A biblical picture of leadership

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The past few decades have seen a significant increase in interest in the subject of leadership, both generally and within the Church. So much so that it’s tempting to paraphrase Ecclesiastes: ‘Of the making of books (and articles) on leadership, there is no end!’

The range of resources available means that Christians face a challenge in knowing how to navigate the subject. On the one hand, we can become so infatuated with the most recent trend in management or entrepreneurship that we end up unwittingly relegating the Bible to the sidelines, while on the other hand, we might bury our heads in the sand with regard to the challenges of 21st century leadership or the wisdom that might be gleaned from some of the best leadership thinkers. In fact, we might prefer to ignore the subject altogether, perhaps even dismiss it as unspiritual!

It’s the first of those temptations – ignoring the voice of Scripture – that I hope to address in this article, suggesting three biblical themes that might provide a framework for fruitful reflection on leadership.

1 – The Bible and leaders

The importance of human leaders is implied by the array of leaders that God uses across the pages of both Old and New Testaments. Considerable space is given to many of their stories: from Joseph, in ‘secular’ leadership in Egypt, through Moses and the Exodus, Joshua in the Promised Land, judges, like Deborah or Gideon, kings like David or Solomon, governors like Nehemiah, all the way through to the Lord Jesus himself and those who followed him.

Despite the shortcomings of many of these leaders, many of them were agents of significant work among God’s people. How would the Hebrews have left Egypt and negotiated the wilderness without the leadership of Moses? How would post-exile Jerusalem have been rebuilt without the leadership of Nehemiah (even though he could not have achieved it by himself)?

While we need to be careful not to treat some parts of Scripture as little more than leadership handbooks from which we can glean ‘leadership principles’, many of the stories have a great deal to teach us about the challenges and responsibilities of spiritual leadership. We also need to recognise that few of the biblical leaders left legacies of unmitigated success. Moses failed to make it to the Promised Land. Samson’s story was a confusing mix of faith and recklessness. Many of the kings ‘did not do what was right in the eyes of the Lord’.

Scripture’s portrayal of these leaders is so honest about their flaws that, even if it’s too much to say that human leadership is a necessary evil, we might be tempted to think of it as a dangerous necessity!

2 – The call to character

Scripture cautions about the traps of leadership. In the Old Testament Deuteronomy 17 warns the king against accumulating horses (a sign of military power), accumulating wives (perhaps as a way of cementing political alliances, but a potential gateway to idolatry), and accumulating silver and gold (material wealth). By any other reckoning, these three things would probably have been markers of success in the ancient world: who wouldn’t admire a leader with great military power, international influence, and personal wealth?

In fact, Israel had one such leader: Solomon. Solomon’s wealth set him at the top of the ‘Rich List’; he had 12000 horsemen (along with horses from Egypt); in his household were 700 wives and 300 concubines. But the trappings of apparent success carried the seeds of the destruction of Solomon’s leadership. He ended his life an idolater and the kingdom was subsequently torn from his family. How many Christian leaders have crashed their leadership on the rocks of money, sex, and power?

It’s no surprise that the New Testament sets so much store on the kind of people who were to lead local congregations. The instructions for appointing elders/overseers in the Pastoral Epistles prioritise personal character over spectacular gifting (though gifting is part of the picture). Similarly Peter (1 Peter 5) challenges the heart motivations of elders, warning them that spiritual leadership is not intended as a path to wealth or personal power.

3 – Biblical pictures

Derek Tidball, in his book Builders and Fools, encourages Christian leaders to think about their role less in terms of the latest leadership trend and more in terms of some of the pictures the Bible itself gives to describe ministerial leadership. When we do this, there is plenty of material!

Among the pictures from which we might draw, there are kings and warriors, prophets and sages, builders and pilots, and there are shepherds and servants.

‘Shepherd’ is perhaps the dominant metaphor for leadership in both Old and New Testaments. In the OT, God (already the Shepherd of his people) delegates the task of shepherding to kings and other leaders. Sadly, they often prove to be unfaithful and are denounced by the prophets who promise that God himself will step in. Messianic prophecy looks ahead to a coming King who will emerge from Bethlehem and shepherd his people. Jesus is the Good Shepherd who lays down his life for the welfare of his sheep, and in turn he delegates the task of shepherding his flock to his followers. Elders are told to ‘shepherd’ the flock.

If 21st century Church leadership is to be biblical, it needs to take proper account of the implications of the shepherding motif, with its call for leaders who are marked by both compassion and courage.

Finally, leaders are servants. The term ‘servant leadership’ has become familiar in general discussions of leadership, but it was Jesus who challenged his disciples to look less at the powerful models of contemporary leadership on display in the Roman Empire, and learn the lessons of servanthood. In contrast to the domineering styles of the culture around them, Jesus’ disciples had to understand that the radically different values of the kingdom of God included a radically different vision of what it meant to be number one: whoever would be first would have to be the slave of all.

Christian leadership follows in the footsteps of Jesus. In fact, we do well to remember that the call to follow precedes the call to lead: our leadership is validated when it flows from our followership. Following in the footsteps of Jesus, biblical leadership exists, not for its own advancement, but for the good of those in its care, for the glory of God, and the advancement of his kingdom.

(This is a slightly edited version of an article written for Insight – the magazine of the Association of Baptist Churches in Ireland – part of a special section the magazine is running on leadership.)

The Leadership Journey Podcast – Season Two, episode Two: Philip Emerson (part 2)

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Phil Emerson is the guest once again on this week’s episode of the podcast (you can listen to part one of his story here).

This week Phil talks about some of the challenging personal circumstances he has had to navigate and how, through some of these, God has given him a heart for the people of his town.

He also recounts the story of a dramatic experience of God’s love, and talks about some of the remarkable growth experienced by his church as well as sharing some of the story of how God provided for them.


For your own reflection:

  • How has God used difficult circumstances in your life to prepare you for leadership?
  • Why is it important that leaders (and others) have an assurance of God’s love?

The Leadership Journey Podcast – Season Two, episode One: Philip Emerson

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After a break over the summer, the Leadership Journey Podcast is back this week. The guest on the first three episodes of this new season is Philip Emerson. Philip is one of the lead pastors at Emmanuel Church in Lurgan, a church that was birthed in his living room over 20 years ago.

In this first episode Phil talks about growing up around the shore of Lough Neagh where he came to faith as a child and quickly developed a love for God and a zeal to serve him and tell other people about him. He discusses some of the people who most influenced him and some of the factors in the development of his leadership.

On a practical note, he shares how he has learned leadership through the years by intentionally seeking out the counsel and wisdom of more experienced leaders.

AND… have you ever heard anyone say that their duck’s a swan? Listen carefully!


For your own reflection:

  • Do you think leaders are born or made?
  • How intentional are you about learning from leaders who are farther along the path of leadership (and may be much stronger leaders) than you?

Leadership refreshment: a course for leaders

News on a 6 part course for Christian leaders: get in touch if you’d like to know more.


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‘Refreshing your Leadership’ is a six-part course intended for groups of Christian leaders. It is designed primarily with church or mission/ministry leaders in mind (though it can be adapted to Christians leading in other fields). Ideally there should be at least 5 people in the group. The group could consist of a church leadership team, the staff or leadership team of a mission, a local group of pastors and ministers, or a gathering of missionaries.

Who leads the course?

The course is led by Dr Alan Wilson. Alan is a visiting lecturer at the Irish Baptist College in Moira, an associate tutor at Belfast Bible College, and part of the adjunct faculty of the Irish Bible Institute in Dublin. He has over 20 years of pastoral experience in Northern Ireland and Switzerland. His doctoral workexplored the theme of ‘crucible’ experiences in shaping Christian leaders.

How will the course run?

The material is organised in 6 sessions (ideally of two hours each, though they can be condensed) and there is flexibility in how these might be arranged. For example it would be possible to run the course over a series of weekday evenings, as an intensive weekend event or as a series of day retreats for a team.

As well as the teaching content, the course allows time and space for personal reflection, not least the opportunity for leaders to reflect on their own leadership journeys.

How much will the course cost?

The cost will depend on the size of the group and the group’s ability to pay: suggested donation is between £450-800, plus travel costs.

What does the course cover?

Part One: The Leader’s Journey (Moses)

The first two sessions will explore the concept of a leadership journey and we will be making use of the story of Moses as a template to help us explore our own stories.

  • Introducing the story of Moses. Moses is one of the most significant figures in Scripture’s story line, and his own story is one of the most dramatic in the Bible: it is rich in insights into how God works with a leader.
  • Introducing the concept of the leadership journey timeline. The narrative of Moses’ life falls neatly into three distinct: formative years, exile years, and leadership years. The course encourages leaders to reflect on their own leadership timeline, highlighting ways in which they have been shaped and lessons they have learned along the way.
  • The leader’s formative years. The first stage of Moses’ life helps us to reflect on the people who have influenced our development, and to think about key decisions that have shaped the direction of our lives.
  • The leader in exile. While the biblical text gives us few details about the middle stage of Moses’ life, it is a stage that opens up the theme of exile or wilderness when the leader’s aspirations and the reality of their actual circumstances are quite different.

Part two: The Leader’s Journey, continued

  • The leader’s calling. This session looks at the debate between Moses and the Lord: when Moses is finally called to lead the Hebrews (what he wanted to do 40 years previously), he has decided he’d rather stay in obscurity and leave the work to someone else: what excuses do leaders offer to avoid God’s call?
  • Leadership challenges. Moses’ experience reminds us that strategic spiritual leadership is no easy task. In this session we explore some of the tough challenges that confront Moses and other leaders.
  • Leadership opportunities. While the leader has to face challenges, spiritual leadership also brings great privileges: we will think about the importance of a leader being secure in the love of God.

Part Three: The Leader’s Task (Nehemiah)

In sessions three and four, the focus is on the leader’s task and we will be using the story of Nehemiah and the rebuilding of Jerusalem to structure our thinking as well as referring to more general leadership ideas.

  • Introducing Nehemiah and his times. This session sets the scene and reflects on the important theme of living in exile. As Nehemiah prays for Jerusalem, we ask what it means for a leader to pray ‘Your kingdom come’.
  • The leader’s vision. What was happening in Jerusalem was so wrong that Nehemiah knew it had to be put right. As he prayed, God put a plan in his heart. What does it mean for a leader to have a God-given vision?

Part Four: The Leader’s Task, continued

  • The leader’s team. While the role of the leader is important, leaders’ effectiveness is limited if they are not surrounded by a team who will join them in the vision and plan. Nehemiah’s story is the story of a host of otherwise largely unknown people who rolled up they sleeves to rebuild Jerusalem.
  • The leader’s resilience. Nehemiah’s leadership takes place against the backdrop of opponents who attempt to hinder the rebuilding task. What are some of the issues leaders face – both in terms of their work and personally – where perseverance and resilience are called for?

Part Three: The Leader’s Model (Jesus)

In sessions five and six we reflect on the life and teaching of Jesus as they relate to our thinking on leadership. It’s been pointed out that there is a lot more in the gospels about a call to follow than about a call to lead!

  • Jesus, the Leader. Biblically, leadership starts with God and in this session we will explore how Jesus led, focussing on the concept (which has become popular in general leadership thinking) of servant leadership.
  • The leader’s testing. Again we turn to some of the challenges that leaders face. This time we reflect on what we might learn from Jesus’ testing in the desert: what happens when leaders are tempted to go it alone relying on their abilities more than on God, or when they are tempted to take short cuts?

Part Six: The Leader’s Model, continued

  • The leader’s life. In this session we will focus on Jesus’ teaching in John 15 where he talks about the disciples’ relationship to him (‘abide in me’), their relationship with each other (‘love one another’), and to to the world (as witnesses).
  • The leader’s call to follow. For all the talk in this course about leadership, leaders need to remember that their primary calling is not to lead but to follow. We’ll explore Jesus’ conversation with Peter in John 21 and think about what it means for leaders to be faithful followers.

8 things Christian leaders can learn about ministry from Moses

Yesterday I had been invited to a gathering of a dozen or so Baptist pastors: I shared some things I’ve learned about leadership, framing them with the story of Moses.

Here is a little summary of my thinking:

1 – We don’t get there by ourselves.

Moses’ survival, his eventual faith in God, and his leadership of God’s people would not have been possible had not been for the faith of his parents, the compassion of Pharaoh’s daughter, and the ingenuity of his sister.

Nor do we get there by ourselves. Whether it is the faith, example and witness of our family, the faithfulness of teachers, or the investment of mentors, we don’t get far on our own.

2 – God can meet us in deserts.

For Moses, the middle years of his life represented the loss of his vision and passion. Exile in Midian was not what he was expecting when he attempted to rescue the Hebrew slaves at 40.

Many leaders find themselves in wilderness experiences at various points in their ministry. Whether it is a wilderness of stress and burnout, a wilderness of failure, or a wilderness of illness or spiritual crisis, wilderness by definition is a hard place. But God can meet us there, as he did Moses.

3 – We need to know that God loves us.

At a time of great crisis (see Exodus 32,33), Moses hears from God. The text says that ‘the Lord used to speak to Moses face to face, as a man speaks to his friend’. Not only did God promise that his presence would be with Moses, but he told him that he had found favour in his sight and that he knew him by name.

Believing that God loves us might seem like spiritual ABCs, but from time to time we need to be reminded: as Henri Nouwen would say, to hear the voice that calls us the beloved.

4 – Ministry is meant to be shared.

Two incidents in Moses’ life are pertinent. The first is when his father in law sees how much Moses’ style of leadership had become a bottleneck and was threatening to wear out both Moses and the people. The second comes later when Moses is complaining about the heavy load of responsibility and God responds by pouring his Spirit on seventy elders. Two people were not part of the main group and Joshua, perhaps anxious to protect the leadership of his mentor, urges Moses to stop them from prophesying. Moses’ responds that he wishes all the Lord’s people were prophets.

Control-freakery is not a sign of healthy leadership. Leaders need to learn the paradox of power: the leader’s power is not diminished when it is given away to others! Ministry is meant to be shared.

5 – We need to learn to handle criticism.

Criticism was a frequent theme of Moses’ life, whether it was about what the people were eating and drinking, or whether it was their complaint (in fact his siblings’) that Moses had got ahead of himself in terms of self-importance.

At times leaders are lightening rods and find themselves attracting any negativity in the air. At times it feels personal (perhaps at times it is!) and can be hard to take. But making it about ourselves and our honour is likely to make it worse.

While criticism may be painful and while a pervading negativity can be toxic in a church or organisation (and may need to be dealt with), we do well to remember the thoughts of a leadership scholar who has suggested that the most successful leaders are liable to be those with the least compliant followers! Without critique, we remain unaware of our weaknesses and areas where growth is needed.

6 – We are never the finished article.

Moses’ character had a streak of anger: witness his reaction to injustice or his smashing of the stone tablets. Yet he is later described as ‘the meekest man on earth’! You’d think that time had sufficiently moderated his character flaw and that his anger issues had been resolved. Until the provocation of the people eventually gets to him and he disobediently strikes the rock.

Beware, lest character flaws you thought were things of the past come back to bite you: avoid the arrogance of thinking you are the finished article!

7 – We must not get in the way of Jesus.

In the mysteries of biblical typology, Paul claims that the rock that followed the Israelites in the desert was Christ. Which suggests to me a picture of Moses getting himself in the way of an encounter between Christ (the rock from which water flowed) and the people.

Leaders have personalities and these are simply part of who we are. But people need more than our personalities: they need living water, and that comes from Christ, not us. Let’s not get in the way by drawing attention to ourselves.

8 – We need to prepare the next generation.

Moses would not make it to the Promised Land, and he knew the people would need a new leader. So he prayed for one (Numbers 27). In answer, God gave him Joshua (though the ultimate answer to the problem of sheep without a shepherd was a greater Joshua!) and Moses commissioned him.

Leaders come and go but the work goes on and calls for new leaders. What are we doing to pray for them and prepare them to pick up the baton?

The Leadership Journey Podcast (22): Ken Clarke (part 1)

 

bishopkenclarkeThis week’s guest on the podcast is one of the best known and most popular leaders in the Northern Irish evangelical church: Ken (Fanta) Clarke. Ken has served (and continues to serve) in a number of roles through the years, including time spent in South America as a missionary, local church leadership on both sides of the Irish border, his role as Bishop in the Church of Ireland, and his current role as mission director for SAMS UK and Ireland (South American Mission Society).

In this episode he talks about some of the events and people who helped form him for leadership. He discusses his definition of a leader as someone with a compass in their head and a magnet in their heart and underlines his belief in the potential impact of one godly life.

As you listen:

  • Who are some of the people who have helped shape you in your leadership?
  • Are you seeking to make the most of whatever calling you have to influence others?