Do You Lead with Joy?

“If ‘the joy of the Lord is your presence,’ then please inform your face!” Ellie Lofaro’s words resonated deeply with me as I listened to her keynote speech at the 2013 Christian Leadership Alliance conference. It raises a question for me and for you: Do we lead with joy?

Leadership is hard work. Long hours, disappointing results, difficult decisions, and unseen obstacles are simply part of the journey for a leader. Leadership is also important work. In our churches and ministries, we have an opportunity to partner with God to make a profound difference in the lives of others. It’s a calling that we should take seriously. But does the seriousness of your calling keep you from smiling?

I served for 11 years as an executive pastor, and have been a coach to many other leaders. Those in the “first chair” role (senior pastor, executive director) often feel the weight of the organization, as if success or failure rests solely on their shoulders. Second chair leaders also carry a huge responsibility, and they are often asked to do the “dirty work” so that they first chair can be the “good guy with the white hat.” In either case, joy can be elusive.

Perhaps your leadership context is different. Regardless, the questions about joy remain. Is there joy in your leadership that starts in your soul and overflows to the people that you are leading? Or do you somehow believe that this particular fruit of the Spirit does not apply to leaders?

When I think back to different leadership roles that I had in business and in ministry, I wish that I had led with more joy. What would that have looked like? For starters, I would have been less upset when things didn’t turn out the way I expected.

Our church became a multi-site congregation during my time on staff. The new campus got off to a great start. The excitement was so contagious that a number of people who were not part of the core launch team “migrated” to the second campus during the first year. As a result, the once thriving main campus lost momentum. In my customary style, I rolled up my sleeves and worked extra hard to address this problem. And as I did so, I smiled a lot less. If I had given my best effort, but also trusted that God’s hand was on our church, my leadership might have exhibited more joy.

Leading with more joy would have also changed the way that I managed staff. It would have been better for me to slow down a little, focusing more on people and less on tasks. Even though I spent a lot of time with staff members, it was usually devoted to specific projects or problems. Those activities always bring out my serious face. If I had spent more time listening to their hearts and celebrating their successes, we might have all experienced greater joy.

Several years ago, another executive pastor told me about their staff’s quarterly “fun days.” On these, the staff did something fun (and often crazy or unexpected) together, with no agenda other than celebration and team building. I remember thinking, “That’s a great idea,” but then I didn’t implement it. A long “to do” list got in the way of what could have been even longer-lasting joy.

God used two things to shift me toward more joy in my ministry. First, he led me to a great group of people to share the journey with. All were in similar roles but came from outside of my church. They were valuable advisors and confidants. Along the way, I discovered that most ministry leaders are incredibly lonely. It’s difficult to lead with joy if you don’t have healthy ways of dealing with the inevitable frustrations and disappointments. Second, God prompted me to be alert to negative attitudes and to be much more intentional in encouraging others. In the process, I was reminded of the truth from Proverbs 11:25: “He who refreshes others will himself be refreshed.”

So what about you: Do you need to lead with more joy? And what step will you take to move in that direction?
Mike Bonem’s varied career experiences include McKinsey consultant, president of a small business, and executive pastor of a church. He holds an engineering degree from Rice University and an MBA from Harvard Business School, and is the author of three books on leadership in ministry, including Leading from the Second Chair. You’ll find his leadership blogs and more information at