Sermon: Godly Leaders
Scripture: 1 Thessalonians 5:12-13
Bob Russell the pastor who built Southeast Christian Church in Louisville, which is a church whose membership numbers in the 10’s of thousands writes:
I’ve visited a lot of churches and listened to a lot of people talk about their congregations, and I’ve observed that there is a desperate need for good leadership in most churches. There is a hunger for dedicated, charismatic personalities who can inspire others to follow.
And certainly in my years as a Superintendent, I visited many churches who were starved for leadership. Some even starving to death. But that is not the case at St. Luke. From the very beginning, St. Luke has been blessed with strong leadership. So most of what I want us to be about this morning is simply affirming what we already know and see lived out in our church every day. And that is great lay leadership. Now, the Apostle Paul talked a great deal about leadership in the church. More so than Peter or any of the other Disciples to whom Jesus entrusted His church. Those first Disciples were not really concerned with the church beyond their leadership because they were convinced that Jesus would come back in their lifetime. That the church was only temporary and so their leadership would be sufficient. But in time Paul realized that all of those original disciples (including himself) were getting old and had become enemies of both the Romans and the Jews and that there was every possibility that the church would need to endure beyond them and so in addition to what he wrote to the Thessalonians, Paul began to talk to his young proteges like Timothy and Titus about the kind of leaders that the church would need them to be. I would encourage everyone to read 1 Timothy in particular. It is a how to manual for establishing a church. A training course for people like Timothy because Paul knew that if the church was going to flourish and grow, that leadership was the key. Not his leadership, but the leadership of those who made up the church. And so in Timothy and Titus, Paul lists the qualities that he believes to be essential for leaders in the church. Now most all of Paul’s leadership qualifications have to do not with abilities but with personal integrity. He believed that effective leadership in the church begins with who we are, not what we are able to do.
And that a lack of integrity blocks the activity of the Holy Spirit in growing the church of God. In the 5th chapter of Acts, we find the very strange story of two early church leaders named Ananias and Sapphira. Scripture tells us that as the early church developed the Christians shared everything they had in common. Most of them didn’t have a great deal to share but these two were the exception. They were property owners. And as the story unfolds they sold their property, but when it came time to share the proceeds of the sale with the rest of the body of Christ, they lied and withheld the money. And almost immediately upon the discovery of their deceit, scripture says they “fell down and breathed their last.” Now it is always tempting to read that passage right before we pass the offering plate. But it was not the fact that they didn’t give all that they had that caused them to die. It was their deceit in lying about it. Their lack of personal integrity. The Bible calls such deceit the enemy of God’s church and a building block of Satan. God’s people are called to be a holy people and that begins with the leaders of the church. When the leaders of the church do not exercise personal integrity, the entire body of Christ suffers. But we must not mistake Paul’s call to personal integrity as a call to a standard of perfection. Leaders in the church are not expected to be perfect. Paul labels himself, as the “chief among sinners.” There is a church in our community that has a banner out in front that gives the name of the church and then it says that the church is “A Perfect Place For Imperfect People.” Now I am sure that they did not mean to imply that the church is a “perfect place” but there are a lot of people out there who mistakenly think that the church is filled with people who think they are perfect or at least better than everyone else. There are no perfect people in the church. Integrity is not defined as perfection. It is equated with honesty. Leaders are ones who are honest about themselves, their strengths but also about their flaws. Leaders of integrity are ones who are authentic and honest about their spiritual shortcomings and so turn to God in repentance, seeking redemption.
I love the story a minister tells of a Sunday morning when his imperfection was really brought home. He said a lady approached him after the service as he was greeting people and said to him: Pastor, I’ve heard other preachers say they weren’t perfect, but you’re the first one that I’ve really believed. That is a pastor who is daring to live out loud – a person of authenticity and integrity. Not afraid to show his flaws as well as his strengths. That’s what leaders with integrity do. It was not the fact that Ananias and Sapphira did not give the proceeds of the sale to the church that was their sin. It was the fact that they tried to hide, even deny, what they had done. They weren’t authentic and honest with the community. You see, if perfection were the standard, then the church would not have any leaders. We are all justified, forgiven and redeemed through the grace of God. Sometimes our greatest witness is in our willingness to repent. In writing about leadership in the church, George Barna makes this observation:
Keep our goal in mind: It is not to build a perfect church, but to honor the perfect Creator. Our efforts must include our call to worship Him, to know Him and know about Him and His ways. It must involve our service to Him and His people. Leaders of integrity honor the church and honor God through good times and bad. So God calls leaders with great integrity, with the honesty to admit who they are, knowing that it is sometimes in our weakness that we lead with the greatest effectiveness.
And then leaders in the church are CALLED by God to lead. Now that sounds like a no brainer. But often times we assess leadership ability by our human standards rather than through God’s eyes. The most effective leaders in the church are the ones who are called by God, not chosen by committee. Consider the leaders that God called in the Bible. Through human eyes, Abraham was a homeless drifter who would rather give his wife away then endanger his own life. Jacob was a liar and cheat. Moses was an exiled criminal. David was just a boy shepherd. Peter was a fisherman who couldn’t catch fish. Paul was the chief persecutor of the church. No nominating committee would have ever chosen any of those to be on the leadership team. And had they been asked, most of them would have probably said, like Moses did, that they didn’t have what it takes to be a leader in the church. But God looks at us through very different eyes, and often those who seem to be the most unlikely among us, are the ones he calls to be the leaders. And so if it is true that the church has a crisis in leadership, it is not because God has stopped calling leaders, it’s because we have stopped listening to His call. We too often let the noise of our busy lives, filled with competing priorities drown out God’s call to be a leader in His church.
And then I believe God calls leaders who are willing to confront the challenges of the Church with great courage. There are so many challenges that the church faces in this world, and leaders in the church must stand up to those challenges with great courage and conviction. A lack of courageous leadership has never been a problem at St. Luke. You have always been willing to take on any challenge that has been placed before you. That’s why the history of the church has been such a great one and it is why we can face the future with great hope and optimism. Courageous leaders. In the days ahead the world will present us with many challenges but I know that because of the courage of the leaders of the church, with God’s help, we will meet every one. God calls leaders with courage and conviction. And let me just add this before we go any further. Leaders of courage and conviction will enjoy the blessings of God, and the church will move forward and will make a difference in peoples lives. For forty years that has been the experience at St. Luke. The story of St. Luke is a story of great success because the church has always been blessed with leaders of great courage and conviction. But leaders of courage are also those who are willing to take risks. I don’t know of any other church that includes taking risks as part of the value statements of the church. But St. Luke does. Great leaders are always reaching beyond themselves, taking risks, with the knowledge that sometimes they will fall short.
But their failures don’t defeat them, but rather they learn from those experiences. I recently read an article about Dr. Jonas Salk who developed the vaccine for Polio which was such a dreaded disease when I was a kid. The article talked about the intensive efforts to develop a vaccine that would eradicate the disease which began in 1938 when President Roosevelt who had been left disabled by the disease declared a “war” on Polio. It became Dr. Salk’s sole focus until finally in the mid 1950’s he developed the successful vaccine. But on the way he developed a number of vaccines that failed. Think how different the world would be today if he had not been willing to take risks in the face of his failures. The inventions of Thomas Edison have revolutionized the world especially the light bulb, but his workshop was littered with inventions that didn’t work. In fact he developed 1000 light bulbs that didn’t work before coming up with one that did. He once was asked about those failures and replied, “I didn’t fail. I just discovered 1000 ways to not build a light bulb.” Michael Jordan, who many consider the greatest basketball player ever was cut from his high school basketball team. He was once asked the key to his success and he said: “I’ve missed more than 9000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. 26 times I’ve been trusted to take the game winning shot … and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. That is why I succeed.” Great leaders in all walks of life are the ones who are willing to to take chances, take some leaps of faith to ultimately achieve their goals. Scripture tells us that Jesus’ disciples had their share of failures. Poor Peter seemed to get it wrong at every turn. But their faith did not waver and their failures didn’t keep them from continuing to move forward. There are going to be things that we try in the church which don’t work, but great leaders learn from those and keep moving towards the ultimate vision of making disciples for Jesus Christ. Martin Luther King who we honor tomorrow knew a lot about risk taking leadership, once said: Take the first step in faith, you don’t have to see the whole staircase, just take the first step.” – Martin Luther King, Jr.
And then God calls leaders who are open to the leading of His Spirit. Part of that is the concept of vision. Discerning what God’s vision is for the church. The concluding chapter of George Barna’s book on how to reach unchurched people is entitled, “Making A Commitment To A Vision of the Church”, and in it he issues this challenge:
If you are a leader called by God to move His church forward, His vision is the cornerstone of your leadership. Communicate it clearly and persuasively to everyone who will listen, as often as you have the opportunity. Convey that vision in a compelling manner that people can envision a future in which people’s lives are being transformed to be more Christ like and in ways in which every individual can play a meaningful role. Pray for opportunities to share that vision, the resources to make it happen and for the ability to direct people’s efforts efficiently and effectively. Commit to it. Use your gifts and resources to fulfill it. Pray about the vision, about your role in bringing it to pass and about God‘s willingness to use you in significant ways to reach the world for His glory. Listen and watch for His response to your prayers. Those are the kind of leaders God calls. You see, here‘s the point that we often miss in the church. And that is that we will not always be of like mind on the paths we need to take, but we must always be of a like mind on where we are to end up as a church and as individuals according to scripture. Ultimately the mission of the church is to make disciples for Jesus Christ. To help bring persons into the kingdom of God. But every church needs to decide the best way to do that. The vision of the church is shaped by several factors, ranging from location to the talents and abilities of its people. After the ascension of Christ, two persons emerged as the leaders of the church. Peter and Paul. And each one of them chose very different paths in ministry. Paul traveled throughout the known world. Peter remained in Jerusalem. Paul took the Gospel to the Gentiles, the pagans. Peter’s ministry was primarily among the Jews. Paul was a skilled orator and a brilliant debater. Peter was a crude fisherman who was blunt in his speech. We would call his an “in your face approach.” And they certainly had their disagreements about how to do ministry, yet both of them remained fixed on the same destination. Their vision was the same, even though their methods were very different. And because of that the church thrived in many different places in first century culture. They were empowered, filled with God’s Spirit, no matter where that took them.
And then finally, leaders support one another and we are to support our leaders. That’s what Paul was saying to the Thessalonians. Support one another and live in peace with one another. I have been a part of churches where there wasn’t that level of support and respect for one another in the body of Christ. And the inevitable result is a church that is torn apart. Isn’t it interesting that when Jesus set about to call people to be His Disciples, who would one day lead His church, He doesn’t call them to leadership. Instead He calls them to, “follow me.” The call to leadership in the church is really a call to “follow- ship” because ultimately there is only one head of the church, and that is Jesus Christ. Too often, we make the mistake of thinking that the church is an autocracy or even a democracy. But it is not. The church is a Christocracy. Christ is the head, and we are the followers. A good leader is a follower first. I love that the concept of Servant leaders is so much a part of who we are as a church. Because when divisions happen in the church, it is most often because we have forgotten who is the head.
The early church was nearly torn apart over the conflict of whether Christians must first be Jews. Peter was insistent that all Christians must live under the Jewish law. The men had to be circumcised. All must only eat Kosher food. Paul on the other hand wanted to open the church to the Gentiles. He in fact said that he considered himself a “Disciple to the Gentiles.” But Peter rejected such radical ideas at first, especially since they came from one who was not part of Christ’s inner circle. “Paul doesn’t know how it was when Jesus was alive.” He insisted. But Paul countered, “I‘ll be all things to all people for the sake of spreading the Gospel.” It took God to intervene in a dream for Peter to embrace a new way of thinking. And that dream didn’t mean that Peter had to renounce his Jewish roots, but that he should embrace those who did not share that common experience with him.
Once Peter and Paul began to support one another, sometimes in the midst of their disagreements, the church began to advance and set about to turn the world upside down. There are many things inside and outside the church that seek to divide us. Most of the time those divisions are based more upon the way we do church and not God’s vision for the church. We disagree about how we should go about ministry. Just like in the early church, leaders don’t always agree with one another but they always support one another.
St. Luke has a wonderful history and a marvelous future because God has continually raised from our midst leaders of integrity and courage and vision who support one another. We celebrate these today who have been called to lead the church in the coming year but we always need more to respond to God’s call if we are going to meet all the needs and challenges that will confront us and I know that God is calling people into leadership right now. You may have never thought that you would be leadership material. But God has other
plans for you. Or you may have been a part of the church for many years and thought that your time was done, but God is not done with you. The church continues to need your leadership. Or you may be here for the first time this morning. As you look around all you see are the faces of strangers. But I want you to know that there is a place for you here. God continues to call people to lead His church. In a time such as this, God needs authentic and bold leaders, committed to making disciples. Listen to His call. And be in prayer about your response.