CHAPTER 12: A LEADER KNOWS HIS LIMITATIONS
They were supposed to contend for the championship when the NBA season began in 2018. With their roster healthy, many were tipping the Boston Celtics to rule at least the eastern conference. The leading superstar of the team was Kyrie Irving, who famously abandoned the Cleveland Cavaliers (and Lebron James) weeks after they won their first NBA championship. As I write this in May 2019 near the city of Boston, the Celtics were just eliminated in five games by the upstart Milwaukee Bucks in the semi-finals of the eastern conference. They were a team in shambles, the future uncertain. The season which started with so much promise, ended in a whimper. There are undoubtedly numerous reasons why this happened. But one article in espn.com caught my eye. The title says it all, “Kyrie Irving's failed leadership tells the story of the Celtics' failed season”. The author proceeded to narrate the inner workings of a franchise whose leader repeatedly sabotaged the team, unaware of his effect on the rest of the players.
A Christian leader who does not know the limits of his abilities and giftedness is destined to fail. An honest assessment of one’s skills flows from a humble spirit. If a leader genuinely believes that he is a sinner and, therefore, full of imperfections, he will readily recognize his limitations and seek to remedy them. Moreover, he will be open to the aid of others.
In the Old Testament, Israel’s first king, Saul, started with a bang. However, not long after he ascended the throne, his real character was revealed. Among his many transgressions was that he usurped the role of Samuel as a priest when he offered burnt offerings. He may be the king, but what he did was exceedingly offensive to God. As a result, his kingdom was taken away from him-- one more leader who sabotaged his career because he did not know the limits of his mandate.
In contrast, in the book of Acts, we read the story of Apollos, a man who was both eloquent and knowledgeable in the Old Testament (see Acts 18:24-28). However, there were gaps in his knowledge about the Lord Jesus. When Priscilla and Aquilla corrected him privately, he was humble enough to listen, and his ministry exploded.
All of us have seen leaders who, unaware of their limitations, stumble from one crisis to another. A management principle has been invented partly to account for the prevalence of incompetent managers. Called the Peter Principle after the person who coined it, it can be restated this way-- a leader rises to the level of his incompetence. Here is how it unfolds in an office setting. A person who performs well is promoted to the next level. If he does well at that level, he continues to rise in the hierarchy of the organization until such a manager reaches a level where he is no longer competent.
At the same time, it is also true that all leaders have their respective strengths and weaknesses. In other words, each leader comes with a set of limitations, perhaps because of his upbringing or educational background, among other possible reasons.
Given all of the above, a Christian leader must be the first to admit his weaknesses. There is no point in refusing to recognize them. In most cases, the people we work with know our limitations already. It is surprising how much people notice about us. For example, just recently, one of my staff commented that I always wear a blue shirt during certain days! I didn’t even know I was doing it.
Paul indeed acknowledged his weaknesses. Because of his many blessings, he revealed that God gave him a “thorn in the flesh” which many commentators think is some bodily defect, perhaps in his eyes. Three times Paul prayed that God would remove it. Maybe it was compromising his effectiveness in the ministry, and so he thought God would grant his request. But the exact opposite happened, and his prayers were refused. This was his account of what God revealed to him and his reaction to it, “But he [the Lord] said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me.” (2 Corinthians 12:9).
To the Christian, our weaknesses are simply the channels by which we experience the power of Christ. There is, therefore, nothing to fear when we see our deficiencies. We can embrace our lack and commit them to God. Having lived with his thorn in the flesh, Paul can testify that “When I am weak, I am strong” (2 Corinthians 12:10b).
What are critical areas of limitations a leader must be aware of? First, you must recognize your talent limitations. As a new Christian, I immediately found out that singing in the choir was not for me! Looking back, it was good that I realized that early on because I was able to concentrate on a teaching ministry that prepared me for the role of a pastor. Of course, it doesn’t mean that we will not seek to improve our talents. For example, as I regularly sang during worship services, I noticed that my singing has developed over the years. Maybe not enough to join a singing group, but at least I can now lead congregational singing when needed.
Second, you must accept your educational limitations. Most of us wish we could have studied more or gone perhaps to a better school. As a bi-vocational pastor, I did not have the opportunity to study theology in a seminary. For more than 30 years of pastoring, I had to self-study my way through the ministry. At rare times, I feel insecure about this deficiency and wish I could have gone to a Bible school. If this is your situation, accept that God so arranged your life that you would have whatever education you need. Again, if you can improve your lot, try to do so. But do not force it. Follow God’s leading in your life.
Third, you must bow down to your bodily limitations. Whether you are young or old, our bodies have natural flaws. As we have seen earlier, even the apostle Paul had his thorn in the flesh. When I was a young pastor, I had some nagging illness that was not serious, but enough to keep me conscious of the frailty of my body. Looking back, the Lord used such limitation to keep me grounded and nip any risings of pride in my heart.
Fourth, you must accept the limitations of your resources. Whether you are working in a ministry or some secular job, there is usually just enough for our daily needs. There could indeed be a significant disparity in the resources available to Christian leaders. For example, a pastor may envy the number of books in the library of another pastor. A dissatisfied and envious spirit is an ever-present danger to be watchful for.
In sum, part of living the message of a Christian leader is a willing recognition of one’s limitations in life.
1. What are the limitations that God has imposed on your life?
2. In what ways do you rebel because of those limitations?
3. Identify the means by which you can be more accepting of your weaknesses.