Leadership Lessons from Nehemiah
Updated: Apr 3
By Rev. Jay Therrell
March 21, 2023
During this season of Lent, I’ve had the humbling privilege of leading a Bible study on the Book of Nehemiah. Nehemiah was the cupbearer to the King of Persia and after hearing about the deplorable condition of Jerusalem (which was still under occupation), he boldly asked the king for permission to help rebuild it. To Nehemiah’s pleasant surprise, the king granted his request, allowing Nehemiah safe passage, providing soldiers and other resources.
God called Nehemiah to rebuild Jerusalem after it had been destroyed. From the ashes, God used Nehemiah and other faithful followers to rebuild the city walls and help Jerusalem become a viable city. As the Wesleyan Covenant Association and other traditionalist advocacy groups do our best to help churches exit The United Methodist Church so they can truly live into their God-given call, I’ve found many lessons from Nehemiah that are helpful.
Leaders Call Fouls
I don’t know anyone that enjoys confrontation – at least not anyone who is emotionally and spiritually healthy. At the same time, Satan is constantly throwing obstacles in our paths. As much as we don’t relish having to confront others when they cross boundaries, it’s one of the primary jobs of a leader.
From beginning to end, Nehemiah is faced with multiple instances of opposition and people taking advantage of others. Multiple territorial governors hatched several plans to stop Nehemiah from rebuilding Jerusalem’s walls. They attempted to frustrate his mission at every turn. In every instance, Nehemiah calmly and resolutely stood up to the wrongdoers and bullies. He clearly stated how they had crossed boundaries and provided ways for them to stop. If they didn’t stop, he took action to protect his people.
As leaders in the church, we are called to act similarly. We follow and worship the Light of the World: Jesus! As the Apostle John said at the beginning of his Gospel (John 1:4-5), “In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” Our job as followers of Jesus is to shine His light into the darkness and expose it. It may not be easy, but Jesus never promised us following Him would be easy (John 16:33). He did promise us that He has already overcome the world and that He would be with us always.
Appeasement has historically proven to be a horrible strategy. It has resulted in world wars and genocide. Leaders in Jesus’ church, laity and clergy, must be willing to stand up for what is right and call out wrongs.
Leaders Lead By Example
Nehemiah is a classic example of a leader who led by example. He led from the front, and he led from the trenches working right beside his people. Nehemiah was a high official in the Persian King’s household. He could have shared his vision and then dispatched others to carry it out. Traveling to Jerusalem was perilous. Working to rebuild the walls and the city was perhaps the hardest thing he ever did in his life. Nehemiah chose to go to Jerusalem and lead from the front.
Not only did Nehemiah lead from the front, but he also led from the proverbial trenches. He didn’t just command people to rebuild the wall, he rolled up his sleeves and worked beside them. When opposition continually arose, Nehemiah stood up to it including multiple threats on his life. He chose to do the hard work and he inspired the people of Jerusalem in the process. In 52 days, the walls of the city were rebuilt!
Leading from behind very rarely works. Shepherds don’t send their flocks ahead of them and hope that nothing bad will happen. Shepherds take the lead and ensure that the space for their flock is safe from harm. The best example of all is Jesus who famously said in John 10:11-13, “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. The hired hand is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep. So when he sees the wolf coming, he abandons the sheep and runs away. Then the wolf attacks the flock and scatters it. The man runs away because he is a hired hand and cares nothing for the sheep.”
Leaders are supposed to emulate the Good Shepherd. Leaders lead by example: from the front and working beside their people.
Leaders Lead by Perseverance
There will always be opposition. Nehemiah learned that lesson as he led the effort to rebuild Jerusalem’s walls. From chapter two to the end of the book, enemies threw up obstacle after obstacle including attempts to kill Nehemiah. Yet Nehemiah persevered until the walls were completed. He persevered through prayer (Nehemiah 2:4-5) and by relying on the power of God (Nehemiah 4:20 and Nehemiah 4:4). After the walls were finished, he continued to persevere as governor of Jerusalem for 12 years working hard to restore the city.
I can’t tell you how many times in my life after discerning that God was leading me or the church/ministry I served in a certain direction, opposition would arise. Almost every time an obstacle would pop up, someone would say, “Maybe this is God’s way of telling us to stop.” Leaders should always reflect and ensure they’re continuing to follow God, but if they’ve done their discernment work with a team of Godly men and women, then they should expect opposition and persevere through it by relying on the strength of the Holy Spirit.
Noted leadership expert and Jewish rabbi, Edwin Friedman, once wrote, “Sabotage is not merely something to be avoided or wished away; instead, it comes with the territory of leading, whether that ‘territory’ is a family or an organization. And a leader’s capacity to recognize sabotage for what it is—that is, a systemic phenomenon connected to the shifting balances in the emotional processes of a relationship system and not to the institution’s specific issues, makeup, or goals—is the key to the kingdom.”
Nehemiah continually faced sabotage and opposition. There were plenty of people who encouraged him to stop. Through prayer and the power of God, he persevered and created new life for Jerusalem. Leaders lead through perseverance.
Leaders Lead with Compassion
When Nehemiah was tasked with rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem, he quickly realized how desperate the situation was. In Nehemiah 5:1-5, Nehemiah learned that fellow Jews were charging usurious interest rates, engaging in price gouging, and even forcing people to sell their children into slavery to feed themselves. He immediately sprang into action by calling out the evil and began to right the wrongs.
Leaders must always be on the lookout for who is hurting or being harmed. It’s our job as followers of the Good Shepherd to care for our sheep. Jesus is the ultimate example of doing so. He sacrificed Himself so all of us could be reconciled to our Heavenly Father and live in freedom and salvation. Leaders need to be compassionately resolute. We stand up for what’s right and confront evil, but we do it with compassion and love as Jesus exemplified.
On the Homestretch of Lent
The season of Lent is a time of self-examination. We’re called to look at our lives and see where our faith journeys need work. As lay and clergy leaders, I pray we’ll reflect on whether our leadership is Godly and reflects who Jesus is. Leaders call fouls and stand up for what is right. Leaders lead by example: from the front and alongside their people. Leaders persevere through the power of prayer and the Holy Spirit. Leaders demonstrate compassion as they do all the above.
\I’m thinking about all these things in this last part of Lent. I hope you’ll join me.
The Rev. Jay Therrell is the president of the Wesleyan Covenant Association and an ordained elder in the Global Methodist Church.
East Ohio WCA is not affiliated with the East Ohio UNITED METHODIST CHURCH.
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