Get spiritual: Leading the People in your Church Chairs Depends on it

By Ray Wheeler, DMin. A group of researchers working with the United States Army determined that spiritual leadership is critical to developing organizational commitment and performance. Their research demonstrated that organizational performance is directly related to the ideas of calling/meaning and membership typically associated with spirituality. [1] The researchers point out that;

… the tenets of hope/faith, altruistic love, and vision within spiritual leadership comprises the values, attitudes, and behaviors required to intrinsically motivate oneself and others to have a sense of calling and membership – spiritual well being.[2]

Pastors I know who look into the eyes of those sitting in church chairs every Sunday morning have also observed the quest for meaning and a sense of belonging/membership is nearly palpable in the people sitting there. Pastoral leaders know that the degree to which spirituality impacts how people understand their sense of calling/meaning and membership in the church is a critical factor in the quality of the congregation’s overall health.

But talk about spirituality needs to make a distinction between religion and spirituality. Religion is concerned with formalized practices and ideas that depend on a theological system of beliefs, ritual prayers, rites and ceremonies. Religion is not necessary for spirituality but spirituality is necessary for religion. The challenge is that religion as an expression of human spirituality is reducible to empty and dogmatic forms that actually suppress spirituality.

Spirituality is concerned with those qualities associated with the human spirit (or the Imago Dei as a theologian may prefer to call it) that include such characteristics as love, compassion, patience, tolerance, forgiveness, contentment, personal responsibility and a sense of harmony with one’s context or environment. Spirituality shares the characteristics associated with positive psychology and many of the outcomes associated with happiness at work.

Spirituality is the pursuit of a vision of service to others; through humility as having the capacity to regard oneself as an individual equal but not greater in value to others individuals; through charity, or altruistic love; and through veracity, which goes beyond basic truth-telling to engage one’s capacity for seeing things exactly as they are, thus limiting subjective distortions.[3]

Jesus makes a similar distinction that is important because it reshapes what we think about leadership. For example Jesus challenged the religious leaders of the day to see past the formal practices, rituals, rites and ceremonies of religious expression to get at the core issues of justice, mercy and faithfulness to God. (Matthew 23:23-39) Without a distinction between spirituality and religion definitions of leadership in religion typically trend toward a narrow and exceptional set of qualifications that the average person does not meet. If the starting point is spirituality as Jesus suggested then the emergence of leadership from within a group is a natural course of the activism that occurs as true spirituality responds to issues of justice, mercy and faithfulness.

The researchers use the phrase leadership rather than leader in their project to differentiate that they are not looking at the specific qualities of an individual but at the complex and multilevel dynamics of how leadership emerges in a group of people. Their definition is important because it recognizes that the act of leadership is not only complex but that it emerges when needed from a variety of individuals rather than from an exclusive few. The move to understanding leadership as a complex multilevel dynamic is significant for two reasons.

First, research is getting closer to the reality described in the Bible i.e., that leadership is a functional outcome of all the parts of the body being aligned in mission. (I Cor. 12: 14-31) That leadership is a focus does not downplay the role of individuals as they lead but rather raises the importance of the interconnectedness of the parts of the body while minimizing a hero/messiah complex on the part of leaders. I think Greenleaf got it right when he noted why leadership is a more preferable concept than simply looking at individual leaders;

Finally the prevalence of the lone chief placed a burden on the whole society because it gives control priority over leadership. It sets before the young the spectacle of an unwholesome struggle to get to the top. It nourishes the notion among able people that one must be boss to be effective. And it sanctions, in a conspicuous way, a pernicious and petty status striving that corrupts everyone.[4]

Second, research quantitatively defines the dynamics behind one of the most interesting leadership emergence stories in the Bible e.g., the identification and release of the six deacons. (Acts 6:1-8) I do not mean that the Bible needs to be quantitatively affirmed. Instead quantitative research illustrates the reason why the pattern visible in Acts 6 is reproducible and desirable. In fact it is my thesis that the events around the selection of the seven deacons is the model of how the church should face the challenges of complex/multilevel dynamics it faces as a congregation grows and attempts to address the rapidly changing social/demographic fabric faced by many congregations in today’s global cities.

Leadership development is a hot topic of discussion in church publications and seminary research projects. So this research on spirituality has an important contribution to make. Does the research explain what occurred in Acts 6? If so what insights does it provide to help pastors reproduce leaders? I see three lessons.

Lesson 1: Succeeding in a Complex Multilevel Environment Requires Disruption of Existing Patterns

I would like to simply stipulate that operating in a church today is a more complex proposition than it was fifty years ago. That said leading a congregation effectively in today’s world looks nothing like it did fifty years ago…even ten years ago.

Changing social context like the one faced by churches today is not unheard of historically. Consider the situation in Acts 6. The influx of new cultural groups responding to the gospel after Pentecost resulted in the types of conflicts those of us in Intercultural studies predict – some people were invisible. Look at the text:

[1] In those days when the number of disciples was increasing, the Hellenistic Jews among them complained against the Hebraic Jews because their widows were being overlooked in the daily distribution of food. (Acts 6:1, NIV)

The complaint brought to the apostles resulted in two significant actions. First, the apostles leveraged the disruption of existing behavioral patterns to challenge incongruous cultural norms (i.e., the way we do things around here). Cultural norms are not in themselves bad but where cultural norms impede the expansion of the church they result in behavior by the church that contradicts the message of the church. This is an important change insight.

Second, the apostles did not ask the pre-existing social network to answer the need they asked the new group to identify their own leaders and answer their own needs. This avoided three unhelpful dynamics. It avoided the creation of a dependency on the part of the new group. It avoided over taxing the change resiliency of the pre-existing group. It avoided marginalization of the new group by offering them equal status i.e., they were able to self govern even as the pre-existing group was. Too often new or minority groups encounter an attitude in the pre-existing or majority group that treats them as children rather than fully functional adults. Decisions made on behalf of others in an intercultural context fail to fully understand cultural implications. The result is that decisions make little or no sense in practice.

Disruption of existing patterns of behavior is unavoidable in the face of new growth especially where that growth reflects the growing globalization seen in many cities and churches around the United States and the world. Is there a common ground from which to work in the face of cultural diversity? Spirituality may provide a common starting point.

Lesson Two: Identifying Leaders in a Complex Multilevel Environment Requires a Focus on Spirituality

That the Apostles used the criteria of spirituality to encourage novelty and embrace ambiguity of an inter-cultural challenge is a powerful lesson in leadership selection. Facing the ambiguity of unpredictable results often feels unbearable or off balance. The risk was in how the new cultural group (Hellenized Jews) defined good leadership. The definitions of leadership change from culture to culture. Would the new group fit with the existing group if they defined things on their own? If the apostles had defined the characteristics of a good leader in any other terms than the three criteria inherent in spirituality they would have failed to effectively empower the new/minority group to act as equals. The important leadership observation here is that the apostles did not abandon the process or simply abdicate their responsibility in a misguided attempt at pluralism or relativism. They assigned a task designed to encourage leadership emergence i.e.

Brothers and sisters, choose seven men from among you who are known to be full of the Spirit and wisdom. We will turn this responsibility over to them…. (Acts 6:3, NIV)

The Apostles risked giving the assignment that allowed the characteristics of spirituality (i.e., good reputation, filled with the Holy Spirit and filled with wisdom) to be interpreted and applied by the new/minority group. They exercised an implicit confidence in the work of the Holy Spirit. (John 14:26) It is important to see that implicit confidence in the Holy Spirit’s role is not an abdication of responsibility in leadership but a necessity in the exercise of leadership. Because the Apostles identified key values already at work in the majority group they provided a foundation from which the minority group could defend their choices and make choices that align to the scriptures. Interestingly the Apostles’ criteria paralleled the definition of spirituality the researchers provided and with the same results seen in leadership i.e., both groups shared a sense of calling and membership in a larger group (the body of Christ not just the Judaic or Hellenized group).

Lesson Three: Leadership in a Complex Multilevel Environment is that of Sense Maker not Director

The apostles did not answer the need. They did not work harder and longer. They did not chastise. They did not belittle. They did not take on the role of the over burdened leader. The Apostles interpreted the events the people brought to them by refocusing attention on the significance of the challenge. The Apostles’ response “It would not be right for us to neglect the ministry of the word of God in order to wait on tables” (Acts 6:2, NIV) was not a pejorative on serving but a refocusing on the significance of Pentecost and their assignment. In other words the focus of the situation could not be the complaint itself but the cause of the complaint i.e., the church was expanding to Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria and the outlaying areas.

By keeping the focus implicitly on the expansion of the church and the reproduction of spirit empowered ministry rather than the complaint the Apostles created a sense of expectation within the congregation (Acts 6:5). Not only did the Apostles empower the congregation by moving responsibility for answering the new need to the people rather than the Apostles themselves they also refocused attention on the larger mission of the Church.

Conclusion

Did the Apostolic strategy work? According to the text one of the seven went on to do great wonders and miracles among the people. The strategy did work. In fact it worked well enough that Luke’s record of the early church’s expansion focused exclusively on Stephen (one of the seven) for the next chapter and a half. This is pretty impressive since only four people are really highlighted in Acts (Peter, Stephen, Philip and Paul or if you add supporting characters then include Barnabas and James). Said another way, a new guy (Stephen) made it into the history of the Acts movement in its first 10 years of existence. It seems to take at least a generation or more for new guys (those from another culture) to make it into the history of many modern church movements.

Is the Apostolic strategy reproducible? Let’s go back to the significance of the research…YES. Where there is a deliberate emphasis on spirituality as a leadership qualification and where existing leaders push problems back to people to resolve, providing guidance based on spirituality and avoiding the urge to override decisions based on more familiar methods or rituals, then similar results are predictable. The risk is that a leader may loose control of a group. However, loss of control is hardly an issue to anything other than ego. What is really at stake is not so much the loss of control (all cultures frame boundaries so that they can function effectively). The issue really is where the locus of control will rest. One cannot be a classic micro manager and expect either numerical or qualitative growth. The emphasis on spirituality in leadership is important because it is the closest thing to a universal standard that we possess in leadership development.

What does the research affirm? Growing leaders is a disruptive event to business as usual and disruption to business as usual is fertile soil for leadership development. A focus on developing spirituality is critical to effective multiplication of leadership – it provides the control point and flexibility needed for leadership emergence. The most important thing leaders can do when facing changing and confusing times is to help others by making sense of the times. Biblically informed leaders have a leg up in this regard in possessing both a history and a future surrounded by the promise and working of the living God.

How will you apply the insights from this research to your own leadership behaviors? In what ways does the research affirm your present activities? In what ways does it challenge your present activities? Let me know what you think!


[1] Louis W. Fry, Sean T. Hanna, Michael Noel and Fred O. Walumbwa (2011). “Impact of Spiritual Leadership on Unit Performance” in The Leadership Quarterly 22, 259-70.
[2] Ibid 260
[3] Ibid 260
[4] Robert Greenleaf. Servant Leadership: A Journey into the Nature of Legitimate Power and Greatness (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1991), 65.