When Leaders Are Like Children

By Mark D. Roberts

September 5, 2022

Encouragement from 1 Thessalonians

Scripture – 1 Thessalonians 2:17-18 (NRSV)

As for us, brothers and sisters, when, for a short time, we were made orphans by being separated from you—in person, not in heart—we longed with great eagerness to see you face to face. For we wanted to come to you—certainly I, Paul, wanted to again and again—but Satan blocked our way.


Wise and emotionally healthy leaders will know when to function in the diverse roles associated with their leadership. They will know that there is a time to exhort as a father, to nourish as a mother, and even to feel childlike affection for the people they lead.


When I went away from home to college, I became desperately homesick. My parents and family lived 3000 miles away, so I couldn’t visit them. In 1975, phone calls were prohibitively expensive. I was only able to call home once every two weeks on Sunday nights when the rates were low. My family and I did exchange letters, but somehow those didn’t really fill the void in my heart. Though I knew my parents loved me, for the first time in my life I felt rather like an orphan, as if I didn’t have parents at all. It was a painful time for me, though one that ultimately lead to plenty of spiritual and emotional growth.

The feeling of being like an orphan was familiar to the apostle Paul and his colleagues. In a striking and ironic passage from 1 Thessalonians, they talk about their relationship with their Thessalonian converts in terms of being orphaned away from them (1 Thessalonians 2:17). In order to make sense of this passage and its curious irony, we need to remember a bit about the context for the writing of 1 Thessalonians.

As you may recall before our summertime stroll through Isaiah, I had been working my way slowly through 1 Thessalonians. We had been focusing on a passage in chapter 2 in which Paul and his church planting colleagues were describing the ministry they had among the Thessalonians. They drew especially from family imagery, portraying themselves as both a mother nursing her children (2:7) and a father encouraging his children to lead a life worthy of God (2:12). Paul and his colleagues used familial language to let their converts know just how deeply they loved them (2:8).

The love that this apostolic trio had for the Thessalonians needed to be emphasized for several reasons. One had to do with the fact that Paul and Co. had spent relatively little time in Thessalonica. According to Acts 17, they were able to remain in that city for only about three weeks before Jewish opposition to their work chased them out of town (Acts 17:1-10). With Paul and his team no longer present, the brand-new Christian converts in Thessalonica might have wondered about what had happened to them and their relationship with those missionaries who had so affected their lives. Did Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy truly care for them? Was their love genuine?

Another reason Paul and his colleagues wrote was to express their current strong feelings for the Thessalonians. They did this in quite a distinctive way, writing: “As for us, brothers and sisters, when, for a short time, we were made orphans by being separated from you – in person, not in heart – we longed with great eagerness to see you face to face” (1 Thessalonians 2:17). The verb translated as “we were made orphans” is in Greek aporphanizō. (You can see the word “orphan” embedded in this verb.) Aporphanizō literally described being made an orphan by the death of one’s parents. But it had a figurative meaning as well. One who was orphaned away from someone else felt a childlike longing or desire to be with that person. The separation between them felt painful and sad, not unlike how an actual orphan might feel.

Now it’s not altogether surprising that Paul and Co. would speak of people being orphaned away from people, given their “parental” relationship with the Thessalonians. But we would surely expect the letter writers to say something about their Thessalonian children in Christ being orphaned away from them. Yet in the most unexpected and striking way, Paul and his team speak of themselves as being in the position of orphans.

The willingness of the letter writers to portray themselves in this way is truly stunning. It also suggests that they were not locked into a certain kind of relationship with their Thessalonian converts. Though they served in both motherly and fatherly ways with the Thessalonians, in positions that suggest superiority, Paul and his team could also put themselves “one down,” so to speak. They didn’t always have to be the people in charge. They could also acknowledge their own dependence on their converts, portraying this through childlike imagery.

I expect you have known leaders who were stuck in their need to be number one. They enjoyed their power and found their identity in being dominant. This kind of leadership can be found in business, church, family, and a variety of other relationships and organizations. It usually reflects deep insecurity on the part of the leader. But when, like Paul and his colleagues, leaders find their security in Christ, when their identity is solid because of who they are in the Lord, then they don’t have to continually insist upon their personal prominence. They can be human. They can love and be loved. They can freely express their love for those who have been entrusted to their care. They can be humble. They can even acknowledge the extent to which they depend upon those whom they lead. They can share their affection in ways that are honest, vulnerable, and even childlike.

Wise and emotionally healthy leaders will know when to function in the diverse roles associated with their leadership. They will know that there is a time to exhort as a father, to nourish as a mother, and even to feel childlike affection for the people they lead. No doubt this kind of leadership is not easy to pull off. But it reflects, not only the example of Paul and his apostolic colleagues, but also the example of a God who loves us as a father, cherishes us as a mother, and was bold enough to come among us as a vulnerable baby.


Can you think of a time in your life when you felt rather like an orphan? What was that like for you?

In what contexts would it be appropriate for a leader to express dependence upon those being led? And in what contexts might it be inappropriate?

How free are you to express your care for those whom you lead?


Discuss with your small group, a wise friend, or your mentor the implications of 1 Thessalonians 2:17-18 for your life and leadership.


Gracious God, thank you for the example of Paul and his colleagues. Thank you for their freedom to share even their childlike love for their Thessalonian converts.

Help me, Lord, to learn from their example. Give me the wisdom to know when and how to communicate my feelings with those whom I lead. Keep me from being so identified with my leadership authority that I can’t be humble or vulnerable. Amen.

Find all Life for Leaders devotions here. Explore what the Bible has to say about work at the High Calling archive, hosted by the unique website of our partners, the Theology of Work Project. Commentary on today’s Life for Leaders theme can be found here: The God of the Vulnerable.

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Mark D. Roberts

Senior Strategist

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,...

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