A recent journal article began with reference to old movie dancers, Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers (a reference that may likely mean nothing to anyone under 35). The legendary dance team who starred in countless musicals made dancing look not just incredibly graceful but so easy as well. An often repeated observation was that Astaire was amazing, but Rogers danced all the same moves, only backwards and in heels!
The writer, Kerra Becker English, went on to use the image of the dance as a metaphor for exploring our spiritual journeys, with God as the one who wants to lead us, and ourselves as the ones who need learn to follow. While her exposition was certainly insightful, it was a side comment that gave me additional pause for reflection. She wrote: In an age where books on leadership have their own section at the local bookstore, learning to follow is not something being widely taught. Who would sign up for a class called “Exceptional Followership” or “Following Well?” To follow someone or something implies weakness in our culture’s contemporary way of thinking. Followers join cults. Followers buy too much from infomercials. Followers don’t become bosses; they are managed by bosses. Following is about subordination.
English identifies, I think, not only a significant illness and misunderstanding that contributes to malaise and stagnation in our spiritual growth, but contributes to a major weakness in the life of both the contemporary church and of our society as a whole. Jesus called his disciples to follow him, but we are far more prone, as in the words of Isaiah, to going, like sheep, each of us to our own way. We headstrong, defiant and selfish children of God struggle so to learn obedience in the spiritual life, partly because we are so accustomed to demanding our own way in all of life. If something doesn’t suit our preferences, we demand change. We are swift to protest that we haven’t been heard in our objections, which usually means we moan that we did not get our way. In society at large, for instance, we are quick to demean our elected officials for the decisions they make, though rarely do we bother doing the intense research and thoughtful reflection required of them as they struggle to balance competing concerns in a complex society—if their decisions interfere with our self-interest, they we deride them as idiots.
Leith Anderson, a contemporary writer on leadership in the church, once suggested in a book that the biggest need facing today’s church is not better leaders, but better followers. But of course, such language may seem offensive and self-serving, especially in a culture that has become sadly marked by such deep distrust, disrespect and disdain towards leaders in general.
Which is the opposite attitude that scripture commands of God’s people, not only towards leaders within the church, but even non-Christian leaders, rulers and people in authority in the civil realm. Scripture tells us to submit to the governing authorities, because God has established them, and affirms we are to pay taxes, revenue, respect and honor (Romans 13:1, 6–7 and I Peter 2:13–17). Again, in his words of encouragement to Timothy, Paul urged…“that requests, prayers, intercession, and thanksgiving be made for everyone—for kings and all those in authority (1 Timothy 2:1–2). This link, http://tinyurl.com/8wuxb8c, brings you to a 30-day list of biblical prayer concerns for pastors and leaders. Reading it reminded me of the old adage that if a church wants a better pastor, they should start by praying for the one they have.
As I think about the importance of good Christian followership especially in terms of life within a congregational setting, several truths need to be identified.
First, God is in control. And God is good. If we believe that truth, then we must also believe that God is more than capable of being in control of his church, of church leaders and pastors, and of congregations, and of working his kingdom purpose out even through the frail vessel of the church and her people. When we despair of the direction of the church, are we not also, by default, despairing of God’s sovereign power at work? The great reformed theologian, John Calvin, in refuting the doctrine of papal infallibility, strongly affirmed that church councils and leaders can and do err. But he also affirmed strongly the sovereignty of God, and the need for God’s people to trust that the Lord is working out his purposes in the trials, struggles, triumphs and failings of the church in her effort to be faithful and to work out her salvation in fear and trembling in the midst of this world.
Secondly, leaders come from God, as already noted from scripture. And that should lead us again to trust that despite their human frailties and folly, God will be faithful in sending his Spirit to fill those leaders with godly wisdom, insight and good purpose. Encourage them in what is often difficult and thankless work, and pray for them to find the Lord’s way for them in everything.
Thirdly, leaders are called to lead, and good leaders will do so thoughtfully, graciously and prayerfully, with lots of wise consultation and careful listening to others. But lead they will. To lead is the responsibility placed upon their shoulders by the Lord, and they can only be faithful stewards of that duty by resolutely leading. Good leaders are prepared to make decisions, and sometimes hard, challenging decisions, knowing that those choices will be critiqued and questioned. (Good followers will do just that—critique and question, but also in ways that are thoughtful, prayerful and gracious. They will not simply grouse, complain and back-bite recklessly, belligerently or ignorantly.) And good leaders will also have the humility and wisdom to change their decisions, confess their mistakes and own the consequences when their decisions prove to have been misguided. But again, good leaders will lead. But good leaders can only lead well when they have congregations prepared to follow in trusting, confident and prayerful supportiveness.
Fourthly, there are, sadly, few strategies more effective in the devil’s arsenal, for creating dissension and division within a church than by stirring up a spirit of harsh, relentless criticism against leaders within a church. If pastors need to be held up in prayer that they remain fixed firmly within God’s will, so too do elders and leaders, not the least for which is strong defense against the attacks of the evil one. And great followers in a church will always be on the alert against the enemy’s desire to sow the seeds of dissension and disrespect, most notably directed against leaders.
Finally, great followership demands incredible graciousness. Remember that even the best leaders will mess up and make mistakes. They/we are, after all, only human. Indeed, great leaders will probably be those who quite regularly fail because they dare to try bold things for the sake of the kingdom of God. Someone once said that great churches are those that believe they may have to endure at least nine spectacular failures for every great success. Dead and dying churches are those whose leaders never dare or risk anything in case they fail and be criticized, and thus like the servant who buried his talent in the ground, gain nothing for the Master. Therefore great followers will be those who not only faithfully encourage and support the ventures and daring of the leadership, but equally, will surround them with forgiveness and grace, unwavering encouragement and support, if and when things go topsy-turvy and the great dreams and plans become unrealized. Great followers don’t give up on their leaders, but strengthen and pray even harder for them in the times of difficulty. They give grace when their leaders make mistakes, grow weary, run out of energy and time, and fall short of what they would ideally want to be and give as servants of Christ.
In the Book of Exodus, we find that lovely story of Aaron and Hur holding up the hands of Moses during the battle against the Amalekites, after Moses had grown too tired to keep holding up the staff of God. Great leaders are those who strive to hold high the holy purposes of God for his church. And great followers are those who never fail to hold up the leaders’ arms.