The Wrong Kind of Strong

Body Builder, Pen and InkBy Eddie Lowen

Three attributes we should seek when we say we want a strong leader.

In Disney’s animated film Beauty and the Beast, a strapping young man named Gaston cannot fathom why Belle (the Beauty, herself) is so disinterested in him. After all, Gaston is Mr. Everything.

As the song sung by Gaston’s sidekick exclaims, he’s the slickest and quickest, and his neck is the thickest! No one can “hit” or “match wits” like Gaston. And for the record, no one can spit like him, either!

With a bio like that, what young French maiden could resist? Answer: Belle. She isn’t the kind of girl to swoon at the superficial. Gaston is chiseled in all the right places, but Belle isn’t looking for a better brand of strength.

For as long as I can recall, there has been a never-ending search for strong leaders for the church. But what does that mean? There is a superficial version of church leadership strength that must be avoided. It divides. It disappoints. It compromises the church’s character. It’s the wrong kind of strong.

As long as biblical teachings are honored and trusted, every church has room to define what “strong” looks like for its leaders. As I survey the team at the church I help lead, I see these qualities in our strongest players.

They Do Time Well

There are not only two kinds of people in the world, despite all the axioms that claim otherwise. However, if there were only two kinds of people in the world, they would be (1) those who allow their days and weeks to unfold without a strategy, and (2) those who are highly intentional with time.

Time is like a dog: it needs a wise master. Some dog owners are determined to train their pets. It doesn’t make sense to such an owner to have a dog that creates havoc. So, the owner researches how to best train his dog. He invests energy into shaping his dog’s pattern of behavior early on. He is determined, not just to have a dog, but to have a dog that is enjoyable for himself and others.

Other people simply have a dog. Sure, the owner says she wants a pet that is well behaved, but she doesn’t work toward the goal. . . . She merely wishes. 

Dog owners who are disengaged typically do not get the dog they desire. Instead, they get the dog they deserve. Unfortunately, their neighbors and guests must cope with that dog too.

Time is like a puppy with potential. It can be a great companion or a constant pain. And while everyone prefers a favorable version of time, surprisingly few experience it because clocks and calendars respond, not to hopes, but to wise determination.

Untrained time touches every part of a person’s life. Church leaders who use time poorly at work suffer for it at home. I’ve known some spouses of church employees who were convinced the church was asking too much of their spouses. But the real problem was that unmanaged work time was pushing work into the employee’s off hours.

So that I don’t take even more time with this quality (see what I did there?), here’s a starter strategy for taming your time: make good use of Mondays and Tuesdays in order to leave more margin later in the week; start large projects early, even if you only outline what must be done; show up on time for meetings; do the homework needed to be awesome at your next meeting; hit your deadlines (even for people who are below you on the administrative ladder); and use small blocks of time well. 

As I make that list, I see some areas I could improve. It’s time.

They Give Their Preferences a Hearing

If you read or listen to leadership coaches, you already know the importance of finding a ministry role that matches your core capacities. It’s a waste of time to attempt to learn things for which you have little natural interest or skill. Listen to the gurus and lean into your ministry strengths.

However, strong church staff members know how to evaluate their preferences too. I don’t know any job where your preferences can or should be the determining factor in everything you do. But I think our preferences are often telling us things we can benefit from hearing. Sometimes our affinities help us discover a better way or a better person.

I once said to my team: “Details are important to me. It’s also important to me that someone else manage them.” It’s true. I don’t want a list of 30 things that need to be done for an event. I prefer to focus on one or two critical responsibilities on which the event hinges. I like heavy responsibilities, not numerous responsibilities. Long checklists make me cranky. 

However, there are people on my team who are highly energized by creating and managing a list of 30 details. They want to contribute in that way. For them and their preferences, I am beyond grateful.

I understand there is a resource reality we all face. Everyone’s work includes some unpleasant responsibilities. Mine still does, I assure you. And I’m not tone deaf to the limited resources with which many churches do ministry. 

Still, I am convinced people can largely work on things that energize them in ways that do not drain them. This is a worthy vision, it seems to me. I think it’s consistent with the New Testament image of the body of Christ—one mission, many parts.

They Are Enthusiastic about Our Church

The enthusiasm of some team members at our church inspires me. I love how they love our work.

It doesn’t matter how talented a person is, if his or her engine doesn’t rev higher at the thought of your church, don’t choose or retain the person as a leader. To be clear, enthusiasm for the church at large (or for a super cool church somewhere else) is not enough. Look for people who are passionate about your church. Nothing can substitute for local passion and local buy-in, not even immense talent.

There are times in church leadership when the only fuel left in the tank is personal zeal. So, you’d better have some. And you’d better hire people who have some.

A friend told me about a sincere Christian leader who just stepped away from his role. It wasn’t for the usual, sad reasons. He is simply drained by the weight of leadership and unable to recover. His fellow leaders love him, but are wisely honoring his desire to conclude his season of ministry. 

I admire the man for realizing he needs to hit the reset button and hold it down for a while. In software terms, he needs a hard reset. A soft reset won’t do. He is leaving his current role, but is trusting God to lead him into some green pastures so he can come back strong later. Good for him.

Enthusiasm doesn’t look the same in every person—it manifests in ways that are consistent with our personalities—but every church leader should possess it. There are ways to restore it when depleted, but we can never settle for church leaders who lack personal passion.

Eddie Lowen, lead minister of West Side Christian Church, Springfield, Illinois, writes the “Ministry Today” column semimonthly in CHRISTIAN STANDARD.

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