Leaders Who Know How to Follow

We recently discovered that one of our colleagues here was best friends growing up with a good friend we knew from our sending church.

“You were best friends with Matt?” I asked. “That’s amazing. We really appreciate that brother.”

My colleague went on to tell me about their growing up together and sharpening of one another.

“You know what I really appreciated him?” I said. “Matt was clearly gifted in leadership when he showed up as a new seminary student. But he didn’t balk at the time it took to become known in a church that was already full of gifted leaders. He plugged in, he served, he didn’t demand to be platformed quickly. Not everyone was able to do that. But he humbled himself and spent years as a good follower – and then became a servant and leader in the body – especially to the internationals.”

It’s true. Matt was one of the promising leaders who made it. Our sending church is in a seminary town. And it has a very strong and gifted team of elders. That means it attracts young men who are eager to lead and teach – because of its culture, its location, and its robust track of leadership training.

It’s as if the church is located at a river delta. Many streams brought the students to the seminary and for a period they are bottle-necked in one place, jostling around awkwardly in the current, before being sent out from the delta to do ministry all over the world. This river delta dynamic presented some real advantages – and some serious challenges – for our church and its leadership.

It also provided a crucial testing ground for young leaders.

What would they do when faced with a church body with a hundred other men just as gifted as they are? What would they do when told that they wouldn’t have opportunities to teach quickly, but that the nursery was desperately in need of help, the refugee ministry needed volunteers, and there’s a three year leadership apprenticeship that they could plug into?

I was one of the young and sure-of-myself students who experienced these dynamics myself. Then eventually I had the privilege of serving as an elder – focusing on strengthening and overseeing our leadership development and sending out of church planters and missionaries. As I’ve written before, I learned in this season how the teachable will lap the gifted. The ones who got to work in the messy behind the scenes ministry, who served the widows, and who didn’t push to be platformed – those men are now serving as faithful small group leaders, deacons, elders, church planters, and missionaries. They are faithfully laboring in the trenches of the kingdom of God.

But many did not pass the test. Faced with a seemingly insurmountable leadership ladder, some left for places where they could lead upfront more quickly. “There’s nowhere in the world harder to become an elder than at this church” is how one brother put it (Though he later became an elder – sweet irony). Others bristled under the slow pace at which they were invited into visible leadership and left angry, broadcasting stories to this day about the supposedly abusive leadership they experienced when they were “unjustly” not given the kind of influence they desired in their preferred timeline.

For all of the situations like this that I was aware of, one thread stood out. Men felt they deserved to be in leadership – and they were not content to be faithful followers for a longer timeline than they had expected. Overall, these brothers who left have not thrived in the contexts where they have ended up. Should we be surprised? “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble. Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God, and at the proper time he will exalt you” (1st Peter 5:5-6).

We need to be careful as terms like “spiritual abuse” are being thrown around like trump cards on social media – and mud is being flung at the bride of Christ. What I saw going on behind the scenes was very different than abuse. It was leaders wisely saying “not yet” and young men reacting to this in pride rather than in humility. Idols were being exposed. And that always gets messy.

Do I grieve the fact that dear brothers experienced hurt through not being invited sooner into leadership? In one sense, yes. But I am also grateful for what that delay exposed in their hearts. I do not want to be led by a man who does not know how to wait and how to follow. I myself do not want to be a leader who does not know how to humble myself and embrace a slower timeline – even if I disagree with it. A leader who does not know how to defer is not a trustworthy leader. Rather, it’s when he doesn’t get his way that a leader’s true character is graciously exposed.

Furthermore, leadership is often synonymous with suffering. My most recent increase of responsibility was not one I was looking for, but one given to me, attended on my end by some degree of trepidation. The previous two men had to leave the field because of the costs associated with the role. I myself have already known many of the costs of leadership far more intimately than I expected – costs to my heart, my health, my family. From this vantage point I cannot help but wince a bit at young men who are hungry and ambitious for increased leadership. Brothers, do you really know what leadership is going to cost you? Why is it not enough to serve unseen? Do you not know that God sees and rewards it all?

Let us seek to be and to raise up leaders who know how to follow, who know how to wait, and how to defer to other wise believers. The transience of this life is such that, sooner or later, it will be our turn to lead. Let us trust God with that timing – Like my friend Matt, who is now a church planter.

Photo by Chandler Chen on Unsplash

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