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Observations on Leadership
by Tom Goodman
March 19, 2010

When Will Willimon was chaplain at Duke Divinity School, he had some interesting observations on leadership in the midst of a sermon from Jeremiah 1, where we see God's call of the prophet.  Leadership, Willimon said, is ultimately is rooted in the call of God:

It is odd of God to pick Jeremiah.  Jeremiah knows as much.  He lodges a basic objection:  'I can't talk good.'  In saying that he is not good at public speaking, Jeremiah is not acting humbly.  He really isn't any good at any of the skills listed on a job description for a prophet.

To Jeremiah's objections, God promises to give him all he needs to do the job right.  Perhaps God believes in Jeremiah more than the boy believes in himself.  Maybe an all-knowing God sees something in Jeremiah, some potential awaiting development, that Jeremiah can't see.  From this vignette I derive three Principles for Biblical Leadership:

  1. Leadership begins in the mind of God, as gracious inclusion of humanity into the plan and purposes of God.  The roots of biblical leadership are essentially theological rather than anthropological.  God's choice tells us more about the quality of God than the positive qualities of the people who are called to lead.
  2. Speaking of the people who are called to lead, they are almost universally, laughably, the wrong people.  That is, it is almost as if God goes out of God's way to pick those who, at least on the face of it, have no virtues or qualities that suggest they would be good leaders.  Perhaps God likes a challenge.  Maybe God, being a Creator who makes something out of nothing, considers vocation a continuing aspect of creation.  Any God who could make an introverted kid like Jeremiah into a really quite wonderfully prophetic leader must be some God.
  3. The qualities of 'good leadership' are more gracious gifts of God to be gratefully received rather than skills, techniques, or knowledge to be savvily developed.  When the chips are down, all biblical leaders have for credentials is faith in the promise, 'Go.  I will be with you' (1:1).
I know.  It goes quite against our grain to conceive of leadership in this way, as the choice and work of God, rather than something that we do.  We enjoy thinking of our lives as something we decide, a project we have chosen, a path we have conceived on our own.  Specifically biblical leadership begins, not in our ambition to rule, or in realistic assessment of our talents, but rather in summons.  As Jesus put this in Gospel Leadership 101:  'You did not choose Me, but I chose you.  And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last...' (John 15:16a).

These three principles should encourage you if you feel you're over your head in the work you're doing in the Lord's vineyard.  At the same time, these three principles should humble you if you think your talent is the reason God chose you to serve him.  What we do for God is ultimately rooted in his call.  And when tempted to give up -- or tempted to coast -- it's his call that keeps us offering our best to him!


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