The other day, it hit me that I accidentally developed a life skill, one that I’ve been using since I was 28 years old. I didn’t build the habit consciously. It just never occurred to me to live any other way.
Twenty years ago this month, I became pastor an elder-led church that had no elders. At 28, I was the only officer constitutionally in charge of setting policy and direction.
I see now what I should’ve done—if I had been smart. I should’ve gone to seminars on how to maximize my own performance, extend my influence, and incentivize others to buy into my vision. I should’ve become a driven executive imposing my will on the organization. And I probably could have done it. Within two years, I was not only the sole elder of this church, but the founding chairman of two non-profit enterprises.
But I wasn’t smart. I wasted this opportunity to expand my power. I brought on more elders, recruited boards for the two non-profits, stepped aside as the chairman, and handed them off to paid leadership.
I was not smart enough to be threatened by the expertise of people who understood childhood education, real estate, and business strategy better than I did. I was so dumb that I thought my job was to support, spiritually feed, and advise those people.
And they took all the power. Elders, managers, board members, counselors, school teachers, fellow pastors took the power and used it without me. They discipled others without my looking over their shoulder. They had meetings without me. They even spent money without my vote. They built buildings, created jobs, taught classes, and helped people through intense personal crises—as if I didn’t even matter.
In spite of how dumb I was, all of these institutions still exist, show resilience, and have the ability to reach people. My failure to actualize myself somehow made space for other leaders to serve Christ and his people.
What hit me the other day was this: giving away power is a life skill. Christians who give their power away to others and support them in their work are the pistons driving the growth of Christ’s Kingdom. Christians who hang onto their authority, positions, and opportunities, who assert their own value against others, and who guard their status against every threat are the brakes. They stop the flow of energy from one person to another, clamp down the drive of churches, and sometimes bring entire institutions to a halt.
It amazes me how people resist giving away power. There is no shortage of people who have low opinions of others. Their argument is always the same. If you give power to this person, he/she will do damage.
Indeed. We all do damage just by showing up. Some of the people I’ve supported misused their power. They sometimes became haughty. Some froze and became indecisive. Others refused to develop their own character, so that they lost credibility with those they needed to lead. A few did all of these things.
Most of the time, the community of leaders helped those who stumbled. The faltering leaders took their lumps, grew, and became more effective. The Lord redeems damage. He is also capable of stopping leaders in their tracks when they are willfully destructive. I’ve seen him do that too.
But the damage that comes from turning ministry into a battle of wills, or a turf war, or a popularity contest is far worse. This damage lasts for decades because many people become trained in slander and malice. It has also impossible to calculate: who can tally the lost love from attitudes that James 3.13-18 calls demonic? There is in my memory a sad gallery of people who spent so much energy neutralizing threats to their personal worth that they now accomplish little for Christ’s kingdom.
Some might imagine that the faces in that gallery are all old. Not so. Many old people learned the skill of giving away power early in their lives, and still thrive in ministry as a result. In fact, if people do not learn this skill early, they rarely learn it later. I am frightened at the number of young and middle-aged people I see whose energy is devoted to controlling their kids, controlling their homes, controlling their business, controlling their free time, and controlling their image.
Every Christian says he or she loves Jesus, wants to serve him, and wants his kingdom to thrive. Every single one. Every church corporately says these things. But a church’s spiritual success may hang on the answer to a single question.
Do you spend your energy creating and guarding a ministry role for yourself, or creating and guarding roles for others?