Several years ago, I had a conversation with a wonderful servant of God who has worked for several “high-profile” Christian leaders in the past two decades. This is a person for whom I have the utmost respect—an individual with a very gracious spirit, incredible gift mix, and true servant’s heart. And this is a person who has expended sacrificial service to the Lord with great poise and faithfulness. Yet, in our conversation, I was sad to discover the mistreatment and disrespect that this person had endured from a well-known evangelical leader. The conversation was brief, appropriate, and rather vague, but enough for me to see that this person had lost a lot of respect for someone once held in high esteem.
Flesh is powerful. Flesh is demanding. Flesh in leadership is ugly—really ugly. Flesh in leadership finds it easy to ride roughshod over people. Flesh enjoys “ripping face.” Flesh reasons that someone “deserves it.” Flesh enjoys dominance. Flesh finds fulfillment in being insulting—especially in a group. Flesh loves to assert and reassert itself. Sometimes it masquerades as well-meaning. Sometimes it rationalizes the “ends justifies the means”—after all, the ministry outcome is for the Lord. But for those on the other end of the “flesh trip”—it always hurts.
- Fleshly leaders demand. Spiritual leaders inspire.
- Fleshly leaders rip face. Spiritual leaders shepherd.
- Fleshly leaders fly off. Spiritual leaders reconnect.
- Fleshly leaders remind you where you failed. Spiritual leaders help you know how to win.
- Fleshly leaders talk down to. Spiritual leaders communicate respect toward.
- Fleshly leaders blame you. Spiritual leaders mentor you.
- Fleshly leaders grasp for respect. Spiritual leaders earn respect.
- Fleshly leaders remind you of their position. Spiritual leaders remind you of Jesus.
- Fleshly leaders block you out. Spiritual leaders welcome you in.
- Fleshly leaders are unapproachable. Spiritual leaders are transparent.
- Fleshly leaders are authoritarian. Spiritual leaders are humble authorities.
In this post, I speak to me. I am made of flesh. And too often, over the years, I have found myself in moments when flesh masqueraded itself as “spiritual leadership.” I was harder on someone than I should have been—a rebellious teen, a struggling Christian, a growing staff member, my own son or daughter. I’ve had to look back and see times when I responded in frustration rather than Spirit-filling. How I would have been better to let my frustration settle, turn the mirror back on myself, seek the gracious temperament of the Holy Spirit, and then approach that other person as they are in truth—a precious child of God.
And then I look at Jesus. He has all authority. He is the King of Kings. He has all power. He is the great God of the universe. If anyone had a right to deal in authoritarian practices and tones, it was Jesus. Yet, He is the perfect expression of authority that isn’t authoritarian. The perfect balance of power expressed with humble compassion. He dealt firmly. He dealt strongly. He dealt authoritatively. But He wasn’t harsh. He wasn’t caustic, insulting, or demeaning. He didn’t treat everyone else around Him like He knew everything and they were all stupid. (Which was actually true, in this case!) He treated them like a shepherd. He was gentle, kind, compassionate, caring, forgiving, patient, and nurturing. Sure there were moments where Jesus dealt very strongly and directly with sin, false religious leaders, and outright blasphemy. But to those He led—He did so with the pristine qualities of a shepherding leader.
People don’t respond to “harsh” or fleshly leadership. In fact, “harsh” is perhaps the ugliest quality of modern leadership. It shuts people down. It is entirely uninspiring, demotivating, suffocating. “Harsh” kills the heart, smothers spiritual desire, and starves the soul. “Harsh” hurts. “Harsh” kicks someone in the gut rather than breathing life and energy into them. “Harsh” impeads forward progress, quenches the Holy Spirit, and stifles a team. “Harsh” never inspired anybody. “Harsh” is just… well… repulsive!
If you serve the Lord and lead people, they probably yearn to get it right. They probably work hard to get it right—even when they fail. They probably long to please you and the Lord. They probably grasp for every positive word of encouragement you could share. They probably are genuinely stronger than you in some areas, and could benefit by hearing you acknowledge it—I know my team is. They are probably inspired to action and rallied to greater focus, rising up to greater levels of service every time you are the inspiring, Christ-like leader that the Holy Spirit enables you to be. And they are probably sucked dry of life and energy every time you return to “harsh” flesh.
And so, just a convicting word to me—and perhaps to you, whether you lead a 6th grade girl-scout cookie sale, a youth group, a student body, or a church family. “Harsh” is not listed in the fruits of the Spirit. People have to put up with harsh all the time. It’s everywhere in secular culture and the modern work place. But it’s just really nasty when it’s pretending to be “spiritual.”
When all is said and done. When it’s all over. When our time of serving the Lord and leading His sheep is wrapping up and we are headed home for the marriage supper. I know this for certain. We will regret the times our flesh stepped in. We will wish we could rewind and undo those moments. And we will reap the rewards for the times we shepherded God’s own with grace, humility, and compassion—just like Jesus—a true spiritual leader.