There are two passages in the Bible that are incredibly forthright about God’s concern for how his people are led. Both of these passages serve as a rebuke towards the spiritual leaders of Israel. One is found in Ezekiel 34 and the other is in Jeremiah 23. In both of these passages God, through the prophets, uses the leadership metaphor of “shepherd” as a way of negatively describing what these spiritual leaders should be doing. I have previously written on Ezekiel 34. Today I will highlight some principles from Jeremiah 23.
Jeremiah was a prophet to the southern kingdom of Judah right before and during her exile at the hands of the nation of Babylon. Jeremiah is sometimes referred to as the “Weeping Prophet” because he never saw any tangible results from his 40 years of preaching, warning Israel to repent of her idolatry. Yet, he remained obedient to God in communicating all that was expected to this wayward people.
Verse one states the charge against the spiritual leaders of Judah, “Woe to the shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture!” There are four critical aspects to take notice of in this verse. Yahweh proclaims a “woe” on these leaders. Jesus will do something very similar in Matthew 23 where he proclaims seven “woes” on the spiritual leaders of Israel in that era. A “woe” served as a lamentation for the miserable state that someone was in. It also served as a warning. God, through the prophet, highlights two particular charges against these spiritual leaders-they were “destroying” and “scattering” the sheep. Sheep is a common biblical metaphor for God’s people. It is fitting because sheep are weak creatures, open to attack and harm. Somehow these spiritual leaders of Israel were directly causing harm to the people that they were suppose to be nurturing. Sheep must be protected by a shepherd from themselves and from outside predators. And a sheep that wanders away from the flock is a dead sheep. Also note that God states that these are his sheep. They rightfully belong to him and are entrusted to the shepherd.
In verse two God restates the charge and adds another dimension, “and you have not attended to them.” The essence of being a shepherd is to be attentive. An actual shepherd watching over sheep had to be constantly attentive to lead the sheep to food and water and to protect the sheep from themselves and from outside predators. In a spiritual sense, Israel’s shepherds were beyond being inattentive. In verses 3-4 God clearly states what he will do from his own initiative to care for his sheep. He states that he will “gather the remnant”, “bring them back to the fold”, and “will set shepherds over them who will care for them.” Now we see the other side of being a spiritual shepherd–care. To be a spiritual shepherd is to be attentive and to care. In verse four God describes three ways in which attention and care can be applied.
1. Shepherds help to diffuse fear It has been said that fear makes cowards of us all. Fear is the opposite of faith. Fear looks at the circumstances and calculates that they are bigger than God’s ability to act. A spiritual shepherd addresses specific fears and points people back to the reality of God’s character.
2. Shepherds help to infuse courage Unchecked fear can lead to dismay. Dismay is the emotional result of feeling overwhelmed and lacking courage. Dismay can tempt people to escape their circumstances. A spiritual shepherd not only addresses specific fears but he also helps people see the concrete steps of faith they need to take to get past their fears. Courage in the Bible is often the notion of remaining in circumstances long enough to see God act on their behalf. Courage is not bravado-it is faith in a great God applied to current reality.
3. Shepherds make it their aim that none are lost Real sheep have a nasty habit of wandering away. And, again, an isolated sheep is a dead sheep. So it is with us. We were meant for community. When we isolate ourselves we are vulnerable to all sorts of attacks from without and within. A spiritual shepherd remains vigilant for the wandering disciple. They gently lead them back into the fold-for their own protection and nourishment. This should remind us of the parables of Luke 15 and God’s diligent heart for the one.
Being a spiritual shepherd is hard work. It is often work without acclaim. Two things must be remembered by any would be spiritual shepherd: we have a Chief Shepherd to whom we must give an account; and every shepherd needs a shepherd for their own survival and thriving. Finally, note that in Jeremiah 23:5-6 the prophet points us towards the coming Messiah who will serve as the ultimate Shepherd-the Righteous Branch.
Today I am beginning a five part series on how leadership and running a marathon share several of the same principles. To date, I have run ten marathons. That does not make me an expert. But it does give me enough experience to suggest some parallels worth considering. Over the next five days we will look at Preparation, The Start, The Proper Perspective, Hitting The Wall, and Making It To The Finish Line. Today I will focus on the Preparation stage.
Preparation is everything in desiring to complete a marathon. You can’t just wish your way to the finish line. You have to engage in a routine that will prepare your body and mind for the whole 26.2 miles. Most marathon trainings are between 16 and 18 weeks in length and include speed work, cross training, and distance running. One regimen alone will not ensure a good race. Let me say quickly too that equipment matters-a lot. It’s critical that you purchase running shoes to match your body and running style. It’s important that you wear the right clothing on race day. And you have to train your mind for both the known and the unexpected to make it to the end. Consistent running requires some learned skills. It helps greatly to know what a good stride looks like so that you can run efficiently and effectively.
Some people are more gifted runners. They are better overall athletes. I once stood at the starting line with a 72 year old man who was running his 54th marathon. That simply takes a certain kind of body to endure all those miles for so many years. But even the most gifted must train well to tap all of the potential that is within them.
The greatest temptation in marathon training is to cut corners. The truly gifted are the most susceptible. Early on you will want to run only three days a week or shorten your long runs by a few miles. Your legs are going to hurt. The key is faithfulness. You need to follow a designed training program that values balance and your experience level. It helps to do those once a week long runs with a friend. A 16 mile training run can get pretty boring by week nine.
As a leader it helps to know who you are. An assessment of your gifts, abilities and natural leadership acumen can be helpful in having your maximum impact. In leading, you mainly learn by doing with feedback. There are no shortcuts in leadership preparation. Again, the naturally gifted leader will be tempted to short circuit the process. Learning to be a good leader requires preparation. Look for opportunities to lead. It is best if the initial opportunities are small in nature and scope. This is where you see if others also believe you can lead. If people are recognizing your leadership abilities then determine to design a plan. Read a lot, ask for regular feedback, seek out a mentor, and be wary of proclaimed success. Expect to fail. You can learn far more from your failures than your successes. Create your own emerging leader cohort. Like marathon training it makes sense to learn to lead in community with others. Take advantage of formal leadership training-take advantage of informal leadership trying. Actually, you are never fully prepared for the next leadership setting or situation. Leadership preparation is a lifelong process. You need to take a marathon perspective on leading. Again, faithfulness is the key. Stay faithful to the leadership responsibilities you have now. Don’t always be looking to the next opportunity. Faithfulness will help to build character and character is what will help you make it to the end. There are no short cuts to character. Every marathon I have ever ran ultimately took it’s toll on some would be finishers. We all know of spiritual leaders who did not finish well.
The Apostle Paul communicated a powerful perspective when he compared the Christian life to running in 1 Corinthians 9:24-27: Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it. Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. So I do not run aimlessly; I do not box as one beating the air. But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified.
Posted in Character, Community, Development, Leader, Leader Traits, Leadership, Leadership Development, Legacy, Mentoring, Perspective
Tagged Leadership, Marathon, marathon training
Yesterday, I was part of an energizing time of leader development with all of the staff of our church here in Austin. While I was upfront making a brief presentation on the framework that we would be using for development, a critical question was asked by one of the participants. I had made the comment that I think it is difficult to finish well as a spiritual leader. They asked, “How does one finish well?” It was a very genuine question from a 30 something leader who doesn’t want to blow it. I have been thinking about that question ever since. In that spirit, I want to offer three enemies to finishing well and two imperatives to finishing well:
Enemies to Finishing Well as a Spiritual Leader 1. Isolation This may be the biggest enemy I see of well intentioned leaders who fail to finish well. Leaders must seek out and remain in community. I would actually suggest finding community on more than one level. It can be difficult for a leader to find safe, honest community. One level must be among peers who are committed to each other to honesty and safety. Another profitable level, if that leader is married, could be to develop community with other couples that love and serve one another. You may need community both inside and outside the organization. As leaders move up the organizational ladder there is a always a pull towards isolation-and isolation is deadly. We must know and be known to end well. To live in isolation is ultimately the posture of the secluded and deceived.
2. Anger and Cynicism It is easy as a leader, especially for older leaders, to become angry and cynical about their organization or the people around them. This can be especially true if the leader’s envisioned path does not work out just as they thought it would. There is no such thing as an unwounded leader. We all go through organizational bumps and bruises-but how we respond to them can make all the difference. If we turn towards anger, bitterness and cynicism we will shorten our effective leadership lives and finish poorly. This is the posture of a cynic.
3. Power Hoarding I know of a leader today that seemingly can’t let go of their position and power. A friend once told me that an occasional “clean white board” is necessary for staying fresh and finishing well. It’s not that I am against continuity or longevity, but we should regularly ask if we have outlived our usefulness in whatever role we find ourselves. A “clean whiteboard” forces us to fresh learning and new dependence-which can be a great friend in helping us to finish well. To hoard power and not be able to relinquish position may serve to shorten our effective leadership lives. This is the posture of an oligarch.
Imperatives to Finishing Well as a Spiritual Leader 1. A Surrendered Life As spiritual leaders we must always be conscious of our broken, flawed lives. There are no omni-competent leaders. A spiritual leader is meant to live his or her life in full voluntary surrender to Jesus Christ. He must be our wisdom, our power, our compassion, our courage-our center. It is only as we live continually surrendered to him that we experience theses necessary leadership qualities in gracious stewardship towards his glory and kingdom. This is the posture of a bond servant.
2. A Commitment to Being a Lifetime Learner The other imperative is that we remain humble learners for a lifetime. There will come a day when all of us will report to someone younger and must be able to learn from someone younger. If we can’t do that we will begin to see our leadership platform begin to erode. Remaining fresh as a humble learner allows us to maintain our platform for influence wherever we lead. Remaining a humble learner helps to assure that we will not see ourselves as the center of the leadership universe. It helps us to be followers as well as leaders. It helps us empower others-to raise up the next generation of leaders. This is the posture of a sage.
Finish well that you might agree with the Apostle Paul when he said, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.”
“I am in transition.” This is what I keep preaching to myself several times a day, every day. Six weeks ago my family and I made a move from Florence, Italy to Austin, Texas. We lived in Italy for five years and experienced many highs and lows. You would think coming back to your home culture would be easy-but it’s not. There is a general malaise that will hit me at any point in the day. I can’t tell if I am longing for what I had or anxious about what I don’t yet know-or both. We are experiencing what most would call a major transition. But transitions come in many forms and can still have the same effects. Transition can mean changing jobs, changing teams, changing locations, experiecing tragedy, losing a role, losing a community, etc. Here are three observations I have made so far about life in transition.
1. Transition is Always Disorienting-Transition is defined as movement, passage or change from one position or state to another. Whether we seek transition or transition seeks us, it necessarily involves change. And change is always disorienting to one degree or another. We leave the known for the unknown. We move from that which has defined us to the realm of being experientially undefined. This disorientation usually causes stress behavior. I see it right now in my wife and children. Of course I am not exhibiting any stress behavior-right! My tiredness and my anger are just underneath the surface. I can simultaneously yell or fall asleep depending on the circumstance. Unfortunately I pride myself on remaining under control. What I am learning is that I have to embrace this season of transition. I must recognize the season I am in and recognize the ways that it impacts me. AND I have to realize that it is OK. There is a rock that is higher than I. And I must turn to Him in my moments of sanity and realization. Only Christ can provide me with true north to balance the compass of my disorientation. I think the answer lies in pursuing Christ personally and as a family, embracing transition and fully trusting Him to take us through it.
2. Transition Always Involves Gain and Loss-Change is like that. As a family we chose this transition from Italy back to the U.S. We fully believed that this is what the Lord had for us. Yet we lost many things in the process. We left a country that was beautiful, had incredible food, and valued relationship. We left American friends. We left Italian friends. We left a ministry that had been challenging, exciting and rewarding. We left behind a vision and a dream of serving overseas for the cause of Christ that will not be easily recaptured. We left behind an incredible season of growth as individuals and as a family. And though we carry the memories with us, we have left behind the real experiences of smiles, tastes, sounds, images and conversations of a season past. We also gain a lot. We have linked our lives to a new and fresh vision. We have entered into new experiences that hold the promise of new relationships, new learning, new opportunity and the application of fresh faith. Not all of this is realized yet-and that is what makes the pain of transition so real-leaving the known and quantifiable for the unknown. I think the solution is in giving thanks for what we have already experienced (good or bad) and believing God for what He has yet to do, but will reveal.
3. Transition Always Tends Towards Isolation-I don’t think this observation is just about me or just about being male. When we are disoriented and unable to get our bearings there is a tendency to look inward. There is the tendency to give in to our tiredness and a desire to feed our thirst for comfort with that which is less than satisfactory. I think this is where temptation lurks, desiring to suck us in to it’s vortex of self gratification and temporary pleasures. I think the answer lies in community. In the midst of transition and all of its highs and lows-we desperately need the fellowship of like minded people who can keep us balanced and pursuing that which really matters. Today I had lunch with a good friend who helps to anchor me and provides me with godly perspective, so that I don’t do something stupid. In transition I am always prone to do something stupid.
What are your thoughts? How have you faced and handled transition? Please comment below.
For some time I have been thinking about a paradigm for leadership development. I have not been satisfied with what I have seen in recent leadership literature. Again, this paradigm is not for how to lead–more on that later. But this paradigm is for the purpose of developing leaders.
So far I have thought through five aspects that all begin with the letter “C.” Here are the five–I will take one at a time over the next several days and add some of my insights: Community, Capacity, Character, Competency, and Christ-centered.
Community. This word can be defined in several ways. But what we usually mean as Christians is something closer to the Biblical definition of “fellowship.” The Greek word is koinonia–which literally means participation with, sharing in. It is more intimate and involved than simple proximity or common interests. It is knowing and being known. This type of community is critical in the life of a leader.
There is a natural tendency to greater levels of leadership–that is greater and greater isolation. As a leader rises in titles and responsibilities there are naturally fewer people who are willing to confront the leader and the leader has a shrinking number of peers. Yet isolation is killing spiritual leaders every day. We see the results in the media regularly. A leader becomes isolated physically and emotionally–and before long they fall prey to immorality, financial misdeeds, or some other character deforming deed. And they are soon disqualified from the ministry.
The higher a leader rises the more they must be intentional about maintaining authentic community. But how? 1. The leader must see and understand the Biblical value of being in community. 2. The leader will have to take the initiative to seek out a peer community. 3. The leader must be willing to live in authenticity–realizing that their strength is not in appearances but in a grace and truth community that points them to Christ. 4. The leader must seek the sponsorship of a supportive following that will allow them the time to pursue community. Too many times it is the congregation or those that report to the leader who do not allow the leader the freedom to be in community–they expect perfection and 24 hour, on demand work days.
There are two settings I know where leadership community is being promoted and exhibited. One is my former pastor in Austin, Texas–Rob Harrell. Several years ago Rob joined a group of other pastors in Austin who meet regularly to share their burdens, to pray for one another, and enjoy community. There are now over 60 pastors in Austin who meet in small groups to do the same. David English is another friend of mine who spends his full time promoting spiritual health in men through covenant teams of peers. David teaches on this through observed principles that all men pass through as they go through life. He arranges regular retreat settings where these covenant groups can meet and enjoy prolonged time to enjoy authentic community. All of this to the end that men–and leaders–finish well.
Community in the life of a leader is an absolute must–but not easy. It has to be pursued doggedly for a lifetime.