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.

Nehemiah 5:1-13

            Nehemiah was a faithful follower of God who had been taken into exile to Babylon.  But, through his initiative, Nehemiah laid plans to return to Jerusalem and rebuild the broken down wall which surrounded the city.  Once Nehemiah arrived and arranged for work teams to busy themselves on the wall, he discovered there was much more to rebuild than just a physical wall.  A wall of separation existed between fellow Jews based on economics.  The poor were being taken advantage of as their fellow Jews were exacting usury from them.
            Nehemiah’s response is instructive for us.  He did not ignore the situation and only focus on the wall.  He firmly and squarely addressed the problem, and was downright angry about the circumstance of Jewish families essentially living in a state of slavery.  Nehemiah was clear, concise, and direct about the nature of the problem.  He threw himself into being part of the solution instead of only complaining about what was happening.  Nehemiah did not over-involve others in the process of handling the conflict, but handled the issue by taking counsel with himself.  Finally, he attacked the problem without alienating others, and held people accountable for their actions and their promises.
            Packed into these few paragraphs of Scripture is a sort of case study of how to engage significant problems and conflict.  This is a section of the Bible not to quickly read over, but to ponder, examine, and absorb Nehemiah’s dealing with the situation.  We all need some guidance and direction when it comes to confronting the problems that surround us.  Let this story serve us well in addressing the issues in our lives.


            Holy God, you have a special concern for those who are poor and needy.  Enable me to live and speak wisely into the crucial needs which exist around me, so that Christ might be exalted through the power of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Leading with a Limp

Confrontation and struggle were a way of life for me in my first pastorate.  In just the first six weeks of being in the church I faced every kind of sin imaginable, to the point that my mentor in the faith recommended I take some time off having not even been there for two months!  Although that was a difficult time, the greatest struggle was with God himself and feeling like my prayers were doing nothing but bouncing off the ceiling.  In fact, I spent several years of my life in an extended wrestling match with God.  He touched me and crippled me by his grace, reminding me how much he is in control.  Since that time, I lead with a limp that is not visible – a limp that reminds me that I am a different person who knows Jesus better and is much more at peace with life.
            After I left that pastorate I needed to take some time off from ministry and I took a job in a factory believing that this was a brief sojourn of maybe a year before I would return to pastoral ministry.  I ended up being in that factory for seven years laboring in obscurity wondering if God knew what he was doing.  The short story to this is that I discovered that being a pastor was who I was, and not a position that I held.  So, I began shepherding my factory flock – literally spending my working days doing more than supervising others and doing repetitive activity, but leading others to Jesus. 
            If we do not wrestle with God in the stressful times of our lives, we will not learn what genuine humility is, how much we need the Holy Spirit, and the grace that can be ours to face the rest of our lives.  Nearly five hundred years ago Thomas a Kempis wrote to new priests entering ministry with this advice:  “We should so firmly establish ourselves in God that we have no need to seek much human encouragement.  It is when a man of good will is distressed or tempted, or afflicted with evil thoughts, that he best understands the overwhelming need he has for God, without whom he can do nothing.  While enduring these afflictions he takes himself to prayer with sighs and groans; he grows tired of this life and wished to die so that he could be undone in order to live with Christ.  It is in such times of trial that he realizes that perfect security and full peace are not to be found in this world.”
            In the Old Testament, the patriarch Jacob was worried and stressed.  He knew he had deceived his brother Esau many years earlier to gain their father’s blessing.  Now Jacob is about to meet Esau after all these years, and he is downright afraid for himself and his now large family.  So, he divided them up into two groups, thinking that if Esau was going to attack, the other group could escape.  The night before the big stressful meeting, Jacob sent his wives and family across a tributary of the Jordan River, the Jabbok, and spent the night alone wrestling with God.  Jacob came away from that encounter with a permanent limp that forever changed his life (Genesis 32:22-32).
            God will put us in positions of life that create encounters with him so that we will walk away changed.  Those encounters usually come in the form of engaging God with all the questions and difficulties of a very stressful situation.  The inner change that occurs comes in the form of a new identity, a new limp, and a renewed understanding of God’s grace that through disability and weakness we are able to lead.  Leadership is not so much about being strong and having all the answers; instead, it is shepherding in weakness; it is being mindful of our limitations; it is being comfortable with mystery; and, it is leading from the invisible places that no one sees.
            Has God left a permanent mark on you?  Do you carry a limp from him?  What is your name?  How does God identify you?  Our great need is not in being more clever, or smart, or working harder; it is God’s grace that we all need.  As a kid, when my parents left the house, my brother and I would rearrange the furniture so that we could have a good-solid-knock-down-drag-out wrestling match.  Since my brother was older, it usually ended badly for me with a pile-driver that left me incapacitated.  It is seriously a miracle that I am still alive after being dropped on my head so many times.


            Whenever we come to the Table, we are reminded of the Son who wrestled with the Father in prayer in the garden of Gethsemane and came away confident of facing a cruel cross so that we might have life.  The Lord Jesus carries with him even now the reminders of his suffering – the marks on his hands and his feet from a crucifixion that accomplished deliverance from sin on our behalf.  The elements of bread and cup are deeply symbolic reminders of what Jesus did as the cost for our salvation.  And they are further reminders that just as we eat the bread and drink the cup we will drink again with Jesus at the end of the age.  It is faith in Jesus alone that creates and secures for us a transformed life so that we can share in a crippling grace from him forever.

Choosing Capable Leaders

Maybe it should go without saying that Jesus himself is to form everything we do in the church. Nevertheless, it needs to be said because one bad apple in a church leadership position can spoil the whole bushel of leaders.  This is why character formation is at the core of being a church leader – because the elder’s ministry of oversight, shepherding, and discernment of God’s will comes from the inner resources of knowing Christ; and a deacon’s ministry of outreach and service comes from a close walk of faith with Jesus.  In a very real sense, elders and deacons are to manifest or reveal Jesus to the congregation.  It is a high calling.  In the New Testament text, 1 Timothy 3, Paul gave to the Church seven requirements of Christian morality and seven requirements of a daily walk for leaders.  These fourteen requirements are the basis for those who serve the church so that the responsibility of the church’s mission might be kept on track of bringing people to Jesus.  These requirements for leaders arise first and foremost from their experiential knowledge of Jesus Christ.
            The first set of seven has to do with morality.  A church leader is to 1) have a good reputation; 2) be completely faithful and devoted in the marriage relationship (by the way, this doesn’t mean that a church leader must be married, because then even Jesus wouldn’t qualify as a church leader); 3) be clear-minded or even-keeled (consistent); 4) self-controlled (not trying to control others); 5) possessing moral courage, that is, specifically to speak truth with grace and not take the coward’s way of complaining; 6) a friend of strangers (hospitality quite literally means love of the stranger); and, 7) able to impart instruction to others, or, in other words, able to communicate truth in such a way that helps people and builds them up and does not tear them down in the Christian life.  These seven requirements are possible because the leader has witnessed Jesus personally working in his or her life.
            The second set of seven has to do with the conduct of the person in everyday life.  A church leader is to:  1) not be a drunk; 2) not given to being angry and constantly carrying a chip on his shoulder about something he doesn’t like (respectable); 3) gentle; 4) not always picking a fight about something; 5) not thinking about the all-mighty dollar in every decision; 6) having a caring approach to family that results in loving relationships with kids, because after all, rules without relationship will lead to rebellion not only in the family but in the church, as well; and 7) the leader must not be a beginner in the faith, but have some proven maturity in order to handle the job well so that those on the outside of the church may see that there is something wonderfully different about the way things are handled and done among those who profess Jesus Christ.
            In addition to this, we have seven related requirements for deacons:  1) dignified in every kind of relation (worthy of respect); 2) not double-tongued, saying one thing to one person and something different to another (sincere); 3) practicing moderation when it comes to drinking; 4) not greedy; 5) keeping very close to faith in Christ with a pure heart; 6) able to handle the eyes of everybody in the church on them when they serve without falling apart; and 7) also holding to the vows of marriage faithfully and nurturing kids well.
            God calls and sets apart individuals for his service so that he might reveal and manifest his presence among his people.  Jesus Christ wants his church to be built up through faithful service.  A few final observations:  notice that nowhere in this passage or in the New Testament is there found that it is the main requirement of a church leader to listen to complaints and whining.  The ancient Israelites took quite a beating from God for being a community of grumblers.  Philippians 2:14 flatly says Do everything without complaining or arguing.  Neither will you find that the church operates just like an American form of democracy.  Instead of church leaders being representatives of the people to do their will, church leaders are rather representatives of God to the people so that God’s will is done in all things.  So, then, prayer is a major work for elders; and, outreach a major work of deacons because this work is primarily the work of God and only secondarily the work of people.


            So, in selecting church leaders, churches have a biblical imperative to not just arm-twist anyone who will respond, but choose men and women of God whom are people of high integrity, on the path of spiritual maturity and pursuing Jesus Christ.  May God be glorified, Jesus followed, and the Spirit unleashed.