The Only Thing Worse Than Bad Leaders

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A good friend of mine and mentor once said, “I’m not a big fan of my peer group.”

It was a wild comment.

My friend is in his sixties, has been a pastor for some thirty plus years and is a mentor to many younger pastors—yet, he is one of the biggest critics of his peer group: pastors or Christian leaders.

I often feel the same way.

I lead a lot of people who are disillusioned with pastors and Christian leadership; and, as hard as I want to tell them they’re wrong, I think I might be just as or more disillusioned than them.

It’s easy today when the news of moral failings and ethically questionable tactics in running or growing big churches are commonplace.

My friend and I differ, however, with the typical Christian response to poor or disappointing leadership. We believe in the pastoral call and the need for good leaders, whereas the common cultural phenomenon seems to be to dismiss church and Christian leadership altogether as the proper reaction to the presence of poor leadership in the church.

But does rejecting Christian leadership really get at the issue?

I believe the only thing as bad as poor leadership is no leadership at all—just as the only thing as bad as an unhealthy family is no family at all.

Just because some or many families can be abusive, we don’t take the position that orphans should remain alone. Rather, we focus all the more on finding healthy—not perfect—families to adopt or take guardianship of orphans.

Likewise, the corrective to our contemporary frustration with leadership isn’t to do away with leaders, but to focus more intently on finding and promoting healthy leadership.

The bible has a lot to say about bad leaders—warnings and woes against them, but it also has a lot to say about working hard to select and promote good leaders.

Here are three things to look for in healthy Christian leaders:

Leaders Who Follow

One of the most powerful things about Psalm 23—the wonderful hallmark song declaring “The LORD is my shepherd,” is that David was himself anointed King or chief shepherd of Israel.

In short, David was a shepherd who saw himself first and foremost as a sheep.

In contemporary leadership we need to celebrate this type of posture more than we celebrate celebrities.

Peer into someone’s prayer life with God. Find ways of seeing what he or she really thinks of themselves before a holy God. Is God infinitely big and they small or are they distracted with the illusions of their own bigness or the grandeur of their visions for church buildings and successful programs?

Leaders Who Are Blessed

Scripture makes it clear that a chorus of godly and seasoned leaders should be behind and “laying on hands” (symbolically blessing or anointing) the promotion of men and women into Christian leadership.

What is the history of this leader?

Is there a pattern of blessing in their life? Is there a record of character that is evident to other leaders in their life, marriage and family?

As Paul argues, someone’s capacity to lead in the church is first proven and measured in their leadership within their family.

He who is faithful with a little, will be faithful with more.

Instead of charisma, it’s character.

Instead of looking at the audacious dreams of would be leaders, we should be looking for relational health and the ability to navigate conflict.

Leaders Who Are Teachable

The greatest of all virtues—in my mind—is teachability.

Teachability is another way of saying humility and it is different in kind than most others character traits we look at.  Most things are fixed realities along a spectrum—someone is either gentle or not.  A leader is either patient or not. We could plot them on a scale going from -10 to +10: saying something like, “Joe is a +5 in terms of patience.”

Humility and teachability, however, are the capacity or propensity for growth along the spectrum for the various virtues. A -5 can grow to a +5 if he or she is teachable.

One characteristic many bad leaders share is a form of pride or rigidity to their own shortcomings or needed areas of growth. Transparent, honest, humble and teachable leaders may not be perfect, but they are willing to be wrong and to learn.

I’ll take a teachable person who sees their own flaws over a strong leader who sees only the flaws in others any day of the week.

I want to be a fan of my peer group again. But I have a stronger desire to see Christians in America confident in those who have been given leadership gifts by God, who work under the weighty call of shepherding and teaching, and who have the teachability, transparency and accountability necessary to grow healthy families and churches. I long for those who would come back to church to see shepherds who first and foremost see themselves as sheep under leadership of the Chief Shepherd.

In the face of so much press about bad Christian leadership, I pray our reaction isn’t to reject leadership altogether, but to find, cultivate and celebrate good leadership.

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