Parker Palmer, in his book, Leading from Within wrote, “A leader is a person who must take special responsibility for what’s going on inside him- or herself, inside his or her consciousness, lest the act of leadership create more harm than good.” That’s the burden of ministry; if we fail at soul care, not only do we harm ourselves, we harm those whom we lead.
I think we all know that our public ministry will never be any better than our private relationship with Jesus. At least we say we know that, but sometimes the way we fail to care for our own souls would indicate that we believe ourselves to be some kind of special exception to that rule. Seems like we spend more time and energy on our public ministry than we do on our private selves. The stuff that shows gets our attention and, too often, we neglect our inner selves, that part of us that isn’t immediately visible.
In his book, The Life God Blesses, Gordan McDonald told a parable involving two men who each decided to build a sailboat. The first man built a boat with all of the bells and whistles; colorful sails, teakwood deck and brass railings. His boat was a sight to behold but, much to the chagrin of the old sailors who were watching him build, he neglected the keel and paid little attention to things like weight and ballast…the parts of the boat that were below the waterline. He christened his beautiful boat, the Personna, and set out on its maiden voyage. A few miles from shore a sudden storm came out of nowhere, engulfed the Personna, and the boat and its foolish builder were never seen again.
The second builder went about things differently. His boat wasn’t nearly as beautiful to behold, but he paid special attention to the keel, the hull and he made sure that he had the right amount of ballast. In other words, he didn’t neglect the parts of the boat that would be below the waterline. He christened his boat the Christos and set sail on its maiden voyage. He also was set upon by a sudden storm just a few miles from shore, but unlike the Personna, the Christos had adequate weight below the waterline, so she was able to face the best that the storm had to offer. And not only did the Christos and her builder survive the storm, they were able to rescue others who hadn’t built so well.
In John Wesley’s Holy Clubs (we would call them small groups), the first question asked was, “How is it with your soul?” Good question. Are you taking care of the stuff below the waterline? How is it with your soul?
25 Jesus called them (the disciples) together and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. 26 Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, 27 and whoever wants to be first must be your slave--28 just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” --Matthew 20:25-28 (NIV)
Those verses contain Jesus’ response to the indignation of the disciples after James’ and John’s mother asked if He would place one of her sons on his right and the other on his left when He established his kingdom. There were at least a couple of things wrong with that request. First, it was a request for power: James, John and their mother still didn’t understand what kind of kingdom Jesus was establishing. To them, leadership was about power when Jesus was trying to teach and model servant leadership. Secondly, it’s so wrong to have your mother ask your boss to give you a promotion!
Servant leadership. We talk about it all the time, but even in Christian circles we emphasize the leadership part and play down the servanthood part. I think, perhaps, we have the order of importance reversed. Perhaps we should focus on becoming a servant before we worry about developing our leadership skills.
Servanthood is a better test of our character than leadership and everything hinges on character. Warren Buffet said, “In looking for people to hire, you look for three qualities: integrity (another word for character) intelligence, and energy. And if they don’t have the first, the other two will kill you.”
We should all remember the words of Oswald Chambers: “All throughout history God has chosen and used nobodies, because their unusual dependence on Him makes possible the unique display of his power and grace. He chooses to use somebodies only when they renounce dependence on their natural abilities and resources.”
In other words, God uses servant leaders.
In my Bible reading this summer I have been going through some of the Old Testament historical books. Recently, a sentence from II Kings gripped me and hasn’t let me go.
You can read the whole story in II Kings 20:12-19, but here is the gist of it. Hezekiah, one of the few good kings that Judah had, became ill and the king of Babylon sent messengers to wish him well. Hezekiah not only welcomed the messengers, he showed them all of the riches that were in his storehouse, which is kind of like giving bank robbers a tour of the bank vault and letting them see how much money is there.
After the representatives from Babylon left, the prophet Isaiah came to ask about the visit. When he found out that Hezekiah had shown them all the riches of Judah, he predicted that because of Hezekiah’s foolishness Babylon was going to invade Judah and take everything.
Now, here’s the part of the story that haunts me. Here is Hezekiah’s response after he heard Isaiah’s prophecy: “The word of the LORD you have spoken is good,” Hezekiah replied. For he thought, “Will there not be peace and security in my lifetime?”
Did you catch that? As long as things held together during his lifetime, he was okay with it. In short, he cared about his own survival more than he cared about the longevity and legacy of his kingdom.
Don’t be too quick to judge Hezekiah; the temptation to care more about survival than legacy sneaks up on a lot of leaders, especially as we are running that last few laps in our leadership race. I suppose I’m more aware of that temptation now that I’ve been in ministry 40+ years and am approaching retirement age. It would be easy to avoid the hard decisions and coast. I might be leaving problems for those who follow me, but as long as there is “peace and security in my lifetime” then I’m okay with it, right?
Not only do leaders succumb to the survival temptation, entire churches do as well. We may be avoiding the risky decisions that will build a strong legacy for the generations that follow, but as long as the folks who are presently in the church are happy, it’s okay. After all, these are the folks who pay the bills, right?
So I’ve been thinking a bit about the differences between a legacy leader and a survival leader. This is certainly not an exhaustive list, but here are some qualities I’ve seen in the legacy leaders I’ve known:
23 Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful. 24 And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds. 25 Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another--and all the more as you see the Day approaching. - Hebrews 10:23-25 (NIV)
When you read those words from Hebrews what do you think of? Let me see if I can read your minds… Most of you thought about the importance of worshiping with the body of Christ. Some of you thought about studying the Bible with your small group. None of you thought about District Conference! How did I do?
I get it. Traveling to scenic Northeast Iowa and sitting in a meeting all day probably isn’t on your “top ten list” of fun things to do. If it is, you maybe need to get out a little more…
If you are one who views district conference simply as a necessary (or maybe unnecessary) item on your to-do list, read on for a couple of minutes and allow me to highlight a few of the reasons I believe this annual district gathering is so very important:
I hope to see you in just a couple of weeks at our Conference. And if you can’t make it, please pray for us; it’s going to be an incredibly important day of encouraging one another and “spurring one another on toward love and good deeds.”
“I am the vine; you are the branches. If a man remains in me and I in him,
he will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing.” -John 15:5 (NIV)
Recently I read, An Unhurried Leader, by Alan Fadling and was impacted and convicted by the following quote by Bernard of Clairvaux, a twelfth-century reformer in the Benedictine order of monks:
“The [one] who is wise, therefore, will see [their] life as more like a reservoir than a canal. The canal simultaneously pours out what it receives; the reservoir retains the water till it is filled, then [offers] the overflow without loss to itself ... Today there are many in the Church who act like canals; the reservoirs are far too rare .... They want to pour [this stream] forth before they have been filled; they are more ready to speak than to listen, impatient to teach what they have not grasped, and full of presumption to govern others while they know not how to govern themselves.”
It reminded me of the part of the speech the flight attendant gives right before the airplane takes off; you know, the part about being sure your oxygen mask is in place before attempting to assist someone else. Pretty good advice. It’s hard to assist someone else if you’re passing out from oxygen deprivation!
Choose your analogy; the branch that doesn’t stay connected to the vine, canal versus reservoir or the airplane passenger trying to assist others while being short of oxygen themselves. The point is that we can’t pour into others without continually and consistently being filled ourselves.
“God, make us reservoirs. Teach us to be before we do, listen before we speak, learn before we teach, and be sure that you are leading us before we attempt to lead others. Amen.”