The Humble Leader

            In this Advent season as we anticipate Christmas, I have been reflecting on the great importance of humility.  Since Jesus humbled himself and became one of us, it seems to me that Christian leadership and church ministry really ought to take some cues from the posture of our Lord.
Humility is the queen of all Christian virtue, especially that of leadership.  Yet, humility is one of the hardest virtues to practice because it requires that we willingly put aside pride, ego, and personal agendas in order to embrace God’s agenda.  Being poor in spirit (Matthew 5:3), becoming like a little child (Matthew 18:3), and thinking of others as better than ourselves (Philippians 2:3) are the cornerstones to becoming open to what God has for us.  To be a humble leader means to be obsessed with seeking God’s will and way in everything, and then to have the courage to lead others in God’s direction despite resistance and opposition from those who want to follow a different path.
            Therefore our task as Christ followers is to be consumed with seeking God’s direction rather than living purely according to our instincts, pragmatic desires, and personal views.  We continually need a radical openness to God.  We must work to develop an ever-deepening awareness of where God is leading us.  God is up to something and He has plans for us and our community.  Humility allows us to listen well to God’s Spirit.
            But being open to God is not quite as easy as it sounds.  We need to recognize that not everyone is open to God.  There are those, maybe even including ourselves, whom are closed to God.  If our focus is more on creating safety and security, trying to do enough good deeds to be recognized by God and others, and having the church be what we want it to be, then we have become closed to what God wants.  This comes out in a couple of different ways.
            First, people who want to maintain tradition at all costs may be closed to God.  When doing things the way we have always done them makes us feel safe and secure, then anything that threatens that security makes us angry.  This is the place where folks practice either fight or flight – they wage either a holy war or just leave.  Living with uncertainty and ambiguity is too much for them.  But that is what it takes if we are going to follow God.  Like Abraham, we are called to move and change without always knowing where we are going.
            Second, it is not just members trying to maintain traditions who can be closed to God.  Those who want to get rid of traditions can be just as closed off to God.  Sometimes folks who want new or different music, spiritual practices, and ministries desire to create a church of their own making to serve them and their needs, and not a church that focuses on what God is calling them to do.  Like Timothy, we are to hold onto the great deposit of doctrine and heritage given to us and not always be looking for the next new thing to turn things around.
            So, what to do?  Have the humility as leaders to continually and constantly ask the question: “What is God’s will?”  We need to practice leadership that is incredibly open to God.  This allows us to lead from a position of faith, and not fear.  This helps us to let God flow in and through us, rather than willfully insisting it should be our way or the highway.  This enables us to practice hope and love, and not rely on our own strength and desires.  Humble leadership which is open to God makes prayer and discernment the foundation of what we do, always seeking what God wants and then leading others in that direction by inviting them to the same kind of prayerful process.  We must read our Bibles as if our lives depended on it, and pray like there is no tomorrow.


            If we have humility and a deep openness to God; a conviction that we are primarily called to follow Jesus Christ; a willingness to let God’s power flow through us; and, a determined readiness to move people lovingly and graciously in God’s direction, then amazing things can happen in our churches.  Let our prayer together be this:  “I’m yours, God, no matter where you call me to go, what you call me to do, and how you call me to be.  I will seek your will and way as I lead others to do the same.”

Put Yourself Out There

“I can’t offer the Lord my God a sacrifice that I got for nothing.” (2 Samuel 24:24).
            This seems to be one of those “lost” verses of the Bible.  No one really wants to sacrifice.  Anybody who has been around church for any length of time knows that the church is all for change – that is, everyone else should change to conform to the way we are already doing things.  People are not looking to change themselves – to offer God a sacrifice that is costly.  In fact, we want pastors and church leaders who will offer change with a minimal sacrifice on our part.  We want assurances and certainties that there will be changes made that will not disturb us, but will affect others.  After all, it’s the world that’s going to hell, not us.  They are the ones who need to change, not us, right!?
            Um, wrong.  Jesus did not die on the cross so that we could avoid the cost of discipleship.  The Holy Spirit was not given to us in order to fulfill all our ideas of how church and life should operate.  No, we are called to a radical life of following Jesus in a sacrificial life.  Taking up our crosses and following Jesus daily does not mean that we are suffering through media bias, or have to put up with mediocre preaching and/or pastoral care.  It means that there are demands on our lives as Christians to live sacrificially, giving our very lives for the sake of Jesus. 
            Let’s face it.  Living the Christian life and committing ourselves to a life of following Christ is dangerous business.  Following God got Daniel in the lions’ den; Isaac on the altar; and, Paul at the end of a whole lot of stones being thrown.  But we have no record of Daniel, Abraham, or Paul whining about how hard it all was; or, how much they would have to give up to actually change and live for God.  In fact, we get just the opposite:  “Christ has shown me that what I once thought was valuable is worthless.  Nothing is as wonderful as knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.  I have given up everything and count it all as garbage” (Philippians 3:7-8).
            Let’s be honest with ourselves:  We don’t put ourselves out there and live for God with complete abandon because we are afraid, risk-averse, and just do not consider it worth committing to some church thing that may or may not pan-out for me.  What we need to hear, and what we want to hear, are often two very different things.  When parishioners simply look to pastors and leaders for easy answers and simple solutions to the complex challenges of our world, the church ends up with dysfunction.  If our concept of leadership is expecting a pastor, elder, or ministry leader to solve problems with no ramifications for ourselves, then it ought to be no surprise when churches do nothing but routine management instead of boldly reaching others with the gospel of Jesus Christ.
            I’m not delusional.  I get it that congregations rarely hire pastors to disturb their lives.  Members expect that pastors will use their authority to provide them with right answers, and not to confront them with the need for growth, change, and completely wrapping their entire lives around the person and work of Jesus.  But the work of ministry demands disturbing people – just doing so at a rate they can absorb.  Even then, after all has been done with discernment and love, it could still all implode like a house of cards.  After all, Jesus was perfect and he ended up being killed by people who could not absorb the life he was calling them to live.


            So, you and I have a decision to make.  Will we be the kind of leaders that shrink from the rigors of ministry, fearing what people will think of us?  Or, will we be leaders who embrace the good news of Jesus and seek to orient all of church ministry around Father, Son, and Spirit?  Put yourself out there.  For we all really play to an audience of One.

The Making of a Leader

            If you are in a church, no matter whether a pastor, an elder or deacon, a member, and/or a regular attender or friend of the church – other people are making an example of you.  Yes, people are watching; they see what you do, what you say, how you act, and your attitude toward most things.  Church leaders, especially, are to be good examples to the Body of Christ (1 Peter 5:3).  Maybe you don’t think of yourself as an example to others, or think that more ordinary parishioners have that kind of influence.  But leadership isn’t really about having a position or possessing power; it is about the actions and/or inactions you take.
            No matter your position in the church, you have to take responsibility for the quality of your Christian life.  If you are in any kind of leadership role, you have to decide how good a leader you want to be.  Before you get too uppity about this and get your clerical robes (or skinny jeans and v-neck t-shirt) in a bunch, know that I am in this with you.  I am not speaking as an expert, but as one who is in continuous education every day through actual practice and constant learning.  If you desire the proficient expert, I’m not your guy.  But if you want a perspective from a common pastor in a non-descript congregation, then keep reading.
            I used to get discouraged about the reality that I wasn’t a born leader.  But then I came to my senses and remembered that I was born.  I’m here, so my mother must have given birth to me.  Everyone is born.  Rather, it’s a matter of what we do with what we have before we die that makes all the difference.  There is no evidence that people are predisposed with a leadership gene imprinted on their DNA.  Yes, in the church there are gifts of leadership given by the Holy Spirit.  But that doesn’t get any of us off the hook of leadership any more than not having a gift of teaching means we don’t have to instruct our kids.
            What I’m getting at is this:  leadership can be learned.  It is a skill and ability like most anything else in life.  Therefore, it must be developed and honed, even if one seems prone to be a leader.  If I’m right, or at least you think I’m on to something here, then good leadership means being a good learner.  The thing that really exemplifies good leaders is lots and lots of practice.  It’s been estimated that about 10,000 hours of deliberate practice over a period of 10 years is what it takes to achieve the highest level of proficiency.  Okay, now maybe I’ve lost you.  But this is the price of leadership.  It doesn’t just happen.  Men and women of God don’t just get zapped by the Spirit like some divine magic trick and become automatically great leaders.  God calls, molds, develops, mentors, and shapes individuals of all kinds for his purposes for leadership.  That’s why there are so many exhortations in Scripture to be examples, follow godly examples, and mimic sound doctrine.  Making disciples isn’t like making microwave popcorn.  It’s much more like the outdoor smoker; go low and slow and let the meat cook just right.
            Since leadership is a learned art, then failure is inevitable.  We practice anything to get better at it.  We do it, blow it, learn from our mistakes then try it again – over and over and over again.  Grace comes into the equation because we must allow people the freedom to try and fail without beating them up over their mistakes.  No one wants to even try if they know they’ll get slapped if they fail.  Of all the places on planet earth, the church really ought to be a place where folks can experiment, try, implement ideas, and learn from their failures.  The fact that we don’t typically think of the church this way says a lot.


            Intelligence is helpful; talking a good line never hurts; confidence is beneficial; but taking the time to practice the skills of leadership with dedicated work and focused motivation is the one thing that anyone can do.  Be encouraged to know that Christian sanctification is a process; church leadership can be developed and learned.  If you desire to be a better example, work at it with all your heart.

Philippians 3:17-20

            One day, several years ago, while driving through an intersection, a car turned right in front of me and caused me to slam my brakes. After getting on my way (and proud of myself for not saying a word) my daughter, who was five years old at the time, leaned forward from the back seat and asked me, “Dad, is that guy an idiot?”  Kids often imitate their parents in everything, whether good or bad. This is no less true for adults. When it comes to Christianity, the faith is passed on not just from individuals reading their bibles in seclusion, but is handed down from person to person. Christians learn from leaders how the faith is lived out and practiced, not primarily from listening to sermons, but through imitating what they see.  It is good for us to ask the question: who do I imitate? We pass on things we learn from others, so it is imperative that we learn from the right people.
 “Brothers, join in imitating me, and keep your eyes on those who walk according to the example you have in us.”  We must imitate those Christian leaders who have a proven character in persevering in the faith in the face of pain and suffering, and have done it with great humility. This does not necessarily mean that we emulate those who eruditely speak the Word of God, have superior gifts and abilities, and enjoy success in ministry. It does mean that we ought to imitate, and have as mentors, those persons who imitate Christ and are not self-promoting peacocks who go after being admired and praised. 

We are to imitate those who have proved themselves in hardship. A Christian leader who has not undergone the purgative fires of trials in this life may more easily become seduced by their own importance. However, leaders who have seen their share of hard circumstances, pain, and suffering, and have come through it loving God and serving others out of grace and humility, are leaders worth imitating.  So whom will you follow?  What Christians will serve you well as good models of faith and ministry?

              Sovereign God, you graciously bring people of faith into our lives.  Thank you for bringing many people to my life over the years who have served as good models of Christian faith and practice.  Help me to continue learning, as well as modeling for others, how a Christ follower really speaks, lives, and acts.  In Jesus’ Name I pray.  Amen.