Lessons from the long haul

Recently the following personal questions were put to me about leadership. Here are my answers.

  1. 1. In your many years in ministry what one thing or one area of ministry has given you the

most joy?

God has been good to me and there are many things that have given me joy so it’s hard to choose. I think that to be a part of people coming to faith in Christ and then seeing them grow, persevere and stay in the race is a great joy. Recently I attended a reunion of a youth group I led when I was in training. A significant number of people came to Christ in that time. The people are now all in their 60,s and here they were still active Christians, involved in their churches, many of them in positions of lay leadership and some in ordained ministry. That was a joy! I think the area of ministry that has been most rewarding is my involvement in leadership training and development. When you help to develop a Christian leader you become part of a multiplying effect in the bigger picture of the Kingdom of God because leaders influence many others.

  1. 2. What season of ministry was the most stressful?

Well there are plenty to choose from to answer this question! At a personal and family level it would be the period when I was leading and building up a local congregation in a significant growth phase and my three children were at a critical age of late primary and early teens. I was very busy with a lot of balls in the air and the ministry was in a very stimulating phase. But I realised that I had to spend more time with my family and especially my three boys. The demands of the job were relentless and the opportunities were many and exciting. But I remember feeling very strongly one day that God was saying – “You might rescue a lot of other people but lose your own children if you don’t get some balance into your life”. I made a decision to significantly restructure my timetable and spend more time with my kids. It was one of my best decisions.

At a ministry level one of the most stressful times was during the charismatic renewal in the 80’s when many mainstream churches were affected by the movement. There were many positive things that came out of that time. It was exciting and unpredictable and we saw God do some great things in people’s lives. There was a great desire among people to discover their gifts and use them .Worship had a new energy and focus on God.  People had a much greater expectancy of what the Spirit of God would do. But along with this came significant tensions for leaders. It was a challenge to keep a healthy balance between those who wanted to see more and more freedom and those who became concerned about excesses. Many needy people flooded into the church looking for help. Moderating people’s expression of the gifts of the Spirit required great wisdom. Trying to be inclusive without people dropping off either end was challenging. Finding, and then standing by, a theological position that was Biblical, balanced, healthy and inclusive was a difficult and stressful task.

3. Can you remember a lesson you learnt from an unusual source? What was it and how did it affect you?

Captain Ahab, the very flawed but charismatic central character in Herman Melville’s great book “Moby Dick” was an unexpected source of leadership insight. Ahab is the Captain of a whaling ship who becomes obsessed with catching a particular whale, Moby Dick. In spite of being a skilled sailor his obsession and unbalanced passion eventually leads him and his crew to disaster. There is a key scene where the whale evades him yet again and in his rage and frustration he smashes his sextant on the deck, his main navigational tool. They are in the middle of the pacific and the crew realise they now have no reliable way to navigate home; their faith in Ahab begins to leak away.

The relationship between a leader and their people that makes positive, healthy and constructive ministry possible is a delicate unwritten contract that is based on trust, once that trust is broken or seriously weakened it is hard to restore. Sometimes it is broken by the leader making a major error of judgement that they refused to accept advice on, or by becoming so angry publicly when their ideas are frustrated that they say things that are difficult to take back. It’s like smashing your sextant!

I consulted once to a church where this trust had broken down not by anything immoral but by the leader being so obsessed with his vision that he could not accept any significant modification to it. In a fit of anger he then issued his lay leaders with an ultimatum – agree to it or I go?  He would not back down and so they accepted his resignation! It was his Captain Ahab moment.  It was a tragedy because his vision was actually good and he was a talented person, he was just pushing too hard and too fast and without enough consultation. It took the church some time to recover and several years before he could engage in ministry again.

Strong conviction about vision is Ok as long as it is presented in a way that is not absolute and allows other people have a real opportunity to contribute to and modify the vision. Leadership ultimatums are dangerous! They are usually driven by emotion not wisdom. It is also dangerous to present visions as a clear non – negotiable message from God to the leader. This can degenerate into spiritual blackmail. How do lay leaders disagree with God! Any vision must be presented in a way that leaves it open to be enriched, modified or challenged by others. Exclusive leader visions contradict the NT teaching of the Body of Christ and the operation of the Spirit in all members. Churches that are stuck or in decline are well advised to listen to a new leader and a fresh view of their ministry but not in a way that excludes their input.

  1. 4. What do you wish you had known earlier in your ministry?

How to focus my time strategically on the right people and the right tasks, and how to balance my time and energy between working IN ministry and working ON ministry.

Working strategically and working ON is to keep regularly asking yourself the following kinds of questions: “How can I/we equip, release and multiply people who can multiply ministry?”  “How can we multiply and train leaders?” “Does this work towards our main goals?” “Is the vision clear and how can we get more people to own it?” “What are the barriers to our growth?”  “What are the key things we need to do next to move forward?” etc.  Working ON is planning, designing, conceiving structures and organisations that enable others to serve. It is spending time listening to God about how you should move forwards.

Working IN ministry is chairing meetings, seeing people who are sick, preparing sermons, planning services, attending to administration, answering emails, counselling, listening to people’s concerns , etc, etc. You have to spend significant time doing these tasks, but if they consume all your time and energy you will not be able to lead effectively.

There are always more demands than you can meet and the immediate tasks are always pressing. This tends to push the leader towards a reactive rather than a proactive stance. The phone rings, the email arrives, the needy person wants to see you now, this task must be done by tomorrow, people with high needs absorb your time and sap your energy, etc.

So the challenge is to plan and manage your time so you have a balance between IN and ON and time to think and act strategically.

Think about it like this: You may be very good at pastoral counselling and be able to carry a significant load but if you’re the only one who does it then once you have reached your limit and  no more will be done! The only way to get more done is to train and release other people to do it also. That will mean you will have to say no to some individuals so you can give time to train others, you will have to reorganise your priorities and your time. If you do not become proactive about your time and focus you will be the prisoner of everyone else’s demands and you will unintentionally hold the growth back.

  1. 5. What charge do you pass on to the younger generation of leaders?

Keep your passion alive for ministry and the Gospel. To do that you need to attend to 11 things:

  1. Your relationship with God.
  2. Your personal disciplines both spiritual and practical, e.g.; prayer and time use.
  3. Be organised and plan ahead. Keep and adhere to your diary, keep control of your life.
  4. Attend to your relationship with your spouse and children if you are married.
  5. Keep growing, thinking, reading and learning.
  6. Keep balance in your life, maintain other interests, rest and recreate.
  7. Continue the mentor principle throughout your life.
  8. Keep renewing your spiritual life.
  9. Maintain personal integrity – deal with your weaknesses, live what you preach.
  10. Don’t sail too close to the shore, be wise but be adventurous.
  11. Keep your sense of humour.

Peter Corney.