On Leading and Learning

Tom Nees has served as the director of the USA/Canada Mission/Evangelism Department for the Church of the Nazarene for the past five years. February 2008 brings to a close his official assignment in this present ministry responsibility, but a new chapter in his ministry. In his interview for GROW magazine, Dr. Nees shared some of his reflections on these years of denominational leadership and some of his future plans.

GROW: Dr. Nees, thank you for sharing with us in this interview. Are there any new lessons you're learning these days about transitions?

Tom Nees: It's interesting that my personal transition is occurring at the same time as significant transition in the Church of the Nazarene. I heard a presentation recently in which the speaker continually repeated the statement: "Everything is changing and everything is related." Nothing stays the same. One of my favorite quotes from Einstein is "Life is like riding a bicycle —to keep your balance you must keep moving."

GROW: You've helped to initiate many new ministries across the UCME Department. Which ones are exceeding your expectations?

Nees: As the first director of Nazarene Compassionate Ministries, as well as Multicultural Ministries in the USA and Canada, I've been pleased with the engagement of Nazarenes in these areas. In my 1996 book Compassion Evangelism, I described the historical and theological origins of social Christianity within the Wesleyan-Holiness tradition as well as the origins of Nazarene Compassionate Ministries in the 1980's. Some things are happening now that we could not have imagined when these ministries began.

I've also seen the beginning and development of the USA and Canada as mission fields. We're still getting used to the idea that the church at home is a mission field: that we too are a sent church. I had the privilege of being in some of the first strategy meetings during which the USA and Canada as mission fields was discussed. I wrote about this ten years ago in the book, The Changing Face of the Church: From American to Global, in which I noted the impact of immigrants on the American church and corresponding changes in missiology.

GROW: What can you tell us about your new book?

Nees: In Best Practices for Growing Churches, I've told the stories with interviews of ten pastors as examples of what I like to think of as local movements of God in the USA and Canada. The brief chapters summarize what I'm observing in growing churches. I've seen healthy, growing churches of all sizes in any setting you can imagine. This isn't a book of "oughts" and "shoulds"—just a record of what's happening.

Growth and decline are occurring at the same time in the USA and Canada. In similar neighborhoods and cities there are new churches, growing churches as well as churches that have disappeared. This is to be expected. As pastors learn from the "best practices" of others, the denomination can more than make up for it's inevitable losses.

GROW: Are there other ministry opportunities you now hope to pursue?

Nees: As opportunities develop, I'll pursue my interest in leadership and organizational development through a recently formed non-profit organization called "Leading to Serve, Inc." I would like to think that I can help leaders of today and tomorrow advance their personal and professional skills. I plan to do some executive coaching, adapting practices and resources available in the secular world to leaders in faith-based organizations, as well as churches.

GROW: Looking back across all your ministry assignments, which ones bring you the greatest sense of fulfillment?

Nees: As a preacher's kid moving with my family from coast to coast in Canada and the United States and now after 45 years of ministry from California to Washington, DC, the greatest reward is a network of friends. There is nothing quite like the bonds formed between pastors and people. Those personal friendships have become increasingly rewarding and important.

The 25 years I served in Washington, DC from 1971 to 1996 really shaped my life and my commitment to advance both the social and personal dimensions of the Gospel. The opportunity to advance that calling during the past decade at Nazarene Headquarters has been a wonderful way to influence a much broader constituency.

GROW: How have you seen progress in our multicultural ministries?

Nees: When I came to the Department in 1996 as the first Multicultural Ministries Director, ethnic minorities accounted for about 10 percent of our membership and churches. Now the percentage is approaching 20 percent, due primarily to the rapid growth of Hispanic churches. About 50 percent of the new congregations started since the beginning of NewStart—our new church evangelism program—have been among ethnic minorities. At the same time, increasing numbers of churches are becoming multicultural. There is a significant representation of ethnic minorities in many of our growing churches.

We have an increasing number of church buildings being used by multiple congregations of various language and cultural groups. Many congregations do not yet reflect the multicultural demographics of their neighborhoods, but I'm hopeful—with the trends that indicate that Nazarene congregations are committed to bridging barriers of language, culture and race—to build inclusive congregations in a multicultural society.

GROW: What are the areas of focus in your ministry across these years?

Nees: My life's work has been to advance the social dimensions of the gospel along with personal transformation. In that sense, my calling aligns with Wesley and the founders of the Church of the Nazarene who along with their unapologetic evangelism had a strong commitment for the care of society. We drifted away from that balance in the mid-20th century but now we're returning to the roots of our tradition. I had an Isaiah 6 experience 40 years ago upon the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. Through that tragic event I went through a metamorphosis of sorts. I eventually emerged from that with a calling to begin a mission in Washington, DC where we could combine our evangelistic outreach with our work for social justice and racial reconciliation.

GROW: If you had one "do-over," what would you like to try again?

Nees: I wish I had known more about leadership development. Like many of my generation, I thought that leadership is positional—that you become a leader when you are given a position. Now I know better. Leadership is more about who I am than what I do. And it's possible to improve—at any age.

I would take more vacations with the family. Our children remember more about family vacations than anything I did in my pastoral and church assignments. They still relive the train ride from Ohio to Los Angeles, summers in a lake-side cabin in Maine, sailing and fishing at a Virginia beach-front. I wish I had done more of that.

I should have taken sabbaticals. That's a new thing which is as important for pastors and church leaders as for academics.

GROW: For young leaders just entering their ministry assignments, what insights would you share to help them to finish well in their ministry calling?

Nees: Be a life-long student. Learn something new everyday. Hang around people who are smarter than you are. Don't be afraid of innovation. The church is more ready for change than you think.

Keep a balance between inward spiritual development and activity. Become a hero in your own story.

GROW: From your unique perspective as UCME Director, what changes do you think matter the most to the average Church of the Nazarene?

Nees: The big issue for denominational churches vs. independent churches is the meaning and advantage of the connection. Local congregations must be convinced that there is a denominational advantage and that they are more effective in their local and global mission by being connected than they could be if disconnected. Making the case for connection is the responsibility of denominational leaders as well as pastors.

GROW: Any other message you want to share with the many church leaders who read GROW magazine?

Nees: The Wesleyan-Holiness tradition is one of the best to guide us in our inward journey of spiritual formation and our journey outward to engagement with the world. In the title of a book by the late Elizabeth O'Conner, one of my favorite writers—holiness is a "Journey Inward, Journey Outward."