16 Nov Struggles in Spiritual Leadership
Published November 16, 2022
By Les Lofquist, DD
In my ministry, I regularly counsel men regarding their role as pastor, preacher, and spiritual leader. These men have a most difficult task and they often ask me for encouragement and advice. Whenever I talk with them, I do my best to represent the Lord Jesus Christ and His Word with accuracy and wisdom.
There are certain issues that come up time and time again. Some of these struggles in spiritual leadership are as follows.
It is difficult to balance leadership with humility because leaders are in front of people, and that in itself provides a great temptation to prideful self-will. Young men in ministry often get confused over this. Leadership authority is not a status or an official position that you are hired into. A ministry position does not guarantee you followers and the power to control others, commanding them what to do.
Leadership authority is earned as the man of God demonstrates the character qualities of 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1 and proves his gifts and calling through trustworthy competence in handling the Word and leadership. It comes as he sets the proper tone in meetings and counseling sessions behind closed doors, in conversations in the hallways at church and from his messages in the pulpit.
Leadership authority means you have earned the right to be heard because you have the right attitude, dealing gently with the misguided (as in 2 Timothy 2:24-26). It comes because you have established a reputation for giving the right responses, a careful reply (Proverbs 15:1, 4) as opposed to a brooding-in-silence, non-reply or an angry, loud reply. Spiritual influence as a leader comes after you have consistently demonstrated respect for the input of others and wisely listen to godly input that people share with you (Proverbs 15:22; 16:20). People respect you because they sense that you have gained wisdom from God’s Word and from a life of godliness. This allows you to lead through moral authority. That’s spiritual leadership, and it takes time. Which is exactly why young men often fail in this regard and get into trouble… they can’t wait to gain trust and respect because they must act now.
Leaders must set the climate of love in their church or ministry organization. They must consistently act with patience and kindness toward others (1 Corinthians 13:4), without the attitudes of jealousy, bragging, arrogance, and selfishness (1 Corinthians 13:4-5a). They must not be easily provoked nor hold grudges (1 Corinthians 13:5b). They must demonstrate affection and love for others and given enough time and consistency, those people will in turn learn to love as the leader loves. But if the leader leads with a suspicious and critical spirit in an uncaring way, the church will pick up on that attitude and begin to exhibit that to others. And believe me, outsiders can gauge a climate of warm love or chilled relations as soon as they walk into a room or into the church entry.
I spent a delightful couple of hours with one church’s ministry leaders. There was a lot of good-natured laughter and teasing, but all the while serious discussion of serious ministry issues took place. Not all eight men around the table agreed with each other. In fact, contrary ideas were deliberately sought and fully explored. But contrary ideas were offered with respect and thoughtful language. It was so refreshing for me to be with those men, because they were leading with love.
That’s what Christian leaders need to be reminded of…they need to lead with love. The New Testament is quite specific that love is indispensable to service. Without love, Christian leadership counts for nothing (1 Corinthians 13:1-3).
Alexander Strauch has written a book entitled Leading with Love. In this book, he powerfully portrays love as the one leadership quality no church leader can afford to do without. Strauch writes that when leaders and teachers discover what the Bible says about love, it dramatically improves their relationship skills, effectiveness in ministry, and ability to resolve conflict and division. Leading with love is indispensable to producing spiritually healthy churches, reaching others for Christ, and pleasing God. It all hinges on love. As Strauch reminds us, whether you are a Sunday school teacher, youth worker, men’s or women’s ministry leader, Bible study teacher, small group leader, administrator, music director, elder, deacon, pastor, or missionary, love is essential to you and your ministry. And I can testify that it is one character quality that so often needs addressing when I counsel spiritual leaders.
Strength in Balance
Having said all the above, does this mean that a spiritual leader must be hesitant, retiring, and timid? Is it wrong for him to be confident and brave and strong? This balance is an especially difficult one to achieve and can be achieved only through the power of the Holy Spirit. That’s what meekness is. The Greek root word translated “meekness” in the King James Version is used as a noun (praütēs) in the fruit of the Spirit listing of Galatians 5:23. It is used as an adjective (praüs) in Jesus’ affirmation of the blessedness of the meek in Matthew 5:5. Meekness is not weakness nor is it passive. It is the absolute exertion of godly energy to resist self-promotion, to resist control and assertiveness. It is the “active policy of non-self assertion.” It is the opposite of being out of control and self-seeking.
A.W. Tozer says this about the subject: “The meek man is not a human mouse afflicted with a sense of his own inferiority. Rather he may be in his moral life as bold as a lion and as strong as Samson; but he has stopped being fooled about himself. He has accepted God’s estimate of his own life. He knows he is as weak and helpless as God has declared him to be, but paradoxically, he knows at the same time that he is in the sight of God of more importance than angels. In himself, nothing; in God, everything. That is his motto.”
Some pastors I’ve met never strike this balance. Some seem to follow the ungodly leadership examples of the aggressive in-your-face coach or manipulative business executive or the duplicitous politician. Those must never be the spiritual leader’s role models. But I have met other pastors who are like Tozer’s example of a human mouse afflicted with a spineless sense of inferiority. The true godly leader is not docile and weak. The Holy Spirit must give balance to the spiritual leader between strength and gentleness, boldness and humility.
Some spiritual leaders are like Christopher Columbus after he returned to Spain in search of the passage to China, finding instead North America. When Columbus left, he didn’t know where he was going. When he got there, he didn’t know where he was. And when he got back, he didn’t know where he went. That describes some leaders I’ve met.
I recognize there are a number of genuine problem areas for leaders in church. There is the disparity between somewhat idealistic expectations and hard reality. There is the lack of clearly defined boundaries, goals, job description (“how do I know I’m getting somewhere?”). Tasks are never done. There is a feeling, or maybe even the reality, of being incompetent while leading an army of volunteers. There are real time management problems in a multiplicity of roles (teacher, preacher, counselor, comforter, visionary leader, administrator, husband, father). There is the difficulty in managing interruptions and a lack of resources to minister as effectively as you think you should or could. There is administration overload: too much energy expended in areas of low reward. And there are the wearying effects of constant criticism on you and your family.
So how should we respond? Some spiritual leaders just feel overwhelmed and drift along Sunday to Sunday, without a clear vision for the future, lacking a strategy on how to accomplish clearly defined goals. These leaders fail to recognize their plight and take no steps to change. So they accomplish little.
But there is another way. And Bible leaders like Joseph and Nehemiah and the Apostle Paul provide us examples.
Leadership is seeing a worthy goal more clearly than others and inspiring them to pursue the goal with you. The leader must be able to see farther and more clearly than those he leads. And then he must be able to inspire others to pursue the goal with him. You must help them see the goal. You must help them believe it is a worthy goal. You must help them believe the goal can be reached. Your own personal confidence is a key in accomplishing this, and your confidence is rooted in how clearly you see the goal.
That’s how Nehemiah oversaw the construction of the rebuilding of the walls of Jerusalem, accomplishing that task in 52 days. That’s how Paul led the entire ship during the storm at sea in Acts 27. That’s how Paul demonstrated his leadership to the Romans in Romans 15:14-29. Note Paul’s specific goal (v. 19), Scriptural goal (v.21), long-term goals (vv.23-24), and short-term goals (v. 25 “But now…”).
Certainly we can never forget the warning in James 4:13-15 regarding presuming upon tomorrow. We must accept God’s sovereignty over our circumstances of life, acknowledging that He directs every outcome. We must accept that we will not meet all our goals. But we still should set them and then do what we can to meet them by incorporating God’s people in the process. That’s good spiritual leadership. And that’s a problem for many of the men I counsel.
Our Personal Finances
One of the realities for the minister of God is the persistent lack of finances for his own family’s use, especially in the early years of his ministry. Many pastors are under constant financial pressures because they are not wealthy men and when I talk with them privately, their financial distress is heart-rending. And this is often the case, no matter where I’ve visited in the world. God’s servants are more than likely underpaid compared to the level of their abilities and diligence.
These are painful realities I have often observed in desperate spiritual leaders. How do I respond if such men seek my counsel? First, I rehearse for them my own times of quiet desperation regarding looming financial deadlines and payments that were coming due without any idea how I would make the payment. I do that so I can display my sympathetic heart. I’ve been there. I completely understand the fear and frustration and frantic heart and mind. But then I also acknowledge that the testimony of the Psalmist is still true today: “I have been young, and now am old; yet I have not seen the righteous forsaken, nor his descendants begging bread” (Psalm 37:25). It’s true that God always takes good care of His servants. But it also seems to me that God uses the scarcity of money as one of the means to keep God’s servant humble and trusting, ever prayerful. The minister must always bear in heart something of disappointment and suffering, which is what poverty brings. And God uses even our financial distress to draw us closer to Him and come more into conformity with Jesus Christ (who Himself knew all about poverty).
For the spiritual leader in the midst of financial crisis, a more heroic note needs to be struck, a note which rings true to the spirit of the prophets and apostles and Jesus Christ. Yet the only way this heroic note will spring forth is from the realization of our triumph in ministry through our Lord Jesus Christ: “Thanks be unto God who always leads us in triumph in Christ” (2 Corinthians 2:13). Lose sight of Him and you lose the battle in ministry, even in the battle of personal finances! Keep looking up and walk in obedient trust. You will never regret that.
The Leader As Preacher
Many pastors hear whispers from disgruntled people in the pew: “I’m not being fed” or “I prefer that church and preacher over there to ours.” Such words and sentiments strike deeply into the heart of every preacher, which is often why the words are whispered in the first place.
But as painful as it is for me to admit, not every sermon of mine has been equally dynamic and soul-riveting. I know there have been times when I could have done a better job on prayerful, diligent sermon preparation. Maybe I really didn’t feed the people like I should have on that Sunday. How can we as preachers deal with this?
I think the only way is to be determined to be prayed up and studied up the next time you’re in the pulpit. Resolve to get up early each day the next week and pray as a man of God should. Then study seriously. Grapple with next Sunday’s text. Turn off the television. Stop surfing the web. Put away your fantasy team rosters. Dig into the Bible. Pull off from your shelves those theology books and commentaries of yours and pour over them. Review your old Bible College / seminary class lecture notes. Accept the challenge of that passage you’ll be preaching and wrestle with its meaning and outline and application.
Approach next Sunday with all the earnestness you can. After all, it’s God’s holy and written Word you are handling! Get serious about it once again, like you did when you first began preaching. Shake off the cobwebs and preach with fire in your soul, accepting the calling from God to be the spokesman to your people in your congregation for Him. Let them see His glory through you as you seriously handle His words. And don’t be afraid of being appropriately direct and bold, assuming nothing with respect to the spiritual condition of the individuals in your congregation. Preach with the authority of God, bearing God’s message and speaking God’s Word, and forget about yourself and your own authority.
It was the 17th Century English Puritan pastor Richard Baxter who wrote, “I preached as never sure to preach again, And as a dying man to dying men.” Baxter first published this couplet as part of his poetry book which was 173 pages long and whose Introduction is dated: “London: At the Door of Eternity, August 7, 1681.” Yet he lived ten more years and was imprisoned twice for his zeal and uncompromising stand as a Nonconformist against the Church of England. Baxter is a great example of a man captured by holy zeal, preaching every sermon as if it where his last…because with his poor health and the nation’s government against him, it indeed may have been his final sermon.
If you knew next Sunday would be the last sermon you would ever deliver, how would you approach your prayer time and your study time this week? Why not approach every Sunday the same way? Then, if the critics still whisper…you can face them with your head held high knowing before God you’ve done your best. You know that those whispers are their problem before God, not yours. And that’s a liberating feeling! That’s strength in balance.
There are wrong reasons to desire spiritual leadership, and I do acknowledge that some men enter the ministry for the wrong reasons. Some have an inaccurate, and inflated, assessment of their own spiritual gifts and abilities. Others enter the ministry out of pride, or out of a desire to overcome insecurity, or to seek admiration and popularity by standing up front. Still others do so out of a sense of obligation to please parents, spouse, and friends. Some just need the job (how sad to think that way!).
But it can be right and proper and godly to desire spiritual leadership. See the words of 1 Timothy 3:1 “if any man aspires to the office of overseer, it is a fine work he desires to do” (NASB). You can seek to enter the ministry in order to bring glory to Jesus Christ. You can enter ministry in answer to the call of God in your life as evidenced by your gifts and abilities that others observe and encourage. You can seek to demonstrate the love of Christ as His ambassador to reach the lost (2 Corinthians 5:14). You can seek to help believers become mature in the faith (Colossians 1:28-29; Ephesians 4:11-12).
In my regular counsel to men regarding their role as pastor, preacher and spiritual leader I try to remind them of these truths. I empathize with them, knowing they have a most difficult task. I try to encourage them. But I don’t let them wallow in self-pity. I try to inspire them and represent the Lord Jesus Christ and His Word with accuracy and wisdom.
There are certain issues that come up time and time again in spiritual leadership. When the struggles I addressed above enter your life, I hope you can find this article and re-read it and be inspired.
(Originally appeared in VOICE, November / December, 2011)
1 Alexander Strauch, Leading with Love (Littleton, CO: Lewis & Roth Publishers, 2006), p. 3.
2 Donald Guthrie, New Testament Theology (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1981), 155
3 W. Tozer, The Pursuit of God (Christian Publications, 1982), p. 113.
4 Richard Baxter, “Love Breathing Thanks and Praise” from Poetical Fragments: Heart-Imployment with God and It Self. The Concordant Discord of a Broken-healed Heart: Sorrowing-rejoycing, Fearing-hoping, Dying-living (The Second Edition printed in London for J. Dunton, 1689), Second Part, Number 4, page 30. All 173 pages of the original edition of this book have been digitized by Google from the University of Michigan Library and uploaded to the Internet Archive. It is fascinating to see a 333 year old book written by such a revered man of God and is available to read in its original form by accessing: http://www.archive.org/stream/poeticalfragmen00baxtgoog#page/n7/mode/2up
Dr. Les Lofquist is Assistant Professor of Practical Theology and Director of Church Relations at Shepherds Theological Seminary. He also serves on the pastoral staff of The Shepherd’s Church and is Editor of Poimenas. Previously he served as Executive Director of IFCA International, a position he held for twenty years.