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3 Unspoken Promises Leaders Make

Every Christian leader I know wrestles with the Romans 12:8 commission: “If [your gift] is leadership, lead with all diligence.” How can you measure whether you’re leading with diligence?

At the time of this writing, there’s a church that’s thinking about joining my church, either as a merger or a satellite. This currently pastorless church needs leadership. I believe we can provide it. But can we? More specifically, what might it mean for me to lead this second congregation “with all diligence”?

Normally, when I invite a new staff or volunteer onto my team, I’m aware of the responsibility I’m assuming. With over 100 potential volunteers about to join my team, I’ve become acutely aware that every time I invite someone (in this case, many “someones”) onto my team, I am making three unspoken promises to them.

The Unspoken Leadership Covenant

Stepping into leadership can be exhilarating. Newly minted leaders find themselves asking, “Will people follow me? Will they like me? Will I be able to accomplish anything?” Those and a dozen other questions run through their minds.

Meanwhile, followers are asking an opposite set of questions. They want to know, “Is this person trustworthy? Do I want to follow him/her? Do I like where they are going?” 

Underneath this unspoken exchange is a covenant that all leaders make with everyone who signs up for their cause. Like the questions, this covenant is rarely verbalized and almost never brought to the level of consciousness. But it’s there, and if you’re going to be a great leader, you need to own it and live up to it.

The leader’s unspoken covenant to their followers contains three promises:

 1. If you follow me, I will make your life better.

 2. If you follow me, I will care about you.

 3. If you follow me, I will take you where you cannot go on your own.

When a follower decides to leave a church, cause, or movement, it’s almost always because one of these three promises has been broken.

1. I Will Make Your Life Better

Years ago, a lady named Kelly asked me to pray that God would enable her to get pregnant. Lori and I had experienced several years of infertility, so we knew the pain she was enduring. I prayed often and fervently, but no baby. A year later, Kelly quietly slipped out the back of the church. Promise #1 was broken: I hadn’t made her life better. 

It didn’t matter that I was incapable of making her life better. Only God could have repaired her reproductive organs. But a better life was the unspoken expectation. Without a baby, we had a breach of contract. 

Had Kelly stayed at New Song, she would have experienced dozens of incredible events and moments with our church family. She would have seen countless marriages and families helped. She would have played a part in over 8,000 people coming to Christ. The one thing she wanted more than anything else was a child from her womb. I couldn’t give it, so she didn’t stay. 

On the other hand, Ken joined the church when we were just in the start-up phase. He was a young Christian looking for an adventure. Did his life become better? Well, Ken met his wife at New Song. In fact, she came to Christ here. So did her daughter. So did Ken’s sisters, and his father, his nephew, and a whole lot of friends. Ken has grown tremendously, led a Small Group, served in our Tech Ministry. Ken’s closest friends are members of the church. Promise kept. 

2. I Will Care About You

Leaders often feel stretched thin, but when a parishioner is in a crisis, they expect the leader to respond. A few years back, a longstanding New Songer lost her sister to spina bifida. Her sister (Diane) and parents had been members of Saddleback Church for almost three decades. I was impressed to learn that Rick Warren delivered on Promise #2. He showed up at Diane’s hospital bed a few days before she died. He personally comforted and prayed with her parents. Promise kept.

As New Song has grown, I’ve found it harder to express care for everyone who’s following. Sometimes, I don’t hear about people’s sorrows until long after the fact. But when I can look them in the eye within hours of their loss or pick up the phone and pray with them, those small acts of care go a long way toward fulfilling our covenant. 

3. I Will Take You Where You Cannot Go on Your Own

One of my greatest joys is Scott Evans, a friend ten years my junior who two decades ago made the decision to follow me to San Diego and help me plant New Song. Today, he’s the founder of Outreach, Inc., a company that serves churches and ministries nationwide. He agrees that if he had stayed at his computer-industry job, he’d be half the man he is today. 

Another is Jim Britts, a man twenty years my junior who has served on our staff for the past nine years. Jim’s passion is youth, and he’s got a talent for screenwriting. He recently released his first film, To Save a Life, which is changing lives around the world. Jim would have been a success at whatever he put his hand to, but with the encouragement of the New Song family, he’s achieved great things in both youth ministry and the film industry. Nothing could thrill me more.

Jesus promised that if we would follow him, he would make us fishers of men. I never set out to take Scott or Jim where we’ve gone together. Christ gets all the credit. When a leader follows the Lord, there’s a good chance he or she will take some people on a few pretty cool adventures—adventures to places none of them could have anticipated. It’s one of those unspoken promises that Jesus, the ultimate leader, has made to those who follow him.

Keeping These Promises

Faced with promises I may soon be making to a new church full of people, I have to speak the unspoken questions: Can I make these people’s lives better? Can I care about them all? Can I take them where they cannot go on their own?

My honest answer is “no.” I have no personal power to improve a human life. On my own, I am incapable of caring for them all. And by myself, I can’t take anyone anywhere significant. Fortunately, I’m not on my own, and the Holy Spirit can do everything I cannot do. So I am confident of this very thing: that He who began a good work in the members of this church will carry it on to completion. And I will be there, praying, encouraging, guiding, and caring to the best of my ability.

Every church leader goes through low moments and dark valleys where they’re tempted to quit, slide, or take it easy and hope nobody notices. It’s easy to get busy and forget the unspoken promises we’ve made. I know—I’ve been there, thought about doing that, and even priced out the T-shirt. To help prevent this, once a quarter I go through a list of my top leaders and ask myself the following questions for each: 

 1. How am I making his/her life better?

 2. How recently have they seen that I care about them? 

 3. How well am I leading them to a place they could not go on their own?

I don’t always get an “A” on every question or every person, but speaking the unspoken promises, even to myself, makes me a better leader. Hopefully, it inches me one step closer to being “diligent.” 

The Unspoken Promises Made to Me

Years ago, Jesus made these same unspoken promises to me. Without question, he has made my life better, cared for me incredibly, and taken me where I could not have gone myself. He’s done all of this in ways that are exceedingly, abundantly above all I could ask or imagine. As a bonus, he’s letting me do the same with others. I hope he’s doing the same with you.