Last week I caught up with the new point leader of an organization I’ve been working with recently, and we began discussing their marketing reach. When I asked how many people were on their email list, the answer was 70,000… which I take to be pretty strong! I asked how engaged that audience is, and they acknowledged not being sure quite yet… in fact, they offered, the mailing list is actually 90,000. But her early sense is that it’s not very active.
Wait, hold it. What?!
When has this ever happened in your interactions, where a leader intentionally under-states their numbers? This is the exact opposite of the near-universally tolerated and often joked-about tendency of Christian ministry leaders to exaggerate their numbers—sometimes a lot!—as demonstrated by comedian Chris Ruppe in his “Pastor Math” video.
Most leaders would have anchored that list size at 90,000, and then likely rounded up to at least 100,000 to make it sound just a little better, just a little more impressive. Some might have bumped it higher still!
But not this leader. She reported fewer than the actual number, since it better reflected the truth. She spoke of the organization’s platform with humility. This may seem like a small thing, but I’m telling you: it’s not. And I believe this is a trend. It’s time to say farewell to Pastor Math.
It’s a New Day
This is the future of ministry leadership. This is part of what is changing right now, and it’s a key signal of leaders who are increasingly showing up in healthy ways. I believe the days of leaders needing those false narratives in order to feel validated are also passing, and with them, so are the days of tolerating pretense and false narratives of all sorts. As leaders become healthy, they have nothing to gain by behaving like Pastor Math; as we grow stronger in our souls, exaggerations naturally become less appealing, less tempting, less the norm.
The days of leaders needing those false narratives in order to feel validated are passing, and with them, so are the days of tolerating pretense and false narratives of all sorts.
The emerging virtue to replace the false claims is simple enough: humility.
Leadership researcher Jim Collins names humility as one of the two defining characteristics of Level Five leaders, who are the critical foundation to moving an enterprise from good to great: “The most powerfully transformative executives possess a paradoxical mixture of personal humility and professional will. They are timid and ferocious. Shy and fearless. They are rare—and unstoppable.”1
In his book Humilitas, historian and bible scholar John Dickson describes humility as the virtue that really did not exist until the arrival of the person of Jesus Christ. Up until that point, he says, humility was seen as something to be avoided. Think humiliation. Both words come from the root word humus, meaning earth or ground, neither of which sound that appealing, at least not at an instinctual level.
Being brought down to ground level, either voluntarily or by someone else, was not something to be pursued. And yet Jesus endorsed it, taught us to do it, and illustrated what it looked like. He was among the first to label humility as a virtue.
And of course, the New Testament writers point to humility as the attitude we should have:
- Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men (Philippians 2:3-7, NIV.)
- “Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God, that He may exalt you in due time” (1 Peter 5:6, NIV).
Thankfully, these scriptures and others like them suggest that humility isn’t a quality we simply possess or don’t, but rather a choice and decision we can make. Regularly. Humility is actually a direction, a path, and a destination all at once.
It’s also one thing to humble yourself, and quite another thing to be humbled.
Many years ago I got an email from a pastor who had heard me give a talk and wanted to ask me something about the session. Of course, I was thrilled that he had reached out, and I was glad that someone had finally seen my brilliance! I arranged a quiet hour when my children would be napping so that I could take the call, and when the phone rang, my heart skipped a beat. I couldn’t wait to bestow more wisdom.
After thanking me for my time, he asked if I could provide the source for one of the stories I had shared in the talk.
I told him the original source, he thanked me, said goodbye, and hung up. That was it. Maybe a three-minute conversation.
He just wanted to know one of my sources. The story was epic, I’ll acknowledge. But that was a humbling experience for me as an early communicator!
If you’re like me, you probably get the occasional opportunity to eat some proverbial humble pie. I’ve had many slices since then! But the good news is there are ways we can intentionally grow our capacity for humility.
Humility is a choice and decision we can make. Regularly. It is actually a direction, a path, and a destination all at once.
I get it… it can be hard to embrace humility in a world that seems to reward a dog-eat-dog style of living. A fake-it-til-you-make-it world. So often it seems, in our communities and cultures, that if others win, then I lose, and that’s the end of me. It’s win or die, at all costs, even if the cost is our conscience. To intend towards humility feels risky.
Don’t Pretend. Don’t Presume. Don’t Push.
In his book Hearing God, Dallas Willard endorsed a 3-part maxim for developing humility: “God will gladly give humility to us if, trusting and waiting on him to act, we refrain from pretending we are what we know we are not, from presuming a favorable position for ourselves and from pushing or trying to override the will of others.”2
To put it more simply: Don’t pretend. Don’t presume. Don’t push.
Pretend. We often feel pressured to pretend in order to live up to or exceed the expectations of others. How will I feel if they find out what my real online platform numbers are? Or my actual income? Or how many times I’ve been rejected? We pretend to be something we’re not in order to receive the kind of honor and respect we desire. The problem with pretending is that we are literally living a lie. We will never be able to keep up with the image we’re projecting, and this sort of duplicitous living damages our souls. Don’t pretend.
Presume. This brings to mind Jesus’ words when he saw people jockeying for positions of honor at a table. “But when you are invited,” Jesus says, “take the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he will say to you, ‘Friend, move up to a better place’” (Luke 14:10, NIV). Presuming shows an utter lack of humility, and in striving to be elevated, you will inevitably be cut down to size.
Push. How many of us push for certain results, assuming we know what is best for us and for others? When Dallas Willard says not to push, I’m reminded to surrender, to let go of the outcomes I expect or desire and to allow God’s outcomes and ways to take precedence.
Can you think of a situation in your life where you:
- feel tempted to do any of those three things;
- feel the need to pretend in order to make yourself or your organization look better;
- are making presumptions based on an elevated view you have of yourself; or
- feel the need to push hard in order to force an outcome?
Name the situation in your journal, and reflect on what lies beneath it.
- What need or concern or motivating factor is pushing you to do those things?
- How do these three areas of restraint reveal the wellbeing of your soul?
Don’t pretend. Don’t presume. Don’t push. Instead, surrender to God’s path, and act and speak with humility. This is where the future of leadership lies.
The Way of Jesus
As I write this on Easter Monday, reflecting on the power of the resurrection, I want to encourage all of us to retain the invitation to the way of the cross. The way of Jesus.
The future of leadership lies in a deep refusal of harmful past practices, including what Scot McKnight refers to as a “tolerance for false narratives”—a surefire sign of toxic leadership cultures.
There is no need to lie in order to advance the work of God. When we do, a bit of our soul gets chopped away with each falsehood, and eventually we end up with very little of what is real. Eventually, we lose track altogether of what is real, believing our own lies.
One final vision of humility from South African pastor Andrew Murray:
Without [humility] there can be no true abiding in God’s presence, or experience of His favor and the power of His Spirit; without this no abiding faith, or love or joy or strength. Humility is the only soil in which the graces root; the lack of humility is the sufficient explanation of every defect and failure. Humility is not so much a grace or virtue along with others; it is the root of all, because it alone takes the right attitude before God, and allows Him as God to do all.3
1. Jim Collins, “Level 5 Leadership: The Triumph of Humility and Fierce Resolve,” Harvard Business Review, January 1, 2001, https://hbr.org/2001/01/level-5-leadership-the-triumph-of-humility-and-fierce-resolve-2.
2. Dallas Willard, Hearing God (Downer’s Grove, IL: IVP, 2021), 52.
3. Andrew Murray, Humility (Christian Book Series, 2003), locations 78-81, Kindle edition.