I remember like it was yesterday my first ministry call in 1966, 50+ years ago. I had just finished my freshman year at Lincoln Christian College. I was 18 and brimming with zeal, but short on both maturity and experience, when I received the much anticipated phone contact from a tall, stately farmer named Verlin Owen inviting me to serve as the summer youth pastor at Medaryville Christian Church. With a full head of snow-white hair and a face weathered by the wind and sun, I remember how distinguished he looked the first time I met him. He was chairman of the elders, chairman of the youth committee and a very kind man. So the following summer I lived by myself in a run down little cottage in the rural Indiana town of Medaryville, IN, population 500, to serve a church of about half that number as their youth minister. In 2016 I finished where I started in the same state [but 217 miles south in Evansville, IN]. Where have the last 50 years gone? I am sure I do not know the answer to that one. I don’t even know where the last 10 have gone! Today I am reflecting on the eleven lessons God has taught me in five decades of serving Him in the local church, the Bible College and back in the local church:

  1. Leadership is heavy, but it is not lonely. I began as a fledgling youth pastor expecting it might be lonely. The Old Testament prophets seemed to be marginalized. The apostles in the New Testament struck me as often having to be stand-alone spiritual leaders. And I was even warned by one veteran pastor “Do not make close friends in the congregation you serve.” Well, my perception of the prophets and apostles was inaccurate and the counsel of the veteran pastor was incorrect. Jesus was relationally connected/close to many. The Apostle Paul was not isolated. He had deep and significant friendships and partnerships in the churches he served.

He received prayers, embraces and even kisses from the Ephesian elders in their final meeting! (Acts 20:37; I can honestly say that I have never been lonely.) I have deeper and truer friends than I could have ever experienced in any other context than the church of Jesus. I have people in my life today that have been there since I was a teenager!

  1. Leaders must grasp the importance of doing diligence. I think David McKenna, past president of Asbury Seminary, was the first one I heard say it. “The best indicator of future performance is past performance.” It is not the only predictor, but it is the best when choosing elders, pastors, staff and recruiting volunteers, it is good to remember this axiom. In Acts 6, the deacons had to have a “good report” as well as be “full of the Holy Spirit, wisdom and faith.” About Timothy, Paul said, “All the people speak well of him.” So I have learned to trust the objective research of a potential coworker’s personal history more than my own subjective feelings.
  1. Leaders must regularly impress reality. When you have several people in your charge or under your care, you could be impressing reality on someone weekly! Joseph Greany calls this exercise “crucial conversations.” I call it the agony and ecstasy of ministry: confrontation. At the same time, I have also learned to value the people in my life who are willing to occasionally impress reality on me! It is tempting to take a day or two of personal time when a problem presents itself. However, if you think a problem will “just go away,” it won’t. If you think a problem can’t get worse, it can. So, I have learned that if I get into necessary loving confrontation early, I am halfway to solving the problem. I am not talking about micro-management here; picking fleas out of the hair of others (like chimps in the zoo) but thoughtfully and courageously “speaking the truth in love” at the times when it is necessary.
  1. The leader must be a tireless communicator. Communication is the basis of trust and good relationships. Jesus said, “Out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks.” I am talking about transparency here. About letting people know what is in the wellspring of your heart. People will follow those whose motives they trust and whose character they respect.
  1. The leader’s greatest authority is moral authority. You lead best from the overflow of your character. Trust is your greatest leadership capital. When you ignore your moral compass or lose your moral footing and fall, the loss of trust is nearly always a fatal blow to your effectiveness.
  1. A leader must recognize the sanctity of the Sabbath. I believe God is serious about this! Life must have God’s rhythm or it will eventually go off the rails. Under the old covenant it was a capital crime to break the fourth commandment. [Numbers 15:35] So I try to observe one hour a day and one day a week to routinely Sabbath. After several years of ignoring the need for Sabbath rest (a day off each week and an annual vacation), I have learned that I do much better when I periodically disconnect from responsibility. I have known “driven” leaders and I have known “called” leaders. I want to be called. Driven leaders usually pay a high price in one of two areas: loss of health or disappointments in marriage and family life.
  1. A leader must experience the joy of self-sacrifice. In the movie, City of Joy, a doctor from the United States tries to escape the rat race by moving to India. There he gets involved with a family in the low caste system. At first he was repulsed by the self-sacrifice necessary on the mission field, but then he got caught up in it, declaring in a poignant moment, I have never felt more alive!

And I have also learned that people easily and naturally defer to a leader who is perceived to be self-sacrificial. Self-sacrifice begets trust. Trust produces a followership.

  1. A leader must know the importance of balancing periods of progress and periods of pause. I have learned how important it is to monitor both vision and tone. John Fisher calls it being both transformational (taking the next hill) and transactional (holding the ground you have gained). Being sensitive to the climate in the community you are leading and being flexible as a leader is important. I have learned to be aware of the seasons when it’s time to accelerate and the seasons when it’s time to take my foot off the gas pedal.
  1. A leader should put people first, after Him. It is important to build the team over time and make it an “A team.” I have learned to try to hire people better than me and then to do my best to take care of them, to retain them, to capitalize on their strengths and compensate for their weaknesses. I have learned that the most important times in any relationship is how you say “hello” and how you say “good-bye.” At the same time, I have also learned that while someone may be invaluable, no one is irreplaceable!

Never forget that anger is the great divider. It wastes your limited leadership capital. “Show yourself” and you are spending it with both hands. I have also learned the value of a “maverick” to the mission. Hans Finzel identifies failing to recognize the value of a maverick as being one of the “top ten mistakes leaders make.” So, people of all kinds, put them first.

  1. A leader’s legacy matters. In the past, I have been a cynic about legacy. After all, who can even remember the names of their great grandparents? But, although we cannot remember who they were, we are all affected by what they did. This is the value of legacy. It influences succeeding generations. As leader, I want to bear in mind that my compromises, my corner-cutting, my casualness will become the foundation on which the next generation will build.

History is the ultimate measurement of leadership. What we leave behind matters. To leave division, unmanageable debt, moral failure and unsolved problems, is to fail to leave a positive legacy.

  1. You must have an identity apart from your role as a Christian leader. Ministry can be all consuming, but it is possible to be faithful to a leadership calling without having your identity fused with the church. If a man is too tied to the institution, he will overstay. Staying past effectiveness will mean hurting the work that he has served long and well. Four questions to ask periodically: 1) What needs to be done? 2) Can I do it? 3) Should I do it? 4) Do I want to do it? Great people who overstay can become tragic figures. When I was 59, it was the right time for me to retire from Christian higher education. When I was 69, it was the right time for me to retire from mega-church leadership. And, of course, I was retiring from leadership, but not service. My theme verse used to be Colossians 1:28-29; now it is Philippians 1:22, “As long as I am alive in this body, there is good work for me to do.” Right now I still have more dreams for the future than I will have years to live them out.