Imagine for a minute that you’re the apostle Peter. Jesus has just gone. You are left gazing longingly at the sky, not wanting to release your grip on him, wanting him to stay just a few minutes longer. You’re suddenly not sure what your job is. You spent a lot of years in the family business as an angler. Then this Messiah showed up, saying that you were going to be a fisher of men. Three years later, right before leaving, he changed the metaphor on you and told you that you were going to be a shepherd. However, unlike any other shepherd, you were going to care for people. That sounds like some kind of leadership responsibility, but what on earth kind of job is that?

Imagine further. On the Jerusalem Chamber of Volunteer Organizations website, you see a position posted. Wanted: Leader of Christ’s church in Jerusalem. Something in you stirs, so you begin to put together a resume. What would you put on that resume? Think about your credentials for a minute. What makes you qualified to lead the Church? What would you put down as your purpose statement? How would you “sell yourself” and your qualifications for a job like that?

Absurd, isn’t it?

It’s a role we couldn’t have imagined for the impulsive Peter of the Gospels. Nowhere in those four books do we see any indication that Peter is a servant, a pastor or priest, a humble leader.

It turns out Peter’s best credentials come out of his failures.

In Leading With a Limp, Dan Allender says,

No one is humble by nature…. Humility comes from humiliation, not from the choice to be self-effacing or a strong urge to give others the credit.

Humility that has not come from suffering due to one’s own arrogance is either a pragmatic strategy to get along with others or a natural predilection that seems to befit only a few rare individuals. For most leaders, humility comes only by wounds suffered from foolish falls. (p69-70)

I’ve wrestled with Allender’s words for years, arguing that there has to be another way. After all, doesn’t James 4:10 suggest that you can choose it? “Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you.” But the context of this choice to humble yourself is the same as that of the prodigal son in the pig sty or the vindictive Saul blinded and kneeling on the road to Damascus. James is speaking of sinners who repent and grieve their sin. God then picks them up from their knees and exalts them.

My editor, Beth Koehler, offered this insight as we discussed this passage:

We’re talking about repentance and grieving personal sin before the Lord. How difficult it is for any of us, but especially so for leaders. Over and over we see that when leaders repent and grieve sin, their humility leads to a similar response in those they lead. It’s as if some major obstacle to repentance has been removed from the masses.  We see this in the Old Testament. We see it in more recent church history where revivals take place.

A leader’s real power is to be a living, walking example of the gospel.

In John 21, Peter was at a place of repentance and grief. He’d just betrayed his rabbi, his Messiah. Jesus’ response is to come to him on the beach and commission him as a shepherd. “If you love me, feed my sheep.” Somehow, this humbled man ends up leading the church in Jerusalem. Years later, he sends an exhortation to the leaders of the exiled and persecuted church. Peter writes from Rome as a mature believer and elder in the church, a different man from the Peter of the Gospels.

And now, a word to you who are elders in the churches. I, too, am an elder and a witness to the sufferings of Christ. And I, too, will share in his glory when he is revealed to the whole world. As a fellow elder, I appeal to you: Care for the flock that God has entrusted to you. Watch over it willingly, not grudgingly—not for what you will get out of it, but because you are eager to serve God. Don’t lord it over the people assigned to your care, but lead them by your own good example. And when the Great Shepherd appears, you will receive a crown of never-ending glory and honor. (1 Peter 5:1-4)

Peter’s leadership is shaped by his experiences in his early days. As Will Rogers quipped, “Good judgment comes from experience, and a lot of that comes from bad judgment.” Peter made a lot of mistakes, and the advice he gives to leaders reflects the lessons he learned during some of his greatest failures.

Let’s examine a few of the phrases in this passage.

  • “A witness to the sufferings of Christ.” He didn’t intend to be a witness; in John 13:37, he had told Jesus he would die for him. Indeed, while nine of the other disciples immediately ran away, Peter attempted a single-handed defense with a dagger. Jesus’ rebuke forced him to reluctant disengagement. When the mob’s thirst for blood threatened to draw him back in, he finally denied Christ to save himself—his single greatest point of failure.
  • “Care for the flock.” You can just hear Jesus’ words ringing in Peter’s ears decades later: “Feed my sheep!”
  • “Watch over it willingly,” and Peter says it again a few verses later: “Stay alert! Watch out for your great enemy, the devil.” Wasn’t Peter one of the three disciples who fell asleep three times in the Garden of Gethsemane after Jesus told them to keep watch while he prayed?
  • “Don’t lord it over them.” Another harsh lesson. This time the immediate screw-up wasn’t Peter. In Mark 10, James and John had just approached Jesus to seek honour and glory when he sets up his kingdom. Jesus responds that they would join him in drinking his cup (suffering) but it wasn’t up to him who would get glory. Now it’s Peter’s turn:

When the ten other disciples (Peter included) heard what James and John had asked, they were indignant. So Jesus called them together and said, “You know that the rulers in this world lord it over their people, and officials flaunt their authority over those under them. But among you it will be different. Whoever wants to be a leader among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first among you must be the slave of everyone else. For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve others and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (v41-45)

  • “Lead by your own good example.” In John 13, when Jesus took the basin and towel to wash his disciples’ feet, Peter argued at his audacious display of behaviour unbecoming of a leader. Jesus summarized the lesson:

“I have given you an example to follow. Do as I have done to you.” (v15)

Ouch! Peter’s leadership springs out of the bruises remaining from his greatest failures. Gentleness and humility began with his failures and were honed during his leadership of the early church through the peaks of rapid growth and the Holy Spirit’s miraculous power and the deep valleys of persecution, martyrdom and scattering.

It was only after all those experiences that Peter could say, “So humble yourselves under the mighty power of God, and at the right time he will lift you up in honour” (1 Peter 5:6). Peter certainly took a difficult journey to humility. Yes, in the early days the other disciples let him go first. He was the extrovert, he was unafraid. But being outspoken isn’t the same as being a leader. It wasn’t until he went through the darkest point in his life and was restored that we see the beginning of Peter’s journey to bold preacher, leader of men and elder shepherd.

What is your story? Have you gone through a point of failure? How does it shape you today?

Have you taken the time to reflect on your failures and what you can learn from them? Don’t waste those dark moments. They are critical to your character and habits as a leader.

How do I know? Because my own story resembles Peter’s more than I’d like. In my next post, I’ll share my own journey.