Ambition, Arrogance and Leadership

Church Leaders today face a daunting challenge. On the one hand we are told to have an iron will, to set strategic goals for the good of the church and allow nothing to stand in the way of achieving them to the glory of Christ. This is necessary given the natural opposition of a sin wrecked world, and the activity of spiritual forces arrayed against the Gospel.

On the other hand we are told to have soft hearts, to recognize our own brokenness and that of our team, and exhibit great patience, love, understanding, and forgiveness when things don't go well. 

I confess my own inadequacy at times, in finding a way to practice both without becoming a mushy, middle-of-the-road guy with analysis paralysis.

Here's the problem: There is a very fine line between sanctified ambition and stubborn arrogance. We read about the great leaders of the church in history who plotted a course for righteousness and kingdom, and refused to diverge when opposition and trial hit. From Martin Luther to Martin Luther King the leadership literature is filled with the courageous exploits of these focused leaders. 

But we are all too well aware, even in the lives of those we admire, of serious occasions of arrogance-induced anger, and unsanctified stubbornness. Many great men have left, and are leaving, a trail of devastated people behind them as they march to their own glory. 

On the other hand no one wants a leader who can't decide which way to lead. The kingdom is never benefited by those who let tough decision get made simply by waiting until the inevitable happens by itself. Our country is littered with churches led by those who decided never to change, and now sit virtually empty while the society they were charged to win has passed them by entirely as irrelevant. 

So, what to do? Here's my answer: We must never allow a man to eclipse our concentrated focus on Jesus Christ as Head Pastor of the church. 

In 1 Peter 5:4 Peter calls Jesus the chief shepherd. Today that would translate to Lead Pastor or Senior Pastor. I am not arguing these labels can never be given to a human pastor. I am arguing that no pastor - senior or otherwise - should ever be allowed to act in such a way that the leadership and congregation's view of Christ as the Head of the Church is obscured. 

When decisions fall to one man rather than a plurality of godly leaders, the church is in great danger. Even in situations where it appears the church is led by a group of men, one man must never rise to such a position of prominence that he virtually is unopposable. Giftedness, even in massive doses, must never become an excuse for a man to lead as though only his perception mattered.

I have personally seen cases where a Senior Pastor is so gifted, so able, so godly, that no one dares tell him his arrogance is showing, his kids are terrorizing the church, and his closest confidants are isolating him from the truth. And if we're honest, we see this kind of thing becoming more and more common as our consumer-driven culture demands success at any cost.

So, how does this factor into the tension between courageous leadership on the one hand, and  loving patience and tender care on the other? In this way: only a team of godly men, engaged in a team environment that champions robust dialogue and demands group agreement, can rightly follow the Spirit's leading in both truth and love.

Leadership by its very nature subjects men to both public scrutiny and public acclaim. The great ones become icons to many, and the applause can create situations where the leader cannot be allowed to fail simply because it would devastate the enterprise. His shortcomings are masked, his character flaws kept hidden, and eventually the mission becomes his greatness rather than the greatness of Christ and the Gospel.  

Of course, it has to start with the leaders themselves. And I suppose the transition from humble dependence to personal confidence is extremely subtle, incremental, and even appreciated by those who desire organizational growth and success. After all, don't we all want a champion?

But those drafted and crafted by Christ himself to lead the church must fight their own ambition when it overtakes their self identification as a servant and nothing more. No matter how great a man may become, no matter his wide-spread influence, he is never more necessary than the rocks which, should Christ so desire, could sing and preach better than us all.

To all of you longing to be prominent as leaders in the church, ask God first and foremost never to give you more success than he gives you holiness. Never more applause than dependence. Never broader influence than spiritual depth. Never more giftedness than character. And surround yourself with those who always have the right to walk into your life with their boots on and pistols cocked. 

May Christ deliver us from ourselves before our selfish selves become the mission. And may the church be protected from the arrogance that arrises from the ambition of those whose success is even now breeding their great failure.