The making of a leader
Most leaders of campus fellowship groups are perplexed by the question, “What is leadership?” Very little in college coursework prepares us for leadership. Add to that the high value North Americans place on independence — as well as major recent disappointments in both government and church leaders — and most people shy away from being publicly identified as a leader. It’s easier just to be a member of the group.
When I speak to InterVarsity groups on leadership, the question, “What is leadership?” invariably draws blank looks. Though the awesome realization that God has entrusted Christian students with leading his strategic work on campus may hit home from time to time, most don’t really understand what leadership is.
So what is leadership?
As I’ve studied the lives of various leaders in the Bible through the years and sorted through the issue of what makes someone a good leader, I’ve come up with a triangle diagram that’s helped me grasp the prerequisites of Christian leadership.
Knowledge and experience
At the top of the triangle I place knowledge and experience, the qualities which people most readily associate with leadership. Although football coaches and their coaching staff don’t have to be star players, they do need to have knowledge and experience in the sport. Similarly, a Christian leader and the community of leaders in the group obviously need knowledge about and experience in the Christian life.
I define vision, the second basic prerequisite to leadership, as “the ability to see beyond oneself.” A leader must be able to look beyond his or her own needs and desires to the needs of the community and join in to chart the course God seems to be laying out.
Take Joshua and Caleb for instance. God gave them a definitive vision for occupying the promised land, complete with specific tasks that needed to be accomplished in order to fulfill that vision. God called Joshua and Caleb to stand firm in the midst of a crowd who had earlier been fearful of taking possession of the land (see Numbers 13 and following).
This kind of intentional leadership stands in contrast to the popular view of leadership (often practiced in politics) which says, “Take a poll, find out where the crowd is going, and then get out in front.” God calls visionary leaders on campus — men and women who, with his help, will set goals for the future and lay out tasks that will help the group attain those goals. Leaders need to know what they are working toward and praying for, rather than just “let things happen.”
While the trend in our fellowships is often to work as a community of leaders, take some time to define your particular role as a leader within your Christian fellowship by clearly identifying your responsibilities. Articulate a vision within your community for where you’d like to see the group be in a term or a year, then pray with others for God’s power to accomplish that.
It’s important to influence and lead in a way that nurtures and encourages people while you provide direction. Why was the church at Ephesus so committed to Paul’s leadership? It was because he ministered to them, leading them away from idolatry and immorality in the process. The degree of effectiveness of your leadership will be largely determined by the strength of your relationships with others in the fellowship. For that reason, I’ve placed “people” in the third corner of our triangle.
Three major biblical doctrines affect the way we treat our followers:
Creation. The creation story says that men and women are created in the image of God and speaks to us about human potential. People are moral beings free to choose good or evil, to create and to develop their individual gifts. As leaders, we can help them see their moral choices and equip them to grow into the fullness of what God created them to be.
The Fall The account of the Fall reminds us that no matter how together they may look on the outside, the students in your fellowship are profoundly influenced by the spiritual reality of sin.
Remember that our own hesitancy or willingness to confess failures and weaknesses will help set the mood for the entire group. Individual and group growth will only occur within an environment where it’s okay to deal openly about conflicts, hurts and failures.
Redemption. God provides a means of release from sin and guilt through Jesus Christ. This fills us with hope for those under our care.
As leaders, we need to help lead students into forgiveness and self acceptance by modeling it. No matter how many times students hear people talk about grace, many will not fully experience it until we show them unconditional love and acceptance.
Leaders with knowledge, experience, vision and people skills can still lack the vital quality that brings all these other traits together: the character of a servant. But how can a leader also be a servant? Isn’t that a contradiction in terms?
Revelation 7:17 gives us insight into the character of Jesus, the greatest “servant leader” of all: “For the Lamb at the center before the throne will be their shepherd; ‘he will lead them to springs of living water.’ ‘And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.” This passage describes Jesus as both the Lamb and the Shepherd, and I believe the key to living out the kind of leadership that Jesus modeled lies in understanding this paradox.
First, Jesus is the Lamb of God — the perfect model of self-sacrifice for the sake of others. Jesus the Lamb speaks to us of his servanthood: “The Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Matthew 20:28).
Second, Jesus is our shepherd — one who leads his flock “to springs of living water” by walking ahead of us and providing direction. Recall Psalm 23: “The Lord is my shepherd, I lack nothing. He makes me lie down in green pastures, … He refreshes my soul …” (vv.1–3). As our shepherd, Jesus does not only respond to our needs, but takes directive action to lead us the way we should go.
Revelation 5:5–6 illustrates this paradox of the lamb-shepherd or servant-leader well: “The Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has triumphed. He is able to open the scroll and its seven seals.” Then I saw a Lamb, looking as if it had been slain, standing in the center before the throne …” Even in this portrayal of Jesus as a self-sacrificing Lamb, he is also revealed to be in a position of supreme leadership, the only one worthy to open the scrolls in the throne room.
Out of these images of Jesus as Lamb and Shepherd emerges the portrait of a servant-leader: someone in authority who makes sacrifices for those he or she leads. Think of the alternate roles of lamb and shepherd this way: as lambs we compassionately put the needs of those we lead before our own; as shepherds we make decisions that not all the members of our group will agree with, carrying out responsibilities and giving direction without apologizing for exercising our authority. In essence, we lead people by serving them. And one of the ways we serve them is by leading them.
— Bob Fryling