The din of the restaurant faded. The dink of knife on plate and spoon in bowl slowly receded into an expectant silence. A nod of the head from my conference president was all I needed to see the hopes and dreams of my congregation realized.
I carefully studied the strong, imposing figure of my president. He was tall, dignified, a bit unapproachable. I was part of the North Dakota Conference, a young pastor in his third year of ministry.
This was not the first time I'd approached this impressive man. Twice, I had gone to his office to plead the cause of our small congregation.
Now my church had a vision, an evangelistic strategy that would double our current membership of 92 in three years. We had the enthusiasm and energy, but such an expand ed membership would never fit into our current facility. It was tired and old, a white/gray building, just too small for our plans. We needed a new one.
Already, our land search committee had located the perfect property, three acres one block from a well-traveled road. We made the purchase. The new church would be located in an area that was both easily accessible and reputable. Building plans were underway; the new building was certainly going to be adequate. Unfortunately, one rather large hurdle stood in the path of our potential. In order to begin building, standard policy stated that we needed to have at least 50 percent of our total project expense in hand. Being a small congregation, we just had not been able to scrape the money together.
Surely the president saw how important this new church was. Our city included not only the state university, but a large nearby airbase. Surely he saw how easily he could assist. Why had he and the conference treasurer merely said, "We'll pray for you"? That seemed to be just a nice way of saying "No."
What I wanted to hear, of course, were the words, "The conference will provide an additional $40,000 above what the policy ordinarily allows."
Now, I stood before this man for the third time. As I waited, the cheery morning sounds of the restaurant in which we had met again filled my ears. Carefully, I presented my case.
I talked of our evangelistic plan. I talked of our vision and enthusiasm. Excitedly, I mentioned all the baptisms we had had. The new church was something the Lord could use to bless a major city.
"We're such a small congregation," I reminded him. "We need help!"
The next moment is indelibly etched in my mind. Knowing exactly what he was doing and why, our conference president straightened to his full height, looked me in the eye, paused, and said in a quiet, firm tone,
"Yes, you are small, aren't you?"
A chill raced through my body. I was ashamed and grateful.
Suddenly I saw....
* * *
The servant of Elisha was dismayed. The early morning light glinted off the armor and chariots of what seemed to be an immense mass of soldiers. Horses apprehensive and alert pawed the ground. The Syrian army had the city of Dothan surrounded, and no escape remained. Overcome with fear, the servant backed away from the scene before him. Trembling, he ran to Elisha and cried, "Alas, my master! How shall we do?" (2 Kings 6:15)
Calmly Elisha replied, "'Fear not, for those who are with us are more than those who are with them.'" Then he prayed, "'Open his eyes that he may see.'" "'So the Lord opened the eyes of the young man, and he saw; and behold, the mountain was full of horses and chariots of fire round about Elisha'" (2 Kings 6:16, 17, RSV).
Suddenly he saw.. ..
* * *
The faith factor
The primary challenge in both the story of Elisha's servant and in mine was faith extraordinary miracle claiming faith the quality of faith that actually provides unmovable optimism to a Christian leader. I call it faith-based optimism.
In both stories God provided the lesson of a very present providence and of grace. In both stories the mentoring of another encouraged the lesson of faith to penetrate.
Today I realize the importance of a conference president's insistence that my church members and I depend on prayer and God's leading for our new church. I needed a lesson in faith, just as Elisha's servant needed the vision to see God's providence. We both needed to exercise faith-based optimism.
I see faith in four dimensions. Through the progression of these dimensions, the Christian leader gains a deeper understanding of real faith and he or she experiences a deeper calling to Christian leadership.
The first dimension is belief. The fundamental bedrock of faith is simple: a conviction that God exists; belief in an all-powerful Creator who reveals Himself through Jesus, prophets, visions, and His Word. This belief is not, in itself, a saving belief. It is here, however, that the Christian life begins.
It is in this dimension of faith that the Holy Spirit first impresses us with the implications of the gospel: He not only exists, but He loves humankind. He not only exists, but is the Savior of humanity. The Holy Spirit convicts us of these truths, and the young Christian takes the first timid steps toward a relationship with Christ.
The second dimension is a changed life. It is the belief that God is, accompanied by the power of the Holy Spirit which leads to a moral transformation. This is also of faith.
Whereas the first dimension expresses a confidence that God is, dimension two applies that belief. In this dimension, the relationship with God continues to form, the life is transformed through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, and a person begins to experience personal holiness. At this point a relationship with God becomes a priority something the Christian cannot do without. We no longer permit any pursuit or inter est to replace prayer and the study of Scripture.
It is this dimension that keeps the Christian leader safe for the church. It provides insulation against abusing leadership. It assures that leaders will not use people to serve their own agendas, to rule over others, or to stray from dependence on God. Through this relationship, God reveals His plan for their ministry.
Without this reality in the life of a church leader, he or she becomes more interested in self-glorification than in the will of God and is likely to begin, in one way or another, to use the congregation to his or her own ends.
"Christian leaders cannot simply be persons who have well-informed opinions about the burning issues of our time. Their leadership must be rooted in a permanent, intimate relationship with the incarnate Word, Jesus. Every Christian leader needs to find there the source for their words, advice, and guidance."1 There is no safety in leadership apart from this kind of deep, current, ongoing relationship with Jesus Christ.
The third dimension is having a social concern. The Christian is not supposed to be so focused on personal morality that social morality is neglected. Personal holiness and social morality, with the responsibilities that accompany it, must be held together.
Faith involves both a personal experience and a connectedness to other people. If an individual leads the church without social concern, lacking genuine love for people, they will merely become an ecclesiastical bureaucrat. The church needs leaders with a vision for reaching out to others, for changing and improving people's lives. The church is not dying for politicians or even statesmen.
Through the love and life of Jesus Christ and how He lived, the Christian leader is drawn to social action, ministering to the needs of those around them. Faith gives Christian leaders concern, love, and passion for all humanity.
To this point the experience of faith for all Christians is alike. Every believer must experience faith in these three dimensions belief, changed life, and social concern. But it is in the fourth dimension that a Christian leader experiences an extraordinary calling.
This fourth dimension is miracle claiming faith. Christian leaders need miracle-claiming faith to equip them for their ministry. Faith that lays claim to the power of God to do what humanity cannot accomplish.
Dynamic Christian leaders are willing to step out in faith because they believe that God -will fulfill their prayers as He wills. Thus the Christian leader prays, believes, and actually anticipates the decision of God.
This leads a Christian leader to attempt things that cannot be accomplished except by the power of God. This is what we call a miracle and it is precipitated by the gift of what I have described above as faith-based optimism. Faith-based optimism is much more than mere possibility thinking, because faith and the presence of God are crucial to its existence.
Faith-based optimism is clearly illustrated in the story of David and Bathsheba. Lured into temptation by Bathsheba's beauty, David's moral faith failed. He committed adultery and murder. When the prophet Nathan confronted David with his sin, David immediately acknowledged his transgression and opened himself to the judgment of God.
Later, the child Bathsheba bore was dying. In deepening repentance, David pleaded with God for the child's life. For one week he gave him self entirely to prayer and fasting.
When the child died, David's servants were afraid to tell him, concerned that the news would throw him into deeper depression. David heard them talking amongst them selves and realized that the child had died.
To the servants' amazement, David got up, washed his face, changed his clothes, and ate. He had prayed and believed, and he immediately accept ed God's decision. He testified, "While the child was yet alive, I fasted and wept; for I said, Who can tell whether God will be gracious to me, that the child may live?" (2 Sam. 12:22). His faith was not a manipulation of God to accomplish his personal agenda, rather it was an utter abandonment to the will of God, and a confidence that God's plan was best.
Thus, when the conference president said those words to me "You are small, aren't you?" everything suddenly became clear. He taught me a lesson that stands as a permanent marker in my spiritual journey.
This leader wanted me to demonstrate faith-based optimism. His "I'll pray for you," was in no way a refusal to help, rather it was a plea for me to depend on the power of an almighty God to work out His will in the Grand Forks church. In that experience I came to know what I needed most, and it was not money from the conference office.
I began to pray as I had never prayed before, clarifying and claiming both the promises of God and the answer to my prayers and believing God would provide.
I discussed the problem with my church members. After searching our experience, we firmly believed that the new church was God's will. Without reservation, we gave our selves to the project. The church was built. In three years, the members had given enough to pay the mortgage.
And the servant of Elisha? Elisha prayed that God would open the eyes of his servant so he could see what the Lord was doing. When the servant saw horses and chariots of fire surrounding them, his amazement surpassed his previous dread.
Faith-based optimism. A leader's faith is contagious. To every Christian leader God extends a marvelous opportunity. He offers all the power of heaven if the Christian leader is willing to believe. "'And whatever things you ask in prayer, believing, you shall receive'" (Matt. 21:22, NKJV). Genuine faith-based optimism so much more than possibility thinking does empower Christian Leadership.
1 Henri Nouwen, In the Name of Jesus (New York. Crossroad, 1989), 31