Trust: The Essential Leadership Quality During Crisis

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When I was 14 years-old my family drove 265 miles from Whitefish, MT to Spokane, WA to see the movie Jaws. My grandparents lived near Spokane so seeing the movie wasn’t the only reason for our trip, but it’s the only part I remember. When we got to the theater there was a long line and the theater filled before we got in, so we stood in line for the next showing. It was worth it! To this day Jaws is the scariest movie I’ve ever seen. One thing that made the movie scary is that you didn’t see the monster. For much of the movie Jaws was unseen, but terrifying and brutal, attacking unknowing swimmers from the murky depths.

Like the shark in Jaws, Covid-19 is an unseen killer, but unlike Jaws there’s almost no place of safety. “Stay out of the water” and Jaws won’t bite you! But nearly every landmass in the world has reported cases of the virus. As of today, April 30, 210 countries and territories have reported cases of Covid-19. The first death in the U.S. from the virus is believed to be a woman in California on February 6, 2020. Twelve weeks later, 61,867 deaths have been attributed to Covid-19 in the U.S., and 231,415 in the world.

Nothing in our lifetime has challenged leaders on the scale of this killer virus. From the President to governors and mayors and school principals, and from business owners to church pastors to moms and dads, leading through this crisis is excruciatingly difficult.

It’s difficult because we can’t see the killer and define it with precision. It’s difficult because the means of victory are more costly than anything we’ve ever experienced, and we can’t quite agree on what exactly are the proper means. It’s difficult because the solutions, we are told, will be determined by science and data, but it’s not a “pure science.” Shutting down business and church and sports and national parks and staying home in isolation is a primary tactic to fight this enemy. But the science that has determined this as our best, first tactic, creates other problems, and some of them are deadly too. Over 30 million have filed for unemployment in six weeks. Job loss and the inability to pay bills leads to depression, drug and alcohol abuse, abuse in the home, and even suicide. Businesses built over a lifetime are being destroyed. How long do we keep things shut-down, and should stay-at-home orders be applied uniformly across the country or throughout a particular state? The decisions will be determined by science and data, we are told, but who interprets the data and how best do we apply the science? And how do the scientific disciplines of medicine, social science, political and economic sciences, interact as decisions are made?

So, with these leadership difficulties identified, and they are not the only challenges, what is the most important thing a leader can do in such a crisis? Quite simply, leaders must tell the truth. Tell the truth as best as you know it and as completely as you can. Don’t “manage the truth.” Tell the truth. Distort nothing. Be fully transparent. Confess what you don’t know. State what you do you know. Don’t overstate, or understate, just tell the truth. Manipulate no one. Don’t exaggerate things, and don’t try to reassure people by minimizing the situation, either. Lament loss. Acknowledge disaster, even as you express biblical hope. “Rejoice with those who rejoice; weep with those who weep” (Rom. 12:15).

John Barry’s outstanding book, The Great Influenza, tells the story of the 1918 flu pandemic that killed 50 to 100 million people. The book is a thrilling, terrifying account of what happened then and is happening now on a smaller scale. In the Afterword to the 2018 edition Barry writes, “If there is a single dominant lesson from 1918, it’s that governments need to tell the truth in a crisis.” He says, “As horrific as the disease itself was, public officials and the media helped create that terror … by minimizing it, by trying to reassure.” He writes further, “The public could trust nothing and so they knew nothing. Society is, ultimately, based on trust; as trust broke down, people became alienated not only from those in authority, but from each other” (pp. 460f).

Barry is right. Telling the truth, as best we know it, builds trust. Lying, hiding the truth, being dishonest with what you know and don’t know, destroys trust. And when leaders lose trust, they’ve lost the ability to lead. You’ve seen it – a brilliant and gifted person who can’t lead a country, a church, or even their own family because they’re not trusted. Nothing compensates for loss of trust.

What’s true about leadership during a mega-pandemic is true about leadership when the crisis is isolated to one family, or one church, or a large network of churches. Truth-telling, which is necessary to build trust, isn’t just vital for governments, it’s vital at all levels of leadership. Trust is the essential thing a leader must have. Thus, the crisis that is most damaging long-term is not the crisis event itself, but the erosion of trust that can destroy relationships, organizations, and the essence of society and culture.

Here is a worthy prayer: “God protect me from doing things or saying things that erode the trust that others have placed in me. God heal the wounds I inflict when my actions create distrust. God help me be a person you can trust, so that I am worthy of the trust of others.”

Evangelism in an Election Year

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President Clinton was impeached when I was a local church pastor. The issues involved matters of morality that required a response from pastors, on occasion, but doing this in a “non-political way” wasn’t always easy. The Sunday following his impeachment was most memorable. I began my message saying that in the past week someone had done something to our country for which I could never forgive them. “The harm to our country was so great it could not be overlooked,” I said. I could see the congregation bracing themselves for what I would say next. They thought, “Oh no, here it comes!” And then, just when they thought I was about to launch into a political rant, I said, “I will never forgive Michael Jordan for retiring from the NBA!” which was the other “big news story” of the week. That statement prompted the biggest outburst of laughter we ever enjoyed together.

All laughter aside, political issues are always difficult for pastors and churches, and perhaps doubly so in an election year. And when politics intersects with biblical teaching, it often requires a response from pastors. But as important as elections are, and they are important, evangelizing the lost is truly vital. And lest you want to evangelize only Democrats, or only Republicans, I want to suggest some guidelines for our conversations with others, particularly with unbelievers.

First, the Gospel of Jesus Christ must be the supreme message of our lives. When speaking with unbelievers, do not risk offending them and lose any chance of witness by discussing politics. Stick with Jesus as your subject. If we confuse receiving Jesus with adhering to a particular political viewpoint we will destroy our witness to at least half of our neighbors.

Second, God’s ways are not man’s ways. Politics and elections don’t deter or detour Him. There are many biblical examples of God orchestrating the politics exactly the opposite of what believers would have preferred. Nebuchadnezzar and Cyrus were God’s instruments, the Bible says, though they were pagan rulers and wicked men. Contemporary historians say that Chairman Mao Zedong, the atheistic ruler of China for 27 years, who sought to destroy the church, helped to establish the conditions for the explosive church growth that China has experienced in the past 30 years. I read recently that the two countries in which the Church is growing fastest, as a percentage of the population, are Iran and Afghanistan. The article suggested that growth is being accelerated by hardline, Islamic rulers, which are turning people away from Islam and toward the Prince of Peace.

Third, heart transformation is the work of the Holy Spirit. The most important thing we can do for the lost is lead them to Jesus, then teach them to pray and read the Word. If they (or we!) will do these things, the Holy Spirit will transform their (our) minds so that they (we) become more like Jesus. When people come to Jesus their morality and worldview changes. About a year ago one of our Northwest churches led a young couple to Christ who made their living by farming marijuana. The pastor told me that they got very involved in Bible study and were hungry to grow in Christ. By the fall, the couple became convicted that they needed a new line of work. Jesus saved them, forgave them, and He is transforming their hearts and minds. Note that salvation came before transformation.

Fourth, the “world” already regards us politically. The message of the Church to the lost world is too often a political message, and that is a shame. If you ask an unbeliever what a conservative, evangelical Christian is, he will describe them with political language. We have already seen this in the current presidential race as various candidates vie for the “evangelical vote.” It is far better to be known for the ministry we do and the God honoring character we have than the political stand we take, or the candidate we endorse, if we want to have spiritual influence with the lost.

Finally, the true Gospel is cross-cultural and cross-political. It works in every context. The Gospel works in Afghanistan, Ethiopia and the United States. It works in free societies and in those ruled by tyrants. The true Gospel can bring conviction of sin to liberals and conservatives, and both need Jesus.

I once had a professor whose father was a pastor. He said that a man once came to his father asking for spiritual counsel. He visited with the man, and then asked, “Aren’t you a member of such-and-such a church? Isn’t so-and-so your pastor?” The man said that yes, he was correct on both matters. My professor’s father then asked, “Why didn’t you go to your pastor for counsel?” And the man said, “If I needed a golfing tip I would speak with my pastor, but I needed to speak with a man of God.” Ouch!

That is the greatest lesson that professor ever taught me and I’ve never forgotten it. Whether you are a pastor or a layman, the people you know will figure you out. In time they will know what is most important to you. Each of us must decide, is it more important to share our political opinion or to share Christ. Don’t be known as a political preacher or political Sunday school teacher. Better to be known as a lover of Jesus and seeker of lost souls.

Training Up an Adult

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The wise man said, “Train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old, he will not depart from it” (Proverbs 22:6). I would suggest to you that such training begins, and largely ends, at a younger age than many of us would suspect.

When our son Luke was four years-old I tried to coax him into the swimming pool, but to no avail. No reassurance, nothing I said, seemed to work. I couldn’t get him in the pool. Then, moments later, one of his little friends said, “Luke. Come in the pool,” and he jumped right in!

I was reminded of that when I read an article in which Marilyn vos Savant was asked a question about a three-year-old girl who is growing up in England. Her parents are Americans, but the little girl is speaking with a British accent. Vos Savant said that as children begin to socialize with other children they adopt the accent of their peers, not their parents. Isn’t that interesting?

A friend of mine who worked with children for many years once told me that most every significant character attribute of a human being was set by age five. He said, “You give me a child for the first five years and I can teach them self-discipline, respect, trust, love, and how to treat others. But if they don’t learn these things in the first five years, you’re too late. Their basic character and values are set by the time they enter kindergarten.”

However you want to think about it, abundant evidence from many sectors seems to confirm that training up an adult is largely accomplished by the age of five. If a child doesn’t learn how to respect others by age five, good luck on teaching them to respect others when they’re 14. If a child doesn’t learn that she can trust her parents, and God, at an early age, it will be a “tall order” to help them become a trusting adult.

Have you heard of the Stanford marshmallow experiment? Beginning in the 1960s, Stanford University professor Walter Mischel tested five-year-olds on their ability to delay gratification. The children were offered a choice between a small reward provided immediately or two small rewards if they waited for about 15 minutes. The reward was a marshmallow or cookie. In follow-up studies, the researchers found that children who were able to wait longer for the rewards tended to have better life outcomes. SAT scores were higher. Educational attainment was greater. Even the body mass index (BMI) was better for adults who as five-year-olds were able to delay gratification. If a five-year-old is able to delay gratification, they are more apt to have a better life as an adult.

What does this mean for you and me? First, it means that parents must be intentional about teaching their little ones values, disciplines, and basic biblical truths. If we think that teaching children about God’s love for them, and their need to obey God and love Him can wait until they are older, we need to adjust our thinking. One of the reasons that some five-year-olds flunked the “marshmallow test,” was that they hadn’t learned they can trust adults to do what they say. If children don’t learn to trust their parents when they are very young, it can significantly impair their ability to trust others and delay gratification when they are older. This can impact a young person’s choices regarding premarital sex, staying in school, or sticking with any task whose reward is in the distant future.

Second, pastors and churches must provide a robust ministry for little children. Even if your church has only a few little ones, do not neglect to teach them and train them in the ways of God. They will learn and keep in their hearts more than we know.

So much more could be said. Books have been written on this. But in the last few weeks it has been made clear to all that the world will teach our children that family and marriage is whatever 5-4 majority of the U.S. Supreme Court says it is. Not only that, but as of January 2015, in Oregon, teenage children as young as 15 can now obtain a “gender reassignment surgery” without parental consent. How did this happen!?

This morning on the news I heard it argued that Planned Parenthood’s selling of the body parts of aborted babies could be justified because they were trying to find cures to illnesses through experimentation with these body parts. How far have we fallen! If we ever could, it is clear that we no longer can, expect the community to reinforce the Bible truths that we hold dear. And we’d better do all we can to teach our “littlest” these truths. Human beings need to learn the value of life while still cradled in their mother’s arms. Two-year-olds need to learn respect for others. Disciple-making can’t wait until the “age of accountability.” By then, you may be too late.

Henry Kissinger Offers Insights for Ministry Leaders

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Henry Kissinger’s latest book was not written for gospel ministers, but the 92-year-old diplomat has insight into the contemporary world from which ministry leaders can benefit. In World Order, Kissinger surveys efforts to create international order, beginning with the Peace of Westphalia in the Seventeenth Century to our most current efforts in 2014. As such, it is part history, replete with fascinating anecdotes, and part prescription, as he identifies key questions and issues facing us as we seek world order in our day. For example, I had never before read that Czar Alexander ended the Napoleonic Wars by marching to Paris at the head of his armies. The Czar celebrated victory with 160,000 Russian troops on the plains outside Paris, a demonstration that caused disquiet, even among his allies. Interestingly, the Czar wanted “an order of things based on the exalted truths of the eternal religion of our Savior.”

Kissinger writes about Iran, China, Russia, India, Islamism in the Middle East, including the role the United States plays in each region. All of this is fascinating and beneficial as we seek to understand our world. But it’s his statements on values and truth that I find most helpful, and disconcerting.

For example, he writes that we live in a time in which “values” are “shaped by consensus,” and that our quest for consensus is done by “a sharing of emotions” more than an exchange of ideas. Which of us has not marveled, or wept, at the rapidity with which America’s values have changed on key moral issues? Currently, the hottest issue is same-sex marriage, which enjoyed little support 20 years ago and now has majority support in the U. S. More Americans favor same-sex marriage than have a positive view of evangelical Christianity!

As we consider Kissinger’s statement about our values being shaped by consensus, consider the findings (or assertions) of Mark A. Smith, Political Science and Comparative Religion and Communications professor at the University of Washington in Seattle. In his soon-to-be released book, Secular Faith: How Culture has Trumped Religion in American Politics, Smith argues that regardless of the religion Americans hold, our viewpoints regarding high-profile issues are shaped more by the culture than by our religion. Smith says that the cultural influence of the larger society through institutions like the media, schools, neighborhoods and workplace shape our views, and that religious leaders often “update their group’s official positions to maintain the support of the rank-and-file.” To support his assertion Smith mentions several issues in which religions “changed” their position. Views on issues like criminalizing blasphemy, outlawing alcohol production, banning commerce on Sundays, segregation of races, interracial marriage, as well as teachings on divorce, women’s rights, and homosexuality have changed greatly over the course of time. In essence, Smith corroborates Kissinger’s statement that the values America holds are shaped by consensus, and Smith says that we arrive at consensus by means other than our religion, that, indeed, religions in America change their teachings to line-up with the consensus of opinion. Sometimes that is good. Churches have been on the wrong side of some issues in the past. But often this is bad, as churches abandon clear biblical teaching in favor of cultural consensus.

In addition to our values being shaped by consensus, Kissinger writes that “the concept of truth is being relativized and individualized – losing its universal character.” For example, in 2012 the election campaigns had files on tens of millions of voters. Using research from social networks, open public files, and medical records, the campaigns could profile the voters and more precisely target them individually with the “truth” that would appeal to them. To use another example, two different people asking the same question on a search engine do not necessarily receive the same answer to their question. The answer you receive is individualized, taking into account where you live and other things known about you. A recent search I made, looking for a new dress for my wife, has filled my subsequent internet searches with advertisements for new dresses because my search engine knows I might be shopping for a new dress (dumb of me, I know!).

For decades preachers have spoken about truth becoming relative, but now the technology we use every day is reinforcing this. Imagine a coming day in which a question posed through Google nets the answer that those who control Google want you to have. Now, imagine that that day has already arrived, because it has.

A final insight by Kissinger concerns conflict between peoples. In essence, he says that conflict doesn’t only arise because societies and peoples don’t understand each other. Rather, conflict often arises because we understand each other only too well, and we profoundly disagree on values, ideals and strategic objectives. American politics has not softened with more media and data-driven election strategies; if anything the extreme viewpoints have a larger audience. Violent agitation can erupt in the Muslim world because of a fringe cartoon in a Danish newspaper. A videotaped beheading in Syria can harden the resolve of warring parties as it is broadcasted to the whole world.

We have seen in the Northwest how legal proceedings against a baker or a florist can set peoples and groups against one another. Teaching truth and sharing the love of Christ can be a tricky when battle lines are drawn and weapons revealed. I say “tricky” because we don’t merely want to “preach to the choir.” We are seeking to educate and persuade, and we often find that difficult even when it concerns our own children, let alone the typical unbeliever in the Northwest.

I could go on with this, but I’ll conclude with three responses that I believe the church must make. First, we must seek ways to love, love and love people in our community, and love them some more. Personal relationships in which love is abundant is the only way to win the hearts and minds of those whose values conflict with biblical truth. Christians and churches must be experienced by unbelievers as those who deeply love people and the community. This is how the Early Church reached the majority in Roman Empire within 300 years. Genuine love has always been essential to evangelism. It is not easy. The world does not believe us when we say that we “hate the sin and love the sinner.” But don’t worry about the “the world” so much as the “individuals” in your world. We love people individually, not in groups.

Second, we must pray, pray and pray. I’ve written before about the need for more prayer for the lost and the persecuted in our churches. Our worship services must be saturated in deep prayer, prayer for people, prayer for souls, prayer for God’s blessing on our cities, prayer to “the Lord of the harvest” that He will “send out workers into His harvest” (Matthew 9:38). In small groups we must be praying for people by name who need Jesus as Savior and Lord. Spiritual transformation is the work of the Holy Spirit. Our witness is vital, but we need God to move in people’s hearts. Oh how desperately we need that!

Third, we must teach our children and our people that the Bible is truth. The Bible is not a “source for sermons” or “positive thoughts.” The Bible is truth. We must read it. Our people must read it, believe it, and submit to the teachings of Scripture. The idea that churches and Christian leaders change their teachings to conform to the consensus of opinion is shocking, but we see it all the time. The renewal of the human mind requires consistent feeding on Scripture, Scripture which is believed and upon which we meditate.

One third of people in the Northwest (Washington, Oregon and Idaho) say they have no religion. They are not Christian, Buddhist, Hindu or Muslim. Not that they don’t have religious beliefs, but in their thinking they don’t adhere to a “religion.” This means they are up for grabs! Can you imagine how fearful and hopeless you would be if you didn’t know Jesus!? How will these people face tragedy and death without Jesus? This world is not enough. We must have more. They must have more. Don’t give up on them. And remember, only hours before the Cross, Jesus said, “In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world” (John 16:33). Kissinger may be right in his view of things in today’s world, but it will always be a good day to serve the Lord!