Self-denial is the first step of discipleship. Jesus said, "If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me" (Luke 9:23, ESV). Of course, Christian history is footnoted with a number of extremes, ascetics to libertines, and it's difficult to select a norm for spiritual leaders. Yes, following the example of Jesus is a great starting point. His compassion and care for others, plus his model of personal humility must be our template. But, often self is a troubling component of pastoral ministry. How we handle the personal interface with church is a test of every spiritual leader.
C.S. Lewis' quote about humility established a milestone for understanding the place of self in the daily traffic of spiritual leadership. He said, "True humility is not thinking less of yourself; it is thinking of yourself less.” So, me, myself, and I were never the first thought in serving churches for thirty five years of pastoral leadership. At the same time, where self fit into the grueling schedules and hard days became a point of consideration, especially as our old friend age began to be a more visible companion. So, there are some personal do overs visible in the rear-view mirror. They are personal concerns that not only affect our performance but also our integrity as leaders. Here are several thoughts---
1. Pray more. This do over touches everything I ever did as a person and as a
leader, whether at church or at home, or anywhere else. During thirty-five years
as a pastor I would never have left prayer off my personal list of important
disciplines. Yet, in the rear-view mirror, the one do over that seems most
consistent is the need for more prayer. We've all got our programs, acronyms,
and devotional steps. Find one that works for you. Then, do it more. In the
personal category, praying with my wife and children would have been more
central to our early years as well.
2. Always accentuate your personal humanity. Well, duh? This isn't really hard
because human is all we'll every be under the sun. But, there have been times in
church history, and not in the ancient history either, when pastors and church
leaders presented themselves as super-human. It's even visible today in the
imperial pastorate, the church leaders who presume that ordination granted
them a hall pass from the limits of most human beings. It's a sickening
misrepresentation of the servant heart of Christ. And, there's an addendum: act
like superman, people will expect you to be superman. Don't forget the feet of
clay and the earthen vessels.
3. Learn biblical humility and practice it. OK, humility isn't a fruit of the spirit and
doesn't grow in the Christians life naturally. But, it is the mind of Christ and
should be the character of those who are pursuing his virtue. What is more,
most of us have a pop-culture understanding of humility. It isn't what most of us
think. So, every spiritual leader should do the word studies around the concept of
humility and develop a totally biblical idea about what it means. Last year I read
the book Humilitas: A Lost Key to Life, Love, and Leadership by John Dickson
(Zondervan, 2011). It may be the most convicting treatment of biblical humility
I've ever experienced. Every spiritual leader should read it. At the same time,
every spiritual leader must understand that genuine humility is winsome and
natural, and that people can detect fake humility in a second. I love what Israeli
Prime Minister said to expose the false humility of one of her leaders: "Don't be
so humble. You're not that great". Ouch. In a do over, I would study and pray for
humility early in my pastoral ministry.
4. Practice Sabbath. So, the priorities of spiritual leadership are usually focused on
others. Self is usually down the list. Research indicates that most ministry families
are slighted and pressured, and that given the opportunity they would leave the
ministry for another field of service. As a result, many spiritual leaders have
moved family up the priority list. And, rightfully so. Next to Jesus, family should be
the most important commitment. But, we should never overlook the need for
rest, a personal thought life, and time alone. Again, reputable research from a
number of organizations indicates that most pastors and church leaders live on
the ragged edge all the time. Spiritual leaders must learn that Sabbath is more
than a day in the week. It is a concept that keeps leaders fresh and prepared for
service. If I could go back, I'd start the Sabbath practice way before age forced me
to do it.
5. Learn the value of likeability. Good grief, you don't know how many pastors
and other servant leaders who jump back when I ask them if their church family
or colleagues like them. Recently one friend snarled back, "What has that go to
do with anything? I'm their pastor. They don't have to like me. They have to
respect and follow me." Poor guy. He doesn't have a clue. Another book stirred
this ideal in me. Tim Sanders, one of the Yahoo execs and now CEO of tech
start-up NetMinds wrote The Likeability Factor (Crown Business, 2006) and quotes
research that indicates likeable people are more effective in getting things done
across the board in every career assignment. I'm not into psycho-babble or pop-
psychology as a spiritual discipline. However, Sanders is a believer and provides
compelling data about the effectiveness of likeable people. I know some spiritual
leaders who are genuine jerks. That usually catches up with them because it does
not reflect the character of Christ. Jesus stood on truth and confronted error. But,
he was a winsome person who attracted crowds. If I could perform a personal do
over, I would find an accountability partner who could measure and grade my
likeability. If I had done exactly that, it wouldn't be on my do over list.
The Pauline Epistles are intensely personal. Throughout them Paul revealed a deep awareness of his own person, his weaknesses to serve, and his advice to those he was teaching. What he wrote to Timothy always touches me...
Let no one despise you for your youth, but set the believers an example in speech,
in conduct, in love, in faith, in purity. Until I come devote yourself to the public
reading of Scripture, to exhortation, to teaching. Do not neglect the gift you have,
which was given to you by prophecy when the council of elders laid their hands on
you. Practice these things, immerse yourself in them so that all may see your
progress. Keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching. Persist in this, for by
so doing you will save yourself and your hearers.
1 Timothy 4:12-16, ESV
Procedures? Methodology? Somewhat. More about guarding his personal life, so there wouldn't be a long list of personal do overs.
Immerse yourself. Keep a close watch on yourself. Do the personal stuff.