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Spiritual Leadership

J Oswald Sanders (1917-1992) was a Christian leader for seventy years.  He wrote more than forty books on the Christian life including one book I dip into often, The Incomparable Christ. He was the director of the China Inland Mission (Overseas Missionary Fellowship), where he was instrumental in beginning many new missions projects throughout East Asia. 

Spiritual Leadership encourages the church to pray for and develop Spirit empowered leaders. People who are guided by and devoted to the Lord Jesus Christ. The book presents the key principles of spiritual leadership. He illustrates his points with examples from Scripture and biographies of men who have led the people of God in history. 

The book has 20 chapters. I have tried to summarise the main conclusions of these chapters under five key questions. Most of the ideas presented in this article are directly from the book. But I have  communicated these ideas in my own way, except where direct quotes are given. Towards the end, I offer one or two additional areas for further reflection.  

What is spiritual leadership?

Spiritual leadership is leadership that influences others through the empowerment of God the Spirit. All leadership is about influence. In the secular world, this influence is exerted on others through the power of personality. The spiritual leader, in contrast, “influences others not by the power of his own personality but by that personality radiated and interpenetrated and empowered by the Holy Spirit”. He permits the Holy Spirit undisputed control of his life, who in turn enables us to powerfully influence others to the glory of God. 

Secular leaders are self-made, unless of course they are a “Manchurian candidate”. Spiritual leaders on the other hand are never self-made. True spiritual leadership is conferred by God the Spirit who enables us to be obedient to God to achieve through us what He has in mind. The end goal of all true spiritual leadership is building up the Kingdom of our Lord Jesus Christ. God the Spirit enables us to work towards this goal by empowering us to serve God with unselfishness and unceasing drive. 

God wants His people to be led by true spiritual leaders. But we cannot demand it or force ourselves to become true spiritual leaders. God confers such leadership on whoever he pleases to confer it upon. What we need to do, is to earnestly desire to be true spiritual leaders and seek it from God through prayer. If we have been called to serve by God in some leadership capacity, we should pray to God to make us leaders that are powerfully led by His Spirit. 

It is not a sin to aspire to be a great spiritual leader. What is important is our motive. If we are aspiring to be great for us, then we have lost direction. We should want to be great for the Kingdom of our Lord Jesus Christ. Most importantly we must see greatness great leaders as Jesus defines greatness. To seek to be great spiritual leaders is to choose to be the lowliest of servants for Jesus. Growing in spiritual leadership is growing in servanthood. It is choosing to be a doormat for the Kingdom!

What are the qualifications of a spiritual leader?

Given that spiritual leadership is leadership influenced by God, it is not a surprise that the most important qualification of a spiritual leader is being filled with God the Spirit. Sanders says, “spiritual leadership can be exercised only by Spirit-filled men, other qualifications are desirable. This is the indispensable”. 

Throughout the Bible we see that the empowerment of God the Spirit is a prerequisite for ministry (e.g. Judges, Prophets. Apostles). All spiritual leaders in the Bible were  filled and led by God the Spirit. To be filled with the Spirit means to be controlled by God the Spirit. Intellect, will, emotions and as well as physical powers, are all brought under His authority. When God the Spirit does that everything, including our natural abilities, are transformed to great impact for Him. 

The human hindrance to being filled with God the Spirit is sin. Therefore, repentance and surrender must be at the heart of every spiritual leader. There must be within us a deep and constant crying to God to take full and unreserved control of our lives. When God the Spirit is in full control of our lives, and by His Will, has set us apart for leadership, he produces qualities in us necessarily for spiritual leadership. These include self-control, independence of thought and direction, wisdom in face of criticism, and patience in our relationship with difficult people. 

The apostle Paul provides the most comprehensive list of qualities that we should expect to find in Spirit empowered leaders. In his letters to Timothy and Titus, Paul observes observes that a leader must have a good social reputation; moral consistency; live a well ordered life which comes from a well ordered mind; warm and inviting to strangers; not greedy or driven by money; manage his family responsibly; and must be spiritually experienced or matures. 

The apostle Peter in his first letter to the churches in Asia Minor emphasises the importance of having the right motive for leadership. We need to know why God has called into leadership. It must not be for selfish interest that manifests itself in dictatorial behaviour. Rather leaders must be a God honouring example to others by putting on the servant heart of our Lord Jesus Christ. 

In addition to these qualities, Sanders highlights the need for a leader to have discipline. He says, “only the disciplined person will rise to his highest powers”. A person is able to lead others only because he has conquered himself sufficiently to do what he puts his mind to. True spiritual leaders are disciplined  people because without discipline it is not possible to fulfil the vision God has led on our hearts for the group of people we are leading.  

All spiritual leadership has vision or foresight on where God wants us to take His people. And executing this vision requires discipline to follow through with the vision. It also requires the wisdom to make the right decisions in implementing that vision and the courage to carry out the decisions. Good leaders make  right, decisive and timely decisions. Doing that requires moral and physical courage to face consequences, as well as the humility to let God be honoured in all circumstances rather than us.  

In leading people, it is also important that leaders are patient. Sanders defines a patient leader as someone who allows everyone else to keep pace with him, without forfeiting leadership. The image he seems to have in mind is that of an experienced running coach. The patience of a leader should be supplemented with humour. Leaders should have the capacity to light then moment and inject humour. Humour is something that can be cultivated and deployed appropriately. 

At the opposite end,  leaders should also have a righteous anger that fuels them to act with courage in unjust situations. Our Lord Jesus displayed anger a few times. However, we need to remember that anger is like a machine gun. In the hand of one who is self-controlled it is effective. But not in all of us, especially in us fallen creatures. It is one thing for Jesus to get angry, it is quite another for us. There is therefore need for us to walk closely with the Lord if we are to be appropriately zealous for Him.

Sanders discusses many other qualities mentioned in book. For example, leaders must have the capacity to forge food friendships. Friendship is important because though leaders can be successful in isolation, it is rare. Even one-man army John Wicks needs friends to stay alive. Friendship does not eliminate the possibility that you may have to stand alone. The other important are inspiration, executive ability, and diplomacy (peace-making). 

What is the job description of a spiritual leader?  

We can divide the responsibilities of a leader between short term (immediate) and long term (strategic). The short term responsibilities are:

  • Leaders are called to serve true leader is called to seek after the welfare of others rather than his comfort and prestige. 
  • Leaders are called to discipline those under their leadership in order to maintain a godly and divine standard in matters of faith, morals and Christian conduct.
  • Leaders are called to guide and shepherd those under his care, though this is not always easy when people have strong opinions. 
  • Leaders are called to initiate things rather than being mere conserve. Effective leaders lead from the front with vision and courage, cautiously taking appropriate risks.

The long term responsibilities are two-fold. First, we must ensure that we are leading in such a way that his vision survives his exit. The quality of leadership is in how the organisation survives when the leader steps off the stage. Often the value of a leader is revealed when they are no longer there. And when they are gone if the work is of the Lord and has been led faithfully, new faithful leaders will emerge. If the work is of God, nothing will overthrow it. 

Secondly, the leader must work reproduce and multiply himself. Leaders must devote time to train and mentoring a younger generation to succeed and even supersede them. If the leader is to be effective, he must “cease to be a performer and become more of a trainer”. Raising spiritual leaders is about raising saints and servants. Developing leaders is most fruitful and strategic when it focuses on developing their spiritual potential. 

This requires modelling our training on the training given by our Lord to the apostles and the training Paul gave to Timothy. They both were effective leaders who focuses on reproduction of future leaders. There is a sense in which Paul recognised he was dispensable. In developing new leaders it is also important to be flexible. We should not try and fit people into a mould. We must recognise that “God has his irregulars”. This inevitably requires patience and discernment as we mentor those who will come after us.

One areas that is both a quality and responsibility of leadership is delegation. It is a quality because delegation is difficult to do. It is a matter of judgement. Lack of delegation may reveal other problem s with our leadership. For example our failure to delegate may be due to pride and insecurity, self-dependence and rather than God dependent. Delegation is a responsibility because if we are going to empower people around us, it is important we learn to get things done through others rather than doing them ourselves. 

What challenges and dangers do spiritual leaders face? 

The most effective the spiritual leader, the higher the price he will pay in his life for leadership. True leadership, “always exacts a heavy toll on the whole man”. This price is often gradual and greater each day. True leadership is cruciform. That is to says, “a cross stands in the way of leadership, a cross upon which the leader must be willing to be impale”. 

This sacrifice of leadership is painful. And the degree to which we allow the cross of Christ to work in us will be the measure by which the resurrection life of Christ will be manifested through us. To evade the cross is to evade leadership. Most importantly, “nothing moves people more than the print of nails and the mark of the spear”. These are tests of the sincerity of our leadership which no one can challenge (Galatians 6:17). 

One of the main costs of leadership is loneliness. The very nature of leadership is a lonely one. The leader often finds himself saying, “I have no one, no one but God”.  Many of the people in the Bible, especially the prophets were the loneliest of men. Those entrusted with a prophetic message that cuts across of the prevailing age are lonely in their service to God. As A W Tozer notes, “most of the world’s great souls have been lonely…loneliness seems to be the price a saint must pay for his saintliness”. 

Then there is fatigue. Fatigue comes to leaders because “if a leader is not willing to rise earlier and stay stay up later than others, to work harder and study more diligently than his contemporaries, he will not greatly influence his generation”. A leader must be willing to pay the price of fatigue, or he will always be mediocre. However, Sanders is quick to add that if the leader is wise, “he will seize every legitimate opportunity for recuperation and recreation, or he will limit his own useful and ministry”.  The case of Robert Murray McCheyne comes to mind who at the age of 29 on his death bed said, “God gave me a message to deliver and a horse to ride. Alas, I have killed the horse and now I cannot deliver the message”. There is no virtue in flogging the tired horse to dead. 

Then there are costs which are imposed on us by others. Top of the list is criticism. No matter how effective a leader is they will face criticism. No leader is exempt from it. We must respond to criticism with humility. We must also be prepared for the possibility of being rejected by people we are leading. Sanders believes that “no man is ever fully accepted until he has first of all been utterly rejected”. 

In addition to pressures from outside, we face pressures from within.  All leaders face temptation to deviate from the path of spiritual leadership. We may be tempted to compromise, partial waving of principle for the sake of success or acceptance – a scaling down of standards. This may take the form of “not breaking completely with the world”; or “don’t be so radical about Jesus, stay near to the world as much as you can”, or “serve God on your own, but don’t take your family with you”We may also face the temptation to pursue our own ambitions. To be somebody rather than just serve God. 

The most dangerous temptations are those we are not able to detect easily. One such temptation is egotism. We may be tempted to consider everything in relation to one self rather than in relation to God and welfare of other people. Another insidious temptation is popularity. Our success makes us vulnerable to the pressure of other people. It tempts us hold onto to whatever success we are enjoying by sinful methods and practices. And we can quite easily become ruled by the desire to have more and more! In the process we cease to prophets who declare the truth of God and become mere managers who please people to maintain our success. 

In thinking about the costs of leadership, we must not forget that leadership not imposes costs on us, it also brings costs to other people in our lives, especially wives and children. I believe this is one of the reasons many of us underperform in our Christian life and run away from taking up leadership responsibility. Many of us are able to carry the cross for ourselves but it is heavier when those closest to us also have to carry or it or even worse are encouraging us to put it down. A leader can only bear the cost to His family by keeping the Gospel central and looking daily to the empowerment of the Spirit.  

What activities or habits enable a spiritual leader to succeed? 

There are three important habits we need to have to be effective spiritual leaders. The first habit is that we must be people of prayer. Powerful leaders are those who are able to move God to act on their behalf. We cannot reach people directly especially in changing their hearts. Only God can do this. So the way to do it is to pray earnestly to God to act on our behald. 

How do we become successful in our prayers before God? Sanders offers three directions.  First, we must seek the glory of God in prayer. Secondly, we must believe and have faith in God to act. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, we must pray according to God the Holy Spirit. We must ask God to help us pray and  “wrestle in the spiritual realm”. Sanders believes that we should not only pray for people and but learn to pray against Satan. Unfortunately, he does not explain what he means by praying against Satan. 

The second habit is that we must manage our time well. Effective leadership requires effective and productive management of our time. We must invest our time in things that will last for eternity. We have all the time in the world to do that which God has planned for us. No one has more time than the other. We just differ on how we use this time. To ensure effective use of our time, we must make sure we plan each day and stick to the plan. I suspect this is the biggest weakness for many of us. 

Sanders observes that our Lord Jesus is best model for managing time. And he also notes that who have served the Lord with distinction have been people who have managed their time well. For example, the intrepid missionary Mary Slessor, who later became known as ‘The White Queen of Okoyongo’, was the daughter of a drunkard. She commenced working in a factory in Dundee at the age of eleven, working from 6am until 6pm. Yet this gruelling schedule did not stop her from educating herself for her notable career. 

Similarly, David Livingstone used to work in a cotton mill in Dumbarton from 6am until 8pm. He commenced work when he was 10 years old. He could have been excused if he decided he had no time to study. Instead, young David utilised his “leisure” hours that he master Latin by the age of 16 years. By the time he was 27 years old, he had battled his way through a medical course, as well as a course in theology. 

The final habit of effective spiritual leaders is reading. Spiritual and intellectual grow requires reading of invaluable books, alongside the Word of God. It is not the quantity of books of that matter, it is the quality. We must read books for: spiritual growth; mental stimulation; cultivation of my gifts; and acquiring new information. We all have to time to read but we must be disciplined in our reading.

As we read, we must make distinctions between books that are “close family”, “friendly” and mere acquaintances on the way. Good reading discriminates between books and is focused on enriching the soul. So as we read, we must make good notes along the way and thinking carefully about what I am reading. We should also regularly re-read books that we find tremendously helpful so that we would grow and be nourished through it. 

Additional areas for reflection

Spiritual Leadership is a must read for all Christian leaders today. The discussion of the range of qualities needed to be a spiritual leader is the most comprehensive I have ever come across, outside the Bible. However, the downside is that what is gained by breadth is sacrificed in depth. Sanders does not explore in sufficient detail how the many qualities discussed look like in practice, or how they relate to each other. 

However, he does briefly put flesh on this in the final chapter with a biographical sketch Nehemiah. The problem is that even then he does not tell us how the qualities are  to cultivated or whether indeed they can be. I suppose one could argue that given Sanders probably believes the spiritual leader gets these qualities developed by the ongoing filling of the Spirit. But that is only a guess at best because the role of the Spirit in the cultivation of these gifts is not discussed. 

The other point is that that puzzled me is that Sanders does not make the obvious point that the qualities discussed in the book are desirable for all professing faith in Jesus to have because everyone is a leader. It would have also been good to have seen more discussion about what differences we should see in those who lead publicly and those who exercise other forms of leadership (e.g. as a parent, husband, etc). How does spiritual leadership look like in those equally important areas?

In additional to the above concerns, there are one or two places where Sander’s reading of Scripture and theology is not clear. For example, he argues early on the disciples after Pentecost exhibited great spiritual leadership because the flame of the Holy Spirit had “consumed their carnal ambition in the Pentecostal conflagration”. There is certainly a powerful step change to their leadership after Pentecost. However, it is important to remember that Pentecost did not stop Peter making a disastrous mistake at Antioch. Being Holy Spirit led does not mean we wont make disastrous mistakes. It would have been helpful to have seen this point explored more deeply. 

These concerns aside the book does make an invaluable contribution in deepening our understanding of the core elements of good Christian leadership.

Copyright © Chola Mukanga 2020


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