The Reluctant Leader

My own story and call toward pastoral ministry is an interesting one because I’ve never felt 100% assurance of it being the perfect fit. I have always approached pastoral ministry with some level of reluctance. The question of “If not me then who?” has always been motivation enough for me to make the leap to moving that direction, however, and it has continued to be the motivating question that keeps me moving forward.

I am 110% certain there are more qualified and capable people that could do what I’m doing. This doesn’t mean I don’t have aspirations for my vocational life as a pastor, but my apprehension toward it has never truly gone away. Part of this is due to my own questions that have welled up from the beginning, but more so this has been amplified when people who I believed to be my friends brought the same questions as a judgment against my fit for the position. Of course, many other voices have provided different conclusions, but the underlying questions still remain rooted in me.

It is these questions, internally and externally, which have provided a level of what I now see as helpful reluctance toward pastoral ministry, because they often work at keeping me humble.

Not long ago a friend of mine asked me whether I could see him working in pastoral ministry as a vocation. He had all sorts of questions about his fitness for the calling. Did he have the necessary skills? Was he too late in life to pursue it? Were there other ways to fulfill what he sensed God was doing in him? In my estimation, he was (and is) somewhat reluctant and apprehensive about the whole thing. And yet, he is, without question, going to be a wonderful pastor.

Right around the same time as this conversation took place, another friend of mine declared to me that he was ready to take on leadership within the church and was hoping I could find the right place to “plug him in.” He had spent the previous months on what he described as “the sideline” and was now ready for “primetime.” He has a wide variety of leadership experience within churches and believed he was now ready to be utilized in a great way.

I compare these separate interactions because on the surface they are quite similar, both men sensing God was leading them toward serving within our locally gathered body in a greater way. Yet, these interactions could not have been more different.

One began with a question.

The other began with a declaration.

One came from a place of reluctance.

The other came from a place of aspiration.

One has no clue whether they are the right fit.

The other has expectations for their future influence.

Reluctant Leadership Isn’t Always Positive

Now certainly, this is not simply black and white. All leadership must involve some aspiration and desire to step up, and any leader without a hint of reluctance or questions is kidding themselves. It’s a mix, no question. Reluctance toward leadership isn’t always a positive either, it can manifest itself in positive and/or negative ways.

In the negative, it may look more like lacking motivation or passion for the responsibilities required; looking over the shoulder hoping someone else will pick up the pieces.

In the positive, the reluctant leader is “fervently motivated by his own conscience. He forces himself to embrace the fact that while this is not the destiny he would have chosen, it is his duty and he will follow it to the end” (David Brooks).

Moses is the quintessential example from the Bible, as he believed he couldn’t speak well enough, wasn’t brave enough; there had to be someone better. Yet his reluctance did not hinder him from leading the greatest redemption project in the history of the world. His reluctance provided a necessary humility and tenacity in negotiating with the most arrogant leader in the world.

Why Reluctance?

This is why reluctance can be powerful in leadership. From the start there is a sense of unknowing: is this the right fit? These questions keep the leader from believing they are bigger than the task.

There is also a great sense of hard-nosed tenacity toward the responsibility of leadership because reluctance never allowed the task to become too glamorous. Letdown is far less likely an outcome because the reluctant leader never believed it was going to be glorious.

I have tried to allow for my own reluctance and my own questions of fit to keep me humble and tenacious, and my experience with others has shown consistently that the most powerful leader in the room is always the reluctant one.