Are you leaving the place better than you found it?

April 21, 2017

I grew up in a church that had a very active youth group. We worked all year long to raise funds for our MYF (Methodist Youth Fellowship) annual retreat. As soon as school was out, we left for a weeklong retreat. One year, 200 of us went to the Maine coast. Another year, we biked our way through Cape Cod, staying in youth hostels. These trips were the highlight of the year, and shaped us all as we lived into Christian community, 24/7.

One constant message that was drummed into us, year after year, was that we would leave whatever place we were staying at better than we found it. It didn’t matter if the place we were staying at was pristine or in shambles (and most of the places were more of the latter!). The expectation was that when we left, we would make sure it was going to be in better condition than when we arrived, assuring that those who come after us would find a comfortable and clean place to stay.

That lesson I learned so many years ago has served me well as a United Methodist pastor. Knowing that our appointments are on a yearly basis, I am always asking myself as June approaches each year: “If I am moved this year, am I leaving this church in a better place than when I found it? Have I empowered lay leadership to own the ministry, so that a new pastor will find willing and able partners when he/she arrives? Are processes and systems in place that will foster growth and vitality, whether I am here or not? Am I willing to plant seeds that others may sow?”

One book that helped shape my answers to these questions and, more importantly, my leadership style, was Jim Collins’ book, From Good to Great. Collins and his researchers explored the factors that help companies (and, in a later book, nonprofits) go from good to great. One chapter, in particular, points out how leadership helps make this happen.

He says that there are five levels of leadership: 


All are skilled leaders. However, it is level 4 and 5 leaders that help make organizations great. But what sustains the greatness are the gifts a level 5 leader brings to their work.

What’s the difference between a level 4 and a level 5 leader? Level 5 leaders leave a place better than they found it!

Level 5 leaders put the needs of the organization above their ego needs. When success is achieved, level 5 leaders don’t own the success for themselves. They point to those who work with them as the reason for the success. However, when things go poorly, level 5 leaders look at themselves first and how they could have led differently. Level 5 leaders take great satisfaction in setting up their successors for success and watching the organization thrive after they’ve left.

Level 4 leaders, in contrast, sabotage their successors – purposefully or inadvertently. Their ego needs get in the way. They might not admit it, but they like to see an organization flounder without them. Not only do the organizations suffer, but the level 4 leaders suffer as well, for they never reach their full leadership potential.

I believe we who are called to ministry, whether as clergy or laity, are always called to level 5 leadership. The model we have for such leadership is Jesus. Through the Great Commission, Jesus empowered his followers to lead well so that his teachings would flourish long after he was gone.

What kind of leader are you? How are you seeking to grow your leadership abilities to become a level 5 leader? As July 1 approaches, and the Great Methodist Shuffle known as Appointment Changes nears, how are you encouraging those in your care to remain invested in the ministries you’ve shared and empowering them to greater leadership? Are you setting your successor up for success?

Are you leaving the place better than you found it?