This week marks 40 years of serving in the role of a leader. I became a pastor of a small church in Elmira, NY in August 1979. I then moved to Cape Coral, FL in 1986 to start a church. 33 years later, I’ve remained in SW Florida, still serving on the staff of that church. While, I had spent 7 years in college and seminary preparing for my role as a leader, I had only a slight understanding of what I was in for.
From four decades of experience, here are four leadership lessons.
1 – God will use anyone. God doesn’t use just superstars. Mostly, he uses ordinary people to do extraordinary things. I’m a pretty average guy. Grew up on an Oregon grass-seed farm. Was average in sports. Got mostly A and B grades with a couple C’s thrown in. Liz Bohannon, a speaker at the 2019 Global Leadership Summit, pretty much described my life when she said, “Most everyone is average, but you can live an above average life by consistent focus on the little things.” By most measurements of church leadership, I’ve experienced an above average life the past four decades. But then, God is a master at using shepherd boys as extraordinary kings, terrorists as radical apostles, and fishermen as church movement leaders.
2 – God can do more than you can imagine. One of my favorite prayers in the Bible ends with this powerful line… “Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen.”(See Ephesians 3:14-21). As a young 25 year-old pastor, I never imagined being a pastor in a church that is now averaging 3,000 people in weekend worship attendance. I grew up in a church of 75 and had never been a part of a church more than 150. But God enabled me to catch a vision of making a larger impact. I saw examples of it being done. By his grace, I was able to lead leaders to remove the common obstacles that hinder growth and keep the average church in America under 90. I feel privileged to have started a church that joined the 2% of churches in America which grow beyond a 1000. God can do more than you can imagine.
3 – Change should be embraced, not resisted. One of the four pillars that guided Cape Christian at our launch 33 years ago was that we would be “Change-Oriented.” One of the lines in that original document stated, “We will not fear and resist change but see it as important and necessary for effective ministry.” I cannot count the number of times that I’ve had to point leaders and followers back to that statement. I often joke that the only thing you can count on to be consistent… is change. We have become an impactful church because we’ve adjusted, modified, reformed, revised, customized, corrected, altered, transitioned, and “bent the curve” over and over again. And it has been at so many levels: changing bylaws to be more nimble, repeatedly tweaking worship times, developing and implementing a leadership succession plan when some thought it was too soon and my successor was too young, building a park for the families of the city rather than an auditorium for ourselves, and more. Change has been embraced, not resisted. For those who couldn’t handle the changes, they made a change. They found another church that was closer to the way “we use to do it.”
4 – Leadership is both sweet and sour. When I visit my six year-old grand twins, I love to beg a couple pieces of Sour Patch Kids candy from their stash. There is something about that mixture of sour and sweet that is delightful. It’s addictive. Leadership is similar. There are sour moments. But there are many sweet rewards. Often, they are in the very same bite. A painful staff change can bring new movement forward. Constraints drive creativity. Shortage of funds motivate greater resourcefulness. Criticism and attack can provoke new self-insight. Heavy opposition builds leadership muscle. Impossibilities can activate a mountain-moving God.
A Greek proverb says, “A society grows great when old men plant trees whose shade they know they shall never sit in.” That’s both sour (no fruit and no shade now) but it’s sweet for the next generation. Leadership is the same. Some things that were difficult and sour several decades ago, are now bearing sweet fruit and providing shade for my successor. I wouldn’t choose any other way.
40 years is a long time. But, I know I have some years of leadership left. I know my calling still exists. I’m in a different “seat on the bus” than I once was. And I’m grateful. Filled to overflowing with gratitude and contentment. I’ve led with success and lived with significance. Now I’ve got a craving. It’s time to go buy a bag of Sour Patch Kids.
QUESTION: What are you learning about leadership these days? Do you resonate with any of these four? I’d love to hear your comments below.