Hold on to these things
But don’t hold them so tightly
‘Cause what you hold so tightly
You no longer hold for Me
But for you....
Worship song by Troy Bronsink
Four years after my partner Al Sagar and I had hatched the vision of the Transforming Leaders Initiative, a learning journey for pastors and key lay leaders, Genie and I arrived in Ashland, Ohio. We came to launch the Pilot class. The financial meltdown of 2008 had forced us to move to a regional approach for our work. We had recruited pastors and churches from four Midwestern states. We were starting our three-year leadership learning journey, but something was wrong. At a moment when I should have been celebrating the perseverance to finally launch this vision, I was crashing and burning.
In late August, I was on the front porch of the cabin in Colorado talking with my spiritual director. We spend an hour on the phone every two weeks. I was expressing my frustration at the struggle to see our Board really coalesce as a team as we launch the TLI. I was sitting on a bar stool. When I tried to get up, I realized my knee had locked up. For a couple of years, I had been walking around with a damaged knee. About once a year, it would lock up, and each time it took longer before I could pop it back out straight. Before, I had done something to put the knee in a bad position, and it popped. This time, I was just sitting there. Very strange.
It was still locked up the next day, so I got an emergency appointment with an orthopedic surgeon. He said it was time to operate to fix the problem. He could do the surgery in a couple of days. “Doc, you gotta do something now. We have the grandkids up for the weekend, and I am totally helpless. Can’t you shoot it up with Novacaine and pop it back?” He reluctantly did so. It took a couple of tries, but he could finally get it to pop back into place, and I could walk again.
We came to the outpatient surgical center a couple of days later, and as I was being prepped for surgery, they hooked up an EKG. The nurses immediately called the anesthesiologist over to look. He didn’t like what he saw. “You have an unstable heart beat, and you need to see a cardiologist before I put you under.”
I had been noticing something but ignoring it, thinking it was just the altitude. Who wants to admit they have a problem with their ticker? We saw the cardiologist that day, put off the knee surgery, and began a series of tests. These tests consumed the rest of our time in Colorado, so we returned to Atlanta. Turns out I have a mild heart condition that responds to medication.
A couple of weeks after our return I threw my back out bailing water out of our cellar after a big rain. I was walking around with a bum knee, being so careful about how I walked that I managed to pinch a nerve on the other side of my back, causing sciatic pain. Now, I began to worry. Our Pilot class was starting in a couple of weeks, and I was running off the rails. By the time I got to Ohio for the week of the class, I had two teeth needing root canals, a bad back, a bad knee and a bad heart. I did not sleep the first three nights up there. God was saying something to me, but I had no idea what.
TAKE A MOMENT Have you hit the wall physically, emotionally, psychologically? What did you learn from the experience? As you reflect, how did God speak into the situation? How have you moved towards healing?
I had the knee surgery the week of Thanksgiving. Hobbling around during my recovery continued to aggravate the pinched nerve. By January, the pain wouldn’t let up, so I got a epidural to ease the pain. We went back out to Colorado, and I felt so good that I skied for five straight days. The sixth day, we went cross country skiing at a nearby resort, and I could tell I had pushed too hard. The day after, my back snapped, and I found myself in horrible pain. I could not sit, stand or walk more than 30 seconds without the pain becoming unbearable. This happened a day before I was to fly to Ohio for the second event with our class. I couldn’t go.
For the next month, I only left the cabin for Genie to take me down the mountain to see the doctor. The pain pills I was taking took away my appetite, and I lost fifteen pounds in two weeks. My left leg began to wither, my left calf muscle significantly smaller than the right one. I was helpless, and could do nothing for myself.
I could not concentrate, work was out of the question. I could hardly read. I trusted in the promise that God was with me, but I could not sense His presence, heard no response to prayer. Of all the dark nights of the soul I’ve experienced, none was quite as dark as this. As this unfolded, the Winter Olympics commenced, and helped me get through it.
Through it all, I kept saying, “God, I know there is something you are teaching me through this, and when the time is right, you will let this pass from me.” I did not spend time praying for my own recovery, instead, I prayed for God to use the experience to illuminate my life, to help me see what lesson was in the suffering.
TAKE A MOMENT Have you experienced situations where stress, anxiety and spiritual warfare have taken a toll on your physical health? How have you responded to the dark night of the soul?
Humility was the lesson I was painfully learning. It slowly dawned on me that it is hard to learn humility without a humbling experience. When we ask God for patience, be careful, because we will likely be surrounded by very difficult people so that we might learn. For a decade now I've been trying to live a servant leader's life, but humility has been a slow road.
I recovered enough by early March for us to drive back to Atlanta. I went to Ohio for the third event with our class in April. Beyond that, I continued my time of deep reflection and discernment. Somewhere along the faint path, I had taken a wrong turn, and it was painfully obvious that I was reaching a dead end. I spent the next several months in prayer and meditation trying to sort out what had gone wrong.
TAKE A MOMENT When things become so important that we cannot allow a failure, we can become obsessed in unhealthy ways. Have you experienced situations where you were holding things too tightly? How did that work out for you?
Looking back, I realized that at some point on this journey, I had gone from being drawn down this path to being driven. One of my design principles for my second career was to follow the energy. What had begun as a modest aspiration to teach mission developers how to apply the creative process to church planting had turned into something much bigger when I pitched the idea.
After working with our Lutheran Synod to bring leadership offerings across the four states of the region, Al Sagar and I had seen how few pastors yearned to be leaders of discipleship communities. My local church has a hard time accepting the gifts I was offering. Now, we found the Synod opportunities to be quite limiting, so we hatched a larger vision. We got ourselves elected to the Lutheran Churchwide assembly of the ELCA in 2005. We felt called to the equipping of a next generation of leaders for the Kingdom. We decided to network across the whole church to draw participants from a much deeper pool into a longer term learning journey.
TAKE A MOMENT How do you test whether a vision is a Godly vision, or just an aspiration coming out of your own needs and ego?
One of the first people I went to with this vision in the summer of 2005 was my old friend Richard Kessler. Richard served on the board of Thrivent Financial, a fraternal insurance organization serving the Lutheran community. I asked him to introduce me to the people at Thrivent who fund grants. Turned out I was going to be in Minneapolis the same day he was coming for his last Thrivent Board meeting. Richard arranged a breakfast with the senior leadership of Thrivent. I pitched a $50,000 grant request to begin working with the best and brightest mission developers from across the church.
The Thrivent execs got excited, but suggested that something bigger was on the table. They had invested hundreds of thousands of dollars to fund the development of the Pastoral Leadership Institute in the Missouri Synod, another branch of the Lutheran tribe. They suggested we consider building such an institute in our church. They offered a $25K planning grant, and suggested funding levels well into six figures as we moved to launch.
It was a heady moment. I’d come in imagining a foray into leadership development across the church, and I was being offered a chance to go all in, to create something big. I am afraid this played to my ego, and the feeling that I needed to do something big to justify walking away from my business and the marketplace in my prime at 48 years old. I was psyched. I can now see I was seduced by the idea.
TAKE A MOMENT Have you seen a situation where your own deep wants and needs turn something Godly into something that’s more about you? How has God let you know when you have jumped tracks and might be pursuing your dream instead of His? Are you there now? What is God saying in the chaos?
As I began the project, I was living the dream. I was following the energy. I began to travel around the Lutheran church on my own nickel, accepting every invitation I could get, casting the vision of creating a three year leadership learning journey for the best and brightest emerging leaders of the church.
In my work getting certified as a structural consultant by Robert Fritz, we had mapped the patterns in our lives. Fritz showed us that we each have a functional and a dysfunctional macrostructural pattern in our lives. These patterns tend to repeat themselves, with different circumstances and actors, again and again. I could see how I had fallen into my dysfunctional pattern in my work to bring transformation to Apostles, and the results were a disaster.
As you read from right to left, my functional Pattern looks like this:
For the first year that I pursued this project, I was clearly in my functional pattern. I have never cast a vision that resonated so deeply for so many people. As I spoke with young pastors, I saw hope rekindled in some who had become discouraged by the broken systems in the church. I heard words of support everywhere I went. Where people were moved by the vision, I engaged in deeper conversation. I was casting the vision, and gathering together those who were feeling called to it to let the Spirit choose the team. Within a month, a group was coalescing around the vision.
In order to win the large grants necessary to launch a national project, we needed to form a nonprofit with a board of directors. The shift to a larger stage required sacrifices which forced certain decisions. While this did not feel organic, it was a necessary step to receive institutional funding. Enthusiastic responses encouraged me, and after the initial meeting with Thrivent in November 2005, I began to draw together a board. By the next July, I was gathering together with our founding board, as described in Chapter 4.
TAKE A MOMENT When choices you make create a more institutional and less organic organization, what is sacrificed? What challenges does that bring to the vision? Can you seek institutional support without distorting the vision God has given you? Did Jesus seek support from the institutional church of His day for what God called him to accomplish?
Two things became clear in the months following the initial board meeting. First, I began to understand that in the Lutheran leadership circles, words of support often don’t turn into behaviors of support. While our goal for the board was equal parts pastors and lay leaders, we had trouble finding lay leaders who were close enough to understand how dire the leadership situation had become in the church. So, we ended up with mostly pastors at first.
Over the next couple of years, I began to see how few pastors had enough margin in their lives to take on significant roles in our project. Busyness is rampant in the church. The board never really became a team with each having defined roles, responsibilities and accountability. The kind of synergy and collaboration that I experienced for the two years of my EMBA never came to pass in this venture.
We also realized that to reach private donors, we would have to get past the gatekeepers, the pastors in their own churches. So many pastors live in a world of scarcity, that to invite us to tap their large donors for some second level giving was a stretch. As a result, we knew that our schedule was too ambitious and that it would take significantly longer to launch the project.
These realizations gave me pause. My whole purpose in creating this venture was to be engaged in mentoring and equipping young leaders. That was the calling. Yet, I could see that it might take a couple of years of infrastructure building to make that possible. I prayed and meditated and reflected during this setback. I realized that I would have to spend a couple of years doing those things that I could do, but were not energizing, in order for this to launch. For the first time since I left the marketplace to follow God, I wandered into the spiritual desert as I pondered these choices. Church speed is so much slower that real world speed, I had whiplash.
I realized at the time that this time of infrastructure building would put me in conflict with my design principle of following the energy, so I took a couple of months to pray and ask God for guidance. As I sought God’s presence to regather my energy for this work, something was amiss. Even so, during my time of reflection, I realized that I had spent my career in the infrastructure business, had the skills to do the infrastructure work, and that maybe I was the only one who could pull this off. (Notice the focus has shifted to me.) This was the point where I jumped tracks, as I moved into a time of trying to prove I could pull this off.
TAKE A MOMENT Have you found yourself drifting from the vision that God planted in your heart? How do you recognize such times? Who can speak into your life in ways you can hear during these times?
In the fall of 2006, a member of our board had a meeting with the president of our largest Lutheran seminary. After the meeting, he suggested I fly up to meet with the seminary leaders and engage in dialogue. I made plans to go for a visit exactly a year after I had first met with Thrivent. Even though I had set off on this path at the behest of the man who headed Thrivent’s Foundation, from that point forward, I kept hearing nothing but “Yeah, but,” from his minions who actually work the grant process. Support was not assured, they kept telling me. I trusted that the senior Thrivent executive who had set me on this journey would come through. I should have seen the warning signals.
I learned years ago that change happens best in corridors of indifference. One striking example was our work with the Day School at our first church, Apostles. We got involved in a broken school, brought in a new leader, saw most of the staff leave, and no one in the church got too excited. Within two years, we had moved from a $40,000 deficit in the school to a $40,000 surplus. It did not make too many waves, because no one cared that much. They were indifferent. However, when we tried to move a drum set into the sanctuary to do a contemporary worship service, an ex-president of the congregation cursed at the pastor when she took him into the sanctuary to show him.
TAKE A MOMENT Have you found ways to create change in corridors of indifference that positively impacted your organization? How might that principle be helpful in the future?
As soon as I stepped onto the campus at Luther Seminary, I realized I had stepped out of the corridor of indifference. I had stepped into someone’s back yard, and I could see the sparks of a turf battle. The seminary clearly thought that the preparation of leaders for the church was their territory. The subtle message I began to get was, “Who are you, a lay leader, to be leading a project to equip pastors?” That God might have called me to this work did not seem to be a possibility to institutional leaders. I had not been recruited, vetted and trained by the institution, and therefore was not to be trusted. Hearing those messages fed right back into my old structure of trying to overcome the belief I wasn't good enough. Unconsciously I had shifted gears, I had to prove them wrong.
TAKE A MOMENT Have defensive reactions caused you to push harder? Do you have to perform at a certain level to feel good about yourself? Does it really work for you?
I had been meeting with the leaders of the project funded by Thrivent in the other Lutheran tribe, and they had impressed upon me the need to keep the project independent of the institutions of the church. My own board, with one exception, clearly thought that change happens on the margins, that the core of any institution is all about orthodoxy and control, not innovation and change.
In early 2007, a meeting was called at Churchwide to hash out the next steps. The seminary offered to take the lead, while keeping a seat at the table for our group. I was mightily tempted to take the easy way. They could open doors to the funding we needed. It was a tempting path. But, I knew we would lose control. In my mind, I kept coming to the thought, if the seminary is capable of this, what has stopped them? If they could do this, why did it take me running all around the country to build a sense of urgency and cast the vision? I did not think them capable of creating something true to our vision, and knew I would not have an instrumental role in it once the seminary took the lead (note again the focus on me).
I was pushing back against the clericalism that I have found rampant in the institutional church. But, I now know I was pushing back in unhealthy ways. Although I could not see at the time, I was making this about me, and stepping into my dysfunctional macrostructural pattern, which looks like this.
You might notice there is only a slight variation between my functional and my dysfunctional pattern. In my functional pattern, I cast a vision, find support, and move ahead. In my dysfunctional pattern, I cast a vision, find resistance, and move ahead anyway. As I look back, I see that I had stepped out of my functional pattern and into my dysfunctional pattern.
The trouble is, I did not wake up to this fact for three more years. We spent most of 2007 fighting to keep the project independent of the seminary. After winning that battle, the next year we were finally moving to launch a pilot class from across the nation when the financial meltdown of 2008 hit. In response to the scarcity of available funding, we gave up the vision of a national cohort of participants, and moved to a regional scenario.
The shift to a regional scenario was a nail in the coffin of the vision, and I could see it as we made the shift. We moved from recruiting the best and brightest from across the country to the best and brightest within a 250 mile radius, making a much shallower talent pool. Many of those we recruited were pastoring small, declining, stuck churches that were very resistant to innovation.
TAKE A MOMENT Have you seen the realities you face force a shift in the vision that takes it to a place where the path no longer fits your calling? How do you respond?
So, we began the pilot class in October 2009. It took a whole year to even get a serious conversation started in many of these churches about discipleship. Every step we took ended up taking me farther away from following the energy, and from living out my calling. But, I could not see it. Friends turned against me. Others made commitments and never fulfilled them. Those I thought I could count on did not come through. Words of support did not became behaviors of support.
I went through several periods of questioning, of spiritual wandering in the desert. Long periods of quiet helped me understand what the saints mean when they talk of the “dark night of the soul.” During these times, I went through several several dark nights. My secular friends would have likened it to depression. To me it was more like spiritual warfare.
I have a deep vein of persistence and perseverance, which came from working with my father for 15 years. So, I kept plowing on, ignoring the signals. When my health started to fail, I could not ignore it any longer. We returned to Atlanta after my month in bed with my back, and I started to recuperate. We completed our first year with the pilot class in Ohio. I continued to rest and pray and meditate on what God was saying in all this. I pulled back from my work and my writing.
We gathered as a board in June of 2010 to consider where we were. What we were doing with the first class was good work, but it had drifted far from the vision. The board never really became the team I yearned to be a part of. We never successfully raised the financial resources we needed. In 2009, the Lutheran Church (ELCA) had taken a decision to sanction gay and lesbian pastors in committed relationships, and it was splitting the church.
Many of the wealthier churches and strongest leaders began to pull back from support. As the conflict unfolded, the energy to do something about leadership all but dissipated across the church, and we continued to stumble as a board. I began to think the whole denomination was circling the drain, and could no longer right itself. With a confluence of many factors indicating we would never reach sustainability, we decided to continue the three years with our pilot class, and then disband.
TAKE A MOMENT How do you discern when God is closing doors, and opening doors?
During the spring, my daughter Florrie experienced a bit of an existential crisis. She was working with me on this book project, and she broached the subject of finding a church. She hadn’t been active in some time and was feeling a desire to connect.
At the time, I coached a young pastor/mission developer in Atlanta. I attended the Exponential new church planting conference a couple of times in Orlando. There I heard about a church plant coaching network the Presbyterians (PCA) in Atlanta had created. I suggested that we attend a couple of sessions, since there is no support like that in the Lutheran tribe.
Genie and I had left the suburbs of Atlanta for a 100-year-old bungalow in Candler Park near downtown to be close to our daughter and her family. In attending the coaches network in 2009, I met two young pastors who had planted City Church Eastside as a church for creatives on the Eastside of Atlanta only five minutes from my home. Since Florrie and her husband, Kevin Byrd, are both creatives, I suggested she think about City Church. I took her to church there a couple of Sundays and was amazed at the gathering.
In a rental facility with an art gallery they had established, nearly 200 young singles and married couples with young children filled the worship space. The very demographic that is missing from 90% of Lutheran congregations was showing up at City Church. After visiting for a couple of Sundays, I wondered if this might be a sign of life beyond the Lutheran church.
Genie and I returned to Colorado for the summer, and I focused on regaining my strength and listening to God. We spent the whole summer in quiet reflection, a sabbath time while we waited on God. I slowly began to regain strength, walking an hour each day, rebuilding my stamina from the inactivity and the medications I take for my heart. The pain slowly faded away over several months, and I mined the learning. Through this time, I found humility is a painful lesson to learn.
During the summer, I heard a sermon podcast from Shane Hipps, a young pastor I respect. He was preaching on these verses in Luke 11: 9-13:
So I say to you: Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened. Which of you fathers, if your son asks for a fish, will give him a snake instead? Or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion? If you then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!
Hipps asked the question, “Have you seen times when your prayers were not answered? I know I have.” He went on, “What if, in my prayers, I was asking God to give me a scorpion? Would the Father give it to me? Or would he give a gift he knew would be good for me instead?”
Seeing the health and enthusiasm for discipleship and service I observed at City Church, I began to wonder if I had been praying for a scorpion. I saw none of this enthusiasm among the few young adults I saw in Lutheran churches. If God had granted my prayers to raise up the Transforming Leaders Initiative as a movement across the Lutheran church, I would have committed my life to the vision. One of my Organizational Development professors said to the class of wannabe consultants, “Never work harder than your client.” It was a principle I abandoned as I pursued this work. Where I saw apathy and shallow commitment, I doubled down my efforts. Now, as I got a glimpse of life beyond the Lutheran tribe, I was intrigued.
TAKE A MOMENT Do you see enthusiasm for discipleship in your church? Is the main thing still the main thing in your setting? What would it take to put discipleship in the center of your fellowship?
As we drove back to Atlanta in the fall of 2010, Genie and I realized that our ties to the Lutheran church were frayed beyond repair. When we moved downtown, we had joined the big Cathedral Lutheran church near us. Although I found a chance to lead in informal ways there, there were too many refugees from my old church passing around the word that I could not be trusted. I had brought great pain into their lives during my early work to transform Apostles, and several had moved into leadership at Redeemer, the downtown church. Like most Lutheran churches, discipleship had been lost at Redeemer, and trying to revive it was a challenge beyond me.
As long as I was building the Transforming Leaders Initiative within the Lutheran tribe, I felt constrained to stay connected to the Lutheran church, even if I could not find a healthy one. Now that we had abandoned long-range plans for the TLI, I felt the shackles holding us to the Lutheran church were loosening. We returned to Atlanta feeling called to the City Church Eastside community.
I had long meetings with the pastors at Redeemer, laying out what I was hearing from God. Both of them were supportive, and understood why I needed to go. During my time doing leadership work with our Lutheran Synod, my partner and I were named to Synod Staff (without pay of course). So, before I finalized my move beyond the Lutheran church, I also went to see our Bishop. As I laid out things for him, he blessed my going.
Genie and I returned to Ohio in October 2010 for the second year week long event with our Pilot Class. By then, my heart was already moving beyond the Lutheran tribe. We invited my mentor, Charlotte Roberts, to do a couple of days teaching for the class. She could see how wrung out I had been by the past year. As she probed to find what was bothering me, I laid out the scenario. She looked at Genie and said, “I told Gregg two years ago this thing would never fly.” I could not hear it, even from my wife and my mentor.
Entering my Post-Denominational Phase
Building Discipleship Communities: Where Do We Start?
It's All About Leadership
Building Trust in the Body of Christ
But those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.