Leaders, labourers, learners?


[‘encouragement’, ‘exhortation’, for life and ministry]

August 2023

Peter Adam

Dear friends,


Leadership is in crisis in our world. Our world is full of bad examples of leadership. We have many different bad leaders: totalitarian, corrupt, ineffective, leaders who lie, who avoid difficult issues, who lead for the sake of their cronies or political party, leaders who won’t lead, leaders who won’t give up leadership.

[I suppose a contemporary style of leadership is that of ‘influencer’. I don’t know enough to evaluate their contribution to our society!]

Leadership is crisis in our churches. As I heard recently, ‘Christian leaders are either bullies or jelly-fish’.

We have tried to adopt leadership styles from the world of business, but the mismatch is painful. What if our plans contradict what God is trying to do? How can we estimate the ‘success’ of our ministry when we have to wait for the return of Christ for him to assess its worth? How can it be right to regard our gospel fellow-workers in our neighbourhood as our ‘competition’? Is that not a massively self-centred view of gospel ministry? Are bigger numbers an infallible sign of success? No! Are lower numbers an infallible sign of failure? No!

A common contemporary definition of a leader is this: ‘a leader is someone whom other people follow’. But there are many different kinds of effective ‘leadership’ in life and in the Bible.

Rahab the prostitute hid the Jewish spies: that was leadership. Jeremiah preached God’s unpopular word: that was leadership. Mary agreed to become pregnant with God’s son: that was leadership.

In his earthly ministry many crowds followed Jesus: but at his crucifixion all but a few forsook him, and the crowds jeered him as an unsuccessful Messiah: ‘he saved others, he cannot save himself’. Yet he was a leader.

Stephen died as a follower of Christ as we read about in Acts: that was leadership. Those martyrs for Christ, some of whom will die today, men and women and children, whose names no one knows: they are leaders. Paul’s ministry included gospel clarity: that was leadership.

Or think of Saul/Pauls conversion and commissioning as an apostle, ‘This man is my chosen instrument to proclaim my name to the Gentiles and their kings and to the people of Israel. I will show him how much he must suffer for my name’ [Acts 9:15-16]. Paul’s suffering was a major element of his leadership and ministry.

Now I rejoice in what I am suffering for you, and I fill up in my flesh what is still lacking in regard to Christ’s afflictions, for the sake of his body, which is the church [Col 1:24].

We find the same theme in this account of his ministry:

You, however, know all about my teaching, my way of life, my purpose, faith, patience, love, endurance, persecutions, sufferings—what kinds of things happened to me in Antioch, Iconium and Lystra, the persecutions I endured [2 Tim 4:10,11].

Paul’s CV focuses on constant Christian character, endurance, and sufferings: notice, not a hint of successful ministry![1]

Or think of Epaphras, evangelist of Colossae: ‘He is always wrestling in prayer for you, that you may stand firm in all the will of God, mature and fully assured’ [Col 4:12]. Any effective gospel ministry is sustained by prayer. Prayer warriors are our invisible leaders!


Paul’s usual word to describe gospel workers, himself included, is ‘workers’, ‘labourers’: those who do the daily gruelling hard work of ministry, not the upper echelons of management! [Rom 16:12, 1 Cor 3:9, Phil 2:25, 4:3,1 Thess 5:12,13]. And here is the labourer’s daily ministry:

Keep watch over yourselves and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers. Be shepherds of the church of God, which he bought with his own blood [Acts 20:28].

Until I come, devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to preaching and to teaching. Do not neglect your gift, which was given you through prophecy when the body of elders laid their hands on you. Be diligent in these matters; give yourself wholly to them, so that everyone may see your progress [1 Tim 4:13-15].

Preach the word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage—with great patience and careful instruction … keep your head in all situations, endure hardship, do the work of an evangelist, discharge all the duties of your ministry [2 Tim 4:2,5].

Devote [yourself] to prayer and the ministry of the word [Acts 6:4].

So if you want to be a leader, you have to be a labourer as well!


Disciples are learners. Tending to our own discipleship is the bedrock of effective labouring and leading. Who we are is more important than what we do.

If we continue to gratify the desires of our flesh, our natural and habitual sinfulness, even respectable versions of sinfulness we will not only be ineffective in ministry, but we will not inherit the kingdom of God [Gal 5:16-21]. And if we continue to gratify those desires, if we do not crucify them, the fruit of the Spirit will not flourish in our lives: ‘love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control’ and we will be conceited and competitive and envious labourers and leaders! [Gal 5:22-26].

So if you want to be a leader, you have to be a learner as well as a labourer!

We need leaders who are constant learners and labourers as well.

We do need people in lead in vision and strategy, but do so humbly under the hand of God.

They also need to be:

leaders in speaking and teaching the word of God: ‘ Remember your leaders, who spoke the word of God to you’ [Heb 13:7]

Leaders in serving: ‘The son of man came not to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many’ [Mark 10:45].

Leaders in loving: ‘if I do not have love … I am nothing… I gain nothing’ [1 Cor 13:1-3].

Leaders in suffering: ‘join with me in suffering for the gospel by the power of God [2 Tim 1:8].

Leaders in sound doctrine: ‘Hold to the standard of sound teaching … in the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus’ [2 Tim 1:13].

Leaders in management: ‘if someone does not know how to manage his own household, how can he take care of God’s church’ [1 Tim 3:5].

Leaders in diligence: ‘if [your gift] is to lead, do it diligently’ [Rom 12:8].

Leaders in teaching, preaching, training, and refuting error: ‘a firm grasp of the word … able both to preach with sound doctrine, and refute those who contradict it’ [Tit 1:9].

Leaders in right understanding and teaching of the Bible: ‘Do your best to present yourself to God, a labourer who does not need to be ashamed, who correctly handles the word of truth’ [2 Tim 2:15.

Leaders in prayer: ‘we will devote ourselves to prayer and the ministry of the word’ [Acts 6:4].

Leaders in being good examples: ‘be examples to the flock’ [1 Pet 5:3].

Leaders who are accountable to God: ‘your leaders … keep watch over you as those who must give an account’ [Heb 13:7,17].

Leaders in looking to Christ for an eternal reward: ‘when the chief shepherd appears you will win the crown of glory’ [1 Pet 5:4].

May God in his kindness and mercy raise up many such ‘leaders’ for his church around the world!

Some resources:

  1. We can well afford to raise the level of Bible reading in our churches. Ministers and lay people need to work on this: See


  1. Helen Thorne and Dr Steve Midgley, Mental Health and Your Church: A Handbook for Biblical Care, The Good Book Companry, 2023, is an excellent resource. There are people with mental illness in all our churches, and many members of our churches have family or friends with mental illness. This is an informative and practical book, designed to improve your church’s ministry to people with mental illness.
  2. Matt Fuller, Reclaiming Masculinity, The Good Book Company, 2023. In a world in which men have a bad press, this excellent book helps men to find godly ways of being men.
  3. I recently reviewed a book by Robyn Whitaker, Even the Devil quotes Scripture, which encouraged its readers to reinterpret Scripture for today. You may find this interesting.


With warmest good wishes and prayers for you amid the many complexities and demands of life and ministry,


  1. Read 1 Cor 4:8-13, 2 Cor 4:7-12, 6:1-10, and 11:22-32, for comparable CVs!.