The Hidden Gift of Followership

Posted On May 4, 2017

What impression does the word follower conjure up? Ordinary? Our elitist culture has developed the notion that leadership is the inevitable goal for talented folks. How many bestsellers celebrate the merits of followership as opposed to leadership? What college enjoys record enrollment with Training Tomorrow’s Followers as its banner?

Fiction has excellent examples of followers who don’t fit the stereotype. J. R. R. Tolkien described his famous follower, Sam Gamgee from the Lord of the Rings trilogy, this way:

“One tiny Hobbit against all the evil the world could muster. A sane being would have given up, but Samwise burned with a magnificent madness, a glowing obsession to surmount every obstacle, to find Frodo, destroy the Ring, and cleanse Middle Earth of its festering malignancy. He knew he would try again. Fail, perhaps. And try once more. A thousand times if need be, but he would not give up the quest.”

Sound ordinary to you? Sam demonstrates followers don’t necessarily have less vision or zeal than their leaders.

But where would Frodo have been without the tenacious and fiercely loyal Sam? Sam’s love and humility guarded him from the Ring’s temptations and false promises of power that would have sabotaged the entire mission. What would Sam need with a Ring of Power when his goal was its destruction?

The gospel, not the leader, is central.

Followers do not find their ultimate identity in any earthly leader because they have the advancement of the gospel as their primary purpose. This frees both leader and follower to grow in unity not by growing closer in opinion, but by each drawing nigh to Christ.

Am I placing expectations on my church leaders that should rest on Christ alone? If my pastor were to announce a call to a new church thousands of miles away, would I be devastated by such news? While I follow an earthly leader, I need to be mindful my ultimate head is Christ. Remembering this also helps me when I’m tempted to doubt a good leader.

Unity is not uniformity.

Disagreement does not equal rebellion. In fact, the opposite may be true. When laypeople disagree with their leaders and speak honestly and lovingly to them, they are exhibiting the highest form of loyalty. A confident leader actively invites feedback.

How can followers appeal to their leaders without bringing unnecessary discouragement? Both parties need a tenacious hold on the goal of making much of Christ.

A Godly Follower Helps a Leader Succeed  

A few years ago, I led a group at church and found my sharpest critic to be my husband. We ended a tense conversation in a stalemate. Then my son, who had overheard the exchange, quietly spoke up. “Mom? Did it ever occur to you that Dad is trying to help you succeed?”

Several times during their journey, Sam and Frodo didn’t agree. Sam confronted Frodo to keep him on mission. Sam didn’t merely want to be right; he wanted Frodo, and ultimately the mission, to succeed.

Leaders, are there avenues in your church for such honest conversations? Are you willing to trust your followers’ instincts on occasion, over your own? Some of the most affirming words I’ve ever heard from my pastor were, “What do you think?”

A Godly Follower is Humble

In a letter to Mrs. Eileen Elgar, Tolkien sums up Sam’s character. “He did not think of himself as heroic or even brave, or in any way admirable – except in his service and loyalty to his master” (Letters of J.R. R. Tolkien p.329). Likewise, if our goal is devotion to Christ by loving the leaders he has given us, what place would jealousy and envy have in our hearts?

Not assistants, but co-laborers

Although Tolkien made it clear that Frodo was the stronger Hobbit, he also made it clear that even the best Hobbit was weak and needed the assistance of the “lesser” one. Sam literally followed Frodo to hell and back. Who would discount a friend like that? And as they sat together reflecting on their journey, Sam muses what he will tell his children about his beloved leader, Frodo.

“Frodo was really courageous, wasn’t he, Dad?”

“Yes, my boy, the most famousest of hobbits. And that’s saying a lot.”

But Frodo redirects his follower: “You’ve left out one of the chief characters—Samwise the Brave. I want to hear more about Sam. Frodo wouldn’t have got far without Sam.”

“Samwise the Brave…”

A janitor at my job often speaks with the wisdom of a professional counselor. I’ve watched him encourage a coworker not to lose heart while he worked on a phone, offer marriage advice while he changed a light bulb, and remind a tearful patient of God’s presence while he worked on a furnace. He’s pointed as many to Christ as his pastor. I asked him where he got so much insight.

“The Sunday sermon,” he said. “My pastor shares the Word with me, and I take it to the job.”

There are seminars on how to do such things. I’m grateful my teacher in this instance, is a godly follower. If we practice being courageous in the mundane tasks and interactions with our leaders, then one day we will be prepared if called upon to display extraordinary courage without leaders.

Francis Schaeffer, in No Little People, No Little Places, writes:

“The people who receive praise from the Lord Jesus will not in every case be the people who held leadership in this life. There will be many persons who were sticks of wood that stayed close to God and were quiet before him, and were used in power by him in a place which looks small to men.”

To me, that sounds a lot like, “to do justice . . .  love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8 ESV).

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1 Comment

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    What a thoughtful message about an oft-neglected topic! No great Christian leader could minister effectively without a core group of dedicated followers. Thank you for recognizing and exposing the myth that only leaders matter.


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