Throwback Thursday: The L-Laws of L-Leadership

The following column first appeared May 15, 2006 in Leadership Weekly. 

Leader’s Insight: The L-Laws of L-Leadership

Leadership for the rest of us.

Throughout my years as a ministry leader, I’ve had the opportunity to enlist dozens of volunteers for the Kingdom’s work through my church. And every time—whether it’s a prospective youth volunteer, small-group facilitator, or clean-up crew member—I hear the same response: “But I’m not a leader!”

This response is usually coupled with some other explanation as to why they don’t consider themselves leadership material: “I don’t know anything about teenagers!” “I’m not an extrovert!” “I’ve never done this before!” and other “Send Aaron instead!” responses.

Long ago, I gave up trying to convince them otherwise. Instead, I just tell them that it’ll be easy, because they only have two main responsibilities:

1. Love people.
2. Think like a leader.

For the hesitant and the nervous, I call them the L-Laws of L-Leadership. And when I break it down into those two simple principles, it’s amazing to watch a person’s guard come down as their enthusiasm goes up.

Not everyone is a natural-born leader like Willow Creek’s Bill Hybels, who, I think, drinks jet fuel for breakfast. What about the rest of us: the Everyday Joes who have no designs on that level of leadership, but who comprise the majority of the population and are still called to be used by God?

Love people

The first l-law is to “love people.” Since it ranks at the top of Jesus’ commandments to his followers, I figure it’s probably also important enough for our ministry. Of course, ministry would be easy if it weren’t for all the people; but because people matter to God, they should matter to us, as well.

In a ministry setting, loving people means thinking of their needs first, and becoming aware of ways to serve them, instead of viewing them as a distraction from “real” work. It also means spending time with them. Instead of making a youth leader read up about teen culture, I just tell them to get to know a few of them in the group, over time.

If we truly love people, then we will learn about them and their needs, and the next steps of leadership will become obvious. In my family, I know what’s best for my kids because I love them. I love them because I spend time with them, and in their worlds. I learn what’s important to them, and it becomes important to me.

Unfortunately, I know far too many people in leadership positions who do not love people, or certainly, do not love others as much as they love themselves. Before you ask others to love people, make sure you’re demonstrating that selfless love in your own life.

Loving people also reduces turnover; for example, more than once, I’ve asked someone to become a youth volunteer (it sounds less intimidating than youth leader), and even though they admit fears about how to relate to youth, before you know it, they fall in love with the students they’re working with, and eagerly serve for three, four, five or more years.

Think like a leader

The second l-law is to “think like a leader.” Notice, I don’t tell people to be a leader; for some reason, that sounds way too overwhelming for most people. Instead, I tell them to think like a leader. That immediately takes the pressure off, like they can blame someone else if they make a bad decision.

In his book, Courageous Leadership, Hybels explains that one of the primary factors that informs his decision-making is what he thinks other leaders he respects would do if they were facing the same decision.

In my setting, I use the same principle and ask people, “Who is someone you think is a really good leader?” It may be an actual acquaintance or mentor, or it could be someone outside their personal circle: a writer, a speaker, a respected leader of our time, or even an historical figure. Then I continue, “Any time you’re in a situation where you don’t know what to do, pause for a moment and ask yourself what that person would do in your situation.”

Through the L-Laws of L-Leadership, what I’m really trying to do is help people raise their leadership awareness in practical ways. But of course, it never fails that it’s not long before thinking like a leader becomes so natural that—voila!—these people have become natural leaders themselves. (Just don’t tell them that!)

Throwback Thursday: Ministry Gone Stale

The following column originally appeared June 25, 2007 on LeadershipJournal.net.

Ministry Gone Stale: Do leaders have a shelf life?

Andrew was a well-respected senior pastor at a highly esteemed church of 2,500. But when I met him, he had just decided to leave his position. At the time, he didn’t have another job offer and wasn’t sure what he was going to do next. But he realized he was not the leader his church needed for the next stage in its lifespan.

“I used to say my next stop will be my last one,” Andrew told me, “but I just don’t say that anymore, because I no longer think I’m supposed to stay in one place forever.”

Andrew had come to a realization that I have been observing over the last few years: some leaders have a shelf life.

The old paradigm assumed that a pastor should ideally make a commitment to the church ’til death do them part. But I don’t believe that is realistic or ideal in today’s culture. In fact, many churches would be better served to realize that it’s perfectly acceptable that some leaders’ effectiveness will expire after a certain point.

The office of pastor requires not just shepherding and preaching skills, but also leadership skills. The church of today, no matter its size, is a complex organization. As it matures, it will require different kinds of leadership. Some leaders do well at adapting to and enjoying each stage, but others are best suited and gifted for a more time-limited role.

For example, Steve is a serial church planter. The quintessential entrepreneur, Steve has realized that he is most effective at planning, planting, and growing a new church, then handing the reins over to a new pastor. He is neither skilled at nor energized by leading an established church.

Bob, on the other hand, is a turnaround artist. He describes his as a “ministry of renewal,” bringing life to dying congregations and giving them a vision for the future that begins a new chapter of growth in that church. He has done this in at least four churches, and counting.

While Bob helps churches find new life, my friend Rick does the opposite: he helps dying churches end well. His is the work of a chaplain, loving the people and helping them work through the grieving as they give their church a proper funeral and burial.

And then there are the scores of pastors who are uniquely suited for leading churches of a particular size or from one level to the next or maybe two levels, but not beyond. For example, they may be able to help a church grow from 100 to 400 people, but may not be skilled at the complexities or specialization necessary to lead a church over 1,000. Some can do it, but many can’t.

Most organizations, however, assume that if you succeeded in one situation, you will succeed at the challenges of the next level. But past performance is no guarantee of future results. As a sports fan, I observe this all the time in the coaching world. A highly successful college coach will think he’s ready to make the jump to the professional level. But the demands and culture of professional sports are very different from the world of college athletics. Some succeed in making the transition, but many do not.

Know Yourself

Having a shelf life is not the same as bailing out every time ministry gets tough. Quite the opposite, leaders who know their shelf life may often relish the challenges that come with a particular stage of ministry.

So, how do you know your shelf life, or whether you have one? Unfortunately, unlike milk and bread, leaders are not stamped with a “sell-by” date after which we go sour or stale and possibly taint the products around us. Still, there are signs that your ministry may be going soft.

The more obvious signs are passion and energy, which are tied to your individual strengths. If you find yourself dreading the majority of your job, you may have drifted too far from your leadership sweet spot.

You can also look at your ministry history. Do you see any patterns in your leadership effectiveness? But you also need to ask yourself hard questions about your current situation. If your church’s effectiveness has plateaued, you must be willing to consider whether your leadership ability, or lack thereof, is one of the reasons.

Once you realize your own shelf life, you have several options. One is that you can work to extend it. A commitment to lifelong learning will help you stay “fresh” much longer. Or you may realize that you just need to move to a different shelf. If this is the case, it does not mean that you no longer love the people. It does mean that it is crucial for you to leave well. That means being honest and forthright about your limitations and reasons for making a change. At the same time, churches must be able to release others whose sell-by dates have expired, without judging them for recognized their shelf life.

The more confident you are of your unique gifts and calling as a leader, the less you will be tempted to make a change because you assume that bigger is automatically better; or, just as bad, to stay beyond your shelf life because it’s comfortable for you, even while it’s detrimental to your church.

Recognizing your shelf life is one way to extend it to a lifetime of effective leadership.

Throwback Thursday: Who Really Needs Church?

This article first appeared on Out of Ur on November 28, 2005.

Who Really Needs Church?
Coping with the death of ecclesiology

As a pastor’s wife and ministry leader, I’m used to getting all sorts of weird questions and comments about the ministry lifestyle and being married to a pastor. (Most recent: “Shouldn’t you be making a casserole right now?”) But one of the more intriguing comments I’ve heard occurred during a conversation with a woman last summer at a VBS picnic.

The woman, a member of another church, started with the usual “What’s-it-like-to-be-married-to-a-pastor?” line of inquiry, but then remarked that she didn’t really know her own pastor except for his sermons on Sundays. She imagined it would be different to get to know a pastor in another context such as pastoral care or counseling, rather than just Sundays. But then came the kicker: “I forget that some people really need church.”

Her comment has stuck with me for months. This woman obviously went to church regularly and even served in leadership roles, but didn’t feel like she really needed church. As a ministry leader, I’ve generally assumed people, especially Christ-followers, of course, “need” church. More selfishly, I’ve wanted them to need my church. But this woman’s observation made me question my own beliefs about the nature and purpose of the church, both universal (“capital C”) and local (“little c”), and how those beliefs and practices are reflected back by the people in my sphere of influence.

“Ecclesiology” is fancy, seminary-speak for the theological doctrine pertaining to the Christian church. It asks questions such as: Who or what is the church? How did the church start? Is it necessary to join a church, and how is this done? What is the authority of the Christian church, and where does that authority originate? What are its primary roles and responsibilities, both in society and to its members? How should the church be governed, and by whom?

Here’s my question: What has happened to ecclesiology in our churches today? As church leaders, what do we truly believe about the Church, and what are we teaching our churches about the Church?

A past president of my seminary alma mater once issued this stern challenge to students at the annual Fall Convocation: “If a person–whether it’s another student, a pastor, or even a professor–if a person does not love the church, accord them no weight.”

Do we as ministry leaders love the church, with all its warts and dysfunctions? And more than just our church, do we love the Church? Or are we so busy deconstructing the church that we forget it was established by Jesus himself, who promised that “the gates of Hell shall not prevail against it”?

Next, how are we modeling accountability, community, charity, and responsibility as a part of God’s body? How do we help instill those values in others? Too often, preaching about the role of the church can turn into a marketing spiel for our particular church.

The shift to a postmodern culture has revealed (not caused) the individual mind-set prevalent in too many churches today, a mind-set that is revealed in uneven attendance, turf wars among churches, distrust of any kind of spiritual authority, and an unwillingness to make the personal sacrifices that true community requires. As Sam Torode wrote in Christianity Today, “The evangelical focus on a “personal relationship” with Christ tends to obscure our corporate identity as members of the church” (Aug. 2005, p. 42).

My husband, a pastor, once met with a young couple who had decided to leave our church. Dave asked if they had settled on another church in the area. He was surprised to learn that the husband felt they didn’t need to be part of a church, per se; rather, he and some friends were in a Bible study, and he thought that studying the Bible was most important and subrogated his need for involvement in a church.

Conversations like this are revealing and discouraging; unfortunately, they are not limited to those “out there” in the pews. I know several worship leaders who view their churches as just another “gig.” They are great worship leaders and musicians, but if another offer comes along, they’ll always consider.

Similarly, there are a lot of church leaders who talk about commitment to the local church with their “own” people, but then don’t hesitate to recruit people away from other churches. What do these attitudes and actions communicate about our view of our church’s position compared to others in the Kingdom?

Again, as leaders, what are we teaching and modeling to our church communities? Do we truly need the church–beyond the paycheck, the platform, or the prestige–or do we just need our churches to need us?

If we don’t need the church, then no one else will, either.

Throwback Thursday: It Never Hurts To Ask

This post originally appeared on Feb. 14, 2012. 

One of my long-held life maxims is this: “It never hurts to ask.”

Too often, we hesitate to ask for something because of the fear of rejection. We think, “What if they say no?”

But what if we re-frame that possibility? Then the thinking becomes, “The worst thing they could say is no.” And if that is really the worst that could happen, that’s not so bad after all. So you got a “No.” So what? I’d say that the potential of a “Yes” is worth such a low risk.

It never hurts to ask.

What have you been afraid to ask for?

Throwback Thursday: The Price of Leadership

This post first appeared on my blog September 26, 2011.

Several years ago, I read the book The Ascent of a Leader: How Ordinary Relationships Develop Extraordinary Character and Influence as part of my doctoral coursework. I recommend it highly.

One of the most significant insights for me was the authors’ statement that every Christian leader is required to pay a price as he or she grows in character, but that price is different for each person. 

For some leaders, the price is anonymity and obscurity; for others, it is the constant wear and glare of the spotlight. Some are called to move regularly and to give up the security of long-term rootedness; for others, the price is that they must stay put. Some leaders must sacrifice financial gain or security; others would prefer a life of simplicity and are instead burdened with the responsibility of wealth.

“Make no mistake about it, though, there will be a price to pay when we choose to climb the character ladder to the point of aligning with truth,” the authors write.

Three years later, I am still chewing on that idea. What is the path I would choose for my life, and what is the price I am called to pay instead?

What price have you been asked to pay as a leader?