LIVING THE VISION
This is the sixth 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.
Nehemiah 6 begins with Nehemiah’s chief opposition receiving a report that the construction project is nearly completed. The walls of Jerusalem are fully built and security measures around the gates are on the final “punch list” (verse 1).
Sanballat, Tobiah, and Geshem constantly resisted the rebuilding project. They repeatedly attempted – without success – every psychological tactic imaginable to stop the restoration of Jerusalem.
In this chapter, we see three final attempts to derail the project. These three episodes reveal three of the common tactics used by those who seek to stop a change effort.
The first derailing tactic was to distract Nehemiah and the workers from their work. Sanballat and Geshem sent Nehemiah four invitations to meet with them (verse 2, 4). On the surface such a request might seem reasonable. However, when you discover that the meeting place is about 20 miles northwest of Jerusalem, you realize what Nehemiah knew in his heart – this is a set up.
It would take at least one full day to travel 20 miles. To leave Jerusalem for the round trip and meeting would take at least three days. Nehemiah knew that the project was nearly complete. Leaving now would delay the project and possibly create a window of opportunity for Sanballat and his cohorts to sabotage the walls or overtake the gates.
Distraction is one of the work avoidance tactics used by those opposed to change. Getting a leader and those involved in the change to lose their focus, to stop their forward movement, or to let down their vigilance are all expressions of this derailing tactic.
The second derailing effort was to discredit Nehemiah. Sanballat sent a servant to deliver an “open letter” containing unsubstantiated allegations against Nehemiah. The allegations were intended to question Nehemiah’s motives and create a scandal.
Sanballat generates the rumor that Nehemiah and the Jews were preparing to rebel against the King. Sanballat further falsely alleges that Nehemiah wants to become the King (verse 6).
Unsealed, open letters were the quickest way to put something in the public domain. This particular letter was widely read, allowing everyone to hear these untrue statements.
Discrediting the leader is a popular derailing tactic. Today’s accusations are made through email, blog posts, webpages and other personal communications. Discrediting is obviously a “dirty” fighting technique. Lies are told and motives are questioned without the leader having a chance to defend him or herself. The goal is to discredit the leader and derail the change effort by stirring up false scandal and creating a lingering cloud of suspicion.
The final derailing tactic in this story is use of betrayal. Nehemiah and Sanballat have a mutual friend named Shemaiah (verse 10). Sanballat used a naïve Shemaiah as an emissary to gather information about Nehemiah and to carry selective messages to Nehemiah.
Finally, Sanballat uses Shemaiah to tell Nehemiah that there is a plot to kill him. Shemaiah invites Nehemiah to enter the Temple for safety as part of the trap.
Nehemiah refuses to run. He realizes that Shemaiah was seeking to trick him to enter into space reserved for priests. Nehemiah knew that to run in fear would cause him to seem cowardly, and entering the Temple space would create an unnecessary conflict with the priests.
Those trying to undermine visionary leaders will often use mutual friendships as instruments of betrayal. The opponent of change uses a common friend he or she shares with the leader of change because the “friend” can lull the leader into a false sense of security.
Nehemiah’s gift of discernment led him to never take things at face value. He always looked for unintended consequences and for the underlying motives.
All one has to do is look around to see that we have taken these derailing tactics to a whole new level of sophistication. We have mastered the art of distraction, discrediting and betrayal.
Visionary leaders have a difficult balancing act. The challenge is discover how to be vulnerable enough with others to inspire trust while alert enough to discern harmful intentions without becoming cynical and isolated.
Leaders will have these dynamics to confront until God’s “kingdom comes on earth as it is in heaven.”
God grant us discerning hearts.
Dr. Brad Brady is the Assistant to the Bishop for Connectional Ministries.