Craig was well-equipped for teaching God’s Word. He was committed to Christ, thoroughly educated, solid in his doctrine, and well-read. He loved to study Scripture and could preach outstanding sermons Sunday after Sunday.
He also saw himself as a gifted pastor. He loved to discuss theology, debate doctrinal issues, and tell people how to apply the truth of God’s Word to everyday life. When people came to him with questions or problems, he prided himself on helping them to quickly get to the heart of the matter by identifying underlying sins in their lives and developing practical plans to grow in godliness.
The trouble was that, as time went by, fewer and fewer people were coming to him for pastoral advice. He would have been shocked to learn that while most of the people in his church respected him as a gifted preacher, many had lost confidence that they could approach him safely with questions, personal problems, and especially criticism, no matter how graciously it was offered. So while Craig’s pulpit ministry seemed to be thriving, his pastoral ministry was withering day by day.
Jason, a pastor in another church, was flourishing in both his preaching and shepherding ministries. He loved to dig into God’s Word and prepare practical lessons and sermons, but he was equally passionate about coming alongside his people, understanding their struggles, and helping them live out the gospel in the issues of daily life. Like the apostle Paul, he had an “Acts 20:20 ministry,” teaching God’s Word “publicly and from house to house.” His people loved him, shared their struggles, ideas, and even their criticisms freely, and together they were growing in their love for God and their passion to build his church.
Craig and Jason shared many characteristics: excellent education, solid theology, and a passion to teach and preach. But there was one major difference between them: Month in and month out, Jason’s flock found him to be consistently approachable, while Craig’s congregation saw him as so distant and above them that they gave up coming to him with their life concerns. Craig was a fine preacher, but he had failed to earn the relational passport needed to shepherd the flock God had entrusted to his care.
Countless leaders in other settings—whether the home, ministry, or workplace—fall into this same habit, which destroys their ability to lead and minister to other people.
Without a Passport, You Cannot Enter
A passport is an authorization to go somewhere. There is no more difficult place to enter than the inner life and deep struggles of another person. If you want people to welcome you into their world—their real, messy world, not the smiling façade we all put up—you must earn a relational passport.
In order to gain a passport into the lives and struggles of other people, you must relate to them in such a way that they would answer “yes” to three key questions, each of which contains a variety of sub-questions that roll around in the back of people’s minds:
- Can I trust you? Will you maintain confidentiality? Will you lose respect for me or judge me if I allow you to see how badly I’ve blown it? Will you be gentle and patient, even when I’m exasperating? Will you reject me if I don’t do everything right? Will you assume the best about me, or will you jump to conclusions and blame me for all my problems? Can I trust you with the “fine china” of my life?
- Do you really care about me? Are you just politely tolerating me or fulfilling an obligation? Or do you really want to help me? Why? How could anyone love a person with such problems? Will you take time to listen to me? Do you care enough to push past my outer defenses and take time to help me sort out the tangled mess in my heart? Will you love me like Jesus does, even when I’m not very lovable?
- Can you actually help me? Are you competent to deal with my issues? How are you doing with your own challenges and struggles? Do you have a track record of successfully solving these kinds of problems? What kind of training or experience do you have? If this problem is beyond the two of us, do you have the humility and wisdom to help me find another person who has the experience I need?
Every time a leader engages someone, he or she is either building or destroying their own passport. Use a counseling story as a sermon illustration without fully concealing the identity of the counselees, and you’ve lost the trust of an entire congregation. Refer with mocking humor to a letter from a member, and you’ve signaled your entire flock not to share their concerns with you. Brush past a person who is clearly trying to catch your attention, and she may not reach out a second time. Jump to conclusions about the reasons for someone’s struggles, and the conversation will quickly come to an end. Give hurried or superficial advice, and your people will look elsewhere next time.
The Characteristics of an Approachable Leader
One of the most effective ways to gain a passport with your people is to deliberately and persistently cultivate the image of an “approachable” leader. An approachable leader makes people feel safe; they know they are welcome to come to you with questions, concerns, or even criticism. In order to gain this image and reputation, a leader needs to deliberately put off “passport killers” and cultivate attitudes and relational habits that encourage people to open up and draw near.
Maintain a “gentle authority slope.” The Bible teaches that God has established authority arrangements in the family, church, workplace, and in civil government to maintain peace and order. As Jesus warned in Mark 10:42-45, however, sin often tempts leaders to “lord it over” others by over-emphasizing their own authority and others' responsibility to be submissive. As servant-leaders cultivate the Christ-like attitude described in passages like Philippians 2:1-11, they can replace the “steep slope” of authoritarianism with a “gentle authority slope” that is easy for people to climb and invites them to bring questions, concerns, and correction to a leader rather than letting something fester.
- Fight pride and cultivate true humility. Leaders often have more training and experience than other people. This strength can easily become a weakness if a leader allows pride to produce a superior attitude that thoughtlessly rejects ideas, advice, or correction. As Andrew Murray writes,
All want of love; all indifference to the needs, the feelings, the weakness of others; all sharp and hasty judgments and utterances, so often excused under the plea of being outright and honest; all manifestations of temper and touchiness and irritation; all feelings of bitterness and estrangement, have their root in nothing but pride, that ever seeks itself.Many leaders conceal a proud attitude under a demeanor of humility, which is not the same as actual humility. One of the many evidences of actual humility is the inclination to “consider others better than yourself,” which results in valuing their thoughts and interests as highly as your own (Phil. 2:3-4). A closely related evidence of humility is to sincerely welcome critique and correction, no matter who brings the “observation” (Prov. 13:10, 17:10).