Not Perfect Leaders, Humble Leaders

10/29/2013 04:12 pm ET | Updated Jan 23, 2014


There's no such thing as a perfect leader.

Every leader makes mistakes, every leader has done hurtful things and every leader is on a trajectory of development. If we believe in leadership at all in the church -- and I, for one, do -- then we've got to be real about the fact that no one is going to do it exactly right. No, not even one.

And if your perspective on leadership is based on the expectation of perfection, then you will likely be driven to cynicism and despair. Because you are never going to find what you're looking for. And instead of finding something, you are gonna keep on finding nothing, and the result will be you vs. the church leadership world, picking off the offenders one by Rev. Dr. one, M.Div. Your tweets and statuses will be awash in heavy machine gun fire against anything and everything having to do with the @pastors and especially their online pulpits.

The reason the expect-perfection approach is a foolish one is quite simply because it is rarely applied to any other kind of leadership. It's unfair. It's unrealistic. It's unreasonable. It goes against common sense and is inherently shaming and guilt-inducing. It only prevents the possibility of transparency in leadership -- it does nothing at all to enhance it.


There is such a thing as a humble leader.

And it is humility in the midst of imperfection that actually marks out a good leader from a bad or even harmful one. In fact humility -- and not the expectation of perfection -- provides a baseline for helpful, creative and prophetic critique of harmful, unjust and abusive power in the church. If we shed the expectation of perfection then we may actually move forward with something legitimate to say to the church which sometimes goes the way of empire: humble yourselves.

I spent this past weekend working with Fresh Expressions U.S. at a cohort gathering in Maryland. The FXUS tribe is closely connected to the Ecclesia Network tribe from whence came the Missio Alliance tribe. And what I love about all three of these groups, and what was only confirmed throughout my experience this weekend, is the humility I see among the leaders there. They are not perfect. I'd be willing to wager that all of them have made their share of mistakes. Some of them have probably done hurtful things, especially as younger leaders in the difficult process of learning and developing.

But there is a tangible sense of humility in light of all the imperfections of leading in the church.

Without further delay, here are three quick marks of the humble, imperfect kind of leadership that I see beautifully at work among groups like this:

1)  Humble leaders are open to critique and submit to safe and supportive accountability structures that facilitate constructive criticism. They are not ashamed of making mistakes, but aware that they will make them and ready to change course when they do. In the words of my friend Sue, a distinguished fellow of the American Psychiatric Association:

The healthy response to shame, of course, is to tolerate its discomfort, soothe myself, acknowledge any responsibility I might have for hurtful or inappropriate behavior, remind myself that I am still a good person, and learn from the experience. However, that mature response is not easy! Learning it requires a supportive environment and a lot of practice. We only change when it is safe to look at what shame affect is telling us. Emotionally safe environments are loving and supportive, call us on our behavior when we are out of line, push us to be the best we can be, give positive feedback, respect us, and require us to respect others.

This is the behavior of humble leaders, and increasingly so as they develop.

2) Humble leaders accept and even celebrate failure. Yep, I said "celebrate." I was moved to tears by my friend J.R. Briggs's talk at the cohort about failure in ministry. As a "failed" church planter, the words rang true for me -- and deep. "A failure is a terrible thing to waste," J.R. said, adding, "How do we fail well?" Humble leaders recognize that ministry is full of risks, and risks ought to be taken for Jesus's and the kingdom's sake, and so failures will come too. But if the New Testament model is ministry as death and resurrection, shouldn't we expect and embrace the experience of failure as the suffering and death that humbles us and makes us more like Jesus? Shouldn't we realize that the greatest ministry successes -- the real and deep fruit -- will probably come in and through and because of the experience of failure? You can only resurrect what dies first, so I think we should.

3) Thus, humble leaders are not triumphalistic or full of swagger. Among these groups that I am blessed to be a part of there is a veritable famine of swagger. There's giftedness and confidence (even boldness) and good news to report -- but there is not the kind of self-congratulating triumphalism that marks so much of evangelical church planting and pastoring culture. And I just love this. I love seeing leaders who believe in the mustard seed and the pinch of leaven. I love seeing leaders who willingly sacrifice posh ministry success to do humble, small mission and regular, rooted life. Of course, this is really anything but regular -- it's the kingdom of God subversively taking root. But these humble leaders are serious about living modest lives, that the gospel might have the true victory that comes through worldly-weakness.

Well, that's it I guess.

The prophets have legitimate things to critique in the empire's strongholds within our universal church family.

But the expectation of perfection is a fool's errand.

We don't need perfect leaders -- we need humble ones.


Does this resonate with you? Weigh in!