A “BALANCED” LEADER

A TRIBUTE TO LARRY CHRISTENSON

I want to be a balanced leader. By that I do not mean that I want to straddle in the middle between excessive passion and passivity. Don’t ask me to be balanced in my passion for my wife, the Minnesota Vikings, or, most important, the Lamb of God. Balance finds no place in the high worship of heaven. It rather means being able to go to this extreme, then that one, in response to the initiative of the Spirit instead of walking the delicate tightrope.

When I think of balanced leaders, I picture those who are not thrown by the latest theological fad when everyone else jumps in with a knee-jerk reaction. But their life cannot be described by lack of passion. They just know what to be passionate about, when to be passionate about it, (timing is critical in the life of the Spirit), and what to be circumspect about. They are not easily fooled or manipulated. They know that we can fall off the horse on the side of either legalism or libertinism, form or freedom.

And yet they know that Jesus holds high regard for those who get out on a limb, not for those who play it safe. Some who appear to be balanced may, in fact, just be chicken. Truly balanced leaders are not cautious in a way that reduces their boldness or tames their zeal. Neither are they predictable. People of the Spirit never are. How could you guess the way Jesus would bring healing to someone? Go ahead—write the manual. He taught His disciples to be men of the Spirit, not men of technique. Formula Christianity does not describe Spirit-anointed leaders.

They know and preach the whole counsel of God—sooner or later. You hear them teach about heaven and hell, judgment and mercy, unity and relationships, sin and grace. You look hard to find the hobby horses, except for the Lordship of Christ and the empowering presence of the Spirit. If they have pet doctrines, they are so powerful and impacting as to be universal, such as the apostle Paul’s common phrase, “in Christ.”

Larry Christenson struck me as a man of both great passion and great balance. He didn’t pull his punches when he needed to strike with fire. And yet he didn’t jump on and off the wagon like some are prone to do. When he went to the edge, you felt like going with him.

Balanced leaders understand the dialectic tension between such polar truths as transcendence and imminence (the God beyond and close at hand), holiness and happiness, suffering and glory, and crisis and process. An unbalanced leader is impatient with those who question him, spurns history in the quest of destiny, talks too easily of recovering lost truths, presumes to know and therefore stumbles over pride, uses proof texts more than the wide breadth of Scripture, likes shortcuts, and does not understand the difference between kingdom now and kingdom then.

I thank God for the impact of Larry on me and many. He influenced me toward marrying Karen, a great decision. He helped to shape my ministry. I followed him at Trinity and at Lutheran Renewal. I sometimes find myself asking, “WWLD?” I was happy to be his follower, and “though he died, he still speaks” (Hebrews 11:4b).

LEADERSHIP–JESUS’ STYLE, PART II

Jesus turned leadership on its head (Matt. 20:25-28). It’s not how high you get but how low you go. These truths come from His words:

Leadership by character is compelling. Leadership by position isn’t. Billy Graham has had influence more because of his character than his preaching. The Pharisees ruled by position; Jesus led from character. He said, “Come to me…I am meek and lowly in heart.” Pastors who lack character might use humor, personality, or intimidation to get the job done.

We lead by serving, and we serve by leading. The biggest need of sheep is to be led and fed (Matthew 9:36; Psalm 23:2). Some parents over-control and under-lead, as did the Pharisees. Leaders who give people what they most need rather than want are serving them.

We lead by going low. The disciples, with glory on their minds, liked the view from the top. It feels good to sit and be served. Jesus got off His seat and served. He “made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant…” (Philippians 2:7), grabbing a towel when the disciples were unwilling to budge (John 13:4,5). True leaders look for ways to get under, to influence not by position but by performance. How low can you go?

Serving requires character more than leadership skills. A psychologist who has excellent counseling skills but a messed up family can do more damage than good. Who we are often impacts people more than what we say. That is why when Paul lists fourteen qualities necessary for those aspiring to leadership in the church (I Timothy 3), at least twelve deal with character qualities rather than skills. Those who lack the necessary character are not qualified for ministries of oversight. God is concerned with what He can do to us in order to work through us. Character is shaped in the crucible of suffering, and that means going low.

One liability of leadership is wanting to be served. We may think that our vision is more important than those “under” us, that our position is more critical than theirs. And we would rather be over than under. Where people fail to respect us, we are offended. When they criticize our leadership, we judge them rather than forgive. Our offense shows that we are going high, not low.

The face of humility is courage. The Lamb of God is the Lion of Judah. The humble are the most courageous because it isn’t about them. They risk their reputation because they don’t have one.

Courage leads to insecurity, which leads to vulnerability, which leads to relationship. If you are secure, maybe you are not risking enough. The fight on the front lines can be ferocious, which produces insecurity. If intimidated by our insecurity, we back off. If we acknowledge it to others by transparency, it increases fellowship, which brings courage, enabling us to risk!

LEADERSHIP–JESUS STYLE, PART I

Jesus modeled leadership skills, but He taught character. Leadership training sometimes focuses on skills. When choosing a church council, for instance, the emphasis is sometimes more often on skills. I heard a pastor say, “He is not a mature Christian, but he’s good with finances.” Danger sign.

The problem: difficulties on leadership teams result more often from character flaws than inadequate skills. King Saul had some leadership skills, but he lacked character. Skills are what a leader can do; character is what a leader is. George Washington and Abraham Lincoln had both skills and sterling character, and they enjoyed great influence, unlike Bill Clinton.

I once hired a man to work with our young adults who had skills and vision. I overlooked the warning that he had some unfinished business. Remind me not to do that again.I went on promise more than performance—and regretted it. Skill does not make a leader.

A DESIRE FOR GREATNESS
Do you desire significance? You’re not alone. Two young fishermen had not only been chosen as disciples of Christ; they also found themselves a part of the inner circle. They alone saw Jesus transfigured, and they accompanied Him in the Garden. As they considered the approaching kingdom, perhaps they thought, “There are only two seats. We had better go for them before Peter grabs one.” They asked: “Let one of us sit at your right and the other at your left in your glory” (Mark 10:37).

What was good about their request? They wanted to be with Jesus.They saw that Jesus had prominence in His future. They were bold, and Jesus had said, “Ask, and it shall be given to you.” They had an ambition to be leaders, and greatness is a legitimate longing. They were thinking into the future and planning ahead. Bravo!

But their timing was clearly off. Their request came on the heels of Christ’s announcement of suffering. And it showed that they did not understand leadership—Jesus’ style.

THE ROAD TO GREATNESS
The response was not: “You shouldn’t be making such a request.” Jesus gave them a two-fold answer. “You don’t know what you are asking. Can you drink the cup I drink or be baptized with the baptism I am baptized with?” (38). In effect, “You’d pay a high price for those seats.” Once they signed on, He told them that He couldn’t give them the seats anyway. It was assigned seating, and the Father did the assigning.

Courage is a function of character, not of personality, and courageous people are willing to pay the price. Leadership requires boldness, and many play it safe. Some would rather live with mediocrity than pay the price.

The other disciples heard the discussion and became indignant, probably because James and John had beaten them to it. Jesus then gave the second part of His answer, taking the normal picture of leadership and standing it on its head: “You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all” (42-44).

Jesus said in effect, “It is not how high you go but how low you get.” Gentile leaders are sitters, not servers. Slaves, by contrast, have no rights, no titles, no seat, and no ambitions. They are not served; they serve. This is leadership from the bottom up, not the top down. Want to lead like Jesus?

WHAT LEADERS DO

Balance vision with values. Vision is overrated; values are often ignored. Values undergird vision, keeping vision from going crazy. Think Hitler. Values reflect identity, vision drives destiny. Make it a good ride by choosing values of integrity.

Say no. They can find someone else. Keep your hands to the plow. You have an assignment. Don’t leave it for someone else’s. You will not stand accountable for another person’s vision. Do what you have to do, not what others want you to do.

Build an immunity to discouragement. John the Baptist had incredible vision of Christ’s work (“Behold the lamb of God…”) until he saw life from behind bars. Then he questioned the Christ. Elijah said and did stupid things when discouragement and fear took him out. You cannot afford the luxury of discouragement.

Have a bias toward action. Leave meetings with action items. Many end with talk and go nowhere. Not worth the time.

Record it. Rely on your retrieval system, not your memory. Write down brilliant thoughts–or lose them.

Live above offense. Ask my wife. It took me too long, but now I live that way. (Well, most of the time.) Be like my friend who said, “Just so you know, Paul, it’s almost impossible to offend me.” Unoffendable leaders can build a team; the other kind cannot.

Tend to your soul, or your drive will cause you to implode. First things first. Stay emotionally and spiritually healthy, so you can give yourself away.

Pace yourself. You’re in a marathon, not a sprint. Jesus was not in a hurry. He did what He came to do. He left some people un-healed, and it didn’t bother Him. Remember shabbat. It literally means “to cease.” God rested after a six-day work week. Take your cue from Him. If you think you are indispensable, have another thought.

Take charge of minutes. Time is too precious to waste. Must be invested. It is like money, a great friend and a terrible lord. Minutes add up; use them wisely.

Live with character. Talent wears thin. People should be treated with respect. Don’t overestimate gifting. Faithfulness trumps talent in the long haul.

Go with your strength. That creates passion and vision. Others can do what you can’t. Dreams are worth pursuing. “Most people die with the music still inside of them.” Sing your song!

Put a sign on the bus. If you are a leader, lead. You are going somewhere; tell them where. People who thought you were going to St. Louis will be angry if they end up in Cincinnati. Leadership cannot be delegated. Not leading creates a vacuum. Someone will step in, and you won’t be happy.

Take risks. Leadership without risk is an oxymoron. Make sure they are well-calculated. Then if you lose, it’s not a total loss. Don’t hire anyone without failures on the resume. He’s playing it too safe.

Under-promise; over-perform. Don’t make promises you can’t keep. If you need a sales job to get them, you don’t want them. Unfulfilled promises create resentment.

Evaluate. You are not into perfectionism, but strive for excellence. If you fail, ask yourself, “What did I learn?” Failure is not final if you learn. Don’t do an autopsy, but find out what you did and do better next time.

Serve. Leaders go low. Think under, not over, and be supportive. Apologize, don’t make excuses. Self-serving leaders are abusive. Serve the people you lead and they will live with gratitude rather than bitterness. Makes them better workers.