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Another year has come and gone. And similar to years past, a few days of vacation helped to finish up the year and hopefully provide a “reset” before jumping into another annual adventure. It seems as though the list of to-do’s keeps growing instead of shrinking though. Whether it’s email inbox “housecleaning” or organizing the dreaded Tupperware cabinet, the demands of home and ministry seem to be more overwhelming to me this year than ever before.

So what’s a girl to do? Well, I’m certainly NOT going to give in! I may have some moments where I need to escape reality (nothing like a hot bath and a glass of white wine), but then it’s back at it. But it takes a lot more than determination to really make progress. So here’s a list of things I want to remember as 2016 kicks off:

  • Relationships first. Jesus and then others. People before projects.
  • Start with a solid plan. Prioritize. Tackle one thing at a time.
  • Enjoy the journey. Don’t sweat the small stuff.
  • Finally, worship God in all things – tough or not.

Okay, self, let’s go. It’s 2016!

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It may have been 25 years ago but I remember the conversation well. The lunch invitation came as a bit of a surprise to begin with since I hadn’t heard from Tom since I’d left the telecom company we’d both worked for months before. He had been released through one of the waves of reductions that were all too familiar in the high-tech industry in the late 80’s. He sounded eager to talk and was willing to make the hour or so drive to where I was now employed to share a quick meal.

It was great to see him. He and his wife were doing well. He was ready for the transition even though the timing was not his choice. He sought some advice but made it clear that he really just wanted to encourage me and thank me for my leadership. I was a bit embarrassed but very appreciative. How kind of him to come all this way to tell me that! Our time was comfortable and casual until he asked me a question that really caught me off guard… “Debb, what would you really do if you could do anything at all – if money and other responsibilities were all taken care of?”

First of all, I was only in my early thirties, and I’d already been reasonably successful (at least by the world’s standards), so I hadn’t really ever pondered a question like this before. Rick and I had just bought our first home. Our kindergarten son was enrolled in a good Christian school. Life was moving right along. My career ambition was to start my own company and I had a plan to accomplish that in less than 5 years. Tom pressed in with the question again, maybe because he sensed that my plans were somewhat shallow, or that there was more, I’m really not sure. However, after a few minutes of thought my response to him was, “I’d do something to help teenagers.” Then I went on to explain that it seemed like there just wasn’t enough support for kids during that season of their life. They needed something to draw them away from bad choices that would create baggage for them to carry the rest of their lives. I recalled briefly my own teen years with some regret, wishing I had made some different choices.

Today marks 20 years to saying yes to full-time ministry with Dare 2 Share. I had no idea this ministry even existed when I had lunch with Tom that day. But God obviously had a plan. I have had the privilege of playing a small role, albeit behind the scenes, in the lives of countless teenagers over those years and I’ll never get tired of hearing their stories.

Every once in awhile, I think about that brief encounter with Tom. Not only did God use him to plant a seed for future ministry in my heart, but his gratitude served as a foundation for developing a passion for leadership in my soul. There have been almost 200 co-laborers (not including the hundreds of volunteers) that have served or are still serving with D2S these past two decades. What a blessing to me to have been a part of their lives too! I have served alongside some amazing people that inspire me in so many ways. My life has been forever changed because of their friendship and love. My character has been strengthened because of their commitment to Christ. 

As I mark this milestone, I’m asking myself the question again. “What would you do if…?” And the answer is still the same.

Forced. The word itself can bring to mind some pretty negative mental images. As a kid my little brother really wasn’t very “little.” He was big and he was strong. We were only two years apart and although we are super close now as adults, as kids we were on a mission to kill each other. A vivid memory of mine is locking myself in the upstairs bathroom in order to avoid getting my tail kicked by this guy. Not that I was taunting him at all, of course!

Whether or not my brother was justifiably provoked could certainly be debated, but either way, I still felt forced to spend hours in this small little room, screaming through a locked door.

The bottom line is that no one likes to be coerced into doing something that they don’t want to do.

But sometimes the pressure has a purpose. A friend lovingly confronts your sin and you’re swept into the midst of an intervention. Your spouse grasps your hand as you head into that needed surgical procedure you’ve been putting off forever. Yes, sometimes being forced is exactly what you need.

I’ve had many moments like this in life and in hindsight I’ve always been thankful. However, a recent incident brought more pressure than I can remember ever feeling, and it came from an unusual source – the Holy Spirit.

A true and safe leader is likely one who has no desire to lead, but is forced into a position of leadership by the inward pressure of the Holy Spirit and by the press of the external situation.”

A.W. Tozer

So, here I sit. Now just three months in to a leadership role I absolutely did not want. It has been the biggest professional challenge I have ever faced – times ten! There are moments when I have called out to God, exclaiming that He must be crazy. But then I remember His distinct, undeniable call and I surrender. I vow to Him that I am here – ready and willing, even if not able. He has carried me through every difficult decision and has filled me up when I have felt more than empty. I have never felt closer to Him than I am now. And for that I am thankful.

It’s Thanksgiving. I’ve been so busy that this year seems to have slipped away without me even noticing. Don’t get me wrong, I love the activity. And I am thankful for the work that I get to do. I believe it matters and I am thrilled to play a small part. My only regret is that I can’t seem to find the discipline to really enjoy all that life offers. No matter how hard I try, I get so easily swept away, moving from one project to the next, fueled by the adrenaline of accomplishment.

So today, in this quiet moment that I somehow found in the midst of preparation for the biggest family gathering of the year, I’m counting my blessings. Literally.

– I’m thankful for a God who sent His Son to save me. I’m thankful to serve and worship Him.
– I’m thankful for this country. No matter what your politics, Americans still live better than the majority of the world.
– I’m thankful for my family. My son and hubby bless me every single day. Whether I’m home or away, they pray for me and support me without ever asking for something in return. My parents, and my brothers and their families bring joy to my life in so many ways. They tolerate my lack of involvement in the normal “girl stuff” and my special sis-in-law, Lynda is always taking up the slack. Mom & Dad would sacrifice a limb if they thought it would help me out. I’m so blessed!
– I’m thankful for my friends. It’s not a giant circle but it is full of some extra, extra special people. They listen and provide advice and encouragement when I need it most. More importantly, they pray for me. Wow!
– I’m thankful for the family at Dare 2 Share. Some amazing friendships have grown out of the last 20 years, enriching my life in remarkable ways. And what a huge privilege it is to serve the Kingdom with great people!

Yes, I have a lot to be thankful for every day! How about you?

For the last two decades, I have been responsible for developing healthy partnerships for the ministry I serve, Dare 2 Share. During that time I have experienced more than my share of missteps and misunderstandings. It’s probably one of the most difficult areas of my role to navigate – yet, I love it! I love the creativity it requires to build a win/win for both sides of the relationship and I take on the challenge of communicating expectations with a smile because of the opportunity it provides to cultivate deep, lasting friendships along the way.

These years of experience have also served as a ‘refining fire’ of what to do and what not to do in the area of partnerships and I’m hoping that these lessons help you and save you some time:

Lots of friends, but only a few partners – There is a difference between an endorsement and a partnership. An endorsement is a strong recommendation for a person, product, place, company, etc. Most often an endorsement is spontaneous and unsolicited. Exchanging reciprocal endorsements does not constitute a partnership. It implies that you are friends and that you have a mutual respect for each other. My neighbor is my friend. He has a great lawn, can give you tips on how to garden and will lend you a power tool in a pinch. My husband is my partner. He and I are in it for the long haul and we don’t just live in the same house, we are building a home together. I encourage you to have a lot of friends but to choose your partners carefully and prayerfully.

Do something together that you can’t do alone – Look at the marriage metaphor again. Without my husband, I wouldn’t be able to fulfill the vision for building a home that both he and I share. Neither one of us could do it alone. When you choose a partner, create a vision to do something together that leverages what both of you are great at in order to forge a new thing that couldn’t be done without each other. And if you can’t build something new together, than make sure that you make each other better in a way that makes sense. In ministry, a strong partnership also advances the Kingdom in exponential ways. Ask questions like, “Will the partnership help both ministries advance the Kingdom faster and further?” “Does this relationship add value to my offer or accelerate its success? If the answer is yes, then you have the beginning of a great partnership.

Don’t promise what you can’t deliver – Be clear about what you bring to the table. Don’t offer to promote the other everywhere if you aren’t willing to do that every time you open your mouth. I can’t tell you how often I’ve heard this. I’ve actually had to tell the prospective partner that I “wasn’t interested” because of how quickly they offered to “include us in everything they do”. Seriously? How can you promise that? Either you should be working for me instead of XYZ, or you are setting me up for some heavy-duty disappointment. Just refuse to go there. Believe me, it’s worth it. Force the potential partner to qualify and quantify and then put it all on paper. And do the same for them. Then, over deliver. No one ever complains if you do more than you planned and it goes a long way toward a long-term relationship.

Identify the KPI – Determine a set of mutually agreed upon key performance indicators. It’s best if these are measurable markers of whatever you are building together, but they don’t all have to be completely quantifiable. Just make sure that you have at least one absolutely objective indicator and then feel free to add one or two more that you both feel good about. Just keep in mind that the more subjective, the more you will need to define. Ask questions early in the negotiating like, “What does success really look like?”

Switch sides – Just like in volleyball, you gain a different perspective when you cross over to the other side. Switch sides and see if you both still agree it’s a win/win. If there’s any doubt at all, make suggestions to make it equitable. Remember a win/lose for you is even worse than a lose/lose so don’t try to get the upper hand. No sustainable partnership is built that way.
Check-in early and often – This builds relational equity and provides space for adaptation. Are you making amazing progress toward that vision that you defined together? Sometimes circumstances change and you realize there is a better way to get there. Often, you learn a few things early as you are working together and you need to fold some of those learnings into the plan. Either way, take the lead. Ask questions and listen earnestly. I’ve never had a time when this was not reciprocated.

Honest transparency– Partners don’t need to know your dirty laundry or be included on your confidential correspondence, but they do need to know enough ‘insider information’ in order to serve you. If you’ve done your homework beforehand and chosen the partner carefully, you know you can trust them. They should be on the top of the list of disclosure – right after your team members. Don’t get me wrong, I encourage discretion. But be honest and explain the good, the bad, and the ugly. Chances are they can help and if nothing else, will offer support and prayer.

Clarify, clarify, clarify – From the very first conversation and at every step along the way, clarify. Look for clues that acknowledge your intent in communicating both verbally and in writing. Do the same for them. Repeat their expectations back to them. If you don’t get a response that looks a lot like, “Wow, you really understand what I’m saying!” then try again. Even if it feels absurd. Clarity is worth fighting for.

Don’t be afraid to pull the plug – Even great beginnings must have an end. If you sense things are winding down, work together with the partner to develop an exit strategy. Ideally, you both are sensing the timing is right and it’s time to move on. But frankly, this rarely happens. I don’t want to be Debbie downer, but because we all as human beings naturally avoid perceived ‘pain’ this usually doesn’t get going until after it’s too late. So what do you do? My advice would be to keep your ‘radar’ on and if you’re really on top of the above principles you may, if you’re lucky, handle this seamlessly. But in any case, you HAVE to be able to say when. If you’re someone who can’t handle pulling the plug, then you aren’t the right person to manage partnerships.

Well, that’s just about everything I know. I truly hope it’s helpful. One last caution… I’ve found that the word ‘partner’ means a lot of things to a lot of people. I haven’t looked it up for a number if official definitions but I’m certain that there are more than a handful. Use the term sparingly and you will protect yourself (and whoever you represent) from a lot of misunderstandings. And remember, very often, two really are better than one.

 For over a decade, representatives from our close ministry partner, Compassion International, have been asking me to join them to visit one of their projects in the field. I consistently turned down their generous offer again and again because I felt like I couldn’t be more convinced that the work they were doing was necessary and productive for the Kingdom. I truly believed that there wasn’t any reason for me to personally experience their work – I was already “in.” But I was wrong. I’ll explain why in this and the next few blog posts.

 Every year I work closely with Compassion to develop a compelling presentation for our student training conferences. This year a young lady named Katie Payne is joining our tour to tell her story. Katie’s testimony, along with her infectious personality and passion for those less fortunate, provided a new and fresh perspective for presenting Compassion at the conferences. And it just so happened that one of Katies’s sponsored children lived in Guatemala. So that’s how I ended up deciding to travel with the team to Santa Avelina.

 Compassion took care of all the logistics for a short trip (Sunday-Friday) to this remote mountainous town to capture on film Katie and Norma’s first meeting. My unofficial role was to accompany Katie and provide support and encouragement throughout the 6 days. That seemed easy enough. I still didn’t think the trip was a necessity for me but I did have a sense that God was preparing me for a new friendship with Katie and I was really looking forward to sharing this experience with her.

 The preparations for the trip were more than I anticipated and as it turned out the timing wasn’t great either. Several projects were still in process at home and at work as the departure date approached so I found myself a bit stressed about leaving. But as soon as my flight out of Denver left the ground, a I had a strong sense of peace knowing that there was a team of folks praying. I was really excited to see what God had in store.

 When I arrived in Houston to meet the rest of the team I found out quickly that two of our small group of five were delayed due to airplane mechanical problems. Neither one of them would be able to get in to Guatemala City until the next day. We were on a tight travel schedule but it was looking like we would have to try to make up for the half day delay somewhere else in the itinerary. So Katie, me, and Tim our Compassion rep went on ahead and arrived in Guatemala about 9:30 Sunday evening.

 We were met by Myra, our in country liaison for the trip. I couldn’t help but like Myra right from the moment I met her. She was so welcoming and loving right from the start. And even though we were travel weary, she made sure that we had everything we needed and knew everything we needed to know. Even crazy little details like, “we don’t flush our toilet paper here so there will be a basket next to the toilet for you to put it in” and “you need to use the bottled water we provide for you to brush your teeth.”  Compassion knew what they were doing, and Myra represented them well. She instructed us that we should have a leisurely morning the next day since we needed to wait for the rest of the team. She agreed to meet us for breakfast and then we would stop and visit the country office before heading to the airport.

 Our hotel that evening was amazingly beautiful, a 5-star location with all the luxuries you’d expect plus a unique Central American charm with candlelit gardens and expansive decor. I was impressed and was looking forward to a good night’s rest in our more than comfortable surroundings.

 The next day we did exactly what we were told – we took our time, had a wonderful breakfast, and then headed out on the mini-bus. We knew that this was not going to be the pace of the rest of the trip because we were already behind schedule and also had to plan a new driving route because a major road had been severely damaged by a mud slide, adding hours to our already long bus ride.

 The country office was educational and it was great to meet the many people behind the scenes to ensure that the 187 Compassion projects in the country were well managed. We learn that Compassion only partners with local churches in their projects. I love the strategy behind the ministry. It truly is brilliant. I was humbled by the offices practical setup and blessed by the people we met. The security system was extreme, bullet-proof doors with a fingerprint requirement for entry, reminding me of the danger they faced day in and day out just coming to the office to do ministry. I take so much for granted in my cozy corner in suburbia!

 It’s easy to recognize that there is a crime problem in the city as men with machine guns are standing outside of every retail establishment – something business owners invest in themselves for protection Myra tells me. The traffic is chaotic and loud as hundreds of motorcycles buzz like bees around every other vehicle trying to push its way to its destination. I see Policia all over the place but wonder how effective they really are in light of the situation. I was excited to get out of the city.

 At the airport we encounter yet another challenge, one of the equipment bags is MIA. As we brainstorm solutions it finally shows up and we load up and head out, just a few more hours behind.

 The delays have created another challenge as well since the roads are too dangerous to travel at night. We will have to find another place to stay along the way. Myra works closely with Sandra at the country office and we end up in a small mountain town with some crazy long name I couldn’t even think about pronuncing. The guys plan for dinner but Katie and I decide to settle for a Cliff bar and some girl talk since we had a great breakfast (crepes with caramel and Nutella) and a late and filling lunch (local fare with tortilla making at a cavern-type restaurant along the way).

 Now our second night as roommates we’ve settled into our routine. Katie and I quickly bonded and were able to share stories as well a few laughs. What a wonderful friend for life! Yes, this was going to be a great trip!

 The next day was the first of many bright and early mornings (although I don’t think we realized that at the time). You really do learn a lot about people when you encounter them at “unGodly hours” (as Katie says). That, along with our many, many hours on the bus, gave each of us some remarkable insights about each other. I’d give examples but I’d be breaking our bond if I shared those with outsiders. I will give away a few of our made-up nicknames for each other though…

 Inspired by the seven dwarfs:

 Sleepy – Mark because he has tha uncanny ability to sleep anytime, anywhere.

 Doc – Tim, chosen for his “take charge” personality.

 Sneezy – Katie who has the most understated sneeze in the world.

 Happy – Nic because he goofing around even when he’s sleep-deprived.

 Dopey – that would be me… I always seemed to be “stepping in something”.

 The next portion of our journey through the mountains of Quiche (pronounced kee-chay) proved to be just as exciting. Twists, curves, switchbacks, bumpy roads due to mud…. I couldn’t believe that I wasn’t car sick! The scenery is beautiful as the mountains are green and lush and it’s surprising how the people have planted maize anywhere there is soil, even on the steepest of inclines.

 The people of the region are poor and without modern transportation so I quickly become accustomed to seeing old men with piles of timber tied to their backs and women in Mayan costumes with baskets balancing on their heads walking on the side of the road. And it wasn’t unusual at all to see super young children roadside unsupervised. You would never see this in the States. Omar tells me that the different colors and patterns of the Mayan skirts and blouses identify the many different dialects, but I still don’t understand why it’s only the women and children who wear the traditional clothing.

 We pass through several small mountain towns that offer a glimpse of life there. They remind me of some of the depressed towns I have seen in Mexico. The people are curious about the bus, but busy with their everyday chores so not paying too much attention to us. Katie enjoys waving to them and they seem to enjoy waving back at her. There are homeless dogs all over the place that no one pays any attention to – they just run around and stay out of the way of traffic.

 The last 45 minutes we are on a one lane dirt road, heading deep into the woods. Finally, we reach the small village of Santa Avelina. The bus pulls up to the project and Nic (our videographer) jumps off the bus to be sure he captures Katie and Norma’s first encounter. I wasn’t quite prepared for what was to happen next…

  The bus was met by a crowd of locals, all dressed in their best and super excited to see us. The project had never been visited before, either because it was a relatively new project or because of how remote they were, but either way this was a very special time for them and we could tell.

 Katie takes no more than one step off the bus and Norma is right there to meet her. She looks so happy and beautiful and Katie is absolutely beaming with joy as she hugs the little girl that she’s been sponsoring since May. Although I was taking pictures, it’s hard not to be moved by the moment. This is something I am never going to forget and I am so excited for Katie! The entire team is ushered in quickly to the church since we arrived many hours later than they had expected. What I notice immediately is that Mark and Tim are completely surprised by the elaborate decorations in the church. They look at me and tell me that this is very unusual and as I look around I can understand why.

 The entire floor of the church is covered with fresh pine needles. There are dozens of palm branches literally stapled to the walls. Twine is strung from corner to corner and flowers and greenery are hanging about every 6 inches. There is a giant homemade banner of greeting in front of the modest stage and it seems as though the entire village is here. Myra motions for us to quickly take a seat and leans over and whispers that this is the first time she has ever seen anything like this. Pine needles on the ground is done for Christmas, but that’s about it.

 What follows next was such a blessing it’s hard to describe it in words. The children, including Norma, all dressed in white, have memorized a presentation of praise and dance with special homemade candles and props. Myra interprets some of the lyrics and I realize how much these children authentically love their Lord. As if that wasn’t enough, one of the staff there named Isaias, who lived in the US for a few years, joins the women and they sing “Lord, I lift Your Name On High” in both Spanish and English. Another very special moment since I know many of these women only speak the local dialect, Ixil. This is followed by an inspiring sermon by the local pastor based on the parable of the 5 loaves and 2 fishes. There’s something very authentic and joyful about this pastor and my heart is moved by his words.

 The next activity is a celebration lunch for us with the staff and Norma and her family. We head upstairs to find six small classrooms, a common area, a small office that also doubles as a pantry and food prep area and a teeny, tiny room that serves as their “kitchen.” There is a large cement basin in the corner of the common area that has a faucet as well. I am asked if I want to help serve and I immediately jump in to help.

 In the office there is a woman sitting on the floor in front of a large alumni bucket filled with what looks like tamales wrapped in twine. She begins handing them to us and we unwrap the leaves and find pieces of chicken and spices inside. The leaves are spread out on to the plastic dishes and the leaves are trimmed with shears. It’s quite a messy ordeal, but everyone waits patiently in the common room. After the chicken is squash flower soup, rice and vegetables, all served on small Styrofoam plates. I can sense this is a feast for them. I choose to sit with the women teachers and a translator and they tell me more about what they do there. They were so loving and caring, I truly admire their dedication to teach the children.

 The children arrive soon and we get to spend some time watching them in their classrooms. I can tell that they love to learn and that the teachers there are committed to teaching solid Bible content. I am impressed with the way that they are able to do so much with so little. The rooms are so small that the children’s desks are literally squeezed in right next to each other but they don’t seem to mind, they are fully engaged in what’s happening. The walls are very thin and the roof is just a sparse tin roof so the teacher’s practically have to yell in order to be heard over the noise of the other classrooms. It just doesn’t matter though – the kids are so enthusiastic!

 As we question the staff we learn that their limited space has kept them from opening up more opportunities for more children. They have already received a lot of help and building materials from the community and are trying to get more. Compassion rarely helps with building space, dedicating the majority of the funds to assist the children directly, so the staff have their work cut out for them. As I leave the project I pray for God’s provision.

 It’s late afternoon and the team wants to take the 20-minute hike to the waterfall that provides the village its water supply in order to capture some more film footage. So we head out with a few of our new friends, along with Norma’s whole family, to visit the waterfall.

 The hike begins easy enough. There is a narrow, but well traveled trail on the side of the mountain that doesn’t seem to be terribly steep. But about 10-minutes into the trek, the trail becomes steeper and muddier. Okay, I think to myself, no big deal, just follow the rest of these folks. And Norma’s mother has a skirt on with cheap plastic sandals, so surely it can’t get too bad.

 It soon starts to rain and the already muddy trail starts getting muddier. My tennis shoes are soaked and coated with mud. Norma’s mother climbs the trail without effort and doesn’t have any problem with her footing, even in sandals. We get to the waterfall and it’s all worth it. It’s breathtaking! A few minutes are spent capturing the moment with Katie and Norma and then we turn to head back.

 One of the locals decides to try a different route and it’s so steep that I keep having to stop to get my breath. This holds up everyone behind me but they are all gracious. I begin to wonder if I am going to have a heart attack and die – right there on the side of a mountain in Guatemala.

 The trail leads us to the village cemetery and then it begins to not just rain, but POUR. We rush to find cover and end up standing in an open half-finished cinderblock structure. I’m glad to be out of the rain but have no idea where we are.

 I quickly find out that we are in the home of Isaias. His English is good so he explains to us that he went to Florida for seven years to make enough money to come back and build a home of his entire family. He is 23 years old. He points to a tight little stairwell and we follow him down to see his current living space. We meet his parents, his brother and sister-in-law and their three children, all of whom live there with him. Back upstairs we see an old table saw and stacks of wood that he will use to finish the space. I am so impressed with this young man. His heart is so genuine and he works so hard. Along with working on his house he is also a translator for Compassion and the bookkeeper at the project.

 We finally return to the project and say our goodbyes. We are wet and tired and it’s been an emotionally draining day but we are glad we get to return tomorrow.

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