How to Lead Well When Your Church Context Isn’t Healthy

Along a long enough timeline, we’ll find ourselves leading in an unhealthy context. It may be a pastor, a team member, a leader, a church member, or it may be systemic, like an unhealthy leadership culture.

But God often has us serving in far less than perfect situations. And it’s not a mistake.

I wanted to give you the posture and practice of leaders who can be fruitful in far less than ideal situations. These have carried me for thirty years.

Deep Grounding
I’ve championed the truth that we bring who we are to the stage, that our life with God dictates our long-term effectiveness as a worship leader. As accurate as that is for the moments when we lead worship, it carries a heavier weight as we navigate staff life, leadership, and relationships.

What is our anchor? How clear is our call? Is our foundation our relationship with the Father, the Creator, the Almighty God?

Long before it started and long after it’s over, our journey of intimacy with Jesus is what we PRIORITIZE. It’s what we keep from church to church, from season to season. It’s always changing, yet it is our constant.

Humble and Honoring
“There is no problem that can’t be solved, no situation that can’t be addressed simply by walking in a deeper level of humility!” I had that quote on the wall of my office during a time where I felt that my senior pastor was condescending toward me. It helped me remember to walk the low road. The low road is the high road.

I was once described as “magnanimous,” which means “generous or forgiving, especially toward a rival or less powerful person.” This was in the midst of an exceptionally trying staff assignment. I’ve set my heart to honor people, not for their sakes, but out of reverence for Christ. (Ephesians 5:21) Look, people will let you down. Pastors aren’t little gods; they’re just imperfect people with responsibility. But I need to honor them because it’s how I practically honor God.

Independent Identity
“If I don’t define myself vertically, I’ll constantly shop for my identity horizontally.” Paul Tripp is saying that if I don’t allow God to define who I am, I’ll always be looking to others to tell me who I am. And that’s invariably dangerous. If I even pursue obedience before knowing my identity, my good works (obedience) become my identity rather than who my Father says I am. When we get who we are tied into what we do, we’re in trouble. So live from who the Father says you are. [Read more here.]

Do Business With God First
Remember the “condescending pastor” I just talked about? Turns out, it was mostly me being an arrogant, immature leader. It was my perception. As a matter of habit, I’ve learned to turn to the LORD first when something angers, hurts, or blindsides me. Because very likely, there’s some truth in it or something in my character that needs to grow. I can’t continue being the immature leader, feeling like a victim, or becoming hard-hearted. On your own, it can be impossible to discern if you’re in a truly abusive situation or if God’s chisel is painfully creating beauty out of your life. This is where having a coach is essential.

Pray for the “problem”
Invest energy in prayer for those you’re not getting along with. Not only is it much more effective than gossiping about them (facepalm), but it puts in motion the work of God in their life. Plus, it begins to shift your heart toward them. It grows your love for that person.

Establish Healthy Boundaries
It’s no secret that churches are in the habit of milking staff for all their worth. “After all, this isn’t just a job. It’s a calling! And we’re asking the rest of the church members to give their time sacrificially. Our staff is no different.” They say.

I get that. In our first world, we are certainly blessed to have so many people working full time at churches. But what if your staff life was so good that your family would beg you to stay if you considered leaving - because of how they treat you? (HT Chris Brown, Lead Pastor at North Coast Church)

Like any other job, give it your all when you’re on the clock, and “leave your phone in the car” (or whatever metaphor works for you) when you get home.

Not Alone 
First of all, none of us was designed to be solo. I hope you have a great staff team that serves, grows, cries, eats, and prays together. Even if you do that, you need two more crucial elements.

You need leaders at other churches who know you and who you can partner with in building the Kingdom, not just your churches. God seems to work regionally, and if you’re clueless about who and what is happening in your area, you’ll miss out. (That’s the good FOMO)

You also need someone who has a vested interest in you and no vested interest in your church. One of the best people for this role is a coach, but it can also be a leader from another church. But don’t walk the leadership road alone. You won’t make it. You weren’t designed to. Walk it together.