On Leadership and Calling: An Interview with Ravi Zacharias

Ravi Zacharias was interviewed in April 2005 by Major John Carter of The Salvation Army for a leadership class at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary (Charlotte, NC branch).

Major John Carter: In our leadership class, Zacharias, we discussed metaphors or images which guide leaders. Do you have a metaphor or image which has guided you in your life?

Ravi Zacharias: I think the best description I would give is that of a “privileged servant.” That would be the best description. There are different types, of course, but the Son of Man came to seek and to serve. I remember a number of years ago being a part of a conference in Wales where the theme on Christ was “The Servant King.” If the King Himself came as a servant and to serve, then that should be the model we have for ourselves. So I see it as a privileged servant. Coming from the East, where we had trusted, household help, trusted servants in the home, my father would trust them with the entire household, the children, etc., doing all types of things. This is our role, being a real servant of the King.

JC: That’s a wonderful metaphor and image of what we should think of, when thinking of our role, in Christianity. What biblical leaders are most important to you, perhaps in defining your own leadership?

RZ: There are several of them actually. In the earliest days, when I first looked at my calling, Jeremiah was the one, as the weeping prophet. The one who had such a tender heart towards so many things and yet had to be taken into such tough situations. One of the things God has fashioned me with is a tender heart. I have never been able to deny this or speak in laudable terms or in less than laudable terms than just to tell you the way I am or who I am. When I see a need, my heart is touched. I think that comes through my mother, who was a very tenderhearted woman. Looking at Jeremiah and the demands God placed on him, with all of the questions that he had, he was always raising questions before God, Why, why, why? And yet he had such a tender heart. Being told at one point that he was not going to be able to marry, and here was a man that needed that type of support, but didn’t have it.

Then, as time went on, because of the reluctance in my own heart, I would say Moses became a model for me: “Here I am, send Aaron.” I always felt unprepared and ill-prepared for this. I’m not comfortable in front of people. I do not like the attention that it brings. I love my anonymity. I’m not necessarily comfortable as a speaker; I’m more comfortable writing. I do not like leaving home and yet half of my life is spent on the road. I would rather step back and let somebody else do it in the forefront, so Moses became that model leader that I looked at. I could see why Moses questioned whether or not he should go and whether or not he felt prepared.

But in the last few years, I think the one who has best represented my calling is the apostle Paul. Abnormally born as it were, wrenched from the womb (in terms of calling), the convergence of various cultures into his life—the Greek, the Hebrew, the Roman, and now speaking to the Christian. The one who was a traveling missionary; the one who reasoned with the Epicureans and the Athenians. His apologetic especially given to Felix, is, I think, absolutely marvelous. He reasoned with Felix of righteousness and self-control and the things to come—the judgment and points of relevance, points of reference, points of disturbance—which is what apologetics is all about. So I would say in these last few years of my ministry, Paul has become that person.

JC: Are there any leaders outside of the Bible or outside the church that may have influenced you in a specific way?

RZ: Yes. They do in terms of their writing. I love reading some of the great authors of our time. I think John Piper is clearly one of my favorites. He plumbs the depths of the Scriptures and keeps God always as God before us and we as his creation. English writers have also helped me greatly. In terms of leadership, I have learned a lot from the life of a man like Joseph Stowell, [former] president of Moody. I’m just a few months younger than he is, but Joseph has modeled a lot for me. My pastors I worked under while I was a young man. My professors were very influential in my life in the early days—people like Norm Geisler, his impact on me. And prior to that in my undergraduate studies, from a methodology point of view, there were people like John Montgomery in the early days.

In terms of the leadership model, I also learned by observing fine pastoral men. Going back to India, just after my conversion, there was a man named Sam Kamaleson who became the vice president of World Vision. He led their pastoral conferences. There was John Tiebe, who was a Canadian and was a Youth for Christ Director in Delhi under whose watch I really came to know Christ. There was Sam Wolgemuth, who was also the great Youth for Christ International Director. In reference to these men, there’s something you borrow, not always specific, but an impression that is left in your mind. That impression begins to grow, nurtured by your reading and your studies. Observing the kind of men I worked under, they left me with this impression and a desire to be like them.

JC: In our leadership class, we discussed the paradigm from Jeremiah in the third chapter that related to calling, character, competence. We then we added a fourth word that could also be included, which was community. Mr. Zacharias, do you feel called to do this type of work?

RZ: Absolutely. And I don’t use that word lightly. Yesterday, as I was driving my wife to the airport (she was going to see her father who is not well), I said to her, “You know, if it weren’t for the call of God, this is not what I would do.” It demands a type of mental mindset, especially the travel side of it. It takes its toll physically and emotionally. I’ve never wanted to be away from my wife and kids for any period of time, and yet that’s what I have to do in my itinerant world. I think to know that you are called is a seal within your heart. I might also add—this is one thing that is not stressed for many who go into the ministry at this time. Today it is almost a manufactured profession. John Stott’s comment years ago was very appropriate when he said that the pastor’s study is replaced by the terminology “pastor’s office.” He said the study is where you learned and understood and heard from God and then went and spoke to the people. The office is where you manage a group of people. And without pushing it too far, the point is still well taken.

A calling is a beckoning. It is something like Samuel Wesley dying and telling his son: it’s that inner witness. There is something in your heart that God seals, and when I look at the way it has happened, the steps one after another, I could never have engineered any thing like this. I wouldn’t have wanted to or had the capacity to. It’s the calling of God that prepares your heart and prepares the place for your heart. No doubt, I am a hundred percent sure in my heart that God’s calling is on my life to do this work of a Christian apologist.

JC: How important do you feel character is in the realm of leadership?

RZ: Definitive. I think if character is not there, you are not only destroying the role that you are called to, but the message that you are carrying. You are in effect becoming a counterpoint to what it is you are propagating. When I think of character, I think of not only behavior, I also think of motive. Motive is key, that which drives a person to do this.

You see, the pulpit can become quite the show window for a person and it can become a big ego thing. You see it happening again and again, much more than you would want to or even thought it would happen. When I think of character, I just don’t think of obedience or of simply being aligned with the claims of God upon your life. I think of it as the very motive: What it is that drives you to serve and do what it is that you are doing?

I really think that today, as Christian apologists, that the biggest challenge to the faith is not an intellectual question. In fact, I have not heard an intellectual question to the faith that has disturbed me. I am more convinced than ever of the message of the Gospel. But the biggest challenge to the Christian faith is this: If the message that we have lays claim to a supernatural regeneration, then why is it that we do not see that regeneration more often? No other religion claims a supernatural regeneration. They may claim ethics and morality. Hinduism does. But we are the only ones who claim a new birth. Born of the Holy Spirit, our hungers have changed, our disciplines have changed, our behavior has changed. If it is a supernaturally engendered thing, why do we not see it more often? And if that is true of the common person in conversion, how much more true it must be of ones in leadership. So I believe character is essential, and without that, you cannot serve.

JC: Where does competence play out in this area of leadership? You’ve talked about the calling, you’ve talked about the character formation that needs to be in place. What about the competence level of leadership?

RZ: This obviously is very important. I think Billy Graham made a very simple statement years ago when he said it was a great day in his life when he learned that God can use good organization. We sometimes are haphazard. Sometimes we are ill-equipped. Sometimes we are ragged in our planning and doing. Competence is very important, especially in the gifted situation. You have the calling to be an expositor of the Gospel. You have that gift within you; it is there. The competence is shown by somebody who works at what it is that he is gifted and called to do. If a leader is not competent, many things will fall by the wayside. In the organization that he works with, there will be ripple effects of failure. The disciplines that are needed for sermon preparation and delivery will be taken for granted.

I think this whole idea of organization building—of the process that has to be taken on when you are moving from point A to point B—the vision and the passion in you wants to take you in that direction. However, the passion and the end will not automatically come together because it takes competence to get you there. Competence is a big word. It is important. I almost want to nuance it with the idea of giftedness because sometimes you can teach a lot of skills on exposition but a person may not have the competence or the giftedness to do it. Therefore, it is very important to have that.

JC: We added a word: community. We discussed the importance of leadership in the community that a person is engaged in and the type of impact that is needed in order to make change possible. Do you see community as being an important part of leadership?

RZ: Very important. I am more and more convinced, as the seventies and eighties have brought to our attention, you cannot have lone horses out there. There are dangers to it. That’s one of the reasons why our organization is a team. It would have been very comfortable in a self-serving way to be the lone member of this organization and carry on with all of the privacy and all of the privilege of funding, etc. and keep going that way, but I never wanted it that way. I keep telling members who join the team: “You need to be part of a community. There is a fraternity that we all must have. Fire begets fire. Iron sharpens iron.” And not only that, if the church is a community, then how can you in your own life not be part of one and expect to build community while you yourself are in isolation? Many entailments come from the concept of community.

In this postmodern era, one of the few redeeming factors is that there is still hunger for community. It is important that we understand how God has so fashioned us. The starting point of good apologetics is Trinitarian, and God Himself is a being in relationship. He has fine tuned us that way. So community is an essential part of what I do as a leader and what I do in my leadership.

JC: That is so very true. You spoke about your calling, and this is a personal question: Was there anything that came as a confirmation of your calling to do this type of work more than anything else?

RZ: Yes, there were several things. Most important are the people God brings into your life. John Stott played that early role when I was looking for a seminary and he directed my paths to Trinity. It became the school where I needed to be and with members of the faculty: Walt Kaiser, J.I. Packer, John R.W. Stott, John Montgomery, Norm Geisler, John Gerstner, Carl Henry, and Kenneth Kantzer. There were some fine men and women teaching in that seminary at that time. That was the first thing; God took me there.

But before RZIM was formed, I was a professor at Nyack, the Alliance seminary, and I had just spoken for Billy Graham in Amsterdam in 1983. I was flying back from there and I thought to myself, Apologetics… How desperately it is needed. All of my evangelism, as I heard it then, was geared to the unhappy pagan, as it were. And I thought, What about the happy pagan? What about the person who has questions and feels no need? What about that type of person? They are more lost in a sense, and desperately in need of finding the Savior.

I wanted to start an organization and I said to Margie, I wish we had $50,000 to get a ministry like this going. She sat back in her seat and chuckled and said, “That’s a lot of money.” I was a seminary professor. I said, “If God were to bring that in, I would build an organization to reach the thinker and train men and women to do Christian apologetics all over the globe and to do it well.” That was in August. I came back and resigned. I gave one year’s notice, really believing that the Lord was leading us. She was uneasy with this. I was uneasy too, and we made one agreement: We would not tell anybody what we were thinking.

In November of that year, two months after that, I was speaking in Ohio to three hundred laymen, and after my last message I made this comment: “As you are driving back to the airport, would one of you in each car pray for God’s leading in my life? I am seeking Him and his wisdom in a certain matter. I cannot tell you what it is, just pray for us.” They did not even know that I had resigned from the seminary, effective one year after that. I went back to my room and picked up our bags. Margie and I were walking out, and there was a man standing there. He said, “Can I talk to you for a minute?” I said, “Yes.” He said, “I don’t know what it is you are seeking God for, but I went back to my room and got on my knees and said, ‘God, what is it that that young couple is seeking wisdom for? Is there a role you want me to play?’” The man said, “I have no idea what it is you are seeking wisdom for, but I just got off my knees with God impressing me to give you a check for $50,000.”

I thought to myself, This is unbelievable. I mean, I have never received anything like that in my life. I looked at him and said, “Sir, I don’t even know you.” He said, “I’m going to trust you.” I said, “You know, that is a lot of money to take from a stranger. I cannot do it. But if you tell me where you live, I will fly in sometime in the next two months to see you. We can talk, and then if it is still on your heart, we can move forward with that.” He said, “You’re a busy man. I have a plane. Tell me where you live; I’ll fly in to see you.” And he flew to New York where we lived, to White Plains. My wife and I shared with him the vision to reach the thinker and he had tears in his eyes. He said, “I’m not an educated man, but I know how to make money and God has blessed me. You stay faithful and you stay honorable. I’ll take care of you. I’ll support your ministry because God has his hand on your life and you are reaching a segment of society that needs to be reached.” That was 1983. In January, we called together fifty friends, and this ministry was born in August of 1984.

That was just one link, but there were a series of links from John Stott directing me to the seminary to the man, Mr. D.D. Davis. He passed away very suddenly two years ago. Also, the wife God gave me, who affirmed and reassured me. There are so many things to affirm that this was of God.

JC: That is quite a remarkable story. Here is an interesting question: Is there a relationship between your conversion and your call that is more than just incidental?

RZ: I think to me there is a very clear relationship. Sometimes it may not always be that evident. God raised Moses in a palace in order to use him in a desert. He raised Joseph in a desert in order to use him in a palace. God always works in some marvelous and mysterious ways. Although that theme in many ways is a bit of a cliché, God did prepare Moses to stand before kings and leaders. I think in my conversion, there are two or three things.

First, in my ancestry. My ancestors going back four or five generations were of the highest caste of the Hindu priesthood. They were priests in South India, the top rung of priests. They were officiants at ceremonies; they were Nambudiris. The Nambudiris are on the top rung of Hindu priesthood. And yet, they came to know Christ. I now look at my family tree and think it is remarkable. My great-grandfather and my grandfather were linguists. They translated the first Malayalam-English dictionary, which is one of the most difficult languages in the world. It’s the Webster’s of the Malayalam language. It’s spelled front and back the same way. It’s a very tough language. They were into languages. My great grandfather translated the works of Shakespeare and Arabian Nights; he was a linguist. When I think of my life as being so involved in words, I think of God putting in that DNA right from the beginning.

The second thing is that my conversion was on a bed of suicide. I was empty, purposeless. Those are the issues I address today and people sit up and listen. When you talk about life’s meaning, everyone wants to hear your answer. People are looking for that. I was raised in the Anglican Church, and I never knew Christ. But now as I look back, the Anglican prayer book is a masterpiece—the hymns, the liturgy. I now think of worship as the clue to the meaning of life. So all of this, being raised in India, living in the West, connecting now between East and West, there is no doubt in my mind that my calling, my upbringing and conversion, there is a very real strand tying it all together.

JC: You have certainly given us definition of your calling. Has there been any time over the past in which you felt your calling has changed to some degree?

RZ: Not in the recent past. But twenty years ago when this ministry as an organization was formed, I moved from being an itinerant evangelist to an itinerant evangelist-apologist. Apologetics became the seasoning in the main course that I offered, which is the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

Apologetics does not dominate our message; it undergirds our message. Argument doesn’t save people, but it certainly clears the obstacles so they can take a direct look at the Cross. The change came when I recognized that I needed to be in hostile and adversarial areas because those are where the people are that need to be rescued. That was a big change for me, moving from the comfort zone of church evangelism, where I cut my teeth. However, I’m still licensed and ordained by the Christian and Missionary Alliance. I’ve covered the globe for them. I’ve covered the country for them—little churches, country churches, big churches. I miss some of that; it was wonderful.

But God moved me away from my comfort zone. That is why we turn down ninety-nine percent of our engagements. I take very few within the Christian world. As much as I want to be there, I take a few for my need so I can be replenished and blessed, but my primary ministry is in adversarial settings.

JC: In speaking about difficult times and perhaps adversarial areas, have there been any low points in your life that have influenced you in your ministry? A low point and perhaps a high point that you would like to share with us?

RZ: Low points were generally induced by fatigue. If you are not getting the sleep, your body is being subject to a lot of strain. You get down and you have those times. There are some times when there are low points where great disappointment comes to you, maybe in people, in relationships. I’ve seen some great disappointments, and one of the things that I’ve learned through all of that is you cannot build a steady faith on the basis of human observation. There will be people who let you down, and I’m sure we let other people down. They may not have the expectation that you have in leadership. I don’t mean in a moral sense; I mean in some reaction or whatever. So there have been some low points in the earlier days of ministry, some disappointments. But it helps to remember that you must keep your eyes focused on your calling, otherwise you will give up.

The high points are wonderful, but also must be tempered with a grain of salt. You cannot live just for the success or happy moments. To quote Nietzsche, this requires “a long obedience in the same direction.” The high points and the low points are markers along the way, but you have to keep the plain road ahead of you and not be guided by the extremes. They are the punctuation marks in life. For instance, a high point may be a wedding day, but the days that follow is where you really demonstrate what it means to be married. The emotions are not as mercurial as the high point in that sense, but your heart does that which is right.

JC: We are sitting in your office, and I see a lot of books on the wall. Is there any book outside of the Bible that has influenced you and your thinking?

RZ: There are several of them, but it is authors who have influenced me: Malcolm Muggeridge, G.K. Chesterton, F.W. Boreham, C.S. Lewis. Contrary to what a lot of people think, although I’ve read and loved Francis Schaeffer, my calling and mind had already been shaped by then. I would probably say the most powerful book I read in the eighties that changed my thinking an awful lot is G.K. Chesterton’s Orthodoxy. I think it is one of the greatest books ever written.

JC: What about accountability structures? Are there any specific accountability structures you have in your life right now?

RZ: You know, John, when I looked at the questions, I thought, this is particularly a good one, but it’s one of the toughest ones to answer, and I’ll tell you why. My answer may be very different to what others may give you. As I see it, accountability comes at different tiers.

First, I believe I have a theological accountability, a doctrinal accountability. That’s why I have always retained my ordination and my license with the Christian and Missionary Alliance. I have a doctrinal accountability to a denomination. We are not flying by the seat of our pants and manufacturing our own little theology as we go. I believe it is important to have that.

Then there is leadership accountability we put into our planning at the beginning of each year. My executive committee has time alone with me. We talk about things like my travel, my daily issues, what I’m wrestling with. There is a leadership accountability to a group of men and women who in turn are accountable to the Evangelical Council of Financial Accountability.

I really believe that I am also accountable to my wife and children. How do I measure that? I measure that by my availability to them and my willingness to listen to what it is they want to talk about. How do I do this? One of the things I’ve done is I do not take my engagements. My wife does. All of my itinerary is planned by her, so I go with her blessing and not simply justifying everywhere I want to go. This is critical. My life is on the road. I’m away from home fifty percent of the time. How do I remain accountable in that? I don’t travel alone. In fact, the only time I am alone is when I’m writing, which happens maybe twice a year for a week. I stay in areas where I am known by the hotel personnel, so I am accountable in that sense. They know I’m a minister; they know what I do; they know my books; they know I’m preaching; they’ve heard my tapes, etc. I think that is important. I’m not alone.

Out of the fifty-two weeks of the year, there are maybe two weeks when I’m by myself writing. But here is the key: Deviant ways begin in the days of success when you do not have financial accountability to anybody. I think it is important to know that. When I’ve watched the lives of the big men who fell, there was a lot of money involved. The money became the means of procuring what it is that felled them. Yes, power, but money is a big thing.

I believe that if you are going to remain honorable as a minister of the Gospel, you should always be accountable with your money to your spouse. To me, that is critical. You show me a man who has his own bank account and his wife knows nothing about it, and I’ll show you a man who will probably get into trouble if he is not careful. My wife needs to know where my money goes if I’m spending it. She needs to know what checks I issue; she needs to know what I withdraw, and to me this is a very real thing that we talk about.

I talk about this to my colleagues. So accountability to me is when proclivities have resources, then possibilities become actualities. If you cut off the resources, you are in one way trying to stop the cash flow. I’ve watched fallen lives and I said money is key here. To me, accountability starts off with moral and doctrinal with your denomination. They are able to deal with me if I am not towing the line. Then, accountability to my executive committee, where they talk to me and ask me the questions they want. There is the accountability to my wife and children. An accountability on the road to where I don’t travel alone. I have a traveling associate who is with me all the time. He knows where I am twenty-fours a day, and I don’t go out at night on the road if I am not speaking. When I’m in my room at night, I don’t watch much television. If I ever do, it is either news or sports. I could go a week in a hotel room and never turn the television on.

These are measures one has to take because no matter how many exterior structures there are, if you are not honest inside, you will find ways to be dishonest. The structures in that sense are restrictions; they are not absolutes. To me the key is, Who knows where your checkbook is, who knows where your money goes? If your heart is in the right place, your fiscal accountability should be under some one else’s scrutiny, and I keep that under my wife’s scrutiny.

JC: That’s a wonderful answer. Here is the last question: Is there anything we have not covered that you think may be helpful to me and my colleagues? We are talking about leadership, and you probably have a lot of different ideas of how we could develop this, but is there anything you feel needs to be said about leadership in general?

RZ: I think there are two or three things that I feel are so important if the church is going to be the church among the leaders. Number one is humility. We really need to have a humble heart. God says in Deuteronomy, chapter eight, I wanted you to see what was in your own heart. I mean, He could have taken them six weeks across and brought them into the Promised Land, but He had them for more than forty years so they could see what was in their own heart. A true appraisal of my own heart and every man and woman’s heart is that we need to be humble before God.

The second thing is that not only should you be humble, you must be very disciplined. A leader has to be very disciplined. The ministry can induce laziness, especially in our kind of work where you repeat. We can repeat an awful lot. That makes for laziness when we think, I got my sermon case and I got my hundred sermons in the bag, I don’t need to be studying. That’s not good.

Your time with the Lord is so critical. Every day, the nourishment of the soul needs to take place, probing new subjects, studying new material, reading new books, not lazing in the morning hours, getting yourself out of bed. If I could see humility and discipline as the twin realities brought into young ministers’ lives, the future would be very bright. If we lose humility and discipline, we will end up being professionals at what we are doing where appearance will become more important than substance. So, as you are looking at leadership, humility and discipline are two very critical roles for young men and women as they labor to go into the ministry.

We have a great crop of young people coming up, but the problem is we have great temptations that stalk them, and so many of them go wrong so soon that we end up in salvage operations after that. If someone wants to go into ministry, my suggestion is: Find someone who can keep an eye on you early so that you don’t develop bad habits that are hard to change once you get into ministry. Bad habits are formed early. Once you develop bad habits, they stalk you even after you’ve entered ministry. How you deal with members of the opposite sex, how you deal with fatigue, the challenges to your capacity, and the parameters of your own capabilities. Find the right habits to respond, the habits of the heart, and they will stay the course with you in the long run.

We should not underestimate the role of leadership. I would have to say, I did. If you do not lead, somebody else will. If you are called to lead and you don’t lead, somebody else will. Biblical leadership takes its role seriously. With a servant’s heart, people will follow a good leader, who is setting the example at the same time. It should never be underestimated.

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