Pouring Water on the Hands of our Predecessors
One of my African American students at Crossroads will soon be replacing his current pastor, who is retiring from some 35 years at the same church.
The experience of pastoral calling among African American churches and their ministers are quite different from traditional white Evangelical churches. Most African American pastors must wait to be placed in their pastorate. They serve as “ministers” before taking on a greater position. The minister often volunteers and works in the marketplace to supplement their income.
I asked my student how the process was unfolding for him personally and what he was feeling. He replied, “I sort of feel like Elisha!” I thought my student’s answer to my question was insightful. He surely feels the temptation to compare his leadership with the former pastor.
It is equally easy for me to begin drawing comparisons between the “formers” in my life. But comparison is an unbiblical response when our identity is in Christ (Romans 6:5), for the gospel makes our inadequacies sufficient for gospel work (2 Corinthians 3:4; 4:15).
A Double-Portion Ministry
Elisha asked for a double portion of Elijah’s spirit to be given to him, and God granted the request (2 Kings 2:9). Elisha sees and desires his predecessor’s power, teaching, and ministry. The same power, by the same spirit, but through different means of ministry, is now displayed.
Lest we miss the narrator’s point, Elisha is in the shadow of Elijah. According to J. Sidlow Baxter, Elijah is quoted more than any other Old Testament prophet. There are some 30 direct references and another 10 indirect references to him the New Testament, which does not quote any of Elisha’s statements (outside of referencing Naaman’s healing).
But Elisha does have a powerful ministry. We should not think of him as simply “pouring water on to the hands of Elijah” (2 Kings 3:11). At first glance, we could gloss over and miss the focus of his unique ministry of grace.
First, he increases the food supply of a widow (4:1-7). Second, he raises a dead boy to life (4:8-37). Third, he restores the pot of poisonous stew because someone had place wild gourds in the meal (4:39-41). Fourth, Elisha recovers an axe head for a person who mistakenly dropped it in the river (6:1-8).
Elisha’s seemingly more glorious Mount Carmel-like experiences include seeing a non-Jewish, leprous man cured by his obedience to wash in the Jordan River (2 Kings 5), the blinding of the Syrian troops (2 Kings 6:18,) and the raising to life of a dead man who touched Elisha’s bones (2 Kings 13:20-21).
All of these acts are significant means of showing the love of God to helpless people.
Elisha-like Feelings of Comparison
Elisha’s ministry was indeed in the shadow of Elijah. In many ways, he picked up the responsibility where Elijah ended his work. From a human perspective, Elisha’s ministry would be considered “less than” Elijah’s mountain top excursion on Mount Carmel.
My student’s similar feelings are real. And I have to believe that there are others in ministry leadership feeling the same Elisha-like cycle of comparison, those simply picking up where someone else has left off and “pour[ing] water on [their] hands.”
There is a temptation in ministry to want what others have had. Mount Carmel and Elijah’s boldness are enticing! But let’s not forget the great fear and depression that came upon Elijah several verses later (1 Kings 18:41-46; 19:9-18), which shows his fragility as a leader.
Why do we feel this temptation to compare? And how do we escape the comparison trap?
How to Escape the Comparison Trap
Every leader must run from the human tendency to compare. Comparison is a judgmental perspective that originates in our sinful hearts. We see others’ successes, and perhaps we doubt our personal ability to lead with the same effectiveness.
Here are four thoughts on applying the gospel to the comparison trap.
1. Behold the servant leadership of Jesus (Matthew 11:29; Philippians 2).
Comparison can lead to great pride and is just plain ungodly. Avoid the trap and follow Christ. Christ modeled gentleness and humility that grounded his life and ministry to people. Our adequacy does not come from our predecessor or ourselves, but Christ (2 Corinthians 4:4).
2. Maintain personal integrity (Acts 20:18; Ephesians 4:15).
Integrity is both an internal reality and an external display. We can apply the gospel in both instances to avoid a fall. By embracing the gospel, we come to grips with our sin and repent; then, we speak the truth in love to build up the body of Christ.
3. Pursue love, mercy, and compassion (Acts 20:37).
It is true that people often have fond memories of a previous predecessor because of an act of kindness, an act of mercy, or a display of affection. Paul had great tears for the Ephesian believers, and his tenderness is a highlight of his ministry. Most people don’t remember my sermons — this is true. However, people do remember my pastoral concern, my heart, and my shepherding. Develop these types of ministry habits, and don’t discredit their value, no matter your position of leadership.
4. Be faithful in doctrine and teaching (1 Timothy 4:16).
The leadership comparison trap can be thwarted through the renewal of doctrine and the careful teaching of God’s Word. I have found reviewing and preaching the gospel to be a daily devotional practice. In practicing and preaching the gospel, God corrects those false images of comparison that creep into my leadership perspectives and practices.
5. Extend your leadership legacy to others (2 Timothy 2:2).
One of the legacies of godly leadership is the ability to extend my ministry beyond my death. Paul commended Timothy to this leadership legacy. Timothy was to entrust God’s Word to a future generation of leaders. We must think of ministry as continuing to the next generation of leaders through different means and different gifts.
Pouring Water, Giving Thanks
Most of us reading this article see life through my student’s eyes. We are the Elisha pouring water on someone else’s work. Truth be told, Elisha’s ministry is a quieter one than Elijah’s. His ministry is overshadowed by Elijah’s. And maybe, Elijah’s ministry does seem greater in perspective to many people.
However, I am sure those who drank from the bitter waters of Jericho, the widow whose son was restored to life, the stew that was restored, Naaman, the commander healed, and the dead man lowered into Elisha’s grave were delighted by an Elisha in their midst.
So let’s avoid the comparison trap by applying the gospel to it. May we consider and be thankful for the pastors and ministry leaders whom God has placed in our churches, rather than comparing them, or ourselves, with the leaders who came before.