August 2009


2 Don’t copy the behavior and customs of this world, but let God transform you into a new person by changing the way you think. Then you will learn to know God’s will for you, which is good and pleasing and perfect.

This verse has been covered in relation to the Church engaging culture, so I’m not going to go there today. Instead, I want to focus on what it says to leaders — more of a personal application. I want to hit two areas of conformity that I think a lot of leaders struggle with, particularly those working in ministry.

It’s very easy for churches and non-profit ministries to embrace secular management and business philosophies. Don’t get me wrong; there’s a lot of good, helpful advice that can be applied to our settings. I remember hearing Jim Collins describe his astonishment at how many non-profit leaders were reading his books. He cautioned “social sector” leaders to discriminate, noting that non-profits shouldn’t necessarily embrace business practices. Just because businesses do it doesn’t make it worth copying, because most businesses are average at best. Instead, he noted that the same principles that make a business great can make a non-profit great. Copy the greatness principles, he urged.

Too many ministry leaders spend time reading the latest leadership techniques when greatness is found in more ancient texts. The Bible’s principles are still applicable today. I remember Dave Ramsey noting one time, “Who knew you could make so much money teaching people what the Bible says?” He’s not the only guru making money repackaging biblical concepts. Consider Collins’ Level 5 leader idea. Humility and a deep passion for the work are not new ideas.

The second thing leaders struggle with is the desire for easy success. A simple way to do that is to see what works for others in ministry — Bill Hybels, Rick Warren, Mark Driscoll, you name it — and copy that in your context. By now, you know that I think leadership is contextual. I’m sorry, but there are only so many of Hybels’ strategies that work in my church of 350. Different scale, different world. I think a desire to copy the behavior of others — be it the world or even other ministries — comes down to laziness.

Instead, Paul calls leaders to transformation built around an experience with God. God’s will for me is personal, and it involves my mind and will. God has gifted me differently than any other leader, and he has a plan for my ministry and my part in my ministry. When I’m transformed by God’s work in me, I don’t look to others as a measure of my success, but work for an audience of One. I don’t measure myself by the expectations and requirements of others. And I don’t look at what God is doing in others’ ministry, but I look at my context and my situation.

When I’m transformed, I can freely exercise my leadership gifts and do my thing where God has called me, in my context.

Interesting article in Mission Network News about Patrick Forrester, one of the astronauts going up in the space shuttle today. Apparently going to the space station is just a job. You want an example of healthy ambition? An excerpt from the article:

Forrester, who will be making his third shuttle flight, has logged more than 4,500 hours in more than 50 different aircraft and has been with NASA 16 years. In addition to his time at NASA, he spent over 26 years as an Army aviator. Yet his dream has been to assist with the high calling of missionary aviation.

“I’ve always had a heart for missions,” Forrester said. “When I visualize what I might do after I end my career at NASA, always in the back of my mind is going into the mission field in some way. If I could go tomorrow and be a pilot with an organization like MAF, I think that’s what I’d do.”

I want to go one step further with the topic of ambition. It’s easy to link to someone else’s blog and take no risk with my own thoughts about ambition. I want to explore a few verses on the subject, asking two questions. One, is ambition the opposite of humility, as some seem to suggest? And two, what does healthy ambition look like?

First, let’s look at the Bible, starting with 1 Timothy 3:1.

This is a trustworthy saying: “If someone aspires to be an elder, he desires an honorable position.”

In the next couple of verses and in Titus 1, Paul lays out a string of traits needed in an elder, such as faithfulness, self-control and gentleness — elements related to humility. In verse 6, Paul lists a concern that new believers who become elders might become proud and get tripped up. So, I take from these verses that it’s okay to aspire to be an elder, but in a way that does not lead to pride.

In Good to Great, Jim Collins described the ideal CEO as a “Level 5 Leader,” the marks of which are “a paradoxical blend of personal humility and professional will,” best expressed as an ambition for the company. So, humility does not necessarily exclude ambition. What’s the difference between this kind of ambition and the version the Bible condemns? It’s the focus of the ambition.

Let’s look back at the verses in my last post on the subject. 1 Thessalonians 4:11,12 describes an ambition to live a quiet hard-working life. Why? On first glance, his reasons seem shaky. First, to win the respect of outsiders. Well, respect can be dangerous if it’s means recognition, acclaim or popularity. But Paul’s goal is to win over outsiders to the cause of Christ. He’s always focused. Second, to not be dependent on anybody. Independence can be dangerous when paired with ambition. Independence usually doesn’t align with Christianity very well. But we know from other contexts that Paul had a desire to avoid asking those he was trying to reach to pay his salary; he wanted to fund his own ministry while he worked among them. So Paul is saying in this verse that his audience should aspire to do whatever it takes to avoid any offense to the cause of Christ.

Romans 15:20 describes an ambition to “preach the gospel where Christ was not known.” Sounds to me like Paul had a healthy, Level 5 ambition to expand Christ’s kingdom. I don’t think there’s any question that Paul had humility and stubborn will. But the last part of that verse shows some of Paul’s heart: “so that I would not be building on anyone else’s foundation.” Do you see the edge in that phrase? I would think Paul opened himself for criticism for his desire to be first or to go it alone. On the other hand, I think God has given ambition to certain people to be trailblazers and entrepreneurs. Without Paul’s gift, the Church wouldn’t have expanded as quickly as it did in the first century.

So here’s my theory. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with ambition, if it’s directed correctly. There’s nothing wrong with a desire to do something great. There’s nothing wrong with a desire to be a trailblazer. And there’s nothing wrong with aspiring to greater influence. The question is motivation. If your ambition is directed toward yourself — to be great, to be known for trailblazing, to get a name for yourself, to have greater power — then you’re setting yourself up against God. That didn’t work out so well for those in Babel or for their descendant Nebuchadnezzar. But I think God has gifted people with ambition in His service. And those people can accomplish amazing things as they apply their gifts, their stubborn willpower, their strategic minds, and yes, their humility, to the cause of Christ.

Let me close with a personal story. When I was asked to be an elder at my local church a number of years ago, I questioned whether I should pursue it. One day I heard my pastor read 1 Timothy 3:1. I’d never noticed that verse before. You mean it wasn’t sinful to desire to be an elder? I’d wanted to be an elder for some time, because I thought God had gifted me with some of the qualities that make a good elder. It was the character traits that humbled me; it’s quite a list to measure up to. I noted in my journal that I asked myself a question from Steve Sample’s The Contrarian’s Guide to Leadership. Was I willing to “do” elder, or did I just want to “be” elder? Once I settled my motivations, I believe my ambition for that position met the demands of Scripture.

I still struggle to meet the qualifications, and I still struggle to do the work, but it’s my ambition to help expand the kingdom of Christ through this local church. And it’s my ambition to see Bible translation begun in every language that needs it in this generation. I think it’s my life’s work.

Ambition. It’s the ugly side of leadership development, that do-whatever-it-takes, ends-justify-the-means drive that leads young people to elbow and claw their way to the top. It’s condemned consistently in the Bible with verses such as Galatians 5:19-20:

The acts of the sinful nature are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like. I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God.

So, root out that nasty sin and be content where you are. Right?

Is that the sum total of what the Bible has to say about ambition? You’d think so if you relied on sermons and commentaries. I don’t want to minimize the fact that there is clearly a dangerous trap for young leaders in the area of selfish ambition.

However, what do you do with verses like Romans 15:20?

It has always been my ambition to preach the gospel where Christ was not known, so that I would not be building on someone else’s foundation.

Or 1 Thessalonians 4:11,12?

Make it your ambition to lead a quiet life, to mind your own business and to work with your hands, just as we told you, so that your daily life may win the respect of outsiders and so that you will not be dependent on anybody.

Is it really possible to suppress or bury your ambition? Probably no more than attempts to bury your sexual drive. I believe both come from God and can be used for good or evil. There is clearly a godly ambition in these verses. When ambition is condemned in the Bible, English translations almost always insert “selfish” as a modifier.

So, how can ambition be used for good? How can it be redeemed and even nurtured as a character trait God bestows on some people? I was going to blog about it until I found an old Every Square Inch blog series on the subject. Read that one, and then let’s discuss. Here’s a teaser:

In the end, our dreams and ambitions do matter. Rather than dispelling any hint of ambition in our lives, perhaps a more mature view is to receive ambition as a gift from God and to nuture it with godly motivation in place.

I think I was scarred in middle school. I remember a number of youth group lessons on the verses in the Bible comparing us to members of the body. Something about the way it was handled must have scarred me, because I have avoided those verses ever since. I think this blog may be the first time I have seriously meditated on this topic in at least 20 years.

1 And so, dear brothers and sisters, I plead with you to give your bodies to God because of all he has done for you. Let them be a living and holy sacrifice—the kind he will find acceptable. This is truly the way to worship him….

4 Just as our bodies have many parts and each part has a special function, 5 so it is with Christ’s body. We are many parts of one body, and we all belong to each other.

6 In his grace, God has given us different gifts for doing certain things well. So if God has given you the ability to prophesy, speak out with as much faith as God has given you. 7 If your gift is serving others, serve them well. If you are a teacher, teach well. 8 If your gift is to encourage others, be encouraging. If it is giving, give generously. If God has given you leadership ability, take the responsibility seriously. And if you have a gift for showing kindness to others, do it gladly.

As an ENTP, I notice patterns. It’s why I didn’t blog on anything related to any one speaker at Willow Creek, but instead commented on threads I spotted through more than one session. So when I notice the body referred to twice in different references within a couple of verses of each other, I wonder what Paul was shooting for. First, give your own bodies to God as a living sacrifice. Second, the many parts of our bodies resemble the many parts of Christ’s body.

I think the point Paul is making is that in order for a collective to function well, each individual must sacrifice its individuality. As he says in I Corinthians 12, the eye can’t think of itself as greater than the ear because both are needed. And the eye can’t be the entire body, because it would have very limited use as a single function. So the eye must surrender its pride, ambition and individuality in order to make the greater body even greater.

Leaders, remember that our gift is no greater than any other. I don’t think God scattered the gifts randomly, but neither did he bestow certain gifts on those he favored. However, when he chooses someone to be an eye, he expects them to see. There are certain commands given here dependent on the gift. Prophets should speak out, servers should serve well, teachers should teach. You get the point. So leaders should take the responsibility seriously.

Here’s the point. If you’re given the gift, you have a responsibility to be the leader in the body. It’s not special favor. I’m not sure God handed out fewer leadership parts than other parts of the body (e.g. ten fingers, but only one head). And it’s not about “lording it over” people. Rather, it’s about belonging to each other and bringing what we have to share with each other.

Final point. Look at the adverbs: serve well, teach well, show kindness gladly, speak out with faith. So lead with excellence and diligence. Take the responsibility seriously and work to improve your abilities.

Leaders, make your sacrifice. Give yourselves to God and give yourselves to the rest of the body. Lead well.

Brad Lomenick has a recent blog post that scratches an itch I’ve heard and felt before. I remember reading that Steve Sample, chancellor of USC, found huge doors of opportunity opened up to him only after he turned 40. There’s something about age that brings credibility – something that instant-gratification generations like me don’t necessarily want to wait for. Brad explains how to build credibility.

I recently re-read Romans 12 for the first time. You know how that works, right? I swear that chapter wasn’t in my Bible the last time I read it; I think it stopped after verse 2.

If the entire chapter is not about leadership, then at least we can agree that it has a lot to say about leadership. Over the next few months, I’m going to spend some time meditating on its messages for leaders. Let’s start with the more familiar verses.

1 And so, dear brothers and sisters, I plead with you to give your bodies to God because of all he has done for you. Let them be a living and holy sacrifice—the kind he will find acceptable. This is truly the way to worship him….

3 Because of the privilege and authority God has given me, I give each of you this warning: Don’t think you are better than you really are. Be honest in your evaluation of yourselves, measuring yourselves by the faith God has given us….

You can’t study this passage without overlaying Philippians 2: consider others better than yourselves, having the same attitude as Christ, who chose sacrifice and service over ambition. In a sense, Philippians goes one step further than this passage, both in evaluation of yourself — consider others better — and in sacrifice — “Be like Christ.” I hate that one, because it’s so out of reach for most of us.

The unique thing about this reference to sacrifice is that, in the Bible, most sacrifices involve death. When I was growing up, I remember one of my pastors saying that it’s easier to die for Christ than to live for Christ, because dying for him means sucking up all your faith and courage one time… and then it’s over. Living for Christ means making those decisions over and over, and living with the consequences.

Leadership is all about sacrifice. Good leaders put their time, energy, blood, sweat and tears into their role. It’s a life of faith and courage over and over, dealing with the consequences long after a decision was made. The Bible says it’s a life of accountability, where teachers and leaders are held responsible for the way their followers turn out. And many times, it’s a thankless role, drawing criticism from every direction.

Lest you think I’ve lost perspective, let me throw in something Tony Blair said at the Willow Creek Leadership Summit. One day when he had a particularly high number of barbs thrown at him, and they were getting to him, his wife offered these comforting words: “What are you complaining about? It’s a privilege to do the job!” Yes, leadership is a privilege, but it’s also a living sacrifice. I think that’s how Paul felt.

Next Page »