5 Steps to the Personal Retreat Day You Need

Do you ever feel like the urgent is crowding out the important? Like there’s so many things that have to be kept up with that you just can’t seem to get ahead?

I do. Everybody does.

I often talk with other pastors about how ministry is a “black hole” where there’s always more you could do. Over time, I’ve concluded that ministry isn’t unique — all kinds of people have demanding roles that seem to require being “on” all the time. Just ask a mom.

I’m not sure how it started but a few years ago I began a practice that has made a significant difference in helping me not just work in the ministry, but on the ministry: The Personal Retreat Day.

A Personal Retreat Day is a day set aside to recalibrate and refocus on what is important, big-picture, and vision-oriented.

Everyone needs a day like that every so often. If you’re a leader, you especially need a day like this. And it’s more doable than you think.

Over time, I’ve identified five simple steps that can help make a Personal Retreat Day a refreshing reality.

1. Put a firm day on the calendar.

This is the most important step, because without it a Personal Retreat Day will not happen. The urgent things of life will always give you a reason to do something else.

It can also be the most difficult step because you have to find a day that you can afford to be unavailable and other logistics have to be factored in. I want to schedule a day like this about every six weeks or so, but it’s hard to do it that frequently without some real intentionality.

2. Find a new location.

Personal Retreat Days happen best in a change of scenery, because it puts you in a different frame of mind that allows you to have a different focus. If you go to the typical places you work, you’ll end up doing typical work.

I typically try to get 45 minutes – 2 ½ hours away because that puts me out of my typical radius and it allows me enough time to enjoy the drive. The drive is a huge part of the experience for me, because I typically listen to something thought-provoking on the way there and then listen to my favorite playlist of worship music (while I sing along loudly) on the way back.

3. Take a personal inventory.

The first thing I do when I arrive to my destination is some kind of personal reflection. In this time, I’m asking the question, “How am I doing…really?” I cannot lead where I am not going and I can’t call people to have a thing with God that I don’t have. So reflection and inventory are crucial.

One of my favorite inventories is a series of questions I adapted from a talk I heard years ago by Bill Hybels on “The Art of Self-Leadership” (turned into an article here):

  1. Is my calling sure?
  2. Is my vision clear?
  3. Is my passion hot?
  4. Is my character submitted?
  5. Is my pride subdued?
  6. Are my fears at bay?
  7. Is my pace sustainable?
  8. Are my physical and spiritual practices healthy?
  9. Are my ears open to the whispers of the Spirit?
  10. Are my gifts developing?
  11. Is my heart for God increasing?
  12. Is my capacity for loving deepening?

Journaling through these questions has proven helpful every time.

4. Enjoy some extra time with God.

As a follower of Jesus, I love spending time with him. But the demands of life make it hard to spend generous stretches of unhurried time with God. So use a portion of the day to spend some extra time with God. For me, this often looks like taking a long prayer walk, usually related to things that emerged from taking inventory. Other times, it means studying a portion of scripture that I’ve wanted to examine, reading a book that I’ve wanted to get to, or listening to a sermon.

5. Work “on” your work.

The E-Myth Revisited helpfully explains how leaders cannot just work in their work, but must work on it too. Spend the balance of the day stepping back from the daily grind of tasks, and think about the big picture.

What is your organization’s mission? What’s your role in it? What are the top few things that you bring that nobody else can or is responsible to do? Are you doing enough of those things to keep things moving in the right direction?

Think through the next 30, 60, or 90 days and ask two questions: What is already coming that needs my attention? What can I proactively do to move the mission forward?

Consider doing a 6×6 plan, where you identify the six most important priorities over the next six weeks. If you have an annual plan, spend some time reviewing it.

This space can also be used to work on a bigger project that you’ve had a hard time getting to in the typical routine of work life. I find that I often make bigger progress in shorter time when I do it on a day like this.

It’s Worth It

This practice has been so valuable to my personal life and ministry leadership that my wife often will gently and encouragingly ask if I have a retreat day on the calendar. She’s not just trying to get rid of me for a day–in fact, it’s often a little harder on her when I take these days. But she’s seen the value so much that she encourages me to do it anyway.

Tweak Away…But Do Something

These steps are what I’ve used and enjoyed, but they surely won’t be best for everybody. So tweak them as necessary and find what works for you. But don’t let your tweaks be an excuse not to do it. The practice of getting away is so helpful that I’d hate for it to be lost in the paralysis of seeking perfection.

[A Note to Those Who Don’t Have Much Freedom]

I wrote this post primarily for the staff I lead at Redemption Gateway, for those who lead at high levels, and for many other pastors who I have relationships with. I realize that many people don’t have the kind of job with the freedom to have a day like this “count” for work. A few thoughts:

  1. The more of a leadership role you have, the more important a Personal Retreat Day is. If you’re working in a job more as a doer than a leader, you probably don’t need this kind of day as much.
  2. If you have a boss, ask about the possibility of doing a Personal Retreat Day from time to time. Explain why you think it would be valuable not just to you, but the organization. Ask to experiment with it quarterly and test the results.
  3. If you are a leader and can’t get time away from your boss, use personal time for it. Take a vacation day or set up an occasional weekend day. Sure, that can be costly, but it will probably be worth the cost.
  4. If you are a mom (household CEO), see what kind of support you can get from your husband or others in a way that would allow you to do a version of this from time to time. Just a few Personal Retreat Days per year could work wonders for your soul and your home.
  5. If you just can’t do something like a Personal Retreat Day, then don’t. This post isn’t designed to make anyone feel bad or carry extra guilt. Rather, it’s attempting to share a helpful practice for those who can benefit from it.

Have you done a Personal Retreat Day? What has been helpful for you?

How Do People Really Grow Spiritually? (Lessons from Move)

Every pastor wonders how much difference he is making. I’m no different. I want to know to what degree my personal ministry, as well as our church’s ministry, is really helping people grow in their faith. I ask questions like:

  • Are we truly making disciples or are we just keeping people active?
  • Does activity/participation = growth?
  • Which of our ministries is most effective/ineffective at helping people grow?
  • How do we help all these people that are in such different places?

This summer I read Move: What 1,000 Churches Reveal About Spiritual Growth by Greg Hawkins and Cally Parkinson, and I realized I’m not the only one who asks those kinds of questions. Move is about the lessons from a research project that studied over 1,000 churches by surveying over 200,000 congregants about their spiritual life and development.

As a pastor committed to helping people grow spiritually, I loved the book. It confirmed some of my convictions, surprised me about some of my false assumptions, and challenged me in a few crucial areas.

Confirmation of Convictions

Move affirmed a few of my convictions about ministry. I’ll list these confirmations and provide a quote for each one. PLEASE read the quotes. They’re excellent.

1. People want to be challenged. I’ve seen people respond to challenge time and again.

“Nothing is more indicative of high-impact, discipling churches than a ‘go-for-broke’ challenge factor.” 

2. The Bible is hugely important for spiritual growth. Duh. But, I guess, it’s amazing how many churches don’t really engage people with the Bible. The authors write:

“The most effective strategy for moving people forward in their journey of faith is biblical engagement.”

3. People need different things at different stages of their spiritual life. As nice as one-size-fits-all approaches are for church leadership, they aren’t good for people.

What people need in order to grow closer to Christ depends on where they are now in their relationship with him.” 

4. Christians must have personal time with God in order to grow. Great church programs make little difference if a person isn’t spending time with Jesus.

“Nothing has a greater impact on spiritual growth than reflection on Scripture. If churches could do only one thing to help people at all levels of spiritual maturity grow in their relationship with Christ, their choice is clear. They would inspire, encourage, and equip their people to read the Bible—specifically, to reflect on Scripture for meaning in their lives.”

Surprises (Refuting My Assumptions)

Move also surprised me in a few key areas and refuted my assumptions. Again, please read the quotes.

1. Participation in church activities does not necessarily lead to increased spiritual maturity. Most church leaders assume that if we just get people active, they’ll grow. But, in reality, they’ll only grow to the degree that these activities help them develop a personal relationship with Jesus.

All of our findings are derived from one essential fact: that spiritual growth—defined as an increase in love of God and for others—is not a product of growing participation in church activities or changes in lifestyle or the result of our natural aging process. Rather, spiritual growth advances in lockstep with a growing personal relationship with Christ.” 

2. Organized small groups are more catalytic for people early on and less so later on. This shocked me philosophically, but not experientially. The longer you walk with Jesus, the less you need the organized small group because you have meaningful Christian relationships in real life.

“When we apply our context of human relationships to these findings, it makes perfect sense that organized activities become less important. The closer you are to someone—the more likely you are to depend on them to process your life issues—the less important organized settings tend to be. While you may have formed the relationship in a structured experience—in the workplace, perhaps, or at a neighborhood gathering—that setting is typically a springboard for the relationship, not something required to sustain it.”

3. Serving is the only organized church activity that moves people across all stages of their development. I wasn’t surprised that serving grows people. I was surprised that it was the only organized thing that helped everybody.

Interestingly, serving experiences appear to be even more significant to spiritual development than organized small groups…The implication for church leaders is that we must encourage people to serve—in any capacity, in whatever valid opportunity their gifts and interests lead them to.”

4. Churches need to promote and provide a high-expectation, non-negotiable, senior-pastor-owned pathway of first-steps designed to jumpstart people’s spiritual growth. Rather than just throwing people in the game, churches need to have some basic introductory experience that gets people moving in the right direction.

The military uses boot camp to turn civilians into soldiers. Baseball uses spring training to test new players and try them out in different positions. Many colleges require freshmen to attend orientation week so they can become familiar with their new environment and a new set of expectations. These short-term launching pads into life experiences are analogous to the first best practice found among the most spiritually effective churches in the REVEAL database. They get people moving by providing a high-challenge, nonnegotiable path of first steps to engage people in a process of spiritual growth—a process that will ultimately lead them to become followers of Jesus Christ.”

Challenges I Needed

Finally, Move challenged me in a few key areas. These were things that I knew were important but, for various reasons, had forgotten how crucial they were.

1. The #1 priority of the senior leader(s) must be to make disciples. More than attendance, numerical growth, personal platform, cultural influence, or anything else. This seems obvious, but it’s not. After leading a church for 5+ years, many other things compete for #1 priority. Move challenged me to refocus on what church is all about — making disciples.

Five years of research findings point us to one singular conclusion—that the most essential decision a church leader makes is not what kind of worship service to offer or what kind of small-group system to build. It’s the decision to lead his or her church with an unyielding and unequivocal commitment to a very easy-to-say, very hard-to-accomplish goal—which is, to do whatever is humanly possible to move people’s hearts toward Christ.”

2. The senior leader(s) must have a white-hot relationship with Jesus. Duh, again. But it was a challenge I needed to hear. Nothing would serve our church more than me having a vibrant relationship with Christ.

You cannot reproduce in others what you are not producing in yourself. The main thing you need to do—the one thing you must do—is fully within your reach. You must surrender all.”

You can try other paths, find a new strategy, perhaps, or hire some really talented staff members. But in the end, if your church is not led by people completely devoted to Jesus—people who prioritize their relationship with him above everything else—it will not work. It will not produce life. It will not change the world.”

Conclusion

I thank God for Move. It came just at the right time with a number of fresh insights and important reminders. It will bear fruit in my life and the church. While it’s probably not the kind of book that most Christians will find too interesting, it’s a must-read for senior leaders in a local church.

Top 10 Resources for Pastors & Church Planters

I was recently asked by a pastor friend to recommend my top 10 most influential resources for pastors, church planters, or those aspiring to high-level ministry leadership.

He wasn’t looking for explicitly theological resources as much as tools that explore ministry design, pastoral leadership, and developing a disciple-making ministry. While a number of these resources flow out of rich theological reflection, they aren’t the kind of tools most pastors would get from seminary. Thus, I’m making the (somewhat dangerous) assumption that a pastor is grounded in the gospel, the Scriptures, and a robust theological understanding.

So, with that caveat, here’s what I would recommend (in no particular order):

The Trellis and the Vine - Kindle edition by Marshall, Colin, Payne, Tony.  Religion & Spirituality Kindle eBooks @ Amazon.com.The Trellis and The Vine (Collin Marshall & Tony Payne) – Beautiful vision for equipping and multiplying ministry through making disciples and training people. Chapters 2-3 are on a short list of must-read resources for all our new staff.

Move: What 1, 000 Churches Reveal about Spiritual Growth: Hawkins, Greg L.,  Parkinson, Cally, Bill Hybels: 9780310529941: Amazon.com: Books

Move: What 1,000 Churches Reveal About Spiritual Growth (Greg Hawkins & Cally Parkinson) – I’ve never talked to another pastor who read this book, but it’s one of the best I’ve read in the last few years. It explores how people actually grow in their faith. You can read my lessons from it here.

Preaching: Communicating Faith in an Age of Skepticism (Tim Keller) – Keller has greatly influenced my approach to preaching, even though his context and personality are so different from mine. Tons to be learned here.

The Heart of a Servant Leader: Letters from Jack Miller: C. John Miller,  Barbara Miller Juliani: 9780875527154: Amazon.com: Books

The Heart of a Servant Leader: Letters from Jack Miller (C. John Miller) – Collection of letters from a mature, wise, prayerful pastor. So much is modeled through these letters, especially about prayer, family, love for non-Christians, courage to confront tough issues, and how the gospel actually changes you.

Leadership Axioms: Powerful Leadership Proverbs: Hybels, Bill, Henry Cloud,  PhD: 0025986495961: Amazon.com: Books

Leadership Axioms: Powerful Leadership Proverbs (Bill Hybels) – Short, practical, wise nuggets from one of the sharpest leaders in modern church history (despite his recent downfall). Each chapter is only a few pages, which makes it easy to read and easy to remember. I guess that’s the point of an axiom, eh?

Center Church: Doing Balanced, Gospel-Centered Ministry in Your City -  Kindle edition by Keller, Timothy. Religion & Spirituality Kindle eBooks @  Amazon.com.Center Church: Doing Balanced, Gospel-Centered Ministry in Your City (Tim Keller) – One of the highlights of this past year was working through this book with a cohort of pastors from across the country, guided by the staff of Redeemer City to City. It’s most of Keller’s thinking on gospel, culture, theological vision, and evangelism all in one place.

Amazon.com: The Advantage, Enhanced Edition: Why Organizational Health  Trumps Everything Else In Business (J-B Lencioni Series) eBook: Lencioni,  Patrick M.: Kindle StoreThe Advantage: Why Organizational Health Trumps Everything in Business (Patrick Lencioni) – Most of Lencioni’s books are short fables designed to teach crucial lessons in organizational life. The Advantage is his non-fiction magnum opus, an all-in-one book on the importance of organizational culture.

Breathing Room • Part 4┃"Choosing to Cheat" - YouTube

Choosing to Cheat sermon by Andy Stanley) – This a game changer for prioritizing family and keeping things in perspective. In fact, when I heard Stanley present this content at a leadership conference, he said it was “the most important leadership decision he ever made.” What was it? Choosing not to cheat his family in the name of ministry.

What's Best Next: How the Gospel Transforms the Way You Get Things Done:  Perman, Matt, John Piper: 9780310533986: Amazon.com: Books

What’s Best Next: How the Gospel Transforms the Way You Get Things Done (Matt Perman) – I’ve read many books on productivity and time management. This one contains all the best-of thinking found in those other books, yet comes from a gospel-centered perspective. Here’s my review of it.

Amazon.com: Innovating Discipleship: Four Paths to Real Discipleship  Results (Church Unique Intentional Leader Series) (Volume 1)  (9781491039670): Mancini, Will: Books

Innovating Discipleship: Four Paths to Real Discipleship Results (Will Mancini) – I read everything I can by Will Mancini and love the way he thinks. This is a little known read-in-one-sitting book that helps leaders identify their approach and strategy for disciple-making. I desperately wish I had read it before planting a church.

BONUS #1: Logos Bible Software. I honestly can’t imagine sermon prep without it. It’s saved me hours and hours and has allowed me to go further into studying for sermons than I could ever do without it.

BONUS #2: The Andy Stanley Leadership Podcast – every episode is interesting, helpful, and chock-full of thought-provoking ideas (See other podcasts I recommend here).

What would you add?

10 Lesser-Known Apps That Improve Productivity for Ministry

I love learning from other people, and I especially like getting behind-the-scenes looks at how they do what they do.

I have a folder on my computer where I’ve kept examples of people’s weekly schedules.

I love asking other pastors about how they do sermon prep.

It’s fascinating to ask people what their typical day is like.

We all have tools that help us be more effective at our craft, and most of my tools tend to be software apps. There are all kinds of better-known apps I use (Evernote, Logos Bible Software, Google Apps, Dropbox, Spotify, Hootsuite, etc), but for this post I want to share 10 surprising, lesser-known apps and tools that have improved my productivity and ministry. (For reference, my hardware is a MacBook Pro, an iPhone, and a Kindle Paperwhite)

Todoist I don’t know how well-known Todoist is, but since there are so many to-do list apps, it’s worth mentioning the one I use. I’ve struggled for years to find a productivity / to-do list app that I enjoy using. I read Do More Better around the new year, where Tim Challies suggested Todoist. It’s free, simple, and smart. For example, you can type in “Fill out: Expense report on the first Monday” and it will automatically create a recurring task called “Fill out: Expense report” that appears every first Monday of the month.

Achieve More, Every Day: Todoist's New Logo & Brand

PrayerMate This app is my digital prayer list. It creates sets of “prayer cards” where you can edit what you want to pray for, add photos of who you want to pray for, and much more. It costs a few dollars, but it’s worth it.

PrayerMate - Apps on Google Play

Coffitivity This is a funny app that plays background noise that sounds like a coffee shop. If you sometimes get distracted by too much quiet, having ambient noise like this can really help.

Coffitivity - 80amps

Overdrive This app works with my local library to give me access to borrow their Kindle books. The highlights still get saved, and it’s wonderful to read books I don’t want to buy (especially Jack Reacher novels).

eContent | DeKalb County Public Library

Pomodoro Tracker The Pomodoro technique is a helpful approach to productivity: do 25 minutes of uninterrupted work, followed by a 5 minute break. And keep doing it. This app provides a simple timer that leverages this technique. When I have a larger chunk of time to work on what’s important (not just urgent), it’s an extremely helpful way to stay focused.

The 3 Best Online Pomodoro Applications

BetterSnapTool Oddly enough, this is a tool I can’t imagine living without. It easily helps you arrange the open windows on your laptop, ‘snapping’ them into a clean side or corner of the screen. Since I use my computer for sermon prep and often need multiple apps going at a time, this helps me quickly get setup without a cluttered ‘desktop.’

BetterSnapTool 1.8 – Easily manage window positions and sizes. | download  |AppKed

YouCanBook.Me I use this when people request to meet with me. It integrates with my calendar, and allows people to schedule a phone or in-person meeting based on my availability.

YouCanBook.me Reviews: Pricing & Software Features 2020 - Financesonline.com

Doodle.com This free tool lessens the pain of trying to schedule a group meeting. You know the kind when there are a bunch of people and there’s endless email back-and-forth about what works for everybody. Ugh. Doodle takes a poll of people’s available times and helps you more easily select what works.

Doodle: The One-Step Solution to Scheduling Meetings - TechArk Solutions

IFTTT IFTTT stands for If This, Then That and is a free automation tool. You can set up all sorts of “recipes” that help simplify your life. Among my favorites:

  • If rain is in tomorrow’s forecast, send me a text message notifying me
  • If I favorite a tweet, automatically save it in my Evernote “Quotes/Illustrations” notebook
  • If Tim Challies’ feed says ‘carte,’ send me the post via email (this allows me to receive Challies’ ‘A-La-Carte’ posts without subscribing to ALL the content he creates)

What's going to happen with IFTTT? - Stacey on IoT | Internet of Things  news and analysis

Scannable Scannable is a mobile scanner that can turn your photos into PDFs. When somebody gives a paper handout, I use this to create a simple PDF and import it into Evernote.

Scannable by Evernote – A Must Have App - Apple Tech Talk

Do you have a surprising app I should hear about? Let me know!

The Both Manifesto

I’m sick of being forced to choose.
Why does it have to be one or the other?
Isn’t it possible to be both?

Yes.

BOTH_306x172

God expects his people to live faithfully toward him. And he works to help his people be fruitful.

It’s like when your aunt asks you on Thanksgiving whether you want apple pie or pumpkin. You answer, “Yes.” Do you want to be faithful to God or fruitful? “Yes.”

The Situation

Perhaps it’s because people love to argue. Maybe it’s because polemics rule the day. Surely it’s driven by insecurity and sin. But many Christians and ministry leaders seem stuck on the idea that faithfulness and fruitfulness are mutually exclusive.

We all know of small, impotent, irrelevant, dying churches that haven’t seen a convert in years but assure themselves that, “At least we’re faithful.”

We all know of big, slick, over-relevant, growing churches that have compromised the confrontational message of the gospel but assure themselves that, “If people are coming (fruitful), we must be doing something right.”

Some are faithful (they think), but not fruitful. Others are fruitful (they think), but their lack of faithfulness makes you scratch your head.

Whether big or small, famous or unknown, new or established, I believe that disciples, leaders and churches can (and should) be BOTH faithful and fruitful.

Defining Terms

What do I mean when I say faithful and fruitful?

Faithful — Doggedly committed to honoring and obeying God.

This looks like trusting Jesus, continual repentance of sin, joyful obedience, steadfast prayer, high integrity, sacrificial love, confidence in the sufficiency of Scripture, bold and unashamed proclamation of the gospel, willingness to do hard and unpopular things when necessary, and resolute determination to exalt the name of Jesus in thought, word and action.

Fruitful — Continually producing good and helpful results.

This looks like demonstrating the fruit of the Spirit (Gal 5:22-23), growth in maturity, progress that can be seen by all, increased affections for God, greater compassion towards and, thus, influence with outsiders, others coming to and growing in faith as an effect of your investment, disciples being made, leaders being developed, churches being planted, and healthy people and ministry taking place.

Faithful is not unreflective plodding in the hopes that doing things the same way — with the same low level of intensity, prayer, and intentionality — will bring about different results. Rather, that’s insanity.

Fruitful is not sheer numerical growth or “success” at all costs. All truly fruitful leaders and ministries grow numerically in influence, but not all who grow numerically are truly fruitful. As I’m using the term, fruitful describes the quality of fruit, not just the quantity.

But Doesn’t God Determine Fruit?

You might object, “Hold on a minute. All you can focus on is being faithful and then God has to be the one to make it fruitful.”

I agree. The Bible makes it clear that God is the one who “gives the growth” (1 Cor 3:6-7). Paul doesn’t command us to bear the fruit of the Spirit, but says, “Walk by the Spirit” (Gal 5:16) and the result will be that you bear fruit. All we can ultimately control is our faithfulness. Fruitfulness is in God’s hands.

So why isn’t this blog simply called “Faithful”? Why focus on fruitfulness as well? Doesn’t this just betray a pragmatics-first, just-adjust-your-methods, man-centered approach to ministry?

Good question. The answer is that faithful.com was taken.

Seriously, though, the reason I also care greatly about fruitfulness is because I believe that over time, God brings fruitfulness to disciples, leaders, and churches who are faithful. Jesus said that a tree would be known by its fruit (Luke 6:43-44). The Bible describes the kind of ministry God blesses. Figs don’t come from thornbushes. Those who walk by the Spirit always end up bearing the fruit of the Spirit.

Faithful ministry always eventually leads to fruitful ministry.

Did you catch the key word? Eventually. It doesn’t usually happen overnight. A mustard seed takes a long time to grow into a strong tree.

Be Faithful

In the end, my aim is to exhort ministry leaders to be faithful.

Honor God, obey his word, do the right thing even when it hurts, be wise, know people, love people, learn from your mistakes, keep going, and remember your First Love.

For this very reason, make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue, and virtue with knowledge, and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with steadfastness, and steadfastness with godliness, and godliness with brotherly affection, and brotherly affection with love. For if these qualities are yours and are increasing, they keep you from being ineffective or unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. (2 Peter 1:5-8 ESV)

It’s not either/or. It’s both. Be faithful and you’ll (eventually) be fruitful too.