by Joe W. Bruce
Only by God’s grace did I become an area administrator for the International Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention. When asked to fill the role, my constant prayer was, “Lord, why me for this job when you have so many others much more capable than I?”
Only by God’s grace did I become an area administrator for the International Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention. When asked to fill the role, my constant prayer was, “Lord, why me for this job when you have so many others much more capable than I?” In that spirit I share these biblical principles of missionary leadership, hoping that they will help others in developing their own leadership philosophy.
FOLLOW JESUS’ COMMANDS
Only by God’s grace did I become an area administrator for the International Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention. When asked to fill the role, my constant prayer was, “Lord, why me for this job when you have so many others much more capable than I?” In that spirit I share these biblical principles of missionary leadership, hoping that they will help others in developing their own leadership philosophy.No missionary administrator can go wrong by following the commands of the Master Leader, Jesus. As far as I can determine, Jesus did not give a great number of direct commands to his disciples. There are two, however, that apply specifically to leaders, and they are the foundation of my leadership philosophy.
Let people know you love them. The first principle is found in John 15:12-13: “My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.” Early on I discovered that God did not give me the gifts to be a great administrator, but he did give me the ability to love the people he had called me to lead. One of the first things I told folks was, “Probably the other area leaders you had in the past were much better preachers and administrators than I am, but I can assure you that none of them loved you any more than I will.” If your people know you love them, they will love you. In a recent conference for Southern Baptist missionary leaders, the facilitators from the Center for Creative Leadership, Greenville, S.C., stated: “One of the results of our ongoing studies of effective leaders is the consistent finding that 80 percent of leadership effectiveness is based on relationships and 20 percent is based on skills or techniques.” The effective Christian leader knows how to love people.
People know you love them if you consistently demonstrate that you are willing to lay down your life for them. They know they can count on you to represent them well—even if it temporarily tests the patience of your superiors, or your fellow leaders. People will follow you almost anywhere you want to lead them if they know you love them, and if you have sufficiently demonstrated that you have their best interests at heart. Gaining this type of trust takes time, conscious effort, and sincerity. It requires more than words.
Lead by the Golden Rule. Matthew 7:12 contains the second principle: “So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you.” Some leaders get so hung up on policy that they forget the person. Now we need policies, procedures, and processes; otherwise there would be confusion and administrative chaos. However, leaders are supposed to make decisions that help people do and become their best. If rules and policies could decide everything, we wouldn’t need leaders. A policy manual would be sufficient.
In gray situations, a Golden Rule leader seeks to defend the spirit of the law while applying grace in regard to the letter of the law. Unfortunately, many situations do not nicely fit into a written policy. The trick, of course, is to always try to be consistent and fair in making policy exceptions. Personal favoritism, paternalism, or nepotism should never play a part in how these kinds of decisions are made. In other words, you must seek to do the same for those you don’t like as you would for those with whom you have a closer, warmer relationship.
A proverb that I have found helpful says, “Do not withhold good from those who deserve it, when it is in your power to act” (Prov. 3:27). An administrator friend of mine puts it another way: “Never say no, if you can find an honorable way to say yes.” There are times, of course, when the leader has to make tough, unpopular decisions. Folks will accept the hard decisions if you have consistently demonstrated that you are saying no only because you cannot morally or from personal conviction say yes.
FOLLOW PAUL’S ADVICE
In 1 Thessalonians 5:14, Paul says: “And we urge you, brothers, warn those who are idle, encourage the timid, help the weak, be patient with everyone.” Look a bit closer at these words of advice from one of the first missionary leaders.
Warn those who are idle. Sometimes leaders will discover that some folks are not producing as they should. According to William Neil in The Torch Bible Commentary, the word translated “idle” means a “loafer.” It is often the leader’s lot to warn those who are loafing. This does not necessarily mean you scold them or threaten to send them home if they don’t shape up. Many times all it takes is a gentle suggestion of how they might do their work more effectively.
As a leader you cannot shirk your responsibility to deal with those who consistently underperform or are mismatched in their jobs. In such cases, they must be dealt with fairly but firmly. Warn the idle, but along with the warning give them some specific things to work on, and build in some accountability.
Unfortunately, it sometimes falls to the administrator to not only warn the idle, but also to find ways to either steer them into more effective ministries on the field, or, in as positive a way as possible, help them find a place of service elsewhere. When this happens, the Golden Rule again becomes the standard by which decisions should be made. Even when it becomes necessary to take tough disciplinary action, do everything possible to help people maintain their integrity and self-respect. Treat them as you would want to be treated if you were sitting on their side of the desk
Encourage the timid. Most missionaries come to the field out of a sincere sense of call and a desire to serve. Most want to do a good job, and they desire to be team players. Satan, however, knows that he can capitalize upon their fears, frustrations, and lack of cultural or language skills to discourage them. A discouraged or depressed missionary lacks the motivation needed for effectiveness. For that reason, Paul’s admonition to the missionary leader is to encourage the timid (or weak, as another version has it).
One way to encourage them is through visits in their home. Letting them see you as a real person who wants to get acquainted with them, their family, and their work communicates that you love and care about them. Unfortunately, other meetings and responsibilities tend to limit this kind of ministry. When he was an area administrator, Jerry Rankin, the president of the Southern Baptist International Mission Board, had as his goal “to drink a cup of coffee in the kitchen of every missionary unit” in his area. Look for ways to make personal contact with people. Send notes for special occasions such as birthdays, wedding anniversaries, anniversaries of their missionary appointments, or when they suffer the loss of a loved one. I made it a practice to send a book to each missionary for his or her birthday.
Help the weak. A good leader recognizes when someone on the team is in a slump. Unfortunately, sometimes the whole team is suffering. It is at these times when leaders must “help the weak,” or the “faint-hearted,” as this word is translated in another version. A big part of your role as a leader is to pastor the missionaries in your region, because you will often find one or another of them “faint-hearted” or down. Part of your responsibility as their leader is to find ways to minister to them in ways that lift their spirits, renew their sense of call, and rekindle their excitement about being on God’s team.
One way is by maintaining freshness in your own spiritual walk. It is hard to pump somebody else up if you are deflated yourself. Reminding them of their spiritual heritage, call, and vision is another. Take advantage of special opportunities to address the group. Also, recognize them publicly for ministry achievements.
You help the weak when you provide ways for them to become stronger. Sometimes you do that by just listening. Provide opportunities to get additional training, either on the field or on home assignment. Remember that you are not only their cheerleader; you are their trainer.
And don’t forget to pray for them and with them, even if you are talking with them by telephone or e-mail. And continue to pray for them every time God calls them to your mind. If people know you are serious about praying for them, they will be serious about sharing themselves with you—even when they are feeling weak.
Be patient with everyone. One of Stephen Covey’s seven principles is: “Seek first to understand, then to be understood.” One of the reasons you are a leader is because you see and understand certain trends that others have overlooked or not yet seen. You are tempted to move rapidly to accomplish what to you is already clear, and there will be rare occasions when you will need to push ahead. You must understand, however, that in doing so you risk alienating your people.
Or you may look back and discover you are way out in front—by yourself. You must learn enough about the people you lead to know how fast they can move. In other words, you must learn to be patient with everyone. The real test of your leadership will be how well you can balance vision with patience. Seek first to understand where people are in their own vision and process. Then you will be in position to lead them. This type of leadership requires patience with people, with the system, and with yourself.
Face it, some of the people you work with will just bug you to death. You might avoid some of them some of the time, but you cannot ignore all of them all of the time. So you must learn to be patient with everyone. In some ways your leadership ability will show itself in the way you demonstrate patience with people and situations you would rather not deal with. It takes much more grace to work with people patiently, helping them grow or come around to your point of view, than it does to blast them because you are the leader and they must do as you say or else. If you lead only through coercion, you will have people’s toleration, but not their passion for fulfilling your vision.
FOLLOW JAMES’ PRACTICAL WISDOM
James 1 gives mission leaders a couple of pointers on effectiveness. Notice how they complement the instructions of Jesus and Paul.
Count it all joy. Prepare for difficulties. A leader gets to deal with other people’s “junk.” It would be great if all the leader dealt with were vision casting and strategic planning. Unfortunately, it takes other people to carry out your plans and strategy. And in the grand equation of life, people equal problems. How you deal with problems not only bears upon your Christian witness and testimony; in large measure, it determines how long you last as a leader.
Hence the timely wisdom of James. James reminds us that there is more to life than a job. You can allow the problems and trials of leadership to eat away at you, robbing you of sleep, making you a Maalox addict, and in general making it difficult for your family and others to live with you. Unless you make a conscious effort, your job as a leader will completely absorb you.
You lead because you know how to get things done effectively and creatively. Most leaders, however, have a problem knowing when to let go of the reins for a while. You must take care to build some space between your work and the rest of your existence. You might be the leader, but you are also a spouse, a parent, a missionary, and a human. Never delude yourself into thinking that you and your family are immune to burnout. Don’t let the demands of leadership rob you of your love for the things that make life meaningful and fun. When you stop finding joy in your work, step back to recharge physically, emotionally, and spiritually. If, after resting, you still find your work to be spiritually stifling or unending drudgery, it might be time to ask the Lord of the Harvest to let you change assignments.
Ask God for wisdom. Many times a leader runs into situations in which he or she lacks experience or direction. In such circumstances you have two choices. You can charge ahead and hope for the best, or you can pause to ask God for direction. A good leader is not afraid to seek answers from the Ruler of the universe.
One of the notable things about Solomon’s leadership is the way he began. In 2 Chronicles 1, as Solomon came to the throne, God asked him what he wanted. The new king’s response illustrates what every new leader needs to ask of God: “Give me now wisdom and knowledge, that I may go out and come in before this people; for who can rule this great people of Thine?” (v. 10) A good leader soon recognizes that without wisdom and knowledge from on high, one’s own reserves are insufficient.
When I first became a field leader, I received a letter from James Crane, one of the first Southern Baptist field administrators for Latin America. “Joe,” he wrote, “as you assume this new responsibility, my prayer for you is the one Paul asked his fellow believers to pray for him. It says, ‘Strive together with me in your prayers …that my service … may prove acceptable to the saints’” (Rom. 15:30-31).
Joe W. Bruce is a 30-year veteran of missionary service. Before his retiring from the International Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention, he served as area director for Middle America and Canada for 17 years. From an office in Guatemala, Bruce oversaw the work of approximately 325 missionaries in eight countries. Bruce is a graduate of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas (M. Div., D. Min.). He presently serves as projects director for Texas Partnerships of the Baptist General Convention of Texas.
EMQ, Vol. 37, No. 1, pp. 36-41. Copyright © 2001 Evangelism and Missions Information Service (EMIS). All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS.