The Inner & Outer Circle of Spiritual Leadership
I define spiritual leadership as knowing where God wants people to be and taking the initiative to use God’s methods to get them there in reliance on God’s power. The answer to where God wants people to be is in a spiritual condition and in a lifestyle that display his glory and honor his name.
“Spiritual leadership is using God’s methods to get his people where he wants them in reliance on his power
Therefore, the goal of spiritual leadership is that people come to know God and to glorify him in all that they do. Spiritual leadership is aimed not so much at directing people as it is at changing people. If we would be the kind of leaders we ought to be, we must make it our aim to develop persons rather than dictate plans. You can get people to do what you want, but if they don’t change in their heart, you have not led them spiritually. You have not taken them to where God wants them to be.
Everyone has the responsibility of leadership in some relationships. But my concern in this article is with the characteristics that a person must have in order to be a spiritual leader who excels both in the quality of his direction and the numbers of people who follow him.
Biblical spiritual leadership contains an inner circle and an outer circle. The inner circle of spiritual leadership is that sequence of events in the human soul that must happen if anyone is to get to first base in spiritual leadership. These are the absolute bare essentials. They are things that all Christians must attain in some degree and, when they are attained with high fervor and deep conviction, they very often lead one into strong leadership. In the outer circle are qualities that characterize both spiritual and non-spiritual leaders. What I would like to try to do now in this article is simply explain and illustrate these qualities of the inner circle and the outer circle.
The Inner Circle of Spiritual Leadership
1. That Others Will Glorify God
The ultimate goal of all spiritual leadership is that other people might come to glorify God; that is, might so feel and think and act as to magnify the true character of God. According to Matthew 5:14–16, one of the crucial means by which a Christian leader brings other people to glorify God is by being a person who loves both friend and foe.
“You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.”
This text shows that there is an attitude and lifestyle that is so distinctive that when it appears in the arena of fallen humanity, it gives valid evidence that there is a God and that he is a gloriously trustworthy heavenly Father. When the reality of God’s promises to take care of us and to work everything together for our good grips our hearts so that we do not fall prey to greed or fear or vainglory but rather manifest a contentment and a love and a freedom for other people, then the world will have to admit that the one who gives us hope and freedom must be real and glorious.
2. Love Both Friend and Foe by Trusting in God and Hoping in His Promises
But how shall we attain to a love that is strong enough to bless and pray for its enemies? The answer given in Scripture (and this is the second level in the inner circle) is that trust in God and hope in his promises leads to love. Galatians 5:6 says, “For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything, but only faith working through love.” That is, when we have strong faith in the goodness of God, it inevitably works itself out in love. Colossians 1:4–5 says, “We heard of your faith in Christ Jesus and of the love that you have for all the saints, because of the hope laid up for you in heaven.”
“Trust in God and hope in his promises give us the strength to love others — even our enemies.”
In other words, when our hope is strong, we are freed from fears and cares that prevent the free exercises of love. Therefore, a spiritual leader must be a person who has strong confidence in the sovereign goodness of God to work everything together for his good. Otherwise, he will inevitably fall into the trap of manipulating circumstances and exploiting people in order to secure for himself a happy future which he is not certain God will provide.
3. Meditate on and Pray over His Word
But how shall we sinners come to have this kind of confidence in God? Romans 10:17 says, “Faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ.” And Psalm 119:18 says, “Open my eyes, that I may behold wondrous things out of your law.” These two texts together show us that faith in God is rooted in God’s word.
When we hear God’s word, especially the preaching of Christ in whom all the promises of God have their Yes (2 Corinthians 1:20), we are moved to trust him — but this does not happen automatically. We must pray that our eyes be open to the true significance of the word of God in Scripture. So, the spiritual leader must be a person who meditates on the word of God and who prays for spiritual illumination. Otherwise, his faith will grow weak and his love will languish and no one will be moved to glorify God because of him.
4. Acknowledge Your Helplessness
But finally, we must ask how a person comes to be willing to spend time with and be open to the word of God. The answer seems to be that we must acknowledge our helplessness. All true spiritual leadership has its roots in desperation. Jesus commended the man who said, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner” (Luke 18:13). Jesus said of his own ministry, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I came not to call the righteous, but sinners” (Mark 2:17). This means that the beginning of spiritual leadership must be in the acknowledgement that we are the sick who need a physician.
Once we are humbled to that point, we will be opened to reading the doctor’s prescription in the word. And as we read the wonderful promises that are there for those of us who trust the doctor, our faith will grow strong and our hope will become solid. And when our faith is strong and our hope is solid, all the barriers to love, like greed and fear, will be swept away. When we become the kind of people who can risk our lives, even for our enemies, and who don’t hold grudges and who devote our energies to do others good rather than seeking our own aggrandizement, then people will see and give glory to our Father in heaven.
“To lead effectively, you must be out ahead of your people in Bible study and prayer.”
The implication of this inner circle of leadership is that, in order to lead, you have to be out ahead of your people in Bible study and prayer. I think there will be no successful spiritual leadership without extended seasons of prayer and meditation on the Scriptures. Spiritual leaders ought to rise early in order to meet God before they meet anybody else.
The Outer Circle of Spiritual Leadership
Everyone in the church has one or more spiritual gifts. Everyone should be involved in ministry. Everyone should be seeking to lead others to the point where they bring glory to God by the way they think and feel and act. But there are some people to whom the Lord has given qualities of personality that tend to make them more able leaders than others. Not all of these qualities are distinctively Christian, but when the Holy Spirit fills a person’s life, each of these qualities is harnessed and transformed for God’s purposes.
Spiritual leaders have a holy discontentment with the status quo. Non-leaders have inertia that causes them to settle in and makes them very hard to move off of dead center. Leaders have a hankering to change, to move, to reach out, to grow, and to take a group or an institution to new dimensions of ministry. They have the spirit of Paul, who said in Philippians 3:13–14, “Brothers, I do not consider that I have made it my own. But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.” Leaders are always very goal-oriented people.
God’s history of redemption is not finished. The church is shot through with imperfections, lost sheep are still not in the fold, needs of every sort in the world are unmet, sin infects the saints. It is unthinkable that we should be content with things the way they are in a fallen world and an imperfect church. Therefore, God has been pleased to put a holy restlessness into some of his people, and those people will very likely be the leaders.
Spiritual leaders are optimistic not because man is good, but because God is in control. The leader must not let his discontentment become disconsolation. When he sees the imperfection of the church, he must say with the writer of Hebrews, “Though we speak in this way, yet in your case, beloved, we feel sure of better things — things that belong to salvation” (Hebrews 6:9). The foundation of his life is Romans 8:28, “For those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.” He reasons with Paul that, “He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?” (Romans 8:32). Without this confidence based upon the goodness of God manifested in Jesus Christ, the leader’s perseverance would falter and the people would not be inspired. Without optimism, restlessness becomes despair.
The great quality I want in my associates is one of intensity. Romans 12:8 says that if your gift is leadership, do it “with zeal.” Romans 12:11 says, “Do not be slothful in zeal, be fervent in spirit.” When the disciples remembered the way Jesus had behaved in relation to the temple of God, they characterized it with words from the Old Testament like this: “Zeal for your house will consume me” (John 2:17). The leader follows the advice of Ecclesiastes 9:10, “Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with your might.”
“If you want to be a great leader of people you have to get away from people to be with God.”
When Jonathan Edwards was a young man, he wrote a list of about seventy resolutions. The one that has inspired me the most goes like this: “To live with all my might while I live.” Count Zinzendorf of the Moravians said, “I have one passion. It is He and He alone.” Jesus warns us in Revelation 3:16 that he does not have any taste for people who are lukewarm: “Because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of my mouth.”
Spiritual leaders must go out alone somewhere and ponder what unutterable and stupendous things they know about God. If their life is one extended yawn, they are simply blind. Leaders must give evidence that the things of the Spirit are intensely real. They cannot do that unless they are intense themselves.
By self-controlled I do not mean prim and proper and unemotional, but rather master of our drives. If we are to lead others toward God, we cannot be led ourselves toward the world. According to Galatians 5:23 self-control is a fruit of the Spirit. It is not mere willpower. It is appropriating the power of God to get mastery over our emotions and our appetites that could lead us astray or cause us to occupy our time with fruitless endeavors.
In 1 Corinthians 6:12 Paul says, “‘All things are lawful for me,’ but I will not be dominated by anything.” The Christian leader must ruthlessly examine his life to see whether he is the least enslaved by television, alcohol, coffee, golf, computer games, fishing, Playboy, masturbation, good food. Paul said in 1 Corinthians 9:25–27, “Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. So I do not run aimlessly; I do not box as one beating the air. But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified.” And he says in Galatians 5:24, “Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.”
Spiritual leaders ruthlessly track down bad habits and break them by the power of the Spirit. They hear and follow Romans 8:13, “If you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live.” Spiritual leaders long to be free from everything that hinders their fullest delight in God and service of others.
One thing is for sure: if you begin to lead others, you will be criticized. No one will be a significant spiritual leader if his aim is to please others and seek their approval. Paul said in Galatians 1:10, “Am I now seeking the approval of man, or of God? Or am I trying to please man? If I were still trying to please man, I would not be a servant of Christ.” Spiritual leaders do not seek the praises of men, they seek to please God. Dr. Carl Lundquist, former president of Bethel College and Seminary, said in his final report to the Baptist General Conference that there was hardly one of the 28 years in which he served the Conference that he was not actively opposed by many people.
If criticism disables us, we will never make it as spiritual leaders. I don’t mean that we must be the kind of people who don’t feel hurt, but rather that we must not be wiped out by the hurt. We must be able to say with Paul in 2 Corinthians 4:8–9, “We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed.” We will feel the criticism, but we will not be incapacitated by it. As Paul says in 2 Corinthians 4:16, “We do not lose heart.”
Leaders must be able to digest depression because they will eat plenty of it. There will be many days when the temptation is very strong to quit because of unappreciative people. Criticism is one of Satan’s favorite weapons to try to get effective Christian leaders to throw in the towel.
“Jonathan Edwards looked for the truth in every criticism that came his way before he discarded it.”
I should, however, qualify this characteristic of being thick-skinned. I do not want to give the impression that spiritual leaders are closed off to legitimate criticism. A good leader must not only be thick-skinned, but also open and humbly ready to accept and apply just criticism. No leader is perfect and Jonathan Edwards said once that he made it a spiritual discipline to look for the truth in every criticism that came his way before he discarded it. That’s good advice.
Lazy people cannot be leaders. Spiritual leaders redeem or “[make] the best use of the time” (Ephesians 5:16). They work while it is day, because they know that night comes when no man can work (John 9:4). They do “not grow weary of doing good,” for they know that in due season they shall reap, if they do not lose heart (Galatians 6:9). They are “steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain” (1 Corinthians 15:58).
But they do not take credit for this great energy or boast in their efforts because they say with the apostle Paul, “I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me” (1 Corinthians 15:10). And, “For this I toil, struggling with all his energy that he powerfully works within me” (Colossians 1:29).
The world is run by tired men, someone has said. A leader must learn to live with pressure. None of us accomplishes very much without deadlines, and deadlines always create a sense of pressure. A leader does not see the pressure of work as a curse but as a glory. He does not desire to fritter away his life in excess leisure. He loves to be productive. And he copes with the pressure and prevents it from becoming worrisome with promises like Matthew 11:27–28, Philippians 4:7–8, and Isaiah 64:4.
7. A Hard Thinker
“Careful and rigorous thought is not contrary to a reliance on prayer and divine revelation.”
“Be infants in evil, but in your thinking be mature” (1 Corinthians 14:20). It is not easy to be a leader of people who can outthink you. A leader must be one who, when he sees a set of circumstances, thinks about it. He sits down with pad and pencil and doodles and writes and creates. He tests all things with his mind and holds fast to what is good (1 Thessalonians 5:21). He is critical in the best sense of the word; that is, not gullible or faddish or trendy. He weighs things and considers pros and cons and always has a significant rationale for the decisions that he makes.
Careful and rigorous thought is not contrary to a reliance on prayer and divine revelation. The apostle Paul said to Timothy in 2 Timothy 2:7, “Think over what I say, for the Lord will give you understanding in everything.” In other words, God’s way of imparting to us insight is not to short-circuit the intellectual process.
It is hard to lead others if you cannot state your thoughts clearly and forcefully. Leaders like Paul aim to persuade men, not coerce them (2 Corinthians 5:11). Leaders who are spiritual do not muster a following with hot air or waves or words, but rather with crisp, solid, compelling sentences. The apostle Paul aimed, like all good leaders, at clarity in what he said. According to Colossians 4:4 he asked the people to pray for him, “that I may make it clear, which is how I ought to speak.”
It is astonishing and lamentable how many people today cannot speak in complete sentences. The result is that a great fog surrounds their thought. Neither they nor their listeners know exactly what they are talking about. A haze settles over the discussion and you walk away wondering what it was all about. If no one rises above the muddle-headedness and verbal chaos of “You know . . . I mean . . . Just really”, there will not be any leadership.
9. Able to Teach
It is not surprising to me that some of the great leaders at Bethlehem Baptist Church have been men who are also significant teachers. According to 1 Timothy 3:2 anyone who aspires to the office of overseer in the church should be able to teach. What is a good teacher? I think a good teacher has at least the following characteristics.
- A good teacher asks himself the hardest questions, works through to answers, and then frames provocative questions for his learners to stimulate their thinking.
- A good teacher analyzes his subject matter into parts and sees relationships and discovers the unity of the whole.
- A good teacher knows the problems learners will have with his subject matter and encourages them and gets them over the humps of discouragement.
- A good teacher foresees objections and thinks them through so that he can answer them intelligently.
- A good teacher can put himself in the place of a variety of learners and therefore explain hard things in terms that are clear from their standpoint.
- A good teacher is concrete, not abstract, specific, not general, precise, not vague, vulnerable, not evasive.
- A good teacher always asks, “So what?” and tries to see how discoveries shape our whole system of thought. He tries to relate discoveries to life and tries to avoid compartmentalizing.
- The goal of a good teacher is the transformation of all of life and thought into a Christ-honoring unity.
10. A Good Judge of Character
Jesus knew the hearts of men (John 2:24–25) and he urged us to be perceptive in assessing others (Matthew 7:15–20.). Leaders must know who is fit for what kind of work. Good leaders have good noses. They can snoop out barnacles in a hurry; that is, people who are forever listening but never learning or changing. They can detect potential when they see it in a beginner. They can hear in a short time the echoes of pride and hypocrisy and worldliness. The spiritual leader steers a careful course between the dangers of rigid pigeonholing on the one hand and indifference on the other hand.
Paul said in Colossians 4:5–6, “Walk in wisdom toward outsiders, making the best use of the time. Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer each person.” And the writer of Proverbs said, “A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in a setting of silver” (Proverbs 25:11). We must remember that leaders are aiming to change hearts, not just to get jobs done.
Therefore, alienating people unnecessarily is self-defeating. Tact is that quality of grace that wins the confidence of people who are sure you won’t do or say something stupid. You can’t inspire a following if people have to hang their heads in embarrassment at the inappropriate and insensitive things you say or do. Tact is especially needed in a leader to help cope with embarrassing or tragic situations.
For example, very often when you are leading a group, someone will say something totally irrelevant, which is recognized to be very foolish by everyone in the group. A tactful leader must be able to divert the attention of the group back to the main course of the discussion without heaping scorn upon the individual.
Another example, which I recall, comes from my experience at Wheaton College. I was present at the chapel service where V. Raymond Edman had a heart attack in the pulpit and fell over and died. Hudson Armerding, who followed him as president, was sitting behind him when Dr. Edman paused in his lecture, took one step to the side, and fell over. In one of the most beautiful and sensitive demonstrations of tact that I have ever seen, Dr. Armerding quickly kneeled beside him as 2,000 students fell silent. Then he stood, led us in a brief prayer committing Dr. Edman to the Lord, and dismissed the students quietly. Dr. Edman died as we walked out.
The tact of a leader must demonstrate itself in forthright confrontation. The person who is unwilling to approach a person who needs admonition or rebuke will not be a successful spiritual leader. Combined with his judgment of people’s character, a leader’s tact will enable him to handle delicate negotiations and opposing viewpoints. His choice of words will be astute rather than clumsy. (There is a big difference between saying, “Your foot is too big for this shoe” and “This shoe is too small for your foot.”)
12. Theologically Oriented
Colossians 3:17 says, “Do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus.” First Corinthians 2:16 speaks of the spiritual man as having “the mind of Christ.” A spiritual leader knows that all of life, down to its smallest detail, has to do with God. If we are to lead people to see and reflect God’s glory, we must think theologically about everything. We must work toward a synthesis of all things. We must probe to see how things fit together. How do war and sports and pornography and birthday celebrations and literature and space travel and disease and enterprise all hang together? How do they relate to God and his purposes?
“A spiritual leader knows that all of life, down to its smallest detail, has to do with God.”
Leaders must have a theological standpoint that helps give coherence to all things. This will give the leader a stability that keeps him from being knocked off his feet by sudden changes in circumstances or new winds of doctrine. He knows enough about God and his ways that things generally fit into a pattern and make sense, even when they are unpleasant. So, the leader does not throw up his hands, but points the way onward to God.
13. A Dreamer
According to Joel 2:28, in the last days (in which we now live), “Your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions.” This is the positive counterpart to restlessness. We must not only be discontent with the present, but also dreaming dreams of what could be in the future. In 2 Kings 6:15–17, Elisha and his servant were surrounded by Assyrians in the city of Dothan. When the servant sees this and cries out with dismay, “Elisha prayed and said, ‘O Lord, please open his eyes that he may see.’ So the Lord opened the eyes of the young man, and he saw, and behold, the mountain was full of horses and chariots of fire all around Elisha.
Leaders can see the power of God overshadowing the problems of the future. This is a rare gift: to see the sovereign power of God in the midst of seemingly overwhelming opposition. Most people are experts at seeing all the problems and reasons not to move forward in a venture. Many pastors are ruined by boards who think that they have done their duty when they throw up every obstacle and problem to an idea that he brings. That’s cheap. Hope and solutions are expensive. The spirit of venturesomeness is at a premium today.
Oh, how we need people who will devote just five minutes a week to dream of what might possibly be. The text says that “old men shall dream dreams.” How sad it is, then, to see so many old people assuming that their age means that now they can coast and turn over the creativity to the young. It is tragic when age makes a man jaded instead of increasingly creative. Every new church, every agency, every new ministry, every institution, every endeavor, is the result of someone having a vision and laying hold on it like a snapping turtle.
14. Organized and Efficient
A leader does not like clutter. He likes to know where and when things are for quick access and use. His favorite shape is the straight line, not the circle. He groans in meetings that do not move from premises to conclusions, but rather go in irrelevant circles. When something must be done, he sees a three-step plan for getting it done and lays it out.
He sees the links between a board decision and its implementation. He sees ways to use time to the full and shapes his schedule to maximize his usefulness. He saves himself large blocks of time for his major productive activities. He uses little pieces of time lest they go to waste. (For example, what do you do while you are brushing your teeth? Could you set a magazine on the towel rack and read an article?)
A leader takes time to plan his days and weeks and months and years. Even though it is God who ultimately directs the steps of the leader, he should plan his path (Proverbs 16:9). A leader is not a jellyfish that gets tossed around by the waves, nor is he an oyster that is immovable. The leader is the dolphin of the sea and can swim against the stream or with the stream as he plans.
In 1 Kings 18:21 Elijah cries out, “How long will you go limping between two different opinions? If the Lord is God, follow him; but if Baal, then follow him.” A leader cannot be paralyzed by indecisiveness. He will take risks rather than do nothing. He will soak himself in prayer and in the word and then rest himself in God’s sovereignty as he makes decisions, knowing that he will very likely make some mistakes.
Jesus said in Matthew 24:13, “The one who endures to the end will be saved.” Paul said in Galatians 6:9, “Let us not grow weary of doing good.” We live in a day when immediate gratification is usually demanded. That means that very few people excel in the virtue of perseverance. Very few people keep on and keep on in the same ministry when there is significant difficulty.
Vision without perseverance, however, results in fairy tales not fruitful ministry. My dad once told me that the reason he thinks many pastors fail to see revival in their churches is that they leave just before it is about to happen. The long haul is hard, but it pays. The big tree is felled by many, many little chops. The criticisms that come your way will be long forgotten if you keep on doing the Lord’s will.
17. A Lover
Here I am speaking directly to men who are husbands and leaders. Paul said in Ephesians 5:25, “Husbands, love your wives.” Love her! Love her! What does it profit a man if he gains a great following and loses his wife? What have we led people to if they see that it leads us to divorce? What we need today are leaders who are great lovers: husbands who write poems for their wives and sing songs to their wives and buy flowers for their wives for no reason at all, except that they love them.
“What does it profit a man if he gains a great following and loses his wife?”
We need leaders who know that they should take a day alone with their wives every now and then; leaders who do not fall into the habit of deriding and putting their wives down, especially with careless little asides in public; leaders who speak well of their wives in public and complement them spontaneously when they are alone; leaders who touch her tenderly at other times besides when they are in bed.
One of the greatest temptations of a busy leader is to begin to treat his wife as a kind of sex object. It starts to manifest itself when the only time he ever kisses her passionately or touches her tenderly is when he’s trying to allure her into bed. It is a tragic thing when a wife becomes a mannequin for masturbation.
Learn what her delights are and bring her to the fullest experience of sexual climax. Talk with her and study her desires. Look her in the eye when you talk to her. Put down the phone and turn off the computer. Open the door for her. Help her with the dishes. Throw her a party. Love her! Love her! If you don’t, all your success as a leader will very likely explode in failure at home.
We began with the quality of restlessness and we end with the quality of restful. “Unless the Lord builds the house, those who build it labor in vain. Unless the Lord watches over the city, the watchman stays awake in vain. It is in vain that you rise up early and go late to rest, eating the bread of anxious toil; for he gives to his beloved sleep” (Psalm 127:1–2).
The spiritual leader knows that ultimately the productivity of his labors rests in God, and that God can do more while he is asleep than he could do while awake without God. He knows that Jesus said to his busy disciples, “Come away by yourselves to a desolate place and rest a while” (Mark 6:31). He knows that one of the Ten Commandments was, “Six days shall you labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God” (Exodus 20:9–10).
He is not so addicted to work that he is unable to rest. He is a good steward of his life and health. He maximizes the totality of his labor by measuring the possible strains under which he can work without diminishing his efficiency of unduly shortening his life.
There are no doubt many other qualities which could be mentioned which, if a person has, would make him an even more successful leader. These are simply the ones that came to my mind as I was pondering this subject. One need not excel in every one of them. But the more fully each one is developed in a person, the more powerful and fruitful he will be as a leader.
Let me emphasize again that it is the inner circle that makes the leadership spiritual. All genuine leadership begins in a sense of desperation — knowledge that we are helpless sinners in need of a great Savior. That moves us to listen to God in his word and to cry out to him for help and for insight in prayer. That leads us to trust in God and to hope in his great and precious promises. That frees us for a life of love and service which, in the end, causes people to see and give glory to our Father in heaven.