September 15th marked my 10th anniversary in leadership at CCCC! A decade of leadership and I feel as fresh, as optimistic, and as motivated by our mission as I did the day I arrived. Perhaps more so, because now I understand CCCC a whole lot better!!

Since this blog is called Christian Leadership Reflections“, I will recognize these 10 years by sharing the most important lesson God has taught me about my own leadership in that time.

But there are lots of other experienced ministry leaders who have learned lessons from their leadership, so I asked a few and, as a treat, they will share the most important lessons that God taught them too. It’s a lot less stressful to learn from others than to learn for yourself, so here are some lessons that others have paid the price to learn.

John Pellowe, CEO of Canadian Council of Christian Charities, Elmira ON

Every human being has areas in which we are still growing to be Christlike, but as a senior leader these areas have enormous potential to hurt you and the people you lead. The Bible says that God considers those in leadership over his people as his shepherds, representing him, and that one day we will each account for the way we led the people he entrusted to our care. As God’s shepherds, there is a public aspect to everything we do and say, and even think.

For as he thinks within himself, so he is.
Proverbs 23:7

With that in mind, over the course of 10 years of leadership there have been times when I have been irritated, frustrated, and impatient. These normal human emotions can be positive, and fuel a leader’s drive to change the world for the better. But when dealing with people entrusted to your care, the same traits can be negative.

So a ministry leader’s personal thresholds for feeling negative emotions and how those emotions are handled are very significant. Ministry leaders must channel negative feelings into positive action as soon as possible to deal with the issues and not let them fester. That action always includes deep, spiritual self-reflection to allow the Spirit to do his work in the leader. It also almost always involves taking positive steps to coach people or improve systems.

The question the Lord has impressed upon me (which I’ve written about in When a leader prays… is:

If Jesus were to return now for a few years to serve as an employee at CCCC, would he be able to say of my leadership, “John reminds me of myself?”

Lesson learned: Be Christ to your staff.

William Fietje, former President of Associated Gospel Churches, Burlington ON

I know what anxiety is. Several times early on in our ministry overseas I was faced with deep feelings of anxiety on the edge of burn out. Looking back two decades later it was simply my own anxiety about not being able to control all of our situations in the midst of chaos. This would produce in me a response to work harder and to expend much more energy. Though I had faith in God I was working in the flesh and not by faith. I had to learn that faith meant trusting God to accomplish all things including, and maybe especially, those things over which I had no real control.

I was especially concerned that we would not have the right people to lead or that we would lose people who were highly effective. Early on I experienced anxiety by not trusting God to supply all of our needs which meant people as well as provisions.

Every time we lost someone I experienced God answer our prayers far above all that we could hope for. In watching God provide the leadership of our organization I grew to trust Him and not me. I learned to live not just in faith but also by faith.

The greatest lesson I have learned as a leader is that God does know the end from the beginning. When we live by faith and not just in faith we can relax knowing that as we do our small bit it is actually God our Father who brings just the right people at just the right time to accomplish just what he wants. Anxiety is now something I talk to others about. Yes I still feel it lurking down deep but, leading by faith is what has overcome its, at times, crippling effect.

Lesson Learned: Lead by faith.

Wendy Lowe, Executive Director of Calgary Pregnancy Care Centre, Calgary AB

Leaders count the cost. Sometimes we miscalculate who is paying the price. I had an unhappy employee who reported directly to me. Most of her unhappiness had little to do with her work in our ministry and a lot to do with her own personal life and circumstances. As a leader of a faith-based ministry that believes in community, I decided to extend a great deal of grace to this individual as she worked on her life circumstances and occasionally behaved badly with me in her work. I could take the bad behavior; I was willing to pay the price.

In our organization we place a high value on dealing directly with each other and work hard at holding each other accountable to a no gossip approach to interpersonal relationships. When this challenging employee eventually transitioned in her life in a positive way, I felt quite proud of the sacrifice I had made that had helped this individual. The pride didn’t last long when, over time, stories began to emerge quite innocently about how much other members of my team had had to endure with this co-worker. I had power with this individual and the worst of what I had to deal with was minor in comparison to some of the behaviors colleagues had endured.

In an effort to extend grace I had actually created what amounted to a borderline hostile work environment. An over-emphasis on stomping out gossip meant as a leader I had messed up the balance on open and constructive communication. The team I was responsible for had paid far too high a price, one that I believed I alone was paying.

Lesson Learned: Leadership priorities may have unintended negative effects.

Laurie Cook, CEO of World Relief Canada, Markham ON

I am very tempted to say that the most valuable leadership lesson for me was the realization that it was my responsibility to take out the trash and do the dishes. (Hence the term chief “Cook” and bottle washer). Although this sounds as if I am referring to servant leadership, for me it has been so much more. For me successful leadership has come primarily from building relationships. I learned that success came from earning people’s respect through relationship building and honouring. The door is always open and I will drop almost anything to make time for them. I will go to their cubicle and ask about their family and openly share my own phobias and anxieties. I’m sure you get the drift.

But how can you put so much emphasis on relationship when the leader is the one with the final decision? As in any community there is a division of activity. Of course as CEO I have things I am accountable for and will make decisions on but there are also things that a program officer or director of finance is accountable for and I would never decide on.

The key is to live the conviction and demonstrate it at all costs.

And by the way I’m serious about the trash and any other menial task that I can do that allows staff to do their job better. A new employee recently said on her second day on the job that she was beginning to wonder whether or not I really was the CEO because each of her first two mornings she saw me under a desk somewhere fixing something!

Lesson Learned: Honour relationships.

Bev Carrick, former Executive Director of Cause Canada, Canmore AB

In my role as Executive Director, I am responsible for ensuring that our ministry has all the resources necessary to carry out its mission. These resources include capable, dedicated staff, financial support for international programs, training, and tools such as computers and vehicles. This is no small task!!

Although God has demonstrated His incredible faithfulness year after year, I still slip into worry mode from time to time… I have learned one valuable lesson, however; more often than not, we already possess everything we need! Often, for example, we may not recognize these assets because they are in a different form than we are expecting. We forget about a particularly skilled volunteer who is waiting to be asked to assist our team. Sometimes all its takes is a simple phone call to a faithful donor before he or she enthusiastically offers much-needed funds. It could also be that we need to remember a neglected piece of equipment in storage that we can restore to usefulness.

I am reminded of the Biblical story of the feeding of the 5,000 when Jesus asks His disciples what food they have already collected. It is critically important that we take a full inventory of all of our assets – the resources God has already given us – and thank Him profoundly for these gifts. We need to think creatively about how to overcome the obstacles we face and remember to use the assets entrusted to us by God. It is only then that we, as leaders, can go boldly forward in faith.

Lesson Learned: Build on our God-given assets.

Glenn Smith, Executive Director of Christian Direction, Montreal QC

This request for the most important lesson learned is rather timely as I have just completed 30 years as the Executive Director of Christian Direction in Montréal. If you had told me in 1983 that I would still be leading the organization in 2013, I would never have believed it!

I have been very fortunate to serve under an excellent Board of Directors who practices great governance. They have demanded accountability and sponsored some audacious dreams. They have also provided three sabbaticals to renew myself spiritually, to spend extended time with my family and to develop new ideas. Our staff over these three decades has been amazing. I have learned to lead and to serve – I made plenty of mistakes but God’s grace has kept us growing as colleagues and friends. I’ve worked with some of the most creative practitioners you can imagine. We haven’t been afraid to take risks or to fail. We tried some things that didn’t work.

But my greatest learning has actually become part of my personal mission – think biblically, live spiritually and act contextually. It has not always been straightforward how to pursue God’s mission in urban Québec. But I have been forced constantly by the Spirit to go back to the texts and to listen to the Spirit in the Holy Scriptures. This has shaped me to be alive in the Spirit and very tuned in to the Creator in every dimension of life, especially in my relationships. That has prompted us to act locally in a way that reflects the triune God in all that is the city.

Oh how I wished that I had learned those things earlier in life!

Lesson Learned: Think biblically, live spiritually, and act contextually.

Grant Morrison, VP and Executive Director of Canada of Avant Ministries, Winnipeg MB

As I look back on over 30 years of leading people in both profit and not-for-profit organizations one of the most significant things I have learned is that it is impossible to please people all the time.

This has not been an easy lesson because as a rather sensitive person with perhaps a degree of “approval addiction” I do not enjoy conflict but have discovered that it is inevitable. It is not a question of “if” it will occur but rather how you will handle it when it does.

Every leader is called upon to make difficult decisions but my experience has been that even if a decision I have made has resulted in disappointment or even anger, the way I respond to those reactions is extremely important. A leader whose attitude is marked by humility and compassion combined with behaviour that is consistent and fair will go a long way toward calming troubled “organizational waters”.

Leaders who would be godly need to have Paul’s words to the Philippians (2:3 NIV) “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves…” etched into their memories or at least posted someplace where it is seen many times each day.

Lesson Learned: Lead from a place of humility.

Asking for Advice

I wasn’t sure if anyone would be willing to share a lesson they had learned through experience, but I only asked a few people and I got some great lessons from them. This has implications for you because three things that I’ve discovered over the years are:

  1. People like being helpful.
  2. If you don’t ask, you don’t get.
  3. We assume too often that people won’t have time for us.

When I was 27 years old, I wasn’t sure if I wanted to go into corporate planning, venture capital, or commercial banking as a next step. I had no connections, no one to introduce me, to anyone in any of these fields. So I picked up the phone (that’s a phrase I still use a lot – “Why not pick up the phone and call…”) and called a few people and as a result I had lunch with the VP Corporate Planning for Dow Chemical, I think the president or a vp of the Trillium Foundation, the president of a subsidiary of an American corporate bank in Toronto and a number of other interesting people. I got great career advice and learned a lot.

More recently, on my sabbatical, I held 63 meetings in 11 countries with people who had never heard of me or CCCC. A number of them came from cold calls, and for some I could use the name of their Canadian counterparts as a reference. All of them were gracious and helpful. You just have to ask.

I say all this to encourage Christian leaders of any age to not be afraid to ask someone for advice, or to be a mentor, or for permission to talk from time to time. As I’ve written elsewhere, it’s lonely at the top only if you want it to be lonely. So pick up the phone and call, or send an email or whatever. Make connections. You’ll probably be surprised how many people are willing to give you some time.

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An exploration of Christian ministry leadership led by CCCC's CEO John Pellowe