20 Lessons/20 Years: Lesson #20: The Church Belongs to Jesus (not to me)

When you really care about something, it’s easy to take too much ownership. Parents do this with their kids, volunteers with their work, and pastors with their churches. We can shift from managing as stewards to ruling as owners. It doesn’t usually go very well.

And this is a lesson I’m still learning–Lesson #20: Jesus owns the church. I don’t.

Zapata-Cattle-DriveWe applaud “having ownership” because a person who feels a sense of “ownership” will take responsibility for what happens, refusing to pass the buck and actively serving together for the good of the community. In that sense, I hope everyone who calls our church home feels a sense of “ownership.” It is their church. They belong!

But the difficulty comes when we move from a sense of “ownership” in the church to acting as the Owner of the church. Or at least that becomes a difficulty for me.

You see, over the years I’ve had to remind myself (and be reminded by others) that the church isn’t actually mine. I’m not the possessive, overly-controlling type, but I am deeply committed the local church and want to see the church flourish and deepen. As a leader, I can envision some of what that could look like, and I work hard to see God’s vision realized.

MineBut in the middle of all that, I can slip from acting as a steward within God’s house to acting as the owner of the ranch. I can start taking too much ownership, taking all failures personally, resenting resistance, imbalancing my daily life and allowing the ebb and flows of regular ministry to define the ebb and flows of my own soul.

With startling regularity, I have to stop and remember: Jesus owns this community. This is his church. He bought and paid for it, in blood. Jesus is the one leading us. Jesus died for this church, not me. Jesus is the one in the middle of this church, not me. Jesus is the one who will see this church through to his intended goal, not me. Not me.

I think that’s why Paul, encouraging his much-loved Philippian friends, expressed confidence “that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.” (Phil. 1:9) We often hear these words in reference to our own personal lives. While that’s good application, the primary reference is to the whole church in Philippi, the little gathering of Jesus followers faithfully worshiping, serving and witnessing in that Roman colony.  Few people were more heavily invested in the early churches than Paul; he took responsibility as a founder and apostle within the movement. But at the end of the day, at the end of his life, Paul knew that the church was not his–the church belonged to Jesus, and he would finish what he started. 

This truth makes a practical difference in my ministry leadership, giving me perspective and confidence. You see, as much ownership as I feel for the church, I can serve knowing that, in the end, I’m not the one ultimately responsible for the success and flourishing of the church–Jesus is. As important as pastoral leadership is to a church, Jesus is over all and he will complete what he’s started in us. I am so thankful!

A couple of reflection questions for you:

  • When does “having ownership” inappropriately shift to acting as the owner?

  • How does Jesus’ ownership of the church increase your confidence to take responsibility for your church?

This was my final of 20 ministry lessons. As you might remember, I began my first vocational ministry posting on May 1st of 1996–these posts are retrospective reflections of some of the lessons I’ve learned (and I’m still learning) in ministry. Here are the other 19. Thanks for reading.

If you read through some or all of these 20 lessons, I’d love to hear from you. What was it like to read them? What resonated with you? What didn’t work? How could I have done it differently? I’m eager to learn from you. You can comment below or private message me. Thanks!


20 Lessons/20 Years: Lesson #19: Character Trumps Gifting, Every Time

Would you rather work with someone super-gifted or someone truly trustworthy?

If you had to choose between a leader with skills or a leader with integrity, how long would you have to think about it?

We all know the answer because strength of character trumps skills and gifting, every time. That’s Lesson #19 of my 20 ministry lessons.

Vintage One Man Band More than 20 years ago, as I was finishing up an internship, a mentor spoke this truth into my life: “Tom, you’ve got lots of gifts, and as a young minister, many people will see your skills and gifts and assume depth of character. Don’t be fooled by that–place the growth of your character over the honing of your gifts, because in the end, it’ll be your character that truly matters.”

That’s the truth, folks. And those words stuck with me.

Because it is easy to see gifts and assume maturity. We do it all the time. When you serve others according to your gifts, especially if those involve worship leading, Bible teaching, and pastoral care, it is SO easy for people to think you are spiritually deeper than you really are. Either we, like the Corinthian Christians, assume spiritual gifts are related to spiritual maturity (they aren’t), or we just never drive deeper than what’s being presented publicly.

SupermanWhat my mentor helped me see is this: it’s deceptively easy to equate the kind things people say regarding my public ministry with the depth of my personal, spiritual growth. Not only would that assumption hurt me, it would eventually hurt my ministry, too. Rather, I must make the development of my character a priority focus. No one else would do that for me; they may even inadvertently help me overlook its importance.

Prioritizing character doesn’t downplay the importance of honing our skills or developing our gifts. Many of you know the frustration of working with someone who refuses to develop more skills or acknowledge weaknesses. The responsibility to grow in gifts is a given–we need to be getting better as leaders or givers or preachers or helpers if we are to truly help the body of Christ mature (see Romans 12:3-8). But make no mistake: We don’t do that at the expense of our relationship with God or the strengthening of our character. In the end, it’ll be depth of our character that holds us true, not the heightened power of our gifts.

So how do we make sure we aren’t blinded by ministry skills? Here are 6 ways to ensure our character growth outpaces our gift development.

  1. Find good mentors, be they dead or alive. Let them challenge you.
  2. Spend more energy on personal growth than skill development. Get practical about this–make a concrete plan, complete with dates.
  3. Deal with heart issues as soon as they are revealed. Don’t dodge them because no one else sees what you see (yet).
  4. Get trusted truth-tellers to help you identify your blind spots. The more you grow in gifting, the more difficult these truth-tellers are to find.
  5. Rigorously grow in self-awareness. Does it sound like I’m repeating myself? The more I lead, the more I’m convinced that self-awareness holds the key to a vibrant relationship with God in the context of sustainable ministry.
  6. Develop spiritual habits that create space for God to speak. Examples include solitude, silence, fasting, journaling and retreats, but there are many more. Find what works best for you. Richard Foster’s Celebration of Discipline and Calhoun’s Spiritual Disciplines Handbook are two very helpful resources.

Let me ask you two questions for reflection. Feel free to comment below.

  • When you consider the leaders who’ve fizzled out or harmed the church, has their failure been a character issue or a gifting issue?
  • What is your plan for expending more energy on the hidden things that matter most?

Spiritual Gifts Don't Ensure Spiritual Maturity

Only one more lesson to go. Here’s the first 18 ministry lessons I’ve posted through the month of May, reflecting on my first 20 years of vocational ministry.


20 Lessons/20 Years: Lesson #18: Cynicism Kills

Nothing sucks the air out of the room like well-placed cynicism.

Creativity? Dead.

Insight? Gone.

Trust? Fading . . .

I’m so done with cynicism. Why?

Because cynicism kills. That’s Lesson #18 of 20 lessons gleaned from 20 years of ministry.

Oh, I know–being the “insightful” realist, cutting through all the sentimentality and mush, exposing the flaws and the motivations makes a person seem wise and discerning, that you’ve been there/done that/and won’t get fooled again. In certain circles, cynicism is applauded as the pinnacle of maturity.

Cynical CatBut cynicism signals deformation, not maturation. And a culture of cynicism cannot grow people nor inspire them to greatness. I’m not sure the Spirit can even do much where cynicism reigns.

As I’ve reflected on my 20 years in ministry, I’ve seen cynicism up close and personal, exposed in fellow leaders and battled in my own heart. Creeping cynicism is one of the vocational risks of any “people” profession, rearing its ugly head when people fail you, yet again, when exhaustion begins to set in, when you are disappointed with your own lack of growth in godliness.

But when leaders or pastors become cynical, leading people into God’s good future becomes difficult, maybe impossible. We can’t help people envision better marriages, nurture better relationships, pursue better experiences, and practice better habits if we ourselves don’t think “better” is even possible.

And pastors can become cynical about the very foundation of our life together: cynical about the power of God’s word, jaded about the greatness of God’s people, negative about the possibility of personal transformation, dismissive about the very world Jesus died to save. Why? Maybe they’ve been disappointed too many times. Maybe they’ve lost perspective. Maybe they just experienced a major set-back. Maybe they are under spiritual attack. Maybe they’ve taken their eyes off of Who really is in the middle of this mess.

As leaders, we must define reality–that’s part of a leader’s role. But we must define reality in hope, not despair. Leaders must be critical thinkers, but with open (not jaded) hearts. Pastors must be honest about the failings of others, and yet deeply passionate about the worthiness of each person in God’s eyes. We must practice hope and reject cynicism, every time we show up.

Unless we do, we won’t be able to lead or serve or help. A jaded leader is dangerous to the mission Jesus has given to us; unless they deal with their cynicism pronto, they should resign from leadership before more damage is done.

True wisdom is not found in cynicism– it is found in hope-filled realism that, though this world is a mess, though we are a mess, God is present and he is leading us into his good future. Though the days be dark, the light is dawning, and we can place our hope in the God who will never disappoint.

  • How have you seen cynicism harm ministry?

  • How do you battle cynicism in your own life?

I’ll give Stephen the last word today. It’s a good one.

Colbert on Cynicism

Catch up on the previous posts in this series of 20 lessons learned in 20 years of ministry:

20 Lessons/20 Years: Lesson #15: You’ve Got To Love Your People

There is a subtle danger in this pastoring gig. We can be in love with the idea of ministering to people and fail to love the very people to whom we are called to minister.

In my 20 years of ministry, I’ve learned that loving the people I minister to is more important than any philosophy of ministry or theology of the church I can muster.

Seeing these young people grow up following Jesus is one of the greatest privileges of my life.
Seeing these young people grow up following Jesus is one of the greatest privileges of my life.

That’s why Lesson #15 of the 20 I’m posting is this: You’ve got to love your people. Now, if that sounds weird to you (like a bit of a no-brainer), you might be surprised at the resentment and bitterness that can creep into pastoral ministry, making pastors jaded toward their own people. They can start to view them as wretched losers or difficult parishioners, resistant to change and muddled in the muck.

I understand how it happens. Hurts and misunderstandings are part of community life, leaders feel acute isolation, and continual strains and pressures can contribute to a loss of love for the actual people you are called to pastor.

I think that’s why some pastors move on to other churches with such regularity–they’ve fallen out of love with their peeps and begin to imagine how much better it would be somewhere else, where the people are kinder and more open and responsive. We all know how that works out . . . when five years later they move on to somewhere else.

Rather than looking for the greener pastures and whiter sheep, the call is to live more fully into the love of Jesus for his deeply flawed, mixed up people, of whom we as pastors are one!

Two folks I love who love me in return. I'm privileged to journey with them!
Two folks I love who love me in return. I’m privileged to journey with them!

Loving the people to whom we have been called is central to meaningful, effective ministry. And doing so over a sustained period of ministry will require that we dig deeper than the institutionalized cut-and-run philosophy of pastoral church hopping commonly allows. Unless we do, churches won’t grow–and neither will pastors.

I do love my people. And I know they love me. We are a mixed up bunch, making our way in fits and starts after the Jesus who loves us and calls us to follow. We do fail each other, but we also forgive each other. And while I do not have this ministry thing figured out, I do know that without love for each other–true, committed love–we won’t experience all that Jesus has for us, nor will we be able to live as his vibrant witnesses in the community in which he’s called us to serve.

You gotta love your peeps!

  • Why do pastors often get into difficult relationships with their people?
  • How can we grow in love rather than simply move on when things get rough?

I’ve almost finished posting my 20 lessons from 20 years of vocational ministry. Here’s the first 14 lessons:



20 Lessons/20 Years: Lesson #13: Be Encouraging

  • Be encouraging.
  • Do whatever you can to affirm others.
  • Express gratitude for what you see.
  • Tell people what you love about what they are doing.
  • Empower people in their relationship with Jesus.

Encouragement is a game-changer, influencing all our relationships, be that in the church, family, workplace, or coffee shop.

As I continue my month of reflections, initiated by my realization that I’ve been serving in vocational ministry for 20 years, let me share a lesson with you that makes SUCH an impact on our daily life.

Lesson #13: Be Encouraging.

I think my greatest impact in ministry has come when I’ve been the most encouraging, when I’ve stepped in close to affirm, support, and even challenge someone.

Paul challenged and affirmed his Christian friends to “encourage one another and build each other up, just as in fact you are doing.” In my experience, many Christians serve without much feedback at all. And when feedback does come, it can often be negative. “The music was too loud.” “That kid was sure disruptive.” “You made the coffee too weak.” Deflating, dis-empowering drivel.

Now, as any reader of this blog will attest, I’m all for honest, helpful, constructive feedback.  But I’ve noticed that people are rarely affirmed and encouraged, told what they are doing right, offered a good word to boost their spirits, or simply thanked for their service to the body of Christ.  And even more, few have had the kind of insightful encouragement we all need: “When you led worship today, I was so drawn to the love of Jesus for me.” “I just love seeing you interact with your children–you are a great mom.” “Thanks for coming early to support our coffee addiction! Just think of how dangerous we’d be without you?” Unless we are willing to become super-encouragers, no amount of feedback we offer will be constructive.

Therefore, encourage one another and build each other up, just as in fact you are doing.- (1 Thessalonians 5-11 NIV)And then moving beyond encouragement in our ministry to one another, we must encourage one another as we follow Jesus together. Encouraging one another and building one another up is about giving each other what we need to keep growing in Christ, keep serving in his name, keep letting the Spirit work in our hearts and heal our hurts, empowering us to become all he desires. In the church family I’m part of–the Evangelical Covenant Church–we often recall a question from our early Mission Friends: “How goes your walk?”, a kind of spiritual “What’s up?” This question was not meant to engender guilt or create tension–its purpose was to care and understand so we can pray together, stand together, and support one another in our journey together in Christ. Like hikers scrambling a steep trail, we follow Jesus together, encouraging one another along the way.

Really encouraging one another takes time, energy, and a willingness to get in close. Truth is, we can’t encourage one another and build each other up from safe distances. Until you know where I am struggling, until I know where you feel insecure, we can’t really “give each other courage” for trail ahead. Vulnerability is key. Because when we’ve prayed together, when we’ve shared our hearts with each other, when we’ve eaten together and laughed together and fished or played or sang together, then we are able to encourage each other in the ways that count.

And the more encouraging we are to each other, the farther we’ll be able to go, the better the journey will be, and the greater effect we will have on the world. So let’s be encouraging.

Let me ask you:

  • What is most encouraging for you?
  • What is one way you can become more encouraging today?

Ministry Lessons I’ve posted so far (I’m going for 20): 

20 Lessons/20 Years: Lesson #12: Everything Rises and Falls on Leadership

“The team plays how the team is coached,” mused my mentor and farmer-friend over coffee, reflecting on some struggles he’d endured in a local church. “When the team is coached poorly, it plays poorly. But when the team is coached well, wow, can it play!” I think he’s right.

The team plays as the team is coached. In Remember the Titans, we see how leadership bring diverse people together to achieve uncommon greatness.
The team plays how the team is coached, both on and off the field. In “Remember the Titans”, we see leadership bring diverse people together to achieve uncommon greatness.

And what this insightful farmer observed aligns perfectly with what leadership guru John Maxwell has been saying for years:

“Everything rises and falls on leadership.”

(John Maxwell)

My 20 years of ministry leadership bears this out. Through the month of May, I’m marking this anniversary by reflecting on some lessons I’ve learned. Today is Lesson #12: Everything rises and falls on leadership.

Here’s my observation: when churches face recurring internal struggles it can almost always be traced to leadership failure.  Does that seem overstated? I’m sure there are exceptions. But on the whole, what I’ve observed time and time again is that when a church seems stuck, when trust has eroded, when momentum is lacking, when people are hurt, when clarity is elusive, when no one’s coming to faith in Jesus, when there is no growth in depth and in reach, leadership lies at the root of the problem.

That’s why leaders must grow and lead as God has gifted them to do. I’ve been so challenged through the example and teaching of good leaders around me, and particularly through the mission of Bill Hybels to see good leaders grow. Over 15 years ago, God spoke to me through Bill at a Global Leadership Summit. Waxing on Romans 12:8, Bill laid it out straight: if your spiritual gift “is to lead, do it diligently.” Don’t treat it lightly. Don’t ignore its importance. Grow in your leadership gifting. It was in that moment I embraced my gift of leadership and asked God to grow me up into it, knowing that it was my responsibility to lead with diligence, learning and growing in my effectiveness as a leader every day, for the sake of the church.Bill Hybels Leadership Quote - Fired Up

Leadership matters. Does it matter more than other gifts within the body of Christ? In one sense, no–each gift given is given by God for the church’s edification. 1 Cor 12 and all the stuff about no one part being greater than the others.  But in another very real sense, yes: because it is the leadership gift that allows all the other gifts to pull in the same direction, to work together, to function as a body, following Jesus who is our head.

If leadership is failing, then the body of Christ will be disjointed, confused and sick. But if good and godly leadership is flourishing, then all of the gifts can grow and the people of God can become all that God has called us to be. And when everyone is using their gifts as God intended us to, including the gift of leadership, then the church really works!

Everything rises and falls on leadership, so may our leaders grow more and more into the likeness of our ultimate leader, Jesus Christ. And may the church of Jesus flourish as we all serve according to our gifts.

  • In what ways have you seen communities rise or fall because of leadership?
  • If you have the gift of leadership, what are you doing to grow in it?

Want to catch up? Here’s the 11 previous ministry lessons I’ve posted:

20 Lessons/20 Years: Lesson #11: God’s Word Transforms

God’s Word is powerful. I know this sounds like a Christian cliche, but I’ve seen its power too many times. The power of God’s Word to transform lives and communities animates the very core of my ministry conviction.

Over the month of May, I’m reflecting on 20 lessons I’ve gleaned from 20 years in vocational ministry.  Lesson 1-10 can be read below.

Lesson #11: God’s Word Transforms

I’m thankful for the communities I’ve been part of and the way they shaped my love for the Scriptures. I wouldn’t be who I am without them. My hometown church was passionate about God’s Word, raising me to receive the Bible as food. The teachers at Peace River Bible Institute during my era there, especially Ian McPhee, Reuben Kvill and Waldie Neufeld, drove us back to the text again and again, leading us to live under its authority. At the Grande Prairie Church of Christ, Alan Jones preached (and still does) the power of God through his Word and led me to apply that to my life and ministry. Regent College drove me deeper still, letting the Scriptures re-frame my whole perspective on life.

Lindsey Olesburg prepping a group of leaders for IVCF's 2009 Urbana Missions Conference. In IVCF, God's Word permeates everything.
Lindsay Olesberg prepping a group of leaders for IVCF’s 2009 Urbana Missions Conference. In IVCF, God’s Word permeates everything.

At Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship, we couldn’t gather without Scripture at the centre; even when I’d travel to Toronto for nation-wide leadership meetings we’d spend significant time in God’s Word. And now, within the Evangelical Covenant Church, God’s Word forms the very headwaters of our community life.

And what I’ve seen has convinced me that God’s Word truly is sharper than any double-edged swordGod-breathed and useful to change us and equip us for what we need. When we let God’s Word in, we are changed. I’ve seen marriages restored, addictions defeated, love accepted, and forgiveness received and offered. I’ve witnessed people called into mission, healed, challenged and released into new life. I’ve seen good change come to both individuals and organizations, churches and families. Sometimes there’s no telling what’ll happen!

Where is it written-Pure and simple: God’s Word has power. Early in my Grande Prairie days, we gathered with a group of young adults, made up mostly of retail and service staff, many of whom had little connection to Jesus and the church.  Seeing them engage with the story of Jesus in the Gospel of John, watching as they realized that this story was true–that Jesus was real!–witnessing the change that came as they started to believe and trust Jesus and then follow him along the Way–what an amazing experience! And I’ve seen it done many times since.

This is why God’s Word is central to everything I do. It’s why I study hard and preach relentlessly, why I rigorously promote Scripture study, why I compel Christians to read and reflect, why I work hard to see our church rooted deep in God’s Word. It’s God’s Word that transforms–not my words, not my ideas, not my clever thoughts or my persuasive arguments. The good news of Jesus is the power of God to save people. Only through the word of God can we know God’s will. Only through the word of God will we see the Spirit of God transform lives. Only through the written Word will we encounter the living Word, Jesus Christ. Only as we hear God’s Word will we follow Jesus with integrity, faithfulness and effectiveness.

  • How has God’s Word transformed you?
  • What is one way you can make God’s Word more central in your community?

My first 10 lessons are available by scrolling down or clicking on the links below.


20 Lessons/20 Years: Lesson #10: Jesus is always at work

Jesus is always at work,
 even when we don’t think so. And we don’t always think so, do we? Perhaps no truth has encouraged me more in ministry than this: Jesus is always at work.

Even when we can’t see what’s happening, Jesus is at work.

Even when all hope seems lost, Jesus is at work.

Even when it looks as if nothing is going on, Jesus is at work.

Here’s Lesson #10 of 20 Lessons I’ve Learned in 20 Years of Vocational Ministry: Jesus is always at work.

It was early in my vocational ministry that Blackaby and King’s Experiencing God blew my mind with this biblical truth: God is already at work. Therefore, I need to look for what he is doing and join him in that work. As anyone who has read or studied Experiencing God will tell you, this assumption is transformative.

And it has been ministry bedrock for me, helping me as I’ve ministered to difficult marriages, traversed spiritually resistance relationships, reached out to people far away from Jesus, or prayed for the health of the church.

Jesus is always at workMore recently, the work of Vantage Point Three (VP3)  begins with the assumption that God is up to something good in us, in our community, and in our world, something that is worthy of our whole life response.

What a difference this makes in our daily life and ministry to others! I can walk into any situation, any school, any family, any town or farm, any city or boardroom and Jesus is already present, already at work. This assumption sets my heart right and my eyes keen, watchful for how he is already working, attentive for how he is already bringing his kingdom on earth at it is in heaven so that I can get in on what he’s already up to.

Wherever we go, rather than first asking, “What should we do here?” we ask, “What is Jesus doing here? And how can we join him in that?”  That fundamental shift brings transformative change.

On the weekend, I enjoyed a walk with a friend and fellow Covenant pastor. He reflected on the difference this principle makes when working with people who are disconnected from Jesus, even overtly resistant to church or faith. When we carry the assumption that Jesus is at work in a person’s life, we can trust the Holy Spirit is present and our work and witness can and will have effect. Rather than feeling the pressure to create or manipulate anything, we can serve and speak and share with trusting hearts, partnering with Jesus in his ongoing work.

I’m so thankful to Jesus for his work all around us. I’m relieved that Jesus is leading us, empowered by the fact that wherever we go, he is already present. When we show up, it’s Jesus who shows us around. And then we simply follow his lead.

Think of a difficult situation in your life: When you assume Jesus is already at work, what difference could that make?
How does this principle change your evangelism?

Are you a little behind? I’m posting 20 lessons from my first 20 years of ministry, throughout the month of May. Catch up on previous posts: 

20 Lessons/20 Years: Lesson #9: Not Everyone Will Like Me (So Get Over It)

I like people. People (usually) like me. And I like people to like me. That’s where it gets tricky.

For the month of May, I’m reflecting on lessons learned in my 20 years of ministry. Today’s lesson has been hard won.

Lesson #9: Not Everyone Will Like Me (So Get Over It)
Confession time: My name is Tom and I am a recovering People-Pleaser. And while caring for people is central to pastoral ministry, pleasing people is its nasty Achilles Heel. The gifts that good pastors share, such as empathy and compassion, also make them susceptible to the darker side: needing approval and affirmation from people. But here’s the problem: leading people to follow Jesus and minister in his name will not always be pleasing or popular. Fostering missional change in a church creates tension. Sometimes people get downright grumpy. In fact, they might not even like you anymore.

DislikeThis has been a hard lesson for me, and I still struggle with it. I get all balled up inside when someone pushes back against a gospel challenge. I feel this overwhelming urge to rush in and resolve tensions Jesus himself creates (pick up your cross and follow me, for example). I can take personally someone’s deep antipathy to life change the Holy Spirit himself is leading.

But as I’ve lead in ministry, I’ve discovered something important. In order to truly care for people, I need to let my need for their affirmation go. If I want to help people follow Jesus, I must release my desire to be liked by them. More than that, I must embrace the fact that people may not like me, even as they hear Jesus calling them and respond to his call.

The less I need to be liked the more I am able to loveAcknowledging that not everyone will like me is still hard, but I’m starting to get it. Jesus is the one I must please, not others. He is my master.  And while this could be an excuse to be less caring, I’ve begun to see how I’m able to care for people more when I need their affirmation less. The less I need to be liked, the more I am able to love. Why? Because I’m no longer serving them to get something from them–I’m now serving them for their own sakes, even if that means they are less than thrilled with me.

How does pleasing people hurt true ministry?
How have you grappled with your need for affirmation?

During May, I’m posting 20 lessons I’ve gleaned from my first 20 years of ministry. Catch up on previous posts:


20 Lessons/20 Years: Lesson #8: Self-Deception is Never My Issue

We usually can’t see the egg on our own face. If we could, we’d deal with it. Unless we get a glimpse in a mirror or a hint from a friend, we’ll walk around oblivious to our breakfast carryover.

Self DeceptionReality check: the changes we need the most are often the hardest ones to see. We don’t readily identify areas we’re starting to slip, places we’ve become complacent, or negative attitudes creeping in.

And yet I’ve become more convinced than ever that growing in self-awareness is central to spiritual growth and ongoing ministry effectiveness.

For the month of May, I’ve been reflecting on my last 20 years in ministry, trying to glean lessons I’ve learned and am still learning. Lesson #8 has been an ongoing struggle.

Because Self-deception is Never My Issue . . . or that’s what I tell myself.
Knut hides his eyes

Wow, this is a big one. I’m coming to see that spiritual and personal growth is almost always about dealing with self-deception, a trait particularly strong in ministry leaders. There are so many things that seem to battle against self-awareness–our own feelings of inadequacy, our sense of mission, our patterns of deceit, our lack of self-reflection, even our overdeveloped sense of urgency which blocks out personal growth.

But figuring out how to hold up honest mirrors so we can unmask deception within ourselves and our leadership teams is paramount.

Though I’m just barely getting a handle on this one (and how would I really know?), this is what has been helping me most in the last few years:Holding up a mirror

  1. Meeting regularly with a spiritual director. I meet monthly, via Skype, with a director who helps me probe what is going on in my own heart and life. Immensely helpful.
  2. Honest conversations with friends I can really trust. We need to have a few people in our lives with whom we can really share. People who truly love us and will both listen and challenge us, trusted friends we’ve invited into our journey toward self-awareness. I’ve written elsewhere on our need to overcome blind spots. Trusted friends are key.
  3. Spiritual practices of solitude, silence, prayer, and journaling. I’m a bit of a slow learner, but these practices have become more and more central as I grow in self-awareness.
  4. Soliciting honest feedback from truth-tellers. The longer you are in ministry among people who love you, the more difficult it is to get good, helpful, honest feedback. I try to find ways to dig for it, usually through questions, conversations, and even reviews.
  5. Holding up a mirror whenever I can.  Committing to dealing with self-deception means we really do attempt to see what we normally ignore. Whether it’s when I’m listening to a sermon, or reacting to a situation in a disappointing way, I try to hold up that mirror, asking God to show me what’s going on in my heart.

Sigh. Self-deception is my issue, and in order to grow and lead, I need to make sure I’m growing in truth, both about myself and about the One I’m following.

How do you grow in self-awareness?
Where have you seen own leadership stumble from self-deception?

Here’s the first seven lessons I’ve posted: