Make Things Happen

Tomorrow is the day! Thirty-one-year-old Adam Greenberg has been given a one-day contract with the Florida Marlins, who will be playing the New York Mets in an end-of-the-season baseball game that will not affect the playoffs. But it’s going to be the coolest game of the entire year. You see, Adam Greenberg is the only person in Major League Baseball history to have his career end on the first pitch.

On July 9, 2005, Greenberg made his major league debut with the Chicago Cubs, but in his very first at-bat he was beaned in the head by a 92 mile-per-hour fastball. Adam never made it back to “The Show.” He has bounced around the minors for the last 7 years and was also on the Israeli National team. Greenberg always had a dream to get back to the majors, though.

This summer documentary filmmaker Matt Liston heard about Adam’s story and started an online campaign called “One at Bat,” hoping to enlist as many people as possible to support Adam’s return to the majors for one “at-bat.” Liston’s campaign took off and attracted the attention and advocacy of other professional athletes. Last week the Florida Marlins front office decided to make it happen for Adam. The very team whose pitcher beaned Adam Greenberg 7 years ago has guaranteed him one at-bat.

What fascinated me as much as Adam’s story is Matt Liston’s role. Liston said that he always wanted to play Major League Baseball but knew that he wasn‘t good enough. When he heard about Adam, Matt was determined to make that dream happen for him. Liston figured that his online “One at Bat” campaign had about a 1% chance of being successful but was convinced that if he could attract enough media attention, Adam might be given an opportunity.

This story is not only about baseball and the courage to follow dreams. It’s also about leadership. If I could summarize the essence of leadership in 4 words, I would say, “Leaders make things happen.” Leaders find a way. Adam’s dream wouldn’t have happened without Matt’s leadership in creating a vision, developing a plan, and then executing it.

I’ve discovered over the years that leadership cannot be reduced to a certain style, philosophy, or theology. Leaders cannot be pigeonholed, labeled, or put in a box. Simply put, leaders are able to empower groups of people to accomplish goals that move forward the mission of their organization.

So where were the leaders during the 3-month lockout between the National Football League and the NFL Referees Association? Last Wednesday the NFL finally announced a deal with the Referees Association to increase salaries and improve pension benefits. Admittedly, labor negotiations are extremely complex. Yet NFL owners have never been richer and rake in billions of dollars every year. Why did both sides fail to reach an agreement, leaving pro football games to be officiated with replacement refs from lower division college, high school, and semi-professional ranks?

As the season began, it became clear that the replacement refs were in way over their heads. Their inability to perform at a high level compromised both the safety of players and the integrity of the game. The tipping point came last Monday when a “Hail Mary” Seattle Seahawk pass was deemed a game-winning touchdown when others felt it was a Green Bay Packers interception. The player, coach, and public outcry was so immediate and vehement that the NFL and the referees reached an agreement 2 days later. Where were the leaders to make things happen before everything got ugly?

James Winkler, General Secretary of the General Board of Church and Society, wrote last week in Faith in Action about his uncle, who was an entrepreneur and traveled all around the South selling one thing or another. Jim remembers his father telling him, “Uncle John used to say, ‘There are three kinds of people in the world: those who make things happen, those who watch things happen, and those who stand around and ask, “What happened?”’ I intend to make things happen.”

Likewise, leaders in the church don’t watch things happen. Nor do church leaders ask cluelessly, “What happened?” Leaders in the church make things happen. There is no one certain clergy type that is successful in pastoral ministry. However, all effective clergy have one characteristic in common: they have a passion for making things happen. And all healthy, vital churches have one trait in common: their lay and clergy leaders don’t just talk, they make things happen.

Ten Rules for Making Things Happen in the Church

1. Know your context.

What worked in your 2 point charge in the country probably won’t work in the large downtown church, and what worked in your wealthy suburban church likely won’t work in a struggling inner city mission church. Context determines action. Therefore, analyze your ministry setting well, know your demographics, understand the community around the church, learn about your congregation’s history, and get to know your parishioners. Then develop a ministry plan and make it happen.

2. Make full use of your strengths rather than lament your weaknesses.

Leaders who make things happen build programming and ministry around their own greatest assets and the unique gifts of their staff, lay leaders, and congregation members.

3. Encourage others not to wait for permission.

Leaders who make things happen empower lay persons to discern their passions, develop ministries that fit with their congregation’s mission statement, gather similarly-committed people around them, and go for it!

4. Be flexible but always follow through.

Leaders and churches that make things happen are adept at adapting plans on the fly. They are invested in outcomes, not in following the letter of the law. “Whatever works” is their mantra. Such leaders and churches are agile and able to change direction at a moment’s notice.

5. Be alert and find clues everywhere.

Great leaders read widely, spend time in God’s world, and make room for prayer, Bible study, and discernment. They seek wisdom from secular organizations, observe the work habits of leaders who produce, and pick the brains of those who are successful in their jobs. The church has much to learn from the world about how to make things happen.

6. Surround yourself with people who are much more gifted than you are and trust their instincts.

Excellent leaders align their ministry with God’s mission and are acutely aware that they can do nothing apart from God. They focus their energy on equipping others to realize their potential by deep and generous listening, offering space for vision and creativity to emerge from chaos, and selflessly giving others credit. Leaders understand that in Christian community our collective gifts create a mysterious synergy that unleashes the power of the Holy Spirit.

7. Light a fire in others by your presence and example.

Leaders who make things happen are connected with and present to their constituents. They are totally invested in the mission of the church and will do whatever it takes to get the job done. Because their inner and outer lives are integrated, they inspire by example.

8. Accept feedback graciously.

Leaders who make things happen seek continuous improvement, regulate their emotions, don’t waste time being defensive, and are eager to enhance their effectiveness.

9. Make sure everyone has “one at-bat.”

Leaders who make things happen understand that every individual is important, unique, and essential for the church to function at its highest level as the body of Christ. Inclusivity at every level of congregational life creates a highly effective community of disciples who demonstrate the fullness of the kingdom of God.

10. Don’t give up the dream.

Adam Greenberg will have his one at-bat tomorrow because he never gave up his dream. Greenberg lit a fire in Matt Liston, Liston lit a fire in thousands of fans, and those fans lit a fire in the Florida Marlins to make it happen. Greenberg doesn’t see his one at-bat as a mere gimmick and hopes this might be a springboard for a major league career. But even if it never happens, Greenberg knows that it will be enough to have that one at-bat.

Leaders and vital churches make things happen. How will you light the fire?




A Quacker’s View of the Church

“Is it a bus? Is it a truck? Is it a boat? It’s more fun than all 3!” A few weeks ago Gary and I and our oldest daughter “rode the duck,” which is one of the hottest attractions in Seattle. The Duck is modeled after a World War 2 amphibious landing craft and is like a duck in that it can travel on both land and sea.

Gary and I don’t usually go in for touristy stuff when we vacation. I prefer hiking all day in the mountains while Gary would be quite content reading a good book in a local coffeehouse. Alas, the quack of the Duck beckoned, and we had a blast. Actually, I enjoy observing organizations who are excellent at what they do and employees who exhibit a passion for their job because those learnings can often be applied to the church.

Ride the Ducks can be found in a number of cities around the world. The purpose of their 90 minute tours is to give customers a unique view of the city and share interesting information by riding the roads as well as traversing the waters.

The key to the success of Ride the Ducks depends on the humor and personality of the driver, audience participation, and the novelty of the “Duck” itself. Our driver Bjorn was a stand-up comedian who had an amazing amount of energy and cracked one joke after another. I knew we were in for a crazy experience when Bjorn encouraged the passengers to blow quackers (duck whistles: only $2.25) and offered to sell us an aspirin ($50 each) in order to mitigate the annoying effect of the non-stop quacking noise.

Bjorn was quick to keep us sleepless in Seattle through his folksy monologues interspersed with a diverse selection of popular songs conducive to clapping, swaying, and singing along. He even encouraged us to interact with pedestrians and other drivers as we buzzed through the city streets.

Most of all, Ride the Ducks capitalizes on its primary asset, which is transforming bus drivers into sea captains. We drove right into Union Lake and went on a mini cruise around the Seattle basin alongside kayaks, sailboats, floatplanes, motorboats, and houseboats. Seeing Seattle from the water gave us a different perspective, as all the puzzle parts of this unique city came together.

It seemed only natural to compare our Duck experience to the church. Why is Ride the Ducks hugely popular, with people waiting hours for their ride, while most of our churches sit half empty on Sunday morning? It’s because Ride the Ducks has found the secret to the 3 critical questions that every organization seeking to be profitable/successful needs to consider.

What is our mission and how will we fulfill it?

The mission of Ride the Ducks is to provide sightseeing fun from a duck’s eye view. Every aspect of Ride the Ducks is intended to align with that mission. Customer service is prompt and courteous. Ride the Ducks is brilliantly marketed throughout the city, and no one can spend any amount of time in Seattle and not know about the Ride the Ducks. Passengers waiting for Ducks are well organized by staff members who fire up their anticipation by using quackers. The tour blends historical information, unusual facts, catchy music, and crazy jokes to heighten the anticipation of seeing buses morph into boats.

Carefully crafted mission statements are just as important for churches as for secular organizations. Congregations whose ministries and goals align directly with their formal mission statement know who they are, offer compelling worship and outreach, and invite members and guests alike into a transformative experience with God. They develop a marketing plan, are intentional about an online presence, and follow through with guests.

On the other hand, congregations that don’t bother to prayerfully think through God’s unique mission for them often have ministries that are unfocused, scattered, and lack accountability. Worship is described as boring, is geared toward insiders, and does not foster spiritual growth or community. Marketing is dismissed as unnecessary, and sleepiness is common. Is your church crystal clear about its mission?

How do we best serve our constituents?

Ride the Ducks would not remain in business if it did not connect with its customers. Ride the Ducks has created an experience that allows riders to see the sights in a city in a unique vehicle with an engaging “shtick.” People flock to the ride because of the Duck itself, the deliberate appeal to all ages, the catchy music, and especially the persona of the driver.

Can anyone drive for Ride the Ducks? Of course not. I’d be a terrible driver because I don’t have the right stuff. I am not a full blown extrovert, comedian, and non-stop talker. Drivers are chosen by their ability to engage with their customers and are carefully trained.

The church is also charged to serve its constituents, not just church members. Our constituents are those who have not made a formal commitment to the church but are nevertheless connected to us. They may have relatives in the church, live near the church, or come only on Easter and Christmas Eve. They may even call themselves “spiritual” and not “religious” but still consider us their church home. As John Wesley reminded us, “The world is our parish.”

Just as the Duck is the centerpiece of Ride the Ducks, worship is a primary portal to the church. Vital worship offers a life-changing encounter with God, self, and community through preaching, music, movement, and the dramatic and visual arts. By using scripture, current events, and contemporary stories to help people understand their own stories in relation to God’s story, the preacher speaks the language of both God and the people, and a new identity is created.

The persona of the pastor cannot be underestimated, for people feed off the energy of their leaders. Unlike Ride the Duck drivers, however, preachers have to present a new shtick every week. In addition, effective clergy do not demonstrate one specific personality, but formal training and wise discernment of gifts is essential.

How do we know that we’re fulfilling our mission?

Ride the Ducks succeeds when customers have a good time, are satisfied that the experience was a great value cost-wise, and become quackers themselves. They recommend the ride to their friends, which, in turn, generates more business and profits.

In The United Methodist Church success is not so easily measured. We’ve become obsessed of late with numbers, primarily because almost all measureable statistical categories continue to decline. Although numbers do reflect health and vitality in congregations, holistic growth also includes spiritual formation and personal transformation, outreach to the local community and the world, a passion to quack the good news and make disciples, and a good dose of humor!

That’s where the Ride the Ducks and The United Methodist Church make odd bedfellows. The genius of Ride the Ducks lies in the ability of the vehicle itself to transform from a bus to a boat. The juxtaposition of 2 seemingly disparate modes of transportation both delights and amazes. Likewise, the genius of our Wesleyan heritage lies in John’s Wesley’s unique perspective on the Christian faith and open embrace of complementary opposites in his theology: social and personal holiness, faith and works, grace and sin, acts of mercy and acts of piety, freedom and responsibility, weakness and strength, inclusive and exclusive.

We know that we are fulfilling our mission in the church when:

• Members as well as constituents are transformed through engagement with the Bible and a challenging theology that gives us the freedom to become who God created us to be

• Worship, outreach, mission, community, and study inspire us to deepen our spiritual lives and prompt us to live out our faith wherever we are

• We can’t wait to become “quackers” ourselves and invite others into relationship with Jesus Christ

Is it God the Creator? Is it Jesus the Redeemer? Is it the Holy Spirit, the Sustainer? It’s more fun than all 3! Quack if you love the church!