Read 2 Timothy 1:3-7
We don’t know much about the development of most biblical leaders, but Timothy is an exception. Through his link with Paul’s missions and the letters Paul wrote to him, we know a lot about his growth and increasing sphere of influence. I will briefly trace the growth of his Sway during Paul’s ministry (the ages quoted below are approximate).
- Although his father was a non-believing Greek (Acts 16:2), Timothy was brought up in the Jewish faith by his mother (and grandmother) and was well-grounded in OT Scripture as a boy and as a young man (2 Tim. 1:5; 2 Tim. 3:15).
- He probably became a Christian when he was about 30 during Paul’s first visit to Lystra (on his first missionary journey). It seems that Paul was involved in his conversion because Paul calls him a “true son in the faith” (1 Tim. 1:2).
- Over the next few years, Timothy developed a good reputation among the Christians in the area around Lystra (Acts 16:2) and was commended to Paul by others from this area, so he must have developed some influence in the church.
- When he was about 32, Timothy was invited by Paul to join the team on his second major missionary journey with Silas (Acts 16:3) as they set out to encourage new church plants. But Timothy is not mentioned in connection with the persecution of Paul and Silas in Philippi and Thessalonica along the way, so he was probably a junior member of the team. However, he was ministering with Silas at Berea (Acts 17:14-15) after Paul had to flee, so he seems to have taken on more responsibility as the mission trip progressed.
- Paul wanted to return to Thessalonica but was prevented from doing so (1 Thess. 2:17-18), so he sent Timothy (perhaps now 33) on his behalf to strengthen and encourage the church there, calling him “God’s fellow worker in spreading the gospel of Christ” (1 Thess. 3:2). So Timothy’s role and responsibilities were growing. He was now ministering by himself on special missions (though still under Paul’s authority).
- Timothy joined Paul again on his third missionary journey. Now about 36, he was directed by Paul to deal with a particularly difficult situation in the Corinthian church. The Corinthians were rejecting Paul’s authority and Timothy was sent with Paul’s letter to straighten them out (1 Cor. 4:17). Paul had to write: “see that Timothy has nothing to fear while he is with you” (1 Cor. 16:10), so it must have been a challenging assignment.
- After his first Roman imprisonment, Paul commissioned Timothy (who was now about 44) to pastor the Ephesian church (1 Tim. 1:3). This involved refuting false teaching, supervising the church, and appointing leaders. In a culture in which age was deeply respected, Timothy was young to have such significant responsibilities (Sway), but Paul challenged him, “Don’t let anyone look down on you because you are young” (1 Tim. 4:12).
- In Paul’s second letter to Timothy (and final epistle), Paul saw Timothy (now about 48) as a guardian of the gospel after he died (2 Tim. 1:14). Timothy was responsible to preach and maintain the truth in the church during a time in which many people would be led astray by false doctrine (2 Tim. 4:1-3). This was a big responsibility and a great opportunity to influence.
We have traced Timothy’s leadership journey, over about 18 years, from keen, young Christian in his local church to guardian of the gospel for all the churches. We have followed his development of Sway – both growing his sphere of influence (from a local church to the worldwide church) and maximising the use of his gifts (mainly leading and teaching). This was not an easy journey for Timothy. We know that he was somewhat timid (2 Tim. 1:7) and in today’s Scripture, Paul still had to encourage Timothy to “fan into flame” his gift (2 Tim. 1:8), even though Timothy was an experienced church leader by this time.
I’m not sure how intentional Timothy’s growth of Sway was. Did he deliberately take on extra projects to develop his leadership? Possibly. But I am convinced that his leadership growth was very intentional on Paul’s part. Paul had a vision for Timothy’s leadership and oversaw the growth of his influence by giving him increasing responsibility. Paul wanted Timothy’s Sway to increase, and he provided the pathway for this.
Can you trace the development of your Sway? Has this been intentional, or has it been the product of mainly following God’s call?
So how do leaders increase their Sway? There are two main issues to focus on.
- Find the right place: Grow your sphere of influence/service
The simplest way to understand “sphere of influence” is to see it in terms of how many people you are leading/influencing. The more people you have following you, the greater your sphere of influence. Below is a simple scheme that categorises your sphere of influence in terms of the number of people following. Your sphere of influence could be:
- A small group
- A team of people working together
- A larger group/ministry/team
- A church or organisation
- A large church or group of churches or large organisation
- A wide group of people or a local area
- A national influence
- An international influence
Let’s use these categories to analyse Timothy’s sphere of influence. He started with individuals (1), moved to a team of people (3) when he joined Paul’s group, progressed to a larger group (4/5) when he was sent by Paul to churches, influenced a large church/region (6/7) when he pastored the Ephesian church, and finished with international influence (9) when he continued Paul’s ministry of guarding the gospel.
But the categories above are far from clear-cut. They don’t specify the depth of a leader’s influence. For example, does someone who advises the CEO of a large company influence an individual or the whole company? I write Bible devotional plans for YouVersion. Tens of thousands of Christians throughout the world have completed these plans. Does this mean that I have an international influence or merely that there are people who occasionally benefit from something I have written? Does a godly pastor who is effectively leading a local congregation have more or less influence than a travelling preacher who touches the lives of many more people but not nearly as deeply? So there is no categorical way of measuring influence. It’s difficult and probably unproductive to try to calculate and compare spheres of influence.
However, there is no doubt that some people have greater influence than others, even if only eternity will tell the extent of that influence. Sway involves intentionally seeking to increase the breadth and depth of our influence. We look for the right places – leadership roles and ministries that may enable us to touch the lives of more people.
If you find the term “sphere of influence” too secular or worldly, you could phrase it as “sphere of service.” This is how Paul puts it in describing his influence on the Corinthian church:
2 COR 10:13 We, however, will not boast beyond proper limits, but will confine our boasting to the sphere of service God himself has assigned to us, a sphere that also includes you.
- Do the right things: Maximise the use of your gifts
In the Leadership Foundation Crop, we explored the importance of finding and using your gifts. But Sway adds another dimension. Sway prompts you to find ministry environments in which you are mainly using your strongest gifts and abilities.
For example, by his mid-40s Timothy was well-versed in the Old Testament Scriptures, he was Paul’s close companion and would have been drenched in the gospel, he had a gift of preaching, he had led a church, and he had travelled widely building international networks. If Timothy was seeking to intentionally increase his Sway by maximising the use of his gifts and abilities, he probably would look for a role where he could equip the whole church.
There is a significant danger here. Maximising the use of our gifts could be interpreted as just doing the things that we like and enjoy. But Love rules this out. Laying down our lives for others necessarily involves sacrifice. As we lead others, there will be aspects of our ministry that we won’t always find easy or enjoyable.
For example, I’m not a big fan of conflict. But working through conflict is a necessary part of high-level leadership. It’s not my gift, but it comes with the territory, and it’s good for my growth and dependence on God. However, if I spend most of my time dealing with conflict, I will wither inside, and that’s not going to be much help to God’s kingdom. So as I grow Sway, I orient my ministry, as much as possible, to my strengths – vision, problem-solving, structuring change, and teaching. These are my gifts and using them prodigiously will grow my Sway and maximise my kingdom impact.
When it comes to a focus on Sway, timing is important. The quest to use our strongest gifts is not always possible to pursue early on in our leadership journey. We may not yet have a lot of choice in how we follow God and serve people in the church or the workplace. That’s why Sway tends to become more significant later in leadership when more options may open up and we are more confident in our main contributions to God’s kingdom. As our influence and opportunities grow, it then becomes important and often easier to find or create environments that allow us to maximise the use of our gifts and skills.
So there are two basic ways to increase your Sway. First, find the right place. Seek roles and ministries that enable you to influence as widely and deeply as possible. Second, do the right things. Make sure that you are using your strongest gifts in your leadership role.