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Tested and Approved: My journey from business into church leadership—and what I learned along the way

tom lane Sep 23, 2021

What is more important for church leadership than talent, effort or education?

When I was in college, I was part of a cohort of fellow business students who had been assigned to replicate a study based on successful business leaders, including corporate presidents, CEOs and other high-level executives. Our purpose was to identify any single common quality that these top-performing leaders from various industries attributed to their success.

We attempted to reproduce and confirm an original study that found these kinds of leaders saw providence, divine orchestration or even luck as contributing as much or more to their success than any other factor such as intelligence or effort. Our own research reaffirmed the results: there is an intangible component to human success that cannot be credited to any particular human value or effort. Christians call that component God.

As a young believer, I already knew I needed God to orchestrate any success I might have in my life, business or otherwise. When I committed my life to Jesus as a teen, I went “all in,” and I expected His providence to guide me.

At the time, the Jesus Movement was just beginning to sweep the nation, and many of my friends also committed to following God with all their hearts. I didn't know everything, but I understood that I was giving up the right to run my own life in favor of fulfilling Gods plan and the purpose He set out for me. If I was going to be a success, then I would do my part, but He would be the one who would have to make it happen.

As I was faced with where to go to college, I tried to prioritize that decision according to Gods purpose for me. Consequently, when my business school colleagues reached the same conclusion as that original study, it was exciting for me. It reinforced my commitment to Gods direction.

The same year I graduated high school, my dad joined a partnership to purchase a wholesale paper distribution business, which included 11 warehouses throughout the central US, from Montana to Texas. I began to feel a strong conviction that God was leading me to become a “missionary” to business leaders. I wanted to start from the bottom and earn the right to run my dads company one day. Then I would use that platform to incorporate biblical principles into the paper business, which I believed would ultimately influence other business leaders.

Going forward, my definition of success depended more on my relationship with God than anything else, and that is the message I would deliver. Meanwhile, I volunteered at my church, earned a business degree with an accounting major and joined my dads company at an entry-level position.

In those early years with the company, my wife and I accepted a series of transfers that took us from our home city in Omaha to Oklahoma City and then to Amarillo. Every time we moved, we found a vibrant evangelical, Spirit-empowered church where we could plant our family and serve. I never considered vocational ministry at the time. I was very happy to give and serve, and I loved seeing God work in peoples lives. However, I didn’t think the church itself would be Gods main calling for me. I observed how these churches operated and realized they were under-led, under-resourced, and had visions that were limited or restricted. In each situation, the churchs leadership seemed satisfied with impacting their neighborhoods but didn't have much broader visions than that.

Growing businesses, on the other hand, had huge visions with goals of regional, national or even global impact. If someone had asked me to compare ministry opportunities in business and in the church, I would have chosen business as the more effective option. I loved God and wanted Him to work through me, but I focused on business as a place for ministry and the church as a place to give and serve.

Everything was moving along as planned until we helped plant a church in Amarillo. It was growing and thriving, even though it needed systems, structure, and solid financial management for the momentum to continue. Then one day the pastor invited me to lunch. As we ate, he outlined his vision for the church. He described how he not only felt Gods calling to Amarillo but also to Texas, the nation and the world. For the first time, I was hearing a pastor with a true global vision.

At first, I was mildly engaged, but I quickly began to lean in so I could absorb all he was saying. It was then that he got to the reason for our lunch. He said, “Tom, I need help!” I immediately responded, “Pastor, I am with you. I am behind you!” But that wasn’t what he was looking for. He said again, “Tom, I need you!” Now I was really surprised, and I blurted out, “Pastor, are you offering me a job?” He exclaimed, “Yes, I am offering you a job! I need your help!”

That lunchtime conversation changed the trajectory of my life. God started a process in which He graciously confirmed that this was what He wanted for me. My wife offered her agreement and support, and I accepted the offer. At first, I planned to help establish some structure, implement some policies and set financial guidelines. Then I was going to raise up my replacement and return to business. Its been 38 years now. God had different plans.

A visionary heart to impact people in a neighborhood and to support Gods church around the world is massive. I love that God is all about systems and order because they support the effort to take the gospel message to the whole world. I didn’t expect God to call me to a lifetime of vocational ministry. I thought I was going to be a Christian business leader. But I know the Bible is true and relevant for every situation. As a follower of Jesus, and with the help of the Holy Spirit, I am constantly seeking Gods mind through biblical principles. I study, meditate, and pray for Him to show them to me so I can apply them to my life, my childrens lives, and now to the lives of my grandchildren.

In a book I recently wrote, Tested and Approved: 21 Lessons for Life and Ministry, I reveal what I have learned and applied in my life and ministry so others can make use of these discoveries in their own lives. Originally, I started documenting these lessons to lay a generational foundation for my children and grandchildren. They are written from the context of a life spent in vocational ministry, but they arenat only for vocational ministers. They will apply to everyone in work, ministry, relationships, and every facet of life. Although this book does not contain everything we need for our journey, they are a composite of some hard-won lessons.

I am still learning until Jesus calls me to Himself, and so are you. These two words of encouragement and hope are for you, as you read today: Live your life in such a way that you always say yes to God’s prompting. Learn all you can as you walk with God—not to fill your head with mere knowledge but to live in loving relationship with God and people.

 

From Root to Fruit: The power of a good reputation

So, every healthy tree bears good fruit, but the diseased tree bears bad fruit. A healthy tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a diseased tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus you will recognize them by their fruits.

—Matthew 7:17–20

Sometimes other people, including your friends, will encourage you to participate in an activity or to act in a certain way that you know does not and will not contribute to giving you a good name. You know that activity isn’t right, nor is it in good taste, but your friends tell you it will be “okay” anyway. They may even try to influence you to join them by saying, “Everyone is doing it!” Still, you know it is not okay. In fact, you know it will very likely return to you in a most unexpected way over time and threaten your reputation.

As believers, our lives are supposed to bear fruit. This fruit will often take the form of our “good name” or our “good deeds” done to benefit others. When we demonstrate integrity and consistent behavior, our influence grows, and others take note. Just as we plant and grow crops to eat, the quantity, quality and size of the fruit produced in our lives will be determined by the things we do.

Every farmer knows that a fruitful harvest is determined by the fertilizer, water, sunlight, climate, soil and careful cultivation the land receives. Smart parents similarly know that their diligent care to mentor, correct and encourage their children will determine the fruit produced in their children’s lives as they mature.

God is a partner to both farmers and parents and will supply everything they need to grow and produce fruit in its season. Both farmers and parents know that even with diligent effort a portion of the potential fruitfulness of their harvest rests outside their own hands. Weather’s elements affect the farmer’s harvest. Likewise, the company our children keep affects the fruitful harvest in their lives. That is why parents must remain diligent and proactive, just like the farmer, to make sure “bugs” don’t infest the crop and negatively impact the harvest of fruit in their children’s lives.

People will critically evaluate your life to see if your values and what is advertised through your name’s reputation match the fruit you produce. Even though some of these evaluations will be demanding, unrealistic or even legalistic, if you don’t measure up to the values and faith you profess, then people will criticize you, discard you and move on. God will not be as harsh with His judgments, as long as you remain connected to Him. He will work with you to help you produce fruit in every season and in every weather circumstance you may encounter.

Many people in the world will expect you to accomplish something before they will allow you to enjoy the satisfaction of achievement. They may even try to suppress or rob you of that satisfaction, all the while demanding that you accomplish more. Meanwhile, they will tell you that they are helping you through their criticism and demands, which they believe will keep you from pride and arrogance. When you feel pressured by others’ demands, remember that God is the only one who valued you before you did a single thing. He is the one who rejoices over you and celebrates every incremental milestone of your progress.

When I prayed to receive Christ as my Savior, I also received Him as my Lord. I was told that doing so meant He was in charge and I was no longer the ruler of my life. I was stepping off the throne of my life and giving Him His rightful place as my Lord. That awareness has guided my life and ministry for decades. In all things, I desire to know and do His will. The day I put my eyes on Him, He became the focus of my desire and the expression of my purpose. That decision made it easy to understand the model of ministry that God will bless.

This is the model I have taught and used in my various roles in ministry: God is the focus, people are the beneficiaries, and everything else is just a tool for the service of God and people.

I want the fruit of my life to reflect my devotion to God in all I do. I want to reflect a genuine intimacy with Him and then for that relationship to serve as my motivation, which drives my desire to help others.

A good name is to be chosen rather than great riches, and favor is better than silver or gold. —Proverbs 22:1

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Excerpt from Tested & Approved, by Tom Lane, GatewayPublishing.com.

 

This article was extracted from Issue 6 (Summer 2021) of the AVAIL Journal. Claim your free annual subscription here.

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