6 Ways to Get the Most out of Personality Tests

October 22, 2015 by cloften  
Filed under Bible, Church and Leadership

I’m a D-I.

I also am a Lion.

I also am a choleric.

I’m an achiever.

I could keep going, but I’ll end with I’m an ENTJ.

The real question isn’t what am I on all these personality tests, but does it really matter?

personality testThere seems to be competing ideas filling up my Facebook feed lately.  One is from people taking the Myers-Briggs personality test (that’s the one that declared me an ENTJ).  The other is full of links and videos saying that the Myers-Briggs is no good.  Stop using it.  As with most issues such as this, the truth lies somewhere between “personality tests are the best! They tell you everything there is to know about you!” and “Nobody puts Baby in a corner.”

A personality test taken well can give you a lot of insights about you and help you understand some ways that you think and approach life that maybe you didn’t know before.  On the other hand, it can’t tell you everything about you and not everything it says about your type will be true about you.  Use them wisely and they will give you wisdom.  Here are some tips.

1) Be honest with your answers. I know that seems pretty obvious, but you would be surprised the number of people that take personality tests or spiritual gift tests and don’t answer based on what is currently true about them.  They answer the questions based on who they wish that they were.

Q: On a scale of 1-5, how manipulative are you?

A: 1  How dare you, personality test?

On the other hand, don’t bring your low self-esteem or fake humility.

Q: On a scale of 1-5, how patient are you?

A: 1 There was that one time 3 years ago when I honked my horn at someone at a stoplight.

2. Trust the tests more that have the most categories. I’m not just a lion.  I may be more like a lion than the others but I have some otter and golden retriever as well.  Mostly I feel like I’m a platypus.  “A little of this, a little of that, a little of what is that?”  DISC can have as many as 24 categories, Myers-Briggs has 16.  The more categories the more specific and insightful the descriptions can be.

3. Share your results with a trusted friend who knows you. You may read your results and not be sure if it accurately describes you or not.  Bring someone else in and read them the results and they will be able to help you.  It may also be helpful to have someone you trust near you when you take the test for some questions that are challenging, like for me if I’m trying to decide if patient or not opinionated describes me the least.  A trusted friend can help you figure out what’s true and what isn’t.

4. Check other profiles if there is an area where you are on the borderline. I always test out at about 55% extrovert.  So I don’t really exhibit all the characteristics of an extrovert.  So, I also look at the characteristics of an introvert.  I’m an ENTJ, but I also have a lot in common with an INTJ.  Everything is the same except the second profile is for an introvert.  16 categories aren’t really enough to classify everyone.  Many of us will be some mix of a couple of different profiles.  That doesn’t make the test bad or wrong.  It just simply shows how you need to be smart in how you understand and apply your results.

5. Accept the “bad” results but don’t let them define you. I remember sharing my Myers-Briggs with some guys that were very knowledgeable about the test.  They told me that I was impossible to work for.  Right before your team is about to achieve the goal, you move the goal post and so you never celebrate victories.  I thought, “Man, that’s sweet.  Thanks for sharing that with me…at this social dinner.  Can you pass me a fork so I can stab your hand with it?”  The problem is that what they said was true.  That is something that I deal with.  However, that doesn’t mean that is who I have to continue to be.

6. Embrace your strengths and manage your weaknesses. I now make conscious decisions to celebrate with my team.  We evaluate the details of how something went, less intensely.  We celebrate before we evaluate.  That doesn’t necessarily come naturally to me, but I do it, because it is right.  I have to manage myself to make that happen.  Some weaknesses you can’t really fix.  I cannot become more detail oriented.  I can, however, surround myself with people who are.  I can try to not place myself in situations that call for that.

Also, believe in your strengths.  Don’t let unhealthy thinking keep you from believing that you have great qualities.  Believe in your strengths and use them.  I’m a D-I in the Disc and that means that I want to lead, but I also am relational.  I describe it as “I’m right, but I want everyone to be happy about that I’m right.”  I embrace that as who I am and it helps me lead people effectively as a pastor.

I am a big believer in these tests, taken and understood appropriately.  If you can be honest with yourself and the test, you can learn a lot about yourself.  Learning about yourself can take you a long way in knowing who God has called you to be and how he wants to use you.

You know I’m right and you’re happy about that, aren’t you?

Myers-Briggs test

Disc Test

When God Closes a Door…

October 15, 2015 by cloften  
Filed under Bible, Church and Leadership

There’s a common story that I hear a lot living in Northwest Arkansas.  As many of you probably know, the corporate headquarters for Wal-Mart is here, and that is a huge magnet for businessmen and women from all over the world.  You add a university and a few other corporate headquarters and suddenly this area of the state and country has a lot of different people from a lot of different places.  Contrast that with a lot of other parts of Arkansas where the overwhelming majority of people are from Arkansas.

when god closes a doorSo, the story I hear is from people from different parts of the country who at some point in their lives had to/needed to move to Arkansas for work.  As someone who has lived 38 of his almost 44 years in Arkansas, I love and am proud of our state.  On the other hand, I can see it from their perspective…Arkansas.  Arkansas, where they invented the toothbrush (instead of teethbrush), land of Deliverance, where the family trees are straight lines.  I’ve heard them all.  From these people’s perspectives, these are not jokes but fearful realities.

However, the conclusion of the story is always the same.  “I was so surprised! It’s so nice here! I love it! I’m so glad that God brought me here!”  They describe coming here as either their only option or their least bad option.  They come here and quickly consider it a blessing.

Which leads us to our Christian cliche of the day.  “When God closes a door, he opens a window.”

Allow me to give it a different spin.  “When God closes a door, who knows what’s going on?  Just trust that it was shut for a reason.”

When God closes a door, he may be saying, “Wait right here.  I’ll open it later.”

When God closes a door, he may be saying, “What is wrong with you? Why would you want to go out there?  That’s not good for you!”

When God closes a door, he may be saying, “I know you think you want to go out here but you don’t.  Try this other door, on the other side of the house.  It leads some place different.”

When God closes a door, he may, in fact, open a window, because he wants you to take a different path to get to the place you both want to go.

The only thing that you can know for sure when a door closes, is that the door is closed.  (I know I just blew your mind!)  There are other things that you need to know/remember.  God is a good God that loves you and wants your best.  You can trust God.  He is very much interested in your good (mostly in making you good and seeing you do good things).  God will never deflect you from your best path.  Him deflecting is how you can know something wasn’t your best path.

So, how can you know what God is doing when a door closes?  That’s a great question without an easy answer.  Here’s a few tips.

1) Ask him. Talk to God and learn to listen. He wants to lead you, so let him lead you and believe that he will.

2) Ask a friend or mentor who has been where you are. There are often repeatable patterns that others can see because they have lived it, that you can’t see.  Do not walk through a confusing time alone, when God has placed others in our lives to help us see what sometimes we can’t see.

3) Take a minute. That’s a common expression for us in our house, but maybe not to you.  What it means is slow down and calm down.  Take a minute to make sure that you are not overreacting or allowing disappointment to control you. Let trust and hope fill the spot that anxiety and fear are currently filling.

Put all that together with an attitude of trust and at just the right time, which may seem to you like too late, a different door, or the same door, or a window will open, or you’ll wake up one day and wonder why you ever wanted to make a move in the first place.  God has laid out for you the path of good that he wants you to walk.  Just trust and follow, all the way to Arkansas if need be, or (gasp) Mississippi. (Sorry that’s what we do here.  Pretend that we are better than Mississippi.)

For we are God’s handiwork,created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do. Ephesians 2:10

What Motivates Me to Keep Going

October 1, 2015 by cloften  
Filed under Bible, Church and Leadership

I remember the first time that we left our two older kids home alone together.  This is in the pre-Laylah (our 3 year old) days.  Maylee was in middle school and Lauren was in elementary school. We were a little nervous about doing it because the girls weren’t getting along too great at the time.  Our fear was that without parents to mediate,  it could get ugly.

dont_quit1Then Dad had a great idea.  I sat down with both of them and asked if they thought it was cool being left home alone.  They both assured me that they did.  It made them feel grown up and not like kids.  I then asked them if they would want us to start doing that a lot.  They were most definitely in for that.  I’m sure that thoughts of unrestricted access to both television and snacks were weighing heavily on their minds.  We left that night with a little bit more confidence.

Would you like to guess what happened? They were good.  That is a huge understatement.  They were amazing.  The house was cleaner than it was when we left.  There were no dishes out, no mess anywhere.  They had even put themselves to bed.  Honestly, it went better than typical nights would go when my wife and I were both there.

Why? Because they wanted it to happen again, because they wanted to do well so that they would be rewarded with more freedoms.  They wanted blessing and privilege and reward.

Jesus told a better parable when describing what it is like to live here while waiting to see God face to face either when we go to him or when Jesus comes back here.  It is commonly referred to as the Parable of the Talents in Matthew 25.

14 “Again, it will be like a man going on a journey, who called his servants and entrusted his wealth to them. 15 To one he gave five bags of gold, to another two bags, and to another one bag,[a] each according to his ability. Then he went on his journey. 16 The man who had received five bags of gold went at once and put his money to work and gained five bags more. 17 So also, the one with two bags of gold gained two more. 18 But the man who had received one bag went off, dug a hole in the ground and hid his master’s money.

19 “After a long time the master of those servants returned and settled accounts with them. 20 The man who had received five bags of gold brought the other five. ‘Master,’ he said, ‘you entrusted me with five bags of gold. See, I have gained five more.’

21 “His master replied, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master’s happiness!’

22 “The man with two bags of gold also came. ‘Master,’ he said, ‘you entrusted me with two bags of gold; see, I have gained two more.’

23 “His master replied, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master’s happiness!’

24 “Then the man who had received one bag of gold came. ‘Master,’ he said, ‘I knew that you are a hard man, harvesting where you have not sown and gathering where you have not scattered seed. 25 So I was afraid and went out and hid your gold in the ground. See, here is what belongs to you.’

26 “His master replied, ‘You wicked, lazy servant! So you knew that I harvest where I have not sown and gather where I have not scattered seed? 27 Well then, you should have put my money on deposit with the bankers, so that when I returned I would have received it back with interest.

28 “‘So take the bag of gold from him and give it to the one who has ten bags.29 For whoever has will be given more, and they will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what they have will be taken from them. 30 And throw that worthless servant outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’

Jesus has gone a journey, so to speak. He said he would always be with us spiritually and he has left the Holy Spirit but he is no longer physically present.  He has left us here with a job to do.  He has given us talents. (In Sunday School as a kid, the two meanings of the word talent always threw  me off.  In the context of the story it is an amount of money)  He has given us life and literal talents and resources and time and, and, and.

We will see him. There will come a time where we will meet him face to face when the journey is over, and apparently he is going to have some questions for us.  He is going to want to know what we did with what he gave us.  What will he say after we give our answer?

I desperately want him to say, “Well done! Come enter into my happiness!”  I want him to proud and pleased.  I also want reward.  Some people believe these are unhealthy motivations.  Obedience should be enough.  It’s selfish and prideful to want rewards and recognition.  If that’s true, then Jesus sure did make a big mistake in including this parable.

It is not bad to want to please God. It’s not selfish to want him to give to you what he said he would give if you’re  faithful to use what he has given you wisely.  This is what I want and what I am striving for.

Sure, I have not and will not do this perfectly.  Sure I may have caught a bag of marshmallows on fire in the microwave once when I was alone. (I speak metaphorically for me.  Literally for our girls when they were alone once. Another story for another day.) However, I think about this passage a lot and how awesome it will feel to finally see face to face the one that I have given my life to and to hear his voice say to me, “Well done!”

What about you?  What keeps you going?

How Can I Know God’s Will?

September 24, 2015 by cloften  
Filed under Bible, Church and Leadership

“How can you know if ___________ is God’s will for your life?”  This was the fear-gripped question that my friends and I would ask in college.  There were several books written on the topic and people found themselves in different “camps.”  This is what Christians do.  We ask a question, read a book and over-aggressively defend that viewpoint as if our mom wrote the book.  One camp was very regimented in their approach.  Pro/Con lists, seeking counsel, deliberate strategic thinking, etc.  The other camp was significantly more mystical in their approach.  God’s will can only be found in deep meditative prayer and it will be revealed to you in a mystical way.  God is not found through man’s deliberative processes.  Two different camps, but they both shared one thing in common: it was neither simple nor easy to determine what God’s will for you is.

We felt that somehow finding God’s will must be very hard.  It required a lot of stress and just the right technique and theological viewpoint.  If you failed to discern God’s will correctly, the consequences would be dreadful and perhaps irreversible.  Now mind you, we weren’t debating whether or not something bad was God’s will.  “I have been praying for a couple of days and I’m wrestling with whether or not God wants me to kill this dude or not.”  We also weren’t wrestling with obvious good things.  “I’m not sure if I should be praying or not.  I’d pray about it, but…you see my dilemma.”

We wrestled with choosing between multiple seemingly good or neutral options.  After I graduate, should I go to grad school or go on staff with this ministry? Should I ask this girl out or not?  What should I do this summer? Go home and get a job, go on a mission trip, what? It was easy to get yourself worked up in knots about whether or not what you were planning was right or not. The great fear was “being outside of God’s will.”

This struggle presupposes a few things.  One is that if you make a bad decision, and by bad we mean a good decision that we’re not sure was God’s best decision, that God would be mad, disappointed, judgmental, etc.  Another is that once you are down a secondarily good path (perhaps now apart from God or with him opposing you) is that you are destined down a wrong path for quite some time.  So the stakes are incredibly high.  You could think that you are making a good decision, and others may even agree with you, but if God disagrees and believes that you could have made a better (God-approving) decision, then you will find yourself in a bad place with God.

What this ignores is God’s sovereignty, omniscience and general good-hearted nature towards his adopted sons and daughters.  “I wanted you to go to grad school but you became a missionary instead.  You failed to determine my elusive will.  Prepare the smite button.”  God has made it clear that he is directing the path of the one who trusts in him.

One of the Best Far Side Comics Ever

One of the Best Far Side Comics Ever

Trust in the Lord with all your heart
and lean not on your own understanding;
in all your ways submit to him,
and he will make your paths straight.

Proverbs 3:5-6

He is also giving the desires of hearts to those who delight in him.

Take delight in the Lord,
and he will give you the desires of your heart.

Psalm 37:4

God also says that he has created the path.  That’s the hard part.  We just need to trust and follow that path.

For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.

Eph. 2:10

If we are following God and trusting him, then we can make a decision knowing that he is leading.  We can trust that God wants the best for us.  He is leading us, if we will let him.  We can trust him, not our decision making ability.  You will make some bad decisions.  You will zig when you should have zagged.  But we follow a God who will gladly use the zig to work the big picture plan that he has for your life.

This leads to another issue that we overlook: God is working a much bigger plan than we are.  We believe that there is no more greater pressing matter than what we will do the summer before we go to college or the next job that we will take or what house we should move into.  However, God is working a significantly bigger plan than that.  When we do long range planning, we think in terms of 5 years down the road, “How will this impact me?”  God is thinking about how this decision is going to affect your grandson, because he is going to live next door to a girl who is going to have a friend whose grandson is going to be a significant world leader.  He is thinking in 1000’s of years.  We think in terms of 5-10 on our best days.  God is working a big complicated, multi-generational plan.  He’s got this.  You can’t shipwreck God’s big picture plan.

You should still use a good process.  Wise counsel and prayer are always good ideas.  Pro and con lists are good as well.  Good decisions typically follow good processes.  However the foundational piece of any decision making process has to be a deep-rooted trust in God.

Delight in him. Follow him.  Trust him. Make a decision.

Do Something! It’s Better than Nothing!

September 17, 2015 by cloften  
Filed under Bible, Church and Leadership

What keeps someone on the diving board?  You see your friends diving off the diving board.  It doesn’t look that hard.  Everyone seems to be enjoying it.  It would also seem that no one ever cracked their skull diving into the water from a diving board 2 feet above the pool.  (Cue people going to Google: “cracked skull pool diving board”)  Lots of people are doing it without a problem, not getting hurt and having a great time.  Yet, there’s always that one friend who gets in line to jump and just won’t dive.  They act like they are going to, but then they don’t.  They either stay on the board or just jump in feet first refusing to dive.  “I’m going to do a pencil!”  (Pencil is not a thing.) Why? They think they are going to get hurt. They think they will look stupid.  It just seems scary.  They think that they just need a little bit more time.

Taking that time never helps. They think about it some more, they let their friends go one more time.  They get back in line and still they stay on the diving board.  They don’t move.  They can’t jump.  They are paralyzed in their own mind.  They won’t do a baby dive, a half dive, an accidental belly buster.  Instead they do nothing.  They have decided that doing nothing is better than doing something.

There are many of us standing on the diving board of serving.  We are convinced that if we were to jump off that diving board that we are going to get hurt or embarrassed.  We might do damage to someone that we are supposed to help.  We might be miserable.  We might be made to look foolish.  So instead, we walk past the diving board, maybe put a foot on it but then walk by.  However, unlike at the pool, you probably don’t have friends in the water screaming at you and calling you a big chicken.

Well, allow me to be in the pool and exhibit a little positive peer pressure on you.  “Get in the pool you big chicken.  God wants to use you and he can’t use you if you’re walking around doing nothing like a big old chicken.  Get in the pool.”  Some of us are too worried about what our first dive into ministry will look like, so we fill out all the preference forms and personality tests and we read books and we are trying to figure out how to do the perfect dive, how to find the perfect ministry for us to do.  Some of us aren’t even doing that.  Some of us are looking at the pool, shaking our heads and we just keep walking.

Again, similar to diving, you can’t really figure out how to serve in a book.  Just jump.  Make a bad dive.  It will feel awkward but you will at least get some feel for it.  The people in the pool will tell you what you did wrong and you get back up and you dive in again.  With practice and diligence you learn how to dive.  That same practice and diligence will show you where God wants you to serve.

Take my middlest daughter, Lauren.  She loves kid’s ministry but she kept having a hard time in different classrooms.  Being a PK, she will go where she is directed, but the kid’s director wants her to be happy.  At first the kids were too young, she liked hype and roughhousing, not potty visits and blank stares.  They needed care, and that’s not her thing. Then the kids were too old.  She was 14 and some of the kids in her class were 10.  They didn’t respect her and thought that they finally had a teacher that they could legally get mouthy with.  Lauren did not like that at all.

Finally, she ended up in the kindergarten class.  She loves these kids and they love her.  She’s young enough to be fun but old enough to command respect.  I walked past her classroom one morning and she was barefoot standing on chairs by the whiteboard drawing a complex diagram of how she had sprained her finger that week on a mission trip with a skateboard.  At the table were 10 enraptured kindergarteners who thought that she was the best thing ever.  (They assure me that she brings the same energy to teaching the actual lesson and keeps their attention the same way, not just for injury reports.) On the other side of the classroom is sweet Britt who quietly is the adult presence, keeps everyone on schedule and manages the details. Meanwhile the one and only Lauren Loften is holding court with her people. She was placed at first somewhere she didn’t want to be.  But it was only in doing that that she found exactly where she was meant to be.

What you need to do:

1)      Take all the opportunities that are available to you and just pick one.  PICK ONE! Don’t worry that you won’t pick the perfect or best one right away.  Doing something is better than nothing.  You won’t learn what is best until you start doing something.

2)      Serve long enough to figure out if it’s a good fit. I don’t want to put a time frame on it.  If I say do it for a month and it’s a monthly opportunity, that’s not enough.  If it’s a daily opportunity to serve and I say 3 months, that can be too long.  Just serve long enough where you can really know if it is a good fit.  Everything is awkward and uncomfortable at first.  Let the new and awkward wear off and then see.

3)      Ask yourself 2 very important questions.  Am I good at this? Do I like doing this? Those are the most important questions to ask in evaluating a serving role.  Ideally, you will be serving in a way that you love and you are skilled at it.  If you are not, then find something that you do love and can do well.

4)      Finally, if it’s not a good fit, ask yourself why. Was it too behind the scenes or not behind the scenes enough?  Were you being asked to use a skill you don’t have? Were you serving in a good way but with the wrong age group or people?  It could be any number of things.  If you are having a hard time evaluating, talk to the person leading the ministry or to a friend and ask for their help.  You find your best fit by knowing why other roles weren’t a good fit.

Bottom line.  Do something.  God has great plans for you.  He wants to use you in a big way.  Find what that big way is by doing something instead of nothing.  Get off the diving board and dive in.  A great adventure awaits.

When Getting Fired Is the Best Thing That Could Happen

September 10, 2015 by cloften  
Filed under Bible, Church and Leadership

Immediately after finishing my seminary degree, our family moved to the suburbs of St. Louis to join some friends in planting a church.  It was an exciting opportunity for us.  First what could be better than planting a church and serving alongside friends?  We weren’t taking some job where we didn’t know anyone in completely unfamiliar circumstances.  We were friends and knew each other.  We had worked together before in college ministry and we were friends.  Also, I was young and inexperienced and this was an opportunity for me to get in on the ground floor as a leader at what was certain to be an incredible fast-growing influential church.
However, for multiple reasons, this church was failing miserably.  We were there four years and essentially saw minimal to no growth.  There are a multitude of reasons why this church failed—enough to fill an entire book—20 Leadership Lessons from a Failed Church Plant.  However, I will focus on the one that’s relevant to what we are talking about.  That’s the great thing about having such a miserable failure on my resume, you can use some part of it to illustrate anything.
I really wanted to be a teaching pastor at contemporary church.  I really wanted to plant a church with friends.  I was passionate about small groups and the local church being used to reach lost people.  I was excited about the opportunity and the job.  But passion and enthusiasm could not overcome one thing.  Like I mentioned earlier, the job that I was given was not one I was good at.  My primary responsibility was in the area of administration.  I also taught about once a month and I was overseeing small groups, but the bulk of my time was spent managing the business side of the church.  I was developing and maintaining a church database, paying the bills and managing the church finances.  To say that I was no good at that would be a huge understatement.  I was terrible at it.  People who know me now laugh when they hear that I was to be the organized one.  People who don’t know me but have seen my car, or my desk, the files on my computer, my closet, well let’s be honest, those who have seen any aspect of my life know that administration and organization are not in my list of strengths.
No amount of passion for being a pastor, serving with friends or loving the great people that were a part of our church could overcome the fact that one of the main thrusts of my job was something I was no good at and was not passionate about.  So here’s what happened.  I would spend twice as much time doing simple tasks as it would take someone who was gifted in that area, which is already time wasted.  However, in addition to that I would waste time dreading the tasks and then waste time on the backend being cranky about how awful those tasks were.  You can judge me if you want, I know how you are.  However, you are the same way.  If there is job that you have to do, that you hate and are no good at, you waste all kinds of time both in doing it and not doing it.  I believe that when we try to accomplish something that is completely out of our sweet spot——something you are not talented in or passionate about—it takes us four hours to accomplish a one hour task.  We spend one hour not doing it, two hours doing it and one hour exhausted from doing it.
What are the results of this? First I’m exhausted mentally and emotionally from having so much of my day being jobs I can’t and don’t want to do.  That then means I am taking time away from the parts of my job that I can and want to do well.  Now I’m not only failing at the parts of my job that I am destined to fail in, but now also I am failing in the areas of my job that I could be good at, if I had the time or the emotionally energy to do it.
Now in addition to not doing my job well, I am slowly sinking into a depression because I can feel myself failing (in addition to other parts of the church failing for other reasons).  So how can I get out of this? What I tried was completely ignoring the admin piece of my job except for the bare essentials.  This way I can focus on the parts of my job that I can do well.  Anyone who is administratively gifted or at a minimum understands the importance of the administrative side of church has just passed out.  A church needs a solid infrastructure (run by an efficient team) and without it weaknesses will be exposed.  To be honest there wasn’t much difference between me focusing on admin and not focusing on it.  In both instances, it was terrible.
However, that eventually catches up with you—depression, avoidance and failing at some primary job responsibilities. After four years of the church struggling, my friend invited me to lunch and fired me.

Immediately after finishing my seminary degree, our family moved to the suburbs of St. Louis to join some friends in planting a church.  It was an exciting opportunity for us.  First, what could be better than planting a church and serving alongside friends?  We weren’t taking some job where we didn’t know anyone in completely unfamiliar circumstances.  We had worked together before in college ministry.  Also, I was young and inexperienced and this was an opportunity for me to get in on the ground floor as a leader at what was certain to be an incredible fast-growing influential church.

However, for multiple reasons, this church was failing miserably.  We were there four years and essentially saw minimal to no growth.  One of those reasons was that the job was not a great fit for me at all.  Some of my job was a good fit.  I would teach about once a month, which I loved.  I was overseeing the small groups and I enjoyed that as well.  However, there was a huge problem.  I was the church administrator as well.  Take a moment and let that sink in.  If you don’t know me, then you need to understand that everyone is laughing right now.  I could attach a picture of the inside of my car and you would understand, or my closet, or my desk, or I suppose a picture of me.  I have no administrative gifts at all.  I was a disaster at that and it was the core of my job.

Other parts of my job were going well,  I was shepherding and teaching well.  Small groups were going OK, especially for a church that wasn’t growing and struggling.  It didn’t matter.  I was struggling.  After four years of being there and with no warning, my friend and the lead pastor, took me out to lunch.  (I take that back.  Invited me to lunch.  I paid for my own lunch.  Minor detail, but still.)  At that meeting, he blamed all the church’s problems on me and fired me.

(Since that time, we have reconciled and he has apologized for blaming me and took responsibility.  I put this disclaimer in here, because I don’t want anyone who knows the people involved in this story to think that I’m still upset or he and I aren’t good.  We are.  No resentment here…except for that maybe I had to buy my own lunch.  Just kidding.)

At that moment, I was devastated.  It was the worst thing that had ever happened to me.  I had lost my job, my church and my friends all in one awful moment.  For quite a few days, I wasn’t sure that I would ever recover from this loss.  I spent a lot of time crying, yelling and not sleeping.

However, the 10 year anniversary of that moment is coming up in January, and after ten years, I have to say that it is one of the best things that ever happened to me.  What can often destroy people, God has used to grow me and help me become the man, pastor and leader that I am today.  Without the “worst” thing that has ever happened to me, I would not be where I am or who I am. What about you? Have you had a devastating moment in your life? Have you allowed it derail you?  After 10 years, here is what I have learned about these moments and how God has shaped me through them.  Ultimately he can do the same for you.

Here are some ways that God made the “worst” the “best” for me:

1) God drew me closer to him. When you lose your church, your friends and your job all in one moment, it can feel that you don’t have much left.  It can also feel like you have nowhere to go.  However, God was always there.  The first thing that my wife said to me after I told her was, “Well, clearly God is up to something.”  It was hard to believe at first, but eventually it became clear to me as well.  God was with me, loved me, and wanted my best.  I learned to lean on him more in this adversity than I had in a long time.  I chose not to turn on God but instead to lean in, and my relationship with him deepened in great ways.  Move toward God.  Don’t pull away.

2) I woke up out of a daze. I’m not going to lie.  I was in a rut.  I wasn’t enjoying my job or much of my life.  However, it was my life.  It was my job.  So, I kept doing it.  I was headed nowhere personally or professionally.  I was drifting slowly on a boat headed nowhere.  However, in a moment, that rut was gone.  Rather than dwelling on the loss and grieving, I was able to realize that I was stuck some place that I didn’t want to be and headed to a place that I didn’t want to go.  Difficult change has the power to wake us up and refresh us if we choose to not give in to despair.

3) I took the opportunity to evaluate what my best role was. So if I wake up out of a daze, now my head is clear.  So I ask, what should I be doing if it’s not this?  Where should I be doing this?  What am I good at? What do I love?  When anything is possible, well…anything is possible.  I applied for jobs all over the country in all sorts of different roles.  Through some good prayer time, introspection and multiple interview processes, God began to make it more clear who I was and want I needed to be doing.  Don’t focus on the loss.  Embrace the opportunity

4) God led me some place better. Ultimately then, the next job I took was a much better fit for me and I saw God’s blessing in my life more than I ever had as a pastor.  Then as that role began to change, I recognized that it wasn’t going to be a great fit for me long-term.  I could see the signs now.  That then led me to where I am now, which I believe is a job in a place where God wanted me to be all along.  I didn’t get here the most direct way, but I did get here God’s way.  So, let’s not ever lose sight that even though the path may seem crooked, we are being led by God right to where he wants us to go.

5) Unexpected blessings. I made a decision 4 years ago that there was no longer any point in my past that I was going to regret.  Of course, there are situations I could have handled better, and I regret that.  However, big picture there are no regrets.  Why? Because of Laylah Loften, our adopted daughter.  She was born in a hospital in Fayetteville, Arkansas at just the right time and just the right place for her to be ours.  If anything in our life had been different, we would have missed it.  So, no regrets.  If this is all the good that had come from being fired, it would have been more than worth it.  Don’t lose sight of the tremendous events and blessings in your life that possibly would have never happened if the temporarily devastating events hadn’t led you there.

Don’t let a twist or obstacle in your path become the time that you give up.  God is working a long-term big picture plan for your life.  He can and will take some of the worst moments in our life and use them to bring great good.

How have you seen God work in this way in your life when life handed you something unexpected and hurtful?

Stop Taking Those Spiritual Gift Tests (The Path)

September 3, 2015 by cloften  
Filed under Bible, Church and Leadership

Confession time.  I do not like spiritual gift tests.  This is not to say that I don’t believe in spiritual gifts or their value.  Spiritual gifts are real and incredibly valuable to us and to what God is doing in and through us all over the world.  It’s the tests that are no good.  A typical question goes something like this:

32. I enjoy teaching God’s word to groups of people None      A little       Sometimes      Often      Always

Hmmm. I wonder what spiritual gift that is trying to evaluate.  It’s such a mystery.  It’s obvious that it is trying to “help” you determine if you have the gift of teaching. So, if you want to have the gift of teaching, circle always and blammo! You have the gift of teaching.  Spiritual gift tests are more passion evaluators than gift inventories.  I want to be a teacher and I can have the gift according to this test if I answer the obvious questions the right way.

However, there is a big difference between you having a passion for something and you having a skill in that area.  I would even say that there is a difference between having a skill in an area and being spiritually gifted in that area.  Passion means you love something.  A skill means that you are good at it.   A spiritual gift means you have God’s power behind it.

You see, spiritual gifts have spiritual effects.  You can call yourself a teacher, but if no one is learning than you are not a teacher, you are a talker to people.  People can learn information from you and even a new skill and then you are a teacher.  However, when are you a spiritually gifted teacher? You are a spiritually gifted teacher, when you teach and God’s spirit shows up in a big way and people’s lives are changed.  When do you have the gift of hospitality? Not just that you want people to come over to your house.  They also need to feel welcomed and then that hospitality is having a spiritual effect in the lives of the people.

You don’t have the gift of teaching if no one is listening. You don’t have the gift of hospitality if no one enjoys coming to your home.  You don’t have the gift of encouragement if everyone feels worse after talking to you.  You don’t have the gift of discernment if you are always wrong.

So rather than doing a self-evaluation survey. You should give one to your friends for you. You should ask them what they see in you.  Ask them how they have seen God use you in the lives of other people.  See then if that agrees with what you think.  The best evaluation tool is to ask the question, “Where have I seen God move when I minister to others?” Again, knowing what your passionate about is a great thing to know.  That’s a great blog post for another day, but spiritual gifts have spiritual effects.

I believe that I am good at communicating the gospel to lost people.  I understand the theology of the gospel.  I have great illustrations.  I also am a pretty good communicator.  Does that mean I have the gift of evangelism? No it doesn’t.  In fact, I know that I don’t.  Why do I know this? Because people do not very often come to Christ when I share.  I remember in the summer of 1995, my wife and I were on a mission trip to Ukraine.  This was fairly soon after the old Soviet Union opened up to travelers and to missionaries in particular.  Our group was doing a lot of evangelism and people were coming to Christ in large numbers.  Except there was one guy on the team who was not leading anyone to Christ.  Would you like to guess who?

It was very frustrating and discouraging. In the team meetings there would be these great stories and I wouldn’t have one.  I feel like I was sharing very well and explaining the gospel well but nothing.  One afternoon I went out with another team member and they were sharing with someone we had met.  The presentation was a mess.  The gospel was poorly communicated.  I began to doubt my own salvation because I wasn’t sure I understood the gospel anymore.  I looked over at the Ukrainian student and they are crying.  They say they want to receive Christ.  I ask them to explain to me what that means and they proceed to explain the gospel better than it was explained to them .  At the time I was dumfounded.  Now I recognize spiritual gifts.  They have spiritual effects.  My friend had the gift of evangelism.

I on the other hand got to speak at a large group gathering one night and it was amazing.  You could feel the presence of God.  I spoke on the need for Christian fellowship.  I was talking about the early church in Acts 2.  It was an evangelistic message, using fellowship as a motivating tool for people to come to Christ.  After the service, students were talking to Christians all over the room and outside.  Dozens came to Christ that night, being led by people with the gift of evangelism after God had used someone with the spiritual gift of teaching to stir them.  Spiritual gifts have spiritual effects.

So look at the list of spiritual gifts and ask yourself and others, where and when have I seen God move in my life? What was I doing? How was God using me?  There is where you will find your spiritual gifts.

Does God Really Have a Plan for My Life? (The Path)

August 27, 2015 by cloften  
Filed under Bible, Church and Leadership

pathI was at Student Mobilization’s first Christmas Conference in 1992 and we were meeting in the banquet room of Bonanza right on the strip in Branson, Missouri.  One of the highlights of that is being able to pay $1 at the beginning of each day and get soda with free refills all day long!  I was a college student, back then it was the little things, not that I would say no now to all I could drink soda for a dollar. It was an incredibly fun week.  My team made it to the finals of the 3 on 3 basketball tourney. I was there with some great friends from school and was able to reconnect with new friends that I had made earlier that summer at a summer project called Kaleo.  But more than all the fun that I had and more than the joy of being able to connect with friends, this conference in Branson was a powerful week in my life.  God was confirming in my life that he wanted more from me than what I considered to be the normal Christian life.  I heard speaker after speaker talk about what it truly meant to follow God. I began to more fully understand that God did not simply want church attenders and generally religious people. God wanted my whole life.  I was being remade.  I could tell that my life was never going to be the same again.

Then one of the speakers introduces to us the idea of unreached people.  Unreached people in missions terminology are groups and cultures that are far removed from the gospel.  There is no church among the people capable of reaching the culture for Jesus Christ.  These people are relatively hopeless, not just in that they don’t know Christ but that for the most part they don’t know anyone who knows anyone who could explain the gospel to them.  I was totally overwhelmed.  I had never been confronted with that level of need before.  Between that and how God was changing my heart about discipleship, I knew that God wanted to use me to change the world.  God wanted me to make a difference in the lives of people who were unreached.

The last night included a lot of powerful worship. They were preparing us for a night where we were to reflect on the week and commit to apply what God was laying on our hearts.  They didn’t want us to get all fired up and go back to school and get into the same routines.  The last speaker spoke and encouraged us to consider what God wanted us to do. He knew that God was speaking to us and he wanted us to think about what specific ideas and applications we were taking away from the conference.  After some time of reflection they wanted us to share.  People were supposed to stand and speak out what their life application for the conference was.  After a few people stood and shared, I boldly stood up and declared that I was going to be a missionary to an unreached people. In that moment I knew that’s what God wanted me to do, so I stood up and told everyone.

Over 20 years have passed since that moment and what I declared has never happened. While I suppose that there is still time left for me to do that, I now believe that honest heartfelt declaration from a 21 year old is not the direction that God has for my life or necessarily that he ever had.  God was definitely speaking and leading.  God was telling me to make some changes and was reshaping my life, and I truly believed that was what God wanted.  Now, 20+ years later, God has reshaped my life in many ways because of that season in my life, just not by going to an unreached people.  So I wonder what really happened? I look back and ask, “What was God really saying?”

I also think about the people all over the room that didn’t stand up.  Not only did they not stand up, but they hear messages like that and think “There’s no way that applies to me. God doesn’t think of me like that.”  They do not believe that God truly has a big plan for their lives.

Two types of people both struggling to determine what God really wants from them.  One, not truly believing that God wants to use them.  The other is incredibly fired up but life took him somewhere different than what he thought.  Are you either of these? Did you once have big plans and dreams of how God was going to use you, how you were going to make a difference? Then life got in the way, life zigged when you wanted to zag, and you are left confused wondering what went wrong. Or are you someone who doesn’t believe that you are someone that God truly wants to use? Calling is for those people and you are just an ordinary person living an ordinary life.

Regardless of where you are now and how you got there.  Know this: God has big plans for your life and wants to use you to change the world.  I’m going to spend a lot of time on here for the next few months talking about how we can discover what that plan and path is and how to navigate the ups and downs and twists and turns that we will face trying to get there and stay there. I encourage you to subscribe so that we can walk together discovering God’s path for our lives.