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Leading Worship Through a Major Church Crisis

It's been a while since my last post. Most of you all know what has happened at Coral Ridge, and I've personally received a lot of love, prayers, and support from so many of you. Thank you! This blog, for me, has always been a place to think out loud by wrestling thoughts to the ground, processing in real time the ins and outs of one local worship leader who is asking questions about worship and pastoring in his little corner of the globe. I've been encouraged to see that some of my thoughts have been helpful to others in their contexts. So today I turn to what will be a cathartic post. It will help me to organize the jumble of thoughts and emotions that go into trying to keep your head above water in a pastoral crisis.

I've been serving churches as a worship pastor long enough to have gone through several crises. Though none have been this large and this public, on the ground there are certain common themes that have emerged for me over and over again that I now perceive as "givens." I want to talk about these in hopes that my very immediate reflections might be of help to others. I am on the front end of this new season in our church's life, but I'm already witnessing things that, though painful and difficult, are quite predictable simply because every church is full of train-wrecked sinners like me who tend to exhibit the same types of behaviors in moments like these. So, here goes...

1. The Vacuum

Whenever there is a shakeup at "the top," it leaves a leadership hole. That vacuum tries to get filled in a bunch of ways. On the leadership side, it means that we church leaders need to rally as a team, pray and seek the Lord together, and lead strongly and visibly. In a sense, for the time being, it is our job to fill that vacuum. It means more time, more emotional energy, more prayer, more burden. This is a given.

One of the negative sides of the vacuum is that there are unhealthy ways that congregations can seek to fill it in short order. Many times, when a leader is gone, it becomes an opportunity for some to declare the things they've been holding back. These things include ministry emphases, visionary choices, but also (maybe especially) things relating to worship. This has certainly been the case for me, and based on my past experience, it won't really let up for quite some time. In fact, we're still sort of in "shock" phase, which means that as the newness wears off, people will be able to process more...which means that the best is yet to come. :)

But knowing that the vacuum always happens and will continue to cause weird things to occur is half the battle. And all this leads to the second point.

2. The church needs stability and familiarity in its worship.

In moments like these, people's concealed desires for what worship "should have been like all along" become revealed. In some cases, these desires are the worship leaders', too. (Not in my case. My senior pastor and I thankfully saw quite eye to eye on most of it.) It can be very tempting to start implementing all those desired tweaks and changes, but this is exactly the wrong time to do this. What churches need in moments of crisis is stability and familiarity in their worship. Whatever the liturgy has been, stick to it. Give them more songs that everyone knows and loves. People don't need to be raising eyebrows or tweaking their heads. They need to be crying out to God.  

3. The church needs stability and familiarity in its leadership...but not mini-Messiahs.

Every church is different, but in my context, I was one of the two faces of leadership that people were used to seeing more or less every Sunday. One of those faces is gone. Mine is the only familiar face left. It's really important that I'm there. It's really important that I'm present and undistracted. It's really important that I exhibit a non-anxious presence and display a confidence in the one and only Head of God's Church--Jesus Christ.

At the same time, I have to wrestle with very honest "Messiah complex" feelings. I am not the church's Savior. I had a moment where I started to think I was, though, when I almost cancelled my vacation plans coming up in a few weeks, feeling the burden of the fact that "the church needs me." In one sense, the church does need me. But I know my heart, and my wife knows my heart. When I started to hint at the transgression of our vacation plans, I knew that would be disaster for me (and my need for rest) and disaster for a family who needs their husband and dad. When that got some clarity, it became as simple for me as remembering that Jesus loves His church more than I do and that I'm not Coral Ridge's Messiah. Praise God for that, for my sake and the church's.

4. (1) and (2) mean that I need to find safe places off the beaten path to process my own personal pain and confusion.

Yes, I need to be a strong, stable, non-anxious leader in this time. But I still have anxiety. I still am weak. I still question my calling. Like my congregation, I'm going through my own version of the stages of grief. I need safe places to explode, to cry, to vent, to strategize, to collapse. On the one hand, it would be very "authentic" of me to do that in front of the church. But the church doesn't need that, and I actually think it would be detrimental to her health. 

But if I bottle it all up, I have no doubt that I will find myself in my own crisis in a few short weeks or months. And then I'm no good to anyone. So, I've chosen a few friends, a few safe havens. And they have been a wellspring of life for me. They have been Jesus.

5. No emotions are off limits, and we should expect (and in worship make room for) every kind. 

When churches go through crises, congregations experience the full spectrum of emotions. It brings up PTSD-like symptoms for some. Others get depressed, angry, or cynical and jaded. Some people surprise you by leaning into the church like they never did before. Others surprise you by becoming quite oppositional. Some get upset over very peculiar and specific things that happen. Others seem upset over everything. Some retreat and go into radio silence. Others are emailing, texting, calling every day.

Knowing that all emotions will come, and knowing that they are all perfectly valid ways of handling situations like these, we need to be ready for them by giving voice to them in worship. In my experience, a great place to handle this is in the church's moment of confession. I've been given to praying more extemporaneously to help give voice to some of these emotions. My prayers, privately and publicly, have sounded like this:

God, this is a very confusing time for us. We confess that we've been angry...with others and with You. We confess that we feel hurt. We confess that these moments cause us to doubt Your goodness, Your promises, Your faithfulness. We struggle at times to see the good in these moments.

We confess that some of us feel numb and cold. Some of us are finding it hard to honestly and earnestly worship You. For others of us, it's all we can cling to. We confess that we aren't the kind of people that can handle this well apart from Your grace. We're weak. Be strong for us.

As odd as it may sound, the last three weeks of worship at Coral Ridge have been sweet times of community. We're more broken open, leaning a bit more on God and a bit less on ourselves. Desperation is a remarkable catalyst for authentic, vibrant worship. And our emotions have been all over the map. I'm grateful that God has created enough of a safe culture of worship at Coral Ridge that at least some can feel free to be honest before the Lord in community. God has been faithful and good to us.

6. Care very little about what is being said "out there." Care very much about what is being felt "in here."

In all honesty, I'm paying very little attention to what's happening in the sphere of blogs and social media. So much of it is partially informed and feels distant, cold, and dispassionately clinical. It can be very distracting, though, and it can raise fears and concerns that simply don't need to be there. Through past experience, I've learned to pay attention to the flock in front of me. What are their hurts, their fears, their concerns? I don't need to answer the critics. They're not the ones God has called me to keep watch over. I need to be close to our flock, spend lots of time with them, and really listen. So I've been sending lots of emails, making lots of phone calls, and drinking way to much coffee with folks. My office has been a revolving door.

As a workaholic and a task-oriented person, I'm tempted to think that all this people time is very un-productive. (I'm not getting anything done!) I've learned, though, that such thoughts spring up more from the enemy and my own idolatrous heart than they do from any good place. My call now is to be very, very present for people that need it. I feel a bit relationally stretched thin, and I feel like some important goals are getting sidelined. But there's just a strong sense that I'm doing the right thing. So I just have to let the chips fall where they may.

7. The church needs the hope of Jesus.

Worship needs biblical lamentation, which is another way of saying that the church needs to be able to cry out "How long?" WITH HOPE. In times like this, I've found that emphasizing the following themes are important and powerful:

  • God's faithfulness generally
  • God's faithfulness specifically--His mighty deeds of the past
  • Confession & Lamentation
  • Death & Resurrection (both literally and symbolically)
  • Jesus' undying love for His Church
  • The Eschaton--the End when God will make all things new
  • The nearness of the Holy Spirit

All these things, when emphasized, become a soothing balm for the anxieties, fears, pain, anger, and sorrow of a congregation going through crisis. Thankfully, there are so many Psalms, songs, and prayers that speak right to these things, because, well, suffering seems to be one of the few givens for every human being. 

You feel it in the air of Coral Ridge right now, and I think any Gospel-oriented community would feel the same: hope abounds. This doesn't mean that everyone is feeling hopeful, but there is a kind of communal sense of hopefulness and trust when we gather. We're still smiling and laughing. And some of us are getting very energized for where God will take us as a local church in this city. 

Still, right now, we're a jumble. If you've seen Inside Out, it feels like we're in that deconstruction-reconstruction phase that characterizes most of the movie's storyline. It's an unsettling place to be, and it's a blessed place to be. I'll write more when I have something to say...and only then!


How Worship Leaders Cultivate "Porous Community"

Having recently been in the studio in preparation for new albums this Fall and Winter, I was reminded again of how relationships deepen both spiritual connection and the music-making process. Musicologists have noted for decades that better music is made by an ensemble (their rhythm is tighter, their phrasing is more unified, etc.) when the players are friends. The professional musicians I have worked with over the years have said the same thing—there’s a difference between virtuosic “parallel play” and true, organic ensemble. And the dynamics are in large part due to the type of community the players share.

For worship leaders seeking to be pastoral in their approach to their vocation, community-cultivating is not only important for great music-making but for preserving an ongoing vitality in ministry. And there’s a particular model for how this looks that I think works best in most contexts. I’ve heard some call it “porous community.”

Two Errors in Community Cultivation

I’ve seen two kinds of errors in leadership with worship leaders overseeing their teams of staff and/or volunteers. I’ve seen these errors take place in big churches and small churches. The first kind of error is the leader who cultivates no community at all. In this scenario, worship leaders view their job purely in a functional, up-front capacity. Their job is to “get the service done.” Their volunteers aren’t guided to be people-centered but task-centered. Their teams are more or less “event staff.” Therefore, it’s unimportant to the leader to cultivate relationships and foster community. The leader leads purely from platform. In this very task-oriented approach, misunderstanding and mistrust can find many cracks to leak into. Over time, the “winter seasons” of ministry can cause those cracks to expand and contract, eventually leading to an irreparable fracture and a crumbling ministry. This is often the context where “moral failures” of many kinds find fertile soil to grow. 

The second kind of error is the leader who cultivates tight, bounded community. This type of leader likes his or her group of friends, and once they’re set, they’re an impenetrable clique. Along with the people on the inside, this leader can have a false sense of the depth and richness of the community. “Us four and no more” feels great…for the four. They have their weekly hang-outs and eventually develop insider language and humor that becomes obvious to the rest around them when they’re in the “big community” settings like worship practice or even the Sunday morning prep and services. To those on the inside, the worship leader could truly be a pastor to them—loving them, caring for them. But rarely do folks on the outside of this bounded-set community feel that shepherding and oversight.

A Model for Porous Community

When Jesus gathered people to Himself, He cultivated a community that certainly had discernible boundaries but was incredibly porous. He allowed for two-way traffic and seemed to be perpetually disrupting the status quo when the community was either too undefined (think of his boundary-marking with his interactions with the Pharisees) or too cliquish (think of his welcoming of prostitutes and children when “the community” was trying to push them out). Similarly, when Christ is our center and when the gospel’s aroma of grace is wafting around, we worship leaders will notice a similar dynamic at play, which we happily encourage. A porous-community worship leader encourages and fosters relationships both inside and outside “official” times and places, and they constantly have their eye out to introduce new people into the “system,” disrupting its tendency toward ingrown-ness.

What Community-Cultivating Looks Like

In official times and spaces (rehearsals, meetings, pre-service gatherings, etc.), a community-cultivator seeks to winsomely introduce informality, honesty, and down-to-earth-ness.  I find, for me, that I just naturally want to inject humor into my rehearsals, with a little joking and teasing here or there. Or I’ll take time before a meeting starts just to be around to chit-chat with the early birds. A community-cultivator also seeks to create and foster unofficial times and spaces where the same people interact. I often try to pull a few people and run out for coffee or take a group to lunch. I’ll try to have small groups of folks over to my place. And, to be honest, because I’m more task-oriented by nature, I find that the only way I’ll ever faithfully do this stuff is to schedule it. If you have a team of co-leaders you work with, I think it’s also important to encourage these values in their lives as well. One-on-one connections with people can happen but are best only with people of the same gender, so I often encourage some of my female co-leaders to take out and connect with other ladies in our ministry spheres.

When you make community-building your ethos, another thing begins to happen. You develop a kind of sixth sense for when the community is becoming ingrown and cliquish. If there’s a pocket of folks that is beginning to look like it might be cutting itself off, I try to grab a few of the folks from the clique and connect them with other people at a third-space hangout.

What If I’m Not Wired That Way?

I think we need to be honest that some people just don’t feel wired to be community-builders. Though I ultimately believe that we’re all called to stretch ourselves and grow in these areas, the reality is that some of us won’t be the fire-starter for this kind of ignition. In such cases (and I think this is wise advice even for the folks who feel locked and loaded to cultivate community), I’d encourage you to pray for and seek out people who can be those catalysts on your team. Some people are just born relational networkers. Others are hospitable, both in their spirit and in their home. These people need to be encouraged that they have something indispensible to give to the church and to its ministry of worship.

So much more could be said about all this, but hopefully this post has provided a few hooks on which to hang some of your leadership ideas. 


The Fuzzy Middle Between Leading and Attention-Seeking for Worship Leaders

I was having lunch with a young local worship leader yesterday, and we were jamming on what it means to lead well and yet not seek the spotlight. Matt Redman nicely summarizes what the sweet spot looks like:

I often define good worship leaders as those who lead strongly enough so that people follow but not so strongly that they themselves become the focus.*

That's it, right there. It's the perfect summary.  But at least for me, I've sometimes found the line between those two poles desperately hard to find. Now having served extensively in several different church contexts in four widely different cities/regions (Honolulu, Los Angeles, Denver, and South Florida), I have come to the conclusion that there is a measure of relativity with the line between leading well and attention-seeking, and this all depends on at least four factors.

1) Your City-Regional Culture

A lot of people talk about "Western" and "American" sensibilities, and we need to. Identifying our cultural idols and unspoken societal values at that level is important. But many commentators have noted the distinct personality traits of cities and regions. For instance, the line between what is perceived as leading well and attention-seeking would be very different in the urban northeast and the rural midwest. I felt a similar difference between the overall cultural climate of Denver and Ft. Lauderdale. South Florida is a much more glitzy culture, which prizes high-energy, pristine entertainment that is immediately gratifying. Denver is much more cerebral and sophisticatedly nuanced. Consequently, my "up front" presence on Sunday mornings in Denver was much more understated, both in physical positioning and in overall demeanor and expression. I think if I had taken my Ft. Lauderdale leadership style back to Denver, it would have appeared distracting and showboaty. On the flip side, upon transitioning to Ft. Lauderdale, I've received more than my fair share of well-meaning feedback that people want me to "really lead" them, and not "hide." More flash, in this context, actually helps people engage in worship. 

2) Your Ethnic Culture

If you're in a metropolitan or multicultural context, you run into the reality that leadership is perceived differently depending on one's ethnic background. For instance, in south Florida where I serve, I've talked to a few African-Americans, Hatians, and Latinos in our congregation who (though they put it more graciously) find my leadership underwhelming and weak. They would feel better led if I were more "out front," as it were. I can immediately then turn to some older Anglo folks in my congregation and get nearly the opposite feedback: "Zac, it would be great if you could make worship less about you and more about the Lord." So sometimes, the disparity between how people perceive your leadership has to do with sensibilities shaped by one's racial and ethnic background.

3) Your Tradition's Culture

I've observed that, in varying Christian traditions, how people perceive whether you're attention-seeking or leading well is largely related to the ethos of worship leadership in the perceiver's tradition. For instance, I've found that many worshipers from Pentecostal and charismatic traditions are used to highly interactive, strongly emotive, visually demonstrative worship leadership. At the same time, if one of their worship leaders were to step into a role in your average Episcopal, Lutheran, or Presbyterian context, the perception of that leader would be that he or she is showboating or trying to make it all about himself or herself. The culture of these latter traditions would perceive such leadership as distracting. Within these more apparent extremes are a host of subtleties that aren't as quickly or as easily discernible, but any perceptive worship leader in any worship context should know what I'm talking about. In their church, there will be certain (largely unspoken) conventions, mores, and guard-rails of propriety of how a worship leader behaves in order to adequately lead but not press beyond into something that appears to be attention-seeking. Processing the dynamic of varying Christian traditions and backgrounds is one of the most helpful eye-openers to understanding the apparent relativity of the line between good leadership and self-aggrandizement.

4) Your Church Culture

Individual churches, too, have specific cultures of propriety when it comes to worship leadership. Sometimes they are in line with their own tradition, and sometimes they defy their tradition's sensibility. So, a good worship leader who seeks to lead well without being perceived as seeking vain glory will have their antennae up for the "leadership vibe" of their own church. Sometimes the sensibilities of their church are a mishmash of city-regional, ethnic, and tradition issues. Usually, medium to large churches have enough people that the backgrounds will be diverse to the point that the worship leader can expect some tension (like I experience here in south Florida). But it is this particular culture which I believe the worship leader has the most opportunity to actually shape, because it is in this sphere where life-on-life ministry actually takes place. In my opinion, intentional worship leaders who are faithfully shaping the worship leadership ethos of their local church are actually doing the diagnosis of what's needed with the above three things in mind. If they're entering a new church, they add a fourth dimension of determining how their predecessor(s) led so as to factor in what people are most immediately used to. I might just also briefly add that worship leaders should additionally pay attention to how their church's architecture shapes the worship leadership ethos of the local assembly. A cathedral "speaks" about a different kind of leadership propriety than a theater. (Ironically, for me, Coral Ridge was designed to be a majestic modern cathedral that functioned as a performance arts center and broadcast venue. It's one of the most unique and confusing architectural contexts I've ever served in.)

5) Your Temperament, Heart, & Calling

Ultimately, though, I contend that how people perceive your leadership can often boil down to your heart. I've been in extremely "performancy" contexts where I could sense that the worship leader's heart was to serve and empower the people of God to corporately join in the praises of the Lord. Likewise, I've been in very subdued contexts with a very "hidden" leader, but everything about how they led (perhaps even without being seen) screamed, "Look at me!" Most people have a sixth sense about this kind of thing. They can sniff out a leader's motives and intentions. Therefore, I ask every worship leader to take inventory of their heart and calling. If your heart is to be a performance artist, ask yourself if you understand the difference between "gigging" on Monday through Saturday and leading worship on Sunday. If you don't perceive a difference, please, for the sake of the church and for your own sake, step aside and let someone else lead, no matter how much it might hurt the bottom line of your bank ledger. The people of God don't need you on display, but Jesus on display. 

In short, I don't think there is a cookie cutter, one-size-fits-all answer to what it looks like to lead without fame-mongering. Notice, too, that I haven't spoken about musical style. Often rock-worship critics will highlight the inherently performance-laden nature of the genre, but I've seen too many self-impressed choir directors and organists to believe that it's an issue of genre alone. Therefore, as with nearly everything, we must begin with the heart and work our way out.  In the end, it's not so much that issues of leadership are relative as much as they are highly contextual...and the contexts are multi-faceted. These are complex issues, and I invite worship leaders to open up dialogues with their fellow church leaders and members to discern what kind of leadership style they might be called to. 

*Matt Redman, The Unquenchable Worshipper: Coming Back to the Heart of Worship (Ventura: Regal, 2001), 48. 

Is it Fair for Us to Evaluate Where People’s Hearts are at in Worship When We Can’t Really Know?

Don't Judge Me, Man!

I sometimes get push-back when I make evaluative claims about my local church's worship--like I did in a recent post where I said: 15-20% are strongly engaged in worship, 55-60% are slightly engaged, and 15-20% are nearly completely disengaged.  People feel accused and judged, and some feel like they've been wrongly pegged or pigeonholed. It's emotional, too, because people feel like their hearts are being judged based on external observation.  It's understandable.

Because we live in a culture which is hyper-sensitive to discrimination, we feel fear heighten when we're engaging in evaluation and analysis. When it comes to worship, it gets even more hairy, because we are dabbling in issues of the heart, which aren't always apparent on the surface. It is a concern, though, when we create such a culture of fear of "judging" someone wrongly or unfairly that we paralyze our ability to evaluate for the purposes of knowing how best to lead.

Evaluation is Not Wrong

Worship leaders should be consistent evaluators.  Part of the pastoral nature of our job is to keep a pulse how what we're doing is affecting people individually and impacting the church corporately.  Good leaders analyze and evaluate.  But is it fair to make generalizations when we don't know what's going on in people's hearts?

One of my favorite radio talk-shows is Dennis Prager, a conservative Jewish thinker, speaker, and writer.  Though I certainly value the political discussion, I am most captivated by Prager’s ethical, sociological, and philosophical musings, because they are articulated concisely, poignantly, and winsomely, all from a largely Old Testament worldview (which is an important part of what forms my own ethical, sociological, and philosophical outlook). 

When Prager gets those angry calls telling him that generalizations he uses are prejudicial, biased, racist, sexist, or what have you, he’s quick to rehearse a very helpful diatribe that I think is important for worship leaders and pastors to hear. 

In a nutshell, Prager reminds his listener-ship that though generalizations are never fully accurate (that’s what makes them generalizations, because they’re generally, though not comprehensively true), they are nonetheless helpful and even necessary in order to both have meaningful dialogue and move forward in discussion and ideas.  Without generalizations, we lose the ability to discuss and evaluate things in big terms, broad concepts, and global scales.  Generalizations, as generalizations, don't so much analyze any one person, but seek to evaluate from more broad impressions based on high-level data.  They are, by definition, generalized, not individualized.

Good Worship Leaders Think Evaluatively

In an age of fearing discrimination, some of us are hog-tied when it comes to making evaluative claims about our contexts and congregations.  On the one hand, it feels important to us to ask those information-gathering questions like:

  • How participatory is our worship service?
  • How engaged are people on a Sunday morning?
  • Does our liturgy connect with our context?
  • Are our people committed to what we’re doing on a Sunday morning?
  • What kind of idols are at play here?  

On the other hand we’re sometimes nervous about asking such questions because we feel we’re being discriminating, unfair, or, to use the more common language in Christian circles, "judgmental."  We throw the “heart-card” out there, or sometimes people throw the “heart-card” at us.  It usually goes something like this:

How can you evaluate what’s really going on in my heart?  You don’t really know what’s going on in there, and I find it offensive that you think [X] about our congregation simply because of things you think you’ve seen on a Sunday morning. You’re not God.  You don’t know what’s in my heart.

There are elements of validity here, and they should stop the worship leader dead in his or her tracks if they’ve too pointedly singled out a particular person without much warrant except for observation.  However, sometimes such questions paralyze us from making good and appropriate generalizations based on observation.  Generalizations, by their very definition, include exceptions which defy the generalization (exceptions like, sometimes people with full-on dead-panned faces in worship really are fully engaged in worship).  However, a generalization, being true for most people, is helpful to make precisely so that we can be free to ask important questions and make strategic decisions. 

Evaluation is a Form of Biblical Wisdom

The truth of the matter is that we must engage in such evaluation.  It’s our pastoral duty.  Some of this duty is to pray and seek the Lord's will as His Spirit speaks through His Word, and secondarily but importantly through others and through circumstances.  But the other part of this duty is the simple, biblical pursuit of wisdom. I'm convinced that evaluation and generalizations are some of the tools God has placed in wisdom's chest for our benefit.  A good leader leads from the kind of wisdom which evaluates and makes generalizations so that he or she can make wise decisions.

So, my encouragement to worship leaders and pastors is to move forward in such wisdom, knowing that at times your sinful heart will wander off into unhealthy judgmentalism and even full-blown false accusation.  But don't let the fact that every good endeavor of yours is mixed with sin chain you up from being a wise leader who evaluates, generalizes, and then prayerfully implements vision and plans of action for the sake of Christ's Church.


Is “God Inhabits the Praises of His People” Really Biblical?

I reluctantly lift up the truce-flag of exegetical honesty.  I desperately want it to say it.  Many worship leaders (including myself) have quoted it as saying it.  It would be a great proof-text-style summary verse for a very important aspect of the theology of worship.  But the fact is that the translational evidence leans heavily against us being able to say that “God inhabits the praises of His people” is an accurate rendering of the Hebrew of Psalm 22:3.  Now, it is certainly a possible translation, but it is not the one that makes the best sense of the poetry.  Before we unpack this, let’s look at why it would be so valuable for it to say what it doesn’t say.

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The Importance of Mentoring the Next Generation of Worship Leaders

In the last few years, God has brought on a strong urge think about mentoring those younger than myself.  In fact, I’ve got five working relationships with young men at various ages and stages of interest.  I’m teaching guitar lessons to a 10-year-old and an 12-year-old.  I’ve been incorporating another young man, about 14, into our worship band.  I just had lunch the other day with an 18-year-old, encouraging him to pursue the high calling of pastoring people through worship, and I’ve brought in another 18-year-old on board to expand the ministry of modern worship to our students and children.  I’ve begun a long-distance relationship with a 20-something on the west coast with semi-regular phone calls and prayer.  For each of them, there’s no magic formula.  There’s not even a game plan.  In fact, I’ve adopted a methodology I largely call “absorption mentoring.” 

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