The Case of the Reluctant Leader
A friend once told me why he declined when asked to become an Elder in the church. He said it was because he lacked the first requirement. He didn’t desire to become one. He was referring, of course, to Paul’s statement in 1st Timothy 3:1, “...If anyone sets his heart on being an overseer, he desires a noble task.” (NIV) Other translations say, “...If anyone aspires to the office...” (ESV) or “...If a man desires the position...” (NKJ). Since my friend didn’t aspire to or desire to or have his heart set on becoming an Elder, he figured that put him out of the running.
I can sympathize with the sentiment because last year the congregation I attend asked me to step up to the plate and become one of their Elders. Frankly, I’d rather not be an Elder. Sure it’s an honor and all that, but it’s also a tremendous responsibility. It’s not comfortable being the guy who has to say, “The buck stops here!” Further, at times I question whether I’m temperamentally suited to the job, particularly when it comes to things like church discipline, giving advice and confronting false doctrine. My gifting is in the area of teaching and, from my perspective, the most natural fit would be for me to teach at the direction and under the oversight of Elders. Not to mention that my previous stint as an Elder at a different congregation (which no longer exists) was not an entirely happy experience. Being asked to resign by my fellow Elders when they wanted to take the congregation a different direction, left some deep scars.
So, when the congregation I now attend asked me to become one of their Elders I had to confront the issue of qualifications, head on. Specifically, did not desiring the ministry of an Elder disqualify me for it?
While pondering this dilemma it occurred to me that many of the people God chose, served under protest. Here are a few of them:
When God told Moses to rescue the Israelites from slavery, he had all kinds of reasons why he wasn’t the right guy for the job. Excuse No. 1: “I’m not qualified.” (Exodus 3:11) Excuse No. 2: “They won’t know I represent You.” (Exodus 3:13) Excuse No. 3: “They won’t believe me.” (Exodus 4:1) This one was really cutting it close because God had already told Moses that the elders of Israel would listen to him (Exodus 3:18). Excuse No. 4: “I don’t talk so good.” (Exodus 4:2-9) Even after God met every objection Moses could think of he still asked God to pick somebody else (Exodus 4:13). It was only after he roused God’s anger that Moses finally gave in and did what God told him to do. Even then, it was reluctantly and with a disobedient heart. If Moses’ wife hadn’t intervened, God would have killed Moses for disobedience (Exodus 4:24-26).
Gideon comes across as a man full of doubts, to the point of bitterness. He wondered if God cared that His people were being oppressed. But when God demonstrated that He cared by sending an angel to him, Gideon wasn’t prepared to be the means through whom God would deliver the Israelites from their oppressors. “Oh, no! I’m not the person you want! There’s no way I’m qualified. I’m nobody!” (Judges 6:15) He also was afraid even after he realized he’d been speaking to the Lord and the Lord told him not to fear (Judges 6:23). Instead of doing openly what God told him, he pulled down the altar to Baal at night (Judges 6:27). Even though God protected him when the people wanted to kill him for pulling down the altar, Gideon still had doubts about whether God was really calling him. He asked for two separate miracles to verify (Judges 6:36-40).
Another man who served reluctantly was Jeremiah. His excuse was that he was too young and didn’t know how to speak appropriately (Jeremiah 1:6-7). Later on, Jeremiah complained that the task was too hard. He couldn’t take it any more (Jeremiah 20:7-9).
The problem Amos expressed in regard to his ministry was a lack of credentials. He didn’t come from a family of prophets nor had he ever attended the “schools of the prophets.” No, he was merely a shepherd who took care of some orchards on the side (Amos 7:14).
Then, there’s the Apostle Paul. He thought the baggage from his past life should have disqualified him (1 Corinthians 15:9). Specifically, he persecuted the church and now he was supposed to start churches? He certainly implied that he wasn’t fit for the task when Jesus called him (Acts 22:19-20). (Actually, it’s rather startling to realize how much of the Bible was penned by murderers. Figure it up sometime. It’s astonishing how God used people with checkered pasts to fulfill His plan. We can’t use our past as an excuse to get out of serving any more than they could.)
The Common Thread
What did all these great men of God (and others) have in common? Though each one felt unsuited to the task, God called each of them. I think that is the key to ministry and service. No matter how unqualified we consider ourselves; no matter what our excuses may be, it is God who decides whether we are fit or not. The key question we need to ask ourselves is not whether we are qualified, but whether God is calling us to a particular ministry. He is the One who qualifies us. Having said that, we need to also keep in mind that God is consistent. When the Scriptures list requirements for a particular role, God is not going to call us to that role if we don’t meet those specifications. For an obvious example, since an Elder must be a one-woman-man (1 Timothy 3:2), polygamists need not apply. God may very well call a polygamist to ministry, but not as an Elder. If someone feels God’s call but is scripturally barred from the role he thinks he’s being called to, then he needs clarification. Either God is not calling him after all, or he has mistaken the role or ministry to which God is calling him.
Nevertheless, I believe that God’s call is essential. Unless He calls us to it, it is presumptuous to attempt a particular role or ministry. We will be doing it in our own strength, not His. As such, though we may enjoy the trappings of worldly success we are dooming ourselves to failure. Jesus had some pretty harsh words for people engaged in ministry without God’s call. “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and in your name drive out demons and perform many miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’” (Matthew 7:21-23 NIV)
I eventually concluded that God was calling me to the role of Elder even though I did not desire or aspire to the position. Okay, God does call reluctant people to serve Him but how, you ask, could I get around what Paul wrote about an Elder desiring the role? The answer is in the context. Remember the situation and who Paul was writing to. While speaking to the Elders from Ephesus, as recorded in Acts chapter 20, Paul predicted that some from among their number would betray their calling and start their own personality cults. A few years later, Paul’s prediction proved true. Some of the Elders started teaching false doctrine and caused disunity in the church. In response to the situation, Paul sent Timothy to Ephesus to clean up the mess. Because the church’s problems centered among the Elders, it’s quite probable that people started to discount the role. They began to despise Elders. “Those guys just cause trouble!” I believe that Paul’s comment is not so much about the necessity of men to aspire to the role as it is a reminder that the role of Elder is a noble one. If someone wants to become and Elder (he feels God’s call) he shouldn’t be looked down on. The task is noble. As Paul writes elsewhere, Elders are a gift to the church (Ephesians 4:11 – ‘Pastor’ is simply another name for Elder).
Peter’s instruction to Elders (1 Peter 5:1-4) also requires some soul-searching for the reluctant candidate. Doesn’t what he says about serving as overseers, not under compulsion but willingly, disqualify those of us who don’t aspire to the role? I think what Peter is really addressing is a person’s heart and his motive for serving. The man who regards the role of pastoring God’s flock as an irksome duty will do as little as he can to get by. On the other hand, the man who serves from the heart will have the interests of the flock in mind instead of his own. A person, such as myself, might not desire the position but, once he’s been called to it, will give it his best. Nobody blackmailed me into becoming an Elder. Nobody threatened me with bodily harm if I didn’t become one. When it comes down to it, I accepted the task of my own will – even though it was not a task I sought. I serve willingly, though I sort of wish God had called me to something else! There is a big difference between being reluctant and unwilling.
The second issue Peter addresses is far easier to dismiss in my case. He writes that an Elder should not be greedy for money but be eager to serve. I can honestly say that I am eager to serve. As far as being in it for the money, I’ve deliberately and with intent, refused to take a salary from the church. I’ve seen far too many who regard working in the church as an occupation rather than a vocation. On the contrary, I support the church with tithes and offerings from other sources of income.
Why The Reluctant?
Why does God sometimes pick those of us who are reluctant? I suspect that it may be to keep us humble. Our reluctance to serve is rooted in our feelings of inadequacy. We are weak, and we know it. Yet, when we surrender to God and answer His call in spite of not feeling capable, He turns our weakness into strength. It’s a constant reminder that it is not us, but He who is working through us to accomplish the task. The real question is not whether we are capable, but whether we are willing to answer the call. If God has our heart, He can always give us the talent and resources. Does He have our heart?