A church asked me to preach as part of a series on the prophets. The week I was scheduled, the prophet was Jesus.
When I prayed about what to say, I felt the Holy Spirit wanted me to talk about how to lead like Jesus. I was taken aback. “No, not leadership,” I thought.
For me, leadership is one of the most challenging topics to preach about. Perhaps this is because I struggle with self-confidence. Am I a good leader? Most of the time, I don’t feel like one.
Henry Nouwen’s book, In the Name of Jesus: Reflections on Christian Leadership, gave me encouragement. Nouwen writes that a leader is tempted to be relevant, spectacular and powerful.
(Yes, it is good to be relevant, but Nouwen has a unique idea about this.)
In my leadership roles, I’m tempted to try to be everything to everyone. Especially in an immigrant community, the pastor’s role is not limited to preaching and leading Bible study. We are expected to be so much more: handyman, driver, interpreter, legal counsel, Realtor, 24/7 emergency and information hotline. The list can go on.
The community might have unrealistic expectations. If we are not careful, burnout and depression are just around the corner.
When Jesus was tempted in the desert, the devil tried to get him to use his power for the wrong reasons. I think the devil uses the same tricks on leaders today.
I have fallen into the “relevance” trap because I want to be recognized as a pastor who helps people. There’s an urge inside of me to be useful for my congregation, conference and community.
There is nothing wrong with helping to meet people’s needs. But the motive must be genuine love, not a desire to impress others or to fill a void in one’s own life by being admired.
Jesus told the devil that people do not live by bread alone “but by every word that comes from the mouth of God” (Matthew 4:4). Meeting the world’s needs might solve an immediate problem but not an eternal one. Maybe you fixed someone’s furniture or helped resolve an asylum case. But these good deeds don’t meet the deepest human need: God’s love.
“God’s love can be manifested through personal connections,” Nouwen writes. “We live in a culture where everything is measured by results, achievements and numbers, but there’s less emphasis on relationships and connections. As leaders, we need to be irrelevant to this culture by being vulnerable as individuals who also need love from God and care from the community.”
The next temptation is to be spectacular and powerful. Before I moved to the United States, I was working as a pastor at a megachurch in Indonesia. We had two services every Sunday, with an average attendance of more than 2,000 people. We had about 40 people on staff. Every year, we baptized an average of close to 100 people. It was a big ministry.
When I moved to the United States, everything changed. I pastored a small congregation. At one point, we had fewer than 10 people in our Sunday service. I had to work two or even three jobs to support my ministry. In the first three years, we baptized three people. Compared to my ministry in Indonesia, this was not spectacular.
My wife and I felt like failures. Friends back home asked why we were wasting our time and energy. They said we should return to Indonesia.
We are glad we stayed. I learned a lot leading a small congregation. The congregation sees me as I am. I cannot hide behind the pulpit on a big stage, out of reach. Others see my vulnerability, and our lives become intertwined.
My congregation sees our struggles in marriage, parenting, making ends meet. At first, this seemed like frailty. But we grew to understand it as a blessing. Others love us as we are.
Nouwen says a leader needs the people as much as they need the leader. I’m trying to grow as a leader while being led by others — and to lead like Jesus by not giving in to temptation to be relevant, spectacular and powerful.