Courageously practicing visionary spiritual leadership

Four pillars of effective local church leadership

Charles Scriven, Ph.D., is interim president of Kettering College of Medical Arts, Kettering, Ohio.

Think about what matters most to you: spouse, children, parents, brothers, and sisters. Others matter, too: your Pathfinder Club, friends who volunteer with you at the hospital, your music group.

Of course, the church will rank high, especially for the pastor.

But have you ever thought about how fragile these circles of people are? Some could die or leave or (as they say in sports) the "chemistry" could change. In fact, organized circles like this are generally in perennial trouble. A Harvard professor, in a book called Bowling Alone, says league play in bowling alleys has slumped in the past few decades, symbolic (the book says) of the fact that people are withdrawing into little cocoons. In America, social groups, leagues, volunteer organizations, and even family life have all been fading. Along with them many of the traditional activities that used to be enthusiastically supported in the local church are also ebbing.

In Edwin Arlington Robinson's poem "Richard Gory," Gory was a man so rich, so well educated, and so graceful in his look and step that he "fluttered pulses" when he said "Good morning" and "glittered when he walked." But he was quietly and terribly alone, detached from his community, and while everyone was envying his wealth and style, "Richard Gory, one calm summer night, Went home and put a bullet through his head."

Richard Cory's heart was dead before his body. I imagine that loneliness had a lot to do with it. We all want to be part of some thing a family, a company, a team or club, a church that lifts our hearts the way the wind lifts the eagle. We want to belong to something borne by a dream, something good and beautiful, something with the spark of life and energy.

In this light, consider your role in the circles you value. We each follow the lead of others at times, but we also bear leader ship responsibilities. Everyone has to bear at least some responsibility for how things go in a family, a company, a team, a club, or of course, the church.

My question is: How can faith in God enhance our talent for bearing this responsibility? How can trust in, and loyalty to, God help us make a bigger difference? In other words, how can the spirituality of leadership make the circles we care about, the organizations we care for, even stronger? Here are four fundamental ingredients that can make the difference.


The word spirituality refers to the practice of paying attention to God paying attention through prayer and study of His Word. If we are thinking about how God can make us more effective leaders, what better starting point than the life of Abraham, an example of courage.

Imagine having a nice house overlooking the river. Your three children are in good schools, your job is exciting and has prospects for advancement. You live in a classy little town, and you love it. Then God says, "Go from your country and your kindred and your father's house to the land that I will show you" (Gen. 12:1, NRSV).

I don't know Abraham's exact circumstances. Basically, though, this is what happened to him (Genesis 11 and 12). The Word of God says that he was "settled" in Haran, along with members of his extended family. But when confronted with the call of God he left. He was 75 years old, but age didn't matter. He "obeyed when he was called" and "set out, not knowing where he was going" (Heb. 11:8).

It's been said that courage isn't courage unless you're afraid. Leaving your homeland is scary. Breaking with customary practice is frightening. Abraham must have shivered a time or two before he sallied forth. That was courage.

When Edson White, the son of James and Ellen, rode down the Mississippi in order to bring the gospel to impoverished and ill-treated blacks, white vigilantes threatened to lynch him and blow up his boat. The ifs, ands, and buts could have kept him where he was, held him back, muzzled him, but they did not stop him from doing what he believed God had called him to do. That, too, was courage.

Whatever human circle you have responsibility for, if you are going to lead the way God wants you to lead, you'll sometimes be scared. That goes with the territory---especially the pastoral territory. But you won't bog down in all the stalemate ifs, ands, and buts. If we were all Abrahams, heading into the unknown for God, we'd feel something like Edmund Hilary climbing Mount Everest or Neil Armstrong on his flight to the moon.


In the spirituality of leadership, then, courage is basic, like bread. But not any courage, not courage that's mean-spirited or without high purpose. When we bear responsibility for our families, our communities, and our churches, courage must be coupled with vision.

In colonial times, a revival broke out in the Northampton Church in Massachusetts where Jonathan Edwards, the greatest Christian leader of his age in America, was pastor. The revival brought many pleasing effects but also some pious foolishness and frenzy. The weird effects led Edwards to declare how you determine, as a Christian, whether your vision your truth, your insight, your dream is genuine rather than fake. The test, he wrote, is whether you find "such a spirit of love, meekness, quietness, forgiveness and mercy, as appeared in Christ."

The same thing comes through in the Bible. With His arrest looming, Jesus explained His vision to the disciples. Some things I'd like to tell you you're not ready to hear, He says in John 16. "You cannot bear them now" (verse 12). But Jesus promises that the Holy Spirit will accompany the disciples all their life and ministry, even after He is physically absent, and the Holy Spirit, He says, "will guide you into all the truth" (verse 13). The Holy Spirit, Jesus is saying, gives the gift of a clear vision.

Then the Gospel of John says that what the Holy Spirit helps you to see is what Jesus wants you to see. The Holy Spirit "will glorify me," Jesus says, "because he will take what is mine and declare it to you" (verse 14). To John, as to other New Testament writers, Christ is the criterion the standard of truth, the test of the genuine. From the Christian point of view, the best of all visions is the vision of and from Christ.

The authorities, it turned out, did arrest Jesus, and He was tried and then crucified. But Jesus broke the bonds of death. His whole life and teaching were validated by the miracle of resurrection. This Jesus was now unmistakably the Christ, the Messiah. He is still the Christ, reigning in heaven while we live on earth. Christ is above our traditions, above our policies, above "the way we've always done it." And the Spirit's work, in large part, is to help us know, in our ever-changing circumstances, what following Jesus means in our present situation. New questions and new times challenge our routine understandings every day. So the Holy Spirit, in guiding us to clearer vision, helps us see in ways we've never before needed to see.

But there is another side to this. There was a sea captain who in the middle of the night saw lights ahead and had his signalman blink out this message: "Change your course ten degrees south." From the direction of the lights came the signaled reply: "Change your course ten degrees north." The captain was irritated: "I'm a captain change your course!" he had his own signalman snap back. The reply came: "I'm a seaman first class change your course!" Now the captain was furious: "Change yours," he signaled, "I'm on a battleship." The reply came back: "Change yours---I'm in a lighthouse."

As on the sea, so in communities, families, or churches: It is destructive when people think of their own viewpoint as nonnegotiable. As Yogi Berra once said: "It's not what we don't know that gets us into trouble. It's what we know for sure that just ain't so."

Because Jesus understood the truth about arrogance, He promised that with the Holy Spirit we would always be learning. The vision the Holy Spirit gives deepens all the time over time. Those who embrace it are ready always to acknowledge prior narrow-mindedness. They are ready always to look beyond the next horizon, to imagine the next innovation, to seize the next opportunity.


Jesus reminded the disciples that it's common for those who bear responsibility to "lord it over" people. Then He declared, "But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant." And to drive home the point, He said, "For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve" (Mark 10,43,45).

Courage counts. Vision creative vision is indispensable. But in leadership, service is basic. That must mean words of kindness and deeds of mercy. But when we are talking leadership, when we are talking about the responsibilities we bear in the human circles we care about the service that matters most is the service that em powers others, that helps others to be the best they can be. According to John, Jesus Himself felt this way because He told the disciples that they would do works "greater" than His own (John 14:12).

Leaders serve by energizing people. They mobilize people. They make leaders out of the people they lead. If we care about the spirituality of leadership, the hectoring authority of the tyrant is out. Service that empowers others no bluster, no paranoid defensiveness, no reach for selfish power is true leadership. It's the leadership that can make our families, communities, and especially our churches strong.


Courage matters. Creative vision matters. Service matters. But hope matters, maybe even most of all, because it's so easy to lose hope in today's world. Paul, who says he fought "wild animals" (meaning difficult people) while in Ephesus, knew the truth about human beings and hope. If there is no hope, says his first letter to the Corinthians, "Let us eat and drink, for to morrow we die." Paul knew that without hope, the circles of people, such as the church, who matter most, don't have a chance. He knew that without hope our efforts to bear responsibility, especially as pastors, hardly matter.

That's why I resonate so much to the idea of the "blessed hope." I'm energized by what Paul says in 1 Corinthians 15:57, 58: "But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore, my beloved," he goes on, "be steadfast, immovable, always excelling [always doing more than expected] in the work of the Lord, because you know that in the Lord your labor is not in vain."

If Richard Cory, in the poem, put a bullet through his head because he was lonely, I suppose it was also because he couldn't see any hope. Spirituality is the practice of paying attention to the reality of God, and when we engage in that practice, the hope we need wells up inside of us. So does the courage, the vision, and the energy to serve.

People matter

People matter to me more than any thing else on earth. Whether I think of my family or my colleagues or my students at the college, I know each circle can lift my heart. Together, they can lift me the way the wind lifts an eagle. I also know each one is fragile---people could leave or die; the "chemistry" could change.

But I'm sure that if I pay attention to God, if I practice the spirituality of leader ship, then, by God's grace, I can help make these circles of people even stronger than they are. And unlike Richard Cory, I will feel that I belong to something something borne by a dream, something good and beautiful, something with the spark of life and energy about it.

Practicing the spirituality of leadership can do this for anyone. The benefit is part of what the grace of God the generosity of God is all about. It helps those who lead to bear their responsibilities well. And it helps families, communities, and churches the human circles that depend on leadership and bring so much in the way of satisfaction---to truly flourish.

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Charles Scriven, Ph.D., is interim president of Kettering College of Medical Arts, Kettering, Ohio.

November 1998

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