Dear Pastor . . . You Should Follow More Than You Lead

This article is part of the Dear Pastor series.

Are We Called to Leadership or Followership?

As a pastor for over 20 years, I (Rick) can hardly count the number of times I was invited to some sort of “leadership” meeting, training, workshop, or convention. In addition, I was bombarded with books, video curriculum, retreats, and special speakers to equip the “leaders” of my congregation. During all this time, I can’t remember a single training–for myself or my congregation–that was intended to equip us to be good followers.

Leadership is important, but the church has mirrored our culture in recent decades by over-emphasizing leading and neglecting following. We challenge people to lead, we train and equip them to lead, and we celebrate and praise them for leading (or condemn them as the case may be). Followership, in contrast, is almost completely ignored. We talk about a call to leadership; we almost never talk about a person who is called to followership. We have little or no imagination for the gifts or skills of followership. We usually think of followership as simply the failure to lead. Followership is like a shadow—it is a nothing rather than a something, an absence rather than a presence.

But biblically, we believe followership is something in its own right. It has its own set of skills and excellencies. It has its own challenges and rewards. Followership is an end in itself. Especially for Christians, in fact, followership is more foundational to our spiritual life than is leadership. We may move in and out of leadership, but there is never a day when we will not be followers. We are disciples of Christ, a term that means followers. We have no higher aspiration than to follow the author and perfecter of our faith.

The Call to Follow

Richard Langer, Joanne J. Jung

Authors Richard Langer and Joanne J. Jung teach that “followership” is essential to both organizational and spiritual flourishing, reexamining the nature of leadership and followership in light of the life-transforming power of following Jesus Christ. 

We started talking about writing a book on following because we felt this neglect. As we began to study leading and following in the New Testament, we were startled by how much language there is about following, modeling, and imitation, and how comparatively rarely leadership terms appear. Even more startling are Jesus's own statements about himself in the Gospel of John. In John 5:19, Jesus describes himself as a follower who does nothing of his own accord but only what he sees the Father doing. In John 7:16 and John 8:26, we discover that his teaching is not his own but comes from the one who sent him. Likewise, his actions are not done on his own authority (John 8:28) and his comings and goings are appointed by someone else (John 8:42). Jesus clearly states that he is not giving commands but rather delivering them on behalf of the Father (John 12:49), and that he lives as one who obeys commands (John 14:31). He models love to them because he is following the example he has seen in the Father (John 15:9). He models obedience because it is the key to abiding in the Father’s love, both for himself and for the disciples (John 15:10). At every point in this mosaic of images, Jesus is playing the role of a follower rather than a leader. Does it look like the Gospel of John was written so that we can lead like Jesus led or so we can follow like Jesus followed? Clearly, it is the latter.

Learning How to Follow

Good following is not easy. It requires training and discipline. It is not passive like osmosis. Following is integrated into our lives at every level, regardless of who you are with, the day of the week, or the time of day. To follow well requires intentional effort. It’s amazing how little we think of this, yet we are called to reflect him to the world. If your God is small, he will serve you. If he is big, you will serve him. To have God’s perspective requires us to know him and his ways. It is difficult to follow someone you do not know, and knowing him involves a healthy and nourishing intake of his word. If you have read God’s word but have not been inspired to follow him more closely and love him and his people more deeply, then you have not read it well.

God’s Spirit not only illuminates our understanding of his word, he also gives us a lab practicum. These practicums range in difficulty and in length of time, but all require the moment-by-moment, season-to-season trusting in him that is expressed by following in his ways. If we seek to transform our world in God-pleasing ways, we must begin by letting ourselves be transformed into committed followers. Our daily lives must center on trusting in the Spirit’s presence and power to do the transforming work of God’s kingdom rule in our lives. Each day of faithful trusting and following is connected with the next–strung together like pearls on a string.

Such committed daily following is the essence of the Christian life, but it is not easy. Our daily following is lined with challenges, hardships, and disappointment. There is a loneliness that often travels with committed following. Though others tire, committed followers press on. Though no one watches, the committed followers press on. Though others wander, committed followers press on. Though no one praises or encourages, committed followers press on.

We may move in and out of leadership, but there is never a day when we will not be followers.

Empowered to Follow

This sort of following sounds stark and difficult, but it is in the midst of such following that Jesus becomes most real to us. God is all-powerful and has all authority, but we often experience his power beginning only when our power fails. The God we serve is a great God. He is abiding in us; we are attached to his vine. We draw daily nourishment through the presence of the Holy Spirit. So, as we walk through our days that have already been written in God’s book before even one of them is lived (Ps. 139:16), we do so with the Advocate, Strengthener, Encourager of God, the Spirit of God.

As the one who strengthens and encourages, he teaches and reminds us that God does the initiating:

  • We love because he first loved us (1 John 4:19).
  • We forgive because he first forgave us (Col. 3:13).
  • We comfort with the comfort he gives us (2 Cor. 1:3–4).
  • We serve because he came to serve (Mark 10:45; Matt. 20:28).
  • We give because we have freely received (Matt. 10:8).
  • We extend mercy because he is merciful to us (Matt. 18:33).
  • We reconcile with others because he reconciled himself to us (2 Cor. 5:18).
  • We welcome because he first welcomed us (Rom. 15:7).

Lean into knowing the God of the word through the word of God. Daily seek to align with God’s Spirit, allowing God’s word to penetrate our hearts, that we might truly follow in his footsteps. Adopt soul rhythms that cultivate a heart of following. Review the list above in a time of silence and solitude, prayer, and humility through the grace of confession and the grace of thanksgiving. And remember to give what you have abundantly received to another in extending friendship to a stranger, proving that God never puts two people together for the benefit of one but for three: the other person, yourself, and God.

And if the joy of being a conduit who simply gives what has already been received was not enough, we receive rewards. Our souls are refreshed, our family and ministries flourish, and we can be confident knowing that our obedience to the Master is not only noticed but highly regarded. The greatest blessing we can ever know is to hear God Almighty’s words directed to us, as faithful followers, declaring, “Well done, thou good and faithful servant.” Join us as we follow together.

Richard Langer and Joanne J. Jung are the authors of The Call to Follow: Hearing Jesus in a Culture Obsessed with Leadership.

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