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Toward Wholeness Blog

25 Leadership Lessons learned after 25 years

This past Saturday I ran around the perimeter of the lake that sits near the church I’ve led for 25 years, as of December 1st. It was a journey of gratitude because, though much slower than my earlier decades, I’m still here - still running (OK, jogging, fast walking maybe?), still loving Seattle, still serving a church that’s seeking to shine as light in a time when the reputation of the church at large hasn’t been good.

In an age of hyper-mobility, it’s been an amazing and rare privilege to stay rooted in one place for a long time. I assure you that staying a long time wasn’t a goal. Rather, it just happened, as weeks became decades, and at critical turning points my wife and I felt that there was ‘yet another chapter’ for us in the Bethany story. Looking back, I’d say staying put was the smartest thing we’ve ever done, because it’s changed us for the better. Here are some of the lessons I learned and my hope is that these might help others press forward in their callings!

1. Follow the wind of the spirit.

I’ve never had a five or ten year plan, or if I have, it’s always been held in an open hand. I’ve learned that it’s better to let God do what God wants to do in your life. I thought I’d be a university teacher; instead I became a pastor. It’s been better, far better, for me than if had I written my own story. I’d hoped to be rural, and yet the city of Seattle in all its beauty and brokenness has shaped me far better, and more profoundly, than had I written my own story, or created my own autonomous goals.

2. Say 'yes' to the light in the Wardrobe

I’d spoken at Bethany Community Church, and two weeks later received a call I’ll never forget. I was cleaning backpacking stoves on the deck of the chalet in the mountains where my wife and I were preparing for the summer programs of the ministry we’d founded. “This is Dave, from Bethany Community Church. We’d like you to apply for the position of Senior Pastor.” Like the light in the Wardrobe in the classic “Chronicles of Narnia” series, we opened the wardrobe door, in spite of our certainty that we weren’t the right people for the job. Everything changed as a result. How many of us have said a pre-emptive “No” to God because we assumed we weren’t qualified or didn’t want to do whatever it was that was coming our way!

3. Learn from your critics

During my first year, I made some big mistakes. I’m most grateful for people who loved me enough to build relationship and hold up a mirror, showing me some mistakes and areas where I could learn and grow. If we’re always defensive, we’ll never see our blind spots. Please be teachable, and listen to your critics. They won’t always be right, but they won’t always be wrong either. Learn and you’ll grow. Lash out and you’ll be stuck.

4. Know and focus on your strengths

A professor in seminary told me I had a gift of teaching/preaching. He encouraged me to invest in that gift and I heeded his advice. I’m grateful that I listened to him, and have tried to devote 1.5 days each week in preparing to teach, and another day in teaching/shepherding.

5. Vision first

If you’re a leader and have vision, realize that the vision won’t resonate with every single person. As long as your other key leaders (in this case, the church council leaders) are aligned with your vision, you need to stick with it. The decision might be costly in the short term, but will be best for the longer, bigger story.

6. Know your weaknesses

As a candidate for the job, I was clear that administrative details aren’t my strength, that I’d need people to fill in the gaps. Sometimes leaders suffer from a desire to be everything, and that will get you in trouble, no matter your job! A quarterback needs an offensive line. A conductor needs an orchestra. A preacher needs a ‘body of Christ’ which means a group of people willing to share their gifts of mercy, service, care, healing, exhortation, generosity, and so much more.

7. Work on your weaknesses

Though you need to focus on your strengths, you should never ignore your weaknesses. Work on them, so that you become a better manager, better administrator, or whatever it is that is needed. If you’re unwilling to keep working on your weaknesses, you’ll hit your ceiling quickly and get frustrated.

8. Hire people better than you

It’s tempting to think of the workplace as a hierarchy and if you’re the leader you’re ‘at the top.’ With that mindset, you’ll want to be the one ‘in the know’ all the time, but if this is your mindset, your ceiling will be right at your point of weakness. I’ve had the privilege of hiring people who are better pastors, better administrators, better team builders, better detail managers, better financial minds, and so much more. These are all things I also do - but I’ve tried to hire people who do them better! I’ve never regretted that.

9. Celebrate Invisible Gifts

Leaders get lots of accolades, but a good leader realizes that the real work happens by lots of “unsung” people. I’ve learned that expressions of gratitude for the people who make the real work happen are priceless and life giving.

10. People before Projects

I understand that churches need people who step in to serve, but I’m convinced that what people need first is to be known and loved. Task-oriented leaders (and I’m often this way) can easily miss the relationship in favor of the task. This tendency has, of course, been inflated in pandemic time, but the need to be known and affirmed is real anytime, for all of us! We who lead should invest a fair amount of time in getting to know the people who serve with us.

11. Pass the Torch

All of us who lead are carrying the baton for a season. Good leaders, and healthy organizations, will always have an eye toward the next generation of leaders, and intentionally pass the torch to that generation. This means acknowledging that the younger generation knows things you don’t know, and giving them the freedom to lead in their way, while sharing the wisdom you’ve gained along the way.

12. Compassion matters

The word “compassion” means “to suffer with,” and one of the great privileges of long-term ministry has been to ‘suffer with’ people. I’ve been profoundly shaped by the courage of cancer survivors, widows of those taken too soon, people who lost everything in the financial crisis of 2009, people walking through the valleys of caring for aging parents, and many other situations. To walk with someone, sharing in their suffering, has been a gift.

13. Guard the Wine

Bethany has a clear legacy I inherited and I received it as a trust. It’s been a church where grace prevailed over law and a church where people who differ on minor beliefs still have a place at the table because: “in essentials unity, in non-essentials liberty, in all things charity.” I’ve tried to maintain that legacy, and add a few things as well.

14. New Wine Skins are fine

My predecessor's era was “sport coat and tie,” “organ and doxology,” “pews and stained glass,” and those things have changed under my leadership, not because the new way is better, but because our goal has been to speak the cultural language of the generations that will be the future of the church.

15. Wine should age (evolve)

Even the wine should change (for the better!) with aging. For example, as I’ll share in a few weeks, my understanding of what the word “salvation” means has evolved at least seven times in since I first encountered the claims of Christ as a child. As a result, the gospel is now more powerful, more expansive, more hopeful, more inclusive, and more generous. I’m sure there’s more to come!

16. Quit comparing

I’ve never spent much time looking at what other churches are doing or comparing our health/growth with others, locally or nationally. When I have fallen into the comparison trap, its been deadly: Either I’m ‘better’ than some other church, which leads to pride, or I’m ‘worse’, which leads to shame or guilt. It’s vital to realize that every work is doing it’s thing and that I’m not responsible for ‘their thing,’ but only for the thing I’m charged with leading. Focusing on my responsibilities and celebrating what God is doing at Bethany has been freeing.

17. Leadership is Like a Coat: Put it on!

I took a psyche test for an interview early in my career and the subsequent profile I received described me as “spectacularly unambitious.” That seems accurate to me, and as a result, it’s helped me to view leadership as a coat that I put on, particularly on the days I have meetings to either lead or attend. Doing so has enabled me to keep showing up, even when I don’t want to.

18. You have strength you don’t know about

The apostle Paul says that God chooses “the weak,” which is God’s way of saying that God delights in writing a story that is inexplicable for any other reason than the power of God present in the lives of those God chooses. When this happens, as the Bible says, “all boasting ends” other than the boasts regarding what God has done. That’s exactly the story of Bethany Community Church’s 103-year history: “Look what God has done!”

19. Slow Church

Some churches have grown faster than Bethany has grown. Others have been more popular. I’ve sat in meetings with pastors of large churches in Seattle and felt utterly inadequate, but have always taken comfort in realizing that I’m not called to lead their churches; I’m called to lead Bethany, which has grown slowly, with some bumps along the way, without flash and under the radar, all of which is fine with me!

20. Have some friends

It’s been helpful to have friends outside the church. It’s been a joy to ski, run, mountain bike, eat, drink, and be merry with friends who don’t have any power in the church I lead. I know they accept me for who I am. I’ve been able to confide in them along the way, finding wisdom and strength for the journey from these dear souls.

21. Have a hobby

The mountains have been a solace for me throughout my 25 years of leadership. Rock climbing, hiking, backpacking, skiing, and trail running. For those who don’t know, I’m not good at any of these things, but I love them all because time outdoors is time in fellowship with the Creator, and connecting the the Source is the only path to joy, hope, endurance, generosity, and peace.

22. Place matters

Because the church I lead is healthy, other churches have contacted me at various times with offers to consider moving out of the state. I never gave them a thought because I knew that I was called to a place, not just a church. I’ve been in love with Washington state since the day I arrived from California in 1976 and have sought to work for the good of the city where God has called me, as God invites all of us to do!

23. Care for your soul

To the extent that our lust for approval, or our fear of hard conversations, or our need to prove something to a parent, become the motivators of our leadership, we’ll end up driving a train down a destructive track. We need to continually work on our own story, and, in the midst of work challenges, ask “What is God trying to teach me here?” When we do this, our daily lives will become a lab for our ongoing transformation, rather than a source of toxic leadership.

24. Care for your body

Move. Eat well. Rest enough.

25. Marry up

Well, at least that worked for me!

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