How does the story of Nehemiah guide leaders today? Lewis Center Director Doug Powe interviews Dr. Lovett H. Weems Jr. They discuss why Nehemiah is so relevant to leaders in today’s church and how the book of Nehemiah informs our understanding of a leader’s calling and tasks.
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Doug Powe: Why do you think Nehemiah is so popular when it comes to leadership?
Lovett Weems: I think most of us can identify with Nehemiah. He was someone who wanted to do God’s will. A man of faith. A man of prayer. He also was someone who cared about the people in his world and what was going on with them. He wanted to help. And he wanted to help advance God’s ways. But yet, he didn’t know exactly how. In the book of Nehemiah we see that struggle — to know that God is calling us to do something but trying to discern what that is. I think we easily identify with Nehemiah because all of us have faced situations where we know something is not right. We know something needs to be done. But we’re not sure if God is calling us to do something as part of the solution.
Doug Powe: How does Nehemiah help us think about discerning God’s vision in our congregational settings?
Lovett Weems: Well, at first glance it appears very simple. The book of Nehemiah seems to give us a simple playbook for how it happens. In chapter 2:17-18, we find a simple four-part process that can be used in visioning. But we have to keep in mind all that went on before that passage and certainly everything that went on after it. This passage is about discerning a vision. But enacting the vision is a very, very different thing. So, let’s look at the four-step process that Nehemiah gives us.
First, Nehemiah helped to define reality. He simply said, “Look at the trouble we’re in. Look at the gates. Look at the wall. We’re in trouble.” This did not come out of the blue. He had been hearing these stories from travelers for a long time. Also, when he arrived to help the people, he and a few others went out on their own mission to take a look at the walls. And what they saw was devastating. In naming this reality, Nehemiah was not advancing his own agenda. He had not spent his whole life wanting to rebuild a wall. He had never been known for building walls. But he knew it was the critical problem they faced. If someone had said, “We disagree,” there would have been no need for an argument. “Let’s go again. And let’s get some more people to go with us. And if it turns out that the wall is in great shape and the gates are in great shape, we don’t need to spend time, energy, and resources on rebuilding a wall.”
Second, Nehemiah articulates the vision. “Come, let us rebuild the wall.” People ask, “But where does the vision come from? Does it come from the top or the bottom?” It doesn’t matter, if the vision is the right one. Often a leader will name a vision, not because they’re smarter or more spiritual, but because usually they’ve spent more time thinking about it, praying about it, have access to more information. But, in any case, the vision has to ring true. So, first, help define reality, then what are we going to do about it? “Come let us rebuild the wall.”
Third, the people confirmed the vision. Heads began to nod. The people said, “That makes sense to us. We’ve known that for a long time.”
Then fourth, everyone made a commitment. The people committed themselves to the common good. Today, that may require a governing body vote or a capital campaign. But everyone commits themselves.
Doug Powe: You laid this out in a way that’s easy to follow. But as you said, it’s not quite so simple. Within congregations, a pastor may have a vision or a calling to serve the community. And there are some people who want to go with the pastor and others who don’t. The reality could be just as plain as day to the pastor, but there still may be people who want to keep their focus within their own congregation. So how do you navigate that?
Lovett Weems: A vision not only has to be right in that it’s a good thing. It has to be right for us. It has to connect. If it doesn’t, it won’t succeed. That doesn’t mean it’s a bad idea. It just means the timing’s not right or the readiness isn’t there. If that’s the case, no matter who the leader is, it’s not going to succeed. You may have to take a step back and find something that will connect.
From the perspective of this leader who’s come up with this vision, they may see it as what God is calling them to do. Well, we all have a calling from God. And we’re all trying to live out that calling from God. But God’s calling for a leader doesn’t just evolve from their personal relationship with God. It also includes a calling from the context. That is, what’s going on with the people God has given us? What’s most urgent? What’s most on their minds? What’s most critical in the community we’re serving?
Then another part of that calling has to do with one’s position. A pastor has a tremendous opportunity to set an agenda, to get almost anything talked about any time you want. But you don’t have the power to make something happen. So the key question isn’t “What’s my position?” But rather, “What’s my relationship to the people? How long have I been here? How much credibility do I have? How much standing? How much integrity do I have?”
Usually, it has to begin with listening, with talking to people. That’s what Nehemiah did. When people from home would be traveling through, he would ask them, “How are things at home?” They would say, “It’s not very good.” “What’s the problem?” “Well, just when we build up a little bit, our adversaries come in and tear down whatever we’ve started. And people’s spirits are very down at this time.” Nehemiah was listening. He understood that the vision was not just his agenda but the right agenda for the community to take that next faithful step.
Doug Powe: Lovett, you talked about Nehemiah caring for the people and how a good leader cares for the people. Can you say more about this?
Lovett Weems: I’ve pointed out that Nehemiah listened to the people. That’s a wonderful way to honor people. Leaders need to have the right questions and they need to be asking those questions all the time. But Nehemiah also spent a great deal of time in prayer, praying both for the people and for God’s inspiration and guidance. Nehemiah was honest with the people. He was able to be a little more direct with the people because they knew him. He knew that what he was saying would not be a surprise to them. And he helped the people take their next faithful step.
That’s what we always want from a leader. We want them to treat us well. We want them to be people of integrity. But we also want them to help us deal with our greatest adaptive challenges at that moment.
Doug Powe: For a lot of people, when they think about leadership, what comes to mind is the “Lone Ranger” approach. But the Nehemiah text is a wonderful reminder that leaders can’t enact a meaningful vision on their own. Can you share how leaders go about building up a team to get the work done?
Lovett Weems: It’s easy for a leader to think that, once you’ve gotten through the four steps and everyone has affirmed the vision and committed to the vision, your role is more in the background. But really, getting that clarity only gets you 10 or 20% of the way toward accomplishing the vision. It’s very hard to get that first 10 or 20%. But you still have to build a team. You need to ask, “Who are the people without whom this vision cannot become a reality?” That’s very democratic because it’s not based on the people, it’s based on the vision. If the vision is rebuilding the wall, certain people will be essential to that task that might not be as essential for a different type of vision. You also have to be thinking of all the stakeholders. Who are all the groups whose cooperation is needed? They may not have the equipment needed to build a wall. They might not have the technical expertise. But they are stakeholders. And you need their cooperation.
It is sometimes said that in organizations such as the church, usually no one person can say “yes” to something and make it happen. But almost any group of people can say “no” and stop progress, even if it’s been approved. Nehemiah discovered very quickly that despite a unanimous vote, people started complaining and grumbling. “It’s too hot. It’s taking too long. It’s costing too much. Some people are not doing their fair share.” Nehemiah didn’t step back and say, “Look, we agreed to this.” No. He was not reactive, but he was responsive. For example, he discovered that if you assign people to work on the wall nearest where they live, they do better work and they don’t complain about it as much. He also found tasks for people who perhaps couldn’t work on the wall. But they could prepare food. They could bring water. There is an entire chapter in Nehemiah that’s kind of like a bulletin insert. It says, “We want to thank so-and-so for this. We want to thank so-and-so for that.” So, Nehemiah realized not only that it takes a team, but that you have to support and encourage that team and keep up their spirits.
Doug Powe: Whenever you’re pursuing a vision, trying to follow God’s calling, there will be adversaries. And Nehemiah certainly had adversaries. What can we learn from the way Nehemiah dealt with the adversaries?
Lovett Weems: Well, the people had been surrounded by adversaries for quite a while. And their adversaries had the advantage because they had more force. The people were not very organized. But Nehemiah not only helped them discern the vision of rebuilding the wall, he organized the people. He set up shifts. Some people were guarding. Some people were working. Some people were sleeping. This created a problem for the adversaries. What did they do? They resorted to what we would call “dirty tricks.” They didn’t launch a frontal assault. Instead, they threatened to start rumors and gossip. We have this classic scene where Nehemiah himself was up working on the wall, and the adversaries send a delegation. They say, “Nehemiah, if you don’t come down and stop this work, we’re going to start telling stories about you. We’re going to go to the king and say, ‘You know, Nehemiah got permission to help these people. But he’s not helping. He is building up an army to come and overthrow you.’”
So, what was Nehemiah to do? Nehemiah didn’t say, “Oh, no. Don’t do that.” Nehemiah simply said, “I’m doing a great work. I cannot come down.” He simply stayed with the task. He had taken account of the adversaries. But he stayed with the task. Nehemiah stayed in the conversation, but he stayed connected to the vision as well.
In pursuing any vision, there will always be unforeseen problems. People’s lives will be disrupted. So leaders need to be as responsive as possible. Be respectful of adversaries. Stay connected. But keep your eye on the vision, as well.
Doug Powe: For a lot of leaders in the church today, their adversaries aren’t just threatening to spread rumors, they are actually doing so. Any insights on how a leader can stay on task with all this stuff swirling around them?
Lovett Weems: Well, I think Nehemiah gave an example here of what might be called “taking the high road.” He neither negotiated nor capitulated. He simply took the high road. He named what he was about, and he stayed with that — again, being responsive while communicating the ultimate goal.
In fulfilling a vision, that “next faithful step” is always going to involve some specific action. For example, with Nehemiah, it required rebuilding the wall. But Nehemiah had to remind them, “We’re not in the wall building business. We’re in the God business. This wall is about preserving our faith. It’s about doing what God is calling us to do, knowing that after that wall is rebuilt, God is going to have something else for us.” But most people only think about the specific action.
In a congregation it may be beginning a new service. It may be building a new building. It may be something else. Everyone will want to talk about that specific thing. During the historic Montgomery bus boycott, Martin Luther King Jr. and other leaders had to remind the people, “This isn’t about a bus boycott only. That’s too small. This is about justice. This is part of our larger agenda for justice and equality.” So, whatever that next step is, leaders have to put it in a larger perspective. It’s not just about adding a new worship service. It’s about reaching people we haven’t been able to reach. It’s not about the new building. It’s about the children who will come to faith in that building. It’s about what God wanted from this church from day one.
Doug Powe: The Lewis Center has a study, Leading Like Nehemiah: Rebuilding Together, that you helped design. Can you share how this study might be used in a congregation?
Lovett Weems: There’s a lot we can learn from Nehemiah that’s very applicable to leaders within a congregation. A leadership team might use this study to learn that, while leadership and visioning may seem simple, they really are not, that naming what needs to be done is not the same as accomplishing it, and that it takes a team of key players and stakeholders working together. There will be setbacks along the way. Everything looks like failure in the middle. And even when successful, there will always be another mountain, another vision. As Nelson Mandela said, “It’s like climbing to the top of a great mountain. It’s hard to get there. But you finally make it, just to discover there’s yet another mountain to climb.” So, church leaders can help everyone in the congregation come to know that we’re on a journey with God. It did not start with us. It will not end with us. But God is calling us to help write this next chapter and then another chapter while knowing that, as Nehemiah says, “Without God, there is nothing. And with the help of God, we accomplished this.”
- Leading Like Nehemiah: Rebuilding Together, video-based adult study curriculum from the Lewis Center
- Discovering God’s Future for Your Church, a Lewis Center video tool kit resource for congregational visioning
- 10 Leadership Lessons from Nehemiah by Lovett H. Weems Jr.
- Biblical Leadership: Not as Simple as You Think by Denise Dombkowski Hopkins