Leading Starts With Following


fter serving under the leadership of some extraordinary Christ-followers who poured into my life, I was privileged to pastor the Pleasantdale Church of God in Atlanta from 1992 until 1998. One of my first leadership responsibilities was to find individuals who could follow God’s vision for the church and community and work alongside me.

Bruce Deel was already a successful youth pastor, and I reached out to him to leave his home in rural Virginia and move to Atlanta. He agreed and came on board. It was an extraordinary six-year run.

I remember many conversations where I recounted to him the lessons learned from leaders I followed—men like J. Frank Culpepper, Robert Fisher, and Paul L. Walker, to name a few. Their message to me was consistent: “Darrell, sowing and reaping is a principle of the Kingdom. If you sow a servant’s heart and willingness to be a loyal follower, you will reap the same in those who work with you in the future.”

I cannot tell you the number of times Bruce and I talked about this. Then in mid-1997, it happened. State Overseer Delbert Rose asked if our church would partner with a struggling inner-city church. Midtown Mission Church of God had been a major influence in Atlanta for a number of years, but the congregation had dwindled to about 20 people. Bruce and I agreed to meet with their three elders to discuss options. We began to feel as though this was the Lord opening a door for him to reap the loyalty and commitment he had sown as a follower of my vision (Pleasantdale) and for him to lead this ministry.

Now in his 21st year serving in the ’hood, Bruce’s amazing ability to “follow” has developed this small church into a multifaceted community development center, City of Refuge, which provides a thriving church and ministries that include:

  • Mercy Care—an on-site medical clinic (partnering with St. Joseph’s Health System)
  • Job-training center (including NAPA auto mechanics, culinary arts, and basic vocational training)
  • House of Cherith—rescuing victims of human trafficking
  • Eden Village—housing and child care for working single women with children.

City of Refuge is a beehive of activity 24/7 with more than 70 employees and hundreds of volunteers serving the neediest among inner-city Atlanta. And their reach has extended to partnerships and affiliates throughout the United States and the Caribbean.

Stories of lives changed are found on their website (cityofrefugeatl.org) and in Jeff Deel’s book, The Garden and the Ghetto (available on Amazon).

I was privileged to speak at their 20th anniversary last July, where we celebrated Bruce’s heart to follow other leaders for many years—faithfully serving their vision for ministry. Now the student (Bruce) has exceeded the teacher (me) by all measures as he serves in ministry.

About the time Bruce began his ministry in Atlanta (1997), Philip Ross visited Pleasantdale Church of God. Philip was raised Catholic but left the church and had not returned since he was a teen. Through the influence of a coworker, he began to investigate the evangelical faith and showed up at our church. During his second or third visit, he accepted Christ and was dramatically born again. Two months later his wife of nearly 20 years, Gail, accepted Christ and was born again.

Unlike Bruce, who was brought up in a Church of God pastor’s home, Philip knew nothing of ministry in his background. Instead, he and Gail knew the hardscrabble world of business. I watched them grow in their relationship with Jesus to become servants and followers. These baby Christians joined a discipleship group and began to grow in their newfound faith.

Sensing a call to ministry, the Rosses began volunteering at Midtown Mission /City of Refuge with Bruce and his team. Then, in 2000, they sold their home in the suburbs and moved to the inner city to work with at-risk children and single mothers. At first they left Bruce and struck out on their own with “Bright Futures Atlanta,” enjoying a modicum of success.

We are all called to servanthood, and some of us are called to be leaders as part of our service.

Eventually it became apparent the Lord was leading them to “follow” the City of Refuge vision and launch a larger vision of impact. Bright Futures Atlanta expanded beyond their home and is now housed on the campus of City of Refuge—a beautiful demonstration of how following the lead of another, Bruce Deel, has brought them to their finest hour of influence for the Kingdom. This ministry is changing a generation of children and families in the most challenged and under-resourced neighborhoods in west Atlanta. Check them out at brightfuturesatl.org.

Exalted to Serve

First Peter 5:6 admonishes, “Humble yourselves under the mighty hand of God, that He may exalt you in due time” (NKJV). God wants to exalt me? Does it mean if I humble myself by serving and following, I graduate to an exalted place where others serve and follow me?

I don’t think so. In fact, it means just the opposite. As we humbly serve and follow, the Lord exalts to a place of servanthood where the scope of our serving is expanded— faithful over a few things and then greater opportunities to serve.

That’s what I see in my friends Bruce Deel and Philip Ross. Their heart to serve and follow has opened incredible doors for greater impact.

As we follow Christ and others in the economy of the Kingdom, do we expect to someday hear the Lord say, “Well done, good and faithful leader”? I don’t think so. Rather, “Well done, good and faithful servant” (see Matt. 25:21).

Romans 12:8 instructs those who lead to do so with diligence. The emphasis is for those with leadership gift to hone those skills. The pursuit and development must include Jesus’ call to greatness by being a servant—a follower.

Leading Servanthood

In Matthew 20, two of Jesus’ disciples and their mother come to Him with a request. James and John want a high place in His kingdom: one sitting on the Lord’s right hand, and the other on His left.

And when the ten heard it, they were greatly displeased with the two brothers. But Jesus called them to Himself and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and those who are great exercise authority over them. Yet it shall not be so among you; but whoever desires to become great among you, let him be your servant. And whoever desires to be first among you, let him be your slave—just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many” (vv. 24-28 NKJV).

Jesus—the ultimate example of redeemed leadership—did not come to be served, which is generally the measure of leadership in our world. The worldly leader thinks, How many people are underneath me serving me and my purposes? How many people am I “leading”?

For Jesus, however, to lead was to serve those He led. He came to serve.

Now Jesus calls us, His followers, to be people of impact through servanthood. We are all called to be servants, and some of us are called to be leaders as part of our service. Robert Banks calls this leading servanthood.

Jesus practiced leading servanthood, but this is rare today. This world needs deeply humble leaders who provide strong, impactful leadership. Those who live this way have embraced the victory of “following.”

M. Darrell Rice is administrative bishop for the Church of God in Delmarva.