Confessions of a broken "leader" and the search for better ways

The second in our series on Becoming an Irrelevant Leader

Last week I wrote on our blog here that impact isn’t our first priority. Even though we write about impact most of the time and tell stories of people and companies that are changing the world for better while earning a strong profit, we aren’t striving for impact first. We're striving for Jesus first. After all, the impact doesn’t even come from within us.

Confession time: I didn't just write that post hoping it would help our audience; I wrote it as a reminder and caution for myself.

You see, a few years ago, I found myself feeling crushed by life--a big leadership role at work and high performance expectations coupled with the demands of a growing family left me cranky, stressed, worn out, and pretty much un-fun to be around. I'd accepted an ill-fitting burden called "the american dream" and mixed it with some Jesus stuff and come up with my own gospel narrative that goes something like this: I work hard; therefore, I find success.

Success in my mind meant a nice house, healthy family, great job where people think I'm amazing and I get to do work that is significant in my eyes and the eyes of other Christians. It sounds awful as I write it, but that's basically what I thought. (Alright, I still battle the temptation today). 

But this gospel, my gospel, wasn't working. I was unhappy and making others around me unhappy. And I was facing a bunch of questions. 

How can someone who is driven to achieve, desires to make a difference, and excels at strategy keep from pursuing her vision at the expense of what matters most?

How does someone who is wired with the gift of service and a desire to contribute to the happiness and wellbeing of others live out that calling without letting other people’s opinions falsely shape his sense of self? 

How can ministry or business teams function well, recognizing the uniqueness of each member, creating room for mercy and grace while striving for excellence and measurable progress?

Furthermore, how does Jesus expect us to reconcile these two seemingly conflicting statements?

  1. “in repentance and rest is your salvation; in quietness and trust is your strength”
  2. “go and make disciples of all the nations”

When I needed it most, Jesus reached through my fog and brought me, not answers, but some helpful tools through my favorite pastor, Craig Babb at Rhythm of Grace ministries. These tools have so changed my paradigm of what it means to be a follower of Christ and a "leader" that I want to share with you. In fact, I don't think of it as leadership at all but more "followership".

First, it starts with hearing the words of Jesus in his Great Invitation in Matthew 11:28

“Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.”

What a huge relief! Jesus knows how I feel. I am tired. I am worn out from trying to "behave" like a Christian should. From trying to lead well and do the things people need from me. From striving to be the person I want everyone to think I am.

My striving can cease when I trust the outcomes and impact to the only One who can actually bring it about. When I go to work with Him instead of on my own, I find freedom and the fruit that I was unable to produce on my own. 

Another teaching that gives me great strength for "followership" comes from a metaphor of "Pitcher/Cup/Saucer/Plate".

Life as a follower of Christ - whether we’re leading a ministry, working in a giant corporation, part of a local church, or stewarding a family – is meant to follow a certain pattern of relationships. Picture a teacup sitting on a saucer that is sitting on a plate. There’s a pitcher of water next to it all. 

God is the pitcher and the water is the Holy Spirit. The first step is for the water to pour into the cup, symbolizing our need to continually come to God and be filled with His empowering spirit. Continually, as in all the time. Not just 15 minutes in the morning. Not just Sundays for 2 hours. Continually. This is the first priority of any Christian or as Jesus said, the first commandment. 

Only this overflow of communion with the father fills the saucer, which represents our community. Each of our families, local church communities, work teams, or ministry teams only really function well when the individual members go to their Father regularly to be filled with His loving, empowering Spirit. Jesus models this throughout the Gospels as He often retreats from the crowd to pray and spend time with his Father and with his closest disciples (examples: Luke 11:1, John 11: 41, Luke 5:15, John 17, etc.)

Once each individual is filled and the community is healthy, then the plate, representing the world around us, can be reached with the Good News. Paul uses the metaphor of a body to make this point in 1 Corinthians 12 where he instructs us that God intends for each of us to use our individual gifts together to create something more than we could on our own. Healthy individuals bring their gifts to a healthy community, through which God does His healing work in the world.

The pitcher/cup/saucer/plate metaphor is consistent with the context of Jesus’ command that we have come to call the Great Commission. Before telling His disciples to baptize and make disciples of all nations, He says, “all authority on Heaven and Earth has been given to me.” The authority is His. “Therefore, go and make disciples…” Our ability to reach people for good comes from the author and owner of all that is Good.

At least that’s the way it is supposed to work.

But too often we distort things. I've lived and seen two primary dysfunctions. First, we tend to put the plate on top of everything else in our zeal to reach the world or accomplish our mission. The result is dried out cups—overworked, burnt out leaders or worse, some kind of moral failing. The sad tale of the World Vision’s founder should serve as a caution for those of us similarly compelled by a big vision. You can read the whole story on Christianity Today’s site

If we see our own burnout or react to a failed leader, sometimes we’ll make the second and equally devastating mistake of putting the saucer of community up on top. 

We say to ourselves, “That other church/ministry failed me and what I really need is good, deep fellowship with other believers. I’m joining with these people and we’re going to do fellowship like it hasn’t been done since the church in Acts.” 

We pour out our lives in service to our fellow believers, leading small groups and building “authentic” relationships. But we can still end up with dried out cups when we discover these people are just as lost and broken as the other community we left.

Missions and community work only when they’re kept in priority with the plate under the saucer and filled cups resting on top. 

We're striving to keep things in rightful order as we build Impact Foundation. Far from perfect in practice, we're learning to work and to walk with Jesus in his unforced rhythms. If you'd care to join us on this walk, you can follow our "leadership" stream on the blog.