As a ministry leader, your spiritual life is inextricably linked to the health of the ministry you lead. We see this demonstrated over and over again in both Testaments, often in terms of the shepherd-leader metaphor. For example, the negative consequences are outlined in Jeremiah:
- 10:21 “the shepherds have become stupid, …therefore…”
- 12:10 “many shepherds have ruined My vineyard”
- 50:6 “their shepherds have led them astray”
There really are public consequences for what a leader may regard as their private, personal spirituality!
The Bible sets a very high standard for the spiritual disciplines of a ministry leader. Now I know that the spiritual lives of leaders and their team members really should be no different because we are all called to spiritual maturity, but there is no getting around the fact that the spiritual life of a leader has the potential for greater good or evil than an individual team member’s because:
- a leader shapes the culture of an entire ministry and has the greatest influence over its direction; and
- a leader is seen as the primary representative of a ministry by the public, and their perception of the leader greatly affects their perception of the ministry.
Just think about the churches that have withered after a pastor’s moral failure, or the good and faithful people who lost their jobs when agency leaders lost their integrity and the ministry lost donor support.
The Lord’s expectation of a leader
As Joshua stepped into leadership, the Lord made the key to successful leadership very clear to him. Joshua was to carefully follow all God’s law, turning “not from it to the right hand or to the left, that you may have good success wherever you go” (Jos 1:7).
In the next verse, the Lord tells Joshua the spiritual practices that will equip him to follow the law:
“This book of the law shall not depart out of your mouth, but you shall meditate on it day and night, that you may be careful to do according to all that is written in it, for then you shall make your way prosperous, and then you shall have good success” (v.8).
So important and foundational is God’s law (or God’s ways), that Deuteronomy 17:18-20 contains this command for those who would lead his people:
“When he sits on the throne of his kingdom, he shall write for himself a copy of this law on a scroll in the presence of the Levitical priests. It shall be with him and he shall read it all the days of his life, that he may learn to fear the LORD his God, by carefully observing all the words of this law and these statutes, that his heart may not be lifted up above his countrymen and that he may not turn aside from the commandment, to the right or the left, so that he and his sons may continue long in his kingdom in the midst of Israel.”
A conditional ‘right to lead’
I think it is significant that when the people of Israel affirmed their acceptance of Joshua’s leadership, they replied “Just as we obeyed Moses in all things, so we will obey you; only may the Lord your God be with you, as he was with Moses!” (Jos 1:17). One commentator says that the last part of this verse is more a condition of their allegiance than a prayer. It was as if they said, “We will follow your leading so long as there is evidence that you are being led by God!” What legitimates a person as a Christian leader is that the person is following God’s leadership. The Israelites made the important point that God is the ultimate leader, not the human being who is his earthly representative.
The landscape of Christian leadership over the millennia has been littered with people who wanted to lead but who did not follow God. The result was lasting damage to the credibility of the church and a rejection of Christianity by people who need Christ. Much has been done in the name of Christ that had nothing to do with Christ. Lord Acton said “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Some Christian leaders have claimed to lead by divine right, interpreting that as an unconditional appointment to leadership, and believe they can then do whatever they want without oversight by any human (now that’s absolute power!). The people of Israel apparently put a check on Joshua’s divine appointment to leadership that I think is quite healthy. I believe God has placed me in my leadership role,1 so yes, there was a divine appointment. But that divine appointment still leaves me subject to the checks and balances provided by the Christian community, who have the right to test if my ministry leadership is godly (1 Thess 5:21, 1 John 4:1). Saul was divinely appointed as king of Israel, but he lost his right to lead as he usurped the spiritual authority that properly belonged to the prophet-priest Samuel. Saul’s personal spirituality eventually negated his call to leadership.
Spirituality can decay!
Many leaders start out in a close relationship with God and are Spirit-led, but some will start to think they are more responsible for their leadership success than God is. God warned the Israelites about this attitude when he said in Deuteronomy 18:17-18, “You may say in your heart, ‘My power and the strength of my hand made me this wealth.’ But you shall remember the LORD your God, for it is He who is giving you power to make wealth.” A good start does not guarantee a good end. Remember what got you started, and stay with it. I followed God to get into my leadership role and my success as a ministry leader will be no better than my success in continuing to follow God. My personal spiritual life is incredibly important to the ministry I lead.
Maintaining a vibrant personal spirituality
So, to provide good Christian leadership:
- The Bible says you need to know God’s law inside and out. God’s law is God’s direction as to how to live a godly life. It is the outward manifestation of God’s character. If you claim to be God’s representative to lead your ministry, you’d better know how God would think about all the decisions you’ll have to make. The biblical command is to study Scripture and meditate on it. I suggest that you get a solid grounding in the meta-narrative of Scripture (the big picture) as these grand scriptural themes provide the best understanding of who God is and how he works. Word studies, book studies and thematic studies can follow and show you how to apply what you have learned, but first you really need to understand the overarching history of God’s activity in our world, his goals, and his character.
- If you want to be led by God, you must give God room in your life to speak to you. Prayer is a two-way conversation, so be quiet for extended periods of time and listen.
- Your first consideration should always be the state of your current relationship with God, not the state of your ministry. Leadership starts with a confession to God of your own sins, an acknowledgement of your own shortcomings, and an admission that you cannot lead God’s people without experiencing God’s leadership yourself. I’ve written about how you can structure a personal leadership retreat that walks you through this examination.
- What evidence should you look for that God supports your continued leadership? That’s tricky. If it was just a matter of identifiable results, then Jeremiah was a dismal failure. Yet God approved of his prophetic ministry even though it had no fruit. Results are important, but more important is how those results were achieved. I think most importantly the evidence of God’s leadership in your life is agreement by those whom God has put in oversight (your board, congregation or whoever has the right to fire you) that your leadership is authentically Christian and pleasing to the Lord. In the end, that is the real test of Christian leadership.