A Cost of Being a Leader

I called this post A Cost of Being a Leader on purpose, as there are many costs to leadership. Those who assume a leadership role will often deal with multiple costs such as sacrifice, fatigue, loneliness, depression and pressure.

But, in this post I want to address a particular cost that often accompanies leadership: criticism and judgment that comes from those who have limited information and finite understanding about a given situation. In other words, people will allow themselves to come to firm conclusions about decisions and/or actions a leader has made, even though they don’t really know exactly what happened or why the leader came to a certain determination.

This is a common malady we can all succumb to. We get tempted to speak into a situation without having a firm grasp on all the facts. I think we live in a time and culture where leadership is regularly questioned, even when there may not be much evidence to support such doubt or hesitation. This doesn’t mean we follow our leaders blindly. No leader is above critique. But to function, every leader needs a good measure of support.

The first time this cost of leadership became apparent to me was at the church where I served as a youth pastor (my first full-time pastoral position). Our senior pastor was one of the most disciplined, fair, and thoughtful people I had ever worked for. He seemed to never rush into a decision, took time to try and understand all sides, and never used his position of authority to lord it over people in the church. This was a man who had a grasp on Jesus’ teaching about servant leadership. He wasn’t perfect, but always seemed above board in his dealings. Yet, during my twelve year tenure at this church, more than once did I witness people question, criticize and jump to conclusions with this pastor without really knowing much about any particular circumstance or situation that might be happening in the church.

In one situation at this church, a decision was made to release a person who had recently been brought on staff as a pastor. Not long after this pastor’s arrival, certain unhealthy behaviors began to emerge. Even after intervention and counsel from our senior pastor, the negative behaviors persisted to the point that some people in the church were made to feel vulnerable. After prayer and consultation with church leadership, the decision was made to let this new pastor go. Of course, the details of all that was going on was not something that could be made public to entire congregation.

Not long after, a few people in the church began to murmur and gossip, questioning the wisdom of the leadership, particularly the senior pastor.  They didn’t know the entire story, but that didn’t seem to matter. Regardless of any knowledge about the situation, the leadership was suspect.

A few times I had some suspicious people approach me, asking me about the inner workings of the decision (of which I had some knowledge, but not complete knowledge). First off, I had to let these people know the particulars were not mine to share. Second, I asked these people to consider the long-time record of their senior pastor. Had he been trustworthy? Was he a man of humility? Had he done anything to make people think that he wouldn’t have the best interests of the church in mind? Was he known to handle matters in a measured, professional manner?

For some people, this series of questions helped them get back to a more level perspective of the matter. Others, unsatisfied with my response, moved on in search of people who might give them the negative answers they were seeking. As far as I know, they were unsuccessful.

Through the years, I’ve seen this scenario play out time and time again. Leadership takes action and suspicion soon follows.

But, as much as it seems unfair and unprofitable, I have come to accept that it is part of the price of acting as a leader.

The apostle Paul endured such criticism and rejection at the hands of the Christians in Corinth. We’re talking about Paul! The one who gave so much of himself to help plant and nurture the Corinthian church. Yet, in their pride and immaturity, the Corinthians didn’t hold back at taking a few swipes at Paul.

If Paul had to face it, I think we ought not think ourselves immune. If such criticism could happen to Paul, it can happen to anyone else who takes on leadership.

J. Oswald Sanders, in his landmark book on leadership noted:

No leader is exempt from criticism, and his humility will nowhere be seen more clearly than in the manner in which he accepts and reacts to it.

In a blog posting at the Vanderbloemen Church Leadership website, four points are offered to better navigate the criticism that often comes a leader’s way:

1. See it as inevitable.
Jesus was criticized as a drunk and a tool of Satan. The Apostle Paul was criticized as not being a legitimate apostle. Famed radio broadcaster Paul Harvey used to say, “You always find the most clubs under the best apple trees.” In fact, in some ways a pastor can rejoice when criticized. Why is that? Because Jesus said, “Woe to you when all men speak well of you” (Luke 6:26).

2. Respond only when necessary.
Some criticisms don’t warrant a response. Nehemiah would not be distracted from his work of building the wall to respond to critics. Jesus did not respond to all criticisms. Abraham Lincoln was constantly criticized yet rarely responded. Responding to criticism can distract you—keep your eyes on the goal! As a Pastor, when I got anonymous criticisms, I immediately threw them away and told my staff to do the same.

3. If a response is necessary, be slow to respond.
“IN AN AGE OF EMAILS AND TEXTING, OUR RESPONSES ARE OFTEN WAY TOO FAST!” Proverbs 12:16 says, “A fool shows his annoyance at once, but a prudent man overlooks an insult.” In the New Testament, James writes about being slow to become angry.

4. Consider the source.
How well do you know the critic? Have they been overwhelmingly positive in the past? Do you know their love for you? Some criticism is legitimate, and we need to learn and grow from it. But often, if the criticism is overly harsh or angry, it says more about the critic than it does about you. They may have major issues going on in their life that is boiling over to the surface.

As kids, if we ever came across a large mound of dirt, we inevitably ended up playing the game “king of the hill.” The goal of the game was to get to the top of the hill and hold your position. For those not at the top of the hill, the mission was to knock “the king” off the top spot.

Sometimes that’s how it feels to be a leader. But remember, it’s part of the deal.

(And let’s be honest: there are plenty of bad leaders out there who make it harder for people to rely on those in positions of authority.)

Thank God for those people who have taken the challenge given in Hebrews 13:17:

Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you.

May we not lose heart of give up because some people seem intent on questioning our actions or doubting our motives, even when they don’t really know what’s going on. Such activity is as old as the hills. And remember: as leaders, we are not above doing the same thing to others that causes such pain and confusion within us. May God keep our hearts in check as we come under the leadership of others.

 

A Different Kingdom

Lately the news headlines have leaned heavy on stories related to politics and governance. An impeachment inquiry. An upcoming presidential election. Battles over Supreme Court justices. On an on it goes. It now seems like a regular, daily occurrence that a new scandal arises. Fingers are pointed at those perceived to be political enemies with the hopes that they will tumble out of power.

Both the pursuit of power, as well as trying to hold on to power, seems to bring out some of the worst human qualities imaginable. Amid all the political maneuvering we often find a host of lies, half-truths and deceptions. It can begin to feel like a big game of chess where the overarching motto is win at any cost. 

Such wranglings are nothing new. They span the length of human history. Political power struggles are as old as dirt. And often as ugly as dirt as well.

Sadly, as nasty as the realm of politics can often be, we too can sucked into the fear-fueled thinking that if we can’t beat them, perhaps we should join them. Why? Because we don’t want to lose power and control. So, life can often look like the early morning rush at the front doors a department store on Black Friday. We elbow our way to the front of the line because, well, everyone else is doing it…and we just have to have the new flat-screen TV. Our means become justified by our goals.

One time, the disciples of Jesus got into a bit of scrap about power. The situation is described in Matthew 20.

The mother of two of the disciples thought it wise to approach Jesus and ask Him if her sons could get the best seats in the kingdom; the seats on the direct left and right of Jesus’ throne. She envisioned her sons being close to the king, and thus close to power.

The other 10 disciples finally caught wind of the mother’s plan and acted as if they wished they had thought of it first. They realized that this woman’s two sons had figured out a way to the top and it made them want to compete for such choice seating.

At this point, Jesus decided it was time to call a meeting to bring the chaos to a close. He gathered his 12 around and shared these words:

“You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave— just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Matthew 20:25-28 NIV)

The way of the world is to seek out of a position of power. And, if you can get one, hang on to it with all your might. Also, use it to lord over people and exercise authority over them. The goal is to be in charge so that you don’t have to take orders from someone else. It’s all about leverage – once you get it, use it to your advantage.

But, Jesus says that His kingdom is not like the kingdoms of this world. It is, in fact, the very opposite. According to Jesus, greatness is not measured by the amount of power one employs, but in the amount of lives impacted through humble, sacrificial service.

Rather than trying to climb life’s ladder in order to get your way, Jesus challenged His followers to descend it, looking for ways to think about how to help others.

John Wesley put this mindset into a memorable, highly applicable mandate:

Do all the good you can by all the means you can in all the places you can at all the times you can to all the people you can as long as ever you can.

 

 

 

 

 

Stay Salty, Keep Shining

(This post is an adaption of a message I recently shared for our church’s SERVE CDA week, a time when we challenge our people to connect with and serve alongside various local ministries such as Union Gospel Mission, Children’s Village, Love INC and Safe Passage Violence Prevention Center. The text for the message is Matthew 5:13-16.)

Interesting, the very first word of the great commandment is GO! Not STAY! The great commandment implies movement! What a great opportunity to step outside our comfort zones and explore what God is doing in the lives of people in need. And it is often outside our comfort zones that God is doing his most interesting, impactful work! But, let’s be honest…moving out of our comfort zones can be downright uncomfortable! I mean, who likes to be uncomfortable?

Yet, the call of God remains: Go and make disciples! Go and serve as my ambassadors! Go and connect with a world without Jesus! 

One of the ways that Jesus tried to help his followers (including us) to understand their calling was to speak to them using some super-understandable imagery. And when it comes to understanding our calling as representatives of the Gospel, perhaps no teaching of Jesus of is as on point as what he shares in Matthew 5:13-16. The context here is that this declaration of Jesus is made in the midst of what is known as the Sermon on the Mount. Some have referred to the Sermon on the Mount as the Manifesto for Jesus’ Kingdom. It’s a shout out to those who say their desire is to live under the rule and reign of Jesus. It’s a call to both higher and more purposeful living. And part of that kingdom living is wrapped up in the idea of influence. How we live hs the potential to impact some of the lives around us! So, what was it that Jesus said? Here it is:

“You are the salt of the earth, but if salt has lost its taste, how shall its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything except to be thrown out and trampled under people’s feet. You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven. (Matthew 5:13-16)

Jesus used two everyday items in his teaching that even a child could understand: salt and light. If I could boil down Jesus teaching to just 4 words, it would be these: STAY SALTY, KEEP SHINING. Jesus said to his listeners, “YOU ARE THE SALT OF THE EARTH.” But what in the world does that mean? Two thoughts come to mind.

Obviously, we know that salt is used to season food.

With just a few shakes of the saltshaker, we can transform food that is bland to becoming highly palatable. Try and imagine a world that is unseasoned by the presence of Christians who love God and love people. A world with less sacrificial love, less mercy, less grace. A world devoid of the challenge to think about God and to live as God created us to live. Bottom line, we are called to go out, engage and influence our world. This doesn’t mean that every person we meet will respond to God. Our job is to provide a witness, God’s job is to change a heart.

The other aspect of being spiritually salty is this: in the ancient world, salt was an invaluable commodity because of its ability to preserve food.

For us, we have refrigerators and freezers to keep our food fresh. But that was not a luxury known at the time of Jesus. So, when Jesus uttered the words, “You are the salt of the earth,” those listening likely associated his words with the preserving qualities of salt. What they would hear was this: that all of Jesus disciples were to serve as preservatives, stopping the moral decay in our sin-infected world.

Pastor and evangelist Michael Youseff reflected:

“The spiritual health and strength of the Christian is to counteract the corruption that is in the world. Christians, as salt, are to inhibit sin’s power to destroy lives. This in turn creates opportunity for the gospel to be proclaimed and received.”

How’s that for serious business! But the last part of verse 13 in Matthew 5 reveals a concern: the worry that the follower of Jesus would not allow themselves to act as salt! This happens when we either:

Deliberately disengage from contact and relationships with those who don’t know Jesus…or, live such a life of hypocrisy and compromise that, as a witness, our life no longer serves as seasoning, but in fact becomes spiritually confusing and corrosive. 

The challenge is this: STAY SALTY! Watch your life and be sure to get out into the world as an ambassador for Jesus.

The other word picture Jesus used to talk about the call of the believer was light.

In verse 14 Jesus said, “You are the light of the world!” In the case of sin, our saltiness is meant to act as a preservative. When it comes to acting as light, our lives are meant to offer people a counter-perspective to how most peopleend up living! Whereas salt preserves, light illuminates! Our lives are to be an on-going witness to the reality of Christ’s presence in our lives. When we worship God with pure hearts, when we love others as ourselves, and when we do good without growing weary, we are lights shining. Get this, though: it is not OUR light, but the reflection of the Light of the world, Jesus Christ Himself, that people will see in us. Philippians 2:14-15 (ESV) says:

Do all things without grumbling or disputing, that you may be blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and twisted generation, among whom you shine as lights in the world,

Walking, wandering or running in the dark can be dangerous! We bump into trees and we trip into ditches. Who here hasn’t at one time in their life been injured because of a lack of light! Without solid illumination we often make mistakes and mess things up! Well, everyday we are surrounded by people groping around in the darkness, separated from the God who loves them.  And God’s desire is to use His children, like beacons from a lighthouse, to show the way to Him. But, just as in the case of salt losing its saltiness, Jesus expresses concern about the believer somehow covering up their light. The way Jesus presents it, just as it makes no sense to light a lamp and then cover it up, it’s just as absurd to be impacted by the Gospel of Jesus, and then make all sorts of effort to keep that light shining through our lives. I like the perspective of DL Moody, who said:

We are told to let our light shine, and if it does, we won’t need to tell anybody it does. Lighthouses don’t fire cannons to call attention to their shining- they just shine.

If we love God and pursue his will for our life, the light will naturally flow forth! STAY SALTY and KEEP SHINING. That’s Jesus word for us! But here’s the deal: Either we are “salt” and “light” by the grace of God, or we are willfully disobeying the One who saved us for such a time as this. If we are being “salt” and “light” then we can expect fruit from our faithfulness. If we are allowing God to use as salt and light, then today is a perfect time to repent and let God have our best for His glory.

Imagine a world without salt and light. This would describe a world where people don’t feel any tension regarding their sin, or how to find a pathway to find forgiveness from it.

It’s on us to let God use us to reach a lost and dying world!

 

What Matters Most

When asked about the most important teaching in all of God’s directives to his people, Jesus answered:

“The most important one,” answered Jesus, “is this: ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.” (Mark 12:29-31 NIV)

Reduced down, the command is this: Love God, love others.

At the bare minimum, it’s this: LOVE.

This command has two aspects: how we relate to God, and how we relate to others.

The first aspect is vertical in direction (upward), the second is horizontal (outward).

My takeaway is this: nothing matters more in this life (and in this universe) than right relationships.

A lot of Christians get it that we are to love God through worship, obedience and service.

We certainly aren’t perfect at loving God in these ways, but we know what we are called to.

On the other hand, my hunch is we have a lot of work to do when it comes to figuring out our horizontal, human relationships.

Likely, this is because we have a lot of our priorities mixed up.

In other words, we value some things more than the people around us.

But here’s the deal: the pursuit of loving relationships ought to matter more than:

  • How much money we make
  • What kind of car we drive
  • Where we land on the social ladder
  • The clothes we choose to wear
  • What music we listen to
  • What we do for fun
  • The style we seek to radiate
  • The demographic where we feel most comfortable
  • The level of cool we think fits us

All these things hold the potential for pride and selfishness, but healthy working relationships are always grounded in humility and selflessness.

The apostle John’s letters seem to focus on the idea that some of his didn’t quite make the connection that loving God ought to naturally lead to loving others. Thus, he wrote:

Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God. Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love. In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins. Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one anotherNo one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God abides in us and his love is perfected in us. (1 John 4:7-12 ESV)

And just a few verses later, John gets even more direct:

If anyone says, “I love God,” and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen. And this commandment we have from him: whoever loves God must also love his brother. (1 John 4:20-21 ESV)

How’s that for straight talk?

What a challenging exercise it is to think about what keeps us from loving others as we ought.

I think at first are likely to think about the other person, coming up with reasons why they a such a challenge to love.

But I think it would do us well to stop and think about what types of things keep us from being able to, as Jesus says, love our neighbors as ourselves.

  • What are our hangups?
  • What are our misplaced priorities?
  • What are our prejudices?
  • What are our selfish preoccupations?

Whatever they are, they need to go, because these obstacles keep us from fulfilling what Jesus describes as the most important thing we can every put our mind, heart and strength into: loving God, loving others.