retreat) this weekend.
For some reason, that one statement is really challenging me personally and challenging the way I lead my team. I fear that I have spent too much time motivating people to a cause- make disciples, advance the Kingdom, create culture, change a generation, etc. That’s all good stuff, but it’s not the ultimate goal, is it? Maybe I should focus a bit more on simply elevating the person of Jesus Christ.

Causes are good. Causes build fans and create evangelists. Christ is better. He builds communities of faith and creates martyrs. Not that we all want to rush out to the Colosseum to volunteer ourselves for lion dinner. But laying down our lives is one of the ways we follow Jesus Christ.

The disciples didn’t lay their lives down for some great cause that had captivated their emotions and imaginations. They laid their lives down for a person who had already laid his own life down for them.

Why am I more cause focused than person focused? Perhaps it is more comfortable and easy for me to acquaint myself with and attach myself to a cause than to enter a messy and flesh-killing relationship with Jesus Christ.

Read Heather’s blog here.