Five Lessons from Jesus’ Biggest Leadership Mistake

betrayal-by-judas-2Jesus made one decision that seems like a major leadership mistake; he chose Judas as one of the key leaders in his organization. While Judas eventually plays a major role in Jesus’ redemptive story, why make him a leader? Surely anyone in the outer circle of followers could play the role of traitor, why waste one of the most coveted seats in human history on a loser like Judas? Not only does Jesus appoint Judas to a leadership role, he makes him the treasurer. Jesus certainly has better candidates; Matthew is an accountant, Peter is a small business owner, Nathaniel is a man “of complete integrity” (John 1:45 NLT). Why did Jesus, knowing Judas’ struggles with greed and honesty, give him oversight of the ministry’s finances?

No competent leader with the inside knowledge Jesus had would do what Jesus did. We know that an inner circle must be loyal to the leader, and anyone who handles finances must have impeccable character. To purposely choose someone for the leadership team who is greedy, selfish and disloyal is both career and organizational suicide. In fact, we use Judas as an example of what to avoid when choosing leaders. A prominent pastor teaches that there is a Judas at every table and it is the role of the leader to weed him or her out. The unintentional message is, “Only a fool would lead like Jesus.”

Obviously Jesus didn’t make a mistake choosing Judas, so what can we learn from his example. I don’t think the lesson is to make sure at least one member of your leadership team lacks integrity:

“I realize you have tons of experience and an impeccable track record, but what we’re really looking for is an embezzling traitor.”

The Apostle Paul is very clear about the ethical standard for leadership in the church.

So an elder must be a man whose life is above reproach. (1 Timothy 3:2 NIV)

Paul would have smacked Timothy upside the head if he appointed someone like Judas as an overseer in Ephesus, so why does Jesus choose Judas as a leader?

The Gospel writers are silent on Jesus’ motivation, so we can only speculate on his reasoning.  I wonder if, in spite of Judas’ character, Jesus sees potential in him. We know how the story ends, but maybe at the beginning Jesus loves Judas so much he gives him every opportunity to reach the potential God placed in him. Maybe Jesus knows that the best opportunity for Judas to overcome his character flaws is in a place of responsibility and trust. It seems that Jesus is willing, for a time, to subjugate the primacy of the mission to the development of the individual. In the end Jesus’ mission is accomplished, but not before he gives Judas every chance to change.

Rather than a cautionary tale on how not to lead, as we have inadvertently taken it, Jesus’ selection and treatment of Judas give us a model for dealing with people who don’t conform to the template of a successful leader. I see several implications in how we lead 2000 years after Judas:

We are in the people business, not the mission business

Over the past couple of decades we have become enamored with vision, values and mission. The first thing every church planter does, after picking a cool church name, is write out their vision, core values and mission statement. They recruit leaders who will follow their vision, adhere to their values and accomplish their mission. While there are positive aspects to this approach, it can miss the main point of ministry; we are not called to accomplish a mission, we are called to feed sheep. Jesus drove this home to Peter the last time they were together:

A third time he asked him, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” Peter was hurt that Jesus asked the question a third time. He said, “Lord, you know everything. You know that I love you.” Jesus said, “Then feed my sheep.” (John 21:17 NLT)

In Jesus’ economy people don’t accomplish just the mission, people are the mission.

We develop more than recruit

Another interesting trend in the modern American church is the reliance on outside talent. We don’t have the time or resources to develop local leaders, we have to find someone with experience who is ready to produce immediately. The mission is too important to wait for local people to grow into the job.

I wonder if Jesus would have used a search firm to find disciples? If he had I wonder if he would have gotten his money back on Judas? Jesus managed to accomplish what he came to earth to do with mostly untrained, inexperienced men. He was even willing to pour time and effort into a deadened project like Judas. Although his progress was slow the eventual results were incredible.

While occasionally it is helpful to bring someone in with a fresh perspective, it seems like the biblical pattern is to develop local leaders rather than recruit outside talent.

We choose people no one else would choose

If a leader is only as good as the people around him then Jesus is in trouble; Judas is just the most glaring example of incompetence in the people surrounding Jesus. King David is another leader who led through some pretty miserable characters:

So David left Gath and escaped to the cave of Adullam. Soon his brothers and all his other relatives joined him there. Then others began coming—men who were in trouble or in debt or who were just discontented—until David was the captain of about 400 men. (1 Samuel 22:1-2 NLT)

If people are the mission then we can take risks when we choose leaders. Some of our leaders should be too young or too old for the role they are in. Some leaders should not have enough education, not enough experience or not enough talent to lead their area. The goal isn’t to assemble a circle of incompetence, but if we’re not taking risks on people we’re not leading like Jesus.

Some of our “projects” will end badly

Jesus invested three years into Judas. He modeled a godly lifestyle, he taught Kingdom principles and he mentored Judas every day. In the end, however, Judas chose to go his own way. Although Jesus’ knew it was coming Judas kiss in the Garden had to be one of the most painful parts of his life on earth. He gave Judas every opportunity to become a reflection of God, but Judas failed.

If we take risks on people some of them will fail. They will steal, they will lie, they will betray us. No matter how committed and talented we are as leaders we will occasionally encounter a Judas, and when we do it will be painful both individually and to the organization. How do we respond? Do we commit to weeding out every potential Judas, or do we continue to focus on helping people become who God created them to be?

Our job is to participate in God’s people development process

Developing people isn’t about always overlooking character flaws and forgiving mistakes; most of Moses training as a leader came during his 40 years in the desert after he blew his opportunity in Pharaoh’s house. There are times, such as in the case of Judas, when leaders self-destruct. There are other times when leaders have to be disciplined, demoted or fired. The key is our focus; are we more concerned about our mission or our people? I love how Paul prays for his friends in Thessalonica:

So we keep on praying for you, asking our God to enable you to live a life worthy of his call. May he give you the power to accomplish all the good things your faith prompts you to do.  (2 Thessalonians 1: 11 NLT)

When we discipline or fire a leader how can we help them become more like the person God created them to be? How can we keep the mission from running over the people?

Jesus is the greatest leader the world has ever known. In three years he established an organization that continue to touch every corner of the globe 2000 years later. If we want to learn to lead like Jesus we can’t ignore any facet of his leadership, including wrestling with the question of Judas and its implications on how we lead today. How will you deal with your Judas?

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Is suffering the key to power?

mourn_Over the past few weeks my friends experienced a tsunami of suffering. A friend’s wife died without warning, another’s 19 year old son was killed in a motorcycle wreck.  A friend was in a head-on collision, while another experienced a horrific injury in a bicycle accident. A friend had 25% of his congregation quit without warning, and another had to close a campus he poured his heart into. Others faced financial crises, health crises and relational crises. Some of my friends are weighing whether they can even continue in ministry. These are all people deeply committed to Christ and the church, who’ve sacrificed most of their adult lives for the sake of the Kingdom. This doesn’t feel like the peak-to-peak life of triumph I hear many Christian pastors and writers espouse. My friends have read the books, been to the conferences and applied the keys for success, and yet they suffer. How do we reconcile the Good News of the Gospel with the harsh news of reality? This weekend my pastor focused on a portion of Philippians I usually skim over while I focus on the joy, rejoice and admirable thinking parts. In chapter 3 Paul says,

I want to know Christ and experience the mighty power that raised him from the dead. I want to suffer with him, sharing in his death, so that one way or another I will experience the resurrection from the dead!

Philippians 3:10-11 (NLT)

I’m all about the first part of the passage, I definitely want to experience the mighty power that raised Jesus from the dead, to see the sun to stand still, to cross the Red Sea on dry ground. I want my family safe, my friends happy and my finances secure. If I’m completely honest heaven on earth is what I really signed up for, suffering isn’t really in the game plan. Paul, however, sees suffering as a pre-requisite to resurrection power. He says; “I want to suffer with him.” He sees no contradiction between sitting in prison awaiting possible execution and experiencing joy. His knows his best life now may end as lion chow, and he’s ok with it. He simply presses on to finish the race and receive his heavenly prize. Paul’s perspective gives me hope for my friends. I wish family members didn’t die, there weren’t horrific accidents, there was no heartbreak in ministry. But I know my friends are experiencing resurrection power in the midst of their tremendous suffering. Not in spite of suffering, but because of suffering. Ernest Hemingway said it this way:

The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong at the broken places.

I don’t know if I’ll ever join Paul in wanting to suffer with Christ, but I hope I have the wisdom and perspective to know that the mighty power of God doesn’t protect us from suffering but preserves us through suffering. It may not sell books or grow churches, but real resurrection power sustains us through real life.

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How can I help? Let’s talk this fall

My passion in ministry is multiplication, so if you are a church planter, involved in a multisite church or considering planting or multisite I’d love to connect this fall. I am doing 10 events in 9 states over the next 3 months, so I should be somewhere near you soon. Check out the events below and see if something would be helpful for you and your team.

Here is what the events look like:

Orange Tour

Hosted by Reggie Joiner and featuring speakers such as Jon Acuff, Sue Miller, Carey Nieuwhof and Jeff Henderson (and me), the Orange Tour is focused on how to impact families beyond the wall of a church. My sessions will focus on the practical aspects of planting prevailing churches.


Multiply is hosted by the Church Multiplication Network. At each stop I’ll be leading a one day interactive workshop on the nuts and bolts of becoming a multisite church.

Exponential West

Exponential is the largest gathering of church planters on the planet. This year at Exponential West I’ll be participating in a pre-conference forum with some of the leading multisite thinkers in the country. During the conference I’ll be leading a workshop on the five questions every multisite church must answer.

Multiply Conference

The Multiply Conference is a regional conference for church planters and leaders in and around Colorado. I’ll be doing a keynote session as well as a breakout on the practical side leading a prevailing church plant.


Sept 5             Orange Tour              Atlanta, GA
Sept 10           Multiply                      Sarasota, FL
Sept 12           Orange Tour              Minneapolis, MN

Oct 6, 7           Exponential West     Orange County, CA
Oct 9               Multiply                      Lafayette, LA
Oct 10             Orange Tour              Fairfax, VA
Oct 25             Multiply Conference Colorado Springs, CO
Oct 28             Orange Tour              Gastonia, NC

Nov 5              Multiply                      Pittsburg, PA
Nov 11            Orange Tour              Tampa, FL

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Seven Ways to Handle Compliments Without Becoming a Jerk

On the way out of our little Texas church one Sunday a man new to faith said he liked my sermon that morning. I put on my best “aw shucks” look and mumbled something about not being much a preacher but I appreciated the compliment. He stopped and said, “Pastor, can I give you some feedback? When you respond to my compliment like that it sounds like I don’t know what I’m talking about. It makes me feel foolish for saying having said anything.” I was dumbfounded. I thought I was doing a great job of playing the humble preacher, but I actually offended a man for his kindness.

I’ve thought a lot about that conversation in the years since. What is the right way to handle compliments? How do you receive the praise, affirm the giver, and credit God all while avoiding a soul shrinking addiction to flattery? If you are in any kind of public ministry I imagine you struggle with this balance as well. Here are some principles I try to remind myself of every time I receive a compliment.

Seven Ways to Handle Compliments

1. Don’t deflect the compliment

As I learned from my friend in Texas, deflecting a compliment makes the giver feel foolish. What they are saying is they thought you did a good job. That is their opinion and they are welcome to it. A simple, “Thank you, that really means a lot.” is much better than, “I’m just a tool being used by God.” (Pun intended)

2. If God has gifted then you then you should be good at it

Compliments shouldn’t go to your head. If God has truly gifted you then you should be good at what you do. If people compliment your preaching, or singing or art it is positive reflection on God. It is the same as one of Rembrandt’s students hearing he captured the style of the master.  When I receive a compliment I try to remind myself how awesome it is to be used by God.

3. Compliments (and complaints) often are more about the person than you

I recently did a message on John 20 and I shared the reasons I believe in the resurrection. I received several compliments from members of the congregation who feel we don’t spend enough time on apologetics. They weren’t complimenting my preaching, they were complimenting my choice of subject matter. Beware hidden agendas in compliments and complaints.

4. What else are they going to say?

What do you normally say to someone you just heard speak or sing?

  1. “Wow, that wasn’t very good”
  2. “Swing and a miss. You’ll get ‘em next time”
  3. “Great job!”

For all but the socially illiterate the answer is almost always C. Many compliments can be filed under “Conversation filler”.

5. Sometimes its just nice to hear a different voice

I have been the “other preacher” for most of my ministry, the guy who covers when the Senior Pastor isn’t teaching. Even though I have served with several amazing preachers, everyone likes a little variety. For those of us coming in from the bullpen a compliment often means, “You were different.” The most dangerous comment for a bullpen preacher is, “I wish they’d let you preach more.” Keep smiling, but let that one roll off your back. If you store that compliment Satan will turn it into discontentment and bitterness.

6. Don’t sweat backhanded compliments

My favorite backhanded compliment is some form of “You’re really improving” This bothered me so much early on in ministry and I’d sometimes respond with, “So you’re saying I didn’t suck as much as I usually do?” That does not lead to deep friendship. This is usually driven by #3 above. The commenter likes this topic more than the topics you’ve done in the past. A “thank you” and a smile is the best response.

7. Store the meaningful compliments

A man I deeply respect used to send me handwritten notes giving me very specific compliments on my speaking. I keep all of those notes in a file folder. I also try to keep emails telling me God used my speaking in a specific way in the sender’s life. I refer back to these notes and emails when I feel like a failure, like I’ve lost the ability to communicate.

When God speaks encouragement through someone in the audience we should cherish the compliment as a gift directly from our Father. It is not about my ability, it is about God loving me so much that he chooses to use me. I can live for weeks on a heartfelt compliment.



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The Five C’s of Mature Leaders

As what’s left of my hair turns more salt than pepper, and my dad’s face begins to appear in my mirror, I’m reflecting on what a mature leader looks like. While I love hanging out with young leaders as they navigate the unchartered waters of their ministry adventure, I am drawn more and more to seasoned veterans; men and women, still very much in the game, who’ve weathered the tough lessons of leadership. Years of leadership, however, do not necessarily lead to maturity. Some leaders become old and cynical while others become wise and hopeful. What makes the difference? Here are five marks of a mature leader?

Five “C”s of a mature leader


King Saul’s son Jonathan knows the incredible odds against him. The enemy is a well-trained fighting machine while Israel can only muster two swords for the entire army. His father in paralyzed with fear, but Jonathan decides it is time for action. He takes the two swords and enlists his armor bearer to join him in attacking the enemy:

Jonathan said to his young armor-bearer, “Come, let’s go over to the outpost of those uncircumcised men. Perhaps the Lord will act in our behalf. Nothing can hinder the Lord from saving, whether by many or by few.”

1 Samuel 14:6

Inexperienced leaders often confuse courage with fearless. Fearless says “I don’t care about the consequences, I’m going to do this.” Courage says, “I understand the possible consequences, but this is the right thing to do.” Mature leaders remain courageous even though they’ve been through very difficult circumstances. They know what it is to be afraid, but they face their well-founded fears and enter the battle anyway.


By the time Moses‘ father-in-law showed up in the desert Moses is at the end of his rope, leading more than a million Israelites is too big a task. When Jethro suggests a more structured model Moses immediately jumps on board. Not only does he implement Jethro’s suggestion he gives him full credit for the idea in the best-selling book of all time. Moses knows the power of collaboration.

Young leaders love the idea of building what they have dreamed about. They have a vision for exactly what the new organization will look like, what the values will be, how it will function. They won’t build it alone, they will recruit other leaders to carry out their unique vision.

Mature leaders know that’s not how the world works, at least not the healthy world. A strong organization is built on the collaborative efforts of a team of leaders working on a common mission. The leader guides the team down the river, but he doesn’t choose the course alone.


Caleb is over 85 years old when he approaches Joshua to demand his allotment of land. He spent 40 years in the desert waiting for the rebellious previous generation to die and then five years fighting the inhabitants of Canaan. Now he is ready for one more battle:

I am still as strong today as the day Moses sent me out; I’m just as vigorous to go out to battle now as I was then. Now give me this hill country that the Lord promised me that day. You yourself heard then that the Anakites were there and their cities were large and fortified, but, the Lord helping me, I will drive them out just as he said.

Joshua 14:11, 12

Young leaders can be arrogant, they boast about what they think they can do based on very little evidence. Mature leaders are confident; they understand the gifts and abilities God has given them and they know how to use those gifts and abilities. They never brag, they simply state what they know to be true. When Caleb says, “I will drive them out…” it’s not an empty boast, he is standing on many years of experience.


It is fascinating to follow the Apostle Paul‘s maturing leadership through the book of Acts as well as Paul’s letters. Early in his ministry Paul rejects a young leader named Mark because he couldn’t keep up on Paul’s first missionary journey. Paul doesn’t have time to develop B and C leaders, he is on a mission from God. As Paul matures, however, he learns the value of loving and developing younger leaders. He even changes his mind about Mark and gives this instruction in his final letter to Timothy:

Get Mark and bring him with you, because he is helpful to me in my ministry.

2 Timothy 4:11

Paul learned that leadership is much more than accomplishing a mission. Leadership is about caring for other leaders, developing them, helping them back up and getting them back in the game. As I get older I’m finding the care and feeding of younger leaders to be the most satisfying aspect of leadership.


Paul writes in 1 Timothy 6 that “godliness with contentment is great gain”, but we see the opposite of this demonstrated in the life of Solomon. The wisest man to ever live never learns the simple lesson of contentment. His life is marked by a constant desire for more and in the end he dies a miserable man.

Young leaders always believe that contentment is just around the corner. When the church grows to 200, 500 or 1000. When we can hire more full-time staff. When I can make enough money so my wife doesn’t have to work. The mature leader knows, while these are all great milestones, contentment is never around the corner. If he isn’t content now he won’t be content then.

There is a difference, however, between resignation and contentment.

  • Resignation says “I’m not happy here, but why should I try to go there.”
  • Contentment says “I can be happy here, but why not try to go there?”

Paul says it best:

I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do all this through him who gives me strength.

Philippians 4:10b-13

My hope as I watch the years tick past is that I am becoming more and more of a Five C Leader. What Five C Leaders do you know?

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