The Superstar Syndrome

Leadership Lessons I Learned on the Volleyball Court

In my younger days I used to be a rather good volleyball player, and it was always fun showing off my abilities at our church outings.

Many of those who played volleyball at our church picnics simply weren’t very good. On every team would be several uncoordinated players who frequently missed the ball or hit it in the wrong direction.

Not only did I like to show off my volleyball prowess, I also liked to win. If I was in the vicinity of weaker members of the team, I felt obligated to help them play their position. When the ball was hit their way, I was there to give assistance in case they missed it.

Inevitably, I ended up covering a lot of ground on the volleyball court, helping my less-competent friends in every way possible. Usually they didn’t seem to mind too much, since I was saving them the embarrassment of making a fool out of themselves.

Yet as I went up and back and from side to side, covering for the weaker team members, there often was a troubling result. The ball would drop—you guessed it—right in the position I myself was assigned to cover!

At the time, I really didn’t think much about the problem of volleyballs dropping where I was supposed to be. After all, I was making some pretty sensational shots while guarding everyone else’s position.

It wasn’t until years later that I realized my tendency to do exactly the same thing in my role as a church leader. I saw myself as strong, and I was desirous of helping my “weaker” brothers and sisters with their assigned tasks. If there were “holes to plug” in the church, I would generally take care of them myself instead of waiting for the people who were assigned to the jobs.

The result of this codependent tendency was often similar to my experience on the volleyball court. Although I covered a considerable amount of territory trying to plug the holes left by those who missed their assignments, I frequently found that the “ball” dropped right in the position I myself was supposed to be handling. Again, I was so busy filling everyone else’s job that I didn’t satisfactorily fill my own!

I began to understand the predicament of the maiden in the Song of Solomon, who complained that she had been so busy taking care of other people’s vineyards that she neglected her own responsibilities (Song 1:6). While I originally figured God would be impressed that I covered so many gaps in the church, I now am struck by the reality that He will primarily hold me accountable for whether I fulfill my own appointed role.

It’s interesting to note that a unified team of ordinary players will often be able to beat even an all-star team. The synergy created when players know how to work together harmoniously is sufficient to defeat a team of all-stars who each are more intent on their own success than on the success of the team.

The Bible is filled with stories of leaders who struggled with these issues. Moses had to be told by his father-in-law Jethro to delegate some of his responsibilities in problem-solving for the Israelites (Exodus 18:13-27). King Saul angered God by impatiently usurping the role of Samuel, the prophet (1 Samuel 13:7-14). And the apostles wisely recognized that their highest priority should be giving themselves “to prayer and to the ministry of the word” rather than overseeing the distribution of food to needy widows (Acts 6:1-7).

What about you? Have you found and focused on your God-given role? Or are you trying to be a superstar, unable to work together with the rest of the team? Remember: If you spend your time doing the job of others, you’re likely to find that your own job is soon neglected.


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The Myth of Full-Time Ministry

I’ll never forget the day I knelt in prayer beside the bed in my college dorm room and popped the important question: “Lord, do you want me to serve You full-time?”

Almost immediately, the clear answer came, “Why, of course, Jim!”

I was thrilled. The following Sunday I went to church and proudly told my friend Bob Hahn about my call to ministry.

“Bob, while I was praying yesterday, I asked God if He wanted me to serve Him in full-time ministry. He said He did!”

My older and wiser friend paused, then looked me right in the eyes when he responded. “That’s good, Jim, but I’ve been seeing lately that full-time ministry doesn’t necessarily mean what I once thought.”

Quickly concluding that Bob was just jealous that he wasn’t called to full-time ministry, I didn’t hear much of the rest of his explanation. Looking back, though, I wish I had listened closer that day.

Now having the advantage of more than 35 years of hindsight, I think I have a better understanding of what Bob Hahn was trying to tell me about full-time ministry. At times I’ve indeed been a “full-time minister” as a senior pastor or staff pastor. But at other times I’ve been an attorney or done other “secular” jobs. Often this is described as “tent-making” or being a bi-vocational minister.

It often surprises people when I tell them my ministry while I was an attorney was just as fruitful as when I was a full-time pastor. Perhaps even more fruitful.

When I supported my ministry by means of a secular job, I was much freer from people’s expectations about what my “ministry” should be. In contrast, when my paycheck came from the church, I sometimes ended up serving church activities more than I was serving God!

When I was supported by my work as an attorney, it was far easier to tell people “No” when they wanted me to do something outside the sphere of ministry God had given me (see 2 Corinthians 10:13-16). When I was a full-time pastor, however, there was a great temptation to do whatever people expected, regardless of my calling or the Lord’s will.

I found that another pitfall in full-time pastoral ministry was that it tended to separate me from the “real world” where most people were living. It was especially difficult to have meaningful contact with those who didn’t yet follow Christ.

Too often, pastors who go directly from college, to seminary, to full-time ministry end up secluded in an ivory-tower world, with experiences quite different from those faced by the people we are endeavoring to disciple and lead. While we try to encourage those in our flock to reach out to their unsaved friends and co-workers, our friends and co-workers are all church folks!

By glamorizing the importance of full-time ministry, we perpetuate a myth that has seriously weakened the church for many centuries now. Bob Hahn was trying to tell me that, in a sense, every Christian is supposed to be serving the Lord “full-time.” Even if we gain our livelihood through work at a secular job, we are to see it as a ministry—for we are working as unto the Lord (Colossians 3:22-24).

Paul told the Corinthians that everything he did was “for the sake of the gospel” (1 Corinthians 9:23). But sometimes that included working with his hands to make tents in order to support himself. Think of it: The mighty apostle was willing to be a manual laborer and small businessman at times, rather than beg for offerings!

I also love how Paul said the fragrance of Christ was supposed to be manifested through us “in every place” (2 Corinthians 2:14). He didn’t say believers should emit Christ’s fragrance just “in every church meeting,” or “every time we preach,” or “every time we lead worship.” No, his vision of “ministry” was much bigger than any of that.

Because of their detachment from everyday living, many “full-time” Christian leaders struggle to give their flock clear, practical instruction on how the gospel can be lived out in the marketplace. As a result, we give the faulty impression that ministry is something done mainly in church buildings.

It’s time to regain the perspective that every Christian is called to be a minister. Our ministry began the day were saved, because that’s when Jesus ordained us to serve Him and bear fruit for His kingdom (John 15:16).

If you are being obedient the Lord full-time, you ARE in full-time ministry—no matter whether a church gives you a paycheck or not. You have the great privilege and opportunity to minister to people every day and in every place—whether in office buildings, banks, construction sites, grocery stores, gas stations, restaurants, neighborhoods, athletic fields, schools, and in every other place where people are found.

So what are you waiting for? If you are committed to full-time availability to God, your full-time ministry has already begun!

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Luggage or Baggage? A Critical Distinction

LuggageYesterday I went to the local flea market in search of some new luggage. Perhaps that sounds like an insignificant event, but it was an exhilarating experience for me. Why? Because new luggage is a declaration of my intention to go someplace!

If you’re stuck and immobilized, there’s no need for luggage. The only reason you need luggage is if you have a vision to travel!

I’ll admit, at this point I can’t honestly tell you where I’m going. But the exact destination isn’t the issue here. It’s all about mobility, fresh vision, and getting unstuck.

I sense God stirring a vision I first had in my mid-twenties—to play a role in filling the earth with the glory of the Lord (Habakkuk 2:14). Pursuant to that vision, purchasing new luggage is a step of faith and a prophetic declaration. It’s a statement of my renewed desire to fulfill God’s purposes in my life.

Ironically, I’ve also been thinking of another word, baggage, which is often used as a synonym for luggage. Although the two words can mean the same, baggage has some very negative connotations: “things that impede or encumber one’s freedom, progress, development, or adaptability.”

While luggage is all about vision for the future, baggage is focused on our failures and frustrations in the past. We’ve all been encumbered by unwanted baggage at one time or another. The baggage may be from past sins or failures, broken relationships or shattered dreams—or anything else we allow to weigh us down and impede or progress.

Luggage is symbolic of our availability to go where God sends us. Baggage, in contrast, involves whatever “stuff” is slowing us down from running the race set before us (Hebrews 12:1-2).

If you’re like me, you probably have some baggage you’re not even aware of. Ask God to search your heart, my friend. Lay aside the baggage, and go shopping for some new luggage.

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Wholly Available?

Lately I’ve been thinking of an old chorus we used to sing 30 years ago in our church in Columbus, Ohio:

“Here I am, wholly available. As for me, I will serve the Lord.”

The song had some verses too, but all I really remember is the chorus. We sang it over and over, with great gusto.

The song got so much traction back then because it accurately expressed our hearts toward God. Back then most of us really were “wholly available.” Many of us were single or recently married. Either we had no kids, or else our kids could be easily transported from meeting to meeting in a basinet or stroller.

Our time commitments and financial encumbrances were few back then.

I remember the time our church had a guest Bible teacher come for two nights of meetings—on a Monday and Tuesday night. Everyone  was there. We were hungry for God, and no one wanted to miss out on what was happening.

If your church today had a guest preacher on a Monday and Tuesday night, what percentage of the congregation would come?

Things have changed, it seems.

Our church in Columbus changed too, especially as we all got older. Eventually nearly all of us were married, and the financial commitments had grown considerably. We had 30-year mortgage payments to make, not to mention car payments and credit card debt. Soon we all had multiple kids, complete with even more financial responsibilities and all the normal activities of childhood.

Life was a lot more complicated and cluttered by then. And we quit singing the “wholly available” song, because it no longer reflected our current situation.

A decade after the Bible teacher had preached to a packed house on Monday and Tuesday nights, we hosted an international preacher who had a highly acclaimed healing ministry. Overseas his crusades often drew crowds of 50,000 or more, and we were hopeful for a big crowd during this special midweek meeting.

However, people weren’t as available or as hungry as before. Only about 30 people showed up to hear this man of God who was used to preaching to thousands. The response was embarrassing, but it showed us that times had changes.

I’m now an empty-nest Baby Boomer, contemplating how to become wholly available to the Lord once again. Hope is rising in my heart, and I may even start singing that old chorus once again.


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Choose Wisely

Life is all about choices. Every choice has a consequence of one kind or another, either positive or negative. And sometimes the consequence is not apparent for a long time after the choice has been made.

There’s a stunning scene toward the end of the 1989 movie, “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.” Both Indiana Jones and a Nazi named Walter Donovan had been in search of the Holy Grail, the legendary chalice Jesus and His disciples used in the Last Supper. Indy wants the Grail so he can save his dying father, but the Nazi selfishly wants the Grail as a fountain of youth to give himself eternal life and an advantage over his enemies.

After passing through an assortment of traps and tests, both men encounter an ancient knight who is guarding the Grail. To their amazement, there isn’t just one chalice on the table before them. The numerous choices include cups of gold, platinum, silver, clay, and wood.

Bewildered by all the choices, Donovan asks the knight which chalice is the Holy Grail. In one of the classic lines in movie history, the knight replies, “You must choose. But choose wisely, for as the true Grail will bring you life, the false Grail will take it from you.”

The Nazis in these movies always make wrong choices, and Donovan was no exception. Attracted to the most glittery and expensive-looking chalice on the table, he smiles and says, “Truly the cup of a king.”

Donovan fills this cup with water and takes a drink, expecting instantaneous eternal life. But to his horror, he instead begins to rapidly age and decompose, leaving nothing but bones, dust, and his metal Nazi pin.

At this point, the wise old knight observes, “He chose…poorly.”

Our hero, Indy, fortunately has more sense than this. Surveying the options before him, he selects a simple wooden cup, concluding that it must be “the cup of a Galilean carpenter.” With much fear, based on the grim consequences to Donovan, Indy drinks from this humble chalice.

“You have chosen wisely,” the knight tells him, much to Indy’s relief.

There’s an old maxim that says, “Not everything that glitters is gold.” In fact, as the Nazi discovered in this movie, some things that glitter are actually fool’s gold.

Years ago, I heard a great Christian song based on Proverbs 8:1-2 (ESV): Does not wisdom call? Does not understanding raise her voice? On the heights beside the way, at the crossroads she takes her stand.”

Every day, we face a crossroads of whether we will choose wisely or choose poorly. Through the prophet Jeremiah, God challenged His people long ago:“Stand at the crossroads and look; ask for the ancient paths, ask where the good way is, and walk in it, and you will find rest for your souls. But you said, ‘We will not walk in it’”  (Jeremiah 6:16 NIV).

Today God is offering us rest for our souls, but we must choose wisely. Instead of opting for what seems right in our own eyes, we must “ask for the ancient paths.”  The Holy Grail stands before us, but the table is increasingly cluttered with other options.


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