Category Archives: Leadership

Writing to the Governor about Refugees

This morning I heard on the news that more European countries are closing their national doors to Syrian and Iraqi refugees trying to travel from Greece to new homelands to the north.  I won’t even begin to assume the weight of what these European countries are facing with hundreds of thousands needing help and support.  But I do feel confident that the response to say “no refugees” and “none can be vetted effectively enough” might as well be a retelling of the Good Samaritan story where a helpless, injured man clinging to life is lying by the side of the road and several people with the clear ability to do something on his behalf choose to pass by and rationalize that he’s not their problem.  But the man is there, dying, until someone decides to help in spite of differences and possible enmity.  He is desperate until the Samaritan accepts the fact that stopping to help will cost time and finances, not even knowing what will happen in the end.  He will continue to languish and die until a stranger decides something must be done to get this man to safety.

Last week, I decided to write our Governor since Oklahoma is one of the states that is NOT allowing refugees from these two countries to be resettled here.  My big argument is that we certainly should be able to help some refugees and that helping no one is immoral and lacks courage.  Among the 4 million refugees without a homeland, there has to be some who we can confidently help regardless of safety concerns.  There are multitudes of victims from the Syrian conflict and ISIS who have been abused, maimed, intimidated, or their families destroyed.  I’d like to know why we can’t at the very least help orphans and widows, families who have been stranded in refugee camps for years, or Iraqis who put their lives on the line to help the U.S. military.  Certainly, we could find some among these groups who we know we must help because it is the right thing to do.

Here are the bullet points I sent to the Governor:

It’s a crisis of historical proportions and history will judge our response.  The number of adults and children who have had to flee violence and persecution in their homelands has never been higher in history. According to World Relief, there were approximately 20 million refugees without home or homeland in our world as of last year, and 4 million of those were Syrians who were forced to leave their country. At a Human Rights First Media Briefing Call on January 19, Syrian and Iraqi Ambassador Ryan Crocker said he “cannot think of populations that have suffered more and longer than the people” of Syria and Iraq.

Over 99% of refugees in the world in 2014 were not resettled. This will be the history lesson future generations will study and decide if we were willing to take a compassionate risk or chose to allow fear to paralyze our leadership, and if our inaction actually helped the cause of ISIS in spreading an ethos of fear.

Rescue of the stranger is at the heart of God’s story and the American story.  Christians believe that God rescued us when we were still strangers to him. This is the compassion we have been extended by God and the story we are called to live into if we say we love God. This is what our faith requires:

For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in…Matthew 25:35

Safe refuge is at heart of the American story too, extending a strong hand of hope to the tired, poor and “huddled masses who are yearning to breathe free.” These refugees yearn for a rescue from the horrors of a five year civil war and they need a bridge between their loss and their future. We have been that help before. Why not be the ones who help again?

Our path will either be courageous or fearful.  Allowing some well-vetted Syrian and Iraqi refugees to resettle in Oklahoma through the strenuous U.S. screening process is the courageous response to a serious threat in our world.

  • The U.S. government handpicks the refugees who resettle here, and our resettlement screening process is the most rigorous in the world.
  • Refugees are the most thoroughly vetted people to come to the United States, undergoing interagency screenings by the Department of Homeland Security, FBI, Department of Defense, National Counter Terrorism Center and multiple intelligence agencies, including biometric checks, forensic document testing, medical tests and in-person interviews.
  • According to an op-ed on November 24, 2015 by Matt Olsen, former Director of the National Counterterrorism Center, our greatest security concern should be the more than 4,500 foreign fighters from Europe and other countries who have traveled to Syria to join the jihad. These individuals have tainted ideologies and the travel documents to move around freely in the world.

I am weary of the discussions based on fear.  According to Kelly James Clark in a blog article on, death or injury from an intimate partner, a domestic extremist, or even a dog is a far greater risk in our country than the fraction of risk presented by the 784,000 refugees who have settled in the U.S. since 9/11.

Resettlement is working in other places.  Retired U.S. Army Brigadier General Murray Sagsveen serves on the board of Lutheran Social Services in North Dakota, and they are receiving refugees from Syria and Iraq. In the same Human Rights First media briefing call mentioned earlier, he shared that this board heard incredible reports of success among Syrian and Iraqi refugees. These families are reported by employers as “model citizens,” many of who have doctoral degrees and long for a homeland in which to work hard and contribute, as well as provide a safe place for their children to learn and grow.

Our response to the needs of helpless people in our community and world should be compassionate and strategic.  We don’t need to be naive or unaware of risks, but neither can our only response to this crisis be to close our hospitable doors. These are game changer moments and it’s in our Oklahoma DNA to offer the generous hand of compassion. We are part of America’s pioneer heritage – a people who moved west and took risks. This is a powerful opportunity to pioneer a different response to a tremendous need in the world . So, we urge you to support the U.S. refugee resettlement program and allow our state be a welcoming place for refugees who are fleeing the very violence and conflict we condemn.

Let the conversation start for World Refugee Day on June 20.  Please allow the conversation to start and please talk to governors and first response leaders in states where accepting Syrian and Iraqi refugees is working. World Refugee Day is June 20. It would be incredible to take some decisive action by that day. This is an historical calling in which we will witness change in the world because we allowed the vulnerable to come and surrounded them with our faith, hope, and community.

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We are all refugees – Northstar Day 8

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Leadership Mapping: Step 2

Know the story of those I am leading.  If the first step to effective leadership mapping is to know my own leadership story, the next logical step is to know the story of the people I am leading.

One mistake I have made before has been to enter into a leadership opportunity all too preoccupied (and quite frankly, too impressed) with my presumed ability to lead a group.  That kind of self-inflatedness can bloat my perspective to the point of not being able to clearly see those I am supposed to lead.

Here are the who, why, what, when, where, and how questions that I have learned to answer so that I 1) realize if I am even the right leader for a group ahead of time, 2) invest in their story before I ever ask them to follow me somewhere, and 3) see a clearer picture of what we can accomplish together when I see how my leadership shape fits into their story.

  • Who are the people?

  • Why are they there?
  • What’s the basic feel of the place?
  • What are the demographics?
  • What makes them unique or normal?
  • What are their needs & struggles?
  • What are the strengths and possibilities here?
  • How does my leadership story fit with their story?

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Leadership Mapping: Step 1

Know your leadership story.  Everyone has a leadership story.  It’s a mixture of what we have experienced or have been taught as well as how we naturally function in a leadership capacity.

I think that sometimes people who are trying to point the way for a company or team miss the crucial first step in knowing and understanding their own leadership story.  Skipping this valuable exercise can create blind spots in how we give direction.  It can also cause an influence gap because those we lead typically see our blind spots very clearly!

Here are some good questions to start the process of knowing your leadership story.  You might even think of a few to add!

  • why am I here?
  • what can I do?
  • what can’t I do?
  • where can I grow?
  • how much of my leadership is just how I’m wired?
  • how much of my leadership is a response to how I’ve been led?

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Where the Rubber Meets the Road

Does My Youth Ministry Have the Shape, the Story and the Staff that Will Anchor Students’ Faith?

rubber meets the road pic

New 3-part article series on the Youth Worker Update Blog…this is part 1!

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On This Day that You Lead


On this day that you lead

      know that it is within you to show others the way.

On this day that you lead

     remember that sacrifice is the surrender of pride and the victory of devotion.

On this day that you lead

     hold fast to the truth others have used to frame and construct your character.

On this day that you lead

     give yourself to the destiny of example and inspiration.

On this day that you lead

     drink in the rich wine of wisdom that mentors have poured into your life.

On this day that you lead

     rest in a faith of things unseen and a hope of desires not yet realized.

On this day that you lead

     may God bless and keep you in every moment of decision

     may He shine a light of understanding in every circumstance

     and may He protect you with the peace that flows from his hand.

Denise McKinney      May, 2009

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Pride Fall

Labor Day weekend, 2009, we were at Devil’s Den State Park in northwest Arkansas—one of our favorite places to traipse around God’s creation.  It’s nestled in the folds of the Ozark Mountains and offers miles of trails that wind through crevices, bluffs and gorgeous views of the old mountains.  Our kids love the kind of hikes that include climbing up and down rock formations, so this was a great holiday adventure.

One of the crevices is about 30 feet in depth and about halfway down has a narrow slab of rock that you have to walk across like a balance beam to get through to the other side of the crevice and climb out.  If I remember correctly, the vertical slab is about 8-10 feet off the ground,  and below it is a bed of sedimentary rocks in the darkness.

I have crossed this stone balance beam before and remembered that to go across, the first step requires a shifting of weight from one foot to the other and swinging around a slight bulge in the crevice wall.   Once that maneuver is successful, it is an easy walk across the 6” wide slab because the crevice walls are within reach to keep one’s balance.

This time, Lanie and I were exploring the crevice while Gary and Garrison waited up top for us.  Since it was her first time to tackle this crevice, she was a little uneasy about shifting her weight around the bulge.  So, being the “expert” (I’ve done it two times before!), and wanting to show my daughter her mom’s outdoorsy abilities, I did the “step aside, honey and let Mom show you how it’s done” move.  But, evidently my show-off mode wrecked my balance, because I overcompensated on shifting my weight to the slab and lost my footing.  The next thing I know, I’m falling off the slab and through the 2 foot opening between it and the crevice wall down into the cave.  On the way down, I hit my head on the crevice wall, hit my back on the slab, landed on my upper thigh and tore up my right leg on the bed of rocks in the darkness below.  My leg felt warm with a strange pain that pulsed much deeper than a typical scrape.

I stood up pretty quickly because I could hear Lanie panicking above me—fearful that I was unconscious since she couldn’t see me in the dark.  Someone met me at the top of the bed of rocks and helped me climb out of the opening.  As I stood back up in the sunshine, there were a few gasps from onlookers.  Evidently that warm, deep pain was where a sharp rock had punctured the side of my leg.  I was bleeding more than I had ever bled in my life.  By the time a park guide had tied some cloth around my leg and we had hiked the 1/4 mile out of the park (it was early in the hike!), my shoe was so soaked in blood that a small pool of it had accumulated in the cushion of my tennis shoe.  I had to throw it away and buy some flip flops later that morning.

As I limped around for a few weeks with an incredibly sore leg, battled an infection around the wound and winced every time I sat down from a bruise on the back of my thigh that was about a foot in diameter, I knew that this experience was a humbling lesson to me of how sometimes I let pride lead in my life.  There is still a scar on my leg that often reminds me of where pride can literally take me down.

Pride for me is:

  • often quiet and patient—I don’t think I have a constant prideful demeanor, but rather my pride waits in seclusion for a prized opportunity to make an entrance.  Then it pounces on the moment.
  • sometimes disguised as humility—Not always, but there have been times that my willingness to serve or sacrifice was really a facade for wanting to get noticed or get the credit for something.
  • a confusion between confidence and performance—This isn’t to imply that to be a performer is to be vain.  Some of the best performers I know are incredibly humble and tend to retreat away from accolades.  For me, though, I have to ask myself if I’m performing for acclamation or leading from a deep sense of purpose and confidence.
  • a subtle inability to let go of my own wants—This happens when I don’t want to wait for something or disagree with someone else’s plan that impacts me!  I can find myself trying to maneuver situations to my liking when things don’t go my way.

It’s just another part of the self-awareness campaign God is working out in my life.  Often, as adults, we correct our children and the adolescents in our lives for being selfish or prideful, but the reality for me at least, is that I’ve perfected the art of disguising and diverting attention away from my pride so that I won’t be accused of such a thing.  There is just as much pride in this human heart as there was 25 years ago; I’ve just tried to unconsciously master it.

I think it takes a good, hard, pride fall that leaves a mark in order for us to see that we are being prideful.  I’m hoping that scar on my leg never goes away.  Not only will it be a good test for my vanity on physical appearance, but the scar tissue goes deep enough to caution my motives when I only want others to see the me inside of me.  Letting God clean house on my pride is about getting out of the way so others can see the gracious Creator, Author of Life, and Redemptive Father at work in me.

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