By Allen Quist & Tim Robnett
It was a shock! Nothing said in a year of monthly meetings prepared us for what we heard at a pastor’s meeting in San Bernardino, California, in 1984. I (Tim) had been meeting with several pastors of the same denomination at a Bob’s Big Boy for breakfast, to seek fellowship and just talk.
A few minutes into our monthly meeting, the announcement came. It must have been my ears playing tricks on me, but I think one of my fellow pastors blurted out, “I can’t take it anymore. I resigned on Sunday and am looking for a new vocation.” In all that time he had not said one word about his problems—not one single word. We had no clue he was under any type of pressure.
Not one word. Zip. No hint that he was suffering deeply from depression and a sense of worthlessness. Nothing—then suddenly, he gives up.
Church leaders, as all people, face dysfunctions inside and outside the church. Often we are perceived as people exempt from the pain and struggles of life. With a need to “be leaders,” we hide behind the shield of pride and fear to keep the ugly realities of broken relationships, unmet goals, dry seasons in our walk with God, or melancholy days from overwhelming us.
The reality of effective leadership is this: Within the church, we need to be more honest about what can truly set the leader and the congregation free to let God’s grace fill their souls and relationships. Leaders face a daily challenge to live in the power of the Holy Spirit.
In the last chapter, we spoke of the flesh affecting the church. For this force to have its insidious way within the church, we must assume that first it is an issue for leaders, and not just laypersons. “Every organization is a direct reflection of the leadership it has been given, for good or bad,” Bobb Biehl shared this with me (Tim) more than twenty years ago, and his leadership maxim has highlighted the experience of my own journey. I have seen it play out in the lives of friends, students, and mentors, revealing the conflict of flesh and Spirit as common to all.
However, there is hope when we turn to the grace of God to unravel our litany of emotions, unanswered questions, and broken relationships. This grace will heal our souls as we journey toward God’s plan for church leaders: transformational leadership. We will find that when leaders are filled by the Spirit of Christ, God brings healing and health through them to the church. When the leaders cultivate an environment of grace, then freedom comes into the relationships within the church and with everyone who is exposed to the church. An organic process spawns healthy relationships and a dynamic connection between God and his people. For some, the word contagious has summarized the energy of this process. Leaders filled by the Spirit of Christ provide transformational leadership for the church.
Ray Stedman brought a culture of grace and forgiveness to thousands who enjoyed his relaxed leadership style during the tumultuous days of the 1960s in Palo Alto, California. The Jesus Movement was just starting when a number of “their types” first walked through the doors of Peninsula Bible Church. Upper middle-class folks turned their heads at these uniquely dressed, long-haired, free-spirited souls.
What would the church do? How would the church respond to this new breed? With warmth and affirmation, Ray welcomed and encouraged them to become part of the body of Christ in that place. A refreshing spirit swept away many of the doubts and fears of those church members with questions. Peninsula Bible Church became a haven and harvest field for the younger generation who were seeking God. Spiritual leadership brought integrity and love to those on both sides of a changing culture.
With a few powerful words, the apostle Paul emphasizes the utter necessity for the Spirit of Christ to empower personal relationships. “Do not get drunk on wine … instead be filled with the Spirit … submit to one another out of reverence for Christ” (Eph. 5:18, 21). Without this journey of submission to the leadership of God, we become destructive healers in a broken and fragmented world. This is not an option for leaders within the body of Christ. What empowers our thoughts, emotions, and volitions crafts the reality of relationships within the family and the church. Thank the good Lord that our relationship with him is not merely a matter of cognitive input or determination to “live for God.” Rather it is a life characterized by his pursuing grace.
Spiritual leadership begins with those leaders who will recognize their utter dependence upon God. As they are learning what it means to “be filled with the Spirit” (Eph. 5:18), spiritual leaders must face the brokenness that comes by living in reliance upon their own human efforts apart from the empowerment of the Holy Spirit. These leaders find new joy in knowing the forgiveness of God and are quick to extend that forgiveness and grace to others.
Our egos and self-interest have gotten in the way of God’s leadership on many occasions. This is particularly true in our roles as leaders. Many times we have failed to rely on the Holy Spirit and have become anxious, defensive, angry, and boastful. However, Holy Spirit–inspired leadership focuses on the healing and strengthening of others. It does not draw attention to itself or protect itself; rather, it seeks to serve and empower others.
I (Tim) remember the numerous times that I attended the carnival section of the Kern County fair in Bakersfield, California. One of my favorite attractions was the walkway of mirrors. This was a simple portable trailer with a number of mirrors crafted to distort one’s appearance. One mirror showed me fat, another showed me tall, some mirrors gave me a big head and a small body. I did not understand the technology, but the effect was humorous.
Often what some call biblical leadership appears rather distorted, which is not humorous. These distortions come to us from various sources. Some are a product of popular culture. Others come from traditions in the church. Biblical leaders are a rare breed. Their leadership desires are challenged by the many views of what constitutes a spiritual leader.
In America, a business environment dominates us. Free enterprise and capitalism rank with baseball, apple pie, and the American flag as core values. As such, we often cannot distinguish between entrepreneurial-style leadership and biblical leaders. Donald Trump, on his TV show The Apprentice, articulates the business model of leadership. There are educational models of leadership that emphasize process and collaboration. There are nonprofit models that seek to discover and resolve the social ills of society. However, we believe that these leadership models often fall short of the biblical norm.
Jesus used two small, yet powerful words in correcting the disciples’ view of leadership. He uttered the phrase, “not so” (Matt. 20:26). The disciples longed to be famous and powerful. The mother of James and John sought to position her sons in places of power (Matt. 20:20). She asked Jesus to have her sons “sit on each side of him” in his coming kingdom. Jesus said that was not his decision. His emphasis was on
his teaching to her and the disciples. It established a definition of leadership in his kingdom that was far different from how the world viewed leadership.
Jesus announced two startling dimensions within his kingdom. He began by first emphasizing that the “first will be last” (Matt. 19:30). He noted that rather than seeking top positions, true biblical leaders ask, “How can we empower others?” Empower refers to the transformation that occurs when one integrates biblical truth into the normal patterns of life.
Second, Jesus emphasized that serving is what makes a leader great (Matt. 20:26, 28). The leaders in his kingdom will be servants of all. Rather than using a sword to symbolize leadership, Jesus chose a water basin and towel. With these tools, he washed the disciples’ feet (John 13:1–7). This is a very different and seemingly unrealistic type of leadership in comparison with what we experience in the world today. These dynamic principles demand our constant attention. Many of us are not reflecting on or teaching these principles for the first time, but for the hundredth time. Yet, Jesus’ kingdom is built on such truths and we need to recommit ourselves to his way.
The story of the early church indicates that leaders become evident to those they lead. Biblical leaders clearly demonstrate godly character. Biblical leaders have a reputation. Their lives demonstrate a transformation of heart. Christ’s disciples were leaders who encountered the resurrected Jesus Christ. That encounter radically transformed their lives—and not just as a course in character development or leadership skills. Their priorities were radically adjusted and completely rearranged.
When ethnic discrimination expressed itself in the early church, the apostles asked those feeling the crisis to choose men “full of the Spirit and wisdom” (Acts 6:3) to help find resolution. The church was able to discern and select such men. They chose an ethnically diverse group who handled the situation with grace and wisdom and allowed the church to continue to grow and impact their world with the good news of Jesus Christ. This problem-solving ability didn’t come from strong individuals doing their own thing. It was based on the work of the Holy Spirit through men yielding to his leadership.
Where are these leaders today? We wish we could say they are our pastors and the other leaders in our churches, but this is not always the case. Are we truly being led by his Spirit? The carnal mind can invade and control any Christian leader. We need to examine ourselves regularly and ask ourselves: What are we modeling and teaching? What do our corporate structures look like? How are our policies and procedures reflecting his way? What outcomes are we really concerned about?
Paul instructs his protégé Timothy, a young pastor, to be selective when asking others to serve with him in leading the church. Timothy, as we discern from the Scriptures, may have tended to be overwhelmed at times. He could have chosen anyone who was willing and available to provide leadership for the church. Yet Paul insisted that those who would provide leadership for the church must be godly, mature men, devoted to the task at hand.
A leadership criterion has been clearly articulated for the church in the Word of God (1 Tim. 3:1–13; Titus 1:5–9; Eph. 5:10–6:3). This criterion requires that the church take seriously the plan of God for leading his church. God views his church as a bride and uses terms of familial definition to focus our attention on the importance of relationships over tasks in leading the church. It may not be good leadership according to today’s standards and the rationale might even rub against a purely organizational view of the church, but because it’s God’s plan and from God, it accomplishes his purpose.
God describes the character traits of those he wants to lead his church. These qualities are evidence of God living within. They are the result of new birth and the presence of the Holy Spirit and are evidenced by a spiritual life filled by God. They reveal that these leaders have been humbled before God and have experienced renewal of mind and conformation to the image of Christ. By describing these qualities, God places an emphasis on who a person is over what a person does or how a person leads. This truth is particularly evident in the following two passages.
An elder must be a man whose life cannot be spoken against. He must be faithful to his wife. He must exhibit self-control, live wisely, and have a good reputation. He must enjoy having guests in his home and must be able to teach. He must not be a heavy drinker or be violent. He must be gentle, peace loving, and not one who loves money. He must manage his own family well, with children who respect and obey him. (1 Timothy 3:2–5 NLT)
An elder must be well thought of for his good life. He must be faithful to his wife, and his children must be believers who are not wild or rebellious. He must live a blameless life because he is God’s minister. An elder must not be arrogant or quick-tempered; he must not be a heavy drinker, violent, or greedy for money. He must enjoy having guests in his home and must love all that is good. He must enjoy having guests in his home and must love all that is good. He must live wisely and be fair. He must live a devout and disciplined life. He must have a strong and steadfast belief in the trustworthy message he was taught; then he will be able to encourage others with right teaching and show those who oppose it where they are wrong. (Titus 1:6–9 NLT)
Fundamentally, the Word of God underscores character over skills, talents, or spiritual gifting when it comes to defining a spiritual leader.
Hebrews 13:7 says, “Remember your leaders, who spoke the word of God to you. Consider the outcome of their way of life and imitate their faith.” This injunction supports the teaching throughout the Bible that
godly leaders provide a picture of the Christian life for others to follow. Obedience to the Word of God is what sets spiritual leaders apart from other types of leaders. These leaders are not only knowledgeable, but are men and women who have been transformed by the Word of God. Their lives demonstrate the practice of the presence of God.
These leaders have journeyed down the road of life long enough that the evidence of obedience is seen by all: Belief has become sight, righteous behavior has brought maturity and grace, which leads to personal transformation, and has positively influenced others. Their marriages have matured into rare and beautiful portraits of love. Their children have followed in the steps of faith. Their careers have demonstrated the value of people formation, not just monetary rewards.
What happens when leaders fail? Leaders are not perfect, but they of all people should be transparent! They should be honest in confessing their sins and seeking proper resolutions and restitutions for personal failures. Keeping accountable to God and his people typically guards anyone, leaders included, against the major disasters of life.
As we have already noted, Paul commands biblical leaders to be filled by the Holy Spirit. What does this mean? According to Ephesians 5:18–20, to be filled by the Holy Spirit means that one is not controlled by any external or internal force other than the Spirit of God. The person of the Holy Spirit living in us produces the motivation for our behavior, decisions, and communication. Ephesians 5:19–20 indicates that proper worship provides the context for the working of the Holy Spirit in and through the Christian leader. Colossians 3:16 supplements this teaching with a parallel focuses on allowing the Word of Christ to live within us.
Therefore, to be filled by the Holy Spirit means we yield to his control (Holy Spirit) and guidance (Word of Christ) moment by moment. This process requires that we as believers humble ourselves before God, yielding to him the control of our minds, emotions, and wills. As a Christian learns this walk with Christ, he or she will be conformed to God’s image and become qualified to serve as a leader in his church.
Acts 11:1–4 illustrates a proper response by the apostle Peter to criticism for his ministry to Cornelius and his household. Some of the Jewish believers in Jerusalem, when they heard that Peter had entered a Gentile’s home and eaten with him, were critical of this behavior because it violated the Jewish customs and laws. Instead of defending himself or arguing with them, Peter “explained everything to them precisely as it had happened” (Acts 11:4). As Peter’s response shows us, a Spirit-filled leader is not defensive. This nondefensiveness builds confidence and safety in those they lead. Safe leaders obtain better information in any situation. Because the leader is safe, people are willing to be open and honest. Safe leaders gain discernment from this information and are better equipped to make wise biblical decisions. The Holy Spirit’s control transforms disciples into spiritual leaders.
Biblical leaders are devoted to pursuing God. Spiritual leaders seek God, trust God, and live for God (Ps. 27:4; Prov. 3:5–6; Gal. 2:20). However, with the demands of performance that leaders keenly feel, the “God question” is not always addressed. Much of this book attempts to show how leaders can answer the God question. That is, “Do I actively trust God in all areas of my life and ministry?” Easier said than done.
We see biblical leadership as an active and dynamic relationship with God and his people. Therefore, at the core of our lives is the essential need to be loved by God. Godly leaders have been melted and molded by his grace, not by our competency. Though structure and form characterize all healthy organizations, the supreme ingredient in all relationships is love.
And the first place love needs to be experienced is in the life of the leader. Loveless leaders seek to use others, not love them. Without love, the Bible says, we are just making a lot of noise. In other words, a leader without love is “just blowing smoke.”
While sitting in a hotel in St. Petersburg, Russia, I (Tim) reflected on a question asked by one of the older pastors in the city. We were discussing the possibilities of churches doing ministry together with Luis Palau for a season of evangelism. He inquired, “Does Luis Palau love the Russian people?” More than vision, organizational structure, goals, money, or impact in his city, this seasoned pastor demanded to know, “Do you love us?”
Love is the glue that binds people together in dynamic relationship and holy service for God. Churches are healed and become healthy when love empowers the leaders’ relationships.
The biblical answer is clear. Leaders are discovered in the context of relationships. Leaders will arise as the church lives together and serves our Lord. As we “do life,” godly leaders become evident to all. As the church focuses on the teaching of God’s Word, worship, sharing the good news, and serving one another, leaders will surface. Leaders are not to be selected because of their gifts alone, but rather because of their character. They are to be Christlike.
The challenge for us as a church today is the void of relationships. We live in a fractured world where relationships have become secondary to personal goals and ambitions. The affluence in America has widened the door for independent living. So rather than choosing to invest our lives in relationships, we have chosen to travel, move, recreate, become workaholics, obtain more education, etc. Taken within the context of life’s totality, these things are not bad. But in a church setting, they can be disastrous because they often become substitutes for significant and meaningful relationships with others.
Community is a term we use for a geographical boundary or a center for recreation. It is most often used to describe a location rather than to describe the relationships within a group of people learning to live life together. But it is in the context of this kind of community that relationships are formed, which make it possible to identify truly Spirit-filled leaders.
How can healing and health come to the thousands of churches who are suffering from a terminal condition? Spirit-filled leaders are a critical “antidote” to this condition. Spirit-filled leaders must be affirmed and chosen on the basis of biblical instruction. And we identify these leaders best in the context of a living community. These leaders, when walking in the power of the Holy Spirit, will be ready to embark on a journey of healing, health, and holy impact in their communities.