Suspect yourself

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.

The sum of your ambitions

As I mentioned recently, I’ve been reading A Million Miles in a Thousand Years, by Donald Miller. It’s the story of his journey to make a better story of his life. If that’s confusing, you’ll have to read the book.

Anyway, what struck me were his points about ambition as they relate to your story. He starts with the supposition that, “a story is a character who wants something and overcomes conflict to get it.” In other words, a character has to have ambition to have an interesting story. Miller then stacks up his life in comparison, at one point gazing through the lens of his bank statements:

The stuff I spent money on was, in many ways, the sum of my ambitions. And those ambitions weren’t the stuff of good stories….

The ambitions we have will become the stories we live. If you want to know what a person’s story is about, just ask them what they want.

The problem with most Americans is that we want stuff. Ambition for stuff makes a boring story, or even a stupid story. For instance, Miller admits he bought a Roomba vaccuum cleaner, falling for the marketing industry’s manipulations of the elements of story: your life is miserable, and you’d be happy if you had a Roomba. The American Dream is a bad story! It’s a trap and a sellout.

Building on this premise, Miller quotes a filmmaker named Steve, who explained to him what separates an “epic” from most movies:

A story goes to the next level with two key elements, and both of them have to do with the ambition of the character. First, he said, is the thing a character wants must be very difficult to attain. The more difficult, the better the story. The reason the story is better when the ambition is difficult, Steve said, is because there is more risk, and more risk makes the story question more interesting to an audience….

The second element that makes a story epic, he said, was the ambition had to be sacrificial. The protagonist has to be going through pain, risking his very life, for the sake of somebody else.

So, are you living an epic? What do you want? Is your ambition difficult and sacrificial, or shallow and selfish? That’s the difference between healthy ambition and the kind the Bible warns against. See my previous posts on the subject.

What’s your Roomba? My prayer is that my ambition is for God’s fame and His kingdom. I don’t want to live a stupid story.

Romans 12 – the body

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.

Romans 12 – sacrifice

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.

How do you develop followers?

I’ve been in Atlanta this week at the Christian Leadership Alliance Conference. Here are a few relevant notes from a workshop by Wendy Johnson of Amor Ministries.

Point 1: How do established leaders need to change to lead Millennials?

Millennials don’t need to adapt to our world. We’re already in theirs, so we’re the ones that need to adapt. We’re trying to figure out how to use their technology and work in their cultural setting. We’re marketing and selling our product in their world. Therefore, it’s not their job to learn how to work in our culture. It’s our job to study them and adapt where necessary.

That’s an interesting point for me. What she’s saying is that a leader’s job is not to make other people conform to them and follow them, but to boldly make the changes so that followers will follow. Those changes might be personal or they might be corporate. Where do I need to change to adapt to leading Millennials? And where do I need to change my organization to gather Millennials to my cause?

Point 2: How can we create followers of Jesus Christ?

As leaders, we have the ability to shape our followers to be:

  • Faithful and loyal – These cannot be mandated, but leaders have the power to draw followers by their vulnerability and trust. We need to be loyal to them and allow them to make mistakes.
  • Obedient – We need to identify the boundaries that matter and hold our teams to them while allowing flexibility on the means. Millennials will follow the rules if we recognize their methods and processes are different, not wrong.
  • Last – Leadership doesn’t necessarily happen from the front.
  • Open – Leaders will know everything about their team. Will we be open in return? If you lie to your followers, you’re done.
  • Willing – We shouldn’t be afraid to ask for sacrifice. If we hold to the essentials but give up the how, we’ll get what we ask for and more.

I like this idea of follower development. Wendy said that it’s easier to discuss followership than leadership, because the latter is so hard to define. Leaders have the ability to build on the strengths of our followers and to shape our followers into incredibly effective teams. There’s more to think about here. I’ll come back to it in the days ahead.