Let me begin by saying, “Thank you.” Of all the ways you can expend your energy and talents, that you are using them in service to the Kingdom is admirable and praiseworthy. There are few things in life that cause me more pain than to see a peer or colleague pour his/her life into a ministry, only to be harshly critiqued, or worse, to be unceremoniously let go. The real stories of how these situations have been handled are both disturbing and heartbreaking.
While not all situations are avoidable, I have seen church leaders suffer more than what was necessary because of some ways in which they had become either unbalanced or myopic, and had no systems in place for introspection or feedback that might have saved their work. As much as we want to believe the best about ourselves, and no matter how badly some church members may handle hard situations, we have to own our part in conducting ministry in healthy and sustainable ways.
To help us, I want to ask you three questions which I hope you’ll seriously consider. And having considered, if there is an opportunity for you to grow, I’d be even more pleased if you would make a healthy needed change in your life.
Here are my questions:
1. How are you being nurtured?
You cannot lead others to be healthy if what you are modeling for them is fundamentally unhealthy. When you see a plant drying up in a pot, the first question you’ll ask is, “Is this plant getting enough water, sun, and nutrients?”
There are ways in which each of us is unique, but none of us was created to work 7 days per week, to be on call 24/7, and never to allow time for recovery. God himself rested one day out of the week. Jesus was characterized by going off by himself to pray. Do you really think that you can go on endlessly without recharging?
In fact, this goes beyond merely taking a regular time of rest and sabbath for yourself. It also reaches into how you are filling yourself with what is good for you. This can take various forms: time in prayer, Scripture, time with family or valued peers, workshops, nature walks, etc.
When you think of a time in your Spiritual journey that you felt strong, energized, and recovered, can you remember some of the factors that helped create this situation in your life? In whatever ways you can, recreate that scenario for yourself and you’ll likely feel refreshed again.
Follow through and do this. Put it on your calendar. Add it to the list of things you’ll actually get done.
One of the first and best ways to care for your congregation is to care for yourself. Your needs also matter. When they’re met, you’ll have more energy to help others with theirs.
2. Who is helping you be accountable?
This question is especially important for whoever is at the top. Yes, of course, we would all claim Jesus is Lord and we serve under him, but it is all to easy to be entrusted with a position of power or authority and then to let that be the credential that you use to get what you want.
Make it your goal never to get your way by saying, “I’m an elder and I want ____” or “I’m the minister and I want ____.” If you have to lord your authority over people to make them work with you, you aren’t really leading. You are coercing. But if you are at the top, it’s hard for anyone to make you act any differently.
One of the most difficult conversations to have with anyone is to try and confront them about a personal shortcoming. I’m convinced that because of how hard this is, most people never will. It’s only when things have gotten to the point of no return that people may pop up and claim the problem existed “all along.” To this, you could justify a response like, “Yeah, but how come no one ever told me?”
In an ideal setting, people would. Of course, there are also times where people do, but for reasons of ego or otherwise, a leader may be unwilling or unable to hear it. So this brings me back to my question:
Who is helping you be accountable?
One practice that has helped me enormously is that I seek out people to provide me with exactly these kinds of insights into myself. Each year around the end of the calendar year I seek out two people from within my church to meet with me monthly the following year. One will be an elder. Another will be someone I hope to help grow. Separately with each of these people, I will work out with them a day we’ll plan to meet (“3rd Thursday”, for example), and then we’ll get together each month. Each of us talks about what is going on in our life, and inevitably we talk about what is going on at church. We do this for 12 months, and at the end of the year, I select two new individuals.
As we begin to meet, I let them know on the front end that I want them to feel they have full permission to help me see my blind spots. At this point in time I could give you countless examples of situations I was able to navigate successfully because of this kind of feedback. In several cases, my inclinations had been off, and my friend or mentor saved me by saying, “I see what you’re trying to do, but it would be better received if you would do it this way…”
I couldn’t even begin to calculate how much more effective I’ve been because of this practice. Here are a few of the potential benefits of actively seeking out feedback and friendship:
- I’ve learned to preach better because I’m learning what parts of my sermons are genuinely helpful to people, and what parts aren’t
- I have a much better sense of the general pulse of the congregation and what people are thinking and feeling, and have both added and removed ministry efforts based on what I know they’re likely to support
- I’ve largely erased some of the potential power struggles with my elders because at this point I’m close to each of them as a personal friend, more than just a professional relationship
- My elders have a much easier time understanding my vision and ideas because we’ve made space to talk through them. I am under the impression that I hear “yes” much more often than some of my ministry friends. This is a crucial part of why that is.
That’s one method. I’m sure there are others. I merely implore you to select and implement one. This is as important for elders as it is for ministers and staff.
As much as I love good books and resources about how to lead, the best way to know what helps the actual people you work with is for them to tell you. The only real experts that exist about your church are the members of your church. The rest of us can only theorize. A truly good shepherd isn’t just caught up in theoretical studies about the art of shepherding; they are passionate about what their own sheep actually need. You will not know if you do not ask.
If you aren’t leading well, you will eventually be held accountable. It’s a lot less painful if you seek it out as you go and stay close to people who can provide a healthy mirror into what it is like to work with you.
3. How are you making spaces for others to grow?
If people have placed confidence in you as a leader, it is without a doubt that you possess some skills or attributes to a degree that many people don’t. For this reason, it is often the case that we leaders can get into the mentality that, “If I want it done right, I’ll have to do it myself.”
This will probably get you some short-term wins. What things you can find time to manage or implement may well be done better than what most others could do. But you make yourself into a bottleneck. If all has to go through you, while you might win a few battles, you’ll find your church falling behind in the larger war.
To be a leader is to possess power. I believe that the fundamental reason for which God entrusts people with power is that they would use it to create spaces where others can also grow in power. Empowerment is the operative idea.
God is an ideal role model for the redemptive use of power. We can see how in the Creation account, for example, he began by creating spaces, and followed by inviting created things to flourish in those spaces. Jesus had all power, but chose not to use it for his own benefit, but only for ours. It’s rather telling that he used totally unqualified people to become some of his first and foremost ambassadors. He picked people who weren’t ready, then traveled alongside them so that they could become ready. He practiced hospitality toward his followers. He made space for them.
Empowerment can take several forms:
- You can help create a space where someone can use their gift for the good of the congregation in the form of a personal connection or a ministry
- You can create availability within yourself so that someone who has a need can talk to you and experience kindness and openness from you
- You can be an advocate for someone who is weak and vulnerable to be sure no one takes advantage of them
The potential list is unlimited. But the reason you’re strong ought to be for the purpose of helping others get stronger. And if you’re thinking about the larger picture, the best way you can use your power is to make healthy spaces where others can also be part of the work that God is doing.
Let them know what is needed. Let them know the potential benefits of their success. Let them know what resources they have to work with. Let them know you’re always available if they need to bounce an idea off of you. But above all, let them own what they’re doing to the point that they can experience the blessings of success, and the opportunities to grow when success evades them.
By doing everything for people, you can tell your self that you’re being helpful, but if this is always your mode of operation, you’re really only making people weaker and more dependent on you.
I want you to know that I’m rooting for you. I believe that most people who are entrusted with positions of leadership and authority have nothing but the best of intentions. If we neglect our personal well-being, ignore sources of constructive feedback, and feel the need to be people’s all-in-all, we make this path an unnecessarily difficult one for ourselves. But I am convinced that through healthy self-care, informed introspection, and deliberate empowerment, we walk a better, more productive path. I invite you to be thinking about what a good step for you might be, and I challenge you to take that step. I will be doing the same.
All the best,
P.S. I’d like to know your thoughts:
- What has helped you to be more effective as a leader?
- What are areas of great importance to which you believe healthy leaders should pay attention?
- How can we avoid creating unnecessary problems for ourselves?
- When a leader has helped you to grow, what have they done that helped this process along for you?