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!
(From the hymn Dear Lord and Father of Mankind)