“The Essential Thing”
There are a lot of needful things when it comes to leadership, especially when it’s broken, but there is only one thing that is essential. Over the next three chapters I want to unpack the three qualities that can produce healthy leadership or restore healthy leadership when it’s been broken. But I won’t bury the lead. I won’t build up or count down to the essential quality. I’m going to start there because without this essential thing, the other two just don’t matter. Without this essential element, you will never have healthy leadership.
Recently, Michael Frost posted this: “Church Growth Theory didn’t result in church growth, and the Christian leadership industry didn’t give us better leaders. So can we stop trying to do Christian ministry with tools from the fields of marketing, management and psychology now?!” He went on to provide commentary to his own post by saying, “The proof is in the pudding. After half a century of Church Growth Theory the church in the West has shrunk. And after 30 years of ‘leadership studies’ we’re seeing an unprecedented number of leadership failures. Where else can we turn?” (Michael Frost online)
In his book, A Church Called TOV, Scot McKnight offers two early warning signs of a toxic culture, both of which are centralized on leadership. First, narcissism. McKnight writes, “If we are to have any hope of developing a goodness (tov) culture in our churches, these narcissistic, unempathetic leaders must be resisted and replaced.” A broken leader will create a broken culture and culture eats your mission statement for breakfast every day. In other words, it doesn’t matter what you say, what matters is what you do and best intentions have no chance against a broken leadership producing a broken culture. “Friends don’t let friends become narcissists.” (McKnight, A Church Called TOV)
The second warning sign of a toxic culture, McKnight warns, is power through fear. “Perhaps the most common temptation for church leaders is to wield their assumed authority and position as weapons of lethal wounding power. When a leader manifests the power hatchet, a culture is formed that adjusts to the blade of fear. Power and fear are close companions. Combine this with narcissism, and a toxic culture is sure to form.”
McKnight quotes Ronald Enroth on power-mongering leaders, “Ruler is the right term to describe the kind of people in authoritarian leadership roles….They are spiritual tyrants who take unholy pleasure in requiring obedience and subordination of their followers…The spiritual autocrat, the religious dictator, attempts to compel subordination; the true Christian leader can legitimately only elicit followership.”
We might imagine this means a leader who rages and screams things like, “Who do you think you are?!!!!” at people. But often it’s really just a leader who leaves you with the clear impression that they are very disappointed in you, you’ve really let them down and chances are good you won’t be given another chance to let them down again. You find yourself replaced in your volunteer role and only find out when the new person who has been appointed to the role you once held, contacts you to let you know they are now the new “whatever.” Broken leadership tends to start with small acts of tyranny that we can easily excuse or overlook “for the greater good” but often gradually increase in size as a leader’s brokenness expands to fill as much space as they are given before they run into significant consequences.
The essential thing, the thing that must mark a leader and a leadership culture or it will break and break others as it collapses under its own hubris, is character.
Dan Wilt writes, “Character is indeed the defining issue for the Christian leader.” I would say it’s the defining issue for any leader. In the Church, the kind of character we’re looking for, the kind of character we are needing is the kind of character that Wilt describes, “Godly character is the reflection in a person’s life of the attitudes, actions and attributes of God as revealed in Jesus and the scriptures.” (Wilt, Leadership by Character)
Dan goes on to write, “I am convinced that the issues of character will become the greatest mark of true spiritual leadership in our generation’s tumultuous days…Unless we understand that the penultimate goal of God is the formation of His character in our lives, we will fall into the patterns of this world and its values, even in our Christian stylings, and be lost to the purposes and plans of God. Power and gifts will become our goal, while in the heart of God power and gifts have always remained the natural supplement to the life full of purpose and integrity.”
CHARISMA IS NOT CHARACTER
The danger that plays out time and time again in the Church is the confusion of charisma for character. Often we assign an inherent amount of character to people based how we perceive their charisma. A guy is fronting the well-known Christian band at the music festival who sings about Jesus and leads the crowd in “the sinner’s prayer” at the end of their concert – 100 character points! The speaker at the conference told a story about a young woman he personally delivered from demonic oppression and then led her to Jesus? 100 character points! The cool author in the skinny jeans who tends to rehash the work of other people that aren’t as cool and don’t get read as much and tells us a hilarious story that has us crying at the end about their son’s struggle with asthma – an easy 100 character points. I don’t know them at all but I can tell from that story they are so much like Jesus.
The mega-pastor with mega-stories, 100 points, automatically, because God wouldn’t bless him with mega if he didn’t have character.
That well-known author and speaker with the almost impossible to believe testimony, who says hard things to us in such nice ways that makes us feel bad enough to feel like we’re convicted but not sooo convicted that we change anything – 100 points, clearly a person of character because I felt so convicted and that testimony was killer.
That cool pastor who dresses cool and talks cool and has cool hair and just walks in a cloud of coolness – 100 character points – you just can’t be that cool and not be a person of character.
The white missionary woman to Africa who oversees thousands of orphans and has photos she works into her talk to remind you of all the thousands of orphans she’s been photographed with – 100 character points – she’s a white woman living in some distant African country where they don’t have same day Amazon delivery – you KNOW she has character.
And then, when the stories start coming out about their lavish lifestyle, we can dismiss it because hey, we KNOW they have godly character because they are cool, well-known, on a mission field, on a stage, have a big church, blah, blah, blah. And as the bodies pile up under the bus, we count their “success” as character or as proof as character and we insist there must be another side to the story or at least more to the story – because we couldn’t have been taken in. God would NOT bless someone who didn’t have character. That’s like, biblical or something.
Or it can just be really simple – our church/movement is growing, therefore our leader has character and we will not question their character even when we see them behaving badly, even when the warning sirens are going off inside our spirit, because it’s good to be part of this successful thing that makes me successful as a part of this thing and good people don’t question their leader’s character.
You can almost be certain that if you are in a system in which you are afraid to question your leader’s character, you are in a system with broken leadership or you have been in a system with broken leadership.
Our whole story has a central belief that we all mess up. We all fall short. We all wander. And the most susceptible of us are those with power. Leadership breaks when we give cool people a pass on character. Leadership breaks when we confuse charisma with character. Leadership breaks when we ignore all the warning signs of toxic leadership because they make us feel special and important and good about ourselves – for now.
GOD IS NOT IN CONTROL and YOU SHOULD STOP SAYING THAT HE IS BECAUSE IT EXCUSES BAD BEHAVIOR
You can overhear people in a conversation about badly behaving leaders say something like, “God’s in control, I’m not worried about it, God will sort it all out.”
It sounds profoundly spiritual but it’s wrong. Spiritually wrong. Biblically wrong. Theologically wrong. It’s just wrong in the totality of wrongness.
Paul tells the elders at Ephesus, “So guard yourselves and God’s people. Feed and shepherd God’s flock—his church, purchased with his own blood—over which the Holy Spirit has appointed you as leaders. I know that false teachers, like vicious wolves, will come in among you after I leave, not sparing the flock. Even some men from your own group will rise up and distort the truth in order to draw a following. Watch out!” (Acts 20 NLT) Paul’s advice isn’t, “trust God to work it out.” It’s “Watch out!” Paul tells Titus, “If people are causing divisions among you, give a first and second warning. After that, have nothing more to do with them.” When Peter shows up to the potluck for the churches in Galatia and sits with the circumcised, Paul confronts him in public, “But when Peter came to Antioch, I had to oppose him to his face, for what he did was very wrong. When he first arrived, he ate with the Gentile believers, who were not circumcised. But afterward, when some friends of James came, Peter wouldn’t eat with the Gentiles anymore. He was afraid of criticism from these people who insisted on the necessity of circumcision…When I saw that they were not following the truth of the gospel message, I said to Peter in front of all the others, “Since you, a Jew by birth, have discarded the Jewish laws and are living like a Gentile, why are you now trying to make these Gentiles follow the Jewish traditions? You and I are Jews by birth, not ‘sinners’ like the Gentiles. Yet we know that a person is made right with God by faith in Jesus Christ, not by obeying the law. And we have believed in Christ Jesus, so that we might be made right with God because of our faith in Christ, not because we have obeyed the law. For no one will ever be made right with God by obeying the law.”
Paul didn’t seem to think God was in control of this situation and God would get it all worked out. He publicly confronted Peter for his hypocrisy before it could become any more contagious than it already was. Broken leadership will lead to a broken culture and a broken Church if we “leave it to God.” We don’t need to be Paul in order to recognize wolves or wolfish behavior. Unchecked, leaders without character will create a toxic culture that will destroy the flock of God to which it is proximate. God gives the Church shepherds and prophets and apostles in order for them to speak into these situations, not sit and wait for God to do something.
Again, McKnight writes, “…Each aspect of the fruit of the Spirit is also an act of resistance. To do tov requires us to resist what is not tov, what is bad and evil and corrupt. To live in the Spirit is to resist the works or acts of the flesh.” (McKnight, TOV) Character won’t just happen. We must pursue character, nurture a culture that values and promotes character and resist cultures and people who are not acting in the character of Jesus. Relying on the sovereignty of God to eliminate what God has already told us is our job to watch out for and resist is to deny the sovereignty of God.
LET’S DESCRIBE WHAT WE’RE LOOKING FOR
In logic there’s a thing called “the argument of the beard.” It speaks to our tendency to get technical and deny our ability to define certain things like when a beard is a beard and not just a collection of whiskers. We dismiss someone’s point because it’s not as precise as we’d like, it’s too vague. Or it’s a big idea that seems hard to get our heads around, like character. How are we defining the kind of character that creates healthy culture? Let’s get precise.
First, like the argument of the beard, you know a beard when you see a beard, you know character when you see character – and you know…not character, when you see it too.
But let’s get a little more precise for all of us who prefer fine tuning.
Dan Wilt offers us some descriptions that come from the Bible for the kind of character that is healthy and produces healthy cultures that create healthy churches.
He starts with “brokenness” by which he means a person who has learned to suffer well. Character includes the capacity to extract the precious from the worthless, beauty from ashes and love from hate. He goes on to highlight humility, integrity, patience, perseverance and love. (Wilt, Leadership by Character)
McKnight calls it “Nurturing Habits of Goodness.” He describes the character of a tov leader and tov culture as:
Nurture empathy (resist a narcissist’s culture)
Nurture grace (resist a fear culture)
Put people first (resist institution creep)
Tell the truth (resist false narratives: form a truth-telling culture)
Nurture justice (resist the loyalty culture)
Nurture service (resist celebrity culture)
Nurture Christlikeness (resist the leader culture)
Scot writes, “The word Christoformity means ‘to be conformed to Christ.’ In other words, it is Christlikeness…No pastor is perfect, that’s for sure, but pastors are to be mature enough Christians to be able to mentor others into Christlikeness as they are moving into Christlikeness themselves. We are in this together.” (McKnight, TOV, p212.)
Let me wrap this up by emphasizing one thing in McKnight’s list I think we struggle with the most: Tell the truth.
Stanley Hauerwas said, “From Pascal’s perspective human society is founded on mutual deceit because our loves, and in particular our self-love, requires that we hide from one another and ourselves the truth. We fear wounding one another with the truth because we so desperately want to be loved. We do not wish, therefore, for anyone to tell us the truth and we avoid telling it to others. These habits of deception become rooted in the heart making it impossible for us to speak truthfully from the heart.” (Hauerwas, Commencement Sermon)
One of the greatest challenges facing the Church in North America today is our lack of honesty and truth-telling. Not only our lack but also our aversion to truth-telling. It is so hard for us that we’ve made truth-telling a vice rather than a virtue. In the Church we’ve created an evil system that we call good that is named “the honor culture.” We tell people how awesome they are, how much we respect them, how much we love what they do – we “honor” them – while they create toxic cultures and do harm to the saints.
My daughter was on staff at a church once upon a time, as an intern. She was astonished to watch a senior pastor speak rudely to support staff and volunteers and treat people badly behind closed doors. She spoke to other people in the office and asked, “Why doesn’t someone tell him that’s not acceptable?” “No, no,” she was told by an admin, “you can’t say that to the senior pastor.” My daughter said, “If he talks to me like that, I will.” My daughter understands tov, she understands that we are all in this together and we have to speak to one another in love. Leaders, especially, don’t get a free pass.
If I think a person is on a self-destructive path or an anti-tov path and I don’t speak up, I’m keeping us from goodness. If I see people being mistreated and oppressed and I don’t speak up, I’m keeping us from goodness. Proverbs says, “Wounds from a sincere friend are better than many kisses from an enemy.” And while, like most of the Proverbs, you can find its exception, this is a practice we need in the Church in North America today, that will help us move towards wholeness. A significant aspect of character that is needed now, more than ever, is speaking the truth in love to each other, especially to leaders, especially by leaders. Simply put – tell each other the truth.
One thing that keeps this from happening is when leaders punish people for telling the truth. That’s evil.
Character is the essential thing. It’s why Paul tells Timothy, “Never be in a hurry about appointing a church leader.” Share four seasons with a person before you give them a leadership role. Get to know someone as well as you possibly can before giving them a leadership role. Watch how people behave when they think no one is looking. Listen to how they talk to people who serve and who relate to them in a subordinate position. Pay attention to how their children and spouse relate to them and they to them. Know them long enough to know how they respond to suffering, what they do when they are angry, how they behave when there are humble tasks in front of them, take note of who their mentors are. Character will make or break a person, a marriage, a home, a family, a friendship and a Church.