Daniel Darling’s Common Leadership Mistakes

Photo by Pawan Sharma on Unsplash

Daniel Darling dedicated an issue of his newsletter to 5 Common Mistakes Leaders Make, identifying the following leadership missteps:

  1. A Refusal to Deal with Personal Insecurities
  2. No Gray Hair in the Inner Circle
  3. Unwillingness to Build Relationships Across Key Constituencies
  4. Unwise Stewardship of Leadership Capital
  5. A Lack of Personal Humility

His exposition of each of these observations is worth reading, so visit the link.

I have a few thoughts on each of these corrective admonitions.

All five of these failings evidence of immaturity. All can be grown beyond. All five are potential pitfalls, especially for developing leaders.

Ministry leaders, like everyone else, have insecurities. The crucible of ministry service reveals what those insecurities are. The congregation is the forge for growth in holiness. It may not always be pleasant, but God often works through our relationships with those we serve to reveal the ways we have yet to stand confidently in the gospel, secure in faith. The people we serve often help us to see more clearly the way of repentance. Knowing oneself is a gift of God, but it often comes through intimacy with weakness, the very places where God’s grace can be displayed as strength.

While it is true that young leaders can mistakenly surround themselves exclusively with those of their age and stage, old leaders can commit the opposite, parallel error. Leaders need to know their congregation, from the oldest to the youngest, saying hello, learning names, shaking hands, being present, displaying curiosity, demonstrating care, and being open and vulnerable, sharing not only the gospel, but life.

I’ve seen leaders steward their “leadership capital” poorly, but knowing where and how and at what pace to lead is not easy. It’s easy to say “don’t spend it too quickly!” But the opposite error can be made, moving too slowly or doing nothing at all in order to play it safe. It’s more art than science, involving discernment, sensitivity, and skill. I don’t think anyone does this perfectly. Wisdom in this area comes from knowing that leaders gain trust in spoonfuls and lose it in buckets, so lead wisely.

The fifth is the key to lessening propensity to falling prey to the previous four. Humble leaders often become so by dealing with their insecurities in healthy ways, learning their limitations and the power of God in light of those limitations. They associate with all kinds of people. They are confident in making bold decisions, but they appreciate the weight of their decisions, are very aware of ways their decisions effect the people they lead, bear the criticism directed their way from those who disagree with them from a place of understanding and compassion, and share the credit when things go right. In fact, the most humble leaders give all the credit away to those who gave and sweat and prayed and bled and served and worked, and to God, who makes all things possible.

They know that, in the end, the objective is to glorify God. They know that in God’s kingdom the last are first and the first are last, that we are called not to lord over but to serve, that we are the unworthy who have been made worthy through so great a salvation. There is only one name to proclaim in ministry leadership, there is only one whose reputation and reign ultimately matter. The ministry leader knows that their being brought in, appointed, and anointed is a sheer miracle of grace. Having received so great a salvation, they cannot neglect it. They live in light of it. They invite others to do the same.

Think Before You Read

Photo by Oleksii Hlembotskyi on Unsplash

Alan Jacobs, in a recent edition of his newsletter, quotes Oscar Wilde on choosing what to read (and what to recommend):

Books, I fancy, may be conveniently divided into three classes:

  1. Books to read, such as Cicero’s Letters, Suetonius, Vasari’s Lives of the Painters, the Autobiography of Benvenuto Cellini, Sir John Mandeville, Marco Polo, St. Simon’s Memoirs, Mommsen, and (till we get a better one) Grote’s History of Greece.
  2. Books to re-read, such as Plato and Keats: in the sphere of poetry, the masters not the minstrels; in the sphere of philosophy, the seers not the savants.
  3. Books not to read at all, such as Thomson’s Seasons, Rogers’s Italy, Paley’s Evidences, all the Fathers except St. Augustine, all John Stuart Mill except the essay on Liberty, all Voltaire’s plays without any exception, Butler’s Analogy, Grant’s Aristotle, Hume’s England, Lewes’s History of Philosophy, all argumentative books and all books that try to prove anything.

The third class is by far the most important. To tell people what to read is, as a rule, either useless or harmful; for, the appreciation of literature is a question of temperament not of teaching; to Parnassus there is no primer and nothing that one can learn is ever worth learning. But to tell people what not to read is a very different matter, and I venture to recommend it as a mission to the University Extension Scheme.

Pall Mall Gazette (1886)

I am occasionally asked for reading recommendations, and I tend to share what I have read, or what I have seen, or what I am confident rests along the lines of interest of the inquirer. And I occasionally have people ask me if a book is worth reading. That is an entirely different question. When that is the question, more often than not I answer, “no.”

Ecclesiastes 12:12 reads, in part, “Of making many books there is no end, and much study wearies the body.” That verse came up repeatedly during my days in seminary, and I think of it from time to time. There are more books in print than any one person would every have time to read. More and more books are published each day. Not every concern that rises to the level of public debate is worth addressing. Not every question is worth the time and effort it would take to research. While it is delightful to learn new things and to explore new frontiers, conceding that others have more knowledge in a given area and admitting that you do not know is perfectly okay. Some books are not ours to read; some topics are not ours to master.

My advice to aspiring readers is to ask those who are well read what they are reading, to build lists, and to diligently and patiently chase authors and interests. I’ll add an admonition to pray and bring to one’s reading a faith that God is with us in our studies. We do not always appoint or choose our influences, rather, they find and grip us. This can be interpreted as a sign of divine providence. I have often heard it said, or testified, that the right books seem to find us at the right time. (Do the wrong books ever find us at the right time, or at the wrong time? Lord only knows how often we’ve been spared!)

We should not put aside our responsibility to seek faithfulness, to be discerning and discriminating with regard to what is ours to read and what is ours to set aside. We should also seek wisdom, and choose reading material that is timely and profitable for the season of life in which we find ourselves, or the line of inquiry that has been appointed for us to pursue. We should also choose that which is true and edifying, rather than trash. More reasons to be prayerful, all. In all things, desire that the Lord directs your steps.

We take one ride on this rock we call Earth. If you’re going to spend time with books, think before you read.

“Nondenominational” Churches: Taken Together, They Have the Most Adherents in America

Photo by Matt Botsford on Unsplash

Christianity Today reports on new findings from the U.S. Religion Census:

In 2010, the US Religious Census identified 35,496 independent congregations without any formal denominational affiliation. The lead researcher, Scott Thumma, told CT there were almost certainly more than that, but it was the most precise count anyone had done to that point.

Using the same method in 2020, the US Religious Census team found 44,319 nondenominational congregations, with an estimated 21 million adherents. That makes nondenominational Christians the first or second largest group of Protestants in America, depending on how one counts. The Southern Baptists have about 7,000 more churches, but 3.4 million fewer people.

The next largest Protestant group, the United Methodists, can only claim about half the number of people as Southern Baptists, and the denomination has lost a number of congregations in an ongoing church split since the Religion Census tallied at total of 30,051 in 2020.

When I’ve seen headlines chronicling the decline of traditional and mainline Protestant denominations, I’ve had the sneaking suspicion that some who have left Southern Baptist life, or Methodist life, or any one of the various other established Protestant bodies, have found spiritual community among autonomous, independent, non-affiliated, “nondenominational” local churches.

Additionally, because I have seen nondenominational church leaders and pastors who have displayed a deep passion for evangelism, a commitment to discipleship, the desire to serve, and openness toward and encouragement of the arts, creativity, and innovation, this data point doesn’t surprise me. Eventually, I thought researchers would find a way to capture what I suspected was happening on the ground. The rise of the “nones,” which the CT report also notes, has been a much discussed data point, but not the rise of the “nons,” which has been, up until now, hidden from view.

Some might think this development a good one and a sign that Christianity in America might be able to rebound from its decline, or at least that it is not dead yet. I think we’ll have to wait and see what it means. I rejoice when there are signs of vibrancy, growth, and transformation in the lives of those who take part in any Christian community. Autonomy, independence, and freedom from a denominational body brings with it certain advantages, including adaptability and flexibility within a rapidly shifting cultural environment. But there are also reasons to be wary, including the lack of accountability to a larger network of like-minded ministry partners, a less developed institutional memory regarding the doctrines and practices of a tradition, a susceptibility to celebrity, and clear divides that are broadly made and known between what is sound teaching and heretical leanings (at least among traditions with well-defined doctrinal commitments, rather than in those supporting “big tent” or doctrinally pluralistic approaches to connection).

Who knows what the future may hold? It may be that nondenominational churches create new kinds of connection, not necessarily formalized or solidified by way of organizational bloat and bureaucracy. Maybe new confessional movements will emerge. Maybe partnerships will be more informal and occasional rather than formal and ongoing. Maybe local commitments will take precedence over a global “brand” or “identity.”

Maybe this is a blip.

As institutional structures, I still think there is a place for the historic Protestant denominational churches. But God will need to renew them if they are to have a vibrant future. God can, and I hope God will. Maybe nondenominational congregations will give witness to what is possible, with God’s help. Otherwise, as John Wesley said in “Thoughts Upon Methodism,” the historic Protestant denominational churches in America will only display “the form of religion without the power.” The charitable among us will pray for God to renew us all, and maybe the not-so-charitable should, too.

One of the Greatest Vocations We Have as Christians is a Humble Task Open to Everyone but Few Undertake

Photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash

One of the greatest vocations we as Christians have is to pray for others. To pray for the many people who we know as well as for the many we don’t know but of whose suffering we are aware. My sense is that you will come closer to the Lord Jesus the more you pray for others, because Jesus came for others and praying for others is entering more deeply into the mystery of His divine intercession. There are so many people who need our prayers, and to take the time to lift them up to the Lord is one of the greatest services we can perform.

Maybe you can buy a notebook in which you can write down all the people for whom you want to pray. I am sure that book will fill up very soon, and you can take that book with you in your prayer and ask the Lord to touch all the people whose names you have brought together. Doing so, you certainly will experience more fully the love of Jesus.

Henri Nouwen in a letter to “Ruth” dated February 3, 1983, from Love, Henri: Letters on the Spiritual Life [affiliate link]

This isn’t a bad idea. Nouwen states further, “My conviction is that those who desire to come closer to the Lord will be richly rewarded. Be sure to ask the Lord to give you the gift of prayers. It is the greatest gift He wants to give.” In prayer, we commune with God. We experience further God’s companionship and presence. The reward Nouwen speaks of is God; God is our treasure, and we receive it by seeking after him. The desire to seek God is a gift. It is a gift extended to us and made sure in and through Jesus.

In Isaiah 33:5-6, the prophet writes:

The Lord is exalted, for he dwells on high;
    he will fill Zion with his justice and righteousness.
He will be the sure foundation for your times,
    a rich store of salvation and wisdom and knowledge;
    the fear of the Lord is the key to this treasure.

To the degree that we know the Lord, and to the degree that we seek fervently after God, the desire of our hearts should be that others would be blessed by Jesus, would come to know Jesus, and to receive from the Spirit access to salvation and wisdom and knowledge. We have been extended the invitation and privilege and opportunity to pray toward that very end. We have God’s ear. As intercessors, we are invited to bend it.

One Eucatastrophe After Another

Photo by T L on Unsplash

According to Tolkien, a eucatastrophe in a story often happens at the darkest moment. When all seems lost – when the enemy seems to have won – a sudden “joyous turn” for the better can emerge. It delivers a deep emotional reaction in readers: “a catch of the breath, a beat and lifting of the heart”, he wrote.

In The Hobbit, it’d be the sudden arrival of the eagles in the Battle of the Five Armies, while in The Lord of the Rings, it’s the moment Gollum unexpectedly falls into the cracks of Mount Doom, destroying the One Ring. But many other stories feature such turning points, whether it is the kiss that revives Snow White, or the destruction of the Death Star in Star Wars.

As Tolkien wrote: “The eucatastrophic tale is the true form of fairytale, and its highest function. The consolation of fairy-stories, the joy of the happy ending: or more correctly of the good catastrophe, the sudden joyous ‘turn’… is one of the things which fairy-stories can produce supremely well… it is a sudden and miraculous grace: never to be counted on to recur.”

Richard Fisher, via BBC, “Eucatastrophe: Tolkien’s word for the ‘anti-doomsday’

Tolkein wrote a famous essay titled, “On Fair-Stories.” In that essay, Tolkein writes:

I would venture to say that approaching the Christian Story from this direction, it has long been my feeling (a joyous feeling) that God redeemed the corrupt making-creatures, men, in a way fitting to this aspect, as to others, of their strange nature. The Gospels contain a fairy-story, or a story of a larger kind which embraces all the essence of fairy-stories. They contain many marvels—peculiarly artistic, beautiful, and moving: “mythical” in their perfect, self-contained significance; and among the marvels is the greatest and most complete conceivable Eucatastrophe. But this story has entered History and the primary world; the desire and aspiration of sub-creation has been raised to the fulfillment of Creation. The Birth of Christ is the Eucatastrophe of Man’s history. The Resurrection is the Eucatastrophe of the story of the Incarnation. This story begins and ends in joy. It has pre-eminently the “inner consistency of reality.” There is no tale ever told that men would rather find was true, and none which so many sceptical men have accepted as true on its own merits. For the Art of it has the supremely convincing tone of Primary Art, that is, of Creation. To reject it leads either to sadness or to wrath.

It is not difficult to imagine the peculiar excitement and joy that one would feel, if any specially beautiful fairy-story were found to be “primarily” true, its narrative to be history, without thereby necessarily losing the mythical or allegorical significance that it had possessed. It is not difficult, for one is not called upon to try and conceive anything of a quality unknown. The joy would have exactly the same quality, if not the same degree, as the joy which the “turn” in a fairy-story gives: such joy has the very taste of primary truth. (Otherwise its name would not be joy.) It looks forward (or backward: the direction in this regard is unimportant) to the Great Eucatastrophe. The Christian joy, the Gloria, is of the same kind; but it is preeminently (infinitely, if our capacity were not finite) high and joyous. But this story is supreme; and it is true. Art has been verified. God is the Lord, of angels, and of men—and of elves. Legend and History have met and fused.

“Legend and History have met and fused.”

Yes, they have.

Preaching: The Most Frightful Adventure

Photo by Timothy Eberly on Unsplash

Thus the witness to the Word of God–the one who testifies that God is the Word and speaks–is in the full sense a witness, while at the same time he restores to the human words its fullness. We have observed that all human language draws its nature and value from the fact that it both comes from the Word of God and is chosen by God to manifest himself. But this relationship is secret and incomprehensible, beyond the bounds of reason and analysis. This relationship becomes luminous and unquestionable only when the word is spoken by a witness–that is, by one who explicitly makes the connection between the divine and human word. He must have the courage, audacity, and enthusiasm to declare, despite his deep humility, “What I say expresses the Word of God. My word projects the Word of God.” This is inconceivable and must surely be paranoia. Yet only thus can all human language gather strength and find a new beginning. Such statements require the courage to look ridiculous (“Who am I . . . ?”); it is crazy to think that I could express the truth of the Most High God, knowing what I know about myself. Isn’t this a potential source of pride? No, because in fact I am overwhelmed, broken, and crushed by the truth of this word I must speak. Kierkegaard lived this experience in its entirety, as did Martin Luther and Augustine. The witness cannot affirm great truths lightly.

Precisely for this reason preaching is the most frightful adventure. I have no right to make a mistake that makes God a liar. But who can guarantee that I won’t make a mistake? I walk on the razor’s edge. On the other hand, if my preaching is nothing but a pious, oratorical, Sunday-morning exercise, then better to keep silent. If through my words I do not proclaim the Word of God, what I say has no meaning but is the most absurd and odious of speeches. If, however, I try to proclaim God’s word, I am utterly called into question by my very pretension. If I make God a liar I risk being the absolute Liar. And what if I err, substituting my ideas and opinions for God’s Revelation–if I proclaim my word as the Word of God, in order to give it weight and sparkle, in order to beguile my listeners? Then my word, unratified by God and disavowed by the Holy Spirit, becomes the cause for my condemnation.

Jacques Ellul, The Humiliation of the Word (Grand Rapids, Michgan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1985), p. 109

I find Ellul difficult to penetrate yet delightfully provocative. Here he precisely identifies the fear and trembling that should accompany the preaching of the Word of God. It is no light thing to stand and say that one brings a divinely spoken Word (Ellul is more specific: “the Word of God”) through human words. Far too often, the stakes in preaching are perceived as being too low, not only by the preacher, but by the congregation. However, as Ellul notes, it is the preacher who should be exceedingly wary, not only because of the audaciousness that comes with the preaching task, rightly understood, but also due to the weight of consequence should the preacher err or abuse their trust.

James 3:1 comes to mind, “Not many of you should become teachers, my fellow believers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly.”

Pulpits may differ in their size and construction or perceived prestige and influence. But all pulpits bear this in common: they welcome a human being who declares themselves a proclaimer of the Word of God. The task invites the preacher, as Ellul writes, into “the most frightful adventure.” We foray into divine mystery not fully knowing what we will behold, trusting that in the act of proclamation Christ will be revealed. Rejection is a possibility. We do not know how the congregation will respond, for the Spirit blows where it wills. We do not know if the seeds sown will fall upon the worn path, rocks, thorns, or good soil. We are often left like the sower who sows waiting night and day for the seed to grow up, though he knows not how.

Ellul writes, “The witness cannot affirm great truths lightly.” Preaching is but a step toward witness, and, with God’s help, toward truth.