Leadership in the nineties

Leadership modeled after Jesus: the essential characteristics of leading as Jesus did

Steve Willsey is an associate pastor of the Spencerville Seventh-day Adventist Church, Silver Spring, Maryland.

As His ministry was drawing to a close, Jesus outlined to His disciples His formula for leadership. The disciples were anticipating His installation as king of the Jews. While they planned affairs of state, Jesus looked toward Calvary, trying unsuccessfully to prepare them for a great disappointment.

Excited about the prospects of position and power, they may have wondered why He wasn't interested in the organization of government. Zebedee's wife had probably listened to her sons discussing their plans. She under stood their ambition to have the top positions in the new administration and had been secretly biding her time until the right moment when she would go to Jesus with her petition. She believed her sons deserved the top honors, and she felt sure Jesus wouldn't deny it to them, especially if the request came from her. It seems as though James and John were aware of their mother's mission when they went with her to see Jesus. I suspect they saw getting in ahead of others as a smart move.

"I have a favor to ask," said Zebedee's wife as she came to Jesus. "Grant that one of my two sons sits at Your right and the other at Your left in Your kingdom." Jesus must have hesitated for some time before answering, as He envisioned His own future and the future of His movement. "You don't know what you are asking," Jesus said to them. "Can you drink the cup I am going to drink?" Boast fully they answered, "Yes, we can." Jesus said to them, "You will indeed drink from my cup, but to sit at my right or left is not for me to grant. These places belong to those for whom they have been prepared by my Father" (Matt. 20:20-23).*

The pressure to climb

It's easy for me to relate to the ambitious plans of James and John, for I was raised in an environment that was always pushing me to climb the ladder of success. I had dreams that I dared not even express to my closest friends. I wanted to be at the top of some thing or the other so people would think well of me. Success, for me, was to have honor or prestige. I needed success. I dreamed of it. I planned for it.

Some may think ministers should be exempt from such ambitions. At least after ordination one would think those carnal needs would have disappeared. That may have happened to some, but for me ordination was a signal that what I dreamed of was soon to happen. If I only worked a little harder, it wouldn't be long. My observation is that most of my friends were little different from me. We all were climbing over one another to get the largest, most prestigious church or to have a position in the conference office. For most of us, the goal was to be at least president of a conference.

To get there I felt I needed more baptisms than anyone else, a higher tithe, more children in church school, and of course, the greatest increase in every arena that mattered. In order for this to happen I dreamed up more programs than even I can believe. I worked constantly and pushed my members until they were weary. This was the expected leadership style during the sixties and seventies. It was personality leadership and management by objective, and woe be to that one who wasn't on the bandwagon.

When the other 10 disciples heard about the request of Mother Zebedee, they were horrified, not because they had more lofty motives, but because she had gotten there before they did. Each one of those disciples had the same ambitions, and they wouldn't have thought twice about stabbing the other in the back if the need arose. Jesus was no doubt very disappointed. To think that these 12 men were the nucleus of the kingdom must have given Him little confidence for the future of His movement. He called them together to share with them the true basis of leadership. It must have come as a real shock. "Whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant," He said (Matt. 20:26).

Success: the Jesus model

That's a much different road to success than I knew as I began my ministry. Of course, it's not really a philosophy that would go over very well in the world. It's the Jesus model of leadership. Christian leadership isn't measured by the same standard used in the world. Spiritual leaders represent Christ they are literally "Christ-bearers.""1

The question isn't How much power do you have? How much money can you spend? or How big are your results? The question is How well do you represent Christ? I'm not sure there have been many leaders like this in the church. It's too radical. To be a "servant leader" almost seems far-fetched.

I believe the church of God is starving for just that kind of leadership. It must be the commitment of all of us for the decade of the nineties if the church is going to fulfill its mission. The leadership style of the world must give way to the Jesus model: "Whoever wants to be first must be your slave just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many" (verses 27,28).

It's important that our people have pastors who know how to love as Christ loved. It's a love that is able to enter into a deep solidarity with the anguish underlying the glitter of the shell people wear. It's a love that's not afraid to be completely open and vulnerable with oneself in a demonstration of understanding and real care. Servant leadership means giving unconditional love. It isn't weak and pusillanimous, but neither is it protecting of self and power grabbing. You see, people are much more needy of love and care and intimacy than they are even of knowing when the pre-Advent judgment began or how to keep the Sabbath.

Need for growing

Thankfully, Jesus didn't give up on His disciples. During the hours they spent in the upper room after His arrest, a lot of growing took place. Perhaps Peter had the most to learn. Graciously, his story was recorded. He took it as a personal affront when Jesus told him he would deny Him three times that night. When it happened just as Jesus had predicted, Peter looked into the sorrowing, pained eyes of His Master and went away from the high priest's palace a broken and distraught man. It must have been extremely difficult for him to join the others in the up per room to wait out the long hours of the weekend, and he was there when the news came that the tomb was empty.

His heart was made lighter when a message came from the risen Lord just for him, for he knew he didn't deserve to see the Lord again or be restored to his place among His closest friends. A little later, near the lake in Galilee, his heart must have felt much lighter as he ate with Jesus and the others.

After dinner the two of them walked alone along a path close to the water's edge. Jesus spoke first." 'Simon son of John, do you truly love me more than these?' 'Yes, Lord,' he said, 'You know that I love you.' Jesus said, 'Feed my lambs.'Again Jesus said, 'Simon son of John, do you truly love me?' He answered, 'Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.' Jesus said, 'Take care of my sheep.' The third time he said to him, 'Simon son of John, do you love me?'" (John 21:15-17). This time Peter was hurt because it was the same question again, as if Jesus didn't believe him. " 'Lord, you know all things; you know that I love you.' Jesus said,'Feed my sheep' " (verse 17).

Our job description is similar to Peter's. We're called to feed the sheep. That's our mission, as simply as it can be stated. The qualification for sheep feeding is the same as it was for Peter: we must be in love with Jesus. In order to give the kind of leadership needed in God's church for the decade of the nine ties, we must first of all love Jesus. It's not possible to be a Christ-bearer unless we love Him deeply and intimately. Unless we reserve the time to cultivate a relationship with Him, our love will only be a token, and we'll never imitate His model of leadership. This love means to have such a passion for Him that nothing is so urgent as to be alone with Him.

Having a sense of assurance

It wasn't only my understanding of success that was faulty when I began my minis try. I also had no sense of assurance of my own salvation. My religion involved proving to God that I was safe to save by doing right things. I was about as good as the rich young ruler. I had kept the commandments from the time I was a child, but there was no sense of joy. The God I served was more like a tyrant; in fact, I was afraid of Him. All the work I had done to satisfy Him never seemed to be good enough. It was many years into my ministry that I had a revelation of Jesus in which He showed me that my salvation was based on who He was and what He had done and not on anything I did.

It took years of struggle to replace the old ways of thinking and ministering with the new gospel orientation. As that process was taking place, I began to yearn to know Jesus intimately, but had little guidance as to how that might happen. With a great deal of apprehension, I registered for a retreat offered by a local ecumenical retreat center. During that retreat intimacy began to develop, and I was helped to understand how to create rhythms in my life that would allow that intimacy to grow.

Now, several years later, I am beginning to understand how Paul could have a passion to know Jesus. But I can also say that I haven't already obtained all that I want, but that "I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me" (Phil. 3:12).

At age 25 Thomas Wolfe fell madly in love with Aline Bernstein, almost 10 years his senior. On one occasion he wrote her, "I will love you all the days of my life, and when I die if they cut me open they will find one name written on my brain and in my heart. It will be yours." It would be the same for those of us who aspire for really spiritual leadership. The name Jesus would be imprinted there so deeply that even death could not erase it.

It's the Jesus model that is needed in the church of the nineties, a leadership that isn't modeled on the power games of the world, but on the Servant Leader, Jesus. We must each of us hear that question "Do you love Me?" as being central to all our ministry, because it's only when we're seriously committed to Jesus that we can begin to relate to hurting and desperately needy people.

*All Scripture passages in this article are
quoted from the New International Version.

+See Ben Campbell Johnson, Pastoral
Spirituality: A Focus for Ministry (Philadel
phia: Westminster Press, 1988).


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Steve Willsey is an associate pastor of the Spencerville Seventh-day Adventist Church, Silver Spring, Maryland.

April 1997

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