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The Three-fold Call of the Leader as Steward

We are continually tempted to forget that it is not what men do that is the vital matter, but rather what they are. In Jesus Christ neither legal observances nor the omission of legal observances avails anything, “but a new creature.” God is a great deal more concerned about our really being new creatures than about anything else; because he knows that if we are right as to our inward being, we shall certainly do right as to our outward actions. The essential thing, therefore, is character; and doing is valuable only as it is an indication of “being.”

These words from Hannah Whitehall Smith illustrate a foundational principle for the Christian leader; God is more concerned with who we are than with what we do. Throughout scripture we learn that God seeks first the transformation of our hearts before the transaction of our business.

There is a growing crisis in the leadership of Christian churches in China and the West. It is not a lack of effort, passion, commitment or training. Rather, the crisis lies deeper within the heart and it can be summed up in this way: We are so driven to “do” the work of God that we neglect the more important process of “being” the person God created us to be.

Christian leaders are “doing” themselves to death! Believing that somehow God is pleased with a frenetic pace that leaves us exhausted, we take on more responsibility and shoulder more burdens for our people. We measure our ministry in quantities of people and services, house calls and money, buildings and baptisms. However, the measurement of success in the kingdom of God is radically different. Jesus measures things like our thirst for intimacy with our heavenly Father, our love of ourselves as God created us, the quality of our relationships and our care for his creation.

Matthew records in chapter 16:

Then Jesus said to his disciples, “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will find it. What good will it be for a man if he gains the whole world, yet forfeits his soul? Or what can a man give in exchange for his soul?”

The denial of self for the sake of the cross calls us to lose our “doing-driven” life that measures our worth by the accumulation of our accomplishments. Jesus questions the value of a life of doing”gaining the whole world,” if is costs us our very being”losing your own soul.” This is the question of steward leader vs. the owner leader; an internal, transformational focus vs. an external, transactional focus. It is life vs. death, fulfillment vs. burnout, freedom vs. bondage.

In his letter to the church in Corinth, Paul writes:

If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal (1 Corinthians 13:1).

Paul points to the transformation of the heart as the normative and requisite transformation from which all of our acts of love must flow. Cut off from inner transformation, our outward act, our very best “doing” is reduced to “the resounding gong of a clanging cymbal.” It profits us nothing. It is empty and void of meaning.

The first calling of the leader as steward is to “be” fully the person God created you to be. It is a life driven by a thirst to know deeper intimacy with God. It is the priority of “being” the godly leader over “doing” the work of leading. Are you “doing-driven”? How do you measure your ministry success? Do you value above all else the work God seeks to do within you?

The second calling involves our work as stewards of our own identity as both beloved children of God and as sinners in need of daily repentance and transformation. Scripture sets up for us a tension in how we are to understand and steward this identity. I believe that understanding and maintaining this tension is the single most challenging and important component in the life of the steward leader. Here is what this tension looks like.

On one hand, we are assured that we are beloved children of God. We are “fearfully and wonderfully made” (Psalm 139:14). We are truly “God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do” (Ephesians 2:10). Christian leaders are certain that their creator is a loving God, confident that they have been created as the special workmanship of this loving God and convinced that nothing will ever separate them from the love of their creator God!

We are, on the other hand, the redeemed yet still sinful children of God. For all of the grace and love showered down upon us, we have hearts that are still in need of the ongoing transformation of the Holy Spirit. We still fall back into the old habits and sins of a life that is passing away, yet still so very present. We fight against the flesh and a divided heart. We lament with Paul, “I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate, I do; what a wretched man I am, who will rescue me from this body of death?” (Romans 7:15, 24). We hear him later affirm, “apart from Christ I can do nothing.” It is the same for us. We war against the flesh and fail often. We live in an almost constant need of grace and forgiveness.

Our identity as effective leaders is found in the very midst of this tension. As Christian leaders, we must maintain this tension; otherwise, we will be pulled down either through a shift to self-confidence on the one side, or demoralization on the other. As we lead from the center of this tension in our own lives we are able to lead others to that same place.

It is in the right balance of this tension that we are free to lead. Freedom is not the result of the easing of this tension but just the opposite. We are free when we can embrace both the wonder of our own creation and the depth of our own sin. We are free when we can know genuine humility in our own need for daily repentance and grace and genuine courage in our place in God’s abundant grace and never ending love. We are free to look our sin in the face and not let it overwhelm us. We are free to let God work wondrous and miraculous things in us and through us without ever thinking that it is we alone who are wonderful and miraculous.

The second calling of the leader as steward is finding and living in this place of maintained tension where we enjoy the freedom that we have in Christ Jesus.

Finally, the Christian leader recognizes that our time is not our own. We have been given every second of life as a gift to be developed, nourished and cherished. There is no waste in God’s kingdom. Our times of preparation, reflection and waiting are as dear to God and his purposes for us as our times of great accomplishment and productivity. God is the master author, and he is writing our story in all of its dimensions. Every word, every event has meaning, and often the less dramatic moments carry the greatest weight. As a steward of time we know that all of our work has eternal value.

This is especially true in our specific calling to our ministry. God was at work in our community before we arrived, and he will continue his work long after we leave. For some duration of time we are stewards of this organization and this community. Therefore, we are free in relationship to this calling. We wear our mantel of leadership lightly. Christian leaders must be free to truly be stewards of the people they serve and the organizations they lead. They must reject every temptation to play the owner, and instead they must live and work daily in a freedom with respect to their current position. We need to be committed to serve our churches with our whole heart and also ready and free to leave them to our successors whenever God so leads, all at the same time. When we can accomplish both, we will know the freedom of the leader called by God.

What would it mean if we took seriously the value of every second of time? Not with a franticness that measures value only in terms of “doing,” but in a more redeemed sense of desiring to invest every second in God-honoring ways.

The third calling of the leader as steward is to be free in relationship to time, and also respond to the use of time in joyful obedience. To be free in relationship to time requires a true steward’s perspective. It means to lay aside the fear that comes from the sense that time is slipping away. It means to see the possibilities in the use of time as opportunities to be faithful stewards, to be creative and expressive and redemptive in our investment of this precious gift. To be free means that time does not control us. The clock is not our enemy, aging is not a plague and deadlines do not rule our life. We are free to ask, “How would God have me spend this day, this hour, this lifetime”?

Are you free in your relationship to the time God has given you? Are you obedient to the way God would have you invest that time? That is what it means to nurture the gift of time as a steward leader. As you do, you can lead your people in freedom in their own attitudes toward time.

The crisis Christian leaders are facing must be met with a passionate commitment to value the transformational work of the Holy Spirit within us in these three areas of our calling. It calls us to value our “being” over our “doing.” It requires us to live in a healthy balance as stewards of our self-image. It calls us to be stewards of our time, which means being free to invest our time as God leads and also free to be at peace with respect to time.

Pray daily for a heart that seeks to know God more intimately each day. Pray for balance in your life as a reflection of God’s love for you. Pray for a peaceful and contented relationship to time, and the wisdom to invest it wisely in the work of building God’s kingdom.

Image credit: Underground Church – Hainan by Surfing The Nations, on Flickr

R. Scott Rodin

R. Scott Rodin

Scott Rodin has a passion for helping Christian ministry leaders take a biblical approach to leadership development, strategic planning, board development and raising kingdom resources. Over the past thirty years he has worked with hundreds of organizations in the U.S., Canada, Middle East, Great Britain, China, India, the Philippines and …View Full Bio