SUMMARY

We surrender our identity to God and our ambition to the good of our neighbors. Instead of acting as though we own the organization, we practice the mindsets and habits of stewardship, using our position to advance others’ glory and fullness rather than our own.

OUR REALITY

As leaders we begin with a burning sense of calling to the people we serve, attuned to God’s heart for the issues and communities at the center of our mission. Even when the work is hard and slow, we flourish in the satisfactions of pioneering new work: seemingly inexhaustible stores of energy for the mission; rapid learning curves; authorship of an organizational narrative; innovation and design in problem solving and model building; solidarity with others in the effort. We can bear witness to the power of God working through our imagination and leadership. 

As enterprising leaders, though constrained externally in various ways, we make every meaningful decision about what the venture does and does not do. In many respects, especially in early stages, our personal character is the ethical rudder of the organization. Our imagination is the vector of the organization’s innovation. Our ambition is the index of the organization’s appetite for scale. This level of agency is daunting, though exhilarating.

Over time, the challenges of nonprofit leadership compound. We may experience setbacks in our programs; alienation from certain people we serve; the departure of trusted co-laborers; the burden of funding a growing organization in an environment of apparent scarcity. Resentment can build among our closest family and friends, as we struggle to make time for all our priorities. Without noticing it, we become more susceptible to the nobility trap.

As our organization grows and we can no longer personally integrate all functions and relationships, we make our peace with the stakeholder gap. We learn to take satisfaction in sharing leadership, yet in trying moments we may feel that our ambition and vision—the generative fuel of the mission—is being thwarted. The state of our funding campaigns feels like a referendum on our worth as a leader. For better and (mostly) for worse, our stewardship mentality gradually tightens into an ownership mentality, and our belief in the mission becomes inextricable from our belief in ourselves.

The heart of this conflict is a distortion of our identity relative to the mission and organization. We “know” that our true identity rests in Christ and not in our association with this nonprofit. We “know” that we are stewards and not owners of the mission. We “know” that our ambition must be surrendered to God’s purposes.

But in our hearts and through our leadership we act out the world’s dominant script, which assures nonprofit leaders of their virtue in doing good, admires them for overworking, applauds them for driving growth, bids them to hold the stage, and reinforces the dangerous link between personal brand and mission brand. 

Instead, we long for God’s love to define our identity so that we can surrender our ambition to him.

PRACTICES

1. We use our power wisely and courageously for the sake of our team and mission, and not for our own benefit. As we take calculated risks to increase the organization’s impact, we willingly absorb the downside vulnerability of these risks, and generously share the upside credit with our team. We create ways for our team members to glean opportunities for growth and satisfaction that might otherwise be ours—for example, delegating not merely the tasks and roles we don’t enjoy, but also those that we prefer to do ourselves.

2. Understanding that our zeal for growth and impact puts pressure on the organization, we seek redemptive ways to relieve the unhelpful aspects of that pressure. Before we set and commit the organization to ambitious goals, we involve the people who must work to meet those goals. We bring our most consequential decisions
before God and each other—not making decisions by committee, but informing them through community. 

3. We practice “dispensability,” setting patterns as early as possible in the life of our organization that acknowledge our limits and demonstrate that the mission can advance without us. We actively counteract the temptation to inflate our personal brand by moderating our participation in the privileges of visibility, such as public speaking or writing engagements. Recognizing that we will be frequently treated as experts, we position ourselves as learners in and beyond the organization. 

4. We model parity and balance in work expectations across the levels of the team. As leaders we regularly make ourselves unavailable from work and our team; we regulate our travel commitments; and we pitch in to support the teams and individuals where the need is greatest. We create space for all others to do the same, ensuring that we and the other leaders set a sustainable pace, neither overworking nor avoiding their share of the burden during peak periods. 

5. We make ourselves accountable to our team and board, asking searching questions and attending carefully to feedback on our leadership. We also cultivate thick relationships outside work where we can submit ourselves transparently to wise counsel, grace, and truth. 

6. We consider reading and personally practicing Praxis’ A Rule of Life for Redemptive Entrepreneurs to reinforce our identity of surrender and stewardship, and to maximize our organization’s redemptive possibility.

THE GOOD NEWS

The redemptive pattern of creative restoration through sacrifice applies not only to the organization’s mission but also to the leader’s standing. It takes a counterintuitive, sacrificial, and sustained release of the leader’s prerogatives for their leadership to have the most lasting influence.

We are persistently building an identity that is beyond the work of our organization, knowing that at some point in the future, whether by design or by default, the organization will no longer be ours to steward. As we practice our unshakable identity in Christ, he will redirect our ambition away from our own glory and toward the health of the organization and its stakeholders. We will be set free to lead from the redemptive paradox of high ambition and full surrender. 

We will replenish our energy through sustainable rhythms of work and rest, and re-learn how to learn from others.

We will delight in sharing the burden and privilege of leadership across the organization—liberally distributing the power to create, to define, to decide, to care, to act.

We will recapture a healthy tolerance for risk, caring intensely and acting boldly, knowing that the grace we have been given produces faith and not certainty. As stewards rather than owners of the organization, we will experience reduced anxiety over its financial resources.

We will be poised in facing the ambiguity of our evolving role, inviting accountability from our board, peers, and trusted advisors. We will participate enthusiastically and open-handedly in succession planning, energized by the vision of an organization that endures beyond our involvement.