Recently, a warning flooded my mind as I whirled between ministry meetings, screaming toddlers and setting up coffee dates. Amidst scheduling my busy collegiate ministry calendar, the refrain often used at weddings stopped me in my tracks: “If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but don’t have love, I am only a resounding gong or clanging cymbal” (1 Corinthians 13:1).
Love is hard to quantify and rarely analyzed outside of Sunday sermons, yet the absence of love in our ministries is glaring. I like topics I can post on spreadsheets and write about in newsletters. I like to celebrate goals achieved and point to direct outcomes.
Yet the most strategic overflow of life-change in the world cannot be reduced to a soft, pithy statement. If I have the weekly attendance envied by men but have no love, I am only a noisy gong and a clanging cymbal. If I create a leadership pipeline envied by all, but have no love, I am nothing. This is not a soft issue. Love is the issue.
Over the last year, I’m afraid I began to lead out of something besides love. I let fear and weariness win. First John tells us there is no fear in love but perfect love drives out fear. Thus the converse must be true as well—fear can quench love. In our times, fear runs rampant. The chaos of politics, the pandemic and social upheaval has gotten louder as we follow media events in real time. In Matthew 24:12, Jesus warns of a time “sin will be rampant everywhere, and the love of many will grow cold.”
Love is the ultimate strategic, culture-changing glue. The natural outcome of love is multiplication. Out of love, our triune God created the world and a people in his image. He could not help but give what he had in himself away to us. Out of love, Abraham left the land of his family and wandered to be a picture of love to people lost in darkness who were seeking gods that needed to be appeased with sacrifice and death. Out of love, Jesus left heaven to be the true human, one with God, and a sacrificial servant in our place. Because of his death, burial and resurrection, the early church was compelled to share with Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria and the ends of the earth. Out of his love, disciples are made. Love multiplies naturally.
Here is a checklist of signs I’ve seen in my own life over the years that let me know I’m leading from a lack and need to ask God to rekindle my love.
1. Am I doing the bare minimum for those under my leadership?
Don’t just pretend to love others. Really love them. Hate what is wrong. Hold tightly to what is good (Romans 12: 9).
Brene Brown, author and speaker on the power of vulnerability in leadership, shares about visiting an Air Force Base and being told by a general, “From the highest ranks of the Air Force, we believe you cannot lead people that you do not feel affection toward.”
Our young leaders pick up on if we are leading from an overflow or a lack. A lack of love for those you lead will creep all throughout your ministry and will create a sickly culture. If we want leaders who give generously, we have to do the same. If we want stories of people who sacrifice their time to share the gospel with joy, they have to see that in us.
As leaders, I pray we can discover what it means to sacrificially give amid uncertainty and fear. I pray God continues to open our eyes to how he has already “opened his hand and satisfied the desires of every living thing” (Psalm 145:16) and that we would love out of that reality.
2. Am I counting their failures more than their contributions?
Love will prove to the world that you are my disciples (John 13:35). On the beach with Peter, Jesus deals with Peter’s failure by asking, ” Do you love me? Then feed my sheep” (John 21:15-17). Jesus does not shame Peter. He reminds him of his source of love then commands him to go care for others out of the love he’s received. Peter goes on to be the bedrock of the early church, changing history.
In his talk “Lead Like a Shepherd,” Larry Osborne illuminates how sometimes sheep refuse to drink from sources of moving water, even when faced with dehydration. Rather than berate the sheep for this unreasonable fear, it is the job of the shepherd to meet them where they are. A good shepherd creates a dam, giving them a pool from which to drink. Our young leaders are distracted and worried about issues we consider irrational. It is easy to grow calloused toward those we lead, berating them for their lack of vision, focus and perseverance. Yet our job as shepherds for this short season is to have compassion and lead them to Jesus.
3. Do I run from engagement?
College is a time when people are making big decisions and sometimes big mistakes. Love is truth. Love is willing to step into people’s mess and confront sin. I cannot say I love those I lead and avoid hard conversations with them. In the same vein, the prayer of intercession—contending with God on behalf of people—is the collegiate minister’s secret weapon. I know I need to ask God to remind me of my source of love when my intercessory prayer life is low or non-existent. Strategic leadership out of love naturally produces confident leaders who joyfully lay down their rights for the way of Christ, resulting in a community of individuals who live into their gift sets and bring others along as they do so.
I pray that those I lead will experience the love of God through the way I go above and beyond for them, count their contributions over their failures and enter into the conflict and messiness of their lives with grace and truth. I pray for students who go and love out of the very love they themselves have received through Christ. I pray that I would lead out of love so freely given to me and put the noisy gongs and clanging cymbals aside.