I only had a year as a new Christian before I got recruited into leadership. It was against my will. There was no one else to lead the Christian fellowship on campus through which I had first truly understood the gospel, and the alternative was to disband it. How could I say no? By the grace of God, it prospered. I think I can honestly say that I have entered in fear and trembling into almost every leadership position I have held since then. When I told my Dad I felt called into full-time ministry, he quoted Jesus’ words, “Be wise as a serpent and innocent as a dove.” Though (just as well) I didn’t really understand what he was saying at the time, it turned out to be probably the best leadership advice I ever had.
So I am a reluctant leader. Can I suggest you should never trust someone who isn’t? Think about that for a minute and you’ll get it.
In defence of leaders, let me first say this. Leaders who try to walk in the way of the cross (and most do) pay a price few people ever know. In our case, they never knew how our two year old daughter was thrown by the son of a church member down a flight of steps onto a concrete floor. They never knew how children of a church leader stole Elaine’s engagement ring, and the parents (who knew) never apologized when it came to light. They never knew how we were verbally threatened with homelessness by a well to do businessman and leader in the church who promised us financing, arranged the purchase of our first house and profited from it, then withdrew the financing after we had signed the papers when his wife’s demands concerning the church were not met, telling us we and our baby daughter would be left on the streets.
God rescued us from all these situations, and they are now all thankfully in the very distant past. Looking back, I don’t know how we survived those days. The answer must lie in the faithfulness of God.
I realize there were also times I acted like Solomon’s son Rehoboam, who took the unwise advice of his young friends to be heavy-handed rather than open-hearted. Sometimes I did this in self-defence, sometimes in insecurity, sometimes in simple lack of understanding. Where I felt I caused hurt through my own actions, I have tried to ask forgiveness. Leaders who leave in their wake a long string of aggrieved ex-followers are a poor example of what Christ called them to be.
When you’ve been hurt by leaders or a leadership, the first thing to do is ask yourself this question: did you contribute to the problem by putting the leader on a pedestal or expecting of them something they could not or should not give? Were you looking to them for the care, praise, recognition or position that can only come from God? To that extent, you need to take responsibility for your own poor judgement. It’s a trap I have fallen into myself.
All that being said, here are some practical steps we can take to avoid falling under dysfunctional or harmful leadership. Sadly, some of the following scenarios may be all too familiar to you. If that is the case, don’t blame yourself for the failure of the relationship. Be glad you got out of it.
1. Avoid leaders who have more of a position in church than they do in God. A true leader does not need a human position of any sort to exercise genuine spiritual influence. For them, position is incidental, not primary. They can live with or without it. People who need or campaign for position, or people who consciously use position or titles, even Biblical titles, in order to place themselves over others are not to be trusted.
2. Follow leaders who truly have a servant heart. You can only exercise as much authority as you are submitted to. Never follow a leader who demands submission while not walking in it. A leader truly submitted to God is the best servant of those he leads. Leadership is not a stepping stone to personal or ecclesiastical success. It is a footstool on which to sit to wash the feet of those we lead.
3. Never follow an insecure leader. They are always trying to be something they are not. Never follow a leader who talks incessantly about who they are, but whom you have never heard articulate equally clearly what they are not. Insecurity is one of the greatest curses of leadership. An insecure person uses human means to gain a position only God can rightfully give. An insecure leader is surrounded by weak people who will not stand up for their own convictions if it means confronting the leader. Politics surrounds insecure leaders. They damage the church and bring harm to God’s people.
If you have been hurt, disappointed and broken by a bad experience with leaders, here is a piece of advice straight from my heart and from the very real battles I have gone through when I felt hurt and betrayed by leadership over me: Your bitterness will cause you more harm than any leader ever did. You need to forgive. People often fail to forgive because they do not understand the nature of forgiveness. Forgiveness is not paving over the wrong or pretending it never happened. Forgiveness acknowledges the wrong. It acknowledges that God is more angry about the wrong than you are, because it is a violation of his law. But forgiveness assigns to God alone the right to judge.
Hand over your bitterness to God. A person reaps what they have sown. My experience over forty years has taught me that leaders who consistently handle people wrongly are eventually dealt with by God himself.
David was terribly mistreated by Saul, but he would not take the role of judgment upon himself. There are too many Sauls in places of leadership in the body of Christ. Can I implore you to follow David’s example, and let the Lord himself deal with them? Otherwise you are only fighting fire with more fire. You may justify your actions to yourself, but they do not impress the God who allowed his own Son to be nailed to the cross for your sin.
And here’s my last word. Even if you have been let down, you can use the experience to push yourself into deeper dependence on the one Leader who will never fail you.
Keep your eyes on him. He’s still in charge of his church.