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The Maddening Paradox of Leadership

Written by Dan Doriani on

The work of a pastor has never been harder, at least in our lifetime, in lands that suffer no persecution. Every few weeks, we must reassess and re-organize the way we worship, make disciples, and care for each other. Churches are politicized. When regional governments change the rules for gatherings, one group advocates submission to governing authorities, and another urges civil disobedience. Pastor feel more emotional pressure, toil longer, and seem to accomplish less than ever before. In this setting it is tempting for pastors to believe they have a uniquely difficult calling. In fact, leadership is always difficult, always paradoxical, for pastors, politicians, business folk, and more.

Leadership is always a glory and a ruin, a privilege and a torment. People look for leaders, who are in short supply, and they look to leaders, whose skills and achievements they often exaggerate.

Leaders have friends and allies who assist and advise them, favor and flatter them, haunt them and hover over them. But they also have adversaries who criticize and condemn, squinting at the simplest act. They drown their leaders and delight in their demise, forgetting that it’s so much easier to critique a sermon, a book, or a movie than it is to deliver, write, or direct one. And it’s so much easier to rail at a leader than to be one.

Every step up in rank brings privileges––influence, wealth, assistance, knowledge. But every step up is simultaneously a step down––pressures, troubles, and demands. Every honor gained is a freedom lost.

Each leader knows the paradoxes of headship and each has a flavor, a sound, that fits his or her realm. In his singular memoir, Waiting for Snow in Havana, Carlos Eire describes the powers and dangers of his father’s life as a judge in Cuba—and it has parallels to the lives of pastors. Judge Eire had power to decide cases and the skill to ferret out the truth. He protected the defenseless and punished evildoers. He fined petty miscreants, jailed the wicked, and acquitted the innocent. But every sound judgment disappointed someone a little, and a few decisions earned him full-blooded enemies. According to Eire and othersthose enemies might show their wrath by slashing his tires or tossing headless chickens onto the porch. People can get used to that, but it’s much harder to shake off the death threats judges have received. A pastor’s life is not wholly different, for pastors also have power to do good, but every tough decision has the potential to disappoint, even enrage.

Lead pastors also share the loved/hated experience with other leaders. For example, presidents and prime ministers are the most loved and most detested persons in their lands, the objects of fevered adulation and plots for assassination. In the circle of fawning admirers, every wish is a command; but in the circle of foes, every act is viewed with suspicion. Likewise, bosses and coaches are both loved and scorned. We also hold leaders accountable for the misdeeds of subordinates they never met and praise them for the accomplishments of employees they neither hired nor trained.

Bearing Authority

Few bear the mantle of authority with ease. Some are too quick to decide and too eager to lead, even to dominate. They abuse power when they have it. Later, they struggle to let it go. Other leaders can be too reluctant to command, so worried about missing their target that they cannot shoot. Another group is too thin-skinned, even though they have great gifts. Rare indeed is Plato’s reluctant-but-willing philosopher king.

In the higher ranks, leaders never hear of simple problems. Only the toxic matters reach their desk, the problems no one else can conquer. On the hardest days, we feel like fish at the top of the food chain. Any time those fish feed, they may ingest poisonous mercury they cannot expel. Similarly, pastors feast on beautiful stories of growth, even triumph, but we also comfort and counsel people who committed sin and endured pains we wish we could purge from memory.

Ministry is especially hard now. We may take solace that spiritual growth often follows social or political upheaval. It happened after the Revolutionary War, Civil War, World War II, and after the troubles of the 1960s. We can pray that it happens again. But how can we stay strong in ministry leadership now?

Peter’s Principles for Leaders

Peter spoke to leaders in a difficult decade for churches, and his principles resonate today:

So I exhort the elders among you, as a fellow elder and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, as well as a partaker in the glory that is going to be revealed: shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight, not under compulsion, but willingly, as God would have you; not for shameful gain, but eagerly; not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock. (1 Pet. 5:1–3)

First, notice that Peter calls himself “a fellow elder,” not an apostle. He identifies with the people he leads, instead of locating himself above them. So let us continue to identify with our people.

Second, Peter points his fellow elders to the pattern of Christ. For him, as for us, there is suffering and then there is glory. This was the course for Jesus, so let us be neither surprised nor alarmed if our ministry includes hardship.

Third, Peter states the core task. In the church, it is to shepherd and watch over God’s flock. Pastors may speak of “my church, my people, or my flock,” but the church is “the flock of God” first and last. It is our sacred trust to care for God’s people.

Fourth, Peter describes the mentality and motivations of a Christian leader with three contrasts. Elders lead . . .

  • “not under compulsion, but willingly”
  • “not for shameful gain, but eagerly”
  • “not domineering, but being examples”

All three points describe Jesus, for he leads willing, eagerly, and by setting an example. So should we. When we look to Jesus, we expect leadership to be costly, for it cost him first. We also expect it to become rewarding, for he saw the result of his suffering and was satisfied (Isa. 53:11).

So leadership is a paradox—a ruin but finally a glory, a torment but also a privilege.

This article was originally published on and has been reposted with permission from the author.

Dan Doriani

Dan Doriani is the founder and executive director of the Center for Faith and Work St. Louis. He earned an MDiv and a Ph.D. from Westminster Theological Seminary and an STM from Yale Divinity School. A TGC Council member, he also hosts the podcast Working. He has written a number of books, including Work: Its Purpose, Dignity, and Transformation. He and his wife, Debbie, have three children.

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