The Idolatry of Leadership

There is something I have been thinking about for a long time now. We all know that idolatry is simply defined as something we worship. If we place that idol before God then it becomes very dangerous. I would venture to say when we have anything else we worship other than God we begin to get into dangerous ground. I have been in ministry now for about 20 years. I have seen the rise of the value and significance of how great leadership will release people to give all they have to the work of God. I have also witnessed poor leadership and how it cripples a staff and hinders the growth of a local community of believers. I aspire to be the best leader I can, but I often feel leadership and the concepts of leadership have been elevated to an unhealthy level in our churches.

Have we traded in the desire to be more Christ-like for the sake of being a good (or great) leader?

Have we placed more emphasis on change management processes and lost our hunger for the movement of the Holy Spirit and the discipline of earnest prayer?

Have we focused more on our ability to lead others to grow the church and forgotten the simple words of Jesus that He will build His Church?

I will admit that I have. I was actually at a very unhealthy place were I wanted to read more books about leadership and even spiritual disciplines as a leader than I wanted to hear the voice of God. The Bible had grown stale. I felt I needed to focus my efforts on being a better leader and learning better change management principles. If I could just do those things really well then I could lead people where I thought they needed to go. I had almost lost my very soul for the sake of trying to be a great leader. Thankfully God rocked my world and brought me to my knees. The words from John 15 hit me right in the heart. “If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing” (emphasis mine). Jesus didn’t say apart from me you can do somethings or a few things. That word… nothing, left me feeling completely empty and useless, because I had been trying to do it all on my own.

Eventually this question plagued me… What had I missed in my intense desire to be someone and do certain things? All things and desires that were good. Really, really good stuff if I say so myself. But I had been missing the voice of the one who gave me all my gifts and my position. In short leadership became an idol.

I have learned that you can have the most well thought out mission vision and strategy in the world. It can even be very compelling, the most compelling one ever. You can do all the right things but still miss the voice of God in the process. Have we forgotten that it was the work of the Holy Spirit that transformed the disciples from scared men into fearless men boldly proclaiming the gospel?

The gift and privilege of leadership is fragile and easily abused, misused, and destroyed. Jesus said we can do a lot of great things in His name but not know him or his voice. In the end He will tell us “depart from me for I never knew you” (reference Matthew 7:21-23). Is our focus to get things done or know His voice? Is our focus to do our will or His will? Hear me clearly. I am not saying don’t lead. It’s a shift in how we view leadership. I must be led by the one who gives me everything I need so that I can lead. I must humble myself to put aside my wants and what I think needs to be done to hear God speak so I know how to work with Him. The gift and privilege of leadership is fragile and I must hold onto it with open hands so that I do not make it an idol thus destroying it or abusing it. I must abide in him so that the gift of leadership will bear fruit. What does it gain us to do a lot of great things and miss the voice of God?

So how do we balance the desire to lead well, because it matters, with the need to hear the voice of God? I believe we need to go back to the simplicity of Jesus’ words. “If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing“. We must discover what it truly means to abide in Him. According to Merriam-Webster the different variations of abide are; to accept or bear, to stay or live somewhere, to remain or continue, to wait for, to endure without yielding, to bear patiently, to accept without rejection, to remain stable or fixed in a state, to continue in a place, to conform to. So many of these things seem contrary to what we often think of as leading. So many of these words grip my heart and call me out to a better place with Jesus. They remind me that leadership is simply the ability to influence. If we want to have the most effective influential life for the kingdom then why wouldn’t we “remain stable or fixed in a state” with Christ! He said that is the only way for us to bear fruit.

We must must take our eyes off leadership and fix our eyes back on Jesus so that we can actually lead well.

We can only lead well if we are led well. We must allow ourselves to be led and walk with Jesus. It is then and only then the precious gift of leadership we have been given will bear a fruit that will last and go way beyond our own ability, because we get to work with a God who can do more than we can ask or imagine.

Roots That Go Deep

What do you do when things dry up? When you have that feeling that there is nothing left for you to give. You are tired and your soul feels as though it is on the verge of being empty. The ideal would be that we would never get to that place. The reality is that it happens. It happens to all of us. It is inevitable. I wish it wasn’t true, but the reality is these moments teach us about who we really are. These moments reveal to us our true nature and where our hope and trust really is. They push us to the place where we are forced us to cry out to God, and that is not such a bad thing.

I have heard many responses to what one should do when they hit this place.

Push through it.
Dig deeper.
Pull up your bootstraps and keep leading.
Remember the last thing God told you.
Pray more.
Read more.

All those things might be good but I wonder if there is a better way. What if this place we find ourselves in is a result of missed identity? Which then begs the question, have we done this to ourselves? You see, we think it is our responsibility to figure out how to have roots that go deep so that when we hit these dry spells we can just dig a bit deeper and find that living water that gives life. Of course this makes perfect sense except that we forget one major thing. Jesus is the vine! We are the branches! Branches don’t have roots! Only the vine has the roots. So we do the things that we think help us have deep roots. In doing so we have placed ourselves as the vine. We have missed our identity, or worse taken on the identity of the one who gives us our identity.

We use spiritual disciplines as a way to make us feel good about ourselves and think that if we just stick to it then they will do what they are supposed to. After all it is what a good Christian does. Now, I am not advocating at all for giving up spiritual disciples but rather I am challenging us to rethink why and how we do them. I can resonate with what Alan Fadling writes in his book, “An Unhurried Life”.

“Oh, I have engaged in spiritual practices, but I’ve done so behind the veil of hurry. As a result, instead of seeing the glory of the Lord and being transformed over time by such a vision, I have actually hidden my face in my spiritual practices. A veil of hurriedness, fueled by a sense of driveness, keeps me from beholding the Almighty’s face.”

Spiritual disciplines are just spiritual disciplines when they lack the desire for communion with our savior! Our hope in trust is not in disciplines but in Christ alone! We know that in our heads but the difficult part is living that out in every aspect of our lives.

In John 15 when Jesus said “remain in me”, or other translations say “abide” it doesn’t quite capture the essence of what he was saying. It is this much deeper meaning that communicates this desire to “stay in a given place, state, relation, or expectancy” (Strong’s concordance 3306). It’s a dwelling, an enduring, that is being fully present with expectation. Jesus is the one who has the roots that go deep into the Father. We are simply the branches and we must dwell and endure with Jesus with expectation and being fully present with Him, so that we can see the Almighty’s face and rest is His glory. It is not our roots that go deep they are His roots.

Spiritual disciplines are simply the avenue that allow us to dwell and abide in His presence. That’s why we do them. We must refocus our desire when we approach them. Is our desire to receive from God or to know God? Is our desire for God to listen to us or for us to listen to God? A small shift in how we approach spiritual disciples allow us such a greater depth of knowing God and discovering, or rediscovering, our true identity and His. To know that His roots go deep, so that when the dry spells come we approach them differently. Knowing that on the other side of it we have a deeper sense of His love for us, our identity in Him, and that He will always be the one to give us the water so that we never thirst again.

Pruning Hurts! (Growing and Pruning: Don’t neglect the process)

When I first started out in ministry I had no idea what I was doing.  I was 19 years and suddenly found myself in charge of a youth ministry.  Organizing budgets and car washes to get students to camps and conferences.  Organizing drivers, planning events.  All things I had never done or even seen because I never went to a youth group before.  My first experience at a summer camp was as the youth pastor.  I can’t even count the number of odd looks I got when people asked me who was in charge of these students.  It was definitely getting thrown into the deep end with out a clue of how to swim.  So I did the only thing I knew how to do.  I PRAYED!  A LOT!!!

As I grew older and discovered the different gifts and talents I had I somehow forgot about my humble beginnings and what truly produced the greatest fruit.  I had found myself in the place where I was relying on my gifts and talents to get me through in youth ministry.  I grabbed at things that were good.  I thought, that will work!  That will get students hungry and passionate for God!  I even thought they were great things, not just good.  I needed better strategy, better leadership, better change management process, better leader meetings, better prayer, better worship, better discipleship practices, and better teaching.  After all it fit my motto fit: More is not better, better is better.  Just try harder!!!  I was way past the days of trying to draw a crowd.  I just wanted students to be on fire for God!  Isn’t that what God wants?  People who’s hearts are for His heart.  So why wasn’t any of this working?

If you are at all like me you may desire to see results and to see them soon. I get frustrated after putting so much time and energy and resources into something only to find myself saying at the end of the day, “Well, that was a flop!”  Somethings just don’t go the way we hope for.  But maybe that is our problem.  Maybe it is what we hope for, not what God truly hopes for.  So, what if we wait to see what is better?  What is actually better?  What is actually the real fruit Jesus was talking about when he said, “You will know them by their fruits” (my paraphrase of Matthew 7:20)  How do we even measure that fruit?

What if all the things I am doing are actually keeping me from being fruitful?  Alan Fadling in his book, An Unhurried Life, says, “I think pruning is the experience of God taking away from us something we thought was very fruitful but was in fact keeping us from being as fruitful as we could be.”

Then it hit me between the eyes and right in my heart!  I was burned out.  Actually, at the time I couldn’t even tell if I was on the edge of burn out, if I was burned out, or even if I was way passed that.  My wife and I had to take my 5 year old son to get an MRI on his brain to see if there was a possible mass on his brain.  But then it had to wait because he caught a slight cold.  I was leading a mission trip to Guatemala with students and because of the timing it had to wait until I got back.  I had also just received a very discouraging email about all my efforts into youth ministry.  I was crushed.  Thoughts and memories of watching my mom die of brain cancer flooded my mind.  Now possibly my son. I could not handle this.  The youth ministry seemed to be struggling.  I was a deeply broken man.  I came back from Guatemala and had to face one of any parent’s biggest fears.  Thankfully the MRI came back 100% clear, but there was something still broken inside me.

I was exhausted, discouraged, frustrated, angry and without hope or vision.  I went to a conference about equipping parents to disciple their children.  I was still thinking what could I take back from this and implement into our ministry.  But the whole theme of the conference rocked me.  It was called ABIDE.  John 15.  Those words Jesus said to his disciples in that chapter pierced my heart.  “Apart from me you can do nothing!”

It brought me back to my beginning.  The only thing I knew how to do then was pray.  So I went back to the basics.  The simplicity of doing work with God, instead of for God.  I had to (rather God had to) strip away all the things I thought were bearing fruit and show me that He is the one who allows fruit to grow!  I needed to be at the place where I completely trusted him for everything.  So, I came back from the conference and literally told my supervisor these words, “I am going to learn what it means to abide, I don’t care if I get fired!”

Well, I am still on that journey and thankfully I still have my job.  I did learn that pruning hurts, but it is necessary to bear fruit that will last.  Pruning doesn’t happen just once either.  It comes every season.  The longer we wait the more it hurts.  What if we approach it differently though?  Could we look forward to the pruning knowing we will bear more fruit?  Just as pruning happens every season, so does the harvest!  What if we learn to keep “fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.”?(Hebrews 12:2 NIV)  Jesus knew the joy set before him and took the cross.  Instead of rushing and grabbing at all those things we think bear fruit shouldn’t we focus our attention on abiding in Jesus so that we actually bear fruit?  So that doing work with Jesus becomes natural.  Then it begins to feel like the way he described it: an easy yoke and a light burden.

I also had to allow God to reshape my identity to trust and rest fully in him.  To pause and realize that what I am doing does not matter as much as who I am becoming.  As John the baptist said, “He must increase and I must decrease.”  In order for people to see more of Jesus in me than myself shouldn’t it make sense to spend time with him!  We cannot neglect the process by which He desires to form us into His likeness.  It is a slow and hard work, but it is one that bears fruit and fruit that will last!

I leave you with the words to a beautiful chorus by Hillsong:

All I want, All I need

More of you, Less of me

Take this life, Lord it’s Yours

Have my heart, Have it all