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Navigating leadership hurdles: An overview

January 22, 2018

This is the first in a four-part series about three major ministry hurdles and how to address them.

As I’ve spoken to lots of college pastors around the nation, it seems the 2016-2017 school year was thrilling, yet taxing due to the occurrence of so much beautiful God activity mixed with the rise of pastoral issues and problems.

After our spring break mission trip, we hosted five powerful “Revival Nights” where students met God in a deep and compelling way.

We witnessed people’s hunger for Jesus and His Kingdom increase like never before. However, at the same time we witnessed people’s sin and issues increase like we’ve never seen before.

I thought these events would calm the storm, but in many ways they actually unearthed more.

I was being contacted daily with inspiring testimonies and massive problems, and I was dumbfounded. If God was on the move, why were we experiencing so much chaos?

Let me start with this: there’s a myth out there in the college leader world that a healthy college ministry = zero problems. If we believe that myth, we will get easily discouraged, most of us by 10:00 am.


Proverbs 14:4 says, “Where there are no oxen, the manger is clean, but abundant crops come by the strength of the ox.”

My rendition of that verse is simple: cattle in the stalls = poop on the ground!

The reality is: oxen = poop. So in this four-part series, we’re going to cover three hurdles we face and how to navigate them.

I want to acknowledge that some of this will be basic for you, but I want to ask you to funnel this material through the lens of, “Do my leaders know how to do this?”

Because you are only as strong and healthy as your leaders.

There are three main hurdles we faced this year:

  1. Controversial
  2. Theological
  3. Pastoral

Remember, this is ministry. There are no cute, red bows we can tie on all of these categories.

When one of our longtime student volunteers started dealing with serious depression, suicidal tendencies, and borderline schizophrenia, my student leaders wanted to know how to handle this pastoral situation.

But it touched on theological conversations—and some of those realizations were controversial. So I’m not trying to make this pretty. I’m trying to make it as clear as possible.

Where to begin

As I navigate these hurdles, I’m assessing three grids and one temptation. The three grids are:

  1. Their need
  2. My approach
  3. Our plan

I wish I could say these are formulas, but they’re actually grids by which to navigate these issues.

If we’re looking to help a student who is bringing an issue to us, I need to be thinking through these three lenses: what does this student need from me right now? What is my approach to them in the moment? What is our team/staff’s plan going to be going forward?

But before we can dive into these three categories, one word of warning for rookie leaders.

When facing a hefty leadership challenge, be careful to resist one key temptation: Do not over-promise and under-deliver.

When dealing with someone who is amped up about politics, Calvinism, your ministry’s lack of Bible usage, or your church’s low response to global injustice, you will want to promise them an immediate fix. Don’t. Do be empathetic, but also be honest.

When we started our church, we purposefully placed it in an inner-city neighborhood. We wanted to be close to the poor to love and serve them.

We started ministries to the homeless and to kids, but those leading the charge did not feel like we were doing enough fast enough.

They pressured our leadership consistently and challenged whether we genuinely cared for the marginalized at all.

My senior pastor would regularly remind these leaders, “I love the poor. I moved my family into this neighborhood for that exact reason. Yes, we are going to holistically reach them, but we won’t be able to do everything right now.”

For a bunch of idealistic self-starters, it was hard for them to hear there were elements we were not going to do now. But it would’ve been harder if he had promised them the moon and not delivered.

It takes guts to be empathetic, yet honest. But lose your credibility and it’s hard to get it back.

Why take on these challenges?

I have noticed that many leaders back away from major challenges, either due to insecurity surrounding their cluelessness or their fear of having hard conversations.

But when it comes to addressing emotionally-charged subjects, you need to realize that the issue facing your students or your leaders will block their flow of revelation until it is resolved.

Like someone who has to clean their house before they can enjoy the peace of being home, these issues will overtake their thoughts, conversations, and plans until dealt with accordingly.

So they’re not chomping at the bit to fulfill your vision; they’re looking for answers.

In closing, regardless of whether you feel like you know what to do in every situation, you’d be wise to rely on the wisdom of Chicago pastor Bill Hybels:

“When something feels funky, leaders engage!”

In other words, don’t sit around and hope things will get better. Engage. Pray. Act.

Now that you are convinced that challenges are part of the job and you are aware of the leadership hurdles, the grids you must use, and the temptation you will face, you’re ready to take on leadership hurdle #1.

Tune in to part two as we tackle the controversial hurdles.