“I never wanted to work for a church,” says Pastor Jelani Lewis, who has now worked at Gateway Church for more than a decade. Now Jelani is a regional campus pastor and he oversees multiple campuses at Gateway, where he started as a children’s pastor.
In this episode of Church InTension, The King’s University President, Dr. Jon Chasteen, talks with Jelani about his career and the difference between having selfish ambition and godly desire.
Dr. Jon Chasteen: How did you get into ministry?
Pastor Jelani Lewis: Great question. So, I never, ever wanted to work for a church. I literally said to the Lord… I surrendered my life to Jesus as a teenager, but essentially said to God, “I will do whatever you want, except for working for church.”
Jon: Isn’t that the formula to get in the ministry?
Jelani: It is.
Jon: It was for me.
Jelani: It’s like, basically he just went, “Check, you’ll be there.”
Jon: It’s like what you don’t want to do. Oh, okay-
Jelani: Got you.
Jon: … let me write that down.
Jelani: Yeah. Because it’s interesting because I said, “I surrender my life to you, but here’s the thing that we can’t do.” And so-
Jon: I’ve been tempted to say, “God, I don’t want to be a billionaire. Anything but a billionaire, Lord.”
Jelani: Absolutely. Yeah. “Just don’t send me to Hawaii, Jesus. Please don’t send me to Hawaii.” But some of it, honestly, John, was my experience growing up. My mother was a worship leader in several different churches, different denominations. We finally landed in a church where the pastor was really called to the inner city, so our church was in the middle of the projects. So, no income, no staff, dealing with a bunch of different issues. And the pastor had a son around my age. I saw their lives and I just didn’t want that.
Jelani: And so, some of it now I look back and go, “That was my own immaturity.” The man is doing what God called him to do, but for me I just went, “I don’t want that life.” And so, as a teenager, when I surrendered my life to Christ, I did not want to go into ministry. I went to school at Louisiana Tech University, transferred to the University of Central Arkansas. When I graduated from there… And mind you all the time, I’m going, “I love Jesus. I just… This ministry thing is not for me.” And so, ended up graduating college, working for a faith-based nonprofit organization for about a year and a half.
And one of the guys I’d played college football with, his dad has a prison ministry here in Texas. And so, the gentleman I played football with, he felt called to start a youth prison ministry to coincide with his dad’s prison ministry. And I left Arkansas to come to Texas and work with him. In my mind, it was still not vocational ministry. I still wasn’t working for a church. It was a para-church ministry, and we coached high school football. So, I thought, “I’m still cool. Everything’s cool.” And so, I get here and I am-
Jon: What year was that, that you were coaching football?
Jelani: So, that would’ve been 2005.
Jon: So, were coaches still wearing those really short, shorts back then?
Jon: You didn’t have to do that?
Jelani: And not the tube socks. No, I didn’t-
Jon: The tube socks and the short shorts?
Jelani: … have the tube socks and-
Jon: Because I just had this visual. I had this visual of Jelani standing on the football field with tube socks up to his knees.
Jelani: You were thinking about my quads. Thank you. Thank you for this.
Jon: Sorry for derailing that.
Jelani: No, no problem at all. No baggy shorts-
Jon: Okay, baggy shorts.
Jon: That’s true.
Jelani: And so, we ended up winning the state championship that year and-
Jelani: Yeah, it was an awesome experience, but coached the all star game and coached the all star game with a guy that was going to Gateway Church.
Jelani: And so, because with the all-star team, we had pulled people from different schools, we all gave our histories, and I mentioned the high school that I went to in Shreveport, Louisiana. And this coach, after that meeting came up to me and said, “Hey, so you were in Shreveport, and you went to this school.” And I said, “Yeah.” And he said, “I may know someone you know, he’s a pastor at my church.” And I said, “Who?” And he said, “Byron Copeland.” Well, Byron Copeland, I had known since I was 13 years old. He was my football coach, baseball coach, strength trainer, all of that in high school. And when I graduated high school, we lost touch. I saw him maybe twice in a seven year time span. And then, ultimately what happened is when he said that, I reached out to Byron and said, “I just want to connect with you.”
Byron and I start spending time together, and ultimately one day he reaches out to me and says, “We have an elementary director’s position open at the church. Would you be interested?” Well, again, so I grew up… When you talk about an elementary director, I’m thinking, felt boards, things like that. And that was the ministry that I experienced as a kid. And so, I’m going, “I’m not sure about children’s pastor, but I can tell you for sure, I don’t want to work for a church.” And I’m pretty sure I told him I’d pray about it because that’s spiritual, but there was no way that was happening. So two days later, I call him back and say, “I’m not doing this.” And he really challenges me. He says, “Look, you…” Basically challenged me to a place to go, “Lord, I really want what you want, so I need you to speak to me.” And so, John, I start praying and literally it’s like, I hear this loud thought in my head, Acts 13:36.
Jelani: Open up to Acts… Now I’m the guy that sometimes I hear a loud thought in my head, open up the scripture in the Bible, and it’s like Judas hanged himself. It is not a good situation for me. So I hear Acts 13:36, open up the Bible, and it’s when Paul is talking about David and he says, “And when David had served God’s purpose in his own generation, then he fell asleep.” And when I read that verse, I felt like the Holy Spirit said, “Jelani, this is part of your purpose in your generation,” and that’s when I started working at Gateway Church.
Jon: And your first role was as what?
Jelani: I was an elementary director.
Jon: Elementary… Would you have ever in a million years dreamed yourself-
Jelani: No, that was not… So, to be fair, when I worked in the nonprofit organization in Arkansas, we worked with elementary students, middle school students, high school students. So for me, there wasn’t necessarily… I felt like by God’s grace, I could work with elementary, middle school, high school, didn’t matter.
Jon: Done it. Yeah.
Jelani: I don’t know if I would’ve thought I would dress up like Madea in front of kids. I don’t know if I thought that my name would be changed to pastor Jelollipop. I didn’t know all this stuff was going down.
Jon: Jelollipop, that’s awesome.
Jelani: Yeah. That wasn’t part of the plan.
Jon: I’m going to call you that from now on.
Jelani: I should have never said anything.
Jon: Jelollipop. That’s so good.
Jelani: No, it’s terrible.
Jon: Did you have to talk in a higher voice too?
Jon: Because you’re talking to kids. It’s like, “Hey kids.”
Jelani: No, no. I tried to make my voice… I was really trying to introduce them more to the Boyz II Men, deep voice.
Jon: There you go.
Jelani: Hey kids, what’s going on?
Jon: This is Jelollipop.
Jelani: This is Jelollipop. Oh my God, I should’ve never said it.
Jon: Yeah. I knew we’d get off track.
Jelani: Absolutely. Absolutely.
Jon: That’s just what we do when we get together. That’s cool. So, how long did you do that? Tell me the next steps, and then, listeners, I promise, I’m going somewhere.
Jelani: Yeah. So, in children’s ministry for five and a half years, elementary director, then I became the elementary pastor. Then I started our fifth and sixth grade ministry. Did that for five years and then transitioned to what we call an associate campus pastor. So, each of our campuses has a campus pastor. And we also have associate campus pastors, which are basically number two’s on the campus and campus pastors in training. And so, did that for four years, and then I became the campus pastor, of the Frisco campus.
Jon: And did you have… Obviously you didn’t have any directive, you didn’t have an ambition necessarily to go into ministry, but you saw your influence begin to increase, right?
Jon: And you’re getting promotions and promotions. And from what I… How many years have you been at Gateway?
Jon: 15 years. So, I mean, Gateway started in 2000, so you were there from the early days.
Jon: So, you’ve, for lack of a better term, climbed this ladder so to speak; been around the block, you’ve increased your influence. And even now, I’ve known you for three years now and seen you grow even more. You’re preaching at Gateway. There’s a call on your life for the future. We don’t know what or when that is, but I’ve seen you… Was there ambition for that? Was there something that you… Because there’s this thought… This is where I’m going with all this.
Jon: Sometimes when people are in ministry, it’s very easy to take our eye off of what we’re ministering, what we’re doing in the moment, because our ambitions drive us. And so, we have this ambition or this drive to become the next, blank. Right? So, I’m a youth pastor for now, but it’s only because I want to do blank. Or I’m a campus pastor, I’m associate campus pastor now, but it’s only because I want to do blank. What are your thoughts on that? Is that healthy to do? Is it unhealthy to do? Did you do some of that?
Jelani: Sure, sure.
Jon: What’s been your experience?
Jelani: Great question. So, part of it for me, I think it’s important to at least say at the onset, I don’t know if I ever even saw myself as a leader.
Jelani: So, there’s a verse, I think it’s I Chronicles 15:2, and it says that, “And David perceived he was king.”
Jelani: Or he realized he was king.
Jelani: So, there’s this moment where it’s almost like David looks around and goes, “Oh, wait a minute. You’ve given me this to steward.” So, coming into Gateway, I was such a broken mess. I mean, I was one of those guys, I was saved, but I wasn’t free, and the Lord had taken me on a journey for healing. And so, there was a lot of shame that I dealt with, and what happened when I came into children’s ministry by God’s grace, he put me essentially in a greenhouse. I was under the oversight of, at the time, our children’s pastors, Ken and Mary Jackson, and they created an environment of grace and truth for me.
I needed a lot of grace and a lot of truth, and they did both very well. And so, in that process, they started speaking things over me and identifying things in me, along with Pastor Byron Copeland, the gentleman that I mentioned earlier. So, what I feel like happened was, coming into Gateway, I was so broken, I’m just happy to be anywhere.
Jelani: And then, all of a sudden, I get in this environment with some people who really love me and they essentially begin to look in me and going, “Jelani, we see this in you. We see leadership on you, we see this ability, we see a communication gift,” and they’re essentially throwing fertilizer on those things. I heard Bishop TD Jake say one time, they were asking him about when did he know he was a preacher? And he said, “I didn’t know I was a preacher.” And they said, “How did you not know you were a preacher?” And he said, “I can see everybody in the room but me.”
Jelani: “I’m on this platform and I can see this guy-“
Jon: That’s so true.
Jelani: “… is great singing, worship, this guy’s great with the camera. This guy’s great speaking.” He said, “But I can’t see me.”
Jelani: And that’s honestly how I felt. I’m going, “I can’t see me,” and so I’ve got these amazing people around that are calling things out in me. So, all of a sudden, I get in this environment where people are saying, “I see you. This is what I see in you. You have what it takes.” Calling those things out. And so, then all of a sudden, I’m starting to realize who I am in the way of going, “God, you have called me to be a leader. God, you have given me a voice.” So, go ahead, you were-
Jon: Is that like a lost… Yeah. It’s almost like this strange dichotomy between having ambition and having drive.
Jon: And I’m not saying we shouldn’t have drive, I’m not saying we shouldn’t work hard, I’m not saying we shouldn’t have goals, but there is a strange thing there when it comes to ministry. What is a healthy way to approach your calling in the ministry?
Jon: Is it okay to have goals? Is it okay to say, “You know what, I’m a youth pastor for now, but I really want to be a senior pastor, and that’s where I’m heading?”
Jon: Do you feel like it’s more like God is just going to form you as you go?
Jelani: Well, so I think the tension I see… So biblically, the word that’s translated, selfish ambition, it’s actually one word in the Greek, and it’s never used in a positive context. Never. It’s like seven times in the New Testament, it’s never used in a positive context. And so, of course Paul says, “Do nothing out of selfish ambition.” So, there is this sense of ambition being connected to selfishness. I get that.
The tension I used to feel when we would talk about, or I’d hear people talk about, selfish ambition was I also remember in Mark chapter 10 where James and John come to Jesus and they say, “Hey, can one of us sit on your right and one of us sit on your left when you come into your kingdom?” And Jesus begins to talk about and address all the disciples… Essentially, he doesn’t address their desire to be a leader or to be great in a negative way.
He doesn’t say, “You shouldn’t want to do this.” What he does is he actually just defines what leadership and greatness is. So, he moves into this space of going, “So, if you want to lead, we know how the Gentiles rule, but let me tell you how it works in the kingdom.” And he talks about servanthood and sacrifice. But he never says, “You are wrong for wanting to be great.”
Jon: That’s good.
Jelani: Or “You’re wrong for wanting to be a leader.” And then in I Timothy, I think it’s three, where Paul is talking about the desire to be a leader in the church or an elder or an overseer, he says, “You desire a noble thing.”
Jon: Yep. That’s good.
Jelani: So, there’s a difference between, to me, selfish ambition and godly desire.
Yep. That’s really good.
Jelani: That God puts a desire inside of you to lead. And to me it has everything to do with the posture of your heart.
Jon: It’s a heart issue.
Jelani: Do I want to do this to promote my own platform so I could be the guy or the girl at the top? Or, do I understand that this desire is really about serving and helping other people? Because selfish ambition has to do with you putting your own interest before what the Lord declares or before the interest of others. But when it comes to this godly desire to lead, that means I am in a place where I’m saying, “I want to serve people and I’m willing to sacrifice for people.” To me, that’s the delineation, where I go.
Jon: That’s good.
Jelani: So yes, I think Jesus never says you’re wrong for wanting to be great. He just defines what greatness is.
Jon: What do you think are some ways that we can check our heart? Are there triggers? Are there things that we can identify in ourselves to test our own heart? It says that a lot in scripture, “Examine yourself.” Paul says that, “Examine yourself.” What are some ways that we can examine our heart? And I’m putting you on the spot here and we can process it together. But what are ways we challenge ourselves to make sure that our ambitions are pure? We’re not supposed to have selfish ambition, but one of the fruits of the spirit is self-control.
Jon: How do I control myself? How do I check my heart?
Jelani: Yeah. I think the big question is why. When you think about whatever you’re doing, why am I doing this? Or why do I want to do this? I remember… So there was a time in my life where I was an associate campus pastor and I found out that there was an opening in children’s ministry at another campus. And because I had been in children’s ministry before, and honestly I was at a space there where as an associate campus pastor, I didn’t know if I wanted to be a campus pastor. I’m going, “Is this really for me? Does this…” And also felt like that there was some sense of the expectation is that you just keep moving up and sometimes people are climbing the ladder. And so, I thought about going back to children’s ministry, and the reason why was to be honest with you, I just wanted to give everybody the bird and say, “I’m not doing…” But that’s not the right heart either. I swung to the whole… So, really, you don’t want to be a campus pastor just because you want to show them?
Jelani: That’s the most ridiculous… But again, I’m dealing with, why am I doing what I’m doing? And I know we’ve talked a little bit about-
Jelani: It really is. And a lot of this… You and I have talked briefly about some of this before, but a lot of it has to do with, I believe the whole idea of sonship and orphan and slave, hireling, mixed in there. And so, I have to come to the table and go, “Am I responding or am I pursuing something out of a place of an orphan?” Which means at least my perspective would be, “Hey, I’m performing here, saying, ‘Pick me.'”
Jon: It’s an insecurity.
Jelani: Exactly. Because I don’t… An orphan feels like they don’t have a place where they belong.
Jon: That’s right.
Jelani: They don’t have protection, they don’t have a family. And so, I’m performing, saying, “Pick me,” and then if you look at a slave or an orphan or a hireling, there is this sense that Jesus even said, “I am…” He said, “A slave is not a permanent member of the family.”
Jon: Yep. You’re temporary.
Jelani: Yeah. But he doesn’t say, “You’re not connected to the family,” he just says, “You’re not permanent.”
Jon: And you only get to stay if you perform.
Jelani: Exactly. And so, for me, I’m like, then you move to the slave and you’re going, “I’m performing,” saying, “Keep me.” And what I found is, especially in the transitions of leaderships, my insecurities flare up and I vacillate back and forth. Sometimes this is Jelani the orphan, sometimes this is Jelani operating like a slave, and then, sometimes this is Jelani as the son. And I feel like even as a son, I want to bring glory to my father, but the motivation is not Jelani, the motivation is his kingdom.
Jon: That’s good.
Jelani: And so, I think you have to go back to asking that question, why do I do what I do and why do I want what I want?
Jon: And I think it’s important to have people in your life that’ll tell you when you have a booger hanging out of your nose. You know what I mean?
Jon: I heard a guy say one time, the hardest person you’ll ever lead is yourself because… And I thought this was really good, because you can talk yourself into anything.
Jon: You can talk yourself into that bag of Oreos. You know it’s not good for you, but you can talk yourself into it pretty quick. And if we’re not careful, we can deceive ourselves to think that our motives are pure. Like, “Well, yeah. I want to be a senior pastor for the right reason. Sure. I want to help people get to know Jesus.” You can tell yourself whatever narrative you want to tell-
Jon: … but it’s actually rare to find friends that will tell you when you’re off.
Jon: When you really are just off base.
Jelani: Yep. Yep. Well, and I think that is, to me, there’s… It’s so interesting. When you look at, there’s a passage of scripture that actually David lists out all of his officials in service for him. And it’s like, this guy was a secretary… Whatever you call those people, treasury.
Jon: In II Chronicles.
Jelani: And it was he is a treasury, secretary, this guy taught his kids, this guy did this. And then there’s a guy named Hushai, and it says, “And he was the king’s friend.”
Jon: Just a friend.
Jelani: You got this long list of people and you have one guy, and he says, “And he was the king’s friend.” And then, you’ll actually find that Solomon had the same thing.
Jelani: So, you’ve got the warrior king and the wisest king, and both of them had somebody in their line that said, “I’ll be your friend.” And some translations say counselor. But I’m like, if the warrior king and the wisest king needed a friend-
Jon: That’s really good.
Jelani: … needed someone to speak into them, needed someone to call them out, needed someone to challenge them or call them up, we need a friend.
Jon: I agree. I want to shift gears just a little bit. You and I went to lunch before we did this podcast and talked a little bit about this concept of a cycle that you started seeing in your life. And I think it’s important as leaders, when we look back at certain areas of our life, we’ll see cycles of our gift and talent or even our assignments. God gives us assignments. And then as you look back over them, you’ll notice that, wow, every job I’ve had, I’ve been involved in X.
And I think for both of us, we started to identify that in a lot of ways, every assignment we’ve had, we’ve been called to maybe build something up. Instead of create something, maybe we’re called to recreate something or to craft something new. And the concept of a builder versus a rebuilder, and we talked a little bit that at lunch. What kind of pattern have you seen in your own life?
Jelani: I would say that is accurate for my life. I would say consistently in some form or fashion, I’ve been a part of transitions. The only ministry that I feel like I started from the ground up, would be our fifth and sixth grade ministry. Outside of that, even coming in as an elementary director, you’re inheriting a team. And really by God’s grace, they brought me in to develop some things, but I did, I inherited a ministry. And then, as a campus pastor, I became the campus pastor after the pastor before me had a moral failure. And so, then it became this space of transitioning there and working through that process and rebuilding.
And then, I moved into a space that we call regional campus pastor. So, overseeing other campuses and campus pastors. And as soon as I stepped into that role, within a few months, it was transitioning one campus pastor to another campus. And now, in this space, I’m moving to launch a campus, but that also meant transitioning the campus that I oversaw to someone else. And so, there is this pattern of rebuilding. And in some ways I feel like I get the benefit of both. I can look back and say, “Well, I built here, but primarily it’s been rebuilding, and now I have the opportunity to build again.”
Jon: I just think so much of leadership books and leadership talks are about building something great. And in some regard, no matter what we’re doing, we’re building, quote-unquote, building something great. But I think there’s something to be said… And I’m not old enough yet, or wise enough yet to write a book on it, I don’t think, but this concept of building versus rebuilding. And I think there’s a lot of people, a lot of pastors, a lot of leaders that are called to be rebuilders, and maybe you’ve taken over a church or taken over a department or taken over a ministry that’s been people long before you. And I always just like to say that I’m not the pastor, I’m the interim pastor. I’m not the president of TKU, I’m the interim president of TKU, because somebody’s going to come behind me.
I’m not going to be here forever. Whether I built this or rebuilt this, it really doesn’t matter. Nehemiah didn’t build anything, he rebuilt something. He walked into something where the walls was in shambles and he had to pick up the pieces and protect. They had a shovel in one hand and a sword in the other, and they had to find the weak parts in the wall. And there’s so many amazing leadership principles in the book of Nehemiah. So, I just think I wanted to touch on that. You can share more if you want.
It’s not even in our talking notes, but I just think there’s people out there… I remember I’ve sat in the church that I pastored several times and even here at TKU, and I’ll get… I remember one time I was sitting in the auditorium of Victory Church about to preach. And I remember looking around going, “I didn’t build any of this. I didn’t craft one architecture drawing. I didn’t build this.” But God called me in some respect to be a part of rebuilding for the next season, for the next thing for the church. And I think sometimes we can beat ourselves up as leaders, because we don’t see ourselves as that significant, but there’s always something that God’s wanting to rebuild in us. And there’s a lot of churches that need to be rebuilt.
Jon: I think planting churches is amazing, but if you’re thinking about planting a church, you might also say, “Lord, do you want me to rebuild a church?” Maybe there’s a church that needs to be rebirthed and renewed. So, I don’t know if you have anything to add on that or not.
Jelani: Well, first of all, I think you are old enough to write the book. I mean, you got to be 65-66, John.
Jon: You have a lot more gray in your beard than I do, young man.
Jelani: That is true. That’s very true.
Jon: We’re both the same age. I found that out.
Jelani: Are you 41?
Jon: I’m 41.
Jelani: Okay. All right.
Jon: I’m 41.
Jelani: But when’s your birthday?
Jon: August 9.
Jelani: You’re about to be 42. So you were-
Jon: When’s yours?
Jelani: Mine is January 17. So, you’re born in the 70s.
Jon: I was born in ’79.
Jelani: It’s a whole different… I’m a millennial, basically. That’s what I am. You are a baby boomer, my friend.
Jon: I’m Gen X. Don’t put that on me. I’m the in between generation. I’m the nobody generation.
Jelani: Great Depression.
Jon: You know what they refer to my generation as?
Jon: The forgotten generation. See, you just showed you forgot it. You went straight from millennial to baby boomer. No, you forgot us, Gen X-ers. Come on, Gen X-ers out there. Can I get an Amen?
Jelani: Somebody’s sensitive. Somebody’s sensitive right now.
Jon: I have a wound. It’s a heart wound.
Jelani: Well, let’s rebuild that, Jon. We just need to rebuild that.
Jon: A stench behind my stone.
Jelani: No, I love that you brought that conversation up because I do think… In fact, in some ways, we’re all recipients of something that happened before us. In some ways we’re standing on the shoulders of the people that went before us. I even love like the… This is going to go off on a rabbit trail. We’ll come back.
Jon: I like rabbit trails. Do it.
Jelani: So, I’m talking to you right now, but some of what you’re hearing is what my mom put inside me.
Jon: So true.
Jelani: And my dad put inside me.
Jelani: And my grandmother. And so, it’s just adding on to what was already there. And so, there is a place for that to go, man. We’re adding on.
Jon: That’s good.
Jelani: I think it’s important though, because some of the things that I’ve just learned in the rebuilding process and in some of those transitions, first of all, even if you think about Psalm 23, it’s actually a Psalm about transition. Like think about it. He says, “The Lord is my shepherd. I shall not want.” So you got this established, he’s the shepherd. “The Lord is my shepherd I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures.” So I’m in green pastures now. “He leads me besides still waters.” Wait a minute now, I’m at the waters. “He restores my soul. He leads me in paths of righteousness for his name sake.” I’m moving here.
Jon: Then I’m in the presence of my enemies, all of a sudden.
Jelani: And then in the presence of my enemies. I mean, seriously, I’m at the table at one point and I’m going through the valley, and so, part of it is you go, as a believer… Well, you can take pastor off of it. As a believer, if I’m following the shepherd, there is a sense that I will be moving. I’m in transition here. And so, you have to have this anchor that no matter what the season looks like, the good shepherd is your anchor.
Jon: That’s so good.
Jelani: This is the one that I’m following through that. But in these transitions, what I’ve seen is, one, I always eat fruit from the tree somebody else planted.
Jelani: And sometimes that fruit is sweet and sometimes that’s that fruit is bitter. And so, when it’s sweet, I celebrate. When it’s bitter, I guard my heart.
Jon: That’s good.
Jelani: And I think even stepping into something like this, the questions that people are typically asking, if you step in as a new leader, building this, people want to know, in general, one, they want to know, do you choose me?
Jon: Mm-hmm. Yep.
Jelani: They want to know, “Do you pick me? You’re the new leader-“
Jon: Yep. Do you value me?
Jelani: Yeah. Do you choose me? And then, they’re asking the question, “Can I trust you?”
Jelani: And trust is made up of three things. It’s competency. Do you know how to do the job? It’s your character, and it’s do you care? So, the reality is any of these times where I’ve walked through transition, inherited a new team, rebuilt something, I know going into this I’m going to inherit fruit that somebody else planted. I’m going to celebrate what’s good, I’m going to guard my heart when it’s not good.
Jon: That’s good.
Jelani: But I also know that everybody I see out there, they’re asking a question. Do you choose me?
Jon: That’s good.
Jelani: And can I trust you? And I know these are the things that I build trust. I’ll say one last thing I heard Pastor Brady Boyd say this once going out to New Life Church in Colorado. He said someone told him… And I hope I’m quoting this right. He said someone told him, “Brady, these people need a pastor, not a prophet.” In the sense of going, “Yes, we need a prophet to speak the future and vision and those things, but they’re so broken right now that make sure you come in and love them and pastor them and walk with them.” And some of those things have been a part of the process, when by God’s grace, I’ve been a part of some of those transitions to go, “These people need to be pastored.” And yes, we’re going to give them vision at the appropriate time, but they need to be pastored. And they’re asking, “Do you choose me?” They want to know that. And can I trust you?
Jon: That’s so good. I remember whenever I first became the lead pastor at Victory Church, it was on the heels of a moral failure. Church was in shambles. It was painful. It hurt. And about a year in, I was having one of those fetal position moments as a pastor, and every pastor’s been in one of those positions, but Brady Boyd encouraged me a lot. But there’s one particular time, Pastor Jimmy Evans called me and I was just pouring out my guts to him and telling him all the problems that I’m dealing with. And he said basically what you just said, this good fruit, bad fruit thing. He said, “John, you’ve woke up in the middle of somebody else’s harvest. And you’re standing in a field filled with wheat or picture whatever harvest you want to picture. And you’re standing in a field filled with fruit or a harvest that you didn’t sew the seeds for.” And he in a very fatherly, disciplinary way, he said, “Stop worrying about the fruit that you didn’t sow the seed of.”
Jelani: So good.
Jon: And he said, “Stop focusing on the fruit and just start throwing down seed. And nobody wants to sow seed because it takes a really long time. They just want to eat fruit, but forget about fruit. You’re not going to have any fruit for a while. So stop whining about fruit and just start sowing seed.”
Jelani: That’s great.
Jon: And then he said something that was very comforting and encouraging. He said, “And someday you’ll wake up and you’ll be feasting on your own fruit.”
Jelani: So good.
Jon: And that gave me the… It gave me what I needed for that day to say, “Okay, this isn’t my problem.” I mean, it’s my problem because I’m the leader. But as the guy coming in, as the transitional leader, what I’m seeing is not my problem. I didn’t produce any of this.
Jon: Because as leaders, we self-identify. We take the blame for, “Well, this is all my fault. This is on me.” But there’s certain things as a transitional leader that’s not on you. That’s on your predecessor; good or bad. There’s some things that predecessors do that’s amazing, that you’re feasting on good fruit.
Jon: So, I just think that’s so important for leaders to have that concept and have that frame of reference.
Jelani: Well, I think it’s also to your point, he said, “Someday.”
Jelani: So, the reality is-
Jon: Takes the pressure off.
Jon: Today’s not that day.
Jelani: Exactly. And it’s going to take some time, and I think that’s one of the things, especially from a leadership standpoint, we want to get things done right then and right there. And it does take some time. You were even saying that from a culture standpoint for you, it took about five years.
Jon: Mm-hmm. Yep.
Jelani: And so, that’s just the reality that we want to move faster, but it’s going to take some time, and that does, it takes some pressure off.
Jon: Yeah. So, let’s talk about pastors needing to keep it all together. The perception. And I don’t know where I’m going with this quite yet. It may go nowhere, and it’ll be a train wreck. That’s okay. You can laugh. This perception.
Jelani: It’s because you’re about to turn 42 and you are a forgotten generation.
Jon: So wait, you don’t turn 42 until January?
Jon: Yeah. I’m way older than you.
Jelani: Bro, you barely… I mean, I felt like when we were walking out of the restaurant-
Jon: So much more wisdom than you.
Jelani: I was going to carry you. I mean, it was just like-
Jon: I have so much more wisdom than you.
Jelani: I felt like you were dragging your right leg just to get by.
Jon: You have four kids, so that’s equal to 10 years-
Jelani: That’s very true. That’s very true.
Jon: So really I’m probably ten years younger than you.
Jelani: And you still have your hair, so that’s-
Jon: I do still have my hair, baldy.
Jelani: I would look like George Jefferson if I grew my hair out. It would not be good.
Jon: Oh, that’s awesome, Jelollipop.
Jelani: Please edit this.
Jon: No, whatever thing you say to me, I can just come back with Jelollipop and it’s-
Jelani: Or Jelan-hey.
Jon: Instant one; instant one. Okay. So, do you ever feel the pressure as a pastor to have it all together?
Jelani: I feel the pressure, yes, but it is significantly less because of the environment I’m in. So, I feel like Pastor Robert, our senior pastor at Gateway, has created an environment by his transparency from the platform that has removed some of the pressure to feel like you’ve got to have it all together. For me, it’s been very, very helpful, because again, I told you, I came in just a hot mess. And I remember early on, we had Freedom Ministry at the time and my bosses said to me, they said, “Jelani, you know it’s okay for you to go and see someone about your issues.”
Because there was just a stigma… I’m thinking if I go and talk to somebody about some of the things I’m struggling with and I work at a church, am I going to be fired? Is this okay? And I came in with that mentality, and to have my bosses sit me down and say, “We want you to do this, and it’s okay,” was liberating for me. And so, I feel like that’s been chipped away. I feel like I grew up in churches where… I’m not saying the pastor intended for it to be this way, but my perception of my senior pastor was perfection, or he had to have it all together, and I think I carried some of that into Gateway. I also think that goes back to some of our own conversation, because I vacillated between orphan, slave-
Jon: Yep, yep. I was about to bring the same thing up.
Jelani: Yeah. So, I carried some of those-
Jon: It’s an orphan heart.
Jelani: Exactly. And so, I feel like that, yes, but the pressure’s very… It’s minimized in the sense that, one, because of the work environment and, two, because of, I think especially the generation that we’re in, and the people that we’re… They want real.
Jelani: In fact, there was a gentleman at my house yesterday, a childhood friend, as a matter of fact, at my house on Sunday. Hadn’t seen him, actually spent a significant amount of time with him, since we were kids.
Jelani: And we reconnected and he brought his family over, and we were just talking about church stuff, and he’s not involved in ministry or anything. But he said something to me. We were talking about just different churches, and he’s like, “Well, I don’t really like the music here.” We were talking through that, and then he made this statement. He said, “But I’ll tell you what I do like about church now that I’m going to,” he said, “Our pastor preaches in a way where you don’t have to be perfect.” And I like that.
Jelani: Because I didn’t feel that way growing up. And I would just say, I think there is… And some of it is shame related where I feel like I need to be perfect, because I’m wrestling through the shame. And again, that goes back to identity. So, to answer your question directly, I feel it sometimes depending on where I’m vacillating, but the environment that I work in-
Jon: It’s really important, the environment.
Jelani: … I think is less conducive… Is very conducive to be imperfect.
Jon: That’s really good.
Jon: Do you have any… What time are we… Okay, we’re at 30 something minutes. I’m just-
Jon: We just flow so well together, Jelani.
Jelani: It’s a flow.
Jon: I don’t know… I’ve lost all track of time. You’re just-
Jelani: It sounds like we have a candle burning between us and we’re sharing dessert. I mean, that… Just lost all track of time.
Jon: I could talk to you for hours, Jelani. So, going back to the goals thing, I don’t know if Craig Groeschel coined this term or not, the BHAG? Heard of BHAG?
Jelani: “Big hairy audacious goal.”
Jon: Big hairy audacious goal?
Jon: Did he-
Jelani: Probably not. I think that was-
Jon: There’s nothing new under the sun.
Jelani: There’s nothing new under the sun, and it sounds like… Not that he’s not written some incredible leadership books, but I feel like I may have first heard it in another leadership book or something.
Jon: You’re probably right, but what a cool concept.
Jelani: It is a great concept.
Jon: Sounds like you’re calling somebody a name.
Jelani: It does. It does. It wouldn’t go well in my hood growing up. You couldn’t go around-
Jon: What’d you call me?
Jelani: … saying, “You BHAG.”
Jon: What’d you call me, Jelollipop?
Jelani: You’re so wrong.
Jon: Okay. I’m just going to find every chance I can.
Jelani: Yeah, I see that. Every time. Every time.
Jon: Do you have any BHAGs?
Jelani: I do.
Jon: But you can’t talk about them on this podcast.
Jelani: No, I’m going to talk about it. They honestly, some of it… Because I don’t want to… I’ll just say it, because I don’t want to overspiritualize-
Jon: I feel like I’m getting the exclusive here.
Jelani: I know.
Jon: You heard it here first, folks.
Jelani: No, no, no, no. Because you may be disappointed when I talk about Big Hairy Audacious Goal. I feel like, John, when I started in ministry and I saw some things that I did with some of the other kids of pastors and leaders, I really decided I did not want the church, that by God’s grace I pastor, to say things about me that my kids can’t say.
Jelani: I said, “I don’t want my kids…” I remember speaking to a men’s group going, “I don’t want my kids… I don’t want you to say Jelani was there for me. Jelani counseled me, Jelani walked with me, and my kids can’t say that.” So there is a part of me that goes with my family and my wife, I go, “I don’t ever want the church to say something that my kids and my wife can’t say.” So, like I said, for me… I don’t think through the lens of… I think through it from the lens of success, as opposed to just this big, hairy, audacious goal. This for me, has to do with success, and that’s one of the things-
Jon: I agree. I think for me, mine’s similar, and I’ll tell you in a second, but my BHAG would not be title oriented or-
Jelani: It’s a great way to put that. Yep.
Jon: … success oriented. Well, it is a success, but not in a monetary fashion. I like that one. One of my biggest, and I hesitate to use the word fears, but one of my biggest goals, BHAGs… This isn’t mine, but, is I don’t want to sacrifice my family on the altar of church.
Jelani: Exactly. Yep.
Jon: I don’t want to build a great church or build a great ministry and be known, or whatever that side of the ministry looks like, but I’ve lost my own kids.
Jelani: Exactly. Yep.
Jon: That’s a heavy one. For me, my dad and I talk about this a lot, because my dad pastored for 22 years and I think the rarity of this is super depressing, but one of my biggest BHAGs is I want to finish well. I want to… And it’s so ridiculous how rare that is.
Jelani: Very rare.
Jon: Moses didn’t finish well.
Jon: And Moses was a great leader.
Jelani: But you know what scares me about Moses? And this is the part that for me, goes back to just dealing with your own heart, is when God told Moses to speak to the rock and he hit the rock, right?
Jon: Yep. Yep.
Jelani: The water still came out.
Jon: Still came out. That’s truth.
Jelani: And you go, this guy was in disobedience and God still provided for the people.
Jelani: And as a pastor, you can go, “Man, I just preached and God moved,” and you think you’re okay and your heart’s not in the right place.
Jon: Dude, dude. I would… Who cares? Let’s just keep talking, because that’s super big.
Jon: I’ve witnessed firsthand… I don’t want to go into details, but I’ve witnessed firsthand knowing someone in the ministry who was living a life of sin, egregious sin, tons of fruit in the ministry, and it boggled my mind that somebody could preach a sermon living in sin, do a call to Christ, and people come forward.
Jon: And one of the biggest things that the Lord taught me in that season was a very simple, but profound truth, is the Word of God never returns void.
Jon: It doesn’t matter who’s saying it.
Jelani: Yep. Mm-hmm.
Jon: The word of God is that strong. The gospel is that strong. And so, that’s such a good point and that’s a danger for leaders, because-
Jelani: It is.
Jon: … we can see fruit and be like, “Oh, well I’m great.”
Jelani: Exactly. So, we base the condition of our heart on the fruit that we see around us.
Jon: That’s so good.
Jelani: And so, just to your point, I mean, I feel like… I tell people, I broke my wings before I got into ministry. I was such a mess. So, I was flapping around there, but I’m like you, I can name just a couple of people that I look at and I go, “You finished well.” That’s one of the reasons why I appreciate even The King’s University and Jack Hayford, I’m going-
Jon: I was going to bring him up too.
Jelani: … this man… It’s amazing to watch him.
Jelani: And I remember him saying, we were in a meeting one time… Not just Jack and I. I’m not that cool with Jack, but I mean it was like a group of us.
Jon: Me and Jack were hanging out there.
Jelani: Yeah. It was a group of us, and we were talking about being Jelollipop. It was just a mess. But somebody asked Jack Hayford, they said, “Can you tell us about your spiritual disciplines or your daily routine?” And we’re all thinking we want to hear how much time he spends in the Word, and worship… And he actually addressed, he said, “I could tell you about my quiet time. I don’t want to do that. I try to live each day with integrity of heart, with an open heart of integrity before the Lord.” And I went, “That’s how he got there.”
Jon: That’s so good.
That every day he wanted to live with an open heart of integrity. And so, I’m with you. I want to finish well and I want… My wife and I talk about this for our family. We go, we want to make it easy for our kids to say yes to Jesus.
Jon: That’s a good point.
Jelani: I want to live in a way-
Jon: That’s good.
Jelani: … that I make it easy for my kids to say yes. I can’t make them say yes, but I can make it easier for them by the way in which I lead and love and care for them.
Jelani: I want to raise my family in a way that when they leave and they have the option of whether to come back home and visit, they want to come back home.
Jon: They want to come home.
Jelani: They actually want to come home.
Jon: That’s so true.
Jelani: And I want to raise my family in a way that when they leave, I love and like my wife. So, that-
Jon: Seen that happen a lot too.
Jelani: Exactly. So, we’re going, we want to do things now that help with those three things, that by the time our kids leave the house, I still know my wife, I still like her, and still love her, and I want to finish well. I’m right there with you.
Jon: That’s so good. I, by no means think Jack Hayford was perfect, there’s no such thing as a perfect man.
Jelani: He was perfect. Let’s just be very clear. If you’re listening to this, Pastor Jack, to me you were perfect.
Jon: I’ve gotten to spend time with him about three times now, and he’s at a place now where I don’t know if I’ll get to do that anymore. He’s a little more isolated now.
Jelani: Didn’t you go to school with Pastor Jack? I mean, I thought with your-
Jon: Yeah, yeah. Get all my wisdom from him, like in the 1970s.
Jelani: Great Depression.
Jon: The 1970s, because I am from the 70s. I lived in the 70s for four months. I grew up in the 70s.
Jelani: You grew up in the 70s.
Jon: Cut my teeth in my bell bottom jeans, disco dancing.
Jelani: Disco, with roller skates. No, you were roller skating, man. The old school roll bounce, that was you.
Jon: If y’all could hang out with me and Jelani sometimes, you would realize how far off track we get. One minute we’re talking about Jack Hayford… 30, not even 30, 15 seconds later, we’re talking about roller skates.
Jelani: How do you even get there?
Jon: I don’t know.
Jelani: How do you get there? Yeah. It’s-
Jon: Well, Jelani, I love you. I just said-
Jelani: Love you too, brother.
Jon: I don’t know what I said there.
Jelani: Because you wanted to say Jelollipop and the Lord actually twisted your tongue to make sure you didn’t go out that way.
Jon: How do you like that? The Tower of Babble. Man, I love you, I appreciate you.
Jelani: Love you too, man.
Jon: Thanks for coming on.
Jelani: Honored to be here.
Jon: Any parting words to our listeners that you would give them a word of encouragement?
Jelani: Well, I think the only thing I… Well, let me say this to you. Thank you so much for having me.
Jelani: I recognize… I think we talked maybe a couple of years ago when you were starting this podcast and I know that God has blessed it, and I just appreciate you, John, very much of opening up different conversations to really help leaders and help pastors and help people learn and grow. So, I just want to tell you, thank you for that.
Jon: Appreciate that.
Jelani: I do think, I think the biggest thing for me, I think it’s maybe II Timothy 4:2, where Paul says to Timothy, “Be instant in season and out of season.” Starts off saying, “Preach the word.”
Jelani: And so, my understanding of being instant in season, or ready in season and out of season is actually military verbiage. And he’s essentially saying to Timothy, “Stay at your post until you’re reassigned.”
Jon: That’s so good.
Jelani: And in other words, “Timothy, in the good season be faithful, in the bad season be faithful.”
Jon: That’s a good one.
Jelani: And I think when we just… In a lot of the conversation that we talked about, at the end of the day, when we start talking about success, to me the question is, what does faithfulness look like? What does it look like to be faithful? To stay at your post? And I would just encourage, that wherever you are, what does it look like to be faithful to what’s before you and to stay at your post until you’re reassigned?
Jon: That’ll preach. That’s so good. Man your post. Okay, listeners, if you hear me preach a sermon in a couple of months titled Man Your Post, I did not steal that from Jelani.
Jelani: You know where it came from?
Jon: That was mine first and Jelani stole it from me.
Jelani: Or if you find my interpretation of the Greek is off, please correct it.
Jon: Oh, listeners, thanks for joining us today. Jelani, if they want to track you down, how can they get in touch with you? Social media, whatever.
Jon: Don’t give them your cell phone number. Just-
Jelani: I was going to give them yours.
Jon: What’s your Instagram?
Jelani: I’m actually-
Jon: What’s your handle?
Jelani: It’s a great point. I’d have to text my wife. I know on Facebook, we’re Jelani and Erin, and I think our Instagram is something like that as well. Jelani and Erin-
Jon: Okay. Let me… Don’t try to connect with him on social media. He is not going to reply.
Jelani: Clearly, I’m not a millennial, let’s be clear.
Jon: If you want to get ahold of Jelani, go to Gateway Frisco, soon to be Plano.
Jelani: No. Don’t go to Gateway Frisco. Just go to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Jon: Wow. He gave his address.
Jelani: But if you do social media, my wife always gets it to me. So seriously, if you want to send something there, she’ll relay it to me, but I won’t know what’s going on.