I grew up as a member of the Roman Catholic Church and served as an altar boy—an assistant to the priest. I had plans to become a priest. In my early years, I read prayers, recited novenas, and attended Mass every Sunday. But while I went through the rites and rituals of religion, I did not know what it was to have a personal relationship with God.
Thankfully, Seventh-day Adventists came to my small town and began a series of evangelistic meetings. It was there I met Jesus as a personal Friend and Savior, and life has never been the same! I became a Seventh-day Adventist Christian, prepared for pastoral ministry, and served in church leadership roles as a pastor, educator, and administrator. From my almost 40 years of denominational service, I can affirm that the first prerequisite to be an effective and authentic Seventh-day Adventist Christian leader is that you must first be a Christian.
Although this may seem obvious, it is not. To be a Christian means that you are following Jesus, modeling His lifestyle, and reflecting His values. You are in love with Him and guided by His Word. Seventh-day Adventist leaders must continue to experience the fullness of God’s love in their personal lives. They must know experientially the joy of forgiveness and the depth of His grace. In the words of Rod Culbertson, I must ever be “captured by his love and gripped by his grace.”1
But there is a danger that the gift of our salvation can be forgotten as we become involved in the work of the church. Getting busy with our office work, programs, committees, and travel, we can lose sight of why we are doing what we are doing. Once appointed as conference officials and institutional leaders, we might assume that we have arrived at the pinnacle of ecclesiastical power. Most dangerous of all, we forget that it is not about us but about a God who loves us in spite of our imperfections and who willingly permits us to be used for His glory. But as exhibits of His amazing grace, He calls us to humbly reflect His character, witness about His grace, and be advocates for His kingdom. What a privilege! I never want to forget this as a Christian leader.
I remember the first Sabbath I went to a church as the new pastor. One of the senior elders approached me saying that he loved to give pastors “trouble.” Smiling, I replied that I loved elders who gave me “trouble.” Not satisfied with my response, he repeated his assertion with greater emphasis. Unmoved, I repeated my statement—also with greater emphasis. We then repeated the cycle with no change in stance from either of us. Finally, recognizing that he was getting nowhere, he sullenly walked away. Interestingly, he became one of my trusted leaders, and his wife loved sending me her homemade cakes—delivered to my home by her husband.
For Christian leaders, it is important to maintain that first love and daily build on our relationship with God. Over the years I have learned some critical lessons about growing as a Christian leader. Let me share three of them with you.
1. Christian leadership is about my walk, not my talk
As a Christian leader, I take seriously the words of Paul to his son in the faith, Timothy: if a man desires the office of a bishop or leader, he aspires to something wonderful (see 1 Tim. 3:1-13). It is good to have a holy longing to serve as a Christian leader. But Paul reminds us in this passage that the truly effective, Spirit-filled leader possesses what he or she professes. Such leaders are moral exemplars, transparent in their relationships, and known for their personal integrity.
Leadership theorists have long indicated that effective leaders are adept at casting a compelling vision for their organizations. They are also persuasive communicators because followers first love the messenger before they love the message. But gifted visionaries and communicators, devoid of the Spirit of God, can lead us into some very dark places. One prominent example of this occurred several years ago when an invitation to a popular and charismatic leader on the schedule to speak at a General Conference pre-session had to be removed when church officials conducted further investigation of him. While I am certainly no paragon of virtue, I have had cause to question the Christianity of some leaders based on the strange views they have advocated.
Above all else, the spiritual leader knows how to pray. The psalmist pleads in Psalm 139 for God to search his heart and his thoughts to see if there is any wickedness in him, then to lead him in the way everlasting. Doubtless, the psalmist is referring to what I teach my doctoral students as reflective practice. The prayerful experience of daily spending time with our thoughts and our God is critical to our growth as authentic and self-aware Christian leaders. Paul cried out: “that I may know Him” (Phil. 3:10, NKJV). I must first know Him if I am to live and speak for Him. The Christian leader’s relationship with God will manifest itself in his or her home and will be evident at work, at church, and in the marketplace of life.
I remember one administrative meeting when I was president at the University of the Southern Caribbean. Salaries were due in a few days and the University could not find the funds to meet the payroll. I led out in a devotional, then as leaders we committed the matter to the Lord in prayer. That same afternoon, our finance VP got a call from the Government office indicating that the university’s check for student assistance was available and ready for collection. The check was more than sufficient to cover payroll. It is so reassuring to know that as Christian leaders, we do not walk alone
2. Christian leadership is about righteousness, not rituals
Rituals refer to all the rites, ceremonies, and other activities that we as a church engage in on an ongoing basis. I grew up in a church steeped in rituals. As an altar boy, I wore a satin robe, burned incense, said novenas, attended mass, used my chaplet to recite prayers, and kissed the ring of the bishop at my confirmation in the church. I went to weekly confessionals in which I told the priest all my sins and faithfully fulfilled the penances he decreed.
But even in the Seventh-day Adventist Church, some of our practices generate more passion than our worship experiences. We pick our hobby horse and make it our religion. Through the years, I have witnessed lively and often contentious discussions on how many kernels of nuts to eat, whether women should wear hats to church, what is acceptable church music, or who should be ordained to the ministry. We get embroiled in so many controversies about rituals and practices in the church. While I am not against healthy discussions, necessary in any democratic organization, we must not label, denigrate, or ostracize people if they do not share our views, “‘for man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart’ ” (1 Sam. 16:7, NKJV).
The prophet Micah (Micah 6:6–8) tells us that God is not interested in all the rituals, sacrifices, and, dare I say, the long-standing, seemingly irreconcilable debates in the church. Micah gives us three essentials for living as a spiritual leader:
Act justly. In other words, do allthings with fairness, honesty, and integrity. Micah had a special concern for justice, primarily because he saw so little of it. What God requires of us is that we do what is right and fair in our relationships with other people. As a leader, I strive not to prejudge a situation but to listen objectively to both sides before coming to a decision. Many leaders tend to instinctively circle the wagons in support of decisions taken by other leaders even if they were bad decisions and caused hurt. Nobody is always right, and nobody is always wrong.
Some years ago, a family dispute arose, and my four siblings found themselves equally divided on the matter. They were all calling upon me to support their position. But I saw the strengths and challenges of both sides, and I shared that with them. When I remained neutral, they called me “Switzerland”—nonaligned. As Christian leaders, we should be pre-pared to lovingly but clearly express our convictions, even at the risk of financial, social, or career consequences. We need the courage to look at compromising moral, ethical, and social justice issues and say humbly, “In my opinion, that isn’t right!” One should expect nothing less from a follower of the Man from Galilee.
Love mercy. When we read aboutthe good Samaritan who went out of his way to meet the needs of another person, or a father who accepted his prodigal son against the expectations of almost everyone, or Jesus’ response to the woman caught in adultery, or the dying thief on a cross who reached out in faith and found mercy and love from an ever-loving Lord—in all these stories we find mercy revealed by an all-compassionate God, a compassion that goes way beyond the letter of the law. This is the kind of grace and mercy we should seek to model as Christian leaders.
I believe in our organization, in its divinely-ordained mission, and how that mission needs to be advanced through our multifaceted ministries. But our people are central to performing our mission. Every worker has worth and is to be respected and valued. Our policies, procedures, and various committee actions must align with this high view of our employees.
Southwest Airlines’s “People first” approach places primary emphasis on employees, and the company believes that it has significantly contributed to it being one of the most successful airlines in the industry, with a profitable margin 44 years in a row. At Southwest, it is not surprising to “hear stories about flight attendants picking up trash, gate agents tracking down borrowed staplers, or pilots cutting back on fuel usage precisely because they know that will impact their company’s profits.”2
I have also seen numerous examples of passionate commitment to mission within the Seventh-day Adventist Church. Satisfied employees give their best service. Wherever pos-sible, let us facilitate and not frustrate workers. Peter wrote, “Finally, all of you be of one mind, having compassion for one another; love as brothers, be tenderhearted, be courteous” (1 Pet. 3:8, NKJV).
Walk humbly with God. A right rela-tionship with God always begins with humility. Recognizing my deficits, I acknowledge my inadequacies and admit that I am who I am only because of His grace. But some leaders seem to care more about policies than about people, more about rules than righ-teousness, more about sitting up front than sitting at the feet of Jesus, more about the work of God than the God of the work, more about position, power, and popularity than about prayer, praise, and being at peace with God and His people.
Fellow leaders, we are to act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God. “He is most fit to carry responsibilities and command who most resembles God in character.”3
3. Christian leadership is about heavenly, not earthly power
As a young intern attending my first constituency meeting, I got an unfortunate introduction to church election politics. A senior worker approached me and proposed that he would recommend me for the nominating committee, where I would then support him for the executive committee. I accepted, but it was not of God. Thankfully, it fell through at the first hurdle, for I did not get on the nominating committee. Since then I have regretted my consent to his plan, especially as I have seen through the years how God works amazingly and miraculously to accomplish His purpose through the play and interplay of human will, events, and passions. I have learned that God does not need my help to get it right.
In order to prosper, our church must have men and women leaders upon whom it can rely; men and women who are as firm as steel to principle; unselfish men and women who have the interest of God’s cause closer to their hearts than any concerns for worldly power, popularity, or financial benefit. All I have and all I am are to be dedicated only to His glory. In Jeremiah the prophet advises his protégé Baruch: “ ‘Should you then seek great things for yourself? Do not seek them’ ” (Jer.45:5, NIV).
We must be wary of those who have an untamed ambition for church leadership. An unholy desire to lead, control, and decide the fate of others could spell grave danger. The church rightly needs to be concerned about any who seek office merely for its own sake.
Finally, I urge fellow administrators to share leadership with others. We do not need to hog the limelight. Rather, let us trust and train others to lead. “It is your duty to train others to stand in responsible positions.”4 None of us are indispensable. We should balance the need for stability and continuity in the organization with that of empowering a broad range of talented potential leaders from our diverse international constituency. One of my experienced elders determined that he would not serve as first elder for more than two terms at any one time. He encouraged the rotation of leadership to give younger persons an opportunity to serve. This approach may be one for all leaders to consider
Sinners saved by grace
The apostle Paul reminds us, “It is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast” (Eph. 2:8, 9, NIV). I am a trophy of grace. I have nothing to boast about, nothing to commend myself before God, nothing to flaunt and be arrogant about. As a sinner saved by grace, I am still under construction, growing “till we all come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a perfect man, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ” (Eph. 4:13, NKJV). This keeps me real, tolerant, forgiving, and humbly walking with my God.
1 Rod Culbertson, Do I Love God? The Question That Must Be Answered (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2017), 74.
2 Darren Dahl, “Why Do Southwest Airlines Employees Always Seem So Happy?” Forbes, July 28, 2017.
3 Ellen G. White, Christian Leadership (Washington, DC: Ellen G. White Estate, 1985), 12.
4 Christian Leadership, 46