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?
In Part 1 of this post, we explored how spiritual formation informs the current loss of faith in Christian leaders: Growing leadership responsibility can only be faithfully sustained by a commensurately growing depth of character.
In this Part 2, I’d like to bring a more individual focus: How can you personally keep your leadership in sync with your own spiritual maturity? All of us need humility to suppose there are levels of leadership that we may not be spiritually ready for, regardless of our other competencies. If we aspire to lead in a certain way, we need to be able to ask: Am I ready for this? Do I have the character it takes to lead well at that level?
I’d like to offer three images that can help each of us who may lead answer those questions:
- A mirror
- A shadow
- A cliff
Let’s look at each of these images in turn.
A Mirror: Communal Discernment
When we ask if we’re ready for a leadership role, we need to do some soul-searching. What’s going on inside of us? But when we do that interior exploration, our vision isn’t 20/20. All of us have biases that skew our self-evaluations. (And this skewing may manifest itself in both under- and overestimating our maturity or abilities.) On the one hand, arriving at a more accurate view of ourselves is part of maturity itself. As the Apostle Paul writes, “Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment” (Romans 12:3 NIV). On the other hand, that more mature view of self may include admitting that we can’t fully escape our skewed self-perceptions.
We need someone outside of us to hold up a mirror, to help us grasp the truth about ourselves. When we allow someone else to speak into our lives, we gain perspective we couldn’t come to on our own. Asking for this kind of input can be scary. (What if we don’t like what we hear?) But if we can find the courage to open up to another’s voice—provided they are trustworthy and kind—our vulnerability will be rewarded.
Sometimes a formal structure may help us come face to face with our strengths and weaknesses. In a church context, a discernment committee can consider whether someone is appropriate for a given leadership role—and if they’re not, tell them why in gentle but frank terms. In a professional setting, it may look like a manager determining who gets a certain promotion, and having an honest conversation with each person who applied for it about why things shook out like they did.
Even apart from such formal instances, we can build a habit of inviting others’ frank input in our lives. Asking for feedback from those who know us well takes guts, but it’s worth it.
A Shadow: Your Leadership Dark Side
As you acquire feedback from others about your character and performance, keep track of comments that consistently surface. There may be relatively stable weaknesses that you notice. If, for example, someone notes that you tend to talk over others, your initial reaction may be, Well, I’m not really rude in the way that I do it. I don’t do it that often. Maybe they just caught me at a bad moment. And you might be right. But if another person says the same thing, some time later: Pay attention. People are often hesitant to speak critically. If two people have voiced the same concern on different occasions, it’s probably because they’re seeing something real about you.
The patterns that others mention along these lines may be changeable. Talking over other people is a behavior. It can be unlearned. But that behavior likely comes out of a bent of character. There’s an emotional and spiritual source of the words that we speak and the way that we speak them. Addressing the underlying issue may involve more difficult steps than just changing the surface behavior. You may need to confront painful emotions. You may need to repent of sin. Likely, you’ll need to do both. The weaknesses that surface in our leadership are indicators of the work that needs to be done in our souls.
While the Holy Spirit can make real changes in our souls over time, which will manifest themselves in our changed behavior, the patterns we discover may also indicate relatively stable aspects of our personality. If you sometimes speak over others in your eagerness to communicate an idea, you may have a strong idea-sharing bias. That bias itself is not a sin. Even as you grow in the virtue of self-control and become more able to listen to others, you probably won’t become a person who doesn’t feel eager to share the ideas that come to you when speaking with others.
To state the same trait in the negative: You are sometimes tempted to care more about ideas than about people. That’s part of your leadership dark side. Even if you grow a great deal, you will likely be tempted in that same direction, so to speak, in the future. You have a shadow that follows you as a leader. It will still be there on the last day you lead this side of glory, even if it gets smaller year by year. Getting to know its shape will help you cooperate with God in limiting its destructive effects.
The Cliff: Leading with Zeal
We need to meditate on our weaknesses. Leaders whose self-confidence admits no room for correction are part of the problem. On the other hand, as we’ve noted, we can underestimate ourselves, too. Looking at all the ways that leadership can go bad may lead us to hesitate about leadership altogether. That hesitance may be necessary for a time, even healing. But, if you’re someone with a tendency toward leadership, it is rarely the right stopping place. The answer to leadership troubles is not the absence of leadership, but rather the formation of healthy leaders. If we are growing into the character of Christ, his life will work its way into our leadership, like yeast through a batch of dough. In his care, it becomes possible to love others by leading them.
In the same chapter where Paul recommends considering oneself with sober judgment, he also says this: “We have different gifts, according to the grace given to each of us. If your gift is . . . to lead, do it diligently” (Romans 12:6,8 NIV). Or, as another translation puts it: “the one who leads, [do it] with zeal” (Romans 12:8 ESV). Leadership is a gift from the Holy Spirit, a challenge to embrace, a means of love.
Stepping into leadership may feel like going cliff-jumping. There’s a risk. It may make us nervous. But there’s a big river below, waiting to catch us. The same Holy Spirit that gifts people for leadership can empower them to grow in the character needed to sustain leadership well. If we invite the discernment of others, take our own dark side seriously, and keep seeking to grow, the Spirit will do his work in us and through us.
So ask with humility: Am I ready for this?
And then, lead with zeal.
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