“Spiritual leadership starts with listening for the one true Voice and learning to distinguish it from all the other voices that clamor for our attention.” — Ruth Haley Barton
No leader is perfect. Even the best leaders I know (and I’m blessed to know several) regularly flub things up. Some even make huge blunders from time to time. Just like everybody else, really. In fact, the only real difference between a leader and a non-leader in this regard is that a leader’s mistakes get magnified 100-fold because of their position. Their missteps are more readily on display for all to see.
Faith leaders, in particular, face unique challenges because of the split nature of their role as both spiritual and organizational leaders. Because of this interesting dichotomy, some of the mistakes they make can have much more serious consequences not only to their leadership but to the world at large.
Here are three big mistakes that come with far-reaching costs for faith leaders:
1. Ignoring Their Unintended Impact.
Because of their convictions, faith leaders sometimes take controversial stands on key issues of the day. Many faith leaders believe this is part of the job description of faith leadership within a larger community, and they do it because they believe it is the right thing to do.
Too often, however, faith leaders fail to notice or take into account the untended but highly damaging impact their vocal stance on a particular issue is having on the public’s general view of their entire belief system. Is it really advancing the gospel when you publicly argue against a particular issue in a way that reflects poorly on Christianity in general? Faith leaders can sometimes mistakenly feel justified for boldly “standing up for the truth” while, in fact, their words, attitudes and manner do the very opposite by presenting Jesus to the world in a way that is as false as it is off-putting.
Self-righteousness is the enemy of true Christian faith, and it never looks worse or does more damage than when it lodges in the heart of a faith leader.
2. Not Walking Their Talk.
Faith-based work of any kind is demanding. There are always more needs than you have capacity to meet, and always more to be done than you have time to accomplish. This is a set up for burn out and exhaustion, and its lure is made all the more compelling by the false-but-attractive notion that the more you give, the more you sacrifice, the “holier” you are.
The problem is, this road leads to a dead end—and I mean that literally. It will eventually kill you. But before it kills your body, it will kill your soul. It will leave you drained, exhausted, resentful, a hollowed out version of your once joyful self. In this depleted state, do you really expect anyone to believe you when you say the gospel brings true life? It clearly isn’t bringing it to you.
We falsely believe the gospel is primarily something you do (i.e. evangelize), when in reality the gospel is primarily something you live. Your life is the message, and if you aren’t actually living in the center of the deep truth and freedom we find in Christ, then your words become pointless, no matter how often or how skillfully you speak them.
This has become one of the core tenets of my coaching work with leaders: “You can’t give away what you don’t have.” You have to live it first. Only then can you lead others to it.
3. Leading Apart from Christ.
You’d be amazed at how many faith leaders I meet who feel disconnected from God. Like an ambassador who’s cut off from the home country, they try their best to do what they think they ought to be doing, but it’s not only joyless and lonely for them, but also exhausting.
Leadership in the “Kingdom of God” was never designed to be a solo enterprise. “It is no longer I who live,” says Paul in Galatians 2:20, “but Christ lives in me.” This is ground zero for the Christian journey. Christianity is, by design, a life of oneness with God. Without that oneness, there is no real Christianity. Nor is there any real advancement of God’s work in the world. Later, in Colossians, Paul warns us of the dangers of “not holding fast to the head, from whom the entire body, being supplied and held together by the joints and ligaments, grows with a growth which is from God” (Colossians 2:19).
The Life you seek, the Growth you work for…it all comes out of your oneness with God. The work of God in and through your life cannot be done apart from intimate connection with God. It’s why, in Jesus final prayer before going to the cross, he prayed for oneness…not primarily oneness among all believers (as many mistakenly think) but oneness between us and God.
Bottom line for faith leaders: Lead with God, or don’t lead at all.
Do you agree with my list? For the faith leaders out there, what other mistakes would you add?