It is easy to find an army of a thousand, but, ah, how difficult to find a general.” So says a Chinese proverb. To find a genuine spiritual leader in the Christian church—someone with a vision and integrity—is not always easy. Leaders with Christlike values and attitudes are the most valuable treasure of the church, and God Himself is involved in the process of their upbringing and development. Nevertheless, even powerful leaders, without the people they guide, are as generals without an army, and this could lead to unfortunate consequences. Without authentic relationships between leaders and the people they lead, there can be no spiritual development of the church.
The life and ministry of Nehemiah provide us with some profound insights on this authentic leadership so vitally needed by every generation of Christian community. What made Nehemiah a great leader? What helped him overcome every distraction and challenge and concentrate on leading his people to achieve the goals God had set before them? What kind of connection was there between him and the people of Israel? How might this bond inspire us today? Let us look at his distinctiveness as a spiritual leader.
Lessons from Nehemiah’s leadership
Nehemiah had a vision (Neh. 1:3–11). As a cupbearer of the king of the mightiest nation in the world of his time, Nehemiah had a secure and protected position. He did not need any commotion in his life. He could have prayed for the success of Jerusalem and the remnant without his personal involvement and contribution. Nevertheless, he was a man of vision and action. He dared to come to the king and ask for permission to rebuild the temple. He wanted to persuade the remnant of the exigency and necessity of this noble and glorious task. Today we need daring ministers audacious enough to advance with vision and convince the people of God of the inevitability of spiritual change.
He was not boastful. “I had not told anyone what my God had put in my heart to do for Jerusalem”1 (Neh. 2:12). As the most influential Israelite in those times, he could have boasted about his position or his original vision, but he did not. He let his deeds speak. Pastors today have to uplift Christ and conceal their vision until the appropriate time. We should not boast about our visions for the church and provoke the animosity of those who do not appreciate and comprehend God’s ways. Let acts speak. Let vision be confirmed by God’s approval, not just by convincing arguments.
He had motivation for the task. People worked “with all their heart” (Neh. 4:6) because Nehemiah was a motivating force. He had a dream and managed to transmit his eagerness for the rebuilding. Without motivation, pastors, teachers, or administrators will not be able to confer their vision and transform it into reality. Motivating force toward the completion of a set goal will help overcome obstacles along the way.
Nehemiah exhibited extraordinary faith. “Our God will fight for us” (Neh. 4:20) was Nehemiah’s motivation in the most difficult situation when his enemies threatened to destroy the work of rebuilding. This is extraordinary faith in spite of opposition and serious difficulties. Pastors need faith in order to accomplish the vision. Faith says: “God is always with us” even when the circumstances speak differently.
Nehemiah was persistent and never quit. When enemies threatened, when his life was in peril, Nehemiah did not quit; he just prayed (Neh. 6:9). Spiritual victory in times of onslaught from the enemy becomes possible only when we are a people of prayer and faith. Pastors in their ministerial struggles need to obtain the mentality of Nehemiah: persist, pray, and never quit!
Nehemiah loved the people of God, so he never exploited them financially or otherwise (Neh. 5:14, 15). He even sacrificed his rights in order to be an example to the flock. He never took anything from the people; he only shared his resources and time. We cannot exploit the church with our needs as if the church is obliged to do this. If we want more superior experiences resulting from our faith, we should not ask for anything. God will provide our needs if we are servants of Christ.
Nehemiah delegated responsibilities. Nehemiah identified persons with dedication and integrity and shared his tasks with them (Neh. 7:1, 2). Such leadership with delegation actually improved the task because everybody was involved. To think that we, alone, can accomplish the task is, at best, risky and, at worst, impossible. Such a path may seem easier, but it devalues and downgrades the church. In sharing, there is strength; in delegation, there is unity and fulfillment.
Nehemiah valued the Word of God far beyond his own comprehension or people’s expectations (Neh. 8:8, 18). Belief in the Written Word brought him many troubles and opposition, but he insisted that the reform had to be based on the revelation of God (Neh. 13). In the last chapter of Nehemiah, the reform of the temple, marriage, tithe, and worship were based exclusively on the Word of God. True spiritual revival cannot take place when we trust in human strength; the Word alone has the power and authority to transform and strengthen the community of God’s people and lead them to accomplish His will and purposes.
Nehemiah continued earnestly in prayer. Nehemiah prayed for God’s forgiveness, for His glorious power and grace, for himself, and the courage he needed. He also prayed for his people: intercessory prayer has power to transform and strengthen God’s community (Neh. 9). Prayer stirs the work of the Lord. Pastors should pray not only for themselves and their families but also for the people of God and the vision of Christ. “Prayer does not fit us for the greater work, prayer is the greater work,” says Oswald Chambers.2
Nehemiah showed extraordinary zeal. Nehemiah’s zeal produced not only his dedication for the work he set out to do but also had specific purposes: for maintaining the priority of the house of God (10:39; 13:10, 11), for the keeping of the Sabbath (13:17, 18), and for maintaining the purity of the people of God (13:25). All these aspects were valued as indispensable requirements for proper worship. There is no worship outside the truth of God. Pastors today should teach that zeal for the holiness in Christ (as a result of genuine acceptance of Christ’s righteousness by faith) is a necessary condition for proper worship. The house of God, the day of God, and the people of God are holy, and we cannot afford to neglect their sanctity in our worship and witness.
Nehemiah worked with the outsiders. As a reformer, Nehemiah worked with those within and those without. The “outsider” had an importance in his leadership and ministry, and, as a result, the “outsiders” “realized that this work had been done with the help of our God” (6:16). This testimony is amazing. Out of reverence and fear, the Gentiles learned that Israel was a people of the mighty God. Mission today cannot be accomplished in isolation. Our work and witness must have fervor and a zeal that will be noted by all.
Nehemiah was God’s man in a wholistic sense. Fully dedicated to God and with an absolute commitment to God’s mission, Nehemiah portrayed the profile of the perfect spiritual leader. Transformed by God’s grace, he was able to lead others to experience similar transformation. Where stands a transformed leader, the response of the people will not be lagging behind.
Lessons from the response of the people
People of God had the willingness and motivation to build the temple of God (2:17, 18; 4:6). Everywhere the cry and commitment was singular: “Let us rebuild.” The response of the church depends on the motivation of the pastor. The result is astonishing. The people had a confidence in Nehemiah, and they listened to what he said (5:12, 13). Even though he was a youthful leader, he was not despised. “We will do as you say” was based on the assurance that God, not man, was leading the work. People who cannot have confidence in their leaders tend to be a scattered flock without a shepherd, and this leads to spiritual disaster. Israel loved the law of God (8:1) and obeyed God’s Word. There is no advancement without obedience to God.
People of God were generous in their tithes and offerings. “We will not neglect the house of our God” (10:39) was the response of the people to the call of their spiritual leader. If leaders live according to the standards of the Word, the people will follow their example. Spiritual growth, faithfulness in stewardship, active participation in witness and worship, and total support to the church will result. Steadfast leadership will produce faithful response in our membership.
Israel understood that their rebuilding of the wall of Jerusalem was a mission to the Gentiles (6:16). The impact of their sacred work had far-reaching consequences that only eternity will reveal. Unconscious of their spiritual influence and in humility and purity of heart, they moved forward in glorifying their God. The only way to glorify God today, and show the world that we are different, is to find a way for successful teamwork of pastors, teachers, administrators, and the people of God. “Teamwork is the quintessential contradiction of a society grounded in individual achievement,” says Marvin R. Weisbord, 3 and no leader can afford to neglect true teamwork.
Spiritual strength in synergy
Spiritual success depends not only on the powerful vision and spiritual power of the leader but on the relationship between leaders and the people of God. This synergistic teamwork is always crucial for the spiritual progress. Teamwork demands, on the one hand, that pastors, teachers, evangelists, and administrators be completely emptied of self-interest, boasting, and the search of financial gain; on the other hand, teamwork expects that leaders be motivated by vision, sacrifice, faith, belief, prayer for the power of God, and perseverance and resolution. Only then will church leadership inspire and stimulate the people of God to enthusiasm and trust, obedience to the Word, generosity, purity, and humility. This sacred bond will be a powerful testimony to Christ’s living influence on the leaders. But this sacred liaison is impossible without the proper understanding of the exercise of authority. Ellen G. White said: “Although Nehemiah bore a royal commission requiring the inhabitants to co-operate with him in rebuilding the walls of the city, he chose not to depend upon the mere exercise of authority. He sought, rather, to gain the confidence and sympathy of the people, well knowing that a union of hearts as well as hands was essential to succeed in the great work which he had undertaken.” 4 The essence of successful pastoral service and a flourishing church includes the pastor’s trust in God and his or her readiness to cooperate with and motivate the people of God until we reach the union of hearts. When spiritual leaders and spiritual people work together, the result is spiritual strength and impact for the kingdom of God. This spiritual union, transcending organizational efforts in programs and mission, becomes influential testimony today and essential qualification for the life eternal.
1 Unless otherwise indicated, Scriptures quoted in this article are from the New International Version.
4 Ellen G. White, Christian Service (Hagerstown, MD: Review and Herald, 1925), 174.