When we look around at the world, we can easily be overwhelmed by the size of the need for leaders. We think: “We have to train thousands of leaders! How can we set up a ‘production line’ so that we can produce the multitudes of necessary leaders quickly?”
But when Jesus looked at a much greater need, He chose twelve men and concentrated on them for three years.
The Lord Jesus Christ was the greatest Builder of leaders who has ever lived. His vision was huge, yet He focused on a few men – twelve men to change the world, to whom He would commit the monumental task of building His church. With these few men He spent much of His time; into these few men He poured His life.
From this we can learn that when it comes to building leaders, it is better to be deeply committed to building a few great leaders than to be under-committed to building many mediocre ones. Too often, the leaders we turn out are under-built, still entangled in the unresolved struggles of their pasts, not sufficiently grounded in either the Word or the Spirit of God, not sure of who they are or what they’re to do, and not really competent to do it anyway.
It is far better to build a few leaders right, than to build many leaders poorly.
The Mustard Seed Principle
Paul and other biblical leaders pursued leader development the same way. The idea of personally and quickly raising up “thousands of leaders” is not a biblical one. The biblical model is more like this: “the things you have heard me say in the presence of many witnesses entrust to reliable men who will also be qualified to teach others” (2 Tim. 2:2). In other words, build a few good leaders, who in turn will each build a few good leaders, who will each do the same, and so on. In a relatively short time, we will have the multiplication of leaders we need. The difference is: they will be good leaders. This is the “mustard seed” principle: the small seed becomes a large, fruitful tree.
He told them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, which a man took and planted in his field. Though it is the smallest of all your seeds, yet when it grows, it is the largest of garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and perch in its branches.” (Matt. 13:31-32)
We must not allow the overwhelming size and urgency of the great task ahead of us (e.g., “the whole world needs to be reached!”) and an exaggerated sense of our own capacities or importance in this regard to dictate sloppy and insufficient approaches to leadership building. We must do what is necessary to build good leaders.
Gideon defeated the Midianites with only 300 (Jud. 7), but they were the right 300!
Jesus Built a Few Leaders
Jesus concentrated on building only a few leaders. Moreover, He intentionally varied the relationships that He had with them according to their future callings. We will now consider the different groups of emerging leaders who enjoyed various levels or depths of relationship with Jesus, the nature of their relationships, and the results.
Starting with those furthest from Christ, He appointed 70 (Luke 10:1). We could call this group, Jesus’ “extended team” of leaders. They received His basic teaching, they learned from watching His personal example, and they were directly commissioned by Him to their ministries. These 70 disciples accomplished extensive ministry on Jesus’ behalf (Luke 10:1-20).
Then there were the Twelve (Luke 6:13). We might call this group, Jesus’ “core leadership team.” They received special teaching, revelation and disclosure (e.g., Matt. 20:17; Mark 9:35), special experiences (e.g., Mark 14:17ff; Luke 9:1-4, 12-17; Acts 1) and personal communication and fellowship with Jesus (Mark 3:14). This group of twelve (minus Judas, of course) became the top leadership team of the entire church (e.g., Acts 6:2, 4).
Then, within the group of twelve apostles, were the three: Peter, James and John. In addition to all the teaching and developmental experiences that the twelve apostles were given, these three men were Jesus’ intimate friends, His confidants. In a special way, they shared both His joys (e.g., on the Mount of Transfiguration, Matt. 17:1-9) and His struggles (e.g., in the Garden, Mark 14:3-34). As a result of their special preparation, within Jesus’ top leadership team, these three men became the key leaders of the church. Significantly, the three are all named by Paul in Galatians 2:9-10 as being the “pillars” of the Jerusalem church in the early days.
Finally, Jesus had His closest, most intimate relationship with John. As “the disciple whom Jesus loved” (John 13:23; 19:26; 20:2; 21:7, 20) John laid his head on Jesus’ chest (John 13:23)! What was the result of such a close relationship? He enjoyed the longest ministry of all the apostles, and he wrote the most and, possibly, the deepest writings. In a special way, John’s writings reveal the Person of Jesus Christ as God, as well as the nature of the Christian life as union with God. In many ways, John was Jesus’ “successor.”
So, we see that Jesus had one successor, three intimate friends, twelve core leaders and an extended leadership team of 70. He worked with a handful, intensively with a few, and intimately with one.
Now, let’s look at the practical implications of this model for us.
Practical Implications for Builders
- Jesus intentionally varied the relationships that He had with His followers, to develop the various kinds and levels of future leaders He needed. He had an end purpose in mind for them. He knew what they were going to do in the future and adjusted His building strategy and relationships accordingly. One cannot build dozens of successors, only one. One cannot have scores of intimate friends, only a few. One should not have a top leadership team of hundreds, only about a dozen.
- It would be appropriate in our situations for leaders at many levels in an organization to follow this model to some extent.
- The exact numbers are not the point, although they should be fairly close. You might have two or four intimate friends, but you will not have twenty.
- The top levels of future leaders that we pick must be the right ones. There is no room for error regarding their callings in God. This is why Jesus spent so much time in prayer before calling His leaders in the first place (Luke 6:12-13). We must choose slowly and carefully.
- This is not only a developmental model but also an effective long-term leadership structure.
- In Jesus’ model we also see the intensely personal nature of leader development – particularly at the higher levels. Jesus did not have a merely formal, professional relationship with the leaders He was building. He was not a professor; He was a “friend” (John 15:14-15).
- If we focus on a few, inevitably there will be envy and competition from those not chosen. If Jesus experienced this (e.g., Matt. 20:20-21, 24), we will not avoid it. Jesus, of course, dealt with this head-on (Matt. 20:25-28); He did not politely ignore it.
- We must make sure, however, that we do not parade “the chosen few” before the rest – or let them parade themselves. Instead, we should deliberately seek an appropriate measure of hiddenness and obscurity in our dealings with “our few.” This will help them avoid the mixed motives and debilitating pride of elitism.
- The fact that leaders are built a few at a time does not mean we cannot build many leaders quickly. Leaders build leaders; consequently, many leaders can build many leaders.
In summary, leaders are built a few at a time, and our relationships with that few need to vary intentionally.
This was how Jesus built a leadership team that changed the world!