Leaders who want to make a difference would do well to reflect on the wisdom of Neil Cole in Journeys to Significance. Not only does he write so helpfully about how leaders are formed and develop through life’s journeys, he also speaks frankly about why some leaders don’t finish well.
Below is a checklist from Neil Cole that I’ve found very helpful in taking stock of my own life and health as a disciple and leader of God’s people. I commend it to you, and reproduce it in full below, acknowledging its source and copyright information.
‘According to J Robert Clinton about 70% of Christian leaders will not finish well. That is alarming. Often when I am speaking to an audience, I ask everyone to look to the left and to then to the right, and I say that if Clinton’s odds are accurate, only one leader in each unit of three will finish well.
Leaders become plateaued when they get sidetracked and stop maturing. There can be many reasons. They may have fallen victim to the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, or the boastful pride of life and thereby compromised their spiritual values. They may have become hurt and hardened by the trials of life and, through a desire to no longer feel pain, moved to a status less conductive to struggle. Perhaps they have just grown weary of trying and have sought a more comfortable existence.
The following 10 characteristics, mentioned in my book Organic Leadership, are those of plateaued leaders. Read through this list prayerfully and with introspection. If you feel that many of these qualities are reflective of your own spiritual life, then you may have become plateaued and may need to restart on your next journey to significance. Spiritually plateaued leaders . . .
1. Avoid relationships of personal accountability. These leaders are removed from people. They have a degree of separateness that keeps them unaccountable. Often, in fact, Christendom has reinforced such separation and tried to justify it as biblical, to the detriment of the church, the world, and especially to leaders themselves.
2. Have infrequent personal application of God’s word. Many Christian leaders have pursued their own education only to the extent of becoming experts on the Bible. Once they become experts, it is easy for them to fall into the trap of thinking of themselves as people who have mastered a subject rather than as people who still have much to learn.
3. Have seen joy, peace, and love replaced with envy and resentment. One simply cannot manufacture godliness by modifying one’s behaviour to conform to Christ’s ideals. The character that is to be evident in our lives is the fruit of having God’s Spirit consuming our lives rather than the fruit of the work we carry out to demonstrate our spiritual conformity.
4. Frequently look for greener pastures in other places. It has become quite frequent for Christian leaders to blame their environment for the lack of fruitfulness in their ministry. This is a cheap but unfortunately common excuse. Others’ success is usually also attributed to their being lucky enough to have landed in the right place and the right time. The consequences for leaders who think in this way is that they are always looking to land in a better place, where their ministry will be truly appreciated and their deserved success will finally come.
5. More easily find faults in others than in themselves. Plateaued leaders can find others’ faults quickly, but introspection is a hard thing. These leaders rarely evaluate themselves and are busy evaluating everyone else. This is certainly not a new phenomenon, by any means. Jesus humorously described such a leader as one who finds the speck in his brother’s eye but does not notice the log protruding from his own (Matthew 7:3-5).
6. Are burned out from lots of activity that has been substituted for intimacy with Christ. It is most common to find that spiritually plateaued leaders are exhausted. It is not only because they value the sympathy that is evoked. One of the reasons for so much burnout is that these leaders are deceived into thinking that more effort and more activity are ways to gain closer access to and more blessings from God. This is a devastating lie from hell itself.
7. Compromise ethical principles once held dear. It is not uncommon to find that such leaders as I am describing have actually fallen deep into pattern of hidden sin. Using grace and liberty as an excuse, they continue to function publicly without regret or remorse, and behind closed doors they carry on dark practices.
8. Stay within safe areas of expertise rather than branching out into new learning endeavours. These leaders view themselves as experts rather than leaders. Therefore, they have no intention of exploring new fields or breakthroughs in understanding. They are not on a growth trajectory. Instead they stay in the same field and relay the same facts. These leaders continue to tell the same old stories from years past. There are some pastors who keep the same 52 sermons to repeat each year in new pastorates. The idea of learning something new is scary to them because it implies that they do not really have the expertise with which they identify themselves.
9. Are teachers and experts more than learners. These leaders talk more easily than they listen. In fact, they are easily offended by or uninterested in the instruction coming from others. Two words often heard from these leaders are “I know”.
10. Have reduced the Christian life to the rut of a routine. Plateaued leaders are not moving forward. They have stabilised and are now in a holding pattern. As such, the Christian walk for these people means just continuing to carry on with the same old routine. Theirs is a static existence of maintaining what is rather than forging something that is not. For these leaders, the Christian life is just doing the right Christian things in the right Christian way. It is a life of a few dos and many don’ts.‘
© Neil Cole, Journeys to Significance (San Fransisco: Jossey-Bass, 2011), pp.136-138.