Self-Control, the Leader’s Make-or-Break Virtue

Is it possible to build willpower like a muscle?
Self-Control, the Leader’s Make-or-Break Virtue
Image: Christine Nickoloff / Getty

Mark was one of the most talented pastors our church had ever hired. He had two advanced degrees (two more than anyone else on staff), but he was no out-of-touch academic. Gregarious and personable, he was equally confident preaching or leading worship. But preaching is where he excelled.

One time, our senior pastor was scheduled to speak at a retirement home in our community, but he came down with bronchitis. He called Mark. Could he fill in? The residents of the retirement home were expecting a sermon on heaven, and the service was starting in an hour.

Forty-five minutes later, Mark showed up at the retirement center with a Bible tucked under his arm. Our senior pastor stuck around, hoping Mark could deliver a passable sermon on the spot. He didn’t.

“It was incredible,” the senior pastor recalled. “It was one of the best sermons I’d heard on the topic. By the end, I was ready to go to heaven right then and there!”

Unfortunately Mark’s surplus of talent hid an insidious deficit: a lack of self-control. Though he was married with two children, Mark seemed to look at every woman except his wife. He couldn’t resist making inappropriate comments. “What kind of underwear do you think she’s wearing?” he once asked a parishioner, pointing to a woman across the foyer. One Sunday after church a colleague asked Mark how he thought the service had gone. “I don’t know,” he responded. “I was too busy undressing all the women with my eyes.”

More than Moral Failings

Within a year, Mark was exactly where he needed to be: out of the ministry, a reminder that capability can never replace character. I wish I could say Mark’s story is unusual, but it’s not. Over the past 10 years, my work in Christian publishing has brought me into close contact with Christian leaders across the country. I’ve lost count of how many I’ve known who have torpedoed their ministries by failing to control destructive impulses. Unlike Mark, most of them didn’t have such obvious character flaws. They seemed stalwart and faithful, but ended up disqualifying themselves just the same.

When we hear such stories, it’s easy to blame the Devil or the pressures of ministry. While those might be factors, let’s face it, at the end of the day, they lacked self-control.

Responding to many recent high-profile moral failings, theologian Owen Strachan shared this leadership lesson on social media:

Now more than ever, one moment can destroy—in one day—your life’s work. The essential virtue: self-control. You can have all the talent in the world, and draw a ton of attention for it, but if your ability is not matched by strong character, you are in a precarious place.

Self-control is essential for every Christian. But as Strachan observed, for leaders the stakes are especially high. It’s no wonder Scripture lists self-control as a qualification for church leaders (Titus 1:8; 1 Tim. 3:2), describes it as a fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 5:25), and likens a person without it to “a city broken into and left without walls” (Prov. 25:28).

That’s not to say a leader’s fall is only due to lack of restraint in the heat of the moment. Beneath every moral failure lurks a host of complex issues and usually a history of unaccountability and compromise. Yet self-control addresses those dynamics too. Biblically speaking, self-control isn’t simply a dam holding back a surge of destructive desires. It’s part of the process of sanctification that ultimately heals our sinful hearts. When it’s not present, the fallout can be swift and severe.

Self-control is crucial for leaders because it guards against moral lapses that threaten to destroy their lives and ministries. But there are other reasons why cultivating self-control is important for leaders.

You need self-control to resist doing things you shouldn’t—and to do the things you should. The pastor who has an affair lacks self-control, but so does the one who fritters away large chunks of time golfing or watching Netflix or scrolling through Facebook. Ministry is a high and holy calling, but it’s also a ton of work. Sermon prep is hard. Counseling is emotionally taxing. Board meetings can be a slog. Yet such activities are essential to pastoring effectively. Doing them well and consistently demands self-control.

The pastor who has an affair lacks self-control, but so does the one who fritters away large chunks of time golfing or scrolling through Facebook.

There’s also a temptation at the other end of the spectrum, and it’s far more common: working too much. I remember one pastor saying working too little and too much are both temptations in ministry. On one hand, the benchmarks in ministry aren’t as clear as they are in other professions, and that can mask laziness. On the other hand, ministry work is never done, and that can lead to burnout. There are always more people to help, more things to do. And resisting the compulsion to try to do everything yourself is a matter of self-control too. While working too much masquerades as a virtue, it is really a vice. It usually indicates that a leader is unable to leave the final outcomes of ministry in God’s hands.

Self-control also influences the way you lead. One Harvard Business Review study, “Leadership Takes Self-Control: Here’s What We Know About It,” took an extensive look at workplace bosses and found that “leaders with lower self-control often exhibit counter-productive leadership styles.” These behaviors included verbally abusing followers and failing to establish strong relationships with those they lead. On the other hand, the study also found that leaders with higher levels of self-control gravitated towards more effective leadership styles, like inspiring their followers rather than abusing or micromanaging them.

In the Bible, leadership and self-control are inseparable. One of the Greek words we translate as “self-control” is sóphron. It describes someone with a “sound mind,” who is “balanced.” According to Scripture, it is especially important for church leaders to possess this key attribute (1 Tim. 3:2). The person with this quality is not prone to erratic, impulsive behavior. It’s not difficult to see why such a characteristic is so essential to leadership. Churches need balanced, steady leaders at the helm, and that takes self-control.

Getting Stronger

If self-control is so important, how can we improve it?

1. Preserve your willpower.

Twenty years ago, researchers discovered something fascinating about willpower: it’s limited, finite. In experiment after experiment, people who performed difficult tasks were more likely to succumb to temptation right afterwards. Researchers have concluded that, like a battery, our willpower gets depleted with use.

Exercising self-control means being strategic about how you use your willpower. Spacing out demanding tasks ensures you don’t risk depleting your limited reserves of willpower. If you find meetings especially draining, schedule in some solitude immediately after. If studying takes it out of you, try to go for a walk to rejuvenate yourself. It’s also wise to avoid willpower wasters, like multi-tasking and needless conflict.

2. Create new habits.

We like to think that all our decisions are the product of conscious thought, but that’s an illusion. In many situations, especially stressful ones, we default to the automatic routines we’ve built into our lives. That’s why we often fall into unhealthy or sinful habits even after we’ve resolved to change. You might think you can withstand any temptation with sheer willpower, but keep in mind this warning from pastor John Ortberg: “Habits eat willpower for breakfast.”

Changing our behavior requires forging new habits. Recently I resolved to begin each morning with Bible-reading. What better way to start my day? I thought it would be easy, but it wasn’t. The first few mornings, instead of reading my Bible, I did what I always do first thing in the morning: I reached for my phone and checked social media. I had a habit. Even when I tried to read Scripture on my phone, I quickly swiped over and opened Twitter or checked the news instead. Finally I made the decision to go analog. I pulled my big, black Bible off the shelf, lugged it up to my bedroom, and plunked it down on my nightstand. Now when I wake up, I reach for it instead of my phone. It’s become a new habit.

The key to living a holy life isn’t simply to out-battle temptation at every turn. It’s to build righteous patterns into your life. That’s achieved through creating holy habits. As the theologian N. T. Wright said, “Virtue is what happens when wise and courageous choices become second nature.”

3. Stay rooted in God.

When I bring up the topic of self-control, I hear a lot of sighs and groans. “Oh yeah, I should be better about that,” people say, their voices tinged with defeat. Most of us view self-control like an overdue dentist appointment—necessary but dreaded.

Here’s the good news. When it comes to developing self-control, we’re not expected to go it alone. Thank God for that! As we walk closely with him, he promises to guide and empower us. We tend to think of self-control as a strictly human enterprise, but Scripture describes self-control as a product of being connected to God. It’s something that grows when your life is rooted in divine reality. Remember, Paul calls self-control a “fruit of the Spirit.” He’s invoking a metaphor. Just like a tree must be nourished by the soil to produce fruit, so we must be connected to God in order to see this virtue flourish in our lives.

I’m convinced that the vast majority of leaders whose ministries implode because of a moral failing started on their path by neglecting their relationship with God. Estranged from God’s Spirit, the fruit of self-control eventually withered in their lives. One of the cruel ironies of ministry is that it’s easy to nurture other people’s souls while neglecting your own. If you’re not careful you can get to the place where you only talk to God when you’re praying in public and only open God’s Word to prepare to teach. Don’t be that leader. Make intimacy with the Father your number-one concern. Your life—and the lives of those you lead—depends on it.

Drew Dyck is a contributing editor to CTPastors.com and the author of Your Future Self Will Thank You: Secrets to Self-Control from the Bible and Brain Science(Moody, 2019).

April
Subscribe to CT and get one year free.
Homepage Subscription Panel
Read These Next
close