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Picking Up Sticks

Throughout history few leaders have accomplished as much as the apostle Paul, yet he endured an astonishing number of traumatic events: imprisonment, beatings, sleeplessness, hunger, thirst, and many other forms of suffering. Almost matter-of-factly Paul mentions, “Three times I was shipwrecked” (2 Corinthians 11:25). In Acts chapter 27, Luke tells about one of those shipwrecks and includes dramatic details about a terrifying storm at sea that broke the ship apart.

In the aftermath of the shipwreck, Paul and his fellow passengers scrambled for safety onto the shore of an island called Malta. Luke recalls, “The islanders showed us unusual kindness. They built a fire and welcomed us all because it was raining and cold” (Acts 28:2). Remember what happened next? “Paul gathered a pile of brushwood and, as he put it on the fire, a viper, driven out by the heat, fastened itself on his hand” (v. 3). Onlookers were amazed when the poisonous snake’s bite caused Paul no further harm.

It’s a minor point, but notice: Paul was a leader who was willing to pick up sticks! He didn’t sit on the sidelines and say, “Someone needs to build a fire. I’m an apostle, not a stick-gatherer. You guys go gather sticks while I sit and watch.” He didn’t consider the menial task of gathering firewood beneath his dignity. He didn’t excuse his own inaction by saying, “Look, I’ve got more important things to do—sermons to prepare and letters to write.” He simply saw a need and pitched in to help build the fire. Paul saw himself as an example, not an exception—a coworker, not a prima donna demanding special treatment.

Professors or Practitioners? Jesus unleashed some of his harshest criticism on leaders who did “not practice what they preach”—who put heavy, cumbersome loads “on other people’s shoulders” but were personally “not willing to lift a finger to move them” (Matthew 23:3, 4). These hypocritical leaders were professors, but they were not practitioners.

We call teachers who serve on a college faculty “professors” because of their ability to pass along knowledge and expertise to others. More broadly, “professor” refers to anyone who professes opinions and beliefs in a way that instructs others. In this sense, all Christians are professors, for we all have God’s good-news message to share and teach. But it’s not enough to profess faith without practicing it, and this is especially true for those who accept the responsibilities of church leadership.

Jesus calls leaders to service, not self-glorification. Godly leaders shouldn’t aspire for impressive titles and seats of honor. Jesus insists, “The greatest among you will be your servant” (v. 11). If someone can’t be trusted with little things (like gathering firewood), why should anyone trust him with big things (like leading a congregation)?

Of course, church leaders must use their time and abilities wisely, and sometimes they must let others wait on tables while they devote themselves to “prayer and the ministry of the word” (Acts 6:3, 4). But the point is, faithful leaders don’t shy away from hard work. They put their shoulders to the task along with the rest of God’s people. Effective leaders are willing to get their hands dirty, and when the need arises, they venture out into the woods and pick up sticks.

Note: As I continue my study leave, I’m grateful for the excellent writing contributions of my friend and fellow Minister, Dave Faust. This piece was originally published on July 1, 2018, at http://lookoutmag.com/week-27-application/.