By Daniel Darling
“Leaders are not nice,” I was told by the man who ordained me for ministry, “which is why I’m not sure you have the qualities to pastor.”
These are interesting words, whispered into the ear of someone who is about to be ordained for ministry. But they fit with the ethos of the church world that formed me. I grew up in an independent church with a very authoritarian leadership structure. The leaders who emerged were always cut from one mold: strong, assertive, ambitious, hard-charging, willing to fight and be fought.
My pastor had the temperament of a mob boss. He was a ruthless street brawler, willing to take on anyone and anything that he perceived as a threat to his leadership. In some ways this was comforting. In a crisis he would be assertive and serve as a balm on a troubled soul. If you were one of his guys, he’d go to the mat to defend you. But there was a troubling side to this kind of type A leadership. Our culture had a tendency to wear down good people, to savage reputations of those who didn’t toe the line, even on negotiable issues, and to overburden, with spiritual shaming, those who didn’t measure up. It was a tough environment.
I always felt a call to pastoral ministry but inwardly questioned my competence. Even after Bible college, when working on staff at my home church, I wondered if I had the requisite skills to lead God’s people. I enjoyed preaching and teaching. I loved people. I was drawn to church life. But I didn’t enjoy conflict (I still don’t.) What’s more, I detested the way I saw leaders treat the people they were called to serve. I resisted the urge to see a congregation as a mass of people to be moved, a tool to be employed for personal benefit, a foundation on which to build a platform. God was stirring in my heart a desire to shepherd, to meet people where they were, and to walk with them in their deepest struggles.
Frankly I liked people, and it seems this was considered a flaw in my leadership—at least in this church environment. But then one day I met a longtime church leader at another church who embodied something different than I’d ever seen in a man called to ministry.
A True Shepherd
Gentleness. It’s odd, really, how little we talk of gentleness when thinking about Christian leadership. After all, this trait is mentioned over and over again in the biblical leadership texts. Paul said to Timothy that those called as shepherds must possess gentleness (1 Timothy 3:2, 3) and be “gentle unto all men” (2 Timothy 2:24, King James Version). To Titus, Paul said that church leaders must be “not overbearing,” “not quick-tempered,” and “self-controlled” (Titus 1:7-12). To the Galatians, Paul described gentleness as a sign of the Spirit’s regenerative work.
But I never saw gentleness embodied in leadership until I met Bill. When I met him, it was in the twilight of Bill’s ministry experience. He had served several decades and had seen everything. He had led successful churches in several states and was in in a role of interim ministry and mentorship.
What I saw in Bill was a man fiercely committed to the truth, passionate about evangelism, and committed to faithful local church ministry. He did this, though, in a way that exhibited a gentle, pastoral grace. He depicted the kind of man who was unassuming, who didn’t take himself too seriously. The kind of man who genuinely cared.
For most of my life, until this point, I’d been nervous around church leaders. When one would walk into the room, I’d tense up and my stomach would tighten. When Bill walked in a room, my whole body would lighten up and I’d feel calm and reassured. The first time I met Bill, I remember thinking to myself, This is what a shepherd looks like.
A Conduit of Grace
Over the next several years, as I moved on into a senior pastorate role, Bill—by his life, by his words, by his gentle mentoring—showed me what it looks like to be a shepherd of God’s people. It wasn’t just the little lessons of pastoral grace—what to say at a funeral, how to navigate a tense meeting, how to be fully present when people are talking—it was the big, theological leadership tools he handed down from his generation of ministry. Pastoring, Bill would tell me, is people work. Never forget that you are called, not to a platform, but to a people. On your hardest day, with the most difficult people, remember they are people Jesus loves.
What I saw in Bill that I never saw before, was that a man of God could both care deeply about truth and care deeply about people. These two seemingly incongruent character traits could not only coexist in one person, they were necessary traits of the same calling. We love the truth because the truth sets people free. We care for people, not by bludgeoning them into spiritual submission, but by providing gentle, sturdy, winsome leadership.
Biblical leadership isn’t about the leader but about serving as a conduit of grace from Christ to Christ’s body. This means that good leaders are unafraid to admit weakness, to say sorry when we’ve failed, to practice the sacred rhythms of repentance and forgiveness in community.
We do this in our preaching by displaying a keen and gentle sense of the human condition, even as we explore hard and difficult gospel demands. We do this in our business meetings by exhibiting the humility to listen, to put ourselves in the place of those who might be concerned about our leadership, about the changes we might try to implement in the church. We do this by being available for conversations with the despondent, the sick, the dying. Along the way we not only disciple but submit to being discipled.
A Model for Others
When I assumed my first senior pastorate, Bill preached and demonstrated gentleness to me, saving me from several destructive and unnecessary conflicts. “Dan, you can’t do that,” he would tell me. He cautioned me to move slowly but surely through changes. “For many people, church is their only stability. If you change too may things too fast, it can be disorienting for people.” He told me to imagine how upset I would be if, one day, someone came into my office and began rearranging the bookshelves, adding a coat of paint, and moving the furniture. “This is how people think of their church,” Bill said, “so you need to move slowly. Cultivate relationships. Get buy-in from key influencers.” Above all, he told me, in every conversation around change, keep your cool, don’t lose your temper, and be humble. This advice, so radically different than what I’d seen modeled in my home church, was a key to my leadership.
This kind of simple gentleness is cultivated by privately preparing the heart. It is practiced in daily acts of grace, by serving people, in conversations over coffee, by attending people’s ballgames, recitals, and events, through bedside vigils and crisis phone calls. I learned from Bill that there are many preachers, but few pastors—those willing to live in and among their people and perform the rhythmic work of soul care.
In this season of life, I’m finding myself drawn to pastors like Bill, who are often unknown outside of their communities but who faithfully serve and are served. These gentle leaders understand ministry not to be moving the masses but tending hearts.
Today I have the opportunity to mentor young leaders and pass on the gentle traits of leadership that I learned from Bill. Like me, these guys quickly discover that this character isn’t learned in class, but in the school of life. I hope to be a model for them—the kind of model I saw in that retiring minister so many years ago.
Daniel Darling is a teaching pastor at Green Hill Church in the Nashville area and is the author of several books.