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The Beating Heart of Leadership

What quality matters most in a church leader? There are many candidates.

• Integrity

• Servant Heart

• Compassion

• Hard work

• Holiness

• Wisdom

• A healthy devotional life

All of the above are important, of course. Especially that last one. Today, however, I’d like to offer a candidate that is sometimes either ignored or taken for granted.

• Relationship builder/maintainer/repairer

I was inspired to write on this after reading the following quote by Pete Greig. Here it is, slightly paraphrased.

85% of my time as a pastor is invisible. It’s spent behind the scenes building teams. Not preaching. Not counselling. Not studying. Nothing worth sharing on social media. Not even praying. ?Most of my waking, working day is spent quietly choreographing the space between people, noticing, listening and over-communicating, pre-empting problems.

Whenever the pH is right in the soil, seeds sprout naturally, fruit forms inevitably in season. As in nature, so in super-nature: whenever teams are healthy, culture thrives, life reproduces life, fruit forms in season. But when relationships go wrong, everything swerves to rot. It’s exhausting and demoralising. Businesses, charities, and churches alike quickly become driven and machine-like whenever their leaders start prioritising productivity above people, results above relationships.

I wish they spent longer on these soft skills in seminaries and business schools. I wish we looked for EQ as much as IQ in those who aspire to be our executives, our politicians and our pastors. I long for leaders who understand that being relational and nurturing healthy relationships is not just a desirable part of the job. It is the job. In the famous words of the late, great Peter Drucker: “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” And in the even more famous words of the greatest leader of all time (addressed to his own rather unimpressive senior team): “I have called you friends.” (John.15.15)

Relationships with people. Not results. Not numbers. Nothing to do with presenting a favourable image. Social media, programs, money, reputation–nowhere to be seen. Just people. It’s the people who matter, and of course, it’s the people who cause the problems. Not the computers or the building, or the publicity, or the sermon preparation.

The people.

Why are relationships so important? And why does Pete Greig see them as absolutely central to leadership? Here are my thoughts.

1) God is relational at his very core.

We don’t spend nearly enough time on the doctrine of the Trinity.* If we did, we’d soon enter into the extraordinary truth that God is God-in-community. A mutually, self-supportive, love-giving community of three persons possessed of the singular divine essence. God is not one, but three-in-one. As such, he is eternally ‘in relationship.’ Indeed, in perfect relationship. And this truth expresses the very core of his being. For he is love, and how could he be love without another to love? No, he did not create us because he was lonely. He created us to enjoy the intimacy of his relational being. We are invited into the very centre of his three-ness, nestled in there between Father, Son, and Spirit, loved by those who in their unity share the divine essence.

Why is leadership about relationship? Because we worship a fundamentally relational being, for whom relationships are an essential part of his being. They’re not ‘out there,’ or ‘optional.’ They are the essence of who he is. Because he is love.

As his image-bearers, we mirror God to the world. That means relationships are essential to us too. And even more than that, they are an essential part of being human. As John Donne noted, ‘No man is an island.’ Not ‘don’t be an island.’ Instead, he’s saying something quite different. He’s saying, ‘To be human, it is not possible to be an island.’ In the Great Divorce by C.S. Lewis, a narrator is taken on a bus trip to hell. There, he is shown houses, where people live alone. The further into hell he goes, the further apart they are. It is no surprise that some say that a person with no relationships is no longer human at all. I’m not sure about that claim, but the truth remains: Relationships are essential to us, as they are essential to God.

2) The church is a body.

From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work.

Eph. 4.15

You’re hiking up in the hills. A small stone works its way into your boot. A blister develops. It hurts a lot. Now, all you can think of is your sore heel. It’s no good telling yourself that your elbow feels fine, so you don’t need to think about your heel. Or your eyes are working well. Because frankly, the view doesn’t look nearly as good now that you can think of nothing else but your heel that is screaming at you.

We are a body. We are all connected. When one part is suffering, we all suffer. But more importantly, perhaps, we are connected in relationship to each other. We are not necessarily responsible for every single need in the community, but we are connected. As the leader, you are ‘in relationship’ with all the members of your church. In large churches, you may not know everyone well, but make no mistake, every relationship is important. And the closer you are to them—elder board, associate pastor, children/youth leader—the more important the relationship.

The whole church is a web of relationships, each one an engine generating the aroma of Christ to the glory of God, when it is working well, in self-giving love. As the leader, you model relationship to everyone else in the church. If you’re isolated, or falling out with people, the effect on the church is significant. Because you’re an important part of the body.

3) Love is the most important thing in the universe.

Need I write more? God is love. To live like him, we are called to love like him. That entails relationship, of course. So when people hurt us, or disappoint us, our response demonstrates either love or our lack of it. Avoidance, procrastination, passive aggression, manipulation—they are all ways in which we fail to show love. Let’s add denial, pretense, patronising, and ignoring. Because leaders have power, they have an arsenal of different responses to protect themselves. But they need just one: love and all that flows from it.

4) Grace is about the restoration of relationship.

Every week when we share communion, or preach on the cross, we help people to focus on the restoration of relationship. We’re not saved to ‘wait for heaven.’ We’re saved so that we can know, enjoy, and bring glory to God. We’re saved for relationship. Grace is the very heart of the gospel, so it is the height of hypocrisy for a leader to preach the gospel of grace, knowing that relationships are broken. That’s unacceptable. It damages the preaching of the gospel, and harms the leader’s reputation. Why should we listen to a person who talks about God’s forgiveness, but who refuses to reach out to someone at odds with him? Why respect someone who seems to place so little value on repairing relationships when they’re damaged?

Nurturing, maintaining, and repairing our relationships isn’t an option. As Pete Greig points out, it is the job. It’s the job!

This is a subject that will run and run. I will be coming back to it. Today, here are a few questions to ruminate on through the week.

  1. Do I have any broken relationships in my community that I need to repair?

  2. What am I doing to nurture my most important relationships? Eg. How well am I supporting and encouraging my co-leaders (associate minister/elders/youth leader etc) How could I improve?

  3. How often do I admit to my own mistakes, taking responsibility, and seeking forgiveness?

  4. How is God speaking to me about my relationships? What is he saying as I sit here after reading this post? Take a few minutes to listen. Then respond.


*I recommend Embracing the Trinity. Fred Sanders. IVP. 2010.


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