(The following article is Part 3 of a three-part series written by Paul Utnage. To start at the beginning with Part 1, read “Working with Strong Personalities at the Top.” The link to Part 2—Tsunami Leaders, can be found below.)

Surviving the storms begins by working in healthy ways.  Lead in a healthy way just as you would if you were working with other healthy senior leaders.  Even if you work in a dysfunctional culture—or just with a dysfunctional senior leader—you must always behave in a healthy way. You will have to add further behaviors to work with a strong personality at the top, but healthy behavior must be your starting point.

If you want to begin with healthy leadership, pursue the following general principles for all work relations with senior leaders (in no order of priority). Each principle promotes trust so that you earn the confidence of your senior leader.

  1. Protect your own emotional and relational health. Prioritize it, start with it, cherish it.
  2. Spend time with the senior leader. Get to know him as best as possible—even a dysfunctional pastor—even if you feel discouraged that he does not invite relationships. You can then advise him on priorities, goals, and possibilities, if time permits.
  3. Fulfill your responsibilities so that your senior leader develops confidence in your character and expertise. Balance two responsibilities: 1) what your senior leader needs in order to do his job better, and 2) what your staff needs to accomplish their jobs. Executive Pastors must accomplish the first responsibility. Yet, if you accomplish the second responsibility in a way that promotes unity and momentum in the whole staff, you will free your senior leader to focus on his best strengths for his job. The problem is when the two responsibilities compete—if one simply cannot exist with the other.
  4. Think like the senior leader so that you can partner with him. Help your senior leader see the big picture as you think about the church together.

Be cautious that you are not perceived as someone who wants the senior leader’s position. If you want to be the senior leader, go somewhere else and do it. As long as you sit in the second chair, support the senior leader. Yet you must still think like the senior leader in order to work with him in a satisfying way. Therefore, be sure to do the following things, just as you would if you were the senior leader:

  • Keep your ear to the ground so that you know what is happening.
  • Walk the halls to pick up the pulse of the church.
  • Ask front-line volunteer and staff leaders what is going on in their ministry.
  • Think big and sell the big stuff when you are with people.
  • Inspire hope and innovation.
  • Make yourself available to advise and coach people and projects.
  • Think and act like the senior leader so that you can act for him.

Your senior leader will appreciate your partnership, thus building a relationship that allows each of you to speak into one another’s world.

  1. Think strategically. Become a master at strategic thinking and planning. As you add strategic expertise to your partnership, you build a trusting relationship.
  2. Take action and present it to your senior leader. Again, this will build a relationship that allows you to trust each other in life together.
  • Take the lead for your senior leader. Develop the plan on your own, and then submit it to him for discussion, change, or approval. Keep him in the loop as you gather information, consider your options, and determine timelines. Then present your plan. Once you both approve it, you initiate—move it forward. “Managing up denotes administrative work; leading up implies initiative. The boss needs someone who can think and act and be accountable for results. Those are the cornerstones upon which the leading up process rests.”
  • Do not micromanage your senior leader, but initiate so that you give him enough knowledge to make a decision.
  1. Assert yourself wisely with discernment. Be willing to speak into any type of situation with wisdom and discernment.
  • Senior leaders need an assertive second chair—someone with enough quiet confidence that he will speak and act with intention. Healthy leaders want coworkers to speak into the situation, even if they disagree with the leader. So deliberate about your thoughts and decisions, and then courageously offer them for consideration.
  • Pray for wisdom and discernment, and humbly offer your observations in a way that does not attack or humiliate other leaders.
  • Establish trust by saying what you mean, following through with your commitments, and consistently living by your values.
  • Make your topics relevant to your senior leader whenever you assert yourself into a situation.  “Relevancy is vital to leading from the middle. Without it, what you ask people to do is by extension irrelevant. And if it is irrelevant, they will not
    [hear it] or do it. So when a leader has something important to say, she must determine relevancy as well as readiness.” Before you present your issue, ask yourself: What does the senior leader need to know now? What can I do to make the message real?
  1. Acknowledge failure with complete openness, and always solicit/suggest ways for comeback.
  2. Learn to speak your senior leader’s language.

Patricia King encouraged, “Communication can become impossibly garbled when two people with vastly different points of view—and goals—enter into a conversation with the confidence that they are speaking the same language. If your minds are moving in opposite directions, your words are not going to mean the same things to him as to you. Since you are the one who is trying to change the boss’s mind, you are the one who has to find the proper way to proceed. To change anyone’s mind about anything, you have to start from where her mind is—how she perceives problems and your roles.”

Become a student of your senior leader’s perspectives, interests, goals, and language and meaning.  Then speak his language.

  1. Always live according to your personal values.

Relate in Healthy Ways

Tilden Edwards says that community is “what everyone wants, but almost no one is able to sustain well for long.” He was right. Community does not happen by accident. Good teamwork does not automatically occur. It requires commitment to healthy relationships. Sustaining such healthy relations requires attention, action, and purpose. You have to stick with it. But it is worth every bit of attention.

In a similar way, leaders need to relate in healthy ways that open doors for interaction and support with your senior leader (or other unhealthy leaders).

The following true story from the ministry of David Ferguson, founder of Intimate Life Ministries in Austin, Texas, demonstrates the validity of pursuing good relationships as Christians.

It was a balmy November evening in Titusville, Florida, and the Friday night service was nearing conclusion. I [had just finished speaking] on Romans 12:15, “Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn.” During our time of worship, we experienced the first part of that verse, rejoicing together in God’s goodness and grace. Then I emphasized the testimony of love that results when we share our hurts and discouragements with one another and receive God’s comfort from one another as the Bible instructs.

At the close of my message I encouraged everyone to turn to someone nearby—spouse, family member, or friend—and share a memory of personal pain. It could be as small or great a pain as they cared to disclose, something recent or from the past. As each individual spoke, his partner was to listen and express godly comfort.

As people shared their hurts and comforted one another, many exchanged spontaneous, tender embraces, and a few tears began to flow. I slipped away from the platform and circled behind the crowd near the main doors, rejoicing as I contemplated the Father’s joy. His children were moving beyond hearing his Word to actually experiencing it.

While I stood there watching, the door opened behind me, and a man walked in. He was about thirty years old, nice looking, and casually dressed. I found out later that Ray, who was not a believer, lived in the neighborhood and was out for an evening walk. Curious about why the church parking lot was full on a Friday night, he had stepped inside to take a look.

He walked over near me and surveyed the sea of people. Obviously perplexed at the sight, he asked, “What are they doing?”

“They’re comforting one another,” I explained.

Ray continued to watch the people share their hurts and tenderly embrace. Tears formed in his eyes, and there was a longing in his voice. “That’s what I need.”

Sensing a divine appointment, I said, “Are there stressful or painful things going on in your life right now?”

Ray nodded. He explained that his job at the nearby Kennedy Space Center was in jeopardy due to cutbacks. Furthermore, he had just gone through the pain of placing his mother in a nursing home. At about the same time, his fiancé had broken up with him. This young man was in a world of hurt!

Others gathered around Ray and shared God’s love with him by comforting him. The unexpected outpouring of love from total strangers lifted a great burden from Ray, and before the evening was over, he committed his life to Jesus Christ.

That is the power of good healthy relationships.

Why does this story seem so strange to us? Is it possible that we have lost the impact of the gospel as we disregarded the importance of healthy relationships? What would happen in our neighborhoods and city if our leadership team demonstrated these kinds of relationships at all times?

Let’s always focus on the health and righteousness of good Christian community and relationships—especially in our leadership team. God will obviously make our working world better as we focus on healthy relations. More importantly, He will use us to reach people because of our loving relationships. Healthy relationships are contagious to the world, impacting people for the gospel. Life is based on relationships.

Enjoying Healthy Relationships

This brings us to the central issue. How do we relate in healthy, righteous ways? Thousands of books have been written to answer this question. We could obviously spend six months delving into this one topic. So for our purposes as a leadership team, consider the following principles. Once again, we are grateful to the training ministry of Intimate Life Ministries from whom many of these principles come.

  1. Relationships thrive when we give them time. As Dr. Les Parrott wrote, “Friendship is a long conversation.” Our relationships with others are a patchwork quilt sewn over the years. We each fit in there somewhere, one patch bordering another patch—all surrounded by dozen of patches. These patterns combine to create a beautiful tapestry. But it takes a long time to create such a treasure. You have to take the time to build good relationships.
  2. Relationships thrive when we approach one another from the heart, rather than the mind. Two corollary principles rise from this general observation:
    • Relationships thrive when we approach other people from the depth of our own heart. No one enjoys superficial relationships. The saccharine sweetness of surface friendships may appear tasteful at first, but it quickly loses its ability to quench the soul. We need to approach people with open hearts, allowing God’s transformation to refresh the other person.
    • Relationships thrive when we look beyond the surface into the depth of the other person’s heart. Every person brings a set of inward assumptions and experiences whenever he approaches you. Some of these assumptions and experiences rise from recent interactions. More of these assumptions and experiences have been carried around like heavy backpacks for years. If we forget this reality, we fail to understand what is happening in the present situation. We usually take what was said more severely than we should. More importantly, we miss the opportunity to minister to the depth of his needs in the present situation if we forget this reality.
  3. Relationships thrive when we accept one another.

People are different. Of course they are! They have different motivations, memories, preferred behaviors, strengths, weaknesses, tensions, thought patterns, and decision-making skills. God purposefully created us as unique creatures. Only these innumerable uniquenesses display the majestic infinity of God. The same is true in the Church. God intentionally gifted all believers in unique ways to express the breadth of his work (1 Cor. 12:18-19). Thus God brings people into your life whose personal style of relating is different from your own. Yet we are to accept the differences between us (Rom. 12:3-5; 15:2). Recognize that the differences in others are designed to strengthen you. So be committed to accepting and building others up by what you say and do.

  1. Relationships thrive when we respond to aloneness as well as to sinfulness.
    • We should respond to the personal struggles and hurts of the other person without intensifying their pain by our own poor reactions.
    • We should manage our own emotions according to our values and intentions.
  1. Relationships thrive when we focus on meeting relational needs in biblical ways.

Most of us can explain the need for love. When pressed, we would never argue that people do not need love. Passages like 1 Corinthians 13 depict love as a necessary characteristic of Christians. But where do we learn about other relational needs? We discover other relational aspects in biblical passages that reveal God’s “one another” ways. Dozens of passages establish valid needs from God’s perspective. Since God told us to relate in these ways, we may safely assume that we all need these things. For now, try meeting some of the following relational needs:

  • We meet the need for security by experiencing 1 John 4:18, “Perfect love casts out fear.”
  • We meet the need for comfort by experiencing Romans 12:15, “Rejoice with those who rejoice, and mourn with those who mourn.”
  • We meet the need for attention by experiencing 1 Corinthians 12:25, “Have the same care for one another.”
  • We meet the need for acceptance by experiencing Romans 15:7, “Accept one another, then, just as Christ accepted you.”
  • We meet the need for appreciation by experiencing 1 Corinthians 11:2, “I praise you for remembering me in everything.”
  • We meet the need for support by experiencing Galatians 6:2, “Bear one another’s burdens.”
  • We meet the need for encouragement by experiencing 1 Thessalonians 5:11, “Encourage one another and build each other up.”
  • We meet the need for affection by experiencing Romans 16:16, “Greet one another with a holy kiss.”
  • We meet the need for respect by experiencing 1 Peter 2:17, “Show proper respect to everyone.”
  • We meet the need for approval by experiencing Romans 14:18, “Anyone who serves Christ in this way is pleasing to God and approved by men.”
  1. Relationships thrive when we model servant-leadership to one another.
  2. Relationships thrive when we are motivated by gratitude to God and others.
  3. Relationships thrive when we take responsibility for our own thoughts, emotions, words, decisions, and actions, and do not try to take responsibility for another person’s thoughts, emotions, words, decisions, and actions.
    • The temptation is to take too much responsibility for the other person and too little responsibility for one’s self. This creates massive earthquakes in relationships.
    • Galatians 6:1-5 reveals a wonderful balance of responsibilities. We are to take responsibility for those things that are properly ours—our actions, thoughts, words, emotions, decisions, and services—and at the same time supply the help for others that is within our ability and relationship. Yet we are not to enable the other person’s avoidance of personal responsibility, thus prohibiting them from maturing in the Lord.
  1. Relationships thrive when we embrace grace, vulnerability, authenticity, freedom, and fun times.
  2. Relationships thrive when we repent with godly sorrow if we have hurt another person. In the same vein, relationships thrive when we readily forgive one another after we have been hurt.

The apostle Paul commended the Corinthian church for experiencing godly sorrow—a sorrow that expressed the heart of God towards sin. Such godly sorrow prompts us to repent when we have hurt other people.

As well, godliness always forgives. The four promises of forgiveness are:

  • I will not dwell on this incident again.
  • I will not raise this incident and use it against you.
  • I will not talk to other people about this incident.
  • I will not allow this incident to stand between us or hinder our relationship.
  1. Relationships thrive when we are free from the barriers of selfishness, self-reliance, and self-condemnation.
  2. Relationship thrive when we welcome change that is connected to the work of God—personal change and corporate change.
  3. Relationships thrive when we encounter God together as we experience Scripture and worship together.
  4. Relationships thrive when we do not pass gossip, but keep confidences.

A corollary principle is: relationships thrive when we balance truth and grace at the same time. Speak the truth in love. You can easily imagine that such healthy relations will proclaim the truth and love of Christ to the world around us.

Part 3 of a 3-Part Series