Good leadership is essential. This is especially true when it comes to leading the church. Without solid leadership, a congregation of people will experience all too painfully the reality of Proverbs 29:18.
For this reason, I’ve been a student of great leaders for many years. An entire section of my personal library is dedicated to the subject, and I don’t just read from the Christian world. The reality of common grace is that I can learn from leaders in the so-called “secular” world also, so my shelves contain works by Peter Drucker, Jack Welch, Rudolph Guiliani and others right alongside John Maxwell, Al Mohler, and Bill Hybels. I can’t remember a significant period of my life in the past 20 years in which more than a month passed without my picking up yet another resource from which I could learn to be a better leader.
Of equal importance is the fact that leadership development is a “do or die” practice in every local church. If you aren’t a solid leader who is raising up other leaders, you are going to fail. And when it comes to Kingdom advance, there should be no option for failure resulting from incompetent leaders. In many ways, the importance of solid leadership is as important as the presence of sound theology. Sound theology is a foundational qualification for pastoral ministry, but sound theology absent of leadership skills results in knowledge wasted on one’s self and an orthodox church immobilized by its own leaders.
Have I mentioned yet that I think solid leadership is essential?
So with this high view of leadership clearly in view, I want to confront a Satanic lie that has left too many good leaders paralyzed. I’ve heard this lie for the same amount of time I’ve been studying leadership. I’ve heard this lie at denominational gatherings, repeated by well-meaning men and women. And if I think hard enough, I can probably recall a time in the distant past when I have repeated this lie myself. That’s because—like most lies—it just sounds so good. Believing it simplifies the diagnoses of problems in any church or organization. That lie sounds like this:
“Everything rises and falls on leadership.”
I have witnessed this lie do great damage to many solid leaders. As someone who for years worked to mobilized leaders for church planting, I’ve heard this lie repeated most often in those contexts. We rightly assessed church planters for the requisite leadership skills. If they “passed” assessment, we deployed them, and, if the church planting effort failed, we often placed the blame squarely on the leader we ourselves affirmed.
Likewise, whether it’s in the halls of convention meetings or a church business meeting, I’ve witnessed churches in decline who burn through pastor after pastor, because in their view, “We just can’t find the right leader.” Like a Taylor Swift song, every relationship has turned sour, and no one has had the temerity to tell the church: “Maybe the problem is you.” Instead, we again say that it must be a leadership issue.
You smell something fishy in all of this? I do! And at the root of it all is this lie that continues to be repeated: “Everything rises and falls on leadership.”
Folks, it’s simply not true!
The fact is that good leaders—even great leaders—fail.
Even though it was twelve years ago, I still remember during my time as a denominational worker the first church plant I ever shut down. I remember meeting the planter over a four-hour lunch. I remember the bitter tears. I remember working with him to re-locate the remaining families into other churches. I remember hearing him in exasperation asking “Where did I go wrong?” I remember thinking with him about how he would now support his family. And I remember thinking to myself, “We assessed this guy, and told him he had the leadership skills to do this successfully.” And I remember being enraged the next week when the whole failure was summarily dismissed as “a leadership issue with the planter.”
I remember sitting with a pastor about to resign. Roughly ten years my senior, he already had a respectable track record in ministry, but the previous four years had been very hard on him. Though far from perfect, his attempts to lead could have been drawn out of any seminary textbook on the subject. He was solid, patient, loving, clear, and also a rather compelling visionary. But that vision was never realized.
If you are a pastor or church planter reading these words whose similar pain has ever been blithely dismissed as a “leadership issue,” you’ve been listening to a lie for far too long!
I don’t deny that many failures can be credited to a deficiency in leadership, but those who are always quick to point out the failure at this level sometimes forget that it takes more than a “great man” to build a great church. As evidence, we need only take a brief look at the life of the Old Testament leader Moses.
The time is just before the wilderness wandering. The place is Kadesh, and Moses has just sent out twelve spies in order to plot out the best way to take the land God had promised His people. Ten of the twelve return with “doomsday” predictions about their chances. (Apparently, they had forgotten that their objective was to report on the “status” of the enemy, not give their opinion of whether they should do what God had already commanded.)
Joshua and Caleb—the two remaining spies—are ready to obey. Unfortunately, the people of Israel side with the pessimists and God’s people spend the next four decades wandering and dying!
Without a doubt, this is one of the most colossal “failures” in the history of any nation. The question is, was this a “leadership issue?” Perhaps Moses should have spent more time discovering how to “develop the leaders around him.”
Or, just perhaps, this was a “truth” issue. Just maybe, Moses really was God’s man, whom God’s people simply rejected. Many church growth experts wouldn’t have been pleased at all with this kind of turnout, but in recounting his life, the writer of Hebrews certainly seems to think Moses a “great leader” (Hebrews 11:23-30).
Everything does not “rise and fall” on leadership. Everything rises and falls on the Word of God. Effective, godly, skilled leaders are desperately needed, and Kingdom work cannot happen without such individuals. But such individuals are not a magic pill that cures all that is wrong with the church. This realization will guard our hearts from bowing to the idol of personality, and empower us to under-gird the right leadership with all that is essential to grow God’s kingdom. Perhaps this realization will also set some people free!
So, let’s study leadership and develop ourselves as leaders. Let’s raise up other leaders around us. It is essential. But we cannot measure the value of our leadership by whether our work is marked by a string of successes.
I might fail. You might fail. You might have to shepherd God’s people through depressing times of their own making. Moses did, too. Stop believing the leadership lie. Set yourself free to serve the Lord no matter the results.