A decade ago, Peter Scazzero wrote, “the key to successful leadership has much more to do with the leader’s internal life than the leader’s expertise, gifts or experience.” I am convinced that the author’s contention is both correct and critical for leadership in the church. In church leadership, it is competence that often makes the first impression, but it is character that leaves the lasting one.
In Acts 20:28, the apostle Paul charges the Ephesians Elders to, “keep watch over yourselves and the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers.” Later he reminds Timothy to “keep a close watch on how you live and, on your teaching,” (1 Tim. 4:16). In other words, church leadership requires both an inward and an outward focus. Outwardly the leader takes care of those in the congregation. Inwardly, there is a duty of care for oneself. Which one do you think should take priority in a leader’s life?
In my experience, it is much easier to focus the best of time and energy on the ‘outward’ duty. As a young leader, I was hungry to gain knowledge and develop skills that would enable me to serve God more effectively. I wanted to be a ‘good pastor’. However, the hard work of ‘self-leadership’ was much more confronting. I hadn’t yet convinced myself that to be a better leader – I must first become a better person. Although I believed it notionally, I wasn’t yet persuaded to alter my priorities to match. In the end, I wasn’t convinced that it was my character that would make or break me.
The current Christian success culture doesn’t help with this challenge. We live in the age of Christian celebrity. We witness leaders building global reputations on their competence. ‘Famous’ Christian leaders develop huge followings and wield immense influence because of what they have achieved. But this can be a scary place for a leader to live. The ‘success equals achievement’ equation for leadership can result in a dangerous disconnect between who we are, and who we portray ourselves to be.
Most of us in leadership are far from celebrity status. But we still will feel the pressure to perform well, be effective, and be appreciated. We feel the pressure to be competent. Competence is what gets noticed, loved and rewarded. So, naturally, we focus our best energies on being the most exceptional outward version of ourselves. In so doing, many of us can become increasingly disconnected from our inner world. It is a disconnect between our ‘doing’ and our ‘being’. It is a gap between our giftedness and our godliness. In his book Survive or Thrive Jimmy Dodd warns leaders, “the gap between gifting and maturity is fertile ground for hiding, secrets, abuse, and a series of dangerous sinful behaviours”.
Our church environment is part of the problem. Church members can tend to idolise a competent leader. When loyalty to a leader gets overblown, evidence of immaturity or unhealthy leadership behaviour is often excused or ignored. Some Christians naively equate giftedness with godliness. I have often heard people describe those on stage as ‘amazing’, ‘incredible’, or ‘so in love with Jesus’. They make these pronouncements despite the fact they know nothing about the actual life of that leader. Such idolisation introduces us to the subtle deception of giftedness.
We need to be aware of unhealthy leadership cultures that unwittingly reinforce this deception of giftedness. We must resist the tendency to place people on a hierarchy of importance based on their gifting and contribution to the church. We should take notice of how often people applaud or reward a leader’s competence rather than their character. Let’s keep an eye out when people start making excuses for bad behaviour being demonstrated by those who are the most capable. Each of these red flags suggests that the deceptiveness of gifting is at play.
Giftedness can deceive onlookers by blinding them to a potentially dangerous disconnect in the life of a leader. For this reason, I would argue that the more capable a leader is, the more accountability is needed to avoid the blindness trap. A wise leader will acknowledge that gap and invite others into their world who can love and accept, but also provide healthy accountability. Unfortunately, the more our ‘performance’ is applauded, the less likely we are to be honest with ourselves, and with others. True bravery and character are required as we seek out genuine and vulnerable accountability.
Additionally, we need to challenge the unhealthy culture that pushes leaders to become isolated for fear of being ‘exposed’. We need to call out the folly of making idols of our leaders. Congregations must stop expecting their leaders to live the perfect life. The pastor on a pedestal usually is up there by themselves. We must allow our Christian leaders to feel safe as they wrestle with their weaknesses and failings. Churches must become places where a leader need not have to perform to receive a sense of being valued or accepted.
The reality is that many of us in leadership recognise a gap between our maturity and our gifting. We are deeply aware that this gap has the potential to cause great harm. However, the prevailing ‘success’ culture in our churches causes many leaders to manage this gap in unhealthy ways. In seeking affirmation for our outward achievements, we become isolated from authentic relationships. In our isolation, we become more vulnerable to self-deception. Our self-deception grows through the absence of accurate and healthy feedback. Without the loving and honest feedback of faithful friends, a cycle of profound dysfunction in our life and leadership begins.
- To what degree are you feeling the pressure to perform well, and to be effective in order to be appreciated?
- In what ways are you noticing a disconnection from your inner world? What is one thing you could do as a next step for addressing the disconnect?
- Can you name those in your life that are aware of the gap between your competence and your character? In what ways do those people help you avoid the deception of giftedness
 Peter Scazzero, The Emotionally Healthy Church (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2010), 20
 Carey Nieuwhof, Didn’t See it Coming (Colorado Springs: WaterBrook, 2018), 39.
 Jimmy Dodd, Survive or Thrive: 6 Relationships Every Pastor Needs (Colorado Springs: David C. Cook, 2015), 59.