Leaders with influence stand out. When a teacher has influence, students seek a relationship outside of class and ask advice on topics outside of the curriculum. When a manager has influence, employees pitch in on projects without being asked. When a pastor has influence, Christians find any excuse to join his Sunday morning coffee hour conversations. When an older sibling has influence, the closeness lasts well into adulthood. In each case, we follow influential leaders, not because we have to, but because we want to.
An aspiring leader might start off with this vision for influence, but over time the rookie’s eagerness can fade into a fog of authority and experience. Experience assures the leader that entrenched behaviors can’t be broken, touchy people need more leeway, and elder meetings must be boring. Thus, forfeiting influence, the former idealist starts to rely on his own authority to get results.
Consider the difference between authority and influence in this simple illustration. An authoritative parent might compel his teenager to keep her curfew. But only an influential parent can trust his daughter won’t sneak out when he’s asleep.
Because of God’s grace, influence lies within reach. Look at the fruit of Paul’s ministry in Thessalonica:
You became imitators of us and of the Lord, for you received the word in much affliction, with the joy of the Holy Spirit, so that you became an example to all the believers in Macedonia and in Achaia. For not only has the word of the Lord sounded forth from you in Macedonia and Achaia, but your faith in God has gone forth everywhere, so that we need not say anything. For they themselves report concerning us the kind of reception we had among you, and how you turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God, and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead, Jesus who delivers us from the wrath to come. (1 Thess 1:6-10)
Paul’s message was the same as ours: Turn from idols to serve God, and trust in his resurrected and ascended Son for deliverance.
But Paul’s influence was extraordinary. The Thessalonians saw the Lord in Paul (and Silvanus and Timothy) and longed to imitate him (1 Thess 1:6). Like him, they persevered through affliction and became examples to others (1 Thess 1:6-7). They promoted Paul’s message in their neighborhoods, and reports of their vibrant belief spread faster than election results (1 Thess 1:8). They didn’t have to claim Paul as their hero; the fact was obvious to anyone who knew them (1 Thess 1:9).
This is deep impact. How did he do it?
How to Lead with Influence
Paul’s recipe was simple. It had two primary ingredients: hope and humility.
Paul divulges these not-so-secret keys to influential ministry in chapters 2 and 3 of his letter.
Humility means caring more about others than about yourself. It means being honest about your need for grace. It means refusing to trample others on the way to your own success or personal fulfillment. Here is Paul’s humility on display:
- “Our appeal does not spring from error or impurity or any attempt to deceive” (1 Thess 2:3).
- “We never came with words of flattery . . . nor with a pretext for greed” (1 Thess 2:5).
- “Nor did we seek glory from people . . . though we could have made demands as apostles of Christ” (1 Thess 2:6).
- “We were gentle among you” (1 Thess 2:7).
- “We were ready to share with you not only the gospel of God, but also our own selves” (1 Thess 2:8).
- “We worked night and day, that we might not be a burden to any of you” (1 Thess 2:9).
Hope means believing God is at work through Christ, so anything can change for the better. It means approaching others’ sin with patience rather than anger and refusing to complain about everything that’s wrong with the world, instead thanking God for what’s still right. It means being honest about difficult things while remaining confident God will use them for good. Paul’s hope resounds:
- “We also thank God constantly for this . . . you received the word of God . . . you accepted it” (1 Thess 2:13).
- “The word of God is at work in you” (1 Thess 2:13).
- “With great desire to see you face to face” (1 Thess 2:17).
- “You are our glory and joy” (1 Thess 2:20).
- “We have been comforted about you through your faith” (1 Thess 3:7).
- “For now we live, if you are standing fast in the Lord” (1 Thess 3:8).
- “May the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all . . . so that he may establish your hearts blameless in holiness” (1 Thess 3:12-13).
Folding humility and hope into the recipe of leadership doesn’t require extraordinary intelligence. The trick, however, is to seek both character traits at the same time. Leaders who dole out both ingredients in liberal portions find their influence sweetening relationships wherever they go.
But remember that Paul is not the master chef. He merely guzzled grace from the fountain of life. The Lord’s life-giving wisdom gushed from him like ambrosia from Olympus, and desperate, mortal sinners kept coming back for more.
Paul spoke of Jesus, who embodied humility when he, who was God, brought himself low for our sake. And Jesus epitomized hope when he trusted his Father’s plan to make sinners righteous through death and resurrection. In the gospel, we see one who has all authority in heaven and on earth, but who uses it to serve others and so change the world.