Category Archives: Encouraging Words From Dick Koehneke

Don’t Be Afraid

By Dick Koehneke

“And in the same region there were shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night.  And an angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were filled with great fear.  And the angel said to them, ‘Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people.  For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.’ ” (Luke 2:8-11)

This is the fourth in a series of four articles on speakers at the August 10-11 Global Leadership Summit organized by the Willow Creek Association of Willow Creek Community Church near Chicago.  This article is about the message of Gary Haugen, founder and CEO of International Justice Mission, a world-wide agency rescuing victims of violence, exploitation, slavery and oppression.  Gary’s work puts him and his staff in some threatening and dangerous situations.  Their website is http://www.ijm.org/

Gary’s message to leaders was “Do Not Be Afraid.”  As we prepare to celebrate Christmas, I think “Do Not Be Afraid” is a good theme to conclude this series of articles.  Think of the angel’s first words to the shepherds on the night that Christ was born.  Think of the many times that our Lord tells us, “Don’t be afraid” and how frequently that command is repeated in Scripture.  God knows how easily we can become fearful, so He repeats the instruction again and again and again:  “Do not be afraid.” 

Here are some of Gary Haugen’s main points.  [My comments are in brackets.]

  1. Fear is the silent destroyer of dreams. Fear prevents learning from turning into action. Fear destroys the love that inspires the dream and replaces love with a preoccupation with self.  Many dreams are destroyed simply by a leader’s everyday anxieties and insecuritites.  

 

[“What’s going to happen to me?  How will this affect me?  If I do this, what will people think of me?”  These are dream-destroying questions that often replace love with self-absorption.  Fear of taking action produces inaction, the safe way to go.  It’s the easy way that leads to mediocrity.  How much do we learn from not doing anything?  How many lives do we touch with Christ’s love and truth when our focus is on self?  How many dreams come true without some level of risk?]

  1. Relentlessly inventory your own fears. We must do this if we want the dream to survive and thrive. We may not be fully aware of what we’re really afraid of.  Set aside time for regular self-examination of your real fears.  Regularly, routinely ask yourself, “What am I really anxious about?”  At International Justice Mission, everyone sits silently for half an hour every morning at 8:30.  Gary says, “In silence, worries and insecurities will bubble to the surface.  But if you are practiced at it, God brings insight, self-awareness, and steadiness of soul.”   

[This is not a pleasant task.  It’s much more fun to “think positive” and “be upbeat.”  It takes self-discipline to assess our fears and anxieties so that we can deal with them honestly and give God space and time to give us hope and courage.  In the physical realm, we shouldn’t ignore the nagging cough, the sore that won’t heal, the pain that won’t go away.  Neither should we ignore the fears that affect us and afflict us emotionally and spiritually.  We acknowledge our fears and offer them to the Lord so that He can give us the peace that is beyond all understanding.  You’re not alone in your fears.  Why would God have taken so many opportunities in His Word to say “Don’t be afraid” if you were the only fearful person on earth?  We’re all afraid of something(s).] 

  1. Switch from playing defense to playing offense. No great dream has ever been built on fear of what might go wrong. Great dreams are built on the hope of what might go right.  Don’t be more impressed with what people are getting wrong in the world than you are with what God is getting right.  Leaders play defense when they keep repeating the narrative of fear and victimization.  We need to advance into what is broken and bring redemption. 

[Courage is not the absence of fear.  Courage is taking action in the face of our fear.  Courage involves going toward the source of the problem, not running from it.  That’s what police officers and firefighters do, and that’s what leaders need to do as well.  There’s a saying in football, “The best defense is a good offense.”  When your team has the football, the other team can’t score.  We need to keep the devil on his heels.  Let’s be the kind of people who, when we get out of bed and put our feet on the floor, the devil says, “Oh no, not again!”]   

  1. Forge a community of courage around you. Lone rangers do not make great dreams come true, except in the movies. The strength of a loving community protects dreams from fear.  Jesus didn’t go it alone, although he could have; he forged a community of men and women around him, thus giving us an example to follow.  The bad news is that fear is contagious.  The good news is that courage is contagious too.  Shortly after he said, “Let not your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid” (John 14:27) Jesus said, “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.” (John 15:12) 

[A loving community reduces our fear and enlarges our courage.  I can’t think of a better way to put it than this:  “By this we know that we abide in him and he in us, because he has given us of his Spirit.  And we have seen and testify that the Father has sent his Son to be the Savior of the world.  Whoever confesses that Jesus is the Son of God, God abides in him, and he in God.  So we have come to know and to believe the love that God has for us. God is love, and whoever abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him.  By this is love perfected with us, so that we may have confidence for the day of judgment, because as he is so also are we in this world.  There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love.  We love because he first loved us.” (1 John 4:13-19)  God loves you with a love that is perfect, unconditional, absolute, and eternal.  His love is stronger than our fears.  Don’t be afraid!]

God grant us all a courageous Christmas! 

Leading through the Uncomfortable

By Dick Koehneke

This is the third in a series of four articles on speakers at the August 10-11 Global Leadership Summit organized by the Willow Creek Association of Willow Creek Community Church near Chicago.  This article is about the message of Bryan Stevenson, an activist and lawyer who has dedicated his career to helping poor people and people in prison through his leadership of the Equal Justice Initiative.  In his speech on effective leadership he made four key points.  As we celebrate the Reformation 500th, I’m reminded that Martin Luther did all four of these things to one degree or another.   

[My comments are in brackets.]

  1. Get close to the people you are serving. Proximity enhances leadership. When you get close to the people you are serving and the problems they are having, you begin to understand the nuances and subtleties of the situation.  But the problem is that most of us have been taught to stay away from “the bad parts of town.” 

[Martin Luther left the monastery and got close to all sorts of people.  Leading from a distance is much more comfortable than leading from up close.  As someone has said, “I’m a very Godly person until I encounter another person.”  The pulpit and the podium provide a safe distance from which to analyze problems and proclaim solutions.  Getting close to people is risky; it means I might have to change my thinking and maybe even realize that what I’ve been thinking has been wrong.  The people who have made the biggest positive difference in my life were (are) willing to take the risk of coming close to me.  Is that true for you?]

  1. Change the narratives that sustain the problems we are trying to address. When we as a nation declared war on drugs, we decided that drug-dependent people are not patients in need of care; they are criminals who need to be in jail. We use the criminal justice system to deal with the problem of drug abuse and addiction.  We need to change the narrative from incarceration to treatment.  

[Luther changed the narrative on a ton of things.  What are the narratives that sustain the problems we Christians are trying to address?  How do we view people who do not know Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord?  Do we try to put ourselves in their shoes in order to understand them?  Or do we label them and stereotype them in the broad category of “unbelievers”?  When I feel that someone has labeled or stereotyped me in some way I am not as likely to be as receptive to their communication as I am if I feel they affirm me as an individual person with my own history, needs, wants, strengths and weaknesses.  How is it with you?]

  1. Stay hopeful. Hopelessness is the enemy of effective leadership. Hope gets you to stand up when others tell you to sit down, to speak when others say be quiet.  It takes courage to stay hopeful in the face of daunting circumstances, but it is our hope that will save us. 

[Christian hope and human optimism are two different things.  Optimism says, “Hang in there; things will get better.”  Christian hope says, “No matter what happens, I believe God is working out His purposes, and I will continue to trust and serve Him.”  That was the conviction that sustained Martin Luther. We need to make sure our hope is consistent with God’s Word and His will, not based on personal preferences or fantasies of some sort.  We need to stay in contact with trusted, mature Christian people who will let us know whether we are really working in hope or are laboring under delusions.  Someone wrote, “Overconfidence gives you the courage to act on your faulty convictions.”  Make sure you are hopeful, not overconfident.]

  1. Be willing to do uncomfortable things. The best leaders are willing to do things that are uncomfortable. As humans, we are biologically wired to do what is comfortable.  But positive changes occur only when people are willing to do uncomfortable things.  Leaders have to position themselves in uncomfortable places.  We need to connect with our own brokenness, which makes us very uncomfortable.  That’s how we identify with the brokenness of the people we are trying to serve.  Effective leadership is not measured by how we treat the rich and powerful, but by how we treat the poor and neglected. 

[I love my comfort zone, and I think you probably love yours too.  Here’s the problem, as I heard someone say:  “If you’re completely comfortable, you’re probably not growing” – and you’re probably not leading creatively either.  Problems, challenges and crises force us out of our comfort zone into our growth zone.  It would be wonderful if we could grow comfortably, but for some reason that doesn’t seem to happen very often.  As the saying goes, “That’s why they call it growing PAINS.”  Am I willing to force myself out of my comfort zone into my growth zone?  Am I willing to lead others out of their comfort zones into their growth zones?  What about you?]      

Martin Luther is a good example for us.  Here’s the ultimate, perfect example of someone getting out of the comfort zone to get close to people who need help:  “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich.”  (2 Corinthians 8:9)

“Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.” (Philippians 2:5-8)

Not “How?” but “Wow!”

By Dick Koehneke

This is the second in a series of four articles on speakers at the August 10-11 Global Leadership Summit organized by the Willow Creek Association, broadcast from Willow Creek Community Church near Chicago.  This one is about Rev. Andy Stanley. 

Andy Stanley founded North Point Ministries in Atlanta more than 20 years ago.  Today, North Point Ministries is comprised of six churches in the Atlanta area and a worldwide network of 30 churches serving nearly 70,000 people every week.  The title of his presentation was “Uniquely Better.” 

Here are some of his comments that struck me as being especially helpful.  [I’ve added my comments in brackets.] 

  • “If you don’t know why something works, you won’t be able to fix it when it breaks.” [And you won’t know how to maintain it at peak performance and keep it from falling apart.]
  • “You may not develop the new ‘uniquely better’ but you can recognize it when you see it.” [Not every good idea has to be my idea. People shouldn’t have to convince me that it’s something I thought of.]
  • “The ‘uniquely better’ can be so unique that established, successful churches cannot believe it’s better.” [Success can be the enemy of innovation and improvement.  Every failure contains the seeds of the next success, someone has said.  It’s also true that every success contains the seeds of the next failure.]
  • “Our hope and duty as leaders is to create organizational cultures that recognize ‘uniquely better’ rather than resist it.” [There is sometimes a tendency to be inappropriately suspicious of other people’s ideas while being completely accepting of one’s own.  I believe it’s Ken Blanchard who said, “Don’t let your ego eat your brains.”]   
  • “Be a student before you are a critic. I will not criticize something I do not understand.  The more you are criticizing, the less you are learning.”  [Hmmm . . . How do you think you might apply those comments to yourself?  I know they apply to me.  It’s fairly easy to criticize something you don’t understand.  It’s also lazy and irresponsible.]
  • “Keep your eyes and your mind wide open. Listen to outsiders.  They are not bound by our assumptions.  Closed-minded leaders close minds.”  [I sometimes like to attend conferences and events that are not LCMS-sponsored (things like the Global Leadership Summit) because I meet different people and hear things said in fresh and challenging ways.  It feels like the windows are being thrown open and fresh air is coming into my lungs.  Not that “our beloved Synod” is stale, of course!] 
  • “Replace ‘How?’ with ‘Wow!’ Don’t HOW ideas to death; WOW them to life!”  [Encourage before you analyze.  If you feel yourself starting to analyze inside your head, encourage the other person some more.  Encouragement generates excitement, and excitement generates creative energy.  There will be plenty of time for analysis later.]

I hope Andy Stanley’s words will be challenging and encouraging to you, as they are to me. 

White Space: The Strategic Pause

By Dick Koehneke

Recently I attended the Global Leadership Summit. It’s an annual two-day event that’s broadcast from Willow Creek Community Church in the Chicago area. This year it reached more than 700 satellite locations around the world. Fort Wayne, Indiana, where I live, had the largest number of people anywhere under one roof: over 4,000 – yes, 4,000 of us!

There were 13 speakers who spoke for up to an hour each. All of them were excellent. Four of them touched me in special ways. Over the next four months in Rich and Charlie Resources I want to share their thoughts – and my observations – with you.

As the busy fall season begins, I thought it would be timely for me to tell you about Juliet Funt’s message: “White Space: The Strategic Pause.” She is the founder and CEO of WhiteSpace at Work. She says, “We live in the age of ‘busyness’ which is really overload. Our work styles are all exertion and no thoughtfulness. We are too busy to figure out how to become less busy.” That last sentence is a beauty!

Today’s success-oriented culture seems to place a high value on “being busy.” It’s almost like if you’re not busy, you’re not worth much. My question is: Busy doing what? Here’s another question that’s even more important: Busy getting what done? Effort is not the same thing as accomplishment.  

I ask those questions with no claim of superior insight. For many years I thought that I needed to have a jam-packed schedule to show that I was a hard worker. I didn’t want anyone to outwork me. The idea of “white space” didn’t really enter my mind. Not very smart, right?

How different the lifestyle of “busyness” is from the approach that our Lord Jesus took. I can’t find anywhere in the Gospels where he was frantic or in a hurry. He experienced great pressure for sure, but he always gave himself time to pray and reflect in the presence of the heavenly Father. He was perfectly responsive to the needs of every person and situation that he encountered. He was calm in the midst of the storms, both literally and figuratively.    

Juliet Funt defines white space as “a strategic pause between activities” and observes that “you don’t really need long stretches of time.” She says, “White space has no rules or goals. It gives us time and space to think the ‘unthunk thought.’” She says that it’s not the same as meditation, mind-wandering, or mindfulness. You gain white space by becoming conscious of “the thieves of productivity” and “defeating them with specific questions.”

These “thieves of productivity” are four “core forces” that she says are good in themselves but when pushed too far can become corrupted: Drive, Excellence, Information, and Activity. Drive becomes Overdrive. Excellence turns into Perfectionism. Information becomes Information Overload. Activity becomes Frenzy. These four thieves “lure us into a pace and pressure that can actually lower our effectiveness,” she says.

You defeat the thieves by asking good questions. Here are the questions related to each thief.

Drive/Overdrive: “What can I let go of?”

Excellence/Perfectionism: “When is ‘good enough’ good enough?”

Information/Information Overload: “What do I truly need to know?”

Activity/Frenzy: “What deserves my attention now?”

I think those are REALLY good questions.

“Do not become a servant of any of the four core forces,” she says. “Know yourself and which ones are most likely to be corrupted in your life. Don’t serve them; make them serve you.”

Here’s the thought that crossed my mind: Our loving Lord doesn’t want us to fall into the trap of compulsively thinking we have to work harder and harder in the use of our gifts to justify our calling or even our existence on the planet. We recognize that our gifts and talents can become corrupted into workaholism or arrogant pride of performance. Faithfulness is not the same as busyness.

I guess I’m saying this: Know yourself. Appreciate yourself. Thank God that He made you. Let Him work through you. You’re not the generator; you’re the cable.

A question I’m asking church workers and lay leaders these days is this: “How can we honor and encourage self-care as much as we honor and encourage hard work?” If we don’t take care of ourselves, our hard work will not last long. Or it may continue to be hard work – but not good work.

I don’t know how it is with you, but when I start feeling like a martyr or a victim, I’m no fun at all to be around. If I’m miserable, I want you to join me, and I’ll find some really good passive-aggressive ways to make that happen. Sound familiar? Maybe not. It’s probably just me, don’t you think?          

Give yourself time to be. God’s Word does not say that “anyone who is in Christ is a busy person who works very hard.” It says, “Anyone who is in Christ is a new creation.” Who you are means more to God than what you do. Give yourself time for being, not doing. “White space” is one very good way to take care of yourself so that you can continue to be your best self in the vocations in which God is calling you to serve and honor Him.

Obvious Joy

By Dick Koehneke

Not very long ago I was talking with a man who had retired from the Air Force after a long and distinguished career. His service had caused him and his family to move multiple times over the years.  He had been a member of eight or ten different Lutheran congregations, as I recall, and I’m sure he was a faithful member of each one. 

I asked him, “What’s the most important quality you look for in a pastor?” He thought for just a moment and then responded, “Obvious joy in his work.”   

Frankly, that’s not what I was expecting. I thought his answer would be something along the lines of sound theology, good preaching, positive leadership, relational skills, and so on.  I know that he honored all those skills and qualities.  But the thing that mattered most to him was “obvious joy.”

Do we always feel joyful? No, not when our joy is dependent on our situation or our performance.  If I’m joyful only when things are going well or when I think I’m doing well, that’s a problem, and that’s not the kind of joy that God wants us to have.  Besides, I might be fooling myself when I’m thinking things are going well or that I’m doing well.  Then my joy is based on illusion, not reality, and that’s not good at all.   

Think of the real reasons why we can be joyful. Our sins are forgiven.  We’re on our way to heaven.  The Lord is with us always.  We’re serving Him as we live our daily lives, and that fact gives meaning and purpose to the grandest strategies and the smallest details.   

Sure, there are people who (to use H. B. London’s term) are “joy-suckers.”   They are experts at turning smiles into frowns.  They don’t always realize they’re doing it.  That makes me wonder whether I am sometimes a “joy-sucker” in my relationships with other people.  When you’re unhappy with yourself, you can become critical of others over the least little things, thus sucking the joy out of their lives.  When you see room for improvement everywhere you look (except possibly in the mirror), you just might be a “joy-sucker.”  

I can’t control how other people act, but I can work at exercising self-control. Joy is contagious.  I want to be a person who turns frowns into smiles.  I want to be a “joy-filler.”  A “joy-filler” helps people to be “joy-full.”  That’s the kind of pastor that retired Air Force veteran appreciates.  That’s the sort of person other people want to be around.  As someone said, “If you’re feeling joy in your heart, tell your face about it!”      

Joyful self-control keeps us focused on the eternal victory we have in Christ, even when things aren’t going well in this world. Jesus taught in His parable that the weeds will keep growing alongside the wheat until the day when He returns in glory.  As He says, “In this world you will have trouble; but take heart, for I have overcome the world.”  The victory is already ours through faith in Christ.  We’re on the winning side.  That’s reason for joy in our hearts – and more than enough reason for obvious joy in our work.   

The Three “I Words”

By Dick Koehneke

A few years ago Focus on the Family conducted a survey of pastors.  It revealed that many pastors feel one or more of three “I words”: 

Isolated.  Inadequate.  Insecure.  Here are my brief reflections on those three words. 

Isolated:  the sense that no one really knows what you’re going through.  Those who do know, really don’t understand.  If anyone does understand, the person probably doesn’t care.  That’s what you’re feeling.  You think you’re all on your own. 

The feeling of isolation is not always based on external factors.  You can be in a rural ministry and not feel isolated, and you can be in a large urban ministry and feel totally alone.  Parish ministry in and of itself can lead to a feeling of isolation on the part of the pastor.  As an older pastor told me many years ago, “Loneliness comes with the territory.” 

Inadequate:  the feeling that you’re really not up to the job, that you don’t have what it takes, that your abilities are not a good match for the challenges and opportunities of your ministry.  For me, true happiness in ministry is when your talents and gifts match the needs of the ministry you serve.  The opposite of that is inadequacy, which produces great anxiety and sadness. 

Some pastors feel inadequate when it comes to counseling, and that feeling may be a good thing.  It’s not good when a pastor tries to help someone who has a problem beyond the pastor’s competence.  But when there are no places or people to turn to, and referral is not possible, the feeling of inadequacy can intensify to intolerable levels.  You feel like you have to get out.         

Insecure:  the sensation that the other shoe is always about to drop, that you’re only a couple of key people away from the premature and abrupt end of your ministry in that congregation.  This feeling is made worse by a tendency in some places to view the pastor as a hired employee, not a called servant of God.  It’s compounded by the financial issues that face many pastors and their families, often as a result of massive educational debt. 

Insecurity makes a pastor reluctant to commit unconditionally to the ministry to which God has called him.  He waits for other people to do something to make him feel more secure.  He holds back.  Or he becomes more aggressive and confrontational.  He’s not his best self.  The insecurity intensifies, both as an internal emotion and as an external reality.  It can be a death spiral of a ministry.   

How do you deal with those three sensations?  The answer is complicated and personal.  Here are three Scriptures among many that I have found helpful.  Please ponder them deeply. 

Isolation:  Jesus says, “Behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”  (Matthew 28:20)

Inadequacy:  “Not that we are sufficient in ourselves to to claim anything as coming from us, but our sufficiency is from God, who has made us competent to be ministers of a new covenant, not of the letter but of the Spirit.”  (2 Corinthians 3:5-6)

Insecurity:  “Having this ministry by the mercy of God, we do not lose heart.  For what we proclaim is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, with ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake.”  (2 Corinthians 4:1,5)     

Conversation, not Conversion

By Dick Koehneke

It’s often said that we live in a “post-modern” world.   In popular culture the “modern” world of science, reason, and empirical evidence has given way to a world in which personal experiences and emotions reign supreme.  A theme statement of post-modernism is, “There is no such thing as absolute truth.”  That statement, by the way, is an absolute statement.  How ironic.

Another familiar statement of post-modernism is, “You have your truth, I have my truth.”  That’s very upsetting to people who hold to absolute truths, especially in the area of faith.  Our first instinct is to try to rebut the other person’s point of view with reason and evidence, which is futile when you’re talking with someone who is relying primarily on his or her own emotions and experiences.

In the post-modern world, Christians don’t have the burden of proving the legitimacy of our faith with reason and logic and evidence.  Post-modern people won’t buy it anyway, so don’t waste your time trying.  We’re free to express our faith as our own personal point of view.  If the other person says, “I don’t believe that” we’re free to say, “I’m not here to argue with you.  I’m just telling you what I believe.”  When people are arguing with each other, they’ve pretty much stopped listening to each other.  So don’t argue. 

Let’s say that the other person says, “I don’t believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God and the Savior of the world.”  You say, “Well, all I can tell you is that He changed my life forever by dying on a cross and rising from the dead.”  Then you listen to see what the other person says.  You don’t argue.  You continue to listen respectfully and share your viewpoint calmly and honestly. 

When we share our faith in Christ, we’re planting the seed of the gospel.  As Martin Luther wrote in his explanation to the Third Article of the Creed, “I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ my Lord, or come to Him.  But the Holy Spirit has called me by the gospel . . .”

Conversion is the work of the Holy Spirit, not my work or your work.  So what role do you and I play? 

You and I are responsible for conversation, not conversion.  Our calling is to listen respectfully and to speak the truth in love.  When I share my faith in Christ, and the other person doesn’t immediately ask to be baptized, that doesn’t mean I’ve failed.  When you’ve planted the seed of the gospel, you’ve given the Holy Spirit something to work with to create faith in the heart of the person.  Don’t expect instant results.  Maybe the most God-pleasing result is the fact that you’ve expressed your faith and have kept the door open to future conversations.

When you keep in mind that you are responsible for conversation and the Holy Spirit is responsible for conversion, the pressure is off and the pleasure is on!  You can relax.  You can be respectful of the other person.  (All of us want to be respected, don’t we?)  You don’t have to try to win an argument, because you’re not arguing.  In the post-modern world you don’t have to prove your point with logic and evidence.  Just say, “That’s what I believe.  In fact, that’s WHO I believe:  Jesus Christ, my Savior and my Lord.” 

Keep doing the good work of healthy conversation.  Trust the Holy Spirit to do the lifesaving work of conversion. 

Intimate Faith

By Dick Koehneke

The Lord is my Shepherd; I shall not want.  He makes me lie down in green pastures.  He leads me beside quiet waters.  He restores my soul.  He guides me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.  Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me. (Psalm 23:1-4)

What is intimacy?  I have heard intimacy defined in three words:  “into me see.”  Intimacy is seeing into the heart of another person and letting the other person see into you – the real you.  That’s intimacy:  “into me see.” 

What creates intimacy?  How does trust develop?  Often trust and intimacy result from going through tough times together – times of hardship, heartache, and distress.  This process happens in many areas of life and in many relationships:  in the workplace, in the community, in the congregation; it happens in friendships, in families, and certainly in marriage.  Going through tough times together, persevering together in the face of adversity and suffering: that’s how you develop real trust and intimacy.  You discover that you really are there for each other. 

That process of growing trust and intimacy – intimate faith — is exactly what is described in Psalm 23, a vivid description of the relationship between the believer and the Lord.  In the first three verses, the psalmist is writing about the Lord; he writes about the Lord in the third person.  He makes . . .  He leads . . .  He restores . . .  He guides . . . 

Then in the fourth verse, everything changes.  The psalmist begins to speak directly TO the Lord instead of speaking about him.  He says, “You are with me.”  Where does this deep and intimate personal faith come into being?  In the valley of the shadow of death!  “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me!” 

He does not say, “I will fear no evil, for God is with me.” He says, “For you –you, Lord – are with me.”   

He does not say, “I will fear no evil, for there is no evil.”  No, the evil is real, but the comforting fact is that he is not alone in the valley of the shadow of death; the Lord is with him. 

He does not say, “I will fear no evil, for soon you will come to be with me.”  No, the Lord is already there with him in the valley of the shadow of death.  Indeed, the Lord has been with him all along, in the green pastures, beside the quiet waters, along the paths of righteousness.  The Lord has been there all along, but in the valley of the shadow of death the believer realizes that the Lord is right there with him, just as he has been all the time.

The green pastures are great.  The quiet waters are beautiful.  The paths of righteousness are invigorating.  But sometimes we can forget about the Lord in the good times.  Good times should come with a warning label:  “Success and comfort can be hazardous to your spiritual health.”  In such times we can begin to love the gifts more than we love the Giver.  Instead of worshiping the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, we can be tempted to kneel at the altar of “Me, Myself, and I.”  God is there, but we don’t notice him; we’re too busy looking at ourselves and paying attention to the stuff around us.  When that stuff gets stripped away, when we realize how weak and frail and vulnerable we are, our hearts become open to God. 

Intimate faith takes hold when the going gets tough, in the valley of the shadow of death, in that hard, dark place of loss and suffering.  In that valley the pain is real.  The evil is real.  The fear is real.  But so is the presence of the Good Shepherd.  The real presence of the Good Shepherd overcomes the real fear of the believer:  “I will fear no evil, for you, O Lord, are with me!”

Jesus Christ knows what it is to walk through the valley of the shadow of death.  He walked that lonesome valley for you and for me.  He endured a God-forsaken loneliness such as we will never have to endure.  He carried our sins to the cross.  He bore the punishment for our self-centered disobedience and rebellion against God.  By his death, we have life.  In his resurrection, we have victory for eternity and hope for today. 

When you go through hard times, you can pray, “I will fear no evil, for you, Lord, are with me.”  We learn to know the steadfast love of God in the valley of the shadow of death:  the dark and lonely places of life, when hope seems lost, when no one seems to care, when joy is a distant and fading memory.  You may be lonely, but you are not alone, not for one moment, not for one instant. 

When you come to your final hour, when you enter the deepest, darkest part of the valley, the Lord Jesus Christ will be there, as he has been with you all along, as he is right now.  In your final moment, the Good Shepherd will reach out his hand to you – that strong, loving, nail-scarred hand – and he will take you by the hand, and he will lead you through the valley to the brilliant glory on the other side.  By his grace and power, you will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.

 

     

Conflict Encouragement

By Dick Koehneke

Recently I was talking with a lay leader of a congregation.  He is serving with excellence and dedication as chair of his congregation’s leadership group. 

He expressed to me a concern about a member of the board whose term is about to expire.  The reason he is concerned about this man’s departure is not that he is afraid he is going to lose an ally.  He is concerned because this man always challenges his (the leader’s) ideas when he sees any weaknesses in them.  He raises questions and expresses different views.  As a result, the end product is often better than the original idea the leader suggests.

I give this lay leader – the man who was talking with me – great credit for his wisdom.  He knows that what matters is not getting people to agree with him.  What matters is doing the best we can in carrying out the ministry and mission the Lord has entrusted to us. 

We talked about what he (the leader) might do when this man leaves the leadership group.  I suggested that he read a chapter in an excellent new book by Dr. Bruce Hartung, Building Up the Body of Christ (Concordia Publishing House, 2016).  The chapter is titled “Conflict Encouragement.”  The kind of conflict Dr. Hartung wants to encourage is not the sort that is divisive and destructive.  It’s constructive and creative.  Constructive, creative conflict might also be called “difference of opinion” or “another idea” or “alternative thoughts.”  He points out that Stephen Ministries speaks of “robust conversations.”  That’s the sort of thing Dr. Hartung wants to encourage.

Sometimes in congregations people “go along to get along” as the saying goes.  They don’t want to rock the boat, make waves, and all the other metaphors that we’ve all heard many times.  The problem is that when no one is making waves and rocking the boat, the water can become stagnant and the boat can sit dead in the water.  Even worse, instead of expressing their opinions openly and constructively, people become negative and cynical in their attitudes.  They channel their emotions into passive-aggressive behavior.  They develop a win-lose mentality. 

This can happen to leaders too.  When leaders become passive-aggressive and develop a win-lose mentality, things can get very bad very quickly.  It’s important that we stay in touch with our motives, emotions, and values.  Am I valuing agreement more than honesty?  Am I taking things personally?  Am I becoming defensive in my interactions?  Can I express myself in better, clearer ways?   

I think it’s important for church leaders to say things like, “What I’m about to say is not my final word; I’m offering an idea for discussion.”  “I’m not sure about this, but this is what I’m thinking right now.”  “If I tell you what I think, you can take it or leave it; if I never tell you, you have no choice.”  What are some words you might use to encourage conflict that is constructive and creative?     

Dr. Hartung writes, “ ‘Problem to be solved’ is the sweet spot of work together. Personalities do not become the issue in the conflict.  People speak face-to-face.  Differences are acknowledged and even encouraged.  People make sure they understand the positions of others before they share their own ideas. . . . Helping each person share his or her ideas, thoughts, and feelings becomes a central church leadership task.” 

Constructive, creative conflict brings out the best in people, gets ideas flowing, and releases energy for Kingdom work.  The inspired apostle Paul says it beautifully: “Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of service, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who empowers them all in everyone.  For the body does not consist of one member but of many. If the foot should say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body.  And if the ear should say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body.  If the whole body were an eye, where would be the sense of hearing?  If the whole body were an ear, where would be the sense of smell?  But as it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as He chose.  If all were a single member, where would the body be?  As it is, there are many parts, yet one body.” (1 Corinthians 12:4-6, 14-20)

Things That Threaten

By Dick Koehneke

As another Lenten season begins, it might be a good time to take a look at ourselves and consider what changes in behavior might enable us to serve our Lord more faithfully.  I’m thinking about things that threaten – things that can undermine and wreck a ministry and a life.  Here are five that come to mind immediately.

ALCOHOL.  The Lutheran church culture is often very permissive about alcohol, even encouraging its use in certain settings.  A lot depends on the culture of your community, of course, and the mindset of the members of the congregation, but in my experience it’s not unusual for drinking to be part of some activities in many congregations.  Alcohol use can become abuse all too easily, as is well known.  My belief is that alcohol should be absent at any activity that is sponsored by the congregation.  If the fear of someone overdoing it and doing something stupid or dangerous isn’t enough to make us keep alcohol off the premises, concern for the weaker brother or sister should motivate us not to tempt someone to imbibe because the other members are doing it – and thus relapse into active alcoholism.  The church worker is not immune to the allure of alcohol.  When other people seem to be lacking in understanding and loyalty, the bottle is always loyal and dependable, delivering the goods consistently – until it takes over your life. 

PRESCRIPTION DRUGS.  I don’t have to tell you that the overuse and abuse of prescription drugs is an enormous problem.  It crosses all socioeconomic lines.  It doesn’t exclude church workers.  A very good book to read on this subject is Drug Dealer, M.D. by Dr. Anna Lembke (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2016).  Here’s a quote from the publisher’s website:  “Three out of four people addicted to heroin probably started on a prescription opioid [pain medication], according to the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In the United States alone, 16,000 people die each year as a result of prescription opioid overdose. But perhaps the most frightening aspect of the prescription drug epidemic is that it’s built on well-meaning doctors treating patients with real problems.”  If you have a well-meaning doctor who is prescribing drugs for you that are potentially addictive, watch out.  Be very, very careful.  

PORNOGRAPHY.  It’s no secret that the internet has opened doors of access to this threat that were unimaginable to previous generations.  The proliferation of devices accessing the internet has amplified the problem exponentially.  People who think “there’s no harm in it” are living in a dream world that could become a nightmare reality.  Time and attention can be drawn into something that is destructive to the heart, soul, and mind of a Christian.  Marriages, families, and ministries may be damaged or destroyed.  Here’s a link to a recent very helpful article from Focus on the Family.  http://www.focusonthefamily.com/marriage/sex-and-intimacy/man-up-tell-your-wife-about-your-pornography-addiction

MONEY.  Church workers rarely find motivation for ministry in a higher salary (good thing, right?) but they can be discouraged by receiving too little money to make ends meet.  That discouragement can become a temptation.  In many churches there are systems and safeguards that make it unlikely that a church worker will steal from church funds or divert those funds for personal use.  It can happen, but it’s not as likely as it is in a congregation in which the pastor has immediate access to church funds without any external accounting.  Please don’t allow yourself to have that kind of access to funds.  Even if you don’t do something unethical with that money, you are still subject to suspicion if there is not accurate and complete accounting for those funds.  You may just be sloppy, but it may look shady, and that’s all it takes to ruin a ministry.   

FOOD.  Obesity is a major problem in our country, and church workers are not excluded.  I don’t need to write much about this problem, because you already know about it, and you most likely know whether it applies to you.  It took a fairly significant event (not a life-threatening one, thank God) to make me get serious about weight control and physical fitness when I was 45 years old.  My progress has not always been onward and upward, but the general direction is positive, for which I give thanks and praise to God.  When you’re closer to your normal healthy weight, and you are giving your body some reasonable exercise, you are able to serve more faithfully, which is what all of us want to do, right?              

If you think you need help in one or more of the five areas above or in some other area of your life, you probably do.  If you don’t think you need help, ask yourself if you might be in denial.  If you really are doing fine, thank God and look around you for people near and dear to you who are in need of help.

For LC-MS church workers and their families, the Concordia Health Plan provides access to helpful people and places through the Employee Assistance Program and the Pastoral Support Network.  You’re not alone.  Help is available.

The Lord loves you with an everlasting love, and He wants to help you walk in the path that He has prepared for you.  He’s walking that path with you, every step of the way.  Take the next step with the Lord.  May this Lenten season be a step in the right direction for you or someone in your circle of care.