In this episode, Prince talks with Nicole Martin, Chief Impact Officer at Christianity Today. She is also the founder and executive director of Soulfire International Ministries, which accelerates thriving for pastors, churches and younger leaders. 

Discussion topics include:  

  • The role of emotional intelligence in effective leadership 
  • Defining “leadership” in a Christian context 
  • Surrendering Western notions of power and control 
  • Advice for those seeking mentors 
  • How to maintain energy and enthusiasm 
  • And more! 


Guest bio

The Reverend Doctor Nicole Massie Martin was born and educated in Baltimore, Maryland. She graduated magna cum laude from Vanderbilt University with a triple major in human and organizational development, educational studies and French. Dr. Martin received her master of divinity from Princeton Theological Seminary and earned a doctor of ministry from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary.  

Dr. Martin serves as the Chief Impact Officer at Christianity Today. She is the founder and executive director of Soulfire International Ministries, which accelerates thriving for pastors, churches and younger leaders. She is also active in her local congregation in Maryland at Kingdom Fellowship AME Church, where she leads the Grow Ministry. 

Dr. Martin is a gifted writer and author of two books: “Made to Lead: Empowering Women for Ministry” and “Leaning In, Letting Go: A Lenten Devotional.” She serves on the executive council of the National Association of Evangelicals, the board of trustees at Fuller Theological Seminary and the National Advisory Council for the Salvation Army. She is a founding board member of the Center for Christianity and Public Life and has been inducted into the esteemed Board of Preachers at Morehouse College. She is also a co-catalyst for the Lausanne Scripture Engagement Global Network. 

 
Dr. Martin is married to her best friend, Dr. Mark Martin, and they have two amazing daughters. 


Resources


Transcript

Prince Rivers:

What does it mean to lead now, especially in the church, especially in this political and social climate? I’m Prince Rivers, and this is Leading and Thriving in the Church, a podcast from Alban at Duke Divinity. Our mission is to help you be the leader God has called you to be. It’s been my privilege to serve as a pastor for more than 20 years, and I absolutely love supporting people who lead congregations. It’s one of my passions. But doing ministry in the post-pandemic era has unearthed new leadership challenges, and it has led us to pay more attention to the need for thriving ministers and congregations. This podcast features conversations with some of the most innovative pastors, leaders, and authors I know. They’re going to help us do church faithfully and effectively, and in a way that is life-giving to those who lead and the people we serve. I’m so glad you’re listening. I can’t wait to introduce you to today’s guest on Leading and Thriving in the Church.

Dr. Nicole Massie Martin. You are a Baltimore native. You graduated from Vanderbilt University, with a triple major in human and organizational development, educational studies and French. You earned a master of divinity degree from Princeton Theological Seminary, and you hold a doctor of ministry degree from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, with a focus on African American redemptive leadership. Now, currently you serve as the Chief Impact Officer at Christianity Today. You’re the founder and executive director of Soulfire International Ministries. You’ve written a few books, including “Made to Lead: Empowering Women for Ministry” and “Leaning in, Letting Go: A Lenten Devotional.” Nicole was recently appointed as a trustee of Fuller Seminary and she serves on the board of the National Association of Evangelicals. And you’re a member of the Board of Preachers at Morehouse College. Nicole Massie Martin, welcome to “Leading and Thriving in the Church.” It is great to speak with you today.

Nicole Martin:

Thank you so much Dr. Rivers. You know, I got to call you Dr. Rivers. It’s an honor to be with you today.

Prince Rivers:

Well, we appreciate it. We appreciate it. So, before we talk about what you’re doing now and the incredible insights you have regarding leadership, let’s sort of set the stage for maybe how you got to be where you are because I think it’s important to know something about a leader’s journey. When you were at Vanderbilt, you were a triple major, you graduated magna cum laude. So, when and how did God lead you into the vocation of ministry? Because it certainly sounds like you were planning to do something else with your life.

Nicole Martin:

I joined the narratives of the prophets that say, I was knocked off my donkey, I was struck blind. I had an epiphany that left me sitting still for seven days. No, I really was on my way to quite frankly make money. I mean, I had the narrative that I had gone to college in places where my parents could not go and they fully expected that when I graduated I would be able to return the favor, not just to them but to future generations. So, I was going into business and I’ll never forget, this is after college. I was working at Deloitte Consulting. I had this wonderful job, this wonderful apartment. I was getting bonuses and part of the upward trajectory meant you had to go to business school. So, I was sitting at a prospective student’s weekend at Harvard and I was so excited. I was like, this is going to be it.

And every professor said, “Life is short, do what you love.” And I remember laughing to myself and saying, “Lord, what I love is this Bible study.” Because while I was consulting, I also once a week led a Bible study in my apartment and it was the perfect formula. We had food, because I cooked, and then we had Bible study, and then we went out to the club. It was like the perfect evangelism recipe. And so I would be on projects, but my mind was, “Man, what are we going to study in the Word this week? What truths will God reveal? What conversations are we going to have?” So after that weekend, I called a friend of mine from high school. I said, “It’s really weird. I was at this business school thing and all I could think about was my Bible study.” And she was like, “You know everybody thought you were going into ministry. What are you waiting for?” Then I called my dad, who was a pastor at the time. I was like, “This is weird because I don’t know what’s happening here.” He said, “Well, it’s about time. Everyone knew that you were going to be serving the church in some way.” So, it was a really big moment. I left my job, I moved to Charlotte so that I could be trained in ministry. I decided to go to seminary and the rest was history.

Prince Rivers:

Well, it’s great to have that kind of affirmation around you to keep you going in that direction.

Nicole Martin:

Absolutely.

Prince Rivers:

That is a wonderful story, wonderful story. So let’s fast-forward to where you are today. You’ve had a number of leadership experiences along the way, and we’ll try to get into some of those, but I know today you serve as Chief Impact Officer for Christianity Today. How do you describe that role? When people ask what you do, and I’m sure they do, I imagine you have a broad portfolio of responsibilities.

Nicole Martin:

Yeah, so the short answer is I get to steward our future audiences. CT has been around since the 1950s and we’ve had all kinds of tropes about what our reputation was and the type of people that we reach. My goal is to assess our current impact, how are we impacting current audiences, but most importantly, expand our impact into new audiences in three categories: our global, our next gen and what we call “Big Tent.” Which is areas of diversity. So, I love it. I love the ability to figure out where we are, where we’re going and how we’re going to get there. And it’s great to serve on such a creative team.

Prince Rivers:

So, it makes me wonder about what we do in the local church, right? Because we do a lot of stuff, but I don’t know that we think about or even know how to assess our impact. When you think about your role, how do you think that might translate to the pastor who’s listening to this who also needs to think about the impact of his or her congregation?

Nicole Martin:

Absolutely. The interesting thing about impact is it forces you to work backwards. You have to envision: what impact do I want to make? Where do I want to take people? What’s the end goal of what I’m writing or what I’m podcasting or what I’m sharing? And based on that end goal, you work backwards. This is so hard for preachers because we tend to work forward. We start with, God gave me an idea, God gave me a scripture, God gave me a sermon, God gave me an event, and we work forward: “All right, God, I did my part, I wrote the sermon, I planned the event, I did my thing, go take it and make impact.” But what would it look like for leaders in the church, around the church, to say the end goal is salvation or the end goal is mended relationships, or the end goal is seeing people come to Christ and work backward from there?

If I want to see people come to Christ in my church, then I need to be careful of my language. Then I need to be open and welcoming from the moment they park their car to the moment they get back in that car. It forces you to start to think about the details. What will it take to get there? And when I first started with impact work, because I’ve been doing this for almost 10 years now, my first thought was, “Oh Lord, is this manipulative? If I think, ‘What sermon do I preach in order to see people come and give their lives to Christ?’ Am I shifting the goal? Am I leaving enough room for the Spirit?” But if you think about the purpose of Christ, Christ came with an end goal in mind. I mean, the end goal was resurrection. The end goal was the soon and very soon, the new heaven and the new earth. And he does work backward. You could trace that all the way to Genesis. So, I think this is the shift that just might save the next generation. If we start thinking our end goal is that my nine-year-old might grow up and not just be a part of a church but serve in a church, and maybe even accept her calling within or around a church, then I can start forming programs and events and ministries and even preaching in that way.

Prince Rivers:

And that seems like a very powerful shift because I think for churches and pastors that are trying to lead change, some of the resistance happens when people don’t think about the end goal. If you want young adults to be a part of the ministry, then that’s the end goal. What do we need to do now? Musically? Hospitality? So, that’s great. I mean that’s just a great insight. What initiatives are you working on now in that regard, or what’s really exciting to you as you think about the work you’re doing at CT over the next couple of years?

Nicole Martin:

Yeah. Oh my goodness. Okay. So, one thing that we’re working on right now, and it’s a project we’re in the midst of right now, it’s assessing our research on impact right now. So, for all of these years we’ve never figured out, do we affect what people think? Do we affect how people behave? Do we affect how people pray? So, we’re doing that research now. And I’ve got to tell you, some of this research is so encouraging. Like, oh my gosh, we are doing such a great job helping people know about the global church, good job. And then some of it is really discouraging. Like, man, we really are not reaching younger audiences as we thought we would. And while we really are not affecting people’s behaviors as we should, so the challenge now is based on what we have as a baseline, how do we project where we want to go next year? Year after that? Year after that?

And then how do we shape our content, our curriculum, our events, and the like to reach that group? And again, going back to the church, I think this is a hard exercise because it requires a bit of room for grief. So, for example, for CT, when we say we’re going to reach younger audiences, the reality is we’re not going to reach them with a print magazine. So how do we build content that reaches them? That actually causes grief. Some people will hang onto their copy of their 1996 issue of Christianity Today and they will say, “But this, this was my milestone. This was my marker. This is what changed my life, helped me in seminary. I found it at my grandmother’s.” And when we look forward to the next generation, we’re thinking how do we grieve the loss of what was while also celebrating what could be, which might be YouTube, it might be an expansion of our digital work. So, it’s balancing that grieving of the loss, but also rejoicing at what might come. And that’s the journey we’re on now.

Prince Rivers:

I was watching my 14-year-old daughter do homework last night and she was reading it on the iPad, and I looked at her and I said, “I wish you had a book.” She looked at me like I was insane. So, I get it.

Nicole Martin:

That’s right.

Prince Rivers:

I get it.

Nicole Martin:

That’s right.

Prince Rivers:

CT has a global platform, right? So when you look at churches elsewhere, outside of North America, and then look back at churches in this country, what kind of leadership development do you think needs to happen for us to better serve the church of today and even in the near future? I mean, we don’t have crystal balls to see, but what do we…

Nicole Martin:

Yeah. That is such a great question and it’s one I’ve been wrestling with for a while. I think part of the answer for the leadership development that American churches will need has to do with rethinking how we see power. So, in the American church, power is built on triumphalism. The more success you have, the more successful you are, the bigger your platform is, the bigger your platform gets. We celebrate the celebrities, we applaud those who are famous. We want the churches that can boast. We’re growing, growing, growing, and we’ve got to add services and we’ve got to add territory. We all long for that. But what happens when that is contradictory, not only to the gospel, but to what God is doing around the world?

So when we celebrate this triumphalism in America, we tend to celebrate older men. We tend to celebrate people with lots of money. We tend to, in some cases, celebrate people who are white or people who have established careers. And so the profile for American success is usually like an older white male in his sixties with a multi-campus or megachurch. Demographically, we celebrate success in Black churches with the size of the congregation. But again, you’re talking about generally an older male. When you go around the world, you see the world as a whole lot younger than Americans are. And I remember this from Todd Johnson’s research out of Gordon-Conwell. He said the average Christian is a 26-year-old African female. So, the predominance of Christians right now are African. The age around the world is a whole lot lower than it is the median age with boomers in the U.S. And the rest of the world is predominantly female. So, how do we reconcile this? I would suggest it requires that we reframe power.

Jesus did that when he washed the feet of the disciples. He said, “If you want to be first, if you want to be powerful, if you want to be seen, then learn to serve.” So what does it look like for leaders in the American church to learn to sit at the feet of a younger, maybe darker woman around the world to say, “Tell us what God is doing in your life. Tell us what you see the Lord doing.” Because when I have conversations with my global brothers and sisters or the ones in Uganda, the ones in Kenya, the ones in Haiti even, yes, you hear the crisis and you hear the struggle, but man, you hear a fervor of faith. You hear a zeal for the Lord. You hear a passion, a desperation for Christ, that I think the American church could use greatly.

So, one small story. I was at a global conference, this is in Amsterdam, talking to a gentleman who is in Uganda and he says, “Hey, can you guys do me a favor?” He was talking about CT. “Can you stop saying that the church is dying and can you stop saying that the church is old?” And I asked him to tell me more. He said, “Our churches are growing just leaps and bounds, and our churches are very young.” He was in his fifties. He said, “I’m trying to think about a succession plan because I see twenty-somethings and teenagers filling our pews. They can’t get enough of the gospel. So, when the Americans say the church is dying, it feels like you’re completely ignoring what God is doing in the majority of the world.”

This is a leadership lesson. How do we surrender our notions of power and leadership and control to embrace what God is doing in the lives of others? Because I think Scripture would tell us, when you can humble yourself under the mighty hand of God, he will lift you up in his time, in his way. And when we can see and hear their stories, I think we’ll all be blessed.

Prince Rivers:

That’s fascinating. So, let’s zero in on leadership then. Do you have a working definition of leadership that you use or just a working framework for what you think about in terms of leadership, especially in a Christian context?

Nicole Martin:

Absolutely. So for me, I think the phrase that I prefer to use is a phrase called “redemptive leadership.” So, traditional leadership suggests you go up and up and up. You start as the volunteer, then you become the youth minister, then you become the pastor, and then you become the bishop. That’s how it works. But redemptive leadership says God doesn’t use you because of all of your successes. God uses you in spite of your failures. God uses you at the low moments. It’s not about the up and up, it’s about the deep and deep. To me, redemptive leadership best models the cross. Jesus models for us that sometimes your crucifixion is the only way to get to your resurrection. And in the triumphalism of the American church, it’s all resurrection. It’s all “best day is next” and it’s all “better day is here,” and everything is higher and higher. But redemptive leadership suggests actually when you were at your worst, when you were at your lower, while you were yet sinners, that’s when you recognize the true glory of the cross. And then you can come to a place of resurrection. So, I prefer redemptive leadership. In fact, I’m writing about it now. I’m almost nervous to say. But my next book comes out next year, talking about this very thing on how do we model a new way of being leaders for such a time as this.

Prince Rivers:

That is so needed. As you were talking, I was thinking about just what the pandemic did to so many of us in ministry because 2020, it was going to be the best year ever, 2020.

Nicole Martin:

That’s right.

Prince Rivers:

And then everything just imploded and how do you sustain a prosperity gospel narrative when people can’t even leave their homes? So, we’ll be looking forward to the book to hear what you have to say about that.

Nicole Martin:

Oh, thank you.

Prince Rivers:

So, when you think about leadership, I know that emotional intelligence is not the buzzword that it maybe once was a few years ago, but I love to talk about it because I think it is so critical in ministry. And so from your perspective, what role does emotional intelligence play in effective leadership and how can leaders, redemptive leaders, cultivate this skill for themselves and their team?

Nicole Martin:

Man, I love that phrase, emotional intelligence. I mean, isn’t that everything? Isn’t that how Jesus operated every single day? I mean, it took emotional intelligence to speak to the woman at the well and really invite her into a place of worship, without judging her, but by naming where she was emotionally. He named that. He named that for the Syrophoenician woman. He named that for the disciples, when he said, “Leave your nets and follow me.” There was a certain emotional intelligence that he had that enabled him, not only to discern the people who were for him and the people he ministered to, but also to discern where the enemy was. I mean, it was emotional intelligence, one might argue, that allowed him to say, “Do what you do and do it quickly,” to Judas. So for me, it is harmful to not lead in a way that is emotionally connected, first of all, with God, and second of all, with the people.

And you mentioned the pandemic. For me, the pandemic changed everything that we know about leadership because now people began to wrestle with mental health issues in a way that maybe they had ignored them before. Now, people began to wrestle with burnout and stress and fatigue and the folding of family on your careers in ways where previously they could have compartmentalized them and never really became an issue. And now when people are coming into the church, they are fully aware of their anxiety. They’re fully aware of their depression, they’re fully aware of all of their problems. The question is, what can we do to make them fully aware of a God who cares about their emotions, their health, their mind, their bodies, the holistic part of who they are? I mean, this is, for me, emotional intelligence really is everything.

Prince Rivers:

Yeah. I mean, to your point, ministry that isn’t holistic is just not going to make it because people are bringing all of themselves. The hurting parts, the whole parts, the fractured parts.

Nicole Martin:

That’s right.

Prince Rivers:

And so churches really have to think about that. That’s such a great insight.

So I know that gender and race are important issues for you. You write about it a bit in your book “Made to Lead.” And unfortunately these topics are still very dynamic issues in our culture and in our churches. Often, the negative headlines get the attention. Are you seeing any sort of trends that give you more hope as it relates to gender and race that you’ve maybe noticed in your work? Maybe things you want to highlight for our audience?

Nicole Martin:

Absolutely. So one thing that gives me hope is just a growing awareness of an additive factor of God and not a substitutionary method of God. And what I mean is when I was teaching seminary, this is about five years ago, it was not uncommon for me to hear, from men or from some of my white students, “My time is done. It’s your turn now.” I remember, I’ll never forget it, a young, brilliant, young white man, after the end of a readiness for ministry class, he came to me and he said, “I really want to teach and get my Ph.D., but I think my time is done.” I said, “You are a 30-some years old. How is your time done? He said, “Well, because now is the time to put more leaders of color in place and we need more women. And as a white man, I can’t possibly serve.”

I remember, I mean, I know I cross some boundaries, but I took that man by his shoulders. I said, “Listen to me. God made you who you are. He made you how you are. And if you feel called to teach in a seminary, please, no one else can do that calling but you. If God has called you to do it, you have to do it.” And I remembered there was a season, and there still is for some people, this sense of a substitution, that “I’m going to be replaced by people who are not like me.” And that creates fear. And fear creates hoarding. And hoarding creates “no, because I can’t share this, then nobody can have it. It’s mine.” I’m reflecting on my children fighting yesterday: “it’s mine.” There’s not enough to go around. But I do think what we see growing is an additive value. That people are starting to see when my daughter is ready to lead, she’s not leading in place of me, she’s leading alongside me. She’s leading with me. She’s leading beside me or in some cases in front of me.

And this enhances the church. This is what I pray is the effect. And I think I’m seeing hope in some churches where women, even complementarian churches, where women are given more space to help and develop younger generations. I’m seeing this in egalitarian spaces where people are more receptive to hear from women. But the hard part is, we’ve still got a long way to go. When I first wrote my book on “Made to Lead,” this was around, oh, it was about 2014. At that time it was about 11% of all pulpits in America were led by women. Today it’s only about 12%, and that’s almost 10-plus years ago. So, what it says is churches that have had women are either moving to men and new churches are bringing women in to lead, or churches who have had women lead are more apt and more prone to have another woman lead them. So, we’ve got a long way to go. But I do see glimmers of hope.

Prince Rivers:

Yeah. And this sort of speaks to the idea of diversity. Again, not the substitution, but the additive. And I imagine that this is part of what you do as an impact officer in thinking about the diverse expansion of the gospel.

So, let me ask you a leadership question because sometimes I hear, in especially church HR circles, that “hire for chemistry, hire for chemistry, hire for chemistry fit.” And then I talk to some people and they feel like that language is a smoke screen that hinders diversity because then you just get the people who already [do]. So, obviously you don’t want someone on a team that doesn’t fit. But how do we do both? I mean, I don’t know if you’ve given any thought to that: sort of embracing diversity and difference, and pursuing people that fit well on teams. So, I know this is kind of a micro question, but what are your thoughts on that?

Nicole Martin:

Man, that is such a good question. I remember again, in a class that I taught, we asked people like, “What’s the profile of a pastor today? What does the pastor today look like?” And they all kind of described the same thing: thick-rimmed glasses, plaid shirt like the one you’re wearing now, jeans, some type of stylish shoe, boot or tennis shoe, a baseball cap when he leaves the pulpit, super trendy, super down-to-earth, could play well in urban spaces or suburban spaces. They all had the same prototype and they all have the same prototype, not just because that type of person might be prone to the pulpit, that may or may not be true. But mostly because once we have a fit in our minds, we look for that fit. And I think this is the challenge of the church. I prefer to think of what some sociologists consider to be the centered set and the bounded set.

So, in a centered set, thinking, “I’m looking for your core. I want you to believe that Jesus Christ is Lord, I want you to read your Bible daily. I want you to love the local church. I want you to believe in our tenets and our mission and our vision, and I want you to know that in your core. And then outside of that, I want you to be you. And I want to make room in our environment, not only for you to be you, but for you to draw people like you.” So, this is where I think churches can use an impact model, a way of thinking. If we fast-forward and what we want to be is more diverse, then yes, if you want to be more diverse, you’re going to have to shift how you see leadership. But also, that doesn’t mean go and hire the first different person you find. You actually have to find someone that embodies the core of who you are, that loves the congregation you are today and can lead to a congregation that you want to be tomorrow. So the centered set allows you to stay with what is core and then what is around that allows you to make room for the great, great diversity that exists in the body of Christ.

Prince Rivers:

The scenario you described in the classroom sort of reminds me of what leadership studies calls trait leadership theory, which there’s something innate in this person that enables them to do X, Y and Z. And so, all of the people who do this – politicians, business leaders – they all look the same. Because they’re tall, they’re male, have a deep voice.

Nicole Martin:

That’s right.

Prince Rivers:

Whatever it is.

Nicole Martin:

That’s right.

Prince Rivers:

They have the right traits.

Nicole Martin:

Well, according to AI, they say the preachers that get the most traction are those that have a slight Southern accent. So, if you got that, you got a little Southern drawl to you.

Prince Rivers:

That’s right. That’s right. That’s right.

Nicole Martin:

That’s great.

Prince Rivers:

Well, and keeping with this conversation about diversity, let’s shift gears and talk about next-gen, because I know you’re actively working and thinking about that issue and how we really disciple younger adults. What are some of the things that churches maybe just don’t get about next-gen discipleship?

Nicole Martin:

That is such a great question.

Prince Rivers:

This is a safe space. This is a safe space.

Nicole Martin:

This is a safe space for everyone listening.

Prince Rivers:

That’s right.

Nicole Martin:

Okay. Well, I think there are a couple of things. First, I think that the church doesn’t get that we raised the next generation. I mean, we look at them, we say, “How entitled are you that you have the nerve to say you don’t like what I made for dinner?” Yes, but I raised you with choice. I raised you. And I said, “Do you want chicken today or do you want steak? Do you want Wendy’s or McDonald’s?” So, we cannot fault them for what we’re responsible for in some ways. We are responsible for raising every generation with more choices than the previous generation had. I mean, we joke about it, but yeah, you and I probably grew up not having a choice about whether or not we go to church. We didn’t have a choice about whether or not we wanted to stay from one service or more.

We didn’t have a choice about whether we were coming back for the evening service. You were told what to do and you did it. So when we offer each generation choice, whether intentionally through our own raising of them or just the world in which we live, where they can order their tall extra hot caramel macchiato with a splash of whatever and not have the ingredients called out, but have their name called out: this is the customization that our environment is like. This is what we do. This is how we raise children. So, if we are raising them in a choice-filled world, then we actually have to work hard at making our choice the compelling one. So it’s not just “you go to church because you have to.” We now have to work hard to build the attractiveness of the church. And I’ve got to tell you, that is hard. When it comes to reaching the next generation, one of the gaps is boomers and Xs feel like, “Why do I have to make the gospel attractive? It is the gospel. What more do you need?” Millennials and Gen Z are saying, “Yes, it is the gospel, but also I have choices on a Sunday.” For older millennials, I’ve got to choose between coming to the early service and taking my kid to soccer and I’m tired, so I’m going to take my kid to soccer. For younger millennials and for Gen Z on Sundays, they have choices between services. Why would I go to your church when I can hear the best and brightest, in my mind, YouTube preacher and stay in my home? So, how do we create environments that compel them? And I think the answer is not smoke and mirrors. It is not a food truck after service. I think the answer for making it attractive is get them involved.

Give them something to do. This is another fear point for older generations. Boomers look at the next generation and they say, “There’s nobody like me. Nobody reads the Bible anymore. Nobody goes to Sunday school. Nobody is as good as I was at their age.” Yeah, that’s true. Nobody is like you. So, since we’ve ruled that out, what more can you do to make space for younger generations? Can they develop a new program for you? Can they solve some problems for you? Can they be the ones to help you figure out whether or not to use AI, and if so, how to enhance your service? Can they be the ones to follow you and go with you on your next preaching engagement? So, giving them a space – it’s so funny because we always think you have to think of something new for a new generation. But when you think about scripture, this is the old. “Come follow me,” Jesus says, “and I will give you a job. I will make you fishers of men. I will take what you used to do, and I will not just give you a spectator seat. I will give you a new job and you’re going to love it.” This is how I think we draw in the next generation. We make it attractive. They have a bunch of choices and we give them something to do, and now they have ownership, prayerfully for the generation that comes after them.

Prince Rivers:

Well, I’m excited because I just had a focus group with the young adults at our church. Learned a lot from them. But you’re right, they want to work. They’re asking what can we do? So, that’s good to hear.

Nicole Martin:

That’s awesome.

Prince Rivers:

In addition to that, what advice would you give to preachers who are trying to connect today with today’s hearers? I’ve heard you preach many times, you’re gifted in this regard, but we’re trying to connect with people who watch Netflix.

Nicole Martin:

Yes. Yeah. Well, this is something that I feel like I’m learning right now and it catches me off guard because I think it is something I’ve taken for granted because of my own relationship with God. I think every preacher needs to remember that people are looking for a touch from Jesus, a physical, tangible touch. I, as a preacher’s kid, I love heady sermons. I love sermons that teach me something I didn’t know. Show me some new turn in the text. Oh man, I can shout all day. Like, what? I didn’t know that. I just heard that. But I think we’re living in a world where we – all marketing strategies are on full-blown force. I mean, you’re being chased by Amazon to purchase whatever is in your cart. You’re being chased by your rewards program to keep coming back to the same stores and same vendors. People feel like commodities, and they’re starting to realize that.

So what does it look like as a preacher to make the gospel not a commodity for the masses, but a message for one? What does it look like to preach the gospel in a way that says, “Jesus sees you, the Lord sees you. He knows you. He’s reaching out to you right now”? And I think when you look across the landscape of both the manipulation of the gospel, because there are a whole lot of manipulators, and those who are really in thriving congregations, people feel like they’ve had an encounter with Jesus. And what the church can offer that the world can never offer is an encounter with the divine, an encounter with God that has potential to change everything about who you are, what you think you know and where you’re going. And I think that’s what preachers can focus on. Preach the gospel in such a way that it says, “Jesus sees you and he’s here. He can feel you and you can touch him as well.”

Prince Rivers:

That’s great. I mean, everything old is new again. I mean, we’re really just being faithful to the gospel.

Nicole Martin:

That’s right. That’s right.

Prince Rivers:

You touched on this a little while ago in talking about younger adults and “come and follow me.” You’ve written about the importance of mentoring. Who are some of the people that have mentored you and maybe how have you benefited from that experience?

Nicole Martin:

Oh man. Oh, the list is so long.

Prince Rivers:

And maybe, because I don’t want you to get in trouble for not naming someone – so, if you just want to talk about how you’ve benefited from mentoring?

Nicole Martin:

Yes, yes. No, that’s fine. So, in the past when I would be asked this question about mentorship, I would always think of my external mentors. I think about Bishop Claude Alexander, who’s like my father in the ministry. I think about Pastor William Watley who literally mentored me through seminary. I think about my pastor, pastor Matthew Watley. I think about my D.Min. Professor, Rodney Cooper. I think about Bishop Cynthia James. The first time I heard her, my mind was blown. I could not believe it. I think about Bishop Vashti McKenzie, who I’ve gotten to know over the years. I used to always think externally. But then the older I got, the more I realized: my first mentors were my family members. It was my great-grandmother, Estelle Cartledge, who was so much a disciple of Jesus that she would tell everybody, literally everybody she knew, about her relationship with God. Neighbors, school kids, praying over people.

She prayed. My grandmother told me she prayed every night that God would bless her seed and the seed of her seed. Praying for us before she even knew us. Like, that’s mentorship. I think about my grandmother who was a licensed preacher at age 75. She preached her initial sermon at 75. She is 92 today and strong, and loves God. These are mentors and they mentor me by their resilience, by their stories, by their narratives. So, I really have been blessed with a lot of people who have said, “I see what God is doing in your life, and I want to be part of that.” And I think that starts with my family.

Prince Rivers:

That is great. That is great. Do you have any wisdom for the person who says they want a mentor but just doesn’t know where to begin looking or how to find one?

Nicole Martin:

Yes. I’ll never forget, I had a very deep experience. I was in my twenties. This is right after I knew, “Oh my goodness, what I’ve experienced is a call from God to go into ministry.” So I did what I thought was right. I emailed all the people whose books I read and whose sermons I heard, and when they came to our church to visit, I was the first one right at the door. As soon as they finished preaching, sweat still rolling down, I’m like, “Hey, I’m Nicole. Can you be my mentor?” And needless to say, emails never got answered or I was told to my face, “I don’t have time for that.” And I remember how crushed I was, like, “I’m going to be mentor-less, I’m going to be a pioneer in this field.” But I do think, number one, there’s a recognition that God gives every single one of us mentors, whether we recognize them immediately or not. We all have people that we look to who have paved the way.

I think the second thing is, recognize the diversity of mentorship today. So, at that time when I was knocking on doors and I thought, “Oh, I have no mentors,” I had professors and they were mentors. I just didn’t see them that way because they were my professors. When I wanted women preachers to mentor me, and I was disappointed that none of them took me under their wings, I had male preachers in my life who loved me and said, “You can do this.” When you and I were in the wilderness, out there in the middle of nowhere, I was trying to figure out, “Where am I supposed to go and how am I supposed to do this?” God sent you to encourage me, to build me up. And that was a form of mentorship. So I think: stop looking for what you think you need and start receiving what God is giving you right now, and that begins your mentorship journey.

Prince Rivers:

That’s great advice. Great advice. And I’m just thinking about all that you are already doing professionally, in addition to being a wife and a mother, and a human being.

Nicole Martin:

Lord have mercy.

Prince Rivers:

So, the second word of the title of this podcast is “thriving.”

Nicole Martin:

Yes.

Prince Rivers:

So, let’s just for a minute, what do you do to nourish your spirit and maintain your energy and enthusiasm?

Nicole Martin:

Yeah. So, I have found that part of what helps me thrive is staying connected to the mundane things. I know a lot of preachers, pastors and leaders who, when life gets busy, they forsake the little things. The dishes, the laundry. You find people who can do that. For me, staying grounded to those minor things helps me to stay connected to God. I think it was Brother Lawrence in “Practice of the Presence of God” – he talked about connecting with God while he washed the dishes. I have found it to be, even though it’s really tiring and exhausting sometimes, I’ve found it to be very grounding to make lunches at night for my girls because that reminds me that no matter what’s happening out there, there’s ministry right here and God can minister to me through the toasting of the bread and the slicing of the apples. Being close to my family helps me thrive because a lot of people will love you for what you do, but your family knows you for who you are. So, that has helped me. I also love to be active. I started kickboxing several years ago.

Prince Rivers:

Oh, boy.

Nicole Martin:

And I know it sounds crazy when I say this, but there’s something so refreshing about hitting a bag. Well, you can take it out on the bag. Put your gloves on, wrap your hands, put on your gloves and pound it out. Man, there’s a whole lot of warfare that takes place in our boxing gym. And so, I’ve found it really helpful for me to stay active and to move my body and to remember that, I mean, ministry and leadership is a sedative thing. If you’re not careful, you could be sitting all day. So moving helps me to thrive, and then taking a break. Sounds simple. I’m not very good at that. I’m not very good at that because I have bought into the notion that when everyone else rests, that’s the best time to get work done. So, I need to change that, just between me, you and everyone listening. I need to change that. It’s something I’m working on but these are the things that certainly help me to thrive.

Prince Rivers:

Well, we’ll be praying with you about that so that you can continue to thrive. The world needs your gifting and certainly God has called you. As we sort of wrap up this conversation, what’s some advice that maybe someone gave you early on in ministry that still helps to keep you grounded and encouraged today?

Nicole Martin:

Yeah. Well, I believe it was Dr. Charles Booth who repeated what he had heard. And it’s been said of many speakers and preachers over the years. But the idea of keeping a Bible in one hand and a newspaper in the other. I confess that that was not an easy instinct for me because I like to read to lighten my mental load, not to take on more. And so reading and hearing the news can be a very difficult thing. But working at CT has helped me to realize how important it is to hear and read, and stay engaged in God’s Word while also being attuned to what is happening around us.

So for example, today as I read my morning devotional scripture, which was John 10 on “my sheep, hear my voice,” and you know what it means to be part of the fold of Jesus. And then I’m looking on the news, and at least at the time of this recording, there was a massive earthquake in Taiwan. Reading these together gives me the tools I need to intercede. It gives me the tools I need to be sensitive to where God’s heart is, and it gives me the tools I need to remember that what I experience is not all there is. There’s a God that’s so much greater than me. There’s a world that’s so much bigger, and the more I stay attuned to those things, the better I can be as a leader.

Prince Rivers:

That is great. That is great. Dr. Nicole Massie Martin, you are the Chief Impact Officer for Christianity Today, the author of “Made To Lead” and forthcoming books that we will be excited to read. And it has been my treat to talk with you today. I want to thank you for being my guest on “Leading and Thriving in the Church.”

Nicole Martin:

Thank you so much for having me.

Prince Rivers:

Thank you for listening to this episode of Leading and Thriving in the Church. This podcast is produced by Emily Lund and recorded in the Bryan Center Studios on the campus of Duke University. I’m your host, Prince Rivers. If you want more great leadership content, be sure to check out our website alban.org, where you can sign up for the Alban Weekly newsletter, and make sure you subscribe to this podcast on your preferred podcast platform so we can keep you informed as we release new episodes. Until next time, keep leading.


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