Leading with zeal

Mar 18, 2015 by

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I sat on the back porch, sinking into the lawn chair with a sense of triumph. I had just installed what was sure to be the ultimate squirrel-proof bird feeder. After spending a small fortune on birdseed, only to see it go to the squirrels, I knew something needed to be done. With a little planning, I created my fortified masterpiece.

Soon after I sat down, the squirrels — who had been watching me work all morning — scampered to the base of the feeder and looked up. I smiled as I sensed their frustration. Over the next several hours I checked back on the feeder. The squirrels were still there. Sometimes they were on the ground trying to climb up. Sometimes they were on a nearby tree staring at the feeder. But the birdseed alluded them. Later that evening I peeked out the window for one last chance to gloat, only to find two squirrels sitting on top of my feeder, munching away on the last remnants of birdseed. It took them all day, but they finally figured out how to break into my bird-feeding fortress.

When the Bible uses the word “zeal,” I think of those squirrels. They had a single-minded determination. Nothing distracted them. Nothing took them off focus. They were determined, above all things, to get to that birdseed.

The Apostle Paul tells Christians, “Do not be slothful in zeal” (Rom. 12:11). He told the Galatians, “Let us not grow weary in doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up” (Gal. 6:9). And Paul certainly practiced what he preached, continuing to live for Christ despite “weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions and calamities” (2 Cor. 12:10). Paul taught believers to never give up, to constantly battle sin, to continually seek to live for God’s glory, no matter the circumstances.

While being zealous for the Lord is something all believers are called to do, God has especially called Christian leaders to be zealous. In Rom. 12:8, Paul mentions a few different spiritual gifts, calling upon each gift recipient to use their gifts effectively. The person who has the gift of giving should do so with generosity; the one with the gift of mercy should exercise that gift with a spirit of cheerfulness. But notice what Paul says about the person who has the gift of leadership. They are to exercise that gift with zeal.

J.C. Ryle defined zeal this way: “Zeal is a burning desire to please God, to do His will, and to advance His glory in the world in every possible way. A zealous man is preeminently a man of one thing.”

Ryle continues with his description:

A zealous man . . . sees only one thing, cares about one thing, lives for one thing, swallowed up in one thing, and that one thing is to please God. Whether he lives or dies, has health or sickness, whether he is rich or poor, pleases people or gives offense, whether he is thought wise or foolish, gets the blame or the praise, whether he receives honor or is given shame, He burns for one thing and that one thing is to please God.

As a pastor, this description humbled me. I don’t like it when I get unfairly blamed. I absolutely hate it when people think I am foolish or shameful just because they disagree with aspects of my ministry. The criticisms and complaints sometimes never seem to end. Recent studies suggest that 2,000 pastors leave the ministry every month, never to return. While some of these are for understandable reasons (retirement, sin issues, etc.), much of this is because of the pressure of ministry. This isn’t just an issue for pastors, either. I recently talked to a dear brother who had formerly served in a volunteer leadership position at his church. When I asked him if he was going to eventually go back to that role he said, “Oh no, never. I can’t handle the criticism!”

Then there are financial pressures, family problems, parenting issues and health concerns. Our focus for Christ is often quite good when things are going well, but cancer or the death of a loved one is quite effective at throwing off our gaze.

What’s the cure for this problem? How can leaders in the church overcome all these concerns and distractions, many of which are quite serious? The answer is be zealous, particularly being zealous for the right thing.

If a pastor is zealous about his legacy, or his reputation, or even his effectiveness — he is being zealous for the wrong thing. But if we are zealous for Christ’s glory and truth, we take the focus off ourselves and put it on the only place where it belongs. A pastor, or any volunteer in the church, who is zealous for God’s glory isn’t fazed by praise or criticism, compliments or accusations. While pastors may never seek to offend anyone, they will not refrain from communicating an offensive Gospel because their only true care is God’s glory. No matter how bad the cancer, or how serious the financial crisis, all of that is secondary to a pastor’s one true aim of seeing God magnified. It is the zealous pastor’s burning desire.

Are you part of your church’s leadership team? Then lead with zeal. Lead with a burning desire to see Christ exalted. Lead with a passion to have the Gospel seen, heard and understood.

Josh Gelatt is the senior pastor of Grace Chapel Church in West Liberty, Ohio. He blogs at joshgelatt.com, where this first appeared.

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