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 and honest 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 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…

  • 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. 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.

  • 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 often become arrogant because we refuse to see and hear reality for what it is. The kind of blindness that comes from that insecurity will demonize strong, rising leaders, injure godly families, and alienate solid members when they finally see behind the curtain.

As I write this, I am mindful of a close friend who shared horror stories of a church whose staff culture is governed in a negative, militaristic and bottom-dollar manner. It’s a place that reminds me of the words of a mentor of mine: “When it becomes a machine, you become a mechanic.” This particular organization would certainly fit that description. 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.

Stay humble, be bold, and guard yourself against pride (James 4:6; 1 Peter 5:5). Humility is the way of life the kingdom of God. 

  • 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). 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. Many pastors who quit will do so on 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 badly 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 email or text that arrives in your inbox moments after 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.  

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

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). 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 is when God is moving, but people are stuck. When the hands of the leaders are tied in moving an organization forward at the pace of God’s leadership, everyone becomes frustrated. Those who desire that all the ministry silos stay stacked in place find themselves at odds with a pastor or staff members who sense God moving toward deeper growth and who seek to align the ministries under a “north star” principle.

In organizations such as these, growth can slow to no movement at all. Every decision, even the smallest ones, must be pondered, discussed and brought before large groups of people for a vote or majority agreement before any change is initiated. 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 American church must be nimble and dynamic in adapting to the shifting culture; this will necessitate 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.

We must never label continued resistance as “faithfulness.” There is a need for wisdom at every crossroads of change, but sometimes when people call for moderation, the subtle reality may be a comfort with stagnation, and unchecked stagnation will always lead to petrification. Ministries 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.   

That is not to say that there is no hope of transformation. God can, and does, break through to people.  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 may have a seat saved every Sunday, but God is still the Master of his house.

  • 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.

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 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 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 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 allow the pastor’s family to struggle 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. Sadly, I have spoken to starved shepherds expected 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. Thankfully, we have members who come alongside and pray for me and my wife, encourage me with their words and try to help me as I am “looking out for their souls” (Hebrews 13:17). If you are a pastor at a church that deeply appreciates you and shows it (as I am) know that you are truly blessed. If not, keep loving your people regardless 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 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).

  •  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 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.

(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 critics. These people may be blind to the working of God’s Spirit while claiming to have deeper spiritual insight than anyone else.

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 holds an approach and mindset which taken together communicate a ministry date-stamp. It has been said that most churches run about 20 years behind in adapting their methods in order to reach the culture around them. Everyone must live in the time we all find ourselves. How our ministries reach others may be tailored to a specific geographic culture, but still must operate in the current day. Too many churches want to go back to when “something worked in the past” or 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 preferences. In fact, many critics are such because they are fully committed to the sinful idol of preference.               

Perhaps an example would help. My approach to planning and preaching sermons has always been to center the message upon God’s truth, and I 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 upon an expectation of hearing a 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 against Satanism) and Thanksgiving. (One pastor I know stated that he doesn’t need to pray about God’s direction because he determines his sermon topics every week by what is on the front page of the paper.)

I am not criticizing the hearts of those who preach based on the special days of the calendar, nor am I seeking to compare and contrast the strengths and weaknesses of either approach. Though I might occasionally include a sermon more-befitting a particular day, my personal criteria for planning a sermon rarely include what occasion may lie ahead. Thankfully, the churches I have served are not stuck in any expectation of a particular sort; their main concern has always been to take every opportunity to reach people with the Gospel. Sticking to a seasonal theme never factors into my decisions, but being faithful to the truth always does. The Bible, the 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 mindset that led to one of the most caustic encounters I have faced as a pastor. On this particular occasion, the Fourth of July fell on a Sunday. Though I mentioned a couple of things about freedom and the Revolutionary War as illustrations, there was no overtly patriotic mention of America, the Founding Fathers or the fight for freedom in the sermon. I just preached Jesus that day and made much of him.

When I got home, an angry email popped up. This member equated a failure of a patriotic mention of America in the morning service with 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. I responded with an apology that the member felt this way, but did go on to ask how God had used the sermon to challenge, teach or transform, even without the patriotic bent.                                         

Based on the infuriated tone of the response I received, the answer was clear: she was right, I was wrong, and God shared in her anger, disappointment and grief.

The reality was that she was so disappointed in the perceived lack of patriotism that she did not recognize God’s presence. We had a face-to-face meeting, 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 old adage that you should look for the nugget of truth buried in every critical statement, but I can say with assurance that is a false notion. Sometimes there is no nugget, but a deep hole full of selfishness and sin that will continually bury you with cave-ins of resentment. Sometimes the critical statement is just a foolish word spoken without thought. And sometimes the criticism stems from overall negativity toward anything that fails to meet one person’s personal expectations.    

She and her husband (who was also at the meeting) proceeded to tell me they believed that all foreign missionaries should be pulled from every country where they are currently serving to be brought back to America because “we need God more than they do.” Those countries, according to them, could fend for themselves. 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, they shrugged and shook their heads. Their idol was America, and they had elevated love of country to the point that it was the same as the love for God himself. The sad reality was clear: they were not thoughtful critics but unrepentant idolaters.

I can’t really express how grieved I was over those statements they made. 

In dealing with critics, you must quit giving so much responsibility over your life to the people who are not responsible for your life. If you are in the center of the will of God, you must be okay with disappointing others sometimes. 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. 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. These are the people who 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. Looking on the bright side, I have gotten more than a few great sermon illustrations about various sins from encounters with critics (names are always changed to protect the guilty).           

You might be wondering, “What happened after the meeting about the Fourth?” They continued to be critical; I continued to preach as I had before the meeting. Sometimes, the best thing you can do with a critic is just shrug and ignore them. Don’t give them 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.  

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

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 loudmouth from Satan to drown out the voice of God. Some people will doomscroll 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 and proudly congregation-ruled. No one could repaint a single flaking or chipped wall without it first being brought before the church for a vote. 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 by the way.

If your church is currently trudging through the meeting landscape, check out these two helpful articles on why the monthly business meeting is a dying relic from the past and how to improve 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 things still persist at the time of “other business” on the agenda, during hallway discussions and via email complaints…

“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.”

While the internal complaints ring out, the methods regularly critiqued and criticized and the litany of sacred personal preferences loudly demanded, the 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 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 the 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 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).

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.

I know of one church leader who attempted to use his position to sabotage a former employee from getting a job with a “competing” church. He lied about her and spread false rumors among those planning to hire her. The most-telling moment came when one of the leaders in charge of the hiring process at the new church said to the candidate, “We have considered the source of the information; everyone who has dealt with him knows how he is. In fact, his reputation for this sort of thing is well known. We are going to hire you despite what he has said.” That church gained a valuable team member and reinforced the widely-held understanding of the unhealthy and unbiblical leadership practiced by the attempted saboteur. 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. People know; people share.

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 called antiquated for standing upon biblical standards, 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 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. My former pastor Dr. Hollie Miller 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 on board with yourself.

  • 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 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, I will pick a leader who is a great Christian willing and capable of developing some skills over a candidate with more skill and questionable character.  

Let’s remind ourselves that Jesus left the advancement of his mission not in the hands of kings, governors, celebrities and CEO’s, but with a group of uneducated, relatively-unknown roughnecks who turned the world upside down, not with stunning business principles, important social circles, great charisma 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, 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 for those first 10 billion years now.    


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

  1. Pingback: Ranch Life | Dustin C. George

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