Shortly after the Jews left Egypt, God directed Moses to select certain men to go ahead and spy out the land of Canaan in order to prepare for their arrival and settlement. Moses did not just pick volunteers, he carefully selected twelve men who were already leaders among the people.
So Moses sent them from the wilderness of Paran at the command of the Lord, all of them men who were heads of the sons of Israel.
- Numbers 13:3
We read in the following chapters about their mission and its results: They spied out the land and found it lush, productive, well populated and guarded. When they returned, ten of the leaders tried to convince the people not to go forward because they were afraid of the military strength of the people there. Two of the leaders (Joshua and Caleb) encouraged the people to rely on the Lord for victory in taking the land. Because of this dispute and fear of some leaders, the people revolted against Moses and tried to head back to Egypt. As a result, God punished them by declaring that they would not go into the promised land but instead would wander in the desert for 40 years (one year for each day the spies were in the land).
33Your sons shall be shepherds for forty years in the wilderness, and they will suffer for your unfaithfulness, until your corpses lie in the wilderness. 34According to the number of days which you spied out the land, forty days, for every day you shall bear your guilt a year, even forty years, and you will know My opposition.
- Numbers 14:33-34
In the end, the entire generation over twenty years of age at the time of the revolt, died in the desert and only their children entered (because they used the "safety" of their children as an excuse not to go forward when they had the chance). When the moment finally came to cross over into the promised land four decades later, only Joshua and Caleb were left of that generation who entered into their new homes. This was a gift from God for their faithful leadership.
Even though this episode occurred nearly 3,500 years ago, it still has some challenging lessons to teach us about leadership today.
Lessons from the Spies
In the same way that Moses selected the leaders among the people to carry out important tasks, the church today selects people to leadership positions in order to do God's work among the brethren; this includes elders, deacons, teachers, and preachers. These men are selected to provide leadership of one kind or another over the spiritual and physical welfare of the church.
Those who lead need to pay careful attention to the lessons taught by former leaders we read about in the Word. These twelve spies, for example, teach us the three basic lessons that all of God's leaders must know if they are to succeed in the task and position that God has given to them.
1. Leaders Lead
These men were not asked to stay home at the camp and boss everyone around. To use a famous line from a popular TV series – they were asked to go where no one had gone before.
That is the point of leadership, it is what makes the leader a leader, he goes ahead to explore, to find out, to chart, to experience what is ahead. In practical terms it means that those who lead in education, for example, need to be examining what the church will and should be learning in the future. Those who lead in maintenance should be preventing breakdowns, not just fixing them. I mention these simply to name a few obvious examples.
People look to leaders for direction; and leaders cannot give direction from the back of the pack – they have to be ahead in order to lead. When leaders don't lead, when they are not at least a step ahead spiritually and organizationally – the church stands still, takes a wrong turn, or begins to divide.
2. Leaders Motivate
In the story of the spies, it was the argument of the 10 cowardly leaders that convinced the people not to go, and eventually revolt. Like it or not, people reflect the attitude of their leaders. If the leaders are lazy, the people will not accomplish much. If the leaders are not committed, the people will not feel the need to commit themselves either. The people will show in themselves the relative strengths and weaknesses of their leaders. The result will be inconsistency (i.e. The church will be strong in the areas where the leaders are strong, weak in the areas where leaders are weak.). Leaders need to understand how powerful their influence is for good or evil.
Satan's best scheme is to convince leaders that they really have no influence so if they slack off or cut corners, no one will notice. Of course, this is a lie, like all of his other lies. Believe me, the church notices the neglect of its leaders, fellow leaders notice the extra burden they must carry and the Lord notices the poor stewardship. This brings me to the third lesson:
3. Leaders Pay
God has always held leaders accountable for their leadership. The ten unfaithful and cowardly spies died in dishonor in the desert. The two faithful ones made it to the promised land. The twelve names of these spies were listed in the book of Numbers when they were chosen for the mission – but today, people name their sons after only two of these men (Joshua and Caleb) because only these two distinguished themselves as leaders. It is nice to be chosen, to have the elders pray and introduce you to the church, to have your name and ministry listed in the bulletin as a church leader. However, there will come a time of accountability for this role, one day you will have to pay the price for leadership, God will require you to answer how well you served as one of His chosen leaders.
How to Become a Church Leader
Although the information is not included in the story of the spies, the Bible does support the idea that leaders are made and not born. One does not simply become a leader: able to lead, motivate and be responsible on the day of appointment. Becoming a leader requires that an individual practice and develop certain leadership techniques. If you are in a leadership role or if you aspire to one, here are some basic things you absolutely have to do in order to succeed:
1. Master Yourself
You cannot lead others if you cannot lead yourself. What separates leaders from followers is that leaders are usually better able to control themselves. Listen to two Christian leaders and what they said about this issue:
...but I buffet (beat back) my body and make it my slave, lest possibly, after I have preached to others, I myself should be disqualified.
- I Corinthians 9:27
Paul, the leading missionary, understood the necessity of mastering his desires and weaknesses so that after all of his good work he would not be swept away by personal temptation to sin. He knew that even leaders could fall, and they needed to control themselves.
Let not many of you become teachers, my brethren, knowing that as such we will incur a stricter judgment. For we all stumble in many ways. If anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a perfect man, able to bridle the whole body as well.
- James 3:1-2
James, a leader in the Jerusalem church, warns leaders (especially teachers) that leadership requires mastery over what one says and does. People need to see an example of what spiritual maturity and Christian conduct is like. Christian leaders provide this by demonstrating a greater measure of self-mastery than the ones they lead. Leaders are not perfect, but they have gained mastery over their tongues and conduct to a point where it is obvious to others. True Christian leaders motivate others to copy them, to point to them as examples of what they themselves want to become in Christ.
Another thing you, as a leader, need to do to develop leadership skills is…
2. Devote Yourself
I remember a lesson by the late Robert George. He told the story of a boy who loved riding his bike – it was his favorite thing to do. Sadly, one day while on the bike he was hit by a car and died of his injuries. His parents decided to bury the bicycle with him in his grave because he so loved riding it. Then, as he closed out his lesson, Robert asked the church to imagine what would eventually be buried next to them in their graves: their car, soccer schedule, phone, TV, bow, gun, rod, animal, music, tools, computer games, etc.? In other words, when people gather to remember us, what will they remember that was most important to us in our lives? As he put it – our magnificent obsessions?
Let's face it, you know what you are known for. For leaders in the church, it can be a number of things: The list of people we visited or taught or served; The Bible we preached and defended; The projects we worked on in the congregation. One thing is for certain, the single most identifying characteristic of leaders in the church is the devotion they have to the Lord's body. Some may be more skilled as teachers, others may be better "people persons". But no one is more devoted to the overall well being, success and growth of the church than its leaders. You cannot fake devotion: Christ died for the church; Paul was tortured for it; Peter was martyred as one of its leaders. This was not simply a question of circumstances or bad timing on their part – this happened to them as an example to other leaders who would come after. Their lives demonstrated to what extent of suffering or service God could require of His leaders in the church.
If the leaders cannot devote themselves to regular attendance or extra giving of time and money, they will fall dreadfully short on that day when the Lord asks them to do something really dynamic – like suffer for the faith or even perhaps die for it. If leaders are not devoted to the church and their ministries, how can the members be expected to commit themselves?
Devotion is a learned thing – leaders learn it from Christ, followers learn it at first from their leaders. The church cannot rise above the level of leadership that it has.
In order to become a good leader, you must master yourself, devote yourself, and then…
3. Reproduce Yourself
An important goal of leadership, as I have explained, is to provide direction and motivation to the church through example, teaching and service. Another, equally important, goal of leadership is to train others to be leaders.
...teaching others to obey what I have commanded you.
- Matthew 28:20
...and the things which you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses, these entrust to faithful men, who will be able to teach others also.
- II Timothy 2:2
Leaders need to know their jobs well, demonstrate that they can do their jobs well and then find others to train and develop as leaders(i.e. Barnabas was an early church leader who mentored Paul, and Paul then trained Timothy.). This multiplication process is how the church grows and how new churches get planted. Churches that fail to develop new leaders, fail to develop. If we have no new elders or deacons, if we do not plant any new churches or send out any new missionaries – we will not be operating according to the New Testament. Leaders fulfill their roles when they are reproducing themselves and hopefully, reproducing better models for leadership.
When I measure church growth, I do not only look at baptisms, attendance and contribution. I also observe personal spiritual growth. I wait for potential leaders to give up their immature conduct, spotty attendance and grow up in the Lord. I ask myself, "Has so and so given up their bad habit yet? Who is teaching this year for the first time? Which couple decided to stay together because it was the right thing to do? What member has begun to attend Bible class in addition to worship?" The list goes on and on in the search for maturing Christians who aspire to lead in the name of Christ.
Both numerical and personal spiritual growth are impossible without growth in leadership. And there is no growth in leadership unless: There is an obvious effort being made at self-mastery; There are obvious signs of superior devotion to the Lord's church and its work (It is embarrassing when a newly baptized member is more faithful than those in leadership); There is a strategic plan to reproduce the existing leadership instead of hanging on to the status quo because we don't like change.
The natural temptation at this point is to get mad and quit. I mean, if leadership is this demanding – who needs it? It is a thankless job in many instances and, yes, it is very demanding, almost impossible at times. But God calls on His leaders not to be afraid or faithless. He calls them to lean on Him, trust Him and follow Him. All will be possible with faith. All will be rewarded in due time. The bitter lesson brought home to the Jews while they wandered in the desert for forty long years was that the land was theirs for the taking if they would have followed the leadership of Caleb and Joshua!
So, examine yourselves to see what one step needs to be taken to demonstrate Christian leadership in your home, your workplace, your school and in your circle of friends. God needs His people to be leaders in the saying and doing of good in this world. What do you need to do to become His leader in your circle today?
I also ask leaders in the church (elders, teachers, ministers, deacons, staff, ministry leaders) to examine themselves also, and see if your leadership is all it needs to be in order to effectively lead God's people. In these tumultuous times, know that the church needs someone to step forward and declare the words that throughout history have begun every resurgence of God's Kingdom here on earth, "Here I am Lord…"