The numbers didn’t add up. I was just 24 years old, we had been married only four years, had one child, one theology degree between us, and no desire to go into church leadership.

Yet one Tuesday night we found ourselves sitting in our lounge with our pastors, who told us they were leaving in five months and asked if my wife Helen and I would lead the 60 or so people in our congregation. They gave us three days to make a prayerful decision. We prayed; we said no. We prayed some more; we said yes.

Since that life-changing day in 1998, it has been both our privilege and our pain to lead what is now Wellspring Church. It has been more blessing than burden, yet the last 21 years have been a mixture of stumbling, surviving and thriving through various seasons of leadership. So many forces are at work to tie leaders down, tangle them up in insecurities, and hold them (and those they lead) back from what God wants to do in and through them.

Here are my thoughts on the challenges leaders you know are facing, and some keys that may liberate us all, for God’s glory.

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The team challenge

Some of the most common challenges are found around the coffee or boardroom table. Call them elders, deacons, senior leadership team, trustees, or something else entirely, time with them can be joyous and progressive when the culture’s healthy, or the opposite. These meetings can become a minefield of insecurity, frustration, misunderstanding and disunity that stir up anxiety, undermine initiative and lead to painful post-meeting insomnia.

Leaders often want to innovate, upgrade things, take a risk, keep things fresh. Unhealthy team culture stifles this and holds back leaders from doing what they do best. Instead, mistrust, dishonour and unhealed conflict can grow like bindweed that hinders everyone’s progress. The good news is that grace is always available, healing is possible, and team challenges can be overcome. Where unity is kept, heaven responds
with blessing.

The trauma challenge

Most Christian leaders feel, deeply. Typically, they lead because they are sharing something of God’s heart for His people. I know it is a privilege,’ but when I’ve had a front row seat to childhood cancer, domestic violence, sudden bereavement, leaders’ unfaithfulness, and people leaving the church, it has sometimes left me traumatised. Carrying secrets I will never speak of, and feelings too deep for words, can wear you down, tie you up, and hold you back. Leading and loving in Jesus’ name can hurt, leaving us calling out for heaven’s healing to free us again to care, to love, and to trust without hindrance.

The time challenge

My God-given gifting is vision-casting and apostolic initiative. I want to see change now (if not sooner), and the dream is always big, hairy and audacious. Leaders who work towards change often face the time challenge’. Why? Because things involving people and change often take a lot of time. Hence the frequent calls in the New Testament (often directed at leader-types) for patient endurance, tenacity and long-suffering perseverance.

Once-impulsive Peter (now on his final lap) exhorted his readers: With the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day. The Lord is not slow in keeping His promise, as some understand slowness. Instead, He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish” (2 Peter 3:8 – 9). Waiting is tough for many leaders – waiting for prophecies to be fulfilled, bodies to be healed, vision to become reality, and people to grow as disciples. Never underestimate the time challenge.

The Tim challenge’

I have to say, on my own journey the hardest person to lead has been myself. Moody Mondays (the common weekly low point) require self-discipline and carefully chosen prayers and words, and the conscious decision to go again for another week. I’m hard to lead at times, too tempted to give up, too hard on myself on some things, and too lenient on others. I need the Holy Spirit’s help daily so I can lead with liberty on and off the platform.

Part of the Tim challenge’ has been learning when to say no” to obligations, duties, and expectations I lack the capacity to fulfil. To stay true to God’s unique purpose for me means not should-ing’ on myself. I’ve learned that when your principal reason for doing something is because you should,’ or you look back on past events with the nagging should’ holding you back, you are tying yourself up in knots and may need help from others to break free.

Five keys to freedom

So, how can we see leaders liberated in the church today? Here are a few keys that could help us all.

1. Delegation

The famous encounter between Moses and his father-in-law Jethro in Exodus 18 is an inspiring challenge and revelation of the power and importance of delegating not just work, but responsibility, to those we trust. Leaders with high standards can too easily become defensive control freaks, whilst complaining no one is helping. Trust me, I know. What a liberating thing it is to learn how to entrust areas of ministry to others, help them navigate mistakes, and do things their way. It can unlock your time, free your mind, and bring you greater joy than doing it all yourself.

2. Perspiration

We cannot ignore the intrinsic link between physical, mental and spiritual wellbeing –God created us as integrated beings. He designed endorphins (praise Him!), and I believe leaders of all shapes, sizes and activity abilities will benefit from frequently getting a sweat on. Healthy leaders lead, healthily. Breathe deep, get that heart racing, that blood flowing, and enjoy the freedom exercise can bring.

3. Confrontation

Jesus spoke more frankly about how to deal with conflict than almost any other topic. At the heart of Matthew 18 the Lord promises to release heavenly power to those who pray in unity, the context though is conflict addressed head-on. His disciples are urged to bring offences into the open and not let them fester, working together to preserve the unity of the ekklesia’ even if it means some people are excluded. This is a key teaching for every leader. We are tied up when we hide offence and allow bitter roots’ to grow. Let’s not avoid sharing our gut-feelings and stop avoiding difficult moments at the expense of long-term progress.

4. Separation

In normal circumstances, leaders need to get away, often. Away from the inbox, out of signal range, retreating from the voices that pressure and people who drain. We need to pursue the face of God. Stepping away from it all can be deeply refreshing and bring a liberating new perspective. I am a strong advocate for overseas trips because relating to leaders in other lands has changed my life and brought longevity to our ministry at home. I’ve seen how church planting in Burkina Faso, visiting Syrian refugees in Lebanon, and seeing a new church established in Slovakia has transformed our work in Watford. Change your scene – it’s good to view here, from there.

5. Celebration

Many Christian leaders I know give, care, love and serve more than those they lead realise, let alone give credit for. It is liberating to celebrate those who lead us, to honour their God-given gifts and their influence in our lives. When those called and equipped to lead are afforded space to use their gifts, take risks and make decisions, it usually brings freedom to the whole church. When leaders grow healthily and happily, in a culture of celebration (not cynicism), we all do. How can you practise celebration? It depends on the leader, but it’s hard to beat public affirmation from team members; the occasional special offering/​gift doesn’t hurt either!

In fact, this last key may be the one we can all use whatever our context, whoever our leaders may be. Some church and organisations are good at celebrating and honouring those who lead but by my reckoning most of the church in the UK could do with upgrading the level of love, support, generosity and genuine offer given to pastors and leaders.

If leaders we know and love are to bring their best and lead with freedom, we need to cultivate an even healthier culture in our churches and organisations – a culture based on humility and honesty, where flawed people work together with generosity and grace, making every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit. May we all walk through the days, years and decades enjoying life-giving freedom for our leaders, and abundant fruit for those they serve.

Leading and loving in Jesus’ name can hurt, leaving us calling out for heaven’s healing.