One of my favorite movies growing up was Braveheart, and in some ways became an inspiration for my early outlook on leadership. In our modern narrative, a leader is a hero, a William Wallace. Eyes set on making an impact, rallying others around a God-inspired vision by using natural charisma, and looking for strategic ways to engage others in the cause—this was my agenda.
If you are looking for tools and techniques for that leadership agenda it is a million dollar industry and I understand why. It would be hard to find a person who does not want to become a better leader; I know I do. In most people’s imagination to be a better leader is to focus on the skills and capacities of the 'lead dog' and find ways to increase those skills. I’ve attended numerous leadership conferences over the years that offered me ways to become a better preacher, a better manager, a better organizer, better vision caster, and a better recruiter.
The Idolatry of Impact
Those desires are primal and real, but underneath I've discovered an ambition. An ambition I've known in my own life—the desire to make an impact. The passion for “making an impact” is displayed on many of our church websites and is championed from many of our pulpits. This idea of 'impact' is baked into our discipleship for being a Christian and crescendos in our leadership development.
What often goes unnoticed is what that ambition does to our souls. Impact has connotations of a meteor slamming into a region, leaving behind a massive hole. Our powerful portraits of making an impact have done just that, left us with gaping holes; craters in the formation of our character. It is possible, maybe even probable, to make a big impact for God but lose our souls.
It has been pandemic in the last few years to see the character of dynamic church leaders crumble either through sexual sin, spiritual abuse, relational bullying, or financial impropriety. These are no longer freak occurrences, they are now commonplace. What can be observed in many of these leaders was how big an impact their churches and organizations were making.
There is a dynamic to making an impact that disguises the catastrophic holes in our own character. When 'making an impact for God' is the center of our attention it can numb our senses to the health of our own emotional and relational character. I've watched far too many leaders gradually have their character eroded in the pursuit of doing something significant for the Kingdom.
The Hungry Ego
When Impact is leading us, no matter how much spiritual jargon we cover it with, it will lead us to feed our egos. The ego desires measurable impact, to survey it's affect on others, to tally up it's victories, and gather positive reviews on it's reputation. These feed the ego, slowly turning it into a monster. Do people like our sermons? Do they like our programs? Do guest's enjoy their experience? Are we growing numerically? These are natural questions but they covertly point us in the wrong direction and bolster our ego. With the plethora of resources available to leaders we can manufacture 'impact' without the careful work character. Jesus himself faced this leadership temptation himself.
As Jesus was entering into public ministry leadership he faced three real threats to his character in the form of “making a big impact”. Notice that the temptations were primarily focused on Jesus’ efficiency and legitimacy. Two times Satan led by saying, “If you are the Son of God . . .” As leaders, we should notice how the enemy operates here. Satan was seeking to pull Jesus into an approach to leadership that operated out of a distorted and broken sense of significance. I've heard those voices in my head many times “If you are strong leader..., If you are a great pastor..., If you are dynamic pastor...?” We need to develop an ethical lens for interpreting the big business of Leadership sold to us. The Enemy tried to sell Jesus on a brand of Leadership and he's still doing it today.
Satan starts his assault by saying, “...tell those stones to become bread” (Mt 4:3). Can you hear the sense of strength in this form of leadership? “You are the Son of God! Use your power!” Satan was appealing to Christ’s ability to produce what is needed, now, at the moment. Jesus apparently had done nothing visibly significant for thirty years. How could Jesus be satisfied with this?
Our church cultures ask the same question: “What have you achieved? How have you demonstrated your usefulness? What have you produced?” The typical lens for framing a leader that 'produces' within the church is borrowed from CEO-style organizations rather than the story of the early church. The growth of most Fortune 500 companies is offered as a strategy for success. In 1995, for example, the book Jesus, CEO was published. We can easily cut and paste verses to fit our CEO mentality and use them out of context. The purposes of a corporation are not the purposes of a church. Using corporate techniques will inevitably distort our character as leaders, we now have too many local and national examples to deny this.
Perform For Us
Next Jesus was taken to see all the magnificence of the earth. Satan seemed to taunt him by saying, “Look at what everybody else has, and you don’t have any of it. Take control, apprehend what you deserve and command the angels concerning you” (Mt 4:5 The Kingdom New Testament). Satan was essentially asking Jesus to manipulate God by forcing him to show his power in a public way. When we envision what can be, we are tempted to control, coerce and manipulate impact. So we speak boldly about our capacities and use spiritually charged lingo to declare how effective our church is going to be. Leaders who have too much of their identity wrapped up in performance tend to be highly competitive & defensive. We are tempted to find ways to sensationalize, stimulate visibility and create buzz-worthy results.
Lastly, Satan invited Jesus to the highest point of the mountain and “showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor. ‘All this I will give you,” (Mt 4:8-9). At this point people didn’t think anything of Jesus. He was, in effect, invisible. Some of us are people pleasers and long for others to receive us, want us, affirm us, placing a high premium on what people think about us. Our leadership self-image soars with a compliment and plummets with criticism. We are constantly seeking to impress with the cleverness of our communication, the brilliance of our insight, and the confidence of our personality. This temptation is growing like weeds in our culture because so many of us are heavily influenced by celebrity preachers. Listening weekly to a podcast of a preacher with charisma and a massive platform has the potential to wreak havoc on our desires. When we are spiritually influenced by popular communicators, we are tempted to imitate them as a means of making an impact.
The temptations are strong and have infiltrated many of our leadership strategies. We need to deconstruct the Leadership paradigms that have tricked us into believing they are good for us and good for our churches. In the New Testament the word leader is generally avoided. The apostle Paul avoided elevating himself over others and instead used terms like co-laborer, co-worker (1 Cor 3:9; Phil 2:25). Christian leadership is not intended to be a “one-man band,” with a solitary figure declaring from a pulpit or executive office, with everyone else as subordinates and spectators. Instead the New Testament writers used the term diakonia, meaning “servant” or “service,” to identify people in leadership.
We've often spiritualize servant-leadership. But what would servant-leadership look like if we restructured our churches for it? How could we flip the CEO model? How can we lead from weakness rather than strength? The church, the living body of the Spirit, is called to submit to Christ as the singular head of the body, and into mutual dependence on one another (1 Cor 12; Eph 4:1-16). The pathway to upending the CEO-style, single-gifted, solo leadership platform is to transition toward soul-healthy, mutual leadership. We leaders need to be intentional and consistent about diagnosing how our platforms and pulpits can deform the soul of our leadership.
The Bible says very little about the skills necessary to produce exponential impact. Rather it heralds the cultivation of character of the Spirit as the ground floor of leadership. The most significant thing about us isn’t what impact we make, what we accomplish, but who we are.
A growing groundswell of pastors and practitioners are awakening to what the race to make an impact is doing to us. Many of us are on a journey to discover a how to lead in the way of Jesus. Join us at The Praxis Gathering in Philadelphia, PA this September 27-29th as we Re-Imagine Leadership.
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