Archive for August 2016

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.


Week of August 15, 2016

What have you learned?

Last week, I shared a review of a book and then followed that up later in the week by asking you share the best books you’ve read this year so far.  This week, I shared some of the recurring leadership lessons I’ve been reminded of in 2016, so of course I am going to ask you to share the most valuable lessons on leadership you’ve learned this year!  Please share in the comment box below.

It’s Time to Self-Reflect

Every once in a while (at least a couple of times a year, in my opinion) it is important to pause, look in the mirror, take time to reflect, and review. This could involve thinking through the decisions (and/or mistakes) you’ve made, analyzing the ways you’ve grown, reminding yourself of the important lessons learned, looking for patterns that have developed (both good and bad), reviewing the books, articles, workshops, and seminars you’ve studied or attended, and any number of other ways to self-reflect. Regardless of how you go about it, what matters is that you intentionally take time to do it. With that thought in mind, I would like to take time to do two things: share what I think have been the best books I’ve read this year so far, and highlight the important leadership lessons that have I have repeatedly been reminded of this year.

So far in 2016, the three best books on Leadership that I have read have been Mindset by Carol Dweck, Thanks for the Feedback by Douglas Stone and Sheila Heen, and Leadership Excellence by Pat Williams (incidentally, the way I determine this is by identifying the books that I have most often referenced or intentionally applied in practice as a leader, mentor, and school administrator). Mindset really helped me to look at myself (and others) to identify whether or not I (or they) am teachable and willing to grow and learn, and how my mindset has on impact on that. It was also tremendously beneficial in helping my to identify whether or not an employee was willing and able to grow, which in turn greatly helped me to make personnel decisions that were good for my organization. Thanks for the Feedback gave me a much better understanding of how to receive feedback well, and in a way that would help me grow, and how to give feedback to others in a way that is more easily received by them. Leadership Excellence was a very practical resource on general principles that are important for effective leadership.

In addition to these books on leadership, the three best books I’ve read so far this year for my own personal, spiritual growth are two books from Tim Keller – Every Good Endeavor (on understanding the meaning and purpose of your work in light of God’s design) and The Meaning of Marriage (on understanding God’s design for a healthy and happy marriage relationship) – and one from John Eldridge, Epic (a short book that I actually read a few years ago, but read again this year; it’s a description of how our lives are part of God’s grand story). The two books that have most helped me professionally in my career field (educational leadership) are Michael Fullan’s The Principal and Robyn Jackson’s Never Work Harder Than Your Students. And for my own reading pleasure, I most enjoyed William Kent Krueger’s Ordinary Grace, Thomas Cahill’s How the Irish Saved Civilization, and one other that I am currently reading – The Complete Sherlock Holmes, by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

As I reflect back over the year so far there are also a handful of lessons that I seem to be seeing over and over again. The first is that leadership essentially involves two things: tasks and people. Managing tasks well involves things like competence, excellence, knowing the right things to do for your role and your organization, delegating appropriately, strategic planning, etc. Leading people well involves building relationships, maintaining relationships, investing in the growth of others, helping people to feel heard and validated, and so on. But ultimately it seems that almost everything in leadership can be reduced to doing the right tasks well, and cultivating relationships and people.

The second recurring lesson is that authenticity and credibility are absolutely essential to effective leadership. This means that a leader must develop and demonstrate integrity and transparency and must model consistency – walking the talk and talking the walk. In doing these things, trust is earned, loyalty is built, and decision-making authority grows. People will believe in you, trust you, and follow you.

The third recurring lesson is that it is important to be a learner, always observing, listening, studying, and growing. This means that a good leader should read often, should listen to the wisdom of others, and should practice self-reflection. Always be learning, and you’ll always be growing, which means, in turn, that you will always be in the process of becoming a better person and a better leader.

So that’s a snapshot of what I have learned or been reminded of this year. Now I’m going to be taking the next twelve weeks or so share a series of lessons on effective Christian leadership drawn from the book of Ezra. I’ve shared a few of these in this blog over the last couple of years, and last year I shared the entire series on another site (Center for the Advancement of Christian Education, or CACE), but I did not share them all here. Therefore, for the next 3 months, I am going to share that series again.   I do hope that these lessons will be valuable for you.

Oh, and take some time to do some self-reflection of your own!





Week of August 8, 2016

What has been the best book on leadership you’ve read this year?

If you are reading this, you probably read other things on leadership as well.  I am always trying to grow my library, and much of what I put in my library comes by way of recommendation from others (thanks, Kel, for suggesting “Leadership Excellence” by Pat Williams!). I would love to hear the best book on leadership you’ve read this year.  Please share in the comment section below.