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Who do you love? Avoiding pitfalls as young leaders

Leadership is risky—the world, the flesh, and the devil all conspire against us. So we start listing the dangers, and then we compile lists of antidotes and advice. These words of wisdom aren’t bad; they are usually very helpful (and I plan to offer a few here, myself). But the gospel offers us more. The gospel offers a life of faithful, joyful service springing not from lists of what we should and should not do, but out of love more abundant than we can imagine (John 15:12-17).

The reality is that regardless of age, experience, maturity, spirituality, theological aptitude, or insightful exposition, faithfulness in ministry is rooted in love for God, which necessarily and inevitably overflows in love for others.

Conversely, unfaithfulness springs from love for ourselves, which both expresses and fuels that most foundational of sins: pride. It might sound simplistic, but it’s true: Whether a young pastor fruitfully thrives or withers on the vine is determined by one thing: Who does he love?

Lovers of self or lovers of others?

I sometimes observe the meal-time behavior of potential leaders. I’m not talking about the social niceties or etiquette, or even whether he leads a solid and sound “grace” at the beginning. But does he wait to serve others before helping himself? Does he get up to help clear away the dishes? Does he express gratitude? Does he take a spot at the sink to help with cleaning up?

And when we have church functions, who is helping with the unseen, often unpleasant jobs? Who is sweeping the muck under the toddler table, emptying the garbage, folding chairs, scraping plates? This observation extends to our gathered worship as well: Who is making an effort to speak to newcomers? Who is quick to arrange chairs to make room for a wheelchair? Who is standing up and moving over so someone else can sit?

Much of this is simply common courtesy, but it reveals something vital about the heart—is this person acting out of love for others, or love of self? Is his concern for those around him, or to preserve his own physical or social comfort? I don’t consider a young man to have potential as a leader in God’s church until I see that he is acting out of love for his Savior in loving service for God’s people. Of course, the ability to teach the Word of God is essential. But as God tells us through Paul, the most gifted and eloquent Bible teachers are nothing but resounding gongs or clanging cymbals without love.

So with that foundation laid, how do we keep alert to some common pitfalls which young leaders face as they seek to serve God’s church? Where are we tempted to live by pride (which is love of self) rather than love for God? I think the dangers fall into three main categories:

1. Identity

It is all-too-easy to slip into the belief that who we are is defined by what we do, how we appear, or what people think of us. Perhaps the demands of ministry accentuate this risk because there will always be a heightened level of judgement from others—sermons are critiqued, interpersonal skills are analyzed, and family choices scrutinized.

Some trademarks of mistaken identity include feeling more important than we are and wanting proper acknowledgement of all we do. For example, continual overwork reveals that we have forgotten that we are mere creatures. Fear of what people think of us reveals that we have forgotten that it is what God thinks that counts. Being overbearing reveals that we have forgotten that we ourselves are sheep before we are shepherds, while timidity reveals that we fear people more than God. All of these reveal basic forgetfulness about our identity in Christ and a deep seated, self-loving belief that we have what it takes.

But the truth is that our value and glory is eternally secure because of the union with Christ that has been won for us and gifted to us. This identity is absolutely unshakeable and impregnable. When we wallow in identity amnesia, we turn again to slavery. Remembering who we are in Christ, however, gives beautiful gospel color, texture, and flavor to our lives and work.

2. Ecclesiology

It is possible to view the church in a mercenary way. Rather than brothers and sisters for whom Christ died and for whom we are willing to lay down our lives, they can become those who consume a Sunday sermon, fund our salaries, and cause us pain and hassle. “Ministry would be great if there were no people” is a well-known tongue-in-cheek complaint. We might chuckle, but deep down we sometimes believe it. This is nothing more than pride, and needs swift repentance.

Young leaders, don’t go along with that seed of complaint about God’s people. The gospel compels a real affection and love for the church; this is Christ’s body, a temple built upon the solid foundation. This is the Bride being prepared for her husband, and you are part of and belong to her. There is no place for looking down upon the church. Love, serve, rebuke, and correct her when needed—but always cherish her.

One symptom of wrong ecclesiology is keeping ourselves aloof. We try to protect ourselves from our church when we don’t trust our church family. Choose to trust them! Don’t prioritize friendships with those who merely like you and who are similar to you, as comfortable as that is. Our pride is what whispers, “But these people really understand me,” or, “I deserve some down time.” Leaders set the culture, so set a culture of gospel intentionality in your own friendships.

Also, despite all western convictions to the contrary, “family time” is not sacred. The corrective is a proper understanding of family in the Bible. Our brothers and sisters in Christ are our family, so work to nurture those relationships. Open your home. Don’t allow your pride to hinder hospitality. Visit those who are suffering, even for 10 minutes to pray with them. Ask for help, counsel, and prayer from your home group. Seek accountability—not just with the like-minded pastor from across town, but with the awkward college student in your church family as well.

As you foster warm affection for your brothers and sisters, with all of their human idiosyncrasies and awkwardness, you are employing one of the means of grace to build a safeguard against many pitfalls of self love.

3. Success

Young leaders can easily be distracted and wooed by the world’s definition of success—numbers, power, influence. It’s hard not to feel successful when we are commended, when our church is growing, when we’re busy doing important things, and especially if we receive some renown. The misuse of power and authority can flow from this, because if “success” is really all about me, then ministry becomes all about me, too.

But for the Christian, success is defined by one thing: faithfulness in and out of season. And faithfulness happens insofar as we are devoted to our Savior. Furthermore, our faithfulness depends upon Jesus. This is a blow to pride. If the church is growing, it’s God’s work. If my preaching is effective, it’s God’s blessing. If the church is financially stable, it’s thanks to the Spirit-inspired generosity of others. If my heart is soft to the Lord, it’s his kindness. Anything good that we are or do—anything—is a cause for gratitude to God alone. Young and old must continuously bow before the Lord, the giver of all good gifts, in repentance for the ways in which we try to grab glory that belongs to him alone.

Lovers of God and others

Paul reminds young Timothy, “The aim of our charge is love that issues from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith” (1 Tim. 1:5). This is love which flows from the love of the Father and which we offer back to him in gratitude. The gospel is the glorious reality of something completely other, something fully outside of us—God, who is love. It’s the love of the Father, through Christ and applied by the Spirit that sets us free from slavery to sin and the punishment our sin deserves. This gospel is all we can offer, and this gospel is all we need. Considering God’s love levels our pride into the dust. We must cling to it!

Young leaders, to live faithfully out of God’s love you must dwell on it long and often. Use the means of grace: God’s Word, prayer, and God’s people. Consider Jesus. Meditate on God’s character. Be silenced in worshipful awe by the Trinity. Be stunned by the Incarnation. Worship the great God we cannot even begin to fathom, who makes himself accessible to us through his Son, tenderly enlivening our hearts by his Spirit. Fix your thoughts on the Resurrection and the New Creation to come.

The gospel is the good news of all that God has done for us and all he has for us in Christ. Our brief lives are to be expended proclaiming it and enjoying it with God’s people until we are called home to eternal glory. What could be better? This is a love story to capture our hearts; the greatest love story of all. Why would we make it about ourselves?

The article originally appeared in our print publication, Light Magazine. View the latest issue here.

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