I keep a list of preachers I run through as I am preparing a sermon. Particular preachers have gifts and emphases I want to learn to copy, and I find it really helpful having a physical document to print off, where I can force myself to see whether or not I have addressed each critical issue. The list of names changes, of course, but I still have one.
It’s a habit we take through the rest of life without thinking. You don’t take diet advice from an overweight couch potato, but nor do you take it from someone who can eat burger and fries all week and still fit into the jeans that fitted ten years ago. Nor, if you’re smart, do you take it from someone who was a couch potato and is now fit. You take it from the person whose advice changed that couch potato, and the next one, and the next one.
The same is true about church ministry generally. There are pastors and churches I stalk online – you may not know them, but I’ve stumbled across them at the end of chain of hyper links, and one aspect of what they’re doing is soooo neat, I want to make sure we focus on it too. And, if I pick the right person, they’ve started to make their lessons transferrable, with stories from the past. As we’ll see, that’s really useful.
So, if you’re up for choosing some heroes, here are five reasons to choose with care.
1. Because success leaves clues
This is the main reason. If you can find a church which is making something work that you’re struggling with, take time to dig down deep. Trawl through their sermon series, follow the links, work back over the history. Because, while it’s not a guarantee that if you do the same things you’ll get the same results, it’s a more likely outcome than doing nothing. After a bit, you can adapt and do some free form, but first, learn from a master.
2. Because they weren’t always successful
This is the supporting reason. Don’t copy what they’re doing now – do what they did to get here. What did they start doing ten years ago that led to this outcome? What are the little daily habits which have shaped them over the decades?
3. Because they’re not always heroes
This is the correcting reason. Sometimes you will need to disagree with them, hard. At the moment I’m listening to some talks given a while ago, by someone I admire and disagree with, almost 50/50. At the moment, I’m in the bad half. Seriously bad. He’s recommended some dangerous preachers to listen to, and advised us to ‘spit out the bones’ – well, I spat out the whole thing, and a ton of his advice too. But I’m still listening.
4. Because heroes disagree.
This is the comforting advice. What works in New York doesn’t work in Paris. You can’t take from London and transfer it to rural Shropshire. Good advice in one place is often (but not always) busy advice somewhere else.
But because you’ve chosen good, strong examples, the chances are they are clear advocates for their ministry styles. So you’ve either got to choose just one hero, whom you follow slavishly, or a dozen, and learn to live with the discomfort that pastor A really disagrees with pastor B.
I remember talking to a well-known speaker about planning a conference, and dropped the name of another, equally well-known speaker, whom we were hoping to lure. “Well, don’t expect me to support your conference if you invite him,” he spat.
Deep breath. (We actually invited neither)
5. Because Superman doesn’t wear Spidey’s suit.
The problem with my hero-leaders list, of course, is that each of them only speaks with their own voice. None of them leads like any of the others, and that’s actually why they are there for me. They have strong flavours.
But if I spent my week asking myself, ‘What would Tim do?’ and then ‘What would Pete do?’, I’d drive myself mad. Because Pete would fight his issues, not Tim’s, and vice versa. Bill would tell me to ignore Jim. Jim would advocate for his niche. And so on.
So I have to choose the right hero, for the right battle.
Choose your heroes. But choose them, and use them, with care.
Who are your best examples, that you’ve found it helpful to follow?