Leadership and Spiritual Formation

Leadership is a role necessitated by the social nature of human life, which requires group effort to achieve goals of benefit to a wide range of people. Leadership is a major element in the structure of love, care for people, that community requires. “Being together” in an enterprise requires leadership. Leadership promotes direction, cooperation and motivation.

Some main qualities required of the leader are intelligence, creativity, energy and strong moral character. These are required for the specific activities of the leader, and also to inspire confidence in those who work under him or her. For the one who leads as a Christian, in Christian group efforts, it is also required that God be acting “with him.” That is to say, it needs to be clear, to those willing to see, that the effects of the Christian leader’s actions are not things he accomplishes by his own abilities. This especially needs to be clear to the leader him- or herself.

If this is clear to the leader, he will not be limited in his vision to things humanly possible, and he will not be tempted to take glory for achievements realized. Those who follow him will also be confident that they are really working under God and with God. This changes the entire character of their work.

There is a great difference between leadership and management. To manage is to have supervision over well-defined activities and goods. To lead requires assuming responsibilities for outcomes that have not been defined or assigned. It is to define and re-define tasks, means, and outcomes.

Such a quality of leadership depends upon the interior life of the individual. That is, what is in their heart or will, in their thoughts and emotions, in their body, their soul, and in the automatic responses of their social relations. This may all be summarized as their character. It is who they really are, as distinct from how they may manage to appear. Indeed, one of the greatest burdens a leader may come to bear is that of “keeping up appearances.” Leaders of Christian groups must learn not to carry that burden, but to resign it to the Lord and be content with simple truthfulness. They are under a divine calling, not dependent upon men.

For those who lead as pastors or teachers, it is important to know that the person we are becoming is more important to God than the work we do. “To obey is better than sacrifice” (I Samuel 15:1) is a profound statement that character is what counts before God. And before men. Those we teach and lead will forget almost everything we say, but they will always remember the kind of person we were.

The character required of the Christian leader never comes merely as the result of the natural course of life and special acts of grace. We must assume responsibility for the development of our own character and the maintenance of it at the level that pleases God. Paul said to Timothy, “discipline yourself for the purpose of godliness; for bodily exercise is only of little profit, but godliness is profitable for all things, since it holds promise for the present life and also for the life to come.” (I Timothy 4:7-8) And: “Take pains with these things; be absorbed in them, so that your progress may be evident to all. Pay close attention to yourself and to your teaching; persevere in these things; for as you do this you will insure salvation both for yourself and for those who hear you.” (vss. 15-16) Of course we do not do this on our own.

The general description of practices “for the purpose of godliness,” for shaping the inner dimensions of life, is “spiritual disciplines,” or, better, “disciplines for life in the Spirit.” These are activities that enable us to do what we cannot do by direct effort. For example, control our anger, our lusts, or our tongue. They access grace into our souls and bodies and transform our habits—what we are ready to do without thinking—into godly character. They are not righteousness or law, but wisdom. A few that are especially helpful are the following:

Solitude and silence. Being alone and being quiet and not speaking or hearing. These are disciplines that are especially useful to break your habit of being “in charge,” of carrying the world on your shoulders. We need some extensive time each week when we do nothing. As we grow in these practices we will rediscover our soul, learn that God is here, and know that his world is in good hands, as Jesus repeatedly said. Occasionally we need to have a day (or more) when we just walk in the woods or sit quietly in a pleasant room or yard. Some have found one day a month useful. And very occasionally a longer period of retreat is very useful. We need to plan these things and put them into our calendar and not cancel them. We can use these special times to practice having God before our minds constantly. Well practiced, solitude and silence become conditions of the soul which we can take everywhere.

Secrecy. This is the practice of not letting our good deeds be known. (For bad deeds, the discipline is openness.) This establishes the posture of living for the audience of One. This is especially important for leaders, but Jesus made plain its importance for everyone. (Matt. 6:1-15) It breaks the power of praise addiction. It makes us peaceful and strong in the face of criticism. Thomas à Kempis says: “Thou are not the holier though thou be praised nor the more vile though thou be blamed or dispraised. What thou art, that thou art; that God knoweth thee to be and thou canst be said to be no greater.”

Scripture memorization. Memorization of long passages, such as 1 Cor. 13 or Col. 3:1-17 or John 14 & 15. This will restructure your thoughts and thereby you feelings, spreading to your whole life. Remember Joshua 1:8-9 and Psalm 1. They will be a guiding presence in your life even when you are not thinking of them, and you will be able to consciously run through them— even in a committee meeting!

Fasting. By fasting we affirm the world of God and its sufficiency to our bodily being. We align ourselves more closely with God’s action with us. As with all disciplines, this is hard at first, and we have to learn how to do it profitably. It is a primary exercise in taking up the cross, and through it we learn to remain sweet and strong when we do not get what we want.

A primary function of the leader is not only to “discipline yourself for the purpose of godliness,” as Paul said, but to lead others into the same way of life. The result will be that the “followers” will be disciples of Jesus on a steady path of growth in Grace. What a difference that will make for leadership! They will love and enjoy their place in the work.

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