Monthly Archives: April 2013

Modeling Covenant to Our Kids

Published in Connections Magazine (May/June 2013)

Learn about Connections here

After earning my Masters in Theology, I decided to attend a nearby seminary to take courses for my Masters of Divinity Equivalent. In choosing to attend this seminary, I knew the theology of the seminary was not necessarily similar to my own, but I also believed I could maintain my integrity while attending this particular institution. Soon there were many experiences that made it very obvious that the theology of this institution was dramatically different from my own, one of which came in a class on weddings and funerals.

There were around 50 participants in the class. In the first session, we discussed what we believed marriage to be theologically. Of the professors, teaching assistants and students (40-50 people total), only three of us believed marriage to be a covenant. Furthermore, we were the only ones to believe marriage had anything to do with God at all. It did not take me long to decide to drop this course.

This incident is something that has stuck with me for years and has served as a powerful reminder of the significance of covenant. We have lost sight of covenant in the world today, both in our culture and in the church. Instead, we approach things in a transactional, consumeristic, business-minded way. The state of marriage in the United States—both inside and outside the church—is, as many view it, a dying institution.

Herein lies the problem: marriage was never meant to be an institution. Marriage is meant to be a relational covenant that is more about God than the married participants. While marriage makes the individual husband and wife stronger and creates a new, united flesh and spirit, marriage should not be limited to its human impact.

There are varying definitions of covenant. It is often treated as a contract that has the support of God, but this view is limited. We see covenant modeled throughout the Scriptures. Covenant starts with God, and it is not at all a contract. It is not something we earn, nor is it about our performance. Covenant is rooted in the character and nature of God and His presence in our lives. Covenant is about relationship.

Mike Breen in his book Covenant and Kingdom discusses covenant in a particular way, yet his definition and characterization of covenant applies to marriage as well. Breen sees covenant in terms of our relationship with God as well as our relationship with everyone else. For Breen, there are three essential elements of covenant: “the fatherhood of God, identity and obedience.” These three are linked as the fatherhood of God reminds us that our identity flows from our relationship with God, and obedience is simply consistently living out our identity in Christ.

As I think about marriage, it is clear first and foremost that marriage is about the character and nature of God. Marriage as a covenant is rooted in who Christ is and not who the individuals in the married couple are. Honoring the marriage covenant, God, one another and the one flesh we have become is simply an expression of who we are in Christ Jesus.

Marriage is not easy. Very few valuable and transformative things are. Relationships are messy and difficult. While we crave and need community, we struggle to understand what it means to live in community, especially in the midst of difficulty and disagreement. The average age for marrying is increasing, and fewer couples are choosing to get married. Divorce rates are consistently identical inside and outside of the church, and many marriages (inside and outside of the church) are dead—if not toxic. We have lost sight of the meaning, power and importance of covenant.

Covenant requires us to look outside of ourselves to Christ. Covenant requires us to find a way to build a relationship of deepening commitment and love in the midst of the joy, suffering and mundane seasons of life together. While it is much easier to walk away from community than it is to commit to it, we are called to the harder covenant task, especially in marriage.

While there are challenges to marriage, at its core marriage is much more a gift than it is a challenge. Covenant may be difficult, but covenant is ultimately not about us nor is it something we are meant to do alone. The gift of covenant is that it connects us to God and to one another. It forces us to rely on God and to look to Him for our identity. We do not have to make it work; we have to become more like Christ so that it will work, no matter what we experience.

In the covenant of marriage, both husband and wife can grow closer to God and one another. Each can begin to discover aspects of their identity in Christ that they would have not found without this amazing covenant gift of marriage.

We need a renewal of covenant in our lives, our marriages, our homes, our families and our churches. This renewal begins with us. The greatest gift of marriage to future generations is that it can be the powerful model of what healthy, Christ- centered covenant can be to our children.

One of the things I wrestle with frequently as a parent is modeling healthy Christian community to my children. I am not talking about sterile, perfect community, but rather authentic, honest, Christ-centered community. In marriage we experience moments of great joy and moments of deep pain. Marriage is riddled with success, failure, love, hurt, pain, joy, blessing, challenge, growth and community.

The marriage covenant models Christian community to our children as they watch and walk with us as we try to live out this great covenant call. Our children have the opportunity to see us succeed and fail as we try to walk with Christ in the good, the bad, the beautiful, the ugly and the mundane.

Our families can walk together in all of life’s moments and experiences in a way that is focused on our identity in Christ and our covenant relationship with God and one another. In marriage and family life we can figure out together what it means to live in community, be focused on Christ and committed to one another while focused on love.

It is time to reclaim covenant and to live our lives in our marriages, our families and our churches in a way that models the kind of community Christ died for. In living in covenant

relationship with one another, we can model a different way of living for our children and grandchildren that will change them—as well as change the world.

Marcus J. Carlson

is a pastor and spiritual director who has worked in youth and children’s ministry for over 13 years. He serves as Associate Pastor of Bethel Lutheran Church, Colorado Springs, CO. Marcus and his wife, Jessica, have two children.

The Hidden Enemy of Effective Leadership

Published on Fuller Seminary’s Burner Blog for Pastors and Leaders.

Read the Article here

by Marcus J. Carlson

I am very effective at lying to myself.

As hard as I can be on myself and as much as I expect of myself, I have come to recognize I am also very good at lying to myself. Recently I have been wrestling quite a bit with self-deception and denial. It started from a situation when I watched a leader I know, respect and have worked with engage in some very dangerous and concerning self-deception and denial. At first I was angry at the impact it had on me, then I found myself hurting for this leader, and now I have moved to mourn the organization hurt in the midst of the situation. There is not much I can do about the situation. I cannot fix it, nor can I control it. I also know I cannot fully understand it. In any situation, especially negative ones, it is critical to look for God’s redemptive work so that you can move forward in hope. In this case, part of God’s redemptive work in my own life is to deal with my own self-deception and denial.

In a recent Fuller Doctor of Ministry course, Scott Cormode noted “we judge ourselves by our intentions and we judge others by their actions.” I continue to ponder and wrestle with this concept. If I am honest, much of my self-deception comes from looking at my own intentions rather than my actions and how they are perceived. Additionally, my self-deception grows when I choose to judge their actions and the impact they have and fail to look for the possible good intentions in others. We all tell ourselves a story, and there is certainly something healthy about it. It is essential to our own mental health and it is certainly critical to our effectiveness and even survival as leaders. The problem lies in our unwillingness to evaluate the story we tell ourselves as well as our fear of allowing others to evaluate that same story. Self-deception is often fed by defensiveness, a lack of teachability, insecurity and ego as well as an unwillingness to embrace transparency, authenticity and accountability.

As a part of my own attempt to wrestle with these issues, I read a book called Change or Die by Alan Deutschman, a fascinating book that takes a serious and difficult look at the true nature of change. He offers the following words about denial I found especially challenging: “It rarely does any good to tell someone, “Dude, you’re in denial.” The facts won’t set them free. Knowledge isn’t power when the facts are too much to bear. Then knowledge is anxiety. “Pre-contemplators” don’t need someone to tell them the truth. They can’t handle the truth. That’s why they are in denial.” Denial is a difficult beast to battle, in others and in ourselves. Denial is self-perpetuating and is often fed by the lies we tell ourselves as well as our own defense mechanisms. It resists truth and more significantly damages the powerful story that God is trying to create in our lives. Denial requires constant effort, great discernment and a significant openness to change. Deutschman also notes, “if you practice change, if you keep up your ability to change, if you use it rather than lose it, then you’ll be ready to change whenever you have to.”

The problem with self-deception and denial is that when you are engaging in it, especially when it becomes something that you swim in, you cannot hear anything around you. Denial and self-deception can crowd out the whispers of the Holy Spirit that every leader needs to lead effectively. Good, healthy, Christ-centered leadership requires a daily effort to resist, fight and overcome self-deception and denial at every turn.

Oz Leadership

Published on Fuller Seminary’s Burner Blog for Pastors and Leaders.

Read the Article here

by Marcus J. Carlson

Oz Leadership

The Wizard of Oz was one of my favorite movies as a kid and I see its reemergence as something worth noting. Recently I found myself reflecting on three of the characters from the original movie and realized each has something to teach us about leadership. While the scarecrow without the brain, the tin man without the heart and the lion without courage are all endearing characters we find ourselves rooting, hoping for, and valuing in spite of their perceived lacking, they point to some great leadership dangers, especially in the church.

Scarecrow Leadership-leading without a brain:

Leading without a brain is dangerous not only because it is reactive and lacks thought, but also because it is hurtful to those you serve and lead. The scarecrow leader is disorganized, aloof, chaotic and forgetful. The scarecrow leader is always scattered, forgetting names, details, meetings, conversations and other important things. The scarecrow leader may be deeply relational, but they do not always seem present and aware. The Scarecrow leader is gentle and endearing, but also frustrating. The Scarecrow will often tell themselves relationship matters more than details and if people feel loved, nothing else will really matter.

Tin Man Leadership-leading without a heart:

Leading without heart is painful, destructive, demeaning and deeply damaging to everyone who works with the heartless leader. The tin man can be aggressive, demeaning, discouraging and demoralizing. The Tin Man leader needs to be in control and manages well, but is rarely if ever encouraging. The Tin Man leader is characterized by insensitivity and lacks compassion and tact and is often distant. The Tin Man leader may be very professional, effective, organized and outgoing, but they do not always demonstrate care. The Tin Man leader builds systems and teams well and provides great support, but often struggles to offer genuine encouragement to those around them. The Tin Man will often tell his or herself that accountability is most important and people will need to learn to understand that their toughness is love.

Cowardly Lion Leadership-leading without courage:

Leading without courage is deeply destructive to the organization and people the leader serves. Cowardly Lion leadership is reactive, inconsistent, fearful and lacks the trust required for effective leadership and growth. The Cowardly Lion leader is frequently anxious (perhaps internally and/or externally), has a high need for control and planning, and often assumes the worst in the midst of negative information or conflict.  The Cowardly Lion leader is gentle and humble, liked by many, but known well by few. They are often effective managers and maintain general ministry health well while struggling to lead significant change. The Cowardly Lion leader will often compensate for their leadership style by telling themselves that they are trying to be pastoral and caring and believe they are helping those they lead by minimizing or eliminating conflict. Due to their own exhaustion from conflict, they assume those they lead cannot or should not face too much conflict, lest they be exhausted too.

If we are honest, we are tempted from time to time to fall into one these categories, perhaps even leading completely out of one of these models. While we cannot avoid errors that could be categorized as lacking thought, heart or courage, we need to take these temptations seriously to avoid becoming a brainless, heartless or cowardly leader to those we are seeking to lead and serve.