by Cory Hartman
Every head bowed, every eye closed, raise your hand: who opened this article expecting an ironic list of how to fail in leadership—a list of things not to do, since obviously we’re supposed to get stronger as leaders?
I see that hand.
This is not that list. This is a list of how to succeed in leadership by becoming weaker. And yes, it is ironic, but not how you may have thought.
Let me back up.
The Pivvot team is privileged to talk frequently with pastors from many traditions and ministry settings. Though they differ in many ways, we’ve heard some common stories over the last year:
No-win situations. Pastors are taking a beating from people for whatever they say and whatever they refuse to say about masks, about race, about gender, about politics, and about any Christian in the Twitterverse who just tweeted about masks, race, gender, or politics.
Life-sucking reactivity. Many people have been pushed beyond their emotional limits. They feel more secure exhibiting it reactively in the presence of their pastor, including at their pastor, than elsewhere, because their pastor is contractually obligated not to vent back at them. The effort it takes to be a nonanxious pastoral presence—engaged yet self-possessed—is exhausting.
Missing people. Even introverted pastors feed on the presence of people, especially at key moments like weekend worship. That disappeared for a time (to this day in some places). Then when people could meet again, many didn’t return. Looking at the half-empty (or worse) room hurts pastors at many levels, from “I miss my friends” to “Was it something I said?” to “Maybe I’ve lost my touch.”
Something’s gotta change. Pastors who were discontented with the status quo before the pandemic are convinced that things can’t go back to the way they were. But they aren’t sure they can lead to what’s next. It’s a dangerous discussion to have too, because people have a tight grip on less than God’s best for the church. Candid conversation among leaders one day can result in a leader’s family leaving the church the next day.
Put all these together—not to mention managing their kids’ education and health scares and even deaths in their own families—and pastors are battered and spent.
But there’s more to these troubles. Under these pressures lies a threatening question: Can I handle this?
Silently lying behind questions like these are beliefs. (I didn’t say they were your beliefs. Think of them as beliefs of other pastors you know.)
Because if not, then . . . what?
Good question. Really good question. Taking an hour to dig up your personal, raw, unvarnished answer to the “what if I fail” question—what you really feel, not what you’re expected to say—might be the most important work you do all week.
Joshua might have felt intimidated often. Perhaps that’s why he’s told to “be strong and courageous” in the Bible nine times before he says the words himself (Joshua 10:25).
For some leaders, that exhortation seems to be enough; just being told to “be strong” strengthens them. They absorb encouragement from people who tell them they can overcome. They defeat their weaknesses and sharpen their strengths. And they don’t give up until they go out on top.
That’s great for them. My advice here is for everybody else.
The same Bible that says, “Be strong and courageous,” also says, “I boast in my weaknesses” (2 Corinthians 12:9 NIV). The same Bible lifts up both fortitude and fragility, both indomitability and incompetence.
Why? Because the Bible lifts up Christ. He is the strong weakling. He is the successful failure. He is the one who—more genuinely than his mockers could imagine—saved others but couldn’t save himself (Mark 15:31).
He is our role model for leadership.
Paul candidly recounts in 2 Corinthians his experience with leading Christ-style:
“We were burdened way beyond our ability, such that we were at a total loss, even to keep living. To the contrary, we—yes, we—absolutely had the death sentence on our heads so that we wouldn’t be self-confident, but instead our confidence would rest on the God who raises the dead” (1:8–9).
“Not that we are adequate in ourselves to consider anything as coming from ourselves, but our adequacy is from God, who also made us adequate as servants of a new covenant” (2:5–6 NASB).
“I much prefer to take pride in my weaknesses so that Christ’s capability would camp on me. Because of this, I like weaknesses, outrageous treatment, duress, being chased away and tight spots for Christ’s sake, because whenever I am weak, that is when I am capable” (12:9–10).
Take pride in our weaknesses? Like our inadequacy? How practically can we lead this way?
Here are four starters.
You know that verse in the Bible that says, “Leaders are held to a higher standard”? You know, it’s right after the one that says, “God won’t give you more than you can handle.”
Of course the greater a person’s leadership responsibility is, the wider the blast radius when they fail the standard. But it’s the same standard as for everyone else. The standard is Christ himself. And guess what—you already failed it, and you’re exonerated anyway. Stop putting a heavier burden on yourself than anyone else has to carry, and don’t let others put the heavier burden on you as a clever way to lighten their own failure.
When you don’t have what it takes, make a hero—have someone else do it and coach and cheer them on. Then when you get criticized for not doing your job, tell them that your job, like Jesus’, is to make disciples who do greater things than you (John 14:12). But if it’s not appropriate or feasible for you to escape doing a particular task yourself, embrace public failure. You may be as surprised by Christ’s ability working through you as Paul was.
There was a season in ministry when I was totally empty. I had no words for Sundays, but I couldn’t get out of preaching. I stood up, opened the Bible, and winged it. That ground against every fiber of responsibility in me. I knew it would suck, and it was never very good . . . except that more people told me God spoke to them through my preaching in that season than ever before. God got the glory.
You know what makes sadness worse? Believing you shouldn’t be sad. Hurt is compounded if only losers hurt. Anxiety rises higher when you’re anxious about being anxious. And failure is deadly when fearing failure is a failure.
But weakness isn’t wrong; inadequacy is not iniquity. Don’t measure yourself by a standard God never set. The leader who isn’t thrown off by things that knock you down is probably a figment of your imagination. But even if there really is some leader out there who handles everything with ease, what’s that to you? Accept your frailty. God does, and he has more of a right to judge you than you do.
Even if you say yes and amen to everything the Bible says about God’s power being completed in weakness, you’re probably too weak to live it out as you should. Allow that to prove the point. Not only do you not have to be strong enough; you also don’t have to be weak enough. Embrace that weakness as well, that you’re unable to lead as one who is unable. Soak in the truth that your understanding outruns your practice. Then practice anyway.
It’s not for nothing that of all the names God could have given his Son, he chose Yeshua—Joshua. Jesus is strong and courageous so you don’t have to be. And here and there, in the fleeting moments when you really accept that you don’t have to be strong and courageous, you will be, even though it doesn’t feel like strength and courage. Because the one who is both Joshua and Lord will be with you wherever you go.