Three Pressure Points
Spiritual pressures will come for every leader. But how do you overcome them? You need a brave spirit, a holy heart and a clear head.
The moment you became a believer a target was painted on you. And the moment you began in ministry it got a whole lot bigger. Well, that has been my experience as a Christian and as a Christian leader.
Your enemy the devil prowls around looking for someone to devour. He hurls a string of flaming accusatory arrows in your direction, and he can bewitch and tempt you through deceitful lies even if he looks as if he has ‘angel eyes’ (thank you Coldplay – and 2 Cor 11:14!).
I’ve often found that my highest highs at church have also been marked by some kind of ‘I’m out to get you’ experience.
For example, the first baptism I took was noted by a visitor having a go at me for something he didn’t like in the sermon, and it came right out of the blue. While our 40th church anniversary (my 30th as leader) was marked by a particularly difficult conversation from a critical non-member the night before our special celebratory meetings.
No doubt you will have your own stories to share.
But the Scriptures point out patterns of pressure and temptation that can affect leaders. These pressure points all need different responses.
1. A Brave Spirit
Acts 4 shows us one of the classic Satanic attacks on leaders: intimidation, threats, and the fear of consequences.
External persecution leading to the silencing of gospel proclamation is an ugly, but still so effective strategy of the devil. For us who proclaim Christian truth and who lead gospel churches in Britain, it rarely results in court appearances. But it is not unknown. The trend towards litigation is now part of our cultural experience.
Public vilification, media furore, and personal misrepresentation can sometimes come our way. Who knows what’s to come? We may see authorities clamping down on church leaders. Our Christian heritage has protected us for many years but we'd be foolish to think "it can't happen here."
So what did the early church leaders do when faced with this bullying? They called for times of special prayer and they expressed their unwavering confidence in God’s kingly rule. By his grace and Spirit they were all filled with boldness. Bravery is not fool-hardiness, but it is a confidence in God and the gospel. Christian leaders will need this virtue many times.
It’s worth noting that bravery does not give simplistic ‘success’ outcomes. Not too long after Acts 4, a brave-spirited Stephen paid the price for human hatred. But even that led to gospel advance (Acts 11:19-21).
We also know that bravery is key to leadership because the command: ‘Do not be afraid’ is the most common exhortation in the Bible. Sadly you will need a brave spirit not just when facing external pressures from unbelievers. Too often, in leading the church, you will come across Diotrephes types (3 John 9), and you are not to be intimidated by them either.
Which leads me on to the next area.
2. A Holy Heart
The three great temptations of the world? Dodgy money, dodgy sex, and dodgy power.
With Ananias and Sapphira, it is the first of those. As you compare the end of Acts 4 and the beginning of Acts 5, you see that it's more than just about money, it's about what money, or the perceived lack of money, can do for and to you. Joseph's generosity gained him a well-earned reputation: Barnabas – ‘Son of Encouragement’. It looks like they wanted some of that kind of recognition. Money could not only give you that, but also a sense of significance, or security, or pleasure.
A perceived lack of money may lead you to feel, resentfully, that you’re losing out. Rarely do leaders struggle this when they start out. They know that compared to many jobs, especially compared to the jobs their peers get, the Christian ministry is not a place for accruing financial wealth. Young leaders accept this and embrace it.
The challenge comes down the years when it becomes ever more apparent that money is still tight, growing children are ever more expensive, and the perceived gap between you and your peers is now much wider.
It might not just be money, but status and significance. David, Gerry, and Bill are only names to you, but to me they are three friends who as graduate Ph.D. students with me at Cambridge ended up as professors at esteemed universities. I am really glad that they got there, and I don’t worry that I didn’t. But if you let your heart wonder, or wander...
So in your Christian leadership you must embrace true contentment. Being aware that the devil will attack you here is a significant way of being prepared to withstand him.
Talking about wondering and wandering – your eyes and heart need guarding.
Proverbs tells us to rejoice in the wife of our youth. But note I am to rejoice in her body and no one else’s. Raw sexual temptation and the opportunity to exploit it can present themselves to an unwise leader. Pastoral ministry has to be especially guarded against Satan’s temptation in this area.
Wisdom and holiness will shape who you meet with: when and where, and who else needs to be present. Visiting and seeing the opposite sex on your own behind closed doors, unless she is as old as your mum, is generally unwise. Billy Graham never had a meal on his own with a woman who wasn’t his wife. Too strict? Or great wisdom?
But the temptation is often subtler. At a time when you're under pressure, you and your spouse have ageing parents and growing children, and you are both feeling tired, then an ‘understanding other’ is a danger if it isn't your spouse but is someone of the opposite sex. Guard your hearts in these areas.
What about dodgy power? I think Tolkien was onto something, and perhaps had been reading the apostle Paul in Acts 20 (see v29-31). He knew about the danger of ‘the ring of power’. What did it do to humans when they saw it, let alone wore it? Remember Boromir? When he got it, it made him aggressive and jealous. He felt threatened, overconfident and he evidenced a deep unwillingness to let it go. In the end it led to his downfall and death.
Christians are often poor handlers of power. Any criticism is seen as a personal affront, any comment betrays disloyalty, and people hold onto roles and find it so hard to bless others and lay down a position gracefully.
So how do you keep a holy heart over power?
The Scriptures remind us that we are not lords but servants of the Chief Shepherd. We can be confident of the gifts he has given us, the authority he has conferred, and the opportunities he provides for us to serve him and his people. But we need to be aware of the dangers of the ‘ring of power’.
3. A Clear Head
A third pressure point leaders feel is found in Acts 6. The church is growing and groaning, because it is all getting so complicated. Too many plates to spin, too many fronts to fight on, the work is never complete. It can bewilder the best. It calls for a clear head.
You need to think, and think again, so that you don’t give in to unhelpful reactions that are defensive or aggressive when things don’t seem to be working out in the church.
In Acts 6 the leaders could have so easily misdiagnosed the problem as a sin (remember the people of Israel sinning about daily bread) and they could have proposed a full frontal assault on it.
But they kept clear heads and realised they needed to come up with an initiative that solved the presenting problem, and the underlying organisational problem, and got everyone united. They also had to ensure that they kept key priorities central – word and deed – so that the church was kept on mission.
Innumerable problems in church life need clear heads. What helps create that? Proverbs tells us that many advisors really help. Learning from others, even though no two situations are exactly alike, helps us to see that the patterns of problems are common. None of us will ever have Greek and Hebrew speaking widows complaining about bread as our presenting issue, but growing and groaning churches is a common story.
The solutions to your unique problems will be your own, but clear-headedness is vital leadership requirement for us all.
One final thing – “If you think you're standing firm, be careful that you don’t fall” (1 Cor 10:12). Especially remember that if you begin to see yourself as someone who is wise in their own eyes (Pr 3:7, Is 5:21). Humility, as self-forgetfulness, is the attitude that we need to clothe ourselves with for all three of these qualities to be effective.1
So, three key ways of counteracting the devil’s temptations and coping with the pressures we face – a brave spirit, a holy heart, and a clear head. May the Lord give you all three.
1. See for further reading Kirsten Birkett, Resilience: A Spiritual Project (The Latimer Trust; 2015).