Library at Ephesus

Patti and I recently returned from a trip to Turkey and Greece. We traveled a route that traced some of The Apostle Paul’s journey. I’d not yet been to Istanbul and a few of the Greek Islands, what a great trip with great friends. Other than terrorizing Mykonos on scooters, a couple highlights were visiting the ancient cities of Corinth, Greece and Ephesus, Turkey.

Kevin Myers, John Maxwell, and Tom Mullins all did a great job teaching along the way. Walking those places and listening to biblical messages created time and space for me to think about my work as a pastor and church leader. I have a hunch you may relate to some or much of it.

Let me start with a freelance and random collection of thoughts and impressions. First, I was a tourist. A very interested one, but nonetheless, a tourist. I had earphones in, listened to the tour guides and snapped pictures with my iPhone. I wasn’t engaged as a leader, I was merely following those who lead. It’s easy to disengage from leading and simply follow. There’s nothing wrong with that for a special trip, but candidly, I’ve met many church leaders who are not engaged as a general practice. They are not leading. They are merely going through the motions. They may be kind and helpful to people, but are not pressing forward to gain ground that is usually difficult to gain. I challenged myself and asked the hard question. Do I ever do that at the church? Do I ever just go through the motions? I’m confident that nothing Paul accomplished was achieved in that mode. Leadership is exhausting. This is true, in part, because you never really stop leading. Leaders never stop thinking, anticipating, praying, solving problems, taking risks, and on the list goes. It’s easy to see why a leader might disengage from such a responsibility. So how about you? Do you remain fully engaged as a leader?

Second, I was a student. I was soaking in as much as I could. Not just listening and learning, but experiencing each step. I walked where Paul may have actually stood. I think good leaders never stop learning. I’ve met leaders, both young and old, that act as if they know enough. Have you? I hope you have an inquisitive spirit that would rather read a good book or meet a new leader rather than to lead as if you already know enough. For you, it might not be about “knowing enough,” but simply not taking the time required to learn. I can’t encourage you enough to take time to keep learning, especially learning leadership.  What new leadership book are you reading now? What leader have you recently met that has led further than you?  Keep asking questions and expanding your leadership! Third, I was part of a team.  I had the privilege to travel with long time friends and colleagues, and met some new friends and leaders as well. My gratitude for being part of a team rose dramatically. So much more can be accomplished when we work together in partnerships and pursue a like-minded purpose.  I don’t think Jesus meant for us to work alone, independent or always going our own way. We’re better together!  Well, enough of the random… let me go back to my more typical three bullet points!

  • Problems are not an option.

Do you have a few problems in your church? You are in good company. We all do. Paul dealt with never ending problems. Every time I read First and Second Corinthians I’m amazed with everything Paul was required to handle. It’s important that we as leaders never attempt to avoid problems. We must lean into problems. That’s key in making progress. Real problems require real solutions, not bailouts or passing them on to the next leader.

In consulting with church leaders for many years I’ve listened to countless stories of problems inherited by new pastors that were never cleaned up by the previous pastor. On several occasions, for example, I’ve been hired by a church to help with strategy, only to discover they really wanted me to help them “fire” someone. The pastor simply wasn’t willing to face a problem even though everyone knew it needed to be done. With my recommendation to release a staff member, the pastor perceived that he was mostly off the hook. That kind of leadership doesn’t work.

Leaders don’t like problems, but they face them head on and deal with them. Sometimes the best problem solving is anticipating the problem and delivering a solution before the problem hits. Great leaders do that often and the people never know. That is great leadership!  So what one problem are you facing right now that you need to handle? Go for it! If you are not sure what to do, seek wise counsel today and lean into the best solution you can prayerfully come to.

  • Survival is not the goal.

In the book of Acts Chapter 20, Paul wrote:  22 “And now, compelled by the Spirit, I am going to Jerusalem, not knowing what will happen to me there. 23 I only know that in every city the Holy Spirit warns me that prison and hardships are facing me. 24 However, I consider my life worth nothing to me; my only aim is to finish the race and complete the task the Lord Jesus has given me—the task of testifying to the good news of God’s grace.”  Survival was not his goal. Wherever Paul traveled, including Corinth and Ephesus, the message of salvation through Christ was his singular and laser-like focus. I don’t believe Paul was foolish or took ridiculous risks, but he was clearly courageous and not seeking his own comfort or security. The story of his journey to Rome in Acts 27 is one of my favorite stories of spiritual leadership!

I love working with young leaders. That’s unquestionably one of my favorite things to do. We have the privilege to hire some of the best and brightest at 12Stone. They keep me on my toes! I’m gonna be blunt here. I’ve lead more than a few interviews where the leading questions from the candidate were about salary, vacation and how many hours they are required to work. Ok, that’s just flat out disappointing. At some point those are reasonable questions and should be addressed, but if those topics are the driving agenda, they won’t fit within the culture of our team. That doesn’t make us right and someone else wrong, I’m just telling you what I think. We look for people who are fired-up to learn, lead and make an impact in peoples lives. We keep politics to a minimum and passion at a maximum. We are honest and are willing to make tough decisions. The truth is, we really don’t have to survive if we are sold out to the cause of Christ. I guess that may sound “old school” but I haven’t found a better one yet. As a leader you need to take care of your family, and you need to take care of yourself, but much beyond that let’s leave it all on the playing field. I honestly believe that is where the greatest joy and fulfillment in life resides. Give yourself away!

  • Discouragement is not the end of the road.

Paul no doubt got discouraged. Church leaders get discouraged. I’m sure you do too, but you don’t have to get stuck there. In I Corinthians 4:1 Paul writes:  “Therefore, since through God’s mercy we have this ministry, we do not lose heart.”  “We don’t lose heart” . . . I’ve been thinking about that. The Devil would love for you and I to lose heart. Maybe your offerings are falling under the budget needs, or there is a problem with a staff person, or your church isn’t growing. Perhaps it’s declining. Maybe there is serious stress at home. It might not be that dramatic, but today you just feel alone in your ministry. No one to talk with, have coffee with, or just to listen. Pastoral leadership can get tough that way. It feels like you are giving, but nothing comes back your way. Don’t lose heart. Please don’t hear that as “preachy.” I really understand what you feel. It isn’t easy, but it is doable. I find several things are helpful. First, take some time to rest and play. Easier said than done, I know. But you need to fight hard to make that happen. Second, make sure your perspective is accurate.  The Enemy loves to help us think wrong. Third, take heart in the fact that many have been there with you and found their way to a place of greater joy. The beautiful thing is that your ministry doesn’t have to be perfect for you to be happy (experience joy.) And you will never be without problems – so learning to find joy in the midst of the chaos is essential. It’s never the end. You may need to take a different road. But don’t give up. Your ministry is worth it!