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Leading Healthy Change Part 4

We’re talking about leading healthy change.

In Part One we discussed discerning “good change” and “bad change”—we essentially discovered that spiritual growth is change, and if you resist change, you’re resisting the work of what the power of the gospel actually does!

In Part Two we discussed the starting point of appreciating “what is” and managing the tension between “what is” and “what could be”—the tension between reality and the vision. Mismanaging that tension will dramatically affect your attitude as a leader—which dramatically impacts everything else. This section was really about learning to operate with a contented heart and a biblical vision simultaneously.

In Part Three we began discussing the first two of six steps in the process—building healthy relationships and communicating effectively.

In this post, I want to regress a bit and build on the point of building healthy relationships—as this is the foundation of everything else you do in ministry and in leading gospel-oriented change.

Authenticity is the key.

This is simply about loving people because you love them and because God gives you a heart to do so, not because you want something from them or you merely want them to follow you. Can you serve and love simply because God has shaped your heart that way? Do you love the people who don’t follow well? Do you serve those who don’t reciprocate in the relationship? Can you love and hurt for those who hurt you?

Nearly every time I’ve ever bought a car, the salesman quickly works to fabricate a relationship. With contrived sincerity, he is suddenly my best friend. Why? Because he wants his commission. But there are exceptions. I recently purchased a vehicle in which the salesman, a fellow-believer, had a completely different approach. In short, he was authentic. He obviously wasn’t fabricating a surface sincerity or contrived interest in me.

His authenticity as a Christian was disarming and clearly real. We actually became friends, shared our testimonies, rejoiced in good things that God was doing in each of our lives, and have had contact after the purchase. I sent him some books and have been praying for the people he’s been witnessing to.

The point is, the very nature of authenticity means it cannot be faked. Yet, I’ve met my fair share of spiritual leaders that come off like used car salesmen—contrived. (And I might add, I don’t think it’s always because of insincerity as much as an insecurity that compels us to feel that we must “put on” some pre-defined pastoral persona, which we will get to in a moment.)

Attempting to fake it is always obvious. Authenticity brings with it an essence, a tangible and unpretentious quality of realism and sincerity. Authenticity only happens when a leader drops his guard, stops pretending to have it all together, loses the “pastor-persona”, and admits his vulnerability and fear. Authenticity can only grow from the garden of humility—a biblical, gospel-oriented view of self that is neither self-exalting,  nor self-deprecating—and it isn’t self-secluding either.

Being Comfortable Being Myself

My first months in the pastorate were the most insecure days of my life. Much of my internal spiritual world was occupied by fear, anxiety, and discouragement. I often felt overwhelmed with the work of seeing a dying church return to health. In the middle of all that, one of my greatest struggles was feeling safe just being myself. It was hard to accept myself as Jesus does and to relax in who and how God created and shaped me. I was plagued with caricatures and pre-conceived pastoral personas which I had seen throughout my life, and wondering “which one I was supposed to be.” I was often getting counsel from faithful, godly friends and mentors, which led to feeling conflicted that perhaps I should be more like one of them or do ministry the way they do.

There came a break-through moment when God said to my heart, “Are you doing this or am I? Why don’t you stop searching for a pastoral identity and just live out the one I’ve already given you? You have my permission to be you. You are mine and this church is mine, and you have my permission to be who I created you to be and to let this church be what I want it to be—regardless of what others think or the opinions of other men.”

This was also regardless of the results! In other words, my greatest fear was not outside opinions, but rather the success and health of those closest to me in the church. The nagging thought was, “What if they don’t like who I am—then how can I reach them or help them grow?” God set me free from this struggle by reminding me that He was responsible for results, whatever they may be.

In a way, He said, “You be you, let Me be Me, and let my church be what I make it! Outside opinions of other men in other places are irrelevant to my work in this place.”

What a loving, liberating, wonderful rebuke this was! It was a reminder that God’s chastening is for our good, and always results in spiritual health and hope. It was a reminder of God’s love for me, and His convicting thoughts set my heart free to simply be authentic—to be real. The same has happened for our church, and it’s wonderful to see the Lord Jesus allow our church to thrive in His grace.

Why is Authenticity So Vital?

Why is this vital? First, it’s critical for a leader’s personal sanity and spiritual maturity. Trying to “put on” a pastoral persona is a crushing, joyless thing, both to people and to the pastor. You will drive yourself and others crazy trying to be someone else! In fact, I find that the plastic “pastoral persona” that new people “think I will have” is actually one of the greatest hindrances to having genuine friendships and authentic relationships in local church life. The contrived “pastoral persona” has not helped gospel ministry because it generally ostracizes people and makes them feel awkward, judged, and unable to relate.

One of the greatest compliments anyone ever gives me is when they say, “You aren’t the typical pastor type! You’re like a regular person…” I don’t ever want to be the pastor-type—I just want to be a regular guy who loves Jesus and helps others to do the same.

Authenticity is critical secondly because relationships are about trust, and trust only grows through authenticity. The first and most common deterrent to people accepting and cooperating with healthy change is simply the trust factor. They suspect or distrust the intention or the direction of the leader. There are many reasons why they would distrust—perhaps you are new, perhaps you are young, perhaps you have behaved in a way that warrants it, perhaps you ostracize others and resist transparency. But the only way to build trust is by learning to drop your guard, be real, and lovingly serve people from the heart.

Relationships are Built on Trust

Simply put, healthy change cannot happen where there is not first trust. Trust takes time, trust requires closeness, trust grows in the garden of sincerity and authenticity. My friend Kurt Skelly says it this way, “Humility is a magnet—it attracts; while pride is the opposite, it repulses.” I’m certainly not saying I’ve got the “humility thing” down—only that genuine humility is an attractive quality in people, especially leaders. And genuine humility can only grow in the heart of a person who spends private time at the foot of the cross, reminded constantly of “who I really am” and “who Jesus has made me” by His undeserved grace and love.

All of this must be spiritually organic. In other words, none of it can be forced or manufactured—it can only come as fruit from the Holy Spirit and the gospel at work in your heart. If you attempt to fabricate humility or authenticity, it will come off like someone trying to pass off a pre-packaged, microwaved TV-dinner for a good-old-fashioned, home-cooked meal. Plastic leaders are a dime-a-dozen, and God’s people long for under-shepherds whose hearts are shaped, in reality, after their great Shepherd. God’s people have a Spirit-led intuition that helps them identify and connect with this kind of heart.

A plastic heart is no substitute for the true heart of Jesus!

Is There a Way to Hurry Trust?

There is one way to hurry trust—one way to speed up the development of relationships, but you’re not going to like it. This is sacred ground and requires a bit of explanation.

You cannot demand trust—you can only earn it. You do so by servant-leadership over a long time, except in one context—sacrifice.

Imagine the you don’t know me and I don’t know you. We are new to each other, and suddenly thrust into the same environment. Now imagine, where there is no relationship and no trust, we are both suddenly faced with immediate and imminent danger. Now let’s imagine that, without really knowing me, you thrust yourself into the danger to protect or save me from it. Let’s imagine that, with no thought for yourself, you protect me while at the same time sacrificing your own safety. Perhaps you lose your life, or perhaps you are injured in a way that will forever change your life.

Suddenly, without even knowing you well, I will trust you deeply. Your true heart will have been revealed in a moment of loving sacrifice.

This is what happened with Captain Sullenberger in January 2009. This man maintained great composure in the face of impossible danger and landed an Airbus A320 on the Hudson River. As a result, the lives of 155 people were saved. Those 155 people, to this day, have a deep bond, a relationship of trust and respect with Captain Sullenberger that nothing else but sacrifice could create.

One of the greatest motives for anyone to trust Jesus is the incomprehensible depths to which He went to sacrifice Himself for us. Refusal to trust Jesus is simply an admission that one does not grasp the magnitude of His love and sacrifice for them.

I’m not saying it’s fun or desirable. It cannot be created or scripted. But when God orchestrates and allows a leader to make a personal sacrifice for others, it is most likely His providence and grace allowing a bond of trust and love to develop more rapidly for His purposes.

One place we see this often is on the mission field, when a group of oppressed or impoverished people discover what a missionary sacrificed to come and help them. There are many ministry contexts in which sacrifice creates trust and facilitates strong relationships.

Credibility Establishes Authority

The summary of all of this thought on trust or healthy relationships is simply this:

Pastoral credibility is the foundation of pastoral authority

I understand the vital nature of God-given authority in leadership, but how often we misunderstand and misuse the idea of authority. Authority is not a thing unto itself. It never stands alone and it’s not to be leveraged to coerce or exploit God’s sheep. It is delegated by God, given for service to be expressed with love and gentleness, and should always rest firmly on the foundation of credibility and self-sacrifice.

How often, how loudly, how monotonously I have heard the drum of “pastoral authority” pounded on in my 40-year spiritual life-time. It’s a drum that, frankly, some need to stop banging so often and so loudly. We would do much better for people if we would focus more on the soil that grows the loving expression of spiritual authority.

The banging of this “authority-drum” betrays. It’s a subtle admission of insecurity and relational problems. Incessant reassertion of authority (position, power, or title) is a very real indicator that that the integrity of the authority has been compromised by hairline fractures in the foundation. In other words, more loudly and emotionally asserting or declaring my authority doesn’t strengthen it, it weakens it; and frankly reveals that there are more serious foundational problems at play in my leadership and maturity.

The tighter I squeeze, the more sure it will be that I will crush and lose whatever it is I’m squeezing. Having to shout over and over again, “I’m in charge here! Submit to my authority!” is just an indicator of relationships that are in the process of dissolving, not growing. This is not a family or a team, it’s an environment of distrust, a culture of fear laced with insecurity.

If I have to remind everybody that I’m in charge, then apparently, I’m not or I’m struggling with it. People eventually run from this kind of leadership, if for no other reason than that they get exhausted with the incessant yelling. Insecure leaders simply respond with more anger and call those people “rebellious.” Some people are rebellious. Some are just tired of the beatings.

Jesus was and is in charge. One reason people were so astounded by Him was that He behaved like an authority while at the same time living so humbly—He spoke with authority, acted with authority, and led with authority; but He lived with simplicity and humility. Look for yourself and ask how many times, when, and with whom did Jesus shout and demand submission to His authority? He generally operated in a love-driven, attractional world of good news truth and gracious ministry—hearts were attracted to Him and His words. He loved those who chose Him, those who did not, and those who walked away.

In fact, Jesus’ most demonstrative expression of righteous anger was actually directed at those abusing authority and oppressing His people—Pharisees, religious rulers, Jewish leaders.

In a spiritual environment of unconditional love, authenticity, and credibility, a leader doesn’t have to grasp for authority or demand authority—he just has it. Spiritual authority is established organically, not by force. Spiritual authority is granted not grasped. Spiritual authority is the by product of a love-driven, authentic, healthy leadership style that defers to Jesus and serves His people from a gospel-centered heart.

A child may resist authority, but ultimately the heart of the child will be won, not by power but by the authentic love of the parent. Power (authority) can repress and control for a short time; but love wins the heart. The New Testament model, both in Jesus and all other effective New Testament leadership was a love-driven, relationally-attractive model of leadership that wins the heart. It is a rare thing in the New Testament when a leader uses the “stick of authority” to leverage people, and when it happens it’s usually with God’s enemies, not His sheep.

There are exceptions, particularly when dealing with egregious, public sin in the church or when facing overt spiritual opposition—but again those cases were rare. The general operational philosophy of New Testament leadership could be summed up this way:

“But foolish and unlearned questions avoid, knowing that they do gender strifes. And the servant of the Lord must not strive; but be gentle unto all men, apt to teach, patient, In meekness instructing those that oppose themselves; if God peradventure will give them repentance to the acknowledging of the truth;” (2 Timothy 2:23-25)

I don’t recall where I sourced the following illustration, but I recently came across it in a blog post and found it poignant to this thought:

There is an Aesop’s fable that tells of the contest between the wind and the sun to see who can make a man remove his winter coat. Of course, the wind was arrogant and presumptuous, assuming that its great power could win this contest by force. But, as the story goes, the harder the wind blew, the more the man clung to his coat and gripped it more tightly to his body.

At last, the wind failed and it was the suns turn. The sun quietly beamed with light and warmth. The more the sun beamed, the warmer the man became, until finally he wanted to remove his coat. While the wind tried to force the man to change, the sun simply created an environment where the man wanted to change.

How are you leading change? How could your leadership style be characterized—the wind or the sun? How could your leadership attitude be described—blustering force or enlightening warmth? Do you create a power-trippy environment that causes people to hold more tightly to their traditions and comfort zones, or do you, by God’s grace, cultivate an environment of warmth and light that leads people toward growth and organic desire for healthy change?

Stay tuned for Part 5! Thanks for reading!

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