Finding Ezra: Embracing the leader that you are
Is this it? Is this all ministry is going to be for me?” A pastor blurts out an audible prayer as he stares out the window. Six years out of seminary, he is now two years into his second church. Not that everything was bad. People say: “Your sermons are really speaking to me.” Or, “Thank you, I feel like I’ve really grown through your ministry. Thanks so much for being our pastor.”
But there are the other voices. Ones that say: “Where do you think this church is going? What are we doing? Where’s the vision? It feels like we’re stagnating.” As the pastor hears these voices in his head, he says: “When did it become a bad thing to just learn the Word of God and live it authentically? If I hear one more person say ‘without vision the people perish,’ I’m going to . . .”
Another pastor in a different town stares down at his cup and says, “Is this it? Is this how it’s going to be for the next few decades or until I quit and get a real job?” He is eight years out of seminary and deep into his second church plant. He loves getting teams together, casting vision, and seeing the energy build. And God has used him.
But there are voices. Like those that say: “I love the vision of this church and the things we’re doing. But I have to find a church where I can grow spiritually.” As the voices echo in his mind, he says, “If I hear one more person say, ‘I’m not getting fed here,’ I’m going to . . .”
You could look at those two stories and say, “The pastorate is tough. We all have our strengths and weaknesses, and we all have to work through it. And, hopefully, in time we’ll each find a decent seat on the right bus.”
But here lies my question: What could happen if the two pastors I just described found each other and were able to work together? Both are effective leaders. What do we gain by having these pastors off in their corners, alone and discouraged? The church needs both kinds of leaders. In fact, these leaders display two core, biblical qualities of leadership that we need if we are to be the vital churches we have been called to be. And when these two forms of leadership are working together in synergy, they can be virtually unstoppable.
Whatever your leadership tendencies may be, my purpose is to encourage you to embrace the leader that you are and to make your leadership work through creative synergies with other leaders around you. To show you what I’m talking about, let’s look at two leaders who put their synergy to work.
Ezra and Nehemiah led Israel during an extremely challenging, pivotal moment. The cause of rebuilding the nation had floundered.
Ezra arrived first on the scene. As soon as he got there, he was stunned. All the evil that had brought about the downfall of the nation and the destruction of Jerusalem a generation ago had come back—it was as though Israel had learned nothing and run headlong into another round of disaster. So what did Ezra do? He did not scream and yell and pound his fists. Instead, he did what every Israelite should have been doing. He went into public mourning. He went straight to the house of God, ripped his tunic down the front, thrust his hands toward heaven, and prayed aloud. In my mind, I hear him shouting as he starts his prayer with, “ ‘I am too ashamed and disgraced, my God, to lift up my face to you . . .’ ” (Ezra 9:6, NIV). In time, a great crowd of people of all ages gathered around him and joined him, weeping.
And with the help and support of key leaders of Israel, Ezra led the nation in turning back from disaster.
What do we say about Ezra as a leader? He led from the core of who he was. In other words, he led by example. There was an integrity about him that others respected and wanted to emu- late. The heart of his leadership is summed up in Ezra 7:10. He devoted himself to the study of the Law of the Lord, to do it himself and to teach it. He was an effective teacher who was able to identify the crisis and put words to it that people understood and were challenged by.
That said, he was not necessarily a strong strategist or tactician. In fact, you will notice that most of the leadership activity was executed by leaders who gathered around Ezra. While Ezra did some of the directing, his key contribution to the solution was to identify the problem clearly and present the big picture of what Israel needed to do. He said, “ ‘Now then make confession to the Lord, the God of your fathers and do his will’ ” (Ezra 10:11, ESV).
Then came Nehemiah. He mourned and grieved in repentance, much like Ezra. But Nehemiah was drawn to action through a different path. Jerusalem’s infrastructure was so destitute that Israel could not function as an autonomous nation. Not that Nehemiah cared only about bricks and mortar. He realized that the material devastation of Israel was a manifestation of spiritual rebellion and devastation from which Israel had not recovered. Right away, Nehemiah knew what his part was in this. If Israel was ever going to come into its own as a nation, Jerusalem must have a wall.
When Nehemiah arrived, he analyzed the situation and then worked with leaders to execute a brilliant plan whereby the wall would go up all around the city at the same time, so there would be no breach as the wall grew. This happened mostly through family groups each taking responsibility for certain sections of the project. Along the way, Nehemiah dealt with intense opposition. He also worked to correct an administrative evil that, contrary to the Law, left many Israelites owing large amounts of interest to their wealthier counterparts (see Nehemiah 5). And faster than imagined, by the grace of God, under Nehemiah’s leadership the wall was completed and Jerusalem became a real city that could no longer be abused or ignored by its enemies.
So what about Nehemiah as a leader? He was a visionary who intuitively saw what needed to happen for the nation to move forward. And, while others may see the same problem and long for a change, Nehemiah put longing into action. He was a directive leader who was strategically and tactically strong.
Standing together When the wall was completed under the leadership of Nehemiah, the nation was moved by the need to realign their hearts with God. And who did they turn to? Ezra, the scribe. And in Nehemiah 8, Ezra opened the Word of God to the great assembly, and people were thunderstruck by their guilt and by their need to repent and come to God. And then comes one of my favorite parts in Ezra/Nehemiah: “Then Nehemiah the governor, Ezra the priest and teacher of the Law, and the Levites who were instructing the people said to them all, ‘This day is holy to the Lord your God. Do not mourn or weep.’ ” (Neh. 8:9, NIV). For all the people had been weeping as they listened to the words of the Law.
And so under Ezra and Nehemiah, there began one of the most significant revivals in the history of Israel. And not only was Israel’s heart renewed, but the walls of its great city were restored.
Clearly Nehemiah and Ezra were two very different leaders. One was a God-loving master executor of vision. The other was a teacher who led by the example of his godly life. As we look at what God led the two of them to do together, one thing we cannot deny is that both kinds of leadership are needed. If you do not have Nehemiah, the wall will never get built. And without Ezra, you will never have anything worth building a wall around.
Making it work
There are more implications to this than I can cover in one article, but let When it comes to leadership, no one is the complete package. But God created you to be the kind of leader you are for a reason. me offer some applications. I believe that once you have run the gauntlet of the leadership assessments (Strengths Finder, Golden, SIMA, etc.), one thing becomes clear. In the church there are two leadership inclinations that are essential, namely, Nehemiah and Ezra. And while there may be some leaders who have a dynamic synergy of the two tendencies inside them, most of us tend to be in one space or another along the Ezra-Nehemiah spectrum.
In the United States, we have seen a pendulum swing of popularity between the two styles. For the longest time, most churches would have been delighted to have a gifted Ezra as their pastor or leader. But since the 1980s, as culture has changed and there has been growing concern that the church does not execute well in regard to her mission, there has been a significant shift of attention toward Nehemiah leadership. Individual churches may trend back and forth, opting for one model of leadership over another, based on perceived needs at the time.
Having said this, my aim is not to fix the world but to encourage you. Whether you are an Ezra or a Nehemiah trying to figure out your place in ministry, I want to offer you hope. I believe whichever leadership tendency you have, the Ezra-Nehemiah synergy can be made to work for you and your people.
Wherever you are, if you are a Nehemiah leader, you want to cultivate and raise up an Ezra or two around you. Be open to entrusting some pulpit time to them. Your church needs them as it needs you. God can use the two of you in ways that may not happen otherwise.
If you are an Ezra leader, can you find a Nehemiah in your congregation who shares your heart for the church and has strategic, tactical gifting? Develop a relationship with that leader and let that leader coach you and give you a loving “kick in the pants” when needed. If you cannot find a leader like that in your congregation, is there someone outside your church who can help you with Nehemiah-type coaching?
If you are a non-staff leader in your church who serves alongside a pastor, celebrate and enjoy your pastor’s gifting. And, rather than trying to push him or her in a certain direction or wishing he or she were different, look for ways to bring leaders with complementary gifts around him or her.
My last piece of advice for you would be to embrace the leader that you are. When it comes to leadership, no one is the complete package. But God created you to be the kind of leader you are for a reason. And, as you bring complementary leaders around you, beautiful things can happen.
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