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This blog post is Part 5 of a series entitled, "(re)born to Lead" by Pastor Jeffrey Dean Smith of Donelson First in Nashville, TN. 

Message Date: November 6, 2022

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In Part 4 of the (re)born to Lead series, we talked about the first 2 attributes to living the unthinkable life:

A (re)born New Testament leader is:

1. Willing to surrender

2. Loyal

The first two words, surrender and loyal, are critically important as we move forward exploring Godly attributes of a (re)born New Testament leader. I need you to remember these two words because these words are the foundation for what makes the life of a (re)born New Testament leader Christ-centered rather than self.  

Here’s the reality:  

Leadership without living surrendered + loyal to Jesus Christ is always self-fulfilling.  

As we move forward in this series, we have to keep this in mind – keep this ever before us.  

Living both surrendered and loyal to Jesus Christ is what distinctly separates leaders from Godly leaders.  

So, let’s continue discussing more attributes of a (re)born New Testament leader.  

A (re)born New Testament leader is:

1. Willing to surrender

2. Loyal

3. Ambitious 

Is it a good thing or a bad thing to be ambitious?  

This can be a tricky one because, when speaking of ambition, one typically does not associate such a word with spiritual leadership. Instead, ambition is often thought of in light of self-motivation or personal accomplishments. Which in and of itself, isn’t necessarily wrong.  

I want you to think about ambition as it relates to your ability to be a reborn New Testament leader. Additionally, I want you to also think about ambition as it relates to our role as the Church.  

Do you see yourself as a leader of the Church? Do you see yourself as a leader of this church, Donelson First? As a Christ follower, this is exactly who you are. You are both a leader of the Church and of Donelson First.  

The world is looking to us. Of greater importance, I am confident that as we move forward through the timeline of life on this earth, our world is going to look to us more and more for answers, hope, for reason amidst life’s uncertainties, disappointments, sicknesses, and death. 

Our ambition as (re)born leaders should be, must be, to offer hope for the hopeless, love to the unloved, and life to those facing death.  

 Ambition (Latin) = a campaign for promotion  

When I see my position of influence as a campaign to promote Jesus, then my selfish ambitions fade away.  

Shakespeare wrote in Henry VIII:  

"I charge thee, fling away from ambitions, By that sin fell the angels; how can a man then, The image of his maker, hope to profit by it?"

Without an end goal to bring glory to God, ambition can be dangerous if it is not properly managed. And actually...  

Ambition, if not kept in check, can actually lead the leader astray.  

Meaning, as a leader, if your ambition is one of personal aspirations, such a drive can get out of control quickly and can actually control you! Look at this dichotomy found in 2 passages in Scripture over the pursuit of ambition:  

1 Timothy 3:1: Whoever aspires to be an overseer desires a noble task.  

Aspires (Greek) = ambitious pursuit  

Paul wrote these words. He says here that it is a noble task to be ambitious.  

However, look at what Jeremiah offers his servant Baruch on the matter:  

Jeremiah 45:5: Should you then seek great things for yourself? Do not seek them.

This is why we must continue to look at the entirety of Scripture when in pursuit of guidance and wisdom, rather than merely going to one passage on one particular subject or issue.  

 Either of these verses in and of themselves obviously presents a contrasting statement about ambition. However, when you consider Godly leadership through the lens of the plurality of these two verses, you see that there is a healthy tension that helps us define ambition as a (re)born New Testament leader.  

The key to managing this tension: God’s glory.   

When my ambition is self-seeking, I will never bring God glory – never. When my ambition is coupled with a desire to bring God glory - pride, arrogance, and a self-serving mantra never win.  

You know, typically when you hear someone speak about leadership, it is often in reference to an individual attaining his/her highest potential.  

As an example, I remember growing up in Little Rock, we had a neighbor, Bob Quillen, who sold Kirby vacuums. One summer, Mr. Quillen tried to recruit me to sell vacuums with him. I went around with him for several weeks watching as Mr. Quillen amazed house by house as he demonstrated what he said was the “suckiest vacuum” on the market! He was a great salesman. He was one of the first people to help me understand the idea of goal setting and striving to reach a personal best in a particular arena - - in this case, selling vacuums.  

He told me that every year, he set an ambitious goal to increase his sales. And it seemed that he did...year after year.

I went to elementary and middle school with his son Brad. And I remember Brad’s parents always going on exotic vacations. These vacations were rewarded to Mr. Quillen for his accomplishments in selling vacuums. I guess you could say that attaining these annual goals of selling the “suckiest vacuum on the market” resulted in a personal best performance each year for Mr. Quillen as he continually reached his highest potential.  

I guess you could also then say that had Mr. Quillen NOT attained a personal goal within a given year that particular year of selling vacuums would have then just… “sucked?!”  

There is nothing wrong with one setting a goal, working to achieve such a goal, and one reaching their highest potential, whether it be one selling vacuums, dieting, financial management, or the 50,000 runners who right now in Manhattan ambitiously chose to run the NY City Marathon. 

Ambition as a (re)born New Testament leader is different. It isn’t about one’s gain. It’s about God’s glory. When Paul refers to an ambitious pursuit being a noble task, one needs to understand these words in the context of what was happening in the times in which he wrote these words to Timothy.  

Look at his words again 1 Timothy 3:1: Whoever aspires to be an overseer desire a noble task.  

Paul is speaking specifically here about one aspiring to be a pastor. In Paul’s day, choosing to be in the ministry was a monumental and challenging expedition. Such a position was not one of fame or popularity! Instead, this was an extremely dangerous career. It was a worrisome responsibility. And the reward for leading the church during this time often resulted in rejection, contempt, and even death for (re)born New Testament leaders. In short, this was not a role of ambition for one’s personal glory.  

So Paul calls such an ambition a noble task.  

And, again, in this second verse, Jeremiah 45:5, we find the prophet Jeremiah boldly reminding his servant Baruch of the dangers of seeking personal acclaim and success:  

Jeremiah 45:5: Should you then seek great things for yourself? Do not seek them.  

This can be a great challenge for us corporately as a church. For those of you who have just recently started joining us, let me give you a quick recap of the last 30 months. In May 2019, I was given the distinct pleasure and privilege of becoming only the fifth Pastor to Pastor here at the light on the hill at Donelson First. 

Shortly after arriving, I realized that we have some big challenges here at Donelson First. We have an older building which means we have an ongoing responsibility to celebrate the legacy of this landmark church in Music City as we work to modernize our facilities to meet the needs of this, and future, generations. Additionally, I realized that many people were going out the back door but not many people were coming in the front door. Meaning through the years the membership had dropped from 1100 to less than 100.  

I spent the first summer here praying that the Lord would give me clarity and vision so that we could be best positioned to be a church who once again sees people coming through the front door and simply helps these people catch the vision of who we are becoming at Donelson First. In doing so I believe such people once coming to the front door will stay, get involved, grow, choose to serve, and not keep moving out the back door as close to 1000 people have over the last 15 years here at Donelson First.  

So we went to work. We began to renovate this facility, develop new ministries, make new hires, experiment with new opportunities, kickstart growth, focus on outreach, launch Life Groups + Home Groups for both on and off-campus studies, enhance worship, and much, much more. And we are still working.  

Through this process, I realized that not everyone was on board with the vision the Lord had given me, which is understandable. Change is difficult.  

I understand that from time to time, people desire, and even need, to express their opinions and frustrations. I also understand, right or wrong, that as a pastor, I am often seen as the quickest place to remedy one’s need to be vocal about what is not liked.

Godly ambition is not always popular, favored, or even comfortable.  

But make no mistake to this as well... and, this is the point of the story I’m telling:  

We will not thrive as a Christ-centered, Bible-preaching, God-honoring church if selfish ambition is what leads the way. An ambition that is squarely positioned on God’s glory and the prosperity of His Church will always impact the culture for the good.  

Church, this is why I continually pray for, and preach, about unity. Our enemy Satan is so good at what he does. He wants to use any open door opportunity he can find to slither his way in, to sow seeds of disunity, and ultimately reap a harvest of destruction for us individually and for the Church corporately. I am confident one way Satan can be extremely successful at this is in the arena of selfish ambition. Because... Selfish ambition always reaps destruction.   

If my ambition is not aligned with the heart of God, I will not truly be effective as a (re)born New Testament leader. If our ambition as the Church is not aligned with the heart of God, the Church will not be fully effective.

In Jeremiah 45:5, Jeremiah understood this. He understood that selfish ambition always leads to destruction. Jeremiah was not condemning all ambition as wrong. But he was addressing selfish priorities and motivations that make ambition wrong. This is why we see the use of two critically important words for us as (re)born leaders and for us as the Church of Jesus Christ.  

Look at these words again in Jeremiah 45:5: Should you then seek great things for yourself? Do not seek them.  

Do you see the two words? It’s the words: “...for yourself.”   

Desiring to succeed and excel, to find success and satisfaction in my endeavors, is not a sin. The motivation behind my ambition is what determines whether my pursuits are God-honoring or self-fulfilling.  

A (re)born New Testament leader is:

1. Willing to surrender.

2. Loyal.

3. Ambitious.

 4. A Servant.

One of the most impactful ways in which I can be a leader is to serve others.   The word “love” appears in the NIV 361 times. The word “serve” or “servant” appears in the NIV 1,207 times.  

The leadership attribute of being a servant appears approximately 3 times more in the Bible than does the idea of “loving.” Obviously, as a (re)born leader, God wants us to get this!  

Let’s look at a passage in Mark 10 where Jesus spoke with His disciples about ambition: Mark 10:35-44  

There is no doubt about it that James and John were ambitious in such a request to sit at the left & right of Jesus in Heaven! However, their ambition was not for God’s glory. Rather, it was for self.  

Jesus was a revolutionary. Not in the guerrilla warfare sense. But absolutely as it relates to the attributes of leadership. Jesus taught exactly this:

As a leader, I lead best when I serve others.

To the world, the idea of serving equates to weakness! Few people understood in the time of Jesus while on Earth, and even to this day the idea of true servanthood. To most, serving is nothing more than being seen as “low” in the order of prestige and honor, and power.  

To Jesus, a servant = greatness  

Mark 10:42-43  

The Gentile rulers salivated over being in charge. They loved power. But... 

A true leader is called to something greater that, too, is something less. This is the great paradox of the call of a (re)born leader – to serve.  

I have worked with so many people through the years, in both my ministry here at Donelson First and in my previous ministry. I have worked with so many talented people. And I can say this:

What separates those who are talented from those who become great leaders… A willingness to serve well + die to pride.  

I have worked with people with much less talent who become much greater leaders because they choose to serve well and die to pride

Serving is not a weak move. Serving is not surrendering authority.  

Jesus went to the Cross fully surrendered and fully serving. But Jesus did not go to the Cross surrendering His authority. Jesus was fully in control and lead well on the Cross even until His very last breath.  

You know, the 2 verses we looked at earlier, Paul speaking to Timothy and Jeremiah speaking to his servant, Baruch…what is interesting about each of these passages is that we have 2 leaders boldly empowering those under their leadership. Did Timothy and Baruch enjoy and welcome such leadership? I don’t fully know. But I do see that both Paul and Jeremiah understood the importance of leading well and not being afraid to lead well.

What a great reminder for each of us as leaders. Lead! Lead well! I know that there are many under my leadership here at DF – our Ministry Team, deacons, LG + HG leaders, and each of you. I know that I have an obligation, not to see that each of you like me. Instead, I have an obligation to lead well regardless of whether you like me!  

The same is true for so many of you here today as grandparents, parents, business owners, managers, and employers - - let me remind you:

Lead well. Don’t be afraid to lead well. We need New Testament Christian leaders willing to lead well, more so than we need New Testament Christian leaders concerned about being popular and liked. When Jesus speaks of serving others, He is helping us understand exactly this:

No one is above serving, not even the Son of Man.  

Church, I remind you:

Let’s be a church who serves others well. Let’s also be a Church who places serving the Lord before ourselves.  

The word servant is a translation of the Greek word:

doulos Servant (Greek) = slave  

Because the word slave carries such a negative connotation, we often choose the word servant instead. However, a servant does not capture the real meaning of doulos.  

Among the Roman population, to be a doulos would have meant to “be one’s slave.”  

So, when Jesus states in Mark 10 that “...whoever wants to be first must be a slave,” this is a concept that would have been unthinkable to a Roman citizen. During the time of Jesus and the first-century church, as much as one-third of the Roman population were slaves, and another third had been slaves earlier in life. A free citizen prided himself in his freedom and would never identify himself as a doulos, or slave to anyone.  

In Roman times, the term slave could refer to someone who voluntarily served others. But it almost always referred to one who was held in a permanent position of servitude. Under Roman law, a doulos was considered the owner’s personal property. Slaves essentially had no rights and could even be killed for little to no reason by their owners. Jesus states that we are to be servants, we are to be slaves - - we are to die to all rights and choose to be (re)born leaders who give total allegiance to God, even to the point of death.  

Additionally, did you notice what Jesus said He came to give in Verse 45:

Mark 10:45 “to give His life as a ransom!”  

Ransom (Hebrew) = redemption or release  

This is the same Hebrew word we see when we read in the Old Testament that God called Moses to go and free His people, the nation of Israel, from Egyptian captivity. Moses was used as a great leader to “free people” - - to help give hurting people “a release.”  

This is the same word we see Jesus use as the greatest leader ever who has come as a ransom.  

Moses and Jesus, as servants, were used by God to give those broken and in bondage “a release!”  

So, if Jesus came to offer people “a release” from their hurt, and if I, as a (re)born leader can do even greater things than did He, then this reality is for you and me today as (re)born leaders:  

When I lead by serving others, I offer people a release.  

We know that Moses is a hero of the Bible. He is one of the greatest leaders to have ever walked the planet. He led well, though not perfectly, and was used greatly by God as a leader in the Old Testament. However, interestingly, the Bible never calls Moses a leader.  

But, over and again, the Bible does describe Moses as what?  

1 Chronicles 6:49: But Aaron and his descendants were the ones who presented offerings on the altar of burnt offering and on the altar of incense in connection with all that was done in the Most Holy Place, making atonement for Israel, in accordance with all that Moses the servant of God had commanded.  

In 2 Chronicles 24:9, Nehemiah 10:29, Daniel 9:11 and in... Hebrews 3:5: Moses was faithful as a servant in all God’s house, bearing witness to what would be spoken by God in the future. This great leader of the Bible is never called a leader. Instead, he is known as the “servant of God.”  

Of all that I can aspire to do and be, and of all the labels I hope with which I can be remembered, I cannot imagine one greater than the one that both Moses and Jesus received. And, such a label is one for which we each should aspire.  

Will you make this your prayer?

As a (re)born leader, I aspire to be known as a servant who offers release to the world.

I offer a final thought about serving. I take you back to Mark 10 and a critical statement Jesus makes to James and John.

Mark 10:37-39  

What an elementary and weak perspective these 2 disciples have of the ultimate cost of serving.   

Jesus responds and clearly articulates with sincere honesty the cost of the leader who chooses to serve.  

Jesus is saying: To fully inherit the kingdom of God, I must be willing to follow Him all the way.   

This is the heart of one surrendered - willing to go where Jesus goes! Where did Jesus go? He died. Jesus knew in fact that these disciples would drink the cup and know the baptism. James will one day be executed. John will spend the rest of his days in isolated confinement.  

Jesus is highlighting this final thought for us today:

Leading is suffering. As a (re)born New Testament leader, to truly serve means to fully suffer.  

One does not come without the other.         


Jeffrey Dean Smith is a husband, father to Bailey & Brynnan, author, and the Senior Pastor at Donelson First in Nashville, TN. If you are in Music City, meet Jeffrey and enjoy iced tea on the front lawn each Sunday at 10:30a.