Carey Nieuwhof’s Top 5 Strategies for Overcoming Leadership Challenges

Carey Nieuwhof’s Top 5 Strategies for Overcoming Leadership Challenges

Carey Nieuwhof is a pastor, thought leader, podcaster, and author of Didn’t See It Coming: Overcoming the Seven Greatest Challenges That No One Expects and Everyone Experiences.

And in 2019, he’s one of the speakers delivering special keynotes at the Pushpay Summit conference from May 22nd-23rd in Dallas, Texas.

Each year, we gather ministry leaders from the country’s fastest-growing churches, some of your favorite leadership authors, and business gurus to help you solve some of your ministry’s hardest problems. 

Ahead of this year’s Summit conference, we’d love to share some of Carey’s most profound insights on leadership in ministry.

Here are five key takeaways from Didn’t See It Coming, with even more excellent leadership content to come at Pushpay Summit 2019.


What takes out leaders?

Often it’s not skill, talent, or ability that takes out great leaders in ministry. In fact, looking at the secular world, we see countless gifted athletes and CEOs quitting their positions (or being forced to resign), and sometimes it’s for big, very visible wrongs. Many times though, it’s subtle issues that end up humiliating people once at the helm of a thriving organization. Here are five challenges that tend to sneak up on even the most effective ministry leaders, derived from Care Nieuwhof’s Didn’t See It Coming:

1. Cynicism

Cynicism is toxic in church leadership, but it’s a common pitfall for many who’ve served in the church for some time. No one begins their ministry career cynical or ever thinks they’re going to be that way. But it’s common for cynicism to build up over time. Carey saw it play out at a law firm he worked for early in his pre-ministry career—he noticed that it wasn’t the people who were melancholy or angry at the world who were cynical, but people who were successful in their careers with plenty to be grateful for. And Carey even saw it play out in the church.

What he drew from his ministry experience over the years was that cynicism doesn’t grow in a person because they don’t care about their work. It flourishes when someone cares a lot and even champions optimism, but see their hopes dashed time and time again. Soon enough, their heart gets hard and encrusted. Some cynical leaders quit after some time, but the ones that don’t overcome their cynicism and stay in their ministry roles tend to see a hard cap of their effectiveness leading the church. Not only that, but a cynical leader tends to spread their cynicism across the staff and breeds a sense of hopelessness into the team culture.

The Strategy: Carey encourages leaders who feel they may becoming cynical to cultivate curiosity. Cynical people are never curious and curious people are never cynical. Cynicism tells people that they already know all the answers, even though those answers may be incorrect. Curiosity breaks that cycle and opens up new possibilities and ideas. Read outside of your discipline and learn new things. Ask other leaders about their favorite books and start reading. Cultivating healthy curiosity helps melt away cynicism and makes leaders more effective in their ministries.

Cynical people are never curious and curious people are never cynical.

To hear more excellent content like this from Carey Nieuwhof, click here to talk to one of our experts and get Summit keynotes and breakout session videos sent to your email. Be sure to share those resources with your wider team!

2. Compromise

Compromise is the gap between who you are and who you can be and it’s tied together with character. In fact, when a leader’s moral character starts to slide, compromise is fairly inevitable. Maybe a leader was able to cut corners to get the job done at the beginning and go unnoticed. But once people begin to question their character, their competence and ability to do the job is immediately called into question. And Carey doesn’t believe that competence in ministry work is all that matters. In fact, we can all agree that we’ve been around some super smart, competent leaders in the past, but try to avoid them because we question their character. If a leader finds themselves cutting corners continually to get the job done, they’ll naturally erode trust and reduce their effectiveness as a member of staff.

Compromise gets you in the room, but character keeps you in the room.

The Strategy: Work twice as hard on your character as you do on your competence as a leader. Your employer will pay you to work on your competence, sending you to conferences or paying for a library of great ministry resources. But you have to do the work to invest in your character. Carey spends time in prayer, Bible study, and meditation each day to improve as a person, not just as a pastor. He recommends an exercise to help reorient leaders if they’re trying to build character: Ask the question “What are people going to say about me when I die?”

The answer will have nothing to do with competence as a leader but everything to do with character. Are people going to say good things? Will they report about how well you treated others? How well you cared for other leaders or made time for your family? If you’re nervous about what your friends and family will say, it’s time to work on character building.

3. Disconnection

Carey agrees that we live in an interesting time. As a society, we’ve never been more connected because of technology, but we’ve also never felt so alone. In fact, isolation and loneliness are statistically increasing each year and studies show that each generation feels more isolated than the one before. Carey believes that solitude is a gift from God, while isolation is a tool of the enemy, and will continue to pose a challenge to churches in the coming years.

Solitude is a gift from God, while isolation is a tool of the enemy.

Many leaders have serious moral failures because of isolation. Again, it may not look like an affair or huge scandal. But it may look like leaders not being held accountable by their peers and making a mistake that hurts the people around them as well as the community’s trust in church leadership.

The Strategy: How do leaders prevent themselves from being disconnected from their families, peers in leadership, and the congregants they seek to serve with the love of Christ? First, it takes a shift in perspective: Disconnection is not a technology problem, but a human one. Reducing the church’s use of technology will not help people feel more connected. Carey advocates for addressing the human issue of hurrying. 

Love has a pace, and it’s slower than you are.

Leaders shouldn’t hurry because it’s the enemy of intimacy. People can’t love well in a hurry or connect with others when on the go. Love has a pace, and it’s slower than you are. Leaders who really want to have intentional, healthy relationships with their family, peers, and the wider church, they need to slow down and be more in the present. Carey turns his phone on airplane mode very often and encourages other leaders to disconnect from their technology periodically and forge deeper connections with the people around them.

4. Irrelevance

Irrelevance is the gap between how quickly things change and how quickly you change as a leader. As people age, they naturally lose relevance in conversations about culture, technology, and in with the people around them. And it’s because culture never asks permission to change, it just changes. In the blink of an eye or in just a few years, leaders can get left behind. This doesn’t just mean some leaders will struggle to relate with younger generations within the church. It can look like leaders being unknowledgeable and averse to good, healthy changes that need to take place. Changes won’t affect the scripture or the theology we hold dear. But it will affect the technology we use to reach and engage with people, serve the unchurched, and care for the vulnerable right in our backyards. Leaders who aren’t in tune with the changes around them can unknowingly hold back their ministries.

Culture never asks permission to change, it just changes.

The Strategy: Church leaders should strive to stay relevant if they have any interest in relating to the people around them. Carey encourages leaders to surround themselves with young people when doing ministry and seek out information about the latest movies, music, and tech trends hitting the stage in popular culture. If leaders don’t make an effort to remain relevant, they’ll miss out on opportunities to influence and care for the people around them. As Carey puts it, unimplemented change results in regret.

5. Pride

Pride is narcissism and an obsession with self—those things sound like they should be pretty foreign on church leadership but everyone struggles with this at some point in time. That’s because insecurity leads people to think about themselves and their image a lot and lends itself easily to an obsession with self. When leaders are struggling with pride for long periods of time, it can be distracting and make them ineffective servant leaders.

The Strategy: The obvious answer to pride is humility, but there’s more—you have to voluntarily embrace it. The humble can’t be humiliated because they’re so grounded, very little can knock them even lower. But for a leader struggling with pride, picking up the banner of humility can feel impossible. But the good news is that humility is a habit, not an attitude—it can be practiced and developed.

The antidote to pride is humility, and you have to voluntarily embrace it.

Carey recommends that leaders continually find someone who’s smarter than them an push that person into the spotlight. It’ll hurt the leader’s pride, and, if done on a continual basis, will help shift their internal focus from them to others. Pride won’t last long in leaders who make a habit of giving other people public praise and credit for their accomplishments.

In the rest of his book, Carey addresses low-grade burnout and emptiness, both widespread and commonplace in ministries of all sizes. Carey is one of our lead speakers at Pushpay Summit 2019 from May 22nd – 23rd at Gateway Church in Dallas, Texas, and unpacked even more ministry and leadership truths for leaders just like you.

For more equipping material to share with your leadership team, contact our church tech experts today to get Summit keynotes and videos sent to your email!

Davina Adcock
Copywriter at

Davina manages content at Pushpay and has several years of experience writing for tech startups, magazines, and companies that serve the Church. Alumna of The University of Texas, she enjoys two-stepping in the Lone Star State, visiting cool AirBnbs, and eating pad kee mao.