In my chronological reading through the Bible, I’ve arrived at the book of Nehemiah—a remarkable study of leadership. Many others have preached, blogged and written on the leadership principles gleaned from this case study. Nevertheless, I’m going to attempt to draw out some fresh points. As you will recall, Nehemiah was a cupbearer to King Artaxerxes, the Persian King. In spite of his status as a Jewish exile, he earned a position as part of the bodyguard protecting the ruler of one of the world’s two greatest powers at the time.

From the very first moment we meet Nehemiah, we sense a calling. As he serves the king in Persia, the news reaches him that Jerusalem is still lying in ruins after almost a century. It wrecks him. He weeps, he mourns and he prays day and night—for four months. Nehemiah doesn’t just pray with objectivity; he prays himself into the solution: “let Your servant prosper this day, I pray, and grant him mercy in the sight of this man,” the king (Nehemiah 1:11).

In other words, Nehemiah does something Moses and Gideon would never have dared. While they said, “send somebody else,” Nehemiah says, “send me.” God honours his request, and it starts him on a promotion path. First King Artaxerxes appoints him as foreman of the rebuilding effort. Then, after some early success in Jerusalem, the king promotes him to governor. When my pastor Glen Nudd preached on Nehemiah recently, he summarized it neatly:

At the end of it all, Nehemiah is given a job, a position, an assignment, a mission. He invites it, he receives it, he accepts it, he embraces it.

Can you do that? Is it okay for believers to show such ambition? Aren’t we supposed to resist the temptations of advancement and the lure of power? Isn’t it Christian to be content and to suppress ambition? Doesn’t Nehemiah’s action show complete lack of humility? As Pastor Glen put it:

Sometimes, as believers, we think that to be spiritual and godly we should always refuse advancement, promotion, or any kind of upward mobility and just go play in the shadows quietly, unnoticed and not expecting to influence anything very much. Maybe we think it’s the humble thing to do.

Were Moses and Gideon more godly than this young upstart, Nehemiah? After all, wasn’t Moses described in Numbers 12:3 as the most humble person on earth? Yet a careful reading reveals that Moses and Gideon were paralyzed by fear. I think many believers today have the same problem. While Pastor Glen allowed that there are valid reasons to turn down promotion, he pointed out that sometimes humility is a mask for the real issues for reluctance: fear of responsibility, fear of commitment, or fear of having our faith and abilities tested.

Pastor Glen asked us to consider promotion in a different light:

What if God wants to promote you so that He can use you in an even greater way to be salt and light in a dark world? What if your “no” is actually refusing the potential for great influence and ministry and impact for the Kingdom of God?

Proverbs 29:2 says, ‘When the righteous are in authority, the people rejoice; but when a wicked man rules, the people groan.’

It’s a good thing, a God-honoring thing, when God’s people are promoted and the salt gets better distributed and the light shines farther. When the gospel and the glory of God are advanced, that’s a good thing.

There’s no Biblical prohibition on ambition for a cause, and that’s why Nehemiah willingly accepts position. The question is how you lead in whatever position God gives you. Jim Collins will tell you that a great leader engaged in a cause should lead with humility. I met a few Proverbs 29 Members of Parliament a couple of weeks ago in Ottawa. I was impressed at their quiet competence, but also their fire when it came to causes like human trafficking. Like Nehemiah, they embraced high positions and the voice it gave them. Through years of faithful witness, each has earned respect for the way they handled the challenges of federal politics.

So, is the act of stepping up in leadership antithetical to humility? Not at all. The answer, as we’ll see in Nehemiah 5, is servant leadership.

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About once a year Wycliffe Canada’s leadership team thinks about succession planning. We haven’t been doing it for very long, and each time we dust off the charts and consider our bench strength, I feel a bit more confidence in our process and note that we’re closing gaps. This is where we finally look at the evidence regarding what we feel to be true: we are making progress in developing leaders at all levels of the organization. It’s slow progress, but anything systemic is going to take some time.

When doing succession planning, there are a couple of questions you have to consider, and some traps that are too easy to fall into.

  • Do we really want to continue in the same structure we’ve had? The temptation with succession charts is to put names in all the boxes: immediate successor, 2-3 years and long-shot/dark horse candidates. But what if the best solution for any of those is to restructure, combine roles, partner or outsource? Does your format allow for that kind of thinking?
  • Just because the incumbent exhibits certain skills, experience and characteristics doesn’t mean her successor should. The challenge is to consider 3-5 years into the future and look for successors who can lead that functional area into the future. That’s why Jack Welch says that in the eight years he planned for his succession before stepping down as CEO of GE, most of the names eventually fell off his list, and it was the long-shot and dark-horse candidates who eventually became finalists.
  • And finally, we add a lot of our own biases when we consider names. Leaders often think themselves good judges of character, but I’ve seen a lot of leaders write candidates off too quickly. If we were brutally honest, a lot of CEOs would have written off the person their board selects to succeed them.

I could wade further into that subject based on my own reading and faltering attempts at it, but others would have a lot more expertise. If I based this blog post primarily on my own experience and wisdom, the prime benefit for you readers would be along the lines of one of my favourite leadership axioms:

A lot of good judgement comes from experience, and a lot of that comes from bad judgement.

For this post, I want to consider what God says about succession planning.

Let’s go back a step and consider some of the mythology around leadership in the first place. In Leading with a Limp, Dan Allender says our view of what a leader should be is quite different than God’s. For instance, we want the following:

  • “First, a leader must be physically attractive.” Full head of hair, all that. If they can’t be that, then they at least need to be over 6′ tall.
  • “We also presume our leaders will be fluent public speakers with a firm command of their audience.” We want panache, charisma and great storytelling.
  • “We seek leaders who are well-educated, open, sincere, humble, salt-of-the-earth people able to pull themselves up by their bootstraps, leaders who never forget their humble beginning or the values and convictions of those they represent.”
  • “We expect a leader to make tough decisions… yet we want him to tear up over a sad story and be sentimental on Mother’s Day.

Tell me that’s not true! How many of my readers measure up? This author certainly doesn’t. But we can’t stop there; Allender goes on to say,

What we want is an illusion and we know it. We prefer the illusion because we have a deep need to be buffered from reality. (p27)

The illusion is dangerous because it keeps any of us from qualifying. The pedestal we put leaders on makes leadership unattainable or destroys leaders with unmanageable expectations, sometimes self-imposed. When we apply our own biases to our successors, it gets truly scary. Ultimately, I want Me 2.0: a leader who matches my strengths but doesn’t have my weaknesses. But Me 2.0 doesn’t exist.

Even Moses had the same temptation, and he had the audacity to tell God what He should look for in his successor. Let’s look at Numbers 27:15-23:

Then Moses said to the Lord, “O Lord, you are the God who gives breath to all creatures. Please appoint a new man as leader for the community. Give them someone who will guide them wherever they go and will lead them into battle, so the community of the Lord will not be like sheep without a shepherd.”

Look at that list of requirements: a male, a guide, a general, and a shepherd. Where did Moses come up with this list? Is he simply trying to clone himself? Certainly, the wilderness needed a guide and a shepherd. While the historian Josephus tells us Moses had been a general in Egypt, he never takes direct control in any of Israel’s battles. At the same time, Moses is likely looking ahead and considering the next phase for Israel: as it moves into the Promised Land, it will certainly require a military leader as well as a guide and shepherd.

In contrast, what was God’s requirement for leadership?

The Lord replied, “Take Joshua son of Nun, who has the Spirit in him, and lay your hands on him.” (v18)

This doesn’t mean that Joshua didn’t measure up to Moses’ requirements. But God wasn’t looking at the man’s resume; he was looking for evidence of His Spirit. Joshua showed evidence in his past, and it becomes his primary hallmark of leadership after his commissioning:

Now Joshua son of Nun was full of the spirit of wisdom, for Moses had laid his hands on him. So the people of Israel obeyed him, doing just as the Lord had commanded Moses. (Deuteronomy 34:9)

Let’s apply these ideas to ourselves. Think for a minute about your successes. How many of them really happened because of your amazing ability? Or does your biography read more like Joseph’s? Potiphar… the prison warden… even Pharaoh himself didn’t need to pay attention to anything that was in Joseph’s charge, “because the Lord was with him. And whatever he did, the Lord made it succeed.” (Genesis 39:2-6; 39:21-23)

Are you self-aware enough to look at yourself with sober judgement and not take credit for God’s handiwork? Have you taken time to reflect and see God’s hand reaching into and through your life to bring about His purposes?

Second, how do we include in our hiring/interviewing practices queries for evidence of the Spirit? If character is bad, if the Spirit is not evident, or the person hasn’t reflected on whether his/her success might have come from God, then to develop their leadership abilities is to enable them. In the future, you will see someone who abuses power, position and people.

In short, without God’s Spirit, all you get is competence. Is that all you want? Is that enough?

I want to spend a bit of time looking at two cautions in the leadership lessons of Numbers 11.

Do we cut God’s abilities short?

God answers the people’s request. He tells them he heard their complaint, and he’ll provide meat. But lest you read tenderness into this “answer to prayer,” God tells them they will have so much meat it will be coming out of their nostrils, and they’ll hate the sight of it! Moses is quick to point out the impracticality of God’s words. As you consider his hesitation and lack of faith, consider his track record with God. In Exodus 3, God said he heard Israel’s cry and had come to rescue them. Then he shocks Moses with his solution: “Now go, for I am sending you to Pharaoh” (v10) Here, when Moses hears God say he’ll provide meat, he’s probably thinking of all the work he’ll have to do to make it happen.

He learns a couple of important principles. One, God doesn’t work in the same way every time. This time is more like the plagues, when Moses sat back and watched. Two, he has to consider this fantastic question: “Has my arm lost its power?” Another version renders it, “Is my arm too short?” This is a very direct challenge to Moses’ faith, and a great question for leaders to consider.

In what ways do we cut short in our minds and in our planning the ability of God to work wonders? In what ways do we take on God’s responsibility as we lead his people (1 Peter 5:2)? It’s a dangerous thing to conclude, “If this is going to happen, I’m going to have to do it myself.” God makes it very personal for Moses: “Now you will see whether or not my word comes true!” (Numbers 11:23)

Do we take God at his word?

God has given us promises as leaders. He has given us general ones through Scripture and when he gives us a vision, he often accompanies it with overt and implied promises that are much more personal in nature. Part of leading is our own faith journey — our ability to take God at his word. This was the challenge Moses experienced at that moment of crisis.

Of course, God comes through in a miraculous way. Can you imagine seeing quail piled three feet deep and stretching a day’s journey in any direction? Can you imagine the number of birds? Moses couldn’t either.

Do our mistakes influence others?

Joshua only shows up once in this story, but there are several important points to consider. As Moses’ assistant “since his youth,” it’s clear that Moses identified his leadership ability early on and has mentored him for several years. But in this instance he earns a rebuke for attempting to protect Moses. Why?

I suspect he’s afraid of insurrection. With all the people whining, there could be danger in the fact that two leaders stayed behind in the camp rather than accept the invitation to join the other 68 at the Tabernacle. So Joshua begs Moses to stop those two from prophesying. Moses, on the other hand, points out that Joshua doesn’t need to be jealous for Moses’s sake. Moses knows he isn’t the point.

In addition to the natural tendency for an assistant to see himself as guardian of his boss’s honour, Matthew Henry suggests that Joshua would have been one of the seventy himself. He may well have been “jealous for the honour of their order.” In that moment, Joshua demonstrates a foundational flaw in his belief system. Could it be that he had a scarcity model, as if God’s Spirit going to others might dilute the power in each individual? Or could it be a desire for control, as if Moses could restrict or put parameters on God’s Spirit? In our most unguarded moments, our core beliefs become evident.

Most importantly, I suspect Joshua heard Moses whining. After all, other passages talk about how Joshua is a witness to the intimate conversations between God and Moses. He was the only other person allowed on Mount Sinai with Moses, and he was often in the tent of meeting as Moses and God talked face-to-face. So it’s reasonable to expect that he heard Moses complaining. While Moses quickly rebounds to leadership form, Joshua doesn’t recover quite as quickly. He’s clearly on the wrong side in this one, and Moses has to rebuke him. It’s a reminder that others can be drawn into and hurt by our sin and weakness. I’m all for vulnerability and modelling, but it can be both instructive and destructive.

The good news is that Joshua made his mistake before he stepped onto the leadership stage himself. It was a learning opportunity. And that is probably the greatest leadership lesson in this passage: we are all learners. Whether we’re already in that position of leadership and influence or on our way, we never stop growing in our understanding of God, our faith in him and our ability to lead. Thank God that he’s not finished with us, and he shows grace to help us learn from our mistakes.

There’s another important lesson about leadership in Numbers 11. The passage refers to a “spirit of leadership” resting on the seventy in a way that is far more tangible than I have allowed myself to think of before. Clearly, it’s talking about God’s Spirit falling on and filling individuals in a way that helps them carry the burden of leadership.

To tell you the truth, I have not put a lot of thought into the idea of spirit-filled leadership. In fact, I don’t think I’m alone in being a little nervous about the unpredictability of the Spirit. I like to feel as if I’m in control, but I’m increasingly convinced that my attempts to control actually limit my usefulness and effectiveness. So let me approach this passage with intellectual honesty and try to draw out a few principles all leaders should pay attention to in terms of their need for the Spirit of God. I’m preaching first to myself.

The first principle about the Holy Spirit is that leaders shouldn’t leave home without him. The way God promises to put his Spirit on each of the seventy parallels the experience of the apostles as they prepare to lead the early church. In Acts 1:4, Jesus instructs them not to leave Jerusalem until God sends them his Spirit. Without this critical provision, they will not be able to be witnesses or baptize or teach. So they wait. It’s only when the Holy Spirit falls in Acts 2 that Peter is enabled to step boldly to the microphone and preach a multilingual sermon that results in 3,000 baptisms.

Second, the presence of the Holy Spirit bestows identity and credibility. The unique visible and overt outpouring of the Spirit in the form of prophecy also happened to a young man named Saul in 1 Samuel 10. When Samuel anoints Saul as the first king of Israel, he tells him “the Spirit of the Lord will come powerfully upon you, and you will prophesy… You will be changed into a different person.” The experience is so noteworthy that a proverb was birthed: “Is Saul also among the prophets?”

It is typically as difficult to see the Spirit’s movement as it is to see the wind. So God uses occasional visible evidence of his Spirit to give individuals credibility to lead. In Numbers 11, it affirms the elders’ calling, leaving no doubt as to who was set apart among the seventy. Even the two in the camp get that clear stamp of authority. The passage makes it clear that the ability to prophesy is tangential and temporary. Though the seventy prophesy only once, that is sufficient to establish credibility and reassure that the Spirit’s power is on them. From this launching point, we need to look for the fruit of the Spirit (Gal 5:22-23) and the exercise of the gifts of the Spirit (1 Cor 12) for ongoing evidence that the Spirit is at work in a leader.

This leads to my third principle: the primary purpose of the Spirit’s filling in a leader is equipping. It starts with leaders themselves, but it flows out to their followers. In Numbers 11:17 God tells Moses the Spirit will give the seventy the ability to bear the leadership burden with him. In 1 Samuel 10:7, Samuel tells Saul that God’s presence will enable the new king to do what needs to be done. Rather than simply referring to skill-based or learned leadership that originates from ourselves, this is a leadership that springs forth from God himself. The gift of leadership in Romans 12 is a specific empowering of the Spirit for administration and governance roles. Ephesians 4 makes the purpose of these gifts clear: they are designed “to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ” and helping us attain unity, knowledge and maturity (Eph 4:11-13).

The body is a helpful metaphor, as these gifts come with variety. Disciples are transformed into apostles, prophets, evangelists, shepherds and teachers. My personal bent toward the “kingly” roles — motivating and organizing people and sharing vision — needs balancing with other body parts. Leadership should also include “priestly” elements such as caring for and feeding the flock and “prophetic” elements such as discerning issues, understanding the times and rebuking behaviour. The Spirit helps move a leader from administration to the more prophetic task of challenging the status quo. Leading change had better flow out of a response to the Spirit’s prompting, because anyone challenging the way things are is venturing into dangerous territory.

Spirit-empowered leadership should stand out from other forms that lack power. My fourth principle is the untapped secret available to believers called to lead: the Spirit amplifies leadership with immense power. Paul made this point as he asked God to give the Ephesian church “the Spirit of wisdom and revelation”:

I pray that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened in order that you may know… his incomparably great power for us who believe. That power is the same as the mighty strength he exerted when he raised Christ from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly realms. (Eph 1:17-20, NIV)

The same power that raised Christ from the dead was available to Peter in Acts 2. The transformation in his life must have left his colleagues wondering whether this was the same Peter they knew. Nothing short of Jesus’ resurrection power could have turned the Peter of the gospels into the Rock of the early church.

The same power was available to Moses and the seventy elders. In my next blog post, we’ll look at what Moses learned about that power.

And the same power is available to us as well. Incredible! The question is whether we’re tapping into it. Are we seeking to be spirit-filled leaders?

I’ve been making my way slowly through the Bible and am currently slogging through Numbers. But you can’t go to sleep on even the difficult books, because you’ll suddenly find a gold mine where you least expect it. Numbers 11 is so packed, I’ve been stuck on it for almost three weeks.

We all know that Moses was a great leader, and his life is chock full of leadership examples. But as with most leaders, a lot of the examples we can learn from come from mistakes and weaknesses. Moses’ life has been laid bare for us, and there are a number of lessons here in this chapter.

Don’t join the whining

We open with verse 4. The first three verses are a preamble full of foreshadowing. The people complain, God’s anger is kindled, and people die. Yet they don’t learn their lesson. They begin to complain again.

Verse 4 says the people “yielded to intense craving” (NKJV) and began to complain. This “lusting” (ESV) originated with the “rabble” living among them – the foreigners who came along with them from Egypt. They’re tired of their daily manna and want meat. Their discontent quickly spreads from the fringes to consume the camp, even tainting Moses.

It seems to be a universal tendency of children to manipulate with tears. Have you ever noticed how children project their crying? When you hear them projecting, rather than sobbing to themselves, you know they’re trying to manipulate. The text here says the people of Israel wept at the doors of their tents. They are not embarrassed; instead, they’re projecting.

And have you ever noticed that non-tonal languages get tonal when it comes to whining? You don’t even need to hear the words. As it does with many parents, the manipulative chorus pushes Moses over the edge.

Moses and God are united in their disgust at what they hear. While the former is aggravated, the latter is described as irate. But then Moses turns and unloads on God. And boy does he whine! He complains about the load he has to carry, about why the responsibility fell on him in the first place, about why God is treating him so badly. Then he takes it over the top: “If this is how you intend to treat me, just go ahead and kill me. Do me a favor and spare me this misery!” (Nu 11:15)

How will an irate God react? Surprisingly, God’s anger disappears. He doesn’t lash out at Moses, his friend. Something about the way Moses says it communicates his vulnerability in that moment, and God provides solutions instead of rebuke. First, he provides a long-term answer. Then he takes responsibility to meet the short-term, tangible need.

Address the systemic problem first

Moses is on a journey in his understanding of leadership. Governing a nation is no small task. You’ll recall the hierarchical judicial system Moses installed on the counsel of his father-in-law (Exodus 18). Now God helps him assemble a distributed executive branch. Instead of trying to run everything himself, his focus should be on seventy elders who can assist in governing the people.

Note that this new system is not really designed to solve the immediate crisis. After all, finding meat is not a problem that is better solved by a committee of seventy instead of one. God chooses first to address the more long-term, systemic issue behind Moses’ rant: the fact that he can’t bear this people alone. It won’t be a quick fix. The “soft skills” of mediation and morale-lifting are among the more difficult tasks of leadership, so Moses will need to invest a lot in these seventy before they can adequately and consistently deal with the hearts of the people. But God opens the door to systemic, foundational improvement.

In my experience, it’s difficult to think about a long-term systemic solution when you’re in a crisis. Leaders who are overwhelmed just want to put the fire out. To put it in Stephen Covey’s terminology (The Seven Habits of Highly Successful People), if you dwell in the quadrant of putting out fires, you’ll spend all your time putting out fires. God is interested in moving Moses’ time and energy into quadrant 2, where he can look at more important issues. God makes this shift before he addresses the immediate need.

Do you see the intimacy in the relationship between Moses and God? Moses can be himself, and he can pour out his frustration on God without fear of reprisal. And God in turn acts to sustain Moses by addressing the core issue before answering Moses’ request. Moses’ success was not about leadership technique that can be turned into formula. His success depended entirely on his relationship with God. That’s the central lesson in my study of Moses.

Next post I’ll turn to the lessons Moses learned about leading through the Spirit.

Of course, God’s presence is not as obvious as it was in Moses’ day. Remember that the context was different. God knew that Moses and his followers needed visual assurance of his presence, so when Israel as a nation first began to experience is active leadership, God gave them the pillar of cloud and fire, the cloud descending during the dedication of the Tabernacle, the bread of the presence and the Ark of the Covenant. In fact, he even provided Moses with a point of focus in Exodus 25:22: God told Moses he would meet with him in the Holy of Holies and speak to him from between the two cherubim carved in its cover.

I wish God didn’t give us the benefit of the doubt that we’re any better at maintaining focus on a God who is not obviously visible. We don’t have the same overt symbols. But God still gives us experiences where his presence is undeniable. These moments of provision and protection serve to build our faith, affirm our calling as leaders and establish our leadership credentials with others. I know some leaders who collect and display in their offices “rocks of remembrance” from various situations and experiences so that they don’t forget.

In the Old Testament, God used physical reminders for both leader and follower alike. The most powerful example is that pillar of cloud and fire. Through 40 years in the wilderness, God built a habit for Israel of actively following his leadership. Consider the implications for leadership and followership in this remarkable passage from Numbers 9:16-23:

This was the regular pattern—at night the cloud that covered the Tabernacle had the appearance of fire. Whenever the cloud lifted from over the sacred tent, the people of Israel would break camp and follow it. And wherever the cloud settled, the people of Israel would set up camp. In this way, they traveled and camped at the Lord’s command wherever he told them to go. Then they remained in their camp as long as the cloud stayed over the Tabernacle. If the cloud remained over the Tabernacle for a long time, the Israelites stayed and performed their duty to the Lord. Sometimes the cloud would stay over the Tabernacle for only a few days, so the people would stay for only a few days, as the Lord commanded. Then at the Lord’s command they would break camp and move on. Sometimes the cloud stayed only overnight and lifted the next morning. But day or night, when the cloud lifted, the people broke camp and moved on. Whether the cloud stayed above the Tabernacle for two days, a month, or a year, the people of Israel stayed in camp and did not move on. But as soon as it lifted, they broke camp and moved on. So they camped or traveled at the Lord’s command, and they did whatever the Lord told them through Moses.

Can you imagine living that way? Day after day, you have no idea when God is going to move and when he’s going to stay put. Each morning, you check to see if God’s Spirit is moving on. You’d surely develop a feeling of never quite being settled. Life would be unpredictable, right?

Let me challenge that. Perhaps the lesson is that you shift your definitions of “settled” and “predictable.” “Settled” no longer means you make it your goal to put down roots on this earth. Instead, you make it your goal to find your security in God’s presence alone. “Predictable” no longer means making plans that start from and centre around you. Instead, your primary plan is to find out what God is doing and join him.

The Israelites were asked to do no less than their patriarch, Abraham, whom God called to leave his land and his father and go where God would lead (Genesis 12). Where was that? Abraham was not told. Hebrews 11:8-10 makes several points about Abraham’s faith:

  • He lived like a foreigner, not considering where he lived at the time to be his real home.
  • He looked forward to his long-term home. He was a citizen of heaven.
  • He lived in tents, ready and mobile when God called him to move on.
  • Even when he arrived at his “promised land,” he continued to live in the pattern he developed on the journey. It was a habit.
  • His kids followed his example. Hebrews says Isaac and Jacob inherited the same promise and likewise lived as nomads in Canaan. Children are keen observers and imitators of the beliefs of their parents when they see it authentically lived out.

So, what can we learn? We, who don’t have such obvious signs of the presence of God, can still live in the same way. That’s where I find Abraham’s example helpful. After all, Abraham’s God wasn’t obvious and visible. I love watching renditions of Bible stories as told through fresh eyes. As I watched an episode on Abraham in the recent The Bible Series on the History channel, it hit me that the people around Abraham, including his wife, likely thought him crazy. Think about it: each time he told them God had spoken to him, they had to have faith as well. His ideas to leave his family and hometown were counter-cultural and made no sense. His idea that God was telling him to sacrifice his son was beyond radical. How did he know so clearly what God was saying, when no one around him could see it or hear it? We’re not told. But I’m absolutely convinced that it only happened because Abraham knew intimately the God who spoke to him and because he walked by faith. He demonstrated complete obedience to what little he knew. And so God continued to lead him.

Just as Moses came to see God as his “promised land,” seeking the presence of God even more than the land promised to him, we can seek to know God and to abide in him as a greater goal than what he provides or promises.

Just as Abraham longed for his eternal home, we can live simply, showing our faith by our priorities and the way we live in this world.

Just as the Israelites built a habit of looking each day for God’s presence, we can grow our ability to recognise God’s fingerprints and the wind of his Spirit in the circumstances around us. When we’re quick to action about the things we know to do, our hearts will be more and more attuned to seeing God moving.

Maybe one day we’ll be able to say with the nomadic Moses,

Lord, through all the generations
you have been our home! (Psalm 90:1)

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.