I would like to introduce you to Bruce Smith. Bruce is a man of many talents, artist, craftsman, technologist, musician, leader…the list goes on. I think many of the people who have been blessed to know him would agree that with all of his talent, he is not a perfect person. However, it would be hard for us to argue against his passion, his energy and his intense love for Jesus, for his friends and for his family. Way back in the early 90’s…wow… seems like a lifetime ago now… I had the privilege of being mentored by Bruce. It was an intentional time of discipleship that lasted from 1991 and ended in 1995.
This focused time of discipleship coupled with an intense season of ministry and deep friendships resulted in a series of life changing lessons for me. However, Before I get to the top 5 things I learned from Bruce during that time, I want to add some context to this season of my life.
I was working my way through Bible College when we started meeting together. Another dear friend of mine, Mark Herring, Bruce and I would meet in Bruce’s apartment every Sunday and Tuesday morning at 8 a.m. We would study the bible and go through various leadership books before heading to church where we all served together at the student ministry of Willow Creek Community Church. Our times together were…well… let’s just say they were real. I don’t think we hid anything from each other. This authenticity spilled over into our time serving together. Our Sundays and Tuesdays started with mentoring at 8 a.m. but ended by finishing taking down student ministry programs at 11 p.m. Our Thursdays together started at 6 a.m. with a leadership team meeting of all the student ministry leaders of our high school ministry. Anyone late to this meeting would have to stand up and apologize to the entire team for being late. Then there were, of course, other meetings, events and tasks throughout the week to serve the student ministry at the church. In my spare time, I was a full-time college student and I worked a part-time job at a nursing home running activities, some social work assistance and some chapel services for all the patients there. All of this revolving around the rhythm of our Sunday and Tuesday morning 8 a.m. meetings. This was my life for 4 years, and I am very thankful for how God used Bruce and that season of ministry to mold my character.
My friendship and life together with Bruce went far beyond those first 4 years, however, God did something extraordinary during that time. Something that could only be characterized as supernatural. We may have been intentional in our pursuit of mentoring and discipleship. But it was God who used that season to change our lives. I learned a great deal from Bruce during our season of mentoring, So without further delay, here are the top 5 things I learned from Bruce Smith.
Apologies With No Excuses
I honestly can’t remember the specific occurrence that prompted Bruce to pound this truth into my thick skull. I found myself apologizing for so many mistakes in my early days of ministry. It was one of those times I remember saying some like. “I am so sorry but”…then I would rattle off some excuse about why I made the mistake in the first place. Bruce would not let me get away with stunts like this. He finally sat me down and said something like this…
“When you make an excuse after you apologize, your apology is meaningless. You are not owning what you have done wrong when you rattle off a bunch of excuses for the apology. So here’s what I want you to do the next time you make a mistake that warrants an apology. Just apologize with no excuses. If someone calls you on something, don’t tell them your life story about why you made that mistake. Just say I am sorry…period. Even if you have a legitimate excuse, don’t say the excuse just apologize period.”
So after some time passed and my pride shrunk down enough for me to swallow it, I took Bruce’s words to heart and put that truth into practice. Here’s how I translate it today. I consider this to be the proper way for leaders to apologize when they drop the ball.
“I am sorry, You deserve better and I can do better.”
There is no magic to a heartfelt, honest apology with no excuses and it should never be abused or overused. Furthermore, if you find yourself using this phrase a lot and you really can’t do better, you need to own up to that as well. But, that is another lesson for another time. A sign of good character in a leader is when they can take full ownership of their actions, no excuses. I credit Bruce for teaching me this trait.
Following God is a radical “all-in” whole life experience…
“We are all full-time Pastors or Christ…”
When Bruce is mentoring you, you never quite know what you are going to be doing when you show up. It could be just a discussion or it could be a hands-on ministry experience. It was best just not to get too comfortable. One of my favorite examples of this was one time, when a bunch of us showed up to serve…Bruce said…today we are making peanut butter sandwiches and taking them to the homeless at O’hare airport. This was before 9/11 so airport security was lighter then. However, at the time I still thought that it was a strange assignment. “Homeless at O’hare?” I thought to myself. Still I went and I was overwhelmed to find an entire population of homeless people living their. We gave out everything we made and even met some workers at a compassion and justice ministry that set-up shop in the airport to minister to people in need who lived there. This was just one example of life be mentored by Bruce. Imagine learning lessons like this, sometimes multiple times a week. With Bruce I learned that there is no such thing as coasting in the kingdom of God. Each day offers an opportunity to pour out our lives for Christ. Each day, when we get up in the morning, we never know where Christ will take us. We should be ready for whatever He calls us to in the moment at all times. If fact, Bruce did much in my young adult years to convince me that we are all pastors and that everyone has the authority and responsibility to live out full-time ministry of the gospel no matter what we might be doing to support ourselves during the best hours of the day.
Worship is not about performance…
Bruce is a very talented musician. But when it comes to worship, for Bruce it is all about God and all about getting others to engage with God. I remember leading worship for the students one time at a retreat. I thought I did a pretty good job…no mistakes…good musicianship…no distractions. But Bruce called me on my performance. He said something like, “you did a good job Mike, I don’t mean to be harsh here, but I think you were focusing more on your performance and less on helping others engage with God.” “You need to get out of the way.” I have never forgotten that wisdom. Bruce was not saying that as a musician I should push excellence in musicianship aside. He was not even saying that musicians should never perform concerts or shows. However, for Bruce, there is something particularly holy about leading worship. Helping people engage in worshiping God requires as much discipline, focus and intentionality as the musicianship itself. If we were to be completely honest with ourselves, I think, as musicians, we often lose sight of the disciplines leading worship. It becomes just and good excuse to play on Sunday morning rather than a high calling to lead others closer to God. Once upon a time, someone mentored Bruce in this art of leading worship and Bruce passed this wisdom on to me. To this day, whenever I have the privilege of leading worship, I think of that wisdom and I do my best to “get out of the way.”
Lead Well / Mislead Well…
During one of our many moments together, Bruce and I were discussing leadership…actually many of our discussions were more like debates than discussions. I remember this being one of those less heated moments together when Bruce said something that I have never forgotten. His lesson that day came right out of Roman 12:8 when he said,
“Mike, when God gives a person the gift of leadership, that is, the gift of influencing others, it has to be taken very seriously. You are one of those people who influences others. If you do not learn how to lead or influence people well you will mislead people. Leaders develop followers. You are, most likely, wired to develop followers. You had better learn to lead with diligence or you will hurt people. “
I wish that I could say that I have mastered this. The truth is, I have hurt people over the years. For this I have no excuse; I am truly sorry. When people follow you, they really do take your words and your actions to heart. As a leader, everything you do and say has potential impact. Not that leaders really control anything. however, I do believe that we as humans are wired to need leadership. I am not saying that we need kings and presidents in high and lofty positions. Leadership is not about position, it is about who you trust to lead you from point A to point B. All of this becomes clear when it is a matter of life and death. At work, I know who I would trust to get me out of our building if it was on fire. Leaders need to feel that life and death weight of responsibility for their actions and hold themselves to a high standard of accountability. You know that God will call leaders to account for theirs actions. I the mean-time lives are at stake right now and while I am a falible human being, I take any leadership responsibility that I might have for the moment extremely seriously. I am thankful for Bruce’s lesson so long ago.
Don’t be a fool…It’s not about you…
I have a disease. It is called “foolitis.” This disease is characterized by an elevated tendency to choose self over God and His wisdom and discipline. When I first met Bruce I had a very bad case of “foolitis.” I blamed all of my fatal character flaws on my past. It was so bad that it was almost impossible for me to grow. Of course, Bruce didn’t call it foolitis at the time. He would call me on it any time I would start acting like a fool and say, “Gold, get your eyes off yourself and start thinking about others.” One of the very first scriptures he taught me that drove this lesson home was Proverbs 1:7, The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge, but fools despise wisdom and discipline. To this day, Proverbs 1:7 is a cornerstone verse that I set my life on. Today, I would describe myself as a recovering fool. I would hate to think of where I would be if I did not have the value of ordering my life around God centered wisdom and discipline.