November 2011


Here’s my biggest question when I consider Acts 6: did the apostles choose the right people for the job?

Here’s who they selected: Stephen, Philip, Procorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicolas of Antioch. All Greeks. All who were well respected, full of the Spirit and wisdom. It intrigues me that those were the job qualifications for running a food program. I would have listed people who showed a servant heart or gifting, who saw a need and met it. I would have gone after practical people, and perhaps a few who could think bigger and more strategically, perhaps to grow the program. The apostles, and those they included in the decision-making process, didn’t go in that direction.

On the surface, I’d say they chose the wrong people for the task. I’m not saying they weren’t leaders. Two of these new leaders take center stage in the next two chapters, but not because of the food program. Let’s dig a little deeper.

Stephen is described as “a man full of faith and the Holy Spirit” and “a man full of God’s grace and power.” He is a miracle worker, a debater who was unrivaled in “the wisdom and the Spirit with which [he] spoke.” He’s a preacher who is unafraid to challenge those in power. And these gifts cost him his life. I even wonder if there was time to be part of the food program between his selection in 6:6 and his arrest six verses later.

When the persecution spreads after Stephen’s death and the believers disperse (perhaps ending the food program?), Philip takes on an identity as a traveling evangelist and miracle worker, quick to follow the Spirit’s guiding, bold in crossing cultural borders and loathe to miss an opportunity. Later, he’s a cross-cultural resident of a Roman town, and a father who raised four girls to follow Christ, and who become known for the gift of prophecy (Acts 21:8,9).

There seems to be a double standard here. If the apostles were so concerned about working in their own giftings and responsibilities, shouldn’t they have also worked to empower Stephen and Philip to serve in their giftings rather than giving them a task that was beneath their abilities and perhaps a bad fit?

My conclusion is that the food program was a developmental step, a stretch assignment. It was a platform to explore and expose their real gifts. In addition, it was a chance to raise their profile, take on responsibility and improve their leadership credibility. They’re not the only ones in Scripture who followed this kind of path.

  • Joshua spent decades as Moses’s assistant, and got his first stretch assignment as a spy in Canaan (Ex 33:11, Num 11:28 and 13:16).
  • King Saul asked David to be his harp player and armor bearer, and reluctantly gave him an opportunity to fight Goliath. These opportunities became a springboard for David’s military career and fame (I Sam 16:14-18:9)
  • John Mark hung around Jesus and Peter, then joined Paul and Barnabas on a mission trip as their assistant, where he didn’t exactly serve with distinction (Acts 12:12,25, 13:13 and 15:13-38).

Leadership is best learned by doing it, and stretch assignments are a perfect vehicle for experiential learning. We love to go back to “the usual suspects,” the 20% who do 80% of the work. But when the apostles demonstrated their faith in these new leaders, they lessened the work on themselves and introduced a new generation of leaders with apostolic gifts.

So next time you’re putting together a project, a challenge or a study team, consider the age-old practice of stretch assignments. If it’s good enough for Peter, it’s good enough for me.

Let’s continue mining the leadership development principles found in Acts 6. When the apostles made the decision to remove their fingers from day-to-day program management, who did they turn to? First, they opened the problem to “all the believers,” inviting their input. Second, they went local. The problem was a Greek-speaking versus Hebrew-speaking issue. The apostles were Hebrew-speaking, and when accused of some latent racism, they selected Greek believers to address the problem. They found a local solution. Third, they turned to the next generation. There’s no indication of age, so I don’t want to imply that they handed over responsibility to young leaders, but they clearly handed responsibility to the recipients of the gospel message.

That’s the mark of a movement: those who bring a new idea or message and hand it off to the recipients of that message to take it where they didn’t imagine it could go. We’re experiencing that within Wycliffe. There’s a movement exploding in many parts of the world, carrying forth Bible translation in ways and to places our founders never dreamed of. For instance, I just spent a few days with leaders of 25 non-Wycliffe organizations birthed in Central and South America who are just as passionate about advancing Bible translation in their countries and from their areas of the world as we are. We’re joining together in an alliance to figure this new world out together. It’s a world where language groups are setting up their own Facebook pages, beginning work before we ever get there and becoming evangelists to neighbouring people groups.

Here’s the ugly side, though: the one who can most easily suppress a movement is the original messenger. We westerners do this all the time. To give us the benefit of the doubt, most oppression by a majority is unintentional. We simply don’t realize where we shut down innovation, fail to hand over ownership or fail to see potential. A friend of mine calls it “institutional racism.” In older organizations, it can be a historical colonial viewpoint that has long been eradicated in the obvious places but has become institutionalized in policies, procedures and practices that have never been challenged. It’s time for some audits of the deep, dark corners of the organization.

Since this blog is about leaders, let’s not let ourselves off the hook. Let’s make it personal. Have you audited the deep, dark corners of your own core beliefs for inconsistencies in what you say and practice in terms of holding onto authority or ownership? I remember reading a passage in Sherwood Lingenfelter’s Cross Cultural Leadership about a missionary who had to return to the United States. He successfully found and prepared a national worker to assume responsibilities for preaching in the local church while he was gone. By the time he returned, this local pastor was thriving in his role over a growing church. What a tremendous success! That’s our dream, right? Imagine what happened next. This missionary thanked his brother and took over preaching responsibilities again. I wanted to throw the book down! I wanted to throw some stones!

Until I realized I probably do the same thing all the time. I take back a role I empowered my kids to do, because it’s part of my identity. I delegate an assignment to a subordinate and begin meddling again without thinking. How often have I done that? I couldn’t tell you, but I’ll bet my subordinates and the minorities who have worked with me could tell me… if I created a setting where they could speak openly. I won’t be throwing any stones.

In response, here’s a better way: Let’s lay hands on “the next generation, pray for them and posture ourselves behind them. Let’s lay aside our feeble visions for the capacity of the next generation and allow God’s vision for them to prevail. He may well have a movement in mind.

For years, I’ve pondered the leadership development principles found in Acts 6. That’s the passage where the apostles noted,

We apostles should spend our time teaching the word of God, not running a food program.

Isn’t that a somewhat arrogant statement? In the servant leadership model, shouldn’t leaders be willing to do anything? Aren’t “Level 5 leaders” full of humility? I’ve come to believe that this statement isn’t arrogant; the more arrogant move would have been to hold onto running the food program.

It’s easy for leaders to get pulled into the minutiae and tactical activity surrounding a program that may be critical to organizational success but pulls them out of their element. The leadership principle is to do what only you can do and delegate everything else. A failure to delegate is a lack of trust. Underneath it is a foundational belief that you can do it better yourself.

But what if, like many nonprofits, you don’t have anyone ready to step in? This is a common problem for organizations that are rapidly growing or still run by their founder, but it’s also a problem for organizations that lack future focus. Why is it that some organizations seem to have an abundance of leaders available while others don’t seem to have anyone willing or able to take responsibility? Frankly, the failure to have people ready to step in probably reflects a long practice of doing things yourself. The root cause of a failure to develop leaders in the pipeline is the same as a failure to delegate: pride and control are the ugly idols hiding beneath.

What’s at stake when we as leaders don’t deal with our idolatry? At best, we become a limiting agent. Worse, the organization can become derailed. Consider what would have happened if the apostles had continued to spend time with widows. The new church would have ceased to grow. It would have neglected the Word and prayer. Spiritual development of new believers would have ceased while physical needs were taken care of.

No doubt the apostles’ decision was a controversial one. First, the elderly likely protested the loss of personal relationship with the founders. Second, the optics were bad. You don’t want to give the appearance that you don’t care about widows and the elderly. Third, the food program lost some of its luster, no longer falling under the top of the org chart.

But the decision was a complete success.

So God’s message continued to spread. The number of believers greatly increased in Jerusalem, and many of the Jewish priests were converted, too.

A decision or a program in qualified and empowered hands, released from our control and micromanagement, often is a greater success than anything we could have done ourselves. But the real reason the church grew was not the food program as much as it was a group of leaders who were freed up to do what only they could do.