The following article first appeared on The Gospel Coalition Canada (11 August 2020). It can be found here.
Pastors have their favourites. And I don’t mean people, but books of the Bible. And they will inevitably change over time. The worn out and wearied minister may find his daily solace for a season in the Servant Songs of Isaiah — refreshed with a reminder of the gentleness of his Saviour, who delicately cradles the bruised reed in His hand (cf. Isaiah 42:3). The pastor wrestling with his own sinful heart may, for a time, immerse himself in the letter to the Hebrews — the book of Jesus the Great High Priest par excellence.
But where might the pastor turn for instruction and encouragement as he seeks to lead his flock back into the realities of physical worship and fellowship, following a long and arduous season of social-distancing and online worship services? Let me suggest the book of Nehemiah — my new favourite book of the Bible. For now.
Why the book of Nehemiah? Nehemiah was a man of God set apart by God to lead the people of God through a time of great transition. Freed from Babylonian captivity, the exiles had begun to return to Jerusalem. The temple was in the midst of being rebuilt. A sense of hope, though germinal, was beginning to grow. But there was much work that still needed to be done as God’s people entered this new phase of redemptive history. Might we even call it their “new normal”?
Enter Nehemiah — God’s man for the task of leading the people through this time of transition. And that is why the book of Nehemiah is, for now, my new favourite book of the Bible. What follows are three principles of Godly leadership in a time of transition that I have gleaned from this precious portion of God’s Word.
1. It’s Not Your Cause – it’s God’s!
The book of Nehemiah begins and ends abruptly. Lacking is any detailed reference to Nehemiah the man. Rather, we pick up where Nehemiah saw the heart of the matter to be — not with himself but with God and His people:
It came to pass in the month of Chislev, in the twentieth year, as I was in Shushan the citadel, that Hanani one of my brethren came with men from Judah; and I asked them concerning the Jews who had escaped, who had survived the captivity, and concerning Jerusalem. And they said to me, ‘The survivors who are left from the captivity in the province are there in great distress and reproach. The wall of Jerusalem is also broken down, and its gates are burned with fire.’Nehemiah 1:1-3
True leadership in the Church is not carried out by the self-absorbed. It is carried out by the God-absorbed. The apostle Paul commends Timothy to the Philippians for this very thing:
But I trust in the Lord Jesus to send Timothy to you shortly, that I also may be encouraged when I know your state. For I have no one like-minded, who will sincerely care for your state. For all seek their own, not the things which are of Christ Jesus.Philippians 2:19-21
Timothy and Nehemiah commend themselves to us as God-absorbed leaders. We must follow in their steps. What mattered to Nehemiah were not his own interests. He had a stable job in the palace of Shushan. He had the king’s protection. Why trouble himself with the affairs of a fallen Jerusalem and the desperate plight of its people? Because God and His cause meant more to him than anything else — including his own personal comfort, safety, and stability!
When a leader arrives at this place, he is in the best position to be used by God. Nehemiah had to become a true servant in his own eyes before God was ready to wield him as a vessel to bring about needed recovery and change in a time of great transition. Leaders in the Church today — called and set apart to lead their own flocks through this time of transition following months of isolation, social-distancing, and online fellowship — must arrive at this place before anything else.
2. Spend Alone Time with God to Gain His own Perspective
Nehemiah was a child of the Babylonian captivity. His perspective on the health and condition of Jerusalem was incomplete. He had heard rumours, many of which were true. Nevertheless, the plan that God had put into his heart to rebuild the holy city had to be met with Nehemiah’s own understanding of what needed to be done. Zeal without knowledge is a dangerous thing.
When Nehemiah was given leave by the king to return to Jerusalem and complete the work of rebuilding, he decided to keep much of the plan to himself: “I told no one what my God had put in my heart to do at Jerusalem” (2:12). Rather, rising in the middle of the night, Nehemiah carefully surveyed the damage himself before communicating anything with the people.
What was Nehemiah’s strategy in keeping things on the down low? One obvious answer is that he was aware that his intentions would run up against the fierce opposition of Sanballat and Tobiah (cf. 1:10). However, I think there was more to it than that. Nehemiah knew that too many perspectives on what needed to be done would run the risk of clouding his vision and derailing his course. Moreover, an unexpected visit from a man with a fiery zeal and a vague vision of “restoring Jerusalem” would no doubt consternate many.
Without wisdom, Nehemiah ran the risk of being run out of town. Steering clear of this risk, Nehemiah waited on God before proceeding any further. He needed God’s perspective to shape his own vision of what needed to be done, and how that was to be accomplished.
Leaders in the Church today should take note of Nehemiah’s own leadership here. We are coming back to physical worship and fellowship in a time of great transition. We have never been in this situation before. Everyone will have an opinion. However, God’s own perspective mustbe shaping our vision in the days ahead. By all means, go out at night and survey the walls. Read the perspectives of your peers. Listen to others in the Church. Pay attention to what true experts and authorities are directing and advising. But be like Nehemiah and seek the Lord’s counsel through prayer and meditation before putting any plan into action. True leaders know that an empty vessel does no one any good. Only when our own cup is filled after spending time in the Lord’s presence is it ready to be poured out onto the laps of others.
3. Learn to Humbly and Wisely Offload Responsibility
Nehemiah played his cards well. He kept his priorities in place. God’s man of the hour needed his own mind and heart to be shaped by the Divine purpose before he was ready to impart that well-tempered zeal to others — others who Nehemiah knew were indispensable (from a human perspective) to the task of rebuilding. As a good leader, Nehemiah knew that his own cup had to be filled before anything else. He knew equally well, however, that God had filled his cup so that it could be poured out onto the laps of His people. True leaders in the Church know their own limits. They also know that they have been called “to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ …” (Eph. 4:12 ESV). Nehemiah’s actions demonstrated his own grasp of this fundamental truth:
Then I said to them, ‘You see the distress that we are in, how Jerusalem lies waste, and its gates are burned with fire. Come and let us build the wall of Jerusalem, that we may no longer be a reproach.’ And I told them of the hand of my God which had been good upon me, and also of the king’s words that he had spoken to me. So they said, ‘Let us rise up and build.’ Then they set their hands to this good work.Nehemiah 2:17-18
Nehemiah’s well-tempered zeal was successfully imparted to the people. Now it was time for “all hands on deck”. God’s people were mobilized for action according to their various gifts and talents. It was not the Nehemiah Show. That would have ended in utter failure. God’s servant-leader was wise and humble enough to know his limits; to stay within the parameters of his own calling; and to offload the various responsibilities of rebuilding according to the measure of each one’s gifts, talents, and zeal.
For leaders in the Church today — preparing to transition back into physical, in-person body life — Nehemiah’s leadership provides a Biblical paradigm for remaining both wise and humble in the process. Pastors must be offloading the various responsibilities to other Elders and Deacons in the church. And it doesn’t stop there. Ministers, Elders, and Deacons need to be humbly listening to the various bleats coming from the flock, along with equipping them to help with the transition, without burdening them in the process. The balance is delicate, yet necessary. At the end of the day, leaders must lead. But never at the expense of stifling the voices, gifts, talents, and zeal of those under their care.
Nehemiah’s building project did not go unopposed. Yet, he never wavered in his resolve to be God’s faithful servant, set apart for leading the people through a remarkable time of transition, uncertainty, and change. Nehemiah knew he was fighting God’s cause and not his own. He allowed God’s own vision to become his, through prayer and reflection. And he humbly and wisely imparted God’s vision to the people — offloading responsibility according to the measure of each one’s gifts, talents, and zeal. If leaders in the Church incorporate these three principles into their own ministries at the present hour, we have every right to hope that it will be said of us, as it was of those in Nehemiah’s day, “that this work [has] been accomplished with the help of our God.” (Neh. 6:16 ESV).
Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations taken from the New King James Version (NKJV). Copyright 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Scripture quotations marked (ESV) are from The ESV Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version), copyright 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.