I'm nearing my fourth year as Senior Pastor at Gages Lake Bible Church, which means I'm just beginning. I'm still learning. John Maxwell need not fear. I won't be dethroning him from the position of Leadership Guru anytime soon.
However, being on the job has taught me a few things about leadership, especially for young guys. Some of these lessons I've learned the hard way, others through the wise mentoring of older men. Here are five:
1) Young Leaders Must Resist the "Push-Off" Model of Ministry.
In their book Sifted, Larry Osborne, Francis Chan, and Wayne Cordeiro talk about the tendency of young leaders to get their leadership energy by "pushing off" the perceived mistakes of other ministry models. They use the example of an Olympic swimmer, who gains forward thrust by pushing off the pool wall. For leaders, it could be their legalistic, fundamentalist background that they despise, so every decision is made through the lens of how their parents or pastors or professors "got it wrong." Or it could be the desire to be distinct in your community, so you're going to sell yourself as the "only" version of your ministry in town. I've also seen the tendency to "pendulum-swing." So if the staff culture you left was very lax, you're tending to enforce a more rigid culture. Or if the staff culture you left was too rigid, you're "the grace guy."
The problem with a "push-off" model is that the forward thrust from the pool wall eventually loses energy. You need energy to sustain you in the race. I believe this must come from your own personal walk with the Lord and your own study. I have found that God may use a negative previous environment to push us toward something better, but ultimately our leadership must be based, not on what we don't like elsewhere, but what God is teaching us in the present.
2) Young Leaders Need Old Guys
There is a fallacy in the world that younger is better. Young leaders have charisma, vision, energy. This is good and God uses this. But there is one vital component to leadership that we young guys lack: wisdom. Wisdom born from experience. And the only place to get this is by subordinating our ego and listening to older men. This means several things. First, we need to realize that we don't have all the answers, that we are sometimes wrong, and that perhaps the previous generation had some wise and important things to say.
Young energetic leaders tend to think that the old guys are washed up, that they are out of touch with today's generation. And maybe some of them are, but for the most part, older, experienced pastors are fonts of spiritual wisdom. Use them. I've made it a practice to cultivate relationships with some experienced pastors. Why? Because they know things I just don't know. They now the Word. They've made difficult choices. They've wrestled with the discouragements and fears that come my way.
I think every young pastor should have at least one, if not two or three, older pastors who are speaking into his life. He's woefully under-equipped if he does not.
3) We Must Die to Our Messiah Complex
If you're a young guy in ministry, somewhere along the line you felt you were the answer to what the world needs. Or at least the answer to what your church or your community needs. But the truth is that you are not the answer. Jesus is the answer and you and me are simply humble representatives. We may have gifts and talents, but those too were created and distributed by God.
And here's what I've discovered: People sense when you have too high an opinion of yourself. It creates a frustrating and chaotic leadership environment. It shuts off your ability to listen, learn, grow, and apologize. The Scripture reminds us in many places that God "resists" the proud but "gives grace" to the humble (James 4:6; 1 Peter 1:5). My friend, you and I need grace in our ministry. We don't need God's resistance.
The bottom line is that gospel ministry is a privilege, a stewardship. It was here long before we arrived on the planet and will be long after we are gone. I've learned that the sooner I get over myself, the easier and better it is for me to lead. You've got to die to yourself.
4) You Are Responsible for the Culture You Create
Someone once said that sons do in excess what fathers do in moderation. This is true in leadership. I recently preached through the book of James. What struck me as I studied James 3 is just how pointed this chapter is for Christian leaders. At the end of the chapter, James contrasts two different Christian cultures. One is characterized by chaos, dissension, fear, and strife. The other by peace, love, harmony, and joy. James is quick to remind us that the former is not a leadership culture that reflects Heaven, but earth. In other words, if you're culture is constantly beset by strife, there is a leadership problem. Leaders set the tone. What we emphasize, what we celebrate, what gets us angry is what we are telling people we believe is most important.
I've seen this played out vividly. Faithful church members will act on those things we have told them are most important to God. So if we find that people our churches are overly legalistic, it's not enough to say, "Well, that's not what I meant or intended." There's a communication problem. They're getting the wrong message. On the flipside, if we find people are casual about church or flippant about following God, it's not enough to say, "People just don't get it." No, they do get it, we're just delivering the wrong message.
I'm not saying a leader is responsible for every action of those who follow him. People make their own choices. But I am saying that the words we say, the emphases we make, the actions we model -- have far greater impact than we realize.
5) You Must Put the Work In
There is no app, no download, no program that will enable us to circumvent hard work. Yes, we're fueled by the Holy Spirit. Yes, our ministry is grace-driven. But God does not reward laziness. God honors hard work. This means we'll have to study on some Saturdays when we'd rather be watching sports. We'll have to travel to the hospital when we'd rather be reading a good book. This means we'll need to get our hands dirty with some areas of ministry that are "not our gifting." Good messages require lots of study and hard work. There is no shortcut. Discipleship requires time and effort and money and patience. A loving family means an investment of our best time and efforts. Prayer and Bible study require discipline.
The ministry requires late nights and sweat and toil. Paul said that he "worked harder than them all" (1 Corinthians 15:10). I don't think he was bragging, just letting people know that doing God's work requires ... work. It's not evil. It's not belittling. Work honors God. Pastors can be workaholics, but pastors can also be lazy. We must fight both tendencies.
Daniel Darling is the Vice President for Communications for the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention (ERLC). You can find more from Dan at his website DanielDarling.com.