Two Secrets of Good Leadership: Learning to Live with Other People's Pain and with Your Own Mistakes

By Derek Penwell

Two Keys to Good Leadership

Thesis: You can’t be a good leader until you get comfortable with other people’s pain and with your own mistakes.

Learning to Live with Other People’s Pain

I know about a church that developed some bad habits over the years. They had worked with a paradigm of ministry in which the minister was responsible for virtually everything. If a light bulb burned out in the exit sign, they dropped a note to the minister. When the lady who was supposed to bring the grape jello to Vacation Bible School forgot, everything stopped while they called the minister to let him know. When the garbage cans didn’t get put back, somebody would leave a message on the answering machine to apprise the minister of this crucial oversight.

And, as if by magic, new light bulbs and purple jello would appear. The garbage cans mysteriously found their homes. The minister made sure complaints were addressed and problems were solved. He did most of it himself.

The arrangement suited everybody—the minister had a compelling need to feel needed, and the congregation had a capacious reservoir of need. Everybody wins![1]

Except when the minister left, the arrangement was no longer viable. Now there was a congregation trained to be needy, but no longer anyone to meet those needs. How do you handle a situation like that?

What will the next minister have to do if she doesn’t want to continue this co-dependent relationship?

She’s going to have to develop an extraordinarily high tolerance for pain.


Any minister who wants to make changes to a system that depends on the minister to make changes is going to have to get comfortable watching people suffer.

“How can you possibly say that? Isn’t suffering part of what ministers are supposed to be in the business of alleviating?”

No. Where did you get that idea? Ministers are in the business of helping equip people for the reign of God. Sometimes that means being intensely and pastorally present when people suffer. But pastoral ministry is almost never about fixing people’s suffering, about doing away with people’s anxieties, about slaying everyone’s dragons for them.

Pastoral ministry is about helping people discover a new story that makes sense of their suffering and anxiety (and hope, doubt, aspirations, needs, etc.) in light of God’s reconciling love manifested in Jesus Christ.

In the case I’ve been describing the new pastor, if she is going to be faithful to her vocation, is going to have to get comfortable with the pain caused when people see burned-out light bulbs, jello-less VBS extravaganzas, empty garbage cans by the side of the road, and mistakenly believe that the only person responsible for them is the minister.

“So, you’re saying the minister should just be lazy and let everybody else do everything?”

No. I’m saying that if everybody else believes the only person who needs to do anything is the one getting paid, you haven’t hired a minister; you’ve hired domestic help.[2] The minister isn’t doing anybody any favors by constantly rescuing the congregation from those situations for which other people need to be taking some responsibility.

Authentic, Jesus-centered ministry that seeks to enable growth rather than merely enable, requires learning to have a high threshold for other people’s pain.

It’s tough, but there aren’t any shortcuts.

Learning to Love Your Own Mistakes

I just took a group of people down to San Luis Potosí, México. We work in a children’s home there, started by Ted and Wanda Murray. I’ve been taking groups down for over 20 years now. The trip is one of my favorite things to do.

Anyway, I took my two oldest children again this year. My daughter wants to speak Spanish better to be able to communicate with the kids down there. So, I started her on a language series, The Pimsleur Method (It’s the best language learning system I’ve found, for whatever that’s worth).

So, I've been talking to my daughter about how her Spanish is progressing. She said she really likes the lessons. So, I gave her some tricks about learning a language.

“The nice thing about the Pimsleur method,” I said, “is that, if you do it daily, you wind up having to hear yourself speak the language out loud over and over again—which is important, because one of the biggest obstacles to speaking a foreign language when you travel is overcoming your fear of speaking out loud in front of other people.”

She said, “Yeah, that’s the scariest part, because you don’t want to goof up and have people laugh at you.”

“That’s the trick to learning a language, though—being able to withstand the embarrassment of getting it wrong. If you can’t stand being laughed at, you’ll never learn another language.”

Why is that?

Because the process of mastering a language requires making mistakes. Lots of mistakes. Tons of mistakes. Painful, embarrassing mistakes.

Learning a language is just as much about learning what not to say. There are no shortcuts to the hours of practice or the patience to endure the humiliation of doing it incorrectly.

I also think that’s another secret to good leadership.

Much of what passes for conventional wisdom about good leadership has to do with always making good decisions.

When presented with a choice, the good leader will choose X; the poor leader will choose Y—where X is eventually shown to be a wise decision, and Y a poor one.

I want to suggest, however, that making good decisions isn’t the best indicator of leadership. Instead, I think the sign of excellence in leadership is the desire to learn from mistakes.

If you’re going to learn to pound nails, you’re going to have to make peace with mashing your thumb every once in a while.

On this reading of leadership, excellence requires not only a willingness to be wrong, but an enthusiasm about being shown where you went wrong. Good leadership values being shown where things went wrong.

You can’t be a good leader without risking mistakes and embracing the humiliation of getting it wrong.

Here’s the secret: Ministry isn’t about being right; it’s about getting it right.

And if you want to get it right, you’d better learn to love your mistakes, because they’re your friends on the path to good leadership.

Good leadership is often counter-intuitive. But if it were easy, great leaders would be everywhere. They’re not. So, we have to work at it.


  1. Before I get a whole bunch of email arguing either that I’m being unfair to to needy congregations or needy ministers, I’m willing to spread the blame across the clergy/laity spectrum.  ↩
  2. Again, prior to emailing me, let me hasten to say that I know there are lazy ministers out there. If that’s your problem, then this post won’t help you address your situation.  ↩

The Pain of Change

Change.  We realize in some abstract way that change is necessary.  Growth in any form requires change.  But even though we know it intellectually, change can be hard to assimilate emotionally.  So, the question is not whether change will happen, but whether the changes that come help to equip us for discipleship in the kingdom of God.  The Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) is obviously undergoing change.  In some part of our minds we know that, and that it is necessary to meet the demands of a rapidly changing world.  But change is hard.  Where do we go?  How do we get there?  Who will come along as we move forward, and who will decide to embark on a different journey?    Can we say we love people if we make them mad?  A lot of questions.  A lot of decisions to be made about how we will remain faithful to the vision that gave birth to the Disciples in the first place, and about how we will carry that legacy into the future The primary question for us as we make decisions, though, should not be about whether the changes we make will cause distress (we know that any decisions we make are potentially troubling), rather, our primary question should always be, “Are the decisions we make, the changes we propose faithful to the claims of the gospel?”  We want to be sensitive to the discomfort that people feel when change comes, while at the same time understanding that some discomfort is inevitable.  We seek not necessarily to increase people’s anxiety, but we understand that all change produces an attendant amount of disquiet.

No change is ever universally accepted.  Some people will like it.  Some people will hate it.  Therefore, in making decisions, we need a more substantive criterion for deciding how to act than whether or not change is popular.  I would suggest to you that the criteria we use to discern whether the direction in which we are headed is the right direction ought to center on whether any decision increases our commitment to discipleship.  Does a particular decision help us more faithfully live out a vision of the gospel that understands hospitality as fundamental to our identity?  Are we embracing others in the way Jesus embraced others?  Are we producing disciples capable of embodying the truth of the gospel that God seeks to be reconciled to all creation?  Do we have a vision of Christian maturity that challenges us to move beyond the easy and convenient to accept that which asks that we lay down our lives, pick up our crosses, and follow Jesus down the sometimes dark and frightening road he travels?  Are we expending our resources in propping up structures and programs, the purpose of which has been lost in the press of maintaining institutions?

In agreeing to be guided by the principle of faithfulness in decision-making, we make the implicit statement that the way we judge change is by whether or not it assists us in our goal of making better Christians—not by whether it allows us to continue herding our sacred cows.  As we continue our journey during this time of transition, with our focus on the sacrifice of Jesus, we can’t help but be reminded that faithfulness is our response to a Lord who was first faithful to us—and acting faithfully is always the most loving thing to do.

At [D]mergent we’d like to help facilitate a conversation about what changes are necessary to keep the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) a faithful partner in bearing witness to the gospel.  What kind of things do we do that are necessary?  What things have outlived their usefulness?  What should our priorities be?  At the heart of the conversation is the question, “What unique role does the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) fulfill that would leave the landscape that much more impoverished if we weren’t here?”  Tell us what you think.


Derek Penwell is senior pastor of Douglass Boulevard Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Louisville, Kentucky and lecturer at the University of Louisville in Religious Studies and Humanities.  He is the author of articles ranging from Stone/Campbell history to aesthetic theory and the tragic emotions.  He is a graduate of Great Lakes Christian College (B,R.E.), Emmanuel School of Religion (M.A.R.), Lexington Theological Seminary (M.Div. and D.Min.), and a Ph.D. in humanities at the University of Louisville.  He currently blogs at The Company of the Eudaimon and on Twitter at @reseudaimon.  Penwell was once shot with a potato gun while fleeing the scene of a Cold War espionage sting at a premium vodka distillery in a rural Estonian outpost. (He doesn't like to talk about it . . . so don't ask.)