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Indispensable Leadership Skills #2: Let’s Get Honest about Repentance

I think we all know that leaders are not the untouchables—those who can do no wrong. We know we need to be open to the convicting work of the Spirit. We know we need to be the ones who quickly respond when we become aware that our actions or attitudes are not matching up with the character of Jesus. Most of us have already learned the basics of what to do when we sin. We repent. We run back to the cross and ask God to forgive us and restore us. But mastery in repentance is not always about the out-there-where-everyone-can-see-it kind of sin. Many lessons in repentance are much more subtle because Satan is always subtle when lying to us and egging us on to defeat.

Repentance is about giving up your false idea that you have the right to reign over yourself—acknowledging that it’s your Creator who has the only right to reign over you and all your decisions. Leading a congregation, you have plenty of areas where you can be blind to self-rule. Your vision for the church, your way of building church systems, how you handle leadership, how you handle people, what biblical truths you choose to teach and how you choose to teach them—all these offer pathways to let your unfinished business destroy others.

Recently the North American church has been watching with great concern as a high profile pastor was called to account for his bullying ways. He had been successful by numbers and influence. It was precisely because he had been successful that no one had confronted him successfully. In the aftermath, those who should have held him accountable have found themselves repenting publicly for allowing so many to be wounded by this wounded leader.

If only this were the exception and not the rule. He and they are the poster children for all of us who lead while blinded to our unfinished business. While our own expression of self-rule may vary widely from theirs, the impact of our unrepentant sin reverberates in the lives of people we shepherd. Some of your worst moments of self-rule may be taking place as the “Parent” of your children or “Spouse” in your marriage, where the people you love are assigned second place to your all-consuming desire to be successful in ministry.

Mastering repentance means you ask God consistently to make you more aware of what lies you have believed about yourself that are offensive to Him, whether they be pretty lies or ugly ones. Whether they appeal to the lust of your flesh, the pride of your eyes, or the pride of life, as John puts it (1 John 2:16), you want to recognize the lies you have embraced for what they are, turn from them and humbly ask God to empower you to live out the truth.

Moreover, mastering repentance includes recognizing when God is leading you to do right in a culture that condemns righteous thinking. Sometimes you will find people are offended because you chose God’s ways over politics, over political correctness, over cultural prejudices, over religious taboos. Jesus knew that no one could ever meet the expectations of people affected by the Fall precisely because they were affected by it. He pushed back, saying the religious leaders had rejected John the Baptizer as having a demon for not eating and drinking with the crowd and were now calling him, Jesus, a drunkard and glutton for doing the opposite. Repentance for you also involves recognizing when you have been holding back in challenging those stuck by culture and personal preferences because you have been listening to the crowd, perhaps your own crowd, to get your bearings.

If you are going to master repentance, let me encourage you to take some previously given advice and get a partner whom you trust and who trusts you. Give each other permission to speak into the other leaders’ lives when he or she sees behavior that suggests underlying unfinished business. This is not a one-week assignment. This is a life-long quest because Satan will find new lies to tell you in the coming years.

-Steve Smith