By Eddie Lowen

Build the culture you want with the phrases you repeat.

Chicago Cubs manager Joe Maddon put some thought into his team’s 2015 season motto. He unveiled it at spring training: “Embrace the target.” The sports psychology behind the motto was sound, but it didn’t catch on. Some players began using their own motto: “We are good.” They were, but not quite good enough to reach or win the World Series in 2015.

As the Cubs entered the 2016 season, Maddon joked that the team motto would be “Try not to suck” (note: though definitely slang, the word is not vulgar in this context). The more relaxed motto stuck. On November 2 the Cubs won the World Series for the first time since 1908.

When axioms and sayings stick, they make an impact. The right words, metaphors, and sayings not only reflect culture, they create it. I’ve written before about my resistance to formalizing the mission statement of the church I serve beyond the words of Jesus in the Great Commission. But once we decided on “We exist to connect everyone to Jesus and his mission,” it was transformative. Nearly everyone in our church knows the phrase by heart. It is heard in small groups and café conversations and in response to critics of larger churches.

I’d like to share some of the sayings that have stuck in the church I help lead. I hope they will encourage you to develop some sayings that help in your ministry or leadership context.

Speak up—as long as you say it to the right person, at the right time, in the right way.

Healthy teams frown on pessimism and sarcastic criticism, as they should. Every few months, I learn of another church leadership team where a staff member, or the spouse of a staff member, or a volunteer leader and his or her spouse is trafficking in division or negativity.

PrintNot long ago, I asked a church leader why a member of the church staff was being allowed to undermine another leader with impunity. The person replied, “We don’t like it, but what can we do about it?”

My response was a bit indignant. I said, “You can be faithful to the New Testament.” Every church should adopt the perspective and the prescription the New Testament offers regarding divisive rhetoric in the church. I’d summarize the apostle Paul’s approach like this: ain’t happening. Titus 3:10 sums it up. Check it out.

But as bad as dysfunction and division are, leaders must have a device by which they can raise concerns and ask penetrating questions to those who have more authority. To go a step further, I believe church leaders have the solemn obligation (to the health of the church) to share concerns they are unable to resolve on their own.

That’s not an invitation to employ stall tactics or to become the designated obstacle to progress. But it is a call to the kind of openness and healthy dialogue that isn’t based on avoidance. This type of environment produces genuine unity, one of the few must-haves for every healthy church.

We have a saying that captures this. We’ve shared it with many other church leaders and have been told it has gone a long way toward producing leadership health.

• We spend some time explaining what it means to approach the right person (usually your supervisor, whether you’re paid or volunteer), not as a last resort, not after voicing concern or “prayer requests” to others, but as an initial response.

• The right time, we explain, is often not in a meeting, or on Sunday morning, or just before the weekend, and certainly not before some prayer and reflection.

• We teach that the right way to express a concern is nearly always in the form of a question, asked with respect and kindness, and followed by a lot of listening.

There are people who have the capacity and integrity to communicate this way, but who’ve never been taught how. So, we teach people how—and how important it is to us. If we learn they cannot or will not, we allow them to step back or seek another environment. We simply won’t settle on this—and we are constantly being made glad that we hold this bar high.

Visibility x Voice = Influence

A few years ago, I realized that the people the church sees and those from whom they hear were becoming more and more important. The formula above is how I captured it.

We know this intuitively—that the folks we have up front either add to our credibility or detract from it—but we should remember it more often. Because our church is blessed with many gifted communicators and attractive personalities, we need to choose who gets more visibility.

How do we decide? Giftedness, of course. Availability, yes. But the biggest question we ask ourselves is: How good is it for our church to be influenced by this person?

Beware those who compliment you at someone else’s expense.

Church dynamics always include pitfalls. It’s the human element. I’ve helped lead churches of 200, 400, 600, 1,500, and 3,000, and I have observed that some pitfalls are slightly deeper in larger churches. Because our church has multiple worship leaders and multiple speakers (and because we’ve had staff transitions along the way), we have heard many comparisons voiced by the people of our church.

When we welcomed a new worship leader several years ago, some members didn’t adjust quickly or well. They loved and appreciated the sincere vibe of our longtime worship leader (who remained on the worship team), so the new worship leader’s hip look and presentational style gave those members an opportunity to compliment the former worship leader—at the expense of the new worship leader. And the same kind of thing has occurred among those on our staff who preach in our weekend gatherings.

So we train our staff to evaluate compliments. We teach them to beware of people who place them on pedestals and who give them exaggerated praise. Why? Because everyone who has been in the church leadership game for a while has learned that over-the-top accolades, just like over-the-top criticism, often come from people who have a need or an agenda.

It’s wise and right to humbly receive encouragement. It’s dangerous to be susceptible to flattery, especially when the person offering the praise needs to add that you’re better than someone else they ought to appreciate.

I follow Paul. I follow Apollos. You get the idea.

When evaluating people for your team, evaluate those around them.

Like most principles, this one has limits. It isn’t a universal law and shouldn’t be leaned upon too heavily. But after 30-plus years in church leadership, I have observed that it’s unwise to recruit someone for a key staff or volunteer role when those around them seem unsupportive or unhappy.

Our staff members lead teams. They must recruit people, a lot of people in some cases. They need to evaluate who is healthy enough to assist them without becoming a drain.

My wife and I don’t agree on everything, but we influence each other’s thinking. We reflect each other’s attitudes. So, teach your team to evaluate people in part by observing their closest relationships.

Eddie Lowen, lead minister of West Side Christian Church, Springfield, Illinois, writes the “Ministry Today” column semimonthly in CHRISTIAN STANDARD.

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