Leading from a Distance: What You Can Learn from the Apostle Paul

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By Jeff Mingee

The apostle Paul led from a distance. His letters demonstrate deep affection for his readers, a longing to see them again, and his ongoing burden to lead well, even while apart. For example, Paul wrote to the Philippian church from a prison cell in Rome.[1]  But his Roman imprisonment did not free him from his pastoral obligation. He wrote that he was compelled to live and act for their benefit (Philippians 1:24). He explained that their obedience mattered to him (2:16). He described his affection for them, calling them “my brothers, whom I love and long for, my joy and crown…” (4:1). Distance does not quench the pastor-leader’s heart.

In his letter to the Philippians, Paul models six ways that pastors and leaders in general can lead from a distance.

1. Prayer

I thank my God in all my remembrance of you, always in every prayer of mine for you all making my prayer with joy… (Philippians 1:3-4)

Paul led from a distance by praying. In fact, it seems as though Paul embraced distance as an invitation to prayer. While some leaders bemoan what distance prevents them from doing, Paul displays what distance propels leaders to do. Paul knew that, in many ways, prayer is a better means of spiritual fellowship than proximity.

In the lives of those you love and lead, your prayers can be more powerful than your proximity. So, pastor-leader, pray. Encourage those you lead by calling them and praying with them or sending them a card or letter explaining how you prayed for them.

In my own experience, Chuck Lawless has modeled this practice. As I’m currently working on my D.Min. project with Dr. Lawless as my project chair, I’ve spent a few phone calls discussing my project (and the needed edits) with him. Almost every time we talk, before we hang up, he says, “Jeff, let me pray for you.” Leader, embrace distance as an invitation to lead by praying. 

Leader, embrace distance as an invitation to lead by praying.

2. Encouragement

I want you to know that what has happened to me has really served to advance the gospel… (Philippians 1:12)

From the prison cell in Rome, Paul sought to lead by encouraging hearts in Philippi. It’s stunning to realize that Paul, in prison (1:13), is writing to Philippian believers, in conflict (1:30); yet he writes with an aim to encourage them (1:6). Leader, you can encourage those you lead from a distance.

Christian leadership, and friendship, is not merely keeping each other involved or informed about what’s happening in our lives. It’s the committed resolve to regularly remind each other that the Lord is at work, even in the hard moments.

Distance can be the setting for deep encouragement. Leader, embrace the opportunity to encourage those you lead by pointing out how God is at work.

3. Gospel

And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. (Philippians 2:8)

Leader, it is always the right time to remind those you lead of the gospel. The apostle Paul centered his letter to the Philippians on the saving work of Jesus.

As you lead from a distance, and in an ever-changing environment, it is critical that you remind your followers of the gospel which will never change.

4. Celebration

But you know Timothy’s proven worth, how as a son with a father he has served with me in the gospel. (Philippians 2:22)

Paul loved to celebrate people. Whether it was Timothy or Epaphroditus (2:19-30) or Clement (4:2), Paul was often pointing out how God had used others to encourage him. In Romans 16, Paul lists nearly 30 people by name! Each name was a person God had used in his journey.

Leader, who has God used in your journey? How can you celebrate them, even from a distance? Social media has created a number of platforms on which we can honor and celebrate those whom God has used. Technology has allowed us to celebrate them in front of others on video calls or messages.

Paul was in prison, miles away from the Philippian believers. But distance didn’t prevent him from celebrating God’s work in individuals. It shouldn’t prevent us, either.

Pastoral leadership, in particular, requires calling people to obedience.

5. Example

Brothers, join in imitating me, and keep your eyes on those who walk according to the example you have in us. (Philippians 3:17)

Paul knew the power of example in leadership. Long before John Maxwell and other leadership experts would champion the call to lead by example, the apostle Paul demonstrated it.

Paul led from a distance by exemplifying how he was applying the gospel to himself and motivating himself onward because of the gospel. Paul didn’t need comfort or prestige to motivate him. He had the gospel.

With humility, lead by example. Explain to those under your care how you are meditating on the gospel, even while unable to physically be with them as you used to be. Model for them how they can find fuel for future obedience in the grace of the gospel.

6. Challenge

I entreat Euodia and I entreat Syntyche to agree in the Lord. Yes, I ask you also, true companion, help these women who have labored side by side with me in the gospel together with Clement and the rest of my fellow workers, whose names are in the book of life. (Philippians 4:2-3)

Pastoral leadership, in particular, requires calling people to obedience. It requires pastors to apply the gospel to those they lead, even in difficult situations where application is costly and hard; even from a distance. Distance ought not to become an excuse for pastoral disobedience.

Pastor, you are still laboring for your flock. You are still longing to see them mature in Christ. Don’t be afraid to challenge them to obedience, even from a distance.

Conclusion

So, whether you are a pastor or any other kind of leader, lead from a distance. Don’t settle into a distance. Yes, you will have to make some concessions as you lead from a distance. Long to see your flock face to face. But don’t wait until then to lead them well.

[1] While the setting for Paul’s writing this letter is contested, Moises Silva explains, “a Roman setting fits the data at least as well as competing views, and it has the added (though admittedly weak) advantage of being supported by some early tradition. Since alternative theories are based on plausible, but not compelling, arguments, we are left without a reason to abandon the traditional view.” Moises Silva, Philippians, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2005), 7.

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Jeff Mingee

Jeff Mingee is the pastor of Catalyst Church in Newport News, VA. He serves as a Church Planting Strategist with the SBC of Virginia, overseeing church planting throughout the southeast region. Jeff received his M.Div from Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary and is currently pursuing his D.Min. He is the author of 'Called to Cooperate: A Biblical Survey and Application of Teamwork' as well as other books. Jeff and his wife, Lauren, are the glad parents of Aiden and Carter.

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