In recent decades, there has been an influx of leadership journals, websites, blog posts, videos, etc. in which those whose churches have thrived numerically or programmatically offer help for measurable success to those ministering in mediocrity. Some of these resources are full of helpful counsel. As a younger pastor, I certainly longed to grow in my ability to lead the church that God has called me to plant and pastor with wisdom and skill. There are many upsides to a pastor giving himself to a diligent study of the leadership methods and approaches of those who have excelled in leading a congregation with skillfulness; but, there are also quite a number of downsides that come along with the benefits.
There is a verse at the very end of Psalm 78 (a Messianic Psalm in which David–as a precursor and type of King Jesus–is praised for being the chosen King of Israel) that speaks to the importance of skillful leadership in the church. The Psalmist summed up David’s leadership in the following manner: “David shepherded [Israel] with integrity of heart; with skillful hands he led them” (Ps. 78:72). A minister needs to have both an upright heart and a skillful hand. Both aspects are necessary for a pastor to do what God has called him to do to the best of his ability in the church. If a minister only has an upright heart, he might lead quite poorly and yet justify why he does not need to learn leadership principles. Many have done so by saying such things as, “Godliness and faithfulness are the only things that matter in ministry.” While on the other hand, if a minister is only skillful in leadership but does not an upright heart, he will almost certainly compromise for growth and will be unprincipled in his life toward those around him. Many who fit this bill seek to justify their actions by saying things like, “The results don’t lie! Look at all that we’ve accomplished.” We want to guard against falling into either ditch. We need upright hearts and we need skillful hands to lead God’s people.
Benefits of Learning Leadership Principles
The surest leadership principles are those found in the book of Proverbs. These divinely inspired maxims are covenantal principles for godly living, as well as for godly leadership. When I was a boy, my dad would often pray that the Lord would “make us wise beyond our years.” For decades, I failed to understand the importance of that request. Only in recent years have I begun to seek the Lord for the same thing as that for which my dad so often prayed. There is a reason why the Scriptures have so much to say about wisdom. In fact, the greatest teaching about wisdom is found in the 10 father-to-son talks in the book of Proverbs. In the first of those talks, the father says to his son:
Get wisdom! Get understanding!
Do not forget, nor turn away from the words of my mouth.
Do not forsake her, and she will preserve you;
Love her, and she will keep you.
Wisdom is the principal thing;
Therefore get wisdom.
And in all your getting, get understanding.
Exalt her, and she will promote you;
She will bring you honor, when you embrace her.
She will place on your head an ornament of grace;
A crown of glory she will deliver to you” (Prov. 4:5-9).
While the wisdom of the Proverbs must be understood in light of Christ (who is Himself the very wisdom of God), and the Gospel of God’s grace, they are nevertheless very practical and tangible expressions of godly living and skillful living and leadership. Many of the Proverbs are devoted to the issue of how the king is to rule righteously and wisely (Prov. 8:15; 14:28, 35; 16:10; 12-15; 19:12; 20:2, 8, 26, 28: 21:1; 22:11; 29; 25:3, 5: 29:4, 14; 30:3, 4). For instance, in Proverbs 8:15, we discover that it is by the wisdom of God that “kings rule.” This should come as no surprise to us since the man who wrote the majority of the Proverbs was himself King of Israel and the wisest man–our Lord excepted–to ever live. There is much for us to glean in the way of leadership principles from the Proverbs–as well as from the totality of God’s word.
There is also much to be said about having wise counsel. It is that well-known Proverb that instructs us accordingly. In Proverbs 15:22, we read: “Without counsel, plans go awry, but in the multitude of counselors they are established.” Surely this is speaking about the multitude of God’s counsel laid out in the books of the Bible; but, it is also speaking about seeking out counsel from others who are older and wiser than we are. There is something seemingly invaluable about having a number of mentors who have chartered the waters of ministry before us. There are things learned from many years of ministry and experience that could never be learned by merely reading Scripture, theology and literature. It is true that by a diligent and prayerful application to God’s word, we will be able to say with the Psalmist, “I have more understanding than my teachers, for Your testimonies are my meditation” (Ps. 119:99). But there are those situations that we have yet to face–spiritual warfare that we have yet to experience–by which we are in serious need of godly and wise counsel. This is one of the benefits of seeking out leadership principles. It is learning to lead with skill from those who have gone before us and done so themselves. Learning leadership principles can help us make less mistakes in ministry.
Drawbacks of Learning Leadership Principles
There are, however, downsides to a pastor spending an inordinate amount of time reading leadership journals or websites–or to visiting leadership conferences and seeking leadership coaching. One such downside is that we can start to think that if we just search hard enough–if we just spend enough time learning principles–we will have exactly what is needed to thrive. Nearly a decade of ministry has taught me that there is no silver bullet in leadership. Most young pastors are looking for the golden ticket to help them achieve success (at a human level). Often, the reverse is the case. The more many young pastors seek to implement what has “worked” for other pastors, the more they find themselves frustrated. “If it worked for so and so, why isn’t it working for us?” ends up being the oft-repeated question. The answer is, of course, found in Ecclesiastes 9:11–“The race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, but time and chance happen to all of them.” Pastors would do well to inscribe this truth on their minds and hearts.
The other downside to learning leadership principles is that they can work. You heard that right…they work! While, on the one hand, we acknowledge that leadership principles don’t always work–and often leave young pastors frustrated about their inefficiency–on the other hand, we acknowledge that many leadership principles can and do enable men to achieve goals and see tangible progress. That is something that should give any godly minister pause. There is something that you can do–apart from the sovereign working of the Holy Spirit–that can produce results. Trusting in leadership principles can be one of the greatest snares in ministry. What a sad thing to see gifted men give the better part of their time and energy to running their churches like CEOs of major corporations rather than shepherding the flock like the Savior.
Yet another downside to embracing worldly or secular leadership principles is that we are ever in danger of becoming like the world. In his outstanding book, The Leadership Dynamic, Harry Reeder explains:
The leadership model that is infecting the church today–with disastrous results–is a product of contemporary capitalism, which is a greed-based, wealth-consuming mutation that has replaced the historically Christian-influenced system of capitalism upon which the world was blessed. Today’s self-promoting, infected corporate leadership is a deadly potion that countless churches are drinking as they thoughtlessly imbibe the contemporary corporate leadership models of our day.1
To put it another way, many of the secular and corporate leadership principles that pastors are imbibing are those that seek for self-promotion, self-indulgence and self-centeredness. They are not principles that reveal that we and our churches are “seeking first the Kingdom of God and His righteousness.” They do not help promote the selfless love of Christ that only the Gospel can produce. They call for bigger, faster, stronger churches that put down the little guy. They are not biblically shaped models of what the church is supposed to look like the world. As Reeder rightly notes, “Genuine effective leadership must be learned from God’s word, developed through disciple making, nurtured in God’s church and then transported into the world.”
As we seek to grow in our ability to lead, we must always remember that there a downsides to leadership principles. We must always ask ourselves the hard questions: “Who is giving these principles and what is being modeled in their life?” “What are the motives of my heart in seeking to learn these principles?” “Am I trusting the Lord to grow His church by His means, or am I trusting in principles and worldly means for the growth of His church and Kingdom?” At the end of the day, we must remember those all important words of Zechariah, “‘Not by might, nor by power, but by My Spirit,’ says the Lord of Host” (Zech. 4:6).
1. Harry Reeder The Leadership Dynamic: A Biblical Model for Raising Effective Leaders (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2008) pp. 11-12