From Harm to Harmony: Why becoming more like Jesus is key to having a healthy staff culture

As part of a young church plant, we’ve had plenty of growing pains.

“Oh…you can’t say that on stage?”

“Oh…who needed to be told about that?”

“Oh…we can’t use the church card for that?”

“Oh…who do I report to?”

“Oh…you mean that doesn’t fit our vision?”

My most recent “Oh…” moment was when I had my first review with a new appraisal tool.

After doing the reflection on “Christ-like Character” I was feeling pretty confident. I mean, kids’ ministry lends itself to having an ongoing personal walk with Jesus, being a servant leader, and being trustworthy. The “Leadership” questions were just as affirming. “I have a concrete vision and know how to communicate it well!”, I thought, “And I obviously have the best looking budget of any of the ministries…plus I’m on time!”

But then I got to the “Culture” questions, and realized some things that I didn’t care to admit.

Do I celebrate God’s grace?

Do I empower others early?

Am I part of this spiritual family?

Do I believe the best and work through conflict?

Am I honest in all things?

Do I move fast and embrace flexibility?

Do I take initiative and become the solution?

At first, I felt angry that I hadn’t known that these were our culture benchmarks (remember what I said earlier about growing pains). As a perfectionistic firstborn, I thrive when I’m given concrete expectations. I felt embarrassed that I’d failed to perform, and felt tricked into failing by not knowing what I was supposed to be growing in.

And as I gave myself one 2-out-of-5 after another, I began to blame coworkers and circumstances for my failures. “Well, I would empower others early if my request for an intern had been granted.” “Obviously I believe the best when people aren’t being shady and selfish.” “Clearly I would have been the solution if my plate hadn’t already been loaded up beyond what I can accomplish.” “Who even has time to have fellowship with other believers when all you do is ministry?!”

As I calmed down, I was relieved that this was just the self-evaluation. Then I actually began to do some self-evaluation.

“Who am I kidding…I’m the one who thinks that God can’t handle this without me…no wonder I’m totally burned out…I’m doing it all in my own strength!” “Well how can I be a part of a spiritual family when I won’t let anyone carry any of my burdens?” “I know these people…they’re all friends. I know their motives were pure, even if I disagreed with the methods. Why was I so suspicious of them?” “Why was I such a stick-in-the mud about that new idea? Was I trying to punish them because they aren’t as burned out as me?”

The ugliness of the pride that was lodged in my heart was a little shocking. I immediately thought of Hebrews 12:14-15, which says, “Make every effort to live in peace with everyone and to be holy; without holiness no one will see the Lord.See to it that no one falls short of the grace of God and that no bitter root grows up to cause trouble and defile many.”More recently as I read through Acts, I was taken aback by Peter’s rebuke of Simon the Sorcerer. Acts 8:21-23 says, “You have no part or share in this ministry, because your heart is not right before God. Repent of this wickedness and pray to the Lord in the hope that he may forgive you for having such a thought in your heart. For I see that you are full of bitterness and captive to sin.”

You are full of bitterness and captive to sin.” Those selfish thoughts that I’d been harboring in my heart were not just thoughts. The way I was nurturing that bitterness was a malicious sin, and not yanking that root out was going to cost the unity of our team, friendships, and the effectiveness of my ministry.

“Dying to yourself feel like dying.” It’s a phrase I’ve repeated to myself lately as I remind myself that God doesn’t call us to things that are easy, or that will give us the glory…He calls us to look more and more like His Son. And His Son’s purpose was to come and die to make a way for us to be reconciled to the Father. And the more I resemble the Son, the more glory I bring to the Father as I love His bride, the Church.

How about you? What attitudes or “rights” are you clinging to because of self-protection? Where do you need to let Jesus have control of your heart and your ministry? How might relationships between church leaders change if the goal was unity and reflecting Christ to people from the outside looking in? What do you need to do to be reconciled to members of your team?

Leading Small

When Jesus gives the Great Commission (Matthew 28:18–19), Jesus tells His disciples that they must “go and make disciples of all nations.” Our goal as believers—this verse’s main subject—is to make disciples. “Go” in the Greek here is translated “as you go”—we are called to make disciples as we go.

Jesus is the most perfect model we will ever encounter for how to disciple. He verbally taught His disciples; He also traveled, slept, ate, and did life with them. He was compassionate, kind, truthful, and loving.

Here’s the kicker—how many disciples did Jesus have? He had 12 while He was on this earth. Think about the many people He taught and met throughout His life. But His disciples were the ones who literally walked through life with Him. Let’s be honest, 12 is not a lot of people to us, let alone to God incarnate who single-handedly created all of humanity. So we must pay attention to this model—Jesus had just 12 disciples for a reason. Because leading small is an effective, fruitful, and spirit-filled form of discipleship.

There are many times when Jesus teaches, but there are also many times when He listens. He gives His disciples room to respondto Him. He is a safe place for them to ask questions and express doubts (John 20:24–9). Jesus isn’t tyrannical—He is loving, friendly, and kind. He also gives His disciples room to exercise their faith muscles, such as when Peter walks on the water (Matthew 14:22-33). He exercises righteous anger at times, such as driving the money changers from the temple (John 2:13-16). But His heart for His people is evident, so much so that He is willing to die the worst possible death for them. It’s safe to say, Jesus modeled leading small with His 12 disciples.

If the God of the universe incarnate believed in leading small and gave us the perfect model for it, what is stopping us  from doing the same? What if we as leaders spent more time in small groups, listening not speaking? What if we taught truth, letting the Spirit work rather than seeking to micromanage responses? People are messy, sin is messy, life is messy.

What if we stopped avoiding, denying, or trying to cover up brokenness and instead embraced it and laid it at the feet of the cross, where Jesus is waiting to redeem and heal?

One time when I led a small group of preteen girls, one of them raised her hand to say something while we were in the middle of going over questions in response to the story of Joseph. She said, “Miss Alicia, I don’t mean to sound rude by saying this. But there are days that go by where I don’t think about God at all.”

In my mind, I paused and realized I had two options in that moment. I could have said; “Oh sweetie, that’s not good. We must always think about God every day. He is the most important thing!” Or I could be honest and raw and say; “Really? Me too. Who else feels that way sometimes? Why do you think that is?” I am all about building trust through honesty that creates a safe place to share. And my friends, I cannot tell you how sweet and fruitful that conversation was. It led to other girls opening up about spiritual highs they’ve had and how they don’t know how to stay on that high.

I later began to think about how this young girl formed her statement. She said that she didn’t want to sound rude by telling me that she doesn’t think about God every day. That means she sees that we as leaders/teachers have an expectation of them to believe everything we say, and if we’re questioned, we will be offended. We as adults and leaders don’t express our honest struggles enough and think that we have to be perfect spiritual models for our youth. This is a lie that we must not buy into. If we act like we don’t need Jesus to heal our brokenness, then so will those we love and teach. If we aren’t modeling what we want to see in our young people, then there will be no change. Paul tells those he writes to in his epistles to imitate him as he imitates Christ. The best way we can lead small is by being who we are in Christ and walking out our identity in Him. Everything else must flow from that.

Maybe we as leaders will be able to see more visible growth in kids and youth if we give them more time and room to respond to truth and ask questions knowing they will not be judged because they know that they are not the only ones who are broken. The truth of the gospel doesn’t make sense in our human minds. It shouldn’t, because God is an infinite God, and we are a finite people. We weren’t created to know all things. In Philippians 2:12, Paul calls Christians to “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling.” Wouldn’t this imply some form of doubt and a need to ask questions?

How can we get the kids and teens in our church to know and love Jesus Christ as Savior? We can’t. What we can do is create safe environments for kids and teens to respond to God and freely ask questions and for the Holy Spirit to supernaturally work in hearts and minds.

In Lead Small, author Reggie Joiner writes, “Your few are not problems to be solved. They are people to be loved, when you love them, you will . . .

So, for the love of God and for the sake of His Kingdom and glory, let us seek to LEAD small. God has magnificent plans for His Church, and it truly is an honor to serve Him.


The Power of Imitation

I recently had an inner struggle concerning my work as a children’s pastor. I had some down time recently, but I was conflicted about how I should spend it.

Why Not?

I realized that I needed to reach out to someone to help me with this struggle. So I decided to e-mail a well-known Bible scholar and author I respected and trusted. I was not sure if he would respond, since he had no idea who I was. In addition to teaching and writing, he is also a sought-after speaker, a “celebrity” in the theology world because of the books and commentaries he has written.

So I typed out my e-mail, read it over, and hit “send,” hoping he would write back. But I also felt like I was getting my hopes up, thinking, “Why would a popular Bible teacher, author, and speaker take the time to write back to some random children’s pastor who wasn’t his student?”

So I closed my e-mail and did what many people do—I checked it again about 10 minutes later. And to my surprise, he had already written back! His response was not a couple of hurried sentences, but some thoughtful ones. This blew me away. He had taken the time to read an e-mail from someone he didn’t know and chose to help me.

The next morning, I e-mailed him back, thinking, “surely he will not write back again.” But I was wrong. He had responded once more, providing me wise counsel and honest, truthful advice.

Why Does This Matter?

So why am I telling this story? Because my interaction with this man made me realize the importance of imitating those who live and act like Jesus. I wanted to imitate him because even though he did not know me, he saw my email as important and he believed it was worth taking the time to respond.

His thoughtfulness reminded me of how I had recently received an e-mail from someone I didn’t know who inquired about how we conducted some children’s programs at our church. Since I didn’t know her, I put her email on the backburner—I had other things to think about.

But the response I received from this scholar made me realize the importance of imitation; it reminds me that the Apostle Paul said he wanted his spiritual children in Christ to imitate him as he imitated Jesus (see 1 Corinthians 11:1).

When this Bible scholar and teacher e-mailed me back, giving me a thoughtful response, it was obvious that he did not dismiss my struggle as unimportant or a waste of his time. This in turn made me want to do the same with others. I was convicted to respond to the person who e-mailed me about our children’s ministry practices.

Imitating Those Who Imitate Jesus

Why is this important for children’s ministry? Because as anyone who works with kids knows, they imitate people—the things they see, feel, and touch form them. Their hearts are shaped by their observations of the ways adults and others live and act in relation to them and the world.

If we work with children—whether as a children’s pastor or children’s ministry director or a volunteer—we cannot do it alone. We have to be intentional about imitating those in our lives who look and live like Jesus. As we do, we grow to be more like Him—and the children under our care will grow to be more like Him as well.


Doing more sometimes means doing less

A nonprofit’s mission was to “fight hunger by teaching families to provide and prepare nutritious food.” They had amazing success with the first families they served. As parents learned how to shop for and cook inexpensive but nutritious food, they felt empowered to competently provide for their families.

Other area service providers took note of the successes and began sending over the families they felt unable to serve. The staff began to hear from their volunteers about many of the other problems families in their neighborhood faced. So, eager to serve, the founders decided to open a computer lab with people available to help with job resumes.

Then they opened a childcare center to provide a safe place for under-resourced families to send their children. All the while, the ministry wholeheartedly believed they were doing what was only natural and needed. But the people who financially supported them became confused by all the new programs and grew disillusioned.

The employees were run ragged and couldn’t communicate the company’s vision to their clients or supporters; in fact, they had difficulty remembering why they signed up for this work in the first place. Eventually the nonprofit shut its doors, leaving a hole in the community as it left.

This scenario is fictional, but the outcome is a danger to every ministry—maybe especially kids’ ministry. It all boils down to something called “vision drift.”

We may receive a clear calling or direction from the Holy Spirit as to how we should minister to children and families. Then we add more and more tasks and events until the original calling is completely unrecognizable. So how do you fight vision drift?

  1. Know your God-given vision.

What has God called your ministry to? Is it that every child knows and believes in Jesus? Is it that families take on their God-given role as the primary disciplers of their children? Does your vision work in harmony with the vision God has given your church leadership? Spend time prayerfully asking God what role He is calling you to play in your local church body.

  1. Be a specialist, not a generalist.

In any job, you will have to do things you aren’t naturally skilled at and don’t necessarily fulfill any of your passions. But refuse to be diluted! Focus most of your time on areas where you excel and where you sense God’s calling.

Just because you can do something doesn’t mean that you should. Recruit team players to fill needed roles that don’t fit your skillset.

  1. Say “no” to good things.

By fiddling with language you can easily convince yourself that x, y, or z fits the vision God has given you. Maybe a particularly vocal parent believes you should offer VBS, Awana, daycare, or a MOPS group. None of those are inherently bad; in fact, they can be very good. But doing them without evaluating if they propel or support your mission is asking for burnout.

  1. Be ruthless in removing distractions.

Once you start doing something it becomes your job. Have you ever volunteered to do something, thinking it will be “just this once,” only to discover you’ve become the one expert?

I enjoy making graphics, but I’m not our graphic designer. If I decide to do all of my own graphic design, then I’m subtracting those hours from another part of our ministry—say, having lunch with a key volunteer or an invested parent.

Check your weekly to-do list and be ruthless about cutting jobs you could ask a volunteer to do or that belong on someone else’s plate, that aren’t adding value toward your vision, or that maybe don’t need to be done.

  1. Cultivate your culture.

Praise what you want to see more of, and don’t ask your volunteers to do things that devalue or dilute your vision. Model what you want to see.

If I believe soul care is an important component to a healthy team and I even write that into my philosophy of ministry to children, but I never rest and never build in rest for my team, well, I’m sending different messages, aren’t I? Define what you want to be true of your team (your values or virtues), and then don’t compromise them.

Finally, don’t allow contextualization to change your culture. Sometimes we believe we are simply finding creative ways to “contextualize” our ministry to the community we serve. But if my mission is for children to follow Jesus but I only play games and offer “moralistic” story times so they’ll think church is fun and want to come back, then I’m not fulfilling my mission. I’ve changed the culture into a watered-down version of Christianity that will neither compel nor satisfy anyone I hope to serve.

Each one of us has a role to play in the body. If we take on burdens out of obligation, or because “no one is doing it,” we rob others of playing their God-given roles in the body of Christ. So, let’s remind ourselves of 1 Corinthians 12:4–6—There are different kinds of gifts, but the same Spirit. There are different kinds of service, but the same Lord. There are different kinds of working, but the same God works all of them in all men.

I’m praying for all of us who labor for the gospel to find freedom in doing the job Christ prepared in advance for us to do (Ephesians 2:10). Let us do those good works with conviction, consistency, and clarity, through the power of the Holy Spirit at work within us.