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Perspectives on Leadership: Leadership is Participation

The best things in life are often those we didn’t know we needed. The same is true in leadership. I have heard it said that vision is the leader’s greatest commodity. Vision is our most potent weapon; it’s the indispensable quality of leadership, they say. I’ve been asked countless times what’s my vision for our congregation, this ministry, or this or that demographic in our church. I’ve listened to countless leadership talks that quote the seemingly only Scripture verse that speaks into leadership: “Without vision, people perish.”[1]

And yet, I want to suggest there’s something we leaders need far more than vision—it’s just something we don’t typically know we need.

What could possibly be more crucial to effective leadership than vision? I want to stop by your front porch and let you know: you don’t need vision, you need discernment. Not as trendy a word, is it? But I’m telling you, our leadership is thirsting for it whether we know it or not.

Leadership is the act of influencing a person or thing. And biblically speaking, leadership first refers to what God is doing, and only secondarily does it refer to what we do.


“Biblically speaking, leadership first refers to what God is doing, and only secondarily does it refer to what we do.”


This is the pattern that you’ll see throughout Scripture. The pattern starts at Creation. In Genesis 1 and 2, God exercises dominion over the primordial waters and then shares the work of exercising dominion with Adam and Eve. Triune God leads and shares that leadership with humanity.

This is the pattern in Incarnation. In John 5, Jesus says that the Father does works, shows those works to Jesus, and Jesus’ work was exclusively a participation in the Father’s work. The Father leads and shares that leadership with the Son.

In Mark 3, Jesus appointed and empowered the Twelve to do the ministry that He began doing in Mark 1. Jesus leads and shares that leadership with His disciples.

At the end of Scripture, Revelation paints a picture of God on His throne and then describes the Church as those who will reign with Him. God leads in eternity and shares that leadership with redeemed humanity.


“God leads in eternity and shares that leadership with redeemed humanity.”


What does this mean in regard to your leadership? It means that leadership is not your burden to carry, your duty to perform, nor a work in which the world of those around you depends on your efforts or achievements (go to sleep tonight, leader). Leadership is God actively advancing His Kingdom and freely inviting us in to be partners and vessels of that which He will certainly accomplish.

As disciples of Jesus, we need to keep revising our view of leadership until we see it through the lens of the gospel. Leadership comes into harmony with the gospel when we see it as participating in the active leadership of God. Law is a duty; gospel is that which Christ has done. It’s getting a little closer to the truth to say that leading is a joyful response to who God is and what God has done. But still, as Andrew Purves explains in Reconstructing Pastoral Theology: A Christological Foundation, by shifting the focus to our response, we’re still making it about our duty and burden, something which still largely depends on our achievement—that’s law. Leadership participates in the gospel when we see it as the work of God that we are graciously invited into and empowered to share in.

Eugene Peterson has compared leadership to walking into a meeting that has already happened and not having been given the agenda. Can I let you in on a secret we leaders don’t naturally discover? This thing called leadership started before you and I arrived on the scene.


“This thing called leadership started before you and I arrived on the scene.”


God has been casting vision for your place of leadership since before the foundations of the world. God has been moving those people around you toward a preferred future since Genesis 3. Solomon’s great prayer was for a listening and obedient heart, one that understands and does God’s will (1 Kings 3:7-9).

Jesus exemplified a listening and obedient heart as He daily slipped away to pray and seek what His Father had already been initiating and what His role in that work would be.

Leader, you don’t need vision of what you want to accomplish. Your leadership doesn’t begin with crafting a vision; it begins with discerning what God has already been doing and how He desires you to participate in that work.

I lead a camp for high school and middle school students for the family of churches that I am a part of. During night 4 of worship last year, I got a sense that I wasn’t supposed to preach as we had planned. Once worship was over, I got on stage, and we fumbled our way through sitting in silence and praying prayers of submission. After I couldn’t take the indecision anymore, I simply dismissed the students to their small groups.


“Your leadership doesn’t begin with crafting a vision; it begins with discerning what God has already been doing and how He desires you to participate in that work.”


One of the youth leaders at the camp came up to me later and said, “A few of my boys just told me that they believe in Jesus and want to be baptized.” This coming after a sermon that never happened. Then the leader said, “It’s like we’re not even doing anything.”

That leader was right; we weren’t doing anything. God was doing something; he was teaching us that leadership is what He does. And what we do is have the privilege of playing a part. Now to Him who is able to do far more than we can ask, think, or imagine . . . and who lets us participate while He does it.


[1] This is actually a paraphrase of how the King James Version translates Proverbs 29:18. The NIV says, “Where there is no revelation, people cast off restraint.”

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