Leading like Jesus: relationship with the Father

Yesterday I started a series of posts in which I hope to set out a few reflections on ways that leaders might learn from Jesus. My starting reflection has to do with Jesus’ relationship with his Father, and the starting point is the Father’s voice at his baptism.

Near my desk I have a little piece of calligraphy (see the photo) that presents these words from Henri Nouwen:

Listen to the voice that calls you the beloved.

Nouwen is drawing his language from the start of Jesus’ ministry (see Mark 1:9-11) when Jesus has just been baptised by John the Baptist (a somewhat confused John the Baptist who thought Jesus should be baptising him, not vice versa) and the Father speaks words of acceptance and affirmation.

You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.

I must admit to some ambivalence to Nouwen’s application of the language. After all, there is a uniqueness to Jesus’ sonship: none of the rest of us can lay claim to God’s fatherhood in exactly the same way as Jesus. If we get that wrong, we’re into all kinds of trinitarian confusion!

On the other hand I think all of us – leaders or not – have a deep longing to hear this kind of voice. As Nouwen suggests there are all kinds of voices that speak to us with messages about our identity. There are the nagging voices that tell us we are desperate failures or hypocrites, that we will never amount to much, that we are wasting our time, or that at best God tolerates us but probably doesn’t like us and if he loves us, it’s not with any degree of affection!

With all that going on, we need to hear the voice that tells us we are loved!

One of the things that has most struck me int he past few years as I have talked with a range of Christian leaders, initially in the context of my doctoral work and more recently in my Leadership Journey series of podcasts, has been the recurring theme of God’s love. Here is an example from a leader who recalled a quite remarkable encounter with God:

The one thing that he did reassure me, more than anything else, was that he loved me, he loved me … It was just a total assurance of his love. If ever there was a life-changing thing that was it.

Another called about a time when he ‘felt soaked in the mercy of God … [It was] a really, really important engagement with God in my life. I think my ministry changed … it was as though the Lord reenergised my ministry at that particular point.’

Lest some of you accuse me of sliding into uncontrolled subjectivity at this point (!), let me offer Paul’s second major prayer in Ephesians in which he prays that the Ephesian believers (not just their leaders) would be able ‘to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge’.

In their excellent book on resilience in Christian ministry, Bob Burns and his colleagues make this observation:

Pastors often slip into the trap of building their identities around their roles and performance rather than being beloved children of God and co-heirs with Christ. Pastors need to pursue growth in their understanding of and feelings concerning God’s acceptance.

There is something odd about the fact that many grew up singing ‘Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so’, yet it can take a while for a deep assurance of that love to sink into our subjective experience. I have often recounted the story that Philip Yancey tells about someone who challenged him with these words:

“Philip, do you ever just let God love you?” she said, “It’s pretty important, I think.”

I think it’s a great challenge for any leader. The challenges of leadership and the complexities of ministry in the current crisis could drive all of us to distraction. Add those negative voices that tells us that we will never amount to much (so we’d better try even harder) or that our work is a waste of time (again, try harder to prove the voice wrong, or just give up), and the still, small voice of the Father is drowned out.

Leaders: you need to lead from a place that is quiet enough to hear the Father’s voice.

Learning to lead like Jesus

It’s not difficult to find books and articles that set out to describe what authors believe to be the key elements of the leadership of Jesus. To write such material is certainly praiseworthy, given the towering significance of Jesus – even for people who do not personally follow him.

The sceptical side of me (sorry!) imagines one or two pitfalls of this kind of writing. For one thing, the accounts of the life of Jesus (like the rest of the Bible) are not given primarily as a leadership manual and to read them with this (or any) particular lens leaves us open to missing their actual purpose. I also wonder if it is too easy for any of us simply to ‘discover’ traits that we already think are important in leaders and make it seem that we’ve simply been learning from Jesus!

Having acknowledged this, I’m nonetheless going to venture to run against my own cautions and offer a few observations on Jesus the leader. They’re not exhaustive, so please feel free to add a comment or two, nor is this intended as a piece of academic writing: read it more as a thought starter.

To begin, I’ll give a quick rundown of the half-dozen aspects of Jesus, the leader, that I want to highlight. Then, over the next few days, I will try to develop each of them in turn, suggesting ways you might want to apply them to your leadership.

  • Jesus lived in relationship with his Father – the start of his ministry was marked with the affirmation of his Father (see Mark 1) and his subsequent ministry was carried out in dependence on and obedience to his Father.
  • Jesus invested in his followers – early on (again, see Mark 1) Jesus began calling people to follow him. While some aspects of his ministry were for the benefit of large crowds, he had specific groups of disciples, notably the 12 in whom he invested.
  • Jesus spent time in solitude – John Mark Comer has recently highlighted how Jesus spent time in desert or isolated places: as an example from the gospels, note how he got up ‘very early in the morning’ and went off to a ‘solitary place’ (Mark 1) where he prayed (see also Luke 5:16).
  • Jesus knew his priorities – for example, early in his ministry (Mark 1, again!) Jesus hears that crowds of people are looking for him – doubtless a follow on from the healings that had happened the previous evening. However he turns down the ministry opportunity on his doorstep because he needs to preach in other places: ‘That is why I have come.’
  • Jesus made the most of interruptions – while he had his priorities, Jesus also seems to have had time for any who approached him. At times (see Mark 6 and the feeding of 5000) he even allowed ministry to interrupt his plans.
  • Jesus had time for the least – leaders enjoy spending time with other leaders: Jesus had time for those, like the sick or children, who probably featured on few people’s list of priorities.

A prayer in the current crisis

Heavenly Father,

We come to you in in humble acknowledgment of our weakness and limitations.
Forgive us for those times when we have made ourselves the centre of our universe, when we have behaved selfishly, even when we have assumed that our power and our progress are unstoppable. Forgive us for the ways in which we have – even unwittingly – discounted you or attempted to push you from your rightful place.

We thank you for gifts of knowledge and for medical and scientific skill, and we pray for all those who are working against time and exhaustion to deal with this crisis: would you inspire them and help them. Yet even as we thank you for these gifts, we want to look to you as the source of our deliverance: help us to put our hope in you.

Be with all those who are suffering from the effects of the virus – the sick, the bereaved, the isolated, and the fearful: please bring healing and comfort.

‘May your unfailing love be with us, even as we put our hope in you.’

Lord, in your mercy we ask you to turn the tide and bring an end to this virus.

We pray these things humbly, yet in the knowledge that you invite us to cast our cares on you, in the name of your Son, the Lord Jesus, who loved us and gave himself for us.

Amen

‘And I will heal their land’: what can you do when there is not much you can do?

I’ve tended to be very cautious when I see Christians who are quick to appropriate 2 Chronicles 7:14:

If my people who are called by my name humble themselves, and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and heal their land.

As ever, we need to pay attention to context. Who are ‘my people’ and what is ‘their land’? Clearly the promise was given to a specific people (Israel at the time of Solomon) and in a specific place. As far as I know, Ireland (north or south) is not the Promised Land, nor are its people ‘the Lord’s people’. The same is true for the England, or America, or any nation that might like to think of itself as Christian – or at least that acknowledges its Christian influences. The Lord’s people are scattered across the face of the earth awaiting the time of a new heaven and new earth.

And yet.

This current crisis makes me wonder if I might be too quick to dismiss what lies within this promise.

As Solomon competed the dedication of his temple the Lord appeared to him to confirm his acceptance of the temple as a chosen place. He would listen to the prayers that were prayed from the temple: his eyes and heart would be upon it: wonderful promises!

Yet there was also a note of caution. What about those times (presumably times of judgment for unfaithfulness on the part of his people) when God would shut the heavens so there would be no rain, when locusts would devour the land, or when he sent pestilence among his people?

This was climate disaster, nature out of control, dreadful disease on the rampage. There were no climate scientists and no labs to come up with a vaccine to stop the plague. What do people do when there is nothing they can do?

That’s a tough question for us to answer in some ways because such is our ingenuity, and such has been our technological progress, that we can often think of something. With Covid-19 it has not been that obvious. There are rumours of possible treatments, stories of developing vaccines (even if they are long months away from the market) and we should be incredibly grateful for scientists who are probably working day and night to get us through this. Meantime we self-isolate and try to wash our hands and some of us maybe wonder if life will ever be the same again.

What do people do when there is nothing they can do?

God’s answer to Solomon was that if only his people would humble themselves, pray, seek his face, and repent, he would hear and would heal their land. Rain would fall to water the barren earth. Locusts would be banished and the plague would be gone.

Should we expect all our political leaders to don sackcloth and lead our nations in seasons of prayer? Is this not rather a time for the Church – God’s scattered people in nations across the face of the planet – to take the lead and to stand in the gap?


Like you, I’ve read about calls for prayer and I’ve seen some suggested prayers ( I even suggested one myself the other day), from prayers for healing to prayers that want to dismiss the virus in the name of Jesus. I’ve even seen a church that’s been running corporate prayer via Zoom!

I would love God to answer and for there to be a sudden change in the direction of the storm. I dare say most of us would begin to breathe a sigh of relief if the numbers suddenly started to go the other way and the dreaded peak appeared less severe: maybe things would be back to normal sooner than we feared!

But, leaving aside what ‘normal’ might look like, what would we have learned from it all? Would we retain the lessons of kindness that we’re hearing about along the way? Would we decide that a bit less travel might reduce pollution? Would we reevaluate the importance of family and friends? Would we decide that medical professionals should be better paid than football players?

I wonder how much of our learning would be horizontal (love your neighbour) and how much would have to do with our love for and dependence on God.

Among all that’s being said I can’t help thinking that in the midst of everything that we need right now, the most profound and lasting change would come in our learning to humble ourselves in 2 Chronicles style and acknowledge our dependence on God. What if God has allowed our world and entire civilisation to be shaken in ways that are unprecedented in any of our memories, so that at least some of us would remember that he is God and we are not?

If my people who are called by my name humble themselves, and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and heal their land.

Some thoughts on Psalm 33 and Covid-19

In the church I grew up in the man who made the announcements always concluded them by reminding us that they had been made ‘subject to the will of the Lord’. I think people were a lot more aware of what ‘DV’ meant (Latin for ‘God willing’). While I realise it can become a bit formulaic, there is biblical wisdom behind it.

In his short NT letter James has strong words for uber-confident business people who had lots of plans for how their business would expand and prosper. James reminds them that they don’t even know what would happen the next day: their lives were as transitory as vapour.

We’re currently facing a global crisis on a scale that none of us has ever experienced. The arrival and dramatic surge of Covid-19 has thrown all kinds of plans into turmoil and experts are doing all they can to try and predict what might happen tomorrow. For all our technological progress we’ve suddenly run into the buffers.

Over the past couple of days I have been struck by the pertinence of several parts of Psalm 33 and I think it speaks in a number of ways to the attitude we need to cultivate in this time of crisis.

1 – The Lord foils the plans of the nations (verse 10)

Scripture’s picture of God is that he is sovereign over the course of human history. For all their power, the Pharaohs and Nebuchadnezzars of powerful nations had to bow before him.

I will leave it to others to debate questions of agency at a time like this, but suffice to say that God has allowed our world (including the Church) to find itself at a time when the limitations and vulnerability of humanity is there for all to see.

He foils the plans of the nations.

Governments find themselves in crisis mode.

Businesses, large and small, wonder if they will still be in business in a few weeks time.

Things which we take for granted (at least in some parts of the world) – uninterrupted technological progress, increasing wealth, the facility to travel, access to consumer goods as and when we want them – are not so easily granted after all.

Sport – the great pursuit and enjoyment of so many of us – is reduced to chaos.

I think there are various ways believers need to pray in this crisis (and you won’t be short of samples via their proliferation on social media), but one that I sense may be neglected is a prayer of humbling where we repent of what someone has called ‘the degodding of God’ – and any thought that we are fit to take his place!

2 – Our resourcefulness is not the point (verse 17)

If you were an ancient king heading to war, you’d want to make sure your army was strong and well equipped. Lots of horses, and strong ones at that! But the psalm says that that is not where the secret lies. There is something more than our material resources that counts.

At a time like this we want strong and confident leaders who will assure us that they are committing the full resources of the nation to defeating the virus. And I think we need to be tremendously grateful for researchers and for medical professionals who are devoting their energy and their considerable expertise to tackling this situation. Many of us (myself included) probably owe our lives to the skill and resources of medical science.

We need to pray for everyone who is involved in this. Pray that scientists will discover a treatment, that they will be able to develop a vaccine. Pray for policy-makers to make wise decisions and for strength for the medical staff of all levels who are caring for the sick.

But at the same time, is there something we need to learn, or relearn, about depending on the Lord? Let’s by all means celebrate and be glad for the resources and gifts we enjoy, but let’s avoid the subtle temptation to allow our resourcefulness to blind us to our need of God.

3 – Our hope needs to be in the Lord (verse 22)

The psalm is a psalm of hope and confidence. It encourages his to hope in God’s love, to trust in his name, to put our hope in him.

Frankly, that’s what we need.

Yes, many of us may need to humble ourselves and repent of our self-sufficiency, but there comes a time to allow God to lift us out of the dust and – incredible as it may seem – rejoice in him.

None of us knows how the story of Covid-19 will end, or when it will end. We don’t know when we will be able to make plans again. There may be lots of ways that we will need to change our lifestyles, our assumptions, how we relate to others, and even how we live as church (the absence of Sunday gatherings may force us to rethink their whole purpose). Maybe we will emerge somewhat humbled, realizing, as never before that our lives are in God’s hands.

‘May your unfailing love be with us, Lord, even as we put our hope in you.’

The Leadership Journey Podcast: David and Shona Murray

David and Shona Murray

In this episode I am joined by my wife, Pauline, for a conversation with David and Shona Murray, authors of the books Reset and Refresh. David is Professor of Old Testament and Practical Theology at Puritan Reformed Seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and Shona is a medical doctor.

During our conversation they talk about the experiences of burnout that led to them writing the books. They emphasise the importance of living with a greater understanding of grace, and a sense of our own limitations as we live for God. We discuss the relationship between the physical and spiritual sides of our lives and the concept of self care. We also talk about the difference between the well planned life and the summoned life and the relevance of life stages.

Here are a few links you might like to follow up:

  1. David’s website, which includes a link to his blog
  2. A link to details of other books David has written (including one on Christians and depression)
  3. Reset – available on Amazon
  4. Refresh – available on Amazon
  5. A link to study guides for the two books
  6. Tony Schwartz’s Energy Project website (as mentioned in the podcast)

For your own reflection:

  • David says that you cannot separate the physical from the spiritual: what are the implications of this for your current pace of life and work?
  • How do you strike a balance between self-care and self-indulgence?
  • If you are a pastor, what steps do you take to ensure that you get appropriate time for preparation and study?
  • What steps do you take to tame your inner voices?

The Leadership Journey Podcast: Paul Bowman

Paul Bowman

Surviving and thriving in Christian leadership. What are the self-care practices and support strategies that leaders serving in the Presbyterian Church in Ireland have found helpful for sustaining health, wholeness and leadership in the context of the stresses of ministry?

This week’s guest on the podcast is Paul Bowman. Paul has been involved in youth ministry for over 25 years and currently works in Fitzroy Presbyterian Church in Belfast. Paul has recently completed his MA with the Irish Bible Institute and I had the privilege of supervising his work on a very important dissertation in which Paul explored some factors that contribute to thriving in Christian ministry. The podcast interview explores some of what Paul discovered and wrote about in his work.

By way of follow up, feel free to get in touch with Paul, either via Fitzroy or via my blog, if you would like to hear more or would like to invite him to speak to your group.

Meantime here is a list of the recommendations Paul makes at the conclusion of his dissertation:

  • Christian leaders together with their church should create clear and reasonable expectations for leadership and ministry.
  • Congregations should be better educated about the stresses associated with leadership and the importance of supporting the physical, emotional, and spiritual wellbeing of their leaders.
  • Greater emphasis, training and resourcing should be made available for team ministry as a means of combating isolation, and role overload.
  • Christian leaders need accountability and support to ensure they are availing of adequate rest and maintaining their spiritual self-care. The use of a maintenance contract as suggested by Brain (2001) which incorporates a plan to work, rest, study and be a spouse and parent could be a useful means of accountability that clearly communicates self-care needs.
  • Christian leaders should pursue their calling daily and set specific goals for their spiritual, physical, emotional, social and intellectual development.
  • Christian leaders should take a twenty-four hour period off each week and prioritise activities that recharge emotional energy.
  • Christian leaders should intentionally set aside a day each week to observe the Sabbath.
  • More resources should be made available to enable leaders to make use of retreats, and spiritual directors.
  • Sabbaticals should be financed and made available to all leaders including additional pastoral personnel every five to seven years.
  • Every minister and youth worker should be assigned an experienced mentor throughout the first five years of his or her ministry.
  • It is encouraging to note that PCI is placing greater emphasis on how it supports ministers and their families. Lockhart (2019) refers to the reimagining of presbytery as a fellowship. This is a welcome development though it needs further work in terms of the practicalities of pastoral care. It is beyond the scope of this study to explore this aspect of denominational support, but two recommendations seem appropriate: The promotion of ministerial fellowships or Pastors in covenant groups. And, further study is necessary to consider how supervision could be a means of support and development at a presbytery level.
  • Additional research is needed to look specifically at the role of training and how it equips leaders with the knowledge and skills of self-care.