For some strange reason, my favorite Bible character has long been Barnabas. The poor guy doesn’t get much attention in Sunday school classes or sermons. At first glance, he’s remarkably second fiddle—a mere role-player in a cast of superstars. And even then, he’s not long for the storyline, exiting halfway through the book of Acts after a testy exchange with the Apostle Paul over staffing priorities for an upcoming mission’s trip.
But when it comes to finding and empowering people for ministry, Barnabas had no equal.
I can make an argument (at least from the human perspective) that without his contribution and nose for finding, training, and developing leaders, there would be no Apostle Paul, no book of Romans or any of Paul’s other New Testament letters, no Gentile Christians, and no gospel of Mark. That’s quite a legacy for someone who gets so little love from theological pundits and preachers.
After years of mulling on the life of Barnabas, as well as extensive writing and speaking on the subject of leadership, I’ve come to the conclusion that those who are most successful at building teams (be they lay-leadership teams or a top-quality paid staff) inevitably share with Barnabas the five traits that make up what I call The Barnabas Factor. At the same time, those who habitually bemoan a lack of volunteers, low morale, and a chronically high turnover rate tend to lack these same five traits.
So what are these powerful traits that made Barnabas so different? And what can we do to build them into our own life and ministry? Here’s a brief look at each one.
1) A SPIRIT AND PATTERN OF FINANCIAL GENEROSITY
The first thing we learn when Barnabas bursts onto the scene in Acts 4 is that he had recently sold a field and given the money away to help others. It seems that this wasn’t an isolated act. You see, Barnabas wasn’t his real name. It was a nickname. It meant Son of Encouragement. His given name was Joseph. But apparently, when you start selling your stuff to help out others, word gets around.
It’s no accident that Barnabas is introduced by a story highlighting his generosity. It’s an important window into his character and heart. It’s also a key trait found among those who excel at finding and empowering others.
Why is a spirit and pattern of generosity so important? It’s because stingy people tend to be threatened people. They protect and hoard. And it’s not just their possessions that they won’t let go of; they also hold tightly onto their prestige, power, and preferences. It’s as if they see prestige, power, and success as a zero-sum game. If someone else gains, they lose. So they won’t let anyone else win.
Stinginess of heart, if it’s allowed to remain, always sabotages healthy building. On one hand, it will cause us to reject anyone who we fear might potentially crowd into our space or fly higher than we’ve flown. On the other hand, it will cause others (especially those with strong leadership potential) to bail out at the first opportunity. No one wants to work with or for a selfish pig.
One of the most powerful tools (if not the most powerful tool) for breaking the stranglehold of a selfish and stingy heart is the discipline of generosity. It puts our treasures and priorities in the right place, and it helps keep them there.
Frankly, if I’m unwilling to share my temporal riches with those in need, there’s not much chance I’ll share my true riches—and according to Jesus, there’s not much chance he’ll trust me with them anyway.
That’s why I always tell pastors and leaders that the first step to building a great team of volunteers or staff is not found in developing better people skills (as important as this is); it’s found in developing a heart of generosity. Once that’s in place, everything else flows much easier.
2) QUICKNESS TO FORGIVE
The second thing that strikes me about Barnabas is his readiness to forgive. The next time he shows up in the book of Acts, he’s sponsoring and supporting the ministry of a former arch enemy.
It’s no stretch to assume that Paul had previously jailed and persecuted some of Barnabas’ close friends. He clearly collaborated in the death of Stephen. That’s a lot to get over. Yet, Barnabas was willing to look past what Paul had done to see what God was doing. It allowed him to see potential where everyone else only saw past sins. What God forgave, Barnabas forgave—quickly. (By the way, I know that Paul was called Saul in the early parts of Acts, but I’m using his more commonly known name throughout for the sake of clarity.)
Ironically, this same spirit of forgiveness that benefited Paul so greatly is what eventually led to a nasty split between Barnabas and Paul. Barnabas wanted to give John Mark a second chance after he had deserted them on an earlier mission’s trip. Paul said, “No way,” and went on his way. Barnabas took John Mark and set sail for Cypress, never to be heard from again in the pages of Acts.
Yet, on this one, time seems to have vindicated Barnabas, not Paul. Shortly before his death, Paul sought a special visit from John Mark, because by then, he’d found him to be “useful” to him. And far more importantly, God chose to use John Mark to write the second gospel. Now, I don’t know about you, but I consider writing the Bible to be a pretty prestigious assignment. Looks like Barnabas made the right choice to give him a second chance so quickly.
Being quick to forgive doesn’t mean ignoring sin. It doesn’t mean someone gets a platform in the immediate backwash of sin and repentance. But it does mean seeing people through the lens of what God is doing in their life now, rather than through the lens of whatever it is they might have done in the past.
3) A FOCUS ON ANOINTING—NOT PEDIGREE
Along with a willingness to forgive whatever God had forgiven, Barnabas also showed remarkable insight into what actually qualifies someone for effective ministry.
I’m sure a pulpit committee or ministry assessment team would have quickly pointed out that Paul lacked the prerequisites and pedigree necessary for ministry. Not only did he lack the early church credentials of having walked with Jesus. He also possessed a sordid past, a public record of bad theology, and blood on his hands.
Yet, somehow, Barnabas was able to see past all that to dial in on the amazing things God had done and was doing in Paul’s life—and the spiritual fruit that backed it up.
Over the years, I’ve found that many of the most effective volunteers, lay leaders, and staff members at North Coast are people who likewise don’t fit the ministry mold. Whether it’s a past sin or failure, a lack of formal education in their specific area of ministry, or simply never having taken the time to jump through all the normally prescribed hoops, these are folks who have been literally cast aside or passed over by other ministries that considered pedigree or education more important than anointing. So we picked up the pieces, and they have blessed us beyond measure.
Nothing puts a lid on volunteers and leadership development like an insistence that everyone must first past through some a man-made, artificial gauntlet of training or experiences before being allowed to unleash the gifts God has given to them.
4) DEFENDING THE RIGHT TO BE DIFFERENT
A fourth trait that set Barnabas apart was his willingness to defend those who did things differently—really differently.
Twice he stepped forward to aggressively defend ministry to Gentiles. Frankly, I can’t imagine that Barnabas was all that comfortable with it. It must have struck him as quite strange that a large group of people wanted to follow the Jewish Messiah, yet were unwilling to become full-on Jews. It must have been disconcerting to show up at an Antioch potluck filled with uncircumcised Christians wolfing down BLTs.
We all know that Jesus said new wine needs new wineskins. But I’m not sure how many of us really believe it—or realize how quickly our new wineskins become old wineskins.
Looking back over the years, it’s sad to realize how often I’ve seen a fledgling young leader marginalized simply because something about the way he or she looked, dressed, or approached ministry was uncomfortable to the pastors and leaders in charge. More to the point, it’s amazing how often God has used that rejection as the impetus to launch a new ministry (sometimes literally down the street) that quickly sucked all the youth, vitality, and future out of the very church that once so dismissively wrote off their new way of doing ministry as inappropriate or “unspiritual.”
We’ll never find and develop leaders for the future if we insist on judging what God likes by what we like. Barnabas knew better. He judged what God approved by what God blessed, not by his own personal comfort zone.
5) WILLINGNESS TO STEP ASIDE AND TAKE SECOND-BILLING
Perhaps the most amazing thing about Barnabas was his willingness to step aside and take second-billing. From the beginning it was always Barnabas and Paul—mentor and mentee. Then suddenly, in Acts 13 and 14, everything changes. Paul pulls off a powerful miracle, then delivers an anointed and convicting message. From that point on, it’s always Paul and Barnabas.
Not many people can go from top-billing to second-billing. But, apparently, Barnabas had no problem with it. He must have realized that Jesus wasn’t kidding when he said the path to greatness is found in serving others. He must have known that the mission is far more important than our status. But more than just knowing those truths (after all, most pastors and Christian leaders I’ve known would agree in principle), he was willing to live them out.
Barnabas was obviously more worried about exalting Jesus than himself. He didn’t fight to protect his turf or power, as if it was really his to begin with. His passion was expanding God’s kingdom whatever the cost, which explains why God was able to use him to find, train, and empower some of the greatest leaders in church history—the kind of leaders the fledgling New Testament church so desperately needed, and the same kind of leaders we still so desperately need today.
The Barnabas Factor is a powerful reminder that true ministry greatness isn’t found in how large our flock is. It’s not found in how many people report to us, help us, or volunteer for us. It’s found in how many people we serve, how many stand on our shoulders taller that we stand, seeing more than we see and doing more than we did.