As I prepare for the year ahead, I am going to look and listen for God in every situation I find myself. God is in everything. Paul wrote to the Romans, “In everything God works for good with those who love him … ” (Romans 8:28).

Tom Long tells of Robert McAfee Brown who likes to use in his writing the musical metaphor of themes and variations. There are many musical compositions, Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony for example, which begin with a clear, identifiable musical pattern, or theme. What follows in the music is a series of variations on this theme, the theme being repeated in ever more complex combinations. Sometimes the texture of these combinations is so complex that the theme is hidden, seemingly obscured by the competing and interlocking notes. But those who have heard the theme clearly stated at the beginning of the work can still make it out, can feel the music being organized by the theme.

Listen for life theme transforming mission

In Jesus Christ “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth ….” That’s the theme of all of life heard clearly by the ears of faith. Those who hear that distinct theme can hear it wherever the music of life is being played – no matter how chaotic or confusing the false notes surrounding it.

Prayer for Today

O God, in Jesus you have set the theme for my life. Please give me ears to hear your theme in the midst of the chaos and confusion of the world. Please give me eyes to see you in all the people I meet, in all the places I greet them, and in all the situations and circumstances I share with them. No matter what the discord, keep me in tune with you in and through Jesus. Amen.

listen life theme - transforming mission



One of the songs I like at this time year is “The Best Gift of All.

Candles glow from frosted windows
Rooms are filled with twinkling lights,
There’s a manger scene, boughs of evergreen,
Someone is singing ‘Silent Night’…
And every gift my heart remembers, of easy laughter, dear old friends
Precious faces and smiles, the dancing eyes of a child,
All remind me once again:
The Best Gift of All is JESUS
His love knows no season or place
You can see Him in the firelight
Reflected on each face…
And though we cherish the blessings of Christmas, When his love seems especially near…
The Best Gift of All is Jesus – ALL THROUGH THE YEAR!

In a world of hidden motives and questionable agendas, there is still hope in what God offers. Because of our brokenness and the world’s chaos, Jesus is the message of God’s goodness. In Jesus there is something pure, something right, something true, Someone good.  The best gift of all is Jesus. He is with us all through the year.

All Through the Year

This week I was reminded of a family that celebrates Christmas all through the year. Through a small white envelope stuck among the branches of a Christmas tree, there is no name, no identification, no inscription. The envelope just peeks through the branches of the tree.

The tradition began 17 years ago when Nancy’s husband Mike stated, “I hate Christmas. Not the true meaning of Christmas, but the commercial aspects of it. I can’t stand the overspending, the frantic running, the gifts given in desperation because you can’t think of anything else.”

Knowing how her husband felt, Nancy decided one year to bypass the usual gifts of “shirts and ties.” She wanted to do something special for Mike. The inspiration came in an unusual way.

Their 12-year-old son, Kevin, was a junior wrestler at the school he attended. Shortly before Christmas, Kevin had a non-league match against a team sponsored by an inner-city church. Most of the wrestlers on the team were boys of little financial means. They were dressed in sneakers so ragged that shoestrings seemed to be the only thing holding them together. There was a sharp contrast between Kevin’s team in their spiffy blue and gold uniforms and new wrestling shoes. As the match began, Nancy was alarmed to see that the other team was wrestling without protective headgear. It was a luxury the ragtag team obviously could not afford.

Kevin’s team won easily. Although Mike was happy for Kevin, he was sad in his heart. He said, “I wish just one of them could have won. And I wish something could be done with their uniforms.”

A White Envelope

That’s when Nancy had the idea for Mike’s gift. That afternoon, she went to a local sporting goods store, bought an assortment of wrestling headgear and shoes, and sent them anonymously to the inner-city church. On Christmas Eve, Nancy placed a simple white envelope on the tree. Inside was a note telling Mike what she had done and that this was his gift from her.

His smile was the brightest thing about Christmas that year. The next year Nancy sent a group of Special Olympics children to a hockey game, and another year she sent a check to a pair of elderly brothers whose home had burned the week before Christmas.

The envelope became the highlight of their Christmas celebrations. It was always the last thing opened on Christmas morning. Their children, ignoring their new toys, would stand with wide-eyed anticipation as their dad lifted the envelope from the tree to reveal its contents. As the children grew, the toys gave way to more practical presents, but the envelope never lost its allure.

The story doesn’t end there. You see, Nancy lost Mike six years ago to cancer. When that first Christmas after his death came, she was still so wrapped in grief that she barely got the tree up. But Christmas Eve found Nancy placing an envelope on the tree. And an amazing thing happened. On Christmas morning, there were four white envelopes. Each of Mike’s children had placed an envelope on the tree for their dad. The tradition has grown for that family, and now Mike’s grandchildren stand wide-eyed around the tree as their fathers take down the envelope.

One Last Gift

Now, what happened in that family?  They experienced God’s incredible gift of love. That love is our hope and it is rooted in God’s gift of Jesus.

So before you pick the paper off the floor, or serve your Christmas meal, or start the thank you notes, be sure to look in the tree one final time. There’s one last gift there. It’s a message waiting just for you.  It won’t be in an envelope.

It will be wrapped in swaddling clothes…

God so loved…God gave…The best gift of all is Jesus…all through the year!

I pray that you do not miss the joy of Jesus this Christmas!


We ask leaders seven questions to guide us to a process of personal and congregational transformation. The process and questions begin with naming God’s presence. If you’re thinking…“Why do this?” “Who needs one more thing to do?”

Let me frame the expectation.

  • We’re asking you to lead a congregation to live as disciples of Jesus Christ.
  • We’re inviting you to be open to the transformative power of God in your life and the lives of the people in your local context.

The process we’ll outline over several weeks (perhaps months) is a journey of transformation – for all of us. It begins with a focus on the purpose of the church and the presence of God.

Naming God’s Presence

Today, we begin with naming God’s presence. This is the first foundational element of a transformational process. We know and believe God is with us. But, it’s a whole different task to actually pay attention to how God is moving. So let me ask you:

  • Do you and leaders in the church experience God’s active presence in the congregation? How do you know?
  • Can you articulate what God is up in the congregation?
  • How is God moving through the congregation and its people?

This is not something we do once and move on. It is an ongoing, integral part of daily life as a disciple of Jesus. It is a simple, yet profound act of being in God’s presence and responding to God’s movement.

Awaken the City

While serving a church in Cincinnati, I had the privilege of starting a ministry we called Awaken the City. (It’s now called Summer Impact.) Every summer we hosted teams of people for a week at a time for the purpose of introducing them to ways to serve as disciples in the city.

On Sunday evening, we’d lead a prayer tour of the city. Every week, we’d pray for specific ministries, people, and situations. For between 90 minutes to 2 hours, we knew the city and her people were covered in prayer. As teams piled into mini-vans and 15 passenger vans to go from one location to the next, we were sharing what God was doing, the needs of the community, and asking God to open us to use us in service every day that week. We’d return for a worship experience where I invited people to respond to a simple question from Scripture that set the context for our prayer experience.

Often, the question that started the week was, “Where did you see the light of Christ tonight?’ The response on the first night was underwhelming. One of our interns would inevitably get uncomfortable with the silence and name a place where they witnessed Christ’s presence. Often a leader or pastor offered the next observation. At the start of the week, usually, 2-3 people wanted to speak. No more. No less.

Three-Fold Pattern

Throughout the week, every day, we would practice this rhythm:

  • Study Scripture and pray for our ministry partners
  • Serve in the city during the day
  • Celebrate through worship in the evening

From the Scripture for the day, a question emerged that individuals reflected on as they served. In the evening, during worship, we’d share our reflections.

Every week the same thing happened. Sunday: crickets. Minimal responses. By the end of the week, either on Friday or Saturday morning, we came together for a final worship experience. When it came time for me to invite reflection, I reminded the teams that there were 40-50 of us, everyone wants to speak, and we need you to depart in less than to be 30 minutes.

They never got the point. 🙂

The stories unfolded about their own life-changing, about the people they met who were different from them and learning that Jesus is what makes us all the same. Every summer I had the privilege of my bucket overflowing witnessing, hearing, and seeing how God’s presence was transforming lives.

Focus and Themes

At the end of every summer, I knew where we needed to focus for the coming year in our community and global outreach ministry. One year we needed to develop a deeper relationship with a ministry partner working with children, the next year a local school, the following year, I realized we needed to be in the urban core fulltime. I also learned about where and how people found their place of passion to serve in the church.

The intent of Awaken the City was not to name priorities or develop a process for claiming a ministry passion. The intent was to help people engage in service in the city – in their local context. Over the years, I’ve shared this online in different forms. Inevitably, the same thing happens. We move from crickets to a concert of voices naming and witnessing God’s presence to people adapting it to their daily life.

A couple years later, I learned that a mainline denomination had done research, showing that God’s presence and God’s purpose were foundational elements of congregational vitality. I laughed and said, “Would you like thousands of stories to prove that is true?” When I finished my doctoral work on this very topic I knew the challenge we faced. How could others embrace something so simple, yet transformative?

The Invitation

First, we have to want Jesus to transform our lives. Letting Jesus into our lives means giving up control of where and how Jesus will show up and show off. It means letting go of what we want and sitting at the feet of Jesus long enough to hear his hope for us.

Second, transformation does not occur without reflection. Transformation necessitates reflection. Trevor Hudson, a South African pastor, notes, “Unless we value and practice reflection, little personal transformation occurs. Unreflected-upon experience seldom yields its life-giving secrets. Too many of us work and live without reflection, without gaining any objective perspective on our behavior or any understanding of why we do what we do.” When we pause to reflect, specifically on God’s presence, faith is articulated and becomes a lived reality.

Third, transformation has stalled for many of us. How do we know? Some people reading this are thinking a basic practice of Christian discipleship is another task to do rather than a way of living as a disciple of Jesus. Transformation necessitates a relationship with Jesus, each other, and your local context. If any of these relationships are lacking, you’ve likely stalled in growing to become more like Jesus.

We get it, it’s a busy season. We’re inviting you to lay aside the excuses that have appeared as obstacles and focus on the transformative work of Jesus.

A Vision for the Coming Year

Tim Bias offered, “At the end of next year, I want to hear how your life and the place where you live and worship are changing.” How will this begin? It begins when you pay attention to where Jesus shows up and by choosing to join in God’s movement in your local community.

That can’t happen if we don’t stop and pay attention to God’s presence. It can’t happen if we’re living vicariously through others.

It happens because we are in touch with the Spirit of God moving in our midst. As leaders, then you can come together and share how you’re experiencing God. Listen closely and deeply. You’ll start to notice patterns of where Jesus shows up and shows off in your life and the lives of those around you. Then, jump in and follow Jesus’ lead.

God with Us

During this season of Advent as we’ve invited you to reflect on God with Us, we’re seeing anticipated and unlikely patterns. The depth of hurt, illness, and loneliness is sobering. The power of music this time of year is a reminder that music is a language of the soul. Music evokes memories and emotions while moving within us. From the ordinary moments of being with kids to the extraordinary moments of sitting with others in hospice and the hospital, the abiding presence of Christ is evident.

The example of God with Us is an invitation to read, reflect, and respond to one scripture, one word, and one question for the day. At other times we might say, let’s focus on “Scripture, serving, and celebrating.” You may even say, let’s look at “Word, work, and worship.” It doesn’t matter what you name it. What matters is that you integrate reflecting on God’s presence into your daily life. And, in case you missed it. No, this isn’t something you do at special seasons or times of the year.

Can you imagine what might happen in our cities, towns, and neighborhoods if we focused on naming God’s presence? What might happen if we then joined God in ministry where we live, work, worship, and play? I believe our lives and our communities would change.

The question of God’s presence will stay before us in the coming weeks as the first foundational element of a transformational disciple-making process.

  1. Trevor Hudson, A Mile in My Shoes, p. 57


Last week I shared that the first task of a leader is to identify the type of leadership challenge you are facing. We also introduced the idea that leaders attempt to address an adaptive issue with a tactical solution, leading to more challenges. Today, we’re exploring ten adaptive leadership skills you can learn, practice, and engage when you identify an adaptive challenge.

What leadership skills do you need to navigate an adaptive challenge in your local context?

Before I answer that question, let’s go to a familiar place…

You gather with other leaders around a meeting table. You are facing a decision. Together, you come face to face with the fact that something needs to change. And then someone speaks a familiar phrase. It’s a phrase that can become an opportunity for you as a leader. What’s the phrase?

“Things aren’t like they used to be.”

There are many variations of this phrase.

We’ve all said it at some point. I confess there are times I find myself irritated by that phrase. I know in the depths of my soul, “Get over it” is a less than gracious reply. Responding with a one-word question, “So?” doesn’t help move us forward. “That doesn’t help us” is a little too obvious. “Moving on…” dismisses the person who offered a truthful statement of current reality. But, the group is unsure what to do.

Yes, I’m being a bit dramatic to make a point. As a leader, it’s my place to help guide the conversation toward decision-making.

So what is a leader to do?

Seeing a New Way Forward

I’ve learned several skills that help me look at the conversation in a different way. Today, I see the statement “things are not like they used to be” as an opportunity. What’s the opportunity? To invite conversation about the competing values at play. Because if there are competing values, it’s likely I’ve spotted an adaptive challenge.

As you might remember from our previous post, the first task of a leader is to identify the type of challenge you are facing. If it’s an adaptive challenge, there are different skills needed to navigate a way forward. Each skill is isolated for clarity. You’ll use several at a time.

10 Adaptive Leadership Skills

Skill 1: Observing

Observing involves getting on the “balcony” and take a “higher” view of what is happening. This could be the most important skill of leadership. Look down on the “dance floor” and identify patterns. Here are examples of a few patterns we’ve noticed:

  • In 2014, it took an average of 26 worshippers to yield one new profession of faith in the West Ohio Conference
  • Since 2002, the UMC worship attendance decreased annually. Worship attendance decreased between 53,200 – 75,600 every year.
  • Rhetoric and actions around us are increasingly hateful, hurtful, and extreme
  • Division among theological perspectives, political ideologies, and social outlook continues to grow
  • We increasingly talk about the past and “the glory days.” We celebrate anniversaries of buildings and do not celebrate as many baptisms.

Skill 2: Identifying the competing values within an adaptive challenge

When there are multiple perspectives, you’ll likely find competing values. Use this leadership skill when you sense the verbal and non-verbal responses to an issue are conflicting, emotional, and/or extreme. It’s likely you’ve spotted competing values. In the example above, change draws out competing values. Here are examples of the competing values we see around us.

  • Guaranteed appointments AND pastoral accountability
  • Increasing rate of the boomer generation retiring from pastoral ministry AND fewer Gen X and Millennial Pastors
  • Personal needs, wants, and desires guiding choices AND proclaiming the kingdom of God
  • Kingdom priorities AND local church maintenance
  • Christendom mindset AND a post-Christian reality
  • Contextual ministry AND personal preferences
  • History/memories AND a future with hope

Skill 3: Interpreting

Listed below are two interpretations we hear, followed by an interpretation of reality that points to our purpose as a church. Pastors, you do this every week in preaching a sermon on Scripture. An ancient message is brought forward to the present time. This is what interpreting is about: translating information for understanding.

  • We’re telling ourselves a story that is division is near
  • The story we’re telling ourselves is there is not enough
  • The story we need to tell is about the love of God we know in Jesus Christ who has provided abundantly more than we could ever ask or imagine.

Skill 4: Intervening

Intervening is about taking action. Based on a hypothesis of what’s happening, lead. Intervening happens one step at a time. Interventions are also experiments. Don’t put more weight (or less) on the intervention than is necessary. You’re offering the best current guess to go forward. You’ll want to continue to observe, identify, and interpret. Doing so will mean continuing to collect “data” in all its forms. Here are a few examples of intervening:

  • Fewer middle school youth are attending Sunday School in the fall. You add a short-term, mid-week small group to explore a new time to focus on spiritual growth.
  • There are multiple deaths in a short period. You call on a care team to offer a monthly support group for grieving family members.
  • Several businesses have closed in a short period of time in your neighborhood/city. You explore with other leaders how to respond with short-term assistance and long-term community development.

Skill 5: Directing the focus.

This leadership skill is about focusing on the purpose (of the church, a ministry, and/or event). If our overarching purpose is to make disciples and transform the world, let’s keep our focus there. Ideas will come and go. Directing the focus is not about rigid adherence to longstanding traditions. It is about asking how you will live into the purpose in this time and place.

When it’s time for a new ministry experiment, start with the purpose. Then, “date” the ideas. Do not get married to the ideas when it first appears. We cannot be wedded to where you think we will end up. We must focus on our purpose of making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. Here are a few questions to ask yourself about directing the focus:

  • What is our purpose for this ministry?
  • Is division, empathy, and/or nostalgia preventing us from focusing on our purpose?
  • Will we claim the reality of changing people and financial resources? Then, will we lead toward new ways of being in ministry?
  • Will the mission guide our focus and serve as a filter for what we do?

Skill 6: Regulating the stress.

You might think of this leadership skill as “regulating the temperature” in the room. This is where you’ll need to turn up or turn down the “heat” in your midst. If the stress level is getting high and impairing decision making, it may be time to lower the stress. If the anxiety among the leaders in the church is invisible, you may need to introduce tension/anxiety/stress to lead change. But first, you must regulate your own stress. Here are a few ideas to explore this leadership skill:

  • Leaders add anxiety to a team ONLY for the purpose of movement. Do not add anxiety when it reflects your emotional state.
  • Explore how the competing values listed above increase your anxiety. What will you do to manage the anxiety?
  • What tension/stress/anxiety needs to be introduced to elicit action?

Skill 7: (re)Framing the issue

If you’ve ever cropped a picture on your cell phone or with an application on your computer, you have reframed a picture. This skill is about looking at an issue in a new way. It involves naming the competing values so they can be explored.

For example, the Gap Assesment we use with churches involves rating the personal importance and congregational effectiveness of 25 items. One of the items relates to integrity in thought, word and action. Often, there is a large gap between how important integrity is to individuals (very important) and the effectiveness of the congregation (ineffective). When confronted with the reality that they are the church and the effectiveness of the church depends on their personal integrity, the conversation shifts. The conversation was reframed for understanding and engagement, moving leaders beyond “us/them” mentality.

Skill 8: Giving back the work

This leadership skill focuses on the “owner” of a leadership challenge. Pastors and chairpersons do not have to own the entirety of an adaptive challenge. Giving back the work invites participation. It also invites other people to own the challenge you are facing. Here are three ways you can give back the work:

  • Identify 2-3 people who can complete a task. Ask them to work together to bring it to completion.
  • Contact a homebound person to make phone calls to 5-6 people for an upcoming ministry.
  • Divide the responsibilities for hosting an event between 3-4 people.

Skill 9: Tolerating ambiguity

Get comfortable with what you know and what you don’t know. Then clearly communicate it. Don’t confuse hearsay with facts. We do not know what 2020 will bring. But the reality is we do not know what tomorrow will bring either!  We do know and believe in the God we know in Jesus. Here are a few reminders about the ambiguity we live with:

  • We do not know everything that is happening in the lives of the people in our church
  • You cannot predict local, national, or world events that can impact ministry
  • We can stand firmly with our mission and not be anxious or afraid of what will come

Skill 10: Providing a safe environment

This leadership skill focuses on the culture of the local church. The customs and unspoken expectations of a group often create a safe or unsafe environment. No, you can’t simply state “this is a safe environment” and it becomes so. Integrity in words and action are important in creating safe environments.

  • Ask yourself, “Is there space for people to risk, share, and be authentic?” Now ask other people. If anyone says “no” there is work to do.
  • Safety unfolds on emotional, spiritual, cognitive, and physical levels. All four are important.
  • Do you regularly experiment with new ideas, concepts, and challenges? Some experiments will fail. Failure can be a learning tool. When it is, it’s likely you’re creating a safe environment.
  • How do you provide ongoing feedback? Natural, ongoing feedback that is given and received with grace is a sign of a safe environment. Again, you can’t declare this. Ask and listen to how feedback is received.

Every day is an opportunity for you to lead. There are adaptive challenges in every local church. Practicing the above leadership skills will help you be and become a more effective leader.

Do not attempt to work all the leadership skills for every adaptive challenge you face. Instead, ask the question, “What skill do I need to practice in this leadership moment?”

In Christ,

Sara Thomas



-updated 11.13.2019-

Emmanuel, God with us, is the message of Advent. Every day through Advent we invite you to practice noticing and naming God’s presence.

It is a simple, yet transformational practice we trust will multiply the hope you experience this season.

Here’s how it works:

Each day, read the Scripture and reflect on the word provided. In the evening, return to the question and respond to where you experienced God’s presence.

The pattern of read, reflect, respond is easy to remember. Remember, the greatest transformation happens inside us when we pause to reflect. Return to the question in the evening to yield the greatest transformation from this experience.

When you sign up, you’ll receive the complete list of readings, focus words, and questions for each day.

Advent Bible Reading Guide


Suggestions for Sharing

Throughout Advent, we hope the simple prompts will help you talk with others about how Jesus is showing up in your life. Better yet, use the prompts with your family over a meal or before bed.

  • Read the daily Scripture.
  • Share the focus word.
  • Ask each person gathered to respond to the daily question.
  • Give God thanks in prayer for the way you are experiencing “God With Us” this Advent.

We’d love to hear how you or your family are experiencing God’s presence this Advent. Share your reflections with us here.