Archive for Leadership Lessons from the Bible

How do you handle rebuke?

Hello, my name is Jeff, and I am a people-pleasing perfectionist. There, I’ve admitted it. They say that the first step is to admit you have a problem, so I am acknowledging that I do. I am hampered by the combination of fearing conflict, while struggling to admit my mistakes. This tendency results in me doing everything I can to avoid making mistakes in front of others, and having a very difficult time accepting my mistakes when I do make them (and as much as I have tried to deny it over the years, I do make them – and often). For much of my life, this tendency restricted my ability to learn and grow.

However, as I have matured and gained experience, I have come to see this in myself, and have recognized its detriment to my leadership development. I have learned the value (and importance) of being teachable, and the problem with not being willing to accept my failings. The result has been that I have learned to listen to rebukes, criticisms, and corrections in order to grow and get better.

Two different experiences provide the bookends that illustrate this lesson in my life. The first took place over fifteen years ago, in my initial experience as the headmaster of Christian school. I was still very shackled by my people-pleasing perfectionism, so I was working tirelessly to do everything right, and fearing the thought of making mistakes or facing conflict. So when I was called into a meeting with the chairman of the board as a result of some parent complaints, I was dreading the confrontation. I blamed the chairman and the parents, and I looked for every possible way to justify my own actions. But then, as I was talking to my father before the meeting, he encouraged me to look beyond the messenger, and to choose to look for what I needed to learn in order to get better. This was the beginning of my steps to learn how to accept criticism for my own betterment.

The second experience took place in the last year, as I reached the halfway point of my first year as the new headmaster of a different Christian school. It was time for my initial performance evaluation from the board of directors, and they had taken time to survey a representative group of faculty, parents, and students. As they prepared to go over the evaluation with me, I still had some amount of internal anxiety, because of my temperament and personality; however, I also had learned how to welcome criticism as valuable for my growth. Therefore, when they went over both the areas of strength and of growth, I was able to see them in truth, and to receive them for what they were: counsel that was intended to help me be the best leader I could be for this school, delivered with honesty and out of a desire to help me succeed.

There are a couple of verses in book of Proverbs that I have come across recently that have reminded me of this particular truth:

 

  • Rebuke is more effective for a wise man than a hundred blows on a fool.” Proverbs 17:10
  • “The ear that hears the rebukes of life will abide among the wise.” Proverbs 15:31

 

These two verses together point out the value of learning from correction, and how this characteristic is reflective of a truly wise person. Interestingly, they show that correction can come either in intentional forms – rebuke or criticism (whether intended to be constructive or not) from others – or unintentional forms – the circumstantial failures and crashes that happen in life (whether anticipated or not). Regardless of how it comes, a wise person will recognize it for what it is: an opportunity to learn and grow.

This is what I had come to in the intervening years since that first experience as a headmaster. Now, years later, as I faced the prospect of my first performance review in a new headmaster role, I had these verses in mind and was able to receive them as a wise man would. I knew that I needed to do this intentionally in order to grow, so now I was able to welcome it instead of dread it. The result was that I was able to listen, receive correction, and become a better leader for my school, and at the same time, the board’s confidence in me also grew as a result of my teachability.

Do you want to be considered a wise man or woman? Learn to embrace correction, accepting its value for your leadership development. Then, if you listen, you will learn.

 

 

Who’s In Charge Here? (Lessons on Leadership from Ezra, part 13)

Three Big Ideas

For the last twelve weeks, I have been sharing various lessons on leadership that can be drawn from the story that takes place in the book of Ezra. It is a relatively short book, with ten chapters, that tells a 2-part story. The general story involves the fulfillment of the prophecy found in Jeremiah 29, when God foretold the return of the people of Israel to Jerusalem. Chapters 1 through 6 describe the return of a remnant of Israelites specifically for the purpose of rebuilding the temple, and chapters 7 through 10 – which take place a number of years later – describe Ezra’s role in leading religious leaders back to Jerusalem to restore the spiritual culture of the people. In essence, it is a story of restoration by God, the restoration of His house and His people. Along the way, there are a great number of lessons that are applicable to the task of leadership for the Christian in today’s world, and those lessons are what I have been attempting to draw out from our study. One of those lessons emphasized the importance of seeing the big picture, so allow me to do that here, by zooming out above the whole story of Ezra to identify three of the overarching ideas for us.

1) One of the most important “big picture” lessons to learn from the story of Ezra – the lesson that represents the overall theme for the book – is this: God’s sovereignty operates in conjunction with man’s responsibility, in the context and for the purpose of restoration, resulting in relationship and purpose. Therefore, in the application of leadership, it is vital that we begin with an understanding that God has a plan and a purpose, that He is actively involved in the events of our lives, but that we also have a responsibility to act.

2) A second big picture lesson is the realization that the work of leadership is hard, and it is not for the faint-hearted. There are decisions to be made, problems to be addressed, challenges to be solved, tensions to be managed, conflicts to be resolved, tasks to be completed, and numerous other responsibilities that ultimately have an impact on many people. And add to that the work of leading and managing people, who are imperfect and operate in the context of a fallen world. For the Christian leader – regardless of whether you are a school leader, church leader, ministry leader, or a Christian leading in a secular industry or organization – it can be even more challenging as you seek to reflect Christ in all you do.

The good news is that successful and effective leadership is a skill that can be learned, but it requires intentional effort. In today’s world, there are a multitude of valuable resources available for helping you in your development of leadership, however many of those do not address the spiritual context for the leader who is a follower of Jesus, which is just as important (if not more so) for Christian leaders. So where can you go to get help for understanding leadership principles and practices within a biblical context? This may seem to be an obvious answer, but ironically it is one that is often overlooked by leaders: look to examples of leadership in the Bible.

3) This takes me to the last “big picture” idea I would like for us take away from this study: the Bible is not an archaic text with no relevance to modern leadership and living, but is, rather, an incredibly practical source of principles, wisdom, and guidelines that can be applied to leadership in order to help you become more effective. The secret is in understanding that God, the Creator of man and of this world and therefore the source of greatest knowledge and understanding of man, life, and relationships, has revealed Himself to us in the Bible. Therefore, when we can see into the stories and the history with that lens, we can identify the ideas that apply to successful and effective living today.

You see, application is the connecting of one idea or principle or truth or concept to a practice; sometimes it is a closely related practice (narrow), sometimes it is not (broad), in which case it reflects a general, simple truth that applies to multiple scenarios or circumstances. There are principles that apply specifically to certain fields, but there are also ideas that are general and can be cross-applied because they are either 1) examples / representative of principles, or 2) core truths that apply across a spectrum. A leader needs to be able to think abstractly enough to make cross-application, to see ideas and identify how they illustrate lessons, while also being wise and discerning enough to identify and implement specifically related principles. The Bible, as the greatest source of wisdom at our disposal, is filled with illustrations and lessons that can be applied and cross-applied to leadership today.

My hope is that you learned and/or grew from the variety of lessons that I drew from this study of Ezra, but it is also my hope that you learned that you also can draw lessons from the Bible that will help you be the best leader you can be. The Bible is a valuable (and valid) source of wisdom, so I would encourage you to become intentional about seeking wisdom from it.

This is the final installment in an ongoing series on leadership lessons that can be learned from the book of Ezra.

Who’s In Charge Here? (Lessons on Leadership from Ezra, part 12)

Leading Through Restoration

Sometimes, you mess up. Sometimes things go wrong, you experience loss or defeat, you become overwhelmed by change, or you fall under insurmountable obstacles. Whether it’s your fault or not, it all falls apart, and then you experience shame, chastisement, rejection, and other consequences, and you’re left wondering what you are supposed to do next and questioning everything you’ve been doing. But your greatest question is a difficult yet very important one: What is it that you are supposed to do when something goes wrong?

This is the place where Ezra finds himself when we get to the end of his story, and his response to the cultural failure of his people provides us with an excellent example of navigating restoration. It begins in Ezra 9:1-2, where we are given the details of the wrong that has occurred:

When these things were done, the leaders came to me, saying, “The people of Israel and the priests and the Levites have not separated themselves from the peoples of the lands, with respect to the abominations of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Jebusites, the Ammonites, the Moabites, the Egyptians, and the Amorites. 2 For they have taken some of their daughters as wives for themselves and their sons, so that the holy seed is mixed with the peoples of those lands. Indeed, the hand of the leaders and rulers has been foremost in this trespass.

Keep in mind the context – by this point in time, at the end of chapter 8, the people had returned to Jerusalem, the temple had been rebuilt, and the statutes of God and the sacrifices had been re-instituted with a large degree of autonomy for the nations of Israel. But then, the bomb was dropped – the leaders (part of Ezra’s own team) brought a significant internal issue to Ezra. In fact, there were two serious issues that were presented:

  • An issue of holiness, in that the people of Israel, the priests, and the Levites had not separated themselves from the people of the land with respect to their abominations. They had not separated themselves from those things that were contrary to God and to His holiness (as a side note, remember that the prophecy of Jeremiah 29 had also instructed the people on how they should live while in captivity and surrounded by the world, reinforcing the idea of being in the world but not of it);
  • An issue of faithfulness, in that the people of Israel, the priests, and the Levites had intermarried with the surrounding pagan peoples, merging with the surrounding culture and in the process, absorbing and accepting ideas, beliefs, and practices that were contradictory to and unfaithful to God; this was spiritual adultery, and the worst offenders were the leaders.

 

Essentially, the people had turned away from God (unfaithfulness) and toward worldliness (unholiness). At the realization of the depth of failure in the people he was leading, Ezra immediately took the burden upon himself; he humbled himself before God, and began pursuing the steps that would be needed to restore his people. Throughout the remainder of this and the next chapter, this process of restoration is modeled, first by Ezra and then mirrored by the people, and then followed by action steps that were intended to ensure that the change had taken place.

The process that was modeled and then mirrored took place in four steps: remorse, acknowledgement, response, and repentance. Ezra walked through these four steps first, in chapter 9, and his initial response is recorded in verse 3, where we learn, “So when I heard this thing, I tore my garment and my robe, and plucked out some of the hair of my head and beard, and sat down astonished.” Ezra’s reaction upon learning of the sin of the people reveals the first step of remorse, a genuine heart-brokenness over what has happened. He immediately followed this, in the next few verses, with the acknowledgement of the wrong that had been committed as well as an acknowledgement of the grace that God had demonstrated in spite of what had been done. What is really noteworthy, though, is that in this step, Ezra took ownership of the sin that had occurred even though he had not personally committed it. Then, after remorse and acknowledgement, he responded with a determination to make things different, and repented for the wrong that had occurred.

In chapter 10, we observe the people, Ezra’s followers, walking through the same process. Ezra didn’t keep the problem to himself, he didn’t try to hide it or cover it up, and he didn’t try to fix it without the awareness of anyone else. Instead, he made it public with his followers, and their reaction was the same as his. They immediately expressed great remorse for what they had done (v. 1), they acknowledged the wrongfulness of their actions and recognized the grace of God (v. 2), and they responded with a determination to make things different and with repentance for their sin (vv. 3-5).

So, then, what about you? How does this reflect your reaction when you mess up? It should begin with remorse, a genuine distress over what has occurred. There should be a willingness to humble yourself and own the problem, acknowledging what has happened and expressing gratitude for God’s grace. There should be a determination and an intentional plan to address the issue. And there should be repentance for wrong that has been done, which brings it all together – recognizing your sin and God’s grace, confessing your sin to God, and then changing your behavior in obedience to him. Ultimately, the change in behavior must be moving toward faithfulness to God, and toward holiness.

There is something else you need to see in Ezra’s story, though, even in the midst of this: God did not make the people change all their external behaviors before bringing them back into the land. Rather, He first restored them to the land, and then He brought about change within them (individually and corporately) by confronting their sin, so that they could confess it, remove it, and become more faithful to God and to His statutes. The same is true for you! God doesn’t wait for people (you) to be perfect and have everything in order before He comes looking for you (remember what happened in Genesis, after Adam and Eve sinned? God came looking!). Nor is He only interested in saving and/or using people only after they are “holy” and completely righteous. If that were true, none of us would ever be ready to be used by God. No, God wants you to “come as you are,” and He will first save, then change and restoration will begin to happen.

Finally, after their process of personal and group restoration, don’t forget that Ezra and the people followed up by creating a strategic plan for bringing about change. They came together in unity, having brought about healing, to determine their plan and to carry it out, and the result was a return to a healthy and holy people of God.

Here’s the bonus lesson: although what we have looked at so far is aimed at helping us work through a problem when we, or those around us, have messed up by doing wrong, understanding this process can also help us with a blueprint for leading through change when something has gone wrong, but not necessarily because of wrong-doing. If we apply the same principles (particularly from chapter 10) when something isn’t working and needs to be changed, we can identify six steps should be taken:

  • Own it: take personal responsibility (it starts with you)
  • Admit it: public acknowledgement and statement
  • Address it: determine and identify the change that needs to happen
  • Change it: put the change into process (involve everyone)
  • Share it: involve everyone, communicate
  • Check it: check to make sure the process has been completed and the change has happened.

If you have blown it, own it. That’s where it starts. Get on your knees before God, and take the steps you need to take to bring about restoration. There may still be consequences that have to be faced, but healing can’t happen until you humble yourself, and God is able to do great things as a result (as James 4:10 tells us, “humble yourself in the sight of the Lord, and he will lift you up”). The grace of God is such that He can and will bring restoration, and He can do it any circumstances. But it begins with you.

 

This is the twelfth installment in an ongoing series on leadership lessons that can be learned from the book of Ezra.

Who’s In Charge Here? (Lessons on Leadership from Ezra, part 11)

Strategic Planning

            I was fairly young and had just become the headmaster of a small Christian school. I knew that the school had been operating with an interim headmaster, that enrollment had drastically declined over the previous couple of years, that they had recently gone through a major shift in identity, that resources were very limited, and that a desired plan for building a new school facility appeared to be stalling out. I felt the emotional mix of excitement about the possibilities and anxiety of feeling overwhelmed and in over my head, but I also knew that God had clearly and specifically directed in my life to put me in this position. I had previous administrative experience, but not as a head of school, and I had had no real training on strategic planning. I simply knew that I had a major project ahead of me, and so I rolled up my sleeves and began to assemble a plan of action.

I wish I could say that I took time to listen to people as I prepared my plan, but I didn’t (this was one of the other important lessons I learned in the process). I did, however, begin an intentional process of trying to determine the current status – resources, people, programs, obstacles, etc. – and identify the direction and goals, followed by prioritizing those goals and deciding what steps would need to be taken to achieve those goals. My simple process involved writing these things (both the current status items, and the goals and needs) on individual, notebook-sized sheets of Post It notes, and placing them on a large empty wall. When they were all up on the wall, I stepped back and began to look at them, individually and together, and then began to sort them into categories and themes and looking for connections, arranging them by groups, priority, and sequential order of process. When I was all done, I had my first official strategic plan.

Strategic planning could be defined as the process of creating and initiating a specific plan to address a determined and identifiable goal or need, and my own process in that school was a very crude (although efficient and effective for me at that time and place in my leadership development) form of strategic planning. In the years since, I have learned from experience, education, and training much more about effective – and ineffective – strategic planning (and about the importance of listening to people and giving them a voice in the process). Therefore, even though I helped to facilitate excellent change and growth – with credit actually going to God much more than me; I was only the instrument He chose to use – I now know a number things I would have done differently, or additionally, in my first attempt at strategic planning.

There is an experience that takes place in the book of Ezra, in chapters 9 and 10, that provides a great source of learning for us on this topic. Ezra had already successfully led a group of leaders back to Jerusalem from their place of captivity. The physical temple had already been reconstructed, and now Ezra had returned to facilitate the restoration of the spiritual temple – the hearts of the people. After he arrived in Jerusalem, he took the time to assess the situation and determined the issues (in this circumstance, they were the issues of unfaithfulness and unholiness), and prepared a strategic plan to address the issues and restore the people and the nation before God. This is the process we see when we focus in on Ezra 10:6-17.

When we analyze the description of this event in these verses, breaking it down into its sequential steps, what we see illustrated is an eight-step process of strategic planning. We find a description of the process, from inception to implementation, of a specific and measurable plan to address the issue that they faced. In this process, Ezra led the way by his example and his intentional methods, showing us how we too can undertake the task of strategic planning for our ministries and organizations.

  1. Preparation: Step one in the process is preparation, which Ezra models in verse 6, where we learn that he “ate no bread and drank no water, for he mourned because of the guilt of those from the captivity.” As a leader, you need to enter the process ready, and with the right attitude, taking ownership. Spend some time in reflection and analysis, resolving yourself for the task ahead and building your own enthusiasm and commitment. And as Ezra demonstrated, this includes your spiritual preparation, humbling yourself before God, ensuring that your own heart is clean and submitted to him.
  2. People: Step two is to gather the right people together, and in verses 7 through 9, there is an important guideline that we can glean about gathering people. The guideline centers around identifying who should be part of that process, and these verses reveal that they should include (a) all those who will be affected (“ all the descendants of the captivity”), (b) those who will help make the process happen (“the leaders and elders”), and (c) representative leadership from among the followers (“ all the men of Judah and Benjamin”). These three categories are the same three that we need to include in our own process of gathering the right people. In addition, we can see illustrated the value of providing the appropriate motivation to get the right people to participate (“whoever would not come with three days, according to the instructions of the leaders and elders, all his property would be confiscated, and he himself would be separated from the assembly”). Notice that Ezra’s method of motivation was appropriate for the time, the culture, and the circumstances; we would not use the same method in our time and place, but the lesson of providing motivation is just as valuable.
  3. Need: Step three is to identify the issue or need that must be addressed, and for Ezra, that issue was sin that needed to be resolved, as we see in verse 10. He stood up in front of the people and stated simply and clearly, “You have transgressed,” and then proceeded to tell them in what way they had transgressed. Likewise, as leaders, it falls on us to provide a succinct and understandable statement of the issue, problem, or need that must be addressed, attacked, or resolved. Before you can prepare a plan, you must be able to articulate what it is that needs to happen, or where it is that you need to go, based on where you currently are and what you are currently doing. Identify the issue and state it clearly, and don’t make it complicated.
  4. Goal: Step four is to identify the goal or goals that are to be achieved. This implies identifying the means and steps of correcting or resolving the need that has been identified. More specifically, it means determining what will need to be accomplished that, when done, will fulfill the plan. For Ezra, this was communicated immediately following his expression of the need, when in verse 11 he stated, “Now therefore, make confession to the Lord God of your fathers, and do His will; separate yourselves from the peoples of the land, and from the pagan wives.” He identified for the people the goals or steps that would need to be accomplished in order to meet the need (confess, obey, and separate), and these goals, which were necessary for the restoration of the people, were specific and achievable. In the same way, you need to follow your identification of the need with the establishment and communication of how that need must be met. You have given the vision and direction; now give the steps it will take to get there.
  5. Listen: Step five is to listen, giving people a voice in the process. People need to be given the opportunity to respond to the information that they are hearing, which we can see happened in verses 12 and 13. After Ezra spoke, the people responded and said, “Yes! As you have said, so we must do,” indicating that they had heard and had bought into Ezra’s vision. However, their next word was “But . . .,” and they proceeded to give input into the issues and factors that would impact the outcome. The key here is that Ezra let them speak, and he listened to what they said. Likewise, we need to let people have a voice, especially those people who may be impacted or affected and those people who have “ground-floor knowledge.” Then, listen to what they say, and let them know that they have been heard.
  6. Process: Step six is to establish a process for implementing the plan, and there are four pieces to the process that we can infer from verses 13 and 14, which state, “Let the leaders of our entire assembly stand; and let all those in our cities who have taken pagan wives come at appointed times, together with the elders and judges of their cities, until the fierce wrath of our God is turned away from us in this matter.” In this establishment of the process that the Israelites chose to implement, we can draw out these implications: (a) it is important to determine the steps in the process, from start to finish; (b) it is necessary to select leaders to oversee the process of carrying out the plan, and this also helps to provide accountability; (c) a calendar, schedule, or timeline needs to be created; and (d) when all is said and done, it needs to be more than just talk, and so the process has to be initiated.
  7. Obstacles: Step seven is to identify and prepare for obstacles and opposition. Ezra’s experience illustrates this in two places – in verse 13, when the people said, “there are many people; it is the season for heavy rain, and we are not able to stand outside. Nor is this the work of one or two days, for there are many of us who have transgressed in this matter,” and in verse 15, when we learn that “Jonathan the son of Asahel and Jahaziah the son of Tikvah opposed this, and Meshullam and Shabbethai the Levite gave them support.” The first instance illustrated the importance of seeing the obstacles early that will hinder the plan, and the second instance shows us that we can expect both opposition and support, while neither one needs to be the primary factor for determining direction. There will be obstacles, there will be opposition, there will be support, and you need to develop the ability to “foresee,” learning to identify where these might or will come from so that they can be addressed or responded to.
  8. Implement: Step 8 is the final step, the one of implementation. It is the action of implementing the plan and the process, which we can see that the Israelites did in verse 16, which says, “Then the descendants of the captivity did so.” Verse 17 also points out that not only did they start, but they also continued until the goals were reached, when we read, “By the first day of the first month they finished.” The lesson for us is a reminder that words and ideas have little value if they are never put into action. Once we have the plan prepared and communicated, put it into action, keeping the end in focus, and identifying when the goals have been reached.

I am sure that there are other tools, strategies, and principles for strategic planning that can help you in your effectiveness as a leader, but these eight that are illustrated through Ezra’s experience provide some basic steps that we can use. Along the way, one of the tasks of a leader is to periodically assess what is happening, in order to confirm that the process is working (so that adjustments can be made, if needed) and to ensure that the goals are being reached. And then, when you arrive at the end, take time to celebrate!

 

This is the eleventh installment in an ongoing series on leadership lessons that can be learned from the book of Ezra.

Who’s In Charge Here? (Lessons on Leadership from Ezra, part 10)

Take Time to Celebrate

We celebrate many things. When we grow another year older, we celebrate. When we add another year to the length of our marriage, we celebrate. When our favorite team wins a championship, we celebrate. When we graduate – from kindergarten, from high school, from college – we celebrate. When our child is born, we celebrate. When we get a promotion, we celebrate. When we retire from our career, we celebrate. Clearly, we find and take many opportunities in life to celebrate victories, achievements, milestones, and joyous moments.

I have a few personal celebrations that really stand out to me, and I am sure you do as well. Some of my marriage anniversaries loom larger in my mind than others: my fourth, which I remember as the first time in our young marriage that I was able to do something really nice for my wife; my tenth, which we celebrated at a Disney resort; our twentieth, when we again celebrated at a Disney resort; and our twenty-fifth, when we celebrated with a New England Cruise, which had been a dream of my wife’s. I remember the day we celebrated that my wife was one year cancer-free, and even though her cancer has returned, we continue to celebrate that anniversary every year, marking another year that we have together. I also remember the celebrations that we had for each of our children when they turned thirteen, which were special events that we planned out, to mark their entry into adulthood, complete with dinner at a restaurant, pictures, a promise ring, and a framed letter and certificate.

I believe that celebrations are important, giving us way to mark those meaningful occasions and reminding us of the moments that really matter. However, while we include them in our personal lives, I also think that they can play an important role in our jobs and our organizations, but we often miss valuable opportunities to celebrate in those settings. In my reading through the book of Ezra, I see descriptions of at least two celebrations, and I believe that there are several valuable lessons we can learn from them that can be very applicable to the activity of leadership.

The first of those celebrations is described in Ezra 3:10-13, when the people of Israel had begun to rebuild the temple in Jerusalem:

When the builders laid the foundation of the temple of the Lord, the priests stood in their apparel with trumpets, and the Levites, the sons of Asaph, with cymbals, to praise the Lord, according to the ordinance of David king of Israel. And they sang responsively, praising and giving thanks to the Lord: “For He is good, for His mercy endures forever toward Israel.” Then all the people shouted with a great shout, when they praised the Lord, because the foundation of the house of the Lord was laid.

But many of the priests and Levites and heads of the fathers’ houses, old men who had seen the first temple, wept with a loud voice when the foundation of this temple was laid before their eyes. Yet many shouted aloud for joy, so that the people could not discern the noise of the shout of joy from the noise of the weeping of the people, for the people shouted with a loud shout, and the sound was heard afar off.

And the second is described in Ezra 6:16-22, after the people of Israel had completed the construction:

Then the children of Israel, the priests and the Levites and the rest of the descendants of the captivity, celebrated the dedication of this house of God with joy. And they offered sacrifices at the dedication of this house of God, one hundred bulls, two hundred rams, four hundred lambs, and as a sin offering for all Israel twelve male goats, according to the number of the tribes of Israel.  They assigned the priests to their divisions and the Levites to their divisions, over the service of God in Jerusalem, as it is written in the Book of Moses.

And the descendants of the captivity kept the Passover on the fourteenth day of the first month. For the priests and the Levites had purified themselves; all of them were ritually clean. And they slaughtered the Passover lambs for all the descendants of the captivity, for their brethren the priests, and for themselves. Then the children of Israel who had returned from the captivity ate together with all who had separated themselves from the filth of the nations of the land in order to seek the Lord God of Israel. And they kept the Feast of Unleavened Bread seven days with joy; for the Lord made them joyful, and turned the heart of the king of Assyria toward them, to strengthen their hands in the work of the house of God, the God of Israel.

In these two passages, I find lessons and examples that give us a blueprint for celebrating, showing us when we celebrate, how we celebrate, and why we celebrate.

When should we celebrate? These passages teach us that it should happen throughout the process. In other words, celebrations ought to take place at both the beginning and the end of projects, tasks, and missions (and at important milestones along the way). The celebration in Ezra 3 took place at the very start of the construction, initiating the project, and it served to build support and community early in the process. The second major celebration, in Ezra 6, took place at the end of the construction, and this time it served to bring satisfaction and joy in the celebration of victory and completion. As a leader, when you take the time to celebrate at the beginning, it enables you to provide motivation and to build momentum; when you celebrate at the end, not only it is it a victory celebration, it also provides an opportunity to recognize collective and individual accomplishments, giving value to people (and when you celebrate milestones along the way, it helps you to maintain momentum by reinvigorating people, and by keeping the end in view and reminding them of the steps that have been reached).

How should we celebrate? The examples given in these celebrations indicate three important components. First, it ought to be a ceremony, an official celebration. Illustrated in this context, we see that the Israelites included the sacrifices and rituals that were officially part of the ceremonial law, and celebrated the national ceremony of the Passover. Second, it ought to be public. Make it visible, so that everyone is aware and everyone can participate. This is indicated in 6:19-22, when we observe that everyone was there together and that the priests conducted the ceremony and the sacrifices for the benefit of everyone present. And third, it should take place within the community and should involve the community, both those who directly participated in the work and those who were affected it. This is also evident in 6:19-22, as we observe that they celebrated as a nation. It was not just the leaders or priests, or only those who had done the work, or those who were specifically called and tasked for the mission, but, rather, all the Israelites who were there celebrated, and did so with great joy. These same three components ought characterize the celebrations that take place within our organizations. The celebrations that we have at the beginning, middle, and end should be official, public ceremonies, which involve everyone.

Finally, why should we celebrate? I see three reasons that are illustrated in these stories. First and foremost, and more important than any other reasons, celebrations are opportunities to give credit and praise to God. Both of these celebrations clearly focused on giving praise to God, and later in the book, Ezra individually modeled the same thing, when he gave praise to God for a significant milestone (Ezra 7:27-28). Every Christian leader ought to recognize God’s sovereign activity in all circumstances, and therefore ought to make praise and acknowledgment to God an integral part of each celebration. Second, celebrations should be opportunities to remember, serving as a reminder of the accomplishments that have been achieved, the obstacles that have been overcome, and the progress that has been made. Third, celebrations provide a forum and a platform to express gratitude and to give appreciation and recognition, both individually and collectively. People need to be valued, and expressing gratitude (and doing it publicly) provides a way to do so.

The bottom line is, there is great benefit in celebrating. It’s good for the organization, it’s good for the people in the organization, and it keeps God at the forefront of all that is happening. Celebrations build positive culture, and build value into people, and those are things that should characterize effective Christian leaders. So, look for opportunities to celebrate, and make them a part of the life of your organization. Celebrate.

 

This is the tenth installment in an ongoing series on leadership lessons that can be learned from the book of Ezra.

Who’s In Charge Here? (Lessons on Leadership from Ezra, part 9)

Facing Obstacles and Opposition

In the summer right after I graduated from high school, I had the privilege of working for one of my uncles, who was a general contractor and owned a construction company.   During this particular summer, he was building an apartment complex, and I was there to do whatever manual labor he assigned me to do. My first day on the job, he informed me with a smile that I would be the “gopher” – “you know,” he said, “go for this, go for that, go for whatever I need you to get.” In reality, I spent that summer before college carrying lumber, operating a jackhammer, driving a forklift, sweeping floors, sanding walls, and running errands.

Toward the end of the summer, when much of the construction had been done and the finish work was in process, I was given the task of installing the air conditioning wall units in each of the apartments. In a space that had been left open in one of the outside walls of each apartment, my task was to insert the units, connect all the wires and lines, test them to make sure they worked properly, and then clean the area so that it looked neat and finished.

However, in one particular apartment, I ran into a problem. I could not get the unit to fit properly, no matter how I tried, and I began to get very frustrated. I was ready to give up when my aunt walked in and asked me how it was going. I told her, “I have a problem,” and explained what was happening, to which she replied, “Jeff, there are no such things as problems, only challenges to solve or overcome.”

The truth is, there will always be challenges. Since the fall of Adam and Eve and the introduction of sin, there have been difficulties, challenges, and conflict, and work has been hard. Therefore, until we are fully sanctified in heaven, we will always have adversaries that create difficulty. They may be obstacles that get in our way or they may be people who oppose us, but regardless, they will be challenges that must be overcome.

The Israelites showed us this, when they experienced great challenges in their efforts to rebuild the temple, described in Ezra 4, 5, and 6, This passage provides us with a picture of the types of attacks and hindrances they experienced, as well as their responses. Then, in chapter 8, we see also see a brief description of the danger of the potential obstacles a team could face. Together, these events give us a good idea of the challenges we also may face.

Ezra 4-6 fills in a major portion of the story of the rebuilding of the temple, which took place over many years. It wasn’t long after they had first initiated construction that people began to try to block their efforts, trying a variety of ways to interfere with the work. Eventually, those opposed to the building that was taking place wrote a letter to the king that painted the Israelites in a bad light. The letter contained half-truths, with biased and twisted information, which resulted in an order from the king to stop construction. It wasn’t until years later that the work began again, and once again, almost immediately, others tried to force them to stop, again writing a letter to the king. This time, Scripture tells us, nothing could get in the way of the work they were doing.

Ezra 8 provides a second glimpse into this issue, this time when Ezra himself was preparing to lead the spiritual leaders back to Jerusalem. As they made their preparations, Ezra crafted a plan that would ensure the greatest success, but he also appealed to God for guidance and for protection from the dangers and obstacles they would face on the road. After they arrived (safely) in Jerusalem, Ezra noted in verse 31 that “the hand of our God was upon us, and He delivered us from the hand of the enemy and from ambush along the road,” pointing out that these were things that could have happened but didn’t, because of God’s protection. In combination, these two scenarios in chapters 4-6 and 8 show us the types of obstacles and opposition we will be up against.

Obstacles can come from anywhere, and could take the form of circumstances, events, or people, and can be both expected and unexpected. Ezra’s appeal to God taken together with his recognition of God’s protection points this out. In 8:22, Ezra foresaw the potential for danger and prayed to God for protection from the enemy, knowing that they would be embarking on their journey to Jerusalem. Then, as we have already seen, in 8:31 he gave credit to God for the protection he provided for them, “from the hand of the enemy and from ambush.”

We can draw from these verses that obstacles can come in a variety ways. They can be in the form of known enemies, but they could also be in the form of unknown enemies. They could be visible attacks that we can see coming, or they could be surprise attacks that come as an ambush.  They could be obstacles that we are anticipating (like a speed bump with a sign that warns us it is approaching), or they could be completely unforeseen (like a pothole that comes out of nowhere). The point is, obstacles can come in almost any form, from almost any direction, with or without warning.

Opposition tends to come directly from people, but we often forget that it can come from inside an organization just as much as it can come from outside. This is the picture with which we are presented in Ezra 4, after the Israelites have begun to rebuild the first time. In verses 1-2, we are told that “when the adversaries of Judah and Benjamin heard that the descendants of the captivity were building the temple of the Lord God of Israel, they came to Zerubbabel and the heads of the fathers’ houses and said to them, “Let us build with you, for we seek your God as you do; and we have sacrificed to Him since the days of Esarhaddon king of Assyria, who brought us here.” They presented themselves as if they were on the same team, with the same values and the same goals. They tried to look like they were part of the same community, but in reality, they were intentionally trying to deceive, and their motives were destructive.

The same thing happens to us. People will try to assimilate themselves into our organization, or align themselves with us in order to be accepted, but with the motive of undermining our efforts or corrupting and changing the culture. Jude 4 talks about this, showing it to be a tactic of Satan, and reveals it as a pattern of allowing evil, then accepting evil, and finally rejecting good. This is the pattern that the opposition uses, claiming to be one of us but actually seeking to destroy.

Opposition can also come from outside, which is what we see a couple of verses later in chapter 4, in verses 4 and 5, when we read, “Then the people of the land tried to discourage the people of Judah. They troubled them in building, and hired counselors against them to frustrate their purpose.” Their opposition was obvious, clearly their intent was to frustrate and oppose the work, and their methods included physical and verbal attack, discouragement, interference and sabotage, and continual harassment.

This is no different from the opposition we will face. It may shock us to realize the extent to which people will go to hurt others (like the feeling of disbelief I remember having when our home was robbed, disbelief that someone would actually do that to another person), but we are in a world marred by sin, and people will oppose the work of God. Often their efforts will be intentional and planned, prepared with guidance and strategy, for the purpose of blocking, hindering, and stopping the work that we do. And when they have an opportunity, they will jump at that opportunity to cause us to fall (just look at verse 23, which describes how the opposition “went up in haste” as soon as king gave the order for the work to stop!).

The obstacles and opposition we face can be overwhelming and disheartening, and therefore we must be ready to handle it. Looking again at these passages, we can see a few things that help us to be ready; specifically, there are three action steps we can take. The first is to be pro-active, by planning for potential difficulties, like Ezra did in chapter 8 when he went to God for protection and prepared a strategic plan. The second is to be reactive, by responding in the right way regardless of how we are attacked. This is reflected in Ezra 5:11-13, in the Israelites’ response the second time that charges that were brought to the king against them. In their response, they told the truth, they put the burden on God, and they were unafraid to be bold about their faith. The third action step is to consciously and willingly submit all circumstances to God’s plan and timing. The passage from chapter 4, verse 23, through chapter 5, verse 5, show us this picture, revealing God’s intentional timing regarding when He wanted the work on the temple to be completed.

There is no guarantee that doing work for God will be easy; if anything, there is a certainty that there will be difficulty in work (remember that God cursed the work of man when He confronted Adam in the Garden of Eden). We will encounter obstacles and we will face opposition. But if we are prepared, and if we respond in the right way, and if we trust God’s sovereignty, we can handle whatever comes our way.

This is the ninth installment in an ongoing series on leadership lessons that can be learned from the book of Ezra.