Thanks for a great Conference!

It happens every year, but I think this year more than ever before. It’s Friday night, the end of a wonderful week of Conference, the highlight of every year. A bunch of pastors and people are coming to say goodbye to me, and they will invariably say, “Thanks for a great Conference!”

It’s hard to know how to respond. The reason is that I had very little to do with it. I understand and take seriously the burdens of leadership, and I am no stranger to the time, energy, resources and risk involved in this capacity. However, none of these alone accomplish what these people are seeking to convey their gratitude for as they say their good-byes.

They’re responding rather to the reality of the “seasons of refreshing that come from the presence of the Lord.” This is the difference-maker in any Conference. It is the element that we all desperately need: a season in which we can meet with God in a meaningful way. This is what sends us home with renewed vigor, fresh faith, and a new confidence and hope. All week long, the intensity of worship, the outstanding and unmistakable quality of the preaching, the anointing on the special music, the generosity of people’s giving, and the impact of the conference video all point to the amazing and present grace of God. It also is a reflection of His love for the church, the apple of His eye.

Another thing people are expressing gratitude for, in their overall assessment of their experience, is that we have a great team! In my opinion, a championship team whose members have proven year after year that they rise to the challenge of Conference week in a stellar example of service. They truly delight in serving the people and pastors, and in doing their part in the multiple tasks that Conference brings about. I don’t care what it is, it is always a memorable experience to encounter people who delight in what they do, especially when they are serving others. Why else will people take a week’s vacation time to serve others at a Bible Conference?

I can imagine the conversation as you go to your boss to ask time off from work that week:

“Okay, and where are you going on your vacation?”

“I’m not going on vacation. I’m going to a Conference.”

“Really. And what will you be doing there?”

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“Well, whatever needs to be done. I may be serving in the coffee and donut line, or serving in the nursery, the children’s ministry, or going to work setting up all the equipment necessary for the services. Or I may be working at helping with the sound, serving as an usher... cleaning the toilets and the building.”

Your boss may be left speechless, but there’s a good chance he’ll look at you and wonder where you’re really from.

This is where the church is truly at its best, and it is one big reason that Conference was a great week.

The apostle Paul makes this emphasis: “Instead, we will speak the truth in love, growing in every way more and more like Christ, who is the head of His body, the church. He makes the whole body fit together perfectly. As each part does its own special work, it helps the other parts grow, so that the whole body is healthy and growing and full of love” (Ephesians 4:15-16 NLT).

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Of course, we have a mission (Is there not a cause?), but that mission will never be realized without the TEAM. This calls for a fundamental transformation of perspective and language (the two often are connected) from Me, I, and My to We, Us and Our. I saw some of the highlight clips from the NHL and NBA championship finals. In one, much of the focus was on the runner-up and on “the greatest player in the league” – which is not an undeserved recognition. However, this player’s remarks were heavily seasoned with Me and I. On the other hand, I couldn’t help but see the contrast in the interviews with Jonathan Toews of the Chicago Blackhawks, who only wanted to talk about his teammates, and their effort, and how indispensable they were to winning the grueling drive to a Stanley Cup championship. Clearly, the focus for him was on We and Us.

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There is a deeply spiritual and strategic principle at work here. A few years ago, I read the book by James Bradley about the Battle of Iwo Jima during World War II, and that iconic picture of the four marines raising the pole with the American flag on it. That picture tells an amazing story. This is why an article by Barnabas Piper caught my attention. Let me share with you an excerpt:

“It is the story of how a beleaguered U.S. military force often gained an advantage over the Japanese because of chain of command. Every man in an American unit was trained and drilled and drilled and trained to know the process, protocol, and objective of every mission. So no matter what happened to the officers, the next man in line could carry out the duties necessary to complete the mission. For the Japanese, though, the totalitarian, dictatorial style of military leadership created highly trained, passionate soldiers who would do anything for their cause but were utterly dependent on their superiors for direction. So if a Japanese officer was killed, the morale and the mission of the remaining soldiers was undermined. The American soldiers learned quickly that a key to victory was to take out the Japanese officers, leaving their underlings directionless.

“This is a perfect illustration of the risk that lies in depending too much on a single person in any organization. The military has its chain of command. Sports have backups and second teams. Churches and businesses have... what, exactly? Often they have employees who are trained in a single role and unaware of what it takes to do another. They know the demands of their job, but are not clued in to the greater mission and cause and the specific strategy being used to accomplish it. And so when a leader leaves, there is a gaping hole with nobody prepared to fill it. And the mission suffers.”

Any organization needs to clearly emphasize its mission and strategy so that all its members know where they are going and what they are doing. From the top to the bottom we ought to seek to be irreplaceable and to faithfully shepherd God’s gifts. But we do this best as a team, discipling others alongside of us to understand what’s at stake and what it takes to accomplish this. This means acquainting, involving, and teaching them the skills, the disciplines and the details that go into a successful mission. To put it another way, everyone needs to be discipling someone else to be able to do their job. Every successful business and sports franchise understands this, which is why they are constantly developing new players at all levels to become a winning team and franchise.

The coach of the New England Patriots is Bill Belichick. Go ahead: let all the haters get it out of their system, and cry a loud “Booooo!” Okay, I hope all feel better : ). The point is that, having won six Super Bowls, he must be doing something right. What interested me was his coaching philosophy and techniques. In a story in The Wall Street Journal, Christopher Caldwell pointed out some key areas that make him a great leader. Here’s one he mentioned:

“For Bill Belichick it’s not just about talent, it’s about culture. He doesn’t find superstars for his roster, he looks for teachability. He would rather teach players to be part of a team than be individual stars. Keep in mind that quarterback Tom Brady was picked 199th in the 2000 NFL draft.” As Caldwell finished, this is what he wrote: “As games get more important during the season, teams built around teamwork improve. Teams built around talent wear out. That is why Bill Belichick is once again working during Super Bowl week, after 30 of his 31 coaching rivals have gone home.”

This truth that culture is more important than talent mirrors the DNA of the church that our Lord Jesus Christ is building. One which the gates of hell will not be able to overcome. It also helps to engender the humility, the good spirit, the versatility and the proper response to change that is necessary to “win it all.” Phil Cooke, who writes a lot about leadership and culture and media, picked this up and wrote: “Plus, having team members who want to help each other out in times of need is a rare and valuable thing.” Not to mention, it runs completely counter-cultural to the religious consumerism that is so prevalent today, and which many have pointed out and written about.

I wrote all this so I could make an opportunity to say this to all the churches, pastors, wives, delegates, and saints who have “addicted themselves to the ministry of the saints”: THANKS FOR A GREAT CONFERENCE!