Whether you turn to the right or to the left, your ears will hear a voice behind you, saying, "This is the way; walk in it." -Isaiah 30:21
According to the Eastern spirituality of my friend Harvey Cheatham, in our first 25 years of a person’s life we are described as the Student, when we learn the skills that will allow us to make our way in this world. The second 25 years are the Householder phase, when we marry, have a family, and pour ourselves into our profession or business.
By age 50, as your children become adults, you have the opportunity to enter into the Forest Dweller phase. In that time, you sell your possessions, give your children their inheritance, and go into the forest to contemplate life with God. Out of this time emerges a sense of calling, and the rest of your life is offered in service, living out that calling. With the sale of my business, I was ready for the next phase. I called it Life 2.0.
I had spent five years preparing for this new start. I had completed my executive MBA and was considering pursuing a PhD in Transformational Leadership. I had one design principle for my second life: Follow the energy. Early on, I described this as doing more of what energized me, and less of what drained energy away. Later, I would think in terms of life-giving vs. life-draining. The years I spent discerning energy flows had shown me certain things.
TAKE A MOMENT If you had a design principle of following the energy, doing more of what is life-giving, and less of what is life-draining, what would you do more of, and what would you quit doing?
My work with young people at our company showed me that part of my calling was equipping young leaders. I had developed some skills as a public speaker and teacher, and I saw these abilities as part of the emerging plan as well.
I knew consultants who lived by selling their ideas. Having spent my life in sales, I was particularly attracted to consulting, because you can sell the same idea over and over. Having spent my life with huge inventories of rusting tractors and parts, I liked the idea of building a virtual inventory that cost nothing to keep and could be sold more than once. I was beginning to see the seeds of a calling emerge in my life, like shapes in the mist.
While I was working through the transition at the company, I enrolled in two more courses in Leadership and Organizational Development at GSU, to decide if I really wanted to go for the PhD. That spring, I also made my first trip to Vermont to take a course taught by Robert Fritz called Fundamentals of Structural Thinking. Fritz was an early partner of Peter Senge’s, and Charlotte Roberts had given me his book, The Path of Least Resistance, which I finally got around to reading after completing my EMBA.
The four days in Vermont were life-changing for me. I realized that I had been living my life out of obligation. I had felt compelled to follow my father into the family business. With marriage and family, I chose an obligation to provide a safe home and a good education for my children. Dreams got put off.
In becoming a Christian, I felt obligated to do things for God. Fritz helped me see that obligation is an unhealthy motive for anything, and that we as human beings are free to choose. I drove away from that four-day event feeling incredible. I was no longer going to live my life out of obligation. From now on, I would do what I did because I chose to, not because I felt obligated.
I had reared my kids and seen them off to college. I had far outstripped the business accomplishments of my father, and with the sale of the business, secured the family’s finances. Genie and I were walking into a new day untethered by the bonds of the past. I realized that the last time I felt this way was on my Cursillo weekend in 1982, when I first truly experienced forgiveness.
As I looked back at my attempts to effect change at Apostles, I realized that much of the pain I left in my wake came out of a misplaced obligation to prove myself worthy to God. I was not willing to accept that the people there were free to say no to transformation. I came to realize that plateaued and dying churches are free to pursue their path, even if it leads to death. When others try to obligate us, we, by our very nature, push back. When we try to obligate others, they too resist. This is why change is so fraught with peril in church.
TAKE A MOMENT What is the motivation for your service to God and others? Do you feel a sense of obligation or are you coming from a place of responding with gratitude to the grace God has shown?
I learned more in four days with Robert Fritz than I had in two semester-long masters leadership courses. I decided to forgo the PhD and to continue my studies with Fritz. I came back and took an Organizational Structural Consulting course that spring and signed up for a two-year course of study Fritz called the Structural Consulting Certification Program, to begin in 2001. Two years later, I was certified as an Organizational Structural Consultant.
I was still at Apostles, and I stepped into the role of Council President at the beginning of 2000. Things were still coming to a head as I focused on dealing with long-simmering conflict in hopes of moving towards health and new life. Pressure continued to build all year in the church. By the fall, the senior pastor announced her retirement, which also took out my friend, associate pastor Ted Coleman, who had a co-terminus call. He had to resign if she did, to clear the deck for a new leader to build a new team.
After I departed the business in June, Genie and I embarked on some long-deferred travel. We went to Norway for two weeks to visit one of my EMBA teammates and her husband. In September, we went to Australia. We had a great time at the Atlanta Olympics, and had been wanting to visit Australia for many years. So we were off to the Sydney Games. After 10 days at the Olympics, we spent another three weeks touring Melbourne, Adelaide, the Outback and the Great Barrier Reef, before spending a week in New Zealand and a week in Tahiti. We had experienced what they call a “liquidity event” and were spending money like water.
In March, 2000 we bought land and began plans to build a log cabin in the mountains above Boulder, Colorado. We had been dreaming of a log home for 20 years. In 1980, we couldn’t even afford $2,000 for an acre in north Georgia. Now, we bought 40 acres surrounded by national forest, looking at the Continental Divide, and our dream turned into a vision.
Still, I knew there must be more to the plan. For 20 years I’d been asking God to show me the way. Now my prayers went something like this: “God, in the Scripture you promise that you have a plan for my life. If that’s true, then surely you would have prepared me through the gifts you’ve given me and the experiences you’ve led me through. What is it you would draw out of my gifts and life experiences? What is the calling that’s nested within?” As I slowed down and spent more time with God in meditation and prayer, a picture began to emerge, like shapes in the mist.
I also began to understand a simple but profound truth. It’s not about me. Even though I had left my profession, my business and career at age 48, I still felt that there was something big for me to accomplish. (This was still motivated by the need to prove myself.) But, in my times of prayer, I said to God, “I know I think I am capable of doing grand things, but if you want no more of me than to stay and work in my local church, then that’s what I’ll do, because it’s not about what I want.” Since then, I have seen many people in church who never seemed to reach the point of understanding ‘it’s not about me.’
TAKE A MOMENT In what parts of your life do you feel God nudging you? Are there shapes in the mist that you are being drawn towards? What would a calling look like in your life?
In my business years, I had gotten to know Mike Marks with Indian River Consulting. He was the hottest consultant in industrial distribution. I went to Florida that summer to spend a day with Mike after he invited me to become a partner in his firm. It was an exciting prospect -- I’d be able to work when I wanted to and still make good money. When I returned to Colorado and talked it over with Genie, I realized that the energy wasn’t there. I was in the wonderful position of not having to look for a job, so I decided to wait and continue my discernment.
My friends at Georgia State offered me a teaching position at the business school, but by then we had established a rhythm of spending spring and fall in Atlanta and summer and winter in Colorado. Teaching would cramp that style. So I waited.
As I continued to pray over God’s calling for my life, an image emerged. I began to see myself standing with one foot in the world of marketplace leadership and one foot in the Kingdom. I felt God calling me to be a conduit between the world of secular leadership and the void in church leadership that was evident to me. My experience at Apostles had helped me understand that you cannot have a healthy church without a healthy leader. And the call process had made me see that few pastors are natural leaders. Most are chaplains who lack the desire or the tools to cast a vision, equip and empower other leaders, or lead healthy change. Leadership is the leverage that’s needed to effect transformation in the church. I began to feel God was preparing me to equip leaders for the Kingdom.
As God showed me more of the picture, what had been shapes in the mist began to come together like puzzle pieces. I realized God had me spend 25 years learning management and leadership in the business world so that I could bring my learning into the church. As I wandered through the spiritual desert for all those years, wondering why God was so quiet, He was preparing me for my call.
TAKE A MOMENT How has God used times of waiting to shape and mold your character? My friend Mike Foss says, “God and I rarely argue about what needs to happen. Most of our disagreements are about the timing.” Are you struggling with God’s timing in your life? Is there something you need to learn before you can move forward?
As I studied with Robert Fritz, I began to wonder how I might act on this call emerging in my life. After blowing up Apostles, I was a bit of a controversial figure around the synod, so I knew they wouldn’t turn to me for help equipping Lutheran pastors as leaders.
Al Sagar, who had retired from a career in academia to move South to be near his grandchildren, had been appointed to spearhead a new effort to build a Lutheran leadership academy in the Southeast. I introduced myself to Al, and after getting to know him, volunteered to help him build what we soon named the Academy for Transformational Leadership in Atlanta. While the bishop said the academy was one of his top priorities, he offered no budget support for our work.
TAKE A MOMENT In your life, have you arranged your financial resources so they are supporting that which is most important to you? Are you spending your money and your time on that which you name as your highest values in life? How would you life change if you moved in that way?
Around this time I had another significant breakthrough. I was at a structural consulting session in Vermont working with another participant. Sessions always begin with the consultant asking the question, “What do you want to talk about?” I responded by saying, “I’m frustrated with my attempts to work with our bishop on leadership.”
The instructor, Fritz’s wife Rosalind, immediately cut in and said, “Gregg, I don’t get frustration here. Let me get this straight. You’ve offered to help the bishop with leadership, correct?” I responded affirmatively. “Is the bishop free to say no?” she asked. “Maybe not,” I responded. “What’s that about?” she asked. “Well,” I told her, “for a long time I thought I was trying to prove myself to my long-dead father. But I think I’m trying to prove myself to God.”
“Is that how your religion works?” was her rejoinder. By then, I was churning inside. She had exposed a mental model that was totally inconsistent with the Lutheran position of Salvation through Grace through Faith. If grace were free, how could I prove myself worthy?
Over the next moments, I realized that beneath the motivation that drove my work and faith was an unhealthy structure where I was trying to prove myself worthy. I was a year past my epiphany, when I had decided I would no longer live my life under obligation, yet I found some hidden wiring that had kept me in that mode without my realizing it.
That session led me into what Rosalind would call a fundamental change of structure. Once these subconscious structures become visible to our conscious mind, they become like an ill-fitting suit of clothes. When you try to put them back on, they don’t feel right. It’s kind of like sin. Just because I recognize sin in my life and ask for forgiveness, it doesn’t mean that I can repent once and be done. Sin creeps back into our lives, and each day we may fall back into it. Unhealthy structures are like that. Once we discover them, they don’t go away. We’re just onto ourselves and can no longer ignore the condition. Once again, I left Vermont feeling free.
Al Sagar and I laid the foundation for the Academy for Transformational Leadership over the next year or so. By mid-2002, we were ready to launch our first event. We made presentations at our Synod Assembly, did a workshop, and publicized our first public event to be held later that year.
The keynote speaker at that event was Rev. Dr. Michael Foss, who at the time was pastoring a Lutheran church of 10,000 in Minneapolis. He had published a book called Power Surge: Six Marks of Discipleship for a Changing Church. His talk reprised the book, contrasting the membership church that emerged in the United States after World War II with the biblical call to build discipleship communities.
He challenged us to practice the six marks of discipleship: weekly worship, daily prayer, daily scripture reading, serving both in and beyond the local church, building relationships that let you share your faith, and giving the tithe. His premise is that if you begin to practice the marks, you will see a power surge of the Holy Spirit in your life like nothing you have ever seen. For over 20 years as a Lutheran, no one had convincingly built a case for me to walk deeply into discipleship. Mike Foss laid the challenge before me, and I was intrigued.
TAKE A MOMENT What does discipleship look like in your life? In your church? Are you making time for the spiritual disciplines? Serving beyond your church? Sharing your faith with others?
I caught up with Mike after the session and asked him if he would collaborate with us on upcoming events for our Academy. Thus began one of the most meaningful relationships of the last 10 years of my life. Mike joined us for several events over the next two years. He also involved us in a national project to create peer coaching circles for pastors in our synod. Later, he joined as a Founding Board member as we built our national offering, the Transforming Leaders Initiative. My personal discipleship journey began as I built intentional time of prayer and study into my life.
As I have committed to living the Marks of Discipleship and moved towards the shapes in the mist, the puzzle pieces have continued to fall into place. “Is this it?” I ask, standing at the precipice, looking for more detail in the shapes. “Are you sure this is where you want me to go?” It’s only after I take a step out in faith that I hear a confirming “yes, My son, this is the way.”
In early 2002 our log cabin in Colorado was complete. Life couldn’t have been better. We traveled when we wanted. Both our children had graduated from university, gotten married and settled into careers. The horizon held endless possibilities. We were living the abundant life that Jesus promises in John 10:10.
And then the phone rang. Our son had gone on a ski trip with an old friend from college. Andy was snowboarding at Whistler when he collided with a tree. We got the phone call as he was being rushed to the hospital. Apparently, he made a last-minute move that kept him from hitting the tree with his head or chest, thank God. However, he had a compound fracture of his lower leg.
Genie flew up early the next morning and sat beside Andy’s hospital bed for the next 15 days. At first, they weren’t sure whether they could save his leg. They set the leg and put in a rod with his first surgery. Then, with extreme swelling, compartment syndrome set in, threatening to kill the nerves in his foot. A second surgery left his calf split open for five days while the swelling subsided. Then, they had to do a skin graft to close it all up.
I learned an important lesson from all this: No matter how well things are going in your life, it could all change in a moment. Another event drove home that point. During our first summer in the cabin, Colorado was in the grip of a two-year drought. Wildfires were breaking out everywhere. Lightning started a fire on our property. Thank God we had painters here who saw the blaze. They happened to be volunteer firefighters and they put out the fire before it could spread. A month later, we watched the Big Elk fire burn thousands of acres 10 miles from the house, killing three firefighters before it was contained. We saw hundred-year-old trees go up like roman candles in a split second. As we looked around at all we had accumulated in the land and the cabin we built, we realized that it could all go up in a puff of smoke tomorrow.
Through these experiences, and my time in the spiritual disciplines, I became aware that a grateful heart was growing within me. I began to realize that all we have in this life is really a gift from God. I had been taking credit for my business success, my gifts and abilities, and my financial security. As I studied the fleeting nature of success, and how quickly happiness can turn to grief, I began to realize that God had given me everything that I was taking credit for in my life.
I had nothing to do with being born the son of an entrepreneur in Atlanta in the time of greatest prosperity ever seen in the world. My intelligence, my health, my ambition, my energy and motivation are all things that God wired into me. If I had been born in other circumstances, my life would have been radically different. Sure, I made choices, and those choices created a path, and that path led to success. But at every step of the way, God has influenced outcomes in my life, even when I was not aware and could not see his hand.
TAKE A MOMENT Has gratitude changed your heart? How would an attitude of gratitude change the way you look at your life and the world?
Penicillin was invented and refined during World War II and was mass-produced as a weapon of war. We could return our troops to the field of battle, and our wounded survived in far greater numbers than did our enemies. In 1952, when I was nine months old, I came down with an infection, and penicillin saved my life. As I continue to reflect back, I realize that God used my father, who in my presence never professed any faith in God, to create the business that allowed me to learn leadership and management, and created the resources that allowed me to walk away at age 48. Now I can see God’s hand where I never could before. Eyes to see.
TAKE A MOMENT Where have you seen God at work in the world this week? How has God used people to touch you, even when they weren’t aware of it? How has God used you to touch others in unexpected ways recently?
It wasn’t long before another life-changing event came our way. In negotiating the sale of the company, we had structured the deal so that we would sell the rental portion of the business but retain the equipment distribution business for my brother to run. The business we retained was significantly leveraged, and the buyers offered us a loan to help close the transaction.
Without the cash flows of the rental business we sold, the equipment business my brother held onto was faltering. The business hit a series of bumps in the road. As big banks continued to merge, our banking relationship suffered. We had done business since 1952 with what had become Bank of America.
After its latest merger, the bank decided it would no longer serve our industry segment. We had a three-year revolving loan. The bank went around to the weaker players in the industry and told them they would not renew the loan. We were in that boat. Six months into that process, 9/11 happened, and the economy froze up. People quit buying major capital goods, and the tractor market died for a while.
What had been promising negotiations to replace our lender turned cold overnight. Nobody wanted to take a risk. When my brother failed to find another lender by the time the loan expired the next spring, our bank pulled the plug, called the loan, and forced the business into bankruptcy.
In our negotiations to sell the business use subordinated debt to keep part of it, the buyer attempted to negotiate a personal guarantee. We refused. Instead, they buried a clause in the closing paperwork that would hold us liable for any negative occurrence. That paperwork stretched out over 20 feet in vertical files on a conference table. Our attorneys somehow overlooked that clause, and the company sued my brother and me personally.
The man we negotiated our deal with was now the president of this public company. I felt that if we could talk to him, he would do the right thing, but every attempt to contact him to clear up the matter was rebuffed.
In the fall of 2003, before we even got to trial, we lost the case in summary judgment. The judge sided with the plaintiffs. My brother and I ended up not just losing the business and all the equity the family put back into it, but we ended up with a $6.5 million judgment against us personally. Our attorneys got concerned at this point, because they knew they were to blame for our predicament. They agreed to take the case to the federal appeals court on their nickel.
Around this time, the Securities and Exchange Commission was bringing cases against public companies for accounting irregularities. We saw some very strange things happen just prior to closing our sale that made me wonder if the public company was cooking their books.
I gave serious thought to asking my GSU accounting professor and a couple of my EMBA teammates to do some forensic accounting of the company. Since the man who negotiated our deal was now both President and CFO, I thought we might turn up something that would cost him his job.
As I prayed about it, I remembered the Old Testament verse, “Vengeance is mine, says the Lord.” I decided I did not want to spend the next year seeking revenge. Holding onto ill will towards others just burns a hole in my gut. So I let the matter go.
TAKE A MOMENT Are you holding a grudge? Have you found that withholding forgiveness and holding onto grievances is poisonous to your heart and your health? Nelson Mandela once said, “Resentment is like drinking poison and then hoping it will kill your enemies"
About three months into this mess, I went into a time of meditation. This lawsuit had rocked our world. Neither my brother nor I had the assets to satisfy the judgment against us. In my prayers I asked, “God, I know you are trying to teach me something through this trial. What is it I need to learn?” It was one of the few times in my life when I heard a clear answer. What came to me in that moment was this message: “Do I have to take it all away from you for you to see that your financial security is not where you should put your trust? You have been blessed in a mighty way. What are you waiting for? Be a blessing.”
I came away resolved to do just that. We moved from a posture of fear and anxiety into one of trusting God. After all, the worst thing that could happen to me is that I would have to go back to work. We shifted into proactive mode. I helped my son start a business, we made several significant investments in ministries, and I continued to pursue my calling.
TAKE A MOMENT How has God spoken into your life during times of great distress? Where do you put your trust? How did you respond to the financial crisis of 2008? Where are you today on the continuum of trust versus worry?
Fast forward a year, and the case slowly moved toward conclusion. Just before Christmas in 2004, I was contacted by the plaintiff. One of the key people I had gotten to know during our sale negotiations called me to ask if we might be interested in settling. He offered to settle the case for $2 million. I went to our attorneys, and they went to their malpractice insurer. They refused to settle, still feeling strong about our appeal. On January 18, 2005, we lost the appeal.
By now I was telling God, “I think I’ve learned this lesson. Would it be OK if we went on to the next one?” We had spent two years dealing with this lawsuit, and I was looking for light at the end of the tunnel.
TAKE A MOMENT How has God used the tests and trials of your life to forge your character? What are you learning from the trials you have encountered in the last year or so? Has the dark night of the soul produced some seeds of wisdom in your life?
Our attorneys then asked me to go back and see if the plaintiffs would still take the $2 million settlement. I went back to the man who had made me the offer and told him were ready to settle. He was quite skeptical, since less than 60 days had passed since we turned down the offer. I told him, “If I were you, I wouldn’t settle for a nickel less than $2.5 million, given the verdict of the appeal.” I was pretty irritated with our attorneys at that point, and we were preparing to sue them for malpractice. At that point, the largest malpractice claim ever won in Georgia against an attorney was $5 million. With interest, our judgment was now over $7 M.
When we lost the appeal, the partner at the law firm who handled our case did the right thing. He told me he would go to the mat to get his partners and the insurance company to participate in a settlement. The matter went back and forth until June. Finally, I got fed up. Our family had set aside $250,000 for the cost of a malpractice case. I told the attorneys that if they agreed to settle by June 30, we would kick our $250K into the settlement. Otherwise, we would drop the offer to settle and launch a $7 million lawsuit for malpractice. On the last day of June, they agreed, and we settled the case.
A year earlier, I had read with interest that the SEC had launched an investigation into the accounting of the company we were fighting. The same week we settled the case, the board of the public company fired the President and CFO for refusing to answer questions about his part in the accounting mess. In late 2009, he plead guilty to charges relating to the case and agreed to a fine of the same amount as the judgment against us and two years in jail. By then, I was no longer angry. I just felt sorry for the man and his family. Vengeance came, without my help.
Apostles continued to be a struggle. The new pastor seemed to have trouble trusting others, and was reluctant to equip and empower. When property next to the church came up for sale, he shifted gears. He’d been telling us that the future of the church was off the campus, in small groups meeting in people’s homes. Now, with this opening, he decided what we needed to do was build a new 300+ seat sanctuary.
At that point, our attendance was below 150. I told the pastor that I could not stand in front of the congregation and recommend such a plan before we had established that we could grow the church. I asked him if he wanted me to resign as Vice President, He said yes. I asked if he wanted me to leave the church, and he said no, but the next few months showed me how uncomfortable he was having us around. It was a time of great anguish for me. The church I loved, that had been so instrumental in my faith formation, was no longer a place where I could live out my calling.
I pored my energy into the Academy. Over three years, we did numerous events, drawing pastors and lay leaders from five states of our Synod. After three years, demand began to drop. We began to realize that no more than 10% of our pastors felt a call to be a missional leader. The role of chaplain was the predominate posture we encountered. In 2004, we launched TransformingChurch.com to reach others feeling the call to missional leadership. By 2005, Al and I had decided to see if we could create a national platform for leadership development, since neither our local churches or our synod were able to use the gifts we were offering.
We got ourselves elected as voting members of the 2005 churchwide convention to begin to network towards that end. In that week, I saw how weak our denomination had become. We voted on a budget that was at the same level as the first year after the denomination was formed in a merger in 1988. I am not talking inflation-adjusted, but the same dollars. The denomination had been in retrenchment mode since its formation. I have seen signs of similar malaise in the other mainline denominations of this country.
Now, a fight was brewing over same-sex clergy. I began to wonder if our denomination was circling the drain. Yet, we ignored the signals, doubled down our investment of time and energy, and began to create the Transforming Leaders Initiative, a three-year learning journey for cohorts of high potential pastors and teams of lay leaders from their local churches. It would be a long and difficult road.
I have always had a bit of an ego, as you probably realize by now. It has been a years-long struggle to get to the point where I understand that this is not about me. Once I was finally able to embrace the idea of doing what God wanted me to do, He began to unfold a plan that is bigger than I ever dreamed.
I am clear that God has the last word in my life. This journey to this place has brought me peace and joy and satisfaction far greater than anything I have ever experienced. Why is it we focus so much on what we might have to give up to follow Jesus? Why don’t we see what there is to gain? How do we live into the abundant life Jesus promises, and help others to see the possibility of abundance in their lives?
My prayer for you is that your life might be a canvas, and God the painter. I pray God might use you to draw people to Christ. May He empower you to unlock His gift in you and those you touch. May you raise up leaders to find their gifts and hear their calling. Equip them and send them out to fulfill what God is calling forth. In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.