A Work of Heart: Understanding How God Shapes Spiritual Leaders
Author: Reggie McNeal
What is spiritual leadership?
“The first order of responsibility for spiritual leaders: to reflect the heart of God to the people around them (XIV).”
I’ve come to understand that the first person that I must lead is myself. Self-leadership includes everything from the way I focus my mind, nurture my body, and care for my soul and spiritual well-being, to the discipline in which I pursue my purpose.
When it comes to leadership, you must put your heart in it. The lesson from this book is: “When a leader loses heart, he [or she] loses (xix).” Life is difficult and challenging for every one of us. While some challenges and days are more difficult than others, it is certain that all of us will struggle in this world. When confronting their grief at the reality of his own death, Jesus words to his disciples was this: “I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world (John 16:33 NIV).” I love that in our English translations, there is the coordinating conjunction “but” in this sentence. In this sentence the word “but” connects and contrasts the trouble of this world with the proper response to take heart. Taking heart is an intentional act and it affirms the hope we have in Jesus. Jesus has overcome this world! In him, we are victorious and can therefore, live as champions in spite of the world’s troubles.
How does God shape our heart? “Basic heart-shaping occurs in six significant arenas (XXII).”
- Culture. In this book, culture is “broadly defined to include all the environmental influences that shape the leader’s life and ministry context. These include the historical period, political situation, societal mores, and traditions…Culture is not neutral; it contains both positive and negative forces (XXII).” While culture shapes the heart of leaders, “we are also more than products of culture. The development of the leader’s heart also affects the leader’s culture (74).” Or to put it plainly, “the culture we absorb as leaders also impacts the culture we create.” Leaders are people of influence and “Christian enterprises that engage the culture have leaders who view cultural connectivity as an essential aspect of fulfilling the Great Commission (78).”
- Call. “The call orders the leader’s efforts, affecting decisions in every area of life (XXIII).” I believe it is fundamentally important that spiritual leaders start reminding Christians that the primary call for all of us is to make disciples. Obedience to our primary calling is what shapes the purpose, mission, and direction of our secondary calling. “Individual believers certainly should be helped to develop a personal sense of mission. The lack of this among Christians is one of the great tragedies of the modern church (97).” This is why the need for mentoring as intentional discipleship is so important. Mentoring helps clarify our purpose and fulfill this great need in the church.
- Community. “Leaders do not develop in isolation. They emerge within a community that plays a vital role in shaping them (XXIII).” Our communities can consist of our family of origin, local church, workplace, mentoring relationships, and friendships. As we must intentionally cultivate healthy and life-giving relationships, and learn to love and be loved well, and to extend forgiveness and grace when needed.
- Communion. Communion reflects “the leader’s conscious cultivation of a relationship with God (XXIII).” In Mentor for Life, I write about the importance of our being present with God and communing with him regularly in what Henry Nouwen refers to as the place of conversion, which is not a physical place, but rather the intentional acts we take to practice the spiritual disciplines, speak with and patiently listen to God.
- Conflict. Conflict is a critical heart-shaping element for spiritual leaders, and it cannot be avoided. Rather than approaching conflict as something negative, spiritual leaders can embrace these challenges to cultivate and grow themselves, those around them, and the ministries, organizations, and the communities in which they serve.
- Commonplace. “A lot of heart-shaping activity goes on in the everyday, run-of-the-mill, when-nobody’s looking activity of the leader (XXIII).” I have been so encouraged by the Lord doing the regular day-to-day stuff in silence, solitude, and with intentionality for the work that he has set before me. Whether this commonplace activity is house chores, prayer, Bible study, offering hospitality, financial giving, offering a smile, hug, or word of thanks and encouragement, I am encouraged by such passages as “When you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you (Matt. 6:3-4).” In other words, you don’t have to tell people every time you do stuff. God sees and knows all things, and his promise to his faithful children is that we will be rewarded for our work.
Four biblical character studies of: Moses, David, Paul, and Jesus
- Moses: A Heart on a Mission
When I read the book, The Hole in our Gospel, by Riachard Sterns a few years ago, he wrote, “God did not review Moses’ qualifications for the job at hand; He only wanted his obedience.” What we learn from Moses is he “had a strong sense of right and wrong…[and] was particularly sensitive to the needs of the underprivileged (8).” We also learn that “Moses would come to find his greatest sense of belonging in his communion with the God of the burning bush (13).” Moses was present and dependent on God, and this was evident through his prayer life and faithful service to God’s people.
- David: A Heart after God
Few people read the Bible with the understanding of the many years that passed between the time David was anointed to become Israel’s King and the time he actually took office. David was certain of his calling, did not force his kingship, and God used that time to prepare him for service. “Christian leaders certain of their call allow it to become the center of gravity for their life experiences. They order their lives around the call of God on them…They are convinced that life will eventually line up with the reality of the call. God has anointed. God will deliver on his promise (25).” Like Moses, “David depended on communion with God (34).” This dependence, and his devotion to his mission and the people is what made David a spiritual leader.
- Paul: A Heart Captured by God
The Apostle Paul is the writer of the majority of the New Testament, and throughout history, he continues to shape the way we view the church. Paul received a vision for his life, ministry, and leadership on Damascus Road as recorded in the book of Acts, Chapter 9. He was destined to carry the good news of the gospel to the Gentiles. From that time on, Paul models a life of faithful devotion to every assignment given by the Lord. “Leaders who give their best efforts to their current assignments from God are prepared for their next level of influence…Trusting God with their destiny, they wound up with influence they never could have pulled off on their own (45).”
- Jesus: The Heartbeat of God
Jesus is our Savior and great high priest. The Bible says that because he was fully human, he was tempted in every way that we are but was without sin (Heb. 4:15). Because he is fully God, he can grant us grace and mercy in our time of need (Heb. 4:16). In life, he was tempted, tested, tried, and he was sustained through regular communion with his Heavenly Father. He had human needs and a divine assignment. His entire earthly existence was a wilderness. One thing we learn from him is that “this tension between human need and divine assignment constitutes a major heart-shaping dynamic…The effective leader, like Jesus, has to keep a clear view of a future that will come about only by being faithful to the Father’s call (59).”
In light of this information, McNeal believes that God is calling us to a new model of apostolic leadership that is missional, kingdom conscious, team-focused, entrepreneurial, has a school by the business culture, develops people, is visionary, and is deeply spiritual. These leaders work for the singular focus and attention on God. He is their audience of one. Regardless of where we fall on the leadership paradigm, what God is doing by shaping our hearts is renewing our minds, increasing our understanding and competence, affirming our identity in Christ, growing us in wisdom and knowledge, teaching us how to live in proper relationships with other people, shaping our character, growing our gratitude, disciplining our souls, and encouraging us to persevere on our faith and leadership journeys.
How has God shaped your heart? “What vision do you have for the current and the next chapter of your life’s ministry?…What kind of community are you developing in your ministry assignment?”
“The leader’s choices carry implication that reach far beyond the life of the leader. What kind of heart you choose to have will limit or increase your impact for God on the world and the people he has created (192).”
© Natasha Sistrunk Robinson
Called: The Crisis and Promise of Following Jesus Today by Mark Labberton
Culture Making: Recovering Our Creative Calling by Andy Crouch
Mentor for Life: Finding Purpose through Intentional Discipleship by Natasha Sistrunk Robinson