10 Lesser-Known Apps That Improve Productivity and 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.

todoist

 

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.

prayer-mate

 

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

 

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).

overdrive_1

 

Simple Pomodoro

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.

pomodoro

 

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

 

YouCanBook.Me

I started using this just last week, and I already love it. 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.

youcanbookme

 

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-online-appointment-scheduling-calendar-view-after-date-selection

 

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)

IFTTT

 

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

 

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

 

8 Lessons for Pastors on Christmas Eve Services

Christmas Eve is one week away. I have the privilege of coaching four of our Redemption church planters on a regular basis, and I recently shared with them some of the key lessons I’ve learned from doing Christmas Eve services. They gave encouraging feedback, so I thought I’d share it more broadly.

Christmas Eve

 

1. Evaluation. Soon after Christmas Eve, make a list of what went right, what went wrong, and what needs to be adjusted next year. Make this list within a week of the services. Otherwise next year when you’re planning you won’t remember. Keep in mind everything from service times, service flow, kids, environment, etc.

2. Feel. Personally, I want Christmas Eve to feel special yet similar enough to what we do that guests get a flavor of the church.

3. Preaching. Preach a simple gospel message. I’ve often been frustrated by Christmas Eve because, as a teacher, I’m always looking for people to have an ‘aha’ moment and I often try to get too clever on Christmas Eve. But the environment of Christmas Eve isn’t really designed for this. It’s more designed for inspiration, motivation, and something simple. Think about your sermon more like a YoungLife talk than normal.

4. Guests. Thank guests for coming and invite them to come back. Communicate when your normal Sunday services are. Have the graphic for your next series ready so that you can invite people to it.

5. Offering. Don’t apologize for taking the Christmas Offering. Instead say something like, “We have a generous church and we care about a number of needs in our church and community. If you’re a guest, feel free to participate or don’t, but know that this is a beautiful picture of what our church is about.”

6. Kids. Having kids under 5 years-old in the service is really difficult because they are not used to sitting still — even for just an hour. If you can have childcare up to age 5, people will enjoy it a lot more. (Though this is tough with only one service). OrientalTrading.com also has some good, inexpensive kids give-away stuff that can keep them occupied a bit (coloring, bendables, etc)

7. Touch. Work the room like crazy. It’s a great opportunity before the service to visit with people. They come early and you can make a big impact by working the room and meeting people’s families and friends.

8. Planning. By the end of January, make a Christmas checklist for next year that details what needs to be done and when next year. It’s a bit of work, but you’ll be happy you did. Here’s an example from ours this year, and it made a big difference in reducing our overall stress this year.

How to Determine the Best Way to Do Something

the best wayWhat’s the best way to exercise?

What’s the best way to read the Bible?

What’s the best way to teach your children about Jesus?

What’s the best way to keep track of your diet?

What’s the best way to show appreciation to the volunteers in your ministry?

What’s the best way to plan your week?

What’s the best way to invest quality time with your kids?

What’s the best way to keep track of your personal budget?

What’s the best way to manage your tasks and projects?

What’s the best way to spend time in prayer?

What’s the best way to improve my effectiveness at work?

What’s the best way to measure spiritual growth in your church?

In most cases, the best way is the one you’ll actually do.

Don’t get paralyzed in trying to do something the perfect way — you’ll end up doing nothing.
Don’t let unrealistic plans keep you from doing something.

Figure out what you’ll actually do consistently over time. Then do it. That’s usually the best way.

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):

trellisvineThe 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 bookMove: 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.

 

keller preachingPreaching to the Heart (Tim Keller’s audio lectures from Gordon Conwell) – Single best resource on preaching I’ve encountered. Also amazing for anybody who does counseling or disciples others (i.e. everyone).

 

heart servant leaderThe 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.

 

axioms

Leadership Axioms: Powerful Leadership Proverbs (Bill Hybels) – Short, practical, wise nuggets from one of the sharpest leaders in modern church history. 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-churchCenter 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.

 

the advantageThe 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.

 

stanleyChoosing to Cheat (book or 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 nextWhat’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.

 

innovatingdiscipleshipInnovating 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: 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?

 

13 Lessons I’m Bringing Home from Sabbatical

This summer, our elders graciously gave me (and my family) ten weeks off to enjoy a sabbatical. It was a life-changing experience that I’m deeply thankful for. I’ve been back now for just under a month and continue to process all that we experienced and learned.

On my first Sunday back in the pulpit, I shared eight lessons from the sabbatical. All of these remain important, lasting lessons. Nonetheless, after more reflection — and especially after returning to ministry work — more lessons have emerged.

So, below are the eight lessons I shared that Sunday, followed by five additional lessons. (I’ll be brief with the first eight, since I shared a whole sermon about it that you can watch for more thorough explanation).

1. We are amazingly loved. Our church family was remarkable and generous in both sending us away and welcoming us home. Wow.

2. Information overload is self-inflicted. When you live without social media, you’re really not missing much. Perhaps a future post will address this more.

3. It is impossible to “do it all.” We often think, I have to, It’s all important, and I can do it all. But those lies should be replaced with the truths, I choose to, Only a few things really matter, and I can do anything but not everything.

4. Great people focus on eulogy virtues, not résumé virtues. This idea comes from David Brooks and–even though we all know it’s true–it’s awfully hard to live out.

5. I’m far less important to the church and far more important to my family than I thought. Our staff and volunteers led the church amazingly well in my absence. But I realized that my family needs me more than ever.

6. The moral revolution is underway. A lot changed this summer in our culture. Are Christians ready?

7. You and I need the church. We saw how much we need the church to help us experience community, transcendence, and — most of all — Jesus.

8. The nations rage and God laughs. In our fallen world, we rage against God. He laughs and is not worried.

— 5 More —

9. “The most important gift I can give is my transformed and transforming presence.” This phrase came to me repeatedly through our time with Jim Cofield from Crosspoint Ministry as he coached and counseled us throughout the summer. It’s not something I’d never thought of, but it landed with significant impact. I can design great ministry, organize helpful sermons, and empower a strong team — but the very best thing I can give in leadership or life is my own transformed and transforming into the image of Christ presence. This requires time and space to prioritize the care of my soul and nobody will prioritize this for me.

10. Emotions are real, important, and complex. The animated film, Inside Out, was big for our family this summer. It highlighted the importance of emotions and how all the emotions work together and matter for the thriving of a person. Because of how busy, driven, and practical both me and Molly are, we have not appropriately valued our emotions or given space to identify and understand them. The movie woke us up to this reality and gave us a new dinnertime conversation game with the family where we ask everyone, “What was a time today that you felt (anger, disgust, joy, sadness, fear)?”

11. Going to church may not feel worth it if you don’t know people or have something to contribute. This summer was the first time in my life that I repeatedly went to church with my family in the same vehicle. We went to five or six different churches and — more often than not — it felt like an ordeal. The services were OK (not great), the preaching was OK (not great) and we didn’t really know anyone who wasn’t already in our family. Add that up, and it showed me why even more Christians are attending church less regularly. This strengthened my convictions to (a) work hard to create excellent worship services that help people experience the majesty of God, (b) help people at our church make meaningful connections and contributions.

12. Strong preaching takes significant preparation. I was particularly mindful not to be in “evaluation” mode as we visited churches (didn’t bring my evaluation form). Nonetheless, I was struck at how “meh” the preaching was across the board. In every case it was true information, but in many cases it felt like the preacher hadn’t prepared enough. How can I tell? Well, as a preacher, I know the preparation difference between when I have worked the content into my soul and when I have just worked it into my mind. I’ve too often only done the latter. I’ve returned with a commitment to more thoroughly preparing both myself and my sermons for preaching.

13. I function much better with a meaningful routine. While I have loved the flexibility of vocational ministry, this summer showed me how much better I function with routine. When I have a solid routine, I’m more likely to prioritize what’s important over what’s urgent and I’m more likely to make good choices in the moment. Additionally, I’m learning how an easily repeatable morning routine is crucial for avoiding decision fatigue. As I’ve returned from sabbatical, I’ve formed a consistent morning routine and have also put much more firm boundaries in place for when I start and stop work every day (more on that in a future post).

Thanks for your prayers and for reading. Hope some of this serves you. If you have questions or would hope for a future post based on one of these topics, let me know by commenting below.

Reflections on the Glorious & Terrifying Lordship of Jesus

This past Sunday was Easter and I preached a message called “The History of Redemption.” The sermon was 25 minutes of only Scripture, telling the story of the Bible from beginning to end. It was a powerful day for our church, but for me it was a powerful few months of memorizing and internalizing the Scriptures.

I’ve been reflecting on all of this and want to share some truths that keep gripping me.

1. Jesus claims to be Lord of all.

Though the culture and world would have us believe that faith and religion are merely private matters, Jesus claims to be Lord over all things. Some verses from the sermon:

  • All things came into being through him. (John 1:3)
  • God…has in these last days spoken to us through his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things and through whom also he created the world. He is the radiance of his glory and the exact representation of his image and he upholds all things by the word of his power. (Hebrews 1:2-3)
  • I am the way and the truth and the life. Nobody comes to the Father except through me. (John 1:14)
  • And the government shall be upon his shoulder. And he shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. (Isaiah 9:6)
  • On his robe and on his thigh a name was written, “King of kings and Lord of lords.” (Revelation 19:16)

These are staggering claims. They do not represent a Jesus who merely takes the wheel of your private life and infuses it with a bit more meaning or hope. Rather, they represent the one who rules over the universe that he spoke into existence with absolute power.

2. Without Christ, people are evil and hostile to God.

Since our first parents plunged the world into sin, we are all sick with the disease of sin. We sin by nature and we sin by choice. Two illustrations that accompanied the sermon (from Chris Koelle) depict this masterfully.

First, we see the idea that our very DNA is tainted by sin, broken and covered in thorns. This means that we are all “born this way” and it is no excuse.

For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it in hope. And the Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually. (Romans 8:20; Genesis 6:5)
For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it in hope. And the Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually. (Romans 8:20; Genesis 6:5)

Then, while depicting the downward spiral of Israel away from God, we see an image of people sacrificing their children to the gods of Canaan. But look closely into the fire. Do you see how this practice continues today?

They even sacrificed their sons and their daughters to the demons. They poured out innocent blood, the blood of their sons and daughters. (Psalm 106:37-38)
They even sacrificed their sons and their daughters to the demons. They poured out innocent blood, the blood of their sons and daughters. (Psalm 106:37-38)

This kind of evil demands a response and, amazingly, God patiently offers kindness to sinners who deserve only wrath.

3. Jesus offers scandalous grace to people who repeatedly dishonor him.

I often say that there aren’t good guys and bad guys, there are bad guys and Jesus. This is evident throughout the story of Scripture. We do wicked, dishonorable things, continually exchanging the truth about God for a lie and worshipping and serving the creature rather than the Creator (Romans 1:25). Despite this, Jesus offers amazing grace:

  • But he was wounded for our transgressions. He was crushed for our iniquities. Upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and by his stripes we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray. We have turned aside–every one–to his own way and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all. (Isaiah 53:5-6)
  • But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even while we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ. By grace you have been saved. (Ephesians 2:4-5)
  • For while we were still helpless, at the right time, Christ died for the ungodly. (Romans 5:6)
  • All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation. (2 Corinthians 5:18)
  • And he said… “I will give to him who thirsts from the spring of the water of life without cost. He who overcomes will inherit these things and I will be his God and he shall be my son.” (Revelation 21:6-7)

This grace is real and powerful. It can change lives and bless communities. But it is a limited-time offer. You get one life to accept this grace and joyfully bow the knee to King Jesus. Either he took the sword for you or you will take the sword.

4. The Bible threatens terrifying things to those who will not acknowledge the Lordship of Jesus.

Because we think about faith in mostly private terms, when people reject it we often think something like, “Oh well. Too bad. They’re not going to be very fulfilled until they find Jesus.” Which is true. But much more is at stake. Consider these verses from the sermon:

  • But if that wicked servant thinks to himself, “My master is delayed,” and begins to beat his fellow servants and eats and drinks with drunkards, then the master of that servant will come on a day when he does not expect him and at an hour that he does not know and will cut him into pieces and put him with the hypocrites. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. (Matthew 24:48-51)
  • From his mouth comes a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations and he will rule them with a rod of iron. He will tread the winepress of the fury of the wrath of God the Almighty. (Revelation 19:15)
  • They will make war on the Lamb and the Lamb will conquer them… (Revelation 17:14)
  • And if anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life he was thrown into the lake of fire. (Revelation 20:15)

Get the picture? This is not little Jesus, meek and mild, passively sitting on the sidelines. Rather, this is the Lord of all history who has poured himself out for sinners–who continue to reject his authority or his grace–promising to rule the world of evil by destroying all who will not joyfully come under his Lordship.

You don’t have to like it. You don’t even have to believe it.

But it’s the way the world really is.

5. Christians will suffer greatly and be disliked by the world.

Somehow it continues to shock Christians that we are hated, mistreated, and misrepresented. But this sermon reminds me of these powerful words of Jesus:

  • You will be hated by all because of me but the one who endures to the end will be saved. A disciple is not greater than his teacher nor a slave than his master. And do not fear those who kill the body but are unable to kill the soul. Rather, fear him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell. (Matthew 10:22, 24, 28)
  • Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. And blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on account of me. Rejoice and be glad for your reward is great in heaven. (Matthew 5:10-12)

I desperately want to connect with a culture that is far from God and needs his grace. I want to communicate in ways that are understandable. But I also must realize that many simply will not receive the message. They will hate it and belittle it. They will mock it. The days are coming (and are now here around the world) when they will arrest and fine those who will not capitulate to the winds of cultural “progress.” Buckle up. It’s going to be a tough ride.

Want proof? The man who put “The History of Redemption” together, Ronnie Smith, was murdered as a missionary in Libya in December 2013. I think God was preparing him and his family for the suffering they would face, and his widow boldly shared the gospel to the world as a result.

6. Jesus is on the right side of history.

We repeatedly hear that Christians are “on the wrong side of history.” The Bible is regressive and backwards, not appropriately adapting to fit our enlightened, scientific, modern culture.

I walk away from this sermon thinking, “No. Jesus is on the right side of history. He made the world. He sustains the world. And he is coming to renew the world. He will conquer evil, make war on those who oppose him, and make all things new. By his undeserved grace, he has brought me to himself. If I’m with him, I’m on the right side of history because history belongs to him.”

You can view the sermon, with the illustrations, here.

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.

Personal Retreat Day

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?

 

5 Lessons From Touring the Amazon Fulfillment Center

Amazon WarehouseYesterday I took our staff to tour the Amazon Fulfillment Center (it’s named “Phoenix 6”). “Fulfillment Center” sounds like a place where all your dreams would come true, but it’s really just a giant warehouse where Amazon orders are processed and shipped (maybe the same thing if you like shopping online).

It was amazing.

The first thing you notice is the size of the place. Ginormous.

We later learned that this center is 1.2 million square feet (just over 27 acres), stocks over 19 million items and has over 8 miles of conveyor belt zipping items around to be handled by the 1,500 “associates” who work there. This is one of 50 fulfillment centers Amazon has around the world and specializes in small to medium sized items (no big appliances or electronics here).

AmazonConveyerOur team loved it and would highly recommend you schedule a tour.

Here’s what I learned:

1. Communication and good signage are crucial. A warehouse that size is complicated and dangerous. To help people, there are signs everywhere. There’s even a whole section devoted to “team development,” which is largely focused on communication and creating signage. There are signs for everything: safety reminders, cultural values, right and wrong ways to do things, and wild statistics about the company.

Keeping people on the same page requires having good communication and visual cues that remind people about what’s important.

2. Sometimes efficiency requires disorganization. Besides the scope of the building, the most jaw-dropping part of the tour was seeing how items are stored in the warehouse. Photo: Ariel Zambelich/WIREDThere is literally zero organization to it. Items are not arranged by kind, name, or category. One compartment I looked at had a chocolate fountain, a cat toy, a Minecraft board game, and a few of the same book about American history — all next to each other.

Why? Well, Amazon has realized that the time it would take to organize all their incoming products would not be worth it and would actually slow them down. So the “stockers” just put stuff wherever it fits on the shelf and their computer system tracks where it is.

I’m still processing what the implications are for leadership in the church, but I think it means that sometimes we can get paralyzed by being organized and it actually slows down our effectiveness.

3. Well-designed systems are essential for growing organizations. Our tour demonstrated a profound achievement of computer programming. These systems track items, tell “pickers” where to find them, move items to the “packers,” and ensure that items get to the right place. Without these systems, Amazon could not process a fraction of the orders they do.

Similarly, growing churches need to be able to develop intentional processes to help ministry get done more effectively by more people.

AmazonPicker4. People are always essential. The computer systems are impressive and allow many things to get done well. But the Amazon warehouse demonstrated that you can’t replace people. Even in some of the other warehouses that have robots do some of the “picking,” they need humans to make intelligent decisions about what is needed.

In the same way, churches can never rely on systems and processes entirely. People are the glue that truly make things happen.

5. Good leadership invites everyone in the organization to take ownership. Many of the company culture signs I saw related to taking ownership. From day one, every full-time Amazon employee is given stock. Through Amazon’s Kaizen program, employees at all levels are invited to make suggestions on how to improve things.

If every good idea has to come from the top, an organization will be limited. But good leadership invites input and shaping from everyone.

Which of these lessons stands out to you the most? Why?

Life Through Death: Jesus, the Gospels and Gran Torino

Gran TorinoAs the year ends, I’m marking the end of my first semester of seminary through the Missional Training Center. One of my assignments has been to pick a movie, and reflect on its strengths and weaknesses as a metaphor of the role and character of Jesus in the story of the Gospels. I picked Gran Torino.

I enjoyed Gran Torino the first time I saw it and now I enjoy it even more. Walt Kowalski is a kind of (surprising) Christ-figure and I got a kick out of analyzing him.

Here’s my 9-page paper, in case you want to read my analysis. The thesis is that Gran Torino thoughtfully explores a number of themes that also emerge in the Gospels like:

  1. true righteousness
  2. standing up for justice
  3. disciple-making
  4. sacrificial death
  5. resurrection
  6. the meaning of life and death.

Click here to read more.

Why and How to Create Family Rites of Passage

This past Monday was a special day for our family. Next week our second daughter begins Kindergarten, so it was the perfect time for her to experience her first rite of passage.

Simply defined, a rite of passage is “a ceremony or event marking an important stage in someone’s life.”

rite of passage
Chef David Traina talks with Caitlin about creativity

For our family, I’m thinking to create special experiences at 4 key stages in our kids’ lives:

1. Beginning school — preparing for a life of learning.
2. Turning 10 — preparing for a life of purity.
3. Turning 13 — preparing for a life of decisions.
4. Turning 18 — preparing for a life on your own.

So far, we’ve taken our two oldest daughters through #1 (more details below). It’s been wonderful so far, and I’m looking forward to how God will use the experiences to come.

Why Rites of Passage?

1. Special moments deserve special attention. These key transition moments should be celebrated and enjoyed in intentional ways.

2. Big moments create meaningful memories. We tend to remember more when something is a big deal. Thus, rites of passage are wonderful opportunities to shape our kids with important lessons through special memories. These memories also create markers that can be referred to in the future.

3. Rites of passage force parental intentionality. Thinking through a special experience devoted to celebrating and forming our children requires intentional thinking about who are kids are and what lessons we hope to impart. This kind of intentionality is tough in day-to-day life.

4. They are fun! That’s a pretty good reason.

How to do Rites of Passage

1. Decide when is appropriate. My moments are above, but yours may be different. Think about your family and decide what’s best.

2. Determine what you hope to communicate. Each rite of passage experience should be fun, but it should also be formative. For our kids pre-kindergarten experiences, we decided we wanted to share with them four important lessons they would need for their entire life of learning. While there was some overlap, we customized these lessons to the needs of our specific kids.

We wanted our oldest to learn:

(1) Endurance — being able to keep going when something is difficult.

(2) Fun — enjoying what you are experiencing.

(3) Courage — doing something you are afraid of.

(4) Trust God — believing God loves you and will take care of you.

For our second daughter, we kept lessons #1 and #4 but changed the others to better fit her needs:

(2) Teamwork — depending on other people who can help you.

(3) Creativity — using your imagination to create new things.

3. Design the experience. Figure out what kind of experiences (a) are reasonable to do, (b) would communicate creatively, and (c) sound fun. The experience need not be expensive, though it might be worth it if you’re only doing a few in a kids’ lifetime.

For our kids’ pre-kindergarten experiences, we created an experience that would correspond to each lesson we were hoping to teach. As you can see, some were more involved than others:

(1) Endurance — a morning hike up “A” mountain in Tempe. Quite a feat, especially with no complaining.

(2a) Fun — swimming at Mesquite Groves Aquatic Center, a local pool with a small water park.

(2b) Teamwork — a blindfolded obstacle course through a local playground/park, directed by the voice of sister, mom and dad. Also, a 300 piece puzzle that required help.

(3a) Courage — a horseback riding experience with an acquaintance who was so gracious and kind.

(3b) Creativity — a backstage kitchen tour with our friend, Chef David Traina, at Liberty Market followed by a chance to create her own pizza.

(4) Trust God — a “real” Bible, with name engraved.

As you design the experience, think about the people you know, resources you have, and places you could go. Also, for both #3 lessons, I found that people were eager to help us create these experiences with limited cost once they heard what it was about.

4. Deepen the lessons with reminders. Because these moments are so memorable, they provide many opportunities to remind and reinforce the lessons. Even today we can say to our oldest, “Remember when you rode that horse and needed courage? Here’s another chance to be courageous.”

It’s quite likely that not everyone would enjoy something like this. It fits my entrepreneurial, learning-driven personality really well. We have a blast doing it. That said, rites of passage are not a moral imperative. They also are not a golden bullet that are guaranteed to produce some particular result. But so far, they’ve been a lot of fun!

What are some ideas you have for rites of passages?