5 Forthcoming Reviews

Just a short “in the mail” post today to share five reviews you can expect to read here in the coming weeks and months:

 

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  1. First Raise a Flag: How South Sudan Won the Longest War but Lost the Peace (Oxford University Press)  

    This book just arrived in the mail yesterday. Some years ago I read a few books on the Rwandan genocide, and have had occasional interest in African history. Time to reactivate that interest and learn more about what’s been happening in Sudan. (LINK)

     

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  2. The 13.1 GoneForaRun running journal  

    It will be hard to top the Believe training journal I use now, but this one looks good so far. (LINK)

     

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  3. Old Testament Hebrew vocabulary cards  

    I learned Hebrew using these more than 10 years ago; now the Basics of Biblical Hebrew suite from Zondervan is in a new edition, so I’m re-learning with the updated cards. (LINK)

     

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  4. A sweet leather wallet from Galen Leather  

    It holds a pen! Cards! A notebook! Money! (money sold separately) It looks, feels, and smells amazing. (LINK)

     

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  5. Harvard Business Review’s new book, Why Do So Many Men Become Incompetent Leaders? (and how to fix it)  

    I just finished the book yesterday, so will probably post about that next. (LINK)

A Book You Should Read: Amy L. Sherman’s Kingdom Calling

Any church is an outpost of the Kingdom of God. There is the mission of the church, expressed in terms of what it does together as a congregation. Then there are the myriad ways members of a congregation—especially but certainly not limited to ones involved in teaching, social services, and other care-taking roles—live out the church’s call to love, to be salt and light, to share the good news of God’s love..

Even if we are at church four hours a week, we churchgoers spend some 98% of our lives not gathered with the congregation as a whole. How can churchgoing folks continue to build the Kingdom of God, not just when we are together, but when we are apart?

3809There exists among congregations an impressive amount of what Amy L. Sherman in Kingdom Calling refers to as “vocational power–knowledge, platform, networks, position, influence, skills and reputation.” As a pastor I am keenly aware of the importance of equipping the body of believers to use their “vocational power” for the growing of the Kingdom of God. How, as Ephesians says, can we “equip the saints for the work of ministry”—ministry not just at church but in our day-to-day lives, in all the places in which God has set us?

Sherman sets the course with a definition of vocational stewardship: “the intentional and strategic use of one’s vocational power (skills, knowledge, network, platform) to advance the values of the Kingdom of God.” In calling for “foretastes” of the Kingdom of God, she speaks of a righteousness that has three dimensions: up (God and me), in (myself), and out (the world and me). This robust understanding of righteousness gets at the heart of the Old and New Testament’s definition of righteousness as right relationship with God, self, and others.

Throughout Kingdom Calling Sherman tells inspiring stories of non-profit owners, teachers, pastors, small groups, construction workers, cleaning service providers, and many others who are helping to advance the Kingdom of God by offering foretastes of it in their own spheres.

As a pastor I appreciated Sherman’s focus on “four pathways for deploying congregants in the stewardship of their vocations” (22). These are:

  1. “Blooming where we are planted by strategically stewarding our current job,”
  2. “Donating our vocational skills as a volunteer,”
  3. “Launching a new social enterprise,” and,
  4. “Participating in a targeted initiative of our congregation aimed at transforming a particular community or solving a specific social problem.”

Sherman shares inspiring stories of church-school partnerships and congregation-wide initiatives, although it is hard to know how to replicate some of the successes Sherman mentions, absent more specific implementation suggestions. But insofar as her aim is to cast a vision to church leaders and attendees of vocational stewardship and the great potential found in vocational power, Sherman’s work has excited me to move ahead in my own church with what I’ve learned from Kingdom Calling.

Leaders Should Be a Non-Anxious Presence

steinkeThis bit of wisdom in the post title comes from Peter Steinke. He affirms that anxiety itself is not bad; it can provoke positive change, but only if regulated.

In his Congregational Leadership in Anxious Times: Being Calm and Courageous No Matter What, Steinke says leaders should be non-anxious presences in their churches. He says, “Nothing new under the sun—especially nothing controversial—happens without confusion, resistance, or emotional reactivity.”

So leaders should “keep calm for the purpose of reflection and conversation,” “maintain a clear sense of direction,” and what I thought was hardest but maybe best, “tolerate high degrees of uncertainty, frustration, and pain.”

“To be a non-anxious presence,” he says, “means to acknowledge anxiety but not let it be the driver of behavior.” Don’t deny anxiety, but don’t let it defeat you or your people.

To Change the World (James D. Hunter): A Brief Review and Critique

James Davison Hunter makes helpful contributions to the discussion of how Christians should orient themselves toward the world and its need for improvement. His idea of “faithful presence” is a good one, if not especially novel. The idea’s rootedness in the faithful presence of God in Christ offers a theologically sound and relatable paradigm. Because of God’s love for and presence with us, any Christian, whether walking in the so-called halls of power or not, can exercise faithful presence.

Hunter offers a robust view of faithful presence as “the exercise of leadership in all spheres and all levels of life and activity” (260). One thinks of the oft-quoted Abraham Kuyper: “There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ… does not cry, ‘Mine!'”

to-change-the-worldHunter sees the need for faithful presence to bring about both individual and institutional change, as it “generates relationships and institutions that are fundamentally covenantal in character, the ends of which are the fostering of meaning, purpose, truth” (263, my emphasis). Further, Hunter writes, “Culture is intrinsically dialectical” (34). His drawing on the Hegelian dialectic allows him to articulate a Christian relation to the world that avoids extremes: “Christians are called to relate to the world within a dialectic of affirmation and antithesis” (231).

The author spends more time than the reader might like in debunking other people’s ideas as to how to make the world a better place. This is a noble enough endeavor, but one wonders: On what authority does he offer his critiques? He begins, “I contend that the dominant ways of thinking about culture and cultural change are flawed, for they are based on both specious social science and problematic theology” (5). (That’s a big claim to have to defend.) He continues with broad, sweeping statements like, “Cultures change from the top down, rarely if ever from the bottom up,” (41) and, “Change of this nature [i.e., cultural change] can only come from the top down” (42).

Evidence, however, seems to be in short supply. One does not have to wade deep into the history of the African American civil rights movement, for example, to find figures who effected change from the bottom up. No doubt Martin Luther King, Jr. found support from “the top” in Lyndon B. Johnson, but King led a movement of the people, many of whom (King included) did not have positional power in the society they changed.

And to take a current example, there is the Black Lives Matter movement. While its long-term impact remains to be seen—and while the movement itself may not always speak with one voice—one would be hard-pressed to suggest that this “grassroots political mobilization” (42) has not “penetrate[d] the structure of our imagination, our frameworks of knowledge and discussion, the perception of everyday reality” (42). Already the Black Lives Matter movement can claim victory in that there is a greater societal awareness of race-motivated police brutality, as well as police departments taking increasingly deliberate measures (body cameras, and so on) to prevent it.

I do appreciate Hunter’s giving “priority to what is right in front of us–the community, the neighborhood, and the city, and the people of which these are constituted” (253). But in some ways his “faithful presence” still reads just a little as, “Just try harder… this way is sure to work!”

Of course he is right in saying, “Christians have failed to understand the nature of the world they want to change and failed even more to understand how it actually changes” (99). But the reader rightly wonders: what makes Hunter immune? In short, while Hunter’s larger framework has much to commend it, his work seems to lack attention to important details—and fails to convince that all other visions of world change that preceded him are faulty.

 

Book info: Publisher’s Page (OUP) // Amazon

 


 

Thanks to Oxford University Press for sending me a review copy, which—I assume will be evident—did not influence my attempts at objectivity in assessing the book.

Systems Thinking 101: How Your Church Family Works (Steinke)

Steinke_Healthy CongregationsA “system” is a process with its distinct yet interrelated parts. Interlocking systems (nervous, skeletal, respiratory) make up the one human body. The human body is itself a sort of system of systems.

The Bible uses systems imagery when it describes the body in Romans 12: “For just as each of us has one body with many members, and these members do not all have the same function, so in Christ we, though many, form one body, and each member belongs to all the others.” In a healthy body, all the systems do their part and work together as one toward balance and health. As Peter L. Steinke says in Healthy Congregations: A Systems Approach, “Health is a continuous process, the ongoing interplay a of multiple forces and conditions.” One thinks of the biblical notion of shalom, where health, wholeness, peace, and justice are all present.

Systems thinking offers what Steinke calls “a way of thinking about life as all of a piece… and how the relationships between the parts produce something new.” The key is not just the individual parts, but the interrelatedness of the parts and the dynamics they produce and reinforce together.

In How Your Church Family Works: Understanding Congregations as Emotional Systems, precursor to Healthy Congregations, Steinke suggests that the church is “an emotional unit” and that “the same emotional processes experienced in the family operate in the church” (xvi). Just like the hand cannot say to the foot, “I don’t need you!”, the budget-setting process of the church cannot say to the strategic planning process, “I don’t need you!”

Similarly, anxiety in one part of the system or church affects what is happening in another part of the system or church, as when a parishioner loses a loved one and directs the anger outward at a church leader or other member. (Steinke later refers to this as shifting the burden.) Systems crave homeostasis, and sometimes anxiety in the system causes its members to pursue survival in less than healthy ways.

 

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In How Your Church Family Works Steinke aims to

conceptualize emotional processes so that we can recognize them and, ultimately, let them serve rather than corrupt the purpose of our bonding together–“for the sake of ministry, for building up the body of Christ” (Ephesians 4:13), that “every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Philippians 2:11).

There are two main parts to the How Your Church Family Works. First there is “Conceptualizing Emotional Processes.” Here Steinke talks about systems and their “emotional processes” (“anxiety and reactivity,” “stability and change,” and so on). Second is “The Congregation as an Emotional System,” which uses anecdotes to show the theory of the book’s first half in action.

 

The Whole, Not (Just) Parts

 

How Your Church Family Works is one of the most insightful books I’ve read in a long time. My first exposure to systems thinking a decade ago (through Peter Senge’s book The Fifth Discipline) permanently altered how I make sense of relationship dynamics, especially in an organizational setting. The idea of systems thinking is generative for creativity and problem solving. “Instead of seeing isolated, unrelated parts, we look at the whole” (3). But it’s far easier in pastoral ministry to fixate on isolated parts, or to fail to see an interaction as situated within a larger system. I have personally experienced what Steinke says, that systems thinking “deepens our understanding of life” (4).

 

Anxiety and Its Targets

 

Steinke_How Your Church Family WorksI loved Steinke’s section on anxiety. He remarks, “The most vulnerable or responsible people in the relationship network are the usual targets” (15) when anxiety hits. This would explain why pastors (and other organizational leaders) serve as lightning rods when the people’s anxiety is high. It’s not that anxiety itself is bad, Steinke says. It can provoke positive change (16), but only if it’s regulated. Otherwise, “what is stimulus becomes restraint” (16). In part this is because of the automatic reactive processes from the 15% of our brain’s functioning that is rooted in the brain stem (“survival processes”) and limbic system (“emotional response”) (17).

I’ve been in the Church long enough to no longer expect that a Christian community should magically be conflict-free. Neither do I expect that conflict is always handled in a healthy way. Steinke brilliantly notes just what is going on when anxiety is high in the body of believers: “Threatened, any of us may dispense with our Christian convictions and values. Anxiety is no respecter of belief systems” (21). Indeed, since the stakes are higher in Christian communities (centered as we are around the deepest truths of life), unchecked reactions to anxiety may ripple throughout the system with even more impact.

 

Difficult? Do It

 

So how should church leaders respond to anxiety? Here was one of my favorite takeaways from the book for my own ministry. Leaders ignore anxiety in systems at their own peril. (People-pleasing pastors will especially be attempted to just keep the peace.) Steinke cautions:

But “benign neglect” only reinforces malignant processes. Moreover, ignoring is as reactive as placating or attacking. VICIOUS CIRCLES CAN ONLY BE DISABLED THROUGH EXPOSURE. They are enabled by secrecy and avoidance. (27, all caps are original to Steinke)

Exposure is difficult, but a Christian calling. One thinks of the warnings in the New Testament about deeds of darkness and bringing them into the light. I was fortified by Steinke’s quotation of Rainer Maria Rilke: “That something is difficult must be one more reason for us to do it” (43). Difficult ministry-related conversations get easier the more experience I have, but a part of me would would rather just keep the peace. However, to apply Steinke’s insight, that risks perpetuating anxiety and reactivity in a system, in a way that is less than helpful. The better thing is to seek (in humility, love, and confidence) to expose and address those parts of a system that seem to be exacerbating problems. (Realizing, too, that I myself am part of the system and capable of contributing for good or for ill.)

 

Case Studies

 

The book’s second half provides ample case studies to help the reader better understand the concepts. Steinke breaks down one church’s dysfunction into a series of triangulations, which he diagrams for clarity (84-5). Earlier in the book he describes a church he consulted with, where he encouraged them to redefine problems they’d articulated “without focusing solely on a person or issue as presented in the original problem” (57).

His “Presenting Problem” vs. “Redefined Problem” chart is a model for how to reframe conflict. His ten group reflection questions that follow are virtually alone worth the price of the book. Here are two highlights: “What would it take to have a pastor stay here ten years, twenty years?” (59) and, “How would you be willing to invest yourself in the process of creating the image you defined above?” (60) I photographed these ten questions and saved them to my Evernote, so I can access them for future work in church evaluation.

I’ll be mulling over these systems thinking concepts for years to come. Both of these books by Steinke are worth reading a.s.a.p.

 

Where to Find out More

 

How Your Church Family Works: Understanding Congregations as Emotional Systems: Amazon / Publisher’s page

Healthy Congregations: A Systems Approach: Amazon / Publisher’s page

 


 

Thanks to Rowman & Littlefield for the review copies of both books, given to me for review purposes but with no expectation as to the content or nature of my evaluation.

Habit List: A Sophisticated iOS Habit Tracker

I noted in September that the App Store has seen quite a few habit tracker apps of late.

Why not just use your task management app, you might ask?

Well, one can get tired of seeing the same “Update YNAB” task every day. Or the same “Study Greek” reminder. Habits and tasks aren’t the same per se.

This may be splitting hairs, but since getting past my initial skepticism, I’ve been using one habit tracker or another for much of the fall. The interface of Streaks is unparalleled, and Productive makes a cool sound when you complete a habit.

Habit List, on the other hand, is the most powerful and customizable of the three.

 

Options Galore

 

Habit List takes the cake in what it allows you to do with regard to scheduling your habits. Every potential use I imagined I could accomplish with the app.

You can set up a habit with just about any frequency imaginable, whether certain days or x times per week, and set a reminder. If I want to work out three times a week, I can set up a habit for that, without it having to be the same three days in a given week.

 

Habit Frequency

 

Set Habit Reminder

 

I came to Habit List from another app and could easily backdate edit my habits-in-progress so I didn’t have to start at zero just because I was using a new app. This was unexpected and a great touch.

This also means that if you are completing the habit but forget to track it for a few days, you can easily make the manual adjustment in Habit List.

You can view stats for individual habits, presented in a variety of ways:

 

Calendar Stats

 

Monthly Stats

 

There is no limit (at least that I could find) to the number of habits you can track. So, sure, why not go ahead and add, “Take out trash Friday mornings”?

Here is a look at more app settings:

 

App Settings

 

For Future Updates?

 

Marking the completion of habits in Habit List feels very much like crossing off a list. The interface is exactly that. You swipe your finger across a habit to signify you’ve done it. No filled-in circles, no animations, no sounds. This will be fine for many, but there may also be more aesthetically pleasing user interface options for future updates to explore–whether color changes, distinct habit icons, etc.

Maybe this is draconian or just Pavlovian on my part, but I found myself wanting more from the UI that would give me a sense of satisfaction when crossing off a habit. (I know… what do you want, people cheering??? Well….)

 

Final Words and Where to Get the App

 

TL;DR: Habit List doesn’t quite have the pretty layout of some other similar apps. But it has the most functionality of any habit tracking app I’ve tried. There are no limits on what you can track, as well as a great degree of flexibility. If you’re serious about tracking some specific habits and don’t mind a minimalist layout, you may have found your app.

Find Habit List in the App Store here.

 


 

Thanks to the good folks who make Habit List for the review copy of the app, given to me for this review but with no expectation as to its content.

WriteRight: Synonyms (and More) for iOS

You can almost make the iPad your only computing device if you’re a writer. You can certainly make it your primary one, especially if you’ve got a good external keyboard. The multi-tasking option of the upcoming iOS 9 will be another step forward for those who wish to go the iPad-only route.

That said, the built-in operating system does not have a way to fetch synonyms for you. You can tap on a word and select “Define,” but there’s no synonym option.

That’s where WriteRight comes in:

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What I Like About WriteRight

 

It’s a plain-text, Markdown-enabled writing app. On the one hand, the App Store has a lot of these. On the other hand, it has some unique features. For instance, I click on the gear icon in the extended keyboard, and I see little gear icons above a couple words. Tapping one of those gives me phrase substitution suggestions:

 

phrase substitution

 

The extended keyboard is succinct–just one screen on an iPad in landscape mode. But if you tap on an asterisk, for example, you get multiple Markdown options:

 

Markdown options

 

There’s a handy find-and-replace feature, too, something lacking (or not easily accessible) in other similar apps:

 

Find and replace

 

And, of course, the synonym/antonym feature is a boon to writers. It’s available in both English and Spanish.

 

Synonyms

 

Integration with iCloud and Dropbox is implemented well. And because you’re dealing with Markdown, you can easily work on the same document via Dropbox in WriteRight and many other writing apps. I could finish a document, for example, on Ulysses on my computer, if I wanted to.

The real-time word count (and character count, for that matter) is easy to see and helps with any writing targets you may have.

The app in general feels well-designed. It’s got some nice touches that the regular user will enjoy discovering along the way–like the option to swipe left and right for undo/redo, and a number of other minor features that enhance the writing experience.

 

What I Find Lacking

 

Between Drafts and Editorial and 1Writer, I’ve become used to inline Markdown previews, which WriteRight does not have. It’s not a huge loss, but you do have to be comfortable reading Markdown, or else going back and forth a lot between the Edit and Preview windows, if you want to see what your finished text will look like. The multiple Preview options are nice, but inline Markdown preview in a future revision would be handy. If this is a deal-breaker for you, you might struggle to use WriteRight.

I happen to like the Menlo font, but I sometimes like to write using other fonts–WriteRight doesn’t give you the option to change what font you use in the Edit window, i.e., where you do your writing. You can change font size but not style.

 

That said–even if I’m not jumping to switch to using WriteRight as a primary writing app, its unique features and Cloud-sync capability mean that it has its place as a nice pre-publishing app, to use after I’ve written all my text and before I export and print (or save, or send on to someone). At $2.99, the synonym/antonym and find-and-replace features make it a useful tool in the writer’s tool belt.

Find the app (for iPad and iPhone) in the App Store here.

 


 

Thanks to the makers of WriteRight for the free download for the purposes of review.