As we develop our leadership teams and plan our programs, one question should continually be at the forefront of our thoughts: What is good spiritual leadership? Most of us aspire to be leaders, to be noticed, to feel successful. We want to know that what we do makes a difference in God’s world. I wonder, however, if in striving towards these leadership goals we sometimes miss God’s purposes for leadership.
In his last prayer to his disciples, Jesus prayed: “I am praying not only for these disciples but also for all who will ever believe in me through their message. I pray that they will all be one, just as you and I are one – as you are in me, Father, and I am in you. . . . May they experience such perfect unity that the world will know that you sent me and that you love them as much as you love me (John 17:20, 23, NIV).
Jesus invited his disciples, the original band of Christian leaders, into a journey towards unity with God and each other. The challenges of listening together, struggling together, and praying together molded them into a richly diverse, loving, leadership community that resounded with the Spirit of God. As a consequence, the world was turned upside down.
Spiritual leadership is not a job but a journey—a journey into intimacy with God, into the kingdom of God, and into the company of others. Spiritual leadership is not about individual success. In fact, I am not sure that it is about success at all. Spiritual leadership is about community, about enabling others to become the people God intends them to be so that together we can become the community of shalom that God intends us to become.
When I imagine leadership Jesus style, I think of washing feet, hugging kids, embracing lepers, and healing the marginalized. I imagine desert retreats, nights spent in prayer, and walks with his disciples. The attributes of a good spiritual leader I see expressed in Jesus’ life are contemplative, activist, servant, spiritual director, generosity, justice, and love. Some of these may sound contradictory, but for me they imply balance. Activism should always flow out of a contemplative center. Spiritual direction should always flow out of a servant’s heart that is committed above all else to the nurture and fulfillment of others. And a heart full of the love of God will always be generous and just.
This type of leadership places huge responsibility on us as individuals. As such, it is crucial to address leadership’s connection both to intimacy with God and to seeking our true, authentic self.
Four Musts of Spiritual Leadership
1. We must be committed to a journey into deeper intimacy with God above all else
It is easy to be fully engaged in regular prayer and Bible reading as an intellectual exercise without moving closer to God. I have mentioned in the past that the chronic randomness of our prayers and scripture study often disconnects us from the presence and purposes of God. What we need most are intentional, disciplined patterns to our prayer life and to the reading and study of God’s Word, patterns that deliberately draw us into God’s presence and a deeper understanding of His purposes. Contemplative practices are particularly good at drawing us into this kind of intimacy.
2. We must seek after our true, authentic self
Salvation is a journey from death to life, from blindness to sight, from solitude to community, from a false self to the true self. If our responsibility as spiritual leaders is to enable others to become all that God intends them to be, then we, too, must commit to becoming who God intends us to be. This is often a very painful journey of self-discovery in which God slowly brings us face to face with the distorted and dysfunctional person at the center of our being. It is also a very liberating journey that brings healing not only for us personally but often for those we lead as well.
It is often mission that uncovers our dysfunctionality and births within us a deep craving for wholeness. This discovery can drive us into the secure, womblike safety of contemplation where we can be transformed and reborn. As I started to allow God to transform me, one of my guiding passages was Isaiah 58:6-12, a portion of which states, “Feed the hungry, and help those in trouble. Then your light will shine out from the darkness.” Reaching out to heal and make others whole is often part of the pathway to our own healing and wholeness.
3. We must never be too busy to listen and never too tired to pray
I need to be reminded of this when I feel overburdened, overstressed, or inadequate. Encountering God in the midst of heavy responsibilities requires moments of deliberately turning aside, retreating into ourselves in order that God may permeate our being. Often, repeating a centering or breathing prayer can enable us to retreat in this way without having to be in a place of physical solitude.
4. We must be willing to listen to all the voices through which God speaks
As a keen organic gardener, I know that diversity creates a healthy garden. It is also an important priority in maintaining a healthy, spiritual leadership team. Jewish philosophers believe that argument is the highest form of discourse and that there cannot be true discussion where there are no dissenting voices.
God often speaks loudest through those who are different theologically, culturally, or socially, and if we are not open to voices outside our own little enclave, then we will never hear God’s voice clearly. Particularly when making major decisions, we need to make sure that the voices we listen to are as diverse and varied as possible. This is just as important for personal discernment and spiritual growth as it is for group discernment and spiritual leadership.
So consider this today: How healthy is your leadership? Do you work for unity or self-promotion? Are you concerned with your own individual advancement or for the good of others? Is God’s Kingdom your number one priority?
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