Monday, February 25, 2013

4 Guidelines to Achieving Excellence

A mysterious combination of human effort and divine grace (enablement) exists in every human accomplishment. High impact people, as a rule, insist on excellence. In the sports arena, the church, the arts, the worlds of academics, business, and politics, we discover a common theme. Accomplishment comes from human effort executed with excellence. In humility, we understand, as well, that it is God who gives us all abilities. After all, who do we think we are?

So, an appropriate question might well be, "in my work how can I perform with excellence?" Consider these suggested guidelines.

First, plan your work. Ask yourself, "what am I trying to accomplish?" Be specific. Put in writing what you want to accomplish. What does the end product look like? By putting your aspirations in writing, you are forcing yourself to be more specific, more exact, and less confused. As you carefully formulate what it is that you desire to accomplish, you will begin both to value and appreciate your project.

Second, organize your work into bite-size components. Big projects break down into a series of smaller projects. Whenever I have written a book, for example, I have always outlined the book first and then written one chapter at a time. Most books are simply a collection of essays connected by a sequential series of commonalities and similar themes.

As you organize your work, make sure to assemble any necessary tools. The right tool, albeit a book, a resource, whatever, can save an immense amount of time. The final organizational task is to allocate the time. It is true that work expands to fill the time allotted. It is also true that any worthwhile project will take time. So, schedule it! Work off of a deadline. When do you anticipate completion?

A third guideline (and this may surprise you) is to ask for help when and where it is appropriate. The old biblical insight, "you have not because you ask not,"  is true on multiple levels. Who can coach you? Advise you? Guide you? Assist you? I am always amazed at how great tasks attract people who want to have a part.

A fourth guideline (is this Tom Peters' "blinding flash of the obvious?") is that you must be diligent in your work. This means sustained effort without distractions. The Bible word, "patience," means to "bear up under the load." That is what I am writing about. Refuse to quit until the work is complete. Make it a sustained priority. And when the project is complete, then review, edit, and polish. Make sure there is nothing missing. When you are sick and tired of reviewing, do it again. Every great writer knows that when the first draft of a manuscript is finished, it is still less than half complete.

Finally, when the work is really done, celebrate and reward yourself! What gets rewarded gets done. So look forward to the accomplishment. Enjoy the fruit of your labor! And do not settle for anything less than a standard of excellence!

Do you have more tips to achieve excellence? Please share in the comments. 

Friday, February 22, 2013

Principles of Effective Communication

Over the next few weeks I’m going to share some aspects of what I have taught in preaching classes and included in the textbook I wrote called A Primer On Biblical Preaching. If you are a Liberty Theological Seminary student, you may recognize it as the Homiletics textbook. These principles are beneficial to anyone who has to speak for a living. Of course this applies to ministers but should also prove beneficial to teachers, business leaders, and anyone else who has to stand up in front of a crowd and say something constructive.

One principle I stress repeatedly is the necessity of preparation. I do not believe anyone can be over-prepared before they speak. Besides being the antidote to fear (in speaking, the less prepared you are the greater your stress and fear), preparation is also the pathway to excellence. (I wrote some more thoughts on preparation here.) Why anyone would settle for mediocrity when they can strive for excellence escapes me.

Preparation for a preacher or public speaker comes in two packages, the macro and the micro. The macro package is how we plan for the year. I encourage my students to plan their preaching a year at a time. When I was a senior pastor, I would plan my January sermons in September or October so we knew ahead of time where we were going. Then, I would take a week some time between Thanksgiving and New Year’s to plan out the rest of the upcoming year's messages. In preparation for that planning week, I would keep a file folder of interesting articles or notes that I accumulated over the year. If it was interesting, I would save it in my file. Sometimes I would shoot or scan something of interest on my smartphone. Do not be afraid to tear out articles from magazines or newspapers. Evernote is a fantastic tool for this. I would also keep a notebook of observations and insights that I would consult. In my planning week, I would take my calendar, determine how many weeks I would have for a series, then schedule a new sermon series beginning on major breaks.

In my planning week, I would mark resources that I knew I would need in next year's preparation. For example, all New Testament sermons would have a photocopy of the Greek text, AT Robertson's Word Studies for that text, and Reinecker's commentary on the Greek text. Coupled with that were a few select commentaries and any articles I considered helpful.

I would create a file folder for each sermon I intended to preach in the upcoming year. Each would be labeled with the date, series title, sermon title, and the text. By the first of the year, I would have a complete set of files for the entire calendar year. By doing this, I would work smarter, not harder. By taking this approach, I would have better series, better sermons, and better services.

Please be reminded that it is easier to deviate from a plan than to have no plan. Even with a plan, you can be flexible when necessary.

This is a snapshot of my macro approach to preaching. If you will incorporate a model like this, you can save time and preach more effective sermons. Next week, I will address the micro package. What can you do on a week by week basis to be more effective?

Monday, February 11, 2013

What Are You Passing On to the Next Generation?

Each one of us is constantly passing on what we have received. In the same way that Paul described his teaching concerning the Lord's Supper to the Corinthians, "that which I have received, I have delivered unto you," (1Corinthians 11:23) by our words, our deeds, and even our attitudes, we are passing on what we received.

Now, let me tell you about two great saints that passed what they had onto me. Their names are Floyd Simpson and David Mills.

Floyd Simpson spent years serving as a pastor before he went to work at the old Baptist Sunday School Board now known as LifeWay Christian Resources. One day he called me and asked if I had The Great Books of the Western World collection by Encyclopedia Britannica. When I said no, he related that he had a set that was not being used and asked if I would like to have them. I said yes and have enjoyed them now for well over a decade.

In the same manner, David Mills one of my Deacons and a Bible teacher in our church called me one day and asked if I had the collection of 20 Centuries of Great Preaching. This anthology of historic sermons from biblical times to the present is the classic collection of great preaching. When I said no, he said,"I want to give them to you." What a nice surprise. I have used this set of books as I have taught preaching over the last five years.

From both Floyd and David, I received books they were not going to use but have been invaluable to me. More important than books, however, was their encouragement.

All this leads me to ask you, what are you passing on to the next generation? Attitudes, possessions, words, and examples are all important. Let's be intentional in what we pass on. And for what we receive, let's express our gratitude.

Friday, February 8, 2013

Who Will You Imitate?

Historically, and especially in the ancient world of the Greeks and Romans, one principal method of learning was to imitate someone who was considered a master of their craft. "Watch what we do and emulate it" was a standard method of teaching. This might find its expression in the exercise of a trade, a skill in the world of art, public speaking, or writing.

I recently read an interesting book penned by William Cane, Write like the Masters. In this volume, Cane writes a brief essay on each of twenty-one different writers suggesting that one way to learn to write better is to imitate what these "master writers" do. He points out unique traits of Charles Dickens, Ernest Hemingway, and George Orwell for example. Then, he suggests that the burgeoning writer emulate some of the writers' distinct techniques. Hemingway was known for being heavy on nouns and verbs while avoiding adjectives and adverbs. He used few commas and frequently strung his sentences together with simple conjunctions. If one paragraph was long, the one to follow was, as a rule, brief. All the other writers, too, had their unique trademark styles. Interestingly, some great writers were known for imitating the styles of masters whom they respected.

Now, I use this "imitating" pedagogy in writing to bridge to a biblical principle found in 1 Corinthians 11:1. Paul writing to the very troubled congregation in ancient Corinth wrote, "Follow my example, as I also follow Christ." The word "follow" may be translated "imitate." It comes from the root word from which we get the word "mimic." Here, Paul is instructing believers in a less than ideal context to act, think, and talk like he does himself. In short, he says, "watch me and repeat what you observe." Of course, the qualifier is "as I follow Christ." His point? "As long as I follow Christ, imitate me!"

Here is the lesson: when you want to learn from someone, make  sure they not only say the right things; check their track record. Are they a doer? A practitioner? The Apostle James wrote that it is of critical importance for us to be doers of the Word and not hearers only. Hearing and talking are not enough. It is imperative that we be doers. So, when you want to learn from someone,  choose someone who actually does what you want to do. If not, you might be sorely disappointed.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

My #1 Advice to Young Pastors

It was over thirty years ago. I was still teaching Evangelism at Southwestern Seminary and had just accepted the invitation to become Wedgwood Baptist Church's Senior Pastor. Taking a few minutes to browse in the school's bookstore, I ran into one of my favorite professors, Dr. Tom Nettles. At that moment I got a chance introduction to a gentleman who would subsequently heavily influence my life. Dr. Jim DeLoach, Senior Associate Pastor at Second Baptist Church in Houston was up on the "Hill" for some meetings.

Dr. DeLoach asked me if I'd like to come down and spend the day with him at Second Baptist. This began a mentoring relationship that lasted several years.

As the pastor of a growing and exciting congregation, I had many more questions than answers. So, I would spend a few months of ministry writing my questions down as they came up, then travel down to Houston. There, I would spend the day going question by question, page by page. I would write down Dr. DeLoach's wise counsel. That mentoring relationship was of incalculable value to me. The many insights and lessons he taught me are still with me to this day. No doubt, many of the things he taught me, I have passed on to others over the years.

I hope that if you are a young minister, you have someone to turn to for guidance and support. If you need help, the best thing you can do is ask for it. May the Lord bring a Dr. DeLoach into your life! On the other hand, if you have some miles of ministry under your belt, maybe you need to keep an eye out for somebody who needs you! Often God's solution to our challenges is not a "something" but a "someone."