The 33 Most-Valuable Leadership Lessons I Have Learned (Thus Far)

I sat in a room with a group of other leaders at a pastors’ conference. Some carried the unseen scars of many years of ministry; a few still showed a bit of the shine of idealism. The speaker for the breakout session we attended 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. His years of ministry experience were on clear display. 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.

Later that night in my bed, I stared at the ceiling and thought about what I have learned about being a lead pastor. A recently-read article circulated in my mind; it had given a very direct list of things a pastor should know. (You can read the article here.)  A list of my own began to form in my head. 

Having held various church-related ministries at different churches for over a dozen years (and being involved with multiple other ministries for a decade more), there have been many lessons, but if I had to summarize things and convey them concisely to a person stepping into a pastoral or other 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 leaders showed great leadership, deep wisdom and God-centered motives, and others lived through mistakes that have served as cautionary reminders of our frailty and fallibility.   

So, in no particular order, and as they come to mind, I humbly offer these hard-won lessons. Many times, the people “in the pews” never see “behind the curtain” of church leadership. I know that some of what follows will sound very plain-spoken, and perhaps even overwhelming (or unbelievable) but I have attempted to be as prayerfully transparent as possible in relating the weight of these ideas.

  • Be brilliant in the basics.

Read and trust the Bible. Pray. Fast. Practice grace. Die to self. Seek the presence of God. Revel in the union with Christ. Love people sacrificially. Be bold. Avoid laziness. Be honest. Work hard. Rest wisely. Have integrity. Live by faith. Depend upon the power of the Gospel. 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.

Being brilliant in the basics is not just for the individual leader, but the church as well. Sam Rainer, in his book The Church Revitalization Checklist, explains how losing sight of the basic priorities will result in a downturn and decline. Rainer writes, “Churches decline for two main reasons – both having to do with a shift in priorities. First, they lose passion for the Great Commission (Matthew 28:16-20) and the Great Commandment (Matthew 22:34-40). Second, as a result, they no longer give God glory. When a church no longer pushes outward with the Gospel, the people will no longer look upward to God’s glory. A church lacking both an outward and upward perspective will inevitably move in the other two directions: inward and downward. Inward churches always decline.”    

The types of misaligned priorities listed by Rainer include…

  • Nostalgia is more prevalent than devotion. – The church’s history is discussed more than the Bible. The past is the hero, not Jesus. People are more upset when something is out of place in the “heritage room” than they are with knowing their neighbors are lost. Memories of the past bring more emotion than the mission of the present.
  • Polity is an end, not a means. – People refer to the bylaws as if they should never change. In this environment, the government of the church dictates how the church ministers…Pastoral tenures are short. 
  • Traditions detach the church from community culture. – The church rebels against looking like the community…These churches hang on to traditions that hinder the work of the Gospel.
  • Preferences override God’s mission for the church. – Rather than fighting a battle against the spiritual forces of darkness, the church becomes a battleground for pet programs, favorite songs, styles of worship and approaches to ministry.
  • Generational power struggles exist. – The older generation clings to power. The younger generation refuses to accept responsibility…The church struggles to find multi-generational teams of volunteers. The older generation comes to one service while the younger generation attends another.
  • Comfort with the status quo outweighs a willingness to sacrifice. – In this environment, apathy becomes a contaminant polluting the mission of the church. Status quo churches act more like social clubs than Kingdom outposts. 

When an individual, or a church, neglects biblical priorities, spiritual erosion is unavoidable. Be brilliant in the basics.  

  • Leadership amplifies insecurity.

The pressure of leading will reveal your weak points; everyone has them. Like a car slipping from your blind spot into view, 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 person in leadership is someone serving under that person. It’s a sad thing when people doubt their calling from God. It’s even more sad when they doubt the character of God. But it is extremely unsettling when those doubts arise because someone who should be leading those people toward God is the cause of their doubts.

In many cases, the spreading toxicity of some workplace environments can be traced back to the insecurity of individuals at the leadership level. In our insecurity, we might become arrogant because we refuse to see and hear reality for what it is. As I write this, I am mindful of a close friend who shared horror stories of a nearby church whose staff culture is governed in a negative, militaristic and bottom-dollar manner. It’s a place that fits the warning of a mentor of mine: “When ministry becomes a machine, you become a mechanic.” Employee departures occur on such a rotating basis that the leadership saw the need to create an entire public relations program to boost morale of the staff, diminish the overall impact of public negativity and reframe any perceived shortcomings to the congregation as a whole. The continual openings for positions are not due to church growth, but to staff members leaving the environment for healthier places of service. Such narratives become cautionary tales of the descent into spiritual darkness while claiming that it is a light, but God can redeem even the worst experiences and turn them into something of value.

Even though our sovereign God weaves all the dark and light threads for the good, you’ll still pay an ultimate price for your insecurity in leadership and extract a heavy toll on those serving with you. But consequences will come; they always do. God is not mocked (Galatians 6:7). It’s the law of the harvest. You will reap what you sow, reap in a different season than you sow and reap more than you sow. Be careful what you put into the ground; no matter how long it may take, the harvest will come.

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

When God chooses to elevate you, it is all too easy to begin to think you achieved the next step with your own power or due to your own worth. Stay humble and guard yourself against pride (James 4:6; 1 Peter 5:5). Humility is the way of life the kingdom of God. That old adage is true; when you see a turtle atop a fence post, you know one thing for certain: he did not get there by himself. 

  • 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 who live in such a state of paranoia and self-promotion that they will steal glory from anyone, including God. Some people 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). Celebrate God’s work in other people’s lives and ministries. 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 every person at some point in time will need help navigating it (Proverbs 18:14). Love them well through the hurt and walk with them through the darkness. 

  • 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. It’s been said that many pastors who quit will do so on a Monday. If you are a lead pastor, you know the temptation is true. (Adrian Rogers once quipped that he would never take Monday as a recovery day because he did not want to feel that terrible on his day off.)

People will want to “catch you for a quick word” right before or right after you speak. Or, perhaps even worse, they will send a highly critical message arrives as you begin to recover from the pressure of the morning. 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 (and likely impossible) for them to grasp the level of warfare experienced on a Sunday unless they have been there.

And if you really want to know power in the pulpit, make prayer the key point of your preparation. Study hard, prepare with precision, but be sure to spend more time on your knees than in your notes.  

  • God uses people; Satan does too.

They are not your ultimate enemy, but people can be sent as a means to disrupt the mission. God uses people; Satan does too (Ephesians 6:12). 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 may have a seat saved every Sunday, but God is still the Master of his house.

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.

One of the greatest pressure points can arise when God is moving, but certain people are “stuck.” When a group of people within the church refuse to move forward at the pace of God’s leadership, everyone becomes frustrated. It could be that those in opposition desire all the long-time ministry silos stay stacked in place and then find themselves at odds with others who sense God moving toward deeper growth or seek to align and unite the ministries under a unifying mission, vision and strategy. I’ve heard of deacons refusing to seek unity by being “shock absorbers and servants”, but rather stand as a polarized, politicized, heavy-handed body or, instead of being champions of the vision for the church, become the final, legislative “check” on the entire direction of pastor’s ministry. (Jamie Dunlop states God’s arrangement well: “Elders lead ministry, deacons facilitate ministry, the congregation does ministry.” I might add, when the role of deacon can interpreted differently in some churches, one must approach the particular application of roles in respective ways.) I have heard of committees digging in so that change would not occur and members creating what amounted to lobbying groups to resist forward movement. I’ve seen long-time members put their own needs and wants and comfort above reaching new people who need Christ or are seeking a church home. Let’s get to the bottom-line all of these situations I listed above or any like them: God will not bless any ministry operating outside of his biblical standard no matter how comfortable, preferred or esteemed it might be. We must line up with God’s truth. And when we align with the truth, change must occur.  

The fear of change is often not about change at all, but perceived control. When things change, people fear that their power is slipping. The reality is simple: we have far less power than we think we do, and we control far more than we would like to admit. Life itself is full of change.

No matter the motivation, and no matter how well meant (or ill-intended) the heart, God desires that everyone – as individuals and corporately – to change and grow spiritually. This concept is the core of the process of sanctification: God loves you just as you are, but he loves you too much to leave you just as you are. Too many times churches believe that they can experience great growth without great change. You can not resist change and expect to grow whether physically or spiritually. Growth requires change.  

In organizations that allow Satan to use these types of hindrances to gain ground, growth can slow to no movement at all. This can lead to every decision, even the smallest ones, being pondered and discussed for long periods of time before any helpful and healthy change of any sort is initiated (if at all). By the time the decision is finally made, the moment to strike the iron could have passed, and the opportunity may be no more. Now more than ever, the church must be nimble and dynamic in adapting to the shifting culture; this will require true disciples with a holy boldness, surrendered hearts and willing minds to be used most fully by God. God’s will involves not only his “what” but his “when.” If you’re an hour late, you can’t blame the train for leaving the station without you.

One of the best treatments I have heard on the subject of the importance of churches transitioning in order to reach the next generations is this podcast episode by Thom Rainer. Give it a listen! 

We must never label continued resistance as “faithfulness.” There is a need for wisdom at every crossroads of change, but sometimes when we call for “moderation,” the subtle reality may be a call to continue in comfortable stagnation, and unchecked stagnation will always lead to petrification. Ministries and approaches within the organization can become hardened relics firmly fixed in a matrix of preference. Every saber-toothed tiger excavated from the tar pits was one an apex predator who just got stuck. The only difference between a stick in the mud and a fossil is time.   

Change is hard because people overestimate the value of what they have – and underestimate the value of what they may gain by giving that up. James Belasco and Ralph Stayer 

There are times when a member of the church, a lay leader or even a staff member does not (or will not) align with the mission, vision and strategy of the church. At any given moment, there is at least one active resistor to whatever forward movement is underway. At my current church, when our leadership encounters those who are loudly and persistently change-resistant, we know that there are three options: Either God will change their hearts, they will change their volume or they will likely change their location. We pray for a change of heart – that God will speak to them clearly from his Word and that they will seek his will with full surrender. If they continue to fight and complain, we will tolerate a change of volume; they may disagree, but they can do so quietly and respectfully without causing conflict or disunity. And, if no other change occurs, they will often seek a change of location. We clearly state that we might not be the church for every taste and preference; God has not called us to be that. At times, some people find it easier to worship elsewhere, and we have embraced that reality. But we will not stop the forward progress of the mission of God because a few people want things to remain just as they are. God plants, and he prunes. 

This is not to say that there is no hope of transformation. God can, and does, break through to people. Given the work of the Holy Spirit, I have seen scripture radically change critics to humble, passionate followers of Christ. (I have also see the same scripture harden others more deeply.) People are the ministry, people are to minister and people are the reason that ministry is so hard. We are all less-than-completely-sanctified, so show grace, even when some people resist forward movement. 

  • 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, make every home visit and stand at each deathbed; that is the hard reality that you (and your people) will face. The needs will be so great and varied that one human will not be able to meet them. This is not a matter of whether you care or not. I care deeply for the well-being of the members of our church. I grieve with them, pray for them and want to minister to them in the best way possible. As much as I truly wish I could be physically present for every crisis and valley (as well as every celebration and victory in life), I also know that I am just a single person, and they are many.   

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 all the perks of being in a larger church, but desire the personalized and individualized pastoral attention a much smaller church may offer. I try to lovingly explain the limits, but let them know that someone will be there or reach out to them.

And into situations like these come the Bird Dogs. The writer Marshall Shelley describes these people accurately,

Four-legged bird dogs point where the hunter should shoot. The two-legged Bird Dog loves to be the pastor’s eyes, ears and nose, sniffing out items for attention. “If I were you, I’d give Mrs. Greenlee a call. She has some marital problems you need to confront.” Or, “We need more activities for the youth.” Or, “Why doesn’t the church do something about…” 

Most pastors respond to Bird Dogs by saying, “The Lord hasn’t said anything to me about this, but it sounds like a good idea. Obviously you’re concerned, and that’s usually a sign the Lord is telling you to do something about it.” Those genuinely concerned will take up the challenge. Genuine Bird Dogs, however, will grumble, “That’s your job, Pastor. I’m just calling your attention to something important.”

Of particular bother is the Superspiritual Bird Dog. This purebred strain is more likely to point out things that always leave the pastor feeling defensive and not quite spiritual. “The Lord has laid on my heart that we need to be praying more for renewal.” Who could argue otherwise? Or, “We need to develop more maturity within this congregation, wouldn’t you say, Pastor?”     

If you have been leading for even a short time, you have encountered this type of “helpful” person. With reference to this type of continual problem-pointing, one pastor quipped, “I don’t need more Bird Dogs. I need more shooters.”      

If you are in a growing organization, you won’t be able to make every call, visit each person and accept every invitation. Do all that you can in a biblically-healthy manner, but don’t hold yourself hostage to your own (or someone else’s) unrealistic expectations. Understand this fact: you can have a church that grows as numerous people reach out to numerous people, or you can have a church where one person – the pastor – attempts to make all the contacts, but no matter how much you might wish things were different, you cannot realistically have both. 

  • Prepare for potential under-appreciation.

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 emotions in the hard moments. I know some pastors who have said, “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 within the church, people 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 churches who have shared that their churches act as thought they “did the pastor a favor” by even offering a position and others whose churches who allow pastors to struggle in every way in order to “keep them humble.” 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. Others have experienced the struggles of being hindered from leading the flock because the area of leadership is relegated only to the pulpit, not over any other spiritual direction or vision casting within the church. And sadly, I have spoken to encouragement-starved shepherds expected to have an endless supply of that appreciation and support to feed the sheep. It is no wonder why some pastors leave the ministry feeling rejected and wounded and never look back.

I believe that, just like individuals, churches have “love languages,” and sometimes the church has a different love language than the pastor does. The single, most-valuable thing that our church has done for me is to trust me to lead them well. Thankfully, we have members who come alongside and pray for me and my wife, encourage me with their words and try to make it as easy as possible for me to “look out for their souls” (Hebrews 13:17). If you are a pastor at a church that deeply appreciates you and shows you great love (as our church does) know that you are truly blessed. If not, keep loving your people the best you can (even in the thanklessness) and 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 is a terrible god. Your meaning and purpose do not come from your ministry but from your identity in Christ. Over the years, I have spoken to many pastors who see their worth to the kingdom in terms of how big their church is. (By the way, just because it is a big church does not mean it is a great church.) Personal ladder-climbing disguised as God-centered kingdom-building can become a way of life for these pastors.

Pastor, take this to heart: your ministry can never become the source of your fulfillment. Otherwise ministry becomes your idol, and fulfillment is always fleeting (Jeremiah 2:13). The only true source of fulfillment is found in Christ; your ministry is the expression of the fulfillment Jesus alone brings. We have little concept of how greatly God’s work can expand; we fail to realize how far an ego can stretch as well.  

  •  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 high 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 and neglect yourself to the point that you are no good to anyone. Good intentions can override good sense. If you don’t set 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.

(Seeing as how this is a common topic and an often-discussed issue among ministry leaders, this will likely be a longer entry, so settle in…)

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 quarrelsome critics. Some people may be blind to the working of God’s Spirit while claiming to have deeper spiritual insight than anyone else. Perhaps the following example would help to clarify the idea.

My approach to planning and preaching sermons has always been to center the message upon God’s truth, and though there are plenty of “standalone” sermons sprinkled throughout the preaching schedule, I do tend to preach through a series at a time. Sometimes it is based upon a book of the Bible, and at other times I trace an idea through the Scriptures. Most often, the only times during the year I preach a “seasonal” series of sermons are at Easter and Christmas, but the remainder could be any topic as God leads (sometimes it may be themed to the season, sometimes it is not). This means if someone is dead-set with a fixed expectation on hearing a specifically-themed sermon on any particular day of note, they will probably leave disappointed. 

To be fair, I have friends in pastoral ministry who tailor sermons to whatever holiday or special occasion is next on the calendar. This was the approach of the church I attended as a child. There was a specialized sermon, not only for Easter and Christmas, but for the beginning of a new year, Valentine’s Day, Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, Memorial Day, Fourth of July, Labor Day, Halloween (usually used to preach about Satan), Veteran’s Day and Thanksgiving. One pastor I heard of stated that he doesn’t need to pray about God’s direction because he determines his sermon topics every week by what holiday is on the calendar or whatever story is on the front page of the paper.

I am not criticizing the hearts or the motivations of those who preach based on the special days of the calendar (I do believe that we must guard against particular non-religious holidays becoming elevated to “high holy days” in the minds of people). Though I might occasionally include a sermon more-befitting a particular day, my criteria for planning a sermon rarely include what occasion may lie ahead. Thankfully, the churches I have served are not fixed in any expectation of a particular sort; their main concern has always been to take every opportunity to reach people with the Gospel and point to utter allegiance to Christ alone. The truth of the Bible, the life-giving Gospel, and the empowerment of the Holy Spirit will never change, but we must be willing to put everything else – every tradition, expectation, opinion and style preference – on the table.

It was this approach that led to a caustic encounter. On this occasion, the worship service related to the Fourth of July was the focus. Before I go further, understand this: I love America and being a patriot, enjoy celebrations of America’s birthday and have family members who fought and died for freedom, but I am careful to keep Jesus, not anyone or anything else, front and center of every sermon I preach. On that particular Sunday, though I mentioned a couple of things about freedom and used a Revolutionary War reference as an illustration, there was no overtly patriotic mention of America, the Founding Fathers or the armed forces in the sermon. This was no plot among the staff to avoid mentioning anything patriotic; we just prayed and focused on what God would want us to do as we always had done. We planned the service, and I just preached Jesus boldly that day and made much of his presence, his comfort and his glory.

When I got home that afternoon, an angry email appeared in my inbox (as well as the inbox of our worship pastor). This member wrote that mentioning Jesus to such a degree without giving patriotic mentions of America equal time was evidence of our church bowing to “liberal theology,” bringing shame upon the men and women who died for our nation and contributing to the overall decline of society as we know it. Never mind that the week of every “patriotic” holiday, the driveway and circular parking lot of our church was lined and ringed with a large number of full-size American flags the likes of which could be seen from space. That was not enough; in the member’s mind, America should have been celebrated proudly in the service because that is what the pulpit is for. I responded with an apology that the member felt this way, but did go on to ask how God had used the sermon of the morning to challenge, teach, transform, and celebrate the person and work of Jesus even without the patriotic bent. 

Based on the infuriated response I received, the answer was clear: the member’s stance was right, I was wrong; nothing I had preached that morning was worthwhile or praiseworthy given the occasion, and God himself shared in the anger, disappointment and grief. We had a face-to-face meeting a few days later, and things turned for the worse. Every negative thought and every accumulated criticism spilled out in an emotional tirade. You may be familiar with the suggestion that you should look for and carefully mine the nugget of truth buried in every critical statement, but that is a false notion. Sometimes there is no nugget, but a deep, dark hole that will bury you with a cave-in if you step into it too far. 

The member (and spouse, who was also at the meeting) emphatically stated that service and sermons around the time of Independence Day “MUST celebrate God AND country.” Every year. Without question. Without exception. They then proceeded to tell me that I had royally failed by ignoring the opportunity to promote fervent love for the nation from the pulpit. They were not done yet. Then came the statement of belief that all foreign missionaries should be pulled from every country where they are currently serving to be brought back to America because our country “needs God more” than the other nations. The other countries around the globe, according to them, could fend for themselves spiritually. When I stated that we, as Christians, are here in this nation to go out and make Christ known, both within our own borders and to other nations as well, the couple stared at me blankly, shrugged their shoulders and shook their heads. Though they were adamant that we did a great disservice in not mentioning those who lost their lives defending freedom, they had no concern for any mention of martyred believers – missionaries included – who have given their lives for the Gospel since the founding of the Church.

I then explained to them that we must decide what our identity truly is. Are we “Christian Americans,” or are we “American Christians?” If we see our identity primarily as Americans, and “Christian” is just the descriptor of what kind of Americans we are, then we are operating from a non-Biblical viewpoint. We must identify as Christians at the core of ourselves, first and forever, regardless of what country we are from; our nationality is the descriptor of our identity, that is, our nationality is where we live as citizens of the kingdom. My identity as a Christian is eternal; my identity as an American is temporary. (Though 65% of Americans self-identify as Christians, statistics show that in studies where the researchers dig deeper and ask for understanding about key biblical beliefs, only 6-9% of Americans could rightly be called “true Christians.”) We must never prioritize our national identity above or to the same level as our kingdom identity. I’m all for patriotism, celebrating America and remembering our freedom, but let’s be cautious to never conflate being an American with being a Christian or vice versa. You can be a great American without Jesus and still go to hell at the end of life; we must remember that followers of Christ of have more in common of eternal importance with a member of an isolated people group in a foreign country who is also a Christian than our most patriotic relative who does not know Christ yet. At the end of this explanation, I thought things were fairly clear from a Biblical perspective.  

The couple looked at me with deep anger and disgust while loudly disagreeing. They said I was completely wrong in my approach and belief. Bible verses were pitched my way that (supposedly) supported their stance. The verses were taken out of context  in that they were meant originally for national Israel, but applied wrongly to America. They had elevated love of country to the point that it was the same as the love for God himself. The “old rugged Cross” was just a flagpole for “Old Glory.” The sad reality was clear: this was not criticism, but idolatry; the disappointment in a perceived lack of patriotism created a failure to recognize God’s presence. 

I can’t really express how grieved I was over those statements they made. My grief was not because we had done anything wrong in our planning or the execution of the service (there is, in fact, nothing I would have changed or added if I could go back and do it again) nor had we dishonored God in any way. My grief was centered on two things: the reality that the couple missed the Almighty altogether because their love for country got in the way and the fact that so many people are more patriotic about their earthly nation than their heavenly homeland.  

The resource that proven to be most helpful to me (and the men in my small group) in clearly explaining the biblical view of how politics and religion, patriotism and faith, church and state work together in God’s kingdom is this book. I truly believe that every American Christian would benefit from reading it.

So how do you deal with the harshest of critics when you are leading? The main challenge I have found is shifting your perspective in order to avoid giving responsibility over your life to the people who are not responsible for your life. If you have carefully searched the Scriptures, prayed fervently, depended upon the wisdom of God and have received clear direction about the will of God, you must be okay with disappointing others sometimes. Each one of us will will face people throughout our lives who have a sinful, somewhat obsessive need to attempt to control everyone and everything around them. No workplace, organization or even family is immune from people attempting to tie multiple strings to manipulate through fear, guilt or doubt. They will approach you with S.P.A.S. statements (“Some people are saying…”) in attempts to bolster the weight of their words and complaints. They will unabashedly seek to be the gods of their own lives and to sit of the throne of everyone else’s life as well. The more time you give to the “little-g” gods, the more you will circle idolatry. Avoid being pulled into their orbit.      

You might be wondering, “What happened after the meeting about the Fourth?” The couple’s viewpoint did not change (they only dug in deeper), I continued to preach the Bible just as strongly, clearly and unapologetically as I had before the meeting, and our church still focuses more on Jesus and less on our nation on at any time of the year and including Sunday morning when the Fourth of July comes around. Sometimes, the best thing you can do with criticism of that sort is shrug it off and do your God-given duty. Don’t give the critics the time, energy or opportunities to drain you, but always give them more of Jesus. 

I also received a couple of other messages regarding the sermon on that day. Both of them related how God had used the sermon and the text to encourage them and give them hope in the midst of hard situations. I just wish that everyone had their “spiritual ears” in tune with the Word that morning.  

Someone will always try to put God’s work back into the grave (John 12:9-11). In many cases, they aren’t right; they are just loud, but don’t allow a loud statement from Satan to drown out the voice of God. Some people will vilify your ministry no matter what you do. As much as you can, limit your exposure to them and avoid giving them seats at the table. Don’t let their misery become your own. And related to this idea, another thought…

  • 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 business meeting once when I was a kid. This particular church could never seem to keep a pastor for very long, and it was loudly, proudly and fully congregation-ruled (not pastor-led) down to the smallest of details. It is the kind of church that reminds me of a comment a pastoral friend once shared, “When a discerning pastor realizes that, despite his best, Bible-grounded and Spirit-directed efforts, the church he attempts to lead will always refuse to change, it’s time for him to make sure his resume is updated, because another flock, who desires a shepherd to lead them, is waiting.”

This is the kind of church in which no one could repaint a single spot on a flaking window sill without it first being brought before the entire congregation for a discussion on the nature of the flake, who originally painted the window’s trim, when the work was done, the type of paint that was first used and what type of paint, brush and/or ladder to be used for the repair, followed by extensive prayer and finally a vote (resulting in a rift between the “paint-the-window” and the “save-the-paint” groups).  I often wondered how they would call a church meeting if the church van had a flat tire on a trip because surely such an action would require the approval of the masses. Since every single leadership decision, no matter how small, required a meeting, discussion and a major vote, forward progress was not just slow; it was positively glacial. This church is barely alive today, remains stoically unchanged and still operates as though the year is 1985.

These two articles that helped our church better understand the “why” of updating the schedule of  meetings and how to improve our current church business meetings

On the Sunday night of one meeting, I witnessed a shouting match centered on 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 long, negative evening with lasting repercussions. Sadly, these sorts of disagreements still persist, both in business meetings and in comments voiced elsewhere… 

“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 only use a specific version of the Bible.”

“I liked it better when we ( – insert golden calf here – ).”

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.”

A church consultant friend of mine asks the general question: “What year is it at your church?” Every attender (and every church as a whole) has an approach and mindset which communicate a ministry date-stamp. It has been said that most churches run at least 20 years behind the times in adapting their methods in order to reach the culture around them. But we must live in the time we all find ourselves and minister in today while looking forward to what God has in store for tomorrow. No one can minister to yesterday. Too many churches attempt to find success by going back to when “something worked in the past.” How often do we hear well-meaning voices state, “If we can only get back to _____________.” We celebrate God’s faithfulness in the past, but we must not idolize what came before, no matter how good it might have been. A church trying to relive the past reveals that it has no compelling vision for the future. 

Often, these types of internal pressures emerge when growth from God is taking place. It happens more than we might expect. A pastor is given a vision for spiritual growth. He and the leadership of the church begin to pray and act upon God’s direction. More people begin to attend. Lives are being changed. Excitement grows. A spiritual work is underway…and then change must come. Perhaps it is adding a service time, or changing the weekly schedule. It may require bringing on or training higher-capacity leaders to manage the discipleship process for a larger group. Facilities must be evaluated in order to best use the space for the growing church. In the words of the pastor Nelson Searcy, “The truth is that when a room reaches 70 percent of its seating capacity, it’s full. Period.” The use of the church website and related social media will require continual improvements and updating. Policies, by-laws and the very organizational structure might need to be revised or overhauled.

Sam Chand, in his book Leadership Pain, references the numerical milestones which require churches to adopt different ways of thinking and new approaches to ensure growth continues. A certain mindset or a set of approaches may help you arrive at a particular level, but that same mindset and approach will not allow you to move past the growth barrier. Chand explains, “For the past few decades, many consultants have observed particular points in a church’s growth that require new insights and skills to break through to the next growth barrier. In How to Break Growth Barriers, Carl George identifies these levels at 200, 400, and 800 [and then 1000-1200]. Pastor and consultant Nelson Searcy pegs the specific levels on a broader scale: 65, 125, 250, 500 and 1,000…Pastors need anticipatory vision. In other words, they need to anticipate what they’ll need in order to get where God wants them to go. As they dream, pray and plan to get all their resources in order, they will be creating a ripple effect of change throughout the organization. If they’re not ready for it – and if they’re not willing to pay the price – they’ll stay stuck at their current personal and organizational status. Growth always involves pain. In organizational growth, leaders actually cause pain, but for a very good reason. It’s the only way to grow.”             

And that’s when discontented members often cry foul.             

Some church members find themselves too satisfied when their preferences are met, but grow resistant when Jesus, not their preferences, takes center stage. Jesus does not exist to meet our selfish desires, personal preferences or limited opinions. Everyone has an opinion, but not every opinion carries the same weight. In fact, many people are critical because they are fully committed to the sinful idols named “tradition,” “preference,” “expectation” and “opinion.” One former church member (who held vastly different theological beliefs than our church teaches) was so opposed to certain approaches I took that he would call me late at night to complain about things he did not like; “The Holy Spirit told me I needed to get this off my chest if I wanted to rest tonight, and besides,” he said, “I knew you were free at this hour.” I listened to his angry rants a couple of time, then at the next call, I told him that he could talk to me during regular business hours at the office or at more reasonable times if he had the need to communicate those sorts criticism. He refused and eventually earned a call block on my personal phone. Sometimes you must limit accessibility from those who abuse it.       

While the internal complaints ring out, the methods regularly critiqued and criticized and the litany of sacred personal preferences loudly demanded, the broken world outside the walls dies and goes to an eternal Hell. The lesson I learned in that church business meeting in childhood holds true today: If people allow the color of a one-inch layer of woven nylon underfoot, the paint scheme of the hallway, the musical style 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 the message of Christ and experiencing the growth God brings, then it can be said rightly that those hearts are sinfully 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 don’t give them a public platform to vent), and surround yourself with people who understand the big picture. Remember, it’s the message that is of primary importance…and the message is Jesus.    

  • 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 leaders living contrary to the mission in private, they will doubt what they see 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). I remind myself often that I will give any account to God for my life; nothing is hidden from him. What you do when no one is watching is the true test of character. 

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 the exodus will begin. 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.

An unhealthy leader may be well-respected by those kept in the dark, but those who know what goes on behind the curtain will regard everything said and done by that person with growing suspicion. Be careful how you live. 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. In their excellent book Spiritual Leadership, Henry and Richard Blackaby express the danger and delusion of self-promotion: “God’s methods of authenticating his leaders are far more convincing [than human authority]. Leaders who become preoccupied with defending themselves and their reputations display an acute lack of faith, for they do not trust God to vindicate them. Some people constantly enlist their friends and associates to promote them so they obtain prominent positions. True leaders don’t do this.”

If you must exert your own power to ensure an outcome, your promotion may not be of God (Psalm 75:6-7). 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. Your character will be revealed in the way you receive your authority.

  • 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 sometimes be viewed negatively, you will be seen as radical for standing upon biblical standards, and some will respond 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, be silent and love them (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 hospital
  • 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 experience moments where you wonder what the next turn in the path will bring. You will be required to unlearn your ruts. In those moments, remember what a very wise person told me once…

“Just before the completion date of the Panama Canal drew near, an earthquake caused a great deal of the dirt and rocks to fall back into the canal. An American reporter found the man in charge of construction overlooking the massive setback and asked him what he planned to do. The reported response was, ‘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. Years ago, after accepting a lead pastor role, I had a talk with my former pastor Dr. Hollie Miller. I mentioned to him that it felt like a literal weight was placed on my shoulders the day I accepted the position. He told me, “The weight – the burden of ministry you feel – 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 fully present and on board with yourself. As one of my mentors told me, “Be prepared to spend the rest of your wherever God sends you, but be ready to leave tomorrow if God calls you.” 

One of the best books on leadership I have ever read is this one. The biblical truths and practical principles in these pages have shaped my approach to leadership for years now.        

  • Care more deeply about fewer things. 

Our culture can equate any busyness with effectiveness and the spirit of the age 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.

We see it 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. If that person is a devoted follower of God, that can be an excellent appointment, but it does not always work when the decision is based upon solely human standards.

These individuals are trained and talented; no one is arguing that. But just because someone is a communicator of facts, campaigns or strategies does not mean they are filled with God’s Spirit. In ministry, you can be primarily talent-led or Spirit-led, but not both.

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 current (or former) doctor/lawyer/business owner/elected official, so I know that he/she 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 he 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 “upstanding citizen,” 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.

Understand, skills are very important. You don’t want to bring someone aboard who will struggle with doing the job, but given a choice, pick a leader who is a great Christian willing and capable of developing some skills over a candidate with more skill but a questionable character. Always, always, always put character before clout.  

Let’s remind ourselves that Jesus left the advancement of his mission not in the hands of kings, governors, celebrities, CEO’s and influencers, but with a motley crew of uneducated, relatively-unknown roughnecks who turned the world upside down, not with stunning business principles, envied social circles, great charisma or the popular vote, but with the 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, 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 still 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. When God speaks, obey immediately, whether you must wait a minute or a decade for his direction. 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, 20 and 30 years from now; so we must find those people and invest in them (as well as current leaders), but more importantly, everyone will live forever somewhere. Point as many as you can to eternal life (John 5:28-29) and love them well because those of us in the family of God are going to spend forever together. Start practicing now for your first 10 billion years.    

 

5 thoughts on “The 33 Most-Valuable Leadership Lessons I Have Learned (Thus Far)

  1. Pingback: Ranch Life | Dustin C. George

  2. Good morning,
    Excellent article and something I have witnessed at the churches I have been a member of over the past 54 years. Granted, the first 8-9 years I wasn’t really paying attention. As a deacon and as an elder in the SB denomination I have seen “church people” cause splits (yes plural) over many of the things you write about here. Keep the faith.

    Respectfully,
    Dale Bradley

    Like

    • Thanks for the comment Dale (and for visiting the site)! Sadly, it’s true what you say.
      I’ve seen it all too often as well. May we never lose sight of the reality that eternity is at stake and never become sidetracked with the lesser things.

      Like

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