The Leadership Journey Podcast: Chris Green on ‘The Gift’

This week’s guest on the podcast is Chris Green. Chris leads a church in North London and this month IVP has published his most recent book: The Gift.

I’ve already written about the book, so you can get a quick idea of what the main ideas of the book are. In our conversation, Chris talks about some of his other work, including other books he has written, including The Message of the Church, a biblical theology of the Church, part of the Bible Speaks Today series, and Cutting to the Heart, on application in preaching.

He talks about the key ideas of The Gift, including some cautions about whether and how we should think of Jesus as the Model Leader, why church leaders could think of their work in terms of the twelve slices of pizza, and what he means when he defines church leadership as ‘Corporate Application’.

Along the way we mention the work of Patrick Lencioni and his book The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, which is well worth your while checking out.

And we have a discount code: you will pick up the code if you listen to the podcast and it will give you IVP’s best price when you order from their website.

The Gift: How your leadership can serve your church

Continuing the theme of posts on my summer reading (especially for leaders), this one is a little different in that the book in question has not yet been released: it’s due on August 19. In preparation for the launch, the author made an electronic copy available ahead of time and I have been having a read.

The book is The Gift and it is aimed at church leaders. The author, Chris Green, is the vicar of a church in North London and previously served as Vice-Principal at Oak Hill Theological College. He has written or edited several other books, including Cutting to the Heart, on application in teaching and preaching.

It hardly needs to be said the there is no shortage of books and resources on leadership, including Christian leadership. Some, like Emma Ineson’s book on ambition, or Tod Bolsinger’s recent offering on resilience (review and podcast to come), have a particular focus on a specific area of the leader’s life; others, like James Lawrence‘s Growing Leaders, or Ian Parkinson’s Understanding Christian Leadership take a wider look at a range of relevant issues. Chris Green’s focus is on the task of church leadership, and the primary audience to benefit from the book will be pastors and ministers, for whom the book will serve as an opportunity to recalibrate their understanding of their role, and rediscover the core of their calling.

For there is a plethora of voices and leadership models, clamouring for the leader’s attention. Is the pastor essentially an ecclesiastical CEO? At the other end of the spectrum, a teacher? A counsellor? What does it mean to lead a church, and to do so in a way that is shaped by biblical priorities and values? This book will go some way to answering those questions.

The book falls broadly into two parts, though there is a third element – one of those leadership fables that draws you in and sets you up for the teaching content of the book. The fable unfolds in three parts: in the book’s prelude, in an interlude between the two main parts of the book, and in a postlude. It imagines a number of people involved in ministry who get together for a seminar with an old college professor.

The first part of the book (‘Who needs leaders?’) starts by seeking to establish some some biblical and theological reasons why we need leaders at all and moves on to discuss how healthy rule breaks down, resulting in what appear to be opposites, but which are theological twins: anarchy and tyranny. Anarchy seeks freedom at the expense of rule while tyranny imposes rule without freedom. From there (and there is a biblical-theological logic in the progression) we move to a chapter on celebrity, comparison and the sin of Babel: the problem of the ‘Peacock Pastor’. Let we conclude too quickly that Jesus might be the model leader, the author warns us about the serious danger of trivialising him. It’s too easy for us to find our own leadership ideas illustrated in Jesus. we need to heed this warning:

If you see [Jesus] as a ‘Great Leader’, but don’t put that in the context of his being the ultimate, eternal King, then all you’ll get is someone general common sense on teams and priorities. YOu’ll quote him, Confucius and Winston Churchill in the same breath.

Nonetheless there is ‘buried treasure’ for us in the study of Jesus. We can note his passion and his focus, but it’s important to see him more as our pattern than as our leadership guru. When Jesus taught his disciples about leadership, he called them to service, in contrast to the self-exalting ambition of the Gentiles. And he still leads the Church: through his word, through the Spirit, and by gifting members of his Body, empowering them to lead through the gifts of the Spirit.

That idea prepares the way for the second part of the book, ‘The Gift’, in which the author carefully and methodically works towards his definition of leadership: we have to wait until chapter 14 before we get there!

The first few chapters of this section focus on the particular gifts of teaching and leading which the author argues should come together in the Church’s pastors/elders/overseers. To be a leader only, at its most dangerous, is to lead in ways that come adrift from Scripture; to be a teacher only, is to run the risk of applying Scripture in purely individual, rather than corporate ways. And since the proposed definition of leadership is ‘Corporate application’, this matters.

It matters too that the leader’s method and message are integrated (the case of Diotrophes is summoned as evidence). As it matters where we source our wisdom, and it matters that we remain attentive to the reasons why we do what we do.

The author loves pizza and as he gets closer to his definition of church leadership and how it works out, he talks about ministry as a 12-slice pizza. It’s worth noting the slices:

  • Study
  • Small groups
  • Preaching
  • Praise
  • Counselling
  • Mutual Care
  • Discipling
  • Evangelism
  • World mission
  • Training
  • Self-discipleship
  • Leadership

Sprinkled all across the whole pizza – every slice – are olives. They may not be to everyone’s taste on a literal pizza, but in this leadership model, the Acts 6 ministries of prayer and ministry of the word are to permeate everything.

Leadership then is ‘corporate application’: it is bringing the word of God to bear in all facets of the life of the church: its formal organisation, its family dynamics, and its future intentions. One chapter is given over to a practical illustration of what this approach would look like in addressing a pastoral issue and the final chapter concludes with the exhortation to ‘preach the word’ but to remember that its application needs to be bigger than the pulpit (think of those pizza slices).

If you are looking for something to guide you step-by-step through how to discern a vision, how to apply Belbin to your ministry leadership team, or how to find tools that will help you to communicate more effectively, or strategies for managing change, The Gift may not quite be the book you are looking for. It doesn’t aim to answer all those questions. In many ways it is more fundamental than that and that is why you will benefit from reading it! As I said at the start of this review, it will provide you with an opportunity to recalibrate your ministry and remind you how the Lord of the Church has equipped you to do what you do.

For more on the book, you can watch out for a podcast conversation with Chris in the second half of the month, after the book has launched.

Meantime, for those of you on Facebook, you can join the book launch team ( and you can even join in a ZOOM session with the author on Wednesday evening (August 12).

The Crucible of Leadership: Learning from the Story of Moses

This week I have been wrapping up some editing of a book manuscript that I have been working on for a year or so. I’ve sent it to a publisher who has expressed some interest, so we will see how that goes.

I’ve called it ‘The Crucible of Leadership’ and in it I’ve set out several things that I think Christian leaders need to come to terms with in their leadership. My reflections are framed in the context of the remarkable story of Moses.

His formative years were spent in Egypt where he had been born into a family of Hebrew slaves but remarkably ended up being raised as a member of the royal family. A failed attempt to lead a liberation movement resulted in his being pitched unceremoniously into the wilderness years – forty years spent in the Midianite desert where the peak of his career appears to have been taking care of his father-in-law’s sheep – quite a contrast with some of the traditional understandings of his time in Egypt which tell tales of military prowess! Finally, after a remarkable encounter with God on the edge of the desert, his life takes another dramatic turn and he becomes a reluctant leader, going on to spend the next forty years navigating the highs and lows of leadership in the desert.

Here are the chapter headings:

  • Introduction: (Yet) Another book on Leadership!
  • Chapter One: Wise leaders know that they don’t get there by themselves.
  • Chapter Two: Wise leaders learn to navigate the desert.
  • Chapter Three: Wise leaders get over their excuses.
  • Chapter Four: Wise leaders understand that ministry is best shared.
  • Chapter Five: Wise leaders know that God loves them.
  • Chapter Six: Wise leaders know that they cannot escape criticism.
  • Chapter Seven: Wise leaders realise that they are not the finished article.
  • Chapter Eight: Wise leaders understand when to hand on the baton.
  • Epilogue: Wise leaders don’t get in the way of Jesus.

Here is how the book’s epilogue concludes:

The final piece of biblical narrative that involves Moses comes in the story of Jesus’ transfiguration.

Peter, James and John, the inner circle of his disciples, accompanied him to pray on a mountain where Moses and Elijah appeared and engaged in conversation with Jesus about his impending death in Jerusalem. After Peter’s misguided suggestion about building a shelter each for Jesus and the two Old Testament figures, a cloud covered them and a voice spoke:

This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased. Listen to him (Matthew 17:5).

When their vision cleared, the only leader they could see was Jesus.

And that is a good place for us to conclude. Our reflections have been framed in the story of a towering leader-figure, but one who was flawed. At the start of his leadership he attempted to wriggle out of God’s call; later he sabotaged his leadership through anger and his story ended with disappointment.

The only flawless leader is Jesus, perfect in obedience, love and humility.
Listen to Him!

Wise leaders set themselves to walk in His ways, and they take care not to get in His way!

The Leadership Journey Podcast: Terry Virgo on ‘God’s Treasured Possession’

This week Terry Virgo is back on the podcast and he’s talking about his new book, ‘God’s Treasured Possession: Walk in the Footsteps of Moses’, which has just recently been published by IVP.

We start our conversation by asking ‘why Moses?’ and go on to talk about a number of the themes arising from the book.

There is a special offer for listeners in that IVP, the book’s publishers, are offering a discount when you order from their website: you can get the code at the beginning and end of the podcast.

Terry was previously on the podcast in November when we discussed his leadership journey. You can listen to that conversation here.

On striking rocks and getting in the way of Jesus

(This is drawn from ‘The Crucible of Leadership’ – a book project I am working on, based around the story of Moses.)

Moses Striking the Rock (Chagall)

For leaders to lead in the way of Jesus is one thing (a good thing, if it means they are seeking to be like Him), but for leaders to get in the way of Jesus is something else.

By way of a final word on Moses’ leadership journey (and our own), we return once more to Meribah, and the rock-striking episode.

It was at Meribah (Numbers 20) that Moses’ anger re-emerged. What had been an arguably justifiable attribute when he responded either to injustice or to the people’s unfaithfulness was this time an expression of frustration as the complaints of the people tipped him over the edge. It led him to take a situation into his own hands, to deal with it in his own way, instead of trusting God, leaving room for Him to work, thus acknowledging His holiness.

Centuries later, referring to Israel’s history by way of warning the members of the church in Corinth about the dangers of an array of sins, including putting Christ to the test, Paul writes about the spiritual food and drink that were available to Moses’ followers. They drank spiritual drink from a spiritual rock, ‘and that rock was Christ’ (1 Corinthians 10:4).

I don’t think Paul’s reference requires a non-historical understanding of the incident at Meribah, but it does point us towards a typological understanding of the incident: in the desert, Christ was the true source of the people’s nourishment.

The task of New Covenant ministers is to share Christ with people. He is the source of spiritual life and nourishment that people need. Beyond what Paul says here in this somewhat enigmatic paragraph, Jesus referred to Himself as both the Bread of Life and the Source of living water. Our task is to help people to engage with Him. 

May God forgive us when our words and actions get in the way of this and we drag His name into disrepute. How many people have been turned away from the Source of living water because of the behaviour or attitude of a Christian leader? It’s a tragedy when people cannot see past us to Jesus. Our calling is to point to Him, to guard the sense of Him holiness, and make sure that we do not make ourselves the focus.

May God forgive us when we make ourselves the focus of our leadership. It’s not simply the big platform, high profile leaders who are at risk (wittingly or not) of this. Any of us has the capacity to attempt to put ourselves at the centre. What good is our leadership if we get in the way of Jesus?

Those of us who are preachers need to be aware of the temptation to allow our frustrations to come out in the administration of harsh verbal lashes.  There is something wearisome about the kind of preaching that seems to see listeners as a badly-behaved class of children who need to be brought into line. Some good friends in our church in Switzerland were once kind enough to ask me if I liked Christmas (I do). They had noticed that in my zeal to ‘challenge’ the once-a-year visitors to our Christmas services, I was coming across as angry: Ebenezer Scrooge in the pulpit!

A few months ago I heard the story of advice that the Puritan, Richard Sibbes, gave to Thomas Goodwin. In Goodwin’s own words, his preaching could be described as ‘battering consciences’. After hearing him preach, Richard Sibbes said this: ‘Young man, if you ever would do good, you must preach the gospel and the free grace of God in Christ Jesus.’ 

There are times when, in our zeal, we simply try too hard. It’s for the best of motives but our ministry and leadership are all about ‘challenge’. Our preaching is always about the big stick. Our leadership is always about the next hill to climb, rarely pausing long enough to be thankful for the distance we have already covered. Of course there is such a thing as a sense of urgency, but it’s possible to try so hard that we end up getting in the way of Jesus. People grow weary and it seems as though we are only offering stale bread and lukewarm water while all along Jesus wants to invite people to taste the bread of life and drink of the living water.

The joy of the Lord: an alternative view

(This is taken from ‘The Crucible of Leadership’ – a book project I am working on, based around the story of Moses.)

Another of my favourite leadership stories in Scripture (besides Moses) is the story of Nehemiah. At one point, in the second part of the book, what might be best thought of as a spiritual revival, fuelled by a reading of the Law, takes place among the Jerusalem community. One of the things I find interesting is the emphasis on both mind and emotions in the narrative. Great pains were taken to ensure that everyone understood what was being read to them.  Levites busied themselves in instructing the people and making sure that the meaning of the Law was set out clearly. However intellectual understanding led to a profound emotional reaction, first weeping, doubtless at the realisation of how far they had fallen, but then rejoicing, secure in the knowledge that ‘the joy of the Lord’ would be their strength.

That oft-quoted expression is commonly understood to refer to people locating their joy in the Lord. Your mind might go to Paul and Silas who, far from feeling sorry for themselves as they nursed the wounds that had been inflicted on them by means of a severe flogging, and as they languished in their Philippian prison, spent the night singing hymns to God. The joy of the Lord was their strength. The implication is that a joyful Christian is a strong Christian, so we need to work at cultivating this joy in the Lord.

And that may very well be Nehemiah’s point here; indeed he would later write that ‘God had given them great joy.’ Raymond Brown comments that,

The people’s joy in life was not to be found in ideal circumstances, material prosperity, or social popularity, but in the Lord. Their joy is derived from the knowledge of who he is, what he does, what he says and what he gives.

However some years ago an article in the journal Vetus Testamentum suggested an alternative view which I must admit carries a certain appeal. What if ‘the joy of the Lord’ refers less to the joy that someone finds in God and more to the joy that God himself experiences? And what if the Hebrew word translated ‘strength’ were translated ‘stronghold’, or ‘refuge’, which is often its meaning? Nehemiah’s encouragement would then be that the people could rejoice and celebrate because God’s joy (over them) was their refuge, a guarantee of their protection.

Such an idea would sit well with Zephaniah’s beautiful picture of God rejoicing over his people with singing (Zephaniah 3:17), or might even evoke the prodigal father of Luke 15 whose joy over his son ensured that the boy’s shame was covered and his status was restored. Wouldn’t you love to have seen that joyful father running along a dusty road to reach his bedraggled and disgraced son as quickly as he possibly could, to throw his arms around him and embrace him with kisses of compassion and acceptance?!

Some of us, who doubt the depth of God’s affection for us, might need to adjust our functional theology to accommodate a picture of a God like that!

The Leadership Journey Podcast: Arthur Boers on ‘Servants and Fools’

Arthur Boers

My guest this week is Arthur Boers. Arthur is Canadian and has pastored churches and taught in seminaries in both the United States and Canada. He has written a number of books, including Living into Focus: Choosing what Matters in an Age of Distraction, and The Way is Made by Walking: A Pilgrimage along the Camino de Santiago. He has also written on the intersection of the Bible and Leadership, and in this episode of the podcast we discuss his book, Servants and Fools: A Biblical Theology of Leadership.

I first came across the book a few years ago (it was published in 2015) on the recommendation of Ian Coffey and more recently I asked some of my students to write an essay based on the following quotation from one of its early chapters: it may give you a little bit of a pointer as to how Arthur views the Bible’s teaching on leadership. In fact, he believes that much of the Church’s interest in leadership is ‘faddish’ and argues that the Scriptures are suspicious of human leaders.

While history focuses on victors and the powerful, at the top and in charge, the Bible pays an astonishing amount of attention to regular, normal folks who are nevertheless the unexpected means of God’s dramatic work.

Arthur Boers, Servants and Fools.

*I had planned to have John Dickinson on the podcast this week, but we’ve had to push that episode back: you should be able to listen to John’s story in a couple of weeks.

The Leadership Journey Podcast: Ian Paul

Ian Paul is a theologian, writer, blogger and self-confessed chocoholic and is this week’s guest on the podcast. Ian has recently published a commentary on the Book of Revelation.

In our conversation he talks about coming to faith as a young person, sensing a call to ordained ministry, serving in a growing church, and later becoming involved in theological training and writing. He talks about some of the disappointments and challenges he has faced and along the way he talks about some of his observations on leadership.

You can read Ian’s blog at, and while you are there you can find details of his commentary on Revelation, and other books.

Next week, my guest will be Paul Tripp, and we will be talking about his new book on church leadership.

Sword or staff?

A military historian exploring the story of Amalek’s attack on Israel at Rephidim (Exodus 17) may be a little disappointed. The narrator omits most of the military detail. We don’t know how many soldiers were involved on either side, we don’t know how many of them were injured, and we don’t know much about the details of either side’s strategy, although there is a note in Deuteronomy that throws some light on the opportunistic nature of Amalek’s attack – attacking when Israel was weary and focusing on those who were lagging behind.

Exodus is more interested in drawing attention away from the battlefield, where Joshua is operating (and will eventually triumph) with the sword, to the top of a newly hill where an 80 year old Moses is holding out a shepherd’s staff. Remarkably the outcome of the battle is connected to the fact that he was able to hold out the staff until sunset. Not that he was able to manage on his own: it took the support of Aaron and Hur to keep his weary hands steady.

What appears to be no more than an ordinary staff is actually ‘the staff of God’. God has transformed something ordinary and made it extraordinary, the means by which his power is mediated. It’s the same staff that invoked the power of God to divide the Red Sea, and the same staff that produced water from the rock.

Because of what it represents, the staff is more significant than the sword. To translate that into our day to day, what we invite God to do is more significant than what we do.

Could it be that we spend more time than we ought on tools and tactics, and less time than we should on seeking God?

Joshua only accomplished what he did because of what Moses was doing. And Moses was only able to do what he did because of the support of Aaron and Hur, and – more importantly, because God had transformed the ordinary into something extraordinary, a vehicle for his power.

Who am I? Defining moments

While it may well be true that significant elements of our lives are shaped by the decisions of others, leaders can expect that their leadership journey will toss up some defining moments when they need to make their mind up about their identity and the direction of their life.
Who are you? Why are you here? Why should you choose this path and not another? Why turn down some opportunities and accept others? Why should you draw a line here and not there?
These are vital questions for anyone to ask, never mind leaders.

The answers will not always make sense to other people. Why should someone turn down the prospect of a well-paid job to lose themselves as a missionary somewhere or because they know that the job may require further choices that will conflict with their deepest convictions? Why would you turn your back on a comfortable existence to give your life in the service of people who have nothing of material value to give you in return? At various times we will need to ‘nail our colours to the mast’, perhaps when our colours are not in fashion! It’s part of deciding who we are.

I’m not particularly into musical theatre in general, but I have watched the musical adaptation of Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables on several occasions. It is full of powerful and poignant moments. There is the old priest who forgives Valjean for exploiting his hospitality to steal from him: his redemptive act sets up Valjean’s new life. There is the dramatic suicide of Inspector Javert who has been let off the hook by Valjean but as a firm believer that ‘the law is the law and the law is not mocked’ finds himself unable to live ‘in the world of Jean Valjean’. There is the moving moment at the end of his life when Valjean is reunited with Cosette and Marius.

And there is a dramatic scene where Valjean, now known as Monsieur Madeleine, and a successful factory owner, realises that someone else has been mistaken for him and is on trial. To say nothing condemns an innocent man, but to reveal his true identity puts the livelihood of his workers at risk.

In one of the show’s many memorable songs he weighs it all up before deciding to come clean and announce that he is Jean Valjean.

Who am I? 
Who am I?
I’m Jean Valjean.
And so Javert, you see it’s true,
That man bears no more guilt than you!
Who am I?24601.

Defining moments are those moments when we need to decide who we are and what we stand for.

The Leadership Journey Podcast – Marcus Honeysett

The guest on this week’s podcast episode is Marcus Honeysett, executive director of Living Leadership, an organisation that aims to encourage the development of disciple-making leaders who have learned to live in the grace of God. Living Leadership’s website will give you more information about the organisation, including links to a podcast and other resources. Marcus is the author of several books, including Fruitful Leaders.

One of Living Leadership’s recent initiatives has been the development of an online network with fortnightly gatherings via Zoom for encouragement and refreshment.

In our conversation Marcus talks about some of people who invested in him in his early years as an emerging leader, about ambition and saying no to major platforms, about the importance of a biblically-informed understanding of Christian Leadership, and about grace.

Among the advice Marcus would share with his twenty-year old self is the need to grow in deep-rooted spiritual habits, to have a biblically-shaped definition of leadership, and to avoid the temptation to establish ‘success metrics’.

Leaders: you are not the finished article!

I’ve been wrapping up a chapter on leaders and their character as part of my book project: I’ve wanted to stress that leaders are not the finished article. Here are four reflections.

Unresolved patterns

For Moses it was anger – as it may be for you. As a leader you are used to getting your own way on all the big issues (and even on the small ones): no one stops you because they have learned to fear your anger.

Anger is a tricky emotion to handle, not least because there are times when we are guilty of not being angry enough or of not being angry at things which ought to provoke our anger. Paul urges us not to sin in our anger and not to let the sun go down while our anger is unresolved. James adds James that we are to be slow to get angry: our anger will not accomplish the righteousness that God desires.

In a short series of articles for the Australian version of the Gospel Coaltion, church leader Ray Galea wrote about his own journey with anger. Among his reflections was his observation that while it is sometimes an experience of being hurt that lies behind out anger, pride is the vice that lurks deeper still: ‘pride which demands that we be treated properly and woe be tide anyone who crosses our path.’

Even if we’re not guilty of the Meribah-style rock-splitting fits of rage, some of us may be far too tolerant of a simmering self-centred impatience or a constant spirit of complaint.
For other leaders it may be pride, not necessarily expressed in outbursts of anger, but evident in an arrogance, or a spirit of superiority.

For still others the unresolved pattern may involve lust. It may be greed, self-indulgence, a hankering after comfort and luxury.

What a tragedy if these patterns are unnoticed or perhaps worse, if they are noticed but tolerated and left unresolved until they take deeper root in our lives until we have our own Meribah moment and sabotage our leadership.

Unguarded devotion

This is Solomon. The man whose writing urges us to guard our hearts left his own unguarded. Not only did he give his heart to the many foreign women who came to share his life, but he allowed the lure of those women’s foreign gods to draw his devotion away from the Lord.

Recently James K.A. Smith has argued that we are what we love, or, ‘you are what you worship … what we worship is what we love.’

Our idolatries … are more liturgical than theological. Our most alluring idols are less intellectual inventions and more affective projections – they are the fruit of disordered wants, not just misunderstanding or ignorance.

Leaders are worshipers – we all are. The question is what has our hearts and what are we doing to guard them from the allurements of disordered affections and illegitimate gods.

Unfinished growth

The development of our character is a work in progress. But what are the character qualities into which we should be growing?

There are so many ways we could answer that question. We could talk about what it means to be holy, as the God who called us is holy. We could talk about the imitation of Christ; or we could reflect on the fruit of the Spirit.

Dan Allender answers the question like this:

Character is grown to the degree that we love God and others.

In saying that, he takes us back to the two great commandments: first, the command to love God with our whole being, and second, to love our neighbour as we love ourselves. As Jesus put it, it’s on these two commandments that everything else hangs. Or, in Paul’s formulation, love – which does no harm to a neighbour – is the fulfilment of the law.

Here is the measure of our growth in character. Do I love God more now than I did a year ago? More than ten years ago? How would I answer the question that Jesus asked Peter: do you love me more than these? That seemed to be Jesus’ requirement for leadership.

And am I growing in my love for other people? Are my relationships marked by a greater degree of patience? Am I doing better at rejoicing at the triumphs of others? Of course leaders ought to be growing in knowledge, honing their gifts, and developing their talents, and by all means set yourself goals and targets for personal development. But would people who know you describe you as kind? For all your firmness and decisiveness as a leader, are you known as gentle? Do your people know that you have their best interest at heart?

Unsurpassable grace

Your worst days are never so bad that you are beyond the reach of God’s grace. And your best days are never so good that you are beyond the need of God’s grace.

Jerry Bridges: The Discipline of Grace

If the second part of that is a reminder that we are not the finished article (as we keep saying), the first part is an encouragement not to give up. Just as it is grace that has brought me ‘safe thus far’, so there is grace for the gap between where we are and where we need to reach, and there is grace for the gap between what we wish we were and what we know we still are.

When Dallas Seminary professor Howard Hendricks died in 2013, among the tributes that were paid was this one, from one of his students:

I asked him, if we forgot everything else he had ever taught us (which was unlikely), what one thing would he want us to remember? He thought a moment and replied, “Finish well.” He said plenty of people in the Bible did well for a time, but very few of them finished their lives faithfully.

Wise leaders know they are not the finished article; but the humility that comes from that realisation will help them to finish well.

Let’s hear it for the Jethros!

I think I have discovered a new biblical hero. His name is Jethro, and he was Moses’ father in law.

Exodus 18 recounts a well known incident involving him.

The occasion was a family visit to see Moses. It was a good catchup and the text says that Jethro was pleased to hear about the good things the Lord had done for Israel by rescuing them from Egypt: how affirming must it have been for Moses to have his father-in-law listen with such genuine interest to the story of God’s work in his new leadership task. Whether or not we would classify it as a full conversion, Jethro comes to a new realisation about the Lord. ‘Now I know,’ he confesses, ‘that the Lord is greater than all other gods’.

While it may be a bit of an overstatement to describe Jethro as what happens when he sees Moses at work is worth some reflection.

For one thing, while it may be a bit of an anachronism to describe Jethro as the first management consultant, what happens demonstrates the value of an outsider view of a situation: Jethro saw something that Moses and the people had simply accepted as the way things were.

But there is more to be said about him.

In his excellent book, A Work of Heart, Reggie McNeal describes Jethro as ‘the key male figure in Moses’ midlife’. It’s an astute observation. Maybe this is overly speculative, but was Jethro in fact the father that Moses never really had? We know he was nursed by his mother, but his natural father disappears from the early narrative, and Pharaoh, his adoptive father is unlikely to have been particularly close. As McNeal reflects on the role Jethro played, he makes this wider observation:

The recounting of leaders’ life journeys usually turns up a Jethro or two. These individuals are God’s gifts to the leader to provide extraordinary affirmation, encouragement, and guidance. They frequently, but not always, arise from outside the family system. They typically surface during times of the leader’s self-doubt and at points when the leader’s life mission is crystallizing. These God-sent Jethros offer almost unconditional acceptance of the leader, yet they maintain an accountability of presence that implicates itself into the leader’s choices.

For all their obscurity and undoubted challenges, the middle years of Moses’ life – exile in Midian – throw up unexpected and unlikely allies. The question this phase of Moses’ life raises for those of us who are leaders is whether we notice, or make room for the Jethros in our own own leadership journeys.

More than that: for some of us who are older, the challenge is is to be that kind of spiritual father-figure.

The curious tale of Eldad and Medad: or, how to give away your ministry!

One of the counter-intuitive things about leadership is that leaders don’t actually become less as they share leadership with others. being counter-intuitive, of course, means that we can be slow to grasp this.

Numbers 11 is an important chapter for leaders. In terms of the narrative, it gives us an insight into the pressure that Moses faced – pressure that almost caused him to throw in the towel. But it also gives us an illustration of the value, and the challenge, of shared leadership.

God’s answer to Moses’ crisis is to share some of the Spirit that was on Moses with seventy of the community elders. The elders prophesy and now at least, Moses will not have to carry the responsibility alone.

As is sometimes the case, however, the solution to one problem can lead to other problems. So it is that the narrative that follows the sharing of the Spirit goes on to touch on some of the challenges of shared leadership: what happens when you are no longer totally in control? Or, as the next chapter illustrates, what happens if a plurality of leadership brings a set of relational issues such as jealousy and resentment?

Immediately after the sharing of the Spirit there are two men – Eldad and Medad – who have not left the camp to gather with the others and with Moses. Yet they too were empowered by the Spirit, and like the others, they prophesied. Jewish writer Norman Cohen points out that, like Miriam and Aaron (chapter 12), Eldad and Medad receive their calling directly from God and not from Moses.

How leaders respond when people start to operate outside their control is a test of wisdom. It’s a mark of maturity when a leader can give away power to others without fearing a loss of their own power or position. Similarly, it’s a sign of deepening maturity when a leader is able to take genuine delight in the success or fruitfulness of someone else’s ministry: others are viewed not as rivals, but as co-workers, serving the same kingdom.

There is a striking contrast between the reaction of Moses and Joshua at the news of Eldad and Medad, and in some ways the contrast highlights something of the journey of maturity that a spiritual leader needs to navigate. Joshua, Moses’ assistant and future successor, urges Moses to stop them. The text highlights the fact that Joshua had been Moses’ assistant since his youth: doubtless he had a keen sense of loyalty, and for two people from outside Moses’ immediate sphere to have some kind of independent ministry seemed like a betrayal of his mentor: Moses really ought to tell them to stop.

Moses’ response was to dismiss any need for Joshua to feel jealous on his account. This is not about Moses, it’s about the welfare of the people of God. ‘I wish that all the Lord’s people were prophets and that the Lord would put his Spirit on them.’

Perhaps you have come across the statement that has sometimes been attributed to American President Harry Truman: ‘It is amazing what you can accomplish if you do not care who gets the credit.’ Even if the sentiment is inspiring, the attribution appears to be inaccurate: apparently a 19th century Jesuit priest called Father Strickland may have been the first to express the idea when he wrote that ‘a man may do an immense deal of good, if he does not care who gets the credit for it.’

If that’s true generally, how much more fruitful might our spiritual leadership be if we were free from the need to receive credit or to jealously guard our achievements as badges of honour that set us above others!

Ultimately Moses’ prayer was answered on the Day of Pentecost when the Spirit was given, not to a few but to many, without distinction of age or gender: the work of ministry would no longer be the preserve of a select handful.

On spiritual leaders and self-defence

One of the traps for insecure leaders is to make everything about them. It is all personal. It is not always easy to separate who we are from what we do, but if I make every issue about me, and interpret every criticism as personal rejection, I simply feed my insecurity and dismantle the possibility for constructive debate.

While that much is true, perhaps there is some apostolic precedent for self-defence in part of what Paul writes in 2 Corinthians where he mounts a fairly robust defence of his ministry, seemingly in the face of rivals who would have loved to discredit him. Discrediting Paul would have made it easier to discredit his message, so enticing the Corinthians to drift from their devotion to Christ.

Rather than list his triumphs, however, Paul lists the severe challenges he has had to face; he emphasises his weakness, recounting the time when he became a ‘basket case’ in Damascus, and the famous thorn in the flesh episode. Paul knew that ultimately he was accountable to God (12:19) and the motivation for his defending himself was for the strengthening of the Corinthians. As Don Carson points out, Paul is not writing to vindicate himself, as the Corinthians suspected, but to build them up.

Carson goes on to comment trenchantly:

Sadly too many leaders consciously or unconsciously link their own careers and reputations with the gospel they proclaim and the people they serve. Slowly, unnoticed by all but the most discerning, defense of the truth slips into self-defence, and the best interest of the congregation becomes identified with the best interest of the leaders. Personal triumphalism strikes again, sometimes with vicious intensity. It is found in the evangelical academic who invests all his opinions with the authority of Scripture, in the pastor whose every word is above contradiction, in the leader transparently more interested in self-promotion and the esteem of the crowd that in the benefit and progress of the Christians allegedly being served. It issues in political maneuvring, temper tantrums, a secular set of values (though never acknowledged as such), a smug and self-serving shepherd and hungry sheep.

A Model of Christian Maturity

Three tough questions for leaders

I’m working on a book on leadership, framed around the story of Moses, and I am currently writing a chapter on leaders’ need to face criticism. As I have been working through some of the challenges Moses faced in leadership, I have highlighted the following challenging questions that leaders (not least church leaders) may have to deal with from time to time.

How would you answer them?

  • How do you lead when people reject your leadership? This is what Moses was faced with (briefly) when he tried to intervene in a dispute between two Hebrews. It’s a complex question as people’s rejection of your leadership may be for any number of reasons, and not all the reasons may originate with the people. What steps can you take to build (or rebuild) trust? How do you know when it’s time to ask some people to ‘get off the bus’, or even for you, as the leader, to let someone else drive?
  • How do you lead when things are going to get worse before they get better? Again Moses had to face this, this time when his initial intervention, having been commissioned by the Lord, led to the famous ‘bricks without straw’ situation. How do you hold your course when the initial pain of change seems to far outweigh the potential gain?
  • How do you lead when people don’t merely reject you as leader, but it turns out that they have little appetite for trusting God? For Moses it was not long before he and Aaron became the focus of the people’s frustration when they lacked water or food. Moses and Aaron pointed out that the people’s grumbling was not really at them, but at God. While anxiety about food and water was understandable for people trekking the desert, they were quickly failing the test of trust that their wilderness experience constituted.

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.

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.’