Romans 12 – no conformity

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.

What does healthy ambition look like?

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.

Willow Creek Thoughts

I’m chewing on my notes from the first day of the Willow Creek Leadership Summit, looking for patterns and the fingerprints of God. A couple of things jump out as I put the various threads from yesterday together.

1. Our current crises are opportunity. I knew that already, but it was good to hear Bill Hybels and Gary Hamel say it.

Hybels: How do gifted leaders react? With perverse excitement at the opportunities. These are perfect conditions for greatness to emerge.

Hamel: Should we wring our hands or thank God for the opportunity?

I think your reaction depends on whether you’re more concerned with defending the past or strategizing for the future. It also depends on how nimble you are. I think of Rudolph Guiliani on 9/11. He had a long-term plan for the city, though the average person in Orlando never heard about it or cared. That was the plan that no doubt led him to the meeting that happened to be right near the Trade Center that morning. But if Guiliani was anything, he was nimble as he reacted to the crisis, and greatness emerged.

2. Leadership in the future is going to look quite different. Gary Hamel and Jessica Jackley (founder of Kiva) both talked about a lack of hierarchy.

Hamel: It’s a challenge to build organizations that can survive without superhumans at the top. Leaders today are less concerned with control and more concerned with connecting, mobilizing and supporting. Their strategies are open and their hierarchy is flat.

Jackley: When you assume co-creation as a value from the beginning, top-down management doesn’t work.

If the hero leader is an old and failed model, as I’ve blogged about before, how do we move to the idea that a team can fill the impossibly long list of requirements for a CEO? Could you have different members of the team to cover the multiple roles of rousing public speaker, visionary leader, internal communicator, disciplined manager and caring, accessible, sympathetic boss? High-level leadership would sure look more attainable if we could find a way to lead in community.

3. Ideas need contribution. Gary Hamel had a couple of zingers, but one metaphor is going to stick with me:

Ideas shouldn’t develop like a pregnancy, where something happens in private and then a number of months later, out comes a nice package, but as a family picnic, out in the open where everyone contributes.

How do we get everyone — colleagues, clients, etc. — involved in our future? How can a large organization move to co-creation? Others have managed to reinvent themselves.

At lunch, one of our staff members pointed out that he’s been around long enough to see us move from bottom-up leadership to top-down leadership, and now we’re talking about bottom-up leadership again. I’m not sure we’re really back where we started. I think our world and our technology has evolved to the point that we now have the ability to co-create instead of individual brainstorming that has to be pulled together by an individual. It may have flavors of the old, but it feels new.