By Eddie Lowen
With changing times has come fresh interest in leadership. That’s good, because a constantly evolving culture demands regularly rethinking how we lead.
If there is a field of study that has been reclaimed or reincarnated by baby boomers, it is leadership. When I entered ministry, leadership wasn’t a hot topic. There were a handful of leadership books and a few gurus making the rounds, but not many. Dale Carnegie and Zig Ziglar talked leadership before it was cool, no doubt. But over the last 25 years, there has been an explosion of writing, speaking, tweeting, and blogging about leadership.
This isn’t just a fad. When culture transitions, the art of leadership must do the same. And since our society is visibly morphing on an almost daily basis, leadership thought is in flux, too. Every leadership model and vocabulary eventually wears thin. So leaders must evolve.
My tenure as a church leader has overlapped with the explosive rise in leadership awareness. Maybe that’s why I show signs of being a leadership junkie. I read leadership blogs and listen to leadership podcasts. I like growing my leadership because I’m convinced it makes a giant difference in the church where I serve. But I confess that I’ve come within reach of leadership obsession and have chased a few leadership fads.
Some people seem to despise talk of leadership. To them, it sounds worldly, unspiritual. They tell us we should depend on the Word and the Spirit, not Collins and Maxwell. It sounds like a warning with some prophetic truth to it.
To this day, I try to remain somewhat skeptical about leadership concepts, including my own. I hope to view leadership through a biblical lens. For sure, I roll my eyes at some of my past leadership tweets and talks. For a short season in the distant past, I became such a leadership cynic that I abdicated the leadership wheel.
The result was not fresh wind and fire from the Spirit. Instead it was more opportunism by people who did not have the church’s best interest at heart. Whatever risks the elevation of a leader’s influence may bring, the consequences of no leadership are worse. One of a leader’s most important roles is to eliminate vacuums that would otherwise attract people who shouldn’t determine the church’s future.
So, off the sidelines I came. I reengaged as a leader and allowed Romans 12:8 to convince me that I can’t be a humble leader if I’m all humble and no lead. Leadership is legitimate. It is biblical. It is spiritual. It is important. Imperfect leadership is better than none, as long as it’s humbly offered.
The Next Pitfall: Over-leading
It’s cliché, but one day I woke up (literally) and realized I was still attempting to win a case for which the verdict had already been handed down. I no longer needed to prove my leadership capacity. It was no longer being questioned. By failing to realize I’d gained credibility as a leader, I was wasting energy trying to build a foundation that already existed. I needed to adjust and pour that energy into actually leading.
With that awakening came new concerns. Now that I am a trusted leader, how do I ensure my leadership is good for my church? How do I guard against overusing my influence? How do I widen the leadership circle and build into the next generation of leaders? On the extreme end, how do I avoid being the pilot who flies the plane into a mountain, simply because the copilot won’t question me? (Yes, this actually happened.)
Once a leader is established, one of the greatest temptations is over-leading. Leadership reminds me of driving. Great driving is not about acceleration alone. Great drivers accelerate, coast, and brake. They know when to assert and when to yield. You know that idiot who swerves in and out of traffic while driving 30 mph faster than everyone else? He thinks he’s a great driver, but he’s not. And there is a leadership equivalent to him.
Like great drivers, great leaders do not always accelerate or outrace their company. Even the greatest leaders wisely yield to those around them, at times. So, where do I need to yield? At what points do I need to slow down?
Below is my running list of when to avoid over-leading:
• When I’ve recently made more withdrawals than deposits.
Leaders can and should ask a lot of the people around them, assuming they ask for the right things. But failing to recognize when we’re draining the reservoir is destructive.
• When there aren’t enough resources to implement an initiative.
If the money, space, volunteers, or strategy don’t exist, telling people to “make it happen” doesn’t change anything.
• When your roster is depleted.
Even Jesus needed time to select and train his team. Most churches are understaffed. If you demand the same productivity from a team with unfilled positions, you might need a refresher in math or logic.
• When the person you need most is understandably depleted.
I’m convinced I work with some of the most resilient and determined people in the world. But even the best people get sick, face family challenges, and need seasons to be refreshed before they pour everything out again.
• When the goal is light years beyond your current capacity.
It’s great to visit churches that are ahead of the curve. It’s good to attend conferences and glean ideas. But sometimes the next step we envision is actually four steps. Be visionary, not grandiose.
• When you are the idea-generator, not the implementer.
Years ago when Star Trek: The Next Generation was a hit TV show, I liked Captain Jean-Luc Picard’s directive, “Make it so.” I would sometimes smile and say to my team, “Make it so.” But leaders like me, whose teams convert our words into reality, can sometimes be detached from that reality. It takes time to build ministry.
• When it’s time to celebrate.
It’s an indictment that so many churches are so poor at celebration. We celebrate less often and with less intensity than God wants. There are times when the leader needs to make the call to celebrate big. Yes, I know you’re already paying your staff for their work. But do you want employees or a great team? Great teams learn how to celebrate. Great leaders don’t just tolerate it, they initiate it.
Eddie Lowen, lead minister of West Side Christian Church, Springfield, Illinois, writes the “Ministry Today” column semimonthly in CHRISTIAN STANDARD.