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Five Pitfalls for Young Leaders

by Daniel Darling

When I assumed the pastorate of Gages Lake Bible Church, I was twenty-nine years old. I’d served in a senior staff position at a large area church, so I thought I knew leadership. But it wasn’t until I was in the crucible of leadership as the senior pastor, the chief executive, that I realized the gravity and weight of the position I was called to serve.

I was a young leader, green in the ways of the world. The world gets excited about young leadership, but young leaders are prone to mistakes because we lack experience and gravitas.

I’m still fairly young, but along the way I’ve learned a few things, mostly by experience, that have helped me grow. My desire is to help other young leaders avoid the pitfalls I often found myself in. Here are five of the most common leadership pitfalls.

1) The Pitfall of Pride

The Scriptures offer both encouragement and warning about young leadership. Perhaps the most pointed lessons are given by the aging Apostle Paul to Timothy, his young protege. One the one hand, Paul tells Timothy not let his youth get in the way of leadership (1 Timothy 4:12). On the other hand, Paul warns against appointing immature people to weighty positions because they lack experience, can get filled with pride, and can cause their own destruction (1 Timothy 3:6).

Pride is an especially pernicious temptation for the young. What attracts us to leadership–our vigor, our energy, our ideas–can also lead to our downfall. Youthful energy can ignite movements, can catalyze change, and can change the world. It can also isolate us from needed rebuke, wisdom of mentors, and constructive criticism.

Very few people will hold a young leader accountable for his pride. Most will be in awe of the talent and charisma and will ignore those negative character traits. This is why the best young leaders surround themselves with people who are allowed to criticize. People who have permission to constructively confront us and call us to our better selves.

2) The Pitfall of Seeking Fame

I don’t think fame itself is inherently wrong. I don’t think all celebrity pastors and speakers are out of touch, entitled, and autocratic. In fact, I’ve met many who are just the opposite and impressed me by their humility. I believe God, in his sovereign will, allows some to have a platform they can leverage for kingdom influence.

But young Christian leaders have to fight the corrosive temptation toward an all-out pursuit of fame and influence, at the expense of the people they serve and the message they are tasked with proclaiming. There’s a place for godly ambition, but we must die to to our need to be wanted and liked and sought after.

This can be tricky, a sort of fine line between desiring our churches or organizations or platforms to grow and pursuing popularity with reckless abandon. I’m not always sure where that line is–it maybe different for every person. I do know that we must guard and check our hearts to see if our motivations for ministry are to glorify God and serve His people or to enrich ourselves. We need people in our lives who remind us of our humanity and who are unimpressed by our gifts.

3) The Pitfall of Comparison

Envy is the lifeblood of so much of our competitive culture, even in the Church. There is a dangerous tendency to compare and measure ourselves against our peers. Young leaders are especially prone to comparison trap, looking around and wondering why our platforms aren’t bigger, why our churches aren’t growing as fast, and why we aren’t getting the coveting speaking engagements.

Authors obsess over their Amazon rankings and privately wonder why some others seem to have more success than they do. Pastors compare podcast downloads with other pastors and compare their sermons with the sermons of those they admire. Worship leaders wonder why they aren’t being pursued to produce the next great worship album.

Comparison not only reflects the sin of envy, it poisons our leadership and keeps us from seeing God’s work in the uniqueness of our situation. Furthermore it stunts growth, preventing us from leaning into the gifts God has given us.

4) The Pitfall of Anti-Establishment

Our growing up years shape us in more ways than we know, with experience in church, at home, school, and community shaping our leadership, positively and negatively. Whether consciously or subconsciously, we tend to lead as a reaction to what we’ve seen. If we are not careful, we can shape our ministry decisions solely on being the “anti” version of some negative church/ ministry/business experience. I see this quite a bit among young evangelical leaders. Uber- contemporary pastors style themselves as different from the stodgy fundamentalists of their youth. Super-serious reformed guys style themselves as different from the substance-less contemporary leaders of their youth. Progressive evangelicals are so unlike those conservative culture warriors of their youth.

So it goes. It’s good to understand the times and learn from the mistakes of our elders. But it’s destructive to act as though we are the first generation to finally correct all of the problems in the Church. We’d be wise to sit at the feet of those who have gone before, to hear their stories and understand how they were used by God in their own time. And we’d be foolish if we don’t realize that one day we will be the foil for another generation’s change movement.

5) The Pitfall of Overstatement

When we’re young we tend to see ourselves as the hero in our own story, the Gideon/David/Abraham warrior that God has sent to rescue His people. There is a tendency among young leaders to think of ourselves as “people we’ve been waiting for.” The church is going one way but we know better and we are going to lead it the other way.

I see this a lot in marketing for new products. Every Christian movie is the one that will finally have the secret sauce to unlock the unbelief in skeptical seekers. Every new technology will “revolutionize” the way people study the Bible. Every new church growth book is the thing that will move a church from stagnant to successful.

Wise young leaders don’t believe the hype. They assess themselves and their movements with a kind of gospel-centered reality. Wise leaders are neither cynical nor overly optimistic. And they realize that every movement is only building on the one that came before.

Young leaders need to be reminded daily that our story is not our own. God is the author of our story and it is He who is after glory. The work of the Church was here when we got here and will be here when we are gone.

Daniel Darling is the Vice President for Communications for the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention (ERLC). For five years Daniel served as Senior Pastor of Gages Lake Bible Church in Chicago and is now the author of several books, including ‘Teen People of the Bible’, ‘Crash Course’, ‘iFaith’, ‘Real’ and ‘Activist Faith’. Dan is a sought-after speaker and the host of a weekly podcast, ‘The Way Home’.

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