Ministry’s Sweet Spot

It wasn’t till we attempted the untried and untested that I discovered…
by Gordon MacDonald

Ministry's Sweet Spot

Recalling my early years in Christian ministry, I am embarrassed to realize how much I invested in something that could have been called “Gordon MacDonald, Inc.” It was too much about me and not enough about Jesus and others.

Somewhere along the line, my self-building activities gave way to building an organization, a church-organization. That meant recruiting teams, encouraging leaders, conceiving strategies that would cause a congregation to grow (both spiritually and numerically). Pastoring became a very satisfying experience, and I loved my work … most of the time.

But one weekend, after years of organization building, I awakened to something much better—a sweet spot of ministry, you could say, where it all just seemed right. Rather than building me or even building an organization, I discovered people-building, a ministry with younger Christians who—properly prepared—might go on to be difference-makers in some part of the kingdom.

That awakening happened when I visited the United States Military Academy at West Point as a speaker in the cadet chapel. I was astonished at the dignity and excellence of the men and women I met. It was unforgettable.

The mission of the USMA is: “to educate, train, and inspire the Corps of Cadets so that each graduate is a commissioned leader of character committed to the values of Duty, Honor, Country, and prepared for a career of professional excellence and service to the Nation as an officer in the United States Army.”

It got me wondering: what is the equivalent in the church where I pastor? Where and how do we educate, train, and inspire leaders capable of influencing others for the sake of Jesus Christ? The truth was that we weren’t doing that.

Oh, sure, we had leadership training among our programs. Our bulletin might read: “Anyone wanting training in this or that activity should come out on Wednesday night.” In 90 minutes, we inferred, we’ll make you a leader. Kind of like the TV deals: three payments of $39.95, and we’ll make you a real estate tycoon.

We wanted “players” unafraid to mix it up, experiment with ideas, move the conversation along.

That’s not how it’s done at West Point or Annapolis or the Air Force Academy. In those schools, it’s not so simple.

New leaders don’t just happen
At home I tried to sell my vision of a “West Point” leadership development effort to our staff, our lay leadership, to anyone willing to listen. Apparently I did a poor job. I got smiles, agreement-in-principle, and comments like, “we need to think about that … sometime.” I think my problem was, at first, that I was all words and few specifics.

Then one day I got it. A vision with no precedent in a church usually requires that someone (me, in this case) do the job himself.

A breakthrough occurred when my wife, Gail, realizing I was serious, said, “This is something you and I could do together. And I think we’d be smart if we took the idea out of the church building and into our home.” It was the first of her many bright ideas.

We searched for materials that fit our vision, and we found nothing satisfying. We realized that leadership development is not a program. It is about strong relationships in which people grow to be what God designed them to be. Sort of like what Jesus made happen when he selected 12 learners to be with him. Twelve guys in whom he—and he only—saw leadership (or influence) potential.

Gail and I decided to select 12-14 people and see what might be possible.

One of my staff associates had been meeting with a small group of young adults. When he resigned to move to another ministry, I sat down with his group, told them about my dream, and asked if they’d meet with Gail and me at our home a week later. They all agreed.

When the evening came, Gail and I shared the dream in detail. We proposed meeting weekly (on Wednesday nights) for about nine months.

“We’ll try to tell you everything we’ve learned about following Jesus, hearing his call, discovering our individual giftedness, and what it means to grow in biblically-defined character,” we said. “We’ll tell you whatever we’ve learned about influencing people.

“But here’s the fine print,” we said. “You’ve got to strip your calendar for about 40 Wednesday nights so that you’re here—on time, staying the full duration, being prepared—every night. You can’t miss unless you’re dying or your company sent you out of town and said that you’d lose your job if you didn’t go.”

We ended that first evening telling the group, “Pray and think about this, and if you believe that God is leading you into this experience, call us.” Within a few days, everyone called with his or her yes, and the schedule was set.

That was almost ten years ago. And almost every year since, we have selected and launched a similar group.

Today Gail and I can identify about 100 people who have gone through iterations of “West Point” and—almost without exception—are engaged in some significant effort in serving God. Several have gained degrees and are in formal ministry positions. The majority are exercising various forms of lay influence either inside their churches or in the larger world, doing good in the name of Jesus.

So what do we do?
Whenever I talk about this, people zoom in. They want to know more. They realize the importance of this for a church’s long-term future: how do you train tomorrow’s Christian leaders?

We called our efforts LDI: Leadership/Discipleship Initiative. I don’t remember exactly why (West Point wasn’t quite to everyone’s liking).

LDI was as good a name as any.

“Do you have a curriculum?” I’m often asked.

The answer is that there is no $39.99 curriculum. I wish I could ask Jesus if he had a curriculum to follow up his words, “Follow me …” In the 19th century an Englishman, A. B. Bruce, wrote a book, The Training of the Twelve, in which he tried to trace the curriculum Jesus followed. I recommend his book. But I warn you: it’s no easy read.

So exactly what is it that Gail and I do?

LDI was an intuitive approach to leadership development. Gail and I knew the outcomes we wanted, and we knew some of the disciplines we wanted to teach. What we didn’t know was how it would flow week by week.

Now almost ten years later, we are able to describe what we’ve done and what we’ve learned. Our goals for each group:

  • To identify people with potential to influence others if they were appropriately coached.
  • To accelerate their spiritual growth so that they would become strong, self-nourishing followers of Jesus who would seek to grow in godliness for the rest of their lives.
  • To give them an experience of all that Christian community is capable of becoming when people truly love one another (as Jesus loves us).
  • To demonstrate what it means to feel called and gifted and to discover that there is no greater joy than to be caught up in God’s purposes for a particular generation.

We suspected if we simply put an ad in the church bulletin, saying, in effect, “Come to Gail and Gordon’s house on Wednesday nights, and we’ll teach you how to be leaders,” that we’d be inundated. And a large percentage would come for the wrong reasons.

It’s often been noted that Jesus tended to be unreceptive to volunteers. Believing that to be a significant principle, we decided to make LDI something different from anything else in the church. We would vet people, quietly and discretely.

As that first LDI year came to an end, Gail and I began to search for our next “dozen.” We commenced our search early in February because the September start-date was only eight months away.

As we drove home from various church activities, our conversations often focused on people we were observing. Since Gail is particularly good at studying people and making intuitive judgments, I relied heavily upon her insights.

“I was watching Bob this morning,” she’d say. Or, “Have you ever thought about Craig and Lori …” And we’d talk about what we were both seeing.

Did they show evidences of faithfulness, of spiritual desire, of seeking ways to serve? We were not going to invite people into LDI who had not shown they were loyal to their commitments and covenants. Many church folk are good with their words and promises, but quickly fold when the excitement of something new morphs into something that is more or less routine. Faithfulness to us began with a reputation for showing up (on time, prepared, and generally enthusiastic).

We were not interested in people who get attention by having chronic problems. LDI was not meant to be a support or therapy group. There is a place for such gatherings in the congregation, but LDI wasn’t one of them.

Yes, LDI people have struggles during the year. Who doesn’t? Someone can lose a job, a spouse becomes seriously ill, a son or daughter presents a worrisome problem. Under those circumstances, the LDI groups experience the joy of coming alongside each other: praying, caring, serving one another. We all learn how to “pastor” and how to pray for each other.

What we looked for
In short, we were looking for:

  1. People who were teachable. Who asked good questions, who took seriously the Christ-following life, who went a bit out of their way to grow spiritually.
  2. Essential social skills. People who showed respect and regard for others, not so argumentative or abrasive or touchy that they didn’t fit well with others.
  3. People who would not simply sit for an entire evening saying nothing. We wanted “players” unafraid to mix it up, experiment with ideas, move the conversation along, venture opinions.

By May or June, we usually had a list of 20 people that we had observed, prayed over, even quietly tested a bit (without their realizing it). In August or early September we would invite them all to our home for dinner.

After dessert, we would gather the group and tell them the story of the evolution of the LDI idea. We would tell our objectives and some of the things we believed God had done in previous groups. We would tell the stories of various ones who were now in some form of leadership (with their permission, of course) and assure our guests that they could go to any of these former LDI’ers and ask them about their experience.

It was important, during the evening, to tell everyone what we’d seen in them and why we’d felt led to invite them. This turned out to be significant. For many, this was the first time they’d ever had anyone identify characteristics in them that marked them as potential influencers.

Before the evening ended, we came to the “ask.”

“We’re inviting each of you to consider LDI for the next year. But we don’t want you to say ‘yes’ until you’ve spent several days thinking through the implications. It’s going to mean every Wednesday night (later it became Monday nights) for about 40 weeks. Getting here early, staying late, being prepared, diving into the evening’s events with nothing held back, giving yourselves to some challenging work. Are you ready for this? Don’t say yes until you’ve prayed your way to a decision and you’re sure. Because once you say ‘yes,’ you’ve begun a covenant relationship not just with Gail and Gordon but also with a dozen other people. Our affection for you will not change whether you say yes or no.”

And each year, of 20 invitees, 12-14 have usually said yes. Some single, others married. Occasionally one spouse but not the other. Ages? Anywhere from 23 to 50—but a recent couple was in their 70s (with the spirit of 40-somethings). Age, gender, marital status were less important than keeping the covenant.

A year in the life …
Each year’s group begins in mid to late September. In the first weeks we teach the group how to read analytically. The Bible, significant chapters from books, articles. We discovered early on that many Christ-followers are fearful of reading challenging material that provokes the mind and heart. And we found that too many jump to conclusions and opinions before they really have pushed themselves to learn what the author is trying to say. It’s only after you’ve taken the time to understand what the author is truly saying, we teach LDI’ers, can you afford to offer your evaluation of what has been said.

We found value in having a group read assigned material aloud: person by person reading a paragraph or two. There is something about hearing something read out loud that brings new understanding and insight.

From there Gail has taught each group the Myers-Briggs Temperament Indicator, which helps people understand how different we are from each other. We study spiritual disciplines, and from there we do a study of the biblical meaning of character. Then we try to master the Bible’s teaching on spiritual giftedness. All during these studies, we try to teach the practical skills of influence and leadership. Not a little of that is done by modeling—the way meetings are led, for example.

Much of this has not been done through a lecture method—so easily the instinct of preachers like myself. Learning and growing, we became convinced, came through group discovery and dialogue. “Look for words, for phrases, for patterns and then for the key ideas that author offers. Then work as a group to build your own ideas of where this truth or that might take you.” In so doing the LDI group learned how to grow and learn on its own—a skill that will take one through an entire lifetime of spiritual development.

Each year we’ve noticed a defining moment when the group stops looking at Gail or me for approval every time they venture a comment. They come to see themselves as a team of learners. It’s beautiful: learners eagerly seeking wisdom whether or not Gail and I are there.

Many of our readings come from Scripture. Each group studies about twenty biblical leaders and uses the text to discover what various leaders look like. Later in the year they move on to great leaders of the Christian movement (Patrick, Francis, John Wesley, Sarah Edwards, and Catherine Booth, for instance). Each person in the LDI group selects one of these, reads their biographies, and offers a presentation on how that man or woman has influenced the generations that followed them.

At the midpoint of each year, every LDI person learns to write his or her story. For each this is a gigantic challenge: to chronicle the flow of one’s life-journey (its triumphs and its testings), aware of the patterns of God’s involvement in life.

For some this exercise is a piece of cake; for others it’s something like a lifetime achievement. At some point, each group member gets the opportunity to read his/her story. Gail and I are first readers to set the pattern. And as we do, we leave very little out so as to demonstrate what vulnerability and transparency look like, where God shakes things up and orders our paths.

After listening to stories for many years, I can tell you this: almost without exception, every person’s story is marked with pockets of deep, deep sadness and tragedy. Lots of stuff that never gets surfaced in the course of normal church life.

The result of story-telling? A growing bondedness that beats anything I’ve ever seen in larger church-life. A love, a caring, a level of friendship that could never have happened without the telling of stories.

After every story, there are questions and conversation. Finally, the storyteller of the evening is invited to the center of the room where, surrounded by the others, who lay hands upon that person, there follows about 30 minutes of the most moving praying I’ve ever heard. Many learn how to pray with power during those prayer times.

What would we not change?
LDI works best when it is team-taught. I tell you bluntly, almost nothing would have worked in our LDI if Gail had not partnered with me. Almost every year when we reach the final week and do a group evaluation, someone says—with the agreement of the others—”Well, Gordon, we know you want us to say that the highlight of the year was the things we read. But we learned most by watching you and Gail work together. How you compliment each other, work out your differences in temperament and style, how Gail creates such a hospitable environment, how you support each other and make things happen.”

For others, the teaching partner doesn’t have to be a spouse, but team leadership is key.

Second, it’s vital to make clear that LDI is a priority. We would rather a person say no to our invitation than to say, “I can be there 75 percent of the time.” A group always (always!) suffers when one of its members is inconsistent.

Third, we’ve tried LDI in the church building, and we’ve tried it in the home. A home—preferably the leader’s home—is, without doubt, the best environment for this.

Finally, we have known from the beginning that each LDI group has to reach a terminus point. Just as Jesus told his disciples, “no longer will I call you my servants, but you are now my friends,” so people have to understand that LDI has term limits. Believe me! No one—in any year!—wants that moment to come, especially Gail and me. LDI people become sons and daughters to us. Every part of us wants to hold on to them. If we have given to them, they have given equally back to us in ways they will never know.

Okay, we cheat on this principle at times. LDI groups have occasional reunions. They love each other too much. And when they have these reunions, they usually invite us. And as often as possible, we go. And when we go, we drive home later in the evening with a rich glow in our hearts.

Paul wrote to the Galatians of his greatest pastoral passion: “that Christ be formed in you.” Until LDI, I never fully appreciated his words. Now I understand that this is what our endeavor is all about.

My greatest regret LDI-wise? That we didn’t have the wisdom to start it in my earliest years as a pastor. I should have insisted that something like LDI be in my job description: that 20 percent of my pastoral time each year be invested in 15-20 people. Let someone else do the committee work. Give me a dozen or so people each year (well, give them to Gail and me), and we’ll pour whatever we’ve got into them.

Think of it: what could have happened if there’d been 40 years of LDI, at 12-14 a year. That’s more than 500 “commissioned officers.”

I wish I’d visited West Point earlier in my life.

Gordon MacDonald is editor at large of Leadership and lives in New Hampshire.

Copyright © 2008 by the author or Christianity Today International/Leadership Journal.
Click here for reprint information on Leadership Journal.

Spring 2008, Vol. XXIX, No. 2, Page 90

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s