The Burden of Leadership

An interviewer asked the celebrated Western author Louis L’Amour about discrepancies in some of his novels. “In one place, you’ll have six bad guys getting killed, and later in the book, one of them is alive and shooting.” L’Amour, who prided himself on accuracy of place (“if I say there is a rock in the road there, you can find a rock in that road”) and led readers to believe his stories were authentic and true-to-life, answered, “The people who read my books don’t care about that sort of thing.”

In an old western movie I remember, the good guy is chasing the bad guys or vice versa. As they gallop across the plain, viewers can see the shadow of the film truck and the cameramen standing in back flash across the ground. In a more recent movie, Kirk Douglas runs up and hops on his horse and rides away. Just to the bottom right of the screen, though, we saw that he actually had jumped on something — a step or stool or something — and vaulted himself into the saddle.

Sloppy film-making and sloppy book-writing are ever with us, but I expect Mr. L’Amour is correct: few people care. We were not reading his books or watching those movies for educational purposes.

Some things don’t matter.

It’s a wise leader who knows what matters — what is crucial and essential — and what doesn’t — the things that are for cosmetic purposes or simply add-ons or for amusement.


My Bible reading this morning covering the last of II Samuel illustrates a burden for every leader to consider. In the last years of David’s life and reign, he decides to take a census of Israel. Now for us, three thousand years removed, we see nothing sinful or even interesting in such a decision. Rulers do that all the time. In fact — and this is part of the puzzle for serious Bible students — there are plenty of censuses (censii?) taken throughout the Old Testament. So, we read that and wonder why the Lord in Heaven was so upset by David’s act.

I’m leading up to making a point, but need to digress long enough to observe that the way the story is presented in Scripture creates multiple problems for Bible teachers, particularly we who want everything to fall neatly into well-defined categories. (It doesn’t.) II Samuel 24 begins, “Again the anger of the Lord was aroused against Israel, and He moved David against them to say, ‘Go, number Israel and Judah.'”

So, God put him up to the census, and then judged him for taking it. Theologians build their careers on just such statements.

Now, Joab, David’s general, warns him not to take the census. Then, when the polling was completed, David repents. “I have sinned greatly in what I have done; but now, I pray, O Lord, take away the iniquity of Your servant, for I have done very foolishly.”

Next, a prophet approaches David with three choices from the Lord. As punishment for taking the census, David may choose seven years of famine for the land, three months of warfare, or three days of a plague.

Many, many things strike us in reading this. I will leave all other considerations for another time and point out only one aspect of the story: the people are suffering for David’s wrong-doing. In famines, wars, and plagues, it’s the populace that pays the price. And where’s the fairness in that?

(I pause to comment that this is one more reason we believe this to be the inspired and authentic word of God. Had it been the concoction of man, whether an individual or committee, this kind of story would have been edited out or corrected to make the scripture more palatable. But, with God as with the Bible’s heroes, we have — as Oliver Cromwell said — “warts and all.”)

What a king does matters. What a leader of a country does makes a world of difference.

He (or she) who would be a leader of men (and women and children) should consider and recognize three of the darker elements of the task:

–The cost, to him personally and to those who love him most.

–The burden. His life is not his own. He exists for others now. Everyone owns a little piece of him.

–The risk. People’s lives hang in the balance. In the white space at the end of the book of II Samuel, I wrote, “When kings make foolish decisions, people die. That’s the penalty for pride, the punishment for ambition, and the risk of leadership.”

“The Forgotten 500” is Gregory A. Freeman’s account of what he calls “the greatest rescue mission of World War II,” the story of American rescuers going into Nazi-held Yugoslavia and bringing out 512 Allied airmen trapped behind enemy lines. They had been crewmembers of bombers sent to put the oil fields at Ploesti, Romania, out of commission. That — the story of the bombing of those resources so critical to the Nazis — may have been the most dangerous assignment any World War II soldier ever received.

Freeman says Operation Tidal Wave was the all-out Allied effort to destroy Ploesti’s oil fields. This called for striking the targets at very low levels, just above the tree-tops, in order to evade the enemy’s radar and anti-aircraft guns as long as possible. Since B-24 bombers made excellent targets at that level, the loss of life would be high.

Such a great risk of human life “required that the plan be approved all the way up the chain of command, with even President Franklin D. Roosevelt agonizing over whether the need to knock out Ploesti justified the extreme risk to the crews. He decided that it did, and the bomber crews were given terrifying orders.”

That was August of 1943. The President of the United States decided it was worth risking the lives of hundreds, even thousands, of young men in order to cripple the Nazi war-machine. Every one of those young men was someone’s son and brother or father. Each one touched the lives of hundreds back in the States.

Hundreds were shot down and killed. Flying into Ploesti was almost suicide.

One of those young men who died in August 1943 was Jesse D. “Red” Franks of Columbus, Mississippi. His father was the pastor of the First Baptist Church there, Dr. Jesse Dee Franks, and Red himself had gone into the ministry. He left seminary when the war broke out to become a pilot, then became (I believe) a bombardier.

Franks’ story and the account of the search for his body is told in “Safely Rest” by David Colley.

When I became pastor of Columbus’ First Baptist Church in January of 1974, I soon heard the story of Red Franks’ death in Romania and its effect on the church family. Pastor Franks resigned the church in 1946 to go to Europe in search of the body of his only son.

While in Europe, the Southern Baptist Foreign Mission Board asked Dr. Franks to head up relief efforts of our denomination in those war-torn lands. Then, he was asked to lead a group charged with selecting a site for a new European Baptist seminary (they chose Ruschlikon, Switzerland). When he and Mrs. Franks returned to the States, he taught religion at a Christian college in Kentucky until his death in 1960.

As Robert Frost put it, “…one road leads to another….”

Do not volunteer to be the leader unless you can pay the cost, bear the burden, and take the risk.

As James notes about teachers in the epistle that bears his name, few should aspire to that lofty calling “knowing that we shall receive a stricter judgment.” (I Jas. 3:1)

4 thoughts on “The Burden of Leadership

  1. Thanks Joe! In less than 4 weeks SWBTS will be hosting it 42 annual YouthLab for profesional and volunteer youth leaders. This year I was asked to be in charge of the student leadership track. If anyone knows about YouthLab there is no list of preparatory task or formula for the stu/leadership track, you make it up new every year. Previous years they have given students experience in doing missions, ministry to peers and worship, but not really in core leadership skill training. This year I pushed for it, prayed for it and pursued to have it facillitated. We utterly did not have the curriculum or the instructors, but God did and sent them our way by providence. You hit the heart of what I am preparing to share with over a hundred students, do not volunteer to be a leader unless you are prepared to pay the cost, bear the burden, and take the risk. (We had hoped to get Tim Tebow to do this for us but he is locked up in spring practice!) It is my prayer, that the culture of change that we adults on a large scale are failing at, that this will be the beginning of putting into the hearts and minds of students to intentionally increase their skills in the hard and soft areas of leadership. Being a good example is necessary, but not sufficient. We who lead students must lead them beyond being spectators. we must train THEM adequately to lead, raise the bar and engage THEM in opportunities to serve God’s mission for their lives. Students are NOT the church of tomorrow, they are the church NOW! And with that we need to change our mindset and perception of our students and their place in the church. If we do not embrace the urgency of doing this now, we not only run the risk of never seeing them darken the doors of the church after graduation, we run the risk of us being the last Christian generation!… That’s my story and I’m sticking to it! You can have your soapbox back now…Love ya Joe!

  2. Thanks Joe, for reminding me about a very devoted couple who exhibited true leadership by the way they conducted their life. Dr. Franks taught at Bethel Jr. College, in Hopkinsville, Ky. The college closed in 1960. His wife also served on the faculty teaching Home Economics. A couple of stories.

    Dr. Franks was teaching his class and in the class were several young men entering into the ministry. One went to class and Dr. Franks saw him talking to the other students in the early part of the class. Dr. Franks asked him what was the problem? The young man stated that he didn’t have a pencil. At that Dr. Franks said, ” A student who goes to class without a pencil is like a farmer going to plow without a plow! I think someone had an extra pencil and shared with the student. Hey, “That student was not me”. He was a good friend and passed away last year. By the way he was a good minister and also served as a DOM in his later ministry.

    Another time the BSU was promoting a drive for their missions offering. I was put in charge of the offering. I placed several small wooden boxes of some sort in places where students would be passing by with a sign about the offering urging people to give. There were no locks on the boxes nor were they fastened down. We depended on their honesty. One day I was sitting in the small snack bar with some other students. Dr. Franks came by and suggested that the box in a certain place should be checked. On my way to class I went by and checked. There was a $100.00 bill in the box. I can guess who gave it. Times were different then and I would not even attempt to take an offering on the college campus by way of the honor system today. Sad that we have “progressed” (progress is what we are supposed to learn in college isn’t it?) to that point in life.

    My wife took a class under Mrs. Franks and has high praise for her also. They both were leaders and did not look for their own glory!.

  3. I was a ministerial student at Bethel College in Hopkinsville, KY, when Dr. and Mrs. Franks came there to teach in 1957. I had him in at least two classes. He never mentioned his mission to find his son’s body or his relief work. He did talk a great deal about his pastorate in Colubus, Mississippi. What a great man! What a lasting influence he had on many students at Bethel.