July 2010


Shepherds shouldn’t just be overseeing their flock to look for threats. They should be looking within. In Acts 20, Paul says to “Be on guard for yourselves and for all the flock… I know that after my departure savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves men will arise… Therefore be on the alert.”

This is one of the more scary warnings in Scripture. After all, if we can’t trust ourselves, who can we trust? Am I really capable of becoming the biggest danger to my flock? If so, what should I be alert for? Here are a few questions for self evaluation:

First, what is my motivation for ministry and leadership? Jesus warned against “hired hands” who don’t care for the sheep like the Good Shepherd does. Seasonal workers who are disinclined to sacrifice too much for their flocks are a danger to the flock. Am I just doing a job, or am I fully vested?

Second, how am I using leadership for my own benefit? Ezekiel 34 offers a stark contrast between the self-serving leaders of Israel and the Good Shepherd. God warns these shepherds who have abandoned the flock, taken advantage of them for personal gain, and ignored or mistreated the weak. “I now consider these shepherds my enemies,” he says. There are perks for leadership roles. What is my attitude toward those “trappings”? And do I exist to serve the sheep and their Shepherd, or do they exist to serve me?

Third, what is my relationship with the Owner? In While Shepherds Watch Their Flocks, Timothy Laniak has a chapter dedicated to the issue of lack of trust between shepherds and owners, saying there’s a common belief among herd owners in the Middle East that shepherds will steal or eat their flock if given a chance. When you think about the bonding and loyalty that can develop when shepherd and sheep spend so much time together, betrayal would not be difficult.

When the guard becomes the enemy, the flock is in deep trouble.

The problem is that weariness, entitlement, selfishness and betrayal don’t just happen suddenly. They creep in over time. Laniak offers a couple of concrete examples. False teachers get their start when leaders let their moorings drift from God’s word and begin to allow popular trends or “original ideas” to supplement or replace orthodoxy. Or when leaders lose their nerve to speak against the things they know they need to.

Another foothold is fatique. When I’m too tired, I don’t even notice the roots of a problem. I know what to do when I face a trial. I know what to do when I see division and quarreling. But when I’m weary and right in the middle of it, I don’t recognize the trial or the disunity for what it is, and I react in the flesh.

Laniak nails the fact that no one is immune from an imperceptible shift. It has the ring of truth to it:

Becoming a wolf only takes a combination of skepticism and time.

So, what should leaders do to guard our hearts? Here are some of my personal solutions.

1. When I know what I need to do but don’t have the energy to do it, it’s time for me to move on.

This value is specifically set up to guard myself from internal drift. I got the idea from Andy Stanley at Catalyst a few years ago. It fits with one of my personal goals: to never grow old. As I’ve written before, I subscribe to Douglas MacArthur’s definition of youth: You are as young as your optimism and as old as your fears. When cynicism and weariness take over, it’s time for me to seek a new fountain of youth in a different role or different ministry area — something that will motivate me and purify my motives.

2. Give others permission to “call me” on something.

A few years ago I heard one of the authors of TrueFaced talk about the idea of accountability from a slightly different angle. He urged us to admit our weaknesses and then give permission to our followers, our team or even our kids to “call us” when they see us moving into that area of weakness, hypocrisy or sin. Because of power distance, they aren’t going to do it naturally; they have to be given permission. If we take the steps before something happens to admit we’re capable of becoming a wolf, then we’ll have some critical safeguards enabled if we start to drift.

3. Suspect myself first.

This guideline came from a marriage book I read recently, When Sinners Say I Do. It’s great advice for any interpersonal relationship, and it comes from Jesus’s urging to remove the huge chunk of wood from your own eye before trying to remove a speck from someone else’s. When I find fault with someone, I need to ask myself what my own responsibility is. There is often something I could rectify. But my tendency is to suspect others or my environment first. When I interact with the person by first owning my own fault, the encounter goes a lot better!

That’s really what Laniak is saying here: suspect yourself. “Who can accurately assess the urges prowling in the darkness of our own souls?” David is a prime example. During the time that kings go to war (external threats), he stayed home. And in beginning an affair with Bathsheba, he became the wolf inside the camp. His cry in Psalm 51 and 139 is for God to search him and root out any wicked way. That’s my prayer as well today.

Because the LORD is my Shepherd, I lack nothing. He makes me lie down in green pastures, he leads me beside the ‘waters of rest,’ he restores my soul.

In While Shepherds Watch Their Flocks, Timothy Laniak says the idea of “restoration” in Psalm 23:1 is about returning. David uses the same verb as Jeremiah used to predict Israel’s return from exile. Sure, restoration is about satisfaction, that feeling when your deepest needs are met. It’s about rest, solitude and regeneration. But it’s the idea of returning that sticks with me.

First, returning to a former state. It’s helpful when you’re in the midst of a crazy-busy period to have a marker you can refer to when life was manageable, your days filled with joy and you had a deep satisfaction. For me, the ultimate answer is a place I can never go back to. It’s a world of naive innocence in the first year of my marriage, before the pain of our first miscarriage, when all our relatives seemed healthy, when our friends’ marriages seemed solid and before the economy turned upside down. Life was simpler and the pace more comfortable. Optimism and hope were the prevalent words to describe the year I’m thinking of. I can remember having more time to celebrate, think and enjoy life.

You know how you’re going through life at a frenetic pace and suddenly a smell or a sound takes you back to a moment years in your past? Restoration for me is about catching “throwback” moments when I’m spending time with God in the morning, when I get a chance to jump in on a pickup game of soccer or volleyball or when I participate in the joy of my kids. Those moments are rare, but incredibly rejuvenating. Laniak takes it one step further. He says those moments are about worship.

Worship rises freely from the satisfied hearts of those whose needs are tended to.

Restoration might also be a “return” to something you’ve never experienced — to God’s ideal. As eternal beings, we will one day go to a place that finally satisfies that vague hunger that has plagued us our entire lives. That’s where we’ll finally feel at home… the place we were created for. We may not have ever experienced a great marriage, parents, family life or workplace. But one day we will return home.

So, what does this post have to do with leadership? As followers, we need to remember that our Shepherd is very much concerned about our anxiety, restlessness and frenzied activity. Those things may be part of life for a time, but those aren’t his intention for us. He desires to give us rest and satisfaction, tending to our deepest needs — physical, psychological, intellectual, relational and spiritual. Are we seeking to meet those needs in Christ? Dan Allender says that leaders are more prone to addictions than the average person. Before I lead others, I need to recognize my own neediness and find times to get back to that state where I felt rested and fulfilled.

Find rest, O my soul, in God alone; my hope comes from him. (Psalm 62:5)

Second, as leaders and shepherds, we have a responsibility to mirror the Great Shepherd. How do we lead our staff to rest? Here are some questions from Laniak:

  • How do we assess needs in our places of ministry?
  • Do we really want to know the extent of the needs?
  • What kinds of needs do we seek to meet? Do we only limit ourselves to tangible needs? Or only spiritual needs?

Here’s the question he floored me with: “Do you give your people a chance to rest?” If I’m so busy myself, what kind of inference am I making for my staff? Instead, how do I promote a rhythm of restoration and rejuvenation for myself and those I lead?

Good questions as we head towards the weekend. I hope yours includes a few moments of restoration and rejuvenation.

We know the Bible teaches servant leadership. Right? Ever since Robert Greenleaf gave the idea traction in the business and ministry lexicon — the idea obviously preceded him, though he gave it substance that caught on in our popular culture — it’s come to be synonymous with “biblical leadership.”  My problem is that proponents refer to a limited list of scriptures to prove their point. I’m not arguing that it’s not a good leadership practice, I’m not arguing that it’s not a biblical model, and I’m not arguing that Jesus didn’t practice it. What I’m suggesting is that it’s a simplistic view of Jesus’ leadership style. It’s one of many styles that he used throughout his ministry.

This week in Peru, we’re spending time on the idea of a leader as a shepherd. It’s a powerful metaphor, and I had no idea how many scriptures actually make reference to shepherding. Many of them were easy connections for the reader that have been lost on later, more urban cultures. The observations below and in my next few posts come from While Shepherds Watch Their Flocks, by Timothy Laniak.

In contrast to my assumed beliefs, the idea of watching and overseeing comes from the profession of sheepherder. Overseer has come to mean foreman, the person up the chain who assures the success of a broad project. It also has been tied to the connotations of a bishop, a term that suggests to me a position-driven leadership role. But Laniak says the term comes from shepherds, who spend the majority of their time watching their flocks. What looks to the casual observer as lazy inactivity is rather continuous surveillance, active attention and constant concern.

Shepherds spend their time looking for threats, supplies, disease and anxiety. They gaze in order to inspect, count and intuit. Laniak uses words like perception, insight, instinct and vision to describe the full picture of “oversight.” Simply put, shepherds see what’s not always visible.

There are some great scriptures on the qualities of this role, including Psalm 121, 1 Peter 2:25 and the role of elders in 1 Timothy 3:2. Most of them clearly tie the principle of overseeing with shepherding. I don’t know why I never caught that before. I think I assumed the apostle was using contrasting metaphors when he referred to God as both Shepherd and Overseer of our souls.

So, what’s Laniak’s point? He asks a few questions that I find personally challenging.

  1. Are we carefully watching our flocks or have we made the assumption that they can take care of themselves?
  2. In whatever leadership role you’re in, how much time do you spend on “in the tent” activities versus looking after and over the people in your care?
  3. How good is your vision? Are you able to notice trends in morale, signs of stress, anxiety over change, and woundedness from abuse?

As we consider those we have responsibility for, are we doing the job of a shepherd, attentively watching and seeing what’s not visible?

What is the place of the white American leader? That’s one of the questions I’ve been chewing on for the last two years, and I’ve been bringing it forward to chew on more deliberately here in Peru.

One theory comes from my Dad. As the saying goes, he can’t carry a tune in a bucket. But that doesn’t stop him from singing. His guiding principle is to “Make a joyful noise.” So he sings, and he sings loudly. He models what he wishes every Christian in church would do: sing with gusto the praises of our Lord. If they don’t like his singing, they should sing louder and drown him out. In other words, Americans shouldn’t necessarily hold back just because the rest of the world is emerging in leadership.

I heard another viewpoint yesterday from a Latin friend of mine. The place of the American is not to step aside and give ministry over to the minorities or non-western church. That’s not what they want. To turn it over would be like a bad manager who delegates to the point of abandonment. Instead, the place of the American is to welcome the Latins to their rightful places in leadership, then stick around and lead together.

The problem with the first theory is that my poor Mom strains her vocal chords every week at church, trying to outsing my Dad. That theory is too much about competition. The second theory is about collaboration. That’s the goal of the Latin leaders here. They want to know that they’re equals in the task, that they won’t be discarded when Americans’ usefulness for them is past.

One of the best lines I heard an American say yesterday was that if Wycliffe were to pull out of Vision 2025, he had no doubt the vision would continue to begin translation work in every language in this generation. Organizations like those represented in the room would keep working at it with all their hearts. But the goal isn’t to replace ourselves. The goal is that all of us — and many that have not gotten the vision yet but will — work toward this future together.

Sample’s second rule for decision-making:

2. Never make a decision today that can reasonably be put off to tomorrow.

But isn’t that procrastination? First, let me say that our western, negative view of that word is not necessarily universal. Procrastination is negative when it stems from a lack of courage. Instead, Sample espouses conscious and even courageous “artful procrastination.” Certainly, postponing a decision has its consequences: in our busy workplaces, with full inboxes, a strategy to leave more on your plate for tomorrow is contrarian.

I borrowed the question above from president Harry Truman, who always sought clarity on the timing for a decision as his first response. To misunderstand the timing required for a decision is to choose the wrong method of decision-making. For instance, a snap decision in a case that should have involved consultation with experts could be disastrous. A collaborative process in a fight or flight scenario could be deadly. It might be worthwhile researching how Truman applied this methodology to as grave a decision as dropping atomic bombs on another sovereign nation, but that’s another topic for another day. Sample’s point is that “the timing of a decision could be just as important as the decision itself.”

Now, Sample isn’t talking about simply putting things off or failing to make a decision. A non-decision is a decision (and leaders have consciously used that method to great success in a variety of arenas). Knowing the timing allows a leader to wait strategically. It can often open up more options for a leader, providing a beautiful solution that wasn’t available at the time the question was posed. However, it comes with a risk: it can slam the door on decent solutions. Simply put, circumstances will often make a decision for you, and there’s a fine line between a wise leader who reads the timing well and a foolish one who misses an opportunity. The point is to make a decision “and get on with it” when the time is appropriate to choose, whether the conditions improved or not.

I’ve heard CEOs say before that they pretty much expect to be 50% right on their decisions. That’s not comforting! But leadership and decision-making are arts, not sciences. Experience teaches when to listen and when to make a judgment, when to wait and when to conclude a matter. This question is a great place to start, because it puts a leader in position to follow the best road to a decision. Whether she’s right or wrong, perhaps the real question is what she does next, after the decision is made.

Sample’s final thought on the matter:

It is one thing for a leader to delegate a decision to a lieutenant, but an entirely different (and unacceptable) thing for him to surrender a decision to fate or to his adversaries. Therein lies the difference between artful and cowardly procrastination.

Agree? Disagree? Does this spur a question or reaction? Give me your thoughts!

I love Steven Sample’s The Contrarian’s Guide to Leadership. He points out that while the conventional view of leaders is that they’re decisive and bold, most situations don’t necessarily call for snap decisions. Instead, he offers two rules for decision making:

1. Never make a decision yourself that can reasonably be delegated to a lieutenant.

So the first question he proposes that a leader ask is whether he’s the one to make the decision. A colleague of mine often reminds me that budget decisions are better made by the local manager. That’s true for more than just budgets, and it’s a good reminder to figure out who is best-qualified to make a decision. But I believe Sample is going a step further with his contrarian advice. He’s saying that a leader should deliberately delegate a decision he has the right to make as an act of empowerment to his team. Of course, he qualifies it by saying “reasonably,” but he’s talking about a bent, a tendency to defer on decisions whenever possible.

When all decisions have to pass through the top, we generally refer to that style of leadership as “autocratic.” But not all autocrats are despots. In Servant Empowered Leadership, Don Page says there’s a subsidiary of the autocratic model that he calls the “benevolent dictator.” These paternalistic leaders thrive in Christian organizations.

In its simplest form, it means that the leader alone knows what is best for the organization, either because of their direct connection to God or because of their superior God-given abilities.

Ouch. I know a few of these… in other organizations, of course. I pray that if I ever take that viewpoint, I’ll have given someone enough room at some more sane point in my tenure to be able to call me out on it. Far better to empower your managers at every level to make decisions. And to consciously push a decision down to build the capacity of your team.

…whatever their age. Leadership gifts don’t automatically grow with experience. Two things bother me, three get under my skin:

  • people without leadership gifts in positions of leadership simply because they’ve “put in their years”
  • people struggling with incredible leadership gifts in a setting that doesn’t allow them to put those gifts to work
  • and people that have leadership gifts but bury them.

It’s time we gave more honor to leadership as a profession, a gifting and a calling and let leaders lead right out of the gate.

<end of rant>