November 6, 2018 Daniel McNaughton

What Can We Learn When Leaders Fail

Recently it happened again.  A long-respected leader made personal mistakes that resulted in his needing to step out of vocational ministry. Every time something like this happens, I have a plethora of feelings: shock, anger, sadness, frustration, embarrassment, and deep disappointment to name a few.  I also recommit myself to helping people and churches be healthy and accountable, not just for themselves, but for Jesus and His Kingdom.  I also commit myself to humbly seek God about areas in my life that need His grace and spiritual adjustment.

One of the greatest joys of my life is walking alongside church leaders as a coach and consultant to help them get where God is calling them to go.  One of the first things I do is coach a leader through a self-discovery process that helps them see where they are in their personal discipleship.  It’s like an annual physical for healthy spiritual leaders. You do not have to crash and burn as a leader to discover you are not healthy and need to make some adjustments.  As leaders make adjustments, their love for Jesus increases (or in some cases returns), spiritual health is built, and they are more likely to see growth of some kind in their leadership. Healthy things grow!

As leaders make adjustments, their love for Jesus increases (or in some cases returns), spiritual health is built, and they are more likely to see growth of some kind in their leadership.

The alignment process is based mostly on Matthew’s description of the actions Jesus required and declarations Jesus made to his disciples when he first invited them to follow him.  I believe there are at least seven attributes of those who follow Jesus:

  1. They spend time with Jesus (Matt. 4:19).
  2. They hear his word and obey it (Matt. 4:20; 7:24-27).
  3. They learn to heal (Matt. 4:23-24).
  4. They learn to influence others in a way that brings God glory (Matt. 5:13-16).
  5. They learn to love others, even their enemies (Matt. 5:21-48).
  6. They learn to pray (Matt. 6:5:15).
  7. They learn to manage their resources (time, money, and body) to advance God’s kingdom (Matt. 6:19-33).

Jesus helped His followers develop these attributes in four contexts:

  1. The large group (Matt. 5:2)
  2. A small group (Matt. 13)
  3. One-on-one (Matt. 18:20)
  4. Alone with God (Matt. 6:6; Luke 5:16)

When leaders are growing in all seven attributes while living out their faith in the four contexts, and help others do the same, they thrive.  But we all need realignment from time to time.  When I need fresh spiritual alignment or when I’m helping someone else find theirs, I find the following four commitments helpful.

First, commit to a healthy balance between giving out and replenishing.  We may be giving out more than we are replenishing. While that certainly happens from time-to-time, it shouldn’t be a lifestyle. God requires all his followers to take 24 hours each week for replenishment. Instead of seeing it as a gift, many leaders see Sabbath as a punishment.  Instead of receiving it as a command, many leaders treat Sabbath as a suggestion.  I am surprised how often leaders think that command does not apply to them or when they lie to themselves in various ways to get around it.  From my experience, lack of Sabbath is always part of a personal crash.

God requires all his followers to take 24 hours each week for replenishment. Instead of seeing it as a gift, many leaders see Sabbath as a punishment.  Instead of receiving it as a command, many leaders treat Sabbath as a suggestion.

Second, commit to healthy boundaries.  What are you responsible for and what are you not responsible for?  For example, I’m responsible for my physical, mental, and emotional health.  I’m not responsible for someone else’s feelings, dreams, urges, or perceptions.  If you think you may have some work to do in this area, I highly recommend the New York Times best seller book Boundaries by Henry Cloud and John Townsend.  People who crash often take on responsibilities that God never intended.

Third, commit to honesty to God, with yourself, and others. We all need places of confession and people to whom we can confess. My journal is full of lament.  I need a small group where I can be an authentic follower of Jesus like everyone else.  I need trusted people to whom I can confess my temptation and sin (James 5:16).  I’m often surprised and saddened when a leader admits they have no one to whom they can be honest.  Richard Foster provides a good summary of the discipline of confession in his classic book The Celebration of Discipline.

Fourth, commit to humility.  Sometimes leaders forget they need Jesus as much as anyone.  I need God’s word, not just so I can do my job as a communicator, but also as one who needs to grow daily in my walk with Jesus.  I need God’s word to remind me what needs realignment and how to realign it.  I find it is helpful to read through God’s word annually.  It reminds me what’s important to God and it protects me from my tendency to focus only on my favorite passages.  I need the whole counsel of God washing over my life.  I also need a small group where I can be a human being in need of God’s grace.  I have heard the arguments for why a leader doesn’t need a small group, but I am convinced that the humility it takes to be vulnerable and human in a small group can help a person avoid a big crash.  We all need to encounter Jesus in the midst of others as much as anyone.  When my ego needs adjustment, I like to read books like In the Name of Jesus by Henri Nouwen and Life Together by Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

I have heard the arguments for why a leader doesn’t need a small group, but I am convinced that the humility it takes to be vulnerable and human in a small group can help a person avoid a big crash.

I have found that leaders and congregations thrive when they focus on helping people grow those seven attributes in all four contexts and with an accountability structure to support that growth.  I have yet to see a leader crash and burn when those things are in place.  I know it’s possible because Judas did it, but I just haven’t seen it.

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If you would like to do an annual spiritual life physical on yourself, click this link.  If you would like to learn more about growing in the seven attributes, you can check out my book Learning to Follow Jesus at www.learningtofollow.net or through Amazon.com.

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