I have been privileged to lead the great community of All Saints Worcester for just over five years now. I’ve made a frightening amount of mistakes and found myself saying “sorry” more than I would have liked. Such is the reality of church life. God calls imperfect people to lead imperfect people. One of our team asked me what leadership wisdom I’ve acquired during these five years (and in the years before too). That question has prompted me to reboot this blog as one of the ways I might share the limited insight I’ve gained.
I want to begin with something that I think is crucial for us all as leaders, and something that, if I’m honest, I find really rather difficult at times. It seems to me that, if we are to be true to the call to lead as Jesus led, we must seek always to be undefended in our leadership. I’m sure I’m not the only leader that finds themselves having to face both valid and invalid criticism at times, and to cope with projected expectations and unprocessed pain from those we seek to lead. This can be really very tough at times and if we’re not careful, we can find ourselves becoming defended. Bit by bit, the criticism, the frustration, the cost and the loneliness of leadership can cause us to become defended. We defend our hearts, our reputations, our ideas, our performance. It’s understandable, but ultimately it robs us of any joy in ministry and creates a culture of mistrust and disconnect in our church families.
I spent some time recently with one of our ministry leaders who wanted to talk through some issues to do with where our church is at, and ultimately, my failures to lead perfectly. When I read the email asking to meet, I immediately noticed myself feeling anxious, fearful and defensive. I knew from previous experience that there would be some fairly sizeable challenges, some feedback from others unwilling or feeling unable to talk to me directly and criticisms of my leadership style, ability and performance. It took some elaborate mental gymnastics and a time of prayer to remember four things that I think are essential if we are to lead in an undefended way:
1. My identity and worth are rooted in Jesus alone
We know this, but it’s all too easy to lose sight of this when we face criticism or make mistakes. But ultimately it is who I am in Jesus that defines me. Not my success or lack of, nor my popularity or lack of. I’ve experienced firsthand the pain and hurt that can come from leaders deriving their identity and worth from being good at what they do. The reality is that we make mistakes all the time, are far from perfect, and will never live up to our own expectations or those of others, however realistic or not. What matters is that I seek always to be someone of integrity, humility, honesty, teachability and grace. Perhaps this is what it looks like to be a “faithful servant”. In his brilliant (must-read for every leader!) trilogy of books on this, Simon Walker writes: ‘The idea of undefended leadership is that we are secured not by our skills and resources but by our attachment to another— one who is big enough not to be overwhelmed by our failures and weaknesses.” (from “The Undefended Leader” trilogy)
2. Church leadership is both a great privilege and a tough calling
Of course we all want to be leaders who remember that to lead in the church for the sake of the saints, for the sake of the world (Ephesians 4) is a huge privilege. But it shouldn’t come as a surprise to any of us that we have times of feeling low, tired, frustrated, cynical, resentful, envious, despondent and so on. For the calling is tough. What matters is not that we find leadership demanding and hard at times, but how we respond when we do. It seems to me that the challenge is to always remain thick-skinned but soft-hearted. All too often we can get those the wrong way round and end up hard-hearted and thin-skinned. Add to that, the spiritual opposition that we face in particular ways, and no wonder we have our moments where we question our calling!
3. People are broken
Another “must-read” book for any leader in the church is “The Contemplative Pastor” by Eugene Peterson. He brilliantly reminds the reader that the people we serve and seek to lead are broken, just like us. When we forget that, he says, we start to see them as a problem to be fixed, not people to be loved. So much of what we experience and have to deal with in leadership is the projection from others of their own pain and brokenness. It can be tough at times to do this, but we must differentiate between that which is valid criticism, that which is someone’s perception and that which is projection onto us from them. This is where praying before any meeting with someone asking God to root us in his love and gives us discernment is so vital. Given this, I made the decision years ago that I would never hear someone else’s feedback via another. Not only is this profoundly dysfunctional, but it means I do not have the opportunity for a two-way dialogue with someone, nor to do the difficult but often crucial work of helping them see what is valid criticism and what might be their stuff.
4. I need the support of other leaders
I am fortunate enough to meet every week with a cohort of like-minded, like-hearted leaders where we pray for one another, our churches and our shared-mission. There is something precious about being with those who can truly empathise, support and offer wisdom or solidarity. There are times where I turn up and simply say “pray for me!”. It’s vital that each of us as leaders find some version of this for ourselves – we need one another.
And so my fellow leaders: may you be undefended in all you do, secure in the love and grace of the one it’s all for.