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Heart Attack!

“There’s a target on your back in the shape of a cross … and it will always be there.” Those were the heartfelt words an elder once shared with me. Then, shortly after he said that, he and his wife decided it was time for them to leave our church in search of something new. Their decision to depart didn’t give me a backache, but a “heart attack.”

Here’s the truth – there’s a target on the heart of every Christian leader! It doesn’t matter whether we lead in a church-related ministry or a business one, sad stuff happens. What matters most is our heart condition. While most leadership books focus on topics related to strategy and skill, the most important and enlightening Book of all puts the emphasis first on heart and soul.

“And David shepherded them with integrity of heart;
with skillful hands he led them.”
Psalm 78:72 NIV

The sequence is important.  It’s not coincidental that heart comes before skill. In my mentoring and coaching of leaders far and wide, I’ve learned that what most of them crave is not mere leadership tips but soul-enriching, heart-challenging conversations to process the hits and hurts of life and leadership. What we all know is that ministries and businesses don’t crater primarily because of strategy mistakes, but because of self-centeredness and sin.

“The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure.
Who can understand it?”
Jeremiah 17:9 NIV

We see this confirmed every day with the news of national leaders crashing due to moral failure. It happens among the media elite, the top CEO’s of business and sadly, even in the senior leadership of the church. In the current issue of World Magazine (my favorite journal) the theme “We Too” focuses on the tragedy and trauma of sexual misconduct in the church. World Magazine reports, “As Pope Francis comes under fire, Protestants in the U.S. face a church-too movement.”

The church I loved and led for 29 years was not exempt. We had our own embarrassments and even shame due to the moral failure of a few of our key leaders over the years, including a youth intern who was sentenced to prison for molesting minors. These were gut-wrenching and heart-breaking experiences for many, especially for the individuals and families directly involved. Sadly, it wasn’t just the reputation of those who sinned that took a hit, it was the entire church that suffered. The Body of Christ is inter-related. When one of us determines to live selfishly or sin grievously, all suffer some of the collateral damage.

I often ask this penetrating question of my closest colleagues: “Can you honestly say, ‘I have no secrets and it is well with my soul?’” Only those who know us best would ever dare ask that question.

  • Who might ask you that question?
  • Whom might you ask that question?

One of the most gifted leaders in the evangelical world recently experienced a devastating fall. Bill Hybels has been one of my mentors for many years. I love how he has reminded me that everything rises and falls on leadership, and that the local church is the hope of the world. I will be forever indebted to Bill, especially as he inspired me and tens of thousands annually at The Global Leadership Summit. The Summit and the Willow Creek Community Church in Chicago have long put on a leadership clinic that has been a marvel to behold. This year was no exception; however, this year Bill Hybels was barely mentioned and nowhere to be seen. The church he has loved and led is now investigating multiple misconduct claims against him. While Bill and others led with skillful hands, clearly, he and others did not always lead with integrity of heart.

Make no mistake, there is a target on every leader – it’s on his heart. While I continue to deeply grieve the failures that surround us all, I am redoubling my commitment to lead well and to finish well. That begins on the inside with repeated and even ruthless self-examination.

Whoever conceals their sins does not prosper,
But the one who confesses and 
renounces them finds mercy.
Proverbs 28:13 NIV

I’ve never been more convinced than I am right now that heart health comes first, and that heart work is hard work indeed.

“Above all else, guard your heart, 
for everything you do flows from it.”
Proverbs 4:23 NIV

Grace and Peace,
Alan Ahlgrim
Director of Soul Care Covenant Groups
The Center for Church Leadership