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Learning and Leading in Ministry: Chapter Twenty-Seven

baton.jpgCritical Exchange

Learn transition.

Track and field people know that the relay race features one major difference from individual contests: a cylindrical stick called a baton.  Each runner hands off the baton to the next runner, who runs a lap and then snaps it into the hand of the next runner. The exchange takes place within a certain zone clearly marked out on the track. As he closes in on the zone, the first runner barks out a signal and the teammate puts out his hand to receive the baton. For a brief period of time, both runners run together until the baton safely moves from one to the next.

This exchange sounds easy on paper, but carrying it out is loaded with danger. If one hand holds on too long, if one hand releases before the other hand grasps, if either hand drops the baton or if passing of the baton takes too long, the team loses the race. More than any other aspect of the relay race, passing the baton from one runner to another defines success. A great track, good conditions, superb physical health, superior speed and athletic skill mean nothing if the runners muff the exchange.  In fact, the value of the relay race is that it emphasizes the team concept, that individual achievement must be subordinated to two or more people working together. 

The striking correlation of the baton exchange between runners in a relay race and the transition between leaders should be obvious. Some call this transfer of authority the passing of the mantle or the torch, but neither of those symbols capture the critical nature and timing of the relay race. An optimal window of time exists for a change of leaders to occur and the principle parties involved miss it at their own peril or that of the organization. Great care must be taken to guarantee a successful transition.  And, it cannot be done unilaterally.  Both participants must work together to see the operation through to success.

If you are turning everything over to your successor, think of the leadership role as a baton. The following thoughts and actions can ensure the success of the exchange: I will let you get going before I arrive. (I will give you some time to get used to your new role). I will definitely give you full control of the baton. (I will let you truly be the leader). I will let go before we leave the exchange zone. (I will back off and not interfere with your leadership). I will encourage you as you take the baton. (I will give you pointers and provide help whenever you ask for it). I understand that all of us represent equal segments of the race; I am not less than you, but neither am I greater than you. (I am not going to compare my leadership to yours). I want to do well, but my greatest concern is that we all win the race together. (If the church, organization or group suffers because I don’t handle the exchange well, we all lose).

By the same token, there are thoughts and actions that kill the exchange: It’s my baton; I can’t hand it off. (I am entitled to this position). You can’t carry it as well as I did. (I am better at leadership than you are). The people won’t accept you like they did me. (They’ll never love you like they did me). I’ll hang onto it a little longer until I’m sure you can do it. (You’re going to ruin this organization). I’m finished with my part; come and get the baton. (If you think you’re so good, let’s see how you can do without my help).

John the Baptist owned the right attitude about transition. “I must decrease but he must increase.” His view may have been difficult for him to accept, but it did not diminish his role. He acquiesced to divine progression. Leaving leadership may be more difficult than receiving leadership, but both are absolutely critical to the life of the organization. The attitude toward it makes the difference.


Learning and Leading in Ministry: Chapter Twenty-Six

fishing.jpgBelieve in People (They’re all you have)

Learn to trust.

Good leaders understand the vast difference between believing in people and using people. The public may admire notable leaders for their work, but the underlings who help them harbor bitter feelings. Like Stalin’s minions, they know they are mere pawns in the project. Great leaders, however, engender love from their followers, not because their accomplishments are great, but because they trust their supporting cast and create within them a sense of purpose. Leaders who value strong, durable relationships and want to reach their stated goals with greater ease and more excellence always place their people above their projects

In researching human motivation, three kinds of self-fulfilling prophecy have been identified. The Pygmalion effect refers to the expectation of a teacher of a student. If the teacher expects the student to perform well, the odds are that it will happen. The Galatea effect describes students who believe in themselves and do well as a result. The Golem effect (based an unpleasant character in a Polish fable) occurs when students have no confidence in their ability to succeed and, as a result, they generally fail. These findings show that the power of believing, both in a positive or a negative way, has a demonstrable effect on motivating people.

Because of his divine nature, Jesus did not have to depend upon the humanity around him to reach his goals, yet he insisted that his disciples exercise great faith and believe for positive results. He believed in them. His attitude toward Simon Peter was especially rich in this regard. When Peter doubted that he could catch fish, Jesus told him to launch out into the deep water and let down his nets for a huge catch. When Jesus queried his disciples about his identity, Peter responded that Jesus was the Christ, prompting Jesus to call him blessed for receiving the revelation. When Peter wanted to walk on water, Jesus said, “Come.” These were not random, inconsequential incidents. They were divinely appointed moments strategically placed in scripture to enable us to see how Jesus instilled trust in his disciples. Leaders build trust one incident at a time.

Working with people will never be an exact science. Jesus, for example, had his crisis moments with Peter in which he stridently corrected this spirited, sometimes volatile disciple. Peter argued with Jesus about the approaching crucifixion, he drew his sword and cut off the ear of an opponent of Jesus, and he deserted Jesus at the very apex of the week of passion. Despite these considerable shortfalls, Jesus never reneged on his trust of Peter.

As a leader, you should operate with the philosophy that everybody has a right to make his or her own mistakes. Establish a sliding scale of tolerance for critical mistakes and then allow room for a margin of error. In doing so, you create a climate in which trust can grow. In fact, trust can only be validated as the leader and his followers weather storms together.  Trust will always be challenged.  When a person bends without breaking, he or she proves trustworthiness.


Learning and Leading in Ministry: Chapter Twenty-Five

cyclist.jpgDo Not Enjoy Your Accomplishments Too Much

Learn modesty.

No name was given, and it’s just as well. The video clip, now spread throughout the internet, shows the world’s most unfortunate cyclist approaching the finish line in first place. Sensing his victory, his hands shot prematurely into the air in celebration of his win. The sudden movement threw him off balance, causing him to lose control of his bike and wipe out. You can hear the horrified crowd draw in their collective breath in unison. The poor guy scrambled to his feet and tried, without success, to jump back on the bicycle. The most embarrassing thing, though, was that the second place cyclist overtook the early celebrant, cruised into first place and won the race. It hardly seems necessary to point out the moral of the story, but, just for the record, don’t celebrate too early. You never know what can happen.

Responding to the media on the hurricanes Katrina and Rita, General Russell Honore said that some people are “stuck on stupid.” In the spirit of that remark, don’t get stuck on yourself. Win and get over it. As proud as you may be of your accomplishments, always remember that other people are not as impressed as you think they should be. In their minds, they may attribute your success to your rival’s bad day, fortuitous circumstances, the weather or pure luck. But even if they think you deserve your accolades, they will back off in a hurry if you become your favorite topic. Few burdens are heavier to bear than a conceited person. The story is told that Mohamed Ali, when he was Cassius Clay, was once on a plane. A flight attendant asked him, “Please fasten your seatbelt.” In his typical style, he responded , “Superman don’t need no seatbelt.” She countered, “Superman don’t need no airplane either.” [1] Boasting is boring. Leaders keep pointing to the future, not the past.

Boasting represents man’s measurement of himself. The problem is that he may be using the wrong standard. The federal government established the Office of Weights and Measurements when the United States of America was founded to standardize measurements. Until then, it was a huge mess. For example, all of the following capacity measures were used in the colonies: the firkin, kilderkin, strike, hogshead, tierce, pipe, butt, and puncheon. Even when the same unit was used from colony to colony or locality to locality, it often did not have the same value. A bushel of oats in Connecticut weighed 28 pounds, but in New Jersey it weighed 32 pounds. By your standards, you may be phenomenal. By another’s, you may barely be mediocre. By God’s standards, you’re not even a blip on the screen. Measuring yourself by God’s standards keeps your pride in check.

But even beyond pride, shed the constraints of past accomplishments. Treat every day as a new day. If yesterday’s success is the best you can do, you’re finished.

[1] Zuck, R. B.


Learning and Leading in Ministry: Chapter Twenty-Four

no-excuses.jpg Excuses Never Work

Learn responsibility.

Alexander Kuzmin, the 33 year old mayor of Megion in western Siberia came up with a great idea. In August of 2007, he issued a list of excuses that will no longer be tolerated from city employees and bureaucrats. Officials must stop using phrases such as “I don’t know” and “it’s lunch time”. Mr. Kuzmin said Megion city officials ought to improve people’s lives and help them solve their problems, not make excuses. His list consists of 27 forbidden phrases, including “there’s no money”. (BBC News, 9-1-07 ) I eagerly await the news report telling of the city’s response. No word yet.

One Father’s Day, I zeroed in on the men in the church I pastor with a subject entitled “How To Be A Real Man.” My conclusion was that “taking responsibility” was the surest way to be a real man. Among other things, I reminded them,

“Responsibility means accountability. Once a man accepts responsibility, he must commit time, money, energy. Once he accepts responsibility, he puts his reputation on the line. Once he accepts responsibility, he opens himself up for criticism.

“Here are the fundamental truths about men taking responsibility: I alone will be held accountable. I must not expect nor must I allow anyone else to do what I alone am supposed to do. I would rather fail in an honest attempt to take care of my responsibility, than fail to take responsibility. I am willing to be the most influential man in the life of my family.”

“Real men learn how to live in the real world. That means living within the parameters in which actions count. When real men make mistakes, they accept the punishment and consequences that come to them. In this way, they teach justice, truth and peace to those they serve. This also becomes a de facto method to condemn lying, fraud, violence, disrespect, hatred and other sins or vices.

There are false ways of taking responsibility: Arrogance. “I am the head of the house!” Stupidity. “Shut up and listen to me!” Anger. “I’ll teach you to never do that again!” None of these work and they do not yield legitimate authority. All attempts to take responsibility will fail if a man is not under God’s authority. When a man’s family sees that he is doing God’s will, they are far more likely to accept his authority over them.

Many reasons exist that explain why leaders do not get the job done. It could be pure laziness or indifference, or it might be that the circumstances are not right. I suspect the real reason underlying most failures, however, is a sense of inadequacy, that they just cannot make it happen. Excuses serve as a thin veneer separating them from responsibility.

Admit, don’t deny failure. If something exists within the realm of possibility, find a way to do it. Even if you have to let someone else do it for you, get it done. Never become comfortable with your excuses. Abhor them. The better you treat excuses, the longer they and their buddies will hang around.


Learning and Leading in Ministry: Chapter Twenty-Three

self discipline.jpgDiscipline Thyself

Learn self-discipline

Is there anything left to be said about self-discipline? Probably not, but maybe a different perspective will help us get a new handle on it. I know this: you will not shame yourself into it, you cannot strain your body and brain for more will-power to make it happen or you cannot synthesize a burst of energy out of nowhere and morph into a human dynamo. No. The reason you lack self-discipline in the first place is because your emotions militate against it. Emotional resistance will not succumb to equal but opposite emotional pressure. You need to stop and think about it. As expressed on,

“A thousand times a day, at least, we choose to do things that are not the result of conscious reasoning. Plenty of those times, there are better choices. When confronted with this fact, we often defend ourselves. What we are defending is a lack of thought, and it ought to have no defense. The hollow confidence behind such expressions of the ego tends to contribute to the tearing down of self-discipline.”

First, failure to discipline yourself does not represent an inability to choose. No one has stripped from you the right to determine your own behavior. No self discipline means you are making the wrong choice. Lying in bed when you should get up is simply choosing one behavior over another. Do not say to yourself, “I can’t get up.” Say, “I can get up but I choose to lay here in bed and accomplish nothing.” When you do not write the report that you should write, when you do not make the phone call you should make, when you do not exercise your body when you should, you exercise this same privilege of choice. Your choice of inaction means that you could just as easily have chosen to act. Telling yourself otherwise is self deception.

Second, self discipline deserves loving, not loathing. It cuts out the fat that has glommed on to your soul. It releases the vibrancy of life locked up within your bones. It gathers up all the potential power wasting away in your being and sets it afire. Self discipline is a huge bolt cutter that chomps through the steel chains wrapped around your arms and legs, setting you free to do what you were created to do. It is an emancipator, not an executioner; a redeemer, not a captor. Self discipline can write the check for your costliest dreams. Until you see it as an ally, you will never fully submit to its demands.

Finally, the unfortunate connotation about self discipline is that no one can help you. Not true. You need the input from friends, relatives, teachers, coaches, mentors and advisors, especially in the formative years, in order to remain securely engaged in self discipline. Blessed are those whose parents imposed strong discipline upon them as children. In my personal conviction, discipline is not something a parent does to a child; it is something a parent does for a child. The youth who emerges from childhood with self discipline firmly in hand is fortunate indeed.

Think of the difference between a disciplined and an undisciplined life as the difference between a power grid crackling with thousands of volts of generated electricity versus a bolt of raw lightning flashing across the sky. The one is methodical, the other spectacular. The harnessed electricity in the grid, however, powers thousands of homes. The lightening creates a great commotion, and then it’s gone. Self discipline does not suppress, it compresses your effectiveness into a concentrated form.

“In reading the lives of great men, I found that the first victory they won was over themselves…self-discipline with all of them came first.” –Harry S. Truman