How to Lead When You’re Not the King

By David Stockton

Recently, I was asked to speak to a gathering of church and ministry leaders. They asked me to answer this question: What is it like to work for a strong, older leader?

“ I’ve come up with really good ideas that just get trashed ”

As I thought about it, I started to wonder why they asked me to speak on that topic. Maybe they wanted me to talk about how I’ve been okay being a “wannabe” leader for so long. Another possibility, since they know the guy I work for, was: How could have I put up with my boss for so long? And how could I be honest about that? My senior pastor was out of town—and knows just about everybody who was going to be at the meeting!

Another thought crossed my mind: Maybe they think my senior leader and I have a good thing going, and they want to know how that works. Well, I took a deep breath and decided to tackle all three.

1. How to be a “wannabe”

I have been totally content being a wannabe for the last twelve years, and 2 Samuel 23 has affirmed me in that regard. That passage of the Bible gives us an account of King David’s mighty men and their great exploits. None of those guys was king, yet they all accomplished great things.

In this lesser known Bible narrative, King David’s guys overheard him longing for a cold draught of water from a well in his hometown occupied by their enemy, the Philistines. That night those men of value slipped away from the Hebrew camp, busted through the enemy lines, scooped up some water from the well, broke back through the enemy lines, and brought the cherished water to their thirsty king.

And what did David do? He poured it out on the ground!

I’ve felt that pain. I’ve come up with really good ideas that just get trashed.

Yet for me, the lesson of 2 Samuel 23 is positive. It’s about adventurous, risk-taking mighty men, and there’s a side to that that seems way cooler than being king. Beyond that, a lesson here for churches today, for communities of Christians who would rather lead than follow, is that we need fewer kings and more mighty men. We need fewer Scars and Simbas who just can’t wait to be king. And more mighty men and women doing great exploits for the King of kings.

David’s men were skilled in battle, majorly courageous, and they recognized and valued the longings of their king. Hey, somebody has to be king, even if God has to drag him away from tending sheep (1 Samuel 16:11-13). That’s where found the future King David, the youngest son of Jesse, the ruddy little brother. The church needs leaders, a point man or woman, but God also recruits men and women who are skillful in battle, courageous, and willing to respond to the longings of Jesus’ heart.

2. How to deal with an intense leader

During the first year I worked for my current lead pastor, my “boss,” he took me to a church leaders’ conference in Northern California. There I was, considerably younger than everyone else there, sitting in a circle with about twenty other pastors. The first few guys shared how hard their year had been, but also how much better they were doing since they had their breakdown. Others chimed in with similar stories of brokenness and pain. It was surreal. Everybody in the room, it seemed, was living in their post-breakdown ministry years. When it came my turn to bleed, I had to confess that my life serving God was still, well, pristine. But I assured them I was looking forward to the day I’d “break down” and be able to share my post-breakdown story.

“ Those men in the circle, they were good men who fought long and hard ”

Everyone in the circle laughed, but I know an emotional collapse is a serious matter. But it shows a lot of courage when, after a leader crashes, maybe even ends up in a mental health facility, he or she comes back ready to rejoin the battle, willing again to serve well the people of God. Those men in the circle, they were good men who fought long and hard, got beat up, recovered, and were once again living faithfully to the call of God in their lives.

I was just a young guy who had a lot to learn, but I took note of this experience. I’ve learned through the lives of others that church work is intense—and that the intensity of church work can break a person down. The pastor I work for can be especially intense at times. Without margins, it’s a weakness. He’s even had a clinical breakdown. So my pastor has also become equally intense about boundaries in his personal life in order to not break down again.

I have learned from him and others the critical importance of being physically and emotionally healthy. I am doing my best to avoid a breakdown. Here are three ways to help keep yourself strong for God’s work:

  • Take the Sabbath seriously: one day a week, one year out of seven.
  • Take family time, exercise, sleep, diet—and tithing—seriously.
  • Pray enough to know what season of life you’re in—and what your priorities should be in that season.

3. How to make the relationship with your lead pastor work

To address this last question, I emailed my pastor-boss and asked him to respond from his perspective. He sent this list to me describing what he thinks has helped us both lead well even though he is the “king” at our church.

  • We both love and serve The Lord with our whole heart.
  • We respect each other’s work ethic.
  • We support each other’s calling.
  • We root for each other’s success without fear of competition. (Unless it’s golf!)
  • We have a deep love for each other’s families and thankfulness for our past.
  • We are honest about irritations and don’t hold grudges.
  • We are both conservative and prudent financially while trying to be generous at the same time.
  • We both expect a biblical lifestyle from all of our pastors.

“ We both seek to live and move within God’s grace ”

I agree with that. He and I have spent twelve years building and enjoying a culture of honor. We are both fairly secure in our identities in Christ. We both seek to live and move within God’s grace. We don’t pray for unity, we strive for it. We have similar values and trust each other when the other says we are out of line. When conflict or tension does arise we don’t demand immediate resolution. Instead, we give each other space and bridle our tongues. Over the years, these simple shared values have helped us recognize when we are wrong and to be honest about it.

What I don’t know

I have shared what I know, but I’d like to wrap this up with a couple things I don’t know. I don’t know if we know, in fact, the reason why our relationship works. Yes, as I’ve noted, there are some things we can identify. And we urge you to learn from our example. Yet there is also the sense that we are just enjoying God’s favor. I believe that, in relationships, both are true.

“ we are just enjoying God’s favor ”

I’ve never been the lead guy. Never been a “king.” So I don’t know if a breakdown is necessary for the Lord to use in a person’s life to mature them. I do know that the Bible teaches us that “the Lord disciplines the one he loves, and he chastens everyone he accepts as his son. Endure hardship as discipline; God is treating you as his children. For what children are not disciplined by their father?” (Hebrews 12:6-7) Based on this, it would seem foolish to try to avoid God’s discipline.

I also don’t know if I am supposed to be “king” someday, but in the meantime I’m going to make the most of my “mighty men days.” So for all the non-kings out there, let’s get skilled, let’s be courageous, and let’s do some great exploits in Jesus’ name.

David Stockton is Associate Pastor at Living Streams Church, Phoenix. He’s 30-something, married and the father of three girls. You can reach him at
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