Thank You Nelson Mandela

Nelson Mandela

My family stood in his jail cell on Robben Island. We witnessed first-hand the devastation of Apartheid. We saw what racism, oppression, greed, and anger can do to a nation. In post-Apartheid South Africa we saw the church rise up to join and often lead the restoration movement toward reconciliation among black, colored and white.

Thank you Nelson Mandela, for forgiving those who recklessly and intentionally destroyed your country. Thank you for being creative and winsome and shrewd in the face of those who had been abusive, evil and offensive.

I made four trips to South Africa, teaching, serving, learning, listening, praying and crying. It was heartbreaking and hope-building at the same time. In South Africa can sometimes smell the poverty before you ever see it. It is raw and toxic and visceral. Admittedly I had but a brief look through a tiny window into the suffering of a people we have abused, neglected and exploited for centuries.

I felt ashamed. To feel anything less is an injustice. Repentance is the only response.

Sadly, I knew I had played a role in their demise. Every American did – by our ignorance or by our compliance. We stood by and watched corporations get richer as a people got poorer and sicker and lonelier on the world stage. Meanwhile, we took their wealth, their land and their heritage.

But thank God we could not take their faith, their dignity and their hope.

Nelson Mandela was an iconic symbol of these treasures. Of course he was a complex man, sometimes despised…sometimes revered. Yes, his work as a young, angry man was often brutal and dangerous. No one – including Mandela himself –blindly condoned this. He wanted to hurt those who hurt them.

But can we understand why? Are we so self-righteous we cannot imagine ourselves making similar error? Let’s be clear; most of us have never had our homes bulldozed into oblivion, our livelihoods take from us, our land corrupted and our leaders imprisoned. Angry young men do foolish things when they cry for freedom and justice in a world that cannot and will not hear. Like a rebellious teenager his actions cried, “Help! Look! Listen!”

Yes, Nelson Mandela’s early means were wrong. People like King and Ghandi chose different paths. And eventually so did Mandela.

But I must remember how hard it was. I have never begged for my freedom. I have never watched my friends and their sons beaten to death by a racist mob. I do not have to see my daughter raped by the very police who are supposed to protect her innocence. I was not sentenced to work a patch of limestone for decades that would virtually blind my eyes and break my back. But South Africans – like WW2 Jews in Germany and “dissidents” in North Korea today –endured this kind of suffering.

And many of us just watched. I know I did.

In 1976 I was a freshman at Princeton University. There were almost daily protests against Apartheid. I mocked them. These mostly long-haired hippie types were shouting and demanding for corporations to divest from SA to create economic pressure to topple Apartheid. I thought to myself, “Go to class…do something productive…get a job you losers!”

I was an ignorant fool.  I had no idea what Apartheid was, how it crippled a culture and raped a nation.

Thank you Nelson Mandela, for becoming a changed man. Thank you for not letting your anger and suffering become a weapon to inflict injury upon your oppressors.  Thank you for “leading from the back” as described in the book “Mandel’s Way.”

Nelson Mandela



And thank you for forgiving me. It reminds me of another great leader. The greatest leader, who had an even longer walk to freedom.  He came to earth, lived for justice and truth, but was abused, misjudged, beaten, imprisoned and killed by the oppressive elites of His day. He said, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” Perhaps Mandela gave us a contemporary example of this kind of forgiveness. I need that forgiveness. Because like I naively mocked those justice-seeking protestors, I took part in the mocking and death of righteous Jesus.

So today I say, “Thank You, Jesus—for forgiving us, saving us, loving us and now walking with us.”

Where are the Mandelas of today? You generally won’t find them ranting on FOX or MSNBC. There are few in congress or business or education. Thankfully, there are more rising up in the church. Men and women – great leaders, many of them quiet yet powerful – who care about the really big questions. But they are still a minority.

We need more people who are not caught up in so many petty debates discussed today by weak people with small minds. I know, because I can easily become one of them. Why? Because sometimes, instead of being a courageous leader I am a contented follower. No, not a follower of the radical, freedom-fighting, passionate Jesus. Rather, a follower of those who believe the fight is about our “brand” or a “model” or a “tribe” or a “theological viewpoint” or a “Bible version” or a “political system” or a hundred other distractions.

How lame and trivial. I hate when I get caught up in all that banter.

Mandela reminds me – reminds us – that there are longer walks and bigger issues and greater causes. I want to be more like him. Of course, ultimately, I want to be more like Jesus of Nazareth. A man of humility, justice, self-sacrifice, truth, beauty, forgive and, of course…LOVE. Mandela, a leader today we admire and celebrate today, was a world changer but only a shadow of what Jesus fully and perfectly embodied. And so are you and I. So we fix our eyes on Jesus as we become more of the leader, and follower, we long to become.

Can you help me be more like Jesus today? We need to remind one another of what is at stake, to call out the best in each other and set our sights on things above not on the things of the earth. In our ignorance or laziness we can never again allow another group of people to imprison and mock and oppress a rising generation of “Mandelas” who will courageously and humbly stand for freedom. For real freedom – Christ-centered freedom. Transforming freedom, inside and out.

It required a long walk for Nelson Mandela to get there, but he eventually got it right. I hope to get it right someday as well – hopefully sooner, but who knows. And I desperately need Jesus of Nazareth to walk the long road with me.

After all, He understands the long walk to freedom…all the way to the cross.

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?



The School of Adversity

It’s compulsory education for every person on the planet. You simply must attend the School of Adversity.

School of Adversity Quote - There is no education like adversity

You need only meet 1 of 2 entrance requirements and you are automatically enrolled. No need to go online or show up at registration. If you 1) have a pulse or, 2) you can fog a mirror, you’re enrolled. Mandatory. There are no vouchers and no “school choice” options available. Once enrolled, classes begin immediately and might be held any day of the week, 365 days a year. There are no vacation days and no holidays (but there are LOTS of sick days).

It is likely each of us will take different classes in the School (Stomach Flu 101, My Teenager Hates Me 407, Chronic Unemployment 511- a graduate level course) and probably we’ll have different majors. NOTE: majors are assigned, rarely chosen. Some students will find themselves in the popular Financial Ruin Program or taking several courses in the Perpetual Pain Department. And almost everyone does a minor in Annoying Facebook Friends.

But no one gets a pass. Ever.

There are no strings you can pull. No Congressman or Senator can get you out or provide an appointment to a less rigorous program (like enrolling in the popular School of Rock – sorry, Jack Black).  There is no AP credit or credit transfers from other highly acclaimed, elite programs like the School of Hard Knocks (I spent a couple semesters there – it was hard…very, very hard).

Like it or not, you must enroll in the School of Adversity.

But don’t worry; no one can make you graduate. Actually, no one graduates. Ever. It’s like continuing education for CPA’s or required HR training classes on wellness management. Classes start and continue all the way to infinity… and beyond. Well, I suppose this is a graduation day. But you really do not want to hear about it.

Also, there are no online or virtual courses. Every class is live, has no official professor, and always takes place in the Experiential Learning Lab. All classes are on campus, but it is easy to get there. The campus address is: 5 Your Location, Anywhere, Earth.

Another bummer is cost. The School can be quite expensive. Actual costs may vary from student to student, and there are no scholarships or financial aid. Everyone pays full price regardless of how many classes you are taking, so you might as well load up early. Heck, I knew a guy who was carrying 42 hours one semester, and he almost died. Really, it almost killed him. He said he learned more that semester than in any other. But it was brutal. Made Med School and MIT look like kindergarten classes.

One thing you want to avoid at all costs – taking classes alone. As a matter of fact, going through the School of Adversity is a lot better if someone takes the classes with you. It is not only allowed, it is encouraged! (You can share answers, ask for help and solve the same problems using the same solutions others have already discovered! They are all cataloged in the Wisdom Library if you take the time to find them. That part is very cool.)

Actually, large families, small groups, neighborhood communities, and sometimes – this is hard to imagine – entire countries have gone through a class together! It makes the School of Hard Knocks look easy by comparison.

There is something about doing it together that not only makes it better, but each class seems to get a little easier to handle; the surprise quizzes are not so surprising, the tests require less preparation and study, and you tend to get higher grades. Did I mention that grades matter?

How you perform prepares you for the next class, though it might be in a different department. For example, I did well some years ago in the introductory Facing Your Fears 101 class because I had already taken Working in a High-Crime Area 201. Facing Your Fears is usually a pre-requisite for all 200-level classes, but for some reason I was forced to take WHCA 201 first. That happens quite often. Classes are rarely offered in logical order. (Very annoying. But there is an elective to help with that now: Annoyances and Petty Frustrations 001 is available whenever you plan a vacation or prepare for Christmas.)

And, surprisingly at first, many students report a sense of joy and gratitude after completing a particularly difficult class! Kind of counter-intuitive  to say the least, though I confess I understand.

Well, I am off to class. Right now I am just beginning Character Growth 204 with a group of friends. There is no syllabus so we do not know what will happen. But we are told by the Administration that we will have the choice to “become bitter or better” as a result of what we experience. Not sure I am looking forward to all of it, but I hear they do have recess and a snack!

Since Christmas I have been enrolled in several courses of moderate but annoying difficulty: Your Wife Broke Her Leg at Christmas 305, Daughter Badly Sprained Ankle in Championship Game 208, I Threw My Back Out Sunday 401 (an intensive 3-day seminar), Son’s Car Needs 3rd Repair in Two Weeks 510, and The Water Pump for Your Home Broke 211.

I am discovering that the School of Adversity while not always a fun place to visit is a great place to learn.

I am getting better at responding with joy in the struggle of pain, listening more carefully to God and others when trials come crashing down, and building up some tolerance to the dozens of small annoyances that pester me like sand flies on the beach of life.

And I continue to gain empathy and respect for the awful circumstances and challenges others face worldwide (in doctoral-level courses I dare not even name and, thankfully, will hopefully never have to take.)

Like you, I am a full-time student in the School of Adversity. So off to class I go. Oh no, my car won’t start…That’s just great…I’ll be late for class.

Oh, wait a minute. This IS my class. Here we go. Hope I pass. Wanna join me?


What Courses are you taking in the School of Adversity? What are you learning? How can you and others get through it together?


We would like to encourage your feedback as it helps us to identify the issues that are important to you. It also helps others who are searching to develop new creative ways of leading. Thank you in advance for your comments.

Strength Training

Strength Training

The emphasis on strengths-based leadership development is a refreshing trend. I am working with a friend who is trained in the Strengths Finder assessment, and we are helping a non-profit organization get a grip on who’s on their team, who has what strengths, and how do their strengths work together.

The four major domains or quadrants where the strengths lie are as follows:

Executing – knowing how to make things happen

Strategic Thinking – keeping focused on what could be

Influencing – reaching a broader audience

Relationship Building – providing the glue that holds teams together

Each quadrant has 8-9 of the 34 Strengths in the Strengths Finder assessment. For example, my strengths are Ideation, Intellection, Strategic, Achiever and Relator. My strengths lie primarily in Strategic Thinking area (Ideation, Intellection and Strategic), one in Executing (Achiever) and one in the Relationship Building area. None falls in the Influencing quadrant.

Therefore, though I know how to influence people and communicate with audiences and leaders, I need others who can broaden my influence and help me reach new audiences. So I have team members who are strong in those areas.

How do your strengths work with your team? I am strong at developing and defining new ideas and the strategies to move ideas forward. As a writer, speaker, consultant and coach to leaders, these are invaluable. And my Achiever strength means I am eager move people toward results. But to help more people I need partners who can expand our sphere of influence.

Reflect for a moment and ask yourself a few questions (even if you do not use Tom Rath’s Strengths Finder book):

“In which of the 4 quadrants above might most of my strengths be found?”

“Where do I have my greatest impact in my work?”

“Where do my team members’ strengths lie?”

“How can we leverage our strengths to make the greatest impact?”

“What strengths do we lack and how might we find add them to the team?”

Train in your strengths, get support for your weaknesses and mobilize your team accordingly. The results will rock the world!

Becoming a Learning Community – 2

In my earlier post on this subject I discussed what a learning community is and is not; not simply a teaching community, a talking community or a study community. Here are some ways to great a community that really learns together. And though some of these strategies are familiar, the question is, “Are we working to make these a reality in our groups and teams?”

To begin, we must consider how people learn, not just what they learn. These familiar learning styles must be considered when you teach a class, lead a group or work with a team. It takes preparation time to utilize these, but the results are self-evident.

1) Visual (See): People who enjoy watching someone do something, or  learn by looking closely at the desired result or outcome (like the photo of a desk you want to build).

2) Auditory (Hear): Need a description and information about steps to take; listen to a CD.

3) Kinesthetic (Touch): Need to tinker around with the truth or the idea to understand how it works.

4) Experiential (Feel): Love to experience it first-hand, feeling the emotions as well as observing the details. (You’d rather spend the night in a homeless shelter than watch a documentary on how one works).

Once you know how to vary these styles in your facilitation or teaching, focus on these 3 actions.

FIRST: Learning communities engage truth: we do not shy away from truth, and we seek after it. Whether it is truth about the world or God or self, learning communities look seriously, unapologetically and courageously at the real truth — not just the truth we want to see or hear.

SECOND: Learning communities seek to understand; we ask questions, and we listen more than we speak. We want to get to the core of the issue, never settling for superficial responses or pat answers. In biblical times the people of Berea sought to understand what was being said, and they did it in community (Acts 17:11). They did not take teaching at face value – they wanted to see if it was accurate and discussed it together.

THIRD: Learning Communities practice the truth. If you read Ezra 7:10 you observe he had a strategy for learning and for helping others learn. Notice the pattern: NOT study, then teach. Rather, study… practice… teach. We could all benefit from that approach. The last thing we need are pastors, teachers and group/team leaders who spend 30 hours studying, 2 hours teaching, and almost no hours practicing. We all have to get out in the world and live the truth we are teaching others. Not always convenient or easy — sitting in my study is easy.

Practicing the truth is called obedience, as in the Great Commission – “Teach them to obey all that I have commanded,” not simply “teach them all I commanded” — we are called to help one another put truth into practice as Jesus exhorted at the end of the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 7:24-27). Parker Palmer, in helping college professors do the same described it this way:

“To teach is to create a place where obedience to truth can be practiced” – To Know as We Are Known

That makes sense. But becoming a Learning Community — and creating one — is often a challenge work. I want to be up for that challenge and get better at it. Hope the same for you.

What have you discovered about this in your setting? What is working and what is not?

Becoming a Learning Community -1

Despite being called “Teacher” and having a robust teaching ministry, Jesus desired us to become a learning community. “It is enough for the student to be like his teacher, and the servant like his master.” Notice he did not say, “It is enough for the student to know what the teacher knows.”

“The one who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is a wise person who builds a house on the rock.” (Matthew 7:25) It is not enough that we teach and preach. We are called – commanded – to make a community of learner-followers: disciples. What does this look like? First, here is what it is not.

A learning Community is NOT just a teaching community.  Pastors and teachers spend countless hours prepping sermons and classes, yet most admit only half jokingly that “ten minutes after I am finished no one remembers what I said.”

Why spend so much time on a form of “teaching” that seems to produce so little learning?

Ok, before you delete my blog post let me be clear. Preaching and teaching are essential; both are commanded and practiced in the Bible.  But are obsessed with content and believe that our teaching automatically produces learning, or that “I teach and the Holy Spirit does the rest.” That’s poor theology.

Maybe it all comes down to what is at the center.

In the Old Testament era worship, prayer and the sacramental presentation of offerings were at the center of the service. Later, in some traditions, the Eucharist was at the center (as for many Anglicans and Catholics today).  During the Reformation Calvin and others moved preaching to the center, and the message became the centerpiece of the service.

This move to a word-centered church was largely in response to gross doctrinal error and disregard for Scripture. In a reactionary move that pushed the pendulum to an extreme, Calvin even demanded that neither music nor art be present in the church building. Roman Catholics placed too much prominence on these, and they were distractions from a focus on the Word proclaimed from the podium. For centuries now many traditions have become pulpit-centered.

The result is an emphasis on 1-way communication without participation.

In the early church, community was at the center—and it was truly a learning community. Teaching, communal meals and discussions, prayers and service were part of an integrated life. Acts 2 followers devoted themselves to the teaching not just “listened” to teaching.  This devotion was clearly a communal act of dialogue, engagement and obedience.

How many times do you hear or say, “Pastor was strong today,” or “Wasn’t that a great message?” versus “What a great learning experience! Let’s help one another practice that.”

Briefly, here are 2 more “NOTS.”

A Learning Community is NOT simply a talking community. Talking, arguing and debating is cheap (1 Tim. 1:6-7). Late night cable TV is plagued with people talking at one another. How much learning is taking place? Groups and classes can talk about the Bible, about the church, about themselves. But are we learning?

A Learning Community is NOT simply a studying community. “You diligently study the Scriptures because you think that by them you have eternal life,” said Jesus, “yet you refuse to come to me to have life.” (John 5:39-40). Bible learning is relational and transformational, not just informational. The religious elite of Jesus’ day were experts at Bible Study. (Miraculously they accomplished this without colored highlighters and diagramming sentences.)

Should we start more Bible Practices instead of Bible Studies? What about some new ministries like Bible Practice Fellowship, or Learn Thru the Bible, or The Bible Practice Hour, or a seminary course on Bible Practice Methods?

Ok, just pullin’ a few chains. But I hope it makes you think. Learners or listeners?

How do we help one another become a learning community? See my next post.

Catalytic Leaders (2) – Provoke the Mind

Catalytic leaders are provocative educators. Jesus was a provocative educator. The word “educate” comes from the Latin educare which means “to lead out,” and the word “provoke,” from provocare, means  “to call forth” as one calls people with a voice.  Such leaders engage the mind, shape others’ thinking, and call people forth to new challenges, and lead them out of complacency and despair.

Last post we talked about leaders being lovers, stirring the hearts of others. Leaders must also be provocative. Engaging questions, serious debate and constant exposure to fresh ideas will sharpen the leader and create a learning environment for followers of Christ.

Leaders provoke the mind when they ask the uncomfortable, disarming question. Once, in a group, a member asked, “I wonder if this group is safe enough for each of us to say the last 10% to each other. To say the things we really want to say, but are afraid to ask or express. In other words, do you think we have a well-lit group, a place where we bring all truth into the light?” Immediately the meeting moved from a comfortable discussion to an awkward silence; and then an amazing, vulnerable discussion ensued. It was provocative and engaging — the kind of dialogue that opens minds and shapes souls.

Catalytic leaders courageously engage the BIG IDEAS, the KINGDOM QUESTIONS, of the day. “Apart from the obvious call to make disciples and spread the gospel, what is the primary call of the Church in our culture in these times?” “If Christians were removed from the community in which you live or work or travel, would their be an impact?” “In a society polarized by a political debate on immigration reform, what is the obligation and opportunity for Christ followers as we address this issue?”

Go for it: engage the uncomfortable, name the awkward, address the impossible, and pursue the unanswerable. In the process you will lead people out of fear into faith, from complacency to commitment and from uncertainty toward vision. And then call them forth into the untamed world of the Spirit. And only God knows where that will lead.

Q: What is the most provocative issue or question you are addressing in your community right now?