The work of leadership is hard, and it is not for the faint-hearted. There are decisions to be made, problems to be addressed, challenges to be solved, tensions to be managed, conflicts to be resolved, tasks to be managed, and numerous other responsibilities that ultimately have an impact on many people. And add to that the work of leading and managing people, who are imperfect and operate in the context of a fallen world. For the Christian leader – regardless of whether you are a school leader, church leader, ministry leader, or a Christian leading in a secular industry or organization – it can be even more challenging as you seek to reflect Christ in all you do.
The good news is that successful and effective leadership is a skill that can be learned, but it requires intentional effort. In today’s world, there are a multitude of valuable resources available for helping you in your development of leadership, however many of those do not address the spiritual context for the leader who is a follower of Jesus, which is just as important (if not more so) for Christian leaders. So where can you go to get help for understanding leadership principles and practices within a biblical context? This may seem to be an obvious answer, but ironically it is one that is often overlooked by leaders: look to examples of leadership in the Bible.
The book of Ezra, surprisingly, is one of those examples that has a lot to say about leadership. It is a relatively short book, with ten chapters, that tells a 2-part story. The general story involves the fulfillment of the prophecy found in Jeremiah 29, when God foretold the return of the people of Israel to Jerusalem. Chapters 1 through 6 describe the return of a remnant specifically for the purpose of rebuilding the temple, and chapters 7 through 10 – which take place a number of years later – describe Ezra’s role in leading religious leaders back to Jerusalem to restore the spiritual culture of the people. In essence, it is a story of restoration by God, the restoration of His house and His people. Along the way, there are a great number of lessons that are applicable to the task of leadership for the Christian in today’s world.
One of the most important lessons is a big picture lesson, representing the overall theme for the book of Ezra, and it is this: God’s sovereignty operates in conjunction with man’s responsibility, in the context and for the purpose of restoration, resulting in relationship and purpose. Therefore, in the application of leadership, it is vital that we begin with an understanding that God has a plan and a purpose, and He is actively involved in the events of our lives.
Throughout the Old Testament it is apparent that God has a sovereign plan and purpose – again, largely connected to the restoration of his house and of his people – and He works to carry out that plan. However, we usually spend our time acting completely unaware of that truth in our own lives today. We know that it is true, in a nebulous, spiritual truth kind of way, and we can see it clearly in retrospect (both in the stories in the Bible and in reflection of our own past experiences) but in the actual current day-to-day experiences of our lives, we behave as if we don’t realize it.
The events of Ezra provide a wonderful backdrop for seeing God’s involvement, for spotting His sovereignty at work in apparently random circumstances. Although God’s sovereignty is evident all through the book, interspersed throughout are a number of references that specifically point out His intentional involvement. Among these verses are the following:
- Ezra 1:1, “the Lord stirred up the spirit of Cyrus king of Persia, so that he made a proclamation throughout all his kingdom”
- Ezra 1:5, “all those whose spirits God had moved, arose to go up and build the house of the Lord which is in Jerusalem”
- Ezra 5:5, “the eye of their God was upon the elders of the Jews, so that they could not make them cease till a report could go to Darius”
- Ezra 6:22, “for the Lord made them joyful, and turned the heart of the king of Assyria toward them, to strengthen their hands in the work of the house of God”
Numerous other verses and passages – such as 1:4-8, 4:24, 6:8-10, 7:6-10, 7:27-28, 8:18-31, 9:9 – state or imply God’s involvement in a variety of ways, such as in the circumstances, the preparation, the call, the timing, the plans, the processes, the provision, their protection, the results, and the responses. These verses reveal that God’s sovereignty is evident from start to finish, throughout all of the events and activities that were taking place. They also reveal that God’s sovereignty occurs both externally – directing outside circumstances, people, and activity – and internally – moving in the hearts of people, including me.
Why is that important for you in your leadership? It matters because it offers you a confidence, one that exists outside of any present events or circumstances, that God has an intentional plan and purpose, and it can be trusted. If the direct references to God’s involvement were removed from the book of Ezra, it would read like a great story with amazing coincidences that seemed to work in favor of the Israelites, and reflected excellent leadership by Ezra. But, like what happens in the “The Wizard of Oz,” the curtain is pulled back so that we can see behind the scenes, providing us with a view of God’s supernatural involvement on so many levels. Because we believe the Bible and know that God is God, we are not surprised to see this, and yet we can easily fail to realize that God is just as involved in our stories!
Several years ago, I became convinced that a significant program change needed to be implemented in an organization in which I was a leader. I did the research to confirm the need for the change, and then did more research on how to introduce the change. I prepared diligently for the big announcement, but then, at the midnight hour – literally – I was stopped from moving forward by the board of directors. I was frustrated and it threw me off balance, and I am afraid that I responded without a view of God’s sovereign purpose. As time passed, and the program changed was implemented a year later, I was able to see that God had a plan that also involved timing, and that He used people and events to carry out that timing. Of course His plan was better than mine, and if I had been alert enough to see that when it happened, it would have save me some anxiety and helped me to respond better.
So as a leader, it is essential that you understand and remember that God has a plan and purpose that can be trusted, whether or not we can visibly see His hand in it. Thankfully, that plan is not contingent upon or predicated by my perfection, as we can see in the last couple of chapters of Ezra, which describe the repentance and spiritual restoration of the people after the rebuilding and return. God had carried out his plan even before all the wrongs had been righted. The same is true for us. He doesn’t wait until you are perfect before choosing you as a leader or carrying out His plan. He has a purpose, and you get to be part of it. So, whether your current circumstances are challenging or fantastic, continue to trust that God has plan and rest in that knowledge.
This is the first installment in an ongoing series on leadership lessons that can be learned from the book of Ezra.
Enjoyed and was challenged by your article, Jeff. I look forward to the future installments!
Great reminder of the importance of focusing on God’s sovereignty. Posted the big picture truth in my office as a constant reminder to self: “God’s sovereignty operates in conjunction with man’s responsibility, in the context and for the purpose of restoration, resulting in relationship and purpose.”
Thanks, Harriet. Proverbs 16:9 (“Man plans his ways, but the Lord directs his steps”) has been my constant reminder of this truth over the last few years.
enjoyed and encouraged by your article. I found and read it at the right time because I’m frustrated with leading Bible college. And, I like the idea of leadership is more challenging as a leader seek to reflect Christ in what he/she does. Sometimes, for leaders, there is a time being alone in bringing change in an institution, but as you stated well from the book of Ezra the sovereign plan and purpose of God do not fall apart.