The following list does not represent things I’ve learned as a Christian leader. I myself identify less as a Christian leader but more as an occasionally critical observer of leadership in the church. This list instead represents what I have learned as an observer of Christian leadership from more of an outsider’s perspective—both in its successes and failures.
If that statement disinclines you to read further, might I humbly (ahem) suggest that you are exactly the Christian leader this is written for. Check it out and see if it helps. If so, let’s go grab a coffee and talk about it! If not, let’s go grab a coffee, and I will genuinely listen to where I got it wrong.
1) Taking Cues from the Right Source
The church has much to learn from the business world—and has eagerly done so in recent decades. But our leadership model is decidedly more ancient (and reliable) than the New York Times bestseller list.
Since all truth is God’s truth, there is inevitably some crossover between great leadership thinking and the Bible, but the Venn diagram is far from perfect.
We all admire certain thought leaders and influencers—those we view as icons of success. And yet we must be sensitive to the reality that they are ultimately fallible. They will occasionally come into conflict with the deeper truths of Jesus and the Bible.
Only by taking our cues from the Ultimate source can we clearly see what other ideas—or people—not to follow.
We will grow when we remember: both alphabetically and in our own hearts, there are only a few letters difference between “icon” and “idol”.
2) Lead Oneself First
How often have we listened to a great sermon and thought, “If only so-and-so could hear this!”
The same is true for all those leadership lessons, books, seminars, and podcasts we leader-types love to engage in! “I know just who needs to hear this,” we think. We are immediately planning who and how to share all these great new pearls of wisdom with.
And indeed, there is some utility in this. For anyone called to be a leader, no small part of the job is to bring good teaching to those who will benefit from it.
And yet we will never effectively communicate any lesson until (and if) we have fully integrated it ourselves.
If we truly wish to be effective, it behooves us: before sallying forth with any new leadership lesson, stop and contemplate: what does this lesson reveal about my own life, struggles, and flaws? How do I exhibit the problem this lesson addresses? What new choices should I make before leading anyone else in this area?
If we fully engage with this process, not only will we approach our team with greater effectiveness and empathy, we will be far better equipped to communicate the lesson via our own experience.
3) Willingly Follow as Much as Lead
It won’t surprise anyone that leadership is a hot topic in the church today.
One of the side effects of this focus on leadership, however, is that there are far more self-proclaimed leaders out there than there are followers.
The key isn’t to cultivate two separate groups—a sort of caste system of leaders and followers—but to embrace that we are all capable of (and benefited by) being both. We can all sometimes serve as leaders, even to our leaders. And we can all learn from others, even those we perceive as our followers.
To be clear (because this one is huge): the world is not separated into two neat groups: the people you can learn from (your pastor, your favorite writers and thought leaders) and the people you lead (your team, your employees, your students or group) with you neatly in the middle between them.
Everyone and anyone can offer you valuable counsel. And everyone and anyone can be benefitted by your leadership. It takes humility and bravery to live in this messy tension, but there is little growth outside of it.
4) Seek Feedback from the Right People
Recently, a friend asked me for feedback on her resume. I glanced at it and proclaimed it a solid thumbs-up. The friend then showed her resume to my wife, who launched into a detailed and informed critique of the font size, the spacing, and the overall layout. In this little interaction, I observed something interesting: I am a natural cheerleader, and my wife is a natural editor.
All leaders are trained to seek feedback. But we downplay our natural (even hidden) instinct to seek it from the cheerleaders, not from the editors.
Cheerleaders make us feel good, but don’t they help us grow. Editors can be no fun, but they are essential to making us better. Both have roles in our lives. I myself benefit from the cheerleaders when I am at the beginning of a new endeavor. But I also absolutely need the critical assistance of the editors once that endeavor is underway.
Some of the greatest failures in the church have come about as result of leaders having too few (if any) editors they were willing to submit to. Don’t make this mistake. Find a good and trusted life-editor and bribe them with whatever it takes to sock it to you with both barrels.
It won’t be fun, but it will make you better tomorrow than you are today.
5) Regularly De-load
De-loading is a term common in the body-building community. It is the deliberate act of reducing the weights lifted after a period of systematic increase. For example, if a lifter has steadily increased his bench-press by five pounds a week for the past two months, he may choose to drop his sets by twenty pounds for a week or more.
Why? Because the human body isn’t made for constant, endless increase. The body needs recovery. Perhaps more importantly, overstressing the body’s capacity for growth inevitably leads to exhaustion, or worse, catastrophic failure (and you will thank me for not posting YouTube links illustrating this).
Our growth as Christian leaders functions the same way. One of the best leaders I know asks his team two questions at the beginning of a new season. 1: what new thing can we do? And 2: what established thing will we stop doing?
That second question is unpopular. Like the bodybuilder, it wounds our ego to knock back the weights a little. But it’s absolutely necessary.
A glance around the landscape of Christian leadership illustrates this all too well. Leaders who don’t de-load—who don’t delegate leadership, cut back on responsibilities, and make bandwidth for healthy rest and submission—inevitably exhaust themselves, or worse, fail catastrophically as the flex of their ambition and influence outstrips the ligament of their discipline and humility.
And that’s the list.
I doubt it’s comprehensive, but hopefully, you’ll find it useful, particularly as you engage with great content, thought-provoking teaching, and enriching lessons via GLI, church, and your favorite authors and podcasts.
As someone who identifies less as a leader (or, I admit, even a follower) but mostly as an occasionally critical observer of leadership in the church, I commend your willingness to embrace your role—and pray (for my own sake as well as yours!) that you will do so equipped with these hopefully useful habits.
If you do—or if even more, if you do not—I definitely welcome that coffee discussion. I’m buying!
G. Norman Lippert