The Indispensable Requirement for Leadership

What are you looking for in a leader?  What is absolutely essential?  Vision? Charisma? Skills?  Dedication?  Today I fear that even few Christians offer the Biblical response when considering what is absolutely essential.  J. Oswald Sanders reminds us in chapter 9 of his classic book, Spiritual Leadership, that the indispensable requirement is that that leader be "full of the Spirit" (Acts 6:3,5). Sanders describes what it looks like to be filled with the Spirit:

To be filled with the Spirit, then, is to be controlled by the Spirit.  Intellect and emotions and volition as well as physical powers all become available to Him for achieving the purposes of God.  Under His control, natural gifts of leadership are sanctified and lifted to their highest power.  The now ungrieved and unhindered Spirit is able to produce fruit of the Spirit in the life of the leader, with added winsomeness and attractiveness in his service and with power in his witness to Christ. All real service is but the effluence of the Holy Spirit through yielded and filled lives (John 7:37-39).

To think about this controlling influence of the Holy Spirit is to think about the doctrine of sanctification.  Sanctification is the process by which we strive to be conformed to the likeness of Christ by the grace, power and influence of the Holy Spirit).  The mystery of sanctification is that it is 100% by God's grace and yet we are called to strive for it with 100% of our effort.  (Tilt one way or the other and you are in trouble!)  As the Apostle Paul puts it in Philippians 2:12-13:

Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.

The Westminster Shorter Catechism, Question 35, asks, "What is Sanctification?"  The answer is:

Sanctification is the work of God's free grace, whereby we are renewed in the whole man, after the image of God, and are enabled more and more to die unto sin, and live unto righteousness.

The topic of sanctification is in the air.  Kevin DeYoung recently wrote a book called The Hole in Our Holiness.  There was a special forum on sanctification at the PCA General Assembly this summer.  John Piper's pastors conference this fall will address the topic of sanctification.  The Princeton Regional Conference on Reformed Theology--featuring Derek Thomas and Ian Hamilton (Cambridge, England) will take up the same.  Apparently, many are feeling that the issue of the Holy Spirit's active work in the life of the believer needs to be taken up afresh in our setting.

In sanctification God works in us personally.  The Holy Spirit regenerates us, making us alive in Christ (Eph 2:5), and takes up permanent residence in our lives.  He redeems our wills.  Rather than leaving us passive, he calls us to participate with him.  The Holy Spirit calls upon us to desire him to be the controlling influence.  "Be filled with the Spirit,"  Paul commands in Ephesians 5:18.  He also calls us to obey him, lest he be grieved (again, it's personal with God):  "And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, by whom you were sealed for the day of redemption." (Eph 4:30).

Every Christian is called to be filled with the Spirit.  Perhaps the reason for the sudden interest in sanctification is that there are more and more professing Christ who have the notion that the point of the gospel is to bring forgiveness into their lives while leaving God out of their lives.  There are folks who want God's forgiveness, but don't want God Himself.  To be aware that you are a sinner in need of forgiveness, does not make you repentant.  Repentance goes further, not only acknowledging sin, but earnestly desiring God in the place of that particular sin.  Repentance is not simply desiring to be rid of sin.  There are all sorts of reasons to desire to be rid of sin.  Sin is inefficient at times, life dominating, degrading and enslaving.  True repentance is desiring God instead of sin.  And, if you say that that you desire God, but don't care about grieving him then you are deceiving yourself.  It's best in that case to go back to the gospel itself, revisit it and consider whether you ever grasped it.

The work of the Holy Spirit affects every aspect of our lives.  With regard to leadership, His ministry is absolutely essential to the health of the church:

Spiritual Leadership can be exercised only by Spirit-filled men.  Other qualifications for spiritual leadership are desirable.  This one is indispensable...

Choosing men for office in the church or any of its auxiliaries without reference to spiritual qualifications must of necessity result in an unspiritual administration.  In illustrating such a situation, Dr. A.T. Pierson likened it to the course sometimes pursued in a large company when it desires to rid itself of its controlling head.  Gradually, in the subordinate offices and in the Board of Trustees or Directors, men are introduced who are opposed to the presiding officer in method and spirit.  They quietly antagonize his measures, obstruct his plans, thwart his policy.  Instead of cooperation and support, he meets inertia and indifference, if not violent opposition, until at last, unable to conduct affairs, he resigns from sheer inability to carry out his policy of administration.  Appointment of men with a secular or materialistic outlook prevents the Holy Spirit from carrying out His program for the Church in the world.

To "make a man" an officer in the church because we think we have a need to fill is to deal a deadly blow to the body of Christ.  The same is true for women in positions of spiritual leadership.  Spiritual sensitivity is the overriding and controlling criteria.  All else is optional.  Apt words as we commence once again this fall in the training of officers for ministry in the church.  Pray for our church, asking God to make sure the the Holy Spirit is the Chief Executive Officer in the church.  He is the Spirit of Christ, the Chief Shepherd.





Qualities Essential to Leadership (Part II)

On July 10 I began a series of blog posts on J. Oswald Sanders' classic, Spiritual Leadership.   The first post is here, and contains the rationale for the series along with a personal testimony of how God used this book in my life.  Today we come to chapter 8, Sanders' second chapter on qualities essential to leadership. The qualities that Sanders includes in this chapter are: humor, anger, patience, friendship. tact and diplomacy, inspirational power and executive ability.  This chapter reminded me of why Spiritual Leadership is such an excellent book and is still in print: Sanders addresses the whole person.  This aspect of Sanders' work is what I want to think about today.

One of the many challenges facing the church when it comes to leadership is the abundance of specialists lacking a complete palette of paints.  Their leadership portraits (both the pictures of themselves and the pictures of the organizations that they lead) lack the richness and diversity of past leadership.  So, we often hear that Leader W is a great teacher, but terribly irritable.  Or, Leader X is a good visionary, but a terrible executive.  Or, Leader Y is pragmatic and effective at generating growth, but theologically weak.  Or, Leader Z is grave and serious, but he has no sense of humor and children fear him.

All leaders will have their strong suits, but no true leader can completely neglect crucial aspects of leadership.  Can we imagine saying of Jesus or Paul, "Great vision, but no heart for the flock."  Or, "They love people, but are not strong enough to stand for what is right."  Or, "These guys are all about reaching people, but have no doctrinal foundation."  Or, "They love theology, but have no heart for mission."  Or, "Great hearts, but not the sharpest knives in the drawer."  No way.  When it comes to pastors and elders in the local church we need well rounded men with a full palette when it comes to character, gifts, skills and disposition.  Sanders gives a vision for that type of man.  It is a book to be read and re-read.

What's your strong suit?  Where are the cracks in your armor?  Praise God for your gifts. Pray to God for the Holy Spirit to transform your character and hone your skills.  Have a holy ambition to be more like Jesus Christ.  In the gospel you are free to fail in your quest for Christ-likeness, and guaranteed to succeed.  Jesus has paid the price for failure, and provided the power for transformation.



Qualities Essential to Leadership (Part I, continued)

In the last post in this series we considered two of the five qualities that J. Oswald Sanders says are essential to leadership: Discipline and Vision.  Today we consider Decision, Courage and Humility. Decision

When all the facts are in, swift and clear decision is the mark of the true leader...Once a spiritual leader is sure of the will of God, he will go into immediate action, regardless of consequences...The true leader will resist the temptation to procrastinate in reaching a decision, nor will he vacillate after it has been made.

Presbyterians are notoriously slow in making decisions.  The church is not a business, nor is it a mission agency in the formal sense of the term.   Mission agencies are hierarchical organizations governed either by denominational oversight--Mission to the World, for example)--or boards of directors.  For this reason, it is much easier for these agencies to innovate and create than it is for the church.  Mission agencies also recruit their members according to talents and commitment to the mission.  The church doesn't recruit members.  The church takes in folks with all ranges of talents and value and commitments.  Thus it should be.  We are the body of Christ.  But, all that adds up to taking longer to make decisions (except in obvious moral or doctrinal areas where the decision has been made by Scripture).  When it comes to church leadership there are two common challenges.

First, there is a blended leadership structure in our particular church.  The Session leads the church.  But, there are individuals who are in public leadership positions as well.  The individual church leader (not only the Senior Pastor, but also key leaders in other positions) in a Presbyterian context has only that measure of unilateral decision making granted him or her by the Session (board of elders).  Again, thus it should be.  The key is for everyone to be on the same page.  The Session or the congregation or the Senior Pastor should not expect decisive leadership to be given beyond the boundaries of the authority that has been formally recognized.

Second, even if a church leader is granted the formal authority to be decisive, the leader is not in an organization where those who are under his leadership can be compelled to follow.  The CEO may fire subordinates, as may the Mission Agency president.  But, the local church leader cannot do this; indeed, they should not desire to fire those under their leadership.  (These folks are the flock of God, not employees or mercenaries.)    Quite often a local church leader may be ceded the authority to make a decision, only to find that after it was made that the decision resonated with very few and the results were minimal.

So, make sure the lines are drawn clearly, then everyone listen and pray hard.  When our desire to be decisive as leaders is mixed with courage, humility and prayer things tend to work out well.  Courage is not only needed to storm the gates of hell.  Courage is also vital to dealing lovingly with the heart issues that bog down the church.  Humility desires to keep Christ and his Kingdom at the center, and never to beat or drive the flock of God as if they are mercenaries or employees.  Prayer is the nursery in which all these virtues of the leaders take root and grow under the blessing of the Spirit.

I'll sign off by letting Sander's words stand alone on courage and humility:


Contrast these two records: "The doors were shut where the disciples were assembled for fear of the Jews"(John 20:19) and "They saw the boldness of Peter and John" (Acts 4:13).  These were the same disciples confronted by the same Jews at an interval of only a short time.  Whence this new courage?  Inspiration gives the answer: "They were all filled with the Holy Spirit."  And when the Holy Spirit is ceded control of the whole personality, He imparts "not the spirit of fear, but of power..." (II Tim. 1:7).

The courage of a leader is demonstrated in his being willing to face unpleasant and even devastating facts and conditions with equanimity, and then acting with firmness in the light of them, even though it means incurring personal unpopularity.  Human inertia and opposition do not deter him.  His courage is not a thing of the moment, but continues until the task is fully done.


In the realm of politics and commerce, humility is a quality neither coveted nor required.  There the leader needs and seeks prominence and publicity.  But in God's scale of values humility stands very high.  Self-effacement, not self-advertisement, was Christ's definition of leadership.  In training His disciples for their coming positions of authority, He told them they must not be pompous and overbearing like the Oriental despots, but humble and lowly like their Master (Matt. 20:25-27).  The spiritual leader will choose the hidden pathway of sacrificial service and the approval of His Lord rather than the flamboyant assignment and the adulation of the unspiritual crowd.

Qualities Essential to Leadership (Part I)

We return to Sanders' Spiritual Leadership.  To view the earlier posts in this series you can click here. Getting back into Sanders has been spiritually refreshing and challenging.  Chapter 7, "Qualities Essential to Leadership Part I," is a very challenging chapter.  The chapter is a humbling tour de force on the leader's character.  He addresses in succession: discipline, vision, wisdom, decision, courage, and humility.   This chapter is one of the longest in the book.  One reads here sentences that others have spawned into books and seminars, testifying to the seminal influence of this work.  I think the best thing to do with this chapter is to bring forward a salient quotation from each section. Today we will draw from the sections on Discipline and Vision.


Many who take courses in leadership in the hope of attaining it fail because they have never learned to follow.  They are like the boys who were playing war in the street. When a passerby inquired why they were all so quiet and were doing nothing, one lad replied, "We are all generals. We can't get anyone to do the fighting."

I've often said that true leaders make the best followers as well. They know that someone needs to lead, and they know how to discern the difference between selfish ambition and strong godly leadership.


Vision includes optimism and hope.  No pessimist ever made a great leader.  The pessimist sees a difficulty in every opportunity.  The optimist sees an opportunity in every difficulty.  The pessimist, always seeing the difficulties before possibilities, tends to hold back the man of vision who desires to push ahead.  The cautious man has his part to play in helping his optimistic leader to be realistic as well.  But he must watch lest his native and now ingrained caution clips the wings of the man God intends to soar.  The cautious man draws valuable lessons from history and tradition, but he is in danger of being chained to the past. The man who sees the difficulties so clearly that he does not discern the possibilities will be unable to impart inspiration to his followers.

If you are an optimistic visionary, listen to the cautions brought forward.  Don't let them dampen dreams stirred by Scripture and prayer.   Instead, let these cautions fill out your vision with plans of action that take account of all the obstacles.  Fools truly do rush in where angels fear to tread.  Also, remember that you are dealing with people who may have accumulated their fears and hesitations through wounds.  Listen for the wounds (have vision to see through objections to the heart issues that they reveal), and seek to apply healing.

If you are cautious, don't unduly stamp out the dreams of those who are more optimistic.  Let them challenge you to see that the gospel is the power of God for salvation, and that God can do more than we can ask or imagine.  Indeed, God is most glorified when the mission has been so vast that He has had to be put in the center to accomplish it.   If your caution stems from unhealed wounds (you've been burned), then revisit those places with the gospel and open up to the leader in your midst.  Leaders need to know where their followers have been burned so that they can apply gospel salve to painful places.

I'll return to Sanders list tomorrow.  Once again I am drawn to the throne of grace to seek help in my leadership time of need.  I am also more in awe of Jesus' leadership.  Praise God for Jesus Christ, the pioneer of our salvation.

Stupid and Rude? Ouch.

Do we take listening as seriously as God does: "If one gives an answer before he hears, it is his folly and shame" (Proverbs 18:13).    If that doesn't get your ear then consider Eugene Peterson's paraphrase: "Answering before listening is both stupid and rude." Ouch. What does it look like to not listen?  Do you sit there, hearing what someone is saying, but all the while waiting to jump in with your own thoughts?  Do you lose track of what someone is saying because you are so anxious to redirect them or correct them?  Do people say things that throw you emotionally to the point that you cannot continue to listen to them?  Instead, you stand there with your mind racing about what they just said, unable to listen to what they are presently saying?  Most of us are guilty of these listening failures some of the time at least.  We need to get at the heart issues that underlie our failure to listen.  Why are we so quick to judge?  Why do our hearts shut down and our veins course with defensiveness, anger or fear when someone hits a certain theme?  If we get to the heart of these types of responses then we will find a gap in gospel understanding.

Great leaders are very good listeners.    Listening is not simply a means by which we respect other people (it is that at a minimum).  Listening is a means whereby we allow them to work out in our hearing, with our attention, what God is doing in their lives.  Our fast-paced, distraction-filled culture does not promote godly listening (e.g., husband on smart phone while wife is talking).  Man was not created to be alone.  One of the things missing for Adam in the garden was someone to listen to him and empathize with his experience.  So, God created Eve.  The marriage relationship is a special place where when listening you should be prized as a means of bringing forth fruit.  But listening is for all relationships.  James says that every Christian is called "to be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry" (James1:19).  Do you listen?

Lets hear Dietrich Bonhoeffer on this theme:

The first service that one owes to others in the fellowship consists in listening to them. Just as love to God begins with listening to His Word, so the beginning of love for the brethren is learning to listen to them. It is God’s love for us that He not only gives us His Word but also lends us His ear.

So it is His work that we do for our brother when we learn to listen to him. Christians, especially ministers, so often think they must always contribute something when they are in the company of others, that this is the one service they have to render. They forget that listening can be a greater service than speaking.

Many people are looking for an ear that will listen. They do not find it among Christians, because these Christians are talking where they should be listening. But he who can no longer listen to his brother will soon be no longer listening to God either; he will be doing nothing but prattle in the presence of God too.

This is the beginning of the death of the spiritual life, and in the end there is nothing left but spiritual chatter and clerical condescension arrayed in pious words. One who cannot listen long and patiently will presently be talking beside the point and be never really speaking to others, albeit he be not conscious of it.   Anyone who thinks that his time is too valuable to spend keeping quiet will eventually have no time for God and his brother, but only for himself and for his own follies.”

From, Life Together (New York: Harper and Row, 1954), 97-98.