WAKE FOREST – “Brother Jack” was my pastoral hero, yet I heard him preach no more than 20 times. I met him after he retired from decades of ministry. He had no obligation to do so, but he invested in me as a young “preacher boy.” Every major decision I made in ministry I made at his feet until he passed away several years ago.
There is so much that made him a leader in my life. Availability. Wisdom. Experience. Knowledge. Commitment. Prayerfulness. Faith. Perseverance. Discipline. Ability. Humor. Respect. Love. This list could go on and on, but what I recall most about Brother Jack might surprise you. I remember what he said and what he did not say.
Brother Jack liked to go out to eat when we met. I did, too, but not because I wanted a meal. More than that, I wanted to watch a saintly older man interact with people. Jack had a unique ability to connect with anybody, and I knew we would have several conversations during our outing. People in a waiting line, the server at the table, the employee behind the cash register, guests at the next table – all were potential conversation partners with Brother Jack. He not only naturally engaged them in dialogue, but he also somehow worked conversations into a word about God and His goodness.
I watched it many times. I can hear it now, in fact.
“How are you doing today?” Brother Jack would ask. In response to the same question politely returned, he would say something like, “Doing well for a sawed-off, bald-headed Baptist preacher. God’s been good to me.” His sweet demeanor and gentle voice almost dared even the most ardent atheist not to want to talk more. It was not uncommon that we quickly knew another person’s spiritual background, current church attendance, and prayer needs.
In just a few minutes of conversation, Jack could offer attention and respect to another human being, gain his/her hearing, and introduce a brief Christian witness. I don’t think I ever saw him miss an opportunity to speak about God.
But I also remember Jack because of what he did not say – and this point is even more amazing to me. You see, I never heard him say anything I thought would be displeasing to God. For example, I never heard him speak a negative word about another person.
Even when he disagreed with others.
Even when others criticized him unfairly.
Even when I lapsed into negativity during our conversations.
Instead of criticism, Brother Jack always turned to prayer. “We just need to pray for him,” he would say. He had learned that praying for others helps guard your heart against a critical spirit. He had lived long enough to know that except for the grace of God, all of us could make dumb decisions.
Moreover, I never heard Brother Jack speak an off-color word. He modeled for me obedience to Ephesians 4:29 and 5:4 – “No foul language should come from your mouth, but only what is good for building up of someone in need…. And coarse and foolish talking or crude joking are not suitable.” I looked forward to my time with Brother Jack, knowing that our conversation would be fully God honoring.
I think much about Brother Jack these days, as God has now placed in my life another man with similar traits. He always evangelizes and never criticizes. His words are measured, pure and edifying. He, like Brother Jack, is careful in speech because he knows his words are central to his ministry.
That’s the way it is for all Christian leaders. Leadership is obviously more than words, but Christian leadership cannot be separated from our words. Gospel leadership is leadership through proclamation of the Word. We speak the gospel to individuals, teaching them of their need for a Savior who loves them. We announce that message to congregations that gather to hear a word from God.
Ours is a leadership by verbal example. When we keep the gospel to ourselves, we fail in that area of our leadership. Using ungodly words on Monday makes it difficult to trust our words on Sunday. Because words are our ministry, that cost is a heavy one.
We need more leaders like Brother Jack who understand these truths. Our conversation – both what we say and what we don’t say – really does matter.
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Chuck Lawless serves as professor of evangelism and missions and dean of graduate studies at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake, Forest, N.C. This column first appeared at ThomRainer.com.)