“The 33 Most-Valuable Leadership Lessons I Have Learned”

A few nights ago at a conference, I sat in a room with a group of other lead pastors. Some carried the unseen scars of many years of ministry; a few still showed a bit of the shine of idealism. The speaker in the breakout session addressed the things we needed to remember in order to make it in the “marathon, not the sprint, of ministry.”

He spoke warmly, sincerely and wisely. He encouraged, challenged and comforted us. As I looked around the room, I saw what I have seen so many times in gatherings of pastors: that worn-out facial expression. I couldn’t help but wonder if I looked as tired as the rest of them did.

When I got home, lying in bed, I stared at the ceiling in the darkened room and thought about what I have learned about being a lead pastor in the last year.

I had recently read an article that gave a very direct and honest list (and one that is perfectly accurate in every respect to my experience. You can find it here.)

Having been in ministry for over a dozen years, there have been many lessons, but if I had to summarize things and convey them as concisely as I could to a person stepping into a ministry role, what would I say?

Though I know that the list would grow exponentially if I thought about it for any longer (because I already know many more things I could add), for now, I would give these thoughts as a primer I have gathered from moments in my own life and from watching other leaders in ministry. Some of those examples showed great leadership, deep wisdom and God-centered motives, and others I use as a self-test (when I think about possible actions to take, I think back on some of these leaders’ actions and consider what they might do in a given situation…then I do the opposite).

So, in no particular order, and as they come to mind, I humbly offer these hard-won lessons…

  • Be brilliant in the basics.

Read the Bible. Pray. Fast. Practice grace. Die to self. Seek the presence of God. Revel in the union with Christ. We often seek the profound only in the eventful and novel moments with God, but true meaning is found in living skillfully in his holiness and beauty. We expect him to arrive by thunder when sometimes he is found in the whisper (1 Kings 19:11-12). Don’t miss him.

  • Leadership amplifies insecurity.

The pressure of leading will reveal your weak points (and everyone has them). Like a car slipping from your blind spot into view, so too those insecurities will arrive quickly and unannounced. Very rarely are you prepared to confront your own brokenness. Navigate those moments well, and address them as they come. Learn to call insecurity what it is: misplaced security. Anything you depend upon for ultimate security other than Christ will fail you. Continually redirect your thoughts toward the security found in Christ alone. If you focus on who you are from a biblical vantage point, you will begin to view your innate sinfulness and your righteousness in Christ in the correct way (Romans 7:18; 2 Corinthians 12:9-10; Ephesians 2:19).

The only person more miserable than an insecure leader is a person serving under that leader.

  • You’ll lose sight of the ground from the back of a high horse.

Stay humble, be bold, and guard yourself against pride (James 4:6; 1 Peter 5:5).

  • There is more than enough success to go around.

As the leader, you don’t have to stockpile victories or fight for credit. Granted, there will always be those people (leaders included) who live in such a state of paranoia and insecurity that they will steal glory from anyone, including God (and we all likely know of or have sadly served under such leaders before). These leaders are of such weak constitutions that they are threatened by the success of anyone else, so they seek every opportunity to “put you in your place” when you do something well.

Don’t be like those people.

Seek the welfare of others, accept responsibility for what falls upon you, but spread the credit among those of your team used by God to make success possible. Share kindly and freely with others, and you’ll always have enough of what you need (Proverbs 11:17). After all, we are all a part of the same body in Christ (1 Corinthians 12:21-26).

  • At any given moment, there are more people in the valley than on the mountaintop.

Hurt people are always present and always looking for answers. Recognize that fact and offer hope, support and a path toward healing in Christ. Life is hard, and some people have a hard time navigating it (Proverbs 18:14).

  • Guard your heart on Saturday night and Monday morning.

Granted, you should be watchful every moment, but before and after you preach are vulnerable times. Many pastors who quit do so on Monday. If you are a lead pastor, you know the temptation is true.

People will want to “catch you for a quick word” right before or right after you speak. They don’t realize the battle you are facing or the fight you just waged. In some ways, you have to accept that it will be hard for them to grasp the level of warfare experienced unless they have been there.

  • One of Satan’s most effective tools is people.

They are not your ultimate enemy, but people are sent as a means to disrupt the mission. God uses people; Satan does too (Ephesians 6:12). I have talked to ministry leaders at multiple churches who have endured or are currently experiencing the pain of sinful coup attempts from within. Given an opportunity, some people rise up in the name of God to stop the work of God (think about Saul/Paul and also how false teachers arise from those inside the church). Threats come from the weeds sown among the wheat.

We are all less-than-completely-sanctified, but sometimes you wonder if some people are even being changed at all. And no matter how much you pray, seek and serve, some people will always be your adversaries.

In his book Leadership Pain, Sam Chand writes that regardless of the size of your ministry, 10 percent of your people are “devils.” (If you have never served in the ministry, you likely think this statement is harsh; if you have served in the ministry, you’re thinking, “Only 10 percent?”) Just remember: Satan has a seat saved every Sunday.

  • Jesus did not heal everyone.

Although everyone goes through seasons of hurt and need, you won’t be able to spend all your time ministering to every single person who calls. If you minister at a large or mid-sized church, there is no way you can make every hospital visit, be present for every surgery and stand at each deathbed; that is the cold, hard reality that you (and your people) will face. Some people will want to call you with every issue, no matter how small, and some will have legitimate concerns, but the needs will be so great and varied that one human will not be able to meet them.

Build structures within the organization to help meet needs, but don’t get pulled into the “my-issue-can-only-be-met-by-the-leader” trap. Busyness does not equal effectiveness (Exodus 18:17-23; Mark 1:32-38). Pastoral care is a major limiting factor for organizational growth. As a church grows, more and more of the care must be spread among groups, lay leadership and staff, but I encounter people regularly who want the perks of a larger church, but desire the personalized pastoral attention a small church offers.

If you are in a growing organization, you won’t be able to make every call, visit each person and accept every invitation. Don’t allow yourself to be held hostage by someone else’s unrealistic expectations. (And yes, some will be disappointed, angered or even leave the church because of this, but understand this fact: you can have a church that grows to reach more and more people, or you can have a church where the pastor makes all the contacts, but you cannot realistically have both.)

  • Prepare for underappreciation.

As one of the long-time lead pastors I know said to me once, “Most people have no idea of the struggles of a pastor, so most of them struggle at showing appreciation.” It can feel like a lonely and sometimes-thankless profession, so it helps to brace yourself for the eventuality of those hard moments. I know some pastors and leaders who would say, “Pastors know what they are getting into, so they need to stop whining and find their appreciation and encouragement from God alone.” True, all good things come from God, and the source of strength must come solely from him, but church members have the gifts of service, hospitality, encouragement and giving in order to use them to build up each other – this includes the pastor.

I have talked to a number of pastors at other churches since taking the lead position, and some have related stories of hurt. Theses pastors have shared that some people will act like the church is doing the pastor a favor by hiring him. I’ve spoken to leaders whose churches will low-ball the pastoral positions on pay, or allow them and their families to struggle without benefits, and then wonder aloud why the church “can’t seem to keep” a strong leader. Still others have said that their congregants view the pastors and staff as “hired hands” to do all the ministry and make members comfortable above all. Sadly, some churches seem satisfied to starve the shepherd by lack of appreciation and support, yet expect him to have an endless supply of that appreciation and support to feed the sheep. Is it any wonder why many pastors leave the ministry feeling rejected and wounded?

I believe that, just like individuals, churches have “love languages,” and sometimes the church has a different love language than the pastor does. If you are a pastor at a church that deeply appreciates you and shows it, you are blessed. If not, do your best to surround yourself with a very few trusted people who can encourage you.

  • Avoid the idolatry of ministry.

Ministry is a wonderful means to bring glory to God, but ministry itself makes a terrible god. Your meaning and purpose do not come from your ministry, but from your identity in Christ. Your ministry can never become the source of your fulfillment. Otherwise ministry becomes your idol, and fulfillment is always fleeting (Jeremiah 2:13).

God is first, always. But God and ministry are not synonymous. I have said often, “God, then family, then ministry.” If ministry ever begins to severely damage the spousal relationship, or becomes more important than family, then it may be time to take a step back or even a step away. We lay our family upon God’s altar, not the altar of ministry expectations.

  •  One of the most important displays of strength is the control of power.

Power under control is at the heart of biblical meekness and endurance (Colossians 3:12-13).

  • Worry will always be willing to pull up a chair.

Worry changes things: it turns courage into fear, peace into anxiety and faith into doubt. Don’t give it a place at the table, even when it wears the mask of “legitimate concern” (Psalm 37:8).

  • What you say “no” to is as important than what you say “yes” to.

Lead yourself. You can mean well but grow so overloaded that neglect yourself to the point that you are no good to anyone. Good intentions can override good sense. If you don’t make your schedule, somebody or something else will. We always hear about people saying “yes” to the best and most important things but being aware of God’s direction in saying “no” to the right things matters as well (Acts 16:6).

  • The mission is more important than the critics.

It does not matter how well you lead, how many lives you see changed or what movements you are a part of, there will always be someone who doesn’t like it, wants something else or has a vastly different idea of how to do things. It will be especially hard when you see God move in a unique and wonderful way, yet this type of person will not recognize the divine because God did not accomplish the work in the way they expected or found most comfortable. You can waste a lot of time trying to please all the critics.

Quit giving irresponsible people responsibility over your life. If you are in the center of the will of God, be okay with disappointing others. You will face numerous people who have a sinful, obsessive need to attempt to control everyone and everything around them. They will attempt to tie multiple strings to you to manage you by fear, guilt or doubt.

Someone will always try to put God’s work back into the grave (John 12:9-11). Just because they are loud does not make them right. As much as you can, limit your exposure to them and limit their seats at the table. Don’t let their misery become your own.

  • The methods are less important than the message.

We can get so caught up in “doing things a certain way” that we miss why we do them at all. I was in a church meeting once when I was a kid and witnessed a yelling match over the color of the proposed carpet to be installed in the church. Some thought it was too light; others said it was too dark. It escalated into a very negative evening. Sadly, these sorts of things still persist…

“Why do we sing that song when I prefer something more traditional / less traditional?”

“The pastor should talk slower / talk faster / speak louder / speak softer / inject more humor / always be gravely serious.”

“Pastors should always use a pulpit / should not use a pulpit / should stay onstage / should walk among the audience / should dress like so / should use this version of the Bible.”

“I liked it better when we (___________fill in the blank______________.”

It all points toward the consumer mindset. Consumerism is based upon self, and self-centered worship will ultimately promote legalism. The methods will then become sacred, as much as or even more so than the message (Mark 7:8). When thinking reaches this point, people began to believe there can only be one “right way” to do things, but no one can agree on what exactly that one way is.

Thom Rainer conducted a poll of pastors and asked them what makes pastoral ministry so difficult. Some of the top responses were: “members whose priorities are their own comfort and preferences,” “the expectation to be on call 24/7” and “conflict and complaining among members.”

And yet, while the complaints are voiced, the methods critiqued and criticized and the preferences loudly demanded, the world outside the walls dies and goes to an eternal Hell. If people allow the color of a one-inch layer of woven nylon underfoot, the beat of a certain song or whether or not the pastor wore a tie on Sunday derail their hearts from the priority of reaching others with message of Christ, then it can be said rightly that those hearts are off-mission.

Stick to the priority of the mission, do whatever it takes, pray for the complainers (but don’t allow them to steal your time), and surround yourself with people who understand the big picture.

  • You will spend time wisely when you value time greatly.

To live wisely, one must take into account the brevity of life. Pray that God would teach you to number your days (Psalm 90:12). One day you will get out of bed and never get back in it, or get into a bed and never get back out. Last-minute legacies don’t last. Make the most of the time you have.

  •  Know your team cold.

The average church has two flocks: the congregation and the leadership. You must take care of both. Take the time to learn how the staff and the other leaders think. Understand their fears, doubts and weaknesses. Celebrate their victories, joys and milestones. Shepherd them. Go to bat for them. Take a bullet for them if necessary. Lead them well, even if that means hard conversations and difficult moments. Invest in them, and don’t throw them under the bus. As times change and needs grow, responsibilities will shift and jobs will be modified. Help them with those transitions. And when some don’t or can’t make those changes, handle them with as much grace as possible (1 Peter 5:1-4).

  • If people see you living contrary to the mission in private, they will doubt what they see in you in public.

Be consistent. Watch out for your soul. You live in a fishbowl as a leader when you are in public, but you must strive for integrity when no other human is around (Psalm 51:6,10).

In addition, for church leaders, there is the integrity or lack thereof that you display to your team. If you backbite, speak negatively of other teammates, build alliances with part of the team while excluding others and display a blatant lack of character in the office, but then stand on Sunday morning and paint yourself as a warm, caring and open team player, it is only a matter of time before someone speaks up and/or you witness an exodus of staff members. There are few things as damaging to a leader’s reputation among those he leads and in the community as a weak character that cannot bear the responsibility of the position. Before you lead others, make sure you can lead yourself.

As a Christian, you have the Holy Spirit inside of you. Therefore, everything you do, good or bad, righteous or sinful, is done in the presence of God. You are the sanctuary; remember that.

  •  The joy of ministry does not erase the reality of the curse.

Ministry is messy, hard and painful. Don’t expect it to be perfect. Be prepared to deal with the damage of living in a sinful world with compassion (Matthew 9:36). You will face great obstacles, but an underdog without a challenge is just a dog.

  •  Your words carry more weight to heal or harm than you realize.

Watch your tongue, use that power wisely and keep silent long enough to pray about how to respond (Proverbs 18:4, 21; James 3:1-12).

  •  Character is not taught but forged.

You can pass along skills or go through checklists for competencies, but the heart is developed through trial and struggle. Face it: you will be tested, and it will hurt. Sometimes it is hard to know exactly how the process is going to shape you, but you must trust that God knows what he is doing. The steel may cry out against the hammer, anvil and fire not knowing the end the swordsmith has in mind (James 1:2-4).

You may be the greatest communicator that the world has known, have an amazingly entrepreneurial mind and wow audiences with your charisma, but if you lack character, you will be a train wreck for those you lead and for your organization as a whole. 

I’ve seen the sad scenario play out on more than one occasion: a person will desire a leadership position, but instead of leading wisely and patiently over time to be chosen, he will manipulate, campaign and orchestrate his promotion.

If you must exert your own power to ensure an outcome, your promotion may not be of God. And if you rely on human efforts to gain your position, you (and everyone around you) will never know for certain if you would have gotten there by God’s grace alone; your ministry will always carry the scent of doubt. God is not obligated to maintain anything you accomplished by your own power.

  • Feelings, not truth, lead most people.

Most decisions in our post-truth culture are made by dependence upon raw emotion or personal opinions elevated to the level of indisputable fact, not upon unchanging, universal biblical truth. Unfortunately, this issue is a growing problem in most churches and ministries as well.

Always bring them back to the truth. It will be viewed negatively for the most part, you will be called “narrow” and “outdated,” and some will respond violently and emotionally because they cannot articulate their beliefs in a logically consistent way (even though they may think they are doing so). Be calm, be firm, but know you will be held accountable for proclaiming the truth in the best possible way (Proverbs 14:12). God’s Word is far more effective at changing lives than your cleverness will ever be.

  • Never underestimate the ministry of presence.

Sometimes, to bear another’s burdens, all you have to do is show up and be silent (Galatians 6:2).

  • There will come times when you must reclaim your sense of wonder, your divine calling or wounded parts of your life.

One of the leading authorities on leadership, Peter Drucker, said that there are four jobs in America that are the most-difficult (not in any particular order):

  • President of the United States
  • CEO of a hosptial
  • University president
  • Pastor

Being a pastor is hard. Very hard. It is very likely the hardest thing you’ll ever do. You are under constant pressure to manage expectations, time and energy. When the pressures loom, they can be overwhelming.

As a mentor and friend of mine told me once, “We can get so caught up in the machine that we are only mechanics.” Ministry can force you into unhealthy routines and rhythms. You can slip into a cycle and stay there for years. You will be tempted to become jaded, disillusioned or hopeless. You will be required to unlearn your ruts. In those moments, remember what a very wise person told me once…

“General Goble was in charge of the digging of the Panama Canal. Just before the completion date drew near, an earthquake caused a great deal of the dirt and rocks to fall back into the canal. An American reporter found the general overlooking the massive setback and asked him what he planned to do. Goble reportedly responded, ‘I’m going to dig it out again.’ There will be times you will have to dig your life out again. Keep on rekindling the dream, getting up and going after it” (Proverbs 24:16). 

It will be worth it. Remember: the Cross seemed hopeless too.

  • Ride for the brand.

In the American West, the phrase “ride for the brand” was a phrase used to express a cowboy’s loyalty to the ranch or outfit for which he worked. To say that another “rode for the brand” was viewed as a high compliment. The hours could be long, the work seemed thankless at times, and the dangers and discomforts were many.

In ministry, we ride for the brand as we take God’s global mission for making disciples, then accomplish that locally through our faith family (Matthew 28:18-20). As leaders, we must communicate the mission, weave the mission into everything we do and say and highlight those threads regularly. Reconnect people to the mission with stories, touchstone moments and themes.

If you find that you need to redirect and change your culture to better match the mission, treat it as a bonsai tree: to shape it takes constant pressure, careful pruning and extended time. No one drifts toward mission.

  •  If there is no true burden, there is no true leadership.

Conviction is a prerequisite to lead. As one leader told me, “The weight never goes away. And if you wake up one day, and it is not there, you need to be concerned.” Who and what has God placed on your mind and heart? (Colossians 2:1-6; Romans 9:2, 10:1). The burden from God drives the vision from God that can only be accomplished by the power from God. A lack of clear vision leads to a lack of consistency. Make sure you know God’s mission for your own life and make sure you are on board with yourself.

  • Care about fewer things more deeply. 

Culture loves to add things to your must-have, must-do, must-be list, but focus is far simpler than most realize. Life is complicated enough without cluttering things unnecessarily with lots of add-on’s (Matthew 6:33).

  • Just because someone is a good leader elsewhere does not necessarily make them a good leader in ministry.

It happens often: someone is seen as a good business leader, or a leader in the community, and immediately they are given a leadership position in spiritual matters. It does not always work.

As a pastor, I have continued this fight for many years (and I assume that I will have to continue fighting until I am done with ministry). When people identify “leaders” they most often look to the obvious: their public position. I have heard the same old, tired and mistaken line too many times to count, “Well, so-and-so is a doctor/lawyer/business owner/elected official, so I know that he will be a good leader in the ministry.”

And truth be told, if God only used human logic to accomplish his goals, then we could default to a cut-and-paste mentality when choosing leaders: “He has a thriving business, so let’s get him to lead that committee. I heard her speak at a fundraiser; she is an amazing communicator, so let’s ask her to lead a Bible study.” People may have practical skills, and those skills are highly valued when leading in certain areas, but when it comes to choosing a leader for spiritual undertakings, your criteria must extend beyond skills. The internal life must not be ignored.

God looks at the heart first. Henry and Richard Blackaby, in their book Spiritual Leadership, address this very issue clearly:

God’s assignments are always based on character–the greater the character, the greater the assignment…The Israelites clamored for a leader who would lead them by worldly principles. God gave them one [King Saul], and the results were disastrous…Leaders’ best thinking will not build the kingdom of God. Why? Because people do not naturally think the way God does…The danger is in believing that human reasoning can build God’s kingdom. It cannot.

If a person is a great business leader, but does not lead his family, then his is not a person who needs to lead others spiritually. If a person hold an elected position and has the support of the people, but she does not lead herself, then she should not be given more responsibility to shepherd others. If a person is well-known in the community and has a name for being a “good person,” but that same person has serious, unaddressed character issues with self-promotion, greed, bitterness, racism, legalism, gossip or a host of other damaging practices, then he is not a person who needs to serve in leadership.

Given a choice, I will pick a leader with character and fewer skills over one with more skill and less character every time.

Let’s remind ourselves that Jesus left the advancement of his mission not in the hands of kings, governors and CEO’s, but with a group of uneducated, relatively-unknown roughnecks who turned the world upside down, not with stunning business principles or the popular vote, but with the unearthly, supernatural power of God.

  • Make wise plans for the future, but remember that you must live in the now.

You can only take action on things in the present, not the past or the future. We live in the tension of doing life now and planning for what lies ahead (Proverbs 6:6-8; James 4:13-14).

  • “After victory, tighten your helmet cords.”

The Japanese proverb reminds us that success does not always eliminate the threat entirely, in fact, dropping one’s guard can result in a renewed assault. The best course of action is vigilance in victory – tightening the helmet cords. When you win a spiritual battle, you are vulnerable to attacks because the tendency is to relax and strip off your armor. A win can be as deadly as a loss. Your enemy is always waiting for the best moment to strike (Ephesians 6:11-12; 1 Peter 5:8, 2 Corinthians 11:14).

  • God will get what he deserves.

He will get his honor in Sabbath rest, his offerings of sacrifice and his glory; one way or another, he will get all he deserves. You can slow down and trust him fully in your rest, or he will allow you to work yourself to the point that you must rest, and that kind of exhaustion comes with collected interest. You can withhold your offerings from him, and he will receive it from you in other ways. You can neglect giving him glory, and he will orchestrate events and circumstances to bring glory to himself by whatever means he chooses. Give, trust and worship by faith, not force (Psalm 100:1-5).

  • Learn to wait.

We do not realize the depth of the work that God accomplishes in us while we wait for him to speak, to lead and to move. Don’t try to force open a closed door, even if it is your door, because what waits on the other side is not ready to be given, or you are not ready to receive it, or maybe both are true. Become more comfortable in the waiting by fostering a heart of expectation for his goodness and glory to be shown in his time. God is always good, and he is never, ever, late (Psalm 27:14).

  •  Everyone you meet is an eternal being.

We lead with the end in mind. Granted, someone will be leading 10 years from now; so we must find those people and invest in them (as well as current leaders). Everyone will live forever somewhere; point as many as you can to eternal life (John 5:28-29).

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