6 Leadership Lessons from the 2016 Iowa Caucuses

2016 IowaI can’t help it. I like politics.

I care about the issues and the future of our country, but I also like the ‘horse race’ aspect of it. Observing politics feels a bit like watching sports — there are winners, losers, those with momentum, underdogs, and so on. But, as a leader, politics also provide fascinating case studies in leadership.

So even though the 2016 Iowa Caucuses were a few days ago (making this post old news already), here are some leadership lessons I’m taking away from what we saw earlier this week.

1. Local dynamics matter.

There’s no question that media and technology have homogenized many aspects of our national culture. But local dynamics matter a lot. Not only is Iowa culture different from New Hampshire or California or Texas or Oregon, but the rules of the game in Iowa are different. I had to look up how the Iowa Caucuses work. It’s the uniqueness of the local Iowa situation that requires “a strong ground game” that isn’t as crucial in other states.

Leaders sometimes want to downplay the specifics of a local context, but that’s a mistake. It’s one of the reasons I love our multi-congregational approach to ministry rather than doing video multi-site.

2. Compelling leaders are more about “we” than “me.”

On paper, Bernie Sanders should not be able to come within a gnat’s hair of Hillary Clinton. But thousands turn out to his events a bunch of them voted for him. Why? In part, it’s because Sanders’ message isn’t about himself. He talks about issues that face “us” and what “we” can do. As Donald Miller points out in his StoryBrand framework, many organizations and leaders make the mistake of making themselves the hero in the story, when they really should be the guide. Sanders is compelling because, in a political landscape of “look at me” he’s saying “we can do better.”

3. One big personality is not enough.

Donald Trump has dominated the coverage of this campaign with the force of his personality. But in Iowa, he lacked the ground game to win. Many caucus sites reported that nobody was there to speak on behalf of Trump’s campaign when given the opportunity.

For leaders, having big personality can be helpful — Trump still came in 2nd — but a synergized, motivated team of people who can grind it out in the trenches is crucial. At our church, we know that we need a strong “air war” (preaching, Sunday service) and a strong “ground war” (small groups, counseling) to be effective.

4. Having a long tenure is a huge strength and a huge challenge.

Hillary Clinton has been in the national public eye for 25 years and has the best name recognition among the candidates. The good part is that many people know her and what she’s all about. The bad part is that many people know her and what she’s all about. Her tenure gives many of her supporters confidence in her. It also gives many of her detractors the yawns. She’s faced a tremendous enthusiasm gap, which seems an inevitable consequence of just being around for so long.

In leading a church for just 7 years, I’ve seen that some people just get bored. After a while, they feel like they’ve heard everything and seen everything and just want something new. On the other hand, long-tenured leaders often get the benefit of the doubt from loyal supporters, something which is no doubt helping Clinton maintain popularity (and navigate her email scandal).

5. Fear and guilt are effective motivators (with a long-term cost).

Ted Cruz went all in on the “fear and guilt” strategy, sending mailers that looked like official documents and said “VOTER VIOLATION” at the top. Many people, including the Iowa secretary of state, viewed this tactic as deceitful. But it worked, as voter turnout was an all-time high and many of those folks went for Cruz.

Using fear and guilt moves people — but it also wears thin over time. Time will tell whether Cruz’s strategy continues to work. I think it won’t.

That’s why, as a leader, I don’t want to lean into fear and guilt to motivate people. The short-term gain isn’t worth the long-term cost (not to mention that the gospel provides a totally different motivational structure).

6. Key moments must be seized.

There wasn’t much to see on Monday night. Until there was. Once the results actually came in, campaigns had just moments to decide how to respond. Marco Rubio, having finished surprisingly high, seized the moment by being the first candidate to come out and deliver a short, energetic speech — and in prime time.

Cruz, meanwhile, dawdled around until after many people had gone to bed and then gave a looooong victory speech. As Cruz droned on, Clinton came out to speak and two of the networks switched over to her. Cruz had a big opportunity to seize the moment, and he blew it.

In the same way, leaders occasionally have big moments that come in short windows. We’ve got to seize them well.

What’s next?

I’m not a prophet or the son of a prophet, so who knows. But I’ll be watching…and learning.


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.

Podcasts Worth Listening To

One of the marks of the best leaders I know is that they are eager to keep learning. One of the blessings of technology today is having so many fantastic resources so readily available (sometimes too many). I learn best by listening, so podcasts have been a God-send for my life and leadership.

I thought it might be helpful to share the podcasts I listen to. Also, I’d love to hear about your favorite podcasts, so please leave your recommendations in the comments.

[Note: if you subscribe by email and can’t see the following charts, click here.]

Podcasts That I Listen to Every Episode

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Podcasts That I Listen to Some Episodes

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Reflections on ‘Noah’ Movie

noah movieMy in-laws are in town from Ohio and my daughters have been dying to show their grandma their newest passion in life, Frozen. So, faced with hearing “Let it Go” for the 6 millionth time, I opted to go with the guys to check out this movie you might have heard of…Noah.

Here are some reflections:

1. I’m glad I didn’t go in with any expectations of biblical fidelity. I had heard enough about the Noah movie to know that it wasn’t going to be a very accurate portrayal of the historic events described in Genesis 6-10 (I most appreciated reviews by Joe Carter and Greg Thornbury). This allowed me to watch the film (almost) as if it wasn’t a biblically-based movie at all and instead just to watch and evaluate it as I would with any film, trying to understand and engage with what the director (Darren Aronofsky) was saying and working to figure out what could be received, rejected or redeemed.

2. You can make a trailer look any way you want. It was interesting how within five minutes of the movie, you had a very clear sense that this didn’t follow the biblical text very closely. But the trailer — designed particularly to appeal to Christian audiences — made you think it would. One of the most glaring examples is in this trailer (at 1:18), when Noah boldly declares “I’m not alone.” The trailer made you think he was talking about God being with him. Instead, the movie reveals that he’s referring to the Watchers, the fallen-angel-rock-creatures that provide his security and help build the ark. Perhaps this is a good lesson to all of us who can easily get swept up in the hype of a movie based on a trailer — good editing easily manipulates.

3. I appreciated the depiction of the sinfulness of sin. Most movies seem to reflect the dominant worldview of the culture that man is basically good. Not Noah. There are no heroes in the film. There are very few semi-likable characters. This is a world dominated by sin, selfishness, pride. I think there is more common grace in the world than Noah depicted, but I appreciated a bold statement that, since the Garden of Eden, man is seriously sinful.

4. The film (ironically?) undercuts its argument that creation is good and innocent except man. Environmentalism shines brightly in Noah and one gets the idea that the world would be best without people at all since animals are innocent. Noah becomes obsessed with ridding the world of all people (including his family and descendants), as this seems to be what God wants. Ironically, the more obsessed Noah gets with this idea, the more he is horribly unlikable — a seemingly intentional choice by Aronofsky. Additionally, the Creator eventually provides a way for Noah’s family to live, showing that his intention was to re-create rather than annihilate. This was the most confusing part of the film for me. On one hand, the “man-is-the-problem-because-he’s-ruining-the-environment” argument was on display fully. On the other, the story itself undercut this massive theme.

5. I’ll take the God of Scripture any day over the Creator in Noah. The Creator is silent, distant and seemingly only angry. There is no mercy and little love. Noah imitates this Creator’s attitude toward people and he becomes a monster. Now, one could argue that a God who would drown the world is a monster (this film should make Christians wrestle with a vivid depiction of God’s wrath against sinners, even children). However, the God of Scripture is not silent or distant. He is not speaking through code and making you discern what you could from a dream. He is both a God of justice and mercy. In the biblical account, even his purposes in the flood are mixed with mercy and sorrow — not just fury.

6. A world without God’s mercy is a sad, hopeless world. Noah is a big-time downer. You will not feel good at the end. Despite a shallow attempt to end with some hope, it’s a hopeless film depicting a hopeless world. This is what happens when God is distant and thought of as only wrathful. Perhaps this is why many Christians remain so unfortunately hopeless and shine such dim light into the world. Perhaps, despite saying they believe the gospel of grace, they have continued to think of God only as a distant God who is angry at them and eager to crush them. Perhaps they have forgotten to live in light of the gospel, where in Christ God is for you and nothing can separate you from his love (Romans 8:31-39).

In the end, I’m glad I saw Noah. It wasn’t a great film — or even a particularly good film. But a lot of people are talking about it, and I wanted to interact directly with the messages of the film rather than just read reviews. And it isn’t often that films are made with such obvious theological statements. I always find it worthwhile to listen to what the culture is saying about God, whether in Louis CK’s SNL monologue or in a big-budget film like Noah.

Did you see the film? If so, what’d you think? If not, will you see it?