Nine Principles to Embrace Your Inner Man
and Straight Crush It in Life and Work
I’ll be the first to admit that I am hyper-competitive. I grew up playing sports against an older brother and his friends, so I had to get tough quick. To this day, if absolutely anything can be made a competition, I’m in and I’ll play to win. I don’t care if I have to reject my 4-year old’s jump shot. In the words of the old Chiefs and Jets coach, “You play to win the game!”
Once you get a young man fueled with competitive ambition, there’s only one way to beat it out of him: put him in a local church. Typically, the local church is where brave young men go to be neutered by false humility and bored to death by stagnant doctrines.
No longer. Not now that you are about to experience “The Competitive Church: Nine Principles to Embrace Your Inner Man and Straight Crush It in Life and Work.” That’s right, sons and daughters: what you most need to be a godly and effective pastor/missionary/ministry-leader is to fully embrace your God-given competitive edge and focus every fiber of your being into crushing your competition. Let me explain.
The founder of The Competitive Church, as it turns out, is the apostle Paul himself. To a local church that’s already strong in theology and active in ministry, he concludes:
Finally, be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. Put on the full armor of God, so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes. For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. Therefore put on the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand. –Ephesians 6:10-13
Did you catch that? We are in a competition; even more, we are at war. We are at war!!! Who are we fighting? Who is our competition? To be sure, our competition is not the church down the road. We at Sojourn are not competing against Southeast, Highview, Immanuel Baptist or any other congregation. Far from it! They are on our side, fighting shoulder to shoulder with us. They may have been organized into a different unit or division, but we all respond to the same Commander in Christ. Who competes against and among themselves?
No, as Paul says, our struggle is not against flesh and blood at all, “but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.” See! We are surely not competitive enough in this battle. Pastors and churches, unfortunately, have developed the reputation of being soft-handed, easily-manipulated and fearful fops. All this is in the name of a false sort of humility that says all ambition is sinful. Further, our church structures and seminaries practically beat the competitive juices out of young men and women through long books written in other languages and feminized piety that leaves our dear brothers wearing pleated khakis and watching shows like “Get the Midwife.”
Why would God so fill us with competitive natures? Just for grade school athletics and friendly wagers on the golf course? Or did he hard-wire us, and some more than others, with that competitive edge to unleash it for great Kingdom expansion in and through the local church? If businessmen and women can be competitive in their endeavors, can we not be much more competitive—fighting back the forces of spiritual evil through the gospel of Christ, in the power of the Spirit, for the glory of the Father—in local church leadership?
These are nine qualities that any organization can do to be effective and fruitful, but they aren’t talked about in church circles and training centers. With a healthy perspective on Spirit empowered ambition and Kingdom advancing competitiveness, we can recover our inner strength and leave behind scores of great churches.
1. Begin With the End in Mind
This phrase comes from Stephen Covey’s Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, and it’s mostly just good common sense. Do you want to be an average church? Go to work tomorrow and work hard. Do you want to be a good church with some growth and renewal? Focus on tomorrow today, and plan ahead so your time doesn’t get sucked into the abyss. But do you long to be a truly great church? A church that is known as a spiritual force of love and mercy in the city? Do you want to leave a church behind to your kids and grandkids, who’ll grow up telling stories of your legacy there? Do you want to be a church that’s not just a great place to attend, but also a great place to work? Do you want to build a church that cultivates staff members staying for 20, 30, 40 years? If so, you’re going to have to begin with the end in mind. You’re going to have to build to last.
This doesn’t just mean write a catchy vision statement and do a campaign at church. You need a clear picture of where you want to be long-term and then “reverse engineer” it until you have some practical next steps.
2. Embrace Your Reality
However, once you have a clear picture of what must be in the future, you’ll need a sober assessment of your current place. You’re going to have to embrace your reality. A phenomenal leadership book by Dr. Henry Cloud defines integrity in exactly these terms—the courage to meet the demands of reality. If you want to build an airplane, you can’t just go and pick out some metal. You need to know the conditions under which that plane is going to operate. If it’s going to carry heavy cargo, you’ll need a dense, durable metal. If you’re going to launch off an aircraft carrier, you’ll need something lightweight and resilient to acceleration. In other words, the structural integrity of the material must match what reality will ask of it. Integrity is not just about having enough moral strength to not disqualify yourself; integrity is a person’s ability to know their role, play their part and build something that matters.
If you’re a small church, don’t pretend to be a large church. If you’re a large church, don’t think you can make changes overnight. Just like we as people need to embrace our God-given limits (for example, with my chronic pain and fatigue, I need to sleep an average of 10 hours/night), we need church teams and organizations that know and embrace their God-given realities. In some cases, this will mean you have to make hard decisions, get outside counsel and make drastic changes to your staffing or structures. But we’re not here to throw a baby shower; we’re here to make disciples and fight back evil. So take a good hard look at your reality.
3. Tell a Better Story
One of my friend who has read books about history once explained that many people and nations have tried to change the course of the world through politics, education, social programs and many other methods, but none have succeeded in bringing about significant change quickly. There’s only one way to bring about true and lasting change to a large group of people. You have to tell a better story.
We are hard-wired to respond to stories. That’s why God wrote the Bible as one great Story made up of lots of little stories—full of characters, conflict, events, poetry, promises made and fulfilled, and so on. It’s the same in church and organizational leadership today: if you want to make an impression, you have to tell a great story. Listen to Moses tell the Israelites to “keep your soul diligently, lest you forget the things your eyes have seen” (Deut. 4:9). Watch Don Draper sell a photo projector. Or go to HBR.org and search “story.” We connect with stories, remember stories and re-tell stories. Our God works through process.
What is your church’s story? Don’t fall into the trap that your little church is the greatest thing on earth and the only Real church in town. Don’t be an arrogant punk. Your story is not The Story, but you do have a great place in The Story, so tell it often and tell it well.
4. Be Diligent in the Little Things
If you begin with the end in mind and embrace your reality, you’ll have a long road ahead of you that will be marked by a million little decisions and actions along the way. At Sojourn East, we teach our staff and Sunday volunteers to “be diligent in the little things.” If you’re walking through the auditorium and see a gum wrapper on the ground, it doesn’t matter if you are a Kids volunteer or the preacher, you stop and pick it up. This isn’t legalism; it’s good stewardship. There’s no shortcut to fruitfulness in ministry. Outsiders should look at the church and see a hard-working group of people who care deeply about their members and operate with faithfulness and diligence in everything.
5. Invest in People, Not Programs
Churches, above all other organizations, should be quick to kill programs and even quicker to develop people. If we are going to take on the forces of sin, Satan and death, we’re not going to get very far with well-planned programs that help “close the back door.” We’re going to need an army of healthy, thriving men and women who know how to care for others, share the Gospel with their friends and lead others with conviction and skill. Churches should especially be ahead of the curve on their leaders’ personal development, continuing education and holistic health. If we’re building to last, we need to invest in people, not programs.
6. Keep the Blade Sharp
There’s an old illustration by the great preacher Charles Spurgeon. Say you see a man out in a field mowing the grass, and he stops and kills the engine. He pulls out the spark plug, flips the mower over, takes off the blade and returns to his shop to sharpen it. When the blade is fully sharp again, he returns to the field, reassembles the mower and continues to cut—with much greater results than before. Now, no one would look to him sharpening the blade and call him lazy. Lazy would be continuing to mow with a dull blade, aimlessly pacing back and forth with little effect. Kind of sounds like the state of Western Christianity, does it not? Maybe what we churches and leaders need to do is quite simple. We need to practice the essential activity of inactivity. We need to rest.
There’s another illustration I love that comes from Eugene Peterson. In a scene of the classic Moby Dick, the sailors are in close pursuit of the great white whale. While a storm rages on around them, the shipmates race to raise the sails, maneuver the ship, call out to one another, and track the mammal. Amidst all this raging mess of activity, there is one man who is completely still, totally silent. He is the harpooner. There’s only one harpoon and they’ll have only one shot at the whale. So the harpooner sits quietly in the center of the boat until he is called forth, and at that moment, he is well-rested and focused on doing the one thing that no one else aboard can do—wield the harpoon with critical accuracy. In this illustration, Peterson writes, pastors are the harpooners and a vast amount of our pastoral time must simply be spent in prayer, silence and solitude and deep Bible reflection. The Competitive Church may be busy and active in seasons, but it is also quiet and inactive in other seasons, and both are absolutely vital to its long-term viability.
7. Be a Closer
At Sojourn, we have a ton of sweet men and women who have a lot of ideas about what the church could do—get more involved in foster care and adoption, send care packages to our troops, increase our presence on social media, etc. But we have few people who can actually start something from their idea—taking ownership for doing something great for others. But we have way fewer people who can come up with an idea, put it into action, keep their hand to the plow and finish the job well. We don’t need any more “idea men.” We are even doing okay on workers. What we really need are closers: men and women who can see the thing through to the finish, and finish strong. My guess is that people who finish projects and seasons well will be the same folks who complete their careers and lives on a strong note as well. But that’s just a hunch. If we’re going to compete as a church, we can’t leave things undone. We need to be closers.
8. Own the Last 10%
I’ve read about a church that used a phrase like this, “Own the last 10 percent,” to describe the importance of pursuing feedback and review. Even when a service is over or a project is complete, it’s not really done until it’s been thoroughly reviewed. There is literally nothing in the church that’s done only once, and even then you could probably learn a lot from it. Everything should come under a loving, generous, positive review, and feedback should be a constant within every level of the organization. The job’s not done until you’ve learned from its successes and failures.
This is an essential aspect of coaching and mentoring leaders: cultivating careful self-review. At my professional coaching training, we learned a simple method (the W.I.N. method) for cultivating reflection: What went Well? What could be Improved? What are you going to do Next time? If you are diligent in the little things, become a closer and own the last ten percent, you will continually improve in standing your ground in an intense spiritual war.
9. Practice Celebration
The last ten percent should lead to celebration. Sure, there will always be things to improve, and yes, we could go straight on to getting better next time. But we need to practice celebration—intentionally setting aside time and energy to praise the Lord for his faithfulness to us and the fruitfulness of our work. Nothing crushes motivation like constant effort without celebration and reward. This can be traced back to two of the earlier principles: Tell a Better Story and Keep the Blade Sharp. At Sojourn, we often start staff and elder meetings by highlighting stories of change from our ministries. We had a huge Easter Sunday yesterday, but it was an exhausting few weeks of activity leading up to it, so our whole staff team (some 50+ men and women) are taking the whole afternoon off tomorrow to feast, tell stories and celebrate together. Is that a waste of time? Or are we keeping the blade sharp by practicing gratitude and celebration? A leadership culture of celebration and renewal will create a leadership culture of strength and joy, and the trickle-down effect will hit the whole church. The Competitive Church doesn’t race to the next battlefield; they pay a visit to the wine cellar and celebrate well.
There you have it, folks: some simple leadership principles to strengthen our battle against the forces of evil. I’m no scholar, but I’m pretty sure most contemporary Bible-teaching churches won’t be undone by doctrinal errors or cultural controversies as much as by their own organizational lack of effectiveness and by their leaders’ lack of rest, growth and celebration.
While we put on the full armor of God, and while we gird up our loins with right Bible doctrines, may we also take hold of the nine principles of The Competitive Church, embrace our inner man and straight crush it in life and work.