The leadership conference kicks off. Pastors and ministry leaders, young and old, shuttle in boxy fifteen-passenger hotel vans from the airport to the downtown convention center. Carrying bags stuffed with free trinkets and marketing brochures, the zealous crowds funnel into the main hall and past the book tables for a high-energy dose of music (the designers of the conference may call this worship), management methods, some mass merchandising (an announcement from our sponsor), and large chunks of motivation. The menu of motivation for the day—and each day of the conference—includes generous helpings of inspiration to be more today than you were yesterday. The theme driven by speakers on the big stage and at smaller venues scattered throughout the convention center’s rooms, or additional rooms at the attached hotels, seems to always be “Go big or go home”—or perhaps better said, “Get big here and then go home.” Words like “vision,” “dream,” “inspiration,” “courage,” and “change” are unleashed like water from the dam of a swollen river. Strategies, tactics, and skills that will most definitely turn you into the next great ministry mogul are distributed with ease by second-tier breakout-room speakers. At the end of the week, after learning new methods and tactics, pastors and leaders return to airports, trying to retain at least a piece of the motivational zeal they thought they had captured over the last number of days.
I’ve attended any number of these conferences. I’ve probably enjoyed my time at a number of these venues. I have learned new ideas. I have walked away motivated. I have discovered a network of leadership friends trying to lead well. And yes, I admit, a number of our Triennials in the past have probably reflected this big show philosophy.
The problem as I see it with most of these conferences is that they teach what I call “muscle car ministry.” Upon returning to your home, you will have the tools to build a ministry vehicle with a big engine—almost too big to be used—and a sharp design meant to make heads turn when you drive by. The formula is that a big engine plus big curves will create big ministry (read: church).
Early this year, I was with a group of NAB pastors and leaders in Chicago for our Future Travelers gathering. The venue was pretty simple—a small church auditorium. Our speaker sat on a stool and talked. There was no band, no hype, and no marketing. There was a deck of PowerPoint slides, but the technology needed to display the slides seemed to fail occasionally, so sometimes the slides were there and other times not. The gathered were casual and maybe even a bit cautious at first with the presentations. What I’m trying to say is that there was very little “muscle” mentality in the room.
Months later—a period of time when big conference teaching would have already leaked from my brain—the concepts and thoughts from those days are still bouncing around in my head and heart. Interestingly, the word of truth narrated by the speaker that is almost daily resonating with me is a word I didn’t hear a lot at “go big or go home” leadership conferences. The word is “submit.”
The concept of submission coming from our speaker was a powerful and Biblical one. The English derivation of the word is from the Latin and simply suggests a sending of oneself under another. It implies giving up on one’s self for the good of the other. In the midst of conflict and confusion in the church, in the course of dealing with people and problems that don’t have easy solutions, in an environment when “no one right answer” seems to pervade, the Biblical call to submit to each other in love must reign. Can you imagine how the simple words, “I submit to you,” may breathe the Spirit’s power to heal and transform into difficult situations, or at least allow a conversation and relationship to continue to move forward in God’s grace?
Mutual submission might not be a “muscle car” leadership approach. It might not make us feel big and bold, fast and furious as leaders. Mutual submission may be more like that small seed of the Kingdom that Jesus recognized as appearing insignificant, but with the potential to grow to influence many. But isn’t that the Jesus way?
Dr. Dan Hamil
NAB Executive Director