by Steve Wyatt
Our new church had just commissioned our first elder team. It was such a big moment our 10:30 crowd actually stood and cheered! I was thrilled by such an enthusiastic response, but I also gulped hard.
I’ve been in church leadership for 30 years, so even amid the hearty applause I couldn’t help but wonder, How long will it be before today’s response takes on a slightly more threatening tone?
Perhaps you think I’m too cynical. But on that Sunday morning, our elders hadn’t done anything yet. So of course everybody loved us. But I knew that as soon as we made one unpopular decision, even if it was the right decision—kablooey!
How quickly the tide of public opinion can turn. On Palm Sunday, thousands had gathered to catch a glimpse of Jesus. They danced, clapped, and shouted, “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” (Matthew 21:9).
But a mere five days later the same crowd shouted, “Crucify him!” (Matthew 27:22).
And that was Jesus. Can you imagine what run-of-the-mill church leaders—even fallible, human elders—will face?
The apostle Paul was one of the world’s all-time great leaders, yet in 1 Thessalonians 2, even he felt the heat: “You know, brothers and sisters, that our visit to you was not without results” (v. 1).
Without sufficient background, you might be tempted to think Paul was being too sensitive—even defensive. No, Paul is upset because some Thessalonians were saying his visit there had been a flop.
Paul was the founding minister at Thessalonica but he didn’t get to hang around and watch the church grow. He may have preached only three or four sermons before leaving abruptly. The city’s officials had accused him of being a troublemaker and told him to skedaddle.
Paul’s hasty exit left this baby church, filled with three-week-old believers, without their leader. As often happens, his detractors quickly filled his leadership void, each hungrily fishing for potential followers.
The fastest way to get sign-ups is to sling mud at your predecessor, and that seems to be what these wannabes did. They lied about Paul, claiming he’d folded under pressure: “Paul stirs up this hornet’s nest and then leaves us to clean up his mess!”
Some said he was greedy. Others charged him with immorality.
Negative campaigns exist because negative campaigns work. And if people hear something bad about someone long enough, they’ll eventually start believing it.
Paul was in the awkward position of defending himself: “My time with you was not a failure! You don’t believe I just cut and ran, do you?”
Not the First Time
Unwilling to let his detractors win the battle for public opinion, Paul provided some much-needed context.
Before Paul started the church in Thessalonica he had started the church in Philippi. In Philippi a demon-possessed girl started hassling him. She followed him around, shouting and disrupting his preaching.
This continued for days until Paul cast the evil spirit from her. When he did, the girl was set free.
Good news for her . . . not so good news for her handlers. Her psychic powers had made lots of money for her owners, and when the demon left, so did her powers—and their source of income.
Enraged, they incited a riot and dragged Paul before the city officials. The officials stripped Paul and Silas, beat them with rods, and threw them into prison.
Even though some amazing things took place later that night, the city leaders told Paul he wasn’t welcome in Philippi.
So Paul reminded his detractors that he had faced hardship before and endured: “Maybe you don’t remember my story. Even though I got manhandled in Philippi, I came to Thessalonica anyway. And I did the same stuff here that got me so mistreated there. I ‘dared to tell you [the] gospel [even] in the face of [another round of] strong opposition.’”
Some followers tend to think most leaders are exempt from hostilities—that leaders get a free ride and live a charmed existence, unscarred and unscathed by life.
That’s not even close to true. If you set your heart on being a leader you will eventually endure great opposition, scathing criticism, and undiminished scorn.
Fred Allen once said that most wannabe leaders “walk around backwards so they don’t ever have to face an issue.”
Others adopt this well-traveled plan:
1. When in charge, ponder.
2. When in trouble, delegate.
3. When in doubt, mumble.
It’s tough being the one who has to make the call. It’s much easier to sit around in endless meetings, worrying over some decision like a dog wrestles with a bone, spinning it, pawing at it, and then burying it for another day or another time. But in the final analysis, the time comes when every leader has to bravely say, “We’re going for it!”
But when you go for it, be prepared for criticism and opposition. Because invariably, whatever you decide to do, even if you do nothing, somebody won’t like it. They’ll tell you they’ve heard other people talking, too. And they don’t like it, either.
One test of a leader is his ability to make a decision and stick with it.
Remember Nehemiah? Once he decided to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem, he was a marked man. His enemies were vicious. And Nehemiah absorbed every blow. Even when critics told him they’d formed a posse and if he wanted to save his neck he’d better scram, Nehemiah said, “Should a man like me run away? . . . I will not go!” (Nehemiah 6:11).
But many self-ascribed leaders do go. When faced with the relentless blast of misunderstanding and opposition, they are more than willing to turn in their prophet’s badge.
But the leader God uses is the one who remains calm under pressure. Who stands firm without being cranky or mean-spirited. Who stays the course no matter what obstacles are thrown his way.
That’s what Paul did.
Things got ugly in Philippi, but Paul headed to Thessalonica anyway. Things got tough there, too, but he stood firm “in spite of strong opposition.”
It’s been said the leader, like the boxer, stands alone. Because inside the ring and under the white-hot lights, the truth of who he really is gets revealed. There is no place inside the ring for him to hide.
It Got Worse
Evidently, Paul’s accusers also questioned his integrity. So Paul responded, “The appeal we make does not spring from error or impure motives, nor are we trying to trick you” (1 Thessalonians 2:3).
Far from shrinking back from yet another attack, he said, “On the contrary . . . we are not trying to please men but God, who tests our hearts. You know we never used flattery” (1 Thessalonians 2:4, 5).
Some leaders are insecure enough to believe their primary job is to keep everybody happy.
But it’s not. And if you try to lead by sitting on the fence or by stroking everybody’s egos, the organization you lead will soon grind to a screeching halt.
How can you lead the way Paul did? You choose to work for an audience of one. You seek to satisfy only one rightful Judge. Paul said, “[I’m] not trying to please people . . . [my job is to please] God” (v. 4).
That’s how leaders lead. You make up your mind that there is nothing more important than God’s approval. That his goals and his principles and his methods are the single determining factor regarding your life and mission. Then, warmed by God’s smile, you move out.
That’s why Paul could be so courageous. His courage wasn’t forged from his own grit. Nor was it a composite of protective relationships. Paul walked in the good pleasure and approval of God. Even when opposed, he was able to stand firm.
Want to wind up in a padded cell? Try to live your life and conform your behavior in such a way that everybody who knows you, likes you.
If you’re a leader, you must find your approval somewhere other than from the people you lead. You must decide that, more than anything else, you want God’s approval.
Steve Wyatt is a freelance writer in Phoenix, Arizona.
Check out these blogs about godly leaders:
by Mike Kjergaard, Cedar Creek (Indiana) Church of Christ
by Rob Daniels, Westbrook (Illinois) Christian Church