The day begins as any other in prison—no hope, no indication that today’s dreariness is going to be any different than any other. Joseph’s sentence is undefined and subject to the whims of Pharaoh. At thirty years old, he’s become jaded, burned from briefly allowing himself to hope that the cupbearer would put in a good word. His optimism faded long ago—two whole years, like an added sentence. So in Joseph’s wildest dreams he couldn’t begin to imagine what this day holds. He doesn’t allow himself to dream.

Suddenly a summons, and a whirlwind of activity. Bathing, shaving, new clothes, makeup. In a few short hours—minutes perhaps, given Pharaoh’s sense of urgency—Joseph is transformed from a lowly prisoner and slave to advisor, standing before Pharaoh like an intern called before the president. He doesn’t seem to have been given any context, any indication of what he’s being asked to do. All these years of waiting, and Joseph has a few minutes to make an impression. There is no transition.

Joseph can’t possibly have a plan; the opportunity is so sudden, he is clearly working off the cuff, relying on God to guide him. And yet all of Joseph’s thirty years have prepared him for this moment of spontaneity. Upon his summons he has the presence of mind to offer a rebuttal that it is God who can give Pharaoh what he wants; Joseph is merely a spokesperson. Then he has a few minutes to listen to God’s word to Pharaoh, sense the meaning in it, collect his thoughts and give a response.

In Genesis 41:1-32, Joseph does exactly as requested and expected: he tells Pharaoh seven years of abundance will be followed by seven years of famine.

It would be a completely different story if Joseph ends there. However, like the sons of Issachar (1 Chronicles 12:32), Joseph not only understands the times but knows what to do. That’s where Joseph crosses a line from being simply a prophet to being a discerning and wise strategist. The key, of course, is that in Joseph “is the Spirit of God” (Gen 41:38). He combines wisdom with action, and the courage to follow through. Joseph takes an enormous risk advising action to Pharaoh. I imagine a deafening moment of silence when he finishes, with all eyes on Pharaoh. In verse 37, a smile creeps over Pharaoh’s face, and things will never be the same for Joseph.

Pharaoh’s gut tells him he needs to promote this young man as the one to implement this plan. To come up with such a specific plan of action with no advance preparation, it’s clear to all that God must have shown him the strategy, too. It is this God who makes Joseph stand out above Pharaoh’s own wise men (Gen 41:8,38-39). Pharaoh makes a key observation: that this is not a one-time incident; if the Spirit of God dwells in Joseph, no one will be as continually discerning and wise as Joseph. Within the next nine years, God will make Joseph a “father to Pharaoh” (Gen 45:8), and he will instruct princes and teach Pharaoh’s elders wisdom (Ps 105:22).

By the end of the day, Joseph has a new name, fine clothing, a signet ring, a private chariot and a new bed in his own palace.

But Joseph is not content to kick back, enjoy his new status and his new wife. Motivated and ready for action after waiting so long, he quickly gets to work. How does Joseph lead in times of prosperity? First, he scouts the country and secures his status. It’s important as a newcomer that he be seen, and it’s important that he see the land. He learned leadership at a much smaller scale, which allowed him to get to know and attend those under his care, and his new scope requires travel. His education in Egypt has also been incomplete, and he must learn the agricultural industry. As the Theology of Work Project puts it,

His office would have required that he learn much about legislation, communication, negotiation, transportation, safe and efficient methods of food storage, building, economic strategizing and forecasting, record-keeping, payroll, the handling of transactions both by means of currency and through bartering, human resources, and the acquisition of real estate…. The genius of Joseph’s success lay in the effective integration of his divine gifts and acquired competencies.

Joseph has a high level of responsibility and loyalty, and with a looming deadline, he has a lot to manage. Like any businessman today, Joseph needs agility to take full advantage of opportunities and resolve bottlenecks, and the right balance between stockpiling and investing for “the business cycle of economic boom and bust” (Tien Fock). Planning and preparation is required to preserve some grain for sowing at the end of the famine, while the rest will be portioned out by year. Security at the storage facilities will also need to be part of the plan.

True to the plan he had laid out to Pharaoh, he taxes the revenues during this period of abundance at 20%. He scales the management task, creating a regional oversight structure under competent leaders and designing regional storage collection. And he tracks inventory and revenues, until the abundance is too great to measure. Some accounting historians suggest this passage is marking an epic change in bookkeeping from tokens to writing; “the breakdown of the means by which the surpluses could be measured” (Jose and Moore) may precipitate a shift in how accounting is done in the ancient world. In short, God’s abundant provision breaks the system.

A rising tide raises all boats, and this period is a time of fabulous wealth for all. Joseph enters his own seven-year period of fruitfulness, gaining two boys (Gen 41:50-52) and incredible favour with Pharaoh. God is restoring Joseph and nurturing an environment that will preserve life, and especially Jacob’s family line (Gen 45:5-7). The edge that Pharaoh enjoys above any others is Joseph’s extraordinary insight into the timing of the trends. However, there is no way Joseph could tax the people and store this much grain in secret. As a man of integrity, Joseph wouldn’t have practiced insider trading; the timeline of abundance and famine had to be made public, and others had a chance to follow Joseph’s investment plan. Yet all evidence points to a failure by any individual Egyptians to properly plan for the seven years of famine.

The season turns, and the time of plenty comes to an end. Joseph has proven himself as prime minister, fulfilling his promise as a leader. There are different challenges to leading in abundance than leading in scarcity, and we’ll look at how Joseph adjusts in my next post.


Joseph series:

“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)

Times of crisis reveal what is and isn’t working. These are the times when obsolete and dysfunctional systems and practices collapse or fall by the wayside. They are the times when the seeds of innovation and invention, of creativity and entrepreneurship, burst into full flower, enabling recovery by remaking both the economy and society.

In The Great Reset, Richard Florida goes on to point out that the greatest periods of innovation in U.S. history were the 1870s and the 1930s. Those two depressions were marked by huge spikes in research for patents and technological progress. Florida says that depressions create a reset for society, acting like a forest fire to clear out the old growth and make room for the new.

Want to read more? Steve Moore, president of The Mission Exchange has written a fascinating case statement based on his reading, research and intuition about the future. It’s the basis for this post and for the upcoming North American Mission Leaders Conference in Arizona.

In a recent post, I referred to Hizb’allah, the terrorist group that Joshua Cooper Ramo characterizes as the most innovative organization in the world. Constant pressure and hardship has resulted in incredible inventions such as the Improvised Explosive Device that, for as little five dollars, can paralyze the lavishly-funded military of the United States. That example leads me to wonder where else we should see innovation thriving. On a political level, I would think the Israeli military would be one place. The persecuted church should be another. Constant threat leads to either innovation or death.

From a historical perspective, I have great optimism for the next few years. World missions needs a reset, and I think it’s happening. The next couple of years should stand out as a period of incredible breakthroughs in strategies, technology, partnerships and ideation. Breakthroughs will happen, many of them outside the world of mission agencies. The question is which organizations will be best positioned to take advantage or to ride the wave? No doubt many who take advantage are not in existence today. But will older organizations make the leap? I suggest the difference in organizations that make the adjustments and organizations that dig in their heels to try to hold onto the past is leadership.

Let me close by quoting Steve Moore’s conclusion:

We need a fresh wave of Spirit empowered entrepreneurial risk takers and mission pioneers who lean in to what God is doing in the midst of turbulent times, seizing what may prove to be unprecendented windows of opportunity that come with a Great Reset moment.

I’m getting excited. How about you?

This is one of my favorite leadership qualities. In times of vast discontinuous change, leaders who understand the times are as rare as they are valuable.

In the Old Testament, there are two references to people who understood the times (Esther 1:13, I Chron 12:32). All kings seem to have surrounded themselves with men who understood the times and knew the direction the king should go. Kings had an uneasy relationship with these “wise men,” sometimes choosing to follow their advice and sometimes going their own way. For instance, Solomon’s son Rehoboam.

I want to pick an earlier and more familiar example, however. Everyone remembers the story of Joseph, a young man who was sold into slavery by his brothers. After some fruitful years as a slave in Egypt, managing the household of his master efficiently, he’s railroaded and thrown in prison. Even there, God’s hand is on him, and he thrives, taking on responsibility. One day his opportunity for redemption finally comes in the form of a dream by the king. God gives him the ability to understand the meaning of the dream and to come up with a plan that will rescue Egypt, preserve Israel and make his boss really wealthy.

Joseph certainly understands the times. He knows there will be seven years of plenty followed by seven years of severe drought. He deploys his plan with efficiency and discipline. When the task of stockpiling gets too difficult, he doesn’t give up on collecting food; he gives up on counting. So, when the seven years of plenty end, Egypt and Joseph are in good shape. That’s where the story gets interesting.

Two years into the drought, everyone else’s worst-case scenarios have expired.

  • Genesis 45:6 says the famine has reached a critical stage for Joseph’s Canaan-based family by year two of the drought.
  • 47:17-20 records how Joseph bought all of the property of Egypt and Canaan with the grain he’d collected.
  • By 47:21, he owns all the people. He can then dictate terms under a rollover contract that lasts long after the famine ends.

But here’s the thing that caught my attention. In the years of plenty, no one but Joseph saw the drought ahead. Anyone who did plan ahead saved up a couple of years worth to get them through what would surely be a short-term decline. Joseph’s value came in his God-given ability to understand the times and know what to do.

Is there anyone who understands the times today? We have no context for the changes we’re going through. A global financial crisis has never happened before, so all the previous models just don’t apply. It’s obvious that old guidelines don’t cut it in 10%+ unemployment, unheard-of foreclosure rates and frozen credit. Eddie Gibbs, in Leadership Next: Changing Leaders in a Changing Culture, says:

It is evident in rapidly changing times that knowledge does not necessarily flow from experience. Yesterday’s solutions and procedures may not provide an adequate or appropriate response to present challenges. Hence, the biggest hurdles facing long-time leaders may not be in learning new insights and skills, but in unlearning what they consider to be tried and true and what thus provides them with a false sense of security.

My response is that God is still God in good times and bad. He was still God while Joseph fumed in prison. Our brothers and sisters in the non-Western church can testify that they still have hope, joy and faith when the economy simply doesn’t rebound. I think we have a lot to learn from them, whether it’s patience in endurance or a theology of suffering. Christianity thrives in difficult times… because we realize we need God!

I suggest we learn from Joseph to be faithful and do the little things even from exile, even from prison.

I suggest we leaders seek the God who does understand the times and occasionally chooses to disclose them to those who listen.

I suggest we try our best to be ready when opportunity happens, even in the darkest situations.

And I suggest we seek to help each other out, offering our best to fellow prisoners with little hope of reward.

You never know how God might choose to use these times, because he holds today, and he holds the future.

I blogged before about how David led where he was, long before he became king. I Chronicles 12 notes how he attracted followers at Ziklag and Hebron, many of them brave warriors who would serve with him long after he became king. But one group of men were singled out with a special gift: “men of Issachar, who understood the times and knew what Israel should do.”

I think understanding the times is a rare and critical gift. If the leader himself doesn’t have that gift, he should add some men of Issachar to his leadership team. If we don’t understand the culture we’re working in and what our organization/church/business/country should do to take on the current and future realities, then we’re destined to extinction.

Mordecai was another biblical example who understood the times. He told Queen Esther, “who knows but that you have come to your royal position for such a time as this.” This passage is an excellent, well-worn principle for contextual leadership, but I recently heard a video blog from The Mission Exchange that gave it a new wrinkle.

In the face of today’s economic recession, Steve Moore suggests that understanding the times might mean a good, long look at merging with another organization or even closing down. As Steve says,

We often quote the phrase from the story of Esther, “for such a time as this.” Is it possible “this time” has come and gone for some organizations?

I wonder how many organizations or programs are still running on the fumes of a great vision that was perfect for the time it was created, but has since run its course. Part of understanding the times is to recognize when an old strategy doesn’t apply anymore. Men of Issachar know what needs to be done and what does NOT need to be done anymore. The next step after knowing it is to demonstrate the courage necessary to shut down an initiative or organization that is no longer relevant today.