What is a Leader?

If you want to find courageous examples of leadership, read the Bible. Individuals such as Abraham, Joseph, Moses, Esther, David, Daniel, Nehemiah, Ruth, Peter, Paul, Timothy, Barnabas, and of course, Jesus leap off the page.

A quick glance reveals that, on one hand, they were all so different. They had diverse personalities, temperaments, gifts, training, and challenges. This demonstrates that there is no one leadership type. On the other hand, they held some attributes in common.


Leaders are, first of all, men and women of vision. They believe that, by God’s grace, the impossible or at least the improbable can become possible.

To put it another way, leaders are people of faith. They believe God is at work in the world, and they trust Him to fulfill His promises.

Abraham left the security of home, family, and friends to search for the promised land, a land of dreams. Moses trusted God to set his unarmed, weak, helpless people free from the most powerful nations on earth. Joseph repeatedly made the best of lousy situations. Do any of these men speak of you?

Some chapter leaders become completely discouraged by circumstances. Imagine yourself in the following situation….

Last year’s Exec resigned in disgust halfway through the year. Of the 15 students left in your chapter: eight are wide-eyed, naive freshmen still shaky in their faith; one is the campus nerd even a mother could find difficult to love; two are fiery charismatics bent on “slaying in the spirit” anyone they meet; and one is the aloof senior going steady with her computer.

The local IVCF staff has 10 campuses to cover, so she can only visit your school once every other month. The faculty advisor was just elected chairman of his church’s board of elders, so he will be too busy to help out on campus. The administration feels uneasy about “religious groups” and has devised a red tape obstacle course to hinder expansion.

Is there any hope for this chapter? Ask Abraham, Moses, or Joseph.

Some of the leaders in Scripture had a methodical, expansive vision. Paul, for example, believed that God had called him to spread the Gospel throughout the entire Roman empire. His method for doing this was to plant churches in every major city of the empire. The churches would in turn evangelize people in their immediate vicinity.

Several IVCF chapters model this kind of vision. For example, the chapter at Fresno State has a five-year goal of planting an evangelizing small group on each floor of every dorm on their campus. In addition, they want to establish an evangelizing fellowship group within each academic department. The IVCF group at Stanford wants to make personal contact with every entering freshman to share the Gospel and invite them to join their chapter.

Other leaders in Scripture had a vision more focused on individual people. Barnabas is one good example of this. His name meant “son of encouragement.” Talk about an optimistic, hopeful person — Barnabas was a frog kisser. God used him to touch people who were losers and transform them into princes.

In Acts 11, Barnabas was the fellow who sought out Paul of Tarsus, brought him to Antioch, and included him in his ministry. Because of Paul’s reputation, the folks in Jerusalem would not touch him with a 10-foot pole.

Later in Acts 15, Paul and Barnabas had a heated argument over another loser, John Mark. Barnabas wanted to take Mark along on their journeys, but Paul said no deal. Mark had already failed on a previous trip by getting cold feet and running home to mom. So Paul and Barnabas agreed to disagree; Paul took Silas, and Barnabas took Mark.

Testimonies to Barnabas’ vision for Mark appear in the Gospel of Mark, as well as in Paul’s comment to Timothy in later years, “Get Mark and bring him with you because he is helpful to me in my ministry.” (2 Tim. 4:11)

Years ago, Dave, a student leader at UCLA, made a practice of selecting one teachable freshman and praying, discipling, and encouraging that person for the whole year. None of these freshmen looked promising at the time, but they all ended up as leaders of the chapter by their senior years. Today, one is an IVCF staff worker, one is chairman of his church, and one is a Christian marriage and family counselor.


A second characteristic of Biblical leaders is that they take initiative and motivate others to take action with them.

When Nehemiah heard that Jerusalem had been destroyed, he first prayed and then asked the king for permission to travel to Jerusalem and rebuild the city wall. Upon arriving in the city, he called the city officials together and planned the construction project. Nehemiah then persuaded all of the people to join him in rebuilding.

When Obadiah learned that Queen Jezebel was going to kill 100 prophets, he took the initiative to hide them in caves and provide them with food. (1 Kings 18)

Upon hearing of a famine in Jerusalem, Paul organized an offering and convinced Gentile Christians to contribute.

Leaders are men and women of action who get things done. They don’t wait to be called upon. You will find numerous situations of confusion, apathy, and conflict where you can step in and lead the way out.

For example, Jannett, one of five student leaders at Fresno City College, observed three or four students straggle in after the weekly meeting started and quietly sit in the back row. When the meeting was over, they ducked out the back door before anyone could meet them. Jannett knew that some of them desperately wanted Christian friends, but were just too shy to take initiative.

The student leaders discussed this problem together and decided that someone should wait outside the meeting room for the first half-hour. This person could greet newcomers, make them feel welcome, and get their names and addresses.

Jannett volunteered for the job. As a foreign student from the Philippines, she understood the new students’ dilemma. People recognized her ability to make strangers feel welcome. By the end of the semester, the three or four new students were part of the faithful core.

Through one woman’s initiative, these students made new friends and found a home. Jannett’s efforts required eyes to see the needs on her campus, courage to take initiative, willingness to use her gift of hospitality to influence her fellow students, and sacrifice of time with her own Christian friends.


A third characteristic of leaders in Scripture is that they were passionate. That doesn’t mean that David was the Tom Selleck of yesteryear or Daniel the heart throb of the Babylonian court. Rather, they were passionate in giving themselves fully to their calling. They carried out their responsibilities with enthusiastic intensity. They threw themselves into their ministry and were willing to risk everything, including their very lives.

Paul is a great example. Of his experience, he said, “Five times I received from the Jews the forth lashes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was stoned, three times I was shipwrecked, I spent a night and a day in the open seas. I have been constantly on the move. I have been in danger from rivers, in danger from bandits, in danger from my own countrymen, in danger from Gentiles, in danger in the city, in danger in the country, in danger at sea and in danger from false brothers.”

“I have labored and toiled and have often gone without sleep; I have known hunger and thirst and have often gone without food; I have been cold and naked. Besides everything else I face the daily pressure of my concern for all the churches. Who is weak and I do not feel weak? Who is led into sin, and I do not inwardly burn?” he continues. (2 Cor. 11:24-29)

Our world of 8-to-5 jobs and Sunday worship from 11 to 12 a.m. makes someone like the apostle Paul very difficult to understand. Were he alive today, many people might consider him neurotic. Yet Paul, and other leaders in Scripture, as well as Christian leaders throughout history, all showed a similar zeal. Their ministry was never just a job, but a calling. In one sense they were always on duty.

What fueled their burning passion? The Lord Jesus. They were in love with the most significant being in all the universe. Jesus deserved nothing but the best. Biblical leaders freely gave their all because He first gave His all for them.

The most influential student leaders I have observed on campus are first of all lovers of God. They take time to nurture their relationship with Him. Secondly, ministry on campus is a priority for them.

A couple of examples….In order to serve as chapter president of an IVCF Southern California group, Tom was prepared to sacrifice a full grade point and take a bit longer to get through school. For some of you, that may not seem like much of a sacrifice. For Tom, a straight “A” student who later went on to get a Ph.D., the sacrifice was significant.

Another example comes from students on the Exec at Stanford who plan to give 40 hours per week to their responsibilities. The point is not to suggest that we all flunk out for Jesus, but that Biblical leaders passionately give their all in response to their love for God.


Leaders in Scripture consistently displayed humility.

When Paul introduced himself to his readers, he often called himself a servant. David said, “The Lord is my Shepherd,” and in so doing identified himself as a sheep. A sheep is not the most glamorous animal he could have chosen. Nehemiah prayed, “O Lord, God of heaven, the great and awesome God…let your ears be attentive and your eyes open to hear the prayer your servant is praying.” (Neh. 1:5-6)

None of these three men lacked ego strength, yet they were still humble. They were humble because they saw themselves as men under God’s authority sent to carry out His will. They were servants before anything else.

The great temptation of leadership is that the position, or the power, or the prestige will go to the leader’s head. As a result, the leader becomes arrogant and prideful. Senator Mark Hatfield calls this temptation the “vulnerability of leadership.” Examples from Scripture as well as our own national history attest to these dangers.

In an InterVarsity chapter, the temptations are just as real. When everyone is introduced at the first large group meeting, the Exec members will have a title attached to their name, while everyone else will just be “Joe Christian.” When the entire group succeeds, the Exec usually receives the compliment. (The flip side is that when someone fails, the Exec may also get the blame.) Also, because they make plans, the student leadership committee will have access to privileged information. Having a secret can make a person feel important.

None of these experiences are wrong and most are unavoidable. Nevertheless, they can tempt student leaders to regard themselves more highly than they should.

The road to humility (and the greatest antidote to arrogance) is prayer. In prayer, we come face to face with Nehemiah’s “great and awesome God.” We see ourselves in true perspective, as sinners in need of God’s grace. We also see that the work to which the IVCF leaders are called is really an impossible mission without the ministry of the Holy Spirit.

Leaders cannot convert people. They cannot cause others to grow in their faith. While they can assist, the senior partner in the venture must always be God Himself.


Faithfulness is a characteristic that people recognize after the responsibility has been completed. Faithful people do their jobs. Faithful people have stick-to-it-iveness. All of the great leaders in Scripture hung on to the cuff of the intruder like a junkyard dog. They persevered to the end. They were men and women who kept their word and fulfilled their obligations.

The responsibilities student leaders face on campus take time to accomplish. Paul compared ministry to farming (1 Cor. 3:6) or child-rearing (1 Thess. 2:7ff), both long-term efforts. In these two professions, rewards are only given to those who persevere. Those who quit early face not only the shame of failure, but also the loss of the crop or child as well.

Secondly, leaders must often face conflict. Some students will not agree with the Exec committee’s plans, while others will have their feelings hurt. Communication may break down between various people. Other demands will impinge upon the leader’s time. In each case, you may be tempted to give up, but you will only find the true road to wholeness, peace, and resolution through your faithfulness.