‘Lead with zeal!’

For 25 years I struggled with the issue of leadership. Is it a spiritual gift? If it is, do some pastors have it and others not? If I think I have the gift of leadership, how do I develop it?
In my early years of ministry, I was not encouraged to be a prophetic, mobilizing leader. If that is true for me, it may also be true for others. How many gifted leaders have remained underground? Should the church encourage the use of leadership gifts, or are the “side effects,” such as pride, ego trips and overwork, too dangerous? These questions became a personal quest, but not just for me. We all have different gifts (Rom. 12:6-8). If your gift is to lead, then lead with zeal! (ESV). I believe the Christian Reformed denomination needs passionate people who, with prophetic courage, dare to call for repentance, pray hard for revival and lead so the Spirit can make it happen.

I learned early in my teenage years, over 60 years ago, the importance of leadership. My father was a community leader, and he wanted me to study agriculture and then help farmers work together to find greater satisfaction in and more profit for their hard work. Cooperation would require leaders trained in Canada. Though his education in Holland had prepared him well for corporate leadership there, his rather limited English held him back in Canada. Without realizing it, his conviction became my vision; I enrolled in the University of Alberta in the agricultural economics program. I was going to get the education that would help my dad’s dream come true. After all, he had left a good and comfortable life in Holland to provide a much better future for me and my five siblings; I owed him.

But my other Father had a different vision, with similar themes. He also saw a “harvest” (Matt. 9:37) that required specific gifts and training. As a teenager God gave me eyes to see that harvest and then called me to help him bring it in. It was a strong call from which I was never able to walk away.

When I was in seminary, leadership was discussed but not as one of the spiritual gifts. I was encouraged to serve the church but I don’t recall being challenged to lead the church. In fact, the opposite was true. Pastors trying to lead would create conflict. One seminary professor passionately emphasized that pastors must preach the Word; elders must lead and set direction for the church. That was the Reformed view at the time. During the 70s and 80s, there was a general resistance to viewing the pastor as a person in leadership. I remember ominous stories about the bad things that happened in churches with pastors who attempted to lead. I think I avoided leadership roles without realizing it. When I made too many suggestions for things that should change, council would remind me to “Stick to preaching.”

Neglected gifts
In 1973, the Christian Reformed Church’s Synod declared that there is no Biblical evidence that spiritual gifts had ceased after Bible times. Yet when we examined the list of gifts found in Scripture, some seemed more acceptable than others to us. We loved the gifts of teaching, mercy and helping, and praised the gift of generosity. We ignored the gifts of prophecy and speaking in tongues, and were uncomfortable with healing and leading – even though they were in the same lists.

That was the crux of my decades-long struggle. If leadership really is a gift that God gave me, how do I thankfully receive it, humbly confess that I have it, and then confidently use it to bless others without becoming proud? Do the dangers of pride, power, arrogance and independence outweigh the benefits? Slowly I learned that I liked to lead, and when I did I often noted that good things were happening. I was encouraged to lead but it often came with an accompanying warning: “be careful!” Leadership often calls one to do something in a new way, but the fear of conflict may stifle it. Insecure churches often bury talents of leadership because of fear.

Where are we today?
The good news is that Calvin Seminary now teaches leadership principles. There is a realization that every pastor has to lead to some degree. We can look to Jesus to see how he led. The Scriptures show him serving, modeling, praying, healing, prophetically proclaiming the “narrow way,” condemning hypocrisy and forgiving sinners. As congregations and pastors we must continue his work now in the power of his Spirit. Christ wasn’t stopped by the fear of being crucified. We must not be stopped by fear of criticism. I beg congregations to be quick to bless and slow to complain, quick to forgive and eager to try again. We need room for trial and error and for some humble failures. Let the work that the Spirit wants to get done be completed.

The very character of Jesus is most crucial for leadership to be effective. Christ led with an integrity that walks the talk, both determined by the teaching of the Scriptures. The godly leader says what Christ says and does so with authenticity, transparency and honesty. He walks to the beat of “another drummer” rather than the beat of cultural compromise. For him it is all about God and his will for us. Nothing less, nothing more. That’s a hard road.

Forward in faith
Many times others, including pastors, have accused or charged me of being on a huge ego trip when all I longed to do was to release and empower God’s people for ministry. Younger pastors I coach are quite aware of the criticism that comes with leading, so they avoid risk taking. We have churches with fearful, “safe” players who believe their game pleases and honours God when they keep the peace at any cost. I sense many pastors lose zeal, especially as they become older. Some are bored. Neither Jesus nor Paul made decisions based on their own safety. God calls us to believe and trust him; he will do all that needs to be done. If we are available and willing, he’ll use us. If we are driven by the desire to keep the status-quo, seek a good name or build a nice nest egg, we will likely miss out on exciting adventures with him.

I believe the heart of renewal and revival lies in this area. The time is now for persistent prayer, prophetic preaching of his word and the complete surrender of all our hopes, ambitions and plans. 

A fresh vision for the church will not come from a committee. It will come from God’s spirit. We may ask him for a new vision and a fresh mandate. We will see new things! The best is just ahead of us.

Some councils want their pastor to “stick to preaching.”


  • Henry Wildeboer

    Rev. Henry Wildeboer served as a pastor in three CRC churches. Now retired, he mentors young pastors and leaders. He’s also the author of When God Shows Up: A Pastor’s Journey. This is part one of a three-part series on rich, fresh grace.

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