Teaching: Good Leaders Follow

The Bible makes it plain that if we want to lead, we need to conquer following first.

(This article is also featured in The Journal of Student Ministries July/August 2009 issue, by Titus)

In kindergarten, one of the thrills of life was being elected to the most prestigious office any five-year-old could possess—the Line Leader. No announcement sent post-toddler legs jockeying for position like “Okay class, let’s line up for recess.” And let’s face it, the pretense that “caboose” is just as cool as line leader is an invention of sympathetic teachers intent on soothing the self-esteem of kids who weren’t picked and, consequently, on the verge of emotional breakdowns. The front of the line was the winning spot—everything except that was for losers.

As with many other aspects of life, adults have a hard time letting go of childish things in this area. Success is achievement. Success is power. Success is influence. There are leaders...and then there is everyone else. It’s not that service jobs are less important—the guy who waits on us in a restaurant is arguably more valuable to the people at the table than the district general manager. But the general manager still gets paid six figures and the bus boy splits tips at the end of the night: a fact that mustn’t be ignored.

This dynamic has been fostered and fussed about for as long as there have been hierarchies. I’m not naïve enough to believe this dynamic will be ending soon. And, to be fair, leadership is important. Without good leadership organizations, businesses, families, and teams all suffer. In truth, they probably go under. My distaste is not with the practice of good leadership, but with the fascination over obtaining the position of leadership.

Confession Time
Unfortunately I came to this conclusion the hard way. I wouldn’t be writing these indicting words if they didn’t apply to me. Since I was a kid I was told I was going to be “a good preacher someday.” In my effort to see “someday” come to pass, I went a little overboard with the greatness thing. Oh, if you knew me you wouldn’t say so. You’d probably say I was a nice guy, really easy to get along with, good with the kids, passionate about stuff. But in my head there was ambition, daydreaming, and impatience. When would I finally fulfill those childhood prophecies?

Training for ministry, I was a big fish in a small pond. I got the good gigs, pats on the back on campus, and accolades reflective of my potential. I read the leadership books (at least partly because I had to if I wanted to pass), listened to the leadership lectures, heard people talk about the successful people in ministry—those whose flocks were thick with sheep and whose resumes were crowded with accomplishments. I actually believed that’s what ministry was all about.

It seems as though that’s what lots of other people believe, too. We could all name the titles. You know—10 steps toward this, seven principles for that, 38 ideas for more effective whatever. We read the books, they clog up the best-seller lists, and the authors make the talk-show circuit. Some of the insights are valuable, very few of them are new, and all of them seem indulgent. This doesn’t make them untrue, of course. They’re disputable, despite popular opinion, but not necessarily false. Again, the problem isn’t with the existence of these books, but in the religious following they can claim.

Okay, enough beating around the bush. I’m sure that being vague isn’t an admirable leadership trait, so let me get right to the point: What’s so Biblical about leadership?

A Word Study on Leadership
In the New International Version of the Bible, led, lead, leader, leaders, or leadership is used almost 500 times. When you take the verbs out of the equation and try to learn about leaders (noun), the count reduces by 60 percent. Of those 204 occurrences, only 14 are in the New Testament. (To be fair, I acknowledge that you can’t just ignore Old Testament principles as if they don’t count. But in terms of modern-day church governance, I sense the discerning reader will agree that the New Testament proves a more accurate model. And that model supplies us with barely a baker’s dozen hints at what a leader should be all about.)

Of the 14 appearances of leader, leaders, or leadership, several of the mentions are in a negative context. In the Gospels, some leaders are trying to kill Jesus (Luke 19:47), while a few believe in him (John 12:42). In the Book of Acts, once it’s used in reference to Judas’ abandoned position (Acts 1:20), while other times it’s used as a comparative reference to the Jewish leadership who condemned Jesus to death (3:17) or to those who meant the apostles harm (14:5, 25:2, 28:17). To be fair, there is one reference to the Christian leaders who selected Judas and Silas to go on a mission trip with Paul and Barnabas (15:22).

Elsewhere in Pauline literature, leadership is mentioned as a spiritual gift, something that should be duly noted (Romans 12:8), and something that seems appointed by God and worthy of respect (Galatians 2:2). Three times the author of Hebrews urges Christians to respect and obey leadership. All three occurrences are in chapter 13, and they must not be ignored.

Yet even with these pro-leadership Scriptures in mind, should we conclude that leadership is a goal, a carrot dangling on the end of a stick, something we’re fascinated with or obsessed about?
Is there something to be said about the absence of much leadership talk in the Bible?

What about Follow-ship?
By way of contrast, the presence of discipleship talk and the concept of following in the New Testament is noteworthy. Ninety-four times the word follow or disciple is used in the New Testament—six times greater than lead. The vast majority of these occurrences are in the Gospels and—you guessed it—Jesus is the one being followed.

• Matthew 4:19  “Come, follow me,” Jesus said, “and I will make you fishers of men.”

• Matthew 9:9  
As Jesus went on from there, he saw a man named Matthew sitting at the tax collector’s booth. “Follow me,” he told him, and Matthew got up and followed him.

• Matthew 19:21  
Jesus answered, “If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”

• Luke 14:27  
“And anyone who does not carry his cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.”

• John 1:43  
The next day Jesus decided to leave for Galilee. Finding Philip, he said to him, “Follow me.”

• John 21:19  
Jesus said this to indicate the kind of death by which Peter would glorify God. Then he said to him, “Follow me!”

It seems clear that the whole of the Scriptures are more concerned with teaching following than leading—yet Christians seem to have their fascinations reversed. Leadership is all the rage, selling out conferences and dominating casual conversations. Ask average ministers what they’ve read more pages of in the last month—the latest leadership book or the Bible—and (this will come as no shocker to you) they probably won’t say the Bible.

How can this be? Why are we so preoccupied with leading? In becoming so fascinated with it—and, in some cases, “good” at it—have we forgotten how to follow? Is it even an arguable point that following is more important than leading?

Good Leaders Follow
I know that many of you may have already quoted to yourselves the words of Paul from 1 Corinthians 11:1: “Follow my example as I follow the example of Christ.” There’s a leader for you! It’s true; Paul is leading others with those words, rather boldly, in fact. But the basis for his leadership is his own dependence upon Christ, not his skill set or organizational prowess or top-10 list of undeniable qualities.

This point cannot be lost—good leaders are more concerned with Who’s in front of them than the flock behind them.

Imagine that we all meet in the woods somewhere for a midnight hike. The moon is concealed behind the clouds, and the denseness of the trees blocks out the remaining beams of light. It’s just you, me, and half a dozen others. Pretend that you’re appointed leader of the group. We’re to walk right behind one another and step where the person in front of each of us steps—ergo, if the person in front of any of us makes a wrong move, it means the potential peril of the person(s) behind. Now imagine you’re elected the line leader. You control the safety and direction of the group. Where you go, others will follow. No problem, right? You just unzip your backpack and pull out your trusty flashlight.

Pardon the simple storytelling, but may I ask you an even simpler question? What’s so important about that flashlight? To apply our parable to modern leadership techniques, the flashlight shouldn’t be necessary. After all, you’re a good leader. You know the woods. You make good decisions. You might even involve the rest of the group when appropriate. You encourage the line, and even though your eyes struggle to see what’s next, you can get people to follow you through the woods without hesitation. So...why do you need a flashlight at all?

The answer is elementary. No matter how encouraging, affable, inspirational, or collaborative you may be, if you don’t have a flashlight, you’re the conductor of a train that’s heading for an unavoidable crash. Without something in front of you guiding the way, you’re a disaster waiting to happen—at the hand of a fallen limb, a snake, or an obscured-from-view ditch.

Could it be that too many “leaders” are inspiring people to follow them but have no clue where they’re going? Alternately, could it be that there are some very influential people who may know where they want to go but have no clue how to get there? Are you a leader with a pile of people behind you, walking in your footsteps? If so, wouldn’t you like a light in front of you, guiding your every move?

Of course, every minister consulted would agree that we must “be right with Jesus” if we’re going to lead others. But how does being right with Jesus affect our practice? Can we say with confidence like Paul in 1 Corinthians, “follow me, because I’m following Christ.”

The Bible makes it plain that if we want to lead, we need to conquer following first. It’s that whole deny-yourself-take-up-your-cross-and-follow-me business. You don’t read that in many leadership books. But I believe Jesus meant it.

As a Practical Matter
Let’s put all of this to the test. Think of the three most influential people in your life. Really, go ahead. (I know, I hate it when people put this kind of stuff in articles, too; but if you don’t think of the three people, then your last few minutes will have been wasted.)

Okay, what did they do that influenced you? Why did they come to mind? What qualities did they possess that made you want to follow them?

My guess is that you didn’t think of people who were all that impressive. I thought of a small-town preacher, a truck driver/janitor/farmer/social services worker, and a school bus driver. Those three people weren’t “great leaders.” They had never read a John Maxwell book (there, I said it after having avoided it all this time). They were never beneath a spotlight, part of a mega-church, or on a best-seller list. They didn’t hold powerful positions. But over the course of my life, I came to know that they were following Jesus. They were good, kind, and wise. And that’s all it took to compel me to follow Jesus, too.

Is the same true of all the people you thought of? Chances are you didn’t think of people who had legions under their oversight. More than likely you thought of regular folks who you noticed were following Jesus. Doesn’t it make sense, then, that following Jesus should be our greater concern?

We youth ministers talk a good game. We throw around words such as authentic and organic and, well, you can fill in the blank. Youth ministry has gone from a groundbreaking new ministry product to a commodity. We’ve perfected it, programmatically and otherwise. If anyone knows how to lead kids, it’s us. To wit:

• Have a dynamic personality.
• When you preach, be funny.
• Twitter.
• Use product in your hair.
• Lead up, and don’t take any nonsense from elders or pastors.
• Train volunteers and student leaders to do that stuff, too.

We’re on the cutting edge. Unfortunately, for many of us, it’s the edge of a cliff. And we’ve led scores of students to that cliff, practicing what we thought was good leadership, and our next step will send us all sailing over the edge. Why? We forgot to bring our flashlight.

Being the Caboose
It was only when I found myself at the edge of the cliff, flashlight-less, that I came to understand that leadership wasn’t the point. There had to be more than successful, spot-lit, high-profile ministry. To extrapolate from a sound principle: What does it profit youth workers to gain the greatest ministry leadership positions, but lose their own souls?

Then I read Romans 1:6, which says that we’re called to belong to Jesus. Really? That’s all? Not change the world, or lead a revolution, or force a building campaign?

Just belong to Jesus?

That verse played in my brain like a broken record, and I came to understand that I wasn’t called to be a good leader; I was called to belong to Jesus. The number of people who showed up at stuff became less important, and the depth at which I knew them grew in importance. My desire to be known by crowds diminished, and my desire to be known by Christ increased. I stopped worrying about “arriving” and starting thinking in terms of “going.” It was refreshing—but more than that, it was relieving.

The striving for position stopped, and the jockeying for acknowledgment ceased. No longer do I concern myself (well, not too much) with how noticed I am. There’s a human element there, for sure—who doesn’t want to be honored, noticed, and respected? But my deep desire is to know Christ, be known by Christ, and follow in his footsteps every day.

That said, if being a leader is what ministry is about, then I quit.

Praise God, it’s not! It’s about being a follower—a follower of Jesus. And we’d do well to teach our students that very same thing. 1 Peter 2:21 says, “to this you were called, because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you could follow in his steps.”

Maybe being the "caboose" is the best position after all.

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