Spiritual leadership is difficult. It’s an assignment you can’t accomplish — you can’t convict of sin, you can’t transform the human heart, you certainly can’t save anyone. Herein lies one of the great tensions of ministry: We’re called to labor for something we cannot achieve. This confronts all kinds of internal issues, our desire to please people, our sense of worth that comes from work, even our very identity.
The hardest person to lead in ministry is you. You have very little control of anything else. People can, and will, leave your church. People will accuse you, misrepresent you, project their pain on you, and fall into sin. Sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but it’s all true. Read the New Testament.
You can’t control them, but you can control you. Too many Christian leaders have not dealt with their own issues while trying to deal with other people’s issues, and as a result too many churches have been destroyed. In fact, in my years of working with US churches, I believe this is one of the single greatest threats to a church. I challenge you to spend significant time and energy learning to lead you, I challenge you to go to the Word, to discover the very essence of Christian leadership. I can’t promise doing so will lead to a bigger church or influence, but you will be healthy, and these days I find that far more impressive than anything else.
Paul’s letter to the church in Thessalonica describes his attitude in ministry:
“We had previously suffered and been insulted, but…we dared to tell you his gospel in spite of strong opposition.” Don’t give up: Ministry is painful — the wounds inflicted by the hands of those we seek to serve hurt at a deep level. The longer you lead the more scars you accumulate, but when we suffer and still dare to step out it opens the door to far greater fruitfulness. Paul’s journey became progressively more fruitful. The pain didn’t diminish but the power increased. Dare again and never quit.
“We are not trying to please men but God, who tests our hearts.” Find your identity in God, not man: Most pastors are people-pleasers. You like people and want people to like you. The affirmation of men while doing the will of God often run together. People are grateful for your leadership and they feel loved by your care. But every leader will be tested in this area, you will be forced to decide between pleasing man and pleasing God. Learn to find your identity in God, not in the opinions of man.
“You know we never used flattery.” Live with relationship integrity by embracing healthy conflict: Manipulation is a normal part of human interaction, but that doesn’t make it right. Pastors are socially savvy, and as a result, flattery is just a small step away. We tend to avoid conflict, preferring a temporary peace over lasting wholeness. You cannot fake your way into a genuine relationship. Flattery might produce an instant benefit, but at the cost of long-term health. Resolve to live with relational integrity, even if it leads to conflict.
“Nor did we put on a mask to cover up greed.” Root out greed in your heart: Money is one of the great traps for Christian leaders, especially with large ministries. The more external fruitfulness in your ministry, the more financial opportunity, and thus temptation, you face. There’s the obvious examples of abuse but far more leaders fall into a more subtle form of greed. Does our life look like Jesus and Paul? Or like the professional clergy that opposed them? Would you still do what you do if no money was involved? Never pursue a ministry opportunity because of the money you’ll receive. Root out greed at all cost.
“We were not looking for praise from men, not from you or anyone else.” Avoid the trap of fame: Fame is an equally potent trap. Far too many Christian leaders hustle on social media to gain influence and use their connections in order to climb the social ladder. Doing so betrays our own desire to win man’s approval rather than the Father’s. Search your heart, how much does the approval of man motivate you?
“We loved you so much that we were delighted to share with you…our lives as well.” Keep your heart open to people: You cannot follow the example of Jesus apart from love. Christian leadership is not a job, and the second it becomes one you need to quit. It’s the call to father and mother, it’s the call to open your life to people. Open your heart to people; risk to truly love them with the love of Christ.
“We worked night and day in order not to be a burden to anyone while we preached the gospel to you.” Model servant leadership: Paul had every right to comfort and ease; he deserved a break more than you ever will, but refused to assert his authority for himself. There’s nothing wrong with a vacation and God commands us to a life of Sabbatical – rest is a holy thing. But we’re also called to work hard, to sacrifice, to serve. Embrace the call to servant leadership and never assert your authority for your own pleasure.
“We dealt with each of you as a father deals with his own children, encouraging, comforting, and urging you to live lives worthy of God.” Lead like a father, not a boss: Paul’s care for the church was like the love of a father. It requires time, compassion, and a heart that others will thrive; it also a requires you to challenge and confront. A father’s heart recognizes that your church and staff do not exist to serve you nor your vision. Rather, you are called to serve them in accordance with God’s vision. Commit to the long-term health of those you lead, not your own temporal comfort.
Paul experienced the pain of ministry right up to the end of his life. I often wonder if he died thinking his life’s work was a failure, but eternity has a way of flipping the scoreboard. Paul’s commitment to healthy leadership allowed God to work through Him in ways far beyond almost any other person. Let’s follow Paul’s example and learn to lead with eternity in mind.