One of the primary differences between those who make it for the long haul in leading and ministering to others and those who don’t is the level of self-differentiation they are able to achieve. Self-differentiation is the ability to separate one’s intellectual or emotional functioning from that of family or other groups. In other words, it is the ability to know who you are without reference to who others believe you to be. This happens when your identity is rooted in something other than the transitory—your job or title, the esteem with which others hold you or the way you feel about your current performance. For the Christian leader, self-differentiation depends on our view of ourselves as the beloved of God, children of a God who cares for us because of who we are and accepts us because of what Christ has done.
Leading in a church setting is especially challenging for our self-differentiation. We’re often expected to respond not just to the needs but also to the wants and preferences of a very diverse community at all stages of spiritual development. We’re looked up to by some and looked down on by others; we’re seen as the solution by some and the problem by others. In all of this, we’re dealing with our own spiritual development and with our identity as leaders and members of the very communities we’re also trying to lead. Trying to be “all things to all people” is a sound missiological principle, but doing so without first having a grounded core identity—dependent not on what people think of us but on what God thinks of us—will quickly have us running in twelve different directions at once and losing our mission orientation. “Doing God’s will means at times resisting the loving appeal of nervous friends who offer us another, safer agenda”—or resisting the nervous preferences of our community or fellow leaders.
One of the things that has been most valuable to me in my quest to be the leader God means me to be is: Knowing the difference between to and for.
Elders face a constant temptation to feel responsible for their community, their spiritual well-being, their marriages and their continued presence and involvement with their community. The problem is that as a community grows, as more and more marriages struggle (and perhaps fail) and as some decide to walk away from your church (and even the faith), that weight on your shoulders increases exponentially. Feeling responsible for others when we have no control over their behavior quickly leads to leaders who either try to control the behavior through whatever means necessary or who burn out under the load.
The good news is that you are not responsible for anyone in your community. As a pastor, you have responsibilities to them. You have the responsibility to love them, to teach them, to carefully and lovingly correct and exhort and encourage them, but you are not responsible for what they choose to do with that. Your responsibility includes doing all you can to point them to Jesus, but it puts the results firmly in their choices and the work of the Holy Spirit.
The same holds true with the overall community. We tend to take responsibility both when things are going well and when they aren’t, when we’re growing and when things feel stagnant and dead. In both, we overestimate both our influence and our responsibility. As leaders, we don’t make the church grow—God does. Our responsibility is to discharge our duties faithfully as elders and then leave the results up to God. We are responsible to our communities to be the best leaders we can be, to offer the best we can in terms of spurring others on toward love and good deeds and sounding a clear call to be the church Jesus had in mind. Ultimately, God is responsible for his church and its members, not us. The outcomes of our efforts rest in his hands, not on our shoulders.
(This is an adapted excerpt from Eldership and the Mission of God: Equipping Teams for Faithful Church Leadership– Check it out here)
Bob is the Director of Equipping and Spiritual Formation for the Ecclesia Network.
He’s the co-author of Eldership and the Mission of God: Equipping Teams for Faithful Church Leadership as well as Ministry Mantras: Language for Cultivating Kingdom Culture.
He planted the Evergreen Community in Portland, OR in 2004 and holds a DMin from George Fox/Portland Seminary.
Bob currently lives in Boise, ID with his wife, Amy, his kids, Jack, Jane, and Josie and his dog, Bentley.