"Hey, Jeff, do you have a minute we could talk?"
When leaders ask me that question, it's seldom because they want to share good news. They usually ask me how to handle a difficult leadership problem. Often, the situation includes a painful, personal dimension. This book is about what we discuss in those conversations.
Leading Christians is a tough job. But it just doesn't seem that it should be so difficult. The most popular biblical image for Christian leadership is a shepherd with his sheep. How pastoral! How peaceful that seems! Yet, any experienced Christian leader will tell you this contented scene is only found in the Christmas pageant—and then, only if you're lucky.
The realities are sheep bite, run amok, get diseases, wander into trouble, and are attacked by wolves. They do dumb things (even the seemingly smart ones), injure themselves (often blaming the shepherd), and nip at each other (usually some other sheep's fault). And occasionally, through no fault of their own, a storm comes up and many get hurt by circumstances no one could have anticipated or controlled.
Shepherds are also less than perfect. They get angry, desert their posts, or neglect their responsibilities. They drive their sheep, lash out at them, yell at them, and even hit a few with their staffs. And, worst of all, shepherds sometimes flirt with other herds, hoping to find greener pastures and better sheep than the ones they are stuck with tending.
The idyllic, pastoral scene illustrating Christian leadership is often merely wishful thinking. But, given our significant spiritual resources and high ideals, why?
God loves us, loves our followers, and wants the best for all of us. Christians want to love and obey God in return. We have clear biblical instructions on how to relate to one another, relate to those in authority over us, and relate to those we are responsible to lead. We have ample spiritual resources to empower healthy relationships. These include the filling of the Holy Spirit, instruction from the Bible, positive examples of other believers, and encouragement from living in Christian community.
We also have a shared mission that is supposed to unite us. We are responsible to fulfill the Great Commission in the spirit of the Great Commandment (Matt. 22:34-40; 28:18-20). All of us working toward the same goal should produce unity, focus, cooperation, and harmony. Besides all this, we have formal covenants, contracts, policies, and other agreements to systematize our organizational relationships.
So, with all these things going for us, why is Christian leadership often so painful? Here are six reasons, but by no means an exhaustive list.
Becoming a Christian is a life-changing experience. When a person places faith in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, a new birth occurs. The old person passes away and a new person emerges because "if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation" (2 Cor. 5:17). Despite this dramatic change, however, a residue of the old life remains. That residue is called sin. While sin is forgiven by Jesus "in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins" (Col. 1:14) and the power of sin is broken at conversion (Rom. 6), all believers are still somehow infected with a propensity to sin (Rom. 7:13-25).
Thick theology books have been written to try to explain this process. Seminaries have semester-long courses, like "The Theology of Sin" or "The Doctrine of Man," to grapple with these issues. This is, by the way, one of the few subjects I consider myself an absolute authority on and completely qualified to teach. On the subject of sin, I am an expert! But while we may joke about it, our struggle with sin is a painful part of our spiritual journey and a very real part of our relationships with those we lead.
Leading Christians is painful because they do sinful things that complicate our lives as leaders, our attempts to lead them, and the organizations of which they are a part. Here, for example, are some of the bizarre choices my Christian followers have made.
A couple was actively working in a local county election campaign. Their opponent vandalized some of their candidate's yard signs. They decided to get even. Since the wife worked in the county courthouse, the couple conspired to tamper with the election. They voted about one hundred bogus ballots and then were so guilt ridden they confessed what they had done even before the votes were counted. They went to jail for months.
A leader was caught in an adulterous affair. When confronted he denied his actions. When presented with the evidence, he blamed his wife for being inattentive to his needs. When dismissed from his position, he claimed he had confessed and was treated without mercy. Then, to top everything, he claimed he was wrongly dismissed because state law protected his right to sexual expression. His attorney claimed the man's sexual preference was adultery, so "he couldn't be terminated for his sexual preference in this state."
We celebrated a wedding between a young man in our church and his beautiful bride. He returned from his honeymoon and started an adulterous affair. Within a year, another woman in the community claimed she was pregnant by this man. He confessed, left his wife, abandoned the pregnant woman, and moved in with a third woman.
All these situations have one thing in common—sinful choices that produced leadership pain. The choices these followers made created conflict in churches and ministry organizations. They caused people to choose sides, be publicly embarrassed, and spend hours trying to sort out the conflicts. These situations resulted in sleepless nights, many meetings (including legal briefings), and hours and hours spent in damage control and relationship repair. All these situations consumed time that could have been spent in more productive pursuits than cleaning up these messes. Yet, they happened on my watch and leading through them was part of the job.
While some painful leadership situations (like leaving for a new ministry assignment or managing change in a growing ministry) aren't caused by sin, many are. Sin shows no sign of letting up in the Christian community. As long as our followers are sinners, painful leadership scenarios are inevitable.
Our followers' sinful choices create pain for us as leaders. Sometimes, though, we shoot ourselves in the foot (or sometimes in my case, both feet). Our sin contributes to the pain we experience as leaders. A call to Christian leadership doesn't super spiritualize a ministry leader. We still walk on clay feet. We still struggle with sin. Our choices impact our leadership effectiveness, and sinful choices can create painful circumstances. Here are two examples from my leadership hall of shame.
Our church custodian was doing a poor job. I was intimidated by her husband and didn't want the conflict of terminating her. So I determined to force her to quit. I changed her job assignment and hours in a way I knew would be unacceptable to her. She protested. I shrugged it off. She quit. Case closed. I won.
Then her husband came to see me. He threatened me physically. I was afraid to stand up lest he knock me down. So I stayed seated at my desk while he told me—his wife's boss and their pastor—what he thought of my actions. Then he told the deacons, his Sunday school class, and just about everyone else in the church (so it seemed). I maintained my innocence and justified my actions to my leaders. They gave tepid support over a few months, except for one man who had the courage to tell me the truth. I had to make it right.
Going to apologize to this couple was difficult and distasteful. My sin had to be confessed, however, and forgiveness sought. Attempting to restore the relationship was the right thing to do. But it was painful—on many levels—both public and private. I had embarrassed myself, lost credibility with my leadership team, revealed my inadequacies and insecurities in humiliating ways, disclosed myself as a weaselly schemer, and hurt the overall ministry of the church. Other than that, it really wasn't all that bad. Painful!
Another really stupid decision was having a gossipy conversation with an associate pastor—evaluating the performance of a different associate—in the hallway of our church offices. After completing the conversation, we discovered the person we were talking about was sitting in an adjoining office, listening to the entire conversation. This strategy—gossiping about someone behind his back—proved a very ineffective way to improve staff morale. My credibility was damaged, our team was fractured, trust was lost, and hours had to be spent repairing the damage. Painful!
Leadership pain can be caused by our sinful choices. We make mistakes, do dumb things, say things we wish we could take back, or otherwise reveal our sinfulness. We sin. Our followers sin. Either way, sinful choices by sinful people create leadership pain. But that's not the only way sin makes leadership painful.
Painful circumstances can also result from the principle of sin—not individual sins by leaders or followers but the principle of sin. The principle of sin, also called the curse of sin, is the atmospheric angst under which the entire universe struggles (see Rom. 8:18-22). When sin entered the world, it infected and affected everything. Consequently, if you feel that the world you are living in is cursed, you are right.
The curse of sin means things break down, resources run out, organizations malfunction, and cultural opposition conspires to limit or detract from our success. The curse of sin also means nature is affected. Tornadoes, earthquakes, hurricanes, fires, and other storms hit Christian ministries all the time. We are not immune to these events and the corresponding leadership hassles they cause.
For example, once our church building flooded. We lost furniture, supplies, and materials throughout the lower level. We had significant expenses—even after insurance payments—to repair building damage. During the cleanup I decided to dispose of some old church pews in the basement. It turned out they were antiques, worth thousands.I let them go for almost nothing to a junk dealer. Needless to say, the flood and my uninformed decision created painful consequences for me as a leader.
In another setting, we were building a new ministry facility when a frantic call reported, "The whole building is being flooded by the fire sprinklers." I rushed to the building, to find only four rooms affected (relief—a false report from an alarmed workman). A few months later we moved into the building. Through a design error, the first time we had freezing temperatures, the supply pipes for the fire sprinkler system ruptured. Water filled the attics, and entire ceilings throughout the facility started collapsing. Oh, how I wished this report had also been a false alarm! Drywall, light fixtures, insulation, and wiring collapsed onto desks, library shelving, computers, phone systems, and personal effects. Our brand-new building was literally falling into our laps. Decidedly not a good day!
Those events created painful leadership situations. Money had to be raised to repair the damage, decisions about legal action had to be made, forgiveness had to be sought (and given), trust/confidence was damaged, ministry momentum was lost, and time was spent solving building problems rather than doing more productive ministry. Bad things happen to good people. Bad things, things out of our control, also happen to good leaders. And when they do, they can be painful to lead through. Leadership, in times like these, is definitely needed. In fact, leaders sometimes rise to their finest hour when painful circumstances outside their control are thrust on them.
Sometimes the principle of sin, the curse on the universe, rises up and bites us. Sin, then, from various sources and in various expressions, creates pain for leaders. But sin in its myriad expressions is not the only cause of painful leadership circumstances.
The Bible teaches a cosmology (Eph. 6:10-20, for example) that includes angels, demons, and the personification of evil—Satan. Satan is described as a "roaring lion," seeking whom he can devour (1 Pet. 5:8). The devil is not in the details; he is loose in the universe like a lion prowling for fresh meat. He particularly despises Christian leaders and attacks them relentlessly, stealthily, looking for weakness and exploiting it for his destructive purposes.
How else can the fall of so many prominent Christian leaders in the past few years be explained? Yes, many made bad choices, but is that a sufficient explanation? I don't think so. There is something demonic about the circumstances when a prominent leader who has given outstanding leadership for decades suddenly implodes. The devil hates leaders and works to make them miserable. Dramatic collapse of a leader's character and ministry is visible evidence of the devil's work, but there are countless smaller skirmishes that also create pain for leaders.
There seem to be two extremes when considering how Satan is at work against us. One is to imagine the devil behind every contrary event. One person said, "If I can't find a parking place, I know the devil is trying to keep me from going to church." That seems too trivial to ascribe to Satan. The other extreme is to deny spiritual warfare and explain every conflict in purely human terms or as an unfortunate coincidence. This denies the clear teaching of Scripture.
So how do you recognize satanic opposition to your leadership? That's a complex question requiring careful spiritual discernment. While there is no foolproof formula, here are some principles to help you detect satanic opposition in leadership situations.
This includes anonymous letters or blogs, as well as spokesmen who claim, "A lot of people think …" It might also include well-placed misinformation or half-truths disseminated about your leadership. Some attackers have a special ability to twist words, edit comments, and compile information to distort what a leader initially meant. Confronting this kind of misinformation effectively is virtually impossible. Enduring it until it dies a natural death is often your best option.
Attempts at blackmail fall into this category. For example, a favorite ploy of some is threatening leaders with the standby line, "If you don't (fill in the blank), I will stop attending/giving/supporting (or some other negative threat)." Spinning information to suit specific outcomes or ignoring the full picture the whole truth would provide are other examples of manipulation.
When people call secret meetings or try to bypass authority structures in decision making, be on guard. When opposition must be organized in secret, it is unlikely God is behind the effort. God works in the light, the devil in the shadows.
Refusing to dialogue about issues or refusing to repent from sin may indicate a deep, negative spiritual force at work. This is not the normal, run-of-the-mill opposition leaders routinely face. It is entrenched negativity grounded in persistent, insidious bitterness. It is opponents who reject any possibility that they might be wrong or any opportunity for dialogue and resolution.
When these issues are the sources of leadership pain, gather your spiritual resources for the battle. You may be in for a long ordeal, and sadly, you may not prevail. Sometimes, in the short run, the devil wins. When that happens, take the long view of the promised triumph of God's kingdom. You may have lost a battle, but God will eventually win the war. Good will triumph over evil, but the ultimate victory may not happen during your tenure.
Our focus thus far has been on negative circumstances and problems that cause pain for leaders. Sin and Satan create significant problems. But some painful circumstances are not the result of sin. They aren't even necessarily negative, just painful. These kinds of circumstances include things like moving to another ministry assignment, losing people who leave your ministry for another opportunity, disappointing results from a project you have poured your heart into, and challenges resulting from doing your job well. God sometimes allows challenging circumstances, not because we (or anyone else) have done anything wrong, but as part of his process of shaping us into the image of Jesus.
God has a definite purpose for you. He is intentional, even relentless, about accomplishing his purpose. God is determined to shape you into the image of Jesus. He wants to create the character of Jesus Christ in you. Your circumstances have purpose. Life is not out of control. All difficulty comes through the protective filter of God's purpose. When painful leadership circumstances arise, trust God is at work through them.
Most leaders easily forget their primary reason for being placed in their leadership role. The primary reason isn't for you to do things for God. It's so God can use your leadership setting as a laboratory for shaping the image of Jesus in you. God, who spoke a universe into existence in six days, doesn't need us to do anything for him. While he uses us, he has a greater purpose than task accomplishment. He has placed us in our unique setting because those circumstances are uniquely suited to shaping our character. As one professor was fond of saying, "Life is curriculum," and the learning outcome is the character of Jesus in us. Here is an example of this principle in a leadership situation.
Self-sufficiency, really pride by a more respectable title, has always been a problem for me. It bothers me to depend on other people. Taking responsibility, pulling myself up by my own bootstraps, is a high value for me. God wants to change this in me, to bring balance to my overzealous determination to be self-sufficient. So, he placed me in the ministry and assigned me the role of asking people for money. My livelihood my entire adult life has been dependent on gifts from others. How humbling!
One person defined my current job by joking, "A seminary president lives in a nice house on a hill and travels around the country asking for money." That isn't totally true (we don't live on a hill). God has placed me in a role with a primary job assignment that continually humbles me and breaks my self-sufficiency. It is sometimes wearisome (polite form of worry-some) to live this way financially. Yet, God has made this an ever-present part of my ministry, now and in the future. God has shaped my leadership laboratory to address my character deficiency of being too self-reliant.
What challenging, even painful, leadership circumstance is God allowing in your life right now? Are you discerning how he is shaping your character? Are you cooperating with him in the process? Are you like a fine horse, quickly responding to God's gentle direction, or are you more like a mule that has to be forced to obey? A chief spiritual discipline for leaders is discerning how God is shaping your character through the leadership challenges you encounter—and then responding positively.
Discerning how God is shaping your character is not ethereal speculation about "what God is doing in your life." Discerning God's activity is asking the question, "Father, why are you allowing this to happen to me?" and allowing enough time to pass to discover the answer. When you ask this question, your attitude is very important. Avoid asking God in an accusatory fashion, "Why is this happening to me?" Instead, ask humbly, seeking understanding by emphasizing "Why is this happening to me?" Asking rightly leads to disciplined discernment, discovering how God is shaping you into the image of Jesus, to his character revealed in the Bible.
Another reason Christian leadership is often painful is because leaders are change agents. Leadership is an influence relationship that produces real change and real change can mean real pain. We will consider the reasons change produces so much conflict and how to manage the pain in chapter 12. For now, let's just agree initiating change is a surefire way to create painful circumstances in your leadership setting.
The first time I saw the church building at my first pastorate I thought, "This church has to relocate." A few months later I suggested the idea to our church's leaders. It was like setting off a stink bomb. Faces contorted and people ran for cover. Discussion was quickly squelched. A year or so later the idea resurfaced. This time we decided to move the idea forward for public discussion by the church.
I am not sure "discussion" is the right word. A mini riot resulted. Members asked me, "Why are you taking my church from me?" and "Don't you know my children were baptized in this church?" and "Why did you come here if you don't want to pastor this church?" and "How can you do this when all my daughters were married in this church?" and "Do you think you are too good for this building?" and "Where do you think you can get the money?" and on and on. Eventually the church relocated but not before much anger was expressed and conflict resolved. Initiating a major change in your church or organization is a recipe for leadership pain.
Sometimes, unfortunately, even small changes can create difficulty. One pastor called on a Monday and said, "We moved the offering from the middle of the service to the end yesterday. I think I may survive the uproar." While we might scoff at that church's superficiality, most experienced leaders can recount similar instances of major conflict resulting from minor changes.
Christian leaders challenge people to change. We challenge them to change personally. We preach and teach, calling people to a higher standard of living, to live out their faith. We confront comfortable behavior, sometimes sinful patterns, and demand repentance. Most preachers or teachers have heard the comment, "You really stepped on my toes today." We are sometimes toe stompers. It comes with the territory. When people are convicted of sin, of needed life changes, they sometimes lash out in anger. Or they sulk or gossip or use a diversionary tactic (like creating conflict over unrelated issues) to distract attention from their sin. Challenging people to change is painful, as is dealing with their immature responses.
We also challenge people to change by defining the future and inspiring people to help create it. We challenge people to attempt new ministries, build new facilities, and take risks (like going overseas on mission trips). These kinds of challenges also create tension, healthy tension, but still uncomfortable pressure as people struggle with growth and change.
Leaders even choose to promote growth by causing painful circumstances. One man accepted a small-church pastorate. A denominational leader visited and offered to help the church with money and personnel to inject immediate new energy into the church. The pastor declined, saying, "We need to do this ourselves." He knew turning down the assistance would create pain in the short run, but he also knew his parishioners would grow through the pain of struggling to improve their own facility and ministries. Mature leaders initiate change, accept the pain that comes with it, and allow the process to do its maturing work among their followers.
In summary, why is Christian leadership often a painful process? On the negative side, we are sinful people leading sinful people. The devil is real and working hard to oppose us. Our world system is sin cursed. This means bad things will happen to good people, including well-meaning Christian leaders. Life happens and it's often messy.
On the positive side, doing our job well can also produce painful circumstances. Churches grow, ministries expand, and people change. Success means change, and change usually means pain for someone. Also, God sometimes allows painful circumstances—like a flood or a fire—over which we have no control. God always has a plan for our "welfare, not for disaster" (Jer. 29:11). His plan is to shape the character of Jesus Christ in us through the leadership circumstances he allows.
This book describes many painful situations and encourages you to accept them as part of your leadership assignment and learn to lead through them. Denial isn't healthy. Dropping out isn't an option. We are called to lead and lead we must, through pain, through difficulty, and through opposition. We must lead even when it hurts.