Effective Christian Leadership: Motivating Your Followers

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For over twenty years, I lived my life in the same (over)weight range, always believing that I needed to lose some weight, but never really doing so.  I tried a variety of diets and exercise regimens, but nothing ever moved me out of that range, nor did any of them ever become a long-term lifestyle.  I finally convinced myself that I simply had a stocky build, and, in fact, I had developed a sense of pride about my larger size.  And I believed that I was much healthier than I actually was.  But then I was confronted with the realization that I was very overweight, out of shape, and unhealthy, when my doctor found it necessary to prescribe medications to treat the effects of my poor health, and a family member confronted me on my overeating.  I realized that I was endangering not only my own life, but also the care and well-being of my family.

It was then that I embarked on a journey that (literally) changed me into a different person.  I changed some of my eating behaviors, incorporated several tools to help me maintain a daily awareness – most helpfully, an app on my phone – and gradually implemented moderate exercise.  The results shocked me – I consistently lost several pounds a week, losing a total of 50 pounds in just under four months to reach my goal weight (and have since maintained my healthier weight and lifestyle).  My greatest moment of joy came when I was able to once again wear the leather bomber jacket that my wife had given me at our wedding 26 years earlier.

There were several valuable leadership lessons that I learned from this, but one of the key questions I wrestled with was that of motivation: why had I never been able to get myself to do this before? I had tried so many times, but could never seem to light that fire enough to follow through, and I could never seem to find the motivation that would drive me to change.  But something was different this time, and I finally had found the discipline and desire to do it.  I discovered the right motivation that worked.

I think this is a question that we all struggle with – how to motivate others, and how to motivate ourselves.  There are plenty of theories and ideas about motivation, and I won’t claim to have the corner on an exclusive motivational secret, but I do think we can learn some valuable lessons about it from Ezra.  Specifically, Ezra 4:23-5:5 provides us with a scenario that teaches us two important components of motivation.

This passage begins with the halt of the construction on the temple in Jerusalem, when those opposed to the work used the authority of the king to force the Israelites to cease their building.  It wasn’t until sometime later, after a new king had come into power, that circumstances led to the restart of the construction.  In between, Ezra 5:1 makes the statement that two prophets, Haggai and Zechariah, “prophesied to the Jews who were in Judah and Jerusalem,” which then prompted the Israelites to begin the rebuilding again (and this time, according to verse 5, “the eye of their God was upon the elders of the Jews, so that they could not make them cease”).

It seems that whatever it was that Haggai and Zechariah said, it motivated the Israelites to begin the work again, so we need to understand what they did, in order to learn the motivational lesson from their methods.  To do this, we need to look at their respective books, Haggai and Zechariah, in which the first few verses of each book introduces the prophet and gives us the context of the messages they each shared.  Haggai’s message came first, in the sixth month of the second year of King Darius’ reign (Hag. 1:1), and Zechariah’s message followed two months later (Zech. 1:1).  I think that this order matters, because they had different messages that served different purposes.  Therefore, it is helpful for us to see what those differences are so that we can learn from their example.

Haggai 1:1-15 provides Haggai’s message, which was one of exhortation, or challenge, in view of the present circumstances and need.  In his message from God, he confronted the Israelites for saying that it was not the right time for them to rebuild the temple, and then contrasted the ruin of the temple to the nice homes in which the people were living (vv. 4-5, “Is it time for you yourselves to dwell in your paneled houses, and this temple to lie in ruins?” Now therefore, thus says the Lord of hosts: “Consider your ways!”).  When Haggai spoke, he confronted the current culture, presented the need, and challenged the people to respond.  His exhortation to them was that it was time to finish the temple; therefore the temple would need to be completed before God could bless their efforts (v. 4, 8).

Zechariah 1:1-6 provides Zechariah’s message, which was one of encouragement. In his message from God, he contrasted the past failure of the previous generations with the future hope for this generation, reminding them of their future reward and hope (v. 3, Therefore say to them, ‘Thus says the Lord of hosts: “Return to Me,” says the Lord of hosts, “and I will return to you,” says the Lord of hosts.).  Zechariah encouraged the people with reminders of God’s promise and blessing, to keep the people moving forward.  His encouragement was a reminder to them of Gods sovereignty, that He needed the temple, and so it would be built just as He had determined.  Therefore his message reminded and focused on God’s future promise of His presence.

Understanding the messages of these two prophets provides us with two applicable lessons for our own leadership.  The first is simply the steps – in this order – of exhortation, then encouragement.  People first need to be confronted with the difference between where they are and where they need to be (and the implications of each of those two places; and sometimes – in Christian community – that confrontation needs to be a spiritual confrontation in response to a departure from God).  Black and Gregersen talk about this same idea in the book Leading Strategic Change, when they identify the need to “create contrast” as the first step to changing people’s mental maps. Then, people need encouragement, to believe that they can do it and that it will be worth it.  It is important that encouragement comes after confrontation, in order to lift spirits and inspire confidence, especially if, after the work has begun, people begin to get weary and worn (which often happens).

The second lesson for us is the clear reminder of God’ timing and plan.  The context of Ezra 4:23-5:5 paints a picture of God allowing circumstances to carry out His ordained timing, in that the work was stopped until the specific time that God determined He was ready to start it up again.  When that happened, nothing could get in the way or prevent it.  And on top of that, Haggai 1:14 shows us that God intentionally moved in the hearts of the leaders and the followers at this point in time to begin the work again.  Notice, however, that even though God was the one directing the timing, He chose to use men of God to share His message.

So for us, the example of these prophets can remind us that we are instruments in God’s plan; therefore, as we live out His purpose in our lives, we can trust His providence.  We still have people to lead and a message to communicate, and we need to make sure that we are communicating His message and not our own, but if we are doing so, we can leave the results in His hands.  In that message, we need to confront people with the need for change by providing contrast, but we also need to encourage them with the view of the future that creates a belief in its value.  So, do you need motivation?  Do you need to motivate others? Start with exhortation, follow it with encouragement, and keep your plan aligned with God’s.

This is the eighth installment in an ongoing series on leadership lessons that can be learned from the book of Ezra.

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