I love being involved in God’s work of transformation in the lives of people. When I began to trust Jesus as a high school student, he immediately began to transform my life. But the way I did ministry early on did not cooperate well with the transforming intentions and work of God in the lives of others.
My earliest experiences of faith were lived out in communities where the study and teaching of the scriptures were held as the highest possible value. I’m grateful for the gift this tradition has given me.
But I have to say that the approach to scripture I was given early on had a way of being very focused on accurate information more than on actual life transformation. It seemed to be enough to be able to quote a passage of scripture by heart that hadn’t sunk in to change my heart much. I remember hearing comments about a particular leader who knew the scriptures quite well, but was also known to be a pretty cranky, mean person.
The comment that stuck me most was this one: “He’s not a very loving person, but he sure is knowledgeable.” This was said in a way that made it clear that knowledge was more important in this case than love. No one would have said that out loud since it’s so obviously counter to so many biblical truths, but the comment was both affirmed and accepted by those who heard it. Transformation was not necessary. Correct biblical information was.
Over time, and especially as I discovered the spiritual formation tradition through a few treasured mentors, I began to rethink my focus on teaching and leading as handing out accurate information, doctrine, teaching, content, and theology. I began to learn how to cooperate with the transforming intentions and work of God in the lives of others. Such a reality makes my work both less impressive and more fruitful. Let me unpack that in a few ways.
Jesus always focused on the heart. Religious leaders in that day focused on outward appearances.
I realize that, as much as I would have objected at the time, I was much more like a Pharisee than I was like Jesus in my approach to teaching and leading. I was mostly focused on appearing good rather than on becoming good. So obviously, I was mostly focused on getting others to appear good even if they weren’t being transformed in good ways from their hearts. I wanted people to think right and look right. I didn’t quite know how to help them become right on the inside. Jesus knows how transformation works. It always begins with a change of heart.
John the Baptist is a beautiful example of cooperating with the transforming work of God.
John is a kind of “pointer of the way.” Too often, in the past, I was pointing to myself without realizing it. I wanted to be seen as a good teacher, a gifted teacher, a recognizable leader. I would have said I was doing it all for Jesus, but I was the one at the center of my activities. John the Baptist says about himself in relation to Jesus, “He must become greater; I must become less (Jn 3:30).”
He uses the metaphor of Jesus as the groom and himself as the groom’s friend, perhaps what we’d call the best man. Can you imagine a best man taking center stage at a wedding? Could there be anything more inappropriate? And yet there are ways I did just that in the context of my roles of Christian leadership. But it is more fruitful and beautiful when we learn to let Jesus take the lead, stand at the center, to be the one to whom we point.
One of the most fruitful things leaders can do is to cultivate and cooperate with the presence of Jesus in their lives.
When Jesus uses the metaphor of himself as vine and us as branches in John 15, he is talking about kingdom reality. They aren’t just nice and inspiring words. They are describing how life and the abundant fruit of transformation actually happens.
I remember a time when my teaching was mostly about something I learned about, crafted impressive sounding sentences about, and then talked about with a group of people. It made a great deal of difference when I began to think of preparation for teaching as beginning with preparing myself.
What was Jesus teaching me? How was this passage of scripture speaking to my real life now? How might I respond so as to more deeply enjoy and embody these kingdom realities? And how then might I speak from the heart and not just from my notes? This changed how I taught, preached and led.
Humility cooperates with the transforming grace of God. Pride gets in its way.
I’m not sure how I didn’t make this connection from the very beginning. I remember clearly hearing passages preached from my earliest days as a follower of Christ, reminding me that God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.
When I make myself the center of whatever leadership or ministry environment in which I find myself, I am getting in the way of the work of grace. When my neediness, my big personality, my impressive knowledge takes center stage, my glaring visible presence outshines the beautiful, gentle glow of grace.
Kingdom leadership—Christian leadership—is humble. And humility isn’t thinking less of myself than is real and true. Humility is learning to take my eyes off myself, whether in self-promoting or self-denigrating ways.
Take a next step…
If these things ring true and hit home, I want to extend an invitation to you. Next month, here in Southern California, Gem and I will lead a Friday/Saturday training on October 13-14 called “Leading for Transformation.” We can’t wait to share leadership insights and practices rooted the transforming way of Jesus with a community of friends like you who will join us.
In this training, we’ll address themes like:
- The importance of preparing who you are.
- Making space for spiritual practices & encountering God.
- Spiritual leadership as hospitality. Holding space for others.
- Unhurried Time with God explained and experienced.
- Right-sizing content to maximize formation.
- Informational teaching vs. formational teaching.
- “Process” thinking versus “event” thinking.
- Unpacking “Prayer as Primary Influence” (from An Unhurried Leader).
- Unpacking “Working with God” (from An Unhurried Leader).
Would you join us? It would be a gift to share a couple of days with you in communion with Jesus and community with one another. I know this is going to be a deeply encouraging and fruitful time for all of us.
You can learn more and register by clicking on this link.