I make mistakes. Sometimes I learn from them. Here’s one I’m chewing on…
I’m pretty fortunate. Many years ago, when I was working my first full-time church staff position, my pastor made sure to invest lots of leadership training in me. We watched leadership videos together, had lengthy discussions about leadership, and he was willing to send me to any conference that would grow me as a leader. It’s an investment I’m incredibly grateful for and it fostered a desire in me to keep on growing. To this day, there’s almost always a leadership book in my reading queue, I subscribe to several leadership podcasts, and I’ll snatch up one on one time with great leaders whenever I can get it. (Side note: if I know I’m going to have an opportunity to shake a great leader’s hand, but no opportunity to really talk, I’ll ask him/her what the most important book they’ve ever read was. If it helped shape them, it will help shape me too!)
I’ve noticed, over the years, that many leaders share similar qualities: lots of vision, a strong work ethic, the ability to inspire, generosity, passion, and the continuing pursuit of leadership knowledge.
Being in ministry for so many years, I’ve had the honor of investing in many young leaders. It’s such a privilege to speak into their lives and give them opportunities to cut their leadership teeth and watch them grow.
There’s been a lot of rough, ragged, inexperienced, ragamuffin guys and girls that I’ve gotten to work with and I’ve loved working with almost every one of them. They come with lots of different issues: insecurity, lack of discipline, poor communication skills, and more. In fact, I’ve even received criticism a time or two for not having higher standards for those I’m willing to invest in.
Truth be told, there’s really only one thing that will make me hit the brakes and say, “No!” Only one thing that will make me immediately deny leadership roles, influence, promotion, or investment. It’s when the potential leader seems to feel entitled to it. When they feel they deserve that role, it’s a sure sign that they don’t. These position jockeys can be toxic to an organization leaving the leader and themselves frustrated and exhausted. Here’s why:
They won’t receive instruction. Ask them what their growth plan looks like (or even recommend a good book) and they’ll probably tell you about a program they went through a few years ago and how they’ve been too busy to read.
They won’t take direction because they think they know better. You couldn’t possibly provide relevant guidance because of your age and context. After all, they did it a particular way at their old church and it worked so it’s practically sinning to do it any other way.
They contribute very little. There’s an appearance of serving there (especially when opportunities come to be on the platform), but they’re suddenly unavailable when it comes time to do the dirty work. Don’t expect them to contribute financially either.
They love the spotlight. (See above.) They can even be very good from the platform. Their giftedness and talents are often great, but those talents can be a major contribution to their feelings of entitlement. When given the choice, choose humility and teachability over talent every time!
If you’re in a place where you’re bringing up leaders, let me encourage you to have a deliberate process in place to deal with this character trait or keep it from coming into your programs altogether. Have an application process that will identify it.
If you think that you may have a spirit of entitlement (hint: if it seems like church leadership keeps you at arms length when you’re trying to get close so you can help, you probably do) then humble yourself. God opposes the proud but favors the humble (James 4:6). NEVER STOP LEARNING. Repent of your pride and show that you’d be just as happy scrubbing toilets as you would be leading worship or teaching.
I’ve found God to be an incredible contrarian. When we really want it, He asks us to lay it down. When we’re content without it, He gives it to us. Lay it down and let God decide when your ready for service.
I heard that phrase lots while I was growing up and, to be honest with you, I had no idea what it meant until well into adulthood (along with many other colloquialisms, I’m a slow learner).
The thing that really brought this alive to me was ministry, and dealing with such a variety of people. I remember praying for a young man one night at the tail end of a church service. He came asking for prayer because he was struggling with thoughts of violence. He claimed he would drive the streets at night looking for a fight to pick. He said he couldn’t help himself and really wanted God to intervene. Out of the blue (or by inspiration of the Holy Spirit) I asked him what kind of movies he liked to watch. He proceeded to give me a list of the most violent, agro-filled, angry films on the market. What surprised me was that he really didn’t know why he felt so violent all the time! He was clueless to the fact that all the garbage he was taking in was making its way out.
What we fill our souls with doesn’t end with our subconscious reactions to entertainment though. One lesson I’m constantly reminding myself of, as a minister, is that I can’t give away what I don’t have.
As leaders, we have a responsibility to be filling up. If we’re going to give others more than pithy sayings, trite answers, and fake smiles, then we MUST be filling ourselves up! We must be on our knees before Jesus, we must be filling up on His word, and we must be gleaning from the faith generals that have gone before us.
So many leaders are running on an empty tank and they’re useless. They’ve exchanged refueling for the sense of accomplishment they get from working ridiculous hours.
OK, I’m going down a rabbit trail so I’ll end.
You can’t squeeze blood from a turnip, you can’t get salt water from a fresh water stream, and you can’t get depth, wisdom, and anointing from a leader who isn’t deliberately being filled with the Spirit and wisdom of God.
Take time to be filled up. Read, pray, rest, and grow. The people you are leading need you to.
I started in full time ministry 15 years ago. It was a really exciting time for me. I remember setting up my first office. The church I worked in was very small and couldn’t afford a decent desk for me so I refinished an old oak army desk a friend gave me. I loved the fact that I got paid to do what I love but I wasn’t prepared to face some of the difficulties that come along with the occupation. In fact, six people left the church in my first month there because they didn’t like me. Here are a few things I wish I would have been told. Maybe they’ll help you if your in the beginning phases of your ministry.
You’re going to fail. Not every idea you have is going to be a success. You’re going to fall on your butt. Get used to it.
Not everyone is going to like you. It’s true, you’re going to rub some people the wrong way. Some people won’t be able to stand looking at you. You’re working with people now and not every personality meshes well with every other personality.
You’re going to struggle with pride. I’m not sure what it is, but it only takes a little bit of momentum before many ministers are drinking their own cool aid and taking on a rock star attitude. Pride will be one of your worst enemies.
You’re going to make some big sacrifices. As hard as you try to protect your family, there will be seasons when you miss having dinner with them. If you have dreams of owning a big house and a boat, don’t count on it. You might as well get used to feeling lonely a lot too. Believe me, there will be times when you YEARN for a “normal life”.
Your ministry will have a profound impact on people. Testimonies are going to come out of the times you allowed God to pour you out and lives are going to change.
You’re going to develop some incredible relationships. As you work to develop your leadership team, you’ll become like family as you pray, plan, work, and bleed together.
You’ll experience God’s mercy as He humbles you time after time. You will learn that, without God’s help, your ministry is useless and it will draw you into a beautiful relationship with Him.
You will love what you do. Seriously, you’re going to have the time of your life! You’ll find that it charges you. Your passion will grow as you see lives changed. The fruit produced from your labor will be worth it!
What are some things you wish you would have been told when starting in ministry?
“Have you ever read this book?” I asked with way too much enthusiasm. He just looked at me with an expression that said, “Yeah, right.” He was a youth pastor that already knew all the answers. His youth ministry was slightly above average in size and he was very comfortable in his position. Normally something like that wouldn’t phase me but, at the time, I’d always been around leaders who loved to read. It was unthinkable to me that someone in church leadership would frown on books (other than the Bible). He was fired a few months later. His pastor’s threshold for arrogant leadership found its limit.
In sharp contrast, I had a conversation once that went like this: “Can you recommend any good books?” I began to list some of my favorites on leadership and ministry. “Where can I get those?” I listed a couple of my favorite places to get books cheap. I had the pleasure of watching this guy take his ministry to great places.
I know, you’re thinking, “Thanks for the cheesy replay of your mentoring conversation Lee.” But it really is that simple. The one common thread I’ve found among leaders that make a sustainable difference, who know how to lead and inspire, who can stick it out for the long haul is a continued commitment to keep learning. They never stop reading, studying, or growing. They don’t rest on what they learned back in the day or what worked for them 10 years ago. In fact, they don’t rest on what they learned only 3 years ago.
This tends to be an even greater problem for someone who has been in the ministry for many years. They believe that tenure equals wisdom, but just because you’ve been doing a mediocre job for the last 20 years doesn’t mean you know a whole lot. In my opinion experience is highly overrated unless you’re learning from it and should never be a substitute for continuing your education as a leader.
So that’s the common thread I find among great leaders. They keep learning. Like an old friend of mine used to say, “Leaders are readers and readers lead.”
What are some other threads you find in good leadership?
Let’s face it, if you’re doing effective ministry, the devil hates it. In fact, he hates YOU. Leaders have a whole gang of enemies they must face in order to keep moving forward. It’s not an easy job and there are perils around every corner.
If the enemy can’t get you to throw in the towel, he’ll find ways of rendering you fruitless. Oftentimes leaders aren’t even aware of their impotence until it’s too late. It’s a subtle, crafty tactic for sure but highly effective. I wrote in an earlier post about The Deadly Duo of pride and insecurity. Today I’d like to expose a few more of these nasties. I call them the Toxic Trio.
Self Preservation – The enemy of vision. When times seem lean, the temptation is to program to keep people comfortable and coming back. Instead of taking risks, and dreaming big, we filter our decisions to keep the money happy. Afraid of losing people (and finances and favor), we start thinking inward instead of reaching outward. This is downright deadly because we forfeit the future when we stop having faith.
Routine – The enemy of innovation. Don’t get me wrong. Some routine is good. The problem arises when we elevate our routine to a place that robs us of opportunity. For example, we skip a great training opportunity because it falls on sermon prep day or during the time when we normally do hospital visitation.
We also have a tendency to lather, rinse, and repeat our programming long past the expiration date. Listen to those around you when they start suggesting new ideas. It usually means your program is losing it’s impact, even if it is still fun for you to do.
Control – The enemy of empowering leadership. This one is huge and really deserves its own post. We really like to be in control and some leaders like to make sure everyone knows they’re in control. They ignore suggestions, hold on to roles they should have let go of a long time ago, and obsess over certain tasks for fear they won’t get done right.
Controlling leaders may get what they want, but before long they’re getting it alone. This demoralizing style of leadership usually drives away a lot of quality team members.
Have you ever seen yourself tackling one of these toxic traits? I know I have, many times. What’s a leader to do? Well, rather than giving you the old 1, 2, 3 bullet points, I just have one word for you, “TRUST“.
It’s important that we learn to trust God when times are tough. Keep dreaming, don’t sink inward. Believe that where God guides, He provides. Trust that He’ll help to redeem the time when we step out of the routine to grow and try new things. You were made to grow, not simply maintain. Trust your team to do their best when they take a project. If God put you together, He really did know what He was doing. Trusting those serving with you empowers them and helps them to grow. That’s worth the risk of a job not getting done right any day!
“those who trust in the Lord will lack no good thing.” – Psalm 34:10b