Albert Schweitzer said, “Example is not the main thing in influencing others…it is the only thing”.1 This truth was emblazoned in the Sports Page headline of the Charleston Post and Courier on Tuesday, January 10, 2017. It read, “Leading by Example”. It was an article about Ben Boulware, Defensive Player of the Game in “the natty” the night before. The Clemson University Tigers defeated the University of Alabama Crimson Tide 35-31 for the college football national championship. Evidently the Clemson team had begun practice that season by writing what they anticipated to be their contribution to the team on an Expectation Board in their training facility. Boulware had written one word: “Lead”. His performance, influence among the other players, and his role in their season is another example of how leaders can affect the outcome of a group mission.2 As I read the article I thought to myself: when will we in the church grasp that elemental leadership principle? It is a discipline learned by a team. It should be automatic to a body.
If making disciples is really the mission of Christ’s church in history, then his church should be a community of learning. Most of us would accept the more trendy “life-long learning’ addendum to our idea of a disciple-making community. Connect the dots and this learning community links directly to those who are in leadership roles. It’s a sad but truthful commentary of these times that many spiritual leaders are not themselves positioned to learn. Thus, there’s the rapidly changing landscape of a nation in spiritual decline, andperhaps the reason so many evangelical churches are either plateaued or declining numerically.
The other day preparing to teach at Charleston Southern University a Bible verse invaded my space. I had included it on a Power Point slide intended for college students. When I presented it to the class it exploded on me. It was a word the Apostle Paul wrote to his younger protégé Timothy—
Practice these things, immerse yourself in them, so that all may see your progress. (1 Timothy 4:15, ESV)
The advice to “practice these things” and “immerse yourself in them” seemed obvious enough, Paul’s continued desire that Timothy be well-trained and prepared to lead Kingdom ministry. The trip wire for me was the final phrase, “so that all may see your progress”. Surely Paul didn’t want Timothy to be a spiritual show-off, to place himself on a stage for the accolades of the people he was leading. No, suddenly the leadership thing jumped out of that verse. Paul wanted Timothy to provide leadership influence over the believers entrusted to his guidance. Paul knew it takes one to make one.
The question for spiritual leaders is, how do I exemplify this heart of a learner to the people Christ called me to lead? Pause with me—
(1) Demonstrate a teachable spirit.
Jesus promised his disciples the Helper, the Holy Spirit, who would “teach them all things” (see John 14:26). Leaders must remain open to the guidance and lessons of the Holy Spirit as they lead. The spiritual life of a leader must be one of constant learning.
(2) Open your heart to the new thing God wants to do in you.
God is doing a new thing in Christ (see Isaiah 43:19). Newness is a mark of the Kingdom. Leadership in Christ’s church must not be the same ol’, same ol’ all the time, but the new thing He promises to his people. God’s Word is always new. But, it should not be stored in the old wineskins of dated material, old illustrations, worn out phrases, and sermons preached over and over. Let God do a new thing in you.
(3) Allow God to broaden your horizon.
Several years ago I was convicted that I needed to stretch beyond my personal comfort zones. So, I asked Charlie Franklin, a high school physics teacher, to tutor me in physics. He taught me mass, momentum, inertia, velocity, acceleration, and dozens of other terms and ideas foreign to me. It was all beyond my pay grade. Out of it I wrote a series of sermons and blogs about the physics of church. Talk about learning! How did our people respond? They were impressed that I would learn something new in my old age. Many of them entered discipleship-training classes as a result. It reminds me of how the Apostle Paul “became all things to all people” (1 Corinthians 9:22) so that some could be reached with the Gospel.
(4) Be confessional in your preaching and teaching.
I love what Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said to his team: “I talked to them about letting the light inside of them always be brighter than the light that’s shining on them!”3 It’s a good reminder about the positioning of self in a preaching, teaching, or leadership role. Just the same, a spirit of transparency allows our weaknesses to show, evidence of our need for spiritual growth. When we’re learning, it will be visible without a lot of talk and hype.
(5) Place yourself under the tutelage of another.
Living in an accountability relationship is a dynamic learning opportunity. Reading through Paul’s Epistles there are many instances of his influence on those spiritual leaders he had recruited and trained. But, there are also evidences of their influence on him (see Acts 11, Barnabas and Saul; 1 Corinthians 16:17-18. Stephanas, Fortunatus, and Achaicus; as examples).
The influence of leaders is spiritual truth and not merely team dynamics. Read through Scripture to see the powerful examples of Abraham, Moses, Joshua, Peter, John, Paul, to mention but a few. They remind us that it takes a disciple to make a disciple. And, if the disciple we’re making is a life-long learner, the leader must be one too.
Peter challenged the leaders of the elect exiles of the Dispersion about their roles as leaders. He wrote,
“So I exhort the elders among you, as a fellow elder and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, as well as a partaker in the glory that is going to be revealed: shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight, not under compulsion, but willingly, as God would have you; not for shameful gain, but eagerly; not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock” (1 Peter 5:1-3, ESV).
Make note of that phrase, “being examples to the flock”. He knew it takes one to make one too.
May it be so.
1 BrainyQuote website, https://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/authors/a/albert_schweitzer.html
2 Grace Raynor, Leading by Example, Wednesday, January 11, 2017, Sports Section, The Charleston Post and Courier.
3 Ryan McGhee, ESPN Senior Writer, January 10, 2017, ESPN.com/college-football/story/.