Thursday, October 27, 2016

Update from Mexico

My view as I write this blog - sunrise over the orphanage.
I'm writing this from Reynosa, Mexico where I'm leading a team of 6 men working together to help build a schoolhouse at the Benito Juarez Children's Home. We have an expert plumber (Doyle Parsons) who is roughing in the bathrooms, and an expert brick mason (Pastor Willie Smith) who is laying block on the west wing, just as he did on the east wing back in the summer. We also have an amazing support crew in Darrell Carter, Charles Humphries and Rich Waring. Everyone has been amazing, jumping in and helping, learning new skills and having a wonderful attitude in spite of the hard labor and the heat. What a blessing to be on Kingdom business with these men from three different churches but serving one God! 

The Benito Juarez Children's Home was founded in the late 1960's by Don & Opal Russell after seeing the desperate need of children living on the streets of Reynosa. It has served hundreds, if not thousands, of children over the years, providing them with safe and sanitary living conditions, healthy food, clothing, education and spiritual formation - all in the name of Jesus. Their son, Mark, is now the director, and the children's home continues the mission of drawing children to Jesus with a wonderful staff who are committed to the call and serve out of love, not for a huge paycheck (because there isn't one!).

I first met Don & Opal in 1984 when I attended King's Way Missionary Institute (of which Don was also a founding director). I visited the orphanage a few times while in school and occasionally in the 1990's with our youth group, but in 2003 Christian Challenge began intentionally engaging with the children's home, visiting at least a couple times a year with work crews and supporting them financially. I estimate that we have made well over 30 trips to help construct buildings, do maintenance, build a wall around the perimeter, and love on the kids! We've been coming so long that we've watched many of the children grow up, and even saw one of them come back as an adult with his wife to serve on staff. (Ricky and Esther Juarez are true heroes of mine!)

One of the buildings we helped build was a two-story structure that had two large classrooms upstairs and sleeping areas downstairs for visiting groups. A couple of years ago the Mexican agency that oversees education told the children's home that the building being used as a school was inadequate as they had to have a classroom for every grade. And it needed to be on the ground floor. In the picture on the right you can see the children assembled outside the current school early Monday morning, presenting the Mexican flag, saying their pledge and singing their national anthem. And to the left of the picture you can see the lower part of the block wall that will house the new school, with six classrooms, 4 bathrooms, a study hall, 2 offices and 4 storage closets as well as an elevated stage and an open covered area for presentations and inclement weather. Back in our June trip we laid block on the east wing and we're back now to lay block on the west wing, plumb the bathrooms and do some other miscellaneous work.

Here are a few pictures that describe the work better than words alone can...

Mixing concrete the old-fashioned way - with shovels! It's then loaded into
the tractor to be carried to the area where the floor is being poured.

L-R: Darrell Carter, Rich Waring, Willie Price, Charles Humphries.
Great crew!
Doyle Parsons, fearless plumber!
Charles and Willie laying block above him.
That's trusting your team!!!

Rich and I worked on casing in 9 doors and 6 windows.
So that's what's going on in my world. I hope you're having a great week ... and please remember the Benito Juarez Children's Home in your prayers. They are letting the children come to Jesus and expanding the Kingdom of God. And that's a good thing!!!

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Leadership Maintenance

Christian Challenge is hosting its first Servant’s Heart Leadership Development meeting this Saturday. It’s something I’m really looking forward to. It’s not a staff meeting. It’s not a planning meeting. It’s not a business meeting. It’s a time of worship, vision casting, and prayer for our church family (and friends). As I've shared internally, I urge all ministry team leaders to attend. I encourage all ministry team members to attend. And I welcome all church members to attend - and visitors too! :)

As I shared on a recent Sunday morning, we are all leaders. We aren’t all leaders in exactly the same way - our roles and responsibilities in life are different - but we all have people in our lives that are watching us. We all have a degree of influence among our friends and family. So our choice as believers isn’t so much whether we will be a leader or not. The real question is whether we’ll be good leaders or bad leaders. The difference between the two often comes down to the preparation, to the work we’re willing to put into it.

We understand that our vehicles require regular preventative maintenance. We know that if we don’t change our oil, we’re putting the engine in danger. We understand that rotating our tires can extend their life. We may not like it, and it may happen at the most inopportune times, but we expect that from time to time we’ll have to repair or replace worn out parts.

But when it comes to our spiritual lives and witness, sometimes we expect ourselves (and everyone else who serves in a leadership capacity) to continue operating at a high level with zero leadership maintenance. But that’s not how it works. If we didn’t have to work at it, Paul wouldn’t have told Timothy to be ready in season and out (2 Tim 4:2). Leadership requires ongoing maintenance!

We all need some preventative maintenance. I’m not writing this as the accomplished master who has it all figured out - I am guilty of this too. I fill my calendar with so many “good” things that sometimes they crowd out the “best” things. We think we’re doing OK, so we postpone the maintenance for a more convenient time. But unless we make it a priority, that more convenient time will never come. As a result, we become fatigued, and sometimes burnt out. (Been there, got the t-shirt!) We may continue to serve and others may not even know that we’re struggling, but we lose the joy and motivation that we once had.

I’m not necessarily talking about walking through difficult times. We will all face difficult seasons, and sometimes they come no matter how prepared we think we are. But not everything we go through is a trial beyond our control. Sometimes we put ourselves into difficult seasons by neglecting the preventative maintenance that God intended for us to follow.

So what does that preventative maintenance look like for leaders?


If your daily schedule is such that you don’t feel like you can set aside a quiet time with God, that should be a red flag to you. As the old saying goes, if you’re too busy to have time with God, you’re too busy! :)

Back in January, I started a Facebook group for anyone who wanted to commit to daily Bible reading with me. We’ve been working through several short plans, and anyone is invited to join us at any time - just go to to sign up. And if you’ve been through our Disciple’s Heart class, you’ll remember the “Gems for Jesus” daily devotional journal that my father designed. You don’t have to use a devotional book or follow a Bible reading plan to spend time with God, but these are both great tools that can help you get on track and stay on track. So if you’re struggling in this area, consider joining us on Facebook. If you’d like a copy of the Gems devotional notebook, contact our office.

We have to work at keeping our priorities in line, because just because we’re busy doesn’t mean our busy-ness is healthy. As believers, we are all called to serve. But sometimes our service can become an idol, or at least an impediment to our relationship with God. We can get so caught up in the “what” of ministry that we completely lose sight of the “why.”

When we become disconnected, we can also become resentful. In the story of Martha and Mary, Martha was busy serving. She was doing a good thing, but she let it consume her. Instead of enjoying her service and seeing it as an act of worship to God, Martha resented her sister Mary for not helping her. When we start to resent others in that way, it’s almost always an indication that something is wrong in OUR lives, not THEIR lives.


One of the dangers of leadership (and life in general) is that we can become nearsighted. We get so involved with whatever situation is right in front of us that it can become hard to see the bigger picture. Have you ever heard the phrase “Can’t see the forest for the trees?” Sometimes we need a little help to see the bigger picture. That might take the form of asking a mentor for advice, reading a book from someone you respect, listening to a podcast, or maybe attending a conference. Or sometimes we just need to “phone a friend!”

For example, as a parent, sometimes it helps to ask other parents how they would handle a situation. They’ve probably been in your position before. They’re familiar with the principles involved… but because they are outside of your family, they can offer an outsider’s perspective. In the business world, sometimes a business owner will bring in an outside consultant to help them streamline their business processes and suggest things that the in-house team might not have considered. A friend of mine just started a Facebook group for “moms of multiples” to talk to each other, help each other, encourage each other - because mothers of twins, triplets, quadruplets, etc, face special challenges that only they can understand. And they can often be each other’s best resource! Even if it’s just letting a stressed, frazzled, worn-out mother know somebody else understands!

As a pastor, I appreciate the wisdom that other pastors share. I’m part of a weekly gathering of pastors from different denominations but with a common love for Jesus. Their wisdom is invaluable to me! I’ve also taken some of our leadership team to conferences like the Right Now Conference that takes place in Dallas every November. I also love to listen to leadership podcasts, like those from Andy Stanley and Craig Groeschel. I can’t overstate the importance of getting input from others as a way of keeping you in tune and providing ongoing maintenance to your leadership potential.


Pure encouragement is a rare commodity these days. When someone approaches us with a compliment, we often immediately wonder what they’re looking for in return. Consider the parent who looks with suspicion on the smiling child who tells them how smart, or nice, or pretty they are. :) Pure encouragement is given with no strings attached and no attempt at manipulation. We’re not trying to close the sale, curry favor, or make up for a previous offense.

For maximum effectiveness, the encouragement needs to be more than a simple compliment. Don’t misunderstand me, compliments do have their place and should definitely flow more freely from us than criticisms. But encouragement goes deeper than a compliment. If it’s something you could say with equal conviction to anyone, even a perfect stranger, it’s probably not something that will have much of an impact on the person you’re trying to encourage.

“You look nice today” is a compliment, but it won’t mean near as much as saying “You handled XXX situation very well.” A single substantial word of encouragement, something that doesn’t ring hollow or feel manipulative to the person receiving it, can carry that person for a very long time. It’s a little bit of “preventative maintenance” for them. So look for opportunities to give sincere, meaningful encouragement to others. It will make the that person’s day. But it’s also a tune-up for you, getting you in the positive habit of changing your focus and perspective. Encouraging others requires that you take your eyes off of yourself and focus on the positive things in others.

My prayer is that Saturday’s Servant’s Heart Leadership Development meeting will touch on each of these areas for everyone who attends and will provide much needed encouragement and leadership maintenance! If you’re in central Louisiana and would like to join us Saturday at 9:00 AM, we’d love to have you. While my focus is on the leadership team of Christian Challenge, I welcome anyone to attend if you’re interested in doing a little leadership maintenance! But remember this, no matter where you are, no matter how faithful or neglectful you’ve been with your own spiritual preventative maintenance, we can all benefit from keeping our focus on God, receiving input from others, and training ourselves to see others through God’s eyes.

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Guest Post - Practicing Empathy

One of my goals when I relaunched my blog was to also highlight the thoughts and writings of others through guest blog posts. It’s been awhile since I’ve had a guest post, so this week I asked our children's minister, Jason McManus, to share. I didn’t give him a particular topic to cover, just asked him to share what was on his heart, and he chose to address empathy, or more specifically, practicing empathy.

And that’s a great reminder, because we tend to see empathy as more of a passive thing, and not something we need to work for. Jason makes a great case for taking some deliberate, conscious, and sometimes difficult steps towards practicing empathy, even when we don’t want to. P.S., the writing is all his, but I did add in the bold for emphasis, as is my style! ;)

Practicing Empathy

A Guest Post by Jason McManus

Did you know that one of the best ways to see from someone else's perspective is by reading? That's right, one of the key ways to teach someone empathy is by giving them something to read with a viewpoint that is at least a little different from their own. I don't actually want to talk about reading though, I want to talk about perspective. What I want to share with you in this entry is what empathy looks like in a Christian's life. I also want to tell you why I think we all need to practice more of it.

The first thing we need to do is define the term. Empathy is a psychological state similar to sympathy, but instead of feeling sorry for a person, you relate to them or identify with them. The problem many of us have with empathy is that we tend to be naturally pessimistic. When we have an argument with someone, instead of assuming it was a misunderstanding we assume that particular person is rude, insensitive and probably a pathological liar. Yes, I acknowledge that sometimes people are all of those things, but a lot of times they are just doing the best they can and trying hard doesn't mean they don't make bad choices.

“In everything, therefore, treat people the same way you want them to treat you, for this is the Law and the Prophets” - Matthew 7:12

This verse is often called 'The Golden Rule' and really shows the heartbeat of what empathy truly is. Jesus was teaching that instead of using our emotions to know how to treat people, we should take the time and think about it. If we let our emotions rule us, we will act out in anger, jealousy and other passions that go away as quickly as they come and leave disaster in their path. This is not an ideal way to spend our lives.

So where does that leave us? It sounds good in theory - “empathy”, sure we'd all like to consider ourselves like that, but are we really? Often times we try so hard to mold our lives into exactly the way we want them that we forget to help others. It isn't that we don't care or that we are mean people, it is just we are too focused on ourselves. There is a big difference between being selfish and being self-centered. The selfish person sees an issue through someone else's perspective and just doesn't care. The self-centered person wants to help, they just never realize there is a need.

Isn't that where we find ourselves more often? We don't mean to be unkind, we're just too busy thinking about our lives. It's not just a simple act of 'deciding to be empathetic' that will actually change our worldview though. If it were that easy, wouldn't we all be doing it? This is one of those times where there isn't an easy answer. There is just a straight-forward and hard answer. Start practicing.

Here's some examples. Has your boss been yelling at you? Try and figure out what he thinks he is achieving by sending those insults your way. Surely, there is more to it than 'he is mean', but it is up to you to find out. Time to do your best Sherlock Holmes impression and think about things from other angles. Try and think like someone from the opposite side of the political aisle, or try and understand what someone from a different nationality or race would think about a certain issue. This doesn't mean you have to always agree with your new found perspectives, but at least you are learning to widen your viewpoint.

Now let's think about how we can use this in our faith walk.

“Let love of the brethren continue. Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by this some have entertained angels without knowing it. Remember the prisoners, as though in prison with them, and those who are ill-treated, since you yourselves also are in the body” - Hebrews 13:1-3

Do you hear the heart of the writer here? Love everyone and think about what others are going through as if you were going through it. If you truly want to live a lifestyle of service or just want to continue being a reliable friend, you ought to try and figure out where they are coming from. Make the effort to understand your friend's point of view. Living this way may be hard, but true friends are worth their weight in gold.

Another thing about friendship though, is it gets messy. It also gets scary. The scary part of empathy is that it makes us vulnerable. It makes us feel weak. Some people (myself included) will ask something like this. “What if I go out of my way to accommodate someone and they don't want anything to do with me?” On the other hand, perhaps you don't want to invest emotionally in people because you have been burned by friends before. That's life though, everybody gets burned. Pick yourself up, shake the dust off and go try again. Good friends are worth the risk and vulnerability is not weakness despite what anyone tells you. Making connections with people, serving others and putting genuine love for others into practice are some of the most productive things you can do with your time. Also, because time is such a valuable and finite resource we should learn to actually spend some of it on things that give us long term results.

Matthew 6:19-21 says it this way:

“Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys, and where thieves do not break in or steal; for where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”

You can't take stuff with you, but the impact you have on other people's lives is an eternal value, a treasure that no moth can eat and no robber can steal. We have to be a community of believers that teaches and practices empathy. Looking at life only through our own glasses will severely limit our effectiveness in this world. I'm thinking and praying hard about how I can spend more of my time investing in things with heavenly value and I hope you will too.

Jason is a long-time friend and leads our children’s ministries at Christian Challenge, including overseeing Sunday School and the Kids Community experience on Wednesday nights. It was my honor to teach him in youth group and a pleasure to watch him grow up into a man a God! He is married to the lovely Marsha and they have two gorgeous children. I hope you enjoyed this article as much as I did! --Nathan