As you grow older, you increasingly find yourself at milestones that feel a bit surreal. For instance, this July, John Piper and I will mark three full and wonderful decades of ministry partnership that, by God’s grace, resulted in the birth of the mission we call Desiring God.
Why does the milestone feel surreal? Well, for starters, it’s strange to think that John and I have now been working together for the majority of my life. It’s also strange to realize that I’m entering the fourth quarter of my vocational career (should the Lord sustain my life and abilities). And a strange dimension of seeing the end of my vocational ministry on the horizon has been preparing for and experiencing the natural, necessary series of ministry disappointments.
What I mean by disappointments is not what you probably think of as disappointments. What I mean are the times when the Lord “dis-appoints” us from roles and responsibilities to which he had once “appointed” us. For every appointment, there will be a corresponding disappointment; for every calling we embrace, there will eventually be a corresponding calling to release.
Preparing for our eventual disappointment is a crucial aspect of faithful Christian stewardship. But in my observations over the years, it’s also often a neglected aspect. We find plenty of resources aimed at helping Christian leaders enter their leadership seasons, but it’s surprising how comparatively few there are to help leaders exit those seasons — despite the fact that how we end often says more than how we begin (Ecclesiastes 7:8; 2 Timothy 4:10).
I don’t claim to be an expert in leadership disappointments, but I can share with you some core values I gleaned from Scripture that helped prepare me for the disappointments I’ve experienced. And to do that, I need to provide you with a little historical context.
Appointed and Disappointed
In 1993, when John Piper graciously extended me the offer to become his first full-time administrative assistant, he didn’t know he was hiring Desiring God’s first CEO — because Desiring God (DG) didn’t exist yet (we launched it together the next year). This was fortunate for me because I likely wouldn’t have gotten the CEO job. I didn’t have a degree in theology or business. I was an anthropology major with no experience leading an organization. God does like to choose unlikely people.
What I did have, when John and I decided to start this ministry, was his trust. He knew that we shared the same theological vision and passion for spreading it. And despite my deficiencies, God had equipped me with enough leadership ability, creativity, risk tolerance, and resourcefulness to be an effective catalyst — to get things up and going and recruit other gifted people to join us as the ministry rapidly grew.
I realized in those first years, however, that if God granted DG growth and longevity, I would need to hold my leadership role with open hands. God had appointed me to steward it for a season, but sooner or later seasons change. The ministry could outgrow my ability to lead it effectively, or God could choose to redeploy me somewhere else. At some point, God would disappoint me from my leadership role and appoint someone else to lead. So, all along I asked our board to watch me carefully and help me discern when a change needed to be made.
Though I served as the founding CEO for about twenty years, much of my tenure was comprised of a series of delegated disappointments, of handing off responsibilities and initiatives I started or conceived to others more gifted than I was. Eventually, this included handing the role of CEO to someone who could fill it more effectively than I could. Looking back, these disappointing decisions were among the most consequential I ever made as a leader. And the most consequential of those tended to sting, since they required me to assess and discuss my deficits honestly with colleagues and board members. This forced me, though, through repeated practice, to internalize and be guided by the following four core values.
1. Love Jesus’s increase supremely.
Over the years, John the Baptist became one of my biblical-leadership mentors, mainly because of the way he responded to his disciples who were concerned that the crowds were leaving him to follow Jesus.
You yourselves bear me witness, that I said, “I am not the Christ, but I have been sent before him.” The one who has the bride is the bridegroom. The friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly at the bridegroom’s voice. Therefore this joy of mine is now complete. He must increase, but I must decrease. (John 3:28–30)
I love this man. John was more in love with the God of his calling than his calling from God. What gave him joy was seeing the bride increasingly drawn to the bridegroom. And when his role in helping make that happen began to diminish, it didn’t diminish his joy. He quietly and happily began to step aside.
John the Baptist taught me to love the increase of Jesus’s glory more than my role in that increase. And he taught me that the way a leader relinquishes his role for Jesus’s sake might just speak loudest of his love for Jesus.
2. View yourself as a steward.
The apostle Paul also became a leadership mentor for numerous reasons, but I’ll focus here on one. When it came to the ministry he received from the Lord Jesus, Paul viewed himself primarily as a servant of Christ and a steward of the gospel entrusted to him (1 Corinthians 4:1). And since “it is required of stewards that they be found faithful,” the way he carried out his ministry was shaped by his constant awareness that someday he would “give an account of himself to God” (1 Corinthians 4:2; Romans 14:12).
Consequently, Paul’s example profoundly shaped how I came to view myself and my role. I am a servant-steward tasked with laboring for the joy of others (2 Corinthians 1:24), and I must labor in such ways as to avoid giving unnecessary offense to my Christian brothers and sisters as well as to unbelievers (1 Corinthians 10:32).
3. Watch for and support your successor.
Leaders often keep their eyes peeled for possible successors — and often for the wrong reasons: to eliminate the competition. Which is what Saul tried to do when he saw David’s star begin to rise in Israel (1 Samuel 18:9–11).
But Saul’s son, Jonathan, the heir apparent to Saul’s throne, saw something very different in David: a kindred God-entranced soul (1 Samuel 18:1). Eventually, Jonathan discerned that God had chosen David, and not himself, to be the next king. And the way he responded is why he became another mentor for me:
Jonathan, Saul’s son, rose and went to David at Horesh, and strengthened his hand in God. And he said to him, “Do not fear, for the hand of Saul my father shall not find you. You shall be king over Israel, and I shall be next to you. Saul my father also knows this.” And the two of them made a covenant before the Lord. (1 Samuel 23:16–18)
Jonathan’s humility and faith is stunning, and so rare in this world. He didn’t merely step aside for David, but he loved, comforted, defended, and encouraged him in God’s calling on his life.
If, out of “bitter jealousy [or] selfish ambition,” we feel threatened by a potential successor, it’s crucial that we recognize this Saul-like response as “earthly, unspiritual, demonic” (James 3:14–15) and repent of it. Because it poses a clear and present danger to whatever mission we serve.
I learned from Jonathan that, when circumstances allow it, a Christian leader can and should befriend his successor and do everything within his power to help him launch well into his season of leadership.
4. Love them to the end.
Jesus is, of course, the perfect model of leadership, but we never see him disappointed from his role because he is the Lord himself. However, this description of the way Jesus loved his disciples made a huge impact on me as a leader: “He loved them to the end” (John 13:1). Whatever circumstance resulted in the end of my leadership season, I wanted the same to be said of me. A faithful Christian leader loves those he leads to the end.
In 2010, I knew that DG had outgrown my abilities to lead it effectively. And to put simply what wasn’t simple in experience, the Lord made it clear that my colleague, Scott Anderson, was the leader he was raising up for the next season. So, we worked with our board to create a transition process that culminated in Scott being installed as our CEO in 2015. And I officially took a role as a member of DG’s teaching team.
Due to Scott’s leadership, as well as the remarkable team he has assembled, the ministry is more fruitful, more focused on our mission, more efficient, and healthier than it’s ever been. And my profile within the ministry is as small as it’s ever been. The next generation has taken over, and they are doing everything better than I ever could.
Humble Joy of Heaven
How do I, as the founding leader, feel about all this? Honestly, it’s hard to imagine being happier. This is what I had prayed for in the early days. I think it’s a taste of the humble joy of heaven, where every saint overflows with joy as they see Jesus increase and remember how God so graciously gave them each a small, temporary role in that increase.
I wish I could say I embodied these values perfectly through my disappointments. I didn’t. But they nonetheless shaped and guided me. And I believe the Lord honored my imperfect striving and blessed my friendships with the men who were appointed to take over after me.