The mighty prophet Elijah had been used by God in some dramatic ways: proclaiming to King Ahab that there would be no rain until further notice; multiplying a widow’s meager food; raising a boy from the dead; challenging the false prophets of Baal and calling down fire from heaven; and praying for the return of rain.
But these activities—and the demonic threats of Queen Jezebel—took a toll on the man of God, to such an extent that in 1 Kings 19 he pleaded for the Lord to end his life.
Yet instead of heeding Elijah’s request, God provided him with some time to sleep and eat, and then gave him a new commission: to train his replacement!
Then the Lord said to him: “Go, return on your way to the Wilderness of Damascus; and when you arrive, anoint Hazael as king over Syria. Also you shall anoint Jehu the son of Nimshi as king over Israel. And Elisha the son of Shaphat of Abel Meholah you shall anoint as prophet in your place” (1 Kings 19:15-16).
The assignment to anoint some new kings probably seemed like no big thing to Elijah (even though it’s interesting to note that it was Elisha who ended up actually carrying out the task). Yet Elijah clearly didn’t seem very excited about the prospect of anointing and training a prophet to serve, not just beneath him or beside him, but in his place.
How would you like being replaced? What if you were earnestly seeking God’s will for your life, and finally He spoke: “You need to train someone to replace you!”?
Although the Lord’s word to Elijah was a specific command applicable to his own situation, it illustrates a principle that applies to all of us who are in any type of leadership. Every leader is called to be a part of the process of training others do what he or she is doing.
Look at Paul’s challenge to Timothy, one of the men he was training to replace him:
The things that you have heard from me among many witnesses, commit these to faithful men who will be able to teach others also (2 Timothy 2:2).
Paul was not threatened by the prospect of working himself out of a job by training others—in fact, he saw this as the very goal of his life and ministry. Not only did he raise up Timothy and Titus for ministry, but a careful reading of his letters and the book of Acts indicates Paul had equipped a large number of leaders for ministry (for example, see Acts 20:4 and 2 Timothy 4:9-21). Many of these were a part of his apostolic team.
Success Without a Successor
Tragically, many of the otherwise great men and women of God throughout history failed at this key element of effective leadership. They were gifted theologians, but other theologians were not trained. They were successful pastors, but no one was equipped to take their place. They mightily preached the gospel, but no one of similar caliber was left after their death.
Many years ago, I was sharing the “train your replacement” principle at a leadership conference in England. Although I thought I had given an effective presentation, the man who had organized the conference seemed to publicly rebuke me when I was done. “I’m not ready to retire yet!” he retorted. How sad. He had entirely missed the point. By training his replacements, he wouldn’t have to retire at all: God could have promoted him to a level of even greater influence.
Let us learn the lesson well: Success without a successor is really failure. Because of this, some churches that seem to be flourishing are actually in a very precarious position: Too much of their success is built around the gifts and charismatic personality of one dynamic leader.
What about you? Are you pouring your life into others and training them to do the things you’re presently doing? Are you willing to train your replacement?