The Spirit and the Science of Human Motivation

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how to encourage the hearts of the people who work for me. How do you sustain motivation and energy through the grind of the semester?

I have a lot of really spiritual ideas: prayer and rich time in Scripture and intimacy with Jesus and an eschatological vision. God’s Spirit soaks these activities. And I really do believe that these things will help folks stay motivated.

Sometimes, though, I feel guilty relying on the science of human motivation or my management training. I feel like I’m denying the power of God or the call of God or the Spirit of God.

And yet, when Jesus wanted to encourage his disciples, he didn’t just breathe his Spirit into them, he also helped them work out a ministry plan. He gave them his Spirit and a packing list. He feed them with the word that proceeds from the mouth of God, but also multiplied the loaves and the fish.

Don’t be afraid to learn from the science of human motivation. Nothing can replace the motivation provided by God. But he calls us to play our part too.

Play your part as a leader without hesitation.

Something in every bite

When you're spread thin and can't be everywhere you want to be, what can leaders do?

I've been spread pretty thin over my years in South Florida. There's a line from Tolkien that aptly describes this experience. One of his hobbits describes himself as feeling like "too little butter spread across too much toast."

So, what can you do?

Make sure there's something in every bite.

That's a great strategy for toast and a great strategy for leadership.

Every conversation with one of my leaders, I want to contribute something significant. It may be an insight into their ministry dynamic. It may be an articulate communication of my gratitude. It may be a heartfelt prayer.

This is, of course, an aspirational value. I don't hit it every day. Some days I'm off, flat, I swing but I miss. But the swinging matters.

I want my team to expect - every time I call, every time I visit, even though I'm not around as much as I'd like to be - I want my team to expect to get something from me.

Since it takes me 8 bites to finish a piece of toast, here are 8 ideas:
  1. Share something you've learned about God recently. 
  2. Help them see the impact of their ministry.
  3. Listen to them like no one else on the planet exists.
  4. Pray for them over the phone.
  5. Share an awesome story about another campus.
  6. Break a paradigm for them.
  7. Lean into a pastoral moment.
  8. Ask them what they would like your help with. Then help.
What do you do when you're spread thin?

Leading without Omnipresence

I have a phenomenal Staff team. They work hard. They're talented. They love Jesus and campus and students.

In the last two weeks, they - along with our awesome volunteers - have launched 30 Small Groups. They are doing outreaches on campus. They are mentoring student leaders. They are praying and training and planting and building and networking.

And I want to be a part of all of it. I want to be in the trenches. But I can't. I can't be there for everything. There's just too much going on. I can't be everywhere.

I'm not complaining. It's a huge blessing. But it's also a leadership challenge.

As healthy systems grow, omnipresent leadership becomes impossible. You can tell a lot about the health of a system by whether or not you as a leader need to be present to make the system run. If you don't have the capacity to be omnipresent, you need new tools.

Clear vision casting. Flexible systems. Focused coaching.

What have you learned about leading over a distance?

The Servants and the Prodigal Family

Have you ever noticed how often the servants are mentioned in Luke 15? That’s where we find the famous Parable of the Prodigal Son. Each of the main characters in the story interacts with the servants in a significant way.

The youngest son, the one who takes his inheritance early and squanders it in a far away country, when he’s at his lowest, who does he remember? His father, sure. But more specifically, his father’s servants. They eat pretty good. The father treats them well. The youngest son wants to be like one of those servants.

The memory of those servants drives the youngest son back home.

The father, who generously welcomes the youngest son when he returns, when he’s filled with joy at the return of his lost son, what does he do? He turns to his servants and gives them work: find a ring, go get sandals, grab a robe, kill the fatted calf.

The presence of the servants provides a channel for the father’s generosity.

The oldest son, who refuses to enter the house and join the “Welcome home” party, when he’s confused about the unexpected festivities, who does he turn to? He grabs one of the servants, someone going about the father’s business, someone in the know, someone who can bring clarity. The servant tells the oldest son that his brother has returned.

The message of the servant creates a crisis for the son who stayed home.

In a way, we’re like those servants. Near to the Father. Given good work by him. At times, revealing the generosity of the Father. At times, creating crises for those who think that they’ve always been with the Father.

Do you see yourself in the servants?

Direct Action as a Last Step

Every year our country celebrates the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. And every year I take a few minutes to sit down and read his "Letter from a Birmingham Jail."

The Letter reads like an epistle. Hard and firm and clear with fits and starts of soaring language. I find it moves my heart and my feet.

Every year, something different jumps out to me and catches my attention.

[See past posts here and here and here and here and here]

This year, it was this sentence:
In any nonviolent campaign there are four basic steps: collection of the facts to determine whether injustices exist; negotiation; self purification; and direct action. We have gone through all these steps in Birmingham. 
Dr. King had been arrested and was considered a disturber of the peace. A group of pastors and rabbis had written against him in the newspaper, labeling him an outside agitator and a troublemaker. They urged patience. They urged conversation.

But the movement Dr. King was leading had started protests and boycotts and sit-ins. There was violence. Dogs set on protestors. Fire hoses. Billy clubs. It was disturbing. That was the point.

Dr. King and the non-violent protestors has chosen to "present our very bodies as a means of laying our case before the conscience of the local and the national community." The dogs and fire hoses and clubs combined with the bodies of the protestors to spark compassion and a desire for change in those who witnessed it.

I love this glimpse into Dr. King's process. Did you notice it in that quote?

  1. Collection of facts to determine whether injustices exist
  2. Negotiation
  3. Self purification
  4. Direct action
I can't help but think about the way evangelical Christians engage in politics today. We jostle over power and influence. We try to elect the right people. We talk about "taking our country back." Action. Action. Action.

I wonder what we lose in jumping straight to action.

Action without self purification comes with a dreadful cost. The action can't be sustained and the actors find themselves jumping from issue to issue. The action is too easily co-opted and the actors find themselves wholly committed to parties with which they only partially agree. The action collapses as lead actors are picked off one by one by moral and ethical failure.

Action without negotiation makes all kinds of false assumptions about the opposition. The actors begin fighting ghosts and straw men. Wins become illusory, since the things that were taken would have been freely given. Demonization of the opposition makes it impossible to cease firing and to live at peace with each other.

And action without facts? That leads to persecution complexes. And few things are more present in the evangelical Christian community than a fear of persecution. Sure, we make up most of the population. And sure, we hold most of the positions of power in society. And sure, we've been in places of power and influence for generations. But we're so afraid. And our fear is not fueled by facts but by possibilities.

I wonder what would happen if we spent more time collecting facts, negotiating and purifying ourselves. Perhaps these are what're missing in our attempts to transform and redeem culture. Perhaps we need to add more to our action.

I'm not saying that direct action isn't necessary. I deeply admire Dr. King and his courageous steps of faith and resistance. But I wonder if his actions would be admirable if all he did was act.

Please, take a few minutes today to check out Dr. King's "Letter from a Birmingham Jail"

The Arrogance of Unoriginality

There are a lot of wonderful books and programs and ministries out there.

Why do we need one more?

We don't.

We don't need one more. We don't need one more self-help book. We don't need one more discipleship program. We don't need one more ministry or church. At least, not if you're doing it the way it's already been done. Arrogant unoriginality.

But what if you can do something new? What if you can present a new twist? What if you can approach a problem from a different angle?

A creative contribution moves us away from arrogance. Even if you build off of what already exists, the creative aspects of your contribution blunts the arrogant edge.

I'm so honored to work with creative, humble people. Just this week, one of my Staff put forward a new discipleship tool. Now, I know that there are hundreds of discipleship tools out there. Books and books. Programs.

And, yet, this new tool will add something special. It will work well with community college students. It will work with our multiplicative domino structure. It will really help.

Here are some elements I love in the new project:

  • She shifts the focus from comprehensive to central
  • She rests in one place for several weeks at a time
  • She builds a foundation that can be expanded on
  • She passes on something that can be easily passed on
There's no arrogance here. Just originality. She isn't criticizing others. She's just expanding the field and adding her voice. And I love it.

What observations have you made about the intersection of arrogance and originality?

How exhaustion affects me

My son, Will. Exhausted.
I'm exhausted.

Spent. Used up. Worn down.

I returned from Urbana and fell asleep under the kitchen table. As the Spring semester started, I found myself working and working and working. 74 hours that week.

And something inside me started to snap. My soul feels brittle, thin and too hard in the wrong places. My soul has cracks in it, not crumbling like dust but fragmenting like ice under the feet of the North Wind.

Have you ever experienced deep exhaustion?

Over the years, I've noticed three effects that exhaustion has on me:

1) My emotions are not stable

Eugene Peterson says that anger is a perfect indicator that something is wrong, but that anger doesn't tell us whether the thing that is wrong is inside of us or outside of us. Anger flares up within me when I'm exhausted. Unpredictable. Fiery. I'm at my most macho, my most stereotypical Cubano when I'm exhausted.

But it's not just anger that appears.

I find myself seized by waves of joy as well. Worship songs slip through my clenched jaw and soften my furious face. Small things bring me tremendous pleasure. A conversation with a friend. A sunset. A pepperoni and bacon pizza from Pizza Hut. Joy after joy after joy. And gratitude.

And I slip back and forth between joy and anger all day. Not stable.

2) My thoughts are not sharp

My mind is one of my few gifts. It's one of the few things I have to offer my family and friends. Crystal and clear and insightful. But not when I'm exhausted.

When I'm exhausted, I ramble. I struggle to focus. My intuitive side slips into hyperdrive. I start to live in a world that doesn't really exist. At Urbana, I actually started hallucinating at one point (that's sign to go to sleep and get prayer support ... thanks, Chantilly Bible Church!).

Exhaustion blunts the synapses in my brain. Not sharp.

3) My escapes are not simple

My friends in LaFe described my work habits as a gas pedal that gets stuck to the floor. My engine runs and runs and I can't stop running and running. I work and work and work creates more work to work on and on and on.

It takes energy to stop working, to say "No," to pull the brake. And the more exhausted I am, the harder it is for me to stop. I become trapped. I can't escape. I don't know how to escape.

Exhaustion drags me away from a healthy life rhythm. And. The. Return. Is. Not simple.

What have you learned from yourself in your experience of exhaustion?

Book Review: The Mission of Worship by Sandra Van Opstal

Multi-ethnic musical worship is one of the most remarkable features of the Urbana Missions Conference. Participants learn and sing songs in all sorts of languages and styles.

Sandra Van Opstal has been leading the Urbana Worship Team for over a decade. In her day job, she's been a Campus Staff with InterVarsity at Northwestern and has directed our Chicago Urban Project. She just recently finished her MDiv from Trinity and lives with her husband, Karl, in Humbolt Park, Chicago.

Her most recent writing project - The Mission of Worship - digs into the theology and strategy that produces a worship experience like the one participants experience at Urbana.

Sandra has a real grasp on how our culture shapes our expression of worship. And she has a lot of insight into how to both affirm culture and encourage culture-crossing in musical worship. For Sandra, this combination of affirmation and displacement in musical worship echoes the call God gives his people. He is constantly affirming us with his love and grace and is constantly calling us to displacement for the sake of the lost, the outcast and the poor.

The book is part of the Urbana Onward series. It's short. A quick read. Very practical. Extremely well thought-through and written. I read it last night and would highly recommend it.

Check it out here: The Mission of Worship by Sandra Van Opstal.

Sandra Van Opstal (right) leading worship at Urbana

3 B's for Great Bible Study

Be attentive

There is a lot more to the Bible than you’ll catch in a quick glance. God has given us one Bible to use for the rest of our lives. Even if you’ve read the passage before, take time to read it carefully.


Be curious

The Bible is God’s gift to us. Dig deeply. Ask lots of questions. Explore. Think about the way things are connected to each other. Try to figure out why the passage says what it says. Listen to God as you read.


Be trustworthy

Great Bible Study should produce some sort of response from us. We should think and live differently as a result of what we’ve heard from God. God has entrusted his truth with you. What will you do with it?


I love this new language around Inductive Bible Study. Thanks to the folks at twentyonehundred productions for these great videos. For more information about twentyonehundred productions, check them out at

The Editorial Strategy Behind Urbana Today

Our storyboard for Urbana Today (totally posed ... thanks, Pauline)

I put a lot of thought into the editorial strategy for the Urbana Today newspaper. Publishing the newspaper felt like a huge responsibility. We had limited space and a huge conference to draw from. We couldn't include everything. How would we decide what made it into the paper?

I wanted our content to resonate with what God was doing.
I wanted the paper to be creative and fun to create.
I wanted students to pick it up and read the paper.

So, I came up with a few editorial guidelines. These principles helped me decide what went into the paper and what didn't. Here are 3 phrases I landed on to guide Urbana Today.

"We see you"

In a big conference, it's easy to get lost in the shuffle and distracted by the crowd. What's more important: that 16,000 people gathered in the Edward Jones Dome or that Chelcea from Wisconsin took a risk to engage a worship culture that was new to her? For Urbana Today, the small story was the big story.

And we went out of our way to communicate to small groups of participants that we knew they were at the conference and that we were glad they were there. Canadian students. High school students. Non-InterVarsity students. Deaf students. International students. Athletes. Alumni participants. Pastors. Spanish-speaking participants. Over and over again, we worked on angles of the stories so that Urbana Today would be an inclusive space.

This is a big value for InterVarsity generally. We lean in this direction all the time. Community colleges. Schools where there is no ministry. Ethnic minority students. Greek students. Students who are far from God. We leave the 99 to go after these, one at a time, one by one.

At times, I know that this meant we ignored major parts of the conference. We passed over most of the seminars. We didn't give a blow-by-blow of every speaker and every morning and evening session. When we did cover these elements, we focused on individual stories and personal elements. We focused on the small.

"Did you see that?"

We made an effort to communicate visually. Jimmy Long convinced me that this generation is a highly visual generation. They take in a ton of data. They are adept at scanning and scrolling. A glance may be all of their attention you get.

As a result, we worked hard on the front page. We always had a vibrant picture above the fold. We had headlines that popped. We worked hard on the teasers that would direct people to content inside the paper. We wanted to make the paper look like something you would want to pick up.

We also worked hard to keep our stories short. We rarely broke the 300 word mark. We only went to a second page once. Most paragraphs had one or two sentences. Everything was brutally edited. Everything was to the point. Everything was scannable.

Lastly, we made awesome use of infographics. 2100, InterVarsity's Multimedia Communications team, is well known for their infographic creations. They float one out on Facebook every week. For Urbana Today, we had an infographic to share demographics and another to feature the exhibitor hall and another for lost and found. We communicated about the bus schedule via infographic and stirred up some social media buzz. The infographics were funny and fun and made people want to pick up the paper. It gave them something to anticipate.

"Make sure you ... "

Urbana Today had a slim window to shine a spotlight on elements of the conference. A slim, slim window. Too much and the paper wouldn't be interesting. But we did have a little bit of push power. And we used it.

We nudged people toward Launch Labs, hoping to encourage entrepreneurship. We nudged people toward the Poverty Track's virtual experiences because we thought they were one of the most innovative things happening at the conference. We nudged toward athletes' gatherings and ethnic-specific lounges. We nudged toward a deeper experience of musical worship.

And that was it.

How would you make editorial decisions if you were running a newspaper like Urbana Today? What would you prioritize?

3 Keys to Leading a Great Creative Team

Wrestling with an article together
I found myself in over my head with Urbana Today.

I was leading a team of 7 highly skilled creative people. I wrote a little about them yesterday. Professionals. People who could be professionals. People who really knew their stuff.

And me.

How do you lead a team like that?

Make their workflow a priority

With just a few questions, I could understand the team's workflow and design our team structure around the team's needs. This made life easier for each of our team members and helped us work together smoothly.

We had a hard deadline at midnight with the publisher. Before that, we needed to do a read-through to catch any errors that sneaked into the draft of the paper. Before that, the designers needed to insert articles, pictures and infographics. Before that, the designers need to design infographics and select pictures. At the same time, the writers needed to produce their articles. And before that, I needed to assign articles and come up with an editorial focus for the day.

Did you notice what I noticed in there? Everything slammed into the designers. If we weren't careful, everything would land on the designers' desks at the same time, at night, against the deadline. And this is where I could help.

I created a choke point in the workflow, an intentional stoppage. I split the writers away from the designers and inserted myself in the middle. All articles had to come through me. This gave me the capacity to manage the speed with which things landed on the designers desks.

Managing the workflow of our team kept us clicking along and kept our designers focused. It was easy to do. Anyone could do it. And it was my contribution.

Make yourself available

I took two breaks all week. On one break, I ran to the LaFe Lounge to grab coffee and hug some friends. On the other break, I had a working lunch and went by the LaFe Lounge to tell my friends that I loved what they were doing. Two breaks. That's it. I got to the office early and stayed late. I ate at my desk.


I wanted to make myself available to my team. At any moment, they may need a resource. At any moment, they may need someone to bounce an idea off of or lend an extra ear. At any moment, they may need someone to talk to them or pray for them. And I could be there for them.

I didn't have all of the technical skill. But presence is a powerful management tool. A manager or leader who is present with his or her people taps into some of the deepest elements of human motivation. And, in a strange way, this form of leadership echoes God's leadership of us, leadership by presence. And I could be present with my team.

Make the hard decisions

When you're leading a team that operates above your skill set, it's wise to defer to your people. Defer to their expertise. Defer to their experience. Defer respectfully and often.

But there comes a point when you pass from deferring to passing the buck. And it's easy to pass beyond that point without noticing.

We had to make decisions last week that were stressful, that had political implications, that would produce criticism from outsiders. Art should produce a reaction. Art produced on a deadline sometimes produces reactions that hurt. And it's tempting to pass off that risk and hurt to your team, hiding behind their expertise and blaming them when things don't go perfectly.

Don't do it.

Take it on your shoulders. Take the blame. Make the hard calls. They may never notice what you're doing. But they will notice if you don't do it. Few things are more maddening than working for a boss who has less experience than you. One of those more maddening things is working for a boss who shoves you under the bus.

I could make the hard calls and bear the brunt of the criticism. I've been trained in conflict management and saying "I'm sorry." This was one thing I could add.

Have you ever led a creative team? What are some other leadership tips of tricks you've picked up along the way?

A Great Creative Team

The brave team behind Urbana Today

Last week, I had the chance to work with a great creative team. We worked crazy hours to produce Urbana Today, the daily newspaper for the Urbana Missions Conference. [For more on Urbana 12, check out]

I am so pleased with what we produced. The papers looked beautiful. Over 45,000 copies were read during the conference. And we told great, creative stories.


Here's who I had the chance to work with ...

Gary the Artist: Gary is an extremely talented designer. He's worked on Urbana design since the 80's. He is an illustrator and loves to comfort "widows and orphans in their distress" (apparently that's a designer joke). In the tension of deadlines, I saw him sweat but never heard him complain. I don't know what he would say, but I think he and I became friends over the course of our time at Urbana.

Courtney the Omnipresent: It seemed like Courtney did all the design for Urbana. Every sign, every significant piece of branding ... it all reflected her hard work. She communicated very directly and knew her work inside and out. She also had a very healthy work-rhythm. When she was on, she was fully present. When I asked her to take a break, she really took a break. I wish I could be more like her.

Abri the Prolific: Abri was the only person I knew from real life. She was a friend and former student from W&L. She teaches in Kansas and writes professionally in her free time. And she has the capacity to produce line after line of excellent copy in almost no time at all. When I needed someone to double or triple-down and write extra articles, she was willing to jump right in. She knew more about newspaper editing than anyone else there, but she was willing to help where she was needed. She displayed two metric tons of humility, as usual.

Pauline the Perfectionist: Pauline kept and kept working on her articles. She self-edited. She improved and improved her work before she turned it in. And her articles were perfect. When we had to make cuts for length, every lost word hurt. In her day job, Pauline works for a bank. And if her presence on our team is any indicator, I'm sure she holds the ship together there. On our team, she was the person who was most deeply engaging with God during the conference. She helped us keep our focus.

Lauren of the Perfect Process: Lauren joined our team a day late and hit the ground running. Immediately, I noticed Lauren's writing process. She kept perfect notes and caught perfect quotes. She had an ear for quotes. People would talk to her ... talk and talk ... and she would know exactly what needed to be quoted in the paper. She had the disciplines in place to do this work every day.

Ben the Canadian: Ben also had a great writing process, don't get me wrong. But Ben brought something extra to the table. He was the only Canadian on the team. At a conference hosted by the organizations from both Canada and the USA, his voice proved to be immensely valuable. And he didn't shy away from pitching stories with Canadian interest or listening for a Canadian angle on the stories.

Justin the Present: I have no idea where Justin came from. He was sitting in our section as we were getting started. He introduced himself as a writer. And before he (or I) knew it, he was picking up stories and writing with a lot of boldness. He interviewed Andy Mineo and David Platt without showing any nerves. He bailed us out of a tight spot. I don't know what we would have done without that extra writer. He was a gift from God.


So, that's my Urbana Today team.

We had photographers working alongside us, real artists who thought deeply about every aspect of their shots. We also had archivists making sure good photographs didn't go to waste.

And we had management - Bethany and Christy - making sure the wheels stayed on the bus.

On the team, I was the odd-man-out. High school newspaper and yearbook. Some classes in college. Blogging personally and for InterVarsity. Editing student assignments. Advance reading for IVPress. Certainly not the qualifications of a newspaper Editor.

I found out on-site that previous Urbana Today Editors have been professional journalists and journalism professors. I didn't even know the difference between a "center spread" and a "double truck." I was grossly under-qualified.

But here's what I learned, even though I was under-qualified ...

A great creative team can get the job done if led well, even if the leader lacks creative experience.

I'll write tomorrow about the leadership techniques and qualities that made this possible.