The irrelevant, powerless, unpopular leader*

Getting beyond the desire to control and impress

Jeff Gang is minister of young adults at the Forest Lake Seventh-day Adventist Church, Apopka, Florida.

As spiritual leaders, it is enticing for us to base our identity and find our meaning in what we do, what we control, or whom we impress. This was a temptation Jesus faced. What can we learn from Him when it comes to facing this threat to effective ministry?

Following His baptism, Jesus is led into the wilderness where he is tempted by the devil for 40 days. Luke exposes us to the nature of the temptations and the form they took (4:1-3).

Jesus is given three opportunities to prove His identity.

1. To prove He is God's Son by what He does: turn stones to bread.

2. By what He can control: all the kingdoms of this world.

3. And whom He can impress and how: jump off the tower and let the angels save You.

In other words, Jesus is tempted to be relevant, powerful, and popular.

Pastoral allurements

In my own way, I face the temptation to take my identity from what I do. I want to be relevant and successful. These desires are especially strong at the times I feel the world doesn't care about what I have to offer as a Christian pastor. I want to do great things for God. But who is watching? Who is listening?

Too often I feel there is more criticism than praise for what I have to offer. I feel as if people around me are saying: "We don't need what you are offering." It is at such times that I wish I could turn stones into bread. And I think the tempter capitalizes upon these insecurities!

I also struggle with the temptation to take my identity from what I control. I want to be powerful. All too many of my leadership decisions are thinly veiled bids for congregational control. If I can impress you with my "goodness," or my "skill," you will think well of me as a leader. Then you will be more apt to follow me.

In reality I am trying to control what you think about me. The more responsibility I am given, the more effective leader I feel I am. So I clamor for more prominent influence and grander positions.

Knowledge is power. I must know the answers, offer the solutions, and fix the problems. My efforts to convince someone of truth are all too frequently weighted with a subtle attempt to control. If I can argue my case, prove my point, show how my worldview is better than yours, tear down your belief system, or demonstrate that my ideas are better than your ideas, I have controlled you, or at least feel I have some power over you.

And I struggle with the temptation to take my identity from whom I impress. This is closely related to control. My reputation is important. I seek respect, welcome applause, and revel in awards and accolades. Name recognition is important. Admitting failure is a sign of weakness.

In all of this, I want to appear slick, in control, bigger than life. My decisions as a leader are based more on what you will think of me than on my convictions. I am therefore susceptible to being more political than spiritual in my leadership.

Jesus and the enticements of success

What, then, can a minister learn from Christ when it comes to these kinds of leadership enticements?

First, at His baptism, we hear the Father's voice from the heavens: "You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased" (Luke 3:21, 22, NRSV).

Isn't this a little odd? As far as we know, Jesus had accomplished nothing by the standards of the world. No words of truth had been given. No miracles performed. No deeds of power done. No mighty acts committed. Jesus had impressed no one. Not one person had even signed up to follow Him. Nothing. Yet the words come, "With you I am well pleased."

What a magnificent thing to hear from the Father. I am not pleased with You because You are relevant, powerful, or popular. I am pleased with You because You are My Son.

Jesus was able to resist the allurements of power, prestige, and popularity because He understood that His identity was not rooted in these, but in His relationship with His Father, and in His Father's regard for Him.

The author of Hebrews reminds us that "we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin" (Heb. 4:15, NRSV).

As spiritual leaders we are tempted on the same basis as Jesus was. It is by all means our privilege and it is a necessity for us to find our identity in who God says we are in relation to Him and in what He thinks of us in Christ. This goes so far beyond, and in such a different direction from what is impressive by the assessments of the world or those in the Church who tend to operate by its values.

Henry Nouwen writes: "The great message that we have to carry, as ministers of God's Word and followers of Jesus, is that God loves us not because of what we do or accomplish, but because God has created and redeemed us in love and has chosen us to proclaim that love as the true source of all human life."1

Jesus, Peter, and the allure of power

One of the first to receive this invitation was Peter. It is quite clear that Peter (and the other disciples with keen Messianic expectations) believed change would require Someone who was relevant and powerful, who could take control of the situation at hand, and was popular. He was ready to champion the cause of Someone who could win people to Him through spectacular feats of glory. He thought he saw this kind of potential in Jesus. But as he traveled with this humble Teacher and became His apprentice, Peter slowly learned His ways.

In Mark's account of Jesus' life there comes a moment when Jesus begins to tell His disciples that His path would not lead to glory, but death. Peter is aghast that Jesus could make such a dire prediction. It was the last thing he envisioned for Jesus, or, of course, for himself. So he takes Jesus aside and says: "No, Lord, this just can't be. Don't talk like this." And then Jesus says the most shocking thing Peter could hear: "Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things" (Mark 8:33, NRSV). Jesus knew the source of Peter's fear. He'd heard this some where before.

At the end of John's story of Jesus, we find our Lord having breakfast on the beach with His disciples (John 21). A conversation takes place between Peter and Jesus. After commissioning him for ministry, Jesus tells Peter where the road would lead: "Very truly, I tell you, when you were younger, you used to fasten your own belt and to go wherever you wished. But when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go" (John 21:18, NRSV).

Spiritual leaders who follow the way of Christ are called to the same destiny. Like our Lord, we are to be suffering servants. Our calling is to nothing less than lives of humility, service, and sacrifice.

There is a hunger in our culture for authenticity. Many people are not interested in the kind of gospel we are communicating because of the incongruence between our actions and our message. The result: The gospel is judged by our actions.

Genuine and false power in ministry

I am reminded of a moment in the film adaptation of J. R. R. Tolkien's epic The Lord of the Rings. Gandalf the Wizard has returned to the Shire to warn Frodo that the ring in his possession is indeed the one ring, the Ring of Power. When Frodo realizes the seriousness of his situation and its implications for his life and all of Middle Earth, he tries to give the ring to Gandalf. In the face of this, the wizard responds, "You can not offer me this ring! Don't tempt me! I dare not take it. Not even to keep it safe. Understand, Frodo. I would use this ring from a desire to do good. But through me it would wield a power too terrible and great to imagine."

Sadly, the history of the church is riddled with leaders who chose relevancy, power, and popularity as a means of ministry. But Jesus continually reminds us that He does things differently. His ways are counter intuitive. That is the irony of spiritual leadership.

When we choose to find our identity in what God says about us rather than in what the world says, we find a sense of joy and peace, and we can then begin to have solidarity with all the irrelevance, powerlessness, and unpopularity that exist in our culture. This brings freedom to love the world as our Lord did. Then we no longer have the compulsion to find our identity in what we do, what we control, or whom we impress. We live and breathe as God's pleasure in the world. And that is really all we need.

* In composing this article, I have largely been in debt to the writings of Henri Nouwen and his book In the Name of Jesus.

1 Henri Nouwen, In the Name of /esus (New York: Crossroad Pub. Co., 1993), 17.

 

 


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Jeff Gang is minister of young adults at the Forest Lake Seventh-day Adventist Church, Apopka, Florida.

May 2003

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