The Meaning of Christian Leadership

By Scott Cormode

September 13, 2020

De Pree Journal

One short verse of the Bible summarizes Christian leadership. At the fractured founding of the church in Corinth, “[Paul] planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the increase” (1 Cor. 3:6 KJV). In Christian leadership, God’s action is the decisive work. Paul and Apollos tended the Corinthian crops, but God made them grow. The Christian leaders did indeed have work to do, but it only mattered because of what God chose to do. The distinction is important because the essence of Christian leadership is planting and watering.

We Christians spend our days and nights like farmers; we are tending the people whom God has entrusted to our care. But we cannot make the people grow. We do not operate an assembly line; there is no guaranteed outcome. We nurture our people by creating an environment conducive to growth, then we hand our people over to God. Only God can give the increase. If we are to innovate our way into the world that just now exists, we will need to think like farmers.

My grandfather was what the Bible calls a steward.  He farmed 140 acres of citrus trees for a landowner who lived far away.  The Hollow Hill Farm was entrusted to his care.  He devoted himself to his trees and he wanted them to bear fruit. But every season, he knew that it was God who gave the increase.  So, if God did the decisive work, what did my grandfather do?  He managed the environment that nurtured the orchard.  Like Paul and Apollos, he spent his days planting and watering.  He could not guarantee a harvest.  But he could control the water, the soil, and the temperature that encouraged growth.

And a farmer will go to great lengths to maintain that environment. For example, there were winter nights when my grandfather stayed up all night trying to deal with the cold.  In the Southern California valley where he labored, the temperature occasionally dipped below freezing and threatened to kill the trees entrusted to his care.  On those nights, he set up between each tree what were called “smudge pots” – tall, fat pipes filled with burning motor oil.  As they belched a smelly haze, they kept the trees from freezing.  Smudging was exhausting and dirty work.  All night long, he made sure each inky mess continued to burn.  In the morning, my grandfather was covered with an oily residue, but his trees had survived. (And, if you lead in Jesus’s name, you too will have days where you are covered in a gooey mess.) My grandfather was a steward with an orchard entrusted to his care. His planting and watering could not guarantee growth, but he could focus on creating an environment conducive for growth.

My grandfather also knew that he had to change with the times.  Eventually, people began to realize that smudge pots were terrible pollutants.  They might be good for maintaining the temperature on a cold night, but the belching smoke and oily residue was ultimately bad for the very trees he was charged to make flourish.  So farmers learned to replace smudge pots with wind machines that circulated the air and kept the trees from freezing.  Agile farmers never stopped learning.

My grandparents remained devoted to trees even after they moved off the farm. When they retired, they purchased the only home they ever owned – a tiny house with a dozen enormous citrus trees off to the side. It was not so much a home as a small orchard with a house attached.  Even decades after they retired, my 103-year-old grandmother would regularly hobble out into the orchard with her walker to irrigate her trees.  It was for her both a burden and a pleasure; it was who she was.  Grampa smudged, Gramma watered, and God gave the increase.  Even in retirement, they had an orchard for which to care.

Every Christian leader has a people entrusted to their care.  Perhaps you do not have a traditional orchard. Maybe you tend an urban community garden or care for ancient, splintered trees. You may have a grove or just a few isolated plants. But every Christian leader is a steward.  Each of us plant and water a people entrusted to our care.

Scott Cormode

Hugh De Pree Professor of Leadership, Senior Fellow

Senior Fellow De Pree Center Hugh De Pree Associate Professor of Leadership Development Fuller Theological Seminary Scott Cormode, Ph.D., is a senior fellow at the Max De Pree Center for Leadership and is the Hugh De Pree Associate Pr...

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