Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Loving Houston

UBA is about to undertake one of the greatest initiatives in her history, and it’s called Loving Houston. Loving Houston will be a three-year initiative involving three major components.  The first part is now behind us.  It was the Transforming a City Conference featuring Eric Swanson and Sam Williams.  If you missed it, we will post some videos online so you can get a sense of what we did.


The second part is scheduled for February 24-25, 2013.  It will be a Loving Houston Mobilization Extravaganza, starting with a city-wide Sunday night service hosted by Second Baptist Church followed by conferences the following day.  The purpose of the conferences will be to better equip us to take on lostness and to prepare us for a major initiative next June … our Loving Houston:  Crossover 2013 Initiative.


Let me tell you about Loving Houston:  Crossover 2013.  The Southern Baptist Convention will be meeting here next June (2013).  As part of their meetings, volunteers come from across the country to share the love of Christ in word and deed with folks in the host city.  The North American Mission Board of the SBC asked if we could organize opportunities for them to serve while they are here.  We went way beyond that!


Next June we want to mobilize our churches (and volunteers who come into our city to help us) to love on our city!  


Once, after Jesus had been teaching all day, he saw that folks were hungry and had no food.  He told the disciples to feed them.  How?, they objected.  We don’t have any food.  You know that story.  It’s commonly called the feeding of the 5,000 (though actually there were many more there than that if you read the story closely).  Jesus told them to gather what resources they had, small amounts of bread and fish, blessed it and used it to feed the people. 


In that same vein, as we look around our city we see lots of needs … areas of our city that need beautification, homes that need to be fixed, widows and widowers that need to be cared for, folks that need medical and dental assistance … the list goes on and on.  We want to do something to help them, to meet their needs.  We won’t be doing it so they become Christians so much as we’ll be doing it because we are Christians, Christians who want to show the love of Christ in deed and word to our city.


We will have some fun along the way … sports clinics, fun runs, three-on-three basketball tournaments … and we will use events like that to build relationships, share the gospel and raise money to fund the projects.  We will invite Baptist Builders, Disaster Relief teams, student teams from across the country and a host of others to help us.  But the heart of it all will be the participation of our UBA churches.


It’s going to be exciting, fun and rewarding in so many ways.  My hope, when all is said and done, is that lots will be said and done to show Christ real and the church relevant to our city.

Monday, October 1, 2012

FAQs about My Sabbatical

It's the first day back in the office and I've already been asked countless times, "So, how was your sabbatical?"  That's the first question, then others usually follow, so I thought I'd provide a FAQ sheet on my sabbatical.  Here goes.

How was your sabbatical?

Great.  Perhaps you'd expect me to have a more prosaic word at my disposal than "great," but in truth that's what it was … it was great.  

What made it "great" for you?

A series of things.  I had a number of great experiences, read some great books, took some great courses in areas where I wanted to learn more.  Like I said, it was great.

Can you be a little more specific?  What kinds of experiences?

I was invited to spent a few days in North Carolina speaking to the state convention's executive leadership and the state directors of missions about thinking like a missionary and it was fantastic.  Among the participants were five young adults involved in a future leaders mentoring program.  During our first session together where we focused on the Great Commission, a young woman left the meeting.  It seemed something was troubling her.  She returned after the session to talk.  God had made it clear during the session that he wanted her to serve as a career missionary, and the call was so clear and compelling she had to step out to compose herself.  In our final session she shared her call to missions, a fitting conclusion to our time together.

I also spoke at the first Send North America conference in Atlanta, led a pastor's retreat in Utah, met with a group of key directors of missions in Portland, Oregon, had lunch with Drayton McLane and Lewis Timberlake in Austin … I had some great experiences.

In what areas did you focus your learning?

I wanted to learn more about the brain and how it functions.  I wanted to study decision-making because I think that's one of the critical skills for every leader.  I wanted to develop the right side of my brain, the creative side, so I studied things like the arts and story-telling.

What did you read?  How did you go about studying in these areas? 

I read several books:  Walter Isaacson's biographies about Steve Jobs and Einstein, Jim Collin's latest book, Great by Choice, Jonah Leher's How We Decide, and portions of Michael Roberto's Why Great Leaders don't take YES for an Answer (which I intend to finish).

Just before I began my sabbatical I discovered The Great Courses (  They video take some of the nation's leading professors teaching on a variety of subjects.  They courses are roughly the equivalent of a semester of college (or grad school) lectures on a topic, along with a course book and follow up questions for the really motivated.  

I "took" courses in neuroscience (the study of the brain), game theory (which is about critical decision-making), Einstein's relativity and the quantum revolution, decision-making (your deceptive mind and critical decision-making), even a course on innovation and how to think differently.  

The arts have always fascinated me, music much more so than other types of art.  So I tried to expand my understanding of music and the arts as well.  I also have a number of other courses I intend to take, things like creative writing (guess it's obvious I haven't completed this one yet) and the great ideas that have shaped our lives.  

Discovering the Great Courses was one of the best things about my sabbatical. 

Did you do anything just for yourself?

Sure.  I began running again, lost a few pounds, and got in better shape physically.  Sandra and I went on a cruise (our first but we don't plan for it to be our last!).  I played golf with friends.  So it wasn't all work with no play.  But I'd have done those things whether I was on sabbatical or not (except for the running).

Anything else?

I took time to think, to reflect, to ponder, to pray.  Those are things that we do in spurts, but sabbatical provides more extended time for these activities.  Those were perhaps my richest moments.

So any insights you gained?  Any final impressions?

Lots of insights, and I'll share them along the way.  Looking back, I do think I tried to do too much, and I didn't get everything done that I wanted.  That probably reflects my work ethic and desire for folks to appreciate the importance of taking a sabbatical.  It's time away, but it's time spent sharpening my skills as a learner and leader, so I wanted to ensure it was time well spent.

I still have one thing left.  This weekend Sandra and I will head to east Tennessee for the national story-telling festival.  When I come back, I'm sure to have some great stories to tell.

Monday, June 4, 2012

Stepping Back, Going Forward

Creativity must be hard work, even for God, for the Bible says after he created the heavens and the earth God "rested from his work of creation" (Gen. 2:3).  I really don't believe God stopped because he needed a break, but I think he stopped because he was through … at least to that point.  But in stopping, taking a break, God established a pattern for us to follow.  Later Moses would teach that every seventh day all of us should rest.  Every seventh year even the land should rest.  Let it lie fallow, Moses said.  Don't exhaust it by planting a crop every year.

When Jesus walked among us, he took time to get away from the crowd apparently to think through what was going on, to pray, to plan his next steps, and to make significant decisions.

So the idea of getting away, changing your routine, taking time to reflect, think, pray, ponder, plan, and anticipate must be a good thing.  Apparently the leaders of UBA thought so many years ago when they instituted our sabbatical policy.  Once every five years UBA leadership is permitted to take three months for a sabbatical.  

It's not a vacation.  I'm sure the first thing many think about when they hear that is, "wow, I wish I had a three month vacation."  I wish I had a three month vacation as well because that is not what a sabbatical is.  Sure, there is a break from driving into the office each day, and the number of appointments and meetings is significantly curtailed.  But that's so we can focus on other things, things vitally important to our work.

During my first two sabbaticals I studied the concept of metropolitan areas (the city), the missional church and church planting movements around the world.  In the second sabbatical I studied the effectiveness of using church planting methodology in Europe and the US.  In both instances my research became foundational to the work we are doing in UBA and the course for our work in UBA in the years that followed.  

Later this summer I will begin my third sabbatical (July through September).   Each year, whether on sabbatical or not, I choose a topic and delve deeply into it.  In recent years I have studied creativity and entrepreneurial leadership.  One of the books I read last year, Daniel Pink's A Whole New Mind, became formative as I planned my sabbatical.  I want to build on my study of creativity and entrepreneurial leadership by studying two widely divergent topics:  the arts and the brain.  I will study the arts (music, painting) to learn to be more creative, as Pink describes it to cultivate the right side of the brain.  My undergraduate degree was in psychology.  Even as a teenager I knew that we needed to understand the brain in order to understand people.  So I'll be studying the the brain and the field of neuroscience.  I'll also take courses and read in the area of  decision making (probably laying the groundwork for future seminars in the area).  (For fun I even plan to take a course in physics and everyday life.  Yep, that's what us nerds do.)  In doing so I believe I will enhance my ability to lead UBA.  In addition, I have been invited to speak at a number of events across the US and outside our country where I'll be sharing the UBA story. 

I am able to take a sabbatical because we have such a highly competent staff and great leadership in UBA.  The moderator team (Jeff Waldo, Jeff Berger and Jerry Edmonson) will work closely with the UBA director team (Dian Kidd and Ron Towery) and our great staff in my absence and provide stellar leadership.  UBA won't miss a beat.  That's mildly disconcerting, I'll admit, but highly satisfying knowing that the work will go forward.  

I haven't decided whether to post anything in this blog while I'm on sabbatical.  If I do, I probably will post them as I want, not be bound by the strictures of a monthly article.  So check back from time to time.  When I return we will be focusing on 2013 and the great things we are planning ahead for UBA.  I can't wait to tell you about all that's in store.

As I close, let me encourage our churches to consider offering a sabbatical for your pastor and staff.  Those who have done so talk about how valuable it is to both the church and their leaders.  If you'd like to know more about UBA churches that offer their staff sabbaticals, call Dian Kidd cause I'm going to be on sabbatical.  :-)

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Do Associations Have a Future?

There was a time when, if E. F. Hutton spoke, people listened.  At least, that's what their advertisement would have us believe.  When people wanted an instant picture, they would take out their Polaroid camera, snap a picture and wait a minute for the image to magically appear.  When they needed to travel around the world, they would board the most experienced airlines in the world, Pan American, and fly away.  But not today.  The stock market crash of 1987 and some scandals inside the organization led to the demise of E. F. Hutton.  Digital photography put Polaroid out of business.  And a decade of financial losses grounded Pan Am.
Remember these companies?  Trans World Airlines, PaineWebber (brokerage company), General Foods (Sanka, Kool-Aid), MCI Worldcom, Arthur Anderson (consultants), Woolworths, Standard Oil, Eastern Airlines, The Pullman Company (the railroad folks).
How about these Houston companies:  Continental Airlines, Compaq Computer, Enron.
What do all these companies have in common?  They no longer exist.
Last week I was in Atlanta at the North American Mission Board for a meeting to discuss the future of associations.  Several directors of missions from across the country were invited to the white board discussion.  We met to discuss whether or not associations have a future in Baptist life, and if they do, what is it?
As you might expect, I believe associations do have a future, but there are others who think associations are going the way of E. F. Hutton and Pan Am.  Times are changing, they say, and associations are no longer needed like they once were.  There is some truth to that.  Once our national agencies and state conventions developed programs and tools for churches, and the local association was the main place to learn about these and to receive training.  But now we have other ways folks can access training:  internet (webcasts, online training), YouTube, DVDs.  Once geography and doctrine determined affiliation.  If you were Baptist, you were probably linked to other churches in your county or city through the local association.  But today geography and doctrine are much less of a determining factor.  New kinds of associations are emerging based on affinity that often even cross denominational lines:  e.g., Willow Creek Association, Saddleback Association, Acts 29.  The association, they say, is going to go away.
Time are changing.  Churches no longer need the association for some things as they once did, but that doesn't mean associations are no longer needed.  The association was formed because people wanted to get together and churches wanted to work together.  That hasn't changed.  People will always want to get together with like-minded folks.  They will always choose to work with others because they know they can do more working together than they can working alone.  Associationalism won't go away, but local Baptist associations will need to change in order to remain a vital part of Baptist life. **
When I graduated from college, a friend gave me a little book packed full of short, pithy sayings.  One I've never forgotten:  when you're through changing, you're through.  What I want you to know is this:  in UBA we are constantly changing in order to serve you better.  We believe we are successful when our churches are successful because we exist to help and support the work of the local church (it's not the other way around).
Do associations have a future?  Yes, for now … and for as long as they are catalysts for advancing God's kingdom through the local church.
** In other blogs I've written about the shifts taking place in UBA.  There have been three primary iterations of the association in our history.  Today we are on what I've called UBA 4.0.  I'll not go through those again.  If you are interested, go back to the blogs from March through May, 2010.

Friday, March 30, 2012

A Matter of Death and Life or Life and Death

"For hours after their boat sank, Ken Henderson and Ed Coen treaded water in the Gulf of Mexico, talking about life and death while struggling to survive.  For more than 30 hours, it worked.

"Then Henderson, 49, a retired Montgomery County sheriff's deputy, was forced to make a decision that would save his life, but not his best friend's."

That's the way the story on the front page of the Houston Chronicle began this week (3/28/12).  It's not my intention to retell the story, nor do I want to exploit it in any way.  But I could not read the story without making some personal reflections, especially at this time of the year when we celebrate Easter.  (If you are interested in reading the story, click here.)

Ken and Ed didn't plan to make any life and death decisions that Thursday morning when they set out to sea.  The only thing in jeopardy in their minds were the fish they were going to catch.  But that's not the way things went.

Their boat took on water and eventually sank.  The friends found themselves adrift in the cold waters of the Gulf of Mexico.  Minutes turned to hours.  Day turned to night.  They did everything they could to keep each other alive.  No one came to rescue them.

After being adrift for more than 30 hours, they made a desperate decision.  Thinking it was their only chance for survival, they decided to cut the strap that bound them together so Ken could swim away to find help.  Both agreed it was their last best hope.  They knew it was a life or death decision.

Easter is all about life and death decisions.  Judas made one when he betrayed Jesus.  The religious leaders made one when they put Jesus on trial.  Pontius Pilate and Herod Antipas made one when they sat in judgement upon Jesus.  The Roman soldiers probably thought of themselves as just following orders when they crucified Jesus, but they, too, were making a life and death decision.

No decision was more a life and death decision than Jesus' decision in the Garden of Gethsemane when he decided to fully obey the will of God and offer his life as a sacrifice for the sin of mankind.  It was a matter of life and death, or, I suppose, a decision of death and life.  Through his death Jesus was offering the gift of life to all who would believe.  And aren't we glad he made it!!

We don't think of ourselves as making life and death decisions.  That's usually the purview of doctors, judges, soldiers, and others, not us.  Or is it?

When we ride the bus into work, talk to a neighbor over a backyard fence, enjoy a midday meal with a co-worker, engage in small talk on the sidelines at our kids' ball game we may be making life and death decisions.  If we know the gospel and they don't, and we fail to share it with them, we could be making a life and death decision by not telling them, by not giving them the opportunity to become a Christ-follower.

Easter … what a story ... Jesus died, was buried, and three days later stepped out of his tomb … alive! ... victorious over death.  It's a story of death and life.  This Easter tell  this wondrous story of God's love to a friend, a family member, a co-worker.  It could just be a matter of life and death.

----- Houston Factoid

According to the Glenmary report, fewer than 50% of Houston residents identify themselves with any religion, and only one out of 5 identify themselves with evangelical Christianity.  For the vast majority of Houstonians, hearing the gospel story is indeed a matter of eternal life or death.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Show Me Some Love

"Show me some love." Those weren't Jesus exact words when he told the parable of the talents (see Matthew 25:14-46), but that's what he was saying.
How does Jesus expect us to show him some love? Jesus encouraged us to minister to the needy among us as a way of showing our love for him. "I tell you the truth," Jesus said, "whatever you did for one of the least of these..., you did for me."

Every day at the Mission Centers of Houston they are showing Jesus some love. The Mission Centers of Houston (formerly known as the Baptist Mission Centers) is a ministry of UBA. Ginger Smith has served as the director this ministry for the past ten years. Every week they reach out to the under-resourced and under-served inside the 610 Loop in a myriad of ways ... giving out food and clothing, providing ESL and job training classes, holding after school programs for kids, week day programs for senior adults and much more.

Let me share with you some of the results of their ministry in 2011:
  • Food was given to over 34,625 people (not all food is recorded)
  • Clothing was given to 17,566 people
  • 4,472 people received MCH services for the first time as new clients
  • 552 Bibles were distributed
  • 565 scripture portions were distributed
  • Every week an average of 153 senior adults, 115 children (ages 4-9), and 73 youth (ages 10-17) participated in MCH programs ... that's almost 350 people per week being ministered to through specific ministry programs (not including food/clothing distribution)
As a result of showing Jesus (and others) some love, people are coming to love Jesus! One hundred and thirty-four (134) people became Christ followers last year (that we know of, could have been more) as a direct result of MCH's witness and ministry.

How is this ministry supported? Some of the money for MCH comes through the UBA budget ... this year, 4% of all undesignated receipts or about $48,000 goes to MCH. But that's not nearly enough.

The majority of their funding comes from direct contributions from folks and churches like yours! Last year MCH received $651,589 through direct contributions and special fund raising events.

Much of the actual work of MCH depends upon volunteers. Last year 33,458 volunteer hours were recorded. What's that worth? In dollars, using standard accounting practices for non-profits, it's worth about $ 714,662.88! Thanks to all the individuals and churches, youth ministries, missions teams that serve so selflessly!

But for all the support they receive, the need is always greater than the resources they have available. Which means, MCH needs you to show them some love. They need you to give, to serve and certainly to pray for their ministry.

What are some things you can do?
  1. Learn more about MCH and the ministry by going to their website: As you learn, pray for Ginger and the ministry.
  2. Lead your church to adopt a specific MCH initiative like Feed 365, feeding the hungry 365 days a year (my home church--Woodridge Baptist--has been actively engaged in this great ministry).
  3. Attend one of the fund raising events and give. For example, I love to play golf, so I am a Gold Sponsor of the MCH Classic … a golf tournament in which all the proceeds support the work of MCH.  For more information and to sign up, go to  If you don't play golf, but know someone who does, tell them about it.
Thanks to Ginger, the board and staff of MCH, for all you do to show the love of Christ to others.
PS:  For an update on what's happening at Trinity Pines Conference Center, another ministry of UBA, check their online newsletter by clicking here.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

A Match Made in Heaven

Some things just go together -- ham and eggs, biscuits and gravy, macaroni and cheese, salt and pepper, bow and arrow, Amos and Andy, open and shut, night and day,  left and right, the list could go on and on.  These are all famous pairs.  It's just hard to imagine one without the other.
Here's a pair that came up in a discussion last week with some key church leaders -- good deeds and good news.  We were talking about ways of mobilizing churches to take on lostness when someone said good deeds and good news go together.  What a great reminder that was.
Dr. Rodney Stark, sociology professor at Baylor University, who has spent a lifetime studying the growth of the church has come to one undeniable, indisputable conclusion:  the gospel spread and the church grew because good news and good deeds were always tied closely together.
Life was difficult, especially in major urban centers, around the time of Christ.  Ancient cities were remarkably crowded.  Buildings were close together.  Streets were narrow, not much wider than footpaths.  People lived in crowded cubicles.  (To get a feel for what it would have been like, imagine living on a popular beach in mid-summer.)  When population density is high sanitation is a problem. Filth was prevalent (soap hadn't been invented yet).  Where there is filth, there is disease.  Illness and physical afflictions were probably the most dominant feature of daily life.  To top it all off, their cities were far more crime-ridden that our modern cities.  (So much for the "good old days.")  This is what urban life was like when Jesus came.
Jesus came into the world to save sinners, the Bible says.  Jesus carried out his mission with both words and deeds.  He taught with authority, and he went about doing good.  He preached the kingdom, and he healed the sick.  He called upon people to repent, and he handed out food to the hungry.  Jesus told his disciples to love others as he had loved them.  Following his example they went forth preaching the gospel and doing good!
"Christianity," Dr. Stark says in Cities of God, "did not merely offer psychological antidotes for the misery of life; it actually made life less miserable!" (emphasis mine)
Dr. Stark continues:
"The power of Christianity lay not in its promise of otherworldly compensations for suffering in this life, as has so often been proposed. No, the crucial change that took place in the third century was the rapidly spreading awareness of a faith that delivered potent antidotes to life’s miseries here and now! The truly revolutionary aspect of Christianity lay in moral imperatives such as “Love one’s neighbor as oneself,” “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” “It is more blessed to give than to receive,” and “When you did it to the least of my brethren, you did it unto me.” These were not just slogans. Members did nurse the sick, even during epidemics; they did support orphans, widows, the elderly, and the poor; they did concern themselves with the lot of slaves. In short, Christians created “a miniature welfare state in an empire which for the most part lacked social services.” It was these responses to the long-standing misery of life in antiquity, not the onset of worse conditions, that were the ‘material’ changes that inspired Christian growth."
There is much we can take from this, but the thing I want us to note is this:  the mission of UBA is to "mobilize churches to take on lostness."   We want our churches actively and assertively sharing the gospel with those who've never heard it ... and we want our churches working to make a difference in their communities, dealing with the real life issues people face.  That's why I get excited when I hear our churches baptized over 10,000 people last year and cleaned up parks, restored homes, renovated elementary schools, handed out food, repaired automobiles for single moms.  That's the way it ought to be.
Good deeds and good news go together.  They are a match made in heaven.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Jesus? Yes! Church? YES!

I've heard more times than I care to remember folks saying things like, "Jesus? Yes!  But church?  No.  Not interested."

I understand why folks might feel that way.

Popular media will often cast the church in a negative light.  The church is often presented as opposing progress, trying to enforce archaic moral values, and teaching quaint but outdated fairy tales.  Sometimes we are our own worst enemies.  Church leaders do things that bring disgrace to the church; the news media is not hesitant to report cases of clergy sexual abuse, financial mismanagement, or any of a myriad of other indiscretions.  Add to that the plethora of other  religious options -- e.g., eastern mysticism, moderate and radical Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism -- which are the consequence of immigration trends.  What right do Christians have to tell others what they believe is wrong (and what we believe is right), that they should cease being Hindus or Jews and become Christians if we can't get our own act together?

Newsweek Magazine (April, 2009) went even further when it announced the end of Christian America.  Al Mohler, a seminary president and defender of the Christian faith, was quoted in the article saying, "The most basic contours of American culture have been radically altered.  The so-called Judeo-Christian consensus of the last millennium has given way to a post-modern, post-Christian, post-Western cultural crisis which threatens the very heart of our culture."
Is it true?  Is America turning away from Christianity?  Is the church outdated, irrelevant … a social appendix, a vestigial organ that now serves no useful purpose?
I wondered.  Being a nerd (who spends most of his time trying to not let folks know that's who I really am), I began to wonder what the world would be like if Jesus hadn't come, if the church didn't exist.  Would the church be missed?  Has Christianity really made a difference in our world?

This is an especially relevant question for me since UBA exists to help churches spread the good news of Christ, to encourage people to become Christ followers, to help churches make a difference in their communities.

So I began to do one of the things I do do best -- read, study, research.

And the conclusion I came to is this:  the Christian faith and the church has been foundational and fundamental to our Western way of life -- to many areas of related to human rights -- the treatment of women, care for children, abolition of slavery, care for the sick--to capitalism, to our scientific world view, even our current educational system.

Over the next few months I'll unpack some of what I've learned in my research.  I'll show you what a radical difference Christianity has made.  And I hope you'll end with the sense that I have now -- that we can be proud of who we are and what we believe, that the world would be a much different place without Christians and that sharing our faith is one of the best things we can do for both the eternal and temporal destiny of folks.

That doesn't mean I'm blind to the shortcomings of the church.  The church isn't perfect.   We have our critics and we need to listen to and learn from them.  Church members and church leaders are not always well-behaved.  There are times we we should be ashamed an apologetic.  But we need not be ashamed of the gospel nor the difference it has made in our world!
Next time I'll start showing you just how.