If you have ever traveled via commercial airliner, you might be vaguely aware of the preflight safety talk.
It’s something most people completely ignore, even though it could save your life and possibly others.
The flight attendants tell you, “First put on your oxygen mask and then assist others.” My favorite flight was the one in which the flight attendant recommended we first put our mask on, and then put a mask on “the child most likely to pay for your retirement.”
The directions may at first seem selfish and uncaring. However, if you have ever experienced oxygen deprivation, you realize if you can’t breathe, then you are little good to those who depend on you. A child is safer in this type of emergency situation if you meet your need first and then meet his or her need.
In Christian leadership, we want to get “oxygen” to as many people as possible. Leaders long to stick to Paul’s admonitions to “carry each another’s burdens” (Galatians 6:2), to become “the very nature of a servant” (Philippians 2:7), and to “value others above yourselves” (Philippians 2:3). We long for that kind of life, but in our longing we miss the fact that there is a cause-and-effect principle that makes the whole thing work:
Your Own Mask First
The flight attendant’s advice helps us with leading change. If we are leading people to spiritual, social, or organizational transformation, we cannot take them somewhere we haven’t been.
If we want a Spirit-inspired, soul-healthy congregation, we must be Spirit-inspired keepers of our own souls. If we are going to love our neighbors—those we lead and those we minister to—we must also care for ourselves. The web of pastoral burnout, moral failure, and personal crisis is often fueled by Christians desperately oriented toward doing something for others that they have never done for themselves.
If we are leading a congregation that is stagnant, declining, and regressing spiritually, then we must confront the possibility that they are simply playing a large-scale game of Follow the Leader.
Quite simply, we must become changed leaders who lead change. Here are three key catalysts toward accomplishing this.
An understanding of self-leadership—
Leaders are people who lead almost as a reflex—it comes naturally. However, blind spots can develop when we neglect to practice self-leadership. In other words, the very nature of leading must come from practices, principles, and values modeled and burned into the fabric of our own lives. Families in our churches experience tension and pain from poor leadership, and we long to help them, but are we in a position to do that? Have we put on our oxygen masks first?
We often miss a critical phrase in Jesus’ greatest commandment (Matthew 22:37-40). He calls the God-hungry to “love the Lord your God” and to “love your neighbor as yourself.” We often lean hard on loving God and our neighbor, and these are critical things. But we struggle with loving ourselves.
In A Failure of Nerve, psychologist Edwin Friedman says we’ve lost the goodness of our “self” in the quest to get rid of negative forms of “selfishness.” He says: “Well-defined self in a leader . . . is not only critical to effective leadership, it is precisely the leadership characteristic that is most likely to promote the kind of community that preserves the self of its members.”
In other words, how you deal with your self is how you will deal with your neighbor. For some leaders, and for myself at various points along my journey, we should feel sorry for our “neighbors”! Again, “First put on your mask, and then put on the mask of others.” Leaders who want to see change and transformation need to begin in their own act of self-leadership, those disciplines and habits leading to transformation at home first before they are cast as vision for others
The downside of a lack of self-leadership can be found in an instant. Many leadership burnout books contain a passage where the wife or child of a leader pulls back the curtain on the wizard and plainly states reality: “You don’t pay attention to me,” “You’re never home,” “You can’t focus on anything but work (church, etc.)”
Did it ever occur to us that while we preach and teach on the dangers of workaholism, we might be saying, “Do as I say, not as I do?” Shouldn’t the church and its leaders be an example of a better way forward?
The common argument is, “I’d rather burn out than rust out for the sake of the gospel.” But if we live with that approach, we’re guaranteeing one thing—limited effectiveness and temporary transformation.
The plane whose engines have died is still flying, but in the wrong direction, and it likely won’t be flying for long. When our self suffers, those we lead suffer along with us.
An understanding of the vision of Jesus—I imagine you are thinking: Oh, I can skip this section. I know the vision of Jesus. I’ve been preaching, teaching, and casting it my whole life.
Let’s pause for a moment. Jesus’ vision is of a world transformed—a world that is completely convinced that becoming like him is the greatest opportunity it will ever know. It is a world that believes he was the smartest man alive and that everything he said was true. If you follow that thought process to its logical conclusion, you’ll find Luke 5:16 at its center: “But Jesus often withdrew to lonely places and prayed.”
We can miss something about this passage. Jesus had drawn a crowd—he was surrounded by the hurt and needy that caused his guts to move with compassion—and so he responded in the way good leaders respond. He walked away. He went off into a desolate, isolated place to pray.
I wonder if the disciples questioned him on this: “Jesus, is this really the best time for your devotions? They really need you.”
Jesus, however, had a bigger vision. His vision was not just to heal and restore people, but to show the world how to be a healed and restored person who healed and restored others. The cabin pressure dropped when the lepers gathered round, so Jesus went to the wilderness to snap on his mask; he therefore had a realistic vision of what healing and restoration really looked like.
A differentiated approach to leadership—Differentiated simply means “able to stand apart,” in this case, “able to stand apart” from a situation and see it for what it really is without the emotional and personal baggage that is constantly present. It sounds like wishful thinking but, in fact, those who have the wisdom of God—the discernment that comes when the Spirit of Jesus dwells within to “teach us” and “remind us” (see John 14)—we have access to a source of objectivity that helps us know what we can’t know without help.
In order to be that kind of leader, we must engage in a differentiated approach to our lives. An exciting happening in Evangelical churches today is the reemergence of spiritual direction as a helpful and healthy practice of the church. Quite simply, spiritual direction is a relationship where individuals help each other discern where God is active and what God might be speaking into their lives. It is a listening practice, and I truly believe that changed leaders who lead change are ones who have invited another person or persons to listen to their story and help point out where God’s Spirit is living and active in their everyday life.
Differentiated leaders have started to deal with their own junk, their own hypocrisy, their own inconsistency and dependence on everything other than the life-giving presence of God in their life and ministry. This doesn’t come without help, and that is why it is critical we have wise voices in our lives who can speak deep and rich words into our situation and help us stand outside our emotional connections so we might have our “mask” firmly in place and breathe as we serve others.
Honestly, some of the greatest failures of my ministry career in the local church and the classroom have come when I’ve stopped listening to wiser voices and attempted to breathe self-generated oxygen for the sake of suffering for the “kingdom.” It is suffering, to be sure, but whether it is for the kingdom is up for debate.
Time to Breathe Deeply
I have had the great privilege to lead in a variety of settings, and now I get to talk about soul care for leaders in a variety of situations. One consistent thought continues to arise: We cannot do for others—whether individuals or an organization like the local church—what we have not attempted to bring to bear on our own life.
It is time for some honest reflection. Is your church, your eldership, your ministry leadership team resistant to change because they are unrepentant pagans? (Don’t answer too quickly.) Or do they resist change simply because their vision caster speaks of transformation but doesn’t resemble those remarks? Is there a Word-centered revolution taking place in your life in the same way you long to see it born in the life of your people? Who is helping you get distance and perspective on the transformation projects you’re leading?
Spiritual transformation in the church requires that we heed the advice of the flight attendant: first your mask, and then others. We can’t help others breathe if we’re short of oxygen ourselves.
Casey Tygrett serves as spiritual formation pastor at Parkview Christian Church in Orland Park, Illinois.