By / May 17

A few weeks ago, I groaned as I opened up a social media account to be greeted by a headline about a prominent megachurch pastor who was engrossed in scandal. My first thought was, “Not again.” It seems like every few weeks, we learn about more prominent evangelical leaders who have moved from rise to fall due to toxic leadership, financial mismanagement, or sexual failure. Why does this keep happening?

The right focus on the right leadership gifts 

The reason is not profound. It’s quite simple actually. May I suggest that the reason leaders keep falling is because we’ve perhaps overemphasized some aspects of leadership while underemphasizing or flat ignoring others? 

Here’s what I mean. We tend to elevate and platform leaders with certain external gifts. We put on a pedestal those men and women who are beautiful, bold, gifted, and charismatic. If they are dynamic communicators, effective leaders, and can draw a crowd or sell a lot of books, they become prominent in our evangelical world. While the ability to draw a crowd or deliver a dynamic message is not a vice in and of itself, I believe we have overemphasized the importance of these leadership gifts.

Meanwhile, we’ve ignored or forgotten certain other aspects of leadership. For instance, we’ve forgotten our theology. We’ve forgotten, as an example, that the Bible says we are completely sinful, even pastors and leaders. No one is beyond a public or private moral failure. Romans 3:23 says, “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” Romans 3:10 says, “There is none righteous, no, not one.” We shouldn’t be surprised when we put our favorite evangelical leader on a pedestal and then they fall off. Maybe they weren’t created by God to take “center stage.” Maybe the pedestal shouldn’t be occupied by anyone but Jesus. In a sense, we shouldn’t be surprised when we hear about a leader having a fall, because the Bible tells us that there is no one we can completely trust but Jesus. Jesus never fails. Leaders fail quite often.

More than that, while we tend to platform leaders with obvious external gifts, we have underemphasized the importance of internal character. The most important gift a leader can give to those who follow is their character. I heard Gary Thomas say recently, “What a trap it is to work hard on your sermons but not work hard on your character.” Ouch.

Scripture is replete with references to what matters most in leadership. Consider the psalmist’s description of David’s leadership: “So he shepherded them according to the integrity of his heart, and guided them by the skillfulness of his hands” (Psalm 78:72). Or how about Paul’s description of the qualifications for pastors in 1 Timothy 3:1-7:

This is a faithful saying: If a man desires the position of a bishop, he desires a good work. A bishop then must be blameless, the husband of one wife, temperate, sober-minded, of good behavior, hospitable, able to teach; not given to wine, not violent, not greedy for money, but gentle, not quarrelsome, not covetous; one who rules his own house well, having his children in submission with all reverence (for if a man does not know how to rule his own house, how will he take care of the church of God?); not a novice, lest being puffed up with pride he fall into the same condemnation as the devil. Moreover he must have a good testimony among those who are outside, lest he fall into reproach and the snare of the devil.

Out of that entire list of qualifications, only one has anything to do with a pastor’s competency or skill. A pastor must be “able to teach.” Everything else has to do with the pastor’s inner life, what a pastor must be. The pastor must be blameless, committed to his wife, not violent, or greedy, or covetous. He must be gentle and be a good husband and father. He must be humble and have a good reputation. 

What’s noticeably absent? Paul never says that a good pastor must be any of the things we often look for in our popular evangelical leaders. There’s nothing here about having dripping charisma, nothing about being hip and cool, nothing about turning a pithy phrase in the pulpit, nothing about “velocity” or “efficiency” as a leader, nothing about the ability to grow a large church.

Good leadership is about character. Maybe the reason the public falls keep happening is because we’ve forgotten what’s most essential. We’ve forgotten that who we are in public is an overflow of who we are in private. We’ve forgotten that who we are when no one but God is looking is who we really are. And if who we really are is anything other than someone who is submitted to the Father, yielded to Christ, and indwelt by the Spirit for the purpose of obedience for the sake of his name, then our inner brokenness will become public reproach.

By / Jun 16

Rich Stearns, former president of World Vision U.S., has been a leader for a long time. Over the course of his life and career, serving within several organizations, he’s learned some important lessons about leadership, but none more important than being a leader with character and, as a Christian, one who is preoccupied with the will and way of God.

In his new book, Lead Like it Matters to God: Values-Driven Leadership in a Success-Driven World, Stearns outlines many of those lessons learned, encouraging readers to embrace a cross-shaped leadership model. In our world today, where leadership failings, missteps, and sins seem ever before us, Stearns’ vision of leadership is a challenging, yet gracious and encouraging call for the Christian to lead in a Christlike way.

Stearnes was kind enough to spend time answering a few of our questions about his book and his time as a leader. 

As you mention early in your book, there are a lot of leadership books that have been written. So, what compelled you to write this leadership book? What do you hope that it accomplishes?

I wanted to write a book on the critical importance of character in our leaders — especially in Christian leaders. Corporate scandals, the #MeToo movement, the coarseness of our politics, and scandals within churches and ministries are all the result of leaders of poor character who have abused their power. And, we live in a world where the temptations of success, influence, and financial rewards are all around us. Success and the drive to achieve it can become idols in our lives that cause leaders to stray from any sense of a moral compass. The result of this ‘unanchored leadership’ can be catastrophic for organizations and the people who work in them. 

Mother Teresa once said something profound — something that redefines success for a Christian: “God did not call me to be successful, he called me to be faithful.” Christian leaders, whether in ministry or in the marketplace, need to intentionally resist the lure of money, fame, and success and anchor themselves in the character of Christ. For Christian leaders, faithfulness is success, and success is faithfulness.

You say that “good leaders can change the world in remarkable ways.” Whether in business, church life, or in the home, why is good leadership so important, and what are some of the dangers of leadership done poorly?

Virtually everything that is accomplished in our world is the result of leaders who organize and direct groups of people to achieve something that none of them could have achieved alone. Whether bringing a product to market, passing important legislation, or building a church or ministry, leadership is the key ingredient that makes all of these things possible. But when a leader lacks integrity, uses people to achieve their own success, puts profit ahead of people, or is manipulative and abusive, the results can be devastating. 

Look at the opioid pandemic, where corporate leadership kept pushing more and more opioids through the healthcare system even after they knew that their own customers were becoming addicted and even dying. Or, closer to home, look at some of the church and ministry leadership failures that harmed thousands of people and discredited the name of Christ. For the Christian leader, your character matters much more to God than your achievements. God is not impressed by the title on your business card, the size of your bank account, or even the growth rate of your ministry. God is looking for leaders after his own heart — leaders who are winsome ambassadors for Jesus Christ.

As a Christian, you advocate for some very distinct leadership principles that may not often find their way into an environment like corporate America. For example, you begin with surrender. For Christians (again, whether in business, church life, or in the home), why is “surrender the place where leadership must begin?”

When we first place our faith in Jesus Christ, we are called to surrender our lives to him — not my will Lord, but thy will. And God is not interested in a partial surrender subject to a long list of conditions. Some of us would prefer not to surrender our finances, our careers, or our ambitions. But God calls us to sacrifice our ambitions for his ambitions for us. And once we fully surrender those things to God, it is very freeing. We can rise above the typical workplace stresses and politics because we have already handed those things over to the Lord. We might receive promotions and advancement, or we might not. Either way, we have entrusted those things to God. Again, in the words of Mother Teresa, “God did not call us to be successful, he called us to be faithful.” 

If we truly want to be used by God to further his kingdom, it starts with surrender. I believe that there are pastors of very small churches, who have been faithfully surrendered to God for decades, who will receive greater praise from God than some megachurch pastors who have built huge churches driven by their own ambition. Again, God is more interested in a leader’s character than a leader’s accomplishments. Success is not the goal.

One section that stood out to me was your chapter on courage. What role does courage play in leadership?

Leaders are often called on to make consequential decisions. Sometimes those decisions come with a cost. For example, during the COVID pandemic, many business leaders were forced to choose between protecting profits or protecting people. It took courage for leaders to put people first and then deal with criticism from shareholders or constituents. Elected officials had to decide on COVID protocols that inevitably brought praise from some and criticism from others. 

In Scripture, think of the courage it required for Joshua to enter the Promised Land with armies arrayed against him, or for the 12 disciples to lead the early church in the face of horrific persecution. We often overlook the fact that 11 of the disciples died violent deaths as martyrs. It often takes courage for a leader to do the right thing — the thing that puts people above profits or politics or personal gain.

In the early 2000s when the AIDS pandemic was killing millions in Africa and leaving a whole generation of orphans behind, World Vision had to decide whether to help. It sounds like a no-brainer today, but at the time, AIDS was deeply stigmatized in the U.S. as a ‘culture war’ issue, and polling showed only 3%  of evangelicals in America said they were ‘definitely’ willing to help children orphaned by AIDS. In other words, most of World Vision’s donors were opposed to getting involved with the victims of AIDS. We had to decide whether to do the right thing or the expedient thing, risking the relationships with our church partners and donors. We believed that caring for widows and orphans in their distress was the right thing — even if it was extremely unpopular. 

Over the next five years, we campaigned tirelessly, raised hundreds of millions of dollars to help victims of AIDS, and helped to change the attitude of American Christians toward the issue. But at the beginning, it took courage.

How can a leader or prospective leader cultivate courage?

It’s important to understand that courage does not mean that we have no fears; it means that we try to do the right thing anyway. But the most important thing for leaders is to be deeply rooted in God’s truth. I mentioned the importance of a moral compass to help leaders navigate the blizzard of challenges and decisions they will have to make. That moral compass comes from embracing the love of Christ and the character of Christ in our own lives. 

The old WWJD bracelets had it right: what would Jesus do? That question should always be on the lips of a Christian leader. And, of course, the only way for us to become more Christlike is the lifelong process of discipleship — and again, surrender to his will for our lives.

You also discuss a leader’s role in creating/casting vision, which you call one of the chief tasks of leadership. Would you call vision-casting a skill? If so, how can leaders grow in this area?

Vison-casting sounds like a kind of ‘prophesying’ skill, but in the context of an organization, it is really just about defining the desired future for that organization. Where are we now, and where do we want to be three or five years from now?  What are the things we will need to achieve to get there, what steps do we need to take in what sequence, and what are the values we will embrace on the journey? 

One of the key jobs of the leader is first, to help the organization decide on these things, and then to clearly articulate and model them. It’s a little like the GPS in your car: where am I now, what is my destination, and what are the steps I will need to take to get there? If a leader fails to bring clarity around these things, the organization can drift aimlessly without any clear sense of where they are headed. 

And it is critical for the leader to ‘own’ that vision — to constantly model and communicate it by ‘eating, drinking and sleeping’ the vision in full view of the organization. The best-led organizations have clarity about where they are headed. 

How can vision-casting be applied to the home and family?

I think many of the same principles apply to our family life. Who are we as a family? What do we believe, and what values do we share? Do we teach and model honesty, integrity, excellence, compassion, humility, courage, respect, and perseverance to our kids? As parents, how can we ‘eat, drink, and sleep’ these values in front of our children so that they will have clarity about who we are as followers of Christ?

In Deuteronomy, Moses speaks to God’s people just before they enter the Promised Land, and he exhorts them to live their lives according to God’s values and purposes: “These commandments that I give you today are to be on your hearts. Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. Tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. Write them on the doorframes of your houses and on your gates” (Deut 6:6-9). That’s not a bad prescription for equipping our children with God’s Word.  

As you survey the state of society today, what challenges should Christians be prepared to face as they assume positions of leadership?

First and foremost, Christian leaders need to understand that their most important job is to represent Christ wherever they live and work. The verse I had stenciled on my office wall at World Vision was 2 Corinthians 5:20: “We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God is making his appeal through us.” 

Whatever title you have on your business card is superseded by your responsibility to be an ambassador for Christ. Once that becomes the bedrock of your leadership, you will be better able to resist the gravitational pull of the workplace culture, the ever-present drive for success that permeates our culture, and the temptations of money, power, and influence that can so easily lead you astray. You have surrendered those things to the Lord. When you do this, you may be ‘the odd man out’ in your place of work, but that’s exactly what we are called to be as believers. We are to be ‘salt and light’ in our culture and ‘the fragrance of Christ’ in our workplaces and communities. We should stand out.

Looking back over your career as a leader, what are one or two key things that God taught you through your vocation?

Our character is our witness. We live and work in front of a watching world. What will they see when they look at our lives, our conduct, and our values? What are we modeling? 

I’ve learned that God wants us to take our faith to work with us. The places we live and work are the places where God has intentionally stationed us to be his ambassadors. And when we live out our Christian convictions authentically, we can become an encouragement to our neighbors and co-workers, and an island in the storm for people who are struggling. Our career is the place we live out our calling.

Leadership is often described as difficult or challenging or even lonely. And though this may be true, each of these carries with it a subtle negative tone. I’m curious, what would you say are the joys of leadership?

The Olympic Gold Medalist in the 1924 Olympic Games, Eric Liddell, once said: “God made me, and God made me fast. And when I run, I feel His pleasure.” When we exercise our God-given abilities and talents in our places of work, God wants us to feel his pleasure. He has given us leadership responsibility over a group of people and wants us to rejoice at seeing each of them realize their own God-given potential. Think of the joy an orchestra conductor feels at bringing the beautiful music out of her musicians.  Leadership can be incredibly gratifying when we see our job as helping those around us release their talents to achieve their own dreams and ambitions. 

What encouragement would you give to younger leaders who aim to serve faithfully within their sphere of influence?

There is a truth I discovered late in my career that I wish I had better understood as a younger leader. What God is doing through us involves us, but does not depend on us. Let me say that again: what God is doing through you, involves you but does not depend on you. What do I mean by that? When we surrender our lives and careers to God, we can trust him for the outcome. 

In Scripture, David was involved in slaying Goliath, but it did not depend on David. Moses was involved in leading God’s people out of Egypt, but it did not depend on Moses. And Peter, an uneducated fisherman, was called to lead and establish the early church in a hostile world, but it did not depend on Peter. Once you understand that God will use you wherever you work if you are truly faithful to him,  you can relax and enjoy the journey — because God is looking to use leaders after his own heart in powerful ways. Remember, faithfulness is success for the Christian leader.

By / Feb 17

The world changed for me that night in March when NBA players were called off the court and the notifications on my phone started lighting up like a Christmas tree. Global pandemic, social distancing, mask-wearing, zoom-calling, toilet-paper ordering—what is this new reality I am facing, I wondered. As I entered into this Twilight Zone of leadership, managing seismic changes and making hundreds of new decisions, I felt the weight of it all on my shoulders. I’m sure every pastor and leader can relate. 

How do we remain healthy through times of heightened stress? While I certainly have not cracked the code on leading through difficult seasons, here are three things I’m learning.

  1. I need to listen to my body and get more rest.  

Recently, after two full days of meetings, I drove home with my friend, Migraine. He was not pleasant company. When I got home, I went to the bedroom, turned off the lights, and slept till the next morning. In this season of “make decisions, change decisions,” everything feels more pressurized, which adds weight to the soul and mind. I think wisdom calls us to look at our schedules and to realize it’s not sustainable to pack our days so full that we have no time for decompression. “Guard your heart above all else, for it is the source of life” (Prov. 4:23). Be kind to yourself and go hit a round of golf, or grab a light lunch with a friend. 

In addition to taking more time to recharge your own soul, be sensitive also to the weight your wife is carrying. No pastor carries the water alone, and the burdens are felt in the pastor’s home also. If you can, schedule extra time with your spouse, to meet up for chips and queso, or to take a hike outdoors together. As Lynley and I have made time for more of this, we have felt more refreshed for the work of the ministry and less overwhelmed by the challenges. 

  1. I need to rip up the old scorecard.

Most leaders I know are living in perpetual frustration because their plans have been foiled time and time again since COVID-19 hit. It’s not that our dreams are expired, but the pandemic has caused everything to slow down dramatically. All the goal-setters out there are crabby, because the world changed overnight and the metrics shifted also. Packed out events, sold out conferences, rooms filled with infectious energy—none of these “outward signs” that church stuff is working have any real significance in the moment. 

When I tweeted that “God wants us to be faithful, not successful,” a few people took issue with the statement. I can understand why. “Isn’t faithfulness a success in and of itself?” one person asked. Of course it is. What I meant, however, is that the world’s measure of success is normally associated with bigger, bigger, bigger. In this season, pastors cannot participate in that old system of topping last year’s numbers and pushing line graphs up and to the right. Instead, ministry means organizing service projects, preaching to cameras and cold rooms, and making phone calls to that person who lost their job this week. These less glamorous tasks are the slow and steady work of the ministry and they matter greatly to God. 

  1. I need to pray like it all depends on God. 

Naturally, I work like it all depends on me, and always have. It’s a problem. Self-reliance is the easy part for driven personalities. Learning to wait, sit back, and to trust the Lord, with an ever deepening prayer life—that is the real treasure that arrives in times of uncertainty. 

Recently, I was searching the internet for a free image to use for preaching. As I did, I came across a picture of Jesus reaching down into the water, seeking to lift up a fully submerged Peter. It dawned on me that the Bible isn’t clear just how far Peter sank after he walked on water. Some artists show his ankles under the sea, some his waist, a few his shoulders. This was the first time I had ever considered that Jesus allowed Peter to plunge all the way down. It was a thought-provoking image. 

As the global pandemic rages on, many church leaders are feeling increasingly uncertain about the new normal in front of us. It started ankle deep, then waist, and has continued to rise. Anxiety grows as momentum plateaus. Breathe deep and believe that the doctrine of God’s sovereignty is good for the soul. He still has the whole world in his hands. And when this moment passes, Jesus will reward those who kept their eyes on him–no matter how deep the water. He may let us sink a little, but he will not let us drown.

Put your ministry back in his hands, and pray that the Lord will work his will in our hearts as we wait upon his wrist to break through the water. 

By / Sep 29

Do you know someone who could be a good fit for the 2021 ERLC Leadership Council? Complete the recommendation form by Oct. 20 to recommend them for consideration.

What is the ERLC Leadership Council?

The ERLC Leadership Council is a collection of SBC pastors and leaders who receive intentional investment from the ERLC team. During their annual term, these council members enjoy equipping through conference calls and events, while providing occasional content for From coast to coast, from megachurch to country church, and from a variety of backgrounds, these pastors and leaders represent a cross section of evangelicalism in general and the SBC in particular.

What are the qualifications?

  • Each nominee must be affiliated with a Southern Baptist church.
  • Ministry experience is encouraged, but not required.
  • Each nominee should be someone of mature Christian character.
  • Nominations are open to both men and women.
  • Candidates should resonate with the mission and vision of the ERLC.

What’s the process?

  • You can submit your nominations here by Tuesday, Oct. 20 at 12 p.m. CDT.
  • The ERLC will review the recommendations and extend invitations in the weeks following the deadline.

Who has been involved?

Current and past ERLC Leadership Council Members include:

  • Jon Akin, Fairview Church, Lebanon, Tennessee
  • Marshal Ausberry, Antioch Baptist Church, Fort Belvoir, Virginia
  • Bart Box, Christ Fellowship Church, Birmingham, Alabama
  • H.B. Charles Jr., Shiloh Church, Jacksonville, Florida
  • Aaron Colyer, First Baptist Church, Roswell, New Mexico
  • Jed Coppenger, Redemption City Church, Franklin, Tennessee
  • Daryl Crouch, Green Hills Church, Mt. Juliet, Tennessee
  • Charles Fowler, First Baptist Church, Germantown, Tennessee
  • Donna Gaines, Bellevue Baptist Church,  Cordova, Tennessee
  • Robby Gallaty, Long Hollow, Hendersonville, Tennessee
  • Dean Inserra, City Church, Tallahassee, Florida
  • Dhati Lewis, Blueprint Church, Atlanta, Georgia
  • Fred Luter, Franklin Avenue Baptist Church, New Orleans, Louisiana
  • Lauren McAfee, Council Road Baptist Church, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma
  • Rich Perez, Christ Crucified Fellowship, New York, New York
  • David Prince, Ashland Avenue Baptist Church
  • Vance Pitman, Hope Church, Las Vegas, Nevada
  • Courtney Reissig, Midtown Baptist Church, Little Rock, Arkansas
  • Raleigh Sadler, Let My People Go, New York, New York
  • Juan Sanchez, High Pointe Baptist Church, Austin, Texas
  • Afshin Ziafat, Providence Church, Frisco, Texas