February 6, 2024 • Life for Leaders
Scripture — Nehemiah 5:19 (NRSV)
Remember for my good, O my God, all that I have done for this people.
The example of Nehemiah encourages us to think about how we have done inner work that shapes our leadership.
In yesterday’s Life for Leaders devotion, we saw how Nehemiah was able to rally people around the cause of rebuilding the wall of Jerusalem. Yes, he had a compelling vision and a plan. But there was also something about Nehemiah that made people want to follow him. This, I suggest, was related to the inner work Nehemiah did both before and during his tenure as a leader.
The story of Nehemiah inspired me to think about my own leadership and how the inner work I’ve done has helped me to be a better leader. I’m not suggesting I don’t have more work to do, mind you! But, along the way in life, I have learned some things about myself that have enabled me to be a more effective and wise leader.
I’d like to share one example with you. When I was 34 years old, I became the Senior Pastor of Irvine Presbyterian Church in Southern California. In that role, I was the leader of a staff team of a dozen people. Most of the folks on my staff were older than I was. Two of my key leaders were a generation above me.
Though I enjoyed working with my team right from the start, and though many things went well, I found myself in awkward relationships with the two men who were senior to me in age but not in authority. I was their leader, their boss. Yet I felt uncomfortable in this role, almost as if I were an imposter. Moreover, if one of these men disagreed with me or shared a critical word, I would respond in an overly defensive way. A peer could tell me I preached too long on Sunday and I was able to hear it. But if one of my elders commented on my sermon length, I felt strangely agitated. I was tempted to respond in anger, rather than in a posture of humility and collegiality.
With help from trusted friends and a trained counselor, I began to do the inner work of a leader. I started sifting through my feelings and memories to figure out why I was overreacting to fair criticisms from my older colleagues. It wasn’t too hard for me to discover what was going on inside of me.
Not surprisingly, it had to do with what I had experienced as a boy, especially in my relationship with my father. My father loved me and was in so many ways a great dad. But he had a difficult time expressing his love in words. Once in a great while he did manage to say “I love you” to me, which is a gift I still treasure. But to my knowledge, my dad never once told me he was proud of me. My mom tried to make up for it by saying, “Dad and I are so proud of you.” But, still, I ached to hear this from my dad’s own lips. Yet it never came, even when I asked him directly a few weeks before he died. He just couldn’t say, “Mark, I’m proud of you,” even though I knew he was. Sigh!
It wasn’t too hard to move from that insight about my dad to what I was experiencing with the older men on my staff. They reminded me of my dad. This was especially true of the one man who was very reticent with his affirmation. I found that I was desperate for his approval because, well, he felt to me like my dad. Though I was a grown-up and a boss, when I was with this man, I turned into a little boy desperate for his father’s affirmation.
Discovering this about myself didn’t lead to instant healing. It certainly did give me something to pray about. Identifying my vulnerability to criticism and my eagerness for affirmation from older men helped me do a better job as their leader. Not only was I less reactive to their criticism, but also I became better at initiating conversation with them and actively caring for them as human beings.
Now I am older than most of my colleagues at work, so I don’t get the same “dad-transference” stuff going on anymore. But I know that the part of me that yearns for affirmation is still in my heart somewhere. Yes, that means I seek affirmation from people. But, as I have grown in my faith, I find myself more and more eager for affirmation from the Lord. Like Nehemiah, I can truly pray, “Remember for my good, O my God, all that I have done for this people” (5:19). Most of all, I want to receive God’s affirmation, to know that I have honored God through what I have done and who I have been. And the more I look to God for affirmation, the less I am needy for the affirmation of people. Oh, it’s still wonderful to hear “Well done” from others. But most of all I long to hear “Well done, good and faithful servant” from the Lord.
Are you aware of things from your past that affect your leadership today?
What helps you to do the inner work required of a leader?
In what ways do you please God through your daily work?
Talk with a trusted friend or your small group about how things you’ve experienced in the past impact the way you lead today.
Gracious God, thank you for all the ways you help us to see ourselves clearly, warts and all. Thank you for doing this in such a tender and gracious way.
Help us, we pray, to know ourselves truly. Help us to see how our experiences from the past can affect our work in the present, for better or for worse.
As we do the inner work of a leader, may we discover new freedom to serve others with grace and joy. Amen.
Banner image by Pascal Swier on Unsplash.
Find all Life for Leaders devotions here. Explore what the Bible has to say about work at the unique website of our partners, the Theology of Work Project’s online commentary. Reflection on today’s Life for Leaders theme can be found here: Connecting Lending Practices to the Fear of the Lord (Nehemiah 5:1-5:19).
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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.