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 Three: Philip Emerson (part 3)

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This week Phil Emerson, from Emmanuel Church in Lurgan is the guest on the podcast one more time.

If you’ve missed the first two episodes, you can get them here (part one) and here (part two).

In this week’s episode, Phil talks about the devastating loss of his first wife – one of a series of losses experienced in his church family around the same time, and the questions about healing that are raised when people are not healed.

He also talks about his wider ministry and some of the challenges and opportunities that come at this season in life and leadership.

And he shares these three pieces of advice for younger leaders:

  1. Give God everything
  2. Don’t go alone
  3. Get around godly mentors



For your own reflection:

  • What have been some of the things that have most struck you from Phil’s story of his leadership journey?
  • What’s your reaction to the three pieces of advice Phil shares in this episode?

Christian leaders and their devotional life

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I was recently asked to speak to a church staff on the importance of a leader’s devotional life. With Bono’s disclaimer that ‘you preach what you need to hear’, here is the drift of what I said.

A key verse (albeit with a spiritualised interpretation) is Song of Solomon 1:6 –

My mother’s sons were angry with me; they made me keeper of the vineyards, but my own vineyard I have not kept!

So here are four reasons why leaders might find it challenging to maintain their devotional life and four reasons why it matters:

  • There is a lot to do! Which means that various things jostle for attention and priority. It can be tempting to be drawn to what can be measured (how many hours we worked, how many people we counselled); but what if the things that matter cannot actually be measured? The story of Mary and Martha is a reminder that there are times when we can get so weighed down by the list of what needs done (or what we think needs done) that we serve from resentment rather than from the overflow of devoted hearts.
  • We get distracted! Richard Foster said that ‘distraction is the primary spiritual problem in our day’. Aside from our preoccupation with the mountain of tasks that are calling for our attention, there are our own inner thoughts – our preoccupations, fears, confusion and questions. And there can be the ubiquitous distractions of our social media feeds on-demand news cycles.
  • Ministry becomes a substitute for devotion and we become professional Christians. At times it takes the form of thinking that once we’re ‘in ministry’, we have somehow graduated beyond the need for the normal routines of the Christian life. Or the fact that we read the Bible for our sermons and talks somehow exempts us from reading it for ourselves.
  • The problem of routine. ‘Discipline’ sounds harsh and some of us see routine as the enemy of spontaneity, or even a pathway to ‘legalism’. It’s true that routines can become ruts, but without structure we’re at the mercy of our moods and circumstances, and routines help us not to forget.

The trouble is, as soon as you sit and become quiet, you think, Oh, I forgot this. I should call my friend. Later on I’m going to see him. Your inner life is like a banana tree filled with monkeys jumping up and down (Henri Nouwen).

And why is any of this important?

  • We are followers before we are leaders. Or, as a good friend of mine puts it, God has called us to be shepherds, but some of us have forgotten we are still sheep.

Jesus had different priorities than teaching us to lead. ‘Follow’, however, comes up explicitly over thirty times in the Gospels. Whether or not all of us or anyone are called to leadership is not at stake; we are all called to be followers. Discipleship is first and foremost about following. Disciple indicates one who follows Jesus, ‘a relationship that involves both commitment and cost (Arthur Boers).

  • Our best leadership flows from who we are. Leadership is not merely a set of functions carried out by a leader: the next leadership is the leader expressing who they are. The best Christian leadership is an overflow of who the leader is being shaped to be in God.
  • We need to find strength in God. Leadership is challenging and there are times when leaders are overwhelmed and their own resources are insufficient. A seasoned leader once told me that ‘probably one of the greatest things you need to learn on leadership … is the ability to strengthen yourself in God’.
  • Leaders need to know that God loves them. This has been a theme in some of the leaders’ stories that have been shared with me, both in my research and in my Leadership Journey podcasts. In the middle of all the remarkable events and challenges of his leadership, what must it have meant to Moses to hear God say, ‘You have found favour in my sight, and I know you by name’?

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 (from Resilient Ministry).


Drop Thy still dews of quietness,
Till all our strivings cease;
Take from our souls the strain and stress,
And let our ordered lives confess
The beauty of Thy peace.
Breathe through the heats of our desire
Thy coolness and Thy balm;
Let sense be dumb, let flesh retire;
Speak through the earthquake, wind, and fire,
O still, small voice of calm!

(From the hymn Dear Lord and Father of Mankind)

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?

THE LEADERSHIP JOURNEY PODCAST (28): MALCOLM DUNCAN, PART Three

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Malcolm Duncan, Senior Pastor of Dundonald Elim Church, is back for a third week.

He talks about some of the impressions of the Northern Ireland he has returned to. He suggests that there is a lot of hope (‘if you see cranes in a city, it’s a sign of hope’), while there is also a degree of uncertainty.

We discuss the theme of exile: how do we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land? Malcolm suggests that here is a difference between a church that sings and a church that shouts and he argues that we need to spend more energy telling the Church to get its house in order than telling the world to get its house in order.

He offers some ideas on how the Church needs to respond to the secularisation of society: the Church in Northern Ireland needs to be a hopeful community and a source of hope that could flow beyond these shores.

He reflects on some of the early Irish missionaries and how they went about their work and wonders where the big story tellers are at a time when we may have been guilty of overly dissecting the gospel. Cultivate a bigger vision of the gospel by cultivating a smaller vision of its reality – which means looking for ‘the green seeds of hope’ in your community.

He talks about how he feeds his mind and soul and shares at some length about how he approaches Scripture.

He also talks about the ‘niteblessings’ which you can follow on his social media platforms: @MalcomJDuncan on Twitter and InstagramRevMalcolmDuncan on Facebook – and watch out for the upcoming book!

Towards the end of the podcast, he shares some of the most important things he has learned in leadership:

  1. You cannot be a good leader unless you are a good follower.
  2. There is always more to learn (‘I understand God less than I have ever understood him, but I love him more than I have ever loved him’).
  3. Leadership is as much about learning to trust God as it is about leading other people (‘I do not need to understand God in order to trust him’).
  4. God is good and his love endures forever (‘I have learned the gift of suffering’).
  5. ‘I have nothing to prove!’

Listeners of a certain age will catch the reference to Larry Norman!


 

Here is the podcast:


For your reflection:

  • How can the Church learn to sing more than it shouts?
  • What does it mean for the Church to be an alternative community on the edges of society?
  • Have you a big vision of the gospel?
  • What might it mean to find God at work in your community, as Malcolm describes it?
  • How do you feed your mind and soul?
  • Have you developed a pattern of engaging with Scripture?

The Leadership Journey Podcast (26): Malcolm Duncan (part one)

 

9ey7xfrc_400x400The guest this week (for the next three weeks, in fact) is Malcom Duncan. After spending the past thirty years away from Northern Ireland, where he grew up, Malcolm has recently taken up the role of Senior Pastor in Dundonald Elim Church in East Belfast. Previously – most recently – he was Senior Pastor of Gold Hill Baptist Church in England. Malcolm is well known as a conference speaker at events such as Spring Harvest and New Horizon.

In this week’s podcast, Malcolm talks about returning to the country he left three decades ago, he talks about his dramatic conversion experience at sixteen (which he believes also constituted his call to Christian ministry), and he shares some of his thoughts on leadership and mentoring.

Questions for reflection:

  • As you listen to Malcolm describe his conversion experience, reflect on how you came to faith? Was it a dramatic experience, or was it more gradual? Someone has suggested that some conversions are more ‘Emmaus Road’ than they are ‘Damascus Road’.
  • What do you think of Malcolm’s rationale for team leadership? Do you have a theological foundation for your own leadership model?
  • Do you have a Timothy and/or a Paul figure in your life?
  • ‘You cannot lead people you don’t love’: what do you make of this comment?

You can catch also Malcolm’s ‘nite blessing’ – a prayer for each evening – via his Twitter page – @malcolmjduncan, or on his Facebook page – RevMalcolmDuncan.

The Leadership Journey Podcast (23): Ken Clarke (part 2)

bishopkenclarkeThis week there is more from Bishop Ken (Fanta) Clarke, mission director of SAMS (UK and Ireland).

The greatest need of my people is my personal holiness (Robert Murray McCheyne).

This week Ken talks about risk taking and younger leaders, about his experience of culture shock when he went to Chile, about the need for leaders to take time to be reflective, and the challenge of trust.

He also tells the story about a somewhat nerve-wracking experience in isolation on an African mountain and what he learned at that time!

And there are these four key pieces of advice:

  1. Don’t be a maverick: think team!
  2. Remember that team members have different capacities;
  3. Have soul friends;
  4. Guard your heart (Proverbs 4:23).

For your own reflection:

  • How easy to you find it to take time to reflect on your purpose as a leader and on the purpose of your church/organisation? How much time do you spend listening to God?
  • If you lead a team, do you train them well enough that they can leave but treat them well enough that they don’t want to?