3 Vital Lessons from One of the Best Leaders I Know

I’ve hung out with megachurch pastors and I’ve read plenty of books and biographies of great leaders. But there is a hero from whom I’ve learned more about relational leadership than anyone else – my wife, Angie Cox.

I’ve learned about preaching, administration, and creative communications from all kinds of well-known people, but Angie has been my primary source of wisdom about what matters most – influencing people to grow. I’m sharpened, challenged, and shaped daily as I observe her, hear her heart, and see her in action.

Let me just recount some of the ways she’s powerfully and directly impacted my life:

  • When I was an out-of-church and spiritually half-dead teenager, she brought me to her church where I began to grow again.
  • When I was a quiet, young, inexperienced and very introverted college student and pastor, she helped me come out of my shell.
  • When I have struggled to believe that God could use me for his purposes, she’s reminded me that he can indeed.
  • When I’ve gone home discouraged and distressed, she’s picked me up and re-affirmed her support for me.
  • In the darkest corner of my spiritual journey when I felt like giving up on myself and everything else, she showed me so much grace it changed my life forever.

For over a decade of ministry, she played the pastor’s wife part the best she could (and she had a great role model in her own mother!). But the last five years have been altogether different. It’s been a new kind of journey as I sit in awe and watch her as a church planter and ministry leader. Not just my wife. Not just the “pastor’s wife,” but as a leader in her own right.

She’s helped launch small groups, planned women’s events, gathered people with leadership potential around our dining room table, counseled with the hurting, and trained others to counsel the hurting. She’s had crucial insight on every big decision we’ve made as a church. She’s stopped me from doing and saying dumb things, and she’s challenged me to take risks in faith.

She named the church, adopted the local school we serve, launched our women’s ministry, and started and later handed off our kids ministry to other leaders. She dreamed up our big annual week of serving the community, made contact with local nonprofits, and has helped pick an amazing staff.

She’s also helped lead worship and she’s taught by my side on stage, but she humbly avoids the spotlight and shies away from the pressure to be more vocal. She avoids competing with others who may desire position, and genuinely wants the very best for everyone on the team.

I wanted to pass along to the rest of the world some of the best lessons I’ve learned by observing Angie.

1. To really lead people, you’ve gotta love People.

Love paves the way for leadership. No amount of good organizational strategy can compare to the power of doing life with people, soul-on-soul. I can’t tell you how many times my wife has slipped away to take a phone call only for me to hear her crying softly with the person on the other end as she encourages and ministers to them in their point of need.

She’s reminded me dozens of times that people matter way more than paperwork, that routine tasks are secondary to the big mission, and that if we aren’t doing what we’re doing for Jesus, then it isn’t worth doing at all. She weeps over the broken and longs to help everyone she can, and her quiet example reminds inspires me.

2. Leadership is very little about what happens on the stage.

Being a polished speaker doesn’t make you a great leader. Great leaders tap some people on the shoulder and invite them to sit around a table. I’ve watched as Angie has invited others to go away on retreats to talk about leadership, to attend conferences, and to gather as leaders to challenge one another.

I’ve watched as Angie has asked people to take on an area of responsibility, then walked them through the process of getting started. She dreams big in terms of the future and she demonstrates a passion about getting people prepared for it.

She’s an amazing speaker and teacher – more than she realizes, by far – but doesn’t seek the stage for her own glory. She’s never asked for a title and is often reluctant to accept the opportunities that have come her way.

3. Spiritual Leadership is Leadership That Is Uniquely Spiritual

I’ve been doing ministry long enough that I can coast for several weeks, or longer, in my own ability. That doesn’t mean I’m leading well, but I’m leading adequately without spending a great deal of time in preparation. Angie reminds me regularly, though, that I really don’t want to lead in my own power and ability.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve started to make a decision impulsively and she’s given me pause with the question, have you heard from God about this yet? And I’ve never seen anyone agonize more over the weight of speaking at an event on a spiritual topic than her when she’s preparing to do so.

Christian leaders must stay sensitive to the voice of God. Angie has taught me to desire a consistent prayer life more than consistent preaching success.

Many of the people who are finding their way to Grace Hills now have no idea just how much Angie has influenced their lives from behind the scenes. And many of those now enjoying opportunities to lead may not realize that it was Angie who did the hard work, with limited resources, of paving the way for others.

She’s not a Pastor, but if she were, she’d be a way better one than me. She doesn’t speak from the stage regularly, but I’m convinced that if she did, she’d do a way better job than me any day. She’s not directly in charge of the church’s staff, but if she were, we’d probably be way ahead of where we are now.

I want the world to know what Angie is too humble to say about herself – she’s the real brains and heart of this operation. She’s essential. I couldn’t do this without her. We wouldn’t be the church we are without her. And the future looks brighter to me than ever because she’s by my side, living out an amazing grace story.

Angie, you’re really the best leader I know, and I hope you keep it up. I’ll just keep on trying to act like I actually know what I’m doing while watching you!

10 Reasons Why Humility is Vital to Great Leadership


Quickly think of five common traits of high-impact leaders… good time management, assertiveness, drive, energy, charisma, etc. Humility rarely lands in the list when it comes to our modern, top-down management systems. But Jesus (the greatest leader ever) and Moses (perhaps the second) had this one thought in mind – great leaders don’t have power over people, but power under people by way of humility.

Humility may be a forgotten virtue in conversations about leadership today, but I believe it’s absolutely essential to having long-term, broad-range impact. Here are some reasons why…

Continue reading 10 Reasons Why Humility is Vital to Great Leadership

If You Can’t Mess Up, Don’t Bother Leading

Rocky Road

Having an ambition to lead is great, but it doesn’t produce actual leadership. Taking risks does. The best leader in the room isn’t the one with all the answers. The leader is the one who volunteers to go first and show the way. Every great leader I know has been scorched by the pain of making the hard, and sometimes wrong, decisions.

But the only way to change the world is to take the risks of leadership, such as the risk of

  • Casting a bold, impossible vision.
  • Writing the first check.
  • Releasing people before they’re quite ready to fly.
  • Opening up and getting nothing back.
  • Opening up and getting slammed.
  • Losing consensus.
  • Praying the bold, public prayer.
  • Choosing a conviction over compromise.
  • Confessing a wrong turn.
  • Wasting time on a failed endeavor.

Real success stories are never built out of an unbroken chain of successes. They’re pieced together with wins and losses, tough seasons, temporary setbacks, and half-dead dreams.

Successful leaders push through. They keep going. They trust one more time. They try one more time. They take the risk, embrace the pain, and celebrate recovery along the way.

Stop thinking of leadership as synonymous with continual victory. As long as you define leadership this way, you’ll do whatever it takes to not mess up. And if you can’t mess up, if you can’t bear to take the risk of messing up, don’t bother volunteering to go first.

Get Out Front! The World Needs You to Lead: 3 Big Challenges

Forces of Nature

Two thirds of the earth’s surface is water, yet there are places in the world where people will literally go to war over access to clean drinking water. In the same way, there have never been so many books, seminars, and blogs on leadership, yet the culture is still a giant vacuum desperately needing leaders to get out front.

I’ve become convinced that the world needs two things from the church and the church has the potential to offer them. The first is the gospel – the life-transforming, world-changing, culture-shaping good news that Jesus has done all that is necessary to redeem us from sin’s curse. The second is leadership, which provides the vehicle for carrying the gospel to the ends of the earth. Without the gospel, the church has no real reason to exist. And without leadership, the church’s existence is quite temporary.

That’s why I’m giving my life to two things: feeding the flock and leading leaders. Every week, I want to study and prepare to teach truth, speak into the culture, and share the depth of the riches of God’s Word with people. And every week, I want to spent time investing in those who lead – not just church leaders, but leaders in every realm of society – at home, at work, and in the community.

We lack leaders because potential leaders lack three things:

  • A conviction that I ought to lead.
  • The confidence that I can lead.
  • A growing knowledge of how to lead.

So I have three challenges for you to take up.

Challenge #1: See the Need

A lot of people, from Lee Roberson to John Maxwell, have gotten credit for originally saying one of the simplest and wisest things that has ever been said… “Everything rises and falls on leadership.”

  • Families thrive under good leadership.
  • Communities are better places to live because of good leadership.
  • Causes are addressed and needs are met with good leadership.
  • Churches and companies grow under good leadership.

You don’t need a fresh revelation from God to feel called to lead. He has spoken plenty on the subject and His call to salvation is also a call to service. Do you see the need?

Challenge #2: Invest In Relationships

I love Maxwell’s basic definition of leadership, “Leadership is influence.” Nothing more. Nothing less.

The word “influence” comes from a compound of two Latin words meaning “in” and “flow.” Creek beds and canyons are formed because of a flow of water. Weather patterns stay regulated by the flow of ocean currents. And culture is shaped by leaders.

And how do leaders shape the culture around us? Through relationships. The evidence of leadership is change. And the evidence of good leadership is change for good. I love watching my wife lead, and she’s one of the best I know. And what I see that amazes me most is the change she affects in others. A lot of people are in better places because of her.

How are you making a dent? Who has changed for good because you’ve led them?

Challenge #3: Do the Work of Leading

Leadership can either be a lofty idea or it can be an in-the-trenches daily exercise in influencing. Thomas Edison famously said, “Genius is one percent inspiration, 99 percent perspiration.” That’s true of leadership too. Goals are great. Vision is essential. But the bulk of leading is doing the hard work, investing time and imparting wisdom into people.

So catch a vision. Make some friends. And get to work! The world needs you to get out front!

Photo by Koen Rayer.

Tim Stevens: Embracing the Pain of Growth

Fairness Is Overrated

A pastor asked me to talk to his staff and answer this question: “If our church is going to double in the next two years [from five hundred to a thousand], what will it take?” The same question might be asked from a business leader: “If we want to double sales in the next two years, what will it take?” This is what I shared:

  1. Some of you won’t have as much access to the senior leader. This has to be okay with you.
    Are you more committed to maintaining the tight-knit staff size and your proximity to the pastor or CEO? Or are you more committed to the organization growing?
  2. Some of you are doing okay as leaders in your organization today, but it’s possible that what you are currently doing won’t cut it when you have doubled in size. You need to be willing to step into another role.
    Are you more committed to keeping your position and title? Or are you more committed to the growth of your business or church?
  3. You will need to anticipate the strain and pressure that is coming before anyone actually feels it. As the leaders, you need to be looking ahead, seeing what is around the next corner.
    Are you comfortable? If so, you probably aren’t anticipating growth adequately.
  4. You will have to be as willing to stop stuff as you are to start stuff.
    What are you doing that takes time and energy and diverts your focus? What has God uniquely gifted your team to do where you should put more focus?
  5. You will have to drive up the level of excellence. When people walk up to a fair booth to buy food, they have one expectation of service and quality. At McDonald’s, it’s another level. And when they walk into Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse, it’s yet another level. As you grow, so will the expectations of your guests.
    What are you doing right now that would not be considered excellent if you were an entity twice your current size?
  6. You have to spend money on infrastructures like computers, data-management software, and staff to develop and run systems.
    What systems do you have right now that aren’t broken yet but are showing signs of strain?

I liked the question this leader was asking. He was basically saying, “How do we prepare for growth?” Someone told me years ago, “If you want to grow, you always need to act like you are twice the size you currently are.” It was good advice.

The Dangers of Growth

But growth is a two-sided coin. Many times, when we are growing, we get lazy. When things are going really well in the organization, we can put it on cruise control. When that happens:

  • We don’t pay attention to mission drift that is happening in individuals or even entire departments.
  • We don’t heed warning signs that are all too obvious later when looking in the rearview mirror.
  • We don’t ask enough questions.
  • We rush spending and hiring decisions.
  • We delay necessary firing decisions.
  • We feel invincible. So we reject all criticism, even if we know there is a kernel of truth included.
  • We often neglect important relationships. Since velocity and intimacy are enemies, many times a fast-growing organization can result in broken relationships.
  • We stop being innovative. Why? Because we don’t need to innovate. Growth is happening without it.

In an article in Fast Company magazine, Dan Heath and Chip Heath put it this way: “When you’re getting rich, it’s pretty easy to soothe the ol’ gut. If you need a rationalization, your mind will provide one.”1

For a church, you may not be getting rich, but your numbers might be trending upward. Attendance is increasing year after year, offerings are going up, and momentum is on your side.

I’ve been there. For the first twenty years at Granger, we averaged 23 percent growth year after year. Hindsight is a wonderful thing, and now I can see clearly how I sometimes fell into these traps.

It is important to consider what you really believe about growth. Is your team committed to the pain that comes from getting your church or business to the next level?

Pointers for Pastors: Lead Better by Understanding Basic Psychology

PointersNot all change leads to growth, obviously, but growth never happens without change. So leadership is, in large part, motivating and organizing a group of people to change and grow. But… nobody likes change. Even people who say they like change don’t like it naturally. They’ve just developed a good attitude about embracing it.

As a Pastor, I used to take it quite personally when someone was afraid of the change I was urging for our church. While it doesn’t always solve all the issues, I finally came to understand that there is a psychology behind leadership that needs to be understood, even by shepherd-theologians leading a church. We must understand that people resist leadership for two big reasons: they’re afraid, and they’re hurt.

People are afraid when their sense of security is challenged, and security is a basic need of the human soul. We are naturally protective of the status quo, so we resist change that challenges us to move out of what is comfortable, safe, and familiar.

And people are hurt when their sense of significance is damaged. This happens when we feel ignored or invisible, or left out of the equation of a decision that affects our sense of security. We are supposed to have both of these needs met through our relationship with God as we seek our shelter in him and serve his people. But we naturally seek significance in superficial ways, which leads to trouble.

Why does all of this matter so much? Can’t we just push people by virtue of our position of authority? Shouldn’t people just get in line behind us and follow us in spite of their feelings? Maybe, but that’s not really leadership. Leadership is instigating and motivating people to move, then organizing them to move in the right direction with a clear picture of the destination. Charles Stone addressed this well in a piece on the six brain barriers to healthy church change.

If you want to lead better, understand what motivates people to resist you. When you bring comfort and encouragement to people who feel insecure or insignificant, you have a highly increased chance of leading them to do what you believe you’ve been called to do.

To lead better, understand how and why people think the way they do.

Here’s an audio clip in which I expand on this a bit…

Dump Your Doubt, Take the Risk, and Lead Forward

DiveNothing paralyzes good leadership like fear, and nothing fuels good leadership like taking risks in faith. Obviously, we must make decisions wisely, but when we know, it’s time to go. This is coming from a somewhat trigger-shy leader.

If you know what a DISC profile is, I’m a high “I” and a fairly low “D.” That simply means, I want everybody to be on board with a decision before I move forward as opposed to driving ahead on my own. So when I feel that people disapprove of my direction, I’m prone to want to plant my feet. Knowing this is half the battle, and dumping my fear and leading confidently anyway is the other half.

As leaders, we fight fear daily.

  • The fear of trying and failing.
  • The fear of criticism.
  • The fear of doing something dumb and getting everyone hurt.

Way back in 2000-ish, the church I was leading in Kentucky was averaging about 60 in weekly worship, so we set aside a Sunday as a big day and we set a goal of having 75. I announced it publicly. We prayed for it hard. When that Sunday finally arrived, we had a whopping 58 people present. (I later realized that while God indeed answers prayer, He also encourages us to have a plan for accomplishing our goals and to work hard at it.)

I stopped announcing big goals.

Fast-forward ten years and Angie and I are sitting in a worship service at Saddleback Church listening to Pastor Rick Warren teach part one of his message series, Decade of Destiny. Some of what Pastor Rick said that day re-shaped my thinking and has re-kindled a deep passion in me for dreaming and leading people. For example…

Your goals are only as big as your God. – Rick Warren

That’s not a theological statement about the size of God. It’s a statement about how we see and think about God. And the bigger He is in our eyes, the more we’re willing to trust Him to do.

We overestimate what we can do in a year but we underestimate what we can do in ten. – Rick Warren

That’s been true for me time and again.

But the real kicker was the part of the message where Rick asked us if we were currently doing and working on the one thing we wanted to be doing ten years from now. While I LOVED my spot on the Saddleback staff, I couldn’t honestly answer ‘yes’ because God was already stirring our hearts about church planting. So Saddleback wound up sending us with a blessing to start Grace Hills.


Somewhere between there and here, Angie and I made some decisions about the rest of our lives. We were no longer going to settle for mediocrity, accept a mere facade of authenticity, and we would no longer lead in a way that was limited by our fear of the disapproval of others. That has been liberating, but it’s still a daily struggle.

And today, we have some BIG goals!

God loves faith, responds to faith, and always encourages us to act in faith rather than planting our feet and remaining frozen by fear.

My current challenge is charting a course for the future of Grace Hills Church, which involves getting better at what we do, possibly moving to a new location in the near future, raising up leaders, and making as many new disciples as possible.

Whatever your challenge is, decide that you won’t fail because of fear. You won’t look back and wish you’d given it a shot. Dump your doubt, take the risk, and lead forward.

So… what’s your challenge? What are you going to do next?

photo credit: juls10