This week, we continue our series Ask Mission Central, where we tackle real questions on spiritual life from emerging Christian leaders. Subscribe to get the next post in your inbox!
Ask Mission Central: Question 25
How is spiritual formation relevant to our present moment?
The Christian world has been inundated in recent months with one story after another of leadership failure—from small missteps to full-blown catastrophes. Although there have always been stories of Christian leaders crashing, it feels like we’re in the middle of a new reckoning. At least in my circles, I have more friends than ever before who fit into the category that pastor Mike Moore has called the “Umms”—believers with “a strong commitment to Jesus and a desire to be part of the church, but [who] are not active in a local congregation” for one reason or another. Many of them have left a church due to a leadership crisis or leadership failure, but haven’t yet found their way to a spiritual home again.
This generation of Christians may be experiencing a moment in relation to church leadership akin to the end of Richard Nixon’s presidency: The aftermath of the Vietnam War and the Watergate scandal eroded trust in our political institutions, and that trust has never recovered. The current stew of unhealthy church dynamics is catalyzing a reduction in confidence that could last for decades.
Strong Enough for the Weight
So, what’s to be done? There’s no silver bullet for restoring faith in our leaders, but I think that a basic principle of spiritual formation can provide clarity: Growing leadership responsibility can only be faithfully sustained by a commensurately growing depth of character. That’s how spiritual formation is relevant to our present moment. It provides a lens through which to see these cultural crises as a matter of what kind of spirit has been formed in a person, in a leader, and in a community. That spirit—that character—is what we should be looking for as we find a way forward.
Leadership responsibility is like a weight. As it grows—as the leader is making the call on more decisions, shepherding more people, or gaining more cultural influence—it presses down upon the soul of the leader. Discouraging stories of leaders crashing are, most often, the result of a heavy leadership burden cracking a relatively flimsy character foundation.
When engineers review bridges for safety, they establish weight limits. Sometimes, an older bridge has its limit downgraded to better reflect what it can safely carry. Just down the road from my house, there’s a bridge over a stream. A couple of weeks ago, a sign was posted that says “New 12 Ton Limit” to alert truckers. In the past, heavier trucks were allowed to use that bridge, but now they’ll have to take a detour. In fact, when bridges are downgraded, often special detour routes are established to ensure no one’s tempted to ignore the sign.
How We Discern Leadership Readiness
One of the challenges that any community faces is the need for leadership competence. Is there someone in the room who can help things happen, who can energize people, who can execute projects? Those are real needs. Living in a community without effective leadership is a murky ordeal. Conflicts fester unresolved, vision dissipates, and inertia takes over. The side of leadership that solves these problems is like the weight of a truck; it’s the freight that needs to get from one side of the bridge to the other.
When we discern whether someone is ready for leadership, it’s good to check on the freight. Has this person shown that they can do the kind of things that a certain leadership role requires? Are they able to serve people well in the tasks of leadership?
But we also need to check the bridge before we can say with confidence that someone is ready to lead. Has this person shown a depth of character that matches the weight they will carry? Have they been “faithful in little” (Luke 16:10)? The most important leadership roles need to be filled by the most trustworthy, proven people.
Leadership Selection is Character Selection
Do you know how leadership selection works in your community? If not, this is a great opportunity to find out. Ask one of your leaders: How does someone get chosen to lead a small group or a ministry team? How about to preach or teach, or to provide pastoral care? To be ordained?
In many communities, the processes for leadership selection are informal, and that’s not necessarily a problem. You don’t need every small group leader to fill out a ten-page application and take a battery of psychological tests. But you do need someone to be asking appropriate questions not just about what that person can do, but also about who they are.
I once attended a training that encouraged church leaders to “rapidly promote” young leaders, keeping the level of challenge that they experience commensurate with their level of skill. That way they keep growing, and are able to multiply their ministry over time rather than stagnating.
A vision for multiplication is thoroughly biblical, of course. The book of Acts conveys the joy of how “the churches were strengthened in the faith and increased in numbers daily” (16:5 NRSV). That verse describes the fruit of Paul and Timothy’s ministry. But I find it intriguing that when Paul later provides counsel on leadership selection to Timothy, he urges a slow, measured approach. For those in line to serve in the office of deacon, Paul writes, “let them first be tested; then, if they prove themselves blameless, let them serve as deacons” (1 Timothy 3:10 NRSV).
In other words, leadership selection is character selection. It doesn’t matter how effective, skilled, charismatic, or otherwise qualified someone appears to be; if they aren’t growing in godliness, they shouldn’t hold positions of influence in the church. Period.
This is an easier concept to embrace on paper than in practice. When there are problems that need to be solved, small groups that need to be led, ministries that need to be strengthened, it’s easy to turn a blind eye to character issues to “fill spots.” But that approach erodes the substance of the ministry that’s being done. It’s better to do less with a heart-steady team than do more and live through the inevitable crash later.
Creating Safe Detours
Part of the pressure that pastors and other leaders face is the expectation that things will always be bigger and better. An annual report with graphs that point upward and to the right is usually well-received. Rightly stewarding resources does matter, and often numerical or financial growth is a sign of energy and responsibility. But it’s even more important for church leaders to steward the spiritual well-being of their communities. Sometimes, doing the right thing results in “failures” in numerical terms.
Jesus’ own movement got smaller before it got bigger. The Gospel of John in particular highlights the pattern, describing how “many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him” (6:66 NRSV). Jesus was more concerned about spiritual integrity than about his personal popularity, and that had consequences. His annual report did not look good in year three.
Contemporary examples parallel that faithfulness. Co-pastors Kent Carlson and Mike Lueken tell the story of how their church got smaller, before growing again, when they got serious about spiritual formation. I think of other leaders I know who have contentedly served in obscurity rather than pursue more influential positions, because they felt the Lord calling them to stay. Their stability has borne fruit in countless ways, even though their flocks have remained small.
We need to give permission for such stories. We need safe detours for our leaders, instead of always pushing them to put more freight over the bridge. It’s okay to have annual reports that plateau from the previous year, or even trend downward. It’s okay to do less in order to do it with the right people at the right time. It’s okay for a pastor to take a sabbatical, and not come back with a book draft! (Although book-writing sabbaticals still count.)
It’s also okay for a leader to say, “I can’t hack this anymore.” While putting healthy boundaries in place can make many forms of pastoral leadership sustainable for the long term, it’s not necessarily a spiritual failure to step down when the time is right. Many pastors who have deeply hurt others and succumbed to destructive temptations just felt like they couldn’t leave. There was no escape hatch; no off-ramp from the ministry pressure.
You can help create healthy off-ramps and pressure-release valves at your church. Ask your board (or equivalent team) if there are structures in place for protecting pastors’ and other leaders’ well-being. Consider suggesting that a team use a well-researched guide to develop a “pastor protection plan.” Informal touchpoints help, too. If you’re old enough for it not to be awkward, take your pastor out for coffee and ask how they’re doing.
Seeing the Unseen
All of this discussion of discerning character in leaders hinges on seeing the unseen. You can’t x-ray someone’s soul or get an MRI of their virtues and vices. Whenever a community invites someone to lead, they do it pleading for the grace of God, who sees what we cannot.
Even though we can’t see, we can ask questions that raise perspectives and stories about someone’s maturity (or lack thereof). When we ask someone to step into leadership, let’s ask those kinds of questions first. Here are a few that might help:
- Have they ever owned a failure, acknowledged it, and made amends?
- Are they “the same person” in public and in private?
- Do they use words—and especially humor—in a way that builds up, instead of tearing down?
- Do they ask for help?
- Can they state their own limits honestly? Do they know how to say ‘no’?
- Are they responsive and humble when receiving correction?
- Can they maintain a posture of patience and gentleness when dealing with someone who is upset?
- Do they demonstrate self-control in regards to alcohol and other substances?
- Are they faithful to their spouse, or in their celibacy?
- Are they willing to serve in obscurity?
- Do they sacrifice comfort in order to serve others?
- Are they generous with their resources?
- Are they willing to disappoint people by doing the right thing?
- Is their love for Jesus the heartbeat of their life?
Even apart from any leadership role, these are good questions for all of us to ask of ourselves. As we prepare for Good Friday and Easter, let’s reflect on how Jesus’ life is taking shape in ours. We always have room to keep growing, to keep building a foundation strong enough to hold all that the Lord is inviting us into.
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