Why Do You Lead?

small_3433136680There are many reasons people choose to lead.

Some do so because they are thrust into leadership by the demands of the moment.

Some lead to validate their identity.

Some lead for the applause of the crowd.

Some do so for the status they hope to achieve.

Some lead sheerly for the power to do so.

And some rightly lead from a sense of calling and a desire to serve others.

Leadership can be a drug.

Even within the Christian realm we tend towards celebrity leadership.

The young leader naively enters in, not knowing what price he may have to pay.

The old leader often reflects with regret on the cost of leadership paid.

There is one aspect of leadership that always accompanies this risky endeavor.


There is a scenario in the Bible where two brothers who are close followers of Jesus ask him if they may occupy the 2nd and 3rd most powerful positions in his kingdom. They do this in the context of the rest of the twelve and through their adoring mother. James and John are anticipating a reordered realm where the chains of Rome will be cast away. They are hoping for a new politic where they might assert themselves in ways they have only imagined. Jesus confronts their misunderstanding and asks them a penetrating question that was meant to shake them to the core. In Matthew 20:22 Jesus says, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I am to drink?”

The metaphor of the “cup” in Scripture is almost always an image of judgment.

Throughout the Old Testament, with which these Jewish men should have been familiar, the cup often referred to God’s wrath. In particular the prophetic literature of Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel make use of the cup imagery in this way. Jesus knew that for him this mean a path to the cross where he would take on the judgment and wrath for all the world’s sin. For these would be first century leaders it held the derision of an ancient near east religious culture and a dictatorial one in Rome. Ultimately, James would be beheaded for his faith and leadership and John would be exiled to an island between Greece and Turkey. They tasted and drank the cup of leadership.

Leadership is always this way.

Leaders, if they are to lead well, must at times take a stand.

They cannot appease everyone.

They must make unpopular decisions.

They must have a greater good in mind.

They will be judged–fairly or unfairly.

And if you lead for any other reason than the well being of those who called you or those who follow, you will probably suffer old leader regret.

The question of why you lead, attendant with the knowledge that some level of judgment is always in store, should help clarify your motives.

Read the whole story. Matthew 20:20-28. You will encounter a counter intuitive form of leadership that will withstand the cup of judgment.

The Foundation of Servant Leadership


John Ragai on Flickr

The need for leadership is critical for the world today. The need for a deep, spiritual leadership is acute for the Church. The concept of “servant leadership” is common within the secular world and the Christian world. Often, John 13 is cited as a foundational passage in the Bible for servant leadership. But what is John 13 truly about? What is meant by this extraordinary act of Jesus on behalf of the disciples?


The context of this “foot washing” is what is usually referred to as the Upper Room Discourse. This is the longest recorded teaching session we have in the Bible of Jesus with his closest followers. It continues through John 17. But it begins with the principle of cleansing. In John 13:1-3, we find out that Jesus knew that it was time to head towards the cross. Jesus knew that he was going to be betrayed by Judas Iscariot. And he confidently understood his own identity as God incarnate. Upon this foundation, he rose and donned the garb of a household slave and began to wash the dirty feet of his disciples. Peter understood something about the identity of Jesus and questioned why he would perform such a menial function. Jesus explained that this metaphorical task is necessary for Peter to uniquely identify with him. Upon hearing this Peter wanted a whole body wash. Peter truly wanted to be identified with this God-man that he knew was the Messiah (Matthew 16:13-20). But Jesus responded in v.10 with, “The one who has bathed does not need to wash, except for his feet, but is completely clean. And you are clean, but not every one of you.” Jesus used the foot washing example as teaching on spiritual cleansing and forgiveness.


These essential spiritual principles are found only in participation with him. He declared the twelve clean, except for Judas Iscariot. This passage is primarily about cleansing, not about leadership. Emulating their master was a secondary teaching to that of cleansing and forgiveness. There is a proper order to the teaching–cleansing, then leading through serving.

In v.12-17 Jesus went on to explain that the twelve are to emulate what he had done for them. He reminds them that even though he is Lord he played the role of a servant. He also reminded them that the servant is not greater than his master nor is the messenger greater than the one who sent him. If God incarnate could demonstrate such great humility by performing the task of a slave, we can do no less. But it readily flows from a forgiven life, a clean heart.  And that is the main point.


Only a forgiven and cleansed person can truly live out the role of a servant leader. Only a person who understands their true dependence upon Jesus can be humble enough to live out the role of a servant leader. Our tendency will always be towards wanting to be God. But he already exists and has lived among us. He humbled himself and went to the cross so that we could be cleansed and forgiven.  From that foundation, he asks us to do likewise. There is no servant leadership apart from a clean heart that is able to take on the necessity of humility. We are to lead by serving and pointing others to the cleansing power of the cross.

Power & Status in Spiritual Leadership

small_884462993Recently, I read an interesting piece on the CNN web site entitled, “Study: Power without status can lead to rudeness, even abuse”. It was a report on a new study conducted by three different universities citing that “people holding positions of power with low status tend to demean others.” The study used the Abu Ghraib incident as an example of this kind of behavior. They noted that those with high power and high status tended to manage their authority much better. They offered up as a possible solution to upper management–tell people with high power, but low status, how important their role really is. Here is a link to the CNN article:

This brief article got me thinking about the nature of leadership in relation to power and authority. According to this study, the critical component is the perception of status.

Status is defined as position or rank in relation to others. It can also be defined as a relative rank in a hierarchy of prestige.  

According to the study, someone who has a fair amount of actual power, but actually has little real position or rank, will often end up abusing that power and demean others. These types of people tend have a keen sense of who they are ruling over, but lose all sight of who is ruling over them. The solution being offered up is to help these people see the importance of their role. It seems to me it would be better to help them see their actual status in relation to their power. Rank does not seem to be the problem to me, rather it seems to be the sense of autonomy. To use the Abu Ghraib illustration, if you give a corporal certain powers and couple that with a lot of autonomy, then it sets up for abuse. The combination of power that does not match the actual status responsibility, plus too much autonomy, could be a troubling one.

This is equally true for the spiritual leader.

All leadership comes with a measure of power and authority.

That is the very nature of any leadership position.

The issue is not if you have certain powers, but how you choose to use them.  

Jesus taught on this very issue. In Matthew 20 he reminded his disciples how the secular rulers in their society tended to abuse power just to show them that they had the power. In John 13 Jesus talked of, and demonstrated, God’s view of power by washing the disciple’s feet. Jesus is an incredible example of one who gave up the highest status to become a man and live among us. He did so that he might perform the ultimate act of service by dying on the cross for our sins. I believe that it was Jesus’ knowledge of his actual status that allowed him to lay it down and serve. In John 14 he tells the disciples that he clearly understands where he had come from and where he was going. He had a clear sense of who he was, which allowed him to use his power and authority to serve. As followers of Christ, and as leaders, we should never forget our actual status. As those who have chosen to follow Christ, we are called children of God. As leaders, Peter reminds us that we always have a Chief Shepherd (1 Peter 5).  Therefore, we have been afforded an unbelievable privilege as an adopted child of the King of kings. And as leaders we have the daily privilege to submit our high status to Jesus as our Chief Shepherd.

We are never fully autonomous.

We always serve as one under authority.

We have granted power and authority to serve.  

Our positions and roles really do matter as we point people to Christ, and never demean them.

(photo credit)

Reflections on Easter

I have taken time each day this past week to read and reflect on the passion week narratives in the Bible.  What has captured my attention in a fresh way this time has been the metaphor of the cup recorded in Matthew 26.  While in the Garden of Gethsemane Jesus prays three times to the Father “if it be possible, let this cup pass from me.”  He affirms that what is tantamount is the will of the Father.

The cup-what is Jesus referring to?  The cup is a metaphor that almost always stands for judgment in the Bible.  Earlier in Matthew 20, at the hands of a request by James and John for privileged positions in the coming kingdom, Jesus asks them if they are “able to drink the cup.”  The kingdom of God is not without controversy and to lead in God’s kingdom requires the cup of judgment.    Jesus knew that the cross was right before Him.  He knew what His purpose in life was.  He knew that He was about to take on the sins of the world-and incur the judgment and wrath of the Father on behalf of you and me.  But there were other aspects of the cup that Jesus experienced that are instructive for us.

1. Jesus experienced the complete abandonment of His closest followers.  After the time of prayer in the garden Jesus betrayer shows up with a band of accusers to arrest Him.  The disciples put of a small show of allegiance and defense-then Matthew 26:56 says, Then all the disciples left Him and fled.  We often hear about Peter’s thrice denial-but we forget that ultimately all twelve (and probably others) abandon Him at the hour of His greatest need.

2. Jesus experienced the humiliation of His own creation abusing Him.  During the first phase of a trumped up trial Jewish leaders tried to find consistent testimony that would condemn Jesus.  They could not find anything of credibility.  Finally they challenge Jesus with the one thing he could not deny nor remain silent.  They asked Him a question regarding His very identity.  “. . . tell us if you are the Christ, the Son of God.”  Jesus reply’s, “You said so . . .”  He goes on to make an clear allusion to Daniel 7:13 with the language of the Son of Man which was a clear reference to Messiah.  Upon the Jewish leaders condemning Jesus to death they spit in His face, struck Him and slapped Him.  Have you ever considered that the very ones whom Jesus created abuse Him with this kind of behavior?

3. Jesus experienced the obscene pain of the cross.  This is the aspect that we know best.  But do we?  The experience of the cross is more than just the instrument of death.  It is the whole process of shame, mocking at the hands of Roman soldiers, a crown of thorns, scourging with a cat of nine tails, the journey to Golgotha-and being nailed to a cross.  Execution on the Roman cross was known to be one of the most painful deaths possible.  This was part and parcel of the cup.  What we truly deserved Jesus truly suffered.

4. Jesus experienced the loss of fellowship with the Father.  Finally, as Jesus was about to expire, still hanging on the cross, He exclaims in Matthew 27:46, “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?”  What Jesus had always known, perfect fellowship with the Father, was suddenly absent.  As Jesus took upon Himself all the sins of the world, the Father had to rightfully look away.

Could there be any greater pain than the physical abuse of the cross, the communal abandonment of the twelve, suffering abuse at the hands of His own creation, and the emotional loss of the fellowship of the Father?  It was all for us! Reflect and worship.  The reality of what tomorrow represents changes everything.

A Psalm for the Nearly Insane

I  love the Psalms in the Bible.  They are experiential and they are real.  They engage me at a heart level.  I especially find it intriguing when the circumstances behind a certain psalm are known.  This is the case with Psalm 34.  The backdrop for Psalm 34 is 1 Samuel 21:10-15.  In 1 Samuel 21 King David is on the run.  He was anointed as the 2nd king of Israel back in chapter 16-but Saul, the 1st king of Israel, refuses to give up the throne.  More to the point Saul is seeking to kill David.  The desperation level grows so high that David even turns to the common enemy of Israel, the Philistines, for protection.  But even the Philistines recognize that this is the same David who has been victorious over them in battle several times-now might be their time for revenge.  So David does something even more extreme-he feigns insanity to repulse the Philistines and get them to banish him from their camp.  The ploy works-except now David ends up hiding in a cave-from both Saul and the Philistines.  So how does a beautiful psalm of worship fit into this bizarre scenario?

First, let me make a couple of other observations.  The greatest enemy of faith is fear.  Why?  Because fear amplifies our circumstances and it leads to condemnation.  Either we will condemn ourselves or we will condemn what or who we consider to be the source of our trials.  Fear can either paralyze us or tend us toward trying to take total control of a situation.  We know David was experiencing some fear over this situation because he brings up the word twice in this little psalm.  But he contrasts circumstantial fear with the fear of the Lord.  I believe that David is preaching to himself through this psalm.  He needs to realign his focus to confront his fears.

I believe that Psalm 34 divides neatly into two sections.  The first section encompasses verses 1-10 and focuses on praise.  The second section includes verses 11-22 and draws our attention to the need for wisdom.  The praise section draws out God’s unique character as a deliverer, a savior, a protector, a place of refuge and a provider.  But how does praise help someone in time of trial and danger?  Praise automatically takes our attention off of ourselves and puts it on God and His character.  We begin to see that God is greater than our circumstances and able to deliver us from our fears.

Wisdom helps us to know how to rightly and practically navigate through our circumstances.  If we will keep our language away from speaking evil, turn ourselves away from evil and seek peace-we can see a good result.  The psalm tells us that the Lord is favorable to the righteous but against those who do evil.  The Lord is near to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit.  The Lord is able to redeem the situation and us.  To be redeemed means that we can be set free from the slavery of our situation.  Ultimately we have a great redeemer in the person of Jesus Christ.  Two passages from the New Testament bear this out and relate to the essential points of this psalm.  Romans 8:1-2 says, “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death.”  1 John 4:18-19 states, “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love. We love because he first loved us.”

It seems over the past two years I have struggled with many fears-some founded-most not.  I need the experiential instruction of Psalm 34.  What circumstances are you facing today that are about to drive you crazy?  That are causing you to live in fear?  That are taking your eyes off of God?  Cozy up to Psalm 34 and spend some time in verbal praise to God for who he is.  Ask him for the wisdom you need to navigate your circumstances, recognizing that your Redeemer lives!

An Aside on My Mother

It has taken me awhile to write this post. Two months ago my mother passed away from pancreatic cancer. She was 79 years old and was living in Clay Center, Kansas. My mom knew Jesus Christ as her redeemer and I am confident that she is now in his very presence enjoying life to the fullest.

I traveled alone to the funeral from my home in Italy. I found plenty of time to think and reflect about my mother’s life, my life with her, and life in general. My mom was not an outgoing woman–I wouldn’t say that she made friends easily. She was a woman of character and the friendships she did have were solid. She was the one that made sure I attended church during my growing up years–and she made sure that the pastor came to our house and shared the gospel message with me. She worked hard for 30 years at GM–helping to supplement my dad’s income to give us a good middle class life. She never went to college (neither did my dad) but made sure that college was a priority for me. She was the one who attended my National Honor Society induction in hight school, came to college homecoming at Alabama, and reveled in my marriage and the birth of my children.

Her latter years were not so pleasant. Six years ago she suffered a severe stroke that left her right side paralyzed and her brain mentally deficient. She was moved to a nursing home and remained there until her death. My father faithfully ate dinner with her every evening (all but two nights in six years) in that home. It was difficult to watch her deteriorate over those years–watching her mentally slip away–so much so that she rarely recognized my wife or kids–or even me. She was almost completely unable to communicate. It was hard not to count her as dead already. But she wasn’t dead and these were part of the days that God allotted to her–for a purpose that I may never know this side of heaven.

My mom was born on Veteran’s Day in 1927. She died on Independence Day 2007. It seems a little bit ironic to me–and yet provides a suitable metaphor for her life. My mother never fought in a war–but she lived through some. And she experienced her own wars in life. She was a “veteran” in many ways–of a rather dysfunctional childhood, a marriage that was nicked and scarred, of miscarriage and sibling deaths, of disappointment on several fronts, etc. And now she truly has her independence–she is truly free–free from the ravages of a sin wrecked world, free from the confines of her stroke laden body, free mentally, free spiritually–truly free.

The book of James states that “life is but a vapor . . . ” It very much feels that way to me right now. My father is also dying of cancer as I write–I don’t really know how long he has to live. And I am not sure how long I have either. There is nothing wrong with me that I am aware of–I simply don’t know how long God has allotted to me. Because life is a vapor the Scriptures encourage us to be wise in its use, stewarding it well (Ephesians 5:15). We must live life now in step with Christ as we move through this world as ongoing veterans–but independence day is coming. Thanks mom for your life–I love you!