When you finish your studies, in seminary or Bible college, you will be full of ideas, information and excitement. You will want to return home, and implement what you have learned, imparting knowledge and being a blessing to your own people. Unfortunately when you do come back, a harsh reality is waiting for you.
The truth is, running a ministry is not as easy as it seems. Therefore, I would like to share three pieces of advice that I have learned along the way, looking back over the last 25 years I have spent in ministry, since I graduated from seminary.
First, when you start out as a leader, it is important to have a clear and focused vision. This will not come automatically; it will take time. David Cormack writes, visions “are clear; they make distinct impressions on people; their effect is lasting; they cause people to change.” * It is crucial that you develop your own vision or goal; otherwise you will most likely be enlisted in efforts to achieve the dreams and aspirations of someone else. It is easy to be caught up in the vision of your favorite professor, or of your school generally. This is not a bad thing, but what they aspire to may not be what God has in mind for your life. The same is true of the established leaders when you go home. They will see you as an asset, and will want to plug you into their dream where you will be most useful to them. This is also good, but can hinder you from reaching your real goal, which is to pursue what God has laid out for you. You should approach both professors and leaders with humility; they have more wisdom and more experience than you. Listen to what they have to say and use it to help sharpen your vision. In this way you will avoid working to accomplish a mission which, no matter how good it is, is not your own. This will only lead to frustration. But it can be avoided if you take the time to develop your own vision, and then hold to it tenaciously.
Second, it is important to seek out successful examples of other leaders to follow. We are often shown the examples of important historical or biblical leaders and told to emulate them, specifically their spiritual life and their relentless drive to fulfill God’s will. But we are rarely told about how they accomplished their goals. Saying that they were blessed by God is true, but it is not so helpful in terms of learning. We need concrete information about how to move from point A to point B, and this is often lacking. I have found that in leadership training this is the most important aspect, demonstrating how to move forward with the vision God has given you. For this reason, discipleship and mentoring are crucial. We don’t need more books telling us about successful leaders, we need flesh and blood examples to follow. Seek out a mentor, and learn from him/her about practical steps that need to be taken. This also requires humility, because it means saying “I don’t know.” Moreover, unless we are willing to accept the fact that we do not know everything, we will never advance.
Third, learn to expect opposition, and learn to handle it with grace. This is a big one for all leaders. Any comprehensive vision will include major changes; and change, no matter how big or how small, will always encounter opposition. Usually the strongest opposition will come from within. In this respect, I am my own worst enemy. My flesh and weakness weigh me down, and force of habit is very hard to overcome. This is true on the social level as well. We may think that opposition to our vision will come from the outside, from unbelieving society, but in truth it often comes from within the household of God. This is because truly radical change involves changing everything: the way of living, identity, theology etc. But many people are resistant to change, either set in their ways or with a vested interest in keeping things the way they are. In order to deal with opposition, you must first of all expect it. You should not be caught off guard or unaware. However much you may anticipate it you will be overwhelmed by the force of it and, often and unfortunately, the ungodliness of it. Try to think of opposition as a refining fire, which will determine the direction of your leadership. This is a humbling process to be sure, and you can rest assured: the higher you go, the greater the opposition you will face in both intensity and sheer volume. The question is, will it become a wall, trapping you in, or will it be a stepping-stone to where God wants you to be?
Leadership is not for everyone; it is a difficult calling. But then again, anything of value is. Often, facing opposition means you are doing something right. Also, there are some potentially positive aspects of facing opposition. It may provide you with insight, and help you see things from a new, different perspective. It might awaken you to something that you overlooked. But some opposition is only destructive, only trying to bring you down. You cannot allow yourself to be distracted by these kinds of obstacles. Do not waste time and energy on them. You will need every ounce of effort in trying to achieve your vision. Opposition can make you withdraw from engagement. It usually comes in waves, and this can influence your view. You may begin thinking that those who object are greater in numbers than they really are. Usually they are a small but vocal minority. But there are others out there who do agree with your vision. They may not speak out, but eventually they will join in the discussion, and the way you respond to opposition, especially the ugly bits of it (character slander, etc.) will be watched and evaluated. This is very important. You cannot sink to the level of the attacks, for it will compromise your vision.
One final piece of advice; use the tools God has given you when faced with the challenges of leadership. Things such as prayer and quiet time, meditation and fasting are vital to any leader’s success. Surround yourself with a small group of people for prayer and support. They will be a great help to you when you face alienation and loneliness. Listen to the language of your body, eat well and exercise. Make time for your marriage and your family. Live a balanced life and with God’s help, you will be equipped to handle any and all opposition to your vision.
* Cormack, David, Seconds Away! Fifteen rounds in the fight for effective use of time (MARC Europe, 1986) page 44.