Confessions of a Recovering Leader (Part II)
What It Means to Be a Leader of No Reputation
I began this three-part blog with a confession. I was wrong. In summing up my experience in leadership I was wrong in my understanding and preconceived notions of leadership in Christian ministry. I was wrong in my expectations of others and myself. And I was wrong in my motivations, which may be the hardest thing to admit.
My problem was not with preparation, motivation, or even with a sense of true calling and a sincere desire to serve God with the best of my skills and abilities. The problem lay solely with my pre-determined understanding of what Christian leadership is really all about.
In reflecting on my time on leadership, I have come to believe that true Christian leadership is an ongoing, disciplined practice of becoming a person of no reputation, and thus, becoming more like Christ in this unique way. In his reflections on Christian leadership, Henri Nouwen refers to this as resisting the temptation to be relevant. He says,
“I am deeply convinced that the Christian leader of the future is called to be completely irrelevant and to stand in this world with nothing to offer but his or her own vulnerable self.” (1)
In my past, I have rejected this idea outright. In doing so, I was wrong. Today I see and affirm this important notion that lies at the heart of godly leadership.
In part one we looked at the first two of five areas where I have begun to learn what it is to be this sort of Christian leader. In each area I found that I began with a misunderstanding of what true Christian leadership looked like, and I have been on a journey of transformation, introducing me to a new way to serve as Christ taught us to serve. Let’s look at the next two.
3. Being and Doing
I am a doer. I have the reputation of going 100+mph always focused on accomplishing objectives, meeting time-lines and crossing things off my infamous ‘to-do’ lists. I like results over process, action over deliberation, the tangible over the theoretical. And I like to lead people to accomplish goals and realize vision.
What gets in my way are processes, people with ‘issues’, using time inefficiently, and undertaking work that seems irrelevant. I am committed to transformation, as long as it can get done on schedule and show some real results.
The problem with this style of leadership is that it denies the truth of the gospel and our creation in the image of God. If we are truly made in the imago Dei, then our perception of God will significantly influence our own self-understanding.
If we view God as a solitary Monad, an individual being known for his power and transcendence, then we will be leaders who reflect those characteristics. We will be lone rangers, seeking power and focusing on doing. We will see people as means to an end and value the product over the process.
We will see relationships as tools for our productivity and community as an asset only when it contributes to the bottom line. This productivity model of leadership is the result of a conception of God as the sovereign, detached monarch. In that image, we lead as monarchs.
If, however, we are true to our Trinitarian historical commitments, we see instead a God who in his very nature is defined by relationship. We see Father, Son and Holy Spirit as distinct persons yet also interdependent in their perichoretic relationship.
The mutual indwelling of the three persons of the Godhead gives us a different understanding of what God values in us and desires from us. Here we learn that relationship is what defines us. We learn that to be God’s people we must focus on who we are as people in relationship. We learn that leadership must be concerned with the whole person, and that God’s intent is for us to do the work of the kingdom within and through the community of believers.
All of this we come to know from only one place, namely, in the person of Jesus Christ. If our epistemological starting point is solely in the incarnation, life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, then our focus as leaders must change drastically. For Jesus was concerned about people over product, relationship over output, and transformation over transaction. And from beginning to end, Jesus was a servant.
We learn from a proper understanding of our creation in the imago Dei that what is most important to God is not what we do but who we are. Secular leadership experts are waking to the fact that the key to leadership effectiveness is self-awareness. (2)
In Christian terms this means that the leader is transformed first!
Greenleaf recalls the story of a king who asked Confucius what to do about the large number of thieves. Confucius replied,
“If you, sir, were not covetous, although you should reward them to do it, they would not steal.”
Greenleaf goes on to say,
“This advice places an enormous burden on those who are favored by the rules, and it established how old is the notion that the servant views any problem in the world as in here, inside himself, and not out there. And if a flaw in the world is to be remedied, to the servant the process of change starts in here, in the servant, and not out there.” (3)
Before God can do a great work in an organization, that work must be done first in the heart of the leader. And again this is especially true in Christian leadership. Unless God has taken our hearts captive, all of our good ‘doing’ will lack spiritual integrity and authority. Our work will expose the absence of God’s anointing. And it is at the exact moment that we think we ‘have it all together’ that we cease to be useable in the work of the kingdom.
If I could put one Bible verse on the desk of every pastor and every Christian leader in the world it would be this,
“If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.” (1 John 1:8)
As Christian leaders we must be engaged in a constant process of self-evaluation and repentance. It is so easy for us to be tempted in a variety of directions, and when we stray, we impact our entire ministry.
Godly leaders undertake their work with a deep humility and a keen awareness of their own weaknesses and shortcomings. They know themselves well, seek accountability, pray fervently and watch carefully for red flags and warning signals.
Nouwen challenges us to seek this central and defining characteristic of Christian leadership,
“The central question [of the heart of Christian leadership] is, are the leaders of the future truly men and women of God, people with an ardent desire to dwell in God’s presence, to listen to God’s voice, to look at God’s beauty, to touch God’s incarnate Word, and to taste fully God’s infinite goodness?” (4)
For this reason, the greatest tool for effective Christian leadership may be a mirror, and a group of friends to be sure you are looking into it with clarity and focus.
Becoming a leader of no reputation means not being afraid to stare down your weaknesses and uncover the messy stuff in your private world. It means letting God transform you. And more importantly, it means knowing how much you need that transformation, far more than anyone else in your organization.
I have come to understand the development of self-awareness and personal transformation as a critical aspect of Christian leadership. When this ongoing transformation is added to the desire to decrease while Christ increases, all under the anointing power of the Spirit, the Christian leader begins to emerge.
4. Leadership is a Miracle
One of the greatest gifts I received during my term as president came from my colleague Ron Sider in the form of a book entitled, “Leadership Prayers” by Richard Kriegbaum. The honesty and humility in these prayers bear witness to the heart of a godly leader.
In his prayer for trust, Kriegbaum offers these words,
I love you, God. You know I do. How natural it is to love you. You are perfect. You are beautiful, pure, powerful, absolutely truthful, and kind. You have been so generous to me that just saying thank you seems pitiful sometimes. But far more powerful in my life is knowing and feeling that you love me. You know exactly and completely who I am – all my ugly thoughts, my mangled motivations, my pretending, my irrational fears, my pride, and my unfaithfulness – and you still love me. I know you love me. You know me, and yet, because you love me, you let me lead others. I do not understand it, but I am grateful. (5)
In reading these words back through the lenses of my experience I have come to the conclusion that when God uses any of us to lead effectively, it is nothing short of a miracle. When we place the complex and demanding role of a godly leader next to an honest self-awareness of our own sinfulness and incompetence, we are thrown wholly upon the grace of God and his faithfulness if we are ever to lead anyone anywhere.
There is a corollary here to the miracle that occurs in both the efficacy of Scripture and in the effectiveness of our preaching. In both, human words are taken up by the power of the Holy Spirit to become the words of God. In both its inspiration and its interpretation, the words of Scripture are completely reliant on the activity of the Spirit of God.
When the Spirit illumines the human word, hearts are changed, people are transformed and God’s work is done. The same is true in our preaching. We study and prepare as we are trained to do, but in the end, our preaching only becomes effective when the Spirit of God takes up our feeble human words and uses them to touch hearts and change lives. When it happens it is a miracle!
Conversely, when we seek to have the written words of Scripture or the spoken words of the preacher stand alone apart from the work of the Spirit, our ministry loses its power. It becomes our words, our interpretation, our exegesis and our proclamation. And slowly and naturally into these words of ours will seep the ugly thoughts, mangled motivations, pretending, irrational fears, pride and unfaithfulness of Kriegbaum’s prayer.
I have come to learn that we must approach leadership in dependent humility. Throughout history God looked to the least, the weakest, the outcast, the untalented, the sinful and the rejected to give great leadership at historic times. And He hasn’t changed that approach today.
If we are honest as leaders, we know that we are not capable of leading as the size and complexity of our call demands. We know that there are others more talented, more prepared, more spiritual and more courageous than are we.
But great godly leaders have always worked at that miraculous intersection where humility and faith meet the awesome presence and power of God’s Spirit. And the miracle of leadership happens. It doesn’t mean that we don’t prepare ourselves, hone our skills and seek to be the best we can be for the kingdom.
What it does mean is that in the end, all that we bring will fall woefully short of what is required, and we will be ever thrown again into the grace and faithfulness of God to work the miracle of leadership in and through and even in spite of our small pile of skills and talents.
When God uses us to lead, and lead effectively, we should fall on our knees in wonder and thanksgiving that we have seen again this miracle worked in our midst. However, it is far too easy for us to take ownership of this miracle and to believe that these results are due to our own wonderful abilities and leadership qualities.
If and when we make this subtle yet devastating shift, the efficacy of our leadership for the kingdom is over. We are on our own, cut off from the power and preservation of the Spirit. Every leader finds himself or herself there at some point in their work, and it is a terrifying place to be!
Godly leadership is the miracle of God’s use of our earthen vessels for the glorious work of His kingdom. To miss this miraculous aspect of leadership will threaten everything we do as leaders, and our office or study will be the most lonely place on earth.
I have come to understand the miracle of godly leadership, and its connection with self-awareness, the need to decrease and the power of God’s anointing.
Are you too focused on doing and losing sight of what God seeks to do in you?
Are you placing yourself in a position where God can work the miracle of leadership in and through you?
**Click here to read the full article: Becoming a Leader of No Reputation (R. Scott Rodin, 2012)
1 Henri Nouwen, In the Name of Jesus (Crossroads: New York, 1996), p. 17.
2 Among the many authors who are championing the cause of careful self-awareness are James O’Toole, Stephen Covey, Noel Tichy, John Kotter, Peter Block, Warren Bennis, Max DePree, and Peter Drucker.
3 Greenleaf, p. 34.
4 Nouwen, pp. 29-30.
5Richard Kriegbaum, Leadership Prayers (Tyndale House: Wheaton, 1998), p. 22. (italics mine)