When Leaders Lose Their Soul

There is a massive conversation that needs to happen within Christianity in America right now. More specifically, within the evangelical movement.

It will be a messy conversation with too many topics to cover. Nationalism and racism are priorities. But I don’t think these top the list. What does?


Right now, we have a leadership crisis in our churches and organizations.

Just today, I began reading Strengthening the Soul of Your Leadership by Ruth Haley Barton. In the introduction, she writes:

Jesus indicates that it is possible to gain the whole world but lose your own soul. If he were talking to us as Christian leaders today, he might point out that it is possible to gain the world of ministry success and lose your own soul in the midst of it all. He might remind us that it is possible to find your soul, after so much seeking, only to lose it again.

We have seen leaders reach the summit of Christian ministry (whatever that means). And yet they have lost their soul in the process. What can a person give in exchange for their soul? Jesus tells us nothing.

The timing of starting this book is providential. A friend recommended it this week and I can’t help but connect it with recent news (initially reported in November) about Carl Lentz, the now ex-pastor of Hillsong New York City, who was fired by Hillsong for a number of reasons.

This comes after a number of other evangelicals in the last ten years have fallen from leadership–or their faith altogether. There are almost too many to name, and it saddens me deeply.

I’m not here to blame fallen pastors or shame them for “losing their soul.” Of course, they bear responsibility for their actions. But while I am not a megachurch pastor, I have been a pastor and I understand the temptation to seek the praise of people or receive special treatment a minister might benefit from. Every time the news breaks about another pastor, I ask myself, “Why did God have mercy on me?”

This all goes way beyond individual pastors. This is a “capital-C” Church crisis. We are all culpable. We have created and perpetuated a culture that allows and enables pastors–and even other ministry leaders–to lose their souls while gaining the world.

In a nutshell, we’ve rejected servanthood for celebrity.

And just to be clear, the incredibly significant problems of nationalism and racism fall under this problem of leadership. We are allowing “biblically qualified” leaders to abuse their authority and undermine the Scriptures to suit their political and ideological preferences at the expense of love, mercy, and justice.

I’ve written recently about how to understand true leadership and how to pursue it. So I won’t rehash that here.

The simple point I want to make is that our North American church system is broken and something needs to change. The system we have is hierarchical, rigid, and institutional. You won’t find this in the New Testament–where leadership was shared among many, service-oriented, and community-based.

It’s easy to think this is a megachurch problem. We only hear about “failed pastors” because they are, well, famous inside and outside of the church.

But as Rich Villodas, a pastor of a large church in Queens, tweeted yesterday, “This is not a big church problem alone. I’ve seen small and medium sized church leaders act like they’re the royal family.”

How do we solve this problem? It’s not simple or easy or quick. And I hope to provide some suggestions over the coming months as I take more time to process Barton’s book and my own spiritual leadership journey.

I can briefly say that it will take an innovative, unique, and more robust approach to recruitment, training, and preparation for church leadership. It will require a concerted effort to focus on the way and life of Jesus rather than simply the truth of Jesus. It will require a fundamental restructuring of our communities and what it means to be accountable as a leader. It will require a radical reorientation of what it means to lead when you are not the Leader (that’s Jesus’ role, not yours or mine).

In the end, it will take the marvelous, matchless grace of God in and through each of us so that collectively we live out our calling as the body of Christ. So long as we fail to live out this calling, leaders will continue to lose their souls, churches will be destroyed, and a watching world will not impressed at what they see.

Commentary Ministry

The 3 Things You Need to Become a Servant Leader

Most of us just shared a Thanksgiving meal (safely, I hope!) with our loved ones. Close your eyes and paint the picture of that decadent day. 

Think back and ask, Who’s sitting waiting for the meal to arrive at the table? Who’s slaving and sweating so everyone else can sit and wait? Who’s washing dishes after the meal? Who’s dishing out the pie and brewing the coffee at dessert? 

We’d all admit that the people who served us on Thanksgiving or any other day, are the real heroes. And whether they held an important title in our family or community, without a shred of doubt we’d call them leaders


This is a picture of servant-leadership. And being a servant is the heartbeat of true leadership. Deep down we get this. But when push comes to shove, it’s hard to live out. Why? 

Because we’d rather be the one watching the NFL on FOX waiting for the pumpkin pie to land in our laps.

Being a servant takes work. That’s why when it comes to leadership in everyday life—whether it’s at work, at home, in the church, on a team, in the classroom, anywhere—any other leadership style is so much easier.

A few newsletters back, I wrote about what servant-leadership looks like. I emphasized being a servant rather than just adding characteristics to your leadership arsenal. Give that a read if you haven’t and then come back here.

Today, I’ll answer the question, How do I become a servant? But first, a tiny bit of history.

Where does Servant-Leadership Come From?

Robert Greenleaf is often credited as the originator of the concept of servant-leadership. He wrote an essay in 1970 that eventually turned into a book. This was Greenleaf’s primary contribution to the field of leadership. 

I find it a bit humorous that Greenleaf holds the prestigious honor of founding this idea. 

After all, Jesus, the greatest servant-leader who ever lived, came on the scene a tad before 1970. 

Greenleaf wrote about servant-leadership from a business management perspective. Jesus actually lived the life of a servant in flesh and blood and sacrificed his life for the entire world (aka major servant-leadership act there).

Jesus was a rabbi—literally “teacher” in Hebrew. Rabbis had “disciples.” These were people who learned their rabbi’s teaching and his way of life. Rabbis were community leaders. 

On the last night before he was crucified, Rabbi Jesus was with his disciples ready to eat a festival meal together (called Passover). They gathered in a furnished room after a busy week. It was customary in those days for the servant of the house to wash the feet of dinner guests before eating. Without paved roads, sanitation, and a sewer system the walkways would get pretty gnarly. It was a dirty job but someone had to do it. 

As the meal progressed, no house servant showed up. And none of the disciples stepped up to the task. So Jesus stripped down, grabbed a towel, and started to clean the mud-caked feet of his students. 

Everyone in the room saw him doing the lowest possible job. 

And in that moment everyone in that room knew who the real leader was.

The One who served. 

I hate to break it to Mr. Greenleaf, but he didn’t discover servant-leadership in 1970. 

As a Christian, I take my leadership cues from Jesus. If you aren’t a Christian, I don’t know where you go for leadership, but I’d encourage you to at least listen to Jesus and watch his way of life.

You have nothing to lose.

Now, how do you become a servant-leader? It’s not as easy as 1-2-3. Few things are. These aren’t so much “steps” as a three-part paradigm shift to how you see the world of leadership. 

Admit Your Desire to Dominate

One time Jesus’ friends were fighting about what cabinet positions they would hold when Jesus becomes pres—I mean, king. So Jesus had a frank conversation with them about how leadership works in this world compared to how it works in his kingdom. 

He said, “You’ve observed how godless rulers throw their weight around, and when people get a little power how quickly it goes to their heads. It’s not going to be that way with you. Whoever wants to be great must become a servant” (Mark 10:42-43).

Jesus exposes the human craving to dominate. He knows that we aren’t born servants with humble, tender hearts ready to say, “What can I do for you?” Instead, Jesus knows we are born with a desire to be everyone’s master. 

And when we actually get power? Watch out. You know the phrase, “Absolute power corrupts absolutely.” It’s true. 

So the first “step” to becoming a servant-leader is to acknowledge and admit that being a servant goes against your very nature.

How does this work practically? Talk to yourself. Whenever you make a decision or go into a conversation or make a change or whatever you do as a leader, remind yourself, “I admit going into this situation that it’s easy for power to get the best of me. I’m naturally a power-hungry, authority-loving, lord-it-over kind of leader who tends to squish everyone in my path.”

Once you say this to yourself you’ll realize how horrible it sounds. You’ll realize that no one wants to follow a leader like that. (You wouldn’t either.)

When I do this, I don’t go in guns a blazin’. And I’m no longer hellbent on getting my own way. Instead, I’m ready to listen, empathize, collaborate, weep, teach, help, correct, train, encourage. Whatever is needed in the moment. 

Admit your desire to dominate. You’ll begin to see how futile and counterproductive domination actually is.

Find the Right Model

Once you’re in this position of admitting your tendency to be the kind of leader no one wants to follow, you’re ready to find the right model. 

And this is where Jesus comes in. He’s the perfect leader who always spoke truthfully and graciously. Who always spoke truth to power and had compassion on the vulnerable. He called out hypocrisy and empowered people society overlooked. He body confronted sin and made the ultimate sacrifice for sin by dying in our place.

In the last part of that passage from Mark 10 above, Jesus says this: “Whoever wants to be first among you must be your slave. That is what the Son of Man has done: He came to serve, not to be served—and then to give away his life in exchange for many who are held hostage” (verses 44-45).

Jesus is the Son of Man. He’s telling his disciples about his mission. And this is where my HUGE DISCLAIMER comes in.

Jesus is not merely saying, “I’m your model. I’m a servant. Imitate me!” 

If he were only saying that, he would crush us because we could never live up to his example. 

That’s why it bothers me so much when I hear, “On the cross, Jesus is the greatest example of love.” Of course that’s true. 

But he is so much more than that. 

Examples can’t save you. But a Redeemer can. And that’s who Jesus is.

Jesus is really saying, “I came to save you from lord-it-over kind of life. You don’t need to live to dominate others and live for your own power and glory. Don’t you see that you are enslaved to self-glory? Because you live this way, I will give my life as a ransom for you. And once you’ve been ransomed, what else can you do but make yourself a servant of everyone you meet?” 

When we see that Jesus is the right model, we actually come to find out that he’s morethan a model. He’s the true Servant-Leader who ransomed us from slavery to self-glory. And he’s brought us into life of freedom where we gladly serve others.

Because Jesus is more than a model, he actually won’t crush us when we fail to live up to his example. Instead, he forgives us and empowers us to keep going. 

That’s servant-leadership.

How do you do this practically? Watch Jesus. Spend a lot of time reading the Gospels. Marvel at him. Worship him. Obey him. Imitate him. 

Chances are you also know someone who reflects this (at least a little bit). Watch them, too. Ask them questions. Listen to them. Learn from the bad. Imitate the good.

Embrace the Process

The third “step” is an ongoing mindset. You don’t just become a servant leader. You are always becoming. It’s a never-ending, messy process. 

You will fail. I fail. We all fail. Embrace it. Admit it. 

Then remember the good news that we have a Servant-Leader who never failed. And remind yourself of that. Every. Single. Day.

The best part? When we let power go to our heads, our Servant-Leader doesn’t frown over us saying, “Here we go again. I can’t believe you!” 

No. He kneels down, right there with us, in the mess. He gently corrects, holds us, washes us clean, and says, “Remember that I’ve served you. I’ve given you everything I have. Now, let me help you up. I’m with you. Keep going. Keep leading. Keep serving.”

    This post originally appeared at on December 1, 2020.


    Understanding True Servant Leadership

    The image above is what we usually think of when we hear the word “leadership.”

    In fact, it’s the first picture that comes up when you search “leadership” on  (that’s why I picked it).

    Leaders, we think, are genius oddballs who are always ahead of the pack, equipped with all the answers. Perhaps they have a secret insight that makes them, well, better than everyone else.

    The Center for Creative Leadership notes 10 characteristics of a great leader. Integrity, empathy, respect, self-awareness, and communication, among others, are on the list.

    These are all good and necessary things. I want to possess all of these qualities!

    But the research behind these 10 characteristics is overlooking something, I think. It’s missing something more foundational than qualities or skills you can add to your arsenal. What is it?

    Being a servant.

    Be, Don’t Just Do

    Most leadership qualities we’re taught are things we can do.

    A servant-leader is something you are.

    You can learn it to be sure. No one is born a servant. We’re all born screaming, “Hold me! Feed me! Help me!” That’s not a servant.

    Servants do the holding, the feeding, the helping.

    Over time, we grow. We don’t just learn skills. We become a certain kind of person. Servant-leadership is a disposition of your heart. It’s hard to describe, honestly. Yet it’s easy to recognize when we see it. And when we see it in our leaders? Oh my, do we want to follow!

    It might be best to say it like this: when you are a servant, you will possess those leadership characteristics or qualities and develop them in increasing measure over time.

    But if you aren’t a servant, you can’t hide your true self by adding a bit of empathy here and a bit of communication there.

    I’ll say it again. Servant-leadership is a disposition of your heart. An attitude and approach to everything that falls under your oversight.

    What is a Servant-Leader?

    What’s a good definition for a “servant-leader”? Let me take a crack at it:

    A servant-leader puts people before power by considering the needs of others as more significant than his/her own.

    Let’s dig into that idea.

    Every leader has an agenda. Bring in better results, more profit, expanded scope. You wouldn’t be a leader without a vision and specific goals.

    But servant-leaders don’t try to get people to fit into their nice, tidy agenda. Usually, that ends up with the boss looking great and everyone else being stepped on in the process.

    Great servant-leaders don’t try to show others who’s the boss. I’ve worked under those kinds of bosses. You probably have, too. It’s exhausting and demoralizing. And it makes you want to quit.

    Servant-leaders, on the other hand, seek to meet the needs of others by putting people before power. They prioritize relationships over results and building trust over completing tasks.

    Servant-Leadership in Real Life

    Having a hard time picturing this? Here’s a real-life example. Imagine you’re a supervisor at, oh I don’t know, let’s say a prestigious paper company somewhere in northeast Pennsylvania.

    One of your employees is struggling to meet the metrics you agreed on during the last performance review. In fact, it’s been pretty awful.

    A regular check-in with this person comes along. Here are two scenarios with two different approaches from the supervisor.

    Scenario #1: “I know you’ve been struggling. I’ve been pretty disappointed in your numbers, and you need to get your act together. Your performance reflects poorly on me as your boss. You’ll need to hit at least 60% by next quarter or we’ll have to let you go.”

    Scenario #2: “I know you’ve been struggling. Can I ask you a few questions? How are you? How are things going at home? What do you need here to thrive in your role? And what do you think I could be doing to help you succeed?”

    Do you see the difference?

    The first elevates you. It clearly communicates that you have the power to crush them. It might feel good. But it will never motivate anyone at their core. You’ll always have people who will struggle. With this approach, you’ll let them go, only to replace them with more people who struggle with the same problems.

    Do you see the common denominator? (Hint: it’s not them.)

    Now for the second scenario. It puts you in a rather vulnerable position. It admits you may have fallen short, even failed, as a leader. It shows that you’re willing to change and do more to help them be the best they possibly can be.

    Of course, there will always be people that just aren’t a good fit for your organization, but we’ll leave that for another article. It also communicates care for them as a human. It’s oozing with empathy.

    That’s servant-leadership. If you want to motivate, inspire, and influence, and if you want to work for the genuine well-being of your people and your company, then you must become a servant.

    Still not convinced?

    Here’s a simple question that might help: which kind of leader would you rather work for?

    Be that leader.

    This post originally appeared at on October 7, 2020.


    Day 21: Born to Die

    “For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Mark 10:45)

    In ancient times, as today, kings were born in royal palaces and not subjected to the same kind of everyday hardships that “normal” people face. As the saying goes, “It’s good to be the king!” Jesus, however, is a different kind of king. He was not born in a palace, but in a barn. He was not spared hardships but endured a lifetime of suffering culminating in an excruciating death. Unfortunately, his disciples did not see this.

    In Mark 10, James and John, two of Jesus’ disciples in his “inner circle,” asked Jesus if they might reign with him when he came into his glory. They saw leadership not as service but power and control. The other disciples got wind of it and became angry at them. It’s pure speculation, but I imagine they were not angry at James and John’s selfishness. They were probably angry James and John asked Jesus before they did! Selfish ambition makes a mess of everything.

    Jesus doesn’t miss the opportunity, though. He corrects them. You know that’s how the world does leadership, right? They think of greatness in terms of who has the best seat in the house, who wears the finest clothes, who has the most power. But in my kingdom it’s backwards. You want to be great? Be nothing. You want to be powerful? Serve somebody. You want to reign with me?  Then come, die with me.

    Jesus was not born to kick back and have lowly people wait on him hand and foot while he reigned with an iron first. Jesus was born to die. In his death, he served us by taking our place, paying the infinite debt we owe God because of sin. And when we fix our eyes on this Servant who ransomed us from slavery to self-glory through dying, we, too, will become servants who die to self and reject worldly power for something far better.

    Scripture and Reflection Questions
    Read Mark 10:35-45

    1. Consider the best leaders you have ever followed? What did you admire about them?
    2. Do you see leadership as an opportunity to lord it over someone or serve them? When you see the darkness of “lording it over” come upon you, how do you respond?
    3. How should the circumstances around Jesus’ birth, life, and death shape the way we live in God’s kingdom? Do these things make any difference at all?
    4. If Jesus was born to die, what does that mean for you at home, school, work, etc.?
    5. How can you grow as a servant? Where do you need to “die” with Jesus and become more like him?

    From We Look for Light: Readings and Reflections for Advent

    Ministry Theology

    Examples Can’t Save You, But A Redeemer Can

    This past Sunday I was officially installed as the associate pastor of Grace Chapel of Clifton Park, NY. It was a wonderful morning for us as a church family. It was especially meaningful for my wife and I as we were “grafted in” to this congregation. Hopefully this week, I’ll have some time to write a post reflecting on the morning. My wife has already done that on her blog.

    After the installation ceremony, I preached a message titled “Servants of the Servant” from Mark 10:32-52. Here’s an excerpt from that message.

    The foundation of being the kind of people who self-sacrifice for each other is a Servant King who not only models that kind of life, but actually gives up his life as a ransom to redeem us. You see, Jesus is not merely saying to us, “I’m your example! I’m a servant! Imitate me!” If he were saying that, it would crush us. We could never live up to his example. That’s why it bothers me so much when I hear, “On the cross, Jesus is the greatest example of love.” He is! But he is so much more than an example! Examples can’t save you. But a Redeemer can. Jesus is saying, “I came to ransom you from that kind of life! You don’t need to live for your glory anymore. Don’t you see your need? Don’t you see that you are enslaved to something you weren’t made for, something that will never exist? Don’t you see you are hungering for self, self, self, rather than grace, mercy, and redemption? You should drink this cup of wrath and be baptized into judgment for your self-glorifying hunger. But I will take it for you. I will give my life as a ransom. And once you’ve been ransomed, what else can you do but make yourself a servant and slave of everyone you meet?”

    Listen to the whole thing.