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Shipwrecked leadership

Mark Cook is the program coordinator for the Institute for Global Engagement, a partnership between Denison Forum and Dallas Baptist University. He is currently a Ph.D. candidate at Dallas Baptist University, and completed his Masters of Divinity at Beeson Divinity School and Truett Seminary. His ministry background is college ministry, and he has served both on a church staff as well as within campus ministries.

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Tennessee Secretary of State Tre Hargett, during a news conference, announces the Federal Trade Commission and all 50 states have filed a federal lawsuit against four charities — including Knoxville-based Cancer Fund of America — and their operators, accusing them of scamming more than $187 million from consumers across the country, May 19, 2015 (Credit: Knoxville News Sentinel/Cortney Roark)

Leadership is always specific. It is never abstract. It concerns specific people, who live in specific places and work in specific organizations. Which is why our current structure of educating future leaders is so problematic. Examples like one recent “Cancer Charity Scam“, where leaders seem to act so unethically, cause us to shake our heads and wonder how people could do such a thing. Should it be much of a surprise, though, when ethics classes are largely boiled down to “how to stay out of jail”, and focus on relativity theories that posit that each person is their own moral compass? When ethics is relative, who can fault the cancer charity leader for gaming the system to benefit himself?

Leadership in the Christian context is a responsibility to care for others. It is built on the ethic of love, where justice, mercy, grace, and forgiveness coalesce with the vision of hope that Jesus will one day make all things new. So leadership education that focuses on abstract principles ultimately fails to build a strong foundation within individuals to face the reality of a sin-soaked world.

Psalm 139 is a terrifying and beautiful Psalm revealing the specific ways God knows and cares for us. It is terrifying because God is “acquainted with all my ways” (3) and knows the deep dark thoughts and intentions that no one else can see, but it is beautiful because regardless of our circumstance, even when we don’t even know what’s going on around us, “the darkness is not dark to you; the night is bright as the day.” (12)

God’s care and knowledge of us is specific. Augustine articulates this well when he says, “A human being is an immense abyss, but you, Lord, keep count even of his hairs, and not one of them is lost in you; yet even his hairs are easier to number than the affections and movements of his heart.” (The Confessions, Book 4, 22)
Leadership in the Christian context is a responsibility to care for others (Credit: Mark Cook)
We absolutely must understand as leaders that we are weak, sinful, and have conflicting inner desires. The Romans 7 war that Paul speaks of is also in each of us. Only by recognizing our need for a better Leader can we begin to embody truly Christian leadership. When we submit ourselves to Jesus’ leadership is our lives, then he comes and does his long work of sanctifying us to be more like him. The sanctification process is where we grow the most as leaders, learning to lead out of grace rather than pride.

Jesus’ love for us is what gives us the ability to love and serve others. His love pushes out beyond the shoreline of ourselves and into the roiling waves and deep waters of other souls. In these waters, we must have the light of Christ guiding us or we will make shipwreck of our leadership.

If all we learn about leadership is abstract principles and techniques about how to accomplish what we want then we are woefully unprepared for the reality of leading specific people in specific places in specific organizations. Jesus’ leadership in our lives teaches us that we can move beyond the basic impulses of our sinful humanity and learn to sacrifice and serve others. His leadership is what guides us.

So to bring this home, we all must ask ourselves: “am I working for God or allowing God to work through me?” If we take the former view, we will espouse a Deistic view of our relationship with God, where we are the ones who are responsible for carrying out God’s work. This way leads us to trust ourselves and rely on our own strength, plans, and wisdom. But when we take the latter view, we realize that God is the one who is working. He guides and directs us, calling us to tasks and visions beyond ourselves, promising to be with us all along the way.

Christian leadership refuses to arrogantly trust in human wisdom and ability. It also refuses to accept a fatalism that cowers in fear and won’t step out in courage to respond to the call of God. Johann Gerhard, a 17th century German Lutheran pastor, has wise words for us: “That which I lack, I confidently draw from His rich supply. Because of Your beloved Son, have mercy on me, Your servant, O Lord.” (Meditations on Divine Mercy)