Leaders Craft Environments Intentionally

Have you ever seriously thought about the fact that the way you decorate or arrange a space changes what it feels like to work or meet in that environment. Right now, offices everywhere are decorated with some form of holiday cheer. Unless you are Scrooge himself, you like it and are probably more productive. The nature of the environment changes what happens inside of it. Consider two vastly different experiences I had recently.

Two weeks ago I attended a church service in a room that was attractively staged with fabric, art, and candles–lots of them. The music was acoustic–simple, with an interesting blend of guitar, beat box, djembe, and the occasional soft tambourine. The congregation sat in a circle of chairs a couple rows deep so they might all see one another.

View of Church #2
(And of my niece, Kyliah, who is truly amazing!)

Then a week ago I attended a second church which could not have been more different from the first. The room where we met was a plain rectangular box with nothing on the walls, but wine colored paint. The floor was black painted concrete. There was no art. No texture. Nothing to invite imagination or create warmth. The rows of chairs were lined up in straight rows facing one of the large blank walls.  “Up front” all you saw was two black metal music stands and a pull down screen. The guitar player/vocalist/worship leader stood at one stand and after a few announcements, the pastor of the day stood at the other. The environment was sterile and no surprise, the response and engagement of the congregation felt exactly the same.

Two churches couldn’t be more different. Both churches were from the same denomination, the same city. Both are smaller congregations, so the difference wasn’t size. Interestingly, even though the sermon at the second church service was more engaging and provocative, I wouldn’t go back there. I would easily go back to the first church.

In the same way that non-verbal cues are so important to communication, crafting the texture and ethos of the environment where you meet or work or worship or think or create will shape everything that happens there, too. Think about your own experiences. The environment where things happen:

    • Sets expectations. As soon as people walk into a room, the start making judgements about what is about to take place.
    • Communicates values. What matters most to you and what values govern the meeting/ training/ or event people are about to participate in? How the room is set up will communicate those values.
    • Creates an invitation. What you do with the space you have invites people to participate in certain ways. Church #1 invited me into a sacred conversation together with the rest of the congregation. Church #2 invited me sit, listen, put my creative self on hold, and participate if I wanted without any engagement wit others. And, these invitations were clear as soon as I walked into the room.

So ask yourself:

    • What do I want to invite people into?
    • How do I want them to participate?
    • What forms of art, color, lighting, texture, plants, or sound could create an environment that transports people out of whatever preoccupied them beforehand and into a new space that fosters the experience and participation you long for?
    • How could you arrange the seating of participants to encourage maximum contribution?  Never settle for how others left the room before you got there, move things around until it feels right.


You don’t have to hold back until you can make permanent changes, either. In the same way a good realtor “stages” a house to show well–bring in what ever you can to stage the room where you will meet, work, etc.


What works for you?  What secrets have you learned about creating an environment that invites people into a more powerful experience? Make a comment, share the love.


Sabbaticals — More than a Vacation

[Sabbaticals part two]


A couple months ago, I wrote a piece about the importance of the on-ramp and off-ramp to a great sabbatical. Since that time I have had multiple conversations with leaders who are planning to take one. The problem is, while something inside us senses the value of a break like this, knowing what to do with that time is something that eludes us.

beach vacation

Just a couple weeks ago a long time friend said, “Hey I am starting my sabbatical in a couple weeks, what should I do? I’ve never done one of these things.” As a matter of fact, right now I know of five close friends who are in the early stages of a sabbatical. So, for the four of you, and anyone else who might be interested, I offer my best thinking and observation about what makes for a truly life-giving sabbatical.

First of all, I believe we need to own the fact that a sabbatical is about our souls. Not in some hyper-nuanced dichotomistic or trichotomistic understanding, but in the sense that our soul is that essential core of who we are. It is the essence of who we really are that shows up in but is distinct from all we do. And, the reason why this matters is because it is at this level that we can run dry in the midst of the demand and drivenness of work. I want to propose that a life-giving sabbatical is one that blows fresh wind into the sails of our souls.

I want to rally against the notion—and common practice—that a sabbatical is just a different form of work under a different name. I have heard so many stories of people who took a sabbatical to write their dissertation, to write a book, to research a “this” or to do a “that.” I am sorry, but that is not a Sabbath, it is substituting a new kind of work for the old kind. Sabbatical as a word comes straight from the concept of Sabbath for a reason. Sabbath is a day to cease from our labors. A Sabbath year for Israel was just the same, a year where they didn’t work the fields. God rested on the seventh day—he ceased the work of creation and took a day to enjoy all he had made. At the same time, a sabbath rest is more than a responsibility free vacation. It should be active and creative, not weeks on end parked in an over-stuffed chair with a remote control in one hand and a cold beverage in another.

I want to suggest that building a life-giving sabbatical calls for investing in your soul through all four-dimensions of a holistic life: Spiritual, Social, Intellectual, and Physical. Specifically, I mean that you should intentionally plan to take new ground, to experiment, and to explore new endeavors in all four areas. In each one do some things that have not been part of your normal routine.

  • Spiritually: There are so many good options, consider something new. Pursue an extended study in the Scriptures of a character or section that you have long wanted to study; spend some on a silent retreat or two; memorize a few key Psalms and meditate on them; participate in ministry alongside people you normally don’t; and expand your prayer life with new approaches and new levels of quantity.
  • Socially: Ask yourself, which relationships have gone wanting recently? Carve out time for them. Invite the people of your life to pour into your life. Block extended time for your wife and your children; time to play, dream, laugh, even to serve them.
  • Intellectually: Read, but not just in the same veins that you always read. Pick up an author you have not spent time with. Study in an area that you have taken for granted. Pursue an extended theme and read multiple authors, books, and perspectives on it.
  • Physically: Get out and get physically engaged in your favorite sport. Take up a new one. Stretch yourself. Take up a new hobby. Go to the gym. Get a personal trainer. You don’t have to sign on to a new way of life for the rest of your life. It is a sabbatical and a time to experiment.

While you are exploring all these things, let me suggest that within them you also look for ways to involve the other side of your brain. If you are primarily left-brained (data, facts, logic, etc.) then experiment with something that nurtures your right-brain (paint, draw, pull out that old musical instrument, landscape your yard, etc.) If you are already right-brained, then experiment with approaches that fuel your left-brain (memorize scripture, read critical thinkers, set up new personal regimens that you stick with for a period of time.)

Sure, there may be a theme or focus to your sabbatical; I think that would be outstanding. But the best way I know to keep that well-intentioned focus from becoming a dragon that turns your sabbatical into another kind of work project is to put equal energy into shoring up and exploring afresh the kinds of things that breathe life into your soul. While you are at it, pay attention to what is life-giving and what is not. Stop doing the things that aren’t and do more of the things that are.

And, when you are near the end of your sabbatical, go away for a retreat of silence and solitude where you focus on capturing everything you discovered. (I can’t imagine something less that three days/two nights. A week would be better.)

You see, in the normal course of life, we get lost in the demands of daily responsibilities. We learn to operate out of survival and out of duty, and slowly our soul shrivels. A sabbatical is a chance to rediscover what gives you life and specifically, what gives you life now at this stage of your life.

During this final personal retreat write yourself a summary of you “Sabbatical Lessons.” In it tell yourself:

– What was life-giving?
– What wasn’t?
– What did you hear from God?
– Does anything you discovered need to become a part of your personal new normal as you return to regular life? (New rhythms, new spiritual practices, new hobbies?) Without this last question, you risk your sabbatical becoming merely a one-off experience.

It’s your turn.

Give it some thought. If you have taken a sabbatical, how does this resonate with your experience? What other advice would you give?


{Sam, Dave, Bob, Hugh, Todd… this post was for you.}


One of the keys to a successful sabbatical has nothing to do with what you do on your sabbatical itself, but everything to do with how you transition into and out of it.

For twenty years I have watched the best practices of my peers as they have taken sabbaticals, (primarily pastors and leaders of other ministry organizations.) It is time to start sharing some of my observations and insights. I believe a sabbatical, can be a life-giving experience and it is something I whole-heartedly recommend. However, a sabbatical is not automatically helpful.

My boss, the President of CRM, will be starting a sabbatical in a couple months and over lunch earlier this week, I shared the principle for this first of my sabbatical installments: the on-ramp and off-ramp of your sabbatical shapes your entire sabbatical.

a freeway on-ramp at night.

When you are driving down the freeway and need to exit, the off-ramp is really long—in some cases a 1/2 mile or more. In fact, you start slowing down in the exit lane even though you are still on the freeway. An on-ramp works the same way in reverse. It simply takes a long distance to decelerate and accelerate without danger. Normal life is like the speed, intensity, and alertness demanded of the freeway. A sabbatical is more like the pace of residential traffic. Moving from one to the other without some kind of transition is literally impossible.

Over and over again, I’ve heard leaders who did not understand this principle talk about the frustrating start to their sabbatical. People consistenly tell me that it took a month to slow down and acclimate to a different speed. Those early weeks become the first place where the life-giving potential of a sabbatical is at risk. During this decelerating phase, people often pick up a major project to occupy their attentions simply substituting one type of work for another, even though they call it a sabbatical.

The on-ramp back to regular life is a similar at-risk phase. In the same way you cannot simply pullout into traffic that is driving 70mph, you cannot step from sabbatical speed into the full rigors of normal life and leadership without a transition—unless you want to strip all your internal gears. When leaders step back into their normal roles without an appropriate re-entry plan, they risk losing the new perspectives, new rhythms, and soul-nurturing patterns that were discovered during their sabbatical.

You see, sabbatical and sabbath come from the same root. I would argue that the genius of a sabbatical is that it affords a leader the chance to nurture their soul in a fresh way and a chance to re-calibrate the way they manage the life-giving interrelated rhythms of life-work-play.

So, lets talk specifics and make it personal.


Expect that your “off-ramp” will take about 4 weeks to fully shift gears and settle into life at a different speed. To pull this off, I suggest you start slowing down 2 weeks before it officially starts—aka. the exit lane before the off-ramp. These weeks allow for initiating and fine-tuning the systems and personnel shifts that will cover your responsibilities while you are off the clock. During this time, your calendar and to-do list need to be cleaned out. At all cost, the weeks preceding your sabbatical must not be filled with 16 hour days “preparing” to be gone! When your official “start day” arrives, the second half of your transition begins. Consider going away for a few days of retreat in solitude and if possible, take a some type of “vacation” to help formalize your disconnect from regular responsibilities.


Think about the on-ramp back to normal life as a mirrored-image of the off-ramp. I personally suggest two major practices for this re-entry.

1. A Personal Retreat: During the last couple weeks of a sabbatical, get away alone on a personal retreat where you can reflect on and capture the lessons you learned over your sabbatical. Ask yourself, What life-giving rhythms were learned that need to carry over into the next chapter of life? What insights about yourself need to infect the way you carry out your daily life and work going forward? What priorities emerged for the next chapter of your life?

2. Enter back into your regular role as a spectator for two weeks. Observe, catch up, listen to people, and attend to the taking up the baton again carefully. DO NOT plan a major “re-entry” event that will require planning and attention from you during the final weeks of your sabbatical. Do so and it will rob you of good closure to your sabbatical. One way or another, other people have been carrying the ball while you were gone, they will help you re-enter if you let them. The on-ramp is about walking alongside, listening to, catching up with, and getting reacquainted with all that is in motion. Life does not remain status quo, so, some things will have changed while you were out of the loop. A good re-entry plan provides the opportunity to leverage the potential of all that was learned on both sides of your sabbatical experience. It will give you and the work you lead the chance of a new and stronger next chapter.

What are your sabbatical experiences? If you have taken one, what insights can you add to these thoughts about the transitions in and out of the sacred space called a Sabbatical?

Time is Something We Spend–like it or not!

I havent decided if this insight is actually helpful or merely frightening. But quite literally time is something we spend.

hourglassWe can’t save it. We can’t borrow it. We can’t slow it down or speed it up. However, we can invest it—not in the usual sense of an investment that grows to become more—so that it produces a larger return.

Time comes to us in constant increments every day. Moment by moment, hour by hour, day by day how we choose how will spend it. Time passes through our fingers fleetingly, pausing just long enough for us to decide what we will do with it. I guess we can avoid choosing and let let others dictate life for us, but even that is our choice. And, that’s the thing. We spend time by the choices we make. Frighteningly, we only get one shot and once spent, it’s gone.

If you know me, you will know that I am constantly thinking about the way I live my life. I want to live my life on purpose, with focus and intentionality. I even have this little personal tool I created that I review and tweak every year. I call it “My Pirates Code,” and it defines my best understanding of how to manage my time and energy in light of the way I am wired and the responsibilities I am responsible for. But the notion of time as something I spend is a new twist.

Margaret, my wife, gets credit for naming this insight. On our anniversary a few weeks ago, we were reviewing the last year of our marriage and talking about the lessons we learned. The depth of what it means for time to be something we spend is one of those lessons that was big for us last year. Sure, it comes from reconizing that we are getting older, but, there is more to it. Over the past couple years we have lost close friends die too early. We have seen debilitating illness change the trajectory of others. And tragic accidents have interrupted life for other families we love.

None of us know what is coming down the road in near future. We only know that today we get to choose how we will spend the time we have been given.

So, I have been thinking, what criteria might help me make the right choices for how I spend this elusive commodity? I don’t have many answers, but I have identified three questions I want to continuously ask myself.

1.) If I do this, will it make a difference in the people, projects, or priorities that are profoundly important to me?

2.) Is this something that is life-giving for me?

3.) If I only had one year to live, is this something I would want to spend my time on?

So, how are you spending your time these days? If you read this, you just spent a couple of your minutes thinking about the importance of the way you spend time. So, what adjustments do you need to make?

Have you identified other questions or criteria that help you spend time well and live with intentionality? What other insights do you have for the rest of us that might help us steward the most significant commodity of life?

Mentoring Made Simple

Margaret was ten years old when a woman in her 30’s decided to start investing herself in young girls. There was no magic curriculum, no overly-structured strategy, just an authentic woman who loved Jesus and chose to love the girl that would one day become my wife.

Two weeks ago Margaret and I attended the 80th birthday party for that mentor. We would not have missed it for the world. Her children and grandchildren made her proud and the dozens of guests made it a success. But what struck me was the impact of Lenita’s life expressed through so many people to whom she had given herself. Margaret was not the only one. A handful of no longer young girls were present to honor the woman who helped them learn to be good mothers and deeper lovers of Jesus because Lenita chose to invest in them.

Margaret and Lenita on her 80th

When we walked up to the house, I watched Margaret sign into the guestbook. “Dear Lenita, you are my longest standing friend.”

It’s funny. Margaret didn’t write about the structure of their mentoring relationship, or the books they studied, or anything remotely complicated. What matters most is the depth and authenticity and consistency of Lenita’s friendship.

You see, I find that we get all twisted up over the notions of mentoring because of some funky ideas that mentoring is about structure or curriculum or Yoda-Like super-wisdom. In reality mentoring is about sharing your life, your experiences, and your perspective when needed. It is more about walking together over the long haul then solving a urgent problem in a perfect way.

Yes, there are multiple ways for mentoring relationships to work well. J. Robert Clinton and Paul Stanley did an excellent job looking at nine different types of mentoring relationships in their book, *Connecting*. However, the vast majority of mentoring is as simple as a relationship between one person who chooses to make his or her life available and another person who admits they have a need.

I like to keep it simple. I am responsible for my own mentoring. If I have something to offer, it is my responsibility to offer it. If I have a need, it is my responsibility to look for someone to help me. I don’t expect anyone to read my mind, I own responsibility for the mentoring I need.

So, let’s cut through the red tape. Who are you pouring your life into? What do you have to offer and who do you know that might need it? What are the areas of personal development you need to work on? Pick up the phone. Schedule a coffee. Do whatever it takes to get off the dime. Start asking questions and start sharing your life. Perhaps one day at your 80th birthday you’ll have someone sign your guestbook whose life was changed forever.

As the husband of a woman who’s life was marked forever, thank you Lenita.



Join the Conversation:

Your Thoughts? Your Mentoring Experiences?


The Least of These

Leaders are wired and trained to look for highly leveraged people and opportunities. We think about influence, change, courage, and about mobilizing the people who can help make things happen.

So, what about people who have nothing strategic to give back? What about the people Jesus identified as the least of these?

With my Uncle after a burger togetherAbout six years ago I became the person who looks after my Uncle. At first, it meant simply making sure his bills were paid and his medicines were in order. Then it meant taking him to Dr. appointments, cleaning out his refrigerator, and hiring in home help. Eventually he required residential care and the sale of his home. Lately, waves of dementia has him believing illusions of reality and becoming irritated at everyone–including me.

His needs are rarely convenient and being with him is never fun. My Uncle is someone like those Jesus described as the least of these. He can’t drive. He can’t hear. He has no hobbies and no real interests of any kind. He has no friends, no one who would attend his funeral. In short, there are no strokes to be gained or benefits to be earned as a result of caring for him. But, it is the right thing to do. He has no one else.

However, I have to be honest, lots of times my attitude stinks. I  am not writing this post with a dynamic climax at the end. It is simply that caring for my Uncle makes me think about a lot of things differently. While I spend most of my life working with leaders to help them shape the churches and organizations they lead, I understand in new ways that leadership is about much more than what you do in public.

Jesus said, that caring for “the least of these,” literally equals caring for him. He did not say it is “like or similar” to caring for him, but actually doing it for him. Wow. I find that so hard to believe. When I am with my Uncle, I see the face of my Uncle, I don’t see the face of Jesus. There is no glamour in taking him out to lunch and watching him eat. Can it really mean that serving someone  like him–where there is no quid pro quo, no strokes or favors to be returned–is literally an act of compassion received by Jesus?

Take a good look at Matthew 25:37-46. It will rock your world. “Whatever you did for the least of these brothers you did for me.”  … the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, those without clothes, the sick, the imprisoned.


I wonder, do you have someone who is the “least of these” in your sphere of influence? Is there anyone you avoid because there is nothing in it for you?

What have you learned about what Jesus meant when he spoke about serving the least of these?

To Go Fast — Go Slow

Here is a conundrum. The fastest way to achieve significant organizational change is often by going slowly.


The problem is that leaders live to make things happen. They thrive on taking new ground. They work to move people, ideas, and organizations toward greater accomplishment. In short, leaders are change agents. Slowly and patiently do not come naturally. Leaders resonate with Sammy Hagar’s song, “I Just Can’t Drive 55.”

A friend of mine pastors a good church with a strong reputation and significant impact. Courageously, he has embarked on a plan that will exponentially increase their impact on the lives of people and their community. However, this change will require more than new methods and curriculums. It will require a shift in culture as well as practice. He said to me, “if we try to go too fast, things will backfire.” This is one of those times when going slow is the key to going fast.

If you are a leader, there is probably at least one significant initiative on your plate right now. You can see a preferred future and you long to help your team, your employees, or your congregation get there.

I am not advocating for slower as a more noble approach. I am simply saying that organizational change is complicated. Even when necessary, it is often unwelcome. Organization change calls for time to bring people along, to cultivate buy-in, and to deal with the inherent destabilization that accompanies change. Press the accelerator of change too fast too soon too often and the resistance you’ll face can cause organizational retrenchment that permanently locks in the old ways.

Sure, some situations call for quick and decisive action. In those moments, going slowly can be irresponsible or worse. However, the impulse to make it happen now usually says more about the impatience of a leader than about what is best for the organization.


If the any of the following conditions apply, you would be well-served to slow down and allow more processing time.

    1. Your desired outcome represents a change of culture.
    2. What is being changed has been entrenched for a long time as “the way we do things.”
    3. In order to successed at implementation you will require large scale participation.
    4. Your people already feel the fatigue of multiple recent changes. All change destablizes and wears people out. The next one might demoralize the troups.
    5. Something remotely similar to the current proposal was tried without success within active corporate memory.
    6. The change you seek will touch corporate identity and when that happens personal significance feels threatened.
    7. The organization you lead is a volunteer organization, (ie. a church or club or service organization.) If this is you, start with the premise that slower is usually better and only accelerate when necessary.

Just as there are some times when you should go slowly, there are indeed time to act quickly. Here are a few of those.

    1. Your people are discouraged after a series of hard hits and hope of a better future is weak.
    2. You need minimal human resources to implement the change being proposed AND it will yield quick large scale wins.
    3. You face a crisis that threatens corporate viability.
    4. Your reputation in the community has been damaged and this initiative will address it.
    5. The core concept of this change is not only strategically helpful, but it was born as a grassroots effort. (To go slowly in this case will disempower your people.)
    6. You really are only making a decision. Implementation of change might need to be slowed, but indecision is fundamentally abdication of leadership.

So, what are you working on? Should you speed up or slow down? What do you think might be possible if you took a longer view? If your ultimate goal is to normalize a new day, what other steps are needed in your enrollment process?

Can you think of other criteria for when you should slow things down or speed things up?



{FYI: John Kotter’s book, Leading Change, remains one of the all-time best on the complex challeges of change.}

My Writing Process

I had a breakthrough experience back in January. I was on a two week writing-solitude retreat, when I woke up one morning with crystal-clear insight regarding when, how, and why I get stuck when I am writing. It came in the form of the process I personally need to follow. I can’t say that these thoughts are rocket-science and I can’t claim that this is how everyone should do things. I just know that there is a sequence I need to follow and when I don’t I get jammed up–even when I am onto something that excites me.

So, in that spirit, here is my NOTE TO SELF:

Whether I’m writing a blog post, an article, a book, or sermon… these are the steps I must follow!
writing process


IF I AM STUCK, it is likely for one of three reasons.

#1 I am trying to write before doing the work of steps 2 & 3!

(It is classic for me to be inspired by the idea and then start writing without a roadmap—bad idea.)

#2 I am trying to edit as I write.

(Yeah, I know this is a classic mistake. But I am a master at it.)

#3 I lost my bearings because I have just been working on the micro level of words too long and need to regain some altitude and get back up to big idea level.


Step away from the computer before someone gets hurt!

Creativity and macro-level thinking happen best for me away from the computer. With pen and paper, brainstorming with post-it notes, etc.  Something about the little box of a screen kills my creative thought process.

Don’t know if this is helpful to you, but it has been huge for me. If you communicate with words very often, I dare you to figure out what your personal creative process looks like.

Elasticity and Time for Reflection

Let me start with a confession. I love shooting rubber bands at people. I’m sure it started in elementary school when real weapons were off limits, but the truth is I still love that mischievous sensation of pulling a strand of rubber across my pistol-shaped hand and firing away.

And no, this post isn’t really about shooting rubber bands. It is about the connection between elasticity and what is required for leaders to have time and space for reflection.

Leaders get things done. They don’t merely mobilize others to accomplish great things, they know how to work hard and are willing to keep their head down to do whatever it takes. The only problem is, keep your nose to the grindstone too long, you get blood in your eyes.

The ability to lead with sustained creativity and clarity requires time and space for reflection. Get embroiled in micro-management, problem-solving, or personnel issues for too long and you’ll lose the perspective that is only possible with regular reflection.

That’s where elasticity comes in. Meaningful reflection requires two things: elastic time and elastic space.


Unconstrained, open-ended, or at least long enough to exhaust it’s potential. Elastic time gives you the freedom to read, write, create, or ponder without the pressure that you have to pack up and move on to other urgent stuff in a few minutes. It means you have the chance to explore rabbit trails, whether they numberswiki.com

yield anything productive or not. It can stretch and expand or contract as needed.


Reflection by it’s nature is creative explorative stuff. It happens best in space that invites expansive thought and behavior. It happens better in overstuffed chairs and fireplaces living rooms than in cubicles. Reflection is nurtured when you have the ability to spread out, to have two different books open at the same time, or to draw and sketch out your ideas. In essence it is space that allows you to multi-task without constraints.

Here’s no surprise. Making time for reflection will never seem urgent. There will always be tasks and people demanding urgent attention, while reflection feels like a luxury. She waits patiently at the side of your day offering to infuse you with fresh ideas that will take you beyond the mundane demands of your normal rhythms. She breathes life and innovation and perspective into your day to day demands. Until you say yes, you will never know what could have been.

And, try to lead for long without the life-giving infusion of reflective thought and your rubber band will dry out — only to snap on you next time you aim at someone or something else.

So, let’s ask the obvious.

1. When is the last time you had elastic time and space for reflection?
2. Where and when could you rectify that situation?
3. How much longer can you survive with your nose at the grindstone?

Your Thoughts?  Experience?