First Third Conversations

Leading toward the Unexpected

Holy SpiritA blog post by Eric D. Barreto 

Perhaps the one constant in the Bible is surprise. When we least expect it, God shows up with a gift of grace. When we least expect it, someone receives the call to lead a people. When we least expect it, God changes our world.

This theme of surprise is particularly true when it comes to leadership. The unexpected, the seemingly unqualified, the irretrievably flawed often become the heroines and heroes of faith precisely because they follow God’s lead. But it is also the case that the results of our leadership will surprise us because God’s Spirit is uncontainable, unrestrained by our well-laid plans.

In Acts 6, the early community of believers faced a problem capable of tearing apart their community. Even as they shared their food and property, some members of the community still found themselves deprived of basic necessities. A rift emerges between the “Hellenists” and the “Hebrews,” the former protesting that their widows were being neglected in comparison to the latter.

What should we do, the disciples wonder? Our duties are already extensive. Adding yet another layer of work will simply not suffice.

So, they delegate, in a sense. Seven are chosen as deacons with one very simple job description: wait on the tables. Make sure that everyone’s needs are met.

But the Spirit had other plans.

Immediately after their selection as deacons, one of the seven named Stephen was drawn by the Spirit out into the world. “Stephen, full of grace and power, did great wonders and signs among the people” (Acts 6:8). That certainly was not in the job description drawn up by the twelve! In fact, Stephen’s preaching results in his execution.

Later on, yet another deacon (this time named Philip) will preach and heal in Samaria. Through his preaching, a magician named Simon becomes a follower of Jesus. Philip’s ministry will mark the expansion of the witness of the gospel into Samaria as promised by Jesus himself (Acts 1:8). He will even run into an Ethiopian eunuch in the middle of nowhere. (See Professor Barreto's chapel sermon from 9/19/2013 on the following page:

In both of these cases, the leadership of the twelve takes an unexpected turn. A pressing need meets a present solution. These seven deacons are selected to do just one task. But God’s Spirit will not be restrained by our plans.

Leadership means accepting the ways in which the Spirit will disrupt our plans. Leadership means anticipating that the unexpected might happen. Leadership means trusting that God will show us a way.

In the end, perhaps what the Bible teaches is that our call to leadership is a surprise. But even more surprising is what the Spirit will do in the lives of the people God calls us to lead. 

Eric Barreto Author Bio:
Eric D. Barreto is Assistant Professor of New Testament at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota and an ordained Baptist minister. The author of Ethnic Negotiations: The Function of Race and Ethnicity in Acts 16 (Mohr Siebeck, 2010), he is also a regular contributor to, the Huffington Post,, and

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