I returned to Atlanta after my final Transforming Leaders Initiative retreat in October of 2010 and realized I was all but done with the TLI. We had designed the rest of the curriculum. We informed the class that we were not recruiting another class after they finished. I had a minor role in the final retreat, and my energy was gone. The project would continue for two more years, but I felt less and less inclined to continue the journey.
I later heard Mike Breen at a 3DM Conference say, "The church needs both pioneers and settlers. Sadly, the denominational church has distilled most of their pioneers off into para-church organizations." Looking back, I had finally exhausted myself as a prophetic voice calling for deep change in the Lutheran Tribe. The TLI itself was a para-church organization needed because the institution did not have the energy or leadership to do this work for itself. I was at the final step of being distilled off as a pioneer myself.
Since we were no longer trying to sustain this leadership work in the Lutheran tribe, we entered into the City Church Eastside community. Genie and I began worshiping there, and Florrie and Kevin were coming with Annabelle. For Genie, being back at church with our daughter and granddaughter was a dream come true. I joined a Spiritual Formation Group to be discipled with five other men. The thing that attracted me most was the sense of City Church being a healthy, thriving community of young adults committed to each other and to discipleship. We decided to drop anchor and join.
The frustrations, betrayals, unmet commitments, and unyielding culture of traditionalism of the Lutherans proved to create structural obstacles that I nearly destroyed my health trying to breach. In early November, I wrote a piece called Entering my Post-Denominational Phase. In it, I described some of what I had experienced in my walk through a declining institutional church, and made a public statement of leaving the Lutheran tribe. Posting this piece provided the final break with the vision I had planted. The board reacted defensively to the post. I realized that it would be inappropriate for me to continue, given the financing the TLI received from the institutional church. So I resigned my position, in a rather inelegant way, and said goodbye to the participants of our pilot class.
I’ve learned that our legacy is often determined by the way we leave an organization. Leave well, and they remember all the good things that came during your tenure. If you leave badly, that’s what people remember. I found in this venture, leaving well was a challenge. I did not realize until after I posted my screed that in effect I had resigned already. So, I handled the process poorly, and left some hurt feelings in my wake despite my desire and intention to leave well.
TAKE A MOMENT Have you ever regretted the way you left a job or a relationship? Do you care about your legacy and how you will be remembered? If you are contemplating changing jobs or ending a relationship, what would it look like for you to leave well?
For the rest of the fall, I focused on integrating myself into the City Church Eastside community, building relationships and serving as needs arose. I was decompressing from the strain of the previous year and the toll it had taken on my health. I got serious about writing this book and started a blog as an outlet for my writing and photography.
In early November, I went off to my annual Christian businessmen’s retreat for a weekend of reflection with my old friends and mentors. We always spend several hours in silent contemplation on Saturday afternoon. As I usually do, I walked around the lake at the hunting lodge where we meet.
As I spent this time in silent meditation and prayer, I felt a pain pressing on my chest. My first thought was the heart condition I had developed in the last year. But it didn't feel the same. As I explored the visceral feeling weighing on my chest, I suddenly realized that I was walking around with a broken heart. This five-year journey through the Lutheran church had broken my heart. I was walking on the very trail that had inspired the name of this book, the faint path around the lake. I stopped and literally let the pain of the last five years well up in my heart.
I remembered a Rob Bell sermon in which he likened forgiving and being forgiven to breathing in and out. You can’t survive unless you both breathe in God’s forgiveness and breathe out your own forgiveness of others. As the pain coursed through my heart, I began to take deep breaths. I let go of all that had given me pain and breathed out forgiveness of those around me. I breathed in God’s forgiveness for my own stubborn insistence on propping up the idea that I could actually prove myself worthy. As I continued this for a couple of minutes, the pain left me, and a huge sense of relief and exhaustion settled in its place.
TAKE A MOMENT How well are you able to process the pain in your life? How do you process your emotions? There is a continuum between denying your pain and wallowing in it. Both ends are unhealthy. Can you let go of the pain and forgive your transgressor, even if they are not contrite? How did it feel when you let go of resentment and forgave?
I returned to Atlanta to a fall of quiet reflection. After abruptly letting go of the project I had envisioned and felt called to create, I was once again peering into a fog ahead, unsure of my next steps. As we entered deeper into the City Church community, doors slowly began to open. I found myself in the company of people half my age. My daughter, son-in-law and granddaughter were part of City Church, and folks celebrated us as the first three-generation family in the fellowship.
I began having lunch with the men in my spiritual formation group, listening to their stories. I found myself offering insights as these young men shared their stories, both in our group time and one-on-one. My years of training in structural consulting enables me to ask questions that probe deeply. I got to know more of the men at City Church through an informal practice of getting together one night for a beer on the week we didn't meet for group. I was beginning to forge friendships in our new church community.
For 10 years, I had pursued a vision to equip young leaders for the Kingdom, and I mostly found myself frustrated. The major role I had played thus far was as a prophetic voice to the institutional church, calling it back to discipleship and its Reformation roots. Now I found myself in one of the new expressions of the church, a discipleship community that is connecting with young people and bringing them into relationship with Christ.
When I left the business world at age 48, I felt I had to do something big with my life. I had walked away from a six-figure salary and the comforts and security money provides. In the wake of my departure the business had failed. I needed to do something big to justify my move.
Because of this obsession, I had made the TLI project about myself. It had to reflect well on me, so I could move to a larger stage and have greater influence. My motives had subconsciously strayed, and God was not interested in making me feel better about myself.
TAKE A MOMENT Do you have something to prove in this world? Do you feel you are hiding inadequacies? Whose approval are you seeking? Seeking to do those things that please God will anger many in the world. Will you suffer the disapproval of friends and family to choose God's path?
We spent a quiet couple of months in Colorado that winter, as I regained my health and strength. We skied and snowshoed in the woods around the cabin and enjoyed time with children and grandchildren. It dawned on me that, for the first time in my life, I had no big ambitions for the future. The pain of the last year brought with it some well-needed humility.
A few times that winter, the phone rang, and it was one of my new City Church friends, calling to talk something over. It began to dawn on me that the people at City Church were the very people I felt called to serve. As I meditated on these matters, I began to feel a sense of call emerging to wade deeper into City Church, seeking to utilize my gifts in this new church home of ours. The idea of moving out of my role as a prophetic voice to the Lutheran tribe and moving into the Apostolic movement of church planting in my native Atlanta was very energizing.
I began to count the relationships I had formed during my 10 years of working in the Lutheran church, and I found myself thankful to have these people in my life. I got to work closely with my mentor Charlotte Roberts for a couple of years on the Board. I met my spiritual director, Mark Ritchie, who has become a wonderful source of wisdom for me. I also met Steve Cockram, Mike Breen’s partner in 3D Ministries. Steve and I had been in touch for a couple of years, comparing notes on the similar nature of our vision and ventures.
Steve moved from acquaintance to friend when he was there for me during my darkest times of pain and struggle. One phone call was particularly meaningful. Steve told me, “When I met Mike Breen, I had just experienced the biggest ministry failure in my life.” He went on, “I’m going to tell you what Mike told me then. ‘Die to this well, my friend, and God will raise out of the ashes something more than you could ever have hoped for.’” Then he added the cautionary note, “The trouble with crucifixion is that it's public, and it's humiliating. So die to it well, my friend.”
TAKE A MOMENT Is there something in your life that God is calling you to die to? Are you putting your trust in Him, or in your career, your 401K, your stock options, your business?
After saying my goodbyes to the Lutheran church during the fall, I now felt completely released from it. I had taken a new fork in the faint path, and a new day was dawning. In late January of 2011 I attended a workshop in Dallas called the Halftime Institute. Bob Buford, founder of Halftime and Leadership Network, spent two days with a small group of men, challenging us to look in, look out and look up.
“What will you do about Jesus," he asked, and “What will you do with what Jesus gave you to work with?” Bob serves as a catalyst for leaders. When Buford started Leadership Network, there were 400 mega-churches; now, there are more than 7,000. For 25 years Leadership Network has been bringing together effective church leaders and helping them learn from each other. Then, they publish all their findings for the rest of us to use.
Buford shared a principle that I find quite beautiful: “The fruit of my work grows on other people’s trees.” He also shared his top 10 values. I will just share four, because they would have saved me much heartache if I had adopted them as design principles 10 years ago.
The first principle is, "work with the willing." The way Buford puts it is, “Work only with the receptive and only on what’s trying to happen.” This principle alone would have put me on the off ramp from my work in the Lutheran church after about two years. It was obvious to me fairly early on that most of those in the institutional church didn't believe a project to equip pastors as leaders could be led by a lay person.
TAKE A MOMENT What would it look like if you focused on working with the willing? Would you be more open to sharing your faith if you realized you were only called to share with those who are willing--those who are open to hear? Who comes to mind?
Sadly, frustration is common when seeking a move from success to significance. It’s strange that the Lutheran church, the home of Luther’s dictum, the Priesthood of All Believers, wouldn't know what to do with a lay person with a calling. My experience is a fairly common one, and if I had come o the Halftime Institute sooner, I would have known that. Instead, I pushed onward for several years trying to bring something to life that could never reach sustainability. Ever tried to push a rope?
Bob’s second principle is, "build on islands of health and strength." While this one might seem obvious, I struggled with it as well. Since my network of friends and acquaintances were in the Lutheran church, it was the path of least resistance as I began to live out my call.
But the institutional church is too busy dealing with its own problems. Less than 10 percent of ELCA Lutheran churches have added even a single person to average worship in five years. There are few islands of health and strength to build on in the Lutheran church, yet I persisted. We found a number of interested young leaders, but most of them were posted in small, traditional churches that were on plateau or declining--not exactly islands of health.
TAKE A MOMENT In leadership, why is it best to build on islands of health and strength? Think of a time when you worked with an insecure person in a leadership position. How did it work out? What would change in your life if you focused on encouraging and equipping healthy, secure leaders?
Another design principle that I ignored was to make low-cost probes. Buford recommends low-cost probes as a way to see if you are a good fit for an organization and its mission before you invest too much time, energy and money in it. Start with small commitments of time and resources and see how well your gifts and skills can impact the mission. I was fully committed from the beginning, and perservered far too long.
As I got clarity around my calling to equip young leaders for the kingdom, I began looking around for partners, because my executive MBA had taught me that I'm best when collaborating with a team. So I set out to find who else God was calling to this venture. My path of least resistance was through the network I had built in the Lutheran church, so there I ventured.
But I often found myself the odd man out. My friend, Pastor Mike Foss, once told me, “Gregg, the problem is you're an entrepreneur, and you won’t find many entrepreneurs among Lutheran pastors. They don’t understand your way of thinking, your risk-taking, and that’s why you have trouble working in these circles.” I realize now how true those words were. Since entrepreneur are also pioneers, this resonated with what the earlier quote from Mike Breen.
I came away from the Halftime Institute committed to working with entrepreneurs, both in the church and secular world. No longer will I engage in institutional structures that neither equip nor empower people to lead.
Had I started out with these four design principles, I would have figured out pretty quickly that the venture I chose wasn't a good fit, and I would have abandoned the effort. Because of my lack of clarity, I spent years trying to push a boulder up a mountain.
Don’t get me wrong--there were valuable lessons in this journey. God strengthened me, affirmed my perseverance, taught me humility, and brought me into relationship with many wonderful Christ-followers. Buford’s advice and the Halftime counsel are born out of struggles like mine, and the Halftime Institute helps people learn from the experiences of others further along on the journey. They are sharing valuable lessons.
When we returned to Atlanta in the spring, my sense of calling to City Church was strong. I told the pastors I still considered myself a Lutheran, albeit a Reformation Lutheran, and that I did not have any desire to join another denomination. I just wanted to be a part of a healthy Body of Christ. We went through the Membership process and joined.
Doors continued to open, and before long, I felt this was a place where I could fully invest my gifts and energy. I spoke with Scott Armstrong, the lead pastor, about my sense of call, and he asked if I’d ever considered being an executive pastor. I was very flattered, but I immediately said no, for two reasons. First, it’s hard to be an executive pastor in my tribe without a seminary degree, and second, I spend half my life in Colorado. He said we could work around the first issue, but the second was a challenge.
TAKE A MOMENT What would it look like if you could fully invest your gifts and energy in your church? In your career? What would change?
Instead, I made an offer to take on a role on the City Church team, helping with strategy and leadership development. I’ve learned that splitting my time between Boulder and Atlanta precludes most formal leadership roles. I’m mostly focused on influence these days, and not positions of power. The only real authority I aspire to is spiritual authority, as a child of God, one of His representatives on Earth, an heir to the Kingdom.
Something significant has changed within me as I've awakened to a time when I have no great ambitions. I have no great plans. Instead, I enter into each day wondering what God is up to, and whom He'll bring across my path today. I created significant bandwidth in my life, and I saw an opportunity to commit myself to the mission and vision of City Church and create a role for myself there.
TAKE A MOMENT Johnny Appleseed kept pushing into the wilderness, planting apple trees, while never tasting of the fruit of his work. If God calls you into seasons of planting and watering without being able to see the results, are you OK with that? Do you need to be recognized for your service? Why?
Through the spring, I engaged with the City Church pastors to define a role. We decided to announce my staff role at the fall Vision Dinner. At the same time, I was taking every opportunity to meet with the people who wanted a bit of my time. Through this informal process of building relationships with the people there, I found myself getting referrals. People started coming up to me after worship, asking for a chance to have coffee or lunch and talk.
Young entrepreneurs wanted to talk business strategy. Others wanted to talk career. I taught a course in the spring called Life Keys. It is meant to help people understanding themselves better, so they can discover some calling in their lives. This course starts people on a journey, but it takes time to come to clarity about things like values and passions. So the course opened more doors for further talk.
For four years, I studied structural consulting with Robert Fritz. While most of the consulting work I've done has been with organizations and churches around visioning and strategy, the most powerful expression of this work is done with individuals, uncovering subconscious structures that are often self-defeating distortions of reality.
Slowly, I have come to a degree of mastery with this work. What I’m finding is that often there are subconscious identity issues that impact our relationship with God and others: negative self-image, feelings of inadequacy, and fear of failure and bad things happening. These issues tend to drive behavior, even when we are not aware of it.
In our spiritual lives, this often translates into works righteousness, the belief that we can gain God's love by the things we do. This drawing illustrates the point. When we are striving to prove ourselves worthy to God (consciously or unconsciously), we are trying to reverse the flow of grace, and we can never be sure God is pleased.
I've shared several examples of how my own “not good enough” structure caused me pain and led me off the faint path. Now I'm helping others discover these things about themselves. When we bring these structures into the light, they lose much of their power. As I’ve shown in my own life, we don’t just die to these things once.
TAKE A MOMENT Are you struggling with identity issues? Are you able to experience the peace and rest Jesus promises, or are you constantly striving, stressed, pushing too hard? Can you imagine being still and letting Jesus’ peace wash over you? Can you find healthy rhythms of work and rest?
I was really starting to believe that I was where God wanted me to be. I came across a fitting quote in my Renovare study Bible recently. It read, “God wants to pour out buckets of grace on you. You just have to make sure you are standing where he is pouring.”
In September of 2011, I joined the City Church staff under the title Missional Development Strategist. I find my calendar filling up with appointments for life coaching sessions and structural conversations. I’m meeting with leaders to help them map strategy for their neighborhood-based missional communities. I’m working with the pastors to refine vision and strategy as we move toward planting more City Church sites around Atlanta. Scott Armstrong, our Lead Pastor, tells people, “Whenever Gregg’s around, strategery happens.” It’s a new word, but I like it.
In May, 2012, Genie and I hosted a men's leadership retreat at our Colorado cabin with our three pastors and ten laymen. At the retreat, we began to unpack a vision of planting ten churches, like a string of pearls, around the beltline of Atlanta in the next two decades. Now, I can be part of building the leadership pipeline that, by God's grace, will make this possible.
Out of my own broken efforts, God has opened doors to a more fulfilling life than I could ever have imagined. To do the work I feel called to do with high-potential young professionals and entrepreneurs who all live within 15 minutes of my house is a dream come true.
I have spent two decades studying what makes churches thrive and 10 years consulting, teaching, coaching and visioning in congregations hoping to move to a place of health. Sadly, the amount of change necessary to move from plateau or decline to thriving once again is too steep a price for all but a few to pay.
In the last decade, the Spirit has planted a vision in my heart of what a disciple-making Body of Christ looks like. But I've often wondered if I'd ever get to live in the kind of healthy Body of Christ I could envision. If I had continued to look for it within the Lutheran church, I'm not sure I ever would have found it. Once I entered my post-denominational phase, I found something very close to what I'd been seeking right in my own neighborhood.
In the early months after I left the TLI, I bemoaned the fact that I'd spent five years in what seemed like a fruitless pursuit. But I realize now that although the vision I tried to create never achieved sustainability, I spent a decade planting seeds of discipleship first across the South, then across the country. Someone said to me recently, “Did you know that Johnny Appleseed never tasted the fruit off a single tree he planted?” That kind of service now resonates deeply.
TAKE A MOMENT In Romans, Paul says, “Everything works to the good for those who love the Lord.” Can you see the wisdom and learning in the painful experiences in your life? Are you glad for the life lessons that came from the pain? Does that allow you to endure times of pain with more grace, knowing God will use it for good?
I’ve also made wonderful friends who continue to be in my life. I’ve learned valuable lessons through the pain I’ve encountered. And I now realize that I wouldn't change a thing. I’m happy for the wisdom that has come through seeking and finding God’s faint path. Humility was long overdue. Fifteen years ago, I set my sights on the goal of becoming a wise leader. Now, I would modify that slightly. I no longer seek formal leadership roles; I now aspire to become a wise elder. Having turned 60, I’m becoming comfortable with the term. I’ve also adopted Bob Buford’s saying, “The fruit of my work grows on other people’s trees.”
Does your identity limit spiritual growth
Halftime Institute: Find Significance
Leaving well is always a challenge
Healing broken hearts: lessons from the faint path
Person of Peace (more on Work with the Willing)
Discover who you are with Life Keys