29 November, 2022

Authentic Leadership

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by | 1 March, 2022 | 1 comment

By Michael C. Mack

What is authentic Christian leadership? It may be best to begin with how it’s different from secular leadership.

Authentic Christian leadership is a lifelong process. I’ve seen secular self-help books and blogs that provide simple steps to leadership, but becoming a leader after God’s own heart takes constant, everyday, deep-rooted transformation of the mind and heart as led by the Holy Spirit.

Christian leadership happens first in loving, abiding communion with God, and second, in the environment of loving community with others. It’s rare to hear secular leadership described using the word love, but Christian leadership can’t exist apart from it.

Leadership has been defined in many ways, but one of the most popular, from John Maxwell, is simply that “leadership is influence.” In general, this is true, but I believe Christian leadership is influence only to the extent that God is influencing others through you and me.

As the apostle Paul put it, “Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ” (1 Corinthians 11:1).

So how do you and I become more authentic leaders?

Acknowledge the Real Leader

Authentic leadership begins with an understanding of, respect for, and worship of our true leader. God is the real leader of every church, Christian organization, Christian small group, team of elders, and Christian family. He is your leader: your Lord, your all-powerful King, your Sovereign who has no equal.

Jesus lived out this powerful principle through his ministry. He often recognized the Father as his leader; Jesus’ leadership was subject to and under the ultimate authority of his Father. Just two of many examples from John’s Gospel: “‘The Son can do nothing by himself; he can do only what he sees his Father doing, because whatever the Father does the Son also does’” (5:19). “I do nothing on my own but speak just what the Father has taught me” (8:28).

Our job as leaders begins with an abiding relationship with God, spending considerable time with him regularly, watching for what he is doing around us, listening attentively, and then responding to his leadership.

To do so, authentic leaders must have an attitude of humility, the kind modeled by Jesus, “who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant” (Philippians 2:6-7). Jesus defined Christian leadership by this very virtue. “Whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant . . . just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Matthew 20:26-28).

Understand the Power of Overflow

Authentic Christian leaders have two primary jobs: to receive and to overflow.

I explain this concept when I train leaders by using a glass and a pitcher of water. The pitcher represents God, who pours into us as we spend time with him, and the glass represents our lives, which overflow into the lives of the people he has put around us as we spend time with them. I pour the water slowly into the glass, asking people to tell me when we get to “life to the full” (John 10:10). Most of the time, they tell me to stop when the water reaches the brim, but a few astute and biblically knowledgeable people will tell me to keep pouring. They probably know that the Greek word for “full” (or “more abundantly” in some versions) means something like “superabundantly” or “overflowing.” So, I keep pouring as the water overflows the glass into the basin below.

One day after this session, a young leader came to the front and said excitedly, “I get it!” He explained he had spent much of his time trying to lead by his own power rather than letting God simply overflow out of his life. He grabbed the glass I used as my prop and turned it upside-down in his hand, shaking it up and down like a big saltshaker: “I’ve kept myself busy attempting to minister by trying to sprinkle out onto others what I’ve put into my cup. But I’ve got the cup in the wrong position. I can’t receive from God when I’m always running around trying to pour whatever’s left in my cup into others.” He took a breath and continued . . . “And most of the time I’m not really giving anything that’s very good or helpful to people. I’m burning out because I have nothing left to give, and I’m not bearing fruit this way” (nodding to the upside-down cup still in his hand).

Your first job as a leader is to be filled up as you spend time with God. Solitude is vital for us as leaders, followed by being in community with others, and then ministry, which flows out of the first two. Our model is Jesus, who “often . . . withdrew to out-of-the-way places for prayer” (Luke 5:16, The Message).

In his classic book, Spiritual Leadership, J. Oswald Sanders wrote,

The spiritual leader . . . influences others not by the power of his own personality alone but by that personality irradiated, interpenetrated, and empowered by the Holy Spirit. Because he allows the Holy Spirit undisputed control of his life, the Spirit’s power can flow unhindered through him to others.

It reminds me of my favorite quote, from Mother Teresa, “I’m a little pencil in the hand of a writing God, who is sending a love letter to the world.”

This principle of leadership overflow is like a thread woven throughout the Bible. Abraham was blessed by God to be a blessing to others (Genesis 12:1-2). All of Moses’ leadership successes were directly tied to the time he spent with Yahweh “face to face, as one speaks to a friend” (Exodus 33:11). The apostle Paul continually lived out overflow leadership. He said to the Corinthian church, “Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God” (2 Corinthians 1:3-4).

Perhaps John 15:1-17 reveals the principle best. “I am the vine; you are the branches,” said Jesus. “If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing” (v. 5). Note the vitality of the branches (us). On them, the fruit is borne. Yet they are worthless without the vine, which provides what is necessary to bear the fruit.

Decision-making is a significant task for every leader. Our decisions can have long-lasting and far-reaching effects. They impact many people in many ways. Some decisions are very difficult to make. How are we to make wise, God-honoring decisions?

We know we can ask God for wisdom, and he will generously give it to us (James 1:5-8). But wisdom also comes as we contemplate God’s Word and regularly listen to him.

Before Jesus chose his apostles from among his many followers—those he would focus on leading for three years and the ones entrusted to start and build his church (this was perhaps the most important decision ever made)—Jesus “spent the night praying to God” (receiving). “When morning came, he called his disciples to him and chose twelve of them” (overflow; Luke 6:12-13).

We should follow Jesus’ example with any important decisions we make.

Often as leaders, we get into situations where we are tired and wonder if we have enough love and compassion for the needy people under our care. But Jesus whispers to us, “It’s OK. You weren’t created to have everything you need to care for these people. That’s why I’m here and will never leave you. Trust me, and I’ll give you abundantly more love and compassion than you can ask or imagine so you can overflow it into them.”

He provides us with all the patience, mercy, forgiveness, wisdom, strength, peace, joy, and more that we need to carry out the ministry with which he has entrusted us. And God’s resources never run out. His shelves are never empty.

This is where my illustration using the pitcher is faulty. The pitcher is limited to how much it can hold. Maybe Max Lucado’s illustration is better. He once tweeted, “Our heart is a Dixie cup and God’s grace is Niagara. We simply can’t contain it all.”

Leader burnout and leadership failure have impacted both secular and Christian organizations. While I can’t claim conclusively that overflow leadership is the whole solution, I do know that leaders who often spend time with the Father—allowing him to fill them to overflowing—have all the resources needed to lead a fruit-bearing ministry without leadership burnout and failure.

Jesus encourages us to “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. . . . For my yoke is easy and my burden is light” (Matthew 11:28-30). We should take him up on his gracious offer!

Be the Leader God Made You to Be

God has used all kinds of leaders in his kingdom. Some were warriors. Some were musicians and poets. A few were all of these. Among God’s leaders were risk-takers, entrepreneurs, builders, prophets, preachers, way-preparers, and even writers. Some were known as bold and courageous while others were, at least initially, reluctant leaders. Some were highly educated and gifted, while others were quite ordinary and uneducated. It doesn’t seem to matter; God called and used them all. He still is looking for leaders after his own heart through whom he can overflow.

It’s good to have role models, but you do not need to lead exactly like anyone else. God made you with a unique mix of DNA, gifts, personality, experiences, education, family background, friendships, spiritual journey, and much more so you can serve him exactly where he places you. “For we are God’s masterpiece. He has created us anew in Christ Jesus, so we can do the good things he planned for us long ago” (Ephesians 2:10, New Living Translation).

Note that you as a follower of Christ were God’s masterpiece before you did any good works, before you grew a church or a program, before you did anything for God. Your worth isn’t based in your good works, but in God’s creation of and love for you.

People will follow, respect, and trust leaders who are close to God and lead out of his power and for his purposes.

Let me give you some advice, leader. Stop what you are doing. Take time to rest (sabbath). Relax. Get away to a quiet place regularly. Listen to and wait on God. Keep your eyes open for the leadership opportunities God brings your way. Then, respond to him. Be the authentic leader God created you to be—nothing more, nothing less. You are his masterpiece.

_ _ _

Michael C. Mack serves as editor of Christian Standard. He has also written several books on leadership, including Leading from the Heart, The Pocket Guide to Burnout-Free Small Group Leadership, and Small Group Vital Signs: Seven Indicators of Health that Make Groups Flourish.

Michael C. Mack

Michael C. Mack is editor of Christian Standard. He has served in churches in Ohio, Indiana, Idaho, and Kentucky. He has written more than 25 books and discussion guides as well as hundreds of magazine, newspaper, and web-based articles.

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