The Foundation for Christian Leadership

A lot of people want to be leaders. In the church, or in parachurch ministries, there is within many a desire to be recognized as a leader. After all, leadership allows for influence, it generates respect, it validates the significance or ability of a person. Some will want to be a leader because they want to serve others. Some will want to be a leader because they want to be served by others. Most will probably fall somewhere in between. Nobody has perfect motivations, but that is not to say we are all equally flawed in that regard. Some churches and organizations would be spared significant turmoil by being careful not to appoint leaders unwisely.

The New Testament gives instruction on the qualifications for a church elder (and deacon) in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1. Churches would do well to take those lists more seriously. Too many churches appoint leaders based on capacity instead of character, and not every church survives to tell the tale! I have never seen a church thrive without leaders that fit those qualification lists, and I have always seen churches struggle when one of the leaders falls short of what is required there.

I have heard people dismiss Paul’s lists as standards that maybe ideal, but are actually impossible in real life. The problem is that I have been blessed to have been shepherded by church leaders that do measure up to that standard, so clearly it is not impossible. The standard is “above reproach” rather than perfection, and the qualifications are all measures of godly character. The challenge we face is that the features of an immature character are typically not seen in the mirror – it has to be the perspective of others that is trusted. This is why the church should recognize maturity, rather than a self-appointed leader declaring his own suitability for a position.

So, let’s begin with issues of character, but also go beyond that to think about two other important aspects of leadership that will always come into play over the course of a life in ministry:

Character – A Leader in Relation to God. I think it is important that we recognize how our character is shaped by God over time. Having a naturally calm manner is not the same thing as spiritual maturity any more than having a naturally extroverted temperament is the same as a spiritual gift. Over time God is at work in our character, shaping us and changing us. Some fruit of the Spirit may come very quickly, but others will take years to ripen in us.

Let’s never fall into the trap of excusing our own sin by simply saying it is the way we are wired. Let’s never appoint people for leadership based on their apparent gifting or ability, while giving a pass to aspects of their character that raise red flags to people who know them well. A more mature me will be more Christlike in every area of character than I am today.

Those lists in Timothy and Titus further focus our thoughts in four areas:

(1) The leader’s response to stress. A more mature me will not release pressure in fits of rage, nor escape stress by abusing alcohol (just to be clear, I am not saying that the current version of me does these things, but it is always helpful to recognize that I still have plenty of room to grow!) Leadership is not a ministry practiced in tranquil moments of calm, but often it will be required in moments of stress and tension.

(2) The leader’s relationship to family. A more mature me will not neglect my marriage or parenting in order to chase my own ambitions … it is concerning to see Christian leaders with dysfunctional home lives – whatever our culture, may we model a Christlike devotion to spouses, children, parents, etc. as a top priority.

(3) The leader’s reputation with outsiders. A more mature me will gradually be seen more favourably with members of the community. Interestingly, there may be some folks whose reputation earned in their pre-conversion days might never be fixed post-conversion … or perhaps they need to spend a season as evangelistic witnesses rather than leaders so that their old community can see the change!

(4) The leader’s handling of revelation (i.e. the Bible). A more mature me will be increasingly someone who can handle the Bible well, submitting to it, and able to share it with others for their encouragement or to challenge them. I don’t believe this is saying church leaders must have a specific spiritual gift. Whether a leader can preach well or not, they must be able to handle God’s Word like a mature believer!

My responsibility is to recognize that God is the one who will continue to grow me in all areas of character. My church or ministry’s responsibility is to recognize if I have matured to a suitable level – above reproach – to be burdened with a position of leadership. So, let’s be sure to recognize people in Christian leadership whose lives demonstrate appropriate levels of spiritual maturity. As we think about ourselves, let’s be sure we pursue growth by drawing near to God, rather than by trying to practice our way to certain character qualities – that will never cut it when the pressure comes!

Before we look briefly at two more important “relationships” of the leader, let me add one very important point to this one. We have looked at the leader in relation to God in respect to the leader’s maturity and character. This is the qualification for leadership. But there is also the leader’s vitality and spirituality: this will determine the quality of their leadership. And again, we cannot practice our way to a thriving spirituality, it will come from a healthy and vibrant relationship with God.

So, character is shaped in relation to God and determines whether a leader has the required spiritual maturity to be qualified for leadership. That relationship with God will also determine the quality of that leadership, but there are two other “relationships” that will also be significant:

Capability – A Leader in Relation to the Task. Different roles will require different skills. Pastoral ministry in the local church requires people able to teach, to lead, to care, to protect and to mentor/disciple. Other leadership roles within the church may require different skills, as will non-church leadership roles. Whatever the setting, it will be important to be growing in the relevant areas. But let me mention a couple of key points:

1. Just because someone has a strength in some of these areas does not mean they should be recognized in leadership. By all means let them serve the church according to their strengths under the leadership of others, but give their character time to catch up with their capacity or learning before you appoint them to positions of responsibility.

2. Nobody is omni-competent. Nobody has every spiritual gift. The New Testament points to a practice soon forgotten after the close of the canon: team leadership. We will always be stronger working together as a team. In my church I am one of three pastor-elders, which means that I personally have two pastor-elders. We are so much stronger in a team. My gifts and strengths are complemented by the gifts and strengths of my colleagues. My weaknesses are not inflicted on the church with quite the same force as they would be if I served alone. Which leads me on to one more main point…

Chemistry – A Leader in Relation to Others. Nothing will wipe out the leadership of a church or ministry as quickly as a toxic team environment. Unhealthy competition, bad attitudes, awkward communication, political maneuvering, self-promotion, and so on, will all poison a leadership team very quickly. Every leadership team will be attacked from outside, but that is typically far more bearable than the tension that can come from within the team. How does this tension get there? There are probably a thousand different paths, but they all seem to start in the same place: the presence of leaders who are not qualified by mature Christian character.

Leadership is never presented as an easy prospect. It will add pressures, it will bring criticism, it will feel thankless … and thankfully, leadership is not a requirement for everyone. If you are leading or aspire to lead, this is a good thing. Thank you for your ministry and service. But whatever your current experience may be, remember that it is God who desires to grow your character, and it is in relationship to Him that you grow. Whatever the burdens may be, and whatever the expectations may be, keep your relationship with Jesus right at the centre of your priorities: that is the foundation for all Christian leadership.

Preach for Faith – Lennox II

Yesterday I was reflecting on Dr John Lennox’s concerns as Christians add fuel to the fire of Richard Dawkin’s faulty logic.  Faith, by his definition, is knowingly trusting in something which cannot be proven – believing against reason.  Yet Lennox yearns for people to understand that the faith is always a response to fact, and the Christian faith is firmly founded on trustworthy facts – not least the resurrection of Jesus.  Yesterday I shared his concern over the “leap in the dark” language used in some Christian circles as a very poor explanation of faith.  Today I’d like to share his second concern.

2. An over-emphasis on faith as a gift given from above.  Now it would be very easy for some readers to dismiss this, or to get into a theological slanging match.  I certainly don’t want to take sides or position this site on one side or the other of the debates this touches on.  Whether we agree with his own position or not, I think we must engage with Dr Lennox’s concern.  Could it be that an over-emphasis on faith as a gift received is inadvertently undermining the truth that Christianity is founded on fact, not least the fact of the resurrection of Jesus?  Could it be that internal theological debates undermine the presentation of the gospel to a culture now influenced by new atheism?  Could it be that irrespective of our stance on the so-called “free-will” debate, that we need to consider underlining, rather than undermining, the facts on which our faith response is built?

We preach the faith.  We preach for faith.  Obviously there is much to ponder in a world influenced by a whole smorgasbord of thinking, from the clear to the fallacious and deceptive.

Preach for Faith – Lennox

I was not alone in really appreciating John Lennox’s preaching and teaching at the recent European Leadership Forum in Hungary.  As someone who has been focused on debating Richard Dawkins and other “new atheists” in recent years, Dr Lennox has a lot to say about faith and apologetics.  He points to a foundational plank in Richard Dawkins’ logic, his erroneous definition of faith.  I’m quoting from memory, but essentially faith, according to Dawkins, is belief in something where you know there is no evidence.  Consequently it is not possible to really discuss reality with a “person of faith” since by definition they know they are committed to that for which there is no evidence.  It is sad to see the strategy Dawkins has created for his own purposes, but perhaps even sadder to see some Christians rushing headlong into the illogical snare.

The critical role of fact. Faith is a response to fact.  If the facts are shaky, so is the faith.  If the facts are the tall tales of an untrustworthy teenager, then the faith is relatively worthless.  But if the facts are genuine facts, then faith in response to those facts is not so easily dismissable.  The Christian faith is founded on fact.  The central fact is that of the resurrection of Jesus, interestingly the central feature of early apostolic preaching (when there were plenty of eye-witnesses still around to corroborate or to refute the preaching).

As preachers we have a key role in being able to help our hearers understand that their faith is founded on fact.  Yet Lennox points to two common errors, as he sees it, in contemporary Christianity:

1. The tendency to present faith as a leap in the dark.  We hear this from uninformed testimonies where the person speaking is nervous at having so many eyes trained on them and quite naturally feels unable to fully and eloquently explain the whole Christian faith and so simply pulls out the “I don’t really get it, I just took a leap in the dark and now I can testify that something has changed in me” card.  While it would be nice to hear testimonies that are somewhat better informed, there is something compelling about a testimony that is still a work in progress, someone who stands like the blind man in John 9 and cannot compete with the theologians, yet can speak with the authority of personal experience.  However, as preachers we need to make sure we are not giving more of this “leap in the dark” error through our preaching, or even implying it.  Christian faith is a response to fact.

Tomorrow I’ll share Dr Lennox’s other concern in how we preach faith today.

Final Reflections on the European Leadership Forum (ELF)

Yesterday I was really reflecting on a couple of specific messages given.  But here are two very important overall reflections on this great event:

6. Remember that the Bible is not second class to apologetics/theology/counselling, etc. Several speakers really stood out in their emphasis on the Bible (not just in the Bible Teachers Network).  It is easy to fall into thinking that the Bible is somehow intellectually second class to top level apologetics or systematic theology or even a discipline like counselling.  In reality the Bible is at the core and these other “disciplines” should be around the edge seeking to reflect the teaching of the Bible accurately.  When they fail to do so, they surely fail, period.  Are we robustly biblical, or have we fallen for the lie that something else is superior in power and value?

7. Expository preaching feeds the soul in ways other presentations of truth do not. I was reassured to both experience and hear from others that expository preaching does a work in peoples’ lives in a way that non-expository approaches do not.  Those who were present will probably reflect on the same contrast, although perhaps in different words.  By this point I do not mean that preaching has to be done in a particular form or way.  What I do mean is that the Bible text needs to be boss of the content, rather than hand-maid; communication has to be effectively engaging, rather than agonizing; relevance to listeners needs to be demonstrated and emphasized, rather than assumed; and everything needs to be very much done in reliance on the Spirit, rather than on personal “authority” (academic, professional or experiential).

A great week, a great event, a great vision.  I’ve come home physically tired and spiritually energised.  I’m thankful for the forum and hope it goes from strength to strength.  And, on reflection, I’m thankful for expository preaching and hope it also gets stronger and stronger across Europe and the globe.  We need it, both at the forum, and in our countries.

More Reflections on the European Leadership Forum (ELF)

On Saturday I shared a couple of reflections on the ELF in Hungary as related to preaching.  Here are a few more to ponder together:

3. Watch your language for second language listeners. In some ways I’d expect this to be obvious, but obviously it wasn’t for one or two speakers.  When there are people in the audience that are listening in their second language, watch yours. While they may understand the words, they may not be familiar with local figures of speech.  What does it mean that “the apostles made a killing on the God-fearers!”?  Always be aware of who is listening when you speak.

4. Affirm as well as rebuke. Along the same lines, actually reflecting on the same message, it is important not to simply generalise and rebuke without some affirmation too.  Perhaps the majority of your congregation never witness to anyone, but be sure to recognize that some do, whether or not they feel effective in doing so.  It is much easier to blast, it stirs and maximises effect.  But with any group, and especially an international group, be sure to affirm the good that is happening today.

5. Delivery matters. You cannot turn good content into a good talk without good delivery.  (At the same time good delivery will not sanctify weak content.)

I was going to complete the list today, but actually I’ll save the last thoughts for tomorrow.  As ever, feel free to comment.  I’d love to hear the reflections of those present at the ELF too.

Reflections on the European Leadership Forum (ELF)

This week I had the privilege of attending the European Leadership Forum in Hungary.  This is an outstanding event that seeks to connect ministries and leaders across the continent via various “networks” that meet during the forum, then stay in touch in between.  The event was exceptionally well run.  A few random thoughts as far as preaching is concerned:

1. Evangelical Christianity is intellectually very robust. This is certainly not the only thing that we can or should say about the faith, but often we feel bullied into not believing this.  With strident new atheism on the march, as well as other belief systems, it is easy to slip into a fluffy Christianity that fails to stand for truth or present the evidence for the reliability of the Bible, the reality of the resurrection and so on.  I don’t want to shift this blog into an apologetic debate center (there are other sites with that focus), but as preachers it is helpful to be reminded of the robust core of the faith.

2. Leaders need to be reading at a higher level. In the busy schedule of life and ministry it is easy to slip into a low level of personal intake.  As a preacher you are an influencer, and therefore a leader, irrespective of title or position.  As a leader you need to be feeding on that which is deeply nutritious for your soul.  As a leader you need to be, wherever possible, pushing yourself beyond the level of those you influence: perhaps through your choice of reading materials, your level of sacred familiarity with the Word of God, your level of intimacy with the Lord, among other things.

I’ll keep this post short and save some other reflections on the forum for next time.  If you were there this week, please comment and share your reflections too.