5 Leadership Tensions Seen in Jesus’ Leadership

Some time back I delivered a message on how Jesus modeled masculinity. As I reflected on that talk, I realized similar parallels apply to leadership. Jesus lived within these leadership tensions during the three years He established our Faith. Although fully God in every way, He lived as a human in every way as well, yet was without sin. He perfectly balanced each of these qualities below that appear as opposites. As you read these five tensions, ask yourself which ones reflect your strengths and which ones need strengthening.

Power and Compassion

  • Jesus showed great power and guts when he turned over the tables of the moneychangers in the Temple (Matt 21). He also showed his commanding power when He called the religious leaders whitewashed tombs. (Matt 23.37)
  • Yet he touched the lepers, showed tenderness to the woman with an issue of blood, and showed compassion to the rich young ruler who wouldn’t give up his riches.

Head (intellect) and Heart (emotion)

  • He amazed the people with his grasp of the Scriptures at age 12 while in the Temple. His arguments and logic silenced even the most brilliant of his day. He even tongue-tied the Roman procurator, Pontius Pilate. He created ingenious intellectual dilemmas for his adversaries. He masterfully used Scripture in the context of life with allusions and questions that made others think.
  • Yet Jesus deeply loved people at levels they emotionally felt. The shortest verse in the Bible even says that, “Jesus wept.” (John 11.35)

Present and Future

  • Jesus approached people where they were. He didn’t ask broken people questions like, “How in the world did you let yourself get into such a jam?” He was a realist about human frailty.
  • Yet, he didn’t want people to stay where they were. He told Zacchaeus the tax collector to make restitution. He accepted him where he was, but He urged him to move forward into the future in a God honoring way. Jesus lived with a perfect blend of experiencing the present with an eye toward His future and toward helping others move into their best future.

Purpose and Freedom

  • Jesus knew why he had come, to do His father’s will. “My food,” said Jesus, “is to do the will of him who sent me and to finish his work. (John 4.34) He was bothered when the disciples didn’t take his mission seriously. He was passionate about his work. He knew what needed to be done and did it. He worked hard.
  • Yet he lived with an amazing sense of balance. He was never in a hurry, compulsive, and never forced people to do what He wanted them to do. He gave them freedom to choose. He said followership was voluntary, no arm-twisting or guilt motivation. He didn’t force his agenda on others. He knew his purpose and knew if others would embrace His purpose for them it would be best for them. Yet he released them to make their own choices.

Strength and Sensitivity (especially toward women)

  • On the sensitivity side, Jesus elevated the status of woman so high that he even praised a woman for what was a purely a masculine role, sitting at the feet of a Rabbi (when Mary sat at his feet). Jesus accepted financial support from women. He even defended a woman caught in adultery, not to approve her adultery, but to expose the injustice of her accusers.
  • Yet he was forceful. He was blunt with his mother when she was out of line to ask Him to do some things not a part of His messianic plan. He affirmed Mary’s role when he indirectly confronted Martha’s compulsiveness. In John 4 He candidly pointed out to the woman at the well that she had 5 husbands. Jesus knew when to be sensitive with women and when He needed to be strong and not back down.

I believe pastors and leaders, too, must live within these tensions.

  • Which of these is your greatest strength?
  • Which is your greatest weakness?
  • What would you add to this list?

“I just learned 5 leadership tensions in Jesus’ life that apply to spiritual leadership.”(click here to tweet this quote)


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7 Ways Leaders can Navigate the Pain of Rejection

Rejection. The sound of the word itself even sounds ominous. If you’ve been a pastor or church leader for any length of time, chances are you’ve felt the dagger of rejection. It may have come intentionally through a serious conflict with a leader who didn’t like or support you. It may have come more subtly when someone quietly leaves your church and the scuttlebutt was that they left because they “weren’t getting fed.” The source doesn’t matter. It still hurts. When it inevitable does come, what can we do? In this post I suggest 7 ways to navigate the pain of rejection.

How Leaders Can Navigate the Pain of Rejection… 

  1. Recognize that you’ve not sinned because you feel hurt. Our brain registers physical pain primarily in two areas of the brain, the insula, which lies deep in our brain, and the anterior cingulate cortex, which lies between our brain’s thinking center and our emotional center. And guess what? Social pain such as rejection registers in the same places. So, rejection actually physically hurts. It’s an automatic response to rejection that God wired into our bodies. So, the bad feelings you experience from rejection don’t mean you’re a weak leader or a sinful person.
  2. When rejected, admit the pain you feel. Don’t ignore or stuff your emotions. The phrase, “Grown men don’t cry,” implies that a guy should not allow himself to show his ‘soft’ emotions. The problem is, it’s self-defeating. When we stuff or suppress our emotions, it actually makes our painful emotions more intense internally. However, it’s scientifically proven that when we name our painful emotions, we actually lessen their intensity.
  3. Journal your feelings. Many counselors recommend something called ‘writing therapy,’ a fancy term for journaling. When we feel rejected, journaling our painful feelings can take the sting out of them. Akin to writing therapy is something called ‘talk therapy.’ Again, it’s a fancy term for sharing you pain with others. It’s helpful to find a safe friend to process your feelings when rejected. In this post I share several qualities to look for in a safe friend.
  4. Refuse to base your identity on your ability to make 100% of the people happy 100% of the time. A temptation every ministry leader faces is to keep people happy 100% of the time. Trying to do that will kill you. We certainly don’t want to intentionally make people mad. But some people will never be pleased, no matter what you do. Jesus, the perfect leader, didn’t please everyone. In fact, John records this uber rejection of Jesus. From this time many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him. (John 6.66, NIV)
  5. Don’t magnify the pain by rejecting the rejector in return. It’s tempting to cut your rejectors off by rejecting them. When we do, we only exacerbate our pain. I once had a guy who did his best to convince the board that I was not the right pastor for the church. The board fully backed me. He left. A few months later I saw him in a store and had a choice. Would I walk down another aisle to avoid him, or would I walk toward him and try to shake his hand? I made the latter choice. I walked over, reached out my hand, and said, “Hi.” He glared at me and walked by without shaking my hand. Poor guy. He was a bitter dude. In such cases, apply the words Peter gave us about Jesus’ response to rejection. When they hurled their insults at him, he did not retaliate; when he suffered, he made no threats. Instead, he entrusted himself to him who judges justly. (I Pt 2.23, NIV)
  6. Step back to keep or regain perspective. When rejection stings, our perspective can quickly become cloudy. We can easily extrapolate the rejection in our minds and assume that many other people feel the same way or will do the same thing (i.e., I wonder who else is leaving the church?). Remember, a rejection by one person is…rejection by one person. Such rejection seldom reflects the viewpoints of others. So, guard against the proverbial, “blowing things out of proportion.”
  7. If it’s a serious rejection, get professional help. Sometimes rejection is such a deep blow that we can’t navigate it on our own with a good cry or coffee with a friend. You may need professional help. Losing a job, losing a vote of confidence from your board, or significant numbers of people leaving your ministry probably qualify as significant rejections. Don’t feel ashamed to seek professional help. If you break an arm, you’ll see a doctor. If your heart gets broken, find a wise counselor to help bring healing.

Sometimes we’d rather experience physical pain that social pain, for good reason. Our brains are wired to recall the emotional pain of past rejection, but not past physical pain. So, rejection potentially carries a long lasting impact on our souls. Don’t take it lightly. Deal with it sooner that later.

What has helped you deal with rejection in ministry?

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Top 10 Healthy Ways to Handle the Church Critic

One well-worn adage goes, “The two things you can’t avoid in life are death and taxes.” I’d  suggest one more adage for those in ministry. “Two things you can’t avoid in ministry are…people late to the service and … church critics.” In this short post I suggest 10 ways to handle the church critic.

Having served in full-time ministry for 35 years, I’ve experienced my share of critics. I’ve responded well to some and not-so-well to others. When I’ve sensed a good heart from the critic, I tend to respond with more grace. And, I’ve learned to appreciate this advice from Abraham Lincoln. “He has a right to criticize, who has a heart to help.

10 healthy ways to respond to my critics (actually 9, I’d love to hear your 10th).

  1. Give them your ear, but within reason. Don’t allow someone to destroy you with caustic criticism.
  2. Let your body language communicate that you are really trying to understand their criticism.
  3. Avoid an immediate retort such as, “Yea but,” “You’re wrong,” or some other defensive response.
  4. Breath this silent prayer, “Lord, give me grace to respond and not react.”
  5. Before responding, take a few moments to check what you’re about to say. President Lincoln suggested that we when we get angry we should count to 100 before responding. That may a bit of overkill, but counting helps us avoid reacting.
  6. Look for the proverbial ‘grain of truth’ in the criticism, and learn from it.
  7. If you see more than a grain of truth and you can’t process it alone, seek feedback from a safe person in your life. (see my post on What to Look for in a Safe Person).
  8. Ask God to keep you approachable to your critics (within reason). You probably don’t want to vacation with them.
  9. Learn from your critics on how best to deliver criticism to others. When someone delivers criticism that you received well, ask yourself what they did that made it easer to receive. For those who botched it, remember to avoid those tactics.
  10. …… what would add as a tenth?

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4 Spiritual Disciplines Pastors Often Neglect

The terms spiritual disciplines and spiritual formation have taken center stage in many churches and pastor conversations today. Essentially they refer to what we do to build healthy souls. And we all want that. They serve as means to an end, to become more like Jesus, not as ends in themselves. And the most common ones include Bible reading, fasting, and prayer. While I believe that most pastors somewhat regularly practice the main ones, I have a hunch that we may often unintentionally miss these four. As you read each one, ask yourself when you last practiced it.

  • Not having to have the last word.
    • Keith Meyer, pastor and author, tells a story about a student in one of Dallas Willard’s classes. At the end of one class a student rudely challenged him with a question. With Dallas’s keen mind he could have crushed him with an answer. Yet, he gently responded with, “Well, that’s a great question and a good time to end class.” After the class several angry and supportive students came up to him asked why he didn’t answer. He said, “I was practicing the discipline of not having to have the last word.”
  • Solitude for the extrovert and community for the introvert.
    • Introverts usually practice solitude easily yet may find it difficult to intentionally break their alone time to be with others. The opposite holds true for the extrovert. Silence and solitude can feel excruciating for an extrovert. Yet, often we need to do the opposite of what comes easy for the greatest impact on our souls.
  • Submission for a Type-A, high-D personality.
    • Both those descriptions reflect my personality. I like to be in charge and lead the way. It’s hard for me to take a back seat. Yet when I do so with a right heart, it counters the temptation to become prideful.
  • Confession.
    • No one likes to be wrong. Yet, when we do wrong, when we sin, Scripture tells us to confess it. It easier to confess it to God in private. It’s hard to confess it to others against whom we’ve sinned. Yet when we appropriately confess our sin to others, God gives us a deep sense of cleansing and peace in our souls.

What other disciplines do you see that pastors often miss?


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Are you a Bogie or a Birdie Leader?

I must confess upfront that I don’t play golf. I’ve only played it once, unless you count dinosaur carpet golf our family often played while on vacation. However, several years ago my father-in-law tried to interest me in the sport. He gave me a set of nice used clubs. But, I never used them. Three years later he asked me how my game was going. Chagrined, I had to admit that I never played with them. He asked me to give them back to him (he really did). Although I don’t play the game, I know a few key terms such as birdie, bogey, and par. A golfer scores a birdie when he sinks the ball in one less stroke than par. He scores a bogie when he sinks it one stroke over par. So what do birdies and bogies have to do with leadership?

They provide a compelling visual metaphor for how some leaders miss great opportunities (birdies) because they act like bogey leaders. Researchers at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania analyzed over 2.5 million putts from the top 20 golfers on the PGA tour in 2007 and made a surprising discovery.[1] Prompted by fear of a ‘bogey,’ these golfers often played it safe in tournaments. Their fear resulted in an average one-stroke loss per 72-hole tournament with a combined annual loss of $1.2 million in potential prize money. “The agony of a bogey seem(ed) to outweigh the thrill of a birdie.”[2]

This dynamic, called loss or risk aversion, occurs when fear of loss stifles our attempts at gain. As a result, that fear can cause us to miss opportunities because we lead (or golf) too conservatively. In fact, our brains seem to be wired this way. Two thirds of the cells in the fight-flight structures of our brain (the amygdala) are wired to look for potential bad news. Personal experience tells us that we tend to more easily remember bad things than good. And we more quickly form bad impressions of others than good ones. Unfortunately, some leaders give in to this tendency too easily and make leadership decisions to avoid loss instead of achieving gain.

So what can a leader do to minimize risk aversion?

I suggest what I call the 3-C approach to minimize it: counsel, certainty, and confidence.

  • Counsel: seek it. When you feel you’re about to play it safe when faced with an important decision, seek counsel from wise people. You might choose your staff, your board, a close friend, or a coach. Often input from an objective person can give us what we need to pull the trigger, or not. The writer of Proverbs encourages us to do this. Plans go wrong for lack of advice; many advisers bring success. (Prov 15.22, NLT)
  • Certainty: get it. Our brains love certainty.[3] We want to know what lies just around the corner. But often we have no control over the future. Every decision brings with it some uncertainty because we can’t guarantee most outcomes. In response to uncertainty, the flight-fight part of our brain secretes chemicals that prompt the fear emotion, a big de-motivator. That’s where faith must come in. Faith is essentially confidence in the One who is most certain, God Himself. To overcome this fear prompted by the uncertainty of decision-making, we must place our confidence in the one thing we can be sure of, God’s faithfulness. He’ll give us that extra boost of certainty we need to make the decision.
  • Courage: live it. Courage counters fear. It doesn’t remove it. When fear rises before a decision, perhaps it’s a sign that we’re on the right track. Mark Twain said it well when he wrote, “Courage is resistance to fear, mastery of fear – not absence of fear. John Wayne, the venerable cowboy of cowboys offers great advice when fear prompts us to avoid a reasonable risk, “Courage is being scared to death – but saddling up anyway.”

So the next time you face a leadership decision and fear attempts to derail you, consider what you could lose if you don’t move forward and saddle up anyway. Don’t bogey your decision. Birdie it instead.

How would you describe most of the leaders you know, bogie or birdie leaders?


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[1] David G Pope and Maurice E. Schweitzer, Is Tiger Woods Loss Averse? Persistent Bias in the Face of Experience, Competition, and High Stakes (2007), http://knowledge.wharton.upenn.edu/papers/download/101009_Pope_Schweitzer_Final_with_Names_10_2009.pdf, accessed 1/8/12.

[2] Avoiding the Agony of a ‘Bogey’: Loss Aversion in Gold—and Business, Knowledge @ Wharton, (11/11/09), http://knowledge.wharton.upenn.edu/article.cfm?articleid=2380, accessed 1/8/12.

[3] David Rock, “Managing with the Brain in Mind,Strategy+Business, 56, (2009), http://www.davidrock.net/files/ManagingWBrainInMind.pdf, accessed 1/9/12.