The Pitfalls Of A Leader
By Henry Blackaby
Edited from a message delivered at the "Heart-Cry for Revival" Conference near Asheville, North Carolina, April 2002
(Editor’s note: Although this message is addressed particularly to pastors, there is an important message here for all Christians. Might all who read be encouraged to uphold God-called spiritual leaders in heartfelt prayer.)
Spiritual leader, what is the fundamental desire that the heart of God longs to receive from you? What is the basic thing He wants from you, from which everything else comes? God said, "I want you to love the Lord your God with all of your heart…." (Mt. 22:37).
The greatest single pitfall for a pastor is the loss or turning aside from the love relationship with Jesus Christ. That’s the heart of it all. When your heart shifts, everything else shifts.
For example, if you are in that intimate personal relationship with Christ, there is no possibility that you can commit adultery. You know why? It would be so abhorrent to you. You could not do that to your Lord. You could not do that to His name. I couldn’t do it because of my relationship with my wife. And what an incredible hurt it would cause to my five children if I did that. But my love relationship with the Lord Jesus is the supreme reason I could not do it.
God said you are to love the Lord with all your mind (Mt. 22:37). A great pitfall of pastors and missionaries and spiritual leaders is pornography. Let us tell you the deterrent to that: love the Lord your God with all of your mind. You must guard your mind. How do you do that? You make it subject to Christ. Is that not what Paul said in 2 Corinthians 10:4: "The weapons of our warfare are not carnal, but mighty through God"? Then he says to bring every thought into captivity to Christ. If you do not guard your mind, you are in a spiritual mine field that can destroy you in one shot.
Someone was talking with me about my time with the Lord, and I said, "My time before the Lord in the morning begins the night before. I’ve determined that I will not let CNN news be the last thing I have in my mind before I go to sleep. What you go to sleep with is going to take you all the way through the night, and you’ll still be thinking about it in the morning. Why do you let the mayhem that sin is causing in the world, and which is causing you sleepless nights, be the last thing you watch before you go to bed? Time alone with God in the morning begins the night before."
I’m exceedingly careful that I love the Lord my God with all my mind. I guard what goes through my mind. Paul says, "Set your mind on things above where you and Christ are seated together with the Father" (see Col. 3:1-3). Why don’t you let your mind be there?
Pastor, do you know how you can be a pastor anywhere and be like a tree planted by the rivers of water that brings forth your fruit in its season; your leaf never withers and whatever you do prospers? Psalm 1 tells us how. The writer meditates on the law of the Lord day and night. But many of us want to meditate on everything else—all our activities, all our programs, all our goals, all the things we want to do for God. None of that will ever make you productive. You’re going to have to meditate on God’s Word day and night. But we make every excuse why we can’t do that day and night.
Let me ask you another question: Does Christ dwell within you? Does He dwell within you only during your quiet time? How much of the day is the living Lord of the universe resident in your life? Twenty-four hours of the day. Then how much of that day can He speak to you? He can speak to you any time He wants. Our problem is we don’t expect Him to speak to us.
A tremendous pitfall in a leader’s life is not to live out that twenty-four-hour-a-day relationship with the Lord. Go to those passages like Isaiah 65 and 66 and Jeremiah 7 where God says something like this: "I called unto you again and again but there was no reply. I spoke to you again and again and there was no response. I rose up early speaking to you but there was no response." Pastor, do you not then come tremblingly before a holy God and say, "How many times last week did You try to speak to me, but You never could get an answer from me?"
When the God of the universe does something, do you shut down everything and meditate on that and ask God what it means? Or do you continue with your agenda? God, deliver us from that! One of the great pitfalls of the ministry is that we don’t know how to relate to the One who told us to love Him with all of our heart and mind and soul and strength.
The Still Small Voice
In this matter of spiritual awakening there is something that disturbs me a bit. In many ways we’re saying, "Oh, Lord, will You come in a great spiritual earthquake?"
He said, "I don’t come in the earthquake."
"Well, at least could You bring a great sweeping fire?"
He said, "I don’t come in the fire."
"Well, could You bring a great wind of the Spirit?"
He said, "I don’t come in the wind."
"Well, Lord, how do You come?"
He said, "I come in a still, small voice, but you don’t think that’s revival. When I speak with a still, small voice, all there is of Me is speaking, and all there is of Me is present."
Have you been crying out to God for a great earthquake spiritually, or a great fire or wind? God said, "You really don’t think I’m present, do you, when all you get is a still, small voice?" Do you know what God was about to do in the still, small voice with which He spoke to Elijah? He was about to assign Elijah to go and anoint two kings, and to anoint Elisha to take his place. All of eternity hung in the balance in a still, small voice. (See 1 Kings 19:9-18).
When was the last time you expected God to come in a still, small voice? Are you still praying, as you pray for revival, for the great cataclysmic moment? God said, "You know, there was a sinner woman, a prostitute, and I brought her to your office and you turned her over to someone else. But little did you realize that when that woman came to know the Lord…." (Think back to the woman at the well in John 4) "…all of Sychar would come to know the Lord, and it would be so profound that all the city next to it, called Samaria, would come to know the Lord. The Spirit would send Philip down to find out what God was doing and revival came across the whole of Samaria. It all started at the well with a woman of the street."
Did Jesus know when God the Father was speaking to Him? Did He know the profound implications of God bringing one woman into a relationship with Himself? Did He know that all of Samaria would hear the Gospel as a result?
I believe one day God is going to say to me as a pastor, "Henry, all the accumulated possibilities of what you missed are laid against your account—not just what you missed, but also what I intended to do if you’d only listened."
One of the great pitfalls in the ministry is failure to recognize the still, small voice of God. When Jesus took time for that one woman, the apostles were saying, "You’re wasting Your time." Pastors are going to have to cultivate a listening ear to God.
Another point of importance I want to give you had great implications for me as a pastor and made a radical difference in everything I did. It faces me every day now. Many of you are very much aware of John, chapter 13 (which tells of Jesus washing His disciples’ feet). One of the most significant parts to that is that everything that follows in the 13th chapter is based on what Jesus did when He served.
Let me give you a verse that tells of one of the great pitfalls of ministry when we lose the relationship with the living Lord: John 13:20 says in effect, "How you receive the one I send you, you receive Me, and how you receive Me, is how you have received My Father who sent Me."
When God comes to an individual, it is unique for it involves all that one’s background, all of his idiosyncrasies, all of his sensitivities. We all come to know Christ uniquely. We have come to know the Lord unlike anyone else on the face of the earth. There is going to be a whole dimension of the person of Jesus Christ that I will never know if I don’t know it through my brother. I can’t know it the way he does. Like a diamond, you can look at it from a thousand angles, and you will ever see something more beautiful. The person of our Lord has so much about Him that it takes all of us experiencing Him and then bringing our life alongside our brothers and simply sharing that. You come to know something about Him you couldn’t have known if you had not heard that from them. And so Jesus said, "How you receive the one I send you, you receive Me, and how you receive Me, you receive the One who sent Me."
My brother, you are unique, not because of you but because of the Christ who chose to let you know some things about Him that He didn’t let me know. I will never know Him that way unless I know Him through you. Not only do you need to share out of the uniqueness of your perception and experience with the Lord, but you need to share it in a way that I can understand it. I will know more about Jesus after I’ve talked to you than I could have possibly known without you.
But then the Lord Jesus makes that unique statement that in the way we receive Him, we’ve come face to face with His Father. How then should I treat you? Very carefully and as a sacred trust from God. Let me ask you—how are you receiving those God sends to you? "Oh, it was just a sixteen-year-old boy…." No, it wasn’t. It was the living Lord who came face to face with you in a sixteen-year-old body. If you had taken time to try to disciple him, you’d have come to know something about the Lord you had never known before. You’d have had a tenderness and a gentleness.
How are you receiving the ones the Lord sends you? It may be a fellow pastor. What is God trying to tell you about Himself? Is that not one of the dangerous pitfalls of the ministry? We cry out for the Lord to make Himself real and He says, "You don’t understand the way in which I chose to do it. I sent four people to you last week, and you didn’t receive any of them as you would receive Me. I don’t make you an independent communicator with Me. I have made you interdependent by creation." Sin creates independence. Redemption creates interdependence. We need each other, and God created us so that we can know more of Him as we receive it from our brother or our sister.
Avoiding Pitfalls in Marriage and Family
When I was thinking of marrying Marilynn forty-two years ago, I said, "Marilynn, you need to tell me every vow you ever made to God because God takes vows very seriously. God caused you to want to make some vows to Him, and the vows you made to Him was His way of preparing you for our marriage. I need to know every vow you ever made to God because I know the heart of God on that, and the rest of my life I will help you fulfill every vow you ever made to God. Our marriage and our home rests on it."
I was very careful how I received the one the Father sent me. For twenty-one years God had been working on my wife and preparing her. Would it not have been a tragedy if for twenty-one years God prepared her to be my wife and I did not understand that it was He that I received when I received my wife? So I treat her very carefully.
The root of your life is a love relationship with God, but it brings itself out in scriptures like John 13:20. If I simply loved my Lord with all my heart and all the ways in which He has chosen to express Himself to me, that would secure my marriage. Would that not create one of the greatest deterrents to the pitfall of broken marriage? It would. You look at the symptoms and you say, "My wife is the problem," or "my husband is the problem." No, your relationship to Jesus is the problem. You forgot that He gave her to you, and He prepared her and you have neglected your relationship to Him by neglecting your relationship to your wife.
Did God not give you your children? How did you receive them? Did you hold that little one as a sacred trust and say, "How I receive this boy, I receive my Lord, and how I receive my Lord, I receive my Heavenly Father"? How then would I treat my children? How much time would I give them? What would I watch to see God doing in their lives? Family problems are the product of choices we have made with God. It has nothing to do with environment. It has nothing to do with the world in which we live or with TV. You can blame anything and everything you want and the Lord will simply say, "You didn’t understand, did you? I told you to love those I gave you as you would be loving Me and My Father, but you never did. And did I not tell you, ‘Whatever you sow, you reap’? The root produces the fruit, and you can’t have all this rotten fruit if you had a good root system. You need to accept it and change the root system. You are going to have to ask Me to bring you to the deepest personal relationship that is possible with Me, and you’ll watch the fruit be the product of that."
Is that not what Jesus said in John 15? Is He not the vine and you are the branch? If you abide in Him and His words abide in you, you will bring forth fruit. What people often do is look and see no fruit in their life and ministry, and then they try to blame it on everybody else. Jesus says, "Why don’t you go back to the simplicity of what I’ve said? If your relationship is right with Me, you will bear fruit. Why don’t you deal with that? There was a pitfall in your ministry. You forgot the relationship with Me, and you tried to have substitutes."
For instance, does God want your heart or your gifts? He wants your heart. How would He know if He had your heart? How would He know if you love Him? By what happens next. How much time do you spend with Him? If you love God with all of your heart, you will love your children the same way, because you will receive them as you would receive Him. You would spend time with them, and you would talk with them. You would find out what the Father is doing in their mind and in their heart. I have four sons and a daughter and thirteen grandchildren. I am learning a lot of the Lord from each of them, but my concern is that I treat them as one whom He has sent me, and I treat them as I would treat my Lord and treat the Father. Have they responded? They have responded to me, and they have responded to Him. How I live my life can be one of the greatest deterrents to the pitfall of family disaster.
But if they depart from the Lord, how do you get them back? One of my sons got in with the wrong crowd. I can remember falling on my face in the middle of the night in the living room and crying out, "Oh God, would you do something to bring my son back?" and God said, "I’m not here to change your son; I’m here to change his father." And God worked me over. I can still remember the time when that son met me at a restaurant, and as we sat there, he said, "Dad, I’m so sorry for all the pain I caused you and Mom, and I want you to know I am walking with the Lord, and I feel called into the ministry."
"How you receive your wayward son, you receive Me. Treat him like you would treat Me, and treat him like you would treat My Father who sent Me." Isn’t that a wonderful Scripture? We need to put some specifics upon that. God said, "You are to love Me with all of your heart and soul and mind and strength," and we want to somehow love our Lord without loving people. You can’t.
One of the great pitfalls in the ministry today is to lose the love relationship and to lose the shepherd’s heart. You don’t treat the members as you would treat our Lord. If somehow, which is an impossibility, our Lord should strategically not be present, what would you do to try to find out where He was? In the same way, when one is missing, would you not "pen up" the ninety and nine and go out at the risk of your own life to find the one who was missing, put him on your shoulders and bring him back? One of the few times in all the Bible that it says all of heaven breaks out into singing and praise and thanksgiving, is over one sinner who has repented. I found that every time I rescued one of God’s children who had begun to wander and was out in exposure to all of the elements—and put him on my spiritual shoulders and brought him back—all heaven broke out into singing and all the people of God did as well. If you lose the shepherd’s heart, you’ve lost your ministry. You’re not in the ministry as an administrator of a religious organization. You’re a shepherd over tenderhearted sheep for whom Christ died. He entrusted them to you and He expects you to present every one of them to Him.
Pride. Pride is a disastrous pitfall for a pastor because pride basically says that self is more important than God. You exalt yourself and you make people obey your leadership. You insist that they follow your authority. No, they are to follow Jesus. Many a pastor will say, "Now folks, I want you to pray about this," but he’s already made up his mind, and what he’s thinking is that when they come back together, they’re all going to have the same opinion as himself. Don’t ever ask the people of God to pray unless you’re willing to accept what they tell you God said to them. My congregation has saved me from a lot of sin in my own life, where I was seeking the face of God and pride was there.
Our pride wants to be able to say (and I’ve been there), "Now when I got here…and since I’ve come…" as if to say, "When I came, God came." Pride is one of the great pitfalls.
Sexual Sin. I repeat what I’ve already said—that whole devastating area can be prevented by an intimate personal love relationship with the Lord. I remember counseling a pastor and the pastor went ahead and had an affair with a lady in his church, divorced his wife, left the ministry. Three or four years later, I was speaking and this ex-pastor came up weeping and sobbing his heart out, and said, "When I heard you speak, God convicted me. I was the sinner. I sinned against God and His people. I sinned against my wife. I sinned against my children. I sinned against this lady’s husband and her family. Will you pray for me?"
I said, "I will indeed. But let me tell you how I’m going to pray for you." I had just read from Ezekiel 36 where God says, "You have profaned my name among the nations, and I’m going to sanctify my name in you before those same nations" and He took them into 70 years of bondage to restore His Name.
I said, "Let me tell you how I’m going to pray for you. First of all I’m going to pray that God will grant you genuine repentance. And second, that He will forgive you and cleanse you. But I’m going to pray that God will deal with you in such a way that anybody who sees how God deals with a pastor who profanes the name of God as seriously as you have, will be greatly deterred to even thinking about doing it." I said to him carefully, "My dear brother, I am far more concerned about the name of our Lord being restored than that your name be restored. You have grievously offended the name of the Lord, and I’m asking God to deal with you in His forgiving in such a way that His name can be restored, but to do it in such a way that if anyone ever saw what God does with someone who does that, they would be deterred in even thinking about it."
He sobbed and sobbed and sobbed, and he said, "I want you to pray for me that way." I did, and I prayed with a broken heart, not for him, but with a broken heart for what he had done to my Lord, and how many young people were lost to the Lord because of what he had done. The Lord poured over my soul what this man had done to my Lord. In some way I came to understand a little bit of what Paul meant when he said, "I have been crucified with Christ."
You don’t casually pray for someone like that. You pray out of your love relationship with the Lord. But if you lose the love relationship, it will show in your praying. When the heart moves away from God, it shows in every area of your life. Your wife sees it; your children see it; your membership sees it. Everybody sees that you’re not what you used to be, and you’re not the Christ they want to know. You’ll start to realize that you have shifted, not because conviction came to you but because conviction came to others before it came to you. When I hear some things from others around me, I immediately go to God alone and ask Him to help me.
Cynicism. This is a pitfall to a pastor. Cynicism is basically saying, "I know better than those around me. I have a closer walk with God than those around me do."
Pastors may be cynical about deacons, or the women’s ministry, or missions or prayer meetings, or another man’s ministry, or a pastor of a mega-church, etc. To be cynical reveals more about your heart than it does about your church. Ask God to deliver you from any ounce of cynicism in any direction.
There is no small church. Pastor, you’re ministering in a world strategy center. You’re right in the middle of where the God of the universe is about to strategize to touch the rest of the world. You say, "I only have 15 people." No, you have 15 people plus God. If you have 15 people, you have three more than God gave His Son, and He turned the world upside down. Could you not get over any cynicism about where God has placed you?
The little church I went to had ten people, and they were so discouraged they voted to disband the church. The only ones left were the ones who had driven everybody else off! I’ve been asked, "Can you build a church with that kind of people?" I said, "Not at all, but I’ll tell you Someone who can. My Lord can take ten discouraged people and make a living body for His Son, and fill them with His Spirit, and there is no limit what God can do through that group."
We didn’t have a solitary college student in the church; they had never had one. But during those years we baptized about 180 college students. God did that. I had never been in a college ministry before I went to that church. The church had never started a mission, and I’d never started a mission before, and we started about 38 churches. There were so many entering the ministry that we started a theological school to train them and about 400 came through that school, but I had never done that before. If I had taken an inventory of my gifts I’d never have done any of that.
One of the great pitfalls for the ministry is to take an inventory of your gifts, and then base your ministry on your gifts. Let God decide what He wants to do, and He will equip you for whatever He assigns. But you need to release your life as thoroughly to God as you know how. He more than likely will lead you to do things you have never done and would never choose to do, so you and your family and everyone around you knows that you didn’t do it.
When I come to a church and they say, "Pastor, what’s your ministry?" I say, "Whatever God assigns when He puts me here. Tell me, what is He guiding you to do? I’ve come to help Him and you together to do what He has already said to you. I don’t bring my ministry to the church. I simply obey Him and let Him put me wherever He wants and then let Him unfold what He intended to do and what He had already been doing before I got here."
I could have never imagined that out of what God did in that church, I would write the book, Experiencing God. That book is now in its twelfth year and it’s still on the "Best Seller" list. Only God could have done that! Would you release your life and avoid the pitfall of shaping your ministry according to self?
Three Greatest Deterrents to Being of Use to God
1) The average person will not deny self. We ask God to affirm self, and we’re always looking for the affirmation of self. God says, "You must deny self. You’ve literally got to die to self." That’s why God says, "Don’t ever have a vision for what you want to do for God." God’s people are not told to have a vision. We’re not a people of vision. We’re a people of revelation.
The passage that says, "Where there is no vision, the people perish" (Prov. 29:18) is a poor translation. It actually says, "Where there is no revelation, the people throw off restraint," or in the common language, "When you don’t have a word from God, everyone does what is right in his own eyes and you have spiritual anarchy." Right now across the Christian community we have spiritual anarchy—everyone doing what is right in his own eyes. When God gives revelation, He gives it to the corporate people of God. He has always done that from the time He entered into a covenant with His people corporately.
Revelation holds the people of God together because it doesn’t come from the pastor, though it may come through him, but the revelation comes from God and announces what God is about to do. That is the unifying factor, and so people don’t go off on their own ministries. They follow the one God has given to them.
2) There is great unwillingness to pay the price. The cross is not something to suffer on. It is something to die on. Many of us will not die because human reasoning says, how could I die and live? Jesus would say, "Ask Me. You can’t live unless you die. A kernel of wheat has to die or it cannot come up and produce 50-fold or 100-fold." Many a pastor never passes the test when God puts him in a hard place, and the years begin to come and go and you listen to the reports of your brethren, and you have a very modest ministry and report.
When I left the church that started with ten people twelve years later, in all those missions there were over 5000 people every week in Bible study. They said, "You only have 230 in your church." I said, "It isn’t my church." I said to them, "When I came, I didn’t have the faintest idea what God had in mind. But I determined I would deny self and pick up a cross and follow after Him."
God has to have someone who has denied self so that whatever God does next, self will never raise its ugly head. He’s got to have you understand that the cross is very real. When the cross begins to reveal itself in your life, you will not resist it and say, "I don’t think I deserve this."
3) There is unwillingness to follow Him. You are unwilling because where He wants you to go with Him is not where you have the ideal ministry. Many of us never get to the destination God has for us because we’re not willing to follow Him, because it’s not where we thought we deserved to serve. Actually God says, "You don’t deserve to serve anywhere. Anything I assign as the God of the universe is more than you deserve and more than you are capable of handling. Why don’t you just follow Me?"
Are you willing to follow Him wherever He takes you—to the prison, to the military, overseas? Would you follow Him overseas? Would you be the one for whom others have been praying for so long?
Other pitfalls I will list quickly:
Greed. You need to be completely and totally satisfied with whatever God gives you. He can cause His people who love you to take care of you, and I’ve found that to be true always.
Spiritual lethargy. You ought to be up before the earliest layman. You ought to be known as a person who is strong in your ministry.
Domestic neglect. That is neglect of your wife and your children.
Administrative carelessness. Do not excuse yourself by saying, "I never have been administratively strong." God may put some people around you to whom you can release the administrative responsibility, but learn how not to be careless. Beware of not knowing how to administrate or at least to oversee the finances in the church.
Prolonged position holding. You need to know when it is time for you to go from the position. Ask the Lord to show you when to go.
Mental laziness. Nobody else can do the study of the Scriptures for you. You ought to get your message from God. I don’t know of any greater pitfall in the life of a pastor—other than the love relationship to the Lord—than mental laziness. We must experience the discipline of meeting the Lord, hearing from the Lord, and letting God deal with us from His Word.
God’s first order is to deal with His own, because as goes His own, so goes His purpose to work through His own to win a lost world. If God has spoken to you, kneel and pray. It is very important when God speaks to us to let Him finish what He begins, because you might be right on the precipice of your ministry, and God may be saying, "One more step and you’ve lost it all." Meet Him and let Him deal with you until He is through with you. When the God of the universe speaks, that is the time we need to respond.
– Used by permission of Henry Blackaby Ministries. Further information about the ministry is available at their web site: www.henryblackaby.com