I recently read Spiritual Leadership by J. Oswald Sanders as I studied for a paper I wrote in seminary. I always struggle with this idea of leadership in the church. I fundamentally believe all Christians are leaders in some way. Every Christian has influence over at least one other person and therefore, even if it is only being a leader of one person, that is still leadership.
My struggle with leadership, in the church and among Christians, is that we often make it out to be a glorious thing, rather than a dying to self thing. I go back to what Tom Lin said a few weeks ago as a challenge to myself, “The American church has made leadership a sexy thing, made it cool – we don’t teach our youth to engage in suffering. When we look at Scripture, Jesus asked leaders to die to the things they care most about.”
With that picture of leadership in mind, I then feel comfortable talking about improving leadership potential by looking at specific things we can focus on to get better at using the influence we have for good. As the church welcomes in a new generation of millennials into the church as leaders, many are still left knocking at the door and looking for things they can focus on now to help them with their ability to lead later.
Why are we focusing on leadership potential and not just simply leadership? Many people, especially younger individuals only have influence over a few people but are looking for ways to grow in their ability to be strong leaders, hence the focus on potential, though there is clearly some overlap here.
Sanders highlights some principles he took from Hudson Taylor (the well known English missionary to China) on how leaders can improve their leadership potential. I found some invaluable insight in these six areas of focus from Sanders with my personal commentary:
- Organization: Good leaders are able to analyze which areas are functioning below standards and are able to come up with a plan to remedy the situation. Granted, a church organization and spiritual leadership isn’t all about (or shouldn’t be all about) bottom line efficiency, but we also shouldn’t just accept inefficiency either. Improving leadership means giving more focus to administrative details.
- Spiritual Focus: What are we bringing those around us closer to? I like the saying, “water rises to the level of the source” as a helpful reminder here. The spiritual health of the people around us should be the primary concern. It is out of that health they are able to be truly efficient. Improving leadership means we are leading others toward God, not us.
- Engagement Level: This takes hard conversations that either help build or rebuild trust and honesty. Bad leaders shy away from hard conversations. When problems are neglected, morale drops and performance decreases. The churches I’ve interacted with, growing up as a pastor’s kid and now as someone working in church ministry, are largely defined by political maneuvering that puts a stranglehold on the morale of those involved in the leadership of the church. Improving leadership means understanding the morale level of those around and making an intentional effort to improve on it.
- Relationships: This should go without saying, but growing leaders continue to invest more and more into the lives of people, not the machine that gave them a title. The best leaders know how and when to get off their platform in order to engage with the people around them. Improving leadership means giving more notice to those relationships. One area I’ve been greatly challenged in lately is listening as apart of my relationships. Even though I love one-on-one interaction I’m a fairly horrible listener. This is a great thought from Henri Nouwen: “The beauty of listening is that those who are listened to start feeling accepted, start taking their words more seriously and discovering their true selves.”
- Problem Solving: Leaders must be able to solve tough problems. Think of the quote, “creating problems is easy, solving them is difficult.” This one goes hand in hand with the previous areas of focus because it will take problem solving to improve administration, morale, and relationships.
- Creation: This is an area of struggle for me personally. I tend to be great at implementing ideas, not creating them. Because of this I have to be extremely intentional about giving myself space each week to think outside the box. I also try to work with people around me who come up with creative ideas all the time. “Criticizing plans is easier than creating them,” is a good saying to remind ourselves of. Improving leadership means we are more apt to create than criticize.