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The Hardest Part of Leadership

Bringing challenge is less about confrontation and more about love and the 4 Es.

I often hear pastors and leaders share their struggle to bring up tough topics with their leadership teams. “I struggle with confrontation.” “If I bring this up, I’m afraid she will leave.” “He already has enough on his plate; I hate to bring this challenge.” “I’m more concerned about my relationship with her, than about what she said during Bible Study.” “I believe showing grace is more important than challenging his overdue reports.”

Let me be transparent. Like most of you, I often struggle with bringing challenge because of my own self-preservation. I don’t want to be considered a tough guy; I want to be known as a person of grace; I want people to like me. It’s easy to talk about high support, high challenge, and grace always, but most of us lean more toward the high support and grace always. We convince ourselves this is the best course of action; while the truth is, we are missing out on an opportunity to express the 4 Es, and to love others as Jesus loves us.

I have come to ask myself, “Do I love him/her enough to bring a challenge?” I’ve engaged, I’ve empowered, I’ve equipped, and now I’d rather encourage than challenge. But wait a minute. Have I really equipped and empowered someone if I’m unwilling to bring a challenge that will make them a better leader?

I submit that high support and grace always must include bringing high challenge, and I submit that Jesus set the example for us. He challenged his mother, Martha, and the disciples to think differently, to act differently, to have different expectations, and ultimately, to join him in his mission and ministry. He did this to prepare them for what was to come, knowing they would face persecution, and many would be martyred. The following are a few examples. Notice the challenge, and ask yourself, what might have come from those challenges?

  • Mary: When Mary came to her son and said, they have no more wine, his response is a gentle challenge. What concern is this to you or me? My hour has not yet come (John 2:4). This challenge was to remind his mother whose authority he was under.
  • The disciples and children: When people started bringing their children to Jesus, the disciples rebuked the parents. Jesus challenged their hearts and motivation, telling them they needed a childlike heart to enter the kingdom of God (Mark 10:15 NRSV). Luke tells us about a time the disciples were arguing about who was greatest. Jesus said that welcoming a child was welcoming him, and then he told them the least among them would be the greatest (Luke 9:46-48).
  • James and John: They asked that Jesus promise to sit them at his right and left hand when they were all in glory. He asked them if they could drink the cup he drinks or be baptized with his baptism (Mark 10:38). He challenged them another time when they asked him if they could command fire to come down from heaven and consume a Samaritan village (Luke 9:52-55). This time his challenge came as a rebuke.
  • Disciples on Sea of Galilee: Jesus was asleep on the boat when a storm came, and they were afraid they would perish. He challenged them to have more faith – to understand who he is (Matthew 8:23-27).
  • Martha: When Martha complained that Mary wasn’t helping her, he challenged her to be more like Mary and learn from him (Luke 10:38-42).
  • The eleven: After his resurrection he appeared to the eleven and challenged them about their lack of faith and disbelief. He told them to get up and go do what they were commissioned to do (Mark 16:14-18).
  • Peter: When Jesus told his disciple about his upcoming death, and Peter started to rebuke him, Jesus reminded Peter that his mind was in the wrong place (Mark 8:31-33).

Jesus said many hard sayings that come across as uncomfortable challenges. Some of the challenges come out as a correction or a rebuke. But his motivation was always to help his followers grow and be the leaders he knew them to be. In particular, he was preparing the disciples for the ministry and mission they would face. It’s true that Jesus accepts and loves us just the way we are, but it’s also true that he loves us too much to leave us the way we are. I submit that loving others as Jesus loves us will give us many opportunities to bring high support and high challenge, and to always do so in grace.

Questions for reflection:

  • Where do you see a need for high challenge in the 4 Es?
    • With engaging leaders?
    • With empowering leaders?
    • With equipping leaders?
    • With encouraging leaders?
  • What is keeping you from bringing high challenge to one of your team members?
  • What is keeping you from bringing high challenge to yourself?

May we start to see that loving others as Jesus loves us means being willing to bring high challenge so that others have opportunity to grow in their relationship with God and with others.

Rick Shallenberger

PS: From Greg Williams. In the support/challenge matrix, it is high challenge that moves toward the quadrant of liberation. So, it can feel like domination and lacking grace. However, I would argue that high challenge is a loftier expression of grace. Instead of leaving a person in a state of misunderstanding or worse, not operating in the flow of God’s will and mission, it is a graceful act to speak the truth to them and encourage them to change their thinking and actions. Always speak the truth out of the posture of love – the apostle Paul recommends it!

PPS: Check out a new podcast I am cohosting with Josh McDonald, called Geocaching Scripture: Tiny Truths in the Big Truth. You can find it on Spotify.

7 thoughts on “The Hardest Part of Leadership”

  1. Hi Rick,
    An excellent contribution…it brought to mind the words of a former president of the United States. He once was quoted as saying “The greatest leader is not necessarily the one who does the greatest things. He is the one that gets the people to do the greatest things”.-Ronald Reagan

  2. I love this quote taken from your message: “It’s true that Jesus accepts and loves us just the way we are, but it’s also true that he loves us too much to leave us the way we are.”

    That’s how we should be as parents too! If we truly LOVE our children, we teach them to do or say things as God wants them to. We tell them the truth of what they are doing wrong in a loving way, so they may be better citizens, better husbands or wives, and better parents themselves one day.

    Isn’t that the point of being a leader or a mentor as well? Do you love the person enough to want them to grow? Start the conversation with something positive and enpowering, share the correction, then end with encouragement. LOVE is the key to it all.

  3. Thanks, Rick! This reminds me of a Proverb that says, “the rebuke of a friend is better than kisses from an enemy”…

  4. This is such a well-written article that all leaders can relate to and think about. I love the scriptural examples. I have been reading the books we were given at the Celebration. Thank you.

  5. A short prayer for myself and others. Help us Father to understand what it means to live in Your grace and to bring high challenge not only to others but to ourselves, always living and speaking in love. In Jesus name I pray, Amen.

  6. I loved this article and I loved how you started it out. So many people struggle with confrontation because they want others to like them but in doing so, they stop or delay the growth of others. Oh that we could embrace the 4 e’s and confront negative behavior in love and grace.

  7. I think it is interesting we humans often equate high challenge with “confrontation”. As you explain in your article, high challenge is coming from a place of relationship and desire to help someone grow and/or step outside of their comfort zone when you know they have the tools, resources, skills to do so. Confrontation often occurs with a focus on what someone has done wrong, doesn’t know, or refuses to acknowledge. Understanding confrontation is NOT high challenge (in this context of 4 Es & leadership development) is an important distinction for teacher/mentor/pastor/leader and student/mentee/lay person/emerging leader alike.

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