The other day I heard the newly appointed chairman of Railtrack talking about what he had taken on. There's a brave man. He is himself a regular rail user, and he said that he has moaned more than most about the problems. He said that it's a tough job, but that it's important –important for this country that we have a world-class rail system. He said (in the face of considerable scepticism from his interviewer) that he believed that was possible within five years. He said that this job was his top priority, and he'd give it all the time it needed.
I want to talk to you this evening about a job that is tough but important – far more important than being chairman of Railtrack. It's a job in an organisation which in some respects is in an even greater crisis in this country than is the railway industry. It therefore requires an even more positive and visionary approach. But it has an infinitely greater potential impact on the world. It is a job that not one of us is up to, without massive injections of divine assistance, but that some of us here this evening must do. I'm talking, of course, about church leadership.
I want to focus on the particular senior leadership role in the life of a church which is variously named elder, overseer, minister, pastor or presbyter, among other things.
It needs to be said, though I don't have time to develop this now, that those who take this headship role in the church, under the overall headship of Christ, should according to the Bible be men rather than women.
But leadership in the church is a much broader thing than eldership alone, and what I have to say is almost all applicable to any kind of leadership role within the life of the church. Indeed, a great deal of it equally well applies to Christian discipleship in general.
So I'm talking to two groups of people.
There are those of you who are already leaders, or who want to be leaders in the church. To you I would say, 'Listen to what's involved and then get stuck in.'
And by the way there really isn't any age limit on wanting to be a church leader. You may be only in your teens, but that's not too young for you to begin to be aware of the desire and the call to lead. And as for an upper age limit – well Moses was eighty when God called him to lead the Israelites out of Egypt. And he still had forty years of ministry ahead of him.
Then there are also those of you who don't want to be leaders in the church. To you I would say, 'Maybe you should be a leader, even if you don't want to be at this stage. If so, stop running, and ask God to equip you. If God is making you a leader, that's what you'd better be. On the other hand, maybe you have other gifts – not leadership. In that case, don't go to sleep. Apply all that you can to your own life. And pray for those who are called to leadership. Pray that they will be the kind of leaders I'm going to describe.' Then come back next Sunday evening to hear Alex Lindsay talking about 'Every Member Ministry'.
There's an outline on the back of the service sheet. You could use that for notes. If you want to know what a church leader should be like, the thing to do is to go to the New Testament and see what God has to say in his Word. So that's what we'll do. I will limit myself to one passage – and that's Acts 20.17-38. Please turn to that. I want to see what we can find out from this passage about the leader's character, the leader's experience, and the leader's task.
What we have here is Luke's account of the apostle Paul's final meeting with the elders – in other words the senior leaders – of the church in Ephesus. Paul is in Miletus, near Ephesus. Verse 17:
From Miletus, Paul sent to Ephesus for the elders of the church.
Paul doesn't want to get sidetracked from his present purpose by going back to Ephesus, where he had recently been engaged in church planting for about two years. Paul explains his situation to the elders in verse 22:
And now, compelled by the Spirit, I am going to Jerusalem, not knowing what will happen to me there.
Paul knows that this is his last opportunity to see them. Look at verse 38:
What grieved [the elders] most was [Paul's] statement that they would never see his face again.
So this is a meeting that is not only loaded with emotion, it is also a strategic opportunity for Paul to drive home to these elders what God is calling them to be and to do. They won't have him to lean on, or to appeal to, or to teach them in the future. From now on, they're on their own. What are the key things they need to have driven into their minds? That's the thought behind what Paul says.
It's an amazing, moving and deeply challenging account, and it ought to be written on the heart of everyone who is or wants to be a leader in the church.
Paul teaches them about leadership by telling them directly what's expected of them. But he also talks about himself and his own experience, by way of example. 'As I have been to you, so you should be to those you lead' – that's the implication of what he says about himself.
So what can we learn, first of all, about the leader's character?
First, THE LEADER'S CHARACTER
A leader should be humble, totally devoted to Christ, uncompromising on the gospel, passionate and persevering, and he should have a godly attitude to money. That's what Paul was like.
When [the elders from Ephesus] arrived, [Paul] said to them: 'You know how I lived the whole time I was with you, from the first day I came into the province of Asia. I served the Lord with great humility…
Now you might think that a public declaration of your own humility is rather a contradiction, like someone saying, 'I'm not arrogant; I'm perfect.' But it isn't, because true humility is a matter of being crystal clear about who you are in relation to God and other people. Paul knew that he was a desperate sinner, deserving only condemnation, whose life had been turned around completely by God, who had chosen him to be an apostle, by sheer grace. That kind of clear-sighted humility has to be the foundation of all godly leadership.
And Paul's gratitude for the grace of God in Christ had lead him to devote his whole life to Christ and his cause. Verse 24:
I consider my life worth nothing to me, if only I may finish the race and complete the task the Lord Jesus has given me – the task of testifying to the gospel of God's grace.
You want to be a leader in the church? Well, how about that for a line in the job description: we must value Jesus so highly that we value our service of Jesus more than our very lives.
In some parts of the world, and at some times in this country, that's been a very literal choice: serve faithfully and die, or abandon your post of leadership and stay alive.
We have a more easy time at the moment though. We just have to be ready to lay aside all ambitions, desires, aspirations, hopes and dreams that are incompatible with the task of leadership to which we're called. They might be anything from wanting to have no responsibilities to tie you down over weekends, to giving up that attractive and rising income that could have been yours.
Is it worth it? I consider my life worth nothing to me, says Paul, in comparison with getting the job done for Jesus. If we take on leadership without that kind of attitude, we're going to tear ourselves apart with resentment and frustration. Freedom lies in complete devotion.
The leader's necessary ability to be uncompromising on the gospel also stems from total dedication to Christ. Verse 27:
I have not hesitated to proclaim to you the whole will of God.
Why might a leader hesitate to teach the whole message of the Bible? Why might he trim his message? In Paul's case, these elders had seen how Paul's preaching in Ephesus had lead to uproar in the city, and a near riot. Teaching the Bible inevitably means saying things that go right against the grain of popular thinking. Sometimes it does mean saying things people don't want to hear. But Paul didn't hesitate. He would bend over backwards to accommodate people on anything else. But when it came to the Word of God, he wouldn't budge an inch.
But don't be mislead into thinking that being rock solid on the gospel meant he had a heart of stone. Very far from it. He cared passionately about those amongst whom he ministered. For instance, look at verse 31:
Remember that for three years I never stopped warning each of you night and day with tears.
And you see the same thing back in verse 19:
I served the Lord with great humility and with tears…
Paul wept for the Ephesians. He was passionate about the gospel and about those whom he served by his leadership. Now it's true, of course, that some people cry at the drop of a hat and others don't cry whether a hat's been dropped or for any other reason. Temperaments do differ. But it's not the outward expression, it's the inward passion that counts. It's not what's running down the cheeks, its what's burning in the heart that matters.
And Paul's passion wasn't a short-lived emotional thunderstorm that passed over and was gone. It drove him month after month and year after year to consistent, faithful and persevering ministry amongst the Ephesians. Verse 31 again:
Remember that for three years I never stopped warning each of you night and day with tears.
The attrition rate among leaders is frighteningly high. What the church needs is leaders who will persevere, in season and out.
Then just in case we're in danger of getting super-spiritual about all this, and forgetting that leaders are subject to all the same temptations and frailties as anyone else, Paul draws attention to the need for leaders to have sorted out the money issue. Verse 33:
I have not coveted anyone's silver or gold or clothing.
Indeed in his unique apostolic role Paul was so anxious that the gospel should be seen to be a free gift that he wouldn't take any money at all from people when he was doing pioneering evangelism and planting a church. But elsewhere he makes it clear that it's right for a church to support financially those who need to work full-time in gospel ministry, so they can be fed and clothed and keep a roof over their heads.
But church leaders are not to envy those whose incomes are higher than their own and who have lifestyles to match. Nor are they to use their spiritual influence as a lever to generate wealth for themselves. Mind you, this is no great sacrifice that Paul is asking for, once you've broken free from the desire to accumulate. If you're content with what you've got, then you're better off than the multi-millionaire who's desperate to climb a few places in the Sunday Times rich list.
So there's a character sketch of Paul by way of an example to Christian leaders. A leader should be humble, totally devoted to Christ, uncompromising on the gospel, passionate and persevering, and he should have a godly attitude to money.
But what should a leader in the church expect of life? What's it like being a leader according to Paul? That brings us on to my next heading.
Secondly, THE LEADER'S EXPERIENCE
Not easy, but rewarding is how you could sum it up. Not many of us have such a rough time as Paul, but it helps to expect the worse. Then if the worst happens, it's only what you expected, and you regard it as normal. And if the worst doesn't happen, then that's a surprise bonus. Most of the time, the worst did happen to Paul, and he certainly had a tough time in Ephesus, where he faced strong opposition. Verse 19:
… I was severely tested by the plots of the Jews.
He was a Jew, of course. A lot of those who he might have expected would be natural allies turned against him and gave him grief.
And Paul's experience was that winning through against one lot of opposition simply meant that the next difficulty was round the corner. Indeed the Lord told him that was what he was in line for. Verse 23:
I only know that in every city the Holy Spirit warns me that prison and hardships are facing me.
Opposition and hardship are part of the package for leaders in the church.
And just so that we're under no illusions about what we could be letting ourselves in for if we decide to go down this route, Paul spreads on top of that cake, by way of icing, sheer hard graft. And whereas opposition and the hardship that it can bring are outside the leader's control and simply have to be handled if and when they come, hard work is a matter of self-imposed self-discipline. So Paul urges those Ephesians elder, in verse 35:
In everything I did, I showed you that by this kind of hard work we must help the weak…
I said that the leader's experience is that life is not easy, but rewarding. You may be wondering by now where the rewards come. Well, they're many. Two are mentioned by Paul here.
The first is the experience of a clear conscience. Look at what he has to say in verse 26:
Therefore, I declare to you today that I am innocent of the blood of all men.
What does he mean by that? He's not denying that he's a sinner in need of forgiveness. He's not innocent in that sense. Not for a moment.
No, what he's saying is that by the grace of God he knows that he has fulfilled the role that God assigned to him. He has handed on the baton of the gospel to the next generation of leaders. He's been doing what God wanted him to do. He didn't duck out of the challenge or shirk the responsibility, however imperfectly he fulfilled it.
So he has no fundamental regrets about the direction of his life as a Christian. His conscience is clear.
And that's a priceless gift. Life doesn't offer any reward higher than knowing that you're bang in the middle of the fairway when it comes to God's will for your life. That's not an experience exclusive to leaders by any means, any more than a lot of these other things have been. But nonetheless, it's an experience that leaders can share, and it more than makes up for any amount of hard graft.
One positive experience, then, is a clear conscience. Another that's evident in this moving encounter between Paul and these Ephesian elders is the experience of friendship and love in Christ. Do you see what happens at the end of this chapter, as they say their goodbyes? From verse 36:
When he had said this, he knelt down with all of them and prayed. They all wept as they embraced him and kissed him. What grieved them most was his statement that they would never see his face again. Then they accompanied him to the ship. After we had torn ourselves away from them, we put out to sea…
That's describing a difficult parting, of course. More hardship for the leaders. More grief. But why was that parting so hard to take? It was because those elders loved Paul. They had been through a lot together. They had worked side by side for the common goal of the spread of the gospel.
I have no doubt that among them there were tensions and some difficult relationships. When a lot of sinners live and work together there always are. But more significant is the deeper reality of that experience of loving fellowship in Christ. And speaking personally, I would not swap that for anything.
Such is the leader's experience: not easy by any means, but massively rewarding.
What then does the church leader have to do? That is my final heading.
Thirdly, THE LEADER'S TASK
Here are four aspects of the church leader's role that emerge from this account.
First, preaching and teaching the Word ofGod. This is the heart of what Paul was doing among them. He uses a wonderful array of different phrases to describe this. So in verse 20:
You know that I have not hesitated to preach anything that would be helpful to you but have taught you publicly and from house to house. I have declared to both Jews and Greeks that they must turn to God in repentance and have faith in our Lord Jesus.
At the end of verse 25 he talks about …
…the task of testifying to the gospel of God's grace.
And he goes on …
… now I know that none of you among whom I have gone about preaching the kingdom will ever see me again.
Then verse 27:
I have not hesitated to proclaim to you the whole will of God.
Why this emphasis on proclaiming the word of God? Because it is through the teaching and hearing of the word that people come to faith and are built up in faith. In other words God uses the preaching of the word to create and to grow the church. And Paul wants that work to continue among them in his absence. That's his prayer. So he says in verse 32:
Now I commit you to God and to the word of his grace, which can build you up and give you an inheritance among all those who are sanctified.
Very often Bible teaching will be a key responsibility of a church elder. At the very least, leaders have to ensure that the preaching and teaching of the 'word of God's grace' is at the very heart of the church's agenda. If the Bible isn't at the very heart of your personal agenda, please don't become a church leader until it is. Otherwise you will build a spiritually dead church.
Secondly, and linked to that, the leader's task is to protect the church from the influence of false teaching. The church is and always will be under assault from those whose agenda (however they might describe themselves) is to doubt, distort and ultimately to deny the biblical gospel. In other words, they seek to drain the church of its life blood. Or to use another image, they are like wolves attacking a flock of sheep. And these attacks come both from within and from outside the church. So Paul's warning is clear – verses 28-31:
Keep watch over yourselves and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers. Be shepherds of the church of God, which he bought with his own blood. I know that after I leave, savage wolves will come in among you and will not spare the flock. Even from your own number men will arise and distort the truth in order to draw away disciples after them. So be on your guard!
Thirdly, the leader's role is to ensure that needy people are cared for. Verse 35:
we must help the weak, remembering the words the Lord Jesus himself said: 'It is more blessed to give than to receive.'
And fourthly, the leader's task is to pray. Verse 36:
When [Paul] has said this, he knelt down with all of them and prayed.
And that's what he's doing back in verse 32, where he says to them:
I commit you to God…
The leader needs to know that everything depends on God. Nothing of lasting value, nothing of eternal significance is going to happen unless God makes it happen by his Spirit. When we pray, we acknowledge that, and we ask him to do it. Prayer and the word need to be the heartbeat of the church leader's life.
If you want to be a leader, what should your prayer be in the light of all that we've seen of the leader's character, experience and task? Lord have mercy! Lord, I can't do this! I can't begin to be like this unless you make it happen. Lord, make me a leader!
And once you've begun to pray like that, then get to work to equip yourself to be a leader, start leading by serving in whatever way comes to hand, and talk to the church leaders around you about what is on your heart so that they can be some use to you on the road.