Countercultural Leadership

The following was presented at a lunchean for the Crossroads Worship Conference in Sioux City, IA on October 23, 2010.

Then the mother of James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came to Jesus with her sons. She knelt respectfully to ask a favor. “What is your request?” he asked.

She replied, “In your Kingdom, please let my two sons sit in places of honor next to you, one on your right and the other on your left.”

But Jesus answered by saying to them, “You don’t know what you are asking! Are you able to drink from the bitter cup of suffering I am about to drink?”

“Oh yes,” they replied, “we are able!”

Jesus told them, “You will indeed drink from my bitter cup. But I have no right to say who will sit on my right or my left. My Father has prepared those places for the ones he has chosen.”

When the ten other disciples heard what James and John had asked, they were indignant. 25 But Jesus called them together and said, “You know that the rulers in this world lord it over their people, and officials flaunt their authority over those under them.  But among you it will be different. Whoever wants to be a leader among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first among you must become your slave.  For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve others and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

Matthew 20:20-28

The Kingdom of God turns the world’s system topsy-turvy. It is a new lens. Look at the beatitudes. (Matthew 5:2-10) They’re counterintuitive to how the world views things. That’s because our world is upside-down. Jesus came to “put the world to rights.”

I recall one of the very early praise and worship songs put it this way: “If you want to be great in God’s Kingdom, learn to be the servant of all.” (Michael Ryan, Maranatha! Music, 1975) The foundation of effective leadership in God’s Kingdom – not the world’s standards, but God’s countercultural standards – is cultivating the heart and actions of a servant. As I’ve prepared this little reflection on leadership in the church, I’ve been able to identify at least twelve that have made a difference in my experience.


1. Treat those you lead as you want to be treated. (Golden Rule!)
I’m amazed at how many in ministry do not seemingly get this. The Golden Rule applies to your actions and to your thoughts. Do you want people talking negatively about you behind your back? Then you don’t do it. Do you want to be treated with respect? Then treat all with respect. Do you want your full potential to be realized? Then with all that is within your power, draw the potential of people out and empower them. This rule is also a good check on your own wrestling with attitudes about people in authority over you. How would you like the people who you lead to think of you? Then think the same of your leaders.

2. Be organized – plan in advance.
When you don’t, you disempower people – especially musicians who need time to prepare and practice. I think I am organized by nature. But I didn’t operate that way when I first got out of school. I loved the adventure of solving last-minute crises and improvising on the spot. But I got slapped down pretty hard when I found that people who were critical to the success of my enterprise were not available because I did not ask them in time. Ouch! Learned the hard way. But as I’ve journeyed through my vocation as a pastor and leader I have found that being organized is one of the best ways that I empower others to do a good job. If you are not organized, it isn’t cute. Get organized so that your people can flourish.

3. If you are physically able, do the “grunt work” with your people.
This is counter to most leadership models that I’ve seen in the church. When I do see it, I am impressed. There is, of course, balance in this. Don’t value this rule simply because you can’t delegate. And don’t shirk other leadership duties such as interaction with people because you have to clean up the stage. But don’t be afraid to get your hands dirty. Jesus washed the disciples’ feet. I have found that doing physical work alongside my teammates nurtures great morale for the group. I loved working with the tech crew of the Living Christmas Tree and they enjoyed me. I’m convinced it was because I was willing to invest time and physical effort in working with them. Cultivate a blue-collar work ethic and you will be surprised by the loyalty that it will inspire.

4. Be a life-long learner.
I can’t emphasize this too much. Model what you expect from others. Do you want them to learn and grow? You must do the same. Be a reader. Hone your craft. Be up-to-date. I started playing praise and worship songs in the 1970’s. At that time, the songs were a bit more folk-oriented and you could easily play them on piano or guitar. It didn’t really matter that much. In the eighties, I was influenced a lot by Hosanna’s Integrity Music, which was primarily piano-driven. I did well because that was my instrument. Since I also never really had a good bass player until my son came along, I pretty much did everything from the piano – harmony, drove the rhythm, and laid down the bass line. But things have changed since the eighties and early nineties. I’ve finally had good bass players, so I’ve adjusted my left-hand technique to stay out of their way. And I’ve also started to work with decent rhythm guitar players, so I’m not driving the rhythm anymore. I’ve also discovered that the acoustic guitar and the mid-range of the piano where I like to play share the same sonic space. I’ve moved a lot of my piano technique away from there, too. Many of you know that the majority of new praise and worship songs are guitar-driven. So I’m also learning acoustic guitar and I fill in from time to time on the bass. You can teach an old dog new tricks. The big 5-0 was a number of years ago for me. If you want to be relevant – which is the theme of this conference – you’ve gotta keep learning.

5. Treat administrative assistants and custodians as equals.
Value them. Cultivate friendships with them. This rule harkens back to the Golden Rule. Cultivating friendships with these folks is very enriching. Unfortunately, sometimes relationships with other church leaders (especially if you are professional staff) can be strained because it seems that you are competing with them for budget dollars, volunteers, or rooms. That kind of relational dynamic is not the case with administrative assistants and custodians. You have the opportunity to build a relationship without that kind of baggage. If you are the leader, you are in the position of power and authority. It is up to you to initiate if you want to cultivate these valuable relationships. If you ask them to do something for you or your ministry, empower them. Make sure your instructions are clear. Give them appropriate time to do the task. And meet the deadlines that they request. If you are pressing them in a time crunch, help them get it done. From time to time, work alongside them to assist them. You’ll cultivate loyalty in the very folks from whom you need it most.

6. Use temperament profiles wisely in your personal interaction with others.
By temperament profiles, I mean the Myers-Briggs personality profile, the DISC© profile, or any other personality inventory that seeks to understand people. Interact with those you lead according to their temperament. For example: in the Myers-Briggs profile you have thinkers and feelers. For thinkers – get right to the point. For feelers – assess the feeling tone and nuance your words so that they will be received. Basically, speak their language. (For a self-assessment using the Myers-Briggs profile, visit and click on the “Jung Typology” link.)

7. Honor people’s time.
This is admittedly cultural. Not all cultures around the world are as tightly wound as ours. But in most Western cultures, time is one of the most precious commodities. So value their time. It is essential if you want to be a servant in our time-conscious culture. Start on time. End on time. When you don’t honor time commitments, you dishonor them and, in a sense, steal something very precious from them: time that could have been spent with loved ones, personal refreshment, sleep, or a host of other worthwhile pursuits. If you have to go over time, ask permission. Grant permission to leave at the appointed time if people have other commitments.

8. Listen to them.
Give eye contact. Learn how to receive criticism without being defensive. This is one of my biggest challenges because I want people to understand what I’m trying to do. But when we are defensive, we put up barriers in our relationships. Even more, if we have a pattern of defensiveness, we may never hear criticism that we really need to hear. Defensiveness usually belies inner weakness.

9. Be quick to say you’re sorry when you’re wrong.
This rule is probably one of the easiest to do and will bring immediate positive results. When you are wrong and will not admit it, you empower those who resist your leadership and you help recruit others to their point of view. Don’t allow that kind of negative leverage against you. Admitting your weaknesses without false humility is being authentic. It will cultivate strong relationships and, in resolving interpersonal tensions, it is a wise strategy.

10. Affirm before you criticize.
When people pour out their lives in an endeavor, personal criticism can injure the spirit and demotivate them. Always affirm their value and positive contributions before you offer criticism. You’ll find a much more receptive audience. Isn’t that how you would like to be corrected?

11. Cultivate genuine affection for those you lead.
I discovered this secret to ministry about fifteen years ago. When I was younger, I was intent on changing the world, changing the church. I still have a strong spirit and calling as a renewalist. But along the way, I discovered the joy of really liking the people that I led. I began to see them as family and friends, rather than tools or obstacles in my quest to move the church forward. I believe my change in attitude made a big difference especially in how I led them publically from the platform. The value of this rule was impressed upon me several years ago when I was mentoring a young man in worship leadership. He was getting very frustrated with some of the responses or lack of response that he perceived from the congregation. He was ready to quit. I asked him if he loved the people. “That’s easy. We have to do that.” “ Yes, but do you like them?” He had a hard time with that question, but he eventually admitted that he didn’t like them at all. (I love this about the Millenials. Typically, very honest.) I encouraged him to develop an affection for the people. Paul felt that way about the church in Philippi: “…for you have a very special place in my heart.” (Philippians 1:7) Affection for your people is the mark of a mature servant-leader.

Jesus modeled servant-leadership to his disciples. Servant leadership should not only be the standard for ministry leadership, but it is a powerful way for leaders in the secular marketplace to distinguish themselves and shine the countercultural light of the Gospel. Several years ago we lived in Portland, Oregon. Lyle Fisher was one of my good friends at our church. He was the church administrator and had recently retired from management in the well-known electronics company: Intel. While there, Lyle began to incorporate servant-leadership principles that he had seen modeled in Christ’s life. Over time, he saw the productivity of his department more than double. Under his servant-leadership style, they became one of the most productive departments in the company. Servant-leadership empowers people to reach their full potential, whether in the church or in the workplace. As Christ’s followers, helping people to become all that God designed them to be should be our first priority as leaders.

12. Live in a covenant of love.
Finally, all of these rules, and more, presuppose that we follow Christ’s command to love one another. If you are unclear about what that looks like, read I Corinthians 13:

Love never gives up.
Love cares more for others than for self.
Love doesn't want what it doesn't have.
Love doesn't strut,
Doesn't have a swelled head,
Doesn't force itself on others,
Isn't always "me first,"
Doesn't fly off the handle,
Doesn't keep score of the sins of others,
Doesn't revel when others grovel,
Takes pleasure in the flowering of truth,
Puts up with anything,
Trusts God always,
Always looks for the best,
Never looks back,
But keeps going to the end.

I Corinthians 13: 4-7, The Message


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