The 5 most dangerous moves a Christian leader can make
There's no doubt that it must be tough being a Christian leader. When you're starting out, you're wrestling with feelings of inadequacy and unworthiness, maybe even with imposter syndrome. As you're trying to fulfil your God given gifts and calling, the road seems paved with setbacks and discouragements; you come under fire you never expected and you find out who your real friends are. And then, if and when you finally 'make it' as a leader – having built a successful church or organisation, and with a legion of followers behind you – arguably things get even more difficult.
Certain aspects of a leader's character get tested on the way up: perseverance, courage, the ability to stay close to God and discern his voice. But it's when a leader enjoys a degree of popularity, success or even fame that their whole character really comes under scrutiny, because with success comes temptation and opportunity, particularly around what Richard Foster called the 'big three' – money, sex and power. In addition, the celebrity-worshiping culture that's spilled from the wider world into the Church creates another raft of temptations around idolatry and identity. Put simply, becoming successful as a Christian leader places you in the centre of a minefield.
There are so many ways for a leader to fail or fall in this context, and I'm not going to list them here. But I do believe that once a leader is enjoying success at any level, there are decisions that he or she can make which will either intensify those risks, or mediate them. Once a leader loses a sense of perspective, it's hard to become grounded again, especially in a culture which is only too willing to enable dysfunctional leadership as long as it's popular (and lucrative). So here are perhaps the biggest hidden pitfalls facing our modern church leader – not the obvious vices, but the paths that might seem harmless, but actually lead into serious danger.
Embracing social media celebrity
Social media is a paradox: both the great leveler of our culture, and the clearest delineation between regular and famous people. It also contains several different types of user, most notably those who are committed to dialogue and conversation, and those who simply see themselves as 'broadcasters'. In many cases the latter group are doing so as part of an intentional effort to develop an online brand or 'platform', and so begin to behave in a certain way. Instead of talking about their everyday lives and interacting with friends and strangers, they begin offering pronouncements on the world, as if their Facebook and Twitter accounts have become extensions of the pulpit. To be fair, that's exactly what many of their followers are looking for, and there's nothing inherently wrong with using social media to communicate a message. The danger comes when this becomes the only way in which they engage online; where they only stick around to retweet messages of praise or repost the link to buy their latest book. Social media needs its users to be sociable.
The trick is to try to behave online as you would in real life; listening to others, submitting to them, enabling and promoting them, and putting them first. Leaders who behave in this way online not only keep their own attitudes healthy, they arguably attract a bigger following as a result.
Firing your critical voices
The writer of Proverbs 27:6 says that "wounds from a friend can be trusted". It's a good description of true accountability, when someone cares enough about us that they're prepared to tell us when we're veering off course. All good leaders have these people, but when your popularity and power are growing, it takes an increased amount of discipline to keep them around. Just as you're enjoying greater freedom to do what you want, there's someone in your corner telling you not to; the easy and fatal thing to do is to simply remove them and replace them with 'yes men'. Most of the best Christian leaders who've been at the top for any period of time have these trusted critical friends in place, even though at times they'd probably rather listen to anyone else. The mavericks tend to be the ones who stopped listening to their critical friends a long time ago.
Living one step removed from real people
It's hard as a leader to put good boundaries in place, and it's vitally important to do so, but that can lead to a different kind of risk. Once you're at a certain level of seniority, with employed staff working beneath you, it becomes perfectly possible to always let other people interact with your congregants or followers. There's a popular theory in megachurch leadership circles that senior pastors should invest the vast majority of their time pastoring their own team, rather than their actual church members. That's fine in principle, as long as in reality it doesn't mean that the senior leaders never meet real people. If they don't, not only do they begin to appear (and actually become) aloof, but their sermons and writings begin to lose their authenticity. All leaders should have the humility to spend time with 'normal' people, not just other leaders. But with endless opportunities for networking and all the leadership gatherings that go on, it's easy not to do this.
Launching an eponymous 'ministry'
As soon as it becomes your ministry instead of God's, then as a leader you're asking for trouble. It's one thing to have your name on a book; it's quite another to use it to title an organisation. In the business world this can make perfect sense; for generations people have been using their name as a brand in order to achieve recognition and to essentially further their business empire (take Donald Trump, for example). Translate that into the Church, however, and you're facing an ugly conflict of interest between two kingdoms: the one you're supposed to building, and the one you're growing in reality.
While this exact problem might not be an issue for most, again that issue of building a 'name', rather than simply investing in the fame of Jesus, certainly is for many. The temptation to become 'known' is great, as is the natural pull of competition; yet leaders should seek to resist both. Trying to make a name for ourselves is a costly and time-consuming diversion from the real mission.
Taking your own relationship with God for granted
When we sit in church, or at a Christian conference, or read a Christian book or article, our natural instinct is to imagine that the person imparting spiritual wisdom into our lives enjoys a superb, devoted, doubt-free walk with God. In reality, that's often not the case, but leaders too can fall into the trap of imagining that since they're producing Christian output, they're somehow naturally in step with God's Spirit. Various Christian leaders who've suffered a moral 'fall' have admitted afterwards that their own relationship with God had stalled, or that they simply took God for granted without spending any real time with him. Leaders lead others out of the depths of their own faith; if they're actually paddling along in the shallows, it's no surprise when their outputs are shallow too.
In every case, it seems to me that the antidote to these leadership pitfalls is simple, heartfelt investment in our relationship with God, and in the person that we're becoming as a result of it. Not allowing our egos to swell out of control, maintaining a constant genuine care for others, and a humility that recognises our various limitations, are the uncomplicated guiding principles that can prevent us from becoming another casualty of the leader-idolising Christian subculture. Of course every leader struggles and stumbles with at least one of the above, the question is whether we're self-aware and honest enough with ourselves to do something about them.
Martin Saunders is a Contributing Editor for Christian Today and the Deputy CEO of Youthscape. You can follow him on Twitter: @martinsaunders