Iron Sharpens Iron

As iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another. –Proverbs 27:17

Knives dull. Trying to cut a piece of meat with a dull knife is an exercise in frustration, an improper use of the word “butchering.” A few months ago, we bought a blade sharpener. What a difference it has made in our decade-old set of kitchen knives. I can easily tell which knives I’ve sharpened and which ones I’ve yet to get to. Sharpening is for improved usage. The instructions say I only have to run the blade of the knife parallel to the sharpener a few times. More than that and I am doing more harm than good. Eventually I would shave the blade down to an anthill of useless metal.

Sharpening is the opposite of the natural process of dulling. The currents of life, our daily rhythms, polish us down to smooth edges unless we have someone else to sharpen us. It is inevitable. This is marriage. This is spiritual friendship.

This is the rebuke of Jesus to his disciples. Oh you of little faith! Do you not understand? Get behind me Satan! Christ knew His followers would be of little use if they were allowed to continue in their disbelief or misguided belief in Him. Their sharpening would leave them ready for use in the kingdom. And Christ also knew how much sharpening they needed. He did not constantly berate them or belittle them. But He also didn’t ignore their ignorance or pass by their problematic theology.

I recently sat with a friend who is starting to write a book. He asked me to proofread the first chapter before he sends it to an editor. I marked it up. Comments about punctuation, flow, assumptions, theology all over the place. I told him, “Jeramy, I hope this was helpful.”

Little did I expect a hug after debriefing together. “That was the best hour I’ve had in a long time. Thank you so much for your constructive criticism!”

A small group can be an environment where sharpening takes place. Often, we hear someone express a faulty belief or gossip about another person and we silently, awkwardly press on with the next question, hoping no one else noticed what just took place. These are opportunities to sharpen one another, even if it means pulling someone aside after the group is done meeting.

A leader is given permission to do this if he or she has proven they have the other person’s best interests at heart. Sharpening is not proving who is right. It is not intellectual dominance. Those things dull others. A leader is also given permission to do this, I think, if he or she makes it reciprocal. The leader needs sharpening, too.

In the end, the whole group is better for it.

We don’t have great models for this in our society. Many of us don’t know how to receive constructive criticism. We are so insecure that we wither at the slightest correction. I know I am inconsistent at best.

Questions to Ask:

  1. When was the last time I received constructive criticism? How did I handle it?
  2. On a scale of 1-10, how comfortable am I in giving and receiving it?
  3. When have I seen it go well? What lessons can I learn from that example?
  4. When will I introduce this to my small group?
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Are You Calling Me a Liar?

“Are you calling me a liar?” We’ve all heard it. Hopefully no one has said this to us recently.

Psychologist Robert Feldman writes, “We tend to think of lying as something we censure. But just as we smile when the man handing us our dry cleaning lies about the pleasure he took in laundering our clothes, there are lies society accepts, and even encourages. Indeed, deception is so deeply ingrained in the functioning of our society that if we removed it, we might not recognize the society that resulted.”

Dave Ramsey tells the story of how he went into a store to buy a washer and dryer for his wife, and the sales associate was trying to convince him to purchase them by using store credit. The man said, “Dave Ramsey uses store credit!” He obviously did not know who he was speaking to. Dave then flashed him his driver’s license and the associate learned a valuable lesson: Quit lying!

In Christian circles, we know that God tells us not to lie. It’s right in the Ten Commandments. Jesus tells us to let our “yes” be “yes” and our “no” be “no.” Paul says we must speak the truth in love to one another.

If there was any place in the church where we should expect Christians to live up to this biblical standard, to me, it’s in a small group. Small groups are environments of honesty and trust. They are places where people meet together and develop friendships. And people are not looking for friends who will tell them what they want to hear. They need friends they can trust, friends who care more about their spiritual well-being than they do about upsetting them.

Feldman was right. If we eliminated lying—even the flattery, the passing over of white lies, and ignoring the half-truths we hear others say about themselves and God—in our small groups, we might not recognize them.

In John 8:44, Jesus tells the Jewish leaders, “You belong to your father, the devil, and you want to carry out your father’s desires. He was a murderer from the beginning, not holding to the truth, for there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks his native language, for he is a liar and the father of lies” (TNIV). Our words betray who our father is, whether we’d like to admit it or not. Since we have been adopted into God’s family, we choose to tell the truth.

What steps do you need to take to help your group become a place of trust?

How can you personally lead the way?

Do you need to have a personal conversation with someone in your group?

One concrete action step to take may be to consult Scripture this week, specifically Proverbs. Skim read Proverbs 10-30 looking for any verses that talk about our speech. Try to come up with the basic themes and messages of the book. Then apply these themes to your group setting and see how the trust levels go up.

For example, in Proverbs 10 alone we read (and I’ve skipped several other verses pertaining to wise speech):

  1. The wise in heart accept commands, but a chattering fool comes to ruin (Pr. 10:8).
  2. Whoever winks maliciously causes grief, and a chattering fool comes to ruin (Pr. 10:10).
  3. Whoever conceals hatred with lying lips and spreads slander is a fool (Pr. 10:18).
  4. Sin is not ended by multiplying words, but the prudent hold their tongue (Pr. 10:19).
  5. From the mouth of the righteous comes the fruit of wisdom, but a perverse tongue will be silenced (Pr. 10:31).

May your group model honesty and transparency together!

Success: Relative to Whom?

Jamie and I went car shopping in June 2012. Who doesn’t love car shopping? We found that part of the car dealer’s plan is to get you inside, sitting at a desk where they can direct the conversation and show you what they want you to see. It seemed like the longer they had you sitting down, the better the chances they thought you would buy a car. Maybe they assume that once you’ve invested two hours at their dealership, you’d feel like it was a waste of time if you didn’t “get into” something.

One dealer showed us a chart of all the minivans in a 50-mile radius at other dealers—their prices and mileage. This chart was evidence that they had the best price around, and they did. When the dealer walked away, I told Jamie, “It’s great that they have a good price relative to everyone else, but the only person this must be relative to is me. I’m the buyer. I don’t care how the price matches everyone else if it doesn’t work for me.”

This is the great mistake churches make when they begin to ask, “What is everyone else doing? How do our programs compare to the programs in the churches around us?” It is very easy to measure our success based on how our small groups out-do another church’s small groups, or how our children’s ministry is better and more exciting than another church’s. All of a sudden we aim to please ourselves and the Christian sub-culture around us rather than God. But what does God think about this? Is He worried about how our programs stack up against any other local church’s? Or does He simply want us to be obedient to Him?

The real questions we must ask ourselves are, “How does what we’re doing to make disciples please God? How are we being obedient to Him, participating in His kingdom on earth here and now?” That’s it. That’s the plumb line that everything is relative to.

In Acts 4:1-12, the Peter and John were faced with a difficult decision after they had healed a man.

 

The priests and the captain of the temple guard and the Sadducees came up to Peter and John while they were speaking to the people. They were greatly disturbed because the apostles were teaching the people, proclaiming in Jesus the resurrection of the dead. They seized Peter and John, and because it was evening, they put them in jail until the next day. But many who heard the message believed; so the number of men who believed grew to about five thousand.

Peter and John had healed a lame man. The priests and Sadducees weren’t happy. Part of this was because the Sadducees especially didn’t believe in resurrection. The other part was a popularity contest: they realized, just as they had months earlier with Jesus, that the disciples were gaining a following, and this infringed on their sense of power. They throw Peter and John in jail until the morning. Interestingly, Luke notes how their healing ministry led to greater numbers–something we associate with success–and yet this is almost said as an aside as the narrative keeps moving along.

The next day the rulers, the elders and the teachers of the law met in Jerusalem. Annas the high priest was there, and so were Caiaphas, John, Alexander and others of the high priest’s family. They had Peter and John brought before them and began to question them: “By what power or what name did you do this?”

In verses 5-7, the big dogs have arrived. Annas had actually retired as high priest 20 years prior, but was still a recognized authority. Caiaphas was reigning high priest, Annas’ son-in-law, installed by Rome just as Annas before him. He is the one Jesus stood before during His trial in this same location just months before. John was one of Annas’ five sons and would become high priest in a few years. Evidently Rome had a good thing going with this family.

Their question is about power. It is at this point that Peter has a choice to make. As Luke told the story of Jesus’ final night, he said that Peter had followed at a distance and made his way into the courtyard of the high priests’ home. It was here he had denied Jesus three times, after which Luke says, “The Lord turned and look straight at Peter.” Peter has already told the lame man and the onlooking crowd that it is by the name and power of Jesus (Acts 3:6, 12-16).

Filled with the Holy Spirit, Peter boldly speaks.

Then Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit, said to them: “Rulers and elders of the people! If we are being called to account today for an act of kindness shown to a man who was lame and are being asked how he was healed, then know this, you and all the people of Israel: It is by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified but whom God raised from the dead, that this man stands before you healed. Jesus is ‘the stone you builders rejected, which has become the cornerstone.’ Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name given under heaven by which we must be saved.”

There is no mincing of words here. He says that if they are being put on trial for an act of kindness shown to the lame man, it is by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth. And he doesn’t stop there. “Whom you crucified.” He’s standing right in the place where Jesus was put on trial with the people who had him killed, and he has the audacity to say this. Think about how that goes over in our day! Relative to the religious leaders of Peter’s day, Peter has this whole God-thing wrong.

In verse 9, Peter calls what they had done an “act of kindness.” This was a social norm in their day called benefaction. Normally a benefactor, a wealthy person, would act on another person’s behalf with a gift of finances or other support. In return, benefactors received honor and loyalty from those who received their gifts. Caesar and Herod were benefactors. Peter labels this healing as such an act, as if what they are giving is on par with what the emperor would give. They are doing something that the true Lord, Jesus, did, on his authority. This is a statement of unquestionable authority.

They have not just healed a man, something we think is extraordinary in its own right. They did it by exercising the authority of the true Benefactor.

Here’s the deal: We are quick to hone in on Peter’s words about salvation, but normally pass right by how he thought about what he was doing. By exercising authority in Jesus’ name, Peter knew where the power came from, and he stood up to the ruling authorities who could easily have sent him along to Pilate also because Christ so filled him with His Holy Spirit.

In Peter’s mind, he was acting in accordance with Jesus. He was continuing on in the ministry of Jesus. And in this, there is the true measure of success. Continuing the ministry of Jesus at our church in the months and years to come with define success for us.

 

What Keeps Us from Self-Awareness?

Carson Pue, in his book Mentoring Leaders, lists three reasons why we lack self-awareness. I’m giving them my own explanations and adding a fourth.

  1. Lack of feedback. We either intentionally or unintentionally cordon ourselves off from honest, caring voices. Intentionally because we are insecure or stuck in sin, or unintentionally because we are busy or ignorant of the need.
  2. Insecurity. Insecurity stems from failure and fear. We all know how it is infinitely easier to recall a harsh word spoken to us than praise. We have all beaten ourselves up over mistakes and regret. Insecurity can be either an undercurrent in us that we’re unaware of or a vicious, loud monster that prohibits us from acting courageously. In the end, we fear looking in the mirror because we’ll hate what we might see.
  3. Busyness. I recently heard a pastor say that he changed his schedule from working as many hours as it took to cover his responsibilities to covering only the responsibilities he had hours for. Excellent advice. Busyness becomes a badge of bravery in today’s society. We compare our work hours and commitments with others and look down on those who attempt balance. But busyness is the enemy of self-awareness in that we end up repeating the same patterns of behavior without the benefit of course correction.

I would add a fourth: cynicism. If we’ve been in leadership for any length of time, we’ve heard the spiel, the call for another self-assessment, another leadership 360, another sad story of a person who fell from leadership because they neglected self-awareness. If we’re not careful, we become cynical, thinking that since we “did that,” we’re already self-aware, as if we’ve not changed in the last decade. We can have all the feedback in the world and still ignore self-awareness.

Questions:

  1. Which of the four do you let stop you from self-awareness?
  2. What types of feedback or assessment have you found most helpful in learning more about who you are?
  3. What can you do to prevent cynicism from creeping in so that you remain self-aware?

Sticky Experiences

The birth of a child. The best job you ever had. The day she said yes. The family vacation that really was relaxing. These positive experiences stick with you. They remind you of the joys of life in the past. But they don’t just stick with you as a mental image; they forever alter you from the person you were to the person you are.

The death of a parent. The day you got fired. The pile of debt. The huge questions about raising a teenager. These negative experiences stick too, remind too, and alter too. The question you must answer is, “How do these experiences, both positive and negative, impact what I believe about myself today? How did God use them then, and how does He still want to use them today?”

Several years ago, I sat down with a pastor friend who instructed me to use a pad of sticky notes to discover the answers to those questions. I wrote down all the positive experiences and things I enjoyed: singing in high school, marrying Jamie, working outside with my dad in our yard, time at Indiana Wesleyan, etc. I wrote down the negative things: my dad’s brain injury, not being athletic enough, serving alone far away from family at a dying church, etc.

Then we began to connect the dots from experiences to beliefs. Then we reflected on what God did through them. And finally, we reflected on what God wanted to keep doing through them.

Small group leaders are just as human as the rest of us. And God doesn’t waste our pasts. Every moment is His. Every success and failure can be redeemed and redirected for our present shaping into the image of Christ. Our histories are a vital aspect of the way we facilitate conversations, gravitate toward biblical topics and steer clear of others, react to the others in our group, etc. And until we name them, we shortchange God and His gracious willingness to wrap them up under the words of Jesus, “Behold, I make all things new.”

So, perhaps you can guess what comes next. That’s right. Pick up a pad of sticky notes. Put each positive experience on one color and each negative on another. Then lay them out however is best helpful to you: chronologically, grouping by similar experiences, etc. Then answer the questions: “How do these experiences, both positive and negative, impact what I believe about myself today? How did God use them then, and how does He still want to use them today?”

Lead With Your Strengths

In UpStreet, we sing a song called “Not as Strong.”

I’m not as strong as I’ll be but I’m growin’
I’m not as strong as I’ll be one day
But my God, He is faithful
He’s strong and He’s able so I’ll never be afraid

Every person wants to be known as a strong person. No one likes being thought of as weak. And yet, the risen Christ told Paul, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Cor. 12:9, TNIV). This led Paul to say, “That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Cor. 12:10, TNIV).

Is it better to leverage your strengths or work on your weaknesses? Is Paul saying that we should consider ourselves only as weak vessels for God to use, or can we acknowledge our strengths? Yes. In a future post, we’ll talk about leading from our weaknesses. But what are strengths?

Winseman, Clifton, and Liesveld define a strength in their offshoot of the Clifton StrengthsFinder like this (Living Your Strengths, p. 7).

“A strength is the ability to provide consistent, near-perfect performance in a given activity. This ability is a powerful, productive combination of talent, skill and knowledge.”

We may be fairly aware of our talents, which are natural to us and cannot be acquired. They’re things we’ve been good at our whole lives. Whether it is thriving under pressure, making others laugh, picking up on the emotions of others, or being competitive, we all have talents.

Skills are those acquired abilities we get through training and learning that help us do a job well. They’re the things we learn at school, by watching someone else, or from old-fashioned trial and error. Knowledge also comes through learning and experience.

When you combine these three things—talents, skills, and knowledge—you’ve got a strength. Here’s a personal example. One of my strengths is called Input. I collect information from all sorts of sources and arrange and compile it in such a way that it is useful for myself and others.

This is how I prepare for sermons, how I strive to set up this blog…

When I was a kid, I collected basketball cards, arranged them in alphabetical order, and enjoyed culling the stats of each player. In pre-Internet days, they were my source of knowledge for the NBA. As I’ve become more self-aware, I’ve seen how God used this talent, combined with new skills and knowledge, to create an Input strength in me. Now it fleshes itself out in other ways–the basketball cards are collecting dust under my bed.

The power of knowing what your strengths are as it pertains to leading a small group is this: You are free to rearrange the parts of leadership to suit you. Using Clifton StrengthsFinder terms, if you have a strength of:

Adaptability, you will be flexible when your group shifts its focus or gains or loses new members.
Context, you will bring out connections from the past to help people understand the present.
Developer, you will see the potential in others in your group and strive to help them see it, too.
Relator, you will do whatever you can to encourage deeper relationships among people in your group.

So pick up the book today and discover your strengths. The book includes a code for an online assessment, which reveals your top 5 (of 34 possible) strengths.

Imitate Me

One of the ways an infant learns behavior is through imitation. Child development psychologists say that infants engage in both immediate and delayed imitation. Obviously immediate imitation is cute. A baby who sticks out his or her tongue when you do is sure to bring a smile to your face. But delayed imitation is the goal. When a baby can repeat the same behavior hours and days after observing it, a parent knows the child is learning and developing well. Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget believed that infants and toddlers “think” with their eyes, ears, hands and other sensory-motor parts.

Christians too must learn by imitation. When Paul wrote 1 Corinthians, he said it twice:

“Even if you had ten thousand guardians in Christ, you do not have many fathers, for in Christ Jesus I became your father through the gospel. Therefore I urge you to imitate me. For this reason I have sent to you Timothy, my son whom I love, who is faithful in the Lord. He will remind you of my way of life in Christ Jesus, which agrees with what I teach everywhere in every church” (1 Corinthians 4:15-17).

“Do not cause anyone to stumble, whether Jews, Greeks or the church of God—even as I try to please everyone in every way. For I am not seeking my own good but the good of many, so that they may be saved. Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ” (1 Corinthians 10:32-11:1).

The Corinthians, one commentator reminds us, had no established Christian tradition, no members who had been believers for more than three years, no written gospels, and no Torah (the first five books of the Bible) to regulate behavior. They must learn how to live from someone who modeled it for them. That’s why Paul sent Timothy to them and asked them to imitate him. Timothy was to remind them of Paul’s life.

For Paul, this kind of imitation means only one thing: shaping our lives in accordance with the pattern of Jesus’ self-sacrificing love. A person who is worthy of imitating will not seek his own good, as Paul says, but will sacrifice his own good for the sake of others, just as Jesus did. In the same way, a model will not cause others to stumble, regardless of whether they are inside the church or not. He or she will align beliefs, teachings, and spoken words with lifestyle, practices, and habits.

One common objection to this line of thinking is that Christ is our model, and therefore we should not look up to anyone else. My youth pastor used to say, “Don’t follow me because I’ll let you down. Follow Jesus. My goal is to point you to Him.” I think he got it right and tried to balance being a faithful model of Christianity with humble acceptance of His limitations.

So, are you worthy of imitating? Are you living in such a way that those in your small group could model their lives after yours and still be faithful to Christ? Does your life and leadership point to the crucified Christ or to yourself?

Read All You Can

Reading. You either love it or you hate it. And if you love it, you never seem to have enough time to do it. When I met my wife, we both discovered that the other one enjoyed reading. Her idea of enjoyable reading is a good Christian fiction novel; mine is a non-fiction pastoral book or even a commentary. Yes, I know that is weird.

The older we get and the more we’ve been a part of leading small groups, the more we discover that we don’t know all there is to know. The gap between what we know and what we need to know widens—unless we are diligent to read all we can. Odds are the questions you have could be answered in a book. Odds are the discussion you have in your next small group gathering could be addressed in a book. Odds are the conflict you sense between two small group members could be written about in a book.

Don’t hear me wrong. Books do not hold all the answers, nor does reading and gathering some answers guarantee a better leader. There are all sorts of smart people who have no practical wisdom and cannot apply what they know. Plus, there are some situations that only the Holy Spirit can minister in. BUT…hear me. You are what you read.

So read voraciously. I have a goal to read 25-30 books a year. What’s your goal? It doesn’t have to be strictly “Christian” reading. Start somewhere. Maybe it’s one book a month. You’ll be amazed at the way God uses the books you read to grow you as a leader.

Questions

  1. What books are you reading right now?
  2. If you’re not a “reader,” what are some creative ways you can soak in the wisdom of others? Blogs? Websites? Magazines? Books on CD?
  3. What one topic relating to small group leadership do you need advice on? What book might help?

Emotionally Healthy Spirituality

Is it possible to be a spiritually healthy Christian while being emotionally unhealthy? This is a question that most of us have not taken much time to think about. Rarely do we discuss emotional health in church settings, and yet our emotions are part of being fully human. Peter Scazerro, author of Emotionally Healthy Church, says the answer to the above question is, “No.” To ignore our emotions as if they are not as important as our relationship with God is, in a sense, inhumane.

“Ignoring our emotions is turning our back on reality; listening to our emotions ushers us into reality. And reality is where we meet God…. Emotions are the language of the soul.”

–Dan Allender and Tremper Longman in The Cry of the Soul.

If emotions are the language of the soul, then this means the way we display our emotions gives people insight into just how spiritually mature or immature we really are. Understanding our emotions can go a long way in helping us be better small group leaders too. Think about some normal situations that come up in a small group setting. How do you tend to react? How do your reactions to these situations show your spiritual maturity?

  1. Someone controls the dialogue by talking too much.
  2. Two people argue (politely or not-so-politely) over a teaching.
  3. People from different backgrounds respond differently to a teaching.
  4. Dead silence.
  5. Someone opens up for the first time and is met with blank stares.

The Emotionally Healthy Spirituality Assessment Tool was designed to help you discover your spiritual and emotional maturity. Fill it out and then reflect on your results either by journaling about them or taking some time to pray about them.

You can read more about emotional health at Peter Scazzero’s site as well as take other online assessments here. You can also check out his podcast here.

Discerning Your Values

Values are an expression of your inner workings. Articulating values is essential to understanding what’s really important to you as a small group facilitator. And that starts with knowing what’s important to you personally. Our own experiences, our relationship with Jesus, and our culture will all play a part in our unique values system. Those values come out in everything we do: our parenting, our workplace relationships, and the way we lead small groups.

Bill Hybels writes in Axiom, “If a particular issue elicits a passing opinion but not your most passionate activism, if it raises your curiosity but doesn’t rile you up enough to do something about it, then it’s not a core-of-my-being issue. But if it sets off a seismic shift in your inner person that you can feel from the top of your head to the bottom of your feet, then you’ve got a core-of-my-being issue on your hands.”

Knowing your values in a small group will increase your self awareness and attune you to understanding your responses to and impressions of the group experience. And it will help you understand why others may respond differently. For example, someone who values staying on task and completing the study may become impatient with lengthy sharing times, while someone who values building relationships and going deeper into people’s lives may welcome those times.

Small groups are about relational and spiritual growth. Notice both components: relationships and Christian spirituality. I believe everyone will lean either toward either the Scripture/God/spiritual growth side or the relational/sharing/caring side.

Look at the list of values below and choose the top five values you have when it comes to leading a group. Try to write a one-sentence description of what each of the five means to you. Values adapted from Finding the Flow by Tara Miller and Jenn Peppers, pp. 219-220.

  • Accountability
  • Addressing tough issues
  • Admitting failure
  • Advanced planning
  • Asking forgiveness
  • Autonomy
  • Being believed in
  • Believing in others
  • Challenging one another
  • Confronting others
  • Developing other leaders
  • Efficient use of time
  • Ensuring a smooth flow
  • Excitement
  • Feeling equipped/ready
  • Food and fun
  • Forgiveness
  • Freedom of expression
  • Giving opportunities to potential new leaders
  • Grace
  • Having the answers
  • Holding to the stated agenda
  • Intellectual depth
  • Intimacy
  • Large numbers
  • Life change
  • Momentum
  • Openness
  • Powerful moments
  • Purity
  • Quality
  • Reconciliation
  • Redemption
  • Relationship
  • Respecting others
  • Risk
  • Scripture alone
  • Sense of humor
  • Serving others
  • Social opportunities
  • Speaking into each others’ lives
  • Vulnerability
  • Willingness to shift direction
  • Work of the Spirit

Questions:

  1. What did you learn about yourself?
  2. How does knowing your values affect your role as a facilitator/leader?
  3. Does this help explain some of the discussions you’ve had in your small group lately?
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