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10 Lessons on Church Leadership, Learned the Hard Way



This is not the final list. I’m still (and always will be) learning.

Most of what follows about leading God’s church is counterintuitive. Or, maybe better said: not what you might be expecting. But these 10 lessons were learned while leading, and hopefully will provide some support along your own journey of discovery.

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Lesson #1: Bigness Is Overrated

Lesson #1: Bigness Is Overrated

It doesn’t matter to the Lord whether He saves by the few or the many1 Samuel 14:6

Most pastors, it would appear, have wanted to lead big churches, wanted to grow their church to be huge, or wanted to move to a large church. Their motives may be pure; judging motives is outside my skill set. But pastoring a big church can be the hardest thing you will ever try, and far less satisfying than you would ever think.

Small churches can be healthy, too; behold the hummingbird or the honeybee.

Trying to get a huge church to change its way of thinking can be like turning around an ocean liner. Even so, the Lord’s teachings about the mustard seed (see Matthew 13:31-32 and Luke 17:6) should forever disabuse us of the lust for bigness.

I will spare you the horror stories of pastors who have manipulated God’s people and lied about numbers to create the illusion of bigness. Forgive us, Father!

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Lesson #2: Lack of Formal Education in the Preacher Is No Excuse

Lesson #2: Lack of Formal Education in the Preacher Is No Excuse

The pastor of the small church often has far less formal training and education than he would like. As a result, he often feels inferior to his colleagues with seminary degrees. I have two thoughts on that:

First, it’s a mistake. He can be as smart as they are and more if he applies himself. Let the Lord’s preachers not be overly impressed by certificates on the wall or titles before their names.

Second, he can get more formal education if he’s willing.  Seminaries have online programs that make continuing education accessible, practical, and affordable.

My dad, a coal miner and the firstborn of a dozen children, had to leave school after the 7th grade. But he never quit learning. He took courses and read constantly. When God took him to Heaven, Dad was almost 96. Mom had to cancel four or five magazine subscriptions he was still taking and reading.

Some of the finest preachers of God’s word I’ve ever known have had little formal theological education.

Better to have it on the ball than on the wall.

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Lesson #3: There are No Lone Rangers or Solo Acts on the Lord’s Team

Lesson #3: There are No Lone Rangers or Solo Acts on the Lord’s Team

He sent them out two by two.Mark 6:7; Luke 10:1

The preacher who says pastors are not allowed to have friends and thus shuts himself off from colleagues in ministry has bought into a lie from hell that causes him to deceive himself, shut himself off from his brethren, and limit his ministry.

While a pastor may choose not to have close friends from within his own congregation, there is every reason for him to make friends with other pastors and ministers who serve the Lord well. Failing to do so limits himself and hurts the kingdom work.

Furthermore, he needs co-workers alongside him. Paul needed Barnabas, Silas, Timothy, and many others. Read the last chapter of  1 Corinthians and ask God to forgive you for trying to do this work alone. 

Lesson #4: Doing a Job by Yourself is Easier, But It’s Not Your Calling 

Rather than enlisting and training someone to do a job, some will try to do everything. That’s a violation of your calling.

“Make disciples,” said our Lord.  That mandate calls for us to help people come into the kingdom, then nurture and grow them to the point they will know the Word, are able to share the Word, and can make disciples of others.

Barnabas did not find it convenient to leave Antioch and travel to Tarsus “to seek Saul” (Acts 11:25). But in doing so, he connected the man whom God had called as an evangelist to the Gentiles with the opportunity of a lifetime.  We are forever grateful to the best disciple-maker in Scripture: Barnabas!

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Lesson #5: I Can’t Lead People to Do What I’m Not Doing

Lesson #5: I Can’t Lead People to Do What I’m Not Doing

God did not send me to be a talker only, but a doer. Not as a coach only, but as a player-coach. It is enough for the disciple to become like the teacher, said our Lord.

So, as a pastor and church leader, my job is to show them how. Then, and only then, can I show them. (James 1:22 and I John 3:18)

Lesson #6:  It’s Hard to Tithe and Witness, and God Likes That

Not only is it hard to get started tithing my income or sharing my faith (and a hundred other discipleship things), God likes it that way.

Watch the butterfly emerge from its chrysalis. The struggle, we are told, is a necessary part of its development.

Only people of faith and determination will set out to learn to tithe and witness and understand the Bible, then stay with it until they are able to do it well.  Everyone else drops by the wayside, intending to wait until it’s easy.

In doing so, they’re expecting what never was and never shall be.

Without faith, it is impossible to please God.Hebrews 11:6

The members of your church need to be reminded that God does not need their money. He is not suffering from a cash flow problem. God is all about growing disciples, preparing us down here so we will fit up there. That explains the hundreds of teachings on money in the Word.

When are we ever going to understand this? When are preachers going to quit fearing criticism and teach stewardship until people do it!

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Lesson #7: God Makes His Leaders Servants—Not Bosses, Lords, or Bigshots

Lesson #7: God Makes His Leaders Servants—Not Bosses, Lords, or Bigshots

I keep running into husbands who want to lord it over their wives because “God made me the head of the home and told you to submit!” Such men may call themselves believers, but they are pagan to the heart and have probably never been saved. They certainly don’t know the first thing about God’s word or Jesus’ heart.  If they did, they would know that they are sent as servants.

...just as Christ loved the church and gave Himself for her.Ephesians 5:25

See what the Apostle Peter said to pastors in the opening verses of 1 Peter 5:

Be shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care, watching over them—not because you must, but because you are willing, as God wants you to be; not pursuing dishonest gain, but eager to serve; not lording it over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock.

Bullies on the playground or dictators in the pulpit are cancers on the body, and must not be tolerated. The parable of all parables on this subject is Luke 17:7-10.  We must keep saying to ourselves—even when we have done everything Jesus required—I am only an unworthy servant; just doing my duty.

Lesson #8: The More Righteous We Are, the Less We’ll Be Aware of It  

Moses knew not that his face did shineExodus 34:29

I said to the 75-year-old saint in our church, “Marguerite, you are the most Christ-like person I know.”  She didn’t flinch.  “Oh honey,” she said to her young minister, “if you only knew.” I did know, in a way, but have learned a hundred times since: Those closest to the Lord are the last to realize it. The nearer to the light we get, the more imperfections and blemishes we will see.

Beware of ever thinking you have arrived. “Let him who thinks he stands take heed lest he fall.”

True humility, we are told, does not mean thinking less of yourself. It means thinking of yourself less.

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Lesson #9: Opposition Isn’t All Bad

Lesson #9: Opposition Isn’t All Bad

The Lord’s servants who serve well are going to run into the buzz saw of opposition from the nay-sayers, do-nothings, status-quo lovers, and carnal. That’s no fun, but it’s not all bad.

Reading the mandate of the disciples in Matthew 10:16, we cannot say we were not warned. But it has ever been this way. God’s servants are swimming upstream in a downstream world.

Jesus prepared us for this by saying that whoever receives us is receiving Him, whoever listens to us is listening to Him, and whoever rejects us is rejecting Him. (See Matthew 10:40 and Luke 10:16.). If being treated like Jesus is not enough for us, we’re in the wrong calling.

God uses the world’s opposition. Fire burns brighter under pressure. The Matthew 10:16 passage gives a huge reason for the Lord allowing persecution: to get the gospel to the muckety-mucks who ain’t coming to your revival.

We have to go to them, says the Lord, and for that, we’ll need some of you to get arrested for preaching. Then, when the judge says, “Tell us what you have been preaching,” sit back and be quiet, because the Holy Spirit will take over at this point.  (He’s a far better preacher than you, anyway.)

And Lesson 10 is much like Lesson #9:

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Lesson #10:  The Lord Allows (and Plans) for Suffering

Lesson #10:  The Lord Allows (and Plans) for Suffering

Not only does the Lord allow His choice servants to suffer sometimes, He even plans for that to happen.

When Paul and Silas were falsely charged, then beaten and jailed, even though their backs were open wounds and they were hungry, tired, and hurting, “about midnight, they began praying and singing hymns of praise to God. And the other prisoners were listening to them.” (Acts 16:25)

They’re always listening and watching when God’s people suffer unjustly. That’s a fact which God uses to reach many for Himself.

No one wants to suffer. No one volunteers to hurt. But sometimes it’s the only way.

What God’s faithful must never do is groan and bellyache and say, “Why me, Lord?” Your suffering may turn out to be the highest compliment the Father ever gave you. Early believers rejoiced they were counted worthy to suffer (see Acts 5:41).

So there you have it (for now).

I know, it’s not exactly a compilation of  leadership lessons one might find in the business section of Barnes & Noble. But for the faithful of God, these are solid gold.

God bless you, faithful servant! Hang in there.

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Joe McKeever has been a disciple of Jesus Christ more than 65 years, been preaching the gospel more than 55 years, and has been writing and cartooning for Christian publications more than 45 years. He blogs at www.joemckeever.com.

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