Rich Peterson

Upside-Down Leadership

At a conference involving over 2,000 pastors in Dallas a couple of weeks ago, I attended a breakout session with Taylor Field who has pastored a small congregation in the heart of Manhattan for over 25 years. He spoke about “upside-down leadership” and his presentation was worth the whole of the conference for me.

He shared the story of Adoniram Judson, the first overseas American missionary:

He had always been an extremely neat and fastidious man, meticulous in his own personal cleanliness. He valued fresh linens and clean shirts. His books and papers were all neatly ordered and immaculately dusted. Now his head was resting in the human excrement and muck of a prison that was never cleaned. Worst of all, he was upside down. Only his head and a bit of his shoulders touched the ground. They did this to him every night. It was a position designed to make him feel numb without quite killing him. He hung this way with 50 other unwashed prisoners in the dark, with temperatures exceeding 100 degrees in a room with no windows and almost no ventilation.

Things look a little different when you are upside down. His father was convinced that he would go far in his career. Things hadn’t turned out the way his father expected. At one time, as a young man, he had been offered one the best positions in Boston. It was a position of prestige, where he and his family would be respected for doing good. Grand vistas opened before him then. He had been a great speaker and a scholar with a stellar future. That offer was years ago and miles away. All his current circumstances seemed to spell out a fiasco.

Things just didn’t seem to have turned out as he hoped. For the first seven years of his time on the job he did not see any tangible return on all his efforts. And now this. I wonder if he felt waves of self-recrimination because he had put his wife and family into such a brutal situation, alone in a foreign country, in a time of war. We know he was desperately concerned about his wife’s safety but totally unable to help her in danger. I wonder if he felt like a failure as a husband, as a man, and as a scholar. He supposed that all his scholarly work had been totally destroyed when the government ransacked his house. There were hardly any other visible results from his work with the people there, either. The years must have seemed wasted. Some leader he proved to be.

For me (and maybe you, if you have lived long enough) one of the surprises of growing older is realizing everything doesn’t happen in one generation. No doubt, Adoniram had some very difficult times as a missionary. Reading the stories of his life sometimes seems like there is one ineffective effort and setback after another. Adoniram and Ann Judson are noteworthy as they are considered the first American overseas missionaries. They eventually became well known. But even at the end of Adoniram’s life, when he had begun to influence a generation of people, the statistical results of his work in Burma were not huge. It would take many decades and several lifetimes to begin to see the profound influence he has had on Christian growth in the present-day Republic of the Union of Myanmar. We still have not seen the end of his influence. Some things in life are like that, and possibly most of the important things.

The significantly “successful” son of Adoniram made the following comment which reverberates with insight for our own generation:

“If we succeed without suffering it is because others suffered before us; if we suffer without succeeding, it is that others may succeed after us.”

(Rich Peterson, Pastor of Spiritual Development )

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