Jun 19, 2013

From the Archives

A Missing Link In Christian Leadership

Americans love to talk about leadership—just look at the national dialogue sparked by Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In or the ongoing dialogue within churches about leading and disciple-making. “Leadership” a keyword attached to global summits, best-sellers and viral blog posts—so much so that its cultural prominence has ingrained leadership in the minds of many Christians—for better or for worse—as the ultimate mark of a mature faith.

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According to a recent survey of Christian adults conducted by the Barna Group, more than half of Christians in this country identify themselves as leaders (58%). And yet, more than eight in 10 (82%) of the same survey participants indicated that they believe the United States is facing a leadership crisis because there aren’t enough leaders. What’s more, the leadership qualities participants identified in themselves do not line up with the leadership qualities they expect in others.

So where is the disconnect happening? Where is this crisis coming from if so many Christians already see themselves as leaders? What is the missing link?

Joseph Cavanaugh, president of Ephesians 4 Leadership and author of The Language of Blessing, traces it back to a lack of self-awareness. Our team talked with him about this cultural problem, how it contributes to a warped sense of calling, and why the first step to leading others well is to gain a realistic understanding of ourselves.

Barna Group: American Christians love the idea of personal calling. They are also influenced by the idea of the American dream. And yet, as our recent study shows, the majority of American Christians (66%) feel there is a critical gap between their calling and their daily occupation. How can we discern between a Western, individualistic sense of calling and a biblical understanding of calling?

Joseph Cavanaugh: Western individualism is primarily focused on fulfilling wants and desires. Biblical individualism is about what we have been given for the benefit of others. It is about fulfilling our unique function, contribution and calling.

King David beautifully articulates in many of his psalms how intimate God’s love is for each of us as individuals. Centuries later, in his letters to the Corinthians and to the Romans, Paul emphasizes the great diversity of gifts and functions that exist in the body of Christ. He also points out that each individual’s contribution is indispensable and vital for the benefit of the whole body. A final reality communicated in the parable of the talents and again in the book of Revelation is that each of us will stand before the Lord and give an account of what we did with what we were so generously given—an individual experience.

Healthy self-esteem is simply proper care for ourselves—physically, emotionally, mentally and spiritually. A self-esteem that comes from knowing we are loved by God and created with purpose allows us to get on with loving and serving others.

Barna Group: What are the sociological effects of misunderstanding self-esteem?

Cavanaugh: Studies indicate that the outcome of high self-esteem is not what one might hope. High self-esteem does not increase grades in school, nor does it prevent drug use or premarital sexual activity. In fact, many career criminals have very high self-esteem.

There has also been some very interesting research on the concept of fragile self-esteem. This is often the byproduct of permissive parenting and the educational system’s attempt at raising children’s self-esteem by eliminating grade and performance awards. The children come to believe they can accomplish whatever they desire. Of course, when they enter the real world, they experience a very rude awakening. But rather than realize they are unrealistic about their own capabilities, they blame the boss, co-workers, anyone but themselves.

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Barna Group: So, high self-esteem can backfire?

Cavanaugh: The high self-esteem movement has been, in general, an abysmal failure. I also think parents’ attempts to raise self-reliant children have failed. This is another form of Western individualism that is just as dysfunctional, but one promoted in many Christian circles. The reality is that we were not created to be self-reliant. Self-responsible, yes. Self-reliant, no. We were all created to be interdependent. We are designed by God to serve one another with all that we have been uniquely gifted through grace.

Barna Group: How would you describe the relationship between self-awareness and success—both in terms of one’s career and faith?

Cavanaugh: Research consistently shows self-awareness as a foundational quality of career success. Leaders who lack self-awareness, on the other hand, are a disaster for those they lead.

In regard to faith, I believe that self-awareness is equally important. People who are spiritually self-aware have a non-anxious presence—they are completely at peace with who God has created and called them to be. They are deeply grateful to God for his gifts and calling in their lives, all the while fully realizing that these are gifts—neither earned nor deserved, but given freely for the benefit of others.

Barna Group: Our research shows that only about one third of Christians (34%) feel called to their current occupation. And among younger Christians, this number is even greater—about 44% feel a disconnect between their perceived calling on their lives and their current employment. How can people living in this tension repair this divide?

Cavanaugh: An overly simple response is that these younger Christians have never been equipped to live out who God has created and called then to be. They often lack this integral self-awareness. Fortunately, this can be learned.

The majority of young Christians I work with have no idea who they really are, let alone their gifts or life calling. It is an exhilarating journey as they discover they have been created in Jesus as a unique expression of God’s workmanship, and that the Father has prepared good works and a calling for them to walk in.

Barna Group: Can you explain your concept of the “Cycle of False Identity”? How can a person break this cycle?

Cavanaugh: The cycle of false identity begins with being in a family where the parents are not very self-aware, and there are unfounded expectations placed on the children. When the children fail to meet those unfounded expectations the parents begin to judge them in their failure. The more we try to meet these unfounded expectations, the more we begin to lose our authentic sense of self. We can begin to feel like we are somehow defective—we are not good enough, smart enough, hardworking enough. Our whole sense of identity becomes distorted.

The process of breaking the cycle of false identity is an equipping process. The Greek word for equipping means to restore, to complete, to perfect. Restoring a person back to God’s original design is a critical part of breaking the cycle. We want to create a cycle of authentic identity. This begins with creating self-awareness by helping each person rediscover their gifts and talents. And as they receive those gifts and talents with a grateful heart, it produces true humility, which produces authenticity—and from the authenticity, love and service arise and their light begins to shine.

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Learn more about the new Barna Book from Joseph Cavanaugh The Language of Blessing.

About Barna

Since 1984, Barna Group has conducted more than two million interviews over the course of thousands of studies and has become a go-to source for insights about faith, culture, leadership, vocation and generations. Barna is a private, non-partisan, for-profit organization.

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