Chapter One – The Spirit-Led Leader

The Vision

Leadership Practice
Envision your leadership flowing out of
a deep spiritual life.

Soul Principle
Fruitfulness in leadership requires the work of
God in and through us.

In our postmodern, experience-oriented, relational culture, people want those who lead them to have more than knowledge and skills. Many parishioners, staff members, and students are longing for greater authenticity, integrity, and depth from their pastors, organizational heads, supervisors, mentors, and teachers. Many want their leaders to possess certain personal qualities in addition to professional competence. Whether or not they can articulate it, they are looking for a spiritual vitality that influences every aspect of leaders’ lives, including how they think, treat others, and conduct themselves as leaders.

For example, when a pastor gets up to preach, parishion-ers are listening for how the preacher has struggled to live out his or her teaching within a family, neighborhood, and work situation. When leaders cast visions and lead the charge, staff members want to feel valued and appreciated, and followers want leaders to be honest, trustworthy, and faithful. Many want those who hold a place of authority to have good hearts as well as good heads. We want them to get the job done, but we want them also to be loving and caring people, as well as people of mental substance and wisdom.

Experts on leadership—such as Jim Collins, author of a best-selling analysis of companies that have gone from “good to great” over the past century—have come to a similar conclusion: excellent leaders are more than masters at achieving results; they have outstanding personal attributes as well.1 These qualities are often summed up as personal character, a distinguishing mark of the highest level of leadership. Many students of leadership believe that what is even more important is the source of these attributes: a vital spiritual life.2

C. Michael Thompson, who heads a private consulting practice focusing on organizational and individual leadership development, argues that acting from a solid spiritual base is the most important dimension of effective leadership. In essence, he maintains that a vital spirituality is key to the quality and the character of anyone, especially the leader:

A strong inner life plays a key and indispensable role in personal growth and development. And such personal growth, with the emotional, attitudinal, and behavioral changes it produces, is not simply a helpful adjunct to organizational leadership these days—it is its essence. The logic is simply this: of the literally hundreds of skills, competencies, traits, characteristics, and qualities used in the literature to define leadership, those that are most essential in the fluid and chaotic reality of the world today are in fact the outer fruits of that devoted inner life.3

Why do Thompson and others stress the inner life? Because effective leaders need to draw from a deep well within to handle shifting and complex demands, and to do so in ways that inspire those they lead. Leaders need more than knowledge and expertise. They need insight, understanding, and an ability to show as well as proclaim the way. Followers want to experience the wisdom of leaders in their relationship with them, and not just hear it from them or read about it.

As more people in our culture come to recognize the high value of spiritual vitality in leaders, it is not surprising that board directors, elders and deacons, church members, other worshipers, and staff are all seeking leaders who have spiritual depth as well as professional competence. That is, they are looking for high-quality leaders who can produce excellent corporate or ministry outcomes and who embody and live out spiritual vibrancy in their own devotional life, work relationships, and treatment of others. Whether or not they can put their expectations into words like these, they want leaders who have experienced what they are preaching, teaching, and promoting, and who draw from a deep well of personal spirituality.

Some readers might sarcastically object, “But Jesus isn’t available! Why hold up an ideal that only Jesus could fulfill?” Indeed, many individuals and groups have unrealistic expectations for their leaders, putting unfair and unhealthy demands on them. Nonetheless, even if some people’s expectations exceed what is reasonable, that failing doesn’t invalidate their longing, values, and concerns. The lack of realism in the high expectations of search committees doesn’t invalidate the tremendous need for strong, spiritually mature leaders in our executive offices, pulpits, parachurch agencies, and boardrooms.

Forget the expectations of others for a moment. What are your own goals for your spiritual life and for the spiritual quality of your leadership? Too often, we leaders react to the expectations and demands of others either by frantically scrambling to meet them or by defensively explaining why we can’t or won’t. Instead, let’s proactively create our own vision for leadership and set our own goals for the person we want to become, how we want to relate to God, and how we want to lead.

Do you have a vision for your spiritual life and leadership?

What’s Needed

Envision your leadership flowing out of a deep spiritual life.

Stories abound of great leaders who may be effective preachers, teachers, or entrepreneurs, but who for one reason or another do not provide excellent spiritual leadership within their organizations. By the grace of God, they may contribute to furthering the kingdom of God, but something significant is missing in their leadership.

Some leaders are overfocused on results. They are eager to marshal the resources of their organization to accomplish great outcomes, but they lack the vision or the ability to apply spiritual principles to their work relationships. They may routinely alienate or neglect staff members, or frustrate and discourage them with unrealistic expectations. They may be natural visionaries and leaders but fail to treat staff in ways that match the values and beliefs they promote in public. They may have a deep personal faith, but one that is not integrated with their leadership in ways that enhance the workplace or the lives and ministries of co-workers.

Conversely, many of us know caring pastors, executives, or managers—people in leadership positions—who relate effectively to individuals, handle personnel issues with sensitivity, or radiate a spiritual vitality, but who lack the ability to move a ministry forward. They may have a vision for growth and practical knowledge of how the church or organization could expand the scope of its ministry, yet fear conflict or find themselves overwhelmed by difficult issues that must be dealt with for the sake of the whole team. They can’t lead effectively, either because they lack the leadership ability or are too eager to please people.

Still other leaders may be highly influential in a community but neither produce superior long-term results in their ministries nor work well with their staff. These individuals may serve effectively on denominational or ecumenical task forces, as valued public speakers, committee members or authors, or in some other broader context, but not lead well within their own organizations. Though appreciated by other professionals, they do not function meaningfully among their co-workers and staff members as a team leader, spiritual mentor, caring supervisor, or in any other capacity needed to help their organization fulfill its mission effectively.

Whatever the reasons that some leaders fail to lead well, what’s needed is usually more than shoring up shortcomings or addressing imbalances in leadership style. Achieving results, connecting meaningfully with people, and finding opportunities to influence others are all natural motivations for leaders, but none of them provide the right basis for Christian leadership.

Rather, Christian leaders need to be transformed from the inside out by fully integrating their spiritual life and leadership. Transformed leaders will be deeply spiritual people who seek to lead from a spiritual vitality that propels them into leadership roles, responsibilities, relationships, and opportunities. Such leaders will seek top-quality results, affiliate with others in meaningful ways, and become people of influence—but all for the right reasons; that is, because they are devoted to serving God’s purposes, they are seeking to be good stewards of their spiritual gifts, they are called to leadership, they are being transformed inwardly, and they are empowered by God to serve effectively.

How do we become such leaders?

The transformation of our leadership begins with a vision for effective spiritual leadership and requires drawing on spiritual practices and principles that help us to pursue the vision.The transformation of our leadership begins with a vision for effective spiritual leadership and requires drawing on spiritual practices and principles that help us to pursue the vision.4 Visions do not describe present reality. They portray something that can be imagined and is desired but has not yet come to pass. Visions are not just for so-called visionaries, who have a special knack or gift for creating great visions for themselves or their organizations. They are for anyone who wants to experience a better life, relationship, job, church, or organization—and who can imagine what “better” might mean in this context.

Consider a well-known analogy from the physical world. Mount Everest has long been the ultimate goal for serious mountain climbers. To reach the summit, a would-be climber needs months of preparation, conditioning, and training. However, the venture does not begin with the difficult advance work. It begins with a vision. The climber imagines standing atop the world’s highest peak, beholding a magnificent view, and enjoying a tremendous sense of accomplishment. It’s the vision, not the thought of the arduous and dangerous climb, that inspires and motivates the adventure.

Envisioning your leadership as flowing out of a deep spiritual life means picturing yourself as a highly effective spiritual leader. This vision includes seeing yourself as possessing an intimate and nourishing relationship with God that overflows into and transforms every aspect of your life and leadership. You can imagine God’s power working through you to accomplish significant results, to help you relate well and effectively with team members and other staff, and to increase your influence to include everyone God has in mind to benefit from your leadership.

Of course, a host of factors will affect your ability to realize such a vision, including some that are outside your control. Your leadership may not flourish the way you imagine for any number of reasons, some discernible and some obscure. Nevertheless, we are not talking here about the things you cannot change or affect, but about what you can do—and that begins with creating and holding a biblically sound, God-inspired vision for your leadership. You will have plenty of opportunities to be “realistic” about your limits and challenges on a day-to-day basis, but ultimate success in leadership depends on holding firmly to the vision.5

We need also to come to grips with what drives us to lead in the ways we do and how we measure success.6 The right vision will help us answer these questions. Will we evaluate our leadership primarily by our ability to achieve results and accomplish corporate goals? Will we be concerned primarily with what people think of us or how well others like us? Will we pay the most attention to the size of our sphere of influence or who’s taking notice of what we say or do? Or will we examine the degree to which our leadership flows out of a vital spiritual life, governed and empowered by God for the sake of Christ and his kingdom?

As leaders, we will always care about the results, the people, and the extent of our influence in the work we do. It’s appropriate for us to have goals and to want good things to come from our labor. However, what undermines our effectiveness as spiritual leaders is focusing on the results, the people, and our influence as motivating forces in our life, instead of fixing our gaze on God’s vision for our relationship with him and our leadership as an outgrowth of what God is doing in us and through us.

Start with the right vision, even if you don’t know how you are going to realize it. Hold to that vision through the ups and downs of life, even when you feel inadequate or stymied in your efforts. Doggedly pursue it, and see what happens when you keep your eye on what God intends for you as a spiritual leader.

What’s Real

Fruitfulness in leadership requires the work of God in and through us.

An important soul principle underlies the practice of envisioning your leadership as flowing in transformative ways out of a deep spiritual life. Fruitfulness in leadership requires the work of God in and through us. That is, the results that serve God’s purposes and bring honor to God will be infused with God’s presence, power, and character. Thus, focusing on God not only leads us to the right vision for leadership; it is absolutely necessary if we want to succeed by God’s definition of success.

By contrast, any attempt to lead that relies solely on our own intelligence, wisdom, will power, personality, or efforts will be driven by ego, self-centeredness, or unhealthy needs and impulses. We may still produce impressive results, but an essential quality will be missing. For example, we may receive the honor instead of God. Others may become dependent on us rather than on Christ. Our organizations may flourish as enterprises or institutions, but they may fail to fulfill God’s intentions for them.

What can be confusing is that we know we are supposed to rely on God, yet we are sure that we need to rely on ourselves as well. God has given each of us a certain intelligence; we have learned a lot in school and gained wisdom from experience; we have natural abilities and spiritual gifts that others appreciate; and we know that working hard does make a difference. Without a doubt, each of these dimensions of leadership is important to our success as a leader. However, the confusion about whom or what we are to rely on can be greatly reduced when we understand the difference between the source of our power and the resources available to us.

In Christian ministry, or in any work we do with the intention of honoring and serving Christ, God is the source of any fruitful endeavor that has lasting spiritual benefit to others. All that we bring to our work are resources we draw on as we participate in what God is doing through us. Though in practical terms it may be impossible at times to differentiate clearly between what God is doing and what we are doing, such an analysis is not the point. Our perspective and practice are what matter here: Do we think that our leadership is about our accomplishments or about what God is doing through us? Do we constantly push ourselves to try harder, or have we learned to slow down enough to seek consciously to draw on God’s presence, power, and leading?

Our dependence on God’s working is what makes the integration of our spiritual life and our leadership so critical. We cannot lead as an outgrowth of God’s Spirit working in us if we relegate spirituality to our private life or to one dimension among many in our leadership. Such compartmentalization will guarantee that much of our work is based on something other than God’s movement in us. We may find ourselves relying on our own ingenuity, philosophy of leadership, management paradigms, and hard work; on marketing, sales, or fund-raising strategies; and on any number of other tools for leadership that are inadequate bases for leadership. Only one base is adequate for Christian leadership—a vital spiritual life in which God is transforming us as individuals, and is leading and working through us as leaders.

To lead with excellence and to be a deeply spiritual person who seeks to cultivate a rich spiritual environment within the workplace are not competing enterprises. To think that these are opposed to one another creates a false dichotomy. In fact, until our leadership and spiritual life are thoroughly integrated, our ability to lead will suffer and we will experience many unnecessary and counterproductive conflicts.

If we are motivated mostly by results, we may drive people to accomplish our will, rather than lead a team to fulfill a God-given mission together. If we are motivated by the desire to be liked or approved of by people, we may lose sight of the mission in order to please others. If we are motivated largely by our desire to become people of influence, we may neglect both the mission of the organization and the people working within it to further our own reputation or to satisfy our ambition. In each case, misplaced priorities and values will lead to conflicts within us and with others. When our motivation for leading springs from our own desires rather than from God’s working in us, it is only a matter of time before we will experience resentful staff, critical board members, tension, frustration, disappointment, and a host of other difficult and draining reactions.

In one way or another, all of these conflicts result from establishing our leadership on a faulty base, neglecting to integrate fully our faith and spiritual life with our leadership theory and practice. We fail to connect what we say we believe as Christians with how we go about leading others. We trust in the grace of God for our salvation and devote ourselves to serving Christ and the work of his kingdom but wind up pursuing our own agendas or trying to accomplish great things for God in our own strength.

To integrate our spiritual life and our leadership means to adopt a mind-set and “heart-set” that are congruent with the good news of the Christian faith. We will rejoice in the unmerited grace of God for ourselves as sinners, rest in the sufficiency of Christ’s work for our standing with God, and rely on the work of the Holy Spirit for fruitfulness in ministry. In other words, our leadership will be built upon a solid foundation of God’s work in our life; we will thus be freed from thinking that we have to achieve sufficient results, please the right people, or gain power in a certain sphere of influence to feel good about ourselves.

The less we feel the need to strive and strain to prove to others or to ourselves that we are lovable, valuable people, the more we will be free to serve Christ’s purposes in our leadership. Instead of being slaves to producing results, pleasing people, or expanding our power or sphere of influence, we can look to the Holy Spirit to work through us to lead the team in the pursuit of God’s agenda.

Objective and subjective measures are, to be sure, still relevant for evaluating our effectiveness as leaders; we need to submit both to self-examination and to a process of critique by others if we are to grow professionally; and the degree of power and influence that others grant us may be an indication of our effectiveness. Nevertheless, our starting place for Christian leadership needs to be a well-grounded spiritual life that is congruent with the teaching of the gospel—in head, heart, action, and experience with God. As our spiritual life increasingly becomes the basis and driving force of our leadership, and as we use our Spirit-endowed gifts faithfully, our ministry as leaders will be fruitful—in God’s timing, according to God’s will, and as a result of God’s working in and through us.

Of course, we can integrate our spiritual life and our leadership effectively only if we have a spiritual life. Our spirituality needs to be firmly rooted in the good news of God’s grace, not just intellectually but emotionally and experientially as well. On the thinking side of our humanity, our spiritual life will become more meaningful as we increasingly let our faith influence our worldview and mind-set in every aspect of our life. On the feeling side, our spiritual life will gain strength and intensity the more we let ourselves feel gratitude for God’s love, sorrow for sins, the joy of forgiveness, and the whole range of human emotions that flow from grasping the meaning of faith, biblical teaching, and Christian doctrines. Experientially, our spiritual life deepens as we encounter God in worship, in nature, in Scripture, or in any other aspect of life that brings us to an awareness of God’s presence and connection to us.

Furthermore, if we are to handle the demands of leadership, we can’t afford to be complacent about our spiritual life or satisfied with the status quo in our relationship with God. We need to cultivate our relationship with God and to experience drawing on God’s Spirit in leadership if we are to serve most effectively. For example, leaders often need wisdom and a special spiritual sensitivity to discern an organization’s or community’s direction, or to determine how to handle difficult issues. Others look to leaders to show them the way, as well as to teach them how to relate to God and how to draw upon their relationship with God for strength and help.

Our spiritual depth as leaders sets the tone within our organization and produces richer and more meaningful relationships with co-workers and others. The more we know and experience God, and the more our leadership is rooted in our relationship with God, the more we will be at peace about our life and work. The more we are at peace within ourselves, the more we can be genuinely at peace with others. Even when we must confront troubling issues, our inner peace and firm spiritual grounding equip us to handle these conflicts and challenges more constructively than we might otherwise. Sometimes, however, the call to “go deeper” spiritually feels overwhelming. We may not even know what it means, let alone how to do it.

First, “going deeper spiritually” means going beyond holding orthodox beliefs and observing appropriate behaviors. Spiritual depth also includes a growing ability to listen to God and to experience God in ways that transform us. It involves pursuing greater intimacy with God and becoming more at ease with being led by the Spirit in every aspect of our life and leadership. Spiritual transformation is multidimensional, too. We experience greater knowledge, richer feelings, a better sense of connection to God, and more fruitful and meaningful service. The more holistic and thorough our spiritual transformation, the more every aspect of our being will be affected. To oversimplify, if we think about our spiritual life in terms of head, heart, soul, and body, then spiritual transformation includes thinking new thoughts about God, ourselves, and others; feeling all of the powerful and wonderful feelings that come from being in a right relationship with God; experiencing God in the course of daily life; and behaving in more godly ways that serve others well—all as an outgrowth of a deepening and growing relationship with God.7

Second, we must remember that God does not expect us to go deeper by our own strength. In the New Testament, believers are frequently called to transform their thinking and living, but the assumption is always that change is made possible by God’s work within the believer. For example, the Apostle Paul urged the Christians in Philippi to “work out [their] salvation,” by which he meant that they needed to order their lives in ways that flowed logically from having a Christian faith. Yet, he coupled his exhortation with an affirmation that God is the one who gives the desire, will, and ability to live in ways that please God. Paul says, “Therefore, my beloved, . . . work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (Phil. 2:12-13 nrsv). Spiritual growth in all its dimensions is not simply the product of our own efforts. Despite the steps we can take to enrich our spiritual life (the focus of chapters 2 and 3), God is the true source of spiritual vitality and life transformation. Spiritual transformation is the calling of all Christians, but God’s work within us is the key.

Jesus Christ expressed this principle in different words in the well-known analogy of the vine and the branches (John 15:1-8). As the vine, Jesus provides the nourishment needed for us, the branches, to bear fruit. Only by maintaining this intimate, ongoing connection to him—above all else, being transformed into people of love—can we expect to bear fruit in our life and ministries. Our spiritual vitality and depth are what enable us truly to love one another and to imitate Jesus by sacrificially serving others (John 15:12-13).

The apostle Paul talked also about the role of God’s Spirit in equipping and enabling the body of Christ, including its leaders. For example, in teaching how God works through individuals in various ways to meet the needs of the entire congregation, Paul wrote, “Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of services, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone. To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good” (1 Cor. 12:4-7 nrsv).

These three passages, among many others in the New Testament, clearly teach that God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is the primary force behind our spiritual vitality, transformation, and ministry. Those particularly called to leadership are to lead out of a meaningful connection to God. We are to make every effort to be spiritually well grounded, to grow, and to model the values and principles we espouse; but we must rely on God to transform us and to make us effective spiritual leaders. That’s the vision.

Here’s Help

As we seek to build an appropriate, biblically based vision for spiritual leadership, biblical figures are obvious resources for us. We each have our own calling, but we can learn from the examples of others to help us to envision the future reality of our own Spirit-led and Spirit-empowered leadership.

Such Old Testament leaders as Abraham, Joseph, Moses, Gideon, Deborah, and David provide excellent examples of devotion to God’s will, trust in God, and reliance on God’s leading and power for effective leadership. In the New Testament, Peter and Paul stand out as spiritual leaders who rely on visions, dreams, and the power of the Holy Spirit to know how to lead or to serve more effectively.8 Above all, Jesus is the greatest biblical example of a spiritual leader, one who led out of a vital connection to and relationship with God, and whose spiritual life was thoroughly integrated with his leadership.

Jesus Models Spiritual Leadership

Jesus embodied what he asked of his disciples and what he hoped would develop in their lives: loving devotion to God, an active prayer life, service to others, and action based on faith. He was submissive to God’s will, giving of himself sacrificially in obedience to God’s purpose for his life. The way he treated the populace at large matched how he treated his disciples—with high expectations, solid teaching, personal investment in their lives, grace, mercy, and love. When Jesus was abrupt or sharp with the Pharisees or his disciples, he seems to have had a pedagogical purpose. A point needed to be made. At that moment, expressing the truth was more important than coddling them. Nevertheless, Jesus is best known as a friend to sinners, consistently gracious, forgiving, and supportive of his co-workers and associates.

Jesus’ relationship with God was authentic. On the one hand, his love for his Abba (Aramaic for “Father”) was independent of his role as a leader among people. That is, he didn’t develop his relationship with his father to help him become a better preacher, teacher, or healer. Rather, he maintained a strong connection to God because he placed a higher value on his relationship with his father than on anything else. Yet on the other hand, Jesus’ spiritual life was integral to his role as leader among people. He sought God’s guidance in choosing his disciples and asked God in the garden of Gethsemane for strength to fulfill his mission and purpose. Jesus faced imposing challenges from opponents; he was frustrated by the immaturity of his disciples; he suffered unjustly at the hands of others. Still, he responded appropriately and effectively in situation after situation, no doubt because of the deep connection he actively cultivated with God the Father.

As we seek to create our own visions for spiritual leadership, Jesus provides an example to us of great spiritual depth and integrity that we can emulate. He valued his connection to God above all else. He grounded his own life and sense of self in his devoted personal relationship with his Father. His leadership and ministry grew out of that intimate and vital connection.9

Integrating Your Spiritual Life and Leadership

Another tool for developing a better-integrated vision for your spiritual leadership is reflecting on your own experience and discussing that vision with others. The following is a short exercise that you can do on your own for personal reflection and then use with staff members, a leadership team, or a group of professional peers. It is designed to help participants think about the relationship between their spiritual life and leadership—both their experience and their vision for the future.

After reading this chapter, write your response to the reflection questions below in the space provided or on three-by-five-inch cards. In a group setting, the exercise may be done in triads. The facilitator of the process can assign individuals to groups or let them self-select. Within the triads, each group member assumes one of three roles: speaker, listener, or observer. At the end of the exercise, participants may switch roles and go through the process a second and a third time.

Questions for Reflection

1. How have I experienced tension between my spirit-ual life and my leadership role and responsibilities?

2. How would I be different as a leader if my spiritual life flowed more freely and fully into my leadership daily?

Instructions for Triads (10 minutes)

Four minutes: Speaker shares with listener his or her responses to the reflection questions. Observer keeps time and pays attention to nonverbal communication and any dynamics that emerge between speaker and listener.

Four minutes: Listener helps speaker process thoughts and experiences by asking clarifying questions. Listener’s role is not to introduce his or her own opinions or to pry, but to ask for further clarification of ideas and feelings speaker has shared. Observer keeps time and notices any dynamics that emerge during the interaction between speaker and listener.

Two minutes: Observer shares what he or she has seen, heard, thought, wondered about, or felt while observing speaker and listener.

Option: Switch roles and repeat the process until each person has had the opportunity to play each role.

Reflection on the Exercise

Take a minute to jot down a reflection on your experience(s) in the triad exercise. Then compare notes with others in your group. What struck you as significant?

  • As speaker . . .
  • As listener . . .
  • As observer . . .

Going Deeper

This exercise has a secondary goal. The first is to give you an opportunity to identify and clarify both your own experience of and vision for integrating your spiritual life and leadership to become a spiritual leader. The second is to help participants become more aware that each of these three perspectives—speaking, listening, and observing—provides opportunities to gather important but different insights into spiritual leadership.

To serve most effectively as spiritual leaders, we must develop our abilities to speak, listen, and observe. We will return to this idea in chapters that deal with other aspects of leadership. For now, notice how each activity or role could contribute to creating a richer spiritual environment in your workplace or community:

  • Knowing and speaking about what you think and feel, and being able to articulate clearly a vision for integrating spiritual life and leadership.
  • Listening to what others are saying, helping them to clarify their experience, and encouraging them to express their vision for more effective spiritual leadership.
  • Observing what you see, hear, think, and feel when others talk about their spiritual life and leadership, and offering insights and raising questions.

Something to Think About

God made the soul of a leader to be intimately connected to him and to be the wellspring from which the leader leads and from which strong, visionary, confident leadership flows. The more our spiritual life and leadership are integrated, the more we truly become spiritual leaders. Our spirituality will become the inspiration and power for our leadership, as well as its defining characteristic. Spiritual leadership is what leaders need to thrive and what others are looking for and need from us. With God’s help, this vision can become more of a reality for each one who is called to leadership.

What is your vision for growing spiritually and integrating your spiritual life and leadership?