Dr. E. E. Cleveland: A Black History Giant

Dr. E.E.Cleveland: A Black History Giant

He was no more than 6’3, but to the world he seemed larger than life. Dr. E. E. Cleveland. I actually heard him before I saw him. As a child, we’d listen to the recording of his 1966 evangelistic campaign in Port of Spain, Trinidad. At the close of that meeting over 1000 people were baptized – a first for the Seventh Day Adventist Church.

Born in Huntsville Alabama in 1921, he was a man of amazing gifts and scholarship. He authored 15 books, lectured regularly at prominent universities, trained over 1000 ministers, and served the church effectively at several levels. He was the most prolific evangelist in the SDA church, baptizing over 16,000 people.

He had a passion for people-especially people of color. He organized a campus chapter of the N.A.A.C.P. at Oakwood College when he was a student. He participated in the historic March on Washington in 1963. He crossed paths with Dr. Martin King and Dr. Ralph Abernathy during the civil rights movement and he was clearly the equivalent of Dr. King to the Adventist Church. He was the co-founder of the Human Relations Committee for the General Conference of SDAs. He was a tireless champion for social justice inside and outside the church.

But the personal encounters and connections are what marked me. Four of them influence me to this day.

Encounter Number One

Dr. Cleveland left the General Conference and came to Oakwood University in 1977. His class on Public Evangelism was probably the most popular class on campus. Attended by religion majors and non-religion majors alike, it was literally standing room only in the classroom. The class was already full when I registered in 1979, but they told me to just go to class and perhaps someone might drop out.

I could hardly get in the door for the press. Somehow I was able to enroll in the class and everyday was amazing! It was part revival, part evangelistic campaign, part college class. The stories, the testimonies, the humor, the passion, the insight. I had never had a classroom experience like that and I’ve been trying unsuccessfully to reproduce it in my own classroom ever since.

Encounter Number Two

As a religion student, I got to know Dr. Cleveland well. Frankly, I was in awe of him. I would soak in every suggestion and hang on every word. In the late 70s the campus and church community were always struggling with some legalistic teaching or off-shoot group- Shepard’s Rods, Brinsmeads, you name it. I set up an appointment to speak to Dr. Cleveland about salvation and sanctification.

He spoke about grace in a way that I’d never heard it before. Tears rolled down his face as he told me:

  • “We are justified, before we are qualified.”
  • “We are accepted, before we are acceptable.”
  • “We are trusted, before we are trust worthy.”
  • “We are declared perfect, while we are being perfected.”

This from a man who preached passionately against sin and who many felt was amazingly arrogant. They didn’t quite get him. As powerful a figure as he was, he was sensitive, almost overly so. What I saw was a man who was so grateful for what God had done, that he had no filter sharing it. He was so confident in his salvation, that at times it could be mistaken for overconfidence in himself…… and he could be a bit arrogant.

Encounter Number Three

When Dr. Cleveland retired from Oakwood, I was the Director of Church Growth and Discipleship in the Southeastern California conference. For a couple of years, they split his courses across the faculty, but in 2007 they asked me to join the Religion faculty of Oakwood University. My concentration is Church Growth and Evangelism, so I was effectively Dr. Cleveland’s successor. I taught his classes.

That year, I accepted the position after the class schedules were printed. Dr. Cleveland’s name was still on the class schedule when the students came back from summer break. In short, the students came to class expecting to see E.E. but instead they saw me! It took a minute or two for the students to realize the cruel switch, but when they did….it was Not pretty!!

I knew how they felt. There was no way anyone could fill Dr. Cleveland’s shoes. Certainly not me. But he was always there for encouragement and counsel. I spent hours listening to him. Even as his steps slowed, his mind remained sharp and he was a blessing until the time of his death in August of 2009.


Last year I became the Director of the Bradford, Cleveland, Brooks, Leadership Center on the campus of Oakwood University. Our lives intersect again.  Today we are teaching a changing church the unchanging principles that marked these men’s ministries. There will never be another E. E. Cleveland, but his contributions live on. I’ll make sure of that.

7 Artists Kirk Franklin Should Thank – Part 2

7 Artists Kirk Franklin Should Thank – Part 2

Last week reminded me how powerful and personal gospel music is. Musical artists we’ve never met can feel like family, because we’ve heard their voices as often as family. In short, these lists are personal and that’s what makes them so different and so revealing.

We’re looking at artists that paved the way for the Kirk Franklins of today. Many of you responded with your own lists and they were great. Names like Thomas Dorsey, Roberta Martin, Alex Bradford, the Fairfield Four, and the Blendwrights, to name a few.  All great names.  In the future we’ll look specifically at choirs, quartets, COGIC artists, and Adventist artists.

But although all of the pioneers were groundbreakers, some of them faced extra-ordinary criticism from the religious community for their music.  When I hear artists like Jonathan Nelson, Karen Clark, the Walls Group, and J.Moss sing at the Oakwood University church, I can almost hear the legendary pastor of that church, Elder Eric Ward, turning over in his grave.  At one point, they not only banned drums in that church, but they banned audio tracks that had drums on them! Times have changed.

It’s that element of Kirk Franklin’s genius that I see reflected in the people on this list of 7. Artists who were ahead of their time. Artists who endured until their ministry went from extreme to standard. Artists who were banned but who are now honored. We started with Thomas Whitfield, Mahalia Jackson, and Edwin Hawkins. 7 is not nearly a long enough list, but let’s go.

James Cleveland

A native of Chicago and pianist for the legendary Albertina Walker and Thomas Dorsey, most people don’t realize how monumental the ministry of James Cleveland actually was. He strained his voice at an early age, but it left him with that signature “voice of gravel” that was a gospel music staple.

Cleveland was the driving force behind the birth of “contemporary” gospel music. He traveled the country with the Cleveland Singers and the Southern California Community Choir performing to crowds of thousands. He won 4 Grammys and was the first gospel artist to earn a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Today his influence lives on through the Gospel Music Workshop of America that he founded with Albertina Walker. Today it has over 200 chapters with 30,000 plus members.

Andre Crouch

His songbook is broad and reads like a contemporary church hymnal:

  • The Blood Will Never Lose Its Power
  • Soon and Very Soon
  • Jesus Is The Answer
  • Take Me Back
  • Through It All
  • My Tribute (To God Be The Glory)
  • It Won’t Be Long
  • Can’t Nobody Do Me Like Jesus
  • Let The Church Say Amen

His music not only brings back memories, but it brings back emotions, and musicals, and graduations, and funerals. Andre Crouch music was practically the sound track for black church life for years. But it was not without controversy. He was the principle figure in the Jesus music movement that brought contemporary music into the church in the 60s and 70s. He was also the first major black artist to cross over into the Anglo Christian music market. (CCM).

His music is heard in the films, Color Purple, The Lion King, and many more. He worked with Michael Jackson, Madonna, Quincy Jones, Diana Ross and a long list of secular artists. But it’s nearly impossible to find a gospel artist that does not list him as an influence or trailblazer.

The Winans

I was helping a church in Hattiesburg, Mississippi one summer and went to a radio station to record a radio spot. They gave me some new albums to choose my music from and I picked up, “Introducing the Winans.” For the next hour I couldn’t get past the first track, The Question Is. It was amazing.

Over their career, those 4 brothers from Detroit won multiple Grammys, Doves, Stellars, and a host of other awards. They were known for their crossover appeal and often appeared on R&B charts, collaborating with Stevie Wonder, Anita Baker and others. They are still impacting gospel music today as solo artists along with several of their siblings, including B.B. and C.C Winans.

It’s important to note that they were introduced to the music world by Andre Crouch. No Andre Crouch, no Winans. No Winans, no Commissioned or Witness. No Commissioned, no Fred Hammond or Marvin Sapp…and on it goes.

John P. Kee

“How did he get on the list?” I hear some of you. Here’s why:

  • First, I love him!
  • Second, I think he’s one of the best combinations of traditional, contemporary, quartet, and choir music ever.
  • Third, at his height-and I’ve heard them all- he was the best live performer in the business, and Franklin’s early concerts were a rip-off…I mean “homage” to Kee. (You didn’t realize gospel music fans could be so snarky….get over it!)

When Kirk Franklin first arrived with the Family, John P. Kee and the New Life Community Choir were the hottest young act in gospel music. His energy, his grooves, his dancing, his jokes, his musicianship, his business genius…have all knocked down walls for the Kirk Franklins of this world.

A former drug dealer turned preacher, he is currently the Senior Pastor of New Life City of Praise. He continues to travel and perform across the country.

Ok, that’s it. I gotta stop. I could really double this list and still not be done. As I said, gospel music is powerful and personal. So, who’s on your list? Who would you take off of mine? Comments?

7 Artists Kirk Franklin Should Thank

“7 Artists Kirk Franklin Should Thank”

My Public Evangelism class was about to start and we were discussing contemporary gospel music. Kirk Franklin will be in Huntsville this year during our annual Alumni Weekend here at Oakwood University. Franklin, of course, is arguably the most powerful figure in black gospel music today. He has won numerous awards, including 12 Grammys and a host of Stellar Awards, Dove Awards, and Billboard awards. Since his debut album Kirk Franklin and the Family in 1993, he has stayed at the top of the gospel music world.

But it occurred to me as we spoke, that Franklin is almost 50 years old now. So I asked the students, “ How many of you are Kirk Franklin fans?” Most of them were, so I pushed it a bit further.

“ Name some gospel music artists who were popular before Kirk Franklin.” Silence.  

“ Have you heard of Mahalia Jackson?” Nothing.    

“ Edwin Hawkins?”  Blank stares.

“ What about James Cleveland?”  One of my students responded, “ Yeah, I think I read about him in my class on The History of African American Music.” Oh, that hurt. It made me feel as old as I actually am. I had a mind to flunk the entire class. What are we teaching these kids!!!!

So, of course I adjusted my blog schedule to address this blasphemy. Let’s take a look at some musical pioneers who laid the foundation for the Travis Greenes and Ty Tribbetts and Tasha Cobbs and Walls Groups and countless others. Let’s look at 7 artists that Kirk Franklin and an army of other contemporary gospel music artists should thank.

Thomas Whitfield

Last week Kirk Franklin did a tribute to the Top 5 Gospel Legends on his Sirius FM radio channel.  He noted that Whitfield had the greatest impact on his music. A strange name to some but an absolute legend to many. From his hometown of Detroit, Michigan, Thomas Whitfield literally changed the direction of black gospel music.

From the Clark Sisters, to Commissioned, to Vanessa Bell Armstrong, to the Winans (all 100 of them), to Yolanda Adams, to Paul Morton, to Donald Lawrence, to even Aretha Franklin. Every one of them had a little Thomas Whitfield in them.  The “Maestro” as Whitfield was affectionately known, was a singer, arranger, writer, and innovator, who produced for each of those artists and many more.

In 1977 he organized the legendary Thomas Whitfield Company with his friend Tyrone Hemphill, and for the next 15 years they influenced the industry with classics like: Precious Jesus, Walk in the Light, and Oh, How I Love Jesus. Whitfield passed in 1992, but the Thomas Whitfield Company has continued to sing and keep his memory alive.

Edwin Hawkins

I distinctly remember black Adventist church music pre and post Edwin Hawkins. Before the Edwin Hawkins Singers exploded onto the gospel music landscape in 1968/69, most Adventist choirs thought they were hot when they sang “ Elijah Rock” or “ Soon ah Will Be Done.”   And the closest we came to contemporary gospel was “Father Abraham” at M.V. But the Hawkins family changed it all.

Edwin Hawkins was the originator of urban contemporary gospel music. It sounds strange to say “was” because he passed away less than a month ago. Born in Oakland, California, he played the piano with his family and other gospel groups from the age of 7. But in 1968 he produced an album with the Northern California State Youth Choir (COGIC), and later the Edwin Hawkins Singer that included the groundbreaking, “Oh Happy Day.”

The song, “Oh Happy Day” was the forerunner for every contemporary gospel song that ever crossed over onto the pop charts. It was an international hit selling over 7 million copies worldwide.  In 1969 it was the number one pop song in France, Germany, and the Netherlands and number two in the U.K. and Ireland. Amazing for a simple, straight- forward gospel song that declared:

“Oh, Happy Day, Oh Happy Day…. When Jesus washed…. He washed my sins away…. Oh, Happy Day.”

Mahalia Jackson

You could make the argument that it all started with Mahalia Jackson. (Although I’m sure some Thomas Dorsey and Rosetta Tharpe fans will disagree.) But Mahalia Jackson took the same kind of hits from the church in the 50s and 60s that Kirk Franklin took in the 90s. She was the recognized Queen of Gospel Music, but she was under constant criticism for,“ bringing that jazz into the church.” Sound familiar?

Born in New Orleans but raised in Chicago, she was the first gospel singer to perform at Carnegie Hall. At her height she toured America and Europe  billed as the World’s Greatest Gospel Singer. She was also in a number of motion pictures including the timeless tear-jerker, Imitation of Life. The legendary Harry Belafonte once described her as,” the single most powerful black woman in the United States.”

Mahalia Jackson recorded more than 30 albums during her lifetime. Her hits included:


  • How I Got Over
  • Holding My Saviour’s Hand
  • Amazing Grace
  • Remember Me
  • Roll Jordan Roll


But in 1948 she recorded the William Herbert Brewster classic, How I Got Over, and it sold more than 8 million copies. The song was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame In 1998.  All of her professional career she was pressured to follow the money and crossover into “secular” music, but she resisted. The greatest pressure came from her husband Ike, and they eventually divorced over the matter in 1941.

Mahalia Jackson was a pillar of the civil rights movement. In 1963 she sang at the historic March on Washington before Dr. Martin King spoke. And at the end of his message it was Mahalia Jackson who inspired him when she shouted out, “Tell them about the dream Martin!” And he did.

So, there you have it. Those are my first 3, with 4 to come.  Do you agree? Disagree? Who’s on your list?

How To Keep Going

How To Keep Going

Well, this is the first week of February and reality has set in. The health clubs are clearing out, the treadmills are gathering dust, and the diet is done.  Millions of people have discovered that resolutions are a lot easier to make than they are to keep. If the researchers at Forbes magazine are right, by Valentine’s Day most of our remaining resolutions will be ancient history.

But for the child of God, that’s not a problem. God doesn’t limit fresh starts to new years. Every day offers a new beginning. “The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases; His mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning, great is thy faithfulness!” Lamentations 3:22,23.  That’s good news!

This month we’ve studied some very important ingredients to lasting change.

  • Consistent Personal Devotion. It’s important to spend some time each day with God in prayer and study. The goal is not necessarily quality or quantity, but consistency.
  • Cell Membership or Community. There is a level of growth that you’ll never get in your secret closet. We need the encouragement and accountability of people to be help us grow.
  • Celebration. Worship, corporate worship is what we need. Go to church. The gifts of the Spirit operating in the worship service and the members themselves, will help you grow.

But let’s close this series out with 3 final principles or practices to help us to keep going in 2018 when everything seems to be saying, “Stop!”

Remember Who You Are

Paul reminds you in 2 Corinthians 5:17 that regardless of your feelings, if you are in Christ you are a new creature. And Romans 8:1 goes on to encourage us that, “Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.”

One of the Devil’s missions is to distract you from recognizing who you are in Jesus Christ. He wants you to focus on what you do, rather than who you are in Christ. Obedience is critical to your Christian growth, but it must be done the right way and for the right reasons. If not, the Devil will have you on a depressing treadmill. You will be working for something you either already have or that God offers for free.

These are some things the Bible says I am right now in Jesus Christ:

  • I am complete- Colossians 2:10
  • I am forgiven- I John 2:12
  • I am redeemed – Revelation 5:9
  • I am chosen – Colossians 3:12
  • I am justified – Romans 5:1
  • I am a joint heir with Christ – Romans 8:17

As we move through 2018 we have to remember that we are who God says we are. At times our feelings and even our “friends” might say something different, but don’t be fooled. Galatians 3:1 puts it in even stronger terms. Don’t be bewitched!

Get Out Of Your Way!

Romans 13:14 counsels us to stop, “making provisions for the flesh.” Stop feeding your bad habits. Stop tripping yourself up. Stop blaming the Devil for doing what you’re doing to yourself! The person who is sabotaging your spiritual success may very well be that man in the mirror.

Here’s how it works. It’s clear that certain foods, sounds, smells, people, places, or things, consistently cause you to stumble.  Rather than pleading with God to resist the temptation, why not put as much distance between you and the temptation as possible. Get it out of the house. Get it out of the refrigerator.  Get it out of your laptop. Get them out of your life. Because as long as they are available the temptation will be strong.

Ellen White gives great counsel here.” It is an important law of the mind…. when a desired object is so firmly denied as to remove all hope, the mind will soon cease to long for it, and will be occupied with other pursuits. But as long as there is any hope of gaining the desired object, an effort will be made to obtain it!”

Mind, Character and Personality Vol. 2 pg.419

There it is! If you can get to it, you will. So, take the temptation out before it takes you out.

Have Faith In God

The late Andre Crouch used to sing, “I’ve Got Confidence. God is going to see me through. No matter what the case may be. I know He’s going to fix it for me.” That’s faith. We have to believe that God will do what he promised He’ll do. 2018 will have ups and downs but God is a constant. Philippians 1:6 is true, “..he who began a good work in you, will be faithful to complete it.”  Believe that.

Let’s close with my favorite quote this month and please let me know what you want God to do for you in 2018. How can we pray for you?

“God is disappointed when His people place a low estimate on themselves…They may expect large things if they have faith in His promises.” Desire of Ages 657

How to Change and STAY Changed

The Resolution Solution Series:

“How to Change and STAY Changed”

Change. It’s a whole lot easier to talk about than it is to experience. We’re almost through January and that loud crash you’ve been hearing off and on, are resolutions falling to the floor. But don’t worry about it, some of our best lessons in life are the hard lessons of life.  And best of all, new starts aren’t restricted to new years.

“Because of the Lord’s great love, we are not consumed, for His compassions never fail. They are new every morning; great is your faithfulness!”  Lamentations 3:22-23.

Did you get that? God’s mercies and compassions are renewed every day. Every day is a new day and a fresh start. So, don’t focus on what you didn’t do, focus on what you can do. Don’t look at what you lost, look at what you learned. So, let’s continue to look at how we can experience lasting change. Let’s explore some resolution solutions.

Don’t Stop Dreaming.

I’m always a little shocked by the number of people who never make resolutions, who never make real concrete plans to change. Now there’s nothing magical about goal setting, but the late Zig Ziglar was right, “If you aim at nothing, you’ll hit it every time.” Ellen White put it this way:

“Remember that you will never reach a higher standard than you yourself set.”

Christs Object Lessons, 331

“Many whom God has qualified to do excellent work accomplish very little because they attempt little.”

Christ’s Object Lessons, 332

And my all- time favorite. “The Lord is disappointed when His people place a low estimate upon themselves…He is well pleased when they make the very highest demands upon Him…. They may expect large things if they have faith in His promises.”

Desire of Ages, 668

No matter how often you’ve fallen or how many resolutions you’ve broken, don’t stop striving, don’t stop dreaming. And get started again, because time’s not waiting on you. We’ll be looking at several keys to lasting change, but let’s begin with an all-important one.

Key Number One: Consistent Personal Devotion.

This is where real change begins. Before we can experience change in our homes and in our churches, we must first experience change in our own lives. This change begins with our personal time with God in prayer and study.  Ellen White put it this way in the book Sons and Daughters page 313:

“Our first duty toward God and our fellow beings is that of self- development.”

Paul says in I Timothy 4:7,8 that we must exercise ourselves to godliness or real change. Exercise. The core has been a buzz word in personal fitness circles for the last several years. Your core is that complex series of muscles, extending far beyond your abs, including everything besides your arms and legs. It is involved in almost every movement of the human body. When the core muscles are strong the rest of the body follows.

A consistent personal devotional life is the core of your spiritual body. Everything else tends to take it’s signal from that core. But it’s not easy. Our lives seem to be a blur of endless activity. From the time we get up in the morning until the time we fall asleep at night, we are on the move. We just don’t seem to have enough time to do it all.

But we have to make time to develop our spiritual core, our personal devotional lives. When is the best time for time for personal devotion? For most people, it’s probably in the morning when they are fresh, and the distractions are few. But for others, the evening hours are less hectic and more conducive to connecting with God. The best time for your personal devotion is the best time for you.

How much time should you spend in personal devotion? Again, that depends on you and your schedule. The age- old argument is whether you should focus on quantity or quality. But early on I don’t think you should obsess over quantity or quality, but consistency. Get going and keep going, that’s the goal.

Degree of difficulty?

Your personal devotional life is not like gymnastics or a diving competition. You don’t get points for the degree of difficulty or how hard the activity is. That’s where many people trip up. Make your devotional life fit your real- life schedule. That’s not compromise, that’s common sense.   

You have to set realistic goals or you won’t be successful. If your family or job or circumstances don’t allow you to invest a full hour in your personal devotion, that’s life. Do what you can do. Take 30 minutes, or 15 minutes and do it consistently.  And like physical exercise, set realistic goals. If you have not been exercising, it’s probably not a good idea to set a goal to run 5 miles a day. Those overly ambitious goals rarely last.  Same with devotion. Start small and build.  Remember the goal is not quantity or even quality, but consistency.

Next we’ll look at our second key to lasting change- Cell Membership or Community. In the meantime, don’t forget to get your copy of the eBook, “The Resolution Solution” and join me each Wednesday this month at 6:45 pm for our Facebook live series at the Madison Mission SDA church on these important keys to lasting change.

3 Things the Church Could Learn From Nick Saban!!

3 Things the Church Could Learn From Nick Saban!!

Let’s establish something from the outset. I am Not an Alabama football fan. I live in Alabama, but the only team I support outside of Oakwood University is Alabama A&M University. And yes, we do play football at Oakwood….Well, it’s intramural football, but who asked. In fact, I am still avoiding sharp objects because Monday night Alabama won their fifth national championship in 9 years. I’m in pain.

I’m not a fan of Alabama football, but I am a fan of leadership excellence. For that reason I do have deep, (begrudging) respect for the Alabama program. And it occurred to me that the church could learn a lot from coach Nick Saban.  I could list several things, but let’s look at 3 things the church could learn from the coach.

First: Everything Rises and Falls On Leadership

For some, there is a simple solution for Alabama’s football success. They win because they have always won! But not so fast. Alabama has a storied history of football excellence, but they were looking painfully pedestrian in the years following the legendary Paul “Bear” Bryant.

  • From 1997 to 2006 Alabama had more losing seasons than 10 win seasons.
  • Alabama didn’t have a single first round draft pick from 2001 to 2008.
  • The program was embarrassed by a recruiting scandal and severely sanctioned by the NCAA.
  • The season before Saban arrived the Tides record was 4 wins and 7 losses.

But my what a difference the right “leader” makes.

  • 9 straight years of being ranked Number 1 at some point in the season.
  • 18 first round draft picks and 29 All- Americans.
  • 5 National Championships in 10 years.

That is nothing short of amazing. I happen to consider collaborative, servant leadership to be the most effective leadership style for the local church. But that does not take away from the fact that without gifted leadership at the top, most churches, businesses, and organizations won’t reach their potential.

I regularly observe churches that were left for dead, now resurrected and restored because a different pastor was assigned there. It points up the need to carefully match church with pastor, but it also underscores the fact that no matter how gifted the congregation, good executive leadership is not a luxury but a necessity.

Second: Good Leaders Attract Good People

Nick Saban is a great coach but he has the reputation of being an even better recruiter.  As good as he is on the field, his reputation is even better in the living room of a potential recruit.  Steve Spurrier, himself a hall of fame college coach of Florida and South Carolina fame, said at the SEC Conference Media days in 2014 that Saban is the greatest recruiter in the history of college football. He’s probably right.

Over the last 10 years, Alabama has regularly had the number 1 or 2 top recruiting class. That’s talent. Young men want to play for him. They want to win. Good church leaders also seem to have a knack for attracting good people. At times those people unfortunately simply transfer in from other churches, but nevertheless, good church leaders are like magnets.

The reason is probably because good church leaders bring out the best in others. They recognize talent and more important, they train that talent. They realize that their success is directly related to the success of others. One criticism of Saban was that many of his best athletes failed to make the same splash in the NFL. But an NFL coach was quick to respond that those athletes had already received the best coaching that they would ever receive in their lifetimes- from Nick Saban. The coaching was all down-hill from there.

Third: Good Leaders Can Make the Hard Call

Real leaders distinguish themselves in a crisis. The most remarkable thing about the National Championship Game was our introduction to Tua Tagovailoa. This freshman phenom from Hawaii was the number one dual- threat quarterback coming out of high school in 2017. But that’s the point. He was in high school in 2017! This season he was patiently practicing behind starter Jalen Hurts, a phenomenal talent in his own right, who had a 27 and 2 record as Alabama starter.

But with the Tide down 13-0 at halftime, Saban pulled Hurts for the freshman quarterback. Initially the decision seemed ill-advised and a bit desperate, but it payed off big time.  I can just imagine the headlines if Alabama had gone on to lose that game. Saban would have been severely criticized and second guessed. But that’s the price that good leaders are willing to pay. They are prepared to make the tough calls and live with the results.

Gifted church leaders excel under pressure, under fire. Church members and boards are great at making suggestions, but often struggle at making decisions. Especially when decisions are hard. When decisions might upset people or challenge traditions. For that reason, many churches are literally dying for change. Good leaders provide principled but fearless leadership under pressure. They are sensitive to the persons involved, but they don’t shy away from the hard calls.

So, there it is. I said something positive about Alabama football. This might be the start of something……nah.

How NEW Years Help OLD Habits

How NEW Years Help OLD Habits

There is at least one thing that we all have in common. We want change. We need change. Lady Tramaine Hawkins has been my special musical guest, from time to time, when I’ve conducted summer evangelistic campaigns. She is always well received when she sings old favorites like, “Oh Happy Day” and “ Goin Up Yonder.” But the place explodes when they hear the introduction to her classic, “Changed.”

Change. There is something about most of us that wants to be better. That wants to do better. And that’s one of the powerful appeals of the month of January. The eyes of the world are focused on resolutions and change- if only for a few days. Just under 50% of Americans make resolutions each year and the resolutions are largely the same. The Nielson Company noted the top resolutions in 2015:

  • Exercise and stay fit – 37%
  • Lose weight – 32%
  • Enjoy life to its fullest – 28%
  • Spend less and save more – 25%
  • Get organized – 18%

But here’s the problem. According to Forbes, 80% of people have broken or adjusted their resolutions by Valentine’s Day. And in case you forgot, that’s in February! Now that failure rate is high compared to other surveys, but I’m not surprised.  A few years ago this month, I was going through some old sermon notes. I discovered a list of resolutions I had made in January of 1994. I shook my head when I realized that they were almost identical to the resolutions I was making roughly 20 years later!

Change isn’t easy. But the encouraging thing about the month of January is that it reminds us of what God wants to do for us. Not just in the first month of the year, but every day of our lives. The good news is that God is the eternal source of change, of fresh starts and new beginnings. He won’t leave you the way he found you!

He says in Revelation 21:5, “Behold, I make all things new!”

Jeremiah said in Lamentations 3:22 -23, “…the compassions of the Lord never fail…they are new every morning, great is the faithfulness of God.

Paul said in 2 Corinthians 5:17, “If any man be in Christ, he is a new creature, old things are passed away, behold all things are become new.”

Inside-Out Change

God is the source of genuine and lasting change.  The problem with many of our yearly resolutions is that they begin in the wrong place. There is absolutely nothing wrong with plans to do better. But real change works from inside out and not from outside in. Everything in us and around us is fighting for the status quo, for things to remain the same. “Stuck” is a bad condition but it’s a comfortable condition.  Only the power of God will ultimately break through bad habits.

Years ago, I saw a photo of a sink hole in Orlando, Florida. It was large and destructive. It was so big that cars were trapped inside the sinkhole and structures were in danger of being sucked in.  A gentleman from the Public Works department was asked to explain how something so big could have developed almost overnight. “Did a truck punch a hole in the asphalt and start the sink hole?” Did a large tree fall on the street and start the spread of the sink hole?” Those were some of the questions the spokesman was asked.

His answer was enlightening. He said the problem was not with a truck or tree. A water main had broken under the street long ago, they discovered. Slowly but surely it had eroded the foundation of the street: At a certain point the foundation was so degraded that, the spokesman said,

“Something as light as the foot of a fox could have broken through the top layer of the street. And because the foundation was destroyed, nothing could stop the sinkhole from spreading.”

Our foundation is critical. Many of us are literally “dying” for change. Old habits are destroying our health and our relationships.  Outward change is important and extremely motivating. But if we’re not focusing on our foundation in 2018, our resolutions are destined to fail. God offers the inside-out power for foundation building and lasting change.

So, join us on a life changing journey this month of January. Our focus is lasting change. This blog is the first in a series that I’ve entitled, “The Resolution Solution: Secrets to Lasting Change!” We will explore critical keys that will help us walk in God’s purpose for our lives in 2018. Each Wednesday evening at 6:30 Central I will be presenting this series in a Facebook live event from the Madison Mission Church here in Alabama. Connect with us live or join us in the rebroadcast.

I have also written a short e-book that expands on these principles that we will be studying in the blogs and on Wednesday evenings.  It’s Free!! You can get the e-book entitled, “The Resolution Solution” for free from January 1 through 8. Download it here and now.

So, are you ready to do a new thing in 2018.  Are there things you want God to for you this year? What are the biggest barriers to change? How can we pray for you?  Let us know and we’ll begin praying now.

The Resolution Solution: 3 Keys To A Supernatural Year

The Question Most Leaders Are Afraid To Ask

The Question Most Leaders Are Afraid to Ask

It’s like Kryptonite to otherwise bold leaders. (Kryptonite: A radioactive material that made Superman seek personal counseling.) This question is harder for most leaders than the perplexing questions of the ages. Questions like:

  • What is truth?
  • How many angels can fit on the head of a pin?
  • Should vegetarians eat animal crackers?
  • If God sneezes, what do you say?
  • If you are bald, what hair color do you put on your driver’s license?

No, this question is much harder. Want to hear it? Here it goes. I’m convinced that the question most leaders are afraid to ask is, How Am I Doing? It’s a hard question because it forces us to take a pause from our evaluation of others and take an honest look at ourselves. How Am I Doing?

Now, to get an honest answer to that question, you have to involve someone outside of yourself. Which brings up the real problem with that frightening question- Accountability. There are a number of different but closely related definitions of accountability, but let’s go with this one.  Accountability is the willingness to hear who we are, where we are, and what we are doing. How am I doing? That is the accountability question.

What Is Your Real Condition?

Once or twice a year I get a complete physical. It’s not my favorite thing to do but it’s pretty close to the most important thing I do. After my physical, my primary physician sits down and goes over my numbers with me. Cholesterol. Blood pressure. PSA. He gives me a count….a count. Those numbers tell me how healthy I really am. Not how I feel about my health, but what’s actually happening with my health.

And in essence that is what accountability does. It gives you a count. It lets you know where you really are.  It pushes you to look at your numbers.  It forces you to face your real condition. Without these real numbers and this honest objective evaluation, we could think everything is fine, not realizing we are seriously ill. As it is with the body, so it is with leadership. We need honest evaluation.

What Are You Really Accomplishing?

It’s easy for leaders to lose focus. To get distracted from their primary responsibility or mission. It’s cliché, but it’s true- there is a temptation to work hard but not smart. This is often the case because there is no regular point of evaluation that reminds the leaders of their roles and responsibilities.

It seems to me that this idea of evaluation and accountability is easier for a younger generation to accept. For many leaders my age, evaluations have been punitive in the past and not redemptive, or at least that’s the perception. Past experiences notwithstanding, if you are not regularly asking the accountability question you might be doing a good work but not the right work. You could be doing a lot of things, but not the main thing.

Who Are Your Real Friends?

Proverbs 27:17 says, “As iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another.” The text speaks of the need for fellowship and community and accountability for us to reach our true potential. It also implies that the friction that comes from honest communication can be our salvation. That’s a real friend. Someone who will risk offending or upsetting us, to tell us the truth about us. This is the element that’s missing from the lives of many potentially great leaders. Honest, redemptive accountability. Someone or something that will be truthful with you- about you.

And frankly it gets harder to hear an honest voice the higher you ascend on the leadership ladder. I speak often about the leadership “echo chamber.”  It’s when the only voices you hear are familiar voices. The more “important” you become, the more people you have around you who have a vested interest in you staying where you are. It might not be good for you but it’s great for them!

We need honest and effective evaluation and accountability. It reveals our real condition, it evaluates what we are really accomplishing, and it lets us know who our real friends are.

What do you think? Do you have friends like that? Are you being effectively and honestly evaluated at the job or church?

What Pastors Wish Members Knew

What Ministers Wish Members Knew

So.  Jesus approached a group of disciples who were weeping. “Why are you crying my daughter?” “Because I’m blind,” she said. Jesus touched her eyes and she could see. He moved to the next disciple. “Why are you crying my sister?” “Because I’m lame,” she said. Jesus touched her legs and she walked. But in the distance Jesus saw a man totally overcome with emotion and tears. “And why are you crying, my son?”  “Because I’m a pastor,” he said……and Jesus just started crying with him! (I love that joke. Sue me.)

There is nothing more difficult than pastoring a local church. I did it for years. It’s an impossible job. What inspires one will irritate another. What makes one happy will drive another one crazy. And the opinions?! The opinions are endless. But if that’s your calling in life, there’s nothing better. It was like being paid for a hobby. A check for something I would have done for free. I absolutely loved it.

But today I train pastors and churches and I hear the comments and complaints from both camps. Last week we looked at, What Members Wish Pastors Knew. This week we’ll flip it and look at, What Pastors Wish Members Knew.

“I’m not your last pastor.”

Good or bad, each pastor is different. It’s understandable but unfortunate that many new pastors are burdened with the reputation of the former pastor. That works well if the former pastor worked well. But if the former pastor had challenges, the new pastor seems to inherit them.

When I entered the ministry, pastors were generally presumed innocent until proven guilty. But with the public fall of many leaders and the endless barrage of real and fake news online, many ministers face a skeptical audience from day one.

Pastors are eager to make their own impressions. Give them an honest opportunity to establish their own relationship with the congregation. One challenge is that some ministers who leave…don’t leave! Help the former pastor. Cherish the memories and even the ongoing relationship. But don’t’ encourage the former pastor to cross ethical and professional boundaries, by funding or supporting their projects at the expense of your local church

Help me help you.”

It has been said that the church is the only team that consistently tackles its own quarterback. It’s in the best interest of every church to foster a positive relationship between the pastor and members. Like it or not, everything rises and falls on leadership. When the local pastor is compromised, it is practically impossible for the church to be healthy. Here are some things you can do:

  • Use your gift in the local church.
  • Pray for the pastor.
  • Assume the best and not the worst of the pastor.
  • Go directly to the pastor with your observations and/or concerns.
  • Don’t make someone else’s issue with the pastor your own.

“Don’t help me hurt my family.”

Few church members realize how much pressure is on the pastor’s family. The kids are living in a glass house. Finances are under constant care. Expectations are unrealistic.  Churches talk a lot about the importance of the pastor’s family life, but few are intentional about supporting it. In fact, some of the church’s pastoral expectations are totally inconsistent with a healthy pastoral family life. Here are some suggestions:

  • Go to work. The best thing that you can do for a local pastor is to share the call to ministry. We are a priesthood of all believers. That means that everyone has a job. Find it. Do it.
  • Support the pastor’s family. Find creative and consistent ways to support the pastor’s family emotionally and socially.  Provide a safe place for the kids to be kids. Don’t burden them with unfair expectations.
  • Talk to the pastor and not about the pastor. Enough said.
  • Stop expecting the pastor to be at every meeting!! In fact, stop having so many dumb meetings! There are at least 2 things that all churches seem to have in common. They eat and they meet, and meet, and meet. And for many churches, a meeting is not a meeting if the pastor isn’t there. Save the pastor and the church by streamlining and reducing meetings.

“Say Thank You.” 

Those 2 words, thank you, can have an amazing impact on the life of a local pastor. They don’t hear it enough. I Timothy 5:17 is a passage among many that reminds us to demonstrate our appreciation to our pastors in very tangible ways.  How can we do that?

  • Open your mouth. Everyone lets them know when the meeting or the music or even the message went wrong. Be twice as willing to tell them when the meeting or music or message went well.
  • Celebrate the pastor’s anniversary. This is a part of the culture of many churches. They’ve done it for years and they do it well. Encourage your church to recognize the pastor’s anniversary.
  • Don’t forget Pastor’s Appreciation Month. It’s in October.
  • Send the family on a vacation. It supports the pastor and the pastor’s family. You’ll get a better pastor in return.
  • Don’t be afraid to celebrate financially. Cards and well wishes are great, but money is a present help in the time of trouble.

There it is. Members last week. Pastors this week. What do you think?

What Members Wish Pastors Knew

What Members Wish Pastors Knew

I live in a strange world. I’ve spent most of my professional life pastoring churches. Churches large and small. Churches large enough for multiple staff and multiple worship services. Churches so small that I had to wash my own feet at communion. (Think about it.)

These days I’m not pastoring. I’m training pastors and members. I live in that grey area between pastor and member and I hear the comments and concerns of both groups. Of course, people are different.  What turns one member on, turns another off. What makes one member happy makes another miserable.

But I want to share with you some comments about pastors that seem to be fairly consistent no matter where I go. These are some things that members may not tell pastors directly, but they wish pastors knew. Incidentally members, before you get too excited, your turn in the spotlight is next.

“We Need A Pastor, not a Preacher!”

Now they really don’t mean that. What they actually want is both. But something has shifted. If I had a dollar for every time I heard this comment I’d be a rich man. “All these pastors today want to do is preach. But they can’t pastor!” Since my default is to protect pastors, I try to listen without being defensive. But it’s impossible to ignore the comments.

Fairly or unfairly, many members think that priorities have shifted and we are producing better preachers than pastors. Some of this is nostalgia, a selective memory of the “good old days.” But some of this is probably true. Preaching resources and workshops are everywhere. Gifted preachers are on line and on television. It’s probably a lot easier to be a great preacher these days and the rewards seem greater.

But we live in a broken culture that’s begging for healers, for listeners, for pastors. Ministers function in many roles, but the role of shepherd is desperately needed today. The shepherd certainly feeds the flock through effective preaching and teaching, but the shepherd also: loves the flock, leads the flock, tends the flock, and protects the flock.

Given the size of our churches, it’s not possible for one person to shepherd the congregation one by one. It seems that even Jesus could only reasonably attend to 12. But according to Ephesians 4:12, the primary work of a pastor is to make sure that the work is being done.  Shepherding is a shared responsibility, but it must start at the top.

“We Want You To Succeed”

The vast majority of members want their pastors to succeed. Now, I’m not talking about the weekend warriors. The frustrated few whose purpose in life seems to make everyone miserable, especially the pastor. Frankly, those are largely people who are badly broken and deeply hurt. And it’s true that hurt people hurt people. But in the main, members want their pastors to succeed.

Most members want the pastor to be productive and happy. Most members want the pastor’s family to feel loved and supported. Most members dislike long and unproductive board meetings.  Most members hate out of control business meetings. Most members want the church to grow. Most members want visitors to feel comfortable. The problem is that the handful of complainers can seem like the crowd. But they aren’t. The vast majority of church members sincerely want the pastor to succeed. When he or she succeeds, so do they.

You Don’t Know Everything”

It’s the curse of leadership. Omni competence. The idea that because I can do one thing well, I can do all things well. It is a pressing problem of leaders from the local church to the General Conference. It is particularly problematic for local pastors. Why? Because pastors are immediately confronted with people who know more about the church, the city, the context than them. There are certain things that the members absolutely know better than the pastor!

There is a distinct difference between the school house and the church house. Some things that fly in a classroom fail in the church. When a pastor arrives at a church, any church, some things will be working and some things won’t. Even if it’s working for the wrong reason, there’s a reason that it’s working and the pastor needs to discover the reason. Pastors who are convinced that their way is the only way or always the best way will eventually find themselves proving it. Alone.

“We Don’t Know Everything Either!”

Here’s a little secret that many pastors don’t know. Most of the members know that they need help.

  • They know that some of their friends are nuts!
  • They know that the church isn’t growing as it should.
  • They know that only a handful are showing up for business meeting.
  • They know that the bathrooms are dirty or in disrepair.
  • They know that prayer meeting is boring.

You get my drift. Pastors can get the feeling that they are living on an island with no visible or vocal support. But the reality is, most members are busy Christians trying to navigate their own crazy world. Many of them are experiencing some of the same issues as the pastor where they work. They want to do better, but they need help to do better. And they want the pastor to help them do better.

“We’ll Be Here When You Leave”

Most members have seen pastors come and they’ve seen pastors go.  Some churches have been the “science experiment” of many a starry-eyed pastor. Other churches have been the “training wheels” for many a young pastor. They have heard it all and they have seen it all. Since most of them will be there when the pastor leaves, the pastor should keep at least two things in mind.

  • Make changes that will last – Don’t move things around solely because of your taste or comfort level. Make changes that are consistent with the culture of the church and community. If not, the church will “put all of the furniture back” when you leave. And it will create a mess for the next pastor.
  • Don’t start fights you can’t finish- Even necessary change is challenging. Every pastor will have battles. The problem is that people take sides. These people will be living and working and worshiping together long after the pastor leaves. Pastors should work to resolve conflict, especially conflict that grows out of changes they started.

So, there you are. What do you think? Anything else you think members wish pastors knew?