Denise Dombkowski Hopkins, a professor of Hebrew Bible at Wesley Theological Seminary, says we often see biblical leadership in one-dimensional or overly idealized ways. Her more nuanced view of several common images of biblical leadership can inform a more robust and realistic concept of our own leadership challenges.
When we look to the Bible for leadership advice, it’s easy to fall victim to our tendency to idealize those leaders we see as exemplars. We place Moses and David and Paul on pedestals. And then we feel deficient if we don’t measure up to those idealized images. It can be both liberating and illuminating to move beyond the mythology shading our understanding of biblical leaders and leadership. Similarly, reexamining some of our common images of biblical leadership yields more valuable lessons for our own practice of leadership.
The biblical image of leader as shepherd is often used in an idealized way. Churches are full of banners depicting Jesus with the sheep, cuddling them in his arms. We have come to see shepherding as a kind and gentle approach to leadership. But that’s not the whole story of what a shepherd does.
A shepherd uses a crook and a staff, not just to protect the flock from enemies, but also to pull back those errant sheep who stray from the fold. And sometimes, it’s not a gentle little push, it’s a yank. A shepherd needs to be fierce at times. And this aspect of shepherding generally is lost in the romanticized way we use shepherd as biblical metaphor for leadership.
We often think of Paul as a solitary, heroic leader. But his writings reveal that he was mentor and encourager to more than 100 coworkers. In his letters, Paul employs the widespread Greco-Roman practice of commendation as a way of mentoring these coworkers and recognizing their contributions.
But the commendations in Paul’s letters reveal an approach to leadership that turns the Greco-Roman standard upside down. In the Roman Empire, commendation was used to honor and flatter the elite and the wealthy. In contrast, Paul commends his coworkers for hard work and sacrifice. He makes a point of saying, again and again, that he is with the coworkers in the trenches, doing what they are doing, suffering what they are suffering. Paul is a mentor to his coworkers by modeling servant leadership. He basically says, “Do what I do, not just what I say. I’m doing it with you.”
We learn from Paul that the regularized practice of commendation is a key element of being a mentoring leader. We need to cultivate a culture of earned commendation, or recognizing hard work and persistence, not just awarding medals for participation. Paul does this very, very well.
Walter Brueggemann describes a prophet as having two main tasks: To criticize what is and to energize with an alternative vision of community. Too often we emphasize one of these tasks at the expense of the other. But effective leadership requires that the two be kept in a tension-filled balance. We see the two-pronged responsibility of a prophet in the books of Jeremiah and Ezekiel. There is strong criticism of the structures that existed in the time of these prophets. But there is also beautiful imagery of what God intends for us.
Prophetic leaders need a vision so compelling that it pulls us into a different future. And that requires imagination. But imagination is difficult to come by in our rapid-paced, 24/7, 280-character Twitter culture. Articulating a compelling vision takes more time and more imagination. But in this, the biblical prophets pave the way for us. Imagination is looking at the world through God’s eyes. Not only to see what is, but to see what could be. And that takes practice.
The Bible offers important, meaningful lessons on the tough, real-life challenges faced by God’s leaders. But the takeaways are greater when we acknowledge the human vulnerability of biblical leaders and appreciate the complexities of their leadership challenges and practices.
- “Biblical Leadership,” a Leading Ideas Talks podcast episode featuring Denise Dombkowski Hopkins
- Journey Through the Psalms, an eight-session course with video lessons by Dr. Hopkins
- Leading as Moses Led by Emanuel Cleaver III
- Ten Leadership Lessons from Nehemiah by Lovett H. Weems, Jr.