Interview a Winner

One day last week, I found myself across the table at a fast food place from a friend who ministers to college students. Before taking this position, he was a student minister in various Southern Baptist churches, and from all reports, was a roaring success in each one. So, for no other reason than curiosity, I posed a situation to him.

“Alvin,” I said, “let’s say I’m the new student minister at a church. And let’s say I have only a handful of young people, maybe ten. Tell me how to build a great program.”

He was ready for me. You’d have thought we’d planned this. I imagine he’s done it so much the response is second nature to him. Like asking me how to drink a glass of iced tea!

Focus on middle-schoolers. If they buy into your vision, they will grow your ministry.

He does not mean to neglect the older high-schoolers. But two realities affect the new student minister coming to a church: the youth often have a hard time changing their allegiance from the former minister to the new one, and soon, these will graduate and move on to college and no longer participate in the work. So, common sense dictates that focusing on the younger teens is right.

Put people around you who are better than you.

As a part of this point, Alvin said, Know what you are good at. He said, “I’m an administrator. I’m the vision-caster for the ministry. But I’m not the life-of-the-party-person. So, I line up volunteers who are people-persons and will work to learn the names of the kids and relate to them.

My hunch is that Alvin is good in selecting those volunteers. The people I see who work with him seem to be winners all.

Don’t be afraid to experiment. Too many in this work are afraid to fail. You can’t be, if you want to succeed in a big way. You’ll want to try many things, and not all will work.

Stay with the basics, and stay away from gimmicks.

He said, “I was always a minimalist in programming. Wednesday night was where I put the greatest emphasis. We brought in no celebrities and stayed with the basics. Be creative, and do interesting things to draw the people in.”

Remembering a situation that came up on a church staff when I was a pastor, I asked Alvin, “Did all the other staff appreciate the success your ministry had?” He laughed. “Not all of them.”

“Sometimes church members see the wonderful things you are doing with the youth and they want to help. So, they make contributions to the ministry over and above their gifts to the church. And frankly, some of the other ministers resent that. Their program may not be having that kind of success. And if we’re not careful, resentments build up.”

Not in a church! Horrors.

Yep. Human nature is at work on church staffs, also.

Later, reflecting on what Alvin had said, I remembered a time nearly a quarter of a century earlier when I found myself sharing a hospital waiting room with a deacon whose wife was in surgery. For two hours or more, he and I sat there chatting, and soon I found that I was picking his brain about how he became a success.

C. C. Hope had been president of the American Bankers Association and then was appointed by President Reagan as one of the three FDIC commissioners. He would spend the week in Washington, DC, and fly home to Charlotte NC for the weekend.

I was fascinated by the story of how he went from being an unknown banker in Charlotte to president of the ABA. Here’s what he told me.

Somehow or other, I was put on a committee for the ABA. It was an obscure assignment on a committee that never did anything. But that year, an issue came up in banking that fit our committee perfectly. So, I worked up a presentation on the subject and sent out word to banking groups around the country that I was available to speak on it. The invitations began coming in.

That’s when I did something that made a lasting difference. And with that, Mr. Hope reached into his suit-coat pocket and brought out a sheet of white paper, folded twice so it would fit the pocket. Everywhere I went, I would write down the names of people I met and something about them on a piece of paper like this. When I got home, I filed those by the city.

Then, the next time I was invited to that city, I went to that file and reviewed those notes. It really made an impression when I’d walk up and call a guy by his first name and ask about something he had told me two years earlier.

When he told me that, I laughed, remembering just such a story from a banker in Starkville, MS. When, in the middle of 1986, I announced my resignation from the Columbus MS church with plans to move to First Baptist-Charlotte, John Mitchell approached me. “Joe,” he said, “you have a deacon in your church who is one of the three FDIC commissioners in Washington. Let me tell you about him.”

The story was identical to what C. C. had told me. Three years after he had spoken in Starkville, Hope had returned for another event. Seeing John, he thrust out his hand, called him by name, and inquired about his wife. “I recall that the last time I was here she had her leg in a cast. I hope she’s all right.”

John said to me, “You know you are in the presence of a remarkable man.”

Another lesson I heard from this master of human relations that day was this: Never put anything negative in a letter; always deal with it in person or over the phone. Letters have a way of outliving the individual. You can resolve a crisis and put it behind you. But if it’s spelled out in a letter, it has the means of inflicting longterm hurt years in the future.

I lived to prove the truth of that. In my next pastorate, when a rebellious deacon would not consent to meet with me to resolve his grievances, I wrote him a letter demanding that he stop what he was doing. (He was slandering me in the foyer of the church and creating great dissension.) That letter was as good as he wanted. He took it from member to member, trying to convince them that they had a tyrant as a pastor.

Once in a setting I’ve long since forgotten, I asked Houston’s Dr. Ed Young what he would do if he were pastor of my church, the First Baptist Church of Kenner. He suggested I get more specific, so I narrowed it down to: “How can I reach vast numbers of young couples who are not presently attending church?”

This was nearly twenty years ago, and I’ve long since forgotten the details of his answer, but it involved an aggressive sermon series on the home and saturating the community with publicity, with related supportive activities. I felt then that his counsel was on target and would have succeeded had I been willing to pay the price.

Have you ever wondered what it would have been like to have interviewed some of the Bible’s greatest characters?

Briefly, here’s how that would go, it seems to me.


“What is the heart of your message? What sums up who you were more than anything else? Give me a handle on your life.”

“On Carmel, when I prayed in front of the prophets of Baal, look at the brief prayer I offered. I asked God for two things: Let these people know there is a God in Israel, and let them know that I am Your prophet.”

“That says it for me. I want people to know God is alive. But I also want them to know that I am His.”


“Who are you, Paul? What is the heart of your identity in the Lord?”

“For me to live is Christ. That’s a line from my letter to the Philippi church, you will recall. It goes back to that time outside Damascus when the Lord Jesus spoke to me from that Heavenly light: ‘Saul, Saul–why do you persecute me?’ And when I said, ‘Who are you, Lord?’ I was not prepared for the answer that came: ‘I am Jesus of Nazareth and you are persecuting me.’ That day, the first prayer I prayed as His disciple is one I’ve prayed constantly ever since: ‘What will you have me to do, Lord?'”

“That’s the only question for me. What does He want?”


Jesus we know about without asking Him.

“I always do the things that please the Father. (John 8:29) Pleasing God is what I am about.”

When the disciples raved about the great success they had on their first preaching mission, Jesus cautioned them: “Do not rejoice because the devils are subject to you. But rejoice because your names are written in the Book of Life.” And then He prayed: “Father, I thank you because you have hidden these things from the wise and the smart. And you have revealed them to infants. And why did you do this? Because it seemed good in your sight.” (my version of Luke 10:17-21)

The Father’s good pleasure. Whatever pleases Him. That seems to be the story. “Our God is in the Heavens; He does whatever He pleases” (Ps. 115:3).

Interview the winners around you, friend. They have a lot to tell you.

Do not imitate them. You will not want to run out and copy their plan. But you will learn from them. You’ll find yourself coming away with one or two great insights which made that hour with them time well spent.

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