For years I felt like I was leading and then something happened.
My pastor in my first staff position was with a man named Dennis Harrell. Dennis is an incredible leader who ended up retiring from his church after pastoring them for 25 years. He was (and continues to be) a wellspring of wisdom in my life. One day during a normal conversation he dropped a truth bomb on me that shaped my life as a leader from that day forward:
As I analyzed my situation I realized that I thought being a leader was about people following wherever the leader may lead. I began to evaluate and quickly realized that I was at the center of much of what I led. I thought, “if Pastor Dennis is right that would mean that I am not leading well.”
His thoughts rocked my concept of leadership and began to shape my thinking about the ministry I was leading. Unfortunately my original concept of being a leader had come true – lots of people were following me and we functioned at a high level, yet when I was not there or in the center of things we were not meeting the same mark.
In my mind I often heard Pastor Dennis saying, “True leaders always replace themselves.” And I wasn’t.
You can’t be the center.
It is so easy as leaders to make ourselves the focal point of all things. Now, before you Jesus Juke me, I understand that He is always to be the center. But many of us leaders have often put ourselves at a close second.
As I took an honest assessment of the ministries I led I began to realize that we had become very personality driven. Whenever I was on vacation I would hate to hear the phone ring after services were over. “You were DEFINITELY missed today!” The first time I heard that it made me feel good. But once Pastor Dennis got in my head I began to feel differently. Things were not as good when I wasn’t there and I had to do something about it.
If I must be the center it will wither and die when I leave.
Give others opportunity.
The more I thought about the need to raise up others I began to notice all of the talent that had accumulated around me and our ministry. One thing that I have learned through the years is that talented people who are under used will find a place where they can use their talent.
I began to give these people the opportunity to step into my roles more and more. After my new direction I began to ask people to step up when I was there. Before this people only stepped into my roles when I was absent. I wanted to watch people lead, to be with them, coach, lead and empower them to be better than ever.
Some people didn’t understand why I was passing what they saw as my responsibility to others, “why is Mike letting other people do his job? Isn’t that what he is supposed to do?” When asked about this I would remind them that chances were I wouldn’t always be there and I wanted to leave our church better than we found it.
If I want to develop leaders who can lead in my absence I will allow them to gain experience in my presence.
You must have roots.
Just because you are the hired leader doesn’t mean people are following you. I have seen pastors and leaders who, early in their tenure, experienced great frustration because they believed that people were to follow them because of their position. I agree that people should honor the office, but my personal experience and observations show me that people don’t truly follow leaders until they trust them. Trust is earned, not given and comes with time.
There are so many in ministry who are always looking for a bigger, “better” church to go to. I was committed to this ministry long term and I believe my longevity was a key factor in our success.
People must trust me before they will follow me.
And the day came.
The day did come when it was time to leave. It took me 11 years and I did everything in my power during the last 6 to lead in such a way that when I left I would leave that ministry in a better place than I received it.
In the end I did not actually replace myself – that was the church’s job, however I felt fully convinced that I had accomplished what I set out to do. I left a strong ministry with a contingency plan in place. I raised up people who were better equipped to keep things semi-normal in the absence of a long time leader. I felt good about what I left in place for the next guy and couldn’t help but think of what Pastor Dennis had taught me.
Was it easy for them? No. Transition is always difficult but they were ready to lead in our absence.
I truly believe God was glorified through our ministry, our leaders were prepared for transition and what I left was much better than what I acquired.
And that’s what I set out to do.