This is not an endeavor for the faint of heart or those with a suspect self-image. Leadership requires a strong will that refuses to be molded by the moment but to be guided by the truth. It means we must be moving but doing so in a wise manner. Here are few ideas to think about how you are moving as a leader.
Leadership needs to see ahead of the next corner. As a leader, you have to act first and act decisively. But there is caveat to it all. In being proactive, you must bring other along your decision-making process. Too often, in the name of being proactive, leaders will often make decisions in a relational vacuum. My counsel to you is to be ahead but not alone.
A terrible middle ground that we are tempted to fill is reactive leadership. Rather than seeing ahead, we wait around. Then, in the place of forward momentum, we give in to the temptation of simply responding to the moment. Leadership should not be a counter-punch against present reality. It is preemptively knowing what we should do before it has to be done. Reactive leadership will give momentary relief, but no lasting victory.
Deactive leadership is my term for how we demotivate people. It is a false leadership that takes over rather than give away responsibilities. Deactive leaders want everyone around to be a mindless drone; those who just fall in line and follow orders. This type of leadership will get things done but never personally helps those who are doing the work. In this mode, leaders see accomplishments from their own hands and followers strain to see their part in it all.
Just be active
Leadership involves the head, our passions, and our actions. You must see around corners to what is likely to happen next. You must care deeply about both the task to be accomplished and the people who accomplish it. Transformation is the reason we lead. So, we must avoid being in the posture that puts self-worth above others by simply using circumstances and people for our advantage.
As you lead, be active for the right purposes. As leaders, our work is not to recruit followers but to produce new leaders. In fact, we should hope to produce better leaders than we are. The more active you are for the sake of people, the less likely you will give in to the pitfalls of selfish positioning of yourself.
IKEA is a store based in Sweden. They are perhaps best known for their flat-pack furniture. Recently, I purchased a new desk from IKEA which is really not a desk. It is two units of drawers, a long table top, and support leg for the center. I think there are several lessons on leadership that we can learn from IKEA and the way they sell their products.
1. Simple instructions. The instructions are all presented in visual diagrams, even the instructions to call IKEA if you have a problem. Their directions to build a bed, cabinet, shelving, and everything else are based on the principle of simplicity. It is a great reminder about how leadership directions should be given to those under our care. If a direction is not easily understood, then work on it until it is.
2. Repurpose everything. The desk that I bought is normal for much of IKEA’s materials. Rather than creating pieces, parts, and entire furnishings for just one use, they create them with multiple uses in mind. Every bolt, peg, and table piece has the possibility to be used in multiple furniture pieces. For the leader, it is a lesson about the scarcity of resources. Leaders must learn to use what they have and then to reuse it again. It is a good lesson to pass along to others.
3. Hospitality. Go into any IKEA store and you will find a place that you’ll want to visit again. Their stores are not found in many places. The closest one to me is a four-hour drive to Atlanta, Georgia. But the experience of the store is worth the drive. Each story has plenty to see, a restaurant inside, and happy employees that are ready to help. The IKEA store feels more like a place to visit rather than a place to shop. As a church leader, I often wonder how guests to our buildings, ministries, worship services, and small groups feel about how they are greeted by us. It is not that every church should set up a food court, but every person who intersects with our church family should feel welcomed.
4. Ready-made rooms. When looking at their website or going into a store, I immediately get a vision for what a room could be if furnished by IKEA furniture. If you look, you can find the sections where individual pieces are sold and parts are purchased. But that is not what IKEA is concerned with for their customer. They want you to buy the whole dorm room for your college student. They want you to create an entire space for your home office. And the list goes on. If you are going to lead a church, never be satisfied with people only being partially formed. We want them to get the proverbial “whole package” of formation. Don’t be satisfied with less.
5. Selling satisfaction, not furniture. Make no mistake about it… for IKEA to be profitable, they must sell furniture and the like. But at the heart of the company, what they are selling is satisfaction. The IKEA Vision is: “To create a better everyday life for the many people.” They have a set of seven values that drives what they do and how they do it. It is all in support of their vision, and their vision is about a lot more than furniture. In the church, our vision must far exceed the physical accoutrements of religious programming. We are not offering institutional ministries. We are offering life. We need to ensure that we never settle for involvement in the equipment of the religion. After all, Jesus did not die to make us religiously busy. He died to give us life.
As we stretch the end of the year into the advent season, I always look for the multitude of expressions of how God has come down to us. Perhaps it is why Francis Dubose’s book God Who Sends has meant so much to me. Dubose’s book is significant because it reintroduced the word “missional” for many people. However, even more significant is the message of how “sending” is in the very nature of God. Dubose carefully walks through the entire scriptures to show how God is such a Sender that He even sends Himself for our sakes and His glory.
One of the portions of the Bible that gives insight about our sending God is Psalm 113. In this short song of the Hebrews, we are taught to celebrate the God who stoops to us.
1 Hallelujah! Give praise, servants of Yahweh; praise the name of Yahweh. 2 Let the name of Yahweh be praised both now and forever. 3 From the rising of the sun to its setting, let the name of Yahweh be praised. 4 Yahweh is exalted above all the nations, His glory above the heavens. 5 Who is like Yahweh our God—the One enthroned on high, 6 who stoops down to look on the heavens and the earth? 7 He raises the poor from the dust and lifts the needy from the garbage pile 8 in order to seat them with nobles—with the nobles of His people. 9 He gives the childless woman a household, making her the joyful mother of children. Hallelujah.
As would be expected, the psalm calls us to praise God. The song is bookended by shouts of “Hallelujah.” The whole point of thinking about God is to praise God. In fact, Psalm 113-118 are Hallel psalms specifically used during annual feasts. Psalm 113-114 were sung before the Passover meal.1 Our collective worship, like that of the Israelites, should celebrate the nature of God in how it reaches out to us.
In considering the nature of God, it causes us to look up. Our practice, whether inherent or learned I’m not sure, is to look up when considering God. It is certainly how He has revealed Himself to us. Psalm 113 uses language like exalted and above to emphasize that his glory is in the heavens. He is exalted above us. Isaiah 57:15 emphasizes this fact in saying,
For the High and Exalted One who lives forever, whose name is Holy says this: “I live in a high and holy place, and with the oppressed and lowly of spirit, to revive the spirit of the lowly and revive the heart of the oppressed.”
And there is the turn. It is painted beautifully by both the psalmist and the prophet. The Lord stoops. He lives with the lowly and oppressed. He comes down. God condescends to us.
It is not in spite of His majesty but because of His majesty that God condescends to us. In Psalm 113:5, the question is posed to us to answer: “Who is like Yahweh our God…?” It is in describing our great God, in setting Him apart for all others that the psalmist then shows that He comes off of the thrones and “lifts the need from the garbage pile” (v. 7). God departs the throne room of Heaven to visit us in the garbage dumps of Earth.
We see it clearly in verse 14 of Gospel of John’s opening chapter.
The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.
Jesus arrives completely mindful of the poor and needy. He travels to the ash heap of our lives. It is the place of abject poverty where people are cast aside like the trash. And what does our God do with those found in such a place? They – or better – we are given a seat of nobility. Imagine that. We are leaving the shanty made from junk. He trades our place of trash for dignity. Our barrenness is replaced with His joyous household.
But all of this happens because of one reason. Jesus is willing to wrap Himself in our injured flesh.2 It is a terrible trade for Him. It is the greatest of exchanges for us. God has bent down to the dust from whence we were made and rescued us.
Our response to all of this is caught up in the profundity of a prisoner’s letter to a needy group of believers. Part of the letter, we call the Christ Hymn.
5 Make your own attitude that of Christ Jesus, 6 who, existing in the form of God, did not consider equality with God as something to be used for His own advantage. 7 Instead He emptied Himself by assuming the form of a slave, taking on the likeness of men. And when He had come as a man in His external form, 8 He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death—even to death on a cross. 9 For this reason God highly exalted Him and gave Him the name that is above every name, 10 so that at the name of Jesus every knee will bow—of those who are in heaven and on earth and under the earth— 11 and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. - Philippians 2:5-11
In the face of God’s condescension to us, we must do the same. People are still dwelling in the garbage heaps. Many are living a barren existence. Our great hope is their great hope. There is no time to lounge in comfort as others suffer in misery. In such a season as this, we should serve as He did and carry such good news to those living in yet to be healed injured flesh.
(1) The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, Volume 5, page 713.
(2) An idea borrowed from “Welcome to Our World” by Chris Rice
Every week, I prepare a sermon. In general, I plan my preaching schedule for several months in advance. The advantage is that I can begin thinking and praying about the messages earlier rather than later. But no matter how far out I plan, some messages are just more difficult than others.
Whether you are the teaching pastor of your church or the leader of small group, there are times when a message just seems more difficult. Since I began preaching and teaching in churches as a teenager, there have been many times when landing on the final form of a message was a laborious task. Sometimes you stare at a topic, fully convinced that the church needs to hear about it, but then you flounder. It feels impossible to land on the right passage from the many to choose from that will be the right one at the right time. At other times, you have the passage but simply can’t dig out the core point in a way that communicates well. And then there are the agonizing times when I know the passage, know the main idea, but the outline, illustrations, and everything else just will not come together. You feel like the best you can do is stand up, read the passage, say two or three sentences, and sit back down. It is highly likely that I should have done just that on multiple occasions when I tried to wax eloquently for 30-40 minutes instead. So to all those who sat through the multiple messages that I’ve tanked… sorry.
Thinking through why it all happens has made me stop to consider how we should handle the difficult messages. Specifically, here is how I handle myself and the task when the passage, the outline, or the experience just does not appear to make sense.
1. Perspective. The thought in my twenties was: “This is hard but the older guys make it seem easy. It will get easier for me too.” In my thirties, I thought: “I just need to live more and learn more.” Now in my forties, my thought is: “I hope that the messages are always hard so that I’ll never grow complacent.” With a bit of age, I’ve gained a better perspective. At the end of it all, every passage will have an ease and a difficulty to it. So it is better to prepare yourself for this inevitable reality.
2. Self-examination. Sermons are often difficult to emerge in our preparation and/or flop in our delivery because of a lack of self-examination. When we treat the passage like a scientific experiment to benefit others, we fail as pastors. The Scripture must test us first before we deliver it to our churches. Our time of study is also our time for spiritual formation. Our time of preaching is also our time of worship.
3. Repentance. Closely associated with self-examination is the opportunity for repentance. I remember quite clearly many times of sermon preparation when I recognized my own need for repentance. A great blessing occurs when it is in the time of study. It is another story when repentance happens during the preaching event. And if we are honest as pastors, I think we’ve all repented internally while publicly proclaiming the truth. I have often prayed while preaching, “God, restore me in this.”
4. Tackle it! The difficult messages occur simply because the Scriptures run counter to our culture. How do you handle the difficult messages that are sure to offend people? We must heed the words given to Joshua. Haven’t “I commanded you: be strong and courageous? Do not be afraid or discouraged, for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go” (Joshua 1:9). The only way to handle the biblical truth that will cause people to face their sin and thus may turn on you is to simply tackle it fearlessly because of God’s presence with you. For pastors, taking on the truth that will cause complaints is often the place the requires the most faith from us.
5. Study more. Honestly, often the passage are difficult because we do not study enough. Thomas Edison said, “We often miss opportunity because it’s dressed in overalls and looks like work.” Though I’m not opposing that the Spirit can supernaturally work at the time of your sermon delivery, I think He also wants to work in you to prepare you for the moment of proclamation. If the passages are coming to you with great difficulty in preaching, then perhaps it is time to revisit the study habits, or lack thereof.
The moment to preach the truth of God’s Word is one of the greatest and most severe moments of life. It is a beautiful weight we carry by the Spirit’s power. As those who teach, we must pray for ourselves and one another that we will not shrink back from what is difficult but rather embrace what is transformational.
Philip Nation is the adult ministry publishing director for LifeWay Christian Resources. He earned a master of divinity from Beeson Divinity School and a doctor of ministry from Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. He also serves as teaching pastor for the The Fellowship, a multisite church in Nashville, Tennessee.
His works include Compelled: Living the Mission of God and Transformational Discipleship: How People Really Grow. He is also the general editor of The Mission of God Study Bible. Along the way, he has written the small-group studies Compelled by Love: The Journey to Missional Living and Live in the Word, plus contributed to The Great Commission Resurgence: Fulfilling God’s Mandate in Our Lifetime.