Nehemiah: Leaders mobilize people

12/29/2012

LIVING THE VISION
BRAD BRADY

This is the third in a series of articles about the book of Nehemiah. Bishop King is inviting all South Georgia United Methodists to join him in studying this book.

Reading Nehemiah 3 feels as though we have entered the footnote zone. Footnotes are something important the writer wants you to know, but footnotes are not known as the most invigorating reading. Reading this chapter calls forth the same low level of warm-fuzzy feelings you experience when reading the genealogy of Jesus in Matthew.  It is important information, but not very exciting.

So, what does Nehemiah want us to know? He wants us to know who the “worker bees” were in rebuilding the walls.

Chapter 3 is a listing of the workers who restored the walls and gates of Jerusalem. With a noted exception in verse 5, it sounds as though everyone joined in the work. Instead of saying, “everyone worked on the walls,” Nehemiah gives credit by name to all those who labored over the various sections of the work.

While there are several themes that emerge worthy of reflection, the one that captures my attention is the sharp contrast between the days before Nehemiah’s visit and these days of rebuilding. That everyone joined in the work highlights the difference leadership can make to a grim situation.

For years, the people of Jerusalem were immobilized by a victim mentality. All the people listed in Nehemiah 3 were native to the area, and most lived right around the area of the wall or gate that they ended up repairing. The destruction of the city had shattered their self-esteem and disempowered them.  

I suppose they would have settled on living among the ruins indefinitely. I can hear their well-established song of lament telling how the victors overpowered them and how they are forsaken in their present state of ruin.

Yet, in Nehemiah 3 we see “all hands on deck” working cheerfully and tirelessly to repair everything. What happened to free the victims from their powerlessness?

Two major things happened.  First, Nehemiah reconnects the people of Jerusalem with God’s vision for the Holy City. He rides around the city scouting the extent of the damage. Residents of the area accompanied him to different sections of the walls. He hears about the glory days, he empathizes with them in their pain over the destruction and he stirs up within the people a holy discontentment for the current reality.  

When Nehemiah invites people to “rebuild the wall of Jerusalem, so that we may no longer suffer disgrace,” (2:17) he casts a vision of a restoration. This is a vision of restoration for the city and for its inhabitants.

This is another example to reinforce what we read in Proverbs 29:18, “Without a vision the people perish.” The people of Jerusalem lived without a vision and were perishing. Nehemiah offered the words around which they could all rally. God’s vision is the antidote for holy discontentment.

Chapter 3 also shows another key aspect of leadership as defined by Ronald Heifetz who says, “Leadership is the ability to mobilize people to face tough challenges and thrive.” 

The historical list of every family grouping that worked on the walls shows how effectively Nehemiah mobilized the people. In fact, nowhere in this chapter do we even read Nehemiah’s name. This is all about the people deciding to shake off their victim status, to use the resources they already had in their hands, and to combine their energies for the common good.

It saddens me to hear members of local churches express sentiments of victimization and powerlessness. Most often, the resources needed to “restore their walls” are within their grasp.  Yet, they are immobilized.  They have a well-developed song of lament they will repeat anytime someone asks about their plight. These words have come to explain why things are as they are and how they shall remain that way until they die.

Leadership is needed to reconnect people to God’s vision for their church to be a vital outpost of mission in their community. Whence comes this leadership?

It is worth noting that Nehemiah was an outsider. He was family—but not a resident. He enters the picture as an outsider who shows burden for their ruin, who reconnects them to God’s vision, and who invites them to rise up. By the time we get to Chapter 3, we see almost everyone buying in to the vision and mobilized for restoration.

Who is the outsider to your congregation who is in solidarity with you, but who is unwilling to sing the well-worn song of powerlessness and victimization?  It might be worth listening to him or her.  She or he may be God’s emissary to you—who, just like Nehemiah, can teach you a new song.

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Dr. Brad Brady is the Assistant to the Bishop for Connectional Ministries.