Since we first heard the stories about Jonah in Sunday School, we have learned that God is omnipresent; there is no place we can flee from his presence and no believer in whom he does not dwell. He’s everywhere. But if that’s true, then why do we see phrases such as these throughout Scripture?

The Lord was with…

My presence will go with you…

Lo, I am with you always…

Of course God is with us and goes with us. Right?

If the incredible frequency of these phrases in the Bible weren’t enough to catch my attention, the passion with which certain characters desire that presence certainly did. Consider Moses. He experienced enough of God’s physical presence in the burning bush, column of fire and smoke and face to face encounters that he wasn’t about to go anywhere without God’s presence. He argued, “If your presence will not go with me, do not bring us up from here. For how shall it be known that I have found favor in your sight, I and your people? Is it not in your going with us, so that we are distinct, I and your people, from every other people on the face of the earth?” (Exodus 33:15-16)

David is another leader who knew clearly that his success came from God’s presence. “The Lord was with him but had departed from Saul…. And David had success in all his undertakings, for the Lord was with him. And when Saul saw that he had great success, he stood in fearful awe of him.” (1 Samuel 18:12-16) No wonder, then, that after sinning with Bathsheba, David feared God would cast him out of his presence or take the Holy Spirit from him (Psalm 51:11). He was nothing without God’s presence.

I have a couple of foundational questions. If God is everywhere, why do we need to assure he’s present in our venture? And how can an omnipresent God remove his presence? These are critical questions for leaders, because if we don’t understand why Moses and David refused to lead without God’s presence, we lead at our own peril. Let’s look at a couple of things leaders need to understand.

Who gets the credit

There’s clearly some specific manifestation of God’s presence that gives a leader success. In addition to Moses and David, the Old Testament credits God’s presence as the secret to the success of Joseph (Gen 39:3,21), Joshua (Josh 6:27), Samuel (1 Sam 3:19), Hezekiah (2 Kings 18:7), Phinehas (1 Chron 9:20), John the Baptist (Luke 1:66) and Stephen (Acts 11:24). When I look back, I can see that, just as God was with Joseph in slavery, in prison and in the highest political office, he has given me success throughout my career, from the lows to the highs. I’ve seen problems solved through ideas that came to me in the middle of the night, I’ve seen doors open at just the right time and I’ve seen God give me favour in relationships that have advanced my career. I dare not claim any credit for those situations; the Lord was with me.

The key to effectiveness

The New Testament provides warnings and promises linking his presence to mission and leadership effectiveness. When Jesus commissions his disciples to be his witnesses, he promises his presence. As you go to baptize and make disciples, he says, “be sure of this: I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:20) A short time later, as he prepares to leave them, Jesus warns them not to try to be witnesses until he sends the Holy Spirit (Acts 1:4-5). It’s only when the baptism of the Spirit falls on them that their mission begins.

In John 15, Jesus offered the image of a grapevine to talk about proximity to him, promising fruitfulness when we “abide in him” and he in us. While this idea of dwelling or remaining suggests sitting still, that’s not the point. God is always at work, and it’s far more effective to join him in that work than to stray from his life-giving power. Remember, he promised in Matthew 28 to be with us as we go on his mission. But Jesus doesn’t stop with just a promise. He also warns that there will be no fruit ”apart from him.” As I mentioned in a previous blog post, “the verse doesn’t say that we will only produce some fruit. It doesn’t say we won’t be able to do much. It says we can do nothing.” Going further, he says branches that are not attached to the vine wither, are thrown away and are gathered to be burned. There are consequences for a leader who strays from his presence.

For the leader, these Scriptures suggest some course corrections. You might need to stop your forward progress and wait until you have assurance of God’s presence before you move forward. It might mean you need to discern his movement so you can join him. Stay close to him, steep yourself in his Word, know his character and learn his ways so that your direction aligns with his. Moses did this so well that his personal overall objective changed. In Strengthening the Soul of Your Leadership, Ruth Haley Barton concludes that through Moses’ journey in the wilderness, he eventually came to think of God himself as his promised land rather than getting to the land of “milk and honey.” It all comes down to the value we place on his presence.

In her previous book, Sacred Rhythms, Barton talks about the value of breath prayers. Breath prayers are cries from deep down in your soul that you condense into a simple phrase that can be repeated easily and almost subconsciously throughout the day. Often I find that the frequent cry of my soul is this:

Omnipresent Lord, I need your presence.

I’m obsessed with keeping God’s presence. I want to know where the Holy Spirit is moving so I can join in, as a sailboat looks for wind. I want assurance of God’s presence before I head down a road. And I want to abide in Christ and him in me, so that my actions are infused with power.

After all, the secret to my success has very little to do with me.

“For David, after he had served the purpose of God in his own generation, fell asleep and was laid with his fathers…”

I’ve said often that my goal is, like David in Acts 13:36, to fulfill the purpose of God in my generation. What is that purpose? I don’t think anyone will be able to say definitively until my funeral what that purpose was and whether I fulfilled it. It’s the kind of assessment that’s best defined via epitaph. In one sense, it’s out of my hands whether I accomplish that purpose. It becomes a driving force, a vision for my life. But in another sense, I have the ability to prevent it from happening. I can simply reject God’s purpose for my life and my generation. As my pastor preached through Luke 7 recently, I shuddered at these terrifying words from verse 30:

“…but the Pharisees and the lawyers rejected the purpose of God for themselves…”

I can’t imagine a more horrible epitaph. Why and how did the religious leaders of the day manage to reject God’s purpose? How could people in such strategic positions miss the most important thing? What warnings are there for me? For us?

First, let me borrow from my pastor in laying out the context. John the Baptist, after sitting in prison, began to express doubts about whether his cousin Jesus was the Messiah. Jesus answered, not by rebuking his doubt or offering intellectual proof, but by reminding him of the messianic scriptures he fulfilled daily as he healed the sick, exorcised the possessed and gave sight to the blind. Then he turned on the watching crowd to cover John’s back and challenge their understanding of the eccentric prophet. The crowd responded in two ways. Those who were baptized by John “declared God just.” Those who were not tried to justify themselves. And in so doing, they rejected God’s purpose.

So, where did the latter — the religious leaders and lawyers — go wrong?

  1. They weren’t responsive. The very next point in the verse is that they had not been baptized by John. We know they heard his message but didn’t buy it. Jesus went on to compare them to grumpy kids who don’t join in the others’ games. They didn’t laugh with those who laughed or mourn with those who mourned. I think the issue was distance. They looked at the world from the outside, afraid to get their hands and robes dirty with real life. May I never fall prey to the traps of reading the Bible for knowledge, paying more attention to the rules of religion than to the needs of widows and orphans, or analyzing rather than empathizing and sympathizing.
  2. They had to be right. While the people responded to Jesus’ message about John by concluding that God’s plan was proved right, the Pharisees rejected God’s plan. They were so sure of themselves that they found ground to fault and judge anyone else’s beliefs or practice. John the Baptist was too much of a teetotaler, so he must be possessed. Jesus was too comfortable with culture, so he must be an addict. The Pharisees’ heart attitude of rigidity and self righteousness caused them to miss God’s plan for them. Instead, may I be one who holds my opinions loosely, as one looking through a glass darkly, and may I be as much of a learner at 69 as I was at 29.
  3. They were blind. The proof Jesus offered to John about his claim to be Messiah was available to the Pharisees as well. Elijah was in their midst. Jesus was in their midst. But they missed the point. If a leader is not one to understand the times and know what to do, then he needs people around him who fill that role. Many of the kings in the Old Testament — even the heathen ones — knew this (see 1 Chronicles 12:32Esther 1:13Daniel 10:1). A leader can’t afford to miss an opportunity like the one before the Pharisees. May I have eyes to see what God is doing, the ears to listen to those who see it before I do and the courage to put actions behind my beliefs once I know what needs doing.

As I said, I can’t say with confidence what God’s purpose is for me and my generation. But I see a door open before me. I can tell you that a significant challenge has been laid at the feet of this generation: the Word of God in every language in this generation. I would love for people at my funeral to say that I helped lead my generation to see that challenge completed.

That’s my prayer for myself. After all, David himself prayed in faith, “The Lord will fulfill his purpose for me… Do not forsake the work of your hands.”  (Psalm 138:8)

In this blog, I’ve unpacked the stories of a number of leaders in the Bible, but as I reflect back, they’ve been overwhelmingly male. In my unwitting focus, I’ve missed one of the most fascinating leaders in the Bible: Abigail. She’s featured heavily in only one chapter. After 1 Samuel 25, she only makes bit appearances. But chapter 25 describes an amazing woman.

Who is Abigail? She’s a sensible and beautiful woman married to a rich, crude, mean, ill-tempered and foolish man. I have trouble with her choice of husband until I realize she probably didn’t have any. (I can imagine a sensible young lady hearing from her parents that they’ve arranged a marriage with a guy named “Fool.” I bet that didn’t go over well! Her father probably retorted, “But he’s rich!”)

Observing Nabal’s behavior and hearing Abigail’s own description of her husband in verse 25, it’s hard to imagine where his riches come from. I can only conclude either he inherited it or his wife manages it for him. Judging by her actions, the last part is likely true.

With that, let me hit the highlights of the story. King-in-waiting David and his men spend some time near Carmel, all the while providing protection for the local shepherds. After some time, they head to town in time for the sheepshearing festival and ask for some provisions from the flock’s owner, Nabal. He insults David and turns them away. As David and 400 men strap on their swords to avenge the insult, Nabal’s wife appears with the very provisions Nabal refused, successfully averting David’s anger and violence.

Here are some of the advanced leadership abilities I see in Abigail:

1. She understands the times. I’ve blogged before about how leaders either need this trait themselves or need to staff for someone who understands the times and knows what to do (I Chronicles 12:32) Abigail has this ability in spades. When Nabal turns David’s men away, one of his servants goes straight to Abigail, explains the situation and says, “You need to know this and figure out what to do.” Sure enough, she hatches a plan on the spot.

2. She knows the power of owning a problem. Abigail didn’t even see David’s men. She had no opportunity to intervene in Nabal’s rude behavior. But, like any good leader, she takes full responsibility. “I accept all blame in this matter.” “Please forgive me if I have offended you in any way.” In Calgary in May I stayed at a hotel where a guest forgot to spray the waffle maker before pouring in the batter. The waffle was stuck fast to the iron. The Asian kitchen manager immediately took over, spending a good 15 minutes getting it clean, to the guest’s chagrin. I overheard a guest walk by and make a comment, and the kitchen manager sheepishly took credit for burning the waffle. In my experience, that may well be a typical thing for an Asian to do. In my experience, that’s not a typical thing for a manager to do.

3. She knows the power of apology. It’s amazing how seldom many leaders use this tool. They regret, they explain, they excuse, they dodge. But a straight-up apology goes a long way toward building trust. For some reason, apologies are a head game. It’s difficult to say you’re sorry, because it puts you in a position of weakness. It feels like you’ll be taken advantage of. But appropriate vulnerability always builds credibility. Abigail’s actions give her huge credibility with David. Her willingness to lower herself saves her entire family.

4. She knows the power of timing. With David, “Abigail wasted no time.” With Nabal, she chooses a different path. Rather than tell him of her actions – which will appear as betrayal to him – while he’s drunk and partying, she waits until the morning. The news isn’t good for his heart, and within ten days, he’s dead.

David knows the power of timing, too. The moment Abigail becomes a free agent, he asks her to marry him. A woman like that won’t be available for long.

Who can find a virtuous and capable wife?

She is worth more than rubies. (Proverbs 31:10)

Warning: at first glance, this post is about sports. Or maybe it’s not about sports. You might have to read past the first paragraph and gauge for yourself.

A couple of weeks ago, Georgia Tech concluded its search for a new basketball coach, selecting Brian Gregory from Dayton. For most Tech fans, that choice was underwhelming, as it appears Gregory is more steak than sizzle. Yes, he’s good. But his team isn’t in the NCAA tournament, and he didn’t come from a major conference. Tech fans have a high-enough view of their program that they think they could have hired a great coach away from another big-name school. So Gregory is bound to crush expectations.

Tech’s athletic director had a choice to make, and it just so happens that it’s the kind of choice any leader makes when it comes to succession planning and search committees. I think sport serves as a fishbowl, bringing certain choices into the open that often happen behind the scenes. The choices Tech faced, stated in general leadership terms for greater application:

1. Covet a shiny object. There are a number of “Cinderella teams” who crashed the NCAA tournament this year. Every time Butler or VCU won, the dollars projected for a bigger school to steal their hot coach rose significantly. Yet who’s to say their recent success in a smaller organization would translate to a regular winning program? Most organizations can point to people who, by their movement in an organization, are bound to be noticed. Yet there are concerns. For someone who has been successful at every level, what happens when they face adversity? What happens if their inertia collides with the Peter principle and they exceed the limits of their competence? Have they been adequately tested? Can they handle the increase in complexity and profile? How much risk is there in promoting the latest trend? One area to watch for is managing expectations. This leader better win, and soon. With all sizzle, he’s likely to win spectacularly or fail spectacularly.

This week, I read the story of David and Goliath again. David’s qualifications for taking on Goliath were that he had defeated lions and bears. King Saul had a decision to make: promote or protect this young, eager leader.

2. Stay safe with experience. In contrast, the safe choice looks attractive. He’s slow and steady. He’s never stood out as a rising star, but he’s also had few down years. Mr. Consistency has been successful at just about every level and is solid in the fundamentals. He’s likely a workaholic, accomplishing success through hard work and effort. He might be boring, but he’s put in the years and earned the right to be considered for the position.

My biggest concerns here are whether the person has the passion and energy to motivate followers and the courage necessary to lead change. If the organization has systemic challenges, it needs a leader, not a manager. Sometimes the safe choice is the biggest risk. In Saul’s case, the safe choices were hiding. The organization needed a fool who would “rush in where angels fear to tread.”

3. Stay close to home. In Georgia Tech’s case, a duo of former players indicated an interest and built a strong enough argument to at least get interviewed. Willing to work for less money and put their heart and soul into the job, home grown leaders have the opportunity to tap the culture and win over the fan base. In this case, both lacked head coaching experience but had been successful at lower levels. There’s risk, because they’re unproven, but patience among the fan base, who is willing to give them the benefit of the doubt.

This is the kind of leader Jim Collins calls a Level 5 Leader: someone from within who is passionate about the organization and stubbornly wills it to success. In a sense, David tapped into that passion. His drive came from the fact that Goliath mocked his God. Nobody should get away with that!

4. Go with reluctance. In the person who never sought the job, you find humility and a low salary. While similar to the passionate leader in being homegrown, there’s a distinct difference: this person showed no initiative, nor did he dream that he would be considered. My concern is that someone who never thinks himself a leader and doesn’t take personal development seriously. He might do a competent job, but he’s not interested in growing as a leader so may never take the organization any further. When adversity comes, he may buck responsibility and wither. On the other hand, expectations are low, and followers are pulling for his success, so he may be given a long honeymoon period.

We absolutely love the Rags to Riches story, and we have a strange desire for a leader who stands up and says he never wanted the position. But the risk is that he’ll burn out because it’s a bad fit or quit because of the stress. Or perhaps he’ll turn down your offer in the first place.

There are lots of examples in the Bible of reluctant leaders who begged God not to send them, but David wasn’t one of them. I love the way he verifies the reward before taking the risk with Goliath: “What will a man get for killing this Philistine?” While they weren’t his primary motivation, David didn’t refuse the attractive salary package (the king’s hot daughter and a tax exemption for life).

So, which is the right strategy? It depends. The fact is that every organization is different, and every organization is at a different stage when looking for a coach or president. In Georgia Tech’s case, they needed fundamentals, consistency and a low salary. That led them to replace a coach who looked uninspired with an experienced coach who has hardly excited the fan base. In another setting, they may well have made a different choice.

Shepherds shouldn’t just be overseeing their flock to look for threats. They should be looking within. In Acts 20, Paul says to “Be on guard for yourselves and for all the flock… I know that after my departure savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves men will arise… Therefore be on the alert.”

This is one of the more scary warnings in Scripture. After all, if we can’t trust ourselves, who can we trust? Am I really capable of becoming the biggest danger to my flock? If so, what should I be alert for? Here are a few questions for self evaluation:

First, what is my motivation for ministry and leadership? Jesus warned against “hired hands” who don’t care for the sheep like the Good Shepherd does. Seasonal workers who are disinclined to sacrifice too much for their flocks are a danger to the flock. Am I just doing a job, or am I fully vested?

Second, how am I using leadership for my own benefit? Ezekiel 34 offers a stark contrast between the self-serving leaders of Israel and the Good Shepherd. God warns these shepherds who have abandoned the flock, taken advantage of them for personal gain, and ignored or mistreated the weak. “I now consider these shepherds my enemies,” he says. There are perks for leadership roles. What is my attitude toward those “trappings”? And do I exist to serve the sheep and their Shepherd, or do they exist to serve me?

Third, what is my relationship with the Owner? In While Shepherds Watch Their Flocks, Timothy Laniak has a chapter dedicated to the issue of lack of trust between shepherds and owners, saying there’s a common belief among herd owners in the Middle East that shepherds will steal or eat their flock if given a chance. When you think about the bonding and loyalty that can develop when shepherd and sheep spend so much time together, betrayal would not be difficult.

When the guard becomes the enemy, the flock is in deep trouble.

The problem is that weariness, entitlement, selfishness and betrayal don’t just happen suddenly. They creep in over time. Laniak offers a couple of concrete examples. False teachers get their start when leaders let their moorings drift from God’s word and begin to allow popular trends or “original ideas” to supplement or replace orthodoxy. Or when leaders lose their nerve to speak against the things they know they need to.

Another foothold is fatique. When I’m too tired, I don’t even notice the roots of a problem. I know what to do when I face a trial. I know what to do when I see division and quarreling. But when I’m weary and right in the middle of it, I don’t recognize the trial or the disunity for what it is, and I react in the flesh.

Laniak nails the fact that no one is immune from an imperceptible shift. It has the ring of truth to it:

Becoming a wolf only takes a combination of skepticism and time.

So, what should leaders do to guard our hearts? Here are some of my personal solutions.

1. When I know what I need to do but don’t have the energy to do it, it’s time for me to move on.

This value is specifically set up to guard myself from internal drift. I got the idea from Andy Stanley at Catalyst a few years ago. It fits with one of my personal goals: to never grow old. As I’ve written before, I subscribe to Douglas MacArthur’s definition of youth: You are as young as your optimism and as old as your fears. When cynicism and weariness take over, it’s time for me to seek a new fountain of youth in a different role or different ministry area — something that will motivate me and purify my motives.

2. Give others permission to “call me” on something.

A few years ago I heard one of the authors of TrueFaced talk about the idea of accountability from a slightly different angle. He urged us to admit our weaknesses and then give permission to our followers, our team or even our kids to “call us” when they see us moving into that area of weakness, hypocrisy or sin. Because of power distance, they aren’t going to do it naturally; they have to be given permission. If we take the steps before something happens to admit we’re capable of becoming a wolf, then we’ll have some critical safeguards enabled if we start to drift.

3. Suspect myself first.

This guideline came from a marriage book I read recently, When Sinners Say I Do. It’s great advice for any interpersonal relationship, and it comes from Jesus’s urging to remove the huge chunk of wood from your own eye before trying to remove a speck from someone else’s. When I find fault with someone, I need to ask myself what my own responsibility is. There is often something I could rectify. But my tendency is to suspect others or my environment first. When I interact with the person by first owning my own fault, the encounter goes a lot better!

That’s really what Laniak is saying here: suspect yourself. “Who can accurately assess the urges prowling in the darkness of our own souls?” David is a prime example. During the time that kings go to war (external threats), he stayed home. And in beginning an affair with Bathsheba, he became the wolf inside the camp. His cry in Psalm 51 and 139 is for God to search him and root out any wicked way. That’s my prayer as well today.

What is the place for people like Barnabas in management? Saul would never have completed his turnaround if Barnabas hadn’t noted the fruit of his change. John Mark would have been forever labeled a quitter if Barnabas hadn’t taken him under his wing, even at the expense of his partnership with Paul. When the Holy Spirit does a work in one of these “wrong people,” do we have people tuned to notice that change and advocate on their behalf? Do we have the courage or the margin to take a risk on someone working to rebuild trust?

About four years ago in my management career, I decided that I’m willing to take on one “project” at any given time. As long as I’m able to fully support the entire team, I’m willing to give special attention to one person who has had some issues identified in previous jobs or who is beginning to discover new leadership abilities. I’ve seen the problems that arise when a manager has more than one of these cases, and the department becomes known for being a collection of wounded souls or the manager becomes known for his soft heart and inability to turn anyone away.

Having said that, I love the story of David and his band of malcontents in 1 Samuel 22. While Saul was king and David an outcast, men who were in trouble, in debt or discontented gravitated to David’s leadership. When he became king, his “mighty men” took office and filled legitimate positions, such as bodyguard and special forces. Fiercely loyal to this man who took a risk on them, they went on to accomplish great feats like conquering Jerusalem and defeating giants alongside him. When David suggested one time that he’d love a drink from the well in his hometown, three of them busted through enemy lines just to get him a cup of water.

The leader who can spot potential and identify the work of the Holy Spirit in someone is a rare gem. Time and time again, God has used people like that to complete His work of redemption, giving the wrong person a second chance.

  • Jethro helped restore Moses after murder
  • Jesus gently forgave Peter and gave him a new mission
  • Ananias and Barnabas took a chance that Saul’s repentance was real
  • Barnabas took John Mark under his wing when Paul gave up on this young quitter

Who is filling that role in your church and in your organization? May God give us as leaders the eyes to see people the way He does and the courage to follow through on a hunch.

As I was walking into the office a couple of weeks ago, I noticed that a young leader was wearing a blazer… again. In a pretty casual department his attire stood out. Turns out he’s been dressing up consistently since the new year. When I asked about it, the response was that he’s trying to take himself more seriously.

Taking yourself seriously is a quality worth adding to our list of early seeds of leadership. There are a number of indicators that a person is preparing himself for future roles. At the earliest stage, this might include dressing up. It might also include a desire to spend time with senior leaders. Let’s look at a few examples.

When I was visiting with another organization recently, one of the senior leaders pointed out what first stood out to him about their youngest vice president: he had never been intimidated by leaders at the highest levels, instead choosing to interact with them… and ask lots of questions. I’ve seen this kind of thing myself when the board or senior leadership team gathers. A few young, rising leaders inevitably show up at break times.

A fortysomething leader came to me one day and told me he was considering throwing his hat in the ring to be considered for a promotion. He asked me what I thought. Among other things, I asked him if he considered people at that next level to be colleagues. How comfortable was he with walking into their office to have a conversation? Realizing that he was already at ease at that level was one factor in his decision to pursue a new leadership position.

What it comes down to is whether someone acts like the position they see themselves serving in.

I’m not talking about people who “sell out” to get a position. I think authenticity is extremely important in leadership. In fact, when I moved into the Offices of the President a year ago, I went to two people who knew me well and gave them permission to call me on it if they ever saw me becoming a clone of those I work around. If I ever become someone else in an attempt to get ahead, I want friends who are close enough to point out my hypocrisy.

What I’m talking about is the way David, hiding out in a cave in the wilderness, acted like the king he would become. His circumstances didn’t matter, and he didn’t let the group of misfits surrounding him bring him down to their level. He behaved in a manner suited to a king, and in so doing, laid a course for the way he would act as king.