Sunday, March 22, 2009

The Guy In Seat D

The desert heat from that June morning rose in ripples above the miles of pavement. I looked ahead of me in the line of passengers about to board a Southwest Airlines 737. Nice jetways would come later. For now, we all had to leave the air conditioned terminal and stand outside before we climbed the stairs into that large, winged cylinder.

I noticed the man and his wife and recognized them instantly. I knew at the same moment that we were headed to the same destination. I had been a "Senior Pastor" for all of 18 months. The church I led was neither small nor large. The pastor farther up in line was shepherd to thousands. They had built a gigantic campus on a major corner near the heart of the business district. They had grown to become one of the largest churches in America. Now, we were both headed to the national meeting of our denomination.

Our momentary eye contact in that boarding line told me that the other pastor recognized me, but couldn't quite determine how or when. I helped him out by stopping to re-introduce myself (we had met very briefly in the past) as I walked down the aisle seeking a seat. He immediately introduced me to his wife and asked if I was sitting with anyone. Southwest has no assigned seating and I was alone so I accepted his invitation to slip past her and into the window seat.

We briefly caught up on people we both knew and I asked him a question. "How do you pastor such a big church and prioritize time for your family?" He told me a story. Then another. Then another.

We sat on that plane for about four hours and he literally poured himself into me. He helped me understand things about pastoring and leading that I still employ over a quarter of a century later. (In fact, at least one of his stories has appeared in this blog.)
Every time I saw that pastor after that, he did or said something to help and encourage me. I just kept learning from him.

I even learned from what, I'm sure, was one of the most painful lessons in his life. He pastored that church for 25 years. Their Sunday attendance of about 400 grew to over 6,000 during that time. God used his ministry and the work of that church to raise up leaders, pastors and missionaries who continue to have an impact all over the world.

The issue that ended up hurting their effectiveness was, I believe, a matter of leadership style. He had come along in a golden age of CEO-type leaders in every sector of life. It was common for pastors like him to have a designated parking space closest to the church building. He reached consensus on decisions on the strength of his forceful personality. He told other strong leaders the "right" thing to do and they did it because he was leading the charge.

Then a subtle, but powerful, shift began to affect every part of our culture. It was the rise of the "Baby Boomer." Unlike their parents, Baby Boomers wanted -- expected -- a voice at the decision-making table. They were reshaping everything into their picture of how the world should work and "top-down" leadership wouldn't cut it.

My friend seemed bewildered by all this. He couldn't understand the force and nature of the change in time to stop a huge exodus of some of his finest, up-and-coming leaders. Before it was over, a few thousand had left and he felt it best to depart, too.

This week, let's talk about leadership. Things we have learned. People who have taught us. Struggles along the way.

Whoever you are, you almost surely lead someone. It may be your preschooler(s), your students, your workgroup or your unit. Leading keeps you on your toes. Leading makes you appreciate those who have led before you and taught you from their experiences.

Who would one of those people be? Why?


C. Beth said...

Your link to the pastor's story is broken--it tries to link me to your "Edit Post" and asks me to sign in.

I think about my college theatre director. I learned a lot of good and not so great things about directing from him. Ten years later, I'm still learning and unlearning based on what he modeled.

Sam said...

Fixed it. Thanks, Beth.

Rachel Cotterill said...

Hmm, I've learnt a lot about leadership by watching people do it badly. But from feedback I've had, the thing I tend to get 'wrong' is to actually be too trusting and too reluctant to tell people if they're not quite performing to standard. Which is a tough one to face because I simply don't want to be a different person in that respect.

Jailer said...

Sam -- one thing about the military is you get a lot of opportunities to look at leadership from different angles. My most exciting leadership experience to date has been commanding a squadron in Iraq. This summer I'll be taking command again, this time of the Air Force Honor Guard.

I have developed some thoughts on leadership, many of which I've had the chance to write down. Of course, the Philippian Jailer now carries the phrase "Lead Faithfully", as it appears that's what we're focusing on. With respect to military leadership, my most important work has probably been this one:

addhumorandfaith said...

I have been blessed to observe two of the best leaders I have ever known, Hubby and Gunny, over the years. When it came time for me to actually supervise a group of people a few years ago, I didn't have a wealth of experience, but I did have a wealth of observing. It was a little surprising to me, how much I had learned from them.

One of the things I had learned from them was being a good "boss" means being a good "mentor" -- if the people who report to you do well, it makes you look good too!

Sam said...

Thanks (a bit late) to each of you. Amen about looking good, Sandy. Ray, I have been on the run this week (really the whole month) but plan to read your work you linked. Rachel, you sound so much like me in my younger years. As I get older, I realize that many of the people I'm most grateful for were those who held me accountable. Thanks for being real!