Leading and Following

By Russ Gunsalus

Two friends discuss what it means to lead, and follow, in the church.

The light slowly faded. First amber, then lavender, and finally a deep blue that hovered over the darkening earth. With the sun gone below the horizon, a gentle breath of air arose from the east. It barely stirred the leaves on the maple tree just beyond the end of the porch. The creak of two rocking chairs was the only sound as Thomas and Jesse sat together in the peaceful evening.

Everything was so calm yet all Thomas could feel was the turmoil and frustration knotted in his throat.

“Why do I constantly sense that I am disconnected with our leaders – just a subtle feeling that they don’t really want to follow me? I don’t understand it, Jesse. There are plenty of faithful followers and all the rest who come for this or that program. And of course there is a little group that considers grumbling an Olympic sport and won’t follow anybody. But the real leaders who have the greatest capacity and the most influence are hanging back. They seem unwilling to engage and make a difference in our church and community.”

Jesse listened closely to Thomas and rocked slowly back and forth on the porch. Even in the fading light, the pain was visible on Thomas’ face and was even more evident in his voice. Jesse chose not to answer quickly even though Thomas’ question hung heavily, like an apple bending its branch and about to drop.

Jesse Ruhark was a person with a rare gift from the Lord, a gift that was nurtured by a lifetime of good and faithful service. It was a quality that made others feel safe, comfortable, and able to trust, be truly honest, and even be vulnerable. Jesse wouldn’t provide “pat” answers, but had the wisdom to help others discover the truth for themselves, even when a solution appeared more challenging than the problem it remedied. It was amazing that a leader could be so completely empathetic, yet always maintain an independent perspective, one that seemed to see what’s best for everyone involved. Those lucky enough to know Jesse always felt they had someone on their side, even though they always felt challenged to grow in Christ. Many others had sought the same comforting spirit and wisdom that would soon be evident on this back porch at dusk.

Thomas knew all these things about Jesse, and he had come to wrestle with his anxiety and bewilderment about who he should be as a leader, pastor, and person.

Only after the weight of a long silence had done its work did Jesse mercifully break the quiet. “Kind of frustrating, huh?”

“Yes!” blurted Thomas with a level of exasperation that surprised him.

The silence resumed except for the rhythmic squeaking of the chairs as they slowly rocked forward and back.

“It’s frustrating when people won’t do what we want,” said Jesse in a steady soft voice.

“Well, it’s not that. I just wish they would live up to their potential. You know, help our church reach out and make an impact.”

“Hmm, I see.” said Jesse. “And if you had to choose?”

“Choose?” Thomas puzzled out loud.

“Choose which matters most. Choose which is most frustrating: leaders not living up to their potential, your church not making an impact, or people not following you?”

Thomas was shocked by hearing the options put that way. “It’s not like we aren’t making any impact, I mean, a lot of good things are happening, but I wish they would live up to their potential,” Thomas insisted.

“Yup, that is important,” Jesse mused. “Maybe you can help them find another church where they won’t hang back and where they can more fully experience what God intends for their lives and their ministries.”

Despite the cooling air, Thomas felt his face get warm, as he had to admit to himself what Jesse clearly knew, that he had been less than honest about his frustration. He swallowed hard in the quiet that enveloped them once again. Only it felt even heavier than before.

Thomas exhaled slowly. “I guess I do want to be their leader, and for us together to help our church make a bigger impact in our community for Christ. Maybe, honestly, I have wanted that more than for them to fulfill their potential,” Thomas muttered with a tinge of embarrassment. “But,” he said sitting up a bit, “isn’t that why we exist, to reach people, to lead them to Christ?”

“Are you asking me if that is why we exist?”

Well, no, but I think you know what I mean.” Thomas said sheepishly.

“I think so. You want these leaders to reach people in your community and lead them to Christ.” Jesse echoed.

“Yes, exactly,” said Thomas confidently.

“Even if you don’t feel like they are following you?” Jesse asked.

Thomas sighed, having come to the obvious realization that his personal desire to be followed might be hindering his genuine hopes for his congregation and his community.

What if I just help leaders follow God’s call into what they are already passionate about?

At that moment, Jesse’s husband Eli came out onto the porch and poured three steaming cups of tea from a small teapot. It gave an opportunity for Thomas to think through what he really believed and what he really wanted to happen.

“And once you reach people for Christ?” asked Jesse.

Thomas sat still and quiet again. He could feel another gentle waft of air touch his skin. Then clearly and deliberately Thomas answered, “To let them know what it means to follow Christ and begin to become like him. To help them experience the love and joy and peace of Jesus and participate in his body and . . .”

“. . . and live up to their potential?” Jesse asked, with a twinkle in her eye.

Thomas paused before answering. “Yes,” he said, and smiled. “And really experience what God intends for their lives and their ministries.”

“That sounds like a better outcome than just having people follow your agenda,” Jesse teased. “Hmm, I wonder how you would find out what your leaders would really love to do to build the kingdom?” said Jesse.

Thomas played along, smiling. “Oh, I don’t know, maybe just ask them.”

“Sounds like a good idea to me.” Jesse said. “And I just bet God already has a fire smoldering in their hearts that might burst into flames if they are given room to breathe and even lead.”

“And it makes sense that they would be more likely to realize their potential and reach our community if I would encourage them to simply follow God’s call into what they are already passionate about,” Thomas said, already imagining which leader in their church he was going to call for lunch tomorrow.

Thomas’ mind raced with ideas about how he might humbly encourage and inspire and equip the leaders in his church to become who they really longed to be. His frustrations and fears about not being “followed” seemed to be carried away on the light evening breeze during his conversation with Jesse. And they were replaced by a renewed love for his church and hope for his community

Thomas thanked Jesse for helping him.

“You’re very welcome,” she said with a warm smile.

Looking again to the horizon, which was speckled now with a few early stars, they began sipping the hot tea. As it warmed Thomas’ throat, he could feel a breeze rise again and he knew the Spirit had touched his mind and heart.

Choose which is more important: your church making an impact, or people following you.