leadership courage
Wet footprints crossing a narrow rock through a body of water. freeimages.com Juan Santiago

A denominational leader was on the road promoting the denomination’s recipe for flourishing churches. Although I do not pastor a church, when I heard about his presentations I took the opportunity to sit in on one. He was quite passionate about what needed to happen and he observed that while some pastors were really doing it and their churches were flourishing, there were others who didn’t get it and their churches just existed.

During his presentation he said he wished he had enough money to be able to say to some of the pastors, “Look, if you’re not going to do anything with your church, please retire early and I’ll make up the difference between your pension income and your salary until you reach retirement age. Just give us back your church so we can do something with it!

The church needs courageous leaders. By courageous, I mean leaders who are willing to risk their jobs by saying what really needs to be said to their own communities. We need leaders who understand the times, discern God’s direction, and then who are willing to stand up to any resistance to change in order to make the church or agency what God really wants it to be.

Change Demands Courage

We need courageous leaders now because our times demand courageous leaders!

  • Our context has changed.
  • We are a minority in our society.
  • We differ from society over the relative priority of various values.

The church today is gradually waking up to the fact that “That was then, and this is now.” The world around us has changed, and the church must learn how to be the church in a different set of circumstances. That requires change.

The problem is that people tend to grow comfortable with the way things are and not want anything different. Resistance to change makes a ministry’s default future a continuation of the status quo. It will slowly fossilize. And someday, if nothing changes, that ministry will be no more.

Unfortunately, the group that wants no change is usually quite vocal and powerful. Typically they are the people who created and financed the current status quo. They may still be among your major donors and on your board. They are people who leaders tiptoe around. But of course leaders, for the sake of the mission and future of the ministry, must challenge resistance to change wherever they find it. Courageous leaders know that leadership is all about guiding people through change.

It takes courage to unsettle people. It takes courage to disrupt the routine. It takes courage to stop doing something that is successful now, in order to start doing something that is more vital for future success. It takes courage to do what’s right even when it is not popular.

Three helpful books for leading people through change are:

  1. Leading Change
  2. The Missional Leader: Equipping Your Church to Reach a Changing World.
  3. Who Stole My Church?

Becoming a Courageous Leader

A number of leadership models will help people become courageous leaders.

The Servant Leader

If leaders are reluctant to challenge people who are stuck to grow and become all that God wants them to be, then the servant leadership model reminds us that “a servant-leader focuses primarily on the growth and well-being of people and the communities to which they belong.”1

This may mean that sometimes leaders see what people truly need for their own good even when they don’t see it themselves. John F. Kennedy wrote about this from a politician’s perspective:

The voters selected us, in short, because they had confidence in our judgement and our ability to exercise that judgement from a position where we could determine what were their own best interests, as part of the nation’s interests. This may mean that we must on occasion lead, inform, correct, and sometimes even ignore constituent opinion, if we are to exercise fully that judgment for which we were elected.2

Leading like this means that there will be times when you have to go through “short-term pain for long-term gain.” That takes courage!

The Steward Leader

Stewardship is often thought as preserving the past so it can be passed on. This is stewardship of the past. Christian stewardship of the past means that we steward our faith.

We are also stewards of the present. This stewardship is about accountability for what we are doing right now, for how we are currently using the resources and opportunities which God has already provided for us. This is stewardship of our organizations.

And then there is stewardship of the future. This is about investing today so our ministries can thrive tomorrow. It is about networking, exploring, and searching, looking out for new, creative, fresh ways of pursuing our mission over the next several years. It is about equipping our organizations and people for greater service in the future. It is about building healthy organizations that will be sustainable and effective for another generation after our time in leadership has passed. This is stewardship of our mission.

There is one thing that faithful stewards cannot steward. Ministry leaders cannot steward a certain way of doing things. That would be to steward the means. And if you believe you are to steward the means, then you have lost sight of the ends. As I wrote in my book, The Church At Work,

Luke says his gospel concerns only what Jesus “began to do and teach,” and yet his gospel and its sequel, Acts, show that Jesus’ time on earth came to an end shortly after the close of the gospel when he ascended into heaven. So how does Jesus continue to do and teach? Luke makes it clear that Jesus continues to work through the Holy Spirit….The Hebrew and Greek words for the Holy Spirit mean “invisibility, movement, power and life” and convey the idea of God in action. We live in an ever-changing world, so when we know that the creative and dynamic Spirit of God is actively guiding the church to meet new challenges, we should expect change and development to be the result.

Change may be as uncomfortable for the leader as it is for the group. It may take you out of your comfort zone to do something you haven’t done before. But because the world continues to change, you must steward the faith, the ministry, and the mission if you want to fulfill your call to ministry. It takes courage to really steward a ministry!

The Prophetic Leader

Prophetic leadership is both corrective and visionary. Its focus is on discerning God’s perspective and conveying it to the people you lead.

If anyone really wants to be a prophet, they should first read Abraham Heschel’s masterpiece, The Prophets. This outstanding analysis of Israel’s prophets shows just how painful it can be to be used by God as a prophet. It meant a life of suffering, of danger, of always being counter-cultural in some way. It was a lonely life to be a prophet and it was hard for them to be so misunderstood by those in power.

Being called as a prophet is one of the most difficult challenges God can call us to. And yet he does, because he must, because we so often get off track from where he wants us to be. This is why I wrote up above that the church needs “leaders who are willing to risk their jobs by saying what really needs to be said to their own communities.” This is the hard part of being the leader!

When churches stop challenging their members to lean in to God and grow in Christ and simply provide comfortable cocooning for them, a prophet needs to speak correction. When any ministry becomes more about ‘me’ than about others or about God, God will send a prophet to bring them back to his purpose for the ministry.

Ministry leaders, don’t wait for others to be sent by God to bring correction and realignment. Allow God to use you as a prophet and speak correction to your own community.

In addition to correction, God sends prophets to stir up vision. Prophetic leaders interpret the times and help Christians know how to think about them. The instinct in response to the many changes in society we’ve experienced is fight or flight—attack or retreat. Neither are options! We are called to engage the world and to advance the church’s mission, so we go forward. But we don’t need to go forward into battle. Rather, we go forward in service and engagement. Leaders need to show their people how to do this. This will take courage because they will be sending their people out to be up close with the messiness of the world that God so loves, and they will likely be very uncomfortable—at least at first. But for the sake of the mission, you must do that.

Courageous leaders can find help interpreting the times by reading Christian thought-leaders.

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Leading Courageously

To lead courageously, you must be very sure of what God wants you to do (discernment). You must lead with confidence (faith). And you must lead with inner strength in order to persevere (reliance on God’s power). Let’s take a quick look at those three requirements.


As Christian leaders, we are not left to our own devices to figure out what is needed. We have God’s mind to help us discern the way forward. Therefore:

  1. We need to develop our ability to confidently use Christian spiritual discernment practices.
  2. We can test and leverage our individual discernment of God’s direction by practising communal discernment with others in the body of Christ.
  3. We can be willing to take risks and bear the consequences knowing that if we have done our best with the previous two steps, God will see us through if we have been faithful to him.

A great example is Paul’s decision to enter Europe. As I wrote in my book The Church At Work, Paul started his second missionary trip intending to revisit the churches from his first missionary trip, but Paul discerns that the Holy Spirit is frustrating that purpose (step 1). One night, Paul has a vision and he tests it with the rest of his team (step 2). They agree, and off they go to Europe (step 3).


The kind of faith that Christian ministry  leaders need has these aspects:

  1. They know that they were called by God to do what they are doing. Therefore they have faith that God is with them through all the challenges (and the easy times too!).
  2. They know that the ministry is God’s ministry, not theirs. So they have faith that God will care for his ministry and provide them with everything they need to lead it to accomplish his purpose for it.
  3. They know that God is still actively at work, and so they have faith that if they ask God, he will answer.

Therefore, with bold confidence, knowing that we have done everything we can to be in God’s will and in submission to his leadership, we can lead through all sorts of challenges.

Rely on God’s Strength

Ministry leaders must learn to rely on God’s strength. The day that I think I can lead CCCC in my own strength is the day my effectiveness here will be over. I did nothing to get this job because it was entirely God’s doing (that’s another story), and it was God who provided the wonderful people on the board and staff who are helping me fulfill my call and CCCC’s mission.

Every day I start by acknowledging that I need God’s strength and wisdom to get through another day of leadership. God will provide. As I write this, just yesterday something almost miraculous happened in a meeting with another ministry and I was left in wonder at what God can accomplish when we simply make ourselves available to him!

Rely on God’s strength, not yours.


If you are not willing to be a courageous leader, then when you are done, your tenure in leadership will be marked as one of missed opportunity, of complacency, and of short-sightedness. It will be known as a time of management, but not leadership. A comfortable time, but not a visionary time.

Search the Bible for the word courage, and be encouraged as you read God’s repeated instruction to not be afraid, but to have courage. This is God’s word to his leaders throughout history: Be strong and courageous!

Key thought: Be strong and courageous; be a good steward and lead prophetically!

  1.  https://www.greenleaf.org/what-is-servant-leadership/
  2. John F. Kennedy, Profiles in Courage, P 15

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