While acknowledging no community is perfectly mature, I often think that the reason more communities are not more spiritually mature is because their leaders are not more spiritually mature.
Why aren’t they? As Dallas Willard points out in The Spirit of the Disciplines, while we want to react as Christ would react, behave as Christ would behave and lead as Christ would lead, we are unwilling to do the things and practice the disciplines that enabled him to react, behave and lead as he did.
“We must learn to follow His preparations, the disciplines for life in God’s rule that enabled him to receive His Father’s constant and effective support while doing His will.”
Programs and teaching series will not do half as much good in a community as elders who transparently live their lives and their practices before a watching community.
Disciplines for God
Many times I have sat with both pastors and elders who spoke of being spiritually dry. What I hear over and over again is that it’s difficult to find or make the time for reading Scripture; it’s hard to pray in a disciplined and consistent manner; and it’s nearly impossible to set aside time simply to sit and be present to God in the midst of the busyness and rigors of life, work and ministry.
When I was a youth pastor, one day I sat at my desk, staring down at my open Bible and wondering, Would I do this if I thought no one would ever ask me if I had? At the time, my truthful answer was no. It was then I realized I needed a major paradigm shift in how I related to God.
Leadership demanded that I engage with the spiritual disciplines, but leadership was not sufficient to make those practices vital and real in my life. What I needed was to fall in love with God again—to see in him a loveliness and a value apart from how he contributed to my position in church leadership. Leadership will “call the question” in your life: do you love God for God, or God as a means to an end? To put it another way, are you in love with Him or are you seeing relationship with Him as a necessary means to maintaining leadership and your reputation?
Disciplines for others
One of the main reasons leaders find it so hard to be disciplined in spending time in God’s Word, solitude and stillness, prayer, meditation and fasting is that they feel they are so busy with life, so busy in doing good, so busy serving God and the community that they neglect the care of their own souls. As Richard Baxter, the 17th century Puritan wrote, they are busy preparing meals for others even while they themselves are starving. You simply can’t feed anyone without having been fed yourself. What you offer to others will be of little nutritional value to them unless it flows from a vital, connected, disciplined relationship with God.
This can be particularly difficult for leaders who are bi-vocational or not in paid ministry. There is a temptation to see serving the church in leadership, attending meetings and fulfilling all the obligations of an elder as, if not sufficient for our spiritual lives, all that we really have the bandwidth to do.
When talking with pastors and other ministry leaders, I urge them to see their own spiritual formation as a way of not simply growing in relationship with the God who loves them, but also of loving others around them. My wife, my children and the people in my church need me to be in prayer and in Scripture regularly, in solitude and silence often. They need me to be grounded spiritually and growing, because that’s the only way I’ll ever be able to discharge my responsibilities to them faithfully. Seeing what we do publicly as loving service to our community is only half the story. Seeing what we do privately as we care for our souls also as loving service to others is the rest.
Disciplines for ourselves
The late-night phone calls, the inevitable conflicts, the difficulty of seeing others make wrong choices—all of these have an impact. Practicing the disciplines helps shape that impact for our good.
Implementing the spiritual disciplines in our lives also helps us minimize our anxious reactivity and choose a more constructive response instead. For example, the practice of studying the Scriptures brings the cognitive perspective to an emotionally-laden situation. We are reminded by the words on the page to love our enemy when our natural reaction is to lash out in anger. As we pray for our enemy, we open ourselves up to consider compassion and mercy. As we confess our sins, we face our sinfulness and avoid over-focusing on the sinfulness of the other. Gradually, we experience transformation, becoming the kind of people who are actually capable of forgiving an enemy.
How do some handle the stress of leadership and life so they grow from it while others feel more and more like burned-out husks, stumbling through another meeting, dealing with another crisis? I would venture to say it comes down to how they view themselves and those stresses. Spending time with God reminds us of His presence, even in the most difficult parts of life and church leadership. It grounds us in the character of Christ and informs our reactions. It enables us to choose loving responses rather than react or be defensive. And it reminds us that even in the hardest parts of leading a church community, God wants to use what we go through and our responses to it to form and shape us and our communities.
This post is adapted from Eldership and the Mission of God- Equipping Teams for Faithful Church Leadership, by J.R. Briggs and Bob Hyatt
Bob is the Director of Equipping and Spiritual Formation for the Ecclesia Network.
He’s the co-author of Eldership and the Mission of God: Equipping Teams for Faithful Church Leadership as well as Ministry Mantras: Language for Cultivating Kingdom Culture.
He planted the Evergreen Community in Portland, OR in 2004 and holds a DMin from George Fox/Portland Seminary.
Bob currently lives in Boise, ID with his wife, Amy, his kids, Jack, Jane, and Josie and his dog, Bentley.