Dynamics of spiritual leadership

Passion, pain, and prayer are qualities needed in today's spiritual leaders.

James R. Newby, D.Min., is the executive director of the Trueblood Yokefellow Academy, and the minister for faith and learning at the Wayzata Community United Church of Christ in Wayzata, Minnesota.

We are experiencing in today's church not only a crisis of leadership in terms of numbers but a crisis of the spirit. The problem of too few leaders is apparent to all. Even more difficult to discern, yet a more serious problem than the numerical shortage, are the feelings of discouragement, low self-esteem, loss of passion and purpose in ministry, and the overall deep gloom in which many of our leaders find themselves. With a forced expression of contentment, and an encumbering sense of duty, we trudge though the "tyranny of the oughts" in our various roles as institutional leaders with no real experience of ministerial joy. How do we alleviate this spiritual hunger and thirst for joy?

When we consider this question and assess the qualities needed in the development of spiritual leadership for the future, three areas of need become clear.

1. The recovery of passion

There will be no renewal within the leadership of our churches until there is a recovery of passion in their ministry. Passion in one's life is a gift of God that can easily be lost somewhere between a meeting of the stewardship committee and an evening with the elders. And yet there are ways to keep the passion alive and vibrant, even in the midst of the most deadening forms of institutional religion.

One way in which we can recover passion in our ministry is to discover among our friends and acquaintances at least one person who can be a true spiritual friend and soul mate. This is a crying need of church leadership who are called upon to be the spiritual elders in the faith community.

To take the risk and openly share a spiritual kinship with another person places one in a vulnerable position. And yet church leaders need to be in touch with spiritual friends who can help them stay in relationship with the passion that gives their ministry meaning. You need more than physical presence or humorous anecdotes. You need more than a lunch partner or a colleague who will never share more than amusing political or social commentary. What you need is a friendship that is without pretense, and a friendship that is without the fear of expressing deep emotion. It is a friendship centered in a spiritual union of souls wherein nothing is to be considered too personal, too sacred, too outrageous, or too emotionally disturbing to be shared together.

Discover a person or persons in your life who will know when something is not quite right, and that you need to talk. Discover a spiritual friend who will keep you anchored in your ministerial passion, and who will not let you become a mere cog in institutional religion. Discover that soul mate who can be open and honest with you in a way that is devoid of the pretense that tends to get in the way of the ministry you are called to do. Until passion in one's ministry can be recovered, there will continue to be a crisis of the spirit in leadership.

2. The sharing of inner pain

During an annual Yokefellow conference a few years ago, Mary Cosby from the Church of the Saviour in Washington, D.C., spoke about how we can prepare to enter into the presence of God. In making her point, she said that pain needs to be brought to speech, and that where there is no sharing of pain there can be no sense of community.

To illustrate, Mary told the story about a new pastor in the church where her mother was an elder. Just prior to his first Sunday, the pastor went to visit Mary's mother and asked her, "If you could say one thing to me before I enter the pulpit of that great church on Sun day morning, what would it be?" She responded, "Just remember this: Each person that you see in the congregation as you are speaking is sitting beside his or her own pool of tears."

Each of us sits beside our own pool of tears. Church leaders are not exempt from this basic human condition. Some pools are deeper than others, to be sure, but all of us have a pool of our own.

Only recently I have been able to share some of the pain in my own life.

My pool of tears is certainly more shallow than many others', but it is still real for me. Recently I participated in the memorial service for a dear friend's father. As I spoke and shared my memories of a man who had been my next-door neighbor while I was growing up, my thoughts wandered to my own father's memorial service six years ago. My neighbor had died suddenly, like my father, and so I found myself sharing my own inner pain with my child hood friend, whose father went to bed alive and never awakened. We hugged, we cried, and we supported each other in our mutual loss.

The stoic leader who chooses to avoid his or her inner pain will never be able to reach into the hearts of a congregation that needs to verbalize its pain. The question each leader will have to ask is Am I willing to take the risk? The answer should be yes.

In his now classic volume The Wounded Healer, Henri Nouwen writes: "The minister is called to recognize the sufferings of his time in his own heart and make that recognition the standing point of his service. Whether he tries to enter into a dislocated world, relate to a convulsive generation, or speak to a dying man, his service will not be perceived as authentic unless it comes from a heart wounded by the suffering about which he speaks."1

The members and attenders within a local congregation are hungering for authentic leadership: leadership that will be open and honest about the straggles in their own faith journey; leadership that will express unapologetically the pain in their own life; leadership that will "tell it like it is" without the plastic coating of artificial respectability and the thin veneer of "what is proper." Spiritual leaders need to share their inner pain and acknowledge the fact that they are, indeed, wounded healers.

3. The renewal of a life of prayer

As spiritual leadership prepare to do ministry in a hurting world, they will need to recover the importance of prayer in their too busy and hectic lives.

When we study the life and ministry of Jesus Christ, it is important to note a pattern that can be helpful in our own ministry. The pattern is one of encounter with the world, and withdrawal from the world. Over and over again the Gospels depict His ministry as one of teaching, preaching, and healing, and one of prayer. We are helped in seeing this pattern in the following examples.

"And in the morning, a great while before day, he rose and went out to a lonely place, and there he prayed" (Mark 1:35).2

"And after he had taken leave of them, he went up on the mountain to pray" (Mark 6:46).

"But so much the more the report went abroad concerning him; and great multitudes gathered to hear and be healed of their infirmities. But he with drew to the wilderness and prayed" (Luke 5:15, 16).

It is especially important for church leaders to note this last passage, for when Christ was needed most, He went to the wilderness to pray. He realized what many of us are still trying to understand, that His ministry could not be effective unless it was continuously fed by a life of prayer.

To recover passion. To express inner pain. To renew a life of prayer. These, I believe, are the three most important qualities of a spiritual leader. Recovering, expressing, and renewing these three dimensions in our lives is not easy. There are no quick-fix techniques in the work of spiritual leader ship development. No Dale Carnegie courses of the spirit. But there is the Spirit of the living Christ working within us, challenging our institutionalization, our indifference, our inability to share pain, and our loss of a meaningful prayer life. For the sake of our own spiritual lives and the lives within the congregations we serve, are we being attentive to this inner challenge?

1. Henri Nouwen, The Wounded Healer (New York: Doubleday, 1979), p. xvi.

2. All Scripture passages in this article are from the Revised Standard Version.

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James R. Newby, D.Min., is the executive director of the Trueblood Yokefellow Academy, and the minister for faith and learning at the Wayzata Community United Church of Christ in Wayzata, Minnesota.

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