What Pastors should Look for in Safe People

In a previous blog post I wrote about how many pastors suffer with relational anorexia. Pastors can find a cure for this devastating issue when we seek out and find people with whom we can process the pain ministry inevitably brings. As you consider the traits you’d look for in a safe person, consider these Scriptures and the guidelines they infer, because these people are often difficult to spot.

Teamwork concept. Isolated on white

When Samuel went to look for Saul’s replacement, God told him, Looks aren’t everything. Don’t be impressed with his looks and stature. I’ve already eliminated him. GOD judges persons differently than humans do. Men and women look at the face; GOD looks into the heart.[1]

Outward impressions may belie the heart of a potential safe person, so don’t let a poor first impression turn you off. When David looked for those with whom he’d surround himself, he wrote,  I have my eye on salt-of-the-earth people—they’re the ones I want working with me; Men and women on the straight and narrow—these are the ones I want at my side.[2]

Character and integrity took front and center when he chose his advisors and leaders. He also said, Let the godly strike me! It will be a kindness! If they reprove me, it is soothing medicine. Don’t let me refuse it.[3]

David looked for those with the courage to tell him what he needed to hear, not what he wanted to hear. Daniel Goleman (most known for writing on emotional intelligence) wisely notes,

People deprive their co-workers—whether bosses or subordinates—of honest performance feedback for several reasons, chief of which is that it can be uncomfortable to give such feedback. We’re afraid of hurting others’ feelings or otherwise upsetting them. Yet, while we tend to keep the truth about how others are actually doing to ourselves (oddly, not just the negatives, but also the positives), all of us generally crave that kind of appraisal. Candid evaluations matter deeply, in a way that other information does not.[4]

When Paul taught about rights and privileges he said “knowledge makes us proud of ourselves, while love makes us helpful to others.[5] Someone with all the right replies may not be who you need. Actually, we need those who will ask us the right questions more than those who want to give us answers.

Below I’ve listed several qualities to look for in a safe person. Only perfection, however, will embody them all, so don’t expect to find someone who meets all the criteria. A safe person, however, should evidence many of these.

  • Not a cliché giver, doesn’t over-spiritualize
  • Asks good questions, effectively reflects back what he hears you say, and seeks to understand
  • Believes in you
  • Consistent, a promise keeper
  • Trustworthy, can keep secrets
  • Not afraid of your anger, tears, or other emotions
  • Has his own scars yet doesn’t wallow in his pain; empathetic
  • Around him you don’t feel like a child with a parent but feel you are equals
  • Not critical or judgmental
  • Approachable, vulnerable, humble
  • Wise and discerning
  • Can and will challenge you to get outside your comfort zone
  • Around him (or her if you are a women) you feel comfortable; he’ll let you be on the outside who you are on the inside
  • Won’t try to make you someone you’re not; appreciates the real you
  • Likable to be around (I can’t overemphasize this)
  • Strong commitment to Christ, helps your commitment to Christ deepen
  • Willing to confront with love and grace, doesn’t flatter
  • Helps you become a better person
  • Doesn’t have a lot of expectations of you

To boil it down, a safe person is one who truly will listen, occasionally offer advice, and consistently will support and strengthen you.

Pastor, I encourage you to find a safe person in your life, sooner than later.

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[1] 1 Samuel 16:7, The Message

[2] Psalm 101:6, The Message

[3] Psalm 141:5, NLT

[4] Daniel Goleman, 94. Primal Leadership

[5] 1 Corinthians 8:1, CEV

3 Healthy Boundaries Every Leader Needs with Critics

At last year’s Willow Creek Leadership Summit, I heard Sheila Heen speak. She co-authored the book Thanks for the Feedback: The Science and Art of Receiving Feedback with Douglas Stone. The session was so good I purchased the book. Wow. What an eye-opener. It’s chocked full of great insight and I highly recommend it. One particularly helpful section dealt with healthy boundaries every leader needs with critics when we don’t want or need their criticism. The authors suggest three ways to respond that I’ve summarized below.

Road work sign stop on white

Three boundaries every leader needs when the critics come calling.

The authors’ basic premise is that we need feedback and how we respond determines how well the feedback helps us. But sometimes we simply don’t need or want the feedback and criticism others offer us.

Here’s how to respond with grace, tact, and clarity.

  1. I am open to your feedback but may or may not heed it.
    • In this case, you do run the risk of the other person feeling rejected. If you are seeking their advice, request it in such a way to minimize that risk. For example, if you are considering some new ways to do mens’ ministry in your church, you might ask a key church leader, “I’m asking several men about some new ideas for mens’ ministry. Any ideas you care to share?” In this way you are communicating that you are listening to several different people, not just one which can take the edge off you not taking his suggestions.
  2. I can’t receive your feedback now.
    • In this case, at the moment you are not open to feedback on an issue. Let’s say you’re a pastor and really struggled with your Sunday sermon and you’re bummed out about it. Someone comes up to you at the end of the service and says, “Can I give you some feedback to your message?” If you can’t receive it at the moment, communicate that. Simply say something like, “I appreciate your willingness to give me feedback, but I just don’t have the emotional energy to hear it now. Thanks.”
  3. I don’t want your feedback on this.
    • This is the most strident boundary response. If this person does gives feedback it could severely damage your relationship or further damage a tenuous one. Let’s say you have a chronic critic in your church who won’t let an issue die and they keep badgering you. In this case when they come to you again it may be appropriate to say, “We’ve talked about this many times and we don’t agree. Please don’t bring it up again.”

Communicating in these ways isn’t easy, but necessary at times to keep healthy boundaries. In my research for my third book People Pleasing Pastors: Avoiding the Pitfalls of Approval Motivated Leadership, I discovered that a good percentage of pastors find it difficult to draw these kinds of boundaries.

If it’s tough for you, face your fears and try one of these boundaries next week with a critic.

What has helped you keep boundaries with your critics?

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8 Healthy Ways to Respond when People Leave your Church

Every pastor faces it. Most hate it. You can’t avoid it. People will leave your church. When that happens, what should we do? In this post I suggest a few tips on how to respond when it occurs.


In my over 23 years as a senior pastor (and a another 12 as an associate), for various reasons I’ve probably seen hundreds of people come and go at the churches where I served.

In one year over 100 people left the church I planted after I gave my infamous “Willow Creek” talk. I had just attended one of Willow’s early conferences and within two weeks I delivered a message about all the changes we planned to make. It didn’t work. In my immaturity I had failed to wisely manage change.

Except for some blessed subtractions (those who leave who have hurt your church), unless you are an emotionless robot, when someone leaves it hurts.

Here’s how I’ve tried to process my painful emotions when people leave.

  1. I don’t disparage them to others after they leave.
  2. I reach out to those who had significant roles in the church. Often I will meet with them.
  3. I NEVER burn bridges. I wish them well and pray for them in person if possible.
  4. I don’t try to hide their leaving from other leaders, and neither do I broadcast it.
  5. When possible, I’ve used informal exit interviews to discover why leavers left and if there’s anything we can learn.
  6. When I see them again, I reach out and show genuine interest in how they’re doing.
  7. I don’t let myself become bitter. God has graciously given me short memories about hurtful church experiences. It’s all His grace.
  8. I remind myself that Jesus also dealt with those who left Him. From this time many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him. (John 6.66)

How do you process church leavers?

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Leading Well for the Long Haul

Larry Osborne, one of today’s most influential pastors and author of many books is my guest blogger today. He’s one of the most unassuming guys you’ll ever meet, but very wise and a great leader. You’ll enjoy this post.


Everybody wants to leave a legacy. But the reality is we can’t control the impact or the length of our legacy. We’re prophets to our own generation (Acts 13:36) who serve God, play our role and are gone.

That said, how we live and lead does have an impact on our endurance. Our perspective, the way we love our people, our dependability and our sense of security all directly affect our ability to lead and serve effectively for the long haul.

  1. Maintain Perspective 

Don’t take yourself too seriously. We’re just a mist that’s here today, gone tomorrow (James 4:14). When our work is done, God will say, “Next!” and the kingdom will go on quite well without us.

I tell pastors I’m mentoring to simply do your best, then take a nap. Because at the end of the day, all we can do is prepare the horse for battle. Ultimately, the victory or defeat belongs to the Lord (Proverbs 21:30-31).

  1. Love Your People

Solomon said that a throne or leadership position is made safe and secure by two things: love and faithfulness (Proverbs 20:28). These two traits are essential to a lasting leadership run.

The first trait, love, is simply treating those we lead with a 1 Corinthians 13 attitude. This means responding to them with patience and kindness, not being self-seeking or keeping a record of wrongs. Treating the people we lead with this kind of agape love is directly tied to Jesus continuing to show up. When the church at Ephesus lost the agape love that it had at first, all of its passion, hard work and endurance came to naught. Jesus said he would stop showing up if they didn’t repent and go back to loving one another.

  1. Be Dependable

The second trait Solomon extols is faithfulness. We call it dependability today. It means keeping our promises and fulfilling our responsibilities, being someone people can count on.

When we say God is faithful, we mean he keeps his promises. We can count on him. He won’t let us down. A leader who keeps his promises and consistently fulfills his responsibilities is the kind of leader people will gladly follow for the long-term.

  1. Develop a Thick Skin

Servant leadership is a great idea until people begin to treat us like a servant. But that’s exactly the kind of leadership we’ve been called to emulate. Jesus came to serve, not to be served. He said the way to the top was through taking on the role of a servant and the way to the very top was to take on the role of a slave (Matthew 20:25-28).

Leaders who are easily hurt, offended or need oodles of affirmation don’t usually last very long. Their insecurity betrays them. But those who develop a sense of security in Christ respond differently. They learn that it’s a glory to overlook an offense (Proverbs 19:11) and that forgiving as we’ve been forgiven isn’t a cliché—it’s a command.

As Sam Chand pointed out in his excellent book, Leadership Pain, our leadership is closely tied to our relational pain threshold. Those with thicker skin can keep moving on with God’s greater glory in front of them and the cross behind them. Those with thin skin have to stop and lick their wounds, lash back or go into hiding.

Keep these four vital things in mind as you consider how you’re running the ministry marathon. They’ll help make sure you don’t run out of gas or hit the wall before the race is over.

If your hope is to lead well for the long term, consider joining me at one of our upcoming Sticky Teams conferences. In addition to being a main speaker, I’ll be hosting a special pre-conference session: Leadership For The Long Haul.

I welcome any pastor or ministry leader who is serious about leading well to join us. Learn more about our upcoming Sticky Teams conferences in Lancaster, PA in April and Charlotte, NC in May.

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5 Questions that Reveal your Leadership Strengths

Kevin Cashman wrote a great book every leader should read, Leadership from the Inside Out: Becoming a Leader for Life. In it he challenges leaders to lead from character, the inside. If you’ve not read it, I highly recommend it. In one chapter he lists several questions that can help reveal where our leadership strengths lie. I’ve adapted his questions into five below. I suggest reading these questions slowly and reflectively every day for the next 5 days.

Business concept image of a hand holding marker and write Leadership word isolated on white

5 Questions that Reveal a Leader’s Strengths

  1. What would your dearest friend say in a moment of deep admiration of you?
  2. When you feel energized and fully alive, what strengths and traits do you exercise?
  3. What circumstances bring out your strongest character traits?
  4. What experiences in your life have caused you to feel most completely yourself?
  5. If you witnessed your funeral, what do you hope people would say about your life?

When we discover, develop, and deploy our strengths and gifts, we maximize our Kingdom impact and experience the greatest joy.

One of my life verses reminds me to focus on building character as a leader.

But the noble man makes noble plans, and by noble deeds he stands. (Is. 32.8, NIV)

What questions would you add to this list?

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