Ministry Today | Serving and empowering church leaders

Stay in the Lead

Why being too familiar with people in your congregation will limit your ministry.
Most of us find it difficult to live with the schedule and demands we have, the constant responsibilities and the burdens we carry. In an attempt to find some place to cast our cares, we often seek alliances that are not wise. When we do this, we put our ministries at risk.

The truth is it is easy to lose your edge as a leader by seeking affirmation and friendship from those you are called to lead. You simply cannot become common with people and remain in a position of authority as God's man in the house.

Most pastors deeply love people. It is that characteristic that makes them effective in ministry. Their warm hearts and effervescent personalities make them charismatic and ingratiating. And, yet, it is that same characteristic, left unbridled, that leads to trouble in the pews.

Trouble, you ask? Yes--it really is a problem when we as pastors seek to befriend those we serve. It really is a problem when we take them into confidence and ask them to understand us personally in a way that is not realistic.

Think of it as a father trying to share his personal struggles with his 8-year-old son. The son can go to the father with his struggles, but the father cannot go to the son.

In keeping with that metaphor, you can clearly see that being a good father sometimes means you cannot be a buddy with your son, such as when it is time for him to go to bed. If you do this, he will become confused by your constant change of roles and ultimately become disrespectful.

As in the case of the father who plays too much in the daytime and cannot get the son to know when the relationship has moved from buddy to authoritative figure, many of us are losing our authoritative edge because we have deposited our human issues, frustrations, marital problems, financial dilemmas and much, much more with people who come to us for help themselves.

I am not sharing anything with you that I have not been guilty of myself. The reality is that the struggle to serve people is heightened by the loneliness that accompanies ministry and the ever-existing criticism that comes from those who mistake the distance of leadership as arrogance and indifference to the needs of the people.

In short, we are kind of condemned either way we go. If we befriend the congregation, we become common and lose our effectiveness, but if we remain in our place as a covering and a leader, we are perceived as indifferent. What's a guy or gal to do? An example from the life of Moses might help here.

"Wherefore the people did chide with Moses, and said, 'Give us water that we may drink.' And Moses said unto them, 'Why chide ye with me? Wherefore do ye tempt the Lord?'

"And the people thirsted there for water; and the people murmured against Moses, and said, 'Wherefore is this that thou hast brought us up out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and our cattle with thirst?'

"And Moses cried unto the Lord, saying, 'What shall I do unto this people? They be almost ready to stone me.' And the Lord said unto Moses, 'Go on before the people, and take with thee of the elders of Israel; and thy rod, wherewith thou smotest the river, take in thine hand, and go'" (Ex. 17:2-5, KJV, emphasis added).

The rod Moses wielded was a symbol of authority. It was an authority he would use over and over again as he led the people of God. Oddly enough, the authority activated for him when he went before the people, allowing him to provide for their needs, quench their thirst and protect their interests. Authority often requires certain isolation in order to be effective.

Note that Moses was advised to surround himself with elders. It is so important that leaders find friendship with other leaders. Have you ever noticed the most difficult people for pastors to befriend are often other pastors? Perhaps the enemy knows that as long as he divides us, he can easily destroy us. As Jesus said, a house divided against itself will not stand (see Matt. 12:25).

Unity is critical among leaders--and yet it is so extremely difficult to attain. So, in lieu of stronger relationships with other clergy, we wrongly replace those relationships with deepening friendships within the congregation. I believe part of this is due to the fact that most pastors see their church members as their family, and thus try to operate the church as if it were in fact their family.

Certainly there are some aspects to church life that are similar to family--our love and compassion being a couple of them. But for the purpose of leadership and structure, another style has to be implemented. As Israel, our structure of leadership should be far more that of a holy nation and a royal priesthood (see Ex. 19:6; 1 Pet. 2:9).

The question then rises, how does one make the transition from a family of people to a nation of believers? The fact is, if a leader does not make that transition, the church will grow to a certain point and then digress. Growth is thwarted when a pastor insists on having a hand on every issue and doesn't transition to a leadership style that would accommodate real growth.

C'mon, pastor--it is time to walk in faith. You cannot baby-sit the congregation and reach the promised land. Take a leap of faith and go on before the people.

This was what Moses was called to do. He was called to take a people who went into Egypt as a family and bring them out of that same Egypt as a nation. He started his leadership walking with a people whom he later found it necessary to walk before.

As a father, Moses walked among the people. But as a leader he was called to go before them. I have seen many pastors stunt the growth of their churches simply because their own leadership style never transitioned from being a papa to being a pastor.

When the people chided Moses and were about to stone him, he cried out to God in desperation. God's answer to him was clear. Moses was in the wrong position with the people he sought to lead. God told him he had to "go on before the people."

Often we open ourselves up for disgruntled people to attack and assault us simply because we have overstayed our welcome, not maintained a professional distance and opened ourselves up for people to feel comfortable with attacking our leadership or undermine our vision. God's solution: Go on before the people.

Isn't that what leadership is all about anyway? Going before the people? I know that makes you a sitting duck. But staying with them makes you a turkey dinner! They roast you and serve you with cranberry sauce because you got too close to the kitchen. You become vulnerable to their verbal abuse. Many of us suffer from exactly the thing my mother always warned me of: "Familiarity breeds contempt!"

Many of you have spent your entire ministry trying to convince the people that you are a touchable leader only to find out that too much touching brings contamination. Remember what Jesus told Mary after the resurrection? " 'Do not cling to Me, for I have not yet ascended to My Father'" (John 20:17).

I know Jesus was speaking from a Messianic perspective, but there is a message here for those of us who are on a mission. When you are on your way up, be careful who you let touch you. There is a thin line between a comforting touch and a complete contamination of your destiny and purpose.

When God told Moses to "go on before the people," He did it so that Moses could assume the role that would be needed for leading the people through the perils of the wilderness. This is true for us as well. This is not a hiking trip or a family excursion we're on. This is a perilous trip that requires a clear line of delineation between leadership and laity.

Being a leader means you encounter the trouble first. You endure the loneliness that comes with being a leader, and you pay the price to command the troops. For where God is taking the church in the 21st century, we desperately need leaders who have said yes to the price of loneliness and are able to make a distinction between a friend and a member.

I am learning, sometimes the hard way, that the best friend you have is Jesus, then those He sends into your life. I share this with you so you will not make the costly mistake of opening yourself up to the inevitable chiding of people with whom you should have never walked closely in the first place.

The Hebrew word translated "chide" in Exodus 17:2-5 is often rendered "strive." It also means "to scold or sharply censure." It is applied to mutinous protests and reproaches of inferiors to a superior. It would be comparable to the more contemporary term "insubordination."

If you are finding yourself with an open mutiny and are quick to call it a satanic attack, before you give the enemy too much credit, check if you have been frolicking with troops who now find it comfortable to raise a ruckus against what God has sent you to do.

Harry Truman said, "If you want a friend in Washington, get a dog." Maybe our role isn't quite that tough. But I will say, "If you are looking for a friend, go on before your troops."

Somewhere out in the thicket of leadership, you will no doubt run into some other pastor stumbling through the brush and the prairie. He will be glad to have someone to talk with while you lead the troops homeward to the Lord.

T.D. Jakes is pastor of The Potter's House church in Dallas and author of the new book God's Leading Lady (Putnam), about releasing and supporting women in leadership roles.

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