Watch Yourself

Keep watch over yourselves and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers (Acts 20:28).

Recently I spent some time with a pastor who was a screaming success and a dreadful failure.  He’s made a public mess of his life.

As senior pastor of a megachurch with 6000 in attendance every weekend,  everything in his life seemed just great.  Then a couple years ago, he called a special meeting with two or three of the key leaders in his church to confess that for the last five years he had been having an affair with a woman on his staff.

I could hear the silence and feel the angst in the room as he shared his story with my pastors’ covenant group.  Three guys in our group have megachurches.

Jack (not his name) told us about his first wife. Yeah, his firstwife: his church.  Because of serious problems in his marriage coupled with his deep personal need for significance and acceptance, he just made love to the church.  And then he made love to a woman who really cared about him.  He thought.

And now?  No ministry.  A bitter divorce.  The five children split between his wife and him.

So what’s your point of vulnerability? What does God and the devil know about your life that you haven’t told anybody else?

The pressures we face in ministry

We leaders do dumb and sinful things, because ministry is extraordinarily difficult and we don’t have life rhythms and relationship systems to counteract the pressures we face in leadership.  I want to share some thoughts about how we can “watch over ourselves,” but before I do, I’d like to talk about some of the unique challenges of ministry and leadership.

First,there’s you. A pastor friend of mine introduced himself to a group of other pastors.  He had been the senior leader of different churches.  All three churches, he told us, had the same problems.  One day it occurred to him that he was the only common denominator.

Pastors, especially those who have the gift of leadership are ambitious.  Driven.

Man, that was me.

Yet ambition in and of itself isn’t a sin.  It’s a gift.  In fact, it’s an essential element of leadership.  Leaders are never satisfied with the status quo.  To lead, you have believe in a future that’s better than the present.  You have see it and get others to see it.  You have to be a person of vision, and you have to cast vision.

Leaders are blessed and cursed with restlessness.  The apostle Paul confessed that he had to learn the secret of being content (Philippians 4:12), and I believe that the greater your leadership gift–the more you see the possibilities of what could be, the more difficult it is to be content.

In professional sports, winning is everything.  Coaching and controversy legend Bobby Knight once said, “If winning isn’t everything, why do they keep score?”  Yeah, we can give lip service to sportsmanship.  Indeed, no one should break the rules to win, and we don’t like arrogant winners.

The bottom line, though, is the final score, and every great athlete wants the championship ring.  We love to say we should go out there and just hit that golf ball for the love of the game, but I’ve played enough golf to know that it matters if you hit the ball well.  When you don’t, you’re miserable.

The upside of a leadership gift is the unrelenting restlessness to do better, to do more.  The downside of leadership is the unrelenting restlessness to do better, to do more. Ambition is a mixed bag.  It’s neither good nor bad.  It’s how we use it, manage it, channel it.  Ambition is either holy discontent or unholy angst.

To lead is to accept this tension-and manage it.  The very gift God gives us become a curse when we don’t give it back to God.  To me, this is partly what Jesus meant when he said, “To whom much is given, much is required” (Luke 12:48).  The greater my leadership capacity, the more I’m required to manage it, to sanctify it.

My leadership gift often discouraged people working for me, because what we did was never quite good enough.  But I couldn’t help myself.  I always saw room for improvement, and I couldn’t let it go.

Gum wads and paper cups

Some years ago, a sports columnist wrote about Jerry Colangelo’s obsessive personality.  Owner and president of the Phoenix Suns basketball team, he built a magnificent, state-of-the-art arena in downtown Phoenix.  You’d think he would just sit there in his corner office and enjoy the moment, but no, Jerry regularly climbed the massive stairwells of the facility to look for trash and gum wads.

Jerry Colangelo never won a championship with the Suns, but under his leadership they were always viewed as a model franchise.  Then in 2001, his baseball team, the Arizona Diamondbacks, won the World Series, and a few years ago USA Basketball reached out to Mr. Colangelo to fix our ailing Olympic team.  We won the coveted Gold Medal in 2008.

Yeah, gum wads in the stairwells drove me crazy, too.  I had a rule:  no custodial golf carts on the sidewalks, because they leave tire tracks.  My mantra:  Concrete is for people, asphalt for vehicles.

Yet at times, if I said nothing, nothing got done.  A pastor friend of mine (another Gary!) noticed a Styrofoam cup on the concrete just outside the main door to his church offices.  He paused and thought to himself, “I bet nobody is going to pick that up.”

He was right.  Day after day, there was that nasty cup of coffee.  On the fourth day, Gary picked up the cup, walked into the offices, and immediately called an emergency staff meeting.  Holding up the cup and doing his best not to yell, he asked them if anyone had seen the cup, and if so, why had no one picked it up?!

Ambition is good.  Driven is bad.  When I’m driven, I’m abusive.  To myself and others.  Being driven is the compulsion to make things happen, not matter what the cost.  Unbridled ambition drives me to do everything I can to be successful, because unconsciously I think God and others will accept me for my hard work and achievement.

Preaching to people who just don’t hear

We have to be realistic about what we can and cannot achieve.  Not everyone can play Major League Baseball.  Not every team can win the World Series.  Not everyone can be President of the United States.

In some ways, it’s a terrible thing to tell your children, or yourself, “You can do whatever you set your mind to do.”  The reality is that different people have different gifts and different capacities.  Moments make the man (or woman), but not everyone gets one of those moments.

Losing is when my very best isn’t good enough.  So I have to accept who I am  and who I’m not.  I also have to acknowledge and accept the new seasons of my life that bring changes to what I can and cannot do.

I was a “successful” pastor, that is, if you measure success based on numbers of people who attended my church.  My chair storage room in my Life Center was larger than my grandfather’s chapel, Christ Lutheran in downtown Cleveland.  He had fifty or less people in his congregation, and they were all deaf.  Literally deaf.  Fifty years ago he was preaching and signing the Word of God when there was no Americans with Disabilities Act and, well, signing wasn’t cool.

My grandmother played the organ, and I couldn’t figure out why they had an organ in church where everyone was deaf.  “They can feel the music,” she told me.

My grandfather devoted his life to those marginalized people.  Two of his members were deaf and blind.  I remember sitting behind them, watching their friend watch my grandfather, signing what he signed.  The deaf and blind person “heard” the Word of God as they held he wrists of their signing friend.

During the week my grandfather traveled to Akron, Columbus, Mansfield, and Pittsburg, to share God’s Word and Holy Communion with congregations of two, three and four people.  Ten was a big Sunday.

So was he successful?

The word is meaningless.  But I can tell you this:  My grandfather was faithful.  He was faithful to those few people and to his family.  He planted in a me a seed to serve others.  My “success” is the fruit of his life.

This entry was posted in Leadership & Ministry. Bookmark the permalink.