EIGHT "AHA! Moments" that help me flourish
I am not an old sage, but I am at the place in life and leadership where I have forty years of ministry miles behind me. As I reflect on my past, God has blessed me with several AHA! Moments, distilled truth he has used to help me blossom in life and leadership. Here are eight:
1. God has great people everywhere!
It was 1985. I was in Pasadena, California, at Fuller Theological Seminary. I was there to pursue a doctorate degree. I went with a holy chip on my shoulder. I didn’t realize I had it until I had to room with some Presbyterian dude. I was a Baptist at the time. “Presbyterians! What do they know?” Turns out this “dude” (probably 15 years my senior) knew a lot.
Our doctoral seminar coincided with the NBA Finals. It was the LA Lakers and Boston Celtics. Magic and Bird! This was NBA nirvana! When we found out games 3, 4, and 5 would be played at The Forum we ran to the PAY PHONE and ordered tickets. Game day came and we were there — about as high in the nosebleed section as you could be. We were also on the end of the court. It didn’t matter. This was the NBA Finals and we were there. It was fantastic.
When the game was over, my “what-does-he-know” Presbyterian friend and I were walking back to our rental car. He said, “You know the difference between those guys and us? The older they get the more their skills diminish. The older we get, in essence, the better we get.”
It was an AHA! Moment I will never forget.
My next trip to Pasadena I roomed with a United Methodist. What does a United Methodist know? Turns out, he knew quite a lot. It was as if God was saying to me,
Embracing that truth helps me shed that ugly coat of arrogance. It makes it a little easier to “clothe [myself] with . . .humility” as Paul writes to the Colossians.
Why is this so important? Because it is the humble God favors, the humble who learn, the humble who build great teams, the humble who know, “There is no limit to where a man can go and what he can do if he doesn’t care who gets the credit.”
God has great people everywhere. Paul knew this. He met them in Rome: Phoebe, Prisca and Aquila, the beloved Epaenetus and the woman who was a mother to him, known only as “Rufus’ mom.” In Philippi there was Lydia, Euodia and Syntyche who poured into his life. There was Epaphras and Philemon in Coiossae. And surprisingly, or not, God even used the runaway slave, Onesimus, to help.
God has great people everywhere. If you want to flourish, value and enlist their contributions.
2. Apart from me you can do nothing.
The day of my PCA ordination, God used David Nicholas to mark my life. As I stood before friends and family, David charged me to embrace the Christian leader's paradox.
Tommy, remember Jesus said, “Apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15:5), but the flip side of your inadequacy is His sufficiency. Paul said, “with Christ you can do all things.”
For me, this was another AHA! Moment. Yes, I knew the truth, but in that holy moment the words went deep. Thank you David! Thanks for driving home that point. And thank you George Müller for the living example.
George Müller provided orphan care for 10,000 children during his lifetime. Despite the millions of dollars it cost to clothe, feed, and house these children, Müller never asked for money. He made his needs known only to the Lord and then waited for God to provide. He was a man with 10,000 cares, but seemingly not a care in the world. In the pamphlet, Soul Nourishment First (1841), he unveils his secret:
It has pleased the Lord to teach me a truth, the benefit of which I have not lost, for more than fourteen years. The point is this: I saw more clearly than ever
Making sure my soul is "happy in Jesus” sounds to my critical ears too much like a children’s song, good for kids, but "Come on, I’m an adult now!” But the more I reflect on what Müller said and the more I see what Müller did, the more I realize Müller's secret was his daily practice, but looking again—closely—I see it was more than simple practice.
Müller did not say, “check off that you had time with God.” No, he said, “Don’t jump into your day until you have met with God.” Make sure you have marveled at his grandeur, basked in his grace, sought his forgiveness, and leaned into his power.
Müller is Moses, who said, "Lord, unless your presence goes with us, we don't want to go” (Exodus 33:15). Müller is Jacob, crying out, “I will not let you go unless you bless me” (Genesis 32:22-31). Müller is you or me saying, “Lord, I’m not moving into my day until my soul finds it’s joy — not in my gifts, or my downtime, or my day’s work being done, or my vacation — but in you.
“Apart from me you can do nothing!” Müller embraced that — and flourished. David embraced that — and flourished. How about you? If you want to flourish, lean on Jesus.
3. Suck it up, soldier!
Nori surprised me last year at our Church Planter’s Retreat. Nori is the wife (and widow) of David Nicholas, founding and 42-year Sr. Pastor of Spanish River Church. She noted, “Next year will be your 10th anniversary of being the Senior Pastor of Spanish River Church.” Honestly, I think only Nori, Shannan (my wife), and I knew of that little milestone. But that milestone has been a game-changer for me. It is a milestone that has come at the cost of “soldiering on.”
Interestingly, the word, “soldier” is used some thirty-six times in the New Testament.
But I think it is necessary to send back to you Epaphroditus, my brother, co-worker and fellow soldier. Phiippians 2:25
Join with me in suffering, like a good soldier of Christ Jesus. 1 Timothy 2:3
No one serving as a soldier gets entangled in civilian affairs, but rather tries to please his commanding officer. 1 Timothy 2:4
Also to Apphia our sister and Archippus our fellow soldier. Philemon 1:2
Yes, the work of God is a joy, but it is also a battle soldiers must endure. Not surprisingly, Paul urges us, “Be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord” (1 Corinthians 15:58). And James says, “Blessed is the man who endures . . .” (James 1:12).
Good things happen to those who endure. One of those good things God does through “soldiering on” in his work is build leadership confidence or leadership security. For me, it is a confidence that has come at the end of ten long years in my role as Senior Pastor.
I sent a note to one of our sons recently that highlighted the power of the 10-year mark.
I was doing a little reflecting work in my journal this week and a part of that had to do with my leadership. There’s something about the "10-Year Mark” at SRC that the Lord has used to instill a leadership confidence and security. But it’s not so much the simple passing of time, but the stepping up and stepping into the leadership moments (often uncomfortable moments) the last 10 years that God has used to temper me.
For me, that leadership confidence came with passing through tests over time. I could have walked away at year five, or seven, or even nine, and I would have been a stronger leader for my time in the leadership saddle, but having spent 30 years as a “#2 guy,” I needed the full ten years in the leadership saddle — ten years with tough calls and difficult days and sometimes unpleasant meetings to help me learn how to ride and how to endure. I would often whisper to myself, “Suck it up, soldier. This is the work God has given you to do.”
If you want to flourish, “Suck it up, soldier.” Endure the leadership highs and lows.
4. When words and heart don’t align, don’t keep going. Stop and assess!
I sat in my office surrounded by the elders of Spanish River Church. I was sharing with them my desire to take a sabbatical. While this practice is somewhat a staple of those in the academic world, it is relatively rare in churches, and probably even rarer in the business community. The practice is gaining ground in many disciplines, but I need to explain why I was asking them for three months off (with pay).
I told with the men who serve as overseers at SRC,
I have been doing this work for a long time. I know the right things to say. But right now my heart is not “feeling it,” and when my heart and my words are not aligned, it's not good. It’s not good for me and it is definitely not good for Spanish River.
The reasons for a sabbatical are probably as unique as the people who seek them, but some of the basic reasons are:
A change of pace from relentless regularity: Church work is relentless; delightfully so, but relentless nonetheless. The job of caring for people, helping them grow, sharing the truth of Jesus with those far away from God, prayer needs, relational needs, financial needs, and family need — physical and spiritual — are never ending. And then there are Sundays. As many of us in church leadership say, “Sundays come with great regularity.” The work is great, but the relentless regularity is wearing.
A time to replenish creative energy: Having to deliver a fresh (new) message each week takes enormous creative efforts. Delivering that message drains physical resources. One study noted that preaching a 30-minute message is equivalent to an 8-hour-work week. Spiritual and creative batteries get drained. They need a “trickle charge” to renew. A sabbatical can be God’s trickle charge.
A holy retreat from spiritual adversity: Paul, an early leader of the church, highlighted the essential spiritual nature of the Christian life. He likened it to a battle being waged against the leader and for the souls of people. No one stays on the front line forever. Soldiers periodically need a leave. The same is true for preachers.
An opportunity to enjoy family continuity: The more public the leader’s role, the more likely the family is to suffer. Pastors and church leaders devote countless hours to pouring into other families; at times at the expense of their own. A sabbatical offers unhurried time to invest in one’s family.
These words from Paul are so important:
If you want to flourish, pay attention to YOUR LIFE and teaching. Take time to step away to fill up!
5. “I need an old man!”
I was in my late twenties when I met Dr. Charlie McCall. At the time he entered the doors of our church, he was a retired physician. Charlie had worked at the M.D. Anderson Cancer Clinic in Houston, Texas. He understood the human body and the important elements of good health. So what words of wisdom did this medical veteran have for the budding preacher? We were standing in the parking lot of our church offices when Charlie offered two simple sentences I have never forgotten:
"Listen to your body.”
"Tommy, you have to listen to your body.” If you feel a cold coming on, address it. If you're back aches, address it. If you are gaining pounds, address it. If you are depressed, dig down deep and address it. Simple, but powerful. How many people have gone to their graves because they refused to listen to early warning signals their bodies were sending their way.
“The time to rest is when you are tired.”
This is so simple, but so counterintuitive. We think, “I’m tired, but I will muscle on.” Foolish. The yawn is your body furnishing an early warning signal. Stop. Take a walk. Take a nap. Don’t simply fuel up on coffee or Red Bull.
Charlie is one of many people who have shaped my life with their invaluable insight — because I allowed them (even asked them) to speak into my life.
When I transitioned to serve as the Senior Pastor of Spanish River Church ten years ago, two older guys spoke into my life. Their words found a home deep in my soul. Here are the words and how they shaped me:
“Moses my servant is dead.” When I assumed the role of Sr. Pastor, a wise friend (who loved David Nicholas, my predecessor) asked me, “Do you know the first words God spoke to Joshua after he assumed the leadership of Israel?” “No, I don’t” I replied. He said, “The first words God spoke to Joshua were, “Moses my servant is dead.” He let that hang there. The implication was this. Remember your predecessor. Honor your predecessor. Appreciate the love others have for your predecessor. But your predecessor is not the leader anymore. You are. Lead!
“Tommy, you’re not David.” Another friend (a lifelong friend) pulled me aside. He said, "Tommy, you’re not David. David was . . . . but that's not you. You are a teacher and a writer and you have to lead out of your gifts.” That too was invaluable. Both words steadied me when I needed it the most. They helped me lean into this season of my life and to do so in a way that is keeping with how God has wired me (Romans 12:3, 8).
I see the power of an older voice in this piece, the author of which I do not know:
I need an “old man.” I need someone who has asked the same questions, and doesn’t think I’m a heretic. I want to know that some pastor out there made it. I want to know that he didn’t have to lose his sanity or morality to do it. I want to hope that I will really be more than what I do, and stay true to who I am. I need an old man. I need [someone] who will show me his scars so I’ll know I can survive being cut open … I’m not sure I need a model, just a person who is willing to talk honestly.
If you want to flourish, find an old guy, a mature woman, and ask that person to speak into your life. And when they offer it — and you don't really want to hear it — listen anyway.
6. I must know my rhythms for maximum effectiveness.
I read Gordon MacDonald’s Ordering Your Private World some thirty years ago. I have re-read it so many times portions of it are deeply embedded in my life. One such portion is MacDonald’s words about the importance of weekly, monthly, and annual rhythms for our lives. He writes,
I must know my rhythms for maximum effectiveness. . . . There are various tasks I accomplish best at certain times and under certain conditions. Ordering Your Private World, 94.
When do you study best, exercise best, sabbath best? What rhythms do you have for them. This is so important! Thinking about this truth, I believe we all have to ask ourselves: “Where will my current rhythms take me in ____ years?” Let’s dig in here for a bit:
Where will your current sabbath rhythm take you?
Where will your current exercise rhythms take you?
Where will your current family rhythms take you?
Where will your current reading rhythms take you?
I am amazed at the number of leaders in my sphere who are overweight. Many are in their 20s and 30s. I wonder, “Metabolism is not static. Where will they be in 10 years at their current pace?” The same could be said for reading or pausing to rest.
Some rhythms must change. Some rhythms we must keep — and carefully guard them.
When Shannan and i got married, we honeymooned at The Inn at Gristmill Square, a quaint bed and breakfast in Warm Spring, Virginia. We went back there on on fifth anniversary. The time was so good we determined to go back every five years. 2021 will mark our 40th wedding anniversary. It will also mark the eighth return trip to our little honeymoon hideaway. This is a life rhythm, the benefit of which, we feel more acutely as the years roll by.
How about you? What are your rhythms? Your daily, weekly, monthly, annual rhythms? Where will your current rhythms take you ten, twenty, or thirty years from now. If you want to flourish, evaluate your rhythms. Knowing them and then adjusting them toward your bigger goals is essential for life and work.
If you are looking for some help, check out The Leader's Magic Hour .
7. Every preacher is a limited edition of one.
I heard this nugget of wisdom from Warren Wiersbe, the great preacher and exegete. Wiersbe died earlier this year. I never met him, yet he has marked by life like few others. I heard Wiersbe’s words of wisdom at a time when I was struggling to find my voice. I would hear other preachers and feel the need to imitate them.
I was becoming a spiritual copycat. But that’s not what God wants. Reading Paul, I realize God wanted me to be the best version of me I could be for him.
In his book, Let Your Life Speak, Parker Palmer relays a delightful tale about Rabbi Zusya. As Palmer notes, the story "reveals, with amazing brevity, both the universal tendency to want to be someone else and the ultimate importance of becoming one’s self: Rabbi Zusya, when he was an old man, said, “In the coming world, they will not ask me: ‘Why were you not Moses?’ They will ask me: ‘Why were you not Zusya?”
Palmer’s story and Wiersbe’s maxim are a reminder that to flourish I must discover and lean into the person I am before Christ and the gifts he has given me to serve him. That’s what he wants. That’s what he will hold me accountable for in the last day.
8. God is bigger than that.
I am not sure when the obvious became conviction, but no matter what I face, God is bigger than that! This truth runs throughout the Scriptures. Jeremiah gives us one such snapshot:
No matter how big my giant in life, "God is bigger.” David believed that because David experienced that. I have too. Many a Sunday my preaching task looms as a giant frustration. I’ve worked. I've studied. I’ve prepared. I’m almost there, but something’s missing. I cry out in my journal, “God, help!” And many a Monday my journal reads, “God came through.”
God is bigger than my dreams, my doubts, my disappointments, my headaches and my heartaches. “Is anything too hard for the LORD?” the LORD asked the barren Sarah. No. Nothing is too hard for Him!
This is part of Paul’s argument in Romans 8. If God went to such great pains to send Jesus to save you don’t you think he will carry you all the way through to the end? Of course he will. And he can, because N-O-T-H-I-N-G is too hard for the Lord.
Keeping that truth in mind helps me remember, “I am nobody’s savior.” Jesus is the Savior. I am the servant. Jesus is the one coming back on a white horse, not me.
This morning I am delivering these truths to a couple hundred of my peers. It is a daunting task . . . but a little less daunting when I remember, “God is bigger than that.” He is the Savior. I am the servant.
God is so good. He does not reserve “flourishing” for a select few. It's his gift to the righteous, folks made “right” because of His goodness, not theirs.
May God himself make you flourish!