The Meaning of Servant Leadership

Servant Leadership is a fashionable idea. Who isn’t in favor of good leadership accompanied by a servant attitude? Everything about that sounds good. The trouble is the term Servant Leadership is frequently treated loosely and easily misinterpreted. Examples of misuse include faulty justification for low performance or exaggerated people-pleasing behaviors. John 12:43, Ephesians 6:6, along with other passages warn against pleasing people as your top priority.

So Servant Leadership cannot mean that the role of the leader is to merely make everyone happy or allow employees to become the number one concern. There’s great danger when organizations drift like that into a self-serving state. Sadly, this can happen in Christian organizations under the pretense of being caring. That would be a serious distortion. Servant Leadership does not equate to low performance. Practiced correctly, Servant Leadership brings out the best in everyone. Servant Leadership is a powerful, important theory that merits careful definition and sound practice. Look back at the origin of the term. While it is a timeless concept, the name came from Robert Greenleaf in an essay he first published in 1970 entitled “The Servant as Leader.” I took training from the Greenleaf Center during the time I was leading Opportunity International and wholeheartedly embraced the philosophy ever since.

A true Servant Leader will coach, nurture, and in every way possible develop staff so they can make an excellent contribution in their work and feel good about themselves in the process. At times, reassigning or even outplacing an employee who doesn’t fit a task or isn’t performing is doing them a service. Certainly a change like that requires gracious handling, but don’t shrink from the responsibility when it is necessary. Keeping a problem employee in place damages the mission and rarely helps the worker in the long run.

Jesus is the source for the Biblical basis for Servant Leadership in Mark 10:42-45. He said, “It should not be so among you,” as He described ego-saturated domineering practices. Dogmatism, manipulation and any other form of dysfunctional relating is incompatible with Servant Leadership.

In the essay mentioned earlier, Greenleaf wrote this summary,

“The best test, and the most difficult to administer, is this: Do those served grow as persons? Do they, while being served, become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, more likely themselves to become servants?"

In the seminar I took with the Greenleaf Center, they told how ordinary conduct is often the opposite of Servant Leadership. Too often organizations tolerate sloppy and ill-defined practices, while at the same time trying to control people. In fact, the better policy is to control the “things” while releasing people. Control things like budgets and processes, but encourage people toward internally motivation, creativity and personal achievement.

Habits of Servant Leadership include: active listening, empathy, healing (fostering emotional and spiritual health), awareness, honest persuasion, conceptualization (helping people dream), foresight (a Servant Leader regularly looks into the future to anticipate situations), stewardship, encouraging personal growth and building community.

The instructor at my Greenleaf seminar made a pithy comment that has stayed with me for years. He said, “The main job of a Servant Leader is to raise up more Servant Leaders.” I want that. It becomes a virtuous cycle that develops people, creates a healthy culture and accomplishes the mission while at the same time producing more Servant Leaders. 

Smoke and Persecution in China (trip report)


First-time visitors to China are usually surprised by what they see. Much of China is modern and prosperous, which doesn’t fit common stereotypes. True, harsh poverty is also readily found in the countryside and the underclass areas of cities, but by most measures, this country is making great strides.

Take trains, for instance. I traveled by rail between Shanghai and Nanjing last week.


The speed I captured in the photo equals 175 miles per hour, which wasn’t even our top speed, nor was this the fastest train I’ve ridden in China. Comfortable, clean and quick – seemingly far ahead of the United States when it comes to rail transportation.

Equally impressive is the pace at which such improvements are implemented. Allow me to use the rail example again. I was in Beijing in 1999 during celebration of the 50th anniversary of the People’s Republic. At that time, this mega city of more than 20 million people had only a tiny loop of a subway system, just the small blue square in the center of the map below. 


There’s been a lot of development between then and now. Today, 10 million people a day ride the vast Beijing subway. This is typical of the rapid development of infrastructure throughout China.

At the risk of appearing fixated on transportation, I will offer yet another amazing fact. Beijing – that one city – adds 1,400 more cars to its roads each day! Numbers like that accumulate fast. You can imagine the traffic jams and the air pollution that result. Air quality is often extremely dangerous. When I arrived at the big modern airport in Beijing and looked down the corridors of the terminal, it was as if there had been a fire somewhere inside the building. It was filled with what appeared to be smoke, but turned out to be pollution that blanketed the whole city both indoors and out.

Calling it dangerous is no exaggeration. The World Health Organization warns it is hazardous to breathe air with concentrations of 25 micrograms per cubic meter of a type of pollution known as PM2.5. Well, the day I arrived in Beijing, the reading at Tiananmen Square shot all the way to 429, almost 20X safe levels. Fortunately, winds shifted direction on the second day of the trip and a rare snowstorm arrived after that, which did wonders for clearing the air.

In China, nearly everything happens on a massive scale, including its problems. Right before I transferred to Shanghai, another megacity of 25 million, a flotilla of 14,000 dead pigs mysteriously appeared in the river. 


By the time I got there, authorities managed to clean the mess away so I saw nary a trace of a porker in the water. In fact, the waterfront was as beautiful as ever. Shanghai one of the most picturesque big cities in the world. At night along the Bund, skyscrapers display a light show accented by glowing ferries and tour boats that ply the river.

This is different from impressions many Westerners have about China. While the country was mostly backward and decaying a generation or two ago, now it is advancing quickly. New construction seems to be everywhere. The building boom is equal to creating two entire Chicagos each year. Certainly challenges remain that appear overwhelming, but somehow progress continues.

So, China is an economic miracle, but what about freedom for Christians to practice their faith? Back in February, an alarming claim circulated widely in the United States with the headline, “How China Plans to Wipe Out House Churches.” Christianity Today and other outlets repeated the story that originated from the organization China Aid, a group that alleged the Chinese government had a “plan to eradicate unregistered house churches.” Quite the opposite seemed to be the case according to everyone I met on this trip. I spent time with dozens of ministry leaders from across the spectrum of churches and they spoke freely with me of greater openness than ever. What conclusions should we draw from this contradiction? I have to wonder whether the shrill protest isn’t, at least in part, a ploy to raise funds. Conspiracies and persecution stories are always compelling.

I do not for a moment want to minimize the price some believers pay for their faith. One evening, I had dinner with an older gentleman who spent years in prison during the Cultural Revolution. No doubt there are still, on occasions, serious incidents of conflict between Christians and the government. On balance, however, the situation for churches in China seems to be improving.


On this trip, I enjoyed meals and lingering conversations with Chinese Christian leaders, from large churches with thousands in attendance to meeting points with fewer than 100. Rather than feeling persecuted or discouraged, they were decidedly upbeat. It pleased me also to hear spontaneous comments in several conversations indicating that relations between registered and unregistered churches are warming. I sensed a level of respect and cooperation far better than I have witnessed before.

My organization, without going into details here, works to support and encourage the whole spectrum of churches. This is going very well. We are encouraged along with our brothers and sisters in China.

One of the most important new opportunities for ministry in China is with migrant workers. Poor people from the countryside come to big cities looking for employment and a chance to better themselves. Their Chinese neighbors nickname them “floating people” because, they spend most of the year in their temporary housing so they can work in the cities, but also routinely return to their home towns. This is necessary because of technicalities in residency regulations. They cannot relocate permanently since they only have access to medical care and education for their children in the countryside where they have their legal residence. This keeps massive numbers of people migrating back and forth throughout the year. How many? This is a relatively recent phenomenon and it is massive - the annual migrating population is about equal to the population of the United States. One migrant community I visited changes 40% of its population each year.

With so many people in flux and with great personal needs, this is a place where Christians can help, and do. One seminary professor pointed out that these days, about half of the people in house churches are transient.


There’s great need for tutoring of children who cannot attend regular schools because they belong to migrant families. Strained families need education, counseling and other practical assistance. While the churches are nowhere near rising to the scale of those needs yet, their response is growing. I heard estimates on this trip that Christian school planting is becoming as common as church planting in China.

China does everything in a big way. It has over 100 billionaires, nearly as many as the U.S. It’s social media platform, unique to China and similar to Twitter, has many more users than Twitter worldwide and is more advanced in its capabilities. Its Google equivalent is bigger than Google. China is far out front with many aspects of the Internet. It has more than 550 million Internet users, nearly twice the population of the U.S. Within a few years, Chinese will be the most-used language on the Internet.


China is a fascinating country with well over a billion people who God loves passionately. The Church there is growing and becoming stronger all the time. It is important, however, for us to appreciate the ways it’s different from church as we know it. One distinction is that most Chinese believers are young in their faith. 80% of Christians are first generation and very few have been following Christ for 10 years or more. Listening to the heartbeat of these people was inspiring. We all do well to pray for, support and encourage our Chinese brothers and sisters.

Rules for Self Discovery (personal spiritual growth)

I am a fan of personal development. Checklists capture my imagination. Both came together in something I found from A.W. Tozer. He spoke and wrote many profound ideas. He was an anointed preacher with the Christian and Missionary Alliance movement who died in 1963. He had little formal schooling, but authored 40 books.

The seven items below are what he called "Rules for Self Discovery." Indeed. They reveal who we really are, what makes us tick. It is a simple, but probing list, an excellent resource for personal reflection.

      1. What we want most;

      2. What we think about most;

      3. How we use our money;

      4. What we do with our leisure time;

      5. The company we enjoy;

      6. Who and what we admire;

      7. What we laugh at.

What's Happening in Bangladesh (trip report)

Americans rarely think about Bangladesh, though many of our clothes come from there. It is one of the world’s 10 most populous countries. It has more people than either Russia or Japan. They live in a relatively small geography, giving Bangladesh the dubious distinction of the highest density population of any country on the planet. It is crowded, poor and underappreciated.

Bangladesh deserves to be a focus for more ministry attention and support. Christians are a tiny minority despite massive human need and pervasive spiritual darkness. That’s why I am pleased that David C Cook Global Mission is teaming up with more than 20 denominations and other church networks in the country to build high-impact programs for children and youth. We’ve been organizing this for months. Two of my colleagues and I made the trip to train trainers who, in turn, will show hundreds of volunteers how to serve thousands of children.  


Vijay Kumar - our Asia Regional Program Director - leading one of the training sessions.

When we arrived in Dhaka, local organizers told us that twice as many would be coming as originally expected because there is such enthusiasm for what we are bringing. Churches and other Christian organizations want to reach out to children in desperate situations, but were unsure how. We are equipping them with both programs and training.


Early during this trip, I met several young girls from an orphanage. One of them will linger in my thoughts and prayers for a long time. She came to the home only within the past month. She is deeply troubled, but hasn’t opened yet to tell much about what happened to her. The limited information they know is that both of her parents are dead and she is all alone. When we offered her candy, she took a piece and ate it, but never cracked even the slightest smile. She remained expressionless with sad eyes and tight lips no matter what was happening around her. Regrettably, she is not unique. Bangladesh is home to many thousands of heartbroken and abused children. The program we’re providing enables caring adults to gently and skillfully bring emotional healing and spiritual nurture to such children. Within the next few weeks our program will be running in her orphanage. It goes far beyond Sunday school. True, it includes all of the best features of an excellent Sunday school, but reaches much deeper with therapy from a Christian worldview that heals children victimized by murder of family members, rape, AIDS and other horrors.

Personal pain is widespread in Bangladesh. One half of the population struggles to find adequate food and other necessities on less than $1 a day. Starting more than 20 years ago,  I headed microfinance organizations and co-authored a leading book on the subject. Small loans, given mostly to women, enable poor families to generate self-employment income. This movement works well in many of the world’s less developed nations, but no place uses microloans more than Bangladesh where 80% of households participate in microcredit.

Making a living is extremely difficult for all but the elite few. Hard work in a giant clothing factory is regarded as a better than average job, though it may pay as little as $70 to $100 a month. Bangladesh now ranks as the world’s number two exporter of ready-to-wear clothes, second only to China.

Activists call out Bangladesh for a terrible record on human trafficking. Exact figures are not available, but good estimates point to hundreds of thousands of children in slave labor and millions of women trapped in forced prostitution.

Even Bangladesh’s geography is disadvantaged. About two-thirds of the country is a vast low-lying floodplain leaving it vulnerable to natural disasters. Situated on deltas of large rivers that flow from the Himalayan Mountains, this terrain is laced with rivers, canals and creeks that offer no protection from frequent floods and cyclones. Besides natural features that spell trouble, still more factors contribute to hardships for ordinary people. Gross overpopulation and political instability make matters worse. Political turmoil includes assassinations, 18 military coups and a dictatorship that lasted nearly a decade. Corrupt politicians allow few options for political expression. This prompts the opposition and others to call strikes. Two of these stoppages, known locally as hartals, took place while we were visiting. When transportation and shops shutdown, it can be dangerous to ignore a hartal. So my hotel required me to sign a statement that they warned me to respect a strike coming the next day. That was enough to persuade me to keep a low profile.

Ride bus top

What is impressive, despite the rugged circumstances, is how resourceful people are. When a local bus is packed beyond capacity, the solution is simply to climb atop and ride on the roof.

Besides battered busses and small three-wheeled taxies, the streets are further crowded with pedal vehicles. Most are rickshaws for carrying passengers, but that’s not the only way modified bicycles are pressed into service. This load of live chickens is going to market on a man-powered delivery truck. 

Pedal truck

Dhaka is a pulsing, gritty mega-city of nearly 14 million. Getting around can be quite an adventure. Roads are fairly good, though extremely packed. Traffic jams can make a 10 KM journey drag out to three hours. Though officially cars are supposed to drive on the left; in reality, drivers often choose to use both sides of roads to go either direction.

Muslim Men

Islam became the official state religion of Bangladesh in 1988 and today nearly 90% of the population is Muslim. This month drew millions of men to Dhaka at the end of our visit. It was reputed to be the second largest Muslim festival in the world.

From a mission perspective, Bangladesh ought to be one of the very highest priorities. More Bengali people are unreached with the Gospel than any other people group. William Carey, widely regarded as the father of modern missions, went to Bengali people when he became a missionary. Unfortunately, 200 years later we still have not seen a breakthrough with these people. 

Despite the harsh realities of their lives, most Bangladeshis are very friendly. My heart goes out to these lovable people. I urge that we look for ways to assist, support and encourage ministry among them.

Prayer circle

Prayer circle at the conclusion of the training event

 Click below for Eric Thurman's devotional introduction (in English) for the ministry training in Bangladesh

What's Happening in Nepal (trip report)

Life is hard for the common people of Nepal. One-third of the population ekes out an existence on less than $1 a day. This contributes to many kinds of evils. Nepal is, for instance, a source for human trafficking on a dreadful scale. Tens of thousands of women from Nepal are forced to work as prostitutes in neighboring India.

This kind of brokenness is why I delight in seeing good work being done by local believers who are helping their neighbors find new life in Christ. The men with me in the photo below are examples. They have established 22 churches and are well on their way toward their goal of 150.


These men represent only one of several networks we met on this trip. It appears the Church in Nepal is growing at a blazing pace of 25% a year or more. A new government census published last month confirms that the number of Christians is multiples of the figure in the previous census ten years ago. 

A challenge this presents is how to raise up enough qualified people to lead these new faith communities. Not only are many of the new leaders inexperienced and untrained, but the challenge of the situation is compounded by the fact that most of them are only semi-literate. David C Cook Global Mission helps by providing a library of practical Bible commentaries they can play on their mobile phones. Audio books are common in America, but they are a welcome new innovation here. We are producing recordings of Warren Wiersbe’s commentaries in the Nepali language in cooperation with Trans World Radio, building a model we found successful with the Hindi language in India.

Another of our meetings was with a local group that treks through rural parts of the country sharing the Gospel. So far they have distributed 60,000 of our booklets for outreach and are looking at ways to do even more with our Story of Jesus.  

The small country of Nepal is situated along the Himalayan mountain range, sandwiched between China and India. Two traits are nearly universal among the people: poverty and complex religious obligations. Buddha was born in Nepal.

WS stupa

One of the largest Buddhist worship sites in the world is here. It is the Boudhanath stupa. Stupa literally means heap. The term comes from ancient Buddhist monuments being nothing more than a simple mound of mud or clay covering relics which supposedly have a “store of sacred energy.” Monks purport that this stupa can grant wishes. Prayer here consists of spinning prayer wheels on spindles and displaying prayer flags.  

prayer wheels

There are more than 3,000 temples and worship structures in this land, a mix of Buddhist and Hindu. Buddhist shrines are distinguished by mysterious eyes glaring out from the tops of their buildings in all four directions. These are said to be the eyes of Buddha who sees all.

Buddha Eyes

Religion with heavy obligations is way of life for most people. They dutifully perform extensive rituals. There’s a saying around here that there are as many temples as houses and as many gods as there are people. That may not be far off. With 33 million deities in the Hindu pantheon, that is about the same number as the population of the country.


I also visited Pashupati Nath which is considered the pinnacle of Hinduism in Nepal. When you arrive at the airport in Kathmandu, there are placards proclaiming that this temple is the most sacred Hindu location in the world. It is doubtful that all Hindus would agree, but it has a rightful claim as one of the oldest Hindu temples dating back to about the year 400. Thousands of devotees from both within and outside the country come to pay homage every day. On special holidays they sacrifice animals. It is auspicious to be cremated here when you die because that, along with the required rituals, is supposed to put an end to the wearying cycles of reincarnation.



A notable feature found throughout the temple compound is a series of pagoda houses that contain the sacred linga, a symbol of the Hindu deity Lord Shiva. It is a stone phallus! Dozens are enshrined throughout the complex along with other idols.


 Once the world’s only Hindu Kingdom, Nepal is a secular democracy today. The transition from a “divine” monarchy has been a bumpy path. Civil war flared between 1996 and 2006 and assassinations took the lives of most of the royal family. These people have been through a lot and badly need a new worldview that comes from faith in Jesus.

Nepal likes to be known as the “Top of the World.” Eight of the world’s ten tallest mountains are here including Mount Everest. Living in the shadow of Pikes Peak as I do, I realize that Everest outclasses us. It is twice as high as the Rockies.

The most important characteristic of this land, however, is the move of God taking place. The video clip below is a taste of that. It is a worship song from a young church in Kathmandu.

What I'm Learning from Mary (personal spiritual growth)

I am going to describe two extremes to show the importance of something in the middle that otherwise might not seem profound. At one extreme is the point of view that Malcolm Gladwell described in his book Blink. He’s not a bad fellow and I’m not out to discredit him. The thesis of his book has merit. Sometimes you can arrive at a valid conclusion in a flash.

An example he gave sticks with me. A psychologist could tell in seconds whether a couple in marriage counseling had any hope of reconciling. He simply observed whether contempt was present. If one or both parties had contempt for the other, there was no hope. Blink. Apparently an accurate diagnosis of that is possible in an instant. That story was convincing.

Put Blink at one end of a spectrum. It has its place. In our fast-paced, over-messaged society, we understandably want to simplify and speed through obligations. While may have a desire to do what is right, we sure need to do it quickly! Even good people find themselves resorting to checklists for the weightier matters of life. Church: check. Giving: check. Something for the poor: check. Birthdays, holidays and other family obligations: check, check, check. This may not be a particularly rich or reflective way of life, but the Do List gets completed. This type of living is what I’m describing with Blink as the extreme symbol, at one end of a spectrum.

What is the other? The opposite extreme would be the monastic types who completely separate themselves from the world. In a way it is remarkably similar to science fiction movies, where sealed pods support life for long trips to other planets and space suits allow people to operate in hostile environments. People are hermetically sealed. Some try to live like that spiritually. They attempt to insulate themselves from turmoil they see around them. When they do, they don’t look like astronauts, however. Sometimes they drive horses and buggies.

Here again, I am not out to condemn anyone. Not Malcolm Gladwell at one extreme nor monks and the Amish at the other. They are important symbols that we do well to understand. Can you see the spectrum of worldview they represent? One extreme advocates running on personal instinct and snap judgments while the other seeks life that is isolated and contemplative avoiding many complex and difficult situations. There’s a lot more to this than abstract theory. At issue is how we look at life. What we expect. What we pursue. Those are hot topics for me these days.

By the way, lest the contemplative end of the spectrum appear naive or escapist, consider this. These people often meditate on the Lord, His word and His ways. They linger there. They try to live there. Instead of making decisions in a blink, these people take hours to revisit and meditate on what they think they already know. That is a world apart from the Blink approach. How do I operate? How do you?

Each of us is somewhere on the spectrum between the two extremes of living in a world of intuition, dazzle and energy or at the other end, a life that is slow, attentive and reflective. Where will I, and where will you, spend most of our lives from here, as a ruminator or a blinker? Or what blend of the two?

There is truth in each of the extremes. James 1:27 brought that to mind. I typically quote that verse to describe our work with orphans and other hurting children around the world. Actually, the passage talks about more than children’s ministry. It says true religion is also that you “keep yourself unstained from the world.” Monasticism accomplishes that and has other benefits as well.

The reason behind my thinking about this spectrum is that since my wife died, I am at a major juncture. What do I do now? How will I live? Who will I be? I’ve never had more freedom. I’m debt free. Healthy. My options are wide open.

Questions about my future cause me to wonder how I might find answers. For now, I am not as concerned about specific conclusions like where to live, should I find another woman to love, change jobs, etc. Instead, I am focused on arriving at a good process rather than make immediate decisions.                

I think for most of us, we want to be somewhere in the middle between the two extremes on the spectrum. There are times when Blink is helpful. For instance, I don’t want to put more effort into buying a pair of shoes than I do reflecting on a scripture that I read today. I can blink with the shoes. For some situations, blink decisions work perfectly well.

For the important parts of life, I want to linger and reflect. Those parts are my relationships with God, my own self, my family and my calling. I both want to pause rather than blink for those…and…I want to meditate on what is beyond the obvious. I want to allow space for God to show me I may not have noticed. The best parts of my life often showed up as a surprise gift from God.

It was after Christmas that I happened to notice Luke chapter 2. That’s the familiar passage with the most popular version of the Christmas story. I reread how the shepherds came to see the baby Jesus. You know the story. I was drawn to Mary’s reaction to the shepherds and their comments. If I had been her, it would have been different. I might have thought something like, “This is extremely remarkable. Praise God for it. How delightful. Of course, I knew all this from the time when the angel told me I would conceive. My cousin told me, too. Joseph had a vision as well. I get it. Though this is unfolding in ways I could never have predicted, I’m good with this. I get it. I’m glad that God is pleased with me.” Trying to put myself in Mary’s shoes, or sandals, that is what I imagine I would have been thinking. Instead, her reaction to the shepherds was nothing like that. Here is what the Bible records, “Mary treasured all these words [what the shepherds told her] and pondered them in her heart.”

Today, I’m saying, “Thank you, Mary.” I need what you did. I’m going to ponder it. I am going to ponder what it means to ponder. Too often I’ve been taking a check-off approach to life. Luke 2 would not have been very inspiring if I had been Mary. No one two thousand years later would want to read my thoughts, “Yep. Shepherds having visions. That fits. I get it. Both Joseph and I had visitations too. What they said. Okay. That’s good. It checks. Approved. Oh, and speaking of approval, I guess all this still means I’m on good terms with God. Check.” This caused me to realize that my natural instincts are far too superficial and self-centered to live by blink alone.

Mary did not check off and set aside. She wasn’t at that end of the spectrum. She treasured the incident with the shepherds. When you treasure something, you keep it in a prominent place, at least in your mind and heart, where you can revisit it and re-experience it often. To her, treasure meant more than something to merely look at. She “pondered in her heart.” That is so different from jumping to a conclusion or smiling and moving on to the next thing. It is a continuing, open process. This went on for years. A few verses down the page, Luke 2:51 notes that more than a decade later, Mary, “…continued to treasure all these things in her heart.” This treasuring and pondering described in Luke 2:19 could easily be overlooked. Don’t take it lightly. Something exceptional is happening. The previous verse, Luke 2:18, says, “all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said…” Then the next verse begins, “but Mary.” What Mary did was different. It was a difference of monumental proportion. I am working diligently to understand how to embrace what she did. Others were impressed and amazed by God’s great deeds. Isn’t that good? But Mary was different somehow. She took the experience further and deeper. I want to be like her.

We can learn something here from technology. That’s a switch, isn’t it, going from the nativity to high tech? Stay with me to see the connection. Thanks to computers, we’ve now accumulated vast quantities of information. In recent years this spawned a professional specialty called Data Mining. The idea is to take all that information and hunt through it for buried insights. Doing so frequently turns up remarkable facts.

Here’s a small personal example. When I was leading Opportunity International, we discovered a pattern. Almost all of our very largest donors, those who gave fifty thousand dollars, a hundred thousand or more, almost always gave modest initial gifts, typically five hundred or one thousand dollars. With that insight, we learned to pay close attention to people who made initial donations of five hundred or one thousand dollars. Now if data mining can yield results as valuable as that, how much more enriching might spiritual life-mining be? That’s the difference between what Mary was doing in Luke 2 and everyone else. They all witnessed the same visit by the shepherds. They heard what the shepherds said. Everyone recognized it as miraculous and historic. Apparently only Mary mined it. She treasured and pondered its implications. Likewise, you and I have a wealth of experiences. We have treasure in God’s word. How well do we mine those?  

This technical illustration matches perfectly with the scripture. When it says Mary pondered all she saw and heard, the original language in Luke 2:19 literally means she was trying to put things together. She was weighing the meaning. As Warren Wiersbe’s commentary puts it, “Mary sought for some pattern that would help her understand God’s will.” That’s very similar to data mining. We Americans love good experiences. We pursue entertainment. Yet, the real treasure, greatest insights and ultimate meaning for life comes elsewhere. It is hidden and cannot be found without mining.

These thoughts are especially significant to me right now as I am wondering how to plan my future. Pennie and I knew how to build a life together, but that’s over. Now what? I used to have confidence in how my life worked. Friends heard me say often in recent years, “My life is simple now. I am fully invested in just two things: my family and my ministry.” That was true. Today, my family is broken. What now?

A few folks speculated that I’d climb aboard our fancy RV and drive off into the sunset. I could. I considered that briefly. Part of me likes the idea, but it doesn’t seem like much fun going alone. Besides, escaping is not a healthy way to pursue the future.

As for family, losing Pennie is drawing the three of us who remain closer together. I’m very thankful for Mark and Courtney. The last two months with them was superb. We’ll stay close, but I know better than to turn all my attention on them. They need to build their own lives and families. I will to stay close with my daughter and son, but I cannot and should not be central in their lives. I love them too much to dominate them.

Still, I wonder, “Now what?” When you are married as long as Pennie and I were, you develop a bunch of habitual routines. Those antics were fun which is, of course, why we repeated them. One that comes to mind is Pennie saying, “What’s going to become of us?” She would shrug her shoulders, toss up her hands with a smirk on her face when she voiced those words. It was her way of saying, “Here we go again.” It wasn’t an expression of dismay; it was actually rather flippant. Our lives took so many peculiar twists and turns over the years that the only thing predictable for us was change. We lived an extraordinary adventure together. She was up for it and often blurted her quip as a way of saying, “Of course, more change and uncertainty. Bring it on!”

Today, the question I have is slightly different. It is, “What’s going to become of me?” There is no more us. Yet, I want to cling to the tone I heard in Pennie’s voice when she wondered aloud. She wasn’t anxious, instead, open and expectant.  While I don’t know what’s ahead, I’m not too worried. Mary helped me this Christmas. From her example, I’ve determined that the best way to prepare for my future is to treasure and ponder, as she did. She didn’t merely experience or enjoy the shepherds’ visit. She treasured and pondered it. I resolve to do more than just survive this time of transition in my life. I am looking for ways to treasure and ponder what I am experiencing.

As you can tell, I’m on a whole new path. My future cannot be anything like my past. My life is radically different without Pennie. She was a wonderful companion and ally. Her courage and wisdom helped enormously with life’s big decisions. So far, in my new reality as an older single guy, I don’t have any clarity about big changes ahead, driving off into the sunset or otherwise. There may not be any changes soon. I don’t know. All I have concluded is that my best chance for making the most of life from here is neither blinking nor joining a monastery. Instead, I will treasure and ponder. There will be times to be decisive. The rest of the time, I intend to stay open and observant.

Mary couldn’t discern with only a blink. Yet, if anyone could have, she ought to have been able. An angel told her she had favor with God. She had other divine encounters revealing her future, even before meeting those shepherds. Still, she ruminated. No simplistic jumping to a conclusion and then getting on with life. She pondered. My spiritual sensitivity and discernment are certainly no match for hers. I need to learn from Mary. That’s why treasuring, pondering, ruminating, and meditating are among my favorite words these days. I am weighing the pieces of my life to see how it all fits together for the future.

I offer these thoughts to others on the possibility that Mary’s experience and mine may be something of benefit to you as well.


When I Noticed the Rest of the World (global awareness)

I spent my youth in a monocultural community of the Midwest. I grew up in the suburbs of Kansas City. There was very little ethnic or cultural diversity in that community.

In our 20s my wife and I moved to the “big city.” Then, in a suburb just north of Chicago, we and several friends planted a church, which was when God began immersing us in cross-cultural situations. Our young church looked after a man in exile from Uganda because Idi Amin was trying to kill him. We helped him earn a graduate degree. After Amin’s ouster, Edward Muhima returned home to become a leader with African Evangelistic Enterprise and, then, with the Church of Uganda.

God also prompted a house fellowship we were leading to help refugees from the Vietnam War. That grew into Exodus World Service that endures as a large-scale regional ministry to refugees.

Every year, our involvement with different people groups increased. I joined the board of a mission in Haiti. Opportunity International recruited me to lead their microcredit programs in 17 countries that grew to 27 nations. The history section of this site traces other experiences that followed.

Now I work with people of different nationalities and ethnicities nearly every day as I have for years. I travel the world. I was in Kenya, Uganda, England, Taiwan, China, Korea and St. Kitts, Belize and India during 2012. I was in nearly two dozen countries over the past two years including several less common places such as Cuba, Vietnam, UAE and Croatia. Of course, what matters is not the geography as much as the people. I am fortunate to have experienced the Church in so many different settings. In Korea recently, I spent time with both mature believers from South Korea and new believers from North Korea.

Through Geneva Global and, now, David C Cook, I have assisted ministries in more than half the countries of the world. I am fortunate to witness so many extraordinary moves of God.

Today, many of my closest friends, confidants, and mentors are scattered throughout the world. Frankly, we often feel more at home with them then we do with many Americans.  I thoroughly enjoy relating with believers from other cultures. That should come through in an article I am enclosing that I wrote for Power for Living (200,000 circulation through American churches). It tells of one of my experiences in Burundi.

In short, I am highly networked both with senior leadership and grassroots leaders throughout much of the world. I have years of experience managing multicultural teams as well as collaborating with peers from all over the world.

While I find it easy to be effusive about the beauty of variety in the Body of Christ, I have also collected enough scars over the years to be aware of schemes and ploys that can occur in cross-cultural situations. Working globally can be both wonderful and tricky at the same time.

Today, we have a sea change with missions. For the past century or more, missions meant people going from the global North to the global South. Praise God, it worked! Africa, which had few believers, now has large numbers of Christians, a majority in many countries on the continent. China went from being unreached to what may now be the largest Christian population of any country in the world!  We’ve seen colossal change in Korea in recent decades, going from a barely detectable Christian presence to a robust Church that is sending and supporting missionaries. God is also moving in Cuba. I met with scores of pastors there who say the number of believers has doubled in the last decade.

The trend is clear. The center of gravity for the Church is no longer the “First World.” The majority of Christians from now on will not be Caucasian.  The global South dominates the Church, at least numerically.

This huge change is also a wonderful opportunity. We must learn our new place in the Body of Christ because our role will be different going forward than it was in the past.

We must learn from believers in other cultures who are highly effective in ministry. The most powerful prayer movement I’ve seen in recent years is in India. Church planting and leadership development is innovating and succeeding in China like nowhere else. The creativity of God’s people in the Middle East inspires me. Africans grow my understanding of relationships and community every time I am with them.

Does the West, or global North, have anything left to contribute, at least anything other than money? Absolutely! We need to make changes, for instance, from pioneering to assisting, from teaching to collaborating, from making all the plans to supporting the calling and dreams of local church movements, and from being the experts to becoming peers on a common mission. Of course, these trends are not absolute. There are still places where God calls Americans to start new work or serve in other traditional ways. For the most part, however, the western church needs to join with the global church. For some that will feel like almost a reverse of missions history. 

We are Christ’s followers, and we can now see where he is going. God’s greatest move in the world today is in the global South. Believers there are rapidly becoming the new face and voice of the Church. I am committed to moving in the same direction God is moving. I urge that we all welcome the fact that the majority world is now the majority of the Church. Let’s do all we can to encourage and assist them.


What Is Holistic? (ministry philosophy)

Holistic is a popular term, but when I hear it, I wonder how many people using it agree on what it means. The word has an almost romantic appeal; people are enamored with the idea. Who wouldn’t prefer being whole rather than partial? Think about it. If “beauty is in the eye of the beholder” and “art is what I think it is,” then holism can mean nearly anything. People don’t even agree how to spell the word. Such ambiguity obligates us to define what we mean when we use the term “holistic.” This is my understanding of three possible meanings for the word and a little about the implications of each:

1)    Entirely humanitarian

Holism can be a synonym for humanitarian assistance when multiple human needs are met through several interventions. For example, a community development program is termed holistic when it provides health services, education, income generation, etc. That is one version of holism: multiple interventions, but still exclusively humanitarian. Actually, combining programs this way is good development practice. I applaud good humanitarian work such as progress in recent years toward the United Nations Millennium Development Goals ( Those goals can fit within a Christian agenda. There is no question that God cares for the poor. He wants us to engage with them. I spent years building programs for poor people.

It troubles me, however, when humanitarian programs are over-spiritualized. An extreme example is the Episcopal Church of the United States which adopted the UN Millennium Development Goals wholesale as its missions program ( That wipes out any Christian distinctive.  Some will and have used the term holism to steer the Church away from soul care.   

2)    Blended - humanitarian and spiritual combined

Another approach to holism calls on the Church to be actively involved in care for both body and soul. That is biblical. James 2 speaks of faith and works. Other passages talk about words and deeds. I have no hesitation about that, but I have questions. Where is the balance? Which dominates? In international development circles this is called “double bottom line.” It simply means that programs are meant to have two kinds of positive outcomes. The term became especially popular with the microfinance antipoverty movement once it became possible to both help the poor and, at the same time, make a profit for investors. In recent years, though, this fragile balance collapsed in practice when a few players apparently forgot that the original goal was to help the poor. For them microfinance became primarily an investment opportunity, which became usury exploiting the poor! It served the lenders’ interests rather than the poor’s. Unfortunately, this error severely damaged the microcredit movement in wide areas of India and elsewhere. There is a world of difference between lifting poor people out of poverty and being a loan shark.

Something similar is at issue with missions programs that attempt to serve both body and soul. This requires fragile balance that risks falling over. Take care not to tip away from soul care. I believe the deciding factor is intentionality. For instance, there are two Christian organizations that appear on the surface to be nearly identical providing credit to poor people. They are both Christian microfinance NGOs. In practice, however, they are quite different. One is purposeful about integrating the Gospel throughout its programs. The other is not. Many well-known “Christian” international groups are also much further from intentional communication of the Gospel than their supporters realize. This trend is troubling.

3)    Entirely spiritually centered

This is the least common definition of holism. Yet it is the one I adhere to and think is the most biblical: whole life discipleship. It insists that Christ is the very source of life, and that everything good radiates out from Him (James 1:17). I love and care for hurting people, not because I have pity on them, but because God loves them, calls me to help them, and He takes it personally whether I respond (Matthew 25:40).

So, how is this different from the second definition of holism? It all depends on how intentional the focus is on new life in Christ. Does that come through? This does not require a sermon with every meal given to a hungry person. But does the message of new life in Christ ever get delivered? What are the lasting outcomes of the programs?

Today I see growing emphasis on mercy ministries, or whatever you might prefer to call humanitarian and justice programs, among Evangelicals. Is this a good trend? The jury is still out. To the extent that humanitarian programs supplant the Great Commission, it is dangerous erosion. Conversely, to the extent programs reflect redemption of all parts of life, physical and spiritual, they are certainly God’s agenda. Count me in.

These are important and familiar issues to me. I directed large-scale microcredit programs in 30 countries. I wrote a general market book, A Billion Bootstraps, on antipoverty programs for a secular publisher. I directed many millions of dollars worth of funding for programs that spanned the entire spectrum of holism described above.

All that experience leads me to prefer language like “whole life discipleship” rather than “holistic missions.” I hesitate to embrace language like holism because its meaning is so fluid. While we may not always be able to avoid the term, we should at least think carefully when using it, since it can be so easily misunderstood. In any case, holism must never be an excuse for mission drift.

Here is a concrete example of what I promote. Two years ago I initiated a program for orphans and other children at risk. It qualifies as holistic by either definition 2 or 3 above.  At the core, it points the children to new life in Christ. From there it branches out into character development and practical life skills. It nurtures the kids to overcome their deep emotional wounds and prepare them for successful lives as adults. Those two areas might appear humanitarian, but they are saturated with a Christian worldview.  This program is quickly being adopted around the world (

My study of the Bible teaches me that lasting change comes from the inside out. That is why I advocate whole life discipleship. This contrasts with work at the humanitarian level alone that, in my view, often treats symptoms rather than root causes. I believe the essence of Christian mission is for people to turn to Christ, grow as disciples and become change agents who work to improve every aspect of their lives and others’.


The Big Five (organizational development)

Good intentions alone do not automatically produce good results. It is wonderful that so many charities and government agencies intend to help people around the world. Sometimes they succeed, other times, unfortunately, they fail. Why? What determines the outcome?

The challenge occurs at two levels. First, are the programs really doing good or are there unintended consequences?  The quality of programs is the first success factor. Second, are the organizations doing the work healthy? Even service and missions organizations can lose perspective and become self-serving rather than really making a difference in the lives of the people they are supposed to be helping. This second factor is internal to the organization itself. The Big Five list that follows are steps to take to assure that all our efforts not only have good intentions, but also great outcomes.

We live in an era of dizzying change. To keep up, stay healthy and be effective, we need to be asking ourselves tough questions. That kind of reflection is the basis for my list of principles below which, I believe, are the five top-level issues that all ministry organizations face. Deal with these issues well and they will map a positive course into the future.


People always act according who they think they are. So do organizations. People perform poorly when they are not sure who they are or try to act like someone they are not. Again, the same is true for organizations. So, who exactly is your ministry organization? What is its personality? What is its passion? What is it really there for? Is it making a difference? Does everyone buy-in to that dream? And who, or what, should the organization be in the future?  

In most cases, organizations need to project a unique character. What are your organization’s distinctives,? Marketing professionals call this “positioning”? Discovering and defining that identity is a first priority. 


Once we know who we are (identity), we can decide where we want to go (vision). While we cannot predict every detail in planning the future, we can and should set our sights on a specific destination.

Actually, this is even more than trying to envision the future. The greater meaning of vision is to fix a dream in our hearts of what we want most passionately to accomplish. That kind of dream brings out the best from everyone. People need a dream because we rarely achieve more than we dream. A person may win the lottery by chance or, by accident, fall into some other good fortune. No one, however, has ever won an Olympic gold medal that way. Winning a race takes deliberate effort toward a specific dream. The Bible says our calling is a race to cross an actual finish line (1 Corinthians 9:24). It takes fervent personal vision to win a race.

Clear vision not only energizes ministry programs, it also helps fundraising. Donors prefer causes that are: simple, compelling, distinctive, relational, and demonstrate impact. Clear vision highlights those features. 


Vision only endures long-term if it turns into provable results. Unfounded or exaggerated claims discourage people. Timid vision does not inspire either. And weak or vague vision quickly fades away. On the other hand, vision grows strong when it is validated by believable results.

Since credible impact underpins identity and vision, we must constantly ask ourselves, “Does what we promote actually happen?” In business language this is called Brand Promise.  We certainly don’t want to make hollow promises.


These steps, that I am listing here, build on one another. Once we know who we are (identity), we can decide where we are supposed to head (vision) and determine whether we are making real progress (impact assessment). Next, can we actually get underway? That’s the question of agility. Unfortunately, many ministry organizations are not very agile. They find it difficult to move beyond their entrenched habits.    

Developing agility requires strong leadership from the board and senior management working in unison. In addition, it takes buy-in from the key stakeholders. These are essential ingredients for cultivating a will to change. Without a strong will to change, the organization’s natural immune system will instinctively kill off any growth that differs from its past.


As a mission or any organization finds its way and wins champions for its cause, an upbeat culture begins to form. This is a delightful stage. People instinctively move in the right direction even when there is no formal policy on every specific question because they know the soul of the mission. They own the dream personally and pull hard toward it. This is similar to what Hebrews 8:10 describes about God writing his law on our hearts rather than merely dictating rules. The drive becomes internal.

When there is a healthy corporate culture, people enthusiastically head in a common direction because they carry the cause and vision in their hearts. The culture of an organization is the shared beliefs and common actions. When those align and energize, the ministry becomes increasingly fruitful.

Philosophy of Leadership

Organization charts are usually drawn with the president at the top, a row of deputies below and, after them, all the other staff fans out across the bottom. That model never felt quite right to me, especially for a ministry organization. Rather, I picture leadership as an inverted pyramid. The role of most senior leader is to enable everyone else to be effective. Ephesians 2:20 speaks of the Church being built on the apostles and prophets. These leaders are not on a pedestal. Instead they are described as the floor or foundation. I regard good leadership as a servanthood position rather than elevated. While every employee serves and supports someone, the president serves and supports them all.

One of the most forceful comments Jesus made about leadership is what he said in Matthew 20:

                  “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them and their great ones exercise

                          authority over them. It shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you 

                          must be your servant.”

What a strong warning about authority from Jesus! I hear him. That’s why I am committed to servant leadership. Robert Greenleaf is the one who coined the term “servant leader.” This is how he described its meaning:

"The difference [servant leadership] manifests itself in the care taken by the servant-first to make sure that other people’s highest priority needs are being served. The best test, and difficult to administer, is: Do those served grow as persons? Do they, while being served, become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, more likely themselves to become servants?”

These are sound principles. Jesus taught them first.

In my experience, the greatest burden of leadership has not been the multiple and widespread responsibilities. Of course, the work can be fatiguing at times. Rather, the greatest burden is staying sharp spiritually, cultivating discernment, and leading from moral authority rather than positional power. Yes, this can be a heavy load, but the Bible teaches that aspiring to such leadership is a good thing, a noble task. (1 Timothy 3:1) This weight of responsibility compels me to live it out carefully. This is discipline that I welcome.

Sometimes the principles just described can become distorted. One twist is that an appearance of servanthood becomes an excuse for low performance. Christian organizations can easily turn inward and become politely self-serving. The servant leadership that both Jesus and Greenleaf taught isn’t about making employees happy. It is about bringing out the best in people and growing the impact from their lives. I believe that godly leadership, properly understood, fosters a culture of performance. God is on a mission. We are on his mission. That should make us highly motivated to accomplish something far beyond our own self-interests.

Jesus made a comment that burns in my soul. Not a week passes that I don’t meditate on it and pray it back. Jesus said that the Father is glorified when we bear much fruit (John 15:8).  He added that this “fruit” shows we are truly disciples. I regularly ask for God to show me how to become more fruitful and influence others to be more fruitful.  

A president, of course, manages the day-to-day affairs of the organization. Such duties are familiar to me, but even more important is building the culture of the organization. There is no tidy formula for how that is accomplished, but here are several of the component parts. Vision casting is essential. People rarely accomplish more than they dream. People need encouragement and at times coaxing.

An “imperial executive” is a poor alternative. Command and control have no place in missions work. Instead, a leader must rally people to action.  

Personal discovery is a good way to urge people to greater achievement. I like to use questions as a leadership technique. It helps people realize their needs and allows them to find their own solutions. This is far better than having policies dictated from above. 

In short, I am called by God to amplify the work of others. The principles I have just described are not merely theories. I actively try to practice them. I have learned, at times the hard way, how important humble, strong, and visionary leadership is. Those adjectives are rarely used together, but they do belong together.

© Eric Thurman 2015