Two ways to lead

A lesson from college

I started leading worship in high school for our youth group on Wednesday nights. It was a clumsy journey, to say the least. I experienced some colossal failures along the way. Like one time we played "Wonderwall" by Oasis, only we changed the words to say, "...and after all you're my Fellowship Hall..." 

I look back on those years with a good bit of embarrassment. And yet, they were critical to my growth as a leader. I was responsible for something. I learned to make chord charts and direct other musicians. I was given room to fail. And when I did, I was given enough encouragement to get back up and try again the next week. 

In college, I got lots more opportunities to lead worship in other places. And I began to learn what it meant to actually lead people rather than just lead songs. But that took some "experimenting" too. 

On one such occasion, I was leading a song, and I began to give people some space to process what we had been singing. I invited them to come forward and pray if they felt so inclined. Many people responded. It was a step forward in my leadership journey. 

But then the pastor of that church pulled me aside. I'll never forget what he said to me. "Son, when the singer starts to preach and the preacher starts to sing, we get in lots of trouble." He laughed. I didn't.

"Stay in your lane." That's what I heard.

In the years leading up to that moment, I had been surrounded by leaders who invited me into broader areas of influence, even if it meant that I would fail or embarrass myself. I can't remember a time that someone had told me, "Back off." It hurt. I felt belittled, devalued, and foolish. 

A lesson from 1 Samuel 18

I preached on 1 Samuel 18 Sunday morning. Saul was king over Israel, and David was an up-and-comer who was gaining popularity with everyone. Everyone but Saul, because Saul was chronically insecure. When people celebrated David's success, it threw him into a jealous rage. 

Saul's response? I'll just throw a spear at David and pin him to the wall. That should eliminate the problem. When that didn't work, Saul demoted David from his high position. But David continued succeeding. Next, Saul began sending David into precarious military situations designed to get him killed. But every time Saul tried to harm David, he actually only hurt himself. Everything Saul intended for evil, God used for good in David's life.

Sadly, lots and lots of leaders respond the same way when people under their charge experience success. Ok, maybe they aren't actually hurling spears at their subordinates, but they go on the attack. Sometimes they recruit an army who will defend their position. Or they spread little morsels of gossip that make his/her reputation questionable. Or they demote the up-and-comers to a place in the organization where they won't be a threat. 

Truth be told, Saul was afraid of David. Why? Because God was with David. 

If you feel threatened by the success of people around you, beware. You may well be resisting God Himself. 

A lesson from Skin

A few years after college, I was the worship leader at a small church called Crossroads. James Skinner - known as "Skin" - was one of the pastors, and he has been a really, really significant leader in my life for a long time. 

"Chris, I think you should preach a sermon one Sunday," Skin said. That was an extremely intimidating proposition. But it was encouraging and life-giving as well. It was an invitation to change lanes, to spread my wings a little bit and take a risk. I was nervous and afraid. But I worked really hard, with lots of help from Skin and others, and I preached my first sermon in December of 2005. I remember praying at the end of the message and walking to the back of the room as the band started to play. Skin was standing there, beaming. He put his arms around me. 

It's difficult to put words to how significant a moment that was for me. Here was a guy I trusted and respected who saw potential in me. It was the polar opposite of "Stay in your lane." 

Over the next few years, the leadership of that church challenged me to preach more. They sent me to seminary. By 2009, I was preaching monthly. In 2013, they labeled me the "primary communicator" for our church. 

That doesn't just happen. It takes a special kind of culture to provide that type of opportunity. And it takes a special kind of leader to produce that type of culture. A leader who understands that his security isn't in his position or accolades, but in his God. Skin is that type of leader. 

That type of leadership is costly. Inviting me into a new role meant that Skin's role would diminish (at least visibly). It meant that people would make snide remarks like, "Skin, I wish I had a job like yours. You get paid full time but only preach once a month." 

Maybe leadership isn't about winning. Maybe it's about helping others win. Saul led with a clinched fist, trying to keep people from taking what he possessed. 

Skin leads with an open hand. So did Jesus. So should we.