Meet Pastor Bruce.
He’s a new leader of a local church, having taken up his post six months ago. He’s in his mid-thirties, and this is his first senior position. He’s arrived with lots of enthusiasm, energy and ideas. His interview went well, and he thought he made a good impression on the elder board.
Now he’s not so sure.
Six months in, and he’s hitting roadblocks. Two of the elders are causing problems, opposing several of his initiatives. He’s only been there a short time, and already he’s become discouraged. He thought the church employed him to bring in fresh ideas – he shared some of them during the hiring process – but now it seems he can’t make any headway with his plans.
His first thought is, ‘How can I get around these elders?’ He doesn’t realise it, but he’s standing on dangerous ground. Not only that, the ground is sloped, and it is slippery.
Stop reading. Look away from the computer/phone, and spend a minute or two thinking of the advice you would give Pastor Bruce. Consider your own response first.
Then combine your own wisdom with what you read now . . .
In his excellent new book, Powerful Leaders?, Marcus Honeysett describes what can happen when leaders misuse their power. At the far end of the spectrum are leaders who make one’s blood run cold. They are nakedly ambitious, and they set out to dominate and control. I have never met such people; fortunately, they are relatively rare in the church. Most of the leaders I know are good, kind, generous people.
They desire to lead well. I hope that’s you.
In Powerful Leaders?, Marcus Honeysett writes,
It is easy to convince ourselves that we are pursuing success not for ourselves but for other people and the kingdom of God . . . Leaders can feel that the desire for more is driven by holy zeal and not by selfishness or neediness.
This, I believe, is the ‘pinch point’ for many leaders. Including Pastor Bruce. He wants to lead well. He has ideas. They are not selfish. Indeed, they are for the benefit of God’s kingdom and the church. Without realising it, his own ideas and the will of God are seamlessly combined. To oppose his ideas becomes opposition to God.
That should raise a huge red flag.
For we are not God, however much we may believe that we’ve been placed in a role to carry out his will.
So what should Pastor Bruce do?
Like all leaders, he has formal, legitimate power, as well as what might be termed ‘relational power.’ Formal power is out in the open, accountable, and subject to scrutiny. It’s clearly defined. Relational power is soft power, based on forming relationships. It is developed through the many connections a leader makes with people – especially influencers – in the congregation. The youth leader, the music leader, the admin staff, the elders, the missions committee, these are all people with whom the leader works closely. There is nothing wrong with relational power, but it contains the potential for misuse. Especially when a leader’s plans become frustrated.
Pastor Bruce has a variety of options in tackling his problems. Many leaders will opt for manipulation, converting their soft power into effective action outside formal structures. He may simply go ahead with a project that’s been turned down, tweak it a bit, and see what happens. Others might play the victim, presenting faux vulnerability in order to achieve their goals. In Powerful Leaders? Marcus Honeysett describes a number of responses that lead down that slippery slope.
I’d like to offer a response of my own:
Lose, occasionally. Yes, lose.
Since when did Christian leadership entail getting our own way all the time? Surely this is the way of the world. Worldly leaders demand loyalty and they exercise power to show that they are strong.
Godly leaders follow the way of the cross.
Marcus Honeysett writes,
Power must be exercised wholly for the benefit of others and not for the benefit of the leader. Christian leadership, modelled on Jesus’ leadership, is self-giving, not self-serving.
Pastor Bruce has only been in his post for six months, but he’s already frustrated because he’s not able to implement his plans, plans that he believes have God’s approval. He needs to stop for a moment and remember his calling. To serve. Is he able to serve, when his ideas are rejected? Of course. Has his pride been wounded? Almost certainly. Is he concerned that he will look weak? Very likely.
A meditation on Christ’s surrender in the Garden of Gethsemane is in order.
Christ lost. Completely. He gave up his power, and in doing so, he gave up his life. He demonstrated use of power that is entirely at odds with the way power is exercised in the world. He lost, and in doing so, he won. Eventually. If we lose well, we may find that God honours us and enables us to ‘win’ later.
At the next elders’ meeting, Pastor Bruce decides to spend as much time with his two opponents as possible. He listens a lot and speaks little. He is gracious and he makes a real effort to understand what motivates these two men, who have been in the church for several decades.
Pastor Bruce loses the vote. The church building will not be rented out during the week to earn some extra income. Instead, it will be left empty. Nor will the church be hiring another youth worker. Apparently, there are insufficient funds. The link between these two decisions appears to go unnoticed. Inside, he shakes his head in disbelief, but he is not bitter. He accepts the will of the board.
Then he decides to love his enemies.
He has learned that loving one’s enemies may sometimes mean loving his brothers who oppose him. So he sets out to build a relationship with these two men. They are, after all, his co-labourers. He moves towards them, not away from them. The difference here is that he has no intention of building soft power in order to manipulate them. In truth, they may never accept some of his ideas, and that will always be a disappointment. But he’s become more focused on what he can do than on what he can’t.
Because it’s okay to lose.
I write ‘occasionally,’ because a leader cannot continue as a leader when every move he makes is blocked. If a church shows no interest in following a leader, then that leader may have to move on. But that’s the subject of another post.
Losing is hard. It tests us, but it also reveals our character. And that’s what counts in the end – the person we’re becoming. Perhaps most importantly, however, we need to remember that we serve a God who doesn’t see success and failure the way that we do. In his kingdom, we receive by giving, we are blessed through service, we make sacrifices and discover that our loss is actually our gain, and we are given life through laying down our lives.
But what if God’s will is also our will?! What happens if our plans are genuinely good, and they’re being thwarted by people whose ideas frustrate the will of God? Good question. Have a little faith, Pastor Bruce. God is more interested in building your character than achieving your goals. Yes, even when they are right and noble goals.
It’s how you respond when you fail that matters more to your Lord than when you succeed. It’s your dependence on God’s grace, and your growth in loving difficult people that transforms you most into the image of your God.
And your response?
There are few things more godly than losing graciously. Indeed, it is one of the powerful things you can do. So you may have lost, but in losing well, you have won a prize that is eternal. And make no mistake, those two elders will notice how you lose, the grace you show, and your willingness to submit to decisions with which you disagree. That’s worth its weight in gold.
And if one day, they fire you, is that the worst that could happen? No, it isn’t. Losing a job isn’t like losing a life.
So lose, occasionally, and you will soon find you’re growing.
That, surely, is a win.
1. Other church leadership titles are available.
2. Powerful Leaders. Marcus Honeysett. IVP. 2022. p.60
3. Powerful Leaders. Marcus Honeysett. IVP. 2022. p.22