Book Notes: Scary Close, Brain Savvy Leaders, The Best Place to Work

I have been blogging less lately as a lot of my writing time has been taken up by book edits. So instead of long book reviews, I wanted to give some quick hits of some great books I’ve read recently. I thought this would be great timing if you are looking for a good book to read on vacation or a long weekend (like this weekend)!

bookScary Close: Dropping the Act and Finding True Intimacy is Donald Miller’s latest book. Like all his books, it is funny, sad, heartwarming, encouraging and convicting all at the same time. I appreciated his journey through intimacy and letting people in. I resonated with a lot of what he had to say in terms of the struggle men have with intimacy. Easily the biggest takeaway was the chapter where he describes the three circles (which I used in a sermon not long ago). The outer circle is the me I want you to see; the middle circle is my shame; the inner circle is the me God created and called me to be.

bookBrain-Savvy Leaders: The Science of Significant Ministry by Charles Stone was fascinating. I love reading his blog, and the connection of ministry and the brain is very interesting and often overlooked. There was a lot of science in this book that Stone tried to make accessible, which is difficult, but the takeaways for pastors are numerous. Section three is worth the price of the whole book as Stone shows how your brain keeps you from being productive, what is going on in your brain as you deal with ministry hurts and emotions, how to move change through your church, how that change is affecting the brains of people in your church and the science of brains as it relates to teamwork. I kept reading and seeing things that didn’t make sense before or why someone reacted the way they did or why something affected me the way it did. Walking through this book was like a big light bulb coming on.

bookThe Best Place to Work: The Art and Science of Creating an Extraordinary Workplace by Ron Friedman was another great book I read recently. In it Friedman shows how to create the best place to work. What makes this so relevant to churches is that many churches are not a great place to work. The teams can be toxic, and staff can feel overworked and under appreciated. As a Type-A personality, the chapter on why forceful leaders can develop the least productive team was eye opening and convicting.

Summer Reading List


Summer is a great time to read books. The longer days, trips to the beach and the pool, time in the car. If you aren’t careful though, you can end up reading the wrong books or miss the opportunity. While I won’t get through all of the books on my list (or even finish all the ones I start), here a few in different categories I’m hoping to read:

History: I love history and recently have been enjoying reading more of it. This summer feels like a time to spend some extra time on history books.

Leadership: It is impossible for me to not read some kind of leadership book, so that will for sure happen this summer. Here are a few:

Soul: Leadership can become all about doing and tasks, spending time with people, meetings and sermon prep. Summer is a great time as a leader to work on your heart and soul, grow who you are.

Novels: I don’t think pastors read enough novels or books for fun. On vacation, these are my go to books.

Future sermons: Summer is a great time to work ahead on sermons and do some background work. This fall, I’m preaching through Acts so I’ll start working through some books on that.


The Entrepreneur (Church Planter) Roller Coaster

Recently, I’ve been reading some great books written by entrepreneur’s. Mostly because the application to church planters is uncanny. A few of my favorites are The Hard Thing about Hard Things, Chess not Checkers, The Everything Store, Creativity Inc.and How Google WorksIf you are a pastor or a church planter, you are an entrepreneur and the wisdom in these books are incredibly helpful to those tasks.

Even though most pastors don’t believe that.

Enter Darren Hardy, the publisher of Success Magazine and his latest book The Entrepreneur Roller Coaster: Why Now Is the Time to #Join the RideDarren share some of his best insights, but also many from his interviews with the world’s top CEO’s and leaders for his magazine. Simply fascinating. The insights were incredible. I felt like I kept highlighting parts of the book!

Here are a few that jumped out (if you are a pastor or planter, simply insert church/church planter when it says business and you’ll see the wisdom):

  • The first and most important factor in building a successful business is that you have to love it.
  • The mistake people make is that they judge one person’s “front of stage” persona with their “back of stage” reality.
  • Work is gonna suck 95% of the time. But that other 5% is freaking awesome!
  • After years of studying the success of the world’s leading achievers across a spectrum of disparate fields, my conclusion time and time again has been that those who are at the top of their game are really just people who have found something to love.
  • When you step outside the status quo, you become a giant mirror for those who stay, reflecting back their cowardice.
  • The higher you climb on the ladder of success, the more people will dislike you. Climb high enough, and people might even hate you.
  • We spend most of our lives pursuing success, but I’m not sure we stop often enough and ask ourselves: What does success mean to me?
  • The person who knows how to get, keep, and cultivate a customer gets paid the most. Period.
  • One of the fastest (and most common) ways to derail your roller coaster car and send it to a fiery death is to hire and keep the wrong people.
  • Your people are your most important recruiting tool.
  • Great leaders know that businesses are nothing but a group of people brought together to accomplish a mission.
  • You cannot shape or create the culture. The culture of an organization is not a whiteboard exercise done with executives sitting around a conference table spit-balling ideas. The culture of an organization evolves around the people who make up the company. The culture is the personality and character expression of the people in it. The only way to shape that culture is to focus on hiring people with the attributes you want your culture to have.
  • Great people want to work with great people. It’s self-perpetuating. It’s the number one thing people are looking for.
  • Great people want to be a part of something great.
  • People don’t go as fast as they can. They don’t work as hard as they can either. They aren’t as disciplined as possible. They aren’t as positive-minded or enthusiastic as they can be. They’re only as fast and disciplined and positive as you are.
  • The leader’s responsibility is to draw out the talent, drive, and capability of the people on your team. Your job as a leader is to grow your people.
  • Activity is not productivity.
  • The greatest threat to your productivity is keeping yourself from getting awash in low-value activities.
  • Any time you feel overwhelmed, there’s a good chance the culprit is a lack of clear priorities.

As I said, if you are a leader, this is a great book to have on your summer reading list.

7 Leadership Lessons from Extreme Adventurers

What can leaders learn from athletes and adventurers that push themselves to the limit and beyond? Who climb the highest peaks on the planet and ski to the furthest reaches of the globe?

A lot.

Enter Alison Levine and her book On the Edge: The Art of High-Impact Leadership.

Here are a few things I think pastors can learn from extreme adventurers:

1. Waiting on the fixed lines for too long can be dangerous and can jeopardize a summit bid. While climbing, you can run into traffic jams of other climbers and get stuck. Frostbite, loss of oxygen, tiredness, running out of food and water while you wait. All of these things can be a disaster while waiting. Churches often find themselves waiting to make a decision and miss an opportunity. Too many committees, teams, voices, people who need to say “yes” can all lead to a missed opportunity. While maybe not physical death like on Everest, it can lead to the death of your church.

2. People often forget that the top is only the halfway point. The majority of deaths on big peaks occur after people have reached the summit, because they have used every ounce of energy they have to get to the top and have nothing left to get themselves back down. It is easy for churches and leaders to run hard through a season (say Christmas, Easter or the fall kick-0ff) and then immediately roll into the next season without catching their breath. You need to make sure you either break, slow down or leave something in the tank for the next season. It was mind blowing to me when I read this part of the book, that more people die on the way down because they pour everything into getting there.

3. A great fallacy regarding progress is that it is defined by constant forward motion in the same direction. We assume that any steps in the opposite direction take us further from our goal. Not true, sometimes we have to go backward in order to make progress. Leaders can get impatient and want to push through when their followers, churches or cultures are not ready to move forward. Sometimes, what seems like a waste of time or slowing down can actually be a good thing.

4. On the subject of recruiting talent: “Screen for aptitude, then hire for attitude.” Churches are horrible when it comes to hiring. The turnover of pastors is astounding, volunteers quit and burnout, people serve in the wrong roles. People take jobs at churches they don’t like, working for pastors they can’t stand. Building teams is something many pastors can do better at, because the team determines where the church ends up.

5. Leaders should never expect the people on their teams to take any risks that they would not be willing to take themselves. This is a basic leadership principle, but one that many forget. Leaders set the pace. They set what is okay, what is acceptable and what is not. Leaders should not have different rules. While there are some benefits and things that come with seniority, being the boss as opposed to being an intern, everyone pulls the weight.

6. People are more willing to risk their lives and well-being for people they know. Pastors struggle with friendships and building strong teams, but your effectiveness as a leader will come from how well you do both of these things. As a leader, your best friends don’t have to be the staff you work with, but you should spend time with them. You should know them and they should know you.

7. Landscapes can change in an instant. In extreme adventures like climbing Mt. Everest, this is incredibly true. The same is true for a church. A culture can change, you can get thrown out of the place you meet in, you can lose a number of members, the economy can tank and giving goes down. You can lose a staff member on short notice and in an instant, everything is different. While you don’t need solutions for every worst case scenario, you do need to be prepared for things changing without notice.

For more from her adventures, check out Alison’s Ted Talk below.

How to Set Yourself Apart

Denise Brosseau new book Ready to Be a Thought Leader?: How to Increase Your Influence, Impact, and Success was a book I wasn’t sure I would like or find relevant, but I had a few guys recommend it to me. I’m so glad I read it. This book is for anyone who wants to create a niche, standout in some area of life or business and I found it incredibly helpful as I think about writing and leadership.

  1. True thought leaders have expertise, passion, and a track record of changing the world. They become thought leaders when they rise above themselves by sharing their knowledge so that others can change the world, too. There are experts in every area of life, people that other leaders look to that are set apart by success, knowledge but also being able to make things simpler. They often figure things out others haven’t yet or put things in a way that everyone else says, “that’s so simple, why didn’t I think of that.”
  2. A thought leader is defined by her or his ability to galvanize others to think new thoughts, modify the way they have always done things, and embark on new behaviors, new paths, and new actions to transform the world. Thought leaders then create followings of their ideas. They become the person others talk about and say, “have you read so-and-so’s blog?” “Do you follow so-and-so on twitter?”
  3. Align your time, energy, and resources around one niche and you’ll open far more doors than if you focus in multiple unrelated arenas. This was one of my biggest takeaways as it pertains to my writing and speaking outside of Revolution. I’ve been too unfocused on that and need to narrow my focus. Really eye opening for me. 
  4. Great leaders invent the future they want. I don’t understand those who talk like there is nothing they can do about their future so all they can do is sit back and wait for it to happen, wait for someone to notice them or wait for someone to give them a free ride. That isn’t coming. If you want to do something, start doing it. I remember talking with someone who did not blog, wasn’t leading anything and they wanted to write bible study curriculum but they hoped someone would just sign them up to do that. Start doing what you want to be doing in 5 years. 

  5. Sheryl Sandberg, author of the bestseller Lean In and the COO of Facebook, argues, “Done is better than perfect.” It doesn’t have to be perfect, it needs to stop being put on hold though. 
  6. The best brand reputation for a thought leader is being knowable, likeable, and trustable, being someone who provides value to others. That last line is something I am zeroing in on in my leadership and writing. How can I be more helpful to someone else?

If you are looking to create a personal niche in writing or speaking or as an expert in something, this is a great book to pick up.

9 Things Churches Can Learn from Google

I think there is a lot churches and pastors can learn from business and entrepreneurs. Whether that is Pixar, Amazon or Ben Horowitz, there has been a bunch of books published by these great leaders recently sharing what they learned in building their companies. Add to the list How Google Works by Eric Schmidt and Jonathan Rosenberg. There are a lot that leader can learn from Google’s practices.

Here are 9 takeaways from google that can help pastors and churches:

  1. The way to challenge Microsoft, we said, was to create great products. The way any church challenges anything they face is to be great at what they do. This doesn’t mean you set out to be better than another church (although plenty of churches see other churches as competition sadly), it means you figure out what you can do, who you can reach and be the best at it. 
  2. Smart creatives, though, place culture at the top of the list. To be effective, they need to care about the place they work. This is why, when starting a new company or initiative, culture is the most important thing to consider. The old adage, “Culture trumps strategy” is still true. It determines what gets done, who you hire and who stays with your church. Before working on a vision or strategy, make sure your culture is what it needs to be.
  3. People who believe in the same things the company does will be drawn to work there, while people who don’t, won’t. This is one of the hardest thing for a pastor to get: your church is not for everybody. Your church will not reach everybody, and that is okay. The faster you as a leader can help someone determine if they should be a part of your church, the better. Whenever we have a newcomer’s lunch, I am very clear about who we are, who we feel called go best reach and how we go about that. I talk about what we do AND what we don’t do as a church.
  4. When it comes to the quality of decision-making, pay level is intrinsically irrelevant and experience is valuable only if it is used to frame a winning argument. Too often, leaders hold tightly to decision making and who makes decisions. Bring people into conversations, tap into their expertise when you are making a decision. Get their insight, even if they aren’t on staff, an elder or have been at the church for awhile.
  5. Small teams get more done than big ones, and they spend less time politicking and worrying about who gets credit. Small teams are like families: They can bicker and fight, or even be downright dysfunctional, but they usually pull together at crunch time. I’m a fan of smaller teams with less people. I think committees in most churches are too big and keep the church from accomplishing things quickly.
  6. Determine which people are having the biggest impact and organize around them. Decide who runs the company not based on function or experience, but by performance and passion. A leader always needs to be on the lookout for the mover and shakers, who people gravitate towards, who has their pulse on a church and be around them. Learn from them about what is happening and what they are hearing and why people are following them.
  7. Burnout isn’t caused by working too hard, but by resentment at having to give up what really matters to you. Burnout is something I’ve written a lot about and so I found this take on it interesting. I wonder if many pastors burn out because they wish they were doing something different in their job or were spending more time on things they aren’t spending time on or spending time with people they don’t spend enough time with.
  8. A problem well put is half solved. I love this. What are you trying to solve? What is the problem? Most issues that churches are trying to solve aren’t the issues or aren’t that important. Make sure what you are solving is actually the problem.
  9. Spend 80 percent of your time on 80 percent of your revenue. This is such well-known, old advice that you might wonder why I include it as a great takeaway. It is true. And pastors do not often abide by it. They waste so much time on things that do not bring return or aren’t things they should be doing. Every year, a pastor should take stuff out of their job description so they are focusing on the most important things.

The book was a great read and if you are a leader, you should add it to your reading list.

How to Overcome the Weaknesses That Matter

One of the best leadership books I’ve read in a long time was Leadership Blindspots: How Successful Leaders Identify and Overcome the Weaknesses That Matter by Robert Bruce Shaw.

In it, he defines the term blindspot to refer to an unrecognized weakness or threat that has the potential to undermine a leader’s success. But this is bigger than leadership. Every person has blind spots in their lives. These blindspots are often what other people see but rarely do we see our blindspots, hence the name. Our blindspots though stop our careers before they get started, creating a ceiling on our effectiveness and keep us from having the life we long for.

  • An executive I know believes that leadership, when all is said and done, is simply making better decisions than your competition. I’ve said before that the longer I am a leader, the more I believe leadership is simply making decisions. It is the same with getting ahead in any area of your life.
  • Leadership strengths are often found in close proximity to blindspots. An overpowering strength, in particular, usually has an associated blindspot—one that is sometimes problematic and sometimes not, but always close at hand. If you want to know what can hinder your success in any part of your life, look at what you are strong at. If you are an eternal optimist, always believing and hoping for the best, this can easily derail you when pessimism would be more helpful. 
  • The question that a leader should ask about each weakness or threat is, “Will this weakness or threat, if not addressed, cause serious harm to me or my organization?” Or, stated differently, “If my thinking about the impact of this weakness or threat is incorrect, can I live with the potential consequences?” Not all blind spots can be changed or should be changed. Some should be noticed and managed, not ignored. It is important to know what your blind spot will do if left alone. 
  • Solving problems is sometimes easier for a leader than identifying the problems that must be solved. This is true and one of the reasons many people do not overcome weaknesses in their lives. They don’t see them, they don’t look for them. Instead of solving the issue of why people are leaving a church, we argue about songs or the carpet. Instead of looking at sin in our lives, we point it out in someone else’s life.

All in all, this was a helpful, helpful book. I loved how Shaw looked at not only personal blind spots, but also team dynamics and organizational blind spots and how they can miss opportunities because they aren’t ready for them.

9 Leadership Principles from Amazon and How They Apply to Your Church

I just finished The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon by Brad Stone. As a reader and a parent who buys Christmas gifts, Amazon has gotten a lot of my money and time. The book was a fascinating look at their culture and the leader who started that culture.

Two things stood out about Amazon and Jeff Bezos: their focus on the customer and their desire to be the biggest and best store online, hence the title.

Here are 9 things I learned and what pastors can learn from Bezos and Amazon:

  1. “We are genuinely customer-centric, we are genuinely long-term oriented and we genuinely like to invent. Most companies are not those things. They are focused on the competitor, rather than the customer. They want to work on things that will pay dividends in two or three years, and if they don’t work in two or three years they will move on to something else. And they prefer to be close-followers rather than inventors, because it’s safer. So if you want to capture the truth about Amazon, that is why we are different. Very few companies have all of those three elements.” This is the driving force of everything Amazon does. How many churches can say they have that kind of clarity, and that kind of clarity on reaching people who don’t know Jesus. Churches get lost in committees, programs, finances and lose sight of what we are called to do. We lose sight of those who don’t know Jesus while trying to appease those who are already there. Making discipleship only about growing believers, losing sight of the fact we are called to help those who lost be found.
  2. Looking at things in new ways can enhance one’s understanding. Pastors need to get out of their camps and their bubbles to learn new things and new ways of doing ministry and leadership. If you haven’t learned anything new, been made uncomfortable as a leader recently, that is a problem.
  3. Bezos chose to start his company in Seattle because of the city’s reputation as a technology hub and because the state of Washington had a relatively small population (compared to California, New York, and Texas), which meant that Amazon would have to collect state sales tax from only a minor percentage of customers. Your location as a church says a lot about you and who you are trying to reach. Have you thought proactively about it? Why are you where you in your city? How does that translate into your vision?s.”
  4. Figure out what you can do better than anyone and do that: This was a key part of Amazon’s early strategy: maximizing the Internet’s ability to provide a superior selection of products as compared to those available at traditional retail stores.  Too many churches and pastors try to be someone or some church they are not. Be you. What can you as a leader do that no one else can? What passion, wiring do you have that no other pastor has? Who are you passionate about reaching that someone else isn’t? The greatest companies and churches have this clarity. 
  5. Our biggest mistake was thinking we had the bandwidth to work with all these companies. When you get to complex, disaster strikes. Like most churches, Amazon has had seasons of complexity. Whether they were buying companies or starting new things. When this happened, Amazon got off track and they felt the cost of it. Burnout, turnover, loss of profit. When churches get busy or complex, they get off track. The problem is that you don’t feel the effects of that until down the road when you are playing catch up. 
  6. During one memorable meeting, a female employee pointedly asked Bezos when Amazon was going to establish a better work-life balance. He didn’t take that well. “The reason we are here is to get stuff done, that is the top priority,” he answered bluntly. “That is the DNA of Amazon. If you can’t excel and put everything into it, this might not be the place for you.” While I’ve written about the work-life balance and health and don’t necessarily agree with how Bezos drove his employees into the ground, he was at least clear on his objective as a CEO and company. He was more concerned about the customer than his employees. He was at least clear and clarity is something a leader can never lose. This was so clear for Amazon that stone wrote, “Bezos was obsessed with the customer experience, and anyone who didn’t have the same single-minded focus or who he felt wasn’t demonstrating a capacity for thinking big bore the brunt of his considerable temper.”
  7. Every product, shelving unit, forklift, roller cart, and employee badge has a bar code, and invisible algorithms calculate the most efficient paths for workers through the facility. Pastors and churches need to think about how to be more efficient. Time is wasted in meetings, programs, setting up and tearing down, follow up. Things and people overlap tasks because pastors have not asked, “how can we be as efficient as possible?” Does this matter? Yes because this is a stewardship issue. Every moment I spend on something is stewarding my time for God. It needs to be on the right thing.
  8. Amazon invested heavily in technology, taking aggressive swings with digital initiatives like the Kindle. Amazon also focused on fixing and improving the efficiency of its fulfillment centers. EBay executives searched for high-growth businesses elsewhere, acquiring the calling service Skype in 2005, the online-ticketing site StubHub in 2007, and a series of classified-advertising websites. But it let its primary site wither. Customers became happier over time with the shopping experience on Amazon and progressively more disgruntled with the challenges of finding items on eBay and dealing with sellers who overcharged for shipping. Amazon had battled and mastered chaos; eBay was engulfed by it. Just like #4, eBay tried to be Amazon and Amazon tried to be Amazon. Guess who won?
  9. “When given the choice of obsessing over competitors or obsessing over customers, we always obsess over customers,” he said, reciting a well-worn and, considering the past few years of competition with Zappos, credulity-straining Jeffism. “We pay attention to what our competitors do but it’s not where we put our energy.” I love the laser focus of Amazon and wish more churches had that. Think for a minute about why focus matters. It clears up what you will do, why you will do it, how you will spend your time and money. Now, what is at stake for your church compared to Amazon? Eternity versus selling things. And Amazon has more clarity than most churches.

All in all, I loved this book. Tons of wisdom for leaders in it and a great story about a great company. I thought it was fascinating.

What Makes Your Church Unique?

Last year, I made the decision to re-read some books that were highly influential in my life as a leader and pastor. The reason is that I read many of them when I was a student pastor and knew more than the lead pastor I worked for. Now that I’ve planted a church and I am the lead pastor with a growing staff, I’m in a different place. I’m also hopefully a little more humble than the first time around.

One of those books was Church Unique: How Missional Leaders Cast Vision, Capture Culture, and Create Movement by Will Mancini. This book is like having Will come to your church and consult for you. It is jam packed with insights and learnings on how to create vision, cast it and move a church forward.

What I love about this book is that it is set on finding what makes your church unique, not the latest copy of the megachurch in your town or the last conference you went to. Which is what most ministry books set out to do. Which isn’t wrong, but I’m not sure it is as helpful to a pastor. The reason is simple, as Mancini points out: most effective pastors know what makes their church unique, and they did it. Then they write a book about it and a bunch of pastors copy it and now their church isn’t unique, they’re just using someone else’s vision.

Let me be clear, you should steal ideas from pastors and authors, but not visions. That is what God communicates to you in your city through your team.

Here are a few things that stood out to me:

  • Every day, local churches step either closer to or further away from becoming the movement that God designed them to be.
  • Church culture is the combined effect of the interacting values, thoughts, attitudes, and actions that define the life of your church. Church culture is foundational to the life and witness of every church. Unfortunately too many church leaders fail to recognize or understand the implications of this reality.
  • Too many goals threaten to make any one goal unclear.
  • Clarity is the preoccupation of the effective leader. If you do nothing else as a leader, be clear. Being clear as a leader means being simple, understandable, and exact.
  • The higher the leader goes, the harder the leader must work to stay clear.
  • You won’t do ministry that really matters until you define what matters.
  • Don’t tell me that you are excellent or relevant; tell me what makes you excellent or relevant.
  • The absence of strategy, as I am defining it, is the number one cause of ineffectiveness in a healthy church.
  • The most powerful position in the organization is the role that can choose the metaphors and tell the stories.
  • The greatest mistake in vision casting is not recognizing that vision is always a solution to a prior problem.
  • Without a mind-blowing goal in front of them, your people will never have a reason for risk taking, collaboration, and heroic sacrifice.

Here are some helpful questions for leaders and churches to discover their uniqueness and vision:

  • Leaders: What are the unique strengths of the leader(s) in your church?
  • Gifts: If each person has unique spiritual gifts in your church, what does the collective gift mix look like?
  • Experiences: What shared experiences do your people have in common?
  • Values: What values drive decision making in your church? What unique convictions do your people share?
  • Personality: If you were to describe what makes your church distinct from every other church, what would you say?
  • Evangelism: How do your people talk about the Great Commission? How does your church nuance it?
  • Recovery: What sins and sin patterns have your people been delivered from? What patterns of worldliness are they most tempted by?
  • Motivation: Is there a deeply motivational rubric behind how your church sees its mission (for example, community, service, prayer, or worship)?

To me, this is one of those books that you chew on, come back to and chew on some more.