Bill Hybels, ‘Up to the Challenge,’ Leadership Journal, Fall 1996, Vol. XVII, No. 4, Page 56
Nowhere are the demands and rewards of leadership greater than in the church. After twenty-four years of leadership, I have come to believe five truths about leadership in the church.
1. I believe the church is the most leadership-intensive enterprise in society.
My friend runs a company with about 3,000 employees. He says he wants to relax after retirement and lead a church. He said, “It doesn’t have to be a Willow Creek- sized church. Maybe just 7,000 or 8,000 with some growth potential.” I told him that leading a church will ruin his retirement, because the church demands a higher and more complex form of leadership than business does.
I’ve been on both sides. Running a business is challenging, but the leader of a company has a clearly defined playing field and enormous leverage with his or her employees. The business leader delivers a product or service through paid staff who either get it done or get replaced.
Church leadership is far more complex than that. The redeeming and rebuilding of human lives is exceedingly more difficult than building widgets or delivering predictable services. Here’s why:
– Every life requires a custom mold.
You don’t stop the line in a factory every time a product comes down it. In church work, we’re developing individual, custom-made lives. We stop the line for every life.
I’ve read books about Napoleon, de Gaulle, Eisenhower, MacArthur, Patton-all the great military leaders. I don’t want to minimize their capabilities or the courage it takes to charge a hill in time of battle, but I’ve wondered, What it would be like for some of those leaders to have to work it out with deacons before they charged up a hill? How well would they do if they had to subject their plans to a vote involving the very people they’re going to lead up the hill? How would the whole military system work if you took away the leadership leverage of the court-martial?
Anyone could build a church with that kind of leverage! “Teach a Sunday school class or go to the brig.” “You call that an offering? Give me fifty push-ups right now.” That’s leverage!
– The church is utterly voluntary.
In the final analysis, we have little or no leverage, no real power over anybody we lead. At Willow Creek we’ve had people attend our services week after week, create trouble throughout the church, and tap every resource we have. Then, when they cross one too many lines and the elders bring correction or discipline, they bail out of the church or even sue.
To mobilize an utterly volunteer organization requires the highest kind of leadership.
-The church is utterly altruistic.
When leading a business, you can hire a bright, energetic, young employee and say, “Here’s our vision. Here’s your part in it. Here’s your salary, your perks, your car, your phone, your fax, your computer, your secretary, your office, your vacation plan. If you work hard, in five or eight years we’re going to make you a partner or invite you into the profit-sharing plan. Down the road, you’ll probably make big money. There will be more perks, more time off. And when we sell this place in fifteen or twenty years, we’re all going to walk away transcendently wealthy. Are you interested?”
Who wouldn’t be?
As church leaders, what do we tell prospective church members? “You’re a depraved, degenerate sinner who’s in trouble for all eternity unless you get squared away with Christ.” (And that’s the good news. We call it the gospel.)
Then we say, “We’re going to ask you to commit five or six hours a week to service and two or three additional hours for training and discipleship. We’re going to ask you to get in a small group where your character flaws are going to get exposed and chiseled at. We’re going to ask you to come under the authority of the elders of the church and give a minimum of 10 percent of your money. Oh, yeah, you get no parking place, no reserved seats, no special privileges, no voting rights, no vacation or retirement program.
You serve till you die. But trust us: God’s going to make it right in eternity.”
In church work, people must be motivated internally. The Scripture says unless the Lord builds the house, unless people have an internal want to, leaders have no power, no leverage, no buttons to push.
When business people in our churches give free advice-how we should be doing it right-we need to say, with no malice, “It’s not that easy, and it’s not the same. It’s apples and oranges.”
2. I believe there is a spiritual gift of leadership.
Some people have it, some people don’t.
In one of the spiritual gifts lists, Romans 12:8, the apostle Paul essentially says, “If you have the spiritual gift of leadership, lead with it, and lead with all diligence.” God alone decides who gets this gift and in what measure.
I’ve come up with a partial list of what spiritually gifted leaders do if they develop and use their leadership gifts.
– They cast a God-honoring vision.
Spiritually gifted leaders live in such a way that God invariably ignites within their hearts a compelling idea, a heartfelt yearning for some part of God’s kingdom to advance. They start thinking about it, dreaming about it, and praying about it. Pretty soon, they start talking about it. They have lunch with someone and say, “Could you imagine what this part of the kingdom would be like if . . . ?”
Not long ago, I took the board of directors at Willow Creek to some inner-city ministries that we’re funding and providing volunteer help for. We were in an empty warehouse; it must have been 95 degrees. The humidity was incredible. But the person leading this ministry stood and said, “Imagine that corner of this warehouse filled with electrical supplies. A skilled worker from a church could stop here, pick up all the supplies he or she needs, then go over to the home of someone in need and fix the wiring.
“Imagine pallets stacked high with drywall compound. Whenever there are walls to be patched in the home of someone who can’t afford to fix them, a volunteer could stop here to pick up the drywall and then go fix the holes.
“Imagine a pallet over there stacked high with blankets. In the winter, when the heat in people’s apartments doesn’t work, we could pass out blankets.”
I was reaching for my wallet! That is vision casting.
If you have the gift of leadership, God ignites in your heart a vision. You cannot not talk about it.
There is so much power released when leaders start casting a godly vision. It draws people out of the woodwork. It gets bored spectators out onto the playing field. -They gather and align people for the achievement of the vision.
Spiritually gifted leaders have that God-given capacity to attract, challenge, and persuade people. Then they assist them in finding their niche in the achievement of the vision.
Spiritually gifted leaders are almost shameless in the boldness with which they approach people. They can’t understand why anyone isn’t already on board with them. People catch their enthusiasm.
Next, the leader says, “I’m going to find a role that fits who you are. You’re going to grow and develop as an individual while all of us grow together in the achievement of the vision. This is a win-win deal.”
Leaders are not users of people. Leaders are those who cast a vision until they find those who want to join with that vision. Then the leader commits to developing that person while together they achieve their dream. That kind of synergy and unity and teamwork is powerful.
-They can motivate their co-workers.
Motivation makes work fun. It can make thankless tasks exciting. It can make beaten-down people feel renewed and rejuvenated. People with the spiritual gift of leadership have a God-given ability to know what to say and how to inspire different people.
I had an eighth-grade basketball coach who knew how to inspire me. I went to North Christian Grade School; on the other side of town was South Christian Grade School. We wanted to beat the stuffing out of those Christians on the other side of town.
I was just a little guy; my trunks came up to my armpits. In an important game, we were behind by a few points. As we players were walking back on the court after a timeout, the coach encouraged us, “Okay, let’s go get ‘em.”
But then he said, “Hybels, get back here.” I came dutifully back.
“I think you’re the only one with the guts to go out there and take that ball to the basket.”
I thought my heart was going to explode. I knocked people over to get the ball to the rim.
That night they called me “His Airness.” (Michael Jordan cashed in on the term, but it was first said about me that night!)
Gifted leaders have the ability to motivate and inspire.
-They sense the need for positive change and then constructively bring it about.
I do a lot of my summer study in a Burger King restaurant in South Haven, Michigan. Right behind where I sit is a side entrance door, a heavy steel door with a broken hamper mechanism. When every customer comes in, the door loudly bangs shut. It is metal on metal. The staff working the counter look at each other after every customer leaves and say, “Gee, that’s an aggravating sound. Why do people keep doing that?”
Then there is the temperature in the restaurant, which stays around 62 degrees. It’s way too cold for the average human. Customers walk up to the counter and say, “Do you know it’s freezing in here?” After they leave, the people behind the counter say, “If they knew how hot it was back here working over the stove, they wouldn’t complain so much.”
I was reminded every day that there was no leader in sight. A leader would say, “Fix the door!” A leader would say, “Set the air conditioner for the customer. If we need some fans for the employees back here, if we have to rearrange some duct work or something, we’ll do it. Don’t freeze the customer out. He or she pays our salaries.”
Leaders have a nose for how to bring change constructively.
-They establish core values.
Leaders not only remind their co-laborers of what the mission is, but leaders hold up certain standards and values. They lay out certain ground rules. A great leader says to her team, “Okay, here’s the hill we’re trying to take. Here’s the role all of you are going to play. And along the way, here’s how we’re going to communicate with each
other. Here’s how we’re going to treat each other. Here are the values we’re going to hold up so that the the process of taking the hill is a wonderful process.”
-They allocate resources effectively.
A good leader is always resource-conscious. A good leader asks, “What do we have in the quiver? What tools, what funds, what talents, what techniques? How can we strategically invest these toward the fulfillment of the vision?”
Historically, the whole resource function of kingdom work has been viewed with suspicion. People say, “Aw, let’s not talk money.” Leaders say, “It’s a big part of the game, and we can’t ignore it.”
-They identify entropy.
And they usually identify it in its earliest stages. A leader is vigilant twenty-four hours a day. He or she walks around and asks, “Where are the wheels starting to wobble? Where is this organization starting to weaken? If we can identify it and find a solution before the wheels fall off, we can maintain momentum.”
-They create a leadership culture in their organization.
This is absolutely counterintuitive. One would think that strong, gifted leaders would make sure that no emerging leader would mature to the point where his or her own leadership might be threatened. Actually, the exact opposite is true of a spiritually gifted leader.
The greatest thrill a mature, gifted leader can experience is the gradual achievement of the Godgiven vision through the combined efforts of developing younger leaders who some day will carry the kingdom baton.
At Willow Creek, we host an annual leadership summit conference. I get choked up when I go from classroom to classroom, watching Willow Creek leaders stand in front of groups of people and cast vision, inspire, and motivate about everything from programming to children’s ministries. I go home on those nights thinking, It doesn’t get better than this.
That’s at the heart of leading an organization. A leader creates a culture where more and more people can rise to the surface and lead.
3. I believe that most churches unintentionally undermine the expression of the leadership gift.
There’s nothing sinister going on, but churches do this in at least two ways.
First, they undermine the expression of the leadership gift when they fail to teach about it. Young men and women with the leadership gift reason they might as well use it in the marketplace. After all, they think, If this gift were valued in the church, people would be talking about it.
Why isn’t the gift of leadership taught? Most of the instruction that flows from our pulpits tends to come from people with teaching gifts, but few teachers really understand the leadership gift and how it works.
Leaders don’t usually talk about leadership much, either, because they don’t have the reflective qualities necessary to sit down and analyze it. And most leaders don’t have much of a teaching gift, so no one teaches about it.
Second, churches undermine the leadership gift by implementing church governance systems that frustrate gifted leaders into oblivion. Leaders need a certain amount of room to operate, a certain amount of trust from the church or the organization in order to express their skill or gift. If you take away those things, the leader will just bail out, and no one should blame her.
I’m not suggesting we do away with boards and elders and deacons and by-laws. But within certain parameters, pastors and staff and lay leaders with leadership gifts must be given real challenges, real hills to take, real problems to solve. Emerging leaders must be given enough room and enough trust from the church to be able to go out, spread their wings, and develop their gifts. And, yes, some mistakes will be made now and then. But the kingdom will, over-all, make huge gains.
4. I believe that almost everybody wants to be led.
In Matthew 9:36, Jesus weeps for the people in Jerusalem because they’re wandering “like sheep without a shepherd.” They’re aimless. They’re purposeless. Jesus is speaking primarily of people’s need for a savior and sovereign leader. But the imagery can also apply to a wider range of situations.
Leaderless people are a sad lot. I feel sad when I see impoverished, exploited citizens in leaderless countries, such as Haiti, a place I’ve visited often. What a mess. I even feel sad for listless students in leaderless classrooms.
It’s not much fun to wander and to wonder and to drift and eventually to self-destruct. God never made us to flounder in those kinds of circumstances.
It’s not much fun to be under-valued, under-challenged, under-developed, under- nurtured. If you’ve ever worked in a leaderless company, it’s no fun. Have you ever played on a leaderless athletic team? It’s no fun.
But have you ever played on a great team for a great coach? Have you ever worked for a great company? That is fun.
I used to play on a park district touch football team led by Don Cousins, my associate pastor for seventeen years. We played against construction workers who came after work, semi-inebriated, with the sole purpose of hurting people. In one game, my job was to try to sack the quarterback; I lined up across from a guy who was supposed to prevent me from doing that. I thought, I’m going to run right over the top of you. I was breathing hard, getting all pumped, when I looked up. This guy’s eyes were bloodshot, and he was drooling. I thought, Maybe I’ll just drop back in case the quarterback passes this time.
We were smaller than most of our opponents, but we won almost every game we played. Don Cousins led that team. At the end of the season, if we had said, “Anybody want to play next season under the leadership of Don Cousins?” every person in the league would have signed on.
One great writer about leadership says, “Most people are just waiting for someone to call them out so they can rise above their petty preoccupations.”
We can no longer afford to leave people leaderless in the arena of the church. May the church be the one place where people who come out of leaderless homes and schools and jobs and athletic teams discover, maybe for the first time in their life, the excitement of being valued, of being included, of being told that they are indispensable for the achievement of a common vision.
5. I believe that the church is the hope of the world, and its renewal rests in the hands of its leaders.
William Bennett, former secretary of education, said some time ago, “I submit to you that the real crisis of our time is spiritual. What afflicts us is a corruption of the heart and a turning away of the soul. Nothing has been more consequential in this societal demise than large segments of American society privately turning away from God. And to turn things around, there must come a widespread personal spiritual renewal.”
I have to believe that’s true. Who traffics in the spiritual-transformation business? The church. I have come to see with crystal clarity that the church possesses the single ray of hope left in the darkening skies of human depravity.
The church has the life-transforming message of the love of Christ. The church has the instruction manual, the Bible, the guidebook for relationships and ethics and morality. The church has the gift of community to offer wayward and wandering and lonely people. The church can give people purpose by inviting them to become part of the transcendently powerful mission of world redemption.
But for the church ever to reach its redemptive, life-giving potential, it must be well led. It must be powerfully envisioned, strategically focused, and internally aligned. Members must be motivated; the message must be preached. Problems have to be addressed; values must be established and enforced. Resources need to be leveraged.
These things are the business of leaders. Which is why Paul cried out in Romans 12:8, “Men and women, if you’ve been given the gift of leadership, for God’s sake, lead.” For the world’s sake, lead. For the sake of lost people, lead.
-Bill Hybels is pastor of Willow Creek Community Church in South Barrington, Illinois. Adapted by permission from an address at the 1995 Willow Creek Leadership Summit conference.