The First Priority of Leadership

What’s the first priority of leadership? Character. It matters more than leadership techniques, skills, or even results. The results that matter, after all, flow from character.

I’ve been thinking about this recently in light of three different books: The Deep Change Field Guide by Robert Quinn, Let Your Life Speak by Parker Palmer,  and Redefining Leadership by Joe Stowell.

To my surprise, Palmer has a lot to say about leadership in Let Your Life Speak. Because pastors are (among other things) leaders, and “a leader is someone with the power to project either shadow or light onto some part of the world and onto the lives of the people who dwell there,” character is crucial. Palmer writes:

A leader shapes the ethos in which others must live, an ethos as light-filled as heaven or as shadowy as hell. A good leader is intensely aware of the interplay of inner shadow and light, lest the act of leadership do more harm than good.

Leaders, he writes, have a tendency to “project more shadow than light.” Positive thinking doesn't change this, and it also ignores some dangers:

By failing to look at our shadows, we feed a dangerous delusion that leaders too often indulge: that our efforts are always well-intended, our power is always benign, and the problem is always in those difficult people whom we are trying to lead!…If we do not understand that the enemy is within, we will find a thousand ways of making someone “out there” into the enemy, becoming leaders who oppress rather than liberate others.

Parker outlines five issues that we tend to face, including insecurity about identity and worth, a tendency to view everything as a battle, functional atheism (“It all depends on me”), fear of chaos, and denial of death. I think I've seen all five in leaders, including myself.

What is a good leader? Parker writes:

Good leadership comes from people who have penetrated their own inner darkness and arrived at the place where we are at one with one another, people who can lead the rest of us into a place of “hidden wholeness” because they have been there and know the way.

It’s no accident that Scripture puts such high value on the character of a leader. It’s the difference between what Joe Stowell calls “character-driven leadership” and “outcome-driven leadership.” We need more focus on character. Character, Stowell writes, is the defining priority of leadership. His book, along with Let Your Life Speak and The Deep Change Field Guide, are striking similar notes.

We will inevitably project who we are. All the leadership techniques in the world will not change this. Apart from a character that is shaped by the gospel, we will project shadows. The first priority of a leader must be character: to be remade by the gospel, to experience the deepest change, to be the chief repenter, the most enamored with the gospel, and the most real about life.

Character is the first priority of leadership.

Pastors and Deep Change

According to Robert Quinn, self-change is crucial to leadership. The organization — for instance, the church — will not change unless the leader (the pastors) experience deep change. Leadership is not so much a set of skills as much as about choosing deep change rather than slow death.

There are so many gospel implications I could make from this one key insight. We tend to overemphasize leadership skills and underemphasize what happens when pastors experience deep change.

One way to foster deep change? Fire yourself every Friday. Quinn quotes Andrea Jung, CEO of Avon. “Reinvent yourself first before you reinvent your company,” Jung said in an interview a few years back. While I wouldn’t express it exactly this way, I think she still has a point. Pastors: why reinvent a new church when you are in need of being reinvented by the gospel? Start there. She continues:

Fire yourself on a Friday night and come in on Monday morning as if a search firm put you there as a turn-around leader. Can you be objective and make the bold change? If you can't, then you haven't reinvented yourself. If you can, then you can have a decade of tenure that is like having different jobs.

Just two thoughts:

  • Before a church can be changed, I must be changed. Too often I focus on the work that I want to see God do out there rather than realizing he wants to do a work in me first. It's about being the chief repenter, the one most enamored with the gospel that never gets old.
  • I never want to coast as a pastor. May we never lose the freshness of the gospel and the immense privilege and responsibility of serving God through his church. Deep change — possible through the gospel — is always preferable to slow death, even if it means firing ourselves every Friday.

Three Avenues to Joy

When I look back at what I’ve experienced in church planting these past two or so years, three joys stand out:

  1. The joy of risk — There’s something joyful about sticking your neck out and risking for the sake of the kingdom. It’s far more joyful than playing it safe. I don’t think I’d want to go back.
  2. The joy of evangelism — My best friends are increasingly outside of the church. I am intentionally cultivating relationships in my community and being present in my neighborhood.
  3. The joy of reliance — I am learning new levels of dependence on God. I am also much more aware of my reliance on other people for prayer support, as well as practical support.

If you want to ask me what I love about church planting, these three joys would rank near the top.

Here’s the thing: you don’t need to be a church planter to experience these three joys. Sadly, I pastored many years without experiencing them as much as I am now, but they where there for the taking.

Risk. Evangelize. Rely. I’m finding that these are three avenues of joy available to all of us for the asking.

Pastors and Social Media

Daniel Yang is a church planter in Toronto. I'm excited about his work at Trinity Life Church, and have been impressed by his use of social media.

I'm grateful that Daniel was willing to answer some of my questions. I hope you read the interview, but if you do nothing else, skip to the last question and pray for Daniel, Trinity Life Church, and other church plants in Toronto.

Some pastors are suspicious of social media. Why should pastors use it?

I would say that some suspicions are quite valid, actually. For instance, it’s a temptation for social media to be used in a way that can puff up a leader or an organization’s ego. And sometimes what people perceive from social media is quite different from the actual leader or organization. I remember John Piper taking time off twitter to check his heart. I hear Mark Driscoll is doing the same as well.  But with that being said, I think it’s great for leaders to share with their community practical things like what they’re learning, reading, attempting. I love learning from other pastors and planters via their Twitter feed. I’ve filled up my Kindle with great books that I probably would’ve never found on my own.
 
What advice would you give to a pastor who wanted to use social media effectively?

Let your spouse be your Twitter ghost writer! You’re less likely to tweet your foot in your mouth! But in all seriousness whenever I tweet, blog, or update a Facebook status I ask if what I have to say is genuine and edifying. Occasionally I will chime in on what’s going on in the sports world or complain about the TTC (Toronto transit!), but by in large I treat social media like an extension of my personal ministry. You’ll see pictures of my family because I’m a proud husband and papa first and foremost. You’ll see updates about Trinity Life Church because that’s the flock God’s stewarded me to care for. You also see a lot of quotes or thoughts from what God is teaching me.
 
But one thing that is healthy to do, because it keeps social media in perspective, is to do regularly fasts.  Read my blog on my 40 Day Internet Detox.
 
What mistakes should they avoid?

Social media doesn’t show how “successful” your ministry is. Spend more time with people than with Facebook or Twitter. Update your family more on your thoughts than you do your followers. My 9 year old could care less what I’m tweeting and how many likes I get. Keep social media in perspective. Jesus knew it’s possible to appear vibrant on the outside (social media), but dying inside (spiritual integrity).

How much of a budget do you need to promote posts and events on Facebook?

Trinity Life has no media budget. We’ve tried some things to test the waters. It confirmed a lot of the things other churches told us about promoting posts and events. In all practicality, if you’re going to promote a post or event – make sure your post and event is worth promoting and make sure that you already have some sort of fan base in order for it to work. To be honest, we’ve only tried a few times and none of our promotions have been wildly successful.
 
How can we pray for you and for Trinity Life Church?

Pray that we will continue to love our city and the people of Toronto. Pray that dividing walls would come down. Pray that the seeds of the Gospel would take root and that generations and nations would be changed. Pray that the dream for TLC is to see the Kingdom come and all churches in the GTA flourish. Pray that our little church would be swallowed up by God’s power and presence and a great movement of churches all around our city.

Thanks, Daniel.

Find out more about Daniel at his website or on Twitter.

One of the Best Books You Haven't Read

On Boxing Day in 2007, I ordered a book for $9.35 (!) called The Heart of a Servant Leader: Letters from Jack Miller. I remember devouring it in the early days of 2008. It felt like I was seeing how the gospel changes a man and his ministry. It had a profound impact on my own understanding of the gospel.

Since then I've whittled down my physical library from almost 3,000 books to around 100 or so, and this book is still with me. I honestly think it would be one of the last volumes I'd give up.

If you are in ministry, and want an example of someone who has come to the end of what he could accomplish on his own strength, and has been completely transformed by an encounter with Christ, then you need to read this book. Jack Miller has made a marked impact on many people who know and respect, and he does a better job of pointing us to Jesus than almost anyone I know.

It's not a book that gets a lot of attention, and that's a shame. Get it. Read it. Allow it to shape your view of life and ministry. It's a book to which I return often.

You can read my review, or better yet, just go and buy it. It's still not much more than what I paid.