Leadership is a most revealing role. It puts character on center stage under the punishing bright lights of notoriety, scrutiny and second guessing.
It certainly did for Abraham Lincoln. Few world leaders have walked as closely to the success/failure line or carried as much national burden as did our 16th president. In retrospect, those white-hot challenges defined his presidency.
Leadership under fire tends to do that. Under the perspiring spotlight of conflict—whether in the White House or in the church house—character, whether pure or flawed, will be revealed clearly.
It’s difficult to imagine Lincoln running for office in our day. Surely his stovepipe hat and baggy black suit wouldn’t score well in the opinion polls. How would his stoic and wrinkled face and unkempt beard look on the television news shows? Further, his Gettysburg Address would be an affront to today’s political correctness. He simply wouldn’t sound or look presidential.
However, leadership is not about appearance or surveys; it’s about character, vision and wise choices. Anyone can grandstand for the cameras; whipping a partisan crowd into a frenzy is a piece of cake; but only a rare breed can make the gutsy calls during the lonely hours of leadership.
Those white-knuckled decisions in the face of opposition are what build a person’s character and legacy. Lincoln was a classic example:
• William Seward detested the new president, saying, “Lincoln is totally incompetent!” You’d think a new president would distance himself from such a critic, but Lincoln liked the creative, albeit brash ideas of Seward. So Lincoln appointed him secretary of state. Later, Seward would write, “Executive force and vigor are rare qualities. The President has the best of both.”
• Edwin Stanton skewered Lincoln publicly, saying, “He hasn’t a token of intelligence, and he looks like a giraffe.” However, Lincoln wanted the highly organized Stanton on his staff and made him secretary of war. When Lincoln died, it was Stanton who said in posthumous respect, “Now he belongs to the ages.”
• At the onset of the war, Lincoln’s cabinet begged him to acquiesce to the South’s demands and to avoid divisive and disastrous results. Lincoln stood firm, saying, “It takes more courage to dare to do right than to fear to do wrong.”
Like a left-handed pastor in a right-handed church, Honest Abe didn’t fit the mold; but America didn’t need another politician. America needed a leader. A hot-air filibuster was not the answer. America needed a remedy that placebo politics couldn’t cure.
More often than not, churches need the same thing from their pastors. Pastors are called upon to preach a truth that flies in the face of worldly thinking. The job requires a strong resolve and blinders, Solomon-like wisdom and Elijah-like toughness, and a willingness to go it alone.
Being a spokesman for God is not for the faint of heart. It’s only for those who walk by faith, prep through prayer, proclaim God’s Word and leave the results in His hands. Popularity isn’t their goal, but presenting “every man complete in Christ” is. In the end, each of us will be judged for our faithfulness and character.
Scripture is filled with timeless examples of godly leaders who rammed the fortress of public opinion with the words, “Thus says the Lord…”
• Isaiah didn’t score any points with Jerusalem’s religious community when he spoke of their “heartless worship.”
• Jeremiah was an object of ridicule in Judah when he warned of a judgment day for the sins of the nation.
• Hosea chided Israel’s faith as “morning dew that disappears by noon,” and the masses razzed him for his negative preaching.
• Amos pointed his long, accusatory finger at the idolatrous living of Israel, who shot back with insults of the prophet’s lack of sophisticated credentials.
Speaking the truth can be a difficult assignment, but it’s still our assignment. It’s character that determines how faithful we’ll be to that assignment.
Ron Walters is senior vice president Ministry Relations for Salem Media Group in Camarillo, California.