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How Leaders Can Foster Resentment

If you are a leader, you’re probably not planning to foster resentment or to hurt people. But you might be on a road that leads there, and not know it.

May I begin with this quantifier: resentment is always a bad choice and never justified. Those who become resentful are making a choice to respond wrongfully. Never-the-less, do I want to be a leader that cultivates an environment that germinates resentment? No.

There are many ways that strong teams can move from appreciation to resentment over time. There are many ways leaders can lose credibility and influence, but this post is not about the obvious paths.

This post is about the subtle ways leaders can cultivate a culture of over-drive that grows resentment. There is an avoidable “leadership path” that backfires or recoils over a period of time.

Often, I say to our church family, “If we can’t get there by loving Jesus, then we don’t want to get there any other way.” Of the many motivational tools available to a leader, there is only one healthy and sustainable motivation in the Christian life—the love of Jesus Christ.

People will “do good things” out of pressure or obligation—they will respond to many different, lesser motivations, but in the end, all other motivations somehow crumble or breakdown. If I’m doing anything in my Christian life for reasons other than love (or motives that love would produce), I’m destined to see my passion ultimately decay, possibly into resentment. The very essence of grace-driven Christianity is to allow love to be the primary motive of all ministry.

The motive of love keeps ministry enjoyable, compelling, and delightful! The purity of love allows one to thrive in service, while also maintaining personal balance. The motive of love continually enlarges the heart—making it more gracious, more generous, more Christ-like, and more “moderate” or appropriately balanced (to use Paul’s term in Philippians 4.)

Lesser motivations, however, have the opposite effect. They gradually strangle life, energy, and passion. These motives deteriorate over time into something less joyful and more burdensome, which is but a few steps away from agitation, and resentment. A heart not motivated by love eventually hits a wall, and asks, “Why am I doing this? Who is making me?” Any answer other than “love for Jesus” is one that could eventually end in resentment.

The path of resentment is avoidable, by both leaders and the teams they lead. For now, I want to focus on what we as leaders can do to rid our motivational toolbox of tactics that might be effective in the short-term, but unhealthy in the long-term.

Resentment May be Growing When…

Personal agenda comes before God’s vision. A personal agenda will cause me to push and use people to “make me successful” rather than helping others to become successful in God’s will. God’s vision produces joyful servant-leadership, while a personal agenda is exploitative. There’s a difference between “using people” and helping them to “be used by God.” A simple way to say it is this: If my team is serving me, we’re on a bad road. If together we are serving Jesus, we’re on a good road!

Pushing takes the place of leading. Pushing is subtly different than leading. It’s harder and hotter than it needs to be. Perpetual pushing will condition you and your team to continual over-drive. A fatigued team becomes a divisive, agitated, irritable team—or at the very least a discouraged team. Ministry is never intended to be a state of perpetual, joyless exhaustion or discouragement.

Over-extension becomes the norm. Living on the ragged edge will make the leader irritable, the team tired and fearful, and the ministry culture unhealthy. Marriages and families will also feel the stress, and the church family will not be helped by the display of bad, imbalanced examples.

Short-term fruit is valued more than long-term health. The upside to over-extension is the most deceptive part of the picture. Hard work (which is biblical) pays off—therefore incessant hard work has a bigger short term reward! Achievement is intoxicating, and the results give a short-term euphoria that’s hard to resist. Is it possible to become addicted to productivity?

Warning signs are dismissed. The urgency of busyness subtly deceives the heart into feeling valuable and vital. Yet, relationships spread thin by missed sleep and neglect will begin to feel the stress fractures. This will take a harsh toll over time as our children grow up to resent ministry, or our churches become revolving doors of burn out for both staff and lay leaders.

Enough is never enough. There’s a fine line between contentment and complacency. Complacency is lazy. But contentment will press forward with balance—non-destructively. Deterioration can come at two wildly different paces. Complacency brings low-energy, gradual deterioration—like a slow rot. But over-drive brings high-energy deterioration—like a fast-burning rocket. God’s agenda will keep you contentedly moving forward without burning out.

Competition or comparison is encouraged. Pitting the team players against each other is a sure way to ultimately hurt the whole team. A “laboring together” spirit will be eaten up by self-glory that edges out God’s glory. When this happens, the team that should thrive with camaraderie, appreciating each others’ strengths, will fracture with competition.

Leading by fear. Fear has two contexts—one healthy, one unhealthy. Reverence is healthy fear, fright is unhealthy fear. God’s word calls us to fear Him, but not to fear men. And His word teaches that He does not give us a spirit of fear, but of love and power and a sound mind. Perfect love, God says, “casteth out fear.” Fear is a valid secular leadership tactic, and it can produce results, but not healthy results. Again, if we can’t get there by loving Jesus, do we really want to get there any other way?

If I’m Leading this Way, I May be Fostering Eventual Resentment 

An unsustainable pace is destined to break. At some point the smothered leader or smothered team must come up for air, and it is then that they will often feel hurt by the pressure that held them under-water for so long. Some leaders ignore the need for air, shift the blame, and continue to push the agenda forward regardless of the high price being paid.

As a leader, I cannot be accountable for an over-driven person’s private imbalances. But I will be held accountable if my leadership choices or philosophy fostered a culture of imbalance.

Like certain conditions grow mold on bread, so certain team conditions grow unhealthy responses. As those who grow resentful should forgive, so those who cultivated the seeds should forge a more biblical and balanced leadership philosophy.

You and your team are like a rubber-band. You are bound together by purpose and healthy tension. In right proportion, and with the right spirit and motives, productivity is a beautiful and wonderful thing. Your cause (God’s vision) is the good tension that pulls you forward and makes you effective together.

Stretching the rubber-band tighter and further eventually becomes a problem. Everyone knows the rubber-band has limits. Inevitably the rubber-band will snap. The forces that once worked together for good can painfully recoil.

An unhealthy pace is destructive. A healthy pace is collaborative. Leaders must learn how to restrain their personal agenda to protect the team from the leader’s flesh. (Yes, I just said I want to learn to restrain my personal agenda to protect my team from my flesh, that we all might enjoy seeing God’s vision come to be in His time, His way.)

I challenge you to refuse to allow your team to make ministry sacrifices that are self-destructive. Put the glory of God and the spiritual health of people first, as the Lord would. Lead from a healthy soul and take quick corrective action when things lean out of balance.

You can lead from healthy balance, and your team will thrive. Or you can lead from unhealthy imbalance and your team will eventually feel the pull of resentment. Your leadership will either create a culture of fear or a culture of grace. People thrive under grace, but shrivel up under fear.

Jesus died to provide His beloved sheep with hearts over-flowing in grace. Doesn’t it make sense for His under-shepherds to lead God’s sheep in a culture of grace as well? Would the Good Shepherd call His under-shepherds to over-drive or threaten the sheep for which He died?

Have we not seen enough stories play out to the negative over the past few generations? Have we not seen enough families disintegrate over imbalances and the resulting sin? Have we not seen enough young people grow up and run from fear-based, ego-driven cultures?

Fifty years of a healthy ministry pace is much more fruitful and powerful than five or fifteen years of an unsustainable pace that self-destructs. Reject the impulse to push rather than lead. Reject the impulse to over-drive with fear rather than lead forward with grace and patience.

If people are willfully choosing to follow your leadership, it’s probably because they love Jesus, love you, and love serving Him with you. Honor and appreciate that love and labor, don’t strangle it.

Be a leader they enjoy following, not the leader they are afraid of irritating. In my 26 years of ministry, I know I’ve regretfully been both at various times, but I know which one Jesus would make me. At the end of my race, I know which leader I desire to have been.

Lead in love, and your team will thrive. And one day they will thank you!

“With good will doing service, as to the Lord, and not to men: 8 Knowing that whatsoever good thing any man doeth, the same shall he receive of the Lord, whether he be bond or free. 9 And, ye masters, do the same things unto them, forbearing threatening: knowing that your Master also is in heaven; neither is there respect of persons with him.” (Ephesians 6:7-9)

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