The Danger of Desperate Leadership

Local church leaders have a crazy way of putting so much pressure on themselves.

  • Spiritual pressure to serve God.
  • Relational pressure to please others.
  • Personal pressure to be successful.

Every leader inevitably hits a rough patch. This can last months or even years.

I talk with many pastors who have faithfully led small churches for years and never felt like they have experienced the favor of God in a way that provides a leader’s best friend, momentum. Large church leaders feel like the kid who got straight A’s. Now he or she has to continue to get straight A’s!! The pressure is killer.

The circumstances are common, perhaps your church isn’t growing and momentum is low, or the income is consistently below where it needs to be, or you are painfully short on volunteers. Maybe you are just tired of wondering why more visitors don’t show up or come back. The list of possibilities is long.

No matter what size your church, whether it’s 80 or 8,000 it’s easy to lead desperate. You want success so much that it causes you to lead different; you lead desperate. Desperate leaders deal with pressure in counterproductive and unhealthy ways.

Desperation leaks.

Desperate Leadership

Leading desperate means you eventually want more from your people than you want for them. The pressure causes you to lead differently.

You can end up wanting the people’s time, approval, financial resources and help more than you want their spiritual growth. This is never intentional, but it’s easy to get there and difficult to see when you are in it.

Desperate leadership is unproductive and exhausting.

Here are three ways to help you break the desperation cycle:

1) Chase dependent to break desperate.

When you lead from a place of desperation, you lead essentially on your own power. You rely on your own talent and ability. You kick in to high gear with a strong work ethic and commitment to God, but inadvertently leave God out of the equation.

It’s counterintuitive, but to lead dependent upon God is to do less and trust God more. When you work you work, when you pray God works. We know this is true theologically, but it’s incredibly hard to practice. I know, I’ve been there many times. If something isn’t working, try harder, right?! This doesn’t mean you become a holy mystic, there is still much to do. It’s a different disposition. You recognize that you can’t do it; you just can’t. But God can. That’s the difference between desperate and dependent.

2) Discover your healthy pressure relief valves.

Part of the solution to stop leading desperate is find ways to relieve (some of) the pressure. Unfortunately, for the leaders who won’t admit the problem and talk about it, they often find unhealthy ways to relieve the pressure and that never goes well.

There are so many options and most are common sense, but again, when we are desperate, common sense often eludes us. There are many options from a hobby you enjoy to exercise that you don’t enjoy, but it’s good for you. A prayer partner or confidant to talk with helps a ton. Taking short breaks during the day is really smart.

Another way is to simplify your ministry and start saying no. I know that’s not easy, I’m not so good at saying no either, but I can always sense the stress melt away when I do say no. Remember, the long term stress from saying yes is often greater than the momentary stress from saying no.

3) Understand the difference between satisfied and content.

For a more thorough discussion on this topic, please see the post, “Always Content, Never Satisfied.” Let me offer a summary in this post.

I’ve read what the Apostle Paul wrote in Philippians 4:11-12 hundreds of times. “I have learned to be content. . . “ I wanted that, but it escaped me. My leadership drive pushed me to strive for the next level! It seemed right to always want more progress for God’s Kingdom. How could it be that we’ve ever reached “enough” people?! It wasn’t until I figured out a new way to see it, that I can say I am always content, but never satisfied!

Contentment is internal.
Contentment comes from a quiet confidence that God is with me, He loves me, and I’m living the life He has for me. That contentment I can rest in.

Satisfied is external.
There is always one more person to reach, there will always be improvements to make, and innovations to test out. I will never be satisfied, and that’s OK. My church doesn’t want me to be satisfied!

Dependence and contentment are deeply connected and the combination frees you up to pursue progress in a healthy (non-desperate) way!

This freedom allows you to want more for your people than from them, and helps to break the cycle of leading desperate.

P.S. I took a very different approach to this topic last year. For more reading, check out Desperate Leaders.

12 thoughts on “The Danger of Desperate Leadership”

  1. Thanks, Dan, for reminding us of a meaningful pastoral principle that applies to both small and large churches. America’s culture of success can so insidiously insert itself into the local church, via both leaders or congregation. It basically comes down to who we are listening to. Godliness…with contentment…is unquestionably great gain.

  2. Thank YOU!!! Being the new kid on the block at our church, this is what I need to hear. I love your words of wisdom. We miss you and our 12Stone family, but we are excited to see what God is doing through us here in Texas.

  3. As a ten year veteran of the pastoral ministry, you hit the nail on the head. What a convicting reminder that we must want more ‘for’ our people than ‘from’ our people. It’s a fine line that is oh so blurred. It is an ongoing choice to depend completely on God and let Him refresh our spirit and focus. Leading from desperation adversely affects our marriage, parenting, health, and even our pursuit of God. It would be great to hear some more about ‘Climbing Out Of or Overcoming Desperation Leadership Mode.” Thank you for encouraging me today.

    1. Randy, you are most welcome, and so glad to be of some encouragement. I included a link to another post on this same subject at the bottom of this one. Hope it’s helpful too.

  4. Thank you, Dan! That whole contentment and satisfaction is definitely something to lean in to much deeper. I think my litmus test of my contentment shows through in my level of desperation. I appreciate your wisdom in my inbox so often.

  5. Frankie Capparelli

    Dan that is simply powerful.

    Desperate leaders demand more from others who are not called on by God to do the work God has called you to do.

    As leaders of all levels with all different experiences and accomplishments, we naturally all have something in common; we lean on what we know best. Unfortunately, that usually involves self-assurance, self-accomplishments or we look to those who have been successful. Sometimes by means that are not glorifying to God. We tend to forget the maker who blessed us with those success’. We lean on man for guidance instead of our creator. Leaning on the reason, the creator of all of us, is a better investment than standing alone and trying to play in God’s arena.

    If we lean on God, you will see your heart reach confidence, so that you are content in your every thought, situation and walk with God.

  6. Ciara Jane Mckinney

    So excited to read this new topic you brought to light. I’ve had the opportunity to grow and experience healthy churches large and small – and no matter the number it is still important to lead in the same way. It seems in unhealthy church environments they become more wrapped up in their congregation than those working right under them. Thank you for the reminder that the best way is to want more for them then from them!

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