June 26, 2022 • Life for Leaders
Scripture – 1 Thessalonians 2:7 (NRSV)
. . . though we might have made demands as apostles of Christ. But we were gentle among you, like a nurse tenderly caring for her own children.
We often hear about leaders as people who are strong, decisive, tough, and driven. The letter of 1 Thessalonians in the New Testament gives us a strikingly different picture of leadership, one that draws from the image of a nursing mother. Is it really possible, we wonder, for a successful leader to be gentle, like a mother tenderly feeding her own child?
Today’s devotion is part of the series Encouragement from 1 Thessalonians.
In writing to the Thessalonians, Paul and his associates imply that they could have exercised the authority God had entrusted to them as apostles. But they chose not to “throw their weight around,” as we saw in last Thursday’s devotion. Instead, they resolved to treat their converts in a shockingly tender and intimate way: “But we were gentle among you, like a nurse tenderly caring for her own children.” (Note: Some translations, like the NIV, prefer something like “young children” in place of “gentle.” This reflects a particularly tricky issue in the Greek manuscripts. Most commentators prefer “gentle,” which I believe is the most reasonable translation. It fits the context far better than “young children.”)
In today’s world, when we read the word “nurse,” we tend to think of someone who works in a doctor’s office or hospital. In the first century, however, the Greek word for nurse, trophos, referred to a woman who nursed babies. Among people of means in the Greco-Roman world, infants were usually breastfed by wet nurses. Paul and his colleagues choose the image of a wet nurse to describe their relationship with the Thessalonians.
Notice, however, that they picture themselves as more than a nurse doing her job. The letter writers were gentle with the Thessalonians “like a nurse tenderly caring for her own children.” Among lower-class families, mothers nursed their own infants. This is the image chosen by Paul and Co. to represent their relationship with the Thessalonian converts.
The intimacy and affection of this image are heightened, not only by the mother-child relationship but also by the verb translated as “tenderly caring.” This verb, thalpō in Greek, meant “to cherish or comfort,” conveying exceptional warmth and emotion. The literal meaning of thalpō was, in fact, “to heat.” “This is how we related to you,” the writers of 1 Thessalonians are saying to their converts. “We treated you with gentleness, just like an adoring mother nursing her beloved child.”
That’s quite striking, don’t you think? I don’t remember ever hearing any pastor use language like this to describe their relationship with their congregation. This use of language is even more astounding given the fact that Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy were men. They chose to portray their ministry, not only with an image of a woman, but even with a picture of a woman doing something they knew to be unique to women.
At this point, we need to pause and reflect on the implications of this portrayal. So often in our culture, the language of leadership leans in the direction of male cultural imagery. Leaders are tough, driven, strong, and so forth. (I should say, by the way, that I know women who are plenty tough, driven, and strong. But I think you get my point here. I’m using cultural stereotypes.) We don’t hear much about leaders being tender, nurturing, and affectionate. Now, it’s true that Paul and his co-writers will speak of themselves in a fatherly way in just four verses (2:11), but this mustn’t erase the stunning picture they paint in verse 7. In fact, there is a salient balance in this passage between male and female cultural imagery for leadership.
In my experience, it’s not very common for leaders to act with motherly tenderness for those they lead. But I have seen moving exceptions to this rule. For example, I know a boss who cares deeply for the people he employs. During the financial crisis of 2007-2008 and for a couple of years thereafter, his company struggled financially. New business just wasn’t coming their way. One of the easiest ways to deal with the company’s financial woes was by laying off staff. But the boss was committed to doing this as a last resort. He kept finding other ways to save money, including cutting his own salary to zero. Why did he do this? Because of his tender care for his people. He treated them much as he would his own children.
In tomorrow’s Life for Leaders devotion, I will reflect further on the implications of the “gentle as a nurse” language in this passage. For now, I’d encourage you to think about how this language affects you. The questions below might be helpful.
How do you respond to the way Paul and his colleagues describe their leadership among the Thessalonians? What does it make you think? How does it make you feel?
Have you ever experienced deep tenderness and kindness from one of your leaders? If so, what was that like? How did you respond?
Is it wise for a leader of an organization (business, church, non-profit, etc.) to be tender and nurturing of the people they lead? If so, why do you think so? If not, why not?
Would you ever describe your leadership as being similar to a mother nursing her child? If so, why? If not, why not?
Look for an opportunity this week to care in a personal way for someone who works for or with you.
Gracious God, once again we thank you for 1 Thessalonians, for the example of Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy. Thank you for how they cared for their converts and for how they wrote about this. Thank you for their use of the image of a nursing mother to describe their relationship with the Thessalonian Christians.
I ask you, Lord, to help me to be like Paul and his colleagues. Wherever you have entrusted me with the leadership of people, may I care for those I am to lead. May I treat them kindly, honoring their humanity and building them up.
Give me your wisdom, Lord, when I’m dealing with people who are difficult, perhaps because of their resistance or failure to perform their job adequately. These are hard situations, Lord. It’s difficult to know what kindness means in such times. So I look to you for wisdom.
Thank you, O God, for the ultimate example of leadership, for Christ who came not to be served but to serve. May I seek to lead in this way. Amen.
Find all Life for Leaders devotions here. Explore what the Bible has to say about work at the unique website of our partners, the High Calling archive, hosted by the Theology of Work Project. Reflection on today’s Life for Leaders theme can be found here: Be Imitators of Me?
Subscribe to Life for Leaders
Sign up to receive a Life for Leaders devotional each day in your inbox. It’s free to subscribe and you can unsubscribe at any time.
Dr. Mark D. Roberts is a Senior Strategist for Fuller’s Max De Pree Center for Leadership, where he focuses on the spiritual development and thriving of leaders. He is the principal writer of the daily devotional, Life for Leaders, and the founder of the De Pree Center’s Flourishing in the Third Third of Life Initiative. Previously, Mark was the Executive Director of the De Pree Center, the lead pastor of a church in Southern California, and the Senior Director of Laity Lodge in Texas. He has written eight books, dozens of articles, and over 2,500 devotions that help people discover the difference God makes in their daily life and leadership. With a Ph.D. in New Testament from Harvard, Mark teaches at Fuller Seminary, most recently in his D.Min. cohort on “Faith, Work, Economics, and Vocation.” Mark is married to Linda, a marriage and family counselor, spiritual director, and executive coach. Their two grown children are educators on the high school and college level.