I’ve always struggled with what it means to be a spiritual leader. I heard I was supposed to be a spiritual leader when I was dating my wife. Did that mean any more than I should keep my hands to myself? I think so, but beyond that I wasn’t always sure how to flesh it out. As a pastor, I’m supposed to be a spiritual leader. Does that mean that I am a professional Christian? I sure hope not. As a dad, I’m supposed to be a spiritual leader. Does that mean I pray before dinner and make my kids go to church? There has to be more to spiritual leadership than this stuff.
If you have similar questions or frustrations, take heart because Nehemiah teaches all of us what it looks like to be a spiritual leader. What we see in his life is a rare level of spiritual commitment and consistency. We see a man who loved God deeply and allowed that love to infect every area of his life. We see a man who was brave enough to answer God’s call to do something impossible. We see a spiritual leader.
We can look at Nehemiah’s leadership life from two perspectives. We can find broad principles every leader of every age can learn from, but we can also glean some leadership steps specifically for young adult leaders.
In a broad sense, I see three lessons all Christ-followers can apply to their lives if they want to be spiritual leaders:
- Don’t speak for God until you speak with God.
- Don’t speak for God until you hear from God.
- Take responsibility for the spiritual growth of others.
If our leaders get this right they will have no shortage of followers, because godly people follow godly leaders who have godly intentions.
We see the first principle come out following a conversation between Nehemiah and his brother Hanani in Nehemiah 1. Hanani had just come to Persia from Judah. When Nehemiah saw his brother, he did what you or I would do — he asked about home. He asked his brother about the Jewish remnant that survived the exile, and he asked about Jerusalem, the once glorious center of the people of God. These questions demonstrate Nehemiahs focus — he was concerned about God’s people and about God’s place. Unfortunately, he received bad news on both fronts. As for Gods people, they were in a dire state. Hanani told him that they were in great trouble and disgrace (Nehemiah 1:3). The news on God’s place, Jerusalem, was not any better. The walls were broken down and the gates were burned.
The news hit Nehemiah like a Mack truck. For nearly a century his people must have been saying, “Somebody ought to do something about those walls.” Others must have replied, “We’ve tried and nothing can be done.” It was different with Nehemiah, though. Because of his character, Nehemiah felt responsible to take some action. He was reduced to tears. These tears turned to God-centered mourning and fasting. This period of mourning and fasting was not a grab for attention or an escape from the reality of the situation. It was an opportunity for him to talk to God before he talked to anyone else or took any action.
His mourning and fasting led him to a focused time of prayer and trusting in God. We see this prayer in Nehemiah 1:5-7. What an amazing pattern for prayer we can learn from Nehemiahs words. Nehemiah began by focusing on the awesome nature of God. He recognized that He is a loving God who keeps His commitments to those who love and obey Him. I don’t know about you, but when I face challenges a fraction of the size of what Nehemiah was facing, I struggle to trust God like he did. It’s not necessarily an overt lack of trust; it’s much more subtle. And my trust or distrust of God—is expressed through how I pray.
My temptation when I encounter a problem is to immediately spring into physical action. Not Nehemiah—he prayed, and he didn’t just pray for a moment. He committed himself to a season of prayer, petitioning the Lord “for a number of days.” (Nehemiah 1:4). The amount of days and nights doesn’t matter; what does matter is that he committed himself to an extended time of focused prayer. I struggle with this because I think I should be doing something rather than just praying. Did you catch the problem with my last sentence? The problem is that it is impossible to just pray. The prayer life of a leader matters more than we will ever know.