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Customize Your Leadership: Knowing Who Means Knowing How

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A baseball player’s batting average increases with his ability to predict what type of pitch is coming. When he knows what to expect he knows how to respond, enabling him to make contact more often. Leadership, likewise, involves expectation and response: If you know the type of person you are leading, you have an instant game-plan and will certainly improve your chances of making contact. What follows is not a comprehensive strategy, but a blueprint for leadership. Using this framework will enable you to be more deliberate in every relationship you have: Family, friends, church members, co-workers, and others.

Certainly, people are not easily classified. However, three broad categories of people emerge again and again during Jesus’ three-year public ministry and, generally speaking, we encounter the same three types of people today. Not only did Jesus meet three types of people, but he usually had a standard response for each category. This should come as no surprise, since those in any one category share certain fundamental needs in common. And since Jesus provides our best model for leadership, we would do well to learn how to respond like him. Let me introduce you to the three types of people Jesus encountered. You are sure to recognize them. As you do, let your mind associate names and faces with each category.

Three Types of People

Burdened people are those who have recently experienced a life crisis. Serious illness, divorce, death in the family, financial misfortune or some other calamity has robbed them of their normal demeanor and energy. Spiritual maturity aside, they are experiencing a season of life that demands their immediate attention. They are temporarily immobilized, paralyzed by burden. Like a woman in labor, they are preoccupied with one thing alone: Surviving the pain.

Unlike burdened people who are shaped by their circumstances, unteachable people are shaped by their overconfidence. They are inflexible, stubborn, and obstinate. Often fueled by pride and self-righteousness, their hard hearts have been trained to resist instruction or correction. They are threatened by anyone who would presume to teach them, or defensive against anything out of the ordinary. A barrier as impenetrable as airport security has formed over their hearts, preventing the introduction of biblical instruction and counsel.

Stable people are teachable individuals who are free from physical, relational, and financial life crises. They constitute the majority of Christians, whether young or mature in the faith. Furthermore, they are approachable; they remain teachable. Their lives are crisis-free and routine, generally speaking. They may battle busyness or other self-inflicted circumstances, but their lives are as stable as they are ever going to be.

Comfort the Burdened

Jesus had a strategic response when he met burdened people: He led them by comforting them. When your child breaks his arm you naturally respond with comfort to soothe his pain and fear. Even if your child broke his arm while mischievously climbing that off-limits tree in defiance of your manifold threats and warnings, as a wise parent you will postpone discipline (at least until the cast hardens) in exchange for comfort. Jesus encountered many people with broken arms, so to speak, and he routinely responded by comforting them in their time of need. He realized that paralyzing circumstances were at work, and that instruction or rebuke would be lost on them.

The Bible recounts dozens of instances when Jesus comforted burdened individuals in their time of need. Often, those burdened were themselves physically unhealthy, and his comfort would come in the form of healing. He cleansed the leper who kindly requested healing (Mark 1:40-42). He healed Peter’s mother-in-law, whose sickness had confined her to a bed (Matthew 8:14-15). He comforted Bartimaeus by restoring his sight (Mark 10:46-52). Other times he comforted those who were burdened by the distress or loss of loved ones. He healed the servant of the humble centurion who sought him out, thereby comforting the centurion (Matthew 8:5-13). Jesus did not endeavor to teach the widow whose only son had just died. Realizing she was distracted by a crisis, he comforted her by raising him from the dead (Luke 7:11-15). When the Apostles learned of John’s beheading, Jesus comforted them by calling a ministry “time-out” and pursuing a brief period of rest for his grieving followers (Mark 6:27-32). Even on the cross, Jesus spoke words of comfort to others in crisis. The believing criminal burdened by his own imminent death heard the comforting words, “I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:43, NET Bible). He comforted his mother – whose life crisis involved Jesus’ own suffering and death – when he appointed John as her caretaker (John 19:26-27). He comforted many more with miracles and words during his public ministry, to say nothing of his post-resurrection appearances when he greeted his grieving followers with “Do not be afraid” (Matthew 28:10) and “Peace be with you” (John 20:19, 21, 26). When Jesus encountered people paralyzed by burden, he led them by comforting them. We should follow his example.

While preparing for a recent appointment, I began to pray for the friend with whom I was going to meet and to think strategically about our time together. I was struck by the realization that she had just assumed official care for her aging parents, signing on as executor of their estate. She had just begun a frightening and burdensome season of life, joining the ranks of millions who are watching their parents age not-so-gracefully. More than anything else that day, she needed comfort, and I was the instrument God would potentially use to provide it. Comfort may take any number of faces, depending on the need of the moment. It may mean a hospital visit, flowers, a letter of encouragement, praying with someone, or just simply listening (which proved effective with my friend). I have had opportunities to comfort people whose loved ones have died, mothers who have miscarried, parents of brain-damaged newborns, terminally ill friends, unemployed fathers, victims of sexual abuse, children of divorced parents, couples unable to conceive, and many others. Being deliberate in my relationships has enabled me to see these opportunities more clearly. Think of someone who has recently experienced a life crisis. How can you comfort this burdened friend?

Confront the Unteachable

While burdened people saw the tender side of Jesus, unteachable people saw his austere side. He did not offer soothing words or condone their behavior. Rather, his leadership was firm. With the confidence of a sharp-shooter from short distance, he boldly confronted hard-heartedness, regardless of the person’s status or stature.

The vast majority of unteachable people in the life of Jesus were hard-hearted religious leaders. Jesus confronted the inflexible view of the Sabbath held by the Pharisees and scribes by healing the man with the withered hand (Luke 6:6-11; see also Jesus’ rebuke of the Synagogue official who opposed his Sabbath activities in Luke 13:10-17). When the unteachable Pharisees tested Jesus on divorce, he confronted their “hardness of heart” (Matthew 19:8). When they demanded a sign from him, he refused and reprimanded them for their request (Matthew 12:38-45; see also Matthew 16:1-4 where Jesus denied the same request). Jesus confronted the self-righteous Sadducees about their misunderstanding of the Scriptures (Matthew 22:29). He confronted Simon the Pharisee with a parable and a short lesson in hospitality after Simon questioned the appropriateness of the woman who washed his feet (Luke 7:36-50).

Jesus also aligned obtuseness with hard-heartedness and unteachability. This is commonly seen when he led his disciples, whose teachability sometimes lapsed. Their resistance to instruction is confronted in the Garden of Gethsemane (Matthew 26:36-46) and on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24:25-26). Jesus confronted their “lack of understanding” (Mark 7:18) and their “lack of faith” (Matthew 14:31; 17:20; Mark 4:40; Luke 8:25; see also John 20:27-29), and he occasionally mentioned explicitly their hard heart (Mark 8:17; see also Mark 6:52). When the disciples were discussing who was the greatest, Jesus responded to their overconfidence with a powerful confrontation: “If anyone wants to be first, he must be last of all and servant of all” (Mark 9:35, NET Bible). Jesus consistently confronted people who were unteachable or inadaptable.

Unfortunately, we all know people in this category. Their faces and names flood our minds. Moreover, each of us has been unteachable at one time or another, effectively resisting the work of the Spirit in our lives. When I was in college, I plastered the walls of my dorm room with posters featuring scantily-dressed models. Soon after I trusted Christ, however, I began to question my interior design skills. My Christian roommate suggested that I replace them with more tasteful posters, but my fellow athletes seemed to enjoy my decorating ability when they visited. The posters stayed, and so did my obstinacy. Finally, the man who had introduced me to Christ gently confronted me. He showed me that the Bible encourages us to think about “whatever is true, whatever is worthy of respect, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable” (Philippians 4:8, NET Bible). After I acknowledged that my posters were none of these things, we ceremonially removed them and introduced them to the dumpster – where they belonged.

Confrontation may come in the form of a question, a passage of Scripture, or a disagreement, all of which must be done with gentleness. Jesus’ seeming harshness with unteachable people stemmed from his ability to accurately discern a person’s heart – a decided supernatural advantage. Since we lack that ability, Paul cautions us to “be kind toward all . . . correcting opponents with gentleness” (2 Timothy 2:24-25, NET Bible). When preparing to meet with an unteachable person, ask God for the boldness and gentleness necessary to confront them.

Challenge the Stable

Every day millions of perfectly healthy people inflict time-consuming discomfort upon themselves. We call it exercise, and physically stable people do it to grow stronger and healthier. Realizing that people who are stable in life are poised for spiritual growth, Jesus sought to stretch them and make them “uncomfortable” (in a manner of speaking) with challenging words or actions.

The disciples were stable when Jesus first met them, so he extended a challenge to abandon their way of life and “follow me” (Matthew 4:19; Luke 5:27; John 1:43). He challenged Simon Peter (a seasoned fisherman on a run of bad luck) to trust him by casting the net one last time (Luke 5:4-6). The Samaritan woman at the well was issued some challenging words, broadening her understanding of culture, worship, and finally the identity of Jesus himself. He revealed that he was the promised Messiah, and led her and many from her town to salvation (John 4:7-42). Jesus disclosed the difficult way of discipleship to the stable Twelve: “And whoever does not take up his cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life because of me will find it” (Matthew 10:38-39, NET Bible). At the feeding of the 5000, he told his disciples, “You give them something to eat” (Mark 6:37, NET Bible), challenging them to consider the resources available to them. Jesus once challenged his followers with a “difficult saying” that caused many to desert him (John 6:53-60). When Peter asked how many times he was required to forgive his brother, Jesus’ answer stretched Peter’s understanding of mercy (Matthew 18:21-22). The rich young ruler went away sorrowful, unable to rise to Jesus’ challenge to part with his wealth (Matthew 19:16-22). After his resurrection, Jesus challenged Peter with the daunting task of tending his sheep (John 21:15-17). Even the Great Commission challenges the stable and tests the limits of their ability (Matthew 28:18-20).

Jesus did not normally challenge the unteachable, for he knew they would resist. He also did not typically challenge someone paralyzed by a life crisis, for he knew they were unable to respond. As a wise leader he became a student of others, and reserved his challenging words and actions for stable people.

The vast majority of the population is stable. God has them in a season of life during which they can stand to be stretched in their spiritual journey. In a recent conversation, I challenged a friend to look for an opportunity to share the Gospel for the first time. She had been a believer for years, but had only recently been trained in evangelism. She accepted the challenge and felt led to witness to one of her friends at work. To her surprise, she learned that her friend had recently trusted Jesus as her Savior. The two of them shared a very important relationship in common and didn’t even know it. Now they meet regularly to pray for others in their workplace. With a renewed zeal in her walk with the Lord, my friend is now actively seeking more opportunities to share her faith. All she needed was some stretching. Sometimes the best way to learn how to challenge a stable person is to ask them, “What do you think is the next step you need to take in your walk with Jesus Christ?” Listen carefully to their answer, and offer your help and accountability.

Not a Rigid Formula

Leadership does not follow a rigid formula; Jesus did not always respond predictably to people, even when their category was obvious. When Lazarus was sick, Mary and Martha sent for Jesus to come and (presumably) heal their brother. Rather than coming to heal him, Jesus strategically delayed his arrival until Lazarus had died. He was stretching these followers even when they were experiencing a life crisis. In the end Jesus comforted Mary and Martha by raising Lazarus from the dead, but not until they had been sufficiently challenged (John 11). When the disciples awakened Jesus during the storm at sea, Jesus first comforted them in their life crisis (a perceived near-death experience) by calming the sea, and then he confronted their unteachable hearts: “Why are you cowardly? Do you still not have faith?” (Mark 4:40, NET Bible). Nicodemus, a Pharisee who came to Jesus at night, was first challenged with a strange new teaching that involved being “born again,” but Jesus also confronted his obtuseness: “Are you the teacher of Israel and yet you don’t understand these things?” (John 3:10, NET Bible). Finally, the Syrophoenician woman who requested that Jesus heal her demon-possessed daughter had her faith challenged before being comforted (Matthew 15:22-28). We should be mindful of these and other exceptions to the proposed game-plan for leadership, modifying the recipe at times rather than always cooking by the book.

No One Left Behind

Let’s face it: Leading is hard work. Intimate involvement in the lives of others is not easy. Still, we have been called to a rewarding life of leadership, and every Christian longs to be led. There is nothing wrong with having a ministry that specializes in one of the above categories, but a ministry that avoids or ignores complete categories of God’s children is out of balance. Jesus modeled a balanced ministry by responding appropriately to everyone he encountered. Unless we follow Jesus’ model for balanced ministry, we will inevitably overlook the needs of many people in our lives.

People in each category can easily be overlooked if we have a one-size-fits-all mentality. Unfortunately, this is not uncommon. Burdened people are sometimes ignored because their lives seem messy. Yet the circumstances of the burdened cry out for help. Consider the burdened people who initiated with Jesus: Jairus, whose daughter was on the brink of death (Mark 5:22-24, 35-42); the woman with the twelve-year hemorrhage who reached out and touched his garments (Mark 5:25-34); the two blind men who called out to Jesus as he passed on the road (Matthew 20:30-34). The burdened unabashedly asked for comfort, and Jesus never turned one away. Unteachable people are often avoided because confrontation is difficult and uncomfortable. Yet Jesus never passed up an opportunity to confront an unteachable person, often initiating with them in order to do so. Stable people are often overlooked because their stability doesn’t require an urgent response. Many leaders are too busy comforting the “vocal” burdened to notice the “silent” stable.

As a pastor, I try to remember that three types of people are sitting in the congregation every Sunday. And I have to address each of them. Sometimes my messages will be comforting, sometimes confrontational, and sometimes challenging. Likewise, I desire a children’s ministry that is mindful of each type of child. I desire staff and lay leaders who are trained to identify and lead each type of person. I desire a prayer ministry that remembers people in each category, not just the burdened. No one should be neglected of our leadership.


Every professional baseball player strikes out from time to time; it is the same with leadership. Only Jesus had a perfect batting record, and he left us with dozens of examples that can help us improve our swing. Leadership, like baseball, involves expectation and response. If we know the type of person we are working with, we will certainly improve our chances of making contact. Ultimately, we are out for the growth of those we lead. Comfort is the best way to help a burdened person grow. Confrontation is the best way to help an unteachable person grow. Challenge is the best way to help a stable person grow. These are their needs for the moment, and we can be the instrument God uses to meet those needs. Step up to the plate, and begin to identify and lead the burdened, unteachable, and stable people in your life.

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