Pain Partners: Becoming a Community out of Desperation

Breath Taken

Early this morning I received a very sad email. I sat wondering, “Where is God in all this mess. Why? Why now? Why this man? Hasn’t he suffered enough with his cancer and his many trials?”

It has been said, “All true community begins at the edge of suffering”

Before me sits a Bible, filled with stories of pain and suffering and redemption. These stories unnerve us, encourage us, and then remind us of things eternal. We become sober to the realities of life in a broken world.  Still I ask, “Where is God when it hurts?” The answer should not surprise us. It is embedded in this email.

Here it is, edited and with names changed, but you will get the idea.  This man is suffering with cancer that is rare and hard to treat. And then this email from his wife…

Good morning-

Yesterday, at about 4:45 p.m., Mike was rear ended, spun into oncoming traffic and then T-boned. He was in a small rental car that was totaled. He was taken to the hospital and into surgery just after 7. He remained conscious and calm. He was very cold – not in much pain, not scared. He kept telling me he wasn’t scared, that he was ready, that he knew he was forgiven, saved by grace, and loved by his Father. We prayed a lot. He was mostly calm, always conscious, very well aware of what had happened.

The nurses were crying and rushing and more and more doctors and machines and nurses came. He had some deep lacerations to his head; he was bleeding. He was on a backboard, coughing, having difficulty breathing, frustrated with being strapped down and held in place. His spleen needed to come out and he had many breaks and fractures. His heart rate was too fast and his blood pressure too low. They gave him several units of blood.

They took him into surgery. He was brave! Our family and close friends joined us.

Tony, Sarah, Matt, Rachael, Mike’s family, Ashton, Tammy, and Susan came and joined the wait. (His Pain Partners.) We were all able to go in, briefly, and see him last night. He was somewhat conscious and on a respirator to help with his breathing and had some staples on the back of his head. His color was good; he rested.

It is likely that his cancer treatment will be suspended while they address these issues. It’s a lot to take in. He needs a whole lot of prayer and love and hope. His long road seems mighty long right now. Blessings and love, Karen.

Here is my edited reply to my friend who forwarded “Karen’s” email to me.

Ug …this is very hard to hear at this point, Dave, but his life is being a witness to so many who are serving him right now in the hospitals – they are seeing Jesus in him and that is remarkable…Mike’s broken life, and the community that surround him, is being used in powerful ways … I know that does not feel good to you and me right now, or especially to him or Karen, but it is true. A hard but real truth.

I lost my best friend at age 15 after he suffered for 3 years and died of spinal cancer. He was a Philadelphia Phillies fan so players would come visit him, as did others who, at the time, would never go to a church or read a Bible. But he had a strong faith for just a young teen. He talked to them about Christ, his future, salvation, etc. When he died, many remembered his short life but also his great faith. We were devastated, but I know it started me on a journey toward God, and helped others to strengthen their faith. 

A young man in a class I teach has Cystic Fibrosis. He is being hospitalized (again) this weekend to treat lung infections with IV antibiotics. He is the same age as my son, and is aware of the degenerative nature of his disease. I could not imagine my son in that condition knowing his life will be a short one filled with suffering. It punches me in the gut every time I walk into the room.

But it has also driven me to prayer. And I have wept over this student, remembering that sin has broken this world and it took the death of Jesus himself to defeat its misery. So I have hope, and I am humbled, and I sit at God’s feet and find strength. But I do not do it alone. In community we share the pain.

I am at a loss for answers as to why these things happen. I can only cling to what I know to be true. And that is what Mike and my student are doing. And I think I can guarantee that their many sufferings (which I would never wish on anyone) are being transformed into something beautiful for God’s glory. So I pray and I weep. But I also hope… for a new world one day when all the “Mikes” of this world are dancing and singing. It is what I cling to in the brokenness.

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God.  ‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”  He who was seated on the throne said, “I am making everything new!”  – Revelation 21: 1-5 

Yes, make it new! For all of us. So that our partnership in pain will be transformed into a reunion of joy and gladness with the One who brings us home.

I recommend Phil Yancey’s book, Where is God When it Hurts?

Where is God When It Hurts?


Leaders in the Middle

Look at leadership development and you see the focus of most conferences and materials is on leaders at the top, or leaders on the front line. This is great – I love to work with senior-level teams and leaders, and have spent decades training volunteer group and team leaders for churches and businesses.

But many groups – especially Non-profits – really need to develop the middle, and the opportunities are endless!

Small Group

So what about development for the MIDDLE? People have skills and experience beyond entry-level leadership and yet do not desire, are not ready for, or not gifted for – top-level posts. Where are the development strategies for these emerging leaders?


My “Leaders at Every Level” process is designed to I develop and support leaders at every level of your church, non-profit or small business.

Here is why it is so important to DEVELOP THE MIDDLE layer of your organization:

1)     This is the pool from which you will draw many of your inner circle leaders in the next 4-5 years

2)      An investment here has a huge trickle-down effect, as these leaders become better at passing along the DNA of your organization

3)      You can see whether these leaders can reproduce the investment you have made in them. Can they, and will they, shape the people below them the way you are investing in them?

4)     It is a testing ground for greater responsibility. You can takes risks here and let leaders fail without causing too much pain in them or the organization. Yet they have time to learn and recover from failure before advancement to higher levels.

5)     Turnover drops dramatically and is directly proportional to the investment you make in people. After a few years people wonder if they are stuck, so they either level off (and just hand on to a job) or move on to better opportunities for growth. If you want turnover, ignore the middle. Here is some great info from The Wharton School that validates this point in business…but I think it is even MORE essential for churches and Non-profits.

6)     When top leaders move on or die or retire, there is no “crisis” because you have a built-in secession plan!



So what is your strategy? Share your ideas for development in the middle and I will forward them along. This is a great challenge!

Are We Fighting Against God?


Your Arms Too Short to Box With God” was a gospel music theatre production in the late 70’s based on the Gospel of Matthew.

In its gritty, direct way the phrase captures the tense drama in a scene from the book of Acts.

After hearing the good news of forgiveness and joy in the life, death and resurrection of Messiah Jesus, people found faith, hope and freedom. But the religious elites and power brokers of the day became jealous (Acts 5:17), and put the whole thing on lockdown, attacking the apostles.

Why? What’s wrong with good news?


Bad news sells. Look at the first 10 minutes of your evening news. Fires, murders, rapes, gang violence, and political corruption (vote early, vote often, as we say in Chicago!) flood the screen.

Bad news stirs up fear…Good News serves up freedom.

Oh No! There’s a Small Group Shutdown!

shut downCurrently, our government leaders are debating and haggling about what services to fund. It’s a political wrestling match as we are well aware. Someone said, “When are these losers going to get their act together?” Sadly, regardless of your political affiliation, the real “losers” are needy people. Meanwhile many who are not dependent on government assistance or investment can laugh and throw stones. But a slowdown or a shutdown is a real letdown for so many. A government shutdown is indeed a crisis.

But today I realize I have avoided an even greater crisis in my life.

A Small Group Shutdown!

That’s right. I cannot imagine the impact of such a thing if it ever happened.  As I look at the small groups I have been a part of over the years, shutdown would have been devastating for me and many others I know – at least from the human side of things.


Here’s what a Small Group Shutdown would have meant for me…

  • No connection with Jesus a leader, lover and friend
  • A disastrous marriage to someone who did not follow God
  • A misfire on God’s moving me into a new career
  • I would have never learned the real power of the gospel
  • I might not have many real, lifelong friends – deep, genuine and “for me”
  • An undiscovered teaching gift
  • Participation in a weak church that had drifted from the truth
  • I might never have attended graduate school for theology
  • I would have missed seeing real prayer and real healing
  • My own prayers and gifts would lay dormant or underutilized for years
  • Serving opportunities would have passed me by
  • International ministry and service would have likely evaded me
  • I would have missed the support I needed for my marriage
  • Raising kids would have been a disaster
  • My personal pain and suffering would have had much less support
  • My 2nd and 3rd career moves would have been made without wise counsel
  • Might not have had close friends in the group become believers
  • Would have missed tons of personal growth, love, and truth-telling I needed to hear


And I could go on for pages…A Small Group Shutdown would have led to a personal Breakdown.

It is sad that some critics believe that “small groups don’t work” and are not focused on making disciples.


I guess I was just lucky to be in the only group on the planet that is an exception. I am sure the rest are just hokey little gatherings of bubble Christians hiding from the world and ignoring their communities.

Sure, like parts of the government, some need to be shutdown.  But most, as far as I can see (and I have looked at these around the globe), are lifelines for people of all stripes and backgrounds. These little bands of spiritual transformation form the foundation for communal life and service.  Maybe that is why Jesus spent so much time with His.

So today my headline reads, “SMALL GROUP SHUTDOWN AVERTED!”


Happy People  Whew! Am I grateful!




Is your leadership making this mistake?


A Common Leadership Mistake You Must Avoid!!


I see it almost everywhere I work with leadership teams. Let me tell you what it is and what you should be doing differently. And I will cite two great HBR articles that are helpful. (For more about HBR go here )

Before I name the mistake, let me describe how it pops up.

You want to move ahead so you brainstorm a bit, read the latest books, review all the models, attend a conference or watch some videos. Then draft the new strategy., delegate responsibilities,  and launch the new plan.

And in six months you are…

The Two Things Every Quality Organization Needs – and Why

Two areas drive my passion and practice. They “need” one another. And in my work with churches, businesses, educational institutions and start-up operations, these 2 THINGS really matter. At the end of this post you can see how I help leaders of quality organizations in these 2 areas.  See if you can spot them on this list below.


  • Clear Mission                        
  • Competent Leadership        
  • A Great Team
  • Essential Funding                 
  • Creative Workplace
  • A Visionary Person
  • Strong Community
  • Recognition for Work
  • Ownership by All
  • Enjoy My Work 


I chose Competent Leadership and Strong Community – and here is why.

After the Leadership Conference – Now What?

After the Leadership Conference ... Now What?

I develop leaders.

I speak at conferences.

I attend conferences.


This week, I attended the Willow Creek Leadership Summit. Lot’s of enthusiasm and inspiration, great talks and encouraging moments. I took my family and 5 of my honors students. We found the experience exciting and energizing. Like many others, that is why we go. It is an emotional thrill, and leaders need a leadership lift whenever we can get one.

Many of the speakers acknowledged this kind of event is a REMINDER event. We need to hear what we already know, and be inspired again to plug away, stay the course, and lead well. And often we gain a new insight or have an “aha!” moment. These are truly valuable.

But what happens after the thrill is gone? It is the age-old conference dilemma. In a few days the buzz is gone, the notebook goes on the shelf, the twitter frenzy dies down and people return to the same challenges, problems, lousy bosses, fundraising shortfalls and HR headaches.

Am I being pessimistic? Should we stop going to conferences? NO! Let me be clear. I love conferences! I love speaking at them and going to them! I love hanging with other leaders and getting to know their stories, successes and challenges. This is essential for every leader!

How “Group Friendly” is Your Church?

Is your church ” Group Friendly ?”

Group Friendly Small Groups

I work with dozens of churches each year as I work with their leadership teams about small groups, spiritual growth and transformational leadership. Often I am contacted and asked some variation of this question: “Bill, can you help us build/grow our small group ministry?”

Before I answer yes, no or maybe, I engage in a conversation, asking lots of questions and getting to know the current state of the church. As it relates to group life, I discover that churches fall into four categories:

  • Group-focused
  • Group-proficient
  • Group-wary
  • Group-hostile

You might be wondering why a “group-hostile” church would even ask me to help them build groups. Reality is, they do not see themselves as group hostile, but I do. So allow me to unpack each of these and see where your church is these days.

Ground Rules for Effective Groups and Teams

My friends Henry Cloud and I have worked together speaking, writing and training group leaders. To coach small groups – especially newer groups – we created Making Your Small Groups Work, a DVD groups watch a few minutes at each meeting to learn to be an effective community.

Cover of DVD Making Your Small Group Work Dr Bill Donahue DVD for Groups and Teams


Here’s a short sample if you want to take a peek.

Watch Video:


Setting ground rules is one of the things we encouraged groups to do, so that everyone is clear about how to create an environment for growth in a group context.


Here are 5 to think incorporate into your group process or team setting.


Care: Being for each other and coming alongside one another on any group or team is essential. We need more encouragement and less criticism; more urging onward than looking backward. To say “I care” means we not on have empathy with others, but we show that in a tangible way with words, ideas, support and compassion.

This may sound a little “soft” for some settings, like working groups or corporate teams. I get that. But it can still be communicated in appropriate ways. When a group really cares about one another they can begin to care for one another.


Safety: Creating a “Come as You are Culture” as friend John Burke likes to say, you make it safe for full participation and risk-taking. It means we can show up angry, tired, strong, weak, excited or cautious – and that is all ok. Sure, you need to monitor how you express those realities depending on the setting and the culture of the group or organization.

But the basic premise remains. You avoid having a “you’d –better-act-and-talk-and-look-like-this-before-we-accept-you” culture that ignores reality and demeans people.


Authenticity: Yes, authenticity is an overworked word… but it remains an underutilized practice. I believe this is because it is often misunderstood. Sometimes it is interpreted as putting all your cards on the table all the time, totally revealing everything about yourself.

Not healthy. We have reality TV to thank for that perspective. Unbridled and unwise communication and action is not authenticity – it is simply overexposure. And, like too much sun without sunblock, it does more damage than most relationships can tolerate.

Or, people fake authenticity with trite phases and clichés.  “I totally understand what you mean!”  “Wow thanks for putting yourself out there, Susan. It felt so real.”  Or what a women said in a group I was in “I hate my husband, he’s a creep!” That was certainly real…but was it wise to share in the second meeting of a small group just learning to become a community and trying to take basic risks?


Growth: We are told to “urge one another toward love and toward good deeds” and groups are a great place for that. We get so selfish, so cynical, so absorbed in personal realities that pushing one another toward growth is neglected. But if I am listening, I am eager to call the best out of you and watch you thrive.

Once a member asked me, “And how do you act with integrity and honor your boss even though now you realize he might never change his abrupt way of communicating?” He wanted me to understand I have a choice – my actions and reactions are under my control, regardless of what he says or does. I can be different. I can love. I can serve.


Help: Groups and teams flourish when members help one another in tangible ways. “Mike, I can get that report for you online and save you a few minutes of research time.” “Christine, let me take care of the kids for an hour while you get some quiet time – or just go shop!” Little helps make a big difference.


Let me know if I can ever help you or your teams get better at creating greater community and a vibrant group culture.


In the meantime, ask yourself:

Which of these 5 “habits” or Ground Rules can we make a reality in our group or team?

What will it take for us to make this a normal part of the culture?



Faith-Work-Culture: The Human Trinity

Today my focus is the integration of Faith-Work-Culture as a central part of life.

faith-work-cultureI am privileged to participate in a panel discussion on Capitol Hill Wednesday with seminary scholars, policy makers and leaders who care deeply about the integration of our work, our faith and our culture.  Here is the focus of the discussion:

  • Centuries ago St. Augustine wrote City of God to explore what is the rightful and moral duty of Christians engaging in the public square.  Today, the questions and tensions that plague public life in our capital city are no less fraught and frustrating than they were in his, ages ago.
  • Drawing from the insight and experience of practitioners across the scope of public policy’s reach and application this panel will explore the role Christians have to act justly and walk humbly across partisan lines, in neighborhood communities, and global conflicts, in the committee rooms of capitol hill, and the board rooms of K street.
  • While acknowledging the reality of politics and policy native to Capitol Hill, this panel will instead focus on the responsibility Christians have to support and engage the development of flourishing communities in every corner of the earth.

I come as a representative from three spheres.

First, as thinker and change agent in an institution, as a representative from TIU where we are seeking to bring a more robust engagement with “vocational theology” so that faculty, staff and students see the faith-work-culture tension as a central, not tertiary, part of life.

Second, I come as a common worker. Like you, I engage in meaningful labor and have done so since I was 15. I have had a dozen roles in my work history: as a camp counselor, lifeguard, groundskeeper, financial analyst, sales rep, painter, pastor, professor and a leadership consultant.

Third, I sit here as a human being. I know that’s stating the obvious. But it is the one thing we all have in common.  We all want to flourish as people living in this 21st century world – economically, spiritually, vocationally, physically, and emotionally.


So I am eager to learn and contribute during these 30 hours.


But I need your help – really.


What questions or thoughts do you have about human flourishing as it relates to the integration and interaction of Faith-Work-Culture?

We need to keep breaking down the clergy-laity division. And we need to see the worlds of work and culture as much more than mission fields on the one hand, or places to avoid “lest we be corrupted” on the other.


What are your thoughts and questions?

I would love to hear them before we engage on the hill tomorrow. Everyone wants to change the world- but not everyone wants to change. I want to change personally as I participate. I hope you can help.




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