Leadership Lessons on the Power of Grace at 30,000 Feet

One of the realities in team ministry is the constant challenge of working graciously with other ministry team leaders. It is commonplace for ministries to be lacking in resources, and it is therefore also commonplace for ministry leaders to be over-worked and underpaid.

In such circumstances it is easy to step on each other’s toes and not even realize it. The longer you work with someone, the easier it is to take each other for granted, and the easier it is to become careless in how we navigate daily ministry situations. If we are not especially vigilant when we are tired and stressed, we will find ourselves lashing out at our brothers and sisters in a rude and careless (i.e., sinful) manner.

Sometimes these challenges in our relationships cause us to become impatient and demanding, if not demeaning. The world might call this acting like a jerk…or worse.

On a Southwest airline flight I took this summer, I watched a young flight attendant handle a potentially explosive situation with unbelievable grace and determination. We were experiencing a lot of turbulence and were instructed to keep our seat belts fastened to ensure the safety of all passengers. Unfortunately, a man on the flight seemed to think the rules didn’t apply to him, and he got out of his seat to use the restroom despite the bumpiness of the ride.

I think the gentlemen must have been partially deaf because he was almost yelling when a flight attendant stopped him and told him he needed to return to his seat. In no uncertain terms he communicated his intention to get to the bathroom. But the woman was determined to disallow him that privilege until it was safe (for all of us) to do so. With all the skill of an international diplomat, this woman gently took this confused individual by the hand and led him steadily back to his seat. One could hear a collective sigh of relief ring out through the cabin of the Boeing 737-800. This episode was both surreal and illustrative.

I was so impressed I actually wrote a short note of commendation to the airline.

As I reflected on what I had witnessed, the powerful thought hit me that ministry leaders are often faced with similar situations. I have to admit that my patience and ability to respond to an individual aggressively challenging me is often less than what was demonstrated by the flight attendant. Sadly, my response would have been far less polite.

In the two epistles of Timothy, the apostle Paul gives us a wealth of information on what it means to be a responsible leader in the service of the Savior. In 1 Timothy 4:12-13 we read, “Let no one despise your youth, but be an example to the believers in word, in conduct, in love, in spirit, in faith, in purity. Till I come, give attention to reading, to exhortation, to doctrine.”

In 2 Timothy 2:24-25, Paul explains to Timothy the manner in which leaders are to approach working with God’s children, “…a servant of the Lord must not quarrel but be gentle to all, able to teach, patient in humility correcting those who are in opposition…”

We in ministry must remember that when working with God’s children there will be times when they (like all of us) will act like… well, sheep! The Scriptures are clear, “the wrath of man works not the righteousness of God” (James 1:20). We help no one in their sanctification when we get “ticked off” at them. Instead, we drive God’s children further from ourselves and from God’s way when we respond in angst or anger. Paul explains to the Galatian church that those who are overtaken are to be restored with a spirit of “gentleness” (Galatians 6:1). And just before this is Paul’s list of the fruits of the Spirit, two of which include “gentleness and self-control” (Galatians 5:22).

Paul again hits this theme with the Asian congregation in Ephesus, “with all lowliness and gentleness, with longsuffering, bearing with one another in love…” (Ephesians 4:2).

These passages paint a clear picture: when I’m ticked off at God’s children, it probably means I’m not being controlled by God’s Spirit but by my flesh.

One last thought – all that we are saying here about a pastor engaging with his flock directly applies to our relationships with our spouse and children. May God give us the ability to live our lives with a spirit of gentleness and grace.

For neither at any time did we use flattering words, as you know, nor a cloak for covetousness – God is witness. Nor did we seek glory from men, either from you or from others, when we might have made demands as apostles of Christ. But we were gentle among you, just as a nursing mother cherishes her own children.
— 1 Thessalonians 2:5-7