What Nehemiah Teaches us about Leadership, Diversity, and Inclusion

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In both popular and academic leadership studies, the Old Testament prophet Nehemiah serves as an archetype of a great leader. Throughout the book of Nehemiah he constantly demonstrates his ability to influence others toward achieving a common goal. Nehemiah’s life teaches us a great deal about how leaders must have a vision, strategically plan, overcome obstacles, and be people of integrity. He is also a unique model to people of faith seeking to integrate their beliefs into their day to day leadership. However, one important leadership lesson from Nehemiah has often been overlooked or ignored. Nehemiah was a leader who understood the strategic advantage of diversity and inclusion in organizations.

The main thrust of the book of Nehemiah is God’s vision to rebuild the wall around the city of Jerusalem. Nehemiah was given a divine burden, and then acted upon it. He was able to cast an inspiring vision which moved individuals into action. He accomplished this by openly inviting others to participate while offering them a better and brighter future. His hard work and perseverance was rewarded and his building project was completed in only 52 days. Part of the reason for his success was the tremendous workforce that Nehemiah was able to recruit. While seeking to build a coalition of followers he cast a very wide net. His recruitment process wasn’t limited by typical gender, ethnic, and class biases that are often found in ancient times. Instead, Nehemiah included a very diverse group of volunteers.

Modern day Jerusalem.

Modern day Jerusalem.

Many popular books and study guides on the book of Nehemiah completely skip over chapter 3 of the text. At first glance this chapter appears to be rather boring with a long list of names that are difficult to pronounce. But, a closer examination will reveal Nehemiah’s wisdom for contemporary leaders. While carefully studying the list we can observe people from many different families coming together to work on the wall. We also see that the list of volunteers includes people who didn’t even live within the confines of the city wall. These are people who were simply captured by a compelling vision and wanted to join in the work. Nehemiah did not discriminate based upon social class. We see priests and goldsmiths, nobility and perfume makers all working alongside of one another. These were people with extremely different social backgrounds and social statuses. Nehemiah didn’t discriminate based on gender either. Although the Bible contains many instances of God using women in leadership roles, one would not expect to find women listed as workers in an Old Testament construction project. However, within Nehemiah’s list we find women serving alongside men. Once again he breaks tradition in order to include and embrace a variety of people.

Modern research studies have shown the strategic advantages of diversity and inclusion in organizations. Nehemiah was simply ahead of his time when it came to leadership and Christian leaders should draw on Nehemiah’s experience. We have been called to be salt and light to our world, and as we seek to transform our society through our spheres of influence we would do well to remember Nehemiah’s example. Our natural tendency is to build our projects or organizations around people who look like us, people who mirror our gender, race, and social economic status. However, Nehemiah demonstrates how a diverse workforce can accomplish some amazing feats. When looking at Nehemiah’s example, it should not be seen as a lesson on diversity but rather a lesson on great leadership.

-Charles M. Metcalf faithfully pastors a small church in Georgia and is currently pursuing his PhD from Eastern University.