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Leadership in John 21

For leaders, one of the strongest tensions we face is understanding where we are. Not in a location or geography sense. I mean that in a sense of time. Leadership today is often described as the ability to be a “futurist” or “visionier.” Our culture cries out for leaders who can see down the road a couple of decades and pull out a greater and more glorious reality of what is to come for their followers. We want our leaders to live in tomorrowland and motivate us toward it.

Certainly there is a rightness to this for a ministry leader. We want our people to reach the “prize of the upward call of God in Christ” (Phil. 3:15). Hopefully our ambition in ministry is to “present everyone mature in Christ” (Col. 1:28). Discipleship, after all, is about becoming more and more like Christ in all things. This is what Jesus had in mind when he told us to “make disciples of all nations … teaching them to obey all I have commanded (Matt. 28:19). Leaders in the church must envision what maturity in Christ looks like for their people.

Often, however, we are stuck envisioning a future for our local church that is more about the church growing in size and influence in the culture instead of seeing the people, who are the church, growing in christlikeness. Discipleship becomes a system of techniques, classes, and processes to move the organization into the future instead of the development of a person growing in their union with Christ. Like our industrialized society, discipleship is often reduced to an assembly-line manufacturing system that inputs a sinner and outputs a saint. I don’t mean for this post to exhaust what discipleship could and should look like for those leading in the local church but to simply call us to one specific act of leadership that requires a shift in our perspective from future-thinking to our present-placement. I have heard it said frequently from many places, “shepherd the church you have, not the one you hope to have.” I’m calling leaders to return from their time-travel to the present.

Jesus as the Present Leader

The example of Christ in John 21 is helpful to me in understanding this. The chapter sits as a epilogue to the whole book and ties together a few strings that we have remaining after Jesus’ resurrection, specifically the failure of Peter. Jesus finds his disciples in Galilee back in their boats doing what they do best, fishing. Before Jesus is able to cast a vision for the mission and catalyze a movement with these disciples he must shepherd them in the present context of their life. John’s account shows us how Jesus leads in such a way that he enables their future growth and maturity but is within the context of their present reality. Two specific examples demonstrate this:

1. Jesus Provides For Them

Understand that the disciples here are professional fishermen by trade. These guys earned a living scooping fish out in loads. One night’s worth of work with no result is an abject failure and frustration. More often than we would choose to think this is the world that we exist in. No matter how gifted, talented, resourceful, or dynamic we are most of our efforts are wrought with frustration and often failure. Yet Jesus steps into that moment of failure and provides for those disciples in deep care and love. The way in which he provides is an act of revelation of himself and blessing to his disciples.

We probably won’t be able to miraculously provide physically for those we are leading, but we must work at providing something for them. Certainly the provision of our time, our attention and our presence is help to those who are seeking to grow in Christ. A good question to ask is, “are you resourcing yourself to the people you are leading?” Do they have time with you? Do they have your attention? Do have have your wisdom and counsel? Leaders will often use their time as a carrot to dangle it in front of people who we want to accomplish something for us. When was the last time you resourced your people with unhurried time with yourself? When was the last time you sat down with your team, without an agenda on the table or a list to be accomplished, and gave yourself to them?

2. Jesus Restores Them

The people that we lead are far more wounded and broken then we will often care to admit. This is frustrating for most leaders because we want whole, dynamic, healthy people behind us because it makes the growth all the more palpable and expansive. The reality is that our sin invades every area of our lives, and the ways we are sinned against makes us far more fragile that we want to believe. It makes our people more delicate that we often care to give time to.

So it was with Peter. He was the type-A, dynamic, catalytic, entrepreneurial leader that was going to be a great success. Except at the crisis moment he was no better than Judas. His failure was just as deep. Do not discount the fact that your failures, and the failures of your people are paramount to the failures of Peter. We are all in need of restoration. And this is what Jesus does.

He lovingly reverses and undoes the triple betrayal of Peter. He replaces that betrayal with love. Jesus’ questions of “do you love me” aren’t questions to shame and guilt Peter. They are are questions to restore him.

Living presently as a leader requires restorative words and works of grace to those we live with. Certain leadership styles are infamous for discarding failed disciples as “bodies under the bus” and continuing to move on “for the sake of the mission.” The problem with that view of leadership is that the mission isn’t to have a big church. The mission is to be proclaim Christ and display Christ by restoring and healing broken people.

Present In Time and Space

Leadership is about the future. We must show and call people to a life in Christ that is full of his glory and our transformation to his image. We can not fail to show this vision to our people again and again. But we must not sacrifice the present for the hope of a future that we’ve envisioned outside of Christ’s view of it. I believe it is the work of Biblical leadership to bring people to Jesus’ vision of a new humanity. We can, in some ways, discard our own projects for notoriety and success and focus on Jesus’ vision. If we do that it will enable us to live and focus on the lives of the people we lead in the present.

If you are a leader in ministry I would challenge you to ask how your ministry goals line up with the future vision of Christ for his church. Paul speaks Jesus’ work as presenting his bride, the church, as one who is “cleansed … by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish” (Eph. 5:26-27). Is the goal you are working for? Or are you working for a number to post on a scoreboard of how many came to your worship service this last week?

Jeremy Writebol (@jwritebol) has been training leaders in the church for over fourteen years. He is the author of everPresent: How the Gospel Relocates Us in the Present (GCD Books, 2014) and writes at jwritebol.net. He is the pastor of Woodside Bible Church’s Plymouth, MI campus.