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Who Me? Reluctant Leadership and the Progressive Nature of God’s Call

by Warren Janzen

Looking at his own life and the life of the Apostle Peter, the author shares how we can prevent ourselves from becoming reluctant leaders and move forward as God calls us.

 


❝But what about our call?❞

The words coursed through my mind as I climbed back into bed. Living in Tokyo and leading a field of over sixty missionaries, when a call came in the middle of the night I figured it must be an emergency. It was—but not a “normal” crisis. This turned out to be a crisis of calling for me and my family.  

The chairman of the search committee got the time change wrong, but the message right. We were being asked to move to the United States so that I could become the next international director of our mission. Questions flooded our minds and robbed us of sleep. But we’ve been called to the Japanese. We’ve already given much of our time to field leadership. Are we still going to be missionaries if we move to the States? What about our boys?

This means they’ll have to move from an MK school to a public school. God clearly called us here to Japan; was he now calling us to the U.S.? Or was this merely the musings of some people looking to fill a need?  

The Dilemma
As missionaries, we put a lot of stock in “calling”. We articulate it when applying to organizations. We get others to rally behind it when developing prayer and financial support. We reflect back on it when going through difficult challenges. We appeal to it when making decisions about what comes next. Over time, calling becomes a piece of bedrock in our lives, intricately woven into our identity as God’s co-laborers. But it can also turn into an albatross, holding us down when God is directing us elsewhere.

When dramatic change is brought before us, especially a change toward leadership and away from the initial reason why we went to the field, “call” becomes one of the first issues raised.   Some feel like they are stepping away from God’s best for them. They feel like they are abandoning the most important work. It took my wife and me more than a year to finally stop feeling guilty about not being fully engaged in evangelism, discipleship, and church planting. It took us that long to give ourselves permission to focus on empowering and supporting others who were doing that work. In our minds, we had moved away from our initial calling. We felt we had to make a case for a new “call” to our supporters. In our minds, it was not “plan A.” It caused us to be reluctant leaders.  

Peter’s Example
When we first meet the Apostle Peter, he is a small business owner. Fishing is his trade, and he is busily working the nets with his brother, Andrew. Jesus comes along and places a call on their lives: “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.” What a compact call!

“Follow me…” I am inviting you into a personal relationship. I am offering to be your guide. You can be a part of this coming kingdom.  

“I will make you…” You don’t have to come fully prepared. I will empower you to fulfill the tasks I have for you. I am the source, you are the vessel. I am sufficient, you are in need. I have the plan, you carry it out.

“Fishers of men…” This is the role, the focus of your activity. You are to seek and save the lost. Casting a net of hope and reconciliation, and you are to bring to Jesus those who have gotten lost in the sea of life.

“Follow me,” he says, “and I will make you fishers of men.” There begins an amazing journey with Jesus. Mind-blowing highs of healings and feedings; startling lows where Peter thinks left and Jesus goes right. Peter sees opportunity and Jesus sees distraction. Peter plans an event and Jesus escapes to the wilderness (see Mark 1:29ff).1 Their master is not taking advantage of his popularity or making the most of his opportunities. Even so, the disciples still followed.  

Their journey crescendos with a triumphant entrance into Jerusalem. It is short-lived, however, as the spotlight brings quick reprisals by the religious establishment. In the press of this crisis, Peter’s own perception of his “call” or commitment to that call is challenged. After their final supper together, Peter makes a bold assertion that he will never fall away, yet Jesus predicts his denial (Matt. 26:33-35). When a deeply distressed Jesus requests that they watch and pray, Peter and the others submit to sleepiness (vs. 37-43). At the key point of confrontation, Peter attempts to defend his Lord only to be rebuked (vs. 51-53).  

Upon Christ’s death, Peter returns to what he had known before: fishing. The strip-down-to-your-bare-essentials-and-fish kind of fishing. What happened to my call? What happened to my dreams? What was going on now? he may have been wondering.

After one long night of fishing with no reward, a new day dawns. A stranger is standing along the shore and calling out to them. They don’t recognize him, yet they can’t ignore his words. Put our nets out again? On this side of the boat? Are you serious? They do, and the catch is so large that they can’t haul it in. It’s a miracle! This is like a miraculous catch some three years previously.

Does Peter’s mind flash back to those feelings of awe and unworthiness (Luke 5:1-11)? Counterintuitive instructions; great reward. It was happening all over again. Is this the risen Messiah? Eventually, Peter recognizes Jesus and once again hops into the lake and makes for his master. What unfolds next is a wonderful study of “calling”. Four points here.

1. Jesus gives an impulsive Peter perspective. Peter doesn’t wait to drag the fish to shore; instead, he just springs out of the boat and leaves the others to deal with their nets. Whatever else Jesus does during that initial encounter, he brings perspective to Peter. “Bring some of the fish you have just caught” (John 21:10). We need to eat. We need to relax and talk. Let’s gain some perspective here.

2. Jesus gives a broken Peter restoration. After breakfast we get to the heart of the scene, where just as Peter denied Jesus three times, Jesus asks him three times to reaffirm his love.  Peter is once again grieved, but obviously hopeful. He is being restored.  

3. Jesus gives directionless Peter a new focus. This is a major transition. Peter’s original “calling” is being changed. Jesus asks him to transition from fisher of men to shepherd of sheep. Willingly feed those under you; eagerly tend to their care on my behalf. Be a good example, not domineering or controlling. Jesus is calling Peter to be a shepherd under him—the Great Shepherd (1 Pet. 5:1-4).  

4. Perhaps most important, Jesus gives a frightened Peter renewed imperative. We don’t know if Peter stumbles over the shift from fisherman to shepherd, but we do know that he is nervous about the allusion to the kind of death he will suffer on behalf of Jesus Christ (John 21:18-19). He reveals this fear by bluntly asking what is going to happen to the other disciple standing there. Jesus responds powerfully. “What is that to you? You follow me!” You need to embrace the race I am setting out before you now. Not what you thought before, not what someone else is doing, but what I am setting before you now.

When Jesus initially calls Peter, he invites him into a personal relationship (follow me). Out of that relationship flows empowerment (I will make you) and focus (fishers of men). Now the focus is shifting from fisher of men to shepherd of sheep. The core relationship, however, is not shifting.

Jesus’ command then and now is the same: Follow me. More important than what we do is who we know. More important than how we serve is under whose orders we serve. Our speaking must come out of our listening. Our activity must come under his direction. We are called to relationship and right living—to reconcile with our God and to “live a life worthy of the calling you have received” (Eph. 4:1).

That the focus of our activity (where we work or what we do) changes does not mean that we have ceased to follow him. Conversely, that we continue to serve in the place or position where we started does not guarantee that we are following him. Relationship is at the heart of the matter, and Jesus wastes no words in reminding Peter of this.

Discerning Transitions
A problem remains. Say you get a phone call in the middle of the night. Someone (albeit a godly someone), asks you to leave what was placed on your heart years ago and step into a role whose ramifications are massive, yet virtually unknown. How can you know that Jesus is now asking you to transition from fishing to shepherding? Or from teaching to leading? Or from doing ministry to envisioning ministry and empowering others to carry it out?

How, aside from the voice of God speaking audibly to you, can you discern just whose voice is calling out to you now? If it is Jesus, our only response is obedience. If it is merely human, we can say no. So the big question remains: Who is calling?

Over time, calling becomes a piece of bedrock in our lives,
intricately woven into our identity as God’s co-laborers.
But it can also turn into an albatross, holding us down
when God is directing us elsewhere.

In our case, we spent a few days considering pros and cons, rights and wrongs, fears and ambitions. Eventually, we recognized our need to determine who it was that was calling. The Lord met us individually during times alone with him in his word. It wasn’t that God was specifically stating that this was what we must do, but rather that we could trust him as we allowed ourselves to be considered for this position. We recognized that he could be calling through our mission leadership.

In a recent article in EMQ, Daniel Bacon provides some excellent background to our common approaches to determining God’s call on our lives (Bacon 2011). He includes guidelines for discerning a direction, or direction change, in the focus of our energies in service to our Lord.  

The one guideline I would like to highlight relates to “assignments that come from organizational requirements,” since these are often the ones leading to organizational leadership. Bacon refers to Ephesians 6:7 where Paul reminds slaves to “serve wholeheartedly, as if you were serving the Lord, and not men, because you know that the Lord will reward everyone for whatever good he does, whether he is slave or free.”

We all are serving under authority of some type, be it our sending church authority or the authority of the organization which we have joined. Those who are serving an organization have in effect joined a covenant community which is focused on a specific God-given task. Bacon notes that such work-related assignments are in reality God-given assignments. Some may thus deduce that leadership requests must be simply obeyed as received.

I look at assignments as a collaborative process, where discernment is needed by both the leadership team making the offer and the individual or couple considering the transition. Thus, when a group of leaders under prayerful guidance approach you with an assignment change, you need to carefully consider that this may be the way in which God is shifting not your call to follow him, but your focus of activities. This may be the way in which God asks you to shift from fishing to shepherding.

A Final Word
This world is in desperate need of fully engaged, urgency-driven men and women of integrity who are wholly dependent upon God and his word. We need leaders who will define a compelling vision, align all of the organizational resources toward that vision, and then inspire members to give their lives in joining what God is doing in this world.

These leaders cannot be reluctant leaders. They cannot leave nagging questions about their original call hanging as a ballast around their necks. They need to cling to and protect their relationship with Jesus, believe that he will provide whatever they need to accomplish what he has put before them, and be willing to step into new roles as he directs. We need people who will boldly lead, and others who will wholeheartedly follow, displaying a unity and purpose that can’t be missed in a world of increasing chaos.  

“Shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight, not under compulsion, but willingly, as God would have you; not for shameful gain, but eagerly; not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock” (1 Pet. 5:2-3).

Endnote
1. After a busy Sabbath in the synagogue, they retreat to Peter’s home. Peter’s mother-in-law is sick, and Jesus restores her to health. Word must have gotten out, for by nightfall the sum total of Capernaum’s medical needs were pressing in at the doorway. They were sick. He had authority to heal. The next morning, the disciples wake up and their master is gone. Gone exactly when “everyone is looking for you.” Gone when opportunity is at its peak. For Jesus, the need was actually the call to get alone with his Father in order to find out his direction. That direction took him away from the pressing need and “on to the next towns that I may preach there also, for that is why I came out.”

Reference
Bacon, Daniel.  2011. “What Is a God-given Assignment?” Evangelical Missions Quarterly 47(1):  60-66.

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Warren Janzen is international director of SEND International. He and his wife, Dorothy, began their missionary service in Japan, where they helped establish two churches and gave leadership to the Japan area. The Janzens are part of the International Office, leading SEND to mobilize God’s people and engage the unreached in order to establish reproducing churches.

EMQ, Vol. 48, No. 4, pp. 446-452. Copyright  © 2012 Evangelism and Missions Information Service (EMIS).  All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS.

 

 

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