Thoughts on life, leadership and the movement called the church by Brian C. Hughes, Senior Pastor

by Brian C. Hughes, Senior Pastor

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Absence Makes the Heart Grow Fonder

Have you noticed that when you break your normal routine and 'get away', there is an inverted bell curve for your mental and emotional attachment?  I know, this sounds boring, but work with me here.

Lets say you begin your time away - vacation, for instance - emotionally attached and mentally engaged with your work.  As you being your time away, you are still processing stuff, thinking of things you didn't do or didn't tell someone else to do, all he while you keep saying, "Stop thinking about all that!  This is your break!"  This goes on for a while, and you slowly win the battle.

Then, somewhere in the middle, you reach the bottom of the curve, where you are finally able to let go.  You still think about work and home and the things you left behind, but not as much and it's not as taxing when you do.  You have finally let go, disconnected, detached.  You rest.  Get still.  It feels good.

However, as the time approaches for you to re-enter your normal life, you find that you are emotionally engaging again, even though you are physically still away.  Think of your most recent vacation and you know exactly what I'm talking about.  By Friday, you are fighting to NOT think things like, "Monday I need to be sure to..." or "I wonder if they remembered that we needed to order that...." or "I hope nothing broke or fell apart or blew up!"

All of us have experienced this.  It's the inverted bell curve of taking a time-out.

Well, imagine that bell curve was 3 month's long!  That's what my Sabbatical has been like.  The front end of the curve was relatively steep.  It took a few weeks, but slowly I found myself thinking less and less about the details of what was happening at church.  I realized our team of staff and leaders had really taken the bull by the horns, so to speak.  It became clear that the work was not piling up, but they were actually moving the ball down the field.  I wouldn't return to an engine that had been turned off and a battery that needed a jump start.  Instead, I'd come back more like a relay runner in the middle of a race.  I'll run for a while to get caught up, and grab a baton from someone who's been running the entire time.  That has been an amazingly refreshing realization for me - PCC has not just survived in my absence, it has thrived!  Honestly, I feel fantastic about that.

But now I'm less than 2 weeks from re-entry.  And having been away for so long, there are several things that I begin to wrestle with.  This is all healthy, normal, natural.  It's a part of the expected progression of the "Time Away Inverted Bell Curve" as I approach September 4.  

To be honest, there is some natural anxiety about re-entry.  I want to do it well.  I want to continue some of the incredibly healthy choices and changes that I've made in me.  I want to return as a more healthy leader, a more competent writer, teacher and speaker.  Susan and I have a healthier marriage than ever before and my relationship with my kids is better than it has ever been.  I want to continue to see those relationships thrive.  I have learned some new disciplines in my spirituality that are so invigorating and live-giving, and I want to continue those too.

I called my friend Sammy Williams about this.  Sammy is the Senior Pastor at Northminster Baptist Church in Richmond.  He's a little older and a lot wiser than I am.  He was a recipient of the Lilly Endowment Clergy Renewal Grant and took Sabbatical from his church a few years ago.  Sammy was gracious with his time and gave me lots of good advice.  Hank Brooks and Jeff Boggess, both good friends who also took recent Sabbaticals from the churches they lead, also helped me with good counsel and wisdom.

So, as my mind now begins to flood with a renewed passion for our church and my head is filled with  directions and structure, org charts, series and message ideas, new emphases and direction, I am also fighting to stay focused here.  I say to myself, "You are still on Sabbatical!!!  Get every minute of it!" And yet, there is tremendous excitement in me about coming home.  I don't dread fact, the thought of it is invigorating.

Just so you know, I'm in Colorado today, with Susan - just the two of us - in a cabin at 10,000 feet surrounded by wilderness.  A family of Elk moseyed through the back yard this morning.  The views are stunning.  The peace and quiet is palpable.  I'm used to it now.

God, grant that the peace in my soul would remain,  even as I prepare to  re-engage the life and work that  you have called me to do.  Amen.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Reading: How I Keep a Steady Book Diet Going

I've heard Bill Hybels make passionate pleas to leaders many times: Good leaders read.  That's because of a truth we know about life: we get better or we slowly decline.  This is a truth that can be applied to any facet of life.

For example, I've heard many spouses (especially husbands) make statements that mean something like this: "I don't need to read to be a good husband." Perhaps.  But I can assure you that any husband, regardless how good you are, can be better if you would read some notable books on the subject (this goes for wives, too, but far more wives are already willing to read about marriage.)  I know I'm a better husband because of the many marriage  books that have helped Susan and me have productive conversations.  They've helped me learn things I didn't know or understand -  aspects of her that I couldn't otherwise grasp. (Yes, my brothers, there ARE things you don't know about women and there ARE things you don't know about your wife and - Yes, I'm going to say it - there are things you still don't know about sex!  I know you think you've got that figured out, but you'd be surprised what a few notable works on the subject could do for your marriage!)

So, I'm always reading.  One of the things that Sabbatical has afforded me is more time to read.  A LOT more time.  But even in the normal course of my life, when I'm working full weeks and there is family stuff and other things to take care of, I still have a steady, healthy diet of books.  Here's how I make the time to make it happen without shirking something else.

Be Selective!
There was (and still is) an overwhelmingly long list of books on my need-to-read list.  Add to that a sizeable want-to-read list, and I figure that I will never finish, especially since I add two for every opus whose back cover I actually see.  

Believe it or not, I'm actually quite selective of the works I put on my list.  I'd love to read everything, because I love to read.  But time is always limited.  You can't read everything that everyone recommends.  You have to make some choices.

Which books?
One of the criteria I use is authorship.  I do read new authors, (which may be self serving, as I hope to be one of those new authors soon).  But there are some authors who have earned my trust.  They have proven not to waste my time with poor writing or incessant spider-webbing.  They know how to capture and hold my attention, say something that matters, make me think.  They challenge my theology.  They make me a better practioner, pastor, father, husband, leader, friend, or follower of Jesus.  Some of them just help take me to another place and disconnect for a while.

I also have a few people I trust who make recommendations.  Beth Stoddard says to me once or twice a year, "You have to read this book!"  I trust her. Her previous recommendations have almost always proven very fruitful.  Plus, she's not throwing something at me once a month.  There are a few others, too.

Occasionally, I pick something because of a title.  Titles are important.  Once, I bought a book while perusing at Barnes & Noble entitled, "Why Should Anyone Be Led By You".  It was an enticing question.  I can't say that it was the most riveting book I'd ever read, but it was very helpful and it was worth my investment.  I learned some things from their research and presentation that are still very helpful to me today.

How do I find the time?
I do not read as much as some people do.  But I do allocate time to consume a good number of books.  Here's how.

1) I read the Bible while I do cardio.  I intentionally choose to get my cardiovascular exercise on an elliptical machine precisely because I can do that and read at the same time.  Some people can run on a treadmill and read.  Others are able to do it on a stationary bike.  Those don't work for me, but if you're committed to it, something will.  So, four or five days a week, I read the Bible for 31 minutes & 31 seconds while I exercise my heart (sometime later I might explain how I came to that precise amount of time.)

2) I read a book while I'm doing freeweights.  People laugh at me.  I don't care.  In between sets, I digest the book I'm working on. That's 45 minutes, 4 or 5 days a week.  If you read for 30-45 minutes every day, you'll be surprised how many books you can consume.

3) Use breaks in your routine to read more intensely.  Take advantage of downtimes or slower seasons to read more.  The week immediately after Christmas is a slow time in church life, and I usually eat a book during that seven days.  I also allocate some extra time to read each summer and at a couple of other strategic times during the year.

Broad Horizons
I read on a wide variety of subjects in the normal course of my life. But I want to balance reading three kinds of books:

1) A book about my profession (church growth, leadership, theology);
2) A book about marriage and family;
3) A book that's just for fun.

So far this summer, I've finished several books, some of which I will review and recommend to you on this blog.  Henri Nouwen's The Life of the Beloved.  Beautiful Outlaw by John Eldridge; An Introduction to the Johannine Gospel and Letters by Jan van der Watt; Open Mind, Open Heart by Thomas Keating; John Grisham's latest book, and Replenish by Lance Witt, just to name a few.

I hope you make some intentional time to read.  It's important regardless what you do or what hats you wear.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Discovering a Flaw in my Value System

It turns out that Sabbatical is not always easy.  In fact, I confess that being still for this long is extremely hard.  I don't know if I was born this way, or if it's just that I've lived this way for so long, but the last couple of weeks, I've found it increasingly difficult to sit still.  Something inside of me is really yearning to go back to work, to be productive, to accomplish something,

However, there is also another voice.  That voice cries out to me: you are not just what you do.  You are more than that.  You have an identity that goes beyond what you can accomplish.  You have a title that is not linked with or related to 'Senior Pastor'.  You are a son.  An heir, yes, but sonship goes beyond possessions.  John said it like this, "See how very much our heavenly Father loves us, for he allows us to be called his children, and we really are!" 1John 3:1

The greatest benefit of being a son or daughter of God is not inheritance or status or's in a relationship with my Dad (God) that comes from being his child.

But this is a direct contradiction to something I've inherently believed (though never spoke) for a long time.

You see, I've been working since I was 13 years old.  I asked my Dad to help me make some flyers and my shop teacher let me print a bunch of them on the mimeograph machine (remember those?!), and I distributed them via my bike around the neighborhood.  People called and I grew my first customer base.  I'd pull my lawn mower behind my bike, holding it with one hand and the weedeater in the other (yes, I steered with no hands).  Sometimes I'd have to ride a good distance.  But I worked hard, produced a good product, and then I got rewarded (paid).  I was affirmed (thanked).  People would say to my parents, "That's a really good boy you have there...He works hard and does good work."  The link was implied: being 'good' (your value) is directly tied to the quantity and quality of your work.

I learned that value comes from results.

I probably learned that before I was 13, now that I think about it.  As a little kid - even as early as 5 - I was entertaining people.  I emcee'd school events, got lead roles in plays and joined local theater groups.  I learned to dance and sing, speak, act, and perform.

And I was good at it.  I stood out and was noticed.  When I was 9, my Mom enrolled me in a modeling agency.  We had a professional portfolio done, and I had work almost immediately.  I did commercials, print ads, labels for products, catalogs.  Around 8th grade, I landed a 'kid' role in a soap opera, got special permission from the school administration to miss more than 30 days of school.  I was on the set, filming once per week.  I couldn't yet drive, but I was making $45 an hour!  And I was getting fan mail (it was all snail mail back then) from people all over the world.

I got elected president of the student government association.  Principals were writing letters making wild predictions about my future (which included being the president and being a preacher, by the way).

I applied for early admission (I left high school a year early) to one of the most prestigious theater schools in the world (which was and still is VCU).  At that time, out of literally thousands of applications, they only accepted a couple hundred students each year.  I remember sitting in the interview with the dean.  He was asking me boring questions and wasn't even paying attention to my boring answers.  But when I started rattling off my professional resume - which was extensive for anyone, especially a 17 year old - he sat up straight, grabbed a pen, and gave me his full attention.  I would be granted acceptance to his department based on my past performance.

Affirmation upon affirmation piled up on me.  It was all around me.  It felt good.  It was intoxicating.

But there was a downside.  It led to a core (and flawed) belief system.  Namely:

Your intrinsic value is found in what you do.

This long Sabbatical is helping me to see (and know by experience) that this is not really true.  Listen to what Lance Witt says, 

We're often eager to listen to the voices that say, "Prove yourself, do something important, succeed, achieve" rather than God's voice, which whispers, "Rest in me; I am your shepherd.  You don't have to prove anything.  You are not an employee, you are my child." 

But let's be honest.  With all the pressure to succeed, even in ministry, it's hard to hear and really believe God's voice.  For many of us, our activity is synonymous with our identity.  It's how we convince ourselves we have value.  To feel better about ourselves we work harder and longer and become prisoners of our own illusions...

The question is,...Can we listen to the voice of our Father who calls us his child?*

The point of Sabbatical is to not produce.  To not work - at least not normal work.  Yes, I'm reading and doing some study and writing, but I'm not really producing.  (even writing that sentence is an effort to prove that I'm doing something!)  At first, it was great and fun.  But I feel an increasing sense of guilt and a little shame.  That voice says, "Shouldn't you be doing?"  "Are you becoming lazy?" "What do other people think?" And the worst one, "You aren't worth much if you don't get some results.  Make something happen." 

This is a good thing going on inside of my soul.  I think God is breaking through three or more decades of a broken value system that was built layer upon layer.  I think God is saying, "You are my son.  I am your Dad.  Does what you do matter?  Of course.   But it's not the only thing that matters.  And it's not the most important thing. You are so much more than that.  Because whether what you do is good or not, productive or not, feels good to you or not...whether other people like it or not - none of that changes your core identity.  I'm your Dad.  You are a son of the King.  Your intrinsic value was given to you before you ever did anything and is far more important than everything you've ever done or will do in the future.  Your value doesn't change based on anything you do or produce, any hill you climb or goal you achieve or battle you conquer."

I wouldn't have discovered this flaw in me with a 30 day break. I've been on Sabbatical for over 60 days, and I'm just now starting to reach down deep enough to see it...feel it.  And this is one of those times when I know the pain is a good thing.

*Replenish, by Lance Witt. p. 110-111

Monday, August 6, 2012


I was the teaching pastor at PCC, but with a new twist.  For the first time*, the message at the Powhatan Campus was delivered completely via video.  Our Tech folks pulled off something we had been hoping to do for a long time.  If you were there, I'd love to get your take on it.  I'm not reading emails or FB messages until I return, but that doesn't mean you couldn't send it to me or Beth Stoddard.

I wrote and recorded that message in May, before I left for my Sabbatical on June 3. (Read more about my Sabbatical here and there are other posts about it after that on this blog.)  I've done a pretty effective job of letting go and disconnecting from my work that I didn't even realize that yesterday was the scheduled day for that message until Beth sent the picture (above) to me.  Honestly, I didn't even remember what the message was about!

So, today, I re-read what I had written.  I don't know about you, but I know that I need to be reminded regularly about how important Sabbath is.  Why?  Simple:

God never shouts at me about Sabbath.  I never get an email from someone begging me to Sabbath.  No text messages remind me to Sabbath.

But everything else in my life does those things.  There are many voices, some shouting, some subtle, all waiting on something from me.  The volume of emails is like the sands of the sea.  The phone requires multiple charges each day from the never ending energy drain of vibrating text messages. And, of course, there is a Sunday coming every 7 days - each one calling for a fresh, creative, fun, Biblical, practical message.**

Life shouts, "There is not enough time!" 
Sabbath is our way of smiling back our confident response, "God made just enough time for each one of us."    

The world won't stop spinning simply because we Sabbath, but we will be more healthy.  I hope my family, our Steering Team, my colleagues and friends will ask me the simple question, 'Are you taking your Sabbath?' and the important follow up, 'When was the last time you had a Sabbath?' I know I will ask this of some folks I know.

Maybe this is the kind of accountability we all need to help us keep this commandment.

*We did do a video message at the Powhatan campus one other time, a few years ago.  It was of a pastor from another church.  Nobody at PCC knew who it was.  I didn't introduce it well at all.  We didn't have a center screen.  Nobody really knew what was happening.   A few folks will remember was not a good experience.  But we get better with second chances, don't we?

**Let me be clear about this: I love my work, and I like the pace of it.  The key, though, is the balance and rhythm that we often miss, and the Sabbath command is God's way of helping ensure that our Spiritual lives are a priority.