Leadership Principle No. 15–If You Are the Leader, Then Lead

If ever a time and situation cried out for leadership, New Orleans following the double disasters of Katrina and the flooding which followed was the place. To the puzzlement and frustration of most people, our mayor discovered that what he did best was talk. He made grandiose claims, issued reports, and pronounced major projects, none of which came to fruition. Because he was handsome and articulate, soon he was on all the televised news programs and being invited to speak at national forums. Around the country, a lot of people were impressed by this well-spoken leader. Only on the local level did we know the truth: he was a non-leader if ever one existed.

Watch the political scene in America these days and be amazed at the failure of leadership at every level of government. The typical scenario calls for elected officials and those running for their offices to engage costly polling operations to find out what the public wants. Then they package the results as their offering to the citizens. It’s the very definition of non-leadership. That old line comes to mind: “There goes the crowd. I must rush to their front, because I am their leader!”

How many games would a football team win if they paused between every play to poll the team and take a vote? Or even worse, to poll the fans in the stadium and find a consensus? A perfect recipe for disaster.

How many battles would an army win if the officer polled his troops on the best course of action in every situation, then took a vote. No one would do much of anything.

How many gains will a business make if the boss asks the employees, “What should we do now?”

How many souls will a church reach if the pastor asks the membership, “What do you want to do next?” Of course, the more likely scenario has the pastor trying to pull the ministerial staff together into a common agreement on their next undertaking.

A pastor might rationalize this as “consensus leadership.” One minister said, “I did not come down from Sinai with the holy plates. I’m human and do not know everything. I need the advice and counsel of other people.”

No argument on any of his points. The problem is even the staff expects the pastor to take the lead. To be sure, they want him to listen to their concerns and receive their input, but at the end of the day they would like to know he has enough sense of God’s will for their church to make the call. Nothing discomforts the staff ministers so much as a pastor whose leadership style is to gather them together and pool their ignorance, and to do nothing until everyone is in agreement.

Jesus said, “When the shepherd puts forth his sheep, he goes before them.” (John 10:4) That’s basic Leadership 101, and it may be the toughest part of shepherding: you have to go first. You are expected to know the way; the sheep are counting on you.

In early America, new military groups were allowed to elect their own leaders. That’s how young, inexperienced Abraham Lincoln became the captain of his company in the Black Hawk Wars of 1832 and the slightly-older but equally inexperienced Harry Truman became captain in the First World War.

Not a very good system, obviously, and one that was junked as it became apparent that the commander of men in life-or-death situations needed more authority than the good will of his company. Those who elect you also have the authority to un-elect you. Ask any pastor.

These days in the military, when the sergeant commands his men to “Move out!” he has the full authority of the entire United States of America government behind him.

I have a few tales of non-leadership of my own to drop in here.

As a freshman at Berry College in the fall of 1958, I was excited the night the class was assembled for the first time in the school auditorium to elect class officers. My heart was racing, the adrenalin was flowing. I wanted to be elected class president so badly I could taste it.

Now, I had actually been on campus since my high school graduation in late May, working with other students all summer long. I knew almost every person in the small college by name.

The election was spontaneous. No one had campaigned in advance, no names had been bandied about. And yet, I hoped.

Alas, my name was not even placed in nomination. The vice-presidential position likewise came and went without my name being mentioned. Then, Randy Scott, whom I barely knew, nominated me for class secretary. I sat there thinking, “It’s not much of an honor, but I’d take it.” They held a runoff between me and Martha Lord. She was a far superior choice, but I won. Okay, I thought, better than nothing.

One month later, when the class assembled for its first regular meeting, the president called the session to order, made a few appropriate remarks, then turned in my direction and said, “We will dispense with the reading of the minutes from the last meeting.” I sat there stunned. Minutes? I was supposed to take minutes?

It had never occurred to me that this position might come with actual work to be done. The crassness of my self-centeredness was a shock even to me.

I did not want to lead; I merely wanted to be chosen as a leader.

You’ll find that a lot in the ministry, unfortunately. I once had a staff minister whose biggest thrill in life was being invited by outside groups and denominational conferences to lead sessions where he was the guest expert. Billed as the “Minister of Whatever” at our prestigious church, he was hot stuff. The problem was that back at home, he did pitifully little to earn his pay. Eventually, we encouraged him to seek another line of work.

As a new pastor, I was visiting in the homes of all the deacons of the church. Allen and his wife Chris poured out their heart to me, going into detail on how the Lord had called them into the ministry and he had resigned his well-paying position to earn a masters degree at our seminary. Framed certificates on the wall certified that Allen had attended this course and was qualified to teach that discipline. It was quite impressive. I assured this couple I would do everything in my power to see he was given ample opportunity to use his spiritual gifts.

The next morning, I queried the associate pastor on why Allen was not being assigned a ministry to fit his training. William said, “Pastor, we tried. We made him senior adult minister and later, we put him in charge of outreach. He kills everything he touches.” He let that sink in, then said, “The truth is, pastor, all Allen wants is an office and a title. He loves to throw his weight around, to pass out impressive business cards with his name and title. He does not want to actually serve.”

There’s a lot of that going around, it seems.

Bible students will recall the account of how Deborah came to save Israel from the Canaanites. For 20 years, God’s people suffered from the oppression of King Jabin and General Sisera, who commanded an impressive Canaanite army equipped with 900 iron chariots, the latest in military technology for the time. Finally, God heard the prayerful cries of the Israelis and decided enough was enough.

Deborah, a prophetess, sent word to the man of the hour, Barak, that God had selected him to lead the Israelis in this battle and to gain a great victory. Barak, gifted in everything except courage, said, “If you’ll go with me, I’ll go. Otherwise, I won’t do it.”

Deborah agreed to go, the battle was won, the Canaanites were ousted, and no one except the most diligent Bible student remembers who Barak is to this day, while everyone knows the name of Deborah. The difference was leadership.

Soon after we returned from the four-week evacuation caused by Hurricane Katrina, I started calling on the Baptist churches that had survived. In one small town, I found the First Baptist Church up and running, with their parking lot filled with cars of residents picking up supplies. Inside, the fellowship hall had been turned into a warehouse with crates of food and clothing and other supplies.

The pastor was working night and day, administering the church’s work with those needing help. I asked how his congregation was reacting. “The ones who have returned are knee-deep in the work, helping us,” he said. “But one or two have been nay-sayers.” He paused and said, “One man looked around at all the supplies in this hall and wanted to know who gave me the authority to turn our church into a distribution center.”

The pastor smiled and said, “I told him it was a no-brainer.”

Exactly right. He was the leader and he led.

That’s not as simple as it might sound to ministers of other traditions. But in a system like ours (the Southern Baptist Convention) where the church members vote to call a minister to their church, there is an underlying assumption that he takes his orders from the congregation. Some members think since they have the authority to terminate his employment that he should be catering to their wishes and completely responsive to their desires. Nothing could be farther from the truth.

The Apostle Paul wrote, “We do not preach ourselves, but Christ Jesus as Lord, and ourselves your servants for Jesus’ sake.” (II Corinthians 4:15) Notice Paul did not say he was their servant, period. He called himself their servant “for Jesus’ sake.” That is, he took orders from the Lord Jesus Christ on how to serve them. Big, big difference.

Pastors take orders from the Lord on how to serve the congregation, as well as the community as a whole. This means, of course, he must spend a great deal of time in prayer and the Word in order to know the will of God. It also means he should teach the church members that this is the order God has established in His word.

One thought on “Leadership Principle No. 15–If You Are the Leader, Then Lead

  1. Most ‘leaders’ only want to find out which direction the crowd is going, then get out in front of them and call himself a leader. Perhaps this is why Jesus said that the first shall be last and the last, first. He is keeping the books and He will reward those who actually lead. Keep up the good work, bro!

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