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5 Principles I Learned From the Best Leader I Know

For seven years I served with the greatest leader I’ve ever known personally, Brad Johnson. Brad now pastors Life Change Community Church in Thousand Oaks, Calif. I know Brad very well. While serving on Brad’s staff, I was his associate pastor, his associate teaching pastor, his small-group pastor and was an elder alongside him. I got an up close and personal view of leadership done well. There are so very many things I learned from Brad, but five of them rise to the top every time—principles and practices that will enhance anyone’s ministry.

  1. Too many people overestimate what they can do in a year and underestimate what they can do in 10. Over a 10-year period, Brad transitioned a traditional Southern Baptist Church. By the time he exited, she was as contemporary as a church should or could be in the culture Brad inherited. On one occasion I was wondering why we were moving so slowly. All of us on the staff team had some idea where the church was to land, and sometimes I became impatient. That is, until I heard Brad voice these words, “Too many people overestimate what they can do in a year and underestimate what they can do in 10.” Over that 10-year period, only a handful of households left the church due to the changes being made.
  2. When necessary, be firm. Due to Brad’s communication skills, wisdom and proven love for the people he was leading, there were only a handful of times when he was forced to look a person or a lay-team in the eye and tell them that what they wanted was not going to happen. This always came after his allowing the concerned church members to be heard, discussing in depth why the church leadership was making the decision they had made or were considering, and after all points of view were out on the table. And from what I recall, he only took a very firm stand when what was being questioned would keep the church from accomplishing the vision we were passionately pursuing.
  3. Making the staff team top priority wins followers who will fight alongside you no matter how bloody the battle. Many senior pastors make time for everyone but the staff they lead. Not so with Brad. If he wasn’t already in an appointment with someone, he always welcomed a staff member into his office for conversation, whether they had set up an appointment or not. He invited us to lunch with him as often as possible. He set up days for us to just go to lunch and see a movie together. And Brad would never, ever allow a parishioner to verbally beat up on a staff member. We all knew he had our back. There’s not a person who was serving on that staff team who wouldn’t have charged the most dangerous of hills with him. Sometimes we did.
  4. Determine how high the waves are someone can create before deciding how much energy is expended because of them. I once asked Brad how he determined which difficult situation or person received meaningful amounts of leadership energy. He went on to tell me the situations that could create the highest waves were given substantial attention. I wasn’t sure what he meant, so I asked him to explain. He said something like this: “When someone throws a pebble in a pond, the waves are tiny and will have no effect on those things that are also in the water. But when someone throws a massive bolder in the pond, an entire ecosystem could be destroyed. I determine what situation or personality will create the greatest waves, and if that situation or person can create dangerous waves, I expend as much energy as necessary for the protection of the people God has placed in my pond.”
  5. Before responding to a negative email, have someone read your response and then take their suggestions. On multiple occasions Brad asked me to come to his office and read his response to a negative email someone had sent him. On a few occasions I suggested he rewrite parts of it or sleep on it and determine whether or not to start the whole thing over. In every instance he took my responses to heart. I would be nearly certain his being humble enough to get input from someone who wasn’t engaged emotionally spared him multiple conflictual situations. And it will you too.

I will forever be indebted to Brad. Although he is two years my junior and one of my dearest friends, I still find myself asking the question at least weekly, “What would Brad do in this situation?”  

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Rick has one passion… To see “a biblical small group within walking distance of every person on the planet making disciples that make disciples.” He is presently pursuing this passion as the Small Group and Discipleship Specialist at LifeWay Church Resources. Rick has authored or co-authored multiple books, studies, and leader training resources including A Different Kind of Tribe: Embracing the New Small Group Dynamic, Destination Community: Small Group Ministry Manual, The Gospel and the Truth: Living the Message of Jesus, Small Group Life Ministry Manual: A New Approach to Small Groups, Redeeming the Tears: a Journey Through Grief and Loss, Small Group Life: Kingdom, Small Group Kickoff Retreat: Experiential Training for Small Group Leaders, and Great Beginnings: Your First Small Group Study, Disciples Path: A Practical Guide to Disciple Making. Rick’s varied ministry experiences as an collegiate minister, small group pastor, teaching pastor, elder, full-time trainer and church consultant, as well as having been a successful church planter gives him a perspective of church life that is all-encompassing and multi-dimensional. Rick is a highly sought after communicator and trainer.