The Trajectory of Leadership (11am)
Topic: Leadership Scripture: 1 Samuel 16:6–16:13, 1 Timothy 3:1–3:13
By now all of you know that I’m a big football fan. I’m a sports guy in general but football has always been my first love when it comes to sports. And while I love cheering for the Redbirds down the road and definitely enjoy a good college game, there are a few things unique to the NFL, that I enjoy. And one of those is the NFL draft. The NFL draft is such a unique product in my opinion. It occurs long enough after the season that even fans of losing teams can get excited about the future. And, in terms of the draft, that future gets pinned on a bunch of young kids hoping to become the next rookie sensation.
And leading up to the draft the sports media world inspects, analyzes, and broadcasts every aspect, trait, stat, and storyline surrounding each young athlete. And several of those athletes are invited to the scouting combine. There, each player performs a series of tests to showcase their skills. These range from the bench press to face-to-face interviews to the broad jump to tests of agility. Mind, body, personality…all of it is put under a microscope. And all of that is because teams want to find the best players to lead them to victory. They want to find players who will put them on the right trajectory.
Well, the NFL isn’t the only organization that has standards and qualifications for leadership. So does the church. It varies by denomination but in most you can’t simply walk up to the front of the room and declare yourself as a voice of leadership. This dates all the way back to the early church. It was something we were given by Paul himself. Last week we finished 2 Timothy but this week we are back-tracking a little and looking at 1 Timothy 3 where Paul lists the qualifications for two leadership positions in the church: elder and deacon. It’s a very apt text for us this morning as we just voted to approve the election of a brand new class of elders and deacons for our church. Let’s read Paul’s words.
1 Timothy 3:1-13.
Now the first thing I want to do is put to ease any of the folks from our newest class of elders and deacons. This list is as intimidating as it is extensive. The election of lay leaders is one of my favorite aspects of the Presbyterian Church. We have a congregation who forms a nominating committee. Their job is to investigate, engage, and pray over our church and discern who the Spirit may be leading to leadership. Those folks are then approached and asked to prayerfully consider a role. Once the Spirit has convinced their heart, those candidates are brought back to the entire church body to be voted on for leadership. The discernment and formation of leadership in our church has as much to do with the good of the whole body as it does the intimate movement of the Holy Spirit. So to those of you selected for leadership, remember that it is the Spirit’s call on your heart and your faithful presence and witness in this place that has brought you to where you are. Not because you had enough check boxes on a long list. It is not simply a happy coincidence that leaders selected in the church often align with Paul’s vision of leadership.
I want to spend a little time looking into Paul’s list here. And before he even gets to his list he calls a spade a spade and says, “Whoever aspires to be an overseer (elder) desires a noble task.” Paul understands the weight of leadership. He’s endured its strains and enjoyed its benefits for years. And so he knows that it is no simple matter to enter a leadership role, especially within God’s church. And then comes that list.
Above reproach – that’s a term meaning that no one can find something against you. Self-control, respectable – people should be able to look to you as an example, able to teach. Not given to drunkenness. This doesn’t mean the occasional beer or glass of wine is a sin. What it means is - that leaders do not abuse alcohol. Gentle, someone who looks for resolution instead of conflict, generous. Someone who prioritizes and loves their family. Someone who has not recently become a follower of Christ but rather has spent a good amount of time seeking after Him. A leader should be someone people like! This one may seem silly but it makes more sense than you think. No one wants someone leading them that they don’t even like. A leader in the church should be someone who people want to be friends with. The list for deacons includes many of the same items but adds two not on the list for elders. Sincerity and someone tested. Deacons will likely encounter members of the church and community at their rawest and most desperate moments. They need to have sincere and genuine empathy and love for those people. And because those moments are as precious as they are often painful, deacons need to be people who have shown they can not only endure those moments but thrive within them in terms of sharing God’s love.
Keeping in mind the people who enter these roles are still broken, mortal creatures…I want to return to the analogy I used in terms of NFL players. There are three realities about great players (and awful ones as well) that I believe applies to our understanding of leadership in the church. I’ll break down each but I want to get all three out there first.
1. Players are chosen by teams because of a combination of experience and measurements.
2. It takes time to see a player develop and truly become the player they will be for years to come.
3. No one single player is ever expected to win on their own.
1. Players are chosen by teams because of a combination of experience and measurements. This is as true on draft day as it is when a player is traded after being in the league for several years. Teams look at the experience of a player. If they are a rookie: what school did they play for, what obstacles did they overcome, what kind of pedigree do they have and how were they viewed by their team? Same type of thing if they’ve been in the league a while. You look at what they have done with the time and chances they’ve been given. And teams look at what they can measure... height, strength, agility, vertical jump, speed…recorded numbers that can be read on a page. And with all of those things, tangible and intangible alike, teams take a chance (always a chance) on a player because they believe they are on a trajectory for greatness.
The church is much the same way. When we elect and install leaders we are looking for several things. Some are tangible. For our elders and deacons: how long have they been members of the church, what areas have they served in, what do we see in their character. This is even truer for pastors. One of the requirements for me to be called to this place was that I had to have a Masters of Divinity degree and approval for ordination by the PCUSA. All the intangibles in the world wouldn’t have allowed me to serve here without those two things. So the church has measurable standards for leadership – things we can put on paper and share in a packet much like the ones we’ve had outside the sanctuary for a few weeks.
And then there are the intangibles. Things we can’t necessarily put on paper but can see in the person. Aspects like ones that Paul talks about such as gentleness, sincerity, and self-control. These are things we only learn about a person when we experience them in real life. These are qualities that are born of the Holy Spirit and are likewise brought to the attention of others by the movement of the Holy Spirit. In sports, you will sometimes hear announcers or coaches say a player has a certain “it” factor. It’s never a measurable thing but also always valued. For the church, our “it” factor is the presence, movement, and work of the Holy Spirit in a person’s heart and life. We can’t track it like a lap on a track or measure it like pounds on a bench press but we can see it and we know it when we do. Both of those qualities, the measurable and the experience, influence the trajectory that leader will take. Where they are going and what their impact as a leader will be is, to a fair degree, determined by these things.
2: It takes time to see a player develop and truly become the player they will be for years to come. When a rookie is drafted to an NFL team there is an expectation that they will contribute in a meaningful way but no coach expects that player will be an MVP caliber player in their first few games. It takes time, experience, hardship, victory and defeat to truly become the player they will be for years to come. There are certainly players who come on the scene and immediately catch the attention of everyone watching. Tonight’s Sunday Night Football game will be showcasing two such players: Dak Prescott, drafted in the 4th round by the Dallas Cowboys, and Carson Wentz, taken with the number two overall pick in the draft by my Philadelphia Eagles. Both of these rookies have been impressive and caught the attention of the league. But it will take years to determine if either of them is a permeant, franchise leader for their teams.
Folks who enter leadership roles in the church are expected to contribute to the mission, vision, and work of the church when they come on-board but they are also expected to grow as they serve. This is why elders and deacons come on in three year terms. There is time for our leaders to grow in their faith, expand their ministries of influence, and empower new areas of the church’s reach and identity. Church leadership is not a sprint, it is a meaningful and observant marathon complete with hills, road blocks, fast tracks, and unexpected twist and turns. The leaders who are stepping off of session and deacons are different than they were three years ago and the new ones just elected an hour ago will be different when they finish their terms of service. Our faith should never stop growing and so neither should our leaders.
3: One single player is never expected to win on their own. This should be obvious in every team sport. A great quarterback can’t win without a good offensive line. An incredible pitcher can’t win if the team doesn’t score any runs. The best goalie in hockey can’t be expected to win if his team never scores a goal. When players are chosen by a team it is often because the team management believes that player will contribute to a greater vision of the team as a whole as opposed to being the one missing piece to get a team a championship. The same is true of the church.
No one person is supposed to be the make it or break it, end all be all factor in the health, vision, reach, and ministry of a church. This is even true for Larry and I as pastors. When a decision comes before session, we get a single vote. It has no extra weight. And often in particularly charged decision, a pastor may choose to abstain from voting for the sole purpose of allowing the elected lay leadership to become clarified in their vision for the church. Leadership comes with burdens and blessings unique only to leaders. I have the privilege and blessing to get to stand up here before all of you week after week and share with you a vision the Lord has for our church family. But I can never be inspirational enough, charismatic enough, insightful enough, or motivating enough to change your heart. Only God can do that. And I firmly believe God works through the collective faithfulness of His church (a team) rather than simply through the loudest or most public voice in the room.
I titled this sermon “The Trajectory of Leadership” because I truly believe good leaders follow a path and lead toward something. They are directed and have a plan and a passion to bring change and motivation to a group of people. This is so true in the church. Leaders are chosen based on several factors but, ultimately, they are chosen because the body believes those individuals can lead us somewhere we believe God is calling. Leaders in the church are expected to grow and hit a stride as they serve and struggle and celebrate with the church. Our leaders themselves are on a trajectory, a continual path of formation and identity in Christ. They lead us to new places as a church because they are entering new places in their faith and life. And no leader trail blazes that journey on their own. The trajectory of leadership, the path they take, is one of community, fellowship, accountability, prayer and family.
So to those of you recently elected to serve as leaders in this place, lead us. Pray, read Scripture, engage this community. And put us on a trajectory to do the work of Christ in this place. To the rest of you, honor the call placed on the hearts of these individuals and your pastors. Join in with the vision and excitement. Take part in the journey and help our leaders find that trajectory of faithfulness every church so desperately needs.