In his book entitled Spiritual Leadership, Oswald Sanders wrote, “The man who is ambitious to lead is disqualified as a leader. The true leader will have no desire to lord it over God’s heritage, but will be humble, gentle, self-sacrificing and altogether as ready to follow as to lead”…. “A good example of this kind of “true leader” was William E. Sangster, a leader in the Methodist denomination in Great Britain. After Dr. Sangster’s death his son found a private manuscript where he had written of his growing conviction that he should accept a greater role of leadership. He wrote, “This is the will of God for me. I did not choose it. I sought to escape it. But it has come. Something else has come too. A sense of certainty that God…wants me also for a leader…. I feel a commissioning to work under God for the revival of this branch of His Church — careless of my own reputation; indifferent to the comments of older and jealous men. I am thirty-six, If I am to serve God in this way, I must no longer shrink from the task — but do it”
Another good example of a true spiritual leader is Nehemiah. He arose to leadership not because of ambition but because of conviction. He was broken-hearted over the fact that the walls of Jerusalem were down. He believed that something must be done about it, and he believed that God was calling him to do it He already had an enviable position as cup-bearer to the king of the Medo-Persian empire. Traveling to Jerusalem to rebuild the walls would only mean hardship, frustration and opposition. Yet after months of prayer in solitude Nehemiah was convinced that God was calling him to do this work in Jerusalem. There came a point when he decided, as William Sangster, “I must no longer shrink from the task — but do it.”
Nehemiah is not known as a great leader because of the size of the project he led to completion. Even by ancient standards this building project was not that big. Certainly much more impressive structures were built. Nehemiah distinguished himself as a spiritual leader because of the way he conducted himself before God and men. Because of that, Nehemiah is a model for us. Using the passage we have read I would like to isolate four traits of outstanding spiritual leaders, each of which are illustrated in the life of Nehemiah.
First of all, great spiritual leaders spend time alone with God. Notice that when Nehemiah arrived in Jerusalem he did not go right to work. He was there for three days before he even made a careful investigation of the situation. Let’s not overlook the fact that Nehemiah could have done things much differently. He already knew that the walls were down, and he was the leader of a delegation sent by King Artaxerxes to rebuild them. Furthermore, he was called by God to do so. As soon as he blew into town he could have announced what he was there to do and tried to snap the people into line. “Never fear, Nehemiah is here. Just follow me and I’ll correct all the problems that you have been unable to solve.”
Evidently Nehemiah knew that successful spiritual leadership does not start that way. It begins in solitude. Before Nehemiah even asked the king’s permission to go to Jerusalem he spent four months in prayer about it. Then when he arrived in Jerusalem he spent three days alone, and when he inspected the ruins he did so at night when no one would see him. What was he doing while he was alone? In verse twelve he referred to “what my God was putting into my mind.” He was spending time alone with God. Nehemiah’s concern for the project and for God’s will was not limited to what he said and did in public. In private, when no one was around, he was seeking specific direction from the Lord as to how to conduct himself in his circumstances. He did his spiritual homework.
We see this same quality in the ministry of Jesus. Leonard Griffith has called it “the pendulum principle.” Jesus often spent long hours alone in prayer with God the Father. Then He would emerge into public view and immerse Himself in the needs of people – healing, teaching, and loving. Then the pendulum would swing back and He would be alone again with the Father. It was a consistent cycle in His life. In fact, this pattern of solitude with God before public ministry is common in the Scriptures. Before Elijah prayed down fire from heaven on Mt. Carmel he was alone by the brook Cherith depending on God’s miraculous provision to keep him alive. Before the apostle Paul traveled the Roman Empire as the renowned Christian missionary he spent three years in isolation in Arabia and Damascus. And so it was with Nehemiah, and with every great spiritual leader. They spend time alone with God — seeking His way, counting the cost, yielding their wills, and being clothed with the power of God.
Effective spiritual leaders have spiritual integrity and spiritual power, and those are the results of time alone with God. Over the long term we can’t fake authenticity and integrity. Sooner or later people will know what we really are, and what we really are is defined by what we are when we are alone, when no one is watching.
Unfortunately its not that way in our popular culture today. Primarily because of television and the movie industry, celebrity is being confused with greatness. It used to be that if someone was famous it was because that person had accomplished something of significance or had character of considerable substance. Today a person can be famous for being famous. His personal character may be vacuous and his personal morality and integrity non-existent, but he is a leader in the culture at large because he played the hero in a popular movie. He is looked to as a model merely because he is well-known.
I’m concerned about this trend because it eviscerates leadership of the prerequisite of character. People who have not earned the right to lead are opinion leaders merely because of their celebrity status. Young people are being influenced by the images on a screen and not by the quality of someone’s life. Those who belong to the one true God are not to be impressed or persuaded by such shallow people. We know the difference between popularity and integrity, between celebrity and leadership, between image and character. We are impressed with a leader’s fellowship with God in the Word, in prayer, and in obedience. Without these a leader is nothing more than an organizer of human activity. With them he is a tool in the hand of Almighty God to accomplish His purposes on this earth.
Recently I was talking to a well-known Christian leader who spoke of a particular preacher who happened to be a very gifted pulpiteer. He went on to say that the problem was that he was so gifted that he could do it without God. Giftedness is never a substitute for time alone with God. That certainly applies to the ministry of the pulpit, but it also applies to your ministry, whatever it may be. It applies to every Sunday School teacher, every committee member, every Christian. Spiritual leaders spend time alone with God.
Second, great spiritual leaders know the facts. They are spiritual people who walk with God, but they are not unaware of the realities around them. In
What Nehemiah found was not encouraging. What had been the high and thick walls that had fortified the majestic city of Jerusalem were little more than a heap of rocks. But evidently Nehemiah knew that a prerequisite to effective leadership is squarely facing the facts.
Golfers know that part of the game is the necessity to play the ball where it lies — not where you would like for the ball to be, but where it actually is, even if it’s hiding behind a tree or nestled in a bank of sand. You have to play it where it lies. If you’re going to lead people from point A to point B you have to do the same thing. You have to be realistic. Some people may be made to feel better by a leader who paints a picture of the situation that is rosier than reality, but if a leader is going to ask people to sacrifice for a cause the way Nehemiah was about to do, they need to know that he is facing reality and has a grasp of the details. A doctor has to have an accurate diagnosis before he can recommend treatment, an accountant has to know someone’s financial status before he suggests investments, an architect has to know the present condition of a building before he can determine how to improve it.
It is the same with spiritual leadership. Spiritual leaders have to know where people really stand with God before they begin to exhort people to change. We have to do this in our personal spiritual lives also. If you would spiritualize the passage with me, when is the last time you took a careful look at the walls of your relationship with God? Could it be that something that used to be in great condition is now in ruins? Before you are willing to take responsibility to start over with God you’ll have to take a good hard look at things as they are. Leaders know the facts, and they spend time alone with God.
Third, great spiritual leaders always face opposition. In fact, they usually expect it. Earlier I quoted William Sangster, who sensed a call toward a greater role of leadership within Methodism. In anticipation of that leadership and in the same document from which I read earlier, Sangster wrote, “I hate the criticism I shall evoke and the painful chatter of people. Obscurity, quiet browsing among books, and the service of simple people is my taste — but by the will of God, this is my task. God help me.” Sangster knew that stepping into the limelight of leadership meant that critics would attack and people would chatter.
Nehemiah was not an exception to that kind of opposition.
Opposition is never comfortable. We all like to be liked. But if you ever try to do anything of significance for God in this world you will face some kind of opposition or criticism, even when you are doing exactly what God wants you to do. In fact, the Bible says, “All who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” (
I think its worthy of note that this opposition came from outside the people of God, not from the inside. Apparently God’s people were unified in their desire to rebuild the walls. Within the camp there was no separation, no divisive spirits. If there had been it would have been devastating. The people of God can always endure opposition from the world; we’re even strengthened by it. But division within the body is disastrous to any effort to start over with God. One book on revival in the church goes so far as to say, “No church where people are at odds with each other has ever seen revival.” In other words, if we want to start over with God or accomplish something great for Him, we will do it together or not at all.
That leads us to a fourth trait of spiritual leaders. Nehemiah faced opposition, but God’s people were unified behind him. Great spiritual leaders motivate God’s people to do God’s work. After Nehemiah spent time alone with God and investigated the situation, he presented his plans to the people (
It’s interesting that the people responded in such a way in light of the fact that the only reward Nehemiah. offered them was that they would no longer be a reproach. Sociologists speak about extrinsic motivation and intrinsic motivation. Parents use extrinsic motivation all the time. “I told you to take your bath If you don’t take it now you won’t get to watch T.V. tomorrow night.” Its motivating someone with external rewards. “For every A you earn on your report card I’ll give you a dollar.” Intrinsic motivation is quite different. Its leading people in a way that they do something because they want to do it, without promising any reward. That’s the way Nehemiah motivated the people of Jerusalem. He didn’t offer any prizes to the fastest worker. No one received a weekend at the Dead Sea if they exceeded their production quota. He just said, “We are a reproach We all know that the fact that these walls are down does not speak well of us. Let’s get to work and take away the reproach. It won’t be easy. There will be many sacrifices, but when its done we won’t be embarrassed about the condition of these walls anymore.” And the people arose to work.
This kind of motivation is reminiscent of Winston Churchill’s speeches in World War II. Do you remember how he inspired the people of Great Britain to courageous action? It wasn’t by extrinsic motivation. He said, “I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears, and sweat.” He called them to “victory at all costs, victory in spite of all terror, victory however long and hard the road may be.” The people knew that he was right, and they answered with great sacrifices.
If the people of Nehemiah’s time were motivated to great sacrifice to rebuild a wall, and if the people of Great Britain rallied around the stubby Prime Minister to fight for their survival, then surely New Testament Christians such as ourselves will do whatever it takes to take the good news about Jesus to our city and to the world.
And it’s going to take spending time alone with God. If you are a Christian, you are a spiritual leader. People are looking at you as an example. If you want to lead them in the right direction you have to let God put a plan into your mind as He did with Nehemiah. Its also going to take facing the reality of your relationship with God and the reality of others’ relationship with Him. And it will take facing opposition.
If you are outside the camp of the people of God today, I invite you to come in. Don’t be a Sanballat, Tobiah, or Geshem. Become one of the people of God, following His leadership in your life so that you’ll be able to say about your life, “The God of heaven will give me success.” How do you do that? Admit your need for forgiveness of sin, open your life up to Christ, and invite Him to come into your life to forgive, cleanse, and set up residence. Make Him Lord and Master, turn over the keys of your life to Him. The only reason Nehemiah was able to be such an outstanding leader was because of what God had done in his life. Reach out to Him now; He can do the same thing in you.