Tag Archives: Books

Top 10 Books I Read in 2017

It’s that time to post my top books read in 2017. These are the best of the books I read in terms of the value I gained from them and the contribution they make to a person’s development in key areas of life.  Every year I read in a wide range of areas, but I always try to read a few parenting/marriage/family books since that’s our life stage.

Before starting – my best book read in 2017 was The Cubs Way by Tom Verducci because it was a journey of 2016 Cubs World Series afterglow.  In the same vein, Teammate by David Ross brought a lot of the same feel-good vibes.  But since these are niche books, I’m leaving them off the official list.

Here’s the list from the past year, whittled down from about 40 books total this year…

1. The Myth of Equality by Ken Wytsma – A great primer on the current and historical landscape of racism and systemic injustice that aims to help majority culture white Americans enter into the national dialogue and reality more deeply.

2. Negotiating the Nonnegotiable by Daniel Shapiro – One of the best of all the negotiation books I’ve read because of its attention to identity, communication, forgiveness, and reconciliation in addition to typical training on integrative bargaining.

3. Self to Lose Self to Find by Marilyn Vancil – This was a helpful book on the spiritual formation assessment tool known as the Enneagram. This was a treatment though that was grounded deeply in a teaching of the Spirit-filled life and theology of personal transformation in Christ. There were great prayers for each “profile”/number of the Enneagram. This has been helpful for me in some of my own spiritual development.

4. The Rest of God by Mark Buchanan – One of the most important books for me in 2017 because of it’s depth and skill to unpack a theology of Sabbath and rest with reflection on all the ways we choose less than God’s best. This helped bring some healing and restoration in a weary season.

5. Families Where Grace Is In Place by Jeff VanVonderan – Maybe the best parenting/family book I’ve come across to date with its focus on grace and the heart of the gospel for the journey and task of parenting. I also highly recommend Brene Brown’s The Gift of Imperfect Parenting via audiobook.

6. Shame Interrupted by Ed Welch – A great resource related to the causes and results of shame with a Biblical foundation for seeing identity renewed and transformed through Christ. Welch unpacks psychological or identity-based shame really well and in very helpful ways for personal growth, counseling, and leadership that is coming alongside the hurting.

7. The Art of Virtue-Based Transformational Leadership by Mark McCloskey and Jim Lewesma –  This is a book introducing the 4-R model of transformational leadership, which is the framework I was trained in at Bethel Seminary and that my organization has used for a couple decades. I waited awhile for this book, but I really enjoyed this accessible summary of the model integrated with the case study of Nehemiah and several contemporary leaders.

8. Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates – This was a powerful and poetic reflection of the history of oppression and racism in America and its impact on identity and behavior. It’s written or delivered to the author’s teen son so it brings a personal dimension that makes the reflections all the more powerful and visceral.

Factoring in the two Cubs books at the beginning – that makes 10 books!  If you read any of the above and enjoy them – let me know.  If you want to see my best from 2016 or later you can visit this link.

If you have read some great books this year, leave me a note in the comments and if you are on goodreads, look me up!


Top 10 Books I Read in 2016

One of my goals for 2016 was to read a book a week and to surpass the 50 book mark by the end of the calendar year. International adjustment over the last few years has slowed me down in some reading so I wanted 2016 to be different. On the advice of a friend, I gave audible a try this year and it went a long way to helping me cover more reading ground AND keep my sanity in Manila traffic!

In the past I did top 5 lists, but since I skipped 2015 and read so much this year I need to do at least a top 10.   There’s links for each book to my previous quick review – which is not a full blown review or summary, but a reflection on the value I found in the book

1.    Free of Charge by Miroslav Volf – A tremendous theology of both giving and forgiving.

2.  Farewell to Mars by Brian Zahnd – A challenging treatment of the Biblical teachings related to war, violence, and forgiveness with special treatment of modern evangelicalism.

3.    Strong and Weak by Andy Crouch – A powerful and simple framework for how image bearing and power impact community, ethics, and development. And I’m going to cheat a bit because this really is the 3rd book of what I see as a 3 part “image bearing” trilogy from Andy Crouch that I read in full this year I’m also including Playing God and Culture Making, which also rank high in the books I read this year.  I’d start with Culture Making, then read Playing God, and then read Strong and Weak which pulls the theology of image bearing into a theology and ethic for partnership in community.

4.   Pursuing Justice by Ken Wytsma – A challenging and convicting theology and apologetic for how the gospel includes the call to work for peace and justice in this broken world.

5.   Instruments in the Hands of the Redeemer by Paul Tripp – A Biblically grounded treatment of both basic Christian counseling and personal ministry. This offers an invaluable framework for thinking about how to see personal transformation on a heart level as well as how to come alongside others in discipleship, friendship, and more. This can function as a great textbook for some vital parts of discipleship. I also read How People Change by Tripp and Timothy Lane, which I also recommend that is a more in depth treatment of his sanctification model for change.

6.   The Gifts of Imperfection by Brene Brown – I’m going to cheat here too and include also Brown’s Daring Greatly.  It’s hard for me to separate and they both had a great impact on me this year. I chose The Gifts of Imperfection as the more significant book for me because of how it resonated with me personally, but Daring Greatly is the more well-known book via Brown’s popularity through TED talks.  They both focus on vulnerability, risk, shame, and other related themes that impact identity and relationships.

7.   Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman – A long and meticulous breakdown of how often we deceive ourselves and make mistakes in decision making due to the way our brain works.  This has impacted how I approach strategic planning and big decision making now that I have categories and language for where I am vulnerable to making faulty assumptions in a given situation.

8.    The Call by Os Guinness – A month long journey, if taken a chapter a day, that focuses on vocation and calling in worship to God. So many of the small chapters ministered deeply and went straight to the heart.

9.  Switch by the Heath Brothers – An enjoyable and easy framework for thinking about how to lead towards change, both in terms of training, motivation, and environment. I’ve used the concepts in my strategic planning class and the principles have stayed in my mind – and retention for me means it’s highly useful!

10. The 3D Gospel: Ministry in Guilt, Shame, and Fear Cultures by Jayson Georges. This is a short book, but it really guided me through the Scriptures in relation to how to look at the Gospel through the eyes of different cultural systems and to see different ways that the Scriptures speak to the heart of different people groups. I’m teaching and working with people from all three of these backgrounds and maybe more if you count also the purity/defilement themes as a separate category. But this has helped me get more to the heart of the people I teach and mentor so the gospel is taking deeper root in their lives.

I read a lot of other books I really enjoyed. I’ll highlight Gary Burge’s Ancient Context, Ancient Faith series which cover Jesus as Storyteller, the Festivals, and other themes. I just loved the culturally informed studies into different parts of the Scriptures. There’s a dozen of other books that impacted me too – ranging from Malcolm Gladwell to Alfred Poirier’s The Peacemaking Pastor, which I haven’t reviewed yet, but found quite helpful even for non-pastors. It’s a sequel of sorts to Ken Sande’s The Peacemaker and Resolving Everyday Conflict and it covers some much needed additional ground.

If you want to scroll through more reviews of other books reviewed in 2016 you can go here to check out more if you’re looking for good books to read in 2017.

For past years I’m including a link to my last list (2013), which includes links to previous years. 2014 and 2015 was a black hole of low personal capacity so there are no lists yet for those years.


Best Books I Read in 2013

2013 was not a huge reading year for me in terms of academic learning given most of it was spent preparing to move out of the country and the other half was spent learning to live and work in another country.  More of my energies have gone to life management and adjustments and my new role as IGSL faculty has required me to invest all of my creative energies into teaching various classes for the first time.

That being said, 2013 was a year where I read fewer books than normal yet there was some quality and depth to several of them.  Here’s the top 5 that impacted me this past year along with some honorable mentions. I’ll be blogging more in detail on some of them as time allows as I get back into my blogging rhythm.

The short version (with brief reflections to be done further down)

The Prophets by Abraham Heschel, Misreading Scripture through Western Eyes by E. Randolph Richards and Brandon J. O’Brien, Prototype by Jonathan Martin, When Helping Hurts Steve Corbett & Brian Fikkert , Leading Cross-Culturally by Sherwood Lingenfelter, and then Deepening the Soul for Justice by Bethany Hoang

Top 5 Books of 2013

1. The Prophets (Part 1) by Abraham Heschel – I’ll confess I’m not finished with this.  But because it’s so long (650 pgs) and so dense and challenging to read, I am going to give myself credit for the first half of the book which is more quantity and quality than most academic books already.  It’s a study of the Old Testament prophets that is one of the deepest and most profound of anything I’ve read.  I could highlight most of the book and I’ve been left amazed and deep in thought frequently.  It’s a Biblical studies book, a theology book, a philosophy book, and a social ethics book all rolled into one.

My attempts to capture the book will fall short, but it’s becoming one of my top 5 books of all time in its impact on me and it’s deepened my worship of God as well as given even more clarity to what God calls His people to in terms of relationship and in terms of social responsibility.  Beyond being a book about the prophets, it is a book that is itself very prophetic in its articulation of the God of the prophets and the dynamics of discipleship in community and in social context.   If you have the determination and resolve and motivation – I recommend it fully!

2. Misreading Scripture Through Western Eyes by E. Randolph Richards and Brandon J. O’Brien – This was perhaps the most immediately helpful book this year as I read it while adjusting to a new culture in which I am living amidst and ministering to people and leaders from over 20 countries, all eastern.  It doesn’t provide black and white solutions to all the west v. east tensions, nor should it.  But it highlights the tensions really well with great real life examples and solid exegesis.

It’s a phenomenal resource as a western thinker and leader to continue looking at what assumptions I may bring to my study of the Scriptures. If you have a western orientation and want to expand your mind and the way you think about the Scriptures, I encourage you to check this out.  In fact, I would require all western leaders in my organization to read this as part of their new staff training.

3. Prototype by Jonathan Martin – I came across Jonathan Martin’s blog a while ago randomly, I think through a retweeted blog post related to reflections on The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.  I was struck by the authenticity and depth by that post and others that I was motivated to read this initial book by Martin when it came out.  I took a break halfway through with my move to the Philippines, but sometimes you read an author’s words and it’s life giving because it captures exactly what you are fighting for, what you teach, and what you advocate for. This was such a book for me.

Several chapters I could have written myself. Several chapters I wished I could have written, but represented core tenants of my theological and ministry convictions. And several chapters I could not have written and I was just blessed by his insight and perspectives into the Scriptures and a philosophy of ministry that truly reflects the amazing power and mystery that is the incarnation of Jesus Christ.  I was blessed by this book in the way one is blessed by sitting down with a kindred spirit.

4. When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty Without Hurting the Poor…and Yourself by Steve Corbett & Brian Fikkert  –  I was familiar with some of the concepts before I read it, but it was such a powerful book to really go through.  Having been working in ethnic minority ministry for several years, everything here was so relevant. It continues to be relevant now that I’m serving in an international context.  I described this initially as a book that would make most church missions’ pastors or committees want to throw up because there is so much that is convicting and so much tough truth.  However, there is great hope and vision in this book too and I hope that anyone seeking to minister across cultures and especially across power distance to read it. It’s a paradigm shaping book.

5a. Leading Cross Culturally by Sherwood Lingenfelter  –  Just a really good book on cross-cultural leadership that had great input related to ministering across cultural difference and especially power difference and gaps.  I’ve used several chapters of this in my classes and it has been a very helpful resource.  This wasn’t a life changing read for me given my immersion in cross-cultural leadership for a while, but I was refreshed by the resource and it’s applicability to many that I am serving. I recommend it often.

Honorable Mention:  Deepening the Soul for Justice by Bethany Hoang, Mud and the Masterpiece by John Burke, The Power of Negative Thinking by Bob Knight, The Significance Principle by Les Carter and Jim Underhill

5b. Deepening the Soul for Justice was a short, but powerful read for me.  It had as much immediate impact on me as any book I read.  It probably deserves to be in the top 5. It is about what it takes for us to expand our capacity to handle what’s involved in advocating for the oppressed and marginalized. It spoke to my reality and what was weighing heavy on my heart the last couple years.  I just was growing weary and couldn’t absorb the pain and the many injustices I was seeing in different contexts.  I was tired of fighting, of advocating. This book helped connect me with what God wanted to and needed to do in the deepest parts of my life if I was to continue on in my ministry.

I hope to read more in 2014 so if there’s any life changing books that you read in 2013, please send me your recommendations!!

For my past “Best books read” lists check the links below:

Best books read in 2012

Best books read in 2011

Best books read in 2010

Best books read in 2009 and earlier

Green Zone Leadership: Breaking Rules to Serve

This entry is part 7 of 7 in the series Green Zone Leadership

This is a much delayed post in the series I’ve entitled “Green Zone Leadership,” which is a compilation of reflections and insights from reading Imperial Life in the Emerald City – the account of the U.S. led rebuilding effort after the second gulf war.  I routinely reflect on this book as the account mirrors a lot of what happens when powerful organizational entities seek to help and empower others. I aimed to write this post last summer, but alas – life happens.

Leadership Phenomenon Observed: Bureaucracy

This was the easiest phenomenon to observe in this massive case study of leadership and an effort to empower.  For bureaucracy is all over the book. Bureaucracy isn’t all bad. It’s a necessary thing to some degree.  Michael Malone’s The Future Arrived Yesterday and Gordon Mackenzie’s Orbiting the Giant Hairball both illustrate that organizations all require some measure of centralization that keeps them from losing all form and sense of corporate purpose.

But what was quite evident in the book and what most of has have experienced in one place or another is the soul sucking culture shaped by structures whose original purposes of serving have been overwhelmed by the instincts of self-preservation and the elevation of order as the highest virtue.

Servant leadership guru Robert Greenleaf wrote the following:

“Bureaucracy is defined as a system that has become narrow, rigid, and formal, depends on precedent, and lacks initiative and resourcefulness – a pretty bad state of affairs.  It is the feet of clay that seem to encumber everything that is organized.  As I see it, this is the way all institutions tend to become as they grow old, large, or respectable……..They may do some good in the world; in fact, they are all we have.  But they still tend to become bureaucracies–given size, age, and respectability.  Because we need the good they do, we tend to overlook the harm done because they are bureaucracies.” (294)

The “Green Zone” was almost synonymous with bureaucracy. The book outlines time after time in which efforts to serve were delayed, corrupted, or silenced under the power of the bureaucracy. But there is a fantastic section of the book called “Breaking the Rules” that captured how one leadership defied the bureaucracy and truly served the Iraqis and left them empowered to lead their own in that respective domain.

But he had to completely break the rules and step out of the bureaucracy to do it.  One man, Alex Deghan went to extraordinary lengths to do the job he was asked to do, yet if he went “by the book” even remotely it would have never happened – more money would have been wasted, the end product would be lower quality, and leaders would not have been set up to succeed in leading their own people.

One example – he wanted to train Iraqis to guard the science center he was developing and needed them equipped to look for car bombs and other things.  No one would help him out.  He tried to get some U.S. security guards to help. Finally he found a guy that said he would do it if he could get a full length mirror so he could enhance his sex life while in Iraq. Deghan immediately went to the market and made it happen. Now obviously – that’s a racy example, but it illustrates the kind of foolishness that can get in the way of good being done and sometimes what is required to remove unnecessary barriers to serving.

Deghan had to resort to desperate measures just to access the money allocated to his project and assignment. The Green Zone bureaucracy created insane delays and stonewalled legitimate requests because of black and white rigidity. Deghan came up with a solution that took incredible initiative and effort, but was so outside the box that an accountant told him he was actually probably breaking Federal Law. Yet later, when the rebuilding effort ran into problems financially of how to distribute money they came back to Deghan and began implementing his strategy of getting funds from the U.S. to the actual projects they were earmarked for.

But Deghan, in his relentless effort to serve – do a quality job that empowered the Iraqis and stewarded the resources, drew incredible backlash from other Americans in the Green Zone. He was threatened, stonewalled, and given the run around because he was viewed to have no respect for the system.  The author captured his reality and the fruit of his leadership well writing,

“He was the only guy in the Emerald City who feared his fellow Americans more than he did Iraqi insurgents.

Because he didn’t do business the Green Zone way, Dehgan not only managed to open the science center before the handover of sovereignty, but he also created an institution that was immediately successful.” (255)

Every organization has great people whose duty is to keep things working smoothly and staying within a reasonable measure of order.  Most systems are initially designed to serve. Yet bureaucracy sneaks up on the best of us sometimes. Sometimes change just takes a long time. Sometimes organizations are “blessed” with people who have managed to make themselves indispensable because they have held onto all the knowledge in their domain so that they feel secure and safe. Some cultures just value order and control more than others.  Whatever the reason, bureaucracy happens.  And when it does, it doesn’t serve.

The reality is, whether it’s Malone’s “core” or Mackenzie’s “hairball” or Greenleaf’s “bureaucracy”, to truly serve people that lie outside of those initial domains, a measure of freedom and flexibility is required.  Using Mackenzie’s language, we have to “orbit” to serve.  We cannot truly serve if we are solely functioning either within or for the hairball.  We have to have some separation, some freedom of identity to think and create and adapt, if we are truly going to serve specific people in specific contexts.

What this means is that if you aren’t sometimes willing to break the rules, get outside the system sometimes, or think more flexibility than the organizational structures (or those structures’ guardians) encourage or allow, then YOU ARE NOT TRULY SERVING.  You can’t serve both masters. You either are going to serve people or you are going to serve structures. We usually start with people and always drift towards structures. These structures show up in policies, curriculums, schedules, and processes that are embedded in our organizations (HR not the least of which, which is the arena in which I often work!)

I believe we are all vulnerable to bureaucracy, some more than others. But that’s what makes great leadership to me. Great servant leaders are those that reverse the direction of energy and leadership activity away from structures and back towards people.  At the heart, bureaucrats become what they are because they forget what truly serving even means. They begin to confuse order and lack of chaos for just and serving environments. Order gives the illusion that everything is ok, when the reality is that order often becomes an instrument of repression, conformity, and punitive judgment rather than a tool to be submitted for the sake of human functioning and expression, creativity, and freedom.

Structures are part of what it means to serve people, as long as they remain submitted to that purpose. But we all face decisions about whether we are going to serve people or serve order.  When faced with that moral and ethical tension – I hope you and I consistently choose to serve people.   Authentic servanthood tends to create its own “order” that usually does a better job than structurally imposed order anyway. And if we don’t know if we’re serving, I hope we all have the humility to find out!

Alex Deghan is a hero of mine and an example to be followed. He was not rebelling or “sticking it to the man.” He was navigating a giant hairball with the complete goal to serve the Iraqis and empower them for the future.  He chose to serve people, not the bureaucracy and he went to great lengths to do it.

The author made a note about Deghan and one other similar character in the Baghdad narrative. He wrote,  “Their resumes didn’t suggest them for their jobs, but they had plenty of chutzpah and, more importantly, they weren’t political hacks.” (253) These two men who had uncommon effectiveness in both explicit objectives as well as subjective measures of authentic empowerment had these two things in common – they were creatively courageous and they were able to think and function outside of the bureaucracy for the sake of the people they were there for in the first place.

I’m not advocating “sticking it to the man” or going rogue. That’s not what this discussion is about. I’m only talking about being independent of thought enough to be able to identify what serves and courageous enough to lead towards that without settling for the convenient excuses or losing heart at the silly, but formidable obstacles often faced. Maybe there are times that are extreme enough to merit some measure of rogueness like Deghan. But like Deghan’s example of funding, some measures of rogueness that result in transformational serving are frequently copied by “the man” who simply had never been able to think outside of the box and take the required risks. So sometimes being labeled “rogue” is just a matter of being the first one to try to solve a problem by those that have refused to see and solve that problem prior.

Deghan is worth listening to as he speaks to the paternalistic and controlling tendencies of bureaucracy along with a perspective that might help free us to serve….

“One of the biggest problems of Iraq was that we weren’t listening to the Iraqis, and that our presence in the room, just like perhaps Saddam’s presence in the room, was preventing people from thinking independently and taking the initiative,” Deghan said later. “The key was not for us to be more involved, but for us to be less involved.”  (255)

If you get a chance to read this book, it’s well worth it. It’s a tragedy really that sometimes masquerades as a comedy of errors. Even if you don’t, remember that the only way to serve the Emerald City is to stay free enough from the Green Zone.

Do Your Words Heal Lightly or Deeply?

This entry is part 12 of 12 in the series Prophets or Posers

It’s been a while since I’ve posted a good “Prophets vs. Posers” quote. I was re-reading a book I read before I started blogging a few years ago and wanted to submit this quote for your reflection,

“Throughout these events [anxiety times] God sends prophets to open the people’s eyes and to expand their horizon.  As we know, though, true prophets are without honor in their own anxious country.  Many of God’s messengers are ignored, mocked, or annihilated.  But the false prophets who cry, “Peace, Peace,” and heal the wounds of the people lightly are too often welcomed.  They promise stability but invite no reflection.  False prophets offer simple, immediate relief.  They don’t challenge people to change their limited point of view.”

-Peter Steinke, How Your Church Family Works, pg. 44

In our positivity driven culture, truth is so often treated like a buzzkill.  Worse yet, it can be treated as toxic when the desire to medicate and bath in the delusions of happiness overwhelm the quest for reality and wisdom.

Do you tend to gravitate towards denial and delusion to preserve your perceived safety and the status quo?  Or do you courageously pursue truth wherever it might lead you?  Do you choose stability over wisdom?

Originally posted November 4, 2010

The Prophetic Imagination

I’m going through The Prophetic Imagination again this month and over the next two days I’m going to re-post two of my original reviews and reflections focused on the book.  This is one of the largest influences on my spirituality and leadership philosophy so if you’ve never heard of it maybe this will get you interested.

Here’s Part One:

One of the books I’ve enjoyed the most over the past month has been Walter Brueggemann’s The Prophetic Imagination. I was first exposed to Brueggemann while we were attending Peninsula Bible Church in Cupertino, CA during my time doing ministry at Stanford University. I noticed that one of the pastors, Brian Morgan, continually referred to Brueggemann as a source for some of the ideas in his sermons on the Old Testament. As I’ve come been immersing myself in my free time into systems theory, the prophetic ministry is an aspect I am quite intrigued by and I thought Brueggemann’s book on the prophetic imagination might spur some new thoughts or ideas.

His thesis is this, “The task of prophetic ministry is to nurture, nourish, and evoke a consciousness and perception alternative to the consciousness and perception of the dominant culture around us. (pg. 13)”

Much of this book is examining the dominant (or royal) consciousness in contrast to the alternative consciousness which is the embodiment of the Kingdom of God in this life. The prophetic imagination is that ministry which seeks to “nurture, nourish, and evoke” this alternative consciousness in the context of a dominant culture that is diametrically opposed to such a consciousness. Brueggemann uses Moses’ as the symbolic type of alternative consciousness while he uses Solomon as the symbolic type of that which represents the dominant or “royal” consciousness.

He writes that, “the dominant culture, now and in every time, is grossly uncritical, cannot tolerate serious and fundamental criticism, and will go to great lengths to stop it.” (pg. 14) The prophetic ministry has a criticizing as well as energizing function in the context of the dominant culture to awaken it to the alternative Kingdom community. I’ll post more on those two functions of prophetic ministry, but this is what Brueggemann writes of Moses’ counter-cultural revolution of Israel’s Egyptian tyrant, “his work is nothing less than an assault on the consciousness of the empire, aimed at nothing less than the dismantling of the empire both in its social practices and its mythic pretensions.” (pg. 19) Prophetic ministry undermines the dominant culture by exposing the inadequacies of the royal consciousness and by capturing the imagination of the people to embrace a genuine alternative community that builds the dignity of “the least of these” as opposed to protecting the power of the “have’s” in society.

I’ll end with this quote on the alternative community patterned after Moses,

“That prophetic tradition knows that it bears a genuine alternative to a theology of God’s enslavement and a sociology of human enslavement. That genuine alternative, entrusted to us who bear that calling, is rooted not in social theory or in righteous indignation or in altruism but in the genuine alternative that Yahweh is. Yahweh makes possible and requires an alternative theology and an alternative sociology. Prophecy begins in discerning how genuinely alternative he is.” (pg. 19)

Prophetic ministry is not just about disagreeing with the dominant culture. All of us could claim that at one point or another. It is about seeing and acting from a profound insight and vision into how God’s Kingdom is to be on this earth and how the dominant consciousness has built community and society based on false ideas.

This post was originally posted on July 23rd, 2007.

Best Books I Read in 2012

As 2012 comes to and an end, it’s time to roll out the top 5 list of the best books I read this year.  I read around 30 books this year, I did book reviews on this blog for about half of them, but here’s the short list of the books that provided the most value to my development and

1. Imperial Life in the Emerald City by Rajiv Chandrasekaran – Nothing spoke to my reality, leadership context, and general academic interests in servanthood and the ethics of leadership. It explores the leadership of the U.S. efforts after the most recent Iraqi War. But I’ve told people who work in majority/minority, cross-cultural, or other power laden contexts that it really is a must read case study of servant leadership…or lack thereof.  It inspired my “Green Zone Leadership” Blog Series which you can access through the above link.

2. Prodigal God by Timothy Keller – Incredible study and reflection on the parable of the Prodigal Son with its true and counter cultural implications for seeing and living out the Gospel.

3. Lincoln’s Melancholy: How Depressed Challenged a PResident and Fueled His Greatness by Joshua Wolf Shenk – Powerful biography of Lincoln with a view to his journey of mental and emotional health.  A must read for folks with melancholy tendencies.

4. Art and the Bible by Francis Schaeffer – Written a few decades ago, makes me shake my head that the Church had such things written 40 years ago and still struggles mightily with its thinking about contextualization, meaning, humanity, Scripture, and God. Was relatively short, but very refreshing to read through.

5. The Bible Made Impossible by Christian Smith – This book doesn’t bring a lot of closure to it, but it speaks to some of the larger challenges and problems Christians face as it relates to Hermeneutics and how philosophical presuppositions related to communication and inspiration of Scripture impact the study of Scripture and the formation of doctrine.  It’s a valuable discussion and explains a lot of church and Christian dysfunction in my mind.

Honorable mention: The Blue Parakeet by Scot McKnight, Tolkien and Lewis: The Gift of Friendship, Moneyball, The Faces of Jesus: A Life Story by Frederick Buechner, with a guilty pleasure of “The Mark of Athena” by Rick Riordan.

For my past “Best books read” lists check the links below:

Best books read in 2011

Best books read in 2010

Best books read in 2009 and earlier


Green Zone Leadership: Agendas

This entry is part 2 of 7 in the series Green Zone Leadership

The past few days I’ve posted on themes related to the movie The Green Zone from a couple years back and the book that inspired that movie, Imperial Life in the Emerald City.

In both posts I’ve described some of the dynamics that contributed to, from many perspectives, a very disappointing leadership effort in a challenging but timely moment.  I aim to engage a few more specifically as there are parallels to things experienced and lived out in many other contexts as well – especially cross-cultural. I’ll identify the phenomenon or dynamic, share some thoughts, and provide a recommendation to counteract that.

Leadership Phenomenon Observed: Agendas 

EVERYONE thinks they are serving the local people, yet the people and many on the ground give witness to the contrary.

It’s a powerful and dangerous question to ask – “How do we know we are really serving?” 

That theme will pop up probably in each post.  But it really has become more clear to me than just about everyone who is working believes they are serving or doing some good even when they might not be.


In the context of post-war Iraq, there was great enthusiasm to be a part of something great.  Yet as things evolved it was clear that there were many “hidden” (some not so hidden) agendas that many in fact were really serving instead of the interests of the local people.  There was the “democracy in the Middle-East” agenda.  There was the Bush-Cheney 2004 re-election compaign agenda.  There was the “economics / oil” agenda.  There was also the “post 9/11 war on terror” agenda.  The author documents example after example of how decisions and actions were driven by one of these agendas in place of Iraqi interests and without Iraqi input.   There was much that did “help” Iraq, but more decisions were probably made for American interests and agendas than for Iraq.


So one of the issues that those with power that are seeking to lead change amidst people different than them has to do with motivation and with managing and guarding against losing the vision to serve amidst the temptations to try to do things in ways that reinforce agendas and in ways that make those in power look good.  Many thought they were serving in the Green Zone, but they were serving a vision of creating a Middle-Eastern America, or serving the Republican party interests, or continuing the war on terror without much thought.

We have agendas.

We have visions, goals, strategies that each year affect how we see things and shape what we try to do. There are “internal” agendas that may lead us to serve some ambition or grandiose need to be liked or respected. There are “external” agendas that are about a larger goal or strategy or organizational loyalty that ends up driving decisions in a non-serving direction.

I think I have enough examples now to believe that in organizations and ministries, serving gets co-opted by other agendas (good and spiritual though they might be in themselves).  So big initiatives (campaigns, faith goals, strategies…) end up consuming most leadership space.  Meanwhile the things that determine success on the ground for people that are outside the cultural framework of those in power fail to get brought to the table.

Leaders should spend their time on big things, the problem is when strategies and initiatives and priorities consume all the space while the right people fail to have the needed conversations.  They fail to learn.  They fail to listen.  This happened in the Green Zone.  This happens everywhere.  It’s because leaders are tempted to spend all their time talking about their strategies rather than spend time learning the stories of those they are commissioned to serve.  People often have motivations to serve and do good – but it doesn’t take much sometimes to distract people from being able to attend to the realities that lie outside of one’s own experiences.

Recommendations for the Aspiring Serving Leader

I think one thing that can help, given the reality that there are always multiple agendas competing for our attention and our hearts, is to just take some time to name them.  Sometimes just naming the potential agendas that could get in the way of having a servant posture and producing the fruit of a servant leader has a lot of power to it.    Maybe there’s a season where there is a perceived pressure to produce certain types of results.  That can lead to tunnel vision on getting what you think you need versus keeping our eyes open on where we need to serve.  Maybe there’s a strong strategy, a campaign, or in ministry a significant faith goal.  These are things that notoriously hijack leaders’ attention, capacity, and vision to serve. There’s culture driven agendas, political agendas, ambition driven agendas, and many others.

There could be a lot of things that affect decision making as an individual or as a team. 

So name them. 

List them out.

By putting them on the table, you’ll be more aware of them and more free of them.  But until you name them, you’ll be more vulnerable to their influences on your vision and decision making.

* I want to be clear “serving” leadership does not mean doing what everyone else wants. But it does mean that decisions and actions must be sufficiently reflected upon and tested with regard to the ethical, moral, and human impact. That typically means you need enough experience and enough relationships to be able to get input and learning as to what is needed for another people’s best interest as a community.

Leading in ways that are ethical for other communities requires diligence, laser focus, and determination.  Serving in the context of organizational agendas is not natural and does not come easy. It requires great leadership.


What are some of the agendas that you face in your decision making and on your team, whatever level it might be?   (There are statistical agendas, doctrine agendas, power agendas….)



Epic Resilient E-Book

This past week was the national staff conference for my ministry (Epic) which I had the privilege to direct with an awesome design team and the help of many. As part of the conference I helped put together an e-book from many of the different great writings from Epic staff this past year.

I hope you enjoy it if you ever get the chance to check it out. It’s starts with a series that we ran on the Epic Resource site called, “Nine Elements of a Servant Leadership Reproduction Culture” with an additional intro and conclusion to it.  Part Two is my friend and teammate Adrian Pei’s new article called “A New Kind of Charge: Reframing Contextualization and Mission.” Part Three is a collection of 23 blogs from Epic staff from 2011-2012. Then finally, there’s an article I wrote after coaching many of our staff last summer in an Introduction to Hermeneutics course on the connections between Hermeneutics and doing cross-cultural ministry.  It’s called “A Three Cultures Approach to Engaging Scripture and Cross-Cultural Ministry.”

Both mine and Adrian’s articles are drafts so feel free to pass on any thoughts.  All in all – 101 pages of resources from about 17 authors (all Epic staff and interns) in total.

The mobi version works if you have a kindle or a kindle app on some other device.  If you can’t upload it manually to your device, you should have a kindle assigned email that allows you to send it to your kindle app.  I included an epub as that’s a common format for many other ereading devices.

Right click and save as…..

Epic Resilient E-book Kindle Version (mobi)

Epic Resilient E-book    .epub format

And for the non e-reader folks….here the pdf version…