By Alex Early
Leading and loving are not antonyms. Some people, most people aren’t too excited about those who have been given authority. Think about out the last time you felt when you passed a police officer radar-gunning people on the interstate. You pumped the brakes and thought “Oh no! I hope I wasn’t breaking the law.” When it comes to leading in the church here’s one thing that I know is universally true: People don’t want to be led without first being loved. In fact, it is safe to take it a step further and say that people don’t want to be loved only up front, or on occasion, but love needs to be in the mix of everything going on, regardless of the circumstances. That is to say that love ought to permeate everything in the church not just some things. Leaders of all types in the church: staff members, elders, deacons, community group leaders, Sunday school teachers, and every volunteer in the church is responsible to work towards a culture of loving leadership.
In order to lead lovingly, you have to be filling your cup with the love of God
Jesus said, that the world would know who were his disciples by the way the love each other (John 13:35). Leader, did you catch that? Jesus did not say “they will know you are my disciples by your sweet buildings, innovative programs, grand visions, or hip worship music accompanied by phenomenal coffee.” Disciples are known first and foremost by and for their love. Leaders are not exempt from this calling, either. Pastors are not managers telling the sheep “down there” to “love each other” while keeping a safe distance from the messiness of the flock. Shepherds smell like sheep. This means they are to lead, feed, serve, and love the sheep within the pasture.
Big “K” Kingdom and Small “k” kingdom
That may sound simple, trite, or like common sense to some but a continuing cry of the people that goes up in churches all over the country is that some leaders are nothing more than miniature pharaohs, committed to their own little vision being fulfilled at all costs. The building of one’s own little kingdom on the backs of the people isn’t just bad leadership; it is sin against God and others. Jesus refers to this kind of leadership as “Gentile” which essentially means “pagan” (Mark 10:42). And Peter puts it bluntly that leaders are to steward their authority well rather than “lording it over those entrusted to them (1 Pet. 5:13). When these commands are ignored the results are catastrophic. Every. Single. Time. At first people get tired. Then they get annoyed. Then it results in full-blown anger. And some eventually walk away from the faith altogether.
Working in the world of the church is extremely challenging because the day-to-day work of the ministry and how things are being accomplished directly impact the ways in which those doing the work view God.
Pastor, remember the people are God’s sheep, not your slaves.
So how does a leader guard against this? By staying reminded of the sobering reality that most of the people (church staff most certainly included!) in the seats every week are showing up “tired and heavy burdened” looking for Jesus to give them rest for their weary souls. It’s not that they don’t think that it is important to raise money, live on mission, and see the lost found. Its not that they don’t think that there’s work to do. They know all that. It is that they live in this real world too, with bills to pay, tough relationships, broken hearts, and being harassed by the devil. What they need is the same thing the leader needs–love, grace, and compassion. This, of course, doesn’t mean that things don’t need to get done and that the hard truth must not also be spoken. It just means the love of God should be felt in our work and not merely be a doctrine to be systematized, or a point we make in a sermon.
Practical Theology: Law, Gospel, and Leading
How does this work practically? Think theologically. The law gives the bad news by exposing and condemning us for our sin. The gospel gives us the good news that Jesus takes our sin away and makes us righteous before God. Leaders tend to lead either from the law or the gospel.
If you lead with the law, the people, the staff, everyone around will end up exhausted with the labor, afraid of the leadership, too bored to dream, and too timid to attempt anything exceptional because the law isn’t too kind to failures. If you lead through the gospel, the people are loved, encouraged, motivated, and are given real sustenance for the ongoing work of the ministry!
So leader, lose yourself in the reckless love of God for you and for his people and give ‘em grace. And then give ‘em a little more.
Alex Early is is host of the Acts 29 Podcast, director of the Acts 29 West Academy, and author of the The Reckless Love of God.