Jesus calls us to not lead as the world does. To not see greatness as the world does. To not use authority as the world does (see, for example, Matthew 20:20-28). To be a leader in His movement is nothing like being a leader in the world. It is so radically different, people. And, to be honest, it can feel a bit disorienting and challenging, and downright threatening, as we attempt to follow Him in leading His people.
We can engage in the kind of risky and counter-cultural leadership Jesus calls us to because of the gospel. And only because of the gospel. The gospel, simply put, is what Jesus has done for us. More on that in a minute.
We need to honestly evaluate why we lead, and see how the needs and desires that often motivate us are actually designed to be met through the gospel, completely apart from us having any leadership position or authority. This will free us to lead in the way that Jesus intends. When we lead in order to fulfill our own basic needs and desires, we muddy the pure springs of water which give life to our service. We sabotage the very thing we are trying to build.
When I returned from Africa in 2005, and could no longer call myself a missionary, I felt lost. I didn't know who I was. I had relied on that identity to feel a sense of personal worth and purpose, to gain affirmation and acceptance, and even to boost my confidence in God's approval of me. I entered a dark emotional time, as I struggled with a sense of loss and lack of value. Yet, if I had been more accustomed to seeing through a gospel lens, this would not have been so painful. I thought I had learned these lessons during previous times of testing, but clearly I had a long way to go. I desperately wanted a new position of ministry in order to provide the self-esteem and the recognition I craved. This kind of pain is inevitable when we view leadership from any perspective other than the one offered in the gospel.
One of the most powerful leadership issues we face has to do with our identity. We so often tie our identity and self-esteem to our positions of leadership, and the outcomes are truly disastrous. Consider the following fruits of identity-based leadership:
For one, you can serve others on your own terms, but you cannot be a servant, although that is clearly what Jesus demands (Matt 20:26-27). You are afraid to lower yourself too much. You fear what it would do to your already fragile self-esteem. If you become a servant to other people, you may actually begin to feel inferior. Less than. Not as valuable. It doesn't seem worth it.
Another outcome is that you find yourself sliding into the trap of being focused on "success," rather than on obedience and loving people. This is the biggest temptation I am facing right now regarding gospel leadership -- and have been for the past several years. I am gaining ground I think, but it's been a slug-fest. I desperately want the boiler room to succeed, in order to validate myself. I am susceptible to the lie that my worth is directly tied to the success of the boiler room. If it does well -- proved with clear evidence that can be seen by me and others -- I feel valuable. Important. But if it doesn't... I can't even tell you. The very thought causes me to shudder. If it fails, I will be a failure, and finally proven to be the useless nothing I've always suspected myself to be.
Being success-driven is exhausting. It is also costly in relationships. In fact, that's one of the first signs to me that I've been failing in this fight -- when I find myself more and more frustrated by those I lead and lead with. When I am more concerned about their performance than about them. By the time I reach that point, I am not even close to serving and loving... I am attempting to manipulate people to serve my vision of success. Ouch.
When your identity is tied to your ministry, or leadership, or achievements, you are emotionally unstable. You feel great when you think you're doing well, or have achieved some milestone or been given a "prestigious" position. But when you don't have the position or success you want, you are deeply discouraged, and sometimes even depressed.
Another sad result is that you begin to get competitive in ministry. You compare yourself with others -- feeling good when you compare well, but discouraged when you sense others are doing better, achieving more, or getting promoted ahead of you. Thus, instead of seeing others as part of the same body working together for the glory of Jesus, you can come to the place of almost being opposed to your brothers and sisters in Christ, unable to celebrate their successes. In some cases you may even take wicked delight in their failures.
Finally, you begin to value others based on their position and success. You ascribe more worth to people with more prestigious titles, "higher" positions, and more recognizable success. In contrast, you devalue those you deem to be "lower" than you. Frankly, this is hideous. When we see such an attitude creeping into our hearts, it should cause us to take note, and do whatever we need to in order to find and destroy the root of this perversion.
Not a pretty picture, friends! How can we get out of this mess? So glad you asked. The Gospel!! For real. Remember, the gospel is what Jesus has done for you. And one of the beautiful and amazing things that He has done is given you -- yes, given you -- a new identity. And this identity is far more prestigious, far more valuable, far more exalted than the ones you desperately try to scrape together for yourself.
What does the gospel say about your identity and self-esteem? Because Jesus lived a perfect life, and died for you on the cross, everything is different. He gave you a new identity when you put your faith in Him. You are a son of God; chosen, adopted, and deeply loved. That is your identity. It's who you are -- when you have a leadership position and when you do not. In fact, I am convinced that leader, elder, prophet, missionary, pastor, whatever... are disturbingly unimpressive identities to God. When you are one of those things, He does not see you any differently than He did when you first believed. He has provided for you a much more lasting and significant identity. The tragedy is that in order to grab hold of that which is lesser, seeing yourself primarily as a pastor or missionary or leader, you have to let go of the identity He has given you. Why would you want to do that? He calls you beloved son! Beloved daughter! And all because of what Jesus has done. He has paid the price for your adoption. You could never achieve something like this. Never. As long as you're looking through the gospel lens, you won't worry about titles or identity or anything like that.
What about self-esteem? Doesn't God want you to feel good about yourself? Well, sort of, yes. But what we have to remember is that apart from Jesus, there is really nothing to feel good about. But in Him! Oh, it's so different! Jesus lived a perfect life. That's what the gospel says. And He did so not only as an example for you, but He did so on your behalf. You are credited with His rightness! You don't need to have a position in order to think highly of yourself; You need to just remember that you are in Him. In fact, once again, if you are using your position as a prop to help you think well of yourself, you are missing out. Positions can come and go. You can be promoted, demoted, or forgotten. You will always notice that someone else has a better one. But you are still in Christ. All His rightness is still credited to you. The Spirit that enabled Him to live well is in you.