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9 Transparent Truths From My First Ten Years of Ministry

September 26, 2015

Ten years ago this week I started my first full-time job as a pastor at Cape Christian Fellowship, here in SW Florida. At the time, I thought it was going to be a short detour before completing my education and moving on to fulfill other dreams.

God had a different idea. Instead, we fell in love with this church and embraced God’s call to put down deep roots in this city. I came in with great confidence, and a perfectly polished “philosophy of ministry” that had received an “A” and was ready to be field-tested. Ha!

The months and years ahead would be a time of great undoing. There were moments when I agreed wholeheartedly with critics and thought, “It’s hopeless.” Yet it’s at the place called “bitterness” (Exodus 15:22-26) where we truly meet Jehovah Raphe, God our healer. It’s at that place of undoing, that place when we’re searching for fresh springs of water and finding none —that’s where discouragement and self-pity turn into a living faith and the miracles start to happen.

As I think back over these last ten years, here are a few things I’ve learned that I didn’t know or fully appreciate when I started…

1. LOVE people!

Love people, not according to what they deserve or how you feel about them, but as Jesus has loved you. Elevate others above yourself, give away the credit, be long-suffering when they disappoint you, and don’t allow yourself to become jaded or put up walls when they bite you…keep loving!
No matter what you do, love people!

love people

2. Peaceful presence!

Maintain a peaceful presence in the face of uncertainty and crisis. Leaders are thermostats, not thermometers —your ability to move from an anxious to a peaceful presence will help displace the toxic emotions that plague groups.


3. Grow through conflict!

Become an expert in conflict transformation. Never be defensive. Die to yourself. Pride is the ultimate defeater of spiritual growth and insidiously masquerades in the name of truth. A humble posture and peace-making skills are requirements for Christian leadership.

die to yourself

4. Establish a productive and life-giving rhythm!

Be highly intentional and proactive with your time. Find a model that works with your personality and be disciplined within it. Keep a Sabbath, schedule retreats, and know yourself well enough to know when you need to withdraw to a mountaintop. Advance in the stages of prayer and maintain a posture of receptivity to the Holy Spirit, living Coram Deo (before the face of God).

be receptive

5. Live a life worth imitating!

Leadership is undeniably biographical. Make sure you embody well what you want to see in those you lead. No program or system can compare to a vision that has fully captured a leader’s heart. It’s highly contagious! You don’t need to separate your devotional and teaching life, just insist on being the first student of everything you teach. Practically, a life worth imitating also includes being a contagious optimist and an active listener.

live a life worth imitating

6. Spend a lot of time with just a few people and include time for non-Christians!

The internal needs of a church can become all consuming. If you give your time to the tyranny of the urgent or to whoever knocks first, you won’t experience much fulfillment. Follow Jesus’s model with people (3-12-72) and make sure you’re personally participating in the Great Commission and leading people to Jesus. If it’s been a long time since you’ve led someone to faith in Christ, make it a matter of prayer and thoughtful reflection.

7. Lean into the pain!

Sam Chand once said that one’s leadership potential is in direct proportion to their threshold of pain. Here’s why: Growth requires change, change requires loss, and loss requires pain. We hit painful walls that force a self-inventory: is it worth it? Can we endure? We either decide it’s not worth it or we press through and allow “perseverance to finish its work.” (James 1:3) This is immensely helpful and highly encouraging when you hit those moments when everything in you wants to run away. Resist the desire to be accepted and understood by everyone, find the hard truth in even the most malicious personal attacks and criticisms, and refuse to make major decisions when you’re in a pit. That’s where the gold comes from!


8. Be accountable!

Leadership can be lonely if you let it be. Bring everything into the light, confess your sins, and invite some trustworthy friends to hold you accountable to specific areas of concern.

9. Be gracious with yourself!

God is gracious with you! Accept yourself as the Scriptures teach and reject envy, self-loathing, and introspection so that you can ultimately forget yourself and get on with the work of Jesus. Grace is God’s currency, it simply means “gift.” It’s the root word for forgiveness, talent, and gratitude. Give and receive it all the time, especially when it’s hard.


Why nine, not ten?

Ten just feels too neat, too tied off. In reality, things are never exactly as they should be. Resources are limited, expectations go unmet, and it just doesn’t play out like you imagined it in your head or drew it on the whiteboard. Nevertheless, Jesus builds His church! …Sometimes through us, sometimes despite us, but never according to our power, always by His Spirit!

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Spiritual Formation

When Your Dreams Steal Your Joy

June 16, 2014

who am i

Go Big or Go Home!

There’s a lot of encouragement to dream bigger, —stretch, reach, enlarge. But more important than the size of the dream is where it’s really coming from and why.

Is your dream really God’s vision for you?

Not all dreams bring life.

For nine years my dream was to earn a Ph.D. in Hebrew Bible from Vanderbilt University and replace my mentor as the Chaplain at my alma mater, teaching in the Religion Department. Nothing could dissuade or sidetrack me. I spent a ridiculous amount of money, moved my family twice, and sacrificed almost everything for this dream. Eventually, the hard work paid off and I was admitted to the program.

Here’s what’s so crazy —never once did I stop to ask God if my dream was His vision or seriously pray, “Not my will, but Yours be done.” I needed the dream to come true. My identity was tied to its fulfillment.

A Dream Factory From Hell

Our greatest temptations always target our true identity, “Who are you really?” but seldom do we think of our dreams as sources of temptation. In his novel Perlandra, C.S. Lewis describes our core temptation as self-absorption and the dreams that follow.

In Lewis’ story, the “un-man” tempts the woman to live with a mirror, to “walk alongside oneself as if one were a second person and to delight in one’s own beauty.” Basically, he tempts her to become obsessively self-conscious, “Think about yourself, your potential, and compare yourself to others all the time.” He offers her a dramatic and puffed up view of herself to take her mind off her true self. “I want you to gain a dramatic view of yourself as the center of all things, and then to pity yourself when you are not.”

Deep introspection is a dream factory from hell. It’s worlds away from God’s gift of identity and vocation (calling).  It traffics in envy, moves easily between pride and insecurity, commodifies relationships, and ultimately erodes the very thing it aims to obtain: fullness of life.

There’s a fundamental choice we all have to make about our dreams that’s captured well by juxtaposing two statements:

  • Life isn’t about finding yourself, it’s about creating yourself. –George Bernard Shaw
  • Very truly I tell you, the Son can do nothing by Himself; He can do only what He sees his Father doing, because whatever the Father does the Son also does. –Jesus (John 5:19)

Shaw’s statement makes perfect sense, if there isn’t a God who created you with a design for your life. If there is, every moment and every ounce of energy spent on “creating yourself” takes you further and further away from your true self that God is calling forth. Jesus said, “My ‘bread’ (here we can insert ‘dream’) is to do the will of Him who sent me.”  So, the fundamental choice is, “Do you turn inward, or look outward to God for your life’s vision? Do you pull yourself up by your bootstraps, creating your own path, or do you listen for God’s leading?

If your life’s dream is to fulfill God’s vision, then your main responsibility is to hear and obey God’s Word and voice.

We celebrate the promise in Jeremiah 29:11:“For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” But if we read on, the next two verses describe the relationship that gives birth to the vision: “Then you will call on Me and come and pray to Me, and I will listen to you. You will seek Me and find Me when you seek Me with all your heart.” (Jeremiah 29:12-13)

Our dreams steal joy when we confuse them for God’s vision. So, how do we avoid this hijacking?

Go to the Garden Before You Go All In

Jesus prays in the Garden of Gethsemane, “Take this cup from Me. Yet, not My will, but Yours be done.” We need to release our dreams to God and test them by fire. Kierkegaard once wrote, “Purity of heart is to will one thing.” When our dream is that one thing, it’s a good sign that the dream is misplaced. When we need a personal dream to be fulfilled, it’s a good sign that it won’t be fulfilling.

One thing we learn about our dreams in the Garden of Gethsemane is that we must crucify anything and everything that competes for God Himself as our “one thing.”

Personal Dreams and Real People

Oswald Chambers once wrote, “The most important aspect of Christianity is not the work we do, but the relationship we maintain. This is all God asks us to give our attention to and it is the one thing that is continually under attack.”

People matter; things don’t. We all possess a need for both belonging and distinction. Individuality is important, but when driven to excess, it erodes fullness rather than creating it. The more we find our identity in our relationships, the healthier we are and the more joy we’ll experience. A restless drive toward achievement usually reveals a deficit of being and a misguided attempt at filling it.

Our dreams steal joy when we value their fulfillment more than relationships.

It took me quite a few years and detours to learn these lessons on dreams and if I could summarize a few takeaways for how to make sure that you’re pursuing the right dream for the right reason they’d be:

  1. Seek to advance in the stages of prayer.
  2. If you struggle to pray and discern God’s voice, a good place to start is to read Richard Foster’s book, Prayer.
  3. Today, choose to resist preoccupation and introspection and be fully present to God and people. “This is the day that the Lord has made, I will rejoice (choose joy!) and be glad in it.” (Psalm 118:1)
  4. Don’t worry about God withholding His will.

If you have a dream, but you’ve also spent time in the Garden praying, “Not my will, but Yours be done,” you don’t sense any check in your spirit, and wise friends and mentors bless it, feel free to “go unless you get a no.”

Isaiah 30:21 says, “Whether you turn left or right, your ears will hear a voice saying, ‘this is the way, walk in it.’” No one wants you to know God’s will more than God. Most of His will is clearly laid out in Scripture and when it comes to specific leading, the promises in Jeremiah 29:11 are yours when you choose the posture of Jeremiah 29:13, “You will seek Me and find Me when you seek Me with all your heart.”

You Are Free!

“It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery.” (Galatians 5:1)

Bondage comes wrapped in many packages. Big dreams can be blessings or burdens. It all depends on where your identity lies.

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