I was recently asked to speak to a church staff on the importance of a leader’s devotional life. With Bono’s disclaimer that ‘you preach what you need to hear’, here is the drift of what I said.
A key verse (albeit with a spiritualised interpretation) is Song of Solomon 1:6 –
My mother’s sons were angry with me; they made me keeper of the vineyards, but my own vineyard I have not kept!
So here are four reasons why leaders might find it challenging to maintain their devotional life and four reasons why it matters:
There is a lot to do! Which means that various things jostle for attention and priority. It can be tempting to be drawn to what can be measured (how many hours we worked, how many people we counselled); but what if the things that matter cannot actually be measured? The story of Mary and Martha is a reminder that there are times when we can get so weighed down by the list of what needs done (or what we think needs done) that we serve from resentment rather than from the overflow of devoted hearts.
We get distracted! Richard Foster said that ‘distraction is the primary spiritual problem in our day’. Aside from our preoccupation with the mountain of tasks that are calling for our attention, there are our own inner thoughts – our preoccupations, fears, confusion and questions. And there can be the ubiquitous distractions of our social media feeds on-demand news cycles.
Ministry becomes a substitute for devotion and we become professional Christians. At times it takes the form of thinking that once we’re ‘in ministry’, we have somehow graduated beyond the need for the normal routines of the Christian life. Or the fact that we read the Bible for our sermons and talks somehow exempts us from reading it for ourselves.
The problem of routine. ‘Discipline’ sounds harsh and some of us see routine as the enemy of spontaneity, or even a pathway to ‘legalism’. It’s true that routines can become ruts, but without structure we’re at the mercy of our moods and circumstances, and routines help us not to forget.
The trouble is, as soon as you sit and become quiet, you think, Oh, I forgot this. I should call my friend. Later on I’m going to see him. Your inner life is like a banana tree filled with monkeys jumping up and down (Henri Nouwen).
And why is any of this important?
We are followers before we are leaders. Or, as a good friend of mine puts it, God has called us to be shepherds, but some of us have forgotten we are still sheep.
Jesus had different priorities than teaching us to lead. ‘Follow’, however, comes up explicitly over thirty times in the Gospels. Whether or not all of us or anyone are called to leadership is not at stake; we are all called to be followers. Discipleship is first and foremost about following. Disciple indicates one who follows Jesus, ‘a relationship that involves both commitment and cost (Arthur Boers).
Our best leadership flows from who we are. Leadership is not merely a set of functions carried out by a leader: the next leadership is the leader expressing who they are. The best Christian leadership is an overflow of who the leader is being shaped to be in God.
We need to find strength in God. Leadership is challenging and there are times when leaders are overwhelmed and their own resources are insufficient. A seasoned leader once told me that ‘probably one of the greatest things you need to learn on leadership … is the ability to strengthen yourself in God’.
Leaders need to know that God loves them. This has been a theme in some of the leaders’ stories that have been shared with me, both in my research and in my Leadership Journey podcasts. In the middle of all the remarkable events and challenges of his leadership, what must it have meant to Moses to hear God say, ‘You have found favour in my sight, and I know you by name’?
Pastors often slip into the trap of building their identities around their roles and performance rather than being beloved children of God and co-heirs with Christ. Pastors need to pursue growth in their understanding of and feelings concerning God’s acceptance (from Resilient Ministry).
Drop Thy still dews of quietness, Till all our strivings cease; Take from our souls the strain and stress, And let our ordered lives confess The beauty of Thy peace. Breathe through the heats of our desire Thy coolness and Thy balm; Let sense be dumb, let flesh retire; Speak through the earthquake, wind, and fire, O still, small voice of calm!
After a break over the summer, the Leadership Journey Podcast is back this week. The guest on the first three episodes of this new season is Philip Emerson. Philip is one of the lead pastors at Emmanuel Church in Lurgan, a church that was birthed in his living room over 20 years ago.
In this first episode Phil talks about growing up around the shore of Lough Neagh where he came to faith as a child and quickly developed a love for God and a zeal to serve him and tell other people about him. He discusses some of the people who most influenced him and some of the factors in the development of his leadership.
On a practical note, he shares how he has learned leadership through the years by intentionally seeking out the counsel and wisdom of more experienced leaders.
AND… have you ever heard anyone say that their duck’s a swan? Listen carefully!
For your own reflection:
Do you think leaders are born or made?
How intentional are you about learning from leaders who are farther along the path of leadership (and may be much stronger leaders) than you?
Malcolm Duncan, Senior Pastor of Dundonald Elim Church, is back for a third week.
He talks about some of the impressions of the Northern Ireland he has returned to. He suggests that there is a lot of hope (‘if you see cranes in a city, it’s a sign of hope’), while there is also a degree of uncertainty.
We discuss the theme of exile: how do we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land? Malcolm suggests that here is a difference between a church that sings and a church that shouts and he argues that we need to spend more energy telling the Church to get its house in order than telling the world to get its house in order.
He offers some ideas on how the Church needs to respond to the secularisation of society: the Church in Northern Ireland needs to be a hopeful community and a source of hope that could flow beyond these shores.
He reflects on some of the early Irish missionaries and how they went about their work and wonders where the big story tellers are at a time when we may have been guilty of overly dissecting the gospel. Cultivate a bigger vision of the gospel by cultivating a smaller vision of its reality – which means looking for ‘the green seeds of hope’ in your community.
He talks about how he feeds his mind and soul and shares at some length about how he approaches Scripture.
He also talks about the ‘niteblessings’ which you can follow on his social media platforms: @MalcomJDuncan on Twitter and Instagram; RevMalcolmDuncan on Facebook – and watch out for the upcoming book!
Towards the end of the podcast, he shares some of the most important things he has learned in leadership:
You cannot be a good leader unless you are a good follower.
There is always more to learn (‘I understand God less than I have ever understood him, but I love him more than I have ever loved him’).
Leadership is as much about learning to trust God as it is about leading other people (‘I do not need to understand God in order to trust him’).
God is good and his love endures forever (‘I have learned the gift of suffering’).
‘I have nothing to prove!’
Listeners of a certain age will catch the reference to Larry Norman!
Here is the podcast:
For your reflection:
How can the Church learn to sing more than it shouts?
What does it mean for the Church to be an alternative community on the edges of society?
Have you a big vision of the gospel?
What might it mean to find God at work in your community, as Malcolm describes it?
How do you feed your mind and soul?
Have you developed a pattern of engaging with Scripture?
The guest this week (for the next three weeks, in fact) is Malcom Duncan. After spending the past thirty years away from Northern Ireland, where he grew up, Malcolm has recently taken up the role of Senior Pastor in Dundonald Elim Church in East Belfast. Previously – most recently – he was Senior Pastor of Gold Hill Baptist Church in England. Malcolm is well known as a conference speaker at events such as Spring Harvest and New Horizon.
In this week’s podcast, Malcolm talks about returning to the country he left three decades ago, he talks about his dramatic conversion experience at sixteen (which he believes also constituted his call to Christian ministry), and he shares some of his thoughts on leadership and mentoring.
Questions for reflection:
As you listen to Malcolm describe his conversion experience, reflect on how you came to faith? Was it a dramatic experience, or was it more gradual? Someone has suggested that some conversions are more ‘Emmaus Road’ than they are ‘Damascus Road’.
What do you think of Malcolm’s rationale for team leadership? Do you have a theological foundation for your own leadership model?
Do you have a Timothy and/or a Paul figure in your life?
‘You cannot lead people you don’t love’: what do you make of this comment?
This week there is more from Bishop Ken (Fanta) Clarke, mission director of SAMS (UK and Ireland).
The greatest need of my people is my personal holiness (Robert Murray McCheyne).
This week Ken talks about risk taking and younger leaders, about his experience of culture shock when he went to Chile, about the need for leaders to take time to be reflective, and the challenge of trust.
He also tells the story about a somewhat nerve-wracking experience in isolation on an African mountain and what he learned at that time!
And there are these four key pieces of advice:
Don’t be a maverick: think team!
Remember that team members have different capacities;
Have soul friends;
Guard your heart (Proverbs 4:23).
For your own reflection:
How easy to you find it to take time to reflect on your purpose as a leader and on the purpose of your church/organisation? How much time do you spend listening to God?
If you lead a team, do you train them well enough that they can leave but treat them well enough that they don’t want to?
This week’s guest on the podcast is one of the best known and most popular leaders in the Northern Irish evangelical church: Ken (Fanta) Clarke. Ken has served (and continues to serve) in a number of roles through the years, including time spent in South America as a missionary, local church leadership on both sides of the Irish border, his role as Bishop in the Church of Ireland, and his current role as mission director for SAMS UK and Ireland (South American Mission Society).
In this episode he talks about some of the events and people who helped form him for leadership. He discusses his definition of a leader as someone with a compass in their head and a magnet in their heart and underlines his belief in the potential impact of one godly life.
As you listen:
Who are some of the people who have helped shape you in your leadership?
Are you seeking to make the most of whatever calling you have to influence others?
This week’s guest on the podcast is Paul Reid who, along with his wife Priscilla, led Christian Fellowship Church in Belfast for over twenty years.
Paul talks about coming to faith in his teens and his early upbringing in a Brethren Assembly. He and Priscilla left this to start a house fellowship and their group eventually became CFC in East Belfast.
He talks about the influence of Spring Harvest – both in his sense of call to leadership and in his experience of the Holy Spirit, and of several notable Christian leaders, including Terry Virgo and Roger Forster.
He also discusses the controversial ‘shepherding’ movement and the reason why he and his fellow leaders felt they needed to resign from their leadership roles.
Some questions as you listen:
Paul talks about some key turning points in the early years of his life and ministry: what events and seasons do you look back on as being formative in your own journey?
What do you think about the idea of leaders admitting to their followers that they have got something wrong? Is this a sign of strength? How can leaders distinguish between a conviction that they need to persevere in a course of action and a sense that they need to retrace their steps?
Part 2 of Paul’s interview will available after Easter – this will include discussion of several other controversial issues that Paul’s journey has seen him tackle; and there will be a 3rd part, in which Paul will talk about some of what he has learned about leadership and what advice he would give young leaders.