The ONE Thing that Should Characterize Every Christian Leader

love in leadership

The one thing that should characterize every Christian leader…often doesn’t.

I’m hesitant to tell you what it is upfront because you will do what I would be tempted to do…say ‘well of course’ and move on.

Who needs another lesson in that?

Well, honestly, I do.

And, it’s not that simple.

This one thing is:

The easiest thing to say you understand but so difficult to put into practice.

Something no one really teaches you in seminary.

A casualty of leadership for many people who are focused on being right and making progress, and equally for those who aren’t as A-type.

Often so poorly understood that even people who claim to have mastered it haven’t.

And I only write about it because I’m still trying to figure out its application to my life and leadership daily.

So what is it?


I told you that you’d roll your eyes and want to move on. Or think “well I’ve got that covered”.

But I’m not sure the church does. I’m not sure Christian leaders do anyway, regardless of our denominational stripe or style of leadership.

Jesus said the mark that would define every authentic follower is love. He was so clear: our love would be proof to the world that we are Jesus’ followers.

And yet church leaders are rarely known for our love.

Why is that?

Church leaders are rarely known for our love. Why is that? Click To Tweet

Two Kinds of Leaders

Most of us (including those of us who resist categories) still fall into one of two categories:

There are truth people.

And then there are grace people.

The truth people stand up for what’s right. They don’t compromise when it comes to doctrine. They feel compelled to enforce the rules in a world that is bent on ignoring them. They point out when others are wrong because the truth needs to be defended. And in the name of truth, leaders savagely attack others.

The grace people are more about love and relationship. They feel for others. They don’t want to rush to judgment. They don’t want to sacrifice a relationship for the sake of a disagreement. They don’t want to confront because they don’t want to judge. In the name of grace, people avoid issues that honestly need to be addressed.

The truth people think the grace people have no spine.

And the grace people think the truth people have no heart.

In the name of grace, people avoid issues that honestly need to be addressed. Click To Tweet

What Love Looks Like 

The reality is our Saviour came full of both grace AND truth.

He never spoke truth without speaking it gracefully.

He never displayed grace in a way that compromised the truth.


Grace was never separated from truth. Truth was never separated from grace.

Every leader needs to understand that:

Truth isn’t truth without grace.

Grace isn’t grace without truth.

Think about it. You know this:

Truth that doesn’t originate in love is harsh and cruel.

Grace that is spineless is meaningless and leads people nowhere.

Only when grace and truth come together do we really see any power.

I think one of the things that made Jesus’ ministry so compelling to outsiders (and maybe so threatening to insiders) is that they saw this rare and tremendously powerful synthesis of grace and truth—and it was spellbinding.

Truth that doesn't originate in love is harsh and cruel. Grace that is spineless is meaningless and leads people nowhere. Click To Tweet

5 Ways to Lead 

So what does love look like in leadership?

How do you embody grace and truth every day?

It’s a rather inexhaustible treasure. I’m sure you could come up with many examples (and please do in the comments).

But here are five simple practices that if followed, can lead to a greater marriage of grace and truth in your life and leadership. These will at least get us started.

1. Think more of others than you think of yourself. 

Self is at the root of most (or all) sin. When I overfocus on my wants and my needs, I ignore others. A leader who loves thinks of what’s best for others, what’s best for the organization, what’s best for the mission and what’s best for the cause rather than what’s best for themselves (like winning an argument or avoiding a tough situation). When I think more of others, I die to myself and can begin to live in love.

When I think more of others, I die to myself and can begin to live in love. Click To Tweet

2. Speak well of people publicly, and deal with disagreements privately and directly.

Human nature is to do the opposite; complain publicly and say nothing privately or directly. Just flip that. If you have a disagreement, go direct and deal with it. But speak kindly of the person publicly.

3. Disagree without being disagreeable.

We’re humans. Of course, we are going to disagree. But how we disagree is almost more damaging than the fact that we disagree. Don’t attack when you disagree. Show empathy. Respect. Imagine how the blogging world might change if we learned to disagree without being disagreeable. Imagine how local congregations might change.

4. Take the high road. 

Okay, that’s a cliche, I know. But think about it, you know what it means, don’t you? And looking back over your life, have you ever regretted taking the high road? Not once. The high road is never an easy road but it’s the best road. And here’s the truth—you know what the high road is, don’t you? So take it. It’s hard now, but you’ll be so grateful later.

5. Serve those you lead. 

One of the best questions you can ask as a leader is ‘how can I help you’? If your primary leadership orientation is to help others, you will reflect the heart of your Heavenly Father far more than when you lead to serve yourself. And your leadership will resonate more with people.

A Better Day for the Church and Your Neighbours

So what if we Christians were actually known for our love?

What if no one loved more deeply? What if no one spoke the truth with more grace? (And honestly, who wants to follow self-centered, always-right, angry or spineless leaders anyway?)

If we were known for our love, I think the unchurched would be far more curious, far more intrigued, and perhaps even far more convinced that this God we serve is one they want to get to know too.

what if we Christians were actually known for our love? Click To Tweet

How have you seen love embodied in leadership?

The ONE Thing that Should Characterize Every Christian Leader


  1. Rick Stapleton on June 14, 2021 at 9:35 am

    Thank you Carey (again) for your insight. Great post!

  2. Lance Cole on June 13, 2021 at 8:15 am

    I was preaching on Matthew 5:43-48 and this helped me finalize my sermon. Thank you.

  3. Steve Shaw on June 13, 2021 at 7:52 am

    Amen, thanks Carey. This post reminds me of a gem of a little book by Tim Keller on a related subject called “The Freedom of Self-Forgetfulness.” A super helpful read for leaders to learn to love better “not by thinking less of yourself but by thinking of yourself less” as Keller so aptly puts it. The book was a game-changer for me.

  4. Maria on June 13, 2021 at 7:50 am

    I think this is an important post for all humans, regardless of faith, position, or age. I loved reading this and am grateful for the encouragement to balance these two virtues. Thank you for sharing again.

  5. Lanny Heinlen on June 13, 2021 at 7:45 am

    Years ago I heard a pastor say, “Love without the truth is sentimentality, Truth without love is brutality.” This has always stayed with me.

  6. Lamide Osinkolu on August 29, 2020 at 2:37 am

    Thanks for sharing these great nuggets for leadership.

  7. Gabriele Hehl on September 9, 2019 at 7:57 am

    Thank you for the reminders. This never gets old.

    • jack.hiegel on June 13, 2021 at 6:38 am

      How truthfully and graciously you have helped me convict myself of how I have been a leader privately at home with my kids. I pray the Holy Spirit strengthens and keeps me on the path to speaking the truth in love filled with grace!

  8. Noel Gallardo on September 8, 2019 at 3:44 pm

    It is an excellent reminder for all followers of Jesus to show to our immediate community, first to our family, next to our neighbors, and others the real love of Jesus. Yes, the truth must be seen in a straightforward show of love that others may see our good deeds and that they glorify our God who is in heaven.

    We have to evaluate all our church ministries if God’s love is present. Thank you.

    • Carey Nieuwhof on September 9, 2019 at 3:46 pm

      Glad to help!

  9. Richard Lockette on September 8, 2019 at 10:14 am

    I am always growing from your blogs and messages Carey, but this Truth without Grace is the one that I would like to not only demonstrate daily but to live it so much that it becomes second nature. God bless your works!!!!

    • Carey Nieuwhof on September 9, 2019 at 3:46 pm

      Thank you Richard!

  10. Jo Anne Taylor on September 8, 2019 at 7:03 am

    This may be your most powerful post ever. Thank you.

  11. Sean Stewart on September 8, 2019 at 5:52 am

    We need every church leader (heck, everyone) to read this!! Imagine the world if more would truly love.

    Great job Carey

  12. Jerry Maddock on October 3, 2013 at 9:46 am

    I think you just did all of the above….Thank you Carey!

  13. Duane Brown on October 3, 2013 at 9:35 am

    Excellent article (as usual!) Carey. Your point about the importance of maintaining the dialectic between truth and grace also applies to the tension between liberals and conservatives, both in the political and spiritual sphere. Liberals tend to put greater emphasis on our need for corporate responsibility, while conservatives tend to emphasize the importance of personal responsibility. But as with truth and grace, it’s not an either/or dichotomy, but a both/and dialectic.

    Keep up the good work!

  14. Chris Shumate on October 2, 2013 at 2:54 pm

    Just as James said “Even so faith, if it has no works, is dead, being by itself” (James 2:17), I think it is just as characteristic to say the “Even so truth, if it has no grace, is dead, being by itself” (Shumate 3:16) 🙂

    That is because truth kills when not delivered in love and grace. If you desire a failed marriage, ministry, profession, go ahead and lead only by truth. As for me, I want a thriving family, ministry, and profession. But that’s just me.

    It is how good leaders progress. I am in a leadership development process right now and reading through John Maxwell’s “5 Levels of Leadership”. Too many are leaders by position (Level 1) and without love, at least in some form, they will never progress to the following 4 levels.

    Excellent thoughts, Carey. I need a reminder to love daily also. I am glad I am not the only one.

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