Over the last three years, my dear friend and colleague, Dr. Mark Fowler has invited me to speak to his leadership class about the spiritual challenges that a leader in the church faces.
It is generous of him. A deeply thoughtful scholar and practitioner, he hardly needs me to remind his class of the spiritual challenges that attend the task of providing leadership for the church. But I’ve appreciated the invitation and the event has become something of a spiritual exercise for me.
Preparing each year for the conversation has given me the opportunity to answer the question:
Just what has sustained me over the years?
It isn’t an easy question to answer. Life in the church is a gift. But life in the church can also be tough. Along the way there are occasions for disillusionment, grief, and anger, particularly when the promise of life in the church falls short of its promise.
How can something that promises so much bring so much pain to laity and clergy alike?
The answer, I believe, is that the powers set against the things of God will subvert any good for its own purposes. And the best of God’s gifts are the ones most likely to be used against God and the good in our lives and in the lives of others.
So, where do we find spiritual refuge and – more importantly – spiritual strength and endurance?
This is part of my answer to that question this year. I hope that you will offer your own answers in the comments section below.
One, be clear about what you believe to be “the church.”
In theological jargon, get an ecclesiology that will sustain you.
Inadequate understandings of the church will emphasize bureaucracy, organizational values, and rules. The understanding of the church as the body of Christ is a far larger vision.
Understood as the body of Christ, the church is not an organization. It is the instrument of salvation and, more significantly, it is our spiritual destiny. We were saved in order to be a part of that body.
That may be “theology,” but spirituality is deeply theological and I am sustained by this understanding of the church. If the church was simply an organization, I could walk away from the hard places with ease. But because I am convinced that the church is our “spiritual destiny,” I don’t believe that it can be abandoned with carefree disregard.
In Protestantism it is common to define what it means to be a clergy person or a lay leader in terms of what we do. “I preach. I celebrate communion. I provide leadership in worship. I organize our outreach program.”
Two, remember that to be called to be a clergy person or as a lay leader is a call to be an embodied reminder that a relationship with God is possible. It’s not about what you do, it is about who you are.
The difficulty with this fairly superficial definition of what it means to be ordained and what it means to be a member of the body of Christ is that “doing” can be held at arm’s length without it touching us.
The deeper dimension of a vocation in the church is about the person we’ve become. We are called to remind others that it is possible to experience God, to receive God’s love, to find new meaning for life in God’s presence.
A third thing that sustains me spiritually is conviction, the conviction that there is a reliable truth to be found in the Gospel that changes everything.
The modern and post-modern understandings of theology have reduced the Gospel to something that might be interesting, illuminating, poetically inspired, or a useful vocabulary for our politics. But that hardly counts as something durable, transformative, and dependable.
To survive as a leader is to believe that you have something larger and more enduring than any gift of your own — in short, a gift from God. Let that conviction carry you.
A fourth spiritual resource is integration.
Only the integrated survive. They not only share the Gospel, it enlivens them. They own and live the word that they preach. They pray.
There is nothing that will rob you more quickly of energy and a capacity for commitment, than a lack of integration. Many of us make the mistake of carrying on without that integration, but there is nothing sadder to witness, nor anything more corrosive to effective leadership.
A fifth resource is spiritual authority.
“Authority” has become something of a dirty word in our culture and, as a result, leaders are often either diffident or abusive in their use of it.
The difficulty lies in our understanding of authority itself. It is not about power. It is about the conservation of the creative space in the churches that we lead.
When we grasp that fact, we abandon the zero-sum game of getting and retaining power and, instead, we ask, “What are the life-giving dimensions of the churches of which we are a part?” Attention to that question focuses our energy on what matters: The conservation of a safe, sacramental, God-given space in which people can find God and be nurtured on their journey into God.
It also reminds us that the effort in which we are engaged is God’s work, not ours.
image by ddpavumba, used with permission from freedigitalphotos.net