I’m guessing that Nehemiah didn’t wake up one day saying, “I think I’ll be a leader.” It almost never works that way, perhaps especially for those of us who are pastors. We suddenly find ourselves having been plucked out of a normal life by God’s call. Now we are faced with the daunting prospect of leading His often stiff-necked people and realizing we have no clue how to do it. So we set out to read the books and attend the seminars, trying desperately to figure it out.


Have you noticed, though, that some people who read all the books and attend all the seminars are still crummy leaders? And others who never read the books or went to the seminars are great leaders? What is that? I know that in this results-oriented, product-based, consumer-driven culture of ours, I often get tricked into thinking that my leadership has everything to do with what I do. Actually I think it has a lot more to do with who I am. Thinking about that again recently drew my attention back to Nehemiah. I like periodically to re-read the Bible stories of great leaders with an eye toward what I can learn about pastoral vocation. It helps me to remember that their “success” was not based so much on knowing the right things but on being in a place where they heard God speak and were willing to obey. Here are some of the “leadership principles” that I remember reading Nehemiah:

A leader carries genuine compassion and love for the people s/he leads – a desire to see them experience God’s very best. This is what brought Nehemiah into leadership. He saw the deep of need of his people and was moved by love to do something about it. (Nehemiah 1:1-4)

A leader doesn’t act before s/he has spent time alone with God in prayer. Nehemiah’s first response was a time of mourning, fasting, and prayer before God. (Nehemiah 1:4)

A leader is willing and able to overcome fear and take risks for the sake of the vision. Nehemiah was afraid to speak to the king on behalf of his people, but he did! (Nehemiah 2:2-3)

A leader knows and accepts the fact that when you attempt anything significant there will be opposition and negative people to contend with. Nehemiah no sooner finished his presentation to the king than two of the king’s officials became critical of it. (Nehemiah 2:10)

A leader does his/her homework, studies the situation, evaluates possible solutions, and is careful and timely about communication. Nehemiah scoped out the project before he started talking publicly about it. He timed his communication carefully. (Nehemiah 2:11-18)

Throughout the story of Nehemiah, principles like those can be identified. Here are a few more I notice:

* A leader constantly names God’s activity in the midst of the people.

* A leader confronts sin and disobedience strongly.

* A leader exercises great caution and integrity with regard to remuneration and privilege.

* A leader is mindful of the personal identities and stories of his/her people.

* A leader keeps the worship of God central in the life of the community.

I am sure there are other leadership principles that could be learned from watching Nehemiah’s life. What impresses me, though, is that apparently at no point did Nehemiah become self-conscious about his leadership. It seems that he wasn’t so much trying to be leader as he was simply trying to be faithful to a passionate vision that God had given him to be an agent of restoration among his people.

I want to be this kind of leader. I want it not to matter if my work is never recognized by the world or even by the church as being “good leadership.” But I want it to matter like everything that my life is marked by a pattern of faithfulness and obedience to a vision that God has given to me for the healing and reconciliation of His people. Yes, it’s what I do. Even more important, it’s who I am.

Jeren Rowell is District Superintendent for the Kansas City District Church of the Nazarene and author of What's a Pastor to Do? The Good and Difficult Work of Ministry, These Forty Days: A Lenten Devotional and Thinking, Listening, Being: Wesleyan Pastoral Disciplines.