Failure!

If you haven’t had the opportunity to read my previous blog post, “Humbled!” I suggest you take the time to read that one as context for this post. In that post, I asked for your stories about failure. I want to share my own example here and draw a few conclusions.

I was studying engineering when God showed me very clearly that I needed to change my major and move toward a career in missions. How was it so clear? I was failing Physics and another class foundational to engineering. At the same time, I heard a missionary share about the huge need for graphic design in missions. I had always played with design, but never thought of it as a career, let alone in missions. I couldn’t get it out of my head that I needed to change majors and change schools, and that graphic design was my path to missions.

While many find the idea of a “calling” somewhat mysterious, for me it was more practical. God clearly closed a door and opened another. At the point of failure of my plans, when I was ready to listen, God used a missionary to challenge me.

Shortly after we graduated, my wife and I attended the Urbana student mission conference. While visiting the mission booths, I found out Wycliffe Bible Translators had a huge need for graphic design, helping create displays, magazines, brochures, calendars and websites. But more than the need for my skills, the mission of Wycliffe grabbed me. This was an organization marked by perseverance, going into the difficult places, advocating for the marginalized, the minority languages that were so easily overlooked.

So my wife and I joined Wycliffe and took our first assignment in Canada. I managed a small team of designers, and put my energy into Wycliffe Canada’s award-winning photojournalistic magazine.

As I think back, I got pretty comfortable and even somewhat cocky in my position and abilities. I had won some design awards for Wycliffe’s Word Alive magazine, and I was able to “leverage” my abilities to take a similar position with Wycliffe USA, an organization about ten times the size of its Canadian counterpart. I remember thinking about the expansion of my influence to a larger constituency.

So my family and I moved down to Orlando and began the most difficult two years of my life.

A larger organization requires more specialization, and my job changed to the point that it played away from my strengths for big-picture thinking and ideas. I got buried in minutia and I found myself boxed in. My frustration grew, and I took it out on my boss, rebelling against her leadership. I lost trust and the hole I was in got deeper. I’m not at all proud of the way I handled myself, and I fully deserved the words my boss gave me near the end: “You’re gifted at a lot of things, but management isn’t one of them. Maybe you should find a job that doesn’t require management.”

I suppose I was gifted in a lot of things. But I was taking credit for success that wasn’t mine to take. Many of the ideas I was so proud of came in moments of unexpected inspiration. Most of my successes were done in the context of team, not solo. I was not very self aware.

This job came to an end when my boss sent me to a leadership conference. Given her thoughts on my leadership ability, it was a funny place to send me, but it turned out to be the best money she ever spent. An hour into the conference, I heard these momentous words: “If you don’t like your job, quit!” So I did. I was walking a fine line because I didn’t want to quit Wycliffe. I was still committed to the vision. But I walked away from graphic design. I was at rock bottom, not sure if anyone would want a washed-up designer, not sure I could find another job in this organization I loved.

At the bottom of my spiral of despair, as I debated my future, a senior vice president asked me to work for him as a project manager. I suppose if I’d learned anything from those two difficult years, it was project management, so I jumped at this surprise opportunity. He pulled me up from my knees and brought me into the president’s office. I discovered the amazing world of executive administration and big-picture strategy. I loved it! But I still had a lot to learn about management, so I took a 5-year detour, leading teams at various levels before returning to administration in a role responsible for developing leaders in the organization. I had learned from my experiences and had developed a soft heart for young leaders.

Like Peter, my philosophy of leadership is very much shaped by my failures:

  • I love to take on “projects.” Several times I have taken on a staff member whose recent career was marred by a bad performance appraisal, because I see potential in them and suspect that they were in some way a victim of circumstance. If I feel like the situation I can put them in will lead to success, I’ll take a risk on them.
  • I don’t believe firing is the worst thing you can do to someone. Letting them stay and spread their misery and discontent is worse for them and for the people around them.
  • I lead as an art director. I surround myself with great people who can do things I can’t, then paint a vision and let them add their creativity and input. The result is usually better than if I did it myself. So I have a much more realistic view of myself—my strengths and weaknesses and passions. I try to do what only I can do, and empower the people around me to use their strengths.
  • I look for talent in people across various industries. If a graphic designer could make a project manager and eventually a president who practices “design thinking,” then how could other skills translate into new situations?
  • I don’t confuse my job with my identity. I’m in at least my third career since I joined Wycliffe 17 years ago, and it’s been over a dozen years since I held the same job more than two years. So hold your passion, vision and calling more tightly than what you do.

Three years ago a search committee contacted me. They were looking for a young leader who wasn’t afraid to lead change, who had a track record of developing young leaders and who could turn Wycliffe Canada around from some significant areas of decline. When my wife heard what they were looking for, it was so clear to her that they were looking for me. “We’re moving to Canada,” she said. God had prepared me for this precise job at this precise time.

In my own story, I see a resemblance to Peter’s journey. Throughout each step, I see the Spirit working behind the scenes, shaping and preparing in order to accomplish his purposes. It causes me to take myself less seriously and to say with a twinkle in my eye that it’s God’s sense of humour that he’d put a graphic designer in charge of a Bible translation organization.

Roy Eyre, B.F.A.

Advertisements

Humbled!

Imagine for a minute that you’re the apostle Peter. Jesus has just gone. You are left gazing longingly at the sky, not wanting to release your grip on him, wanting him to stay just a few minutes longer. You’re suddenly not sure what your job is. You spent a lot of years in the family business as an angler. Then this Messiah showed up, saying that you were going to be a fisher of men. Three years later, right before leaving, he changed the metaphor on you and told you that you were going to be a shepherd. However, unlike any other shepherd, you were going to care for people. That sounds like some kind of leadership responsibility, but what on earth kind of job is that?

Imagine further. On the Jerusalem Chamber of Volunteer Organizations website, you see a position posted. Wanted: Leader of Christ’s church in Jerusalem. Something in you stirs, so you begin to put together a resume. What would you put on that resume? Think about your credentials for a minute. What makes you qualified to lead the Church? What would you put down as your purpose statement? How would you “sell yourself” and your qualifications for a job like that?

Absurd, isn’t it?

It’s a role we couldn’t have imagined for the impulsive Peter of the Gospels. Nowhere in those four books do we see any indication that Peter is a servant, a pastor or priest, a humble leader.

It turns out Peter’s best credentials come out of his failures.

In Leading With a Limp, Dan Allender says,

No one is humble by nature…. Humility comes from humiliation, not from the choice to be self-effacing or a strong urge to give others the credit.

Humility that has not come from suffering due to one’s own arrogance is either a pragmatic strategy to get along with others or a natural predilection that seems to befit only a few rare individuals. For most leaders, humility comes only by wounds suffered from foolish falls. (p69-70)

I’ve wrestled with Allender’s words for years, arguing that there has to be another way. After all, doesn’t James 4:10 suggest that you can choose it? “Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you.” But the context of this choice to humble yourself is the same as that of the prodigal son in the pig sty or the vindictive Saul blinded and kneeling on the road to Damascus. James is speaking of sinners who repent and grieve their sin. God then picks them up from their knees and exalts them.

My editor, Beth Koehler, offered this insight as we discussed this passage:

We’re talking about repentance and grieving personal sin before the Lord. How difficult it is for any of us, but especially so for leaders. Over and over we see that when leaders repent and grieve sin, their humility leads to a similar response in those they lead. It’s as if some major obstacle to repentance has been removed from the masses.  We see this in the Old Testament. We see it in more recent church history where revivals take place.

A leader’s real power is to be a living, walking example of the gospel.

In John 21, Peter was at a place of repentance and grief. He’d just betrayed his rabbi, his Messiah. Jesus’ response is to come to him on the beach and commission him as a shepherd. “If you love me, feed my sheep.” Somehow, this humbled man ends up leading the church in Jerusalem. Years later, he sends an exhortation to the leaders of the exiled and persecuted church. Peter writes from Rome as a mature believer and elder in the church, a different man from the Peter of the Gospels.

And now, a word to you who are elders in the churches. I, too, am an elder and a witness to the sufferings of Christ. And I, too, will share in his glory when he is revealed to the whole world. As a fellow elder, I appeal to you: Care for the flock that God has entrusted to you. Watch over it willingly, not grudgingly—not for what you will get out of it, but because you are eager to serve God. Don’t lord it over the people assigned to your care, but lead them by your own good example. And when the Great Shepherd appears, you will receive a crown of never-ending glory and honor. (1 Peter 5:1-4)

Peter’s leadership is shaped by his experiences in his early days. As Will Rogers quipped, “Good judgment comes from experience, and a lot of that comes from bad judgment.” Peter made a lot of mistakes, and the advice he gives to leaders reflects the lessons he learned during some of his greatest failures.

Let’s examine a few of the phrases in this passage.

  • “A witness to the sufferings of Christ.” He didn’t intend to be a witness; in John 13:37, he had told Jesus he would die for him. Indeed, while nine of the other disciples immediately ran away, Peter attempted a single-handed defense with a dagger. Jesus’ rebuke forced him to reluctant disengagement. When the mob’s thirst for blood threatened to draw him back in, he finally denied Christ to save himself—his single greatest point of failure.
  • “Care for the flock.” You can just hear Jesus’ words ringing in Peter’s ears decades later: “Feed my sheep!”
  • “Watch over it willingly,” and Peter says it again a few verses later: “Stay alert! Watch out for your great enemy, the devil.” Wasn’t Peter one of the three disciples who fell asleep three times in the Garden of Gethsemane after Jesus told them to keep watch while he prayed?
  • “Don’t lord it over them.” Another harsh lesson. This time the immediate screw-up wasn’t Peter. In Mark 10, James and John had just approached Jesus to seek honour and glory when he sets up his kingdom. Jesus responds that they would join him in drinking his cup (suffering) but it wasn’t up to him who would get glory. Now it’s Peter’s turn:

When the ten other disciples (Peter included) heard what James and John had asked, they were indignant. So Jesus called them together and said, “You know that the rulers in this world lord it over their people, and officials flaunt their authority over those under them. But among you it will be different. Whoever wants to be a leader among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first among you must be the slave of everyone else. For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve others and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (v41-45)

  • “Lead by your own good example.” In John 13, when Jesus took the basin and towel to wash his disciples’ feet, Peter argued at his audacious display of behaviour unbecoming of a leader. Jesus summarized the lesson:

“I have given you an example to follow. Do as I have done to you.” (v15)

Ouch! Peter’s leadership springs out of the bruises remaining from his greatest failures. Gentleness and humility began with his failures and were honed during his leadership of the early church through the peaks of rapid growth and the Holy Spirit’s miraculous power and the deep valleys of persecution, martyrdom and scattering.

It was only after all those experiences that Peter could say, “So humble yourselves under the mighty power of God, and at the right time he will lift you up in honour” (1 Peter 5:6). Peter certainly took a difficult journey to humility. Yes, in the early days the other disciples let him go first. He was the extrovert, he was unafraid. But being outspoken isn’t the same as being a leader. It wasn’t until he went through the darkest point in his life and was restored that we see the beginning of Peter’s journey to bold preacher, leader of men and elder shepherd.

What is your story? Have you gone through a point of failure? How does it shape you today?

Have you taken the time to reflect on your failures and what you can learn from them? Don’t waste those dark moments. They are critical to your character and habits as a leader.

How do I know? Because my own story resembles Peter’s more than I’d like. In my next post, I’ll share my own journey.

Lead through the Spirit

There’s another important lesson about leadership in Numbers 11. The passage refers to a “spirit of leadership” resting on the seventy in a way that is far more tangible than I have allowed myself to think of before. Clearly, it’s talking about God’s Spirit falling on and filling individuals in a way that helps them carry the burden of leadership.

To tell you the truth, I have not put a lot of thought into the idea of spirit-filled leadership. In fact, I don’t think I’m alone in being a little nervous about the unpredictability of the Spirit. I like to feel as if I’m in control, but I’m increasingly convinced that my attempts to control actually limit my usefulness and effectiveness. So let me approach this passage with intellectual honesty and try to draw out a few principles all leaders should pay attention to in terms of their need for the Spirit of God. I’m preaching first to myself.

The first principle about the Holy Spirit is that leaders shouldn’t leave home without him. The way God promises to put his Spirit on each of the seventy parallels the experience of the apostles as they prepare to lead the early church. In Acts 1:4, Jesus instructs them not to leave Jerusalem until God sends them his Spirit. Without this critical provision, they will not be able to be witnesses or baptize or teach. So they wait. It’s only when the Holy Spirit falls in Acts 2 that Peter is enabled to step boldly to the microphone and preach a multilingual sermon that results in 3,000 baptisms.

Second, the presence of the Holy Spirit bestows identity and credibility. The unique visible and overt outpouring of the Spirit in the form of prophecy also happened to a young man named Saul in 1 Samuel 10. When Samuel anoints Saul as the first king of Israel, he tells him “the Spirit of the Lord will come powerfully upon you, and you will prophesy… You will be changed into a different person.” The experience is so noteworthy that a proverb was birthed: “Is Saul also among the prophets?”

It is typically as difficult to see the Spirit’s movement as it is to see the wind. So God uses occasional visible evidence of his Spirit to give individuals credibility to lead. In Numbers 11, it affirms the elders’ calling, leaving no doubt as to who was set apart among the seventy. Even the two in the camp get that clear stamp of authority. The passage makes it clear that the ability to prophesy is tangential and temporary. Though the seventy prophesy only once, that is sufficient to establish credibility and reassure that the Spirit’s power is on them. From this launching point, we need to look for the fruit of the Spirit (Gal 5:22-23) and the exercise of the gifts of the Spirit (1 Cor 12) for ongoing evidence that the Spirit is at work in a leader.

This leads to my third principle: the primary purpose of the Spirit’s filling in a leader is equipping. It starts with leaders themselves, but it flows out to their followers. In Numbers 11:17 God tells Moses the Spirit will give the seventy the ability to bear the leadership burden with him. In 1 Samuel 10:7, Samuel tells Saul that God’s presence will enable the new king to do what needs to be done. Rather than simply referring to skill-based or learned leadership that originates from ourselves, this is a leadership that springs forth from God himself. The gift of leadership in Romans 12 is a specific empowering of the Spirit for administration and governance roles. Ephesians 4 makes the purpose of these gifts clear: they are designed “to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ” and helping us attain unity, knowledge and maturity (Eph 4:11-13).

The body is a helpful metaphor, as these gifts come with variety. Disciples are transformed into apostles, prophets, evangelists, shepherds and teachers. My personal bent toward the “kingly” roles — motivating and organizing people and sharing vision — needs balancing with other body parts. Leadership should also include “priestly” elements such as caring for and feeding the flock and “prophetic” elements such as discerning issues, understanding the times and rebuking behaviour. The Spirit helps move a leader from administration to the more prophetic task of challenging the status quo. Leading change had better flow out of a response to the Spirit’s prompting, because anyone challenging the way things are is venturing into dangerous territory.

Spirit-empowered leadership should stand out from other forms that lack power. My fourth principle is the untapped secret available to believers called to lead: the Spirit amplifies leadership with immense power. Paul made this point as he asked God to give the Ephesian church “the Spirit of wisdom and revelation”:

I pray that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened in order that you may know… his incomparably great power for us who believe. That power is the same as the mighty strength he exerted when he raised Christ from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly realms. (Eph 1:17-20, NIV)

The same power that raised Christ from the dead was available to Peter in Acts 2. The transformation in his life must have left his colleagues wondering whether this was the same Peter they knew. Nothing short of Jesus’ resurrection power could have turned the Peter of the gospels into the Rock of the early church.

The same power was available to Moses and the seventy elders. In my next blog post, we’ll look at what Moses learned about that power.

And the same power is available to us as well. Incredible! The question is whether we’re tapping into it. Are we seeking to be spirit-filled leaders?

Suspect your ability to handle power

As I’ve been reading The Lord of the Rings to my boys, a series of moments stick in my mind: the times that Frodo seeks someone to give the ring to. Surely Aragorn or Gandalf or the Lady of Lothlorien would use the power benevolently to combat the evil of Sauron! Each one contemplates briefly the possibility of harnessing such amazing power and concludes that they wouldn’t be any less ruthless and horrific than previous owners. They therefore studiously avoid touching or looking at it, some even taking great satisfaction that they passed the test.

Last week at a leadership development event, we read together Henri Nouwen’s message, In the Name of Jesus. Nouwen is a Harvard man of great earthly success who ended up as a priest working among mentally handicapped people at the Daybreak community near Toronto. He cautions against the rationalization many Christians go through regarding power: that as long as it’s used to serve God and other human beings, it’s a good thing. He points out the irony that, throughout Church history,  followers of the one who emptied himself of power have used power for crusades, inquisitions, enslavement, opulence and manipulation of all kinds and forms. Then he cuts to the point.

What makes the temptation of power so seemingly irresistable? Maybe it is that power offers an easy substitute for the hard task of love. It seems easier to be God than to love God, easier to control people than to love people, easier to own life than to love life.

Wow. Whether you follow Nouwen’s logic and conclude that love is the opposite of power, his words sure slice deep. He’s right: it is easier to control than to love, and yet the latter is clearly God’s command for anyone, but in particular leaders. Nouwen spoke from a long personal journey into the messy world of loving those that our culture overlooks. Control and ownership are wrong methodologies arising from wrong motivations from a wronged heart. Nouwen continues,

One thing is clear to me: the temptation of power is greatest when intimacy is a threat. Much Christian leadership is exercised by people who do not know how to develop healthy, intimate relationships and have opted for power and control instead. Many Christian empire-builders have been people unable to give and receive love.

I remember when I worked in youth ministry that I lost count of the people who got into that field because of their own pain growing up. Few came from a healthy place and wanted others to share in that health; many more were on a personal journey to redemption and sought to help others avoid what they had experienced. But if you haven’t experienced real healing, how do you avoid temptations like power? I think Dan Allender has a lot of solutions in his book, Leading with a Limp. He suggests we confront our brokenness and allow God’s grace to redeem it. Failure and brokenness are not necessarily obstacles to leadership; they can be incredible motivators and a foundation for the right kind of servantly leadership. But those core needs must be addressed and the failures brought into the open.

Nouwen based much of his message on Peter’s example of being restored after abandoning and denying his friend and Rabbi Jesus. The lessons he learned on that beach in John 21 were to love deeply, receive love and give love to others. That was the basis for Peter’s leadership of the Church. It’s a lesson that many of his successors failed to get.

My boys were surprised when I told them I think of Lord of the Rings as a Christian story. I’m still teaching them the idea that a Christian story doesn’t mean that Jesus is a character, or that God is explicitly mentioned. Failure, redemption, fear, ambition, love, evil and desires are deeply woven into the story. And I think I can learn from the characters who suspected themselves and wouldn’t allow themselves to get near to raw, unbridled power.

Transformation

As I mull over Jesus’ death and resurrection this Good Friday, I’ve been thinking about Peter’s transformation. I would put the change in his life up against Paul’s for scale of impact of the gospel.

Peter is the kind of guy who thinks out loud, who says what everyone else is thinking. He acts first and thinks later. He’s an uneducated fisherman who learned his trade from his father. For me, the following events sum up his nature.

When he sees Jesus walking on water, he makes the jump of logic that if Jesus can defy rules of nature, he should be able to as well. What incredible, uninformed passion he shows as he climbs out of the boat and tests the surface tension of the undulating waters! It’s amazing to me that, in front of the eleven disciples who never left the boat, Jesus remarks on his lack of faith.

No other chapter sums up Peter’s complexity better than Matthew 16. When Jesus asks who the disciples believe he is, Peter declares his conviction that Jesus is the Messiah and the son of God. It’s on this confession that Jesus will build his church. Yet, a few verses later, Peter reprimands Jesus for talking about his upcoming death, and Jesus puts him in his place: “Get behind me, Satan.” Now, that’s a rebuke! I picture Peter like a dog. When he goes in the wrong direction, you give him a smack or yank on his leash. He sits there stunned for a minute, then shakes it off and sets off again in a different direction. He doesn’t take rebukes personally.

John 13 shows that he’s a long way from getting it. He refuses to let Jesus do such a menial job as wash his feet. Then he pledges loyalty, denying that he would ever deny Jesus. Couple this with his swordwork at the olive grove a few chapters later, and you begin to see that it’s an issue of expectations. I think Peter believes Jesus is preparing to lead an earthly insurrection. Servanthood, arrest and death don’t fit his view of Jesus’ destiny and goals.

Then there’s the lowpoint. While the other disciples flee, Peter sticks around and follows from a distance, only to try to protect himself from the same fate by distancing himself and then flatly lying about his connections to Jesus. His anguish over his denial turns to flight. He heads back home to comfort, the life that comes naturally to him, trying to move on from his failure. He goes back to fishing.

So, when Jesus steps out of the picture, his successor is not at all ready. Is this really the man you want to turn the church over to? Jesus puts a lot of stock in the fact that Peter will rebound from the harsh lessons he learned out of betraying his rabbi and disappointing himself. Jesus turns Peter’s focus from a spiral of dispair with a brief and direct conversation on the beach. Then he’s gone, and Peter is on his own.

Along comes Acts, and Peter is a different man. His hotheaded, impulsive, speak-first ways have morphed into a boldness with a lot of maturity. Maybe you could call the upper room his coccoon. The first words from Peter include a number of quotes from Scripture. I believe he spent the silent days after Jesus left, immersing himself in the Scriptures and in prayer — the qualities the apostles will become known for.

From there, we see a Peter in full command of himself and his followers. He preaches to thousands. He looks lame beggars in the eye and heals them. He faces down Pharisees and Jewish leaders, who can only marvel at his transformation, noting only that he had been with Jesus. Sure, he does some things wrong. I think some of his early decisions are a bit suspect, and Paul later calls him on some hypocrisy. But no one can deny Acts portrays a different Peter than the gospels depicted.

In Leading With a Limp, Dan Allender says that a leader cannot have true humility without being humiliated. And he can’t be truly successful without acknowledging his brokenness. Peter became the leader of the early church because he went through such a deep valley. He came out motivated, compelled by grace and love to follow this Jesus who had done so much for such an undeserving failure.

That’s what Easter is all about.