Leaders: you are not the finished article!

I’ve been wrapping up a chapter on leaders and their character as part of my book project: I’ve wanted to stress that leaders are not the finished article. Here are four reflections.

Unresolved patterns

For Moses it was anger – as it may be for you. As a leader you are used to getting your own way on all the big issues (and even on the small ones): no one stops you because they have learned to fear your anger.

Anger is a tricky emotion to handle, not least because there are times when we are guilty of not being angry enough or of not being angry at things which ought to provoke our anger. Paul urges us not to sin in our anger and not to let the sun go down while our anger is unresolved. James adds James that we are to be slow to get angry: our anger will not accomplish the righteousness that God desires.

In a short series of articles for the Australian version of the Gospel Coaltion, church leader Ray Galea wrote about his own journey with anger. Among his reflections was his observation that while it is sometimes an experience of being hurt that lies behind out anger, pride is the vice that lurks deeper still: ‘pride which demands that we be treated properly and woe be tide anyone who crosses our path.’

Even if we’re not guilty of the Meribah-style rock-splitting fits of rage, some of us may be far too tolerant of a simmering self-centred impatience or a constant spirit of complaint.
For other leaders it may be pride, not necessarily expressed in outbursts of anger, but evident in an arrogance, or a spirit of superiority.

For still others the unresolved pattern may involve lust. It may be greed, self-indulgence, a hankering after comfort and luxury.

What a tragedy if these patterns are unnoticed or perhaps worse, if they are noticed but tolerated and left unresolved until they take deeper root in our lives until we have our own Meribah moment and sabotage our leadership.

Unguarded devotion

This is Solomon. The man whose writing urges us to guard our hearts left his own unguarded. Not only did he give his heart to the many foreign women who came to share his life, but he allowed the lure of those women’s foreign gods to draw his devotion away from the Lord.

Recently James K.A. Smith has argued that we are what we love, or, ‘you are what you worship … what we worship is what we love.’

Our idolatries … are more liturgical than theological. Our most alluring idols are less intellectual inventions and more affective projections – they are the fruit of disordered wants, not just misunderstanding or ignorance.

Leaders are worshipers – we all are. The question is what has our hearts and what are we doing to guard them from the allurements of disordered affections and illegitimate gods.

Unfinished growth

The development of our character is a work in progress. But what are the character qualities into which we should be growing?

There are so many ways we could answer that question. We could talk about what it means to be holy, as the God who called us is holy. We could talk about the imitation of Christ; or we could reflect on the fruit of the Spirit.

Dan Allender answers the question like this:

Character is grown to the degree that we love God and others.

In saying that, he takes us back to the two great commandments: first, the command to love God with our whole being, and second, to love our neighbour as we love ourselves. As Jesus put it, it’s on these two commandments that everything else hangs. Or, in Paul’s formulation, love – which does no harm to a neighbour – is the fulfilment of the law.

Here is the measure of our growth in character. Do I love God more now than I did a year ago? More than ten years ago? How would I answer the question that Jesus asked Peter: do you love me more than these? That seemed to be Jesus’ requirement for leadership.

And am I growing in my love for other people? Are my relationships marked by a greater degree of patience? Am I doing better at rejoicing at the triumphs of others? Of course leaders ought to be growing in knowledge, honing their gifts, and developing their talents, and by all means set yourself goals and targets for personal development. But would people who know you describe you as kind? For all your firmness and decisiveness as a leader, are you known as gentle? Do your people know that you have their best interest at heart?

Unsurpassable grace

Your worst days are never so bad that you are beyond the reach of God’s grace. And your best days are never so good that you are beyond the need of God’s grace.

Jerry Bridges: The Discipline of Grace

If the second part of that is a reminder that we are not the finished article (as we keep saying), the first part is an encouragement not to give up. Just as it is grace that has brought me ‘safe thus far’, so there is grace for the gap between where we are and where we need to reach, and there is grace for the gap between what we wish we were and what we know we still are.

When Dallas Seminary professor Howard Hendricks died in 2013, among the tributes that were paid was this one, from one of his students:

I asked him, if we forgot everything else he had ever taught us (which was unlikely), what one thing would he want us to remember? He thought a moment and replied, “Finish well.” He said plenty of people in the Bible did well for a time, but very few of them finished their lives faithfully.

Wise leaders know they are not the finished article; but the humility that comes from that realisation will help them to finish well.

The Leadership Journey Podcast: David Hilborn

My guest on this week’s episode of the podcast is Dr David Hilborn, Principal of Moorlands College (a few weeks ago his colleague, Ian Coffey, was my guest).

Prior to joining Moorlands, David was Principal of St John’s College in Nottingham, which followed a leadership role in St Mellitus College. He has also worked as a local church leader and was head of Theology at the Evangelical Alliance for nine years.

As I often do at the end of these conversations, I asked David what he would say to his twenty year old self. Here are his three points:

  • Worry less, pray more.
  • Get really good support.
  • Spend more time with family.

Here is the podcast (and remember you can subscribe on several podcast outlets, including Spotify.

Let’s hear it for the Jethros!

I think I have discovered a new biblical hero. His name is Jethro, and he was Moses’ father in law.

Exodus 18 recounts a well known incident involving him.

The occasion was a family visit to see Moses. It was a good catchup and the text says that Jethro was pleased to hear about the good things the Lord had done for Israel by rescuing them from Egypt: how affirming must it have been for Moses to have his father-in-law listen with such genuine interest to the story of God’s work in his new leadership task. Whether or not we would classify it as a full conversion, Jethro comes to a new realisation about the Lord. ‘Now I know,’ he confesses, ‘that the Lord is greater than all other gods’.

While it may be a bit of an overstatement to describe Jethro as what happens when he sees Moses at work is worth some reflection.

For one thing, while it may be a bit of an anachronism to describe Jethro as the first management consultant, what happens demonstrates the value of an outsider view of a situation: Jethro saw something that Moses and the people had simply accepted as the way things were.

But there is more to be said about him.

In his excellent book, A Work of Heart, Reggie McNeal describes Jethro as ‘the key male figure in Moses’ midlife’. It’s an astute observation. Maybe this is overly speculative, but was Jethro in fact the father that Moses never really had? We know he was nursed by his mother, but his natural father disappears from the early narrative, and Pharaoh, his adoptive father is unlikely to have been particularly close. As McNeal reflects on the role Jethro played, he makes this wider observation:

The recounting of leaders’ life journeys usually turns up a Jethro or two. These individuals are God’s gifts to the leader to provide extraordinary affirmation, encouragement, and guidance. They frequently, but not always, arise from outside the family system. They typically surface during times of the leader’s self-doubt and at points when the leader’s life mission is crystallizing. These God-sent Jethros offer almost unconditional acceptance of the leader, yet they maintain an accountability of presence that implicates itself into the leader’s choices.

For all their obscurity and undoubted challenges, the middle years of Moses’ life – exile in Midian – throw up unexpected and unlikely allies. The question this phase of Moses’ life raises for those of us who are leaders is whether we notice, or make room for the Jethros in our own own leadership journeys.

More than that: for some of us who are older, the challenge is is to be that kind of spiritual father-figure.

The curious tale of Eldad and Medad: or, how to give away your ministry!

One of the counter-intuitive things about leadership is that leaders don’t actually become less as they share leadership with others. being counter-intuitive, of course, means that we can be slow to grasp this.

Numbers 11 is an important chapter for leaders. In terms of the narrative, it gives us an insight into the pressure that Moses faced – pressure that almost caused him to throw in the towel. But it also gives us an illustration of the value, and the challenge, of shared leadership.

God’s answer to Moses’ crisis is to share some of the Spirit that was on Moses with seventy of the community elders. The elders prophesy and now at least, Moses will not have to carry the responsibility alone.

As is sometimes the case, however, the solution to one problem can lead to other problems. So it is that the narrative that follows the sharing of the Spirit goes on to touch on some of the challenges of shared leadership: what happens when you are no longer totally in control? Or, as the next chapter illustrates, what happens if a plurality of leadership brings a set of relational issues such as jealousy and resentment?

Immediately after the sharing of the Spirit there are two men – Eldad and Medad – who have not left the camp to gather with the others and with Moses. Yet they too were empowered by the Spirit, and like the others, they prophesied. Jewish writer Norman Cohen points out that, like Miriam and Aaron (chapter 12), Eldad and Medad receive their calling directly from God and not from Moses.

How leaders respond when people start to operate outside their control is a test of wisdom. It’s a mark of maturity when a leader can give away power to others without fearing a loss of their own power or position. Similarly, it’s a sign of deepening maturity when a leader is able to take genuine delight in the success or fruitfulness of someone else’s ministry: others are viewed not as rivals, but as co-workers, serving the same kingdom.

There is a striking contrast between the reaction of Moses and Joshua at the news of Eldad and Medad, and in some ways the contrast highlights something of the journey of maturity that a spiritual leader needs to navigate. Joshua, Moses’ assistant and future successor, urges Moses to stop them. The text highlights the fact that Joshua had been Moses’ assistant since his youth: doubtless he had a keen sense of loyalty, and for two people from outside Moses’ immediate sphere to have some kind of independent ministry seemed like a betrayal of his mentor: Moses really ought to tell them to stop.

Moses’ response was to dismiss any need for Joshua to feel jealous on his account. This is not about Moses, it’s about the welfare of the people of God. ‘I wish that all the Lord’s people were prophets and that the Lord would put his Spirit on them.’

Perhaps you have come across the statement that has sometimes been attributed to American President Harry Truman: ‘It is amazing what you can accomplish if you do not care who gets the credit.’ Even if the sentiment is inspiring, the attribution appears to be inaccurate: apparently a 19th century Jesuit priest called Father Strickland may have been the first to express the idea when he wrote that ‘a man may do an immense deal of good, if he does not care who gets the credit for it.’

If that’s true generally, how much more fruitful might our spiritual leadership be if we were free from the need to receive credit or to jealously guard our achievements as badges of honour that set us above others!

Ultimately Moses’ prayer was answered on the Day of Pentecost when the Spirit was given, not to a few but to many, without distinction of age or gender: the work of ministry would no longer be the preserve of a select handful.

Priorities for church leaders in the current climate

As part of my preparation for a course I am running this autumn with Belfast Bible College, I have been thinking about some of the things church leaders (especially pastors and ministers) should be prioritising in the current climate. Here is my list of nine.

  1. Engage in an honest assessment of how you are doing. Have the past 6 months depleted your energy levels or your morale? Are there traces (or more) of weariness, of cynicism, or even despair? Is your sense of call strong, or have recent months blurred it?
  2. Take steps to ensure that you are not isolated. Remember that there is a difference between solitude (a worthwhile practice) and isolation (potentially draining). If you have a ministry team around you, that’s great, but makes sure that your times together are more than just business: seek to build each other up. If you are in a more solitary situation, do what you need to in order to connect with others.
  3. Leave some space for reflection on the ‘why’ of what your church is doing – don’t fill all the space with questions of logistics – the ‘what’ and ‘when’ questions.
  4. Seek to lead hopefully, but without denying the challenges of your situation.
  5. Be on your guard, work and pray for love and unity as opinions perhaps become more strongly held. The longer the Covid situation persists, the more likely it is that people will become more polarised in their views.
  6. Work hard to identify and reach those who have not been engaging and are in danger of dropping out (not least among young adults families) – and don’t forget vulnerable folk who are unable to gather for legitimate reasons. It may mean more work for you, but all of your people matter, and many of the more vulnerable folk are already quite cut off from much of ‘normal’ life.
  7. Identify some of the good practices of the past 6 months (like regular pastoral phone calls) that can be retained.
  8. Don’t assume that the bench mark for the future is being able to resume all you were doing on March 15. Just as there may be good practices that you have introduced and believe you should continue, be willing to leave behind some of the things you were doing pre-lockdown if you have realised they are not vital!
  9. Since the situation is still transitory, hold decisions lightly. Look forward to a time of rebuilding, but be sure to stay flexible.

On spiritual leaders and self-defence

One of the traps for insecure leaders is to make everything about them. It is all personal. It is not always easy to separate who we are from what we do, but if I make every issue about me, and interpret every criticism as personal rejection, I simply feed my insecurity and dismantle the possibility for constructive debate.

While that much is true, perhaps there is some apostolic precedent for self-defence in part of what Paul writes in 2 Corinthians where he mounts a fairly robust defence of his ministry, seemingly in the face of rivals who would have loved to discredit him. Discrediting Paul would have made it easier to discredit his message, so enticing the Corinthians to drift from their devotion to Christ.

Rather than list his triumphs, however, Paul lists the severe challenges he has had to face; he emphasises his weakness, recounting the time when he became a ‘basket case’ in Damascus, and the famous thorn in the flesh episode. Paul knew that ultimately he was accountable to God (12:19) and the motivation for his defending himself was for the strengthening of the Corinthians. As Don Carson points out, Paul is not writing to vindicate himself, as the Corinthians suspected, but to build them up.

Carson goes on to comment trenchantly:

Sadly too many leaders consciously or unconsciously link their own careers and reputations with the gospel they proclaim and the people they serve. Slowly, unnoticed by all but the most discerning, defense of the truth slips into self-defence, and the best interest of the congregation becomes identified with the best interest of the leaders. Personal triumphalism strikes again, sometimes with vicious intensity. It is found in the evangelical academic who invests all his opinions with the authority of Scripture, in the pastor whose every word is above contradiction, in the leader transparently more interested in self-promotion and the esteem of the crowd that in the benefit and progress of the Christians allegedly being served. It issues in political maneuvring, temper tantrums, a secular set of values (though never acknowledged as such), a smug and self-serving shepherd and hungry sheep.

A Model of Christian Maturity

Three tough questions for leaders

I’m working on a book on leadership, framed around the story of Moses, and I am currently writing a chapter on leaders’ need to face criticism. As I have been working through some of the challenges Moses faced in leadership, I have highlighted the following challenging questions that leaders (not least church leaders) may have to deal with from time to time.

How would you answer them?

  • How do you lead when people reject your leadership? This is what Moses was faced with (briefly) when he tried to intervene in a dispute between two Hebrews. It’s a complex question as people’s rejection of your leadership may be for any number of reasons, and not all the reasons may originate with the people. What steps can you take to build (or rebuild) trust? How do you know when it’s time to ask some people to ‘get off the bus’, or even for you, as the leader, to let someone else drive?
  • How do you lead when things are going to get worse before they get better? Again Moses had to face this, this time when his initial intervention, having been commissioned by the Lord, led to the famous ‘bricks without straw’ situation. How do you hold your course when the initial pain of change seems to far outweigh the potential gain?
  • How do you lead when people don’t merely reject you as leader, but it turns out that they have little appetite for trusting God? For Moses it was not long before he and Aaron became the focus of the people’s frustration when they lacked water or food. Moses and Aaron pointed out that the people’s grumbling was not really at them, but at God. While anxiety about food and water was understandable for people trekking the desert, they were quickly failing the test of trust that their wilderness experience constituted.

The leadership Journey Podcast: Andy Peck

Andy Peck is the host of Premier Christian Radio’s weekly show, The Leadership File: since he took on the programme, he has conducted some 700 interviews with Christian leaders from various walks of life. He is also the author of a number of books, including ‘The Leadership Road less Travelled’. I was recently a guest on his show so this week’s podcast really sets us on the opposite side of the microphone.

Interestingly for someone who has written a book on leadership, and has interviewed hundreds of leaders, Andy confesses that leadership leaves him cold! You will find out what he means during the podcast. You can get a copy of the book here.

Andy grew up on the Isle of Wight, and he talks about his Christian upbringing in church there. He talks about how his leadership journey has not always followed the expected course, about some of the people who have influenced him, and some of the key things he has learned about leadership along the way.

*Note that Dallas Willard went to be with the Lord in 2013, and not in 2003 or 2006.

The guest on the next episode of the podcast is Dr David Hilborn, Principal of Moorlands College.

Leaders and criticism: a few thoughts

I’m currently working on a chapter on criticism and conflict for a forthcoming book on leadership. Here are a few thoughts that I hope to develop in the chapter.

  • Criticism and conflict are inevitable in leadership (if leadership is actually going to achieve anything). Reggie McNeal says that ‘the decision to serve as a spiritual leader signs one up for conflict’.
  • However not all conflict and criticism are the same: some of it is destructive and says more about the critic than the leader. Leaders need to distinguish between the various types.
  • Someone has said that we should weigh criticism rather than count our critics. Not everyone’s voice carries (or should carry) the same weight.
  • Learn to look at yourself in the mirror before attempting to deal with your critics.
  • Identify and deal with your own defensiveness and insecurity. If you don’t, you will not deal well with your critics.
  • Look for the grain of truth, no matter what is happening. What do you need to take on board?
  • In the event that the criticism is more about the critic than about the leader, what might the leader need to learn about what’s going on in the critic?
  • Have the humility to allow critics to become coaches.
  • Learn to see criticism as a path to growth rather than a fight to be won.
  • Remember (especially if you are a pastor) that the tenderness that allows you to be sensitive to others probably makes you more vulnerable to the wounds of a critic.

Leading out of lockdown

This week I was a guest on a webinar organised by the Presbyterian Church in Ireland. As well as the webinar including an interview with one of their ministers, and a presentation on an excellent resource that aims to help leadership teams reflect on the way forward for their congregation, I had been asked to feedback on conversations I have had with various leaders.

Over the past few months I have hosted a series of podcasts in which leaders (mainly in churches) have talked about their work during the time of Covid-19: the podcasts are available here. I also hosted a Zoom meeting with a number of leaders as churches began to envision returning their buildings: you can read some of the highlights here.

In addition, over the past week or so I have been in contact with almost a dozen leaders from a range of church backgrounds, discovering what they are doing and what are some of the challenges they are facing. Again, here are some of the highlights of these exchanges: I imagine at least some of these will resonate with what other leaders are experiencing.

  • There are varying degrees of enthusiasm for a return to gathering in the building: some leaders have been surprised by the amount of caution they have witnessed. At times it has been older people who are most keen to get back (presumably there are various reasons for this, including the fact that many of them may have experienced a significant degree of isolation in lockdown): ironically, some of them will be discouraged from attending, because of their health vulnerability. Some leaders have found that it is middle-aged folk who are most keen to get back: presumably they are less likely to be vulnerable, and don’t have the concerns of families with young children
  • Families of young children face an additional challenge in that kids’ programmes that are usually offered on Sunday morning are not able to run as yet in the building. Perhaps they find it easier to have kids running around their living room while the online service is on TV than attempt to keep kids calm for an hour in church.
  • Related to this, there is an awareness that for some young families, Sunday routines have changed during the past few months and while for some, online church has featured, there is a danger that church has dropped from its priority Sunday morning slot and attending church going forward may not be a priority.
  • There is also a fear that some younger people have dropped out of church during the online season: this may be because of Zoom fatigue with work during the week, or may be because many young people prioritise connection over content in church life, so tuning in for a sermon rather than connecting with friends on WhatsApp has less appeal.
  • There is a range of views and expectations around the return to gatherings in the building. Some views (around masks or singing) are strongly held by some folk and there are even hints of conspiracy theories appearing. Leaders need great wisdom in handling strong voices on either end of each spectrum and in working to maintain unity and love.
  • Some have been forced to ask questions around the nature of church and what activities are actually core. Examples include the place of communion or the extent to which some contemporary churches have adopted a very music-centric approach to worship.
  • There is a realisation that community and fellowship have suffered.
  • Connection with new people has both been exciting and a challenge. On the one hand, online services have the potential to reach much farther than church in the building. Allied to this is the fact that some folk who may be reluctant to enter a church building are happy to connect with a broadcast service. On the other hand, the absence of services in the building (or the restrictions which mean people need to book in ahead of time) means that people cannot really just drop in off the street.
  • Leaders are having to think about everything all the time. As regulations and restrictions are adjusted, guidelines for gathering are not fixed. Leaders are dealing with expectations (and likely to disappoint someone!) and patterns of work have changed.
  • Yet at the same time there has been an opportunity to rediscover the nature of true spiritual and pastoral leadership, and at the same time there has been a realisation that ministry may still get done, even if it is not done by the minister.

Here are some of my own hunches about how leaders might consider their priorities:

  • Be on your guard, work and pray for love and unity as opinions perhaps become more strongly held.
  • Work hard to identify and reach those who have not been engaging and are in danger of dropping out – and don’t forget those who are unable to gather for legitimate reasons.
  • Identify some of the good practices of the past 6 months (like regular pastoral phone calls) that can be retained.
  • If the situation is still transitory, hold decisions lightly.
  • Don’t assume that the bench mark for the future is being able to resume all you were doing on March 15.