From Voice magazine, Mar/Apr 2016. Used by permission.
All ministry leadership ultimately involves spiritual work in hearts. It is doubtful that any ministry leader in our circles would deny or challenge that biblical reality. But as I have the blessing of serving ministry leaders here and abroad, it has been my observation that the proposition of ministry leadership being ultimately a spiritual work in the heart is too often mentally affirmed but functionally denied.
The key word is process. While a seminary student I well remember Prof. Hendricks repeatedly stating, “Process always determines product!” As a young and immature Christian, I had little idea at that time how pregnant that statement was with implication. If the process is natural, the product will be natural. If the process is spiritual the product will be spiritual.
There is a gaping hole, a potentially catastrophic disconnect, in the lives of far too many leaders entrusted to carry forth God’s work. Because we have not adequately prepared leaders in terms of biblical process issues, we have embraced subtle fatal assumptions. Frequently ministry leaders suffer with spiritual myopia: our vision is fuzzy in terms of how God intends to fulfill His ministry through us. We fail to see, with biblical clarity, the spiritual foundations of ministry as God intends them to be. This lack of clear biblical discernment is always followed by many struggles.
The Heart Is the Key
Ministry leaders all too often tend to the spiritual welfare of God’s people while neglecting their own spiritual vitality. The heart of this concern is an issue of the heart. God’s process for our leadership is spiritual and it will always flow through the heart of a leader. When we neglect this spiritual and supernatural process it will become diminished and eventually absent, gravitating into the realm of what is natural.
The natural process in ministry centers on our own capacity. We lean on our understanding, not trusting the Lord with all of our heart.
The symptoms of leaning on our natural capacity in ministry are: a pervasive discouragement, a sinister cloud of depression, debilitating burnout, a cancerous disillusionment, a paralyzing loss of passion and a crippling bitterness in our lives and ministries. This is not leadership as God intends it to be and we must ask the question: “Why is this happening in our lives and ministry?” Perhaps it is too frightening to face these struggles but consider the cost in failing to do so. Consider the cost to you personally and to those whom God has sovereignly placed in your sphere of influence, most specifically your family and your church.
God’s single most important concern for a ministry leader is the issue of his heart. His predominating concern is ultimately not for a man’s homiletical ability, his administrative prowess, his theological precision or any of the endless items that make up the composite profile of successful leadership in our minds. God’s heart is for your heart.
One of the great biblical directives for ministry leadership is found in Psalm 78:72: “So he fed them according to the integrity of his heart, and guided them by the skillfulness of his hands.” In this biographical summary of the leadership of king David, the sequence moves from the heart to the hands. It is a movement from the question of the “who of ministry” to the “what of ministry.” God’s concern always begins with the “who” of ministry by virtue of the fact that ministry leadership is a spiritual process, flowing from and through the heart of a man. In a day governed by the superficial mania for methodology, this truth ought to stop us dead in our tracks.
My burden and sincere concern is for those of us in leadership who trudge forward in the struggle without hope and without help. God desires authentically spiritual leaders. That is the message for God’s leaders in this day, a truth full of hope and help. To embrace this biblical truth will bring pervasive and fortifying strength to the heart of a leader, a biblical strength we yearn for in the storms of ministry. God in His incomprehensible, mysterious, and precious providence is actively at work in the life of a leader at the level of the heart. It is true that the unfolding of God’s work in forming a leader’s heart is painfully unclear at times. Nevertheless, the biblical process by which God sculpts and forms the heart of a leader is understandably clear.
Our Heart’s Thoughts
As leaders committed to the truth that all ministry is a spiritual process, we must begin by giving careful biblical consideration to our thoughts. When Scripture speaks of the heart, in a non-anatomical manner, it refers to how and what we think. Thoughts in the Bible are portrayed as a continual activity by the use of the word “meditation.” The Psalmist proclaims, “I will lift up my hands toward your commandments, which I love, and I will meditate on your statutes.” (Psalm 119:48 ESV). The idea of meditation centers on our God- given capacity as His image bearers to actively contemplate. It is the continual activity of our mind, what Scripture refers to as our heart. As the anatomical heart continually functions until the Lord takes us into His presence, so too our spiritual heart or mind is continually active. It is in this continual activity of meditation that sets the trajectory of our ministry.
For the Psalmist the focus of contemplation was God’s truth, the pure and holy counsel of God. It is God’s desire for us to give careful thought to our thoughts. God’s desire for us is to harness this continually active process with His truth that sets us free. The ministry leader’s thought life must come under the scrutiny of His truth, receiving His counsel for our life and ministry. Our minds will be continually active, ruminating on either the counsel of the
Evil One or the counsel of the Holy One. It is not a question whether we will meditate but rather a question of what it is that we choose to be the focus of our meditation.
Another word that is useful in understanding the active nature of the heart is the word “ponder.” The Psalmist proclaims, “I will ponder the way that is blameless. Oh when will you come to me? I will walk with integrity of heart within my house” (Psalm 101:2 ESV). It is useful to consider the Latin derivation of the word ponder, which comes from the idea of “weigh.” Our minds will gravitate towards our most weighty thoughts, what it is that we are pondering. The active processing of our mind shapes and defines our understanding of the reality that surrounds us. As our hearts ceaselessly work to define interpretations of the realities of our ministry, a trajectory is being set. Ignoring the active process of pondering will not put the formation of our hearts on pause. The heart of a leader is never static because the ponderings of his heart are never static. The path upon which we will process ministry is being shaped within our heart by what we meditate upon and ponder over. Some other terms that may be helpful in describing this activity are reflection, musing, ruminating, deliberating, brooding, and dwelling upon.
Not only are our minds continually active but they are analytical, continually digesting data and making interpretations of that data. Our minds seek to make some sense of life and ministry, how we are to respond to circumstances and relationships with our words and actions. God has given us the capacity to synthesize and correlate those things we actively meditate upon in order to define the path will we follow.
As God’s image bearers with rational and analytical capacities, we will seek to create interpretations of what is happening in our sphere of leadership and how we will respond. We will synthesize our thoughts into a view of our personal world. This analysis will then determine our behavior and influence through words and actions.
Failure to give thought to our thoughts will lead to profound struggles. How are we seeking to make sense of what is happening in our sphere of leadership? What is the basis for hope and help in the midst of the struggles in ministry? How do we address feelings of overwhelming inadequacy? What is the measure of success in ministry? All of these kinds of struggles and questions should drive us to biblically examine the issues of our thoughts. God’s purely sufficient Word gives us wisdom in this regard: “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom; all those who practice it have a good understanding. His praise endures forever!” (Psalm 111:10 ESV). To embrace a high view of God and a high view of His Word is to have the basis for a godly analysis of the harsh realities that encompass us in ministry. God’s Word must be allowed to function as the exclusive instrument of dialysis, purifying the flow of our thoughts, which in turn calibrate our leadership trajectory (Psalm 19:7-11).
What are our consuming thoughts? What are our reflections and ruminations? Do we have God’s thoughts about our thoughts? What are the conclusions flowing from our analysis? Are they God’s understandings or are we leaning on our own understanding? What understandings do we have of ourselves, our roles, our circumstances, our relationships, our failures and the other “stuff” of life and ministry? Consider the biblical admonition to give thought to our thoughts. “The simple believes everything, but the prudent gives thought to his steps” (Prov. 14:15 ESV). It is folly not to consider our thoughts in order to know whether we have the mind of Christ as we encounter the rigorous realities of life. It is wise, actually necessary, to examine our steps and our leadership trajectory by considering the active meditations of our hearts and the analyses we make. Paul’s well known admonition is equally and essentially true for us, “Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things” (Philippians 4:8 ESV). The Word of God calls us to meditate, contemplate, ruminate, or reflect on these virtuous and life giving thoughts. To do so is to give attention to the most defining issue of leadership, the leader and his thoughts.