Jump directly to the Content
Jump directly to the Content


Home > Sermons

A Leader Tough and Tender

Leaders need to learn to be tough enough to pay the price and tender enough to take care of their people.


Today when we read this passage, we tend to think of how it applies to the pastor and the rest of the church staff. In fact, in several denominations the position of elder is given exclusively to compensated, full-time, professional ministers. But it wasn't that way in the early days of Christianity. The term elder was not unique to the early church. They picked it up from both the Jewish and the Greek culture.

The Jews traced the idea of eldership back to the days when they were wandering in the wilderness on their way to the Promised Land. The burden of leadership was too great for Moses to bear alone, so he appointed seventy elders to help share the load in a practical sense. Elders became a permanent part of Jewish life. We see references to them throughout the Old and New Testament. These weren't paid professionals. They weren't even preachers. They were honorable and righteous men in the community of faith that took a leadership role in the day-to-day affairs of the local synagogue.

Greeks also understood the idea of eldership. Those named elder were seen as leaders in the community and were responsible for the conduct of public life, similar to a city's town council today. They heard appeals for justice, dealt with taxation issues, issued public edits, and on and on.

So the early church began to use the same title, and it generally referred to those who provided leadership and direction for their congregation.

Today, whether they use the title or not, each church has elders. Each church has a group of individuals who provide the backbone of the church. They lead the way in giving, they lead the way in serving, they help define the church's vision, and on and on. I know several churches today who won't use the term elder, because it sounds too churchy, so they use the term leader (which has the same letters in it if you spell it wrong). But the idea is the same: these are the individuals who take responsibility for what happens in the church, and they are committed to doing what it takes to help the ministry move forward.

We have elders in this church, and Peter's words apply to them. But I want you to understand that his words apply to all of us, because all of us serve in a leadership capacity in some area of our lives. You may not be an elder in this church, or even a leader in this church, but you are a leader somewhere—at work, at home, in the PTA, in the Little League—and these areas desperately need leaders who lead according to Christian principles.

Today I want you to think about the areas that you lead, and I want you to think about how you can put Peter's words to work. He gives three suggestions for improving your style of leadership. Let's take a look at each one.

Try a little tenderness.

Peter says, "Care for the flock of God entrusted to you" (1 Pet. 5:2). Other translations say, "Shepherd the flock." I have a pastor friend who expresses his job description like this: "I take care of people." I asked him to elaborate on this, and he said, "I try to teach them what they need to know. I try to warn them when they need to be warned, encourage them when they need to be encouraged, scold them when they need to be scolded, comfort them when they need to be comforted. I treat them as if I am personally responsible for them, because I am."

There have been times over the years when I have witnessed—and times when I have practiced—a style of leadership that can only be described as "Take it or leave it." The attitude is, "If you want to be on my team, you can be on my team—but I don't want to hear any whining, griping, complaining, or mumbling. You'll do things my way, and if you don't like it, there's the door." We can point to examples when this type of tough-as-nails leadership has worked, but it's not a question of which leadership style works; it's a question of which type of leader God wants us to be. He seems to prefer the terms shepherd and caregiver to drill sergeant and tyrant.

When you read books and articles on leadership, they tend to a focus on a number of different types of leadership strategies—motivation, inspiration, coaching, teaching, training, equipping, vision casting—but have you noticed that nurturing rarely makes the list? Yet, this is the kind of leader God wants us to be.

Bill Parcells, coach of the Dallas Cowboys, is a great football coach—no question about it. He has a little saying that I just love. He often says to his assistants or his players: "Don't tell me about the labor pains. Just show me the baby." He doesn't want people to come to him whining about how difficult his job is; he just wants to see results. His style of leadership is clearly effective in the NFL. He has the Super Bowl rings to prove it. But listen carefully. As much as I respect Mr. Parcell's skills as a coach, we've got to remember that his style of leadership — the "I'm only interested in the bottom line" style of leadership—has no place in the home and no place in the church. And I'm willing to wager that your employees could do without it, too.

God hasn't just called you to produce results. He's called you to take care of certain people in your life. Do you know what that means? Sometimes you've got to be willing to hear about the labor pains. Sometimes you've got to be willing to let those you lead pour out their heart to you. Sometimes they hurt. Sometimes they get discouraged. Sometimes they struggle with doubt. Be the kind of leader they can come to. Try a little tenderness.

Deposit more than you withdraw.

What I'm saying is: "Give more than you get." Take a look at those you lead and ask yourself, Who benefits most from this relationship? Do they serve me, or do I serve them? I know dads who still have the "king of the castle" mentality. Everything revolves around their schedule, their preferences, their ideas, and their needs, and everyone in the family always has to bend to accommodate Dad. And I know some ministry leaders who aren't very much different. Their ministry is not about serving, it's about being served.

Ask yourself, "Who benefits most from this relationship?" You've heard of country singer Leann Rimes. She's been making hit records since she was a teenager, and for a number of years her manager was her father. That doesn't seem like such a bad idea, except that he structured his management and agent fees in such a way that, when all was said and done, he was making more money than she was—and she was the one doing all the singing. Needless to say, this created some resentment between them, though I think they finally resolved it. But it makes you wonder: Who benefits most from this relationship?

Peter wrote, "Watch over [the flock] willingly, not grudgingly—not for what you will get out of it, but because you are eager to serve God" (v.2). If our generation had a slogan, it would be: "What's in it for me?" It's how we think. Why should I buy this product? How will it benefit me? Why should I hire this employee, or why should I take this job? How will it benefit me?

In fact, many of us came to Christ with that very same mentality. We came to Christ because we realized the benefits of being a believer, and we recognized that he offers that which we can get nowhere else. We realized that we were sinners, and Christ alone could forgive us. We realized that our lives were a wreck, and Christ alone could straighten us out. We realized that we were hopeless, and Christ alone could give us hope. It's understandable that sinners come to Christ with this mentality. But during the process of Christian growth, we get beyond "What's in it for me?" Our life becomes about "What's in it for you?"

As Clinton Davidson said, "If you want to become the greatest in your field, no matter what it may be, equip yourself to render greater service than anyone else."

Another key word in this phrase that I want you to notice is willingly.How many of us have been asked to lead and have done so, but with a terrible attitude? How many of us have gone to board meetings, or committee meetings, or ministry events mumbling and grumbling all the way, How did I ever let myself get talked into this? When you find yourself serving grudgingly, there's another key word in this passage to help give you perspective.

Care for the flock of God entrusted to you.

"Entrusted to you," Peter writes. Barclay tells us that this word entrusted means, in certain contexts, inheritance. We have been given the privilege of serving God, the privilege of serving others. It is not a tiresome task. It is the highest calling a person can receive. Make it your aim to serve willingly, understanding the honor that you have been given by the grace of God. And give in service more than you will ever receive.

Limit yourself to leading by example.

Peter said, "Don't lord it over the people assigned to your care, but lead them by your good example" (v. 3). There have been times when I have been an iron-fisted leader—as a pastor, as a coach, as a parent, as an employer. Do you know when I am most likely to resort to this pattern of leadership? When I don't have the strength of my own example to fall back on. These are the times I have said, in effect, "Do as I say, not as I do." Let me tell you: It never works.

Albert Schweitzer said, "Example is not the main thing in influencing others. It is the only thing." To be an effective leader, you have to be able to say, "Do as I do." That's why Paul so often said, "Imitate me in following Christ."

I challenge every leader here to limit yourself to leading by example. Don't demand from others a greater price than you, yourself, are willing to pay. Don't demand from others more time than you, yourself, are willing to invest. Don't demand from others a standard of excellence that you, yourself, haven't achieved. If you can't say, "Do as I do"—or, at the very least, "Do as I am trying to do"—then don't offer leadership in this area.

Do you know what causes burnout and discouragement and resentment among workers and team members? It's not hard work, or long hours, or even a lack of results. People get disgruntled when they feel like they have more vision, more commitment and more integrity than their leaders. People get disgruntled when they believe they're sacrificing just so their leaders won't have to. This leads to hard feelings in every area—the workplace, the playing field, the church, and the home. Leaders, you've got to be willing to lead by example. It's not just the best way to lead; it's the only way to lead.


Remember that this book of First Peter is about enduring suffering. The church was going through hard times, facing persecution and oppression and opposition on all sides. So, near the end of his letter, Peter appeals to the leaders of the church. When people are going through hard times, they need good, strong leaders more than ever. They don't need drill sergeants or tyrants, but Godly leaders—leaders who have the strength to lead with tenderness; leaders who have the commitment to give more than they receive; leaders who have the integrity to lead by example.

It comes to this: Leaders need to learn to be both tough and tender—tough enough to pay the price, tender enough to take care of their people. In the song Leader of the Band, Dan Fogelberg describes his father's style of leadership: "He earned his love through discipline, a thundering velvet hand."

That "thundering velvet hand," that strong but soft touch, that tough but tender heart—this is what every leader must strive to achieve. This is the leader God has called you to be.

© Steve May


A resource of Christianity Today International

Steve May has been a pastor to pastors for more than 20 years, helping preachers and teachers to become more effective communicators of the gospel.

Related sermons

The Problem of Growth

How to counter challenges with sound leadership and encourage growth.

Don't Go To Church!

Being the church demands more than attendance.
Sermon Outline:


You may not be an elder in the church, or even a leader in the church, but you are a leader somewhere—at work, at home, in the PTA, in the Little League—and these areas desperately need leaders who lead according to Christian principles.

I. Try a little tenderness.

II. Deposit more than you withdraw.

III. Care for the flock of God entrusted to you.

IV. Limit yourself to leading by example.


Leaders need to learn to be tough and tender—tough enough to pay the price, tender enough to take care of their people.