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.

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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)

[re-posted from my ministry blog, teameyre.wordpress.com]

“Are you excited?” and “Do you want the job?” are among the most common questions we’ve received. While Becky and I didn’t pursue this position with Wycliffe Canada, we made a series of prayerful decisions to go the next step in the process. And then the next. So, when the Board selected me unanimously, we saw the hand of God in that decision. This is simply our next step of obedience to God. It’s a role that will stretch us, challenge us and cause us to depend on God in new ways.

I think many look at the position of president in terms of the honor that it is. Certainly, it is an honor to be chosen. It comes with a platform, a high profile and authority. But when I look at the position, I see responsibility. There are significant challenges that need to be tackled. I feel a burden to support the 400 members plus volunteers and paid staff working throughout the world. And I feel the urgency to draw out the vast resources Canadians can contribute to making the Word of God accessible in every language in this generation.

I’ve quoted it several times before here, but I’ll say it again. In The Contrarian’s Guide to Leadership, Dr. Steven Sample quotes the advice of one of his colleagues:

Many men want to be president, but very few want to do president.

So, Yes! I am excited. And, Yes! I am terrified!

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.

Don’t ask a question unless you already know the answer.

Have you heard that before? The paternalism in that quote makes my blood boil. I remember my wife and I were once part of a Bible study led by one of our pastors. When he’d ask a question, he’d dutifully faciltiate discussion, adeptly drawing in every participant… but then he always concluded with his own authoritative comment. As we began to realize that he was the only one with the right answer, our discussions became forced and clipped. Becky and I soon found a reason to stop participating in that group.

I’ve blogged before about the power of a question, quoting Ron Heifetz’s great line, “One may lead perhaps with no more than a question in hand.” In The Leadership Jump, Jimmy Long pointed out that a “well-structured question” can draw emerging leaders into the creative and leadership process. It goes back to control. If you want the outcome to be exactly as you expect, then do all the work yourself. If you want a better result, with a strong developmental bent, then you have to work more as an art director.

When I worked with graphic designers, I would present the question or challenge but withhold my own possible answers until I saw what others came up with. I didn’t want my “authoritative” answer to steer or limit the creative potential of my staff. Offering creative freedom often resulted in an unpredictable but even more creative end product than I could have imagined. More often than not I ended up tucking away my own feeble attempt to answer the question!

Of course, there’s also the risk that your team’s creative ideas just won’t work. There’s a tension that you learn to manage between involving others and drawing out their best versus the fact that you have ultimate responsibility for the end product. I’ve had to make some tough calls as an art director and as a manager to take control back and change the direction. I’ve done it poorly, and I’ve done it well. On a few occasions, I’ve been able to do it in such a way that the team can still share ownership, by steering the project and keeping my staff engaged in the new direction. Usually it involved vulnerability and accepting blame.

So what are some great questions to ask? I’ll suggest a few this week, but I’d love to hear your questions as well.