Tag Archive for Ezra

Who’s In Charge Here? (Lessons on Leadership from Ezra, part 1)

God Has a Plan!

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 accomplished, 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.

The book of Ezra, surprisingly, is one of those examples that has a lot to say about leadership. 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 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.

One of the most important lessons is a big picture lesson, representing the overall theme for the book of Ezra, and it 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, and He is actively involved in the events of our lives.

Throughout the Old Testament it is apparent that God has a sovereign plan and purpose – again, largely connected to the restoration of his house and of his people – and He works to carry out that plan. However, we usually spend our time acting completely unaware of that truth in our own lives today. We know that it is true, in a nebulous, spiritual truth kind of way, and we can see it clearly in retrospect (both in the stories in the Bible and in reflection of our own past experiences) but in the actual current day-to-day experiences of our lives, we behave as if we don’t realize it.

The events of Ezra provide a wonderful backdrop for seeing God’s involvement, for spotting His sovereignty at work in apparently random circumstances. Although God’s sovereignty is evident all through the book, interspersed throughout are a number of references that specifically point out His intentional involvement. Among these verses are the following:

  • Ezra 1:1, “the Lord stirred up the spirit of Cyrus king of Persia, so that he made a proclamation throughout all his kingdom”
  • Ezra 1:5, “all those whose spirits God had moved, arose to go up and build the house of the Lord which is in Jerusalem”
  • Ezra 5:5, “the eye of their God was upon the elders of the Jews, so that they could not make them cease till a report could go to Darius”
  • Ezra 6:22, “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”

Numerous other verses and passages – such as 1:4-8, 4:24, 6:8-10, 7:6-10, 7:27-28, 8:18-31, 9:9 – state or imply God’s involvement in a variety of ways, such as in the circumstances, the preparation, the call, the timing, the plans, the processes, the provision, their protection, the results, and the responses. These verses reveal that God’s sovereignty is evident from start to finish, throughout all of the events and activities that were taking place. They also reveal that God’s sovereignty occurs both externally – directing outside circumstances, people, and activity – and internally – moving in the hearts of people, including me.

Why is that important for you in your leadership? It matters because it offers you a confidence, one that exists outside of any present events or circumstances, that God has an intentional plan and purpose, and that His plan can be trusted. If the direct references to God’s involvement were removed from the book of Ezra, it would read like a great story with amazing coincidences that seem to work in favor of the Israelites, and reflect excellent leadership by Ezra. But, like what happens in the “The Wizard of Oz,” the curtain is pulled back so that we can see behind the scenes, providing us with a view of God’s supernatural involvement on so many levels. Because we believe the Bible and know that God is God, we are not surprised to see this, and yet we can easily fail to realize that God is just as involved in our stories!

Several years ago, I became convinced that a significant program change needed to be implemented in an organization in which I was a leader. I did the research to confirm the need for the change, and then did more research on how to introduce the change. I prepared diligently for the big announcement, but then, at the midnight hour – literally – I was stopped from moving forward by the board of directors. I was frustrated and it threw me off balance, and I am afraid that I responded without a view of God’s sovereign purpose. As time passed, and the program changed was implemented a year later, I was able to see that God had a plan that also involved timing, and that He used people and events to carry out that timing. Of course His plan was better than mine, and if I had been alert enough to see that when it happened, it would have save me some anxiety and helped me to respond better.

So as a leader, it is essential that you understand and remember that God has a plan and purpose that can be trusted, whether or not we can visibly see His hand in it. Thankfully, that plan is not contingent upon or predicated by my perfection, as we can see in the last couple of chapters of Ezra, which describe the repentance and spiritual restoration of the people after the rebuilding and return. God had carried out his plan even before all the wrongs had been righted. The same is true for us. He doesn’t wait until you are perfect before choosing you as a leader or carrying out His plan. He has a purpose, and you get to be part of it. So, whether your current circumstances are challenging or fantastic, continue to trust that God has plan and rest in that knowledge.

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

 

What Happens When You Blow It?

 

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 nation 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 first modeled 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, 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.

 

When A Plan Comes Together

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 major 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 direction and goals, followed by prioritizing those goals and deciding what steps would need to be taken to achieve them. 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 to look 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 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 determine 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 that takes place 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 learned 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 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 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, yet 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 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!

Overcoming 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 my 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 may also 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 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 on when 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 us, obstacles can come in almost any form, from almost any direction, with our 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 we are presented with 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 is 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 do. And when they have an opportunity, they will jump at the 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 on 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.

 

 

 

 

 

Before You Teach, First Be Teachable

Before you can teach and lead others, you have to live it. But in order to live it, you first have to know it. I experienced this (or better put, failed at this) in my first experience as the senior leader in an organization. To be honest, as I walked in the door I was questioning my own preparedness, unsure of whether I knew enough to be able to lead well. But I had been given the opportunity, so I quelled my fears and jumped.

 

I arrived at a school that had longstanding, competent employees, and my relative youth probably didn’t help my reception. Then, in my enthusiasm, I started to run without first taking the time to learn. I began making changes (some of them drastic) and implementing new policies and procedures, but failed to take the time to study the history, culture, and people involved. As a result, my actions stemmed from ignorance and arrogance rather than knowledge, and the result was conflict and disruption. It wasn’t until I took the time to learn, developing the necessary understanding of the relevant information, that my actions of leadership could represent the right knowledge and therefore win followers and become effective.

 

But for Christian leaders, this truth goes much deeper: to be effective in your actions of leadership, you must first and foremost have a personal and in-depth knowledge of God and His Word. Your knowledge of His truth is more important than anything else in your preparation. Ezra, as a leader, provides a great example of this. In the description of his preparation for leadership – and more pointedly, his preparation for a specific task – Ezra 7:10 states, “For Ezra had prepared his heart to seek the Law of the Lord, and to do it, and to teach statutes and ordinances in Israel.” Clearly he had prepared himself for what he was about to undertake, but notice the order of the steps, because the order is important! The first step in the process was “to seek the law of the Lord,” which led him to living out what he knew, and which in turn enabled him to teach and to lead. People followed him because his life gave him the credibility to lead, but first having the knowledge gave him the capability to lead.

 

What does it mean, then, that he had sought the law of the Lord? It means that he had spent time with God. He had studied the Scriptures intensely and diligently, learning who God is and what He says. And that took time and intentional practice. At the core, this is a basic and fundamental part of the Christian walk, and so it shows up nearly everywhere that someone talks about steps of spiritual growth. Gordon MacDonald, in Ordering Your Private World, discusses the importance of first having the private world of the inner man in order, and says that this must come from developing intimacy with God through regular time with Him and in His Word. Tim Challies, in The Discipline of Spiritual Discernment, explains that the ability to discern is directly related to knowledge of God and of His Word. J. P. Moreland, in Love Your God with All Your Mind, communicates that faith is also an act of reason, based on truth – specifically the truth of Scripture – and therefore Scripture must be studied for faith to grow. Kevin DeYoung, in Taking God at His Word, explores the doctrine of Scripture, and in the process argues for the importance and necessity of reading and studying the Bible. And the list could go on and on. The clear understanding is that every Christian (not only leaders) needs to regularly spend time with God, studying Scripture and building that personal relationship.

 

Scripture itself supports this truth, as is seen in the examples of men and women of God (like Ezra), but as is also specifically stated in various passages. Psalm 1 describes the person who will be blessed because of his moral choices, and states in verse 2 that this is someone “whose delight is in the law of the Lord, and who meditates on his law day and night.” In the book of Joshua, chapter 1,verse 8, as Joshua is preparing to lead the people of Israel into the Promised Land, God challenges and encourages him with this statement: “Keep this Book of the Law always on your lips; meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do everything written in it. Then you will be prosperous and successful.” The bottom line is, our thought processes, choices, and outcomes are directly impacted by our time spent in the Word of God.

 

As a crucial byproduct of studying Scripture, Ezra developed an intimate, personal relationship with God. Because of that personal and deep relationship, he didn’t simply learn to know who God was and is; he also came to understand God’s nature and heart. He had developed a relationship that enabled him to trust in God even in uncertainty and difficulty. It was from this relationship that he was therefore able to move and act with confidence in God’s sovereign plan, and that he was able to see God’s hand and His purpose in the events that occurred.

 

This is a critical lesson for you and me. It’s been said that leaders must be learners; but Christian leaders must also be learners of God’s Word. Therefore, in our leadership development, we absolutely must study Scripture, growing in intimacy with God. We need regular time with God, in prayer and in His Word. This must be central and foundational to what we do, how we live, and to our call or purpose from Him. Doing this first is what makes us knowledgeable and gives us the capability to lead, because we will learn to see people and circumstances from God’s perspective, shaping how we think and act. It is from this growth of knowledge and relationship with God that we are able to “walk the talk,” modeling and practicing what we know, and living authentic, genuine lives that inspire trust and result in effective leadership.

The Work of Leadership

In my first year as the head of a school, I was enthusiastic and organized, with big dreams and a plan that I was developing and implementing. At first, though, I kept finding myself getting frustrated, because I would have seemingly constant interruptions that kept me from getting to the tasks that I need to do in order to carry out my plans. I know now how foolish this sounds, but I was getting frustrated because people were getting in the way of the tasks. Eventually it dawned on me that people were part of the job, so to alleviate the frustration, I began to allot specific time periods each day for people. And of course, people couldn’t seem to keep their interruptions confined to the times I had designated (you can read sarcasm into this). Finally, God smacked me over the head by reminding me of a former pastor’s sermon in which the message had repeatedly emphasized that people matter to God. I realized that the work of ministry is primarily about people, because people matter to God (and therefore they should matter to me), even though tasks are a necessary part of the work of effective leadership. I finally understood that leadership is about both people and tasks, and that the real challenge is in undertaking the work of leadership in a way that accomplishes tasks well while also meeting the needs of people in a way that draws them toward God.

Years of research and study on leadership by many researchers have concluded that the work of leadership does indeed boil down to these two things: tasks and people. At it’s core, effective leadership must be able to manage and direct the tasks appropriate to the circumstances, and at the same time manage and direct the people involved in a relational way that develops them individually. Very simply, it means getting the job done well, while working well with people and making them better in the process.

In practice, though, leadership is more complex than this, because there are lots of variables in both tasks and people: different personality types, different circumstances, different strengths and weaknesses, different obstacles, different tasks, and so on. And beyond that, it takes lots of work to develop a vision, then make plans, and finally implement the vision and plans in a way that most effectively accomplishes the tasks and leads people. The reality is that the work of leadership is daunting. However, the book of Ezra can and does help with this, providing some valuable lessons that help us identify important principles that make the work of leadership more effective. In his story, we find lessons that are beneficial for our own personal spiritual growth, but that are also applicable to our role as leaders.

Ezra first shows us that there are three things that have to happen before you can begin to move forward, and these three things are illustrated in the description of the early stages of his leadership. In Ezra 7:6, we are told that Ezra had made a request of the king (which the king granted, as we see a little later in the chapter); in Ezra 7:7, we are given a list of the categories of people who went with him in the return to Jerusalem; and in Ezra 7:15-17, we are told that he was to be provided with gold, silver, and the necessary resources for the task ahead of him.

What is reflected in this information is the necessity of three things: getting permission, getting people, and getting resources, before undertaking the work of leadership in a situation, project, or organization. Getting permission can come from superiors, who give the necessary approval needed before getting a green light to go, but it also needs to come from below, by getting buy-in from followers. If they haven’t agreed to follow your lead, very little movement is going to take place. Getting people involves the task of identifying the necessary strengths needed for the task, and then assembling the best group of people to accomplish those tasks. Finally, getting resources involves gathering those things – tools, finances, or people – that must be assembled before beginning the tasks. With these three things arranged, the rest of the book of Ezra provides insight into eight components that make up the work of leadership.

 

  1. Recognition: Ezra 7:27-28 records Ezra’s response to the letter from the king that authorized the return to Jerusalem, which promised assistance. It is important to see that, in his response, the first words out his mouth were, “Blessed be the Lord God of our fathers, who has put such a thing as this in the king’s heart.” First and most importantly, he gave honor to God, acknowledged that He is ultimately sovereign and responsible, and recognized that it was His plan. He gave credit where credit was due, immediately and at the front end of the process. All Christian leaders need to do the same – recognizing God’s place in our lives and in our circumstances – but the idea can also be applied to our leadership of others. People also need to be recognized and feel valued, believing that they are important to the process and the vision, and so recognizing them early (and often) affirms their value and enhances their level of commitment.   Therefore it is important to recognize the benefactors, the idea-makers, the planners, the leaders, the contributors, and the participants.
  2. Voice: in Ezra 10, Ezra had confronted the people with a pervasive problem and the need for resolution and restoration. In verses 12-14, they approached Ezra and gave input into the solution for correcting the problem, and verse 16 reveals that they were heard; their input was incorporated into the process of resolution. They were given an opportunity to speak, and they were heard, and this reminds us of the importance of giving people a voice, and then listening to what they say. Often, those who are on the ground floor, or in the trenches, have an awareness and understanding of the obstacles, the needs, the details, etc., that the leadership does not clearly see because they are further removed from it. Therefore there is great value in intentionally soliciting input and validating concerns and viewpoints; and where appropriate, that input should be used to modify or adjust the plans. And at the risk of saying it too many times, don’t forget to first submit those plans to God for his approval, and listen to His direction.
  3. Resources: Ezra 7:11-26, the letter from the king to Ezra, details the resources that were being provided for the mission, and it included people, funds, supplies, tools, time, and talents. In Ezra’s case, God provided all that would be needed through the king’s own stores, but the lesson for us is that God will provide for His plan. That provision may come from you, or it may come from other sources, but He will do it in the way that is best. The application of this idea to leadership helps us to see the need to first identify what you have available – the people and skill sets, the funding, the supplies – and then identify and solicit any additional needed resources. Figure out the resources you have and the resources you need.
  4. Leaders: Ezra 7:25 and 10:14 point out two different capacities of leadership that needed to be filled. In the first verse, we are told that Ezra appointed magistrates and judges, and in the second verse, we are told that the people were going to identify a leader from among each group to represent them, which reflects the two purposes of oversight and representation. Those who are charged with oversight are people from among the leadership who have the task of overseeing and managing both the planning process and the implementation of the plan. Those who are charged with representation are people from among the followers who serve to represent and act on behalf of the people. Both kinds of leaders must be people submitted to God, and both are necessary for the work, therefore both need to be included in the teams you assemble
  5. Purpose: the idea of purpose is related to the two questions of “Where are we going?” and “Why are we going there?” Answering the question of “where” happens when people can see the big picture, the overall goal. Ezra 7:27 does this, when we see how Ezra pointed out that the big-picture purpose for the task and for the people was “to beautify the house of the Lord which is in Jerusalem.” He clearly identified for the people their destination, before beginning to move forward with their plan. Answering the question of “why” happens when people understand motive, and it has to be a motive that resonates with them. Ezra did this in 8:28, when he reminded his team that both the task they were undertaking, as well as the people who were doing it (meaning, they themselves) were consecrated and holy to God. This shows us that in any task, the motive must be clearly established and communicated.
  6. Direction: once the purpose has been established, direction can be given, both near (in the short-term) and far (in the long-term). Ezra 8:21 illustrates this, when we are shown how Ezra took the time to humble himself before God, “to seek from Him the right way for us and for our little ones and all our possessions.” Determining the right way to go (direction) naturally follows determining purpose, because once you know where you are going and why you are going there, you can then identify the path you need to take to get there. Like mapping out a road trip, this includes determining the next step or stop, and then the one after that, and so on, as well as determining the overall route. And, as has been true for everything else, it must begin by first seeking direction from God.
  7. Process: the process is the flow, the way in which everything takes place and connects together. Ezra 7 and 8 show us that there would be a process of returning to Jerusalem, and Ezra 10 shows us that there would be a process of repentance and restoration. Understand, though, that the process of implementing a plan takes time and also brings many challenges, but also understand that there are important factors that – if communicated at the front of the process – will in turn help the process to flow well. The process of restoration described in Ezra 10:11-14 reveals these factors: boundaries, including both limits and freedoms; methods, or, how the process will happen; and timing, including a schedule, checkpoints, and completion. Establishing these factors early will serve to greatly enhance the smoothness of the process.
  8. Procedure: a procedure provides the necessary guidelines for implementing a plan, and – one last time – it begins by first seeking God. The steps that take place in Ezra 8 (the return to Jerusalem) and Ezra 10 (the repentance and restoration) reveal that the first procedural step is to meet, gathering the necessary people together to clearly communicate and initiate the plan. The last step is to celebrate (giving credit to God), and in between the first and last steps are incremental goals, or benchmarks, that need to be achieved (and should also be celebrated). Along the way, it is necessary to periodically assess progress and communicate.

 

At its core, the work of leadership centers around and involves both people and tasks, and it is hard work that requires an intentional plan which includes recognition, voice, resources, leaders, purpose, direction, process, and procedures. It is, however, also incredibly fulfilling to be an instrument in God’s plan in that work. As His instrument, our desire and effort should be to do this work with excellence, and understanding these eight components will help us to do so. And when you reach the destination, don’t forget to celebrate, and don’t forget to give credit to God.