Becoming The Kinds of Leaders Who Can Do The Job
Cutting Edge magazine, Summer 1999. A publication of Vineyard USA. Also published in 2016 as Chapter 38 of Renewing The Christian Mind (HarperOne Publishers).
We said, “Take the gloves off, Dallas. Tell us what we really need to hear.” We had read all of Dallas’ books and been deeply impacted by them—not least by his latest, The Divine Conspiracy. But Brian had just finished presenting some thoughts on new models of leadership—leaders marked not so much by conquest and technique, but by spiritual goodness and wisdom. And so we sat there, slumped pensively in our chairs, until someone finally said, “Dallas...please talk to us about how we become those kind of people.” So, during a break, Dallas began listing some of his thoughts on a whiteboard. And then in his gracious, careful way, he challenged us to become the kind of leaders this world so desperately needs. The following is some of what he told us.
1. People are constantly looking for methods.
God is looking for men. Methods are often temporary, but what God is looking for is a life. God is far less interested in your results than the person you are becoming. Many people in our life have tried to substitute results for what they lacked: joy, relationship, character. This part of your existence is a very short part of all of it, and probably you will not be a pastor in the next part.
2. You must be a person who doesn’t need his job, who finds his personal sufficiency in God.
If you don’t have this one down, you will drive yourself nuts. You will be torn between pleasing people and pleasing God. You will be torn between your own integrity and what people who don’t understand are saying about you. You won’t be able to lead like this. You will find yourself caught between two different driving forces, and your only resource is an internal sufficiency before the Lord.
3. In order to carry that out, you have to have a strategy for constant renewal.
Start by looking at what has strengthened you in the past and cultivate that. Don’t regard such activities as peripheral, but central. Of course, I’ve written a whole book on spiritual disciplines, but I think we all know what to do. Sometimes this will mean giving up sleep, and sometimes strengthening yourself may mean getting enough sleep.
4. You need things that are not directly a part of your ministry that give you a kind of rootedness.
These could, of course, include things that would help you in your ministry. For example, if you love literature, your love of words will help you speak and write. Powerful language is one of the greatest benefits to a minister. I’ve watched for decades how ministers who can really use language will know how to say things in a way that people who are not as adept with words cannot. Part of that, of course, is knowing the language of the Bible. Memorize it. Soak it in. Make it a part of your whole life. That will be in itself a strategy for personal renewal.
Not to publish, but write. Writing is one of the surest ways to hone your sense of what you are saying. You must be able to say things with force and clarity. Write out your sermons—even if you don’t use the manuscript. Write out your thoughts. Copy things out of books. One of your greatest assets in church planting is the power of your words. People are desperate to hear something good.
6. Know your Bible.
Generally speaking, seminary training does not make people adept in working with the Bible. Your life and your Bible should start forming a seamless whole. Wear out your Bible. Read it in large stretches, and repeatedly. Read the New Testament in one go. Set aside time so that you can read through the New Testament five times in one week. Take notes, because you will get stuff that will be life-giving.
7. Don’t pretend anything.
Eliminate pretending from your repertoire. That will be wonderfully helpful in becoming the kinds of leaders the world desperately needs. We often pretend we are interested in things we are not, for example, or that we know things we don’t know. One of the lies commonly told in my university context is, “Oh yes, I’ve read that book.” We may pretend to have accomplished things we haven’t accomplished. We can be evasive. To be “an Israelite in whom there is no guile” is a great strength in the battle of life. Actually, people will forgive you many things they might otherwise get mad at you about if you are guileless.
I have a three step plan for humility:
a. never pretend
b. never presume
c. never push.
Most of the things that we try to accomplish go according to the saying: “Things that can be pulled can’t be pushed, and things that can be pushed can’t be pulled.” Most of what we’re doing can’t be pushed; it has to be drawn out at the appropriate time.
8. Listen to your critics.
Proverbs says, “Rebuke a wise man and he’ll love you for it.” Listen not with the attitude, “I don’t deserve this, they’re dead wrong.” Lay it down and just listen, see what you can learn. Practice walking off without reply.
What goes along with this is, don’t defend yourself. Now, sometimes you need to explain yourself. But this is a fine line. If you are actually doing this to help the person, you are not defending yourself. When we are in a ministry that is going through change, then we do need to help people. But to defend yourself is hopeless. You have a Defender and you let him do his job.
9. Grow in making distinctions for people.
For example, I believe we should never be in a hurry. But sometimes we should act quickly. Acting quickly is a form of action. Being in a hurry is a state of mind. Another example: When talking about spiritual disciplines, one of my slogans that I use to help people with the difference between works and grace is that “Grace is not opposed to effort, it is opposed to earning. Earning is an attitude; effort is an action.” It’s very important to help people grasp these distinctions, and often once you state them for people, it can be like a flash of insight for them.
10. Identify what you admire, and stay with it.
What do you think is really good in your work, and in others that you know? No matter what it is—and it will often be associated with someone who you think is really doing that particular thing well—stick with it. Vacillation hurts us very badly in relation to our success as ministers. Find what’s good in your work and stick with it and make it better.
For example, if you find some topic that is especially helpful, don’t just take one shot at it and drop it. Develop it. Certainly that’s true of much that I have written. I have never asked to publish a book; they’ve all come because people have heard of what I’ve said. Richard Foster’s and my work on disciplines all came out of a half-page outline that I did in the late 1960s, and we just started working on it.
How would you balance that with Paul’s admonition to teach the whole counsel of God? I’ve seen churches built around just one or two things, and there’s no balance or health there.
What you do is to look for the others in the church who contribute in the other areas, and you develop them. And you must develop a sense of who to bring in to balance things out. You order things so there is a range of teaching. Billy Graham has a real gift. But if you had to listen to Billy Graham preach every Sunday, you’d say, “This is not the best for the church.”
Another thing we need to do consciously is talk about success. In another age it might have been enough for your people to know that you are devoted and that you are called of God. But we live in a world where this issue is enough to drive anyone nuts. You have people constantly surveying, “Is this a success?” I often imagine people handing out little questionnaires at the end of the Sermon on the Mount about whether or not it was a success. I would teach about this, especially in the midst of a process where many groups will misunderstand one another about how we reach a world such as this.
Would “faithfulness” be a word that should replace “success”?
I don’t think so. I think it’s more complicated than that. I think success has to do with producing results. But what kind of results? I’m not big on the saying that “All God requires is that we be faithful.” I’m sure that there’s a lot to that, but it’s not all. Faithfulness means means more than just doing the same things over and over. I would say that, in our faithfulness, one of the things we do is change—and sometimes we need to change before God will respond to our efforts.
So what do you think constitutes success for a pastor in the postmodern era?
I think in any era it must mean the spiritual growth of the people. We may understand that a little differently in a modern versus a postmodern context, but that has to be a given. I would suggest that you float the idea that a church could grow not by having more Christians but larger Christians. Of course, my view is that if you have larger Christians, you’re going to have a lot more of them, too.
What practices would you like to see in the churches for making disciples?
I’ll tell you something very direct and very simple: Preach on the Kingdom of God. People just don’t do it. My general counsel for making disciples—and something I follow as much as I have opportunity—is to preach what Jesus preached in the manner Jesus preached it.
What I mean is that Jesus preached the Gospel in the style of manifesting and teaching about the Kingdom of God. And, of course, manifesting will include signs and wonders. But I think if you dig into the Gospels and do your background studies, you will see how Jesus taught. He taught in a manner very much like what we’ve been doing here for these couple of days together. He didn’t get up and put on a big production. Perhaps what we need to do is spend a lot of time sitting around talking to people in this same manner.
This would include having lots of occasions for lengthy talks of a conversational sort, responding to questions, bringing the approach Jesus uses in Matthew 13 into play—teaching about the Kingdom in the context of our ordinary life. Most of Jesus’ teachings about the reality of the Kingdom come out of commonplace parables and stories from everyday life.
I think Jesus confused people a lot with the parables. I always feel like I’ve failed people if I haven’t been completely clear, or if I engender controversy and conflict. Jesus seemed unconcerned with that. I’m trying to give myself permission—if I interact with people and they get into lively discussions after I leave—that it’s OK.
You have done them a real favor. I claim that you cannot understand what Jesus taught until you understand how he taught. The precise point of it is that he did not teach by systematically laying things out. He taught by catching people in the flight of their assumptions and letting the air out of their balloons. And they didn’t need a recorder or a pad to jot it down, because their heads were buzzing and probably they were blushing half the way home. Jesus does that constantly.
For example, whenever you see Jesus teaching, “Blessed are the poor,” you have to see what assumption it is that he’s letting the air out of. If you don’t understand that, you’ll decide that it’s a good thing to be poor. And you’ll say, “Jesus said it.” Or, “Woe to you who laugh.” You guys here in this room are in real trouble! He’s not talking about laughing being a terrible thing. What he’s getting at, if you read the “woes,” is a list of precisely what we think of as being “on top of the world:” Rich, good reputation, good health, laughing it up. So you have to understand what he’s aiming at.
We have to stop trying to systematically make sure that everybody “gets” everything. We shut their minds down when we do that. Some of you know that, in many parts of the world, if you do that to a person they will be insulted! They don’t want you to grab them by the ears and stuff it down their throats and say, “Have you got it?” They want you to talk in a way that leaves them free to think and negotiate and come back. It’s regarded as bad taste to lay it all out as though they were idiots. In our culture our educational system has trained us to want it all laid out, because we’ve had to spit it all back on a test.
Dallas, how can you apply Jesus’ method—which seems like a situational approach—to our preaching, where we speak to a wide range of people all coming from different places of maturity and mindsets?
The main thing is to identify the assumptions your people are resting on that are holding them up. Charles Finney said that the main job of the minister is to study the assumptions of the people to whom he speaks. What are the assumptions that are impeding spiritual growth and progress? We must be alive to people’s mental furniture.
Now, of course, we have to combine this with the realities of our situation. If you fail the expectations of your people too much, they won’t hear a word you say. So teaching in this way requires great grace and wisdom. But I would say in that, in general, even given the dynamics of speaking in a large auditorium, make it as conversational in style as possible, and give people time to think. Don’t just rattle on. Literally pause.
Watch how Jesus teaches in the Gospels and you will see that he always discusses things in a way in which he does not state everything. Many times, he would put something “out there” and just leave it. So identify the assumptions in a loving, gentle, humorous way, ask them a question to which they’re going to give the wrong answer, and then gently point out why the answer is wrong. (Of course, I will usually say, “Now don’t answer this,” because I don’t want them to be embarrassed! I want them to have thought of the wrong answer.)
Are there more things we can do, other strategies?
Do something incremental, something in your skills that keeps growing. For example, writing, or teaching, or praying. Something that keeps developing incrementally, and which doesn’t depend on where you are living. Don’t look for the great leap forward. It will probably not come.
I don’t know how much memorization of Scripture you do, but it’s one of the most renewing things I do. I love Colossians 3. Romans 8. The Psalms. To take that stuff in is to fill one’s self with a literal life-force.
Make sure that you rest well. Enjoy your family. And be sure you have times when you don’t have anything to do.
For a deeper look into Dallas’s thoughts on leadership, visit the Dallas Willard Ministries YouTube channel and watch the four-part “Authentic Leader Series” playlist.
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