Leadership Letters
Leadership Letters

Writings on Christian leadership and leader development by Malcolm Webber

April 2018
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Leadership Letters

Leaders Are Built Through Fire

Malcolm WebberMalcolm Webber

Diamonds are formed in a specific environment, requiring three things: a lump of carbon, extreme pressures (725,000 pounds per square inch) and high temperatures (upwards of 2000 °F). These forces combine to make something of dazzling beauty.

Pressure and heat purify and strengthen – steel is hardened in the fire, gold purified in the furnace, diamonds formed under intense pressure. Healthy leaders require extreme conditions too, ideally during the training process, to both encourage growth and reveal impurities.

This is how God deals with all of us. He has always used suffering as a vital part of any Christian’s life (cf. 1 Pet. 1:6-7, see also 4:12-13, 19; Phil. 1:29; 2 Tim. 2:12, Jam. 1:2-4, Rom. 5:3-4, etc.) Of course, suffering is also a vital part of leadership. Godly leaders know that suffering builds spiritual maturity, brokenness, and genuine faith in God. We can’t shy away from such an opportunity.

Paul’s cry was:

I want to know Christ and the power of His resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in His sufferings, becoming like Him in His death, and so, somehow, to attain to the resurrection from the dead. (Phil. 3:10-11)

Paul actually craved suffering with Jesus! He knew that the greatest place of union with God is found in the strain of suffering. Paul knew that the cross precedes the crown, darkness precedes glory, brokenness precedes true victory, and death precedes true life.

Jesus showed the way of suffering to the leaders He was building. He personally demonstrated sufferings to them as He was scorned and rejected by the religious leaders (Is. 53:3), in His human struggle to obey God (Matt. 26:39, Heb. 2:10, 5:8), and through His sufferings on the cross (John 12:32). This is the way of God: healthy leaders are built – and lead – in the fires of suffering!

So how specifically do we do create intentional pressure in the lives of emerging leaders?

Jesus did this in Mark 6:47-48. Jesus allowed His disciples to struggle against the wind from evening until the fourth watch – approximately nine hours. He could have stopped the storm at any time, but instead He used it to mold His disciples actively (creating situations of pressure) and passively (taking advantage of circumstances).

An effective development process will do the same. We cannot shield emerging leaders from financial responsibility or difficult circumstances. With or without us, they will likely encounter personal and family traumas, spiritual warfare, persecution, rejection, career setbacks, difficult subordinates, and relational conflicts – and, of course, everyone has to deal with their own mistakes.

Beyond this, experiencing hardship during development reaps huge character rewards: reliance on God, submission to God’s will, grace, forgiveness, sensitivity, and resilience, to name a few. Through trials, leaders learn how to establish and maintain relational webs of nurture, support and accountability. They gain transparency and vulnerability. They learn how to receive help.

In the midst of fostering these pressurized situations, we must also observe caution and act intentionally. It is not true that “the more they suffer, the more they grow.” God allows suffering in our lives, but He does so wisely. We can foster pressure wisely by carefully designing their experiences.

First, remember that suffering itself does not purify us – it is how we respond that fosters growth (Matt. 21:44). The fire we build to test emerging leaders can’t be constant (1 Pet. 1:6; 5:10); foster pressure from time to time, not continuously. If suffering continues uncontrolled it may destroy them. God does not allow us to be tested beyond what we can bear (1 Cor. 10:13).

In the midst of suffering and pressure, emerging leaders will need comfort. When God allows suffering, He often does not give deliverance from it, but comfort in it (2 Cor. 1:3-5). God allows us to go through the fire, but He does not leave us alone in the fire (Dan. 3:25). Thus, before we introduce pressure, we must ensure that a supportive community has first been built around the emerging leaders.

Here are just a couple of ways to create pressure:

  1. Assign tasks that are beyond their ability.
  2. Place them in situations where mistakes would be obvious.
  3. Give them opportunities to give up.
  4. Provide confusing, spontaneous, or humbling assignments.
  5. Introduce difficult team dynamics, combinations, or changes.

As we prayerfully introduce pressure into our design, we give our emerging leaders the opportunity to more deeply embrace the cross and the resurrection life that follows.

Today, many Christian leaders are offered the temptation of power without suffering. In fact, in the Western world we have devised entire theologies to justify our lack of suffering and our love of pleasure – the alluring idea that “if you have enough faith you will never suffer.” However, when Peter tried to talk Jesus into such a theology, he was sternly rebuked. (Matt. 16:23)

Jesus refused a “cross-less” leadership. He knew there is no true authority without sacrifice. There is no true spiritual maturity without suffering. There is no true leadership without the cross.

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. (Matt. 16:24-25)

This was the kind of leadership Jesus taught and modeled to His disciples: a leadership born of brokenness, produced in pain, forged in the fire of suffering.

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