About 25 years ago the folks at Leadership Network invited a group of “Young Leaders” to a gathering in Glen Eyrie, Colorado. The goal was that we would learn from each other, and Leadership Network would gather these lessons and share them with the church at large.
The motivation was pure, but the initial results were disastrous. They had done this same kind of gathering with older leaders and pastors and found it very fruitful. The gathering of younger leaders seemed to get stuck because most of us were arrogant, self-interested, and not quick to listen to others (we were young).
It became clear that this group was not going to humbly share from a place of transparency and generosity.
Near the end of the first day, the primary facilitator from Leadership Network tossed out the agenda and decided to ask us one surprising question: Would you be willing to share a big mistake or mess-up in your ministry?
For the next three hours, leader after leader shared honest stories of failed plans, flubbed efforts, and personal mistakes along the way. We laughed until tears flowed. The pretense and self-aggrandizement melted away.
We became friends. As a matter of fact, three of the leaders I met at that gathering remain my friends to this day.
As stories were shared, we began to learn from each other’s failings and struggles. We started to trust each other. We got past the insecure facades and saw people who were trying to serve Jesus and his church.
In that same spirit, let me share one of my biggest shortcomings in my 30 years of ministry. It is a pattern I have identified in the past year, and when I look backward, I can see that I have made the same mistake over and over again. Maybe my story and honesty will help you avoid making the same mistake.
Here it is: I took way too long to make the hard decision to fire someone or remove a person from leadership when I was confident it was the right thing to do. In most cases, I did eventually make the hard decision, but it was often months late. In a couple of cases, I delayed for more than a year.
I have been asking myself, why?Why would I delay to do the right thing? Why keep an elder on the church board who is divisive, angry, and perpetually negative? Why retain a staff member who is lazy, does not carry his or her weight, and is always making lame excuses for a lack of commitment and fruitfulness in their work?
Why have someone keep serving when everyone knows that person is doing a poor job and nothing is going to change? Why keep looking the other way?
Here are some of my conclusions:
- We were both followers of Jesus! It is hard to tell a fellow Christian that his or her service is not helpful, needed, or adequate.
- We were partners in ministry. In some cases, the person was fruitful and faithful for a time but eventually just ran out of steam and stopped serving well.
- We were friends. Over months or years, we had forged a friendship. Let’s be honest, it is hard to fire a friend.
- No one likes to confront, offend, or call out another person’s shortcomings. Fear and a lack of courage were also factors in my delay to do the right thing.
- We all want to err to the side of grace. I think one of the biggest factors was that I longed for redemption, I hoped for radical change, I prayed for each person to see the need to change and tap into the power of the Spirit. I am a pastor. I love stories of redemption and grace!
By God’s leading, I am at a new place in how I handle those who are getting in the way of ministry or becoming a roadblock to the work Jesus wants to do in his church or through his people. What has helped me make the hard calls and deal with these challenges quicker are some deep realizations.
Here is what I have learned when I fail to make the hard call:
- There is a huge cost on the other leaders (both staff and volunteers) when we do not deal with an ineffective and damaging leader on our team. They get discouraged and demotivated. Team members around a divisive and negative leader become less committed and passionate about their ministry.
- There is a loss of trust. The other volunteers and staff members watch and see that no one has the courage to make the hard call. They trust the leader less, the church less, and even question God’s power and hand in the ministry.
- There is a cost to the church. Some strong and high-level leaders will leave the church or decide not to come to your church if unhealthy leaders are allowed to run wild!
- There is a cost to the leader who does not make the hard calls. I have invested hundreds of hours trying to mentor, coach, support, and sometimes cover for leaders who are simply not doing their ministry well. This investment is wonderful and redemptive when the person comes along and is teachable. But, in most of the situations I have dealt with, little change happened. Then, when this person was finally asked to consider transitioning off staff or out of a volunteer position, there has almost never been a sense of thankfulness for the extra time, grace, kindness, and effort that was invested in them. In many cases, they became angry and did not recognize that I had really tried to go the extra mile for their sake.
My dad often told me, “A wise person learns from their own mistakes. But, a very wise person learns from the mistakes of others.” I hope and pray my failing in this area of leadership and the lessons I have learned will help you succeed as you serve Jesus, his people, the church, and the world!
Kevin Harney is the lead pastor of Shoreline Community Church in Monterey, California, the Founder and Visionary Leader of Organic Outreach Ministries International, and the author of the Organic Outreach trilogy of books and many other books, studies, and articles. He is also a regular contributor to Outreach Magazine.