Resolve to do nothing

Here’s an unpopular idea for a New Years Resolution: resolve to do nothing in 2011.

That’s not the same as resolving not to make a resolution. My general pattern is to avoid them, as so many resolutions fall by the wayside before January expires, let alone survive the whole year. Rather, I’m proposing you resolve to be intentional about doing nothing. Let me explain.

There are two great Scriptures I’ve been chewing on in 2010. Both talk about the virtues of doing nothing. First, the words of Christ:

“I am the vine; you are the branches. Those who remain in me, and I in them, will produce much fruit. For apart from me you can do nothing.”

Last October, Paul McKaughan of The Mission Exchange dusted off John 15:5 in his devotional thoughts at a conference in St. Louis. He reminded us that the verse doesn’t say that we will only produce some fruit. It doesn’t say we won’t be able to do much. It says we can do nothing. I want to have a productive, effective 2011. So I resolve to remain, to abide, in Christ.

After Moses brings the two tablets down from Mount Sinai to find all Israel worshiping a golden calf, he’s not the only one who is angry. In Exodus 33, God tells them he won’t travel with them on their journey, lest he destroy them. Moses pushes back: “If you don’t personally go with us, don’t make us leave this place.” I’d rather dwell with Christ where he is than try to go anywhere or do anything in 2011. Even better if I can join him where’s he’s at work.

Secondly, in Philippians 2:3,4 Paul admonishes:

Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.

The point isn’t that I hold back from ambitious acts. The kingdom of God and his glory are of too much value to hold back. What it’s saying is that if my motives are bad, God would rather I do nothing. The HOW is important. So I need to clothe myself in humility, seeking others’ interests in a way that shows I value them over myself and over my plans. That is the way we advance God’s kingdom — by doing his work his way.

I have high hopes for 2011. We’ll see if I can carry out this resolution past January.

Advertisements

Who made you busy?

Back in January, Steve Moore posted a great vlog about busyness. He quotes Dallas Willard, from his book The Great Omission:

“God never gives anyone too much to do. We do that to ourselves. We allow other people to do it to us.”

Steve follows up that quote by asking,

“Do you have too much to do? Did God do that to you? Or who gave you too much to do?”

That’s a great point. If God didn’t intend for us to be overly busy, where is the fault? Is it our own inability to say “no” to opportunities and requests? Or is it some kind of subconscious motivation that forces us to work harder and perform? In Overcoming the Dark Side of Leadership, McIntosh and Rima point out that many people come to leadership out of past wounds that fuel a desire to perform and seek approval to an obsessive level. No amount of work, and no amount of recognition is enough because of their deep-seated need. Nonprofits and ministries are not immune to this kind of leader.

How about you? What motivates you to do too much?

What does healthy ambition look like?

I want to go one step further with the topic of ambition. It’s easy to link to someone else’s blog and take no risk with my own thoughts about ambition. I want to explore a few verses on the subject, asking two questions. One, is ambition the opposite of humility, as some seem to suggest? And two, what does healthy ambition look like?

First, let’s look at the Bible, starting with 1 Timothy 3:1.

This is a trustworthy saying: “If someone aspires to be an elder, he desires an honorable position.”

In the next couple of verses and in Titus 1, Paul lays out a string of traits needed in an elder, such as faithfulness, self-control and gentleness — elements related to humility. In verse 6, Paul lists a concern that new believers who become elders might become proud and get tripped up. So, I take from these verses that it’s okay to aspire to be an elder, but in a way that does not lead to pride.

In Good to Great, Jim Collins described the ideal CEO as a “Level 5 Leader,” the marks of which are “a paradoxical blend of personal humility and professional will,” best expressed as an ambition for the company. So, humility does not necessarily exclude ambition. What’s the difference between this kind of ambition and the version the Bible condemns? It’s the focus of the ambition.

Let’s look back at the verses in my last post on the subject. 1 Thessalonians 4:11,12 describes an ambition to live a quiet hard-working life. Why? On first glance, his reasons seem shaky. First, to win the respect of outsiders. Well, respect can be dangerous if it’s means recognition, acclaim or popularity. But Paul’s goal is to win over outsiders to the cause of Christ. He’s always focused. Second, to not be dependent on anybody. Independence can be dangerous when paired with ambition. Independence usually doesn’t align with Christianity very well. But we know from other contexts that Paul had a desire to avoid asking those he was trying to reach to pay his salary; he wanted to fund his own ministry while he worked among them. So Paul is saying in this verse that his audience should aspire to do whatever it takes to avoid any offense to the cause of Christ.

Romans 15:20 describes an ambition to “preach the gospel where Christ was not known.” Sounds to me like Paul had a healthy, Level 5 ambition to expand Christ’s kingdom. I don’t think there’s any question that Paul had humility and stubborn will. But the last part of that verse shows some of Paul’s heart: “so that I would not be building on anyone else’s foundation.” Do you see the edge in that phrase? I would think Paul opened himself for criticism for his desire to be first or to go it alone. On the other hand, I think God has given ambition to certain people to be trailblazers and entrepreneurs. Without Paul’s gift, the Church wouldn’t have expanded as quickly as it did in the first century.

So here’s my theory. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with ambition, if it’s directed correctly. There’s nothing wrong with a desire to do something great. There’s nothing wrong with a desire to be a trailblazer. And there’s nothing wrong with aspiring to greater influence. The question is motivation. If your ambition is directed toward yourself — to be great, to be known for trailblazing, to get a name for yourself, to have greater power — then you’re setting yourself up against God. That didn’t work out so well for those in Babel or for their descendant Nebuchadnezzar. But I think God has gifted people with ambition in His service. And those people can accomplish amazing things as they apply their gifts, their stubborn willpower, their strategic minds, and yes, their humility, to the cause of Christ.

Let me close with a personal story. When I was asked to be an elder at my local church a number of years ago, I questioned whether I should pursue it. One day I heard my pastor read 1 Timothy 3:1. I’d never noticed that verse before. You mean it wasn’t sinful to desire to be an elder? I’d wanted to be an elder for some time, because I thought God had gifted me with some of the qualities that make a good elder. It was the character traits that humbled me; it’s quite a list to measure up to. I noted in my journal that I asked myself a question from Steve Sample’s The Contrarian’s Guide to Leadership. Was I willing to “do” elder, or did I just want to “be” elder? Once I settled my motivations, I believe my ambition for that position met the demands of Scripture.

I still struggle to meet the qualifications, and I still struggle to do the work, but it’s my ambition to help expand the kingdom of Christ through this local church. And it’s my ambition to see Bible translation begun in every language that needs it in this generation. I think it’s my life’s work.

Why reluctance part 4: different motivations

Back to my reflections on why leaders are reluctant to step out. This one has confounded many in the Boomer generation who are mesmerized by the trappings of leadership: power, title and a corner office. Young people with leadership gifts have different motivations and priorities. For instance, family, friends and other relationships are the higher priority in the lives of Millennials and Xers. That’s not to say they don’t value their jobs and their advancement opportunities, but they want both/and, not either/or.

I heard Andy Stanley speak at the Willow Creek Leadership Summit a couple of years ago about his decision to put family first and limit his work hours to 45 a week. This personal decision, which he deemed his toughest as a leader, has now revolutionized his church, which attracts high-caliber young leaders who have the same priority. As we took a break immediately afterwards, there was a buzz among my friends. We were all grateful that someone finally gave legitimacy in that kind of setting to what we all wanted to know: could you be a leader without becoming a workaholic?

Imagine our surprise when we came back from break and heard a Boomer follow Andy’s talk by making a point about the long hard hours necessary for moving ahead in leadership. Had he even heard Andy’s message? Setting parameters on work is certainly not a popular message in upper echelons, and that creates a barrier to young people who are watching and deciding for themselves whether leadership is worth pursuing.

Let me share a personal example that goes a step beyond work-life balance. A twentysomething young man came to work for me. He was a quick worker, extroverted and full of energy and confidence. I could see the leadership gifts oozing out of him, so within three months of his arrival in Orlando, I asked him to take on a greater level of responsibility. He agreed, and he did a fantastic job. He was efficient, a real people person, and he made some great advances in his department. He had an incredible sense of work-life balance, seldom leaving the office as late as 5:01pm and often arranging his schedule to leave earlier so he could coach his boys in baseball.

While I had no qualms about the job he was doing, I could tell he was dying on the vine. It wasn’t long before he told me he wanted to find another job. The meetings and process of management were killing him. He was a people person but removed from people. He wanted to go back to a “doing job” rather than an administrative position. A year later, I’ve concluded that I moved him up too fast, and I lost him. I think I could have supported him better and framed the job around his desire to be around people. But the fact he did such a great job suggests that it wasn’t necessarily the wrong job for him. Previous generations probably would have sucked it up and worked through it on their road to “reach the top” one day; not so with this generation.

Titles and power are simply not worth the cost in health, relationships and time for important things that fall outside of work responsibilities. Bottom line: young leaders’ motivations are different. Life is more than the job you do. Titles are usually crutches to defend positional or political authority. And power is not necessarily the end goal.