Every now and then during flights of fantasy I dream of writing my magnum opus and calling it “The Spirituality of Leading.”
Leadership has been studied and described in a cornucopia of ways from the character of the leader to styles of leading to situational leadership to visionary leadership. Probably the best definition among thousands is simply “A leader is someone whom others follow.” I’m not so much interested in how one becomes a leader or what leaders do, although both things are important, but rather in how we think about our roles and functions as we lead.
Here are some thoughts I’ve harvested along the way which may or not reach the magnum opus stage but are, nevertheless, guiding principles for me.
God called me to serve as a leader within the Kingdom he is building here on earth. I have lived out this call in different ways in two churches and three seminaries. What is common to each context is that I have a sense of “Woe is me!” if I do not wear the leadership mantle that God has wrapped around me.
I used to think that to want to “be in charge” was a grievous sin. (And it can be!) Then I caught the drift of Paul’s word to his disciple Timothy: “If anyone sets his heart on being an overseer, he desires a noble task” (1 Tim. 3:1, NIV).
Holy ambition is not necessarily an oxymoron. Desiring to lead is sanctified by God’s call upon a Christian leader’s life, gifting to lead, and strategic positioning within the Kingdom. I lead not for the sake of fulfilling my dreams but for the sake of One who called me and appointed me to lead.
I lead as God’s gift to others, and my commitment to his will and the highest good of others discipline my leading activities. And here’s the zinger. Knowing that God has called me sustains me when the going gets tough. When I’m tempted to doubt and wonder about what I’m doing, when others question what I’m doing as well, I fall back on this confident awareness that God has called me.
Self-Awareness Socrates said, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” Often those things of which we’re unaware prove most destructive in our best-intended efforts to lead. Sometimes we may unwittingly encounter resistance, for instance, to a highly prized dream because we’re too fearful and insecure to receive the feedback of friends or critics. Jesse Penn-Lewis said that even if 99 percent of what our enemies say is untrue, we should still look for the kernel of truth present in their criticisms.
Self-awareness begins with a thorough (and ongoing) process of exposing our inner lives to the spotlight of God’s relentless searching. David prayed, “Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. See if there is any offensive way in me. . .” (Ps. 139:23-24a, NIV).
The Psalmist could not confess what he did not recognize in his heart. He needed God to show him what was there. Blindness to sin or inappropriate motivation or personal inadequacies may be a defensive mechanism that short-circuits the path to achieving all God intends for us as leaders and subsequently what he wants for those he’s entrusted to our care.
The spiritually-attuned leader will pursue resolutely such insight as only God can provide. Early in my ministry a colleague observed that I treated others cavalierly. I felt hurt and indignant. Nothing could be further from the truth, or so I thought. But the question nagged at me, “What is it about me that would trigger such a comment?” That in turn opened the door to very constructive insight.
Responsibility As part of a mid-seminary assessment process, a professor noted on an evaluation that I was “a dutiful daughter of the Church.” I read his comment as a pejorative statement. What he meant was that I was super conscientious, perhaps to my personal detriment.
As the firstborn among six siblings, I was living out the responsible, duty-oriented stereotype of firstborns. I found it hard to say “No” and felt driven to perform well. I had good reinforcement from a highly reliable source, for as a paraphrase of the Bible says, “Tackle every task that comes along, and if you fear God you can expect his blessing” (Eccl. 7:18, LB). I learned some tough lessons along the way though, like “establish priorities for your life or others will establish them for you.”
Being a spiritually mature leader requires listening to the whispers of the Presence. It means that the leader is sensitive moment by moment to divine promptings: “Whether you turn to the right or to the left, your ears will hear a voice behind you, saying, ‘This is the way; walk in it’” (Is. 30:21, NIV). The image alludes to an intimate relationship in which two persons walk close enough to sense the gentle nudging of each other.
Whether making choices about how to grow a large church or to coach a congregation to health or caring for those who hurt, learning to attend to divine whispers can guide us in discriminating among the conflicting and competing voices for our time and attention.
Honesty, honor, virtue, morality, principle, uprightness, righteousness, goodness, probity are all synonyms for integrity. Plato’s ideal of “the good” evaporated long ago and has been replaced by the pragmatic. Today, as long as the end satisfies the majority of people, the means to get there matter little. The world believes that truth is relative and subjective. In such an environment Christian leaders who model integrity stand out like stars against a black night sky.
Integrity means saying what you mean and meaning what you say. It means…
- * Being faithful to one’s marriage covenant even when the going is tough;
- * Avoiding the temptation to politick and manipulate and control those whom we serve, even if our desired ends are good;
- *Assiduously resisting the slippery slope of fudging “just this one time;”
- * Being “good” even when goodness seems to have no reward, counting upon God who has said, “’I the Lord search the heart and examine the mind, to reward a man according to his conduct, according to what his deeds deserve’” (Jer. 17:10, NIV).
Call, self-awareness, responsibility, integrity—these are but a few of the lessons in leading I’ve culled along the way. Perhaps they won’t make it into my magnum opus. More importantly, though, they are wedded to my sense of what it means to be entrusted with the privilege of leading the people of God.