Leadership and the Art of Humility

“Jesus was a man for others; as his disciples we live for others. Humility is living for others.”

I have often let crowds define me. If the crowd was large, then I was large, if small, then I was diminished. The most difficult time for me as a pastor was the time period on a Sunday morning, when the size of crowd had yet to be determined. This time period began 15 minutes before a service and lasted for 15 minutes into the service. Afterward, it was a good or bad Sunday, based on attendance. Crowd size didn’t just define me, it owned me. I am not alone in this. Crowd size is the most powerful emotional aphrodisiac for a speaker. If Peterson’s words mean anything, they mean that a crowd kills personhood and community. The ups and downs of a pastor’s emotions should be determined by healthy signs of community that lead to Christlikeness in congregants, no matter the size of the church.

Humility is an acknowledgement that we are dependent on God. When we decide to live for God and to live for others, then we are no longer a slave to the crowd and its whims. This kind of living is challenging. Sometimes our motives are good and our focus is right, but we can slip easily into a carnal mode. I often laugh at the professional athlete who struts his stuff after scoring a meaningless touchdown at the end of the game when his team is behind 30 points. What makes it sad and unseemly is that he seems to not know the score. This athlete is celebrating self — as are Christian leaders who make ministry about how they feel and what is good for them rather than about the mission and pleasing the Father. These leaders celebrate their public successes, even though their congregation is not in unity or introducing people to Christ. They may be winning, their career may be winning, but their ministry and the Great Commission are losing.

Be Teachable

Another way to cultivate humility is to be teachable. The essence of discipleship is to be a learner. Jesus said, “Everyone who is fully trained will be like their teacher” and “Teach these new disciples to obey all the commands I have given you.” These foundational teachings require humility. Without humility a follower of Christ cannot be touched deeply by Christ.

Spend time in prayer, not in long drawn-out sessions pleading with God to make you humble, but in quiet conversation with him, acknowledging that you and God are working on this trait, side by side, as friends. Read the Bible often. Live in community, where people know your sins, and continue every day to ask God to teach you how to be his follower. Look for places to be humble.

Don’t Expect to Get Anything Out of It

One of the first statements a group of apprentice leaders hears from me is, “Don’t expect to get anything out of this.” I want to shock them, to challenge the very thing they are thinking. They have agreed to enroll in a spiritual community for one year and they have high expectations of what it means to lead. I go on to give my reason for saying this. “What if Jesus would have made his decision for incarnation based on what he would get out of it?” There was nothing in it for him. He was already self-sufficient and was in perfect celestial bliss in the triune community with God the Father and God the Holy Spirit. Of course, people who are in discipleship will get something out of it and indeed it will transform their lives. But the reason they enter into discipleship is to be like their leader. Jesus came to serve; he came to give. He suffered and it was rough.

What we get out of being a leader is personal transformation as we serve others. Very few Christian leaders get the rewards that society extols, such as money and fame. Some do, and it can be dangerous for them. Money and fame distract us from loving what God loves. What we get out of our position of leadership is the personal satisfaction of being able to say, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.” What Paul got out of his ministry was the joy down deep inside that he had pleased Christ, his leader. Such knowledge is more than enough.

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Forget About Humility

Don’t constantly evaluate how you are doing. C.S. Lewis put it this way:

Do not imagine that if you meet a really humble man he will be what most people call “humble” nowadays: he will not be a sort of greasy, smarmy person, who is always telling you that, of course, he is nobody. Probably all you will think about him is that he seemed a cheerful, intelligent chap who took a real interest in what you said to him. If you do dislike him it will be because you feel a little envious of anyone who seems to enjoy life so easily. He will not be thinking about humility: he will not be thinking about himself at all.

Jesus was a man for others; as his disciples we live for others. Humility is living for others.

Humility Helps People Trust You

When you demonstrate that you want the best for them, people will follow you. It causes them to believe your message, to like you, and to want to please you. Living for others has been a struggle for me because I don’t always trust people’s judgment. I also don’t want to submit myself to them because I want to reserve my option to bail out if I don’t like the organizational results.

On one occasion, I debated whether to resign from a church because I wasn’t sure if my work there was finished. Trusted friends counseled me to stay and to set aside my ministry to the larger church in order to establish in the mind of my local church members that I was committed to them first and foremost. I trusted those who counseled me, but I decided to leave because I didn’t trust the corporate heart of the congregation. Through the prophet Jeremiah, God had said, “The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it? ‘I the Lord search the heart and examine the mind, to reward each person according to their conduct, according to what their deeds deserve.’ ” I could not bring myself to trust their corporate heart; I could not even trust my own heart in the matter. The only thing I could trust was God’s heart, and I flung myself into his care for the remainder of my days.

Life in the Middle

Let me close this discussion on humility by saying that I believe all serious Christian leaders live in the middle between pride and humility. I am dubious of the “all or nothing” advocates. Take for example Andrew Murray’s classic, Humility. He wrote in absolute categories; his sentences don’t seem to leave room for living:

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Pride must die in you, or nothing of heaven can live in you. … Humility must sow the seed, or there can be no reaping in heaven. Look not at pride only as an unbecoming temper, nor at humility only as a decent virtue: for the one is death, and the other is life; the one is all hell, the other is all heaven. So much as you have of pride within you, you have of the fallen angel alive in you; so much as you have of true humility, so much you have of the Lamb of God within you.

Not much room for the way life is really lived. Neither do I think Paul’s teaching in Philippians 4:6 — “Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God”— means that a Christian will never have anxiety. It is not as if we live in one of two states, either the state of anxiety or the state of zero anxiety. Paul was saying that we live with anxiety and we manage that anxiety through prayer. Similarly, we live life with a dash of pride here and a splash of humility there. So learn to live with some anxiety about your humility. God chose Peter, the least humble and most reckless of his disciples, to lead his church. Peter gave his life as a flawed man who lived in the knowledge that he was utterly dependent upon God. That, my friends, is the essence of humility.

Taken from The Christian Leader by Bill Hull Copyright © 2016 Used by permission of Zondervan. Zondervan.com.

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