Dangerous Thoughts on Leadership

I’m gonna just throw it out there:

I don’t believe in leadership.

I believe in influence.

I believe in humility.

I believe in serving.

I believe in selflessness.

I believe in inspiring.

I believe in decisiveness.

I believe in emboldening.

I believe in convictions.

I believe in vision.

I believe in passion.

I believe in lots of things, but I think the concept of leadership needs a makeover…at least for me.

Jesus never seemed to talk in terms of leadership the way that most people today do. To Him, leaders weren’t the “movers and shakers”. They were the “lovers and givers”. They weren’t the “up and coming”, they were the “down and dirty”. Thinking leadership has to do with prestige, progress, productivity, or power is a big mistake. That is, if you take Jesus seriously.

If “Jesus Christ” is what comes out only when you stub your toe, then you might not know what I’m talking about.

Jesus never taught about leadership. Go ahead. Look for yourself. And yet “Leadership” has been a buzz-word for quite some time among Christian “leaders” and how we view discipleship and training. We often associate “success” with the number of “leaders” it produces or at least the number of people it attracts.

Now, in the interest of full disclosure: the student ministry I help to *gulp* lead has a vibrant and active *gulp* “Student Leadership Team”. But we’re crystal clear that being part of that team is by no means a “step up”, but rather a “stoop down” as we put it. Those called to lead are those willing to love, serve, and lose themselves in selfless sacrifice so that others are blessed. A “leader” isn’t a favorite of God because the last time I checked God doesn’t have any favorites as much as He has ALL favorites.

So, what did Jesus say about leadership? Simply put: nothing. What did He say about servanthood? Simply put: tons. That’s why while removing the word “leader” from my vocabulary might be nothing more than semantics, I do firmly believe that those who serve/love/shape people would do well to follow Jesus non-struction on leadership and His clear INstruction on servanthood, humility, and selflessness.

(This is one of those posts where I have tons more to say, but I recognize a long blog post is often an unread blog post. So…)

What have you been taught about leadership and how to attain it? What can the ministry world learn from the corporate world in this regard? And what can the corporate world learn from the ministry world?

Daydreaming at a Funeral

casketThis morning I attended the life celebration of an incredible man of God, Rev. Charles Thompson.  “Reverend T” as he was affectionately referred to was used powerfully by God in the very church I am currently blessed to serve in.  He served as pastor of Southside Church for many many years before becoming the District Superintendent.   I never had the chance to meet him personally, but after today’s service I feel I know him immeasurably more than I did just a few hours ago.  To say the service was moving would be an understatement.  I attended as an honor to his life, to his family, and to the untold legacy he has left behind.  In fact, the facility we celebrated his life in was a part of the vision God had given him for Richmond and its surrounding counties.  I listened to person after person, story after story, memory after memory, testimony after testimony to the sacrifices of this man; a man marked more than anything else, by humility.  A man enjoying his reward while I type these words.

And as I sat there in the black suit I don’t often put on, I felt something in the inside pocket of my suit jacket.  I reached in and pulled a card out just enough to read its heading, “In Loving Memory of Markelle M. Dumm”.  I was immediately taken 5 months into the past to where I was privileged to join in the life celebration of my wife’s sister, Markelle. (You can read about that if you’d like.)  Apparently I had left that memorial card in my jacket pocket ever since that day.

While it may be awkward and a tad embarrassing to admit it, my mind wandered for a few minutes.  Not merely on Markelle and her life, but on some truths that to you and I are inescapable.  We’d do well to stop and recalibrate on these truths…

What we see is not all there is.  You and I exist currently in time and space.  You’re no doubt reading this on a screen that has probably dedicated a corner of its space to the time of day.  You won’t have to wait long at all before you see another minute pass.  There.  You’re a minute closer to death.  Before you label me Debbie Downer, hear me out.  I (and perhaps you too) need to snap out of the haze that living temporal lives creates around us.  The ever-present temptation is to believe that what we see, taste, touch, smell, and hear is what constitutes reality.  But 2 Corinthians 4:18 says, “…what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.”  

Your life makes a difference.  This is not nearly as poetic as some might think.  This is simply a fact.  No matter who you are, what you do, where you go, or how you live, your life DOES make a difference.  The question then becomes: “What kind of difference does it make?”  Embrace your responsibility as a created human to allow your Creator to use your life to make a difference for good and for God in the lives of others and when its all said and done, people will gather to celebrate your life as well.  Colossians 3:17 encourages us that “…whatever you do in word or deed, do it all for the glory of God.”

In the end, its all about Jesus.  I know that some reading these words were tracking just fine with the first two, but bristle at this one.  That’s okay.  I don’t have to fight, argue, or prove anything.  What I do want to do is to right now urge you if you have not done so to turn everything, EVERYTHING over to the Lordship of Jesus Christ. It is in HIS presence we all will stand, it is through HIS will that you read these words now, and it is by HIS grace that we may come to Him at all.  Philippians 2:10 foretells “…that at the name of Jesus every knee will bow in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of God the Father.”   If you’d rather not be all about Jesus right now, that’s okay.  Like I said I don’t have to fight, argue, or prove anything.  Let me simply say that every person in all of history will one day proclaim Him as Lord of all.  I simply choose to start early.


You’ll be glad to know that I soon got my focus back on the celebration I was sitting in, but in those moments I was struck by these powerful truths that I’m confident God was nudging my heart toward.

An Open Letter to Senior Pastors

I’m writing today in the direction of any senior pastor who’ll listen.  If you happen to not be a senior pastor, then by all means please read and pass this on.  Who am I?  I’m someone who’s been in youth ministry in some capacity for 20 years and who has worked with and seen/interacted with a wide variety of senior pastors.  I’m a huge fan of senior pastors.  I’ve seen your job and I don’t want it.  I’m an ally.

Before I dive in, I want to confess that I know there is always a behind-the-scene situation few people see.  And you may not hear a lot of sympathy for those details, but rest assured I know there’s usually lots there that most people don’t see and won’t know about.

I recently heard about a church just a few miles away from the church I serve at that has had six different youth pastors in the past six years.  SIX.  My stomach sank to hear those numbers.  A year in youth ministry is barely enough time to get unpacked and settled in, let alone make any kind of real and definitive impact.  My immediate thought when I heard about this church’s youth pastor turnover rate was this (and I confess this may be unfair): “I wonder what that senior pastor’s problem is.”  I know. I know.  You may just think I’m just another youth pastor who doesn’t care about the details and is just reacting by jumping to the defense of his fellow youth pastor.

Maybe I am.  Or maybe there’s more to the well-known stats that say the average stay of a youth pastor at a church is 18 months.  Maybe instead of considering the student ministry pastorate as synonymous with gypsies and nomads, we should step back for a bigger picture.  Maybe instead of simply reckoning student ministry pastors as ill-equipped, irresponsible, overgrown teens themselves we should take a look at the way student ministry pastors are viewed, hired, and even dismissed.  And why.

My good friend and mentor Dr. Len Kageler wrote a book a while back which has since gone into revision and reprint for the simple fact that its just that good.  It’s called “The Youth Ministry Survival Guide” and I recommend it to any potential or current youth ministry leader AND to any senior pastor who wants to be a better leader to his staff.  Grab a copy here.

revolving-doorOkay, senior pastors.  Listen up.

You will gain immeasurably more in the long haul of your church’s ministry by sticking with your youth pastor.  Unless there has been some gross negligence, chronic irresponsibility, or moral failure, let me implore you to stick with this person you’ve hired.  I completely understand that it might seem easier to toss them to the curb and find their replacement (some people consider youth pastors a-dime-a-dozen), but if that is your habit you are ultimately damaging the overall impact of your church as a whole.  While its true that I haven’t been to a new ministry post every few years, the churches I have served in (including internships) have been in such varied contexts that I’ve gotten a taste for different ministry styles found along the gammut.  Reformed church with 98% senior citizens where you can literally smell mothballs & death in the air? Been there.  Neighborhood church with an older pastor focused on young parents and community impact? Been there. A young church plant with a young, insecure pastor at the helm who was flying solo before hiring me? Been there.  A medium-sized church with a steady rotation of staffers filing in and out? Been there. A large church with a large dynamic staff and a senior pastor who’s heart is for people and for me? There now. Going on nine years. NINE.

Here’s what happens when you go the easier route of the firing/rehiring cycle:

You forfeit the impact of a long-term student ministry leader. You should know this better than anyone else.  If you’ve been at your church for 5+ years, you should be able to see how its just now that you’re starting to get traction.  Student ministry in that regard is not much different.

You create a culture of instability.  This is especially true if you have more than just you and the youth pastor on staff.  Others on staff (admins, children’s ministry, worship ministry, etc.) don’t ever get the chance to feel settled with that position and consequently may feel unsettled in general.

You gain a reputation as undesirable to other potential youth pastors.  Surprise! Youth pastors talk to each other.  We ask around.  We call the last person that held the position and find out why they’re not there anymore.

Your congregation may start to wonder what your problem is.  Remember those childhood report cards sent home with the “doesn’t play well with others” comment?  If you go through youth pastors like you go through spare ribs, you not going to be able to escape your congregation eventually wondering what your deal is that won’t let you keep someone on staff long enough to make a difference in their kids’ lives.

So senior pastor, before you reach for that pad of pink slips and peel the next one off the top, ask yourself a few questions:

1.  What can I do to strengthen my relationship with my youth ministry leader?  Am I spending enough time connecting with them? Do I see, understand, and embrace their vision for our student ministry?

2. How can I become their #1 support?

3. How much stronger could our youth ministry be if we had the same person in place investing in and loving students for the duration of their middle school and high school years?  What would longevity in that position produce for our overall church body?

4. Am I feeling threatened by their giftedness to lead? What insecurities are alive within me that I need to do away with?

5. How can I lead the culture of our church in order to create a place of stability among our staff? Are there power-players on my board that are undermining the potential for longevity in our youth ministry?


I’m sure there are other questions to ask and I’d love to hear some of our feedback and input, but let me close by sharing a text message I received this past weekend that really reminded me of the power of longevity in student ministry.  This text is from a former student of mine who I’ve seen through middle school and high school and who was about to walk across the graduation platform at Christopher Newport University.  Keep in mind that this text would never have been possible without a senior pastor who understands the power of allowing their youth pastor to leave a legacy in students’ lives.

That, my friends, is the sheer power of longevity in student ministry.

Let that be a driving desire for student ministries everywhere.

Instead of….I’ll take…..

table gameI was sitting in a well-known chain restaurant the other day (won’t say the name, but I was seated not far from the fireplace where people play checkers while sitting in rocking chairs) waiting for one of my stellar youth leaders to show up for a one-on-one breakfast meeting we had planned.  While I sat there, I eavesdropped on the conversation at the next table over.  It was between a waitress and a woman seated at that table who was in the process of ordering her breakfast.  It didn’t take long to notice a pattern in her order…

“I’d like 2 eggs fried, but instead of the whole eggs, I just want egg whites.”

“For my sides, instead of the apples and grits can I have double grits?”

“And I definitely want the biscuits, but instead of all biscuits can I have like half of the basket be wheat toast with butter?”

You see it too don’t you?  Its the art of the substitute.  Its the “I want this instead of that.”  Its the “your idea is good, but my idea is better.” Burger King made a national campaign out of it with “Have It Your Way.”  Its substituting and it can creep in to our walk with Christ if we’re not careful.

Jesus said, “If anyone wants to be my disciple, he must take up his cross and follow me.”  But we’d like to substitute “anyone” and put in “people like me”.  We’d like to substitute “must” with “could possibly”.  We’d rather have “think about” than “take up” and we’d rather substitute “cross” with “latte”.

We can trace substituting back to the garden of Eden.  God said “Here’s the menu. Eat any fruit you want. Just not that one.”  And we humans said, “Okay, but instead of all the fruit, can we have just that one?”  And here we are today, still swapping out what God said for what we’d rather have.

God: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength….and love your neighbor as yourself.”

Us: “Hmmm…..let’s see.  Instead of that can I just attend a church service once in a while and do what I want?  Besides, that one neighbor is…well…you know.”

God: “Love one another, encourage one another, forgive one another, bear with one another…”

Us: “Well, that sounds nice, but you know who really needs to hear this?  And besides, I’M right. They’re wrong.”

God: “Go and make disciples.”

Us:  “Change ‘disciples’ to ‘cake” and you’ve got a deal.”

What other substitutions do you commonly see among those who follow Jesus?